Dan Brown’s Inferno

Most would probably consider me a lit. snob. One of those who turns his nose up at mainstream fiction, and to some extent that’s true. I prefer the more linguistically difficult and denser tomes. I just think reading the tougher stuff benefits us in ways that the easier to read texts do not. Either way, I’ll toss in some candy here and there for fun, and this one is absolutely that: pure fun.

Brown to me is hysterical. It’s melodrama to the point of frenzy. His books move at the speed of light and his characters are awesomely cliché and predictable. Every woman is a super-model who speaks a dozen languages and holds three master’s degrees, and every man (with the exception of the vacuous Robert Langdon) is some sort of superhuman athlete. The villains are all tattooed and smoke, and the ancillary characters are forgettable to the point of non-existence.

Melodrama aside, I love Dan Brown as much as anything else out there. I’m not reading him for self-betterment. If I want to improve I’ll pick up Proust. If I want to lose myself to some over-the-top plot-gripper, I’ll head to Brown’s camp.

The book itself follows Langdon through the streets of Florence as he loosely retraces the steps of poet Dante Alighieri and lends his movement through the streets to The Divine Comedy.

You don’t need any knowledge of The Divine Comedy itself to grasp this one, but it’s interesting to know some of the references Langdon tosses around like some sort of profound homage to the classics.

It’s a torrential romp through Florence and Istanbul motivated towards stopping some global plague from escaping the hands of a populace-controlling maniac. Needless to say, it’s awesome. Fast and fun. The perfect beach read to override that squawk of seagulls. Look no further for an escape. This one’ll suffice.

The First Bad Man: Idiosyncrasy Incarnate

Filmmaker, artist, and now most impressively novelist, Miranda July’s debut The First Bad Man is a stunning original with a cringe-worthy amount of idiosyncratic voice and self-delusion. In a brief 200 pages, July exemplifies what it means to be not just a woman in the 21st century, but a human being.

The book itself is about the life and times of Cheryl Glickman, a holistic seeking pseudo-naturalist (?) who works as an office manager taking notes for board meetings at Open Palm. She is the embodiment of the facade of order–everything has its place, books are meant to stand on shelves–not to be taken off of shelves. Cups and dishes are for company only–why not eat out of the pan itself? She undergoes chromotherapy (literally, color therapy) and refuses to wash her pans after cooking because it “builds flavor.”

For her, life is a staunch opposition to decrepitude and disorder. And then comes Clee. At the behest of her boss, Cheryl must open her doors and life to his daughter. Order meets chaos in the form of a young blonde bombshell whose feet stink, never seems to shower, parties, and sleeps around. Her general volatility serves as the perfect foil for Cheryl’s fetishized fantasies of personal sexual gratification–and the two unwind perfectly. They even end up raising a child and what follows is one of the most brilliantly original and truly remarkable books of the year.

The First Bad Man is hyper-modern. There’s a sheen and order to the prose that is so refreshingly grounded in both reality and fantasy.

But the beauty of the novel really comes through the dialogue. It’s hilarious. Characters converse in dead-pan interchanges no more than a few words in length like a Wes Anderson script–but the humor is more than just coarse conversation. It’s truth. The lines and fantasies are initially hysterical, but become strangely intimate as how actually real they are. Every page reflects a society in mental upheaval. We identify with idiosyncrasy and uniqueness, but hide it for fear of ridicule. Well, hide no more, Cheryl Glickman is the new poster-child for eccentric quirkiness.

Needless to say, July has crafted something here exceptional and original. This will be a cult classic–if not a true classic in it’s own right, and I can’t wait for more to come from this phenomenal debut author.

Stars = 5/5

Escapism: A Discussion

As an avid reader, escapism seems to be the name of the game. I read for a number of hours a day without fail, without remorse, without reservation. I long for the experiences of others. I long for thoughts and actions of the greatest minds of our kind so that I might be able to make some sort of sense out of my own.

To some extent, books are the instruction manuals for how to live a life–for better or worse.

But as much as I try, I can’t get past the thought that inherent in the act of reading is the act of escapism. That in order to experience the lives and actions of others we must break outside our own present–which to me strikes a harsh chord against the idea of “presence” in life.

The sad (maybe?) part of it all is the truth that we’re all escapists.

No matter what our poison, be it books, movies, television, music, we’re all longing for that clean, well-lit place that Hemingway so beautifully penned in the 1930’s and people like Tolkien and Lewis made fantastical for even further gratification.

We’re all longing for a sense of home in the things we experience, when for most of us, the very act of sitting down to consume whatever media we’ve got is the essence of home. Our media (books included) has become a perverse sort of hearth we gather around for our own sense of appeasement.

But is this a good thing? As hard as this is to admit: what’s the difference between escaping into the pages of a book vs. the pixelated glow of a screen? Obviously one is more linguistically advanced than the other, but the idea is the still the same. Regardless of media or format, we’re still diverging from the present for the seemingly greener pastures of the other.

Is escapism a good thing or a bad thing? What are your thoughts?

Nabokov’s Lolita

Originally published in Paris in 1955 , Nabokov’s opus toward illicit, unrequited love via Lolita is a perversely fascinating linguistic masterpiece.

Meet Humbert Humbert. A late 30’s literature professor who falls head over heels in love with twelve year old Dolores Haze (a.k.a. Lolita–his personal nickname for her). And, through a disturbing series of events, witness as Humbert slowly inserts himself into her life as official “stepfather,” resulting in one of the most twisted love stories ever told.

Listed in Time Magazine’s Top 100 novels of All TimeLolita stands as one of the most controversial novels to have ever been published.

As an avid and long-time Nabokov fan, I cannot recommend this one enough.

Ten Thousand Saints and the Excavation of “Straight Edge”

As a long time punk rock fan, I was immediately intrigued by the trailer for the film version of Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints, and thus, it’s only fitting that I give the novel a review before checking out the movie.

A lesson: There are three official social/musical movements that Henderson covers throughout the book. Here’s a quick little expo on each:

PunkOriginated in the late 70’s in New York and London. This is the Clash, the Ramones, Sex Pistols, variety. In essence: rock music gone angry.

Hardcore: punk music driven to the edge. The playfully deranged surf-rock-a-billy bravado of the punk aesthetic turned sour, volatile and sped up further. Tempos stretched to a blistering  200bpm prestissimo.

Straight-edge: a social movement that may or may not pertain to both genre’s above. Punk and Hardcore fans alike who stretch for a sense of inner purity. Almost buddhist, more Hare Krishna in which emptiness of the body is celebrated as holiness in its own right.

Now that that’s out of the way, on with the show. Henderson’s novel is one of those rare gems from the library. A strange find in a larger slush-pile of melodramatic fiction that reeks of nothing but amatuerish plot-lines and over-the-top characterization. For me good literature is that which screams authenticity–be it veiled through horror-science-fiction-esque trope or not–good fiction is real.

Henderson’s book, although certainly melodramatic (it has all the sex, drugs, death, and mayhem one would expect from the setting itself) is also strangely realistic. The writing is clean and effortless and the story moves with the blistering pace of the music described with such fervor.

It’s the story of Jude Keffy-Horn and his newfound life amongst the street-urchins and straight-edged rebels of the late 80’s Alphabet City NYC crowd. He ditches the earthly comforts of life in-the-blur for the more holy, more pure living sans meat, dairy, sugar, sex, drugs, and alcohol. It’s veganism taken to the limit. A saintly macrobiotic with a proclivity toward aggressive pit-fights.

Although not one of my absolute favorites, it’s certainly worth a peek. Those intrigued by the rebellious stomp and shout of the punk and the aggression of the straight-edged, or simply in need of some levity from the denser tomes out there, Ten Thousand Saints is certainly rewarding in its pace and passion. Definitely worth a read.

Stars = 4/5

To Be Well Read

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I came across the Guardian’s list of the Top 100 greatest novels of all time, and I have to say that I’m impressed. Such a list is something that is immensely difficult to come up with, but The Guardian has chosen a selection of novels (some I’ve heard of, some I haven’t) that stretch in fields and genre’s from Shelley’s Frankenstein, to Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night A Traveler, and it’s made me recognize that despite my own sense of confidence–my own sense of satisfaction at the fact that regardless of occupation and personal/social obligation, I’ve still been able to tackle roughly a book a week. Sometimes more, sometimes less, but there’s always something on the nightstand/coffee table/toilet (yup).

And yet, the contents of this list are awesomely unfamiliar.

Which brings up an interesting question: What does it mean to be well-read? As an individual that reads constantly, I’d like to consider myself as one who is relatively well-read, but this list proves otherwise. Does it mean one has to read the classics? The biographies? The sciences, essays, and fictions of each continent?

IMG_0204I’ve been criticized time and again from some colleagues that I’m relatively grounded in anglo-continentalism (old, dead, white, men) and to some extent, I agree. But, regardless of my own literary limitations, it’s nice to be reminded of the fact that there is always more. The world of great literature is never-ending and stretches into the furthest reaches of imagination. Those worlds that the most gifted of us imagine, but only select few are somehow able to transcribe.

Thus, I’m going to embark on a little challenge. I’m going to make a run at this list, and hopefully I’ll be successful. Interspersed with library books and the occasional amazon purchase, this list is going to largely comprise my reading for the next year or two (hopefully, no more). What sights await?

And yet, the question still stands: What makes an individual well-read? Clearly, it’s relative, but there has to be something out there that gives an individual that pluck of conversational awe us bibliophiles vie for so vehemently.

What are your thoughts?

Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky

Paul Bowles’ 1949 novel about post-colonial Northern Africa is a torrent of existential malaise and estrangement from familiarity in a time where disconnection was more than the abandonment of technology–it was the abandonment of self.

The novel follows American couple Port Moresby and wife Kit as they attempt to reconcile marital issues via travel through Moroccan North Africa.

That said, what follows is the existential/psychological effects of separation of all that is habitual, commonplace, and routine, and how sometimes the best way to discover your truest sense of identity is to forgo the comforts of home and tap into the great beyond via travel.

Named one of TIME magazine’s top 100, this one is sure to astound in it’s simplicity and brilliance.

The Sculptor: The Impending Death of the Artist

Cartoonist and comic theorist Scott McCloud’s debut full-length novel The Sculptor is a wonderful contribution to the graphic novel medium.

My first experience with McCloud’s work was his seminal text Understanding Comics which is the graphic equivalent of a textbook. Understanding Comics itself is something of an unwieldy beast in that it is a textbook about comics, written as a comic. To create such a monster is no small feat, and it’s no surprise that such a brain is capable of churning out what amounts to one of the best graphic novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading in the past decade.

The Sculptor is the story of struggling artist and sculptor David Smith who makes a deal with death for success. What follows is a stunningly calculated foray into the world of New York City and the lives of a struggling artist.

But there’s a love story. There has to be a love story with a cover like that, right? Smith’s pitfalls as an artist (self-consciousness, fear, apathy, malaise for the subjectivity of art in and of itself) are those which manifest in his love-life as well. And with only 200 days remaining under his belt, what is to become of a romance as powerful as Tristan and Isolde? You’ll have to read the book to find out that one.

And beneath it all is the conception of celebrity as it applies to artist. What becomes of the spiritual benefits of creation in the throes of success? What becomes of the spiritual benefits of creation when there’s no success? The answer might not quite be what you’re thinking.

McCloud’s work is intricately detailed and beautifully preconceived. His panels move with fluidity and convey a story that is downright unique in its inception. The flashbacks are seamlessly connected, the splash pages are monolithic in their weight, and the final punch to this stunning graphic novel is nothing like what you’d expect.

For new and old comic fans alike, McCloud’s work is brilliant and absolutely work a peek.

Stars = 5/5

Running and the Liminal Space

I run for several reasons. There are the obvious points behind the importance of physical fitness and cardiovascular health; it clarifies the mind and allows for detoxification of the body; it induces endorphins which cause a feeling of euphoria; I also run because I find it downright fun.

It’s a personal battle against the self. It’s the sensation of the fight at its purest. There’s the burn of the limbs, the harshness of intake of breath, and then the elements.

I confess, horrendous allergies limit me to running on a treadmill during the summer months, which any purist will dismiss outright as simply “not as good.” And I agree with them. It’s not. It’s the equivalent of eating at a McDonald’s in Shang-hi. Needless to say, I run because it’s fun.

But there’s more to running than simply cardiovascular health. There’s a willingness that must be pursued. There’s an inherent drive in the act of forcibly pushing one’s body to the brink of collapse that carries over into a number of other personal endeavors.

For one (and by far the most obvious)–running helps with perseverance. Whether it’s the perseverance to finish that tome of a novel, or the willingness to stick out a movie that might just suck enough to merit turning off before it’s through, running allows a person to enter that sort of fugue state in which finishing isn’t a maybe it’s a must.

Less obvious though are the mental benefits behind running, and these are by far the most important. After a hard day’s work, thirty-minutes on a treadmill is the best tonic available. When all is said and done, after I’ve pumped my limbs to the brink of collapse and driven my lungs through through the diverse gauntlet of huffs and puffs, the head is clear and the thoughts are easy. Those tasks that have been on my mind for the better part of the day (sometimes longer) dissipate with the knowledge that they will be done one way or another. Why worry? You just ran five miles straight–you’re practically Superman. What’s a bullet to the man of steel?

I suppose the underlying factor behind a good run is that it allows us to internally occupy that liminal space between anguish and contentment. The space where the limbs seem to go numb and the mind shuts down and there’s nothing but the pounding sensation of pavement, harsh breath, and the shudder of excitement at possibly breaking a personal time or distance. It allows for reflection of a different sort. A more absent-minded reflection where it’s both forced and not.

It’s no coincidence that runners are often avid readers. They both require the same skill-set. Diligence, perseverance, the will to finish, because acknowledging the fact that to read a 1000+ page book will take ten days of reading 100 pages or more is the very same as staring at a hill straight on and knowing that quitting is not an option.

Somehow the metaphorical (and not) hill must be conquered.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

Michael Chabon’s 2001 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is one of the most strikingly original and entertaining reads out there.

Set in mid-war 1940’s New York and spanning several decades, generations, and lives, Chabon cleverly recreates the 1950’s comic book industry boom through the rise of the “Escapist” and his harrowing adventures amidst the turmoil of a city reeling from the effects of global warfare.

Part war-story adventure, part romance, part thriller, Chabon deftly interweaves the intricacies and lives of two of the most original protagonists (Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay) in contemporary literature.

Don’t miss this brilliant pulitzer prize winner–it’s one of a kind.