Monday, November 7, 2011

Spotted: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling

Where: Q-train
Who was reading: A bobbing head in a fluffy white hat, only occasionally visible above the seething hoards packed into the subterranean clown-car I rode for today's morning commute.
Wasn't there just a thing on NPR about how the NYC subway sucks more than ever? Yes, yes there was.
But don't worry, things haven't gotten that bad... "We take every derailment seriously," assured one MTA official.
And if you're really into silver linings, overcrowding on the subway just might be the key to counteracting the breakdown of the American Family: "Another shove, Madame, and I'll have to marry you," one passenger was heard to remark.
But for those who are less-than-eager to enter into matrimony with some random groper... reading remains an option (provided they can find a few inches of space near eye-level and free of human flesh).
The book in a nutshell: Mindy Kaling's Bossypants.
Mindy Kaling in a nutshell [via the publisher]: "the obedient child of immigrant professionals, a timid chubster afraid of her own bike, a Ben Affleck–impersonating Off-Broadway performer and playwright, and, finally, a comedy writer and actress [noted for her work on The Office] prone to starting fights with her friends and coworkers."
For what it's worth: I've heard first-hand that the book is pretty funny. And at a signing, Ms. Kaling complimented a colleague of mine on her fashionable handbag. So there's that.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Spotted: Sunny Chandler's Return by Sandra Brown

Where: A-train
Who was reading: A young woman with rigid posture and cat scratches on one hand.
To be fair... the scratches could have come from any clawed animal.
In Latham Green, Louisiana we lay our scene [an excerpt from chapter 1]:
"Who is she?"
"Her name is Sunny Chandler."
"You know her?"
"Since third grade."
"Might have been second grade."
"So she grew up here?"
"Where's she been?"
"All your life?"
The first man frowned as he looked down at the second man...

Criminy! What an opening! Where HAS she been? And why does this mysterious "first man" want to know? Is he attracted to her sexually? The cover art certainly evokes flames of passion. And what about that "second man," he seems to know an awful lot about Sunny Chandler. A suspiciously awful lot. What actually happened in third grade (or possibly second)? And how will first man get his lasso around slippery Sunny, when the secrets that surround her make her harder to pin down than a greased pig?
Only one way to find out: Read the book! ...Or actually, check to see if they made it into a Lifetime movie yet.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Spotted: Chango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes by William Kennedy

Where: Q-train
Who was reading: A bony brown-haired woman in a brown quilted coat. Her mouth had a pinched look, as though she was holding back a rather sour epithet. Something in "poor taste" no doubt.
Speaking of epithets... I was tempted to vocalize a few myself at this other random woman who kept creeping into my personal space. I'm used to being caught in a crush, but she had this gargantuan mass of itchy, floaty hair that kept drifting into my face, and dandling against the exposed skin of my wrist. By the end of the ride, I was all acrawl with prickly, imaginary lice.
Licelady wasn't reading. Of course. But if she had been, I assume the book would have been "Of Mice and Mange."
Moving on, Chango's Beads
Q: Is it just me or does that cover look weirdly tall? 
A: It is not just me, it IS weirdly tall. 5.98 x 9.01in to be exact.
As in, you must be this tall to read. Recommended for ages 18 and up--according to the publisher's website. 
Could this be a ploy to lure young readers to the book by infusing it with the heady thrill of that which is forbidden. I'm going to go with yes. Definitely.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Well I'll be damned! THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY by Erik Larson

Subtitle: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America.
You mean the Oregon Country Fair? No. 
Burning Man? No. 
The 1893 World's Fair in Chicago? That's the one!
Where: A-train.
Who was reading: A massively tall woman with her hair in a  bun sprouting tendrils like a potato too long in the drawer. She had on a 3/4 sleeve jacket (annoying!) and the sort of ankle-boots one wears when one is an elf going on a quest to a gallery opening on the West side of Bushwick.
Murder: The book tells the story serial killer Dr. H.H. Holmes, who used the World's Fair to lure victims to their death in his "World's Fair Hotel," affectionately nicknamed, the "Murder Castle." Instead of the premium channels and in-room jacuzzi tubs commonly found in today's upscale lodgings, Holmes outfitted his hotel with a gas chamber, dissection table and crematorium to dispose of the bodies. Skeletons were sold for a tidy profit to the medical community. 
Magic: Not sure where magic comes in, but here's a little-known publishing secret: stuff on the cover doesn't always have to make sense. 
Madness: Some people thought Holmes was a little unbalanced. And surprisingly, not all of his guests were 100% on board with giving their lives up to (mad) science. So things got a little dicey down Murder Castle Way.
Did I mention this is based on a true story? No? Well it is.
Anyway, good luck getting to sleep tonight. And should you indeed succumb to the sandman's lullaby, I ought to mention that the ghost of Dr. Holmes will be happy to give you a wake-up call....

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Spotted: Toll the Hounds by Steven Erikson

Where: Q-train
Digital reader: Kindle
Who was reading: A beer-bellied man in an aqua dress shirt. His nails were whittled practically to the bone, and wedged into fleshy little recesses atop noticeably plump fingers. He had the right amount of scruff on his face, but it was more haphazard than sexy.
Has anyone else noticed how a bunch of cool shit seems to be coming out of Canada lately? Author Steven Erikson is from Canada too. I was amused that the book's write-up on Wikipedia links to an article explaining the concept of Canada: "a North American country consisting of ten provinces and 3 territories..." Helpful.
The wiki also features a totally killer book synopsis, explaining just a fraction short of nothing:
"Dire portents plague his nights and haunt the city's streets like fiends of shadow. Assassins skulk in alleyways but it seems the hunters have become the hunted. Hidden hands pluck the strings of tyranny like a fell chorus. Strangers have arrived, and while the bards sing their tragic tales, somewhere in the distance can be heard the baying of hounds. All is palpably not well."
OooOOooo, Spooky! And since this is book 8 in an epic fantasy series, you only have to read 7 other novels before you yourself can palpate the unwellness.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Real-life MOCKINGJAY Occupies Wall Street

Where: A-train
Who was reading: A large man in a sweeping black coat/cloak(?) sure to fire the envy of many a Neil Gaiman fan. From his mandible sprouted a rambling bramble-bush of beard and from his cranium, dyed black hair hung in rebellious waves.
Unsurprisingly for such a wild-haired gent, he boarded the train near the "Occupy Wall Street" encampment.
Suzanne Collins's Capitol vs. Wall Street Capital-ism:
The Capitol forces 24 children to engage in a fight to the death on live television each year. Viewing is mandatory, and serves as a tool to repress popular revolt.
Capitalism causes thousands to die of diseases that are easily preventable, and starvation where food is abundant, by allowing essential resources to concentrate in the hands of a few, while providing inadequate side-payments and/or social safety nets to support those in need.
Capitol is worse. Clearly. All those Hunger Games viewers should be reading a book—Lord of the Flies, say—instead of zoning out in front of the idiot box.
Violent books > Violent television. Always.

Friday, September 30, 2011

This train is headed... TO THE LIGHTHOUSE by Virginia Woolf

Cover of the 1st edition
Where: B/Q platform. Soon after I spotted this reader, she boarded a briskly running B-train while I was left waiting for the Q to saunter into the station 10 minutes late like a stoned highschooler.
Who was reading: A tall blonde with short floaty layers of hair that drifted around as though touched by an errant sea breeze. Of course any current in the air would have come from deep within the subway tunnels, so less "sea-breeze" than sewer's sigh.
Invisible breeze aside, what about her really blew you away? She toted a tote-bag emblazoned with an artist's rendering of the storefront of Shakespeare & Co. booksellers.
Did she really? Totes.
But isn't this supposed to be a post about a book? Why yes, yes it is.
So, Fun Fact: This introspective tour de force by Virginia Woolf stole 15th place on Modern Library's list of the 100 Best Novels, though it only ranked 48th on the companion list selected by readers.
3 books readers ranked higher: Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, Battlefield Earth by L. Ron. Hubbard, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.
And that's why... we have boards of educated persons to tell us what's good.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Spotted: Memories, Dreams, Reflections by C.G. Jung and Aniella Jaffe

Where: N-train
Who was reading: Woman in black shorts with white polka dots and a gauzy white ruffle shirt.
All just for Shoe: She had these incredible high-heels hewn of rubber and chrome—I'd say they were at least a decimeter if they were an inch. And the heels themselves looked like those rubber prongs that poke out of walls. You know, the things that prevent your doorknob from smashing into the wall repeatedly? Dead useful, those.
Forever Jung: This pseudo-autobiography chronicles the life and work of famed psychologist Carl Gustav Jung, exploring in depth his lifelong study of the human psyche. Co-author Jaffe was hired by Pantheon to write the book, but as it progressed, Jung himself became increasingly invested in the project and ended up writing several chapters.
Too many contributors in the kitchen? When Jung passed away, the still-unpublished manuscript was contested on several fronts:
"Jung's family, in the interest of keeping Jung's private life from the public eye, pushed for deletions and other changes. Those involved in its publication demanded massive cuts in the text's length to keep the price of printing down. Jaffé herself was accused of censorship when she began exercising her Jung-appointed authority as editor to reword some of his thoughts on Christianity she deemed too controversial (via Wikipedia).
Yikes! And I thought it was a catastrophe when the copyeditor tries to insert too many commas. But eventually they published the darn thing, and based on a quick survey of Amazon reviews, the book has come to mean a great deal to a great many people--which is great!
"Meaninglessness inhibits fullness of life and is therefore the equivalent to illness. Meaning makes a great many things endurable--perhaps everything." –C.G. Jung

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Spotted: Hark! A Vagrant by the inimitable Kate Beaton

Where: The back room at Korzo Restaurant in Park Slope. Jazz was happening there.
Who was reading: Some guy. Comic geek, naturally. But what's supercool is that I also saw him at the Hark! release party earlier that night. 
What are the odds... that two people, of their own independent volition, migrate to the same obscure jazz show in Brooklyn from a comic book signing in Soho?
Actually, not that slim. Weird birds flock together, now, don't they?
For those of you unfamiliar with Kate Beaton... What the heck are you doing reading about some doofy book sighting?! You should be out buying the book, or blissfully drowning yourself in her archives! Archives that include such gems as the following:
Hark! A Vagrant is a webcomic-turned-book that primarily features historical and/or literary figures (with the occasional David Bowie strip thrown in). Beaton looks at history through the lens of our more modern sensibilities, often to great comic effect. She plays with context and bends well-known personalities as it suits her, notably in the case of Nancy Drew. Here, she fleshes out the action scenes depicted on the covers of Carolyn Keene's  beloved Nancy Drew books, showing what someone who has not read the books might imagine them to depict—assuming, of course, the imaginer is completely insane.
Kate Beaton's is one book I'd like to spy more often. And maybe, just maybe, some self-styled Nancy out there will spy me right back.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Spotted: Delizia: The Epic History of Italians and their Food by John Dickie

Where: B63 bus from Sunset Park to Park Slope, Brooklyn
Who was reading: A wispy sort of brunette with a wilting updo that would have been well suited to one of Jane Austen’s heroines.
Phrenology may have gone the way of the dodo… but for those who actively practice and adhere to the tenets of Rhinopsychology (ie. me, and maybe my mom?)—the bony contours of her schnozz showed unequivocal proof of great personality and intellect.
A People's History of the United Steaks: Delizia is as much a social history as it is a tale of cuisine, establishing ties between the flavor and character of a people in turmoil and the edible matter  with which their teeth, tongues, and esophagi came into most frequent contact over the years.
The Sunday Times of London called it: "A book that is as much a feast of horrors as delights...[Dickie's] book is hard to fault: densely researched, enlightening, and consistently moreish."
Includes recipes! Such as the Silvio Berlusconi-inspired "Bunga Burger": an old cut of mutton sandwiched between two hot tamales and advertised relentlessly across all channels of media. It's worth noting that many Italian traditionalists find this particular dish distinctly unappetizing.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Spotted: A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

Where: Q-train
Who was reading: An old man whose skin was crinkled and yellowing like an ancient scroll. He wore a hempen button-up patterned with new-agey swirls resembling paramecia, and sweaty coils of graying chest-fur peeked out from the V where the top buttons joined. An arm dangled listlessly across his lap like a sleeping baby.
Why anyone would leave their baby in a petri dish of paisley paramecia... is beyond me. Maybe it toughens up the immune system?
Anyway, that book title seems a little over the top, no? In fact it takes pride of place among the  great deceiving titles of our day, a venerable list that includes such varied tomes as A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and The Neverending Story.
They should have called it "All the Ways the World Can End." That's the major takeaway I got from the book in any case; that life on earth is perilous and accidental—constantly on the brink of collapse—yet at the same time humorous and fascinating. 
Especially (and this is the key) when you filter it through the droll voice of Mr. Bill Bryson. That man writes nonfiction like it's a pop song. Catchy.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Spotted: Vivas en su Jardín by Dedé Mirabal

Where: N-train
Who was reading: A black woman with excellent posture and a rectangle patterned dress. She was prim and orderly, yet there was a sweetness about her, much like the Malvina Reynolds tune "Little boxes".
Apropos of which, can you guess which of the following bands did not cover that song? 
A. The Shins
B. The Decemberists
C. Bright Eyes
D. Death Cab for Cutie
E. Linkin Park
First person to answer correctly gets a copy of my new favorite book about the Subway.
Anyway, stumbling back towards the point... the book is an autobiographical account of three sisters known as "las mariposas" who actively opposed the Rafael Leónidas Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. Though only one sister lived to tell the tale, the movement of which they were part succeeded in taking down Trujillo's oppressive regime. 
All in all, a gratifying vindication of the "pueblo unido" protest chant.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close—no, not the sweaty, loquacious masses packed into the subway car—a book by Jonathan Safran Foer!

Where: N-train
Who was reading: A tawny-skinned woman with dirty blond curls cascading over her face like a droopy fern. She wore an attractive dress with scribbles on it, and was a bit plump of face.
"Extremely Cloying and Incredibly False" This is what New York Press reviewer Harry Siegel had to say about Safran Foer's hotly anticipated follow-up to Everything Is Illuminated. Reviewers in general weren't particularly fond of the novel—especially compared to its predecessor.
But the critics were downright amorous towards the book his wife (Nicole Krauss) published that same year: The History of Love.
Oh to be a fly on the breakfast nook bench in the Safran Foer Krauss house when those reviews started pouring in: 
"C'mon Baby, don't be that way, they just resent your creative genius." 
"Get thee gone, Wench! Don't you have a National Book Award gala to attend, hmmm....? Or perhaps you could go fanny about some press conference with your Edward Lewis Wallant. That always makes you happy."
Funny how in my imagination... Jonathan Safran Foer talks exactly like Stewie from Family Guy. Weird, right?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Spotted: A Feast For Crows (Book IV in A Song of Ice and Fire) by George R. R. Martin

Where: N-train
Digital reading device: A Nook, I believe.
Line from the text used to track down the book title later: “Meribald was a septon without a sept, only one step up from a begging brother in the hierarchy of the Faith.”
Since you asked... in Game of Thrones lore, a septon is a priest in the Faith of Seven.
And a sept = a temple.
Speaking of George R. R. Marvelous, did anyone go to this? If so, color me jealous (a deep shade of puce, I think).
Who was reading: A balding man in a baggy pinstripe suit. He perched tensely upon the subway bench, long limbs folded close to his body like the wings of a vulture. In fact, his general demeanor was not unvulturelike at all—I could easily picture him roosted atop some lonesome desert snag, watching.
Anyway, like a vulture(?), he was unadorned by notable fripperies, but for a watchband that had snakeskin pattern stamped upon some leather of indeterminate origin—cowskin at best, rat leather at worst, and fruit leather at tastiest.
Speaking of which… they should totally make fruit-leather-bound editions of classic books. (Are you listening, Everyman’s Library?) For the first time, readers will find Finnegan’s Wake easily digestible. Gluttonous bookies may even finish the likes of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in just one sitting!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Spotted: Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman (Adventures of a Curious Character) by Richard Feynman

Where: Q-train
Who was reading: A thin man, probably in his early thirties, wearing a gray t-shirt and slacks that billowed around him like the robes of an ancient Greek scholar or one of the characters from Harry Potter.
Opposites a-track-t (like a train track, get it? (ugh)): The reader and his girlfriend made an interesting tableau as their outward appearances stood in sharp contrast, yet the two were practically inseparable. Rather than gray swaddling, she was dressed head to toe in clingy garments the color of summer fruits and had eyes like a Disney Princess—wide, saucerous orbs that gazed at him with unveiled affection. His right index finger was constrained by a cast, but its neighboring digits slid up and down her forearm in a caress that lasted from Astoria to Midtown Manhattan, while higher up, her right thumb was occupied in rubbing his bicep. Occasionally they would break apart to point and chuckle over something in the text, but inevitably they were drawn back together like two Simpsonian aliens exchanging long protein strands. Cute.
Another odd pairing: theoretical physics + “engagingly eccentric” and “entertaining” writing.
But allegedly, this anecdotal autobiography of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman has both. Indeed, it “proves once again that it is possible to laugh out loud and scratch your head at the same time (NYTBR).”

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Spotted: The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

Where: Metro North Harlem Line
Who was reading? A woman in a narrow business suit sitting straight as a stick of charcoal. Her severe black bouffant resembled Darth Vader's helmet.
The cover font? Loving it.
It's a book about writing. Sort of like The Producers is a musical about making musicals (Actually, sort of like how most musicals seem to be about making musicals). 
But it's not just a book about writing. It's a book about newspapers, in this case an English-language rag out of Rome, that's put together by a rag-tag crew of lovably flawed journalists (as if that's even a career anymore). 
Which distinguishes it from the vast majority of books about writing/writers, in which the main character comes to the shocking realization that the thing they want to do with their life is write novels, and then in a wacky surprise twist, the reader discovers that the novel he or she has just completed was written by the protagonist. Didn't see that coming.
In a one-star review, Amazon reviewer "a person" demands to know: "What kind of person kills a dog when they lose their job?"
If that's not a selling point for the book... I don't know what is.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Spotted: The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas

Whenever I see this author's name... a deep-voiced audiobook narrator with a thick Castilian lisp speaks it in my head: "Alejandrrrro Dumas." See, several years ago I loaded the Spanish audio of El Conde de Monte Cristo to my ipod for self improvement reasons. And while they say the shuffle mode is impartial, I'll be a son of a gun if track 1 of that audio book didn't come on more often than an Activia ad on the Lifetime channel.
Where: Grand Central Terminal
Who was readingA stern little man who looked like a functionary from a former Eastern Bloc country. He wore a tight blue business shirt cinched at the neck by a darker blue tie. The resulting pressure gave his shorn head the appearance of an bulging sausage with thin, pink lips.
The Plot (Strand #1): A wild mob of dutchmen lynch the Grand Pensionary (which is basically like a leader only more Dutch). Based on true facts.
The Plot (Strand #2): A young man who's a pretty big deal in the world of competitive gardening gets thrown into jail and turns on his not inconsiderable charm to sweet-talk the jailer's goodlooking daughter into rescuing him.
Gradually, the two strands merge, and we come to see how they're related.
*Now a major motion picture! *circa 1964.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Spotted: The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo

On a Scale of 1 to Striking, this cover is: quite.
And the innards? Likely just as striking. Redbreast has earned quite a bit of praise since its publication in 'Ought 4 and was honored with the Glass Key award for the best Nordic crime novel. The NYT Book Review called it "An elegant and complex thriller."
In case you were wondering... It's about a recovering alcoholic detective whose investigative forays into Neo-nazi subculture shed light on WWII-era Nazi activity in Norway.
Where: Q-train
Who was reading: Nobody. The book was affixed with yellow twine to a clownishly large piece of rolling luggage. A lot of other things were affixed too, with the book nesting comfortably among several bulbously bulging Whole Foods totes.
But who was toting those totes? Was it man, woman or beast? Man. It was all man. He was tall and manly and stuff, wearing all black clothing made out of this lightweight material that was probably designed to dry quickly on account of extreme exposure to masculine musk. And then he had on these weird yellow shades, which weren't that cool really, but they made you think.
Think? Think of what? Of the many wonderful bird books that roost oh so pleasantly in my brain, chirping melodically to one another. Ka-KA! Now to put them in order.
Top 5 bird books that immediately come to mind:
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
  • Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Birds of America by Lorrie Moore
  • Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott
Could Redbreast be book the sixth? Only time will tell . . . among other things (like whether it's any good).

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Fruit of All Fears: Under the Dome by Stephen King

Where: Q-train
Who was reading: A young African American woman with hair ironed smooth and hot pink nail polish smudged up all rough. 
Maybe this was a skin condition? But there were little raised semi-spheres all along her neck and jawline looking like nothing so much as goosebumps.
Oooo Goosebumps—Let's talk about that some more! Did anyone else read the Goosebumps book about the kid with the camera that took pictures of terrible accidents that were just about to happen? Say Cheese and Die it was called. I didn't sleep for a fortnight after reading it.
Anyway, there was plenty to be horrified about on that train car. Across the aisle, a crazed man had extracted a very rotten banana from his very overstuffed shopping bag and was consuming it bite by gloopy bite in tandem with spoonsful of peanut butter and margarine. 
I couldn't believe it! (wasn't butter). No offense to Stephen and no offense to those who savor the flavor of rot, but I don't think the king of horror himself could have conceived a fruit more sinister and/or vile.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Poring over POUR YOUR HEART INTO IT: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time

By: Howard Schultz and Dori Jones Yang
Where: N-train
Who was reading: A mild-mannered Sara Crewe type with a tidy blue pea coat, bottle green galoshes crossed daintily at the ankles, and the face of a porcelain doll.
Printed on the book was: Property of the Hoboken Public Library.
Property, eh? I remember back before there was property (this is a bald-faced lie), before the enclosure movement, when words sprang forth unhindered like wild blackberries in the common fields. Their bounty was free to be enjoyed by lowly peasants and feudal lords alike.
Then the capitalists came... and after they had slain all the diggers, they appropriated the common land for themselves, and bound it with fences so that it was accessible only to a privileged few. But it didn’t end with land. Oh no. Suddenly all our best resources had to be divvied up into wee packages, stamped as commercial goods and sold for a hefty premium. Bread was portioned into slices (which was actually a pretty good idea in retrospect…), words were forced into constrictive narrative arcs under the savage whips of editors, then sold in inky little rectangles called “books”, and vast urns of coffee were emptied into scores of identical cardboard cups that would go on to sell for upwards of 4 bucks a pop at Starbucks.
Starbucks? Hey—that’s what this book is about! Cool, right?
To learn more about how the privileged few converted the blood, sweat and tears of working men and women into sparkly gold coins, read Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Spotted: Stolen Lives: 20 Years in a Desert Jail by Malika Oufkir and Michele Fitoussi

Not to be confused with: Stollen Loaves: 20 Years in a Dessert Jail which is kind of an adaptation of Hansel and Gretel only longer and, ultimately, fatter.
Where: N-train
Who was reading: A young woman with dark circles under her eyes and a harried look about her. The flared cuffs of her jeans tumbled like heavy drapes over silver sneakers.
Barnes and Noble sez: On August 15th, 1972, Malika Oufkir was probably the most privileged teenager in all Morocco. The eldest daughter of King Hassan II's top aide, she had been raised in the opulent seclusion of the monarch's harem. But within 24 hours, her father would be tried and summarily executed for treason, and she and her entire family would be arrested and imprisoned in a remote desert penal colony. For the next 20 years, her accommodations would only grow worse.”
Ok, so I’m sure what happened to the author was really bad and all, but… It sort of bothers me that this particular story garnered so much attention simply because it happened to a child of the leisure class. Alright, it really bothers me. Must a tale of injustice involve rich pretty people before we the book-buying public deign to care? And at the end of the day, what do we take away from such a sensationalistic story? It’s an isolated incident that sucked for a handful of people, but it doesn’t have wide-ranging implications for society and it doesn’t call attention to any particular wrong in need of being righted.
If you want to hear about how prisons suck, why not read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander? Did you know that more black men are currently incarcerated in America than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began? That’s fucked up. And it’s happening right now on a large scale. It’s also an issue we can do something about. And to me, that makes Ms. Alexander's book 100 times more worthy of being read than Ms Oufkir’s. It doesn’t just give the reader a fleeting sense of smug good samaritanship—that vacuous “I just concentrated on a serious issue” feeling you occasionally get when you listen to NPR. It gives them the opportunity to stand up for something and potentially make a difference.
Also? It's worth noting that Malika Oufkir’s father did stage a coup and try to kill the king. Of course his family didn’t deserve to be punished, and in my opinion, the death penalty is always unethical, but it’s not like he was 100% innocent.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Q is for Queasy

Prior to hopping on the train this morning, I purchased an iced coffee at a local café, thinking it would wake me up for work. Instead, the chilled liquid immediately started roiling like acid sludge in my belly, threatening to come up in waves. And the jerky movements of the train weren’t helping any. It was dreadful. More dreadful still, there was no place to dispose of my beverage, so I had to hold the sweating plastic vessel for the entire ride watching it’s contents slosh around in a gross imitation of what was happening in my stomach.

Now I’m an able-bodied person still in the bloom of youth, so most days I’m happy to stand up and let others take what seats are available. But today it was my greatest wish to sit calmly, set the coffee cup down between my knees and let the acid tides recede. Imagine my delight, then, when the train started to slow at Atlantic/Pacific, and the person right in front of me (a middle-aged man rocking Men’s Warehouse) lifted his backpack as if preparing to get up. Oh frabjous day! The doors slid open, and… and... he just sat there. False alarm. I sighed in resignation while the acid sludge tossed more angrily than before.

The man picked up a book that had been sitting off to the side, but it was nothing interesting, some workbook-y paperback textbook like “Microeconomics for Manchildren” or what have you. In cases like this where the reader matches the book too closely I often lose interest. It would have been more intriguing if he’d been reading that revamped Bella and Edward edition of Wuthering Heights, for example. Anyway, the train once more started to slow, and this time, the man not only picked up his backpack, he closed the book with what I perceived to be an air of finality and slipped it inside, zippering the pocket behind it. Was ever there a surer sign of getting off? He held the pack on his lap and looked purposefully at the door, while I looked purposefully at him. The train stopped in a series of shuddering jolts, each one heightening my anticipation of the upcoming seat vacancy. But when the full stop came, the man remained firmly rooted to the bench. Wtf? I think Lewis Carroll would agree that this was not frabjous at all! He went through this same routine at every single stop as the train rumbled and jerked its way over the Manhattan Bridge and up towards Midtown. By the time the he got up to leave, I was two stops from work and thoroughly nauseated.

Now at first glance it might seem like this is a rambling string of complaints about nausea and public transportation etiquette—but it’s not. This is a rambling string of complaints about motion sickness: the feeling you get on a moving train when no one is reading. Because the very worst part of this morning’s commute—worse than the coffee and the standing and the hopes dashed to smithereens over and over again—was the fact that aside from Mr. Backpack, the train was scarily devoid of books and readers.

I would have been reading, if only I had a seat.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Why Books Make Us Mad: a top 10 list (part 2)

Yesterday we examined a vitriolic comment from this very blog and discussed some of the top reasons why books can cause their readers to experience unpleasant emotions. And you can bet your best bonnet that Ayn Rand was mentioned. Today, we continue that list, with less Rand but more rant.

6. It's not nearly as funny as it thinks it is: One of the most grating books I've ever picked up was Christopher Moore's Lamb, a light-hearted retelling of Jesus' life that relies almost entirely on hackneyed, toothless jokes. I didn't mind Moore's irreverent approach to religion. What got under my skin was the humor, which couldn't have been safer or more predictable. Ho ho, someone said "wanker"! Oh man, they did the thing where a character is like "No WAY will I ever do X. Not in this life, buddy." And then in the next scene they're TOTALLY DOING X. "The King of Queens" tries harder than this.
7. It tries way too hard to impress you with smarts: If the author keeps name-checking philosophers and Great Canonical Writers and using five-dollar words when there's no need. That's usually a sign that there's nothing else there. A variation of this is when the author tries to go all brainy-punk and combines coarse vernacular with academic language, so we have "fucking faggot-ass reconstructivists" and "Carolingian as shit." Nobody talks like this in real life.
8. It’s like everything else: “So, yeah… I’m a white dude living in Brooklyn. I have this novel and it’s sort of about isolation and stuff. Stuff like yearning. And how women don’t understand me. In Brooklyn.” A handful of disaffected musings about the banalities of day-to-day life in an urban setting do not the next Ulysses make. Generally speaking, this kind of stuff makes the reader sleepy, not angry. But it CAN make the reader angry, IF…
9. It’s totally overrated: “Chabonathan Safran Auster’s latest unreliably-narrated nonsequential memoir in verse is an unputdownable tour de force of wry, but shockingly honest, compellingness.” —The Adulation Press
I’m not entirely certain what it’s about, but I instinctively dislike this book already. Problem is, my friends are reading it, so now I have to too if I want to be able to participate in conversations with them. Of course, the added element of duress is doing nothing to alleviate my previously existing disinclination to like, but whatever, I’ll just read it really fast and get over—hey wait a minute, is this a new narrator or just some weird drug sequence? Now I’m confused. And I feel like a failure. Curse you, book! You did this to me. Curse you and your sequels. And your sequels’ sequels!
10. It doesn't believe in anything: One of the problems with "South Park" is that its creators will wade into some hot-button debate, make fun of everyone and their strong feelings, and then back out, leaving a mouthpiece character like Stan to say, in effect, "You're all giant babies and the only intelligent response to this problem is to not care about it." Caring about things doesn't make people weak or foolish; it just makes them people. This is less a problem with books, since writing a book is a big pain-in-the-ass undertaking and you probably won't try it if you don't actually have something to say, but it pops up sometimes in prankish, intellectually posturing works like those of Mark Leyner or Tao Lin. (No offense...)

Well, that wraps up our list. Once again, thanks to my DC correspondent for his contributions, and I encourage one and all to chime in with quibbles of their own. In closing I'd like to say that while I may be critical from time to time (and more so than usual in this post) I love all books--especially the ones that make me mad.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Why Books Make Us Mad: a top-10 list (part 1)

A few weeks ago, an anonymous commenter wrote the following in response to a blog post I had written about Ellen Raskin:
“i would never have know about Raskin of i didn't have a book report of "The Westing Game" bitch!!! fuck her!!!” [sic]
I was personally taken aback by this expression of vitriol, and for a moment, considered playing censor and removing the comment. But then I got to thinking: while it’s in poor taste to attack an author because you dislike what they have written, anger is a perfectly valid reaction to a text. I can recall a few times when books have made me really and truly livid, as I’m sure most of us can if we rack our brains.

So what is it about books that can get people so steamed? Here are a few ideas pertaining to fiction specifically.

1. Reading Under Duress: It is a scientific fact that necessity diminishes enjoyment. Ancient cavemen did not go hiking and fishing for fun as we do today, they were obligated to do these things for survival and I’m sure they hated every minute of it. It’s the same with books. When I meet someone who loathes Dickens, it usually turns out that they had to read him in school—not unlike our angry commenter. Because the commenter read this perfectly delightful book in the context of a school assignment, he/she was predisposed to see it as a burden rather than a source of glee. As such, the reader probably spent the entire book nursing a steadily growing resentment rather than learning something new or allowing him/herself to get swept up in the plot.
2. The characters are unlikable/unrelatable. Nothing draws the ire of readers like bad characters, but characters can suck in more ways than one. Some characters are boring and whiney and you want to see them fail; some are underdeveloped and shallow, and who cares?; some are downright dastardly and you know that their success will occasion suffering for others. Now don’t get me wrong, evil characters can be fun and interesting, but they’re fun and interesting largely because of how much you hate them. A friend of mine claims that when she read The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope, the deceitful ways of its eponymous anti-heroine actually caused her to throw the book across the room—this is anger at its most fun.
Kenneth "Anger" Anger: reader and author
People hate bland characters, too, but it’s not as enjoyable as with villains. The blands tend to leave you seething quietly, rather than raging around breaking anything that isn’t nailed down. Sometimes you don’t even know how much you dislike a boring character until you meet someone else who’s read the book and the two of you tease it out in conversation.
3. The characters are likable, but they constantly make terrible decisions: No! Don’t open that spooky-looking door! Remember the warning from the old crone? “Venture not past shadow’d gate?”—Wait, no. NOoooooooo!
     It bears mentioning that likable characters who make bad decisions often become unlikable characters as the book progresses.
4. It flattens entire categories of people: All the men are smug dicks, or all the women are clingy psycho bitches. Every poor person is either venal and resentful or a dirt-smudged saint. Every black person is hip and easygoing, or else they're an Angry Black Person with right on their side. I was going to try and keep this balanced, but let's be real here: most of the time when this flattening happens, it's in a book written by a white dude, and it's affecting a category of person other than white dudes. White straight dudes. Women get it worst in most of the fiction I read, but I'm not sure that means they have it empirically worst; it may just be that authors (=bookish white straight dudes) spend more time brooding over loving/hating women than any particular racial or ethnic or sexual minority.
5. The author is clearly using fiction to manipulate people into adopting their own evil worldview: I’m sure Ayn Rand isn’t the only author who does this, but no one else immediately comes to mind.

Well that's 5 points down, and 5 more to come tomorrow when this little haterade cocktail hour  recommences. In the meantime, a special thank you to my DC correspondent for collaborating on the list.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Spotted: Dungeons and Dragons Eberron Campaign Guide

*Title ctd. A Fourth Edition D&D Suplement
Where: N-train
Who was reading? A fair-skinned pencil pusher wearing a mildly professorial jacket of indeterminate fabric--some mind-boggling variation on plaid tweed that seemed to involve corduroy or possibly even velour. 
His manner and appearance were reminiscent of a young Severus Snape. Circa James Potter's reign of terror at Hogwarts.
The book was opened to: a map of Karrnath, but his eyes spent more time flickering about the car than focusing on the page.
Which begs the question: Why would you run the risk of being seen reading such a potentially embarrassing book in public, only to NOT read it?
From the publisher: "Featuring all of the character elements from the core rulebooks, this updated version of the Eberron world is a must for any gamer that likes the magic-as-technology, film noir, high-adventure campaign setting that was chosen from over 15,000 game submissions."
This one was a near miss for me. While I'm a huge fan fan of magic-as-technology and film noir-based gaming, I absolutely insist that my high-adventure campaign settings be chosen from a submissions pool of 16,000 or higher.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Spotted: The Instructions by Adam Levin

Not to be confused with… Adam Levine: Singer from a band with one big hit that nobody remembers (like Semisonic minus the awesome) and celebrity judge on NBC’s new American Idol ripoff.
3 different covers for the same edition? How cool is that?!
Where: N-train
Who was reading: A man in his 30s with rain-dampened hair and a rather boastful jacket that said: Iron Man 2008 FINISHER—in case you were wondering whether he started the race and then got bored partway through.
Boastful, yes, but informative too! The jacket also listed the exact distances of each leg of this grueling triathlon (Swim 2.4 miles, Bike 112 miles, Run 26.2 miles). As a result, I will never enter an Iron Man competition under the mistaken impression that finishing is humanly possible. Jacket be-damned!
Anyway, this book is an Iron Man Competition in it's own rite, clocking in at 1000 pages! 1000 pages? Heavens to Murgatroyd! 
The Onion's A.V. Club euphemizes its length, saying "The Instructions bears the mark of Infinite Jest in its maximalist style. . . like David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece, Instructions falls into digressions, but with a poignancy that steals over the hyperverbal frenzy without warning." 
Hyperverbal frenzy? Ok, but I think what we're all really wondering is: Does the reader use it to do bicep curls when he’s resting his eyes?
This is precisely how... I used to pass my time when I worked the circulation desk at my local library. Only instead of a hip new novel from McSweeneys, I used an out-dated Portuguese dictionary and emitted guttural Brazilian swears whenever I really felt the burn. Come to think of it, this is the one kind of "book burning" I advocate.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Spotted: The Five Love Languages--SINGLES EDITION! by Gary Chapman

Where: Q-train
Who was reading: A woman in a dingy olive trench coat and textured linen suit, with limp, straightened hair glued right to her scalp. Her face was so bright and youthful peeking out of this drab costume that it resembled a rosebud emerging from a dead mass of vines.
And metaphorical flowers weren't the only thing blossoming on the train-car... love was in bloom too. The woman cast more than a couple longing glances at a fellow reader standing in the aisle.
Tall dark and handsome, the beige-sweatered object of her affections was scrolling through the news on his iphone. The type on his screen was set extremely large and you know what they say about men with large typefaces....
Unfortunately, he either failed to notice, or made the conscious decision to spurn her ocular advances.
More on this in the sequel to Chapman's book: The Five-Hundred Dialects of Scorn
Random Pet Peeve: While the text-resizing feature on e-readers is useful, I kind of prefer when things are unnecessarily difficult. Like with analog and garter belts. Is there a love language for people who think like this?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Reading While Riding: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Excellent weather has temporarily interfered with the blog, as I've been biking to work instead of taking the subway. Although I have yet to see anyone reading a book on his or her bicycle, I imagine it's only a matter of time—especially with handy products like this Performance Book Caddy on the market!

"Boy, that last chapter sure ended on a cliff-hanger."