Friday, August 27, 2010

Android Karenina (Leo Tolstoy and Ben H. Winters)

So in case you haven't noticed, lately I've had a slight bias towards reviewing books published by Quirk, a small press based in Philadelphia. This is partially due to the fact that I've loved everything I've read from them thus far (Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters, Old Man Drinks), and partially because they are actually publishing my book next summer, so they sent me a bunch of free stuff.

That being said, this week's review and next week's review are the last of the current batch of freebies. After that it will be back to the random stuff, though I will obviously try my darndest to get more free books in the future.


Like its predecessors P&P&Z and S&S&SM, Android Karenina takes a classic piece of literature and transforms it into something... else. Ben H. Winters is at the helm again—he did Sea Monsters if you recall—and his task is to turn possibly the greatest novel in history into a robotic social commentary. Hmm. Science fiction and Russian literature are probably my least two favorite genres, so I wasn't sure what to expect here. Sci-fi I can handle sometimes (Dune, Ender's Game, those Martian Tales I reviewed a while back), but i HATE Russian literature. I've never once been able to finish a novel by a Russian author. Crime & Punishment, Doctor Zhivago, even Lolita. Luckily, there is an exception to every rule.

Android Karenina follows the story of Anna, a Russian socialite who falls madly in love with the charming Count Vronsky, a young soldier, much to the chagrin of her husband Alexei, an official in the Higher Branches. So where's the mash-up? Well, in this version of Tolstoy's great epic, each character is accompanied by a "companion," an android servant built especially for their particular needs. The androids, as well as many other technological advances anachronistic to the 19th century setting, are are constructed after discovery of a miracle element called groznium, an incredible power source. Groznium makes possible technology comparable to what we have today. The real heart of the story, however, does not come from the science fiction. Of course there are aliens, cyborgs, and gladiatorial mech battles, but this is truly a novel about society, revolution, and above all else, love.

This is the first time that one of these "Quirk Classics" has made me want to go and read the original novel. Ben H. Winters steps up his game to a remarkable degree. This is a much better book than Sense & Sensibilty & Sea Monsters, which I admit I may have rated a bit too highly looking back. Obviously, Austen's witty banter and quick conversational style is replaced by Tolstoy's microscopic detail and attention to slight mood changes. Those inherent differences are certainly noticed. What really makes Android Karenina stand out, though, is the level of integration of the injected sci-fi elements. The robots do not ever feel tacked on, or part of some gimmick. Unlike in S&S&SM, where the characters are trying to go about their lives despite the presence of sea monsters, the characters in this novel fully depend on their technologies, especially their robotic companions. The "robot question" becomes a pivotal discussion point among the principal characters as the book progresses. As is often the case, the government has a different idea than that of its citizens of what is safe and unsafe regarding technological use. But really, as in the original, this is a love story, one of the greatest ever told. That's what makes this book so exceptional, the fact that, despite all the robots and explosions and revolutionary ideals, it all comes down to whether or not two people are going to end up together. Nicely done.


Android Karenina
by Leo Tolstoy and Ben H. Winters

Definitely a better story than Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters, but that's mostly Tolstoy's doing.

Definitely better integrated than Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters, which is obviously Winters' doing.

These scores may seem inflated, but I genuinely enjoyed every moment that I was reading this book. It even gets a couple extra tenths of a point for being an accessible way to read a monumental classic that few people would ever have the patience to sit down and enjoy. Its 538 pages feel like a novella when compared to the original's 864. It also has one of those fun study guides in the back, like Pride & Prejudice & Zombies had. Love those things.


Keep reading, Genoshans!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Old Man Drinks (Robert Schnakenberg)

Are you a man? Not just a male, but a man? A really manly man's MAN? Yeah, me neither. I'm working on it, though. I have a feeling that this book is going to help me out quite a bit.


Old Man Drinks: Recipes, Advice, and Barstool Wisdom is a very manly book. From front to back, it is filled with nothing but alcoholic beverage recipes that old guys drink, things you've always wanted to try but had no idea what they were or when to order them. Drinks like the Algonquin, the Mint Julep, the Hot Toddy; sure, maybe you've had one once before, but did you even know what you were drinking? Old Man Drinks has the recipes, histories, and perfect occasions for each drink, all in a delightful, pocket-sized hardcover. That's not even the best part, though. The greatest thing about this book is that the author, Robert Schnakenberg, went around to different bars and interviewed actual old guys, and their pictures and comments are strewn throughout the book. Now, these aren't your usual pearls of wisdom dished out Benjamin Franklin-style by some lofty philosopher. These are curmudgeonly drunks with skewed and inappropriate views on life. Take for example Dennis, a 67-year-old musician:
There are times you drink 'til you fall on your face. Then there are times when you drink and someone else falls on your face. Here's hoping I have more of those times.
Or this gem, from 65-year-old Gary, a retired marketing manager:
Scotch goes well with anything, especially marriage.
Or my personal favorite, a lovely little anecdote from Richie, a retired limo driver:
My wife told me I should go out because it was nice out today. I said, "Why? I'm 84 years old. By now I know what a nice day looks like."

Old Man Drinks: Recipes, Advice, and Barstool Wisdom
by Robert Schnakenberg

I never had a threesome, but it's bound to happen soon.
—Fred, 90, retired janitor

Honestly, there isn't much else to say about the book. If you're into drinking, recipes, or old guys, or know someone who is into drinking, recipes, or old guys, it's pretty much guaranteed to please. It's perfect for the elderly alcoholic looking to expand his palate, or the hipster college kid who wants to be cool by constantly asking bartenders for obscure cocktails, like the Mary Pickford (2 ounces light rum, 2 ounces pineapple juice, 1 teaspoon grenadine, 1 teaspoon Maraschino liquer, lime twist, shake well with ice). I will leave you with this final piece of advice, however, from Peter, a 77-year-old floor manager:
Here's to you and yours, and to mine and ours, and if you and yours ever comes across cross mine and ours, then may you and yours do the...wait, or is it the...ah, to hell with it. I could never remember any of that damn stuff anyway. Best to be original, right?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (Edgar Wright)

Wait a minute, didn't I already review this? Nope! This is the film version, which just came out today. It stars Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Jason Schwartzman, as well as many other talented folks. So let's get to it, shall we?




Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
directed by Edgar Wright

Okay, just kidding. That would've been a terrible review, huh? There isn't going to be any actual rating, you can go to Rotten Tomatoes or something if you want numbers this time. I will, however, break it down into the usual categories and describe the complete awesomeness in greater detail for you.

The movie follows the graphic novel very closely, a recap/review of which you can handily find here. The first half of the film is taken basically frame for frame from the comic, so it holds true to much of the content. Even when Edgar Wright decides to depart from the original narrative, he does so in ways that a) make sense, and b) are cool/funny/intriguing in their own right. It's masterfully done, really. The tension builds at a solid pace, the characters are developed exceptionally well, and the fight scenes are choreographed beautifully. The whole shebang is f*¢∞ing epic.

Good God Damn. This is not just a fantastic adaptation, or a fantastic comic book movie. It is an absolutely irresistible, phenomenal film. Wright makes choices that no sane director ever would, and is definitely rewarded for his efforts. It's completely unlike anything that I've ever seen before, but somehow manages to convey the tone of the original work perfectly. Even better, all the quirky little effects and comic bookesque sound bubbles are consistent throughout the film. It never feels gimmicky at all.

I love the books, so I had very, very, very, VERY high expectations for this film, and I can honestly say that it surpassed all of them. Easily. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World beat my expectations to death with a crowbar and made me feel ashamed that I didn't aim higher. I saw it this morning, and I would go again right now. And tomorrow. And probably a couple times on Sunday. And every day for the rest of my life. Let me do a quick inventory of all the films I've ever seen... yup, favorite movie ever. Hands down. Excellently done.


IF YOU LOVE YOURSELF AT ALL GO SEE THIS MOVIE PLEASE! The acting is so good, especially for such a large cast. And somehow none of the characters seem overlooked. I would go so far as to say the movie does a better job than the first few volumes of the book in fleshing out the characters. And nothing that they left out was so integral as to make the experience less enjoyable. The ONLY thing that I wanted to see that wasn't included was a single line from the first volume, when Kim Pine says, "This guy is toast. Doesn't he know that Scott's the best fighter in the province?" I think I can forgive them, though.

If I ever had my own office with its own waiting room, I would play this movie on repeat for all of eternity, and no one would ever want to come in to see me, because they would be so enthralled by this film in my waiting room, and that would be okay, because I would be in there with them. GO BUY YOUR TICKETS NOW!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Each Crumbling House (Melody S. Gee)

So this is something new. As you might know already, up until my graduation this past May, I was the Poetry Editor for the Southern California Review, USC's graduate literary magazine. One of the poets who I chose to be in the last issue, Melody S. Gee, just sent the review a copy of her first book! Two of the poems we selected for SCR are included in the book, and she even went so far as to thank us in the back. Well, she thanks a lot of people, but this is still a big deal for SCR, DG, and myself personally. This isn't so much a review as a shout out to an emerging poet with an amazing debut collection.


Melody is a first-generation Asian American struggling to find her place in the mix of opposing cultures that is her life. Her first book, Each Crumbling House, is a collection of poems combining all of her feelings towards dealing with what is essentially a life in transition. Many of the poems are written through the lens of Chinese immigrants either heading off to an unknown land or newly arrived in the United States. She depicts beautifully their isolation among those whom they travel or work with. She also writes lovely poems about her own experiences, though. In the poem "In Translation," Gee tackles the issue of not always being able to properly communicate with her own mother. There isn't always a direct connotative match in Chinese for the words she would normally use in English.
I am reading out loud at the table
where she has left ripe
ancestor offerings, reading slowly
so she will hear the texture of desire

that climbs my throat,
which I can only translate as selfish,
to want,
or missing. Always
a word away from the word I need.
In "Giving" she addresses her issues with her family's practice of always providing food for their ancestors before a meal, even if it means going hungry. Gee's writing is intensely visual, but also evocative and emotionally clear. It's an excellent first attempt from a writer who I can only imagine will continue to produce beautiful work well into the future.


Each Crumbling House
by Melody S. Gee

As always, there is no real way to quantify merit in poetry. I will say this, though: I am extremely picky. The "reject" pile always towered over the acceptance pile at our SCR meetings, but Melody managed to get not just one but two poems past me (and almost a third, if I remember correctly). It's not always easy to put into words the reasons why certain poets or poems reach a person. Though it seems like Melody's work is the type that is not meant to be analyzed, anyway, but quietly accepted and understood. She reaches far enough into herself that she is able to find each one of us as well. I've never experienced the horror of having to leave my family to travel thousands of miles across the ocean and start a new life from scratch, but Each Crumbling House proves that it isn't always necessary to experience the same traumas in order to connect with someone on the most basic human levels. Very well done.

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