Reading Journal Entry: Appetite for Life, by Noel Riley Fitch

Julia Child was a fascinating person. After reading this biography, I understand why she had enough force of personality to attact Julie Powell's obsession in her late book. I have few personal memories of the original Queen of the TV Kitchen - Mom watching rerurns on PBS, and one of my introductory science classes screened Julia making Primordial Soup. I didn't get it - why was this tall lady with the funky voice such a big deal? Now I know. She was the first, she was the best, and she was a warm and genuine person.

Plus, she was a spy during World War II! How cool is that? OK, she wasn't really a spy per se. She worked in the office rather than the field. But still. Spies were involved.

Reading Journal Entry: The Maltese Falcon on radio

Listened to the radio version of The Maltese Falcon, produced after the movie, performed by Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor. A short production with much vigor, but a bit hard to follow as it's so dramatically cut down from the novel and book. More of a curiousity than anything else.

Reading Journal Entry Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials

When I got this as a gift as a present, as a sci-fi obsesses teenager, it was a great choice. It's still a great gift choice for teenaged sci-fi obsessed teenagers, which is why it will probably remain in print until doomsday. This is an illustrated compendium of information about extraterrestrials from many of science fiction's classic works - Herbert's Dune, Niven's Known Universe, Heinlein, Asimov, etc., etc., etc. Some authors are represented more than once (probably for rights reasons). Each alien creature gets a lovely painted illustration, with highlighted details, and biographical/xenological summary. A fold-out size comparison is in the center of the binding and the whole is topped off with a generous portion of pencil sketches from Barlowe's workbook. On the whole the pencil work is more vibrant and interesting than the oil porraits and much more interesting.
A nice addition to a sci-fi library.

Great Book: Emotionally Weird, by Kate Atkinson

Yesterday's review

I loved, loved, Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Emotionally Weird is on the 'Great Books' list courtesy of the Harvard Book Store(plebian origin, despite the 'Harvard' in front) whereas Museum is on there courtesy of Jane Smiley's 13 ways of looking at the novel list (she gets letters published in the New York Times, you know). Emotionally Weird undoubtedly suffered from my high expectations, but I think it truly is a lesser work. Museum started off with a bang, a jubilant 'I exist!' that captured my heart. Weird is, well, weirder. More mellow. Longer, more langorous, perhaps to a fault.

Plot, such as it is, such as we eventually gather it to be: Effie is stuck on a remote island with her mother Nora. Effie tells her mother a story about her time at school in Dundee (during which she writes a mystery novel, of which portions are included in the text), which composes the main part of the book, and coaxes Nora to reveal details of her mysterious origins and family mess.

Draped on the skeleton of this family drama is a light-hearted exploration of the power of words and the relevance of literature. The multiple layers of narration (and narratees, as Effie puts it) combine with the lecture-drones of Effie's professors (she is pursuing a degree in English) and the occasional interjections about her, and her classmates, creative writing, to make something of a send-up of analysis and literature altogether.

It took me about half the book to realize that this was set in the early seventies - the lack of computers eventually tipped me off. The narrative is scattered with student protestors, pictures of foreign countries being bombed, pot, raving feminists, etc. but this seemed pretty close to my own student experience. I did wonder why Effy's Star Trek-loving boyfriend Bob never quoted any Next Gen. Aside: There is a minor character named Janice Rand. This is the name of Yeoman Rand, a character on Star Trek (The Original Series) during the first season. A hot, blond character that Bob would have known about. Atkinson never did anything with this, so I think it's just a coincidence.

One false note was the contest among professors for the soon-to-be-vacated department chairmanship. My dad is an academic, and being department chair was always seen as the booby prize because it was so much extra work. Maybe it's different in GB.

At one point Effie calls her narrative a 'comic novel' (although it is littered with dead bodies, abandoned babies, and suicide attempts), but it wasn't very funny. I think probably this was the fault of the reader, Kara Wilson. Wilson demonstrates a wide range in this performance, but the voice she chose for Effie grated on me miserably, as did the faux American accents assummed for visiting professors.

Reading Journal Entry: Dice: Deception, Fate, & Rotten Luck, by Ricky Jay and Rosamond Purcell

A lovely little square volume, very well designed and produced. Short essays about the history of dice, gambling, cheating, etc. are studded with Purcell's beautiful photographs of Ricky Jay's dice collection. The price is right on this one, two, at about $15.

I know it doesn't sound like a great concept, but it is! I swear! The essays are interesting, but it's the photos that grab you. Jay's collection is famous, and these dice must be decades old. I expect he never throws anything out! They've mellowed, cracked, fermented, crumbled and decomposed in fascinating ways I never would have anticipated.

This Google search for Purcell's pictures will give you an idea of the power and beauty of this book.

Reading Journal Entry: Mr. Alexander's Four Steps to Love, by Alexander Stadler with Jennifer Worick

A cute little gift book for the dating depressed (aged less than 27). This is well-designed and friendly, but not exactly deep. Mr. Alexander prescribes four steps for finding 'your dream partner': visualization, showing off, meeting new people, and 'becoming your best partner'. Gay-friendly.

Why, Lord, why?

Of all the BDSM variations out there, this one has got to be the weirdest. Why on earth would anyone want to base their S&M sexual play on a crappy fantasy series that might as well have 'Conan' in the title?

I just don't understand.

This is good

22 comic book panels that always work.

Great Book: Another Country, by James Baldwin

Ah, the sixties. Civil rights & the sexual revolution. James Baldwin's Another Country tells the story of a set of relationship; friends in New York City who hurt each other and love each other. This must have caused quite a scandal when it came out; it's a frank portrait of several mixed-race relationships, and some homosexual ones as well.

It's hard to say whether the format is more a series of personal portraits or more nearly a string of short stories, but it's definitely episodic. We begin with Rufus, a black musician hitting rock bottom after the end of a relationship, trying to crawl out. We continue with his friend Vivaldo (white), who falls in love with Rufus' sister Ida, and move on to Rufus' former lover Eric and their mutual married friends. I found Ida the most fully realized and attractive character; she has a rage and an ambition closely held within her, straining to get out, that struck a chord. She is the only major character whose inner monologue we don't get to see. Perhaps her restraint is as much internal as external.

This small set of friends engages in sex with startling casualness (and yet strange import....) There are four adulterous or cheating sexual relationships or encounters in this short book, and yet the words 'infidelity' or 'betrayal' aren't used once. The word 'guilt' is used only to dismiss its' validity.

They aren't very nice to each other. I don't think I'd like to have these people as my friends. I think that's the point; Baldwin is trying to portray human weakness in the face of the overwhelming forces of emotion and environment. Ida is the only character who tries to exert control over herself, to be actively moving toward her goals rather than reactive to her emotions, but the book ends with the breakdown of her control.

I can't say I agree with his premise, but it's a well-executed concept.

Reading Journal Entry: Female Chauvinist Pigs, by Ariel Levy

Female Chauvinist Pigs has a great cover and contains a lot of anger, so it's probably going to be a big seller.

Ariel Levy examines the genesis and validity of what she calls 'raunch culture' - a world in which women make out with each other or flash their breasts to get 'Girls Gone Wild' hats, and middle-schoolers dress like porn stars. The key element that she examines is why and how women buy into this glorification of exploitation. Why are strippers cool? Why did Jenna Jameson's best-selling book sell to so many women? Why do women want to act like people who are pretending to feel sexy?

The proximate reason is that women want men to want them. The ultimate reason - in a post-feminist culture - is far more obscure. Sadly, she doesn't really come up with an answer. What she does supply is an abundance of titillating anecdotes about women playing up to the 'raunch' expectation, and an abundance of angry, scornful criticism.

The strange thing is that Levy heaps scorn on just about every facet of society that she discusses. From old-school feminists (every faction) to new-school feminists, to lesbians to accountants to porn stars to producers, she doesn't seem to approve of anyone. Good old-fashioned vitriol makes for a satisfyingly blood-boiling read, but it's not very filling. What's the answer? You won't find answers to the questions she asks or to the problem she exposes. You won't even find out if porn is bad or good.

I also wonder who the hell she's interviewing. Jesus Christ, I am hanging out with the wrong crowd. Most of the women (or girls) that I see and know aren't dressed like hookers. They aren't taking off their tops for the cameras. They aren't attending wild sex parties in Manhattan. They don't feel pressured to sleep around so they can brag and feel like 'one of the guys'. So even though Levy bolsters her observations with a lot of reporting, her analysis feels contrived to me. Except when she discusses the media (will Paris Hilton please die already?) it simply doesn't match my experience.

Great Book: A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking, is on the list of great books not as a literary masterpiece but as one of the Times Literary Supplement's Most Infuential Books Since the War. Of course that's completely accurate; it is one of the best selling popular science books ever, spawning illustrated versions, audio versions, reader's companions, while selling millions and millions (literally) of copies.

It's easy to understand why it is so popular. It's not long, and therefore not intimidating. There are no equations. Hawking promises right up front to address the most basic questions of human existence, and he does, although no definite answers about the nature of God are, alas, available.

Almost twenty years after publication, A Brief History is no longer cutting edge. Observation has verified many predictions and theories about Black Holes and the Big Bang and moved on to bigger (or smaller) things. That doesn't make the material less fascinating. The great gift of this book isn't that it explains advanced theories about the evolution of the universe in simple language (although it does). It's that Hawking manages to make material that is inherently removed from everyday life seem relevant. We want to know about Black Holes because they're cool. We want to know why time runs forward and where the universe came from because, damn it, what the hell was God about, anyhow, and why didn't he do a better job? This sense of wonder and curiously was once the property of each of us - we just grew out of it. Hawking evokes that wonder.

His curious little gossipy asides about his colleagues make nice bonus material.

He evoked more frustration in me, personally, than wonder. I was already familiar with the material. This allowed me to dwell more on those universal questions than was healthy. Why DOES the universe exist? And why in hell can't stupid people understand that God, if it did exist, would not be subject to the flow of time but must exist outside the universe? I used to argue on religion boards for fun, and it's hard to shake off some of those habits. My teeth still tend to meet and clench during certain theological discussions. And don't try to talk to me about intelligent design. I was all over this intelligent design thing before it became fashionable, you johnny-come-laties.

Reading Journal Entry: Fat Girl by Judith Moore

Fat Girl by Judith Moore is not a book about weight loss, eating disorders, body image, or feminism. It's more simple than that; a personal memoir of pain living inside a fat little girl. Fat is the vehicle she used for expressing her pain and loneliness.

The book begins with a short discussion of life for Moore as a fat adult, but quickly segues to family history of fat triggered by loss. Her father lost his mother at the age of six, and immediately became a fat little boy. Her mother was abandoned by her mother and grew up cold, unable to express love or affection for her daughter. They grew up, met, married, and had a child whom they endoweded with their psychological problems and coping mechanisms. Moore is unflinching in exploring her memories and lays out the whole of her childhood epic before the reader without mercy. Her description of her relationship with food reaches both the divinely inspired and the excrutiatingly painful.

The bookending chapters about Moore's adult life blur the laser-like focus of the chapters about her childhood. Is this a memoir about the pain of being fat? The stigma? The inconvenience and shame? Or is it a portrait of an unloved child? The almost obligatory childhood encounter with sexual abuse is an essential building block of the adult Moore's psyche, but what does it have to do with fat, really?

And so the book tries to be two things, perhaps weakening its impact. It rocked me back onto my heels, emotionally, but is it truly successful? I get the feeling that it was, in any case, completely successful as a lancing of the author's inner boils.

Dare I admit that after reading this, I ate a salad for lunch today, and went for a walk around the block afterword? I understand that I'm not fat, really, I'm not thin, but I'm not fat either. That doesn't keep me from wanting to lose about 15 pounds. I know how I think I should feel. I should love and admire my body for all the wonderful things it can do. I should be really proud of myself for being able to go on long hikes, for being able to jog for two hours, for being able to bike fifty miles in a session (and I am). I get it. But I still don't really like the way I look, or the shape of my body.

I want to have a positive self image, but that only happens when the stars align. I'm better about it now at thirty than I was at 20. I was convinced I was hideous and hated just about everything about how I looked until a couple years ago, when I cut my hair short and came to an agreement with my features. At the moment I'm pretty satisfied with the way I look from the waist up. It's the rest of me that nags quietly at the back of my mind when I look in the mirror. Jesus Christ, why am I bothered by the way my feet look? It's not as if I have toenail fungus or as if anyone has ever told me I have ugly feet or as if anyone ever even sees my feet.

But back to fat. I hate falling for the party line. I hate it when I try to lose weight, because I feel like I've failed at being a liberated woman, or a self-aware individual, or both. But I do it anyway, just like I reach for the second bowl of ice cream while telling myself I've had enough. The flesh is weak! And so is the mind!

PS - I just finished a bowl of polenta with tomato bacon sauce. And I think I'm going to have some ice cream with that.

Reading Journal Entry: The Spriggan Experiment, by Lawrence Watt-Evans

Yes, it's an experiment in internet publishing. LWE found that his publisher wanted him to concentrate on fiction set in places other than his well-known fantasy world of Ethshar. So he published it online, serially, and solicited donations to pay for his time. Apparently it was a success, as the book is now finished and, for the moment, is available online in it's entirety.

There have been eight Ethshar novels. They are great light fantasy. This one follows up on a loose end from an earlier work. A misenchanted mirror started spewing out small talking squeaky frog things (the spriggans of the title). About one every few minutes. Continuously. Eventually, as the supply of spriggans becomes an oversupply, this becomes a problem. People start thinking about how much spriggan weight the world-disc can carry. Our hero, Gresh, is assigned to locate and neutralize the aforesaid mirror.

There's not much character development here, it's pretty much a puzzle book dressed up with magic. It still manages to be engaging and fun. Recommended.

Reading Journal Entry: Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women by Ricky Jay

This is a fun book. Ricky Jay is a professional magician and a historian of the medium (rimshot, please). Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women collects information about some of the most outstanding performers/freaks in the history of oddity. From porcine mathematician and people who set themselves on fire we go to mind-readers, daredevils, and performance farters. Lots of fun. My one regret is that since some of these performers lived so long ago, the information about them is scarce. Profiles of the later performers were more in-depth and hence more interesting. I really wanted to know more about the life and times of Toby, the Learned Pig.

With a big fat section of color plates and many black and white reproductions, this is a beautiful book that would make a great gift for that person with the weird sense of humour.

Reading Journal Entry: Julie and Julia by Julie Powell

Julie Powell was a bored-to-tears secretary struggling to survive her lack of enthusiasm when her husband suggested she start a new project. "You could write a blog" he said. "You do know what a blog is, right, Julie?" Ah, the good old days. She decides to cook all of the recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking over one year. That's 564 recipes, 365 days, in a New York City apartment.

Apparently the blog was quite a success, although I never heard of it (and if I haven't heard of something, what's the point, really?). I wish I had read it as she was doing the project, it must have been a lot of fun. She also got on the Early Show, the Today Show, etc., etc., etc.! This book takes a bit from the blog, a bit from her life, a bit too much of her friends' lives, and a bit of Julia Child's life, and mashes it all together with a stick of butter.

It was a fun read. Very chick-lit but without so much shopping. Plenty of bitching, though. I wish she'd included more about cooking; the narrative got way off track at times with the trips home and the friends eloping with British rock stars.
There's definitely some substance here. It's worth reading. But perhaps she could have done even better.

Note: Powell includes little dribbles of made-up stuff about Julia Child's life. They weren't particularly effective. But now I want to read that biography of her that came out recently like the dickens.

Reading Journal Entry: Thud! by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett's latest Discworld novel is as funny as ever. Well, almost. See, for a while now his books have had a message. Freedom of the Press. Feminism. Fate. Etc. And in this one seems a bit heavy-handed. Sam Vimes, Commander of the Watch in the fabulous city of Ankh-Morpock, is attempting to deal with two racial minorities who brought ancient grudges with them. On the one hand, we've got the industrious cave-dwelling mine-making dwarves, who live 18 to a room and are busy entrepreneurs. On the other hand, we've got giant trolls made of rock who speak in monosyllables and whose entrepreneurship is of a shadier kind. 'Snot exactly subtle, is it? Thud! delivers the usual Pratchett pratfalls and wraps everything up in a nice tidy bundle at the end (Can't we all just Get Along? And spend more time with our kids?). He even, amazingly for this kind of book, manages to deliver emotional payoff. Vimes is a good character.
I'm not going to say it's not good. Because it IS good. I'm just getting a bit tired of the whole delivering-a-moral-while-pretending-not-to schtick.

Reading Journal Entry: Drawing Cutting Edge Comics, by Christopher Hart

Drawing Cutting Edge Comics promises to take everything to the extreme. This is the remedy to the teen artist dulled by Jim Lee's sixties sensibility - this book teaches you how to draw comics just like Todd McFarlane's Spidey!!!! Of course, that's not what it says, but it's true enough. With McFarlane Mary Jane looked like a porn star and Peter Parker looked like an alien. With the help of this book, you too can draw porn stars and aliens who look like sensitive nineties men with their masks off. Use extreme forshortening! Combine genres in totally new ways, like fantasy + industrial! All right, I'm being too hard on this book. It's probably a good freshener for skilled artists who want to draw more towards the current superhero market. But not much good for anyone else. Nonetheless I'm sure it's very popular.

Great Book: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

I wouldn't have believed, before reading Catch-22, how derivative MASH and other war comedies are, in every medium. The ideas no longer seem new, but they're delivered in so riveting a manner that it doesn't matter that they've been ripped off a thousand different ways.

Catch-22 follows the adventures of Yossarian, a bombadier, and his cohort of flying bombers on the island of Pianosa near the end of World War II. Yossarian is either the only sane person in his unit or the only crazy person, depending on who's doing the talking. For example, he insists that everyone is trying to kill him. He starts out in the hospital, with a fake liver complaint that's keeping him on the ground and away from enemy flack. The book ends with him in the hospital again, with a genuine injury. In between the narative meanders in time and space serving up biting satire of military bureaucracy, the wartime mentality, and the general blindness of the human condition.

Yossarian is intent on preserving his life, a fact which does not endear him to his superior officers. He's also a crack bombadier. But fear has infected him and made it impossible for him to function 'normally' - as normal as normal goes on an island inhabited solely by men torn from their familes and loved ones, periodically dropping bombs on strangers who try to kill them back. Yossarian tries everything he can think of to escape flying more missions, but each path in sequence closes to him. Gradually, as the book goes on, he loses his hope and his friends. He only manages to cling to his survival instinct and his integrity.

The reader is wrenched from one day to the next (or previous) without mercy. Yossarian's moment of horror, helping Snowden die over Avignon, pops eerily onto the scene at odd moments. Dreamlike repetitions and confusions lend it all an eery quality of (dare I say it?) deja-vu, punctuated by grisly horrors and absurd comedic moments. There seem to be strong implications that the entire novel is actually taking place in Yossarian's mind as a kind of combination flashback/fever dream.

Reading Journal Entry: Marque & Reprisal, by Elizabeth Moon

Elizabeth Moon's latest space drama. This is her second novel about the Vatta family, a trading concern. And a good thing too, because her last couple books set in the 'Serrano' universe were, ehm, not good. She needed a new universe to play in. Kylara Vatta's family lives in a much less civilized and chaotic place. As evinced by the way, shortly after the novel begins, the Vatta home compound and numerous holdings are explosively destroyed by person or persons unknown. Kylara survives, and she and surviving family members must struggle to preserve their lives and find out who is targeting them and why. The action kept the book flowing, but I was disappointed by several set-ups which did not lead to pay-off - almost as if the book wasn't long enough, so she threw in an extra character or two for spice without bothering to change the plot to accomodate them. I like my conventions unviolated, thank you!
Fun space opera, should appeal to people who like the Honor Harrington series or Bujold.

Reading Journal Entry: Ghost World by Dan Clowes

The graphic novel on which the movie Ghost World, starring Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, and Steve Buscemi, is based.

The book is a collection of episodic exploration of the relationship between Enid and Rebecca, two girls just out of high school. They drift apart, then closer together. They find refuge in each other from the world that has betrayed them, then push each other away in a struggle for independent identity. They're trapped in a never-ending summer that doesn't seem to have an exit to adulthood.

The dialog is killer. In fact it made me somewhat uncomfortable; I know people who talk like this and it became at times surreal.

Spot on. Very good.

Yesterday's Review: Reading Journal Entry: American Splendor: Unsung Hero, by Harvey Pekar

Some of Harvey Pekar's American Splendor work was adapted into the movie American Splendor. This volume isn't autobiographical. It's an account of the Vietnam experiences of Robert McNeil, a black kid who joined to escape high school and ended up winning a medal. And, thankfully, surviving. Both of those facts we're given right away, as the collection begins with the text of McNeil's citation and a depiction of him being interviewed by Pekar.

I've met Pekar, and he's weird. It's interesting to imagine him interviewing someone.

McNeil was a raw kid who saw almost the worst of Vietnam. It's an interesting depiction of the life of a black soldier of the time; Black Power wristbands, Martin Luther King Jr.'s death. But mostly it's about the pain and fear of being someplace where people are trying to kill you.

This is first of Pekar's work that I've read. He's almost transparent as the author, even though his likeness appears in the work. It reads like McNeil's voice. There's a humor and a strength that are all his.

Reading Journal Entry: Make Your Own Comics For Fun and Profit, by Richard Commings

A more dated comic creation guide aimed at youngsters. There are no drawing instructions at all in this book - it's all about the specific craft of comics as opposed to art. Style, composition, plot, etc. Some good stuff, but a little too basic for today's savvy youth. It differs from the modern batch in its emphasis on comic strips as well.

The best part about this book is the samples - early work from several famous professionals is included. Very encouraging. On the other hand, John Romita could draw very well even at 17, curse his nimble fingers.

The 'Rendering' section is very cute with its information on hectographing, mimeographing, and those new-fangled photocopying machines.

It's a nice friendly little book, but no longer very relevant.

Reading Journal Entry: The Trader Joe's Adventure, by Len Lewis

Poorly written and poorley edited. This story about the cult grocery chain Trader Joe's was not written with the authorization or help of the organization and it shows in the puacity of information contained therein. Lewis manages to stretch out publicly known facts over 200 pages through repetition and general wordiness. There's nothing here that's new, and the glaringly bad writing makes this almost unreadable. Atrociously bad. Really bad. Very, very bad writing. High school english class bad.
I like Trader Joe's, but I already knew that they were owned by Aldi, had a rotating stock of unique products, and treated their employees well. This book was not worth the time I spent reading it and I'm glad I didn't pay any money on it!