Sunday, October 31, 2010

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Bookstore Kittehs

Bookstore Cats. Don't mess with Zola! And don't feed Kiki!

(Via Books, Inq.)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Friday, October 22, 2010

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Mea Culpa! Mea Culpa! Mea Maxima Culpa!

It is with deep shame I admit that I forgot today was Spirit Day. Of course, I have nothing purple in my wardrobe I could have worn even if I had remembered, but still. In atonement, I just made a donation to The Ali Forney Center, a great charity who does work with gay homeless youth and which is in desperate need of funds in these difficult times. Even if you did remember your purple, please consider donating to them or another charity that provides services for gay youth.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Bourgeois Book Club

Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks

A renowned neurologist and author, Oliver Sacks comes from a prominent and sprawling clan (his mother was one of 18!) of extraordinarily accomplished British Jews, including scientists, politicians, mining magnates, and doctors. Youngest of the four sons of a OB-GYN mother and a general practitioner father, in a family such as his, in which there is no choice but to be smart and accomplished, becoming an amateur chemist with one's own laboratory seems perfectly natural. Part reflection on his childhood before, during, and after WWII in the midst of an extraordinary and accomplished family, part paean to chemistry, Uncle Tungsten is a fascinating, riveting, and unusual scientific memoir.

The Blitz, a traumatic boarding school experience, and a not-entirely-stable family drove Sacks to seek solace in the periodic table. Two uncles, the eponymous Uncle Tungsten, manufacturer of tungsten-wire light bulbs, and Uncle Abe, the physicist, foster and encourage his chemistry studies. Soon he has his very own home laboratory, and he wasn't just doing your typical chemistry set experiments in it, repeating the experiments he read about in books. It's amazing what you could acquire and play around with in those days, including uranium salts and highly reactive elements. Nowadays you'd be on a government watchlist if you even tried to get some of the stuff he did, and everyone's too afraid to make them available anyway. But his parents were indulgent and he was careful, so somehow he survived and didn't blow up his house, spending several happy years prying into Nature's medicine cabinet. Eventually, though, his overwhelming enthusiasm for chemistry waned. He'd gotten the comfort he needed out of it, and his parents pressed him towards his medical career.

The other part of the book, though, is an engaging work of popular science in which he ruminates and educates about the periodic table, the elements, and the way elements combine into compounds. Reading Uncle Tungsten just after The Disappearing Spoon, was a slight mistake I think, because I spent a little too much time trying to remember if the stories in the two books corroborated (in general, I think so). But they are different books, and Sacks focuses more on compounds and reactivity than the pure elements of the periodic table. Being a memoir, he also offers more personal and often amusing vignettes, like his experiments dropping rare earth alkalis (highly, if not explosively, reactive) like sodium and potassium off a bridge in a park and his failed attempt to preserve a basement full of cuttlefish. He covers some of the same famous chemists as Kean, as well, but the two books complement rather than contest. Sacks focuses on the work of the men that he actually read and studied rather than Kean's more comprehensive and up-to-date overview. These were his heroes, mostly eighteenth- and nineteenth-century pioneers of the field, as well as the now little-known popularizers that captured his imagination with the secondhand books he bought or received.

On a frivolous note, you all know I love footnotes, and Sacks gives great footnote. More than one page of the book is more footnote than text, providing interesting details and tangential information.

A cracking good read anyone, no matter their scientific literacy level, should sit with.

Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas

I really wish I knew not just how to describe, but how to feel, about this book. Is it an interesting, genre-bending meditation or digressive metafictional twaddle? Or somehow both? I just can't decide.

Even simple elementary school book report summary defies me. It's about a writer vainly struggling to write a "serious" novel after some very mild success as a genre novelist and a sideline reviewing science books. Flashbacks, tangents, and the possibility of magic abound as she tries to not only to write but to live in a British seaside resort. Incredibly unlucky in love, her boyfriend is an awful lump with an OCD-addled younger brother she once flirted with and a sweet father with a much-younger girlfriend, while her heart yearns for an older man trapped in his own loveless relationship. In fact, there are so many horrible relationships, it's downright depressing. Everyone's stuck.

Meanwhile, events from her past and her present, including a fairy, a ship in a bottle, and a Beast, add a not-entirely-natural air to the proceedings. But is it real or just in everyone's head; coincidence or magic? A mistaken review of a "scientific" New Age book about a Singularity at the end of time that's really Heaven and means the world is all a simulation finally cracks the terrible stasis she, and perhaps all those around her, are in, leaving a glimmer of hope, but no neat resolution, for the future. But along the way there's a lot of talk about the meaning of life, science, faith, skepticism, what it means to be a writer, what writing is, what love is, the afterlife, and definitely about narrative structure, what narrative is and how it fits into what it means to be human, Aristotle's definition of tragedy, and the "storyless story", as well as a hell of a lot of dogwalking.

I wish I could say it's a good book. I wish I could say what I feel about it. I intensely identify with the protagonist's struggle to write, to find the perfect story and actually write it but being unable to. I recognized more than I care to fully admit the depths of the cocoon of stasis and inertia she's constructed out of fear of change. I completely identify with her love of science and her interest in the magical. But for all that I felt almost all of the characters, including the narrator, were terrible people I really wouldn't want to spend a great deal of time with. But maybe that was intentional? I just don't know. And a lot of the talk about narrative and story structure just felt pretentious to me, like I was reading a transcript of a bunch of English grad students. Yet a lot of it was quite interesting and thought-provoking. So I don't know what to tell you, really. You'll just have to read it and make up your own mind. (Please do, so I can maybe find out what I really think about it!)

Her Royal Spyness Series by Rhys Bowen

It's not easy being a minor member of the British royal family in the midsts of the Depression, with no money, no education beyond flawless French and the ability to seat a bishop at dinner, and pressure to uphold the dignity of the Royal Family, even if it include that one should marry a fish-faced Romanian prince who prefers boys to blondes. But Lady Georgina of Glen Garry and Rannoch, great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, is a clever, resourceful girl with all the gumption and steel of both her royal ancestress and generations of hardy Scottish peers. Along with a sexy Irishman (who may also be a secret agent of His Majesty's Government), a scandalous mother, a Cockney grandfather, an amorous best friend, a Medusa of a sister-in-law, and a sweet but dopey brother, she finds herself involved with murder and chicanery far more often than perhaps a proper young lady should. But when it comes to crime, one must do one's duty, and one thing Georgie knows is her duty.

Light, breezy, and short, the Her Royal Spyness books are wonderful confections of romp and thrills in interwar Europe.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Books You Can't Finish asks a great question: what books can you just not seem to finish? There is tremendous shame, if you're a bookworm, in not being able to finish a book, especially a book you're "supposed" to read, but, let's be honest: we all have them.

The Bible is one of mine. I'm an utter heathen, but I got a KJV to read as literature, but I don't think I got past "In the beginning..." before I got bored and stopped.

I simply adore Pride and Prejudice, the book and the Firth/Ehle miniseries, but every other Austen novel I've tried to read makes me go cold, and I stop after a few pages.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Monday, October 04, 2010

Setting Back Gay Rights Twenty Years

With the recent spate of gay teen suicide and the debut of a campaign to let them know that It Gets Better (here are my two favorites), there's been an encouraging upswing in concern for gay youth. Less uplifting, though, we just had the debut of "The A-List." In a word: oy.

First, these guys might be on "a" list, but it's sure ain't a letter so low in the alphabet. When you spend the first half of your show justifying your "A-List" status and dropping sad names, you ain't A-List. And, of course, there is the self-evident fact that anyone who was really A-List wouldn't be caught dead on this show.

Second, oh Mike Ruiz! I loved his appearances on RuPaul's Drag Race; he seemed so fun and, yes, very hot. Unlike the rest of the horrors on this show (Reichen? A hairdresser? A bunch of bottom-of-the-barrel models/boytoys? Oy!) he's also actually talented and successful. And, yet, he's on this show. It's very distressing.

Third, except for Mr. Ruiz and Reichen's Brazilian piece, the cutest things on this show are the hairdresser's pugs. These boys need to step away from the eyebrow wax. (Seriously, though, those pugs are adorable!)

Fourth, these guys are dumber than a can of spray tan. They have all the wit of Oscar Wilde's wallpaper.

Five, OMG ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ! Seriously, they're the most boring gays ever. Tired bitchiness

So, in sum and in total: ugh.

Sunday, October 03, 2010