YOU OWE ME TEN INCREASINGLY-FURIOUS BACKS AND FORTHS
#1008; In which Hair is disliked




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This weekend: Emerald City Comicon!

This weekend I’ll be in Seattle for the wonderful Emerald City Comicon! I’ll be at the TopatoCo table on the skybridge (booth 1102).

YES

I’ll be hosting two panels.

The first is the URBAN DICTIONARY GAME SHOW. We did this last year and it was super funny — check out the video from 2014!

In last year’s panel, I had contestants Ryan North, Kate Leth, Chip Zdarsky, and Trin Garritano try to guess the definitions of terrible, disgusting terms from that wonderful fount of true actual non made-up knowledge, Urban Dictionary.

This year, Trin and Kate are back, and we’ll be joined by Nika Harper and Jenn Bane!

It’ll be a raucous great time on Friday night, in the following room, with the following description:

Urban Dictionary Game Show
Room: Hall B (WSCC 602-603)
Date: Friday, March 27th
Time: 6:30PM – 8:30PM
Moderator: David Malki ! (Wondermark)

Watch a panel-discussion type game show where panelists Kate Leth (Kate or Die), Nika Harper (Wordplay), and Trin Garritano & Jenn Bane (Cards Against Humanity) attempt to define the weirdest and grossest terms the Urban Dictionary website has to offer. It’s a super entertaining time as funny and charismatic people attempt to guess and define these terrible terms. This panel is recommended for those 18+.

Then, on Saturday night, I’m hosting another game show!

TopatoCo Presents: Mashdown! The Mashup Showdown
Room: Hall E (TCC 303)
Date: Saturday, March 28th
Time: 5:50PM – 6:40PM
Moderator: David Malki ! (Wondermark)

Mashups: the 100% definite most creative way to design pop culture merchandise! Which of our TopatoCo artists and friends can identify all the elements in a given mashup? And can they think of an idea so bad it doesn’t already exist out there in the world already? Join Frank Gibson (Capture Creatures), Dave Kellett (Sheldon; Drive), Kris Straub (Chainsawsuit), Trin Garritano (Cards Against Humanity) & Holly Rowland (TopatoCo) to find out!

Super looking forward to it all. Hope to see you there!!



Books I Read in 2014, Part 3


Trailer for DreamWorks’ upcoming Home

It’s the third and final part of my 2014 reading list in review! Here is Part 1 and Part 2.

The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex
Format: Paperback borrowed from 826LA
Above I’ve embedded the trailer for the upcoming DreamWorks animated movie Home, which is adapted from this book. The author, Adam Rex, illustrated the picture book Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem by Mac Barnett (which I raved about last year). The illustrations in that book are amazing, and after learning that Adam had written and illustrated a novel of his own, I kept my eye out for it.

I found it on the shelves of 826LA, the writing & tutoring center where I occasionally volunteer. The staff kindly let me borrow it, even though I did not have a library pass from my tutor.

So…here’s the thing. I wanted so badly to like this book. But there were a few things standing in my way. This particular copy, I learned, was an advance readers copy (ARC) — that’s the early version of the book that publishers send out to reviewers, while the actual books are on the press and being trucked around to various warehouses.

Unfortunately, that meant that the illustrations weren’t all finished, which was a big shame. In some places there were thumbnail sketches; in others, it said “Illustration to come.” So, that was disappointing — but hardly the fault of the book itself.

I also really hated the typesetting. I couldn’t figure out if it was just in the ARC, or if the finished book was like this too… It was typeset in an ugly sans serif, which made it look like a book self-published by someone who doesn’t know anything about type, which is most self-publishers, which is why a book can look “self-published” and have that be a recognizable attribute.

Protip: never set a novel in a sans serif typeface. Set it in a serif — and not Times New Roman; Palatino will do in a pinch. Garamond if you’re Robert Jordan or trying to be Robert Jordan. Also, don’t single-space your novels. That wasn’t a fault of this book, but just as a general piece of advice for trade paperback publishing. Mass market paperbacks can single-space and use Times, but who among self-publishers is making mass market paperbacks? I am literally the only one I know of.

I digress. So, there were things about the book that made it less than comfortable to read. I could have gotten the finished version of the book from the city library, I guess! I could have done that, and I didn’t, and that’s just a failing I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life.

The story is about a girl named Tip who, after the world is conquered by the alien Boov, embarks on a cross-country trip to find her mom. She encounters and falls in reluctant cahoots with a hapless, fugitive Boov named J.Lo. The two travel from New York to Florida to the Southwest, hiding from the other Boov, as well as even bigger threats.

As I said, I really wanted to like this book. And I’m…not totally sure I didn’t? It’s got lots of things in it that I like: crazy cobbled-together vehicles; characters that speak in mangled English for comic effect; even a social consciousness. Tip is biracial, and that fact informs her character in specific ways. Along their journey, they encounter various characters (such as some American Indians) whose political struggles are mentioned bluntly and explicitly. The book isn’t about politics at all, it just doesn’t blink when the topic comes up.

That and some frankness about swearing (not reproduced in text, but alluded to) are small things that startled me in a kids’ book that I guess I had expected would be more…toothless? Those aren’t bad things for a book to have, in general, so I’m trying to figure out why I’m having a hard time saying I enjoyed the read.

Maybe because it reminded me a little of Dave Barry: super hilarious when I was eleven, but upon re-reading as an adult, way more self-consciously wacky than actually witty. This book is very self-consciously wacky.

I’m super happy for Adam Rex that the book was bought to be made into a movie; that’s a huge thrill. Home, the movie version — which is a much worse title in my opinion — looks like it’s taking some liberties with the story. The trailer shows them flying all around the world, which I guess is more interesting than Florida and the Southwest, and the Boov character’s name has been changed from J.Lo to Oh (although the real Jennifer Lopez does voice a character in the movie, funnily enough).

I worked as a trailer editor for long enough that I can usually tell what compromises go into making a certain trailer look the way it does, and this movie…doesn’t look very good. I also can’t stand Jim Parsons’ voice (he plays Oh). So, I’m sorry Adam Rex, but I will probably not see this movie.

A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar
Format: Hardcover from library
This was one of the books I alluded to in the last part of this interminable series — recommended to me as one that uses language interestingly. It’s a fantasy novel, about a man from an agrarian island who visits a fabled far-off continent and becomes embroiled in a religious conflict. That’s a pretty cold way of describing this very poetic, character-driven book, but it’s the barest outline of the plot.

In this book, the agrarian society has a spoken language, but no concept of writing, beyond simple maps and counting marks. However, the people on the foreign continent do speak a language that has a written form, and they have a long history with books. In the course of the story, the religious authorities on the continent attempt to suppress various factions by outlawing their books — which, to the main character, is horrifying, because he’s only just discovered books, and they are precious to him.

So the book, in its way, is a love letter to books. It’s slow in parts, drifting down its own rivers of lyricism, but it’s an affecting read. It also has ghosts!

The Wish Giver: Three Tales of Coven Tree by Bill Brittain
Format: Hardcover from library
I picked this up because I like browsing the YA stacks and grabbing stuff I’d never otherwise know about. The reads are pretty short and I like to think it broadens my horizons. This is apparently a classic of sorts, a monkey’s-paw type story about kids in an early-20th-century farm town whose magical wishes go awry in quasi-predictable ways.

Okey doke! It was fine. I don’t think I’d read it to my kids, but they could read it themselves if they wanted to.

Garage Band by Gípi
Format: Paperback from library
This is a graphic novel, originally published in France, about some grubby teens and their misadventures putting together a garage band. Gípi also authored the better-known and more recent Notes for a War Story, which I haven’t read. The dreamy watercolors are pretty neat, and the story is more a slice-of-life character study than, like, a thrusting narrative, but I was happy to have read it.

Rocannon’s World by Ursula K. Le Guin
City of Illusions by Ursula K. Le Guin
Planet of Exile by Ursula K. Le Guin
Format: Hardcovers from library
These three books — which I read in separate volumes, but which are also available in a combined edition — are Ursula K. Le Guin’s first published novels, all set in the Hainish universe.

All three are about outsiders on journeys of survival, and in fact parts of Rocannon’s World foreshadow themes also found Le Guin’s other, later works, The Word for World is Forest and The Left Hand of Darkness.

These are not her strongest works, naturally. Rocannon’s World, the first, feels like a much more conventional Fantasy Novel™ than even her fantasy books that would follow, or the other two mentioned here. It’s got elves and fairies and dwarves and sword-slinging heroes. But a Le Guin “not her strongest” is still head and shoulders above the average, especially considering the other sci-fi and fantasy being published in the sixties.

Of the three, I think I liked City of Illusions the best, because its conflicts and challenges didn’t devolve into a climactic fight (like the other two). The plot follows a man who’s found in the woods without his memory, as he makes his way across a post-civilization, re-wilded continent toward the last city left.

In Planet of Exile, the dwindling population of a human outpost on a distant planet faces the onset of a years-long winter, and comes into conflict with members of the native population. The story alternates (primarily) between the point of view of a human man, Jakob, and a native woman, Rolery, who of course fall in love… But each character has a culturally-informed point of view and a different frame of reference, so, in a subtle touch, each character refers to their own race as humans, and the other race as foreigners or aliens.

Hawkeye Vol. 2: Little Hits by Matt Fraction, David Aja, et al.
Format: Trade paperback from library
The next volume of the Hawkeye series mentioned in the last post. I’m liking this book, bro. Come at me, bro.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
Format: Hardcover from library
Joining A Stranger in Olondria on the “language” list, this is the type of story that drops the reader utterly into a foreign world, and lets you catch up in time — it doesn’t define its jargon or hold your hand.

So, it was a little hard for me to build up speed with it, but once I did, it was super interesting, and in fact I think that’s the advantage of that approach: once you’re on the book’s wavelength, you get immersed in it, and now you’re exploring and enjoying a unique new world that only that book can show you. (Well, plus its upcoming sequels.)

The main character, Justice of Toren One Esk, lives in a galaxy-spanning empire called the Radch (although we first meet her on an outworld). I say her because it’s the only pronoun she uses, although very little indication is given as to whether the character is biologically male or female.

In the Radch, there are no sex distinctions in society, nor in language — so there’s only one pronoun. I find the decision to render it in this book as “she” super interesting, because the more common default, he, I think would reinforce the “male as default” mental picture in the reader. Whereas, using she in unfamiliar contexts forces the reader to slow down, and provides the same sort of “I can’t tell whether this character is male or female” confusion that the character also experiences (at least outside the Radch, on foreign planets where those distinctions matter).

And of course using it would feel very impersonal, and I think an argument can be made that using a nontraditional or made-up gender-neutral pronoun could have been distracting in its own way. (Though I’m sure over the course of the book the reader would get used to it.)

But the book uses she. So even characters that various contextual clues have established as male are referred to as she, because it’s the only third-person personal pronoun at all in the book, and used for everyone. I thought it was a very elegant way of putting the reader in an unfamiliar head-space.

The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman
Format: Hardcover from library
The long-awaited finale to the Magicians trilogy. I got the first book for free as a promo at some event, and only idly cracked it open, without knowing much about it. But I ended up really enjoying it, and read the second and third volumes as soon as they were released.

This series has been called a “grown-up Harry Potter” for obvious reasons: the main characters are teens who go to an enchanted boarding school (here called Brakebills) to learn magic, but they also drink and sleep around and are generally much ruder than Harry and Hermione and Ron. There’s also Fillory, a Narnia analog (in that it’s a magical land first discovered by English kids mucking about in an old house) that becomes an important setting in all three books.

A major complaint of some readers is that the main character, Quentin Coldwater, is whiny and selfish, and that it’s no fun to be in that person’s head for hundreds of pages. I’ve got mixed opinions about whether or not that character’s intended to be unlikable, or if Grossman wrote that character seriously without realizing how insufferable he comes off to other people.

Personally, I wasn’t that bothered by Quentin, which makes me worried that I’m somehow also insufferable without realizing it?

I like the world of these books; I like the ornateness and fiddly-ness of the magic system (it’s affected by the environment, the caster’s state of mind, the location on the earth, etc.) and it’s nice to feel that the story has edge; that punches aren’t being pulled, and that unpredictable things can happen at any moment.

The second book, The Magician King, was half told from the perspective of Quentin’s childhood friend Julia, who sees Quentin disappear into a world of magic that she can never be a part of. For quite a few chapters, it followed her struggle trying to learn magic in back alleys from (and with) dangerous people. It was a very different type of story from Quentin’s, and the Julia voice was a nice way to experience the world without seeing it through Quentin’s eyes. The third book could have used more of Julia’s voice, in my opinion.

It’s a popular book and series, so it’s easy to nitpick! But I tore through this book in two days, and the last book on this list was the same length and took me like six weeks, so that’s a point in this one’s favor, for sure. This series is also supposedly being developed for TV.

Letter 44 Volume 1: Escape Velocity by Charles Soule, Alberto Alburquerque, et al.
Format: Trade paperback received for free
I actually got sent a copy of this book from its printing company, in order to illustrate a foil technique on the cover. It looked interesting, though, so I read it.

It’s a comic book series (collected here in its first trade paperback) about a newly inaugurated president who takes office to find a secret letter from his predecessor, reading, basically, “Now that you’re president, you should know that we found an alien spaceship out by the asteroid belt. We sent a crew to go check it out a couple years ago; they should be getting there soon. Best of luck!”

It’s an interesting premise that’s dealt with…kinda interestingly. The story alternates between the president’s political entanglements and the bickering crew on the spaceship.

A big problem I have with it is the way all the politicians are drawn in superhero style, full of bulges beneath their puckering three-piece suits. That and the president’s name — Stephen Blades — make it hard for me to take the political drama at all seriously.

The art style better suits the spaceship parts, and the cliffhanger at the end of the series is the astronauts’ first approach to the alien craft, which (till now) has simply been sitting silently out in space.

The series is continuing; I think the second trade was just released. Will I read it? If the printer sends me another for free, sure!

Impro for Storytellers by Keith Johnstone
Format: Paperback from Amazon
Keith Johnstone is a Brit living in Canada who is the originator of the concept of Theatre Sports; that is, improv comedy with a scoring system, performed for judges. The sport-ification of improv (or as Johnstone refers to it, “impro”, performed by “imps”), it seems, is just a series of constructs intended to keep shows interesting; there aren’t really any stakes to it.

I perform longform improv here in Santa Monica, and longform as it’s practiced at our theater is very emotion-based, with emphasis on character relationships and honesty. It’s a really rewarding way to play, but also very difficult.

Theatre Sports is surely difficult as well, but it’s at least deliberately livelier. For example, Johnstone’s theater performs with props — something most improv teams don’t. This book is full of his exercises, games, practice techniques, and acting tips, often prefaced with explanations like “I came up with this technique in order to stop our performers from getting tripped up by this certain habit” or “This is a good gimmicky way to get the audience riled up, but only use it sparingly as it doesn’t get you very far.”

In other words, it’s very nuts-and-bolts oriented. I found it interesting because I think not enough of that style of improv is taught at more character-based schools — it’s assumed that you’ll pick up good habits as you become a better and more experienced performer, but Johnstone’s exercises attempt to drill in the habits first, and trust the performances will follow. I can’t say I disagree with the approach.

This is a followup to another Johnstone book, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, which I haven’t (yet) read. For improv fans, I have read and do also recommend Mick Napier’s Improvise.: Scene from the Inside Out, and I haven’t read — but I have flipped through with interest — the newer Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvising Manual.

The Story of the Orchestra by Robert Levine
Format: Hardcover from library
I read this while writing the 2015 Wondermark calendar! I was in band in middle school, but otherwise don’t know quite as much about orchestras as my 100% factually accurate calendar might imply. I figured a kids’ book about music would give me a nice overview of the subject while still being a quick read, and I was right!

BONUS: It comes with a classical music CD, and there are passages in the book that explain some interesting fact about a particular piece, then encourage you to listen to a certain track on the CD and try to pick out the strings doing such-and-such the way they described. Pretty cool for kids, I think! If kids still know what a CD is!

Hawkeye Vol. 3: L.A. Woman by Matt Fraction, Javier Pulido, et al.
Format: Trade paperback from library
This volume of Hawkeye follows the other Hawkeye, Kate Bishop, on an ill-conceived trip to Los Angeles, where she declares herself a private eye and inserts herself into some dangerous business. I’m not as familiar with this character, so it took me a little to get into it, but it’s breezy and fun like the previous volumes, and maybe a bit freer for being outside of New York and anything resembling Avengers canon.

I’m not a super fan of the Chinatown, L.A. Noir type story that this is trying to be a sunnier take on, though, so I think one volume is sufficient for me, and I’ll be happy to read more about Clint.

Nonsense Novels by Stephen Leacock
Format: Downloaded ebook
Kate Beaton mentioned these on Twitter and I read ‘em up! Originally published in 1911, this is a series of humorous short stories (not really novels), each parodying a stereotypical fiction trope of the time. So there’s a parody Sherlock Holmes story, a parody gotta-save-the-farm story, a parody aristocratic romance…They’re pretty short and they’re great, if you’re at all a fan of Victorian/Edwardian literature.

Hug Machine by Scott Campbell
Format: Hardcover from bookstore
This book is super adorable and every kid should have a copy. We got one for our goddaughter, mainly so I could read it before we wrapped it. Your kid will love this.

Illegal Alien by Robert J. Sawyer
Format: Downloaded ebook
Here’s the pitch: Aliens land on Earth, and peaceful communication is established. But a human is murdered, and one of the aliens is the likely suspect. Now, the alien must stand trial in U.S. court, accused of murder.

Pretty good pitch, I thought, so I sought out the book. (I think it was mentioned in an article, or something else I was reading.)

Here’s the part that isn’t clear just from the pitch: this book was published in 1997, and is obsessed with the O.J. Simpson trial. It’s clear that the trial was the inspiration for this story — it’s “what if O.J. had been an alien”.

And it’s not just using the trial as a template; it also mentions the trial a lot, and in conversations between the main character and the alien’s defense attorney, specific events from the O.J. trial are referred to and explained.

So, if you haven’t heard the name Mark Furhman in 20 years and were itching to sink your teeth back into that meat, this is a good book to read. It is not what I would call a timeless book; it’s very much of the era in which it was conceived and written — and not even just with respect to the plot. It feels like a nineties book, and it is.

That said: is it a good read? The legal stuff is fairly dry. Sawyer seems to be running his high concept through the motions to see how it pans out. Various characters are prone to soliloquizing at length about, say, civil rights, and sometimes when they talk ideas at one another there’s nothing that really distinguishes the voices from one another. The characters are mostly caricatures that exist to ride the clockwork arms of the plot. I guess you could call it the “airport novel” style of fiction writing.

That clockwork itself, I thought, was interesting enough. I honestly couldn’t predict the outcome of the trial, and it was neat seeing the various clues eventually click into place. The aliens are cool too; they’re quadrilaterally symmetrical.

EntreLeadership: 20 Years of Practical Business Wisdom from the Trenches by Dave Ramsey
Format: Audiobook
I got this from the library a while back and resolved to read it seriously, taking notes and everything. It’s a business book that’s positioned not really for folks just starting out, and not really for corporate middle managers, but for people like me and a little bigger: been running a small business for a while, interested in getting bigger, don’t have a huge staff above or below me, but willing to take on responsibility as an owner to work and build the business.

I didn’t get very far before I had to return it to the library, so later on I found the audiobook, and much later on I decided to put it on while I was doing a bunch of rote work — I think I was filling greeting card and calendar orders.

I like filling orders. I do it around a big table, and I’m standing up and moving around, and it’s kinda mindless but it makes me feel like I’m doing something, like I’m earning my keep. It’s not sitting in front of a computer, it’s manipulating objects. It’s mailing you things you ordered, like a businessman does.

So I put the audiobook on and listened as I worked. I didn’t know much about Dave Ramsey going in; he has a podcast and a radio show I guess, so he’s got a good voice, and he’s reading his own work so of course he’s giving it the proper inflections and putting meaning behind it. It’s a good listen, as far as the vocal quality goes.

My metric for business books is, can I pull out one, or two, or a handful of ideas to help me do something a little bit more effectively? If so, then it’s worth the couple hours or the twenty bucks or whatever. By that test, I don’t regret listening to it.

But my giant problem with most business books is that they’re written from the perspective of a person whose business is writing business books.

In other words: Dave Ramsey sells seminars and books about how to succeed in business. Okay, fine. Then he takes his experience selling seminars and books, and running the business that sells seminars and books, and distills them into advice about how to run a business. So what you get is advice that’s super great if you’re selling what he’s selling.

Of course, he’s quick to generalize: “All business is sales,” he says (I’m paraphrasing). “Every business has to sell itself to its customers. Sales tactics will serve you in every business.”

I guess it’s possible I don’t know anything about business! Dave Ramsey is more successful than I am, after all. My business is making dumb products and selling them to people who think they’re fun. I don’t really think that cold calling 100 prospects every morning is a good way to spend my time.

Ramsey also talks a lot about his faith, which I’ve learned is a huge part of his brand, although this book seems to be very deliberately aimed at the secular market. He places a premium on his notions of integrity — he fires employees that he finds out are unfaithful to their spouses, for example. He has a strict “no gossip” policy in his offices. He says a good hiring process includes “going to dinner with the candidate and his wife”, because one can “learn a lot about a person by observing their family life.” (It’s always phrased as “the candidate and his wife”.)

An impression is strongly given that he preferentially hires people that share his faith, not because he discriminates per se, but because non-believers wouldn’t fit in with the (faith-infused) culture at his company, so why would they want to be there?

As this strong paternalistic streak emerged in his advice, I found myself getting a little mad at it — but also starting to wonder about my mettle. Does it take a strong, uncompromising hand to run an empire? Is that the nature of prospering as a capitalist?

Or is that the simple version, what people want to hear? Business advice has to tell you to work harder, or smarter, or something — because you’ve already tried the alternative.

I finished the audiobook, and I’m trying to think now of some good, concrete advice that I took away from it and can agree with. Don’t be arrogant? Stay in tune with what your employees are doing? There’s a touching story about how Dave chartered a private jet to fly an employee home when his family members were in an auto accident. Maybe I should charter more private jets?

I did a little Googling. Not everybody enjoyed being one of Ramsey’s “team members.”

Treating the confrontation with his critics as an attempt at spiritual reconciliation was consistent with what numerous employees described as the typical Ramsey approach, one familiar among evangelical institutions who blur the boundaries between church and business. Leaders like Ramsey often refuse to see disagreement as anything but spiritual rebellion. When Ramsey learned I was reporting this story, he invited me to meet him and a pastor at Lampo [Ramsey's company]. “I hope you have the courage to sit with me as a man,” he wrote in an email. [...]

Current and former employees say that, though they believe in the Lampo mission and felt like Ramsey’s team was a “family,” their daily experience of working for him and his leadership staff was dominated by fear.

“There are plenty of former employees recovering from the abuse there,” said one ex-employee, “similar to my fundamentalist upbringing.” A current Lampo employee who hopes to leave soon, added, “This place is awesome as long as you never complain and never tell anybody you’re thinking about leaving.”

Yeah, OK. That squares with the vibe I got from the book. Sounds like a great way to run a business.

Translating History: Thirty Years on the Front Lines of Diplomacy with a Top Russian Interpreter by Igor Korchilov
Format: Hardcover from Amazon
I thought I got this book from BookMooch (which I love), but I went to look up the Amazon listing in order to post the link above and I saw the note “You purchased this item on January 1, 2004.” Fair enough. It’s been a while.

At the time, I was doing research for a screenplay I was writing featuring a character who was an ex-diplomatic interpreter from the Soviet Union. So the title of this book really leapt out at me — that was exactly Igor Korchilov.

(Something I learned from this book: translating refers to text; interpreting refers to speech.)

Korchilov (who’s still alive, but who’s no longer a Soviet interpreter, for obvious reasons including that there is no more Soviet anything) was one of the interpreters assigned to Gorbachev and other dignitaries at various points in the latter days of the USSR.

This book is his memoir, of sorts. I had expected it to be an overview of his life, with maybe some talk about the politics of interpretation and so on, but it’s actually an extremely focused, extremely detailed account of six specific summit meetings between Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and George H.W. Bush.

(Something else I learned from this book: Condoleezza Rice apparently speaks, or as of 1990 spoke, perfect Russian.)

Korchilov kept elaborate journals during these meetings, during which he was one of two staff interpreters that shadowed either a member of Gorbachev’s cabinet, or Gorbachev himself. So the book is full of stuff like:

When the Gorbachevs arrived, they were met by the Reagans at the entrance to Spaso House. Reagan looked well rested and in high spirits after his tour de force at the university; Nancy looked somewhat tired after her lightning trip to Leningrad. Mikhail Sergeyevich was bubbling with energy, and always, and Raisa Maximovna looked very dignified. Reagan shared his table with her, Alexsandr Yakovlev, chief editor of the Moscow News, and a few other officials…

After the dinner was over that night, on the way home I bought a couple of plain Russian pirozhki in Arbat Street, for twenty kopecks (about fifteen cents at the time) each, to assuage the pangs of hunger I had felt the whole day. The lone but daring entrepreneur from some cooperative was doing a brisk business. Hot stuffed pastries, or pirozhki, in the Soviet Union were the equivalent of hot dogs in America. Perestroika was beginning to bear tangible fruit.

I was just checking my website stats and I see that every one of you fell asleep halfway through reading that. That’s okay. This is why this book took me six weeks to read. It’s like a parody book from an episode of Parks & Rec, but four hundred pages long.

But I was determined to do it! I never ended up going far with the screenplay, but I’m still mildly interested in the politics of that period of history, and this book definitely provides a detailed look at the intricacies of diplomacy, down to who said what in what order during a specific meeting about a specific subject as part of a specific treaty negotiation.

There are some human moments, such as when Korchilov is riding in a car with Gorbachev down a highway in California and they discuss the cities they’re passing through, or in the few cases when there’s some error in interpretation that leads to a minor misunderstanding.

But even those are quite dry and recounted with formality — such as the two paragraphs he spends describing how he told Billy Graham that his fly was open at a state dinner. It’s also very polite, which leads to a lot of rather uninteresting passages like this:

The new chief of U.S. state protocol, Amb. Joseph Verner Reed, was bustling about showing everyone where to stand. As I would discover, he was Mr. Perfect Courtesy. I had never met anyone who lavished so much solicitude and attention on people with whom he came in contact as part of his professional duties. He was the right man in the right place.

I’m spending a lot of time on this book because when else am I going to talk about it? It’s literally my only chance to say anything about this book to anyone. I tried reading it to my wife in bed and we almost divorced.


That’s it! I read 57 books in 2014, which beat my one-a-week-average goal of 52. I’m super pleased with that!

Now it’s March 2015 and I’ve finished…four so far this year. This post next year might not require three parts.

I can’t really tell how much this long, eclectic list represents my taste in books, but if based on reading these posts, you think you know a title I might like, feel free to leave a comment! I’m always looking to add to what is already the unending to-read list that will never end.



Books I Read in 2014, Part 2

On to Part 2 of the books I read in 2014! (Here’s part 1. It is somewhat 100-year-old terrible-youth-adventure-novel heavy.)

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
Format: Hardcover from library
Above in this post I’ve embedded a TED talk by Jonathan Haidt (one of three that he’s done) that lays out in simplified form the “moral foundations” theory that he explores in detail in this book. I heard Haidt give a radio interview on the topic, and after trying unsuccessfully for quite a while to guess the spelling of his last name just by hearing it (Haight? Heit? Hayt?), I found the TED talk and watched it, then visited his website and read more about this book and his research into the social psychology of morality.

Philosophers and theologians have argued about how to define morality, but in this book Haidt attempts to do no such thing: instead, he describes how existing groups of people define morality, through surveys and research and statistical analysis, and from that data he attempts to describe the basic building blocks of morality.

Without hyperbole, The Righteous Mind is a book that changed the way I think. Haidt describes a series of studies, conducted by himself and others, surveying different cultures’ concepts of morality and distilling the common themes.

These commonalities, he argues, represent the things that we as humans choose to value, because they may be the things that helped our social species flourish where other evolutionary groups of humans did not. Chiefly, he claims, these core values are what help bond large groups of non-kin together, and inspire them to act cooperatively for mutual benefit.  We survive as descendants of the groups that figured out these values, which is why we see these common threads in many different cultures.

The thing that I really love about this book is that it presents a compelling rationale for why intelligent people can disagree about moral matters. Political arguments can provoke a feeling of disdain — how can those idiots think that way? Can’t they see the facts? — and Haidt’s theory explains how people can have sincere political differences without being unintelligent or uninformed.

Which I like — because personally, I want to believe that people I disagree with politically are still fundamentally moral people who have the best interests of others at heart. Believing one’s opponents to be vile hatemongers solves nothing — it just makes it harder to work together with others, which is something we all have to do to survive.

Here’s Haidt’s theory in a nutshell:

Human beings from different cultures around the world tend to build their idea of morality on six “moral foundations”: care for the weak, fairness, loyalty, respect for authority, respect for sanctity, and freedom from oppression.

Haidt’s research found that these are the basic ingredients for a culture’s idea of moral behavior. But — and this is where it gets crazy — different groups make different moral recipes using those same core ingredients.

For example, according to Haidt’s surveys, people who identify as “liberal” in America tend to place a high value on caring for the weak and seeking fairness. People who identify as “conservative” care about those things too, but place an equal or higher value on loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity. This explains why conservatives as a whole can seem to care more about ideals like patriotism, or various forms of “purity”, that liberals don’t give as much credence to.

Both views on that axis — “patriotism is moral” and “patriotism isn’t necessarily important” — make sense to people operating within their own respective morality (or “moral matrix”). But to the conservative, the liberal hates America, and to the liberal, the conservative is a blind jingoist.

It’s not that one is wrong and one is right, or one is moral and the other is immoral — it’s that to each person, the other person’s beliefs fall outside their moral matrix. So the other person’s beliefs don’t make sense.

I’m just scratching the surface here. There’s also a whole other bit about how we tend to make snap decisions in concert with our existing moral matrix, but then unconsciously rationalize them — even when we think we’re being objective and logical. If you’ve been reading Wondermark for any length of time you know that these types of ideas are fascinating to me.

Anyway! I recommend that you read this book, or seek out Haidt’s TED talks or many published articles on this subject. I’m not kidding when I say it changed how I think — I started visualizing everyone acting within their individual moral matrix, and the odd decisions that other people made suddenly started to make sense. I also started to notice when people debating were lobbing dud arguments that they didn’t realize the other person would have no chance of taking seriously.

It’s nuts how much internalizing this “moral foundations” theory can change how you see the world — and I believe for the better; in a direction that increases the chances for cooperation and profitable discourse between even people who disagree. Read it!

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer
Format: Paperback from library
I read Krakauer’s Into Thin Air a few years ago and found it super gripping and compelling. So I picked up this other book by him, about the history of the Mormon church in America, and certain individuals and communities that committed terrible atrocities — that, of course, the contemporary Mormon church doesn’t have much of an interest in discussing. I guess if I were a Mormon-hater I’d really lap up all the juicy details, but even ignoring the finger-pointing, it’s interesting enough as history.

Neuromancer by William Gibson
Format: Downloaded ebook
This is another of those books that I thought “I should probably read this some day.” I think I was actually prompted by someone’s offhand mention of a plot point — it was one of those situations where you hear an idea, and get mad because someone else already did it before you could! So I thought I should read the book to see how he did it thirty years ago or whatever, and as it turns out, his treatment of the minor idea was totally different from the story idea I’d had.

Anyway, this is a classic of sci-fi, and it’s certainly distinctive in its way. It’s hard to tell from this vantage point how groundbreaking it must have been at the time.

Saga, Volume 3 by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples
Format: Trade paperback borrowed from friend
This is the latest volume of the series I raved about last year! Continues to be good, continues to be recommended for fans of character-driven space opera.

Snowpiercer Vol. 1: The Escape by Jacques Lob & Jean-Marc Rochette and
Snowpiercer Vol. 2: The Explorers by Benjamin Legrand & Jean-Marc Rochette
Format: Hardcovers borrowed from friend
These two Snowpiercer books (from which the movie was adapted, of course) were recommended to me by a comics-loving friend before I even heard about the movie. When I eventually went to see the movie, I got to tell a different, movie-loving friend that the movie was an adaptation — he’d thought it was original.

After we both watched the movie, he came up to me and said “I kept wondering how the comics treated those certain scenes!” And I had to break the news to him that those scenes weren’t in the comic, because nothing survived the adaptation besides the most general premise. The comics are very different from the movie, slightly less bonkers perhaps, or at least bonkers in a less flashy, more mud-spackled way.

Again, it’s hard to tell how reading this must have felt when it was originally released, decades ago. Turns out the original author died after writing the book, but the second volume was released a decade later with a different writer. I guess this would be like packaging Watchmen and Before Watchmen in the same slipcase.

Before the Golden Age, Book 1 ed. Isaac Asimov
Format: Paperback from my mom’s house
We were cleaning out my mom’s house this summer and I came across these three paperbacks. Part autobiography, part anthology, the three books (originally issued as one large hardcover) were Asimov’s chance to reprint the early sci-fi stories that he remembered reading and being inspired by as a kid. He’d read pulp magazines at his father’s newsstand but never got to keep them — so these are the stories that stuck in his memory all the years later, and he revisits them here for the first time since then.

I really liked both his reminiscences and the stories themselves. I finished the first paperback and opened the second, but it was missing the first 14 pages. So, I got a copy from the library and photocopied out the missing pages, then taped them into my copy of the book…but by the time all that got done, I’d already started reading the next book on my list. I’ll probably come back to this series in 2015.

The Telling by Ursula K. Le Guin
Format: Hardcover from library
As I mentioned last year, I think I’d like to eventually become an Ursula K. Le Guin completist. This is another of her Hainish novels, the loosely-connected but functionally independent series that’s usually about ambassadors visiting new planets. In this one, a woman from Earth visits a planet that’s recently undergone a cultural revolution, and she tries to seek out traces of the older culture that’s being erased by the new regime.

One of the things I really liked was the way Le Guin made each culture’s language shape the way those people thought, and even the kinds of things they thought about. I asked on Twitter for recommendations of works that explored matters of language in similarly interesting ways, and a few titles lower on this list are the result of that request. (Linking it here for my own reference — and yours!)

The Barnum Museum by Steven Millhauser
Format: Hardcover from library
I checked out this book because I got on a jag about the voyages of Sinbad for some reason, and this collection of short stories contains one called “The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad”. This is also the book containing the story “Eisenheim the Illusionist”, which was adapted into the Edward Norton movie The Illusionist, which I created some TV spots for back when I worked for an ad agency. These two tenuous points of contact with my interests made it worth reserving the book at the library.

Those two stories stick with me well enough, but in general I decided I wasn’t a fan of Millhauser’s dreamy writing style. I also had to bail on one of the stories in order to return the book on time, so, like, I guess when the rubber hit the road I decided it wasn’t worth 15 cents in overdue fees. I’m very sorry for that, Mr. Millhauser. I’m sure you’ve done many wonderful things in the years since this book was published.

The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made by Greg Sestero
Format: Kindle
If you’ve seen the movie The Room, this book will probably be hilarious. If you haven’t, or have but don’t understand its appeal, it might not be.

As for me, I drove by Tommy Wiseau’s leering black & white face on a billboard every single day on Highland Avenue in Hollywood for years, wondering who in the world would pay for a billboard for an independent movie for that long. I even remember the day when the billboard was updated to add a neon yellow drop-shadow to the title.

One slow day in 2004, working the night shift at the ad agency, I convinced my co-worker to go to a late screening of The Room on Sunset Boulevard. Tommy Wiseau was there, sunglasses at night, and I asked him why the guys in the football-tossing scene are all wearing tuxedos, since there’s no wedding in the film.

Tommy’s slurred but confident response was that it was “so we would think about that very question.” This book, by Greg Sestero, is surely embellished and dramatized a bit, but it’s full of Tommy Wiseau moments that leave you with your jaw on the floor.

No Words by R.N. Adams
Format: Kindle
Doesn’t look like this is on the Kindle store anymore, but there’s a downloadable version at the link above. This is an erotic novella, which is not usually my cup of tea, but the author is a friend of a friend, and it was pitched as “consent-focused romance”, which intrigued me so I thought I’d check it out. It’s…super duper steamy, everyone.

Sex Criminals, Vol. 1: One Weird Trick by Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky
Format: Trade paperback from library
Sex Criminals is a comic about two people who discover that when they have sex, they can freeze time. So, they use this power to rob banks. You’re either into this immediately or you’re not, I suppose; I, personally, am!

Empire by Mark Waid, Barry Kitson, & James Pascoe
Format: Trade paperback from comic store
I picked this up a million years ago in a sale, and it sat unread until I read Sex Criminals in an afternoon and raided my shelf hungry for more comics.

It’s ostensibly about “what happens after the supervillain succeeds in taking over the world?”, which is a pretty fun pitch. This book isn’t very good, though. It’s melodramatic and confusing and I really, really don’t like the art.

Batman: The Doom That Came to Gotham by Mike Mignola
Format: Trade paperback from comic store
Another shelf raid. This is an Elseworlds story that sees Batman fight Lovecraftian horrors from the frozen wastes. I first read this years ago, before I really had any conception of Lovecraftian horrors or the tropes thereof, and didn’t really understand it. It reads somewhat better now that I know what Cthulu is, and Mignola’s art is great as always, but you really get the sense that this could have been longer than just three issues, because all the drama occurs very quickly and in abbreviated fashion, with the sense that it’s being crammed into the pages allotted.

Runaways, Volumes 1-4 by Brian K. Vaughan, Adrian Alphona, & Craig Yeung
Format: Trade paperbacks from comic store
This is a young-adult-type comic about teens who discover that their parents are all secretly supervillains. Just like all teens’ parents, am I right?? I thought it was OK; it’s printed on newsprint, maybe for cost or maybe so it feels more like one of those mangas that the kids like, and I had some issues with the art. All the characters make the same sort of pursed-lip expression all the time.

I think the bar is low enough for comics that they’re often called “great” when they’re simply “not actively bad”. This book is not actively bad.

Hawkeye, Vol. 1: My Life as a Weapon by Matt Fraction, David Aja, et al.
Format: Trade paperback from library
I’ve heard a lot about Matt Fraction’s run on Hawkeye (he’s also the writer of Sex Criminals, above) that paints Clint as an everyman, the non-super Avenger dealing with human-sized issues. For someone who doesn’t care about superheroes really at all, I enjoyed this a lot, and I also really like the art.

Brain Camp by Susan Kim, Laurence Klavan, & Faith Erin Hicks
Format: Paperback from library
I browsed the graphic novels stack at the library and grabbed this at random. It’s a YA-type story about kids who discover a crazy, horrible secret at their summer camp. It was a very breezy read, not quite for me I don’t think, but Faith Erin Hicks’ art is always a treat to look at.

A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher W. Alexander, et al.
Format: Hardcover received as gift
I found this book on Cool Tools and put it on my Christmas list…in 2011. It’s a thick book, a bit like a textbook perhaps, but I did eventually read it all, and in the end I do actually recommend it.

The book is the collected conclusions of researchers who studied how people live, work, move around cities, gather, hang out in various places, and form communities. Each section of a few pages describes some type of environment — starting at a macro level (towns) and moving down with increasing focus through neighborhoods, blocks, offices, houses, even down to individual rooms — and offers recommendations for ways to structure that environment for maximum utility and harmony.

It’s like feng shui, I suppose, except in the reedy voice of a Berkeley professor from the seventies who cites studies from Hungary in his reasoning. The first part of the book, recommendations for the structure of towns and neighborhoods, are a bit hard to implement on a personal level, but it’s an interesting introduction to the sorts of ideas at play: no concession to how things are currently, just straight instructions for how to design a town from scratch.

I don’t have the book in front of me to cite examples of that, but many of the smaller-scale examples stick in my memory because they just seem right, articulating things I’ve felt but never really put into words, or maybe never even quite felt until I saw it on the page. Some that I recall are:

  • Design rooms so they have windows on, and let in light on, two sides
  • Gardens and yards in the northern hemisphere should face the south
  • Front yards and patios should be elevated above the sidewalk to create a separation between private and public space
  • Large interior windows should contain seating nooks
  • Workers at desks should have a wall at their back and one side, and be able to look out into a larger area, but be separated from it by a partition (e.g. a half-height wall, or doorway)
  • An area where people are to meet should have a large number of mismatched chairs…

The recommendations are very specific, and come with various levels of urging. I was also struck by many recommendations toward the development of communal space (probably belying the book’s Berkeley origin), because they seemed like decent ideas that nonetheless are really uncommon in urban areas. For example, housing elderly relatives in a guest house on the property, so they have independence but are still close at hand; having groups of homes face a common, non-roadway area where kids can pass through or play within sight of multiple homes; or having craftspeople and workers carry on their work in areas with open doors, so neighborhood kids can observe and begin to learn about the trades.

This book doesn’t need to be read cover to cover, but if you’re designing a living or working space, it’s worth finding a copy at a library and perusing the relevant recommendations — if for no other reason than to make you consider various questions you might not have. I know I look at windows and garden paths differently now.

That’s the end of part 2! Next week — the thrilling finale to this list of books!