Wednesday, March 05, 2008

To the books!

So, what have I been reading lately? Let's look:

:: It's actually been a long time since I bounced off a book, but damned if I didn't bounce clean off a Stephen King novel. I haven't read a whole lot of King, but what I have read, I've at least liked, and some of it I've found utterly brilliant (The Stand is just a magnificent work). So I didn't expect to find Dreamcatcher a tough nut, but tough indeed I found it. Like many King books, the early going started flying by, and I actually got about a third of the way into the book before a major shift in tone and focus stopped me cold. The early stuff, detailing the lives of our hunter friend heroes, is all winning stuff, vintage King. But something really bothered me in the book's tone once the military guys show up, and then the book veered into a long surreal section with Jonesy, if I was reading things right. Anyhow, my interest in the book dropped like a rock at that point, and I eventually set the thing aside. I'm quite surprised that's how it worked out, and maybe I'll give the book another go someday.

:: I did not bounce off In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. This is one of those books I'd seen any number of times, either in bookstores or at the library, and each time there was something about it that said, "You know you're going to read me sooner or later." So the last time I saw it in the library, I picked it up and read the blurb on the dust jacket, describing the fate of the Essex as being a partial inspiration to Herman Melville in Moby Dick, and claiming that the Essex disaster was as famous in the nineteenth century as the Titanic wreck was in the twentieth. Clinching it is the fact that the book is cited on this list of sea books. I love a good book about the sea, and this certainly is that.

The Essex was a whaling vessel that set out from Nantucket on a whaling expedition and encountered many problems along the way, such as storms and short provisions as it sailed into the Atlantic, down the east coast of South America, around Cape Horn, and into the Pacific to attempt to harvest the whales in recently-discovered feeding grounds there. At that point, the voyage, already difficult, became calamitous when a sperm whale rammed the Essex repeatedly, eventually dealing the ship a mortal blow. The crew then set out in lifeboats to try to return to South America. A handful of crew eventually made it, after many days at sea in which they became starved and dehydrated and eventually resorted to cannibalism.

Tales of disaster like this, in which arrogant man is pitted against heartless nature, always seem to include numerous instances in which everything could turn out differently, and better, if only better decisions were made. Those bad decisions, constantly exacerbated by bad luck, make for a riveting and haunting read.

:: One doesn't explore the world of comics beyond the well-known superhero stories very far before one encounters the name of Will Eisner, who by all accounts is one of the twentieth century's leading lights of comics-as-literature, as opposed to comics-as-diversion-for-adolescents. Such creators as Scott McCloud, Art Spiegelman, and Craig Thompson all spring from the ground seeded by Will Eisner. And yet, until a few weeks ago, I'd never read any Eisner at all. Well, that is no longer the case.

Life, in Pictures is a collection of autobiographical stories, drawing from various aspects of Eisner's life. The term "autobiographical" is meant to be taken somewhat loosely, as apparently the first tale in the book, "A Sunset in Sunshine City", is not autobiographical at all but rather a fictional meditation on the kinds of feeling Eisner experienced when he, like the main character in the tale, moved from his lifelong home in New York City to a retirement home in Florida. Also partially autobiographical is "The Dreamer", which follows the early career of a young cartoonist (a stand-in for Eisner) in the youthful days of the comic book industry (before World War II, and definitely before the disastrous creation of the Comics Code). Here Eisner depicts his young stand-in running across numerous real figures from comics history, albeit disguised with fictional names. (Luckily, this story includes a set of annotations, clearing up the identities of those depicted.)

The largest portion of the book is devoted to "To the Heart of the Storm", in which Eisner, having been drafted into military service and on board the troop train riding to his bootcamp, reflects on his personal history and that of his parents, with particular emphasis on the fact that they are seemingly always on the run from anti-Semitism. "The Name of the Game" traces Eisner's family history through his mother's side, and the book concludes with a very short tale – a vignette, actually – called "The Day I Became a Professional", which is exactly that.

I suppose this is no revelation whatsoever, but Eisner turns out to be that rare item in comics: the complete package, the brilliant writer as well as the terrific artist. His texts and his visuals blend so seamlessly that there were times in reading Life, in Pictures that I found myself literally losing my sense of time in the face of my awe at my first encounter with an obvious master of his form. So yeah, Will Eisner turns out to be pretty good. Film at eleven!

:: Sticking with comics, I thought that American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang would be an manga, but it's not, really. It's just a graphic novel by a comics artist of Asian descent on the subject of a young man who finds himself isolated as the only Chinese-American in his new school. It's also the story of the Monkey King, a monkey who isn't satisfied to be a King but who also wants to be a God. And it's the story of a popular kid named Danny who sadly has a cousin named Chin-Kee, who happens to be the personal embodiment of every obnoxious stereotype of Chinese people that exists. American Born Chinese tells all these stories, and in reading the book, I figured that each tale existed in its own particular space in the book. That assumption turns out to also be wrong, when the three stories become one late in the book in one of the more delightful surprises I've encountered lately in a book.

I suppose there's something about my initial assumption that the book was a manga ("Hmmm, Asian subject matter, Asian artist...clearly a manga!") that illustrates part of the point the book makes about racial stereotypes toward Asians in the first place. We're talking about a Chinese-American comics artist here, after all, and manga is a Japanese medium. But the book is brilliant, and along with the Eisner volume above truly indicative of how powerful a medium comics can be.

:: It's generally taken as a given that political figures tend to exhibit qualities in their public speaking that are often labeled in the colorful way as "being full of shit". However, it can always seem a bit daunting to identify exactly how our politicians are befuddling us with bullshit, since they're obviously not baffling us with their brilliance. Hence a book like Aristotle and an Aardvark Go to Washington: Understanding Political Doublespeak Through Philosophy and Jokes, by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein. It's a brief, breezy, and mostly entertaining look at the various tricks-of-the-trade of political rhetoric. Granted, most of the examples the authors select involve lapses in logic by right-of-center politicians, but there are the occasional quotes by such Democratic masters of BS as Bill Clinton. The book also features lots of regular old jokes along the way, used to depict logical fallacies. It's a fun and breezy read, especially as a kind of refresher course in logical argumentation.

:: I read Sheila's appreciation of a production of Macbeth with Patrick Stewart as the lead with interest, as I had just weeks before finished reading Macbeth for the first time since high school. I remember this being the first of Shakespeare's plays that I really liked, probably owing to its blood-soaked tale of regicide and eerie supernatural content; I remember being especially pleased in discovering the way Shakespeare had made the witches' prophecies come true.

We read Macbeth in eleventh grade English; at the time, the norm was, if memory serves, one Shakespeare play a year. We started in ninth grade with Romeo and Juliet, which, well, I just wasn't capable of appreciating in any way that early on. (I've always had this pet notion that literature should be taught in reverse chronology; dumping a bunch of ninth graders into iambic pentameter can't be the best way to introduce kids to The Bard, I think.) In tenth grade it was Julius Caesar, which I found more interesting, although I still found Shakespeare mostly impenetrable. "Why do they keep talking for so long? A bunch of guys stab Caesar and yet he still manages to get out 'Et tu Brute'?" It wasn't until Macbeth that I started to actually see what Shakespeare was doing, that I started to understand that his language had rhythm and music inherent within it. (I may have been influenced by my discovery the year before of Berlioz, and my further discovery that Shakespeare had been one of Berlioz's greatest artistic influences. I guess that was my first personal experience with being swayed by a celebrity endorsement.)

Anyhow, Macbeth. I don't have anything particularly insightful to say about this work; I only note how wonderfully brooding a play it is, how gloomy. Macbeth himself always seems as though he believes himself to be in control of his own actions, but all along, we know that he is in no control at all. Watching his entire world collapse around him, and seeing him reduced to, in his words, "a poor player" strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage, forms the heart of the tragedy. I love this play, and I should really try to see some Shakespeare on stage someday.

:: Finally, I'm trying an experiment: reading Moby Dick at the rate of one chapter a day. If I can stick to that pace, I will get all the way through the book in 135 days. (Yeah, that's a big 'if'.) I've been planning to read Moby Dick for a while now, but my enjoyment of In the Heart of the Sea influenced my decision to get going now, and it will help that the chapters are all very brief. Occasionally I will post a brief thought about the book as I make my way through it, starting with this: the first sentence of Chapter Two.

I stuffed a shirt or two into my old carbet-bag, tucked it under my arm, and started for Cape Horn and the Pacific.

That is just a terrific sentence, isn't it? Our boy Ishmael dreams big. He's not setting out to find a berth on a ship, he's not setting out for Nantucket, he's setting out for Cape Horn and the Pacific. That would be like if Neil Armstrong had risen on that morning in July 1969, kissed his wife, and said, "Bye dear, I'm off for the Sea of Tranquility." Ishmael's a guy who knows where he's going.

So that's the literary activity lately at Casa Jaquandor.


Becky said...

I've been somewhat disillusioned with Stephen King for years now, after thoroughly enjoying his first books. "Duma Key" is back to excellence.

I wrote an entire post on it, and I'm not even done reading it yet :)

Tonio Kruger said...

You won't miss anything if you give up on "Dreamcatcher." It took me several times to get through it and in the end, I ended up hating it worse than the movie. (And that's saying something.)

Definitely not one of King's better novels.

Belladonna said...

I'm not sure "enjoyed" is quite the right term for how I felt about "In the Heart of the Sea", (after all, tales of starvation and cannibalims are just...well, unsettling at best). But I did find it very compelling and an excellent read. I probably should not have read it when I did - on a small boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean off a remote island in Fiji...made for a rather queasy afternoon. But I still loved the book~!