Monday, December 31, 2007

Jasper Fforde, The Big Over Easy

This was a fun book! Having read Fforde's clever The Eyre Affair some time ago, I was already familiar with his unique ouvre when the Biblioholics Anonymous chose this for our January, 2008 book. However, since I wasn't a huge fan of The Eyre Affair, I didn't exactly know what to expect with this book.

Much to my delight, it was better than I expected! The Big Over Easy is a crime thriller that involves nursery rhyme characters. Detective Jack Spratt and his sidekick, Mary Mary, are called upon to investigate the mysterious murder of Humpty Dumpty, a hard-drinking womanizer with a jail record and a penchant for getting involved in a variety of criminal activity. All the while Jack and Mary are conducting the investigation, Friedland Chymes -- dashing detective and darling of the media -- tries to wrest control of the Dumpty investigation to further his own career in the spotlight. With cameos by countless nursery rhyme characters, like Solomon Grundy (the richest man in the town of Reading), Mrs. Hubbard (a wacky landlady with a lot of dogs), Georgie Porgie (a.k.a. Giorgio Porgia, former mob kingpin), and dozens of others, it's an entertaining glimpse into the world of criminal investigation ... not to mention a brilliant satire on crime fiction, the role of the press, the problems facing federally funded programs, etc.

But the best part: the "crime solving" portion of the novel is downright gripping! Fforde throws in plenty of neat plot twists and just enough red herrings to make this an engaging piece of crime fiction ... one that just happens to use Mother Goose characters. While the whole book sparkles with charm and Brit wit, the second half of the novel will keep you turning pages to find out the killer's identity ... and to see how the various other conflicts are resolved.

This was a wonderful book with which to finish 2007. Enjoy, and see you next year!

Saturday, December 29, 2007

William Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors

You may recall that around this time each year I get together with the "Obscure Shakespeare Play Reading Group," consisting of a few former A.P. students of mine who are now out of college, pursuing their careers, and who simply want to gather for a lunch at a Brookfield pub, catch up on what's new in our lives, and chat about -- among various other things -- a Shakespeare play that few people ever read. In the past, we've discussed Coriolanus, The Two Noble Kinsmen, King John, and one year even branched out to read Dante's entire Divina Commedia. For this time around, we chose a play that I've read before, but one that was fun to re-visit: The Comedy of Errors.

The play itself is amusing from sort of a Three's Company point-of-view -- mistaken identities, bawdy humour related to the anatomy, slapstick, etc. There's nothing terribly cerebral about this particular play, which is based on a comedy by the Roman playwright Plautus entitled The Brothers Menaechmus. Two sets of identical twins, each of a different social class, get mistaken for each other ... and chaos ensues! This is one of the earliest examples of Shakespeare's uncanny ability to take basic source material (i.e., the Plautus play) and make a silk purse of a sow's ear. He adds minor characters, plot twists, puns and wordplay galore, all the while maintaining the three Unities of Time, Place, and Action as a reverent nod to the ancients. An obscure play by Will, certainly, but hardly an inferior work.

As always, it will be a pleasure to see Al (cinephile extraordinaire who runs an English Department for a school within the CPS system), Mike (the mad Bohemian who travels cross-country Kerouacstyle and who, I learned, broke a finger recently ... gotta hear that story), and Ben (glorious jazzpunkman of academia who has lived and studied in China for the past year and a half)!

An impressive group, to which newcomers are always cordially welcomed. : )
"1000 Books You Must Read Before You Die"

Here's a pretty insane list of books that, as the title suggests, we all had better get to readin' before we give up the ghost.

Book lists always intrigue me. Rather than being a comprehensive representation of what they claim to list, they reveal more about the lister than the subject matter ... his/her interests and bibiobiases.

Anyways, this list has a few good titles on it. I've read quite a few ... I've begun and never finished quite a few ... some I've never even heard of ... and some are just plain silly. But hey, it's a list.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Erik Davis, Led Zeppelin IV (331/3 Series - Volume 17)

This is now the second book I've read that examines Zep's "four symbols" album, and in many ways this one is more enjoyable. Focusing specifically on an analysis of the songs in terms of their lyrics and arrangements, Davis enhances the impact of his analysis by relating the music to Led Zeppelin's place within 1970s rock as well as their supposed dabblings in the occult. Further, by identifying a persona within Plant's lyrics whom we can follow from song to song (a persona Davis names "Percy," Robert Plant's nickname), the author demonstrates (with varying degrees of persuasion) the physical and spiritual movement that takes the listener from the opening accapella verse of "Black Dog" to the concluding chords of "When The Levee Breaks."

One of Davis's early discussions in the book, however, addresses the modern movement toward digital music, which has been the death knell for the physicality of vinyl albums. Hence, the ways in which a listener approaches the sequencing of the music, not to mention the album art, the inner fold of the album design, and the sleeve of lyrics, are all examined and celebrated by Davis for their contributions to the overall mystique of this musical masterpiece.

And Davis devotes moments to the ephemera of the album as well: the ten-second odd musical strains that immediately preceed "Black Dog"; the sorts of "messages" that you hear when playing "Stairway to Heaven" backward; the use of Sandy Denny as backup vocalist on "The Battle For Evermore" and the band's nods to Joni Mitchell and Memphis Minnie throughout the album; "Rock and Roll" as punk Zeppelin, and the experimental nature of the performance and mix of "Four Sticks." And while Davis occasionally veers into the downright obscure when analyzing the songs (e.g., his examination of "Stairway To Heaven" is itself a 35-page piece of rock scholarship), his writing is always engaging.

This was a fun chance to re-visit -- again -- one of the greatest albums from the days of my youth.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Michael T. Fournier, Double Nickles on the Dime (331/3 Series - Volume 45)

In my younger and more vulnerable years, I was in a band. I played bass, and occasionally drums. We fancied ourselves a band with a punk ethos. In retrospect, we were suburban dorks ... but we had fun. And during this time I accumulated an impressive collection of punk albums. One of my favorites, and the greatest album of all time (in my humble opinion), is Double Nickles on the Dime, a double album released in 1984 by the Minutemen, a punk trio out of San Pedro, California. Containing a vast forty-three songs (few of them exceeding 90 seconds) that span the genres of punk, jazz, funk, flamenco, country, and even avant garde, the album is unlike anything you've ever heard before -- and the band flat-out rocks!

Anyways, this small volume by Fournier is a song-by-song analysis of the album. Fournier draws upon interviews with bassist Mike Watt and countless others who worked with the Minutemen during their brief tenure in the early 'Eighties (before guitarist D. Boon was killed in an automobile accident around Christmas, 1985), weaving together stories of how the songs were sequenced for the album, the various literary and musical influences on the band at that time, and amusing anecdotes associated with the composition and recording of the music. More importantly, Fournier is obviously in love with the music, and the tenderness with which he analyzes the songs' lyrics, arrangements, etc. make this a fun read for anyone who is familiar with this album ... and a wonderful introduction to the Minutemen for those to whom this band remains unknown.

See more of the outstanding 331/3 series published by Continuum.

Visit the Minutemen's archives at Mike Watt's Hoot Page, or check out the Watt from Pedro Show podcasts (where the December 8, 2007 show was devoted to an interview with Fournier).

And a great documentary to check out is We Jam Ecomo: The Story of the Minutemen (2005), directed by Tim Irwin. It includes interview footage and archival concert footage of the Minutemen in action. Righteous stuff!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Larry Niven, Ringworld

I continue to work my way through some of the "classics" of sci-fi, and Larry Niven's Ringworld is often hailed as a monument of "hard" science-fiction, i.e. its central concepts are rooted in the exploration of scientific fact, like Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama (cf. my BiblioBlog entry from December, 2004) or Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity. This was a pretty solid book, most of which I knocked out while waiting for my van to get serviced.

Ringworld is the story of Louis Wu who, along with Teela Brown and two alien creatures (Nessus and Speaker-To-Animals, two species that are unique to Niven's Ringworld universe), travels to a distant star that is encircled by a string of enormous man-made panels -- a ringworld -- each one a populated piece of terrain (think of Saturn encircled by a series of ceramic tiles, each one facing the surface of the planet ... now picture the entire circle of tiles rotating around the planet, generating a gravitational force all its own). The panels of the ringworld are vast: they have mountains, deserts, bodies of water, forests, etc. and the novel recounts the voyage of Wu et al as they encounter the mysterious ringworld (and ponder: who built it? how? why?), crash-land on it, mull its dimensions, and engage in a series of adventures as they explore its various locales.

The build-up to the actual landing on ringworld is slow, and there is an underlying notion of "luck" being genetic that I found tiresome, but the descriptions of the ringworld itself were engaging. There was some meditation on the problem of overpopulation that I thought was handled well, and there was also a subtle theme dealing with racial prejudice (two humans and two aliens who need to get past their misconceptions of each other and work together to accomplish this mission) that, for 1970 (when the book was published), was undoubtedly timely. Today, however, having spent the last three decades with George Lucas's Star Wars universe, that theme seems pretty well picked-over at this point.

Ringworld is interesting. Not the best thing you'll ever read, but it'll help you kill a few hours at the Honda dealer.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Miscellaneous Debris, 2007

Well, over the course of 2007 I've read and half-read a bunch of different things, whether it was a beach book or a volume I kept in the car to read in snatches at red lights. So here's my chance to list all the stuff I couldn't get to posting earlier in the year:

Pat Frank, Alas, Babylon -- I read this in late-June/early-July on the beaches of Puerto Villarta, around the same time I was reading Stephen King's The Stand. Both books are apocalyptic in nature, but The Stand has aged far better. I didn't care much for Alas, Babylon.

Joe Meno, Hairstyles of the Damned -- This was a fun little romp with some familiar faces, bringing me back to my old digs on the Southwest Side of Chicago ... mix tapes, punk rock, Haunted Trails, Evergreen Plaza, and adolescent angst. A fun read, especially for natives of the area!

Naguib Mahfouz, Palace of Desire -- Part II of The Cairo Trilogy. I only got about halfway through this book before my interest waned and I moved on to more pressing reads ... like Dickens. Truth be told, I found Palace Walk (i.e., Part I of the trilogy) much more engaging.

Albert Camus, The Plague -- Here's another one of those books that has taken me far too long to get around to reading! And what a magnificent representation of modern man and his ongoing spiritual dilemma. Great stuff ... though it did make me want to shower more frequently than usual ...

Peter Gay, Savage Reprisals: Bleak House, Madame Bovary, Buddenbrooks -- This is a solid (and concise) piece of literary criticism that explores the ways in which each of the aforementioned novels contains a little world of Reality all its own, and how that Reality contrasts with the Realism of the 19th Century novel form. Now I just gotta read Buddenbrooks ...

Barry Miles, Hippie -- A glorious celebration of the '65 - '71 counterculture movement, focusing on the music, the fashions, the celebrities and public figures, the War, the Flower Power, etc. Tons of great interviews and photos make this a groovy volume for the coffee table!

Zak Smith, Gravity's Rainbow Illustrated -- Although it also goes by the more unwieldy title of Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, this is less a literary work and more a collection of Smith's artwork. Next time I read the Pynchon novel, I plan to keep the Smith artwork nearby to enhance the reading.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By -- This was an excellent book that identifies and examines the various ways in which metaphor is ingrained within our social consciousness, manifesting itself in verbal expressions on a daily basis. It reminded me of just how subtle the device of metaphor is/can be ... and why we ought to pay closer attention to its power.

Noga Arikha, Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours -- I scored a copy of this book and read it early in the fall, mainly in preparation for the next time I had to teach Hamlet. I'm strangely fascinated by medical practices of the past, and this is a compelling look at 2,500 years of medical treatment that essentially ended with the discovery of the germ.

Until next time!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Frederik Pohl, Gateway

As I've mentioned here before, it's always such a pleasant relief to immerse myself in some good ol' science fiction for a bit after spending months reading stuff because I have to, whether it be for school, for the Newberry, or for various other obligations. Gateway is one of those sci-fi books I acquired quite some time ago ... it sat on my shelf for ages, probably alongside A Canticle For Liebowitz ... and now that I've read it, I'm convinced it's one of the better books I've read this year!

Originally published in 1976 and a winner of both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards, Gateway is the story of Robinette Broadhead, a twenty-something young man who spends his days in therapy talking to Sigfrid von Shrink, his artificial intelligence analyst. In the course of Bob's sessions with Sigfrid, we learn that a race of beings called Heechees once populated an asteroid named Gateway, only to mysteriously vanish ... leaving behind hundreds of spacecraft that are pre-programmed to voyage throughout space. The problem is, humans don't know where the ships will go, when they'll return, or how to change the programming ... so all voyages on the Heechee crafts are an immense gamble with one's life -- drawing huge financial rewards for those lucky enough to return alive!

Enter Bob Broadhead, who escapes his lowly existence working in the food mines by winning a lottery, and with his winnings the chance to voyage on these Heechee spacecrafts to prospect for otherworldly riches. A series of such trips leaves him miraculously spared from certain death, and his sessions with Sigfrid reveal his deepest psychological fears, urges, and the profound guilt surrounding his last mission!

Told in chapters that alternate between Bob's therapy sessions and his experiences on Gateway, and sprinkled throughout with glimpses at pop culture from the future (via classified ads, data readouts, spacecraft manifests, letters, interviews, Heechee-related poems, etc.), Pohl's novel is a meditation on social and psychological behavior and the things that make us "human": the need to love, the need to cry, the need to manipulate, and the need to risk everything we know for the thrill of what we don't!

This was a cool book with which to begin my holiday "fun reading." Check it out!

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

This was never my favorite Dickens novel, mainly because it isn't a good representation of what makes Dickens such a fun author. Madame DeFarge aside, the characters lack the twisty, quirky pneumonicisms that make such creations as Uriah Heep, Daniel Quilp, and Sam Weller so memorable. The fact that so much of the novel takes place in Paris, and London is relinquished to a mere backdrop, doesn't give the reader a sense of the truly "Victorian" feel of a Dickensian work.

But re-reading this last month -- for the first time since high school (where, admittedly, I probably relied more on MasterPlots than the actual novel) -- was such a great reintroduction to the book! What's not to love!? The love-triangle story is engaging, the French Revolution provides the action, and the spectre of La Guillotine appeals to our morbidity. The whole time I read this, I couldn't help but think of Rick and Ilsa and Victor Laslo in Casablanca! Great stuff!

This is one of the two Dickens novels I will be teaching in the spring at the Newberry. The other is Great Expectations.