Friday, September 28, 2012

33 1/3 series

I am an addict...and my addiction is popular music. I adore it. Who doesn't? We all have our favorite songs, artists, genres. The right track at the right moment can hit us emotionally or physically, make us weep or dance. What I like almost as much as music are all of the details and stories that lead up to the making of some of my most cherished albums. That's where the 33 1/3 series comes in.

Started in 2003 by editor David Barker, 33 1/3 is a collection where each volume examines the allure of a particular album as well as the artist who recorded it. Named after the number of revolutions per minute on an LP record, the series spans rock, hip-hop, folk, metal, pop, country, dance, punk, electronica, and world. There is something here for everyone.

The titles are relatively short--often less than 200 pages, and every title is penned by a different writer. This does lead to a vast range in quality and approach for each book. Some read like meticulous postgraduate theses while others spout a haphazard spray of unconditional love. But I'm not here to recommend you those titles. This review is to suggest a few in the series that you might want to start with. These books will be broken up by the author's approach to his subject so as to offer some context.


Nirvana's In Utero by Gillian G. Gaar:
In 1991, Kurt Cobain had a number one record. That was a problem for him. Nirvana was not meant to make slick polished albums to be consumed by the masses, so Cobain tried to make the dirtiest, punkiest sounding album that he could. Calling in Steve Albini, a producer known for his intentionally anti-pop sound, the trio attempted to show the world that they had more than just rock radio chops, without imploding in the process. Gaar uses tons of quotes from Cobain and manages to show how hands-on he was, from the album cover to the video for Heart-Shaped Box. This is as breezy as the album is heavy. If you end up enjoying this book, you may want to check out Chuck Klosterman's Eating the Dinosaur, where the culture critic somehow manages to point out the similarities between Cobain and Branch Davidian leader David Koresh.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Punk Ethic by Timothy Decker

Timothy Decker's illustrated novel The Punk Ethic explores the power of music in the lives of seemingly disaffected youth. Guitar-playing protagonist Martin is struggling to find a reason to succeed in a world that appears all too happy to let him disappear. Financially, life is a constant struggle in his single-parent household, and his friends are a collection of likable if somewhat annoying idiots who have no clue what their futures will hold. He is in love with an impossible Dreamgirl (shades of Some Kind of Wonderful) and, inspired by a class assignment, has a wild desire to change the world, but little ability to do so. What he needs is a plan, a plan so big that it will make his life the sort of wild and dramatic life he has been afraid to imagine. In one month it all comes together, in the sort of ridiculous fashion one would expect for teenagers, but the story remains hopeful and stays true to its cool music roots at the same time. There is nothing saccharine or sparkly about The Punk Ethic (perish the thought) and the text is in fact peppered with the sort of wry observations that any high schooler would appreciate: "If the federal government really wants to change public schools and ensure that no kid gets left behind, they should close the cafeteria and call it a threat to public health." Or consider this look at the opposite sex:

"Goth girls live in a dream world, all operatic nonsense and crappy literary allusions... It's complete bullshit. That's why they go to college, wash off the makeup, and become GOP lobbyists. At least punk girls are honest."

Decker takes Martin along on a journey that sees him realizing the punk ethic of "do what you can with what you have," and tosses in more than a few significant moments about book learning versus the real world (both of which are to be valued) and why high school matters (for many reasons other than what you think). The illustrations and surprisingly intense ending all lift The Punk Ethic to a level of appreciation that makes it a memorable read. Don't let this quiet beauty pass you by; Decker has a story to tell worth reading and Martin, quietly depicted in so many black and white drawings, is a character to hold dear.

Cross posted from my August Bookslut YA column

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Sailor Twain by Mark Siegel

Sailor Twain: Or, The Mermaid in the Hudson by Mark Siegel (October 2012)*

You know what we need more books of? American fairy tales. I didn't even know we needed more until I read Sailor Twain, but we totally need more. Sailor Twain is the story of a young steam boat captain who, one dark night on the Hudson River, rescues an injured mermaid. He thinks he's just doing a good deed, but like all fairy tales, hero gets much more than he bargains for.

There is much to love about this book. The artwork, rendered in charcoals rather than clean ink, adds to the hazy fantasy. Is Captain Twain crazy, is he imagining things, or has he really met a mermaid? What happened to missing owner of the riverboat, a Frenchman who disappeared under mysterious circumstances? I hesitate to get more into the plot because much of the pleasure in reading this book is from watching the mystery of the mermaid unfold. But I loved that this fairy tale isn't some rehashing of Andersen or Grimm (this mermaid is closer to the Sirens of The Odyssey than to Ariel and her ilk) bu an original tale in the way that Neil Gaiman's American Gods speculates what happens when Old gods, spirits and creatures move to the New World.

Don't be fooled by the brief review. This is a great book for older teens and young adults, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

This review is cross posted at (Library Lass) Adventures in Reading. Check out my other reviews in all their rambly glory.

*Copy courtesy of NetGalley

Monday, September 24, 2012

Titanic: Voices from the Disaster by Deborah Hopkinson

Here are the numbers:
  • 2,208 people were on board the RMS Titanic on her maiden voyage
  • of these, 891 were crew members and 1,317 were passengers
  • yet she carried just 20 lifeboats that could have held a total of 1,178 people
  • she sank, after hitting an iceberg, on April 15, 1912
  • only 712 people survived
But numbers can only tell us so much. They don't convey the excitement surrounding the largest and most luxurious ocean liner ever built at the time, the confusion and fear on board when disaster struck, the bravery of many crew members and passengers, or the heartbreak of realizing a loved one did not survive.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Storm Approaching by Brian Libby

No elves, no magic rings and no vampires, but there is an unusual little fox. So promises the back cover of Storm Approaching, by Brian Libby. The blurb goes on to say "Do you thirst for tales of invincible heroes, malevolent Dark Lords, mighty wizards, ferocious (or benevolent) dragons, and prophecies that must come true? Sorry." 

That hits the spot when you're burned out on high fantasy.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

After School Special, by Dave Kiersh + author Interview!

The first time I read a Dave Kiersh comic, I was blown away like I'd never been by any comic I'd ever read before. Not because of the art, which is great, but because it perfectly matched, in some way I couldn't understand, the feeling and mood of my teenage years. Over the years, I've read many of his minicomics and short pieces since then, some collaborations with other cartoonists, but most of them done on his own. The titles alone I think indicates what I'm talking about: "Teenage Neverland" and "Last Cry for Help" being the most obvious. 

After School Special is Dave Kiersh's first full-length graphic novel, and it delves deep into the territory Kiersh has mapped out in all his stories before: adolescents trying their damnedest to make sense of the world around them. The book's main characters are a boy, Jed, who's just transferred to a new school for his senior year, and the girl, Lisa, whose reputation has left her isolated and bitter. Their meeting kicks off the book, and through each other they find a tether holding them back from whatever bleak trajectory they fear when they see all the people around them.
The back cover to
After School Special 

 The book takes its title from the television movies from thirty some odd years ago with the same categorical name, often based on the YA literature of the time. Those books were very different from what the genre has become these days, instead they were rigorously grounded in realism with an uneasy rejection of resolution. Kiersh 
does an amazing job recreating that feeling in all his comics, and it is powerfully evoked here. 

In his biography at the end of the book, Kiersh writes, "Like Jed, I was a kid with angst who always believed believed I had something unique to say. Searching, wandering, and heartbreak followed." After School Special is filled with the ache and beauty of that same searching and heartbreak.

After I read the book, I had an opportunity to chat over email with Dave, and he answered our 5 question interview, along with some comics-specific questions:

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Mole-men and Other Stuff that Doesn't Exist

The paperback and "audioback" editions of John Hodgman's new book,That is All, comes out on October 2. This is the third and final volume in his Box Set of Complete World Knowledge trilogy. I'm not reviewing that book because I didn't get a review copy because apparently I'm not cool enough. But in anticipation of that momentous book release, I wanted to review the previous two Complete World Knowledge books.

I did not, however, have time to read them. I've been pursuing a new career as a sword swallower and have had a heavy practice schedule. So instead I just read the second book, More Information than You Require.

Friday, September 14, 2012

And Then There Were None

A tightly constructed mystery is a pleasure. For all the imagination that builds sprawling, globe-trotting adventures, creating the same excitement with a small cast in a single location is a particular show of skill. Agatha Christie was a master of this technique and proved it at her best in And Then There Were None.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History

OK, I figure this one is a natural for Guyslitwire. Author Florence Williams is very entertaining. She writes, in Breasts, ... some anthropologists have called breasts a "signal." Breasts, they say, must be telling us something about how fit and mature and healthy and maternal their owner is. Why else have them?

I was hoping the answers might lie with the creative experiments of Alan and Barnaby Dixson, a father-son team of institutionally supported breast watchers. Both based in Wellington, New Zealand, together they've published papers on male preferences for size, shape, and areola color and on female physique and sexual attractiveness in places such as Samoa, Papua New Guineau, Cameroon, and China...

I first met Barnaby on a blustery fall day in Wellington... he was very earnest. He walked around with a distracted air and wrinkled brow, and often misplaced things, such as parking receipts. It's not easy being a sex-signaling expert. "Sometimes people think I'm using the government's money to look at breasts. They misunderstand what we do," said Barnaby, who's tall and gangly and speaks with a crisp British accent.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Every Day by David Levithan

“I’m just not myself today.” Who among us has not uttered this phrase? As a high school teacher, I have often wondered who inhabited the body of my students on certain days. “This cannot be Rachel,” I would think. Or “Tom doesn’t act like this.” Identity often fluctuates (shout out to Heraclitus…something about a river) during adolescence, as teens try on various personas, searching for a true(r) identity. David Levithan’s new novel, Every Day, turns this notion of a fluctuating identity into a fantastical reality.

“A” has, for every day of his/her life (A has no gender, which is part of what makes the book interesting, but also what makes pronoun choices in a review a hassle), woken up in the body of someone else. Every day, from A’s earliest memory, morning has brought a different human body to contain A’s consciousness. The process is not completely random—the body has always been roughly the same age as A (would consciousness age without a body?), and the body is always in roughly the same geographic area as the previous body. So A might be a boy, a girl, gay, straight, unsure, a transsexual, a drug addict, a model, morbidly obese, suicidal, a jock, a nerd, any of the labels we use to define someone’s identity. But only for that day.

 “You see how cherries taste different to different people. Blue looks different. You see all the strange rituals boys have to show affection without admitting it…You learn how much a day is truly worth, because they’re all so different” (107).

Now sixteen, A has established his/her own version of primum non nocere—first, do no harm. Able to access some of the host’s memories, A tries to live the day without doing anything the host will have to deal with the next day that cannot be covered by “I just wasn’t myself yesterday.” (A’s vessels report only hazy memories of the day A was in control.) Homework is often a breeze; athletics and relationships—not so much. Thus A settles for days that are simple and withdrawn. Simple, that is, until A is in the body of Justin, the sullen boyfriend of the sadly beautiful Rhiannon. A falls for Rhiannon. Falls hard. Falls harder than ever before. Falls hard enough to want to see Rhiannon again, to tell her the truth about the wonderful day at the beach Justin/A and Rhiannon spent together, regardless of the vessel A inhabits the next day. Or the day after that. Cue complications, including being pursued by former vessel Nathan, who has been convinced by the shady Reverend Poole that A is the devil.

Every Day is far more than another clever conceit by Levithan (The Lover’s Dictionary, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist). Yes, you can read it as a moving teenage love story, albeit a love story where one teen exists in a different physical body every day. But Levithan’s novel is much more than that. It raises thoughtful questions about identity, gender, and sexuality. How much of our identity is tied to our gender? To our physical body? Should sexuality be reduced to a hetero/homosexual dichotomy? When we fall in love, what is it about the other we are falling in love with? 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Since You Left Me by Allen Zadoff

If God were here, there would be no need for religion.  We wouldn’t have to remember him for honor him.  We’d come out of our houses in the morning, and God would be sitting on a cloud with a lightning bolt in one hand and a Starbucks in the other.
You’d say, “Good morning, God. How did I do yesterday?”
If you were good, you’d get the Starbucks. If you were bad—

Sanskrit Aaron Zuckerman.

Some name, eh?  Particularly for the least Jewish kid at Brentwood Jewish Academy (even below the school’s one-student diversity initiative, Tyler, who’s only Jewish on his mother’s side).  Named after “a dead, goyish language” by his new-ager yoga-teacher mother (his younger sister was named Sweet Caroline by their father—at least Neil Diamond is Jewish!), Sanskrit sits at the bottom of his school’s pecking order, dreaming of graduation and The Initials.  The former is his ticket away from his feuding, divorced parents; the latter is Judi Jacobs, the girl of his dreams, whom he went out with for one ill-fated week in second grade, when they were still at public school.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Expiring Bookstore

Not far from my house, though not ideally close either, is a bookstore tucked into a neighborhood rich with galleries, antique shops and old-school, diner-style cafes. Open the doors and you're greeted with that rich, somewhat musty smell of used books. Besides the tall walls lined with books and the rolling ladders for reaching the uppermost stacks, it looks like a living room that hasn't been updated since the '40s. There are a number of large lazy cats draped over coffee tables and end tables. You wander about, intrigued by quirky titles everywhere you look, and every time you think you've exhausted the place you find another room, another nook, another stack of un-shelved books with just the thing you didn't know you were looking for. It's the perfect place to get lost. Or found. Or something.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Everything You Need to Survive the Apocalypse by Lucas Klauss

There's a weird and uneasy aura that hangs over Lucas Klauss's Everything You Need to Survive the Apocalypse. There's parts where it seems to actually cohere together into what it wants to be (a novel about losing and regaining faith in something), and it's at its best when it does. But these moments are sandwiched so awkwardly between typical Male Coming of Age Novel tropes—some bland, some annoyingly stereotypical—that it's difficult to actually notice them. Which is a shame, because there's good potential here to explore faith in the space between the polarized opposites of hard-line atheism and hard-line evangelism, but it never commits. It doesn't even commit to letting the reader draw their own conclusions; instead it feels as though it evades drawing conclusions, forcing readers to do so, rather than it being a natural outgrowth of the story.