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.