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.


Allyn said...

It's a Bird... is one of those graphic novels I keep meaning to read, but I've never gotten around to. I'll give it a shot... soon-ish.

Jessica said...

5 pieces written by women out of 26. You are getting soft, babes.