the contextual life

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Music to Work To: Art Department

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Art DepartmentIf you’re like me you like to listen to music while you work but, if you’re like most of humanity, you know it’s hard to do so when you’re distracted by lyrics. However, those of you who have experienced the wonders of electronic music you know that it’s some of the best music to read and write to. While there are lyrics from time to time, it’s usually a repetitive phrase for rhythmic purposes or subtle enough that it fades into the background.

In this occasional series, I will recommend excellent mixes available for free through Mixcloud and then a proper album for further listening.

Art Department: Boiler Room Mexico
Crosstown RebelsArt Department has quickly become my favorite DJ duo. Together, Canadian techno/house legend Kenny Glasgow and No.19 label owner Jonny White spin earthy house tunes, mellow and melodic. When they drop vocal tracks, it’s hard not to recognize a trip hop influence. A perfect example of this can be found at the 24 minute mark on this mix. “Say You Won’t Ever (Larry Heard club mix)” by Wallflower can only be described as heartbreakingly good. Bottom line, if this mix doesn’t turn you into a house fan, I’d say it’s a lost cause.

For further listening: If you do wind up enjoying this Art Department mix, I highly recommend the latest compilation from their label Crosstown Rebels, “10 Years of Crosstown Rebels.” The 3-disc collection features tracks from their various artists, including Maceo Plex, Jamie Jones, Seth Troxler, Soul Clap, and, of course, Art Department. The collection as a whole leans towards minimal, tech, and electro house, with a good number of vocal tracks — some moody and smoky, as opposed to soulful and disco-inspired.

::[Links]::
Crosstown Rebels’ official site
Art Department on Resident Advisor
Crosstown Rebels on Resident Advisor

Written by Gabrielle

April 22, 2014 at 6:56 am

New in Paperback for April

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When you head out to the bookstore this month, keep your eye out for these new paperback titles and you won’t be disappointed.

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
Beginning with her experience as a medical actor who was paid to act out symptoms for medical students to diagnose, Leslie Jamison’s visceral and revealing essays ask essential questions about our basic understanding of others: How should we care about each other? How can we feel another’s pain, especially when pain can be assumed, distorted, or performed? Is empathy a tool by which to test or even grade each other? By confronting pain—real and imagined, her own and others’—Jamison uncovers a personal and cultural urgency to feel. She draws from her own experiences of illness and bodily injury to engage in an exploration that extends far beyond her life, spanning wide-ranging territory—from poverty tourism to phantom diseases, street violence to reality television, illness to incarceration—in its search for a kind of sight shaped by humility and grace.

Truth’s Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel by Philip Gura
From the acclaimed cultural historian Philip F. Gura comes Truth’s Ragged Edge, a comprehensive and original history of the American novel’s first century. Grounded in Gura’s extensive consideration of the diverse range of important early novels, not just those that remain widely read today, this book recovers many long-neglected but influential writers—such as the escaped slave Harriet Jacobs, the free black Philadelphian Frank J. Webb, and the irrepressible John Neal—to paint a complete and authoritative portrait of the era. Gura also gives us the key to understanding what sets the early novel apart, arguing that it is distinguished by its roots in “the fundamental religiosity of American life.” Our nation’s pioneering novelists, it turns out, wrote less in the service of art than of morality.

Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda
Summer in Red Hook, Brooklyn, an isolated blue-collar neighborhood where hipster gourmet supermarkets push against tired housing projects. Bored and listless, fifteen-year-old June and Val take a pink plastic raft out onto the bay.

But on the water, in the humid night, the girls disappear. Only Val will survive, washed ashore, bruised and unconscious, in the weeds. The shocking event will echo through a group of unforgettable characters, including Fadi, an ambitious Lebanese bodega owner; Cree, a lost teenager who unwittingly makes himself the cops’ chief suspect; Jonathan, Julliard drop-out, barfly, and struggling high school teacher; and Val, the grieving girl who must contend with the shadow of her missing friend and a truth she holds deep inside.

Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel
Fiona Maazel’s Woke Up Lonely follows a cult leader, his ex-wife, and the four people he takes hostage. It’s about loneliness in America, North Korea, espionage, a city underneath Cincinnati, cloud seeding, and eavesdropping. It’s also a big, sweeping love story.

Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success by Adam Grant
For generations, we have focused on the individual drivers of success: passion, hard work, talent, and luck. But in today’s dramatically reconfigured world, success is increasingly dependent on how we interact with others. InGive and Take, Adam Grant, an award-winning researcher and Wharon’s highest-rated professor, examines the surprising forces that shape why some people rise to the top of the success ladder while others sink to the bottom. Praised by social scientists, business theorists, and corporate leaders, Give and Take opens up an approach to work, interactions, and productivity that is nothing short of revolutionary.

Harley Loco: A Memoir of Hard Living, Hair, and Post-Punk, from the Middle East to the Lower East Side by Rayya Elias
When Rayya Elias was seven, her family fled their native Syria to settle in Detroit. Bullied in school and rebelling against her traditional home-life, Rayya turned her sights to fashion and music. She became a hairdresser and started a band that played the club scene in the early 1980s before she moved to New York at age twenty-three to further her musical career. She lived on the Lower East Side at the height of the punk movement and had passionate affairs with both sexes, but her casual drug use turned to addiction and Rayya was often homeless—between her visits to jail. Yet, her passion for life always saved her.

Written by Gabrielle

April 3, 2014 at 6:49 am

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf

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The best books elicit emotions from its readers. Truly great books give rise to conflicted feelings. My Friend Dahmer, the graphic novel by Derf Backderf, falls firmly within that second category.

Backderf grew up in Richfield, Ohio, attending Eastview Junior High and Revere High School in the 70s, which would all seem innocuous enough had it not been for a certain classmate, convicted serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.

Dahmer went largely unnoticed — even when he was drinking heavily throughout the school, reeking of alcohol — but Backderf and his group befriended the odd character, laughing at his impressions of a physically challenged interior decorator and egging him on for public disturbances. Throughout this time, Backderf drew sketches of Dahmer, recording his antics, both humorous and disturbing — all of which aided his memory when recalling details for the book.

From time to time the group was privy to the darker side of Dahmer’s antisocial behavior — his taxidermy experiments with roadkill (he liked to dissolve already dead animals in acid) and his aforementioned drinking problem (pounding a six pack in the back of a car in under 10 minutes). Once, while picking him up at home, they met his mentally ill mother (who ultimately left Dahmer alone in his childhood home when his life was in the most danger of going off the rails).

DahmerMost people will remember, if not the details, the horror they felt when they learned of Dahmer’s arrest — a young serial killer who not only murdered his victims but ate them as well. It was the first time I’d heard of an actual cannibal living among us — not just some desperate exploratory group in a history book.

The copy of My Friend Dahmer that we see on shelves today grew out of Backderf’s self-published comic, first drawn and written after Dahmer’s death in 1994. With his R. Crumb-like stylings, detailed and at times grotesque, Backderf went back and fleshed out his story using not only his memory and interviews with former classmates, but also interviews Dahmer conducted after his arrest, legal documents, news accounts, and Dahmer’s father’s memoir; all of which is well documented in the back of the book.

Backderf makes it very clear that he loses all sympathy for Dahmer as soon as he kills his first human but, at the same time, he does a great job of showing what a tragedy this was, not just for Dahmer’s victims but for Dahmer as well. At times in the book it seems as if Dahmer knew he was deeply troubled and had few resources to cope with his urges. The reader, now having seen the teenage life of a future serial killer, is left wondering, like Backderf, if all of this could have turned out differently. Had the school acknowledged his alcoholism, had his parents not been dysfunctional, had his taxidermy experiments been brought to light, would Dahmer’s murderous tendencies have manifested or could they have been controlled? This is where the inner conflict kicks into overdrive.

My Friend Dahmer is an engrossing read, one that lingers in your bones, and will make you think twice about talking to strangers.

::[Links]::
Buy My Friend Dahmer from your local bookstore
Listen to Derf on Boing Boing’s Gweek podcast
Read an interview with Backderf on Comics Reporter
Visit Derf’s website

Written by Gabrielle

March 20, 2014 at 6:54 am

Posted in books, reviews

Tagged with , , ,

New in Paperback for March

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Keep your eye out for these paperbacks coming out this month.

Made to Break by D. Foy
Two days before New Years, a pack of five friends–three men and two women–head to a remote cabin near Lake Tahoe to celebrate the holidays. They’ve been buddies forever, banded together by scrapes and squalor, their relationships defined by these wild times.

After a car accident leaves one friend sick and dying, and severe weather traps them at the cabin, there is nowhere to go, forcing them to finally and ultimately take stock and confront their past transgressions, considering what they mean to one another and to themselves.

With some of the most luminous and purple prose flexed in recent memory, D. Foy is an incendiary new voice and “Made to Break,” a grand, episodic debut, redolent of the stark conscience of Denis Johnson and the spellbinding vision of Roberto Bolano.

Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture by Daniel Mendelsohn
Waiting for the BarbariansOver the past decade and a half, Daniel Mendelsohn’s reviews for The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Book Review have earned him a reputation as “one of the greatest critics of our time” (Poets & Writers). In Waiting for the Barbarians, he brings together twenty-four of his recent essays—each one glinting with “verve and sparkle,” “acumen and passion”—on a wide range of subjects, from Avatar to the poems of Arthur Rimbaud, from our inexhaustible fascination with the Titanic to Susan Sontag’s Journals. Trained as a classicist, author of two internationally best-selling memoirs, Mendelsohn moves easily from penetrating considerations of the ways in which the classics continue to make themselves felt in contemporary life and letters (Greek myth in the Spider-Man musical, Anne Carson’s translations of Sappho) to trenchant takes on pop spectacles—none more explosively controversial than his dissection of Mad Men.

The Story of My Purity by By Francesco Pacifico; translated by Stephen Twilley  
Thirty years old, growing flabby in a sexless marriage, Piero Rosini has decided to dedicate his life to Jesus. He’s renounced the novels and American music that were filling his head with bullshit; he’s moved out of his fancy bourgeois neighborhood, which was keeping him from finding spiritual purity and the Lord’s truth. Now that he and his wife have settled into an unfinished housing development on the far outskirts of Rome, he’ll be able to really concentrate on his job at an ultraconservative Catholic publishing house, editing books that highlight the decadence and degradation of modern society, including one claiming that Pope John Paul II was secretly Jewish. But Piero is suffocating. He worries that The Jewish Pope might be taking things too far. He can’t get his beautiful sister-in-law out of his head. Temptations are breaking down his religious resolve. He decides to flee to Paris, which turns out not to be the best way of guarding his purity.

With a charismatic narrator as familiar with the finer points of Christian theology as with the floor layout of IKEA and the schedules of European budget airlines, Francesco Pacifico’s exuberant novel brings us Europe old and new and the inner workings of a conflicted but always compelling mind. The Story of My Purity is fiction with great humor, intelligence, neuroticism, and vision, from a young writer at the beginning of a tremendous career.

Present Shock by Douglas Rushkoff
People spent the twentieth century obsessed with the future. We created technologies that would help connect us faster, gather news, map the planet, and compile knowledge. We strove for an instantaneous network where time and space could be compressed.

Well, the future’s arrived. We live in a continuous now enabled by Twitter, email, and a so-called real-time technological shift. Yet this “now” is an elusive goal that we can never quite reach. And the dissonance between our digital selves and our analog bodies has thrown us into a new state of anxiety: present shock.

Douglas Rushkoff weaves together seemingly disparate events and trends into a rich, nuanced portrait of how life in the eternal present has affected our biology, behavior, politics, and culture.

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma
As early as he can remember, the narrator of this remarkable novel has wanted to become a writer. From the jazz clubs of Manhattan to the villages of Sri Lanka, Kristopher Jansma’s hopelessly unreliable—yet hopelessly earnest—narrator will be haunted by the success of his greatest friend and literary rival, the brilliant Julian McGann, and endlessly enamored with Evelyn, the green-eyed girl who got away. A profound exploration of the nature of truth and storytelling, this delightful picaresque tale heralds Jansma as a bold, new American voice.

Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave by Adam Alter
Most of us go through life believing that we are in control of the choices we make—that we think and behave almost independently from the world around us. But as Drunk Tank Pink illustrates, the truth is our environment shapes our thoughts and actions in myriad ways without our permission or even our knowledge. Armed with surprising data and endlessly fascinating examples, Adam Alter addresses the subtle but substantial ways in which outside forces influence us—such as color’s influence on mood, our bias in favor of names with which we identify, and how sunny days can induce optimism as well as aggression. Drunk Tank Pink proves that the truth behind our feelings and actions goes much deeper than the choices we take for granted every day.

Sailor Twain by Mark Siegel
Sailor TwainOne hundred years ago. On the foggy Hudson River, a riverboat captain rescues an injured mermaid from the waters of the busiest port in the United States. A wildly popular—and notoriously reclusive—author makes a public debut. A French nobleman seeks a remedy for a curse. As three lives twine together and race to an unexpected collision, the mystery of the Mermaid of the Hudson deepens. A mysterious and beguiling love story with elements of Poe, Twain, Hemingway, and Greek mythology, drawn in moody black-and-white charcoal, this new paperback edition of the New York Times Best-Selling graphic novel by author/illustrator Mark Siegel is a study in romance, atmosphere, and suspense. Don’t miss Sailor Twain.

Written by Gabrielle

March 4, 2014 at 6:51 am

Week in the World: New music, new love, British TV, and more

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Here’s a roundup of what’s been occupying my time these past few weeks.

St. Vincent’s new album, eponymously named St. Vincent, is out this week. If you haven’t heard her music yet, think Bjork and Tori Amos and you’re pretty close. Studio 360 spoke with her and The Guardian is streaming the new album.

New York magazine spoke with television producer Lorne Michaels about Saturday Night Live, the comedians he’s launched, and the various shows that have come out of his legendary late night program.

NY Mag: Have you ever felt restricted by the standards of broadcast TV?
LM: No. I believe that there’s no creativity without boundaries. If you write a sonnet, it’s got to be fourteen lines. If you write one that’s nine lines, it’s not a sonnet. So we have to be clever. We’re in a medium that goes into people’s homes, and, very often now, people watch our show with their kids.

Marc Maron is now dating Moon Zappa, and appears to be very happy. He tells the story of how they got together in the monologue of this episode. It’s a great reason to go back and listen to his interview with Moon from October 2013.

Speaking of podcasts, I can’t believe it took me until the 123rd episode to start listening to Throwing Shade, an irreverent comedy show hosted by Erin Gibson and Bryan Safi. Together they take on the pop culture topics of the day with blatant disregard for political correctness. They are hilariously brilliant — and brilliantly hilarious. If you want to break out of the winter doldrums, put this on your iPod.

If you’ve finished watching House of Cards and are waiting for the second season of Orange is the New Black to start this summer, you should consider watching Shameless, a British TV show about a family (and their surrounding neighbors) who live in a public housing community. There are no connecting themes to either of the Netflix shows, except that all seasons are streaming and it’s awesome. The first season features James McAvoy if you need some incentive.

I just plowed through Will Self’s 2006 collection of essays, Junk Mail. Spanning much of the 90s, these nonfiction works are taken from places such as the Evening Standard, the Observer, the Independent, Esquire, GQ and the like. The opening piece, “New Crack City,” describes a crack den Self once knew and the second, “On Junky,” is an introduction to William S. Burroughs’ popular work of semi-autobiographical fiction. But it’s not all drugs in this one. Self also writes about his stay at a hotel made of ice, there’s a profile of Bret Easton Ellis, a thought piece on Morrissey, and interviews with artist Damien Hirst and author J.G. Ballard.

The other week, The New York Review of Books ran the short story To Kill a Child by Swedish writer Stig Dagerman. It’s eery and compelling and might just bring back those winter blues so have Throwing Shade handy after reading.

Written by Gabrielle

February 25, 2014 at 6:53 am

Geek Dating with Eric Smith

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When one hears the words “geek” and “dating” in a single sentence images of awkward guys wearing taped glasses, too-short pants, and pocket protectors come to mind. Most likely they’re inching towards a girl who’s out of their league and scurrying off just as she’s about to notice.

While it’s true that many geeks, whether self-professed or labeled by others, might need a bit more help than the average person when it comes to socializing, Eric Smith is optimistic. Smith, a geek of the self-professed sort, believes that geeks are well-prepared for dating and, to prove it, has written a guide specifically for this vibrant and varied subculture.

In The Geek’s Guide to Dating, Smith harnesses the innate passion that connects all geeks, whether they’re spending their paycheck at the record store, on video games, or the latest epic fantasy series.

For the release of his book, Eric and I chatted about the definition of “geek,” why they’re well-suited for romantic involvement, and gay geek culture.

Contextual Life: This is a basic question but I feel like you might have an interesting answer, what made you write The Geek’s Guide to Dating?

Eric Smith: Actually, the book idea came from Quirk’s publisher, Jason Rekulak. He’s one smart guy that loves pulling ideas out of thin air.

I’d been writing essays about the intersection of relationships and my geek life (a few of which you can see on the Bygone Bureau), as well as rambling about local geek culture on my blog here in Philadelphia, Geekadelphia. He encouraged me to take my love of all-that-is-geek and mash it together with a dating book, one that we’d potentially illustrate with 8-bit artwork.

It was a natural blending of interests for me, and incredibly fun to write.

CL: You’re the Social Media and Marketing Manager for Quirk. What did it feel like to write a book for your own company?

ES: It was interesting! I mean, how many authors get to see the day to day creation of their book? I got to see incredibly early artwork, the “dummies” (blank copies of the book) floating around the office, specifics about the print run, publicity updates right from my colleagues who sit next to me; all that good stuff. I even put my own book on the company’s website!

There were also some challenges though. I promote all our titles via our various social media accounts. On the blog, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, you name it. I had to make sure I was balancing out promoting my book with everyone elses! It sounds silly, but it’s something I’ve been keeping very aware of. I adore all our authors, and I didn’t want them thinking I forgot about them.

CL: Another basic question, say we just met at a social gathering and I asked you to define “geek,” how would you answer?

ES: After I recovered from the shock that you didn’t know, possibly after sitting down and taking a deep breath, I’d explain that a geek is someone who is so invested in a hobby or a passion, that it becomes a part of their everyday life.

CL: In your book you differentiate between different types of geeks, which one are you?

ES: Me? I’m a video game geek and (much like yourself) a book geek. I’m the sort of guy who gets a kick out of midnight releases, takes days off to play new games, and plans evenings around gaming with friends on Xbox Live. I also love surrounding myself with books, from comics to classic literature. I spend a lot of time writing about both of those passions and love doing so.

Eric Smith

CL: I’m so far out of the video game loop it’s not even funny. What kinds of games do you play and why?

ES: You know, it’s never too late to start a hobby that’s cripplingly addictive, Gab.

I really just love a game with a great story. Perhaps that’s my book geek shining through. Games that have epic narratives really get me excited to sit down and experience a new world. Some recent favorites include the Mass Effect series, Bioshock series (Infinite was incredible), and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I still haven’t stopped making “I took an arrow in the knee” jokes.

CL: We’re kids of the 80s so I have to ask, what was your favorite Atari game?

ES: The Halo series holds a special place in my heart. I’ll admit it, I’ve even read the Halo novels. I know, I know.

CL: You seem to believe geeks have an extraordinary amount of potential for dating. This is counterintuitive. What made you come to this conclusion?

ES: I’ve always felt like geeks are social creatures at heart. We thrive in communities where people share our interests.

I mean, just look at an event like San Diego Comic Con, DragonCon, or [Insert City, Video Game, or Genre] Con. We descend on those conventions en masse, eager to meet our peers and talk to the people who produce the things we love.

You can’t play Magic the Gathering or D&D without a bunch of friends. There’s no going raiding in World of Warcraft by yourself. I mean, I’m sure you could find a way. It’s just more fun with others.

CL: Speaking of Cons, what’s one of the best experiences you’ve had at one?

ES: Probably two years ago, when I went to Philadelphia Comic Con in my Master Chief suit for the first time. I’d never tried walking a convention floor in a costume before, and I was actually a little nervous that my armor wasn’t going to size up to the rest of the outfits there. My best friend Tim (who runs Geekadelphia with me), showed up in his Stormtrooper armor, and we made quite the pair, wandering the con together.

People stopped me every few feet to take a photo and it took me all afternoon to make it from one side of the convention to the other … and I loved it. We made so many people smile that day. Such a great, great feeling.

Also, the 501st Legion invited me to change with them, which was great. I was getting suited up next to a Boba Fett and a Darth Vader. No big deal.

CL: You acknowledge that The Geek’s Guide to Dating is written from the male perspective and that you use the male pronoun throughout; however, you say that your “sweeping generalizations” apply to both sexes. Do you find that geek guys and geek girls adhere less to gender stereotypes?

ES: That’s an interesting question, and one that’s always a hot one in the geek community. Stereotypes and what makes a geek a geek. What constitutes a geek girl? A geek guy? I think, unfortunately for us, there are tons of stereotypes slapped onto those titles. Real geek girls should do this, real geek guys should do that … personally, I don’t think we adhere to them at all, but some people assume that we do, or worse, should.

Sidenote, the amazing writers over at The Mary Sue dissect this issue a lot, and way better than I can. This tag rounds up all their outstanding pieces.

CL: How does this stereotyping affect geek dating? 

Then again, if you’re the kind of person passing those kind of judgements, I really don’t want you talking to or dating any of my awesome geek friends in the first place.ES: The way all things do when you make assumptions based on no facts. Negatively. You’re judging a girl or a guy before you get to know either of them? Well, you might be missing out on someone totally amazing.

CL: Agreed! So, big news, you recently got engaged.  Meeting your fiance seems to coincide with the writing of your book. This leads me to wonder what your research was like.

ES: Hah! Yes, it was pretty serendipitous! We met a few months before I started working on the book, leading her to ask me if there will be a Geek’s Guide to Engagements and Weddings.

My fiancee was actually a big fan of reading dating books, so, while I was doing research, she let me borrow a few of her old books. It helped a lot with some of the sections in the book. I also let her read bits and pieces. Though as a very non-geek girl, she had plenty of questions. I didn’t mind though. It actually gave me a chance to teach her more about all the stuff I care about.

So I guess, in a weird way, my book helped me with dating as I was writing it.

CL: That’s beyond adorable. By now people can tell that you are a heterosexual guy. Your book focuses on heterosexual relationships but I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on gay geek culture.

ES: Just that they have an amazing geek network! Geeks Out! does outstanding work, and now there’s the Gaymer X video game convention. All geeks rally together to support their passions, so it’s really no different.

And their gay geek icons are pretty damn incredible. Ian McKellen? Neil Patrick Harris? Sean Maher? So awesome.

CL: Huge thanks for taking the time to talk about your new book. I hope every geek reads it!

ES: Anytime! Thanks for having me! And hey, if you’d like to watch some cute geeky couples talking about their relationships, there’s an adorable webseries tie in to the book. You can catch them on the Quirk blog and on Geekosystem every Tuesday! Here’s a link to the recent videos.

Written by Gabrielle

February 12, 2014 at 6:58 am

New in Paperback for February

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Here are just a few paperbacks coming out this month that have caught my eye.

Artful by Ali Smith
Artful is a celebration of literature’s worth in and to the world—it is about the things art can do, the things art is made of, and the quicksilver nature of all artfulness. A magical hybrid that refuses to be tied down to either fiction or the essay form, Artful is narrated by a character who is haunted—literally—by a former lover, the writer of a series of lectures about art and literature. Ali Smith’s heady powers as a novelist and short story writer harmonize with her keen perceptions as a reader and critic to form a living thing that reminds us that life and art are never separate.

Me, Myself, and Why: Searching for the Science of Self by Jennifer Ouellette
me myself whyAs diverse as people appear to be, all of our genes and brains are nearly identical. In Me, Myself, and Why, Jennifer Ouellette dives into the miniscule ranges of variation to understand just what sets us apart. She draws on cutting-edge research in genetics, neuroscience, and psychology—enlivened as always with her signature sense of humor—to explore the mysteries of human identity and behavior. Readers follow her own surprising journey of self-discovery as she has her genome sequenced, her brain mapped, her personality typed, and even samples a popular hallucinogen. Bringing together everything from Mendel’s famous pea plant experiments and mutations in The X-Men to our taste for cilantro and our relationships with virtual avatars, Ouellette takes us on an endlessly thrilling and illuminating trip into the science of ourselves.

The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published by David Skinner
Created by the most respected American publisher of dictionaries and supervised by editor Philip Gove, Webster’s Third broke with tradition, adding thousands of new words and eliminating “artificial notions of correctness,” basing proper usage on how language was actually spoken. The dictionary’s revolutionary style sparked what David Foster Wallace called “the Fort Sumter of the Usage Wars.” Critics bayed at the dictionary’s permissive handling of ain’t. Literary intellectuals such as Dwight Macdonald believed the abandonment of the old standard represented the unraveling of civilization.

Entertaining and erudite, The Story of Ain’t describes a great societal metamorphosis, tracing the fallout of the world wars, the rise of an educated middle class, and the emergence of America as the undisputed leader of the free world, and illuminating how those forces shaped our language. Never before or since has a dictionary so embodied the cultural transformation of the United States.

What’s Important is Feeling by Adam Wilson
Bankers prowl Brooklyn bars on the eve of the stock market crash. A debate over Young Elvis versus Vegas Elvis turns existential. Detoxing junkies use a live lobster to spice up their love life. Students on summer break struggle to escape the orbit of a seemingly utopic communal house.

And in the title story, selected for The Best American Short Stories, two film school buddies working on a doomed project are left sizing up their own talent, hoping to come out on top–but fearing they won’t.

In What’s Important Is Feeling, Adam Wilson follows the through-line of contemporary coming-of-age from the ravings of teenage lust to the staggering loneliness of proto-adulthood. He navigates the tough terrain of American life with a delicate balance of comedy and compassion, lyricism and unsparing straightforwardness. Wilson’s characters wander through a purgatory of yearning, hope, and grief. No one emerges unscathed.

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi
Electric, exhilarating, and beautifully crafted, Ghana Must Go introduces the world to Taiye Selasi, a novelist of extraordinary talent. In a sweeping narrative that takes readers from Accra to Lagos to London to New York, it is at once a portrait of a modern family and an exploration of the importance of where we come from to who we are.

A renowned surgeon and failed husband, Kweku Sai dies suddenly at dawn outside his home in suburban Accra. The news of his death sends a ripple around the world, bringing together the family he abandoned years before. Moving with great elegance through time and place, Ghana Must Go charts their circuitous journey to one another and, along the way, teaches us that the truths we speak can heal the wounds we hide.

Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Age of Cultural Production by Nato Thompson
A fog of information and images has flooded the world: from advertising, television, radio, and film to the information glut produced by the new economy. With the rise of social networking, even our contemporaries, peers, and friends are all suddenly selling us the ultimate product: themselves.

Here curator and critic Nato Thompson interrogates the implications of these developments for those dedicated to socially engaged art and activism. How can anyone find a voice and make change when the world is flooded with images and information? And what is one to make of the endless machine of consumer capitalism, which has appropriated much from the history of art and, in recent years, the methods of grassroots political organizing and social networking?

Highlighting the work of some of the most innovative and interesting artists and activists working today, Thompson reads and praises sites and institutions that empower their communities to see power and re-imagine it. From cooperative housing to anarchist infoshops to alternative art venues, Thompson shows that many of today’s most innovative spaces operate as sites of dramatic personal transformation.

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide; Eric Selland (translator)
A bestseller in France and winner of Japan s Kiyama Shohei Literary Award, The Guest Cat, by the acclaimed poet Takashi Hiraide, is a subtly moving and exceptionally beautiful novel about the transient nature of life and idiosyncratic but deeply felt ways of living. A couple in their thirties live in a small rented cottage in a quiet part of Tokyo; they work at home, freelance copy-editing; they no longer have very much to say to one another. But one day a cat invites itself into their small kitchen. It leaves, but the next day comes again, and then again and again. Soon they are buying treats for the cat and enjoying talks about the animal and all its little ways. Life suddenly seems to have more promise for the husband and wife the days have more light and color. The novel brims with new small joys and many moments of staggering poetic beauty, but then something happens

Europe in Sepia by Dubravka Ugresic; David Williams (translator)
Hurtling between Weltschmerz and wit, drollness and diatribe, entropy and enchantment, it’s the juxtaposition at the heart of Dubravka Ugresic’s writings that saw Ruth Franklin dub her “the fantasy cultural studies professor you never had.” In Europe in Sepia, Ugresic, ever the flâneur, wanders from the Midwest to Zuccotti Park, the Irish Aran Islands to Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim, from the tristesse of Dutch housing estates to the riots of south London, charting everything from the listlessness of Central Europe to the ennui of the Low Countries. One finger on the pulse of an exhausted Europe, another in the wounds of postindustrial America, Ugresic trawls the fallout of political failure and the detritus of popular culture, mining each for revelation.

Infused with compassion and melancholic doubt, Europe in Sepia centers on the disappearance of the future, the anxiety that no new utopian visions have emerged from the ruins of communism; that ours is a time of irreducible nostalgia, our surrender to pastism complete. Punctuated by the levity of Ugresic’s raucous instinct for the absurd, despair has seldom been so beguiling.

Glyph by Percival Everett
glyphBaby Ralph has ways to pass the time in his crib—but they don’t include staring at a mobile. Aided by his mother, he reads voraciously: “All of Swift, all of Sterne, Invisible Man, Baldwin, Joyce, Balzac, Auden, Roethke,” along with a generous helping of philosophy, semiotics, and trashy thrillers. He’s also fond of writing poems and stories (in crayon). But Ralph has limits. He’s mute by choice and can’t drive, so in his own estimation he’s not a genius. Unfortunately for him, everyone else disagrees. His psychiatrist kidnaps him for testing, and once his brilliance is quantified (IQ: 475), a Pentagon officer also abducts him. Diabolically funny and lacerating in its critique of poststructuralism, Glyph has the feverish plot of a thriller and the philosophical depth of a text by Roland Barthes.

On Loving Women by Diane Obomsawin; Helge Dascher (translator)
loving womenOn Loving Women is a new collection of stories about coming out, first love, and sexual identity by the animator Diane Obomsawin. With this work, Obomsawin brings her gaze to bear on subjects closer to home—her friends’ and lovers’ personal accounts of realizing they’re gay or first finding love with another woman. Each story is a master class in reaching the emotional truth of a situation with the simplest means possible. Her stripped-down pages use the bare minimum of linework to expressively reveal heartbreak, joy, irritation, and fear.

On Loving Women focuses primarily on adolescence—crushes on high school teachers, awkwardness on first dates—but also addresses much deeper-seated difficulties of being out: fears of rejection and of not being who others want one to be. Within these pages, Obomsawin has forged a poignant, powerful narrative that speaks to the difficulties of coming out and the joys of being loved.

Her first English-language work, Kaspar—a retelling of the life of Kaspar Hauser, the mysterious German youth who was raised in isolation and murdered just a few years after emerging from his imprisonment—was critically lauded for its simple but expressive storytelling, and for the way it portrayed traumatic material compassionately but without self-indulgence. Preview.

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.

This is the twelfth expedition.

Their group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all their observations, scientific and otherwise, of their surroundings and of one another; and, above all, to avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.

They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them, and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another, that change everything.

Written by Gabrielle

February 5, 2014 at 6:48 am

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