05 December 2009

Review: A Few Seconds of Panic

Friend of the blog Paul recommended this book, and within a week of his doing so my on hold copy had arrived at the library. The last sports book I delved into was Satchel so I was leery of taking on another one. But, I'm certainly glad I did. You can find the review below the break.

30 November 2009

Review: V for Vendetta

V for Vendetta is the second Alan Moore book I've read, and further proof that I need to keep delving into the graphic novel/long-form comic genre. The first Moore I came across was the highly-recommendable Watchmen that I read earlier this year, and should probably write about at some point. But V for Vendetta was also pretty enjoyable. I'm glad I read it second, as I'm not sure it would have (by itself) convinced me the genre was worth the effort.

First, let me address the storytelling. Alan Moore is a superb writer, and his stories are compelling, well-paced, and enjoyable to read. V for Vendetta is set in a dystopian England of 1997-8. There has been some sort of calamity (probably nuclear) that has left much of the world destroyed. In this event's wake, a fascist regime has taken control of England, let by "The Leader" who has control of bureaus of intelligence and propaganda called "The Eyes" "The Nose" "The Ears" and "The Mouth." The regime has culled minorities from England, but those who are left lead fairly normal lives.

Yet there is one man who is willing to stand up to the tyranny of the government. He was the victim of hormonal testing in one of the concentration-style camps, and he is single-handedly attempting to bring about revolution. What's interesting about V (our main character), is that he doesn't hope to bring about Democracy, but rather Anarchy, which he sees as the ultimate path to freedom. By systematically killing the leaders of the fascist regime, V hopes to bring this about.

There's a lot to be said in this book about the debate of how best to achieve freedom. Is it, like V proposes, through total Anarchy that begins as chaos and eventually ends in self-policing? Or is it, more traditionally, through some sort of social contract? I truly don't think that V's anarchist ideals could ever work on a large scale, but perhaps in a case where the only sustainable government is a brutal one, there ought to be no government. The book also delves into what might become of the world if nuclear war were to occur? Sure, it's a cliched topic, but one that never ceases to interest me.

But I can't give this book the high praise that I will eventually laud on Watchmen. I think it's because of the artwork. David Lloyd's art here is at times stunningly beautiful, make no doubt about it. The idea to set the "Vicious Cabaret" scene tilted 90 degrees from normal and with music running throughout was brilliant (see the picture below for an example). My problem is that the characters aren't very distinguishable. In Watchmen, you could tell any character from any distance. In V for Vendetta, I was often trying to figure out who people were by their hairstyles. I appreciate the detail that allows me to see specific hairstyles, but I think that characters ought to be readily identifiable for ease of reading. If I want to go back and marvel at the detail around them, that's fine. But slowing every frame to figure just who is talking was tiring at times.

Overall though, I think this is a book I would recommend. Don't let it be your first graphic novel though. I thought Watchmen was a great choice as a first, but Kat at FoBoBlo (who knows way more about this stuff than I do) thinks otherwise. Looking through our GChats, I can't find what she recommended as a first instead (Kat, maybe you can comment and help?) but I know it definitely wasn't Watchmen. I pretty much ignored her on that one.

ANYWAYS. Go ahead, read something and get into graphic novels, and then pick up a copy of V for Vendetta. It's well worth it: great story, and despite my nitpicking, some really fantastic artwork at times.

26 November 2009

Review: Love Me

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! It's always one of my favorite holidays, because how can you possibly have too much delicious food? You can't. I stayed up late last night just to finish Garrison Keillor's 2003 novel Love Me. I have to say, I was a bit disappointed. I love Keillor on Prairie Home Companion and his novel Wobegon Boy is one of my favorite novels. So I had pretty high expectations coming into this book. (Aside: I found the book in hardcover for $4 at Second Story Books on DuPont Circle. Bought it, got home, looked inside: it's signed by Keillor!)

The story follows writer Larry Wyler and his mid-life crisis after receiving a huge bonus for writing a national best-seller. He then moves to New York after being unfaithful to his wife (though he doesn't divorce her). What follows is a tale of mid-life angst that is at times amusing, but usually just too drawn out.

Wyler gets hired by the New Yorker and runs into writer's block. He can do nothing about it, and has a series of meaningless affairs and friendships. Somehow he gets tangled up in the mob (they own the New Yorker apparently), misses his wife, and debates leaving New York City. But for some reason, he loves the city that has given him so many troubles. Somewhere in the mix he gets hired as an advice columnist, which becomes his alter-ego "Mr. Blue."

The book had good moments. I always enjoy when Keillor writes anything pertaining to classical music (Wyler loves it), and his midwestern humor shines throughout. Nevertheless, the book dragged on, had too much sex (I mean, really... every 20 or so pages there was some sort of a sex scene. Never too graphic, but good God man.), and was just highly implausible (Wyler killed a mob boss? His wife gladly takes him back after his sleeping around in NYC? Sure, why not?). It's not a book you need to go get. If you really want to read Keillor (and I recommend it), pick up a copy of Wobegon Boy. That's some A+ writing.

23 November 2009

Review: The Westing Game

I am not even a tiny bit above reading a children's book. One of my all-time favorites is Nortan Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth. So when I was at the Mt. Pleasant library the other day and saw a copy of Ellen Raskin's The Westing Game, I thought I'd give it a try. It's a tiny book (literally: only 6.9x5 inches and 219 pages), and I had meant to read it back in middle school. I changed my mind about it several times.

The premise of the books is as follows: Samuel Westing has died and left his estate to 16 strangers (or are they?). They must play his game with the winner receiving the estate. I don't want to give away the plot, but allow me to talk about why this book changed my mind not once, but twice. In the beginning it seemed like a great idea, and I was all for the book. But then I realized that I pretty much hated all of the characters. Scheming, rude, untrusting people. Not the kinds of characters who make for pleasant reading.

This goes on for quite some time, and then right at the end of the book, Raskin turns things around and leaves you thinking that Turtle Wexler (the girl I thought would be the protagonist at first) is indeed a nice person and not a terrible hellion.

It's a hard book to review, because I don't want to give anything away. Suffice to say it's cute and worth your time (mostly because it is such a quick read).

21 November 2009

Review: Classic Feynman

I have a fried who is always telling me what great reading the books of physicist Richard Feynman are. I finally got one from the library the other day, Classic Feynman: All the Adventures of a Curious Character. It's a collection of two books of his, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What do You Care What Other People Think? that has been compiled by Feynman's friend Ralph Leighton.

A bit of biography before I get into the review. Feynman was born in 1918 and went to school at MIT and Princeton for physics. While at Princeton, he was recruited to work on the Manhattan Project. After the war he taught at Cornell and the finally Caltech, where he achieved his greatest fame. In 1961 Caltech was worried that it's entry level physics course was not modern enough, so they asked Professor Feynman, one of the leading quantum physicists in the world, if he would teach the course. Much to everyone's surprise, he agreed, though he had one condition: he would only teach the course once. Caltech wisely recorded all of the lectures (later released in this set) and took pictures of every blackboard diagram he made.

In 1965, Feynman won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in quantum electrodynamic (no, I'm not quite sure what that is either). He was also a member of the presidential commission to investigate the causes of the 1986 Challenger explosion. In 1988 he died of a rare form of cancer.

Now that I have that out of the way, the book itself. It's a must read for anyone even vaguely interested in Feynman the person. Most of the stuff here isn't hard physics, and could certainly be understood by all (the difficult math and science that does pop up is not necessary for understanding the stories themselves). What you get are anecdotes from a fantastic story teller. How about cracking into the safes at the Manhattan Project? Or carousing with women in Brazil? The book is arranged in roughly chronological order so you work your way through Feynman's life without the structure of a biography.

But as good as the stories are, they can drag after a bit. Though they are all excellently told and read quickly, it seems like you're hearing mere variations on a theme. I was ready to give this book an interested-but-not-for-this-long "meh" until I reached the section about the Challenger crash investigation. The Challenger was the space shuttle that exploded 73 seconds after liftoff in January of 1986. Feynman's telling of the investigation and bureaucratic nightmares he faced in at once fascinating, gripping, and infuriating. Why would he be stopped from investigating when no one else wanted to? Why should he not put his nose in NASA's business? It was his mandate! This section completely saved the book for me.

And lest you should end on a bit of a sour note, there are a couple pieces at the end that wrap things up nicely. One is a commencement address Feynman gave to the 1974 Caltech class that encourages the students to make sure they research with integrity, not try merely to get funding. The other is Alan Alda's (yes, the actor) 2002 commencement address to the same school in which he makes an interesting proposal to the students:
What if each of you decided to take just one thing you love about science and, no matter how complicated it is, figure out a how to make it understood by a million people? There are about 500 of you taking part in this ceremony today. If just a few of you were successful, that would make several million people a lot smarter. 
What a brilliant idea. In the end, that's what I'm going to take from this book. Feynman doesn't try to impress with big words or lofty ideas; he lets the science amaze you itself. And he tries to make it understandable for anyone, so we can all get a glimpse at how incredibly amazing our universe is.

14 November 2009

My Relationship With Giant Books

Victoria at VPO was writing the other day about finishing books no matter what. She's been doing her best to pass on the habit to me, and for good reason. During my undergrad years, I picked up a really nasty habit of starting books and never finishing them. I can make lots of excuses (I was busy! Books are heavy to carry around! School reading!) but really they're all pretty lame. When it comes down to it, I just have to make time to read non-school stuff. And now that I am, it's incredibly rewarding. I had forgotten how much of an avid reader I can be during those few years.

But what started the problem? The one book I can think of that really got me into this habit was Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. My best friend in high school read it. And I later found out that Victoria read it. My uncle loved it, and wanted me to read it. So I should read it, right? And I tried! I got about 400 pages into it on several different occasions, but never finished. I'm not really sure why. It takes forever to read, but I certainly enjoyed those first 400 pages (even on subsequent readings). But after doing exactly what Atlas can't and dropping my burden, it was the start of something bad.

Now, I read pretty normal sized books, and I am pretty leery of the giants in literature. I still have Atlas Shrugged mocking me from my shelf, and I worry that if I start another behemoth, I won't finish it and the pattern will begin again. This doesn't mean I haven't read any of these. In the past year I've read Don Quixote (ugh) and The Three Musketeers (amazing) and lived to tell the tale.

But the strange thing is, despite my caution around these monoliths, there are a few I desperately want to read. I am planning (at least until I chicken out) to read War and Peace over winter break (the Richard Pevear translation, I think), and that is the representative of door-stop books. Also, I think a group of graduate students and I are going to take on Richard Taruskin's monumental 3,856 page Oxford History of Western Music. We plan on modeling it after the Taruskin Challenge blog, and reading 50 pages a week. At that rate, it will only take 77 weeks to finish.

So I'm not really sure what draws me to these things. Maybe it's the immense sense of satisfaction after I finish them, and maybe it's just knowing that they are often some of the most "important" books ever and that I should read them. When I (hopefully) get through War and Peace, I'm not sure what my next giant of a book will be. Maybe it's time to finally tackle Ayn Rand.

06 November 2009

Review: The Ground Beneath Her Feet

So if you've read my last entry, you know my problems with Salman Rushdie. And this book certainly continued them. Throughout The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Rushdie stayed his usual pretentious self. It was annoying, aggravating, and made me want to put the book down sometimes.

But that said, I didn't. Because more than in Fury, this book kept me interested. We got more moments of Rushdie doing his good stuff towards the end, and in a way it becomes simply heartbreaking. When Rai (the narrator) describes the death of Vina and its aftermath, you truly feel for him. He's lost the love of his life, and so has the world, apparently. The denouement of the story almost feels like a letdown after this glimpse of the author's best writing.

Is it worth a read? Sure, if you've got the extra time. I think it could have been edited down a bit, as the 575 pages seemed overly long-winded at times. But it really does become a compelling story, one in which you become invested in the characters.

One last note. Rushdie uses the same anecdote about the Pope and his driver (the life-long driver brings JPII to the Vatican before he is named pope, the smoke goes up, someone comes out to tell the driver he is fired) that he used in Fury. This was simaltaneously kind of a neat link, and really annoying. Get some new anecdotes, man.

04 November 2009

Salman Rushdie and Me

So I'm in the middle of The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie right now. It's my second novel, after my spin through Fury last year, and it's the second time I hate Rushdie. Why did I go back to him? Why is there a chance that I will again in the future? Why does he at once infuriate and hold me captive?

I know two reasons I came back, and probably will in the future. The first is the importance of his works. It's nearly impossible to have a discussion of significant contemporary literature and not mention Rushdie. He is undeniably influential, having won not only a Booker award, but a "Best of Booker" award in a public vote of past Booker winners. Any talk of controversial books has to mention The Satanic Verses (probably my choice for the next time I read him), which brought the ire of much of the Muslim world on Rushdie. His work is so often referenced that it almost feels irresponsible to not read him.

The second reason I have returned to Rushdie is that he undeniably has a way with words. There are times when his prose is achingly beautiful. His description of the singer Ormus Cama putting a song on tape using no musicians but himself was immediately arresting. (Note: bouncing refers to the process of mixing multiple tracks into fewer; used in the days when magnetic tape made possible only four tracks.)
Each time he lays down a track - he can play every instrument in the studio better than the sessions guys he's just fired - he comes into the booth, lies down on the seating unit, closes his eyes. The sound mixer moves his slides, turns his dials, and Ormus directs him until the music coming out of the speakers is the secret music in his head. Pull those up, push those back, he says. Bring this in here, fade that away there. Okay, it's okay. That's it. Don't change a thing. Go.

You're sure, now, the mixer says. Because this is it. No turning back.

Bouncey, bouncey, Ormus grins, and the mixer laughs and sings back at him.
This was one of the best scenes in any book that I've come across lately. Maybe it's just my fascination with what goes on in the recording studio, but Rushdie nailed it here.

The problem comes almost everywhere else. Rushdie tries so damn hard to force allusion into his writing that it becomes tiresome. I really get the feeling that he writes with the attitude of "No way in hell will you all get all of my references. Suckers." And for some reason (though I'm not sure why) his plot twists irritate me to no end. Ormus and co. live in a world where Kennedy was never shot and the Watergate scandal unfolded exactly as we know it... in the guise of a novel. But Ormus, after an accident, can see into a parallel universe. I'm fine with that idea. Science says there are probably parallel universes. The annoying bit however is: that otherworld is OURS.

Why does Rushdie, feel the need to dabble in other universes in his novels? In Fury it was a land of puppets! Here, it's US! Something of this just strikes me as incredibly pretentious, and I realize this may be unjustified. It is, however, the vibe I get from him. But I came back, didn't I? He certainly keeps me hooked, and he has moments of sublime beauty. If he could channel that for a whole novel, I'd tell everyone I knew to read the book. Rushdie at his best is unparalleled, no one can hope to match him. What good is his best, though, if it only happens rarely?

On a Different Matter Entirely

As you may or may not know, my life outside of the confines of these HTML walls is lived as a grad student in music history. I have a deep-seated love of classical music, and I've been upset lately that as much as I talk about it in school, I hardly ever get to talk to non-music-nerd people about it. I love having an opportunity to spread this music around, to raise awareness, to inspire other people to fall head-over-heels in love with it. It's why I want to become a professor: that chance to let others into what I enjoy so much.

I've had outlets before for this, including my classical radio show ([not-so-] cleverly titled "Classical Washington") and accompanying blog at WRGW. It's partially thanks to GW that I get the chance to write about classical again. Starting now (the first post is live), I'll be writing classical music posts at FoBoBlo, the blog of Foggy Bottom. You'll get previews of happenings at the Kennedy Center, and other musical events around Foggy Bottom. I'm going to try to make the writing broad enough so it can include everyone: the person who doesn't listen to classical all the way to the person with a 1,500 CD collection. So keep reading here at Metro Marginalia. This is where my book stuff goes. But if you have any desire to read about classical music (or just to read a pretty fantastic blog), check out FoBoBlo.

31 October 2009

Dracula - Chapters 26-End: Fina-freaking-ly

We're done! Rejoice! Did you ever think that a trans-continental chase of a bloodsucking dude could be so boring? Nor did I! Admittedly, it was tense. And the final scene, as Van Helsing and Mina watch all of the parties converging was pretty awesome. I mean, sure, it takes some willing suspension of disbelief to imagine that they all end up in the right place at the right time; but we were already talking about people gaining life by sucking blood. It's a leap I'm willing to make.

But the fight with the gypsies and the killing of Dracula was really heinously anticlimactic. Why couldn't we get a fight between Dracula and the gang? Or at least some tension with the box? As it was: throw the box, open box, stab the vampire. Quincey Morris comes off as a pretty awesome dude though, and he did throughout the whole book. We American's seem nonessential, but pretty great to Stoker. I'm cool with that portrayal.

But really, the strongest character in the whole book is Mina. She's kind of awesome, wielding that revolver and all. At some point I'm going to read League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and I hope there's a really badass version of her in it. What I can't get over, in relation to Mina, is how Van Helsing, more than anyone, professes his love for her. Shouldn't that be Jonathan's job? I really think the old doctor was crushing on Mina.

Overall, if you've not read the book, pick it up. It's tedious at times, that's for sure. But if you're not keeping to a schedule, it'd be a really quick read. And why not get one of the classics off your list quickly. So what'd you all think? I gave it three stars. Let's hear your rating in the comments.

28 October 2009

Dracula - Chapters 22-25: Mina Potter and the Dutch Man's Vampire

So if you're reading this you're probably reading along. I'll spare you plot points to discuss something else. Is Mina Harker actually Harry Potter (thus making Drac He Who Must Not Be Named)? Let's look at a few salient points:

Harry: Scar on forehead
Mina: Scar on forehead

Harry: Scar burns when Voldemort does something
Mina: Scar was burned on when the bite-o-christ touched her

Harry: Can see what Voldemort is up to, especially while dreaming
Mina: Can see what Dracula is up to (but only in a hypnotic dream-like state)

Harry: Voldemort can get in his mind
Mina: Drac can get into hers

The evidence is pretty compelling. I mean, was J.K. just cribbing from Bram? Was our hero of Harry just a progenitor for She Who Shall Never Be Named Here?

Maybe. But you have to admit, it is rather compelling drama. After so many pages of schlock, we're finally getting somewhere. And thank GOD Stoker saved us the time between the decision to go to Varna and actually arriving there. Can you imagine what the diaries from the "in transit" part would have been? Eesh. So things are heating up, but all I can think of is the Harry Potter connection. What do you think? Agree or no?

24 October 2009

Dracula - Chapters 17-21: Get on with it!

Dear heavens this book is dragging. Luckily, it's only one chapter a day, or at this point it'd be easy to lose motivation. So what have I missed telling you about? The boys are off hunting vampires and being absolute freaking idiots. "What's that? Mina looks pale? Poor girl needs sleep!"

NO! NO! NO! You blasted morons. Let's think about what happened to Lucy here gents. Pale? Check. Won't wake up at a normal hour? Check. Acting oddly? Check.

_HE'_  A  _A_P_ _ E  _OU  _U_BA_ _ E_

I'd like to solve the puzzle please.

::wild applause::!

Or at the very least, she's been vamped. I just can't get over how oblivious our gang is about this. I mean, they've been doing nothing but studying Dracula and the way he works. They really couldn't figure this one out? GAH!

On to less infuriating things. Renfield continued to be the most compelling character in the novel. That is until he got murdered by Dracula. But in his last act, he did something both selfish and noble. Attempting to prevent Dracula from getting to Mina was an act that I can't help but think was at least partially motivated by his apparent warm feelings for the woman. Certainly, as Renfield himself says, he was mad at Dracula for not asking his permission to come in, and for not giving him any blood. But I imagine he would have never been so bold as to attempt to seize the Count without some other motivator.

So Renfield sends the boys to catch Dracula just in time and now it appears as if Mina is back in. Good for her. She seems to be the only logical one (though the "I don't want to tell Jonathan of my suspicious dreams, much like those of Lucy" moment was a bit dumb. She can be forgiven though since the dudes were all being idiots towards her). Maybe with Mina on the case we'll finally catch Drac.

Regardless, this book's middle section is not nearly as good as the opening chapters. It's just dragging too much. Here's to hoping our final week is more enjoyable.

18 October 2009

Dacula - Chapters 13-16: The ones in which Van Helsing is Reticent

Wait, Van Helsing being reticent isn't enough to figure these out? I don't share quite the same sense of exasperation that 'kül and Infinite Detox have for these chapters in which Van Helsing continues to drag things out, but let's just say it's a good thing they finally chopped off Lucy's head and drove a stake through her, because any more would have been past my limit. That said, I cannot possibly hope to describe what has happened any better than ID, so I quote them here:
Van Helsing hand-feeding Seward from his little Dutch Pez-dispenser of clues every step of the goddamn way.
Yep, that sums it up perfectly.  I guess upon retrospection, this whole section has been overly long. We've known what is happening for ages, as has Van Helsing. Was there any need for him to draw it out for so many chapters? I wonder how much of this has to do with the fact that we know Dracula is a vampire from popular culture. It would be fascinating to know what public reception of the novel was at the time of its release. Did the Victorians share in our exasperation? I feel that Elizabeth Miller could best answer my question, and if she's reading, please join in the comments!

But another factor that, I think, adds to our angst with Stoker's dramatic pacing is how riveting the opening chapters were. Remember that feeling of being shocked, terrified, creeped out, or otherwise that we all felt? Well we haven't had that in a while. We're in the exposition part of the book now, where some things have to be drawn out. Maybe this is unavoidable. I've been enjoying the references to Dan Brown, but remember: Dan Brown would never allow a lull like this. It's fast-paced all the time with him. Perhaps, in the end, we will see this as a point in Stoker's favor. And perhaps, we won't.

With that said, I'm glad to see the action picking up again. We learn some tricks of the de-vampiring trade, including stakes, garlic in the decapitated head, and Body of Christ Putty (tm). I'm fascinated by the fact that Van Helsing has a dispensation from the Pope to use communion wafers. This means the Vatican not only knows of the un-dead, but approves of Van Helsing hunting them (which, logically, they should). Could be an interesting twist later on, though I kind of doubt we get the Vatican involved (that would be too much like Dan Brown).

Anyhow, for these middling chapters, what do you think? Anything particularly strike your fancy? Let's hear it in the comments!

13 October 2009

Dracula - Chapters 9-12: Why do Victorians hate garlic?

The chapters in which Lucy is sick. Pretty easily summed up: Lucy is sick, Seward doesn't know what to do, he calls Van Helsing who does the right thing, people undo the right thing, Lucy gets worse. Now that we've got that out of the way, let's talk about a couple of things from these chapters.

Firstly, while I agree with Victoria over at VPO that it is not the smartest idea ever for Van Helsing to not tell anyone what he's doing, I think he has a reason. I'm absolutely positive that Van Helsing knows what is going on. He's got the garlic (which we know keeps away vampires), and he's giving Lucy much-needed blood while trying to make sure she isn't alone at night. So he's got this figured out. But I'm not sure if he's 100% certain yet, and I think that is where he derives his reticence to let anyone in on the secret. I've been trying all day to come up with a parallel, and I'm having trouble. Imagine that you think your mom is secretly an alien. But there is NO WAY you are telling anyone until you are positive. I mean, that just gets you laughed at. Also, it alerts the other aliens that you know. Once you have proof and a way to get rid of her slimy self, you act. In much the same way, Van Helsing is waiting until he has everything he needs to rid the greater London area of Vampires, and he isn't showing his cards in the meantime.

That said, it's leading to some awfully horrible things. Some of these circumstances just seem like something out of Comedy of Errors (or a good Looney Tunes cartoon), but they leave us horrified rather than humored. So it should come as no surprise that things finally work for the worse and Lucy is dealt a final blow from the escaped wolf who is in the company of the original Batman. As she is attended to by Seward, Van Helsing, and her third suitor, Quincey Morris, we get to hear of a couple interesting stories on the side.

Story One: Jonathan and Mina Harker are back in England! And they've come into a boatload of money! And Mina has decided to again start writing Lucy. She, sadly, doesn't realize it's too late. I wonder if we're going to get the journey from Budapest to Essex any time. That would be an awfully interesting tale, I think. Alternatively, it could be heinously boring.

Story Two: Renfield is still insane! Patrick Hennessey, the only man with enough letters after his name to rival Van Helsing, is looking after the asylum while Seward is off taking care of Lucy. He reports that Renfield has broken out again and gone chasing after two laborers carrying heavy boxes from Dracula's British estate. Now, we know that heavy boxes going to the estate had Dracula in them. What do you suppose these contained? My guess is maybe Dracula again, now that he has done in Lucy. Maybe that was his whole goal in coming. Renfield lends some credence to this when he shouts as he is being restrained:
I'll frustrate them! They shan't rob me! They shan't murder me by inches! I'll fight for my Lord and Master!
I think he is literally fighting for his "Lord and Master" here, and not just doing Dracula's bidding.

I always find it interesting how an author can keep my attention in books with multiple story-lines of equal importance. In Dracula, I'm always sad to see one go by the wayside, but after a bit, I almost forget about it and get just as engrossed in the next story. This really is one of the best page-turners I've read in quite some time, and if it weren't for Victoria keeping me on track, I surely would have gone ahead of schedule by now. What do you guys think? We're about halfway through: good book, great book, or terrible book? Let's hear it!

10 October 2009

Dracula - Van Helsing rules

Van Helsing freaking rocks, if for no other reason than this.
Letter, Abraham Van Helsing, M.D., D.Ph., D.Lit., Etc., Etc., to Dr Seward
I want that many letters behind my name. Dude is awesome, and we've barely met him yet.

08 October 2009

Dracula - Chapters 7-8: Dracula stops by for tea

So as promised to Victoria in the comments, let's talk about Lucy. Even after I've seen what her sleep-walking leads to, I still have questions. I understand her being awake and walking around after she gets bit by our good friend the Count, but why was she doing it before? My guess is that she was exposed to some other vampire at some other point, but where? So many unanswered questions.

And Mina. Oh Mina. Stupid Mina. After coming across Lucy in the churchyard, apparently in the embrace of some stranger, she prudently puts a cloak on her friend.
I fastened the shawl at her throat with a big safety-pin; but I must have been clumsy in my anxiety and pinched or pricked her with it, for by-and-by, when her breathing became quieter, she put her hand to her throat again and moaned.

The emphasis there was added by me. Mina, darling, two quick thoughts here. First, if she was moaning and putting her hand to her throat before you used the safety pin, it probably wasn't the safety pin. Secondly, if you stab someone with a safety pin, you're going to feel it. I understand that Stoker has to keep the suspense going, make sure his characters don't figure it all out before they're supposed to, but come on. She really is meant for Jonathan. Neither of them can see past the freaking obvious.

And we confirm our suspicions of Lucy have been Drac'd, when the Count is shipped to London and Lucy feels all better. Just when things seem to be settling down in the coastal town, Mina gets a letter from a nun about Jonathan. It's off to Hungary time for her! I can kind of understand the idea here, run to the side of your lover when they're ill. Makes sense. But that said, if he's insane, maybe you should take someone with you. No?

I should just note in passing, since I didn't cover it earlier, that log from the ship was absolutely chilling, and amazingly well-written. There are few things as great as a good nautical thriller. I mean, look at Der fliegende Holländer or Peter Grimes. Storms, the sea, and spooky ships are always an A+ combination.

Finally, we get to Renfield and Dr. Seward. So Renfield is really quite obviously a vampire, now that we've seen him refer to Dracula as Master. And Seward hasn't quite caught on yet. In his mind, "Master" is still in Renfield's head. It'll be interesting to see how Seward, the rational man that he is, comes to terms with Renfield being even weirder than previously thought. (Also: Seward is a chloroform addict! Neat! I didn't know we'd be dealing with high-end drugs in this novel.)

Alright, that's it for tonight. Any thoughts on the last two chapters, or the novel thus far? Let's have them in the comments!

07 October 2009

Dracula - Chapters 3-6: Is everyone a vampire?

So Jonathan Harker seems to be in a bit of a pickle (either dead in a ravine or being chased by angry Hungarians through Eastern Europe). Mina is dealing with death and tempests. Dr. Seward is helping a man upsize his pet collection. Where to begin?

Well, Harker seems the logical place, since he is where we left off. Our "hero" is told by the Count to continue to explore the locked up castle, but to make sure he doesn't fall asleep anywhere but his room. Harker is obviously new to this whole genre of Horror, because he decides to fall asleep in a room not his own as an act of rebellion. Now we get to see the Count's sweet side, as he saves Rip Van Winkle from becoming a drinking fountain for the three vampire women. But, before we get too comfortable with the image of Dracula as a savior, he tells the women that Harker is his for the eating, eventually. I was conflicted here. It seems obvious that the Count wants to take a bite out of Jonathan, but he seems almost genuinely concerned about him. Are we seeing a real side of the Count? We certainly have before, when he was busily and happily telling his family's history. So can we be led to believe that the Count is even slightly normal?

I'm going to quickly sum up the next bits, because this is already getting long and I haven't even gotten to Mina yet. Jonathan's explorations into Dracula's room give us the idea that maybe he's been a coin collector for a few hundred years now, and he likes a firm bed of topsoil. These scenes are unbelievably creepy, as is the scene in which Jonathan is seduced by the dancing dust in the moonlight. (Side note: Jonathan has obviously been warned of the dangers, and he obviously already has a healthy fear of both Count Dracula and his castle; so why is it that he always seems to be falling asleep? I mean, I understand that there is dust in the moonlight, and "oooo, dust!" Nevertheless, given the situation, if you are Jonathan Harker, don't you do everything in your power not to fall asleep outside your room? If I knew that three women, and possibly a Count were trying to make Cartoid Cocktails from me, I'd be darn sure I wasn't too busy watching moonlight theatre to get back into bed. Just saying.) One last note from the castle, we begin to see Stoker's (seeming) infatuation with the theme of life. Dracula regenerates his and this is part of what convinces Jonathan to flee. More on this in a bit.

We leave the castle with Jonathan (not knowing if we'll ever see him again) and head northwest to England where we meet a cast of characters guaranteed to keep this story creepy. For now, I'd like to focus on Dr. Seward, Mina, and the old fisherman. Seward's experiments with Renfield seem shocking today, but my guess is they were well within acceptable norms in Victorian times. But the truly interesting this here is Renfield's desire to upgrade his pet collection. First flys, then spiders, then sparrows, and finally the desire for a cat. After Seward learns that Renfield has eaten his sparrows (raw), he comes to a diagnosis of sorts for the madman:
My homicidal maniac is of a peculiar kind. I shall have to invent a new classification for him, and call him a zoophagous (life-eating) maniac; what he desires is to absorb as many lives as he can, and he has laid himself out to achieve it in a cumulative way. He gave many flies to one spider and many spiders to one bird, and then wanted a cat to eat the many birds. What would have been his later steps?
Renfield planned on ingesting life. We don't yet know his motives, but from what I know of vampire lore (which, granted is only loosely based on this novel, so my conjecture may be significantly off), this is the premise behind vampires. Are we, then, to believe that Renfield is some form of Vampire? That's certainly what I'm leading towards. Seward has (as do I), a sort of macabre fascination with what Renfield was going to do next.

Lastly, I'd like to turn to Mina and the incomprehensible fisherman (seriously, I'm all for dialects, but dear god reading notes to understand what someone is saying is frustrating). Here again we see a fixation with life or, rather, with the end of it. The fisherman makes light of death, only to reveal on the eve of what seems to be a massive storm, that it was only because he knows it will be coming for him soon. The imagery of Death (capitol D intended) here stands in such stark contrast to the earlier talk of gaining life. And at the same time, that too was centered around death. For Renfield to gain life, countless other things had to die. But the fisherman puts into words what I think will become the defining characteristic of the divide between vampires and normal people.
For life be, after all, only a waitin' for somethin' else than what we're doin': and death be all that we can rightly depend on.
The normal people accept Death (and death) as natural, and maybe even wanted. The vampires (at least Dracula) seem to be avoiding it at all costs. What for? Are they doomed to Hell and scared of their fate? Or, alternatively, is it just a desire to stay in the corporeal world? I'm leaning towards the former explanation, but I wouldn't be surprised to change my mind as the work goes on.

As a final question: is the Russian boat coming into the harbor Dracula? I say yes.

Alright, that's a mouthful. But that's what happens when I go four days without blogging. I'll try and be more punctual in the future so as to keep these to a more controllable size. Be sure to keep following along at VPO and IS:Drac as well! And let me know what you think in the comments.

02 October 2009

Dracula - Chapters 1 & 2: What's with all the dogs?

So I'm going to be blogging as I read Dracula along with the good folks of Infinite Summer (not to mention Views from the Page and the Oven). This is my first time reading the novel, so keep that in mind as you read. I'll put chapter 2 after the break for those of you who haven't gotten there yet. 

Quite obviously, after the opening chapters, things are not looking good for our hero, Harker Johnathan. Oh wait, it's Johnathan Harker. Sorry, I keep thinking like the Transylvanians. But a few observations on Harker first. He seems to truly embody the Victorian spirit of "The Sun Never Sets on the British Empire." Take for instance his observations on the women he passes.
"The women looked pretty, except when you got near them"
At first I was drawn to thinking of Harker as the original Victorian brosef. But then as he talks more and more about the locals, I got a sense of condescension. It's never really overt, and he certainly never refers to people as anything so brusque as "savages," but there is a definite feeling of superiority to the locals. It comes across best when Harker talks about timetables:
"It seems to me that the further east you go the more unpunctual are the trains. What ought they to be in China?"
Everyone knows that Dracula is a Victorian novel, but I think it will be interesting to see what sort of impression I can glean of the Victorian mind at the time. How is their worldview reflected in the writing of Bram Stoker?

Another thing I noticed was the motif of dogs. In the first chapter alone, we get 15 mentions of "dog" or "wolves," and a "werewolf." Now, this is probably just a misconception on my part, but I've never associated the story of Dracula with dogs; bats were always the animal I had in mind. I'm going to be keeping an eye open as I keep reading, because I get the feeling that dogs (wild or domestic) are going to become a theme.

30 September 2009

Toys for the bibliophile

Alright, I really want a DC-area bookstore to get one of these, like, yesterday. It's a new machine that can produce a library-quality paperback book in about four minutes. Currently, the soon-to-be-renamed Espresso has a fairly limited catalog (but it does have the Google books collection), but could lead to cheaper and more readily accessible books. The prices that the Harvard Bookstore are offering seem a tad bit high, especially when the On Demand Books website mentions that "Production cost is a penny a page and minimal human intervention is required for operation."

Nevertheless, this machine could have a huge impact on making out-of-print books available again. If you can have the choice between printing a new copy of an out-of-print book, or searching for a used copy for what may be a higher price, the decision seems easy. But more importantly, I think, is what we are starting to see in the world of books. With E-Readers soaring in popularity, and the means to read Public Domain books online, we are beginning to see the decommodification of the book as an object.

It's not going to be very long before we no longer prize having the actual object and merely want the content instead. And before the traditionalists have the chance to howl at me for blasphemy, look at what has happened in the world of music. As mp3s were introduced, people clamored that sound quality was poor and you lost the connection with actual albums. Well, it appears that iTunes and the like are the way of the future, and most of the complaints about missing the tangible are gone. It makes sense that sound was so easily adapted, because the process of consumption remains the same, regardless of the media on which the product is distributed. However, with books, we have to find a way to serve the product that is amenable to everyone.

The Espresso keeps with the standard format of giving us bound paper, but I think it will help to devalue the idea of having your own copy. Lose a copy of Three Musketeers? Who cares?! You can print a new one down the street! Additionally, if the publishing world embraces the idea, it will mean bookstores no longer have to keep massive stock on hand to satisfy all possible needs. Instead, we could see bookstores reduced to ATM-esque kiosks.

With all of this said, I'm not sure how I feel about the possibilities of the Espresso. Sure, it's a GREAT toy, and a really awesome concept. But there is no feeling quite like browsing around a book store. I know I can get anything I want on Amazon, but I still go to brick-and-mortar stores so I get the opportunity to browse and perhaps be taken by a whim. It's one of the joys of being a reader. I'm afraid to lose that, because it means taking fewer chances, and finding fewer surprises. So while I encourage the idea behind the Espresso, I am leery of implications it could have. What are your thoughts?

29 September 2009

Dracula: Infinite Summer Style

http://infinitesummer.org/dracula/You may have heard of the reading craze that swept the nation this summer: Infinite Summer, an online community reading David Foster Wallace's doorstop Infinite Jest. Victoria, over at Views from the Page and the Oven, partook and was almost inspiration enough for me to do the same. But, in the end, I couldn't bring myself to tackle the work when I had so many other things I wanted to read.

Infinite Summer: Dracula

Well, luckily for me, the gang at Infinite Summer had such a good time that they decided to pick another book to read after Summer was over (or was it ever really over, being infinite and all). They've chosen the considerably less hefty, and significantly less post-modern Dracula by Bram Stoker. It's a fairly manageable reading schedule spread out over the month of October, and fear not, you don't even have to buy a copy! As announced today, they will be having Jonathan McNicol provide a newly typeset version of the Public Domain work in PDF installments over the course of the project. Otherwise, you can pick up a copy on the cheap from pretty much anywhere. So come and join. You should be able to read without putting down your other books. I know I will be multitasking American Prometheus, The Ground Beneath Her Feet (more on that later), and Dracula.

22 September 2009

Irony is good for the diet

After my little rant about Satchel (brief review: a horrible book by a man who at times seems to know nothing about baseball, especially advanced statistical metrics), I've dived into another biography. In a wonderful turn of events, however, this one is magnificent already. The book is American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin. I'm sure I'll write more about it later, but I had to post one little delicious bit of irony I came across.

A little back story. As I may have mentioned before, I'm a graduate student in music history at UMD. This being my second year of the MA program, I have to write a thesis, and I've chosen to study John Adams' opera Doctor Atomic. It's the story of Oppenheimer in the days leading up to the first test of the atomic bomb in Los Alamos, NM. If you have a chance to see or hear it, do so, as it is a really stunning work and one that I think is going to carve itself a place in the permanent repertoire of opera companies around the world.

With that said, I came across this little bit (page 31 of the paperback edition) that makes me smile at the fantastic irony of Adams' work.
The one thing Boyd and Oppenheimer did not have in common was music. "I was very fond of music," Boyd recalled, "but once a year he would go to an opera, with me and Bernheim usually, and he'd leave after the first act. He just couldn't take any more." Herbert Smith had also noticed this peculiarity, and once said to Robert, "You're the only physicist I've ever known who wasn't also musical."
I wonder what Oppie would think of the opera about him?

28 July 2009

The Trouble with Biographies

I went to the library a couple weeks ago and saw a copy of Larry Tye's new biography Satchel sitting on the new book shelves. It being the middle of summer and the Mariners having not played themselves out of contention yet (those were the days), I decided a baseball book would be perfect. Now, I knew almost nothing about Satchel Paige coming into the book aside from the fact that he was an exceptionally good pitcher.

Now, 123 pages into the book, I'm wondering why I got it in the first place. I mean, it's certainly not a bad book, I just can't bring myself to be that invested in it. Tye does a fine job depicting the life of Paige (though there is some chronological jumping that infuriates me, more on that when I review the book), but it just isn't amazing. And it's made me remember that in general, I don't really like biographies. (That's a little bit weird for a music historian, right?)

Why not? They can have amazing subjects (who doesn't want to know more about Einstein? FDR? Frida Kahlo?) and can be written by fantastic authors. But even the most amazing lives often lack the narrative drive that makes great works of literature so amazing. We're all used to digesting the life of George Washington as a series of bullet-point facts. Unless a biography really elaborates on that, you might as well read the wiki article.

This shouldn't be construed as me saying "There are no good biographies!" Because there are, they're just very rare. I loved the David McCullough biography of John Adams because it showed the founding father in an intensely personal life. The use of his letters with Abigail made for some heart-rending moments, some truly literary moments.

And that's what I think it boils down to, biography lacks the emotional and narrative drive of great literature. Learning facts for bar trivia is great (in 1935 Satchel Paige went 29-2 with 321 strikeouts to only 16 walks... mind blowing), it doesn't make for the most compelling reading. How often do you sit down with your college text books for a nice afternoon? I guess I just have to remember this the next time a glossy cover of a biography yells at me from the shelves in the library.

24 July 2009

All the King's Men, review

Well hello there blog. Fancy meeting you here. I've recently started running, something I despise. Yet, i am forcing myself to do it three times a week. It's about time I started doing that with this blog, something I do not despise. So I figured I'd get back with a quick review of Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men.

As I have blubbered before, the prose was gorgeous. I have only rarely come across such simply beautiful writing as this. But, the story should not be overshadowed. What sets out to ostensibly be the story of the politician Willie Talos becomes the story of his man Jack Burden. What a character Burden becomes. For the majority of the book, I thought he was the most despicable protagonist I had ever found myself reading about. Yet in the end, when we find that he tried to give the Judge a way out, I found myself feeling sympathetic for Jack. Finally, he was a character with whom I could empathize!

The assassination of Willie took me by surprise, but it retrospect, it shouldn't have. Talos was a man far too ambitious, one who seemed from the beginning doomed to fall back to the earth, brought down not by the sun but rather by his own hubris. Despite the hubris, however, Talos became something more than just a slime ball. Certainly, Talos embodied everything that is deplorable about politics: mud slinging, blackmail, cronyism, etc.

But he had ambitions for the greater good. Ambitions that were surprisingly relevant even today: better roads, better use of money in an economic depression, and free health care for all residents. He used his sleeze towards the greater good, but it was destined to come back for him. The paralyzing of his son was really the fatal blow to Talos, and the gunshots of Adam Stanton were merely Willie's death made real.

Warren's slow change of characters through the book made for excellent reading. Nothing seemed to be in stasis, and constantly evolving characters helps any book be good. I can safely recommend this book to anyone really. It strikes me, as cliched as this sounds, as the nearest I've ever come to the "great American novel." Is it the best American novel? Certainly not. But it encompasses so much of what has made the United States the nation that it is: backwater dealings of seemingly little import that shape the states and country as a whole.

08 July 2009

All the Kings Men, the first 100 Pages

So Warren is still writing some of the most beautiful prose I've ever read. Take for instance this phrase from a meeting in which time moved inexorably:
...the clock in the corner, a big grandfather's clock, offered us the slow, small, individual pellets of time.
Yet in addition to the continued splendor of Warren's writing, we're getting plot development. I've yet to see the recently-made movie based on the book, but it's easy to understand how the inspiration came about. It's a classic story told from the present in the vein of Forrest Gump. The first chapter (72 pages) outlines the "now" of the story. Willie Talos, governor, is in the middle of a fight to nominate a senator. One of his long-time backers has switched sides, and Talos takes the narrator, Jack Burden, to convince the Judge to come back, or else. It's really the dirty side of politics. After the encounter, Jack says that eventually everything "The Boss" (Talos) wanted was accomplished. He found the dirt on the Judge, the only father-figure he ever had. But before we get to that (assuming we eventually do), he takes us back to the beginning of Talos' career.

But the most intriguing part of it all is how Jack manages to make both himself and The Boss into imminently loathsome characters. Generally, one does not come across such odious protagonists, and yet ten pages into the second chapter and I've forgotten (or at least pushed to the back of my mind) the reprehensible actions of the two in chapter one.

What I am still trying to figure out is whether these characters are easy to forgive because back-stabbing is such an ingrained part of American politics, or if it's because of the way that Warren writes. Nevertheless, the story is becoming fascinating, and the writing remains superb. I'll keep updating as I keep reading. If you've read the book, let me hear your say in the comments!

06 July 2009

Newsweek makes a Top 100 List

Back from a long and indulgent weekend. I didn't read too much as my girlfriend got a new gaming system for her birthday. Alas, c'est la wii.

Anyhow, as a dip back into the blogging pool, I thought I'd point out Newsweek's Top 100 book list. It is a compilation of lists, or as they describe it, "It's a list of lists — a meta-list." I haven't read as many in the Top 20 as I should have, but judging from what I know of them (perception of those I haven't, and first-hand knowledge of those I have) it's pretty hard to argue with this. I'm considering tackling this list, rather than the behemoth that is 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. My problem with the latter is that there are just a huge number of books there that don't interest me at all. And while reading 20 or so books that don't immediately interest me to get a well-rounded knowledge based on a reasonable list of books (Newsweek) doesn't bother me, reading a few hundred does.

I'll see if I can't make a nice little usable spreadsheet for the Newsweek list for those that want to download it. There is something about a "mere" 100 books that seems undaunting enough to be accomplished. Though the inclusion of War and Peace and Ulysses in the top 10 is worrisome.

Look for my own top 10 list sometime in the next week. It won't be a "greatest ever," but rather it will be my favorites. I've just gotta give it some thought. And in the meantime, what are your thoughts on the Newsweek list?

02 July 2009

Vitriolic, arsenical green

I'm only 8 pages into it, but I need to recommend that everyone go read the first 4 or 5 pages of Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. Those few pages contain some of the most beautiful writing I've ever come across. Brace yourself for some coarse language (racial epithets), but the one example that really stood out was in the first paragraph. The context: talking about being hypnotized by the road and then driving off it:
Then a nigger chopping cotton a mile away, he'll look up and see the little column of black smoke standing up above the vitriolic, arsenical green of the cotton rows, and up against the violent, metallic, throbbing blue of the sky.
Warren was the United States' first Poet Laureate, so it's no surprise that he can write with such vivid imagery. But it still caught me off guard. I've read some good books lately, but nothing that grabs the imagination and the mental ear quite like this. You can write a good story, and you can write well. I can't judge the story yet, but Warren already has the writing well part solidified in the first page.

It really reminds you that writing is an art, and at times it can be just as arresting as gazing upon Church's Niagra at the Corcoran, or hearing the slow movement of Debussy's string quartet. Hopefully I'll come across more of this as I write the blog, but it seems fitting that I should come across such a fine example of the way in which writing can be the most vivid of arts just as I begin to collect in writing my thoughts on writing.

I will keep updating as I keep reading. And certainly there will be some discussion of The Three Musketeers soon.

01 July 2009

A hearty welcome

Welcome to Metro Marginalia, the attempt of a 20-something grad student in music history to read outside his field. I've recently moved into a new apartment, sans TV, and have reacquainted myself with my love of reading. It's amazing how much more reading I can get done when I'm not watching SportsCenter.

"Blah blah, self important grad student. But what will you be writing about?" you ask. Well, I'm not entirely sure. I assume I'll put some discussion of the books I am currently reading or have recently read. I'll have talk of book news that strikes me as interesting (disclosure: I am not a publishing news junkie, so it'll just be stuff I happen to catch). I'll write about some of my all-time favorites.

And on that note, let me put it out there so you can feel free to argue with me right away. My all-time favorite book is Joseph Heller's Catch-22. I can't remember ever laughing so hard at a book that moved me so much. It was shocking at the time, and it remains so to this day. Maybe that's one thing I'll do: a re-reading of Catch-22, with commentary!

Alright, I'll wrap it up. Expect a post about The Three Musketeers soon. I just finished it last week, and I freaking loved it. I hope you'll join me in the comments for some good discussion. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you enjoy.