Sunday, March 31, 2013

Spring!

 

Big Dog and Littler Dog say "Happy Spring-related Holiday-of-your-choosing!"












Friday, March 29, 2013

Vintage Reviews: Amazon and Goodreads

No doubt you've heard about Amazon's acquisition of Goodreads.

I mostly use Goodreads for reviews (reading and posting) and as a giant book list. I've tried to be more involved with the communities there, but just never found the time. But I visit the site every few days (at least once a week), and appreciated it, in large part because it wasn't attached to a site like Amazon or Barnes and Noble. It was nice to go to place that was about the books, not making the sale.

My view: Monopolies are not good things. Amazon is damn close to one now, and shows no interest in halting its growth, particularly in regards to the publishing industry. I also don't like the language they've used in regards to user data and potential changes at Goodreads. I hear a lot of "in the short term", for my comfort.

So, what to do?


Well, every few weeks I'll be posting one of my old Goodreads reviews here. I'll pull most of the text on each Goodreads review, leaving a paragraph on the site and adding a link to the post here. I'll be heading them under Vintage Reviews, with the original post date. I started posting links on Goodreads for new reviews this year, but with this merger, I decided to go do my 2011-2012 reviews as well. This way, my Reviews page here will no longer link to Goodreads, I get a little traffic to my blog rather than simply giving Amazon/Goodreads content and hits and I'm still not removing reviews for books I want to support.

I don't shop at Amazon because I don't like their business practices. (Now with more Nazis!) I think they are more-than-averagely mercenary in their pursuit of profit and are too opaque about their operations. YMMV (Seriously, I don't hold it against anyone who uses Amazon's services, particularly self-pub authors. Things are hard enough without cutting out a giant chunk of your potential audience.) My stance on Goodreads is slightly less stringent and I'll continue to post links to my new reviews to help support the books and industry, but I won't be using it with the easiness I did before.

So you'll see a Vintage Review go up now and then until I've minimized my presence on Goodreads.

UPDATE: A couple of links, one regarding Amazon/Goodreads and one about Amazon's business practices.

Review: Goldenland Past Dark

 

Quote:

 

"Only a child would choose a warped mirror over one that showed him the truth."


Sixteen-year-old Webern Bell's spine is twisted, his body small. He is a dreamer and an artist, a clown as bent on expressing the intangible as he is amusing his audience. With all the spirit of youth, he wants to be not just a clown but a king of clowns. As Goldenland Past Dark opens, Chandler Klang Smith presents the tableau of Webern's ambitions, colorful and expressive, painting her landscape with precise strokes. Webern travels not with a fancy and flush big top, but with Dr. Show and his band of freaks and middling talent, performing in a dingy and rundown traveling show, soldiering on in poverty with the rest of them. Webern does his best with what he has, and suffers the jabs and teasing of his fellow performers with mostly good humor. He nurses his affections for the fierce-tongued Lizard Girl, Nepenthe, quietly worshiping her from the lowly position of clown and circus gofer. Clowning is Webern's escape, his passion and his most eloquent form of expression. When words fail, he articulates his deepest longings through pantomime, his hopes and dreams, his grief, love and deep sadness, to himself as much as his audience. He takes solace in the ritual of performance, no matter how small or rundown the ring, how small the crowd, escaping his awkwardness.

Dr. Show, a blowhard and perhaps a cheat, a former magician and bombastic ringmaster, plays a surrogate for Webern's disconnected father. Prone to bouts of Shakespeare quotes and empty gestures, he is a fading figure in the world, and unsurprisingly, he is the last to realize it. As his performers rebel and their pitiful little show hobbles on, he sees the truth far too late. Dr. Show's past catches up with him, the company suffers the consequences, and before long, kindhearted Webern must choose where his path lies.

Goldenland Past Dark's story is one of mystery and pain, the story of Webern's childhood and self-deception as much as his future. Just who is Webern's childhood friend, the mischievous and volatile Wags? The author does not shy from this profoundly sad yet never maudlin tale, choosing the warped mirror and the tragedy beneath the clown's fa├žade to frame universal truths while revealing the depths of her characters' souls. Smith's colorful cast is diverse and deeply drawn, a showcase of the hearts within the freak show shells. Smith decorates her narrative with masks and images of perfection, a fun-house mirror's reflection of Webern's hunchback and sideshow acts made center, giving her readers something deeper to ponder while weaving descriptions as melancholic as they are unsettling and beautiful.

A piece about alienation and humanity, infused with compassion, Goldenland Past Dark is a redemptive narrative of love, loss, and inner demons. If certain elements prove predictable there is little to forgive, for what end could the sad clown have, but one layered with bittersweet? Highlighting the hopelessness of the clown's fate, Smith stops short of snuffing out Webern's buoyancy, and asks, what is life but the journey?

Quote:

 

"It was hopeless, of course. So what? A clown's quests always were." 

 
From the Clown King struggling to return to his two-dimensional throne, to the lachrymose image of a weather-beaten jester suspended high in the air, Webern's destiny is one of mournful inevitability, no less riveting or beautiful because of it. Readers intrigued by intelligent narratives and complex themes should not hesitate to seek out this haunting debut novel. I suspect we may anticipate great things from this author.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Vintage Review: Unearthed by Gina Ranalli 2/1/12

As UNEARTHED opens, New Year’s Day finds Rebecca Robinson calling for her dog at an hour most people would be sleeping off the previous night’s festivities. The Pacific Northwest’s classic weather has saturated the ground, and though initially terrified when a 4x4 sinkhole opens nearly under her feet, Rebecca isn’t very surprised. But then one opens under the house and giant bees begin to show themselves…

UNEARTHED is good clean fun. Ranalli doesn’t waste time bogging us down with lengthy back-stories, giving just enough to establish who her characters are and where they are in their lives. As her characters struggle to survive, the 900 acre forest Rebecca lives in falls beneath the surface of the earth in mind-bogglingly massive chunks and the bees stake a claim to man’s earth. As the ground gives way beneath your feet and giant bees do what giant bees must, you grin and hang on as Ranalli hurtles the tale forward.

This short novella is perfect for an afternoon or evening, when you need a quick treat to pick you up. There is more depth to the sinkholes than to the plot, but it is, overall, an amusing way to spend time. Light and easy to read, the story is contained perfectly within its pages. There is engaging action and a nice bite of humor.

If you want a tasty little read, UNEARTHED is a good choice.

Vintage Review: Willy by Robert Dunbar 1/9/12

Excerpt:

 

Then I tumbled over a stiff knob of root that twisted like tree guts. green green wet deep taste green and a little red Slow to get up. Twigs and dead grass stuck to me, but I like to feel them on my skin, the needles, in the palms of my hands, like I’m not just myself but part of ithe woods. Kneeling there, it felt like I was thanking them for Willy.


In Robert Dunbar’s WILLY, passage after passage is worthy of note. In some sections, one senses a deliberate choice made for every word—a remarkable feat, given it is written as fourteen-year-old’s journal, complete with spelling errors. WILLY drips with atmosphere and tension.

Dunbar’s protagonist is a troubled boy newly arrived at yet another reform school or a ‘dump’ as Willy calls it, a dump for all the kids no one wants to deal with anymore. He’s been abandoned and beaten down for so long he’s forgotten anything else. Until he meets his roommate, Willy, and is taken under his wing.

Willy seems to all but run the school, battling its warped teachers, leading its damaged pupils, despite bouts of some mysterious illness. The teachers’ hate and fear of him is palpable. And yet, the boys love Willy. He is kind to the MC, protecting him, transforming him. But there is something sinister about Willy. He sees, he knows, too much. He is too aware.

Excerpt:

“You don’t know what you are. You’re lost in yourself and can’t always be. Would be a tragedy. Yes? No? Don’t nod like that. You don’t understand. Are you even awake enough to hear? It would be a tragedy because you feel, and you can’t imagine how rare that is, not yet. But you could. Be strong. If you can survive long enough.”

So Willy tells the protagonist. In Willy’s world, survival is not guaranteed.

Dunbar layers the plot with depth and subtlety. The MC is an unreliable narrator with an imperfect memory and a distinct lack of mental stability. He is damaged and desperate for love. His attachment to Willy borders on frantic. To inhabit his reality is intoxicating. And creepy.

The intimacy between Willy and the protagonist is delicately displayed, never feeling heavy-handed—the hesitations, the tests of loyalty, of love are right. The narrator’s self-expression gradually matures, as Willy draws him out of his shell.

Novels written in the format of a character’s journal can be problematic. There is the danger of the narrator knowing too much, or relaying information in a way that kills the tension, whether through a disbelief the character would write something a particular way, or simply losing the immediacy of events. Dunbar pulls it off. I never felt manipulated as details were revealed, as characters showed their colors. Dunbar leaves it to the reader to draw their own conclusions. If you only like unambiguous endings, WILLY isn’t for you.

I won’t give anymore away. This is my introduction to Robert Dunbar’s work, and I cannot recommend it enough. I can’t help but be impressed by the balance between intense emotion and the dislocation of reality.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Saturday Night Live and Transphobia/Gender Issues

So I expected people to be all over this, but I haven't seen anything about it, so I'll have a go--even though I'm not an expert in trans/genderqueer issues.

This week, Saturday Night Live was hosted by Justin Timberlake, a host I generally enjoy and the show was decent--not great, but decent.

That is, until the last sketches, which I found disturbing. (Even more than usual. SNL skates close to racism/misogyny/homophobia/transphobia rather a lot.)

I'll start with the one I found less offensive, a sketch featuring two female cast members playing stupid and/or intoxicated porn stars shilling for a cheap champagne. My real objection to this one is the fact that it made me realize how few and the quality of the roles SNL seems to be giving its female cast. Timberlake also plays a porn star, but is portrayed as a victim of an inappropriate childhood relationship with a male gym teacher and sounds neither wasted or (overly) stupid. I watch SNL intermittently, both because I like sleep and simply because the writing quality seems to have slipped (especially since Samberg left), but I was shocked to realize just how far the writing for its female cast has fallen. Increasingly the actresses are reduced to playing token pieces designed to set up the male actors to deliver the punchlines or portraying stereotypical roles we are meant purely to laugh at. I'd also point out in an otherwise amusing sketch featuring iconic SNL hosts, Candice Bergen was the only woman, had about one line and it was about putting the toilet seat down.

That brings us to the "She Has A Dick" sketch. A prerecorded "film preview" of a romantic comedy supposedly starring Justin Timberlake. Perhaps (and given SNL's track record, I'm being very generous here and sincerely doubt it) this was meant as commentary about the way people who express gender outside the binary norms are treated, but if that were the case it fails spectacularly. The concept is Timberlake meets the perfect woman, pretty, funny, etc., the twist being, you guessed it, she has a penis. (Kenan Thompson plays the "confused black friend" who repeatedly asks questions about the physicality of Timberlake's girlfriend and ends the segment with "Can I see it?".) Timberlake eventually overcomes his (rather minor) misgivings and says it doesn't matter, that he loves all of her. Which is great, in and of itself.

What is glossed over is the profound threat trans/genderqueer people face, and the fact that this is not a light matter--the threat of violence is erased entirely from this Rom-com take of an often overlooked issue in mainstream television/film. As I was watching, I was far from amused because all I could think of was how frightening it must be to reveal something so intimate with someone you care about, but don't really know how they'll react. And to face that uncertainty and chance at rejection with the knowledge that some men will react violently.

But what disturbs me most was the live audience's reaction, specifically when they laughed. The laughter read to me as laughing at the idea of a perfect girl with a penis, at the very concept of someone who does not fall neatly into the boxes we've made for them. The whole sketch feeds into our binary view of gender and gender expression, that because someone falls outside these lines, they are somehow a point of humor in and of themselves. If people are laughing for apparently bigoted reasons, I think we can say the comedy has failed.

Truly, I think the intention of this sketch can only be interpreted as ridiculing trans/genderqueer individuals. This has been agitating me since Saturday night; it makes me a bit sick to my stomach, frankly. "Humor" and hate go hand in hand far too often and hate is a hairsbreadth from violence. Needless to say, this has rather put me off SNL. I don't think I'm overreacting, but as I said I'm not an expert in this area. I would love some feedback from the community as to how transgender/genderqueer persons feel about this.

But I do know I definitely did not find this funny.

***UPDATE*** An alternate take on the skit: http://www.dyssonance.com/the-snl-skit/ (Thx, Tracie Welser for the link!)

I already tweeted a link to this, but there's also some interesting points in the comments here.