22 April 2014

The Trip to Echo Spring

Summary from Goodreads:
Why is it that some of the greatest works of literature have been produced by writers in the grip of alcoholism, an addiction that cost them personal happiness and caused harm to those who loved them? In The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Laing examines the link between creativity and alcohol through the work and lives of six extraordinary men: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever and Raymond Carver.

All six of these writers were alcoholics, and the subject of drinking surfaces in some of their finest work, from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to A Moveable Feast. Often they did their drinking together - Hemingway and Fitzgerald ricocheting through the caf├ęs of 1920s Paris; Carver and Cheever speeding to the liquor store in Iowa in the icy winter of 1973.

Olivia Laing grew up in an alcoholic family herself. One spring, wanting to make sense of this ferocious, entangling disease, she took a journey across America that plunged her into the heart of these overlapping lives. As she travels from Cheever's New York to Williams' New Orleans, from Hemingway's Key West to Carver's Port Angeles, she pieces together a topographical map of alcoholism, from the horrors of addiction to the miraculous possibilities of recovery. Beautiful, captivating and original, The Trip to Echo Spring strips away the myth of the alcoholic writer to reveal the terrible price creativity can exert.

On the very first page of The Trip to Echo Spring John Cheever and Raymond Carver are rolling up to a liquor store in Iowa City at 9am to get lit before they teach that day.  Welcome to the University of Iowa - we have always been good at writing and drinking.  *clinks glass*  But in all seriousness, Laing has started her book this way to highlight how very far down into the addiction-hole these two very talented writers had got themselves.  Which was very far.  All six of the writers she focused on - F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver - seemed to inhabit alcohol addictions as bad as their writing was great.  Why is that?  And why was it so hard for them to maintain any sort of sobriety?

This is a very interesting and readable set of linked essays (well, we keep it in the essays section at the store but it veers between memoir, biography, lit studies, and essay over the course of Laing's trip from New York to New Orleans to Key West to Port Angeles, WA, via Chicago - mostly on a train) musing over the relationship between six writers and their relationships with alcoholism. Laing presents details of the authors' drunken exploits almost clinically; there are no excuses made for the broken families and friendships caused by the bottle.  Since I was less familiar with the authors' specific biographies Laing was presenting me with a lot of new information.  The many collective attempts at sobriety by the men, with only Carver and Cheever attaining any lasting sobriety, are chilling in how deeply entrenched the addictive mechanism remains in the brain and body.

But what holds the book back, in my opinion, is that Laing concentrates solely on six men. Granted, she says alcoholic women writers hit far too close to a personal issue but I think it would have been good to pull in one or two women for contrast. Or perhaps a writer of a different race.  Or perhaps not American? On the personal side, her own connection with an alcoholic family member sometimes provides contrast but is also very vague next to the detailed movements of Fitzgerald and especially Williams, who seemed to be a favorite.

21 April 2014

On Reading 'The Grapes of Wrath'

Summary from Goodreads:
One of today’s foremost Steinbeck scholars writes an extended meditation on the influence of The Grapes of Wrath, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of its first publication

In this compelling biography of a book, Susan Shillinglaw delves into John Steinbeck’s classic to explore the cultural, social, political, scientific, and creative impact of The Grapes of Wrath upon first publication, as well as its enduring legacy. First published in April 1939, Steinbeck’s National Book Award–winning epic of the Great Depression chronicles the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads, driven from their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. The story of their struggle remains eerily relevant in today’s America and stands as a portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, “in the souls of the people.”

I've been meaning to re-read Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath for a while now (sophomore American Lit teacher did a fair job at making this one of the least enjoyable novels ever) and while I have started on it, I'm still only on chapter 5.  Fail.  When Susan Shillinglaw's slim companion On Reading 'The Grapes of Wrath' caught my eye I thought that might be good to help me over my Steinbeck reading hump.  


Shillinglaw provides a  very good overview of the writing and publication history of The Grapes of Wrath as well as some basic literary analysis (i.e. the five layers that make up the plot) without hitting you over the head with symbolism.  She also pulls in example from a few of Steinbeck's other work, particularly Sea of Cortez which isn't a novel (I didn't know that).  If you're working on a re-read of TGoW, like me, this is a really good companion but it's also just a nice book to read on the 75th anniversary of TGoW's publication.

17 April 2014

Classic Nasty: More Naughty Bits: A Rollicking Guide to Hot Sex in Great Books, from the Iliad to the Corrections

Summary from Goodreads:
Jack Murnighan, former editor in chief of the erotica website Nerve.com, is back with a new collection of the steamiest sex scenes from the greatest books of all time. Here is the literary sex-education readers have always lusted for, with over 80 excerpts by authors ranging from Homer to James Baldwin, Kierkegaard to Judy Blume, Scheherazade to Franzen. Who knew there was so much bumping and grinding in Goethe? How about Dali's fascination with masturbation? Ever curious about what made James Joyce purr? Murnighan supplements each bite-sized excerpt with a lively, insightful introduction that will help readers see the world's great books as they've never seen them before.

It took me a bit but I finally tracked down a copy of the next Naughty Bits collection from Jack Murnighan's Nerve.com column (it's no longer available to order through usual channels, had to resort to a used search).

No surprises here, since it's basically volume two, and I enjoyed the range of literature Murnighan included.  The Native American Trickster myth.  St. Augustine's plea that he be made continent...but not yet.  Restoration poetry.  Pushkin.  A Confederacy of Dunces (ok, not that enjoyable for me since I really don't get why people go gaga over that book).  John Fowles.  Peter Abelard (yes, that Abelard).  Tess of the D'Urbervilles.  Rita Mae Brown.  Lots of room for many different tastes among Murnighan's columns.

And, yes, I found more things for the TBR list.

08 April 2014

The Word Exchange

Summary from Goodreads:
In the not so distant future, the forecasted "death of print" has become a reality. Bookstores, libraries, newspapers and magazines are a thing of the past, as we spend our time glued to handheld devices called Memes that not only keep us in constant communication, but have become so intuitive as to hail us cabs before we leave our offices, order take out at the first growl of a hungry stomach, and even create and sell language itself in a marketplace called The Word Exchange.

Anana Johnson works with her father Doug at the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL), where Doug is hard at work on the final edition that will ever be printed. Doug is a staunchly anti-Meme, anti-tech intellectual who fondly remembers the days when people used email (everything now is text or video-conference) to communicate--or even actually spoke to one another for that matter. One evening, Doug disappears from the NADEL offices leaving a single written clue: ALICE. It's a code word he and Anana devised to signal if one of them ever fell into harm's way. And thus begins Anana's journey down the proverbial rabbit hole. . .

Joined by Bart, her bookish NADEL colleague (who is secretly in love with her), Anana's search for Doug will take her into dark basement incinerator rooms, underground passages of the Mercantile Library, secret meetings of the anonymous "Diachronic Society," the boardrooms of the evil online retailing site Synchronic, and ultimately to the hallowed halls of the Oxford English Dictionary--the spiritual home of the written word. As Ana pieces together what is going on, and Bart gets sicker and sicker with the strange "Word flu" that has spread worldwide causing people to speak in gibberish, Alena Graedon crafts a fresh, cautionary tale that is at once a technological thriller, and a thoughtful meditation on the price of technology and the unforeseen, though very real, dangers of the digital age.

Continuing in the bio-tech thriller reading-vein of Karen Russell's novella Sleep Donation I lucked into a DRC of Alena Graedon's debut novel The Word Exchange.  In this setting, an influenza-like-illness that causes aphasia spreads among the population, released under suspicious circumstances.  A very interesting idea.  I really like speculative fiction that plays just at the edge of our own reality so of course I downloaded it to the Bluefire app to read on vacation.

It's easy to see the crosswalk from our smartphone-and-wearable-tech-coveting society to the one in The Word Exchange where hand-held Memes - enchanting little silver boxes - detect brainwaves to anticipate users' needs for almost everything from meals to entertainment.  As users become more reliant on the technology, the easier it becomes to hijack that technology.  Hence, the "Word Exchange" - if you can't remember the meaning of a word, your Meme will supply it for you (for a fee, of course)...but what if it begins to substitute garbage definitions and made-up words?  Ideally, a paper dictionary would be the "gold standard" but the NADEL Ana and her father have been working on is the final edition.  When Doug disappears, Ana finds a secret basement room where copies of the dictionary are being incinerated.  Ana and Doug tell their story in alternating chapters; Ana's sections are footnoted autobiography, Bart's are a real-time journal, and they are racing to beat a deadly game.

It is a game full of secrets and lies, too, where no character is completely truthful with any other making them all complicit in the unfolding disaster.  At times Ana is bold and intrepid, other times you want to shake her for being such an idiot.  Bart makes the stupidest decision in the entire novel, then in his next chapter becomes the knight in shining armor.  Ana's ex-boyfriend Max is a dickish dude-bro for most of the novel then is revealed to have ulterior motives.  I wanted to kick Ana's father, Doug, repeatedly in the balls and very hard - his character is the hardest to like.  In short, all the flip-flopping the characters do makes them very annoying and very realistic.  Real people make hella stupid decisions and Graedon's characters follow suit.

A caution, for those who read very fast like me and will certainly want to read this novel: you will need to slow down.  As the "word flu" spreads among characters it is reflected in both their speech and the writing.  You can infer the intended meaning from the nonsensical words but you have to be watching for it.  I kept having to back up and re-read, which got really annoying, so I eventually had to slow down considerably and read almost word-to-word, particularly near the end of Bart's journals.

The Word Exchange was a great novel to read on vacation.  I was sort-of unplugged anyway (hey, when you spend six hours in the National Gallery of Art and don't check your phone even once - because you turned it off - that is a hugely significant change over my usual rate of checking) and it afforded me some time to consider how much I rely on my iPhone throughout the day.  I don't use it to look up every, single thing - I do math in my head and don't often need a dictionary - but I could see how neatly a service that just anticipated what I needed could slot into my life.  I am tired, ooo, coffee maker has started brewing.  I need to relax, the stereo pops on with my meditation track.  Look at how much information people entrust to the vast "cloud" now - a bit frightening to think about, particularly with all the security loopholes that keep cropping up.  While The Word Exchange does serve as a (fictional) cautionary tale about dependence on technology I don't think it bashes you over the head with it.  It's just food for thought and very worth reading, trust me.

Dear FTC: I was pre-approved for a DRC of this novel by the publisher via NetGalley.

05 April 2014

A Burnable Book

Summary from Goodreads:
In Chaucer’s London, betrayal, murder and intrigue swirl around the existence of a prophetic book that foretells the deaths of England’s kings. A Burnable Book is an irresistible thriller, reminiscent of classics like An Instance of the Fingerpost, The Name of the Rose and The Crimson Petal and the White.

London, 1385. Surrounded by ruthless courtiers—including his powerful uncle, John of Gaunt, and Gaunt’s flamboyant mistress, Katherine Swynford—England’s young, still untested king, Richard II, is in mortal peril, and the danger is only beginning. Songs are heard across London—catchy verses said to originate from an ancient book that prophesies the end of England’s kings—and among the book’s predictions is Richard’s assassination. Only a few powerful men know that the cryptic lines derive from a “burnable book,” a seditious work that threatens the stability of the realm. To find the manuscript, wily bureaucrat Geoffrey Chaucer turns to fellow poet John Gower, a professional trader in information with connections high and low.

Gower discovers that the book and incriminating evidence about its author have fallen into the unwitting hands of innocents, who will be drawn into a labyrinthine conspiracy that reaches from the king’s court to London’s slums and stews--and potentially implicates his own son. As the intrigue deepens, it becomes clear that Gower, a man with secrets of his own, may be the last hope to save a king from a terrible fate.

Medieval scholar Bruce Holsinger draws on his vast knowledge of the period to add colorful, authentic detail—on everything from poetry and bookbinding to court intrigues and brothels—to this highly entertaining and brilliantly constructed epic literary mystery that brings medieval England gloriously to life.

Ok, so last time I fell for a pitch that likened a book to previous books I loved - Dangerous Liaisons, Perfume, and The Crimson Petal and the White - I was let down when I expected some drrty, drrty moral quandaries (The Skull and the Nightingale).  So I was initially hesitant when pitched A Burnable Book...but then I noticed the author was a medieval scholar so at minimum there should be some good historical research.

And there is.  Holsinger spins a fraught, complicated tale that stretches from Italy to England set in a time period where even speculating about the death of the monarch earns one a visit with the headsman.  The plot is set in motion by an unlikely character - a maudlyn (streetwalker) - who witnesses the interrogation and murder of an unknown young woman whose last defiant act is to chant a strange verse.  The verse seems to be connected to the book and fine cloth that are now in the maudlyn's keeping and that many people are looking for.  We jump then to poet John Gower, a poet I'm not terribly familiar with, who is set on the trail of a treasonous book by none other than Geoffrey Chaucer; Gower is a specialist in leveraging information, shall we say, making him uniquely suited to this task.

And so back and forth, from the gutters and stews of Southwark to the court at Windsor, the plot twists and turns, jumping from third person narrative with the maudlyns to first person narration with Gower.  Holsinger has filled the book with real historical characters, including the crafty Katherine Swynford, mistress and eventual third wife of John of Gaunt, and a fabulous creation: the "swyving" prostitute Edgar/Eleanor, who changes identities based on client and situation at hand.  The historical details are well-placed throughout the book so it doesn't bog down in exposition, description, or hard-to-decipher language (a hard balance to strike between "historically accurate" and "readability by the general public").

Where Holsinger stumbles, though, is in the sheer number of threads and characters he juggles throughout the book.  The beginning feels a bit jumbled during the many chapters to introduce the principal characters but once that's over the pace picks up.  It read marvellously well until it came time for the "reveal" - unfortunately, the big secret was repeated so often that the section felt too recapitulated when combined with the "letter" sections interleaved throughout the book.  This possibly was due to having too many significant characters and plot ends to tie up, but the basic idea was very good.

A good first effort from Holsinger.  According to Goodreads, A Burnable Book is "John Gower #1" in a series so if that's true I'm interested!

Dear FTC: I received an ARC of this book for review from the publisher.

03 April 2014

The Haunted Bookshop

Summary from Goodreads:
Volumes disappear and reappear on the shelves, but the ghosts of literature aren’t the only mysterious visitors in Roger Mifflin’s haunted bookshop.

Mifflin, who hawked books out of the back of his van in Christopher Morley’s beloved Parnassus on Wheels, has finally settled down with his own secondhand bookstore in Brooklyn. There, he and his wife, Helen, are content to live and work together, prescribing literature to those who hardly know how much they need it. When Aubrey Gilbert, a young advertising man, visits the shop, he quickly falls under the spell of Mifflin’s young assistant, Titania. But something is amiss in the bookshop, something Mifflin is too distracted to notice, and Gilbert has no choice but to take the young woman’s safety into his own hands. Her life—and the Mifflins’—may depend on it.

With a deep respect for the art of bookselling, and as much flair for drama as romance, Christopher Morley has crafted a lively, humorous tale for book lovers everywhere.

Finally catching up with the Mifflins now that they've settled in Brooklyn with Roger's bookshop.  The Haunted Bookshop is the "Parnassus at Home" and is (metaphorically) haunted by the ghosts of authors and books.  A strange idea to the young ad-man, Aubrey Gilbert, who stops by the shop looking to sell an advertising account.  He strikes up a friendship with Roger Mifflin and begins returning to the bookshop, particularly when a disappearing-reappearing-advertised as lost copy of Cromwell's Letters and Speeches raises his suspicions.  Aubrey further decides to keep an eye on the shop once he meets Roger's new clerk, Miss Titania Chapman (daughter of a businessman with an enormous advertising account at Aubrey's firm), and is smitten.

Through misguided attempts at safety, ill-advised house-breaking, and a terrorist sub-plot worthy of the television show 24, Roger Mifflin's love of books shines through.  From Morley's charming introduction to Roger's assertion that each book sold is an advertisement for the shop to the Corn Cob Club's ruminations to the entirety of Chapter IX (where Roger writes a long, winding letter to his brother-in-law about words and reading), The Haunted Bookshop is a lovely short novel for booklovers everywhere.  Even as our book formats change, the love of words remains.

Dear FTC: I purchased my copy through Melville House's Art of the Novella subscription.

01 April 2014

The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science

Summary from Goodreads:
In this exuberant book, the best-selling author Natalie Angier distills the scientific canon to the absolute essentials, delivering an entertaining and inspiring one-stop science education. Angier interviewed a host of scientists, posing the simple question "What do you wish everyone knew about your field?" The Canon provides their answers, taking readers on a joyride through the fascinating fundamentals of the incredible world around us and revealing how they are relevant to us every day. Angier proves a rabble-rousing, wisecracking, deeply committed tour guide in her irresistible exploration of the scientific process and the basic concepts of physics, chemistry, evolutionary biology, cellular and molecular biology, geology, and astronomy. Even science-phobes will find her passion infectious as she strives "to make the invisible visible, the distant neighborly, the ineffable, affable."

At its most basic, Natalie Angier's The Canon is a nice book that overviews all the cool things about physics, chemistry, geology, biology, astronomy, etc. It's not really a book for me - someone who already likes science and majored in hard sciences - but I thought the breadth of information was nice.

However, the breezy, chirpy, odd-obscure-vocabulary-and-literary-reference stuffed writing style was really distracting. I consider myself to have a very wide-ranging vocabulary but I was making considerable use of the Oyster dictionary then out to the web to look up words but even Google started drawing a blank. Surl? Proptosically? For a book about how fun and not-hard science is the style made it seem artificially dense.

Give The Canon a shot if you aren't terribly familiar with the science realm, but skip if you have already have an in-depth knowledge.

Dear FTC: I read this via my Oyster subscription.

28 March 2014

The Marquise of O- and Other Stories (Penguin Classics)

Summary from Goodreads:

From 'The Marquis of O--', in which a woman is made pregnant without her knowledge, to the vivid and inexplicable suffering portrayed in 'The Earthquake in Chile', his stories are those of a man swimming against the tide of the German Enlightenment, unable to believe in the idealistic humanism of his day, and who sees human nature as irrational, ambiguous and baffling. It is this loss of faith, together with his vulnerability and disequilibrium, his pronounced sense of evil, his desperate challenge to established values and beliefs, that carries Kleist more forcefully than Goethe or Schiller across the gap between the eighteenth century and today.

Francine Prose put me onto Heinrich von Kleist's The Marquise of O- after I read her book Reading Like a Writer.  She recommended him for his sentences and the construction of his plot.  I was also intrigued how her students got into the story of the titular Marquise.  And then there is the story of von Kleist himself, a man who very likely had serious mental health issues (undiagnosed in early 19th century Germany) and died in a murder-suicide pact with a terminally ill young woman.

OK, I'll bite.

In spite of an almost three-year gap - I read "The Marquise of O-" and "The Duel" then the cats managed to shove the book behind the nightstand - I finished this collection of von Kleist's weird, dense, and occasionally supernatural stories of injustice.  Obviously, the Marquise's story is going to have a lot of triggers for some people with it's themes of rape, questionable incest, and the improbably happy ending (it works as a story, trust me, but then also raises the question of how many women throughout history have found themselves in such a position....chilling).  Likewise, "The Duel", "The Earthquake in Chile", and "The Betrothal in Santo Domingo" all deal with the supposed chastity or lack thereof of young women; one story ends happily (one of the few stories in this volume with an "up" ending), the other two do not.  "The Beggar Woman of Locarno" is a short-short piece centered on a persistent phantasm.  "St Cecilia or the Power of Music" invokes the supernatural in the form a saint's protection of her cathedral by striking down trouble-making Protestants.  The longest piece in the book, "Michael Kohlhaas", is the novella-length story of a horse-dealer's long, treacherous, and tragic search for justice against a corrupt system.  Very moving.

Definitely a collection of stories to read alongside von Kleist's contemporaries Goethe and Hoffman.

Dear FTC: I purchased my copy of this book.

27 March 2014

Amazing X-men #1-5

I don't read a whole lot of comics, just something I never got into, but on Preeti's recommendation I tried the new run of Amazing X-men by Jason Aaron and Ed McGuinness.

And, you guys, it's so good!

So, Nightcrawler died in a previous storyline (Messiah Complex? I haven't read it) and Amazing X-men opens on him in heaven and then his father Azazel shows up with all his red BAMFs and starts a battle.  Meanwhile, at the Xavier-now-Jean Grey School household appliances have gone missing.  A group of X-men led by Hank McCoy investigates and they find that blue BAMFs have built some weird machine in the basement.  When the machine is activated is sucks some of the X-men into Heaven and some into Hell and that's when THINGS GET REALLY CRAZY.

It's so, so, so good.  I laughed a lot and loved all the silly jokes.  I'd forgotten how funny X-men comics were.  Case in point: someone's talking about BAMFs and how all they say is "BAMF" and occasionally "Whiskey" and then one of the BAMFs in the frame just goes "Whiskey?"  LOLOL.  Also, there's a beautiful flashback sequence with Nightcrawler and Storm.  Love.  Definite recommend and I'll be continuing with this series beyond the initial story arc because it has a wonderful set-up.

I read this series on my Comixology app, which is really nice.  If you've been hesitant about getting into comics/don't know which ones to read/don't have a comicbook shop around this is a good option.  Easy (too easy) to browse and download and the colors look amazing on my iPad.

25 March 2014

Sleep Donation

Summary from Goodreads:
From the author of the New York Times bestseller Swamplandia!, and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, an imaginative and haunting novella about an insomnia epidemic set in the near future.

A crisis has swept America. Hundreds of thousands have lost the ability to sleep. Enter the Slumber Corps, an organization that urges healthy dreamers to donate sleep to an insomniac. Under the wealthy and enigmatic Storch brothers the Corps' reach has grown, with outposts in every major US city. Trish Edgewater, whose sister Dori was one of the first victims of the lethal insomnia, has spent the past seven years recruiting for the Corps. But Trish’s faith in the organization and in her own motives begins to falter when she is confronted by “Baby A,” the first universal sleep donor, and the mysterious "Donor Y."

Sleep Donation explores a world facing the end of sleep as we know it, where “Night Worlds” offer black market remedies to the desperate and sleep deprived, and where even the act of making a gift is not as simple as it appears.

I keep meaning to read Karen Russell.  Off-kilter short stories?  Yes, please.  But something always gets in the way.  So I jumped at the chance to request at DRC of her new digital-only novella, Sleep Donation, which is the first offering from the new Atavist Books division of The Atavist.

In the near-future United States, insomnia has become epidemic.  Trish works as a recruiter for the non-profit organization Slumber Corps - she works to recruit good sleepers to donate sleep, particularly young children who have sleep that is considered to have fewer impurities.  Her biggest find has been Baby A, an infant with sleep so pure that she is a Universal Sleep Donor, one of the only ones.  What makes Trish so effective as a recruiter is that her sister Dori was one of the first fatalities of the insomnia epidemic - when Trish talks about her sister, she is still able to tap into that well of grief, the idea that even a single hour of good sleep could have saved Dori's life.  The Slumber Corps and other donation networks are like a house of cards and a single, insignificant act brings the entire construction down. 

The most compelling aspect of Sleep Donation is Russell's use of contaigion-ized disordered sleep.  Those of us in the epidemiology/infectious diseases world will recognize the use of prion hypothesis, the theory that infectious proteins are responsible for transmissible bovine spongiform encephalopathy, Creuzfeld-Jakob disease, kuru, and the real-life (but extremely rare) disease fatal familial insomnia.  No joking - the insomnia epidemic is a "what if" situation that seems dangerously possible.  Mixed with this set-up are comparisons to the ethics and issues of the blood and blood products donation/commerce industry (for those who might be interested, Douglas Starr's book Blood: An Epic History of Medicine and Commerce provides an overview of the benefits and pitfalls of the rise of blood banking). 

Russell packs so much into just 120 pages.  Is it ethical for someone to use a personal tragedy for personal gain, no matter how selfless?  And is it healthy to keep that wound fresh for that reason?  What are the responsibilities of a non-profit?  And when does it become necessary to air the dirty laundry?

Sleep Donation is available from the major e-retailers.  It's a great introduction to the Atavist Books line.

Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this title from the publisher via NetGalley.

19 March 2014

Sex Criminals, #1-#5

So one day I'm just browsing through my Tumblr feed when lo, Wil Wheaton posts about a new comic - Sex Criminals - that just got the big "middle finger" from the iTunes store.  It is apparently full of TOO MUCH GRAPHIC SEX and they won't carry it in the iBooks store anymore.  So Wil told everyone to go pick up the first issue free on Comixology (it's still free, bonus) and then, if you liked what you read, subscribe to it because, here's the trick, if you buy it from Comixology directly then it syncs to your iOS app without having to go through the iBooks store.

I'd never tried the Comixology app but I'd heard good things so I decided this was worth giving it a try just for this comic.  Every review I'd come across said that not only was Sex Criminals wickedly funny it was also very sex-positive and well-constructed.

You guys.  YOU GUYS.  Sex Criminals is probably one of the best things I've read this year ("year" meaning 2013 and 2014 since I started the series back in November).  It is wickedly funny and honest and naughty and original.  If you haven't heard the story, the first issue opens with Suzie and John caught in the middle of a bank heist.  Oops.  From there Suzie breaks the fourth wall to tell her story, one that opens with a less-than-ideal childhood.  When Suzie accidentally learns time freezes when she orgasms - something she calls "The Quiet" - she tries to learn why (probably the best three pages of why we fail children occur while Suzie tries to find honest, non-judgmental answers to her questions about sexuality from adults).  Suzie narrates her coming-of-age with a wry wit until she meets John - who has the same miraculous ability that she has....  John takes over the narration in issue two as the past and present storylines gradually merge together until they run head-on in issue five.

Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky hit it out of the park with this series.  It's a Bonnie-and-Clyde meets pre-code Lubitsch sex comedy with a healthy dose of amazing illustration and equal-opportunity sex jokes.  I mean, look at the issue titles: "Suzie Down in the Quiet," "Come, World", "My Sexual Errors and Misfortunes: 2001 - Present," "Sex Police," and "Going Down."  Chip and Matt included batches of reader mail at the end of each issue and they are so honest in their answers that it's worth the subscription alone just for the letters.  The comic feels like a bonus.  The trade volume issue of #1-5 is coming out April 16 and I can't wait to see what little extras and differences are included.

A note about content:
Now, yes, this is a comic intended for adults.  It is adult humor and for that reason isn't supposed to be sold to minors (the last page of each issue has a big disclaimer about that).  That said, there are a great deal of well-drawn and well-thought out situations that could spark some good discussion. A major point I want to make is that there is NO sexual violence - not toward women, not toward homosexuals, not toward minorities, and not toward men (John does get punched in the face by one of the Sex Police but that's not anything to do with sex).  The sex and curiosity about sex depicted in Sex Criminals is presented as healthy and normal.  It's not for children (they wouldn't understand much of the dialogue anyway) but for a high school-aged teen they could probably identify with the weirdness that goes along with figuring out what's "normal" when it comes to learning about your sexuality.  As to the Apple thing, they're just a bunch of hypocrites.  Look at how many Chris Brown and Robin Thicke albums or erotic romance/new adult books or comics that depict overly-busty, scantily-clad women that they sell.  They don't really have a leg to stand on - so I am more than happy to buy through Comixology.

12 March 2014

Longbourn

Summary from Goodreads:
• Pride and Prejudice was only half the story •

If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.

In this irresistibly imagined belowstairs answer to Pride and Prejudice, the servants take center stage. Sarah, the orphaned housemaid, spends her days scrubbing the laundry, polishing the floors, and emptying the chamber pots for the Bennet household. But there is just as much romance, heartbreak, and intrigue downstairs at Longbourn as there is upstairs. When a mysterious new footman arrives, the orderly realm of the servants’ hall threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, upended.

Jo Baker dares to take us beyond the drawing rooms of Jane Austen’s classic—into the often overlooked domain of the stern housekeeper and the starry-eyed kitchen maid, into the gritty daily particulars faced by the lower classes in Regency England during the Napoleonic Wars—and, in doing so, creates a vivid, fascinating, fully realized world that is wholly her own.

The servants are never mentioned in period literature except when absolutely necessary.  They were a bit like the wallpaper - always there but meant to be seen not heard.  Which is why Jo Baker's Longbourn caught my eye - not only a great way to write Pride and Prejudice fiction in a way that hasn't been done before but it also contained a great deal of research about what life was like for the servants of landed gentry.  Our protagonist at the outset is Sarah, one of the maids-of-all-work for the Bennets.  She fetches water for washing and laundry, scrubs the dishes and the furniture, helps with the cooking, and plays ladies' maid as needed to the five Bennet daughters.  She is up well before dawn and does not go to bed until after the family has retired.  Her hands are permanently cracked, dry, and blistered with chilblains.  It is not an easy life but one that comes with solid meals and a roof, and security especially if Mrs. Hill and the staff impress Mr. Collins so that he might keep them on after Mr. Bennet passes.

The plot dovetails with Austen's original in many ways, even to the point of providing Sarah with the choice of two beaus: James, the new footman, and Ptolemy Bingley, a biracial servant with the Bingleys who has entrepreneurial aspirations.  Backstories provided for Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and Mr. and Mrs. Hill create a more tangled set of relationships than Austen would have ever revealed on her bit of ivory.  I think someone not familiar with Pride and Prejudice would enjoy this novel, especially if exploring upstairs-downstairs fiction that has become more popular since Downton Abbey began airing.  I'm probably not the best judge because I own eight copies of P&P and have read it so many times I've lost count. 

Austenesque-plot aside, the whole thing was going swimmingly until two things kicked it out of kilter.  The first was a confrontation between James and Wickham and that fallout (I did enjoy how Baker carries Wickham's behavior to a logical place given his predilections); the second, and more troubling, issue came after the Bingley-Bennet/Darcy-Bennet double wedding.  Lizzie takes Sarah with her as her lady's maid and after some kvetching from Sarah about how she's possibly going soft from less work and worry about [spoiler] she resigns her position to go searching for [spoiler].  I'm not sure the point of all the wandering about for years and extended "epilogue"-ness of those last pages (it extends decades into the future beyond P&P and even, i think, beyond the actual concluding action of Longbourn.  Although it all seemed very much about agency and freedom and free will, I don't know why it had to take so long and it took away from the end of the book.

Ending aside, Longbourn is an excellent addition to the Austen fanfic-rewrite-reimagining genre.  Definitely a great book for fans of Pride and Prejudice as well as those who like good historical research into the everyday nitty-gritty.