books tell stories

A few years ago, a friend and I sat down one summer night and watched “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” It was the first in a these-days-aborted attempt to watch all the movies on AFI’s top 100 movies list. I’d seen a good chunk of them already, he’d seen another batch, and there were about 30 that were new to both of us. We got through “Singin’ in the Rain” (#10), “Maltese Falcon” (#23), “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (#30), “Network” (#66) and a few others with the help of Netflix queues and the AFI Silver Theatre, but somewhere along the way we stopped actively attacking the list. (“Rebel Without a Cause” (#59) is playing tomorrow night at Screen on the Green.)

The lesson here? I approach top 100 lists with enthusiasm, and then that enthusiasm wanes. The lists, in short, are like many other aspects of my life.

The last time I tried similar project for books, I settled on the Time 100. It came out in 2005 and had a few main advantages over other lists, such as the good sense to include “Watchmen” and the noticeable absence of Ayn Rand and  James Joyce (I’m looking at you, Modern Library).  That’s as far as I got, though: settling on the list. I think that was about four years ago.

And so, inspired by someone else’s attempt at that good old Time list, I’m trying again. As this journey of 100 books begins with a list, a few thoughts emerge already:

— Two books (“Grapes of Wrath” and “Watchmen”) are already part of my book project photo set.

–Several authors (William Gibson, Willa Cather, Evelyn Waugh) are well-represented on my shelves, but I’ve somehow skipped the particular books on this list.

–I Do. Not. Want. to read “Revolutionary Road.”

–Speaking of movies, the adaptation of James Dickey’s “Deliverance” isn’t on AFI’s main 100, but it’s #15 on the thrillers. I wonder how many other movie/book crossovers there are among these collections? For their Dashiell Hammett entry, Modern Library went with “Maltese Falcon” (#23 on AFI); Time here picked “Red Harvest.” Oh, and here’s “Gone with the Wind” on both, too (#4 at AFI).

–I swear among the 6 or 7 times I was assigned to read “Beloved” between 11th grade and graduating with a BA in English, I actually did read it at least once. But in those five years, that book was so dissected, so ripped apart, so analyzed as to no longer resemble anything worth reading. I want to try it again for fun without having to hand in a paper at the end of the semester. (No book reports here, right?)

–My favorite part about the Time collection is how few books on it I’ve read

And now, the list:

The Adventures of Augie March, Saul Bellow

All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren

American Pastoral, Philip Roth

An American Tragedy, Theodore Dreiser

Animal Farm, George Orwell (* but I should probably reread this)

Appointment in Samarra, John O’Hara

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Judy Blume

The Assistant, Bernard Malamud

At Swim-Two-Birds, Flann O’Brien

Atonement, Ian McEwan

Beloved, Toni Morrison (*yeah, probably ought to reread this, too)

The Berlin Stories, Christopher Isherwood

The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler

The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood

Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy

Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh

The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder

Call It Sleep, Henry Roth

Catch-22, Joseph Heller

The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger

A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess

The Confessions of Nat Turner, William Styron

The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen

The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon

A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell

The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West

Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather

A Death in the Family, James Agee

The Death of the Heart, Elizabeth Bowen

Deliverance, James Dickey

Dog Soldiers, Robert Stone

Falconer, John Cheever

The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles

The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing

Go Tell it on the Mountain, James Baldwin

Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck (*actually in progress now)

Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (please note the Web address you are currently visiting)

A Handful of Dust, Evelyn Waugh

The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers

The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene

Herzog, Saul Bellow

Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson

A House for Mr. Biswas, V.S. Naipaul

I, Claudius, Robert Graves

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

Light in August, William Faulkner

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

Lord of the Flies, William Golding

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

Loving, Henry Green

Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis

The Man Who Loved Children, Christina Stead

Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

Money, Martin Amis

The Moviegoer, Walker Percy

Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

Naked Lunch, William Burroughs

Native Son, Richard Wright

Neuromancer, William Gibson

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

1984, George Orwell

On the Road, Jack Kerouac

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey

The Painted Bird, Jerzy Kosinski

Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov

A Passage to India, E.M. Forster

Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion

Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth

Possession, A.S. Byatt

The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark

Rabbit, Run, John Updike

Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow

The Recognitions, William Gaddis

Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett

Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates (ugggghhhh)

The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles

Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut

Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson

The Sot-Weed Factor, John Barth

The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner

The Sportswriter, Richard Ford

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, John le Carre

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller (Do I get half credit for reading Anais Nin’s diary?)

Ubik, Philip K. Dick

Under the Net, Iris Murdoch

Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry

Watchmen, Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

White Noise, Don DeLillo

White Teeth, Zadie Smith

Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys


Book project

November 16, 2008

I’m on a roll, originally uploaded by erin m.

Another Book Project entry. Photo-wise, I think this might be my favorite so far.

American nerd(s)

October 26, 2008

Monday afternoon, I sat in Teaism finally finishing up the last stretch of Ben Nugent’s “American Nerd.” I don’t dislike it, which is about all I can say until I let some other thoughts sink in. Parts 2 and 3 definitely redeemed the sloppy thinking of Part 1 to the point where I want to mull over and respond to a book in a way I haven’t since bibliographies and citation manuals were part of my everyday life.

As I sat there reading a bit about awkward teen nerds at a creepy-adult-led anime conference, the awkward and loud teens behind me wrapped up their attempt to hate on affirmative action without sounding racist. They decided (loudly) they should come here more often. “Dude, we should start an anime club and meet here!” Girl says to Boy.

Awww. *

While I appreciate their unwitting involvement at acting out the chapter I was reading, I hope they postpone their regular meetings at my favorite restaurant at least until they’re old enough to flirt more subtly.

*Unfortunately, Boy doesn’t stand a chance with this girl based on what I heard. How cool is it that it was the girl dragging the boy into the dark den of anime? He knew precious little but was willing to follow her anywhere. In another era, she’d be in haute couture leading him into the opium den and he’d be dying with a smile on his face.


October 8, 2008

A few days after writing this post, I finally got my hands on volume 1 of “DMZ.” Despite my affection for the local boys, Fantom Comics was sold out of the first book, and I finally had to haul my ass into Georgetown. Barnes & Noble’s online inventory promised they had it in stock, so when I found myself over that way for an eye appointment* last week I finally, finally had an excuse to go the extra few blocks and buy what turned out to be the Second Best Comic Book I’ve Read This Year.**

It was so good freaking awesome that I read it despite my eyes having just been dilated. I could barely see the sidewalk in front of me on the way to the store (including the cross-don’t cross signs at the intersections, sorry Power Suit Guy in the Lexus at Penn and 23rd), but once I finally had “DMZ” in my hands I couldn’t NOT read it, right? So I sat there for an afternoon partially blinded, feeling like Mr. Burns in the “X-Files” episode of “the Simpsons,” squinting and crinkling my nose (that helps!) but plowing through because it was every bit as good as I’d hoped.

Before this year, I’d always been a fan of the heavy hitters but never actually spent much time reading graphic novels. This year, with “Watchmen” and “Fables” and now “DMZ,” I’m kicking myself for not going there sooner.

On the way home from Georgetown, I stopped at Fantom Comics in Union Station because previous experience had already proven them to be well-stocked with Volume 2. A few nights ago I was up until 1:30 finishing it, despite the 7:30 a.m. start time the next day at work. I’m up to Volume 3 now, which I picked up from Politics and Prose this afternoon, still trying to atone for the karmic sin of not trusting the indie stores first. It’s the hump volume, because once I finish that one there will be more unread volumes than read ones.*** Suggestions for what to tackle next are welcome and encouraged. Seriously, please? I can see the withdrawal hitting in about two weeks right after I turn the last page of Volume 5.

*Blocked tear duct. I’m physically incapable of crying right now. Irony noted.

**I did read “Watchmen” for the first time earlier this year.

*** Volume 6 in January! Woo!

A festival! Of books!

September 27, 2008

, originally uploaded by erin m.

The National Book Festival is always better when Neil Gaiman is there. At least that’s what I think in the off years, when he’s off visiting other readers in other states around this day and I’m camping out in the mystery tent looking for a new author to read. This year, I felt very badly for the fans who crammed his reading, then raced toward the signing tent (stopping in the elbow-room’s-a-luxury book sales tent that ran out of his new book anyway), stood in line with hundreds of other people also hoping for a few precious seconds with him, and then got rained on when the storm that had been threatening all day finally broke. I love Neil Gaiman, but even my adoration has its limits.

My souvenir? Pretty pictures of my favorite author, like the one up there. And others, which can be found here.

Conflict resolution

September 22, 2008

During a bit of downtime at work this month, I followed a series of links (I can’t remember if it started over at Wil Wheaton’s blog or on Boing Boing. With those two, it’s a chicken-egg situation, anyway), and I ended up over at a 2006 New York Times review of Brian Wood’s “DMZ.” (Yes, Virginia, they do make comic books about photojournalists!) Volume 5 just came out last month, but I’ve managed to get along though life without ever knowing about the book, a state I’ve been trying to correct for the last two weeks.

So what does the dutiful geek do when she learns about a new comic? Well, she doesn’t rush out to support the local comic book store, which is what she should have done immediately. She feels badly for this, especially because she walks by said comic book store every single day and lives six blocks from it. Really, there is no excuse for the turn this story’s about to take.

Instead, she left her office (in the middle of a tropical storm! Can I have some of those geek points back now? For risking death in the name of comics?) to hit up the Borders across the street. The shelf was empty, but the computer promised another copy was on the way. I figured someone else saw a review of the latest and wanted to get caught up, too. A trip to the Barnes & Noble on E Street ended with my hands similarly empty.

You know how Big Box Stores came in and ruined the specialty shops? The local hardware store and main street and all that? And now no one at Big Box Store will help you pick out a hammer or something and everyone leaves without being united with the perfect shiny tool and dreaming of happier times.* It’s pretty much the same thing with Big Bookstores: a selection that runs wide–three stories! lattes!–but not very deep. They’ve got 45 copies of “Watchmen” on display (which, really, I think is great), but god help you if you’re trying to find something Time magazine didn’t pick as one of the top books of the century. Repeated return trips to Borders revealed that the book was not actually on order and that it will not be restocked. Like an infant who just has to touch the pretty red stove, I kept returning to Barnes and Noble too, hoping that on the next trip the shelves would be magically realphabetized and resemble something close to an organized system. Like much in life, I was continually disappointed.**

So, finally, tonight I walk the long way (it wasn’t through snow and ice, but it was uphill, especially after I’d started walking home the other way) to finally stop at Fantom Comics in Union Station. And goddamnit if they weren’t forced to close early for a stupid event in the Great Hall.

Someday I’ll read “DMZ,” and I bet I’ll love it.

*My mom told me recently that the former owners of Ye Olde Hardeware Shoppe in my hometown have taken to telling everyone that Wal-Mart drove them out of business. It was 15 years ago, and I guess they figure that no one around now remembers that they closed two years before Wal-Mart opened and that the reason they went out of business was because crotchety old men may be great for adding character but they suck at providing customer service.

**I also harbored a secret hope that the area would be free of That Guy, who often glares at me as though I have no right to look in the section and disturb the 15 feet of personal space he has carved out for himself next to the manga.


September 18, 2008

Via Coilhouse, I learned of the Alan Moore interview posted today at the LA Times. Every time he emerges from his hermitlike existence across the sea is cause for celebration, and I’ve been waiting for him to get in some commentary about the “Watchmen” adaptation. He does not disappoint:

Will the film even be coming out? There are these legal problems now, which I find wonderfully ironic. Perhaps it’s been cursed from afar, from England. And I can tell you that I will also be spitting venom all over it for months to come.

I remain excited for the film, though I am keeping my expectations low.

Back to Coilhouse, this put into words that nagging feeling that’s been bothering me, too, lately:

We’ve entered an era ruled by scavengers. We are starving for substance. Obviously, we can’t look to Hollywood to nourish us. Still, the platform of narrative movie making has its own profound and distinctive magic. Here’s hoping that somehow…more and more storytellers standing beyond the gates of the sausage factory will be goaded, either by hunger or the pure urgency of inspiration, into making their own moving pictures.

The Jim Henson exhibit at the Smithsonian right now made me sad for all sorts of reasons: nostalgic longing for childhood, disappointment with the scope of the exhibit, its ban on photography, and the reminder that Henson’s death was probably one of the first I ever really noticed as a kid. What the exhibit did really well was remind you that Henson was more than just the Muppets and Fraggle rock, and that his movies got even more out there than “Dark Crystal” and “Labyrinth.” There’s a running video showing chunks of his 1965 filmTimepiece,” which epitomizes everything great about experimental film and manages to contain some spark that still forces audiences 45 years later to sit and watch it. And walking through that basement room in the Smithsonian, everyone stops to watch.

Going through that exhibit–from the Muppets, past the early TV commercials, over to the “Dark Crystal,” and out again through some kids playing with “Sesame Street” characters–made me marvel that he was so freaking brilliant and somehow managed to do it all: the commercial creator (literally: his early TV spots were for Wilkins Coffee) who found massive success but never, ever stopped experimenting and telling out-there stories. Who does that now? Does anyone? Do they get to keep doing it for very long? Or does it all just end up like Spike Jonze and his “Where the Wild Things Are” adaptation: watered down, fought over, delayed, containing only a spark of its potential awesomeness.

Meredith Yayanos over at Coilhouse is right: We’re starving for substance, and so far none of the magic new tools of the wondrous Web of ours have managed to deliver. I’m mildly disappointed in the world right now, though perhaps I should treat it all like the “Watchmen” movie: lowered expectations and pleasant surprise when it finally manages to come out OK.

September 11, 2008

I started reading Cory Doctorow’s “Little Brother” this week, and I want the world to stop so I can just finish it already and pronounce it the Greatest Book I’ve Read This Year, which I’m sure I’ll do if I can ever just find the time to finish it. Cory Doctorow, you are a god*.

And to do that, I need Google reader to stop updating with Jezebel entries, and for the weather to stop being so deliciously fall-like, and for it to be acceptable at my job for me to curl up under the desk with What Will Surely Be the Greatest Book I’ve Read This Year. I rode the five-minute escalator at Dupont Circle this morning so I’d have more time to read. I stood at the top so I could finish a chapter. I was annoyed that my dentist took me in right away instead of leaving me to read in the waiting room.

I decided to go to Silver Spring based entirely on the fact that it’s a 25-minute ride on the Metro. Twenty-five uninterrupted minutes to read! Yes!!

The one interruption I’ve allowed myself came last night, before I hit the groove. Back then, I was only a few dozen pages in and it was still OK to take a break, so I went to see “Hamlet 2” at E Street. I read until the lights went down, and I tried to keep reading by the light of the Stella Artois ad until the movie came on.

If you’re going to be turned away from What Was Already Well On Its Way To Becoming What Will Surely Be the Greatest Book I’ve Read This Year, there is no better distraction than “Hamlet 2.” “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus” is … well, it’s indescribable, actually. Especially since I’ve recently decided to make an effort to use fewer superlatives, based mostly on the fear that I rely on them so heavily that I’m losing the ability to communicate enthusiasm. (And with the fall movies coming up, I want to be able to competently communicate enthusiasm.) But if I were allowing myself to use words such as “amazing,” “awesome,” “freaking hilarious,” and “containing the best musical number in any movie in the last 10 years,” they’d all be applied to “Hamlet 2” in general and “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus” in particular. Steve Coogan, you, too, are a god.

*Though you are a god with typos in your book. Hey, I’m a copy editor. You’re a writer clearly in need of another set of eyes. I’d give you the special discount for awesomeness. Let’s talk.