Wednesday 28 May 2008

Bad habits

How can I say that Yukio Mishima was a genius of a perfect and unique kind, which never existed before and I doubt can exist again, without sounding either sentimental or sycophantic (if one can be a sycophant to the dead)?

I don't know if I can say it properly; I doubt it. All I know is, when I read Mishima, but especially when I was reading Confessions of a Mask, I kept asking myself, really asking, "How could this book ever have been written? How is this possible?" There aren't that many books about which I've asked such breathless questions - Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, King Lear, and Cloud Atlas are the only other ones that come to mind at the moment.

It's well known that Mishima's genius was a pained one, one which preyed ruthlessly upon itself. Confessions of a Mask is a painstaking and even masochistic look inward by the narrator at his own attempts to deny his homosexuality in late-40s/early-50s Japan. The narrator carefully and cruelly constructs his multi-layered deceptions of the world and of himself, and then just as cruelly de-constructs them. This process becomes part of the pleasure he experiences as he faces his sexuality, pleasure which here (and in all of Mishima's books that I've read, actually) becomes indistinguishable from pain.

In Confessions of a Mask, the narrator frequently mentions his "bad habit" of masturbating while thinking of men in some kind of physical pain (including St. Sebastian, who Mishima posed as in photographs) but more subtle and painful bad habits abound in this young man's emotions and behaviours. In particular, "the bad habit of regarding even a little happiness as a big favor, which we would have to repay" permeates his every action and makes both comfortable decision-making and cessation from self-dissection impossible (p. 146).

This book was so good, and painful, and inspired while also being coolly but beautifully and perfectly constructed that I'm going to try to get my hands on John Nathan's so-called definitive biography of Mishima. I never read author biographies, ever; I don't think I've ever read one its entirety. I've read parts of biographies of Shakespeare and Jonson and Raleigh for school, but I've never picked one up just for my own curiosity. But I need to know more about the brilliant and doomed Mishima.

Tuesday 27 May 2008

The Reading Lamp: a balanced reading diet

It's crazy, but this interview makes me want to read Plato. Weird, innit? Seriously, for sheer variety I think Darren takes the cake (yes, the kind of cake known as tiramisu) amongst all my reading friends.

Your name: Darren

What are you reading now? Native Son by Richard Wright

Where are you reading it?
Usually in bed, though sometimes on the couch, or in one of the Ikea chairs I specifically purchased for reading.

What do you think of it so far?
I’m only a few chapters in, and I wouldn’t call it gripping, but I’m not bored with it, so I’ll probably continue with it through to the end. Apparently this is one of those books forced upon schoolchildren here in the States. In Canada, I had Can-Lit shoved down my throat for five years of high school, and as a result never want to read another novel that takes place in the prairies. I haven’t been burdened with the same sort of cultural baggage with Native Son, and I like that I’m coming at it with a fresh perspective.

What would your ideal desert island book be?
There are three books I’d want to bring to a desert island – my Riverside Shakespeare, The Collected Works of Plato, and the Bible. I never run out of new things to find in these, or new ways to interpret them. Granted, that’s about 20 pounds of literature to haul around, so I’d probably have to forego food.

What about a dessert book, a book you could read and then eat?
Almost anything by Nick Bantock, who created the Griffin & Sabine and Morning Star trilogies, as well as The Venetian’s Wife, The Museum at Purgatory, and my personal favourite, The Forgetting Room. A couple of friends of mine independently introduced me to Bantock’s works years ago, and I find reading them so rich an experience, I have to ration myself. I savour every word and image filling the pages, wanting to get the fullest possible experience of them—not unlike my experience with tiramisu.

Favourite childhood book?
When I was a kid, I must’ve borrowed Dr. Seuss’s Wacky Wednesday a dozen times from the local children’s library. I loved that book, and have no idea why I don’t own a copy of it now. In the world of non-fiction, I also loved the two-volume Mammals books and Our Universe, both published by National Geographic. I still have the former (and refer to it regularly for some of my graphic art projects), but sadly I read the latter to tatters long ago.

Favourite book-related website (besides, of course)?—hands down, the best used-book shop I’ve ever found. It doesn’t matter how obscure the book, I can find a copy here. When I was researching the relation between art and mathematics, I found Structural Patterns and Proportions in Vergil’s Aeneid: A Study in Mathematical Composition by George E. Duckworth—published in 1962 and long out of print—and Joseph Schillinger’s The Mathematical Basis of the Arts (this one exceedingly rare, and cost me $90 with a tattered dust jacket, but I couldn’t find it anywhere else). Also, if you want a first edition of Dracula ($75,000) or Great Expectations ($50,000), or just a soft-cover edition of either (each just $1), will have it.

How do you decide what to read next?
I have a wide variety of reading interests, and I need a balanced diet. But I’m greedy. I vacillate between “literature,” junk novels, graphic novels, non-fiction, and short stories, and so if I’ve just finished one of one sort, I crave one of the others. I usually have several books on the go at any one time to cover my appetites, and my bed-side table has a stack of them. In addition to Native Son, I’ve got a collection of Lovecraft stories, a bunch of graphic novels, and The Orange Man (a collection of non-fiction medical stories à la House) by Berton Roueché currently on the go.

Saturday 24 May 2008

A disinclination to work of any kind

This morning I finished Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog!), which Fathima recommended to me when I was looking for something to cheer me up after Penny died. I first, for reasons I can't remember now, had to read some sad stuff and a pulpy historical novel, but I'm really glad I read this one relatively sooner rather than later. It gave me many good belly laughs, a plethora of chuckles, and a burning desire to spend two weeks on the Thames in a boat with my best pals and a dog given to making enemies of tea kettles.

Jerome has been compared to P.G. Wodehouse and I can see why but I think maybe Jerome was a bit weirder. This sort-of-novel (based, apparently, on his honeymoon!!! You'll understand why I needed to use three exclamation points in a row here if you've read the book) is more of a collection of seemingly unconnected vignettes combined with a travel pamphlet on the Thames written by someone with bi-polar disorder (but mildly and charmingly expressed).

Three Men in a Boat is also somehow both a send-up of the laziness of the leisured young gentleman and a manifesto in favour of laziness. The narrator and his friends evince a persistent "disinclination to work of any kind" and I have to say, Jerome made this sound pretty attractive at the same time that it was guffaw-worthy. I think Jerome K. Jerome might be my new literary boyfriend.

NB: My husband and I watched a great film tonight called Death at a Funeral, which I feel certain Jerome would have enjoyed as well. You should watch it, and not just because it was directed by the voice of Fozzie Bear.

Friday 23 May 2008

The fine line between curiosity and creepiness

Now that spring has pretty much arrived in Toronto, I'm not riding public transit very frequently - I'm all about cycling as much as possible, if only because it's about 10 times faster than transit. But when I do ride the TTC (like yesterday, because it was raining), I always keep an eye out for readers.

Most people on the subway are breathing through their mouths for one reason or another (e.g., they're asleep or they have fewer than the recommended allotment of brain cells; no disrespect to the ill or allergy-plagued!) and are therefore not reading. Many of the people who are reading really disappoint me with their choices - and I am, of course, the arbiter of good taste and beauty.

Anyone reading anything with things like "Ya-Ya", "Sisterhood", "Icy Sparks", "Frilly Underpants", or "Pithy Contradictions" in the title makes me want to give them a stern talking to. (I did smack someone in the face with Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood in the subway in Seoul - but that's a different story, for another time.) Anyone who's been visiting this site for awhile knows what I think about books sporting Oprah's book club stickers. I also feel embarrassed for anyone reading anything by Mark Haddon, Khaled Hosseini, Margaret Atwood, Alice Sebold, or Wally Lamb, to name just a few of the authors I'd like to see "disappeared" from history.

You may be wondering how I can acquire such specific information about what others are reading on the subway or streetcar. Well, sometimes, it's so crowded you're almost forced to read with them; sometimes, riders like to pretend you're a nice coffee table and rest their book or magazine on your back. Most times, however, I skirt the fine line between curiosity and creepiness and have to try to get close enough to see what people are reading. Sometimes I'm thwarted by books printed without the title or author displayed at the top of each page. Sometimes I'm thwarted by super-small print (my magical powers have never included the ability to read minuscule type from a distance). Sometimes my flesh starts to melt when someone flashes their Danielle Steele at me as they turn to leave the train.

I've been pretty stealthy about it all and haven't creeped out too many people, but sometimes accidents do happen. (Dear 90-year old lady reading V.C. Andrews on the eastbound Bloor-Danforth line between Chester and Broadview: I'm sorry I glanced over your shoulder. Then scoffed. Then spat on your book. Then grabbed it from you and began beating it with a stick while yelling "Get thee behind me, Satan!" It wasn't my finest hour, true, but I really think I did you a favour. I hope you enjoyed the Collected Works of Karl Marx I left with you as a replacement.)

My surveys of the readers around me generally don't leave me feeling very optimistic, but about a year ago I was standing on the subway reading when I realized two kids, about ages 10 and 11, were trying to figure out what the book was that I was carrying; after they had done so, they began talking excitedly about it. Plus, someone reading over my shoulder on a train introduced me to David Mitchell (bless his precious name!). Plus, sometimes I see kids AND adults walking down the street reading (though not usually together), like I used to do when I was a kid. Plus, sometimes, I see someone who's clearly coming home from some exhausting manual labour job being totally absorbed in Dostoevsky (actually, the blue collar riders seem generally to have much better taste in books than the office workers).

. I just realized that I don't currently have the energy to read Dostoevsky AND I'm an office worker...does this mean I'm soon going to start craving books by James Frey or something??? Kill me if that happens, I beg you. I BEG YOU!!!!!

Monday 19 May 2008

The Reading Lamp: from a land down under

In just 3 posts, The Reading Lamp has become incredibly well-travelled, in short order spanning 3 countries - Canada, the US, and now Australia! In this edition, Kate lets Chuck Palahniuk down gently but is much less kind to the unfortunate Georges Perec.

Your name: Kate

What are you reading now? About five different books, the most recent being If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino.

Where are you reading it? In cafés and restaurants, on buses, in parks, in Canberra, Australia.

How did you discover this book? A friend told me all about it, highly recommending it, then today I found it in a bookstore and couldn't resist.

What about a dessert book, a book you could read and then eat? A fine anthology of poetry, that could be carved up into tiny courses of deliciousness, albeit only a fraction of them sweet.

Who is your literary boyfriend or girlfriend? (Could be either a character or an author, and if it's an author, he or she need not still be alive.) Chuck Palahniuk and I have spent a lot of time together, but we're really just good friends...but I'd probably reconsider my preferences for Virginia Woolf.

What book would you like to put into a mine shaft and blown up? Why? Life: A Users Manual by Georges Perec, which is an experiment in psychology masquerading as fiction. I should be put in the mine shaft with it for having read all 500 pages of it, even if it was for uni.

What's the most embarrassing book you've ever received as a gift? Did you read it? A pop psychology book; I forget exactly what self-help niche it was marketed at...I think I managed the first page, no more.

Favourite book-related website (besides, of course)?, of course.

Saturday 17 May 2008

Uhtred, son of Uhtred, likes to hump things (and fight)

After finishing the heart-heavy My Name is Asher Lev, I really needed something lighter...and it doesn't get much lighter than Bernard Cornwell's The Last Kingdom.

This is officially considered historical fiction and I know enough about Old English warrior culture to know that Cornwell has done his research pretty well.

But saying The Last Kingdom is historical fiction is like saying that
Grey's Anatomy is about medicine. The context is certainly there, but the story is definitely not about the context - it's about what the context allows for, and in the case of this novel, what the Danish invasion of England in the late 9th century allows for is a lot of killing and fighting and pillaging and being dirty and feasting and getting drunk and making sacrifices to Thor and Odin.

The book is told from the perspective of Uhtred who, at 10 years old or so, is captured by the Danes and then raised by them. As a result, he experiences what was termed in the late 19th century by W.E.B. Dubois as "double consciousness" - he feels both Danish and English and doesn't know what to do with himself, though he does know he likes "humping" (one of his favourite words) and fighting.

The Last Kingdom, even with its (perhaps half-hearted) gestures towards historicity and identity politics, is really so into being a yarn about manly things that it often flirts dangerously with becoming simply parodic. Indeed, I giggled uncontrollably when I read the first few lines of the book: "My name is Uhtred. I am the son of Uhtred, who was the son of Uhtred and his father was also called Uhtred."

In spite of (or maybe because of, if I'm going to be honest) this book's silliness, it's still a pretty good read and there's a good chance I'll continue with the series - Cornwell, like so many series-writers out there, just can't stop, and there are now at least 3 more waiting in the wings for me, should I choose to accept them.

Thursday 15 May 2008

What shall we read next, hmmm?

Here at Dreamqueen Manor, there are a lot of books I haven't read yet - truly, a veritable shitload. I've been collecting books in advance of the nuclear winter for a long time now, and it's generally been true that I buy and receive books as gifts almost infinitely more quickly than I'm able to read them (and I have mad-ish reading skills).

There's something incredibly comfortable and reassuring about having such a large buffer between me and the bleak hell of having literally nothing to read. There's also something inherently satisfying about browsing in a well-loved bookstore, but rare is the day that I walk into a bookstore and walk out again without having purchased anything. I'm weak, perhaps even addicted, but I revel in this particular compulsion - and really, surrounding oneself with books is not the most harmful way to wallow in the need for instant gratification.

Given the embarrassment of bookly riches in my "collection", it's a strange and sometimes difficult process for me to choose what to read next. Sometimes I get suggestions from my dear hubby when I'm looking for a particular kind of book (especially a good yarn) and/or am completely unable to make the decision myself. On the other hand, sometimes I NEED to read something in particular and so everything else in the chaos theory-inspired queue gets pushed back (one thinks of David Mitchell, and yes, I'm counting the days until his new novel is released while also obsessively rationing his second novel, number9dream, to extend the Mitchell-esque joy in my life).

But most times, this is how it goes: I'm reading a book and as I near the end I begin thinking about what I'll read when it's done. I think about what won't be too similar, either in tone, content, or style and make a mental shortlist (a shortlist as meaningful as a Booker shortlist, i.e., not at all - though I was pleased to see the judges had enough sense left in them to cut Life of Pi from the short list for the "Best Booker Ever, Like, Wow!" prize). When I finish my current book, I go check out the books on the shortlist for feel, etc and then generally disregard them all and choose something else entirely via a process I don't understand. I know this will happen and yet I still must go through the short-list process in my head.

One wonders what kind of psychological illness this portends. Or what it'll cause - because, I must confess, I've been pushing Henry James' The Ambassadors to the back of the list for literally the past 8 years. I feel like tearing my hair when I think about that book but it never ever feels like "the right time" to read it (no, I don't know what "the right time" means).

I think this calls for some kind of grant from either the Government or the Royal Society (if there's still a Royal Society somewhere distributing money to "independent scholars"). I'm still working through the grant money allocated to my theory of "Cha-hos" but I think I can spare the time for this fascinating new project.

Tuesday 13 May 2008

I can't even think of a title for this post

I keep trying to write a post about Chaim Potok's My Name is Asher Lev, which I finished over the weekend, but I don't know how to start. I make a lot of semi-witty, pseudo-charming, and meta-intelligent (huh?) comments about most things I read, but I've got nothing funny or anything even approaching funny to apply to this book.

This is, honestly, one of the saddest books I've ever read, though it didn't come close to making me cry and it didn't make me unable to read it continuously. It just slowly sort of wore me down as Asher and his parents wore each other down trying to assert the dominance of their desires about what Asher's adult life would look like.

Spoiler Alert!
Asher is a young boy when the book begins, growing up in a very strict but loving and close-knit Hasidic Jewish family and community. He has already revealed a profound artistic talent and to the chagrin of his parents, an associated complete inability to put it aside in favour of anything they find important - including his religious studies.

He's born to be an artist but painting and drawing have no place in his parents', but especially his father's, plans for him and so the novel ends up reading like one long series of painful clashes between Asher and his parents as his gift and his desire to immerse himself in his gift develop.

I won't reveal too much more, but eventually Asher creates some art that truly mortifies his parents and his community and he's literally banished.

There's a sequel to this novel called The Gift of Asher Lev and I really want to read it because this wasn't just a sad book - it was also remarkably beautiful and I won't even qualify that vague and soppy statement or make a joke about it. My Name is Asher Lev was straight up a beautiful book.

But I don't know if I'm up for being ground down and damaged by a fictional character's parents or family or community and their desires again any time soon. You'll understand why I chose my current uber-fluffy read when I finish it and post about it.

Sunday 11 May 2008

The Reading Lamp: why goblins are misunderstood and other wonders

In this second installment of The Reading Lamp, Terry from Cyberspace gives us the lowdown on strange marginalia, goblins, and where to find his next good read.

Your name: Terry

What are you reading now?
Goblin Quest by Jim C. Hines.

Where are you reading it? Well the stairs made a better backdrop, but I'm more likely to read on the couch or in bed.

What do you think of it so far? I like it, especially since it upends my low/high fantasy expectations. Jig the goblin is captured by a group of adventurers who are on a quest to find a magic rod. Since Jig knows the sub-terrain, they keep him alive and use him as a guide. He's a lovable goblin and you don't often find those in books.

What would your ideal desert island book be? One of those over-sized atlases would provide decent shade, but I've wanted to reread Eiji Yoshikawa's Musashi so I'll pick that.

What about a dessert book, a book you could read and then eat? I'm reminded of a Tom Petty video so I'll pick Alice in Wonderland.

The most nightmarish and/or hilarious literary collaboration you can imagine? I'd love to bend space and time to pair up William S. Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft.

Weirdest/creepiest/most awesome thing you've ever found inside a used book? I read a copy of W. B. Seabrook's Magic Island which had fascinating marginalia. The book is about Seabrook's experiences in Haiti with a good chunk on voodoo – actually Seabrook introduced "zombies" to the US – but the previous reader had a whole sexual subplot running in the margins.

How do you decide what to read next? Lately I've been trying to work through my Horror Book Club backlog. I also try to read stuff I can talk about on my gaming site,

Who do you talk to about books? My wife, first and foremost. I'm also lucky to have amazingly literate friends.

*Email the Dreamqueen at colleen at bookphilia dot com if you'd like to be featured on The Reading Lamp!*

Friday 9 May 2008

Book crimes

All over the (book) news this week has been the 75th anniversary of that crazy book burning in Berlin that should have warned people better that the Nazis were wankers of the most extreme kind.

In this big fire, books by authors such as Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Thomas Mann, to name a very, very few were publicly burned, having already been banned. Burning books is, of course, quite clearly a deadly sin even if the Christians don't acknowledge it as such.

But what about those minor book crimes that occur every day, that are much more common than book burnings, and irritating rather than horrifying? Let's talk about the merely irksome class of book crimes.

1. Folding the pages instead of using a bookmark to keep your place
I realize this is a fairly minor offense, especially when compared against other things, but it drives me nuts. It just makes books look ratty and makes me think unpleasant thoughts about people who buy books in drug stores.

2. Writing in books
There are some circumstances under which this is acceptable and some circumstances under which it is heinous.

Acceptable: It's a textbook and the student using it isn't planning on reselling. Or, it's a textbook and the teacher/professor using it has the majority of their lecture notes in there.

Acceptable: You've just acquired a set of expensive books, preferably classics, that you know your sprogs will keep and treasure after they've sent you to the nursing home to be neglected.

Acceptable: You wrote the book and someone's asking you for your signature in a high-pitched, star struck voice and sweating profusely.

Heinous: You're not having kids and therefore no one wants your "heirlooms" with your damned chicken scrawl on the inside front cover.

Heinous: You have messy handwriting - if you're going to deface a book and then have it somehow end up in a stranger's hands, at least provide them with a good story or some deep thoughts they can decipher!

Heinous: You write over the printed text, making it illegible. Neck-punch-worthy!

Heinous: It is NEVER acceptable to write in a book you do not own, especially if it's from the library. Hisssss. If you must do this, because there is a worldwide shortage of post-it notes, write in pencil and then erase your notes before returning them to the library!

3. Borrowing books and not returning them
This is a tricky one, because if you're still in touch with the borrower, at what point is it clear that they definitely won't be returning the book(s) you lent them? I've become rather militant about this one but it makes me feel like a complete ass to be so. The thing is, I tend to lend out only my very favourite books because I'm so interested in having other people read them. A catch-22...but not Catch-22, that book sucks and you can keep it. Or at least the first 10 pages suck; that's as far as I could get with it.

4. Borrowing books and wrecking them
I have to admit that more often than not, I've been the perpetrator rather than the victim of this offense. Mea culpa. One person in particular, I wrecked her giant complete Chaucer in uni. I was a jerk and then years later I felt badly about it. I kept trying to meet her in person to offer her the money for a new one (in case she wanted to use that money for something else) but it never happened and now she's moved away. And the moment for reparations feels like it's passed (as in years ago passed). Le sigh.

5. Borrowing a book and not reading it
Isn't it obvious why this is wrong? It's like a asking for something to eat because you're starving then spitting the food out onto the face of the person who helped you, only less messy. But this contains the same problem as #3 - how long do you have to keep the book before it's clear you're not going to read it? I'm guilty of this one too. I'm going to need a hair shirt soon.

6. Abridging a book
This is the wayward publisher's biggest possible offense in the world. Cutting down The Tale of Genji or Great Expectations or some other massive but complete and perfect tome is to create a malformed monster one should be ashamed of. It's like having a baby with no head but which is still, inexplicably, alive. It frightens passersby and causes the devout to question their maker.

7. Stamps that can't be removed from the cover
When Oprah first began her reign of terror, Oprah's book club stickers were placed on the covers and could be removed. Later, when her evil plan for world book domination began to really take off, publishers decided to make those stickers part of the covers. This is unacceptable. Some of us are ashamed to find ourselves reading Oprah books and want to hide it - and this hiding shouldn't involve the use of dubious brown paper book covers because then people on the subway think we're reading either porn or cookbooks by Jamie Oliver.

Thursday 8 May 2008

Literature in translation

I read a lot of translated-into-English literature and generally come across new authors by happy accident. Sometimes, unfortunately, those accidents include browsing the handy "translated into English" tables at large chain bookstores. I try not to buy my books at such places, because I love my little independent bookstores and want them to thrive, but sometimes the books I want just can't be found at small stores (le sigh).

(And, sometimes, inexplicably, gigantic faceless chain stores have really good translated selections. I still can't get over the fact that the Chapters at Queen and John has the best collection of translated Japanese lit I've ever seen anywhere, including of Yukio Mishima's work which is, even more inexplicably, generally completely absent from the indie stores I give the majority of my loyalty to.)

Now, because you and I don't already spend nearly enough time surfing that series of tubes known as the interwebs, there's another option for finding translated fiction:
This site is someone's guilt-inspired project designed to make up for the fact that only 3% of the books published in England are not originally written in English. I think that's a good response to guilt and look forward to more guilt-based book projects in the future, on various topics.

This site lists new translations, has a handy (although currently very limited) function in which you can get recommendations for new (to you) reads, and seems to facilitate some kind of well-paying award for new books translated into English.
What I found really exciting about this site was how few of the authors I'd actually heard world just got a little wider, at least potentially (recalling my infinitely long line of books already lined up).

Wednesday 7 May 2008

A stern discipline

On Sunday, my husband's father and step-mother were down from Thunder Bay and took us out for brunch. We were talking about books and I asserted, quite without either shame or qualification, that I couldn't bear to read non-fiction.

A mere 3 or so hours later, we were in Type on Queen West and I found myself in possession of a decidedly non-fiction tome called Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea. I was clearly paying for my close-mindedness about books (or arrogance in imagining I know what I like, if I want to use some self-help speak designed to make me feel bad) but hey, if I could pay off all my bad karma with books I'd be signing up 15 times in a row and stealing other people's identities to pay off their bad karma.

I'd planned, of course, to put this on the shelf behind the millennium-long list of books I already have and really ought to read first (and I already had a novel on the go, which I still haven't finished) but I found myself stranded in, of all places, Crappy Tire waiting for Brook to return something and this was all I had so I started reading...and I was hooked.

I don't know why I was hooked exactly, though. The writing is just fine but in no way mind-blowing; indeed, one of the reasons I have so much resistance to non-fiction is that (I imagine) the writing itself isn't usually part of the point. The historical accuracy I also can't speak to as I know only nothing/hearsay/dimly remembered factoids from watching Jeopardy! as a nerdy/sullen/loserish teen.

I do know I'm not sure I trust the whole "history via a long string of anecdotes" M.O., but I'm also not sure that all history isn't written that way.

Mark Kurlansky is definitely biased (as at least one online reviewer asserted) but I feel like that's okay here. Really, part of his argument is that nonviolence needs more advocates and he appears to be one. Or he's a really good liar. He does work for a newspaper, so you never know. But I digress.

I liked the insights this book had into the successes nonviolence has had (in mostly western culture), but also the realistic view put forth of how difficult the "stern discipline" of consistently practicing nonviolence really is. There was no flower-throwing flakiness here - resisting peacefully is portrayed as damned difficult work, work that's much more difficult and dangerous than simply responding to force with force.

I suspect that while I quite enjoyed this book, it'll be at least another 6 months before I read any more non-fiction. Non-fiction is as low priority for me as Can Lit and for anyone who knows me that simile is kind of like kicking the non-fiction in the arse and telling it to get lost. Oooh, a simile to explain a simile...I should be careful or someone's going to start beating me with the nerd stick.

Sunday 4 May 2008

The Reading Lamp: the inaugural post (applause, please!)

Welcome to the first post of's new feature, The Reading Lamp! This is the "interview other readers" segment I recently promised and now you can see I am sometimes able to follow through - at LIGHTENING SPEED. I can't promise that the Live Reading Cam I've been thinking of will be set up as quickly, I'm afraid.

This post's subject, Brook, only answers about 10 questions but I gave him more than 20 to choose from, and that's how this will go from now on. Part of what's interesting for me is seeing what questions people will choose to answer; the only ones that everyone has to answer are the first three. Enjoy!

Your name:

What are you reading now?
Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson

Where are you reading it?
On many subways in Toronto, and occasionally on my couch.

How did you discover this book?
Saw it around a fair bit, mostly in used book-stores. I quite enjoyed The Cryptonomicon, so I reckoned it was a safe bet to be a good read.

What do you think of it so far?
Quite good. I think I prefer Cryptonomicon, but this has a bit more ribald, silly fun, which is always a plus.

What would your ideal desert island book be?
If I hadn’t read it already, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 years of Solitude. I’d never feel alone and it isn’t part of a trilogy or something, which would totally suck as I’d never get a chance to read the next book and would have to live life knowing that I’d forever be in suspense. I feel that way sometimes about George R.R. Martin, and I’m not even on an island.

What writer do you think should be zapped out of history/existence and their works therefore never written?
I’d say Margaret Atwood, but I don’t think Canadian literary identity can be blamed upon the meanderings of a single writer who should’ve stuck to poetry or bile production. Some will ask “Is there a Canadian literary identity?” and join that pretend discussion of why there is no identity, when really that identity is a self-absorbed, snot-nosed, “sensitive” 16-year-old trapped in a righteous third-year Liberal Arts major’s daddy-hating, paradigm-bemoaning, journal-as-a-verb-and-form-of-empowerment body. I mean really, that isn’t Atwood’s fault; in fact, I bet she’s a bit embarrassed by the whole thing.

There are some witty Coupland-esque writers I could veto, just because the sartorial sub-sub-culture they catered to has had to “read way less since the baby” and I feel pity for them. Maybe if those Sport-Utility-Prams came with a book-pouch instead of a value-added latte-holder upgrade, they wouldn’t be so down.

Nope, I’ll say it is a toss up between Robert Jordan and the literary putz who wrote/writes the Celestine books. Because I can’t eliminate an entire genre, I’ll stick with Robert Jordan, for the obvious reasons.

What book would you like to put into a mine shaft and blown up? Why?
Tuesdays with the Celestine Motorcycle. Unlike Invasion of the Body Snatchers, you probably can’t kill them all by finding the first one. Ergo, mash them all together and blow them up. I won’t blow up a Jordan book because that might have an environmental impact on the water table.

What's your favourite either unknown or under-appreciated book?
On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin.

The most nightmarish and/or hilarious literary collaboration you can imagine?
Toni Morrison and Neal Stephenson, and they have to write alternate sentences and promise to be nice to each other.

Boy genius meets girl criminal mastermind and sparks fly

I see Eoin Colfer's character Artemis Fowl as a sort of antidote to Harry Potter. Harry Potter (from what I've gathered from the films I've seen) is incredibly earnest, generally a good guy, and humourless. Artemis, on the other hand, is basically selfish (although he changes somewhat throughout the series), rich and pampered and self-satisfied, and hilarious in an exceptionally nerdy way.

The Artemis Fowl books are essentially a celebration of geekiness, and The Lost Colony is no exception. In this book, we see Artemis being afflicted by puberty and his alternating analyses thereof and inability to control how he reacts to girls - this is all quite charming and chuckle-worthy. On top of this, there are the usual crazy action scenes (including Artemis falling from Taipei 101 attached to an elf and 2 demons, and being saved only by falling into a different point in history), and the usual abundance of bad puns and jokes.

Adding to the intensity and hilarity of Artemis's foray into puberty is the introduction of a new character: Minerva, a 12-year old girl genius who, like Artemis, is figuring out why demons are appearing and disappearing on Earth; her motivation for finding out why is much less benevolent than Artemis's, however. They are, of course, thrown together as things go wrong and hi jinx ensue and it's really fun to watch the budding courtship of two adolescent über-geeks. It kind of reminds me of my husband's and my courtship, except for the adolescence and genius parts.

At the end of the book, the promise of yet another book in the Artemis Fowl series (the 6th, I think) reminded me of my friend Andy who hates it when authors do this: start what is supposed to be either a pair or trilogy and then just keep writing forever and ever, amen. In fact, he's made evil comments about the length of Garth Nix's life in this regard and I'm going to be keeping a close watch on him. Nix has 2 more books in the Abhorsen series coming out in 2-3 years and I MUST read them. I personally don't mind if authors pull a Robert Jordan as long as the books remain good; indeed, I like being able to periodically revisit favourite characters and story lines without simply re-reading books I've already read. All hail the compelling and over-long fantasy series!

Friday 2 May 2008

The page 40 test - a lame segue

I don't know if this can properly be called a superstition but I have a habit (courtesy of my dad, courtesy of a friend of his) of deciding whether or not to read a book based on how good page 40 is. (If page 40 is blank, then I go to the first text-ful (texty?) page thereafter.)

This practice has generally been sort of eerily accurate in predicting good books, with a few notable exceptions like Nikos Kanzantzakis's The Fratricides (and that was left unfinished before Kazantzakis died, so maybe if he'd had a chance to edit the novel, the whole thing would have lived up to page 40's promise.)

Of course, there's no telling how many good books I've missed out on because page 40 just happened to be not great, but I guess I've got to have some way of narrowing down what I read (besides generally scorning certain types of books I (perhaps unfairly) consider too much geared towards the great unwashed).

Anyway, I bring this test of mine up as a not very smooth segue into announcing a new feature I'll soon be launching on Bookphilia. com. For awhile now I've been thinking about how to bring other readers into the mix, and what I've come up with is an occasional feature I've decided to call The Reading Lamp; this will simply comprise interviews with other readers and photos of them with their current book. (FYI: this unsmooth and perhaps entirely unconvincing segue is based on the fact that one of the interview questions I've settled on is "Do you have any reading superstitions?")

Once I actually get a new camera I'll start posting these spotlights on other readers periodically and I'll be interested to see what y'all think. I suspect 99% of these interviews will be with people I know and guilt into it (as much as I'd just like to buttonhole people I see reading on public transit), but if you'd like to be featured this way, drop me an email at "colleen at bookphilia dot com" and we can discuss how to make it happen. Cheers!