Friday, December 31, 2010

2010: The Year in Books

Well, it's been a long time since I've blogged, but I didn't want this blog to die off completely without a few more posts. After these next few posts I don't know whether I'll start a new blog, resurrect this one, or just shut down completely. At any rate, good news: I finally made my goal of reading 52 books in a year. In fact, I exceeded the goal by five books and, goofy picture aside, my head did not even explode. This year there were seven books I'd read at least once before (marked by an asterisk below), two comic compendiums included in the list, and a whole lot of stuff I'd never expected to like but did. I think I'll do a top and bottom five post later this weekend where I talk about the books I enjoyed the most and hated the most, but first the complete list in order:

  1. A Storm of Swords (GRR Martin) 
  2. Run (Ann Patchett) 
  3. Invention of Morel (Adolfo Bioy Casares) 
  4. Johannes Cabal, The Necromancer (Jonathan L.  Howard) 
  5. The Terror (Dan Simmons) 
  6. The Anarchist (John Smolens) 
  7. Treasure Island (Rober Louis Stephenson) 
  8. The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) 
  9. Fool (Christopher Moore) 
  10. The Girl Who Played With Fire (Steig Larsson) 
  11. Never Let Me Go(Kazuo Ishiguro) 
  12.  Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe)* 
  13.  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime (Mark Haddon)* 
  14.  Captain America Omnibus Vol 1 (Ed Brubaker) 
  15.  The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Alan Bradley) 
  16.  Death of Captain America Omnibus (Ed Brubaker) 
  17.  Imperium (Robert Harris) 
  18.  Let the Great World Spin (Colum McCann) 
  19.  The Hound of the Baskervilles (Arthur Conan Doyle) 
  20. Carrion Comfort (Dan Simmons) 
  21. Look Me in the Eye (John Elder Robison) 
  22.  Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages (Ammon Shea) 
  23. Catching Fire (Suzanne Collins) 
  24.  Silver (Edward Chupack) 
  25. Soon I Will Be Invincible (Austin Grossman) 
  26.  The Lost City of Z (David Grann) 
  27. Sarah's Key (Tatiana De Rosay) 
  28.  The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Brian Selznick) 
  29. The Lonely Polygamist (Brady Udall) 
  30. Pictures at a Revolution (Mark Harris) 
  31.  Lord of the Flies (William Golding)* 
  32.  Teaching Adolescent Writers (Kelly Gallagher) 
  33.  How to Read Literature Like a Professor (Thomas C. Foster) 
  34. Lives of the Monster Dogs (Kristen Bakis) 
  35.  Outliers (Malcom Gladwell) 
  36. The Passage (Justin Cronin) 
  37. Reservation Blues (Sherman Alexie) 
  38.  The Magicians (Lev Grossman) 
  39. Mockingjay (Suzanne Collins) 
  40.  The House of Mirth (Edith Wharton) 
  41.  Grendel (John Gardner)* 
  42.  The Killer Angels (Michael Shaara) 
  43. The Strain (Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan) 
  44.  Wise Children (Angela Carter) 
  45.  Little Brother (Cory Doctorow) 
  46. The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson)* 
  47.  My Lobotomy (Howard Dully) 
  48.  Hell House (Richard Matheson) 
  49.  Into the Wild (John Krakauer) 
  50.  A Reliable Wife (Robert Goolrick) 
  51.  The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death (Charlie Huston) 
  52.  Syrup (Maxx Barry) 
  53.  In the Shadow of Gotham (Stefanie Pintoff) 
  54.  Johannes Cabal, The Detective (Jonathan L. Howard) 
  55.  On Beauty (Zadie Smith) 
  56.  A Thousand Splendid Suns (Khaled Hosseini)* 
  57.  East of Eden (John Steinbeck)*

Overall I'm pretty pleased with the year's reading. While I was a little heavy on the supernatural/murder mystery/ quirky stuff I really enjoy, I think there's a pretty good mix of fun books, work-related books, classics, and recommendations from friends. And there are only one or two books I felt like were a complete waste of time. Not bad overall.

As for next year, while part of me wants to up the ante and go for 100 books, a much larger part of me wants to not count the number of books at all. At times during the year I passed up large books I wanted to read simply because I didn't want to get sidetracked on my goal. So for 2011 my goal is simply going to be to read one classic piece of literature a month. Beyond that, anything I read will simply be for fun. I'll keep track of the books again, but this time not in order to hit a certain number.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Sugar and Spice and Reading is Nice

As evidenced by the terrible little title above, this post will not be fully thought out or crafted, just a few thoughts that were running through my mind. You have been warned.

As an English teacher, I want teenagers to read. (As an aspiring writer, I want everyone to read, but that's another post.) I see part of my job as introducing my students to the cultural conversation through studying "great" and "important" works, and one of the pleasures of teaching at a private school is that I get to decide what "great" and "important" means, since we can't read everything, even though that would be nice. Because I feel like I can teach it better if I'm excited about it, I typically choose books that resonate with me, so we get a lot more Frankenstein and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, stuff that gets me thinking, and a lot less The Awakening and The Bell Jar. Now, that might mean I identify more with crazy and monstrous protagonists, or it might mean that I respond more to male protagonists, and both possibilities come with their own set of problems. Also, before you get up in arms, I do try and represent both feminist points of view and female narrators (A Doll's House, The Haunting of Hill House, and Their Eyes Were Watching God all come to mind as engaging pointedly with gender roles and all of which have interesting female protagonists), but I think part of the issue is one English professors have been complaining about for the last thirty years: a big part of the accepted literary canon is focused on male authors and their troubled male protagonists.

Except, after reading this New York Times essay earlier today, I realized there is one area--growing in popularity--where that's not the case: Young Adult Literature. Like the author of that piece, this summer I loved reading the first two books in the Hunger Games series (by Suzanne Collins) with their poorly-named-but-still-engaging-heroine Katniss Everdeen. (Seriously. That name. Gag.) And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that young women don't just exist in great numbers in YA literature, they thrive. Of course a plethora of silly vampire-tinged multi-book series  have sprung up in the wake of Twilight (go to your local bookstore and I bet you'll see at least one display of novels with titles like Vampire Boarding School or Ghost Boyfriend or whatever), and there have long been high school dramas aimed at girls (did you know that Gossip Girl the tv show started as Gossip Girl the book?). But let's look at the lit that either aims for something higher or manages to be better than the genre it comes out of: The Hunger Games series, The Book Thief, Lyra from the His Dark Materials trilogy, the writings of Laurie Halse Anderson (by all accounts--haven't read her yet). Go back a little further and you get things like Tuck Everlasting or To Kill a Mockingbird. Go back further and you get The Wizard of Oz's Dorothy or Little Women or Alice in Wonderland.

I'm not saying boys are underrepresented here either. Sure, there's Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield and a ton of other teenage boys--the name Harry Potter comes to mind. But I would wager (and it would be a wager; I have no evidence and like I said this is by-the-seat-of-my-pants analysis here) that there are a lot more strong female protagonists for young adult readers than there are male, especially in the last twenty years, even as there are a lot more male protagonists in "important" literature.

So, the question is, why?

One of my coworkers who knows of my writing aspirations suggested that she was concerned that there wouldn't be much for her son to read when he gets into the 12-17 year old range (a range when I think a lot of young men lose the drive to read) and that targeting that age range would be good for an aspiring author. I don't mind that suggestion--a lot of what I write actually features young male protagonists--but I wonder if she's right. Which came first? Do young adult males read less because there are fewer books marketed to and written for them, or are there fewer books marketed to them because they read less? And if there are, as I suspect, more young female readers than male, why is the literary canon still dominated by men? Are we just in the gap range when the centuries of male-dominated writing is still weightier than the decades of female-dominated reading? And what should I be doing to encourage boys AND girls to a) read more, and b) read more worthwhile books?

I have a feeling this is going to vex me.

Oh well. One week till school and two weeks till the last Hunger Games book. I'll find ways to stay distracted.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Film 101: Do the Right Thing

(Before I get to my continuing quest to educate myself about 110 years of film history, let me say this: My blog gets all kinds of random comments from chinese spammers (with links) that I have to immediately delete as soon as I find them. If anyone (by which I mean Shawn, how apparently is the only person still reading) on how to stop this from happening, let me know. If not, I'll continue to fight the good fight.)

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

I've found myself on an interesting kick this summer. Perhaps because my own writing has been so blocked, I've been kind of immersing myself in all kinds of movie history. This is partly a fun way to prepare for my film class, but mostly because it's a subject I really love and am drawn to. I'm 30 pages away from finishing a book about the 1967 Best Picture Academy Award nominees and how they represent a shift from Old Hollywood to New Hollywood. I've been watching Turner Classic Movies on a semi-regular basis. I bought and devoured an old special about Martin Scorsese's personal journey through movies that influenced him (which has turned me on to several old films I've never heard of but really want to see now, including "The Bad and the Beautiful" and "Duel in the Sun"). I've bought and started perusing 1001 Movies to See Before You Die (I've seen only 198, sadly). I find it the topic of a lot of my thoughts and a great way to spend my time. Meanwhile, I'm limited with what I watch because Amelia has been trying to get me to watch old movies for ages, and now that I am interested she doesn't want me to watch them all without her--understandable I think.

So today I sat down looking for something to watch from my good friend Netflix Instant Watch and found Spike Lee's 1989 film Do the Right Thing. Spoilers may follow, but I haven't included anything major that I didn't already know before watching the film. Interesting thing about Spike Lee in my humble opinion: the same things that help make him an important and compelling filmmaker are also a big part of what scares suburban white viewers away from his work: his anger, his unwillingness to compromise, his refusal to back away from complex and multifaceted (and difficult) topics like race in America. Though his last few movies (I haven't seen them all, but I have seen The 25th Hour and Inside Man) have been less explicitly about race, as a young filmmaker he tackled these issues head on, perhaps never more effectively than in Do the Right Thing. (Again, I say perhaps because I admit my exposure to his catalog is limited.)

Taking place over a 24-hour period in a predominantly black neighborhood in Brooklyn, the film deals with the racial undercurrents that run beneath a community that has seen a lot. Central to the story is Lee's own character, Mookie, a pizza delivery man and struggling father. Mookie's employer, Sal, who runs his business with his two sons, has been in the neighborhood for years and has both deep care and fast contempt for the black men and women who make up his business. His two sons are even more strongly divided: one a barely restrained racist and the other tolerant (this feels like the wrong word, but it's late and I'm getting tired) and friendly with the neighborhood. Other characters, like Radio Raheem, a large black man who carries around a boombox constantly playing Public Enemy's "Fight the Power," and the Mayor, a semi-vagabond who is both loved and hated in the neighborhood, hover on the periphery, and one of the strengths of the film is the way many characters are both fleshed out and symbolic with just a few scenes. There's Mother Sister, a kind of watchful caretaker of the neighborhood. There are the three older men who serve as both comic relief and commentary on the various figures in the neighborhood. There are the Korean grocers who have recently moved in. As the heat rises on the hottest day of the summer, however, these various characters interact in increasingly nasty and violent ways.

Sal, for example, refuses to acknowledge a request from a loud customer that his pizza place could use some pictures of black men on the wall next to all the Italians. Sal's son gets increasingly vocal about his disdain for the neighborhood. The three old men complain about the Korean grocers owing a store in a black neighborhood. A large group of young people harass a guy riding his bike for scuffing their new sneakers. Again and again there is conflict, and simmering just under the surface is something more. When one of the conflicts turns violent and a character is murdered, the floodgates open and everything that has been barely contained beneath the surface comes crashing out. (Whoa, some mixed metaphors there).

I don't know what I was expecting, but I was surprised and blown away about this film. Part of what really gets me still is the great shifts in tone that Lee employs. I don't know if it's his youth or his desire to push boundaries or what, but there are so many quick steps between tension and comedy, community and disjunction. He employs innovative techniques, like characters hurling a series of racial stereotypes and epithets directly to the camera, that both break the viewer out of the story and force him to be drawn in--are those epithets being spoken to you? Are they voicing thoughts you've never voiced (or at least never acknowledged in mixed company)? What do you see in this neighborhood: threats on every corner? Home? A bridge? Something that must be confronted? Even the title asks viewers to pass judgment: what is the right thing? Does Mookie do it when he basically starts a riot? Or not? Who is to blame here? Not all the things he tries to do work, I don't think, but he's not just throwing everything against the wall; he's trying to create a cross-section of experience--the friendships, the arguments, the love, the loneliness. Some of his technical stylings seem overly exuberant, but I'd rather have a filmmaker trying new things than just imitating everyone else.

There are things that date the movie: the opening credits feature a dance sequence by Rosie Perez that just seems silly now, though I guess you could make a few arguments that her various costume changes are a metaphor for the different facets each of us have below the surface. The crazy bright colors set this in that late 80s period before rap went gangsta and everyone wanted to be hood. And Samuel L. Jackson's radio DJ--seems so provincial to have a "neighborhood radio station," but who knows, maybe that's common in New York. At the very least it provides a good framing device for moving from point to point throughout the day (though I did think at least once, "Man, is that guy the only DJ at the station or does he just work a 16 hour shift?").

Dated moments aside, it remains a pretty powerful film. Even in our post-Obama and supposedly post-racial world, there is still plenty of room to explore the concepts of race, anger, stereotypes, and guilt today. In fact, my first reaction was that I wished I could show this to my film class (there's just too much bad language and a little bit of nudity to justify it) and to my sister's Houston students, because I'd be interested in how a cross section of 2010 teenagers process this. How do they assign guilt and innocence in the events that play out? What does that say about them, and about our world? What does it say about me?

I was impressed. Like The Searchers, my other favorite summer movie find so far, this may make its way onto some sort of great movies list for me: I couldn't say whether it's top 10 or top 50, but it's one I'll continue to remember and think about. I think that's what Lee was going for.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Film 101: The Searchers

First, yes, it's been a while. Sorry about that. I can't promise I'll be as prolific as I once was, but I realized there are things I can be posting in this blog a little more regularly. Today, film class.

As facebook readers and other online friends already know, I've been spending the last couple of days putting together a course overview for the Intro to Film class I teach. This is the first time I'm teaching it on my own, so I wanted to have some clear direction/ideas/purpose going into it. It's meant immersing myself back in film a little bit, a process which I always find rewarding, though at times time consuming (and at other times really boring). I've come up with a pretty good list, I think, and I'm sure I'll post some things about those films in future posts, but I wanted to write a little about a film that I'm NOT including but have a lot of thoughts about: John Ford's 1956 film The Searchers.

If you haven't seen the film yet, it's available on Netflix Instant Watch, and I definitely think it's worth the time. This review will contain spoilers, so if that matters to you, go watch it first and then come back. The film's principle character is Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne, an angry, hateful, cold former Confederate soldier who shows up at his brother's house a few years after the war. When Ethan's brother's family is murdered by Comanches and the two daughters are taken hostage, Ethan and sidekick Martin go on a quest to bring her back. The journey lasts somewhere between ten and fifteen years (I've read 14 years, but I couldn't find a specific answer, and I didn't watch quite closely enough to add up all the different time periods mentioned).

The film opens inside the house, looking out the doorway at the dust kicked up by Edwards' approach, and the shot will be famously mirrored at the film's ending (again, looking out the doorway at Edwards, this time as he walks away), as well as several other times throughout the movie. This simple device is telling us a little something already: we are inside the house with the civilized, the safe, the proper, while Edwards isn't. In fact, at the end of the film, all the characters enter the house around Edwards, but he is stuck on the outside looking in. He's a man left to, in a paraphrase of Martin Scorsese's words, wander in a spiritual and literal wasteland. He doesn't fit in with the more mature world the West is badly trying to become.

Don't feel too badly for Ethan, though. Did I mention that the guy is a total asshole? He won't let Martin call him Uncle Ethan, like the rest of the family does, because Martin is 1/8th Cherokee, despite having been saved by Ethan as a baby and raised by Ethan's brother. He calls him things like Blankethead and insults his intelligence. In fact, he insults pretty much everyone around him, with the exception of his brother's wife, who may or may not have feelings for him (there is no dialog mentioning a relationship, but there is some peculiar behavior on both parts that indicates romantic feelings for each other). His hatred of the Indians is so deep that he suggests that if he finds Debbie (his niece) still alive, he might have to kill her anyway because she would have been tainted by living with the Indians for so long. He is unaccountably savage--shooting the eyes out of a dead Comanche because in their belief system that means he'll be a wanderer for eternity (sounds familiar . . . see that last shot again) and trying to kill an entire herd of buffalo so that at least they won't go towards feeding the Indians.

Yes, the Comanches are pretty savage and violent--they burn the house down (George Lucas referenced this shot when Luke returns to Uncle Owen's farm and sees it burned down in Star Wars) and slaughter a lot of people, but Ethan is really no better. In fact, he has more in common with the Native Americans he hates than with the civilized family that's saving a place for Martin.

So why does it all matter? Well for one, in addition to the carefully constructed filmmaking (that bookending of the film's opening shots is matched in other ways as well. Early on, for example, we have Ethan's brother's family waiting for the Comanches to attack while a dog barks to indicate trouble coming. At the end of the film we have the Comanche camp unknowingly preparing for an attack from Ethan and the white guys, and again we have a dog barking to indicate trouble) and in addition to the sheer beauty of the film (it's really worth it to see it in HD. Monument Valley never looked so epic.), there's that introduction of the complex anti-hero that would be so important throughout the 60s and 70s especially. No, John Ford's not the first director to have a morally questionable hero, not by a long shot, but to take a figure as iconic as John Wayne and twist that image on its head is really effective. In our society, John Wayne means the ultimate cowboy, that great American mythic figure, but in The Searchers the myth is brought down to reality a little bit. That's part of the reason a lot of great filmmakers (Scorsese and Lucas are just two) consider this such an important film, but you can see its influence continue in their works. The dark antihero of Taxi Driver who wants to protect the innocent girl, etc. These things have roots in this 50s western that wasn't even nominated for an academy award.

Now, it's not a perfect film, I'll admit. While I found some of the subplots funny, they tonally don't match the film as a whole, and a few of the characters are stuck in caricature mode from beginning to end, but still, this was so much more than I expect it to be. As a college student I watched a few minutes of it with Amelia (who had to watch it for class) and found myself incredibly bored. This time I couldn't look away. Highly recommended.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

All Comments Lost?

Sorry for the delay. Things are getting back on track. It seems I really have lost all my comments, which is tragic, but I'm still checking out some options and I still am considering just using the opportunity to have a general blog redesign. We'll see.

By the way, I had to change the code. I don't know that it matters, but if you read through an RSS reader, you may need to update the site feed for comments and for the blog itself. TBA.

In the meantime, enjoy The Japanese Tradition: