Alone Forever: The Singles Collection by Liz Prince (2014)

, 29 Nov 2014

Alone Forever is a short book containing a selection of auto-biographic self-deprecating comic strips by Liz Prince about her dating life, or lack of, and how she is, lives and relates to people, men (and cats) in general.

Liz is a bit of tomboy in ways of relating, always hanging out with boys, and dresses very boyishly. Despite being taken for a lesbian often, she is very much straight and looking for love. She is a bit neurotic, vengeful, confused, loving, loyal, funny, nerdy, and magnetically attracted to cute bearded guys wearing strange bands T-shirts. The comic strips depict how she relates to the opposite sex, how she flirts, and how she dates. My favourite pages are those devoted to the narration of the dates she got with guys she met through the dating site OK Cupid. 

The drawing style is a bit sketchy, even childish, very charming, very e-zine in a way. Still, some of her images are really beautiful and great.The strips are very short, the longest occupies a page, so the degree in which they engage the reader varies. I found myself reading out loud at some of the strips, or just feeling in love with the version of Liz that Liz has created for the reader.

I recently read Jeff Brown's "Clumsy", and I found that Liz's and Jeff's have very similar books and ways of narrating. Although they are the flip side of the coin and of each other, they share the fact that they are not archetypal man and woman in their romantic relationships.

This is a very entertaining and engaging book, and I read it in a sitting. Once ends loving Liz and wishing her lots of love!

Science Tales: Lies, Hoaxes and Scams by Darryl Cunningham (2014)

, 27 Nov 2014

Take the style of Michael Moore's documentaries and old TV Shows, mix it with the explanatory style that you find in TED Animated Shorts on various scientific subjects, put it in comic form, add some personal graphic style. Voila! You have Science Tales. 

Science Tales is a book on what science does, how it does it, and why it is a reliable method of understanding and explaining the world. It is also a book on what Science is not. More importantly, it is a book on the importance of critical thinking to deal with any scientific or Fringe Science issue. His approach would also be valid for subjects that are not scientific, like History, or TV watching, for example.  

The themes discussed in Science Tales are: Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), homoeopathy, the case of Andrew Wakefield and the anti-vaccination nonsense, chiropractic, the landing on the moon hoax, fracking, climate change, evolution, and science denial. 

Cunningham  makes two terrific points in his foreword, which will help you to understand the way and passion he invests in explaining the themes discussed in the book:
"What it isn't is a book promoting a scientific elite whom must all follow, sheep-like. It is the scientific process itself in promoting here, not the scientific establishment, who are just as capable of being fraudulent, corrupted by politics and money or just plain wrong as any group of humans engaged in any activity [...] Science isn't a matter of faith or just another point of view. Good science is testable, reproducible, and stands the test of time. What doesn't work in science falls away, and what it remains is the true."

Cunningham is a passionate author and graphic artist and you can feel that when you read Science Tales. He has the virtue of digesting scientific information that can be difficult to understand (all the fracking issue or the way genetic selection works for example) and present it in a visual and textual way that is easy to understand by anybody, a child in high school or your great-grandma.

I love Cunningham graphic style. It is very simple and schematic, a bit cubist!, but he has an amazing sense of colour and of aesthetics. Each chapter has a a different scheme colour that goes perfectly with the theme at hand. I always love such visual mindfulness! And some of the vignettes are very humorous as well. One of the things I did not like in the illustrations is when he inserts retouched or filtered digitalised images, which work well visually in some cases but not in others. Cunningham could have perfectly drawn those images himself, and the final result would have been more harmonious visually. 

Cunningham says that the reason why he choose the themes he discuses in his books is they were hot topics on any science blog or podcast when he wrote it. That is, they were mainstream topics of discussion. To me, that is one of the flaws of the book, that there is little that you would learn or have not heard of when reading the book as there are plenty of documentaries, scientifically backed, on some of the issues that Cunningham discusses. Why not focusing on other scientific topics that are less known to the masses? For example, how Statistics and are used to manipulate mass opinion, create false opinions and perceptions of the reality of certain social, cultural or ethnics groups. Or the use of psychology at the stock market to put down whole nations speculating on supposedly scientific mathematical/economical evaluations. What about the use of quantum physics to explain New Age religious stuff? What about magic diets backed up by doctors, which turn to be really damaging? Just giving some ideas, Cunningham!  

Also, using an episode of Mythbusters as a scientific reference defeats his own purpose or being, well, very scientific. Come on, hello hello, can't you see that?!Still, this is a very educative enjoyable book.

I am quite happy with the rendering of the book for Kindle. It is easy to read, the page to move around, zoom in and out. 

The Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire (2012)

, 17 Nov 2014

The Underwater Welder is a black and white fiction graphic novel that focus in the strange circumstances surrounding the life of 33y.o. Jack Joseph --an underwater welder who works in a rig--, and her expecting wife Susie. The accidental finding of an old forgotten childhood watch and an accident happened during a rutinary shift will bring Jack to question reality, his present and his past. 

Jack loves working and diving because down there he gets the solitude he craves, he is alienated from his mother and progressively alienated from his wife, whose most basic needs he finds difficult to tend to as the same pace that his mental confusion grows. He is obsessed with the death of his father, who died at his same age, in the night of Halloween, and sees progressively identified and mixed with his father's memory and "ghost". The isolated inhospitable rugged shores of Nova Scotia are a perfect setting for this intriguing novel.

The novel  has many of Lemire's themes and characters archetypes also present in other of his works: the role of memory in your present life, the thin line separating past and present in people's memories and emotions, lonely alienated characters who want to connect emotionally but are progressive frustrated by their lack of success at doing so, the line the separates reality from non reality.

The novel also shows again Lemire's drawing mastery and graphic versatility to convey into images stories and situations that are far from easy or straight forward to depict. Also common to Lemire are his wonderful landscape composition, and the framing and composition of his vignettes.

The novel reads easily and with gusto, and is very intriguing. However, it has a predictable ending that you can sense from half way the novel. Perhaps the tempo of the novel should have been different and some of the information provided at the beginning omitted so the reader would have had less clues to unveil the mystery. Having said so, the story is intriguing enough and odd enough to keep you interested. The characters are well sketched psychologically, especially Jack, although sometimes the reader, or at least me, wanted to know more about Susie.

The undersea images are great, specially having into account that they are drawn in black and white. Also great is the graphic depiction of the progressive mental alienation of Jack and his almost-oneiric and trippy living in his deserted town.
It is amazing how our brains can create all kind of ways of avoiding the truth

 A very enjoyable reading overall.

(Collected) Essex County by Jeff Lemire (2012)

, 15 Nov 2014

Essex County is a critically-acclaimed multi-award graphic novel chosen as one of Top 5 Essential Canadian Novels of the Decade. The Collected Essex County compiles three different separated volumes revolving about the lives, present and past of the same characters living in Essex County (Ontario) Canada: Vince, an ex-hockey player and his brother of Lou Lebeuf, also an ex-hockey player and tram driver who is in a age care asylum; Lester, a weird orphan kid and her uncle farmer Mr Kenny, and nurse Annie Quenneville.

Book 1 (Tales from the Farm), follows the friendship of Lester with Vince and his alienation from his uncle. Book 2 (Ghost Stories) tells the story of demented deaf Lou, who mixes past and present in his head; most of the story is set in Toronto in the 1950s. Book 3 (The Country Nurse) tells us the story of the nurse's grandma, and of the nurse's daily life. The book ends with some bonuses, the graphic story of the Essex Country Boxing Club, the mini-biography of The Sand and Lonely Life of Eddie Elephant-Ears and other scrap drawings.

Lemire's talent shines bright in Essex Country for many reasons. This graphic novel has the masterly of a talented painter, the atmosphere of classic movies,  a good character creation (both in imagery and psychology), engaging narrative and stories, undeniable and genuinely Canadian themes, but also a universal way of depicting the human heart.

There is something in the characters that speaks to all of us, because they are not heroes, not even anti-heroes - just "normal". It is their humanity and loneliness but their  willingness to connect. They are all lonely struggling people, alienated from their families, emotionally depleted or starved, hard working, down to earth. They are not handsome characters, they are tough looking, edged and angular in their bodies and facial features. Real life people, with big noses, small lips, elephant ears, and cracked hands.
The novel offers a post-modern multi-voice inter-connected story set in rural Canada, which will speak to both Canadian and non-Canadian readers. At a narrative level, his multi-voiced approach is far from new or innovative, but it works well for the story.

Lemire's black and white is glorious, his landscape compositions are simple but marvellous, his use of shadows masterly, as well as his depiction of snowy and night landscapes. The framing and POV of the images is very dynamic and cinematic and the pages flow with ease. Lemire's vignettes in this book are not just squared or have the same size or shape, making every page interesting per se, sometimes cosily crowded, sometimes minimal and tidy.

 I love the way Lemire composes some of his rural magical landscape images, sometimes a full-page image, some others a severed or slanted full page that allows the reader to focus on individual elements in the same image, while others the landscapes are semi-fractured images with different elements of action. Lemire can go from minimal composition and drawing, to the extreme detail with which he depicts the urban environment of Toronto in the 50s. His depiction of movement in sports is also fantastic, with the images on hockey playing really full of action and very dynamic visually.

I found most remarkable the way Lemire uses his versatile pen to visually describe how dementia feels in the mind of an elderly person, and how past and present are a fuzzy-line reality at times. Thus, the fully bodied tick black and white ink transforms into light pencil traces and sketched images, which allow the reader to dive into the same fuzzy territory that the  character does. 

The 500+ pages of Essex County are awesome. This is Comic with capitals, the sort of comic that you show to people who say that comics are for kids or freaks. The sort of comic lovers crave for. Lemire's talent and versatility are just wow.

Concise Oxford English Dictionary On CD-Rom by Oxford Dictionaries (2011)

, 3 Nov 2014

The CD Room is great. It is easy to install, runs smoothly, requires little Ram memory and opens and closes at a good speed. I love the choice between standard display (mostly black and white) and the high-contrast one (dark background, coloured text) which is perfect for people with poor sight, and the increase/decrease font size buttons. You can bookmark your favourite entries, listen to the pronunciation of the main words, and copy and/or print the text of any entry.

The Concise is very handy.The entries are basic but clear, right to the point, the phonetic transliteration uses the International system, as well as the etymology (origin) of the word and a list of derivative words.

My main disappointment with this product relies on the fact that, although we expect a concise dictionary to be, well, concise, we also expect something a bit more elaborate and detailed. For example, the derivative words are not in separate entries, the entries do not have any example of contextualized use of the words or derivatives (unless the use is problematic per se), and there is not phonetic transliteration or pronunciation of the derivatives. All of this are shortcomings to me.

With so many online free dictionaries online, some of the Oxford's included, one expects those for sale to supersede the online ones regarding the information and details they provide. Unfortunately, the Concise Oxford on CD-Rom falls a bit short. It is not that is bad, it is that it could be much better.

Still, the Concise is perfect for Secondary School students or for basic consultations and look-ups.

The reference section is available in a PDF format file, and it can be found by pressing the "help & other documents" button.

Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary (Collins Cobuild) by HarperCollins UK (2006)

I have had the Collins Advanced Learners Cobuild CD-Rom 2006 since it was launched. To the date, it is my preferred English Dictionary on CD and the best one for foreigners. I have barely used the hard copy because the CD is so good that it makes it unnecessary. This review is about the CD-Rom, not about the hard copy version.

There are so many reasons why I love the Collins Cobuild. If I had to be short, I would say it runs smoothly, it looks pretty, and the definitions are clear, simple and comprehensive.

The CD-Rom runs smoothly, it is fast and non-invasive in your computer's memory. You won't have the program hanging up or freezing ever. The only times I have re-installed it is when I have changed computer, and that is a lot to say for any software.

The blue, white and red interface is really elegant, pleasant, crisp and clear, and it can be customised by adjusting the font type an font size to your liking.
The definitions are clear, comprehensive, with different meanings and syntactic functions clearly shown and structured. Each definition or sub-definition comes with an example of use; if you need more, you press the WorldBank button and can find plenty of contextualised examples extracted from literary and non-literary texts. Moreover, British and American spellings and preferences are clearly shown, and many times the word comes with a synonym or antonym to better show the meaning. Each word comes with a native voice's pronunciation of the same (singular/plural and difference verb tenses), which is great for foreign students.

Extra features that I love are:
+ Copy and paste are available between the program and your Text or Word program.
+ You can create a personalised dictionary, yes! by adding words that are not in it. This is extremely helpful when you work with specific semantic fields with very specific vocabulary that you won't usually find in a general dictionary. Say, for example, mechanics, ecclesiastical terminology, sartorial language, etc. 
+ You can switch on/off the automatic pronunciation of each word.
+ You can choose whether you want the phonetics of the word shown or not.
+ You can record your own pronunciation of the word and compare it to the original. This is perfect for foreigners learning the language or just to have your best (native) friend pronouncing the words for you!

Things that I don't specially like are:
- The pop up feature, actually a reduction of the search area to a mini-window; you cannot switch to full display from there and have to close and reopen the program. Bummer!
- I don't like the phonetic transliteration system used as it is not the International phonetic system.

I use this CD-Rom all the time for personal and professional purposes and, eight years later I am still in love with it

Diccionario de la Lengua Española on CD-Rom by Real Academia de la Lengua Española (2003)

This is the wholee-guacamole of the Spanish dictionaries out there - to me.

The Real Academia de la Lengua Española (usually called RAE) is a pan-Hispanic institution of linguists, academics and writers that have been creating, modifying, enlarging, and updating this dictionary since the 19th century. Their dictionaries are "The" manual for anybody who makes of the use of Spanish their  profession, but also a must reference book in any household. This is not an "urban dictionary" or a "slang dictionary" so do not look for that sort of vocabulary here, but this your dictionary is you are an educated person, University person, teacher, linguist, translator, or a lover of the Spanish language.

Throughout the years, I have used many Spanish dictionaries, but I always come back to this one, because it gives me answers, it gives me an exhaustive collection of words, from those archaic or not much in use nowadays, to those just used in some regions of Spain, or in some countries in the Americas, to those I use in my daily life. I love the simple and understandable way the words are defined and put into context,  that the dictionary is pan-Hispanic, the top-notch etymology!

Having said so, this edition was launched more than 10 years ago, so one sees deficiencies and limited explanations of more modern words. However, the main deficiency is the CD-Rom's archaic software, which is really old and odd. Moreover, given the fact that the RAE's website offers consultation of the dictionary for free, one wonders why the pricing of the CD-Rom is so exorbitant?!

The good things about the CD version are:
> Fast opening and closing down,
> Easy to use interface.
> You can cut, paste and print without any hustle.
> The dictionary offers basic search (consulta básica), which is the one I usually use, but also a complex advanced research (consulta avanzada) that allows you to search for specific phonemes, morphemes or even backwards, among other options, which is perfect for linguists.

Among the deficiencies of the CD version, bear with me, the installation program is 10+ years old, so it is very rudimentary for modern standards. To start with, it does not self-install on insertion, you have to locate the install program and launch it. The visual design of the dictionary is bland and boring, with limited visual contrast. Moreover, many display options are not clearly visible, but only accessible via the settings like, for example,  the size and colouring of the text. On the other hand, you cannot change the display font, something that I always love. 

Let's rejoice, the new edition of the dictionary has been launched mid October 2014. We can only hope that the updated version of the dictionary and the CD will be as good as ever regarding contents,  but with an user-friendly up-to-date software CD-Rom.