What I’ve Been Reading – January 2007

CandideJimmy CorriganNotes from Underground

Books Bought/Received:
Three Days as the Crow Flies – Danny Simmons
Racing in the Street: The Bruce Springsteen Reader – June Skinner Sawyers (editor)
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth – Chris Ware
Candide – Voltaire
What is the What – David Eggers

Books Read:
Notes from Underground (and Other Stories) – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – C. S. Lewis
The Tipping Point – Malcolm Gladwell
Oh Play that Thing – Roddy Doyle
Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth – Chris Ware
Candide – Voltaire

If I was one to believe in the “52 Books, 52 Weeks” meme that is currently cruising through the Interwebs, I’d be pretty happy with my start. Six books, one month. A pretty good rate, I’d say.

Of course, that takes into effect three things:
1. Three of the books were finished in less than three days.
2. One of the books was a graphic novel.
3. I still haven’t finished our Book Club book. You know – the one that I’m actually required to read.

Where did this sudden volume come from?

Well, it’s winter. And it’s cold. All we can do anymore is sit inside on the weekends and read. Football season is over, which is fine (not that I ever watched football, to tell you the truth) and basketball season is just barely kicking into high gear on free, no-cable television.

I consider it all a learning experience, really. I’ll admit – I’ve never been so prolific in my entire life. It’s kind of fun, actually. In fact, I’m knocking down The Essentials (now featured on the right at the bottom of the sidebar) at a much higher rate than first expected. In the meantime, a handful of lessons have presented themselves along the way.

Introductions are worth reading.
So here’s the deal. Dostoyevsky was part horrible man, part weird super-Christian. Voltaire fought every day of his life to see his works published, since most of them were banned and destroyed upon publication. I learned these things from reading (for once!) the introductions of their respective books: Notes from Underground and Candide. I usually skipped those introductions. Now I view them as a venerable well of knowledge.

Notes from Underground was written a few years after Dostoyevsky was sentenced to death. To death! Why? Because he spoke out. Because he was a dissident in Mother Russia and needed to be stopped.

He wasn’t killed. No – of course he wasn’t. He had three more monstrous, billion-page novels to write before he was ready to expire. But he was tortured, mentally, by the powers-that-be. From Andrew R. MacAndrew’s Afterword:

“On December 21, 1849, the prisoners were taken to a city square for public execution. The death sentence was read to them, they were given the cross to kiss, a sword was symbolically broken over their heads, and they were ordered to don special white shirts. They were to be shot three by three. The first three were bound to the execution posts. Dostoyevsky was the sixth in line – that is, he was to be executed in the second batch.

Suddenly the tsar’s messenger appeared on a foaming horse and announced that the tsar was graciously making them a present of their lives. There was a beating of drums. The retreat was sounded. The men already tied to the posts were untied and sent back to rejoin the others. Some prisoners fainted. Two went permanently insane. The effect on Dostoyevsky, too, was shattering. The epileptic fits to which he had been subject since his childhood became incomparably worse.”

Yikes. No thanks. No wonder he was such a jerk. And it shows – Notes from Underground follows a man who can’t relate to common practice – who isn’t comfortable around people, or in conversation, or with really anything. He’s a sad sad man, this character, one that delights in proving people wrong and berating the weak in an effort to feel a little bigger himself. He’s gross, really. It’s a fascinating read, especially after knowing what we know about Mr. D.

Now Voltaire, who spent most of his life both hiding and watching his manuscripts become banned goods shortly after publication, wasn’t quite as ugly. He just couldn’t catch a break, it seems, though not in the D.H. Lawrence vein (where lots of sexy-sexy-talkie made fundamentalists shiver) but more in his own counter-cultural vein. In other words, he was writing stuff that no one wanted out in the open. Stuff like criticism of world politics and the leaders that ruled over those politics.

Let’s just say he wasn’t the most popular man at dinner when the King called his literacy council together.

Candide was good, though I haven’t had much of a chance to soak it all in yet. It’s one of those books filled to the brim with symbolism and stuff, but it’s a symbolism that was better understood in the 1700s. So I should probably look that up.

The cover, however, was beautifully done, and was the sole reason I purchased the book (and the sole reason for its inclusion on The Essentials list). Created by Chris Ware, the cover of Candide quickly summarizes (in typical, humorous Chris Ware fashion) the first few chapters through comic brilliance. This brilliance includes a guide to the characters, a map, and a “fun and games” flap. It’s all done in Ware’s patented “minimalist, circle body” style – much like the McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #13 cover that shows the history of comics. Which brings us to the next lesson.

Chris Ware is my favorite comic artist, ever.
Yeah. Along with Candide, I received Ware’s full length graphic novel, Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth (and, coincidentally, I also bought Dave Eggers’ What is the What in the same purchase – a trio worthy of the “greatest looking book purchase ever” moniker. The covers are magnificent).

It took me just a few days to read it. It was captivating. More to the point – it was incredibly sad and really quite depressing.

Ware tapped his own life story, somewhat, to tell a tale of loneliness and attempted forgiveness seen through the eyes of a 37 year old man-child – a mama’s boy that is emotionally stunted enough to be a hard worker, but an unskilled conversationalist. The man/boy – Jimmy Corrigan – decides to visit his father; a father he’s never met, mind you, and a father he’s never had contact with until a few days earlier.

What results is a beautiful romp through Jimmy Corrigan’s discovery. Ware’s style – lots of little boxes, lots of dream sequences and lots of raw emotion and awkward silences – captures the feeling of loneliness that both father and son exhibit toward each other. They both want to impress the other. But they don’t know how. And it feels like time is slipping away. It’s rather emotional, but it hits in weird spots. I daresay I nearly got a little choked up near the end. I felt that bad for the damned guy.

Finally, one last lesson:

Sometimes, too many books lead to an extended, unreadable monthly review.
It’s true. Take this one, for example. So, a quick summary (in classy, advertising-friendly, bullet point style) of everything else I read with a few comments thrown in for good measure:
• Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point was much more interesting that I initially gave it credit for. And, it had the added bonus of coming in handy a few days later at work, when I had to explain the Tipping Point concept (wherein a critical mass is reached and everything starts flowing in an opposite direction).
• Highly anticipated books never fail to arrive at least a month after you order them. My “greatest looking book purchase ever” showed up just a few days ago. It was purchased around Christmas. Boooo.
Oh Play That Thing continued the story left off in Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry. This time, Henry is in the United States, constantly shuttling from one “mobster-ized” environment to another. While he’s at it, he is actively pissing people off and nearly getting killed in the process. Really, though, he can’t help himself – he’s addicted to running: to shunning his family and sleeping around and playing up the mystery that he has brought with him since his troubles in Ireland. It is worth reading for Henry’s friendship with Louis Armstrong alone. It’s a good look at the speak-easy era of early 20th Century Chicago, just like A Star Called Henry was a good look at the Sinn Fein era of Ireland.
• It’s incredibly easy to put off reading a book club book. After all, it’s as close to homework as I get at my age, so it can be forgiven, right? We bought The Handmaid’s Tale. I need to read it by Monday. There’s nothing like reading under the gun.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a great children’s book that I had never read until this month. It took me about two days. If you haven’t read it, you should. It won’t take you very long, and it’s wonderfully written.

And that’s it. Now leave me be. I’ve got four days to read a classic.

Oh Play That ThingLion, Witch, WardrobeTipping Point

This was lovingly handwritten on January 31st, 2007