January 31, 2009


This weekend I went to The Housing Works Bookstore Cafe's Basement Sale, where they sold records, comics, and old paperbacks at five for a dollar. Among the predictable Sci-Fi, western, crime, and romance potboiler paperbacks, only a few of them appealing in their cover art or titles (e.g Kiss My Firm But Pliant Lips), I found at least one interesting book - The Feminists by Parley J. Cooper. Written in 1971, it deals with a nightmarish future, in the distant year of 1992, when women would rule the world with an iron fist.

This certainly isn't Swift's Modest Proposal, there is no satirical undertone here - there's barely an undertone at all. The word "bitch" comes up more than a few times in the book, and it is peppered with misogynistic statements like this thought, coming from the male protagonist:
...he doubted that any woman, even a Feminist soldier, would brave following them into the sewage system. Their inherited fear of rats was evident even in Angela, who was, he thought, braver than most.

The plot is exactly what you would expect, with a heroic man taking on the the dreaded Feminocracy. I don't want to spoil the book for everyone, so stop reading now if you don't want to know what happens in the end. The last line of the book is:
The battle of the sexes was coming to an end.

Finally, I really think the title of the book should have been Feministas, but even so, it's still worth the 20 cent investment.

Postscript, 12 February 2009 - I should have pointed out the implications of the middle paragraph on the back cover:
Men must get permission to make love to any female - even if she is willing - or the penalty is death!
This means that there might be a situation where a man asks permission to make love to a woman, and perhaps receives this permission, even though she is not willing (I don't think that would still be considered "making love," I believe it's more like rape). Apparently, if you thought the objectification of women would end when they ruled the world you were sadly mistaken.

January 23, 2009

Vonnegut in Retrospect

In his "Autobiographical Collage" Palm Sunday The late Kurt Vonnegut Jr. came up with the interesting idea of grading his books, not in comparison to other writers, but only in relation to his own output. As he put it:

The grades I hand out to myself do not place me in literary history. I am comparing myself with myself. Thus can I give myself an A+ for Cat's Cradle, while knowing that there was a writer named William Shakespeare.

Here are the grades he gave himself, along with my comments:

Player Piano - B

His only novel I have not yet read.

The Sirens of Titan - A

I agree. A fun, well-executed sci-fi parable.

Mother Night - A

I would say A-, worth reading but has a few glitches.

Cat's Cradle - A+

I agree, or even say A++; his best book by far.

God Bless you Mr. Rosewater - A

Really didn't do it for me, I would say B-, but perhaps I was suffering from Vonnegut fatigue at that point.

Slaughterhouse Five - A+

I agree. Rightfully celebrated as a great literary accomplishment, though not as starkly original or entertaining as Cat's Cradle.

Welcome to the Monkey House - B-

Sounds about right. An uneven collection of stories.

Breakfast of Champions - C

He's being too harsh, I would give it a solid B, it has a lot of good ideas in it, even if it is a bit scattered.

Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons - C

I agree. A totally unnecessary collection of odds and ends.

Slapstick - D

I agree. An uninteresting idea, executed poorly. His worst book.

Jailbird - A

Again, Vonnegut fatigue. I'd give it a solid B.

Palm Sunday - C

It's kind of funny that he gives such a low grade to this book as he's writing it, and mentioning it in the book itself (admittedly, only towards the end of the book), but I would agree. In general his novels are much better than his autobiographical essays or "collages".

Vonnegut wrote ten more books after Palm Sunday, but did not grade them on the same scale, so I can only give you my assessment of them:

Deadeye Dick - B-

Standard mid-level vonnegut. If you're a fan you'll like it, but it's nothing special.

Galapagos - A-

Pretty good book with some entertaining literary schticks.

Bluebeard - A

I really liked it, especially for its amusing depictions of American minimalist artists.

Hocus Pocus - A

Smart and Funny. His best book from his later period.

Fates Worse than Death - B-

Like Palm Sunday, a collection of somewhat autobiographical writings, and thus not all that great.

Timequake - A-

It's nice to see Vonnegut's famous creation Kilgore Trout again, and in such a central role, but the book is a bit creaky.

God Bless you Dr. Kevorkian - B-

Originally broadcast on the radio. Very brief, rarely insightful, and only occasionally entertaining.

Bagombo Snuff Box - C+

A collection of less successful early stories not included in Welcome to the Monkey House.

A Man Without a Country - C

A rehash of old ideas and jokes (from Timequake, Hocus Pocus, Slaughterhouse 5 and others) some of them updated to fit the current events of the time (e.g. Bush's War on/of Terror).

I haven't read Vonnegut's posthumous Armageddon in Retrospect, but since it's a collection of essays I probably wouldn't have ranked it that high anyway. Look at the Birdie, a collection of fourteen previously unpublished short stories, doesn't seem too promising either - if Vonnegut deemed these stories unworthy of inclusion in the two previous collections, which had some not-so-great stories, they must really be sub-par.

January 16, 2009

The Introducing Series

I'm currently reading Introducing Hegel, from the Totem Books Introducing series (published by Icon Books in the UK, older editions sometimes have the alternative title "for Beginners"). These books offer concise illustrated guides to key figures and concepts in science and the humanities. Some are almost written like graphic novels, while other are more focused on the text, with the illustrations as a mere visual reprieve. As far as I know, and according to the publisher's website, this series is the first one to utilize this format, with other less successful attempts, like the Writers & Readers "For Beginners" series, copying their format almost exactly, though far less successfully (Writers and Readers is about to release Barack Obama for Beginners, which seems a bit premature to me).

The current format of the Totem Books Introducing series has attractively stylized black covers, which I think are far nicer than the original printings with their cartoonish drawings and yellow logo. Twelve titles are now being reprinted in a brand-new, pocket-sized format, with far less original and interesting covers, which I hope won't become the standard from now on.

As for the content, it naturally varies by writer and artist. Usually, the books dealing with people are better than the ones dealing with theories and concepts, which often betray the writer's own theoretical slant. The most successful book in the series, and my personal favorite, is Introducing Kafka, written by David Zane Mairowitz and illustrated by Robert Crumb. It includes comic adaptations of some of Kafka's most famous short works (Metamorphosis, A Hunger Artist, In the Penal Colony, and The Judgment) as well as brief sketches of his three novels. The popularity of Crumb's unique rendition of Kafka's works led to additional printings under the title R. Crumb's Kafka, which I think is a little unfair since Mairowitz did a great job on the book as well. (The latest edition, published by Fanatagraphics Books and named simply Kafka, gives Mairowitz equal credit, though his name is listed after Crumb's.)

from Introducing Kafka

Introducing Camus, also by Mairowitz, is quite good, as are the books dedicated to Friedrich Nietzsche, Zigmund Freud, Roland Barthes, Jean-Paul Sartre, Walter Benjamin, Carl Jung, and the Marquis De Sade, which offer a good combination of brief biography and general overview of their major works and ideas. Introducing Joyce is particularly successful in giving readers an idea of what the Irish writer was trying to accomplish in his work, as well as encouraging them to explore more of his work. The books on Shakespeare and Picasso are less successful, the former getting lost in the biography without saying much about the works, and the latter focusing too much on deconstructing the myth of the genius artist.

from Introducing Joyce

I found that the books dedicated to concepts are usually better when dealing with subjects I know nothing about, which I guess is exactly the way it should be; I shouldn't criticize an introductory book on a topic I am familiar with for not going into more detail about things I already know about. Nevertheless, I think Introducing Media Studies is far too simplistic, and Introducing Critical Theory, though comprehensive and well-written, is tinted by the author's Marxist leanings. The books on Evolutionary Psychology and Ecology, however, are quite good.

from Introducing Evolutionary Psychology

The book on Hegel, so far, seems to be unbalanced, focusing too much on his friends and predecessors. I am, however, looking forward to reading the books on Foucault, Derrida, and Lacan. The Introducing series has a brand new blog where you can read a full book from the series electronically. They are planning to offer a new book every month; this month, it's Introducing Romanticism by Duncan Heath and Judy Boreham.