Thursday, October 23, 2008

Classic Works in Various Genres: A Project

My reading goal this year was to read "classic" works in a variety of genres. The goal is twofold: To get exposed to a bunch of genres I don't normally read and to read some books that I felt like I "should" read. The number one criteria in this is, which book in this genre do I most wish that i had read. This post will document where I've gotten so far and where I plan on going. Progress has been pretty slow since I have been sidetracked numerous times, but I'm enjoying it so much that it will spill right on over to 2009, or even 2010 with the pace I've been keeping up. These books are very angl0-centric because I dislike reading translated works. Perhaps once this is over I will move on to a series of reading international literature though.


Genre: Comic Book
Selection: Stan Lee & Jack Kirby - The Essential Fantastic Four: Volume 3
Reasoning: The most obvious classic comic book work to read here would be Watchmen but unfortunately for this project I've already read it. Similarly, I've read several of the other more obvious choices such as Sandman, Killing Joke, Dark Knight Returns, and Born Again during a brief comics phase I had in college. So I decided to dip into the well of classic comics here, of which I've read none. My first inclination was towards a collection of old Spiderman or X-Men or Superman comics, but a Martin Skidmore post on FreakyTrigger pointed in the direction of this book and I decided to take his word for it.
Brief Review: While I failed to grasp the significance of things such as the introduction of the Inhumans and the Negative Zone because I know little about the Marvel Universe, I still enjoyed a majority of the books. The books were plotted pretty well and paced much more quickly than the comics I was reading in college. The characters are completely one-dimensional and Reed is sooo unlikeable, but this was still a really enjoyable read.
Going Forward: I enjoyed the work OK like I said, but it wasn't too great or anything. Not the kind of thing that makes me want to run out and buy more old comics. I think my comics phase is still behind me.

Genre: True Crime
Selection: Vincent Bugliosi - Helter Skelter
Reasoning: This was the easiest selection I have yet had because as far as I can tell there's nothing even remotely on the same level as classic as this book in the True Crime genre. Widely read and loved and just the kind of book I feel like I should have read.
Brief Review: An extremely engaging and interesting account of the Charles Manson case. As far as I can tell a fairly definitive account of the event. One of the best nonfiction books I've ever read.
Going Forward: I had never read a true crime book before, but after this book it is likely I will read another Bugliosi book. I've been eying his OJ book Outrage lately.

Genre: Pop Fiction
Selection: Steven King - The Stand
Reasoning: I've long been fascinated by the works of authors like John Grisham or Tom Clancy or Michael Crichton who are very popular but also very much hated by the "intelligent" crowd. The anti-hipster in me wants to read and love them, though I have never read a single work by any of the three. However I did ultimately decide to go with a work that does have some cachet, just because The Stand is such a cultural touchstone.
Brief Review: I had previously only read The Dark Tower series by Steven King. After reading those and this book I am convinced that Steven King has no clue how to effectively end his books. Despite the ending, and a long sequence towards the middle which dragged horribly, this book managed to be an entertaining read with compelling characters. And the ending did indeed get to me emotionally, big surprise.
Going Forward: I've liked Dark Tower and The Stand but I really think that's enough King for a lifetime. Both books had the same problem, namely way too long and terrible ending. I have zero desire to continue reading his body of work. I probably will read a Clancy or Grisham work some day.

Genre: Chick Lit
Selection: Jane Austen - Emma
Reasoning: Much like Helter Skelter above, not much of a choice here. Jane Austen is an all time classic and considering how much I love romantic comedies it's amazing how I've never read any Jane at all. Except that I did read Pride and Prejudice for a class in high school.
Brief Review: Even though this book was not nearly as emotional or romantic as I thought, and the main character was 10x more unlikeable than Cher from Clueless, I still loved this book. The romance was great, but just the dialogue and characters were incredibly sharp. This is one of my favorite novels I've read.
Going Forward: I liked it enough that I bought the Complete Novels of Jane Austen and already read Persuasion, also excellent. Eventually I will get through all the novels.

Genre: Mystery
Selection: Agatha Christie - Murder on the Orient Express
Reasoning: I did debate whether to go classic British, or more modern, or hardboiled American on this. But really do I need to explain the reasoning on Agatha Christie here? I did debate which specific Christie book to get, but based on the descriptions on the back this seemed more interesting than And Then There Were None and, at least in America, those are her two classic famous works.
Brief Review: Very fun, and kept me guessing up to the end, which I did not know ahead of time. Extremely well put together though, with lots of twists and turns and never gets boring. Her social/class commentary is also really great.
Going Forward: Again, I enjoyed it enough that I've already purchased and read a few other Agatha works, including And Then There Were None. Also One Two, Buckle My Shoe which had probably the least plausible ending of any book I've ever read, and I've read Goosebumps books.

Genre: Science
Selection: Oliver Sacks - An Anthropologist on Mars
Reasoning: I was a Math major in college, but my interest in pop science works is very low, if not zero. I've always wanted to read a Sacks work and once I saw that this was located in the Science section of Borders I jumped on it immediately. I may still go for a "hard" science work like the Feynman lectures of A Brief History of Time.
Brief Review: Oliver Sacks is a really good writer and the bizarre mental conditions he writes about are surely extremely interesting. On the balance though this is a work I was never too excited about. I kind of wish I had gone with Awakenings instead since that is the most popular Sacks work. Ah well.
Going Forward: I may still read Awakenings one day but its fair to say this wasn't some kind of massive revelation about pop science works for me.

Made the Selection but Haven't Read
Genre: Short Story
Selection: Flannery O'Connor - Everything That Rises Must Converge
Reasoning: I'm a huge Flannery fan, and a huge fan of Southern literature in general, so it's somewhat ridiculous that I haven't read this yet. As far as level of classicness, well something like O Henry - The Four Million is probably THE classic of the short story genre, but I am biased towards Flannery so I'll stick with that. I may be convinced to switch the genre of this one to Southern Lit so I can fit in O Henry anyways, I haven't decided.

Genre: Biography
Selection: Henry Adams - The Education of Henry Adams
Reasoning: I picked this work because it was #1 on the Modern Library top works of the 20th century. Ben Franklin's autobiography is the only other one I can think of that's up there with this one, but I'm comfortable with this choice.

Genre: Self Help
Selection: Steven Covey - The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
Reasoning: This is actually one of the genres I had the toughest time with, oddly enough. My strongest considerations were this book, Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale, and I'm OK, You're OK. I didn't want to do Covey cause he's by far the most recent. Bur I've always considered Peale and I'm OK to be some kind of hippie crap that holds no interest to me. The title of How to Win Friends and Influence People kind of icks me out. Objectively, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living should have been my pick but, quite simply, worrying is not a serious problem of mine. I'd rather go with the work that is more likely to genuinely help me.

Genre: General Fiction, British
Selection: Charles Dickens - A Tale of Two Cities
Reasoning: I've never read a single Dickens work, which is rather ridiculous, and this is probably his #1 most classic work.

Genre: General Fiction, Not British or American
Selection: James Joyce - Ulysses
Reasoning: I really do not want to read this book, but when it comes to classics they don't come much more classic.

Genre: Drama
Selection: Shakespeare - King Lear
Reasoning: I've never read it or seen a performance and know nothing of its plot or characters and that makes me feel uncultured.

Genre: Dystopian
Selection: George Orwell - Nineteen Eighty Four
Reasoning: It's so completely absurd that I've never read this book that I had to make up a genre to fit it in.

Possible Other Genres
Genre: General Fiction, American
Thoughts: No clue yet. My general idea would be to go old, like Washington Irving, but I could be persuaded to pick Updike or something like that. Too many choices and none stand out.

Genre: Hipster fiction
Thoughts: Carver and Palahniuk jump out but this is one I'm not in a rush to get to and this is a questionable genre so it may just get left out entirely.

Genre: Postmodern
Thoughts: The most obvious choice I can think of is White Noise and most likely that's what I'll go with, but I could be persuaded over to Pynchon as well, I need to do more research.

Genre: Science Fiction
Thoughts: The immediate thought that came to mind was Stranger in a Strange Land but I know almost nothing about this genre and definitely need to do some research.

Genre: History
Thoughts: Halberstam or Studs Terkel both seem good. My friend who reads a lot of history recommends Halberstam so I guess I'll go with him.

Genre: 21st Century Fiction
Thoughts: Obvious choices here are The Corrections or Empire Falls. I'll probably just go with The Corrections but part of me just wants to read whatever wins the Pulitzer this year.

Genre: Politics
Thoughts: The Republic is my first choice, but I could easily go with Hobbes or a more modern work as well

Genre: Poetry
Thoughts: Too many choices and I haven't any idea what to use to narrow it down. Most likely here I'll just go to Borders and pick something at random. Don Juan is the only thing that leaps immediately to mind.

Genre: Sports
Thoughts: Since I've read almost every classic baseball work, my initial instinct is to go for Friday Night Lights but then again I never have read The Boys of Summer so I dunno.

Most likely other genres too (economics? military history? music/movies? criticism?), depending on how bored I get of the project eventually. And like I said I'm trying to keep it anglo for now, though I am open to branching out to international works too eventually.


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Favorite Album of the 2000s

I was thinking the other day about what is my favorite album of the 2000s decade. Some quick thought led me to five reasonable options: The Marshall Mathers LP by Eminem, Come and Get It by Rachel Stevens, Still Me, Still Now by Amy Diamond, Mass Romantic by The New Pornographers, and Breakaway by Kelly Clarkson. Let's go through the tale of the tape then:

Those five albums listed above were the five main contenders that came into my head immediately. Some distinguishing factors came out about all 5. The Marshall Mathers LP has really good lyrics, probably the best of the decade, and really catchy songs. But it's way too freakin' long! Plus the skits are annoying. Come and Get It is really fun pop, but there's no depths to enjoy or anything. The lyrics are never anything special, compared to say Ashlee Simpson, but I love all the songs. Still Me, Still Now is more of the same, glossy fun pop with not too much else to offer. Mass Romantic is the best indie album of the decade, which is why it leaped to mind, but I simply fear that it is just plain not as good as indie classics from the 90s like Alien Lanes or Holiday. Breakaway has really good lyrics and good songs, but I just fear that on a raw level I just do not love the songs on that album as much as I love the songs on the others.

There aren't any country albums this decade I've really loved. Neko Case's Furnace Room Lullaby is probably top 10 or top 20 of the decade for me but just not number one, and I've never gotten into any of her other albums. The other so-called alt country albums of the decade are almost entirely just mediocre indie rock albums with a very slight country twinge, at least in my opinion. Sara Evans' Born to Fly has really, really good singles but also a lot of filler. Montgomery Gentry's albums are all really good but none are too exciting. Big & Rich's debut clearly a classic but again just not a serious contender for #1.

I think of the five serious options, Mass Romantic drops out pretty early. It came to mind immediately because I love "Letter from an Occupant" and "Execution Day" and "The Body Says No", which is probably the best stretch of three consecutive songs on any album this decade. The problem is none of the other songs really jump up to the same level (some moments do like the outro to "Jackie") and there's other songs on the album like "To Wild Homes" and "Breakin' the Law" that I just really am not a huge fan of at all. Normally not a problem but when you get up to this level it should be all high. So Mass Romantic would come in at #5.

I think Still Me, Still Now and The Marshall Mathers LP drop out next. I actually genuinely love every single song on Still Me Still Now, but when it comes to mindless pop I just prefer Come and Get It for a couple reasons. Most importantly, the two best songs on Come and Get It are "I Said Never Again (But Here We Are)" and "Nothing Good about This Goodbye" compared to Still Me Still Now's offering of "Don't Cry Your Heart Out" and "All The Money in the World". Now I love "Don't Cry Your Heart Out" - I had it as the number two single of 2006 and if anything I like it even more today - and "All The Money in the World" is almost as good, but this is still a clear win for Come and Get It. Plus, and it's subtle, the worst tracks on Come and Get It are slightly better than the worst tracks on Still Me Still Now ("Diamonds" and "Big Guns"). All in all it's enough to knock Still Me Still Now to #4.

Marshall Mathers LP I actually have very little to expand on what I wrote above. It's got great lyrics that rotate between insightful and hilarious, and sometimes both at the same time. I just can't listen to the whole thing at once because it's so long and because the skits get old really fast. I like all of the songs on the album and can't really think of any blatant filler that just plainly needs to be cut, but they still should have cut about 3 or 4 songs off the album. Still, I like the collection of songs enough to get it all the way up to #3, which is impressive for an album that I almost never listen to all the way across.

Which brings us to the top two, and at this point it's just going to come down to some hand waving. Come and Get It is clearly a better collection of songs whereas Breakway has much better vocals, better lyrics, and is much more cohesive as an album. And that's the thing about Come and Get It - it has like 5 incredibly amazing songs, and all of the other songs are pretty good. I'm pretty much up to listening to it at any time, and even if I don't have time for a full album songs like "So Good" and "Negotiate With Love" and the two I listed above just haven't gotten old after many, many listens. Whereas Breakaway's songs have faded a bit more with repeat plays for me. But all in all there's no mood to it, no drama, no depth. It's just hitting the pleasure center directly to bring me the most enjoyment possible. I'm trying to think of something bad about the album to say, some reason why it's not #1, but it doesn't really exist. Maybe objectively I like it more than Breakaway, but it's just that I've put so much thought and so much emotion into Breakaway that I just can't put anything else at #1. That's why Rachel has to settle for #2, but it's a (very) strong #2!

So Breakaway. The thing about Breakaway is that it's the album that got me back into pop music in the first place. Prior to 2005 I was basically still an indie snob, and Kelly Clarkson showed me the joys of teen pop and, indeed, pop in general. So I have a deep personal connection to the album. And the devastating darkness, and the incredibly intricate drama, and the interesting stories and all of that just flows all throughout the album. It's an album that demands to be listened to with full attention. I have an old post where I explore Breakaway as a hidden concept album, which was written mostly in jest but the general point that the song lyrics are all great and related stands. So it's a pop album that inspires genuine thought from me. Which isn't to say I don't love the songs! None of the individual songs are up to the level of the other albums, but the worst songs are things like "You Found Me" and "Breakaway" and those are still pretty damn good songs. And, oh yeah, KC is a pretty good singer too. Anyways, even though it's probably the lesser collection of songs among all the top 5, its general importance in my history of music listening, cohesive mood, and good lyrics drive it all the way up to #1. No album has ever inspired as much emotion in me and most likely none ever will.

And yes I've heard indie like Wilco and crap like that which causes some hipsters to have emotional moments despite their cold, black hearts. Suffice to say I just don't care for it.

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