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« January, 2006 »
Will the Real John Callahan Please Stand Up?

Whenever anyone asked me what I was reading when I had this book with me, I would say “cripple jokes” and that always set the discussion off on the right foot. Callahan is a quadriplegic cartoonist and is syndicated in many major newspapers. He is also controversial because he talks about what he knows, living with quadriplegia, and how society treats the disabled generally. While I wouldn’t say he is an activist per se -- sometimes he just seems to have his mind in the gutter -- his cartoons make you think, even if it’s only thinking “wow, that joke isn’t funny.” or “that joke is totally disgusting.” and then thinking about why it is that maybe you think that.

Included in this book of cartoons are stories about the cartoons and about himself. Callahan waxes poetic about how he used to be able to get laid much more before he turned 40. Callahan talks about meeting Bob Dylan and Robin Williams who had optioned his story to do a movie. He includes some of his more controversy-inspiring cartoons such as the one with the 13 year old Martin Luther King standing shamefully in pj’s in front of his mother, a small puddle in his bed, saying “I had a dream.” Personally I thought it was funny, many many people didn’t. Callahan includes a lot of letters to the various papers that run his comics reacting and responding, often angrily, at his sense of humor. If he or the papers respond to those letters, he does not print the responses. A point the book makes is that other disabled people often seems to find his jokes funnier (he uses the example of the church choir singing “you’ll never walk alone” loudly next door to the Home for the Paralyzed) than the able-bodied people who write in terribly offended. Callahan does seem to be an equal opportunity offender, he makes fun of the disabled, the mentally ill, the elderly, women, men, the pope, his attendant, the government etc. I don’t think everything he does is hilarious, certainly, but enjoyed the chance to see mor of his work and hear more about the man behind the comics.

The Narrows

I found this book in a desk at the B&B I was staying in, when I was desparately searching for a book to read on the flight on the way home. This book fit the bill, your classic thriller without some of the classic elements I hate: passive women getting tortured and held for ransom, slasher sex/violence linkages, dumb plot twists and/or fetishistic creepy killers. Connelly has built a name for himself as a photogenic crime beat reporter turned author and he’s prolific. I don’t think I’ve read any of his books in order but this doesn’t seem to matter too much since he manages to get summaries in without you feeling like he’s rehashing all the books in a series.

I generally don’t do much in the way of plot summaries for genre fiction, but this is one of those smart serial killer stories, not too gorey, not too dull and not so overwhelmingly action-packed that you feel that it’s a bit surreal.

Death du Jour

You know you’re really in trouble when you re-read books by accident. This was on the new-ish shelf at the library and so I assumed that it was a newish book. Apparently I read it back in 2001. To add insult to injury, apparently I didn’t even like it much then. This is the review I wrote then, it’s still pretty apt.

If you’ve ever wondered how you can tell how long a body has been dead by looking at the maggots, this book is for you. If not, you may not have the stomach for it. Reichs is an author that focuses on the medical examiner aspects of crime and mystery. She gets called to the scene after the cops have been there and tries to give them a hand solving the crime, This particular novel is full of cults and freezing cold weather and the inevitable Family Member Who Gets Involved in the Horrible Events. It’s a good quick read but maybe on the sensational side for me personally.

How to Breathe Underwater

This was a book of short stories given to me by a friend on my birthday. I read 90% of it and then it somehow managed to make it to the bottom of a pile from where it did not return until yesterday. These stories are great. There is a sort of emotional feeling that some stories have -- I’ve seen it in other writing but I have a hard time describing it -- where there is just a heat between the characters. Not like sexy and not like angry but sort of that feeling you get when the space behind your ears gets warm, a sort of flushing feeling and a quickening of the pulse. In any case I don’t read stories with that sort of heat in them often and I’m always really excited to find a new story that manages it. The story in this book called The Smoothest Way is Full of Stones [also reprinted in The Best American Non-Required Reading] managed to churn up that sort of heat.

All the stories are good though. Many of them harken back to that time where children are old enough to be running wild away from their parents, but not so far that they can live independently or that they always understand the consequences of their actions. The strongest stories in this book are about young adults getting into some sort of trouble almost under the noses of their parents. Bad things happen and usually aren’t tidily resolved. Young girls are terrible to each other, and kids generaly behave abdly, but no worse than adults can be. Orringer has managed to write about younger people in a way that is both voyeuristic and also very real feeling as someone who was younger once herself.

Rural Studio: Samuel Mockbee and an Architecture of Decency

I was looking for books to read on Alabama and was attracted to this book because of its cover. It’s a fancy picture book describing the rural studio, an innovative architecture program at Auburn University where students build housing for rural Alabamans, using discarded materials and fancy pants techniques. Many of these people were previously living in shacks and cabins with no running water or electricity. This book documented the process of getting to know the people in Hale County who the students built housing for. There are showy pictures of the new houses and community centers and a lot of sort of arty-speak of how the architects and builders conceived of their projects in a way that will be amiliar to any graduate of a liberal arts college. Missing from the book, to me, was the voices of the people who had new homes built for them. I was most curious how these fancy houses worked for these rural poor folks. They were clearly designed with the residents in mind, and yet there is a certain flash and flair in these buildings that would seem to have to have some effect on the people who lived in them. I’d like to know what it’s like to live in a brand new house that was built tailored to your particular needs and specifications. This is something that most of us never get to experience in a lifetime and while the students seemed very proud of their ability to do this work, I felt like at least some of the projects lacked a sort of closure that resulted in some of these houses feeling a bit like hanging questions.

The Florabama Ladies' Auxiliary & Sewing Circle

This book eked into “liked it” territory just barely. It was a good read, but felt like a lot of books I’d read before. It felt like Toni Morrison for its brand consciousness and concern with the cost of things. It felt like The Secret Life of Bees because it’s got the same general outline -- person who has gone through hardship had to make do in a new and sometimes un-nice environment; eventually she finds comfort in the companionship of women and even though there are problems they are better than the ones she had. It also feels like every other sort of woman-focused book I’ve read lately. If it were a movie it would be a chick flick. That’s not to say that the story isn’t interesting, just that it moves along fairly predictable paths to its eventual unsuprising conclusion