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
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