Column: Reading List for Summer 2011

May 31, 2011

Welcome back everyone to The Lesser of Two Equals! After a two-month hiatus (reasons for which I explained in prior posts) punctuated only with the occasional review, I’m once again trying to restore some sort of regularity to the blog’s coverage. It remains a rocky slope depending on what I have the time and energy levels for, but out of a mixture of stubbornness and loyalty I refuse to let the digital equivalent of dust gather on these pages. Multiple efforts are going on behind the scenes to continue offering some form of coverage, both what you’ve loved before and a few new tricks you might also like.

And coincidentally, those efforts happen to overlap with Memorial Day and the anniversary of one of the most popular features on The Lesser of Two Equals in years past (2009 and 2010 to be more specific), that of the summer reading list. As the name implies, this is where I go through my bookshelf and recommendations and dig out a variety of titles that I’ll try to work through over the summer, whether I’m on the top of Beacon Rock or lounging by the Willamette River or ensconced in my fantastic new reading chair. And once again, I like to flatter myself that I’ve selected a bumper crop this year of books worth reading, worth talking about, and quite possibly worth reviewing in greater detail.

Incidentally, regular readers might notice that this year the reading list has been cut from ten titles to six, and there are three reasons for this. First, in the past two years at least half of the list has gone unread for one reason or another, leaving me with little to say about the titles by Labor Day, so this time we’ll just take out the pretense that I’ll get them done. Second, with a second blog I’ve decided to split the workload by also doing a summer viewing list of the first seasons of five shows I’ve never watched in detail. And third, most of what I have on this list are pretty damn long or dense titles, so on average this probably still equates to reading ten books this summer.

(Though I couldn’t quite bring myself to cut the list down to five. Old habits die hard.)

1. The Unread Classic: “Catch-22,” Joseph Heller

Having recently just polished off Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Hundred Years of Solitude” – a book so inspired and wide-spanning that I literally don’t feel qualified to review it – it’s about time to dip back into my backlog and pick out an established masterpiece that for one reason or another I’ve never gotten around to reading. This summer’s target happens to be Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” a book I acquired from a friend moving to New York and whose bookshelf I had the privilege of picking clean.

The obvious critical acclaim for the title is a main reason for its selection, but another one is that – rarely for me – I know absolutely nothing about this book. It’s another one of those titles that I somehow missed all of the English classes that would have discussed it, and any mention of it in the various critical essays I read in my spare time, to the point where I don’t even know the names of the main characters or direction of the plot. Even the definition of the term has been somewhat fluid for me – I feel like I know what it means but I wouldn’t feel comfortable using it in conversation without double-checking Wikipedia.

And personally? I find that very exciting. My own innate curiosity keeps me from going into a lot of things cold, so I can’t wait to see how this one holds up.

2. The Second Installment in a Long-Term Investment: “A Clash of Kings,” George R.R. Martin

Earlier this year, my old friend Ben Kream encouraged me to start investing some time into George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, considered to be one of the most seminal works in the fantasy genre. I moved away from fantasy literature as I entered college, despite a long-standing high school relationship with the works of R.A. Salvatore and Terry Goodkind, but his unbridled enthusiasm for the series and desire to talk shop with me about it was enough to hook my interest. And the fact that HBO was preparing a lavishly produced show about it meant it overlapped with my burgeoning TV criticism, so I decided that the first title “Game of Thrones” would be worth my attention.

I did, and it became one of those rare books I stop reading only because I realize the coffee shop I’m in is about to close. It was everything that was promised – full of interesting and nuanced characters, a completely new and yet intricately detailed world, nothing in the way of black and white morality – and I plowed through it with great enthusiasm. I’m ridiculously behind on the show – only about three episodes in at time of writing – but have already been consumed by its atmosphere and performance and will probably have more to say about it once I clear some other shows out of the way.

With a second season of Game of Thrones already greenlit by HBO and the fifth installment “A Dance With Dragons” to be published this July, the series clearly has no sign of slowing down and it’s high time I make a serious effort to get caught up. I’ll likely wait until the first season wraps to get started as I don’t want to taint any of the remaining episodes with knowledge of what comes next

3. The Much-Nagged-About Graphic Novel: “100 Bullets,” Brian Azzarello

I tend to take recommendations for reading whenever I can, recognizing as I do that the amount of media I consume makes it almost certain that something is going to slip through the cracks, but every so often a recommendation keeps getting ignored no matter how many times it’s pushed upon me. “100 Bullets” certainly falls under that category – my brother Neil has been pushing this noir/pulp inspired graphic novel series on me for at least a year now, claiming it’s apparently a series tailor-made for my tastes. Recently he splurged on a complete hardcover set for his birthday, and he’s promised to send it to me once he finishes rereading it.

Even if he doesn’t (and if you’re reading this Neil I hope you’ll mind your promise) it’s clearly past time for me to get started. I’ve never been a huge comic fan as I have an aversion to stories that extend and retcon themselves past the point of coherence, but I have enjoyed several enclosed graphic narratives like Watchmen, Preacher, V for Vendetta and The Goon to name a few.

And also, given that he bought hardcover versions, I’m fairly certain that Neil might literally beat me over the head with them until I hunker down and start reading. I like being hit with recommendations, but there’s a limit.

4. The Posthumous Offering from a Master: “The Pale King,” David Foster Wallace

As I mentioned in last year’s list, the wordy mammoth of “Infinite Jest” is one of the rare books I’ve never been able to work my way through. I don’t know if it’s the impressive length, the voluminous footnotes or the niggling doubt that I’m not smart enough to be reading this, but for some reason I’ve just never been able to reach the singularity between pages 250-300 where the book becomes virtually impossible to put done. I thought about putting it back on this list after it failed to be cleared from the deck in 2010, but experience has taught me that it probably won’t be finished this summer either – at least not given the already impressive demands on my time.

However, I’ll still be spending some time with the late David Foster Wallace this summer thanks to “The Pale King,” released only a month and a half ago thanks to the efforts of Wallace’s friends, editors and agents. Described as Wallace’s “vocational memoir” and assembled from the final manuscript as well as hundreds of sketches and loose notes, the book has been critically acclaimed despite (and possibly because) it exists in such a fractured state. It’s apparently not the next “Infinite Jest” – not that anyone was expecting it to be such – but it’s apparently still possessed of Wallace’s innate brilliance to the point that few readers have said it’s a book worth avoiding.

Beyond being free of the overwhelming reputation and scope of “Infinite Jest,” I’ve got a personal reason to want to read this as well. Posthumous works of beloved authors are a particular point of interest for me (see my review of Gilbert Sorrentino’s “The Abyss of Human Illusion,” which I’m fairly certain no one ever has) because I find them a fascinating window into the creative process of an author and an opening for constant speculation on where the story could have gone. And given Wallace’s unequivocal genius and tragic emotional problems, his swan song should have plenty of both.

5. The Anticipated Reread: “Anansi Boys,” Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman’s always been one of my favorite authors – endlessly imaginative, good-humored and always the sort who seems to have the glow of something undefinable gently held between his fingers – and lately, he’s been popping up in the news with surprising regularity. First, a rather startling event earlier this month regarding Minnesota’s state budget where House Majority Leader Matt Dean called Gaiman “a pencil-necked little weasel” for taking a $45,000 speaking engagement at a library (money Gaiman donated to charity afterwards) which got large numbers of his fans up in arms. He’s also penned a recent episode of Doctor Who called “The Doctor’s Wife” which I haven’t seen yet (I’m still on the David Tennant years) but which was very well-received and apparently translated some of Gaiman’s best themes to the world of the Doctor.

So given that he’s been so much on the radar lately, I figured it would only be fair to devote this summer’s reread slot to one of his titles, namely 2005’s “Anansi Boys.” I first read this back in 2008 when I was part of the late Madison book group ‘The League of Literature and Libations,’ and seemed to enjoy it more than the rest of the group. With three years gone past, the details have faded from memory but the overall positive feelings have not – I found the book incredibly funny and moving at the time, containing a pastiche of mythology and fantasy that paired very well with ideas on family and destiny.

And given that the book is a spin-off of Gaiman’s legendary novel “American Gods,” this will also serve as an appetizer for that book in the fall. I thought about adding it to this list instead but quickly dismissed it, given how epic-heavy this summer’s list is.

6. The Authorial Introduction: “The Diamond Age,” Neal Stephenson

Beyond the obvious goal of picking out interesting titles to read, one of the main things I try to use my summer reading list for is to get caught up on some of the authors I’ve always meant to read. Neal Stephenson’s one who’s been on that list for several years – a science/historical fiction author who’s garnered vast critical respect in both fields, and with an impressive knowledge of physics and computer engineering. I’ve owned copies of “Cryptonomicon” and “Quicksilver” for some time now, though their impressive length and breadth (and “Quicksilver” being part of a trilogy) have been helpful excuses for me to not get started with them.

To begin my authorial introduction, I’ll be starting with Stephenson’s 1995 novel “The Diamond Age,” a novel dealing with nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. Yet another book I don’t know terribly much about, but one that’s certainly shorter than the other novels I mentioned and has the distinction of winning the Hugo and Locus awards the next year. And based on the first line, a novel I can already tell is geared toward my tastes – I can be picky about my literature, and I know any novel that contains the opening “skated over to the mod parlor to update his skull gun” contains at least some appeal.

(And upon reflection of the list, I realize this now makes three of the six entries on the list are directly or indirectly tied to the name Neil. I’ll try to play a little After the Gold Rush when reading the others to keep it thematically consistent.)

So, that’s the vast plate I’ve set for myself this summer. What’s on everyone else’s shelf?


Book Review: Unfamiliar Fishes

May 4, 2011

Unfamiliar Fishes

By Sarah Vowell

Published March 22, 2011

Riverhead Books

256 pp.

ISBN 1-594-48787-1

Reviewed May 4, 2011

If Sarah Vowell has a knack for anything, it’s for digging the most interesting things out of topics that most casual readers wouldn’t even take a second glance at. A self-described “civics nerd,” she can expound on topics ranging from the lunchroom at Carlsbad Caverns to the “sad sack quality of Canadian chronology” to the diary of President Garfield, and still manage to pull out connections to real life and other history that makes her theories a joy to experience. Her last book, “The Wordy Shipmates,” found dynamic personas in the stereotypically staid environment of Puritan New England, discovering the lively debate that shaped the earliest cities and states in America.

Now in her latest book, “Unfamiliar Fishes,” she’s moved from the first states to the last one, seeing how the American spirit of colonization and conversion shaped the fate of Hawaii’s people and culture over the last century and a half. And while the topic’s a bit denser and darker than her earlier work, “Unfamilar Fishes” is another satisfactory addition to the canon further cementing the fact that no one’s writing about history quite like Vowell, and that no one else is making it such an accessible read.

Vowell’s titular “unfamiliar fishes” are the ‘haole’ foreigners who manipulated Hawaii on its path to becoming the fiftieth member of the United States, beginning with the New England missionaries who sought a “bloodless conquest for Christ” in converting the native population and ending with those missionaries’ grandchildren handing the land over to America after overthrowing the last queen. She traces the path of Hawaii’s lost independence through decades of foreigners setting up shop, the diseases and conversions they brought with them, and how the seeds of revolt were sown by the commercial desires of settlers and the gradually decaying base of the monarchy.

In my review of “The Wordy Shipmates” I noted the shift from her travelogue/essay format to a more formal academic feeling, and “Unfamiliar Fishes” does continue the structured approach to her work. While she bounces from past to present in mixing in her own real-life experiences, the narrative remains mostly chronological and straightforward as it goes through Hawaiian history, with regular callbacks to earlier points of importance tying it all together. She’s said she sees her work as a form of journalism, and it’s clear she’s done her research – she dips liberally into the letters and memoirs of the original missionaries, and supports it with the stories told by Hawaiian museum tour guides and scholars.

However, at the same time the book also feels much more unfocused and at times scattershot than “The Wordy Shipmates,” possibly as a consequence of the wider timeframe. With decades of letters and regime changes to cover there’s less time to focus on the story’s more characterful players, as she did with presidential assassins or Puritan colonists. Vowell’s thought process, while always charming in the random connections she makes, shows a bit of strain to maintain the same era while at the same time jumping from the Polynesian Triangle to Voltaire to President McKinley. Given the wide swath of time and generational cast involved, it also wouldn’t have hurt to include family trees of the royalty and missionaries to show just how intertwined this saga was.

That said, these changes don’t do anything to dilute Vowell’s inimitable style or just how readable she makes American history. Vowell has an innate grasp of analogy – she can see a Bible verse on helping Macedonia to the high-fructose corn syrup of American colonization – and an open mind to both sides to see their similarities, as the earliest days of missionary contact becomes “the story of traditionalists squaring off.” And while they are fewer than in other books there are a few figures of particular interest in the history of Hawaii – standouts are Henry Obookiah, one of the earliest Hawaiian converts to to Christianity, and adventurer turned prime minister Henry Murray Gibson – and she makes sure that we spend enough time with them to stand out as characters. Long-time readers of Vowell will also be gratified to see the scenes of her recurring travel partner nephew Owen, now eight years old and with his own own interesting quirks: his goodbye over the phone happens to be “I love you! Don’t die!”

There’s a sense from Owen that he’s been infected with his aunt’s somewhat macabre sense of fascination in American history, and “Unfamiliar Fishes” is yet another example of why Vowell’s unique perspective on history remains infectious to readers as well. It’s a reliable choice for fans of her earlier work and anyone looking for a primer on Hawaiian history – maybe not the best book for the island’s beaches but certainly something to have on hand for the long flight in, so you can understand there’s far more to these islands than sun and garish shirts.