Wednesday 30 January 2008

70. The Blackwater Lightship

It took me just about 2 days of reading off and on to both begin and complete Colm Toibin's The Blackwater Lightship. I really ought to have started another book I need to be reading for the Toronto Vegetarian Podcast (to do an interview with the author), but after Songs of the Gorilla Nation, I really wanted to be reminded of why I like reading. *Shudder*

Colm Toibin is a famous Irish writer, having written numerous books, both fiction and non-; however, I don't think I'd heard of him until Vicki recommended him to me. I got this one via Bookmooch from someone in England whose in-laws live near Blackwater - ah, the pleasure of reading about a place one's actually familiar with! I ought to read more books about Seoul or something...

Anyway, The Blackwater Lightship is very much a work of Serious Contemporary Fiction. It's a portrait of how the surviving members of one screwed up and estranged family are forced to deal with one another when Declan, the young and favourite son, is revealed to be dying of AIDS. When I received the book in the mail and saw that one of the reviewers had described Toibin's writing as "spare" and "powerful" in the same breath I started to worry, for in my experience, these two adjectives when applied to Serious Contemporary Fiction generally mean shiteous writing describing horribly sentimentalized mush about the Universal Human Experience.

Well, lucky for me, my worries were misplaced with The Blackwater Lightship - the writing was spare but it was also very good and god bless the man for never resorting to sentimentalism of any kind. There was reconciliation at the end of the book but it wasn't unrealistically complete or too easily arrived at and the main character was still a jerk anyway. I'll definitely keep an eye out for more of Toibin's work (and apologize to him in spirit for not knowing how to make the proper accents over the o and second i in his last name in this computer program).

Monday 28 January 2008

69. Songs of the Gorilla Nation

I am so glad I'm done with this book. A friend of mine lent it to me back in the Fall and while I was completely uninterested in it, I decided to try to keep an open mind and give it a shot. It's only 200 pages long, so I figured it couldn't be so bad.

I have since concluded that open-mindedness is entirely over-rated and is now on my list of things to avoid in the future. Dawn Prince-Hughes' Songs of the Gorilla Nation is an autobiographical look at how the author's relationship with some captive gorillas at the Seattle Zoo helped her figure out first that she was autistic and then how to begin to deal with it. The concept is not the problem here - it's the execution.

First of all, Prince-Hughes is just straight up a bad, bad, bad writer. By turns coldly intellectual and then shiteously sentimental, this book made me want to tear my hair and rend my cheeks at many points - but none more intensely than when she included the poetry she wrote pre-diagnosis. This poetry is even worse than what I imagine a drunken, self-pitying 14 year-old emo kid would write. The poetry was so bad I couldn't even make it funny by reading it aloud in "Serious Poet" voice, which usually works. Try, for example, reading the first paragraph of Cormac McCarthy's novel Blood Meridian in "Serious Poet" voice - good times.

Second, I'm sure autobiography is by its nature too self-interested for my tastes, but this woman was obsessed with reminding readers as often as possible that she has a PhD. On the cover, on the back of the book, every 5 pages in the book, I was reminded that this woman had doctoral studies under her belt. Okay, cool - except that I don't care, and much more importantly than my personal crankiness, all her claims about being more gorilla-like than human came to seem like so much mush-talk in the face of her obsession with this exclusively human marker of social prestige.

All my loathing aside, there were some good moments in the book, but they all involved the gorillas. When simply recording her observations of gorilla social structure and behaviour, Songs of the Gorilla Nation is pretty good - unfortunately, this doesn't happen enough and/or it leads into some poetry. Watching a gorilla create a two-piece tool to catch a moth, watching a gorilla make a scarf out of hay, watching a gorilla use international sign language to ask her if she is okay - all this is awesome, but comprises maybe 1/6th of the book. If I want to really learn about gorillas, I'll likely have to check out some Jane Goodall (whom Prince-Hughes ass-licks like nobody's business at the end of the book).

Sunday 27 January 2008

68. A Dictionary of Maqiao

Han Shaogong's A Dictionary of Maqiao had been sitting on the shelf for a long time before I finally picked it up one sleep-deprived night a couple of weeks ago. I'd been planning on saving it for sometime when I could devote all my energies to it because I thought it would be a hard read - I forgot all this the night I couldn't sleep, of course. It turns out that it wasn't such a hard read after all and it stands up to insomniac 3 am reading wrapped in a blanket with a cat asleep on my feet.

Nonetheless, this is quite an esoteric book - not simply a "dictionary" about Mandarin's weird quirks translated into English, it's a "dictionary" about a remote dialect of Mandarin translated into English - but wasn't in any way inaccessible. Indeed, I found the meditations on language and the story-telling proper both to be quite compelling and in no way untranslatable. Of course, I'm sure things were lost in translation but the book didn't read that way at all.

The narrator of the book is an Educated Youth sent into the country to work during Mao's Cultural Revolution. As such, it's a book about culture shock and revolution, and about how these things manifest both linguistically and physically. Indeed, this book is in many ways about how the language of revolution is both damning and dangerous, but also about how that language must ultimately move beyond the grasp of those wielding it for their questionable purposes.

Thursday 17 January 2008

67. Fragile Things

I picked up Fragile Things about a year ago, I think - in hardcover no less - because it promised a tale related to American Gods, which I read sometime in the last year and quite enjoyed.

The American Gods story - "The Monarch of the Glen" - was the last in this collection and it was well worth waiting for. It takes place two years after American Gods ends and after Shadow has been killed and reborn, making it clear to him finally that he is in fact a god and not a man. It's a sweet riff on the Beowulf story and in spite of Gaiman not entirely gracefully pointing that out mid-tale, I very much enjoyed it.

The rest of the "short fictions and wonders" this volume features are a mixed bag. I particularly enjoyed "A Study in Emerald" (an awesome mix between a detective story and an H.P. Lovecraft tale - I only wish it had continued after the shocking revelation) and "How to Talk to Girls at Parties" (poorly named, but a fascinating and attractive reconsideration of what alien colonization might comprise).

On the other hand, the several poems included here were just not compelling. In my humble and cranky opinion, the only people who can write really good ballads have been dead for either 800 years or 200 years. Gaiman was mostly aiming for the medieval style ballad rather than the Romantic, and I believe we both would have been better off if he hadn't tried at all. Hopefully someone he trusts will tell him so....

Monday 14 January 2008

66. Christmas Books

The book cover seen here isn't at all the book I've actually read, although it is the closest thing you'll find to it in bookstores today.

Tonight I finished Charles Dickens' collection called Christmas Books, which comprises 5 long short stories including A Christmas Carol, The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life, and The Haunted Man.

I've been reading this book since early December and the main reason it's taken me so long to finish is that it's part of the larger Dickens set handed down to Brook from his mother. This set was originally possessed by one Aileen J. Turner, Brook's great-grandmother, who bought the whole set in 1907 - so, of course, I couldn't take the book outside the house for fear of damaging it. (I had planned to show pics of the real book here but couldn't find the digital camera when the time came. Le sigh.)

I very much enjoyed this collection of stories, especially (of course) A Christmas Carol and The Battle of Life. I love how Dickens can be both horribly earnest and incredibly hilarious at the same time; I love, also, the time he takes for patient description (paid as he was by the word, according to Brook who does, admittedly, sometimes make stuff up) - a practice and a skill not very common in the literature being produced these days.

For my future Dickens reading I'm going to invest in a lectern of some sort - I had the left side of Christmas Books propped up on a roll of paper towel today, which seems to me like a pretty ghetto way to read. Dickens deserves better, don't 'e?

Wednesday 9 January 2008

65. Kinshu: Autumn Brocade

I found this lovely little tome during one of my endless nights browsing in Book City on the Danforth - likely because it was so close to where all the David Mitchell books are stashed.

I hadn't heard of Miyamoto so picked Kinshu up on a whim and then, of course, let it sit abandoned in what I will henceforth refer to as "my collection" for months before I finally picked it up this week. (I feel that I can now refer to my books as "my collection" not because I have a 106-year old set of Balzac's novels, but because said olde bookes are now in a bookcase instead of a box on the floor. Yes, we finally crumbled and bought our 6th gigantic bookcase over the weekend and it is already 3/4 full. *Sigh*)

Anyway, about Kinshu: it's an epistolary novel in which a divorced couple begin exchanging letters after running into each other for the first time in 10 years. At first the letters are filled with bitter recriminations but ultimately the letters serve as mutual consolation of sorts. It's a pretty basic idea which is made into a beautiful read by Miyamoto's (and his translator's) unusually naturalistic (for Japanese literature, in my limited experience) and smooth writing style. I'm really pleased to have happened upon this book and hope more of Miyamoto's works will be translated into English soon.

Tuesday 8 January 2008

64. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

I felt like pure, unabashed silliness was the proper way to follow up a book about someone who convinces people to kill themselves - and the second in Douglas Adams' 5-part Hitchhiker trilogy, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, was a good choice.

It was all excellent hi jinx and buffoonery but I thought that coming up with the ultimate question to the ultimate answer (42) by pulling tiles out of a homemade Scrabble bag was pure genius. I laughed a bit and chuckled a lot with this one. Good stuff.

I'm still surprised I never read these books when I was younger; I guess I was still under the terrible impression that everything I read had to be SERIOUS LITERATURE - to which I now say "Phtttthhhpht!"

Tuesday 1 January 2008

63. I Have the Right to Destroy Myself

Finding South Korean literature translated into English and available in Canada is surprisingly difficult given how widely available translated Chinese and Japanese works are. I was thus surprised and pleased to find Young-Ha Kim's I Have the Right to Destroy Myself prominently displayed in Pages while I was browsing there one day a few months ago.

I hadn't even heard of Kim, in spite of my time in South Korea, so I promptly added this book to my now deleted wish list - and Deb sent this to me for Festivus.

I picked it up this morning after deciding to kick the Rao book to the curb, and even though I made Brook and I a lovely tofu scramble for brunch, we visited friends at a New Year's open house in the afternoon, and I made homemade soup for dinner, I still easily finished this one tonight - it was only 120 pages and an easy read.

I'm not sure if it was a pleasurable read, however. It was intriguing, yes. It didn't irritate me in any way. I certainly enjoyed it at points. Yet, I'm still not sure if I liked it. It's exceptionally post-modern, which may be part of my ambivalence. I like the basic premise of the book - the narrator's job is to convince people to kill themselves (for which they pay him); but he's also writing a novel, so it's not clear if he's really doing these things or if his art and his reality aren't clearly delineated. Indeed, the line between art and reality is often crossed in this book (in the lives the narrator affects) with terrible personal consequences. I guess it's the lack of clarity that's bugging me.

I guess it's not then the post-modernism per se that bugs me, but that some authors aren't as good as others at making both the connections and the vacuums meaningful, if that makes sense. I feel that Kim must have been influenced by Haruki Murakami but that he may have liked Murakami's later work too much (like Kafka on the Shore) which never fulfills its own promise instead of his earlier work (especially Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World) which often does.

In the end, I'm glad I read it if only to get a sense of the kind of literature that wins young Korean authors awards these days. Being taken on a tour of the craziness of living in Seoul, if only briefly, wasn't bad either.

Increasing the awesomeness

See the book to the right of this text? I'm not reading it. I like cats and I like Shakespeare but I didn't like the torturous first 30 pages that I read of this book. I've decided not to afflict myself by forcing my way through shiteous books this year. I've learned my lesson with Timoleon Vieta Come Home - if a book is so crap that I feel like hurting either myself or others when reading it then I will put the book out of its misery instead - whether that means throwing it under the streetcar tracks or, in the case of Raja Rao's The Cat and Shakespeare, afflicting someone else with it by trading it away on

Question: how is it that books written in the 1970s, no matter whether in the US (say Phillip Roth), the Czech Republic (Milan Kundera), or India (Raja Rao), always portray women in precisely the same way? I'm pretty sure historical conditions differed quite radically in these parts of the world, so why is it that all these writers portray women as kind of needy and sex-crazed on the one hand and mystically representative of WOMAN on the other? It's a bloody annoying trend but at least Kundera is interesting in other (good) ways and approaches these things often with tongue in cheek.

Raja Rao's book made me want to never read again, which is never a good sign. Thus, I decided that even though I'd read only 30 pages of 120, it was still too much to ask for me to finish it. So, I'm increasing the awesomeness of my reading experience this year and mercilessly excising the crappy crap before I waste too much time on it. Cheers!