Friday 28 March 2008
And so it begins again. My first book of blog-year two is Giorgio Pressburger's Teeth & Spies, a book I ordered through www.bookmooch.com last year when I was collecting Italian literature in advance of my trip. Of course, I think I read only one Italian book while away and generally spent too much money on other European authors at the Almost Corner Bookshop in Rome. But I knew I'd get to this one eventually, if only for its unique title.
The book turned out to be as unique as its title but I'm not convinced it was actually good. It tells the story of an unnamed narrator and his obsessive need to connect the events of his life and the world with the health (well, ill health) of his teeth. Kind of quirky in conception but not so interesting in execution for the narrator was about as boring and irksome as you can imagine someone that paranoid and neurotic being.
The book is no doubt a comment on modern ennui, man's sense of disconnection, and his related obsessive need to try to force connections that don't exist and blah blah blah, but please - why aren't people able anymore to write weighty, portentous meditations on the human condition that are also just damned good reads? Is Chaucer's dream of combining "sentence and solaas" a dead one (jeez, it's only been 400 years)? Could someone revive Dickens, please?
This was not a good read and in the end, for me, not an extremely deep one either. It left me asking questions as deep as this: Why are this guy's teeth rotting so much - hasn't he ever heard of a toothbrush? Why do so many women want to sleep with a guy with rotting stink-mouth? How can someone that self-absorbed and neurotic be an effective spy? These questions weren't answered for me.
So, I started a full-time contract job this week and I imagine that means I won't get nearly as much reading done as usual. However, I'll see if I can prove myself wrong and read with the stamina of my younger days - I recall reading Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance (about 800 pages, I think) in 2 days while working full-time at the library. I ought to get all up in my reading opponent's grill here except that I'm my own opponent and I don't know how to manage getting up into my own grill. Plus, I don't actually have a grill. I'm going to stop now.
Tuesday 25 March 2008
I started this blog simply to find out how many books I read in a year (I was being asked this question a great deal and had no idea) but it's turned into something bigger than that for me. Honestly, writing this blog is one of my favourite things to do and I think has restored a great deal of my pre-PhD enthusiasm for books (and comfort with talking only about how awesome or shiteous a book is). Other revelations this year: I read more than I thought; I am becoming increasingly impatient with contemporary fiction (i.e., Serious Literature); I love books almost more than anything else in the world (okay, I might have known this one already).
So, here are some stats for you, summing up what I've read in the past year and how I've felt about it at the extreme ends of adoration and loathing - and of course, the final number of completed books.
Authors I've read this year:
Afghanistan, Australia, Canada, China, Czech Republic, Egypt, England, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Poland, Scotland, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, USA.
Most over-represented author of the year:
Monday 24 March 2008
I just finished another Wodehouse novel - this one being my first in the Wooster & Jeeves series - and I have to say I quite enjoyed it. The Inimitable Jeeves is, like the other Wodehouse books I've read, just a silly romp and good-natured poke at the idle rich.
They certainly do not reflect the reality of class difference in 1920s England (the biggest conflicts that arise in this book tend to relate to Jeeves' disapproval of Bertie's clothing choices, which are admittedly rather foppish) - but then I try not to read fiction looking for reality, dash it - hence my love of Wodehouse and books involving swords, dragons, and goblets.
While I very much enjoyed this book, I think that I need to slow down somewhat my reading of Wodehouse's oeuvre. I've always known his books are formulaic but it started to grate just a little with this one. So, perhaps I'll read more Serious Fiction in the coming year and write cranky posts about them to satisfy my fans' desire for some Perez Hilton-style trashing of pretentious books. Also, I think more pulp is called for. Bring on the lit-trash!
Tomorrow: put yourself to sleep with my year-end statistics!
Wednesday 19 March 2008
I thought this would be my last book of the blog-year but I think I'll have time to sneak another one in, especially because there's a long weekend coming up. I feel like I've been cheating a little here - all the books I've read lately have been really short. In the case of Banana Yoshimoto's Goodbye Tsugumi, though, I am thankful for brevity.
When I was in first-year university at Dal, Yoshimoto was the flavour of the month and so I stubbornly refused to check out her stuff. I felt then what I felt more recently about The Da Vinci Code - I find it hard to trust hype that big. But I am, as you know, a devotee of Japanese literature and so had to come back to her at some point. A cheap copy of Goodbye Tsugumi on a remainder pile signaled the end of my resistance.
My instincts were right (although not as joyfully and viciously right as they were with Cormac McCarthy - hence this very boring post). Yoshimoto, at least as represented by this book, is over-rated. But maybe not highly over-rated; really, there's nothing infuriating, annoying, or seriously mock-worthy about this book - it's just a damned big bore.
The title character is a foul-mouthed little freak whom everyone coddles because she's sickly and closer to death than other folks. I didn't find her annoying, but neither did I find her in any way compelling, as all the other characters do. I didn't feel any empathy at all for any of their situations. I've never been so emotionally unaffected by a book in my life. I didn't care when I was reading and I don't now and I suspect this means I'll very soon forget the plot details.
(NB: while I didn't have any emotional reaction to the book, I have always had and continue to have a very negative emotional reaction to the name "Banana." Yoshimoto changed her name to Banana when she was an adult because she thought it was "cute" - that sounds like the choice of a 14-year old, not an adult. And doesn't she get that the word "banana" when applied to Asians, has less than complimentary connotations? Stupid, stupid, stupid! Grrr!)
Monday 17 March 2008
I also had a whole collection of unique pronunciations for words in my head, pronunciations that were often incredibly wrong. For example: chaos. I knew what the word meant and if someone said "chaos" out loud I knew what that meant too. Somehow, though, I didn't associate the spoken "chaos" with the written "chaos," and so when I read the word "chaos" in a book I did not hear "kay-oss" in my mind: I heard "chouse." I recently admitted this to some friends, who laughed at me and asserted that I must have been a "special" child.
It is a funny mistake, but it's also good to know that I wasn't the only one. This means it's a condition and I'm going to get a government grant to do research into it. My husband admits to the same error. More importantly, there's now an unofficial celebrity spokesperson coming out for our cause: Christina Ricci of all people, the actress who looks like a sweet/creepy goth doll.
Hubby sent me a link from a segment of the Conan O'Brien show in which the strange little elfin actress admits that she too stumbled over "chaos" in her silent reading, imagining it to be pronounced "cha-hos."
How about we do a little logic equation now: 1. Christina Ricci made up her own pronunciation for "chaos" when reading as a child. 2. I made up my own pronunciation for "chaos" when reading as a child. 3. Ergo, I am destined to become as famous as Christina Ricci. (What? No, I didn't fail out of first-year philosophy! Um, well, no. I didn't actually take that class at all. Shaddap, the logic equation still stands!!)
Here's the link: http://www.nbc.com/Late_Night_with_Conan_O'Brien/video/index.
Sunday 16 March 2008
A.S. Byatt and I have a strange relationship. I've generally enjoyed those of her books I've committed myself to (besides The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye, which I've just finished, I've read Possession and The Virgin in the Garden but absolutely could not get past page 10 of Babel Tower); at the same time, I often find myself feeling weighed down by her learnedness and even her shorter books feel like they'll take years to complete.
Not that there's anything wrong with being learned, oh no: it's just that sometimes, Byatt's fiction reads as though she's forgotten she's writing fiction, and instead of telling a story she strenuously and not very gracefully puts her learning on display. So, I respect her, yes, but she also makes me want to tear my hear, rend my cheeks, and gnash my teeth a little too.
The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye is a collection of fairy tales which includes 4 short stories and 1 novella. The first story, "The Glass Coffin," was just fine but I found myself concluding that Byatt just can't write a modern fairy tale the way that goddess Angela Carter could.
However, I had to revise that unforgiving opinion with the following 3 stories, "Gode's Story," "The Story of the Eldest Princess," and especially "Dragons' Breath" - I thought they were really fantastic, with "Dragons' Breath" truly approaching narrative brilliance. I loved them. I wanted more of the same.
Alas, that unfortunate addiction to academic self-display took over in the collection's longest piece, the titular "The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye." As the main character - an aging and newly single professor of narratology - ruminated on story-telling and her increasingly large ass, I seriously thought about giving up. As said professor explored museums and cultural artifacts in Turkey and analyzed, and analyzed, and analyzed, I thought about giving up and then writing Byatt a strongly worded letter. But I did not give up and I was rewarded, for the last piece in the collection turned into a true fairy story and the mundane and the obtuse led fairly smoothly into the magical and the beautiful.
That said, I'm not in a huge hurry to read more of Byatt's work. I like to keep the academic world and my reading for pleasure separate. I want tales, I want yarns when I read for non-work related purposes - and Byatt just doesn't want to let me keep the two distinct.
Okay, enough of Byatt. The first year anniversary of this blog is quickly approaching - I believe I have approximately 10 days left before I must restart my numbering system at 1. If you're new to this blog you may not know that I started posting online only to find out how many books I read in a year, as many people had been asking and I knew of no other way to keep a reading list that I wouldn't lose. The question is, what do I read next? I feel a strange pressure to choose something somehow significant but can't imagine what kind of significance I should be aiming for. Perhaps I'll just read another Wodehouse and leave it at that.
Friday 14 March 2008
U.S. president George Dubya Bush is so well known for being both wrong and saying his wrong things incorrectly that government spoof site www.whitehouse.org has probably made a billion billion dollars off of him. They sell a wide variety of t-shirts, button, bags, stickers, etc., many with choice Dubya quotations designed to make Democrats laugh self-righteously and Republicans start repeating "Mea culpa, mea culpa!" while whipping themselves with cat o'nine tails.
I personally have a t-shirt featuring the infamous Dubya quotation "Reading is the basics for all learning." While I certainly prefer the Democrats to be in power down south, my interest in such bloopers is much more sociological than political. When I wear said t-shirt, I watch for people's reactions and then depending on the outcome either rejoice or despair about the state of literacy in this country.
Now, it's not that I expect everyone to be a vicious copy editor with a bad attitude and an uncapped Sharpie pen. I just want people to catch gigantic errors when they're surrounded by only a total of 6 other words. I feel that if adults can't do that then the school system has really screwed them over (see below about TDSB's decision to cut back its reading programs).
When I wear this shirt into a bookstore, I always get laughs, appreciative comments, and inquiries into where it may be purchased. When I wear it into other venues, for example the grocery store, I get comments like this: "Reading is the basics for all learning. Yeah. I really believe that. Reading is like so important for childrens to do good and stuff." Damn, you can't know how much I wish I were joking now!!!! It's funny when Dubya says it, but in a really painful way, because he's a role model for many people. When some normal person says it it just makes me want to cry.
The evil masterminds over at www.whitehouse.org won't let me weep for long, however, because they keep satirizing the current U.S. administration with captured quotations and entirely juvenile mockeries of its policies. Until November they'll just keep on making money, we'll keep on laughing/crying, and Obama and the Clintons will continue to remind the world that being hyper-literate doesn't mean you're nice. I feel hopeful, don't you?
After a full month of on and off reading, I've finally finished Will Tuttle's The World Peace Diet. I don't normally read books like this; in fact, I generally try to give them a wide berth. I'm vegan, have been for years, and don't feel I need any more convincing. I also don't want to read things like this so I can quote horrible facts at people; that's not my style at all. So, what normally happens if I do read books like this is that I discover some horrible new facts I didn't already know, cry a lot, and feel like gouging my eyes out.
Luckily, that happened less than usual with The World Peace Diet - although it did happen some, which in my mind is too much. Like I said, no convincing required here. In spite of some bad moments, though, this book really does stand out from others I've read in the "this is why you should go vegan" genre.
First, it was much more about the meaning food and eating have in our cultural than what goes into animal food production. Indeed, the philosophical discussion of food's cultural significance was really well explored and I found it truly enlightening. It was surprising in an "Of course! Why didn't I see that myself?" kind of way, which is cool. I think this background stuff would serve all those other pro-herbivorous books well for they perhaps don't address the social difficulties in being vegan as well as Tuttle does.
Second, this is the most hopeful book I've read in this genre. Tuttle lays out the difficulties and some of the horrors but yet manages to be entirely compassionate towards and hopeful about the world we live in instead of just showering damnation upon everything. This is a very refreshing approach for in my view, righteous anger is as damaging as any other kind of anger.
Finally, on a nerdy editor note: I didn't see one typo in this entire book - that never happens! Kudos to Tuttle's mad editing skills.
Thursday 13 March 2008
Uggg. I've been sick for over a week now with this nasty cold that's going around Toronto laying low half the populace. I made it through a job interview yesterday on the sheer force of adrenalin but started coughing my head off again as soon as I left the building. I just can't stop coughing and have been plagued by some seriously ungood headaches (yes, they're so bad they require a new word to describe them, but a fake word to reflect how unnatural they are).
I already had 3 other books on the go when I got sick but I just can't read books about spirituality, vegetarianism, or anything by A.S. Byatt when I don't feel well. Indeed, the only thing I'm able to read while ill is a really good yarn, preferably with either dragons, supernatural goings-on, or murders most foul.
Luckily, Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave satisfies 2 of those 3 requirements AND is an Arthurian tale (which I love), so I've spent much of the last week curled up in a blanket, reading this book, and drinking my famous toxic tea for keeping away both germs and vampires.
(Colleen's toxic tea: add to tea (should be ginseng, echinacea, or ginger tea) 3 chopped cloves of raw garlic, 4 generous shakes of cayenne pepper, about a tablespoon of lemon juice, and some agave nectar or other sweetener to help the medicine go down. Mmm mmm good (for health, not for entertaining)).
I'm definitely on the mend and this is marked, I suppose, by my completion this afternoon of The Crystal Cave which, to put it bluntly, is a really damned good read. The writing is awesome and the story moves at an engaging but not too hurried pace. I love Arthurian tales, but this is one I've never before read any version of: Merlin's childhood and early adulthood, told from his perspective.
And his perspective is a very compelling one, so compelling in fact that it's (for me, anyway) almost impossible to decipher his true beliefs and feelings from the image of himself he creates for others and the lies he tells himself in order to justify what he's doing. Yes, I think I am, in fact, asserting that Stewart has successfully created what appears to be a complex psychology in a character (definitely not a feature of the other Arthurian tales I've read!). This alongside the fact that Stewart actually thanks Geoffrey of Monmouth (c.1100-c.1155) in the back of the book makes me feel like I've met a kindred spirit in nerdiness.
According to Wikipedia (the essence of truthiness), Geoffrey of Monmouth "was one of the major figures in the development of British History and the popularity of tales of King Arthur." I knew this but I didn't know that he wrote a history of Merlin's early life called the Prophetiae Merlini, which must be what Stewart was drawing her inspiration from (looks like I have more reading to do - yay!). She writes fantasy and she reads medieval romances - even nerdier/sexier! I'll be a fan for life. (The pic is from a 13th-century copy of Monmouth's book on Merlin and it shows Merlin prophesying to Vortigern.)
Thursday 6 March 2008
Late last year, Brook and I were wandering about in the lovely Type bookstore on Queen St. West when I discovered, much to my extreme surprise and pleasure, that there is a fifth book in Madeleine L'Engle's Time series: An Acceptable Time, published in 1989.
When I was a kid, A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and Many Waters (but especially the latter two) were among my favourite books and I would stay up half the night re-reading them on a regular basis.
The Time Quintet (as I now know these books are called) are a strange mix of science fiction (there is a lot of stuff about how space and time are related, and the implications for the characters who invariably end up messing with time somehow in their adventures), Little House on the Prairie, and religious fiction sometimes bordering on religious fantasy/horror. Niiiice.
I don't think I got the religious stuff so much when I was a kid - all I knew was that these books were rockin' good reads and that I wanted the Murry's to be my parents and teach me particle physics when I was 12 over a dinner cooked on the Bunsen burner in my Nobel-prize winning mother's lab. So cool, in that very nerdy way that defines me.
I taught A Wrinkle in Time to some students back when I was in South Korea, and thought the climax was perhaps a bit too gushy or preachy but pushed it out of my mind; I had fond memories of those books that I really didn't want to dislodge.
So, over the past two days I finally read the fifth book, An Acceptable Time. And like the title of this post indicates, it was like being visited unexpectedly by a dear old friend - a dear old friend who, while mostly as engaging as I remember, also turns out to be incredibly preachy and maybe even a little bit of a religious fanatic.
An Acceptable Time takes place on the Murry's farm as all the books do but this time the erstwhile heroine/time traveler is Polly, their grand-daughter, who's come to learn with them because like many of the members of this family, she's too smart for regular school. She soon starts meeting people who have been dead for approximately 3,000 years because, as it turns out, two circles of time are overlapping and for some mysterious reason, a gate between the two has opened.
Polly goes back and forth trying to figure out 1) why the gate is open, 2) what the heck Druids are doing hanging out with Native Americans 3,000 years ago, and 3) why this jerk, Zachary, who she met in Greece the summer before is suddenly back in her life when the time gate closes while they're hanging out in pre-Christian New England.
I still loved the time travel stuff but the cultural negotiations between Polly's 20th-century mentality and those of Druids and Natives was a bit too preachy. There was a lot of stuff about how while we think the Natives are savages, look at what we do now! That was made even worse by the way Christian values became increasingly imposed on the Natives, ostensibly as part of teaching them how to use their powers and learn a new language....Um, hello? Isn't that sort of why residential schools were such a bad and destructive idea?
Besides the crazy Christian stuff, this book relies very heavily on the very 80s/early 90s noble savage stereotype, which is extremely too bad - in part because the flip side of that stereotype is there too: while the People of the Wind are good and proud and grateful for the influence of the Druids and people from Polly's time, the People Across the Lake are sneaky, stupid, and bloodthirsty. Oh dear. Of course, the Christian influence of peace and cooperation wins out but not before Polly has resigned herself to being sacrificed, Christ-like, for the undeserving Zachary.
So, yeah, it was good to see this old friend but I'm glad we don't have to spend every day together. *Sigh*
Well, it seems that Frontier College is even more necessary than I thought yesterday when I posted about their awesome programs and Scrabble Night in Canada.
The Toronto District School Board, in a move which proves it knows the cost of everything but the value of nothing, has decided to cut its 2-year reading clinic which has served 32 schools in the GTA and countless students over the years. Shame!!!!
Here's the article from the Toronto Star online:
Educational assistants, aquatic staff among $10 million in cuts debated by board
Toronto trustees voted to end a cherished program that provides intensive help to 250 struggling readers each year.
The vote late last night means that reading clinics, available in 32 schools, mostly in the old City of Toronto, will phased out in the next school year.
The two-year program provides students in grades 2 to 6 with daily one-hour reading sessions and had been hailed as a 'miracle worker' by trustee Irene Atkinson.
However, the move will save the board $1.5 million. Board staff estimate that in the next school year some 86 students will continue in the program with about half of the current teaching staff, or about 10 teachers. None of the other teachers will lose their jobs.
The clinics were championed by several trustees, including Sheila Cary-Meagher, who herself has a reading disability. She said her grandson has just completed the two-year clinic and is able to read.
'Reading clinics work for people like me and my family,' said an emotional Cary-Meagher.
Reading difficulties cannot be dealt with in 20 weeks, she said, referring to the less-intensive reading recovery program that is offered throughout the city.
'If it ain't broke, don't fix it,' said Atkinson.
Trustees also voted to increase the number of ESL teachers in elementary schools by 87. They voted to move money from professional fees to their allowable expenses, increasing their expense budgets by $1,600 each.
Trustees debated cuts to education assistance and aquatic staff in a bid to save about $10 million.
About 50 education assistants attended the meeting after learning that board staff had recommended chopping their numbers from about 700 to as low as 477.
'We are the eyes in the back of the head for teachers,' said Mayona Farrell, an assistant at Corvette Junior Public School.
While the board has said that none of the assistants who help special-needs students would be affected, those at the meeting told reporters they mostly work with kindergarten students and that testing for special needs does not begin until at least Grade 1."
Wednesday 5 March 2008
I got an email from my Mom today telling me about this fundraiser for Frontier College, which is not a college at all, but rather a Canada-wide literacy program (yes, there is something going on all year long!).
The event is called Scrabble Night in Canada and it involves inviting people over to your house one day or night in March for some Scrabble beat downs - er, I mean friendly games of Scrabble. The price for the games is donations, all of which go to Frontier College's literacy programs.
I do believe there will be some Scrabble played at my house this month...
Check out their site at http://www.frontiercollege.ca/index.html
Tuesday 4 March 2008
I received Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman as a Festivus 2007 gift from my sister and was terribly excited to read it; I'd recently read At Swim-Two-Birds, which is perhaps the funniest thing I've ever read, and so I was gleefully anticipating more of the same. I believed I'd found another comic genius to match P. G. Wodehouse, nay to outmatch Wodehouse. (I know, that seems impossible! Turns out it is.)
Alas, The Third Policemen was, for me, not exactly the opposite of hilarious for I did smile and chuckle a few times, but it definitely wasn't the opposite of gruesome and depressing either. I spent a great deal of my reading time with this tome curled up in a ball whimpering (well, mentally anyway) because I felt like my brain was being pulled out through my eyes or something equally pleasant.
Like At Swim-Two-Birds, The Third Policeman is a satire and perhaps the biggest problem was that I just couldn't tell what O'Brien was satirizing. I checked the ever-trusty Wikipedia (full of truthiness as it is) and it tells me that "The book's influences (or targets of satire) are thought by critics ... to include such diverse subjects as Einstein's theory of relativity, the mystic-scientific works of J.W. Dunne, the theology of Thomas Aquinas, Cartesian dualism, J.K. Huysmans's decadent novel À Rebours, and John Synge's play The Playboy of the Western World. The poetic influence (which is often missed by readers) of Walter de la Mare can be particularly noted in chapter 11, when the narrator knocks on Mathers' house. The narration continues with him looking up at the window and knocking a second time, whilst his trusty steed (in this case a bicycle) rests quietly behind him. This is a strong reference to The Listeners."
I haven't read any of these people's works and have a grade 4 understanding of the theory of relativity, so you can imagine how much I got out of the satire here. It was a right "insoluble pancake" (to quote one of the policemen in the book) and frankly, I'm glad it's over. I was somewhat relieved in the end to discover (warning, plot spoiler coming!) that the crazy unconnected things that occur to the narrator turn out to be his own version of hell; yes, the narrator is dead, having been blown up by his partner in crime John Divney who joins him in death at the book's conclusion to begin again the cycle of insoluble pancakes that comprised the narrator's experience for almost 200 pages. I don't think I'll need to read the sequel.
Sunday 2 March 2008
I just read on BookNinja.com that Paul Quarrington's King Leary is the victor of this year's pitched battle to be the one book that all Canadians read. Having read neither King Leary nor the four suckers it felled, I can't comment on whether or not this is a good choice. I did, however, very much enjoy Quarrington's Whale Music; that was at least ten years ago, though, so I'm not sure I'd enjoy it now.
So, the micro-question is, do I bother reading this book or do I continue to plug away at the gigantic queue of books I already own and haven't read yet, especially considering I've recently been distracted away from my task by books borrowed from friends?
But maybe the bigger question is, does it make sense for Canadians to be reading the same book all at the same time? (It'll certainly be good for Quarrington with all the extra thousands of copies of his books public libraries will be ordering.) I think CBC's Canada Reads and Toronto's Keep Toronto Reading projects are venerable endeavours, both for trying to promote non-Atwoodian Can Lit and for trying to encourage people to read.
Yet, I wonder if these sorts of flashy campaigns successfully convince people to read only one or two books a year. If there are campaigns going on encouraging people to read all year long, I'm not aware of them. And with his Shiteousness Stephen Harper cutting funding to literacy programs, I'm not sure there's money for that on a continuing basis, regardless of either interest or need. Well, then, I guess this can be looked it in two ways: one or two books a year is better than nothing, but reading in this country is in a sad state if I can even make such a comment.
I see Stephen Harper as akin to a neglectful parent in this regard. Instead of buying his sprogs (us) books and making sure we know how to read and where the library is and how to use it, he gives us a boiled potato, a smack in the mouth, and tells us to shaddap and go play on the internets so he can do important things like sell Rona Ambrose down the river or try to bribe Chuck Cadman (R.I.P) to help him fell the Liberals.