Monday, March 31, 2008

Reading List: March 2008

Back again with the most poplar feature on this blog, which to be honest isn't saying much b/c I don't really get any traffic here. Anyway, March saw me complete 18 books, graphic novels, or plays, and here is what they were:

1. The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh: Rarely have I read something so captivating and haunting, yet I think McDonagh ultimately opens more doors than he actually steps through in this play. There is the age old nature v. nurture issue as well as the question of author responsibility, but I never felt that either issue was adequately addressed. However, I will read more of his work in the future, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend you see a performance if you get the chance.

2. Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman: Hailed as a low culture manifesto, Klosterman amuses and at times his observations are truly
insightful. For example, 'I've spent the last fifteen years if my life railing against the game of soccer, an exercise that has been lauded as the "Sport of the Future" since 1977. Thankfully, that future dystopia has never come.' I also enjoyed the way he wrote intelligently about Saved by the Bell, and I think what saves this from being just another lousy Benbella Smart Pop anthology is that Klosterman is a very talented writer. However, several of the pieces focused heavily on music, and not caring about music much at all, I'm not sure if I'll read more his work any further.

3. The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck by Don Rosa: Star Trek authors take note--this is how to do fanwank. Rosa read through all of Carl Barks's stories and worked in a reference to all of them in a seemingly effortless way. But on top of all that, we get a wildly entertaining story detailing Scrooge's life from the age of six to the beginning of Barks's stories. As inane and crappy as I find modern Disney, there is real gold in these comics. I enjoyed them when I was a kid, and they stand up as entertaining twenty years later.

4. Cultural Amnesia by Clive James: Read my extended review here.

5. Kentucky Straight by Chris Offutt: This is Offutt's first story collection, and it is easy to see why he is probably the best Appalachian writer around. He has a way of capturing the feeling of being trapped and stagnant on a hill in Kentucky and making it relevant to someone who has lived his entire life in a big city. I am finding that I pre
fer his fiction to his two memoirs, and he is worth a look.

6. The White Album by Joan Didion: The author has a way of inserting herself into the essays she writes, yet it never seems intrusive or out of place. As I read I learn, and I am moved. What more could we ask of an essayist?

7. The Kindly Ones by Neil Gaiman, et al.: Since the Sandman is in many ways an unlikeable character, it was hard to really get worked up over the conclusion to the saga. Everything was moving inevitably towards a climax, yet that inevitability didn't seem natural, and it didn't keep me from wanting to skip ahead. I'm also not a big fan of Marc Hempel's artwork which is a little too unrefined for my tastes. I suppose I could see it work in another comic, but it didn't hold together for me here.

8. Curse of the Starving Class by Sam Shepard:
I decided to avoid the incest angle when reading this play, and instead focused on the starvation and the hoped for salvation of the working class that Shepard presents. The family lives on a deteriorating farm, impoverished, and is beset on all sides by amoral speculators, strife, and the cunning manipulation between the estranged parents and the disoriented children who seek their future between the shelter of an unfulfilling home and an alienating outside world. The characters seem to feel that this curse is intrinsic, as when Ella says, “Do you know what this is? It's a curse. I can feel it. It's invisible but it's here. It's always there. It comes onto us like nighttime. Every day I can feel it. Every day I can see it coming. And it always comes. Repeats itself. It comes even when you do everything to stop it from coming. Even when you try to change it. And it goes back. Deep.” Not only is the family literally starving, but they are starving from a dearth of opportunity. Shepard reflects the desolate frontier in a way that rings so true, yet is so different from most stories about the west. I'm not a huge fan og his, but I am starting to like him much more than I have in the past.

9. The Wake by Neil Gaiman, et al.: The title of this final volume gives away the whole saga now that I think about it. As I said about The Kindly Ones, my ambivalence about the Sandman made this volume less interesting as well, though I did feel the storyline with Matthew was quite well done. I also enjoyed seeing Shakespeare again, but what stood out for me was the story Exiles, drawn by Jon J. Muth. Like my friend Brendan Moody, I think that the Sandman is at its best when focusing on a solitary story.

10. The Sandman Companion by Hy Bender: What could have been a well researched scholarly thesis on the comic essentially was merely an extended interview of Gaiman by Bender. Much is said, but little is contextualized, leaving a great deal up to the reader to just already know or research independently.

11. The Plot
Against America by Philip Roth: Though the dynamics of the Roth family will be familiar to those who have read Patrimony, The Facts, or maybe even Operation Shylock, the success of this novel is the way Roth has reimagined what his family would have done had America gone anti-Semitic during WW2. As you probably know, Charles Lindbergh defeats FDR in the 1940 election and becomes an isolationist president, signing pacts with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. But Roth never manages to make us believe that this alternate history is really happening; we never stop comparing it to actual history. There are several appendices at the novel's conclusion, but none of them seemed necessary for me. Do I really need short biographical entries on the major players when I could easily, were I actually interested, just go look up the same facts on the Internet? There are times that I am afraid that I've already read all the good Roth.

12. The Complete Peanuts 1950-1952 by Charles M. Schulz: After reading Michaelis's biography of Schulz earlier this year, I knew I had to read through the Fantagraphics collections one day. The evolution of the strip, of course, was the most captivating thing about this volume. Charlie Brown was much meaner, Shermy is the first character to speak, and by the end of the second year he is all but gone. Snoopy starts as a regular dog and goes from there. However, it was interesting to see that Schulz often had his punchlines hit in panel three, with panel four being a direct address to the reader as the children chased each other. Perhaps this sense of timing made it easier for Schulz to make the shift in the strip's later years to only three panels. This will have to be something I watch for as i make my way through the collections.

13. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler: After reading James M. Cain's novels a couple of years ago for a class, I become interested in the way that crime noir stories were presented in the literary fiction of their contemporaries. And seeing how highly people thought of Chandler, i finally got around to reading this classic. Maybe noir stories just aren't for me, or maybe I can't understand the book's innovative nature due to my own historical situation, but this just didn't really work for me. Cain's narrators were more effective because he wrote in the past tense rather than the present, so their is a sense of pain and loss in the retelling that isn't there as events unfold.

14. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard: While I'm not a fan of absurdist drama, this works for me even though it has no plot-the plot of Shakespeare's Hamlet gives the reader enough background to make sense of what is going on. When the characters get farther and farther away from the action in Hamlet, the more absurd the drama gets. I couldn't help but think of Jasper Fforde as I read, seeing that they are unable to change the plot of Hamlet no matter what they do. They are looking for agency over their fates, yet like all absurdist drama, there is no agency to be found. And nothing is funnier than seeing the main characters looking into the wings at hamlet, asking each other, 'Is he talking to himself again?' I never really liked this play before, but now I might have to consider it a favorite.

15. Buried Child by Sam Shepard: Since I had read this play before, I focused on the most interesting and unresolved aspect, at least for me: the mystery of the buried child. Who was the father? I thought Tilden, but it could have been Ansel too. Dodge apparently killed it to protect the family, but maybe he killed it merely because it was a living reminder of his wife’s infidelity and incestuous relationship with one of their sons. But what really bugs me more than anything is why no one recognizes Vince whenever he arrives. Perhaps what Shepard is getting at is that the true mystery is how we happen to be born into the family we are born into, or how we turn out the way we do. These are unanswerable questions, for while they can be discussed at length, the way we turn out is subject to much stimuli and all of it can’t necessarily be reconciled. The only solution that seems somewhat likely is that Vince and the buried child are indeed the same person, each one a fantasy of what the other may have been under different circumstances.

16. The Dumb Waiter by Harold Pinter: Another absurdist romp, but I liked this one too. Pinter almost entirely rips off Beckett here, two characters waiting for someone to meet them. Again they are seeking some kind of
agency over their lives, yet they seem to be part of a huge corporation and are unable to see the big picture as to why they must do what they must. To me it was analagous to foot soldiers in the military, Ben being able to follow orders w/o question, while Sam continued to 'reason why.'

17. The Learners by Chip Kidd: Kidd is best known as the designer of book covers, so it's not surprising to see him have fun with the typography and design of his novels. Based around the Stanley Milgram experiments, Kidd interweaves advertising and graphic design with the story of a tortured soul named Happy. For me the most interesting aspect was the distinguishing of form and content in graphic design, and how that distinction carried through to other aspects of the novel. It got a little slow in the third act, but it still was a positive experience for me. However, Kidd has a way to go before he starts firing on all cylinders in his fiction, though I will be along for the ride.

18. Dutchman by Amiri Baraka: I used to see this as a study in binaries, but now I am seeing it more as a biblical tale dealing with the Fall of Man. Here is a real counterculture figure who has maintained his dedication long after the sixties have ended, and this play is him at his best. Perhaps I will have more to say about this in a few days.

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