Monday 30 June 2008

Curious/Creepy: I'm not the only one looking over your shoulder

It was a lucrative book-spying day on the TTC yesterday; I've got four sightings to tell you about in this my second installment of Curious/Creepy. But before I get to the reportage, I will pass on to you what Fathima has informed me of: I'm not the first person to think it's a good idea to blog about peering over your shoulder to see what you're reading. Check out for a (likely much more) compelling alternative (which also appears to include a podcast). The author of that blog is much more poetic than I am; I go for the thuggish, semi-coherent version of here.

What's awesome, I think, is that this book voyeur also appears to live in Toronto. In some amazing convergence of the stars, I hope that someday we'll end up spying on each other reading while in transit.

So, these are the myriad books we espied yesterday.

The Memory of Running by Ron McLarty. It took hubby and I awhile to be able to determine exactly what the title of this book was - the readeress is someone who likes to bend her books into unlikely and I imagine uncomfortable positions, which is good for reading but not good for creepy voyeurs like me. At first, all we could see was Mem-, which led Brook to speculate that perhaps she was reading a book called Memnoch the Damned, which he also speculated "would be awesome". No, there is no book called Memnoch the Damned. YET.

I've both seen and reported on this woman before - she featured in the first C/C for reading Three Day Road. I've noted, having seen her read two books now, that she never has a bookmark and must flip through the book for awhile until she finds where she left off. Girl, if you can afford the book, surely you can afford the FREE bookmark too? You're wasting precious reading time flipping around that way!!! I'm trying to protect you from unnecessary pain here!

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. I have seen the film based on this book, and I've been assured, strenuously, that in spite of the celluloid mush it became under the unbearably earnest and immature hands of director Sean Penn, the book is fantastic. I still don't think I'm going to read it. Even if Sean Penn removed all possible subtleties from the protagonist's motivations for going to eat rice and die in coldest Alaska, I still suspect I'll think that guy was a sociopathic wanker who was a total shit to everyone he knew. I generally thought the movie was annoying but thought Hal Holbrook's small role was absolutely brilliant - brilliant enough to almost (but not quite) make the film okay overall.

In any case, I find it almost impossible to read non-fiction so even if the film version of Into the Wild hadn't completely erased all possibility of me ever reading this book, it's 99% likely I never would have read it anyway.

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields. I read a Carol Shields book once; it was called The Republic of Love. Because of The Republic of Love, I will gouge my own eyes out before ever reading another book by Carol Shields. The Republic of Love is, as I recall, about two losers who don't know how to relate to other adults romantically except in soap opera/Grey's Anatomy fashion. The guy has been married 3 times and the woman, I can't remember if she's been married or not.

I do recall her crying in a heap outside his apartment door (maybe I'm not so creepy after all - I suppose it's all relative) and telling him to go fuck himself, repeatedly. I think it might somehow end happily anyway. To use a critical term appropriate to the quality of this book - barf!!! This whole crying outside the door thing is the stuff of late Bon Jovi videos (after they became completely soft, the bastards) and Harlequin romance novels (which the formerly hilarious Grey's Anatomy TV show is looking a lot like these days).

Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner. I've read some Faulkner in my day and I want to give mad props to the person who can read this stuff on the busy, loud Toronto subway. Faulker is, I recall, good but as I also recall, makes my brain hurt a little. I haven't actually read Absalom, Absalom! but I have read John Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel and that made my brain hurt.

Sometimes it is good to read a book that makes your brain hurt - Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and Invisible Man, to name a few, all made my brain hurt but in a really good way. It's been so long since I read any Faulkner that I honestly can't remember if he gives me good brain pain or not. But now that I've got two Faulkners languishing on my shelf (I've been carrying Light in August around for the past 6 years or so. Le sigh) I guess I'd better find out soon.

But check out this book cover. This edition of Absalom, Absalom! is part of Random House's new Everyman's Library collection of classic books which I totally adore. Most of the paperbacks have that lovely gold and black combination on the cover and they're pretty affordably priced - because everyone should be able to buy and read the classics in beautiful bindings!

Saturday 28 June 2008

The Reading Lamp: summer-, summer-, summertime! (SUMMERTIME!)

Natalie rocks the summertime patio reading vibe in this installment of The Reading Lamp. I'm all about the light summertime reading too, so can't make fun of her reading choice (plus she asked me not to. I take it her asking means I'm not very good at hiding my righteous dislike of certain books? I'd say I have to work on it but then where would this blog be?). Not that I've read any of the Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency books anyway - but anything with "Ladies" in the title makes me want to scoff and titter, just a tiny little bit.

Your name: Natalie

What are you reading now? The Miracle at Speedy Motors by Alexander McCall Smith.

Where are you reading it? Anywhere I possibly can.

How did you discover this book? It’s the latest in the Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency Series, which is this incredibly addictive series about a detective agency in Botswana, but oh so much more. It’s light summer reading, but somehow intoxicating, and the characters are very real.

What would your ideal desert island book be? If we’re speaking in ideals here, I would have gotten marooned in early 2001, so it would be Harry Potter 4, while there was still much more to come.

What writer do you think should be zapped out of history/existence and their works therefore never written? Dr. Phil - and I’ve actually read one! (It was a moment of low self esteem.) His writing “voice” is as annoying as his speaking voice.

Favourite childhood book? Watership Down, and it’s still one of my favourites.

Do you have any reading superstitions? If so, what are they and have they ever been proven to be correct? Oh, for sure. I use certain bookmarks for certain books. General fiction books have to be marked by generic items like bus transfers and receipts, but something I have been anticipating gets an actual bookmark. I also won’t dog-ear pages or write in books, for fear of eternal damnation.

What's the most embarrassing book you've ever received as a gift? Did you read it? I once received a book as a contribution for a yard sale about pleasing your man in bed. Needless to say it didn’t go into the sale, but has since been passed along several times.

Favourite book-related website (besides, of course)? The Toronto Public Library ( Often I will go back and forth while searching through those big-box online stores for related titles, and then just reserve them at the library. Torontonians should be very grateful for this resource of free books and movies we have at our fingertips – it’s really quite amazing.

Who do you talk to about books? My friends and neighbours in Kensington Market. I’m lucky enough to work right next to This Ain’t the Rosedale Library!

Friday 27 June 2008

Teenaged nihilism is so five minutes ago

Someone I know cyberspacially (should I trademark this little neo-logism of mine?) warned me that Hitomi Kanehara's Snakes and Earrings was a complete and utter piece of shite. It was so bad that it made him angry, and as we all know, that's a sure sign of something going horribly wrong literarily. Books should never make us angry - well, at least not in a prolonged, "Why did the universe allow this idiot to write and publish books??", "Why was ever I given eyes to read this mush???" way.

I just finished Snakes and Earrings and agree that it was unforgivably bad. It's all about being a punk-ass semi-transient teenager in contemporary Japan. Apparently being punk-ass and semi-transient also involves getting tattoos, tongue piercings, engaging in lots of random sexual activity, and either killing or watching people get killed (all rendered pretty much equivalent - because all meaningless - in this novel).

And oh, the meaninglessness of it all is something you're not allowed to forget when reading this one. Kanehara sums it all up with this beautiful gem: "All I wanted was to be part of an underground world where the sun doesn't shine, there are no serenades, and the sound of children's laughter is never, ever heard" (p. 44). Sounds like the underground mall at Yonge and Bloor to me.

This book's badness didn't anger me - it just bored me half to death, and if it weren't so blessedly short, I probably wouldn't have bothered to finish it. No, what irked me beyond description is that it won the Akutagawa Prize, which was established in 1935 in honour of the incomparable Ryonosuke Akutagawa; previous recipients include Kobo Abe, Kenzaburo Oe, and Teru Miyamoto, who are/were all brilliant. Then again, Ryu Murakami also won this award, so
clearly the panel of judges is either insane or changes every year.

In the end, I can't say I regret reading this book but I would be a better and more fulfilled human being for having read something else instead. Speaking of reading other things, if I don't start Terry Pratchett's The Colour of Magic soon, my husband's going to start speaking to a divorce lawyer (he bought it for me a while ago when I was complaining about the dearth of hilarious books in my repertoire). Expect my first review of Pratchett in the near future.

Wednesday 25 June 2008

The Haruki Murakami Syndrome

I recently lost a read-off with my husband and my "punishment" for being too slow on the read was to buy him a book of his choosing at the Bookmark in Charlottetown.

I didn't think the winner, whomever it turned out to be, would actually find anything at the Bookmark though - for, unlike its Book City-esque counterpart in Halifax, the Bookmark in Charlottetown is disturbingly reminiscent of a craptacular old Coles store.

However, hubby surprised me not only by finding something he wanted at the C'town Bookmark but also by choosing a book I've been coveting (but resisting) ever since it first came out in soft cover: Nicola Barker's Darkmans.

I'd been resisting picking up Darkmans entirely because of length considerations - it's over 800 pages long and I just couldn't foresee having the time for it. But there we were, enjoying our sweet east coast vay-cay, and Brook had just forced me to buy it...

Up until last night, when I started to become uneasy about how Darkmans was going to end, I was absolutely loving this novel. The writing is stupendously good; I haven't been blown away by such show-stoppingly amazing writing in a long time (since I last read David Mitchell, I think) and so I was feeling just stupidly happy to be reading this book.

The plot I thought was really good too - original and revelatory enough to be compelling on the one hand and tantalizingly mysterious on the other. Darkmans is a kind of ghost story/history lesson/character study and Barker provided enough connections to keep me engaged but also curious enough about how precisely those connections worked to keep me on delicious tenterhooks.

But then last night, as I realized things were wrapping up, I felt my hold on those connections becoming increasingly tenuous. And tonight, when I did actually finish it, I was left scratching my head and more than once saying (yes, aloud) "What the f*** just happened? What the...? Hey, wait - what?" (Good thing there was only one distrustful but very discreet bunny around to see me talking to myself this way.)

I honestly have no idea what happened at the end of this book. I feel like Barker's editor should have given her a stern talking to or something. Or gotten her drunk and made her sign a contract indicating she'd revise the conclusion to ensure it actually makes sense. But of course, the editor did not do either of these things.

Barker is, I think, displaying all the symptoms of what I'm going to call the Haruki Murakami Syndrome - like Murakami, Barker has mad writing skills and mind-blowing plot ideas that no one can match. Like Murakami, Barker thinks large - there's a hell of a lot going on in this book. Like Murakami, people (editors, award-givers, professional reviewers) think that there is some kind of awesome amazingness hidden in the confusion and that even if they can't figure it out (or maybe because they can't figure it out), other people will - or will take their word for it that the book is brilliant from beginning to end. Like Murakami, Barker, I suspect, is successful enough now that she can get away with anything and rather than mess with his or her meal ticket, her editor just lets her get away with endings that must be defined as pure unadulterated mush (just like the conclusion of Murakami's Kafka on the Shore).

In spite of my disappointment with the conclusion to Darkmans, I'm definitely going to read more of Barker's stuff - writing this good demands more chances.

Monday 23 June 2008

If you're in Prince Edward Island and need good reads....

My husband and I just got back to the big stinky city after a week in lovely rural Prince Edward Island. Because I (irrationally, I know) fear an imminent book famine, I took 4 books along with me and read 3 of them (all kind of disappointing - see previous posts. Boo.).

But as I always do when on a trip away somewhere, I also went hunting for local bookstores. If Borat had been with me, he would have been proclaiming "Great success!" - Charlottetown features the latest addition to my list of favourite used book stores: The Bookman on Queen Street.

The Bookman is a literature lover's dream come true. It's heavy on the good stuff and extremely light on the crappy drugstore novels. They have a tonne of Victorian novels in their literature section, most of them in great shape. I picked up some P.G. Wodehouse and a 13th-century Sufi text called The Conference of the Birds. I think the proprietor found this combination of reading selections rather strange...

I love stores, like The Bookman, that have the shelves built so high that you need ladders everywhere. What you should also note in the above photo is the way most of the books are laying flat - thus making reading the books' titles infinitely easier. (I'm not fond of looking and feeling like a bunny with head tilt while book browsing but that's what generally happens - except here!)

The Bookman sells a lot of antiquarian books as well and if I were made of money I would have looked a lot harder at them. I wouldn't have been touching them, however - there were several well-placed signs warning me that even if I was, or imagined myself to be, a collector or bookseller I wasn't to touch the olde bookes unless I wanted the bodyguards to break my fingers and feed them to the madmen in Bedlam (or something to that effect). Warning duly noted. No improper book groping was perpetrated.

Just 4 doors down from The Bookman I discovered another used bookstore, the kind more likely to have drugstore mush for sale: The Book Emporium. The Book Emporium was, for me and my reading tastes, not an extremely exciting place but it did have some good things hiding out in its fiction section, including William Faulkner's Go Down, Moses, which I bought based on my friend Shelley's good authority.

If you like cheap Sci Fi novels, though, The Book Emporium is definitely a must-visit when you're in Charlottetown. (That said, I was disappointed that they didn't have Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I'm supposed to have a read-off with someone based on that book.)

We actually spent relatively little time in Charlottetown during our week in PEI, staying as we did in a little village called Victoria by the Sea. Victoria is incredibly tiny (3 by 3 streets) - and yet it, too, has a little bookstore, which is housed in Couch House Antiques.

I walked by the little door with BOOKS posted above it about 5(00?) times before I discovered it to be opened and then I rushed home to get my wallet and then rushed back again. The selection was quite sparse and too heavy on the Canadiana for my tastes but I did pick up a collection of short stories by Karen Blixen. (I was, uh, supporting the local economy. I didn't buy it for myself. Yeah.)

Saturday 21 June 2008

This book wouldn't elevate a cow

I'm not being mean with the title for this blog post - I'm quoting Jerome K. Jerome's own pithy assessment of his essay collection The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow.

I picked this up shortly after reading Three Men in a Boat because it was just so delightful and charming, and I was desperate for more delight and charm in my reading life.

The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow definitely delivered in these areas, but not as reliably as did Jerome's travelogue of the Thames. The familiar essay is something Renaissance superstars Michel Montaigne and Francis Bacon made me extremely fond of and Jerome definitely gets into the spirit of them - unfortunately, his spirit tends disturbingly too much towards the earnest and not nearly enough towards the hilarious in this collection, with the latter being his real strength.

Not that there isn't hilarity, because there is - I laughed out loud a goodly number of times, particularly when reading the essay entitled "On Babies", which Jerome claims to know quite a lot about because "I was one myself once" (p. 91). Ne'er a more compelling claim to subject matter expertise was uttered.

Wednesday 18 June 2008

The homeless man's Dostoevsky

I found Knut Hamsun's novel Mysteries on the same international fiction table on which I found Andrew O'Hagan's Our Fathers. These two novels don't have much in common save one key characteristic - they disappointed me.

Mysteries was penned in the late 19th century; many have noted the way Hamsun's work anticipates aspects of modernism, but I thought it owed just as much to Dostoevsky, with its protagonist's mental imbalances and attempts to both negotiate and challenge a social order he can't entirely comprehend.

That said, while Hamsun may owe some debt of inspiration to Dostoevsky, I think he nonetheless reveals himself (in this novel anyway) to be a poor flatterer indeed of the master's genius. Nagel, the protagonist, is supposed to be insane and disruptive of the comfortable social patterns into which the people of the nameless small town into which he inserts himself; he rather comes off as an incredibly insecure and immature philanderer who while somehow making himself fascinating to the townspeople, wasn't in any real way fascinating to me.

In the end, Hamsun, via Mysteries, has come to represent in my mind a sort of homeless man's Dostoevsky flavoured with a dash of the homeless man's Samuel Beckett. In any case, you can see the influences sans the genius and this book is just kind of frustrating in the end.

It's especially frustrating that I lost a read-off with my husband over this book. The deal was that hubby had to finish Terry Pratchett's The Colour of Money before I finished Once Upon a Time in the North, Mysteries, and wrote blog posts about both of them. He finished his novel this morning as did I, but we went driving around the island today (we're in PEI) and so my post is coming quite late. Anyway, I've already paid my fine for losing the bet - I had to buy him a book of his choice (Nicola Barker's Darkmans, which I'm about to start reading) at one of the lovely stores on Queen St. in Charlottetown (more about said stores on the way!).

But never mind this minor frustration. I don't normally get into the details of author's lives here but I just read on that series of tubes known as the interwebs that Hamsun gave Goebbels his Nobel Prize in 1943. Maybe Hamsun couldn't write good psychopathic characters because he was too insane himself. Thumbs down, you racialist freak, thumbs down!

Tuesday 17 June 2008


I'm having trouble trying to think of what to say here. I could say I love Philip Pullman and that His Dark Materials - the trilogy to which Once Upon a Time in the North is a sort of prequel - includes some of the best books I've ever read, but I'm sure I've said that before. I could say that I'm glad Pullman is keeping these characters literarily alive while we await the release of what promises to be the massive Book of Dust - but I'm sure I've said that already too.

The fact is, I didn't have a particularly engaging time reading Once Upon a Time in the North, and so I'm drawing a blank on pretty much every front.

The book is about some of my favourite characters in the series - Iorek Byrnison and Lee Scoresby (and, of course, his daemon, Hester) - but somehow it didn't really offer anything of interest. I would like to know how they all got to where and who they are 30 years later in The Golden Compass et al and Once Upon a Time in the North is supposed to do that - but it was all so...half-hearted and unrevealing.

This book read in the end, I'm sad to say, like a throwaway. I think that I might, in the grand reading scheme of things, have been happier if I hadn't read it at all because then I'd still believe, as I mostly did before (Lyra's Oxford was pretty good but it also wasn't a show-stopping number), that Pullman is playing at a higher level than most fantasy writers. I'm not so sure anymore that he can do no wrong, and that's an unpleasant realization to have about a literary hero. Le sigh.

Monday 16 June 2008

A swill of inane weather and riverbank mud

Let me be frank: I must have been either asleep or drunk when I performed the page 40 test on Andrew O'Hagan's novel Our Fathers. I did that fatal page 40 test and was enthralled enough to keep reading for 4 more pages - a rare reaction - and so of course I bought it and squeezed it to the front of the queue, thinking I'd found something amazing. I actually imagined a lifelong relationship with the young O'Hagan approaching the brilliant and dazzling love affair I'm having with David Mitchell.

Like I said, I must not have been in my right mind. This book, beginning to end, must be one of the most pretentious things I've ever read. I should have known to be pessimistic when all of the reviewers kept using phrases like "elegiac", "deeply moving meditation", "poignant and powerful", and "lyrical and poetic" to describe it.

What that reviewer-speak mush all comes down to is this: his writing style defies the laws of grammar and instead of saying it's choppy and non-sensical, it must be said to be poetic; instead of noting that less occurs in this novel than in a good short story by Frank O'Connor, it must be said that the novel is an elegy to losses both personal and historical.

The writing wasn't good and I rushed through it to try to focus on the story, but of course, there was almost no story. The lack of story was irritating and I was too often brought up short by how embarrassingly bad the writing is - for example, when O'Hagan describes tea: "Its piping brown neutrality made me sick as a boy and it makes me sick still. A swill of inane weather and riverbank mud." These lines may be embarrassingly bad but they also made me laugh and laugh, if only because even at this early point in the book (p. 79), I saw O'Hagan as inadvertently admitting how Earnest and Young and designed to be nominated for the Booker his writing was.

O'Hagan really does his countrymen proud later in the book when he inadvertently imagines the most hilarious and impossible form of self-cannibalization conceivable while creating a "portrait" of some poor drunk chowing down in a pub: "A puddle of peas. And a gammon steak that looked sore. It looked red and sore, like one of their faces, a half pine-apple-ring set in the middle, a yellow-toothed grin. The plate was a mirror: the man was eating his own Scots face" (p. 168).

One phrase (because no, it was not, of course, a sentence) revealed what I think O'Hagan was really doing here, and the phrase is this: "His eyes of druid glass" (p. 82). O'Hagan is trying to start a fight with Cormac McCarthy - a sentence fragment-off with Cormac McCarthy!!! Dude, no one can beat McCarthy at that game. Sentence fragments are his lifeblood.

He'll beat you to death with 48 sentence fragments in a row that don't make any more sense than "eyes of druid glass" and then he'll bury you in 192 more concurrent sentence fragments, and then he'll deliver a 4-hour eulogy for you comprising only sentence fragments! You can't win this one, O'Hagan. I think it's best if you reviewed some other writers' plainer style and try again - not that I'll be checking up on your later stuff to see if your writing has improved, but I think the advice is nonetheless good.

I have to go read something by someone reliable now to try to blow the stink of O'Hagan's lyrical prose off of me.

Saturday 14 June 2008

The Reading Lamp: When pleasure and pain intermingle

Okay, I'm totally projecting the pain of my dissertation onto margaine here, which is probably unfair and potentially completely inapplicable. Perhaps she loves her dissertation. If so, I both admire and fear her. The important thing is, dissertation writing hasn't destroyed her love of reading. Three cheers for margaine!

Your name:

What are you reading now? La Préférence Nationale by Fatou Diome – a set of short stories about immigration in France. It’s for my dissertation.

Where are you reading it? On my bed, on the bus, in coffee shops.

How did you discover this book? I read Fatou Diome’s more recent novel The Belly of the Atlantic first, and then I moved on to the rest of her writings. I first found out about Diome through this website: from the University of Western Australia. It has a marvelous database of women writing in French from Africa.

What about a dessert book, a book you could read and then eat? This might sound absurd, but Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino. The descriptions of the cities really are like dessert to me - they are so rich in possibilities and full of glorious imagery. I just want to dive right in.

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.) Jupiter Jones from the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators series. Okay, not really, but he was my first literary crush, if not one of my first crushes ever. Very smart, slightly overweight, kind-of nerdy, full of curiosity, and always ready with a solution to every problem.

What's your favourite either unknown or underappreciated book? My favorite book that very few people seem to be aware of is Whitewater by Paul Horgan. It is set in 1950s West-Central Texas, where high school football reigns supreme. It has a very nostalgic feel. The narrator longs for a bygone era, and yet that era is full of tragedy. If you ever want to get a feel for small-town America of another age, this book really has it.

Favourite childhood book? My favorite book as a child was Keep the Lights Burning, Abbie, about a girl who lives on a lighthouse island with her family. Her father goes out in his boat, a storm comes, and Abbie is determined to keep the lighthouse lights burning to guide her father home. I’m not sure why the story appealed to me so much, but looking back on it, I think I must have identified with Abbie without fully realizing it.

Do you buy books or borrow them from the library? Either way, what is your favourite place to get books and why? The majority of the books that I’ve read in my life are books that I’ve borrowed from the library. My favorite place to get books, though I haven’t been there in years, is the library in the town where I grew up. That is where I really grew to love reading, and every time I go there, it brings back so many good memories. More realistically, I get everything I need from my university’s library and everything I want from used bookstores and sales.

Best music to read to? Why? I read while listening to all types of music, but Philip Glass’ music is especially conducive to reading. A lot of it is very calming and peaceful, while still being interesting and full of variation. It keeps me simultaneously enlivened and relaxed. It is also instrumental, which prevents distraction.

Wednesday 11 June 2008

Sleepy post

I'm really tired and should probably be crawling into bed now instead of writing this post, but I just finished Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age and want to tell you that I think it was really damned good.

I haven't read much Sci Fi so don't know anything about the conventions and I suspect that's a good thing (for the same reason, I'm soon going to check out a murder mystery!). Pretty much everything that happened in the first 2/3 of The Diamond Age surprised me, and in a very pleasant way. I actually found myself delaying reading this book at times just so it would last longer - this never happens much to me anymore. I don't have the energy to tell you in even the vaguest way why this book rocks so you'll just have to go read it yourself.

My friend Andy, who lent me the much maligned The Road by Cormac McCarthy, lent me Stephenson's novel and I'd say any bad karma accrued and lingering after the former has been definitively erased by the latter - even though he was absolutely correct when he warned me that the conclusion of The Diamond Age sucks big time.

I've read a lot of sucky book conclusions in my day; sometimes they're spectacularly sucky, and sometimes they're lame-sucky in a way that makes you wonder if the author was either hammered or half-dead when they finished up the book. Unfortunately, The Diamond Age displays the latter kind of sucky mcsucky ending; and if the sucky ending weren't bad enough in itself, it reminds me much too much of the uber-sucky ending of the uber-sucky Margaret Atwood's uber-uber-sucky Handmaid's Tale. Bleh.

(In case you're wondering, I'm probably writing in this ridiculously facile way because I'm so bloody sleepy but I'm going to insist that, rather, Stephenson's book is channeling my inner teen-aged geek, who is very sorry indeed not to have read The Diamond Age back in the late 80s/early 90s when staying up all night (re)reading a good novel was the name of the game. Now I go to bed before 10:30 and can still barely get up in the morning. Le sigh.)

Tuesday 10 June 2008

))<>(( (forever)

So, a postscript to my first Curious/Creepy post, in particular the segment devoted to making fun of No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July. Not long after posting, I received an email from Danai at VICE in the UK letting me know that Miranda had done a little video edu-film with their online channel VBS.TV; this filmlet is called "How To Make a Button" and it's really quite funny. You can check it out here:

I was surprised and pleased to discover that the person who wrote the electric pink book of the month is also the person who wrote and starred in Me and You and Everyone We Know, which is a sweet, quirky, and often hilarious indie film about how bloody awkward sex and love are, regardless of either age or experience.

I really enjoyed this film, and not just because of the poop back and forth forever. It was just really refreshing compared to all the big budget Hollywood crap floating around out there (har, har) claiming to be romantic comedy. Romantic comedy should be really damned awkward, and this film is certainly that.

But now I'm just getting too far away from this blog's subject matter of books so I'm going to keep this short. Enjoy the button-making instructions!

Sunday 8 June 2008

The Tibetan book of the lurid, dirty, ugly, and cruel

The publication of Ma Jian's short story collection Stick Out Your Tongue got him exiled from China in the mid-1980s, apparently for presenting a disgusting, and officially incorrect, view of China's Tibetan subjects.

The problem, according to Jian's afterword in the book, was that China was invested in maintaining the world's idealization of Tibet and its people because it would reflect badly on its attempts to (forcibly) integrate Tibet if it was represented as something less than beautiful (which is ironic, given that this idealization is the source of the rest of the world's objection to China's presence in Tibet).

I don't know nearly enough about either Chinese or Tibetan history to know whether or not Jian was skewing the truth to defend himself. I do know that Stick Out Your Tongue flies in the face of the idealization of Tibet and Tibetans that socially conscious Westerners have been trading in for quite some time, especially in the Circle of Concerned & Beautiful Famous People headed by Richard Gere.

(Stepping back from the politics of Tibetan representation for a moment, I just want to say that these are really good stories, displaying a compelling and seamless combination of the mythical/magical and the hyper-real.)

But back to representation. Whether Tibet is being represented as beautiful, perfect, and Shangri-la-esque or dirty, desperately poor and full of people as selfish and desperate and cruel as people anywhere else, the fact is they're being represented not necessarily according to their best interests, no matter what Jian or Gere say.

In both cases, the politics of representation of Tibet, I think, point to a politics of self-representation that aren't necessarily as selfless as one could hope. Not that I'm sure that one can ever represent another without some kind of personal stake getting in there and skewing things.

That said, people also can't just stop talking about oppression knowing in advance that they're not going to get it entirely right...but I'll leave any further theorizing on this matter to my more educated Post-Colonial studying friends.

Wednesday 4 June 2008

Curious/Creepy: pink is a shitty colour

A lot of folks were reading on the subway this morning – up to a third of all the people on the car, which is definitely more than usual. I also saw someone skirting the line between creepy and curious trying to discover what her neighbour was reading. Pure awesomeness. I was observing rather than reading because when I take transit to work, I commute with my hubby. Here are some of the books I saw being put to their proper use today:

Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden. We have this at home and have had it so long that we bought it when it existed only in hardcover. My hubby finally got around to reading it, and really enjoyed it, but not until it was well into its incarnation as a softcover. Boo. I should have included the whole "buying it in hardcover but then neglecting it until it's in softcover" on my post on book crimes.

No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July. I've seen this one everywhere and it may be brilliant but I can't read a book with a bright pink cover. Or a book written by someone with such a ridiculous name.

Scar Tissue by Anthony Kiedis. Speaking of pink…how can someone wearing a pink polo shirt and deck shoes without socks read a book by a drugged out hotpants like Anthony Kiedis? It seems wrong. I feel certain Anthony Kiedis would also find it to be on the wrong side of cool. Not that I'm cool enough to read this book either.

Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett. This one was a well-thumbed library book; I love the sound the plastic covers they put on hardcover library books make when you turn the pages, but I love owning books more, so my library book reading is very scanty. Anyway, Pratchett is supposed to be hilarious….yet, this guy didn't once during his subway reading even crack a smile. Is the book a dud or was the reader some kind of colonizing alien doing research into human culture before leading a humourless invasion into our libraries to destroy all our pleasure in life? Will these new intergalactic overlords force us to read only Margaret Atwood? Just contemplating a life of Atwood is making me feel like organizing a resistance movement...

NB: So yeah, I don't know if this new "feature" (featurette? NO. I hate that stupid "word"!) will ever appear again, or if it does, how often. My idea for The Reading Lamp arose out of checking out other people's reads on the subways, so Curious/Creepy makes sense. But I suspect it might also be on the wrong side of lame. We'll see.

Sunday 1 June 2008

Oh, you'll read it - you'll read it, and you'll like it!

Pretty much since I realized I was a totally incorrigible, inveterate, and addicted book-reader, I've both received and given books for as many gift-giving events as possible. (Had I known that Type Books on Queen has a gift registry, I'm sure Brook and I would have received an entirely different set of wedding gifts.)

I never questioned this practice until recently, when someone (it may have been my hubby, but I can't recall) suggested that giving someone a book is so presumptuous as to border on the downright aggressive. It's true that most people will feel compelled to read books gifted to them (assuming they like the giver - otherwise, into the mineshaft with it!) but it's also unfortunately true that it's sometimes difficult to judge others' tastes. The disjoint between good intentions and accurate knowledge of recipient tastes can thus result in the ultimate pain of the shiteous guilt read. I've been the victim of the shiteous guilt read in my day and have no doubt just as often afflicted others with it. What to do?

Until recently, I maintained an Amazon wish list to give my dear book-bestowers some guidance, and my most book-addicted family members still keep their Amazon lists for the same reason. But the Amazon (or Indigo) list, while failsafe, also takes a lot of fun out of the presumptuous aggression of book-giving. With the Amazon list, there's no chance of having your mind blown by being gifted a super-amazing book you've never heard of (which happened when my bro Roger ignored my Amazon list and gave me Pu Songling's Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio - truly, a show-stopping number, that one).

It also takes the fun out of playing the book detective, following the clues of past reads you know your giftee has enjoyed and find something new and exciting based on that. Plus, I've discovered many, many of my own reads while trying to find books for others, including my beloved Iain Banks' The Crow Road, which was perfect for me but would have made my step-dad at the very least look at me askance if I'd given it to him.

I, personally, am willing to remain the victim of aggressive book distribution. I've had far more good luck than bad luck in that regard, and if a book sucks, I can always write a potentially entertaining and likely offensive blog post about it (see, for example, my post on Cormac McCarthy's The Road which led to some verbal thrashings, let me tell you.)

It's sort of a sad thing, but I think my best book reviews are about books I hate; Erasmus was right when he said it was much easier to be eloquent when being a jerk. That said, not everyone resents my abuse of the shiteous book - one person I know cyberspacially told me he wanted to give me books he knew I'd hate just so I'd write blog posts on them. Now that's what I call an endorsement!