Wednesday, February 05, 2003

Books Worth a Look XI
These are the books I read in January 2003.

Beneath the Axis of Evil: One Man's Journey into the Horrors of War by Neal Pollack (So New Media, 2003)
I don't know Neal Pollack. I've never met Neal Pollack. In fact, I've often confused Neal Pollack with Todd Pruzan, a much better writer, although he's much lesser known. Regardless, perhaps because of occasional email exchanges and the sheer power and possibility of Pollack's writing, I eagerly awaited the arrival of this text and read it in one sitting on the Big Blue Couch. If irony is dead, Jesus is ironic, because irony lives again. Not many people can make fun of 911 or the prospect of war without being gauche or offensive, but Neal does so with taste, tenacity, and something starting with "t" that means intelligence. Well worth reading, if not just for the hand-written personal inscription making light of where you work.
Pages: 62. Days to read: 1. Rating: Good.

The Doofus Omnibus: The Definitive Collection of His Greatest Adventures in Flowertown, U.S.A. by Rick Altergott (Fantagraphics, 2002)
I'm not the biggest fan of Altergott's work. Even though he's tight with many of the Fantagraphics set, is married to cartoonist Ariel Bordeaux, and lives nearby in Providence, I've just never appreciated his art or writing. His artwork, while reminiscent of some of the old-school EC artists such as Wally Wood, is overly busy and dense for my taste, and I don't really enjoy his Doofus or Henry Hotchkiss characters. That said, there's some good in the book. His collaboration with Dan Clowes is a nice piece of near-autobiography. As is his piece with Charles Schneider. Similarly, his story with Irwin Chispid about Stan Kenton arranger Robert Graettinger is also impressive. But of his own stuff, the Tales of Young Doofus is about as close as I get to digging Altergott. But I'm glad I gave this a chance.
Pages: 112. Days to read: 1. Rating: Fair.

Exit Strategy by Douglas Rushkoff (Soft Skull, 2002)
As the "world's first open-source novel," Rushkoff's recent book, which was first serialized online by Yahoo! Internet Life, fails in principle. The idea was that, by publishing the novel online, Rushkoff would attract reader-contributed Pale Fire-like footnotes that would then be published along with the principle text. The footnotes failed. While a worthy gambit and gimmick, I read the novel once through without paying attention to the overly interrupting footnotes and then flipped back through the book to see what I missed. Not much. Footnotes aside, the novel is well worth reading. A dotcom retelling of the Biblical story of Joseph, Rushkoff susses out some excellent religious theorizing, Judaicultural commentary, and speculative technological development. The cultic aspects of the AI are quite intriguing, But the footnotes? Give 'em the boot.
Pages: 335. Days to read: 3. Rating: Good.

Fruits by Shoichi Aoki (Phaidon, 2001)
What an awesome, mind-blowing book! Compiling about 270 photographs taken by Aoki in the Harajuku shopping district of Tokyo, much of the book was originally published in the Japanese street fashion magazine Fruits. While the photographs of the various progressive modes of clothing are wide-ranging and extremely interesting, Aoki's subjects' facial expressions, body postures, and attitudes resonate even more strongly. Aoki also finds value in the minutiae. Each photo identifies the subject by name and age and details where various items of clothing came from. But it is the "point of fashion" and "current obsession" listings that really surprise. It is here that we learn what the fashion means to the wearer -- and who they really are.
Pages: 276. Days to read: 1. Rating: Excellent.

Haw! Horrible, Horrible Cartoons by Ivan Brunetti (Fantagraphics, 2001)
I know I've already read this before, but I don't think I ever got around to reviewing it. This collection of mostly single-panel gag comics represents what might have been created were Charles Schultz to channel Mike Diana. Much more far out and visceral than Brunetti's work in Schizo and for magazines such as Fast Company, Haw! is horrible, horrible indeed. Incest, pedophilia, dismemberment, homophobia, S&M, irreverence, scatology, racism, AIDS, disembowelment, drug use, rape, pornography, and suicide. It's a dreary roundup of humankind's worst foibles, and most of this would be decidedly unfunny were it not couched in cartoon art so cute. This is the real dysfunctional family circus.
Pages: 96. Days to read: 1. Rating: Fair.

Hope: Opens the Way When There Seems No Way by Norman Vincent Peale (Peale Center for Christian Living, 2002)
I'm fascinated by religions pamphlets and other easily portable, reproducible, and readable pieces of philosophical propaganda. Designed to be easily digested and distributed, they're an interesting way to move ideas fast. This slim volume, produced in the context of the economic downturn and pending war, focuses on Peale's optimistic perspective on detemination, enthusiasm, persistence, vision, and faith. Though simple and somewhat shallow, the booklet contends that belief is all we need. The section on expectations hit home.
Pages: 32. Days to read: 1. Rating: Fair.

The Illustrated Price Guide to Cult Magazines 1945 to 1969: 25 Years of Exploitation by Alan Betrock (Shake Books, 1994)
Not really a book to read as much as it is a book to refer to, this doesn't even really make that great a reference book. By now way outdated, the book does not really reflect current prices for the non-cheesecake exploitation magazines indexed here. Betrock chooses not to concentrate on magazines that specialized in nudity, instead focusing on scandal, crime, romance, and other exploitation titles such as Best Detective Cases, Exciting Romances, and Front Page Confidential. The price guide data is limited to listing the publisher, the date of the first issue, and extremely broad price ranges. But this book is important because of the almost 475 cover reproductions. An excellent visual survey of the publishing niche.
Pages: 160. Days to read: 1. Rating: Good.

Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddism by Thich Nhat Hanh (Parallal, 1987)
The Order of Interbeing grew out of the School of Yough for Social Service in the mid-'60s as a way to incubate members' Buddhist practice as well as their social activism. This thin volume comprises documentation on the order's charter, community, and 14 precepts. Hanh proceeds to expand on the 14 precepts, which balance traditional Buddhist thinking with more societally involved considerations, including consumerism, right livelihood, simplicity, and social justice. I didn't find the precept recitationceremony scripts that useful, but it's interesting that the book is designed to help people organize their own sanghas. An easy introduction to engaged Buddhism in practice.
Pages: 77. Days to read: 12. Rating: Fair.

Metrophage by Richard Kadrey (Ace, 1988)
Kadrey's first novel was part of the Terry Carr-edited New Ace Science Fiction Specials series, which also helped launch Kim Stanley Robinson, William Gibson, and Michael Swanwick. The novel is a rollicking and undisciplined exploration of a near-future Los Angeles rocked by cultural tribes of all stripes, an emergent police state, and an engineered plague that threatens to make it all even worse. I never really empathized with the novel's protagonist, but the people whose lives intersected with his haphazard sleuthing are all thoughtfully crafted and innovatively presented. A good start to a writing career worth following.
Pages: 240. Days to read: 4. Rating: Fair.

Pictorial History of Highland, Indiana edited by Matthew Figi (Highland Historical Society, 1999)
Highland is a town of roughly 25,000 peopel in northwest Indiana not far from where my grandmother lives. I'm not overly familiar with the area's layout, but I love local history books like this. At base, the book collects more than 175 phootographs dating between 1850 and 1998, capturing the people, places, and organizations that made Highland what it is today. Largely a history of founding families, civic involvement, and commercial locations, the book could have been organized chronologically. But in the end, it's an archive worth sharing -- and one that showcases some bygone faces and spaces. Highland could be anywhere.
Pages: 106. Days to read: 1. Rating: Good.

Tremont Street Subway: A Century of Public Service by Bradley Clarke and O.R. Cummings (Boston Street Railway Association, 1997)
This well-researched, -documented, and -illustrated history of the Tremont Street Subway, now the green line of the MBTA, is an excellent introduction to Boston's public transit history. Documenting the pre-T transportation options in the area -- horsecars and electric trolleys -- as well as the legislation that led to the T, the booklet includes vintage maps, illustrations, and photographs that date back to the late 1800s. The history touches on construction, the gas explosion of 1897, dead stations, the balance of subway and elevated service, and various extensions to the green line. Clarke and Cummings have provided a valuable, focused history of the T.
Pages: 67. Days to read: 1. Rating: Excellent.

The Ultimate Cyberpunk: The Best Fiction from SF's New Wave edited by Pat Cadigan (iBooks, 2002)
Despite Cadigan's disappointingly apologetic introduction, "Not a Manifesto," which sidesteps the responsibility to establish a cyberpunk canon and fails to adequately define or describe the school of s-f writing, the bulk of this book -- which comprises 13 short stories -- is excellent. Highlights include Alfred Bester's 1954 "Fondly Farenheit," Philip K. Dick's Total Recall inspiration "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale," Greg Bear's nanogenetic cautionary tale "Blood Music," and Paul J. McAuley's "Dr. Luther's Assistant." What impressed me the most of Cadigan's collection was the historical scope. Instead of sticking to the school's most-known and of-the-time contributors, she expands the scope and meaning of cyberpunk, even as she refuses to pin it down or reduce it to a single definition.
Pages: 399. Days to read: 6. Rating: Good.

The Way to Happiness: A Common Sense Guide to Better Living by L. Ron Hubbard (Bridge 1989)
This slim, inexpensive pamphlet was produced by the Church of Scientology as an easy-to-digest introduction to the church's moral code. As such, it opens with encouraging instructions to distribute the booklet to friends and family before outlining a 21-point plan for happiness. While the pamphlet is simply written -- with Hubbard's characteristic footnote definitions -- and there's nothing overtly disagreeable about the booklet, several aspects stand out. One, these moral guidelines could come from any of the world's religions. Two, Scientology's mistrust of the mainstream media comes clear as the book exhorts readers to make their own decisions and determine what is true for them. The booklet's insights on observation, ownership, and the Golden Rule are especially interesting.
Pages: 45. Days to read: 1. Rating: Fair.

We're Desperate: The Punk Rock Photography of Jim Jocoy SF/LA 78-80 by Jim Jocoy with Thurston Moore, Exene Cervenka, and Marc Jacobs (Powerhouse, 2002)
This wonderfully produced book collects almost 350 full-bleed portrait photographs Jocoy took at the Mabuhay Gardens, the Masque, and other locations. Mostly capturing a series of art students, punk rockers, and show goers in similar settings, the staged poses aptly catch the moment in musical, fashion, and cultural time. While Cervenka and Jacobs'' essays add little to the collection or its context, Moore's interview with Jocoy addresses how the book came to be, Jocoy's innovative photography process (which initially involved a slide--based color photocopy projection technology!), and work with the "models." Like an issue of Fruits magazine crossed with Search & Destroy or Slash. Beautiful.
Pages: 370. Days to read: 2. Rating: Excellent.

What They Never Told You About Boston (or What They Did That Were Lies) by Walt Kelley (Down East, 1993)
A driver for Town Taxi -- for about six years when this was published and following a management career in banking -- Kelley offers a perspective of the city that stems from his experiences on the street, as well as conversations with passengers. He knows what history interests people, and he shares a lot of it in this quick read -- the origin of Boston's name; the three lies of John Harvard's statue in Harvard Yard; little-known facts about the Boston Massacre, Boston Tea Party, and Midnight Ride of Paul Revere; the landfill that makes Boston livable; and other unsung stories. Kelley's book is well-researched yet streetwise.
Pages: 112. Days to read: 1. Rating: Excellent.

Writers and publishers may send books for Media Diet to consider for review to the address in the left-hand column. Publishers who send galleys or review copies -- if reviewed -- will receive a link as part of the review.

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