Don Quixote and the Master Protagonist

It’s the story of hidalgo Don Quixote née Alonso Quijano or Quesada or Quijada as he embarks on a life of knight-errantry–galavanting across the Spanish countryside in search of adventures with his beloved squire Sancho Panza.

That in and of itself is the story that comprises the roughly 980 page tome of a novel originally published in 1547. Though within its girthy spine is also housed tales of fellow travelers, wanderers, and nomads ranging the borders from Northern Africa, Turkey, and the surrounding African-European landscape.

In essence, this is the story of a man’s life. As Dostoevsky put it: “The last great utterance of the human mind.” It’s a metaphorical tale of the pursuit of passion and indulgence into the depths of dream and ambition. Don Quixote as a man is at once the most ambitious, the most passionate, the most zealous of spirits and throughout his journey evolves from mad knight-errant to one of the ultimate symbols for the importance of obsession, ardor, and mania.

If original fiction is archetype than Don Quixote is the master of them all. He’s the ethereal stelae guarding the grounds of eternal vigor set against the realism of Panza–his squat squire always there to bring his lofty ambition back to the Earth.

What astounds me most about the novel is its episodic structure. No chapter is longer ten pages in length. The second a story lags, Cervantes is quick with a comical interjection from either his own preludes and prologues (hysterical commentary prior to every chapter) that breaks up what could easily be one of the most monotonous reads of all time.

For something written in the 16th century, there’s an indescribable readability unlike anything else out there. It’s dense, but only for those unable to grasp the light-heartedness of the action. There’s weight to every page, and yet it reads like a thriller, always moving and progressing, and never allowing itself to lie stagnant under the burden of it’s own physical encumbrance.

Needless to say, this is that rare life-changer. A classic that we all dread out of some fear of failing to read. Needless to say, don’t leave yourself tilting at windmills and slay this beast. It will not leave you disappointed.

The Shadow of the Wind and Forgotten Books

Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s 2001 caper The Shadow of the Wind is a story of forbidden love and exile stretching between the Spanish Civil War to 1960’s Barcelona. Utilizing a pastiche of styles and techniques, Zafón demonstrates an immense respect for the stately opulence of Gothic Victorianism mixed with the elaborately plotted whodunnits and mysteries of the hard-case crime files from the 1950’s.

The story is of young Daniel Sempere the son of a local bookseller who happens to come into possession of a novel by increasingly obscure Spanish author Julián Carax.

Falling in love with the book immediately, young Daniel quickly searches out more from the enigmatically absent author only to discover that his books are being systematically removed and destroyed from bookstores and libraries.

What follows is a torrent of murder, mystery, love, lust, and the excavation of a past that has struggled to be buried for decades–all of which set beneath the glow of a Barcelonian winter.

I’m in awe of Zafón’s prose. The intricacy and originality of the story is astounding, and his style is a beautiful combination of the mathematical-calculatory mystery of Borges mixed with the playful magic of García Márquez.

Linguistically speaking, Zafón is the perfect amalgam of complex prosaic Victorianism with a dash of the contemporary thriller.

The Shadow of the Wind is a masterpiece. Go out and get it now. It won’t disappoint.

Stars = 5/5

5 Tips to Alleviate the Dense

There are those tomes that try as we might to read with some semblance of speed and agility, our progress remains nearly stationary when set against the larger page count. I don’t know about you, but the prospect of finishing a thousand plus page book in a society that’s becoming known for an attention span of less-than-30-second vine clips makes me cringe.

That said, is it futile to push on? Never. Set your goals for reading the bigger books high, and live up to those expectations, for the worth in finishing the dense books that many have tried and few have conquered can become some of the most meaningful experiences of your life. Here are a few tips to get you going:

1. Set a Schedule: This is by far the most important element in succeeding whenever reading a book that could easily suffice as a car seat for a toddler. Set a specific page goal for the day and stick to it. Through thick and thin it’s most often when we’re in the throes of the monstrous–wallowing away four hundred pages into a book and not even being halfway–that we tend to toss in the towel fifteen-twenty pages too soon. On days when I don’t work, I mandate one-hundred pages from myself. On work days–50. Whatever yours may be, set it and stick to it.

2. Read Summaries: This is an aspect of reading a large, difficult book that many people deem cheating. But, if you’re like me and pride yourself in tackling those books others shy away from because of difficulty and length, reading summaries alongside some of the more difficult chapters of a dense Dostoevsky or Dumas novel will alleviate some of the stresses of gleaning plot from antiquated and nuanced language. Certainly every word has its place, but grasping a loose understanding of the plot either before or after reading a section of a larger novel can be an essential tool necessary to pull you through to the end.

3. Find Your Quiet Space: I’m a bit of a hermit when it comes to reading, and anyone who knows me will tell you that I value my peace and quiet–to the point that the faint hum of the refrigerator can sometimes be distracting. Thus, I read on my couch, away from distraction, screens and computers, the accoutrements of a culture hell-bent on switching attention every thirty seconds. I need silence to read, and thus I seek it out wherever I can get it–I suggest you do the same.

4. Persevere: Common sense has never been so simple. In order to wrestle your way through the Don Quixote‘s in the world one must be willing to stomach the boring, the passive, the antiquated, and the frustrating in order to extract those bits of truth we hungrily vie for whenever we set our sights on one of the denser classics.

5. Self-talk: This might just be me, but often when reading something particularly difficult and dense, there’s always that moment when the world sort of screams for you to quit. That little voice can be the bane of trudging through the marshy waters of dense literature, and thus, I need to personally remind myself that I can read thisIt’s worth it. Just like long-distance running, the prize is often awaiting you at the very end. The exhaustion and clear-headedness of finishing something others deem too difficult is reward in and of itself.

So the next time you set your sights high and feel your diligence and perseverance wavering under the pressure of the dense, remember the above strategies for making it through those books that are worth it–and, believe me, they are.

Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings and the Minimalist Comic

Adrian Tomine’s 2007 full-length collection Shortcomings is realism at its finest.

Initially released in 2004, the serial quickly gained momentum with the media when it was named by Entertainment Weekly as “What not to miss” in regards to yearly publications. They weren’t wrong.

Shortcomings explores the psychological ramifications of dating in a world fraught with insecurity, doubt, emotional duplicity, and deception. The collection follows Ben Tanaka, a Japanese cinema owner from California inherently disinterested in dating members of the same ethnicity, thus illustrating a sort of self-hatred and malaise toward both cultural/Asian stereotypes.

There are two things that astound me about the comic: its realism and by proxy–it’s minimalism. The dialogue is seamless, poignant, and powerfully grounded in actuality. Every panel is dramatic, but never does Tomine take the easy way out and carry his comic down the easier-to-control/astound melodramatic path. His world is intricately intertwined with our own.

Tomine’s illustrations are as plain as they get. The book is done in black and white, and the action in the story is entirely verbal. There are dinner parties, lunches, small get-togethers between men and women, in essence reality. There are no fight scenes, no elaborate splash pages, no color–rather, Tomine demonstrates a welcome sense of restraint and delicacy in handling a subject as difficult to take on as the cultural norms as they pertain to dating.

Initially, I was indifferent to the book as a whole, but on closer inspection, it’s clear Tomine wields a deft hand in comics. I only wish he’d give me more.

Stars = 4/5

To Be An Expert

I recently read that in order to become an expert in a particular field or subject one must practice/engage/hone a specific skill for a minimum of 10,000 hours (the equivalent of 1,250 8-hour work days)–which brings me to a subject that seems to become increasingly more important as I get older–that of expertise.

I think a necessary aspect of humanity is that of drive, which is nothing more than the abstract representation of a desire for expertise.

We all long to be the best. Be it an athlete, mathematician, writer, scientist, competitive eater, no matter what the field our passion to be the greatest is the very essence that gets us up in the morning. It’s that which keeps us in the gym after work and the lights on well-past quitting time.

Personally, I aspire to be a writer. This isn’t a secret, nor is it something I hide from my friends, family, fiancé. They all know it, and encourage, and I’m thankful for their encouragement. With that said, based on the above it’ll be a staggering number of years before I’m ever able to consider myself an “expert” in writing. I can teach the craft to high-school students until my lips turn blue, and for some reason that edge toward expertise will never be reached–the carrot perpetually dangled but never fully grasped.

Philosophically, I wonder if anyone ever truly considers themselves “experts” in their field. The examples of humility from the greats are too many to count. Haruki Murakami didn’t start writing until his early 40’s and yet, despite global success as an author, he still exhibits the puerile sense of language that borders on the jejune. He’s an adolescent trapped in an elderly man’s body that consistently turns out some of the most intriguing prose today.

Take sushi chef Jiro Ono who has literally devoted his entire life to making the world’s best sushi (see Jiro Dreams of Sushi). Here’s a man who slaves over literally every intricacy of his food, his craft, his livlihood in order to make it supremely “perfect.” Expert? Absolutely. Although, I would wager to bet that were Jiro Ono asked about his own expertise, he’d claim he’s still learning. He’s still growing. He’s still honing his skills to somehow, someway, get better.

But such dedication is necessary toward pursuing that which makes us whole, and growth is always at the forefront of experience. I just wonder if expertise is the intangible equivalent of finance–the idea that there’s never enough money in the bank to satiate our limitless desires.

Expertise itself seems to be the spawn of what makes Buddhism such a universally satisfying ideology in that it professes relinquishment of the very thing that drives us–it professes the need to rid ourselves of want, of desire, of hunger itself.

But the point still stands. We all have an innate sense of thirst or hunger for the need to be an expert.

What’s your expertise?

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.

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.

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 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.

NOS4A2: Christmas in July

I understand I’ve leaned more towards the horror story lately, and that to limit myself to a single genre is not only intellectually isolating, but isolating for my readers as well.

Unfortunately for those afraid of the classic horror story out there, I’m here to disappoint you yet again. Thus, I bring you Joe Hill’s NOS4A2.

A not so secret, secret: Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son.

Boom! And, not so surprisingly, this is a fact that Hill is relatively keen on keeping under-wraps. His book jackets and bios mention nothing of the novelistic powerhouse that is King. No bad blood there, just a man trying to make it without having to pull himself out from under the shadow of one of fiction’s greatest writers. No shame there.

What Hill has managed to turn out with NOS4A2 is nothing short of amazing. His fiction is reminiscent of King’s in its easy-going bravado. Hill writes like a pro and takes smart shots as they come to him, much like his father. And yet Hill’s work is somehow easier. There’s a lighter sense of unconcern for a tightly-wound plot (that’s not to say his plots are not tightly-wound, because believe me, they are), in lieu of a downright fun story.

NOS4A2 is the story of supernatural “inscapes,” and what amounts to personal reflections manifested physically in our world. What follows is an amazingly fast paced juggernaut of a horror story about vampiric child-killer extraordinaire Charles Manx as he meets a force that just might be too much to handle in wayward mother-figure Vic McQueen.

With expectedly depraved characters, oftentimes gratuitously violent and perverse scenes, and King-esque tongue-in-cheeky turns of phrases (“Ear today, gone tomorrow”…I’ll let you take a guess about that one) Hill takes us on a terrifying trip to Christmasland and the world of Manx.

But it’s not just a powerhouse of a plot that gets this one going. Hill appeals to the avid bibliophile with references to Frobisher’s “Cloud Atlas Sextet” and “De Zoet” (Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and A Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet) and even his father’s work with the “True Knot” (Doctor Sleep) with references and Easter Eggs that are as entertaining to pick out and devour as the book’s plot.

This is candy. If you’re looking for something intellectually stimulating like Faulkner or Maupassant, you might as well toddle off, because you’ll be grossly disappointed with NOS4A2. but for those in need of a quick-paced thriller, this is for you.

Close the windows and lock the doors for this tour-de-force of scary dreams and horrific slaying in Christmasland. Or, if you’re like me, let the summer-night breeze in to freeze the blood with this frighteningly original screamer.

Stars = 4/5