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.