Archive for the ‘50/50 Books’ Category

[50/50] Book #14: Watchmen (1986)

Sunday, August 10th, 2014

Favorite Book #14: Watchmen (1986)

1338201233_watchmen-12-of-12Had a strange conversation with an older friend the other day who said he’d finally sat down and read Watchmen recently — and didn’t get what all the fuss was about. This is a guy well-versed in pop culture, history and comic books (heck, his father-in-law apparently created ‘Archie’  wife’s late father was a writer for ‘Archie’ for decades), so it kinda surprised me: 1) that he hadn’t read it in the nearly 3 decades since it came out as a graphic novel, and 2) that he didn’t think it was the brilliant literary work that most readers think it is — including Time magazine, which put it in the top 100 novels of the 20th century.

It is true that much of the tension of the world-on-the-edge-of-Apocalypse that permeates the book was far more palpable when it was released at the pinnacle of the Cold War. It is also true that what made so much of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s dark and gritty deconstruction of the superhero genre so original has since been fully absorbed by the rest of pop culture — to the point where dark and gritty is a cliche to now be avoided.

“Watchmen,” however, is a layered work that rewards careful and multiple readings, that reveals character as much through design and layout as it does text, and, in the end, is a masterwork of stark existentialism. Zack Snyder’s 2009 big screen adaptation of the book, while polished and well executed, comes close but still fails to capture the emotional resonance of the original comic book — something, strangely enough, the second trailer for the movie actually achieves.

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A thumbnail of the plot doesn’t do the book justice either, but it is a good selling point. Set in a slightly alternative universe (where Richard Nixon is still in office!), Alan Moore imagines what would happen if costumed crime-fighters a la Batman were real; if superheroes had to deal with getting old, with fame, with PTSD; and if such a group of people could make a difference in a world where the US and the USSR are about to launch a nuclear war. What good is being a hero if you can’t save the world?

2522519-watchman_When I was going to art school in Pittsburgh, Eides was THE place: half punk record store, half comic book shop, and the place where all my discretionary income went. It was where I first saw Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 and first heard Agent Orange, Black Flag and countless other bands. It was also where one of the guys behind the counter told me about “Watchmen” — and he said the store would buy back your copy if you didn’t think it was the best comic book you ever read. As far as I know, it was the only time they ever made this offer … and I suspect no one ever took them up on it.

 

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[50/50] Sci-Fi/Fantasy Book #15: “Gateway”

Monday, March 17th, 2014

Science Fiction or Fantasy Book #15: “Gateway”—Frederick Pohl (1977)

gatewaynovelIn Good News/Bad News news this week, it was announced that “Gateway,” Frederick Pohl’s bleak ’70s masterpiece, has been optioned for development as a TV series. Considering how dark and full of existential dread television has gotten in the last decade, Pohl’s novel of desperate humans on an abandoned alien starbase will fit right in. On the flip side, the production team that snagged the rights is one half De Laurentiis and one half the people who brought us the awful wild west mess “Hell on Wheels.”

Which is a shame. If any novel is well suited to episodic TV, it would be “Gateway” — but only if it was done right. Set years after the discovery of an asteroid full of alien ships is found orbiting the sun, the book chronicles the horrible living conditions humans endure on Gateway, all in the slim hope they might strike it rich. Unable to control, dismantle or decipher the pre-programmed ships, people gamble their lives by climbing in the alien vehicles and hitting the launch button. Most of the time the ships never return, and when they do the crew is frequently dead — on rare occasions, however, someone returns with an alien artifact or other great discovery, one that sets them up for life. Crossing a gold rush with Russian Roulette, the novel is, according to this reviewer, “coated in dread.”

While the core of the book is the unpacking of the mystery of what happened to the protagonist — and the slow unraveling of his post-traumatic stress — the most powerful parts of “Gateway” are the one-page ephemera that divide chapters. Official mission reports that detail the fates of random prospectors, made all the more horrific by the memo’s cold and bureaucratic language, bolstered by snippets of classifieds from Gateway’s newspaper of people reaching out for a connection — any connection — in an uncaring universe.

[50/50] Book #1: “The Great Gatsby”

Sunday, October 27th, 2013

Novel #1: “The Great Gatsby” — F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

Gatsby_1925_jacketOne of the few advantages of working for the Indy is I get to meet a lot of writers. I ran into Allan Gurganus at a party last year and, knowing his great love of F. Scott Fitzgerald, asked him if he was going to see the new 3-D version of The Great Gatsby by Baz Luhrman. “Oh I don’t know,” he replied, “I think I have to. I’m nervous — but I’m such a fan of Baz Luhrmam. ‘Moulin Rouge’ was fabulous.”

He shouldn’t have had to worry — in spite of the hyperactive CGI and modern soundtrack, the latest big screen adaptation of the Great American Novel isn’t just faithful to Fitzgerald’s original, it’s almost slavishly so. It’s as if Baz used the Jay-Z produced songs to trick high schoolers into seeing a live-action novel. Even the entirely-invented framing device of making Nick Carraway the author of “The Great Gatsby” — allowing the character to read passages from the novel in heavy-handed voiceover — doesn’t detract. If anything, it just showed that Luhrman knew he couldn’t have written better passages than Fitzgerald, and didn’t even try.

 

If you’ve been reading this blog long enough and noticed certain key words — nostalgia, loss, bittersweet longing — it’s no surprise this is my all-time favorite novel … well, ok, novel that doesn’t involve elves, starships or cyberspace. Long before I read it for the first time, I remember high school friends Matt and Paul going on and on about the party scenes. This is of course what is going to appeal most to a teen, that promise of promiscuity and looming bacchanalia. Later, in your 20s, you pick up on the clusterfuck of intertwined relationships at the heart of the plot, and by the time you reread it in your 30s or 40s, you understand the longing Gatsby cannot escape — that urge to recapture lost opportunities — at the same time you recognize his utter delusion. I look forward to seeing what reading it in my 50s brings.

I saw Gurganus give a talk on “The Great Gatsby” a few years back, delving into things you don’t get in your average American Lit class: how close the story mirrored Fitzgerald’s life, how carefully he chose the names of the characters to load them with symbolism, how his editor saved the book from disaster by cutting out half the original manuscript. What remained is suave and svelte, unabashedly sentimental yet deeply trenchant. Is it any wonder that Roger Ebert flew into an online rage when a Scholastic edition of the book stripped it of all language and meaning? How could you mess with one of the best denouments every written?

“And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—-

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

[50/50] Book #2: “Prague”

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

Book #2: “Prague”—Arthur Phillips (2002)

[Since it is LONG gone from their website, I just going to reprint my review of Prague that appeared in The Herald-Sun in 2003.]

The Persistence of Irony: Memory, longing and nostalgia collide in Arthur Phillips’ first novel “Prague”

Prague_ArthurPhillipsAfter the Iron Curtain collapsed in 1989, Eastern Europe and its previously off-limits (and therefore exotic) capitals became the hot destination for young Westerners. Armed with attitude and the victorious dollar, American expatriates rolled into cities such as Prague and Budapest seeking fame and fortune, convinced they were taking part in the creation of a gilded age to rival that of 1920s Paris—with everyone angling to be the next Hemingway or Fitzgerald.

That Arthur Phillips’ novel “Prague” takes place entirely in Budapest is the first clue this is no mere attempt to cash in on the recollections of a brief, intense time. The book, now out in paperback, was both a best seller and a darling of literary critics when it was released last year. While ostensibly about five droll and oh-so-ironic expats living in Hungary in the early 1990s, “Prague” is really Phillips’ exploration of nostalgia, longing and the nature of memory. It is also a paean to Budapest, for which he readily admits a long and “obsessive love.” (Phillips was one of these cultural invaders of the East, where he lived in Budapest from 1990 to 1992.)

As a writer, Phillips is both sharp and playful, sprinkling his text with clever metaphors as liberally as Hungarians sprinkle paprika on everything they eat. With his deft use of description and language, he paints a rich, textured portrait of a city, and a history, in flux. His characters are meticulously drawn, and Phillips slowly pulls the reader along as he probes the peculiarities of desire, unrequited love and perception, before flinging everyone involved headlong into a collision with each other and history.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember this is Phillips’ first novel, it’s that good.

Those few times (rare, to be sure) when this rookie effort strains the reader, when the writing seems too clever by half, or the descriptions thicken until the prose almost stops, don’t come close to derailing what is a truly impressive debut. Never mind. Push on, and you’ll quickly find bright and insightful observations, as in this early paragraph:

“Despite its insignificance, there was this moment, this hour or two this spring afternoon blurring into evening on a cafe patio in a Central European capital in the opening weeks of its post-Communist era. The glasses of liqueur. The diamond dapples of light between oval, leaf-shaped shadows, like optical illusions. The trellised curve of the cast-iron fence separating the patio from its surrounding city square. The uncomfortable chair. Someday this too will represent someone’s receding, cruelly unattainable golden age.”

Even the overall structure of the novel echoes and supports Phillips’ Big Themes of cycles, circles, of the chase for something always just out of reach. Each of the book’s four parts begins slowly, leisurely, before picking up speed and spiraling around like water going down a drain, ever faster and more chaotic, until even the paragraphs themselves are pulled apart.

On occasion, you want to slap his self-absorbed characters, so full are they of an annoyingly hip and cocky irony, but mostly you want to shake them and wake them and save them from this longing for something they can never have. For all of their self-awareness and insight into those around them, Phillips’ characters, like we do, often fail to see what is right in front of them. It is this use of literary irony that forms the bittersweet heart of “Prague.”

[50/50] Book #3: “Please Kill Me”

Friday, October 18th, 2013

Book #3: “Please Kill Me — The Oral History of Punk Rock” — Legs McNeil, Gillian McCain (2006)

9780802142641_p0_v1_s260x420This weekend sees the big screen debut of “CBGB,” the inevitable big screen treatment of punk rock in New York in the late ’70s. I will probably see it because, hello, Alan Rickman. But if you want pure punk rock spirit, you need to read “Please Kill Me—The Oral History of Punk Rock” by the two guys who coined the term Punk Rock. This is the Greek Tragedy of Modern Music, one of the saddest, and funniest, reads I’ve ever plowed through. Iggy Pop is the hero and The Ramones the sacrificial lambs (and if you like Lou Reed, don’t read this, he’s the villain, with a capital V). Ironically there is no music here: it is pure personality and pure attitude here, but it is enough.

[50/50] Book #4: “And so it goes”

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

Book #4: “And So It Goes” — Linda Ellerbee (1986)

lindaellerbeeThere was a time, before “Nightline” became a shambling corpse of its former self, when late night news had a place on network TV. When the news of the day was discussed outside of soundbites, issues were debated, and in-depth interviews were given. Now, sadly, it’s fallen to Comedy Central to tell the hard truth, but back in the early ’80s a whole slew of shows were vying for facts and ratings, and there was no better outlet than “Overnight” on NBC — mostly because there was no better reporter, and no better writer, than Linda Ellerbee.

My own career in TV news lasted approximately one day. I had a freelance gig as a courtroom illustrator, covering the murder trail of a dirty cop, sketching madly for a local station right up until air time and then holding up the drawings for the cameraman to broadcast live as the reporter did her standup. My experience that day was heady and rich and right out of “Broadcast News,” but I soon realized it wouldn’t work and moved on. But I would like to think, if I stuck with it, it would have been just as interesting as Linda Ellerbee makes her adventures in television out to be.

A lively and memorable autobiography, “And So It Goes” should be required reading for reporters and historians everywhere. (If for no other reason than the phrase “Ride the Elephant,” a term Ellerbee coined to describe the shitty jobs all cub reporters must get through to make it to the ‘big time.’) Ellerbee is hardcore, a cancer survivor who underwent a double mastectomy, and someone who the networks never felt comfortable with and so kept pushing up and up until she was out. Her books are worth tracking down even a quarter century later.

[50/50] A Bridge Too Far

Monday, October 14th, 2013

Book #5: “A Bridge Too Far” — Cornelius Ryan (1974)
Computer Game #5: “V for Victory: Operation Market-Garden” (1993)

A_Bridge_Too_Far_-_1974_Book_CoverFlush with success after D-Day, the Allies had the Nazis on the run in the fall of 1944. Thinking he could end the war early, a British general came up with an overly-ambitious plan to hopscotch across the Netherlands and sweep around the German defenses. The attack involved the largest air drop of troops in history, and was bigger than the invasion of Normandy — which took over a year to plan — and was launched within a week. The effort to simultaneously seize seven key bridges in seven cities became one of the biggest disasters of WWII.

In fact, Operation Market-Garden nearly cost the allies the war.

It wasn’t just poor planning that doomed the attack. Hubris on the part of allied commanders lead them to believe they could punch through any enemy resistance, and misplaced assumptions lead them to ignore crucial intelligence from partisan forces. In one case, allied troops were dropped right in front of elite SS units, who promptly mowed them down. The ambitious invasion turned into a rescue operation to save as many men as possible, and “A Bridge Too Far” quickly became shorthand for over-reaching. Of course, disasters make for compelling stories, and journalist Cornelius Ryan’s oral history of the battle became one of the best books on WWII. (It is also three times as long as “The Longest Day,” his earlier book about the — very successful — D-Day invasion.) As infuriating as it is to read, it is a fascinating look at how not to fight a war.

Curiously enough, “A Bridge Too Far” was also the last of those epic star-studded war movies that Hollywood used to make. It was expected to be the biggest box office hit of 1977 … until it opened opposite of a little sci-fi flick called “Star Wars” … whoops

# # #

victoryTwenty years later, in time for the 50th anniversary of WWII, Atomic Games came out with a series of exceptional wargames focusing on the biggest battles of the war. “V for Victory: Operation Market-Garden” is the only wargame I’ve ever played every scenario and variation of, and it provided even greater insight into how not to fight a war.

The game is all the more interesting because it is impossible for the allies to win. Even if everything had gone according to plan, even under the most optimal conditions, the allies would have still failed in their attack. This is the sort of lesson that should be — and is — taught at military academies, and every politician who ever used the word “cakewalk” should be beaten about the head and neck with the game box.

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[50/50] Books: Keep on Trekkin’

Friday, October 11th, 2013

Book #6:
“The Making of Star Trek” — Stephen E. Whitfield (1968)
“Star Trek: The Inside Story” — Herbert Solow/Robert Justman (1996)

Book #7: “Star Fleet Technical Manual” — Franz Joseph (1975)

themakingofstartrekWe had two bibles in our house. One was The Holy Bible, and the other was … The Making of Star Trek. I dare say I read the later much more than the former. The paperback copy my dad gave me in the early ’70s (at left) went with me to school every day, and into my backpack on many a hike. It has been loved into mulch and is still held together — barely — with old cellophane tape. It was a huge best-seller, and beyond its nerd cache, “The Making of Star Trek” is a seminal title in both publishing and Hollywood. It was the first behind-the-scenes book that showed the public the step-by-step of how a TV show is actually created, right down to budget memos. It also introduced fans to the idea of a ‘show bible’ and reproduced early production sketches, set photos and prop measurements. If Star Trek (the show) inspired kids to become astronauts, scientists and doctors, then “The Making of Star Trek” inspired a generation of writers, filmmakers and producers, and gave them their first look at what it takes to make something for the screen.

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And if “The Making of” was the alpha of Trek books, “Inside Star Trek,” by the show’s two original producers, Herb Solow and Robert Justman, was the Omega. Written soon after Gene Roddenberry’s death, Solow and Justman decided to finally tell the rest of the behind-the-scene stories, and their version differs greatly from the official mythos Roddenberry encouraged.

insidestFull of fascinating tidbits (such as the fact that Lucille Ball herself put up the money for the show and bet the future of her production company on getting it on the air), “Inside Star Trek” deals with the downside of the creative process: the insane politics of the studios and the networks, and what it takes to keep a business enterprise like this going. It also reveals a number of long-rumored truths about creator Gene Roddenberry.

While Roddenberry was the driving force behind the show, it turned out he frequently went off rails and needed constant reining in. Known for promoting strong female characters, it seems this was because he often promised big speaking parts to actresses he slept with, not because he was a feminist. Roddenberry also often took credit for others’ work (he got co-author credit on The Making of book, for example, though he had nothing to do with it). Luckily for us, he was very good at hiring very talented people, and it was their collaborative effort that gave us one of the best TV shows of all time. If you like the show at all, or are interested in how television productions are made, it’s worth tracking down this book.

StarTrekStarFleetTechnicalManualFinally, there is the “Star Fleet Technical Manual.” If Star Trek invented modern fandom (for good or for ill), then this codified it. Building off the ideas and images in “The Making of Star Trek,” engineer and Trek fan Franz Joseph created a stunning and influential tome that provided ship designs, prop schematics, maps, dress patterns — everything that was so lovingly mocked in Galaxy Quest — in a title that is still regularly reprinted today.

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[50/50] Book #8: “Replay”

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013

Book #8: “Replay” — Ken Grimwood (1986)

replay_200-46c002e69380c9e081917ada38869c8ece0bcfd5Let’s get this out upfront: “Replay” isn’t a great book. But its concept is so compelling, and its execution so heartfelt, it is easy to overlook its flaws and understand why it has such a huge cult following. The premise is simple: What if you could live your life again, knowing everything you know now?

Replay’s protagonist, a schlub named Jeff, finds himself waking up in 1963 after dying in 1988. He gets to do everything over from the age of 18 and avoid all the mistakes he made the first time. Except — Jeff keeps dying every time he gets to 1988, reliving the same 25 year period of history again and again. Each time, he takes a different tact, tries a different approach to life, all while searching for meaning as to why his life is the way it is.

There is a plot, and a mystery, but the genius of the story — according to NPR commentator Brad Meltzer at least — is “Replay” is about you:

“The moment Ken Grimwood has his authorly hooks in you, you can’t help but look at your own life and think, ‘What would I do differently if I could live my life again?’ And not in the way we all casually play this game. Really — What would I do differently?”

Yup.

[50/50] Book #9: “I, Claudius”

Friday, October 4th, 2013

Book #9: “I, Claudius” — Robert Graves (1935)

20001201095418If you want to see what life was like in ancient Rome, rent HBO’s “Rome” — while they get many of the historical characters wrong, they nail the look. Plus, there’s lots of sex and violence. Or read Colleen McCullough’s “First Man in Rome,” a gritty nuts-and-bolts retelling of how the republic slid into empire that is the most detailed and lovingly accurate novel about that time and place. But if you want a grand, Shakespearean experience, pick up the classic “I, Claudius” by poet Robert Graves, who regales the chaos of Caligula’s reign of terror through the eyes of the only man who didn’t want to be emperor of the Roman Empire. (Or rent the stagey, epically-long 11 hour PBS version, with a very young Patrick Stewart)