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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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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Books

Subterranean Conundrums

Every now and then, when it comes to buying stuff indulging in collectorial practices, the imaginary line I draw in the imaginary sand is smudged by an imaginary eraser. As a result of which the aforementioned line becomes the kind that would give Cecil Radcliffe a severe case of the runs, followed by the chills.

Case in point: offerings from Subterranean Press. I have whittled down my purchases to the barest necessary, but my resolve was tested earlier this month, when it was announced that Joe Hill’s latest collection of short stories, Full Throttle, would have a SubPress limited/signed release. Seeing as how my waffling over NOS4A2 did my blood pressure no good in the past, I knew I would go for it. But it took about a week of gritting my teeth and wringing my hands before I actually ventured to lay down $175 for the pleasure of owning a copy of the book, sight unseen, numbered and signed by Messrs Hill and McKean, he of Sandman renown. But the limiteds of 20th Century Ghosts and Heart-Shaped Box are biblionicorns of the kind that make hearts and wallets bleed, and I would rather not take a chance with a Hill book.

It also did not hurt that the Suntup Press limited edition of Hill’s Horns just came to Papa about 2 weeks ago, after a wait of about half a year. I confess to owning the PS Publishing signed/limited edition that came out in 2010, but Suntup’s version was too hard to pass on. The line in the sand that I drew for signed limited editions was that I would only buy one if the original author was among the signers, and Horns met the criteria, while Haunting of Hill House and Rosemary’s Baby did not. Not that I did not have severe crises of conscience, but the line held. It did not however hold for Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, one of my favorite works by the man. Suntup’s edition, not out yet, but sold out in pre-orders, has an introduction and an autograph by Joyce Carol Oates. McCarthy is notorious for not signing his books, specifically The Road, which he has apparently signed a few copies for his son alone.

What really rubbed the line this week was the announcement that Tamsyn Muir’s first book Gideon The Ninth would have a limited release via Subterranean, and copies would go on sale on Tuesday morning. Now here was the situation:

  • The only thing I knew about the book was the phrase “lesbian necromancers in space”
  • It wasn’t out yet, so I could not read it
  • Reviews had come in from a coterie of distinguished authors, including Warren Ellis, VE Schwab, Charles Stross, Robin Sloan, and Max Gladstone (whose This is How You Lose the Time War is what I am reading Right. Now)
  • I happened to get to the Tor website, which had a preview of the first chapter of the book. And by the time I got to the phrase “stupendous work of a titty nature”, I was sold.

Or rather, I was coerced into depositing 85$ for the pleasure of owning a copy of the book signed by the writer herself, courtesy of SubPress.

Which should make me feel terrible vis a vis the Great and Terrible Sullying of the line that guides my buying habits, but you know what?

The book fucking sold out in two days. Had I waited a day more to buy it, I would have been gnashing my teeth by now and breathing slow and deep trying to keep calm.

To make up for this psychological distress, here’s a bunch of pictures of the magnificent Joe Hill book from Suntup Press.

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Books

Ocean Vuong, Skylight

I probably would have never encountered Ocean Vuong had it not been for James Ellroy. Not in the way you think, though. Ellroy is the furthest one can place from Vuong when it comes to writing style or genre. But it was while attending an Ellroy signing one Saturday at Skylight books that the MC mentioned it may be prudent to buy a copy of writer Ocean Vuong’s book in advance, because it looked like the event would have to be capped.

If there is a single thing one picks up on in independent bookstores, much like in libraries, is that if a recommendation comes from a staff member or from a librarian, it’s best to not reason why, but jump right in. I bought a copy of “On Earth We are Briefly Gorgeous”, spent the weekend reading it, and then came back on Tuesday to listen to Vuong reading from and talking about the book, his first published novel.

It was, believe it or not, a very emotional experience. The crowd was packed, very diverse, the book obviously had a lot of fans even before its official release. I stood in the back of the store, barely able to see Vuong as he whisper-sang words from the book and from his heart. There were people crying during the question-and-answer session.

I don’t want to write about the book, or about Vuong and his life and work, since other people have already done it way better than I ever could have. What I do want to mention is that very obvious sentence. You must read this book. Because it is, true to the writer’s name, filled with joy and mystery and heartbreak and pulls you into its depths with a fierce, unrelenting tug, from the very first page. I have been reading a lot of immigrant fiction lately, tales of travelers to the shores of this country of contradictions. “On Earth We are Briefly Gorgeous” establishes itself as one of the best books about belonging and unbelonging that I have read in recent times.

Migration can be triggered by the angle of sunlight, indicating a change in season, temperature, plant life, and food supply. Female monarchs lay eggs along the route. Every history has more than one thread, each thread a story of division. The journey takes four thousand eight hundred and thirty miles, more than the length of this country. The monarchs that fly south will not make it back north. Each departure, then, is final. Only their children return; only the future revisits the past. What is a country but a borderless sentence, a life?

I won’t stay here long, we might say. I’ll get a real job soon. But more often than not, sometimes within months, even weeks, we will walk back into the shop, heads lowered, our manicure drills inside paper bags tucked under our arms, and ask for our jobs back. And often the owner, out of pity or understanding or both, will simply nod at an empty desk—for there is always an empty desk. Because no one stays long enough and someone is always just-gone. Because there are no salaries, health care, or contracts, the body being the only material to work with and work from. Having nothing, it becomes its own contract, a testimony of presence. We will do this for decades—until our lungs can no longer breathe without swelling, our livers hardening with chemicals—our joints brittle and inflamed from arthritis—stringing together a kind of life. A new immigrant, within two years, will come to know that the salon is, in the end, a place where dreams become the calcified knowledge of what it means to be awake in American bones—with or without citizenship—aching, toxic, and underpaid.

The weight of the average placenta is roughly one and a half pounds. A disposable organ where nutrients, hormones, and waste are passed between mother and fetus. In this way, the placenta is a kind of language—perhaps our first one, our true mother tongue.

One of the most powerful paragraphs of the book involves the presence of metaphors for conflict and violence in discussing art, and Vuong commented on the same during his question-and-answer session:

You killed that poem, we say. You’re a killer. You came in to that novel guns blazing. I am hammering this paragraph, I am banging them out, we say. I owned that workshop. I shut it down. I crushed them. We smashed the competition. I’m wrestling with the muse. The state, where people live, is a battleground state. The audience a target audience. “Good for you, man,” a man once said to me at a party, “you’re making a killing with poetry. You’re knockin’ ’em dead.”

So yeah, read it.

Also, if you are ever in Los Angeles, make sure to look at the Skylight Books events page beforehand, and try to visit one of their signings. The bookshop is in a beautiful LA neighborhood called Los Feliz, and you will feel like you have been there before and walked the streets. You won’t be wrong, because it is a favorite shooting location for TV shows and films alike; two I remember off the top of my head are Ruby Sparks and Atypical, and I am sure there are many more. The bookstore is named for its naturally-lit interior, and there is a tree in the center of shop that makes it even more spectacular.

Oh, and before I forget, James Ellroy’s signing was a hoot. He’s an incredible…character, someone who plays a version of himself in a crowd. Foul-mouthed, rambunctious, funny, and very very kind in person. A reread of the LA Quartet is on the backlog. Watch this space.

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