Thursday, December 29, 2011

Scouring Books: Mother Night

Mother Night
by Kurt Vonnegut

originally published in 1962

One of Vonnegut's bolder literary visions involves an American who becomes a notorious Nazi. One of the things that helped Vonnegut become a seminal author of his time was that he wrote about memories he himself was still trying to process, such as the horrific bombing of Dresden (the central event of Slaughterhouse-Five), an episode of WWII few people generally thought about, then or now, actually.

Bookshelf status: unread

Scouring Books: The Sirens of Titan

The Sirens of Titan
by Kurt Vonnegut

originally published in 1959

As described on the back cover, "a novel shaped by the techniques of science fiction [that became] a major literary breakthrough," one of Vonnegut's earliest, published a decade before his seminal Slaughterhouse-Five (there's a myth many people believe that an artist always does their best work first).

Bookshelf status: unread

Scouring Books: Playboy to Priest

Playboy to Priest
by Rev. Kenneth Roberts

originally published in 1973

The true story of a man who was basically a modern St. Augustine (exact for all the brilliant thinking), as the title suggests, a rare instance of religious reading that I liked enough the first time from my mother's recommendation that I tracked it down years later to have in my collection.

Bookshelf status: read

Scouring Books: Frankenstein

by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

originally published in 1823

I read this in college for a science class (I guess as a cautionary tale, but it was easily one of my favorite classes regardless), which to my mind is something of a travesty, that it took me so long, because it's easily now one of my favorite books, so much richer than the Hollywood tradition (even with the underappreciated Branagh/De Niro version considered) would lead you to believe, not so much a horror story as a psychological thriller that still sets the standard almost two hundred years later. The version that provides this entry was published by Scholastic.

Bookshelf status: read.

Scouring Books: The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales
by Geoffrey Chaucer

Originally published in 1478

Perhaps the greatest pleasure I derived from studying literature in both high school and college was reading this classic collection of stories that tracked life in the Middle Ages, and I still don't believe for a minute that I know it half as well as I could. Chaucer is known as a father of English literature, and is certainly one of my great inspirations. This particular edition I'm listing here was originally published in 1964, and in this version was put out by Bantam. I've got others.

Bookshelf status: semi-read

Thoughts on And Another Thing...

When Harry Potter exploded a global literary phenomenon, American writers started coming out of the woodwork to have their piece of the pie, from Daniel Handler (a.k.a Lemony Snicket) to Rick Riordan (the Percy Jackson series). One of the international voices that joined the overwhelming flood of fantasy series catering to young readers was Eoin Colfer, who created Artemis Fowl, a rare antihero of the sub-genre. Because there were so many different series to choose from, the intended audience pretty much stuck with Harry, and most of them came very close to being entirely forgotten. Artemis Fowl was among them.

Thankfully, the quality of Colfer's writing wasn't overlooked, and he became the official successor to the late Douglas Adams as the chronicler of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which had begun as a radio program and eventually became a "trilogy" of five books, including Hitchhiker's Guide...; Restaurant at the End of the Universe; Life, the Universe and Everything; So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish; and Mostly Harmless. The books were a huge deal in my community growing up, though I confess that I didn't read them until later, so that I was confused at the locker at my high school that had a representation of "Milliways" painted on it, thinking some idiot surely must have misspelled "Milky Way." I don't remember when exactly I corrected my errors, except that I read an excerpt from the first book in full dramatic interpretation for an acting class during this period, maybe being a little too literal in how I pictured an apparently pathetic Arthur Dent facing down to the Viking-descendant whose bulldozer Arthur lay in front of.

Anyway, long story short, I became a fan, maybe not an obsessive fan, who couldn't bring himself to join the proto-wikipedia community dedicated to creating a real H2G2 on the Internet, but one who at least bought a copy of the BBC version and became an ardent supporter of the 2005 movie when seemingly no one else did. I became a bigger fan of Adams when I discovered Dirk Gently, and dedicated a part of my reading life to an obsessive quest for the Starship Titanic, which had been developed into a book by Terry Jones, which I finally read earlier this year.

I bought And Another Thing... on release, but because of that pesky Reading List, didn't read it right away. Most fans seemed to dismiss it as unworthy of the legacy, but I suppose I have a deep dark secret, in that I hardly remember the specific events of the original "trilogy" so much as having enjoyed them at the time, and I think that's much the point, that Adams didn't particularly care to create something memorable so much as enjoyable, since the stories are more cyclical than anything, repeating the same basic adventures while featuring the same cast of characters, who never really grow from episode to episode. L. Frank Baum discovered much the same conundrum in his series of Oz books (and yes there is a series), and I think Terry Pratchett, too, in that you can create a clever premise that people will readily devour entry to entry, and keep the flame alive, except that over time it becomes harder to sustain a living interest in the whole franchise. The one advantage that Adams has to Baum and Pratchett is that he wrote a small number of books that even in his lifetime were collected into a single omnibus edition.

That Colfer has now added to that collection is either a challenge for existing readers to embrace a new author to their beloved canon or a chance for the whole thing to start over again, since you can very easily read just the one book, And Another Thing..., without having read or lacking a clear memory of what you did, and experience just as much fun in the process as if you were trying to complete the saga, which as such doesn't necessarily exist as it might in any other writer's imagination. The Hitchhiker's Guide phenomenon has always been a farce, given that it centers on the rather overlooked fact that Earth gets destroyed and shouldn't that be a tragedy? but rather becomes the impetus to explore a comedy of manners, or rather lackthereof, and Colfer maybe even makes the sociopolitical overtones more blatant (though without spoiling the fun). In the end, the sixth book in this particular series ought to prove that all this nonsense wasn't a waste of your time after all, because isn't it all about a bunch of characters who somehow find deep meaning in the most absurd circumstances?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Reading List: And Another Thing...

And Another Thing...
by Eoin Colfer

As the jacket says, this 2009 release is the "sixth of three" in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, the first not to be written by the late Douglas Adams. Sometime after publication, And Another Thing... became controversial in the same way that the excellent 2005 film was considered, which is bullocks, and is only an issue for people who somehow believe that the H2G2 experience began and ended with Adams by some kind of necessity. Any creation outlives its creators (sorry God!); if it doesn't, then it's not really worth it, unless you believe in a solely first-person existence. In any case, I fully intend to enjoy this new installment, and hope that many more are to come.

Thoughts on The Island of the Day Before

Umberto Eco's Island of the Day Before is probably a book you should only read if you've got prior experience reading exploration literature such as Herman Melville or Robinson Crusoe, and it certainly helps to have a strong interest in philosophy, because Eco ends up spending most of his time exploring the deeper implications of Roberto de la Griva's experiences. It's not a story (or from an author) you will just be able to pick up, but is definitely worth the challenge. It ends up feeling like a time-stamp on the era of exploration, its beliefs, reasoning process, and acknowledgment that Eco believes even archaic ways are worth examining, can still be seen as fascinating.

I've heard from several friends that Eco is someone who seems to be more challenging than the average writer, and in truth, I hit a wall when reading this one, but muscled past it, since the story continually transformed to envelope new ways of understanding what the story's goals ultimately are. There's a whole subplot, for instance, involving a figment of Roberto's imagination, an evil twin named Ferrante who seems to fulfill many of Roberto's personal objectives, including a grand romance that serves as part of the method for which his story is relayed to the reader, through a narrator who is translating and condensing a journal that has been discovered from 1643, possibly by Captain Bligh.

I had originally believed that Island of the Day Before may in fact be an undiscovered antecedent to the TV series Lost, a modern-day version of the exploration narrative also found in The Odyssey, Gulliver's Travels, and others. In a way, maybe not the one I originally believed, this proved to be accurate. Both are interested in a fairly expansive view of the world, including a metaphysical one most people never really consider, even if they go about it in differing ways I will not go into here.

When I hit the wall, I believed that Eco was not actually the writer I believed him to be, and so decided I maybe wouldn't continue reading him. Chances are good that I will. This is an incredibly important writer.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Scouring Books: Experiencing God Day-by-Day

Experiencing God Day-by-Day
by Henry T. Blackaby and Richard Blackaby

originally published in 1998

I debated whether I should include something like this, an overtly religious denizen of my library (there aren't really that many, actually), especially something that describes itself as a devotional. Better to be honest, I decided, and let others make their own decisions.

Bookshelf status: unread

Scouring Books: Skipping Christmas

Skipping Christmas
by John Grisham

originally published in 2001

I sometimes wonder if popular fiction writers who tend to write in particular genres like Grisham aren't cashing in today at the expense of tomorrow. Even when he does something out of the ordinary like this modern parable about Christmas, does he really have the chance of it standing out years from now, after history may have reduced him to his most typical output?

Bookshelf status: unread

Scouring Books: The Pocket Treasury of American Folklore

The Pocket Treasury of American Folklore
edited by B.A. Botkin

originally published in 1944

American folklore is another passion of mine, something I picked up in childhood. One of the things I wonder about is whether or not kids these days have the chance to learn about this kind of thing, or if their attention has been directed elsewhere (notably with electronic gadgetry). Regardless, I'm always collecting books like this.

Bookshelf status: unread

Scouring Books: Grendel

by John Gardner

originally published in 1971

Based on the famous epic Beowulf, a story that can't fail to make some kind of impression on every student who reads it, this is one of those from-the-other-perspective tales that seeks to humanize an otherwise demonized individual. Gregory Maguire famously did the same thing with Wicked.

Bookshelf status: unread

Scouring Books: "Speaking of Inalienable Rights, Amy..."

"Speaking of Inalienable Rights, Amy..." A Doonesbury Book
by Gary Trudeau

originally published in 1976

Doonesbury is one of the more interesting comic strips, a purely political commentary that still manages to follow the basic troupes of the medium by including standard situations and recognizable characters so that there's a sense of continuity and familiarity, even though the real aim is...political commentary.

Bookshelf status: unread

Monday, December 12, 2011

Reading List: The Island of the Day Before

The Island of the Day Before
by Umberto Eco

originally published in 1994

One of my inclinations as a reader is to seek out writers who seem to be as interested in reading as I am, writers who've immersed their lives in the process of devouring all the interesting things that have been produced throughout the centuries. Some of those writers are pretty obvious (Peter Ackroyd, for instance, seems to write only about and with historical figures, both real and fictional), where others like Eco take a little time to discover. Eco is perhaps best known for The Name of the Rose, but he's one of those names that's kind of hard to ignore if you have any experience in a bookstore, one that sticks out, and whose books equally stand out. I've been meaning to read him for some time. This particular book was found in a sale at a library, and seemed to be remarkably imaginative, and to my mind almost like a literary version of the TV show Lost, even though it would be one of the few antecedents not to have been referenced at some point by the show's fans (or creators). All of which is to say, I'm pretty excited to dive into this one.

Thoughts on Isaac Babel

Having finished The Complete Works of Isaac Babel...I kind of have to say that it was an even more appropriate followup to reading Javier Marias' brilliant Your Face Tomorrow than I could have anticipated. So far as I know, I didn't make a conscious decision to place the one after the other, and even if I had...

Suffice it to say, but the legacy of Babel, or at least the impulses of his literary executors, seem to have the idea of "narrative horror" on the mind, stuck on the Kennedy-Mansfield scale. What matters most is that Babel was a victim of a repressive government, was murdered, and thus whatever else he might have done was robbed from our cultural history. The only problem here is that what he does leave behind may not actually suggest what it seems to.

I don't mean to piss off book enthusiasts (something I seem to do, in one form or another anyway, because I don't seem to readily agree with the critical canon, in whatever medium, and this pisses off those who do, who are if not a majority than at least the deciding minority, like an even more tyrannical version of OWS's 1%), but Babel may not be the treasure he appears to be. His Red Cavalry cycle, the work on which he made his name, is justifiably hyped to this day, but otherwise...he tended to write far more trivially, or to a very limited, native audience, than true literary genius ought to be considered to do. There is one particular anecdote from an aborted semi-autobiographical sequence wherein he relates how he was early on encouraged to "know nature," as it were, as if narrative detail is the only thing truly worth embellishing. I'm of the school, rather, that if you can't properly present the actual story, no matter of decoration is actually worth it. Those who argue that films are an inferior creative medium because they're less subtle fail to realize that they carry the same intrinsic values as the majority of literary output, though the same idiots will then argue that books challenge you to visualize whereas films force-feed imagery. Maybe I should count myself inferior to those who can truly have a good time picturing descriptive passages in their minds, but I would rather know what the story is actually trying to accomplish rather than trying to set a mood. A movie, like a painting, is better able to set a mood. A story on the written page is able to plunge deeper.

Babel was a writer who immersed himself into what he knew, and wrote at length about people he knew, and in that sense he was something of a folk tale weaver, like Hans Christian Anderson, except he tended to ground his stories in the harsh real world. He was praised for his "Odessa" cycle, which pivots around the gangster Benya Krik, but unlike Sacred Games , for instance, he fails to make anything interesting of it. He was too dependent on the short story form. That alone, and not because short stories are inferior to longer ones, disqualifies him from being the next great Russian voice, as his contemporaries believed, well before his tragic death. To then depend on that death in a suggestion that the world was robbed of a great voice is to put too much weight on a potential Babel himself scuttled long ago. He robbed himself of his own future when he insisted on remaining in Russia well after the point that it was clear bad things would inevitably happen to him for staying.

He fell in love with the social landscape, and that's what he wrote about, and that's why he could only write in short stories, in anecdotes, because that's how he saw the world. He wasn't one for the big picture. That's the real tragedy. He had potential and he decided to scuttle it all on his own, maybe on some bad advice early in his career, maybe because circumstances demanded it, but not because he didn't have a chance.

Babel's death doesn't really define him, his stories do. It's interesting that I had to read him to find that out, but it doesn't mean that I now find him to be anymore noteworthy than I did when I had to read someone else's far more intriguing writing (Travis Holland's The Archivist's Story), because in this case, the legend is the thing that ought to be printed. For anyone interested in the truth, now you know.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Scouring Books: The Girl Who Played with Fire

The Girl Who Played with Fire
by Stieg Larsson

originally published in 2006

The second installment in Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, possibly the reason why critics started to think the series would be more procedural and/or episodic than it apparently proved.

Bookshelf status: unread

Scouring Books: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
by Stieg Larsson

originally published in 2005

Part of the late Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, this was the start of a massive literary rage that has finally produced a Hollywood version (later this month), which for some members of the audience who'll care is significant (who doesn't like to see Christopher Plummer and Daniel Craig in a good film?). I worked at a bookstore during the massive crush of publication for these books, but never got around to reading them, even though there were certainly elements that intrigued me, especially the more I read about them and the supposedly disappointing final installment (and just when is Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest going to be released in paperback, anyway?), which seems to double-back on the central element of the story, that being Lisbeth Salander (the "girl" in each of the titles).

Bookshelf status: unread

Scouring Books: My Lost Mexico

My Lost Mexico
by James Michener

originally published in 1992

Actually, published the same year that his Mexico finally saw print. For someone who meticulously researched his subject matter, it's perhaps no big surprise that one of his forgotten manuscripts was eventually found, and that he still had plenty to say about it.

Bookshelf status: unread

Scouring Books: Rascals in Paradise

Rascals in Paradise
by James Michener and A. Grove Day

originally published in 1957

Michener originally made his name writing a book of stories that became the basis for the musical South Pacific, so it's no wonder that he periodically revisited the topic. This is another collection that features a number of individuals who made their mark there, including the infamous Captain Bligh from Mutiny on the Bounty.

Bookshelf status: unread

Scouring Books: Hawaii

by James Michener

originally published in 1959

At the clubhouse for my apartment complex, there's a residents library that I've periodically gotten books from, and that's how I ended up with my first Micheners (I recently obsessed over Texas, which I found at Goodwill one week, but didn't the next). This may be one of those important authors who may be in danger of being overlooked, once the initial excitement of his career has worn off. It just seems as if he's got a good vision of history. I may know more when I actually get around to reading him.

Bookshelf status: unread

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Scouring Books: The Final Days

The Final Days
by Barbara Olson

originally published in 2001

One of the reasons I describe myself politically as an independent is that it's often extremely difficult to tell the two American parties, the Democrats and Republicans, apart, especially when they're engaging in essentially the same behaviors while taking opposite positions on strategic issues. The one thing I can agree on is when their sniping against each other actually rings true (this is not always the case, though it's the gristle on which they invariably feed at election time). Bill Clinton's presidency was one of the more controversial ones in recent memory, not because of his policies, but because of his personal behavior, which at one point led to a sensational congressional impeachment due to his philandering, but actually ran much deeper, something that was parodied in the famous Primary Colors satire, his insatiable need to be the consummate politician, at any cost. Unfortunately, what this meant in a practical sense is that he felt obligated to engage in every political game, both the visible and invisible variety. Olson, who died on 9/11, wrote about how he concluded his presidency exactly as he'd operated all along. This is the man who is currently advocating a return to ethics, mind you...

Bookshelf status: unread

Scouring Books: In Hanuman's Hands

In Hanuman's Hands
by Cheeni Rao

originally published in 2009

The personal memoir has in recent years ballooned to such popular levels that anyone can find their lives infinitely fascinating to a public that otherwise would never have heard of them, and would never even have thought twice about caring, simply because people love reading about misery, whether or not redemption is involved. James Frey is perhaps an example of why this trend is not a good thing, and why I generally don't much care about it. Rao is probably not so different from any of the others, but he's got a twist worth my attention, his Indian (as in India) connection, a cultural context that's different from my everyday experiences, and so exploring his life is a way of exploring a different culture as much as following his particular problems. And that's pretty much all that can confidently be taken from a book like this, because otherwise it's clearly something that could easily have been extracted from a reality TV show, some poor unfortunate soul who makes good copy, is extraordinarily vivid and engaged in sensational events. So I basically read this one because it made a good story.

Bookshelf status: read

Scouring Books: The Accident Man

The Accident Man
by Tom Cain

originally published in 2007

I don't often tend to read popular fiction, the big names you can easily find at the supermarket or Wal-mart, and in a way, Tom Cain perhaps can't count among authors of that breed, because otherwise you'd immediately recognize the name "Tom Cain." But the good news is that popular fiction is so popular that there are writers who work in that field who probably write better than you'd expect.

Bookshelf status: unread

Scouring Books: Hoodlum Birds

Hoodlum Birds
by Eugene Gloria

originally published in 2006

This is a collection of poetry, which describes itself and poet Gloria on the back cover as exploring an interest "with the common man's search for connection to the self and to the world," which is what I've tried to do with my own poetry, and so coming across this book was just one of those fortuitous occasions I couldn't pass up. Poetry holds such a tenuous grip in the modern world it's always nice to find that it can hold personal relevance, that there are thinkers out there sharing the same impulses.

Bookshelf status: unread

Scouring Books: Willie Mays - The Life, the Legend

Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend
by James S. Hirsch

originally published in 2010

This was an advanced reader I spent a great deal of lunch breaks on, about one of the great baseball players I remember being interested in as a kid. Well, hey, Willie was the "Say Hey Kid"! Hirsch does a great job of exploring how exactly Mays became a beloved figure who somehow managed to completely elude the race issue, much to the chagrin of Jackie Robinson, becoming one of the most pure ballplayers of the past century, somehow still controversial because he seemed almost to never grow up. What's all the more remarkable is that Hirsch received Willie's approval for this book, which actually tends to make one wonder if he would have been a little more insightful if he didn't feel Mays always looking over his shoulder. Still, a great book for baseball fans, something I would even suggest that younger version of me check out.

Bookshelf status: read

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Scouring Books: The Calamity Papers

The Calamity Papers - Western Myths and Cold Cases
by Dale L. Walker

originally published in 2004

This is one of those rare books I have no idea how it ended up in my collection. All the same, I'm a sucker for these history trivia books. At some point, I'm just going to binge reading all of them, and it is going to be awesome.

Bookshelf status: unread

Scouring Books: Gun, with Occasional Music

Gun, with Occasional Music
by Jonathan Lethem

originally published in 1994

Lethem is an author I've been meaning to read since the release of The Fortress of Solitude, which reminded me of Michael Chabon's Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. He seems like a modern American writer who will still mean something in fifty years. Anyway, funny thing about this particular book is that I attempted to start a reading group and chose this as the first selection, never having read it (or having it at the time). Group never happened, but I found the book in one of Borders' even-cheaper-bargain sales. Serendipitous find!

Bookshelf status: unread

Scouring Books: Hector and the Search for Happiness

Hector and the Search for Happiness
by Francois Lelord

originally published in 2002

This was a great advanced reader I picked up while working at Borders, the English translation for a French fable about a psychiatrist who tries to figure out why all his clients are so miserable. As I understand it, Lelord recently wrote another book featuring Hector.

Bookshelf status: read

Scouring Books: Wizards anthology

Wizards - Magical Tales from the Masters of Modern Fantasy
edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois

originally published in 2007

One of those great finds in the even-cheaper periodic bargain sales Borders ran periodically; features stories from Neil Gaiman, Garth Nix, Eoin Colfer, Tad Williams, Peter S. Beagle, Gene Wolfe, Orson Scott Card, and others.

Bookshelf status: unread

Scouring Books: The Voyage of the Space Beagle

The Voyage of the Space Beagle
by A.E. van Vogt

originally published in 1950

This book came from my Book of the Month Club 2 (originally a different company altogether, but somehow bought by the original BOMC and renamed...BOMC2) membership, recently deceased, which helped me collect a ton of books over the past five years. It's a sci-fi classic I look forward to reading. As such...

Bookshelf status: unread

Monday, November 28, 2011

Reading List: The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel

The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel

I first became aware of Babel through Travis Holland's superb The Archivist's Story, which features the writer as a secondary character, whose sad fate is made witness and extrapolated into a great tragedy. I immediately sought out Babel's own work, but found it harder than I'd imagined. This was the best I could do, and it includes his "Red Cavalry" series. I seem to have laid out a series of world literature that deals with deplorable government without having planned it at all.

Your Face Tomorrow: Concluding Thoughts

"[Th]ere are some obligations that can't simply be unbuckled and discarded. That's why some are so difficult to buckle on in the first place and why others must be very firmly buckled on, so that there can be no turning back."

That, in essence, is what the seven parts and three volumes of Your Face Tomorrow are really about. On the surface, it is about Jacques Deza, struggling to conform to a new life and separation from his wife, becoming an interpreter and forming strange relationships, giving the reader a constant stream of observations. But it is really about obligations.

Deza is defined by his connections, whether to his estranged wife Luisa, or his boss Tupra, or his mentor Peter Wheeler, or to any of the numerous other attachments he makes throughout the narrative. His wife represents Spain, his home, while Wheeler represents England, his place of exile, and Tupra the grey area in-between, where Deza exists throughout the story, as he struggles to determine where he actually belongs; in short, where his true obligations lie.

We learn early on that his story is not really his own (and in that sense is the signal that Marias is taking much of his direction from Tristram Shandy, though in a more mature, deliberate way), that he defines much of what he is by the fortunes of his father and by the Spanish Civil War in general, that he learned very early that life is about observations, about reporting what you know, when prompted, but always observing. When he leaves home for the first time, he meets Toby Rylands, who becomes his first mentor. When he leaves home the second time, it's Peter Wheeler. When he leaves home the third, it's Tupra.

We learn how these relationships inform each other as the third volume unfolds, Wheeler's secret history, after Deza's idea of narrative horror has been explored. We have already learned that Wheeler and Rylands were brothers, that Deza owes his relationships with Wheeler and Tupra to Rylands, always a ghost, the most clear specter of the whole narrative, never actually present, only active in Deza's thoughts and Wheeler's reflections. Deza finds his way back to his own present through his abhorrence, his growing awareness of what life would be like if he retained the wrong obligations (the answer to Tupra's question in the second volume, why people can't just go around killing and hurting each other).

That Deza's life can be condensed to a few key incidents, some of which are not even his own, is the achievement of the whole work, the reason why it is so long, and written in the way it is, that most of it is a meditation, since that's the only reason the main character is relevant, because otherwise he is a coward, impotent, not in the least bit heroic, which is what most people expect from such characters. Yet his greatness is his expansiveness, his capacity to extrapolate the extraordinary from the mundane, to create a James Bond existence out of a life that for all intents and purposes has very little meaning (Wheeler, for the record, has a clear Bond connection in having served with Ian Fleming during WWII).

Marias has written perhaps a perfect novel, a version of Shakespeare for the 21st Century, when the role of kings has been replaced by survivors, not just of wars but their own narrative horrors.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Your Face Tomorrow: Continuing Thoughts

Having now completed the second volume of Javier Marias's masterful Your Face Tomorrow, Dance and Dream, I am more confident than ever in proclaiming it to be one of the great works of literature in this or any other age.

I have no doubt that a lot of people, were they to attempt reading it, would probably very quickly set it down again in disgust and confusion over the sheer amount of space Marias devotes to the narrator's thoughts, or continue reading and dull their reaction because they don't understand why it has been written in such a fashion. The truth is (and I say this not because this is the primary style of my own writing), this is exactly how literature should be, except most readers have spent their lives reading strictly journalistic descriptions of experiences rather than introspective, probing, expansive thought, the kind that Marias excels in expressing.

That is not to say that Your Face Tomorrow is completely unrecognizable, since it is familiar, in many senses. Having recently read a number of Roberto Bolano's books, I find much that I recognize from modern world literature, the kind that is deeply enmeshed with the memories of the past century, the atrocities too many civilizations have lived through. Some critics have alluded to Marcel Proust in the book's general ambition and existential nature, but Your Face Tomorrow is so much more than that. As Marias himself briefly mentions, there's a far more relevant example to draw from, Tristram Shandy (there is even a character named Toby, if you need a direct link), a book about a man trying to reflect on the experiences and associations that shaped his life. Like Shandy, the narrator, Jacques Deza, is constantly being sidetracked, although like several characters he always circles back around, which makes Marias more disciplined, more focused, than Laurence Sterne (who in fact didn't finish his book for all his meanderings).

Your Face Tomorrow is about observation, yes, but it's about infinite reflection, about a sensitive man trying to make sense of a world that often baffles such undertakings. It is exactly the kind of literature more people should read.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Scouring Books: Lone Star Justice

Lone Star Justice: The First Century of the Texas Rangers
by Robert M. Utley

Originally published in 2002; more than any other state in the Union, Texas boast of its rich origins as a proto-nation, so I've always been fascinated to study it. The rangers are one element that most people know about, but probably not half as well as they think, so this is an invaluable primer.

Bookshelf status: unread.

Scouring Books: Pop Goes the Weasel

Pop Goes the Weasel: The Secret Meanings of Nursery Rhymes
by Albert Jack

Originally published in 2008, this is, as its subtitle implies, an academic look at nursery rhymes, their historical origins and what they were originally intended to mean, making it intriguing cultural anthropology. There's more nursery rhymes included than I heard growing up, so there's all the more to learn.

Bookshelf status: mostly unread.

Scouring Books: The Informers

The Informers
by Juan Gabriel Vasquez

Originally published in 2004, the hook for me with this one isn't so much that it's another piece of international literature, but the subject matter of a writer who unexpectedly comes to some resistance from his own family.

Bookshelf status: unread.

Scouring Books: Miral

by Rula Jebreal

Originally published in 2010, this was the basis for the Freida Pinto film that received only negative attention from American critics, mostly because it dealt with the tricky topic of the Israeli/Palestinian divide while appearing to take the "wrong" stance. As a cultural study, I have every interest in such material, no matter its interpretations.

Bookshelf status: unread.

Scouring Books: The Cloud of Unknowing

The Cloud of Unknowing
by Thomas H. Cook

Originally published in 2007, this was a fairly popular book, a classic mystery/thriller with strong elements of literary fiction that helped set it apart, and so was hard for me to overlook, and so I had to eventually add it to my collection, even though at the time I wasn't reading such books with any kind of regularity.

Bookshelf status: unread.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Scouring Books: The James Bond Files Volume 1

The James Bond Files Volume 1
(Casino Royale, Moonraker, Live and Let Die)
by Ian Fleming

Originally published in 1953-55, these are the first Bond books (having been endorsed by Javier Marias in Your Face Tomorrow, they now have an official litarary pedigree for me, but I had this collection before I found that out), which didn't become popular reading material until the films began being made, but even then, I'm not sure many have actually read them, which is certainly a little strange. I'm glad to have at least some of them in my collection.

Bookshelf status: unread.

Scouring Books: Mockingjay

by Suzanne Collins

Originally published in 2010, this is the conclusion to the Hunger Games trilogy. Part of why these books became so popular is that everyone began to realize they were at least better-written than Stephenie Meyer's Twilight Saga, and so it was assumed that if young readers had to read these kinds of books, they might as well be led to believe that Collins wasn't just writing better, but wasn't writing drivel. Don't exactly count on that assessment. I got this to round out the aborted reading group experience, but I'm not sure if or when I'll actually read it.

Bookshelf status: unread.

Scouring Books: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins

Originally published in 2008, this is the basis of next spring's hotly-anticipated film, and the start of a three-volume series that has come to succeed the Twilight Saga in the hearts of young adult readers. The only problem is, it's not really very good. It's readable, sure, and features a strong female protagonist, but not very flatteringly. Katniss Everdeen exists in an American that has been torn apart, and basically feeds on itself, forcing an annual reality show contest on the descendents of an unsuccessful rebellion. Katniss is a survivor, but Collins doesn't really distinguish her feelings about survival from her ability to survive, her conviction to rise above the system from being drawn into its most frivolous features. It's all the more horrifying that Katniss, and indeed everyone else, so willingly submits to a system where children are forced to fight to the death, and easily establish enemies within these scenarios...Anyway, I read this and its sequel, Catching Fire, as part of a theoretical reading group that never got off the ground. Part of the problem readers have is that the younger ones are actually encouraged to read this kind of material.

Bookshelf status: read.

Scouring Books: The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci

The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci
by Jonathan D. Spence

Originally published in 1984, this is another touchstone that explores an important piece of history as relates to our modern world. Spence explores the true story of Matteo Ricci, a European who sought to bring Christianity to China during the Ming dynasty in 1577, touching on a cultural juxtaposition that persists to this day, despite changes in both realms since that time.

Bookshelf status: unread.

Scouring Books: The Black Album

The Black Album
by Hanif Kureishi

Originally published in 1995, this is a book that became increasingly important yet has still not achieved its level of literary significance. Kureishi dove into the curious world of inexplicable Islamic fanaticism years before the rest of the world did. This is not a book that is against Islam by any means, nor am I as an individual, but a fundamental element of our modern world is a religion that hardly seems to want to be a part of it, not as ascetics, but as people (at least at the fundamentalist level) violently reject those who don't embrace their values. The so-called Arab Spring we've experienced this year may actually be remedying this. One way or another, this is an important work of fiction.

Bookshelf status: unread.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Your Face Tomorrow: Initial Thoughts

Having now finished the first volume of Javier Marias's Your Face Tomorrow (Fever and Spear), I think I can begin to voice an idea of what the ultimate objective of this work.

Obviously, it's a tale of observation. Covering a period of time that stretches from WWI to the present day, Marias has attempted to explain the modern psyche, how we approach each other as human beings, as feeling individuals, as selfish individuals, as observers. Most of us, as Marias argues, are not observers. His central figure is one, and he is surrounded by others like himself, a mentor he talks extensively with, and another he works under, and these relationships and how they are formed and their goals are the crux of the opening volume.

What I admire about YFT is that it is a work that is consumed with thought, it is a work that fully gives itself to the possibilities of literature as a unique medium, as extended meditations, not simply narrative (except it's as pure a narrative as you're likely to find), not a slave to plot. Marias seems aware of what he's doing, how it deviates from expectations most readers will have about what a book is supposed to do, and why many readers will shy away from YFT, even if it speaks the same language we all do. The narrative obsesses over language, over communication, knowingly, as the basis of all modern interaction, how it's been corrupted by increased self-importance, by a reluctance to question and simply to accept that things are as they are.

The first volume is an explanation and origin of this phenomenon. I cannot say what the next two volumes accomplish; that is what I am continuing to discover. I know now as I previously suspected, that this is an important work, a seminal work, not just for the author, but for literature, today, yesterday, and tomorrow. It's all about potential, human potential, what may happen, what humans can do if pressed. It's James Bond and Sherlock Holmes and Ishmael rolled into one.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Scouring Books: A Brief History of Robin Hood

A Brief History of Robin Hood
by Nigel Cawthorne

Originally published in 2010 to coincide with the great but underrated Ridley Scott/Russell Crowe Robin Hood flick, this is a history of the folk hero. I like to consider myself fairly thorough when it comes to the past, not just real events and literary giants, but cultural memory. Years ago I picked up a similar book on Zorro, a character with about several centuries less background than Robin Hood, so I was extremely pleased to see this released.

Bookself status: mostly unread.

Scouring Books: Cahokia

by Timothy R. Pauketat

Originally published in 2009, this book explores some forgotten history of the North American continent, a Native American metropolis in what is now known as St. Louis. Most such cities are better identified in Central America. That's what makes this book so interesting.

Bookshelf status: unread.

Scouring Books: The Crimean War - A Reappraisal

The Crimeal War: A Reappraisal
by Philip Warner

Originally published in 1972, this book covers one of Britain's famous military moments (as featured in "Charge of the Light Brigade"), another element of my self-education.

Bookshelf status: unread.

Scouring Books: Galapagos

by Kurt Vonnegut

Originally published in 1985, this is one of the many other books Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse-Five) wrote, a part of a selection I scored earlier this year for free, just a ton of his books. I'm not completely sure that he actually had more books as memorable as S-5 in him, but I guess I'll find out.

Bookshelf status: unread.

Scouring Books: The Earth Moves

The Earth Moves
by Dan Hofstadter

Originally published in 2009, this book covers Galileo's battle with the Roman Inquisition. Galileo has been one of my favorite historic/scientific figures. He's certainly well-known, but I think he's one of those people that school has tended to de-emphasize in recent decades; in fact, much of classical learning almost no longer exists, so my personal interest is mostly self-initiated, and another of the things I've been working on.

Bookshelf status: unread.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Recommendation: Feeding on Dreams

Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile
by Ariel Dorfman

For: People who may have been intrigued by Roberto Bolano.

Dorfman's book is about exile from Chile (from political situations featured in Bolano's By Night in Chile), the effects of leaving and then returning home.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Reading List: Your Face Tomorrow

Your Face Tomorrow
Volume One: Fever and Spear
Volume Two: Dance and Dream
Volume Three: Poison, Shadow and Farewell
by Javier Marias

When I say that I'm kind of accidentally American, it's from suggestions friends have made that I would probably make a pretty good European. This is just my own example, but I seem to be more likely than the average reader to be excited by the prospect of an ambitious literary project, of which this is probably the next great example (after Bolano's 2666, naturally). American bookstores can barely seem to acknowledge Marias (though strangely I discovered Your Face Tomorrow when the final volume was inexplicably carried upon hardcover release), though he seems to be one of the great voices in the modern novel. Like Bolano, Marias appropriates what appears to be a fairly standard pop fiction standard in the role of the investigator, and tries to be a little expansive about it.

Reading List: I'll Mature When I'm Dead

I'll Mature When I'm Dead
by Dave Barry

Dave's latest book of humor is like a greatest hits collection of his patented brand of social commentary, just to remind everyone that you probably shouldn't expect him to lighten up in "retirement." Also includes dead-on parodies of the TV show 24 and the Twilight Saga, and his unlikely bid at Hollywood immortality (it involves chickens).

Friday, October 21, 2011

Reading List: The Little Prince

The Little Prince
by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Thanks in part to G. Willow Wilson's excellent comic book Air, I became aware of the young reader classic, but saw it often (and sold many copies) at work, so it was only a matter of time before I got around to reading this imaginative tale about a pilot who crashes his plane...and then meets a most extraordinary individual. Another extremely short book, by the way.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Reading List: Antwerp

by Roberto Bolano

For the most part, Bolano specialized in novella-length books (Savage Detectives and 2666, obviously, being the exceptions). Antwerp is practically the rule. It's probably also the book Bolano himself was most proud of, and most attached to, holding onto it for some twenty years. The story is made up on fifty-six installments, making it perhaps an ideal example to sell Bolano on to even the most skeptical readers. This is exactly the kind of reading the most begrudging student should be exposed to (an irony, since Bolano was a voracious student of literature).

Reading List: Roberto Bolano - The Last Interview

Roberto Bolano: The Last Interview & Other Conversations

The final interview (from July 2003), a few others, and overview from Marcela Valdes (including some great insight into 2666) make this an invaluable gift to Bolano fans, which is to say fans of literature.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Reading List: By Night in Chile

By Night in Chile
by Roberto Bolano

The late Bolano gained an everlasting fan in me with the posthumous 2666, one of the great works of literature, centered in part on a novelist an unlikely assortment of characters become involved with, whether they know it or not. In its first section, a group of literary critics unite around an obscure European writer, and feel compelled to seek out, no matter how difficult, each of his published works. Well, I know the feeling, except Bolano is a South American writer. Rarely have I felt compelled to reach as much of the collected works of a writer as I can find (Melville is the only other example besides Dave Barry). By Night in Chile was the first of Bolano's works to receive an English translation, so it's fitting to be the first of his books after 2666 for me to read. I haven't yet completed my collection, but it's maybe halfway or better there, so not too bad on that score. This particular book is about a hundred fifty pages, one long paragraph, so I have to pick my spots as to when I'll be reading it, but naturally, I love what I've already found in the first few pages. He was a true master of literature, who understood his unique privilege and spent his fifty years adoring it, as few others have before or since. He also understood that it's a difficult live to attain, and how that's a shame, that so few people appreciate the written word, which is as true in 2011 as it was in 2003, when he died. This blog is in its own way a tribute to his enduring spirit, so it's fitting to find myself a fan of Roberto Bolano.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Scouring Books: T. rex and the Crater of Doom

T. rex and the Crater of Doom
by Walter Alvarez

Written in 1997, this is a thrilling account of how Alvarez and other scientists determined the probable cause of extinction for the dinosaurs (traced back to said crater in the Yucatan Peninsula). As I've noted previously, I don't tend to read a lot of nonfiction, other than biographical material or humor from Dave Barry, but this is an example of informative literature that blatantly hooks readers with their romantic Indiana Jones notions into following Alvarez down the informative rabbit whole of science. I know there are plenty of writers who seek to accomplish exactly this kind of experience, but rarely with as much panache.

Bookshelf status: read.

Scouring Books: Everyman's Poetry

Everyman's Poetry
by Jonathan Swift

One of the things that sucks about the poetry (or any other) establishment is that it's automatically assumed to be a member you not only must respect and appreciate the poetry canon, but you must have revered and absorbed it, not based on any merits you yourself may have come to admire, but because it's there, and it's assumed that you must. I read a fair bit of poetry in college, and found that the University of Maine was a pretty good place to find acceptance into the poetry scene, but as a whole, like I've said, the greater poetry scene is good for snobbery, exclusivity (to the point where almost nobody actually cares about poetry, even though it used to be a bona fide cultural institution). Long story short, Jonathan Swift is one of the old poets I would champion without hesitation, not just because I also admire his prose works, but because he can also turn a wicked verse.

Bookshelf status: this particular volume, unread. Because the air of poetry in the modern age is prohibitive.

Scouring Books: Good as Gold

Good as Gold
by Joseph Heller

Published in 1976, this is, remarkably, another book by Catch-22 author Joseph Heller. The unfortunate thing about striking on a success in literature is that readers are not so prone to readers more of your work. I guess it's assumed that an author who had one touchstone probably won't have another in them, and so that's one of the things that bothers me about the way most people treat literature, that they don't, like Roberto Bolano expresses in 2666 (featured on the right side of the blog as a Buy This! book) during a frantic search of fictional author Benno Von Archimbaldi's complete works, actually like to continue reading someone who has really impressed them. Pop fiction gets this treatment; that's why bookstores are crammed with the collected works of your favorite romance and mystery/thriller writers, but not of someone like Heller. It's just assumed he had one good book in him, and the others probably aren't quite worth remembering, too (a catch-22!). Anyway, I came across Good as Gold at a bargain book sale, and didn't hesitate to pick it up. But...

Bookshelf status: unread. For now.

Scouring Books: The Divine Comedy

The Divine Comedy
by Dante

Otherwise known as the source of Dante's Inferno, the one everyone knows, but also includes, as far as the whole cycle goes, Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. When I was studying this one in high school, we actually watched Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (second most awesome school experience, after a college class clip from Life of Brian), as a comparison. It's one of those classics works of literature people barely know but have at least heard of.

Bookshelf status: probably needs a reread.

Scouring Books: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
by Mark Twain

From 1876, this is the little book that's continually under the threat of being upstaged by its literary cousin, Huckleberry Finn, which is considered more important. Maybe, but Tom Sawyer's more fun, and how often does a fun book starring a kid whose feet remain grounded in the real world stand the test of time, aside from Dickens? Tom's the quintessential American youth, and that's what's helped it stick around for so long, helped give Mark Twain his reputation, and inspired disciplinarians everywhere to make sure the culprit actually paints the fence. A book that every kid who can't understand the appeal of books not inspired by the success of Harry Potter can actually enjoy.

Bookshelf status: read.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Scouring Books: Devil in the White City

Devil in the White City
by Erik Larson

Originally published in 2003, this is just one of the books for which Erik Larson has become known, a classic work of historical nonfiction that cleverly traces the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 with a series of brutal murders that took place at the same time. I suspect some readers take a fair amount of solace in nonfiction when they find novels too difficult to choose, since popular books like this perform the very same functions (and the really interesting novels will combine fiction with nonfiction in imaginative ways). Larson is definitely a storyteller, which is exactly what this one's about. I don't read a lot of nonfiction, because much of it is this creative, so this is all the happier the exception.

Bookshelf status: read.

Scouring Books: Slaughterhouse-Five

by Kurt Vonnegut

Originally published in 1969, this may on the surface appear to compete with Catch-22 as a definitive novel of modern war, but I think I prefer to consider it as one of the more innovative science fiction tales of the last half century, from a writer who was able to do exactly what he wanted to, a truly rare accomplishment. The Hollywood version almost ruined my memories of it, though, from a University of Maine classroom, marking another rare accomplishment, in that the tired old adage that "the book was better" actually rings through with this one.

Bookshelf status: read.

Scouring Books: Catch-22

by Joseph Heller

From 1961, this is already a classic, but I wonder just how far it can go into the annals of history. As far as I'm concerned, it's the definitive novel about war in the modern era, a work of comic genius and brilliant insight (there's a reason why the phrase "catch-22" was instantly adopted into the lexicon). Here's a little catch-22 about my particular copy of Catch-22: I originally borrowed my brother's copy when I read it several years ago, and so I returned that one in good faith, but loved the book so much I knew I had to have one of my own. Several years later, I found a copy in a bookstore reduction sale, the catch being that it was defective, with a notable printing error, Chapters 13, 14, and 15 (or about thirty pages) missing. I bought it anyway. Unique edition, right? When I eventually read it again, I won't know what I'm missing anyway...

Bookshelf status: technically, read.

Scouring Books: The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame
by Victor Hugo

Originally published in 1831, and a huge favorite from my high school literature days (from the same Prudence Grant class that led to my continuing interest in the Canterbury Tales), a classic that truly deserves perpetual publication on its own merits (not strictly, as I suspect some are, based on their historical significance, and not just the ones you might immediately consider), possibly directly recommended to anyone who has ever considered themselves to be an outcast. Eventually became one of the most unlikely Disney animated movies.

Bookshelf status: read.

Scouring Books: Somewhere in Advance of Nowhere

Somewhere in Advance of Nowhere
by Jayne Cortez

Originally published in 1996, this is a book of poetry. Correct, a book of poetry, something that's hard to find many current cultural touchstones over (unless you're Billy Collins are somesuch current favorite), given that you pretty much need to be immersed directly in the poetry scene to know anything about poetry that you won't find in a schoolroom or odd public offering (I would tend to caution those). As such, Ms. Cortez comes from my college days, the University of Maine in Orono, where there's a vibrant scene one would like to perhaps permanently reside in, if that were possible without some kind of tenure. This is an odd remnant from those days.

Bookshelf status: at the very least, needs to be reread.

Reading List: The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein

The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein
by Peter Ackroyd

Ackroyd has been a favorite of mine since The Plato Papers (a featured Buy This Book! on the right side of the blog), a whimsical look at the future and our ability to accurately interpret the past, plus some philosophy. Since he's a British writer who's best known for his biographies, Ackroyd doesn't get a lot of love from American readers, which is a terrible shame, because he demonstrates one of the purest loves of literature you're likely to find anywhere. As the title of this book might suggest, this time he's taking a look at Mary Shelley's famous work, interposing as he likes to do famous figures, events, and his own imagination. I've been reading Ackroyd at a tempered pace, mostly because like I said, he's difficult to outright find in the States, short of ordering him off the Internet (which isn't always the answer it seems to be, as Hub City is meant to suggest, it's remarkably easy to find other things worth reading). Happily, he's already been on the Reading List several times in the recent past. He'll show up again, too.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Reading List: Bridge to Never Land

Bridge to Never Land
by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

This one was actually inserted into the List recently, due to a complicated series of circumstances. The short of it: When Bridge was published a few months back, I was working the Borders liquidation process, which necessarily obscured my perception of the new release process. It was by coincidence that I was made aware of its release as quickly as I was, and even more coincidental that Peter and the Sword of Mercy, the fourth in Barry and Pearson's Starcatchers series, came up on the List when it did. So I read that one and decided to go ahead and read this one next.

Bridge is a roundabout continuation of the Starcatchers books, which revisited the concept of Peter Pan for the 21st Century, crafting it into an adventure/thriller narrative. Sword of Mercy finally got around to Wendy; this one is Barry and Pearson riffing on their own mythmaking, updating the timestamp to the present day and a new set of protagonists, a pair of squabbling siblings who discover the books they've read (and of course Barry and Pearson themselves wrote) actually refer to real events. It's now like Peter Pan meeting Dan Brown, basically.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Scouring Books: Brocabulary

by Daniel Maurer

Originally published in 2008, this is a typical bookstore humor section inhabitant, which I choose to believe was inspired by the show How I Met Your Mother, which features a character named Barney Stinson, who's famous for such inventions as The Bro Code and The Playbook, fictitious guidebooks that were later made published reality, and can be found in said bookstore section.

Sample Brocabulary:

flirtchase - A flirtatious purchase made for a woman in lieu of coming right out and sying you want to do her.

Bookshelf status: unread so far, because I love Bros, just not that much. Yet.

Scouring Books: Leaves of Grass 150th Anniversary Edition

Leaves of Grass 150th Anniversary Edition
by Walt Whitman

Originally published in 1855, this is one of the most famous collections of poems in American literary history, and this particular edition reprints the original version (since Whitman had a habit of pulling a George Lucas and constantly revising it throughout his lifetime). Includes famous works like "Song of Myself" and "I Sing the Body Electric." Also includes an introduction from noted literary scholar Harold Bloom.

Bookshelf status: read.

Scouring Books: Where White Men Fear to Tread

Where White Men Fear to Tread
autobiography of Russell Means w/Marvin J. Wolf

Originally published in 1995, this is the autobiography of one of the towering Native Americans of the 20th Century. You may be forgiven for not knowing there were towering Native American figures in the 20th Century, because when this subject is talked about at all, it's the wars of other centuries, trails of tears, and that Indian who literally shed a tear in a TV commercial people bring up, not to mention casino money and a few pop figures. In fact, if it weren't for the entertainment world and a few sports figures, you might be forgiven to forget there are actually any Native Americans still in existence. Russell Means dedicated his life to the continuing struggle of the Indian cause, which included iconoclastic moments at Mount Washington, Plymouth Rock, and Wounded Knee. He ran for the presidency in 1988. This book stands as a testament to his legacy, whether the general public has been aware of it or not.

Bookshelf status: unread so far.

Scouring Books: Atlas Shrugged

Atlas Shrugged
by Ayn Rand

Originally published in 1957, this is perhaps one of the giants of 20th Century literature. It was also one of the most popular books of the early recession a few years back, or so I noticed while working in a bookstore, even before the feeble movie was made (the first part was released earlier this year). I was always slightly aware of Rand's presence in the world of literature, but had never had a real reason to factor her into my own experience. A friend of mine in college once listened to an audiobook of Shrugged, and I experienced a little of it with him (later on, another acquaintence provided me with a similar taste of Jack Kerouac's On the Road; I guess books about transportation of some kind make ideal traveling material). When I started working in a bookstore, it was hard to overlook the giant Rand volumes, and so I eventually picked this one up. I saw a Gary Cooper version of The Fountainhead before discovering that perhaps most readers of Ayn Rand are of a peculiar political bent, as Rand herself was. Whether or not her ideas actually have merit might remain to be seen, once I actually read this one.

Bookshelf status: unread so far.

Scouring Books: A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities
by Charles Dickens

Originally published in 1859, this is one of those incredibly famous books I'm not sure many people have actually read. Dickens is well-known, of course, for Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol, both of which have been regular and steady elements of modern pop culture, and everyone at least knows "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." How many people actually know what the book is actually about? Dickens developed a fast and considerable reputation in his day as perhaps the most acclaimed English novelist of the 19th Century, but it's been fashionable since then to underestimate his actual worth. It's strange that in Two Cities he seems to have written a story of the French Revolution that the great Russian voices of that age (here I'm thinking of Dostoyevsky, who happens to be my choice) would have probably found formidable. But I was never asked to read this book in school, and in fact, was never asked to read Dickens as a whole. It's strange that so famous a writer probably isn't actually read that much.

Bookshelf status: unread so far.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Scouring Books: Mr. Palomar

Mr. Palomar
by Italo Calvino

Originally published in 1983, this is from noted literary writer Calvino, best-known for If on a winter's night a traveler. I was at one point scheduled to read Calvino for a class in college, but the original professor was felled by ill-ness (and replaced, clumsily, by three graduate students who happened to have been in the class; one of them had been a friend from an earlier class, but I'm afraid the relationship was strained by this strange juxtaposition, since the professor had been a particularly inspired one, and he would have always been hard to replace). Anyway, so I was half-inspired to buy this book because of its name, which happened to share a term I'd used in my self-published book (you can find that in links to be found in my profile, and if you can't find that, then I'll just have to ignore your ignorance). Calvino is known as a literary writer, as I've said, which is important, because I like to believe that the best literature is "literary" literature, not "pop" literature in the form of James Patterson (which is not to say James Patterson isn't good, because he's writing in the tradition of Agatha Christie and Dashiell Hammett), or even the stuff you'll find in your bestseller lists or Oprah selections (though The Story of Edgar Sawtelle came pretty close), but speculative, inventive, thoughtful, insightful fiction. There really isn't much of that, and given the kind of writers drawn to that sort of thing, the results are always bound to be spotty. I found Calvino, at least in Mr. Palomor, to be a little lightweight. But he does have the reputation, so maybe when I get around to If on a... I'll think differently of him.

Bookshelf status: read.

Scouring Books: Longitudes and Attitudes

Longitudes and Attitudes
by Thomas L. Friedman

Originally published in 2002, this is just one of Friedman's insightful analyses of America's place in the global community. In college, I was asked to subscribe to the New York Times for a semester, and it was Friedman's Op-Eds that frequently captured the bulk of my interest. I don't tend to read a lot of political books, and in truth haven't read any other book by Friedman, but this is one of those exceptions that not only proved the rule (that most political books are indeed political) but that sometimes it doesn't matter.

Bookshelf status: read.

Scouring Books: Snow Country

Snow Country
by Yasunari Kawabata

Originally published in 1956, this is a classic of world literature I read several times in school, and as such is one of those rare books I really enjoyed reading, well, in school. I don't usually read books more than once, I might also stress, so the fact that I really didn't mind doing so in an environment that sometimes leads to the murder of readers hopefully says something. It's an elegiac romance between the traveling Shimamura and the geisha who unexpectedly captures his heart.

Bookshelf status: read.

Scouring Books: Boomsday

by Christopher Buckley

Originally published in 2007, this is a modern political satire from the author best known for Thank You For Smoking, which was later made into a film starring Aaron Eckhart. As the title may suggest, the book deals with the Baby Boomer crisis in a way that Jonathan Swift (by way of A Modest Proposal) would certainly approve.

Bookshelf Status: read.

Scouring Books: Love, Stargirl

Love, Stargirl
by Jerry Spinelli

Originally published in 2007, this is a sequel to Stargirl, and tracks the title character's evolving romance with Leo in a series of letters. Spinelli won me over when I was in grade school with the brilliant Maniac Magee, and while I hadn't gotten around to reading more of his books, I was more than happy to find this one years later.

Bookshelf status: read.

Reading List: Peter and the Sword of Mercy

Peter and the Sword of Mercy
by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson

This is the fourth in the Peter and the Starcatchers series, originally published in 2009. I've been a big fan of Dave Barry since his days as a syndicated humor columnist, as well as from the tangentially related Dave's World sitcom starring Harry Anderson. The Starcatchers series began as a sort of prequel to J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, or perhaps more accurately an alternate origin story that rode the wave of Harry Potter-inspired young readers fantasy series that continues to this day. The Starcatchers series itself was intended to conclude with three books, but has since grown to include not only Sword of Mercy but this year's Bridge to Neverland.
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