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?

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Column: Summer Reading List 2010: The Fall

September 9, 2010

Once again, with the passing of Labor Day summer has drawn to its inevitable and mournful close. Children are heading back to school, work loads are heating up as vacations end and Portland has seen fit to send rain pouring on its residents’ heads with an almost Midwest-level intensity. I doubt we’ll see anything of that velocity, given that I’ve lived here two years and have yet to hear a single clap of thunder, but it’s entirely possible that my next spout of radio silence will be due to my apartment building being knocked down by a tornado and the ensuing waves of hipsters it scoops up.

Okay, that intro got a little off course, and I’ve got a lot to cover so we’ll move on. In any case, with the end of the summer also comes the end of my summer reading list, the ten titles I scooped up at the end of May to read through for a variety of reasons. Some of them were selected to clean the shelves off of titles that have gone unread for too long, some catch up on some new releases that my schedule rarely allows for, and one or two so I can revisit old classics to see what I’ve missed or forgotten since the last time around. And once again, I’m going to take some space to see how I did to evaluate my progress and some brief reviews on the titles I chose.

As I mentioned last year, these thoughts will vary in length due to the disparate amount of time spent reading particular titles, how much I enjoyed them or whether or not I plan to review in greater detail later on. Feel free to skim if you must, since honestly there was a bit of that here and there this summer as well.

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

To answer the question in advance: no, I did not manage to read the entirety of “Infinite Jest” this summer as I challenged myself to do back in the start of June. Yet more than ever, I’m convinced that this delay has nothing to do with the book’s quality, as this was one of the more rewarding attempts to plow through. I got at least 100 pages further than I ever have – hitting the 250 mark – and even learned to appreciate the convention of the footnotes. And I also found myself being more drawn into the characters and the chapters than has ever happened in previous readings – Hal Incandenza is rapidly turning into a great tragic figure, and the chapter on what you learn by hanging around a rehab halfway house is nothing short of brilliant.

But despite my raised esteem for the title and genuinely enjoyable reading sessions, I still couldn’t get further than 250 pages in, and I think I’ve finally figured out why: after those 250 pages of reading, I couldn’t tell you anything that had happened in the book. The cast and setting had been fleshed out a great deal, with scores of interesting characters and locations, but other than a drug deal here and there nothing had moved forward in a way that could be considered plot.

I’ve got nothing against a book taking its time getting to the action, nor will I begrudge an author setting the scene if that staging is done as well as some of “Infinite Jest’s” sections. The problem I have is that I could read two different novels in the time it took me to get to the quarter-mark in this one, and as well-written as it is the action just isn’t compelling enough to justify further investment of time at once. I’ll certainly finish it at some point – it’s too well done not to – but it’ll be in pieces over the weeks and months rather than one long stretch.

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

My sophomore effort into reading Russian authors (freshman being the exceptional “Novel with Cocaine”) proved to be one of the most rewarding reading experiences of the summer. I’ve always had a fondness for depictions of the Devil and his minions in literature, and this one earned a lot of favor very quickly with its rogues’ gallery of Professor Woland, Koroviev, Behemoth and Azazello. For no other purpose than their own amusement, they toy with the intellectual elite of Moscow, granting them an audience and seeming enlightenment before sending them to the sanitarium one by one. The Devil has always been the most interesting when he lets men damn themselves rather than go against them with force, and this book was loaded with interesting examples.

Beyond the Devil and his minions, the titular Master and Margarita offer a great deal to the story, though their time together never really seems to carry the intensity it should. The Master’s book on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ paints a wonderful picture of both ancient Judea and its tormented ruler Pontius Pilate, a novel-within-a-novel that pairs very well with the overarching story. And Margarita, called to serve at Woland’s great ball, showcases the free acceptance of  powers and depravity Satan can provide, hosting a dark carnival full of truly stirring visuals.

This may even turn out to be the gift that keeps on giving. I’ve never paid much attention to who’s doing the translations of non-English works (as I’m sure I’ve said before, something’s always lost when you’re not reading in an author’s native tongue) but in the case of “The Master” it might matter as I’ve learned the translation I read (Mirra Ginsberg’s translation for Grove Press) is an incomplete one based on Soviet edits. So, when it comes time to reread, it might be in my best interests to seek out another other translations considered superior both by scholars and native Russian readers – and then revisit the original for comparison.

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

I said in my original list that the reason I picked this one was partially because it had been a couple of years since the last read-through, and partially because I’d had a few friends lambaste it for various reasons and I wanted to be in a position to defend it. Having read through it again, I will be willing to grant that I understand the points I’ve heard made over the years. Several of the characters are one-dimensional and occasionally border on stock, it spends a great deal of time on minutiae and might be a bit too heavy-handed in its symbolism.

But while I agree to understand those points, I have to reject each of them based on my counterargument: that the writing style is nothing short of pure art, and criticism is equivocal to picking on a Monet for being in an ugly frame. Fitzgerald toiled over “Gatsby” for years to get every word right, and it shows – the phrases and descriptions are note perfect, the garden parties depicted with an almost mystical energy. It’s long been said that Hunter S. Thompson typed out the entire book in his younger years and during periods of writer’s block, and after reading it yet again I’m starting to think that doing so would be a better assignment for English students instead of writing generic analysis.

So to those of you who attack “The Great Gatsby” or consider it a bad book, I make one of my rare declarative statements: you are wrong. Every one of them words rang true and glowed like burning coal.

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

The first book I finished this summer, “A Man Without A Country” turned out to be vintage Vonnegut – my last Vonnegut reading was his novel/memoir “Timequake,” and this continued the vein of shorter pieces that boiled down his observations on life, love and America in a few very choice phrases. He spoke of being a child of the Great Lakes rather than the oceans (lakes I miss very deeply, being marooned out in Oregon), the creation of an axis to map the action in creative writing and his devotion to humanism as the rare faith that makes sense. This led to one of my favorite Vonnegut quotes, which I managed to work into his obituary I wrote in college: “Should I ever die, I hope you will say ‘Kurt is up in Heaven right now.’ That’s my favorite joke.”

However, while reading the pieces I found it hard to shake that this book somehow felt more cynical, more negative than other Vonnegut works, even though much of it was still infused with the typical black comedy. There was a sense of resignation bordering on the fatalistic, that in sharing the twilight of his life with the George W. Bush administration and the rampant capitalism and pollution was about the last straw.  “I know of very few people who are dreaming of a world for their grandchildren,” he says at one point, and after a while the viewpoint sinks in a bit too heavily for some.

But for all of that, it still maintained that streak of ironic philosophy he was so well known for – and which the book managed to crystallize with its art, each chapter peppered with full-page hand-lettered statements produced by Origami Express. These are statements of Vonnegut’s inestimable wisdom that could have been scribbled in his notepad and that belong on desks and frames, to be said to yourself when you feel a bit adrift or lost in thought. And in those occasions where everything is going right, heed his advice and say out loud: “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

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

This one was last on the list due to a regular excuse – it wound up buried on a pile on the nightstand until mid-August – and at the time of writing, I’m only about 100 pages into it. That’s a shame, because it’s rapidly becoming one of my favorite McCarthy books and one of the best ones on this list. Following the adventures of the simply named “kid” as he heads west and crosses paths with the most brutal cast of pioneers since “Deadwood,” the book paints the frontier in McCarthy’s signature style: absolutely gorgeous in its undeveloped openness, but unforgiving for any of its characters who don’t take the time to prepare for environment and residents.

And the title is so appropriate: the book has more blood than a keg party for lazy storytelling, and battle scenes that are without punctuation (even moreso than other McCarthy works) are an unflinching and ceaseless display of what happens outside of civilization’s aegis. This is a violent book, but even in its most violent moments there’s nothing gratuitous about it – this is simply how it is, and you either adapt or you die.

Every so often, my interest in a particular genre or era will be kindled by one book alone, and this case “Blood Meridian” has catapulted me into the Wild West. I have about two-thirds of the book left, and I can’t wait to read more.

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

2010 was a good summer for Swedish authors in the Chappell household, with both Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and John Ajvide Lindqvist’s “Let the Right One In” finding their way off my shelves in the past month. I’ve already touched on “Tattoo’s” public presence in my recent Text-to-Screen (and “Let the Right One In” will get its attention next month) but independent of all that this book deserves the buzz and the praise it’s generated in the mainstream media. It’s a genuinely gripping and intricate mystery, with language that managed to be tense and exciting without ever becoming florid, and two sharply defined characters in Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist (though to be fair, I award bonus points for any novel where the heroes are a journalist and a social introvert).

I could go into a more intricate analysis of the book – what was lost in translation, its visceral scenes of sex and violence, whether or not changing the title from “Men who Hate Women” was a smart idea – but there’s only one thing I feel I need to say. After a few shifts of reading I was near the the halfway point before putting it down, and after resuming it at a coffee shop I sat there for three hours straight until it was done, without once moving and tuning out all baristas and customers after ordering. And for a suspense novel, I don’t think there’s any more of a recommendation I can grant.

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

This book inspired a lot of spirited debate when it went through The Onion A.V. Club‘s Wrapped Up In Books discussion process, and having finished it I can say that the debate was well-deserved. This is one hell of a complex book, meshing Christian mythology and Nietzschean philosophy with the bustling world of New York city and the glitzy world of professional wrestling. It’s frequently over-the-top, written in a poetic style that directly speaks to the reader constantly, and is juggling so many threads that the main character’s frustration can carry over along with the narration. Duality is a constant theme in the book, so it’s not surprising that it’s sure to be one that polarizes readers.

But in that polarization, I’m on the end that enjoyed this one a great deal. It reminded me quite a bit of John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces” (and to a lesser extent Gilbert Sorrentino’s “Crystal Vision”), creating a cast of well-defined oddballs who are turned loose in a well-known American city and whose paths keep overlapping, often without their knowledge. Dobyns’ background as a poet means the language is occasionally misleading but never dull, and none of the philosophy specifics are exactly essential to the plot. It’s the big picture, the debate on duality and image that matters, and the story’s cast manage to illustrate that in at least a dozen different examples.

I enjoyed this one – and the attendant debate – so much that I’m actually preparing a longer Back Shelf Review on this one, so I won’t go too much further. Stay tuned!

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

For most people the summer reruns are something that you flip to when there’s nothing on and it’s not nice enough to go on an adventure, but for two years in a row now my summer reruns have deeply contributed to my appreciation of something I read in college. The first (and hopefully not last) volume of Dylan’s autobiography, the book paints a fascinating picture of Dylan’s time growing up in Minnesota and 1950s-60s New York City, deep in the small town and folk singer lifestyle. Dylan’s gift for language is on display here almost as much as his albums, and his voice describes the scenes with that indefinable voice that sounds more and more like America’s spirit the older he gets.

The book has also managed to kindle my interest in Dylan albums I wouldn’t normally seek out – chapters on the creation and production of New Morning and Oh Mercy takes up much more of the book’s narrative than I remembered in my last reading. I genuinely enjoyed the details he gave on generating songs like “Political World” and “Everything is Broken,” and it’s made me even more hopeful that the rumors that the next installment of “Chronicles” will have a similar chapter on Dylan’s legendary Blood on the Tracks.

Postscript: The Stragglers

Eagle-eyed readers will probably note that this list is incomplete. While this year turned out much better than the last one for finishing books, with my busy scholarly lifestyle there had to be some excisions – and this year’s happened to be Cherie Priest’s “Boneshaker” and Tom Rachman’s “The Imperfectionists.” This didn’t have anything to do with their quality, but more to do with how heavily both were in demand. To save some money I put holds on both through my local library, but was so far down the queue on each that I wasn’t able to get them until it started getting cold out – so sadly, there was no Genre Fiction Immersion or Recently Critically Acclaimed on the above list.

However, to give this story a happy ending, at the time of writing this my holds have finally come through and copies of both “Boneshaker” and “The Imperfectionists” are now sitting on the table in front of me. This is good news for all concerned, as to make up for not giving the the deserved attention this summer, I’m moving them into the reviewing queue. Loyal readers can expect to see reviews of both titles up by the time I have to take them back, and see in greater detail just what I think about internal journalistic drama or Pacific Northwest steampunk zombies.

So, six out of ten finished, one abandoned, one in progress and two to come. Not bad. How’d yours go?


Splendid American: A Eulogy for Harvey Pekar

August 6, 2010

Harvey Pekar at the 2005 Midwest Book Festival, autographing our correspondent's copy of "The Quitter."

When the word “writer” is spoken, it tends to call up a variety of traditional images. Some of us go for the romanticized image held by a young William S. Burroughs, where “writers are rich and famous… they lounged around Singapore and Rangoon smoking opium in a yellow pongee silk suit.” Others may think of the traditional academic with pipe and tweed jacket, while others visualize the adrenaline-jacked free association writer banging at the typewriter until the fingers start to bleed a bit. I doubt anyone’s first thought for the term would be a grouchy, balding, Cleveland native who spent the majority of his life working in a Veterans Affairs hospital and obsessed over the worst-case scenarios in every drive to the store.

But there’s one such person whom I’d call a true writer over many other candidates, and one such person whom the literary world tragically lost last month. Harvey Pekar, an career file clerk and the creator of the “American Splendor” comic series, passed away at his home in Cleveland, Ohio at the age of 70. The cause of death is still unknown, but as anyone who read his comics knew he was no stranger to health problems: at various times over the last few years he suffered from lymphoma, prostate cancer, asthma, high blood pressure and severe depression.

(Update 10/26/10: The coroner who conducted Pekar’s autopsy has since reported that Pekar’s cause of death was “an accidental ingestion of fluoxetine and bupropion,” better known as Prozac and Wellbutrin. Pekar had been taking both drugs at the time of his death.)

And readers knew all the details about not just Pekar’s health, but his financial issues, his marriages and a hundred other details about his life and surroundings. In a 35-year career Pekar became one of the most predominant autobiographical writers working in the comic medium – or any written medium, for that matter – by delving into his everyday life and the lives of those surrounding him, rather than superheroes or otherworldly situations. From the simple idea of making comics about the mundane, Pekar went on to a career that paid little but turned him into a figure as important to comics as Stan Lee or Alan Moore, someone whom a legion of writers owes without even knowing it.

“Well, let’s get this thing going. I’m Harvey Pekar, author and protagonist of this autobiographical comic story. Maybe you’ve read some of my gloomy stories here before. They appeal to people who are miserable and love company. I think if you feel rotten most of the time by a certain age, you’re always gonna feel lousy – your glass is always gonna be half empty. I don’t have it any worse than a lot of people, but I pity myself more. What else can I do? I can’t depend on them to pity me. Anyway, I look at it this way – anything that doesn’t kill me could be the basis of one of my stories.”

– Harvey Pekar, “Payback” (2000)

Pekar, who was introduced into the world of underground comics through a friendship with R. Crumb, approached it with an attitude that was unique at the time – looking past the basic framework of comics as “funny pages” or telling bombastic superhero stories. Living an unsatisfying life in decaying Cleveland neighborhoods and working as a file clerk for the VA, Pekar was understandably looking for some outlet for the everyday annoyances that beset him. Waiting in line behind elderly Jewish ladies, the endless monotony of a depressing office job, selling second-hand pop records to support his jazz collection – these stories seemed not only more real than mainstream comics but more interesting to Pekar, and he thought the comic layout could carry those stories.

And Pekar managed not only to carry these stories, but make them “mundane bordering on exotic” as Crumb would later say. The issues of “American Splendor” had an almost epic feel to them in many ways, as he hustled his way through each day he struggled to get up for in the mornings. He was fighting little battles – turf wars between VA departments, better deals on repairs to his car, getting the right groceries for his wife – and readers were caught up in the “lose many, win some” attitude that kept him plugging away day after day. Thanks to collaboration with a broad range of artists – Crumb, Gary Dumm, Frank Stack, Joe Sacco and Dean Haspiel to name a few – the stories also had a varied appearance and proved comic panels could be dynamic without action scenes.

“Underground comics had already proved that comics could appeal to adults. They were as good an art form as any that existed. Comics are words and pictures – you can do anything with words and pictures. So I thought, why couldn’t I write about everyday quotidian subjects in comics? Why couldn’t comics be about the lives of working stiffs? We’re as interesting and funny as everyone else.”

– Harvey Pekar, The Quitter

The stories he chronicled were interesting and funny, but they wouldn’t have been so without Pekar’s keen ear in capturing the personalities of the people he portrayed. His “genuine nerd” coworker Toby Radloff, his third wife Joyce Brabner or his inimitable boss Mr. Boats – they were people who were genuine characters, and he made them seem real without being caricatures. This likely has to do with the fact that Pekar began his writing career in his teens as a jazz critic, and his fascination – one which he and many others would call obsession – with the way the music worked no doubt shaped his ability to listen to other people and get a feel for their dialect and mannerisms.

Not only did this background help him write, but it also led to further expansion of comic storytelling. Many “American Splendor” highlights came when Pekar spent his time talking about topics that interested him, be they improvisation of obscure jazz musicians or Russian experimental authors or a life-long resident’s view on why Cleveland’s rebirth post Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was a joke. Pekar wasn’t just lucky to be hearing what he heard, his was a cunning and critical mind that knew what it was talking about, and the strength of his intellect both strengthened the stories he told and added to readers’ regret he couldn’t earn a better life. (As a side note, I lived in Cleveland for three years during my childhood, and my own grim memories of that time certainly back up Pekar’s observations.)

But while the intellect driving Pekar’s work was exceptional, it paled next to the undeniable honestly he wrote about his life. Although he occasionally used pseudonyms like Jack or Herschel for his main character, the comics never hid that he was writing about himself – and in the most unflattering light. In stories he was cheap to the point of miserly, drove away wives and girlfriends with his complaining, and dwelled heavily on being alone and bored over the weekends. The words “curmudgeon” and “misanthrope” were attributed in virtually every article about him, and he never disassociated himself with any such term or took pride in it. To put it bluntly, Pekar was Pekar, a man whose stories came as much from his dissatisfaction and worry as his ear for conversation – and the more he raged, the more his audience sided with him.

“OK. This guy here, he’s our man, all grown up and going nowhere. Although he’s a pretty scholarly cat, he never got much of a formal education. For the most part, he’s lived in shit neighborhoods, held shit jobs, and he’s now knee-deep into a disastrous second marriage. So, if you’re the kind of person looking for romance or escapism or some fantasy figure to save the day… guess what? You’ve got the wrong movie.”

– Harvey Pekar, “American Splendor” (film narration)

During my college career, I had the good fortune to see Pekar speak on two occasions at the University of Wisconsin – even writing about one of them – and found him to be an immensely rewarding presence on stage. As unassuming in real life as he was on the page – he almost walked onto the stage during the moderator’s introduction, and then quickly headed behind the curtain – Pekar was grouchy but also somewhat affable, perfectly willing to answer any question directed at him by the moderator or the audience. He didn’t have any interest in deceiving an audience, calling this a “rotten night” and admitting that the various writing contracts he’d gotten as a result of the “American Splendor” film were a good thing because he “could really use the bread.”

Around the time of his second visit for the Midwest Book Festival in 2005, I also had the opportunity to have my copy of his novella “The Quitter” personally autographed, and later had the privilege of reviewing it for my local newspaper. In a rather Pekarian frame of mind, I debated at the time whether or not to send a copy of my review his way, but put it off because even though I reviewed it favorably I was worried about his reaction. It remains one of my regrets in this career, compounded by the fact that I was too young to seek him out when I lived in Cleveland.

For those who have not had the opportunity to read “American Splendor” or any of Pekar’s other works, “The Quitter” also serves as probably the best introduction. Most of the details can be found in my earlier review, but as a first step it works because “The Quitter” manages to condense many of the stories on his family and early job experiences, scattered through previous issues. It also helps that thanks to the solid art style of Dean Haspiel, Pekar’s story is unified in a way anthologies of “American Splendor” comics lack. It’s not as as strongly written as some “American Splendor” issues (though definitely not as bad as some critics said) but its a reliable Cliffs Notes for the series.

After this introduction gives the right understanding of what Pekar readers are in for, it’s simple enough to jump into any of the anthologies that have been collected over the years. I’m partial to “Best of American Splendor” (which I actually won as a door prize at the MBF) but the most famous “Splendor” stories are contained in “The New American Splendor: From Off the Streets of Cleveland,” and “American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar.” Pekar’s life and work was also adapted into the 2003 film “American Splendor,” staring Paul Giamatti as Pekar, and it’s a film that nails the beat of Pekar’s writing and attitude and taking only the appropriate liberties with chronology. From the film, he was also able to expand into other writing projects, ranging from a graphic history of Beat writers to the political state of Masadonia.

And if you happen to be as cheap as Pekar, there’s a way to introduce yourself to his style for free. In his last months Pekar, notorious for his technophobia across all computer platforms, actually made the bridge to webcomic writer thanks to The Pekar Project on Smith Magazine. Collaborating with a pool of new artists, the project allowed Pekar to tell new “Splendor”-type stories on a biweekly basis, waxing about Comedy Central or Muncie, Indiana. It’s certainly worth checking out, if only for the fact that according to its creator the project still has several unpublished Pekar stories to bring to life – a posthumous offering appropriate for such a workhouse of a writer.

But sadly, the one posthumous offering we won’t get is the one that would be his perfect swan song: if the Angel of Death had given him ten final minutes to write one last story for the Project or Crumb or Haspiel to illustrate. This might come across as a little insensitive – asking a man to work before their goodbye-cruel-world – but if anyone would have been unreservedly angry, unabashedly honest and tragically funny with the Grim Reaper tapping his watch over their shoulder, it would have been Harvey Pekar. Here’s hoping he’s found the peace that eluded him so on the streets of Cleveland.

“I was alone all that weekend. I thought about “Jennie Gerhardt” an’ Alice Quinn an’ decades a’ faces ran through my mind. I felt like cryin’; life seemed so sweet and so sad an’ so hard t’let go of in the end. But this is Monday. I went t’work, hustled some records, came home an’ wrote this. Life goes on. Every day is a new deal. Keep workin’ and maybe sump’n’ll turn up.”

– Harvey Pekar, “Alice Quinn” (1982)

Our correspondent's personally autographed "The Quitter."


Column: Kafka and Unprinted Works

July 22, 2010

I think that one of the things I like most about the world of literature is that it seems that there is always some new discovery to be had. On one hand, there are the everyday discoveries that come from those who frequent the book fairs and thrift stores, perusing the shelves and trying to find a rarity that has gone unnoticed. For me, it’s the art of shifting through used books at Powell’s to find the best condition for lowest price, but for others it’s an art form and an obsession (not necessarily in that order).

And then on the other we have the discoveries of the lost works, some manuscript or archive that the publisher forgot about or the writer just misplaced. These works are the stuff of legends – the suitcase of notebooks Ernest Hemingway’s wife lost on a train to Geneva, or the safe deposit box where Truman Capote reportedly stashed the completed “Answered Prayers” to “be found when it wants to be found.” These don’t turn up nearly as often, but when they do it’s an event for celebration, one that gets literary scholars and masochistic English teachers equally excited.

This week saw one of these epic finds, with the announcement that safe deposit boxes in a Zurich bank have opened containing thousands of manuscripts by the legendary German author Franz Kafka. The boxes apparently contain letters, journals, sketches and drawings, many of which were never published either during Kafka’s life or after. With a group of German literary experts on hand to verify the work’s authenticity, it seems more than likely we are to be smote with many new metaphor fists in the near future.

Or are we? This is Franz Kafka after all, who when dying of tuberculosis in 1924 had only one request for his friend Max Brod: “Everything I leave behind me [is] to be burned unread.” This request included his novels “The Castle,” “The Trial” and “Amerika,” as well as multiple short stories and countless letters and diary entries. As should be entirely obvious, Brod ignored his friend’s request, arguing that that Kafka never would have made the request if he thought Brod would follow through with it. However, in not doing so, he touched off one of the most ironically Kafkaesque legal battles in recent literary history, with Brod’s daughters and the Israeli government locked in ownership debate. Even now, Eve Brod has petitioned the Israeli court to keep the contents of the box secret, while Israeli newspaper Haaretz has asked the court to allow publication based on literary value.

That debate will have to play out in days and weeks to come, but the discovery of these works does beg the question, brought to my attention by the Facebook feed of Powell’s Books. If we’re confronted with a find like this, something the author may have never meant the world to see, do we honor their wishes and toss it into a bonfire?

Being a rather liberal sort when it comes to the distribution of thoughts and words, I always err on the side of the latter. When a find like this is announced, the mere fact of discovering it changes the game immediately, removing it from the realm of Schrodinger’s manuscript and into the world of “coming attractions.” Interested parties, from critics to fans to booksellers, want to expand their world with the new discoveries, and those worlds are ones that are never satisfied with their additions. One need look only as far as bastions of literacy like The New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker, regularly commissioning very long, articulate pieces on authors’ collected letters and new editions that are as much review as authorial study, works that keep critics employed and are a joy to read. When measuring this against what an author wanted to do, the author loses.

But the fact that it was Kafka’s dying wish? Well, you can debate the merits of how much Brod really thought he was doing the right thing by his friend when he chose to publish the works against his wishes, but there’s an even bigger fact contradicting those wishes in the here and now: Kafka is dead. When alive, he certainly had every right to burn work he felt he was unsatisfied with (I could fill six notebooks with the ideas and articles I’ve cast into the abyss) but there’s a term limit on that right, expiring when the author does. You can’t take it with you, as the saying goes, so any conscientious author looking to keep their work out of the public eye needs to take that into their own hands.

And this isn’t on behalf of profit on the part of the finder/executor, or some obsessive-compulsive need to get the full picture on an author’s life, but on the grounds of aesthetic interest. If you discover the work of an author, and that work is something truly well-crafted, distinctive or even genius, that work deserves to be brought to light. A writer who enjoys even a sliver of recognition in their lifetime is one who belongs to the ages after they die, and that means whatever they left behind is there for us to interpret and shape.

So I can only hope that the judge sides with Haaretz and other petitioners and allows these volumes to spill into the public sphere – as Victor Hugo put it, “One withstands the invasion of armies; one does not withstand the invasion of ideas.” And if the judge doesn’t, well, that will just add to the mystique surrounding the contents until the next challenge comes up, and further complicate a situation that is both ironically, and appropriately, Kafkaesque.

Les Chappell is a warrior of words taking a stand. Those who wish to stand with him or oppose his free spirit may contact him at lmchappell@gmail.com.


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?


Text-to-Screen Ratio: Capturing the Voice

April 14, 2010

As I assume I’ve made apparent in this series of articles, there are a lot of problems inherent in adapting a book to film. Beyond the critical issue of immersion – books require a connection that a flash on a screen can never provide, no matter how much James Cameron might try to convince audiences otherwise – there are questions of detail, the decision on which characters and subplots to cut out, how closely you want to work with the author in developing the film’s storyboard, etc etc. This mix of concerns tends to complicate a lot of releases, either turning them into mediocre offerings that send purists to the streets with torches or creating films that many people have no idea are based on books.

One of the most critical sticking points to getting an adaptation right is the issue of narration, particularly in novels told from a first-person perspective. When the majority of a book is depicted as an inner monologue, reflecting only one character’s reactions and views of the setting around him, the screenwriter adapting it is faced with a particularly difficult choice. Do you change the format to depict other characters, thus moving further and further away from the original version’s story, or do you work that voice in and risk alienating your audience with one voice droning on?

There are plenty of examples of both in film, but in my experience I’ve found that the best adaptations of first-person novels are ones that go for the latter – chiefly on the strength of the actors they’ve selected for that voice. If you want viewers to invest in one character talking through the majority of the film, you need someone who can sell that character, convey in his actions and tone the personality that made the source material such a compelling read.

So with that in mind, please take a moment and review my personal picks for the best actors who perfectly capture the tone of a book’s original narration and perform that wonderful trick of making you hear their voice in your head every time you go back to the source material. I allow that this is based on favorites of mine rather than a broad general view of things, but I stand by each of my arguments.

1. Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”

Considering this is my favorite film and favorite book, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to start off this list, but from a professional standpoint it’s absolutely essential. Depp’s performance here is the main reason to watch this film – described as “a master of moving as though someone just pulled the plug on his power source” by J. Hoberman of the Village Voice, his Raoul Duke is a character soaked in intensity and paranoia. It’s a character that fits the gonzo label, one that can go in any direction, enjoying an anti-authoritarian rant one moment and slouching over a bar stool mumbling the next.

Depp’s tone is noticeably different from recordings of Thompson himself – much more jacked-up with less of the quiet “ho ho” tone – but he’s doing the right thing by varying it. His job wasn’t to match Thompson but the author’s alter ego of Duke, reflecting the strain of no sleep and continual ill-advised self-medicating. Each of the book’s immortal lines on golf shoes and devil ether are nailed, either filled with snap observations or the wisdom of a true dope fiend. In the scenes where he is alone and typing in the hell his hotel suite has become, the tone becomes sagelike, almost omniscient: someone who has fallen over the Edge but miraculously made it back with a report.

Off-screen, Depp’s performance earns bonus points for the level of immersion he took into preparing for the role. A long-time friend of Thompson, he lived in the basement of the Owl Farm compound for a few months to prepare for the role (as chronicled in his excellent obituary “A Pair of Deviant Bookends,” later adapted as the introduction for the oral history “Gonzo”), spending endless hours talking with him and reviewing the original manuscripts. In fact, his outfits in the film were mostly lifted straight from Thompson’s closet, the originals worn by Thompson as he was living the book in 1971. Depp was afforded a rare opportunity to literally step into the shoes of the character, and he took advantage of it in a way only a very talented actor could.

There was a very good reason why 2008’s “Gonzo” documentary featured Depp reading from Thompson’s books, and why the (hopefully) upcoming “The Rum Diary” film has him once again playing a Thompson doppelganger. No other actor inhabits the Doctor or his alter ego so completely.

2. Edward Norton as the Narrator (Jack), “Fight Club”

I could technically call this award a split between Norton and Brad Pitt for obvious reasons, but it’s Norton’s everyman who sells this film for me each time I watch it. A man trapped in a thankless job that quantifies death (automotive safety), he is unable to sleep and unable to cry, nullified by the washed-out mass-consumer world that surrounds him. In every one of his scenes, Norton portrays a caged helplessness, an anger and despair he doesn’t even know how to express anymore.

The insomnia and resignation all match the narrator’s tone, but what particularly sells Norton’s performance is how perfectly suited his style is to the style of the author who wrote his lines. Palahniuk’s writing has always depended on a spartan, borderline nihilstic economy with words, which he described in an intro to “Fight Club”:

Instead of walking a character from scene to scene in a story, there had to be some way to just – cut, cut, cut. To jump. From scene to scene. Without losing the reader. To show every aspect of a story, but only the kernel of each aspect. The core moment. Then another core moment. Then, another.

There is nothing extraneous in Norton’s character, no wasted gestures or extra tangents in his mumblings – we receive instead an excellent focus that seems determined to shut out all the distractions surrounding him, matter-of fact details and observations. When he eventually does snap, such as when he coldly explains to his boss how a hypothetical someone could go postal in the office if pushed too far, you don’t feel like he’s been waiting for this or the tension’s been building, but that some invisible switch has been flipped without warning, setting off the next core moment.

Sam Rockwell made a good effort as another Palahniuk narrator in “Choke,” but Norton set the bar so high he was destined to be compared unfavorably. If the “Survivor” movie ever finds its way out of development hell, the star would do well to study Norton as much as the source material.

3. Malcolm McDowell as Alex DeLarge, “A Clockwork Orange”


Sigh. Whatever happened to Malcolm McDowell, o my brothers? From a promising start to his career in “A Clockwork Orange” and “Caligula” he seemed to vanish from the right roles, showing up in throwaway films like “Tank Girl” or “Star Trek Generations” where he’s cashing in on his wonderfully creepy voice and evil genius looks. His most memorable roles have been the one where his voice is king, video game roles, be they Admiral Tolwyn in “Wing Commander” or John Henry Eden in “Fallout 3.”

But while his career has gone through what most people would term a decline, he began it with a truly memorable turn as Anthony Burgess’ psychopathic teenager Alex in “A Clockwork Orange.” While the most memorable images of him are silently staring out under false eyelashes as electronic classical plays, when he speaks the performance gets its hooks out. His voice had a distinctive lilt, youthful and yet dangerously jittery, as if you could never tell when he would take a knife to you – an almost joyful disregard for truth and consequence matching the book’s rapid Nadsat phrasing. He was skipping towards hell to the tune of the Ninth, and loving every moment of it.

And once the Ludovico technique forced his eyes open to the horror of violence, his performance betrayed the loss of control it delivered. In an ill-fitting suit, arms pulled in clutching his belongings, he had an almost Luke Skywalker-esque expression of dumbness at how the world moved on without him. He becomes almost sickly, his smile even more plastic than the fake sympathy he put on for his parents or his latest rape victim – a performance in many ways harder to watch than the scenes of ultraviolence.

The hiccup in matching this to the book however comes in with the long-debated 21st chapter, excised from the book’s American release and the film script. This chapter sees Alex grow up in a sense, disillusioned from his raping and beating and deciding it’s time to settle down with a nice girl. Stanley Kubrick hadn’t read this version and never considered it for the film, and it’s hard to see McDowell agreeing that “Being young is like being one of these malenky machines.” His character comes across as so irredeemable that such a change is beyond his abilities.

But then again, I’m of the school of thought that the book’s better without that chapter, and honestly McDowell’s performance here makes for a supporting argument. The joyous abandon and manipulative actions he takes here fit the 20 chapters adapted in a most horrorshow way.

4. Mickey Rourke as Marv, “Sin City”


When “Sin City” first hit theaters, what made the posters distinctive – beyond the black-and-white noir shading style – was the alteration of one word in the description of the main characters: the change from “as” to “is.” It was a declarative shift, proclaiming that actors such as Bruce Willis and Clive Owen weren’t just portraying the roles but filling them completely, filling Robert Rodriguez’s vision of “a translation, not an adaptation” of Frank Miller’s neo-noir graphic novels And no actor contributed to that vision as much as Rourke, portraying the nigh-indestructible brawler and gunman Marv.

Willis and Owen were certainly at home in their roles, but it was Rourke who defined the film in “The Hard Goodbye,” the film’s first and best story. Rourke’s Marv had a graveled weariness that spoke of taking a lot of beatings and giving as well as he got, a tone most noir writers would kill to capture on the page. Unlike the nauseating adaptation of “The Spirit” where every line seemed soaked in self-parodied cliché, Rourke made his lines believable, packed with pure investment in his actions:

Hell? You don’t know what hell is. None of you people do. Hell isn’t getting beat up or cut up or hauled in front of some faggot jury. Hell is waking up every god damn morning and not knowing why you’re even here. Why you’re even breathing.

The other aspect so key to this character was the almost amused acceptance he has of his circumstances. Defined early on as a man who’d “be right at home on some ancient battlefield swinging an axe into somebody’s face,” Rourke displayed no reluctance at dragging someone’s face on the street while driving a car or leaving a quadruple amputee to be chewed up by a wolf. He didn’t revel in it as some of the film’s other violent types, but he was clearly a man who knew his place and enjoyed what he did. Consequences seemed to mean nothing to him – he smirked his way through every beating and smirked even harder as obstacles presented themselves to be knocked down.

“Sin City” remains a testament to faithful adaptations – Rodriguez used the original graphic novels as the storyboards – and its sequels ever come to be, Rourke’s participation will make or break their legitimacy. Luckily despite his electrocution in the first film, Marv still has a role to play.

5. Michael C. Hall as Dexter Morgan, “Dexter”


When a TV show makes unethical actions its central plot point, it seems to be a requirement that an incredibly strong actor or actress serve as the main character to win audiences over. James Gandolfini in “The Sopranos,” Michael Chiklis in “The Shield” and Bryan Cranston in “Breaking Bad” all dominate this field of antiheroes, and Michael C. Hall has carved out a place just below them as the titular lead of Showtime’s “Dexter.” As a serial killer with a strict moral code, Hall keeps his show afloat despite a string of hit-or-miss side sideplots.

What makes Hall so compelling in this role is the fact that he manages to inhabit all the aspects of “Dexter” that Jeff Lindsay writes about. His voiceovers – like many others in the list, a neutral monotone slightly humming with menace – are key to the show, coldly scientific in their analysis of his targets and his sociopathy but also betraying his nervousness at the cracking of his mask. When interacting with friends his character’s openness is convincing but visibly fake to an audience in the know, and when interacting with his targets there is a relaxed savoring of the bloodshed to come.

There’s also some great dark humor that results, as like in the book the audience is privy to knowledge no character beyond Dexter knows, and Hall manages to straightforwardly deliver some wonderful lines that would be throwaway without the context (such as this one with his girlfriend Rita):

Rita: Deb must be a mess. I mean, falling for a serial killer?

Dexter: What are the odds?

It’s a hard combination to be funny and scary in equal doses, but Hall pulls it off with a shark smile and an inner voice both analytical and poetic. You don’t see a lot of books making their way to the small screen, but if they had actors like Hall backing them it’d make for an easier transition.

Honorable Mentions

Ewan McGregor as Mark “Rent-Boy” Renton, “Trainspotting”

While the book is split between a variety of characters and perspectives, Mark “Rent-Boy” Renton is as close to a protagonist as Irvine Welsh’s Scottish drug novel can provide, the most normal one in the group and the one who comes out on top in the end. McGregor has the thick Scottish brogue and the twitching empty junkie look, and his delivery of the “Choose life” monologue is the hook that defines both the film and the book irrevocably.

Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Bell, “No Country for Old Men”

Again, while not a first-person novel, Sheriff Bell’s speeches open and close the book’s chapters, and are imbued with the language that has made Cormac McCarthy one of our finest living writers. Jones has precisely the right inflection in his tone, and whenever he speaks to a character or to himself you can feel the world-weariness in each sentence: a dry aged quality that tightens the throat in response.

Viggo Mortensen as Everett Hitch, “Appaloosa”

I’ve talked at length about this in my Text-to-Screen review of “Appaloosa,” so I’ll avoid too much detail. What I will emphasize is that Mortensen sets a very solid bar in all of his characters, and his Hitch has the terse attitude necessary to be a Robert B. Parker protagonist. The graveled voice that made him so convincing in “The Road,” matched with the inner reserve of the son of Arathorn, give him a lawman’s bearing even Seth Bullock could take a lesson from.

Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster, “Jeeves and Wooster”

Anyone who only knows Laurie from “House” is missing out on the fact that he built his career on the absurdities of British comedy, and his role as the idly rich Wooster was a key part of it. While the show doesn’t capture the majority of the brilliant text that makes Wodehouse a joy to immerse oneself in, Laurie still conveys Wooster’s dimwitted nature in a very enduring way, nailing the foppishness, goofiness and good nature in turn.

Peter Weller as William Lee, “Naked Lunch”

Again, please refer to my original Text-to-Screen on “Naked Lunch” for the pertinent details on this performance. Briefly, Weller’s poise fits the possession and vision that led Rolling Stone to eulogize Burroughs as “anarchy’s double agent,” and readings of routines like “The Talking Asshole” come very close to the inimitable drawl Burroughs set in his live recordings.


Back Shelf Review: Robert B. Parker, In Memoriam

February 23, 2010

Since I started working as a book critic, one of the sadder impacts it’s had on me is that I tend to notice when a well-established writer finally inks their last page and heads off to the great literary salon beyond. To name a few I have witnessed the obituaries of Hunter S. Thompson, Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, Gilbert Sorrentino, William F. Buckley Jr., J.G. Ballard, Frank McCourt, Howard Zinn and J.D. Salinger – all authors considered masters in the field, with works destined to last longer than their natural lifespan. I’ve offered a eulogy here and there on the site, but with the exception of Thompson and Vonnegut I’ve found it hard to really go into detail since I’ve either not read their work or had minimal exposure to it.

However, one writer who has passed on left me in a shattered state of mourning – even moreso because I found out only recently, a month after it happened, strolling through the shelves at Powell’s to see if his newest book was out yet and seeing a notice. On January 18, 2010, acclaimed mystery novelist Robert B. Parker was found dead in his home in Boston, the victim of a heart attack at his desk while working on his next novel. He died at the age of 77, leaving his wife Joan and two grown sons.

But that’s not the only thing he left behind. Parker may well be the most prolific mystery novelist in American history, responsible for the creation of Spenser, the private investigator with the unflinching moral code masked with a perfect sense of humor. He is the most reread author in my entire collection, I can name more of his titles than any other writer and he could probably take both Thompson and William S. Burroughs in a duel for the role of my favorite author.

Certainly a lot of pretty strong statements in that sentence, but I don’t say any of them lightly. Having read Parker’s novels for close to a decade now, I’ve grown up with them as I transitioned from casual reader to literary analyst and think I’ve learned a bit about what makes his style resonate – thoughts I’d like to take the time to share with you now. I’ve had this piece on the back burner, but with Parker’s unfortunate demise going under the radar I would feel remiss as a critic and a fan if I didn’t give the master the tribute he deserves.

“Ninety percent of writers who do P. I. admit Parker was a major influence. The other ten percent lie.”
– Harlan Coben

Parker was rather understated when asked about his success in the Boston Globe, saying that the secret was “You create interesting characters and put them into interesting circumstances and figure out how to get them out of them.” And interesting characters certainly make up the first part of why Parker’s books are so readable, headed by the alpha male of Boston’s investigative world Spenser “with an S, like the poet.” A Korean War veteran and former D.A. investigator, Spenser became a P.I after being summarily dismissed from the cops for an independent streak that no chain of command could stand.

Spenser has many strong character traits that set him aside from other mystery protagonists – a former boxer, an accomplished cook, well-read, comfortable with being a smart-ass – but that streak of independence is what puts him at the head of the class. His career is one that puts him through many tough events and confronted many dangerous people, and he has survived it by adhering to a strict code of honor: no killing unless in self-defense, no harming of the innocent, pursuit of the truth at all costs. In many ways it’s essentially noble virtues, and on many occasions characters comment Spenser thinks he is Lancelot or Galahad – a virtue he encourages by claiming his strength as “the strength of ten.”

And his strength never seems to fail him, even when everyone including his clients would prefer it to. The majority of the Spenser books aren’t motivated by money, or even legal rights – they’re about the simple fact that he agreed to take a case and wants to see it through to the end. Spenser may be the only P.I who solves cases for the same reason men climb mountains, and while his motivations seem limited to “Because I can’t sing or dance” in many of the books, it somehow makes him stronger rather than one-dimensional.

Spenser may rely on himself more than anyone else, though it is in the interaction with two other main characters that the story comes to life. The first is Susan Silverman, his long-time love, a Cambridge psychiatrist and self-described “well-bred Jewess.” She not only offers him a professional opinion on the cases he handles, but also understands his quest for self and provides him an anchor when he needs it. Susan and Spenser have been together since the second book in the series (1974’s “God Save the Child”) and despite “a little gap in the middle” in Spenser’s words, they have weathered adultery and cohabitation and continually come out stronger – and even gotten a dog they spoil unceasingly.

The other side of Spenser comes with Hawk, an African-American solider of fortune and unquestionably the greatest badass ever created in crime novels. A man with a taste for finely crafted clothes, expensive champagne and a chrome-plated .44 Magnum that could take down a jet, Hawk is charming and self-amusing, seamlessly segueing between impressions of David Niven and Uncle Remus. Spenser and Hawk’s banter is classic tough-guy prose, the sort of conversations by friends who have known each other for years and can’t take offense at anything the other says.

But all of Hawk’s charm comes with an unsettling quality, “impassive and hard as an obsidian carving,” as is evident every time he offers to kill people in the way and Spenser turns him down because he knows he means it. Not sociopathic but pragmatic, Hawk simply doesn’t care about who he has to kill, comfortable in the life he has chosen and the knowledge “the games I play nobody can play as good.” Spenser’s world is full of these confident amoral rogues: Vinnie Morris, a shooter with almost-clockwork movements; Chollo, a self-mocking Chicano gunman; and Tedy Sapp, an unflinchingly tough bleach-blonde gay bouncer. Anytime they enter the book, you not only get excellent banter between Spenser and his rogues’ gallery, but a real sense of the decency behind the man: he could take their way, but to be true to himself he never will.

The relationships between the characters are stellar, and the main reason is that Parker’s prose is perfectly tailored for the world he creates – I have always made the comparison that if Ernest Hemingway wrote mystery novels, they would be the closest thing to Parker’s series. Parker rarely uses too many words in his sentences, his action progressing at an even clip and incorporating only the details and thoughts that his protagonists consider important. And while I mentioned it above, it bears repeating – the dialogue is the best in mystery or even mainstream novels, back-and-forth repartee that I’ve quoted back and forth with my dad hundreds of times.

But what really makes the book stand out for me is the overwhelming grasp of literature evinced in the books, a truly rare thing in mainstream mystery. Parker held a doctorate in English literature (writing his dissertation on the protagonists of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler) and taught at Northeastern University, and it peppers every novel he writes. Titles are taken from Robert Browning to John Keats to Robert Frost, and Spenser may be the only private eye who can mention the Red Sox and Shakespeare on the same page.

It’s a “large but literate” quality, really said best in Parker’s “Bad Business”:

“And your conclusion?”

“Sort of a big John Keats,” Susan said.

“That would be me,” I said. “Silence and slow time.”

I’ve spent the majority of this piece on the Spenser series, but while that would be enough for any writer Parker wasn’t content to stop there. Surprisingly late in his career, Parker started writing two new series based on new characters, Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall. Both are set in Spenser’s world – Spenser even partners with Stone in “Back Story” – but the two don’t come from the same hardened core he does. Stone, an ex-LAPD detective turned chief of police in a Massachusetts harbor town, is recovering alcoholic with an ex-wife he can’t let go of. Randall, a female Boston P.I from a background of cops and criminals, also has a troubled relationship with her ex and has to fight off the typical prejudice that a woman can’t do the kind of work she does.

He also expanded genres into Westerns with his trilogy on lawmen-for-hire Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, containing “Appaloosa,” “Resolution” and “Brimstone.” I’ve talked about these briefly in my Text-to-Screen of “Appaloosa,” but to reiterate his style and moral code pair perfectly with the unforgiving world of the Wild West, and proves that whether they have six-shooters or Browning nine-mils his shooters never fail to disappoint.

So, where to start reading? When an author has more than sixty books to their name, starting out is certainly a tall order, even for an author whose prose and plots can be consumed very quickly. Thankfully, Parker’s books are easy to find – being the alpha males of the paperback mystery, I’ve built my collection on a mix of used bookstores and airport kiosks, and Goodwill stores will almost certainly have at least one.

A_Catskill_EagleOut of all his work, I feel “A Catskill Eagle” is the best – a letter tells Spenser that Susan in trouble and Hawk is in jail, and from there it’s a foregone conclusion on hell breaking loose. The bonds between the three are never stronger, the story has never been more intense and the action has never been so defined. It’s a masterfully written book that could easily stand alone, not as minimalist as later Spensers or as hard-boiled as earlier ones, transitional both in terms of his style and the way the characters develop. However, I think that to really appreciate it, more familiarity with the world is necessary.

Chronologically, it doesn’t really matter where to start. “Sudden Mischief” is the first of his books I ever read, and it was enough to propel me to continue exploring the canon – and also probably the best depiction outside of “A Catskill Eagle” of the relationship Susan and Spenser share. Other later favorites include “Thin Air,” “Small Vices,” “Widow’s Walk,” “Back Story” and “Now and Then.” In the earlier books, “The Judas Goat” and “Early Autumn” are the most indispensable to the storyline, with the former really establishing the importance of the Spenser-Susan-Hawk trinity and the latter showing Spenser’s humanity as he takes on an unofficial fifteen-year-old foster son.

In his other series, some of the quality and interest varies but in each case it’s hard to pick one that goes wrong. The Stone and Randall books both get better with later installments such as “Night and Day” and “Spare Change” as Parker manages to really split the characters’ voices from the more established franchise – Stone comes out stronger after each case as he makes the town his own, and Randall becomes a strong female character without being a bitch or a cliché. His last book (I can’t even type that phrase without having to blink rapidly), “Split Image,” released this week, will continue a crossover between the two that began in “Blue Screen” and I’m hopeful for a happy ending for both.

Really though, when it comes to Parker’s books, a happy ending isn’t necessary in the broad sense because the world he created will always be there, his Boston as eternal as Doyle’s London. Spenser’s office will always be at the corner of Berkeley and Boylston. A German shorthaired pointer will be sleeping on the sofa, and a massive black man will be sitting next to it reading Simon Schama with a sawed-off shotgun on the end table. A picture of a beautiful brunette will sit on the file cabinet, a .357 Magnum in an open desk drawer, and at the desk will be a man with a quick wit and a slightly flattened nose willing to work for any client who can put up with him.

That world remains alive for me and thousands of others, in the collection of lovingly battered paperbacks that will never lose their spot of honor on the shelf. Rest in peace, Mr. Parker.

“I don’t think of myself as a genre novelist. I think of myself as a person writing novels about people involved with crime. I go through the same process that Updike went through, but he may have gone through it a little better. It’s all about the limits of your imagination and the limit of your skill.”

– Robert B. Parker, Wall Street Journal, January 24, 2009