Tuesday, December 30, 2008

James Buckley, Jr., Perfect: The Inside Story of Baseball's Seventeen Perfect Games

It is remarkable that throughout baseball's long history, there have only been seventeen "perfect games" thrown. For those unfamiliar with the term, a perfect game is when 27 batters are retired (by the same pitcher) without having gotten safely on base. Not to be confused with a no-hitter, wherein a batter can get walked, a "perfecto" is a rarity that Buckley celebrates with statistics, anecdotes, interviews, and an obvious love for the game of baseball!

Each chapter is devoted to one of the perfect games, moving chronologically from J. Lee Richmond's performance in 1880 (back when the sport was still called "base ball" and the term perfect game hadn't even been invented yet) to Randy Johnson's 2004 outing for the Arizona Diamondbacks (where, at the age of 40, the Big Unit became the oldest pitcher to ever throw a perfecto). The author captures memorable moments, like Don Larsen's perfect game for the Yankees in 1956 (which initiated the iconic image of the catcher jumping into the arms of the pitcher, thanks to Yogi Berra) and Sandy Koufax's perfect game on September 9, 1965 (a then-record fourth no-hitter for the man). However, Buckley's true passion for the game shines through as he highlights the contributions of each pitcher's teammates toward achieving each perfect game -- the unsung heroes backing up the pitcher. And although the book is filled with those wacky little stats that all lovers of baseball enjoy throwing around over beer and pretzels, it never distracts from the compelling story behind each game.

Written in a conversational, leisurely tone that complements the storytelling nature of the subject, yet filled with tons of stats, research, and interviews to give the reader to good feel for the era of each game, Perfect is an excellent book for you baseball fans out there. Enjoy!

Friday, December 19, 2008

"More? What the Dickens are you talking about?"
Thu Dec 18, 2008 2:03pm EST

LONDON (Reuters) - Oliver Twist wouldn't have needed any more gruel in real life, scientists said Thursday.

The picture painted by Charles Dickens of starvation rations in an 1830s workhouse north of London is wide of mark, according to an analysis of menus and other historical evidence.

Dickens' eponymous hero famously asked for more of the "thin gruel" doled out three times daily in the grim institution for the poor where he grew up.

In fact, contemporary recipes suggest such workhouse gruel was substantial, with each pint containing 1.25 ounces of best oatmeal, and servings supplemented by wholesome coarse bread.

Historical data also shows large quantities of beef and mutton were delivered to workhouses, pediatric dietician Sue Thornton of Northampton General Hospital in central England and colleagues wrote in the British Medical Journal.

Such a diet, comprising three pints of gruel a day, would sustain growth in a nine-year-old child like Oliver, unless he was exceptionally active.

"Given the limited number of food staples used, the workhouse diet was certainly dreary, but it was adequate," they concluded.



By the way, today is the anniversary of the 1843 publication of A Christmas Carol.


Friday, December 12, 2008

David Eddings, Pawn of Prophecy

I have a colleague who, several years ago, recommended Eddings's Belgariad series to me. Pawn of Prophecy is Book One in that series.

Truth be told, I wasn't terribly impressed with this. Now, maybe I'm just not in the mood right now for reading fantasy -- a tough pill for me to swallow as it is -- but I found this book extremely difficult to get into. There were several aspects of this book that easily reminded me of Tolkien, and the whole time I was reading this I found myself wondering how it is that certain elements and motifs in Tolkien have simply become part of the fantasy style: names that harken to Anglo-Saxonry, like "Garion" and "Aldur" and "Torak"; mystical settings that seem elemental (fire, air, water, and rock); social structures that are based on monarchy; the traditional "quest" narrative structure, etc. Not that I have any problem with it, but it seems that in the forty-five years spanning Tolkien's and Eddings's respective works, not much has really changed in the genre. Am I right?

Again, I'm not a big fan of fantasy ... so I am just likely not "getting" it. But as far as I'm concerned, the fantasy genre begins and ends with Tolkien, and the rest are just wannabes.

Someone out there please prove me wrong! Show me what I'm missing.

In the meantime, I wouldn't waste time reading Pawn of Prophecy when I can re-read The Return of the King ...

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Oliver Goldsmith, The Vicar of Wakefield

Having spent the last four years reading Dickens novels, criticism, and scholarship, I find myself somewhat fascinated by the books that would have made up young Dickens's readings prior to his going into that blacking factory at the age of twelve. As a young boy of gifted intelligence, Charles Dickens was exposed to a number of works popular at the time -- Henry Fielding's The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling; Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe; Tobias Smollett's The Adventures of Roderick Random; and Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield -- and I would like to read (and see) just what influence it had on Dickens's writing.

Tonight, I just finished Wakefield.

Written from the POV of the titular vicar, the novel is actually pretty funny in its depiction of a henpecked husband and harried father as he weathers the storms of existence. If there is a Dickens connection to be made here, the most obvious one is not only the tone of the comedy but also the picaresque hardships suffered by the Job-like Dr. Primrose, the vicar.

But while the first half of the novel seems to showcase the amiability of the vicar despite his personal and professional calamities, the second half of the novel presents a Swiftian tone to the satire. It's an interesting development in the course of a relatively short book (my Oxford World's Classics edition is only about 165 pgs.), and what Dickens accomplishes in tonal development over the course of sixteen novels, Goldsmith conveys in less than 170 pages.

The Vicar of Wakefield is a quick, painless read ... and it gives you a glimpse of the some of Dickens's most cherished stylistic devices.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass

In my efforts this past week to catch-up on posting the books I've read since this summer, here's another one I read back in September for my Book Group.

I've always been more of a fan of sci-fi than fantasy, although I recall reading fantasy fiction earlier than I started reading sci-fi. Maybe it was the silliness of the old Conan the Barbarian books I was reading when I was twelve, or maybe it was the sci-fi aspects of the original Star Wars trilogy in the late '70s/early '80s, or maybe it was the simple fact that Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is a hard act to follow and remains THE gold standard by which all fantasy must be judged -- whatever the reason, I've always had more of an attraction to science fiction than fantasy.

So when I finally got around to reading Book I of Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, it was so refreshing to finally be in the presence of a fantasy world that can rival Middle Earth or the Galactic Empire! With brilliant pacing and compelling characters, not the least of which is the mysterious Lord Asriel, Pullman creates a struggle between Good/Evil that is as familiar as it is fantastical, and therein lies the attraction with fantasy fiction (at least for me): Tolkien's background in languages and medieval literature helped him fashion a world wherein we can hear echoes of Beowulf, King Arthur, Dante Alighieri, Macbeth, and even The Faerie Queen. I won't call it a "parallel universe," but "good" fantasy establishes resonance between the world of fantasy and our world, most often through echoes of our world's mythology. Tolkien does this. C.S. Lewis does this in his Narnia. And Pullman taps into that quality effectively with his Gobblers, scholars, daemons, and Dust. Regardless of whether one wants to argue the Christianity or atheism of his message (an argument that I find tiresome here), Lyra's world has just enough of a resemblance to ours to make this an excellent piece of fantasy writing.

Yet, I have not seen the film and have no intentions of doing so.

Enjoy the approaching holidays, dear reader!


Saturday, November 29, 2008

Dan Beachy-Quick, A Whaler's Dictionary

This is a pretty interesting book -- certainly if you're a fan of Moby-Dick, but especially if you want to see one reader's approach to exploring a single work of literature.

What Beachy-Quick creates here is less a "dictionary" proper and more an alphabetical listing and explanation of themes, major concepts, terms, and connections derived from having read closely the Melville novel for more than ten years. As he points out in "Apology," "I meant not to exhaust Moby-Dick of meaning, but to exhaust myself of of the meaning I found in it." Consequently, each chapter is a brief meditation on any number of significant aspects of the novel that helped inform his reading of the text, whether they be reflections on a theme ("Fear," "Hunger"), or an odd thread he follows throughout the novel ("Profit" vs. "Prophet"), or even the resonance of an allusion Ishmael drops but fails to develop ("Jawbone"). Reading A Whaler's Dictionary is like reading one reader's ongoing notebook reflections of a text, or watching that reader organize and reflect upon the marginal annotations s/he's made over multiple readings.

This book is a strangely compelling look at how a reader thinks about the text he is reading.

Read A Whaler's Dictionary because you enjoyed Moby-Dick, or read it because you want to see how a reader tries to make sense of a text's complexity. But do check it out!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone

I'm in the process of catching up on some of the things I read earlier this year but never got around to posting, and here's a work I read for my Book Group back in September.

The Moonstone holds the distinction of being "the first detective novel," but right there I have to qualify that distinction. While it may be the first detective novel, it is hardly the first detective story -- that title must go to any number of short stories by Edgar Allan Poe, most notably "The Purloined Letter." And while it may be the first detective novel, it is hardly the first novel to make use of what would soon become the crime-solving detective stock character -- that had been done almost two decades earlier with Inspector Bucket in Dickens's Bleak House. So while my qualification does little to diminish The Moonstone's status as "the first detective novel," it does place Collins's work within the larger context of his contemporaries.

At its center, The Moonstone is the story of the titular diamond's disappearance following the eighteenth-birthday celebration of Rachel Verinder, and the efforts to recover the stolen artifact, reconstruct the circumstances of the theft, and identify the culprit. Told through multiple points of view, the novel not only presents a fascinating study in problem solving, but established many of the basic tropes of detective fiction that continue to hold true even today. Although Collins was a contemporary of Dickens (and even published this novel serially in Dickens's All The Year Round), its style is much more accessable than that of Dickens.

I enjoyed The Moonstone, as I'm sure you will.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

This was a re-read for me, and the most recent selection for my Book Group.

The Screwtape Letters is a brilliantly subversive little book written in the old epistolary novel form. It consists of a series of letters written from a veteran demon, Screwtape, to his apprentice demon nephew, Wormwood, concerning advice on how best to subvert mankind. Throughout the letters you learn that Wormwood has a "patient" he must prompt daily toward sin, and Screwtape's advice reveals the nature of how and why we sin by giving us the demon's point-of-view: which human states of mind are most vulnerable to sinful thoughts, how best to stir within the human mind doubt in God (or, whom Screwtape calls "the Enemy"), and how to subtly nudge thought and behavior toward that which is most conducive to sin.

Lewis (as Christian a writer as they come, if you're familiar with his other works) makes the character of Screwtape profound, yet hilarious -- check out the conversational ways in which the uncle chides the nephew for faulty logic or poor writing. Most of the letters can be categorized, in one way or another, as comments on the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, the Seven Deadly Sins, and other such biblical lists of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. But what makes it enjoyable for me is the simple ring of truth to all he says, even when commenting on the little things in Life. For example, Screwtape offers the following observation to Wormwood:

"When two humans have lived together for many years, it usually happens that each has tones of voice and expressions of face which are almost unendurably irritating to the other. Work on that. Bring fully into the consciousness of your patient that particular lift of his mother's eyebrows which he learned to dislike in the nursery, and let him think how much he dislikes it. Let him assume that she knows how annoying it is and does it to annoy ... and, of course, never let him suspect that he has tones and looks which similarly annoy her."

(If you've been married for almost twenty years, you definitely see the truth in that.)

The Screwtape Letters is fun stuff. Enjoy!

And have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Philip K. Dick, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said

Diving into a Philip K. Dick novel is always a fun experience, especially when one has spent much of the year in foggy Victorian England. Dick's sci-fi universe is filled with paranoid protagonists, alternate realities, and government conspiracies galore!

It's 1988, and Jason Taverner is a celebrity TV entertainer who, after a near-fatal confrontation with a jilted protege, finds himself in a dingy apartment, alone. He has cash, he has clothes ... but he has no identity, and all attempts to make contact with anyone who might know him prove fruitless. Taverner's dystopian world is one of ubiquitous and omniscient police and forced-labor camps for those who cannot be identified, so all of his efforts center around locating someone, anyone who can help him regain (or achieve) identity, all the while with Police General Felix Buckman hot on his tail.

Aside from exploring such themes as the search for identity, the nature of celebrity, the measure and value of cognitive intelligence, the need for genetic enhancement, and even the legalities of certain acts we deem criminal, this novel has the distinction of being the subject of one of the later monologues in Richard Linklater's 2001 film Waking Life, where one of the novel's final chapters is paralleled to the Book of Acts from the New Testament (for those who are interested, here's the King James Version).

When I finish obligatory readings, I love to immerse myself in the universe of Philip K. Dick for some pure escapism. Flow My Tears does not disappoint! Check it out.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

New Thomas Pynchon Novel in 2009

Several weeks ago, there were some rumblings on the Pynchon-L list with rumors of a new novel by Thomas Pynchon, due out next year. According to author Steven Moore, who spoke to someone close to the Pynchon camp, "The rep told me it's around 400 pages, and is a kind of noir detective story set in the 1960s, with lots of psychedelia as background. How groovy is that!" That's all we know so far ... and the fact that it is due in August, 2009. That's great news, considering Against The Day just came out a few years ago! In the meantime, I've been sniffing around this website lately, which showcases images of first editions of Pynchon's works. I, too, gotta say: How groovy is that!

Here is what one blogger wrote today:

Publisher Penguin's catalog reveals details about the upcoming book by Thomas Pynchon. As previously reported, it will be a detective novel hitting shelves next summer; the news is the title, "Inherent Vice." And details about the plot:

It's been awhile since Doc Sportello has seen his ex-girlfriend. Suddenly out of nowhere she shows up with a story about a plot to kidnap a billionaire land developer whom she just happens to be in love with. Easy for her to say. It's the tail end of the psychedelic sixties in L.A., and Doc knows that "love" is another of those words going around at the moment, like "trip" or "groovy," except that this one usually leads to trouble. Despite which he soon finds himself drawn into a bizarre tangle of motives and passions whose cast of characters includes surfers, hustlers, dopers and rockers, a murderous loan shark, a tenor sax player working undercover, an ex-con with a swastika tattoo and a fondness for Ethel Merman, and a mysterious entity known as the Golden Fang, which may only be a tax dodge set up by some dentists.

In this lively yarn, Thomas Pynchon, working in an unaccustomed genre, provides a classic illustration of the principle that if you can remember the sixties, you weren't there . . . or . . . if you were there, then you . . . or, wait, is it . . .

You might say I'm a little too much of a fan of "The Crying of Lot 49"-- I got only puzzled stares when I showed up at a Halloween party dressed as Oedipa Mass. But when I hear Pynchon, psychedelic sixties and billionaire land developer, I can't help but think Pierce Inverarity. Could this world overlap with the world of "The Crying ofLot 49"? Or will it be a bizarre sixties Southern California of its own?

Thanks to tireless litblogger Scott Esposito for finding the Pynchonentry in the the PDF catalog.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope

Having watched all the presidential debates, heard all the sound bites, and seen the various and sundry interviews prior to his election win, I figured it's high time I read the writings of President-elect Barack Obama. I decided to begin with The Audacity of Hope, since it seems to be the most relevant to his immediate obligations once he takes office in January (his previous book, Dreams From My Father, appears more autobiographical in nature, with a focus on his formative years).

The Audacity of Hope is a series of reflections on a wide variety of subjects, from areas of politics to the concerns of race and faith to Obama's concluding notions of family. The book offers a snapshot of Obama's first years as a U.S. Senator while showcasing many of his positions on such topics as educational reform, foreign policy, gay rights, etc. But what makes this book such an enjoyable read -- aside from Obama's stylistic skill -- is the way in which he seasons each chapter with a liberal dose of personal anecdote. You witness him as a loving father and husband; you chuckle as he relates his campaign misadventures (some of the funniest sections recount his campaign vs. Alan Keyes); you marvel at his command of political history (especially that of Colonial-era America, not to mention the eras of Lincoln and Kennedy); and you admire his ability to present issues as volatile as abortion with balance and moderation. In the weeks leading up to the presidential election, Obama made a name for himself as a candidate who does not get easily rattled in difficult situations; reading this book, you recognize that this ability to remain calm and level-headed is genuinely part of his nature.

Although there were moments in this book when Obama seemed to get a bit didactic -- often times his diatribes on what "should" be done or what he "believes in" sounded like endless campaign rhetoric -- his overall message was clear, consistent, fair, and balanced. Barack Obama writes the way he speaks ... with confidence, with optimism, with clarity of vision.

A good read that I highly recommend!


Truth be told, it feels like a long time since I've posted anything here, even though I've been reading constantly since the start of the school year. Much of my time has been spent re-reading things for school -- The Crucible, The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, Macbeth, Hamlet, and various YA novels, not to mention Our Mutual Friend and The Mystery of Edwin Drood for my fall Newberry seminar -- but as the holidays approach I hope to be able to catch you up here on other things I've read ... for FUN no less! LOL


Sunday, September 07, 2008

Ben Hervey, Night of the Living Dead (BFI Film Classics Series)

Like most of us, I remember being a kid and seeing George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) for the first time on a black-and-white TV set around Halloween in the early Seventies. The film's realism was unnerving, and the scenes of cannibalism and gore -- not to mention the shock of the ending -- left me wary of strangers (were they zombies?) for a long time.

Here's a little volume that does justice to this cult classic. While many people are quick to dismiss Night of the Living Dead as anything from an early "gore film" to a poorly made low-budget horror flick, Hervey places the film expertly within its historical context to illustrate how the casting (an African-American "hero"), the setting (with its basement's echoes of the "fallout shelter" of the 1950s), and the images and sound effects all had resonance with an audience that had been watching footage of Vietnam war carnage on their television sets. Even the timing of the film's release (shortly after the assassinations of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and during a two-year window between the abolishment of the Motion Picture Production Code and the institution of the MPAA ratings system) added to its appeal to a young, radical audience!

Hervey also devotes whole sections to scene-by-scene analysis, often bringing into the discussion the many "interpretations" of the film that critics have proposed (e.g., the film is a satire of the Moral Majority that put Nixon into Office, etc.). Fortunately, Hervey never lets us forget that, in the end, Romero was making a film on a shoestring budget with friends, often setting up shots based on the limitations of his equipment, and such highbrow interpretations -- while fun to consider -- are likely exercises in little more than analytical futility.

This is a great read. If you like films, I highly recommend the BFI Film Classics series.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The House of the Dead

This is perhaps the most autobiographical account Dostoyevsky gives us of his four-year prison sentence in a remote Siberian labor camp. Although he condenses and shapes the sentence for literary reasons (much like Thoreau condensed his two-year experiment on Walden Pond to one year for metaphorical reasons), Dostoyevsky nevertheless offers a harrowing exploration of how prison life affects the psychological make-up of the prisoner.

Using the frame story of a found manuscript, the story proper is written from the first-person POV of Aleksandr Petrovich Goryanchikov, a member of the Russian upper class who must submit to the same prison conditions as his more common countrymen. Drawn directly from Dostoyevsky's own experiences, we meet Aleksandr's fellow prisoners as they drink, fight, celebrate the holidays, etc. More importantly, we witness changes in Aleksandr's world vision as a result of his imprisonment.

It doesn't really follow a narrative structure, reading more like an episodic series of sketches of prison life over the course of a year. What's pretty cool about the book, however, is the glimpse it offers of early Dostoyevsky trying to work within the tableau of psychological examination. For anyone who has read Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karamazov, The House of the Dead is like a series of practice exercises of something which Dostoyevsky will later prove a master: the psychological study of the criminal mind.

Overall, a pretty cool read.

Friday, August 08, 2008

William Shakespeare, Othello

This was a re-read for me. I first read it back in college, and I seem to recall even writing a paper about it ... in heroic couplets, no less. Then I read it at the end of this past school year (in May), and now just re-read it. In my A.P. English class, I'm trying to swap out King Lear, which has been a standard of my summer reading assignment, and figured Othello is a logical alternative.

Considering that Othello is held as one of Shakespeare's "four great tragedies," I was immediately struck by how ... well ... earthly it is. While Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth all address very cosmic connections between man's physicality and his spirituality, Othello is surprisingly fleshly. Now, that doesn't make it any less powerful of a play ... but I find that aspect of it interesting, considering the company it keeps.

Iago is, of course, a deliciously evil character, and I look forward to exploring the connections between Iago and Milton's Satan with my students this semester. There are some wonderfully manipulative conversations that take place with both characters, and I suspect such a comparison will make for fruitful analysis. Desdemona evokes a certain eroticism that is not conveyed in the other three "greats," and Othello himself is a bit of a dupe ... not quite the dupe Macbeth is, but that's a different story altogether.

Good play. I'm glad I read it ... again.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, From Hell

When told that I had recently finished reading The Watchmen, a close friend recommended that I check out Moore's From Hell. I did ... and must say that this is definitely one of the cooler books I've read so far this year!

From Hell (on which the Johnny Depp film was based a few years ago) is a retelling of the Jack the Ripper case that confounded London police in the late 1880s. Using as his starting point a conspiracy theory put forth by one Stephen Knight, Moore examines how the seemingly random Ripper victims were in fact a small group of Victorian-era prostitutes who were planning to blackmail English royalty because one of their own gave birth to an illegitimate daughter sired by Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence. To avoid embarrassment to the Crown as a result of this birth, Queen Victoria herself commissions her royal physician, Dr. William Gull, to locate and institutionalize the working-class mother of the child. But we learn that Gull is likewise a sociopath who takes it upon himself to "remove" the whole handful of blackmailing prostitutes in the name of Freemason ideology. Hence, "Jack the Ripper" is in essence (according to Knight and Moore) a direct result of a cover-up by the English monarchy.

Reading this was almost like reading a Pynchon novel. The research that Moore did is evident in the story's intricate detailing of period crime solving techniques, Freemasonry lore, historical documentation, geographical history, yet sprinkled with allusions to Karl Marx and William Blake and Buffalo Bill, and including cameos by such Victorian luminaries as John "The Elephant Man" Merrick, Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats, and even a young Aleister Crowley! And Campbell, working primarily in inkwash and crosshatch shading, beautifully renders in black and white the starkness of 19th Century England. It's a visual treat!

And herein lies part of what I find fascinating about reading this novel in particular, and graphic novels in general. Visual treat aside, it's a visual medium much like a film in that the artist, like a filmmaker, selects what the reader/viewer can and cannot see. But more importantly, the other aspect of that "editing" process -- the pace of the material -- is out of the artist's control and must be trusted to the reader himself. So while film forces the viewer to see what the filmmaker wants you to see, and for how long you will see it, the act of "reading" the panels of a graphic novel must rely on the pacing of the reader/viewer. For this reason I found Chapter Ten, "The Best of All Tailors," a great example of how the art must in fact allow for the individual reader's pacing to sustain the suspense and impact of the scene. (But hey, I'm a novice at this graphic novel stuff and I assume this "pacing" idea is old news to afficionados.)

Anyways, it's a great read. If graphic novels are your thing, I highly recommend it!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend

Published in monthly installments over 1864-65, this was the last full-length novel written by Dickens. He hadn't published a monthly since 1857 when he wrote Little Dorrit, so this novel was more difficult to sustain for the aging, ailing writer. Dickens had a tough time getting it started, and few of his contemporary readers found it as engaging as his earlier works. But today it is hailed as the great final flourish of one of the most important Victorian writers.

In typical Dickensian fashion, the plot is too labyrinthian to attempt a coherent summary. Suffice it to say that the novel weaves together three different narrative trajectories that Dickens had been mulling over for several years, one of which being the story of a guy who fakes his own death to circumvent the wishes of a will, another being a couple who wed for each other's money, only to learn that each lied to the other about his/her fortune. With money as the main theme, Dickens explores a wide range of ways in which money is acquired, lost, and used for both good and ill purposes.

Although this was hardly my favorite Dickens novel, it contains a number of cool touches that are reminiscent of his earlier novels. Certain scenes with Silas Wegg remind me of the interactions between David Copperfield and Uriah Heep; chapters with Mr. and Mrs. Veneering echo those with Sir and Lady Dedlock in Bleak House; and so many moments throughout the novel that dwell upon money seem to be cut from the same cloth as Dombey and Son or Little Dorrit, I lost count. One critic has called Our Mutual Friend "the entire Dickens canon redux," and that's actually a pretty good way of describing it.

Thus concludes my reading of Dickens's novels. It's taken me four years, but I've been able to read all sixteen novels during that time (and, with the exceptions of Our Mutual Friend and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, all have been read at least twice). All that remains is the teaching of them as I look into my next personal "project": the complete fictional works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, Batman: The Killing Joke

This was a throwaway quickie of a read, done on the heels of having seen The Dark Knight this past Friday. I succumbed to the pre-release buzz surrounding Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker, and having heard that The Killing Joke was one of the sources Ledger drew upon for his portrayal of the arch-villain, I decided to read it.

Batman has always been a superhero close to my heart, especially since I grew up watching the old Adam West Batman TV series (which premiered the year I was born!). Even as a kid, I remember enjoying the playful "Bam!" exclamations and campy dialogue, and noticing how every single villains' lair always had a slanted floor (Did villains' lairs lack solid building foundations? Was Gotham City kinda like San Francisco?). So when the movie franchise began with the 1989 Tim Burton release, I highly anticipated the dark, gothic look Burton would bring to a story I'd always associated with bright colors and well-illuminated interiors.

Heath Ledger's Joker is a fun bad guy, a shimmering combination of criminally insane mastermind and trickster in a weird, nervous junky frame. But I found the Joker in Moore's book a bit of a throwback to the pompadoured Caesar Romero Joker from the TV series ... too giggly and "clownish," if you know what I mean. Of course, Moore's Joker is murderous -- the story centers on how the Joker shoots Barbara Gordon, the commissioner's daughter, in the spine and paralyzes her in an effort to drive Commissioner Gordon insane, thus proving that "All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy" -- and Moore gives the reader some backstory on the Joker to suggest what might have driven him insane.

But, as all Joker's stories are concerned, this may or may not be what really happened ...

Bolland's artwork is superb, and the coloring is one of the most nuanced I've seen. You'll dig the comic from a purely artistic standpoint, if nothing else.

So if you're following the Hollywood hype this weekend surrounding The Dark Knight, this book is a good supplement to your filmgoing experience.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen

I've read a few graphic novels over the years, like Matt Wagner's Grendel: War Child, Frank Miller's Sin City, and J. O'Barr's The Crow. I'd hardly call myself a graphic novel enthusiast. Toward the end of last school year, a colleague recommended that I read Watchmen. It looked long, and frankly I wasn't in the mood to read a "comic book." But as the summer got under way, no fewer than three other friends, in completely separate contexts, randomly mentioned Watchmen (and the soon-to-be-released film version) and what a great book it is. It started to sorta seem like karma, so I scored a copy of the book and last week began reading it. Just finished it this morning. And yes ... what a great book it is!

Told from several different perspectives, the story takes place in an alternate 1985, where Richard M. Nixon is President, caped crusaders are not only a reality but have been outlawed since 1977 for their vigilanteeism, and the world is inching toward nuclear Armageddon with Russia (each chapter of the novel, in fact, begins with a Doomsday clock progressing toward and eventually reaching twelve o'clock). The plot itself revolves around the mysterious murder of the Comedian, a one-time superhero who had long since become a government operative, and the efforts of some of his former superhero colleagues -- Nite Owl, Rorschach, and Dr. Manhatten among them -- to piece together the mystery and locate the killer as nations get frighteningly closer to nuclear attack.

Gibbons juxtaposes the vibrantly colored style of superhero comics with black-and-white inner chapters of supplementary "materials," such as autobiography excerpts, handwritten notes, medical files, newspaper clippings, etc., to create a narrative that is visually stimulating. But it's Moore's storyline, told from multiple (and often parallel) perspectives, that forms a narrative not only engaging but eerily relevant given today's headlines. (In this excellent interview with the film's director, he mentions how filmgoers are finally "ready" for Watchmen given the recent proliferation of superhero-based Hollywood films; if handled the right way, this film can also make a powerful statement on today's socio-political milieu.)

What I also like about the novel is its complexity and subtlety. What makes the book so "important" in the graphic novel genre is its attention to detail and its overall seriousness for the time in which it was published (1986-87). Moore wanted to create a work with a literary quality akin to a graphic novel Moby-Dick, and what I found interesting was that upon finishing the book, I immediately wanted to reread sections of it ... and as I leafed through the opening chapter once more, I indeed noticed things that had completely gotten past me on the first read. This is a book that rewards rereadings.

If you enjoy graphic novels and want to read something that's engaging, visually stimulating, and thought provoking, check out Watchmen. The film is due for release in March, 2009.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Joseph Frank, Dostoyevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850 - 1859

This is volume two of the five-volume biography, covering the years of Dostoyevsky's imprisonment in a hard labor camp in Siberia, followed by years of mandatory service in the Russian military, and concluding with his marriage, his return to St. Petersburg, and his attempts to revive his literary career with the publications of Uncle's Dream and The Village of Stepanchikovo.

One thing I especially like about Frank's work is his attention to Russian lifestyle and culture of the time period. Having not read much Dostoyevsky, I've always been intimidated by a certain culture gap between 19th century Russia and the much more familiar 19th century England, but Frank narrows that gap nicely through his depictions of life within the Siberian prison, as well as Dostoyevsky's appeals to the Tzar for his military retirement due to his epilepsy. Furthermore, the highlight of this volume for me was the discussion of Dostoyevsky's transformation of world vision as a direct result of his imprisonment, which sets up the remaining volumes as they discuss Dostoyevsky's important novels!

Although I need to take a brief hiatus from Frank so I can turn my attention to other reading obligations at the moment, I look forward to reading Volume Three!

Friday, June 27, 2008

Karen Abbott, Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul

Back around the turn of the century, Chicago's red light district was affectionately called "the Levee," a section of south Dearborn that was the location for, among other things, the famed Everleigh Club, a high-end brothel run by Minna and Ada Everleigh. Boasting a bevy of beautiful "butterflies" -- as well as perfumed rooms decorated in opulence and a reputation for cleanliness, safety, and sophistication -- the Everleigh Club became world-renowned, a double-edged sword that not only brought millions of dollars to the city's vice district, but also a notoriety that led to the Levee's demise.

Abbott's book recounts the time period beautifully, rewarding the reader with details about this period in Chicago's history while showing how famous names like Al Capone, Jack Johnson, Katherine Hepburn, and Frank Lloyd Wright became part of the tapestry that was the Levee district. Moreover, Abbott explains how the Everleigh Club contributed to the establishment of the Mann Act, the Women's Suffrage movement, and even the formation of what would become the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Similar to Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, Abbott's book is a readable and fascinating look at this piece of Chicago history, even illustrating how its resonance is still felt today.

If you're like me and enjoy reading about turn-of-the-century Chicago history, definitely check out Sin in the Second City. You won't be disappointed!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Joseph Frank, Dostoyevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821 - 1849

This fall I will conclude my four-year Newberry project involving the complete works of Charles Dickens, and although part of me would like to resume the seminar series all over again, another part of me would like to tackle another author I haven't read much of, but would like to: Feodor Dostoyevsky. I am in the process of gathering his major and minor fiction and, along the way, came across the well-known five-part biography of Dostoyevsky by Joseph Frank. I just finished reading volume one today.

In this volume, Frank focuses on the early years of Dostoyevsky, from his birth up to his arrest in 1849 for his involvement in the Petrashevsky circle. Along the way, significant attention is given to Dostoyevsky's early childhood and family life, his involvement in various literary groups and the socio-political milieu of mid-nineteenth century Russia, and his earliest publications (Poor Folk, The Double, Netotchka Nezvanova, and various short stories of the time period). What I really enjoy about Frank's biographical style, however, is that he doesn't burden the reader with the daily incidentals that occupy his subject's life; instead, he discusses only those people and those incidents that will somehow later inform Dostoyevsky's fiction and his philosophical ideology. Hence, for as comprehensive as volume one is, not a word is wasted!

I would like to read some of this early fiction before I proceed to Volume Two.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Charles Dickens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood

I don't know if this ever happens to you, but I've been in a bit of a reading funk for the past few weeks. I want to read something, but nothing feels right ... I begin a dozen different books, hoping that something with sustain my attention, but nothing does ... Every so often I get into a funk like that, and it usually takes that one particular book (and a few weeks of false starts) to get me back on track. This time, Edwin Drood was just that book. Maybe it was the unsolved crime and detective aspect of the novel that grabbed me, appealing to my noir fiction guilty pleasure. Regardless, my Summer Reading 2008 kicks off with The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

This was the final novel Dickens wrote, left incomplete because he died mid-way through the composition. Although he left a few minor notes and a couple of fragments that offer clues to how he might have continued the narrative, Drood is the best example of fiction based on an unsolved crime simply because it is unsolveable: Which minor characters are ultimately important? Is the title character even really dead? Who has the best motive for committing the crime? Which details are really red herrings? We'll never know, and although legions of "Droodians" over the decades have tried to speculate on the answers, the solution (to paraphrase Hamlet) is silence.

What I like about this novel is Dickens's command of his material at this point. He was failing in health, he was exhausted from public readings, and he was experiencing difficulty with his creative process ... yet he was able to muster the energy and will to create a novel rich in imagery, well-sustained in tone, and linear in plot. What it lacks in typical Dickensian touches (rambling subplots, grotesque characters, biting social commentary, etc.) it more than makes up for as the first half of what might have been his crowning achievement as an author.

If you enjoy detective fiction, crime fiction, and mysteries, you'll enjoy the unfinished novel that is The Mystery of Edwin Drood!

Saturday, April 12, 2008

William Makepeace Thackeray, The History of Pendennis

My reading lately hasn't been terribly engaging. In school, I've been in the process of re-reading several books that I've either read before (The Island of the Blue Dolphins, A Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations) or taught before (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, White Noise), and I've found myself more often than not simply gathering books to read in the upcoming months as school begins to wind down.

One of the choice acquisitions I've made in the past few weeks is a first edition of Thackeray's The History of Pendennis, originally published in 1850 by Bradbury & Evans (Dickens's long-time publisher). I scored a copy of this two-volume set, in very good condition, for a mere $14.00 thru Powell's Books on Portland, Oregon. The novel is often compared with Dickens's David Copperfield as a prime example of the Victorian-era bildungsroman, and I've wanted to read the novel since encountering references to it last year in my Dickens research. Since the novel is currently out-of-print, I did some online hunting, stumbled onto this edition ... and bought it -- which is officially the oldest book I own!

I hope to begin reading it as my work load lessens over the next month.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Patti Sherlock, Letters From Wolfie

I wasn't too impressed with this novel, which is the latest work I introduced to my freshmen students. Despite its attempts to question the nature of "sacrifice, loyalty, and the complex meaning of patriotism" in a story set amid the backdrop of the Vietnam conflict, the book was a bit too schmaltzy and melodramatic for my taste. Even my students found it pretty darn'd mediocre.

About the novel: It's 1969, and Mark Cantrell has decided to donate his loveable malamute/German shepherd to the U.S. Army as part of its canine program devoted to training dogs to be scout dogs, sentry dogs, etc. His older brother Danny has recently gone overseas to fight in Vietnam, and when Mark learns that military dogs are considered mere equipment, he petitions the government on behalf of all dogs that they be returned stateside like the soldiers they protect. Along the way, we witness his relationship with his veteran father and his friendship with a "peacenik" girl, Claire, whose brother is a draft dodger ... and lots of other stuff in this lackluster effort.

The problem with this novel is that it's way too cluttered ... My impression is that the author had a good story to tell, but also wanted to follow the typical YA formula -- you gotta have a conflict between your teen protagonist and his parent, you gotta have a love interest, you gotta have a burgeoning relationship with a maverick teacher, you gotta have sibling rivalry, you gotta have a character who changes and learns something about himself via a big, climactic event, blah blah blah ... and by including all the requisite YA trappings, Sherlock leaves us with a hodge-podge of cliched YA storylines that fight with each other for narrative space while, ultimately, all the reader really cares about is ... Mark and Wolfie.

Additionally, I was bothered by the female author's handling of the male point-of-view, which she doesn't convey effectively. If handled well, it can be believeable and downright entertaining (like Cynthia DeFelice's handling of Joe Pedersen in Under The Same Sky). But in this particular instance? It just doesn't work.

Bottom line: Don't waste your time.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, or The Whale

First, a story:

Back when I was an undergrad student in Dr. Gus Kolich's American Literature class at Saint Xavier University, we were assigned to read Moby-Dick during our week of Spring Break. Not being a participant in the usual Malibu Beach spring break tomfoolery, I stayed home, choosing instead to take the train to the Loop and make a solitary visit to the Art Institute of Chicago with sketchbooks and bottled water in my carpetbag ... including my copy of the Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick. Stopping for lunch on a glorious spring afternoon at the McDonald's on Randolph and Dearborn, I read for an hour, whereupon I resumed the rest of my day's excursion.

It wasn't until I returned home that night that I realized -- "Oh no! I left my copy of the book at McDonald's!"

The next morning, hoping for a slim chance of recovering my castaway (what are the chances of finding a lost item in a downtown fast food establishment the next day!?), I returned to the same McDonald's assuming it was a futile effort, but a rescue nonetheless worthwhile. And lo and behold! When I walked in the doors, there lay my very own Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick on the windowside counter, primly awaiting its owner! Apparently NO one was gonna steal that book! LOL

And over the last twenty years or so, I've taught selections of the novel to my American Literature students. Granted, it's not a book that in its entirety goes over well with high school kids ... but in selected chapters, it's a palatable and engaging read.

So when the Biblioholics Anonymous decided to read this novel for their March selection, I jumped at the chance to re-read this book again ... to re-read the whole thing!

More than ever, I am reminded of just what an underrated book this is. Completely panned in Melville's lifetime, and today often viewed by readers (or, should I say, people who haven't read it but merely think they know what it's about) as a stodgey classic that elicits boredom, nothing could be farther from the truth! Moby-Dick is a celebration of one of the most important and forgotten industries of 19th Century America. Encyclopedic in its scope, biblical in its sublimity, subtle in its humor, and engaging in its spinning of a nautical yarn, Melville's masterpiece remains relevant over a century and a half later -- the megalomaniac Captain Ahab has a counterpart in contemporary politics, the Pequod remains a microcosm of American society, and many of narrator Ishmael's philosophical musings either sparkle with meaning or reinforce the ambiguity with which we all must share in our existence. This time through, I noticed some of its politically incorrect observations regarding people of Asian and African-American heritage; I see the intricacy of the chapter ordering, which I'd never noticed before; and the deliberate ambiguity that Melville fosters throughout the narrative in terms of how we should perceive the world around us -- these are the benefits of re-reading a major literary work twenty years later!

Don't let any reductionist tell you: "It's about a crazy guy chasing a whale."

It's so much more ... and it's brilliant!


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Claire Tomalin, The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens

I scored a copy of this book, used, about a month ago. Probably not something of much interest to the general reader, it's definitely a good book for anyone interested in learning more about the woman who inspired the single most popular English writer of the 19th Century to reinvent himself in middle-age, along the way fracturing his family and friendships, his business partnerships, and his twenty-four year marriage.

Ellen ("Nelly") Ternan was an eighteen-year-old actress of stunning beauty when she met the forty-five-year-old Dickens, and the ensuing relationship caused a literary scandal and a public relations nightmare for a writer once beloved by his readers for his stories of hearth and home. Not to be ruined by the scandal, he rebounded with two blockbuster serial publications: A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations. Nelly and Dickens continued their relationship for the next thirteen years until he died in 1870. She eventually remarried and lived a relatively normal life, barely ever mentioning her relationship with Dickens, and died in 1913.

Tomalin's book is considered a landmark of biography because of its success in fashioning a life story from such scant material. Indeed, while she and Dickens were together the author and his loyal friends took great pains to conceal her identity in coded terms; Dickens's best friend and biographer, John Forster, never even mentions Nelly in his biography of Boz. Which is probably why I felt that the strengths of Tomalin's book lie in its depictions of pre- and post-Dickens-era Nelly. With so little to go on during those thirteen years, Tomalin essentially rehashes the usual biographical information on Dickens himself (to which I would direct the reader to Fred Kaplin, Edgar Johnson, and Peter Ackroyd)... but if you want to read about women of the theater in the early 19th Century, the circumstances leading up to the scandalous relationship, and the way in which a woman begins life anew following her lover's death without hardly a glance back, this is a pretty good book.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Chris Crowe, Mississippi Trial, 1955

In my continuing search for good YA novels that I can read with my freshman students, Mississippi Trial, 1955 came highly recommended by a colleague. I finally got around to reading it and, truth be told, this is a fantastic book that has something for everyone.

A piece of historical fiction set in the late-1940s thru the mid-1950s, it essentially tells the story of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old Chicago boy who went to visit relatives in Mississippi and became the victim of a heinous racially charged murder that sparked the Civil Rights movement. The novel is told from the point-of-view of fictional character Hiram Hillburn, who returns to visit his elderly grandfather in the summer of 1955. The South is not exactly as he remembers it when he lived with Grandpa seven years earlier; Hiram is now aware of the racial tensions and Jim Crow mentality that are part of Delta culture. And when he becomes embroiled in Emmett's kidnapping, murder, and the subsequent trial, Hiram once and for all glimpses what his father has long called the "ugly side" of the South.

But what makes this book so engaging on different levels is the story, which also explores father/son relationships, child abuse, homophobia, etc. And, to be honest, the trial itself is grippingly recounted with the expert pacing of Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird (obviously one of the novel's influences). Overall, Crowe maintains excellent control of his characterization and storytelling, balancing suspense with poignancy, and he gives the reader a book that is both thought-provoking and simply a "good read."


Thursday, January 24, 2008

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

I have a "history" with this book that goes back over twenty years ...

When I was in my third year of college, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. Despite aggressive chemotheraphy treatments, in February, 1987 she fell into a coma and there she stayed for about two weeks until, one morning, she died.

At that time, I was in the process of reading Great Expectations (a cheap Bantam edition, as I recall) for the first time ... and I never finished it. Something about the book ... its cover, its story, maybe even its smell ... something about that book always struck me as distasteful, and although I've made a couple of feeble attempts to read the book since then, I've never been able to do it.

So finally finishing this book -- for my spring Newberry seminar -- is an achievement for me. It's a book that is fraught with personal feelings that I have had to overcome. Interestingly, although I finished the book today, it's taken me months of hammering away at its chapters to finally get through it.

When everything is said and done, I must admit that it's one of my least favorite Dickens novels. Apart from the great opening chapter and the delightful descriptions of Miss Havisham, I found it one of the darkest, most humorless books in the Dickens canon. Also, I suppose I'm used to Dickens giving his readers subplots, and here is the only novel written by Boz that has no subplot whatsoever (which is probably why we subject high school freshmen to it). In the villain Orlick we get an antagonist who is a genuine physical threat to protagonist Pip -- not the grotesquely caricatured villains of Quilp or Uriah Heep or even Mr. Carker, but a murderous criminal (virtually harkening back to Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist, but even Sikes I recall having a somewhat humorous treatment in his exchanges with Fagin). And although Dickens has given us melodramatic death scenes in the past (can anyone say "Little Nell" or "Dora Spenlow"??), I wonder now how I would have gotten through the death scene in Great Expectations had I finished the book back in '87.

Well, at least I can finally say I've read it ...

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Ray Bradbury, Farewell Summer

When was the last time you read a book in one sitting, with a smile on your face the whole time?

Farewell Summer is Bradbury's sequel to 1957's Dandelion Wine, a wonderful novel that captures the excitement of summer vacation when you're a little kid growing up in a small Midwest town in 1928. Life consists of little more than friends, pretend intrigues, lightning bugs, and the delicious feel of a summer breeze through your window. And while Dandelion Wine focuses on a "slice of life" with the residents of Green Town, Illinois (based on Bradbury's home town of Waukegan), much of the story follows the summer adventures of twelve-year-old Douglas Spaulding, his little brother Tom, and their buddies.

In Farewell Summer, published almost fifty years after the first novel, Bradbury continues the story of Doug et al, now during a brief Indian summer in early October, 1929. Doug and his buddies engage in a "war" with the adults of the town, a war that becomes a metaphor for the struggle over control one feels as a teen. The stealing of chess pieces from the old men who play chess in the park, the setting-off of firecrackers in the town hall bell tower, and the awakening thrill of watching a girl and an ice cream cone all come together to capture the transitions we all make from giddy summer to the sober realities of autumn.

My guess: You will read this book in one sitting, smiling the whole time. : )

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Happy Twelfth Night!

" Twelfth Night is a holiday in some branches of Christianity marking the coming of the Epiphany, concluding the Twelve Days of Christmas, and is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as 'the evening of the fifth of January, preceding Twelfth Day, the eve of the Epiphany, formerly the last day of the Christmas festivities and observed as a time of merrymaking'.

"The celebration of Epiphany, the adoration of the Magi, is marked in some cultures by the exchange of gifts, and Twelfth Night, as the eve or vigil of Epiphany, takes on a similar significance to Christmas Eve.

"In some traditions it is taken to mean the evening of the Twelfth Day itself, the sixth of January. This apparent difference has arisen probably due to the old custom of treating sunset as the beginning of the following day. Therefore, according to confluent ancient traditions of the tides of time, Twelfth Night would have been celebrated as occurring on the twelfth day as different to the present custom of celebrating the day prior." [...]

Here is the Wikipedia citation from which this comes.

Here is the Shakespeare connection.

And here is why you should take down your Christmas decorations by tonight.


Saturday, January 05, 2008

Richard Matheson, I Am Legend

What a great book to start a new year of reading!

I Am Legend is a novella originally published in 1954 as a piece of science fiction (since the story takes place in the not-so-distant 1976). Today it is hailed as a major contribution to the horror genre. Indeed, the whole time I was reading this, I was reminded of the thrill you get when you are completely immersed in a good Stephen King or Clive Barker story!

The story itself focuses on Robert Neville, the last man on earth. A worldwide holocaust has transformed all surviving humans into vampires -- all, that is, except for Neville ... and the story follows him as he nightly seals himself into a house and fights off the vampires that walk on the roof, pound on the doors, and bellow his name! When he ventures outside during the daytime, he seeks their comatose bodies to burn, and one of the most gripping scenes in the book begins when Neville realizes -- a bit too late -- that his wristwatch has stopped!

But more than merely a page-turner, I Am Legend is also a fascinating take on the traditional vampire story in terms of offering a scientific explanation for vampirism (even going so far as to suggest that the Black Plague of the Middle Ages may have been connected to it) and a speculation on why certain aspects of the legend exist in the first place (e.g., if a Jewish person becomes a vampire, would a cross have the same punishing effect on it?).

To be honest, I don't remember much about Omega Man, the 1971 film that was based on the Matheson story, nor have I seen the newly released Will Smith film. But as a piece of fiction, I Am Legend is a thrilling read!

* This paperback edition includes ten additional short stories by Richard Matheson.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Bill Martin, Listening to the Future: The Time of Progressive Rock: 1968 - 1978

This is one of those books I'm drawn to over and over again. I read it almost ten years ago, when it was first published, and the author -- an Associate Professor of Marxist Philosophy at DePaul University and a musician who plays a choice Rickenbacher bass -- was interviewed about the book in a Chicago Sun-Times article. Being a lifelong fan and collector of Prog Rock, I devoured the book ... and have found myself returning to it countless times over the years!

When I was a kid I would travel by CTA bus down 79th Street to visit my Aunt Gene, who lived in Justice, IL. While she and my Mom would sit in the kitchen chatting for hours, I'd sit in the living room playing my Aunt's classical music albums, which gave me my first exposure to complex musical arrangements, "movements," and other such organizational patterns in music.

Later in high school, I "discovered" the music of such bands as King Crimson, Yes, ELP, Jethro Tull, and early Genesis -- bands that revelled in long, self-indulgent musical soundscapes, often using exotic instruments (anyone remember the Mellotron? LOL) to convey a medieval mood. Even later, my affinity for Prog fueled my interest in jazz (especially Miles and Monk and 'Trane), and to this day I sorta retain a soft spot for jam bands like Phish. Maybe it's the Hippie in me (I was born in 1966, after all ... and dammit, I had the Batman bedsheets to prove it!)

Anyways, Martin's Listening to the Future is a fantastic read if Prog is your thing, especially when he gets into his year-by-year guided discography that illustrates the growth and development of progressive rock from its earliest hints in the Beatles's Rubber Soul to its heyday in the early '70s -- Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells (which is today remembered as the "sountrack" for The Exorcist), ELP's Brain Salad Surgery, the Mahavishnu Orchestra's Birds of Fire, Yes's Tales from Topographic Oceans, and King Crimson's brilliant Lark's Tongues in Aspic -- to its gradual dissipation and influence on such bands as The Clash and Husker Du.

For Chistmas, I received a CD of Caravan's In the Land of Grey and Pink -- a choice piece of musicianship from the prog era -- and again I return to Bill Martin's book to celebrate a time in rock history when experimentation was king ... and suites were sweet.