Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Don't Stop the Carnival by Herman Wouk

I struggled to finish Herman Wouk's Don't Stop the Carnival, not because it was hard to read, but because it was too familiar. In fact, a couple years ago it went into the Did Not Finish pile, and only recently was re-exposed to the light of day.

Listen: I grew with a father who was an incorrigible Jimmy Buffett fan. So, yes, of course I knew Buffett's musical adaptation of Don't Stop the Carnival long before I knew that it was based on a book. And the adaptation is faithful; Wouk even worked with Buffett to produce the musical.

Listen: while it may have been a scathing, and daring, critique of American business culture, involvement in the Caribbean, and race relations in 1965- fifty years will take the edge off most anything.

Norman Paperman is a workaholic, a philanderer and emotionally vacuous. And when he can't have his life the way he's always imagined it, he packs up his toys and goes home. I suppose I should feel either pity or satisfaction that he gets his come-uppance, but I've seen it coming- and I think I would have seen it coming even if I hadn't known the Buffett version. I'm indifferent to his struggles.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Happy Friday

Recovering From a Great Read

The often insightful Book Riot shared an article yesterday suggesting that the best cure for a Great Read hangover is a switch to a different genre. They suggest that if your mind was blown by Black Swan Green (and if it hasn't been, it will be), you should switch to a history or a memoir- anything but fiction.

And never once has been that my experience.

The better the book, the more I want more books like it. This feeling gets me reading 3 or 4 books by the same author in a single year. In fact, when I look back at the last year, the only gaps in my reading happened when I was in the midst of a rut: by bad luck, I read One Bullet Away, World Made by Hand, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in succession. And one book's flaws fed my reading of the next one until I didn't even want to write the reviews, let alone read another book.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

30 Before 30 Update

The full list
2. 70 pages into The Sound and the Fury
16. Went to the gym today with my new workout buddy! Seriously, of all the things I learned in the Boy Scouts, the buddy system seems to be the most important.
17. Board game drafted and board started! I need to buy some beads (to use as tokens) to keep score with.
18. Contacted my local Habitat for Humanity, but haven't heard back yet. It's probably too cold to have a project going.
24. So far, I have listened to 1 hour (and only 1 hour) of commercial radio. In that hour I heard only 9 songs, and this song twice.
27. Notice the widget via for books I've reviewed in the right hand column? Why didn't anyone tell me they made a widget sooner?
30. We've got 2 things left to do on our to-do list for January: get a pair of pants hemmed, and sort out our wedding photos.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Maus by Art Spiegelman

Art Spiegelman's Maus was one of the most difficult graphic novels I've ever read.

Not difficult because of the subject material- though it's hard to think of a book about the Holocaust as light reading.

Maus is hard to read because it's literarily hard to read. The colorless frames have very little gray; what might seem to be gray at first glance is in fact minutely cross-hatched black and white. This leaves the eye (or, at least, my eye) very little time to rest.

As a story about storytelling, hardly a frame goes by without a word in it, and in most frames, the words overlow. The dialogue bubbles interfere with the images; there's just not enough room for the words and images to co-exist. If that's not trouble enough, Spiegelman's hand printed writing slants and tumbles just enough to make it impossible to scan. Every page is a labor (and maybe it's supposed to be that way).

While the anthropomorphized animals might give a reader the emotional distance to deal with the tragedy (and while Jews-as-mice, Nazis-as-cats motif might help a grade school student keep track of good guys and bad guys), the truth is that none of the main characters are drawn distinctly enough to help me keep track of who's talking to whom across the disjointed and often interrupted narrative. Spiegelman's play on traditional expectations of animals in comics was subversive at the time (compare these Holocaust surviving mice to Donald Duck, Mighty Mouse and Garfield), the artifice doesn't hold up. Comics have come a long way in being appreciated as an artform since Maus won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992.

Am I harder on Maus than on so many other graphic novels because of how highly recognized and praised it is? Yeah, probably.

I mean, Maus has everything I love in a novel.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Selling Books and the Awards Circuit

The New York Times does not allow its sportswriters to vote for player awards like induction into the Hall of Fame, MVP or Rookie of the Year. The Times' standing position is that their reports should be covering the news, not helping create it. I think this approach is terribly naive, in that it ignores the "create the news" aspect of choosing which topics are news-worthy and which are not.

Award ceremonies are, at their essence, a celebration of self by the participants. The Oscars, the Tonys, the Emmys, all are designed to draw the attention of the New York Times and the rest of the press, creating news meant to sway an increasingly distracted and fickle public audience.

So it's no surprise that the National Book Awards have re-imagined themselves in a way that will spread more attention to more authors. That means more shiny medallions on book covers drawing the attention of people like me who do still occasionally browse for books in brick and mortar stores.

I'm a little bothered when someone like Morgan Entrekin, vice president of the National Book Foundation boardand CEO of Grove/Atlantic, says
I think there are plenty of awards that recognize [a collection of stories by a university press]... If one of those books is truly the best book of the year, that's no problem. But it seemed like the judges had been recognizing lesser-known authors for the sake of choosing lesser-known authors.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

How to Stay Present

The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even
A couple weekends ago, Carol and I made a trip to Philadelphia. We spent the day with some of my oldest friends, first wandering the Philly Museum of Art (especially through the Dancing Around the Bride exhibition) and then on to lunch.

It seems silly that I made a decision to turn off my phone. It seems silly: there was literally no where on Earth I'd rather have been at that moment. It seems silly: I'm as annoyed by people on their cell phones in public places as everyone else.

But, I'm susceptible to the incessant buzz.

Is it the same sort of faulty logic that makes us think the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence? The way that constant reminders of other people's apparent happiness can make us think that the whole world is having a better time than we are?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Review: In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard

via LibraryThing
Jo Ann Beard's In Zanesville owned my soul this past weekend. Her unnamed narrator, a 14 year old girl, is staggering through a life on the brink of collapse. And Beard's debut novel will haunt and encourage you long after you've put it back on the top shelf of your bookcase.

In Zanesville opens with a simple, horrifying scene: the narrator and her best friend, Felicia (called Flea), are babysitting a family of children, when the oldest boy sets a fire in the bathroom of the family's home. The two girls call the narrator's mother rather than the fire department- mom calls the fire department, and the house is saved.

And then the boy-arsonist's father gets home. The girls watch in stunned silence as the father presses the boy's hand onto the lit stove as punishment.

With that as precedent, the narrator's life isn't so bad.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

An Unexpected Journey: Hating On The Hobbit

from here
Back in July, when I heard that Peter Jackson was breaking his The Hobbit into three parts, I was worried:
Maybe Peter Jackson really does have more to say through these characters; I think his role as director is not just transcriber of the films, but as translator- maintaining the intention of the original while imbuing the work with his own cadence.
I enjoyed the "translation" of the first section. It lagged, make no mistake- I have no idea how the studio will eventually release its inevitable Director's Cut of The Hobbit, because it already feels stuffed with every detail and slow camera pan that Jackson could find. I enjoyed it, but it was so much less than it could have been.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

30 Before 30 Bucket List

1. Read In Search of Lost Time (A Remembrance of Things Past)
In Fun Home, Alison Bechdel writes "It's said, after all, that people reach middle age the day they realize they're never going to read Remembrance of Things Past." That quote struck a nerve with me, and once I decided that 2013 would be my year for Remembrance... the rest of this list started to take shape.

Friday, January 11, 2013

My 30 Before 30 Bucket List

This is a blog about books, and about life. I think the two things are indistinguishable. How you handle one impacts how you approach the other. What was speaks to what it and what will be.

Last year, I made a resolution to read a book a week. I did it. I could do it again, but where's the fun in doing something you know you can do? While reading a book per week is exhilarating in its own way, I think I shied away from some of the monsters of by bookcase- I'm looking at you Ulysses and Gravity's Rainbow.

This year's resolution started with books (to read In Search of Lost Time as well as the books I haven't finished from the Modern Library's top ten). Then my resolution started to wander to non-book places, and I decided that was fine, too.

So tomorrow, on my 29th birthday, I'm going to post the 30 things I intend to do in the next year. And then I'm going to do them.

This is still a blog about books, but it'll be about life too. Because, it's the same thing.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Review: The Ordinary White Boy by Brock Clarke

The blurb on the back of Brock Clarke's The Ordinary White Boy could be about me:
At twenty-seven years old he can't dance unless he's had more than a few drinks. His wardrobe is uninspired, at best. He has returned after college to Little Falls, his miserable, working-class hometown in upstate New York...
And we love to read about ourselves don't we?

I've been told, and to a sense I agree, that the history of literature is too often regarded as the history of white men. Look at the top ten of the Modern Library's 100 Best Novels: Irish man, American man, the same Irish guy again, Russian man, British man, another American man, a third American man, a Hungarian-British man, another British man, a fourth American man. You have to go #15 to find a woman (Virginia Wolff), to #19 (Ralph Ellison) to find the first non-Caucasian, and I lost interest in searching before I found someone not born in American or Europe.

So, yes: discrimination! But...
I wouldn't say any of those top ten books reflect who I am, beyond the broadest strokes: white men, educated in the Western Judeo-Christian canon, alive in the 20th century...

Monday, January 7, 2013

Review: Postcards: True Stories That Never Happened, edited by Jason Rodriguez

Postcards: True Stories That Never Happened is a graphic novel short story collection, built around a premise that I love- each author (or collaborative team) in the collection was given a vintage postcard, and then asked to write a story about how the postcard came to be.

The trouble with postcards is that they're too short. What's there time to say, really? Hello, how are you, all's well, see you soon.

And that's the trouble with the short stories, too.

It's not so much that the 16 stories are bad (though a couple are) or boring (though a few of them are). It's that all of them drift towards the predictable. For everyday life to look interesting, we have to see enough of it to appreciate the tension the characters feel.

I think about American Splendor, Harvey Pekar's opus. Here we see Harvey fretting is way through life: his bills, his marriage, his job, his art. Any of them would be boring without the context that helps us understand that Harvey is consumed by being Harvey.

And I don't get that feeling from more than one or two of these stories. The best one, Joshua Hale Fialkov and Micah Farritor's "Homesick", follow a couple trying to live the sweet life in Paris during the Great Depression. The tension between the husband and wife is palpable- the realization that the dream they have achieved might not be a thing that can make them both happy, and the unspoken wondering when it will end and how.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Review: The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger

I was deeply unsatisfied by Audrey Niffenegger's The Night Bookmobile.

I have two reasons for my reaction, a simple one without spoilers and a more complicated one that will be one long spoiler. The first goes above the jump, the second will be below.

In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud writes about the difficulty of defining what is a comic. He opts for the widest view: all art in sequence is a comic. I take the opposite view- comics (I prefer the term graphic novels) are only those stories told through the juxtaposition of art with words (or the absence of words) that tells a story with greater impact than either element could achieve alone.

By my reckoning, The Night Bookmobile isn't a graphic novel; it's an illustrated story.

For an example, look no further than the opening page: a black page of uninterrupted text better suited to a short story than a graphic novel. We learn it's 4 a.m., that the main character is out for a walk after a fight with her boyfriend, and that she's found the peaceful side of the city. A decent illustrator could convey that information in a few panels.

Perhaps this failure has to do with the composition of the story, originally serialized in The Guardian; I suspect that the project lacked a strong enough editor for the bestselling author.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

52 Books

Last year, my new year's resolution was to read a book a week. I've got a new plan for this coming year, but I'll unveil that later this week.

Today is about looking back: