Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Book Review: Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, by Mary Roach

I've been meaning to read Mary Roach ever since her first book starting garnering acclaim. Now that she's got an entire lineup, I figured I'd start with Bonk, because as far as I'm concerned, it's pretty hard to miss with a humorous book about sex. For the most part, I was right; this book was consistently hilarious and more informative than I thought it would be.

As others have pointed out, though, calling this a book about sex would be slightly misleading. This is a book about sex researchers, and it sketches out a quirky history of how we have tried to chart, catalog, and understand how sex works. The book covers the usual suspects (Masters and Johnson, Alfred Kinsey, etc.), but also includes more than you'd ever thought you'd learn about pig insemination, rhesus monkey courting rituals, and uterine contractions in hamsters, among other things. Each chapter focuses on a particular aspect of modern sexuality- male impotence, for instance, or female orgasmic ability- and unravels an eclectic and often bizarre mix of interview, citation, and the occasional personal anecdote that sets out to explain how science has attempted to catch up to them.

Roach's footnotes play a starring role, too. Most pages are peppered with footnotes that lead to somewhat random asides. These tidbits often have only a tangential relationship to the material, but are so weird and interesting that I began looking forward to them.

I tore through this book, and had only one minor qualm with it, which I've only now been able to elucidate now that I've read some other people's thoughts on it. At first I thought it might be that the concept wasn't unified, but it really was; the material is organized decently and reads very well. Then I thought I was bothered by the pages where Roach suddenly gets coy, ostensibly because she doesn't want to embarrass her children. Bonk presents a readable mixture of the clinical and the explicit, but every now and again Roach suddenly becomes a little demure; the chapter on sex machines comes to mind, for example. Honestly, though, I find it difficult to keep my dignity intact while arguing that I want to be more titillated.

I've realized what it is now, though. As fearless and thorough as this book is, its scope is weirdly limited. For all its humor, it sticks to the clinical mood set by the studies it documents. Heterosexual vaginal intercourse is the star player, and anything else... say, oral or anal sex... is only given its due at the periphery. There are entire chapters on orgasms, and they are often presented in the context of fertility rather than recreation. Now, don't get me wrong... I was actually fascinated by the studies that tried to link female orgasmic response with conception, and the implications that had for human sexuality. I just thought that the book could have gone in more directions with the material. Especially considering the end, where Roach discussed Masters and Johnson's findings that committed homosexual couples have, qualitatively, the most satisfying sex... and then the book ends. Wait, what? Let's talk about that a little more!

That doesn't make this book any less fun to read, though. Roach is a deliciously funny author, and her take on this subject is provocative and educational without being raunchy or offensive. I'd definitely recommend this to readers with low inhibitions.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Book Review: Talk to the Hand, by Lynne Truss

This was a quick read that elicited a lot of sympathetic head-nodding and a few wry grins, but didn't really ignite a whole lot of deep thought. I mean, that wasn't really the point of the book, I guess. It follows the same curmudgeonly formula as Truss's previous book, this time tackling our society's ubiquitous rudeness instead of the misuse of punctuation. This one doesn't quite hit the same right notes, though.

Truss admits right off the bat that she is writing a "moral homily" that doesn't have any real point other than to bemoan the obvious. So, I suppose that it isn't much surprise when that's exactly what I got. The book is divided into six separate chapters, each of which covers a distinct form of self-entitled rudeness that forms the current social status quo. The chapters are really mini-essays that are a mix of personal anecdotes, muddled citations from other books, and funny asides. The effect is essentially like reading an exceptionally long blog rant.

Truss certainly isn't off the mark here, but ranting about rude people is a little less satisfying than ranting about comma abuse. I think we can all agree that class divisions are Bad and politeness for politeness's sake is Good, so what we're left with is: rude people suck, and we should treat people like we want to be treated. Okay. The book is short, though, so the point isn't overly belabored.

The most interesting part, to me, is one of the random asides where Truss contrasts British and American society. Her observations of rudeness are presented through the lens of traditional English restraint and passive-aggression, and she has an amusing love-hate relationship with American directness that would both stop rudeness in its tracks and is uniquely rude, itself.

Other than that, though, this was just a short, idle read for me. It was amusing, but didn't really go anywhere... I'd recommend Eats, Shoots, and Leaves as a more effective example of Truss's wit.

Verdict: 2 / 5

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Graphic Novel Review: The Walking Dead, Vol. 3: Safety Behind Bars, by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard

I'm not sure how I feel about this one. As a whole, I liked it more than the previous Walking Dead volumes; the story is tighter, and it does the "we're our own worst enemy" motif a lot better. But the formula repetition and the ridiculous characterizations and dialogue make it hard for me to acknowledge its strengths.

Safety Behind Bars picks up right where the last volume leaves off: the survivors cautiously begin exploring the prison to see if it might serve as the sanctuary they have desperately been looking for. As they begin clearing the place of its undead residents, they discover to their surprise a few living residents, as well. Despite being relatively safe from the dead for the first time, it quickly becomes clear that the wolves are still within the walls; it's just a question of whether they were let in or were already there.

This volume is, in some respects, exactly what I was waiting for. Kirkman professes that he is writing the long-game zombie story, so it eventually must move to the place where the immediate zombie threat fades into the background and the vileness of plain old human beings becomes the problem. This is a great start, with questionable motives and actions on all sides, and a balance of power that is shaky from the start and degenerates fast. The main arc revolves around a serial killer that begins preying on the newly secure survivors, and the culprit is so eye-rollingly obvious through the art choices in some panels that the eventual reveal doesn't offer much in the way of surprise. Afterward, however, the story is deliciously tense as the reader waits to find out what the death toll will be. There is also some nice development of the larger story, including a fairly surprising resolution to the heavily foreshadowed subplot with Tyrese's daughter and her boyfriend (which has profound implications for all of them). There are also some scenes with Allen, Dale, and Andrea that promise some interesting developments in the future.

But Rick and Lori. Jesus, those two. They've been the king and queen of cliched, awkward dialogue up to this point, which is remarkable given the fact that most of the dialogue in the book is fairly awkward. But man, these two are fucking irritating in this volume. I ultimately enjoyed reading this volume, but these two deserve being called out for their shenanigans.

Rick's character has gone completely off the map, and I honestly can't tell whether this is supposed to show the character's fraying mental state or the writer's indecision as to what to do with him. He swings from moralistic white-hat to authoritarian cyborg to remorseless thug and back to Howdy Doody again, all in the space of a couple pages. The most egregious side-effect of this is shows up near the end of the volume, where he delivers a ridiculous monologue on how he's a cop, and therefore has authority, and that's why everyone looks up to him, damn it, so can't you just do this for Jack Bauer... I mean, can't you just do this for Rick Grimes? It's literally cringe-worthy, and the reactions from the other characters are convenient to the point of phony.

Meanwhile, Lori suffers from a bad case of Written By a Man Syndrome. "WHY ARE YOU SO MEEEEAN, RICK? WHAT ARE YOU, MY DAD? I HATE YOU! I HATE ALL MEN! Oh, sorry, I'm pregnant, you know, and I have all these crazy girly hormones. Silly me. Do what you think is best! You're always right!" Feh. We get it, Kirkman. Men are in charge, here. This is already apparent by how the other female characters act (including the strong ones), so you really don't have to turn your female lead into a crazy shrew to reinforce the point.

If you can get past the horrible things that come out of the noiseholes of these two, however, this is a solid volume. It goes a long way in carrying forward Kirkman's promise of a deeper, character-focused zombie story. Especially poignant is the survivors' reactions to the inmates, and the possible consequences thereafter. The volume ends on a cliffhanger that made me hungry for the next volume.

I'm finding as these go on, though, that I'm being less charitable with them, and I think it's because I watched the first season of the AMC show at the same time. The show has excised the sloppy characterizations and weak dialogue of the books. The characters are truly sympathetic and believable in the series. Heaven help me: it's better than the book. But from a general perspective, I like the direction that the first three volumes have set up, and I have high hopes for the story as it continues. My only hesitation is that the same formula has been more or less repeated through each of these three story arcs, and I don't know if my excitement about the series will last if it isn't switched up soon.

Verdict: 3.5 / 5

Monday, December 13, 2010

Book Review: Billy Boyle, by James R. Benn

I've never been a mystery reader, and only started exploring the genre this year, when I began working as a librarian and inherited the helm of a mystery book club. I decided to give this one a try, since I've always liked stories with WWII settings. I expected a somewhat pulpy noir book, considering the setting. That's largely what I got, but I ended up being surprised; I loved this book a lot more than I thought I would.

This book introduces Billy Boyle, a cop from South Boston that has heretofore made do on the largess of his family and community connections. We learn early on that he is the nephew of a famous general, and thus he finds himself on his way to what he believes is a cushy desk job in the military. Instead, he is shipped off to England, and told that he is to put his detective skills to work under the personal supervision of the English and American military brass. A German spy threatens to reveal the secret plans being hatched to liberate Norway from the Nazis, and Boyle has been enlisted to ferret him out. As the investigation gets underway, though, a prominent Norwegian minister (and a possible suspect) commits suicide, and Boyle has reason to believe that foul play was involved. Along the way, Boyle unexpectedly earns two new companions who treat him like a bonafide detective instead of a jumped-up beat cop who knows the right people: an English Second Officer named Daphne Seaton, and Piotr Augustus Kazimierz, a mousy Polish baron that goes by "Kaz." As Boyle works to prove himself up to the task given to him, he realizes how entwined the various crosses and double-crosses really are, and how dangerous his new job really is, to both himself and to those involved with him.

The cover art and plot synopsis lead me to believe that I would find a lightweight, setting-focused read. I was fine with that, because that's exactly what I was in the mood for. Benn handles the premise just right; the first few pages transported me back to the 40s pretty effortlessly. The history is well-researched, but never dry or self-important, offering just the right balance of authenticity and readability. And the slang made me happy. I keep trying to bring back phrases like "say, Mac, what's the big idea" with varying levels of success, so I was wholeheartedly content with Boyle's "gee whiz" vernacular (although, the running joke of Kaz and Daphne trying to decode it got old pretty quickly).

So, I didn't expect the Great American Novel, and I didn't get it. But I finished this book a much bigger fan than I thought I'd be. The story's execution was somewhat predictable, and the pace gets muddied by various adventures that only serve to give Boyle cool, sexy stuff to do. But this book is just so damned readable. Boyle fits the archetype of the charming, serendipitous detective, but he is also full of self-doubt, and morally ambiguous enough to make him unpredictable. The supporting characters, while somewhat inconsistent in their development (for example, Kaz is layered and interesting, while Daphne is... not), are all uniformly likeable. Benn improbably creates an intimate "Scooby Gang," including the mucky-mucks at the top, in the middle of a vast and dehumanizing wartime setting.

The only reason I didn't give this five stars is because of the afore-mentioned Gumpish pace breaks. Also, the ending stretches credibility just a little bit more than the rest of the already improbable story, and I can't let go of the fact that Boyle solves the mystery based on a time-tested medical cliche that is flat-out incorrect. Honestly, though? I still liked the book.

I guess I am revealing myself to be a bit of a biased reviewer; I am willing to forgive a lot in books like this simply because I enjoyed reading them, whereas you get less leeway if I don't get my bread and circuses. There's a lot here at which to turn up your nose if you are a bonafide literati. And by that, I mean the smug, wispy buttholes in horn-rimmed glasses and ill-fitting sweaters, hanging around used bookstores in the hope of finding a Pynchon first edition. If you don't like WWII stories or light mysteries with plenty of noir homage, this one might not do it for you. However, I found this book to be a lot of fun. While it wasn't perfect, it has a lot of potential. I am definitely checking out the next in the series.

Verdict: 4 / 5

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Graphic Novel Review: Dr. Horrible and Other Horrible Stories, by Zack Whedon

This is a slim volume of super-short vignettes that offer some origin and foundation stories for the characters from Dr's Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. The graphic novel is lean and mean, but it's a highly amusing read. I'm an unabashed fan of the the original web video, so I loved every bit of it.

The stories here are very short, with five separate stories fit into 78 pages. Even so, everybody gets a turn. Captain Hammer and Dr. Horrible get introductions that dovetail nicely into the canon. Penny gets a questionably relevant but undeniably sweet examination, as well. Best of all, there are closer looks at bit players like the Evil League of Evil, Moist, and even Johnny Snow.

The beauty here is in the small touches. The vignettes are not entirely standalone; they connect in subtle ways that bring the whole volume together and make it feel like a coherent "origin story," or at least a genuine prequel to the official story. New bit players like James Flames and the hilariously crass newscasters fit perfectly. Even the introduction is deliciously funny.

My main complaints with this are a few wonky panels in the art, and the bite-sized portion. But this was exactly what I was hoping it would be: a pitch-perfect extension of the original's tone and lore, and hopefully an appetizer for future installments. Even if you aren't a fan of Dr. Horrible, this is a good pick for those who like their superheroes and supervillains a little quirky.

Verdict: 5 / 5

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Book Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Omnibus, Vol. 1

So, it appears my sudden, random fascination with graphic novels and my rediscovery of Buffy have collided. I originally meant to buy and read the Season 8 books that Joss Whedon actually worked on, but since I'm in the middle of rewatching the entire series, I decided to wait until I was done with that and go through this hefty volume of early Dark Horse comics instead. I liked it, but I didn't love it.

This volume covers two seminal moments in the Buffy canon: her showdown with Lothos in Los Angeles, and her subsequent stay in a mental asylum (which, by the way, is referenced in possibly my favorite episode of the television series, and made that story a particularly satisfying read). It also contains a Las Vegas adventure that explains what happened to Pike, a vignette of Spike and Drusilla, and a lighthearted story featuring a young Dawn.

A canonical, non-Hollywood version of Whedon's original script was enough to hook me, but the whole package actually looked good. And it was good. Different, but good. There are a few confusing moments: some of the vampires in The Origin inexplicably look like Man-Bat, and it took me a few pages to figure out what the deal was with the conjoined twins in the Vegas story, due to the artwork being somewhat questionable. Overall, though, the stories were great reads.

Something was just a little off the mark, though, and I can't put my finger on what it is. It seems a little fanboyish to declaim that this suffers from a pronounced lack of Whedon, but maybe that really is the issue. My favorite part of the Buffy television series is the character arcs and dialogue, and neither feels quite true in these comics. It's as if everyone is doing an impression of the Buffy characters, instead of being an extension of them. The inclusion of Dawn is interesting, too; the explanation for it makes sense academically (everyone has memories of her being there, including Dawn herself), and the resulting story really is cute and fun to read. However, it still feels a little like a convenient excuse to make filler stories.

Honestly, though, I really did like reading this. The sheer amount of material justifies the price, and even the worst of it is still great for Buffy fans. I don't think I'm quite enamored enough to buy another Buffy Omnibus, as I understand there's quite a few. But I'd definitely recommend this to anyone who wants a better version of the movie, and has an interest in pre-Sunnydale Buffy.

Verdict: 3 / 5

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Book Review: The Girl who Played with Fire, by Stieg Larsson

The second entry in the Millennium trilogy had the same impression on me as the first: an interesting mystery with fascinating characters that somehow never seems to work itself up past a low hum.

Lisbeth Salander, the brilliant, distant young hacker with a horrifying past, was put through the paces as a sidekick in the first book; this time, she takes center stage. Redeemed journalist Mikael Blomvkvist is working with two freelancing friends on an expose of sex trafficking in Sweden. When his friends end up dead, however, Salander's prints are found on the murder weapon. Suddenly, the intensely private Salander finds herself on the front page of every newspaper in Sweden, with multiple organizations tracking her down and most of the country convinced that she is a retarded psychopath. As Blomkvist attempts to find her and help her, he uncovers not only her surprising connections to the case, but begins to gain insight on how she became the surly loner she is. Meanwhile, Salander has to evade the tightening noose of journalists and police officers as she attempts to finish what the murder victims started.

Here's the main problem I have with this book: the events above, which are advertised on the book jacket, don't actually happen until hundreds of pages in. As with the first book, Larsson takes the scenic route to the actual mystery, and in the meantime, we get a completely unrelated vignette of Salander's Caribbean adventures, a subplot with Erika Berger that ends up going nowhere, and about a third or so of the actual IKEA catalog, as far as I can tell. Once things actually start happening, they don't actually get interesting until around page 400 or so. And even the intense action sequences are rendered in Larsson's usual laconic, Prozac-laden drone, so that the most suspenseful scenes still feel clinical. Also, everyone in Sweden apparently buys dinner at 7-11. Weird.

Oddly enough, all of that doesn't make for a bad read. Once again, I was invested in the story the whole way through, because I'm a fan of character work and these books are basically proving to be a series of detailed character sketches. I felt that the second book was actually more tightly plotted than the first. Even though the pacing still feels completely broken, the mystery is definitely less scattered and clumsy than the one in the first book.

There's another annoyance that set in for me partway through this book, though. For all that Larsson's characters are interesting, I don't really buy the way in which he portrays female characters. I mean, being male, I could be completely off-base here, but each time I was presented with a female character, I couldn't get past the image of a male author trying to approximate a female voice. Salander's crass treatment in the first book gets a little more dimension in this one, and new insights into her psychological profile explain her voice a bit, but Mimmi? Modig? Johannson? Every last one of them reads like a middle-aged male fantasy of what a strong, sexual woman should sound like (which, by the way, is exactly how Salander and Berger came off in the first book, I'm realizing). Again, just my impression; I didn't buy them, and I'm beginning to understand why some readers classify the books as mildly misogynistic.

Don't get me wrong, these books are good. I mean, they're... I don't know, competent. But I can't really wrap my head around the wild praise I keep hearing. The characterizations are largely great, but the writing is uneven, the pace is completely boned, and the narrative forgoes descriptive prose in favor of mountains of technical details. Also, I think maybe something is lost in translation, as some of the dialogue is painfully awkward and sometimes even nonsensical, which seems out of place amidst the painstaking prose in the rest of the book.

Yeah, I'm picking on it a little. But even if I didn't get very excited about this book, I never lost interest, either. In fact, the focus on Salander is incredibly satisfying. I'd have even been pleasantly surprised by some of her backstory, if the director who made the Swedish movie out of the first book didn't decide to spoil this book in that movie. Goddamned jerk. Anyway, even though I'm whinging a little about this book, it's not bad at all. It's a decent thriller, and it definitely benefits from a comparison to the first in the trilogy.

Verdict: 3 out of 5

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Book Review: The Walking Dead Vol. 2: Miles Behind Us, by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard

Yeah, this one is a little bit more like it.

With the drama at the Atlanta campsite having reached its head, Grimes assumes leadership of the refugees and they hit the road. They meet a few new people along the way, and land upon an abandoned suburb and a pastoral farmstead in their search for a home safe from the restless dead.

With the introductory issues out of the way, it feels like the second volume gets a little deeper into Kirkman's "all about the characters" mission. The characters are a little less stereotypical in this one, and though we're still basically in a zombie soap opera, the interactions are considerably more believable (and, in a few instances, genuinely scary and affecting). The pace is a little better, too, with the traveling lending a bit more urgency to the proceedings. The places they land along the way have a bit more going on than the campsite in the first volume, as well.

The only tradeoff was the predictability, though that shouldn't be too surprising from a zombie story. There is never really any doubt about how each mini-story in the volume will turn out, especially considering that any suspense that does exist is neutralized with some pretty ham-handed foreshadowing. That leaves the surprises for the characters that end up leaving or getting killed, some of which I found surprising to the point of jarring (again, that's a little bit more like it).

The direction of this series looks good. Whatever flaws it has, it's so damned readable that I had to force myself not to breeze through it in twenty minutes. I'm in for the next few volumes, for sure.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Book Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larrson

Hmm. Well, considering the word-of-mouth this one has been getting for quite some time, I was expecting either the best mystery book I've ever read, or the usual crushing disappointment that comes from reading hyped books. I got something in between: a competent, enjoyable read, but not anything that hasn't been done better elsewhere.

This book begins with a very long, very detailed backstory for Mikael Blomkvist, a financial journalist facing a libel trial for an investigative piece on a less-than-upright CEO. Blomkvist's travails attract the attention of Henrik Vanger, an aging industrialist who has been mourning the disappearance (and, as he believes, murder) of a favored niece for years. Vanger offers Blomkvist a huge salary if he will work for a year writing a family chronicle and, in the process, see if he can uncover anything new about Harriet Vanger's disappearance. As the investigation takes on new life, Blomkvist enlists the help of a brilliant, damaged young hacker named Lisbeth Salander. Between the two of them, they discover that the historical murder mystery may be something altogether more immediate, and dangerous.

Over and over again, I have seen this book described as gripping. I'm going to come right out and say it: if not for the fact that Larsson was a good writer that could depict interesting characters, this book would be utterly boring.

Larsson loves his details. Like, really loves them. We get thorough breakdowns of our character's afternoons: what sort of meal they ate at what time, before the detailed route they took to the store, etc. Technical specs abound, as well. Any scene that includes a computer reads like a catalog, and I swear, there is even a helpful website URL in parentheses at one point.

This obsessive-compulsive description extends to the characters through backstories, side-plots, exposition, and even wardrobe. This is a saving grace, as far as I'm concerned; even with Larsson's spartan, Nordic prose, the characters are fascinating in their flaws and idiosyncrasies. By extension, the situations in which they find themselves keep the reader's attention. Despite the too-even keel, I never lost interest at any point; I kept reading because I perpetually wanted to find out what happens next.

The big problem this book has is the completely broken pace of the story. The main mystery doesn't pick up steam until literally 300 pages in. In the meantime, after getting a novella on Blomkvist's journalistic troubles, we are treated to strangely flat chronicle of Salander's difficult life, punctuated by a buffet of rape that is curiously absent of any psychological consequences. It must be said that this smacks of being explored more fully in a future book, but for now, the treatment of Salander's character development comes off as almost crass. Furthermore, it's unclear what any of it has to do with the main narrative. All of the subplots in this book are completely orphaned from the big story; while the book is nicely bookended by the libel stuff, it has almost nothing to do with the Vanger business. And Salander's introductory adventures are as aloof and unconnected with the rest of the book as her character is.

Again, none of this ever put me off enough to stop wondering how everything was going to turn out, but I really don't understand all of the praise heaped on the narrative. It's clumsy. At best. All of the seams show. The stories being told about Blomkvist and Salander are fantastic, but the big mystery nearly drowns in them.

This is a good, solid mystery that is definitely worth reading, though, even if its brilliance is a bit exaggerated, in my opinion.

Verdict: 3 out of 5

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Book Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde

Had I read this back in high school, I would be extolling it as the best book ever written, between the creepy premise, the poetic justice, and Wilde's trademark way with words. I'm hesitant to declare a flawless victory now that my tastes have evolved a little, but this is a classic worth the time of anyone who likes irony, and loves dialogue.

For those that aren't familiar with the plot, Dorian Gray is a young British aristocrat who serves as the unrequited love and prime inspiration for an artist named Basil Hallward. Basil becomes so enamored that he pours all of his talent and effort into a portrait of Dorian, finding what he feels to be the pinnacle of his art. In the meantime, Dorian is reluctantly introduced to a friend of Basil's: Lord Henry Wotton, a hedonistic dandy that lives only to indulge idle whims and explore new sensations. After only a single day, Lord Henry's philosophy so affects Dorian that, for the first time, he becomes aware of the ephemeral nature of his youth and afraid of the day in which it begins to wane. As he gazes upon Basil's unveiled portrait, he idly wishes that he could keep his youth forever, and that the beautiful painting would age in his place. As time goes by, he realizes to his astonishment that he might have got his wish; as Lord Henry's influence takes greater hold, the portrait begins to reveal what an unnaturally long youth can do to one's soul.

The narrative is straightforward compared to similar books from the same time period. And, as one would expect from Oscar Wilde, the prose is delectable. The dialogue is pitch-perfect, and the descriptive passages are tight when they need to be and luxurious when they have the opportunity. Which, believe it or not, is at the root of the minor issues I had with the book.

I have to be frank and say that there really isn't a whole lot more in terms of plot than the synopsis above. Wilde seems much more interested in sharing his themes and social critiques than in spinning a yarn. The character of Lord Henry Wotton is a prime example; most of the time, he seems to be simply a delivery vessel for Wilde's sarcasm and humor. He's got witty repartee at the ready for every situation, and chews up the scenery with his caustic remarks and introspective musings on every page that includes him. Which amused me more than irritated me, actually, because Wotton is an interesting character in spite of himself. He serves as a poisonous influence that precipitates Dorian's downfall in the beginning, and offers a stark contrast to the depths of Dorian's corruption at the end.

The only trouble I have is that, at one point, the story takes the same sort of languid detour that Wotton's dialogue does. Once Dorian's course is established, the narrative suddenly drops into an exhaustive list of the fabrics he likes, the gems he is interested in, the music he listens to, etc. This is described in the sort of detail that suggests Wilde was indulging his own knowledge and interest. Once I made it through the middle and the story picked up again, I looked back on it as a sort of literary montage to explain Dorian's hedonistic comings and goings, but honestly, I began to lose interest at this point after tearing through the beginning. Not long after the main story picks up again, it suddenly ends with a Poe-like twist. It was a satisfying ending, but didn't seem to do justice to the rich prose that led up to it.

So, even though I loved most of the book, my eyes begain to glaze over in a few places. A bit of Oscar Wilde Overload, maybe. But those were only momentary lapses, as far as I'm concerned; this is a classic worth owning, especially if one has an interest in classic horror. It is also required reading for anybody who espouses hedonism, or likes to argue themes in literature.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Book Review: The Walking Dead Vol. 1: Days Gone Bye, by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore

As usual, my laziness puts me far behind the curve. I watched these graphic novels go on and off the shelves at my library, and put off reading them until AMC made a TV series out of it. Really, there's no earthly reason I shouldn't have read a comic about zombies by now, so I'm a little ashamed it took watching and loving the pilot of the filmed version to make me pick it up. And since I don't have the patience to follow a monthly comic anymore, I'm glad there are a pile of collected issue graphic novels for me to catch up on.

I tore through the first trade paper volume (issues #1-6) in record time. Police officer Rick Grimes is injured during a violent traffic stop, and wakes from a coma weeks later to a ravaged, deserted hospital. The zombie apocalypse has come while he slept, and through a combination of canniness and sheer luck, he crosses paths with a small group of other survivors on the outskirts of Atlanta, dodging the ravenous undead and trying to figure out what to do next.

This volume is generally focused on introducing the reader to the cast, the setting, and the interpersonal dramas to come. I happily lapped it all up, because come on, guys, it's fucking zombies. That being said, this isn't quite the tour de force I've been led to believe. Well, not yet, anyway. The characters are a bit stereotypical, in the way that the characters at the beginning of most zombie stories are. And the dialogue veers hard into melodramatic territory, as most comic book dialogue does. I think the only reason this bugs me is because I was hoping for an esoteric, literate type of graphic novel narrative, which isn't really in place yet. However, Kirkman's somewhat pompous introduction indicates that he wants the series to go past the typical zombie movie time frame, and really get into how the characters cope after getting through the initial crisis. That gives me hope, and puts the rather mediocre beginning in perspective. Plus, I don't know if I mentioned this, but it's fucking zombies. The Walking Dead certainly doesn't lack for action, so even if the story doesn't immediately improve, I'll be hooked for at least a few more volumes.

There is lot of homage to the zombie genre throughout the volume. The stark, black-and-white art is well done, and effectively puts the characters front and center instead of distracting with bright gore and detailed shock and awe... the horror here is more Romero then Roth. And yes, some of the homage tends toward the derivative, including a few scenes taken right out of other zombie tales. To read some other reviews, you'd think that was a SHOCKING AND APPALLING development. Hey, spoiler alert: this book has dead people that chase and eat the living! You can stop them by destroying the brain! Also, the survivors are so stressed and scared that their inability to work together is as big a threat as the zombies! I don't know, it seems to me that if you pick up a book called "The Walking Dead" and are surprised when you discover that it has familiar zombie tropes in it, the problem might be with you, not the book.

So, I'm intrigued. I haven't seriously read graphic novels for a bit, now, but The Walking Dead is good enough to drag me back in for a while. My only regret is that it's spoiling the equally awesome AMC series (so far, anyway) for me.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Book Review: Brain Rules for Baby, by John Medina

One of the more overwhelming aspects of impending parenthood, I’ve discovered, is the infinite amount of advice people would like to give you. Searching for a book on pregnancy and parenting leads one to vast, candy-colored landscapes of literature, with each book insistently tugging in a different direction. It’s nearly impossible to separate fact from opinion, largely because most parenting "facts" boil down to opinions, anyway. This book caught my eye because it offers parenting advice within a framework I find particularly interesting: brain development, neuroscience, and quirky scientific studies.

Which isn’t to say that this is dry, boring nonfiction. This is definitely science for the layperson, and it’s fascinating. I wasn’t really in the market for a parenting book until I flipped through this one and browsed through a couple of Medina's interesting summaries of studies on baby brains, and the accompanying anecdotes from his own experience.

This book offers a mountain of interesting facts and extremely useful advice, but Medina takes great care to warn readers about taking parenting advice with a grain of salt. He writes up front that the data coming back from this sort of science is dangerously seductive, and that it's all too easy for parents to jump to the wrong conclusions and freak themselves out because "that's what the scientists say." The esoteric factor that makes neuroscience so interesting tends to complicate things for frustrated, sleep-deprived parents that just want someone to tell them what to do. Ultimately, for all of the information this book gives, Medina's advice for creating a smart, happy baby boils down to simple stuff we should be doing anyway: love your spouse, and love your kid.

His full disclosure regarding the ambiguity of the data is comforting, considering how he can't quite keep a few of his own biases out of the mix, including a definite grudge against video games and television. But, hey, everyone's got an opinion on parenting, right?

I don't usually go in for this kind of book, but I will definitely recommend this to anyone who is expecting or has young children.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Book Review: Black Thorn, White Rose, by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

This is one of what I gather to be a whole host of “alternative fairy tale” short story collections. It has sat on my shelf for years, forlornly waiting to be read. I recently started picking at it, a story at a time, while reading other things. It’s solidly average-to-decent, but I actually liked it more than I thought I would.

As with most genre short story anthologies, the entries in this book all revolve around the common theme of turning a classic fairy tale on its head. The stories approach this from a number of angles, resulting in everything from alternative viewpoints to entire transplants of the setting; I only knew that some of them were related to a classic tale because they were in this book to begin with. Even so, each tale does what it sets out to do, as the settings are suitably evocative and the morals (altered and revised though some may be) are crystal clear by the end of each.

This collection suffers from the hallmark lack of consistency that plagues most short story collections, but I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of duds in this one. Granted, only one or two stories struck me enough that I’m still thinking about them, but each and every one of them were fun to read. I liked some less than others, but there were none I outright disliked, which is rare in a collection like this.

Turns out, this collection is perfect for the use I had for it: fun, escapist, bite-sized reads. Most of the tales presented have a sensual, feminist bent, but there really is something for everyone, with altered fairy tales of all different moods and directions. I’m not exactly chomping at the bit for another in this series, but I will definitely pick one up once I’m in the mood for it again, and would definitely recommend this one to those who are fans of the adult fairy tale.

Verdict: 3 out of 5

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Book Review: Shadow Bound, by Erin Kellison

Hoo boy.

I saw this on my Nook store the first time I powered it up and messed around with it. It popped up as a free download, and after reading the little description it looked to me like an interesting urban fantasy. Not usually my cup of tea, but they’re sort of the new hotness, so why not give one a try?

I got about five pages in before one of the characters started making sweet, metaphor-laden love to the Grim Reaper and I realized my mistake. This is a paranormal romance, isn’t it? Sigh. I should have expected that, given how “urban fantasy” and “paranormal romance” are interchangeable terms, but in my defense, the cover didn't give it away, either. But hey, it’s free, right? Plus, I still hadn’t read anything like it in quite some time, so I gave it a shot anyway.

Talia O’Brien, a recent PhD in a vague, paranormal-type field of study, is searching for work and navigating the waters of post-academic life. Her plans, however, are violently interrupted by the appearance of soul-sucking creatures called wraiths. She is hunted for months by the beasts, and nearly killed one day before being rescued in the nick of time by one Adam Thorne, the independently wealthy head of the mysterious Segue Institute. Turns out, there are thousands of wraiths prowling the streets, and their numbers are growing. They have even organized under the name of The Collective, and the Segue Institute is dedicated to learning how to stop them from taking everything over. Adam has been searching for Talia ever since reading her dissertation on near-death experiences, convinced that she could help in the upcoming war. But she is more essential than even Adam realizes; born from a dalliance between Death and a mortal woman, her unique Faerie ancestry (and its associated power) may be the only thing that can stop the force behind the wraiths.

So, yeah. Pretty standard supernatural fare. I did like what Kellison did with the Faerie angle, and I particularly appreciated how the various supernatural parts come together (for example, the contrast between the lifeless ghosts and the deathless wraiths). All of that is kind of secondary to the contrived sexual tension between Talia and Adam, though. I don’t understand what’s so appealing about Adam. He’s a complete turd from beginning to end, exhibiting the most crass and overdone manly stereotypes and not evolving as a character in the slightest. He’s rich and handsome! Tall and smells “dark” and “spicy!” Brooding and angsty, with just enough of a dark side to be a bad boy without actually being bad in any real way! Overprotective of our heroine, and noble to the point of genuine stupidity! And let us not discount the virtues of his six-pack. And that’s what it’s written as, because apparently “abs,” “stomach muscles,” or “hot washboard of love” would be too clinical.

In short, everything likeable about this man is skin-deep at best, and yet Talia, an intellectual, independent, dangerous woman, falls in love with him after a week or so. Which passes for careful deliberation, here, since he declares her his soulmate after only a couple of days. I mean, I get it. I know how romances work, and this one works just fine. I’m just saying.

My biggest complaint is how abruptly the writing changes once we get into the steamy confines of this relationship. Despite the setting and story being somewhat run-of-the-mill, Kellison is a pretty good writer. The world-building she does is interesting, and Talia is a neat character, both in the mundane details and in the supernatural powers and legacy she possesses. But as soon as these two start hooking up, the storytelling goes all askew. Suddenly we aren’t dealing with two mysterious adults anymore, but with whiny teenagers in luuurve, both in style and substance. Things start to go downhill around the Ferrari vs. Lamborghini car chase, and bottom out about the time we get to the puzzlingly unnecessary “King and Queen of the Goths” party. And it’s not just the story that gets sidetracked, but the writing, as well. All of the neat stuff Kellison was doing in the beginning gives way to multiple passages on the direction of Adam’s blood flow any time Talia does anything.

If you see what she’s doing, there. Wink wink nudge nudge tee hee BONERS.

Sorry, I don’t know why I can’t take harlequin romance seriously, but it really does defy my attempts to read it with a straight face. Between my various experiences with erotica, pornography, and simple sex scenes in books and movies, I guess I’m just accustomed to a more serious, straightforward form of titillation, be it by what they are showing me or by what they are not showing me. So, when the florid, overblown romantic scenes in a book like this really start going, I find myself reacting in the manner which I imagine women do at male strippers: slight, incidental interest, tempered by a heaping serving of unintentional hilarity. Which is not a problem in itself, but once I got to the second half of the book, I couldn’t help but feel like everything, from story to characters, was really just a crude excuse for creating sexual tension between two ciphers and then having it consummated. And this is romance, so of course, that’s exactly what it was.

I don’t think this is a bad book. In fact, I kind of liked it. But I feel about it like I felt about Twilight: it’s a book that is surgically aimed at its target readers, among which I am most definitely not. This is a must-read for paranormal romance fans, as far as my limited experience with the genre can tell, because the world is interesting and the romance doesn’t lack for heat. If you’re just looking for a good supernatural fantasy, though? Meh. Find something with more meat to it than this one.
Verdict: 2 out of 5

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Book Review: Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Demick

I’m appalled and fascinated by North Korea. Given how closely they guard the details of their society, and how unsatisfying our general knowledge of their country is (with most of my impression of Kim Jong-il coming from the cartoonish propaganda posters in the history books, and of course, the Team America movie), I tend to snatch up any crumb of information about North Korea that looks remotely credible. I first heard about this book through a radio interview with the author, and have since noticed it in fairly high demand in my area. The book is fascinating if somewhat imperfect, and shines an illuminating, unforgiving light on the Hermit Kingdom.

Nothing to Envy chronicles the lives of six North Koreans, from the relative heyday of Kim Il-sung’s government through the famine of the 1990s, and describes in detail the hardships each had to endure until their eventual defections (a dangerous hardship in itself). The bombast of the infamously psychotic North Korean government serves both as antagonist and backdrop; the stories themselves focus on how these people, unfortunate enough to be born where and when they were, try to survive and find some semblance of normalcy. What we think of as mundane, everyday concerns- conversation topics, romance, travel, self-improvement- are all harrowing journeys with potentially deadly consequences. I was particularly struck by how the defectors have reacted to the “outside world,” as the realization of a life beyond the cocoon of Dear Leader’s whims seems to be both freeing and paralyzing to those who have never known that sort of self-determination. Moreover, the happy endings that one might expect from escaping are warped into surprising forms by the enormity of the culture shock involved.

Demick worked for years as a foreign correspondent in Seoul for the Los Angeles Times, and this book definitely has a journalistic flavor as a result, for good and for ill. The vignettes Demick presents for each of the six North Korean citizens offer intimate portraits of their struggles without being voyeuristic or sensationalist, and include only enough editorializing to draw out the sad facts within. That being said, I can see the seams between the news pieces that were stitched into a narrative, here. Demick follows the nonfiction convention of organizing her chapters thematically rather than sequentially, with each of the six stories blended into a constantly shifting perspective. On top of this, Demick has an unfortunate tendency towards redundancy, with the same factoids being repeated in separate chapters. I’m normally not too bothered by either issue, but together, they make for a book that can be somewhat hard to follow at times. Honestly, though, the content makes up for any stylistic quibbles I might have had, since I found the stories of daily life in North Korea so fascinating that I even consumed the chapter notes at the end of the book with fervor.

This is a fantastically interesting book, but it also instills a sense of disgust and sadness at what these people have to live through. Even if some of what is presented is exaggerated (which is a distinct possibility, since a lot of Demick’s information comes solely from the anecdotes of the disaffected), the existence of such a totalitarian regime on the basis of outright lies should be anathema to any person capable of independent thought. One particular passage from the book has stayed with me: one of the defectors discovered that 1984 was one of his favorite books, as he was amazed that George Orwell could understand so perfectly how the North Korean government could seize and maintain control over its people. I think there are people in our own country that should read this book and take note of the consequences of relentless animus, historical revisionism, and blind ideology. The horrifying social stagnation in North Korea says to me that 1984 is always the end result of such repression of contrary ideas, no matter which religious or economic creed drives the bus.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Book Review: Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

I’m constantly and embarrassingly behind the curve with most things pop culture-related. However, the one nice trade-off that comes with not being an early adopter of the latest book craze is that I can experience the conclusion with the wide-eyed enthusiasm from the beginning still fresh in my mind. Such is the case with the Hunger Games trilogy; I read Mockingjay right on the heels of my first readthrough of the previous books, which had been out for a bit already. This made the anticipation and reading of the third volume much sweeter, but possibly made my view of it suffer a little by comparison.

Mockingjay completes the impeccable symmetry Collins insists on in her trilogy: with Hunger Games focusing on the Games themselves and Catching Fire seesawing between the Games and the growing rebellion in the districts, the finale is all rebellion, all the time. With District 12 bombed into oblivion, Katniss and a handful of survivors from her old home and the Quarter Quell huddle in the catacombs of the draconic District 13. Traumatized and wounded, Katniss nevertheless finds herself pushed into the role of the Mockingjay, a face and mouthpiece for the rebellion, which is making a slow but inexorable march towards the Capital itself, district by district. Even here, though, Katniss’s fate is not her own, as she is groomed and shepherded into staged “propos” and watched closely by the mistrustful President Coin of District 13. Nor has President Snow forgotten about our heroine; Snow uses Peeta, left behind and captured after the Quater Quell breakout, as devastating leverage against the public head of the rebellion. Katniss, however, has her own agenda. Driven by sorrow and hatred, she does her best to navigate the bloody war and dangerous political machinations of its perpetrators in order to fulfill her true goal: to personally bring justice to President Snow for his crimes against those she cares about.

The pace is quick and relentless in the final book, and while this whole series is dark and violent, Mockingjay pulls no punches. Katniss operates in a haze of shell-shocked gloom for the entire book, and beloved characters are irrevocably affected by the war and routinely killed without ceremony, especially in the last third of the story. Even without the inclusion of the Hunger Games’ novelties, the book retains a definite dystopian sci-fi feel, especially as the fight moves into the streets of the Capital. So, naturally, this one got into my head a little deeper than the first two, because I love the realistic sort of story where the characters don’t necessarily get what they want, and have to struggle to make sense of what they have.

I’ll keep this as spoiler-free as possible: I’ve never been one to care about who gets to be whose boyfriend in books like these, but I have to say, Peeta and Gale were both very interesting here. Gale gets particularly interesting, as he must make a transition from a clever and ruthless hunter into a clever and ruthless soldier. Collins plays with all sorts of themes, here, including the definition of terrorism. I liked how the relationships Katniss has with these two get turned on their heads, for various reasons.

For some reason, though, I still found myself not quite as enamored of the final book as I was of the first two. For a while, I even questioned whether or not I liked it at all. Turns out, I do. Big sigh of relief. But I had trouble letting go of a few nagging problems.

When I say the pace is quick in Mockingjay, I’m not kidding. Katniss goes from Quarter Quell survivor to participant in the final battle in short order, and all of the action sequences in between zoom by in stark, brutal flashes. While I appreciate the aesthetic quality of this sort of storytelling (war is hell, boys), I would have liked a little more time to reflect on what was going on. This isn’t inconsistent with the other books, though. I just felt too rushed, in places, whether it was due to the jerky nature of the action or the time compression between important milestones in the rebellion. It made other things seem rushed, too. Such as Katniss’s transitions between incoherent trauma victim and cynical soldier-propagandist, which seem to go back and forth rather suddenly and excessively, despite the understandable triggers for it.

Speaking of Katniss... hmm. I began to get annoyed with her in the second book, and I remained so for most of Mockingjay. She grated on me the same way that Harry Potter did in the Order of the Phoenix. Look, I understand that teenagers are naturally sulky and irrational, and that it is truthful and observant of an author to portray them that way. I also concede that poor Katniss has every reason to be sulky and irrational, and I even appreciate the harsh impatience with which she approaches the triviality of her love triangle, in light of everything else she has to deal with. I’ll even go as far as to say that I support and enjoy works from young adult authors who give teenaged drama a serious treatment; for all that we “wise” adults like to mock the histrionics of the average teenager, we tend to forget how life-and-death everything seemed when we experienced it for the first time. All that being said, I can only take so much of Katniss pouting in closets and snapping at people who are trying to help her before I begin to roll my eyes. It’s an instinct I just can’t repress, okay?

There were a couple of other little things that bugged me, but were easier for me to let go. Collins shoehorned in a reference to the Hunger Games that seemed hokey and unnecessary, right before the climactic battle, but redeemed it with a much better reference (and an exciting, if predictable, twist) at the end. The book ended particularly abruptly and without any excess sentiment, but I realized after I finished that I kind of liked that. Sometimes, we don’t get closure, or even the satisfaction of knowing if we really got we wanted; Mockingjay’s bittersweet ending may not do much for those who like a bow wrapped around the end of their tales (read: Deathly Hallows’ triumphant epilogue, or Breaking Dawn’s mad fit of masturbatory wish-granting), but I think that the ending was written remarkably well and had a lot of emotional impact, even if it wasn’t quite what one would call satisfying.

So, not bad. Not bad at all. It wasn’t the gripping page-turner I expected it to be, and I think that it’s my least favorite of the trilogy, despite how excited I initially was to get out of the arena and into the uprisings. But Mockingjay rounds out the trilogy nicely, and is a fun and exciting read on its own.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

Friday, August 27, 2010

Book Review: Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay

Kay’s latest history/fantasy mashup takes the reader to a simulacrum of Tang Dynasty China, with all of the flowery, evocative prose that could be expected from such a journey. Under Heaven drew me in quick, and I finished it with the wistful satisfaction that is the hallmark of a good story. Somehow, though, I think I wanted just a little bit more out of this book.

The book begins on the haunted shore of a lake called Kuala Nor, in a mountain valley on the border between the nations of Kitai and Tagura. For two years, Shen Tai has toiled alone to bury the bones of dead soldiers from past battles in valley. Tai, an ex-soldier and former Kanlin Warrior-in-training (think Shaolin monk), chose this penance as mourning and tribute for his father, a renowned general with an uncharacteristic pacifist streak. His willingness to live and work among the shrieking ghosts of Kuala Nor has attracted the attention and awe of both nations, which typically spend their time staring at each other and waiting for another war to start. As the story opens, the Taguran royalty (which happens to include a Kitai princess) chooses to reward Tai’s perseverance and respect with an unthinkably lavish gift: 250 Sardian horses, the graceful mounts from the far west that inspire art, poetry, and legend among the Kitai. Before Tai can even begin processing such a gift, he finds himself fending off an unexpected assassination attempt. Reluctantly, he journeys back into the empire of Kitai, in order to discover who wants him dead and why. However, his herd of horses gives him a newfound wealth and power that makes him a new player in Kitai politics, which have taken a dangerous turn since his self-imposed exile.

Though the story lies on the framework of the An Shi Rebellion's beginning years, the novel’s focus remains squarely on Shen Tai, the people he cares about, and the people who have a newfound interest in him and his game-changing horses. Under Heaven is a story about people, who do the best they can when plunged into events they have no control over. In this, Kay does a fantastic job; Tai’s moments of danger and self-discovery dovetail nicely with the occasional bit of omniscient narration highlighting the capricious nature of history and the important role that chance plays.

Honestly, though, the actual plot threads felt like they were tied a little loosely. The plights of the various characters sometimes don’t quite intersect with the main story. This is a conscious choice of Kay’s, as a major theme here is how quickly we can be swept up in the current due to seemingly insignificant choices. However, the subplots that get left unresolved or abruptly halted can be jarring. The pacing gets odd, as well, with the middle being considerable slower than the first act, and the climax appearing almost out of nowhere. Well, not out nowhere, I guess, since political intrigue stories always end with some real shit going down, but I had some sort of cognitive break between the setup and the delivery. I think less time could have been spent on walking from place to place, and more on some of the family intrigue that gets constructed so nicely in the beginning and then oddly short-changed as the story unfolds.

The characters are occasionally unsatisfying, as well, for all that this is a character piece, with many of them needing just a little more nuance and depth; Kay utilizes takes the same “epic archetype” approach to characterization that he did in Tigana. Strangest of all, though, are the characters that are introduced for no real reason. Some are redshirts that are killed off after a few pages of intricate backstory, and one (a courtesan near the beginning) actually takes control of the narrative for part of a chapter, and is subsequently never heard from again. That, in particular, was weird. I spent the rest of the book wondering why I was supposed to care about her. Again, I’m pretty sure Kay did that on purpose- one of those philosophical interjections at the end muses on the truism of incidental, passing characters in history playing out their own dramas and tragedies. Still, it bugged the hell out of me.

But it also made me think of the Chinese epic, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, with its cavalcade of minor characters contributing to a more complicated tapestry. Kay researched epic Chinese poetry when writing this, and it shows in these seemingly random intersection of characters, as well as in the attention to beautiful details in the setting and the pensive melancholy that pervades the entire affair. And I’ll admit it; I’m a sucker for epilogues. Seriously, every time I’ve seen people moan and complain about epilogues that are too long or too sappy, I end up loving them when I read them. The epilogue here was the same. I was so satisfied with and emotionally moved by the way in which Kay wrapped his story up that it quelled the growing discontent I was nurturing after getting through the second act.

Overall, this is a beautiful story. Definitely worth looking into if you are interested in historical fiction (the fantasy elements are fairly light, here) or in Asian-inspired fantasy. I don’t find myself quite as awed by this one as I was by Tigana, and I hear that if I liked Tigana, I need to read Kay’s other, better works. However, from a strictly aesthetic standpoint, this is a wonderful elegy that is worth reading simply for its abstractly gorgeous imagery, and for the mood it sets.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

I was 1337. But then they changed what 1337 was.

I picked up StarCraft II a few weeks ago, and am leisurely making my way through the single-player campaign. I am in no hurry to play people online, though. I’m a decent RTS player, but even if I were great at this, past experience with playing StarCraft online has taught me that I’ll still spend most of my time frantically trying to churn out units – anything at all – while some Korean kid is leisurely humping my leg with a few Hydralisks. I’m perfectly happy with my illusory bubble of PC game proficiency, especially considering that this is the first PC game I’ve spent any time with since… well, since the last Blizzard game.

I feel increasingly guilty about that, for some reason. I cut my gaming teeth on the Atari 2600 and the NES, but for many years, I was solely a PC gamer. At some point, though, I strayed off that path. The benefits of playing on specific types of hardware got lost somewhere in the avalanche of legal tender necessary to reap those benefits.

Take shooters, for instance. I play a lot of Team Fortress 2, and while I’m not the best player around, I can hold my own. Ask the guy I played with last weekend. He started bugging me on mic about how bad of a sniper I was until the teams were eventually reassigned, whereupon I gave him repeated opportunities to reassess his opinion, until he finally ragequit after the sixth or seventh headshot. The thing is, I play it on Xbox 360. I would get chewed up and spit out by people playing on the PC, because a mouse is simply better for twitch than a controller. Not to mention the fact that the PC players get content updates and I don’t. Grumble mumble I never get new hats grumble.

These are things I already know. I don’t need to be lectured by some seventeen-year-old ball of forehead grease who thinks he’s the first to figure that out. I remember the Wolfenstein 3D shareware, son. I made Doom WADs. I am not impressed by how much Modern Warfare 2 has taught you about the first-person shooter genre.

Back then, though, the effort needed to get these games to run was spent in DOS, not on the motherboard. I remember saving up to buy a 8MB RAM SIMM (I wanted to upgrade my 486DX rig. Sixteen whole megs of memory! I could rule the world with that kind of computing power!), but that was the extent of the hardware barriers I had to cross. Any time a game wouldn’t run, I would spend hours in DOS tweaking settings and rewriting config files, which became almost as fun as the game itself. Especially when the payoff came, because I’ll tell you something: I could get that bastard to run nine time out of ten.

Around the time Quake was released and my beloved adventures games started to die out, though, something changed. That stuff didn’t work anymore. DOS went away and Windows, an operating system I hated from day one, took its place. Game files became more cryptic and hard to access. And the solutions for running games increasingly became homogenous: spend a couple hundred dollars on a new video card, because holy shit, water effects! Pfft.

It eventually got to the point where I had built a brand new computer out of top-of-the-line components that wouldn’t run a new game I wanted, because it needed the newest version of some Radeon card that had been released a month prior. Screw that business. I started playing Ocarina of Time on the Nintendo 64, instead.

Three prebuilt PCs later, I’ve never really looked back. I like my consoles. The games I want to play will always work on them, and work the way that the developers intended. Considering that I have a full-time job, a kid on the way, and a mortgage to pay, that kind of security is very attractive to me. Never mind the extra money spent on upgrading every few months; I don’t have that kind of frigging time to invest in my entertainment.

But I do miss the superiority of PC gaming. I sunk months into Diablo II. I’ve dipped my toes back in with Warcraft III and Guild Wars. I figured that StarCraft would be a safe bet, and worth the potential headache. My laptop is fairly beefy, and I figured that I wouldn’t have any problems at all unless I tried to run it at top settings. Naturally, I realized my folly when I played it for the first time, and the game politely suggested that I turn all of the graphics settings down to the lowest possible level, with a barely concealed snicker at the sheer foolishness of trying to run it on an integrated video card. Even after an hour or two of experimenting with the settings and twiddling with the config file (old habits die hard) until I managed to get it both playable and somewhat attractive, it still occasionally asserts that I would be much happier in the newb section, where the blue squares fight the purple squares and I won’t have to worry my silly little head over things like “textures” and “shadows.”

I completely expected this, and I can still play around on the backend until it works. And it does work, which is a marked improvement from the way things used to be, where a game would simply not install or run if it didn’t meet specs, didn’t have twine and chewing gum applied to the config file, and/or didn’t have a boot disk to ensure that it didn’t have to compete with any other programs. Even though I can’t get advanced creep lighting (whatever the hell that means), I can get to the core gameplay. And that’s the important part. This game doesn’t disappoint; it has everything that made the first game so addictive, along with the nice storytelling and even some of the gimmicky stuff that made Warcraft III so fun (though, truthfully, I’ve always preferred Warcraft to StarCraft). I’m having a blast, even though I apparently don’t get the eye candy that the “preferred” player does.

No, that’s not what bothers me. What bothers me is the fact that the default solution for the gamer in the know is now “buy more crap” instead of “learn how to tweak your system.” I mean, you can still play around with the software. I did. But there doesn’t seem to be much pride in that anymore, because it’s nowhere near as important for being a top-notch PC gamer as having a perpetually-updated rig, on which you have spent over four thousand dollars of your Applebee’s paychecks. It’s the curse of technological advancement, I suppose. I’m remembering a time when people would case mod and overpower their computers just to show off, kind of like the mooks that put a purple light kit and rims on a family sedan. These days, though, it’s like you need to invest in and install a better engine every time you want to drive to the store.

I just don’t want to do that anymore. I’ll be getting Diablo III and Guild Wars II at full retail price, but will probably have to settle for dumbed down graphics on those, too. In the meantime, I’ll still be playing console games with no extra assembly required.

Even so, there’s a part of me that really wants to make sure my laptop can run anything. Or to go all Original Digital Gangster and build and mod my own rig, instead of settling for a prebuilt machine that will always be underpowered somehow. I like to joke about how sixteen-year-old grunge kid me would snarl at me now for living in the suburbs and listening to NPR; it’s a safe assumption that 13-year-old me, who once spoofed his way into an online gaming network for free, would have a similar reaction to settling for grandma’s computer and playing with the Madden meatheads’ game toys.

Too bad I pay the bills, and he doesn’t.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Writing Excerpt: "Sir"

From a short story that's been skulking around in my notebooks for a while.


“Got a lot going on today, Rich?” I asked, not entirely sure why I was giving him an opportunity to annoy me. But he just shook his head slightly, still facing his computer screen.

“Ah. Awful quiet over there, that’s all,” I tried.

“Unh.” Rich sounded startled. He was still glued to his computer, but from what I could see, he didn’t have any work open on it. He was gripping his mouse and apparently staring at nothing.

“Unh,” he said again, and stood up suddenly. He wasn’t looking too good. His usual demeanor, complete with a weird little smile that I always found a little creepy, was gone. His face was dull and carried no expression at all. He was pale, and noticeably sweating.

“Hey, are you okay?” I asked. I didn’t like the guy, sure, but something seemed wrong. “Do you need any…”

“Going t’lunch,” he mumbled, and walked towards the office door. He limped, or swayed, or… something, as he went. There weren’t any of his usual awkward invitations to come with him. He lurched out of the office without another word or backward glance.

I thought about going after him. I went back to work, instead.

It was on my own lunch break when I finally noticed that something was really off. I left my building attached to my cell phone– Laura hadn’t answered my message about lunch, and I was leaving her a message to let her know where I was going in case she wanted to meet up.

I was already on the sidewalk outside when I looked around and took in how quiet it was. Aside from one or two lonely cars, there was nobody driving downtown. It was never as busy on the grid streets in the afternoon as it was on the highways in the morning, but I can’t remember ever seeing downtown that slow.

Though the occasional driver trundled sluggishly past, nobody at all was walking on the usually crowded sidewalks. I made my way towards my favorite Thai restaurant, a little confused. Was my lunch hour really that late? I checked my watch, and as I did I noticed the smell for the first time. Not the usual mélange of piss and dumpsters that graced the urban concrete, but something else that I couldn’t place. Acrid and smoky, but something of the synthetic, too. Electric. Unnatural, somehow. Like rotting plastic, or a hospital fire. Not too strong, but just enough to make me wonder what it was and where it was coming from.

I started walking a little faster, without really meaning to.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Book Review: The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

This book is tailor-made for people who love to read. Strictly from a story perspective, The Thirteenth Tale tends to take itself a little too seriously at times, with the author's writing occasionally veering into the territory of pretentiousness. But despite the overblown moments that someone with an eye for criticism could take issue with, I savored every moment of this book.

The book establishes itself in the tradition of a gothic mystery, and a very obvious homage to Regency tales. Vida Winter, England's most celebrated novelist, has spent her life eluding those who want her life story. Each interview results in another tall tale. As she approaches the end of her life, though, she contacts Margaret Lea, a seller of rare books who has a marked preference for old tomes to actual people. Vida promises to tell her real story, if Margaret will faithfully record it. But as Margaret begins to transcribe Vida's tale of dark family secrets, fey twin girls, and a declining, haunted estate, deeper mysteries begin to appear. Not only does Vida's lost and elusive Thirteenth Tale start to emerge, but Margaret delves deeper into her own tragic history, as well.

Setterfield's writing is decadent. The prose is deliciously purple; the narrative frequently invites the reader to get lost inside descriptive passages with rich metaphors and evocative language. Mood is king, here. I immediately saw each setting as it was described, and felt each turn of melancholy as the characters did.

Speaking of the characters, those that inhabit the immediate story are somewhat pale and bland in comparison to the characters that sweep through Vida Winter's recollections. Though a number of small mysteries pop up throughout the book, all of the real suspense lies in how the strange, wild residents of Angelfield connect to the present. This mystery is drawn out just the right amount, and resolved in just the right fashion. The pace gets odd and jerky in places, but I was willing to forgive because I was lost in the haze of storytelling that Vida Winter insists upon.

It must be said that Setterfield herself doesn't quite live up to the mythology of her character, Vida Winter. Vida is set up as a literary wizard, which is a dangerous thing to do, because it feeds a certain set of expectations. When Setterfield harps upon a tired "twins are one person" motif or has her rich descriptive language fail her at key dramatic moments, as occasionally happens in this book, it makes me disbelieve Vida. And, thus, disbelieve the ponderous seriousness of this whole book.

But for me, that was a trivial and occasional problem. This hit all of the right notes for me. It was a Gothic mystery that was subdued and cerebral without being boring. A character study that didn't want for action or suspense. A Regency tale without all of the stilted bullcrap that Regency fans seem to love so much. I can see why some might be turned off by the melodrama of this whole affair, but surprisingly, I ate it up. This one goes on the favorites shelf.

Verdict: 5 out of 5

Thursday, August 5, 2010

On turning 30 and being stupid.

I’m turning 30 this coming Sunday, and I’m surprisingly cool with that. Granted, my attention is more focused on the impending arrival of a shiny new human to feed and clothe, at the moment. But I’m fairly comfortable with the idea of being an official grownup, and I think it’s because I’ve come to terms with how much I don’t know.

A longtime friend of mine shared this link the other day, and the salient points within unearthed flashbacks of library school. This is usually the exact same jag I go on when somebody makes a flippant joke about needing a Master’s degree to shelve books; my job is not to provide answers, but to figure out what the question is. People generally operate within the confines of that first “educational ideal” pie chart, placing emphasis primarily on what they know and how to add to it. There’s no easy way of addressing information that you don’t know you’re lacking, however, and so I often have to tease out what the real information need is. A question about parenting could really be about child psychology. People who need information on a specific battle of a particular war will often just ask me where the history books are. I remember one person a while back who asked for exercise books, and as it turned out, she needed information on anaphylactic shock. She was following what her own experience told her, and honestly didn’t know where else to look or how else to ask for that information. Most of what a librarian does from day to day consists of asking questions and searching repositories of information to help someone sort out the difference between what they do know they don’t know, and what they don’t know they don’t know.

Of course, there are plenty of days where that sounds like bright-eyed nonsense. Particularly since the time spent on the glorious quest for knowledge is generally overshadowed by countless hours showing people how to use the printer, placing holds on the latest fad novel, and foiling people who concoct elaborate schemes to bypass their fines in order to continue their important work playing solitaire on our computers. But in a general sense, the heart of what I do is discovering the unexpressed information need behind the initial question, because for various reasons, there always is one.

The beneficial side effect of all this is that I appear to know what I’m doing. As that article points out, though, I spend most of my time feeling just about as clueless as the people who are asking me questions. I feel like a fraud sometimes, finding information through the same channels that they could have used, and being thanked effusively for it, as if I had doled out my tidbits of wisdom from on high. Scraps of knowledge from the Elysian table of your public library. Computer wizardry!

Though, I do learn something new every day through my patrons’ questions. So, that’s nice.

Anyway, I’ve become used to the idea that sitting underneath an “Information” sign doesn’t mean I know everything, or even most things, I’m asked about. I think that’s why I’ve taken such a cavalier attitude towards the slow encroachment of middle age. Although my adorable larva will spend eight to twelve years taking my parental omniscience as a given, I feel like I’ve finally been let on to the big secret of adulthood: we still don’t know what we’re doing. Probably never will. And it’s cool, man, it’s cool.

But it helps that I share the general opinion expressed in that article. I love discovering more about what I don’t know. It always ensures that I have another book to read, or another hobby at which I can be a fumbling beginner. That feels to me like the true hallmark of wisdom, rather than amassing a collection of facts (so wipe that smug smile off your goddamned face, Ken Jennings). It’s a hard sell for most people though, because acknowledging the vast ocean of stuff we don’t know makes us feel stupid. And if public service has taught me anything, it’s that people don’t like feeling stupid. The more stupid someone feels, the more likely they are to insist that the stupidity lies elsewhere. Seriously. The only people who ever get in my face at work are the ones who realize that I have caught on to, and am wholly unimpressed by, some ridiculous effort of theirs to work the system. But, you know, I’m the stupid one. For having those stupid rules they got caught breaking in the first place.

That’s an extreme example, but really, I see it all the time. People who need information and realize that they don’t really know what they’re looking for or how to find it come in two varieties. The first group is friendly, chatty, and is actually having fun trying to puzzle out what it is they need. The second group is visibly embarrassed, irritated at the library because this stupid building doesn’t have what they’re looking for on a dais at the entrance, and impatient with my dumb questions, because how are they supposed to know what they need? Isn’t that what I’m there for? Blargarabble taxes pay your salary blargh!

It’s taken me nearly 30 years to move from the second group into the first group. I’ve always placed so much importance on knowledge that I spent my formative years feeling inadequate if I didn’t have enough of it. Which, in turn, has led to all sorts of interesting scenarios that I kind of wish never happened. But I’m good, now. I’ve adjusted my pie chart, just in time for the gray hairs to start appearing.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Book Review: The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith

All right, I admit it. I cheated with this one. This was the July selection for a Mystery Book Club that I head up, and we started our discussion of it by watching the first hour of the HBO televised version to compare. Naturally, in a respectful homage to my high school days, I forwent the written word in favor of passively soaking in the delicious cable goodness. I liked it enough to feel guilty for my transgression, and picked up the book afterward, but I think I’ve fallen prey to that time-tested warning against straying into bibliophile heresy: I saw the filmed version first, and I liked that version much better.

This book, the first in a fairly sprawling cozy mystery series, doesn’t seem to operate on a fixed, linear plot. Each chapter is its own self-contained story, with the only connection between each being a simple (and sometimes tenuous) chronological one. Precious Ramotswe sets herself up as the first and only woman detective in Botswana, defying traditional expectations after escaping an abusive marriage and mourning the death of her beloved father. A few chapters give some backstory, but the book largely lives in the present; she rents a building, hires a secretary, and begins solving the day-to-day mysteries of her friends and neighbors. There is one overarching plot thread revolving around a missing boy and a possible murder, but it can only be called a plot thread in that it’s introduced in the beginning, referred to a couple of times in the middle, and resolved (rather abruptly) at the end. While I’ve read and enjoyed other collections of vignettes that weave around a central story, this one never felt like it connected those loose ends; Precious gets established, cracks a few cases, and calls it a day.

Which is not to say that it isn’t an enjoyable read, if you’re looking for a short, light, tongue-in-cheek sort of mystery. I think the pull of this book (or any cozy, for that matter) is in its calm, affirming nature. For the most part, Precious doesn’t tackle anything dangerous or unusual. She is asked to discover relationship statuses, and help fellow business owners find proof of fraud. Her appeal as a heroine lies largely in her homespun approach to solving mysteries, which is a combination of feminine wiles, lifelong curiosity, and studious attention to an encyclopedia for amateur sleuths. The overall tone of the book places the thrill of the chase firmly in the backseat, and focuses more on the virtues of helping one’s community, finding validation in one's own skin, and simply caring and doing what one can. But I’ve never been too big on these sorts of literary homilies; the “oh, silly men” and “fat girls rule” themes have their audience, but didn’t really hook me for obvious reasons. This, combined with the lack of any central story, made the whole read more than a little boring. Again, though, most cozy mysteries are pleasantly boring. Which is why I don’t usually read them.

But there is a treasure trove of fun accent notes here, which the filmed version that I shamefully watched first and enjoyed more pulled out and focused on. The characters themselves are wonderfully fleshed out, and the novelty of an amateur detective agency in Botswana remains consistently interesting. Even though the mysteries themselves border on dullness, they resonate with verisimilitude, and are quick and sweet like the confections they are meant to be. While I was less than moved by the book on the whole, I can definitely understand why people like it.

Verdict: 2.5 out of 5

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Smelling the Flowers.

Here is a bit of Aikido-related writing I did a few months back, which was just published in our dojo newsletter.


There is a certain milestone that everyone reaches when they are Aikido beginners, where all of the basics of ukemi, stance, attacks, and blends begin to become second nature, and a wider sense of what is possible in the art first presents itself. For me, this happened about six months or so after I first started training. I don’t remember what exact technique I was working on, but I remember having a sudden flash of insight: if I moved that way instead of this way, I could have done a different technique. And if uke punched instead of grabbed, I miraculously had yet another technique waiting in the wings.

This is a fantastic place to reach in Aikido, especially for the first time. However, for me, it was also fraught with anxiety; instead of the rote 1-2-3 sequences I had entered into an uneasy alliance with, I was now aware (on a very basic level) of a more complicated algebra. With this new knowledge came my usual self-defeating tendency to over-analyze, and suddenly my Aikido became a lot more difficult. Pleasantly difficult, but still difficult. In order to proceed from there, I added a new tool to my toolbox.

Before every class, I use my time sitting in seiza before bowing in to meditate and clear my mind of the various irritations and tensions that have accumulated throughout the day. Though I’m not particularly a Zen adherent, I find that stepping onto the mat with a mind as serene as I can make it allows me to train harder and better. One of the things I started doing in order to get myself into a calm state of mind was to stare at the flowers arranged on the shomen, and attempt to smell them. I would concentrate on the color and texture of each flower until their aroma seemingly wafted into my nose; if I didn’t know what a particular flower smelled like, my brain would fill in the gap with a floral scent I did know. This exercise not only calmed me, but made me feel as if I were stretching my awareness across the dojo, preparing me to do the same as I trained.

As I progressed from an absolute beginner to a slightly more experienced beginner, I used this trick to help codify the blossoming variety of techniques that were imprinting themselves into my muscle memory. To avoid waiting for an attack and trying to think of a way to respond, I began considering how I “smelled” the flowers each night. Of course, I couldn’t really smell the flowers from where I sat, but I could approximate it by that combination of reaching my awareness out as far as it could go and letting my instinct take over. Similarly, I could not predict exactly how my partner would attack, but by remaining hyper-aware and operating from what my body already knew, I could effectively predict how I should react.

As it turned out, though, translating my flower-sniffing to the mat is a little more complicated than I initially thought. The problem lies in expectation. I have preconceived notions of what certain flowers smell like, and my own interpretations of what the aroma of an unknown flower could be. Thus, this exercise became fantastic for honing my awareness, but perhaps a little detrimental to developing my instinct.

When training, we are often warned against "working from a script”: engaging with the expectation of a certain, fixed outcome. By increasingly attempting to predict what would come next, this is the exact trap I began to fall into. As my toolkit grew, I naturally gravitated towards certain movements and techniques that felt more natural to me. As a result, I too often found myself hoping for specific resolutions to each engagement: this movement should ideally resolve as that attack, and that attack should ideally be answered with this technique, etc. The key word in that last sentence is “ideally.” Most situations are not ideal, which is why we place such a high importance on blending. Asking for specific attacks and forcing a specific technique are very important tools for learning the basics of that technique, but they increasingly got me in trouble during more intense, freeform practice. After all, just because I want the flower to smell like jasmine doesn’t mean it actually does.

Therefore, I’ve lately added a little twist to my meditation. I still breathe deeply to calm myself before class, but as I regard the flowers on the shomen, I attempt to perceive their aroma as something it should never be. Fresh paint, for instance, or a hot pizza. That way, I can mentally prepare myself for accepting and blending with the unexpected. My natural reaction of “there’s no way that flower could smell like a pizza, and if it did, that would be strange and disgusting!” gives way to “sure, a pizzaflower. Why not?” By immersing my mind with this sort of openness and aversion to prejudice, I find myself much more capable of dealing with unanticipated situations during training, be it a surprise attack, a technique that must change midway through, or even avoiding injury from wayward ukemi.

Every now and again, though, I go back to simply trying to smell the flowers. Thinking too hard, after all, is still one of my greatest weaknesses, and sometimes I have to remind myself that it is simply enough to relax, take a few deep breaths, and be as aware as I can.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

How Not to Be a Good Librarian.

Gail Sweet, Library Director for the Burlington County Library System, has decided that she is the sole source of moral sanity in a gay rainstorm (a gaynstorm, if you will) of depravity. Or, at the very least, displayed her appalling lack of backbone in the face of criticism.

According to School Library Journal, Sweet has removed an anthology of LGBT teen essays from her library shelves, with the only official reason being her opinion that it is “child pornography.” Apparently, there was no formal complaint from a library patron about the book. Instead, this library director took this course of action after receiving a crotchety email from an elderly member of Glenn Beck’s “9.12” nutbags. Who, incidentally, have targeted this book at other libraries before.

Naturally, people are free to be offended by whatever they choose. I choose to be deeply offended that Gail Sweet is working in the information profession at all, never mind in a director’s position, when she is so cavalier with the core ideals of the library profession. I’m almost as offended that a fellow librarian would tarnish my Scotty-like image as a magical fact-finding wizard by offering such flawed reasoning for her unilateral decision. Child pornography? Really? Well, I found the Go Ask Alice Book of Answers in the Burlington catalog. Is that going away, too? How about the myriad teen fiction books that portray sexual awakenings among heterosexual teens; are those also breaking child porn laws? Is the director going to send cryptic emails about removing adult mysteries and thrillers that reference or depict illegal sexual behavior?

Now, if the community that the library serves demanded that the book be removed, and it was clear that nobody in the community was reading it or checking it out, that would be one thing. If the removal was the result of a formal review process overseen by more people than the director, her deputy, and a shit-stirring book-burner, that would be another thing. But the way this was handled not only betrays what librarians are supposed to be about, but encourages the ravings of like-minded lunatics who besiege libraries every day with attempts to control what everybody reads. Or, even worse, encourages similar, heretofore restrained lunatics who work in libraries and already have responsibility for shepherding information.

I mean, if I had my way, I’d take all of Glenn Beck’s insipid books off of my shelves, cut the pages into little pieces, rearrange the words into gay erotic haiku, and slip them back into the covers for kicks. Instead, I happily direct patrons who ask for them to where they sit, sliming up my political shelves. You know, because of that pesky code of ethics that reassures library patrons that I won’t inject my personal opinion into their information search.

And it’s certainly not as if the idea of somebody panicking about “THE CHILDRENZ!!1!” learning about sex is a new one. It’s pretty common knowledge that sex raises more hackles than violence among the ignorant and self-righteous. Just ask Fox News’s Diedre Behar, who is shocked, SHOCKED I TELL YOU, that a teenaged actress admitted to masturbating. Rantings about the “perversion” of allowing gay youth to read something that reassures them and teaches them about themselves should not be news to anyone who works in libraries. If we torched every book that someone decided other people shouldn’t read, we wouldn’t have any books on our shelves worth reading.

Librarians are not supposed to display this kind of hypocrisy. Library directors are certainly not supposed to display this kind of hypocrisy. We’re supposed to fight for the free dissemination of information, and encourage people to read things that strangers tell them they shouldn’t. Come on, Gail, we just got some indie cred from NPR; don’t fuck this up for us.