Friday, September 30, 2011

The Modernist edited by R. Klanten and H. Hellige

The Modernist
Edited by R. Klanten, H. Hellige

We would go to Barnes and Noble and crouch to the floor, pawing through the bottom shelf where they kept the graphic design books. "Look at this," he would say whenever he found something that would set his brain alight. "So pretty."

I was in love, and I knew exactly what he meant.

We would study the magazines and shamelessly pilfer ideas from Apple ads and Entertainment Weekly. We were new millennium teenagers careening into adulthood, and I hoped the world would know just how good he was. He and I were never meant to be partners, but through him I learned to know good design when I saw it. And though I may not have the same level of visual imagination as him, I learned how to lay out a double page spread and I credit him for what skills I have. Maybe if my process had happened differently, I wouldn't romanticize graphic design in the way that I do, but then, romance is part of enjoying anything, isn't it?

Because my soft spot for futurism mixed with nostalgia can be downright mushy at times, I loved the work featured in The Modernist, from the very first page. There is everything from re-imagined movie posters and book covers, to visual representations of TV shows, commissioned event flier work, to personal projects from a variety of graphic designers that are breathtaking.

(by M.S. Corley from The Modernist, Copyright Gestalten 2011. Click to enlarge.)

As I was perusing this book in an electronic format, I could see how it would be easy for a viewer to flip through the pages quickly, hungering for more. However, this is also the sort of book worth lingering over during repeat reads. There are so many little details to absorb, and it's inspiring for my own work. I've always loved a well-designed promo poster, and I used to have a stack of hand drawn fliers from local punk shows. Even now, whenever I visit somewhere that has free fliers or postcards lying around, I'm likely to take the ones that look interesting, even if I can't attend whatever is being advertised. I'm slightly envious of people who know how to do just do good visual artwork. My approach is more of the "Eh, poke around and drag and drop and see if this works?" variety. But first, I have to see something I love, and that gets my brain going.

Still, I wish I could afford to pay a stable of graphic designers as good as the people featured in this book. In my magazine, Electric City Creative, I employ basically the same self-made template and it evolves slightly along the way. I would love to be able to do interesting things with interesting fonts and big, bold graphics on the cover, and to utilize a more sophisticated design in general. Alas, we are a staff of two right now — a writer/editor who masquerades as a designer and a photographer/writer. We're not quite there yet, but we can look around for ideas in the meantime.

(by La Boca from The Modernist, Copyright Gestalten 2011. Click to enlarge.)

The Modernist is unabashed in its influences. Some images are made up to look like old library books, complete with yellowed tape holding together the "cover." Others take directly from 60s-era visions of the future, while others revel in simplistic images that wouldn't look out of place on National Parks signage.

Looking over the pages on a decent 21" LCD monitor was fine, but I would really like to get my mitts on a physical copy of the book. Currently, I am attempting to behave myself and to move through the stack of books I already have here before I make any more purchases, but I would wholeheartedly recommend The Modernist as a gift for anyone in your life who loves visual art. Design similar to that featured in the book is becoming more present in so many places — everywhere from product packaging to album covers, and I would love to see more work like this hung in galleries. How many people do you know who would love a print of these Black Swan posters?

(by La Boca from The Modernist, Copyright Gestalten 2011. Click to enlarge.)

My visual arts education is largely informal. I have learned by observing people who know what they are doing and listening to what they have to say. From there, I can only go with my gut. Art is everywhere, and it can be accessible to everyone. The more effort we put into bringing good work into the world and spreading it around, the more likely we are to reach a teenager who is looking for that one thing that makes them say, Yes. I want to do that.

(by Brandon Schaefer from The Modernist, Copyright Gestalten 2011. Click to enlarge.)


I received this ebook as a review copy from Gestalten. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Quarantine: Stories by Rahul Mehta

Quarantine: Stories
by Rahul Mehta

But I had made headway with the headstand. I could get into the pose and even hold it. I was up to two minutes. I thought of Ravana, standing on each of his heads for a thousand years, trying to convince Shiva he was sorry, even if he wasn't sure he was. I pictured Thomas doing the same pose at his ashram in India. I imagined the two of us, simultaneously inverted, on opposite ends of the world.
— from "Ten Thousand Years"

What links together Rahul Mehta's nine stories in Quarantine is the longing for connection. Each story's protagonist feels at least one degree removed from their own life, either through their romantic relationships or their familial situation. Writing from the point of view of Indian-American gay men, "otherness" arrives without effort as Mehta tackles themes of loyalty, tradition, and yearning. The stories are both immersive and contemplative, and exactly the sort of lonely romanticism that my literary brain loves.

Everyone in the stories feels a little bit (or very) adrift, oftentimes within family dynamics. In the title story, the narrator (if he his named, I didn't catch it) must act as though his boyfriend, Jeremy, is just a friend during a visit home, in order to make things easier around his grandfather. Notoriously difficult to those around him, his grandfather, Bapuji, has made his daughter-in-law miserable with his constant criticism. When the narrator and Jeremy decide to visit the nearby Hare Krishna commune, Jeremy suggests bring Bapuji, saying it will give the narrator's mother a nice daylong break. While visiting, Bapuji's demeanor changes.

When we return to the temple, the aarti has already begun. The curtains have been lifted, revealing a gold statue of Krishna in the center and Hanuman and Ganesh on either side. They are layered with garlands and surrounded by candles. My grandfather is standing in the front of the room before the statue of Krishna. To our surprise, he is leading the aarti, chanting "Hare Krishna, Hare Ram." He is holding a large silver platter with coconuts and flowers and a flame and burning incense, and he moves the offering in clockwise circles. He seems to weak to carry such a heavy platter. I wonder how he is managing. Everyone is watching him, following him, echoing his chanting. Jeremy and I sit back silently.

Afterward, several devotees talk to my grandfather. They want to know about India. Are the temples beautiful? Has he been to Varanasi or to Mathura, birthplace of Krishna? He is smiling and gesturing and he has more energy than I have ever seen. It is only with great difficulty that we are able to pull him away.

The story opens the book and sets the tone for the simmering discontent that follows.

However, that's not to say that Quarantine is an entirely unhappy book. Small moments of joy punctuate many of the stories, during the moments when the characters feel at ease and snugly nestled into a comfortable life-groove. Perhaps my favorite story in the collection is "What We Mean," in which the playfulness of Carson and Parag's relationship dissolve into a final breakup. The two meet at a Halloween party, with Parag dressed as Peter Pan, and Carson dressed as a green lawn, complete with a "Keep Off!" sign.

Towards the end of the night, after Jeff realizes we want to be alone and excuses himself early, I tell Carson I want to bury myself in him. He removes the sign and asks, "Front yard or back?"

I say, "I don't care." I whisper in his ear, "Plant me."

Though Parag's grip on sanity slips throughout the rest of the story, the entire thing is filled with such excellent wordplay, I'm not sure I've ever read a breakup story quite like it.

Overall, the collection makes me curious about what Mehta would do with a full-on novel. The intimate way in which he writes would do well in long form, I think, despite his short story style being more about snapshots into characters' lives. He could do a lot with the ideas of searching for home, complicated love, and travel. I know I'm speculating, but I sense that Mehta has a grand and sprawling tale gestating somewhere in his head. Maybe he's already begun; I do not know. Whenever it arrives, I will read it.


Full disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Lucky Peach Issue 1 - Ramen (Summer 2011) edited by David Chang, Chris Ying, and Peter Meehan

Lucky Peach Issue 1 — Ramen (Summer 2011)
edited by David Chang, Chris Ying, and Peter Meehan

Lucky Peach represents what can be great about the magazine industry. Founded by Momofuku chef David Chang, the publication brings together his passion for innovation and his loyalty to doing singular, often simple, things well. Issue #1 is ad-free and dedicated almost entirely to one subject — ramen. The good stuff, the real stuff, straight out of Japanese back alleys and from old-school noodle masters. Perhaps only through McSweeney's could this sort of indulgence be encouraged on a large scale. As someone who publishes a magazine composed largely of my own whims, I love what they've done.

Though I do enjoy cooking and talking about food in general, what initially got me interested in the magazine was Anthony Bourdain. I've been a major fan of his for several years, and I love that he's made a career out of being both a professional smart-ass and a romantic. He has two features in this issue — a short "joint" called "Chang: The Rise of Ramen Boy," and a conversation between himself, Chang, and fellow chef Wylie Dufresne, "Mediocrity: A Conversation."

If you think Mr. Bourdain can be cranky at times, these other two make him look sunny by comparison. The three get together, get drunk, and get vociferous about food culture and those who are comfortable not challenging themselves.

Wylie: I mean, I get in trouble over a lot of things. But I'm not equating farm-to-table with mediocrity. I'm saying that it's a symbol of the mediocrity that exists at a certain level in kitchens, particularly in New York City.

Anthony: Farm-to-table is saying right up front that it is — to use the dreaded phrase — ingredient-driven rather than chef-creativity-driven or technique-driven. It's saying the most important thing is where it comes from, how it was grown, who grew it, and not what you do with it. It's basically patting yourself on the back for being there.

Wylie: But that's not cooking. We're talking about cooking. We are cooks. We should have a responsibility to cook. The fact that we're talking about what people are doing with the ingredients is a mistake. Do something to it. That's showing that you have a skill.


Wylie: Let's encourage people to cook. I mean, what's your favorite place to have sushi?

Anthony: In New York? Anywhere, ever? (pauses) Jiro in Tokyo.

Wylie: Yeah, because he makes the best fucking rice you've ever had. That's cooking.

Anthony: He has it grown especially for him. And he cooks it, yes. He makes the best fucking rice I've ever had.

Wylie: Right. Not because he knows a guy that fishes the best fish out of the water, because he cooks the best rice. It's not about the fucking product, it's about cooking.

I support organic farming and more restaurants localizing their ingredients, but I see both sides here. There's a certain level of smugness that comes with food culture (or any culture, really) where its participants want to feel better and more important than their counterparts. It's true — what does it matter if your lettuce was grown on the roof if that lettuce tastes like shit? At the same time, as Mr. Bourdain points out, "Sometimes I don't want to think when I go out to dinner! I don't want to think. I just want to sit down, eat a crust of bread, and have a properly made pasta rather than a fucked-up pasta or a tweaked-up pasta — I just want a well-made pasta that's got some good bite to it. To me, that makes me happy."

Exactly. I don't really care so much if you lovingly spoke to your tomato plants or watered them with your Earth-loving tears — just don't make shitty sauce. Let's just get quality ingredients that make a positive impact on the community, and then spare the congratulatory song and dance.

What it comes down to is that Chang and Dufresne are a different breed of human. They do not idle well — if they are not constantly challenging themselves and the standards around them, then it is not a good day's work. To them, "good enough" is defeat, and fear of failure is abhorrent. Of course no one wants to fail, but they get off on taking something familiar and making it extraordinary. The recipes that Chang includes throughout Lucky Peach reflect that.

Just for ramen broth alone, Chang includes five different options one could use as a base beneath the noodles — the Momofuku ramen broth, bacon dashi, Tonkotsu-style broth, carrot dashi, and a good chicken soup base. I don't eat pork, so it was nice to see options that didn't require it. (However, I'm sure that if I were in Japan and presented with a big bowl of good-smelling ramen, I'm sure I'd just eat up without asking too many questions about the ingredients.) These broths would be challenging for the beginning cook, but someone with an average amount of skill could handle it. There are also a lot of different egg recipes, for those who like their ramen topped with additional gooey protein.

Also included is "A Recipe in Haikus" by Peter Meehan for corn with miso butter and bacon. It makes me want to see what other recipes can be shaped into 5-7-5 form:

Render the bacon,
Add the corn. Jump and sizzle
As gold turns to brown.

Miso and butter
Join'd in equal proportions
Plop! into the pan.

Splash stock, then toss. Glaze.
Crack slow-poached egg to crown like
Hokkaido sunset.

The magazine has a lot of literary and artistic elements that elevate it beyond other food publications, including things like the illustrated tale "Bigger Than You: The True Story of Ryuji Tsukazaki and The Little Pleasures of the World's Biggest Man" by Matthew Volz (whose drawing style reminded me a little bit of Wendy MacNaughton). There's also some fantastic artwork by Mike Houdon depicting "Tokyo Ramen Gods," and the entire magazine has interesting illustrations and photographs from a variety of people. In the closing pages, there's even a short story: "The Gourmet Club" by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki. It's a somewhat morbid tale that talks about a group of overfed, over-monied meal connoisseurs who are always looking to to impress each other with their discoveries.

Lucky Peach is a really solid, interesting collection of food talk, and I'm considering getting a subscription. As a quarterly publication, I'm curious to see what other themes Chang and company take on, and I'm always wanting to read more from Anthony Bourdain. And though I'm not so naïve as to expect less pork products in future issues, I look forward to seeing what other dishes they feature that I may want to try on my own. It's a different sort of food porn, this magazine, and it's both aspirational and reassuring. "Look, we may be working professionals," it seems to say, "but everyone — everyone — can always do better."


This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Believer: Eighty-Second Issue: The Music Issue: July/August 2011

The Believer: Eighty-Second Issue: The Music Issue: July/August 2011
Featuring a CD of new work by contemporary composers, among other interesting things like words from David Mitchell, Nick Hornby, Martha Wainwright, and David Byrne

Anyone who wants to tell me that a magazine shouldn't count toward Cannonball Read has clearly never read The Believer. Most of the images are small and hand-drawn, and the reading is usually involved. That's not say it is humorless — sidebar lists like "Members of The Decemberists with Unusual Feet" attest to that — but it's certainly not like cracking open Spin or People, not to mention there's considerably less advertising. I don't have a subscription to The Believer, but I've purchased the music issue for the past three years. What can I say; I'm a sucker for publications with a free CD.

Let's talk a little bit about the CD first. I have limited knowledge of classical music — and by classical, I mean the composers we've all heard of like Beethoven, Handel, Tchaikovsky, etc — and I know very little of contemporary composers, outside of some who are known for movie scores. It's not my field of expertise, so I welcomed the mini-education the CD provides. Being a former cello player and a former dancer, my listening was less emotional and more physical. Either I could feel bow movements, or I could picture potential choreography. There's so much potential performance in many of these songs.

Tyondai Braxton's "Uffe's Woodshop," the disc opener, is mechanically ordered, yet chaotic in a good way. There's so much going on with all the electronic looping and orchestral noises, but I liked it a lot. From there, we immediately calm down with Sarah Kirkland Snider's "Nausicaa," taken from her Penelope. YouTube is not all that forthcoming with many of the songs from many of the composers, but this is in a similar vein to "Nausicaa:"

Shara Worden's vocals are just gorgeous, and I'd gladly take a whole album of this music. And speaking of interesting vocals, Erin Gee's "Yamaguchi Mouthpiece" (part 3) recalls Björk's Medulla experiments.

Owen Pallett's "Scandal at the Parkade," which combines impressive violin-playing with looping pedals:

And then there's "Save My Death," which stems from this:

TIMBERBRIT is a full-length opera starring fictional versions of Britney Spears and her erstwhile lover Justin Timberlake. In an alternate pop universe, Britney's latest breakdown has propelled her into her final hours. Justin learns of her imminent demise and rushes to her side to profess his undying love. The music of TIMBERBRIT is inspired by incredibly slowed-down versions of Britney's own songs. Composer Jacob Cooper stretches the tempo to its breaking point, infusing the familiar pop structures with a deranged, nightmarish intensity. Breezy tunes about teenage crushes become statements of mortality and supreme love, much like those common in traditional opera.

That is both ridiculous and awesome, and I love it. Other highlights from the disc include Ted Hearne's "Snowball" (jazz with strings), Jozef Van Wissem's "Aerumna" (atmospheric and meditative), and Nicole Lizeé's excerpt from "King Kong and Fay Wray" (ominous, brief).

Probably my favorite from the collection is Bryce Dessner's "Lincoln's March." Filled with french horns and other muted brass, it reminds me of some of the stuff I used to play in orchestra. Dessner is the guitarist for the National, a band I keep hearing is brilliant, but I've yet to check out. I wish YouTube or Vimeo had this song.

About the only song I just flat out did not like was Daniel Padden's "Ship Sarangi." I sort of understand what he's doing with non-traditional sounds and instruments, but it trips all the wrong switches in my brain and just feels like noise. It's not for me. I'm not super crazy about Tristan Perich's "Momentary Expanse" either, but I like the title, and if I'm in the right mood, I keep listening when it comes around. Overall though, this Believer disc is well worth the cover price even before one gets to the magazine content itself.

And what of the magazine content? Listen, as soon as I saw that David Mitchell was involved, that was enough for me. The few interviews and one book (so far) I've read have made me hopelessly literary-enamored with him. And he's cute, and sometimes I am shallow.

He talks to Brian Eno, a musician I find interesting, even if he's more of a background figure in some of my listening. They talk about the evolution of ambient music, inspiration from dreams and otherwise, the variables involved when a person listens to music, how they interpret and feel connected to it, depending on their environment. It's lovely and fascinating, but this might be my favorite bit:

DM: Novels are palimpsests written over earlier versions, red herrings, wrongly barked-up trees, and still somehow contain the ghosts of the novels that didn't get written in order for this one, the finished one, to emerge. In a not-dissimilar way, one senses the thought behind an Eno composition — all the paths not taken to find the uncluttered path that is taken.

When I do listen close and hard to your work — as opposed to writing to it — I feel watched. I don't know where this is going — a confession of paranoia, perhaps! — but your music has a particular hold on its listeners, and we hanker to know why.

1. Fiction writing is often rearranging ghosts, yes — of other books/stories and our histories.
2. The act of listening closely is a bliss that rivals the joy of finding great music to which I can write well.
3. He said the word "hanker." I thought I was the last person on Earth to use the word "hanker."

Much like myself, The Believer is fond of lists and bringing together seemingly disparate things together under one theme. There is a whole article about songs that feature the telephone, either conversations on or the noises associated with it (busy signals, dial tones, etc.). As someone who has made lists of songs that all have the same title, or songs that feature clapping, I am familiar with the undeniable categorization urge.

Lists carry over into Nick Hornby's "Stuff I've Been Reading," which have thankfully made a return to the magazine's pages. For those not familiar, he lists the books purchased that month, and then the books he read. Sometimes the two lists overlap, sometimes not. This time, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and Whoops!: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay by John Lanchester were both purchased and read in the same month. I've read his collected volumes of columns, and together they do end up flowing together nicely, in a way that I would imagine a lot of people who write books for a living would manage to do. The trouble with reading a standalone column is that I just end up wanting to read more.

There's also a great longer article about the unloved bassoon, "The Farting Bedpost." Writer and former bassoon player Eileen Reynolds wonders and researches how the bassoon became the go-to stand in for clown-like noises and its place as the "Rodney Dangerfield instrument." Having played in a full orchestra quite a bit, I was aware of how a bassoon could sound outside of "dopey pet food commercials," but I'd never given it much thought before. Then I remembered that I used to refer to my strange sounding '88 Volvo car horn as "an out of tune bassoon."

David Byrne's conversation with Brazilian musician Tom Zé is fascinating, even if I suspect I might not like all of Zé's music. Now, don't hold me to that, as I have yet to investigate, but maybe with my noise sensitivities, I tend to be a bit leery when it comes to someone who has used a floor polisher as an instrument. However, I definitely respect innovation mixed with tradition, and that is something with which both Byrne and Zé are familiar. They get a little technical at times, discussing musical theory and things like "integral serialism" and "radicalize the twelve-tone method," and I admit it went a little bit over my head. Still, their enthusiasm is infectious, and I particularly liked this exchange:

DAVID BYRNE: Is music taught in secondary schools in Brazil? What kind of music is taught?

TOM ZÉ: Music education has not been a requirement in Brazilian schools for many years. This year it will be reinstated. Some schools already included music in their curricula. For example, the Colégio Construarte, here in São Paulo, has an elementary curriculum for students up to nine years old who receive musical education. They learn about the use of one's own body to make sound, voice as an instrument, the practice and recognition of rhythms, the identification of rhythms with corporal movement, and the recognition of sounds produced in nature and by instruments. In 2011, musical education will be restored in all schools.

DB: This is great news! Sorry if it is a surprise to be asking about music education — it fascinated me at the moment. Art and writing and other creative endeavors seem to be getting let go of here and in the U.S. at the moment; there are big cutbacks going on. I think it's particularly sad, as I think it turns us into a nation of art, music, and writing consumers, as opposed to creators. It turns us into passive beings who accept the assumption that others can always make better stuff than you can. Encouraging students to flex their creative muscles doesn't mean they necessarily have to be artists or musicians, but it opens up neurological pathways — ways of thinking that are useful for all sorts of careers. That's not a question, I know, it's a rant. I'm glad to see Brazil is more enlightened in that respect.

Every time I read about the decline of music and arts education in the U.S., it makes me so glad that I have moved back to a school distract that values it. Both of my kids are very creative in their own ways, and I'm glad to know that some form of both music and art are still requirements for students here, all the way through high school. Part of the reason why I played viola for three years, and then cello for four, is that I didn't want to be in choir. It's not that I disliked singing — I just didn't enjoy many of the songs they ended up having to perform. But kids had to be in choir all the way through 8th grade if they didn't want to be in either band or orchestra, and once high school started, there were a certain amount of fine art credits one had to acquire, but there were a variety of choices that were not solely music-based. Between those requirements and vocational requirements, I feel like kids in the Great Falls School District get a more well-rounded education compared to districts that cut these classes. That's not to say that they do not experience cuts around here, but the fine arts classes do fare a bit better on the whole and the community is likely to support those efforts.

I also enjoyed Greil Marcus' column "Real Life Top Ten: A Monthly Column of Everyday Culture and Found Objects," as well as the interview with Trey Anastasio. I'm not much of a Phish fan, but I find the culture and dedication surrounding the band interesting, as well as Anastasio's thoughts on creative collaboration:

BLVR: You guys have interwoven music into social life.

TA: I have. I think that's the truest thing that has been said in this interview so far.

BLVR: There's no on and off switch.

TA: Yeah, but that can be dangerous. People in my immediate family think I'm losing my mind because I don't know how to turn it off. I really don't. As a matter of fact, I've been encouraged by my wife and those around me to, on New Year's Eve, hand over my phone for a month. This is actually something I've never talked about before. This what I've done to my life. Anybody who comes into my life, I start collaborating with.

To a milder degree, I am married to someone like this. Or at least, to someone who has a million projects in mind.

Just when I think, "Yes, I have covered all that I really liked about this issue!" I remember something else. Martha Wainwright is also interviewed in this issue. My dad was a longtime fan of both her mother and father's music, and I bought several of her brother Rufus' albums before her first album came out. Musical families fascinate me, and despite a chaotic upbringing, I think it's great that they've all been able to perform together at one time or another. Martha talks about her mother's death from cancer, the effect it had on her pregnancy, and the difficulty of writing songs without being able to call her. It's a lovely, informative interview, and it just serves to remind me that I have some catching up to do when it comes to owning her music.

Is that it? Is that all I have to talk about with The Believer Music Issue 2011? Have I spoiler-ed it plenty already? Have I made you want to buy it and further investigate its content, as the content inspired me to further investigate its subject? Yes? Good.


This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Book Blogger Appreciation Week 2011: An Interview with Sarah Sammis

Book Blogger Appreciation Week began in 2008 as a way to recognize the efforts of those who dedicate online time to reviewing and talking about books on a regular basis. Every September, reviewers are encouraged to talk about their process, and one of the ways of doing that is to do an interview exchange with other sites. Through the sign-up on the BBAW site, I was paried with Sarah Sammis, creator of Puss Reboots.

Sarah reviews a wide variety of books, and her content dates back several years. She's even taken the time to tag each review with genre or general category, which makes it easier at a glance to see what sort of books she often talks about. Here are my questions for her:

I noticed your page header mentions that your site has been around since 1997, which nearly makes you Australopithecus in internet years. How did you get started with book reviewing?

My web site back then wasn't a book blog. I was trying my hand at freelance web design. Although I eventually abandoned freelancing, I kept the site. I started using it as a blog in 2004 and started book blogging in 2006.

What were earlier versions of your site like, back in the days before easy Blogger and WordPress templates? Were you an Angelfire or Geocities kind of gal?

My site has always been hand coded, although the design of the site has evolved over time.

You have a wide range in the type of books you cover, but I noticed there's special emphasis on children's books, which one doesn't often see in online reviews. Why is it important to you to cover books for younger readers?

The books I review reflect the books I'm reading. In 2006 my youngest child was born and you'll see in those earliest days of book blogging I was reviewing a lot of board books. I don't review every single book I read with her or with my son, just my favorites.

What do you make of the current popularity of YA books with adult readers?

I'm old enough to remember when there was very little good YA fiction. I think it's wonderful that there's such a wide selection available now.

What's your policy on acquiring review copies from publishers?

I don't do book tours. I don't review kindle only books. The full policy is on my contact me form.

How has reviewing books changed the way you read?

Reviewing books hasn't changed my reading habits but being a library science student has. I'm starting to think about the effects books might have on readers and how they can be used as teaching devices. In the spring I took a very grueling materials for children 5 to 8 class that continues to influence how I write reviews and how I select books to read to my children.

What has been the best kids' book you've read so far this year? The best book for adults?

The book for children is The Secret Letters from 0 to 10 by Susie Morgenstern. The best adult book is Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand. Neither book was published this year. I'm way behind on reading currently published fiction.

You love cats. I love cats. Tell me why cats are awesome. ;)

Cats don't slobber. Cats are beautiful. Cats like to snuggle.

Anything else you think I should mention?

I'm finishing up my last year of library school. By summer I can call myself a librarian book blogger.

To see my interview with Sarah, head on over to Puss Reboots.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

That Day in September by Artie Van Why

That Day in September
by Artie Van Why

Grief and patriotism are personal, not a pissing contest. No one else can tell you how to feel when a momentous event occurs, and in the event of a national tragedy, snark is disrespectful to those personally involved. Artie Van Why contacted me a couple of months ago about reviewing his book That Day in September. "I lived in New York City for 26 years and I worked across from the World Trade Center. I was there in the streets the morning of 9/11," he said. "All along this endeavor has been, one, my way of processing and working through that experience. And secondly, and to me more importantly, it is my personal contribution to assuring we never forget that day. That Day In September is my personal tribute to honor those who died that day."

Normally, political books are not my field, and one would think that any book dealing with 9/11 would feel political, but Van Why's book does not discuss national policy or even much of the larger picture surrounding the event. Adapted from a one-man show he performed in Los Angeles and Off-Broadway, his approach is entirely in the memoir field. When so many people have their memory of the towers tied up in television, Van Why felt the ground shake firsthand, and it's entirely reasonable that he would want to get his story out there.

The man who had been running behind me from my right reached me and stopped. I turned to ask, "What do we do?" and was aware of someone falling on top of a pile of clothes just across the plaza. It took an instant to register that it wasn't a pile of clothes. The person had fallen on a pile of bodies that were already lying there. I stood and stared as one body after another fell.

After the second plane hit, Van Why found himself running up the street with other people, some falling over each other, others crawling beneath cars to avoid the falling debris.

Up ahead of me, a man was lying in the middle of Fulton Street. He was a heavyset man in a suit, lying on his stomach. Everyone was running right past him. I started to run past him myself, but for whatever reason, I stopped and ran over to him. I dropped to my knees at his side. It was then I noticed all the blood and where it was coming from. His skull had been split open, and the top part of his brain was protruding through the split. Blood was gushing out of the wound. Amazingly, he was breathing. I saw, lying near him, a putty knife — a regular putty knife that had an even line of blood along its blade. I thought, oh my God, is this what hit him?

This isn't grief or heroism porn, and I believe Van Why when he says he just wants the details out there as a matter of public record. Self-published in 2003, That Day in September reads like fleshed out emails to those who asked what happened, emails that did indeed lead to the first drafts of his stage script. It's a slim book, and he dedicates little time to his life before or after 9/11. In some ways, that makes sense, as it keeps the focus on one day. On the other hand, if 9/11 was the day that started Van Why's process of returning to theater and moving closer to family, I did desire a bit more. If I had been his editor, I would have suggested restructuring and elaborating some portions of his life outside of that day. I would have suggested that the narrative experience more personal journey. Given that it was written in 2003, he may have been riding that line of post-traumatic stress recovery, and had just enough time passed for retrospect. I don't know. I would be curious to know what he thinks of his delivery now, reading his writing 8 years later. I suspect that the writing comes across differently in its theatre incarnation, but not having seen it, I can't say for certain.

Still, for those looking for a firsthand account of 9/11, Van Why contributes an important voice. It is not that our memories of watching tragedy via television are invalid; it's that they are all very similar. We were going about our business and someone turned on the TV. Me? I was in college, fresh from a walk of shame and the subsequent shower, and there was a message from my roommate's dad. "Turn on the TV. The world is ending." There are thousands of stories like mine, and yes, they all contribute to the picture of that day. However, Van Why's account puts reality into our discomfort. It is one thing to imagine how horrible it must have been, and quite another to escape the horror yourself. That Day in September is not the best written account you will ever read, but it is his story, one that I suspect does not have many like it.

And here we are, a decade later, swimming in a sea of "Anniversary Specials" that run back-to-back on television, prodding at the wounds of those who were there. Some events will provide genuine tribute, and others, a contest to see who can draw out the "best" profit-turning mix of pain and patriotism. And here we are, a decade later, still with a hole in the ground surrounded by red tape. I hope we can do a better job taking care of ourselves than we have. Grief is a long, complicated process, I know, and everyone handles it differently. You and I do not make the rules.

Still, whatever you find yourself doing tomorrow, do so with respect.


This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

This review also appeared on Pajiba itself on September 12, 2011.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Monkeybicycle8: Spring/Summer 2011

Monkeybicycle 8: Spring/Summer 2011

With work by:
Summer Block, Matt Briggs, Aaron Burch, E. Michael Desilets, Ori Fienberg, Jesús Ángel García, Scott Geiger, Michael Hickins, Steve Himmer, Blake Kimzey, Ben Loory, Annam Manthiram, Laura McCullough, Michael Mlekoday, Dustin Luke Nelson, Ben Nickol, Steve Peacock, Jonathan Redhorse, Vincent Scarpa, Curtis Smith, Rosalynn Stovall, and Andrew James Weatherhead

Let us not pretend otherwise: I totally started paying attention to Monkeybicycle because of their name. Maybe that was their intent, but as soon as Twitter suggested them in their semi-randomly generated sidebar, I thought, "Well I have to see what something called Monkeybicycle is." Thank Godtopus, they did not disappoint. Yes, through the magical strangeness that is Twitter, I have my mitts on a rather satisfying collection of short stories and poems.

And what makes a satisfying collection? Certainly, the easy answer is character voices that consume from the first paragraph. MB8 opens with Blake Kimzey's "Donald Mason's City Inspection and the Stakeout Standoff," and it comes with an entirely familiar breed of single-minded curmudgeon. Donald Mason isn't entire uneducated — he ponders the difference between cumulonimbus and stratus clouds — but he's also prone to saying things like "some far-flung European socialist/commie hot spot like Monaco or London."

Donald has received a notice from the city about his unshoveled walk, and he's convinced it's from his supposed rival from technical school, Dan Lowery. Dan's a city employee now, while Donald works at a crappy Italian restaurant. Donald thinks Dan has it out for him. He wants to confront him.

Now it's just a matter of time, like Dan and I are caught in a two-man tug-of-war and within the day one of us will be singing the blues and Dan is essentially Napoleon sending his troops to Russia at the height of winter and does not know the scorched earth plan I have in store for him or that a guy from technical college who is smart enough to mix a metaphor is certainly smart enough to checkmate him.

Kimzey makes insecurity, alcohol, and assholeish-ness funny. I really didn't like this guy but he made for a great read.

Also compelling in a fucked up way is Jesús Ángel García's "jesusangelgarcia meets ticktockclock." Taken from García's novel badbadbad, a man who shares the author's name answers an ad for a woman who needs someone to impregnate her because "I can only be satisfied when my uterus is a food factory."

Her skin was pasty, legs rippled with cellulite, purple veins, feet and fingers pink, calloused. Her breasts sagged, her face painfully blemished, eyes dark-ringed. In truth, I wasn't physically attracted to this girl. But when I shut my eyes and moved my body with hers, I could feel oceans of emptiness. This drew me close.

I'm sure García gets adjectives like "unflinching" and "real" thrown at him all the time in reviews, but they are apt descriptors. The girl in this excerpt is rough and not unfamiliar. If you've ever worked retail in place where a wide cross-section of people shop, you've seen someone like her.

Elsewhere in the morbidity department, Aaron Burch's "Sacrifice" explores grief and pain through the head of a man who has just lost his brother. This man cuts off his index finger in an effort to cope, but the thoughts surrounding this action are interesting.

In the days after, he grew antsy and impatient around the house and so started going to the library to pass the hours.
He moved to books on Dante, whom he'd always felt a distant curiosity about but had never researched. The ninth level of heaven, he read, was closest to the Divine presence, and also, as "the last of the digits." The number nine marked the end... the conclusion of the matter... the end of man, the summation of all man's works... the number of finality or judgment. His fascination with numbers redoubled and everything felt newly connected and filled with meaning.

Other highlights from the collection include Summer Block's satire "The New Yorker Fiction Section Presents: Killer Robots From Space," Ben Nickol's "Exceptional Red Canoes," and Annam Manthiram's "Variations on a Blossoming Marriage."

However, I think my favorite pieces from the book are Scott Geiger's "Inventory," and Curtis Smith's "Lenin!" Both are a bit strange and lonely, and neither make it clear from the outset how the story might turn out.

“Inventory” takes the form of a letter to a woman named Judy from a co-worker, a fling gone wrong. “This message is a violation, I know. Mark it down with everything else I've done,” he says. Someone they worked with, Nolasco Ingersoll, has committed suicide, and the circumstances are strange. Police have come into the office to learn more about Nolasco.

“What happened is that we visited Mr. Ingersoll's residence on Rosalie Street this past weekend and encountered something unexpected.” Scenarios popped into my mind. Hitchhikers decomposing in the walls. Children tied up in the basement. “Many of the rooms in the house, they were closed off behind a fabric wrapper nailed tight over the doors.”

“See, he talked to Ty and me about this,” said Fischer, looking at Tyler. “Nolasco said his wife put up the curtains to divide their house. He said 'curtains' to us. So she wouldn't have to see him anymore.”

“But there was no wife,” I insisted

There's a lot going on with narrative, how different people perceive facts, and who can be trusted as reliable, including the narrator himself. Geiger puts a lot into this short story, and it's one worth rereading.

Curtis Smith's “Lenin!” made me think about the movie reviewers at Pajiba and their critiques of how entertainment feeds into politics, and vice-versa, and how those in a position to make a profit will set aside either personal morals or basic dignity in order to perpetuate the moneymaking cycle. It also explores the chaos that ensues when entertainment somehow manages to snowball into a frenzied Twilight-esque movement.

Lenin! is the comeback film for an Oscar-winning child-actor, Connor Phelps, now grown and already through the rehab circuit. People loved him as a child, and now both he and his audience are adjusting to seeing him on screen again. A Reverend watches his performance onscreen and finds the experience strangely hollow.

Back in his study, he put the sermon he'd been working on in a drawer and pulled out a blank page. He wrote not about Connor Phelps or Hollywood bt about the dangers of foisting one's hopes upon an unsuspecting soul. How unfair it was, both to ourselves and those we projected upon, and to illustrate his point, Underwood offered the story of himself and Connor Phelps.
Neither in the pulpit nor on the air did the Reverend Underwood mention 'boycott,' but it didn't take long for his most strident followers to pick up the word as their rallying cry. The bloggers, already keen to swoop upon the movie, posted their takes, many citing the nonexistent boycott declared by Christians Championing Traditional Morals. The bloggers' cries spread, a wildfire swiftly parroted on conservative talk radio.

Take a minute to think about our current political climate --- the climate we've found ourselves in for at least a decade --- and tell me this doesn't ring true. Do you even need the full minute? Smith's story might be the best one in the book, and if it isn't, it still makes for a hell of a closer.

So, yes, Monkeybicycle is a silly name that gets your attention, but they offer plenty of substance, at least from what I've seen in Volume 8. There are hundreds of literary journals out there, more than one could probably every read, but I'm glad I found this one.


Full disclosure: Monkeybicycle, an imprint of Dzanc Books, sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.