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.

Monday, 11 June 2007

17. Who Look In Stove

Who Look In Stove is a short play about 3 real British men's ill-fated expedition to the Northwest Territories in the Fall of 1926. John Hornby, Harold Adlard, and Edgar Christian travelled up north and died alone in their camp, having missed the passing of Caribou (the successful hunting of enough of which would have kept them fed and strong well into the Spring).

During this time, Edgar Christian (only 18 when the men began their expedition) kept a diary of all things quotidian (weather, hunting successes and failures, etc) and personal (in particular, his and his companions' slow mental and physical breakdowns). All three were dead by April 1927 and Christian's diary and some letters to his family were found about 1.5 years later and eventually published.

Lawrence Jeffery, the playwright, draws loosely on Christian's diary to imagine what the men's last few months would have been like; the title comes from the note Christian left on top of the wood stove to tell any late-coming rescuers where to find his diary.

The play is extremely sparse in terms of language, stage directions, and action. This sparseness, however, is precisely the source of the play's compelling look at the men's mental breakdown; this breakdown manifests first as an aggressive verbal preying upon one another turn, then as a sort of understated but intense homoeroticism, and then finally as a tired balance of mutual care.

I would very much like to see it staged; the David Caruso School of Acting and/or the Stomp and Roar School of Acting that tends to be applied across the board at places like the Stratford Festival would simply not work with a play like this. And thank god - some real acting might occur.

Saturday, 9 June 2007

16. Flight

Well, I started and finished this one today; it's only about 180 pages and like all of Alexie's stuff, eminently readable. Plus, Brook and I went to see Alexie read tonight at the Toronto Women's Bookstore and I was hoping to avoid being surprised by something he read in the novel that I hadn't yet gotten to.

Instead of reading from the new novel, he read a short story, "South by Southwest," from his best short story collection, The Toughest Indian in the World. Then after he'd read and only one question from the audience was forthcoming he told the longest and funniest and saddest story in the world about being in Norfolk, VA for a reading at a college the day that messed up kid killed all those people at Virginia Tech. (Funny and sad are like two sides of one coin in Alexie's work; he makes me laugh as I'm bawling and vice verse.)

Flight, which was published within the last few months, is about a messed up semi-homeless Indian kid nicknamed Zits who falls under the spell of another messed up but compelling kid (as in will start cults compelling) who convinces him to go on a shooting rampage in a bank.The shooting starts and then Zits is sent back in time to various ignominious moments in American history and witnesses both the terrible things humans do to one another and their surprising graces and kindnesses.

Why is it that the surprising kindnesses make me cry so much more than the cruelties? I'm sad to think it's probably because they surprise me more.

I like Sherman Alexie because he's willing to tackle the worst in our nature head-on but he's also the most hopeful writer I'm familiar with. In the last story in Ten Little Indians, the main character Jackson Jackson exclaims "How many good men are there in the world? Too many to count!" Sometimes I believe that too.

(I don't remember how I first discovered Alexie, but I've been reading his stuff for almost 15 years now.)