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?


Links of Literacy – May 20, 2009

May 20, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Text-to-Screen Ratio: Coraline

March 3, 2009

(Editor’s note: Possible spoilers below as per usual.)

coraline_posterAmong authors, Neil Gaiman is exceptionally lucky when his writing is filmed, typically because he is closely bound to each version. In 1996 he devised the television serial “Neverwhere” and wrote an accompanying novelization, which is miles above most bland film tie-ins. At the behest of the Jim Henson Company, he later partnered with artist Dave McKean to write the story and screenplay of “MirrorMask,” a film I hold as one of 2005’s best and most frighteningly vivid. (2007’s “Stardust” does differ, but it’s an exception I haven’t seen or read so it’ll have to be kept out of this article.)

So when his children’s horror/fantasy “Coraline” was optioned as a film without his direct involvement there was some trepidation in how it would be handled – trepidation that disappeared on my part when I saw that Henry Selick would be writing the adapted screenplay. The high priest of stop-motion animation, Selick is responsible (along with Tim Burton) for twisting my childhood in the best possible way with “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” and I held faith he would treat the story right. Thankfully my faith was rewarded – it looks more fantastical than the book, but at its core it’s the same dark inventive tale.coralinebookcover

For the uninitiated, “Coraline” is the story of Coraline Jones, a bored young girl who is generally ignored by her workaholic parents. Exploring her old house, she finds a hidden door leading to an “other” world with parents who cater to her every whim, despite their odd quality of having buttons for eyes. The longer she stays in the world, the more she realizes that her “other mother” is not the doting parent she appears, and what seemed a wonderful escape becomes a prison she has to find a way out of.

Visually, the film is much brighter than expected, lacking the somewhat bleak look of the book’s illustrations (which were also done by “MirrorMask’s” McKean) and also the spidery gothic look of “Nightmare.” The other mother lavishes all efforts to sway Coraline, from a giant garden shaped like her features to an elaborate rat circus and dog-managed theater. All the scenes are marvelously well-designed, certainly changed to be more accessible but very cohesive in their bright exaggerated format.

Naturally the look changes the way some of the characters are conceived. Retired actresses Miss Spink and Miss Forcible go from being quiet and batty to outlandishly theatrical, almost reminiscent of the Darling Mermaid Darlings from the utterly charming show “Pushing Daisies”; while Mr. Bobo’s quiet craziness converts to “Nightmare’s” two-faced mayor with an outlandish Russian quality, enhanced by Ian McShane’s boisterous performance.

The biggest complaint to find with the book is the inclusion of a new character, Wybie (or “why born”), who is introduced as a foil to Coraline and someone for her to bounce dialogue off of. This character does more than any other to break the original story’s flow, showing up on a motorbike in a skull mask and sounding like the geeky support character in some toothless Saturday morning Cartoon Network show. As a whole he breaks from the book’s tone, particularly as it removes the genuine fear and worry when Coraline is left alone with her thoughts.

This isn’t to say the film takes the edge out of the book – like “Nightmare,” it’s a film most would think twice about taking their kids to. The other mother in particular is frighteningly faithful to the book, down to the tapping fingers and crunching of beetles between sharp teeth, and her evolution into a spiderish monstrosity makes full use of the technology. Teri Hatcher deserves high praise as well, putting a frustrated tone into Coraline’s real mother and a silken voice for the other that barely hides a mad possessiveness.

The world Coraline finds herself in is an illusion the other mother created, and as the illusion strips away the world gradually becomes more frightening. Miss Spink and Miss Forcible evolve from an eternal carnival into a hybrid contained in a taffy cocoon, while Mr. Bobo goes from hosting a rat circus to being entirely composed of the creatures. With the exception of the other father – riding a giant praying mantis as opposed to a blob-like monstrosity discarded in the attic – Coraline’s challenges match the book, and her final confrontations with the other mother match the tension Gaiman created.

Reviews of the book “Coraline” ranged from “fascinating and disturbing” to “deliciously scary,” and in that context the film certainly meets expectations. The core change comes in more of an emphasis on the fascinating, as it’s a film that wants to trigger your visual stimulation than down in your emotional core. I’m tempted to call it superficial, but the design is immersive and creative enough that such a word can never stick.

Final adaptation score: 7.5 out of 10. If you can forgive the use of Wybie you’ll find the film mostly faithful to its source material, and a glorious visual experiment that pairs well with Gaiman’s imagination. Just don’t go into it expecting the same bittersweet and frightening feelings the book provides.