Tag Archives: Books

John Green: 18 Books Many People Haven’t Read

It always kind of pisses me off to see an article titled “Five Books You’ve Never Heard Of” or such, because, unless the author has talked to every single person who reads his post, and gone through his or her library, the guy is simply making an assumption based on his arrogance, though thankfully coupled with his desire to educate the poor unwashed masses who haven’t experienced the same imaginary worlds he has and therefore can’t really be blamed for their plebeian tastes. (Cracked is especially bad at this. I enjoy their site from time to time but guys? You’re really not the only people who look up weird things on the Internet or read strange books, okay? Really.) Now that that’s off my chest, Mr John Green does in fact talk about a lot of books that seem to have slipped under the radar. Yes, I’ve read a few, & no, I’m not going to list them in an effort to show how much of a hipster I am.

Oh, okay, I’ll mention one, but only because of what he said about it. I did indeed read (a couple of times, now) Death Comes for the Archbishop. I wasn’t assigned that book in school, but my 10th grade English teacher used to give us a recommended reading list of other books by the authors we read in class, books she said she’d teach if she had us for a few years. (English teachers/ librarians that are reading this:  Please do this. It’s awesome.) That title and the short write-up she gave it definitely caught my eye, and I read it for the first time around the time I turned 16, in between Elric and Black Company books. It’s a quiet, almost slow book, but it’s painfully beautiful, and ever time I read it I like it even more. Yes, My Ántonia is also really good, but I think this might be her masterpiece.

And the downside of reading books no one has heard of that no one ever talks about? I’d say for every completely unknown book or two that I end up thinking is an underground classic is one that I realized, upon getting to the end, that there was a damn good reason it was unheralded. Still, that itself makes finding the true gems that much more special.

Alright, here’s John Green talking about books you may or may not have read but the vast majority of the reading public has, regrettably, yet to discover them, though on the bright side, that means that they get to read them for the first time.

The Eternal Champion of Ideas

Sundays are weird days, for me and for blogging. Because of my work schedule, they’re right in the middle of my four-day weekend. I usually wind up watching everybody around me go through the bittersweet motions of a last evening before the workweek begins again. Knowing that I myself didn’t have to be anywhere besides my own writing desk (and to be fair, one of the good parts of being a writer is that I can put that writing desk absolutely anywhere… a café, a bar, a bench in the Atlanta Botanical Gardens) for another day gives me a odd perspective on everyone else, I think, and I become more introspective than I usually am. Of course, I often am a little too introspective… sometimes I might drop everything I’m doing just because I’m trying to think of puns in other languages, or wondering what a tree would sound like if you sped up its sounds a thousand times, and if it sounds different in a forest where no one is there to hear it… jazzy, more independent, perhaps. Today, though, I’m thinking about Michael Moorcock’s seminal creation, the Eternal Champion. I believe I’m at a moment in my own reading where my tastes are changing again, so I’ve been thinking about what I’ve read and what I want to read next.

I devoured the six Elric books (most of which were either linked novellas, or books that really should have just been novellas) in a couple of weeks during tenth grade, a year that saw me moving twice for the first and second times in my waking life, my parents’ divorce, my discovery of an awesome D&D group mere months before the guy running it moved away, and my third, but most serious, bi-polar episode. Reading of a hero who often wanted to do the wrong thing for selfish reasons, who hated his existence and was doomed to suffer it for no known reason, really spoke to my emo-goth-ridden brain. Combine that with my discovery of The Black Company, and, well, I had quite a bit to think about and quite a bit of inspiration for my own writing.

About eight years later, White Wolf Publishing began releasing fifteen volumes full of all of the books and stories that Moorcock wrote concerning his concept of The Eternal Champion, of which Elric was perhaps the most depressive example. Of course, I started buying them; I was a horrible completist back then, something that my constant traveling, my library cards, and my lack of book space (along with my Kindle) have made a little better, though blanks spots between the books in a series still bothers me, even if I know I don’t plan on reading them. For the most part, though, I’d only read a fraction of the novels within. From Manteca, California, to Napoli, Italia, to Taura, Yokosuka, Japan, to Newport, Rhode Island, and finally to Atlanta, Georgia, they’ve followed me, taking up most of a shelf, taunting me with their unread contents. A little over a month ago, I decided I was going to finally make my way through them once and for all, and then decide whether they were worth keeping and dragging around with me or if I should find them a new home, freeing up space for books I probably really would read.

I’m about finished with the sixth novel and the second volume, and I’m honestly not sure if I’m going to read every single one of the fifteen volumes, now. They’re odd books, yes, but they’re repetitive. More than a romantic comedy, more than a Michael Bay exploding thriller, more even than Michael Bay blowing up things in a romantic comedy, they’re mostly the same idea played out many many times. And while one part of my brain says, “Well, that’s the premise… a warrior is doomed to countless incarnations in the battle between Law and Chaos, kind of like the Libertarians,” I’m finding too much repetition. 1400 pages in, and I know what will happen, for the most part, at the end of every chapter, every book. On top of that, one of the novels I’ve read so far is one I read back in ’95 and I remember liking it at the time; this time it was dry, repetitive, derivative, and mostly boring. I know this isn’t the fault of the Sword-and-Sorcery genre, either. I fully recognise the problems in the original Conan stories, or the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories, but they’re entertaining and enjoyable reads. In the one I’m reading now, a ghostly hero straight from the Magical Kingdom of Plot Contrivances spends two pages explaining what the heroes will have to do, and even pointing out the puzzles they’ll face along the way. In an adventure game tutorial, that’s somewhat acceptable, but not in a book. Half the fun of reading is watching the protagonists figure things out along the way, not to watch him get a standard operating procedure (complete with safety notes) before he goes to free the dragon from the sword that will stop his twin sister from taking over the Multiverse.

Why would I keep reading the series, if I do go on and read it and don’t just decide to find a bookstore that would like to buy them? The ideas.

The ideas in these books are brilliant and chilling. Certain images, like the Red Weepers, who wear wire cages around their eyes to keep them propped open at all times, or the lands of ice and obsidian, glowing red in the light of the dying sun, or psychics escaping a dying universe and fighting a mental battle with complete and utter aliens. For every chapter that I complain about stilted writing, tired plots, and way way WAY too much explanation and little actual action (odd for an action genre, isn’t it) I’ll find myself setting the book down in awe of a vision or an image.

The jury’s still out on the series. I may finish it, and I may go to my bookstore up in Chamblee with eight kilos of Elric. I will say to anyone who does read them… the ideas really are mind-blowing. Perhaps some day I’ll work them into my own stories, after first making sure that why I’m writing are actually stories. You know, that work as a narrative that engages the reader and all.

New “LORD OF THE RINGS” Footage Found


When I was un piccolo bambino, I discovered The Hobbit in my school library, sometime during the winter of second grade, and I fell in love with that. Shortly after, I started reading The Lord of the Rings (I was an odd child) and after one of our family’s friends saw me reading the first book, a tattered tenth-hand Balentine paperback from the 60s, he decided that an 8-year-old was not reading and understanding that book. So, he quizzed me about the book. Hard. Once he figured out that I really was reading the book and not just carrying it around (an aside:  I remember being particularly peeved at the review in the front of one of the books, the one that started “This is not for children, nor is it for whimsy-lovers and Alice-quoters…”) he got me a good boxed set of the four books, and either he or my parents got me the calendar with images from the just-released movie.

Now, this was mid-to-northern Michigan in pre-multiplex, pre-cable (for our town, at least) and even pre-VCR. Plus, the movie was something of a box-office bomb. The story I remember hearing is that it didn’t even last a whole week at one of the theaters in Flint. So, I had nothing to console me and my drive to see a movie made from what I would proudly tell anyone who asked, and quite a few people who didn’t, was the best book written in the history of forever. I think I was finally able to track down a dubbed copy when I was in eighth grade or so, after I’d already read the books a second time, along with the first section of The Silmarillion, which I enjoyed until my brain melted. And while I liked the movie (and still do) it could not hold a candle to the sounds and dialogue and music I had put to the images that I would stare at from across the room while I was reading the books.

All this is just to say that I damn near had heart failure when I read this article in bOING bOING. Okay, maybe it’s just a few shots (from one of the scenes I laminated and hung on my wall) but it still impressed the high holy hell out of me). Check it out.

Lost Bashki Lord of the Rings Footage Found


That’s not a typo.

I like to talk about seeing stories from a different point of view. This is not something I came up with, of course. Two books I read and fell in love with when I was much younger are John Gardner’s Grendel and Gordon R. Dickson’s The Dragon and the George.
And even when I was un piccolo bambino I found myself copying examples of switched viewpoints such as this classic Peanuts cartoon.

All of this has been in the forefront of the offices in my head because I’m writing a second draft of my version of a Disney story, one that is a relatively straightforward adaptation of a classic fairy tale. What surprised me while I was writing that story was that it really was a straightforward adaptation. That is not exactly par for the course for Disney movies anymore. Not that the classic Disney versions of other fairy tales were ever close to the source material (check out the Talking Cricket’s role in the original Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi… perhaps he should have wished upon that star a little harder, eh?) I remember being vaguely disquieted as a child when I read the original fairy tales and stories that Disney bowdlerized and sanitized, but since they occasionally produced a quality work of art (such as The Little Mermaid) I lived with it. All of this ended when The Hunchback of Notre-Dame came out in the mid-nineties.

The original novel by Victor Hugo is not as well-known in the US as Les Miserables, which is a shame since it’s just as moving and thrilling as that book, and at 500 pages, about the size of just one of the descriptions of what people shouted at The Battle of Waterloo (in the abridged Les Mis, of course…) Most of us these days only know the story from the various movie versions, and while many of them are  well-done, they don’t quite capture the power and pathos of the source material. Particularly misrepresented in many versions is the character of Phoebus. The novel has, of course, the hero, Quasimodo (who is also deaf, as were all bellringers in the days before ear protection), the villain, Claude Frollo (who is possibly one of the most despicable characters in French literature I’ve come across) and the beautiful wronged Gypsy woman, Esmeralda. And then there’s Phoebus.

In the book, Phoebus is best described as a weasel. Like Reverend Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter, he doesn’t have the cojones to truly be a bad guy. He does bad things in a moment of weakness and either doesn’t own up to them, or blames his weaknesses, or blames other people for not taking his weaknesses into account. Phoebus, however, is so much more painfully well-wrought than Dimmesdale is. No other character in literature filled me with such pathetic disgust like he did. When people talk about what they would do if they could magically travel inside one of their favourite books and meet its characters, I don’t think of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, or Winter’s Tale, or any of the “Black Company” books, or even hanging out in a tavern in Lankhmar with the Grey Mouser and his companion. I think of how sweet it would be to step inside 15th Century Paris, find Captain Phoebus, and just smack the everloving shit out of him. No character deserves it more than he does.

So fast-forward to the mid-nineties, when I see a trailer for the Disney movie. True, I’d been a little disappointed with Pocahontas, (who wasn’t?) but the movies that Disney had been putting out since 1989 (The Little Mermaid, The Rescuers Down Under, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin) were stunning enough for me to look forward to what they were going to do with perhaps my favourite French Gothic novel. And then I saw a toy commercial for the movie, and amidst the other plasticized characters, the announcer pointed out “Brave Phoebus.”

Brave Phoebus.

This was a character that perhaps caused most of the bad things in the novel to happen, was too weaselly to do anything about it, and still somehow came out ahead in the end.

Of course, the little cynic that I keep locked in a trunk in the back of my head piped up, “Well, of course they had to make him the hero. God Forbid they make a hero out of the ugly deaf guy. I mean, really… what would that teach our children?”

I’ve never seen any direct evidence that that was the direct cause of Phoebus’ transformation but everything else that Disney’s done since then (like Merida‘s makeover from self-sufficient warrior tomboy to glamourized, sexualized, properly keeping to her own place Disney Princess) hasn’t disproved my hypothesis.

This is why us writers and artists and creators need to produce quality stories about quality people, adults and children. Real people. Warts and body odor and clumsiness, along with accidental good deeds, kind eyes, and a way of occasionally doing the right thing. (The cynical movement in literature and film is just as naïve and detached from reality as the Polyanna-esque ‘everything is sunshine and rainbows and unicorn farts movement.) Even though it may be one day Disneyfuc’d into something barely resembling its origin, the stories need to be there. And once the story’s out there, flip it over and tell it from another point of view. Or tell it backwards. Or tell a realistic version of a magical tale or vice-versa. The slippery plastic sheen of homogenous popular culture may always be more visible, but people are always willing to dip beneath it for the good stuff, if you give them a reason to.