January Books: Part 1

Originally, I had planned to put the details of each week of training and the details of the books I was reading into one post every week. Unfortunately, due to the fact that I just don't find the training journal to be productive, I had given up entirely on critically analyzing many of the books I was reading. In order to stay away from that kind of passive reading, I am playing with coming out with a list just like this one about the books I read and my reactions. I'll keep doing it as long as I find it useful. If you get any enjoyment out of it that is a bonus. I'll likely have heavy spoilers in all of these, so if you care about that sort of thing I would tread carefully.

 

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

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I had a long drive back to Boulder and was not looking forward to listening to podcasts the entire time. Most of my favorite ones take a rather large break during Christmas and re-release popular episodes. This is a recipe for making a long drive longer. Rather than trying to somehow find 8 hours of podcasts to listen to, I decided to download my first audiobook. I had been prodded to listen to a book with Neil Gaiman's narration and have been waiting to read this one for a while, so decided to go after it.

I had no idea this was a children's book until I started the piece. I have spent the last couple months reading primarily heftier history/biography/literary fiction pieces that are an occasional pain in the ass to read. Finding myself wrapped up in a mystical story which required little critical thinking was a pleasant change. I was concerned that the book would fall flat, as a lot of these children's books lack a certain amount of honesty that I have come to enjoy from more mature stories. But Gaiman managed to level out the platitudes and truisms inherent in a story aimed at a younger audience the way only a good author can. 

The heavy dose of magical realism that seems to mark an enduring children's story is present from the beginning of the book when a poor baby has his whole family mysteriously murdered and the baby escapes into his local friendly graveyard filled with all sorts of inhabitants. Thankfully, the exposition is well paced for not being a true en media res story

Without going through the plot of the book, I appreciated how well Gaiman crafted my care for the main character. I felt his actions emotionally, which is difficult for an author to accomplish; although perhaps connection is easier via the audiobook. The protagonist, Bod, made some stupid decisions, but I never felt mad at him. Rather, he seemed so justified that the majority of the time I found myself agreeing with his decisions to act. This is that emotional honesty.

Maybe I should read more children's fiction like this, although I doubt there is much exactly like this. Listening through this book and hearing the moral of the story, I was reminded that I'm still about 47% child anyway. Maybe that means I can read 47% more children's novels. 

 

Big Sur by Jack Kerouac

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I feel like the most disgraceful and nay disreputable wretch on earth, in fact my hair is blowing in beastly streaks across my stupid and moronic face, the hangover has now worked paranoia into me down to the last pitiable detail.

There is no better way to explain the extreme loneliness and sadness that holds the heart of this book. 

I have a confused relationship with Kerouac. I almost always dislike the first 50 pages of his books. I find the lack of structure unwieldy and the plot plodding. But then, somehow, before I realize it, I am rushing through pages and feeling in sync with the character. Sure, it isn't perfect, but the stream of consciousness writing style tends to evoke emotion in me. It is like taking a long train ride. The inescapable speed of the train after it hits top speed and maintains for hours on end. I simultaneously love the style and hate it. I feel the same way about the content.

Big Sur is different from the other Kerouac works I have read. He finally has self-awareness. He lives the actions of his old life with a heavy dose of despair. I found myself connecting with him much more than in his younger years. Is this due to me becoming more cynical? Probably, but it also seems as though he is writing with a bit more truthfully. 

Did I love it? No. Hate it? No. Like it? I think so, although even then I'm not sure "like" or "enjoy" is the word I would use. Is it pretentious to say I appreciated the art of it? I'll leave this with one of my favorite quotes/chapters of the book.

To complete this crazy day at 3 o’clock in the morning here I am sitting in a car being driven 100 miles an hour around the sleeping streets and hills and waterfronts of San Francisco, Dave’s gone off to sleep with Romana and the others are passed out and this crazy nextdoor neighbor of the roominghouse (himself a Bohemian but also a laborer, a housepainter who comes home with big muddy boots and has his little boy living with him the wife has died)—“What?” he yells, a big blond husky kid with a strange fixed smile, “man I used to drive the getaway car! come on down I’ll show ya!”—So almost dawn and here we are cutting down Buchanan and around the corner on screeching wheels and he opens her up, goes zipping towards a red light so takes a sudden screeching left and goes up a hill full blast, when we come to the top of the hill I figger he’ll pause awhile to see what’s over the top but he goes even faster and practically flies off the hill and we head down one of those incredibly steep San Fran streets with our snout pointed to the waters of the Bay and he steps on the gas! we go sailing down a hundred m.p.h. to the bottom of the hill where there’s an intersection luckily with the light on green and thru that we blast with just one little bump where the road crosses and another bump where the street is dipping downhill again—We come down to the waterfront and screech right—In a minute we’re soaring over the ramps around the Bridge entrance and before I can gulp a shot or two from my last late bottle we’re already parked back outside the pad on Buchanan—The greatest driver in the world whoever he was and I never saw him again—Bruce something or other—What a getaway.

 

The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells

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Embarrassingly enough, I was introduced to this character via The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. No, not the graphic novel, which might make my discovery slightly less objectionable. I discovered it through the movie. Ever since seeing the character in live action when I was a preteen, I wanted to learn more about him. Finally, years later, I have finished the book. And all I can say is that it was thoroughly enjoyable in the old time pulpy sort of way. The book didn't teach me anything and I wouldn't say I learned anything. But I was reminded how fun some of these ridiculous and relatively superficial books can be.

 

Being Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh

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Recommended by most of the podcasters that I listen to, I figured I'd give it a go. Coming into this book, I wasn't sure whether to expect a self-help book, an introduction to Buddhism, or something else entirely. It turns out, it was a bit of a mix.

I found a lot of the short book seemed to tread over well-worn ideas, but lately I've been thinking a bit about South Africa's "Truth & Reconciliation Commission" and how the idea connects with what many Americans need to better understand and connect with each other.  Some concepts included in the book connect to the emotional heart of that commission. The mention of The Soviet Union is due to this book being written during the tail end Cold War (which also means that this book, which is actually a series of lectures, was published well before the Truth & Reconciliation Commission. I wonder if Desmond Tutu read this and gained some inspiration from the ideas?).

The situation of the world is still like this. People completely identify with one side, one ideology. To understand the suffering and the fear of a citizen of the Soviet Union, we have to become one with him or her. To do so is dangerous—we will be suspected by both sides. But if we don’t do it, if we align ourselves with one side or the other, we will lose our chance to work for peace. Reconciliation is to understand both sides, to go to one side and describe the suffering being endured by the other side, and then to go to the other side and describe the suffering being endured by the first side. Doing only that will be a great help for peace.

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore

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I am still confused whether or not to call this a comic or a graphic novel. I'm not sure there is a difference. Either way, this was my introduction to the art. I've strayed away from comics because I have always viewed them as being for children: I was above them. But, due to an intense love for the movie and rumors that Alan Moore was the best comic book writer of all time, I gave it a whirl.

At first, the style was jarring. I didn't know how long to take in each frame and I was occasionally confused as to how to read the text bubbles. After reading for 10 minutes I was able to enter into a sort of groove and move with the action. Once I absorbed the pacing of the comic, reading it turned into an enjoyable experience. I began to appreciate how carefully constructed each frame of the comic was designed and was fully engaged by the material.

The most important part, the story, didn't disappoint either. There were enough changes from the movie to keep me engaged. There is a lot of the ideological thumping on the head as I expected, but my favorite parts were much more subtle. At the beginning of Book 2, the mysterious anarchist "V" is showing Evey a magic trick with a rabbit. He makes the rabbit disappear under a cloth.  

“The rabbit has gone!” “Bring her back” “Bring her back? But what if she is content where she is? Do we have the right to disturb her? Ahhh..but I see you have already made up your mind. Very well. We replace the cloth...like so...and when next we whisk it away..Presto! The rabbit has returned. But now her home has gone.”

These kind of simple metaphors are what Alan Moore seems to excel at. And for me, they are more powerful than the heavy-handed quotes on fascism.