Thursday 28 February 2008

Toronto's best kept secret indeed

I spent some time today working-ish in the Toronto Reference Library at Yonge and Bloor. While attempting to intelligently consider my thesis introduction revisions, my thoughts were interrupted by an announcement on the library's God-sized intercom.

This announcement, which quickly began to sound something like the singing of angels to me, informed me that there is a used bookstore located inside the library on the first floor. My heart was, as a result, all aflutter and I got through my work knowing I would soon be rewarded with a trip to this hitherto unknown source of cheap books.

The store is called Book Ends South (there is another store at the North York Central Library called Book Ends) and it is exceedingly small. (It proclaims itself, on the flyer the woman gave me, to be "Toronto's best kept secret!" I'm inclined to agree.) Run by what I assume is a volunteer group called Friends of the Toronto Public Library, Book Ends South features books donated by patrons and books retired from active library service - and all usually for $1 a piece!

The fiction and literature sections are small but the woman there informed me that as books are purchased, more are brought up from storage to fill the spaces. All the money raised in the Book Ends stores is donated to library programs. Now that's a mandate I can get behind - as is paying $1 per book.

You will be surprised to hear that I didn't go completely insane and buy half their stock. No, I spent only $3 today for I realized this is the kind of place one should visit frequently to scan for difficult to find books. Hooray for Book Ends South!

Guerilla copy editing

I just finished reading John Scalzi's The Android's Dream, lent to my husband and me by the same friend who afflicted us with Cormac McCarthy's The Road. (Yes, dear Andy, you are forgiven.)

The Android's Dream is a novel about the nature of sentience, racism/inter-species relationships, and governmental corruption; it's also an action-packed romp that is extremely funny at points (hell, the book begins with a 30-page long fart joke - what more could a reader ask for?). I didn't laugh out loud as much as I did with the first two Hitchhiker books (to which Scalzi's book has been compared), but I did spend most of the time I was reading it either smiling or chuckling.

That said, what keeps this book from being a show-stopping number is not its dearth of belly laugh-inducing moments but the sheer volume of typos. In all my years of reading like there's a book famine going on, I've never seen a book in such desperate need of some guerilla copy editing as this one.

Guerilla copy editing is a term invented (as I recall) by our friend Guinness who is a proponent of always carrying around an ample supply of permanent markers and pens in order to spontaneously (and illegally) fix the numerous grammatical and spelling errors afflicting traffic signs, posters, ads on the subway, etc.

I was distracted away from the story of The Android's Dream literally every 5 pages by some glaring typo that any copy editor or proofreader worth his or her salt (even if drunk and being beaten by ninjas from hell) would have caught. And because I wasn't reading as a copy editor but as a reader (like one expects to do when not getting paid to read!!!), I have to assume there were about 10 times more typos than I actually noticed. It makes me want to copy edit this book and then send it, along with a strongly worded letter, to Tor - you'd think that the biggest publishers of sci-fi in North America could afford to pay someone competent to look their stuff over before it goes to print! Shame on you, Tor - SHAME!!!!!

Saturday 23 February 2008

Suicide, Stories, and Book Covers

Ryunosuke Akutagawa's Rashomon and 17 Other Stories is one of the best collections I've read in a long time. The stories represent a wide variety of topics and approaches and really show, I think, why Akutagawa is now considered the "father of the Japanese short story." Tales like "Hell Screen" and "The Story of a Head that Fell Off" are pure genius and will stay with me for a long time.

What all of Akutgawa's tales have in common is a horribly nihilistic view of life and the inescapability of death. Unlike Mishima, Akutagawa didn't infuse death with the rhetorical heroics of death - death here is, instead, a kind of lurid and animalistic force that relentlessly pursues his narrators (and him, given how apparently autobiographical his works are) into eventual madness and physical breakdown.

And indeed, Akutagawa took his own life when he was only 35 due to a number of factors including guilt over his infidelity, fear of going mad as his mother did, the financial burden of taking care of his own and his sister's family, and increasingly unrelenting insomnia. Some stupid doctor prescribed him nasty narcotics to help him with the sleep and soon afterwards he overdosed on them. All of these issues and anxiety find there way into the stories in Rashomon.

Akutagawa with just one book has launched himself into the "Colleen's favourite author" vault - quite a feat!

But there's something else I was to talk about here: the book's cover. Penguin, in what I assume is an attempt to convince younger readers to check out older classics of literature (Akutagawa killed himself in 1927), is creating a whole new line of what they're calling Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions - an example of which you can see above. This Deluxe cover makes Rashomon look like manga, but it's nothing of the sort.

Similarly flash covers have been produced for other classics like Voltaire's Candide. I really can't decide if I think this is a good idea or not. The covers might draw younger, skeptical readers in, but how many will give up when they realize (likely before they even buy the book) that what they're getting is not what the cover promises them?

Or, is this an ingenius marketing ploy that correctly assumes that younger readers just need their basic attention drawn to something in a shiny new package to realize that it's not uncool after all, even if their old dad is reading the exact same book but with a different cover (see below)? I'd actually like to see some stats on this because by all accounts, kids aren't reading much these days save for all that Harry Potter stuff.

Friday 22 February 2008

145 Pages of Dream, Fear, and Confusion

I'm always looking for new writers (well, new to me) to expand my pool of awesome present and future reads, so I was excited to stumble across Atiq Rahimi's A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear when browsing in BMV one night last Fall.

The only other book about Afghanistan/book by someone from Afghanistan I've read is Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, which was one seriously gigantic disappointment. I've never before read a book in which flat characters become even flatter as the book progresses. Usually, bad writers can maintain the level of mush they begin with without descending even further into their own mire of blah. But I digress.

If nothing else, A Thousand Nights of Dream and Fear should win some award for cool and compelling title (it comes from the Dari expression "a thousand rooms" which can also be translated as "labyrinth"). Unfortunately, in my humble but unashamed opinion, that's the only award this book should win.

Rahimi's novella tells the story of a university student named Farhad who wakes up in a stranger's house after having the life nearly beaten out of him by some pissed off soldiers (it's Kabul, 1979 - not good times). The book comprises flashbacks to the beatings, hallucinatory meditations on his present situation, and concerns about the future. Near the end of the book, he's smuggled out of the stranger's house and to be delivered to his father in Pakistan for his own safety. In the last 10 or so pages of the book, however, Farhad's story becomes confused with the story of Joseph from the Koran and....well, I don't have a clue what happened to Farhad in the end. Is the last page another flashback or has he been captured to be beaten to death again? Is there something more poetic and abstract going on? Is Farhad hallucinating from all the drugs he just smoked in the mosque?

The ending isn't the only thing about this book that I found less than satisfying, unfortunately. The writing/translating just wasn't interesting but in a book in which the focus is memory and internal dialogue, it really has to be interesting. I did like his hallucinations (?) about the dervish giving him some awesomely Rumi-esque advice, but I don't know what to make of the fact that it's not clear whether or not the dervish was real, especially when considered alongside the confusing conclusion worried over above.

I don't mind things not being made entirely clear - if I did mind, I'd never be able to enjoy either David Mitchell's or Haruki Murakami's works. It just bothers me when things are left unclear in either an uninteresting way or in a way that leaves too much hanging. I feel like either the translators blew it with A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear or Rahimi hadn't yet decided what he wanted to convey with this book when he submitted it to his publisher. I think this volume will soon be available on my Bookmooch page.

Thursday 21 February 2008


I've been thinking a lot about how I'm currently running this blog as the first anniversary of its conception approaches. I've been thinking about what I want to give to it and what I want to get from it and I've come to some conclusions.

I started this blog simply to find out just how many books I could read in a year, and that's fine, but I've learned some things about myself in the meantime. I like books (obviously) and in spite of my PhD, I still like writing about them, but very obviously, not in an academic way. (The incredibly evocative adjective "shiteous," unfortunately, has not yet been co-opted into academic jargon.)

This suggests I ought to perhaps write book reviews as part of my non-academic career, but there are three major problems there: 1) I don't want to read Can Lit more than say twice a year, 2) I don't necessarily want to be reading only new releases, and 3) about half of what I read has been translated into English and I'm not interested in changing that either. Not many literary magazines are going to be interested in printing reviews of books written 90 years ago in Japan, and so clearly I'm interested in speaking to a different audience than mags like BookSlut and Quill & Quire are directed towards.

Within the next 6 months to a year, I'm going to be transitioning this humble blog into MY idea of what constitutes a rockin' online literary magazine. I will perhaps be looking for contributers of some sort; that's not clear to me yet. What is clear is that my focus will be a fiercely independent one that isn't interested in selling or promoting anyone's work - this will not be a site about authors.

This site will be about readers, like me, who read what they want and don't give a rat's ass that they're in the minority and are getting pelted with cyber-tomatoes when they post on their blog saying that Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones is a sentimental piece of shit designed to sell books to middle-class ladies from the suburbs who are bored out of their minds and just want to feel anything and so read crap like this. (This site will clearly allow for a certain measure of rant, which is sadly lacking in most publications of the kind I'm thinking of.) Can you imagine the rejection letter I would have received had I sent a review containing that run-on sentence to the New York Times Review of Books? It would be worth framing, I'm sure.

So, yes, it may be a cranky website - but that's me. I read a number of online lit mags and I like them but I haven't found any yet that publish the kind of stuff I'd like to be reading. More later, but in the meantime I'll be relegating the numbering system to the post labels and introducing posts which address issues around reading besides reviews of the books I'm plowing through.

Suggestions about future content are welcome but may be ignored. Suggestions about how to up my readership to magazine proportions will not be ignored unless, of course, they involve burning things down or my wearing frilly underpants and getting spanked in public.


Wednesday 20 February 2008

77. Magical Thinking

Augusten Burroughs' Magical Thinking is a collection of purportedly "true stories," which address a variety of topics ranging from sexual encounters with priests to killing mice to mildly autistic brothers.

Let me tell you, the quality of the stories in this book is as varied and uneven as the subject matter. The book started off slowly, but then made me laugh raucously throughout both "Model Behavior" and "I Dated an Undertaker" - I thought I was onto a real winner after all.

But then Burroughs made me think I was experiencing a horrible case of deja vu when I was reading "The Rat/Thing," for in the writing of it, he erroneously imagined that torturing (in a prolonged fashion) and then finally killing a mouse a la Timoleon Vieta Come Home was supposed to be funny. The only people who think that's funny, Burroughs, are serial killers in training (which you, correctly, worried you might be for the way you killed the poor mouse!).

After "The Rat/Thing," the stories went back to middling and inoffensive (except for the story about how many beejays he's gotten from priests which is, frankly, neither sexy nor funny nor truly disturbing (to me), but is really very weird).

There was one final shining light in the otherwise somewhat drab second half of the book: the titular story, "Magical Thinking." Magical thinking is, as a note in the book so handily points out, "a schizotypal personality disorder attributing to one's own actions something that had nothing to do with him or her and thus assuming that one has a greater influence over events than is actually the case."

Burroughs' own magical thinking is described, hilariously, as manifesting thus: "Perhaps my supernatural abilities come from my solid spiritual beliefs. I believe in the baby Jesus. And I believe he is handsome and lives in the sky with his pet cow. I believe that it is essential the cow like you. And if you pet the cow with your mind, it will lick your hand and give you cash" (p. 239).

If only there were more pleasingly silly moments like this in Magical Thinking, it would be truly a classic of comic writing. Maybe next time.

Tuesday 19 February 2008

76. Sir Thursday

I just returned from my little trip to Halifax last night and am now feeling something close enough to lucid to write a blog entry for Garth Nix's Sir Thursday, the fourth installment in the Keys to the Kingdom series.

I'd been saving this one because while Lady Friday has been published, until a few days ago I didn't know when it would be available in soft cover (May) and wanted to space them out. In any case, it'll be at least a year before I read Superior Saturday because it's not out yet at all and I won't pay $20 for a hardcover I can read in 2 hours.

Sir Thursday was a very satisfying read, and not just because Nix is perfecting his use of the cliffhanger. The writing, as always, is great and things are intense and mysterious enough to keep me consistently engaged. I do wish these books had existed when I was a kid because I'm sure they would have then been MY FAVOURITE BOOKS OF ALL TIME; however, I'm sufficiently able now to suspend disbelief to take great pleasure from them.

I'm sure I wouldn't have understood the books' re-imagining of the strange Christian conflict (and interdependence) between the word made flesh (mysticism) and excessive bureaucracy in the form of paperwork (institutionalized "truth"), but there would have been more than enough adventuring to make up for that, I'm sure.

I also, perhaps stupidly, just started to wonder if Dame Primus isn't, in fact, the real enemy here. It occurred to me when she was so willing to allow Arthur to be conscripted into Sir Thursday's army that she might have her reasons for allowing him to be killed in battle. Is she using Arthur to gain control of the Upper and Lower House while making him think he's in control as the Rightful Heir? I get the feeling this won't be entirely clear until the 7th book and I'm hoping Nix is a really fast writer. (Apologies to those who have no idea what I'm talking about.)

Monday 11 February 2008

74. His Illegal Self

I broke my 2008 book ban to purchase Peter Carey's new novel, His Illegal Self, which was released on February 5. Normally, I would wait until his stuff came out in soft cover (while I absolutely will not be waiting for David Mitchell's new book to come out in soft cover; my lord, I already have to wait till 2009 for it to come out in hardcover!!), but I am the creator of the Peter Carey fan club on Facebook and so have to lead the way, so to speak.

(It's maybe not a big deal to break my own ban for one book, and for a reason as solid as that mentioned above (har har). But I'm going to Halifax on Friday. I ALWAYS buy a shitload of books when I visit Halifax. I can't help it - I have to visit my favourite bookstores there (especially The Last Word on Windsor St.!) and then I have to buy because there are all kinds of things I haven't seen in a used bookstore before. Do I have the strength to resist the siren song?)

I'm not really getting to the point here am I? It's because my cat Jeoffry (pictured here with Penny-bunny) is sitting on my lap and purring like the mad purr monkey he is; I keep being distracted by happy thoughts and His Illegal Self doesn't inspire many happy thoughts. Not that it's a bad book; on the contrary, after the first 30 or so pages (which just drag and chafe), it's a very very good book.

It's just a grim, kind of painful book which made me feel rather claustrophobic and hopeless a lot of the time I was reading it. I guess it's a sign of Carey's authorial power that I empathized that much with his characters, but it's hard on the head sometimes to be that involved.

I think I won't bother giving a plot synopsis to either attract or repel you to this book. Instead, here's the poem from which I got dear Jeoffy's name:

"For my Cat Jeoffry" (from the Jubilate Agno)

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his fore-paws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the fore-paws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For Sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For Seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For Eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For Ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For Tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having consider’d God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day’s work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction, if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he’s a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incompleat without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt.
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
For the English Cats are the best in Europe.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his fore-paws of any quadrupede.
For the dexterity of his defence is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
For he is of the Lord’s poor and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually – Poor Jeoffry! poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat.
For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better.
For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in compleat cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in musick.
For he is docile and can learn certain things.
For he can set up with gravity which is patience upon approbation.
For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.
For he can jump over a stick which is patience upon proof positive.
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master’s bosom.
For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.
For the former is affraid of detection.
For the latter refuses the charge.
For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly.
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.
For he killed the Ichneumon-rat very pernicious by land.
For his ears are so acute that they sting again.
For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention.
For by stroaking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God’s light about him both wax and fire.
For the Electrical fire is the spiritual substance, which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, though he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadrupede.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the musick.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.

Christopher Smart (1722-1771)

Thursday 7 February 2008

73. House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories

While I had read a few works of Japanese fiction before I discovered Yasunari Kawabata in Book City during one of my nights of seemingly endless browsing, his novel Beauty and Sadness really, I think, launched what may be considered my obsession with Japanese literature.

Since then, I've made a point of seeking out Kawabata's work and have generally enjoyed it exceedingly (especially Thousand Cranes and Snow Country), although I was somewhat disappointed by Palm-of-the-Hand Stories.

I got House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories some time last year through - a lovely man from Australia mailed it all the way to Canada for me - and decided after finishing my Wodehouse that I was ready again for some heavy surrealist fiction.

This tome comprises three stories: "House of the Sleeping Beauties" (about 90 pages), "The Arm" (about 25 pages), and "Of Birds and Beasts" (about 20 pages). All three deal in a dreamy and sometimes frightening way with the disconnect between erotic need and human disconnection, but I thought "The Arm" was the only one that did so in a really compelling way. That said, I wasn't so disappointed with the other two tales that I won't read Kawabata's stories again; they just won't be as high priority as his novels.

Monday 4 February 2008

72. Money for Nothing

It's absolutely pouring out in Toronto - and loud, pouring rain comes second only to driving, blowing snow in my estimation of Perfect Staying Inside and Reading Weather. I blissfully finished Wodehouse's Money for Nothing this evening to the soothing tones of precipitation abusing the windows.

My house has a run-down demeanor and depressed attitude more suited to ghost stories and said demeanor and attitude could be improved upon only by replacing the electric lights with firelight and inviting in a decidedly chilling draft; nonetheless, reading the always delightful Wodehouse during times of Weather is a very satisfying experience.

I picked up Money for Nothing at She Said Boom! back in the late summer, I think, at the same time I picked up Something Fresh (which I've already read and documented on this blog). This is one of Wodehouse's earlier works and so while it's generally pleasing and amusing, it's not as conducive to loud belly laughs as Leave it to Psmith and Something Fresh are.

However, I have no complaints because Wodehouse's early talent for inviting one to quietly chuckle is just as profound as his later talent for raucous hilarity; simply put, this was an excellent read and Wodehouse is quickly becoming a fixture in my short list of Reliable Authors.

Friday 1 February 2008

71. Four Souls

Back in the late 90s, Louise Erdrich was one of my favourite writers. I've read almost everything she's written, and her awesome novel Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse helped get me through the last few weeks of studying for comps way back when (during which time I had a case of undiagnosed walking pneumonia on top of all the stress).

I haven't read either The Master Butcher's Singing Club or The Painted Drum, because both of them failed the page 40 test rather miserably and because they don't revisit the characters that have peopled most of her other novels. Given that Four Souls is about the recurring characters I grew to love in books like Tracks and Love Medicine, however, I figured it was worth the risk (especially because I picked it up for $5 in a remainders pile somewhere).

Four Souls was pretty good - it tied up some loose ends from the other books and was a good read in itself. I don't think, however, that it's up to par with her earlier stuff; in fact, I almost feel like she's suffering from the same thing I see Peter Carey as suffering from - she's become almost too polished. Four Souls, like Carey's last novel Theft is, is written as though Erdrich can do this with her eyes closed - like it's not challenging her anymore. And I think that while writing shouldn't be torture or anything, writers should always be trying to push themselves to the next level - which I don't get the feeling either Erdrich or Carey have done with the books of theirs I've read most recently. Thus, the verdict for Four Souls is: satisfying but not exciting. (Peter Carey's new novel will be released next week, so I'll be finding out soon enough whether or not he's still on semi-brilliant auto-pilot too.)