Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Reader's Block-tober

I can't help but be a little disappointed -- only six books for October. With huge amounts of classroom prep and a conference to attend this month, I ran into a little bit of reader's block. I had counted on the Readathon to bring up my numbers and make the rest of my journey to 100+ books a cakewalk, but it just didn't happen. (Well, the Readathon happened, but I didn't.)

It's not all gloomy news, though -- I made some progress on a couple of challenges. Here's what got read:

1. The Naked and the Dead - Norman Mailer. An enormously satisfying war novel. I discussed it a little more here. I'm hoping to find out more about the alleged movie remake.

2. The Red Badge of Courage - Stephen Crane. The book and the movie!

3. The Lost City of Z - David Grann. I thought the Arctic explorers were tough guys, but they had nothing on Percy Fawcett, a middle-aged former army officer who carved a career out of exploring the Amazon repeated times for the Royal Geographic Society. Fawcett seemed to have a freakishly strong constitution, since he survived countless brushes with death in hostile (man and nature) conditions and he was possessed with an iron will. He was also simply obsessed.

In 1925, Fawcett embarked on a quest to find an ancient and highly-developed civilization that he staunchly believed had existed in the jungles of Brazil. He took along his son Jack and Jack's best friend, Raleigh Rimmell. The trio was never seen again, although many tried to locate them for decades.
Nearly 80 years after Fawcett's disappearance, reporter David Grann decided to investigate. Meticulous research, crisp reporting and mesmerizing writing by Grann coupled with dozens of captivating photos from the past and present make this book worthy of every bit of praise it has received since its publication last year.

4. I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon - Crystal Zevon. I'm really disappointed in this oral biography/memoir of singer-songwriter Warren Zevon. Whether his songs were goofy, sardonic, cutting, edgy, tender or just plain good storytelling wedded to the perfect pop hook, Zevon was startlingly and unfailingly brilliant at his craft. I expected the same level of perfection with the story of his life.

Instead, fans have been presented with a chronologically-arranged volume of anecdotes from people who were in (and out) of his life. Many of the names are familiar -- Jackson Browne, for example -- but many are not, which makes things a little confusing. A list explaining who they are and how they fit in finally appears, but as an appendix. Hardly any of them have a talent for the good anecdote.

Crystal Zevon (Warren's former wife and lifelong friend) has thrown everything, including frequent glimpses into Zevon's diaries. Again, there's no sense of discernment. Unfortunately, Zevon's private writings reflect almost zero of his genius for writing and the dullness is painfully repeated by multiple entries. Since Crystal Zevon was close to Warren, the book suffers from over-subjectivity and has a claustrophobic quality at times.

Zevon had a dark side and he could be a nasty and mean SOB even after he stopped drinking. I've never objected to seeing any of my literary, cinematic or musical heroes and heroines portrayed with warts galore, but let it be done by a biographer (such as A. Scott Berg or Blake Bailey) whose talents in this area are equal to Zevon's talent in songwriting. A little distance and objectivity would greatly benefit the story of this enigmatic performer.

5. True Grit - Charles Portis. I gulped this 1968 novel down in a couple of sittings. With the coolness and steeliness of purpose that a Harry Callahan or a Paul Kersey might exhibit, 14-year-old Mattie Ross engages the services of one Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn to help her track down Tom Chaney, the hired hand who killed her father. The incident is recounted by Mattie 50 years later. She's a powerful, quirky and often unintentionally funny narrator. When it comes to voice, Portis has all the goods.

In this edition, there's a very entertaining afterword by Donna Tartt, who also read the audiobook. I'm squeamish at worst and uncertain at best when it comes to the spoken book but I'd tramp through the pattiest of cow pastures in cowboy boots a size too small to get my ears next to this one.

6. The Real F. Scott Fitzgerald: Thirty-Five Years Later - Sheilah Graham. A lovely mixture of literary and Hollywood gossip, although it irritated me that Sheilah kept having to remind her readers how irresistible she was to men, from her short-lived engagement to the Marquis of Donegall at the beginning of the book to her almost-seduction at the hands of Gary Cooper near the end of the book. It's nice that she and Scottie (Scott and Zelda's daughter) remained friends. Fitzgerald aficionados will probably feel as if they've seen much of the same ground covered before.


Heather J. said...

I did THe Lozt City of Z on audio and although it was VERY good that way I definitely missed out on all the pictures in the printed book. :(

True Grit is one that I'd never have thought to read but between your review and the one at Guys Can Read, I really think I need to read this book!

Bybee said...

I listened to their podcast this morning while I was getting ready for work. Good observations! Yes, do read the book, or better yet, audiobook it & let me know if it's as awesome as I believe it is.

nat @book, line, and sinker said...

i always liked 'werewolves of london' looong before stephenie meyer made them trendy! lol. sorry that this book was a disappointment. i do enjoy reading biographies, but only if they are done well.