Friday, January 20, 2012

Recommended Reading

I'm always reading a book. At any given moment in life there is a book I have begun, either sitting in my pocket eagerly waiting for a subway ride or a less amenable opportunity to rejoin the story, or else sitting on my nightstand, dutifully awaiting the mandatory five minutes of reading endurance that precedes slumber. As with most things, the intensity and commitment ebbs and flows. Quite frankly I have plenty of dry spells that involve keeping an unfinished book in my bag while devouring comics and television for weeks.

However, I happen to be in a voracious reading phase. Or coming out of one, at least. I was going slow but steady a few weeks ago with some Dumas, and then Hunger Games happened. I'd heard of it from The Sister (that's not some weird thing, I just like capitalizing my family's roles) and finally got around to putting it on my Hold list at the library.

Cut to 24 hours later, 7 spent in sleep, the rest in barrelling through Suzanne Collins' trilogy. It was scary, intense, fast-paced, and FUN. I hadn't had that kind of stay-up-till-3am-reading fun in months. And, as usually happens, I was desperate to recreate the situation. These are the hits and misses of my post-Hunger Games Reading fortnight.

Currently Reading

Though it has nothing to do with Hunger Games, I am currently reading, and enjoying, and have every intent of finishing within the next day or so, The Devil You Know by Mr. Mike Carey. Carey, as many of you probably know, is one of my favorite comic writers, and my sadness that he was leaving X-Men Legacy actually had a good result; making me track down his other work. Before we get to his novels, I should mention some of his other comic work I finally explored and quickly became obsessed with.

The Unwritten. This series is brilliant, gripping, beautifully drawn, and $*@#ing heavy. It deals with ideas that, as a reader, have possibly floated and flitted across my brainscape in the past, but whose enormity and potential effect on my sense of self have been too much to contemplate further. It's about Stories, and the power of narrative, and the purpose of stories, and the Collective Unconscious that has risen out of them, and the impact of our immediate, instant dissemination of news and entertainment world.

Plot-wise, though, it's about a young man named Tom Taylor, who's father wrote a series of enormously successful fantasy books featuring a character based on his son, Tommy Taylor. It's a cross between Harry Potter and his enormous popularity and Christopher Robin Milne, and the psychological trauma he suffered from his father's use of his identity. Except it starts to come to light that Tom may really be Tommy...not born of woman, but manifested from a world of fiction. It's complicated, and fantastic, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Anyway, so I decided to find some of Carey's prose. Devil You Know is supposedly the first one, or the first main fiction he did, that spawned a series. It follows Felix Castor, a man with a talent for music and using music to exorcise ghosts, in a world where the dead have taken to returning and hanging around and interfering with normal people's lives. It's fun and occasionally funny, hits a lot of pretty good noir beats, and feels like he'd been practicing for this book with his acclaimed runs on Hellblazer and Lucifer, which I haven't checked out yet. Despite being maybe not massively original, not like Unwritten for instance, it's pretty well plotted and paced and written, and there's this lingering sense that beneath the stream of narrative, beneath the one liners and grimy alleyways and ghost descriptions, there is a massive emotional fault that the main character avoids and that will inevitably be tapped in the climax. I, for one, am looking forward to it, and I imagine if he pulls it off (for the record, I have faith that he will) I'm gonna be checking out the rest of the series. Carey for President.

Post Hunger Games Completions

The Books of Ember Series by Jeanne DuPrau was my first attempt at recreating the Hunger Games experience. Well, that's not entirely true. I tried Collins' other series first, but that didn't work. I wanted to stay in the Young Adult vein, but Collins' Gregor the Overlander series, at least judging by the first 30pages, is more Step-Into-Reading Grade 1 than anything remotely pubescent. So I put that to side and jumped up a couple years (not many, though) to City of Ember. Naturally, I'd heard of the books, something vague about being underground and being a bestseller, which got made into a movie with Bill Murray that completely bombed, but hey Hunger Games was being made into a movie too, and sold huge, so maybe the fervor it incited would be the same.

It wasn't. The story was pretty good, that's not what I mean. It's about a future where, anticipating the inevitable wars and destruction, some smart rich government folk built a city deep underground, and populated with old folk not allowed to speak of the world above, and babies for them to raise. The city was sealed, and a box set to open in 200 years (estimated amount of time when nuclear radiation would dissipate) with instructions on how to get out. The city is Ember and the box gets lost, so 250 years later the generator that runs the place is falling apart, the Mayor is corrupt, and it's up to two enterprising, brave, intelligent kids, Lina and Doon, to discover the truth, find the way out, and lead their people to a new life. It goes fast and makes you want to read the next books, which I did. I read all three necessary ones, and skipped the one that is unrelated and provides a history of the world before Lina and Doon. So it's an easy, swift, fun read, though it has some strangely irrelevant adolescent segues, is a little confused about the ages of the main characters (much like the abominable movie which was frankly unwatchable) and doesn't pack the wallop that it could. Still, it's a good story, and it progresses in a pretty elegant, well-rounded off trilogy, ending in a satisfying manner. If you have kids, I'd give it a shot.

Summerland by Michael Chabon was my next venture. Now here's a book with enough substance to drown out the Kill Or Be Killed intensity of Hunger Games. For some reason I'd never read this before. I have massive respect for Chabon, and I've completely loved about 80% of what I've read by him, but for some reason, despite loving fantasy and young adult fiction, I never took the plunge on this one. Maybe it was the emphasis on Baseball in the synopsis and on the cover.

Well, it turns out baseball is inherently a pretty fantastic narrative; the scoring, the players, the anxiety, the pride. And about a hundred other things I never thought of before Chabon pointed them out to me. We have truly fresh fantasy here. A description of life and different worlds that makes sense and can be visualized. A clear and vital threat. A protagonist with a lot to prove and a truly good heart. A best friend with resolve and ingenuity. A crazy inventor father. Talking animals. Giants. Androids. And they all play baseball.

Most young adult novels are clunky and plot-focused. Hunger Games was efficient and streamlined, emotional and intense, but more about what happens than just the people it happens to. I guess that's arguable, but the point is, and maybe its an obvious one, being Collins vs. Chabon, that Summerland is actually relevant, multilayered literature. The kind that makes a mark and fits into a long history, one dominated by the spectre of Lewis. Highly recommended.

Post Hunger Games Incompletions

Barnes & Noble did this very clever thing where they set up a table that was entirely devoted to people like me. The sign on it said "If You Liked Hunger Games, You'll Love..." and below it were piles of about a dozen different young adult books that promised to fill the gaping void that reading Katniss and Peeta's constant violent tragic excitement left behind. They sucked me in real easily with that one. But in the end, not even one of the suggestions has payed off.

I tried The Line, but it was too slow and infantile. I might revisit it, to see what the girl main character finally finds on the other side, and if she ends up starting her own revolution against a tyrannical despotic future government. Sound familiar? It is, but less engrossing.

I tried Gone, and didn't last more than 3 pages. No adults left in the world reminded me too much of this book from Middle School, whose title I can't recall but the cover had a dude in a gasmask, where adults all died of disease and a girl tries to survive alone in a town when some mysterious gasmasked guy appears on the horizon.

I tried the Maze Runner series, but, again, didn't last more than a few pages. I don't know what the premise, fully explained and adventured upon, turns out to be, but the way it begins was an unfortunate mix of confusion, despair, and disinterest. Perhaps a complete, spoiler-full wikipedia entry would reveal the main story points and convince me to give it another try, at least for the sake of a few hours of fun, but I doubt it.

And as I said, I tried Gregor the Overlander. It was certainly inventive, but the narrative didn't flow nearly as smoothly as Hunger Games. I get that it was Collins' debut, so that makes sense, and can easily be overlooked. But I'd had enough underground stuff with Ember, and frankly there weren't any giant bugs and bats in the city of Ember, which I much prefer. This, too, could be worth another look, probably more than the others even, but it requires the right mood, very low expectations, and possibly a 7yo that needs to be tucked in.

Currently Paused but Will Be Finished One Day

In the wake of all the below-my-age-group failures, I decided to get more serious about this sci/fi / fantasy endeavor. If I wanted to feel as visceral as I had during Hunger Games, I'd have to open myself to a wider range of the fantastic, as opposed to limiting and dumbing down. I used some websites, some amazon lists and some book ratings to fill two pages with some of the best and most highly recommended sci/fi. I narrowed the titles to about 4 (the library is slow and I can't afford to buy 20 books at barnes and noble, despite the constant burning temptation) and picked only one in-store to take home with me.

It was The Knight by Gene Wolfe. An author I had never heard of before. Turns out, people like Gaiman and LeGuin consider him the "best writer of our time, in genre or out" and "our Melville", respectively. Seems like I ought to have known about such an influential, talented, prolific writer, but there it is.

Turns out he's not an easy read. Yes, he's clearly massively, intimidatingly intelligent. He obviously has a total mastery over his style and how to put a book together. He is rich with references and word play. He borrows and builds off myths and ancient literature and human nature. I could tell the level of quality while reading, but I just wasn't having fun.

Maybe it was the Unreliable Narrator that really started frustrating the hell out of me. Maybe not being invested in the character, since I didn't entirely trust or respect him or understand what he was doing exactly, made me start distancing myself from the story. Maybe the breakneck pace and time-jumping plot, without any closure or exposition, started wearing me down and leaving me uninterested.

Most likely, though, I'd read too much crappy mass market kids books, plus comics and TV, and have ruined my brain. There were a few months back in college when I was a fairly capable analytical reader, slipping deeply into text, asking the right questions, and writing long papers with some incisive points in them. It didn't last very long, and I could probably get back there, but that involves some hard work, and focus and less fun. And clearly Fun is a theme with me these days.

So I pressed Pause on Wolfe's The Knight, but I have every intention to revisit. I just have to climb up out of the YA plateau I've been inhabiting. So far Mike Carey is proving to be a good stepping-stone. Definitely not YA, being full of adult content and vocabulary (bollocks, arse, etc.), it's nonetheless easily accessible. The kind of book people derogatorily encourage you to read on a beach, perhaps. But I see an author who likes a particular genre and character and who, writing and enjoying it, was getting better with every page at telling stories. This progression led to the creation of something like The Unwritten, so who the hell knows how good his next books could be?

I intend to find out.

Next Up

Orson Scott Card's newest entry into the books of Ender and Bean just showed up yesterday, pre-ordered so long ago I forgot entirely to expect it. Shadows in Flight, by virtue of being so novel and long-awaited, is most likely the next book that I'll read.

From the list that brought us The Knight, Little, Big is a book that looks like a sprawling, fantastic, artful epic, and I'm pretty curious about diving into that one.

Possible Distractions

There's always something that can get in the way of reading, though that excuse only holds up if you don't completely, absolutely love and need the book you're reading (so much that you call in sick or miss a test or tell your grandmother to take a cab from the airport just so you can keep sitting on the couch and reading.) At this moment in time there is the Australian Open happening, and as usual a Grand Slam of tennis is always a distracting thing for me. It's harder with Australian, because of the ridiculous air times on ESPN2 (seriously, one day coverage starts at 630pm, the next at 1130pm, after 4 hours of college basketball. Makes no sense to me.) Still, it's tennis, and come the 2nd week of the Slam, I'm gonna be catching as much of it as I can (except for the Women's Draw. Dear God they get more boring every year.)

Aside from that there are comics to read, new Fringe episodes to watch, exciting football games to cheer about this weekend, dishes to clean, the list goes on. Well, it actually doesn't, that's pretty much the list, and while it's not a long list it could take up about 15 hours at least.

That's a lot of possible reading time down the drain. Gone. Wasted.

I think it's time to seriously consider quitting the whole 'gainful employment' thing, and maybe even the whole 'roof over my head' thing, and just start devote myself to reading 22/7. (A man's gotta sleep.)

Happy Friday everyone. Have a fantastic weekend. Go eat a book with your eyes. And feel free to swap recommendations with me. Always desperate for a new literary obsession.

1 comment:

  1. That's news to me; keeping things away from Pops?