Monday, December 3, 2012

Stuff of Literary Value

Hark! Hearest thou a sound from yonder hills? Liketh angels singing thine glorious hymns from up on high or the sweetest of songbirds professing a love purer than the finest gold. Nay! It is merely I, bard of the barreling tides, come yet again to profess an affinity for all things fantastic, bizarre, macabre, or otherwise. In this episode we meet a few of my favorite authors (and my favorite of their works). Preparest to be rocketh'd! Be stunned! Be amazed! Be more than likely completely and utterly indifferent!

1. Haruki Murakami - Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

          Yeah, hittin' you with the Japanese guy right outta the gate. Bet you didn't see that one coming. Haruki Murakami is easily my favorite non-English speaking (read: writing) author, and for good reason: he loves rainy days, smoky jazz clubs, whiskey, and questionably alternative realities. His body of work is like the profile of a gentleman who'll get into my pants on the first date, no matter how many times I promise myself he wont. And Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is the cherry on top of the proverbial sundae, pie, cake, or otherwise.
          With chapters staggered between two parallel narratives, both stories follow an unnamed protagonist as he makes his way through a heretofore unfamiliar landscape. The first narration (the odd chapters) follows a man, identifying himself as a Calcutec (Calcutecs being a body of people responsible for protecting data from their counterparts, the Semiotecs, who are chiefly responsible for stealing data), as he takes a job for a mysterious scientist experimenting on "sound removal" deep within his city's sewer system. In the second (the odd chapters), the narrator comes upon a mysterious walled town and, through a process of excising himself of his shadow and learning to be a Dreamreader via watching the residual dreams from the skulls of dead unicorns (less the classic white horse variety and more an ugly breed of passive bovine creatures), becomes a citizen of the town.
          While both narratives have merits in their own right, it's how the two weave together that really makes this book special. Be wary, however, because Murakami is partial to his own brand of awkward sexuality, the one element of his work of which I am not fond, because it always removes me from my immersion in his books. Hard Boiled, thankfully, suffers the least of it. That being said, Murakami's collected body of work is something to behold. Check it out.

2. Salvador Plascencia - The People of Paper

          A curious book, to say the least, Salvador Plascencia's debut novel, The People of Paper, centers around the story of Federico de la Fe and his daughter, Little Merced, as they travel from Mexico to the United States following their abandonment by Federico's wife and Little Merced's mother, also named Merced, to wage a war against the influence of Saturn (yes, the planet). The narrative is littered with outlandish religious, historical, and cultural references, in conjunction with a tremendously unique physical layout (some pages follow a traditional paragraph structure, others are columned; some have only a single word upon them, others are completely blacked out; one name has been physically cut from each page upon which it appears; and, halfway through the novel, the narrative starts over). Some of these unique elements can be a bit jarring, especially the restart, and it is hard to separate the story with the breaking of the 4th wall (some of the author's personal life appears to intrude upon the book, though the nature of the novel makes it hard to verify the intrusion as fact rather than fiction), but the loveliness of the entire narrative, the characters, and really the book as a physical object (I implore you to get your hands on the hardcover version depicted above), makes this my current favorite book of all time. And it has held that title for five long years (and counting).

3. Joe Meno - The Boy Detective Fails

          It has come to my attention, at this point, that my list of all-time favorite authors/books could be perceived as somewhat bleak. The stories that populate this list are not, per se, the happiest of tales, but I think each of them have a merit beyond that of a simple binary happy vs. sad judgment system, and if your opinion varies therein, you're wrong.
          Joe Meno's The Boy Detective Fails follows the story of Billy Argo, the aforementioned boy detective all-grown-up, as he resides within the Shady Glens Facility, a home for the mentally incompetent, following the apparent suicide of the Watson-to-his-Holmes and his sister, Caroline. There amongst the (also mentally incompetent) villains of his past and with the assistance of another brother-sister team, the Mumford siblings, Billy, once more, takes up the mantle of boy detective to glean the truth behind his sister's out-of-character demise and confront the monotony (and oddity) of the real world.
          This book holds a special place in my heart, melodramatic as the blurb may seem. Anyone with as overactive an imagination as mine who has been confronted with the sobering agony that is the real world will understand my sentiment. Seriously, though, read this beauty (even if realizing that you'll never be super-anything does make you want to quietly sob yourself to sleep).

4. Dave Eggers - A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

          The first thing that you need to understand about Dave Eggers (beside the fact that he penned the big screen version of Where the Wild Things Are) is that he is impregnably narcissistic. The second is that, once you've read this book, you may find his narcissism somewhat deserved (and you'll probably hate that). The first of two memoirs on this list, this is the first I ever read (and willingly, at that). Truth is, I stumbled upon it accidentally in an airport on the way to a family reunion while I was in high school. I figured the title offered but two outcomes: something worth laughing at or something worth remembering. That flight took 6+ hours, but I can't verify that as truth because I don't recall voluntarily putting the book down, but for necessary bathroom breaks.
          Like Plasencia, Eggers likes to break the 4th wall. In Staggering Genius he does so through the character of his younger brother, and it is always self-deprecating. Unfortunately, as a result of his narcissism elsewhere, it feels like false modesty, more often than not. Still, its hard to deny that this book is a monument to the genre. Bear in mind, however, it has some of the saddest opening chapters I've ever encountered.

5. Mark Z. Danielewski - House of Leaves

          Probably the most difficult read of every other book on this list in regards to physical structure, narrative structure, and sheer girth, House of Leaves is equal parts unnerving horror story, star-crossed tragedy, and text book. Yes, I do mean like text book like the information tomes of your adolescent nightmares. Following, if I'm recalling correctly, up to 5 different narratives throughout different points in the story, the overarching tale follows a journalistic photographer, by the name of Will Navidson, as he documents his family's move to a suburban home in Virginia, only to find that the house is actually larger on the inside than it is on the outside. From there, everything goes the way of Wonderland (that is, to say, completely mad), and I would be remiss in my duty if I were to spoil even a fraction of the rest of this tremendous literary feat. Between the fragmented nature of the multi-layered narratives and the superb characterization and attention to detail, this book is like the McGraw Hill corporation had a love child with H.P. Lovecraft. Seriously, this book is as wonderful as it is terrifying as it is complicated and it is very easy to get lost in it.

6. Norton Juster - The Phantom Tollbooth

          When I have children, this is the book I will use, following the collected works of Dr. Seuss, to ease them from the world of non-picture book literature and into a world populated by the tropes of the English language, grammar, punctuation, and allegory. If you've never had the fortune of reading this gem, but you are fond of the English language and all of its foibles and follies, get off your good-for-nothing derriere and read it like a responsible adult.

And now, time for the honorable mentions (or, as I like to call 'em, the rest of the list that I am too lazy to write about):

1. Eiji Yoshikawa - Musashi
          A literary biography of the greatest Samurai who ever lived. 'Nuff said.

2. Cormac McCarthy - The Road
          The most hauntingly beautiful post-apocalyptic story of all time, and one hell of a love letter from McCarthy to his son.

3. Nick Flynn - Another Bullshit Night in Suck City
          The second memoir on this list. Tremendously sad. Poetic. Wonderful. Illuminating.

4. Eating Animals & Everything is Illuminated - Johnathan Saffron Foer
          The first, the best pro-vegetarian/vegan book I've ever read. The second, a lovely semi-memoir touching on the importance of family, history, tolerance, and the merits of being a very premium guy.

5. The Collected Works of H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe, Kurt Vonnegut, etc.
          I don't believe this requires any explanation. Thank you, goodnight!

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