Thursday, October 27, 2011

Another unsettling element in modern art is that common symptom of immaturity, the dread of doing what has been done before; for though one of the instincts of youth is imitation, another equally imperious, is that of fiercely guarding against it.

True originality consists not in a new manner but in a new vision.
Edith Wharton in The Writing of Fiction

Nim Chimpsky: Live at the German Bordello

Read Elizabeth Taddonio and Daniel Bailey's chapbook Nim Chimpsky: Live at the German Bordello while standing next to my stove waiting for some pasta to cook. Read it again while dying my hair and listening to Death From Above 1979.

It's really good.

Here are some lines from it I liked.

i want to write a hot club song called "twitpic yr dickpics"

i hope i die from rabies 10 seconds before i would've died from natural causes

From 'Public Knowledge'
Gif request - Mark Wahlberg punching himself in the chest repeatedly in the movie Fear

my google chrome download bar shows that today I downloaded a gif called 'friday afternoon' & 2 pictures of mario batali

i googled who is my mom and it turned out my mom is the same person I always thought she was

i think i'm gonna pitch "totally chill men" to amc, a show about dudes from the 90's who watch tv commercials and then chill with the products

how different human history would be if humans could jump as high as cats

From 'Memoir Titles'
Off-brand graham crackers
Cocktail hour with the mammoths

Not now, I'm wired in
Old Lady Swag - Socks

Artifical light and watching Roseanne alone after work
A bookcase made of ottomans
Cat Dress

movie where viggo mortenson runs around a forest with purpose for 2 hours. we never find out his purpose. viggo's boot gets messed up and that is the main crisis of the movie.

i want to be a rapper where my name is every letter except j and z

i want to live two lives simultaneously. one as myself and one as "pump up the jam" by technotronic

i wish i had an ethnicity to write about

i want to smoke a shitload of salvia and then walk around a mall and wherever i am when the salvia wears off is where i build my castle

Buy your own copy for $2.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Fictional maps, forever and ever

Was going to add this to my Earthsea review, but decided it needs its own post.

Lindy West in a review of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire:

Basically—here is the dark, mewling shame-baby that's been calcifying for years in my brain-womb (medical term)—I will read anything with a fucking fictional map in the front.

Ohhhhhh, how I crave a fictional map! Oz, Middle Earth, Narnia, Neverland, Fantastica, Tortall, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the one with the talking war-bears where everyone gets to have a magic otter that is their best friend... uhhh... Dinotopia... ummmmm... you know, all the other ones. All the main ones. I love that shit. So imagine my delight upon discovering that not only does each volume in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series have a fictional map in the front, IT HAS A FUCKING FICTIONAL MAP IN THE BACK, TOO. That's two fictional maps. Two. (Plus sometimes a third supplementary fictional map that I really can't get into right now because I need both hands for typing, if you know what I mean [MASTURBATION JOKE].)

All hail fictional maps.

And check this out as well:

Earthsea Series, 52-55/100

I kind of love this cover art for the first book. It reminds me of Fuseli's The Nightmare. Only one problem: the main character isn't white! Oh, book publishers. Forever whitewashing the world.

When I first started reading Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea series about a year ago, I decided to wait and do a blog post when I finished all the books. Now I wish I hadn't, not realizing quite how many there were. I"ll be stretching my brain trying to remember everything.

These are the books in the series:

A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)
The Tombs of Atuan (1971)
The Farthest Shore (1972)
Tehnau (1990)
Tales from Earthsea (2001)
The Other Wind (2001)

Only the last four were read this calendar year.

The Earthsea series is fantasy aimed towards young adults. It molds itself after Tolkien and preludes Rowling. At the beginning of each book is a lovely, sprawling map of the fictional world of Earthsea, drawn by Le Guin herself.

Don't hurt your eyes. Click the pic to make it much, much larger.

Don't you love big maps like that? I could look at them all day. Earthsea is an archipelago of islands that necessitates all travel be made by boat; or flight if you happen to be a dragon. Oh yes! There are dragons. You can't go wrong with wizards and dragons.

Most of the stories revolve around the wizard Ged, who as a young boy travels to a wizarding school to learn magic. His school adventures don't span 7 books, however, and by the third book Ged is middle-aged. It's nice to come across a YA book that isn't so obsessed with youth. I think more literary fiction should feature young adults and vice-versa.

One of my favorite aspects of Earthsea is how the magic system works. Le Guin explains fully how the magic works in this world, instead of just claiming some things to be magic and some not. Here magic is performed by learning and using the "one true language": the language that existed before men created their own. Every rock, tree, person and animal has its own "true name" that allows any wizard or witch who knows it to have complete control over it.

But there is a downside to this system. It's knowledge based. Wizards learn the true words through memorization, which means that the knowledge can be withheld from anyone who isn't deemed worthy.

In the first 3 books, written between 1968-1972 (The Farthest Shore was originally subtitled "The Last Book of Earthsea"), Le Guin was criticized for making this wizarding world almost exclusively male. There are village witches, but they are considered lowly, working mostly as mid-wives and healers. "Weak as women's magic, wicked as women's magic."

Tehanu, written 18 years later, was her response to the outcries of sexism from critics and concerned fans. The novel focuses on the gender discrimination and segregation within Earthsea. She reveals that both sexes hold the talent to perform magic, but only one is privileged enough to be taught how.

Le Guin has apologized before for the supposed sexism in the earlier novels:

What happened in the 17 years between Farthest Shore and Tehanu was that feminism was reborn, and I became 17 years older, and learned a good deal. One of the things I learned was how to write as a woman, not as an honorary, or imitation, man.

From a woman's point of view, Earthsea looked quite different than it did from a man's point of view. All I had to do was describe it from the point of view of the powerless, the disempowered - women, children, a wizard who has spent his gift and must live as an "ordinary" man.

But reading the first three, I kind of "got it." I understood the sexism at play; that it was the work of the characters, not the author. Tehanu addresses the issue nicely, although perhaps a bit too thoroughly, sacrificing story for preachiness. And it's a bit sad that the big "feminist" book in the collection is basically 300 pages of two women trying to fend off a rapist until a prince comes and saves them. An over simplification, but that's what it boils down to.

From Tehanu:
She felt as she had felt in Havnor as a girl; a barbarian, uncouth among their smoothnesses. But because she was not a girl now, she was not awed, but only wondered at how men ordered their world into this dance of masks, and how easily a woman might learn to dance it.

You've probably noticed some similarities between this series and Harry Potter. Both feature schools for young wizards. The prejudice against women resembles the discrimination against mudbloods (the founders of the school on Roke debated over accepting women, declined, and kicked out the founders who WERE women. At Hogwarts it goes the other way, with the anti-mudblood Salazaar Slytherin renouncing his position).

Another aspect both series share is their focus on immortality vs. death. In Harry Potter, the entire story springs from an evil wizard's desire to be immortal. The Philosopher's Stone, horcruxes, the Deathly Hallows--all attempts to cheat death. Dumbledore, ever the voice of reason, reminds us that death should not be feared, but looked to as "the next great adventure." In Earthsea the moral is much the same: cheating death, destroying the balance, will have dire consequences.

From The Farthest Shore:
You will die. You will not live forever. Nor will any man nor any thing. Nothing is immortal. But only to us is it given to know that we must die. And that is a great gift: the gift of selfhood. For we have only what we know we must lose, what we are willing to lose....That selfhood which is our torment, and our treasure, and our humanity, does not endure. It changes; it is gone, a wave on the sea. Would you have the sea grow still and the tides cease, to save one wave, to save yourself? Would you give up the craft of your hands, and the passion of your heart, and the light of sunrise and sunset, to buy safety for yourself—safety forever?

In the first book, Ged summons a dead spirit, unleashing a shadow into the world that seeks to destroy him. In The Farthest Shore, Ged must travel into the afterlife to defeat an evil wizard who, in his quest for immortality, has taken magic from the world. We return to the afterlife in The Other Wind, when it's discovered that a decision made thousands of years ago to create life after death has sentenced generations of people to purgatory.

Moral of the stories: You're gonna die. Just deal with it.

From The Other Wind:
"I think...that when I die, I can breathe back the breath that made me live. I can give back to the world all that I didn't do. All that I might have been and couldn't be. All the choices I didn't make. All the things I lost and spent and wasted. I can give them back to the world. To the lives that haven't been lived yet. That will be my gift back to the world that gave me that life I did live, the love I loved, the breath I breathed."

I've always loved how works of fantasy draw on each other, and can take tropes of the genre and will them into a new creation. No work exists that wasn't inspired or adapted from something else. Earthsea is very much tied to Middle-earth. And Rowling's creation was undeniably influenced by the works of several fantasy authors. I don't think she has ever tried to hide the fact. But I've read a few interviews with Le Guin where she expresses a bit of animosity towards Rowling that I find deeply unfortunate. There's nothing grosser than rivalries between authors.

Example: The 50 Best Author Put Down of All Time. It's kind of funny, but it's also really sad and pathetic. Like some kind of nerd rap battle. You don't have any microphone to drop, Mark Twain, so just stop. Leave the insulting to the critics and your fans.

Thinking every piece of fiction that comes along is going to be sublimely original is ridiculous. It's all about what you do with your inspiration. Just take a look at Lev Grossman's The Magicians. It very actively and openly drew from the world of Harry Potter, Narnia, and Middle-earth. But no one's complaining, because he ran with the idea of merging these worlds, creating something new that celebrates the entire fantasy genre. I love it.

So get over it, jealous fantasy authors. You're not the first person who's ever written about a dragon.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Ayiti, 51/100

Was really happy to receive Roxane Gay's debut collection Ayiti a few days ago in the mail, after pre-ordering it months ago. And can I mention just how much I love getting books in the mail? I spend a good portion of my work day opening interlibrary loan packages, and then come home and open some more that are just for me. Anything that comes directly from the publisher are always the best, packed with goodies and bookmarks. Bookmooch packages are great too, especially when they include little personal notes and books with marginalia. I should probably go outside sometime.

Gay's book is a collection of short fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, all representing experiences of the Haitian diaspora. Most readers coming to this book won't know much about Haiti or its people, besides the fact that it is a devastatingly poor country. "We are defined by what we are not and what we do not have." The stories are presented honestly--not sugar-coating the poverty and hardships of its characters--but also avoiding using gimmicky sob stories (although I did sob in at least one of the stories).

One of my favorite shorts, "There is No 'E' in Zombi Which Means There Can Be No You Or We," is a zombi(e) "love story." Or could it be classified as zombie erotica? Either way, it's not whatever you're picturing. As Gay emphasizes in the beginning under the headline [Things Americans do not know about zombis:], "They are not dead. They are near death." No necrophilia here.

My other favorite, "In the Manner of Water or Light," is devastating and beautiful. Narrated by a second generation immigrant, it tells the story of how her mother was conceived during the 1937 massacre of Haitian people by the Dominican Republic. The mystery and romance surrounding her grandfather, encouraged by the grandmother, shows the lengths we go to to protect ourselves from tragedy and the truth. Even when it means crossing an ocean.

From "All Things Being Relative"
My parents were born in Haiti, the first free black nation in the world.

It is an island of contradictions.

The sand is always warm. The water is so clear blue bright that is sometimes painful to behold. The art and music are rich, textured, revelatory, ecstatic. The sugar cane is raw and sweet.

And yet. What most people know is this--Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Her people eat mud cakes. There is no infrastructure--no sewer system, no reliable roads, erratic electricity. Women are not safe. Disease cannot be cured. Violence cannot be quelled. The land is eroding. The sky is falling.

Freedom, it seems, has a price. We are defined by what we are not and what we do not have.

You should also check out Roxane Gay's blog I Have Become Accustomed to Rejection, where she writes some of the funniest movie reviews on the internet.

She also contributes to Bookslut and HTMLGiant; two of my favorite favorites.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Love and Rockets: New Stories, Vol. 1, 50/100

Be prepared for some venting, ranting and/or raving, and tons of geekdom.

In my review of Sloth I mentioned I wasn't familiar with the comic series Love and Rockets by the Hernandez brothers. I happened to see this first volume for New Stories at the local comic shop and grabbed it. The cover alone (once again) would've been enough for me to buy it.

Just like in Sloth, something felt "off" about the entire volume. Even starting at a point in the series where I was missing some back story, it was still pretty easy to pick up on what was going on. But all the dialogue felt like it was translated from another language, badly, even though it was written originally in English. Almost every written word just felt unnatural and odd.

However I couldn't make myself hate it. The artwork is wonderful, the characters fascinating, and the stories are definitely never boring. The backbone story in this volume follows a group of female super heroes known as the Ti-Girls, who are....I don't know, trying to stop an enemy from destroying earth after she loses her tiny bean-sized baby in space, or something. Like I said, it's odd.

But here is what makes the Ti-Girls unique:

A middle-aged Spanish speaking maid turned super hero? That makes me very happy.

I'm sure this grouping looks odd. Like something from Kick-Ass or Mystery Men -- super heroes that break the Superman/Wonder Woman mold. But it's more than just breaking outside a race or age barrier. Let's get gender specific (yes, let's).

Unless you've been living under a rock (or you're just not a complete dork like I am), you've probably heard about the controversy over the representation of female characters in DC's "new 52" series, which is a complete reboot of their line of super hero comics. The representation of women in comics is not a new controversy, but this recent release has really brought the issue into the spotlight.

The two characters readers had the biggest problem with was the new Catwoman and Starfire. And just to give you an idea of what we're dealing with here:

And no, this didn't come from DeviantArt (where any person, animal, and inanimate object probably has fetishized fanart dedicated to it). That's in a real live comic book.

Catwoman's portrayal is (arguably) milder in comparison, and honestly, she's CATWOMAN. As in CAT. She's allowed to be sexy and have awkward clothed sex with Batman if she wants. I shall allow it.

But this has been a long-time problem in comics. Women characters, even as the good guys, are represented as Playboy Bunnies. Eye candy with no personality. Or if they DO have personality, it's gotta be a sessy one. If she has goals or motives, chances are she's a villain. It goes beyond anatomy into their actions and attitude. Cookie cutter women different in hairstyles and costumes only.

If you want to see a list of grievances (and possible solutions), read this lovely set of interviews with comic creators at ComicsAlliance. Everyone has a different opinion on the problem, but at least they all agree that there IS a problem. Also, check out this great article by FilmCritHulk on the unfortunate sexism in the new Arkham City game -- the problems in comics and videogames tend to overlap.

So I agree with the cause. I'm all for transforming the way women are represented in comics. At the same time, even in the most well-intentioned arguments I see an unfortunate double standard.

Super heroes aren't a 20th century phenomenon. They've been around since the creation of stories. The gods/goddesses of Greek/Roman/Norse mythology, the Titans, Achilles, Perseus, Hercules, Beowulf, Paul Bunyan...we've been obsessed with super people for a long time. These heroes were also incredibly idealized. And not as much in their personalities or morals as they were physically idealized. Think of the ancient Olympic games. Think of Sparta. The perfect athletic body was revered; almost worshiped.

And in 2011 we still worship in the cult of the "perfect body" (or whatever a particular society as a collective deems to be ideal). It only follows that our super heroes continue the trend of being oiled-up body builders. I don't personally agree with it, but there it is all the same. Comic book super heroes are the new gods. And in some cases ARE gods (THOR!).

So why is it different when it comes to female super heroes? Yes, they have impossible chest sizes, perfect faces, and wear outfits that could easily be mistaken for underwear. But so does Superman. (how is his chest possible? HOW?)

"But the representation of male super heroes isn't sexualized like it is for women."

Isn't it? Just because comics and their TV spin offs starring male supers are marketed mainly towards boys doesn't mean it's not sexualized. They market an idealized sexual identity. "If you want to date Lois Lane, be this."

After all, I've read several outcries against shows like Sailor Moon (a spin off from the wildly popular manga series), claiming indecent sexuality in its all-female cast, despite it being marketed entirely to girls.

So let me get this straight.

This is ok for boys 9-12.

But this is not ok for girls 9-12.
"If you want to date Tuxedo Mask, be this."

And here's what I'm getting at here. There's this horrible, repressing notion floating around out there that the mere existence of a female body is automatically sexual. It doesn't even have to be Pamela Anderson shaped. If it's just there, being female, it's automatically sexual. (quick! cover it in a burka!)

Well I have news for the entire human race. If you have a body, congratulations: you are sexual.

Sorry, that's just how it works. So let's stop pretending only half the human population is about sex, and the other half is only about technology and Dr. Pepper 10.

I want comics where even the super heroes are believable. Realistic characters with flaws doing unrealistic things. Let's bring variety to the genre by creating heroes we can identify with, instead of idolize.

But as long as we still have Adonis super dudes, with muscles in places muscles shouldn't exist, and chins that could cut through adamantium, please don't throw such a shit fit over super ladies having super boobs.

DO get angry when they have no personality. When they make stupid poses or say stupid things. When the only aspect of their identity is sex, sex, and more sex (although it certainly works for James Bond).

Let's use this controversy to create something entirely new. Instead of relaunching the same characters (now with even more muscles/boobs/chin dimples!), come up with something unique. Original. I want to see an entire comic series starring a middle aged Spanish-speaking maid fighting crime. Make it happen.

Check out Kate Beaton's "Strong Female Characters" comic here.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Sloth, 49/100

I picked up the graphic novel Sloth while browsing the library, based on the title and cover art alone. It's kind of an inside joke that if I was an animal in my past life, it would've been a sloth. Attractive, right? can't tell me sloths aren't cute.

Sloth was written and drawn my Gilbert Hernandez, one of the creators of the Love and Rockets series, which unfortunately I'm not very familiar with. This title turned out to be very surreal, almost David Lynch-ian, with characters switching identities, an unreliable timeline, and a giant goat monster in a lemon orchard. The three central characters are able to will themselves in and out of a coma, apparently to escape the doldrums of teenage suburban living.

However, this boring suburb also has a quite a few suburban-legends: murders, bodies buried in the lemon orchard, and a goat that switches identities with intruders. And supposedly that's what happens in the middle of the story. Suddenly the reader is taken into something approaching an alternate universe, where the characters are the same, but their circumstances have changed. Drastically. Question is, is one of them now the goat? Is the goat whoever is wearing the sock cap? How did things change so drastically? What's the meaning behind that psychotic teacher? Why did they yell at that lemon farmer for no reason?

So many questions that, even re-reading most of it again, I still couldn't answer. The story was a puzzle that I don't think would ever form a whole picture. Perhaps the reader is supposed to make the picture on their own. Almost like Inception: entire internet boards could be filled with possible interpretations. But in this case, the vague, open-ended storyline just wasn't as successful or interesting. Even if I could figure out who was switching with who, I'm not sure I would care. There doesn't seem to be a point or focus behind any of it.

But there was one funny scene:

Run away fast. That's a Hannibal Lecter look right there.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Ready Player One, 48/100

This was probably the geekiest book I've ever read. And I've read a lot of geeky things.

Ernest Cline's Ready Player One is a science fiction novel that unabashedly celebrates it's own genre. I dare you to find another book with as many references to classic video games, comic books, sci-fi/fantasy novels, and film, as this one. Though I'm sure Patton Oswalt's Zombie Spaceship Wasteland is a close second.
Cline's novel also revels in pure 1980s nostalgia: the arcades and pizza parlors, John Hughes films, shag carpeting and wood um, pretty much my childhood. Sure, I was more a child of the 90s. But growing up in rural Virginia, we were pretty much 10 years behind the rest of the world anyway. I spent a significant portion of my childhood swinging Pitfall Harry over crocodiles, shooting asteroids, and jumping barrels on the lovely Atari 2600. And don't even get me started on the NES.

Ready Player One is set in an uncomfortably near dystopian future, where humanity escapes the crushing poverty and desolation of their reality by living vicariously in a free world-wide MMPORPG called OASIS. From home they can put on virtual reality equipment, login to OASIS, and live their lives in a virtual world. Think Second Life x1,000,000.

When the designer of OASIS dies, he decides to leave his entire fortune (hundreds of billions) and control over the OASIS to whoever can unlock an easter egg he's hidden inside the game. But it's not going to be easy; unless you're a whiz at 80's pop-culture trivia, can make the highest score possible in Pacman, and know every single line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It's like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, except in this version Mike Teavee would be the winner.

From the publisher's blurb: "part quest novel, part love story, and part virtual space opera set in a universe where spell-slinging mages battle giant Japanese robots, entire planets are inspired by Blade Runner, and flying DeLoreans achieve light speed." Yeah, there you go.

If every book was this fun and addictive, you would never be able to pry me away from my couch. Few books come along that I want to recommend so badly that I can barely contain myself from throwing copies of it at people in the street. So if you're a child of the 80s, the 90s, or at heart, do yourself a favor and pick up this book.

Here are some passages:

I started to figure out the ugly truth as soon as I began to explore the free OASIS libraries. The facts were right there waiting for me, hidden in old books written by people who weren't afraid to be honest. Artists and scientists and philosophers and poets, many of them long dead. As I read the words they'd left behind, I finally began to get a grip on the situation. My situation. Our situation. What most people referred to as "the human condition."

It was not good news.

What would happen if I somehow became rich:
Halliday bought and restored one of the original Deloreans used in Back to the Future films, continued to spend nearly all of his time welded to a computer keyboard, and used his newfound wealth to amass what would eventually become the world's largest private collection of action figures, vintage lunch boxes, and comic books.

Fun facts about Ernest Cline:

He also wrote the screenplay for Fanboys, and is currently working on the screenplay for the film adaptation of Ready Player One. He has a wonderfully geeky website at He also does poetry performances, and I would recommend you listen to "Nerd Porn Auteur" (although not at work).

Complete the cycle and play the Ready Player One 8-bit game: