Thursday, May 31, 2012

Book List 2012: Part 10

Must...catch up...on book listing.

...or stop reading so many books. One of those things for sure.

Also with this post I'll officially have posted more in 2012 than I did in the entirety of 2011! Which is more a testament to how little I posted last year than it is to my work this year, but who cares!

Well done, me. Now, now, please hold your applause for the end of the performance.

 [GN] = Graphic novel / Comic anthology

A Monster Calls
by. Patrick Ness
inspired by an idea from Sibohan Dowd
illustrated by. Jim Kay

A young boy accidentally summons an ancient monster to help him when his mother gets sick.

This is definitely one of the best things I've read this year. I mean this story is just plain powerful. I can't think of how else to describe it. It had me crying at the end of it.

It does what stories are so good at, which is to use fiction as a way of better understanding reality.

Stories are important, the monster said. They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.

Life writing, Conor said, sourly, under his breath.

The monster looked surprised. Indeed, it said.
page 141

Through this tale of a boy and a monster, Patrick Ness has created a truly moving story. If you've ever lost anybody you truly loved you should read this book. If you've ever felt so hurt that you didn't know how to act, you should read this book. In fact, everyone should just read this book.

There is not always a good guy. Nor is there always a bad one. Most people are somewhere in between.

Conor shook his head. “That's a terrible story. And a cheat.

It is a true story, the monster said. Many things that are true feel like a cheat. Kingdoms get the princes they deserve, farmers' daughters die for no reason, and sometimes witches merit saving. Quite often, actually. You'd be surprised.

Conor glanced up at his bedroom window again, imagining his grandma sleeping in his bed. “So how is that supposed to save me from her?

The monster stood to its full height, looking down on Conor from afar.

It is not her you need saving from, it said.
page 64

Usagi Yojimbo:
Book One
by. Stan Sakai

The adventures of a rabbit samurai.

You should know upfront that I'm pretty biased when it comes to Usagi Yojimbo. When I was a kid I even had an Usagi action figure. I first heard of him through The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He came out around the same time as the turtles did and has made cameo appearances in both the TMNT comics and the cartoons.

Actually, if I had to write another thesis I would probably write it on Usagi Yojimbo. Not only is the series an interesting take on Edo period Japan (1603-1868 [I didn't even have to look that up. East Asian Studies Major! Woot woot!]), but I think it would also be interesting to look at it as a Japanese-American depiction of Japan.

If you like old samurai movies then I think you'll get a kick out of this comic. There are tons of references to old samurai movies. For instance there's a character named Zato-Ino, a blind pig who uses his keen sense of smell to fight his enemies. Obviously a less than subtle reference to Zatoichi, an infamous blind swordsman character. Even the title character is a reference. Miyamoto Usagi is a reference to Miyamoto Musashi, probably the most famous swordsman in Japanese history.

Actually, you might like this even if you don't like old samurai movies. The stories here are shorter and they star animals. So they are obviously better than old samurai movies.

Besides all little media references going on in the series, there are also a lot of little Japanese references. The book generally uses the proper Japanese words when there really isn't a proper English equivalent (things like Ronin [a samurai with no master] and Yojimbo [a bodyguard]). It will often try to put in little asterisk translations for big things, but they don't bother with a lot of little things. For instance in the characters' names. Unless you know a little Japanese you'd never know that Usagi means Rabbit, or Ino means Pig.

It's definitely a book aimed at a certain audience, but I think it's a lot of fun.

 You are ronin.


“And skilled...I can smell the blood on your blade.

“More blood can be added.

“Ha! Well said! Are you a bounty hunter? Assassin?

“I am Miyamoto Usagi...

a yojimbo for hire.
pages 53-54

Space Chronicles:
Facing the Ultimate Frontier
by. Neil deGrasse Tyson
edited by. Avis Lang

A collection of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson's articles regarding why advancing our space frontier is so important, how we managed to get to the point we're at today, and the reasons behind what's keeping us back.

Have I ever mentioned that I love Neil deGrasse Tyson? The man has a true love for science and he's able to express it in terms that average people can understand. You can't help but love that combo.

I've heard multiple people say that the United States should cut out their space program. Because what good does it do us? Why spend all that money up there when we have problems down here? And after hearing Dr. Tyson's speeches I usually use his answer:

“I wish I had a nickel for every time someone said, ‘Why are we spending money up there when he have problems down here?’ The first and simplest answer to that concern is that one day there'll be a killer asteroid headed straight for us, which mean not all your problems are Earthbased. At some point, you've also got to look up.
pg 252

Actually, I would strongly recommend you take a moment to watch the video from that speech. Because he provides a brilliant argument as to why NASA is so important.

And that's pretty much what this book is: it's Dr. Tyson's argument for why Space matters. Not just to our economy, but to our very culture.

My only real complaint with the book is that because it is a collection of his material from various other sources (speeches, articles, etc.), sometimes you'll see a metaphor being used multiple times, or other elements repeating themselves. And while something may be great the first time, when you keep hearing it it loses some of its impact. However, there were other times where I found myself really enjoying that format as it was fun to have such a breadth of different types of materials. So really I can only complain about it so much.

I claim that space is part of our culture. You've heard complaints that nobody knows the names of the astronauts, that nobody gets excited about launches, that nobody cares anymore except people in the industry. I don't believe that for a minute. When fixing the Hubble telescope was in doubt, the loudest protests came from the public. When the space shuttle Columbia broke up on reentry, the nation stopped and mourned. We may not notice something is there, but we sure as hell notice when it's not there. That's the definition of culture.

This goes deep. Last year on July 1, the Cassini spacecraft pulled into orbit around Saturn. There was nothing scientific about it, just pulling into orbit. Yet the Today Show figured that was news enough to put the story in their first hour—not in the second hour, along with the recipes, but in the first twenty minutes. So they called me in. When I get there, everybody says, “Congratulations! What does this mean?” I tell them it's great, that we're going to study Saturn and its moons. Matt Lauer wants to be hard-hitting though, so he says, “But Dr. Tyson, this is a $3.3 billion dollar mission. Given all the problems we have in the world today, how can you justify that expenditure?” So I say, “First of all, it's $3.3 billion divided by twelve. It's a twelve-year mission. Now we have a real number: less than $300 million per year. Hmmm. $300 million. Americans spend more than that per year on lip balm.

At that moment, the camera shook. You could hear the stage and lighting people giggle. Matt had no rebuttal; he just stuttered and said, “Over to you, Katie.” When I exited the building, up came a round of applause from a group of bystanders who'd been watching the show. And they all held up their ChapSticks, saying, “We want to go to Saturn!

The penetration is deep, and it's not just among engineers.

Sweet Tooth, Vol 2:
In Captivity
by. Jeff Lemire

Gus (aka Sweet Tooth) is captured by a militia group that's hellbent on figuring out the source of the plague and is using animal children for testing. However, Gus is realizing that there's a greater mystery going on. Meanwhile Jeppard is realizing that he's going to have to make some tough choices.

The mystery of this bizarre post-apocalyptic world definitely deepens in this volume. I have to admit that while the first volume merely piqued my interest, it's this second volume that has fully caught my attention. Now I've gotta find out what happens next.

This really is just such a strange story, and yet it's not. It plays everything so straight. It refuses to acknowledge that it's strange and thus you get caught up in it and find yourself thinking that it really isn't all that strange at all. And yet there are all these animal hybrid kids running around, and these weird cartoon Bambi dreams, and a bunch of other yeah, it is a little strange.

I think I'll just put it this way: If you're in the mood for a dark post-apocalyptic survival mystery, but you don't want it to be too dark and too gritty, you want some lovable characters, well, then this is most definitely something you should check out.

“Who the fuck are you? Where's my wife?

“I'm Johnny...and I don't know where your wife is.

You're in the kennels, man. They brought you down here yesterday.

I don't really know anything else. They don't tell me much.

“Abbot...he's got my wife. She's pregnant. You gotta let me outta here.

“Pregnant? Oh, shit...I'm really sorry, man...she's up in the incubation rooms then.

“Incubation? What are you talking about? What the fuck is this place?

“Dude...this is a militia camp. Science-militia. They're breeding them here so they can cut'm up and find a cure for the sick, man.

“...I don't know--what the hell are you talking about?

“Hybrids, man! Animal kids. You mean you ain't seen one yet? Shit, where you been?

“Come don't believe that nonsense too? This is fucked.

“Oh, it's fucked all right. I ain't saying it's not...but dude, you gotta check this out...this is gonna blow your mind. I remember the first time I saw one, man...a cat one...I was up in a survivor camp in Michigan...I couldn't sleep that night, man...check it out.

“...Oh dear God.
pages 123-124

American Vampire, vol 3
written by. Scott Snyder
art by. Rafael Albuquerque, Sean Murphy, and Danijel Zezelj

In the midst of WWII Skinner Sweet joins the ranks of soldiers in order to exact revenge on Pearl's boyfriend. However, this particular battalion finds its hands full when the pacific island they're supposed to secure turns out to be teaming with a new and highly dangerous breed of vampire.

What can I say that I haven't said before about this series? I just really get a kick out of it. I love that there are all these different breeds of vampires, all with their own unique attributes. I also love Scott Snyder's writing. There are some parts where the stories are somewhat writing heavy, and sometimes that's annoying in a comic, but it doesn't really matter at all when you're dealing with a great writer. It worked with Alan Moore in Watchmen and it works here as well.

My biggest complaint with the series is that Rafael Albuquerque isn't the only artist. Don't get me wrong, the other guys aren't bad, in fact I quite like their styles, but they're just not Rafael. It was Rafael's art that was the clencher in whether or not I was going to give this series a chance. His style is what is the series was created on. And thus it is his style that suits it best. The stories he does are always the best looking ones.

So there you go. I like all of the stories in the book, but I really wish they'd just force Rafael Albuquerque to draw everything.

There's a saying in music that I used to hear on the road a lot. The old guys would say it, the road dogs. They'd say that to be good--really good--a man had to “know how to court death.

I was barely a kid when I first heard the expression--court death. And back then, I just figured it meant you had to be a wild man. Live on the edge.

But I'm older now, wiser, and I've come to believe that what the old guys meant---what they knew---was that to play your best, you have to be fearless.

You have to play like you're playing your last gig. Every time. Play like death is at your side, her cold chin on your shoulder, because she's exactly the girl you're trying to take home.

It's been a long time since I played on the road, but I've learned that there are other times this saying works, too.

In war...

In love...

And at times like this...when you know you've reached the end.

All you can do to stay sane is smile, and blow death a kiss.
from the story Ghost War Part 4

Heroes for my Daughter
by. Brad Meltzer

A man assembles a collection of people to inspire his daughter.

I hate to have to say this because it is such a sweet idea for a book, but this book is hopelessly trite and I don't care for it.

I decided to give it a try because I loved the idea of a book that made an effort of shining a spotlight on female role models. After all, except for a handful of figureheads, the history books tend to leave out a lot of important female figures. And yet this book is no better than the history books. It reduces important figures in history to mere ideas, or even worse, single ideas.

Not to mention that a lot of the entries are just ridiculous. Lisa Simpson? Why? Because of that one Lisa Vs. Malibu Stacy episode. I mean, yes, as a Simpsons fan I know that there are actually a number of very good reasons why you could say Lisa is a good role model (reasons that range across a variety of different episodes). Yet he doesn't talk about all the things she, as a character, has done. He focuses solely on that one episode, which just makes the choice seem flighty and silly.

Then of course there's the input of the author's personal choices. I get that the idea behind the book is that it's for his daughter, but if you're publishing it, then it's not. And as jerky as it is to say, your teacher, mom, and grandmother aren't on a historical par with Rosa Parks and Ghandi. I'm sorry. But let's be honest. Our mothers mean the world to us, but that doesn't mean they mean the world to the world. If they did people would make a point to be nicer to them.

Did I mention that this dude has terribly unrealistic expectations for his daughter? It seems that he wants his daughter to dedicate her life to fighting injustice in the world. I mean, sure, if I had a daughter I'd want her to be kind, to care about those less fortunate, and to not let people pull the wool over her eyes, but more than anything I'd want her to be happy. If that meant dedicating her life to making art in a studio by herself instead of building wells in Africa, or organizing political rallies, then so be it. As long as she's happy I would be happy.

Plus this thing is just chalk full of hackneyed hallmark inspirational phrases. Never stop fighting. The truth is what people say behind your back. You can do anything you set your mind to. Blah blah blah, spare me.

It's one thing to offer up a list of inspiring people and telling people about their lives and the great things they did. It is a completely different to tell people why a person should be your role model.

Amelia Earhart
Record breaker. High-flying pilot.

A pioneer in aviation and the first female to cross the Atlantic, Amelia Earhart broke many flight records. She did while trying to become the first person to fly around the world at the equator. Her plane has still never been found.

She worked as a truck driver, stenographer, and photographer. Just to save enough for the flying lessons.

Six months after she learned to fly, she put away for a bright yellow, used biplane called Canary.

The following year, she broke her first record, reaching an altitude of fourteen thousand feet, the highest recorded at that time by a woman.

She wasn't a natural. She wasn't the best pilot.

She had to work at it.

But within her short lifetime she showed the world that the greatest flight we'll ever take is the one no one has tried before.

Please know I am quite aware of the hazards...I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail their failure must be but a challenge to others.
—Amelia Earhart

Never interrupt someone doing what you said couldn't be done.
—Amelia Earhart
pg. 16-17

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
by. Sherman Alexie

A collection of short stories about life from a Native American point of view.

I was reading this at a bus stop and an older woman glances over at the book. “The Lone Ranger and Tonto, eh?” she says. “Yep,” I respond. “Are they still alive?” she wonders. I move my thumb to reveal the rest of the title. "Nope,” I reply.

Sherman Alexie's work keeps popping up in my life. Thus I decided that I should get off my butt and see what his stuff was all about. Especially since I loved The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian so much.

I think Alexie describes the book best when he says:

“This book could have easily been titled The Lone Ranger and Tonto Get Drunk, Fistfight, and Then Fall into Each Other's Arms and Confess Their Undying Platonic Love for Each Other in Heaven Followed by a Long Evening of Hot Dog Regurgitation and Public Urination.
pg xviii

That may not make a whole lot of sense to anyone that hasn't read the book, but it really does describe things very well.

It is a slightly odd collection of stories. While many of them are telling very simple stories, there is just something about the way he writes that makes them all seem bigger than life. He's just a good writer. That's the long and the short of it. He is especially good with figurative language. I mean look at this simile: “...James's voice sounded like a beautiful glass falling off the shelf and landing safely on a thick shag carpet.” (pg 127). Or how about this metaphor: “ so black it collects the sunlight.” (pg 146).

A lot of the stories are very similar, and the fact that names get reused from story to story can be a little confusing at times. But overall I enjoyed this book. It isn't as good as his later stuff, but it's still very good.

My mother sits quietly, rips a seam, begins to hum a slow song through her skinny lips.

“What are you singing?” I ask.

“I'm singing an it-is-good-day song.

She smiles and I have to smile with her.

“Did you like the story?” I ask.

She keeps singing, sings a little louder and stronger as I take my Diet Pepsi outside and wait in the sun. It is warm, soon to be cold, but that's in the future, maybe tomorrow, probably the next day and all the days after that. Today, now, I drink what I have, will eat what is left in the cupboard, while my mother finishes her quilt, piece by piece.

Believe me, there is just barely enough goodness is all of this.
pg 144

The Anthology of Rap
edited by. Adam Bradley & Andrew DuBois

An anthology of rap lyrics. Chronicling the words of rap songs from the very beginning on up to modern day.

I have a number of complaints with this book.

The book is so big that it's unwieldy. You can only read so many lyrics before your brain just starts turning to mush. I've heard complaints that it's a mistake to take the music out of rap, because it is an intrinsic part of the genre. And after reading this book I'm slightly inclined to agree. While there are certainly a number of artists whose lyrics transcend the music, most of them don't. Poetry has this difficult nature where you really have to focus on how the words flow. You have to pay attention to syllables and nuances so you can give it an internal structure that'll reveal itself to the reader. Rap, however, doesn't need to do this, because it has an external structure that shapes its flow.  So when you take that framework away a lot of these songs lose the element that makes them amazing. They start to look like if poet turned out poems like:

I wanna go to bed
but first I need to be fed.
But not too much or I'll need a med-
ic, don't eat paint cause it's full of lead.
Yeah, that's what I just said.

Even if I bothered to come up with some interesting rhymes for that, there's still no framework. Plus a lot of times rappers will use words that only rhyme because of the way they pronounce them, so when you put them on a page you can't tell what they're doing.

Please don't get me wrong, I'm by no means insulting the songs that rely on their music. In fact, often times the ones that are the most attached to their music are the best ones to listen to. So when when I'm reading the lyrics by themselves and seeing that it just doesn't work,  I don't blame the song; I blame the people who would do this to the song. It's like looking at a taxidermied animal. Sure you're getting a better look the animal's shape and details, but you've completely lost the creature's spirit.

More than anything I think my issues come down to the fact that I just wanted a different book. I wanted to be able to see how the style of rap lyrics has changed over time. In the beginning of the book you really do get a sense of that. There were few enough artists in the first couple sections that you got a really cool sense of how things had evolved. I was loving it. But the last two sections are so bloated that you really can't pick up on the specific lines of evolution. Especially because the songs are listed alphabetically by artist and not chronologically. So you'll read the lyrics by Person B, and then 50 pages later you'll read the lyrics of Person A who is said to have inspired Person B. Well I can't very well tell the influence when they're that far separated, now can I?

I will, however, concede that what the rapper Common says in this quote from the Afterward is entirely true and does a good job describing what is good about the book. Especially the second paragraph.

Strip all the performance away from rap and what do you have? A new perspective. Reading rap lyrics lets you see familiar things in new ways. Everything that usually captures your attention—the inflections of the MC's voice and the style that somebody's using—fades away and you're left with just the words. You can speed up or slow down, go back or skip ahead. You can take your time and let the words take shape in your mind. When you get down to the bare lyrics, you can tell if there's something deep going on in the words.
So many of the debates about rap today miss the point. People argue without taking the time to listen to what rap is actually saying. The Anthology of Rap explodes the myth that MCs rhyme only about money, cars, and women. Think I'm lying? Open up the book and see for yourself. Even open it at random and you'll find lyrics about love and comic books and bicycles, about God and nature and fatherhood. You'll find rhymes, in other words, about life and the art of living.
Common's Afterward, page797

by. Terry Pratchett

Tiffany Aching is learning about men the hard way. Her feet got away from her and she danced with a very dangerous man. Now he's got his eyes set on her and is offering up some very dangerous affections. And if Tiffany can't find a way spurn his advances, and if Roland and the Feegles can't rescue the Summer Lady, and if...well, let's just say that a lot of things are going to have to go right if anybody wants to make it through this Winter. 

The third book in the Tiffany Aching series. I hope Pratchett does another one, but given his condition I wouldn't blame him if he didn't.

I'd say this one is equal parts The Wee Free Men and Hat Full of Sky. It's got the immediate threat of a powerful villain and the journeys into other worlds like The Wee Free Men did, but it's also got the witchly duties and lessons of Hat Full of Sky. So basically it's the best of both worlds.

I also loved how in this story they bring Roland back, and show how Tiffany's inspired him to try and be a better person.

“But she rescued me from the Queen of the Elves. If she hadn't, I'd still be a stupid kid instead young man hoping he isn't too stupid.
page 400

My only really complaint is the very beginning. It does one of those things where it starts off at some exciting climatic event and then does the flashback thing to an earlier point and then progresses normally leading up to that moment. It was really just confusing. For a bit there I was starting to wonder if I skipped a book again. I don't really get why he did it that way. If you start the story from the actual beginning it just works a lot better.

So a couple minor hiccups, but otherwise solid gold.

Tiffany Aching is best!

Tiffany gave up and sighed. “I'm almost thirteen,” she said. “I can look after myself.

“Hark at Miss Self-Reliant,” said Miss Treason, but not in a particularly nasty way. “Against the Wintersmith?

“What does he want?” said Tiffany.

“I told you. Perhaps he wants to find out what kind of girl was so forward as to dance with him?” said Miss Treason.

“It was my feet! I said I didn't mean to!

Miss Treason turned around in her chair. How many eyes was she using? Tiffany's Second Thoughts wondered. The Feegles? The ravens? The mice? All of them? How many of me is she seeing? Is she watching me with mice, or insects with dozens of glittery eyes?

“Oh, that's all right then,” said Miss Treason. “Once again, you didn't mean it. A witch takes responsibility! Have you learned nothing, child?

Child. That was a terrible thing to say to anyone who was almost thirteen.
page 78-79

How to Sharpen Pencils:
A Practical & Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, & Civil Servants
by. David Rees

The only book you'll ever need on pencil sharpening.

This book is strange. I can't describe it any other way. For the first half or so of the book it plays everything so straight. You'll get a little comedic flair here and there, but over all it's a deadly serious guide to sharpening pencils.

“Fully 95% of the body's movements while sharpening a pencil occur in the wrists and fingers, except for those movements located elsewhere, which range between 10% and 80% of other movements spanning 50% or 65% of the body. Your fingers are on the front lines of every traditional pencil-sharpening technique—it is said the secret motto of the electric pencil sharpeners is: First their pencils, then their fingers”—and must be up to the job. Do not neglect your finger while warming up for an afternoon of work.

There are, famously, almost as many finger warm-up techniques as there are fingers, but I have found this exercise to be especially efficient and elegant...”

However, as it goes on it starts to become more and more out there, and more obviously a joke.


Mechanical pencils are bullshit.
page 119

And then at the end it just goes a little full out weird.

“After you share a laugh over the simple mistake, make love and ejaculate with maximum force all over the bathroom floor.

So yeah...not really sure which type I prefer. I've read some interviews with the author and he makes some interesting points about the book. Like how it was based on these old how-to guides he found that take themselves so serious that it's funny. And also how he wanted to bring your attention to the act of pencil sharpening. To remove it from being some mundane task and to make it something more. While I think I couple parts were a little too ridiculous and over-the-top, overall I think he succeeded. I don't think I'll ever think about pencil sharpening the same way again.

You wouldn't trust an electric machine to deliver your baby why would you trust one to sharpen your pencil?
page 129

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