Sunday, November 30, 2008

Here we go! Zeke's "Top 10 Books"

Hiya Gang!

Sorry it's taken me a little while to begin posting on this badass blog.  I see that everyone has plopped down a nice list of favorites to start off the year.  So here is my current list of favorites (in no particular order; that would be playing favorites.)

1.  House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

2.  Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

3.  It by Stephen King

4.  Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

5.  The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

6.  The Watchmen by Alan Moore

7.  Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

8.  The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie

9.  Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

10.  The Island of the Skog, by Stephen Kellogg


Rock on happy readers, I'll be back with more postings soon!

After The Quake

More Murakami!

I don't know why, but I get immensely more pleasure out of reading short stories than I typically do from a novel. Probably it has something to do with a withered attention span, but there's also something to be said about the foundational differences in form. George Saunders has spoken about this when explaining why he's not written a novel (coming closest with his novella The Brief and Terrifying Reign of Phil) -- a novel requires the author and reader to cope with exposition and narrative development that might be less than captivating in and of itself in order to reach its end and tell a larger, more sprawling tale. Short stories, by comparison, are not unlike jokes in that they are necessarily pared-down, precisely-worded prose pieces who say precisely what they need or want to say and then get out. Late in After the Quake, Murakami focuses one of the book's more beautiful stories on Junpei, a writer of short stories whose simple desires and relative contentment mirrors his limitations as a writer -- he has no patience or stamina to work on a novel, being much more suited to churning through a rigorous weeklong process as he obsessively pummels out short stories. That sounds about right.

In any event, this is all an overly wordy preamble to say that I really loved After the Quake. While, as a collection of linked short stories (linked by the resonance of the catastrophic 1995 Kobe earthquake, viewed at a distance throughout), it lacks something of the narrative sprawl and immensity of Kafka on the Shore, here Murakami's fascinations and meditations are clearer for their brevity and concision: we see the same dreamlike awakening of adolescent sexuality, the same uncomfortable overtones of incestuous lust, a willingness to blast free of the quiet, simple world of realism (most dynamically in "Super-Frog Saves Tokyo," with a dreamworld whose significance outstrips that of the real world.

The bulk of the pieces act as character studies -- "Thailand"'s Satsuki, brooding furiously over an ex-husband and her decision not to have his child; Junpei's passive acceptance of his circumstances at the expense of his happiness, bland businessman Yoshiya's acceptance of his potentially divine ancestry, and on and on. They're nuanced, surprising and intimately crafted -- no note rings false, even when (as in "Super-Frog Saves Tokyo") we're seeing character revealed in how a mild-mannered loan collections agent copes with the arrival of a giant frog urging him to wage war with Worm, who plans to cause an earthquake in Tokyo.

Murakami has a gift for the long form, but it's nice and refreshing to catch small pieces like this, whose simplicity highlights his skills and the deep, moving soulfulness that lies beneath them. There will be much more Murakami as this year moves along...

Friday, November 28, 2008

Better Off

It's a happy coincidence that I picked up my roommate's copy of Better Off, Eric Brende's account of a year without (much) technology, just after finishing More Information Than You Require, which early on in listing Hodgman's related titles claims that he has written a book entitled My Stunt Memoir Year: The True Story of a Man Who Spent 365 Days Writing a Memoir To See What Would Happen (It Made Him Fat and Rich!)

It's a format that is by now (in the wake of the I've-yet-to-read-'em Year of Living Biblically and The Know-It-All, among others) pretty familiar: author has certain beliefs or curiosities, decides to indulge them via a Wacky Scheme that will take about a year, chronicles the effort and walks away with new and deepened understanding of what he thought he knew going in. And presumably lands a big publishing deal about 40 pages after the narrative ends.

It's easy to be a little skeptical of such works, particularly something like Better Off, which approaches its niche ideology (an aversion to modern technology) from a fairly full-fledged, idealistic place. Brende, at the piece's start, is at MIT for grad school and deeply suspicious as to whether or not technology assists its users -- he recounts his father's free time disappearing when he gets a word processor to help speed his writing work, discusses the ways in which he is driven to work 60 hour weeks to support a car that he needs in order to get to the job at which he has to work 60 hours a week in order to pay for the car that etc. etc.

The hook comes when Brende hits upon the idea of joining a Menonite community. Having poked around at the idea (and being disappointed that most Amish communities allow their members to "lease" cars instead of "owning" them, and in various other ways obey the letter of their restrictions while still using modern technology), Brende finds a sect that refuses to use any piece of equipment containing a motor. And for the next year, he lives among them, renting farmland and growing crops, raising barns and caring for livestock, attending Menonite services, bartering his goods in town, etc.

It's primarily interesting as a document of this society -- Brende is ardently opposed to most "helpful" technology, so it's not surprising to see him documenting the many ways in which he finds he has more free time when he's simply plowing a field so that he can feed himself and his wife. Instead, it's interesting to see him get a sense for the nuance of humor among the Menonites, to track the diverse origin points of members of the community, and to observe the ways in which they have found simple ways to remain largely autonomous.

As the book progresses, it gets somewhat less interesting -- when his wife gets pregnant, much of the book focuses on their experiences in childbirth and planning for a family, and as the narrative grows more personal and less sociological, it's less unique and frankly less compelling. But there's some interesting writing and thought here, a glimpse at a community whose firm adherence to a withdrawl from modern society and technology looks incredibly tempting in many ways.

More Information Than You Require




When I heard that John Hodgman's next book was to be a follow-up to his extremely successful (and bizarrely brilliant) The Areas of My Expertise, I was apprehensive -- hilarious and unique as Areas had been, its role as an Almanac of False Knowledge seemed limiting. Surely a follow-up book built on the same model, with similar "compendium of knowledge" structures, couldn't have the same spark of particularity that its predecessor had.

That being said, flipping through the first thirty pages of the book in Borders had me laughing out loud (something I'm not overly wont to do) and so I bought it. Or rather, pressured a friend into buying it and loaning it to me. Whatever. Point is: it's superb stuff. Its highs are as high as that of Areas: the Presidential factoids inform us that Rutherford B. Hayes had the nicknames "His Illegitimacy," "Rutherfraud B. Hayes," "Frauderfraud Bogus Hayes," "His Excellency, Fakey Votethief" and "El Stealo," and that Martin Van Buren ("Brueny Van Economic Crisis," "Fancy Van Ascot, the Little Magician") had a hook for a hand. The list of mole-men names, while as eventually drudging as the list of hobo names in Areas, is specialized and -- for the first hundred or so -- funny. He teaches you how to win in poker ("Sure Thing #2" in betting, just after Roulette) by indimidating your competition: "My cards are going to set your cards on fire and then put out the fire with piss." "My cards are going to drown your cards in a rain barrel the same way I murdered your children. (Even if you're not in the hand, this sends a message that you are a REAL card plaer, and maybe even a child murderer.)" And so on; it's all very good stuff, and Hodgman throws so much oddball humor out there that he basically has to score a hit every few pages.

What's rewarding, though, is watching Hodgman stretch his voice. Some of these pieces appeared elsewhere before being folded into this work ("700 Mole Men Names" is listed as being previously published under the title "700 Hobo Names"), and a piece on his newfound minor celebrity that has been adapted from its appearance on This American Life is simultaneously outrageously implausible and really quite poignant. Perhaps the best example of this balance between madcap goofiness and personal voice comes at the tail end of Hodgman's passionate, ardent explanation as to the plausibility of UFOs and the existence of life on other planets. The piece closes with an encounter Hodgman holds up as a potential alien encounter, with his then-girlfriend (now-wife) abandoning him on vacation in Mexico. While she's announced her intention to return, Hodgman is wholeheartedly convinced that he's lost her forever, and is joined while waiting nervously for her outside their hotel by a group of young men from a stag party who ultimately take shifts staying with him and cheering him up while he waits for her to come back. When she does, everybody's spirits lift, and Hodgman's closing words are heartwarming more than anything else: "Even now, a decade and a half later, when she is out of my sight, I never stop looking for her. And even though, you must admit, the likelihood is that while she was away she was kidnapped and replaced by an alien clone, I still love her."

If this tempered, dementedly sweet Hodgman is who we have writing the forthcoming third volume, That is All, I think we have much to look forward to.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie


I chose to read "Shalimar the Clown" for two reasons:
1. I have never read ANYTHING by Salman Rushdie and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
2. My roommate, Kevin Reich said it was his favorite book of all time and I wanted to get a little more insight into exactly what makes Kevin tick.

In brief, Shalimar the Clown is the story of the title character, his wife, her lover, and their daughter. It takes place is the 60s and follows the characters all the way up until the mid nineties. We learn at the very beginning of the book that Shalimar has murdered a famous ambassador and the rest of the book is the explanation of why and how. The book is divided into several sections (not really chapters...) that focus specifically on one of the main characters and their particular story. The action of the story takes us all the way from the holocaust to the India/Pakistan conflict to the Rodney King race riots in Los Angeles and is really pretty damn brilliant.

HOWEVER

The book does not get off to a very strong start in my opinion. Because the story deals so much with the conflict between the Indian army and the Pak-supported insurgents and also takes place almost entirely in the Kashmir region of India, Rushdie includes a LOT of exposition in the opening chapters, exposition which I ended up feeling was a little unnecessary to the story, including about 15 pages about "The Feast of 30 Courses Minimum" and another five about "The Feast of 60 Courses Maximum." Perhaps interesting to somebody, but not to me...

Unnecessary exposition aside, this is an amazing book. Rushdie is a brilliant writer and every sentence is a gem. This book took me a long time to read, but I believe that's the way this book should be read. The story (love, betrayal, war, overeating, tight-rope walking etc.) is an old one but Rushdie tells it in a way that makes me feel like I'm reading it for the first time.

The other great thing about this book is that it really has a little of everything: history, murder, mystery, action, love, magical realism, folk tales, EVERYTHING! I definitely recommend this to anyone who is a little ahead in the book count and wants to take some time to stp and smell the terrorism.

Overall 9 out of 10, get through those first 75 pages and you shall be richly rewarded.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen, Ed. D.

Or "Hug It Out, Bitch."

I was recently hired to work as a teacher's assistant at a Montessori pre-school. The school operates on a combination of Montessori and Adlerian philosophies, the latter of which I knew nothing about. To learn a bit about it, and to save dozens of tiny children from complete psychological destruction in my incapable hands, I borrowed Positive Discipline from the Parent/Teacher Resources shelf at the school.

If any of you teach youngsters, this is an awesome resource. It teaches a style of discipline that empowers rather than belittles, and ultimately minimizes the negative long term problems associated with a punishment-centric method of discipline. She heavily emphasizes the true meaning of the word 'discipline' as being "to instruct and understand" (think 'disciple'), as opposed to the "punish and enforce" meaning that the word has gathered along the way. This particular edition is geared towards younger kids, but Nelsen has published other Positive Discipline books specifically for teenagers, single parent households, etc.

I'll leave you with this nugget of etymological goodness: the word educate comes from the Latin educare, meaning "to draw forth."

And, in case you were wondering, it's the best job ever.

Rating: As a resource for a parent or teacher, 8/10. As a pleasure read, not so much.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell

Or Julie Ritchey Presents "The Year of Magical Reading Thanksgiving Special!"

Sarah Vowell is back, and this time she's taking on the Puritans. In typical Sarah Vowell fashion, this version of events includes just as many pop culture references as it does source texts (including The Brady Bunch, The Godfather trilogy, Louis Armstrong, Happy Days, Nancy Drew, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Scooby-Doo, to name a few...a very few). And while normally I find this technique both charming and informative, this time around it wore a little thin. Maybe it's because I know significantly less about Puritan history than I do about presidential assassinations (the subject of Assassination Vacation), but I couldn't help but feel that this account of John Winthrop's "City On A Hill" is suffering from suburban sprawl.

Vowell leaps from year to year, from theme to theme, from person to person in a way that I found very hard to keep up with. Overall, while I got a very clear sense of the general climate and ideals of the Massachusetts Bay Colony as well as Vowell's opinions of it, I don't feel that I could discuss the subject with any kind of authority, much less how our Puritan founders continue to shape our current political, moral, and social structure. As it was, that rambly, non-sequitur style that I usually love about Vowell's writing just got in the way of what she was trying to say, in a classic case of style superceding substance.

If you're a die-hard Sarah Vowell fan, The Wordy Shipmates is definitely a worthy read, but it doesn't quite live up to her previous books. If you're new to Sarah Vowell, I'd go with Assassination Vacation or The Partly-Cloudy Patriot instead.

The Final Verdict: 5/10


P.S. For a taste of Vowell without the commitment of an entire book, click here to read one of my all-time favorite essays. You can also hear her read her essays as a frequent contributer to This American Life, or hear her as angsty teen superhero Violet Parr in The Incredibles.

Friday, November 21, 2008

This isn't a book post! Don't throw rocks at me!

Some updates, friends!

1. Everybody is an admin . Which means that we can all invite people and change the layout and all kinds of fun things if the mood strikes. We all have to be nice to each other, though, because with this power we can also edit each other's posts or revoke each other's admin privileges willy nilly. So don't piss me off, or I'll change your most recent post to a rave review of "Confessions of a Shopaholic."

2. Andy Lampl's roommate, the lovely Zeke Sulkes, is playing with us now too! So hi, Zeke!

3. I'd just like to take this opportunity to (a) fulfill the never two without three rule and (b) say that I'm having a whole lot of fun with this fifty books business. Like, a whole whole whole lot. So thanks for being fun reading buddies!

love,
Julie

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Crying of Lot 49

Holding a distinguished place in my personal graveyard of great books I've started but never finished is Thomas Pynchon's opus, Gravity's Rainbow. Since I can't hang with Pat's 48-Hardy-Boys-and-then-Infinite Jest strategy for this year, I couldn't see trying to tackle the big Pynchon's again, but wanted to explore the author that is namechecked by so many authors and friends I respect. And so we land on the much easier to manage Crying of Lot 49.

Pynchon is as wonderful as advertised, absurd and inventive and laugh out loud funny. The book is strewn with references, in-jokes, original songs, and even a Jacobean play (which was especially delightful for me, as Pynchon nails the form while mocking it perfectly). The book follows one Oedipa Maas (husband: Mucho--one thing Pynchon is widely known and loved/mocked for is his ability to come up with outlandish character names, the aforementioned two plus out standouts from this book including but not limited to Dr. Hilarius, Mike Fallopian, and Genghis Cohen. Seriously, those are actual characters' actual names) who is named executor of late her ex-lover/multi-millionaire's will, and is drawn into a seemingly never ending and widespread conspiracy dating back to the 1500's. The plot is important but not paramount to the book (the other discursions being as much fun or more so) but to give it away would be to ruin at least some of the power of the book, so I'll leave it at saying that the book draws heavily into question truth and reality and how one judge's their own. The only thing lacking was the book (and this may be in part because of my expectation of the epic from Pynchon) constantly felt like it was about to tip into something much larger and sprawling, and yet clocked in at a slim and perhaps underexplored 152 pages. But for any lover of the absurd, this is definitely worth the read. I hope there is more Pynchon in my future.

Rickenbacker - an autobiography


While in Indiana a couple of weeks ago, I was browsing through my wife's grandfather's library. A fundamentalist Baptist, his library mainly consists of Bibles, Bible Study guides, books written by Jerry Falwell, apocalyptic prophesies, and lists of groups of people who will spend eternity in the Lake of Fire (I am, no doubt, on said list along with Jews, Mormons, Catholics, Muslims, Negros, and Democrats).

Buried within Jesus' atheneum was this book. I love non-fiction, so this stood out as a worthy read. One of the most decorated pilots of all time, pioneer race car driver, early commercial aviation leader among many other roles, this WWI hero led an exciting and adventure-filled life. He was a studly man.

Anyway, if you like bios, this is a worthy read. I give it 7 MRU's out of 10.


Bottomless Belly Button ~ Dash Shaw

This is a beautiful, sprawling graphic novel that spans a weekend in the lives of a highly dysfunctional family on the cusp of divorce. 

Now, I'm not sure if graphic novels are allowed in this site, but allow me to make my case:
1) It was in the Notable Fiction section of Barnes & Noble.
2) It's 720 pages long.
3) It certainly feels like a novel, reads like a novel, and hits you emotionally like a novel.

Is that enough? If everyone is in uproar, then we can count this as a 1/2 book. Okay? Okay.

Bottomless Belly Button is wonderful. It's about the Loony Family. The matriarch and patriarch of the family, an elderly couple with forty years of marriage under their belts, have suddenly decided to get a divorce, and their children and grandchildren have no idea why. What follows are the sad misadventures of a family on the brink of unwanted change. Secret passageways containing secret letters, burning semen with candles, a chair falling from the sky. It's surreal and so identifiably close to real life, page after page after page. 

There's even a little animated trailer. You should watch it:
http://www.fantagraphics.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1199ltemid=137

For anyone who likes cartoons, Wes Anderson, puzzles, and mildly heart-wrenching stories, this may be for you.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union ~ Michael Chabon

So, for my first (and horribly delayed) reading endeavor, I present you with: The Yiddish Policemen's Union, by Michael Chabon. The novel is set in the fictional District of Sitka, which is a safe haven in Alaska created for Jews after the post-Holocaust collapse of Israel. In this fictional land, cellphones are called Shoyfers, handguns are called Sholems, and when a yid starts to cry, he brings a tissue to his face and "blows a great tekiah on his shofar of a nose." I think these things are funny, because I'm Jewish. The rest of you may not...

So, that's the basic groundwork of this novel. Layered into that groundwork is a beautiful, complex, colorful detective story about a lonely police officer (who's afraid of the dark and can't stop drinking), who finds a murdered man in his hotel building who may or may not be the messiah. What spins from that is a lovely tale of chess, strings, donuts, conspiracies, red cows, Alaskan Jews, and sadness. 

I really liked it. If any of the above intrigues you, even a little bit, I think you might like it, too.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

(Non) Required Reading


Required Reading, a phrase that always seemed a little oxymoronic to me (who loved to read as a child) but dreaded to others (like my little brother) has come back in my life with a vengeance, as I try to plow through as many books as possible to maintain my lead in the 50 book race, and as I force my elementary school students (yes dear readers, i am entrusted daily with impressionable young minds) to write it down as homework. So a book of "Non-Required Reading" seemed only appropriate. More importantly, as anyone who knows my tatses is aware, I would probably read a roll of toilet paper if it had Dave Eggers' name on the label. So, two birds.

While I am not sure I can recommend the 2007 version of Non-Required Reading (Non-Required, as described by the book jacket, being "fiction, nonfiction, alternative comics, screenplays, blogs, and 'anything else that defies categorization'" that is chosen from various national magazines and liteary magazines and quarterly reviews by Dave Eggers and a bunch of bright SF-area high schoolers) over any of the other editions (all of which I feel compelled to run out and buy), I do feel great about reading this book. Starting with a Mcsweeney's-esque series of strange lists (police blotter incidents, things you can pay a guy to do on this one website), the book is mostly stories or journalism pieces, ranging from a Miranda July short story to an article on why Barry Bonds should be lauded and not villified, from an on the ground description of the atrocities in Darfur to a journalist embedded in Ramadi, Iraq and a Goth convention (two separate pieces) every piece is informative and enjoyable, and disparate enough to make you feel like you're getting the information and experience of many many books instead of one. Pick one up, you wont regret it.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris

Or Why Does God Hate Amputees?

"Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. In fact, 'atheism' is a term that should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a 'non-astrologer' or a 'non-alchemist.' We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs."

Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation is a tactful but uncompromising examination of the danger of religion in American life. It should be mandatory reading, whether you consider yourself to be secularist, religious, or teetering on the fence. I just can't stop thinking about how the people who need to read this book the most are probably the ones who never will...

Rating: 9.5/10

Second Verse, Same as the First


The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan

So my third book of the year is the second book in the Wheel of Time series, which I am reading for the third time in anticipation of the twelfth book. Hurray for math! There is nothing to add to my review of the first, except to share either a recommendation or a warning about this series, via my very close friend Dave Lowensohn, who I turned on to the wonder of Jordan's world while I was living in Portland:

One, I fucking hope Rand gets the courage to actually *throw up* before the series ends, rather than just omniscient narratoring about it, and;

Two, I'm going to talk your ear off about this shit when I'm caught up to where you are. This is some serious storytelling, and you have the dubious distinction of being the one person I know who's actually made it through this - you are, in essence, my animal guide. I wouldn't have even picked up Book One were it not for your retelling of the author's then dire (now resolved) straits. So, 80% thank you, 20% fuck you.

Cheers,
Dave

so if that sounds like something you might be interested, go for it. Dave is almost through book 5, after a year or so of reading. I am obviously faster, but it is a commitment.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell


The subtitle (in case you can't read the book cover o'er yonder) is The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. If you are intrigued (as I am) at the workings of the human mind, then this book is for you. Mr. Gladwell's thesis is that in many cases snap judgments are every bit as valid and effective as cautious and deliberate ones. He gives many examples of how first impressions, often formed in a fraction of a second, are accurate and reliable. From judging art forgeries, to evaluating New Coke, to an underdog dominating a military war game, Gladwell weaves anecdote after anecdote into a comprehensive discourse on the workings of the subconscious mind. As I am a person of thrift and brevity and believe reviews should be shorter than the books they cover, I'll just say that while not transcendent, it's a worthy read. I'll give it 7.5 out of 10 Magical Reading Units (MRU's).

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Or "OK, Josh. You win."

I love love love loved this book. Loved it. And, secretly, I didn't want to. It was recommended to me by our very own Josh Lesser who (a) likened it to my very favorite book Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which automatically makes me want to think of it as Extremely Loud's bastard cousin that nobody talks about at family reunions and (b) I enjoy disagreeing with. But despite my best efforts to prove Josh wrong and say "Eh, it was all right," it's a damn good book, and I'd read it again right now if I didn't have forty-eight other books to read.

The story is simple-ish: the book starts in January 1982 and ends in January 1983 and chronicles a year in thirteen year old Jason Taylor's life. Now, maybe because it's because I majored in performance studies, but give me a book with a great narrator and I'm hooked for life. And, oh, Jason Taylor is a perf stud's dream narrator. David Mitchell does an extraordinary job crafting this character; the use of slang, the observations of early-teenage social order, his relationship with his friends and his family, his perception of his relationship with his friends and his family... wow. It is so truthful and so elegant, it honestly seems like a thirteen year old boy growing up in England in the eighties had spoken this book into a tape recorder and David Mitchell transcribed it.

I realize that seems like a silly thing to point out. "Wow! Get this: an author created a fictional person and wrote about him in such a way that made it really convincing!" It seems obvious, like something that you'd learn on the first day at Author School. But the truth is, I have never read a book that so perfectly captures the feeling of being adolescent without being romantic, condescending, or tragically dramatic. And I can't remember the last time I read a piece of fiction and felt like its main character was a living, breathing person.

And it is like Extremely Loud. Not 100%, but the comparison is definitely valid. Sort of like this:

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - New York City + small village in England - two narrators - constant, heartbreaking anguish + hormones + a living father - Oskar's inventions = Black Swan Green.

In all seriousness though, you have 48 more books to read this year. Black Swan Green should be one of them.

Rating: 9.5/10

Monday, November 10, 2008

Kafka on the Shore



It's somehow fitting that this reading project kicks off for me with Kafka on the Shore, my first Haruki Murakami book. I nabbed it from Josh's shelf the night after I saw the Frank Galati-helmed adaptation at Steppenwolf (featuring, among others, Fran Guinan as a truly spectacular Johnny Walker and Colonel Sanders). My sense, coming from the show, was that the novel would be richer in its exploration of subjectivity and the blurred nature of reality and truth -- big themes in the staged version that clash somewhat with the fact that once you put an image, a character, a line of dialogue on stage, it carries a permanent and fixed weight that it might not carry on the page. Murakami's novel does delve somewhat into this blurring of perspective and the interchangeable nature of our physical universe, but what I found more striking is Murakami's fascination with literature, written as well as filmic and musical in nature, that packs the novel.

It's a sprawling piece filled with wild imagery (in addition to the appearance of the iconic Walker and Sanders characters, there are torrential downpours of fish and leeches, lost soldiers from a long-ended war, and one of my favorite literary devices: talking cats [see also The Master and Margarita]) and Murakami's interests cover a broad spectrum, but the spine of the piece at least on this reading was the awakening impact of art on individuals. As his protagonist (Kafka) makes his torturous journey, Murakami notes Kafka's reading habits, the way that he breaks down novels and non-fiction, processing and developing theories about his world that spring from sources as diverse as Kafka's "In The Penal Colony," Sophocles' Oedipus cycle, and a biography of Eichman. (I have no doubt that the novel is indescribably richer to readers more familiar with these texts than I am -- Murakami makes it very reader-friendly for the uninitiated, but the few literary touchstones I was familiar with added a level of resonance that elevated the trip.) Meanwhile, in my favorite throughline that wasn't terribly present in Galati's adaptation, a working-class trucker (Hoshino) experiences a sudden epiphany at the hands of Beethoven's Archduke Trio, which speaks to him in concert with Truffaut films Shoot the Piano Player and The 400 Blows and begins a philosophical awakening that soon has him re-examining his life, his place in the universe, and stories he'd forgotten for years.

It's a massive book, and I couldn't begin to do it justice or really grasp its thematic and narrative nuance without rereadings (and, I suspect, a firmer grasp of its reference points), but this is what spoke most beautifully to me: this sense of the elevating impact of art crafted by flawed individuals, the interconnectedness of literature, philosophy, and action, and the power literature of all forms has to inspire, deepen and inform its audience in ways they may not fully comprehend.

In any event, it's a helluva way to kick off the 50-book project; now, off to read 48 Hardy Boys books before finishing up with Infinite Jest. See you guys next November!

Saturday, November 8, 2008

In Persuasion Nation by George Sauders


I don't know if we're supposed to write about every book we read, I would imagine not, but this one was pretty great, so I thought I'd give the people a little something something.

I had not read any George Saunders previously, but I devoured this set of short stories. Saunders has what seems to me to be a unique ability in literature...the ability to make me laugh out loud while being outraged at the same time. Story after story, most of which are set in a not-so-distant futuristic world, shows people making the wrong decisions for all the wrong reasons, or characters getting punished for idealism or good deeds. The book is funny (satire is supposed to be), but its not JUST funny (not that there is anything wrong with that). In an interview I read with Ted Leo once, where asked if his latest album felt more political in subject matter than previous ones, he said that ALL his songs were political. I think the same could be said of Saunders. Every story, whether its a love story, or a letter, or narrated by a 10 year old boy, is political, in that it comments on our world and our society, and subtly passes judgment or implies that something is wrong or could be writer. Saunders is never polemical, but he is always political. And that is worth a lot.

Score 8/10

Friday, November 7, 2008

First Book, Third TIme

Or "Why I kicked off a year with a book I already read twice"

Robert Jordan's Eye of the World is, for the uninformed and/or not geeky, the first book of his epic, 11-books-and-a-prequel-so far Wheel of Time series. In brief, the Wheel of Time follows three friends from a small town who must accept their fantastic destinies and lead Good against Evil. The plot is of course much more complex than that, but thats the gist. This first book introduces us to Mat, Perrin, and, most importantly, Rand al'Thor, as their quiet village is attacked by forces of darkness and they flee their quiet lives for the great wide world and begin to discover who they really are. There is loads of magic, strange creatures, vivid characters, and made up languages. It is every bit as dorky as you expect it to be.

WoT (as the even nerdier of us refer to the series in typical nerdy shorthand) is not original in its story--people ever casually familiar with anything even resembling fantasy or epics will recognize the same tropes that mark all the Joseph Campbell defined hero stories that preceded it, and Jordan doesn't cover any ground that wasn't previously visited by people like Tolkien and George Lucas, and he has been joined recently by favorites like J.K. Rowling. Even Jordan's world, especially in this first book, is constantly referencing Lord of the Rings. Whether consciously or unconsciously, its hard to see how evil creatures called "Trollocs" aren't derived from "Trolls" and "Orcs", how the Mountains of Dhoom isn't a homage to, well, Mount Doom, and the Green Man (a large, well, tree) isn't the greatest Ent that ever lived. So that's the "bad".

Except the bad isn't really. If you love Lord of the Rings, and if you didn't love it to some extent there's no reason to bother with this much longer and less cultural-touchstone-y series, then chances are one of the reasons you love it is that it allows you to enter a beautiful, fully realized, and wholly other world. The point of fantasy, the point of hero stories, is escape, to imagine oneself as a hero or to lose oneself in a more, for lack of a better word, fantastical world. And the reason I loved Jordan's books (and Tolkien's, and Martin's, and Rowling's, and, I assume up-and-comers like Patrick Rothfuss, who I would imagine will make an appearance later in the year) is that I love the world, the creations, the danger and the joy, the discovery and the complexities. The reason I picked it up now (besides the fact that the 12th and final book, only written in part by Jordan, who passed away last year after a prolonged battle with a rare blood disease, and written mostly based on his copious notes and outlines comes out next year, and i had planned to reread them all once more before it drops) is that I had a lot of reading time on my hands now that I am subbing, and more than anything else I've ever read (at least anything not featuring a character named Harry Potter) I get excited about reading WoT, I look forward to losing myself in the world. While I love to read, and enjoy the escapisim aspect of all fiction, no other books pass the time for me the way movies or TV does quite like fantasy. Maybe that seems like a small thing, but for me at least, it is not. Reading these books is like going on vacation to visit old friends sometimes, like entering a vivid daydream others (incidentally, the books also helped me get through some rough emotional patches, when I wanted to think about anything other than my own life) and what else could be better if I'm stuck in a classroom for two hours with nothing to do?

Score: (are we scoring all these books?) 10/10 for what it is, but comparing it to traditional classic literature is much harder. so i'll stick with that.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman

Or "This Is My First Book Post And I'm A Little Nervous About It"


Einstein’s Dreams is, in a word, lovely. It’s fluffy without being unsubstantial, and thought-provoking without being overly heady. It’s sort of physics meets fiction meets poetry meets philosophy, neatly packaged into a prologue, epilogue, thirty vignettes and three interludes.

There is no plot and practically no characters. Einstein, though featured as a character, only appears here and there. The book begins with a young Einstein at his desk in a patent office, toying with his theory of relativity. What follows are thirty two- to three-page anecdotes, each a different musing about time: a world where time flows like a river, a world where time is only the present, a world in which cause and effect are unrelated.

As literature, these little vignettes are just delightful. Each is a quirky little examination of human nature, betraying little truths about the ways in which we interact with the world and time. As for the science of it, Dad, you’ll have to read this one and point out all the parallels and references to actual science. I was only able to identify a few moments of science-turned-anecdote -- enough to recognize that there are lots more flying under my radar, what with my ├╝ber-limited understanding of these theories left over from my high school physics class and all. Lightman is a physicist and professor at MIT, so yeah. He’s a pretty smart dude.

The one drawback to Einstein’s Dreams is that it gets a little repetitive. The quirkiness of the different worlds starts to feel familiar, and towards the end I found myself counting to see how many vignettes I had left. But even with that complaint, I would definitely recommend this one. It’s easy enough that you can breeze through it in an afternoon, but it gives you quite a bit more to hold on to than your typical breeze-through-it-in-an-afternoon type book. Basically, it’s the world’s classiest beach read.

Final Vote:
7.5/10

BOOK THE FIRST: David Sedaris: Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim


Well, I came to find out that JFK has a remarkably small choice of books for a city that apparently prides itself in its book-learning. However, I took the opportunity to finally read a book by this David Sedaris guy that everyone seems so excited about, so my first book in my year of magical reading was David Sedaris' Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.

After reading this book, I can tell why so many people are so into David Sedaris. His stories are hilarious, but without losing substance and he has a way of occasionally slipping something heart-wrenching in between his jokes. His stories also have an honesty to them that makes them very relateable. In fact, the honesty is taken to a level that often led me to the conclusion that David Sedaris is kind of a dick...

I believe the true value of this book will appear later when I start to notice and remember all the quippy observations and whatnot later in my life. I also have a new favorite name for my future summer home.

Overall, on a scale of 1-10. 10 being a plate of fresh-baked cookies and 1 being a poke in the eye, I'll give this book a 7. It was really fun to read and I laughed out loud several times, but it doesn't have the substance that would make it equal a plate of warm, gooey, delicious cookies.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

FIRST BOOK!

Well, my year is off to an auspicious start! I was going to read Jane Smiley's Ten Days in the Hills, but I lost it yesterday, so I'll be buying whichever book looks most interesting at the AIRPORT! more airport classics in 2009!

IT'S NOVEMBER FIRST!

Since I'm in the furthest time zone west, you fellas have a couple hours head start on me. But don't worry. I'll even the playing field by blazing through a couple Goosebumps books early in the game to get my numbers down.


LET THE READING BEGIN!