Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Afterlife Diet by Daniel Pinkwater


The only novel officially for adults by kids-book genius Pinkwater is this odd 1995 item, which is plotted and told a lot like his best YA novels -- sideways, slyly, around corners and leaving out the boring parts. It asks the eternal question: is there dieting after death? The plot begins in the afterlife, but mostly takes place on earth, explaining the events that lead up to its first sentence: "Milton Cramer, the lousy editor, woke up in a room he'd never seen before."

As a fat guy, and a long-time lover of Pinkwater's book, I loved this when I first read it -- I had a copy of the hardcover from 1995, which was lost in the flood -- and got a new one as soon as I could. And why do we re-buy books we love if not for an excuse to read them again?

The Afterlife Diet is one of those books that's hilarious on the surface, but -- in the immortal words of Fat Albert, "if you're not careful, you may learn something." The something you'll learn is about life, or yourself, or psychiatry, or the human condition -- Pinkwater is tacking the big stuff here, and doing it magnificently.

If you are currently an adult, and have never read Pinkwater (which is horribly sad, but may be true for some people), this is a good place to start, if you can find a copy. If you're a Pinkwater fan who didn't know he'd written for adults, you now have a gem to find.

The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2014 by Bob Sehlinger & Len Testa,


Whenever I'm looking to take a family trip to the Lands of the Mouse (whether in Anaheim or Orlando), I always make sure to check out the most recent Unofficial book on the subject during my planning. Sure, I've internalized most of the lessons at this point, but there are changes every year, and other things that I need to be reminded of. In 2011, during my year-long Book-A-Day string, I read a good-sized pile of guides to Walt Disney World (and then read two about Disneyland last summer), and the Unofficial books, in all of their varieties, are clearly the most useful and directly helpful of any of the books I've seen. Others sometimes have more facts and figures, but the Unofficial books tell you what to do, in conversational language, and incorporate not just a huge wealth of personal experience and Big Data computing power, but also anecdotes and ideas from dozens of their readers.

This year, I got The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2014 pretty much the second it was available, through the magic of ebooks, and read just about all of its 850 pages (I may have skimmed the chapters on things that don't really apply to me, like tips for little kids or the details of the cruise ships) on my iPad over the course of a little more than a week. And, yes, I did still learn some things -- so, unless you go to WDW substantially more often than I do (several times a year, for example), this book will still have useful things to teach you.

And my employer no longer publishes these books, so there's no reason for me to be politically nice at this point; I really do think the Unofficial books are excellent travel guides, and would buy more of them if they covered other locations I was going to travel to. Sure, it will be useless to you if you're not going to Orlando, but any travel guide has that handicap. And I have to think that, if you were trapped in a doctor's office for several hours with nothing to read but travel guides, this is the one you'd choose, and you'd be pretty well entertained along the way.

Friday, August 30, 2013

The DFB Guide to Walt Disney World Dining 2013 by A.J. Wolfe

"DFB" stands for Disney Food Blog, one of the resources I'm using pretty intensively to prepare for the family's annual fall vacation this year. (No points for guessing where we're going.) DFB has published several books -- delivered in PDF form, and sold directly from the site, in the age-old way of targeted non-fiction -- and I've bought and read both this one and a shorter, much more targeted "mini-guide" to the 2013 Epcot Food & Wine Festival, which will be going on when we hit the World. This book is updated annually, and covers, as you might guess, all of the restaurants, carts, stands, and other food-acquisition opportunities in Walt Disney World -- with both quick capsule reviews of all of the food locations and lots of themed chapters (where to get a good steak, what are the best snacks, how to eat healthy, how to work the Disney Dining Plan, special occasions, dining with kids, best drinking establishments, sample dining itineraries, and more).

I suspect that most of the material in this book originated on the blog, and could probably still be found on the blog with some effort. But I don't mind paying for it, for two reasons: First, it's important to pay for things that are useful to you, so that the people behind those things get recompensed and keep doing them. (If something's free, it's either a hobby rather than a business -- which means it may disappear at any time -- or that thing is not actually the product; you the customer are the product.) Second, assembling and organizing that information in a format that can be read easily offline is a major benefit.

The blog's writing is from the point of view of an enthusiastic and pretty well-versed amateur -- an eater rather than a cook or culinary expert -- and the photography is a bit better than that, with gorgeous views of things that you'll want to eat. It's probably not for top-end foodies -- there's are a few really serious cuisine opportunities in WDW, but many more "good eats" surrounding them -- but both the blog and the book are excellent resources for those of us who want to eat the best possible nosh while we're stuffing ourselves on vacation.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Cursing Mommy's Book of Days by Ian Frazier

If you read The New Yorker, you're familiar with Frazier -- he's been writing short comic pieces (collected in books like Coyote V. Acme and Dating Your Mom) and longer reportage (which grew into books like Travels in Siberia and Great Plains) for them for several decades now. And if you still read it, you've probably encountered the Cursing Mommy, a conceit that Frazier's spun out into four or five of those short comic pieces over the past couple of years. (Despite the fact that it certainly seems like a one-note premise -- young mother, attempting to be Martha Stewart-esque and do something domestic, gets more and more frustrated as things fail to work and erupts in swearing as the whole project falls to pieces.)

It didn't look like the best material to stretch into a novel, honestly -- the more so because Frazier hasn't written a novel in his career so far. But The Cursing Mommy's Book of Days is a better and more interesting work than those individual pieces were -- even though it integrates them (or pieces of them) along the way.

The Cursing Mommy still doesn't get a name here, though -- she tells us this story, and everything comes through her voice, which is surprisingly strong and varied. This is a comic novel, so all sorts of things go wrong for her over the course of one year -- the book is structured as a daybook, or diary, in which she's specially telling the story in her own writing to an audience -- and she deals with it all as best she can, erupting in anger and cursing more than she wants to. The rhythms of those calamities start out funny, but get more nuanced as the year goes on and things get worse (as they always must in a comic novel). In the end, the repeated line "oh, what a fucking horrible day this is going to be" turns from a laugh line into a scream against the universe and finally into something like a philosophy: they are all fucking horrible days, if you let them be, and sometimes declaring them to be fucking horrible days is all that can get you through them.

Don't get me wrong -- the Book of Days is really funny, with subplots about husband Larry's job troubles, general cluelessness, and love of rare capacitors; about older son Trevor's teenage acting-out; about the budgetary troubles of Trevor and younger son Kyle's schools; about Cursing Mommy's book club, and their love for books about how horrible the Bush administration was; about the family's problems with the rapacious Sphagnum Health; and about Larry's Client/Boss, who pursues the Cursing Mommy with far too much zeal throughout the year. But there's some heart underneath the humor, and Frazier isn't afraid to bury some political points in there as well. (You can probably guess what those are, and judge for yourselves how much they would annoy you.)

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Incoming Books: 26 August

So the family spent most of the past three days in lovely Hershey, PA, where I had a vague plan to take quick cellphone photos and put together a post for here afterwards (just to have something that's not all-books-all-the-time), but that didn't actually happen.

Hersheypark is a fun theme park, and very family-friendly -- it doesn't have the feral throngs of teenagers you find in similar parks, for example -- with lots of good roller coasters and a pretty good water section called "The Boardwalk." The only serious criticisms I have is that it expanded haphazardly, so the park is basically a long fat L (it's not quite all in a line, but it feels that way), and that it's quite hilly, so your calves ache the next day. The Hornswoggler family has been going there for ages -- The Wife's family has had it as a summer tradition since she was a girl, and our sons have been every year probably since they were toddlers -- so it's a very familiar, homey place for us.

But that's not what I set out to write about today...

We arrived in our hotel Sunday afternoon, and went to the pool while we were waiting to go over to the park -- and, on the way there, I grabbed a flyer for Midtown Scholar, a used-book store in nearby Harrisburg. (By the way, did you know it's a long way to heaven, but it's closer to Harrisburg?) And The Wife offered to stop there on the way home, so of course we did.

She stayed in the car -- she'd rather play Harbor Master on one of the iPads than shop for books -- but the two boys came with me into the store, which is centered on a gorgeous space that was once a theater. Thing 1 peeled off quickly -- we found him later, upstairs in a comfy chair, and he picked up two books from himself (a big collection of "best-loved American poems," I think this one from Dover, and a book of contemporary Japanese diaries, which may be this one).

Thing 2 stuck with me -- I think still somewhat dazed from all the roller coasters the day before -- as I poked through the theater space, down into the basement annex, and then through a wonderfully convoluted series of passageways (through the print room into a whole 'nother sequence of rooms with humor and graphic novels -- the things I was vaguely looking for -- far, far off at the end). And these are the books I found:

The Bride Stripped Bare by "Anonymous" -- I think I vaguely remembered the publishing-industry foo-fa-raw surrounding this novel-in-diary-form, which was originally published in 2003. (It was meant to be a very frank look at contemporary female sexuality, with some literary pretensions -- it's all in second person -- to keep it from being too downmarket.) The real author was unmasked by the ferocious British press (she's British) soon after publication, of course -- the only way things like this stay secret is if they don't work, because then nobody cares enough to find out -- but, since the copy I have lists her as anonymous, and that was her original intention, I'll leave it that way here.

Family, a memoir of a couple of hundred years of history by the dependably good Ian Frazier. He's written both funny stuff -- his classic essay collection Coyote v. Acme and Dating Your Mom, and the more recent Lamentations of the Father -- and more serious books like Travels in Siberia, as well as somewhere-in-the-middle books like Gone to New York, which is almost a memoir itself.

No Touch Monkey! is one of those my-weird-travel-adventures books, a genre that amuses and attracts me, since other people's travails are always more entertaining. Interestingly, it's by Ayun Halliday, the scripter of the graphic novel Peanut, which I recently read and reviewed. If I can find two reasons to be interested in a book, I'll probably buy it: that's the lesson here.

Lulu Incognito is a minor book from the early days of Vintage Contemporaries -- no offense to Raymond Kennedy, but it's true -- and I think I really am going to try to collect that series. I haven't found any good lists of them online, so I might have to do it the old shoe-leather way. These are the books that were exciting-looking and hip when I was young and just jumping into adult fiction, so it will be an interesting experiment to gather a bunch of them (new to me and re-reads) and see what they look like twenty-plus years on.

The Child That Books Built is a memoir of childhood reading -- as the title implies -- by Francis Spufford, whose Red Plenty I've also heard a lot of good things about. And I'm definitely a sucker for books about books, which this definitely is.

And what got me started on my stack of books -- I assume other people have a similar used-book-store pattern to mine, with semi-distracted browsing until you find something that you definitely want to buy and start paying more attention to the shelves in front of you -- was a bunch of those nice recent University of Chicago editions of "Richard Stark's" books. (Do I need to explain here that Stark was a pseudonym of Donald E. Westlake, used primarily for the hard-boiled series of novels about a professional thief called Parker?) I found The Black Ice Score, Comeback, Backflash, Flashfire, and The Damsel, which was entirely spiffy. I may be diving into a big Stark re-read soon, so watch this space.

And last was a re-buy: Mark Martin's The Ultimate Gnatrat, a collection of parody comics mostly from the late '80s and aimed at Frank Miller and the post-Miller Batman. I wish Martin was still doing funny comics regularly -- he has a great gonzo style (or did, in those days) married to a great facility for quick, quippy dialogue and utterly bizarre situations. I'm sure he's doing something that pays better than humor comics these days, and I'll try not to begrudge that -- but he's another one of the great humor cartoonists of my day (along with Evan Dorkin, Scott Saavedra, and Bob Burden) who I wish could keep doing stuff like that and make millions of bucks.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 8/24

No one has pointed this out to me yet, but I seem to be usually opening these weekly posts by saying that there's no time for a long intro because either a) there are a lot of books, and I need to get through them, or b) I only have a couple of books, so an extended vamp up front would be silly.

I think we all can see the massive special pleading there.

So this time, I'm going to waste a lot of time and space to introduce the three books that came in this week, just to break that streak! (Well, maybe not.)

These three books will publish soon; I haven't read them; you might love 'em. Here's the scoop:

Carrie Vaughn's urban-fantasy heroine Kitty Norville is back with the twelfth book in the series, Kitty in the Underworld, coming from Tor as a mass-market original (yes, they still exist) in August. I've written about several of her books in the past, and I do like and recommend this series: it's a smart modern fantasy, grounded in real-world concerns and shows at least a desire to avoid the usual bloody vigilante justice in favor of the rule of law.

How Are You Feeling? is...um...a hard to describe thing. The subtitle is "at the centre of the inside of the human brain's mind;" it's written by David Shrigley, who is some kind of deliberately outsider artist-as-media-personality; and it's either a self-help book or a parody of one. (Or, possibly, both at once.) Norton is publishing this thing as a small hardcover on September 23rd, as the perfect gift book for that friend you don't understand at all. It's crudely drawn on purpose, and is alternately deliberately trite and deliberately weird -- I suspect I am too cynical and jaded to give it an honest chance. Perhaps you are not.

And David Drake has a new novel: Monsters of the Earth, the third of his "Books of the Elements" series, about a city which is not precisely 1st century Rome and a world in which magic works (which is, after all, traditional in a fantasy novel). No one in genre fiction knows Rome better than Drake, and the fact that he often writes about men at war often obscures the fact that he's a supple and deeply thoughtful writer. This one is a Tor hardcover in September.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Identities

I'm not sure if this makes sense, but it's been bubbling up in my head, so let me try to put it into words. (And I actually started this on Wednesday, before the latest furor about Manning, if that matters. It was sparked by something entirely separate, a dismissive little circle-jerk of people complimenting each other on their correct attitudes about "yellowface" and similar things.)

If you're relatively modern and thoughtful about such things (which might require being relatively young, or relatively to the left side of the political spectrum), you generally believe that gender is not defined by birth -- that there are trans people, and intersex people, and various other permutations. That doesn't mean that a person can choose a gender, but instead a belief that gender is somewhat socially defined and to a large extent a matter of presentation. People thus present themselves as close to how they see themselves as they can, or as close as their society allows them. That may entail surgery, or clothing choices, or anything in between.

And so it's generally rude (at best) to insist that a transman is "really" a woman, or vice versa -- that person is the one to define that label, not any third party.

(And I broadly agree with that; it's not always that simple in real life, but treating someone as the kind of person they want to be and are trying to be is usually good manners.)

But people who believe that also seem to believe that race -- which is vastly less biologically defined than gender is, to the point of being entirely socially constructed, from the ground up -- is immutable, and "passing" as another race is one of the worst things an actor (for example) can do.

So there seems to be a weird mental disconnect -- a white man, for example, is much more "white" than he is "man," even though that's the precise opposite of the biological realities. I'd get it if the racial component were clearly political -- rooted in wanting some kind of authenticity, and demanding that -- but it seems to be reflexive, like a prejudice or the reaction to touching a hot stove.

My question is: if it's fine for a person of one gender (by birth or upbringing) to present or play or act as another gender, why is it wrong for the precisely parallel act when it comes to race?

Quote of the Week: Edjumicated

"So far my interactions at the [Tax Day 2010 Tea Party] rally were only reinforcing my private theory -- I suppose you might call it a prejudice -- that liberals are the ones who went to college, moved to the nearest city where no one would call them a fag, and now only go back for holidays; conservatives are the ones who married their high school girlfriends, bought houses in the their hometowns, and kept going to church and giving a shit who won the homecoming game. It's the divide between the Got Out and the Stayed Put. This theory also accounts for the different reactions of these two camps when the opposition party takes power, raising the specter of either fascist or socialist tyranny: the Got Outs always fantasize about fleeing the country for someplace more civilized -- Canada, France, New Zealand; the Stayed Put just dig further in, hunkering down in compounds, buying up canned goods and ammo."
 - Tim Kreider, "When They're Not Assholes," p.63 in We Learn Nothing

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Journalism by Joe Sacco

Sometimes a book's title just tells you exactly what it is: this is a book of journalism, and it's by Joe Sacco. There's something thrilling about that purity; it doesn't even have a subtitle to explain that Sacco does his journalism by way of comics -- the panels floating up from the background of the cover will have to do that.

So this is a collection of Journalism. Perhaps the fact that it's short journalism doesn't need to be said? But Sacco's other work -- most famously Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde -- is mostly book-length, the product of a long process of investigative trips into dangerous territory (into the middles of wars, occupations, and other tense, dangerous situations) and more time spent back in the US, turning those explorations into words and pictures.

Journalism collects some small pieces that popped up in between the larger book-length works -- a visit to the war-crimes trial in The Hague of some Serbian mass-murderers, several short pieces about Gaza and Hebron -- and a few longer works that are basically short books in themselves, on the refugee camps of Chechens, on the flood of African refugees troubling tiny Malta (where Sacco was born), and on the poorest and most untouchable of India's many castes in a poor northern state. There are also a few pieces about the Iraqi occupation, with Sacco embedded in a Marine unit, witnessing attempts to train local soldiers to something like competence, and investigating the claims of torture at US hands by two Iraqi men. Those last seem like they could grow into a new book, or be the offshoots of that book -- it's certainly a subject that could use a Sacco to look at it closely.

Throughout all of the stories, Sacco always is drawn to the poorest, the lowest, the most downtrodden and endangered -- the refugees, the tortured, the hapless bystanders caught in the crossfire. It's an excellent tropism for a journalist to have, and it's served Sacco well throughout his career -- he's not a journalist who will be tempted by access, or the prestige of wealth and power, or the lure of a puff piece in some cushy Western capital. Sacco is honest and uncompromising in the way a great journalist must be -- he goes to see what he has to see, and reports back as well as he can, showing us the sights as well as the words. Journalism would be an excellent introduction to his work, and is a vital, compelling read for anyone concerned with the way this world really is.

(I've previously reviewed the Sacco books But I Like It, The Fixer, and Footnotes in Gaza here.)

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Incoming Books: August 21

For some reason, I found myself poking through the great remainder seller Edward R. Hamilton's website the other day -- actually, I'm not 100% sure Hamilton is still around, or if he ever existed in the first place, but there's been a business with his name on it for at least twenty years and that's good enough for me -- and, since I am weak, the following books showed up on my doorstep today.

(I'll provide Amazon links, since I get a kickback on those, but, if you're interested in any of these books, you're nuts if you don't check Hamilton first and get them dirt-cheap.)

The Old Reliable, yet another of the seemingly endless stream of P.G. Wodehouse books in lovely little hardcovers from Overlook. They will run out one day, I know. But today is not that day.

How to Avoid Huge Ships and Other Implausibly Titled Books, the official book for the thirtieth anniversary of the wonderful Diagram Group Prize, introduced by The Bookseller's Joel Rickett. It's the kind of book that people who love books love, and it doesn't get better than that.

The Secret Pilgrim, a 1990 novel by John Le Carre in a 2008 edition. I may try to get all of the Le Carres I can in the new spiffy Penguin editions -- since I recently read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and finally discovered him officially -- but this will at least give me one to have about the house in case I suddenly decide I need a little Smiley in my life right now.

Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin, a retrospective of the career (funny division) of one of the most humorous and humanist writers of the past fifty years. I reviewed it when it was published a couple of years ago, but that was a library copy -- now I have one of my own.

The Best American Comics 2008 -- I don't feel so bad about buying this one. Sure, I did lose my original copy in my flood of '11, but that was a galley to begin with, which I got for free. (I'm much more annoyed about all of the books I spent good money on and didn't get to read.) I reviewed this back in the day for ComicMix.

The Irredeemable Ant-Man, collecting what I think is the whole 2006 Marvel series written by Robert Kirkman and drawn by Phil Hester and Cory Walker. Every so often, I dip my toe back into long-underwear comics, usually with books that are either goofy or outright parodies. This falls pretty comfortably into that bucket, I think.

The Best of the Rejection Collection, re-collecting a bunch of cartoons the New Yorker rejected, under the editorial eye of Matthew Diffee. As I understand it, this doesn't quite act as a compilation of the original Rejection Collection and the inevitable sequel, Vol. 2, but it does have a lot of the material from those two books and not a whole lot (if any) additional stuff. But I lost those two books in the flood, so this looks like a double bargain to me.

An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories: Volume 2, the ungainly second anthology of comical stuff edited by Ivan Brunetti back in the year eight. It's too clever by half -- see my review for ComicMix -- but it's full of good stuff that I no longer had, and it was going cheap.

The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest Book is a thing that exists -- first the New Yorker just published cartoons, then they published cartoons without captions, and asked their readers to make up the funny, and then they published a book of the resulting assemblages, and, even later than that, the book was remaindered and cast into outer darkness. It's edited by Robert Mankoff, and I like New Yorker style cartoons -- and have even intermittently entered the contest.

The Cartoon History of the Universe and The Cartoon History of the Universe II, since there's no way I could live without having some Larry Gonick around the house. I may try to get my sons to read these, if I can figure out how to forbid them from doing so first to make it more enticing.


The National Lampoon's Encyclopedia Of Humor, an artifact from the magazine's '70s heyday (edited by the inimitable Michael O'Donoghue) reprinted sometime recently as part of a not-terribly-successful attempt to revitalize the brand. (I've got a couple of other books from that effort, which survived the flood but still haven't managed to get themselves read.)

And last is yet another book related to the New Yorker: Blown Covers, collecting a bunch of paintings and other pieces of art that didn't quite make it onto that magazine's cover, edited by its art editor, Francoise Mouly. I may be obsessed with the New Yorker, I admit.