Archive for ‘miscellaneous writing’

20 January, 2012

A quick note on current media events and the nature of intellectual property

I have a lot of thoughts about what’s going on with SOPA and PIPA right now, mostly focusing on the way this impacts me as an artist, and the way it impacts things such as Creative Commons licensing and “copyleft.”

First, here’s a great TED talk that outlines both the history of media and law, and what we actually need to be worrying about. This is bigger than shutting down sharing websites like MegaVideo and MegaUpload, Clay Shirky suggests.

I also want to take a moment to highlight “copyleft.” We are very much entrenched in the idea that creative property is the creator’s and the creator’s alone. We also tend to believe that that is the natural way of things, when actually, “copyright” as a concept is very new, coming only with the advent of the printing press (even then, at that early juncture, it was sort of trampled on).

We’re so interested in the worth of intellectual property that we lose sight of the power of copying. Dissemination is the best way to become known. Sharing achieves what, ultimately, should be the goal of any creator who publishes their work in a public forum: to have their creation be known. Am I saying copying is right, always, and screw proper attribution? No. But that’s what worries me with the current high-profile pieces of legislation– they seem to be criminalizing dissemination, even accidental or fully attributed dissemination.

According to Wikipedia: “Copyleft is a form of licensing and can be used to maintain copyright conditions for works such as computer software, documents and art. In general, copyright law is used by an author to prohibit others from reproducing, adapting, or distributing copies of the author’s work. In contrast, under copyleft, an author may give every person who receives a copy of a work permission to reproduce, adapt or distribute it and require that any resulting copies or adaptations are also bound by the same licensing agreement.” (Copyleft)

The way I see it, this is a much healthier–much less grabby, at least– of looking at intellectual property and rights. It will, of course, never be taken up by the producing industries (to borrow a term from Shirky) because it has little or no potential for direct financial gain, and the loss of absolute control over the intellectual property, is a decided financial loss. As producers, I think it’s incredibly important that we know our options, however. Creative Commons and Copyleft are great things, and by participating in them, we strengthen them.

As both consumers and producers, however, it’s very important to know your rights. If you take one things away from this long-ish, rambly post, let it be this: fair use. We cannot let fair use be eroded. Exercise your rights regarding fair use. By doing so, keep them safe.

15 January, 2012

Book Reviews: Autumn – Winter 2011

God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy – Fantastic
This is one of the most poetic, beautiful novels I’ve read in a long time. It was delicate, it was nuanced, it was layered, and it was a deeply cultural experience that dealt with both national and imperial ideas, as well as struggles with identity, history, family, and loyalty. I highly recommend it.

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga – Great
This reminded me somewhat of Ngozi’s novel Purple Hibiscus. I was struck by the sense of space and food in this novel, and the way they reflect relationships and reinforce power dynamics and roles within the family. I really enjoyed this one.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys – Fantastic
I wrote on WSS this semester, and I really enjoyed it. Rhys’s writing is spot-on. It’s gorgeous, and I have a special respect for it because of the research and time I put into the writing I did. Rhys’s connection to Jane Eyre was so personal, so vibrant, and so fearless, and I really admire that. There’s this incredible sense of urgency in this novel– an urgency to exist, an urgency to be heard, an urgency, on a broad scale to legitimize not just the character of Bertha Rochester, but the whole Caribbean world and its cultures. I highly recommend reading it– it’s a fantastic, literary response to a book that I think really earned one.

The Colonial Harem by Malek Alloula – Great
A great expose of colonial-era French Orientalizing postcards. I know that sentence sounds weird, but that’s what this book is. It looks at a body of 50 or so images that romanticize Moorish and North African women for a French market. The essay that Alloula has composed to go with it is thoughtful and insightful– I really admire the job he has done looking at colonialism and exploitation through a different but very concrete lens. Can you tell I did a lot of my work around Orientalism and Colonialism this semester?

The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon (French) – Good, at times great
This book is an anthem of sorts. A revolutionary cook book. It’s fascinating to look at as a literature student– I do have some issues and questions with the particular translation I read. The best part, I believe, is the last chapter, where he goes through case studies of people he has worked with as a therapist. I found that chapter both terrifying and heartbreaking. Fanon is really at his strongest, I think, when he’s showing you the effects of imperialism and colonialism, showing you why it’s mutually destructive and should be abandoned.

Terrorist by John Updike – Nope.
Nope. That’s all. Oh? More? Updike can’t talk about a woman– any woman, for any length of time, in any context– without mentioning boobs. I’m not exaggerating. His characters are flat, and the affair between the guidance counselor character and the mother wasn’t just distracting and irritating, it was extraneous. If Lifetime Movies ever drafted a team of writers to construct a movie about terrorist cells in America, this book would be the backbone of their plot. Don’t get me wrong, Updike can write very lovely sentences– he’s a stunningly lovely writer when he wants to be. But read a different Updike book. It’s not one of his best.

Islamophobia by Peter Gottschalk and Gabriel Greenberg – Good
This book focused on the treatment of Islam in political cartoons at several key junctures in history. The argument here that I thought was both different and worthwhile was that Islamophobia is not new and is not an isolated reflection on the events of 9/11– it has a history reaching back to the Crusades, according to the authors. They do a rather nice job outlining this history, identifying the key places where visual Islamophobia and Anti-Islam stereotyping have run rampant, and outlining national and cultural symbols which have been weaponized in the process. It’s a niche read, but it’s very interesting, and very approachable. It probably honestly deserves a better rating than I’ve given it here.

Jihad Next Door by Dina Temple-Raston – Good
Written like a novel, but it’s not a novel– it’s an account of the Lackawanna Six. It has its good parts and its bad parts. Her characterizations become annoying in places, and I happen to be from about an hour away from Buffalo, so I have my own set of opinions. Overall it was very readable, and does a reasonably good job humanizing a group of men who became villainized very quickly in the wake of 9/11. It’s an interesting read.

Missing by Sunaina Marr Maira – Good
Maira might have broken my heart a little bit. She interviews a group of young Muslim-American immigrants from a variety of countries, and the sense of struggle they have, reconciling their culture with their new country, is staggering and heart breaking. It reminded me of a lot of students that I’ve worked with. I was also particularly taken with her concept of immigrant time. I think she really has something meaningful and important to contribute to the conversations about immigration happening in the United States and other Western countries. She’s dealing, very effectively, with the impact that our politics and our international maneuvering has on the next generation.

Guantanamo Boy by Anna Perera – Okay
I wanted more from it. There were parts of it that I thought had so much potential. One chapter slides sideways into experimental fiction, reflecting an altered mental state after torture. That chapter was striking and effective, but it was so isolated. I would have loved for her to have played more with form and genre to reinforce emotional resonance. As far as story line goes, it’s okay, if formulaic. Certain things, like uncertainty about his cousin and his father while he is in Guantanamo, and who exactly reported him and got him sent there, were very well handled.

Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris- Good
I fracking love the Santaland Diaries. I listen to it every year on NPR. It’s a personal Christmas tradition. I also have a well-documented writer’s crush on Sedaris. I actually treated myself at the end of the semester by reading this book. I’d read about half of it before, between the Santaland Diaries and Dinah, the Christmas Whore, but I still thoroughly enjoyed it.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens – Fantastic
My favorite thing about Dickens is his villainesses. Madame Defarge is one of the most sinister ladies in literature. Similarly, Miss Havisham is awesomely crazy. She’s just great. She’s sinister, she’s tragic, she’s ridiculous, and she’s just in an alternate dimension about half of the time. Estella, also, is a pretty spectacularly-played bitch. Also, this might tell you a bit about my personality– I liked the original ending better. John Irving wrote a really nice introduction to the edition that I read, and he made a few points that I really agreed with. Particularly, that it was harder to deal with the kindnesses Pip receives from Joe, Biddy, and Magwitch than it is to deal with the horrible cruelties wrought on him by his sister (who never actually gets a first name), Estella, and Miss Havisham. Also, you could have a field day with the names in this book, from an analytical perspective.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – Great
I do have a certain pronounced soft spot for Victorian and Romantic Gothic novels. I do count Jane Eyre in that group. I re-read a fairly long portion of this book for a paper, and I was reminded just how well-crafted and how carefully nuanced this book is. There so many details that become so important. She handles dramatic irony so well that the book is almost better as a re-read– now you know what the cause of Rochester’s incessant brooding is, and you ALMOST feel badly for him. Mostly not, though. Then again, Jean Rhys sold me pretty hard on loving crazy Bertha Rochester.

  A Suitable Enemy by Liz Fekete – Great
Fekete is writing about the immigration detention centers and “deportation machine” in Europe. This is the kind of book that really elucidates and complicates the problems presented in novels like Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. Like Missing, Fekete is really interested in delineating actual effects of Islamophobia and its politics. If you’re at all interested in racial profiling, immigration, or international politics, I highly recommend this book.

Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole – Okay
I’m struggling to really judge this one because it’s attempting to be medieval instead of 18th century, and because it was freaking hilarious. I will definitely give Walpole props for being creative– of all the ways to begin a book, I would never have thought of DEATH BY SUDDEN AND INEXPLICABLE GIANT HELMET. How big? Big enough that they use it for a prison. I love the ridiculous. I have a well-documented love of the ridiculous. I also loved the giant GHOST!SMASH at the end. Also, there was a portentous nosebleed. Now, outside of all of these beautiful absurdities, it managed to drag through the middle as the scheming prince tried to figure out how to marry his son’s bride, given the sizable obstacles of 1) already being married himself, and 2) her thinking he’s groady. Overall, I’d say read it for the ridiculous, wade patiently through fifty pages of UGH WHERE ARE MY GHOSTIES?! and then be amused by the ridiculous ending.

Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro – Good
This is one of those books that, for no quantifiable reason, read really quickly for me and was really enjoyable. Not a lot happens– actually, the book is more about what doesn’t happen, or what Stevens doesn’t want to admit is happening. Dripping with quiet ironies and crippling English mannerisms, it’s the kind of thing I would definitely recommend to Anglophiles and Austen addicts.

Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson – Great
This is one of those seminal texts that really holds up. Anderson is examining ideas of nationalism and loyalty, nation-building and identity formation. We accept, almost out of hand, that nations exist and have always existed. He has a lot of very marvelous observations, and my one major critique is one of the things I also admired– his cases studies and examples are extremely broadly based. He jumps around everywhere– Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, South America– and it shows that the trends are pervasive, but it also remains difficult to follow an isolated nation’s thread.

The Boys Vol. 1 & 2 by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson – Good, at times great
This series was loaned by a friend, who thought the idea would appeal to me. Other than the occasionally repetitive and gratuitous sex scenes and fixation on perversity and homosexuality in super heroes, the series reads smoothly. It moves pretty quickly, and while there are no great reveals, certainly not this early in the series, it manages to be both tragic and funny, which is the kind of line that interests me. It also manages to engage with the idea of super heroes in an interesting and pointed way. Also, I love the Frenchman. The art style leaves me somewhat cold, there’s nothing really special about it, and I’m not a huge fan of the Butcher’s design.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, illustrated by Gustave Dore – Fantastic
Dore’s work is beautiful, and this is one of his last literary illustrations– second to last, if I remember correctly. The two pieces lend themselves to each other. The compositions Dore creates are really daring and beautiful, and the depth and variety of shade is breathtaking. I’m a printmaker, also, so I’m somewhat biased. However, I also have yet to meet a person who is not taken with the power and precision of Dore’s illustration.

11 October, 2011

The More We Change…

We are at that point in the semester (called midterms) where I devolve into a disheveled mess (I am currently wearing a sweatshirt in what I am affectionately thinking of as “caveman style”– one arm free, one arm in, zipper about half way up to allow this oddity of fashion to happen.) Dishes are piling, readings are spiraling, and then I find an article that’s basically like a present hidden in the pile of psychoanalytic jargon I’m reading on Edgar Huntly.

In my heart of hearts I am a classicist, and I admit this like it’s a perverse, guilty pleasure. In a conversation with a Nice Fellow, we were talking about classics departments, and how it’s like they’re segregated. There is no Romanticism department. Classicists get routinely deported to their own department though. Granted, you could argue there’s a more interdisciplinary bent to Classics departments, but the same could totally be said for any other era of history and the way we study it.

Anyway, my inner Classicist was thrilled to get to read about Sumer and Egypt briefly today, and loved and demanded to share this sentence:

Also, as in the Mesopotamian system, hieroglyphs were the tools of an elite priesthood expert in medicine and magic. The scribes guarded and boasted of their technological secrets, with a zeal that rivals even Microsoft.

Scott B. Noegel “Text, Script, and Media.”

While I think Apple would be the more appropriate comparison to secret mongering, I love the comparison for its silliness.

That is all. More photos come weekend-time.

27 September, 2011

Metaphor = APORIA

I try to limit the amount of super dense crap I put up on the internet, but this is too beautiful an analysis of the nature of metaphor to pass up sharing.

The rhetoric of metaphor is, after all, grounded in aporia. Metaphor, like its extension, allegory, is resorted to when the proper term is deemed inappropriate or unavailable and a non-proper term is inserted in its place–to the effect of a hovering validity which is held in suspense by the knowledge that the term is not the proper one. The paradox of the wrong term being the only appropriate or possible one accounts for the precariousness of metaphoric speech.

Hofmann, Klaus. “Keats’s Ode to a Grecian Urn.” Studies in Romanticism 45.2. Boston: 2006.

LOVE IT. I love the idea that the effectiveness of metaphor is the very knowledge that the image created through comparison is disparate from the object. It is the paradox of needing to draw weird comparisons to understand what is already understood that just screams Socratic aporia.

Aporia, incidentally, is not understood simply as the definition in the dictionary– an irresolvable internal contradiction in a text or argument– but also as the poignant Greek literal meaning: to be in a state of loss. Aporia is what the Socratic method reduces its “victims” to. A weird logical limbo, where the old understandings of a thing have been torn down. It is, literally, to “be at a loss.” Slack-jawed.

Metaphor as a state of aporia. LOVE. SO. MUCH.


11 September, 2011

Mapping the World

“Different maps tell very different stories, and assume very different forms, according to their function, or their point of view. Ptolemy mapped the heavens by standing on earth. Galileo remapped them by imagining that he was standing on the Sun.”

–D.F. McKenzie, Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts, 44.

I stumbled awkwardly through a mire of hilightings and underlinings until this sentiment and I ran headlong into each other on page 44. Yes, it might have been my nerd senses tingling at the mention of a Ptolemy (not, in case you’re wondering, a Pharaonic Ptolemy, but still an Alexandrian), but I also have a pronounced interest in maps and cartography.

Maps are essentially attempt 90 billion on the part of humans to put the universe into nice, neat boxes (or nice, neatly drawn grid squares, in this case), and our need to understand through cataloging is something of a source of perpetual entertainment for me.

One of the strangest realizations is that maps don’t have to be objective. They can show whatever they want to know. They are a reflection of a reflected reality. By this I mean, they are an imperfect written record of an imperfect and biased view (the cartographer’s) view of the world.

I have a character in the project I’m (re)working through right now who’s a cartographer. I wonder what form of imperfection his maps have?

Anyways, onward with the photo project…

Sept. 6: So much rain this weekend. While I was walking to campus from the T stop, I happened to look down. I like sidewalk cracks. Looking at them reminds me that nothing’s forever, and that sooner or later, everything is fragmentary. Sorry, there was no way to phrase that without sounding emo/heavy handed.I could talk more about sidewalk cracks, but I’ll spare you.

Sept. 7: I walk by several goofy signs every day, and while there is nothing inherently goofy about the phrase “Not a through street” in and of itself, I love how squished it looks on this big yellow diamond, like it’s outgrowing the constrictive size of the sign. Think of it like a typographical sumo wrestler trying to wedge himself into skinny jeans.

Sept. 8: This was my day of discovering enormously odd tiny things. Like this guy, hanging out on the concrete steps by the main library. You can tell it rained a little, looking at the discolored concrete.

Sept 9: My city’s library is cooler than your city’s library. Just saying. Beyond those paneled wooden doors? That’s a courtyard. With sculptures. And a fountain. And a garden. And chairs. Just saying. Sorry for the lousy photo quality.

Sept. 10: Today was a pretty productive exploring day. I went to two street festivals, through Quincy Market, and bookstore hunting. More bookstore hunting is in my future. I bumbled into an outdoor concert down by Quincy at the Boston Arts Festival (ahts festival, if you like) and stayed until the group finished their set. I read my book history book. I wonder if the fellow with the card in his hat is a Lackadaisy lover?

Sept 11: I, in fact, didn’t leave my apartment today, so you get a picture of something weird in my room, namely, a sculpture that I now use to keep my hair sticks in check.


Until next time, friends.

7 September, 2011

Keeping the time with ghosts

“Above all else, you must show respect for the ghosts that linger in your department.” 32

“Be protective of your time; no one else will protect it for you.” 51

Graduate Study For the 21st Century, Gregory Colon Semenza


There were some other gems, too, but these two were pretty resonant.

More pictures in a few days. Until then, think deep thoughts and try not to walk into signs.

15 August, 2011

Prepping for the Big Move

In two weeks I pick up, move to a new state, and begin the adventures of an English grad school student. I’m knee-deep in preparation work, and I need to remember to take pictures of my room at home before I completely dismantle it. Already, parts of it are starting to look pretty spare. While I meditate on that, have some music, some words, and some peace of mind.







Spun silk of mercy,

long-limbed afternoon,

sun urging purple blossoms from baked stems.

What better blessing than to move without hurry

under trees?

–from “Last August Hours Before the Year 2000,” You & Yours by Naomi Shihab Nye

15 August, 2011

Another Clump of Book Reviews

My move is creeping up on me, and as of August 31 I’ll be living in a different state, and my stack of books read but not reviewed is climbing suspiciously close to my window’s bottom lip, so here begins the reviewing process, so I can actually pack and put away those books… I will admit, also, that

Paradise Lost by John Milton —
I read Paradise Lost, but had every intention of leaving it off this review list. Not because I don’t have opinions, but because I don’t feel like I have a strong enough grip on Christian mythos to really get everything in it. I will likely end up reading it again a few years from now, after I’ve got a better handle on all of the things Milton is using to inform his structure. Here’s what I will say– the story behind how Paradise Lost was written, and John Milton himself, are fascinating. I read a lot about him and a lot of his early poetry before tackling the beast itself. For now I’m not rating it, because I don’t feel like I actually read it.

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi — great
I really loved this book, from a dorky book nerd kind of place deep in my heart. I’ve also never met a Persian/Iranian author I didn’t love. I did have trouble following the many different students for a while (I came pretty close to drawing a chart.) But there’s a lot of the technique in Nafisi’s character development that feels like a teacher getting to know students. At first the class seems incredibly homogenous– one lump of eyes staring at you, waiting for you to do something. Then, sometimes slowly, sometimes immediately, personalities leap out at you. If you’re interested in the Middle East, or even lit criticism (which a fair chunk of this is), or teaching, you should try this one on for size. I would love to be in Dr. Nafisi’s class, as a side note.

The Tempest by William Shakespeare — great
If you decide to read some Shakespeare on your own, The Tempest is an excellent place to begin. Also, from a Colonial/Post Colonial point of view, there are a lot of really interesting things happening with Ariel and Caliban. The mythology that Shakespeare uses and creates here is really interesting, in and of itself. I can dig it.

The Book of Time by Guillaume Prevost — okay
I picked up this book as the result of a realization of mine. There’s very little YA Lit in translation, and the stuff that has been translated isn’t advertised as a book in translation. You often have to look at the copyright page to see that there was a translator at all. So, this little book is by a French author. The idea behind it is sort of Star Wars meets Indiana Jones. Traveling through time to save his father, the main character is able to go to various places throughout time and space, and meets a variety of people. There are some nifty gadgets, but overall the book feels episodic, and like a series of “hey isn’t that neat?”s, instead of something incredibly deliberate and crafted. I love me some chaos in the machine, but I love chaos that ends up driving to a point even more.

The Epic of Gilgamesh — fantastic
This is how you know I’m a classicist at heart. It’s short, it’s sweet, and it’s the world’s earliest recorded example of bromance. It’s fragmented, but that’s part of the lure. Even with chunks missing, it’s still an interesting and meaningful story.

The Lord of the Flies  by William Golding — fantastic
I was not expecting this book to be poetic. I knew basically what I was getting into reading this book. It’s hard to get through a 4 year program in English literature without having a vague idea of what Lord of the Flies  is all about. The thing I really admired about it, however, was the realism and surrealism coming together flawlessly. The poetic imagery Golding has, combined with the incredible tragedy and disintegration of society under duress. So much subtlety and psychology.

Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories by Leo Tolstoy — great/good
The other stories in the volume were Family Happiness, The Kreutzer Sonata, and Master and Man. Family Happiness was a pretty standard exercise in gender communication failure, but that being said, you do continue rooting for them to pull their heads out of their asses and have an actual conversation. Death of Ivan Ilych ran along similar themes, plus heavy melodrama. I could of course be saying more. Kreutzer Sonata was probably my favorite out of the four stories. Master and Man  was a little heavy-handed, and read like a fable, almost. Definitely the saddest of the four. All of Tolstoy’s stories have really overt social criticism written into them, along with a lot of philosophy.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky — great
Cult classic, for good reason. Honestly, this might be in the top five coming of age stories I’ve read, and I’ve read a lot of them. It gave me one of my new favorite feelings to ruminate over: what it is to feel infinite. It really is a beautiful little book.

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams — fantastic
I want to do a whole series off of The Glass Menagerie. I’ve never read such a vividly created play. I loved it, I’m going to draw lots of pictures of it when I get the chance someday, and you should read it.

Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami — good
This book follows four stories of Moroccan men and women attempting to cross the Strait of Gibraltar. The thing I liked best about this book was the fact that you don’t know what happens to everyone. Not everyone ends up where you think they will. Lives get better and worse. It feels like real life– no Hollywood endings.

The Absolutely True Diary of a part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie — fantastic
There are a couple of really easy, obvious reasons why I like this book. (1) It has pictures. I am a sucker for pictures. (2) Cultural collisions. I am kind of all about those. Beyond those two reasons, though, it’s an honest, insightful book. It’s looking at a minority that a lot of Americans forget about, and should be reminded about. It’s really fabulous, and in its own way, a really important book.

Bunnicula by Deborah and James Howe — good
Yeah, yeah, Bunnicula is sharing space with Shakespeare, Milton, and a lot of other literary giants on this page. This is one of those ratings where you have to keep in mind the context I’m reading in. Is it the same kind of “good” that any of these other books are? Probably not. But it is good. I read the better part of it out loud to my ESL class, and they loved it. We had a fantastic time reading it out loud, and laughed so much and had such a good time that I would be committing some form of betrayal to downplay it, and what it meant for our little group. Would I read it on my own? Probably not. But with a bunch of 6th graders learning English who need to unwind? YES.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James — good
I liked it well enough, but in my head it’s going to be That Ghost Story About That Angry Ginger Fellow. The great thing about this story, however, is the ambiguity of the story. There’s so much that can’t be explained away as Crazy Governess Syndrome. Yet, there is definitely a screw loose in her head. Yeah, yeah, I’m punny. Pretty perfect place to start with James, in anyhow.

Daisy Miller by Henry James — great
The weirdest part about this novella is that you can hate Daisy, want to smack her, and still kind of want her to get redeemed. Or at least have her take off her prissy pants for a moment and realize what she’s doing. The power in this one comes from how much you want to beat her into a pulp, I think. Even by today’s standards, you still read and go “Woah, sister, cool your jets. You literally just met this guy. Want to think over what you just said?”

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather — great
This is one of those beautifully written family tragedies. I would totally call this a tragedy, even though the ending is mixed. Nothing ends up where it should be, with one exception. I really admire Willa Cather’s language and sense of space.

Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind by Suzanne Fisher Staples — okay
I was busy this July anyway, but this took me the entire month to read. This one book. It was not long. It just…trudged, and I trudged with it. I lapped up the cultural stuff happily, but ultimately, I was really unhappy with the ending, the lead up to the ending, and basically the last 100 pages. I don’t even know how to fix it. I just… didn’t dig it.

You & Yours by Naomi Shihab Nye — great
Sometimes conversational, sometimes direct, sometimes abstract and quietly philosophical, she’s just a very interesting, accessible poet. More or less, if you were looking to get into poetry, or modern American poetry, more specifically, she’s a great, active poet, and my copy has a lot of underlining in it.

Troilus and Criseyde by Geoffrey Chaucer — okay
There’s a part of me (the classicist part of me) that’s very entertained by the fact that Chaucer decided to write an epic poem pretending to be an ancient writer named LOLius (emphasis mine). I do love me some Trojan War, but there was something about this particular storyline that’s just so drippy and emo. I was glad Troilus didn’t just sadly give up and sit around waiting to die in the end, but I was really unsatisfied with Criseyde’s desertion. I know that the main point of the book was to follow the build up of their relationship. Structurally, as the intro to my edition pointed out, it’s perfectly parallel, and beautifully crafted.

The Eyeball Collector by F.E. Higgins — FANTASTIC
Let’s talk about how pretty it is, first. It’s pretty. I love the eyeball frontispiece. Like Kneebone Boy, this is an artist who was well-acquainted with the book, which makes me sooooooooooooooooo happy! I love book art. I love good book art even more. I also love the book. It was just good. A little bit steampunk, a little bit dystopian, and over all just very interesting. It moves fast, and best of all, it made me want to read the other things Higgins has written. That doesn’t happen every day.

The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells — great
I surprised myself with how much I liked this book. The story was incredibly specific, and I love that no understanding was ever reached between Earth and Mars. None. I love that humanity was not what conquered Martians. I love that plants accidentally (?) came with them. You can really sense Wells’ background in science throughout this. It’s not just a little sci-fi book. It’s a reasonable premise, handled well, and treated realistically. Also, my mother: “War of the Worlds… isn’t that a comedy?” Actual quote.

Cradle Book by Craig Morgan Teicher — good
This is a book of short fiction and fables, organized into three themes. The organization of them is very good, actually, I think. They fit together like pieces of theses. They feel idiosyncratic. They feel true. A few of them came back to me as I’ve been continuing to read and write over the past few days. This is the kind of book whose impact is subtle, but has staying power.

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — great
I really loved this book. Nigeria, family drama, sometime in the recent past. It’s really a thoughtfully constructed narrative, and one of the most poignant accounts of domestic violence and how a family deals with it. Adichie handles her subject matter well, and is skilled at dragging you along with her and her characters. At the core of this is the question of what it is to be a good person. How can a person be such a monster to his family, and such a benefactor to the community? Does one negate the other? There is also a link between her and Achebe… the first line of the book invokes his memory, and the culture of Igbo people and missionary Christianity feature prominently. Highly recommended.

20 April, 2011

Sometimes I Read Things

I’ve been working off and on on this list for the past week or two. Because I spent a good portion of the last month or so either on the road or at home, I had plenty of time to plow through my pile. Here’s my reading for the last month and a half or so. There are, generally, a lot of books recommended to me by other people, and a lot of graphic novels in this list (they make really good palate cleansers for things like Paradise Lost, which I am still only half done with.) Reviews forthcoming for Dark Things and Awayward

Confessions of a Not It Girl by Melissa Kantor okay
This is one of the books I read for the YA library group I assist in. It’s what one of my professors would have referred to as “a good beach book”– there’s nothing really outstanding in the characters or plot. It’s basically a girly book. I actually thought there was opportunity to do some interesting social commentary in some of the scenes that Kantor constructs, but she stays very firmly in the realm of romantic comedy.

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver– fantastic
This book came to me through the recommendation of a librarian in one of the schools I sub in– she had an advance copy laying around, and she gave it to me. I’m so glad. Oliver’s take on what happens after you die is interesting, and conscious of its parallels (the most direct one is Groundhog’s Day, to give you a clue.) It’s a beautifully constructed book, with rich, interesting characters, secrets that have to be teased out slowly, and ultimately a really deep, searching look at morality, fate, and the way that we interact with each other and how it changes if you know you’re going to die. I really loved this.

Dark Things by Novica Tadic, translated by Charles Simic (Serbian)–good
As the title suggests, Tadic is engaging darkness in this skinny little volume. His verses are brief, dense, and textured with allegory, imagery, and personification in particular. Reading is a bit like staring at a haunting photograph. It’s a darkly beautiful portrait of the world Tadic lives in, and Simic likens it, appropriately, to Hieronymus Bosch.

Watchmen by Alan Moore– great
So I went through some of Moore’s most legendary graphic novels this month, this being the first of them. I was impressed with how closely the movie and comic book came together. I don’t really have a lot to say about Watchmen, really. You should read it, because it really is a pretty transformative work, and just don’t be surprised when a squid genetically altered space squid shows up. That’s ultimately the difference between the graphic novel and the movie– the ridiculous squid. Which, upon discussing with comic geek friends, is supposed to be ridiculous. The movie ends up being more hopeful then the original because of its lack of squid. In the graphic novel, you basically know that the end plan isn’t going to work.

The Kneebone Boy by Ellen Potter – fantastic
Okay, so I’m a completely vain artist, keep in mind. I totally judge books by their covers, and I totally bought this book for its amazing, beautiful cover art. Looooook– better than just being really, really pretty to look at (and it is), it’s also extremely accurate. I’m the worst kind of cover-judger, because I’m always looking back at the cover, trying to figure out where things fit in, and what exactly I’m looking at. The only error I found in my obsessive compulsive looking was that the cat is short one toe on its paw. Yes, I counted. Alright, so now why did I love this book, other than its drool-worthy cover design and detail? I loved it because it was well-written, quirky, and I didn’t see the ending coming. The characters are bad ass, the legends constructed in the story are interesting and feel real (and I love legends and folk lore, folks), and Otto. I love everything about Otto, from his scarf to his temper to his cat to his stubborn refusal to speak. Otto is the shit. AND, in the end, it all makes sense– nothing is pointlessly quirky in this book. All of the quirks have purpose. Yes. Now go read.

V For Vendetta by Alan Moore – great
Another Alan Moore graphic novel. Again, the biggest deviation from the movie is the ending. It’s creepy and dystopian (and we all know I love dystopia) and just feels like an Anthem. Again, I don’t feel much of a need to say much about this one.

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1 by Alan Moore – good
Another Moore book made into a movie. The art style in this one was significantly different from V for Vendetta and Watchmen. It’s well-written (this shouldn’t surprise anyone, really), but ultimately the characters didn’t feel settled at the end of the volume. They didn’t feel like they belonged together, which is the challenge of a book like this, that draws literary figures together in an alternate-universe-type setting. I enjoyed it, but ultimately it felt stilted.

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez – good
This book reminded me significantly of Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club for a couple of reasons. Some good, some not so good. Both of them have the sort of stained glass, mosaic feel to them– you’re looking at fragments, putting together the whole to understand the culture of the characters and how they fit together into a larger community. Both switched focuses between character with each chapter, and both left me struggling to remember who was who and who had what problems. My favorite scenes were set in the Dominican Republic, when they were girls, and I think this is part of Alvarez’s formula– things were simpler when they were children, and the characters themselves don’t seem to look back on their lives with satisfaction. All four sisters have crippling problems– either with mental health, relationships, or just identity in a basic sense. It’s a bit of a disturbing portrait to paint of what it’s like to be bilingual and caught between two cultures, but I think that, also, is deliberate. Losing one’s accent is not a painless exercise. Assimilation is killing, demonizing, even, a part of yourself. It is to look at a part of your person and understand that it doesn’t belong, can’t belong, and must be cut out like a cancer. If you’re interested in Latin American lit, this is a must-read.

Chicken With Plums by Marjane Satrapi – great
As a sort of loose recollection of her uncle’s last days, this is a strange sort of graphic novel. It’s a beautiful supplement, in a way, to Satrapi’s more famous graphic novels, Persepolis. I wouldn’t read it first, because I think it helps to know who Marjane and her family are before you learn about her uncle. But what really made this work for me was the ending. She has a real gift for powerful, poignant endings. Definitely worth reading.

Night Fisher by R. Kikuo Johnson – okay
I grabbed this one on a whim, and didn’t really enjoy it as much. It’s a story about a boy in Hawaii, having misadventures with drugs. That’s a lousy summary, but I don’t really feel like expanding. It was alright, but it didn’t really grab me. That was really my worst problem with this one. I didn’t connect with the characters or their problems, and for me that’s the kiss of death.

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pyncheon – great
I have to be very careful as a lit student that I’m not saying I like certain books because I think I should. I monitor myself very carefully for that. I’m pretty sure I actually liked the book, though. The quirkiness of something like this appeals to me in the same way that Still Life With Woodpecker did. Ultimately, I think, it’s important to accept that the pieces of the conspiracy do not add up– this is not a Nancy Drew mystery novel. The other bread crumbs Pyncheon leaves the reader don’t lead all to the same place, either. What is going on in this book? I think Pyncheon is playing with the reader, and playing with the way we construct meaning out of inductive reasoning. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Pyncheon read some of his early reviews around a Cheshire grin.

Book of My Nights by Li-Young Lee – great
I generally judge how much I liked a book of poetry by the number of times it makes me think of someone or something else. Poetry is like a springboard, from which the poet and reader jump off, and construct meaning. Sometimes it’s the same meaning, sometimes they’re not even in the same end of the pool. I dogeared about half of this book. Lee’s diction is crisp, neat, and feels so wonderfully careful. I’m hoping to read more of his work soon, because it’s lovely.

Sandman: The Dream Hunters by Neil Gaiman and Yoshitaka Amano– fantastic
I feel like I should scream DORKS UNITE! before I tell you about this one. It’s Sandman meets Final Fantasy art. Look!

Kind of entertainingly, Amano says he “does not do comic books”, so this is actually like an illustrated reworking of a traditional Japanese myth. There’s literally nothing in this combination that doesn’t make me really, really happy. It’s just a beautiful combination of talent, creativity, and tradition. And it’s absolutely breath-takingly rendered. It’s shiny, friends. It’s a quick, charming read. I highly recommend it.

Sandman Presents the Furies – great
This is one of those twisty-turny what-happens-next kinds of things. Playing some more with tradition, the Furies, and all sorts of what-ifs. Do not read this one until after you have read through all of the original Sandman— it has some inherent spoilers in it.

Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster – fantastic
Phantom Tollbooth is filed next to The Little Prince in my brain, as one of those kid’s books that isn’t really for kids. It’s secretly philosophy. It’s whimsical, it’s fast, and it’s basically an excellent philosophy for life. If you’re feeling lost, or bored, or unappreciative of the world around you, just visit the tollbooth. Things will be better again afterward.

Fables 11: War and Pieces by Bill Willingham – fantastic
So this is the culmination of the Adversary arc, and it is so well-worth the wait. There are a few issues I have with the ending (I think the Adversary needs a different fate), and I’ve just generally got some trust issues with some of the characters. This isn’t the end of the series, but I have a harder time finding the newer volumes in libraries, and they’re too expensive for me to buy. Anyways, I’m basically just reconfirming my earlier adulation.

Awayward by Jennifer Kronovet – great
Kronovet’s book is an interesting combination of bits and pieces. She mixes short prose poetry with traditional stanza-ed verses, and separates things into sections. I would liken it to organized dreaming. It’s mischievous, coy, and introspective in a universal kind of way. If you’re not a big poetry person, I think Awayward might actually be a nice book to start with.

Lioness Rampant Quartet (The Alanna Series) by Tamora Pierce – fantastic
A friend lent me these four books, with the instructions to read them, and the promise that I would love them. I did. Especially because of George (who in my head is always Geeeooooooooorge for no apparent reason). I could talk about gendering, or world building, or blah blah blah, but really, read it for George. I might have a little bit of a crush on George. Also, I had such strong reactions to some of the things that happened in these four books that I DREW COMICS. Yes. Comics. I shall attach them eventually, once they have been scanned.

The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist (Swedish)– fantastic
Every so often I run across a book that kicks my ass. Less often than that, a book kicks my ass clean off, and then hands it to me. That’s what The Unit did. Dystopic, again, and it does not pull its punches. There’s so much in here about morality and ethics and the concept of worth. Really highly recommended, and very accessible, if you’re afraid those literary books. Just be prepared to cry, and despair over the fact that this is not entirely far-fetched.

Cowboy Bebop – good
If you’ve seen the anime, this manga came after, I understand. It’s basically an episodic encore to the series. So, if you liked the show, you’ll like the book.

Prince of Persia – good
I’ve never played Prince of Persia, or seen the movie. There was a very interesting history of the game in the book, though, which I enjoyed. The timeline of the graphic novel was occasionally confusing, and I occasionally had difficulty connecting the dots in the beginning. Ultimately, however, it feels like very interesting folklore, which is why I liked it. I wasn’t overly thrilled with the quality of the narration, but I did appreciate the effort, and the beautiful circuit the story completed. I recommend it if you’re a fan of Arabian/Middle Eastern folklore and fiction, are particularly interested in how reincarnation manifests (hehe) across cultures, or are a fan of the franchise.

Ghost World by Will Eisner– good
Of the three Will Eisner graphic novels I read, this was my least favorite. It was certainly poignant, and was certainly honest– he does an excellent job getting into the heads of two rather believable teenage girls, and following their relationship. I would argue it could have done more as a bildungsroman, but part of the charm of Eisner’s work is what he doesn’t show, and what he doesn’t say. It’s a fast read, and like Cat’s Eye, it’s very close to reality. It comes a little too close, sometimes, for comfort.

Minor Miracles by Will Eisner – great
I loved one of the stories in Minor Miracles. I want to say it was called the Visitor, but I can’t recall for certain, and I returned the book about a week ago, so I can’t check, unfortunately. The whole book was about these beautiful, tiny things that happen that change the world. Invisible kindnesses, strange coincidences, and more than anything, the kinds of things that construct mood and meaning in a neighborhood. If I was going to teach a class on urban setting in American literature, I would teach this graphic novel, because Eisner’s settings have incredible personality. More than that, though, this collection is just sweet, innocent, and pleasant to read. It has a beautiful sort of magic to it, like the title suggests.

Dormia by Jake Halpern and Peter Kujawinski – goodish
There’s actually a video out there of me, somewhere on the interwebs, talking about this book. In said review (whose location will never be disclosed) I liken it to an RPG game. You’ve got your hero, who has “magic” powers or somehow enhanced abilities, who goes on a quest, picking up friends along the way, and eventually going to fight a great big bad guy and save the world. I could actually write a very clear Campbellian hero’s journey for this book. It’s pretty by the book, plot wise. What I did like about it, however, was the number of times you question characters’ loyalties. It does manage to be a good guessing game that way. If you dig the story format I just described, and/or fantasy in general, give it a try. The one thing I will say is that it is long– and it feels long. Though it moves quickly, there are still a lot of pages to move through.

To the Heart of the Storm by Will Eisner – fantastic
This was my favorite of the Eisner graphic novels I read. I loved it. Eisner himself admits that it is a thinly-veiled autobiographical sketch. He does very successfully navigate back and forth between “present” and “past” in the story, and the portrait he paints of America is honest, and the examination of prejudice is biting, but not wholly focused on Antisemitism. I actually think he does an admirable job showing the contradictory, blind, equal-opportunity-hatred of racism and ethnic-stereotyping throughout this novel. I highly recommend it, especially if you are interested in Jewish literature, WWII, urban setting in American literature, or Transnationalism.

Sang Spell by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor – great
This was a book recommended to me by one of my undergraduate overlords. I love fringe groups, and ethnic subsets that no one’s ever heard of. In this book, we’re dealing with the Melungeons. As a background note on the Melungeons, no one is really a hundred percent sure where they came from– they claim Portuguese heritage, mixed with African and Native American, mostly. They live in Appalacia, and are really a little bit gorgeous– frequently with dark skin and blue eyes. Cool. Anyways, the thing I really enjoyed about this book (other than the utilization of an American subset that I had never heard of before) was the focus on choice versus destiny, and the emphasis on time. Time, in this book, is almost omnipresent, and is at the same time elusive. It goes almost without saying that time and choice end up being intertwined in this book. It’s also a story of personal healing, and in a way it has a bit of a Christmas Carol feel to it. I had a few issues with inclusion and some unresolved thematic points, but over all it’s an interesting, weird little book, and there’s a lot packed in there.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen – greatish
Let me tell you a story about how cheap I am– I buy most of my books at library book sales. Sometimes, as with my copy of Milton’s Poetic Works anthology, this means that my books come with fabulous, useful marginalia. Sometimes it means I buy an edition of the book despite misgivings (the exception being translations– I don’t mess around there); sometimes, therefore, you end up with a Jane Austen novel published by Tor. Now, when it comes to Jane Austen, you might be expecting a cover like the one on the left. With Tor, you get the one on the right. I actually bought this copy because of the horrendous cover. (By the way, it also says “Two sister, Two romances, A tragic tale of love and deceit…” on the cover, like it is a Danielle Steel novel that just happens to have scored the sweet 80s-tastic talents of the artist who did the covers) As mentioned when I was talking about The Kneebone Boy, I love to take the covers and figure out where they fit in to the story. I can picture it with the Oxford cover (left). The closest I can come with the the Tor cover is Elinor learning about Edward from Lucy, and, oh, I would have liked Elinor SO MUCH MORE if she had reacted like this. As it was, this was a story of extremes– Elinor on one side (a very, very English heroine), and her sister on the other. I spent the entire time wanting to smack them both. Also, both of the leading men sucked. Col. Brandon was the only character that was likeable on a basic personality level, and even then, I think I only liked him because he reminded me of Mr. Darcy– an aging, lonely, polite Mr. Darcy. Of this and Pride and Prejudice, I prefer the latter, by the way. Austen is very funny, here, as always, and inevitably her prose is charming, satirical, and does an excellent job criticizing the ridiculousness of her world. I have to question, in general, what the point of the third, forgotten sister was at all. Also, as one last jab at Tor’s edition– the person who wrote the introduction/afterword either (1) didn’t ever read the book, (2) read it so long ago that they’ve forgotten the names (I was waiting the entire book for someone named Halloway to show up), or (3) has zero reading retention. In short, not my favorite Austen, but still better than Emma.

Berlin: City of Stones by Jason Lutes – great
Lutes is coming from a tradition of European comics, and I would liken him to Marjane Satrapi a little bit, as well. One thing that he manages astoundingly well is character differentiation– I never have trouble remembering who is who, and I never have trouble keeping track of the various, deeply and loosely connected storylines. I believe this is the first in a series of three, and I do intend to read the others. There’s a beautiful, unassuming honesty in Lutes’ stories. He’s discussing Germany right before WWII, in the last days of the Weimar Republic, which is something I’ve never really read about before. I was really taken with the political and social complexities, and how human the whole system of stories felt. By the end of the book I really cared about the characters, so where they ended broke my heart a little. There’s this haunting sense of responsibility and making the best of limited circumstances which I think has some real echoes in America today. Recommended.

Wizard’s Tale by Kurt Busiek and David Wenzel – great
This one was a very quick read, and has a sort of whimsical nature. The art in this short graphic novel is astoundingly detailed and beautiful. I actually picked it up for the art. It’s a pretty straightforward hero’s journey, Campbellian almost to a T, and it plays with belonging and the sense of self throughout its length. Gorgeous character design– this one’s just a visual feast.

Identity by Milan Kundera (French)– good
Recommended to me by a friend. While I’m not really in love with Kundera’s spare prose, the ideas he’s playing with are interesting. There’s a very strange separation of self, as you would expect from the title, and the perceived self. Ultimately, I wasn’t really pleased with the psychology of the book. They just felt stilted, and as far as structure goes, I’m not sure anything is attained other than self-awareness. Perhaps, as far as extended metaphors go, that is the ultimate prize, though. The changes don’t feel like they’ll last in this text– which might also be part of the equation– because people, if we’re going to be honest, now, rarely change for good. At best, it’s a temporary state until they change into something else– a link in the chain of identity. Really, if I had to explain this book, I would explain it like that– adding a new link to the chain. My lack of enthusiasm might be stemming from the fact that I think Noa Weber does what this book does, too, and does it more beautifully.

Sandman Mystery Theatre: The Tarantula– okay
So, most Sandman dorks will be able to tell you that Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is a very loose revival of an older comic book character. The Tarantula is kind of going back to that older character.  I guess you could think of it as a more direct reincarnation. It’s short, it’s very noir, and I think would actually make an interesting television show. I liked the female lead, was vaguely creeped out by the male lead, and remained unconvinced by the storytelling. There were too many nice, neat fits, and ultimately the Sandman felt like Batman with a gas gun. Also, I had a hard time shaking off the nagging question “Are you my mummy?” every time I looked at the gas mask he wore. Basically, if you’re into the franchise, check it out. If film noir is your bag of potato chips, check it out. Otherwise, move on, soldier.

Joss Whedon’s Fraygreatish
So, somehow, despite being surrounded by Buffy fanatics and having a pretty involved romance with Firefly, I’ve never been exposed to the Slayer Universe. Fray is in this universe, just way, way in the future. One of the things I liked most about Whedon’s introductory note was the fact that he demanded tiny boobs on his lead. He wanted a strong, legitimate heroine, not cheesecake. Because it is Whedon, it’s funny, twisty, strange, and populated by quirky characters who somehow function excellently together. Also, there’s a merman crimeboss. There, now you HAVE to read, just to know. If you love yourself some Buffy, read. If you’re over vampires, and I’m a little over vampires right now, it’s still a decent read because Whedon’s vampires (1) don’t sparkle, (2) actually do evil things, (3) spend most of their time getting dead in this graphic novel and (4) looking grimy, not sexy.

18 April, 2011

The Villain Talks Babies

I make little bones about the fact that wee wee beasties and I REALLY don’t understand each other. We have no natural chemistry. That kid that smiles shyly at you and runs away? I’m the adult version of that, with small children. We make eye contact, smile at each other nervously, then decide (wisely and in perfect unison) to run the HELL away.

Babies and I do not speak the same language, and probably never will. I would seriously consider adoption simply for the perk of being able to skip the first two years.

There’s just this intensely uncomfortable part, for me, as a person thoroughly wrapped up in expressive language, about communicating with babies. You’ll sooner get a straight answer out of a Magic 8 Ball. For as much ambivalence as I possess about the staring, gelatinous lumps of flesh that babies are, they steadily grow on me as they get old enough to actually express themselves. By the time they make it to middle school I think they’re really and truly brilliant (they agree– this is why middleschoolers and I have always gotten on famously.)

Hurk. Small children...


Both sides of the political spectrum have questions...


Shopping for babies, however, is the worst. They have no personality (sorry, doting parents, it’s true), so shopping for them– especially for baby showers, when the kid isn’t even born yet– is horrible for someone like me. I  work very hard on presents, generally speaking. Thus, shopping for gelatinous lumps of non-personality is the bane of my philosophical existence. Also, marketing for children is basically designed to drive me over the edge.

To illustrate the level of my little kid and related shopping anxiety:

(click more)

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