Monday, June 27, 2011

HBO verses the Booksnobs

I hate Booksnobs.

Booksnobs are those unsavory elitists who feel that every scrap of entertainment pales in comparison with the written word. They are often seen sitting on crowded buses reading Tolstoy. Holding the book in such a way that everyone can see they are reading Tolstoy. They have extensive collections of unread novels meant to impress guests. They circulate wine and cheese parties loudly declaiming: "The book was much better than the movie!" When cornered they may even try to convince you that The Lord of The Rings films were inferior to the Tolkien novels.

The worst part is, they are often right. About the movie adaptations, anyway. Tolkien was flowery and obtuse. Get over it.

This is all about to change. Specialty networks like HBO and Showcase are ushering in a golden age of book-to-movie adaptations. The 10-episode cycle gives writers and directors lots of time for story arc and the absence of Big Studio Funding allows for plenty of creative freedom. The recent Game of Thrones series was the most entertaining thing shown on a screen all year. Now with Stephen King's The Dark Tower in the works and casting rumors for Neil Gaiman's American Gods the future of books-as-movies looks bright for a change.

Eat that Booksnobs. And you're never going to finish Tolstoy. No one ever has.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

There is a book leaning on the shelf in my living room that I should have returned to the library nineteen years ago. It is a book of poetry, quotations and proverbs with a worn blue cover and inset gold lettering on the spine. The guilt I feel for depriving other library patrons is assuaged by the wonderful memories I associate with it. It was the book that dragged my sleepy teenage brain away from the dark basements of Stephen King and into the warm autumn light of Tennyson, Keats, Poe and Wordsworth. It started a flirtatious, arms-length affair with poetry that I still maintain today. I don't write it much any more, but I still love to read it. The good stuff can shift the axis of the earth. The bad stuff can give you mental heartburn.

The Anthologist introduces us to Paul Chowder, an aging and increasingly irrelevant poet who is struggling to write an introduction to his new anthology. Through Paul, Nicholson Baker takes us on a guided tour of his own relationship with rhyme, and what he reveals is a jewelry box stuffed with good verse. Paul Chowder claims that "good" poems all have a couple of things in common; they all have rhythmic four-beat lines and they all use small, simple words. He despairs the lost art of rhyming and rallies against the modern trend towards free verse. It is all very clever and funny and I came away with an even deeper appreciation for this art.

I will not be returning that library book any time soon but I will be lending this one out to anyone with more than a passing interest in poetry. Yes, for the record, I am a hypocrite. 

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks

Those familiar with the Culture Universe and all of its complex machinations are in for a HUGE treat with Surface Detail. The uninitiated, however, may find themselves wondering what the hell they've gotten themselves into. So for those people I'll offer a little help:

Read this first: Wikipedia's Handy-Dandy Culture Primer

Got all that? Okay, quick...What is the pejorative term used by Sentient Minds to describe GSV's that take an unhealthy interest in human beings? Hint: think "protein fornicator".

It's a lot to take in, I realize. It`s going to stretch that brain a bit. You might even wonder why you are devoting all this mental real estate to made-up stuff when you could be studying for exams or learning how to properly cook fish. Here`s why: Iain M. Banks has crafted a monumental playground for the mind and filled it with characters and stories that are totally original and wonderful to behold. Just beneath the surface of all the whiz-bang special effects and theoretical physics there are classic themes of love, loss and triumph. Mix it all up with a great, sly sense of humor and we have a smart, stylish Star Trek for the 21st century. Minus William  Shatner of course. Pity that.

Monday, June 13, 2011

What is it Good For? Absolutely....Something.

Embedded journalism has lost both its impact and its credibility in this post-Wikileaks age. Reporters who strap on body armor and go on patrol with the troops may be getting the "total experience" but as we all know, that experience gets thoroughly cleansed, edited and sterilized before being disseminated to a public that is increasingly apathetic regarding the war in Afghanistan.

Sebastian Junger wants to change that with War, and for the most part he succeeds. He wisely avoids all the political controversy surrounding this conflict, and shines the journalistic spotlight where it belongs: On the kids who are fighting and dying every day. This is the human story behind the headlines. The kind of story that cuts both ways: Flag waving patriots will be moved by the against-all-odds sacrifice, while left-leaning humanists will be appalled by the barbarity and senseless death.

Junger's enthusiasm for all things military can be a bit exasperating, however. I couldn't help rolling my eyes at his "ain't-that-cool" descriptions of weapons, tactics and the manly men who employ them. On some levels this is shameless War Porn  in the same vein of  Blackhawk Down  by Mark Bowden. But that's okay, because War Porn, just like conventional porn can be a lot of fun. As long as it's not TOO MUCH fun. If you catch my meaning.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Cure for Seasonal Affective Stupidity

I'm going to keep this simple. I'll use small words and throw in a picture or two so you don't get bored and wander off. It is now early June and temperatures are steadily going up and as a result our IQ's are beginning to plummet. It's a fancy-shmancy mathematical principle called inverse proportion, but that's like five syllables of confusing wordiness, so for our purposes we'll call it S.A.S. (Seasonal Affective Stupidity).

I typically like to ascribe some evolutionary context to human behavior. It helps me sleep at night knowing that my stupidity can be explained away with genetic heredity and such. So with that in mind I believe S.A.S. is the product of one of the following biologic principles:

1. Human beings, after a long winter of near-starvation and physical deprivation become, by necessity, more efficient machines in the warm season. We had all winter to huddle in caves and think deep, abstract thoughts but now that the sun's out we have work to do (find food, make babies, golf, etc.). In order to facilitate all this extra work, the brain starts shutting off all non-essential systems in order to concentrate on sheer physicality. Those crops aren't going to plant themselves and nobody is going to be doing algebra come October if there is nothing to eat.


2. The chicken did, indeed, come before the egg and we have been made stupider by the entertainment industry. All of the books that qualify as "great summer beach reads" but contain neither style nor substance. All of the hyper-kinetic movies that over stimulate our adrenal glands with pyrotechnic wizardry but leave our brains completely unfulfilled. It is the intellectual equivalent of an Extra Value Meal from McDonald's. The bar has been set so low from June through September that we just happily trip over it and land in a shallow pool of American Idol re-runs and Dairy Queen CheeseQuake Blizzards.

If the former is the truth than there is nothing I can do. You can`t fight Darwinian natural selection. But if the latter is the culprit than I can help cure S.A.S. in my own small way, by recommending some `beach reads` that are both entertaining and intellectually gratifying. So you can have your CheeseQuake and eat it too.

Nelson Demille introduces us to New York homicide detective John Corey in this Swiss Army Knife of a book that is part murder mystery, part conspiracy theory and part knuckle biting thriller. Corey is the classic ``too smart for his own good`` alpha male who often plays the buffoon to keep his adversaries off-balance. He is, hands down, the best fictional character working in this genre to date. You`re gonna love him.

This tale of the only teacher to stay behind on an unnamed island in the midst of a civil war keeps it`s cards close to the vest. The reader is left to guess at the motivations of  Mr. Watts as he reads Charles Dicken`s Great Expectations to the schoolchildren, while all around them war is turning their lives upside down. A masterful meditation on sacrifice and loss and a spectacular payoff.

Spoiler Alert!

This wonderfully quirky story is actually one of the best allegorical treatments of modern religion and the murky questions of faith that I have ever read. That`s pretty high praise too, considering that I am an atheist.

Here it is folks, the Bible of Justification for all of your disgusting excess. While it might not help you explain to your wife why playing eight straight hours of Call of Duty: Black Ops is actually `healthy`. It does provide some great insight into the positive effects of our favorite guilty pleasures. Pretending to be a half-elf wizard in your parent`s basement isn`t so bad after all, despite what your virtual friends say.