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.

05 March 2014

All the Great Operas in Ten Minutes (short)

Back when Bravo and A&E actually had arts programming (in the dark ages of the early 1990s before anyone discovered the ickiness of "reality" television competitions), they would occasionally air short films between the longer programs.  Wicked cool.  I re-found this piece will looking for something else.

It's a Kim Thompson short entitled "All the Great Operas in Ten Minutes".  I love this because a) it's animated using paper art and b) it has a body count.

18 January 2014

An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England

Summary from Goodreads:
The Regency period was one of the most turbulent ages in British history, one that spanned the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, that witnessed unprecedented industrial progress, artistic accomplishment, and violent social unrest and--paradoxically--the most sparkling social scene English high society has ever enjoyed. Under the influence of the obese, loose-moraled Prince of Wales (to whom Jane Austen dedicated Emma), the Regency was the apex of British decadence, an era of lavish parties and relentless bed-hopping that set a standard for elegance and vulgarity. With wit and lively style, Venetia Murray chronicles the scandals, courtships, and daily life of these aristocrats, and evokes the tempestuous times of the early industrial and French revolutions. Sumptuously illustrated with rare contemporary cartoons, prints, diaries, and caricatures, An Elegant Madness is a book readers of social history and historical romance alike will devour.

Well, since I started writing again, I've had some ongoing story ideas. One of these is set in the Regency and I realized that, since I loathe sloppy historical research, I better do some background reading so I at least start out on the right foot.  You'd think I had already done this given my love of Jane Austen and my concentration in Regency historicals when I read romance novels, but I haven't.  I took a bit of a shotgun approach and rounded up a list of titles, starting with Venetia Murray's An Elegant Madness.

This is a nice book.  It covers major parts of the Regency culture - manners, marriages, views on morality, money, inheritance, food, clothing, etc.  The larger-than-life historical figures of the era - led by the very large Prinny himself - are visited in turn.  The Patronesses of Almack's pop up frequently through their many letters and a number of caricatures and engravings are used to illustrate how the masses viewed High Society.

But the book did feel somewhat jumbled.  Chapters sometimes seemed to veer from the subject - a later chapter about country houses moved from house parties, to how children were raised, to the beginning of the Reform movement which was a bit hard to follow.  The annotation could have been better, in my opinion.  Footnotes and endnotes were used for sources but instances of quotes in French were not translated (Google Translate has trouble with idioms) and an entire menu from one of Prinny's fetes, over 100 dishes, was listed in French.  It was very hard to read, since I don't speak or read French fluently, so the necessity of including the entire menu was lost on me.  I would have appreciated a translation in an appendix.

This is a decent overview for the curious reader, but research-wise I'll need to keep digging.