Film: World of Tomorrow by Don Hertzfeldt

I don’t often write about video media, but I enthusiastically recommend the lovely, bittersweet animated series Don Hertzfeldt has been building, currently up to three episodes.

My synopsis of the first episode (2015): a woman from the future visits her toddler self, to explain that someday she will be cloned, and her memories will be transferred to her future clones. The toddler and her future self explore the beautiful, colorful, abstract, terrifyingly glitchy future, in which time travel tourism sometimes gets you killed.

To prevent spoilers, I will not share a synopsis of World of Tomorrow, Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts (2017)(vimeo.com), but the sense of risk and quest to find a meaning in life that you can accept continues, and the toddler’s future woman clones become more adventurous!

World of Tomorrow, Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime (2020)(also vimeo.com) is a painful, funny, complex adventure in which the woman clone from the future leaves clues to a man clone of the future so they can connect somewhere in time, though the effort seems increasingly likely to get him and his future clones killed.

These short, poignant, funny, philosophical films earned all the awards they have been given and deserve even more. The simple stick figures make the characters feel innocent and universal; the abstract backgrounds and art are great; the use of his toddler relative’s voice is brilliant; and the way all of these stories reflect a human struggle to find meaning makes these emotionally moving. I recommend these zealously, regardless of your tastes!

Book: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot
published by Crown; audiobook published by Penguin Random House
2010

OH MY GOODNESS, THIS BOOK. This book is several books in one. At least.

This is a book about the dawn of cell culture, and the scientific beginnings of being able to keep human cells alive outside the body. This ties directly to the biotechnology industry I work in, and provides a history of early techniques and advances that I didn’t know I needed to know!

This is a book about the lives of American Blacks in or from the 1950s American South, the struggles of people too poor to leave the lands on which their ancestors were slaves, the burdens on women who lived with older male cousins who molested them, and the social hierarchies that followed those who left to the north, where no one questioned doctors. (I have never been more grateful that my Black ancestors fled to the midwest… Thank you, grandma!)

(Please note that I am bi-racial, and my family uses Black more than African-American in our self-descriptions; you’ll see me switch between these terms, and sometimes switch cases (Black or black) in my writing.)

This is also a book about remarkable scientific advances that occurred in during an ethically horrific era, in which studies were performed on people, especially African-Americans and institutionalized people, without their consent.

And of a highly ethical, profoundly curious, deeply committed biologist who wanted to know where HeLa cells REALLY came from, and worked for years with the family of Henrietta Lacks to learn the human story behind the cells.

This book is an emotional roller coaster! From scientific research challenges, to scientists sharing technology freely, to religious Lacks family members who feared their relative was being cloned and that her soul would never rest, to disabled children suffering through medical experiments their families didn’t consent to, to temperamental collaborators, this isn’t the story I was expecting, but it was a remarkable tale, and the audio books was produced to be an amazing ‘listen.’

I recommend this book highly for anyone interested in cell culture, biotechnology, genetic rights, the horrors of mental institutions for the poor, informed consent, being black in the 1950s in the US, and science sleuthing! Sloot does an amazing job of telling the story of writing the book within the book, which is a true adventure. What an author! What a researcher!

San Francisco: New Historic Streetcar Locator

I’m a huge fan of San Francisco’s collection of antique, operational streetcars from many cities with similar rail sizes, and now I have an ADORABLE new way for tracking them! I can just go to streetcar.live and see cute icons of the trains on the F-Market and E-Embarcadero lines, and click into the image for more details about that particular streetcar.

(Yes, you can buy stickers or pins of those cute icons at the Market Street Railway online store, or at their museum near the Ferry Building.)

Book: Lena by qntm

Lena
by qntm
published online at Things of Interest (qntm.org/mmacevedo)
2021

I’m going to classify this as a book, because I am using that classification for novellas, and I make the rules here. [ahem]

This story gave me the CREEPS. The best way I can think to describe it is as ethical horror for the Amazon.com age.

If technology was available to image your brain and make an AI copy of your mind and personality, how would others want to use that copy of you? How would scientists want to use it? How would your EMPLOYER want to use it?

See how dark your thoughts just went?

It’s somehow all the more creepy by the matter-of-fact, research-abstract tone.

I would have found this relatable for many reasons, including some geeky ones relating to emotional responsibility I felt over my clones in a 1990s role playing game. (You don’t need to know more about that.) But it also feels… appropriate to the moment in late stage capitalism that we are in.

Just go read it. It’s concise and remarkable. (The author moderates the comments, so the comments are readable!)

Life: I don’t have a monotype printing blog (yet)

However, I have a smartphone photo blog, where I sometimes post photos of monotype prints. (Pretend that is meta.)

This is just a reminder that I post images at mobilelene.blogspot.com more frequently than I post book reviews and rambles about coffee here. I’ve been posting there since 2008 with my fancy new iPhone 1, exported my Google+ posts there (buggily) when that service shut down, and then kept on keeping on.

You may already know that I like skies, flowers, and buildings, but that blog provides PROOF.

Book: Ugly Belgian Houses by Hannes Coudenys

A great title which accurately reflects the book’s contents! I was laughing aloud in a museum when I encountered this.

Ugly Belgian Houses
by Hannes Coudenys
published by Borgerhoff & Lamberigts, Gent, Belgium
2015

I came across this book in an architecture museum, and it had me laughing out loud. My friend, who joined me in appreciating these aesthetic horrors, later found the book elsewhere and purchased it for me as a present, so I could enjoy it all over again!

It provides EXACTLY what it says it will.

These houses are hilarious.

This is a blog-to-book project, where the author started out anonymously posting photos of subjectively aesthetic disasters on tumblr, and wound up developing quite a following. What makes this more than just a greatest hits collection from his blog is the introductory essay, where he explains how Belgian copyright laws means you can’t publish images of buildings without getting permission from the designer and/or owner, and this means he had to contact the people whose homes he mocked online. Often, in person. Often, ALONE.

It’s a fun read!

I took delight in this book, and recommend it to anyone who has ever looked at a very ugly building and laughed. I also recommend the blog, which I’ll link to below.

Life: Emerging from health order isolation

I’m writing after having some exciting experiences. I’ve dined with friends in a tent! I’ve visited an art museum!! I’ve eaten INDOORS, as the only customer at a restaurant! I’ve ridden INSIDE A STREETCAR! I’ve tested a camera! I’ve been outside without a mask!

These experiences are not what have kept me from posting here: exhaustion did that. I have been reading and drinking coffee, thankfully, so I do have books to write about, but my work schedule (unhealthy) plus a controlled experiment to determine if wheat is safe to eat again (IT IS NOT) laid me low for a few weeks, and I’m just emerging again now. Like the cicadas! Like my fellow SF residents, whose health order was updated on May 20th (sfdph.org).

I work in law, so I like the “redline” of the health order, which shows what changed:

It’s as if I finally exhaled some of the stress of ambient world conditions, but didn’t stop exhaling, and partly deflated.

~~~

My parents are both fully vaccinated. (Hooray!) I am fully vaccinated. (Hooray!) My local public hospital went a day without COVID patients for the first time since last spring. (Hooray!) My local public health department is celebrating ONE MILLION DOSES of vaccine successfully administered within our county. (Wow!) Even the national averages for new infections are dropping, despite strangely partisan resistance to disease prevention.

Locally (at least), we’ve turned a corner. I can exhale a little. I can hope a bit more.

~~~

The pandemic isn’t over, but I’m already looking at some elements of it retrospectively. I’ve formed some new habits that I will continue, like:

  • I will keep having a box of ‘environmentally responsible’ groceries delivered each week. (These are from an anti-food-waste business I’ve previously written of, which manages safe surplus and off-spec produce, such as potatoes that are too big, carrots that have two points, or tri-color quinoa that has too much of one color. NOTE: it takes a while to adjust their recommended orders until they really work for you: modify it actively until it makes sense! )
  • I continue to support my local, independent bookstores with my subscription to audiobook service Libro.fm, and will order from those same local bookstores at their websites (first choice) or through bookshop.org (second choice) when I can’t get across town to browse in person, rather than put those purchases off indefinitely, as I used to.
  • I may still mail film to my professional photo lab, rather than waiting until I have free weekends to visit them.
  • I will surely have dinner delivered twice a week, too, now that the delivery ranges expanded.
  • I’ll keep up these new pen pal relationships I’ve started, even though writing in German is more challenging than I’d expected. (See postage image, somewhere below.)
  • I learned to save some time for myself, rather than ALWAYS be available to others by phone or video call. (This sounds absurd – I live alone at the moment! – but you’d be surprised. Especially since some of my friends’ coping mechanisms involve very long contact, and/or working evenings and weekends to avoid dealing with pandemic news, and needing my help with things at odd hours, so that every evening and weekend day is interrupted by some work item…)
  • If I can arrange to work remotely, I’ll certainly do so: I get more sleep, enjoy more hot meals, and get more done with the time I’ve reclaimed from commuting, even though my commute wasn’t bad.

Staying indoors for a year has been hugely detrimental to my physical health, however, and resuming my sensible old habits may not be enough to correct that. I’m trying to ‘ramp up’ to at least the levels of activity I engaged in before the health orders took effect, and will need to adjust from there. How long does it take to undo a year’s worth of sedentary-yet-high-stress life? I’ll find out!

Manga: Vampire Knight by Matsuri Hino

Cover of the Viz edition of Volume 6. Yes, I’ll discuss pleats soon.

Vampire Knight
by Matsuri Hino
published in English by Viz Media, LLC, San Francisco
2004 – 2013

As I was exploring the Viz website, I decided to read a preview of Matsuri Hino’s popular shōjo vampire romance. I was immediately hooked on her humor – she laid out immediately that in the school setting where this story takes place, vampires are all gorgeous, and no one can resist them – plus, her clear dedication to fashion / costume design. This is going to be fun! Viz makes it easy to access the English editions by having the complete series available in a digital format for multiple platforms, including their own website (viz.com).

I’m unsure when it’s the best time to review a long series like this. At the moment, I’m 10 volumes in, and that means I’ve read 2,000 pages or so… I’m impressed and how much work it must have taken to lovingly produce these elaborately illustrated pages… Drawing the hair alone could take lifetimes! This is a work of great dedication.

The Story: Yuri Cross is an ordinary schoolgirl protagonist and apparent orphan, being raised by a headmaster at a private school. The school has a day class of ordinary students, and a night class of gorgeous, supermodel-attractive students who are secretly vampires. [squeal] Poor Yuri is tasked with keeping these groups apart during shift changes, even though she is TINY and not very persuasive, aside from having terrifyingly large eyes. (Really, they cross a line into scary-intense.)

Yuri has two love interests attending school, both of whom are relentlessly handsome: Zero, the troubled orphan from a vampire-hunter clan, who has an elaborate neck tattoo and a vampire-hating stare (day class, light hair, wearing black), and Kaname, the broody, indulgent vampire who saved Yuri’s life when she was a small child (night class president, dark hair, wearing white). Yuri doesn’t understand why Kaname, who could have anyone, indulges her, though she knows he is keeping a secret about her past.

Zero and Kaname are rivals for Yuri’s love, because of course they are.

Perfect set up, right? (Answer: Yes. And yes, there are entire articles about why this manga is superior to Twilight, so you don’t even have to raise that.) Societal forces and political intrigue off campus create all sorts of danger: eventually the school is attacked, and Yuri winds up wielding a super-cool weapon much larger than she is, and having to choose between her loves.

What I’m learning: arriving late to this genre, I had to learn some (probably) obvious things.

Chaste blood sucking: Blood sucking is the most forbidden, naughty, taboo thing you can do. (The text specified this.) So, having gorgeous boys lick your hand when you get a paper cut [swoon], or having them sweet talk you into letting you put their fangs into your neck (or each others’ long, handsome necks) [swoon], or generally drinking each others’ blood while making expressions of surrender and ecstasy is naughty, and is a stand-in for… any other possible exchange of bodily fluids. That’s why you keep letting handsome boys nibble on you only in secret: because it’s… taboo and forbidden on campus? Sure! Got it!

Dominance and submission: There are powers of mind control that powerful vampires naturally have over weaker ones! There are spells that can tame someone, and make them obedient to your wishes. Yes, there are.

Beauty appreciation/devotion: everyone is so gorgeous that same-sex attraction is totally understandable. No blame! Though it’s attractive to blush with embarrassment about it, because blushing just makes gorgeous people more gorgeous.

Fashion fetishism: There are the many beautiful fashion touches specific to Hino’s style. These made a big impression on me – the costumes are ELABORATE, and have so many unnecessary-but-pretty fasteners!

I have gone to so many kimono exhibits, and it took me a while to think about these costumes in contrast to those. Traditional Japanese clothing has its lovely flat collars, cord fasteners, printed patterns, straight edges, and wrapped contrasting layers, and these costumes are the opposite of each and every one of those details. Suddenly, Lolita-fashion as rebellion makes total sense. Lace! Buttons! Embroidery! Solids! Pleats! Clasps! Elaborately gathered skirts, crinolines, collars that could get a plane off the runway in a strong wind…. YES! This is fashion fetishism in a consistently designed, affectionate style.

Fasteners and stitches gone wild! Look at the care that goes into these clothes for the cover of Viz’ Volume 11! The buckles on Zero’s coat, the stitching on Yuri’s sleeves…

YES, THERE ARE DRESS UP PARTIES – how could there not be? Also, castles, and ballrooms, and long eyelashes on nearly everyone.

Hino knows EXACTLY what a vampire romance should have, and she delivers with a style that shows great fashion talent and dedication. I see why this is popular! And I understand why there are multiple art books and a sequel.

Be careful of the fan wiki at vampireknight.fandom.com, because it is filled with spoilers, even though it will help you keep track of the characters. (There are lots of blonde men with similar names, but the explanations also tell you their fates!)

I’ll now resume reading the next volume to see what our overdressed heroine, whose big heart still burns for both men, and whose giant weapon can collapse conveniently to fit into a purse, does next…

P.S. A week or so later, at the end of volume 19: Oh! There is a lot of action (fighting, assassinations, explosions) in this series! It’s difficult to keep the peace between humanoids with such different powers and lifespans, especially since some of the vampires get violently ambitious. Major conflicts between the different factions, which complicate our heroine’s romantic relationships, are based in the struggle to keep certain vampires from abusing their special abilities. Note: I got emotional on the very last pages, which means the characters really meant something to me. (Awwwww! This really is bittersweet! I didn’t expect to be so moved.) I really did enjoy this well written, well-paced, gorgeously illustrated, action-packed story.

Book: Mermaid Saga, Volume 2, by Rumiko Takahashi

Mermaid Saga, Volume 2
by Rumiko Takahashi
published in English by Viz
2021

Yuta, the man who ate mermaid flesh and gained unwanted immortality, is tired of having those around him wither and die of old age – he wants a cure. Mana, whom Yuta freed from her lifelong imprisonment, has no one in this world, and her childhood in captivity failed to prepare her for life of any length.

This second volume of stories from Takahashi continues the adventures of this unlikely, very attractive pair, as they seek a non-self-destructive solution to Yuta’s problem, and encounter others who either seek immortality or suffer from it. These stories are dark: obsession, betrayal, failed suicides-by-mermaid-flesh, greed, unwillingness to let go of loved ones, failed efforts at raising the dead, and the inevitability that seriously evil people would gain immortality and terrorize mortals around them for centuries….

The Viz Collector’s Edition includes color pages with cover art from individual issues, and their just LOVELY.

Why I like it: Yuta is fundamentally kind-hearted, and wants to help others, even though it entangles him and Mana in many dangerous (and interesting!) dramas; Mana develops an innocent and adorable loyalty to him.

Takahashi draws these characters with FANTASTIC hair, extra-shiny eyes, and lovely details – the old people look really crinkly, their expressions are very expressive, the monsters have bulging, distressing eyes, her fabrics and buildings are always so well observed and rendered. Her slightly industrial coastal fishing towns ring very true; she manages to include many lines suggesting the flow of water in so many subtle ways…

Takahashi is famous for her comedies, such as Ranma 1/2, but these stories show that she has a serious side, and sees that humans have the capacity for terrible behavior. The goodness of our hero balances what could otherwise be a dark world view, while still showing that being good in the human world takes determination and real effort.

Viz produced a beautiful collection, and being able to have all of the stories in just two convenient volumes, with lovely color covers, color inserts for the individual issue colors, and some other splashes inside, makes following the story easy AND a pleasure.

Yuta and Mana’s fate is undecided at the end of this volume, as you would expect for unintended immortals, which feels RIGHT. I’m so glad I have this, and am delighted I was able to get this collection so soon after its publication in English!

Book: The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

The Stone Sky, book three of the Broken Earth Trilogy
by N. K. Jemisin
published by Hachette, New York
2017

I finished this BRILLIANT trilogy, which I enjoyed as an audio book read by the extremely talented Robin Miles, and have taken a few days to really reflect on it.

The writing is excellent, and I’m admiring it technically before getting to gush about the story. It is brilliantly paced; the introduction of narration by a key character in the second volume opened a path for some brilliant development of Stone Eater themes in this volume; and the development of various parallel storylines makes this volume feel VERY high stakes. I’m just floored by the talent it took to lay out this story so skillfully! This is what I’ve been dwelling on – not just this book as a standalone, but how it fits so WELL with the other books, while still feeling like a distinct yet internally consistent part of one story. This is just such a great structure, and is so well put together… I’m awed.

Story: This third volume continues following Essun, who has lived multiple lives in her way, as she attempts to save the unstable, constantly quaking, ash-covered world. She has already experienced life detours, tried to start afresh in new locations and under new guises, lost and regained hope of ever reuniting with her lost daughter, found community, survived attacks, killed with her powers, and taken on some friends/followers with ambiguous motivations. Despite how cruel the planet and the people on it both have been to her, she is determined to save the world, using ancient technology and her newfound abilities to use that technology to do it. The task at hand feels impossible, but she’s already practiced doing a seemingly impossible thing, and has been growing in skill and perception. And her adoring Stone Eater is by her side. (I love that character, and its affection for her!)

Working against her is her own daughter, whose absolute child’s belief in extreme right and wrong has already turned deadly, and is ready to end it all – not her life, but human life across the world. And she has allies of her own…

Why I like this trilogy: it’s got the perfect depth in its world-building; the way the planet’s past is revealed is perfect – I had thought some of the knowledge had been lost forever, and to have it revealed after I’m already deeply attached to the characters, and have it be a drama unto itself, was SO EXCITING I couldn’t stop listening; the technology that is present is used at just the right level – it is an enabling device, never a crutch; the technology is both a benefit and a threat, which is so true to the nature of technology generally; Essun’s world-weariness feels so right, as does her stubborn determination to see things through; the people in the world have their own motivations, flaws, and strengths — no one feels like a drop-in generic type; the descriptions of how things feel (without getting down to some crazy level about the types of screws used) is quite successful…

The build up to the story’s resolution is great; I have favorite characters, and had creepy feelings in scenes with the villains (who also evolved in their way); there were a great ratio of relatively calm moments to crises or surprises (at one point, a character has a cup of Saf(e) that turned a color and I freaked out completely, because I had context they didn’t); travel on foot took a long time, AS IT SHOULD; the ultimate patterns of humans fearing other humans and establishing castes and bigotries and exploitation felt true to human nature; and this is just a ripping yarn. It glided along, and I was at the edge of my seat for exactly the right amount of time to feel stimulated rather than exhausted.

N.K. Jemisin wrote a fantastic trilogy in a world that I found compelling, with great characters, ideal pacing, and tantalizing ways of revealing how things worked, and I zealously recommend it.