Text-to-Screen Ratio: Justified (Part 1)

June 24, 2010

(Editor’s note: Welcome to the first installment of a two-part series, focusing on FX’s “Justified” and its origins in the works of Elmore Leonard. In part one, our humble correspondent takes a look at the show’s pilot episode and the short story “Fire in the Hole” that inspired it. Part two, coming later this summer, will look at the entire first season and how it compares with the novels “Pronto” and “Riding the Rap.” For the sake of analysis many spoilers are present for the first episode, so if that bothers you here’s a warning: 24 letters to get out of town.)

A few weeks ago, in the intro to my Text-to-Screen Ratio on “Dexter,” I made the observation that you don’t usually see television networks taking a cue from books to develop their new shows. My argument went that given the range of demands on a television show – dealing with multiple cast members and sideplots, the demands of network executives and fickle audiences – show runners don’t always have the time and freedom to worry about getting every slightest nuance correct. As such, a show can’t promise to be faithful to its source material unless it has a very centralized presentation (i.e. a miniseries) or has enough source material that it can pick and choose.

I actually wrote that introduction a few months before the piece was published, and in the intervening time FX took the opportunity to introduce a supplement to my argument with their contemporary Western drama “Justified.” Based in the works of Elmore Leonard – specifically the character of Raylan Givens, star of the novels “Pronto” and “Riding the Rap” – “Justified” adds a third tactic in that takes one piece of original material, and jumps off from it to take the story in a new direction. It’s an interesting approach, and one that’s definitely setting the bar high for future episodes given how well its pilot masters the source material.

“Justified” uses Leonard’s short story “Fire in the Hole” (readily available in the 2002 collection “When the Women Come Out to Dance”) as the template for its pilot episode, centered on the clash between two men who grew up together in Kentucky’s Harlan County and now find themselves on opposite sides of the law. On the law’s side is Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshal with an old-fashioned interpretation of the law that leads him to shoot a man after he ignores Raylan’s order to get out of town in 24 hours. Against him is Boyd Crowder, Vietnam veteran turned white supremacist who’s built his own miltia and turned his mining experience to building homemade bombs for domestic terrorism.

“Fire in the Hole” is an exemplary short story and a showcase of Leonard’s narrative talents, and show creator Graham Yost wisely decided not to mess with success because the pilot episode barely deviates from its source material. While it does add a few additional scenes, such as portraying Givens’ drawing on the gangster that gets him sent back to Kentucky as the cold open, scenes ranging from standoffs at a widow’s household to a shootout at a hotel are copied straight from the text. While it was shot in Philadelphia as opposed to Kentucky, the atmosphere still retains the small town and vacant country feel, accentuated by distinctive camera work and a nouveau-Western score.

Leonard’s selling point has always been his ear for dialogue, a sharp and wry tone that goes a long way to setting each of his characters apart. Given his writing style, it’s not surprising that most of the dialogue is maintained verbatim in the story, and the best of the scenes – Raylan facing down a neo-Nazi gator poacher, Boyd interrogating a potential undercover agent – are as exciting on screen as they are in print. A few lines are dropped here and there, and given the shortness of the story they’re a bit more noticeable than other translations – in particular, the omission “bunch of serious morons sieg-heilin’ each other” irks me.

Translating Leonard’s dialogue to script is a simple enough task, but the success of that translation depends heavily on who’s speaking it. In my “Dexter” piece I pointed out that one course of action for successful TV shows based on books is to center on the established main character, and “Justified” is also following that course with the selection of Timothy Olyphant as Raylan. Olyphant has already worn a lawman’s star on TV with his turn as Seth Bullock on the celebrated “Deadwood,” and he carries over all the right tools to this role: a sense of undeterred focus, an understated intensity to his words and the ability to look superb in a cowboy hat. (It isn’t the businessman’s Stetson Leonard associates with the character, but Olyphant wears it so well the omission is forgiven – though I can’t forgive him for swapping out the .45-caliber revolver for a SIG P220.)

The performance isn’t just a regurgitation of his “Deadwood” efforts as the two men do have some key differences, and Olyphant has the acting chops necessary to differentiate. While Bullock was a man fighting against his responsibilities and keeping his temper tightly leashed, Raylan’s character is equally focused but much more laconic air, a man comfortable with the code he has chosen and who doesn’t see much need to defend it to others. Olyphant masters that poise, particularly in one scene when confronted with an intruding white supremacist – as in the book, he simply stands up, picks up his hat and “set it on his head the way he wore it.”

On the other side of the law is Boyd, who is brought to life somewhat less convincingly by Walton Goggins. This is nothing against Goggins as an actor – even though I haven’t seen his critically acclaimed performance on “The Shield” – but his unkempt and wiry character seems to have much less physical presence than the story’s Vietnam vet with a “regulation grunt cut… steel bristles crowning his lean, leathery face.” Thankfully, the performance doesn’t go to stereotypical hillbilly, and Goggins does manage to convey a great deal of focus and charisma, particularly in his interactions with Olyphant. The two pace slowly around each other as men who understand the other, “born a hundred years too late” with an unchanging way of doing things.

Olyphant and Goggins dominate the episode’s action, but given that a new series is being established it also needs to lay the groundwork for future story arcs – an equally strong responsibility for “Justified,” given that it’s essentially taking Raylan’s story over from Leonard. There’s a variety of supporting federal agents and white supremacists who have potential to do much more, and there’s a likely love interest in Raylan’s old flame Ava (Joelle Carter, who nails the book’s monologue on why she shot her husband). Yost also makes the decision to have Raylan shoot Boyd to wound rather than kill, a decision that not only complicates Raylan further as a character but makes the smart decision of keeping Goggins around for future episodes.

And complicating Raylan as a character appears to be the biggest move the show is taking. Repeated references to his criminal father which were not present in the book clearly make him uncomfortable, and also hint at a deeper wound in his life. His ex-wife Winona, given a throwaway mention in the story, is here as a supporting cast member who illuminates Raylan’s doubts on the opening shooting by calling him “the angriest man I have ever known.” It’s a departure from the more convicted Raylan of “Fire in the Hole,” although in the story an old girlfriend of Raylan’s does touch on some potential doubts:

“She told him he had an image of himself as a lawman, meaning an Old West lawman without the big mustache, and he believed it might be true in some deep part of his mind. Another time Joyce said ‘The way you put it, you said you called him out. What did you think, you were in a movie?’ Her saying that caught him by surprise, because at times he did see it that way, as something he had borrowed from a western movie. He liked westerns a lot.”

It might be because Olyphant actually has experience playing an Old West lawman with a big mustache, but the way he plays Raylan shows he understands the image that goes along with his code. The hesitations and slight flinches every time his father is mentioned, the slight uncertainty on his face as the ambulance takes Boyd away – these little moments show while he carries himself tall there is a layer of concern for the life he has chosen.

While “Justified” has clearly taken some steps to establish its own universe outside of Leonard’s world, its pilot episode proves it understands just what made “Fire in the Hole” so gripping. The selection of little details and lines dropped aren’t enough to break the immersion of Olyphant’s performance, and the atmosphere and dialogue give the same feeling of flipping through pages to find out what happens next. Future episodes may not have as much to fall back on, but what “Justified” does in its first outing is more than enough to bring Leonard fans along for the ride.

Extra Credit:


Classical Anna: War and Peace

June 10, 2010

As a child, hearing a reference to Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” conjured an image in my mind of an  insurmountable tomb of a book. The imposing title led me to believe it was a novel about all war and all peace – essentially the history of the world. And even after I learned the actual plot of the book, even after I read Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” I still balked at reading it, no doubt intimidated by its reputation and cultural weight. Imagine my surprise when I finally summoned the courage to read it and found myself immersed in a page-turning, boundary-pushing novel that absorbs and clings to the reader.

Written in the late 1860’s, “War and Peace” is a historical novel that tells the story of five aristocratic families in Russia – the Bezukhovs, the Bolkonskys, the Rostovs, the Kuragins and the Drubetskoys – during the Napoleonic Wars from 1805 to 1812. While not as intimidating as the entire history of the world, many readers will likely find this subject matter of epic war, family drama, and historical events fairly formidable. However, Tolstoy eases readers into this grand scope by placing peace before war, introducing his large cast – including Pierre Bezukhov, Andrei and Marya Bolkonsky and Natasha and Nikolai Rostov – in an intimate, domestic light.

To paint his characters in this light, Tolstoy uses an ingenious technique of repeatedly drawing attention to a character’s particular physical trait until merely mentioning it becomes shorthand for that character’s essence. Watch as Tolstoy acquaints the reader with Princess Lise, conveying much about her personality through the mere description of her lip:

“The young princess Bolkonsky came with handwork in a gold-embroidered velvet bag. Her pretty upper lip with its barely visible black mustache was too short for her teeth, but the more sweetly did it open and still more sweetly did it sometimes stretch and close on the lower one. As happens with perfectly attractive women, her flaw – a short lip and half-opened mouth – seemed her special, personal beauty… Anyone who talked with her and saw her bright little smile at every word and her gleaming white teeth, which showed constantly, thought himself especially amiable that day.”

Tolstoy paints his characters in quick and complete strokes so the reader can understand them fully: he need only note Princess Lise’s upper-lip, old Prince Andrei’s shrieking voice, or Princess Marya’s beautiful eyes for the reader to fully remember these characters, even more remarkable given that the scope of the story can separate readers from characters for a hundred pages.

The characters that fill “War and Peace” to the brim are hard not to love, despite their complex and often flawed nature. Tolstoy shows the beauty and darkness of humanity in equal measures and keeps it true to life, comfortable enough to leave behind familiar tropes of the steadfast, reliably moral hero or heroine. There is Pierre – idealistic and loving, but infuriatingly and harmfully naïve as he blunders his way through society, projecting on everyone the best of intentions. And what reader doesn’t admire Prince Andrei’s valor and strength on the battlefield yet find him unkind in his domestic situations? Tolstoy’s writing of women is also refreshingly insightful, without a hint of simplification or condescension: Natasha Rostov may be a bit silly and vain in society, yet she is filled with bravery and compassion when war asks it of her.

Once the reader is comfortable with these characters and their social dramas, Tolstoy returns to the first word of the title and opens up the novel to the war. He moves massive armies over vast spaces and places the characters at the scenes of famous historical moments, focusing on scenes of battle and pulling in real historical characters like Napoleon and his Russian counterpart Kutuzov. The shift never overwhelms a reader though, but draws them in: they want to see how the characters they have come to know and love will be affected by war. It also helps that these parts of the novels are fascinating and readable: Tolstoy brings historical events to life, making them immediate and full of action and suspense while threading it with the same life and atmosphere that fills the first parts of the book.

Like “Anna Karenina,” “War and Peace” is notable for its memorable, moving scenes. A reader won’t easily forget the costumed, nighttime sleigh ride of the Rostov children, or the passage in which Pierre, captured by the French and thrown in prison, hears in the darkness the voice of a fellow prisoner addressing him:

“’So you’ve seen a lot of misery, master? Eh?’ the little man suddenly said.  And in the man’s melodious voice there was such an expression of tenderness and simplicity that Pierre wanted to reply, but his jaw trembled, and he felt tears rising.  The little man, in that same second, not giving Pierre time to show his confusion, spoke in the same pleasant voice.

“’Ah, don’t grieve, little falcon,’ he said with that tenderly melodious gentleness with which old Russian women speak.  ‘Don’t grieve, little friend: you suffer an hour, you live an age! So it is, my dear.  And we live here, thank God, with no offense. There’s bad people, and there’s good,’ he said and, while speaking, shifted his weight to his knees in a supple movement, got up, and, clearing his throat, went somewhere.”

For all its merits, however, “War and Peace” is not without its challenges, the most obvious of which is its length of over 1,200 pages: a reader will need to devote a good two or three months to its completion. Additionally, many of the historical references will be unknown to most readers unless they are scholars of the Napoleonic wars, but most editions should have footnotes explaining their context, such as the 2008 translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Perhaps the biggest obstacles readers will face, however, are the long sections of historical and philosophical analysis. Tolstoy conceived of his book as more than a novel: a combination of traditional story, historical fact, and philosophic argument, it contains passages where the narrator stops the forward movement of the plot to advance the argument that a single person cannot be responsible for important historical events.

“As long as histories of separate persons are written – be they Caesars, Alexanders, or Luthers and Voltaires – and not the history of all the people, all without a single exception, who participate in an event, it is absolutely impossible to describe the movement of mankind without the concept of a force that makes people direct their activity towards a single goal.”

These sections are interesting at first, as they serve to underline the plot themes and illuminate patterns in the characters’ thoughts and actions. However, they eventually grow maddeningly redundant and plodding, and readers are so eager to return to the story that they grow frustrated with this philosophizing.

In the end, however, despite these detractions, most will follow through to the last word. It would take a truly heartless reader to not want to see what will become of the characters they have grown to know as well as family members.

Book Review: Android Karenina

June 8, 2010

Android Karenina

By Leo Tolstoy and Ben H. Winters

Published June 8, 2010

Quirk Books

538 pp.

ISBN 1-594-74460-2

Reviewed June 8, 2010

It’s now been a little over a year since the literary mash-up genre made its way into the public spotlight, and in that time the marriage of popular culture with public domain has had its share of ups and downs. It began strongly with “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” a title that sounded like a throwaway joke but exceeded expectations by cleverly using its undead graft to enhance the original’s story rather than replace it. The series continued to expand through Austen with reasonable success, adding deep sea mythology with “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters” and creating a prequel to their first entry in the fanfiction-esque “Dawn of the Dreadfuls.”

But while the first three titles opened to favorable reviews, the introduction of “PPZ” has had some rather unpleasant aftershocks. Its success led to a string of derivative books with exceedingly silly titles, which might hold up on their own but seemed to cheapen the mash-up idea simply by their very existence. This could also be reflected in various parody titles suggested online, which as time went on sadly seemed to sound more reasonable as suggestions for upcoming releases.

As I suggested previously, I thought that the reason for this was that that Quirk and others were dwelling too heavily on Jane Austen and zombies, and that they would be better suited expanding into new authors and genres. But as it turns out, that may not have been to the genre’s benefit, as the Quirk Classics’ fourth installment “Android Karenina” is their first major malfunction. While they have taken my advice by changing authors to Leo Tolstoy and genres to steampunk, the main casualty of the shift is the spirit that made the originals so successful.

“Android Karenina” follows the established formula for mash-ups by not deviating too heavily from the original’s core structure. Set in 19th century Russia, it paints a broad picture of a series of members of the Russian aristocracy and the culture surrounding them, centering around two love stories. On one hand is the affair between the elegant noblewoman Anna Karenina and the proud soldier Count Vronsky; and on the other is the courtship of young Kitty by the country gentleman Levin.

The extra element to the story comes with a literal element, the miraculous groznium, which has advanced technology by leaps and bounds. Great grav trains glide between Russian cities on magnetic rails, citizens skate on electromagnetic ice patches and waltz above the floor on high-powered air jets, and beloved-companion robots offer reassurance and replay footage of memories to their high-society owners.

In my “SSM” review I argued that the book’s main weakness was the fact that it was trying to introduce too many ideas – pirates, deep-sea monsters, steampunk tech to name a few – and “Android Karenina” feels even more bloated with content. Beyond the technology, there is a terrorist organization called UnConSciya undermining the government with sabotage dangerous insect-like “koschei” machines; the rumored existence of “Honored Guests” who are revealed to be hideous reptilian creatures trying to take over the Earth; and the discussed possibility of time travel that eventually comes together in a twist ending worthy of lesser M. Night Shymalan films. Each of these additions brings in various action scenes, which author Ben H. Winters (of “SSM”) renders competently but which feel more preposterous the longer one reads.

These elements aren’t deal-breakers on their own, but the critical failing of them is that they actually detract from the original – every time I feel real interest in the characters or setting, something outlandish completely breaks the flow. Anna is riding home on the train, considering the strange feelings Vronsky inspires in her despite her life as a wife and mother, when all of a sudden koschei attack the train and attempt “to plunge [their] heart-sucking electrode antenna into the chambers of her heart.” Kitty, pining away over tuberculosis and a broken heart, is recommended to go abroad by the doctor – and “thus were the Scherbatskys blasted into space.”

Granted, none of the titles in the mash-up field are intended to be taken seriously in the full definition of the word, but there was a strange sense of legitimacy to “Android Karenina’s” predecessors. “PPZ” kept Austen’s mannerisms and social context intact, with the zombie infestation seen as part of life they all grew accustomed to. “SSM” was more deliberately fantastical, but still managed to create a legitimate setting where the world had adapted to the “Ascension” and added new elements – remote cottages replaced with islands, London replaced by Sub-Marine Station Beta. In “Android Karenina,” the additions just feel silly at best and detrimental at worst – even the titular androids feel like mere simplifications of the original text, devices to personify character traits or voice internal dialogue.

This could also be attributed to the fact that Tolstoy, one of the legendary Russian writers and considered by some the greatest novelist of all time, is a far different animal to Jane Austen. I have not read all of the original “Anna Karenina” myself, but TLOTE’s own “Classical Anna” has and discussed it in great detail, praising it for “smooth and clear” prose with details “carefully picked to draw readers further into the world.” Tolstoy’s world is much more nuanced than Austen’s, a sprawling epic of complicated individuals where alterations resonate all the deeper – and the alterations made by Winters never seem to work in tandem with the source.

Overall, Tolstoy might not have been the best choice for adaptation – a choice made markedly clear because the mash-up is taking more from the original than it gives. At 538 pages “Android Karenina” is roughly as long as the first two Quirk Classics installments combined, but even at that length it’s still 300 pages shorter than contemporary translations of the original text. Several chapters have been edited down or removed entirely, and while the ones removed don’t seem to hurt the story (based on cursory review) there’s no telling how much characterization and context was stripped away as a result.

“Andoid Karenina” is a book that really doesn’t feel able to justify its existence – it adds nothing to Tolstoy appreciation, to the steampunk genre or to the mash-up movement it is trying to continue. It has a few curiosities here and there, but is for the most part taking a very sturdy framework and adding annoying bells and whistles that detract from the original’s effectiveness. Does this mean that it’s time to put this fledgling genre down? I’m not willing to go that far yet, but I will urge Quirk Classics to think twice if their next effort plans to put lasers or vampires into “War and Peace.”

Column: Reading List for Summer 2010

June 1, 2010

With the passing of Memorial Day, once again summer is rearing its well-tanned head to offer the promise of Adirondack chairs and rum-laced lemonades on the patio – and it can’t come soon enough in my opinion. Living in Portland, spring has consisted of the occasional insanely nice weekends bookending weeks of weather that alternate between constant light rain, partly cloudy days and moments of sun – often changing three times during my fifteen-minute drive to work. I’ve begun barricading myself in my apartment most days, refusing to emerge until the region makes up its blasted mind about what mood it wants to be in for the day.

Fortunately, the bunker approach has allowed me to scheme heavily about what books I intend to take outside, as well as have the time to sort through the contents of my shelves to see what needs to be read before more books can be acquired. And given the positive feedback and linking last year’s reading list inspired, I present once again to devoted/interested readers my literary earmarks for summer 2010. In the time between lists I still haven’t become famous enough for my recommendations to inspire legions of sales, but if you own these titles and want to mark them as recommended just sketch a fedora and highball glass on the copyright page.

1. The Wordy Mammoth: “Infinite Jest,” David Foster Wallace

Where’s Wallace? Where’s the boy, String? Oh, wait, there it is – still taking up a prominent place on my nightstand underneath the coaster for the evening’s bourbon. Yes, in the twelve months between lists I still have not moved “Infinite Jest” into the completed column, confounded both by its epic length and the fact that its massive footnotes are a Tonya Harding to the kneecap that is my reading experience. There have always been a long list of recommendations for this book from friends and other critics, and my admiration of Wallace has grown after reading his essay collection “Consider the Lobster,” but it’s never been able to capture my attention for long enough to make a respectable dent.

We’re going to take another stab at it this summer however, owing in part to my discovery of the Infinite Summer book group established last year, devoted to plowing through the title from June 21st to September 22nd and engaging in regular roundtables. Sadly, it won’t be continued this year (at least the site gives no indication) but I like the idea of setting a schedule on such a large reading project and balancing with other titles. About 82 pages a week for three months, interspersed with reading the site’s archived discussions, sounds like a completely practical way to spend part of the summer.

2. The Classical Education: “The Master and Margarita,” Mikhail Bulgakov

While I consider myself fairly well-rounded as a reader, spending time with the more established genres and the esoteric curiosities, I’ve never really gotten into the Russian authors to the extent I feel I should have. Despite their towering critical reputation amongst countless writers and at least one Russian book resolutely sitting in my top ten books of all time, I’ve never been motivated to seek out a Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky for casual reading or edification. I’m honestly unable to explain it, unless it’s some sort of a cultural gap or Russia-focused racism that extends only to their printed word.

But I always pride myself on being willing to put a few new bricks in the wall, and to take my next step into Mother Russia’s library “The Master and Margarita” seems like a good start. Filled with anti-Stalinist messages, cutting satire and the always reliable use of the Devil, it’s regarded as one of the greatest novels of the last century and managed to inspire a personal favorite song. Also, it’s far shorter than the sprawling epics that exemplify classic Russian literature, and since I picked up a nicely aged paperback from a small shop in Eau Claire, WI while visiting my brother a couple of years ago it won’t be hard to find a copy.

3. The Recently Critically Acclaimed: “The Imperfectionists,” Tom Rachman

A curious tangent relates this to the previous pick. Having heard about an interesting title on Russian authors on the New York Times Book Review podcast (which you all should listen to), I went to their website to find the original review when I was confronted with Christopher Buckley’s glowing review of “The Imperfectionists.” Being one of my favorite columnists and critics (and a one-time review subject), I pay close attention to Buckley’s words, and when he calls a new release “alternately hilarious and heart-wrenching… assembled like a Rubik’s Cube,” I sit up and take note.

I did a bit more reading into the title, and not only has it been positively reviewed by other venues whose critical opinions I respect, but the plot circles around a topic very dear to my heart: my beloved newspaper industry and the esoteric characters who make it up. It appears to be assembled in the piecemeal style I find attractive in some novels, more like a collection of short stories, allowing for easier access and reading in spells without breaking the flow. Watch this space for a very likely review of my own.

4. The It’s-Been-A-While/Argumentative Support: “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald

In one of the late Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels, his white knight P.I. is on assignment in Los Angeles and wanders into a bookstore, picking up a copy of “The Great Gatsby” because he simply has to reread it every few years and it’s time again. And this summer, I share Spenser’s mentality – having not read the book in at least a year and a half – and have decided it’s time to delve back into the world of single dreams and green lights. I’ve always been impressed by the inhuman grace Fitzgerald has for choosing the right words, and the Gatsby story is a narrative in literature’s highest tiers.

My motivation is also driven by the way several people I know have reacted to pinning the word “classic” on the title, culminating in a string of “Gatsby”-bashing on my Facebook page when I attributed a page of it to my current mood. The general sense seemed to be that it was seen as an “overrated piece of shit” (per my friend Liam) and with so much time since my last reading I couldn’t mount a proper defense. So this read will allow me to see whether I continue to stand in stalwart defense or if I find my views shifting to the realm of parody.

5. The Genre Fiction Immersion: “Boneshaker,” Cherie Priest

As the above four titles probably indicated to you, my reading habits tend to skew towards books that are classified as straight literature rather than falling into any specific genre. However, I do believe in a balanced literary diet, and enjoy the occasional dip into genre fiction, and seeing “Boneshaker” prominently displayed on the best-seller shelves at Powell’s peaked my interest. With alternative history fiction (post-Civil War Seattle), a zombie plague and airships galore all included, it looks like a cocktail of elements to fire off all my geek cylinders.

It won’t be the only steampunk book I read this summer (amongst others, Quirk Classics’ “Android Karenina” is next on the reviewing slate to see how the nascent series proceeds) but it does seem to have the purest devotion to its subject and widest offerings. Plus, it’s the winner of the 2010 Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award for Best Science Fiction Novel by a Northwest Author, and I support my local authors as much as my local businesses.

6. The Essay Collection/Later Years Offering: “A Man Without A Country,” Kurt Vonnegut

With half my list already devoted to full-on novels, I figure it’s about time to break it up and add something more fitted to my busy lifestyle. As my excuse for not reading “Infinite Jest” goes, I do a lot of reading on the go, and a book that can be read in chunks without breaking the flow is usually the default choice to carry around. “Consider the Lobster” recently filled that role, as did Sarah Vowell’s “The Partly Cloudy Patriot” and The New York Times“Writers on Writing.”

This summer’s shorter selection is “A Man Without A Country,” the last book published in Vonnegut’s lifetime (the posthumous “Armageddon in Retrospect” being the last Vonnegut book proper) in which he unleashes his trademark cynicism on the Bush administration and other failures of our time. Beyond practical length, it’s got several supporting arguments in my sphere: I read his other later years novel “Timequake” in recent months and found it invigoratingly clever, and TLOTE’s own Carrie Lorig gave it rave reviews upon its initial release back in 2006. Vonnegut may not have had a chance to grade this one in comparison to his other works, but I have a suspicion it’ll hold up well.

7. The Modern Classic: “Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West” Cormac McCarthy

Having checked “The Road” off the list after last summer had come and gone (just in time for the stirring film adaptation), my admiration for how Cormac McCarthy wields the English language has only increased. His excision of quotation marks and apostrophes, his spartan prose, his incredibly strong characters and plots – all of them have led me to dub him not only the spiritual successor to William Faulkner but our greatest living writer.

And while I have spent a good deal of time with McCarthy, I haven’t yet gotten into the work widely considered his magnum opus. “Blood Meridian,” the saga of a teenage runaway who took up with a notorious gang of scalp hunters, has been praised not only as a wonderfully bleak interpretation of the concept of America’s manifest destiny, but also one of the finest novels of the 20th century. It might be a little bit too dark for a summer read, but the fact that I’ll be able to take long walks outside afterwards should offset any potential psychic scarring.

8. The Posthumous Blockbuster Read: “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” Stieg Larsson

This is a party that’s gotten a lot of buzz over the last few years but it’s one I find I’ve come a bit late to. For those unfamiliar, author Stieg Larsson was a Swedish journalist known for his campaigns against against right-wing extremism, who died of a heart attack in 2004. He left behind three novels he wrote after work for his own pleasure, novels that have come to be known as The Millenium Trilogy and which have since sold 27 million copies worldwide. (For a better grasp on his story, read this excellent piece from The New York Times Magazine.)

Given that we all need a good thriller for summer beach reading, and last week’s release of the third volume “The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest,” it doesn’t seem like there’s a better time to get started with the trilogy. Additionally, with a well-received film adaptation making the rounds in the smaller indie theaters, it’s perfect fodder for an upcoming Text-to-Screen Ratio. If Swedish filmmakers have proven anything, it’s that they can make virtually perfect films when they look to books for source material.

9. The Book Club Attractant: “The Wrestler’s Cruel Study,” Stephen Dobyns

With my local book groups fragmenting for varied reasons, I’ve been on the prowl for a new source of recommendations and discussions, and I think I’ve found one in The Onion A.V. Club‘s Wrapped Up In Books online book club. Having been a part of the Literature and Libations book group back in Madison, I know for a fact that the A.V. Club has terrific taste in books (I learned of “Geek Love” and “The Savage Detectives” through there), and as I mentioned with Infinite Summer, the more written discussion there is about a book the more invested I get. Unfortunately, with my existing schedule I haven’t been participating on time – I’m always reluctant to show up without doing my homework.

However, I did manage to pick up a gorgeous hardcover version of the March title “The Wrestler’s Cruel Study” for only $5 at Powell’s before the deadline passed, and while not reading it on time it seems a shame to let it go to waste. Described by the group’s moderator as a mix of “fairy-tale mythos, Nietzsche quotations, and the World Wrestling Federation,” it has the prerequisite oddness and strength of ideas I’ve come to expect from A.V. Club selections. Plus, the original discussions are all archived on their website, giving a sound resource to fall back on between chapters.

10. The Book I’ll Be Rereading: “Chronicles: Volume One,” Bob Dylan

The only category making an appearance from last year’s list, this choice meshes with the recent reactivation of my Bob Dylan appreciation. With the legend’s birthday last week I decided to throw on a few of his albums in tribute, and I found that my conception of what his albums mean has matured over the years (though I remain forcefully convinced of the superiority of “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”). As such, I’m interested to see what his book will mean a few years after the first read.

I once said of the book that it “read like [Dylan] blended his best albums with Jack Kerouac,” and unlike several of my opinions this one hasn’t changed over time. It doesn’t provide any tell-all details of his life or illuminate his songwriting process, but fans have come to expect cryptic replies over the years in exchange for the sheer depth of what Dylan provides to his listeners. I have my doubts that we’ll ever see the two additional volumes that have been promised for this series – Dylan being Dylan, after all – so we’ll have to see if this one will be enough.

While I didn’t get through more than half of my list last year, I’m more optimistic about this year’s selection, given the fact that I have most of these titles on hand already and have lived in Portland long enough to pick out the best spots for reading outside. What’s everyone else thinking of?