Archive for June, 2008

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Two More…

June 28, 2008

Example

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Greetings all.
Whoa…
I’ve wanted to read this book for a long time (though the Oprah endorsement put me off for a little while). Thankfully my in-laws came down to visit and they brought with them a copy of the book, which my mother-in-law had listened to as a book on tape and loved.
I ripped through ‘The Road’ in two days, and I’d be willing to say that this is the first modern novel I’ve read in many, many years that I would recommend wholeheartedly as a genuine literary classic.
Cormac McCarthy is one of those contemporary authors who I’d heard about for years but never connected with (probably because no one I trusted recommended his work). When ‘The Road’ came out to almost universal acclaim I was intrigued, and then – as I said – when Oprah chimed in (I happen to be one of the minority that thinks Oprah is deeply full of shit, possessed of a messianic complex and a major representative of the lightweight form of self-analysis so shallow as to be completely meaningless, thus my reluctance to read ANYTHING she recommended).
Anyway…
I heard enough positive things about the book from other, reliable sources that I figured the Oprah endorsement was a fluke of the “even a broken clock is right twice a day” (the other intersection of our interests being Mr Obama) school, so when a copy dropped in my lap a few days ago I set upon it like a hungry wolf.
First off, if you are in the grip of a serious depression I would suggest that you avoid ‘The Road’ until you’re in a “better place”.
This is bleak, gut wrenching stuff.
I won’t drop any spoilers, but I will tell you that McCarthy has crafted one of the first post-apocalyptic novels that in no way romanticizes life after the bomb (or whatever it is that’s devastated the world).
I’ve been on an apocalypse-lit binge of sorts for the better part of the last year, and I would say that ‘The Road’ is by far the best of the lot, comparing favorably with ‘Earth Abides’ by George R. Stewart. It never descends into science fiction (though there are elements of horror, never supernatural) and is possessed of a spare, deceptive simplicity.
Beautifully written, an absolutely perfect, heartrending (especially if you have children) book.
Highly recommended.

NOTE: I had to come back and write some more about this amazing book. I finished it around 3PM this afternoon and I haven’t stopped thinking about, or realizing how much I was moved by it. How much of this is the book itself or seeing myself and my son(s) reflected in McCarthy’s characters I can’t say yet, but I suspect I’ll be obsessing about it somewhat over the next few days/weeks/months, up to and likely including reading it again after I get a little time between my mind/emotions and the book. Go get a copy.

Example

Fuzzy Sapiens by H. Beam Piper

Greetings all.
Guess who’s back? Back again?
Me…
Once again I’ve gone ahead and finished two books since I last posted, but since I’ve bee busy, with the blogging, and the job (as it is) and the family stuff, that’s just how it is.
‘Fuzzy Sapiens’ is the sequel to H. Beam Piper’s ‘Little Fuzzy’, which coincidentally I just happened to have on hand as I read both books in an omnibus of Piper’s ‘Fuzzy’ stories.
‘Fuzzy Sapiens’ continues the tale of the Fuzzies, now recognized as sapient beings on their home planet of Zarathustra and all of the events that unfolded as a result of that decision.
The story takes some interesting turns, and the main characters – most of whom are carried over from the first novel (there’s not time lapsed between the end of the first novel and the beginning of the second) are well developed.
Though the plot of the second novel struck me as a little trite – considering the depth of the issues Piper addresses in both books – I still think it made for an enjoying, if slight read. I only mention that last criticism because the brevity of ‘Fuzzy Sapiens’ cast a similar light on the equally brief ‘Little Fuzzy’, bringing the first book down a step in my estimation.
That said, if you’re looking for a quick read, you could do a lot worse.

Now reading – Not sure yet….

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Another Two In the Outbox…

June 17, 2008

Example

Bottomless Belly Button by Dash Shaw

Greetings all.
Thanks in large part to a combination of sloth and speed reading I come to you today with not one but two books.
The first is the graphic novel ‘Bottomless Belly Button’ by Dash Shaw.
Oddly enough both of the books I’m writing up today were picked up via mentions on BoingBoing.
The BB plug (for Bottomless Belly Button) sounded so interesting I ordered the book from Amazon forthwith. A few days later I arrived home to a small Amazon box that was shockingly heavy.
“What’s this?” I thought. I didn’t recall ordering an anvil, but I went ahead and opened the box anyway, discovering the graphic novel in question.
“Oh dear…there is no fucking way I’m lugging this thing with me back and forth to work.”
I immediately resolved to hold it in abeyance as a “home” book to be read at night and on weekends.
As it turns out the physical size of the book was deceptive, as I ripped through in in a two day period.
‘Bottomless Belly Button’ is another example of a graphic novel with a drawing style that I found immediately off-putting, which ended up grewing on me over time. I’ve seen other examples of Shaw’s work and realize that not everything he draws looks this way, but I’m from the old school where I’ve come to expect a higher level of craft where drawing is concerned.
I am of course – as is often the case – wrong on that count. The deal with graphic novels is (at least as I see it) that the story is at least as important as the art (or it ought to be) and that sometimes an individualistic, non-traditional drawing style is really a crucial part of the whole presentation.
In the case of ‘Bottomless Belly Button’, Shaw has taken the story of a family coming together to mark the disintegration of their parent’s marriage (after 40 years). The characters are well thought out and the storyline – which contains a fair bit of symbolism – creeps up slowly, enveloping the reader along the way.
Interesting, but in no way crucial reading, though I will be on the lookout for Shaw’s other work.

Example

Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper

Though I wouldn’t call myself a sci-fi nut, I will say that over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a lot of excellent writing hiding inside that scorned genre (and many others as well). Great writing that was basically published as disposable paperback pulp, often lost to the ages except where passed on from one generation to another (though H. Beam Piper’s ‘Fuzzy’ novels had been reprinted over the years, so I would hesitate to describe them as ‘forgotten’, but rather lesser-known).
The BoingBoing was written to announce the fact that Piper’s novel ‘Little Fuzzy’, which had – due to copyright neglect – passed on into the public domain, was being released as an audio book. The story sounded interesting, so I looked on-line, found a used omnibus of the three ‘Fuzzy’ books (two published during Piper’s lifetime and one posthumously) on the cheap.
Man, what a great book.
Sure, there are traces of 50s/60’s space opera clichés, but that could be said of almost all sci-fi written during that era. That aside, ‘Little Fuzzy’ sounds like it could have been written this year, with it’s themes of ecological destruction, industrial (and official) espionage and the onrush of corporate hegemony.
The story concerns the discovery of a new race of beings on a corporately owned planet and the threat that presents to the company, and in turn to the Fuzzies themselves.
I had a little trouble at the beginning, mainly because I mistakenly (arrogantly) thought that I had the whole plot figured out. By the time I was a third of the way into the book I was hooked and found several satisfying plot twists (I even got choked up a couple of times…).
I haven’t started the second book (‘Fuzzy Sapiens’) yet, but I plan on digging in tonight at bedtime.
I’ve seen it mentioned that ‘Little Fuzzy’ has been classified by some as “juvenile fiction” but it is definitely a great example of a book of that type that transcends that classification in spades*.
If you are so inclined you can download the public-domain version of the book, or if you’re a book fetishist like me you can grab a used copy very inexpensively.
Excellent.

*Like Philip Pullman’s ‘Dark Materials’ trilogy

Now reading – Fuzzy Sapiens by H. Beam Piper

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Excelsior You Fathead: The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd

June 12, 2008

Example

Excelsior You Fathead: The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd – by Eugene B. Bergmann

Greetings all.
I was this kid, see….
And for a few years during my adolescence, in a situation that today would be all but incomprehensible to most kids of that age, I spent close to five hours a day glued to the radio.
No, I did not grow up in the 1930’s. This was a period in the mid 70’s, when radio as a creative medium was making one last valiant charge into the valley of death. WOR in New York had a line up starting in mid-afternoon that began with Bob & Ray, and closed up shop late in the evening with the voice of Jean Shepherd.
It wasn’t just me either. A large group of my junior high school friends, and my Dad (who introduced me to Shepherd in the first place) listened every day, and discussed it all the day after.
There was something about Shepherd that struck a nerve in my 12 year old brain. He spoke about childhood, with what is widely – and mistakenly – believed to be nostalgia. However, what he was bringing to the table was – for us kids anyway – an unvarnished look at the truth of childhood, in which things were not at all rosy, but set us up for the inevitable disappointments of adulthood.
This is not to say that he was some kind of gloom-monger, but rather that he dealt in realism, in addition to the fact that he was funny as hell (as were Bob & Ray, but that is a story for another day).
I, like pretty much everyone else lost touch with Shep when some dipshit management school type came into WOR in 1977 and cleaned house, making way for an onrushing wave of mediocrity, sure to expand the audience but just as sure to put a bullet in the head of radio’s last big chance. A coup de disgrace, if you will.
A few years later, when ‘A Christmas Story’ came out, I was in college and it blew my mind that a mainstream movie had been made based on the stories of Shep (and narrated by him as well). Years later, when the film became a holiday perennial, and Shep a household name of sorts (at least for a new generation) I was able to sit smugly back and rejoice in the fact that I was on that particular bus years before the pack.
In recent years, alongside the advent of the pocket sized MP3 delivery device, I was able to go whole hog in an aural orgy of Shep when I discovered the Brass Figlagee podcast wherein lay a huge stockpile of old Shep airchecks to be downloaded and appreciated at my leisure.
It was during a recent search on the interwebs (oddly enough non-Shep related) that I happened upon a mention of what appeared at first to be a biography of Shep. Naturally I ordered myself a copy forthwith.
That book – ‘Excelsior You Fathead!: The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd’ – is not really Shep’s life story – but in fact a deeply researched and most importantly deeply understood critical biography dedicated to exploring Jean Shepherd’s more than 40-year body of work in radio, TV, movies and print.
The author, Eugene B. Bergmann has listened to (and transcribed) hundreds of hours of Shepherd’s broadcasts, his written work and available TV shows and gotten deep inside the world he created (real, imaginary and combinations of the two). During the course of over 400 pages Bergmann explores the recurring themes in Shepherd’s work, the philosophical and social motifs therein and how real life contributed to his work and vice versa.
Shepherd was a creative genius, in many ways creating a spoken novel over the airwaves over the course of more than 20 years on New York radio (bracketed by several years before and after when he was in essence setting the stage and subsequently winding down). He was also – like many a great creative artist – a deeply flawed individual. While Bergmann doesn’t dwell on Shepherd’s flaws, he does – where necessary – reveal how they were manifested in his work, his relations with his colleagues (and how those relationships affected his work) and how his real life, in his formative years and as an adult informed work largely assumed (again mistakenly) to be autobiography.
‘Excelsior You Fathead!: The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd’ is absolutely essential reading for those who are already fans of Jean Shepherd, but should also be passed on to anyone who needs to be reminded that electronic media wasn’t always a cesspool of banality.
Not only is Shepherd ripe for rediscovery, but also deserving of such. It may be that the time for any mass appeal is past, if only because the national attention span is so terribly stunted. Perhaps Shepherd is doomed to always remain a ‘cult’ artist. Considering the effect that kind of popularity has on some things, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
Great book.

Now reading – Not sure yet…going to the book store tonight…

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Now The Hell Will Start

June 9, 2008

Example

Now the Hell Will Start by Brendan I. Koerner

Greetings all.
Due to an ongoing combination of blog related work, family life (I got me some kids ya know), reading, giving insulin to my diabetic cat (what has become of me??) and various and sundry stuff (including the fact that the industry in which I have been employed for over two decades seems poised at the moment on the verge of implosion), I am behind in my responsibilities herein.
This shall of course be remedied right now.
I finished ‘Now the Hell Will Start’ sometime in the middle of last week, and jumped immediately into my current book,
I first heard about this book via a post on the always interesting BoingBoing (the source of many recent reads) and as I was on the cusp of booklessness I ordered it immediately. The fact that it showed up less than two days later (as I was finishing my previous book) says something about both the nature of kismet and the vagaries of Amazon’s delivery system (I said to my wife if I was waiting for a kidney transplant it never would have showed up that quickly).
Anyway….
I’m glad I picked this one up for a few reasons.
First and foremost it’s a great story, involving a US GI (Herman Perry), driven to the brink of madness in the jungles of Burma who snapped, shot and killed an MP and took off into the jungle where he lived amongst the headhunters (yes, real headhunters) and became the subject of a major manhunt.
Second, it revealed a hidden chapter (at least to me) of history with a number of intriguing side stories that might have made for interesting books on their own.
Third – and probably most important – ‘Now the Hell Will Start’ is an antidote to anyone who thinks that this country’s race issues were solved after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The stories of the disturbing and inhumane treatment of black GIs during WWII – institutional and otherwise – are positively mind-boggling. It amazes me when reading about how these soldiers were treated that they didn’t take up arms against the government upon their return to US soil.
There are several lessons to be learned from this book, including the unbearable savagery of war, the arrogance of men who thought that they could conquer the Burmese jungle, and the willingness of people who clearly knew better to treat their fellow citizens like garbage.
Brendan I. Koerner is an excellent storyteller (and researcher) and ‘Now the Hell Will Start’ ought to be force fed to anyone who thought Barack Obama’s pastor was “too angry”. If I’d been treated the way these men were I’d spend the rest of my life finding the people responsible and addressing the issue in the harshest physical terms possible (seriously)
Great book.

Now reading – Excelsior You Fathead: The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd

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The End-of-May Double Header

June 2, 2008

Example

The Great Derangement by Matt Taibbi

Greetings all.
I first read some of Matt Taibbi’s articles last year on one of the increasingly rare occasions that I purchased a copy of Rolling Stone. Once a staple of my periodical diet, I’ve gotten sick of Jann Wennerisms like Britney Spears cover stories, so unless I’m stranded somewhere with nothing to read and RS is the only remotely appealing thing in the magazine rack, I don’t pick it up.
That said, Taibbi – who is often compared to one of my idols, Hunter S. Thompson, even on the cover of this very book – is, if not a Thompson for the new era (and we really need one now), an astute commentator and observer with a sharp (in all senses of the word) pen.
‘The Great Derangement’ bounces back and for the between Taibbi’s experiences undercover in John Hagee’s Texas mega-church (timely, that), riding with US troops in Iraq and exploring the ‘9/11 Truth’ movement.
The books central thesis – laid out in the title – is that things are kind of nuts right now, so much so that the ultra-right and ultra-left have, like some kind of cultural moebius strip, looped in on themselves and connected with each other.
Taibbi delivers his narrative with a fair amount of righteous anger, but his descriptions of the people he met during his time masquerading as a born again Christian are nothing if not sympathetic. I only wish that he had provided some closure to that particular episode (i.e. if, and how did he reveal his true identity to the people he met in Texas).
His dissection of the lunacy and twisted reasoning behind the prevailing 9/11 conspiracy theories – especially a long imagined dialogue between the supposed conspirators – is excellent.
I’ll definitely be seeking out his earlier books.

Example

Epileptic by David B.

During the same trip to the book barn where I grabbed the Taibbi book, I strolled on over to the graphic novel section and found something very interesting indeed.
‘Epileptic’ by David B. is, unlike many other examples of the genre a ”book” as much as a graphic novel. Basically an autobiography (originally published in six parts) ‘Epileptic’ is also the story of his family, and especially how his brother’s illness (indicated in the title, natch) affected all of their lives.
David B. – whose work was unfamiliar to me – is an artist of amazing talent. I can’t remember the last time I saw a graphic novel (or even short form comic book) where such an astounding level of detail was not also a huge waste of time. B’s illustrations are incredibly detailed and imaginative and the story – sensitively and honestly told – is heartbreaking.
I’m going to do my best to get my wife to check this one out.
Amazing.

Now reading – And Now The Hell Will Start by Brendan I Koerner