Thursday, July 31, 2008

Reading List: July 2008

Graphic novels made up the bulk of my reading material this month, predominately due to a couple of big finds at the used book store. Unfortunately, progress on the thesis barely moved due to my inability to focus. Apparently, many graduate students have trouble when leaving the structure of the classroom and moving to independent research without the deadlines and direction. School starts in about four weeks, so that should get me back on track.

This month I managed to knock out 24 graphic novels, novels, and collections of essays, and this is what they were:

1. Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut: Though I read this back when I was twenty, I felt that the use of images might fit in well with my thesis. Perhaps it will, but the use was elementary in comparison to the complex things I am looking at. But he was a trailblazer, and this flawed work is interesting b/c we can see where Vonnegut begins to change into a more bitter narrator, something that intensifies from this point forward in his fiction.

2. Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers! edited by Sean Howe: A collection of essays on comics by a diverse group of writers, including Jonathan Lethem, Glen David Gold, and Chris Offutt. The most satisfying analysis comes from Lethem, who weighs the Lee/Kirby dynamic at Marvel without deifying either party. A decent collection if you can pick it up secondhand.

3. Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch: After listening to a stirring Bat Segundo Show with Disch after learning of his suicide, I reread this novel immediately. It was eerie to hear Disch's voice in place of the narrator's. Focusing on a group of prisoners infected by a substance called Palladine which makes them super-intelligent. There is the forbidden fruit analogy, but Disch goes further with religion arguing against the existence of God. There is also a focus on motivation, whether the ends justify the means, which dovetails nicely with the religion angle. A very satisfying novel, one you should all seek out.

4. The Dark Knight Strikes Again by Frank Miller: Hated it. Read why here.

5. Havanas in Camelot by William Styron: Blown away by Styron's memoir
on depression, Darkness Visible, I was excited to read this collection of personal essays on a variety of topics. The best is the title piece, which captures something about Kennedy and the 60s that just felt so true and real. He has a way of transporting you to the place he is describing, even though it is a world you could never hope to actually be in. The collection was a bit light though, and suffered a bit from a lack of unification among the various pieces. Still, enjoyable and recommended.

6. Zodiac by Neal Stephenson: Stephenson's futuristic fiction has a way of seeming dated a few years after publication, only to seem prescient a few years after that. Still the case with Zodiac. Focusing on the environment, plot is the main catalyst. There is industrial espionage and attempted assassinations, but none of the characters are all that memorable, even first-person narrator Sangamon Taylor. There are pacing issues, and it is easy to see that this is one of Stephenson's earlier works.

7. Goodbye, Chunky Rice by Craig Thompson: I liked Blankets when I read it, but this not so much. Chunky is a turtle who is forced to leave his love, a mouse, and venture off. Why, we are never told. It's all an allegory for childhood, but not done all that well and without any realizations by the main characters.

8. DMZ: Public Works by Brian Wood & Ricco Burchielli: Matt infiltrates a terrorist cell in the third collection of this series. I'm just not sure that this whole thing is working, with a complicated backstory that isn't being revealed and characters that aren't drawn consistently from page to page. I'm willing to give it another shot, but this is the least successful of the four Vertigo titles I am currently reading.

9. A Less Perfect Union by William Lesiner
10. Places of Exile by Christopher L. Bennett
11. Seeds of Dissent by James Swallow: Read my thoughts on these novels here.

12. NASCAR for Dummies ostensibly by Mark Martin: Like all these Dummies books, there was a lot of information that was easy to digest. But being eight years old, there was so much out of date that it was almost pointless to read. The Car of Tomorrow negated a lot of the technical info, and none of the points information was pertinent either. But there was a lot of info on the tracks which will help me understand the sport better.

13-17. Fables by Bill Willingham, et al.: The first five collections of the series. I managed to pick up the first nine at a severely discounted price so I am making my way through them. Expect a detailed post when I finish.

18. Lisey's Story by Stephen King: My first King book. I really liked the story that was in McSweeney's, and my friend Brendan Moody praised the novel, so I took a chance and enjoyed it quite a bit. It wasn't without its flaws, but it caused me to do a little thinking about my own prejudices which I wrote about here.

19. The Sandman: Endless Nights by Neil Gaiman, et al.: The single issue stories made up the best of Gaiman's Sandman series, s a collection of seven stories here was quite appealing. The variation on artists suited the mood of the each, and once again I was blown away by Gaiman's imagination and talent with prose. Unfortunately, I am running out of unread Sandman tales, though I am thinking about saving The Dream Hunters for a special occasion.

20. Superman for All Seasons by Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale: Better than I thought it would be. Steve Mollmann praised this book highly, and our recent debates have me working on better defense of my issues with Superman. Look for it in the next few days.

21. The Thing About Life is that One Day You'll Be Dead by David Shields: This book doesn't know what it wants to be. A memoir about a man and his father? About their
bodies? A collection of facts and quotes about death? It's all and none of these, and it suffers as a result. We find out precious little about the author himself, but a lot about his dad, though with little context. And it causes you to start pondering your own mortality, and I have enough sleeping problems as it is.

22. Where Three Roads Meet by Salley Vickers: A reinterpretation of the myth of Oedipus from Canongate's Myth Series. It concerns an extended conversation between Freud and Tiresias, making the point that since Freud no one can read Oedipus separately from him. But by including him in her story, Vickers is able to sidestep the issue and look at Oedipus in a new way. Very intriguing and highly recommended.

23. Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
24. Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez: Read my thoughts about the former here, and the latter here.

Right now I am reading a collection of Disch's short work, and am pondering whether to start Richard Powers' The Echo Maker or Joseph O'Neill's Netherland. I just wish I could get my hands on an ARC of Philip Roth's Indignation.

Let me know what you think.

Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez

As the son of Mexican immigrants, Richard Rodriguez spoke no English when he began the first grade. Twenty years later as a Fulbright scholar in Renaissance literature, he realized that he had become a member of a community that had caused him to forsake his family. But it was too late to go back: he remained an academic, even in his mother’s kitchen.

So far as autobiographies go, Hunger of Memory is a rather underwhelming realization. Growing up in a blue-collar union household and now a graduate student myself, I am all too aware of the distance that grows between one and one’s family as education level increases. Yet what makes this extended essay so interesting is the meditation on language and how we use language to create both private and public selves.

I wish I had read this book last year before I took Composition Theory, because Rodriguez adamantly warns against bilingualism in schools, and against programs like Affirmative
Action from which he himself benefited greatly. So much of our course was based around the assumption that the university needed to cater to students who weren’t primarily English speakers/writers. Yet little was made of the greater issue: how is it that these students are so inadequately prepared for university studies when they get here? Not to mention the ethics of enrolling students who have little chance for success.

That is not to say that I agreed or disagreed with the perspective in class, just that I think that our discussions would have been better served by a presentation of the opposing viewpoint. But in that racially charged atmosphere, it was uncomfortable for the white half of the class to voice such opinions. Had I been familiar with Rodriguez's work, I might have felt better prepared to discuss his and other alternatives.

Rodriguez benefited from a middle class Catholic school and middle class community, so he is not really emblematic of the types of success programs like Affirmative Action claim to have. He claims that we live with both social and private selves, social because we live in a greater community in which we share everything in English. Therefore, the longer a student is kept from learning English the farther behind they are in creating this social self.

It’s not hard to see why Rodriguez is dismissed by so many people as a race traitor, especially as he claims at one point to have little in common with Hispanic academics who came up several years after him. He claims that he did it alone, not along with a group like they were able to. His conclusion is that he is no longer a minority, but now has been assimilated fully and is a part of the majority.

Rodriguez turned down all job offers, even one from Yale, because he couldn’t withstand the irony of such a system. Since he has become a respected author and speaker, most recently releasing Brown: The Last Discovery of America.

Though I have read fairly extensively on the other side of this issue, especially in journals like Race Traitor, it was refreshing to hear an engaging and articulate presentation of the other side. I am not sure how much of Hunger of Memory I agree or disagree with, but it is surely the most honest and well-written account on the subject I have come across.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth

Looking over the reviews of Jhumpa Lahiri’s second collection of short fiction, Unaccustomed Earth, reveals at least one similar criticism seems to pop up again and again: her stories are all just derivatives of one another. While I enjoyed both this volume and Interpreter of Maladies greatly, I find that the critique is an apt one. Yet focusing on merely one aspect of Lahiri’s fiction misses her ability to effectively narrate a story with recognizable characters.

Rather than recap the stories as so many reviews do, I want to offer a slightly more personal take on this collection. I’m not sure I would have made the connection between Alcoholics Anonymous and Unaccustomed Earth wit
hout the inclusion of ‘Only Goodness,’ a story detailing the sibling estrangement that surrounds the addiction of the brother. The unifying principle of AA is that while everyone has a different story, they all have the same story. In other words, a member will hear his own story in the stories of other members, again and again and again.

I found myself reading a piece of my own story as I moved through the pieces of the collection. I am not a
woman with a young child who must debate whether to invite her widowed father to move in with her family, but I felt her pain as I read. I also never fell in love with a roommate from another culture who had a possessive and abusive boyfriend who I crossed paths with, but I sensed the truth in the story just as strongly as if it had been my own.

Likewise, I’ve never been arrested or imprisoned. I’ve never been turned away from my parent’s home, nor have I ever had to sleep on the street. Not only have my children never been removed from my home, I don’t even have children. Yet when I hear people tell these stories, I see myself in them. I feel myself in them. They are true to me, not because they actually happened, but because they feel true.

This is called verisimilitude in fiction, and Unaccustomed Earth is filled with it in spades. I don’t have anything in common with any of these narrators, yet I feel like I have everything in common with all of them.

So Lahiri’s short fiction is a bit repetitive when it comes to plot. And she honestly hasn’t given the best interviews on her work, so a certain amount of mocking might be appropriate. But her stories are so rich with feeling and truth that it would be a shame for you to miss out on them.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Myriad Universes: Infinity's Prism

Last year, six short novels exploring some of our favorite character’s Mirror Universe counterparts were published in two volumes. While I thought the consistency of the novels was greatly uneven, the format’s success has allowed the publishers of Star Trek fiction to develop similar projects, and this summer two more volumes of short novels are being released, this time each being created in some sort of altered reality we as an audience have never seen before. The first volume of Myriad Universes is entitled Infinity's Prism and includes entries from Christopher L. Bennett, James Swallow, and my friend Bill Leisner.

Leisner’s A Less Perfect Union comes first, and explores a universe in the era of TOS had the Terra Prime movement a hundred years before succeeded and aliens had been banished from Earth. By setting his point of divergence so far in the past, characters like Kirk and Pike noticeably different than the ones we know. Yet their biases and personalities make them feel that they are essentially the people we know, only transformed by the context of their universe. Despite the ease with which the human Starfleet after Terra Prime could have been characterized as ruthless and bigoted, Leisner goes the other route and shows humans at different stages of dealing with the bigotry endorsed by their society and striving to move past it. I felt the resolution for one of the main characters was a bit pat, and at times I felt the author overindulged in showing counterparts of less well known characters, but in the end I felt Leisner succeeded in what I imagine his objectives were: tell an entertaining and interesting story, while also contrasting and connecting this new universe with the one we know so well.

In contrast Places of Exile seems to me to be quite its predecessor’s opposite. The point of divergence here is set in the middle of an episode of Voyager, making the differences between the characters very slight. A different approach, yet it doesn’t seem to work as well. For instance, it seems to me unlikely that the mere death of a couple of key crewmembers would have sent others on such destructive paths. The crew manages to forge an alliance with others after becoming stranded in the Delta Quadrant. Bennett’s major weakness as a writer is his inability to create characters who speak and act like real people. His tend to wear their hearts on their sleeves, and are too quick to profess their feelings or accept the feelings of others. No one would respond as well to the brush off Kes gives a boyfriend as this one does; those undergoing ‘epiphanies’ about love rarely emerge with decisions well formed, never to be changed. And those having sex for therapeutic purposes are almost never aware at the time that it is the case. It’s as though the author has based these relationships on poorly written television shows, and this failure to make characters believable makes it difficult for a reader to really care about what happens to them. As always, Bennett does a good job with explaining away some of the scientific questions the series left with us, the poor characterization leaves this novel a little short. This is becoming a recurring problem with Bennett’s work, and recent reviews of a newer novel don’t leave much hope that he is adapting. It’s a shame because he does have some real talent.

James Swallow sets the breaking point of Seeds of Dissent during the Eugenics Wars, where Khan emerges victorious and a band of non-enhanced humans board the sleeper ship Botany Bay. The story takes place in 2376, aboard the warship of Princeps Julian Bashir. He encounters the Botany Bay so there is friction on that front, throw in a plot about rebels and that's about it. The three-pronged nature of the plot lets Swallow avoid the basic good v. evil stance we see in a lot of these types of stories, but it was all too clear halfway through how things would have to proceed to get to the conclusion any intelligent reader could see coming. There are some nice twists, but I can’t help thinking that the opposite ending might have been more effective. I also wish that Swallow had spent more time contextualizing the broader universe in which his characters reside. Of the three novels, I would only really want to see another story in this universe.

Taken as a whole, Infinity's Prism is almost certainly worth your while, with only one truly weak story among the three. Of course, if you aren’t one to seek verisimilitude in the relationships in Star Trek books, you might end up liking that one best.

Kurosawa's Throne of Blood

As I have said before, the best production of Shakespeare I have ever seen live was a post-apocalyptic setting for Henry V. Musing about this performance years later, I decided I wanted to see some of the more nontraditional productions of Shakespeare out there and see how the traditional readings can be upended. Sitting through several seminars involving Shakespeare as an undergraduate, the importance of seeing a performance rather than reading a play became more and more apparent, and the oft cited influence of seeing Pinter performed assured me this was the proper slant.

Near the top of my list was Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, a version of Macbeth set in Samura
i Japan. A haunting production, the stand out performance of Toshiro Mifune as Washizu, the Macbeth role, solidly grounds what I think is a fantastic movie. But for the basis in Shakespeare’s Scottish play, I have come to view it as less as Japanese version as merely a film inspired by it.

There is the Oriental notion of determinism that is at odds with the Western concept of individual free will. The characters in Throne of Blood seem to be fated to the events described by the haunting specter at the film’s beginning, but more likely they just buy into it so strongly that they see no other way. From the start we know Macbeth is a corrupt figure, but Washizu has noble influences, and believes strongly in his friend’s faithfulness and the justness of the rule of his Great Lord. Macbeth is merely talked into committing a murder he wants to commit anyway, while Asaji, Washizu’s wife, has to psychologically manipulate her husband in order to force his hand. The latter is a much more chilling display, perfectly captured by Isuzu Yamada. And unlike King Duncan, the Great Lord attained his position by killing his predecessor; in fact, the only way it seems possible to move up in the society surrounding the film is to emerge with violence. Therefore Shakespeare’s play shows us a world sunk by Macbeth’s corruption, whereas Washizu is part of a corrupt world already and subject to the pressures of such a place.

We can best see the arguments over determinism after the initial scene of the film as Washizu and Miki (Banquo) are riding through Spider’s Web Forest when they come across an evil spirit, at least a spirit identified as evil by the two men. She claims that both men will be promoted, and that one day Washizu will be the Great Lord and that later Miki’s son will be the Great Lord as well. Afterwards at the castle of the great Lord, both are given their promotions and the beginnings of the prophecy start to become true.

Yet, most of the action in the film is avoidable: had Washizu not listened to his wife’s claims against the Great Lord and Miki then wouldn’t he have just continued as Commander of the North Garrison? And his followers would never have turned on Washizu had he not informed them of the prophecy about the forest rising up against him. These were all choices he made, not actions he was fated to go through.

Despite the departures from Shakespeare’s play, I felt Throne of Blood to be one of the finest pieces from Kurosawa I have yet to see. It moved me, horrified me, in a way that Macbeth has never done before, especially Yamada’s barely audible manipulations that are delivered so realistically as the dominated ancient Japanese wife. Whether or not you concur with my analysis of the free will v. determinism argument in the film, or whether you think it is even there at all, seeing this movie will likely cause you to question your beliefs and never look at Macbeth the same way again.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Stephen King and Bias

This weekend I read my first Stephen King novel, Lisey’s Story, an entertaining and captivating novel that I enjoyed greatly. For many years I shared the bias that seems prevalent against King, thinking that such popular writing couldn’t be good as well. That King’s novels didn’t deserve to be considered alongside the more ‘literary’ fiction of which I was becoming enamored.

I freely admit that this bias is somewhat irrational and totally elitist. However, the popularity v. quality logic is hard for me to dismiss too quickly. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but I think that the popularity of television shows like American Idol give some credence to the idea that anything widely popular must be a form of pandering.

That said, I don’t think King panders in this book at all; the characters are well drawn, the prose is inventive and moves along briskly. In fact, I find it hard to understand why King
hasn’t gotten more accolades for his work. In 2003 he was awarded a Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation, the same organization responsible for awarding the National Book Award each year. This attention, along with the completion of his Dark Tower series, considered to be his magnum opus, have raised his profile among the more elite literary community.

King got the Paris Review treatment in the Fall of 2006, discussing frankly the reception of his work and the line between popular and literary fiction, saying he felt that ‘the real breaking point comes when you ask whether a book engages you on an emotional level.’ To me, this seems sensible criteria. Personally, I enjoy reading about characters and how they react to situations, and I think this is why I enjoyed Lisey’s Story so much. These are bold, well drawn characters full of passion, be it love or hate, for each other, and despite the supernatural elements, I found the relationships to be truthful, to possess a verisimilitude of which other authors should be envious.

A year or so ago I watched an interview with John Grisham on the Charlie Rose show, where the discussion ran along similar lines to King’s in the Paris Review. More eloquent men than I have already made the argument for genre, so I’ll skip it here, but I was amazed at the time how similar Grisham’s responses were to not only King’s, but also to the comments made by other, more ‘literary’ authors. And at the time I filed him in the list of authors I should get around to reading one day.

But after finishing Lisey’s Story last night and rereading the conversation in the Paris Review, I realized something that bothers me. I only read King after he was published in a literary magazine founded by George Plimpton. I only got interested in Grisham after he appeared on a respected discussion program on PBS. Neither of these forums are frequented by or tailored to serve the majority of the these author's readers. Am I less elitist now than I was ten years ago when I dismissed these writers as lacking something essential, lacking perhaps any artistic touch? Or has the defense of genre become so accepted by the elitist community I belong to that I’ve just been caught adapting my own philosophies to what I’ve been told?

These questions aren’t easy to deal with, but in a sense I think I may be asking the wrong ones. Am I more receptive to King now because it has become more accepted to view his work as literary? Probably, but a more telling question would be this: were some of my misconceptions about King challenged by critics that I respect causing me to open myself to an author whose work I found quite enjoyable and worthy of the praise it has received?

All of us are wrong or biased about so many things that all we can really hope to do is pay attention, and when unjustified bias is pointed out to us adapt our behavior and thoughts to compensate.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Proof of Left Wing Bias in NY Times?

For several years I have been a faithful reader of the New York Times. Each morning I have an e-mail delivered with a rundown of the day's top stories, and each Sunday I buy a hard copy from the newsstand. For my money, the paper has the best foreign news available in the US, and from what i have been able to tell, there isn't really much of an actual bias. Does the paper call the Bush Administration to task whenever they make egregious mistakes? Of course, but that's just a good editorial policy, not a biased one.

However, as I looked through today's issue I was horrified by a glaring absence that proves without a dou
bt that a severe left wing bias is present.

No sport has grown in popularity more than NASCAR in the past decade, and this
season seems to be generating more excitement than most. The most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., changed his team, number, and sponsor. television ratings are up and cost of broadcast rights continues to rise. And 23-year-old Kyle Busch just won his seventh Sprint Cup race last night in a dramatic come from behind finish on the penultimate lap.

However, there is no mention of NASCAR anywhere in today's paper.

Apparently the New York Times thinks that NASCAR is a sport with only redneck illiterates for fans, with said fans being the bread and butter of the right-wing Republican party in the South, and therefore feel that they can shun the sport to cover other more elitist sports like horse racing or cycling.

Is it too much to hope for a paper that delivers quality foreign reporting with detailed coverage of stock car racing? And why do I feel so uneasy about the ease with which I just delivered a debilitating blow to the paper claiming they have 'all the news that's fit to print?'

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Strikes Again

In virtually every story there is a device called exposition, essentially giving a reader the background of the characters and the situation at hand. Of the many failings evident with a reading of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again, it is a lack of exposition that is the most obvious and troubling.

Picking up about three years after The Dark Knight Returns, which I read last month, Miller presents a world run amok. Lex Luthor runs the government by controlling a generated president. Jimmy Olsen is on to the madness occurring but is widely discredited by everyone as off his rocker. Superman had a daughter with Wonder Wo
man a decade and a half before. Shazam apparently is controlled by the government just as Superman was in DKR. Braniac uses the lives of the citizens of Kandor to blackmail Superman. The public gets their news from scantily clad women on the web, and love their president even after evidence has arisen that he doesn’t even exist.

How did all of this happen? Beats me. Miller doesn’t really spend any time setting up the situation, he just dives in. As a result, I felt lost for most of the narrative. Characters just seemed to show up for no reason, out of the blue (Martian Manhunter, I'm looking at you.) Some characters I even had to look up online because they were so obscure (Hawk & Dove, The Question).

Doing his own inking was another of Miller’s mistakes. He has a fairly cartoonish style, as evidenced in the adjoining picture, which of course wouldn’t be a problem but it clashes with the overall tone of the story. Another issue is Lynn Varley’s colors: bright and bold. She also uses a lot of computer generated coloring that sort of work with the media criticism in the book, but don’t seem to gel with Miller’s drawings.

The reimagining of character’s looks is also problematic. Barry Allen would never wear bicycle tights with giant sneakers. Wonder Woman does not look attractive with a helmet that obscures her nose and brow, in other words her whole face. And Carrie’s not Robin anymore, she’s Catgirl. Her shoes are huge too, but they have rollerblades inside. How cool is that? Not very.

I feel like I have a lot more to criticize, but I disliked this novel so much that I think I’d just end up listing a bunch of gripes, and The Dark Knight Strikes Again is savaged all over the web, so I will resist. You can seek it out if you wish.

Media criticism is prominent in this volume as well, but while I enjoyed the satire on television in Dark Knight Returns, Miller falls short of making any sort of effective commentary on the internet and doesn’t really function as an effective device. Whereas the television panels allowed the reader to view the action from the point of view of the average public, it is impossible for me to believe that anyone would be getting their information from these sorts of web feeds, not matter how much latitude I give Miller for his satire.

I read this afternoon that Miller will release another lengthy Batman graphic novel called Holy Terror, Batman!, whose plot revolves around Batman defending Gotham against al-Qaeda. That sound you hear is a combination of Bob Kane rolling over in his grave and common decency fleeing the offices at DC.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Gabriel's Revelation

A three-foot-tall tablet believed to be from mere decades before the birth of Jesus and is scrawled with Hebrew made the front page on the New York Times this Sunday. Supposedly containing talk of a messiah who will rise from the dead after three days, it could revolutionize Christology since the assumption has been that the resurrection story was not unique to Jesus but part of a recognized Jewish tradition at the time.

Much of the text, a vision of the apocalypse transmitted by the angel Gabriel, draws on the Old Testament, especially Zechariah, Haggai, and the apocalyptic Daniel. The language scholars have dated the text from the first century BC based on the size and shape of the script, and chemical analysis has not given any reason for doubt eith

Israel Knohl, professor of Bible studies at Hebrew University, says that the specific messianic figure embodied on the stone could be a man named Simon who was slain by a commander in the Herodian army, at least according to the first century historian Josephus. Knohl is part of a group that focuses on the political atmosphere in Jesus’ time, claiming that it is important to explain the era’s messianic spirit (This is also my view of Christ studies). As he notes, the death of Herod saw Jewish rebels seek to throw off the yoke of oppression, so a major Jewish independence fighter could easily provoke messianic overtones.

The assertion that ‘Gabriel’s Revelation’, as the stone has come to be known, tells the story of a messiah figure named Simon is of course hotly contested, with the expected absence of key text. But it seems to me that the real issue here is that the accepted beliefs about the gospels, that Jesus makes numerous predictions about his suffering as messiah that just weren’t present at the time, are now revoked. Rather than being dropped in by the gospel writers years after his death, Jesus may very well have said these things and gone about fulfilling the contemporary beliefs of what a messiah is destined to do.

While the organized church will almost assuredly claim that ‘Gabriel’s Revelation’ is apocryphal, I actually think it might do more to strengthen their claims. Whether one believes that Jesus is our lord and savior, it is almost without question that he thought he was. And to see that he very well may have done everything possible to fulfill that destiny himself, rather than having holes in his history plugged by gospel writers attempting to merely place what actually happened as preordained, makes it harder to dismiss the gospel’s claims. In other words, perhaps the gospels are not so much a revisionist history as we might have initially believed.

Despite the new information presented on this tablet, I am still pretty cautious about making any broad claims. For one, I am not a Biblical scholar, but also because my own reading leads me to believe that even if the suffering of a messiah was a common belief at the time of Jesus’ life, there are significant differences in the gospels that can be chalked up to a bit of revision in the history being reported based on the time in which it is written. I wrote a bit about this in May after I read Elaine Pagels’ The Origin of Satan.

I suppose that while my views haven’t really changed, especially as I haven’t even read ‘Gabriel’s Revelation’ myself yet, I find it fascinating that this tablet could revolutionize the interpretation of the gospels, and that I may be able to see the changes take place over my lifetime. Kind if like being around when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered and being able to look forward to all the literature for laypeople on Gnosticism.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Reading List: June 2008

I probably spent a bit too much time on casual reading this past month, especially when one considers that I did little to no work on my thesis. However, reading one novel a week or so ago helped me conceptualize an argument and find an older work to use as a comparison/reference, so I feel like I am in a better place. I also feel like I didn't even mange to blog about half the things I wanted to, another casualty in my war on doing anything mildly productive.

Anyway, this month I managed to read 26 books, plays, or graphic novels, and here is what they were:

1. The Beauty Supply District by Ben Katchor: Picked this up after reading the strong recommendation from Michael Chabon in Maps and Legends, and though I enjoyed it, I felt that reading it in a collected edition actually does the strip a disservice. Read more about my thoughts here.

2. The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick: This could better be called a collection of stories, for while they can be read as a novel, they all exist independently of each other. Ozick uses the character of Ruth Puttermesser to explore and communicate ideas about various topics, from George Eliot's life to the role of golems in history and literature. Rather than being true fiction or nonfiction, it's some sort of blend that I find quite hard to describe, yet it makes one admire the seeming ease with which Ozick mixes the literary essay with the literary story.

3. The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell: I wish that all nonfiction writers were the prose stylists that Gladwell is. The narrative takes you through mild complexities by telling you an engaging story filled with entertaining examples of the principles being discussed. Gladwell aslo didn't hold any punches, explaining the nature of epidemics humorously through fashion and then touching on Christianity, influenza, AIDS, and the Nazis. A provocative inspection that is a little light on scholarship, but an engaging overview of the subject that often suggests scholarship one can read for a more in depth analysis.

4. Y: the Last Man: Unmanned
5. Cycles
6. One Small Step
7. Safeword by Brian K. Vaughn & Pia Guerra: The first four collections of what my friend Brendan Moody calls the best comic series ever did not disappoint. Telling the story of a man and his monkey who are the only male, mammal survivors of a huge plague on Earth, I was a bit surprised at how easy it is to figure out what happened. I'm less than halfway through the series and I already know what caused the plague and pretty much how mankind will be saved. But what makes the series stand out is the characterization, and the believability of the situation: I kept thinking that I'd probably do that too, or of course, that makes so much sense. Told in real time with a month or more passing between plot arcs, Vaughn really has captured something that hasn't been used in comics much before. And though at times Yorick's quips are annoying or the dropped reference to 'real world' people like Cheney or Condoleeza Rice jolt one out of the bnarrative, this hits much more than it misses. I just came into a little money, so I may have finished this series before too long. Look to this blog for more analysis later this month.

8. What Paul Meant
9. What Jesus Meant by Garry Wills
: These examinations of the biblical texts written by a devout Catholic provided the sort of insight into early Christianity that I hadn't gotten since I was in college. Wills's cause here is to identify what the Bible actually says rather than what it has long been rumored to say, and in the process he is not hesitant to disagree with Catholic orthodoxy. For example, after demonstrating Jesus's consorting with beggars, lepers, and prostitutes, he asks what side of the aisle in the homosexual debate. It would be difficult for someone to read this book and then argue that Jesus wouldn't try to help people suffering from HIV no matter who they were, and would scoff at anyone who refused based on some moral objection. At the same time, it is hard for a reader to reconcile Wills's devout Catholicism with the teaching of Paul, whose advice to emerging churches leaves no doubt that he would oppose the Catholic church in arrangement.

10. The End of America by Naomi Wolf: When I first read this book I thought the thesis was a bit weak, but overall I thought it was a worthy effort and worth my time. You can read what I wrote about it a few days later here. Yet as time has passed and I have discussed the book with a friend, I find that the faults I was able to dismiss with relative ease earlier are bagging me much more now. Since Wolf fails to properly defend her thesis, I am tempted to disregard the book entirely--not because I think she is wrong, but because I don't think she performs good scholarship. However, The End of America is what it is, so maybe I shud just judge it like that: adequate.

11. In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster: Spurred by my friend Steve Mollmann to read another of Auster's novels, I picked this odd post-apocalyptic novel. It was fairly typical for its genre and for Auster's unusual writing style, but I was most intrigued by the use of space here, from the desolate city being enclosed to the cramped confines of not only the rooms but the bodies we inhabit being fairly haunting. All in all though, one of his lesser novels.

12. Blankets by Craig Thompson: I liked this graphic novel quite a bit, though I was a bit saddened that it wasn't more stylistically inventive (comic architecture is a passion of mine). Read detailed thoughts on Thompson's work here.

13. Martin Luther by Martin Marty: One of Penguin's Brief Lives books, this biography filled in a lot questions I'd had about Luther's actual work apart from the nailing of the 95 Theses and the founding of Lutheranism (which he didn't actually do). However, Marty's prose style left much to be desired and I felt often like I wasn't given enough information, even for such a short work. Marty's scholarly religious work has been highly recommended to me, so I hope that if I ever get around to it I find it more engaging.

14. The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller: Anytime you read something so highly touted you are bound to be disappointed. This might have been groundbreaking in 1985, but I don't think it has held up so well over time. Read extended comments here.

15. The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick: Two stories that center around a woman and the daughter that she is hiding and is later killed in a concentration camp. I found the first story to be shocking and moving, but the longer novella length piece to be a bit annoying and strangely surreal at the finish. Still, a nice introduction to Ozick's more orthodox fiction.

16. Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks: A Pulitzer Prize winning play with two characters, one named Booth, the other Lincoln. Guess how it ends.

17. It's a Bird... by Steven T. Seagle & Teddy Kristiansen: Only days after having a debate over Superman with my friend Steve Mollmann, I come across a graphic novel that hits on a lot of the reasons I find the character somewhat unappealing as I get older. This semi-autobiographical story focuses on a comic writer named Steven who must deal with personal issues after he is offered the chance to write for Superman. With such personal revelations, I am surprised Seagle wanted this n print, and with his less than flattering take on their primary revenue stream, I am surprised that DC greenlit it. A moving story, and a good use of the form.

18. The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker: Why is there a debate over nature v. nurture? Pinker does an excellent job explaining the reluctance of politicians, the media, and even many scientists in implying that anything from the tendency for violence to the leaning towards liberal or conservative might be based in genetics. He then goes on to convince his readers that these things are a blend of genetics and environment, and how a better understanding of this principle could positively affect our society.

19. Birth of a Nation by Aaron McGruder, et al.: The creator of Boondocks co-wrote this script about a disenfranchised city of black Americans who secede and form their own country. With all the social satire one would expect, it is Kyle Baker's cartoony style that brings some cohesiveness to the work and brings out much of the humor. Definitely worth your time. I'm also glad that I have all new words for one of my favorite television theme songs.

20. Fearful Symmetry by Olivia Woods: Apart from the rest of the series, this was a tightly written flip book advancing the plot of the metastory and detailing the history of Iliana Ghemor. The prose was very good, the best I've read in a ST book in a long while. But taken as a chapter in the series, little of the ongoing arcs were even addressed, much less advanced, and after 27 months since the previous volume, I have serious doubts that readers will ever get a payoff to multiple story lines.

21. 100 Bullets: Decayed by Brian Azzarello & Eduardo Risso: With the tenth volume, I finally think I am getting a pretty good grasp of what the hell has been going on. This is noir at its best, and there have got to be many opportunities for research comparing this series with classic noir novels and/or movies. Azzarello has such an ear for dialogue that it makes for intoxicating reading, and his ability to integrate exposition into the narrative seamlessly is worthy much attention. The introduction discussed the colors of Patricia Mulvihill and the role that plays for the reader, and I must agree that her bright colors set the tone and keep a reader from being overwhelmed by this horrible, violent world.

22. The True Believer by Eric Hoffer: Spurred to read a more academic exploration of the mass movement effect after reading Gladwell, I found Hoffer's volume to be a finely honed piece of scholarship. Though a product o
f its time with the copious references to Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the principles he puts forth can be observed in action with any sort of mass movement today. I often found myself substituting the Green movement of the Christian Coalition's rise to prominence in the 1990s as I read. It is said that this book, first published in 1952, was read by President Eisenhower and served to influence his policy. I'd be quite interested to see someone explore the connection between mass movements as detailed by Hoffer and the policy of brinksmanship.

23. The Wildest Ride by Joe Menzer: Yes, I like NASCAR. I am white and from the south; sue me. Menzer's prose was atrocious, and I probably could have got as much information by just reading Wikipedia entries, but to a novice to the sport I enjoyed reading all the stories that others have probably heard dozens of times before. I wanted a greater focus on economics in the sport and strategy relevant to the races of today, but I have been told to check out NASCAR for Dummies to get a better explanation of these things.

24. Death: The High Cost of Living by Neil Gaiman, et al.: A nice little side story to the Sandman series, I felt that the slim volume is overrated. Showing Death as a vulnerable mortal is an interesting idea, but there was a failure to demonstrate what might happen if she actually were to die. Yet even when Gaiman isn't firing on all cylinders, he still is pretty damn good. At first I was a bit annoyed that the narrative seemed more suited for prose than comics, but then I realized that Gaiman was probably moving in that direction when he wrote this, and I shouldn't let this distract me from the entertaining yet flawed story.

25. The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall: The typography in this book almost made me fall out of my chair. It's amazing what Hall was able to do in constructing pictures with letters and punctuation. The primary narrative though was a bit predictable and reminded me of Jaws and The Matrix. However, the climax of the narrative made my head explode because I suddenly found a way to tie together several ideas for my thesis and I ended up staying awake all night jotting down ideas so I wouldn't forget them. If one is a fan of the detective fiction in Paul Auster's New York Trilogy, one would probably like this book a lot.

26. Swamp Thing: Love and Death by Alan Moore, et al.: Though not as engaging as the first volume, Moore does some unique things with the architecture of the page: as a character begins to hallucinate, essentially having sex with the Swamp Thing, the page rotates and the entire sequence is done with the book turned ninety degrees. I look forward to seeing what other innovations this series has in store for me.

Right now I am reading Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions and Reynolds Price's Three Gospels. I'll likely be doing a lot of reading for school, but I hope to get to Jared Diamond's Collapse soon. I'll also likely reread Auster's City of Glass, as well as the graphic novel adaptation in order to begin to plot chapter one of the thesis.

I'll try to do a better job keeping fresh content at the top of the page. Please weigh in with your thoughts and/or questions.