Stitches: A Memoir

August 3, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

stitchesStitches: A Memoir by David Small

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I stumbled across this book while browsing Goodreads one day. That’s nothing of note (a lot of the books that wind up on my to-read list come from there), but that particular day, I happened to be browsing the site after installing a browser extension that linked to my library. The summary and artwork both looked promising, and my local branch had a copy, so I gave it a test run, and what do you know? It works!

Stitches is a memoir of David Small’s early life. It’s a heavy story. Small’s parents were cold and distant, more interested in their own well-being than his own, and they often saw him as a burden more than anything else. His father, a radiographer, tries to cure Small’s pulmonary problems by dosing him with X-rays, so when he’s in his early teens and develops cancer, it’s not much of a surprise. Well, it’s not much of a surprise to his parents. It is to Small, because he goes into surgery expecting the doctors to remove what he’s been told is a sebaceous cyst, but when he wakes, he’s missing his thyroid and one of his vocal cords, and is effectively mute. It’s only then that he discovers he had cancer.

Dysfunctional families are the subject of many a memoir, so the memoir itself isn’t anything new, nor does it provide any particular insights into why families can be dysfunctional. What drew me to the story was the anecdote about his surgery and his ignorance of his own health, and once that point is passed in the story, it ceases to be as interesting. Small carries the story through to its conclusion, offering some small explanations for why his parents were like they were, and offering some small bit of closure to the relationship with his mother, but it doesn’t feel engaging. The story is compelling enough, and Small’s illustrations are evocative (there’s a break in the middle of the story where the style changes, and that change is used to great effect), but in the end, I couldn’t feel much more than pity for the author and his family, and I don’t feel that’s the appropriate emotional response for what happened to him.

Memoirs aren’t really my thing, but every so often a graphic memoir catches my attention enough to make me want to read it. Fun Home was another one I read and only just barely enjoyed, and Stitches is about the same for me. Part of it is they’re so one-sided; family dynamics, even in the healthiest families, are complicated, and it’s impossible to get the entire story of a family just by listening to one member. In his afterword, Small suggests that he did a lot of research into his family when writing the book, but it’s still a story told entirely from his viewpoint. I can’t help but feel we’re not getting the entire story, but maybe that’s the point of any memoir. Again, they’re not a genre I typically read.

I wasn’t impressed with Stitches, but I admit I’m not the target audience. I liked Maus, but most other memoirs I’ve read have felt pointless and self-indulgent. Fans of memoirs, or fans of stories about terrible families, might enjoy it (is “enjoy” even the right word here?), but for the most part I didn’t get it.

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Master of Reality

May 11, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

masterMaster of Reality by John Darnielle

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Well, this is an odd book. If you’re not familiar with 33⅓, it’s a series of books written by music critics about albums in the same way that literary critics write about literature. I’ve known of it for a while, and I’ve even known that John Darnielle wrote this one, but I didn’t think anything of it because I figured I wasn’t interested in reading what some dude thought about Black Sabbath, even if he wrote Wolf in White Van. What I didn’t realize is this isn’t a nonfictional piece.

Darnielle writes his appreciation of this album through the voice of Roger Painter, a sixteen-year-old who has been sent to a psychiatric hospital for being a teenager. It’s not clear what happened to send him there, but what’s important to him at that time of his life is Black Sabbath, specifically their album Master of Reality. In a journal that he’s expected to keep as part of his therapy, he talks about its importance, and how he really needs to hear it, even though his tapes and Walkman have been confiscated.

The story is told in two parts, first from Roger’s perspective at sixteen, though his journal, and the second also from Roger’s perspective, ten years later. Darnielle does a convincing job of showing how the record has had an effect on him, namely because he’s considered a misfit, and Black Sabbath is made up of misfits. He writes about them being successful despite their backgrounds, not due to it, and Roger, sent to a psychiatric hospital and later doing what he can to get by, can relate to that. He talks about the emotion of the album, despite the ridiculous subject matter, and how the music itself is what speaks to him. It’s a familiar refrain for anyone who is really into music, and it’s easy to relate to Roger through that passion.

In some ways, the discussion of the album interferes with the story (and folks reading this for Darnielle’s appreciation could legitimately argue that the story gets in the way of the appreciation), but the story can’t exist without that appreciation. It’s Roger’s therapy to write what he feels, and what he feels is tied in with Master of Reality. The author writes a convincing character in Roger, and it’s easy to sympathize with him, as, for at least part of the story, he’s helpless to prevent what’s happening to him.

Folks who found a good story in Wolf in White Van owe it to themselves to read this book. I believe that readers who already are familiar with the album will get the most out of it, but anyone who has ever grown up with an album that helped define them will recognize the importance that Darnielle puts on music in this book. I think it could be easily overlooked due to it being fiction in a series of nonfiction books, which is a shame. The style he used to great success in Wolf in White Van is evident here.

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Miracles Ain’t What They Used to Be

April 20, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

miraclesMiracles Ain’t What They Used to Be by Joe R. Lansdale

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Recently, a friend reviewed a Lansdale book and mentioned how Lansdale hates Christianity. It took me by surprise, because while I’ve never seen anything in Lansdale’s work that suggests he feels otherwise, I’ve never seen him say something that overt before. That was before I read the essay that gives this short collection its title, though, and now I have to say, yep, totally true. Lansdale hates Christianity.

To be fair, he hates all religions. Doesn’t have any use for it. He writes about this for about 25 pages, showing how much he despises the idea of it, how he doesn’t believe in God, and has little patience for people who claim to be Christian yet don’t act like proper Christians (though he also gives a nod to those who are Christian but don’t use it as a crutch to disregard everything else in their lives). Fair enough. I don’t even disagree with what he has to say. I do, however, feel like he goes out of his way to be confrontational about it, which I think accomplishes little.

I felt the same way about Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, because it’s one thing to go into a story (or essay) with an agenda; it’s another to come out the other side of it frothing at the mouth over your position. It doesn’t win anyone over, it doesn’t change any minds, and, honestly, it’s hard to determine the point of such a thing. In Lansdale’s case, at the very beginning of the piece he notes that he’s about to go an an unbalanced rant, so at least there’s the self-awareness of how unhinged his argument sounds. I’d say it’s an effort to populate his own echo chamber, but even to me, an atheist, I couldn’t help but think, “Jeeze, Joe, take a breath. Calm down.”

This collection has a few other pieces, most of them non-fiction, all of them philosophical. Hap and Leonard make an appearance in the first story, but don’t expect the usual hee-haw experience with these guys; it’s just an eight-page story waxing poetic on aggressors and victims. There are two other stories that appear to be written straight out of Joe’s own childhood, and if they’re true, then they shine a light on how Lansdale developed his style.

Also in this collection is one interview with Lansdale, along with five nonfiction pieces he wrote for The Texas Observer. One is an appreciation for Poe, and the others are reflections on his own life. Again, you see how much Lansdale uses his own life for inspiration, since you learn that much of The Boar came straight from his own experiences.

This collection is intended for Lansdale’s already-fans, since it’s more fact than fiction. I think readers will enjoy the glimpse into his life, but I can’t help but wonder how much the title essay will polarize his readers. To be honest, I wouldn’t think of Christians having much appreciation for Lansdale, but my friend proves me wrong, and I can’t help but wonder how he would react to it (especially when I even thought he was going too far). So it’s hard to recommend it without that caveat. Just be aware, and forewarned.

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Hearts in Suspension

March 21, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

suspensionHearts in Suspension, edited by Jim Bishop

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I’m not much of a reader of non-fiction, but I’m a huge fan of Stephen King, and the lure of reading new material by him — recently written, and some of his earliest writings — drew me to this book. It’s a collection of essays by King and some of his contemporaries from the years he attended the University of Maine at Orono, since 2016 marked the 50th anniversary of his starting college there. The book also includes the novella Hearts in Atlantis, included in the collection of the same name, which is King’s take on what the 1960s meant to him.

“Five to One, One in Five” is King’s essay, which introduces the collection. It gives some background into Hearts in Atlantis, so much so that it shows how autobiographical the novella is. He based characters in the story on real people he met at college, and it’s interesting to see these two pieces together and see how one influenced the other. That’s true of most fiction, but anyone who doesn’t see how King’s life influences his fiction hasn’t read enough of either. The man wrote himself into The Dark Tower, for crying out loud.

The rest of the essays are a bit of a mixed bag. You can tell the writers from the non-writers there, but each of them do their part to convey what the 1960s meant to them. Not all of them talk about King; some mention him only once or twice; others put the focus of their essays on him. You find a lot of repetition there, too, since so many events of the 1960s — the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., Vietnam, Kent State, and the Great Chicken Crisis are common refrains — tie them all together. It’s to be expected; big, momentous events like that present a shared experience that links people together, and the 1960s were a big, momentous time.

I don’t see this book having much appeal to a casual reader, but for folks who have read all of King’s books, read up on his life, read books about King, and maybe even traveled to Maine in the hopes of meeting the man, this book will be of great interest. If nothing else, it will allow you to re-read one of King’s most affecting stories and see it in context with real life.

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Born Standing Up

December 29, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

bornBorn Standing Up by Steve Martin

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I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, but I like behind-the-scenes trivia quite a bit. Of particular interest to me are analyses into the creative process, and several years back, read a piece from this book where Martin described how he developed his stand up act. It was fascinating, enough for me to think, I should read that whole book, but then nothing ever came of it. Earlier this year, I found the book on sale on Audible, and figured the time was right to catch up on the whole thing. That Martin himself reads the book was a bonus.

The book is less biography and more memoir, since Martin only writes about his life up to the time he stopped doing stand up. That means the book skips over his career as an actor and writer, but seeing him develop from a young kid selling maps to Disneyland to being such a popular comic that he has to start wearing a white suit in order for the people in the back rows to see him is an amazing journey. He writes about how he started doing magic, how he took up the banjo, and how he developed all of his interests into an act that was less about comedy and more about entertainment. All of his diverse interests intersected into an absurd, surrealist act that stood above what other comics were doing at the time, making Martin stand out above it all.

It’s interesting to me to see how seriously Martin took his comedy. I imagine this is true of most successful comedians — it takes analysis and refinement to perfect an act — but Martin talks about it in a clinical way that makes you realize he didn’t just come up with his act on the fly. All of his bits were calculated, and he had tons of material waiting in his head so he could respond to the audience’s mood as he performed his act. I’ve seen and listened to enough of it to recognize some of the bits he discusses, and it’s impressive to read how much he worked to make it look spontaneous.

Speaking of the bits he discusses, I expect that Martin was the only choice for reading this book. There is enough of his own act included in the memoir that only Martin could convey them correctly. Not even professional readers could get the right timing down on how he ends his “Ramblin’ Man” song, or if they could, it wouldn’t be as impressive as how Martin himself does it.

On top of the memoir being an intimate look into Martin’s process, the book is also well-written. Martin is a writer as much as he is a comedian or actor (or magician, or banjo-player, for that matter), and it shows in little turns of phrase he uses here and there. It’s a good book, more so if, like me, you’re interested in the creative process, and the audio version of the book is a great edition to read. Er, listen to. Fans of Martin shouldn’t pass it up.

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As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride

December 22, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

wishAs You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes, et al.

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The Princess Bride is among a lot of people’s favorite movies. I think it’s safe to say that one can judge the worthiness of a friend by asking them what they think of the movie; if they don’t say that it’s one of the best stories ever, they’re probably not worth the time.

As You Wish is Cary Elwes’ autobiography about making the film. He gives the reader a lot of information about the production itself, including some of the pre-production details that he learned while making the movie. He speaks of how wonderful Rob Reiner is as a director, how wonderful Robin Wright is as an actor, how wonderful Andre the Giant was as a person, how wonderful William Goldman is as an author and screenwriter … he pretty much talks about how wonderful it was to make the movie. Based on this book, one can only wish they had been a part of the movie, just to get to know all of the people involved.

Aside from Cary’s insights, the book includes a lot of thoughts from other actors and principles in the movie, so we get more than just Cary’s take on things. Everyone involved seems to agree, though, that it was a wonderful experience to make this movie. The people involved all seem to be good-hearted, warm individuals, which is no surprise, since the movie gives off a similar vibe. I listened to this as an audiobook, and the production brings in the individuals to tell their own parts of the story (save for a few people, who have a stand-in to read those parts).

The book does have a lot of repetition, which is its only downside. On top of that, Elwes covers a lot of the story of The Princess Bride, and one point explains the entire plot from start to finish. I’m not sure why he felt the need to go into that much detail; surely the only people reading this book are the ones who already know and love the story, right? I can overlook his repeating some of the most famous lines from the story, since that part of the book is where he’s highlighting Goldman’s writing talents, but the rest of it seemed to be there just to pad out the page length of the book. Myself, I would have preferred to know more about what went on behind the camera.

To his credit, Elwes covers the behind-the-scenes details I wanted to know (the background behind the sword fight is lengthy, and is the running teaser throughout the book), and how much one will enjoy the book is probably contingent on how much one likes to know behind-the-scenes trivia. Myself, I love it; as soon as I see a movie, I bring up IMDB and check the trivia for it to see what kinds of neat details I can learn. Others, though … well, what are they doing reading this book if they don’t like that sort of thing? It tells us right there in the title — Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride.

The book is a joy to read, and even more of a joy to listen to, and it makes me want to re-read the book and re-watch the movie. I already know that both are wonderful stories, but Elwes’ excitement about both, and his pride in having been involved with making the movie, is contagious enough to make me want to revisit them both. His recollections make me wish I could be involved with something as memorable and important as The Princess Bride.

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Bone: Coda

September 7, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , , )

codaBone: Coda by Jeff Smith & Stephen Weiner

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I could tell you a whole lot about the origins of Bone and how it went from a struggling self-published title to a phenomenon, but if I did, I’d spoil a lot of this book for you. It’s not that I would spoil the story itself — the story at the beginning of this book is just a lagniappe to the larger story — but about two-thirds of this title is comprised of Smith’s own recollections and The Bone Companion, a literary look at the entire saga. So the book is more nonfiction than fiction, really.

That being said, how much you like this book will depend on how much you like to know the background of endeavors like this. I’m very much a behind-the-scenes kind of guy (the first thing I do after seeing a movie is look up its trivia), so I thought it was fantastic. It didn’t hurt that I started reading Bone with issue number nine or so, when I first got into comics, so a lot of what Smith talks about in his piece is stuff that happened while I was in that scene. It was pretty neat, and it brought back a lot of memories.

Weiner’s piece has been published before, and how necessary you feel it is depends on how you feel about literature. Weiner draws comparisons between Bone and the other works that inspired it, and some of those comparisons feel like a stretch. Additionally, Weiner sometimes makes a comparison but doesn’t support it with any additional detail, just expecting the reader to accept it. What I remember most clearly from my English classes is that you can draw any conclusion from a piece that you want, so long as you can support it with details from the work itself; Weiner bypasses this step a few times, but still expects the reader to agree with his conclusion.

It goes without saying that this book is intended for the Bone completist; even the short story at the beginning of the book adds nothing to the saga. At first I thought that it brought the entire story full circle, but that’s not entirely true; the end of Bone ended pretty much as it began, and this story goes a bit further, showing us some of what could have happened on the Bones’ way to Barrelhaven. Since we already know what the Bones’ characters are like, and can expect some of what happens, there’s nothing much new here. Still, it’s entertaining, hitting the usual notes readers would expect, and I imagine this book will sell just as well as all the others.

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The View from the Cheap Seats

June 28, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

viewThe View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman

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More and more as I read Neil Gaiman’s work, I find myself thinking that Neil Gaiman would make an excellent friend. It’s not that he’s famous or a brilliant writer that makes me think so, but that there’s an honesty and sincerity to his work that makes me feel like that honesty and sincerity comes through in his personal life, as well. This is especially true of his nonfiction, which has a style that’s conversational and personal, drawing you in as if you’re sitting across from each other at a dinner table.

By habit, I’m not much of a reader of short stories. It’s not that I dislike shorter works — I’ve read some novellas that are better than some of the longest books I’ve read — but anthologies and collections take me longer to read because I feel the need to sit and think and digest what I’ve just read before moving on to the next book in line. I make exceptions, of course (Neil Gaiman is one of but a handful of my “Read all the things!” authors), but for the most part, I’m more interested in standalone works than anthologized works.

The View from the Cheap Seats, being nonfiction, isn’t a collection of short stories, but it is a collection of short works, most of which are written to make you think, so the same rule applies. Reading one essay or speech or introduction or appreciation or review and then diving into the next one is a bit of a shock, like going from the hot-tub directly into the pool. They require processing and appreciating, especially when Gaiman hits you with something profound, like “…discontent is a good thing: people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different, if they’re discontent” (and there are a lot of those “something profound”s in this book). As the book progresses into appreciations and reviews, they become easier to read through, but the different themes and focuses of the pieces force you to slow down and take your time with the book.

(That being said, I finished this book in four days, which isn’t a record, but neither is it an insignificant amount of time.)

Also, Gaiman writes with lots of commas, emdashes, and parenthetical asides, forcing the reader to pause at each one. This isn’t a bad thing (at least, I hope not, since I’m a frequent users of all those things, as well), but it’s interesting to note that he acknowledges this habit in one of his pieces. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Gaiman has had a huge impact on me as a reader and a writer, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility that I picked up these techniques from his works. Besides, I’ve realized I have a habit of picking up on other people’s verbal tics and incorporating them into my own speech, so it’s not like I haven’t done this sort of thing before.

My usual approach to reviewing anthologies and collections is to write a brief thought about each piece, but here, I’ve foregone that approach. For one, not all pieces here are worthy of a summary or review (not that they’re poorly written or anything like that; some are just so short as to not be noteworthy in the literal definition of the word, and others are about works about which I lack the proper context to evaluate); for another, there are over one hundred pieces in this collection. Writing something about each piece would grow repetitive, and wind up being longer than the average person would want to read.

What you can expect, though, is Gaiman’s usual analytical probing of all things story, his own and others. Whether he’s talking about the business of comics, Cassandra-like to a room full of publishers, meeting people who are friends and idols (sometimes both), or giving us a peek into how he develops his stories, his insights are keen, his observations apt. Even if I don’t know enough about the authors and stories for which he writes introductions, I can’t deny that he has an understanding of story that he shares with his reader. That understanding will likely drive readers to pursue some of the books and authors he writes about in these pages.

Because this is a collection of nonfiction pieces written over twenty years, it’s inevitable that readers will find repetition. We will, more than once, hear about Gaiman’s yearly end-of-school trip to the comics shop that was in someone’s basement; we’ll revisit his inspiration of and research for American Gods at least twice; and we’ll even see more than one version of the same speech, as he develops them over time and experience. For casual readers, this might be a little annoying, but I’m not sure that this book is intended for casual readers. The View from the Cheap Seats is for people who want to know more about Gaiman and what makes him special, and what makes him special is his unique voice, his personable approach, and his profound understanding of story.

The final section of this anthology collects his writings about real people, and that understanding of story applies here, too, as an understanding of story requires an understanding of people. He tells us the story of Amanda Palmer as half of the Dresden Dolls, of the lives of Syrian refugees, of an author out of place and unwilling to be at the Oscars, of another author seen as a jovial fellow whose writings were fueled by anger and fury. Because this is what Gaiman does best: tell stories. Whether the people whose stories he tells are fictional or real is irrelevant; he tells, and we listen.

One thing I really really like about this book is that one of my pet phrases for the last twenty years has been “Fiction tells us the truth by lying to us”, and in one of the first pieces in the book, Gaiman writes “Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all.” It convinces me we’d be like this if we ever met in real life.

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A Little Gold Book of Ghastly Stuff

March 24, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

ghastlyA Little Gold Book of Ghastly Stuff by Neil Gaiman

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So, apparently there’s an entire “Little … Book” series published by Borderlands Press, each featuring hard-to-find stories and other original content from a variety of authors. I wasn’t aware of it until I did a little research into this book, which surprises me, since I used to be an avid follower of Borderlands Press. Now most of them are out of print, which is a shame. I’m glad I was able to read this as an ebook, though, since I doubt I would have spent what the secondary market is asking for this volume.

A Little Gold Book of Ghastly Stuff is a “B-Sides and Rarities” collection of Gaiman material, ranging from fiction to poetry to nonfiction, some of which is hard to find. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, though, which is about what one would expect from such a collection. Luckily, there’s more good than mediocre, and more mediocre than bad.

The collection opens with a poem titled “Before You Read This”, which is appropriate, even though I’m not a big fan of poetry. It sets the stage for what’s to come.

“Featherquest”, the first story in the collection, was Gaiman’s first published story, and … well, it shows. It hints at the kind of style Gaiman would grow comfortable with, and touches on his unique blend of humanity and myth, but it was overlong and, frankly, a bit boring. By the end, I was eager to see how it would wrap up, and it did so too quickly, and without much of a conclusion. It’s probably Gaiman’s equivalent of Y Kant Tori Read, since reading it shows you how his talent would develop, but you don’t necessarily want to experience it again.

The next three stories — “Jerusalem”, “Feminine Endings”, and “Orange” — were published in Trigger Warning, but like most short stories, I got a little bit more out of them than I did the first time. Of particular note is that the Jerusalem Syndrome described in “Jerusalem” is a real thing.

Next is a brief story called “Orphee”, about Orpheus, about whom Gaiman has written before. This seemed to have a twist to it, but I kept getting distracted by his use of Orpheus in Sandman, and kept picturing the scene of his beheading. I wish I could have dismissed it so I could have appreciated the story more.

“Ghosts in the Machine” struck me as an autobiographical piece, but given the way Gaiman threw in some nifty ideas for ghost stories, I’m not so sure now. I wish he’d write stories about those ideas, though.

The next piece is “Grimmer Than You Thought”, an introduction to an annotated edition of the Brothers Grimm’s stories. It has some astute observations on fairy tales (Gaiman), but I can’t help but feel like it would be better read with the book it introduced. It pairs well with “Once Upon a Time”, an essay on fairy tales that follows.

Following those pieces is one called “Dresden Dolls”, which is about Amanda Palmer, Gaiman’s wife. She was half of a musical group called the Dresden Dolls, and Gaiman writes about a reunion show, and all the good and bad that comes along with being in a musical group, and what a reunion means. It’s touching and revealing at the same time.

Next is the introduction to a book titled Hothouse by Brian Aldiss, an author I’ve never read. The introduction is one of those that assumes the reader already knows a lot about the book he’s about to read, which can be annoying in a spoilery way, but luckily it stops right at the point where Gaiman starts going into a lot of detail. Unluckily, this is because the piece just cuts off in the middle of a sentence.

“Entitlement Issues” follows, which is Gaiman’s infamous “George R.R. Martin Is Not Your Bitch” piece from his blog. It’s an important piece, not just for Martin fans, but for anyone who get embroiled in an ongoing series and feels some sort of entitlement to future books. You can even read it here, in just a few minutes.

The next piece is also from Gaiman’s blog, and is entitled “Freedom of Icky Speech”, which is an appeal for exactly what it says. It’s an intelligent, reasoned musing on why censorship is wrong, even for things with which we don’t agree. You can also read this one online, though it may take longer than just a few minutes.

Following are two speeches Gaiman gave, one at the 2004 Harvey Awards (which is a nice examination of comics and their importance), another at the 2005 Nebula Awards (which examines science fiction and its importance). Then the volume concludes with another piece of poetry called “Conjunctions”. I like that Gaiman bookends this collection with poetry, though I can’t say I thought much about either.

I purchased this book through a StoryBundle (a fantastic pay-what-you-want bundle of ebooks that contributes to charities), so I read the ebook version of this book, and it’s full of typos and other printing errors. There were several per page, enough so that it became distracting. I paid a lot less for this book (and a lot more to boot) than I would have had I bought a print copy, but I still expect the conversions to be good. The number of errors was inexcusable. Plus, the ebook version of the book appears to be missing two pieces (reviews of Black House and Summerland, apparently), and includes one that may not have been in the print edition (“Dresden Dolls”).

Overall, I’m glad I had the chance to read this material, since I’m a Gaiman completionist. Had I paid a lot of money for it, I might have felt differently, but I appreciate that Gaiman chooses to make this available to folks, even if it’s for a limited time (I’m not sure how available it is outside of that StoryBundle). I wouldn’t recommend it to casual readers, or to Gaiman readers who aren’t the kinds of fans who want to read everything he wrote, but if you are that kind of fan, it’s worth tracking down.

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What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

October 4, 2014 at 7:06 pm (Reads) (, , )

What If?What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe

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I’ve heard that we fear what we don’t understand.  By that logic, the more we understand something, the less we should fear it.  To prove that this isn’t true, I present to you What If?, Randall “xkcd” Munroe’s attempt to scare the bejeezus out of everyone.

To be fair, I don’t think it’s Munroe’s intention to do this.  In fact, judging by the list of questions he printed that he didn’t answer, he restrained from answering the questions that would have kept most people up long past their bedtimes.  But considering that most of his answers end with the end of the world, the end of civilization as we know it, human extinction, or just your own death, it’s not exactly something to read to your kids as a bedtime story (though I know a couple of medical doctors whose kids regularly read books about the various ways to die, so what do I know?).

The amazing thing about this book isn’t that it answers these questions, but that it answers these questions in the most rational way possible.  The book reads like an ode to the scientific method, and anyone with a slight interest in science as a working field of knowledge will find a lot to like in this book.  In fact, much of what I found most fascinating about this book were the various factoids that were buried within these serious answers.  For instance, did you know that it’s possible to fill an entire stadium to the brim with ants and only account for about 1% of all the ants in the world?  I didn’t, that’s for certain.  And given that ants give me the heebie-jeebies (mostly due to my being allergic to them), I’m not entirely sure that this was something I wanted to know.

But you know what’s even more amazing than that?  It’s that Munroe can write about these complex subjects in a way to make them perfectly understandable to laypersons.  It helps that he has the background for this sort of thing (the dude used to be a NASA roboticist, after all), but that he has the ability to explain these concepts without a bunch of big words and pages and pages of math reminds me a bit of Richard Feynman.  One doesn’t have to have an advanced degree in math or science to understand his answers; one just has to have the curiosity to want to know more.

To me, that’s what this book really is — an ode to curiosity.  Munroe opens the book with a story from when he was young and curious, and how the answer to his question shaped him as a person.  Just because the logistics of his answer aren’t possible doesn’t mean one should stop thinking about how to solve a particular problem.  As this book shows, you can learn a whole lot about other, practical things if you keep trying to figure out how to answer that impossible question.

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