This Should Be a Reading Challenge

18 More Amazing Books You Can Read in a Day. 

18 more?

Electric literature has two posts featuring Brilliant and Amazing books you can read in a day.  I have read a few titles on the lists and agree that they are either brilliant or amazing.

Wouldn’t this make and excellent reading challenge.  Maybe for June, that month when people are swamped with paperwork or grading they have to get done before the end of term when they can go on vacation where they’ll have the time for a long summer read.

What do you think?

Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany

Babel-17 concerns an alien invasion attempt but that doesn’t really matter.  Samuel R. Delany’s main concern in Babel-17 is language.  What is the future of language?  How might exposure to alien language’s affect us. As a sub-plot, or sub-concern, there is a question of what my sexuality look like in the future something Delany has often been interested in.

He has some intriguing ideas.

Babel-17 features a set of characters who are a trio, two men and one woman.  They more than love each other, they have minds that function together to help pilot the space ship in the novel.  Many such sets of three exist in Delany’s future.   The two men in this story are looking for a woman to replace their original third who has died.  Their captain helps them find a woman who was formerly part of trio. Her two mates, both men, died years ago.

This is really interesting idea, if a somewhat squeamish one.  I’ve long admired Samuel R. Delany, and other science fiction writers of his generation, for their willingness to examine how sexuality and love might change in the future.  It’s an interesting aspect of Babel-17, thought not the book’s main concern, as I said.

The main concern is language.  The hero of the novel, the ship captain mentioned earlier, is a famed poet and an expert in language.  She has been put in charge of deciphering the new alien language Babel-17 as a means of defeating the invasion.  She is somewhat telepathic, something many people will be in Delany’s future, so she is able to hear language where others cannot.

Much of this book went over my head.  It’s something that would benefit from having a professor guide you through.  I meant to look it up on-line before typing up this review and may get around to it someday.

But while I didn’t understand all of it, I did enjoy it and I do admire Delany’s writing. There is a wonderful passage where the ship captain is dreaming in the new language.  We read this dream as a single, four page, sentence interspersed with block of text that describe what is going on outside the ship captain’s dream in the “real” world.

I thought it was terrific.

So terrific that I am keeping my copy of Babel-17 on the to-be-reread-in-retirement shelf.

Sometimes you get so much more out of a second reading.

Top Ten Favorite Reads for 2016.

Clovis sitting on my reading sofa.

I’m going to stick to my guns here, enforce my long time rule for selecting the top ten list which is “Do I want to read this book again someday?”  The answer must be yes to qualify. Which means there are many books that I loved reading that will not make the list. Lots of books are great books, great reads, but not something I’ll ever read again.  Plot driven books, the sort that rely on surprise to keep your interest. Once you know how it all turns out, you know how it all turns out.  There’s no need to read it again.

To make this list, a book has to offer something more than a terrific first read.  It’s tough standard which means some good stuff, a few bits of great stuff, will be cut, but that’s my rule.

Here in no particular order are my top ten favorite reads of 2016.

  • The Lonely City by Olivia Lang A wonderful non-fiction meditation on living alone in the big city, Chicago and New York. Ms. Lang provides fascinating biographical information on the artists she writes about, men who lived and worked largely alone, but it’s the lyrical writing that won me over.  The Lonely City contains some of the best writing I read all year.
  • News of the World by Paulette Jiles I loved this account of an old man trying to take a seven-year-old girl, raised by Indians, home to her white family across several hundred miles of post Civil War Texas.
  • Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino A catalogue of the cities Marco Polo visited as an ambassador for the great Khan. I loved it and will definitely be come back to it again.  And since it was so much fun, I now have several more by Italo Calvino in my TBR stack.
  • Please Look After Mom by Kyun-sook Shin   I have been somewhat haunted by this story of a South Korean family looking for their vanished mother since I read it last summer. While there is an element of suspense in the story, it’s really the tale an entire society masked as the tale of one particular family.
  • The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks I am very late to the party here.  The story of how a small town bush crash affects both the town overall and the lives of a few key people.  Told from multiple points of view in a way that works to make the whole even greater than the sum of its parts.
  • Mother Tongues by Theodora Ziolkowski  A very small book by a very small press The Cupboard.  you’ll have to visit their website if you’d like to get a copy.  The is a fictional collection of source material the Brothers Grimm decided not to use in their collected tales.  I loved it.  And I love the cover.
  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante I may not be sticking to my rules here. This is the third book a series of four.  The chances that I will one day re-read them all are slight, I realize. But, in a way, read through to book three should count for something, so I’m listing the third book here.  I intended to start book four today, but found that I don’t have a copy.  Guess I’ll have to go to the book store tomorrow.
  • Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Seven Places of the Mind by Joan Didion Classic non-fiction, mostly about California in the 1960’s.  I find quite a bit of non-fiction on my top ten list his year.  The best writing I read in 2016 was found in non-fiction.  This was a surprise, frankly.  If you’ve never read Joan Didion before, this is the one to read. I loved it.  More please.
  • Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson I just finish Ms. Woodson’s new novel Another Brooklyn which is very good, but not as good as Brown Girl Dreaming. I’ll be teaching it to my 7th grades late this year.  Wish me luck
  • The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher M.F.K. Fisher invented writing about food.  Maybe not, maybe someone did it before she did, but no one every loved food as much as she did.  Not even me. The opening section on her first oyster is not to be missed. More excellent non-fiction writing.

I’ve already started 2017 with two contenders for the top ten list: The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon which I loved and Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Castorbridge which is holding up pretty well. this is the third time I’ve read it.

Since I’m not running the TBR Dare anymore, I was planning on joining in The Tournament of Books this year but The Dare has been resurrected by Annabel and Lizzaysiddal.  They have even given it its own website here.  I admit, I was both flattered and happy to see it continue so I immediately signed up.  However, according to the rules, which are still as loose as ever thank you, I could put all the tournament books on hold now so I can still join in.

You can see why I have never 300 books in my TBR stack.

The Lonely CIty: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing

“Imagine standing by a window at night, on the sixth or seventeenth or forty-third floor of a building. The city reveals itself as a set of cells, a hundred thousand windows, some darkened and some flooded with green or white or golden light. Inside, strangers swim to and fro, attending to the business of their private hours. You can see them, but you can’t reach them, and so this commonplace urban phenomenon, available in any city of the world on any night, conveys to even the most social a tremor of loneliness, its uneasy combination of separation and exposure.”

Opening to The Lonely City by Olivia Laing



Top Ten Tuesday: Rewind Topic–Top Ten Best/Worst Movie Adaptations or Ten Times the Movie Was Better Than the Book

a340a-toptentuesdayYes, I’m really going to go there.

The Broke and the Bookish asked us to pick from all the Top-Ten Tuesday topics we’ve missed out on over the years. Since I just started doing this last week, I had a lot of topics to choose from. The one that caught me eye was The Top Ten Best/Words Movie Adaptations.  Since I think going after the worst ones is basically shooting fish in a barrel, I decided to come up with ten times the movie was better.

I know we all say, and many of us believe that the book is always better.  For good reason, too, since it usually is.  But there are times when if pushed to wall many of us would have to admit that as much as we may love the book, the movie really is better.

A word about criteria.  I do not expect a movie to be like the book, at all.  A book is a book and a movie is a movie; they do not work in the same way.  The first tries to summon visual images in the reader’s mind while the second uses visual images to summon emotions in the viewer.  One does it’s work with words alone, the other uses primarily images along with words and music.

So to choose which is better I consider how good the book is as a book versus how good the movie is as a movie.  It’s like picking best in show when one dog is a Scotty and the other is a Great Dane.  Both may be black and have four legs and a tail, but how can you measure which is the best dog?

With that said, here are some movies that were better than the book,  in no particular order.

The Godfather.  Mario Puzo’s book was a bestseller for good reason.  Strong characters, a shocking plot, quality writing.  But how many people are reading it today, let alone using it as a text in academic settings?  The movie, on the other hand, is still considered a landmark achievement in American film, still watched by many, still taught in film schools.  Are we quoting the movie or the book when we say “Leave the gun; take the cannoli”?  I’m quoting the movie.

The Children of Men.  P.D. James’s science fiction classic is a strong contender against Alfonso Cauron’s film adaptation.  It’s a very good novel, but I’m voting for the movie here for two reasons.  First the fact that the entire movie is made up of 12 or so continuous takes amazes me every time I watch it.  The final sequence is astounding.  I’m also impressed that I didn’t even notice this the first time I saw the movie I was so involved in the story.  Second, the concluding images, the ones with the new baby, moved me so much more than anything in the book did.  It’s a good book, mind you, but not nearly as good a book as the movie is a movie.

Shane. George Stevens adaptation rides high in my mind.  Jack Schaefer’s novel is excellent, one everyone should read even if you don’t like westerns.  Then watch the movie.  There’s something about it that just works so well.  “Come back, Shane.  Come back.”  The hero rides off over the mountains to face the end alone.  It’s a marvelous movie.

Ordinary People. Robert Redford directed this, his first movie, back in the 1980’s.  I expect few people will know it these days.  I confess that I haven’t seen it since I saw it in the theatre but I still recall Mary Tyler Moore, the mother, unable to return her son’s unexpected hug.  That was a profoundly moving scene, one that disturbed us more than a 100 zombie deaths ever could.  The book was so-so.  I remember thinking the changes Mr. Redford made in the story improved it.

True Grit.  Charles Portis’s novel is wonderful, another one that everyone should just get over their anti-western genre bias and read ’cause it’s fantastic and not what you think at all.  But any movie with John Wayne calling out “Fill your hand, you son-of-a-bitch” then charging into a gun fight on horseback a rifle in one hand a six-shooter in the other….well…could any movie have a more audience pleasing ending?  I didn’t like the more recent version all that much though it was truer to the novel.  Being true to the novel is not necessarily a good thing in a movie.  Let John Wayne be John Wayne.

The Planet of the Apes.  Pierre Boulle’s novel was a struggle for me, as I recall.  One of those science fiction novels where it’s a little hard to tell what all is going on.  It’s been a while since I’ve read it so forgive me if I have it confused with something else.  But that’s part of the reason why the movie is so much better.  I’m speaking of the 1968 Charlton Heston vehicle, of course.  “Take your hands off me, you damned, dirty ape!”  And the final scene, which came as a surprise to me when I first saw it.  It’s cheesy, it’s corny, it’s a bit silly, but it’s much more fun than the book was.

Double Indemnity.  James M. Cain is no slouch by any means, but take a look at this scene from the movie starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred McMurry.  How could any book complete with that? Sorry I couldn’t get it to embed, but do take a look.  Directed by Billy Wilder.  Screenplay by Raymond Chandler. Edward G. Robinson in a supporting role.  How could it not be great.

WalkaboutWhile I found much to admire in James Vance Marshall’s novel, which I recommend strongly by the way, it did not have the same magic Nicholas Roeg’s 1971 movie did.  The book is a good story, has some interesting things to say, but it doesn’t take the reader out of this world and into another the way the movie did.  Strange as it was, disturbing as some of it’s imagery could be, I think it did a much better job making the audience long for a simpler world than the book did.  It forced me to look at modern civilization critically in ways the book did not.

Okay, that’s only eight, but the people behind the counter are starting to give me the eye.  Fair enough–all the other tables are taken and I have been here a while.   So my time is up for today.  I can honestly say that all eight of these movies are very good, as are all eight of these books.  If you’ve not seen or read any of them, you might give one or both a go to see if you think I’m right.

Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments in written or in visual form.

The Lost Weekend by Charles Jackson

imageLike the others, the question was rhetorical, abstract, anything but pragmatic; as vain to ask as his own clever question had been vain.  It was far too late to pose such a problem with any reasonable hope for an answer–or, an answer forthcoming, any reasonable hope that it would be worth listening to or prove anything at all.  It had long since ceased to matter Why.  You were a drunk; that’s all there was to it. You drank; period.  And once you took a drink, once you got under way, what difference did it make Why? There were so many dozen reasons that didn’t count at all; none that did. Maybe you drank because you were unhappy, or too happy, or too hot, or too cold; or you didn’t like the Partisan Review, or you loved The Partisan Review. It was as groundless as that. To hell with causes–absent father, fraternity shock, too much mother, too much money, or the dozen other reasons you fell back on to justify yourself. They counted for nothing in the face of the one fact: you drank and it was killing you. Why? Because alcohol was something you couldn’t handle, it had you licked. Why? Because you had reached the point where one drink was too many and a hundred not enough.

I’m starting my review of Charles Jackson’s wonderful novel The Lost Weekend with a long quote, something you shouldn’t really do in a review, because I know most people who read reviews only read the first part.  I think this is some fine writing, something I found all over the place in The Lost Weekend.

Late in the book, the main character buys several bottles of booze to hide in his brothers apartment. He hangs one outside of his bedroom window tied to a string.

You may know the excellent 1945 movie starring Ray Milland, but Mr. Jackson’s novel has not seen a wide readership since his subsequent novels failed to sell as well as The Lost Weekend did.

The Lost Weekend details a few days in the life on a serious alcoholic named Don Birnam.  Don’s family has some money, enough that he can live off of his younger brother who is trying to help him.  Don is a binge drinker. He is able to convince his brother to leave him at home for the weekend which makes it possible for him to go on a bender in a big way.  Really big.

Don spends the entire weekend drinking or trying to find money so he can drink more. He is at the point where there is little he won’t do to get another drink. He steals money from the maid, from several local businesses. He even tries to steal a woman’s handbag while out drinking at a nearby bar.  There’s a wonderful scene where he takes his portable typewriter to a pawn shop only to find all the pawn shops in New York City are closed for Yom Kippur.  He walks all the way to 125th street, lugging the typewriter, lost in a drunken reverie, finally arriving without even knowing what he has done.

The writing in this sections is amazing, but too much for me to quote.  I’d rank it alongside the trunk road section of Kipling’s Kim as one of the best travel scenes ever written.

I was struck by how gay, nearly gay-friendly, The Lost Weekend was.  Written in 1946, it’s contains several very early glimpses at gay life.  Don tells how he was kicked out of his college fraternity after less than a year because he had developed a crush on an older boy which he was unable to hide.  He mentions an ex-girl-friend who complained that he only slept with her when he was drunk.  This puts the main character well within the gay spectrum like Brick in Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

There is a long scene with a male nurse called Bim after Don wakes up to find himself in the hospital with a near severe head injury he cannot recall getting.  Bim tells Don that he will see him again sometime which Don thinks means Bim suspects he is homosexual but the reader can also read as seeing Don as the full-bore drunk he has become.  Bim is clearly gay, in any case.

In a later scene, Don goes into a subway restroom to count the money he has found in his coat pocket only to find two strange men wearing overcoats standing quietly near the stalls, watching him.  He suspects they are some sort of policeman but many readers would recognize this as a cruising scene.

From the intense and believable drunk scenes, I knew Mr. Jackson had to be writing from experience.  I try to avoid the biographical fallacy as much as possible, but there was no way he knew this experience in this much detail without having lived it.  Wikipedia backs me up here.  It also states that something very similar happened to Mr. Jackson in his fraternity days.   He was married throughout his adult life but Wikipedia does not say whether or not he was gay. There is a recent biography about him that looks very interesting…

Charles Jackson’s second novel The Fall of Valor is about a married man who falls in love with another man.  It did not get the critical raves The Lost Weekend did nor did it sell as well.  It has since fallen out of print.

But, there is a copy at the San Francisco Public Library…….