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?