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

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.

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.

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

The Bushwhacked Piano

Thomas McGuane’s second novel, originally published in 1971 to critical reviews, is a hysterical commentary on the state of the American psyche seen through the eyes and lived through the misadventures of wayward entrepreneur Nicholas Payne.

Follow Payne as he pursues the hand of a doughty millionairess and joins sides with a double amputee con-man (the bionic man!) as they attempt to sell glow-in-the-dark bats that will rid entire towns of mosquitos overnight (or so they say).

One of the most uniquely funny and linguistically savvy voices in American Letters, The Bushwhacked Piano is the perfect balance of literary panache and buoyantly side-splitting hilarity.

Stay Away from Franzen’s “Farther Away.” A Review:

There are certainly books out there that I don’t finish. With so many available, why waste time reading those which are not up to personal standard?

Try as I might, I’m not sure if I’ll ever make it through Ford Maddox Ford’s Parade’s End or Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, but at the end of the day, I’m better off for having started them.

Regardless, when I started this blog, I kind of promised myself I wouldn’t review books I didn’t finish, but this one somehow screams indifference.

Franzen’s 2011 collection of essays Farther Away boasts of everything that Franzen is known for. He’s an intellect that is at once painfully difficult to associate with based on his own predilections toward solitude. His essays profess a sort of social-intellectual superiority that I’ve come to find semi-repulsive if not at times nauseating.

In 22 pieces ranging in subject matter from his absolutely stunning 2011 Kenyon college commencement address to book reviews of lesser known “greats”, his relationship with David Foster Wallace, and even Chinese Conservationism in the midst of economic-boom–Franzen demonstrates that he’s a mind at war with his own cultural relevance as much as he is with the diminishing global song-bird population (a subject he covers at great lengths).

Personally, I love Franzen. Twenty-Seventh City was outstanding, The Corrections was a joy, and Freedom might be the best American novel to have been written in the last decade–but this collection–how? Why?

There are pieces that recall Franzen’s brilliance and linguistic savvy, but taken together, the pieces date themselves to the point of forced obsolescence. I’m not sure about you, but I don’t understand who would want to read a forty-page essay covering the Chinese ecological downturn of the early 21st century, or a review of the archaic Swedish literature piece The Laughing Policeman.

To each his own. Obviously. Clearly, there is/was a need for these to be written when he wrote them, but at this point in time, I’m not sure about the relevance of any of it.

The best pieces (granted, I’ll chalk this one up to my love affair with DFW) cover the suicide of one of his best friends and contemporary American novelist/essayist David Foster Wallace–which he does write about with passion and zeal.

Otherwise, I recommend you stay far away from Farther Away (couldn’t help myself). It’s not for you. Really, I’m not sure who it would be for?

Leave this one at the bookstore and pick up one of his other collections instead. How to Be Alone is a beautiful compilation of personal memoir, and The Discomfort Zone deals with the heartache associated with losing a family member to Alzheimer’s.  Both are fantastic if you’re interested in his non-fiction.

Stars = 2/5