Links of Literacy – May 27, 2009

May 28, 2009

Another week, another five snippets of literary news to be shared with the masses.

1. Put the book back on the shelf: 13 book-to-film adaptions that the authors hated, by Josh Modell, Keith Phipps, Leonard Pierce, Nathan Rabin, Scott Gordon, Scott Tobias, Tasha Robinson, and Zack Handlen; The Onion, May 26, 2009

A piece by the marvelously talented team at the Onion A.V. Club, I enjoy it because it touches on the negative side of film adaptations, one of my pet interests. It’s hard enough to please the fans of a book, I can’t imagine authors are any easier to work with. I was surprised to see Ken Kesey or Anthony Burgess didn’t make the list, but that just frees me up to spend more time on them in my upcoming Text-to-Screen Ratio: Retrospectives.

2. Then and Now: Robert Downey Jr. brings a new look to Sherlock Holmes, Jonathan Crow, Yahoo! Movies, May 20, 2009

pseudoblog_sherlockholmes425aAnother post on the topic of film adaptations, but this one even dearer to my heart since it deals with probably my favorite character in literature: Sherlock Holmes. I’m approaching this adaptation very cautiously, as while I love both Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey Jr. I’m very skeptical of a film that appears to have a steampunk Holmes channeling Jack Sparrow to fight vampires. Yes, it sounds awesome, but so apart from the Holmes I know and love I don’t know what affection I can give it. I do like the article’s points on how it might gel with the more “Bohemian” perspective of Holmes, but I shall remain a skeptic.

3. Small sf press rallies despite recession, Cory Doctorow, Boing Boing, May 25, 2009.

This one’s not exactly a major news article, but it cheers me up for the soft spot I have for independent presses. It’s a bad climate for publishing (as my recent unemployment from a project management position at Macmillan can attest to) but some people are stillgoing forward and I’m happy for them.

4. Worried book industry gathers for convention, Hillel Italie, Associated Press, May 26, 2009.

And here we of course have the sign of dark clouds unable to be banished from the industry. I will not be attending this convention as I am nowhere near important enough to warrant an invitation,  but I shall keep my eyes on what comes out of the area and keep you posted.

5. 1984: The masterpiece that killed George Orwell, Robert McCrumb, The Observer, May 10, 2o09

Something for the academics of my reader base, a stunning article on just how much “1984” killed its author. It’s certainly not an unheard of occurrence for a writer’s masterpiece to devour its composer (Truman Capote comes to mind after “In Cold Blood”) but “1984” is rarely thought of in that light.


Column: Reading List for Summer 2009

May 27, 2009

reading_in_the_sunWell, Memorial Day weekend has come and gone, and with the beginning of summer the weather is now nice enough that hopeless shut-ins like myself can finally pry themselves away from their reading chairs and migrate outside to read amongst the sun and the squirrels. And with the seasonal change comes the summer reading lists, where students of all ages are united in a grand act of procrastination that usually leads to spending Labor Day furiously skimming over a title bought three months ago.

In that spirit of setting unrealistic expectations, here is TLTOE’s reading list for summer of 2009. Sadly, I am not well known enough as a book critic to have my recommendations posted on these titles’ covers the way Oprah does, but feel free to put stickers on your copies and know your reading choices are supported.

1. The Personal/Professional Interest Title: “2666” by Roberto Bolaño

2666_CoverI read Bolaño’s “The Savage Detectives” as one last summer, and I thought that it was one of the best books I’d read that year, a sort of Latin-American/Beat Generation hybrid recounting four decades in the “visceral realism” genre of poetry. Bolaño seems to have become the greatest nonliving writer of our generation, with his works being published to almost universal critical acclaim. I normally steer clear of other reviews prior to reading a book, but since all my professional contemporaries seem to be praising “2666” as The One True God of fiction destined to inspire us out of the Dark Ages I am contractually obligated to explore it and see what all the fuss is about.

2.The Obligatory Classic: “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Ernest Hemingway

For_Whom_The_Bell_Tolls_CoverThe only one of Hemingway’s novels I have yet to read (discounting “The Old Man and the Sea” which is more of a novella). I’ve always liked Hemingway’s war-weary style and spartan prose, and this tale of an American solider fighting in the Spanish Civil War looks to capture my interest as much as “A Farewell to Arms” did a few months ago. Granted, “The Sun Also Rises” might be more appropriate thematically for a summer read, but I’ve been going in chronological order and would hate to backtrack.

3. The Random Recommendation: “The Year of Living Biblically” by A.J. Jacobs

year-of-living-biblically_coverRecommended to me by my apartment manager and scooped up off the sale tables at Powell’s, this is exactly the sort of book I would have reviewed in TLOTE had it been operational in 2007. The saga of a magazine editor who lived one year of his life according to the most literal interpretation of the Bible, it promises to be both hilarious and interesting, if the opening page’s photographic journal of his beard is any indication.

4. The Sitting-On-A-Shelf-For-Months Title: “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace

infinite_jestThis is really less a part of the reading list as it is a long-term goal I have been working at for the past four years now. I have regularly tried to pick up this behemoth on the dysfunctional Incandenza family and work my way through it, a process that is hampered by my distractable nature, its 1000+ page length and the flow-breaking footnotes that earn you a bicep workout just for flipping to the end of the book a record number of times. However, a mix of factors – a constant stream of recommendation by friends as a life-changing experience, the author’s tragic death last year and the fact that I finally got my copy back from storage – have led me to once again try scaling the mountain.

5. The Anticipated Release: “Losing Mum and Pup” by Christopher Buckley

losing_mum_and_pupI’ve been a devout reader of Buckley’s column for The Daily Beast ever since he caused a minor ruckus by announcing he would vote for Barack Obama, and I think the books of his I’ve read rank among the funniest. For those reasons his latest title, a memoir on losing his famous and difficult parents in the span of a year, intrigues me: how will a writer who is chiefly a humorist and political columnist approach such a (frankly) depressing topic, and what does he have to say on a relationship that was known to be contentious? Watch this space for my reactions, as it’s in the review queue as soon as I get my copy.

6. The Book I Missed At First: “The Graveyard Book” by Neil Gaiman

the-graveyard-book-WEBDespite my affection for Gaiman’s writing I didn’t manage to read this one when it first came out, chiefly due to the fact that it overlapped with the “Coraline” film release and the reading/viewing occupied my attention. By the time I finished with that, it was a Newbury award winner and all copies vanished from the shelves for a few weeks until they could be reprinted with a shiny gold sunburst decal on the cover. Now that the reprints are out and Gaimania has lulled somewhat, this will be another title where I see what all the fuss is about.

7. The Book The Radio Told Me To Read: “An Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England” by Brock Clarke

an_arsonists_guide_coverAnother one I missed at first, I’ve been intrigued by it ever since I heard a feature about it on NPR when it was first released. It’s the sort of random concept that always appeals to me for the basis of a novel – a man accidentally burns down Emily Dickenson’s home and after his release from prison is framed for torching several other literary abodes – and critical response to the book has been rather positive. Reviews have pegged it as absurdist and quirky, two words that always bring me to pull a title off the shelf.

8. The Upcoming Text-to-Screen Preparation: “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy

road-cormac-mccarthy-hardcover-coverThe obligatory “read the book then see the movie” choice for this summer, in preparation for the fall release of the film starring Viggo Mortenson, Charlize Theron and Robert Duvall. The film’s release has actually been delayed for a year, and while I have yet to look into any details the film is apparently so good it stunned an Esquire columnist into silence for four whole pages. As I was very appreciative of “No Country for Old Men” and called years in advance how good the film would be, I have an obligation to experience this next volume.

9. The Book I Really Should Have Read By Now: “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” by Michael Chabon

the-amazing-adventures-of-kavalier-and-clayThis is the point where the literary elite get to beat me up and try to strip me of my rank and title, because I have to admit I know absolutely nothing about Michael Chabon beyond the fact that he has won a Pulitzer Prize and is “one of the most celebrated writers of his generation.” I tend to be a bit behind on contemporary fiction writers – Chabon, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Franzen to name a few – and I feel catching up is important. This one was picked because its comic-oriented story looked interesting, and I got my copy quite cheap.

10. The Book I’ll Be Rereading: “The Boys on the Bus” by Timothy Crouse

the_boys_on_the_bus_coverAfter Powell’s finally managed to get this book back in stock, I scooped up my copy right away. I read it a few years ago in college, but it’s a title worth owning and worth rereading – probably the best chronicle of what it’s like to be in the journalistic trenches of a presidential campaign and full of interesting portraits of other political writers of the time.

Will I get through all or even some of these works over the next three months, in between job hunting and barbecues and my own general distractability? Hard to say except for the fact that it’s a crop of titles I think I can’t help but get into.

So, what are you reading this summer?

Book Review: The End of the World Book

May 25, 2009

The End of the World Book


By Alistair McCartney

Published February 13, 2008

Terrace Books

320 pp.

ISBN 0-299-22630-1

Reviewed May 25, 2009

While the Internet has wreaked its share of havoc on the newspaper and magazine industries, a less prolific casualty of its spread has been the encyclopedia. The format itself is certainly still popular – moreso than ever in fact with the advent of wikis – but hard-copy, multi-volume encyclopedias have essentially been phased out in favor of easily updated online editions. The new format may be more convenient, but it removes the physical feeling of having complete knowledge in front of you, and the youthful belief that you can learn everything from A to Z.

It’s this feeling that Alistair McCartney clearly longs for, and pays homage to, in his first novel “The End of the World Book.” Well, “novel” doesn’t quite cover it – it’s a work that’s part memoir, part essay, part collection of poetry, part social commentary and part compendium of knowledge. It’s certainly like no book that has ever been written before, an experiment that may not be for all readers but is certainly to be commended for its scope and creativity.

Like an encyclopedia, “The End of the World Book” is split into 26 alphabetical chapters and filled with entries on historical figures and events, professions and religions, activities and items. Unlike a traditional encyclopedia, however, McCartney’s entries are heavily dependent on his own interests and connections, mixing in the names of loved ones and personal totems. Additionally, none of the entries are presented as straight fact, but rather brief prose where he considers just why it is matters.

McCartney falls on this classification system because to him “when faced with existence, it seemed the only thing to do was to describe and categorize.” A melancholy, almost fatalistic tone permeates the entirety of the book, regularly trying to escape into a dreamlike state where each item cataloged can achieve some sense of permanency. While the writing style comes across as overdone for some entries (“you can always find me in the space halfway between the world and its destruction”), the fact that there are hundreds of topics means readers shift easily to the next and not be turned off by the work.

And it’s truly surprising the amount of things that matter to McCartney and what he can write about. In one letter alone – F for example – entries range from the mortality of fingerfucking to flies cutting their wrists to the Dominican monk Fra Angelico to Marie Antoinette’s taste in furniture. It’s random but creative at the same time, each entry going off in a direction sometimes only tangentially related to its topic. As a result some absurd extensions result, such as comparing the Bronte sisters to Los Angeles cholo gangs or speculating on how Franz Kafka would have written gay pornography.

While the format may not lend itself to a narrative, McCartney manages to tell stories by linking up the various entries, using successive articles on hair and dreams as mini-biographies for his childhood. There are also several recurring items: “Anna Karenina” and Kafka make multiple appearances, as do several almost Burroughsian references to young men and assholes (one particularly entertaining section points out no two are the same and they identify as well as fingerprints).

Ironically, “The End of the World Book” ends up something very hard to classify under one word or even one letter. At various points inspiring and frustrating, and by definition not the sort of book to be read in one sitting, it’s an ambitious work that occasionally gets bogged down in pretension but immediately makes you laugh or think with the next entry. McCartney’s entry on the world itself states he loves “every object and every hairline crack in every object,” and that fascination shines through and makes his book as weighty and interesting as any gold-edged encyclopedia volume.

Links of Literacy – May 20, 2009

May 20, 2009

(As per the manifesto, here are five things I’ve found interesting in the field of books in the past week in addition to my comments on them. Note that relevance in the news is only one factor I use to select these articles – some might be older ones I’ve just been linked to and found to be interesting.)

1. Some Thoughts on the Lost Art of Reading Aloud, Verlyn Klinkenborg, The New York Times, May 16, 2009

A very well-written article I discovered thanks to Neil Gaiman’s blog, reminding me of just how much I appreciate author readings and the act of reading aloud. I’m a bit more sympathetic to audiobooks than she is, especially ones that are read by the authors (as I’ve said before), but I appreciate the clear emotional connection being made here to the physical act and the interpretative quality.

2. Could William Shatner Defeat Kirk? Marty Beckerman, The Daily Beast, May 16, 2009

A review by Beckerman, author of the excellent “Dumbocracy,” of a title he compares to “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” and which calls up my memory of the recent film “My Name Is Bruce.” It certainly looks like a fun title and worth checking out if you locate it.

3. Long-Borrowed Library Book Will Be Hard to Forget Now, Michael E. Ruane, The Washington Post, May 11, 2009

– This is just a good story all around, about someone who appreciates books and libraries, and an anecdote about just how books tend to get around.

4. Mom wants to ban, burn ‘Bunny Suicides,’ Joseph Rose, The Oregonian, October 20, 2008

– An older story I saved when it first popped up, it serves as an excellent parallel to the previous article, focusing on the sort of person who clearly has no idea of the function libraries are supposed to serve. Follow these links as well for the entertaining conclusion to the story.

5. Art of the Deal, Tom McCarthy, New York Times Book Review, May 14, 2009

– A review of Clancy Martin’s “How To Sell,” a book I would consider reviewing myself, but the original review I learned of it from is so well done I can’t think of what extra I’d say, except to emphasize his distaste for the gushing back jacket quotes (I used to work for a publishing house and know the procedure for soliciting those). I’m adding the title to my queue and after the review you might consider doing so yourself.

Manifesto for May 2009 for TLOTE

May 20, 2009

IMG_0348I have chosen to break from my usual omnipotent position as the all-seeing critical mind to discuss a few of my upcoming plans for The Lesser of Two Equals.

When I started this site up following graduation, I intended to use it as a database for all my writing content relevant to books and as something to keep me busy while working semi-hellish positions in call centers. I reposted older reviews from my student journalist days, wrote a few essays and simply contributed whenever I felt I had something to say.

Now as the site has grown to what I consider maturity (one year old, 85 posts, dozens of titles reviewed, several essays, two specific features and multiple publishers willing to send me their books) I feel it’s time to push it to the next level and enforce a bit more structure on it, to marshal the somewhat disorganized format of my posts from the last few months. So, with that in mind, here is the manifesto for the next few months as I attempt to transcend the boundaries of legitimate literary journalism.P1010027

New features: I will be resurrecting my original literature columns that formed the basis of this site when I first pooled my archives, writing a biweekly column on topics of literature that have gotten to me based on personal connection, concern for the industry or simple curiosity. These columns will be appearing every other Tuesday, starting out May 26.

On a weekly basis (this one on Wednesday) I will be reposting links to news articles and reviews that I did not write myself but which interested me and I have a few words on.

Book Reviews: These will of course continue, being the majority of the content, but will also appear on a weekly basis as I work my way through a literary surplus. A new review is guaranteed to appear every Monday, with possibly some additional postings appearing as I complete titles or the mood strikes me. Titles will continue to follow the pattern I have set (literary fiction, memoirs, New Journalism, creative history, etc.) and focus on some of my favorite current authors.

Back Shelf Review: These articles will continue but will begin to differ from the standard reviews I offer, instead taking a bit broader capacity in the same style as my Barack Obama article, either focusing on an author or more than one book thematically linked together. No schedule has been set for these, though biweekly is the most likely.

Text-to-Screen Ratio: After a series of adapted releases I felt I had enough content to get started, but the flow has dried up somewhat with the summer blockbuster releases (and my die-hard refusal to read or watch Angels and Demons) and the ones I’m interested in (The Road and Sherlock Holmes) don’t even have proper posters. So for the summer, we’ll get one or two backlogs cleared up and then be doing retrospective reviews of some classic books and the film versions that ensued. This too will become a biweekly feature, alternating with the columns.

IMG_0345As always, I remain open to any suggestions for articles or titles to review, and encourage any and all feedback on my writing.

Book Review: Beat the Reaper

May 17, 2009

Beat The Reaper: A Novel

BeatTheReaperBy Josh Bazell

Published January 7, 2009

Little, Brown and Company

320 pp.

ISBN 0-316-03222-0

Reviewed May 17, 2009

When you look at mainstream television and wade past the slew of reality shows and generic comedies, scripted drama tends to be dominated by two genres. First is the criminal world, represented by epic series like “The Sopranos” or “Law and Order”-style procedurals; and second is the medical field, headed by the “ER” juggernaut and a slew of comedic dramas such as “House” or “Grey’s Anatomy.” Both series have their own distinct traits but also share common threads: overly tense environments, a heavy dose of gallows humor and a professional lingo that takes a few episodes to understand.

Despite the similarities between and popularity of both genres, the two rarely come together – which is a mistake, if Josh Bazell’s first novel “Beat the Reaper” is any indication. A mix of “ER” and “A History of Violence,” casting a hitman in the role of a downtrodden medical resident, “Beat the Reaper” is a book with a distinctive voice, an educated grasp of its subject matter and a talent for delivering some truly shocking scenes.

The hitman in question is Pietro “Bearclaw” Brnwa, alias “Peter Brown” – a contract killer for a New York crime family who has been placed in witness protection and now works agonizingly brutal graveyard shifts at Manhattan Catholic. At the start of one of these shifts, he finds out a terminal cancer patient not only recognizes him, but has contacted a friend to put the word out in the event of his death. With the patient about to go under the knife, Brnwa has to feverishly find a way to keep him alive – while at the same time dealing with every other demand an understaffed hospital encompasses.

Obviously there’s a big difference between the Hippocratic oath and murder for hire, but Bazell does a surprisingly solid job of melding the two. The story, told in first-person present tense, shows how Brnwa’s mind processes the situation from a medical standpoint, such as when he downs mugger with brutal efficiency and goes through the anatomy of breaking the elbow. It’s a wry, cynical voice reminiscent of Edward Norton’s narration in “Fight Club,” and it drives the story on through his narration and a variety of wry footnotes rattling off medical facts and legalese.

Brnwa makes for an interesting character, but it’s the hospital he operates in that commands your attention. Bazell, who holds both an MD and an English literature degree, has stocked the book full of details that could only be known by someone operating in the healthcare trenches. Readers will learn how residents function during obscenely long shifts (stimulants procured from drug reps, Milk of Magnesia poured over cold cereal), see just how sexist an oncologist can be in the operating room and how a doctor can tell how old you are at first glance. All of these asides are offered in the same cynical and resigned tone, resembling the narration for “Scrubs” as read by Mel Gibson.

The medical terminology is so well mastered that the mob sections – flashbacks filling every other chapter – regularly come up short. There’s a fair share of gratuitous violence and commentary on the state of America’s legal system, but many of the characters depicted lack the realism and personality of the hospital residents. A few scenes are simply over-the-top even in the book’s context and there are also one or two unnecessary plot twists – one in particular involving the background of Pietro’s grandparents – that feel like Bazell is reaching for impact.

And reaching isn’t something he needs to, as the book is ripe with truly disturbing scenes. Beyond the burnout and apathy of the general hospital staff, Manhattan Catholic is rife with events that require a strong constitution to even witness. Syringes of unidentifiable contents, legs that swell up with blood for unknown reasons and clearly unsanitary surgical equipment all populate the area, and give Brnwa more immediate concerns than mafia shooters. The last few chapters are particularly macabre, with a trapped Brnwa once again falling back on medical school to create the most wincingly painful improvised weapon in literature.

While the book is a bit too eager to set up a sequel – the epilogue chapter is almost ham-handed in presenting plot threads – the majority of the volume is so well done that its continuation is encouraged. “Beat the Reaper” is entertaining and fast-paced, a thinking man’s suspense novel with enough of the real world in it to make readers even more uncomfortable about their next visit to the hospital.

Back Shelf Review: Novel with Cocaine

May 13, 2009

(Editor’s note: After a reread I decided this book could use a more professional review, so it’s now been completely retooled from an earlier post. I don’t usually do this, but I like this book enough I wanted the review to measure up.)

Novel with Cocaine

By M. Ageyev

Published 1934, reprinted October 1998

Northwestern University Press

204 pp.

ISBN 0-810-11709-6

Reviewed May 13, 200

“Novel with Cocaine” (also translated as “Cocaine Romance”) is a book that is very much a historical curiosity. It is the only novel from mysterious author M. Ageyev, first published in the early 1930s in Paris and only rediscovered by chance 50 years later in a second-hand bookstore. Despite its obscure nature, it enjoys several distinctions: it was a favorite of John Updike, an influence on William S. Burroughs and it was even alleged to be the work of Vladimir Nabokov writing under a pen name (a notion Nabokov’s son has dismissed).

The accolades and comparisons are varied, but the novel justifies all of them. “Cocaine” is a startlingly well-done book, not overly long or convoluted in the manner of more well-known Russian novels, and also not as surreal and off-putting as some drug memoirs. After reading, it’s actually surprising that the book has not seen wider publication, as it fits easily into both of the previous canons with little difficulty holding its own.

“Cocaine” is the coming-of-age story of Vadim Maslennikov, a young man growing up in World War I Russia. As the war wages on and hints of what would become the Russian Revolution stir in the country, Vadim is fixated only on his personal development and the easiest way for him to reach what he sees as his rightful place in the world. Reflecting the title’s dual meaning, he seeks fulfillment in a serious relationship and, when his darker side drives her away, runs to the electric power of cocaine.

Vadim is an unlikable character from the start, a self-centered adolescent reminiscent of Alec from “A Clockwork Orange.” The first half of the book is filled with his own indulgences, desperate attempts to polish his image and maintain his sense of superiority. He shoves his impoverished mother away in public, looks for casual sex while recovering from syphilis and takes more pride in insulting classmates rather than speaking to them. Ageyev makes it impossible to like Vadim but never impossible to pay attention to him, exposing the insecurities and self-loathing beneath his preening.

Vadim’s faults are regularly on display, but they never ruin the novel chiefly because the quality of the writing outweighs them. From an almost ornamental description of Russia in winter to the almost foppish nature of Vadim’s cohorts, Ageyev displays himself as a craftsman in constructing his sentences. The novel’s descriptive passages are evocative without being overblown, and many of the passages border on brilliant (a particular favorite is Vadim’s trolling for sex, where “A woman who smiled at a look like mine could only be a virgin or a prostitute”). We also see a picture of the revolutionary Russian mindset, its educational and political reforms shown in the vicious intellectual character of Vadim’s classmate Burkewitz.

The chief place where the writing skill comes into play though is in the book’s titular narcotic, as one melancholy evening Vadim comes into contact with drugs and loses his “nasal virginity.” At this point, the book turns from a story of growing up to a drug-centric tale, and as such gains a new series of responsibilities. Whether the topic is heroin or mescaline or LSD or some cocktail of the above, an drug author needs to fill the same role as a pusher: gradually reel them in by showing the benefits of the drug, and then once they get comfortable let the horror of withdrawal sink in.

While it’s impossible to know just how much of “Novel with Cocaine” is based on the truth, Ageyev’s descriptions of the effects and aftereffects of cocaine are so frighteningly vivid it’s hard to imagine he wasn’t at least a casual user. Vadim’s first night captures the awkwardness of learning the ritual, the terrifying icy feeling of the first snort quickly turning into joy, the manic urges and periods of catatonia and fixation on rituals such as smoking cigarettes. It’s taut writing that pulls the reader into a nightmarish state, and is easily the book’s best section.

As Vadim falls into the inevitable madness of excessive cocaine use, Ageyev uses him to philosophize in much the same way he used Burkewitz earlier in the book to explore the Russian mindset. He speculates on the nature of pleasure and how it is tied to external elements, using it as a rationale for his continued drug use – a rationale that evaporates as soon as the drug wears off, leading him to delirious reflections on mankind’s bestial nature. It’s a starkly intellectual way to depict the highs and lows Vadim goes through, though it does nothing to make a reader feel sorry for him as the symptoms get worse.

It may be hard to pity Vadim as he is destroyed by faults entirely his own, but it is even harder to quit following the story to the bitter end. At varying turns frightening, evocative, romantic and deplorable, “Novel With Cocaine” is a well-constructed novel that will interest readers of various genres. While the identity of Ageyev may forever be a mystery, “Cocaine” keeps his name alive – as well as the hope that in some Paris attic exists a chest of his unpublished works.