Friday, December 23, 2011

Book List 2011: Part 6

The second to last booklist of the year. Time goes by so fast doesn't it?

* = reread

20th Century Ghosts
by. Joe Hill

A collection of short stories about ghosts, murderers, monsters, and more.

After reading Heart-Shaped Box I figured I'd see what else Joe Hill had written. Turns out not a whole lot. However, there was this one and a collection of horror themed short stories certainly sounded interesting.

I should clarify that when I say the stories are horror stories, I don't mean to suggest that they are scary. I doubt you'll read any and find yourself unable to get to sleep afterward. I just mean to say that they deal with the horror story material (murder, ghosts, death, etc.). In actuality, the tone of book differs quite a bit from story to story. I really liked that about it, because you never quite knew what to expect next. There are ones that are rather light-hearted, some are sentimental, others are interesting, while some are slightly unsettling. Some of my favorites were "20th Century Ghosts" a story about a movie theater haunted by a cinephile ghost, "Pop Art" a story about a boy and his inflatable best friend, and "Abraham's Boys" one of the creepiest ones of the collection about a pair of brothers whose strict father turns out to have deeper secrets than either of the boys could have ever guessed.

        “It has been argued even trees may appear as ghosts. Reports of such manifestations are common in the literature of parapsychology. There is the famous white pine of West Belfry, Maine. It was chopped down in 1842, a towering fir with a white smooth bark like none anyone had ever seen, and with pine needles the color of brushed steel. A tea house and inn was built on the hill where it had stood. A cold spot existed in a corner of the yellow dining room, a zone of penetrating chill, the exact diameter of the white pine's trunk. Directly above the dining room was a small bedroom, but no guest would stay the night there. Those who tried said their sleep was disturbed by the keening rush of a phantom wind, the low soft roar of air in high branches; the gusts blew papers around the room and pulled curtains down. In March, the walls bled sap.”

Howl's Moving Castle
by. Diane Jones

A young woman named Sophie ages into an old woman after being cursed by a witch. While looking for a way to free herself she ends up in employ of the notorious soul-stealing wizard Howl.

I've heard from a couple fans of this book and they seem to say that they like both the book and the movie, but for very different reasons. Personally, I have a hard time separating the two. Annoyingly, I feel that both of them work to undermine the other by doing something better.

For example, I love the imagery in the movie and how it really worked to serve the story. I also like how the changes the it made to the story served to create a tighter narrative with clearer focus.

On the other hand, I like how the book was able to better establish the different characters and their various relationships. It made the romance between Sophie and Howl seem a lot more natural than the movie did. I also liked how the book's Sophie had a bigger role to play. Additionally, its explanation for how she ends up entangled in these situations was more developed and much more interesting.

On a third hand I don't like how as the story goes on both seem to veer more toward Howl's story and away from Sophie's. I guess they're both supposed to be the main characters, but I think the story isn't set up in way to make that effective. One over the other would've been much more interesting to me.

So I just don't know. As I was reading the book I couldn't help but to miss all the parts I loved about the movie, and then I watched the movie afterwards and then I found myself missing some parts of the book. All in all I like the movie better, because I don't feel that Jones' writing was up to the challenge of producing the kind of imagery her story was capable of (as Miyazaki was able to demonstrate). For example, in the movie the castle moves by walking on mechanical legs, but in the book it just floats about.

But all in all, they're both a lot of fun.

        “It got cold on the stone as the sun went down. An unpleasant wind blew whichever way Sophie turned to avoid it. Now it no longer seemed so unimportant that she would be out on the hills during the night. She found herself thinking more and more of a comfortable chair and a fireside, and also of darkness and wild animals. But if she went back to Market Chipping, it would be the middle of the night before she got there. She might just as well go on. She sighed and stood up, creaking. It was awful. She ached all over.

        "I never realized before what old people had to put up with!" she panted as she labored uphill.

        "Still, I don't think wolves will eat me. I must be far too dry and tough. That's one comfort."

        Night was coming down fast now and the heathery uplands were blue-gray. The wind was sharper. Sophie's panting and creaking of her limbs were so loud in her ears that it took her a while to notice that some of the grinding and puffing was not completely from herself at all. She looked up blurrily.

        Wizard Howl's castle was rumbling and bumping toward her across the moorland. Black smoke was blowing up in clouds from behind its black battlements. It looked tall and thin and heavy and ugly and very sinister indeed. Sophie leaned on her stick and watched it. She was not particularly frightened. She wondered how it moved. But the main thing in her mind was that all that smoke must mean a large fireside somewhere inside those tall black walls.

        "Well, why not?" she said to her stick. "Wizard Howl is not likely to want my soul for his collection. He only takes young girls."”

Bill Moyers Journal:
The Conversation Continues
by. Bill Moyers

A collection of interviews from Bill Moyers' television show Bill Moyers Journal.

Collections are always the hardest to write about. By their very nature they are composed of different pieces, which makes it hard to judge the piece as a single tome. Overall I found this book fascinating. It covered all sorts of different topics with all sorts of interesting experts. The book really serves to give you a wider perspective on a lot of issues. Sure there were a couple interviews here and there and I didn't really care for (basically all the writers and poets), but they weren't even close to being numerous enough to have to bring down the others.

What more can I say? It's a collection of interviews from a PBS show. Either its up your alley or it's not. Here's a quote is from Bill's interview with David Simon, a former journalist and the creator of the hit show The Wire.

        Is is because we are tethered to the facts, we can't go where the imagination can take us?

        One of the themes of The Wire really was that statistics will always lie. Statistics can be made to say anything. You show me anything that depicts institutional progress in America: school test scores, crime stats, arrest reports, anything that a politician can run on, anything that somebody can get a promotion on, and as soon as you invent that statistical category, fifty people in that institution will be at work to figure out a way to make it look as if progress is actually occurring when actually no progress is. I mean, our entire economic structure fell behind the idea that these mortgage-backed securities were actually really valuable, and they had absolutely no value. They were toxic. And yet they were being traded and being hurled about, because somebody could make some short-term profit. In the same way that a police commissioner or a deputy commissioner can get promoted, and a major can become a colonel, and an assistant school superintendent can become a school superintendent, if they make it look like the kids are learning and that they're solving crime. That was a front-row seat for me as a reporter, getting to figure out how once they got done with them the crime stats actually didn't represent anything.

        And you say statistics are driving the war on drugs, though.

Stats, you know, dope on the table. 'We've made so many arrests.' I mean, under one administration they used to ride around Baltimore and say, 'If we can make fifty-four arrests a day, we'll have an all-time record for drug arrests.' Some of the arrests, it was people sitting on their stoops and, you know, loitering in a drug-free zone, meaning you were sitting on your own steps on a summer day. Anything that is a stat can be cheated, right down to journalism. And I was sort of party to that.

        So I would be watching what the police department was doing, what the school system was doing, you know, looking outward. But if you looked inward you'd see the the same game is played everywhere, that nobody's actually in the business of doing what the institution's supposed to do.”

Storm Front
by. Jim Butcher

A freelance wizard is getting framed for murders he didn't commit and has to figure out who's behind it before he has to take the blame...permanently.

This book wasn't my favorite. Basically it was because of 3 things:

  1. I never really felt much sympathy for the main character. He kind of seemed like a slightly incompetent douche. And not a lovable Joe-Morelli type of douche either. The guy struts around and acts all tough and yet he can't even mix his own potions without getting help. Also he gets beat up a lot and I can't say I blame anyone for doing it.

  2. The threats never seemed all that threatening. I was never even a touch concerned for his well being. And it wasn't so much that I didn't care if he lived or died, it was more that nothing evoked a real sense of danger. The main villain seemed more like a big dweeb than a serious threat, and the magic council out to blame him seemed to be fairly inept. Sure the council and the dweeb are powerful, but powerful doesn't equate scary.

  3. It seemed like a combination of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, Monster, and John Dies at the End. Except that Dirk Gently was more interesting and likeable, Monster was funnier, and John had more interesting villains...and it was funnier.

I did, however, quite enjoy how all the magic seemed to be very grounded. The magic had rules that governed it which made it more interesting than most stories that just go with "It's magic! It can do anything!" and don't bother having any limitations on it. Also I loved the idea that wizards are powerful because they're smart and are good at planning ahead. It was the little things like that that I ended up really enjoying. The plot as a whole didn't interest me, but there were certainly some great parts and clever ideas that made reading it worth it.

Overall I think I'm casting it in a worse light than it actually was. I think my expectations were just a little too high. To provide the counterpoint to my complaints, I will leave this review in the hands of a fan. My friend Maddie was the one who recommended the book and the series is one of her favorites. So here's her thoughts, not on the first book, but on the series as a whole:

        “"What's it doing? Is this the superspeed one, or the teleportation version?"

        Bob coughed. "A little of both, actually. Drink it, and you'll be the wind for a few minutes."

        "The wind?" I eyed him. "I haven't heard of that one before, Bob."

        "I am an air spirit after all." Bob told me. "This'll work fine. Trust me."

        I grumbled, and set the first potion to simmering, then started on the next one. I hesitated, after Bob told me the first ingredient.

        "Tequila?" I asked him, skeptically. "Are you sure on that one? I thought the base for a love potion was supposed to be champagne."

        "Champagne, tequila, what's the difference, so long as it'll lower her inhibitions?" Bob said.

        "Uh, I'm thinking it's going to get us a, um, sleazier result."

        "Hey!" Bob protested, "Who's the memory spirit here! Me or you?"


        "Who's got all the experience with women here? Me or you?"


        "Harry," Bob lectured me, "I was seducing shepherdesses when you weren't even a twinkle in your great-grandcestor's eyes. I think I know what I'm doing."

        I sighed, too tired to argue with him. "Okay, okay. Sheesh. Tequila." I got down the bottle, measured eight ounces into the beaker, and glanced up at the skull.

        "Right. Now, three ounces of dark chocolate."

        "Chocolate?" I demanded.

        "Chicks are into chocolate, Harry."”

by. Christopher Moore

A comedic and raunchy retelling of Shakespeare's King Lear from the point of view of the fool.

        “Ah, Goneril, Goneril, Goneril—like a distant love chant is her name. Not that it doesn't summon memories of burning urination and putrid discharge, but what romance worth the memory is devoid of the bittersweet?”

I wish more people would do comedic versions of Shakespeare's stories because I've never really cared for Shakespeare's work. There's a website that makes the claim, "If everything is terrible than nothing is." I would say the reverse is also true, "If everything is wonderful than nothing is."

In Shakespeare every line is some eloquent display of wordy prowess, and the result is that it doesn't scan. I grew up with comic books and in a comic your goal is to never have medium interrupt the story. It's the same thing with a good font. You want your form to enhance and frame your work, but you don't want it to interrupt and take away from that work. Thus, when you have to deconstruct every single line of a play you can't appreciate them all and inevitably aren't being fully immersed in the story because you're thinking about the wordplay too much.

But I've digressed. My point is that a modern comedic telling of Shakespeare reformats into a medium that I can happily consume. You don't even need to be familiar with the story of King Lear to appreciate this book. It's well written and the jokes are funny enough to keep you interested. Although, from what I hear, it will add an extra level of humor if you are familiar with the original.

        “Lear sat on his horse outside Castle Albany, howling at the sky like a complete lunatic.

        'May Nature's nymphs bring great lobster-sized vermin to infest the rotted nest of her woman bits, and may serpents fix their fangs in her nipples and wave there until her poisoned dugs go black and drop to the ground like overripe figs!'

        I looked at Kent. 'Built up a spot of steam, hasn't he?' said I.

        'May Thor hammer at her bowels and produce flaming flatulence that wilts the forest and launches her off the battlements into a reeking dung heap!'

        'Not really adhering to any particular pantheon, is he?' said Kent.

        'Oh, Poseidon, send your one-eyed son to stare into her bituminous heart and ignite it with flames of most hideous suffering.'

        'You know,' said I, 'the king seems to be leaning rather heavily on curses, for someone with his unsavory history with witches.'

        'Aye,' said Kent. 'Seems to have steered his wrath toward the eldest daughter, if I'm not mistaken.'

        'Oh, you don't say?' said I. 'Sure, sure, that could be it, I suppose."”

That Is All
by. John Hodgman

The third part of the Hodgman's almanacs of COMPLETE WORLD KNOWLEDGE, and a helpful guide to the end of the world.

        “I appreciate that there are defenders of school sports—football especially—who point out that athletics is not merely a fun, concussive way to make our children fight like gladiators for our amusement. It also teaches young people valuable lessons such as DISCIPLINE, TEAM-WORK, and HOW TO LIVE WITHIN A BRUTAL CASTE SYSTEM THAT YOU WILL NEVER ESCAPE. But if that's the case, why not just have all the children play IN A SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA?”

Few books make me laugh as much as these Hodgman ones. First was Areas of My Expertise, then came More Information Than You Require. Each one hilarious in its own way. The only thing is that the series is so bizarre, it's hard to get across what it really is. In fact, it's bizarre enough that I wouldn't begrudge someone for not finding it to their tastes. But basically this particular one is designed to include all the knowledge you might need when the world inevitably ends in 2012. It is clever and hilarious and I love it. I'll stop trying to describe it and just leave you with another quote.

If you like garlic coffee and garlic fruit leather and guys with beards playing Dobro guitars, this festival is for you.

        And here's an insider's tip. If you go to the Dartburgh Garlic Festival, stay at the Howard Johnson's. It's not advertised, but this is where the Hudson Valley Swingers Association meets. You can tell because of the angry man with the chain on his wallet yelling at the receptionist that he shouldn't have to show ID is he's paying in cash while his lady companion, an intensely skinny girl of mysterious age with dry yellow hair, stares vacantly at the rain streaming down the window!

        At night, if you are a swinger or just swing-curious, you can go to Function Room C, where they will have set up some tables, a cheese play from 7-Eleven, and a boom box playing sexy music. Celebrate your life free from the chains of artificial monogamy by meeting a new friend and bringing them back to your room for an intimate encounter while looking at the parking lot.

        Or, if you are not a swinger, you can just hang out in your room, staring at the ceiling in terror.


        They also have a continental buffet, which I advise you NOT TO TOUCH."”

Food Rules:
An Eater's Manual
by. Michael Pollan

A list of simple rules to help you eat better.

I don't often go in for health books. Despite their good intention they often leave me confused and afraid. Besides, if I was to listen to every health claim out there I wouldn't be able to eat anything. I would be stuck paying out-the-nose amounts of money for top-of-the line organic,vegetarian, no preservative, non-genetically modified, gluten free, fair trade, free range soy paste. I don't care what anyone says, that many adjectives just can't be good for you. While I do believe that a lot of things out there are bad for you, I don't believe all the health-nut fear-mongers who act like eating anything will immediately give you cancer and kill you.

That's why I liked this book. It's short and it's rules for eating are simple and easy to follow. It doesn't tell you to abandon everything you know about food, it doesn't tell you to completely change your lifestyle and dinner menu, and it doesn't try to preach to you. It just offers some easy suggestions on little things you can do to eat healthier. It's easy to read, easy to absorb, and contains some great tips. I'll leave you with a quote from the introduction and a few examples of the food rules.

        “As a journalist I fully appreciate the value of widespread public confusion: We're in the explanation business, and if the answers to the questions we explore got too simple, we'd be out of work. Indeed, I had a deeply unsettling moment when, after spending a couple of years researching nutrition for my last book, In Defense of Food, I realized that the answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated question of what we should eat wasn't so complicated after all, and in fact could be boiled down to just seven words:
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

                “13. Eat only foods that will eventually rot.

                14. Eat foods made from ingredients that you can picture
                        in their raw state or growing in nature.

                20. It's not food if it arrived through the window of your

                35. Eat sweet foods as you find them in nature. "In nature,
                        sugars almost always come packaged with fiber,
                        which slows their absorption and gives you a sense of
                        satiety before you've ingested too many calories.
                        That's why you're better off eating the fruit rather
                        than drinking its juice."

                39. Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it

                47. Eat when you're hungry, not when you are bored.

                51. Spend as much time enjoying the meal as it took to
                        prepare it.

                59. Try not to eat alone.”

59.* 60. 62.
One For the Money
Two For the Dough
Three to get Deadly
by. Janet Evanovich

Stephanie Plum is out of work and willing to try anything, so why not a bounty hunter? Well, for starters there's her complete lack of experience, her fear of guns, her crappy car, and her uncanny ability for getting into trouble. But then again...the pay isn't bad.

The first time I read One For the Money was in Japan. It was one of the few books the school's library had in English and I remembered that it was one of my sister's favorites. I wasn't expecting much, but it actually is a lot of fun. My aunt describes books like this potato chip books. They aren't some hearty meal of literature, they're just fun, easy-to-read, and hard to put down. That's a pretty apt description for the series.

Snobs tend to dismiss books like these for their lack of depth, but I think that's just being elitist. It seems to assume that writing a book that'll keep you enthralled and entertained as blow through the book in a single sitting is an easy thing. The characters are great and you really end up caring what happens to them, which engages you into the plot. There really aren't many books out there that can really make me afraid for what was going to happen to a character and these ones are able to do that. Heck, I even feel nervous when some crook threatens her hamster. You'll laugh, you'll feel suspense, it's just a lot of fun. In the end the mystery doesn't really matter, the fun is in watching Stephanie try and handle it all, not for Justice (like so many heroes), but for the cash...and maybe for the prestige of being able to put "Fugitive Apprehension Agent" on your business cards.

        “I locked the Nova, hung my big black bag over my shoulder, and set out. I'd put the fiasco with Mrs. Morelli behind me, and felt pretty damn slick in my suit and heels, toting my bounty hunter hardware. Embarrassing as it was to admit, I was beginning to enjoy the role, thinking there was nothing like packing a pair of cuffs to put the spring into a women's step.

        The gym sat in the middle of its block, over A & K Auto Body. The bay doors to the auto body were open, and catcalls and kissy sounds drifted out to me when I crossed the cement apron. My New Jersey heritage weighed heavy, demanding I respond with a few demeaning comments of my own, but discretion being the better part of valor, I kept my mouth shut and hurried on by.

        Across the street, a shadowy figure pulled back from a filthy third-floor window, the movement catching my attention. Someone had been watching me. Not surprising. I'd roared down the street not once, but twice. My muffler had fallen off first thing this morning, and my engine noise had rumbled off the Stark Street brick storefronts. This wasn't what you'd call an undercover operation.”

China Miéville

On the edge of the known universe sits an alien planet whose inhabitants speak a language that's truly unique. Unlike every other language based in reality and thus has no lies. In the planet's human outpost of Embassytown, Avice Benner Cho has become a part of that language: a living simile. When a strange new ambassador comes to power it disrupts the balance between the humans and the natives and forces Avice into a position where she must set things right.

China Miéville is one of my favorite authors. There are multiple reasons for that, but one of the big ones is that he is able to construct worlds that are vastly different from anything you could have imagined. So often Fantasy stories are all the same. They all just take the same stereo-typical Tolkien worlds of Elves and Dwarves and just insert their story into it. Like buying a premade pie crust and only making the filling.

Miéville, however, always takes the harder road, makes everything from scratch, and it makes all the difference. Take for example the aliens in this story: the Ariekei. These are not your typical Star Trek standards of humans with funny ears. The Ariekei walk on four spider-like legs, have 2 coral-like "wings" (one in front and one in back), and have two mouths. Because their language requires both mouths to speak at once, normal humans are unable to speak it. Couldn't two humans speak it then? Nope, because not only do the words have to be in sync, but the minds behind those the words have to be as well.

How about another typical sci-fi feature: the fact most planets just happen to have a breathable atmosphere? Well, in this book the planet's atmosphere is toxic to humans. Because of this Embassytown has to live within the confines of an atmosphere created by a giant genetic structure called an aeoli that generates their oxygen for them.

And that's what's great about Miéville books: they're different. They're different, they're creative, and those elements make them fascinating. Not only that, but it also makes it hard to pin down what's going to happen next.

But is the book for everyone? Probably not. For one thing, Miéville uses a lot of words that you don't see very often...or ever. I love his vocabulary and word choice, but not everyone likes to have to have a dictionary on-hand. Especially in a sci-fi book where some of the words are for things that don't exist and thus are made up, but you don't know that for sure until you try to look it up. I also can't blame someone if the idea of a story centering around alien linguistics doesn't float their boat. But I thought it was great.

        “Yohn was the second-best southgoer in our group. He couldn't compete with Simmon, the best of all, but Yohn could write his name on the picket fence several slats farther than I. Over some weeks I'd strained to hold my breath longer and longer, and my marks had been creeping closer to his. So he must have been secretly practicing. He'd run too far from the breath of the aeoli. I could imagine him gasping, letting his mouth open and sucking in air with the sour bite of the interzone, trying to go back but stumbling with the toxins, the lack of clean oxygen. He might have been down, unconcious, breathing that nasty stey for minutes.

        'They brought him to me,' the man said again. I made a tiny noise as I suddenly noticed that, half-hidden by a huge ficus, something was moving. I don't know how I'd failed to see it.

        I was a Host. It stepped to the centre of the carpet. I stood immediately, out of the respect I'd been taught and my child's fear. The Host came forward with its swaying grace, in complicated articulation. It looked at me, I think: I think the constellation of forking skin that was it lustreless eyes regarded me. It extended and reclenched a limb. I thought it was reaching for me.

        'It's waiting to see the boy's taken,' the man said. 'If he gets better it'll be because of our Host here. You should say thank you.'

        I did so and the man smiled. He squatted beside me, put his hand on my shoulder. Together we looked up at the strangely moving presence. 'Little eggs,' he said kindly. 'You know it can't hear you? Or, well...that it hears you but only as noise? But you're a good girl, polite.' He gave me some inadequately sweet adult confection from a mantelpiece bowl. I crooned over Yohn, and not only because I was told to. I was scared. My poor friend's skin didn't feel like ksin, and his movements were troubling. The Host bobbled on its legs. As its feet shuffled a dog-sized prescence, its companion. The man looked up into what must be the Host's face. Staring at it, he might have looked regretful, or I might be saying that because of things I later knew.

        The Host spoke.

        Of course I'd seen its like many times. Some lived in the interstice where we dared ourselves to play. We sometimes found ourselves facing them, as they walked with crablike precision on whatever their tasks were, or even ran, with a gait that made them look as if they must fall, though they did not. We say them tending the flesh walls of their nests, or what we thought of as their pets, those whispering companion animal things. We would quieten abruptly down in their presence and move away from them. We mimicked the careful politeness our shiftparents showed them. Our discomfort, like that of the adults we learned it from, outweighed any curiosity at the strange actions we might see the Hosts performing.

        We would hear them speak to each other in their precise tones, so almost like our voices. Later in our lives a few of us might understand some of what they said, but not yet, and never really me.

        I'd never been so close to one of the Hosts. My fear for Yohn distracted me from all I'd otherwise feel from this proximity to the thing, but I kept it in my sight, so it could not surprise me, so when it rocked closer to me I shied away abruptly and broke off whispering to my friend.”

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