pjhstudios blog

Recent reads


Some thoughts on the books I’ve read over the past two weeks:

1. [easyazon-link asin=”0385533853″]Robopocalypse: A Novel, Daniel H. Wilson[/easyazon-link] – a fast paced science fiction thriller, where, in the future, mankind’s robots rebel. Told from the perspective of a handful of characters, Robopocalypse begins Archos gaining sentience and killing his master. From there, a violent, dystopian uprising occurs. Themes of survival, humanity, redemption and evolution occur throughout. If you read a lot of sci-fi, you’ll notice similar elements–cold, logical robots, hacking, cybernetics, etc. It’s already been optioned by Spielberg for a movie.

2. [easyazon-link asin=”0571160565″]Lord of the Flies, William Golding[/easyazon-link] – Somehow, I got out of high school not reading this, the tale of how a group of boys descend into savages on a remote island. Symbolism abounds as the story progresses–Christ figures, society, morals, rational logic, rules. I found myself annoyed by what Golding captures well–the constant squabbaling of young boys, particularly over the same few things and specifically the damn conch.

3. [easyazon-link asin=”B003VYBEK2″]Escape From Cubicle Nation, Pamela Slim[/easyazon-link] – What gives Slim’s book more weight is the fact that she’s done it, and provide concrete steps to overcome fears. Getting ideas, fleshing them out, how to test them, how to figure out the finances, how to live. She quotes other experts a great deal and provides relevant anecdotes–good and bad. More can be found at Escape from Cubicle Nation.

4. [easyazon-link asin=”0399157506″]The Book of Even More Awesome, Neil Pasricha[/easyazon-link] – Appreciate life, and be grateful at all the things that there are to enjoy. This is the second book that collects Pasricha’s blog, 1000 Awesome Things. [easyazon-link asin=”0425238903″]The Book of Awesome[/easyazon-link] and The Book of Even More Awesome serve well as coffee table books, or books you pass around and read aloud with friends–they’re meant to be shared.

5. & 6. [easyazon-link asin=”140122430X”]DMZ Vol. 7: War Powers[/easyazon-link] & [easyazon-link asin=”1401227260″]DMZ Vol. 8: Hearts and Minds[/easyazon-link], Brian Wood – Continuing the story of Matty Roth, reporter in the war zone that is Manhattan, War Powers has Roth acting as recently elected Delgado’s right hand man to seek out gold in Chinatown. Roth realizes he’s a pawn, and isn’t as independent as he wishes to be. This leads to Roth bargaining his position of power with Delgado, leading to Hearts and Minds, where Roth begins to use his new found political power with great consequence. The consequence–Roth doesn’t know how to wield power responsibly and ends with one wondering, are there any good guys?

7. [easyazon-link asin=”0877881383″]The Creative Call, Janice Elsheimer[/easyazon-link] – Similar to [easyazon-link asin=”1585421472″]Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way[/easyazon-link] with weekly chapters of personal creative growth, albeit with a Christian perspective. There are still the daily journaling exercises, weekly tasks to focus on, but Elsheimer includes Christian scripture. This would be a good book for churches who’d like to take a different look at spirituality.

8. [easyazon-link asin=”1935597035″]Crossing, Andrew Fukada[/easyazon-link] – Xing Xu is a Chinese born immigrant living in small town New York, feeling the awkwardness of being a teenager and the critical eye of an immigrant. Mysterious disappearances begin occurring around town and Xing investigates. It’s a brief, haunting and chilling novel as we witness Xing struggle to fit in and find acceptance. Sparse descriptive prose lead to a heartbreaking ending.

Review: The Terror by Dan Simmons


Terror by Dan Simmons

Dan Simmons attempts to write a supernatural, horror, historical novel version of Moby Dick. Where Melville’s monster was an albino whale stalking Ahab’s Pequod, Simmons conjures up a mythical beast that roams the Arctic Circle slowly picking off the crew of the HMS Terror and Erebus frozen in ice. And like Moby Dick, Terror plods along much too long with unnecessary plot lines and characters that only serve to let the author discuss themes.

Evolution? Check! Nihilism? Check! Absurd 19th century social mores? Check! Evil white man? Check! Noble savage? Check! Alcoholism? Check! Environmental concerns? Eskimo mythology? Betrayal? Love? Cannibalism? Check! And so much more.

What works well within the novel is the depth in which Simmons describes life aboard a Royal Navy ship and what it takes to run it. Using the ill-fated John Franklin expedition, in search for the Northwest Passage as a backdrop, each chapter is told from a crewman’s perspective, with the main character being Captain Francis Crozier. The novel begins mid story and chapters go back and forth into the past (of the expedition, characters lives) to tell how the crew got to its absolutely depressing point.

Pointedly, men die as the novel progresses, in numerous ways. And like the unbearable cold of the Arctic, this tone doesn’t let up. Give us something to hope for, as there’s not much. Like most horror stories, what can go wrong whether it be from sheer character stupidity or the horrific force bearing down upon the characters, will go wrong in Terror. You have to wonder, is anyone intelligent or gives a damn enough to live?

The blend of historical fiction and horror works, however, the unnecessary diversions to draw out themes bloats the story. Melville used an entire chapter on cetalogy, the study of whales. Simmons uses a sermon about Jonah being swallowed by a great fish. There’s a crewman who plays the human villain, who is a homosexual, while there’s a chief crewman who’s also a homosexual who feels like a token character to balance out the other. At one point, Crozier suddenly gains supernatural abilities himself, when there was no inkling that he had them at all. This feels forced.

And then there’s the end, which feels forced, pulled out of nowhere to create a happy ending. Sure, we don’t know what happened to the crew of the Terror and Erebus, more than likely they all froze to death, but their descent into unintelligent-able madness seems a disservice.

Books , , , , , Comments Off on Review: The Terror by Dan Simmons

Review: Tina Fey – Bossypants


Tina Fey brings clever wit and charm to her memoir, Bossypants that tells of her growth as a creative individual. This creative individual is also a confident woman, business woman, mother, daughter, wife, keen and self aware of the life she lives. All these roles culminate as she recounts the perfect storm of getting Oprah to shoot a scene for 30 Rock, play Sarah Palin for the first time on SNL and pull of her daughter’s third birthday, complete with pirate cake. The lessons she learned from her father, Lorne Michaels, traveling with Second City and running a neighborhood theater kept her together for those crucial few days.

Bossypants brings a female perspective to the creative industry that reads well, and insightful. One interesting passage is her photoshoot for Bust magazine, and she expounds on her feelings towards Photoshop. Fey understands its purpose when used appropriately–enhance images for publication, and recognizes when it crosses the line to distort reality.

It’s knowing those lines, where Fey excels at sharing in a self-deprecating style that makes they key part of an issue relevant.

Books , Comments Off on Review: Tina Fey – Bossypants

Review: Looking for Calvin and Hobbes – Nevin Martell


Nevin Martell writes reverently of Bill Watterson in

Looking for Calvin and Hobbes. The far reaches that Martell goes to find out who Bill Watterson really was, took him into the world of cartooning and going into the depths of Bill Watterson’s past. Numerous cartoonists were interviewed: Jim Davis, Bill Amend, Lynn Johnston, Stephen Pastis and many others. Martell even tracks down childhood friends, teachers, professors and business associates.

He tells of Watterson’s growth as an illustrator doing political cartoons to transitioning full time to a start up strip to Calvin and Hobbes becoming the social behemoth it was on the comic pages. Over the course of this history, Watterson was serious about his craft, cartooning and his characters. So serious that he disputed with his syndicated, threatening to walk about when his contract was renewed. Watterson despised the commercialism and licensing that pervaded comics, and how syndicates controlled the market, with papers keeping old, stale comics alive with artists filling in after a creator had passed on.

But there’s a richness to this story, seeing where characters originated, whether from family or friends to ideals Watterson held dear, which came out in his comics. Martell traces Calvin and Hobbes’ influence to later artists, and while near universal praise is given to Watterson, many still don’t get why he walked away.

Looking for Calvin and Hobbes is an in depth portrait of a man many grew up with, that shunned the spotlight. Well sourced, nuanced and detailed it reads easily, and sometimes it comes across too attached.

While reading, Martell captured what I missed about the strip and what made it unique, and what Watterson brought to the funny pages.

Books , , , , Comments Off on Review: Looking for Calvin and Hobbes – Nevin Martell

Swamplandia – Karen Russell


Karen Russell’s
Swamplandia! feels like a collection of short writing exercises that were combined to form some sense of a novel. The prose is colorful, descriptive and imaginative, so much it reaches eccentric, teetering on contrived to tell a story of innocence lost.

The Bigtree clan lives on an island within the Ten Thousand Islands, running a theme park, Swamplandia!, showcasing live alligator performances. Twelve year old Ava Bigtree narrates portions of the book with a voice reminiscent of Scout, from To Kill A Mockingbird. Ava tells of the death of her mother, Hilola, to cancer that causes the eventual breakdown of the family. Ava’s sixteen year old sister, Osceola, deals with the death inward, finding a book of spells and begins to date a ghost and takes off to marry the ghost in the Underworld. Her father, whom she calls Chief, operates in grand fashion and hyperbole as if everything is fine, disappearing to the mainland to seek investors. Ava’s older brother, Kiwi, aware of the family’s financial circumstances, leaves to get a job on the mainland at a rival theme park.

About a third of the way through the book, Russell switches perspective from Ava’s innocent first person voice, to a third person observer of Kiwi’s work at the World of Darkness. The novel then jumps back and forth between Ava and Kiwi, where Ava’s story descends into uncomfortable horror with a figure named Bird Man and Kiwi’s ascends unbelievably to becoming a pilot for a theme park attraction. Both lose their innocence of the world both emotionally, intellectually and physically.

Russell employs symbolism to some effect. Ava hatches a lone alligator, born scarlet red, that plays a crucial role with Bird Man and her own innocence. Osceola’s descent into depression is the Underworld, and The World of Darkness is Kiwi’s lack of knowledge.

All this builds to an unbelievable convergence of plot lines that ties up too well. Throughout, as a reader, you can’t help but know things that the characters don’t. At times this is clever, at times it feels cruel. Swamplandia! is an enjoyable read if you’re comfortable with a high wire act of colorful prose and gothic eccentricity.

Vanishing America – Michael Eastman


Michael Eastman’s book, 51wxP7WbngL._SL160_.jpg
Vanishing America, is a warm, visual elegy to small town America and vintage pop culture. Theaters, signs, stores and other everyday interactions are shown in rich detail with saturated colors. The collection is curated across 10 sections: theaters, churches, hangouts, doors, signs, stores, services, automobiles, hotels and restaurants.

Each section is reverent to its subject matter. Where some photographers would show decay and the end of life, Eastman focuses on bringing the subjects to life, preserving them as a visual time capsule. Even those subjects that appear derelict, such as the doors and signs, they don’t feel cynical. Theaters, hangouts, signs and automobiles receive the most in depth portraits. From section to section, the subject matter transitions well. From the secular to the things that lead us there and back to the places where we converge, Eastman sees where socialization and relating to others occurred.

Brinkely’s introduction is poetic, describing how Eastman found beauty in decay.

Of note, as reverent as Eastman is towards his subject matter, his book was printed in China. Perhaps this bit of irony escaped the process or the publisher had no choice, or market forces determined the outcome much like the small towns have fallen to.

Art, Books , , Comments Off on Vanishing America – Michael Eastman

Designing a Photograph – Bill Smith


Designing a Photograph: Visual Techniques for Making Your Photographs Work by Bill Smith takes a designer’s view of to a photograph. Visually, what makes something interesting or engaging, and apply it to a photograph. Smith makes the argument of knowing how to pay attention to groups of visuals. These visuals include:

  • Figure ground
  • selective focus
  • similar color
  • closure
  • continuation
  • similar size and shape
  • similar texture
  • object proximity

The book includes exercises for the reader to perform (shoot in bursts, look at a subject a variety of different ways). Later in the book, Smith details when black and white works better or if color is optimal. Consider contrast and tones and how light affects both.

Images do have f stop and lens information for those curious of technical details.

Designing feels dated, even for 2001, retaining sample images taken with Kodachrome. Kodachrome is dead, and even in 2001 was gasping its final breaths. Ignoring that, applying a designer’s eye to photography can help tremendously with composition and achieving the desired impact.

The Cypress House by Michael Koryta


The Cypress House by Michael Koryta blends the supernatural with noir in a southern gothic, depression era binding. Arlen Wagner and Paul Brickhill were headed to the Florida Keys by train to work on Depression era public works projects when Wagner, a weary WWI vet, sees death in the eyes of those on the train. Convincing Paul to step off the train, they meet up with a local, Walt Sorenson, who gives them a ride to Rebecca Cady’s Cypress House. There, a series of events entangles Arlen, Paul, Rebecca with local, corrupt towns people. During these events, Arlen struggles with his supernatural abilities.

The three main characters, Paul, Rebecca and Arlen, all have developed back stories, each related to the era, where people sometimes had to do less than more things to survive. Those actions had more to do with survival, believing in yourself so you could live to be a better person. Arlen’s struggle with his ability, and his past, signify this.

The Cypress House reads well, especially the first half, and the last 60 pages told in pouring rain as Arlen makes his way through the backwoods and bayous is gripping.

The Zen of Social Media Marketing – Shama Kabani


The Zen of Social Media Marketing by Shama Kabani

primes people for how to use online social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, blogs and more. It’s mainly introductory, best suited for someone who’s new to social media. She takes old marketing strategies and shows how social media uses them online — attract, transform and convert.

Kabani breaks down:

  • Websites, Blogs, and SEO (search engine optimization) – fresh, relevant content is where it’s at.
  • Facebook – more of a breakdown of the different parts of Facebook
  • Twitter – what it is, and how to have conversations
  • LinkedIn – professional networking online
  • Video – various video mediums online, more than just You Tube
  • Social media policies – you should spell out the rules of use

She pulls out key learning points as Zen Moments. Each chapter contains relevant anecdotes from people who have applied the concepts, and the last part of the book tells of numerous case studies of how people used social media as a whole for success.

Kabani knew this book would become dated, so she encourages people to go to her website for updated content… and enter a password to do so.

If you’re digitally savvy, you can pass on this book. If you’re not, and need to get online, this will be a good start.

The Tao of Photography –


Tao of Photography: Seeing Beyond Seeing by Philippe L. Gross, S.I. Shapiro applies Zen concepts to photography, interspersed with quotes and anecdotes from photographers that were well known for their visionary approach to what they took pictures of. Each section contains principles, applications of the principles and suggested assignments one can do to apply the principles.

The biggest takeaways from the book are the principles of Great Understanding and Little Understanding. The former refers to the unconscious and receptive nature of self. In photography this applies to composition and feeling of the subject. Little Understanding focuses on the small and immediate, this being tools and equipment available to a photographer. You need both in photography. Often, photographers focus solely on gear and techniques that they forget to seek out something larger in their work.

One way to seek something larger, to filter out unnecessary details, is to constantly discriminate to see the most basic, essential aspects of a photographic vision. Discriminating is not the same as being critical. You actively choose what is needed, not why it’s not needed.

I’d definitely recommend this book to understand a different creative approach. The quotes from famous photographers and personal stories are insightful.