Monday, January 15, 2018

Underwater Puppies by Seth Casteel



I was super behind on my Goodreads reading challenge and it was stressing me out, so I did what any rule-bending bookworm in my position would do - I dug out all of my favorite novelty books and photography books that I hadn't yet gotten around to reading and spent a blissful couple of hours poring over them, laughing and smiling to myself. It was basically a perfect day.

Disclaimer: I'm not actually a dog person. I know someone who's a dog person and they were like, totally mind-blown by the fact that people might not like dogs. "Who doesn't like dogs?" they asked, highly skeptically. "Well, me," I thought, but did not say. I mean, it's not that I hate dogs. I just like cats more. I grew up with cats and find them cute and personable, and dogs are kind of slobbery and high maintenance and gross. There are some breeds that I find irresistibly cute (*cough* Shiba Inus *cough* Jack Russel Terriers *cough*) but I'm also not one of those people who's like "OMG DOGGOS!" But my point is that while some people are either dog or cat people, basically everyone is a puppy and/or kitten person.

How can you look at a baby animal and not think it is the cutest thing next to chibi-drawn Pikachu? You can't. And Seth Casteel, that brilliant evil genius, he knows this and decides to capitalize it in the best possible way: a series of photographs showing adorable, wide-eyed puppies submerged in water. My God, this was so cute. Some of them are clearly chasing after their toy, so their little puppy jaws are open wide, Jaws-style, at the lens. Others are clearly bewildered (and wet), wondering, "Why is this happening to meeee?" And others are clearly, "I dunno what is going on but I like it! Puppy smile! :D :D :D" I read the whole book twice, back to back, immediately after purchasing it. The photos are very good quality and of fairly high resolution, all the better to showcase the adorable puppy faces contained therein.

I'm giving it four stars and not five because after a while, it got kind of gimmicky (and they weren't kittens. I think I probably would have had to have added an extra half-star if they were kittens, because it is a fact of truthy truthiness that kittens can do no wrong - but also maybe not because I think seeing sad, soggy kittens in water would have made me frown). There is only the deep blue water and the puppies, and cute as they are, the premise wore a bit thin after a while. Still, it left me with a big grin on my face and I got to see puppies (:D) so I think 4 stars is fair.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

Look at This Fucking Hipster by Joe Mande



I bought this book when I was in college and hipster/scene culture was at an all time high. I loved to sneer about hipsters, and I think that was probably because I was a hipster. I had about six flannel shirts in my closet and would make "pixel art" of 8-bit video game characters out of Post-It notes on my wall (and when I posted the pictures to Facebook, my parents yelled at me for wasting the Post-Its). I would go to record stores and buy CDs of 90s indie bands like Sixpence None the Richer and The Innocence Mission. I wore these thick-framed black glasses similar to the one that the dude on the cover of the book is wearing, and took "artistic" selfies in front of the poster of a Japanese woodblock printing I had in my dorm, or against the 8-bit video game Post-It art. I wouldn't go to a coffee store unless it was "independent."

I was, in other words, a basic AF hipster.

Reading this book is pretty hilarious because it's basically a retrospective ode to the early-to-mid 2000s. Some of the clothes in here are more emo than hipster, particularly the chunky side-swept bangs with the striped extensions. That's, like, classic emo/scene fashion. I was reading the reviews for this book and it looks like the biggest problem that people have with this book is that it not only isn't nice, it's also not PC. I would agree with that. A lot of the captions are definitely mean-spirited, and some border on ageist, racist, and homophobic. But then, a lot of humor toes the line of what's OK to say, and what it ultimately comes down to is intent. I don't think this guy who created this blog (and this book) is a bigot: I think he's a snarky dude who embraces the anonymity of the internet to make people laugh with his off-color brand of humor. Enough people liked it that he ended up getting a book deal (and in the intro to this book he seems as mystified about that as everyone else). I like it, because it captures the zeitgeist of the 2000s, including hipster, emo, and party/raunch culture. I may not agree with it personally, but it is an accurate reflection of my time in high school and college.

Also, that Beans guy at the end was kind of hilarious. He seems like such a great guy. People were posting unflattering pics of him dressed funny at concerts, and instead of getting offended, he was delighted when the creator of this book contacted him and asked him to do an exclusive photo shoot. Which he did. (I hope he got paid, or something, but maybe Beans is a pro-bono kinda dude who doesn't believe in selling out, in which case, rock on, Beans.)

In the meantime, I'm going to keep drinking my fancy cocktails with bitters, reading my hardbound copies of old classics salvaged from thrift stores, and listening to my OK Go and my Arcade Fire and my Rilo Kiley, while living it up in San Francisco, Hipster Capital of the West Coast (well, apart from Portland). You can laugh at us all you like, but we have artisinal salads, flourless vegan chocolate cake, and cute shoes with cats on them.

3 out of 5 stars

Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi



When I read the first volume of PERSEPOLIS, people told me that I had to explore this author's other work. Luckily, I bought volumes one and two of PERSEPOLIS together, so I could immediately jump from one to the other. While the first book primarily takes place in Iran during the Islamic Revolution and then, a few years later, during the Iraqi Invasion, the second book is about Marjane's coming of age in Austria: the place her parents decided to send her, where she would be safer from the war.

Marjane ends up in several places: friends' homes, a church (although she was thrown out for talking back to the nuns), hostels, even homeless on the streets. She writes about what it was like seeing a full grocery store after the scarcities in Iran, and the difficulty in living in a place where she didn't speak the language. She also writes about some of the racism she experienced, and her first feelings of shame for being Iranian because everyone saw them as "terrorists" because of the news.

I really enjoyed this book, because Marjane is so straightforward about her experiences. I think in memoirs there is a tendency to portray yourself as selfless, but Marjane portrays herself as honestly as possible, even at the cost of likability. One moment that particularly stuck out at me was when she accuses an innocent man of making lewd advances towards her in order to avoid getting in trouble with the Guardians for meeting a boy. She and her boyfriend laugh over the story but when she tells it to her grandmother, she yells at her for the first time in her life and says she's shaming her uncle's memory (the uncle who died for seditious activities that were against the Islamic Revolution). It was a relatable moment, because I think we have all done things as teens that we thought were humorous or fun that ended up bringing us shame later because of how they disappointed our families.

I didn't cry while reading PERSEPOLIS 2, although I came close at the end of the book, when she talks about seeing her grandmother for the last time. However, that doesn't mean that PERSEPOLIS 2 is any less touching. I liked how she described living as an expatriate, her encounters with her friends (and her enemies), and her experience with sex, intimacy, marriage, and divorce from both a Western and an Iranian perspective (and how the two frequently came into conflict). At one point she says something like "To the Westerners, I was an Iranian; but to the Iranians, I was a Westerner" which I thought was a great way to describe the feelings that many people with dual citizenship or people who are multiracial have of belonging to a group that is separate from those singular identities.

This is such a great series. It's easy to see why it was made into a film: the style, the narration, the content - it's all so compelling. As I said in the first book, if you're interested in learning more about Iran and enjoy memoirs written by interesting women, PERSEPOLIS is definitely a must-read.

4.5 to 5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Merciless by Danielle Vega



Riley turns the knife so its blade catches the candlelight. "I read about this method of exorcism called bleeding," she explains. "If you harm the host body enough, it scares the demon away" (131).

It never occurred to me that Mean Girls meets American Psycho: The Book could be a thing or that it needed to be made, but apparently Danielle Vega thought so - much to my detriment. The first sign that something fishy was afoot is a "warning" in the inside cover of this book that says "For mature audiences only" which I sneered at, because the only other books I've seen with such a disclaimer are yaoi manga and Maya Banks's Sweet series.

"Go to hell, warning!" I thought to myself, blithely turning the page, where I promptly met Sofia, the sniveling new girl who, like the character in Mean Girls, ends up befriending the outcast girl. Sort of. But then, that same day, she also ends up befriending the popular girls, sort of, including Queen Bee. Regina. I mean, Riley.

The difference is that the "Plastics" in this book should be called the "Fanatics." They are all super religious and think that Brooklyn is possessed by a demon and needs to be exorcised.

Wut.

"Okay," I thought to myself. "That's weird. I hope this is going somewhere."

***WARNING: SPOILERS AND DESCRIPTIONS OF GRAPHIC CONTENT***

Well, it was going somewhere. Torture. Graphic descriptions of torture. Graphic descriptions of torture that are really not appropriate for teenagers. I know, I know, there's a warning in the front cover, but I thought it was some sort of weird shtick, like the pentacle and the inverted cross on the cover. I mean, isn't Razorbill Penguin's young adult and middle grade imprint? How graphic could this book possibly be? Well, LET ME JUST TELL YOU SOME OF THE THINGS THAT HAPPEN IN THIS BOOK. Someone gets a finger chopped off by a knife, somebody gets crucified, somebody gets flesh literally chewed off, somebody gets burned alive, not to mention the stabbings, attempted drownings, and various other things that happen in here. Things I totally did not sign up for.

Oh, and that ending - that ending made me so mad. Because it turns out Brooklyn was possessed by a demon after all, so the torture was totally justified. The sociopathic squad was doing the right thing. At that point I was wringing my hands and being like, "Am I being too puritanical? Is this actually a good book, despite the graphic content?" I hated AMERICAN PSYCHO after all, and couldn't get around the violence. But when I got to THE ENDING(!), I was like, "Nope, this is a terrible book and I am going to give it the bad review it deserves (but not the bad review it needs right now)."

This was a gross and awful book and actually slightly ruined what was otherwise a good day.


1 out of 5 stars

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi



Americans, as a whole, don't really know anything about the Middle East. According to this article, a Roper study conducted during the Iraq War (2006) found that 75% of students could not find Iran on a map (the link they provided was a dead link). I knew a bit about the Islamic Revolution, because I read INSIDE THE KINGDOM: MY LIFE IN SAUDI ARABIA by Carmen Bin Ladin, who was half-Persian and grew up in Iran at this time, but still, the extent of my knowledge could probably fit into a thimble and still have plenty of room for a thumb. I wanted to learn more and this seemed like a great way to educate myself.

Marjane Satrapi was a preteen when the Islamic Revolution happened. Before the change, she went to a school where everyone spoke French and women were free to wear mini-skirts. The Islamic Revolution imposed new restrictions - mandatory hijabs, religion being taught in schools, and the Iranian secret police, or SAVAK, investigating people on the streets or in their homes for illegal activities, for which they might be jailed, publicly whipped, or even executed.

I think what makes this such a touching - and important - book are the flashes of normality in between the chaos of war and revolution. Marjane was a mischievous kid who liked to fool around in the classroom with her friends and prank the teachers, she chafed at her parents' authority and would rebel or sneak out, and when she became a teenager, she wanted to dress in the latest fashions and buy the things that made her feel good about herself and her burgeoning identity.

I cried while reading this book. Marjane lost her beloved uncle; he was executed for seditious activities, and the last time she saw him, he made her a swan he carved out of bread in prison. I also cried when she was out shopping with her friends and heard about an Iraqi SCUD missile hitting one of the houses on her street. Not knowing if her family was alive, she forgot to take home the jeans she purchased as she hopped into a taxi. When she arrived home, she found that her family was safe - but her neighbors, a Jewish family, had all been killed because it was a Saturday, and they were observing the Sabbath. As her mother hurried her away, she saw the friend's bracelet in the rubble, attached to "something" (which I am guessing was probably pulverized flesh and blood).

PERSEPOLIS is not an easy read, because it delves into many subjects that I think a lot of people would rather not think about. It's never fun to read about war, but that's probably why we should. Many books and movies glamorize life on the front, but real war is full of casualties and suffering, and should only be employed as a last-resort. Last summer, I went to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which is filled with "found" objects from the resulting conflagration, including schoolbooks, buttons, and uniforms, along with photos of what the city looked like before and after the blast of the A-bomb. Survivors of the blast, who were either still in utero or small children when the bomb went off, took us - a group of Americans - around the city, giving a neutral but heartrending account of the war, the A-bomb, and the terrible aftereffects. I had to step respectfully aside at one point during the tour because I had begun to cry (I was so embarrassed, but I imagine the guides are probably used to that reaction). I'm really glad I went, because Hiroshima took this awful event and turned it into a powerful statement about the importance of peace. People come there from all over the world to look at the exhibits and learn. PERSEPOLIS made me feel the same way.

Like Art Spiegelman's MAUS, Marjane Satrapi uses the "memoir as graphic novel" medium to great effect. The illustrations manage to capture the whimsical childhood outlook, and the scenes of horror and war are also illustrated as a child might perceive them - fantastical, larger-than-life, and terrifying. This is yet another graphic-novel that feels literary in terms of subject and scope, and I'd encourage you, even if comic books aren't your usual cup of tea, to pick this book up - especially if you don't know much about the Middle East, and would like to learn a bit more about Iran.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid



This is the second over-hyped book I've picked up this month that actually pleasantly surprised me (the first one was Holly Black's THE CRUEL PRINCE, if you're curious). I'd actually been avoiding THE SEVEN HUSBANDS OF EVELYN HUGO, because it sounded like more of that gently-padded historical fiction I can't stand, where the past ties into the present of some plucky, Pinterest-and-yoga type, who has her uncertain future resolved by some personal revelation of the past (I am looking at you, SECRET HISTORY OF THE PINK CARNATION). It was only when I saw reviews suggesting that the subject matter contained herein might be darker, and weightier, than I thought, that I decided to bite the bullet and dive in.

My goodness, but this book was not only amazing - it turned out to be just the thing I needed right now. Readable. Suspenseful. A little light, yes, but in no way padded or fluffy. Beneath that attractive cover is a core of jabby metal spikes, and you can say the same of the titular heroine, Evelyn Hugo, who's a cross between Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe (with a dash of Merle Oberon), with all the cunning of a Machiavellian prince. This is a woman who knows exactly what she wants, and will do anything to get it - and succeeds.

The narrator is a multiracial woman named Monique, who works for a Vogue-like magazine called Vivant. Monique is just a mid-level reporter, very low on the food-chain, and she's feeling depressed because her husband tried to force her to choose between him and her career - and she's having second guesses about the choice she made and the effects that it will have on her life. Nobody is more surprised than Monique when her editor grumpily tells her that she, and she alone, has been offered the rare opportunity for an exclusive interview with the now-reclusive actress. Even more shocking still - when Monique and Evelyn finally meet, Evelyn tells her that the interview was just a ruse: Evelyn doesn't want an op-ed piece, she wants a retrospective, written in the form of a book, and she wants Monique to publish it, and tell her story in the way that she, Evelyn, intends.

There are several "parts" to this novel, each divided by husbands. Evelyn's seven husbands each represent a significant milestone in her life, and it was really incredible how the author managed to make them all different, and yet all realistically flawed. Evelyn also talks about the mysterious "great love of her life" and the way that her sexuality defined her so much in her youth, and how chasing fame ended up leaving her feeling desolate and lonely at the end of her life. In some ways, TSHOEH reminded me of Jacqueline Susann's VALLEY OF THE DOLLS in how it provides a grim portrait of the way Hollywood chews up young starlets and spits them out, and the very short shelf-life of the attractiveness of women, and how this superficiality rules the people who chase it and abide by it. I was also reminded of this gorgeous Japanese film I love, Millennium Actress (2001), which is about this ordinary but beautiful girl in Japan who becomes a famous and iconic star, and as she makes film after successful film, the scenes from her movies end up serving as mirrors that reflect her pursuit of the one that she imagines that she loves. The actress in Millennium Actress also ends up as a recluse, who ends up telling her story to a low-ranked supporter in an exclusive retrospective about her life.

I think what makes TSHOEH really stand out, though, is the seriousness of the content. Sexism in the film industry, and institutionalized sexism, sure. But then there's also the topics of assisted suicide, domestic violence (and the trap of normalizing this abuse while living in this situation), racism, internalized racism, and sexuality. The Stonewall riots are mentioned, and the erasure of bisexuality actually plays a pretty huge role in the story. This is one of the few books I've read that really goes into what it's like being bi, and portrays relationships with people of both genders. I also really liked how Monique was half-black and Evelyn was Cuban-American, and how their cultures shaped them.

THE SEVEN HUSBANDS OF EVELYN HUGO is a really good book. The pacing is really well done, and like Monique, I found that this Interview with the Vampire-style format kept me coming back for more, because with every question answered, another immediately popped up in its place. Reading this is like reading one of those mildly trashy grand epics of the 70s and 80s that follow one character throughout their life, chronicling their loves, their hubris, and their sorrows. It was a fun, solid read with good characters, and a darned good (if bittersweet) story. You should read it!

4.5 out of 5 stars

Once More, Miranda by Jennifer Wilde



I am trash for these vintage romance novels. Even the bad ones, there's something special about them. Modern romance novels just aren't written like these any more - the covers don't look like this any more - and I don't know, guys, but it's like discovering some ancient artifact in your backyard, except replace backyard with "bookstore."

Jennifer Wilde is the pen name of male author, T.E. Huff. He is probably most well-known for his bodice ripper, LOVE'S TENDER FURY, but not all of his romances are bodice rippers in the traditional sense. ANGEL IN SCARLET and this book, ONCE MORE, MIRANDA are much more tame, and do not have the wtfery of their crazy cousin, LOVE'S TENDER. These two latter romances are more like rags-to-riches Cinderella stories, with a healthy dab of Pygmalion thrown in there for good measure, because... because why not?

***WARNING: SPOILERS***

The first part of this book isn't actually narrated by the heroine, but by her mother, Honora. Honora is a beautiful governess who ends up working for the Mowreys. There are two brothers, and the elder is miserly and has creepy feelings for his handsome, younger brother. When he sees how gorgeous the new governess is, he contrives to sack her in a pique of jealousy, only she is saved by the handsome brother at the last minute who is charmed not only by her good looks, but also by how good she is with his son. They fall in love, Honora ends up preggers, and they marry secretly - but when the younger brother reveals what he's done, a fight ensues and younger brother gets pushed down the stairs on accident. Older brother is upset and furious at Honora and she's thrown out on her pretty, pregnant bum and told to never come back or make any claim to the family fortune. She has her child and gets consumption, and with the last vestiges of her waning strength, she puts pen to paper to chronicle her brief rise to happiness and her cruel fall into ruin, for her daughter to read one day.

The rest of the book is all narrated by Miranda, who lives by her wits in the slums of London. She's also pretty, and news of her good looks have traveled around to the point that this dude whose name is literally Black Jack has gotten word and wants to kidnap her for his brothel. Miranda wants no part in this (her airs have given her the ironic nickname "Duchess Randy"); she'd rather steal. One day, while pickpocketing, she picks the wrong pocket and ends up thrown in jail by this hard-as-nails Scotsman named Cam Gordon, after he catches her trying to rob his friend at a public hanging-cum-drawn-and-quartering. Cam taunts her about how they'll probably cut off one of her hands and how she's going to deserve it, but she's pretty, so his friend feels bad, and they end up bailing her out later and bribing the prison warden into allowing Cam to purchase her as an indentured servant who will be contracted to him for seven years. Cam is kind of a weird hero, because while he's not an outright alphahole, he threatens the heroine with beatings, actually hits her, and on a couple occasions, strangles her (once with the intention of actually killing her, I think). I don't think many modern readers will find him at all dreamy, but maybe 80s romance readers were into this thing. Who knows?

It turns out that Cam is a famous pulp writer who publishes his work under a nom de plume, and after Miranda unwittingly criticizes his work, he throws a temper tantrum while his friend laughs. Once he gets off his author high horse, however, he realizes that Miranda actually knows her stuff and lets her copy-edit his work. She gets him a big advance for his next book and her advice actually causes his stuff to sell even better than before. She also starts writing her own stuff, and while the publisher kindly refuses her first attempt as fantastical trash, she decides to write what she knows - life in the slums - and her books end up becoming best-sellers among the well-to-do, who can't get enough of this poverty tourism. Cam's stage actress neighbor ends up befriending her and giving her elocution lessons, and by the end of the third quarter of the book, Miranda is actually quite well-spoken and polished, with money of her own, and success that rivals that of even Cam's.

Anyway, it turns out that Cam is involved with trying to get Bonnie Prince Charlie put on the throne, and towards the end of the book, the story feels a bit like Diana Gabaldon's DRAGONFLY IN AMBER, with Cam constantly plotting and organizing rebellions and Miranda fretting on his behalf. There's even an obsessed captain who's looking into Cam, and his initials are J.R., like Jack Randall (except this guy's name is Jon Ramsey), and like Jack Randall, it's hinted that he's a coward who enjoys torturing others to make himself feel good inside. Ew. Unlike DRAGONFLY, Miranda doesn't aid him in his efforts like Claire did Jamie - instead she drugs him so he misses an important meeting that is supposed to be a game-changer, and when his friends decide to start without them a number of them die. Cam blames Miranda and leaves her, and the last act of the book begins with a sad Miranda learning the truth of her origins and going back to confront the uncle who ruined her family's lives.

It sounds like there's a lot going on in this book, but considering the length, there really isn't. This is incredibly slow-paced, and is so bloated with unnecessary descriptions and repetitious dialogue that it almost feels as though the author was paid by the word (like that rumor about Dickens). The Gothic beginning is the best parts of this book, and while there are occasional instances of wtfery that you'd expect in a bodice ripper, like imprisonment in a brothel by evil pimps and a graphic description of a public execution involving lengthy torture, like ANGEL IN SCARLET, this is actually fairly tame by the standards of the romances available at the time, and focuses primarily on Miranda's gradual rise in station, culminating in her claiming her inheritance and securing the legacy of her late parents.

I think this is a much better book than ANGEL, in terms of quality. ANGEL was even more repetitive, with a heroine who was determined to be spunky, flipping people off and calling everyone "sod!" Miranda did that to some extent, but it wasn't all the time, and she didn't spend all her time in front of mirrors describing herself like she was getting off on it (seriously, wtf). The sex scenes in ANGEL also felt much more dialed in: reading them was like falling half-asleep in tepid word soup. ONCE MORE, MIRANDA does okay in the sex scene repartment. Also, bonus: no rapist hero. I didn't really care for this book, but it was only 99-cents, and the unapologetic trashiness kept me turning the pages, as I did want closure on what happened to Miranda and to a lesser extent, Cam.

Treece read this with me, which added an extra element of fun to this Old Skool Experience. ANGEL IN SCARLET was a buddy read as well, and there's just something extra fun about exploring these vintage romances as a group. As I said in the beginning of the review, they are completely unlike these modern twenty-first century romances, and sometimes that's a good, bad, or downright shocking thing, and I really enjoy looking at my friends' status updates for these (especially first-timers to the Old Skool Experience) because sometimes they'll find a good quote I missed, or a revelation/insight that I never considered, and it becomes this MST3K-like snarkfest, where we all sit around and just talk about how cheesy/ridiculous/over-the-top the story is. (And that was totally a hint, by the way - these books are getting rereleased for Kindle all the time. (One of my all-time favorite bodice ripper series, Marilyn Harris's Eden books are now available for Kindle.) So, if you're at all interested in reading one of these with me, please let me know.) I wouldn't recommend Jennifer Wilde for someone first getting into bodice-rippers, since his work is a bit too trashy and unrealistic even for me (she said, while looking at her batsh*t-in-a-blender shelf on Goodreads), but for someone who really loves 80s-style melodrama and a bit of the soap, Jennifer Wilde is probably a good choice.

2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars