Friday, April 22, 2011

Your Hate Mail will be Graded by John Scalzi

Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded
by John Scalzi
Tor Books, 2010
368 pages

I have to admit: I have never read any of John Scalzi's fiction. I keep meaning to get to Old Man's War, but you know how that goes. And yet, I am a huge fan of his blog, Whatever, and so it was kind of a no-brainer for me to pick up this book, a collection of archival Whatever entries, when I noticed it in the local bookstore. See, the thing is, there's a lot of great material in the Whatever archives, but I only started reading in 2009 and I'm not about to go back all the way to 1998 to see what I missed. So I thoroughly enjoyed having someone pull out the best of Whatever and plunk it in a book for me to read.

I think the ideal place for this book, and this is not an insult, would be the bathroom. (Ironic, as I know Scalzi does some work for the Uncle John series of readers, too, heh). The entries are generally no more than two or three pages long, and range in topic from political, to parenting, to writing, to financial, to clones, to cheese. Perfect lengths for bathroom reading, and rarely the same thing twice. Also, they can be read in any and all orders -- there is absolutely no order to the entries, as they're not arranged chronologically nor topically. So you can read the last one without feeling like you've missed anything.

There can be trouble in assuming that what one writes on a blog will translate well into a book. I think part of the success here is that Scalzi is interesting. He's got big opinions, he thinks about things thoroughly, and he doesn't just discuss the minutiae. But what makes Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded work is that not only is Scalzi interesting, he can write. He can write really, really well. Well enough that a book full of his blog entries don't start to feel repetitive or samey.

The entries are often informative, and always entertaining, even when I don't agree with everything Scalzi says. That said, I seem to agree with the vast portion of it, which perhaps makes me an ideal reader for this book. I could see his style grating a bit on people who don't agree with what he says, especially, but that's quite deliberate. The current tagline for Whatever is "Taunting the Tauntable since 1998." His style can be hyperbolic, his metaphors can be vulgar (not in a bad way, to my mind), his sense of humour is always pointed and very sarcastic, his arguments somewhat steam-roller-like. But the metaphors, if unexpected, are always apt, and the arguments he makes are exceedingly well-reasoned. And I laughed out loud and often while reading this.

I wouldn't recommend this for a straight read-through, if just because it starts to be a lot. It would be like spending a full day just reading blog entries; your brain goes numb after a while. As above, it's less likely to go numb with Scalzi at the helm than it would be with many other bloggers out there (I include myself in this; most of us aren't award-winning authors). For someone who is having trouble committing to an entire narrative, this is the perfect pick-it-up-put-it-down read. It had me giggling, it had me thinking, and it had me thoroughly engaged. The best part about it? Reading Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, like reading Whatever, makes me have some hope for humanity, if there are people like Scalzi out there thinking and writing and being alive in this world.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

3 short reviews for a short attention span

Hello blog. This is kind of embarrassing, but... the truth is, I've been neglecting you. Some stuff has come up. I've been really busy, and when not really busy, in a really weird brainspace. All will become clear in time, but suffice to say that not only have I not been writing reviews, I've only barely been reading. Thus, the longest break in our history together: almost a full month without an entry.

That said, I do have three books to talk about. I know I won't be able to squeeze full entries for each out of my poor brain, so we're going to do something new and do short reviews! Scattered and short attention span -- that's me right now.

The City of Words
by Alberto Manguel
CBC Audio, 2007
5 discs

This is actually a recording of the five 2007 Massey Lectures. If you don't know about the Massey Lectures, I do advise checking them out at some point -- they've been given lately by such luminaries as Margaret Atwood (about money, and debt) and Douglas Copeland (the first Lectures to be entirely a work of fiction) and Wade Davis (anthropology). This particular set was about the power of story and words in society, going back as far as Gilgamesh (my favourite lecture of the series) and bringing us into the future with HAL. I don't remember a lot of it at this point, I'll be honest, and as I was in the car listening to this I wasn't (much to the advantage of other drivers on the road, I am sure) taking notes as I listened. I think probably a better experience would have involved taking notes. It was tremendously fascinating, but extremely dense; and I do remember feeling that the final lecture stretches a bit too far and tries to do too much in fifty minutes. While the whole thing was interesting to listen to, I don't think it has quite the same coherence that some of the other series I've heard do. Or it's possible that my brain is out of shape from not being in classes where I've had to do a lot of critical thinking and/or literary analysis. Either way, I'm glad I listened and I think I will have to listen to them again to appreciate them fully. Recommended for people interested in stories, society, and culture, and not afraid to take on something intellectually challenging.

Not Love but Delicious Foods Make Me So Happy!
by Fumi Yoshinaga
Yen Press, 2010
159 pages

Of the three I'm reporting on here today, this is the book I loved. It's tremendously quirky in exactly the way I like it. With relationships and the manga artist's life as a (mostly very thinly sketched) background, this is a book about food. In fact, it's a love letter to 15 different Tokyo eating places, and to the food they serve. If I ever go to Tokyo, I will use this book as a guide to what I eat. It looks so. unbelievably. delicious. There's Japanese food, of course, but also Chinese food, baked goods, French cuisine -- it's wide-ranging, involving a lot of entrails (as Yoshinaga herself jokes) and beautifully drawn and described. Somehow, in between the food, we manage to get to know and enjoy Y-naga, the main character, foodie, and charmingly quirky lady, and a cast of characters around her, some just in for one story, others in for the long haul. It's very well done. The art is lovely and easy to follow, the characters very clearly differentiated, the sense of humour is sustained and light without being stupid, and did I mention the food? Loved this book, highly recommended to fans of food and/or manga.

Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang
by Mordecai Richler
Tundra Books, 2003 (original release in 1975)
87 pages

Another parent-child bookclub read, and quite a lot of fun. Jacob Two-Two is two plus two plus two years old, and has to say everything twice because he's so small that no one hears him the first time. In this, the first of his adventures, he is sent to prison for the worst crime of all -- insulting a grownup. I wasn't surprised to see that Richler is reported to have modeled the child characters in the book after his own children, or that the father character is modeled after himself. It reads like a bedtime story, the sort that a father might come up with on the spur of the moment with the kids themselves as the stars. This is not a bad thing, by any stretch -- it's a wonderful, imaginative, charming, and entertaining story that somehow manages not to be dated. It has things to say about children, adults, friendship, kindness, and creative thinking. Recommended as a great adventure for a bedtime story, or a very quick (an hour or two) read for an adult.