Well that was real mature...

Well that was real mature...

Monday, April 18, 2022

10 Books to Know Me

Continuing my lists of things to know me. I now present my favorite books to add to my previous list of movies, tv shows and comic book collected editions.

by Stephen King
1975, Horror
I’m frequently frustrated by King’s novels, feeling he makes them up as he goes along without any idea where they will end and thus a great story is marred by a poor ending. I waffled between this novel and J. Michael Straczynski’s 1988 horror novel Demon Night. Both were about evil coming to a small town, and both had wonderfully interesting and eclectic characters and Demon Night even had the more satisfying ending, but I ultimately sided with King’s book because of my affection for vampires vs. demonic possession. Perhaps it was too many Universal films as a kid or all those Hammer House of Horror vampire films, but I’ll confess to being a sucker for, well, blood suckers. In the end there is something compelling about a vampire coming to a small-town contemporary community even if King’s version is a bit more nihilistic than Straczynski’s demonic possession story.

10. Starship Troopers
by Robert Heinlein
1959 Science Fiction

This militaristic story is allegory for the post war U.S. military industrial complex as explored from the POV of a grunt who rises through the ranks during a war with alien spider like creatures. Through a contemporary lens, the examination of individual rights versus societal responsibilities takes on new meanings in our current pandemic related crisis as citizens childishly demand their “freedom” while simultaneously abdicating any sense of responsibility to their community. The story uses the narrative to promote an ideological dialogue that can either be construed as jingoistic pro military propaganda or an ironic and sly satire that is a critique of nationalism, fascism, and authoritarianism. Who knows, it might even be both.

9. The Autobiography of Malcom X
as told to Alex Haley by Malcom X
1965, Autobiography

As a white boy growing up in the south, there was a palpable distaste for Malcom X among older white folks and good ol’ boys. He was usually portrayed in these circles as bigot who advocated violence, a villain, if you will, standing in sharp contrast to the (grudgingly) heroic nonviolent Dr. King. However, once you dig in and read his story, it is a fascinating journey of a man who went from criminal and hustler to self-educated man of God. Yes, he is a man who for a time had bigotry in his heart but overcame it though a deliberate exploration of his faith (and draws an interesting demarcation between the Black Muslim faith of The Nation of Islam versus the Sunni Muslim faith practiced by 85-90% of the world’s Muslims). He did advocate for violence, but in terms of self-defense and in defense of others (an attitude those same white good ol’ boys would normally strongly advocate). He tells his story in an almost confessional style that is keenly self-aware and illustrates that his greatest strength was that he was willing to learn and change his views while others become stuck and intractable. It’s a worthwhile read and depending on your background you may find the man was much different than hate stoked caricature presented in many circles.

8. Stranger in a Strange Land
by Robert Heinlein
1961 (original edition) and 1991 (uncut edition), Science Fiction

This Hugo award winner explores the interaction and transformation of our culture when a human being, Valentine Michael Smith, raised by Martians, comes to Earth. The deliberately provocative story is a magnificent parable with religious overtones that both serves as a series of commentaries on the human race and challenges readers to question preconceptions, assumptions and prejudice as the naïve but brilliant Smith gains fame after his escape from authorities.

7. It Can’t Happen Here
by Sinclair Lewis
1935, Fiction

The events of the last seven years have reaffirmed my belief that Lewis’ novel should be required reading in schools. His classic cautionary tale describes the rise of an American dictator. Most people want to point to Geroge Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four as a cautionary tale of totalitarianism pushing out democracy. To me, it appears to over the top since it takes place in an already existing repressive regime that had been established over the course of 45 years. Conversely, It Can’t Happen Here is about the process of a demagogue developing a deep cult of personality by entering a presidential campaign on a populist platform and promising to restore the country to prosperity and greatness. He promotes himself as the champion of the “forgotten man,” American values and patriotism while simultaneously fomenting fear. After his election, he takes control of the government via an autocoup and cements his position with a paramilitary force that terrorizes citizens and attacks demonstrators. He maintains control by having sectors managed by corporate authorities manned by prominent businessmen and dispenses with objectors in stacked kangaroo courts.

6. Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets
by David Simon
1991, True Crime

Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon spent a full calendar year shadowing Lt. Gary D’Addario’s shift of detectives in Baltimore’s Homicide Unit as they worked their portion of the 234 murder cases for 1988. Every aspect of the job is recounted from investigations, interrogations, search warrants, arrests and giving testimonies at the trials. It neither glorifies the police but neither tries to tear them down as it follows them, getting into their minds and processes of trying to catch killers. The Edgar Award winner was the basis for the NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Streets and several aspects of HBO’s The Wire.

5. Lonesome Dove
by Larry McMurtry
1985, Western

My father was a cowboy connoisseur, not the shoot ‘em ups with outlaws and lawmen spraying hot lead on dusty trails but rather the storytelling of life on the open range and rugged survival in a less hospitable time in our history. He would ask me to pick up a book at the bookstore, “It doesn’t matter the author, just make sure it’s thick with small print.” It was his measure of excellence. If it was a genuine sprawling epic, it had to be a word heavy, otherwise there were no details. I think this came as a direct result of Lonesome Dove, the story of a pair of retired Texas Rangers who decide to mount a cattle drive from Texas to Montana. Expertly plotted and littered with rich and interesting characters, the epic has an amazing depth. This Pulitzer Prize winner is the ideal western for people who don’t like westerns. McMurtry wrote a sequel, Streets of Laredo, in 1993 and two prequals Dead Man’s Walk and Comanche Moon, in 1995 and 1997. I found the sequel unreadable and the prequals were solid and respectable stories but fall far short of width and breadth of the scope of the original novel.

4. Star Trek: The Next Generation – Rock and a Hard Place
by Peter David based on the series created by Gene Roddenberry
1990, Media Tie-In/Science Fiction

I’ll confess, I’m a sucker for media tie novels. They are too frequently dismissed. Sure, many can be dreadful and only find their way into print because they have brand logo slapped on the cover that will guarantee a certain number of units will be sold. Conversely, there are some brilliant works that would be award winners if were not for the stigma of having that same brand logo slapped on the cover. My selection is probably a surprise to Star Trek fans. Many are probably thinking that if I were going to pick a Trek novel by Peter David, I would choose his New York Times bestseller, Star Trek: The Next Generation – Imzadi, which I will confess is objectively the better book. I’ll even confess there are at least a dozen other superior media-tie in novels. However, there is something about Rock that is endlessly intriguing to me. Set at the beginning of the show’s third season, Enterprise first officer Will Riker is temporarily reassigned to a terraforming colony with the dangerous mission to getting the pioneers of Starlight City back on track in the unforgiving frozen wasteland on the ironically named planet Paradise. Meanwhile, his temporary replacement, Quintin Stone, is to be assessed by Captain Picard and Counselor Troi since Stone, who was considered an up-in-coming charismatic, intelligent leader has been displaying disrespectful and possibly even psychopathic behavior. I normally hate Trek novels that have a focus on a non-regular character, but Stone is simply fascinating (so much so that David uses many of the character’s attitudes and attributes for Mackenzie Calhoun in his Star Trek: New Frontier novel series, the first series of Star Trek novels to feature an original cast not based on a specific series). David’s combination of sly humor and depth of characterization comes together to create an astonishing “guest star” who walks a line between being a hero and a villain and leaving readers wondering if he’s a brilliant thinker who just has a different and unique point of view or is he a mad man on the verge of destruction.

3. Asimov’s Guide to the Bible
by Isaac Asimov
1967 and 1969 (as two separate volumes) 1981 (single volume), Non-Fiction

While Asimov is known for his fiction, particularly the Robot, Empire and Foundation series, he was also a very prolific academic non-fiction writer as well (he was a Ph.D. and a professor in Biochemistry after all). I initially picked up the combined volume of Asimov’s Guide to the Bible after reading the fantastic, combined volume Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare (1970). It is not a critical guide and neither takes a pro nor anti-Christian position. It simply examines the text in an academic neutral analysis. It tackles the context of the words given the politics and culture of the time it was written, including occasional examinations in variations between translations and editions. I have heard both educated believers and non-believers extoll the virtues of his approach and meticulous detail as it will appeal to history, literary and theological buffs (although biblical literalists may find it off putting). It makes a great companion to his other historical and scientific tomes: Asimov’s Guide to Science, Asimov’s Chronology of Science & Discovery, and Asimov’s Chronology of the World. It’s one of those rare works where you can pick it up, open it up to almost any page and become enthralled.

2. Becoming Superman: My Journey from Poverty to Hollywood
by J. Michael Straczynski
2019, Autobiography

The autobiography by one of my favorite writers is such a powerful story that I really believe it should be required reading in high schools. Straczynski expertly weaves his story amidst the backdrop of a family mystery, which alone would be worthy of telling, that is simultaneously horrifying and inspiring. This story can inspire any kid who comes from tough circumstances that they can overcome that history (no matter the amount of physical or psychological abuse or abject poverty) to become whatever they want to be. For kids who come from better circumstances, it can illustrate to them how they should feel very fortunate, and hopefully illustrate the importance of empathy because the person next to them may be fighting a war they are unaware of or have additional obstacles that they themselves don’t have to grapple with. Straczynski is a master storyteller who broke the mold for television with his pre-planned five-year-arc style of storytelling and has written novels, comics books and feature films but the best story he ever told might possibly be his own.

1. Dune
by Frank Herbert
1965, Science Fiction

Set in the distant future, this Hugo and Nebula award winner is about the sociopolitical conflict between interplanetary fiefdoms in a decaying interstellar empire. Various planetary houses scheme and battle for control of the desolate planet of Arrakis which is the only source of the spice mélange a substance that enhances mental abilities, extends lifespans and (most importantly) is necessary for space travel. Environmental and religious allegory enhance the brilliantly layered world building by Herbert. The conduit for the story is a familiar “boy who would be king” trope, as we follow Paul Atreides (son of Duke Leto Atreides who newly installed as steward of Arrakis) and his journey from boyhood to leader. The first sequel, Dune Messiah (1969) is such a seamless extension of the original novel that it could be published with the original and no one would know the difference. However, I’ll confess as the series moves past Paul’s story on to other characters in the follow ups -- Children of Dune (1976), God Emperor of Dune (1981), Heretics of Dune (1984) and Chapterhouse: Dune (1985) -- I gradually lost interest and enthusiasm, but they are worth reading. Unfortunately, Herbert died before he could finish the series. Herbert’s son claimed to have found notes for Dune 7 and under that pretext has developed sixteen novels (mostly prequels) with more on the way, that have turned into the ultimate flogging of the carcass of a deceased equine, try as he might, he still cannot diminish the brilliance of the original.

No comments:

Post a Comment