Sunday, January 31, 2010

First Listen: Chinese Democracy

For years, my friends and I would make fun of the fact that Chinese Democracy seemed to be perpetually delayed, and at times seemed like it would never come out. We made jokes like: I bet the Lions win a super bowl before Chinese Democracy comes out. Well, now it is out, and in spirit of the album's many delays, I too have delayed listening to it...I have heard bits of the title track on the radio, but never any full songs. So, here at Battle Hymns, I will listen to Chinese Democracy for the first time, and blog about each song as I do so. Enjoy!

Track 1: Chinese Democracy: The opening riff strikes me as very unGNR-esque. Axl is harmonizing with himself on the is almost too much Axl. Now that I am in the thick of it, this song seems to be cranked right out of the GNR hit machine. I know it isn't Slash on guitars, but whoever is playing on this song is doing a pretty damn good imitation.

Track 2: Shackler's Revenge: Sweet song title. Axl's voice sounds like it has had some serious auto-tune tweaking...he kinda sounds robotic. Stylistically, this song is a lot different than Chinese Democracy...not necessarily a good thing. The solos sound like they would fit better in a techno song.

Track 3: Better: Another WAY different sounding song. Am I listening to Guns and Roses? Whoa, Axl busting out some deep throaty growls! Axl is showing off his vocal range on this song...I actually wasn't aware he had a "range" I'm waiting for his wail. There's a sweet sounding crunchy riff at the half-way point here. Now there is a splash of Mario Brothers sounding guitar...where is this song's identity?

Track 4: Street of Dreams: Axl is...crooning. I'm totally feeling the "emotion" of this song. "You know I wouldn't want to be you/now there's a hell I can't describe". DEEEEP! Damn, another epic solo. This song is lame, but that solo was pretty fly. Sometimes Axl sounds great when he wails, other times he sounds like a cat getting run over...this one is the latter.

Track 5: If the World: Spanish guitar intro, moving on to some porno sounding guitar with lots of wah pedal. I heard that during one of the songs, you can hear Axl banging one of the other GNR guy's girlfriends in the background. I feel like it might be on this song... Cant here it though. Whoa! Circular! Ending with the Spanish guitar outro.

Track 6: There was a Time: The past few songs have lacked the energy of the opening track. My theory is that you should kick the listener in the throat with the opening track, then never let the pressure off until the end of the album, much like Mastodon's Leviathan album. This isn't happening with this album so far. The "there was a time" title must refer to the time when rock/metal albums gave massive amounts of space to the guitarist for solos, because this song is like 50% guitar solo. Say what you will about Axl (he's a douche), but at least that vain fucker gives his guitarist lots of space.

Track 7: Catcher in the Rye: The Novel, Catcher in the Rye is a classic of American literature. Catcher in the Rye, the GNR song, is generic rock music fare.

Track 8: Scraped: Kickin' off the second half with a nice fast paced rockin' song. I bet this song would sound sweet live. Axl sounds like he was just scraped off a coke mirror, and fed some pork ribs. This is how I picture Axl's diet: Coke and ribs. Best song so far.

Track 9: Raid N' the Bedouins: I think the first lyric sung by Axl on most of the tracks so far is: "AHHHHH!" Wanna know how much Axl's song writing skills have improved over the years? Well, he still writes shit like: "But I don't give a fuck 'bout them/cause I'm crazy". Yep, he's still on top of his game.

Track 10: Sorry: Who's read for some Sebastian Bach? I am! ol' SB sings backups on this song. Oh, by the way, this is a ballad too. 80's/early 90's rock math: Sebastain Bach + ballad = recipe for an "epic" song. Speaking of "epic", Sebastian described this album as "epic". I'd take that statement with a grain of salt, Bach stopped being musically relevant in the early 90's. Wow, I really hate ballads. This song sucks.

Track 11: I.R.S.: The songs are starting to run together. They all seem to all fit into a very specific GNR song mold. Good for those who are nostalgic for Appetite for Destruction, but none of these songs are nearly as good. The only thing this song has going for it is Axl's longest yell of the album, it sounds like the length of the scream was extended via all those shiny dials the producer uses to make shit sound better. 3 more to go.

Track 12: Madagascar: Axl is busting out his blues voice. Think: Don't Cry or November Rain.

Track 13: This is Love: Oh brother, a piano based Axl love song, complete with generic rhymes: "there is a special light/still shining bright/and even on the darkest night/she cant deny". Yay, more Axl harmonizing with Axl. Got some orchestral arrangements too. Twice as nice. Tack on a smoky/searing guitar solo and you've got another crappy song. When was this shit recored? 1991? According to this song, Axl will never say goodbye. Great.

Track 14: Prostitute: The last song on the Album. So far, the song sounds nothing like you'd expect a song called "prostitute" to sound. I expected more "rock". Slowly, this song is gaining momentum. Axl's voice is gaining too, I expect some sort of classic Axl screech where he climbs that vocal mountain and hovers at the precipice of shattering your ears...I've been waiting all album. And I'm still waiting...

Well, Chinese Democracy wasn't the total piece of shit I expected it to be. It wasn't great either. I guess if you are a GNR fan it might scratch that 15 year long itch for new GNR material. While it kinda sorta felt familiar and felt like a GNR album, it never once managed to capture that white leather-Paradise City-GNR that I wanted to hear.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Review: The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart

The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart by Jesse Bullington

The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart is most likely the most violent book I have ever read. Set in the dark ages, it follows two devout, grave robbing brothers whose foulness seems insurmountable, but they eventually stand out as the good guys when compared to their enemies.

The brothers, Hegel and Manfried are, in many ways, products of their environment. They live in dark times, (medieval Europe) and survive by any means possible while caring little for others. Often innocent lives are forfeit so that the brothers can carry on in the world. Their one goal in life is to travel to Egypt so they can gain countless riches by robbing the endless graves there.

With that simple premise, the book takes off. This novel takes no prisoners and is not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach (reading this book while eating is not recommended). I must have gotten desensitized though, because I read the whole thing, and I did like it quite a bit. I got a feeling that Bullington must have researched the time period because the setting felt accurate, and the people that populated his world were believable. This is also a pretty damn funny book. A lot of the banter between the brothers is hilarious, and the way they interact with other characters was fun to read. Bullington does a great job of adding some uncommon fantasy elements that give this book a unique feel. There is one very memorable scene of demon birth that stands out as some of the best fantastical writing I've ever read.

However, this is a graphically violent novel. I feel that The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart reflects a trend that I often see in various media these days: the more violence and gore the better. I see it the most often on TV and movies; in the shitty cop dramas that glorify the process of some cop picking through the brain matter of a corpse to solve a murder. I see it on the news as I hear about local police officers gunned down while sipping coffee while the reporter stands in front of body bags. I see it in the gore-fest "horror" films, or the kill 'em all/carve 'em up action films that Hollywood cranks out. The fact that I have yet to see this trend in print is more likely due to my meager bankroll, which causes me to troll the used bookshelves instead of buying the latest releases. However, thanks to some book money, enough positive reviews, and a sprinkle of hype, I picked up The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart.

I do not regret this decision, while The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart is a wickedly violent tale that often put me in a state of unease, I still found myself enjoying it for plenty of other reasons. If nothing else it at least is a novel that made me think. I am left to wonder at what Bullington intended. If it does what few other fantasy novels in recent memory do: reflect and comment on modern culture, complete with an ending that wraps up the tale as well as adding the final punctuation mark on it's modern culture commentary... Or if it is simply another example of how ultra violence is so prevalent in the mainstream culture today.

The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart is definitely not for the soft bellied or the queasy, but also not one to be missed.

Grade: B+


I made some cosmetic changes around here. Mainly aesthetic ones to the blog's template, but also a few other minor tweaks to the blog itself. Anyone can post comments now, you don't have to sign in to do so. I also updated the blog roll, by adding a few other blogs I read frequently. Check them out, and enjoy.


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Review: Kashmir Pending

Kashmir Pending by Naseer Ahmed and artwork by Saurabh Singh

Kashmir Pending is a graphic novel that tells of one man's life as a freedom fighter in the contested region of Kashmir. The story is narrated by Mushtaq, the protagonist, who tells of his exploits from a jail cell. Ali, another inmate, listens as Mushtaq recounts his beginnings as a protester, which led to him becoming a freedom fighter. Mushtaq also discusses some of the history of Kashmir, while telling Ali of his past.

As a reader you never know exactly why Mustaq is in jail, as there is only a little bit of dialog, and little narration too, for that matter. Ahmed appears to be content to let Singh's fantastic artwork tell much of the story. Eventually as this graphic novel progresses, we see the events which lead to Mushtaq's inevitable capture, the very events that cause Mushtaq to commit what to many would be an unthinkable act during a time of war.

The thing that makes Kashmir Pending special is the amazing artwork done by Singh. He uses very subtle colors, a large degree of blank space, and makes fantastic use of shadows to give the narrative its own personality. Despite being so minimal in the artwork, Singh is able to carry the story with the art element. It isn't uncommon to see comic writers who crowd out the artist with too much text, leaving the artwork little room convey the story, but that is definitely not the case in Kashmir Pending as the art takes center stage.

Kashmir Pending does a lot with a little, as it is a short piece, (about 100 pages) and short on dialog and descriptive passages, but it is still able to convey a very concise, meaningful and powerful story. I think there is a lot that could be covered on the topic of Kashmir, and could make for a great graphic novel, but I appreciate what Ahmed did by keeping the story simple, and compelling. It is the simplicity of the story that sets Kashmir Pending apart from the war epic crowd. This ain't Palestine or Safe Area Gorazde but that is what makes it good.

Grade: B+

Music Break

Spinal Tap's greatest song?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Review: Safe Area Gorazde

Safe Area Gorazde by Joe Sacco

Safe Area Gorazde (pronounced gor-ajh-DUH) is Joe Sacco's documentary style graphic novel about the Bosnian wars which occurred in the early to mid-nineties. Safe Area Gorazde reminded me of Palestine as Sacco uses the same techniques to gather information and to tell his story.

During the 90's Sacco made several trips into the UN designated "Safe Area" Gorazde to meet the people there and to hear their stories. Bosnian Muslims were forced to fight off starvation, isolation, and enemy troops while trying to carry on some semblance of a normal life despite living in a town deep behind enemy lines.

Sacco interviews a wide variety of people in the town of Gorazde, but for me, the most gripping parts occurred when Sacco interviewed various soldiers of the town who had fought on the front lines and told him stories of the brutal fighting happening often only a few kilometers away. The brutality and the tactics used by the Chetnik soldiers against the townsfolk of Gorazde, who were outgunned, outnumbered and virtually defenseless often left me feeling ill and shaken.

Sacco does a good job of giving the reader a bit of the historical backdrop as well as the politics involved. I learned as I read, because even though this war occurred while I was a teen, I didn't remember many of the details, and certain aspects were completely new to me.

There were many times while I was reading Safe Area Gorazde that I caught myself comparing it to Palestine. I caught myself comparing the severity of the two struggles, the suffering of the people involved, trying to decide which situation was worse until I eventually realized that trying to make that judgement isn't fair. It isn't fair for me to judge one tragedy against another. There isn't a measuring stick for human tragedy, and the circumstances that took place in Gorazde and Palestine are downright terrible regardless. Sacco makes this abundantly clear. Not only is it clear from the first hand accounts he collects from his interviews, but also with the artwork on the pages.

Sacco uses black and white artwork with incredible detail to help tell the story.
Safe Area Gorazde is a graphic novel that sticks, and the art has a lot to do with that. I think that with just words, the story loses the impact that Sacco is able to convey by including art work that takes no prisoners and shows (often with lurid detail) the brutality the people of Gorazde faced. Sacco doesn't pull any punches, and Safe Area Gorazde does a great job of detailing the Bosnian war from one forgotten town's perspective.

Grade: A-

Battle Hymns has been cranking out a fair amount of Joe Sacco related material lately, as Palestine was my favorite graphic novel from 2009, and I also saw Sacco this past week at an author event. Safe Area Gorazde should wrap up my Joe Sacco binge however. Expect to see more Graphic Novel related material here in the future, eventually covering some different styles in the meduim.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Review: Pandemonium

Pandemonium by Daryl Gregory

I recently completed my first fantasy novel of the year, a debut title by Daryl Gregory called Pandemonium. The events in Pandemonium take place in a world very much like ours with one slight difference...ever since around the 1950's, seemingly random acts of demon possession occur. These possessions can target men, women, and children and the demonic entities themselves seem to be spawned from pop-culture archetypes. There are eight such demons; the Truth, who is a cloaked avenger of lies, with dual pistols ready to send liars to their grave, the Captain, a heroic demon who possesses soldiers, the Little Angel, who possesses little curly haired girls and delivers kisses of death to terminally ill hospital patients, Smokestack Johnny, a railroad demon, Kamikaze, a demon you don't want possessing your airplane pilot, the painter, who creates pastoral images out of whatever is handy, Boy Marvel, another hero type, and the Hellion, who possesses little boys and makes sometimes deadly mischief.

Del, the story's protagonist was possessed by the Hellion at a young age, but with psychiatric help, a loving family and an exorcism, the demon was forced out. Or so we are made to think. One night Del has a terrible car crash, and while waiting in his overturned car for help, Del feels the Hellion inside him again, trapped, and clamoring to get out.

Del is written as your average guy, but with some deep rooted psychological issues, which are worsening as the demon inside him struggles to break free. Fearing what kind of destruction the Hellion would reap given control of an adult body, Del seeks help to purge the demon once again. His journey leads him to a scientific convention on the topic of possession where Del seeks out the aid of a brilliant doctor. Along the way he meets Valis, a demon controlling the body of the Sci-fi writer formerly know as Phillip K. Dick, and Mother Mariette, a rocker-nun who specializes in exorcism. Many people believe that Del holds the secret to stopping demon possession once and for all, but the "best" cure for Del isn't exactly one he is willing to commit to.

Pandemonium is easily the best fantasy book I've read in some time. Gregory set the bar pretty high for himself with such a solid debut. The character building, while not the best, was still very strong, and as I read, I definitely cared strongly about what the outcome would be for Del. Gregory kept the story rolling throughout, and I once I reached the halfway point, I couldn't stop myself, and I finished the second half off in one, albeit long, sitting. I think the thing that impressed me the most was just how economic the story was. Basically everything that happens in Pandemonium means something, and it likely doesn't mean what you initially thought it would. Gregory peppers the overall narrative with short "Demonology" chapters where short vignettes give you back story on the nature of various demons in the pantheon. Add some twists, some I saw coming and others I didn't, and what you get is a great novel.

It felt really good to read something so well conceived, constructed, and implemented. The idea of demon possession is a good one, but could have easily turned out to be campy. Gregory instead delivers a gritty, adult novel that I loved. Pandemonium is a book I would recommend to most anyone, as I feel it would be enjoyed by non fantasy genre readers as well.

I look forward to reading more from Gregory in the future, his follow up novel, Devils Alphabet is on my list of books to read.

grade: A

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Author Event: Joe Sacco

Last night at the town hall here in Seattle, I attended an author discussion/book signing with Joe Sacco. (Author of Palestine, my favorite graphic novel of '09). Sacco started the night off with a presentation of his new work, a graphic novel called Footnotes From Gaza.

During his presentation, Sacco described how some of the pages were put together, while discussing the nature of the research he needed to do to get the information which the reader sees on the page. Sacco essentially gets his information from three sources: from UN archives both here in the U.S. and in Israel, newspaper articles, and from interviews with actual witnesses who remember the event. Sacco then uses these three streams of information to parcel out what he feels best represents the truth of the actual situation he is reporting on the page. This was interesting to me, as I have always wondered how he goes about constructing his works. As for much of the artwork, Sacco uses photographs from UN archives and other sources to create the panels.

Sacco's nuts and bolts descriptions of how he goes about his work proved to be the most interesting aspect of the evening for me. His presentation was brief, but I think the experience, for those in attendance, will enhance the reading of his new book.

After the presentation, there was a question/answer portion, where audience members could ask Sacco questions. Two highlights I'll mention here were when one person asked him about the challenge of documenting history, and the present in a comic book, versus doing it on screen in a documentary. Sacco responded that in the comic medium, the adjustment from present to the past is easier because the drawing can look the same from a panel set in the present to one set in the past, and the eyes and brain of the reader can easily make that visual and mental transition, where as in a documentary film, it is often hard to make that jump, and it often requires changes in the lighting, set, clothing and so on. I liked this description, as I feel Sacco uses the art aspect of the comic medium well to tell his story, and have it flow seamlessly, something not as easily achieved if a person were to attempt the same in a documentary style film.

The second highlight from this portion of the evening came when an Egyptian Arab man came up to the microphone and expressed his frustration with U.S. policy in the Israel/Palestine region. His statements were in context to some of the other questions Sacco had been asked about U.S. activity in that region and what direction Sacco thought things were heading there as well, and the man expressed his concerns on a more intimate level as one who perhaps has felt the effects of U.S. involvement in that region. The man spoke with conviction about his point of view, and his opinion of where things were going in that region were met with a very negative reaction from the crowd. Despite my seat near the front of the auditorium, I witnessed several groups of people, (mostly white) leave the room as he spoke. I could be wrong here, but I thought it was quite silly and also sad that because an Arab man speaks his opinion, white people left the room because of fears and prejudices that surround Arab males these days. In credit to Joe Sacco, he handled the situation well, politely listening to the man, and responding with an "Let's hope not, let's hope not." As the man predicted more troubles and strife in that region.

Often when I go to author events, I am left with the feeling that the author has somehow let me down or that the person has somehow failed to live up in real life to the person I imagine them to be when I am reading his/her work. There is a good chance this is more a personal failing on my part than on the author's, but regardless, it happens. Sacco is an interesting person, and through his work I have learned, and my life has been enriched, but I must have expected more from the man. I don't want anyone to take that in the wrong way however, as Sacco still deserves much credit for his work, and I am grateful for how his work has enriched my life. As a person he deserves credit for the effort he puts into his art and for the way he documents the lives of people in the areas he visits. In this instance though, Sacco failed to inspire me as a person in the same way that he inspires me with his work. There wasn't a specific instance I can point to that made me feel this way, I think I expected to see more acknowledgment on his part of how his art can effect and inspire people to create change. In some ways I just got the feeling he was there simply to sell books. Maybe this just wasn't the proper setting for Sacco to be inspiring. All in all it was an interesting and entertaining evening.

I expect to be reading more of Sacco's work in the future, so look for a Safe Area Gorazde review sometime in the future.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Battle Hymns Classics: Countdown to Extinction

-In order to keep a somewhat steady stream of new posts here at Battle Hymns, I will occasionally post "classic" reviews. These will be based on books or music that have had a lasting impression on me over the course of multiple years.

It was a "no brainer" to decide to use Countdown to Extinction as my first "classic" review, literally... it was suggested to me by my brother Brad. When I told him of my "classics" idea, he instantly said that it should be Megadeth's fifth album, Countdown to Extinction, so here goes...

In the twenty-three years or so that I have consciously been listening to music, (by that I mean, aware that I was actually listening to music), there is no other album that I have listened to more than Countdown to Extinction. In the year of 1992, my brother and I received our first three CDs from our Aunt Sally. The three CDs were: Red Hot Chili Peppers' Blood Sugar Sex Magic, Metallica's "black album" and Countdown to Extinction. As a pre-teen I listened to these three albums steadily, singing along with the lyrics, head banging and playing air-guitar. As a teen I did the same, but with less regularity, and more self-consciousness. And as an adult I more or less completely stopped listening to the Metallica and Chili Peppers albums. Metallica, because I can no longer stand the black album, or the songs on it, Chili Peppers, because I simply no longer like their music. But Megadeth is still one of my favorite bands, and while Countdown to Extinction isn't my favorite album, or even my favorite Megadeth album, I still love it.

I love this album so much that I actually own two copies of it...for fear that the album received in 1992 ever becomes unplayable. The need for two copies became necessary a few years ago when Megadeth re-released this album as "remastered". The remastered version features re-sung lyrics, and different solos, which make for a different listening experience, and one that is decidedly not the listening experience I am akin to. So when I found the non-remastered version used, I scooped it up and filed it away for future enjoyment.

I also love every song on this album. Well, almost every song, I've never been able to like "High Speed Dirt". As I have grown and aged, particular tracks have fallen in and out of favor with me. Most notable of these is "Ashes in Your Mouth" a song I initially disliked but now think quite highly of. While on the flip side, "Sweating Bullets" has been in steady decline for a few years. I guess the quintessential song on the album is "Symphony of Destruction", (this may be my most listened to song of all time). Plus, it is the one song that could be considered a "hit".

If I were to pinpoint my absolute favorite thing about this album, it would be the downright amazing riff-age. Nearly every song includes a riff that is solid gold. While other bands and songs from this era feel dated to me, or have just fallen off to the wayside as my musical tastes expand and contrast, Countdown to Extinction remains a solid go-to album when I'm in need of some metal. This is Megadeth's "classic" line-up at their collective finest and most polished. With Mustaine, and Friedman on guitars, the riffs really roll along, giving the album a quality that has helped sustain it for all these years.

No Countdown to Extinction post would be complete however without mentioning the many amazing solos. This is one of the album's most endearing traits; every single song has at least one blistering solo. As a kid I would air guitar these solos with great skill, my fingers moving up and down the invisible fret board. As an adult, I hear the solos and all I can do is shake my head in admiration as each solo astounds me with its intricacy and technicality. The amazing thing about Megadeth is that they had two great soloists in Mustaine and Friedman, so there is a bounty of sweet solos on this album.

Since this album, Megadeth has released seven more albums, (one is good, one is ok, the rest I either dont like or haven't bothered to listen to), but Countdown to Extinction stands out as their most accessible and successful. I consider this metal gem to be a must have for any metal or hard rock fan out there. So if you don't already own this album, buy the non-remastered version and enjoy.

This live video from Argentina gives me chills...I love how the crowd sings along with the riff.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Album of the Year...

Crack the Skye by Mastodon

In the contest for album of the year, there's a front-runner, a favorite and an underdog, and they are all one and the same, because there really is no contest. It is Mastodon all the way.

Mastodon's fourth album Crack the Skye, completely rocked my socks off for the better part of the year. From the opening track, Oblivion, to the finale, The Last Baron, this album does not disappoint. Shit, the album is about a quadriplegic who has the power of astral travel. This unnamed protagonist travels too close to the sun, burning up his umbilical cord which tethers his ethereal form to his actual body. As a result he falls into oblivion...and this all takes place in the opening song. Along the way he travels to Czarist Russia, and with the help of Rasputin, eventually travels back to his own body...Yeah, holy fuck, talk about a concept album. Along the journey, as the listener, much shredding and absolute face melting guitar work is encountered, not to mention the band's most overall solid effort...this is one album that is a must have.

I had the privilege of seeing this band play live twice in 2009. Both times alongside a solid cadre of fellow metal fans. Both times they played this album straight through, then added in some songs from their back catalog. Hearing the album played live twice really enriched the album for me. When I listen to the album now, there is a visual aspect that adds to the experience. As I write this post, the album plays in my headphones, and despite the massive amount of times I've listened to this album, it still sounds fresh, and new things can be encountered on each track. But I have gushed about the music enough. I will let Mastodon handle things from here...

Well, this post wraps up my 2009 Reviews...from here on out look for new material, including reviews and postings about books, graphic novels, music and much more.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Favorite Graphic Novel of '09

I think a lot of people my age view comics, or graphic novels, with a fairly large degree of scorn.  They are something read as a child, or that part of the newspaper you glance at while on a coffee break... or while you take a dump.  This is an unfortunate state of mind though, because there is a lot of great stuff out there in the graphic novel medium.  Great reads and as a bonus: pictures too!

In many ways 2009 was the year of the graphic novel for me.  I went from hardly ever reading any, to reading them on a fairly regular basis.  Of all the comics I read this year, (around 25), one stands out above them all.

Palestine by Joe Sacco

In this comic, set during the early 90's,  the author, and artist, Joe Sacco, travels to Israeli occupied Palestine to research and interview people for his comic.  Throughout the comic what you get are first hand interviews with Palestinians who have experienced the hardship and terror of their struggle with Israel.  Sacco hears a wide variety of stories, and he somewhat ruthlessly collects these tales in order to create the comic he wishes to write.  Sacco makes it very clear from the get-go that he is not trying to give "both sides" of the story as he assumes that his American readers will be familiar with the Israeli's side.  What you get instead is an eye opening perspective from the Palestinian view point.

I will admit that prior to reading this book, I knew little about the Palestinian/Israeli struggle.  What I did know came from our very one sided American news sources that have almost always told me that Israel is "good" and Palestine is "bad" (more recently that they are terrorists).  While I am smart enough to know that things are rarely, if ever, that cut and dry, I honestly wasn't very aware of the alternate perspective. This book opened my mind and taught me a few things.  For that reason, this was a great book, but it was great for other reasons as well.  Sacco collected some amazing and often heartbreaking stories from the people he interviewed.  Alongside and infused with the stories are Sacco's fantastically detailed black and white illustrations which really bring the people, and setting to life.  Palestine is a complete visual and mental experience.  It manages to be informative, entertaining, and genuine all at the same time, and I really consider it a must read for everybody. 

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Top 5 books of '09

I love to read.  For the past few years, whenever I finish a book, I have always written them down on the calendar when I finish.  It is my dorky way of keeping track of not only how many books I read, but how long it takes me to read them too.  To further my dorkiness, at the end of each year, I always take stock of the books I've read, and create a mental ranking of the top five.  This is the first time my top 5 rankings will be in some form of print.  So, without further rambling; my top 5 books of 2009...

5. Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay. 

I read a lot of fantasy each year, but this year, I didn't seem to read too much good fantasy.  Ysabel stands out from the crowd. A bit of a coming of age story with some Celtic/Pagan magic involved, set in the south of France during modern times. 
Kay crafted another solid novel here, as I was a huge fan of his book Tigana as well.  The characters are well fleshed out, and Kay keeps the story moving with absolutely no lags in the action.

4. East of Eden by John Steinbeck

This novel has been on my radar for a long time, since Steinbeck is one of my favorite authors.  I typically buy used books however, (budget limitations) and after finding a used copy in great condition, I began reading this epic novel.  The book truly is epic, it spans three generations, has a large cast of characters, and covers a fair bit of ground.  This book has love, betrayal, lust, death, anger, joy, wit and power.  It doesn't disappoint and is one of Steinbeck's best works.  For me it wasn't my favorite Steinbeck read, (more on that later), but it still easily makes the list.

3. The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

I first discovered Banks as a sci-fi writer.  His novel Use of Weapons easily stands out as an all-time favorite book of mine.  I knew that Banks was also a fairly prolific non-genre writer as well, and when I stumbled across The Wasp Factory on a bargain shelf, I picked it up.  This is one of those books that defies description, but I will try anyway.  The main character, Frank is a weird guy, he's killed three people under strange circumstances, and gotten away with all three.  He lives an unconventional lifestyle on a small Scottish island with his reclusive father.  The story tracks Frank's strange life, while chronicling the three murders, and builds the tension as his even crazier brother, recently escaped from a mental health facility, slowly makes his way back towards the island. 
This book was a strange one, it was often unsettling and slightly disturbing.  Banks is a master of keeping the reader engaged, and the way the story was unveiled and the past kept hidden until just the right moment, made the book a standout.

2. GraceLand, by Chris Abani

This is another coming of age story set in Lagos, Nigeria.  The story follows Elvis, who also happens to be an Elvis impersonator, as he struggles to get by in the strife ridden slums of Lagos. 
This was a total wild card book for me, as I likely would not have picked it up had it not been recommended to me by my girlfriend.  Abani set the tone for the book early on as he painted a vivid picture of the city of Lagos and it's inhabitants.  He also weaved two story threads for most of the book as he alternated telling of Elvis' current life in the slums of Lagos, and his younger years in the village of Afikpo.  By the end, the threads come together and the novel came to a satisfying, and realistic end. 

1. The Pearl by John Steinbeck

I have to admit first off, that this one is a re-read.  That being said, it was still the best book I read this year.  This was my second reading of The Pearl, the first read came on a road trip with my brother eight years ago.  I really love this book.  Steinbeck tells such a great story, and I love every word of this novel.  Each scene from the book comes to life so clearly in my mind's eye and I loved how vivid the whole story is.  I found myself noticing different things on this read through.   I loved Juana's strength, and how she held herself and her family together as the story unfolded.  This is a timeless classic for me, and well deserving of my top book of 2009.