Monday, April 30, 2007

I Don't Think We're in Kansas Anymore, Todo...

You might think this is strange, but when I accepted the New Notions 5 reading challenge, it never occurred to me that the challenge would actually be well...a challenge. I spent a very difficult time in the bookstore this afternoon, trying to pick out a book that didn’t make my lip curl with distaste. It was a lot harder than I thought! It started off well-enough with a first stop over into the poetry section because I never read books of poetry. Poetry is wonderful and I understand why it’s a revered form of creative artistry, but I myself tend to prefer prose. I find that I often have the same impatient response to poetry that I have to English opera, which is, to quote one of my favorite comedians Jerry Seinfeld: “You got something to say, say it!”

But this is a challenge, so poetry it is, only…I don’t know the first thing about poetry. Alright, I know the first thing. I know the classics: Lowell, Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, etc. But I want to read something new, something fresh. I want to know what’s happening in the poetry world now. So I do what any well-informed, sophisticated reader does: I start pulling books off the shelves based purely on attractive spines. Soon enough, I come across Hoops: Poems by Major Jackson. A quick browse of what’s inside sounds cool and hip enough (and, really, how can you go wrong with a name like Major Jackson?). May pick, down.

Floating on the ease of my first pick, I glide over to the sci-fi section when suddenly reality comes barreling down like a malfunctioning space ship falling from the sky. A quick browse of the wild, unfamiliar titles has me whispering aloud, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore Todo.” For a minute, I’m standing in the middle of the aisle trying to remember exactly why I didn’t take John Otter up on his offer of a sci-fi recommendation (I seem to recall thinking, “Oh, it can’t be that hard! I’ll pop in, see something that strikes my fancy and pop back out!). I’ve read sci-fi before. Last year I read, Dune by Frank Herbert, a long time ago I read Tolkein’s The Hobbit, the entire Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, and half of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers before I gave up and decided that I’d rather watch the movies. And, for months, I’ve been in the middle of reading The Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick by Philip K. Dick.

So I’m not completely inexperienced, and there was that time when I was forced to read William Gibson’s Idoru for a class in communications. But peeking into the titles I pull from the shelf has my gut clinching in the same distress I experienced during the week of Idoru. I’m feeling literally repelled by this section of books. Just when did this section get so big? And why are all the books over 700 pages long? If I’m going to challenge myself with some sci-fi, must I be masochistic about it too? But finally, world of wonders, after I’ve decided upon Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things, the light bulb goes off! There was this book I heard about months back called The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman...Ding! Why don’t I read that? And it’s located in the young adult section (another section you’ll never find me in) so I get to kill two birds with one stone! June pick, down...

This post has turned out to be entirely too long so I’ve decided to split it into two. Tune in later for the final installment of “I Don't Think We’re in Kansas Anymore Todo…”! Next up: choosing a graphic novel, needing help in the self-help section, and spending too much time in history.

Friday, April 27, 2007

My First Challenge Should I Choose to Accept It...

The book blogosphere is bursting with reading challenges. Southern reading, Spring reading, Classics reading, Shakespeare reading, Out-of-the-Box reading... And they all really do sound fun and engaging. Yet - until recently at least - I've managed to keep my book nose out of them. Not because I have something against reading challenges but because well, it says it in my blog title: I'm a slow reader. I barely have time to get through the books already on my TBR list. And I don't like the feeling of being rushed (or rushing) through a novel to beat a deadline. It takes the pleasure out of reading for me. If it's a book I'm really enjoying, I like to take my time and stay a while; give it a chance to make the "long journey to my soul." So, while I applaud those people who can finish a book in a week (ha! I wish - no really, I do), I figured I'd be best served by admiring reading challenges from afar.

But, you know what? Forget what I just said because I've decided to take John Otter over at Grasping for the Wind up on his New Notions 5 Reading Challenge. He assured me speed isn't neccesary (you're nuts John, if you think I won't hold you to that). I'll will, however, be required to complete five books in five months and I'm pretty sure...yeah...yeah I'm pretty sure even I can do that. So, my challenge as I've so chosen to accept it is to read five books that challenge my preconcieved notions on any particular topic. This could be race, politics, religion, what have you. I like reading outside of my box. It's one of the things that makes the reading life worth living. So John, count me in.

I haven't decided exactly what my five books will be yet but I had a most interesting idea at work today. My five books will be chosen from genres that I very, very rarely - if ever - journey into for various reasons. This would include self-help books (because I tend to think they're useless), science fiction (because I get bored with the outrageous technology and talking aliens that look like pimples), most American history (because, for some reason, it bores me out of my mind - love European history though, can't get enough of it), anthing that comes out of the "spiritual" section (for the same reasons why I don't read self-help books), and comics (nothing against them, I just never venture into that section). I'm very, very sure I'm leaving off a long list of other genres. But you know what? I'm willing to accept that all of my preconcieved notions on all of those genres are likely wrong. So I'm going to give them a chance to prove themeselves (see how I transfered the reading challenge from myself to the books? - I'm tricksy, I am). Now all I have to do is actually pick five books. Perhaps this weekend I'll go to the bookstore, wander into unexplored territory, and see what I stumble out with.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Many, Many Apologies...

Sorry to those of you who have been checking in wondering where in the world I've been for the better part of a week. Well if you must know (yes, I know I'm flattering myself to think that anyone actually cared but, I put it to you, if I don't flatter myself, who will?), I've been in Seattle, Washington. It was work-related but I've spent the day walking around downtown, checking out the absolutely amazing Pike Street Market and riding the monorail to the Space Needle (which, strangely, isn't as tall as it looks on television). I've spent the week - when I wasn't working of course - trying to find the now non-existent Betty's Book Shop (another indie bites the dust, apparently), and instead stumbling across both a Border's and a Barnes & Noble. (Sigh) And yes, rather reluctantly and guiltily I did end up buying something from both stores. I picked up Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris and Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife by Sam Savage. Of course, it's only after I run out of both money and time, do I come across an indie bookstore tucked down by the pier called Left Bank Books. I felt guilty for not being able to afford another book, so I bought three stickers instead, one of which which reads, "Reading is Sexy." I have no idea where I'm going to stick it but it was just too cute (and true as well, in my opinion but who's asking me?) to pass up.

And, while I've been neglecting my blog and not spending money in indie bookstores like I promised, I have been gobbling The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson. What is it about the fictionalized memoirs of ministers? I'm not a religious person but Marilynne Robinson's Gilead was my favorite book of 2005. The Testament of Gideon Mack is proving to be just as engrossing. At the risk of repeating all those other folks who have reviewed The Testament, this book is well-told contemplation on the place of religion in the modern life. Take for instance this passage:

...why should the fact that I didn't believe in God debar me from ministry? Not only might faith be unnecessary in a modern minister, it might even not be desirable. There was so much talk about how churches needed to connect with people who had lost their faith or never had any: perhaps what the Kirk needed was an influx of faithless ministers. And if faith was essential, I would find out. I would be found out. It was in this frame of mind that, midway through my fourth and final undergraduate year, I began to explore the option of staying on Edinburgh to study Divinity.

And I've also re-engaged with Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. It's amazing, I think, how quickly books we couldn't wait to get our hands on fall to the wayside (or maybe it's just me and I'm projecting). Eat, Pray, Love was one of those books. I started it as soon as I bought it and, as often happens, I got distracted by something else and put it down for a new toy. Well, the neglectful child has returned and Eat, Pray, Love is reminding me why I was enthusiastic about buying this book in the first place. Gilbert has the power of inspiring great empathy with her writing. I've never been through a heart-wrenching divorce - or any break-up for that matter (yes, I know I've been incredibly lucky) - or found God again during a breakdown on my bathroom floor but Gilbert is so incredibly honest with herself and her feelings that it doesn't take a large leap of faith for me to feel L'ho provato sulla mia pelle, which is Italian for "I have experienced that on my own skin" or, in a more colloquial translation: I've been there.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Guilty Very Guilty Pleasures

From Booking Through Thursday:

Okay, there must be something you read that's a guilty pleasure . . . a Harlequin romance stashed under the mattress. A cheesy sci-fi book tucked in the back of the freezer. A celebrity biography, a phoned-in Western . . . something that you'd really rather not be spotted reading. Even just a novel if you're a die-hard non-fiction fan. Come on, confess. We won't hold it against you!

Deep breath, ok here it goes - does this mean BiblioAddict's going to loose what few readers it has? oh, man! - my guilty reading pleasure is....

cheesy, very cheesy, so cheesy it could decorate a Domino's ultimate cheese pizza (do they even sell those?) romance literature. Do you know the horrible historical romance novels with a long-haired, pouty-lipped woman bent over the brawny arm of a warrior (or pirate) muscular god on the glossy cover? Yeah, those romance novels. What can I say? It's a remnant of the teenage girl I used to be who walked around with hearts in her eyes, waiting for her version of Fabio to swoop in, save her from her drab unromantic life, and carry her off into happily ever-after.

I confess, I'm a little less naive than I was back then but I'm still a hopless romantic so I periodically spend at least one afternoon a month gobbling a romance novel. I don't read those in public anymore. The feeling of respect being sucked out of a room once they get a glimpse of what I'm reading is highly palpable (or it could be my defensive imagination). I have to keep myself from childishly yelling, "But I read smart stuff too!" So now I've reverted to reading my "trash" in the judgment-free comfort of my own home...where I can hide the evidence when I have company. ; ) Alright, well that's enough of my guilty pleasures! What about yours?

Touching the Sides...

Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, a collection of Nick Hornby's reviews for The Believer magazine, is everything I wish BiblioAddict could be (and hopefully will be one day). I'm finding it absolutely wonderful to read a collection of reviews in which it's clear on every single page that this author is obviously passionate about reading. He's informed yet incredibly self-effacing. I'm wondering just what I've been doing these past two months (alright, fine - three months) that have kept me from positively zipping through this slim collection. If Hornby himself should ask (hey, we can all dream right?), I'll tell him I'm trying to let Housekeeping vs. the Dirt touch the sides:

I have always prized the accessible over the obsure, but after reading Housekeeping [the novel by Marilynne Robinson - not his own collection] I can see that in some ways the easy, accesible novel is working at a disadvantage (not that Housekeeping is inaccessible, but it is deep and dark and rich): it's possible to whiz through it without allowing it even to touch the sides, and a bit of side-touching has to happen if a book is going to be properly transformative. If you are so gripped by a book that you want to read it in the mythical single sitting, what chance has it got of making it all the way through the long march to your soul? It'll get flushed out by something else before it's even halfway there.
-- pg. 100

A Persian Myth of the Kurds...

I came across this colorful - though slightly morbid - myth of the birth of the Kurds (the very same group of people who reside in the Iraqi mountains and who were repeatedly shown at the start of the Iraqi war in 2003 dancing in the streets, celebrating the American invasion) in Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings. But first a little background: Zahhak, an evil king has been tricked by a devil who makes two snakes grow out of the king's shoulders. The devil then tells the king that in order to get rid of the snakes he must feed the snakes nothing but human brains. The king consents and has two young men brought to his palace every night where they are killed, their brains fed to the snakes (I told you it was a morbid). So enter two noble men who decide to infiltrate the king's palace disguised as cooks and save one man each night from their horrific fate...

They learned how to prepare numerous dishes and were accepted as cooks in the king's kitchens. When the victims were dragged before the cooks, and the time came for their blood to be spilled, the two men looked at one another with eyes filled with tears and rage in the hearts. Unable to do more, they saved one of the two from slaughter, substituting the brains of a sheep, which they mixed with the brains of the man they killed. And so they were able to rescue one of each pair, to whom they said, "Hide yourself away in the plains and mountains, far from the towns." In this way they saved thirty victims a month, and when there were two hundred of them the cooks secretly gave them goats and sheep, and showed them a deserted area where they could live. The Kurds, who never settle in towns, are descended from these men.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Don't Get Too Comfortable, Final

by David Rakoff
Broadway Books

The subtitle to David Rakoff’s new collection of essays Don’t Get Too Comfortable is a long one: The Indignities of Coach Class, the Torments of Low Thread Count, the Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems. I think, however, it would have been more apt if he’d called it ...and Other First World Absurdities, which is really the over-arching point of these essays: to spot-light how the privileged of the privileged first-world residents spend their time and money when they don’t have to concern themselves with where their next meal is coming from or with the genocidal war next door. Do they spend it on feeding the hungry, on clothing the poor, or on saving rainforests? Ha, ha - get real. They aren’t adopting third-world children (Madonna and Angelina Jolie notwithstanding); they’re not making documentary movies on the dangers of global warming (Al Gore not included).

In Rakoff’s world - in our world, really - if the privileged of the privileged are making movies it’s soft-core porn with hot Latino women. If they’re flying overseas it’s to attend an exhibition of the couture collections in Paris. If they’re having existential considerations on life after death, it’s to work out the logistics of how they’ll survive after having their cryogenically frozen bodies resurrected. But is any of this news really? Even the least informed of us know that our privileged first-world culture has the tendency to drift toward the self-absorbed and the vapid. So what's the point of these essays, which tell us things we already know? In many ways, it’s easy to get the feeling that Rakoff is only preaching to choir.

But part of the pleasure I think in reading Rakoff’s essays is his ability to make the reader seem as if she’s inside the joke, not a part of it. It’s the feeling of feeling superior without really being superior. He invites you laugh at those nutty folk who pay $36 a kilo for sea salt harvested in France and $300 for the formula to a two-week long fast. Ha, ha - oh, you crazy first-worlders, you. But before we get too comfortable (or begin to feel uncomfortable) with our self-satisfied superiority, the thing that keeps this collection from being a nasty behind-the-back snicker at the Richers is that, by the collection’s conclusion, the reader discovers that he hasn’t been laughing at them after all - he’s been laughing at himself. The joke isn’t on them, it’s on you. The clue is on the cover: Don’t get too comfortable.

In a perfect microcosm of the effect of Don’t Get Too Comfortable, Rakoff imagines “an impoverished seamstress, her fingers bloody from hours of painstaking needlework...being dressed down by an outraged couturier" in the beginning of the essay “I Can’t Get it For You Wholesale”:

“I asked for camellias. These are not camellias,” he says, ripping out the stitches. “Do it again.” He flings the garment at her, an errant bugle bead catching her right in the eye. She weeps softly. The designer’s teacup poodle, Salo Meneo, yaps agitatedly throughout.

Later, as Rakoff roams his hotel room in Paris he writes:
I have a sitting room with a tasseled damask sofa, a passageway with walnut-doored closets leading to a bedroom, and beyond that a bathroom with a claw-footed tub. I count no fewer than three vases of roses...Looking out to the central courtyard filled with statues, I realize that I have crossed the Parliament floor. I used to identify with the downtrodden seamstress in that story I told myself, but I have now thoroughly joined the ranks of the imperious monstrocracy.

Rakoff’s witty insight into not only the “culture of excess” but also into his own heart and mind makes this slim volume a funny and informative read. It’s not hard to find a great laugh-out-loud sentence followed by the deepest insight into the human heart. If Rakoff’s collection is the seat of being uncomfortable, I’ll sit in it any day.

My previous post on this book can be found here.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Roses? What Roses?

Four months ago, on January 12, 2007 Joshua Bell, a world-renowned virtuoso agreed to pretend to be a street musician and play for one hour outside a Washington, D.C. metro station. It was a sociological test of sorts to see how many people busily on their way to work would recognize the beauty and art coming from a violinist whose concerts can cost over $100 to attend. This article in last week's Washington Post is an illuminating contemplation of art and beauty’s place in our lives. This isn’t exactly an article on books or on reading but it is on our ability to appreciate art - even of the written word - in the fast-paced, stressed-out, modern lives we lead today. I found this passage to be of particular interest:

A couple of minutes into it, something revealing happens. A woman and her preschooler emerge from the escalator. The woman is walking briskly and, therefore, so is the child. She's got his hand.

"I had a time crunch," recalls Sheron Parker, an IT director for a federal agency. "I had an 8:30 training class, and first I had to rush Evvie off to his teacher, then rush back to work, then to the training facility in the basement."

Evvie is her son, Evan. Evan is 3.

You can see Evan clearly on the video. He's the cute black kid in the parka who keeps twisting around to look at Joshua Bell, as he is being propelled toward the door.

"There was a musician," Parker says, "and my son was intrigued. He wanted to pull over and listen, but I was rushed for time."

So Parker does what she has to do. She deftly moves her body between Evan's and Bell's, cutting off her son's line of sight. As they exit the arcade, Evan can still be seen craning to look. When Parker is told what she walked out on, she laughs.

"Evan is very smart!"

The poet Billy Collins once laughingly observed that all babies are born with a knowledge of poetry, because the lub-dub of the mother's heart is in iambic meter. Then, Collins said, life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us. It may be true with music, too.

There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.

PostNote: Many thanks to the folks over at bookninja for bringing this to my attention. I live in Washington, D.C. and I had no idea. How's that for oblivious? And God knows with all of the ugliness in the world today - what with last week's Imus tornado and yesterday's killing on Virginia Tech's campus - I need all the beauty I can get.

The Reading Roller-Coaster

Well, I guess I should do my part in spreading the word: The Litblog Co-op has announced its Read This! Spring 2007 pick - Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead: Stories by Alan DeNiro. Since I’ve just discovered this apparently popular, well-known litblog today, I’m also adding their Read This! selections from last year: Michael Martone by Michael Martone, Firmin by Sam Savage, and Wizard of the Crow by Ngugl wa Thiong’o. Added to that I still have to buy The Shakespeare Riots by Nigel Cliff (released today - yeah!). Not to mention I’ve already begun dipping into The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson, which I picked up yesterday during a quickie bookstore stop on my way from the post office. Yes, I know I promised to spend my next $20 on The Shakespeare Riots but how could I pass up a book about an atheist minister who’s life is saved by none other than the Devil? It was a no-brainer, really.

I’ve realized just now that the reading life - much like life itself, I suppose - is full of ups and downs. Only two weeks ago, I was complaining that I couldn’t find anything worth reading in the bookstore. That isn’t to say there wasn’t anything there - because surely there was - but I spent a disappointing afternoon browsing Border’s shelves and, after a fruitless search, left with nothing. I hate leaving the bookstore empty-handed. I makes me feel as if I’ve failed somehow and puts me in a terrible mood.

Then last week, I stopped in an independent bookstore (in the airport of all places) and suddenly the sun came out again. I picked up three gems: Shahnameh by Ferdowsi, The Final Solution by Michael Chabon, and The Italian Secretary by Celeb Carr. When I returned home, there was a copy of Andy Mandelbuam’s translation of The Aenied waiting for me in my mailbox, which has been on my coveted-book list for many years now. And now, I’ve come across the Litblog Co-op Read This! list. (Contented sigh) What can I say? I’m thinking I need a second job. Suddenly, the reading life is good again. At least, it will be until I begin wondering when I’m going to find the time to read all these books...

Monday, April 16, 2007


I know I promised last month to move away from my obsession with Shakespeare and I figured that my completion of Will in the World would go a long way toward accomplishing that feat. But Philip Lopate’s LA Times review of The Shakespeare Riots by Nigel Cliff makes keeping that promise very hard indeed. The premise of Cliff’s The Shakespeare Riots:

One evening in May 1849, hundreds of stone-throwing rioters clashed with New York City police and state militiamen outside the Astor Place Opera House, leaving more than 20 people dead and scores wounded...Clashing fans of two Shakespearean actors, the American Edwin Forrest and the Englishman William Charles Macready, became so overwrought that they put their bodies on the line for their thespian idols.

If the riot itself isn’t intriguing enough, Cliff explores the underlaying tensions which sparked the riots. Lopate writes:
...we are given separate chapters on the hazards facing English troupes that toured America in the early 19th century, the reputation of actors as unsavory and licentious (sometimes quite justified), the literary accounts of English travelers who profited by insulting America as an uncouth wasteland, and the mounting ill will between England and her former colony. There were tensions over the Northwest Territories' boundary ("Fifty-four Forty or Fight!"), repudiation (the refusal of Pennsylvania and other states to pay their debts to English banks), the Mexican-American War and America's clinging to slavery long after England abolished it. These excursions into social and political history, crammed with entertaining nuggets, are still only the backdrop for the heart of the matter: a thwarted friendship between Forrest and Macready involving America's favorite playwright, William Shakespeare.

The Shakespeare Riots is set to be released tomorrow. I know where my next $20 on books is going.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Hard Way, Final

by Lee Child
Delacorte Press / May 2006

Jack. For such a simple name, it seems to invoke a sense of power, of purpose, and somehow, of heroism. It’s the name of one of the most popular action heroes on television today - 24’s Jack Bauer. And it’s the name of the hero in Lee Child’s consistently impressive action thriller series – Jack Reacher. What is in a name exactly? As it turns out, these two heroes seem to have much more in common than a name. They certainly share a sense of ruthlessness. There are whole websites dedicated to the body count Jack Bauer rakes up in a single episode of 24. And towards the end of The Hard Way, the most recent installment of the series – although a new installment Bad Luck and Trouble is slated to be released in May – Child writes,

…the remorse gene was missing from his DNA. Entirely…Where some men might have retrospectively agonized over justification, he spent his energy figuring out where best to hide the bodies.

And they both have an old-fashioned sense of honor in that women, children, and all other vulnerable subjects must be protected and defended at all costs (unless of course, they’re trying to kill them) and they never give their word unless they intend to keep it. They both, too, hold to a very simplistic view of right and wrong; good and evil. Neither of them have any qualms about cold-bloodedly killing – or, in the case of Bauer, torturing – the bad guys because nothing they do is wrong if it’s done for the cause of what’s right. When an ex-FBI agent expresses doubts about taking out the bad guy, Reacher explains, “We splattered a thousand bugs on our windshield yesterday. A thousand more today. One extra won’t make any difference.” For them, the end always justify the means.

But Jack Bauer is very much a man of his time. He is, as many people enjoy pointing out, a post-9/11 hero equipped with the kind of fictional high-tech computers and programs Homeland Security only wishes they had. In this morally fuzzy world of “War on Terrorism” Jack Bauer is the “whatever it takes” kind of hero who, if he’d existed, surely would have prevented the day which instigated his birth, or so the creators of 24 would have you believe. The truth of the matter is that without 9/11, Bauer wouldn’t exist. There would be no context in which for us to understand, whether we cheer them or not, Bauer’s tactics.

Jack Reacher’s appeal on the other hand is that he’s a man outside of time – or past his time – living as a nomad loner on the outskirts of society. He’s so out of touch that it’s news to him that cells phones have developed text messaging. At another point Child informs us:
Silent phones made Reacher nervous. He came from a world where a sudden dive for a pocket was more likely to mean a gun than a phone. Every time it happened he had to endure a little burst of unrequited adrenaline.

Though it’s safe to assume that Bauer and Reacher are both very likely in their early 40s, Reacher somehow seems older than Bauer. Reacher’s old school. He isn’t chasing nuclear bombs with semi-automatics and saving whole cities with the help of the super counter-terrorism unit CTU. He’s so old school, he doesn’t need a watch to tell the time within a minute and instead using computers to break open his newest puzzle, he uses plain old brain-power – the kind that keeps him up at night and haunts him during his morning coffee.

Reacher isn’t interested in saving the world, he’s merely interested in righting wrongs wherever he sees them. He defends battered women, kidnapped children, and guiltily accused men. If Bauer’s the kind of hero you wish could save the world, then Reacher’s the kind of hero you’d want to save your life.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Shahnameh, pt. 1

A few weeks ago, I caught some flack from a friend because, despite its admittedly many problems, I liked the movie “300.” It was, to my friend’s thinking and not without some justification, a racist depiction of not just the Persians (i.e. the modern-day Iranians) but of anyone who didn’t claim white Western descent. But where he saw racism I saw the dramatic depiction (alright, an annoying slow-motion, video game, bronze-tinted, senselessly brutal depiction with absurd dialogue - sure) of Herodotus’ account of my most favorite battle of antiquity, The Battle of Thermopylae. How do I recreate the shivers that crawled up my spine when I read, as an intrigued new college student, that when a Spartan hero, one of those incredibly and impossibly built killing machines, is informed that the Persian arrows were so many that they blotted out the sun, he replies, “Then we shall fight in the shade.”? No, it isn’t just a corny one-liner they put in the trailer. According to Herodotus at least, he really did say that.

But therein lies a problem: the only accounts of the Persian Wars are from Western sources. And for all of the things at fault with “300", being true to its sources - mostly - isn’t one of them. If the Persians seem both incredibly effeminate and vile at the same time, it’s because, according to the Greeks, they were. If the Greek warriors, despite their own atrocity, are made out to be heroic freedom fighters it’s because, according the Greeks, they were. For whatever reason, the Persians didn’t see any need to record their own account of the Persian Wars and, if they did, we’ve lost it to the oblivion of time.

Biased and one-sided though it is, I still love Herodotus’ Histories and I still love the Battle of Thermopylae. It’ll take more than an overdone Hollywood movie to change that. But I’ve felt the need to even my knowledge of epic histories out a bit per se, which is why I bought Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings by Abolqase Ferdowsi, newly translated by Dick Davis. And Shahnameh is an epic which covers the history of Persia, from the beginning of time to the coming of Islam. However, Shahnameh is a history in the way that The Iliad is a history. It is based on some historical fact but, like all those other tricksy poets like Homer, Ferdowsi takes some creative liberty.

As a result, either because of Ferdowsi’s story telling or because of Davis’ translation, Shahnameh so far reads like the bastard child of the Bible and the Lord of the a good way. Compare this early passage:

The just and prudent Hushang was now master of the world, and he set the crown on his head and ruled in his grandfather’s place. He reigned for forty years, and his mind was filled with wisdom, his heart with justice...Mindful of God’s will, he set about establishing justice. He helped the world flourish, and filled the face of the earth with his just rule.

...with this passage that immediately precedes it:

He gathered together fairies, leopards and lions, savage wolves and fearless tigers, birds and domestic animals, and this army was led by the intrepid young prince...the black demon came fearlessly forward, and the dust of his forces rose into heavens, but the king’s fury and the wild animals’ magnificence rendered the demons’ claws harmless. When the two groups met, the demons were defeated by the animals; like a lion, Hushang caught the black demon in his grip, cleaving his body in two and severing his monstrous head. He laid him low in the dust and flayed his wretched body of its skin.

I haven’t even put a dent in this massive tome but over the course of what will be - yes, I admit it - months, I look forward to trying.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Who Says Librarians Lead Boring Lives?

The online diary of Saad Eskander, Director of the Iraq National Library and Archive (INLA), is a moving daily account of Saad's life as a librarian struggling to replenish the library's looted collection in the middle of an unstable war zone. I was particularly struck by this succinct but very telling entry:

Saturday, 10 March: Three bombs exploded in my neighborhood. Two bombs went off at 7.30. They violently shook my flat, as I was watching some TV programme. At 13.20, another bomb exploded in my neighborhood. It shook my flat. I spent the whole day writing and reading in my room.

On March 5, Saad offers this heartbreaking entry on the bombing that took place last month in Bagdhad's outdoor book market:

As we were talking, a huge explosion shook the INLA's building around 11.35. We, the three of us, ran to the nearest window, and we saw a big and thick grey smoke rising from the direction of al-Mutanabi Street, which is less than 500 meter away from the INLA. I learnt later that the explosion was a result of a car bomb attack. Tens of thousands of papers were flying high, as if the sky was raining books, tears and blood. The view was surreal. Some of the papers were burning in the sky. Many burning pieces of papers fell on the INLA's building. Al-Mutanabi Street is named after one of the greatest Arab poets, who lived in Iraq in the middle ages. The Street is one of well-known areas of Baghdad and where many publishing houses, printing companies and bookstores have their main offices and storages. Its old cafes are the most favorite place for the impoverished intellectuals, who get their inspirations and ideas form this very old quarter of Baghdad. The Street is also famous for its Friday's book market, where secondhand, new and rear books are sold and purchased.... It was extremely sad to learn that a number of the publishers and book sellers, whom we knew very well, were among the dead...This day will be always remembered, as the day when books were assassinated by the forces of darkness, hatred and fanaticism.

What Does Make a Bookstore?

A very old post on bookstores, "What Makes a Bookstore?", at The Millions (A Blog About Books) got me to thinking about my own experience at the bookstore a few days ago.

When it comes to hanging out, it's hard to beat the chains. Your nearest Barnes and Noble probably has dozens of plush chairs and couches where you can sit for as long as you want. The stores are vast wide open spaces with a controlled climate and a bit of piped in music wafting just overhead. The shopper can make a day of it, grabbing a snack and a coffee from the cafe and lounging through the uncrowded weekday afternoon...likewise if you need to pick up a specific title, but don't expect to walk away with anything unexpected from these forays. Don't plan for a literary discovery.

I’m a very frequent shopper at Borders. There are at least three on my way home and, as a Borders preferred member, I enjoy saving 10 and 20 percent when I can. In addition to that, I can usually find what I’m looking for in less than five minutes, even in the smallest Borders and I like making an afternoon of it, lounging in the “plush chairs” and the “wide open spaces.” Theoretically, I could do this at the library but the libraries in D.C. are so unesthetically depressing that I try to grab what I need and get out as soon as possible. A few days ago though, I went into Borders with no particular book in mind, looking to be pleasantly surprised I suppose, and found only...more of the same. All of the prominently displayed titles were books I’d seen on bestseller list after bestseller list for last two years and I thought, “Is this all the book world has to offer right now?”

I left soon after, empty-handed and disappointed, which is my own fault really. I should have known better than to expect to be pleasantly surprised at Borders. Needless to say, my recent experience and The Millions old post have reminded me as to the error of my ways. It’s not on my way home, but I don’t care; I’m going out of my way tonight to make a beeline to the nearest indie bookstore, the amazing Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe. I can hardly wait. And I'm pledging here and now that from here on out I will do all of my one-stop book shopping at independent bookstores, whenever and wherever possible. It's time I started doing my part in keeping the dying breed of independent bookstores alive.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Lethem on Writing, Reading, and Other Things...

The only thing I’ve ever read by Jonathan Lethem was the introduction he wrote to The Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick. Despite the critical praise Lethem has received for both Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn I, for some reason, can never bring myself to buy his books. Most times, I'll go into the bookstore with every intention of finally buying a Lethem novel, but usually, after a quick perusal of the blurb on the back, I’ll put it back down with promises that I'll buy it later. The interview he recently gave to the AV Club (the surprisingly serious-minded entertainment supplement to The Onion), has me wondering if I should try again...maybe. On reading, Lethem says:

... The Fortress Of Solitude might be an exception in this, but for me, when I was a reader only, I was a very fast, voracious one. I would skeletonize the books that I read, and the things I skipped are the things I now skip as a writer. I wasn't really very patient with long evocations of clouds and trees and buildings and landscape, nor did I pause over elaborate descriptions of the facial characteristics or clothing styles of the characters. I always wanted to know what they were doing and saying. And also what the mysterious big idea of the book was, what the metaphors were. So I would rush to those things, and I would be very cursory as I read the descriptive stuff.

Now, there’s something you don’t hear writers admitting to everyday. I can’t admit to not skipping certain, overlong descriptions myself but I’d also venture to say that sometimes “facial characteristics or clothing styles” could be a writer’s hint to the “mysterious big idea.” Sometimes, it could be dangerous to skip those things the author has worked so hard to include. Lethem and I, however, are in perfect sync with this:

The other thing is that, I think, sometimes visualization in writing works by a kind of homeopathic process. The less you offer, the more readers are forced to bring the world to life with their own visual imaginings. I personally hate an illustration of a character on a jacket of a book. I never want to have someone show me what the character really looks like—or what some artist has decided the character really looks like—because it always looks wrong to me. I realize that I prefer to kind of meet the text halfway and offer a lot of visual collaborations from my own imaginative response to the sentences. And so I think that I invite the reader to do the same thing.

And this quote, an extension of an article he published in Harper’s magazine last month, is interesting commentary on the artist’s place (or birth) in the larger culture:

The image of the artist is sustained by this great myth of iconoclastic individual genius. A lot of great stuff is made up by individual iconoclastic geniuses, and that's fine, but a lot of other stuff comes burbling out of collective culture. That gets invented one way and then used an entirely different way, and different people work on it, and you end up with this sort of puzzle.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

On Food...and Drink

Adam Gopnik writes in next week's issue of the New Yorker:

There are four kinds of food in books: food that is served by an author to characters who are not expected to taste it; food that is served by an author to characters in order to show who they are; food an author cooks for characters in order to eat it with them; and, last (and most recent), food that an author cooks for characters but actually serves to the reader.

I can't remember the last time I read about food in a novel, which may be because the food was often just "Styrofoam peanuts in the packaging" of the novel's narrative. I can, however, recall the first sentence of a novel I've just started:

Jack Reacher ordered espresso, double, no peel, no cube, foam cup, no china, and before it arrived at his table he saw a man's life change forever.

I know Gopnik's talking about food not drink, but I think it's a prime example of a description that falls into the second category. Nothing could describe Jack Reacher, the loner, bare-minimum hero of Lee Child's thriller The Hard Way, better than that order of espresso.

Monday, April 02, 2007

More Scary News On Newspaper Book Reviews...

The folks at the blog Critical Mass report:

As reported on CNN and other places, the Tribune Company will be sold to Chicago real estate tycoon Sam Zell in a deal for $13 billion. This will make the company which owns the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, Newsday, the Hartford Courant and other newspapers (not to mention the Cubs and other radio and television stations) a private company, and less beholden to stock price above all else. In other words, the deal could be good news for book sections, especially if they can be seen as integral to building a bridge between newspapers' past and their future.

Which is good news, especially considering the news posted at the Literary Saloon last week:

As has long been feared and now widely reported on, The Los Angeles Times is doing away with its stand-alone Sunday book review section, 'merging' it with the opinion section, beginning on 14 April...(Yes, the press release says 14 April, which is a Saturday, and early reports suggested it would be a Saturday-section, but they do also write that it would be: "a combined Sunday section". We'll see.)

The future of newspaper book review sections seems precarious indeed. Is it possible that ten years from now the only major newspaper that may still be running a book review section is the NY Times? As much as I value the reviews in the NY Times, I sincerely hope not.

Double David

by David Rakoff
pgs. 1-67

Unfairly or not, reading David Rakoff inevitably engenders comparisons with his namae frater David Sedaris, the superstar memoirist of the hilarious and critically-acclaimed compilations Naked, Me Talk Pretty One Day, and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. The two Davids are both witty gay men in their late 30s (early 40s?), whose sharp eye, self-deprecating humor, and ease with a pen makes most of their selections both informative and humorous reads. However - and this is where the comparisons really begin - Rakoff, simply put, just isn’t as funny as Sedaris. Nor has he quite yet developed Sedaris’ skill at using his comical set pieces to transcend their often zanny and (sometimes) toilet humor to something that comments on the larger human experience. But here’s what: it seems that with Don’t Get Too Comfortable (subtitled: The Indignities of Coach Class, the Torments of Low Thread Count, the Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems), Rakoff has finally discovered that he doesn’t have to be. With this thus far engaging compilation of both new and previously published essays, Rakoff has eschewed riding the coattails of Me Talk Pretty One Day - a tendency so evident and poorly-executed in Fraud that I couldn’t finish it - and decided that a bit of investigative journalism intersped with occasional bouts of humor and personal, biting commentary is more his style. It’s a fine choice and a perfect fit.

In “Sesion Privada” Rakoff joins a couple of photographers, cameramen, their crew and three Playboy centerfolds on the paradise island Caya Espanto where they will film a Latin American Playboy television program. One would expect that a gay man on a Playboy soft-core shoot would be the perfect recipe for nothing but one-two knock-out punches of humor. But Rakoff seems to have discovered the art of subtle satire. Of the shoot, Rakoff writes:

The crew confers about her moves. The video-camera man demonstrates what they want. Sinking to his knees, he twists his torso and drags his open palms slowly up his chest to his head where they rub slow circles through a hypothetical jungle of tousled hair...Perhaps this is just the nature of soft-core, but the girls’ hands are kept so primly far away from their genitals that all of their crypto-masturbatory back arching and moaning for no apparent reason starts to look a little mentally unbalanced, frankly.

The joke is there; it’s just a whole lot quieter than what you would have found in Fraud. It’s not a knock-out punch to the face so much as it’s an unexpected soft blow to the back of the head. And, like I said, it’s educational too. In “Wildman” Rakoff informs readers: were once thought to have no purpose greater than pleasing the human eye. It wasn’t until experiments in pollination during the Renaissance that people realized to their puritanical horror that even the loveliest of blooms were nothing more than sex organs. In Catholic Europe, people burned Carl Linnaeus’s books as corrupting filth. (To give them their due...they kind of had a point: Linneaus was a bit of a sexual obsessive, vaginally fixated, pushing his penchant so far as to name an entire genus of plants Clitoria.)

I don’t know about you, but my first order of business after reading that passage was to immediately drop what I was doing and see if Lenneaus’ genus name stuck. I’ll save you the trouble...It did.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Best American Travel Writing 2006 (Final)

There are plenty of reasons why people travel: vacation, exploration, and/or illumination to name a few. I myself, travel frequently for business, which is merely a convenient excuse for me to hop on a plane every two weeks to land in a city unseen by my eyes. But I have never before heard my desire to see what could previously only be explored through words or through pictures put as poetically and as succinctly as Kira Salak puts it in her piece “Rediscovering Libya”: “to see what cannot be imagined, to be taken into my dreams.” That, when it’s all said and done, is the reason why I travel and it is also why I find pleasure with no end in reading The Best American Travel Writing 2006.

So often, I find, people mistake travel writing for something similar to what you might find in a Lonely Planet guide (a book I never leave the house without when I travel). However, for those of you who might be tempted to ask me if I’ve discovered any hot new vacation spots while reading TBA Travel Writing, I’ll say that travel writing isn’t for those looking for the best restaurant in Tokyo in which to eat, or the hippest club in Amsterdam in which to pick up a hot foreign date. The best travel writing is a highly personal experience, more memoir-ish in its execution, and is written to illuminate something about the author, the place, its culture, or its people. The very best travel writing somehow manages to do all three.

Several of the stand-out pieces are of the journey taken in the literal sense, which eventually comes to stand for the one so often used as a metaphor to mean spiritual or revelatory progress. In one of the more heartbreaking pieces of the collection, Michael Paterniti in “XXXXL” travels to the Ukraine to visit the giant Leonid Stadnik, a man of extraordinary proportions, to escape his own unsettled discomfort with his growing feelings of normalcy. He writes, “I had two great kids and a pregnant wife whom I loved, but a part of me – my old self or soul or me-ness had been subsumed by fatherhood. I’d let it happen, of course, but there were still moments when I found myself going a bit haywire.” So, with the blessing of his wife, Paterniti goes to the Ukraine to visit a man tortured by his own uniqueness: “’In my life, I’ve done my best to become a normal person…to reach something. But because of my unusual body, I will never have a family or wealth or a future. I’m telling you, I’ve done my best. Everything that depended on me I’ve done…God punishes the ones he loves most.’”

But things aren’t all spiritually uplifting and morally illuminating in the world of TBA Travel Writing. Some are of dangerous exploration, as in Mark Jenkins’ “A Short Walk in the Wakhan Corridor”:

I’m surrounded by rocks painted blood red. I know what this means – it’s the first thing you learn upon arriving in Afghanistan: land mines…I am twenty feet into the minefield. Very carefully, step backward. I place one foot precisely in its own footprint…Delicately, imagining myself as weightless as the ghost I could become, I retrace my steps.

Others, like David Sedaris’ “Turbulence”, are - like all Sedaris pieces - hilariously irreverent. In “Turbulence” Sedaris has the misfortune of sitting next to a most unpleasant woman. This wouldn’t normally be an unusual problem for anyone who’s ever flown if it weren’t for this opening sentence: “On the flight to Raleigh, I sneezed, and the cough drop I’d been sucking on shot from my mouth, ricocheted off my folded tray table, and landed in the lap of the woman beside me, who was asleep and had her arms folded across her chest.” What follows is a classic David Sedaris piece with its classic self-deprecation even when, technically, he’s in the right. I mean, really, what sort of woman gets so angry just because a stranger doesn’t want to switch seats with her husband? If you ask me she’s the one who’s eight-lettered crossword clue might read, “Above the shoulders, [s]he’s nothing but crap.”

Despite the fact that it took me an enormously long time to finish this collection (nearly four months, sad, I know), TBA Travel Writing 2006 is excellent reading nonetheless. It’s exciting, it’s sad, it’s educational, and sometimes it’s scary. And if you’re going anywhere worth going, it’s essentially travel.