Sunday, June 29, 2008

Woman's World

by Graham Rawle
To create his new novel, Graham Rawle crafted it the usual way, and then spent two years combing through 1960s-era women's magazines to find bits of text - from ads or fiction or other articles - that he could use in place of his text. Then, rather than typing it all up, he clipped out all the magazine bits and meticulously arranged them on pages, occasionally enhanced by bits of magazine art or magnificent drop caps. He photographed the results, and that's what you see.

Like many, I don't always expect that a piece of art will produce a good story, or vice-versa. And I'm sure some people will be turned off by the look of Rawle's book, thinking that it would be too hard to read, even if the novel was well-written. Not at all. Woman's World is a joy to read, and the clipped-out quality is not just a novelty, but essential to the story. I can't tell you much of the plot without spoiling it, but it does become clear very quickly that the narrator is not the most reliable. Norma Fontaine's world of fashion and good housekeeping is not as simple as it seems. The dark humor and unusual narrative style of this book reminded me somewhat of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, although the stories themselves have nothing in common. Woman's World is a delight for the heart and mind as well as the eye.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Our Inner Ape

by Frans De Waal
When humans do something especially generous, kind, or empathetic, we like to describe these actions as being very "human." When we do something cruel or vicious, we often describe those actions as "animal." Frans De Waal would argue that neither of these familiar sides of humankind are unique to humanity. All apes exhibit startling levels of empathy, and not just with their own kind. At the same time, our closest cousins in the animal kingdom, chimpanzees and bonobos, can be as cruel as they are kind. De Waal divides his book into sections named Power, Sex, Violence, Kindness, and then talks about our own species as "The Bipolar Ape." Chimpanzees and bonobos have very different societies (bonobos are female dominant and generally less violent, using sex as a social, er, lubricant) but both are similar to us in many ways. Where do we fit in? Somewhere in the middle. Despite our species' unprecedented levels of complexity when it comes to communication and technology, there's very little motivating us that doesn't align perfectly with our fellow apes. But perhaps, by learning more about our place amongst our nearest animal relations, we can understand our own species better and hopefully bring out the best in ourselves.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

How I Conquered Your Planet

by John Swartzwelder
You won't find Swartzwelder's goofy-ass novels at your local Barnes & Nobles. They're self-published, with bland covers and big type, and they're not exactly high literature. They are, however, written by the guy who wrote more Simpsons episodes than anyone else, and his brand of so-stupid-it's-genius comedy is immediately recognizable. There are so many laugh-out-loud moments in How I Conquered Your Planet that I became the crazy guy on the bus, randomly bursting into mad giggles. Sorry, fellow bus riders.

The absurd plot involves a bus driver / private eye named Frank Burly, who is not, shall we say, all that bright. When the Martians arrive, disguised as magicians, and work their mind-control upon him, Frank is recruited, against his flimsy will, into the Martian military. Most of this seems to be an excuse for Swartzwelder to brilliantly play with time-honored cliches in several genres. Not an easy book to recommend, but if you enjoy clever, absurdist, stoopid-funny writing, definitely check this out.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking

by Jeff Gordinier
When the media stops talking about something, does it cease to exist? How about something as big as a generation of Americans (albeit a small one)? How can we talk about members of Generation X "saving the world" when they think the whole concept is cliché and overblown? (And please don't call them "Generation X", that's so 90s.) Jeff Gordinier, after plenty of apologies about terminology and generalities, does somehow manage to show that Generation X, though permanently in the shadow of the Boomers and drowned out by the Gen Y/Millenials, is still in existence, and in fact, whether they like to talk about it or not, saving the world.

Any book this jam-packed with generalities and personal anecdotes, of course, has to be taken with a grain of salt. But a lot of the writing was really brilliant, and I found the book encouraging and inspiring. With all the 24/7 hoopla about the wonderful continuing adventures of the Boomers, it's easy to forget that those of us who are, say, 31-48, have had a distinct and valid culture that's worth talking about.

Little Brother

by Cory Doctorow
Part Young Adult technothriller, part polemic and part how-to, Cory Doctorow's latest novel was one of the most gripping page-turners I've read in a while. What happens when Marcus, a kid who loves to wrap his mind around solving puzzles (like, how do I sneak out of school when there are technologies in place surveilling my every move?) finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time after a terrorist attack, and ends up being questioned by the Department of Homeland Security? "Am I under arrest?" he asks, still under the impression that he has a constitutional right to speak to a lawyer. But no, he's definitely over his head. And when he's at last returned, shaken, to the streets, one of his friends remains in custody, possibly never to be seen again. And the DHS lets Marcus know he'll be watched. Marcus makes a vow that he's going to bring his friend back.

Little Brother is one of those stories that feels just around the corner from today. We've all heard plenty of arguments about privacy vs. security, but, for many of us, it's easy to feel that, if we have nothing to hide, we're not going to spend a lot of time worrying about our freedoms being taken away. Doctorow shines a bright light into the problems with this thinking, and vividly illustrates what happens when national security stops serving us and becomes another form of terrorism. Buy it for yourself and any smart young people you know.