Books

My Favorite Unfinished Book Series

In reverse order.

#3 Kentaro Miura’s Berserk

Miura’s fantasy manga series began in 1988, and in 31 years, there have been 40 volumes. There have been periods of complete silence from the creator for many years, and we have no idea when the series will end or how many more volumes there are.

What is the series about? I wrote about the first 6 volumes once upon a time, in Rolling Stone magazine. 10 years ago, to be precise, when the number of volumes released were 28. It has been a maddening wait, rendered more so by my tendency to wait a few volumes before reading the whole series again from the beginning. I even sold my whole collection of the Berserk books, at a stunning profit, may I add, because the books were out of print for quite a while. They are now being reissued in deluxe leatherbound three-in-one volumes, and of course I am buying them again. And reading them again three at a time.

#3 George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire

When talking about ASoIaF, I feel like a guy that comes late to a party, proceeds to get drunk, and can’t stop yelling what a great party it is, how it’s his favorite party of all time, the best party ever. I wasn’t too hot on the books when I read Game of Thrones before it was a blip on the radar of mainstream popular culture. In my defence, I had been thoroughly underwhelmed by the likes of Stephen R Donaldson, Robert Jordan, and other writers of the genre recommended to me by Tolkien enthusiasts. It was an easy conclusion to reach, that this medieval fantasy was no different than those other series, flailing to reach that vaunted position in our cultural consciousness that Rings had attained.

Ten years later, when I read the five books in a month, after binge-ing on the first three seasons of the TV show, I wanted to slap myself hard for missing out on the books for so long.

The naive sweet summer child in me actually thought that Winds of Winter would be out by 2015. It took about 2 years more before I attained the Zen of Ice and Fire, that fuck-this-all attitude towards knowing what comes next in the books, with the understanding that there is a chance that I may actually die before the books end. Somewhere in the back of my brain, there is the occasional vein of desperate longing that throbs every time someone on Reddit talks about GRRM’s cheerful demeanor towards his writing. It’s fine. It’s going to be fine. The book will be out when it will be out.

*Insert quiet sobbing here*

#1 Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon B Johnson

Read my lips: this series of books, ostensibly a biography of the US President Lyndon B Johnson, is a history of Texas and the USA, and American politics in the early twentieth century, and possibly the most insanely readable work of non-fiction ever published.

Caro is a journalist who took seven years to write a book on Robert Moses, somebody you wouldn’t know unless you lived in New York in the middle of the century. Moses was a power broker, somebody who worked behind the scenes of city politics, and his contribution to the world is New York as we know it today, the Parks, the Expressways, the beaches, the infrastructure of the city. Caro won the Pulitzer for The Power Broker, and then took on the task of writing about the President who accidentally got his job because his predecessor was assassinated. He began writing the book in 1974, a year after Johnson’s death. Four books have been out so far, the last published in 2012, each more gripping than the previous one. Never have I understood politics or the importance of government more than when I read Caro’s books. There has not been any other work of non-fiction that has moved me to tears. I never thought I would wince at the twists and turns of history as I have when reading of Johnson’s white-knuckle attempts to change his own fate, and that of the nation. I could probably write giant essays and thought experiments about my own complicated feelings for Mr Johnson, but that is a post for a different time.

Caro is 83 this year, and is still hard at work on the fifth and last book, which covers the actual presidency of Johnson, spanning the bulk of the 1960s. He just released a short book called Working, which is a bit of a peek at his process of research, writing, and interviewing. The book is around 200 pages, and most of it is ground previously covered in interviews and articles. I finished reading it today, and I am not embarrassed to say it made me tear up. It is not just a book about process and regimen, but a rare case of the writer insinuating himself into the work that has side-stepped the writer’s ego by a stunning degree.

He talks about meeting Robert Moses (not an easy task, since the man had refused out of hand to cooperate with the writing of the book) and understanding what power truly meant, to see what this ruthless visionary saw when he stared outside the window of his mansion. He goes on at length about the fortuitous meetings and decisions that led to his single volume on Johnson expanding to three and then five volumes, how apocrypha gave way to facts and numbers, and how a flawed, larger-than-life President became an unbelievably complex human being.

But most wonderfully, Caro goes into detail about the mechanics of his writing. How he uses rhythm to make every word convey force and power; his use of mood and place, some of which he got by living for years in the areas he wrote about. How he managed to unpack decades-old dynamics between friends and family of Johnson in the course of multiple interviews, forging friendships over the years. At no point does any of it appear disrespectful, or manipulative. Caro’s motivation behind his writing is not to demean or elevate the subjects at hand, it is to understand and to make us understand the concept of power.

There is evil and injustice that can be caused by political power, but there is also great good. It seems to me sometimes that people have forgotten this. They’ve forgotten, for example, what Franklin Roosevelt did: how he transformed people’s lives. How he gave hope to people. Now people talk in vague terms about government programs and infrastructure, but they’ve forgotten the women of the Hill Country and how electricity changed their lives. They’ve forgotten that when Robert Moses got the Triborough Bridge built in New York, that was infrastructure. To provide enough concrete for its roadways and immense anchorages, cement factories that had been closed by the Depression had to be reopened in a dozen states; to make steel for its girders, fifty separate steel mills had to be fired up. And that one bridge created thousands of jobs: 31,000,000 man hours of work, done in twenty states, went into it. We certainly see how government can work to your detriment today, but people have forgotten what government can do for you. They’ve forgotten the potential of government, the power of government, to transform people’s lives for the better.

Robert Caro – Working

Needless to say, I can’t wait for the final book in the series to be out. After which, I hope Mr Caro will get around to writing the more full-fledged memoir that he talks about in Working. One can only hope and dream, I suppose.

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Concerts, Music

2020 Goals (a small one)

So I was doing a bit of the ol’ interweb-crawling before heading to bed, and I came across a piece of news that got blood rushing to my head. An Instagram account attributed to the band Rage Against The Machine has put up a single image.

(I screenshotted the image so that it does not suddenly disappear off the face of the internet if the band decides they’re too cool for Instagram)

Yes. The Rage Against the Machine, whose last live appearance was in 2011, at a festival called LA Rising. That year I was in Los Angeles, sans car, barely skimming the surface of what the city had to offer. So of course I missed it, and the band never performed together again.

RATM has been on my top 5 Acts to Watch Live, and it looks like next year is when I make it out to Coachella again, after 5 years of staying away from the festival. Or maybe it may make more sense to just head out to New Mexico or Arizona to see the band, considering Coachella logistics.

Also, I cringe at the thought of being an RATM fan 20 years ago, with little context to their music, other than them being this angry-sounding band with catchy guitar riffs that were great to head-bang to. “The Machine” in their name, in my head, correlated to the System, and of course, we all hated the system, which was all teachers and dumb rules and everything that reeked of adulthood. So it felt good to sing along with “Fuck you I won’t do what to tell me”. It did not help that I heard their music for the first time on the Matrix OST, which obfuscated their political messages even more. In a time when I was still trying to define what “cool” was, and whether I was part of that club or not, Rage Against The Machine’s music presented the right kind of credentials.

It was much, much later that a better knowledge of US politics, history, and culture helped me understand the “Rage” in their name. The band’s lyrics are, in case you didn’t know already, at odds with US domestic and foreign policy, and are a direct critique of corporations, cultural imperialism, and systemic oppression of marginalized groups in America. Once upon a time, I wondered at why exactly the band spoke of convicted murderers and revolutionary Mexican organizations, and wondered if they were taking performance art too far by insisting on shooting a video in front of the New York Stock Exchange, or hanging upside down flags from their speakers during a live TV show. I had misgivings about the violent protests their music seemed to incite, and sort of understood why they were the only band in the infamous Clear Channel memorandum to have all songs banned from radio channels in the aftermath of 9/11.

But you live and learn. Twenty years later, I know America a little differently than I did back when I just graduated college. I am a lot more aware, both from a cultural and sociopolitical standpoint, about what makes this country tick, and the undercurrents of wrongness that pervade American society. The truths to power that the band spits out through their music feel like a necessary part of the American discourse. “Some of those that work forces, are the same that burn crosses” now hold more import than the chorus of ‘Killing in the Name’. And the song that plays at the end of The Matrix, the one that introduced me to the band, has these lines:

Networks at work, keepin' people calm
Ya know they murdered X and tried to blame it on Islam
He turned the power to the have-nots
And then came the shot

As it turns out, I am not alone in loving the band without understanding them. Republican ex-House speaker Paul Ryan was apparently an RATM fan, and Tom Morello wrote a scathing Rolling Stone opinion piece calling him “the embodiment of the machine”.

These, by the way, are the list of books in the album notes of Evil Empire, their second album.

  • A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
  • Capital, Volume I by Karl Marx
  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
  • The Anarchist Cookbook by William Powell
  • Guerrilla Warfare by Che Guevara
  • Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P. Newton
  • Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver
  • The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon
  • Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler
  • Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky
  • Live from Death Row by Mumia Abu-Jamal
  • Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo
  • Now and After: The ABC of Communist Anarchism by Alexander Berkman
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • Rules for Radicals by Saul D. Alinsky
  • Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson by George Jackson
  • Walden and Resistance to Civil Government by Henry David Thoreau
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  • Another Country by James Baldwin

I am still working my way through this list, and I do not claim to be an expert. But I shut up, and listen, and read, and read a little more, and every day the world comes a little more into focus.

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Books, Television, TV Shows

Surprise, Surprise Dept

A week before the first episode of the Watchmen TV show aired on screen, I found myself writhing with complex emotions about my own intentions. Burdened with the weight of my love for the graphic novel and the creator who has disavowed any media spin-off, completely disillusioned by DC/Warner’s attempts so far to rape the corpse monetize the brand. The 2008 movie adaptation, which I eventually got around to sitting through, is like bleaching your eyeballs and . There was a bucketload of interconnected prequels called Before Watchmen, written by corporate hacks and designed to suck out every ounce of mystery in the series’ backstory, copies of which now frequent bargain bins. Moore-wannabe Grant Morrison has of course been ejaculating occasional spurts of verbose comic scripts over the years, each attempt touted as the next series that will out-Watchmen Watchmen, to no avail. Even as I write this, Fanboy-turned-Nostalgia-Humper Geoff Johns is wrapping up his 12-issue corporate manifesto, called Doomsday Clock, which is a concerted effort to incorporate the characters of Watchmen into the DC Universe proper. Because why bother with something that is one of a kind, when you can have multiple mediocre copies? (See also: Star Wars sequels, “franchises”)

Yet. I could not resist the siren song of the “fresh take” that the HBO TV series promised, the endless cross-media sound-bytes about respect and wanting to abide by the spirit of the original series. There it was, the curiosity of the pop-culture optimist that desperately wants to believe that it is possible to improve on the past without shitting all over it. I would like to think that it’s never been my position to confine myself and to wallow only in things gone by, especially when it comes to the arts. Every year, there are new books and music, films and comics that leave me flabbergasted and filled with enormous joy at how they chart new paths despite all that has gone by. Yes, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen was…is incredible. But if a creator comes out and says he can remix it, my interest is piqued.

But there was trepidation, too. This was Damon Lindelof, the guy that, for every season of Lost, also has Star Trek: Into Darkness. For all the good he has done with adapting Tom Perrotta’s Leftovers, let us not forget that he also co-wrote Cowboys vs Aliens. Which side of the shit/gold bucket would this attempt be shelved?

Three episodes in, and I wasn’t expecting this.

This. THIS. Sitting down on a weekday night to write about a show that is just three episodes in. I wasn’t expecting the universal adulation that would make me sit and watch the first episode the day it was aired. I definitely did not think that Angela Abar and Judd Crawford would scratch that corner of my brain that, in times past, Walter White and Jessie Pinkman seared with guns, acid, and dark dramedy. At the end of every hour-long episode, I have wondered at the things I did not notice in this densely-packed motherloving work of love, and have marveled at threads that were woven, tightened, and dangled in front of me. Three episodes in, and I am all in. There has to be a substantial amount of fucked-up ball drops in the next six episodes for me to change my mind, and based on empirical evidence, I don’t think that will be the case.

Random things off the top of my head:

  • The first episode has people saying out the Roman poet Juvenal’s Latin phrase out loud, the very same phrase that the name of the series and the book are derived from.
  • Robert Redford’s ascension to the Presidency was hinted at in the last page of the graphic novel, as was the publication of the Rorschach papers
  • Pagers and rotary phones instead of the Internet is a bold idea
  • The first words Louis Gossett’s character says to Angela: “Do I look like somebody who can lift 200 pounds?” refers to their next meeting, under the tree
  • Time seems to pass differently around Adrian Veidt and his acolytes, and I wonder if this arc is the Black Freighter equivalent of the book
  • Scenes mirror the beats in the book, and there are red herrings. The shooting of the policeman in the car in the very first scene turns out to not be the death that launches the story.
  • Pirate Jenny, Red Scare, Sister Night, and Looking Glass are excellent vigilante names
  • The interplay of words, voice-overs, scene transitions, and narrative beats is eerily precise, just like the book. The final scene of episode 3 is not just a denouement to the brick-layer’s daughter theme of the episode, it is an echo of the last lines spoken in episode 2.
  • I don’t own a record player, and I have made myself a promise to never buy vinyl, but the three-LP soundtrack to the series, of which the first one has been released and the other two are due later this month, is the closest I have come to breaking this vow. The drone-and-beat infused sonic washes that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are known for suit the mood and tone so, so much.
  • Did you know about the Peteypedia, HBO’s “enhanced materials” website that accompanies every episode of the show?

Tick tock, five days till next episode.

Additional Reading:

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Books

Hedgehog, Europa

It’s rare for me to buy books without having a solid reasoning framework built in my head. There are enough titles on my shelves, both analog and digital, to keep me entertained for the next century and a half. But I bought Muriel Barbery’s Elegance of the Hedgehog and Gourmet Rhapsody just because I liked how the books looked. It also helped that they were a dollar each, but mostly, I liked how they looked.

I read Hedgehog last month, and while I had reservations about parts of it, especially the ending, the book is just the right combination of bittersweet story and sugary pop philosophy. Some of the “deep” bits are a little too heavy on the cream and sugar, but it’s the focus on the characters that save the book from becoming a cloying souffle. Renee, the secretive autodidact who runs a building without revealing her love of Russian literature and Japanese film to the world at large, and seeks to lead a life of painful mediocrity because of a lifetime of class-based presumptions that come her way. And twelve-year old Paloma, a resident of the same building, who thinks the world does not contain anything that could surprise her, and whose plan for her next birthday involves suicide. The first part of the book shows us parallel lives that occupy the same geographic location but are worlds apart, and as the two find their lives intertwined, there are expectations subverted, and cliches adhered to, at the same time.

“I wanted to burn the book after the end :)”, my friend D texted me, when I told him I finished reading it. He’s French, and I just had to find out what he thought of it. I understood his reaction, kind of. It’s not the ending one expects, though the movie does a slightly better job of showing the ramifications. Oh, there is a movie, of course. I picked it up from the library even as I was running through the last few pages of the book.

Now, back to the cover design. Europa Editions, the company that published this, is known for two things — their choice of great books around the world to translate into English, and their design aesthetic. All their books have French flaps, use the same title font (Garamond?), feature the Europa logo of a stork featured prominently on the bottom right, and they have the same size. This is really staggering consistency, considering that every writer/publisher combo out there seem to want their book to pop on the shelves with different heights and aesthetic. Europa’s look is intentional, however. Their books are all translations and span multiple genres, and the cover design is by a single designer, Emanuele Ragnisco. As Ragnisco mentions in a 2010 interview

I approach each cover design as if it were a “small manifesto,” one whose goal is to communicate to the potential reader that this book contains something that concerns him directly. The second goal is to distinguish the cover in question from every other cover. We address the first question by individuating the most appropriate language. By “language” I mean the language of signs. In the choice of a particular sign, we posit our response to the first goal. The problem of making each cover stand out from others is more complicated. The solution lies in carefully studying what is currently out there. At certain times, color dominates jacket design, and so a cover that is pure white is likely to stand out. At other times, covers with an abundance of design particulars are predominant, and the intelligent choice in terms of visibility may be a simple, pure design.


The brand identity of these covers are unparalleled, my eyes can immediately locate a Europa book in the new arrivals section. Another interesting fact is the choice of the stork as emblem. The bird is known for a migratory pattern from east to west and then south, in Europe. The company began in Italy by publishing books from Eastern Europe, thereby mirroring the journey of their bird of choice.

Among the other works of note they bring out, the one writer that I keep meaning to read from them happens to be Elena Ferrante. But somehow, other books keep getting in the queue. Ironically, somehow people seem to think that the Ferrante book covers are “hideous”, and “trashy”, and “evocative of a $4 romance book found at a gas station“. Chip Kidd apparently unloaded on them in a podcast, and you can read a critique and a breakdown of the design, followed by a redesign of the cover to My Beautiful Friend here. While I love the in-depth analysis on the site, I still think Ragnisco’s covers serve their purpose wonderfully.

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Myself

My World This Week

  • The Krazy Kat Kwest comes to a Klose. I plan to write more about this, but I got the second volume of Fantagraphics’ long-out-of-print hardcover edition of Krazy and Ignatz, spanning 1925-34, around 600 pages, as well as the oversized Taschen reprint of the color Sundays from 1935-44. Both came in the mail via different sources, and many happy hours were spent poring, and giggling over, the antics of Krazy, Ignatz, and Offissa Pup.

  • Lynda Barry and Ocean Vuong were both among the recipients of the Macarthur Genius Grants for 2019. I am attending a talk between Barry and Chris Ware on October 15, and looking forward to it hugely.

  • Travellers of the Third Reich was a book that accompanied me nearly all week. Subtitled “The Rise of Fascism through the Eyes of Everyday People”, the book is an excellent example of how people living through historical events misinterpret, misjudge, and are sometimes completely oblivious to it. It is only with the benefit of hindsight and multiple streams of information that we arrive at conclusions, decades in the future, of what really happened. Fascinating and chilling at the same time.

  • The deluge of terrible Batman stories continues, with Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s Batman: Damned just out. Today there was supposed to be a signing by the creators at Vroman’s in Pasadena, and I almost made it there, except I decided to read the book beforehand. The dispassionate part of me tries to say that maybe I am really too old for this shit, while another side ignores all niceties and throws up streams of contempt at the intellectual bankruptcy of it all. This is a sweaty, incoherent mess of a comic-book, and the artwork of course plays the role of putting layers of rouge on a fetid, fly-ridden dung-heap. Not that there aren’t people who lose their minds over the “grittiness” of a story that has the Joker dead, Batman being portrayed as a leather-clad psychopath who is haunted by literal demons from childhood, and guest appearances from the occult corners of the DC Universe. If you bring your nose closer to the pages, you may smell a potent mix of Axe body spray and desperation. Fuck this book, fuck the intellectually bankrupt creators who are raping the Killing Joke corpse, and fuck the market for supporting crap like this.

  • Watched Booksmart again, now that it is available on digital platforms. $10 4K UHD on Vudu, why not? The karaoke sequence still makes me pee with hysterical laughter, and there has never been a better use of the word ‘Malala’ in popular culture. The soundtrack has been a summer staple, and rewatching the film made me rediscover some tracks even better, with the visual context. ‘Double Rum Cola’, though, man. What a track.

  • LA Find of the Week: The Inn of the Seventh Ray, a restaurant high up in Topanga Canyon. Excellent place for a morning buffet, and the drive is pure adrenaline, especially in an open-top Jeep Wrangler.

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