Sunday 30 December 2007

One loose end finally tied up

This morning, I FINALLY finished off The Great Short Works of Stephen Crane. I started it before I went to Italy in October and I'm not sure why I didn't take it with me to finish there - I would have been more than happy to leave it behind somewhere when I finished it.

It was an okay collection overall, with most pieces being forgettable, a few being very good, and some being downright terrible. He was only 21 when he died, though, so perhaps had he lived he would have proved himself to be a bloody genius or summink. Stupid influenza killing people at the end of the 19th century!

Thursday 27 December 2007

62. The Book Thief

I picked this up last week when I was in Kingston at Novel Idea, my favourite independent bookstore there. I've been meaning to read this for awhile so was pleased to find it, having finished both The Prestige and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly the night before I was meant to return home - I certainly couldn't have survived the train ride back to Toronto without a book in hand!

This is a Young Adult novel about a young girl living in Nazi Germany who figures out at a young age that she likes two things in life very much: stealing and books. Naturally, these things coincide a fair bit and she begins by stealing a book from a cemetery and then, more dangerously, from a pile of books the Nazis were burning in her hometown (Molching).

Really though, the book thievery is secondary to the descriptions of her day-to-day life leading up to her street being bombed flat. The author chose to make Death the narrator of this book, which allows him to make some pretty righteous pronouncements without seeming directly preachy (which I don't think works - it's pretty preachy at points). It is a YA novel, so I suppose I can forgive a little heavy-handedness; on the other hand, I'm not sure kids need to be reminded in a heavy-handed way what the details of World War II (as described in The Book Thief) mean. Not that I know any young teenagers I can poll on the matter, but I don't recall being an oblivious reader as a kid.

I first saw this book prominently displayed at Book City on the Danforth, where I'll be heading later today to pick up a 2008 calendar and maybe one or two books (hopefully cookbooks!) before my 2008 "no more books" policy comes into effect. In anticipation of that famine, Brook and I went a little crazy at Seekers Books last night (Seekers is a weird used/occult bookstore that is opened until midnight and has a very good selection of fiction). When walking by after dinner with a friend, we discovered that their already cheap books were an additional 30% off for Boxing Week. We got 2 new Wodehouses, a Pullman, a Grass, a Neal Stephenson, the Stephen Colbert book, The Moonstone, a Y. Mishima, an R. Mishima, and a Murakami - all for $68. I think I'm pretty much set up until 2010 or so.

Saturday 22 December 2007

61. The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly

While The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly is very short (about 120 pages), I did not read the whole thing last night after posting about The Prestige. Rather, I finished it this morning over tea, having begun it last Friday night on the way home from exchanging gifties with Melinda and Scott.

Mel gave me this one, which she was forced to pick out without the help of my Amazon wish list - I have removed my wish list and I bite my thumb at those bastards at Amazon who screwed up my Festivus order.

It usually takes something like coercion or death threats to get me to read non-fiction - but a holiday gift is just as effective. Bauby's book is a series of vignettes drawn from his experience of living with locked-in syndrome (see; he wrote the whole book being able to move only one of his eyelids, having "dictated" it to someone who transcribed it and then presumably began contacting publishers.

Locked-in syndrome sounds pretty much like my worst nightmare - to be awake and aware and completely unable to either move or communicate in a standard way.

The book was quite compelling - the writing was good and I liked how Bauby resisted being either insanely bitter about it all (which I suspect I would be) or heroical in his outlook. He died just 10 days after the book was published, in 1997.

Friday 21 December 2007

60. The Prestige

I'm still chipping away at my mountain of birthday books but I think that with my completion of Christopher Priest's The Prestige, I've finally crested the hill.

Deb gave me this one and I have to say I really enjoyed it after what was a somewhat uninspiring start to the tale. I actually can't tell you much more than that this book is about two feuding magicians from 19th-century England, because so much of the plot must be surprising to be effective.

I did guess two of the most important secrets early on in my reading, but nonetheless continued to enjoy the book both for the way the plot unfolded and for the other surprises that I didn't see coming. The Prestige is a solid novel and I would likely read more of Priest's work.

There is a movie adaptation of The Prestige which I haven't seen and it wasn't a hit in the box office, at least not in Canada. While lots occurs in the novel I'm not surprised that the movie wasn't a hit - 19th-century magic must appear quaint at best on screen now, and the real interest of the book anyway is the psychology of magic rather than its performance.

Sunday 16 December 2007

59. The Children's Hospital

This was yet another of my cartload of birthday books, a cartload I don't think I'll be finished wading through when the cartload of Festivus books has finished trickling in.

Chris Adrian's The Children's Hospital is a sort of surreal tale in which a cataclysmic storm floods the earth; the only thing that appears to survive is a children's hospital and all the incredibly ill children and worn out doctors on board. The doings of the ship are noted by a benevolent but powerless recording angel (the narrator) and the preserving angel, the latter of which initially appears to be doing just that but who in fact is able to preserve only the comforts and appearances of normalcy not life itself.

Later, two destroying angels arrive but before they do, the main character, Jemma, becomes simultaneously pregnant and able to miraculously heal all the children. Heal she does and for a space, life is distinctly un-hospital like as doctors become teachers, patients becomes students, and hope infuses all hearts.

This respite is short-lived, however, for with the bringing on board of the two destroying angels (disguised simply as mysterious drifters in the water), the adults on board begin to fall prey to a plague that the ever more powerful and pregnant Jemma can do nothing to stop. All concludes with Jemma being the last surviving adult, and surviving only to give birth to her son and to witness the hospital's final discovery of new land. The children leave the boat, innocent and cleansed by the sacrifice of the ship's adult inhabitants, and the angels depart.

Now, this seems all quite heavily allegorical and it is, but not in an obtrusive way. Adrian's gift I think is making this just read like a story - the characters and what happens to them are never forced to fit into or highlight the tale's allegorical aspects. Indeed, if one knew nothing about Christian mythology, I think this would still be a very enjoyable book.

The long scene in which Jemma "harrows" all 700 of the hospital's sick children into wellness is truly show-stopping and the daily interactions between the doctors and the children as they adjust to wellness is incredibly interesting and thoughtful. That said, I found the final third of the book dragged somewhat, and that the recording angel's final revelation of what it all meant was perhaps a little too rushed.

The Children's Hospital was recommended to me by a former student of mine at Queen's, who also a long time ago recommended Tom Robbins' Skinny Legs and All, which was a seriously fun read.

Saturday 8 December 2007

58. Mulliner Nights

After the grimness of Mishima, I needed a little antidote in the form of Wodehouse. I made short work of Mulliner Nights, and basking as I am in the warmth of the conclusion of a funny book and the consumption of homemade oatmeal raisin cookies, I've been fuzzily contemplating what I should read next.

I pulled down a Russian novel, for December seems like the right time of year to afflict myself with one (I use "afflict" in the most literarily positive way imaginable, I assure you). However, as I am also reading some Dickens, I'm not sure it's the right time. I may have to make another go at the seemingly unending row of birthday books I have - especially because my birthday is now several months gone.

Mulliner Nights, FYI, is a sweet parody of the Arabian Nights. The book's Scheherezade is one Mulliner who entertains his fellow drinkers at the Angler's Pub with tales of the hapless youth in his family. My two favourite tales feature a cat named Webster who functions initially as a sort of moral heavyweight and then, with his discovery of whisky, a physical heavyweight ass-kicking all the other cats in the neighbourhood.

I don't think I like these stories so much because I like cats so much - it's because (as I noted also in Something Fresh), Wodehouse, better than any other writer I've encountered, has pinpointed how cats can be overbearingly dignified and totally silly at the same time. Of course, he's also super-excellent at creating male characters who are most charmingly befuddled. And nobody can more effectively place a "Dash it!" in dialogue than P.G. Good times I tell ya.

Thursday 6 December 2007

57. Thirst for Love

So, Mishima was kind of insane. Above you'll see a photo of him taken the day he publicly committed suicide. Having decided, once he conceived of his Sea of Fertility tetralogy, that he would kill himself the day he finished the last book (which he did), it is perhaps not surprising that death infuses most of his works in some capacity.

Thirst for Love was one of Mishima's earliest efforts, so I'm not sure the plan for the Sea of Fertility had even begun to germinate in his mind yet. Thus, the characters' meditations on death are not nearly as ominous, prolonged, or compelling as they become in later works. Thirst for Love does, nonetheless, move with determination towards a gruesome conclusion, the catalyst for which is the obsessive jealousy of the main character.

Etsuko has gone to live with her in-laws upon the sudden death of her young husband from Typhoid. She quickly falls into a sexual relationship with her father-in-law but really yearns for Subaro, one of the house's farm hands. As she obsesses on the young man, she becomes increasingly unhinged and this eventually leads to her murdering him.

The book was good, but it didn't have that intense, dreamlike quality that in my experience came to be Mishima's signature style. But there are certainly intimations of it here, and so I wasn't by any means disappointed with Thirst for Love.

Sunday 2 December 2007

Well looky here

I downloaded Mozilla Firefox to my home computer to see if I could successfully make line breaks in Blogger while using that browser and it seems to have worked. I'll try posting from here from now on and unless the line break problem re-emerges, I won't bother moving out of Blogger. Keep your fingers crossed!

The line break problem

I fixed the line breaks in the previous posts when on a different computer using a different browser. It seems that for reasons I can't even begin to imagine, the line break function has magically stopped working here at home (on my PC using Internet Explorer) but works on a Mac using Firefox. I will either download a new browser or try to switch to a new blog site to deal with this - whichever option is easiest.

56. The Sword of Shannara

I just now finished this 700+-page beast and am wondering how long I'll wait until I read the next one in the series - I quite enjoyed it. Brook made me buy The Sword of Shannara one night about a week ago when we were in the Chapters (I know, I know I should not have purchased a book in the evil empire; blame Brook) at John and Richmond - we were killing time before seeing the terrible, terrible film adaptation of Beowulf.

We went into the Chapters and saw a lineup longer than...the longest lineup you can imagine times a hundred. We discovered that Slash, formerly of Guns-n-Roses (Guns 'n' Roses?) fame, was there signing his book for a bunch of rabid fans. The only safe place was the Fantasy section.

While hiding/browsing there, Brook found The Sword of Shannara, which he read when he was a kid; he suggested I buy it if I wanted a good yarn. He also admitted to wanting me to read it so that if it sucked he wouldn't waste his time rereading it. That's love for you.

Like I said, I quite enjoyed it. There was a quest, hardship, evil trying to snuff out good, great displays of courage, near despair, and characters 95% of which were male and 98% of which were sexless. It was, in other words, classic high fantasy and it didn't fail to deliver a compelling yarn. Unlike the Lord of the Rings trilogy, to which it's been (in my opinion) unfairly compared, it thankfully featured no singing.

Finally, the main character's name is Shea - how could I not read it and enjoy it?

Saturday 24 November 2007

I think I might go mad

Why, oh why, aren't the paragraph breaks working again??

55. Whit

It is ridiculously cold in Toronto, and besides looking for a job via searching the internets, the only sane things to do must occur inside, such as cooking and reading. I haven't been cooking as much as I'd like because there have been welcome back dinners to attend, and podcasts to record, and even some Festivus shopping to be done. But luckily, I consider being on public transit being inside, and so I've been reading this Iain Banks novel rather frantically, and I just finished it this evening. I think I was trying to erase from my mind the shite that was #54 on this list and which shall not be named again.

Whit, then, by Iain Banks is book 55 of the year of counting how much I read. I was introduced to Banks a few years ago at Book City when I was in need of a new author because I was tiring of my usual suspects. Banks' The Crow Road was the one most recommended (Banks has written at least 9 novels in the adult contemporary genre, and I don't know how many science fiction novels under the very mysterious and subtle alternate name of Iain M. Banks). I really enjoyed The Crow Road, as did Brook, and I decided Banks must become a staple in my reading life. (Dead Air was excellent but Walking on Glass was pretty notably not good; Walking on Glass was one of his earliest novels though, and I wonder if he hadn't yet figured out how to completely separate Iain from Iain M. - what a mess.)

Whit was written in true Iain Banks style as the main characters all engaged in a profound amount of drinking and drug-using which still somehow seemed only incidental to what else was happening. It's also, like both Dead Air and The Crow Road, a mystery of sorts, but in this case the mystery is about the sordid truth underlying the history of a weirdo cult of pseudo-hippies in Scotland. The main character, Isis Whit (aka, the Elect of God), is sent on a mission to rescue an apostate cousin but it turns out this was just a ruse to get her out of Dodge while her jealous brother took over control of the cult.

The thing about this cult is that they eschew all modern conveniences so when Isis gets to the big city of London, many hi jinx ensue, including her filling water guns with Tabasco sauce and shooting some white supremacists in the eyes with it.

The hi jinx are all fun, but Isis as narrator wasn't always as compelling as Banks' narrators usually are. She was irritatingly self-righteous at points; simply dull in others. I understand those around her were supposed to see her this way but I figure a good author can convey that without necessarily similarly irritating the readers. I almost feel that Banks' almost vicious anti-religious message (to oversimplify the book, admittedly) took too much precedence over plot and characterization at points. Generally, however, it was a good if uneven read. It certainly hasn't turned me off reading Banks other novels in the future.

So, I may not be back for awhile - at Brook's suggestion I just picked up and will next read an exceeding fat novel, classic of the fantasy genre, by Terry Brooks. I'll let you know how that one goes when I finish it...or give up.

Tuesday 20 November 2007

54. Timoleon Vieta Come Home

I fucking HATED this book. I am angry about how poor the writing is. I'm angry about how lame the story is. I'm angry that a book whose main character is written in such horribly homophobic terms can actually be published. I'm angry that the guy who recommended it to me thought it was funny (the owner of the until now adored Almost Corner Bookshop in Rome), and that all of the wanky reviewers quoted on the cover thought it was funny - there isn't one funny sentence in this piece of shit. I'm angry that I wasted 3 hours of my precious life reading the whole thing when I should have followed my inclination halfway through to shred it and toss it onto the subway tracks at Donlands Station.

Timoleon Vieta Come Home is a cynical riff on both the Lassie story and the proliferation of books about how cool it is to escape the US or England to go live in a delightful cottage in rural Italy (presumably like Under the Tuscan Sun, which I will not be reading).

In terms of the former, you will only find this book funny if you find the prospect of abandoning dogs on the side of the road to starve to death (a big problem in Italy, especially around Rome) incredibly hilarious. To make this even more belly-laugh inducing, Rhodes makes sure that after wandering for months, the dog has his throat slashed and eyes gouged out right before he makes it home.

As for the latter, having never read those stupid books about the Italian countryside, I either missed or wasn't amused by Rhodes' jokes about them. I suspect most people will miss them because if you haven't read crap like Under the Tuscan Sun you won't get the jokes and if you have read and enjoyed Under the Tuscan Sun you will be offended by how Rhodes is mocking you.

I haven't read many books in my life that have been so atrocious as to actually make me angry, so when it does happen I feel like I might go crazy. It's times like this that I understand how people can not be interested in reading books at all - because if this had been the first book I read in the formative years of my becoming a lifelong reader, I would have given up too!

Watching the Jerry Springer Show would be better than reading this book, for at least there would be some creative use of language there! Instead of going crazy or giving up on books, however, I bought myself a book by an actually funny author on the way home - Mulliner Nights by P. G. Wodehouse.

Thursday 15 November 2007

53. The Crimson Labyrinth

Based on how extraordinarily ambitious it was of me to start reading Livy (I haven't picked it up since before I left Italy), I've decided that from now on, I will only post here about books after I've finished reading them.

I received The Crimson Labyrinth as part of my windfall of birthday books in August - this one from my mother. I picked it up the day before yesterday as a sort of antidote to the hyper-seriousness of Pamuk's My Name is Red, which while generally very good, was unrelentingly earnest. I don't think I'm up for unrelentingly earnest right now, so I plan to follow up Kishi's novel with something either sillier or more fantastical, though I'm not yet sure what.

I really enjoyed The Crimson Labyrinth and hope that more of Kishi's novels are soon translated into English. It was fast, well-plotted, never bogged down by unnecessary verbiage or information, and would have scared me if I hadn't already read Battle Royale. It didn't frighten me, but it did hold my attention unwaveringly.

As it is, I am intellectually, if not viscerally, intrigued by the way horror in fiction in Japan seems to be manifesting itself in part in a very specific kind of way (this doesn't apply, for example, to Koji Suzuki's Ring series).

Based on what I know (which is admittedly very little), Japan (like Korea) is very much a game culture and both these fantastically popular novels make gaming into something turned against the player and imposed upon them against their will.

I'll be interested to see whether or not I come across more Japanese pulp playing out and upon the same fears as The Crimson Labyrinth and Battle Royale do. If I do, I'll try to formulate a theory about this trend, which will undoubtedly turn out to be off base (but hopefully not as off base and boring as all of Peter Carey's shiteous Wrong About Japan).

For those of you (Roger) curious to know how I heard about this author, I found The Crimson Labyrinth one night while browsing in Book City on the Danforth. I've had a lot of luck just browsing there, especially in the K-M sections for some reason.

Monday 5 November 2007

52. My Name is Red

In the interests of not having to update this blog literally every day, I've chosen something both longish and sustainable as my current read. (Books by Muriel Spark rarely exceed 24 hours in the reading, while things like Livy's The Early History of Rome can't be read in one sitting as it were.)

Thus, thanks to the wonderfully stocked Almost Corner Bookstore (I shall miss you!), I'm now well into (but not close to being finished) Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red. I've tried and tried to read Pamuk's The New Life (which has been hanging about the house since Brook took an MA course (called, portentously, The Book and the Reader) in which it was featured) but find the first 30 or so pages absolutely unbearable in their pretension. Last winter (I think) I read Pamuk's Snow, gifted to me by the lovely Melinda, and which I very much enjoyed. It was very gratifyingly atmospheric in its evocation of wintertime.

I look forward to getting somewhere warm this evening where I can cozy up with this book some more. I was reading it in the Piazza Navona but my fingers were turning blue and so I had to move on.

Sunday 4 November 2007

51. A Far Cry From Kensington

Vee got me onto Muriel Spark last year when she forced me to read Loitering With Intent, a truly hilarious book. I recently-ish read The Finishing School, one of Spark's final novels and it wasn't as good. A Far Cry From Kensington, however, is not disappointing me.

This one, like the others I've read, is hard to describe; I'd call Spark a master of character interaction more than of plot. It's not that things don't happen in her books, for they certainly do. Rather, it's that the interactions almost always trump the actions they cause, arise out of, etc.

I've put Livy away for a little while; I need some prolonged story action.

I'm sick of Rome and will head to Florence on Tuesday. I hope it's more of what I'm aiming for on this trip; otherwise, I'll be very seriously tempted to just pack it all in and go home early.

Saturday 3 November 2007

50. The Adventures of Pinocchio

I picked up a lovely bilingual edition of the 19th-century original Adventures of Pinocchio (before horribly bastardized by Disney) at The Almost Corner Bookstore yesterday and I'm about halfway done - nominally written for children as it is, it's a very fast read. I stayed up late last night reading it but am carrying the Livy around with me during the day.

Livy is still going well - I just read his version of the events of Coriolanus's life, which are considerably tamer than what Shakespeare imagined when he wrote his play!

I am totally exhausted and feel best when sitting in a piazza somewhere perusing a book - guess what I'm going to be doing for my 11 days in Florence (where I'm heading on Tuesday)! I'm going back out into the beautiful sunshine now.

Friday 2 November 2007

48. At Swim-Two-Birds and 49. The Early History of Rome

The other day, I found a lovely little bookstore in Trastevere (my favourite part of Rome, hands down) called The Almost Corner Bookstore and, helpless in the face of its great collection, bought myself Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds.

I arrived in Italy armed with four unread books plus the Wilkie Collins tome I began on my way to Europe; I was hoping not to buy too many books over here. Such measures rarely prove useful to me though and I didn't even try to resist the O'Brien purchase. Anyway, I read At Swim-Two-Birds over about a day and a half and it was immensely enjoyable; I spent a great deal of time laughing aloud and so cannot regret it.

Previous to finding The Almost Corner shop, I ambitiously purchased Livy's The Early History of Rome (which comprises Books 1-5 of his History of Rome from its Foundations) in the Forum gift shop - I say "ambitiously" for this is the kind of book I tend to buy and then let sit unread for years.

Well, I picked it up this morning to give it a shot - my fear of carrying it around for the next 5 weeks for nothing weighing heavily on my mind - and found myself immediately enthralled. I actually haven't really been able to put it down and so I've spent the day wandering slowly from place to place in Trastevere with my nose in Livy while the rest of me enjoyed soaking up the gorgeous fall sun.

I'm actually starting to feel kind of relaxed!

Friday 26 October 2007

47. The Woman in White

No picture for this post, unfortunately - I'm at an internet cafe on the Tottenham Court Road in London, UK and the computer I'm using won't allow me to post photos to the desktop so I can upload from there; it also won't recognize my USB key, to which I could potentially save a photo.

I'm at a chain store of internet cafes here called easyInternet, which were new and very sparkly the last time I was in London (2000). Since then, it appears as though none of the computers have been changed and many either don't work or, like this one, are slow and have issues.

Right now, I too feel slow and like I have issues due to a really bad case of jet lag. I left Toronto on Wednesday night and basically everything went wrong; but more of that anon, either in an email to friends or on my travel blog.

I started reading Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White at Pearson Airport and I'm about 230 pages in now. It's very enjoyable and the great villain, Count Fosco, hasn't even been introduced yet! There is a great deal of mystery and curious goings-on; there is also a great deal of foreshadowing promising terrible things to come. In short, it's exactly what I've been in the mood for and as a strange symptom of my extreme jet lag, the book seems more real to me than anything that's actually happened to me in the past 24 hours; everything is fading from memory except the book.

I found some amazing used bookstores around Piccadilly Circus last night but fortunately/unfortunately I have 400 pages left in The Woman in White and 3 other books with me already.

Monday 22 October 2007


I started this blog in March and until this past week have never had any trouble with it. But with my last two posts, even though I have my settings programmed to recognize hard returns as paragraph breaks, I haven't been able to make the spacing appear on the published post.

I was able to do so with the post on The Lovely Bones a few days after I originally posted it, but only by deleting the original post and re-posting it. Now, it's happened again with my post on Stephen Crane and it's making me a feel a little crazy.

As well, with my travel blog, for 2 days it wouldn't let me post photos - more than half the point of that blog is to be able to post photos!!

Okay, I'm done ranting for now but if either of these issues continue I may, sadly, have to consider other venues.

Sunday 21 October 2007

46. Great Short Works of Stephen Crane

I finished The Lovely Bones and have decided I need to go back to reading the classics and genre fiction for awhile because contemporary literary fiction (except for David Mitchell, of course) is disappointing me quite intensely these days.

I don't know if Sebold's book got more and more horribly sentimental or if I reached my breaking point for it at some point, but as I read I got increasingly irritated. It got so bad that, frankly, I became a bit embarrassed to be carrying that damned bright blue book around; I didn't want everyone witnessing my shame and displeasure.

I decided on Stephen Crane who, if not a classic writer, is at least an old writer - he died in 1900. And it did seem promising. When Scott suggested this book to me several months ago, he convinced me to buy it by pointing out the first line of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets: you must admit that "A very little boy stood upon a heap of gravel for the honor of Rum Alley" is a pretty great start.

Unfortunately, I didn't find that Maggie delivered anything so compelling as what its opener promised; I thought it was stilted and a little boring. I've also read 4 of the 8 short stories included at the end of the volume; I thought "A Mystery of Heroism" was a pretty good story but found the other 3 fairly forgettable.

I won't be taking this volume with me to Europe so I'll have to finish it when I return. What I am taking with me, and what I can't wait to start reading, is Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White. I've been aching to read a fat Victorian novel and so picked up an old ragged copy of Collins' novel for $4 - this way, I won't feel badly if I lose it or have to abandon it for weight reasons along the way.

Friday 19 October 2007

The Toews Effect

Well, it's happening - I am very quickly getting turned off The Lovely Bones. I was killing time reading it yesterday before meeting a friend for tea when I realized I would really rather be reading a nice fat Victorian novel; I've just been deprived of Victorian lit for too long.

I went to Seekers, one of the best used bookstores around (in part because of the crazy people that hang out there) ,and picked up Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White. I almost got Dickens' Dombey and Son instead to take with me on my trip; but in the end, I balked at buying a book (even for $4.50) that I already have at home. (We have a complete set of Dickens inherited from my hubby's grandmother which I can't really take overseas, but I promised myself I'd read it as soon as I returned.)

My disillusion with The Lovely Bones increased after I got home last night and read some more; I was reminded again that there's only so much sentimentality I can handle. I may just be getting sick of the story, but I wonder if Sebold's writing isn't losing the energy it had at the beginning of the book. In any case, I'm now looking forward to it being over so I can move on to Collins...

Thursday 18 October 2007

45. The Lovely Bones

There are some books that people just rave too much about; in response, in my infinite maturity and wisdom, I tend to dig my heels in and avoid said books - maybe not like the plague, but at least like a serious flu. I often don't relent on this (I will never read The Da Vinci Code!!), but sometimes I break down and give a much lauded/publicized/gushed over book a try - hence, why I'm now reading Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones.

I have to say, I was worried, for when I do break down and read books at the centre of public book club hysteria I am very often disappointed. (The Kite Runner, for example, is one of the worst books I've ever read; you have to be a particularly talented author (and by talented I mean not talented) to make characters flatter and more clich├ęd as a book progresses).

I have to say, though, that so far, The Lovely Bones is a very pleasant surprise. Part of why it's a pleasant surprise is that the authors takes such a risky approach - the narrator is a 14-year old girl who, having been raped and murdered, watches from heaven as her family, friends, and townspeople try to come to grips with her disappearance (in the narrative where I am, it's two months after her death and all they've found is one of her elbows).

But The Lovely Bones, for all its goodness as a read is not free of the startlingly difficult. I've had a lot of teary moments with this one, but that's to be expected; if I didn't, then Sebold wouldn't be succeeding. Unless something goes horribly wrong (as it does sometimes; I was really enjoying Miriam Toews' A Complicated Kindness a year or so ago but then halfway through just began loathing it), I'll probably check out Sebold's other books one of these days.

Saturday 13 October 2007

44. The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy

It's shocking, isn't it, that this is my first taste of Douglas Adams' wacky world of literature? I honestly don't know how it is that I've never read his stuff, what with my quest over the years for comic novels. I recall Melinda recommending him to me in either junior high or high school but can't remember thinking of him much after that.
Then, the year I taught at Trent, one of my students gifted me an Adams omnibus, but I never got around to reading it. I felt squeamish somehow about carting such a stupidly large tome around in public (don't ask; I can't explain).
So, I got a cheap paperback copy of The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy through BookMooch to deal with my handicap. Thus far, it's very silly and I'm therefore enjoying it very much; Vogon poetry is particularly compelling, as is Arthur Dent's explication thereof.
Semi-segue: I was at the University College book sale on Friday and picked up some books, including a sweet little 1934 copy of Northanger Abbey for $2, owned previously by a Jeanne L. Orr of Havergal College. More impressively, I got an 18-volume, limited edition set of Balzac's fiction published in 1901 (translated into English for Philistines like me). It was only $150; more surprising than the price though is that anyone would sell them to begin with. I had to get one of the volunteers to help me carry these books downstairs where I could grab a taxi; he told me that he loved the Douglas Adams books (rather a weak connection, isn't it?). But he was a lovely man who also loved books and told me that he didn't have a cell phone (we were scrabbling around for a pay phone) and was proud to remain a Luddite. Hear, hear!

Tuesday 25 September 2007

43. Mere Anarchy

Oy. Feeling no better today, but also, thankfully, no worse. I decided to take my own advice about reading less difficult books while convalescing and picked up Woody Allen's latest, Mere Anarchy.

This is yet another of the cartload of books I received for my birthday (see, I wasn't exaggerating!). It's a collection of Allen's signature silly short fiction and it is in no way emotionally or mentally taxing, unlike Triomf, which I will happily get back to when my head doesn't already feel like it's going to explode. Unfortunately, so far, it's not as funny as Allen's stuff usually is. Or, my sense of humour has changed. Or, it hurts me too much to laugh right now. I'm not sure, really.

I have had a few good chuckles, but while reading collections like Side Effects and Without Feathers, I laughed out loud a fair bit; mind you, I was studying for my comprehensive exams and so was, perhaps, a wee bit hysterical.

Don't ask me how I first heard of Woody Allen; that would be like asking how one first heard of Santa Claus. A Santa Claus who like to date his own adopted children that is.

Monday 24 September 2007

42. Triomf

There's something about oppressively grim books and physical illness for me. Somehow, it seems, that when I'm well and truly sick - as I am now (just diagnosed with bronchitis and a really bad sinus infection) - I find myself reading books that are almost unbearable in their own particular brand of gruesomeness.

In some cases - Crime and Punishment, Invisible Man - it's the book itself that seems to make me sick. Those two made me feel extremely claustrophobic and trapped and not long into either of them, I was suffering from some nasty bronchitis.

In other cases - A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and now, Triomf - some part of me I don't understand draws me to the oppressive and overwhelmingly hopeless book when I'm deep in the pains and shivers of laboured breathing, dizzy spells, and fever.

The thing is, all these books are also incredibly compelling, so walking away isn't so easy, or even possible.

My friend Vee gave me Triomf as she needed the novel in its original Afrikaans for her thesis; the one I'm reading is, of course, translated into English by poet Leon de Kock (who is, I'm thinking, pretty wonderful).

Triomf is a "white" suburb in South Africa, built on top of the destroyed black Sophiatown; both of these towns are real. The story focuses on a poverty-stricken, violent, incestuous, perhaps alcoholic family called the Benades, and we are allowed to look into their lives as South Africa approaches its first democratic election. As you may well imagine, it's not a pretty sight.

In fact, I feel like it's making the claustrophobia I'm already feeling due to my trouble breathing much worse, and I may need to take a break with some either Woody Allen or P.G. Wodehouse in the interests of my good health.

That said, it's a very good book and I'll look forward to reading it more when I feel less oppressed by germs.

Tuesday 18 September 2007

41. The Moon and the Bonfire

I ordered The Moon and the Bonfire through as part of my project of reading more Italian authors. I found Cesare Pavese on a list of Italian authors somewhere on the internet and this was the one book of his available on Bookmooch.

I started reading it the other night when I couldn't sleep (one of the many nights these days, *sigh*) and now I'm about halfway through.

I have to say, I'm disappointed and bored. Pavese is supposed to be one of the best modern Italian writers but I'm finding the book consistently underwhelming. I'm sure the translation isn't great, but no translator could hide this book's almost complete lack of substance.

I would like to tell you what's happening but I can't because almost nothing is. All I can say is, the narrator, who grew up in a small village in northwestern Italy returns there after many years in America making his fortune. He's spending all his time wandering around thinking about how things have changed, but in such a disorganized and uncompelling way that I don't care at all. I'll be sending this one back out into the world via Bookmooch once I'm finished with it.

Sunday 16 September 2007

40. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman

The irony of this post is that it's 4:21 am here and I'm online because I can't sleep. I'm having bad anxiety about my dad wanting to come visit - I just started working on my thesis again for the first time in months and I'm afraid of losing my tenuous hold on working to a disruption in my day-to-day life.

Also, when I was sleeping, I was having weird dreams about there being snails all over my stove and kitchen counter tops. (A snail-let crawled 5+ feet up the wall by our front door and died there yesterday; that, and the fact that I don't know why some snails have houses and others don't, had me thinking about snails right before I went to sleep.)

But about the Murakami. I received this book as one of a cartload of books for my birthday last month. I was really looking forward to it because the last two books of Murakami's I read (after the quake and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World) were fantastically good. This one is just okay so far. In fact, I positively didn't like a few of the first stories but the more recent two have been enjoyable enough.

I just realized that I started reading this book one night around 5 am when I couldn't sleep. Maybe this book is cursing, or adding to the curse of, my sleeping!!!!

On an unrelated note, my reading will likely be slowed down for the next 4 weeks or so. I just started a meditation course and it involves me meditating every day for 1 hour, except for Thursdays, which is when I have the actual 3-hour long class.

And one of these days, I should really start using the Italian language CDs my father-in-law gave me. It's just under a month until I fly to Italy for 6 weeks!

Monday 10 September 2007

39. Drowned Wednesday

I just realized that although I'm more than half way through Drowned Wednesday, the third installment in Garth Nix's The Keys to the Kingdom series, I hadn't made a blog entry about it yet.

I think I started this on Sunday morning and like all the books in the series, it's a fast and compelling read. Arthur is back in the Secondary Realms that are connected to the House and he's trying both to help Wednesday escape the curse laid on her by finding her Key and to rescue his friend Leaf who got caught up in the wave sent to his hospital room to take him to the luncheon of 17 removes with Wednesday. I realize that the above will make no sense if you haven't read the books in the series preceding Drowned Wednesday.

All I can say is that this is a good read and I'm glad that 1) I finally finished that piece of shit Werewolves in Their Youth and 2) I have Nix to give me breaks from the other crap book I'm reading - Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. I'll write on the latter once I'm sure I'll actually finish it.

Monday 3 September 2007

38. Something Fresh

What can I say? I allowed myself to be lured into She Said Boom! (a great bookstore slash record store by Kensington Market) the other day and I left with two new Wodehouse books.

I got one called Money for Nothing and this one: Something Fresh, which is another story set in and around Blandings Castle as Leave it to Psmith is.

So far (and by so far, I mean the first 100+ pages), Something Fresh is very enjoyable but isn't yielding the big laughs that Leave it to Psmith did. Nonetheless, it is making me a little happier and so I can neither fault it nor regret it.

Thursday 30 August 2007

37. I'm Not Scared

I'm halfway done Werewolves in Their Youth, but decided to stop briefly to read this short novel by Italian novelist Niccolo Ammaniti, which I recently received in the mail via

I'm going to Italy for 6 weeks starting at the end of October, and felt like I should start collecting some Italian literature, as I'm not very familiar with it (except, of course, for Dante, Ovid, Castiglione, and Petrarch; but reading them in advance of the trip would be like work, which is the antithesis of the point of going to Italy).

I found a website listing Italian authors and I just started plugging their names into Bookmooch until I found books that were available. This is the first one to have arrived; I've got some others coming, including one by Primo Levi who I somehow didn't even know was Italian.

I'm Not Scared is okay; it started off slowly and is getting better. It's about a boy who discovers another boy being held captive in an old abandoned house near his village. He starts bringing him food and trying to figure out what's happening from the boy, but what with being tied up in a hole, he's starting to go crazy.

Just now, though, Michele (the 9-year old narrator) has discovered by accident that his own father is involved in the kidnapping and he's trying to figure out what to do, his plan of telling his father about the boy he's found understandably evaporating. I suspect this isn't going to end well for the kidnapped boy, as Michele's father is threatening to cut off his ears and send them to his mother...

As for the writing, it's not great, but I don't know if it's that Ammaniti isn't a very good writer or if this just isn't an excellent translation. I think I'll finish this either tonight or tomorrow and then I'll get back to Chabon.

Wednesday 29 August 2007

36. Werewolves in Their Youth

I tore through Ghostwritten and finished it yesterday afternoon after a productive day of figuring out my Italy itinerary up until November 29 (when I'll be meeting Brook in Milan) and booking a place to stay in Rome. What a fantastically good book Ghostwritten is. I have one more Mitchell book (number9dream) left to me before I have to start waiting for him to publish new stuff. Luckily for me, he seems to publish a new novel every two years or so.

After I finished Ghostwritten, I had to go downtown and get my hubby some last-minute birthday gifties (besides the books I gave him at midnight the day before). I took along a new book just in case I had time between the shopping and the meeting him for a birthday dinner and movie. Turns out, I successfully finished my shopping in 15 minutes flat (a new record I think - someone call Guinness!), so I walked my bike over to Nathan Phillips Square and had a sit and a read. The new book in question is Michael Chabon's Werewolves in Their Youth, a collection of short stories.

I've read the first two stories and enjoyed them both, the first more than the second; the second was good except for its rather trite conclusion. Anyway, these stories are easy reading so far and that's good; there's only so much Mitchellesque mind-blowing I can handle at a time these days!

Monday 27 August 2007

Finally, I'm entering the 20th century!

Well, well. It seems I'm not as technically challenged as I thought. All that's necessary, it seems, is to post the image before inserting any text.

This blog is about to enter a whole new level of bookishness - covers for every entry! Ring the nerd-bells!!!!!

Sunday 26 August 2007

35. Ghostwritten

I love David Mitchell. I think I might scream and faint like a 50s teeny-bopper seeing Elvis swing his hips if I were to meet David Mitchell. It's not that he's a hotpants, although he might be for all I know - it's that he's such a ridiculous genius.

My introduction to Mitchell lies in one of my better book discovery tales. Two years ago or so (?) I was on the train going from Kingston to Toronto. I was reading some crappy book for my studies and wasn't very absorbed - which enabled me to notice that the guy in the seat next to me was discretely looking over my shoulder.

I realized he was doing something I always do on the subway - he was trying to figure out what I was reading. This made me feel kindly towards him, so I angled the book so he'd get a better look. He responded kindly towards my kindly gesture and we ended up talking about books for the next two hours.

This fella was in his late forties, I'm guessing. (I should have gotten his email address so that I could get more book recommendations later; I'm a fool!) He'd read everything. He loved books with a passion I'd lost sight of in my soul-crushing years in the academy.

Near the end of our conversation, he said (it must have been in response to my gushing about what a book nerd he was) "You know, I'm not a professor." I responded "Oh I know!" - here, he started to look as though he wondered if he ought to be offended - "You love books too much to be a professor!!!" He seemed relieved. And again I asked myself why I ever thought a PhD in English was a good idea.

So, he loved books, but he was especially enthusiastic about a book he'd just read - twice in a row - and so recommended it to me. That book was David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, the third of his growing oeuvre, which is currently sitting at four.

This train-bound book-lover made Cloud Atlas sound so incredibly compelling that I got it as soon as possible and read it - and I've been recommending it in rather rabid fashion ever since. I've also, slowly, been catching up on Mitchell's other books in advance of the new one he's writing right now.

Ghostwritten is his first novel, published when he was only 30 (yes, this too makes me wonder what the hell I've been doing with my life). I started it this afternoon, at some friends' cottage on a lovely lake near Parry Sound. It was delightful to sit on the porch and in one of many hammocks and just get absorbed in this book. Like the other two Mitchell books I've read (besides Cloud Atlas, Black Swan Green), Ghostwritten is a fractured narrative (although he fractures his narratives differently each time) in which seemingly disparate threads are revealed to be connected in surprising and evocative ways.

It's actually almost impossible to tell people what Mitchell's books are about. I wouldn't know how to do it without revealing either everything or nothing (see above for "nothing"). All I can say is: read his stuff. You won't regret it. And if you do, maybe I don't want to be friends with you. Just joking. Maybe.

Saturday 18 August 2007

34. The Harafish

Having just finished last year's birthday book from Brook, Battle Royale, I decided to read this year's birthday gift from Brook right away. I didn't want to not read it the year I received it, and I knew I wouldn't take it to Italy with me in October - I'll only be taking old musty books with me that I'll happily leave behind me as I go.

Brook had actually done admirably at not buying me a book for my birthday this year; we're already drowning in books here, plus I think he wanted to be the only person to abstain from book-giving.

He sent me to the spa for my birthday (which wasn't cheap) and then took me to dinner. But we ended up browsing in Book City on Bloor after dinner and he saw The Harafish and couldn't resist buying it for me...primarily because it has incredibly short chapters (often less than a page, so good for reading during busy times). But it also passed the page 40 test and it has a loose spine and a nice font.

Most importantly, it turns out, it's just a really good book. I started it earlier tonight while making dinner (my old favourite, Spinach Coconut Soup) and decided to keep reading it when the movie Brook put on - The Aristocrats - proved to be too boring and crude for my tastes.

So, yes, I'm really enjoying The Harafish. It's an epic of the lives of everyday people, which based on the only other book of Mahfouz's I've read (Midaq Alley), seems to be a common theme for him. ("Harafish," according to the translator's note at the beginning of the book, historically means the rabble or riffraff, and here means "the common people" in a positive sense.)

What I'm liking most about this book is its compelling blend of mysticism, myth, and harsh realism - it's like Rumi and Charles Dickens got together and wrote the impossible novel!

I just looked up Mahfouz on the Internet. I already knew he'd won the Nobel Prize for Literature at some point, but I just found out that he died only last August at the age of 94. During his long career, he wrote hundreds of short stories and 34 novels - the most famous of which are part of The Cairo Trilogy.

My first encounter with Mahfouz was when I discovered Midaq Alley on one of our bookshelves; Brook picked it up one day and I finally found my way to it. So far, I think The Harafish is vastly superior.

Saturday 11 August 2007

33. Battle Royale

I got a cartload of books for my birthday and felt like diving right into them in spite of all the older books that are waiting patiently for me to read them. However, what got me reading Battle Royale instead of one of this year's many birthday books was that I felt guilty over the fact that it was a birthday gift from last year (from dear Brook) that I hadn't read.

Indeed, this guilt was magnified by the fact that, having tired of waiting for me to read it, Brook read it before I did. Such a breach of reading protocol reflects how remiss I've been on keeping up with my gift book reading.

(In fact, I still have a book from Roger, A House for Mr. Biswas, that's been waiting at least 3 years for me to read. Shameful isn't it? But I just can't read books in order of acquisition - some mysterious force usually determines for me what book comes next.)

I've been wanting to read Battle Royale for a long time but felt I couldn't commit to a 700-page book right now (with "right now" including any time in which I'm still affiliated with Queen's and therefore my dissertation). Anyway, I needn't have worried - it's a very easy and entertaining "pulp riff" (to quote Stephen King, who was paid to sing the book's praises on the cover) and I read 180 pages in about 2.5 hours yesterday.

It's a very un-subtle allegory addressing how junior high school students in Japan are put into vicious competition with one another to "survive" and make it to high school. Combined with the book's dystopic exaggeration of Japan's xenophobia, what we have here is a kind of nightmarish Lord of the Flies for the 21st century (no, I didn't come up with the Lord of the Flies comparison all by myself). While the comparison to Golding's book makes sense, this is much more macabre. The students in this tale aren't accidentally isolated - they're purposefully put on an island together to kill one another.

According to the government's Program 68, about 50 classes of 15 year-olds per year are forced to engage in a battle royale in a secluded place until only one person is left alive. This is somehow related to the country's militaristic commitment to remaining impregnable but how exactly isn't clear.

Each student is given a different weapon (someone actually received a set of darts as her weapon - but she was killed before she might have tried to use them), a map of the island they're on, and bread and water for two days. If there isn't only person left after the time period then everyone who's left is killed.

Right now, 29 of 42 students remain. Yes, this book is basically just a blood bath but as a theoretical study in how kids would react to being placed in such an untenable situation it's pretty good. Anyway, it's pulp and I'm enjoying it!

Saturday 4 August 2007

32. Across the Wall: A Tale of the Abhorsen and Other Stories

I'm not quite done Perfume yet - I got more than 2/3 of the way through and I suddenly found the book unbearably humourless and pretentious. I'll push through and finish it though, just to see how it ends - I suspect not well for someone who smells extra delicious.

In the meantime, I've started a story collection by Garth Nix, one of the most reliable and pleasing authors in my repertoire. I really started this one for the "tale of the Abhorsen" mentioned in the title - and it was quite good and made me want even more tales of the Abhorsen.

Nix wrote a fantastic dark trilogy called Abhorsen and it remains among my favourites. In fact, for me, this trilogy is right up there with Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, which is pure genius. So, I'm hoping Nix will one of these days return to Sabriel, Sam, Lirael, and Nicholas....In the meantime, I'll enjoy Across the Wall and keep plugging away at his Keys to the Kingdom series.

Monday 30 July 2007

PS - About the Murakami book

I see I promised to update on Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World - AWESOME!!!!! One of the best books I've read in a long time. It makes me want to go read all of his stuff, which Kafka on the Shore never made me even think of doing.

31. Perfume: the story of a murderer

I just started this novel yesterday so I'm not very far into it but it's already quite clear that it's ridiculously over the top.

Perfume tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, born literally in the scrap heap underneath his mother's fish stall in 18th-century Paris. His mother plans to let him die, as she has her previous 4 children, but is exposed and beheaded for it.

He's sent to various wet nurses who keep sending him back to the monastery that's taken him in because he's greedy and has no smell - his lack of smell makes him frightening to both grown-ups and other children. Indeed, many of the children he encounters in foster try repeatedly but unsuccessfully to kill him because there's something so inherently unnatural about him, even as an infant...

As he grows he becomes obsessed with scents and has olfactory powers well beyond those of normal human beings. He's also without a conscience or morals and so when he smells the most perfect of smells and discovers, having followed it across the river and through many a meandering narrow back alley, that it belongs to a 14-year old girl he doesn't hesitate to strangle her so that he can truly absorb her scent and fix it in his memory.

Her smell, what Jean-Baptiste considers the "principle of scent" inspires him to become the world's most famous perfumer, and that's where I left off reading last night.

I'm not sure where I first heard of this novel, but it may have been Brook warning me never to read it several years ago.

(I FINALLY finished Rez Dogs Eat Beans - and I immediately put it up for grabs at I also finished Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio and Leave it to Psmith and I was very sorry to see the ends of those two.)

Saturday 21 July 2007

30. Leave It to Psmith

I honestly don't know how it is that I've never read any Wodehouse before this - according to the bio on the back of the book, he wrote 90+ books before he died in 1975.

I recall several years ago now asking around for recommendations of humorous authors and Angie from TVA recommended Wodehouse and chuckled a little to herself thinking of his stuff. I should have listened harder, but I forgot about Wodehouse until I saw some Wodehouse on Vee's shelf while I was teaching in Kingston this year. Not that I read any of her Wodehouse either...I'm really very thick it seems.

Anyway, somehow I was recently inspired to pick up Leave It to Psmith and I began reading it this morning instead of copy editing as I should be doing. I'm about 90 pages in and it's a light, satisfying, and increasingly hilarious read. I don't often laugh out loud when reading but it's occurred several times already - and the hi jinx are only just about to begin.

FYI: the p in Psmith is silent, "as in phthsis, psychic, and ptarmigan" - Psmith added the silent p to distinguish himself from other run-of-the-mill Smiths.

Friday 13 July 2007

29. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

I've decided to take a little breather from my two short story collections and read a novel. I'm happy to take a break from Rez Dogs Eat Beans because it's so mediocre, but I'm also taking a little break from Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio because it's really good and I don't want it to end!

Two days ago I was reading Strange Tales on the subway and I was so engrossed that I missed my station by two stops - I've never before missed a stop because I was so into a book (it used to happen to Brook quite often, however, especially when he was reading Anna Karenina). Two thumbs up for Pu Songling.

Anyway, I started another Murakami: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World - which, if nothing else, ought to win some kind of award for having one of the most compelling titles in the history of literature.

Hard-Boiled is exceedingly post-modern; it's not yet clear if it's too post-modern for me. There are two parallel narratives that have some kind of profound connection but I'm not yet sure what the terms of that connection are. At this point, I'm still able to just enjoy where each stream takes me, but I'm worried that, as in Kafka on the Shore, Murakami will never make clear the linkages he gestures toward. For now, I'm going to enjoy a good read and will update you later on whether or not Murakami gets his s*** together this time 'round.

Monday 9 July 2007

27. Rez Dogs Eat Beans: And Other Tales and 28. Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio

I've been reading Rez Dogs Eat Beans for well over a month now, but it's going so slowly that I didn't want to post it here until I became fairly certain that I'd really finish it. Now that I'm just past the halfway point, I think I can commit to finishing, although it's a pretty disappointing read.

Brook and I inexplicably stumbled across this book in the English section of a bookstore in Brno, Czech Republic in December. Of all the American literature available I truly can't imagine why the buyers at this store chose this one - I'm certain it's never been on any bestseller lists anywhere - Rez Dogs Eat Beans is just a collection of newspaper stories Gordon Johnson wrote over something like a 15-year period for some rag in San Diego!

The first story was quite good but they've been going downhill since (not to mention becoming very repetitive) consistently ever since. However, all the stories are exactly the same length (2.75 pages in some gigantic font), so they're good for reading during TV commercials. I wonder how Johnson would feel about such a dubious compliment.

I just started Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio a couple of days ago and so far I'm really enjoying it. Written over several decades in the mid- to late-17th century, Strange Tales is a collection of short but (so far) very compelling tales of the supernatural and other general weirdness.

Roger bought me this one for Festivus 2006 and it was the first I'd heard of Pu Songling; I'm glad to have remembered it was hiding in one of my bookcases as I'm totally in the mood for the short, pithy story collection. (Thanks, Roger!)

Wednesday 4 July 2007

26. Mother Night

It's been a long time since I've read anything by Vonnegut - about ten years, I reckon. I made my way through a bunch of his stuff in my early 20s when I was studying hard and wanted to read for pleasure but was disciplined enough to take 10-minute reading breaks and then get back to business (ah, if only I could still do that!).

Vonnegut's work - Cat's Cradle in particular, as I recall - is perfect for very short bouts of reading: the chapters are short, the writing is clear and simple, and the ideas are uncomplicated.

I picked up Mother Night when Brook and I were in Thunder Bay over the weekend because I figured (correctly it turns out) that I'd finish Grim Tuesday early and be left with nothing to read on the plane home.

Mother Night is enjoyable in a short chapter, simple idea kind of way which is just what I wanted. Like most of Vonnegut's stuff though, I suspect I won't remember it in a few years.

This one's about a man named Howard Campbell who during WWII, masqueraded as a Nazi radio broadcaster in order to convey sensitive information to the Americans. After the war ended, he was disappeared and relocated and spent many years living in NYC without anyone's knowledge. He's been discovered though and is now considering how to flee. The US, after all, won't protect him from either local vigilantes or Israel who wants to try him for war crimes, because he was so effectively disguised as a Nazi and is hated by most and loved by only crazy neo-Nazis.

(Dave L. introduced me to Vonnegut in the early 90s when he lent me Slaughterhouse Five.)

Sunday 1 July 2007

25. Grim Tuesday

So, I'm up in Thunder Bay on a little vacation weekend with my hubby. We flew up on Thursday night and I knew I'd finish The Decay of the Angel on the plane (especially because those bastardos at WestJet didn't couldn't sit us together!), so I had to bring along another book, but a light one (both in terms of content and physical weight).

I decided on Book 2 in Garth Nix's The Keys to the Kingdom series, Grim Tuesday. I'd say I'm about 2/3 of the way through and it's just as compelling, satisfying, and easy as Mister Monday was.

I think my reading is going to slow down for sure now (and/or I'll be reading only kids' stuff for the next couple months) as I've accepted a freelance copy editing project that will start in two weeks or so.

Monday 25 June 2007

24. The Decay of the Angel

This is the final novel in Yukio Mishima's landmark Sea of Fertility tetralogy. The four novels trace the life of Shigekuni Honda, and his life-long obsession with a friend who dies in their teens and who he believes in reincarnated in three young people he encounters at various stages in his life.

In The Decay of the Angel, Honda is almost 80 years old and happens upon the young Toru who bears on his skin the signs that he is the latest reincarnation of his friend - three moles peculiarly placed and arranged on his chest. Upon meeting Toru and realizing who he is, Honda decides he'll adopt the boy. I'm sure things can only go wrong from here on in, given what happens in the previous three books and given that both Toru and Honda are construed as the embodiments of evil (Mishima's word! Well, at least, the translator's word).

The other thing is this: I find it disturbing to be reading a novel which I know culminated in Mishima's suicide - indeed, which Mishima always planned would end with him disemboweling himself. Because Mishima killed himself immediately upon finishing this novel, it was not edited - just as the previous three were unedited before publication.

I can't help but wonder how the knowledge of his impending death effected the writing of the novel. It would be too obvious to say that the characters' obsession with death reflects Mishima's own, for death figures heavily in all his works (the ones I've read anyhow) and in this tetralogy it's absolutely necessary. Perhaps we can see Mishima's consciousness of his fate in Toru's constant awareness of the existence of another world just beyond his vision, and his concomitant sense of barely existing in this one.

Friday 22 June 2007

23. Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika

I just now finished the second part of Kushner's Angels in America, and I loved it just as much as I loved Part One. The religious hints of the first part were more fully developed here and the result was bittersweet - God has abandoned us and the world, but we can take and confer blessings ourselves.

In the context of the AIDS crisis of the 80s, this is tremendously hopeful. Yet now, the world is trying to forget and ignore the AIDS crisis as it is now manifesting, as a disease not limited to those on the social periphery - and this blindness is terrifying. I wonder what Kushner would say, or what a third part of Angels in America would look like, written now.

Monday 18 June 2007

22. Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches

Yes, I'm reading a surprising amount of contemporary drama these days. I have my reasons, although the main reason is quickly becoming my growing awareness of how woefully under read I am in this area.

(No, I'm not done Life Is Elsewhere yet. I just got distracted today after buying many many drama books at BMV.)

Angels in America is, I have to say, the best contemporary play I've read - by a long shot. The dialogue is just so perfect. I really felt tremendously happy reading this, even though it's terribly sad: it's about AIDS and homosexuality in the US during the Reagan era. I'm really looking forward to Part Two!

I bet it would take about 6 or 7 hours to stage both parts together though - Millennium Approaches is 119 pages long, and the next part is longer.

I can't say where I first heard of Tony Kushner; I think Angels in America is just part of the cultural consciousness now.

Sunday 17 June 2007

21. Life Is Elsewhere

Starting tomorrow my reading for pleasure is going to have to slow down as I dive back into my thesis revisions. In the meantime, I'm reading one of Milan Kundera's early efforts, Life is Elsewhere.

Kundera's M.O. is to make fun of pretension in its myriad forms; this one is a scathing satire on poetry and poetic sensibilities. It is, indeed, funny at times in the service of said satire; e.g., "He [the poet] would look at himself in the mirror for a long time, desperately struggling in the immense space between ape and Rilke." I've gotten many satisfied chuckles from this sentence.

However, I think that if you make fun of something long enough you start to become that thing. Kundera's later works, in my experience, don't so clearly differentiate between the supposed objects of scorn and the narrator's voice. That said, Kundera is always a very easy read, a nice light snack for the mind, so I won't begrudge him his own pretensions too much.

I think I first heard of Kundera when Roger gifted me The Book of Laughter and Forgetting many years ago now.

Friday 15 June 2007

20. Queen of the Jungle

For many years, I've been resisting most of my friend Sarah's books suggestions; not because I don't trust her, but because she almost always recommends campus novels in one form or another. (Except, of course, for the time she recommended The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death, which, if I may say so, is probably one of the best YA novels ever written.) Often she recommends campus mystery or horror novels, and even while she makes them sounds very compelling, I've resisted because when I read for pleasure I really don't want to be reminded of work.

However, I've finally succumbed to her campus novel siren song and I'm now reading Queen of the Jungle by James Hynes; the author (of course) is a former and likely disgruntled adjunct professor. Queen of the Jungle is in a lovely little omnibus called Publish and Perish: Three Tales of Tenure and Terror; and if the title weren't compelling enough, this section thereof would make up for it.

Queen of the Jungle is silly and good: the queen of the title is, in fact, an emotionally complex cat who is visiting vengeance upon the main character Paul for sleeping around on his wife (the cat's real person) by peeing everywhere he has sex with his mistress, unplugging his computer when he's trying to write, and generally creeping him out.

A lot is riding on Paul's writing: he's stuck at the dead end of 3-year post-doc in Nowhere, Iowa while his wife is about to be granted tenure at Chicago University; if he can only send more chapters impressing the head of her department, he might be get a tenure-track spousal hire....I'm not familiar with this genre, but I suspect things aren't going to go his way.

I like this book; it's good; I look forward to reading more James Hynes in the future. But it is making me stressed out in just the ways I thought it would when I resisted Sarah's suggestions all these when this one's done, Hynes will be off limits till after I defend.

Wednesday 13 June 2007

19. Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout

Thomson Highway is the author of two plays which are in my top ten favourite plays of all time: Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing. So, when I heard he'd published another play, I was really excited to read it.

I picked up Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout at the library (it's hard for me to spend money on something that I know will take me less than 2 hours to read) and am almost done...and am really disappointed.

Highway is known for the way he relates the tragic through the comic, and he consciously addresses this issue in this play and in his prologue to it. But this play isn't actually either funny or comic in a more traditional sense, and this lack of the comic undermines the force of the tragic.

I cynically wonder if the fact that this play was commissioned has anything to do with its poor quality. I wonder also if Highway is getting lazy, banking too much on his reputation and not enough on his artistic sensibilities - he uses a lot of the same sort of post-modern dramatic techniques here that he uses in the two plays mentioned above, but to so little effect that they seem gimicky now.

Here's hoping that #20 on this list is more satisfying!

(I remember reading Rez Sisters for the first time in 2000, soon after I first moved to Kingston. It seems to me that one of my peers, Sam, who did his thesis on Native Canadian Lit. recommended it.)

Tuesday 12 June 2007

18. Mister Monday

Well, I'm having some trouble these days with the whole concentrating/thinking thing when it comes to my thesis revisions so I'm tearing through some books for pleasure and trying not to worry. I'm thinking also about trying to get a job so I have something other than my thesis to think about, the idea being that some perspective will take the pressure off. We'll see.

Last night I started and am now almost finished the first book in Garth Nix's The Keys to the Kingdom series, Mister Monday. This is a fantasy series geared, I'm guessing, towards the younger teenage set and is therefore perfect for my mind right now.

I think the decided lack of reading magic in my thesis years has left me open to kiddy lit in a way I wouldn't have been otherwise, but that would have been my loss - I now very often lament how little of the fun magical stuff I read when I was a kid, wasting my time instead on pure trash by the likes of V.C. Andrews. How embarrassing!

I don't really think I can even give a vague synopsis of Mister Monday because the terms of this fantasy world are still being established and I have as many questions about what's going on as the main character, Arthur Penhaligon, does. That said, I find Nix completely reliable when it comes to looking for a really engaging read so I'm willing to be led blindly through the dark as long as necessary; indeed, his Abhorsen trilogy is up there in my top ten favourite books.

An employee at one of my favourite bookstores, Book City on Bloor, recommended Nix to me on the basis that if I loved Philip Pullman (which I do, particularly his His Dark Materials trilogy) I would also love Nix - he was right.