Finally freed from the responsibilities associated with graduate school as the semester ended, I tried to spend the rest of the month relaxing and reading some things that I wouldn't have had time for otherwise. Of course, as June begins I must get to work on the reading for my thesis, though I hope to still be able to spend some time reading things for mere enjoyment. This past month I finished fourteen books, plays, or graphic novels, all of which are recapped below.
1. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill: Teaming up a group of fantastical characters from Victorian literature to comprise an ur-Justice League is a brilliant idea, but Moore never found a sustainable story for his creations. Though the artwork by O'Neill is quite good, the execution of the story fails and there is little substance here. Honestly, I am a bit bewildered by all the praise this work has received; I'm unsure as to whether I will ever pick up Volume II or The Black Dossier.
2. Betrayal by Harold Pinter: Since I'd done so much work with Pinter over the semester, I wanted to get a better idea of some of his lesser known works. The narrative of the play is in a reverse chronology, with nearly every scene taking place before the previous one. Al in all, I found this device to be interesting, but it essentially is the entire substance of the play. If one were to stage the play in chronological order, it would be tedious and boring. As always, Pinter's language is alive on the page; one doesn't have any problem feeling the tension in the silences between characters. I also learned that this play was the basis for that backwards episode of Seinfeld.
3. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri: Last month's completion of the Best American Short Stories 2002 was my first exposure to Lahiri, and since her work has been so lauded I felt I should give this collection a try. Though nearly every story concerns Indian characters living in America, these details serve merely to enrich a narrative that is based on the alienation, loneliness, and love that all types of people share. The prose is quite good, and one constantly finds oneself turning page after page, unable to wait to see what will happen and yet unable to skip ahead. I will likely read more from her in the near future.
4. The Origin of Satan by Elaine Pagels: Ever since I first saw Pagels on Charlie Rose or NOW with Bill Moyers, I've been aware that few are able to discuss such complex scholarship in a way that is engaging to laymen. Using the historical circumstances in which each Gospel was written, she demonstrates how the enemies of the Christian sects were vilified and associated with Satan. It would seem that much of the anti-Semitism that exists in Christianity is due to the Gospels painting an increasingly evil portrait of the Jewish hegemony at the time of Jesus's life. Read more about the book here.
5. Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon: Though I had read many of these pieces before, this beautiful collection of essays is a must read for anyone with even a moderate interest in genre fiction. Chabon's prose is so enchanting that even when one disagrees with him it still is fun to read. Some of the essays defy classification, while others that we would probably call book reviews are so much more: for example, his review of Cormac McCarthy's The Road is also an examination of post-apocalyptic fiction tropes in general. Read more of my thoughts here.
6. The Soul Thief by Charles Baxter: What begins as a strange short novel gets increasingly bizarre in its second half. This is the first Baxter I've read, only prodded to do so after listening to an interview on The Bat Segundo Show, but I am glad that I did. It's hard to discuss too much without giving things away (which the interview unfortunately did, prompting me to write this), but it was a good, short novel that just might be worth your while.
7. Black Hole by Charles Burns: Focusing on a group of teen infected by a mysterious STD that causes mutations, it is refreshing to read a story about teenagers in which they actually sound like and do things that actual teenagers would. Instead of exploring the disease itself, Burns focuses on how it affects the characters, and their alienation from society is analagous to the feelings of alienation that we all felt as teenagers. He also does some fascinating things with visual perspectives from panel to panel, maybe even things that are unique. More of my thoughts here.
8. DMZ: Body of a Journalist by Brian Wood & Riccardo Burchielli: The second collection from the comic goes farther than the first, and as a result it was a much more satisfying read. Since most of the exposition was resolved in the previous collection, Wood was able to turn up the heat on an already volatile situation. There is still much to be learned about Manhattan and the overall American rebellion, but it is apparent that steps are being made to leak these details slowly. The art, however, is only passable. Often characters don't even look the same from page to page, much less issue to issue. DMZ isn't up to the quality of 100 Bullets or Y: the Last Man, but it isn't half bad either.
9. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro: Revolving around a group of three children who attend a prestigious boarding school, it doesn't take long to realize that everything isn't as it seems. The children are overseen by 'Guardians' and will be required to give 'donations' on reaching adulthood. It turns out that these children are clones, created as farms for spare organs. The novel works on this level as a sort of sci fi mystery, but by showing us characters who have few similarities to us (no families, no future to look forward to, etc.), Ishiguro is able to tease out deeper feelings that make us all human. As always, his prose is first rate. I would likely say that this is the best book I have yet to read this year. I've written more extensively about the novel here.
10. Moyers on Democracy by Bill Moyers: I was lucky enough to hear a speech by Moyers when I was a sophomore at Baylor University and I have been a frequent viewer of his television shows for years, so when I found this book of collected speeches I picked it up. Speeches are written to be delivered at a certain time and place, so they don't always hold up well to reading years later. Some of that is the case here, but more than not these pieces are still effective. As an independent journalist who is willing to report what he sees the way he sees it, Moyers acts as a voice for those without one. And though often he is preaching to the choir, he provides an invaluable service for America. His observations are too numerous to mention here, but they will ring in your head long after you've put down the book.
11. Best of American Splendor by Harvey Pekar: After watching the film in April, I picked up this collection to get a better sense of what his work was like. Often the pieces were too short to make any real point, but some of the lengthier entries are complex narratives that give real insight into the Pekar's life. Joe Sacco illustrated many of the episodes within, and it is interesting to see the way Harvey translates his life, or reports it if you will, in the comic form. Looking at some of Sacco's work in wartime reporting in the same form makes one wonder how much they have influenced each other. Damn, that might be a paper.
12. Understanding Media: A Popular Philosophy by Dominic Boyer: What begins as a Marxist critique of media quickly turns into a fascinating discussion of how the immediate nature of most media cause us to overlook the fact that the content is mediated at all. For example, since I can talk so easily and immediately with someone on my cell phone, I tend to forget that all conversation is mediated though the device. Boyer easily guides the reader through some moderately complex theory in what is another engaging essay from Prickly Paradigm.
13. Harry, Revised by Mark Sarvas: This first novel by the creator of The Elegant Variation provides an entertaining if somewhat flawed narrative. Though the plot is one that we've all seen a million times, the humor and Sarvas's ability to occasionally phrase something in a perfect way do much to make up for this. There are Marxist overtones throughout, though no real statements about class are made. And the narrative is a little clunky, especially at first. Extended comments available here.
14. Saga of the Swamp Thing by Alan Moore, et al.: I've long meant to read Moore's run on this title. Horror comics are so hit or miss that one can be overwhelmed when they strike the bullseye. The second story in this collection made it very hard for me to go to sleep afterwards. Moore's page designs are innovative for their time, and even push the limits of what mainstream titles are doing today. Reading the story of how Moore got this assignment are almost unbelievable: due to lagging sales, he got complete control to do whatever he wanted before the book was canceled. I'll be working my way through the rest of his run over the summer.
Currently, I am reading Cynthia Ozick's The Puttermesser Papers and Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point. June will likely see me taking on Jared Diamond's Collapse, Steven Hall's The Raw Shark Texts, and Craig Thompson's Blankets, among others. And I'll likely be discussing those and many other things throughout the month here, so come back every now and then and weigh in with your thoughts.