Month: February 2015

Webcomics Roundup

In the style and delivery of my Podcast Roundup, (part one here: ) these are the webcomics you should be reading:

 Pt.1- Everyone should read these:

http://xkcd.com/: Insightful and hilarious. It might make you think. Short comic updated three times a week, meticulous and well-built. Be sure to check out his side project, http://what-if.xkcd.com/.

http://www.smbc-comics.com/: Updated seven days a week (Zach is a hard worker). Really funny, often featuring elaborate hypothetical situations revolving around some discovery.

http://wondermark.com/: Eccletic and varied. Modern observations wearing archaic absurdities.

Pt. 2- Give them a try and see if they’re your brand of tobacco:

http://oglaf.com/: VERY NSFW (not safe for work). Often pornographic, always clever. Avoid if fantasy sexuality (and by fantasy I mean magic and dragons) seems off-putting to you.

http://existentialcomics.com/: Simone de Beauvior as a caped crusader? Locke, Descartes and Hume playing Dungeons and Dragons? Hell yes. Philosophers are pitted against each other in these insane and comic situations that still manage to spark an internal dialogue on the ideas presented.

http://drmcninja.com/: Pure pulp fun. He’s a doctor and a Ninja. And weirdly Scottish. If any part of you can get on the level of a nine-year-old boy, you’ll dig.

http://questionablecontent.net/: Great characters and an interesting narrative, but it can get rather preachy and on-the-nose. Avoid if you’re burned out on Northeast American hipsterism.

http://www.asofterworld.com/: Simple text over photography. Often macabre and dark, extremely artistic. Sometimes funny, sometimes raw and earnest. Often both (to some degree, at least).

Anything I’ve missed? Let me know if you’ve got any great comics; I’d love to check them out.

Reading Log: Kerry Howley’s Thrown

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I’ve already spoken highly of the physical article that is Kerry Howley’s book Thrown, and can say with certainty that the object-as-idea is every bit as impressive as the object-as-artifact. The book is nonfiction, but employs a semi-fictionalized narrator to better tell the story, framed as a long-form essay. It’s hard to tell how much of Howley’s “character” Kit is fabrication, but it’s not a question I find especially compelling. It’s a narrative device and it must be judged on its efficacy alone. Truth isn’t just irrelevant, it’s downright distracting. The Kit character frames the narrative in a useful and interesting way, getting at a more aesthetic truth by means of subverting the more literal one. If you’re the kind of person who complains when the fact checkers come up with discrepancies in literary memoirs that don’t make claim to absolute truth then this might bother you, but there wasn’t much hope for you, anyway.

The narrator’s dubious reliability makes her perspective (and the questions she raises) that much more interesting. I was initially put off by the intellectual distance she created between herself and the men and women involved in the world of MMA, but all of my misgivings burned off as soon as she confessed to being “horrified” by the fact that one of the 19 year-old bikini-clad ring girls was reading a book instead of playing on her phone (Kit’s divorce from staid academia seems somewhat contrived when juxtaposed against her naked honesty in this regard). Couching her narrative in philosophical research and references creates a neat distance from the fighters she’s writing about, one that -along with both Kit and Howley’s academic background- puts the brutality of cagefighting under an existential microscope, completely outside of the bounds of the binary morality most people (especially the educated and civilized) seem to impose upon MMA. Her prose is intense, very Iowa-Writer’s-Workshop, but that’s an aesthetic categorization, not a complaint.

My response to this text is going to be a bit of an anomaly, on account of having trained in combat sports for a few years myself. Much in the same way that I had to read Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance without over-defaulting to my own experience working on old bikes, I had to make sure my own experience didn’t crowd the narrative. I’m intimately familiar with the training behind MMA and the feeling of stepping into a cage with an opponent and I’m incredibly impressed with Howley’s empathy, the way she can write inside a fighter’s head with such specificity and accuracy without having (to the best of my knowledge) any firsthand experience herself. Both the amount of research and the approachable dissemination of the appropriate information are noteworthy. This is by far the best writing on MMA I’ve ever read, and one of the best recent works of literary fiction. Regardless of your stance on mixed martial arts as a sport, give this a read (and maybe especially if you’ve written it off).

Recommendation: Buy, read. Look closely at the book, because it’s a beautifully made artifact.

Thrown

by Kerry Howley
Powells.com

Reading Log: Unlikely Destinations; the Lonely Planet Story

image via Wikimedia

image via Wikimedia

First off, this is a weird book.

It fits squarely into my goal of reading more things I wouldn’t normally, making picks from out of left field. It’s some mad chimera of travel book, business history, memoir, and autobiography. The co-authorial implementation is clunky and intrusive and the book suffers a bit from its disparate identity, but nonetheless comes together well enough to form an interesting narrative.

Unlikely Destinations tells the story of two backpackers who seem to stumble into the ownership of a multinational company almost by accident. Of course, the reality is no doubt a bit different than the romantic copy on the back of the book, but the narrative of the rise of Lonely Planet guidebooks is certainly charming. The narrative voice is meandering and sometimes inconsistent, but still engaging and witty in a clever-friend-at-the-bar sort of way. This may sound like I’m booking on the book, but I really did enjoy it. I am on both a bit of a travel kick (and a nonfiction kick in general) right now, so that’s probably coming into play here.

The bottom line with books like this? Read them if you’re into the topic at hand. If you liked the Steve Jobs biography or you like reading about travel, dig in. Not everything we read has to be MFA-approved high prose. Books are these wonderful technological machines that open up windows into rooms either large or of great specificity. Read about the shit you like and check your literary ego at the door.

Recommendation: see above.

Unlikely Destinations: The Lonely Planet Story
by Tony Wheeler and Maureen Wheeler
Powells.com

Reading Log (Audiobook Listening Log?): Amy Poehler’s Yes, Please

Celebrity bios are often vacuous, ghostwritten appeals to the voyeuristic spirit of Western civilization as a whole. Amy Poehler’s is not ghost written. I gave the book a shot since I was a big fan of Saturday Night Live during the 2008 presidential election; the writers and performers were both at their creative peak and supplied with plenty of comical material. Poehler is a great comedian and a talented sketch writer, but these skills do not extend to her prose or ability to construct a compelling narrative.

I gave this book a try -somewhat against my better judgement- because:

  1. I need to make sure I’m not always reading just literary fiction, and
  2. The audiobook version seemed to be an interesting experiment of sorts, with a huge and impressive voice cast that even included Poehler’s parents.

As longtime readers know, I’m a consummate podcast fiend and a great lover of standup comedy. I’ve also listened to dozens of audiobooks, and the idea of these forms coalescing into something new is extremely appealing. The closing chapter of the book (“The Robots Will Kill Us All”) is read in front of a live audience and is immeasurably superior to the rest of the book but I don’t believe that Pohler became a better or more interesting writer at the very end. A veteran of crowds, she not only gets them completely in her corner, she feeds off them, injecting adrenaline into the heart of what she’s reading. It stops becoming a static form and becomes participative, transporting the listener into that live experience.

The sterile reading of the rest of the book leaves much to  be desired. The idea of a 15-hour audiobook being recorded live is insane, I’m aware. At the same time, I’d rather ditch the celebrity voice cameos and listen to what a performer like Poehler could manage over a series of live readings in front of an engaged audience. Literary fiction might play with the form of the written word, but technology makes other kinds of experimentation possible, and audiobooks are ripe with untapped potential.

Recommendation: Skip it. Really. Maaaybe listen to the last chapter if you want, but skip everything else.

Beautiful Books: Section Stitching, Doing it Right and our Final Salvation from E-readers

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Books are rarely made with great care. Quality isn’t nearly the main concern of modern publishing. Sure, plenty of publishing houses make nods to the kind of craft that used to be par for the course, producing editions with French edging, leather covers or faux-embossed spines, but these efforts rarely rise above gimmickry. Smaller presses like FSG produce handsome hardcovers with elaborate jackets, (like me copy of Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move) but even these are pretty standard stuff. This was on my mind after reading my beautiful 1880 edition of In Memoriam and noticing the kind of handiwork that went into the construction of the edition and I was again reminded of the whole thing while reading about the founding of the Lonely Planet travel guides, and how their guidebooks are section sewn rather than being “perfect bound” so that a much turned-to page of great importance doesn’t come loose and fall out, leaving the intrepid traveler with no map (ironically, the book in which I was reading this was horribly bound and the spine broke on me with only light reading, something I was still frustrated by when I came across the above information).

All of this was swirling around my mind when I started reading Kerry Howley’s book Thrown, an offering from Sarabande Books, a wonderful little nonprofit press that focuses exclusively on the kind of literary works ignored by the big houses. A big part of Sarabande’s overall goal is to create what they call “beautiful, lasting editions that honor exceptional writing”. My edition of Thrown fits squarely into that mission statement; a solid softcover with cover flaps, section sewn and glued, printed on very good paper. An embossed house-mark separates the covers from the rest of the book, and the entire artifact breaks in like a high-end boot. Reading this book affords a tactile pleasure that supplements the purely literary aspect of the experience. If anything will preserve the printed written word, it’s high-end artifacts. The Kindle might kill the cheap paperback, but it can’t touch the kind of thing the fine people at Sarabande Books are putting out.

Thrown
by Kerry Howley
Powells.com

Another Successful Trip To Bookhounds

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Had some good luck at Bookhounds (simultaneously the greatest bookstore and thrift shop within 80 miles of Bakersfield, CA). All of this for less than twenty bucks.

Really loving this one here:

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Got some serious vintage bike porn going on. Mmmmmm. Two-page glossy photo spread:

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Reading Log: Matthew Vollmer’s Inscriptions for Headstones

Image via Outpost19

Image via Outpost19

Reading diversely isn’t just about reading authors who are diverse in their ethnicity, gender, nationality, or sexual identity. It also includes reading diverse kinds of books or literary forms, books from diverse time periods, and from diverse publishing houses. Matthew Vollmer’s Inscriptions for Headstones is a piece of nonfiction from indie press Outpost 19, 30 essays crafted as single-sentence epitaphs stretching out for as many as 8 or 9 pages. It’s an ambitious conceit that only works because of Vollmer’s excellent prose; sentences are stretched out naturally by the consistent voice of the project rather than grammatical pyrotechnics.

It’s rather pop culture heavy (not always something I find particularly resonant) and the consistent biographical details inherent in each piece make the autobiographical nature of the whole clear. The narrator struggles with his religious upbringing and the nature of parenthood, both as a parent and from his perspective as a child. The morbid framing device isn’t just a gimmick; by recalling these defining flashes of life as epitaphs they are given poignancy without becoming saccharine or overdramatic. At no point in my reading did I find myself irritated by the conceit of the book. It works.

Reading things like this always leaves me a bit conflicted. Vollmer talks about Tumblr and Nike smartphone apps and these things seem so ephemeral and dating. What will this book sound like in 15 years? Vollmer has some powerful things to say about this stuff, but I’m always uneasy about the inclusion of these kind of transient details, however relevant in the moment. Even if a book like Inscriptions for Headstones does lose some of it’s punch over time, it’s still an incredible piece of work.

Recommendation: Buy from an independent bookseller (fuck Amazon and the way they deal with small presses) and read. Reread the essays you like (IIXXX for me).