Saturday, December 31, 2011

Take Me There edited by Tristan Taormino

Take Me There: Trans and Genderqueer Erotica
edited by Tristan Taormino

When it comes to artistic portrayals of frisky business, it's easy to talk about "hetero-normative" viewpoints versus same-sex concerns, and even the stereotypes faced by bisexuals as they try to navigate their relationships. Less often does anyone talk about the people who don't fit into neatly defined gender categories and their physical needs. Beyond male-to-female or female-to-male transgendered folks, there are also those who prefer to hover the line, either in an androgynous way, or in a way in which certain traits fit certain situations. Being a born a cis-woman who feels just fine being a woman, I won't pretend to know all the intricacies of being trans or genderqueer, but I do know that those who identify otherwise are both misunderstood and often ignored. With all the progress being made for non-straight people, legally and socially, it's also great to see trans/genderqueer visibility inching away from salacious daytime talk show material.

Take Me There is an erotica collection, yes, but it's also a very literary exploration of desire. I haven't read a lot of erotica, but this book seems to be out of the ordinary in that the stories aren't only about the act itself. Between all the "fuck me," body parts, toys, and "that feels good," there are also lines like, "It's an old Georgia suburb with porches covered in sand pails, beer bottles and boxes slumping from humidity." ("Somebody's Watching Me," Alicia E. Goranson)

One of my favorite stories was Sandra McDonald's "Sea of Cortez," in which a South Pacific-stationed sailor during WWII longs to be "the woman denied to you by biology." Supposedly straight men on the boat are known to "blow off steam" with other shipmates, but some men know it's more than that. Some try to fight against their sexuality, while others give in and hope that the officers look the other way.

You go find Williams. He's upright, exhausted, his face dark with stubble, a cigarette burning unnoticed in his hand. He's talking to one of the Two Fruits. When he sees you, his face gets all tight. You think he doesn't want to be seen with you. But then he pushes you into his rack and crawls in right after you, an impossibly tight fit, his body crushing yours. You want to be crushed. You want to be held immobile and safe, a woman held safe in the arms of her man.

Some of the stories are better written than others. Though I'm not familiar with a lot of the writers, some of the writing styles come across as "activist/personality first, writer second." As in, they can come up with a serviceable enough piece of writing from a queer perspective, but their main skills lie elsewhere.

A few complaints: Look, maybe it's incredibly square of me, but the few stories that used alternative pronouns like "ze," "hym" and "hir" were harder to get into because I was distracted by those words. I understand why they are used — as our language does not naturally provide a singular gender-neutral pronoun — but reading them felt clunky. Maybe one day our language will have a more commonly used and recognizable alternative, but I'm just not acclimated to seeing it yet.

Also, I could do without the "Daddy"/little girl dynamic presented in more than one story. It's just not arousing to me at all — in fact, it's very off-putting — to see the words, "She's good at giving head, my girl," in that context. There's all sorts of fucked-up psychology underneath that, and it's not my thing. The bondage-heavy scenes are not as much for me either, but I better understand why that gets people off. While there's pain involved, of course, they don't have the same abusive/creepy undertones as the "Daddy" stories.

But I'm no prude — the book still has plenty of hot moments and lusty language, and for the reader who is not personally familiar with trans-sex (as I'm not), the mechanics of it are also somewhat eye-opening. As an erotica collection, I don't know if it will suit the reader who wants to dip in only for a one-handed read because some stories are more "romantic" than "erotic." The line is fine, but it's there.

However, I think Take Me There is an important and necessary contribution to how we talk about and consume sex through media. There are so many varieties of people in these stories that I think most readers, genderqueer or not, will find at least one story that works for them.

(Sidenote: If any of you are on GoodReads, I noticed that they're taking giveaway entries for this book until January 13, 2012, so if this sounds interesting to you, you can enter here.)


Full disclosure: Cleis Press 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 aimed for 53 AND I DID IT. The challenge ends today, December 31, 2011.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Call by Yannick Murphy

The Call
by Yannick Murphy

I saw The Call mentioned on a year-end list (forgive me for not remembering whose) with the distinction, "Overlooked 2011 Novels." At the time, the novel had a place in my to-read queue for early 2012, but that post re-reminded me of its existence, and I thought that maybe this short-ish and unusual book would make a great way to round out this year in reviews. I'm glad I had it cut in line because it really is worth noting before the year is out.

Set in rural New England, a veterinarian named David makes various house calls to area farms/houses, mostly dealing with horses, cows, and sheep. He's got a good routine going, including his plans for hunting in the Fall, this time with his son, Sam. His wife, Jen, worries that he isn't ready, despite Sam having completed hunter's safety courses. They have two other children, daughters Sarah and Mia. Though David loves his family and has a sense of duty, there is a growing rift of dissatisfaction between him and his wife. Though it's not necessarily the marriage itself that causes the dissatisfaction, there's an underlying tone of, "Is this all there is for us?"

What the children said to me when I got home: Hi, in German.
What I said: Oh, my lieblings, you have been paying attention to your Poppy! German is a great language.
What the wife said: They should speak Spanish instead. So much of the world does.
What I said: Do you really want to know what the Mexicans are saying? I'd rather know what the Germans are saying.
What the wife said: To the showers, mach schnell. That's what they said.
What I said: No, no, they said that during a fascist regime, but they also strived to be the best. Do the very best, they said. Make the very best, they said. That's what I want my children to learn, I said.
What the wife said: Maybe they should learn a little Buddhism. A little maybe it doesn't matter to be the best.

You see what I mean by "unusual." The entire book is formatted in that way: boldface category, followed by the details. Some readers might find it distracting, but I enjoyed it from a writing standpoint — that Murphy had the endurance to write an entire novel this way and make it a satisfying story speaks a lot to her skill. While the beginning is mostly "Call," "Action," "Result," and other straight-up work-related paragraphs, the boldfaced items become more complex as the story does. It's an entirely new way of approaching "the novel," and while of course it would not work for everything, it suits this character. We watch as his stoicism evolves.

After a hunting accident involving his son, the family's life completely changes. Hospital visits and terse conversations are to be expected, but the vet has also been receiving strange phone calls and starts seeing spaceship-like lights in the sky. He does not doubt that these phone calls and lights are happening, but he is unsure who else might have noticed them as well. He wonders if they have anything to do with his son's injuries, however illogical that may be. The following passage is one of the better descriptions of helpless grief that I have ever read:

What the wife asks: How can you read the paper?
What I say: I can't do anything else. You could so, she says. You're right, I could go out, I say. I get my clothes on and grab a flashlight. I tell her I want to find my rifle that I dropped beneath my store-bought tree stand. What I really want to do is find traces of the man who shot my son that the sheriff, when he came back from his investigation in our woods, said were not to be found.. I want to run through the night hitting every branch as I go, kicking up every leaf, punching my fist into the stone-hard bark of all the fifty-foot pines that bore witness, that all saw the man who shot my son, but that cannot speak to tell me his name.
What the night says: Go home.

To be honest, I wouldn't even say that I liked the vet all that much. Although he seems like a decent guy in many respects, he's also difficult to live with. However, what makes him interesting is that he becomes more aware of the difficult parts of his personality and how that affects the rest of his family. The dissatisfaction so apparent in the opening pages becomes something else entirely when no one knows if his son will live. There's a lot going on underneath his spare report of events; we can feel it.

Humor runs beneath some moments as well. There's a kind old woman who lets her sheep live inside the house with her, and then there are lines like "Looked alpaca in the eye by mistake," that are funny if a person has a passing knowledge of animal behavior. Play-wrestling with the kids and the dogs feels all the more true-to-life when the vet says that the dogs wonder "if they should stop what was happening or let it continue because it was fun."

While I'd hesitate to say that The Call would be a universal hit for everyone, it is certainly one that keeps your mind going in between reading sessions. With the different plot elements and the interesting ways that Yannick Murphy presents the characters, I found myself trying to work out what might come next before I had a chance to pick up the book again, much in the same way the vet mentally tries to sort out his problems while driving. The Call is a bit of a puzzle, but a good one, and one certainly worth giving a try.


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.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination by Grace Dane Mazur

Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination
by Grace Dane Mazur

What a curious little book Hinges is. Written by a biologist-turned-writer, the spouse of a mathematician, it combines art history, the act of reading, memoir and mythology into one accessible package. Grace Dane Mazur explores what happens when we cross the threshold between reality and imagination, and also examines the importance of the threshold itself. Mixing Greek and Christian stories — among other religions/philosophies — with classic poetry and paintings, she demonstrates how other inquisitive minds have tackled the notion of Other Worlds. It is a fantastic and useful read, especially those looking to better understand their own craft.

Stories begin with instabilities — perhaps because beginnings themselves are such unstable conditions. In fact, the opening pages sometimes show the protagonist in a condition of both liminality and entrancement, liminality being the state of being on the threshold. It is as though there is a sense of, "Look, reader, the same thing that is happening to you — now that you are coiled around this book and are about to slip into the imagined world — is happening to this fictional character, who is at the edge of his own altered consciousness, and at the edge of adventure."
Interestingly enough, Mazur has a connection with the last book I reviewed, A Kite in the Wind, in that she has also taught in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Like many of that book's contributors, she maintains that inspiration and understanding of the written word can come from a variety of sources, and that different artists will have different interpretations of similar events. Her main focus lies with characters' first entrance into another world, and she uses paintings from Peter Paul Rubens, Dionysus, Fra Angelico, and more to illustrate her thoughts.

Our entrance into the other world when we read fiction is in many ways analogous to the hero's descent to the underworld, or crossing over to the Other World. I base this on the three qualities that seem most indicative to me of such journeys: the disappearance of boundaries, the distortion of time, and the distortion of language.

She goes on to add:

Like dream time, narrative time is non-linear, looping when it wants, disappearing when it chooses. It is elastic, stretching and contracting, two minutes can take several pages, while one sentence may leap through years.

When writing, we are often told that the best approach to our most climatic or intimate moments is to stretch them out, to build suspense and longing in order to have a greater impact. Slowing down can prolong pain in a good way — the way in which we read books to process the world, pain that can be put away when we need to, in order to go about our day. The same can be said for love, for who doesn't want to draw out, for as long as possible, the best feelings of love? Think of all the kisses, the stories, the trips, the conversations that you wished would never end. Think of all the sights and sounds that can bring them back in an instant.

Mazur's writing is also that of an academic, and Hinges has plenty of footnotes, citations and an index, as well as a timeline for the the writers and painters she mentions. Her points of reference date all the way back to 15,000BC, with the Lascaux cave paintings, up to the year 2000AD, with Charles Baxter's The Feast of Love. She outlines and re-outlines her position, down to the point of better defining her word choices:

The door that is not plumb, not correctly suspended from its hinges, is like a carcass, a side of beef, dead weight; it is pretty useless. It can fall open, but not swing shut. This is why becoming unhinged is such a serious thing. You collapse wildly; you swing heavily askew.

One form that becoming unhinged can take is obsession. Although the etymology of obsession implies that something sits on us or besieges us — from the Latin ob meaning against, toward, over, and sedere, to sit — perhaps one can also think of it as when we sit in one of the rooms of our mind, unable to perform the hinging action to take us to any other room.
Some of the specific examples of hinging into another room are Christ's decent into the underworld (and how different forms of Christianity interpret that event), the Homeric "Hymn to Demeter," and Virgil's story of Orpheus, the man who made a deal with the underworld to have his beloved Eurydice back in the land of the living, only to derail his own plans at the last moment. (Mazur's line, "Descended from the Muses, he is not one for prudent behavior or stolid obedience," made me laugh knowingly.) I will admit that I was not too terribly familiar with any of these stories, but Mazur explains them all in a way that does not seem overly simplistic, nor does she fly right over the head of the classically under-read. Her teaching skills shine.

Hinges is not a long book — just 152 pages, including the index — but it provides plenty to think about. Both academics and creative types can find thoughts applicable to their work, as she articulates what we find satisfying in making our worlds permeable. I'm quite glad I read it right after A Kite in the Wind; the two complement each other well. The lines between writer and reader are also fuzzy for those who are in the business of doing both. We know what it's like to be enveloped by a good story, and yet that story also makes us want to get to work. We also know what it's like to care about a character, yet wish its creator had done a better job. The Writing world and the Reading world co-exist on a greater plane, the Imaginative Universe. Mazur acknowledges these separate-but-overlapping entities, and in the end, elevates the discussion on what art can do.


Full disclosure: I won this book through a giveaway hosted by Bookslut. Cheers to them.

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.

Monday, December 26, 2011

A Kite in the Wind: Fiction Writers on Their Craft edited by Andrea Barrett and Peter Turchi

A Kite in the Wind: Fiction Writers on Their Craft
edited by Andrea Barrett and Peter Turchi

The novel I've written has languished on my hard drive for two years. Before that, I spent roughly four years and at least as many drafts working on it. A handful of people have read it, and it felt fairly close to "done" when I set it aside to begin the process of moving from Spokane, WA back to Great Falls, MT. And besides, I'd recently started reviewing books, which scratched a different critical thinking (and instant feedback) itch that I'd long neglected. For being a writer, I felt under-read. I would delve deep into one author's back catalog and would completely ignore others for no real reason. Reading a wider variety of writers — newer releases, especially — would help me better articulate what I loved about reading and why I wanted to contribute to the endless pages published. Still, I've struggled — not in the suspected, insecure "Why bother?" sort of way, and not over concerns of "mattering" amongst so many other writers, but struggling against my own foggy brain.

For over two years, my chronic fatigue has inhibited my ability to concentrate, and I have stubbornly used these reviews to fight against that symptom. I realize that I am luckier than those who can't even follow a few lines on a page, much less write about them, but I still hate that I have any trouble at all. With fiction, I feel like the muscle has atrophied. I've been trying to ease myself back into the mindset of my own work, and reading books like A Kite in the Wind have helped me to think about my novel again.

After reading over 100 books in those two years, and many of them excellent, looking back at 2009's version of my book is a little cringe-worthy. The story is there, but now I have to go in and make it better. I am only in contest with myself.

"With one part of ourselves, we would like to be better than we are, but another part of us would like to be left to live like a wild hog in the woods — and the constant, subtle pull between these two poles makes characters feel more like real people, less like illustrations or mechanisms to carry out the story's needs."
--"Self-Awareness and Self-Deception," Sarah Stone

A Kite in the Wind is not really for people just starting out with this whole writing-related madness because there's a certain knowledge base it assumes one has, but it is not an impenetrable read either. With contributions from former or current professors at the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers, the book divides into sections: Narrative Distance and Narrative Voice, Revealing Character, Seeing and Setting, and Pattern and Shape. Though I somewhat recognized a couple names, I am not too familiar with any of the authors' work, and so I did not go in with any preconceived notions about what they might have to say.

My hunch regarding the quality and usefulness of Kite's discussion turned out to be correct, though — either I realized the ways in which I'd already done well with my manuscript, or I was able to make notes on what I should work on during this next draft. There are more good quotes than I can include here, but I will say that it's nice to read professional thoughts that would occur in an MFA program without, you know, actually turning up for class and having to listen to other students and such.

(Don't mind me; I don't even have a BA, and I'm sort of a shut-in.)

Because I tend to prefer character over concept, the chapters on narrative and character felt the most familiar. Exploring how and why people do the things they do, especially the misbehavior, is endlessly interesting to me, and I found many of my views on the process reflected by those sections. For instance, I don't know how many times I've read disparaging opinions on the first person point of view in fiction (which translates to unneeded hostility towards memoir and creative nonfiction, but that's a discussion for another time). The underlying message of these exhortations is that "serious" writers only write in third. Logically, we know this is bullshit, but writers are at once exceedingly overconfident and desperately self-conscious. Sometimes it's easy to forget that only blowhards say there's a limited "right" way to do something, so I particularly enjoyed Wilton Barnhardt's contribution, "First Person:"

Giving voice to central characters like these requires a degree of bravery. The writer may have to expose more of himself than he bargained for as he brings adulterers, social deviants, deadbeat dads, mothers ruining their children's lives, criminals large and small, from mass murdering generalissimos to cheerleaders spreading false rumors, to the page. Make sure when you choose third person close-in over first person you are doing it for greater context and perspective — and not because you're chicken!

First person tends to work out pretty well for me. I tend to live inside my characters' heads while working on their story, to the point where they might infiltrate my dreams and music selection. Because I borrow shamelessly from my own life, even if it's one sentence a person said to me six years ago, the mental lines between fiction and life become fuzzy quite easily. I like it that way; when it works, it really works. I am at my most brave in my writing, especially now, when my speaking voice trails off mid-sentence as my focus disintegrates. ("Did I already tell you that, or did I just think it?" is a frequent refrain.) To be honest, it's easier to think about my characters' bad behavior and wholehearted love, their damaged selves and goals, rather than trying to make sense of my own situation. With this illness, I cannot do much more than manage the symptoms, so in the meantime, if I can move one step closer to articulating the magic of romance, music, and the connections we have with one another? Well, then let that be my contribution.

"Intimacy redraws the characters' map of the world and their place within it. Intimacy snatches you out of yourself, shows you how small you are in relation to the rest of the world. Notice how different this idea is from some of our modern cliches about love — that it should make you "feel good" about yourself, feel confident, feel attractive, feel accompanied, feel, in a sense, bigger. Here intimacy causes the characters to feel uncertain,, off balance, strange, sometimes smaller, sometimes expanded in unexpected ways."
--"The Space Between," Stacy D'Erasmo

The best love is the kind that completely turns life upside down. I want love to knock me over and fill a hole hitherto unnoticed. I am interested in mind-altering, opiate-like love, where all the benefits and consequences are wrapped up in one inescapable and compelling mass. That is where I love having characters live — their attachments are going to be all-consuming, right into the pain that will come along with it. I want to take that enamored confusion and map out its environment. Love and lust for the chronically lonely — those are my favorite tales.

"[T]he habits of worry are borne out through repetition, soothed and then revived. Worry seeks to extinguish the hurt at the same time that it sustains the constant pleasure of the nagging pain. The management of hurt. The embodiment of ache. This is a story of ache, after all, of heartache, of heart hurt."
--"The Heart One Knows by Heart: Operating Instructions for Operating Instructions," Michael Martone

For the most part, Kite does not try to place value over one type of writing/reading over the other, but rather discusses what makes fiction as a whole more satisfying. Anthony Doerr says in his essay on suspense, "Fundamentally, story promises to order the unorderable, to impress a system on the unsystematic. Story promises to impose a meaningful structure on a universe that resists meaning and structure." And that's about as basic as one can get in regards to fiction. Both writers and readers do so in order to make sense of what they know, and also to find respite. We learn how to process the hand we're dealt, however unconsciously, through the art that surrounds us. Some people are stubborn to admit it, but any art can act as therapy, and there should be no such thing as a "guilty pleasure."

So when I came across Lan Samantha's Chang's contribution, "The Breakout Element: Unpredictability and the Novel," I could have really done without her repeated insistence that she once "read only for pleasure." Sorry, but are we supposed to excuse her and what she thinks is an embarrassing taste? Though she makes some good points about the usefulness of taking stories into unexpected territory, the underlying insecurity-masquerading-as-expertise was distracting. There's a difference between saying, "We are all unsure about our work sometimes," and making a big show about how much we've grown and look how knowledgeable I am. Maybe I'm being harsh, but parts of the essay seemed to imply that reading for pleasure was something to be looked down upon, and that once one becomes a writer, that pleasure is to be set aside. Some of us may genuinely like literary bran flakes, but let's not pretend that we should only eat for fiber.

Consider that versus the "Puzzles" chapter, where even though Peter Turchi says genre novels do "not open out into the world" and "It means to amuse us for a little while," he also says:

Genre novels work, to varying degrees, both to satisfy our expectations of form and to stand apart as unique creations. The plotting of a classic detective story appeals to our rational side […] The detective story offers the reassurance of order, of the human mind's ability to make sense of what, at some point, seems senseless. The detective story offers a world of answers and logic, a world in which problems cannot be avoided but can be solved.

Repeatedly, Kite stresses that novels can be both our medicine and our escape; that good writing is good writing, no matter the place in which it lives. During my brief stint in college, I had a grad student creative writing teacher who told us that we would not be writing "genre" stories in her class, with the implication being that they could not ever be "literary." More than one student took issue with this assessment outside of class, even if they were writers of what we call "literary fiction," but one of the more talented writers openly challenged her decree. His story (though I don't remember the specifics too well, a decade later) straddled the line between literary and medieval fantasy in such an outstanding way that it ended up being one of the class favorites. Still, he had to fight her for a better grade. Though I may not read a lot of what is considered genre work, the memory of that course keeps me from ever widely dismissing it. Again, good writing is good writing.

"The tales that come to us from Hans Christian Anderson and Charles Perreault and from the Walt Disney 'Kingdom' are great for us to read, by contrast, because they are more created than made, more designed than crafted. That is not to diminish their worth; I'm simply saying that they are different models we might learn from."
--"The About-to-Be Moment," Kevin McIlvoy

Learning and enjoyment can coexist quite nicely if we let them, for there's not much to be gained by treating knowledge like we did in high school — a drag which we must endure until we're given a diploma. Even if it's to learn what not to do, or to further articulate our tastes, there is value in all art. On the flip side, educating ourselves should not be a competition. Yes, taste is personal, and yes, some works are more universally applauded than others, but snobbery is counterproductive. "Irony is a form of protection," Charles Baxter says in his essay on lush writing styles, "and it's possible that we're now all over-protected."

At its core, A Kite in the Wind is a realistic exploration of what makes novels work. It does not try to prescribe one course of action, and for the most part, it does not come with elitism. Yes, writing well will always be a challenge, but during the process, we can remind ourselves of the satisfaction we get from reading a really great book. We can wallow in a character's life and allow ourselves the to find the truth in fiction. We want to hover in that space of transformation, of insight, and in the end, use art to make our lives full. We want to know that we are not alone.


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.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Mental_Floss: The Book: Only the Greatest Lists in the History of Listory edited by Ethan Trex, Will Pearson, and Mangesh Hattikudur

Mental_Floss: The Book: Only the Greatest Lists in the History of Listory
edited by Ethan Trex, Will Pearson, and Mangesh Hattikudur

Guys, I love lists. Not in the anal-retentive To-Do List way, though I sometimes make those out of necessity. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome often equals Colander Brain, wherein, for example, I will go into Target and buy 10 things I "need," but not actually what I originally came in to purchase (and then I need a nap). Lists are great for mental tidy-making, but I love making fun lists like, "Hybrid Animals with Funny Names" (Caccoon! Geep!) or my Alphabet Soup project of a few years ago. I also love random bits of trivia that would make me a decent pub quiz team member — By the way, did you know that Richard Simmons, Bill Cosby, and Henry David Thoreau all share the same birthday? (July 12, which also my birthday. Mark your calendars, of course.)

So hand me a book with the subtitle Only the Greatest Lists in the History of Listory, and I am all over that, annoying family members by punctuating all lulls in conversation with tidbits such as, "Salvador Dali wore a homemade scent made of fish glue and manure to help attract women." Delicious.

I tried telling my 2-year-old niece that Oscar the Grouch used to be orange, but she didn't believe me. Then again, she chooses not to believe most things I tell her.

Mental_Floss takes their similar love of assorted knowledge made orderly and operates both a magazine and website. The Book commemorates their first ten years of existence. They keep things amusing, but not at the expense of getting information across. This isn't exactly a showcase for the writers' supreme joke writing, but rather about making their work accessible. Anecdotal evidence shows that people are more likely to pay attention to an article when it is presented in list format. Just look at how many things Huffington Post turns into a list slide show in order to rake in the advertising dollars — I mean, don't you want to look at "7 Crazy Facts You Should Know About the Arctic?"

Keeping with the "10 Outstanding Years" theme, Mental_Floss: The Book divides into the following chapters:

- 10 Cheat Sheets For Impressing a Diplomat, President, Or Pope, (ex: "Four of the Largest, Oddest, and Most Useless State Projects in the World")

- 10 Lists That Should Come With a Lab Coat, (ex: "Eight Questions You Probably Need Answered Immediately")

- 10 Lists You Can Share With Your Kids (Or Your Inner Child), (ex: "Seven Things Disney Parks Have Banned")

- 10 Lists To Lighten The Mood at the E.R., (ex: "Three Defunct Diseases You Definitely Don't Have")

- 10 Sports Lists For People Who Can't Dunk, (ex: "Go Cornjerkers! 10 Unbelievable High School Mascots)

- 10 Food Lists To Make Your Mouth Water, (ex: "The Origins of Five Condiments")

- 10 Lists That Mean Business, (ex: "Strange Early Jobs of 13 Famous People")

- 10 Pop Culture Lists To Break Out On The Red Carpet, (ex: "Eight Celebrity Inventors Who Hold Patents")

- 10 Lists For People Who Can't Write Good, (ex: "10 'Q' Words That Aren't 'Q-U' Words")

- 10 Animal Lists That Don't Bite, (ex: "Three Super-Animals Keeping an Eye on Terror")

- 10 Lists To Read Before Naming Your Child, Company, or Alter-Ego, (ex: "Four Irritatingly Inaccurate Names")

- 10 Lists of Lemons, (ex: "Five Articles of Clothing That Caused Riots")

- 10 Lists of Lemonade, (ex: "Four Brilliant Scientific Screwups")

- 10 Lists That Didn't Fit Nicely Into Any Other Chapters, (ex: "Five Oddly Specific Museums Preserving Our History")
Also, did you know that "the original duty of a wedding's 'Best Man' was to serve as armed backup for the groom in case he had to resort to kidnapping his intended bride?" And that Cap'n Crunch's full is name is "Captain Horatio Magellan Crunch?"

This is what my family had to listen to while I read this book. They are remarkably indulgent, it's true. But who doesn't love knowledge‽ (That punctuation mark is called an "interrobang," and apparently my Open Office software doesn't know that's a word. Application: "A sentence ending with an interrobang asks a question in an excited manner, expresses excitement or disbelief in the form of a question, or asks a rhetorical question.")

Of course, one has to read Mental_Floss: The Book knowing that some of the information, while it may have been factually accurate at press time, might no longer apply. For example, the book states that "producing a single gram of antimatter costs about $62.5 trillion." A quick search reveals that the estimate was made by NASA scientists in 1999. Much has changed within the study of particle physics in the past 12+ years, and while I'm no expert, I would guess that the cost has changed as well.

It is helpful to remember that any "fact" that includes cost or superlatives like "The Tallest" or "The Bestselling" will change, and perhaps already have. Still, the number of reported and corroborated stories, while I have of course not checked them all, make me confident in the book's overall accuracy. One would hope, at least.

Of the facts that surprised me the most, one struck me as most needing verification: "Students at Brigham Young University need a doctor's note to grow a beard."

This isn't just some rumor concocted by people afraid of Mormons? Really? Yes, really. The school's own Honor Code site confirms it. Huh. Must be rough in this Hipsterific-Movember World.

If nothing else, Mental_Floss: The Book is excellent material for the trivia nerd in your life, and I'm sure I will be using the site's future lists to badger unsuspecting relatives and Facebook/Twitter friends. As in, "11 Examples of Perfect Strangers Fan Art." You're welcome, Internet!


Full disclosure: Harper 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.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

All Over Coffee by Paul Madonna

(Image used on the front cover, with the title of the book replacing the text. Otherwise, most cover images online were too tiny to be of use.)

All Over Coffee
by Paul Madonna

My introduction to All Over Coffee came through The Rumpus, when they started running the strip February 2011, and where Paul Madonna currently serves as the comics editor. To call it a "comic" doesn't feel right, though it is categorized as one on the site. All Over Coffee is a work of visual art paired with prose poetry. Yes, other comics could operate under this same definition, but there is something so beautiful and otherworldly about Paul Madonna's work that stands apart from the other comics on the site, especially his other Rumpus contribution, Small Potatoes.


About the strip, Madonna says this in the introduction:

All Over Coffee launched in the San Francisco Chronicle and on February 8, 2004. Immediately, letters of praise, confusion, and disgust poured in. Angry voices brought out voices of support, and debate over the strip took on a life of its own. The strip ran in the Datebook section four days a week for one year, then three days a week for six months before settling into its current position of one day a week in the Sunday Datebook.

The collection comprises of 151 of the 320 available at the time of putting together the book, and I must admit, I wish I could provide more visuals to complete the overall effect. While I have screen-capped a few selections that appear in the book, I hope that my linking back to Madonna's fine art print store will karma-clear me.

The early strips are smaller horizontal panels, primarily divided into two and three panels rather than a single scene. Their backgrounds are smoother and a brighter white, while the blacks remain impenetrably thick. Though there are less fine details compared to later strips, the writing still started out strong. The very first reads:

Maurice sips mocha latte at his
favorite cafe and argues with a
man in shorts

"I'm sick of you unobservant
transients," he says. "San Francisco
does TOO have seasons!"

It almost comes to blows

It settles over a slice of tiramisu
when they both agree that
Kundera can't end a novel.

I've used the spacing of lines shown in the panels, where it becomes easier to see how Madonna has laid out his version of poetry, down to his lack of periods until the end of the strip. What's great about his drawings is that they are not literal interpretations of the story. The first panel shows a bridge and electrical lines; the second, a cathedral and buildings partially obscured by a dark and leafy tree. The third goes back to a white sky and an industrial building from far away. He manages to capture the right mood between text and picture each time, with the first example reminding me of what a person might see outside a cafe window while eavesdropping.

Though many accused Madonna of loitering in public places and reporting what he overheard, his stories remained fictional. Perhaps it is the level of detail in the art that leads people to believe the words come from real life, or perhaps it comes down to the concept of "truth." Of course, truth is not the same as fact, and when presented with words that feel true to our experiences, we find value in them.


Eventually, Madonna switched to letting the texture of his paper come through. Working entirely with India ink and ink washes, his depiction of shadows and light are amazing. The book is horizontally aligned to best showcase each strip, and I found myself bringing the pages closer to examine the scenes. His work both invites lingering and inspires one to get to work.

The overall color palate in later strips, I would describe as sepia, but many of the strips have subtle color, as well as a few that have outright bursts. The letters AOC hide in graffiti, door signs and corners, Waldo-style. Some of the stories are slyly funny, others more introspective, and some ache hard.

She was definitely gone;
mornings were the worst

He'd be hungry, but to eat,
he'd need to cook, and to cook,
he'd have to wash the dishes

Everything was too much

He needed something,
but couldn't figure out what.

After all 151 strips, Madonna says, "I chose to write an afterword because I wanted to offer my story and not have it color your experience with the strips before engaging with them. I believe my intentions add insight to how you see the work, but ultimately, each piece must stand on its own." I won't ruin that by detailing too much of the afterword here.

When my family and I planned a trip to San Francisco this past August, I knew we would be visiting City Lights Books, and knowing that City Lights published this collection, I picked it up within minutes of walking through the door. (I wished I could have purchased both All Over Coffee and the second collection of strips, Everything is its own reward, but I could not quite afford two full price hardcovers at the same time.) While I know that seeing the strips on a printed page will not compare to seeing an original piece — it would be great to own one someday — being able to have the book far exceeds reading the strip on a computer screen.

Lately, Paul Madonna has taken to collaborating with other writers. Sometimes he provides them with the image first and asks them to use it as a guide, but most of the time, writers provide the words first. Frequent Rumpus contributors/editors Cheryl Strayed and Isaac Fitzgerald have offered stories for the strip, and I'm very interested in the progression of the strip from here. All Over Coffee is a gorgeous book, an instant favorite, and I cannot recommend it enough.



(Yes, I know it might seem otherwise on this site, but I do purchase books with my own fool money.)

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.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Crossing The Heart of Africa by Julian Smith

Crossing the Heart of Africa
by Julian Smith

Can you name the first person to navigate the length of Africa, South to North? Had you ever given it any thought? Neither had I, and I venture that most people have not either, save for the continent's historians. Neither had Julian Smith, travel writer for various magazines and guidebooks, until he stumbled upon the man's story while researching the evolutions of language. In a passage discussing how far men will go to impress females, he read this:

"The young Captain Ewart Grogan walked the 4,500-mile length of Africa from the Cape of Good Hope to Cairo in 1899 to gain the hand of the woman he loved. Her family had dismissed him as a ne'er-do-well who would be unable to keep their daughter in a manner to which they thought she should be accustomed. Grogan banked on the fame (if not fortune) that a dramatic adventure would bring him to persuade them to reconsider."

Hell, that's quite something, isn't it? Smith had to know more — he tracked down a handful of biographies and Grogan's own diary/memoir, From the Cape to Cairo. "The more I read," Smith says, "the more the adventure and romance of his story captivated me."

Meanwhile, Smith had a romantic plight of his own. Though nowhere near as perilous, his seven year relationship that included job changes and a cross-country move now hinged on engagement. His girlfriend, Laura, did not want to uproot her life yet again — this time, for a move to Portland, OR — for a man who was too afraid to get married.

No one had ever retraced his route. Perhaps crossing Africa as he had would help me find peace with this radical new direction my life was about to take. Maybe some of Grogan's mojo would rub off on me.

I ordered every book and article about him I could find. I plotted his route in guidebooks and maps, tracked down and cold-called his living descendents around the world. The wedding countdown kept clicking: six months, five. If I didn't go now, I never would.

I was flabbergasted when Laura gave her blessing. She was a gut-level decision maker, with instincts that had yet to steer her wrong. She was also the last person to want to tie her partner down against his will. If this is what it took for me to settle down, she said, hell, she'd buy my plane ticket and drive me to the airport.

Grogan himself was the rebellious and smart child in a large family, a Cambridge drop-out who joined the Rhodesian colonial army (now a part of Zimbabwe) after a stint in art school. Though game for the wide-open, unpredictable terrain, his experience was a largely miserable experience filled with constant battling against native tribes. And despite the advancements in European colonialism, much of Africa remained unmapped, if not completely unknown. He was sent home after contracting malaria and amoebic dysentery, not to mention having a burst liver abscess. He swore he would never return again, and yet, as soon as the stepfather of his love, Gertrude, called him unworthy, he immediately came up with a plan to survey the entire length of the continent. British Imperialist Cecil Rhodes had always wanted to link the country's colonies by train and telegraph, and Grogan's efforts would assist with that plan. Gertrude's stepfather agreed it was a worthy (though insane) venture.

[Gertrude] assured him there would be no other suitors before he came back.

Inevitably Grogan had to return home. When he and Gertrude said goodbye, he said, "I won't hold you to your promise, of course. And I give my word you won't hear from me until I'm successful. I'll send you a cable as soon as I reach Cairo. Then, if you are able to return my love, I shall make you my wife."

"You will succeed," Gertrude said softly. "I know you will. And I will wait for you, no matter how long."

Smith weaves Grogan and his tale together seamlessly between chapters, doing an excellent job of making Grogan's experiences seem just as present as his own. Even the casual student of Africa knows that while the continent has made great strides in some ways, many of the continent's troubles of 100 years ago continue today. AIDS, tribal warfare, and crumbling infrastructure have many countries drowning in poverty. Smith notes that just about everyone he meets on his journey has something to say about how poor people are, even doing so as a conversation opener. He never knows what to say.

Still, there is plenty to see. While retracing Grogan's route, he is able to determine some of the campsites, and even a couple buildings in the more inhabited areas remain. He sees volcanoes, rare mountain gorillas, and a village of pygmies, among other unique-to-Africa things. It's a tough, long trip filled with confusing visa and permit rules, not to mention the crowded, hurry-up-and-wait transportation issues. Still, it's nothing like what Grogan experienced.

In brief, and without spoiling too many specifics, Grogan and his team of men stumble upon cannibals, a charging rhino, various other angry animals and tribes, several bouts of serious illness, and the loss of supplies. Still, he carries on northward.

Both journeys are fascinating, and I'm not sure why I waited so long to pick Crossing the Heart of Africa out of my to-read pile. I do love the romance of it all, the foolhardy and tenacious optimism of such a trek, and the descriptions of the African terrain are excellent. You can almost smell the jungle mud at times.

I've gone on before about being a character-over-concept person, how I love to hear people's individual stories over a more detached perspective. Grogan's story interests me before a research paper on African exploration and imperialism would. Still, even Grogan's story on its own might not have been enough without having Smith's journey entwined with the narrative. It's an honest, though not overly heavy read, and though we know that both parties get married in the end, it's easy to forget that during all the moments of suspense. I highly recommend Crossing's brand of informative wanderlust.


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.