Thursday 31 July 2008

Hey, I thought I was the president of Zombies Land?!?!

Today on, I found an AWESOME video entitled Zombie Haiku. You can view it here:

I'm re-posting this great video because seeing it reminded me that I totally forgot my cool original plans for my post on World War Z; I guess I got distracted by all those other books and the bookstore closure.

My friend V. taught ESL in Japan for a couple of years and she came up with a great essay topic for her friend K.'s 3rd-year junior high class: "If I had one million zombies." She sent a fine selection of these stories back to those of us languishing in Canada and they were so good that I had her dig them out of the vault so I could post them with World War Z...and then, of course, forgot like the Silly Person that I am. Late and lamely presented, here they are. Their quality, however, speaks volumes that I cannot. (BRAAAAINSSSS!)

I kill zombies with a gun. I kill zombies with a rifle. I kill zombies with a machine gun. I don't like zombies. Because zombies eat a human being. It is unpleasant. I go to their grave. Because there I will throw zombies. And I will return home. I will go to bed. Because I am very tired.

I play with zombies. I play a band with zombies. I play a rock band with 1,000,000 zombies. The name of band is "Zombies x 1,000,000 Plus A Human Being." We become famous person. We do live. We songs one hundred a tune in live [concert]. We become attractive existence for guests. Some of guest be moved to tears. When live of us finish, my 1,000,000 zombies went on a journey with Kaori's zombies and Kanane's zombies. I follow zombies at once.

I hire 1,000,000 zombies. And zombies serve me as my secretary. I surprise everyone (use zombies). 999 zombies build a very big house!! Left zombies earn 100,000 yen every day. Zombies work a haunted house. It's Kobe's large place. The place is famous. So guest is very very money. The cost is 100,000 yen. It is zombies' earn money. Attraction are souvenir shop and a haunted house. I'm the president of "Zombies Land." So my secretary (zombie) Jiji [familiar-bordering-on-impertinent name for an old man] do management. For example, Jiji pour coffee for me.

The Reading Lamp: of libraries and miraculous moon forests

Skye's favourite childhood book sounds like something that 1) I'd like to read now and 2) I would have loved when I was a kid too. Like Skye, I can't remember the name of one of my favourite childhood books, but I can remember details which, when spoken aloud, sound a little bit insane.

When I was in elementary school and relying on the tiny one-room library it housed, I repeatedly read a picture book which told the story of a bad girl whose badness gets her killed - her badness, you see, manifests primarily through her hanging upside down from tree branches and showing everyone her knickers.

One day, she foolishly tries this stunt over a well and falls in. Her ghost ends up possessing the town's best behaved girl, who suddenly begins hanging from branches herself. Someone finally realizes what's happening and cuts a hole in the good girl's toe, which releases the ghost and restores social order. I told you it sounded crazy.

Your name:

What are you reading now? 26a by Diana Evans

Where are you reading it? Usually on my bed. Sometimes in front of the computer. Sometimes on the sofa or outside. (In Slovenia!)

How did you discover this book? I bought it in a bookstore. I chose it because of the summary and the colourful photo on the cover. I’m a “visual” person.

What do you think of it so far? I’m pleasantly surprised.

Favourite childhood book? It’s difficult to say. I mostly liked stories which featured an animal as the main character. There was this book about a lonely fox, which finally found a friend in the miraculous Moon forest. Of all the books we had at home it was my favourite.

Do you buy books or borrow them from the library? Either way, what is your favourite place to get books and why? The local library has always been my favourite place. Despite all the renovations it’s seen in the last couple of years I still feel at home there. However, if I want something more specific I have to look elsewhere for it, because the local library is not very big.

How do you decide what to read next? I usually decide “spontaneously”. If I have enough time and the library is open I go there and browse through the shelves to see if I can recognize a name or a title. Sometimes I pick up a book which has an interesting title and then read the text on the cover or if there isn’t any I just open the book somewhere in the middle and read a page to see if I like it.

Tuesday 29 July 2008

Three books and some sad news

I’ve got a lot of catching up to do after being too busy to post last week and then being away for the weekend. Besides spying on readers in transit, I’ve also been, you’ll be shocked to learn, reading. What? You’d like to know what I’ve been reading? How nice of you to ask!

1) World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
I love zombies wherever they might show up – films, videos, public zombie walks, Halloween parties, and now novels. I don’t love them just because they’re kind of scary though – I love them because they’re kind of scary and really funny at the same time, as Simon Pegg so brilliantly showed in Shaun of the Dead.

Unfortunately, Max (son of Mel) has forgotten his hilarious roots and created an entirely straight look at what would happen to the world in the event of a zombie plague. Here’s why this is so disappointing:

a) It’s an oral history featuring many people from different countries, age groups, ethnic groups, experiences, etc. Yet, everything is written in exactly the same style. Boring.

b) The majority of the stories are told by male characters from the military. There were a lot of these and what with the EXACT SAME VOICE being used every time, I found them indistinguishable.

c) Too many loose threads: there were a lot of hints dropped about things to be explained later that were just left hanging. The one that irritated me the most was some character’s offhand reference to how scientists actually knew what caused the zombie plague to spread – but this was never returned to.

In the end, I can only say that World War Z is a good idea very poorly executed and I wish someone else had written it.

2) Nothing But Blue Skies by Tom Holt
At my last job, I kept hearing of this one man named Ian who was the most intense and committed reader and book collector on the face of the planet. Months went by and I didn’t meet him, until a week before I ended up leaving. We had a good chat about books and he (henceforth to be known as The Buchmeister) recommended this book to me if I was looking for funny (which I always am).

This was a nice, silly, well-written romp into the hitherto unexplored connection between the loathsomeness of weather forecasters (who are always wrong, of course) and the dragons that secretly control the weather. I had some good laughs and can’t wait to check out more of Holt’s stuff.

3) Lush Dreams, Blue Exile by George Elliott Clarke
I find reading poetry difficult, especially poetry written after say 1660, but am always willing to put the work in for George Elliott Clarke. Clarke’s excellent Whylah Falls and incomparable Execution Poems are definitely in my top ten list for poetry, regardless of era.

This collection didn’t blow me away though and I’m going to guess it’s because it’s not unified by some overarching theme or narrative the way the above two collections are. I enjoy being blown away by beautiful language as much as the next guy but in the end, narrative is what keeps me interested and committed.

Because this had no common thread tying everything together I read it piecemeal and it took me about 3 weeks to get through it, and I’ve already forgotten everything I’ve read from this collection. On the other hand, I still pretty vividly remember “Reading Titus Andronicus in Three Mile Plains, N.S.” from Execution Poems and it’s been about a year and a half since I’ve looked at that one. But blame my poor relationship with Lush Dreams, Blue Exile on my short attention span; Clarke is worth taking a risk on any day.

4) And now for the sad news
While in Kingston last weekend, I, of course, went to all the bookstores there to see what was new and exciting. The only thing I found (this being the first time I’ve ever taken a trip back to Kingston and not bought any books) was that The Book Shop, a used store which has been operating for about 25 years, is going out of business.

I asked the woman working what this was all about and she indicated that the owner couldn’t make money off of it anymore because people weren’t buying books the way they used to. While The Book Shop wasn’t my favourite store in Kingston, I have bought quite a number of books there over the years and am sad to see another one of the old guard falling to the hard times booksellers are feeling these days.

Sunday 27 July 2008

Curious/Creepy: weekend train trip edition

I just got back from a lovely weekend in Kingston and spotted some interesting reading on both the going and return trips. I suppose I should say that "This edition of Curious/Creepy is brought to you by VIA Rail Canada!!!" (as opposed to the letter L). It's sort of true. But more importantly, I'm still spying on people absorbed in books.

What is the What by Dave Eggers. On the way to Kingston, I was trapped into my window seat when a young, zitty feller sat down next to me. He was sitting there rocking the whole doing-nothing-but-travelling thing that I don't get (I must be reading, dammit!) until he started talking to the woman next to him (i.e., within about five minutes of leaving Union Station).

He interrupted her reading to get her to tell him about her book and in short order had convinced her to give said book to him so he could read it! His power is a dangerous and terrifying one but my force field was up and I didn't feel compelled to give him my book. The book he so craftily seduced out of this woman's hands (his girlfriend, I assume, but if so why didn't they take me up on my offer to switch seats with one of them so they could sit together?) I soon discovered to be Dave Eggers' What is the What.

I haven't read anything by Dave Eggers and I'm unable to determine whether or not I should. My readerly friends have extreme and opposing views of his work and both factions insist that they know my reading tastes well enough to be sure that I'll agree with them. My page 40 tests have provided results that can only be described as inconclusive so for now, I'll stick with things I'm certain I want to read (or which I'm compelled to read because they've been gifted to me).

Anonymous Rex: A Detective Story by Eric Garcia. The beautiful irony of this book-being-read sighting is that the guy reading it (same train to Kingston as the Eggers-reader but sitting north-west of me) was holding it in such a way that all I could see at first of the title was Anon and then finally, and at best, Anonymous Re. I'd never heard of Eric Garcia before so couldn't fill in any blanks myself and some detective work of my own was required. The write-up on this book, however, makes me want to read it because it spoofs PI fiction and features dinosaurs that never did go extinct. Sounds like good times.

The reader of this book was a late-20s, spiky-haired, black metal t-shirt-wearing, pasty dude who I think started crushing on me a little when he noticed how much I was reading. Or when he noticed me staring intently at him. Either way.

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. I don't know anything about Ken Follett but he sounds like the kind of guy I should be able to say something about either in trivia games or when shouting answers at the TV when Jeopardy! is on. (Wiki-truthiness has just informed me that he is a British writer of historical fiction and thrillers.) I do know that Follett is very popular and this is definitely not the first time I've seen The Pillars of the Earth being clutched in some intense reader's paw. No, what's important here is how amazing the reader was.

The reader of this book was straight out of an 80s surfer film. Male, early 20s. Curly, longish, and definitely sun-kissed blond hair. Pink polo shirt. Tanned skin. Shorts from that dark, cave-like store the kidz like so much these days (Hollister?). Deck shoes without socks. (Wait - superficially, this sounds much like the guy reading the Anthony Kiedis book in my first edition of C/C, but believe me, they were worlds apart. Just wait for the kicker!). Wicked, evil aviator sunglasses.

This was the nasty, local, good-looking, popular guy in the 80s teen film who screwed with (and maybe had his thugs beat up) the sweet, shy, good, not-blonde new kid in town who's in love with said evil popular guy's hot, popular and nice but 1/2-inch deep girlfriend. But we know how it all turns out. 1/2-inch deep girl begins to access depths of her soul she didn't know she had because of new guy and while he suffers at blonde guy's hands, he ultimately gets the girl, popularity, and vindication from everyone else. Just seeing this reader made me want to go watch The Karate Kid and Some Kind of Wonderful.

On Liberty by John Stuart Mill. I caught this metaphorical fish on the way back to Toronto today and I didn't even have to try hard. I very briefly tore my eyes away from reading number9dream to notice that the dad-aged gentleman sitting in the seat ahead of me was reading this classic of speculative fiction by high fantasy guru John Stuart Mill.

Okay, okay, I'll be serious for a moment. 1) I haven't read this one and I don't plan to. Look at poor Mill's face - even he doesn't want to read it. 2) I'm not joking entirely when I call On Liberty fantasy - really, the individual's emancipation from the economic tyranny of the state isn't something that's been entirely achieved, now has it? Oh no, it hasn't. We could fight about it but then we'd end up in jails funded by our tax dollars. Check. Mate.

Tuesday 22 July 2008

Haruki Murakami wants you to ask him a hard-nosed question

I got an email last night about this cool feature does - they get famous people to agree to answer ten questions for them, but all the questions come from the reading public. This week's subject is Haruki Murakami and he'll apparently read through the questions himself and then answer the 10 he likes best.

So far, there are about 40 questions on the website and some are bad, some are okay, and some are quite intriguing. I would like to ask a question about how fame has changed what he writes and how his editor approaches his work (which is the work of the uber-famous, at least in fiction writing terms) but haven't yet found a way to do so without sounding combative. I do slag him for being the inspiration behind my naming of the Haruki Murakami Syndrome, but I really would like to get a real answer to that question.

Here's the link if you want to ask a question:

And here are the submissions so far that I personally hope Murakami will address:

1) What brand of sneaker do you prefer to run in, and how often do you replace your running shoes?

2) I have never read any of your books but if you could only choose one for me to read, which one would it be?

3) What is the one book by another author that you wish you had written?

4) When you write, do you have an audience in mind? Or do you simply write the story that’s in you, for you?

5) When you write, do your ideas develop like images on a reel of film?

Alright, I need to get back to my convalescing. And my zombie book. BRAAAAINNNS!!!!

Sunday 20 July 2008

Why I can't break up with Sherman Alexie

The last time I blogged about Sherman Alexie, I pinned him for suffering from the then as yet unnamed Huruki Murakami Syndrome; i.e., both he and his editor have become metaphorically fat and sleek, and literally lazy from experiencing a superabundance of success really quickly (in book publishing terms, which are not the same as, say, pop tart terms). No longer hungry (either metaphorically or literally), Alexie, like Murakami, tends not to write stuff that's brilliant and edgy and show-stopping anymore.

So, why do I keep reading Alexie's stuff? It seems that while I detect an increasing complacence in his writing, his editor's right: people (i.e., me) will keep buying in the hopes of finding his original brilliance somehow restored. Le sigh.

In fact, I'm so unable to resist the possibility of Alexie putting out something as beautiful and perfect as The Toughest Indian in the World that I bought his latest, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, in hardcover. This is Alexie's first YA novel, and it's in diary form, telling the story of grade nine student Arnold Spirit.

Spoiler Alert!
Junior, as Arnold is more commonly known, is a really smart kid who feels himself being smothered by all the poverty, fear, and alcoholism on the reserve and so transfers to the white school in Reardon, a town about 20 miles away. The diary covers his first year there, his ass-kicking of some racist football stars, his acquisition of a white semi-girlfriend, and his success in school in spite of the deaths of several close family friends and family members.

Anyway, I honestly don't know what I think of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It was an easy read, and sometimes a very good read. Sometimes it was truly hilarious, and it did manage to make me tear up a few times too. But for the most part it just seemed, well, insincere. Or maybe not insincere, but like the narrator is so far away from the difficult things he describes that he doesn't really feel it anymore. And hey, that's fine - he describes some really terrible things and who the hell wants to carry around terrible things from the past in an immediate and soul-destroying way forever?

In the end, I don't think I loved this book but it had just enough of the old Alexie magic to keep me coming back and trying again. Apparently, being able to identify the Haruki Murakami Syndrome isn't enough to allow me to free myself from its grip. My relationship with these writers is kind of similar to the relationship I had with this one boy in my undergraduate days - just as I was on the verge of leaving forever because I was getting nothing out of it, he'd do something super-sweet and reel me back in. I eventually escaped him but I'd be surprised if I can escape Alexie - he just gave me too much show-stopping reading time in the past for me to ever give up completely.

Friday 18 July 2008

Feminist noir, Japanese style

I've been looking forward to Natsuo Kirino's crime thriller Out for a long time and it was definitely worth the wait. It was plot-driving in the best possible ways, being well-paced, tense, and creepy without being nauseatingly bloody like Ryu Murakami's In the Miso Soup.

I haven't read much crime fiction, however, so maybe that's par for the course and there's some other standard I should be judging the book by. Aw, never mind that - Out was just a really good read. Snakes and Earrings was the leprous, homeless man's Out. That burns, I know, but I think it's an apt metaphor.

Not to give too much away, Out follows the lives of 4 women who work together on the night shift in a boxed lunch factory. One murders her husband and the other 3 end up chopping up his body and getting rid of it. But this is just the beginning, and all 3 of the women who dispose of the body end up in various ways involved in other aspects of Tokyo's criminal underworld.

The main character, Masako, becomes the ringleader (she's the only one who has the chutzpah to chop off the heads) and ends up being forced into a twisted relationship with someone as broken inside as she is...and things really get crazy. Seriously good, if very often disturbing, storyline on this one. I'm REALLY looking forward to reading more of Kirino's stuff.

I can't only say that this novel was a really good read though. I've read a respectable amount of Japanese fiction but this is the first one I've read that really looks at the complicated social and economic position in which modern Japanese women can so often find themselves, particularly in urban centres like Tokyo.

The blood, gore, etc all creeped me out, yes - but so did the claustrophobia of these female characters' lives. They went nowhere but home and work, and sometimes to each other's homes, but usually only in an emergency. Their jobs and homes and entire lives were rendered in headache-inducing, prison-like terms that convincingly made chopping up bodies seem like freedom.

Feminist noir, indeed; in this novel, the horror of everyday life was never really outdone by the horror of the exceptional experience of cutting up a murder victim. But "feminist" is a term that can only very problematically be applied to Out. I can't say why I'm making this assertion without giving away important plot details. If you've already read it, you'll know; if you do read it, you'll know when you get there where the "feminist" in "feminist noir" starts to become broken inside too.

That said, the totally horrifying playing out of gender roles at the end of the book is also central to why the book is good. Like any good book dealing with either crimes or gender, Out never lets you get comfortable. Yes, folks, it's pulp - but it's smart pulp.

Wednesday 16 July 2008

A short manifesto on reading for pleasure

When I started working on my PhD, I promised myself that if I ever got to the point where I couldn’t read only for pleasure then I would drop out, no questions asked. Luckily or unluckily (I’m not always sure), I never reached that point and so am currently still plugging away at the damned degree (but the end is finally in sight).

(Let me say that while I don’t believe in burning books, I do think I might be unable to resist setting my dissertation alight once it’s been defended; I dream as well of beating it with a stick, but not so much that I’ll put out the flames.)

I mention this because most of my peers confessed that within our first year of PhDing that they had become incapable of sitting down with a novel (related or not to the work they did) without pencil and critical mind sharpened and ready to start marking shit up. I pitied and scorned them, and maybe part of me still does, but the joke’s on me – I’m the only one from my year who hasn’t finished yet!

However, I just can’t bring myself to regret taking 3 solid weeks off just to read Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. I don’t regret reading any of the other many excellent books unrelated to my research that I’ve read over the years. I regret the terrible books I’ve read, yes, but I regret them for their own sake, not for the work they kept me from doing.

But this makes it seem as though I had any choice. I find it literally impossible not to be reading books just for my own edification. I can’t take breaks from reading. I read, that’s what I do. I can’t even get on a bus or subway without a book. I love reading almost more than anything else (my hubby will be pleased to note, however, that he would probably win in a fight between himself and books).

I think this total abandonment to reading is related to the way I read (I mean besides obsessively). Muting the critical faculty has never been my problem. My problem has been that ramping it up has tended to mean destroying whatever emotional pleasure I get from a book, and that’s just sad (the one exception that comes to mind being John Ford’s incomparable Renaissance tragedy, 'Tis Pity She’s a Whore).

I once loved Shakespeare’s King Lear – the first time I read it, I marveled that anyone could ever have written it. It seemed impossible that anything that good could exist. Having worked on it research-wise, however, it’s now basically just a hideous collection of meaningless cliches to me. Part of me wishes I’d never read it, because then I wouldn’t know what I’ve lost.

The flip side to this sad inability to have my full critical mind function in tandem with the mind that reads for pleasure and lingers over sentences just because they’re beautiful is that I don’t have to work very hard at being convinced by stories. Not that I don’t note and scorn plot holes, weaknesses, etc, because I do – but I did that before.

No, what I’m getting at here is my natural ability to enjoy literature by becoming so completely immersed in what I’m reading that I forget the “real” world exists. The hair on the back of my neck stands up (as described in my recent post on Jane Austen). I laugh loudly. I cry. I get angry (or enraged, as was the case with Timoelon Vieta Come Home).

I still have the full experience, in other words, although as I type this I realize that this probably doesn’t come through incredibly well here in blogland. I guess I like to write with some malformed vestige of my extensive edumacation in literary criticism in evidence, but I like to read like I did when I was a kid – like books were magic which promised, well, everything.

Sunday 13 July 2008

A motley crew of two

Because it's still summer-, summer-, summertime
I know I said a while back I needed to take a break from Wodehouse because I'd been overloading on him a bit - I was worried I was going to stop enjoying his stuff for treating it rather too much like a rock star I was stalking and with whom I must eventually become disillusioned.

But I just couldn't resist picking this one up the other day when Toronto was experiencing yet another of this summer's fairly common homages to the sub-tropical deluge/thunder and lightning extravaganza. I honestly haven't seen this much rain and lightning since travelling through rural Cambodia in the back of a pickup truck (which was, indeed, terribly exciting).

Most of the lightning in Summer Lightning was of the metaphorical stamp but it crackled nonetheless. I think this is one of Wodehouse's best (in my extremely limited experience of him), up there with the incomparable Leave it to Psmith. Brilliant writing, charming and hilarious turns of plot, and a more energetic approach to the romance comedy conventions than the last few of his books I've read. Perfection.

I felt tremendously happy reading this book; it also gave me some good advice on how to deal with any difficult people I might have to deal with at my new editing job: "It is foreign to the editorial policy ever to meet visitors who call with horsewhips" (p. 149). Yes, I'm nerdy enough to have made this quotation into the scrolling marquee on my computer and to have printed it off in fancy cursive and taped it to one of the walls in my office.

Because I'm nothing if not persistent
I think I actually began reading Primo Levi's posthumously published short story collection A Tranquil Star before we went to PEI in June but I just finished it last night. I read the first story which didn't grab me at all and let it gather dust for awhile. Then, out of guilt, I began picking it up every once in awhile between reading fat, delicious novels.

The stories in this collection are pretty uneven in terms of quality (for example, "The Girl in the Book" is pretty good, while "Censorship in Bitinia" is mediocre at best and often irritating); none were even close to being sufficiently show-stoppingly amazing to make me sit up straight and fan myself vigorously.

Indeed, most of these stories walked the fine line between experimental and gimmicky and strayed far too often onto the wrong side of said line. I sadly felt that if Levi hadn't established himself later in his career with things like Survival in Auschwitz and The Periodic Table these stories would have gone the way of the minor characters he cleverly (but not brilliantly) discusses in "In the Park" - i.e., oblivion.

Because I can't stop fiddling with my blog layout
On a note unrelated to either of these books, check out the new pic behind my blog title and description - it's a snapshot of one of my many, many bookshelves.

Thursday 10 July 2008

How to be a book snob and still read crap

I like to complain about the ass-hattery of a lot of books and tend to subtly imply, if not loudly and obnoxiously proclaim, my superiority in taste to the readers of said shiteous books. Yet, as you've no doubt noticed, I also read some crap, such as Bernard Cornwell and Terry Pratchett. How can my claim to literary superiority be maintained, then, you wonder? Do I deserve to be beaten over the head with my hypocrisy?

To these fair questions I say: there is one crucial difference between the crap I read and the crap I make fun of, and this difference resides in how seriously authors take what they write. I think that if you asked Cornwell, who writes in more efficient and hack-like fashion than either Wodehouse or anyone who skulked about on Grub Street back in the day, whether or not he writes literature, he would laugh and assert that no, he writes fiction.

This is not a merely semantic distinction. Literature may be hilarious but to be literature it must transcends some kind of basic assumption, genre expectations, and/or blow your mind in some way - it may be enjoyable but it's not necessarily comfortable. Fiction is written for a mass, and dare I say undiscriminating, audience, often according to formula, and often without any particular interest in language except for the way it can get across the 1/2-inch deep tale being told. There's a reason that most bookstores distinguish between literature and fiction, with the latter section being filled with mass market paperbacks by the likes of Danielle Steele, V.C. Andrews, and Nicholas Sparks.

The literature section is, of course, filled with the Classic writers - Dostoevsky, Dickens, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Hemingway, Faulkner, Eliot (x2), etc - and the vanguard of what will be Classic in 50 years - Mitchell, Marquez, Pamuk, Sebald (not Sebold!!!), Carey, Y. Mishima, etc. But it's also, unfortunately, filled with books that are in evil disguise, written by authors who desperately want to write literature (with a capital L!), and which some evil marketing exec has decided he or she will package as literature and therefore fool a whole bunch of people into buying AND make the Steele-ites feel suddenly more cultured. It's brilliant, really, but it's evil. (I wish the preceding run-on sentence were half as brilliant or evil.)

So, this is what it comes down to: I like crap books that know they're crap and don't try to be anything else. Such books are usually really fun and often funny and provide just what they're meant to provide, which is mental candy - you can get more nourishing stuff with the Russian masters, thank you very much, but right now it's time to give yourself a sore belly, a toothache, and a sedated mind (for the most perfect fulfillment of this kind of experience, I highly recommend The Shadow of the Wind). That's fine.

No, it's the ones that offer nothing healthier than boiled potato with boiled potato sauce but claim to be a 10-course meal from the best gourmet restaurant in town (which happens also to be very good for you) that make me want to rend my cheeks, gnash my teeth, and tear my hair. These books often win the Booker and Giller Prizes.

Tuesday 8 July 2008

Children at play

I’ve been trying to get my hands on a copy of Garth Nix’s YA novel Shade’s Children for quite a long time and I just recently received it in the mail via Bookmooch. I was surprised to discover that it's Science Fiction rather than Fantasy, the latter genre being Nix’s forte (and why I adore him so completely and gushingly). I wasn’t disappointed with Shade’s Children though; on the contrary, I really, really enjoyed it and part of my enjoyment came from it being the most disturbing thing I think Nix has written.

The basic idea is that humanity has been invaded by aliens (?) and anyone over 14 has been disappeared while everyone under 14 has been taken to Dorms where they’re raised until their Sad Birthday.

On each child’s Sad Birthday (the 14th), they’re taken to the Meat Factory where they’re cut up and their muscles and brains harvested to make one of 5 or 6 varieties of terrifying killing machines who follow the orders of whatever clan they end up in; duties include fighting and killing each other and capturing or killing children who’ve escaped from the Dorms.

(I also had a Sad Birthday. It was my 30th. I realized I was 30, still a student, and sitting on a crappy bicycle from Canadian Tire in the living room of our apartment. Pathetic. It almost seems like becoming a post-human killing machine might not be so bad after all.)

Fighting against the Overlords perpetrating this evil is Shade and his children – Shade is some kind of projected intelligence and his children are those who’ve escaped the Dorms and are trying to fight against the Evil Bastards (capitalization mine). The children in Shade’s care die a lot, indeed, a lot more than they should…but I won’t say anymore. Like all of Nix’s work, Shade’s Children is almost entirely plot-driven and I don’t want to ruin anything for those of you who might read it.

I will say that what I liked most about this book is what I also liked most about Yusuke Kishi’s The Crimson Labyrinth and Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale – it’s all about gaming taken to a shockingly cruel and dangerous level. Not that this is a new idea; on the contrary. But I think it just tends to always work because it’s so deliciously hair-raising to imagine yourself (but from a safe distance) engaged in a game for which you don’t know either the rules or the purpose behind it, and which will likely cost you your life.

My question then becomes…why are so many of these books made to revolve around children/adolescents? I'm sure it's been suggested that it's all about children emulating corrupt adult behaviour, or a metaphor for a culture's loss of innocence. Those are pretty safe and palatable options. But what if it's a fantasy (begun in The Lord of the Flies perhaps) in which a culture gets to gorily and joyfully abandon all responsibility for its children - or, in the case of Shade's Children, actively feed upon their particular age-based vulnerabilities. Yes, I'm suggesting there may be something essentially vampiric about it all.

If anyone still respected the critics who like to run all lit through the Freudian interpretation machine, I'm sure they could have a field day with both my idea and the fact that I have this idea at all. Luckily, that shit is totally out of fashion. Also luckily, vampiric lit is quite popular these days.

Friday 4 July 2008

Nothing worse than a thick mizzling rain

I would say that I don't read enough Jane Austen, for I always so enjoy her novels when I do, but I'm quickly running out of options and therefore have to seriously ration what's left. I don't believe she's produced anything new in quite some time.

Northanger Abbey is a parody of the gothic novel popular at the end of the 18th century, but as with Austen's work generally, it is also a harsh critique of the social mores of the time. This is what I love about Austen: I've read very few gothic novels myself (not that I haven't tried; every year during my undergraduate years at Dalhousie I ached for them to offer the Gothic Novel course in the calendar and they never did - not, at least, until the year after I graduated. Le sigh), but Austen gave enough of a (usually incredibly funny) run-down of the characteristics of the gothic novel for me to easily see what she was mocking.

I have to say that while gothic novels do, indeed, seem mock-worthy, Northanger Abbey also made me want to read more of them. I am extremely well-equipped for suspending disbelief with genres that are so obviously not trying to replicate reality. I took an 18th-century drama course at Dal for which we read a play by Matthew "Monk" Lewis - it literally had the hair on the back of my neck standing up. Good times!!

As well, I know relatively little about the late 18th/early 19th century social history-wise and yet, I still felt myself half having a heart attack while reading all the incredibly tense and claustrophobic social situations in which the protagonist, Catherine, found herself. I personally would have no trouble dealing with idiots like Isabella and John Thorpe and yet I found myself feeling as entirely powerless and guilty as Catherine did in the face of their gilded social aggressions. Not many writers are good enough to affect me to the point of physical reaction, but I was definitely chewing my nails and folding myself up into a little ball during these awkward moments.

What I like best of all about Northanger Abbey is the cagey game Austen plays with all the controversy (too strong a word, perhaps?) at the time surrounding novel-reading. Novels were, it seems, generally considered a lesser textual form than, say, history; this denigration of the novel was associated with it being a popular reading choice among women. Catherine loves gothic novels (and her notion of them as realistic gets her into some tight corners socially) and assumes most men think them silly. Her beau, Henry, however, surprises her by proclaiming that "The person, be it gentleman or lady, who had not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid" (p. 103).

I tend to agree with attractive Henry Tilney and thought Austen was going for a defense of the novel here, but then she makes Catherine blunder in horrifyingly embarrassing ways precisely for her love of and investment in (gothic) novels - so, here we have a little send-up if not of novels, then of gothic novels, and then if not of gothic novels, then of the credulity that seems to attend the reading of gothic novels. In any case, Catherine seems at points "intolerably stupid" for taking too much pleasure in novels. Austen: cagey. I like it.

What I also like is the story of my copy of Northanger Abbey. Published in 1934, I picked it up at the University College Book Sale at the University of Toronto last Fall for $2. It's old but in very good shape and was signed by the first owner: one Jeanne L. Orr, of Havergal College. Havergal College is a girl's school established in Toronto in 1894 or thereabouts and it's still going strong. I like to think Jeanne kept this book from her school days throughout her adult life and it was passed on to UC when she (or, sadly, someone else) decided to give her bookshelves a good clean-out. Thank you, Jeanne, for taking such good care of your lovely books; I'll take good care of this one too.

Wednesday 2 July 2008

Dangerous amounts of raw enchantment...or not

As promised to you and to keep my husband from leaving me, I've now read Terry Pratchett's first Discworld novel, The Colour of Magic. Hubby bought it for me to give me big belly laughs and remove shoulder tension. It certainly didn't add to my shoulder tension as it's a wild and silly romp through a universe that sits on top of four giant elephants on top of a giant turtle. It also, however, didn't give me big belly laughs, except for when I read Pratchett's hilarious re-imagining of what constitutes the Big Bang in the prologue.

I chuckled a number of times. I tittered once or twice. But The Colour of Magic just didn't blow the comic neurons in my mind. It may be that I'm just not as funny this week as I was, say, a month ago. It might be that, as hubby suggests, I haven't read enough silly fantasy novels to really get what Pratchett is making fun of. I appreciated Pratchett's send-up of tourists via the character of Twoflower, but I appreciated it with my mind and not with many big giggles. In any case, this one fell just a bit flat for me.

I think it just seemed too contrived or something. I like my contrived literature to display a little less contrivance and a little more sprezzatura (which can't really be displayed, of course). I felt like Pratchett was trying too hard to be funny; and literature, like people, makes me a little bit uncomfortable when it tries too hard.

That said, I'll probably give the next Discworld novel a try if I come across it. Even though The Colour of Magic wasn't good for big laughs, it was good for light summer reading, and oh baby is it ever summer in Toronto - it's the kind of summer I actually enjoy (i.e., not 42C). Yay!