Tuesday 30 September 2008

Why are baby carrots trying to turn me gay?

I love The Colber' Repor' and was therefore a little worried that Stephen Colbert's book, I Am America (And So Can You!) would be a pale shadow of the TV show's genius.

Indeed, in an instance of my reader-stalking that didn't end up in an installment of Curious/Creepy, I saw a woman in Trinity Bellwoods Park reading I Am America and not laughing. She wasn't laughing. At the time, I didn't know whether this meant I should avoid reading the book at all costs (and avoid the pain of watching an idol shitting the bed) or assume that she was entirely humourless and therefore destined to be among the first up against the wall when the hilarity revolution comes.

I decided to reserve judgment but was eventually unable to resist the book (for I love right wing pundits as much as the next guy) and have been reading it slowly over the past couple of weeks.

Friends, I was not disappointed. Colbert and his crack team of underpaid ghost-writers have produced a book worthy of the show. Indeed, this had all the awesomeness of the program with none of the sometimes not entirely excellent interviews or musical guests.

That said, Colbert truly hooked me in an interview when he unexpectedly asked the guest why baby carrots were trying to turn him gay (because they made him feel all tender or something). If I was drinking anything at the time, be assured that upon hearing this query I immediately sprayed said drink all over myself, whomever I was with, and the TV. I think that's a sign of comic virtuosity that cannot be denied!

And that's my Word on I Am America (And So Can You!).

Sunday 28 September 2008

Time for another hilarious book, methinks

My stomach hurts and it may be from eating at a restaurant a little too reliant on the MSG, or it may be because I finally saw Batman: The Dark Knight and while this film was quite good, it also made me sad. Heath Ledger did a ridiculously good job as the Joker - so good, in fact, that every time he was on stage I forgot I was watching an actor.

That never happens to me (except sometimes with Daniel Day Lewis and Robert Downey Jr.) and given what happened to the poor guy I'm surprised it was possible at all, regardless of his reams of talent. Anyway it did happen and the film left me feeling low that the film world has lost such a huge presence (even though I see approximately 4 films per year). I consoled myself by thinking of Robert Downey Jr., an example of the possibility of genius not always self-destructing. (Please, sweet Robbie, don't mess this up!)

Sorry for this rather maudlin non-book rant. I'll pull myself together now. Ahem.

Okay, last night, I finished reading Ellis Peters' Black is the Colour of My True Love's Heart. Yes, that may be the best title ever but no, unfortunately, this was not the second Brother Cadfael mystery. As I mentioned here recently I've resisted buying the second Cadfael book new; but my financial forbearance hasn't paid off karmically insofar as I can't find it at the damned public library! I really wanted some more Peters though so grabbed the first one to hand.

Black is the Colour of My True Love's Heart is a Detective Inspector Felse mystery, all of which are set in the current day (well, current to the writing; this one was filled with young hippies and old class-obsessed rich people. Tension simmered, to be sure).

I was not disappointed with this Felse mystery for Peters certainly knows how to spin a tale; I enjoyed this novel at least as much as I did A Morbid Taste for Bones. My only problem with this contemporary story, in fact, was that it smacked a little too much of a recognizable (to me) reality. I empathized too much with the characters made victim of deeply entrenched class standards and failures in communication, and actually found myself tearing up fairly frequently. That's okay sometimes but it's not why I've recently decided to read more mystery novels, no sir.

Looks like there'll have to be another giggle fest brought to the front of my reading queue. Wodehouse anyone?

Thursday 25 September 2008

Dorky is the new cool

I think Junot Diaz's super-extra-dynamite!-popular novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was really, really good. It didn't, however, totally blow my mind the way I was constantly promised it would.

Hype is good in the book world because it gets people buying, and that's good for everyone. But it can also backfire and leave people wondering why everyone liked today's it-book so much they want to do the literary equivalent of throw their undies at the it-book's author.

(I realize this metaphor, because it calls to mind that incomparable hip swiveller Tom Jones, makes it seem like this novel's fans are all women. Au contraire - The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao seems to have universal appeal. If more men would just throw their skivvies at Shania Twain when they're at her concerts I wouldn't have to do any explaining here - get with it, guys!)

I wonder if I hadn't heard anything about this book if I would have liked it more - no expectations, no(t so much) disappointment. But then I question that theory because half the books I read, I read on others' recommendations and I very often enjoy them immensely.

So, was it the incredibly strenuous way in which this book was recommended that got my expectations up unreasonably high? Was it that it seemed like a combination of Jonathan Safran Foer and Gabriel Garcia Marquez with a dash of Michael Chabon thrown in for seasoning - all good writers, but somehow a little less mind-blowing when combined? (And I would like to make it clear that no, I don't think either JSF or MC are in the same league as GGM! No one is!)

Or was it because it was too academic? People reading this post are saying "huh"? maybe. It certainly isn't the most academic and stiff novel of the many stiff novels I've read by academics (who can get all the elements right - knowing said elements is, after all, their job). But it was definitely written by someone who wanted readers to know how much they knew. That's not cool when Salman Rushdie does it and he has a cool beard and bad hair to excuse it a bit.

Also, the ridiculous academic in-jokes made me a little disappointed, with the exception of comparing Oscar's vicious ass-kicking to an 8 am Modern Language Association conference panel, which made me really disappointed. Oh dear - that's just callous and kind of sad, buddy. If used in an English class to discuss simile, that comparison would be chalked up as a poor one indeed (poor in taste and in effectiveness). At least you can draw funny pics in an 8 am MLA panel so that others think you're taking detailed and profound notes; you can't do that when you're having your teeth kicked in and praying not to die!

Anyway, the character of Oscar was really very compelling but he's not directly in the story as much as I would have liked. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed all the other family threads but I wanted Oscar to be front and centre all the time. He was the biggest dork in the world but was (therefore?) charming and tragic and hilarious and embarrassing all at once. He totally would have been my best friend...er now.

I think I feel about Diaz what some people I know felt about Jonathan Safran Foer: that he's really good but he's not end-(or beginning)-of-the-world good. That said, I'll certainly read his other stuff - really good is damned hard to find, after all.

Monday 22 September 2008

The book dead pile

I'm stunned sometimes by the things I find in bookstores on remainder tables. I know that many awesome hardcovers, no matter how well they've sold, will end up there once they move into softcover. I know books going out of print (because not selling well) might end up there too. But sometimes I feel that bookstores aren't being patient enough.

For example, there's no earthly reason why David Mitchell's Black Swan Green (in softcover no less) should be on the dead pile at Book City, but I saw it there recently. That book is less than 5 years old, David Mitchell is widely understood to be brilliant and he's got a new book coming out next year.

Keeping his books at regular market price is an obvious choice given that many people stock up on the older stuff they've missed when they know a good author is about to be published again, or they're blown away by the most recent book and then have to go collect all the past stuff.

Not that I haven't reaped the benefits of the remainder table. A long time ago, I discovered Barbara Gowdy’s hilarious Mister Sandman on one (which she wrote before she started to suck). I've found books by various obscure (to many North Americans) Japanese authors that I've never seen anywhere except on dead piles, such as Inside my Glass Doors by Sosecki Natsume. I've picked up books that interest me but I'm not sure I want to make the full financial commitment to, such as Rudyard Kipling's Strange Tales and Cornel West's Democracy Matters, both of which I picked up recently. (I don't know when I'll get around to reading either of these, but who cares? They were $5 each and therefore can't invoke much guilt for being neglected.)

I feel that buying books on the super-cheap and then neglecting them indefinitely almost amounts to a victimless crime. No one will be insulted because you haven't read the book they gave you for your birthday/Festivus/Solstice/May Day/your circumcision a year ago; no one will be put out in any way because it's taking you literally years to read the book(s) they've lent you; and you won't be metaphorically (or literally, I suppose, depending on how mad you are at yourself) punching yourself in the neck by getting no readerly return on your financial investment because that book you spent $30 on is just gathering dust. There's really just the minor guilt and the broken back every time you move and have to pack and move 50 boxes of unread books.

I've been a victim of the remainder table in other ways too. I once picked up a copy of E.T.A. Hoffman's The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr for $3 only to get it home and find out that one of the signatures had been repeated twice and one was missing. I took it back and every copy the store had was similarly defective. I've never once seen that book again.

I've also taken risks on books that simply didn't warrant the effort. I'd give you an example but the list is so long it makes me sad enough to need a nap to recover. Perhaps on the lovely bench pictured below?

In the end, though, the real travesty is what happens to books after they've failed to sell on the remainder table. Their covers are torn off and returned to the publishers while the books proper are destroyed. Tell me, what's the difference between psychos burning books and publishers and booksellers destroying excess book stock? Temperature is the only thing I can think of.

For god's sake, do something useful like send these books to libraries or remote and small communities whose "libraries" are in some sweet old lady's living room. Make some cool notebooks out of them like these cool cats in Halifax do (sorry, can't remember the company's name but you can buy their stuff at Grassroots!). Or be creative and make a damned bench, or some other kind of furniture, out of them. In any case, don't kick writers in the head by killing their books! Murder will out, it will out I tell you!

Can I live in this fort? Please?

Friday 19 September 2008

Promises broken and an apology to myself

I know, I know, I indicated that I was going to begin reading longer books, and here I've gone and read a book that was just under 200 pages! But right now, my choices are being seriously circumscribed by our 3 most important (because filled with potentially great novels and the like) bookshelves having been moved away from the wall and emptied so that I can paint the dining room.

Anyway, I'm now going to rescind my apology for reading another short tome because what I read was Nicola Barker's Five Miles From Outer Hope and it was totally kick-ass. You may have noticed that I didn't read and blog on this one within 2 days of beginning it. Dear reader, I did something I've gotten out of the habit of doing since I started graduate school: I very slowly (for me) savoured it instead of gobbling it up like I'm starved for books after not having seen even one in 7 years of exile in a desolate, book-free gulag or something.

Barker's writing is so good I want to invoke clichés to talk about it, like "The writing crackles," "The prose is explosive," and "Barker raises the bar for quality contemporary fiction." Dammit, all these things are true and I don't have the vocabulary or patience to try to find news ways of saying them that don't sound like they were designed to go on the back of the book under the shitty back cover copy.

The plot in Five Miles From Outer Hope is, in comparison to the complex web of metaphysical and fantastical craziness Barker created in Darkmans, almost non-existent. But her writing is so good that I frankly wouldn't care if there was no plot at all, if indeed there were negative plot (not sure how that would manifest exactly, but you get my point). This one is not story-free, but has a very simple plot beautifully and hilariously executed so if I were given to rating books on this blog I'd give it a 5/5. I don't rate books here that way, however, so you can forget the previous sentence. You are allowed to remember, however, that I will read another Barker novel as soon as I get my hands on one.

And now for something completely different: Last night, hubby and I went to Indigo because he got one of their gift cards for his birthday. I saw a nice and affordable copy of the second of Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael mysteries, One Corpse Too Many, and it took every molecule of will power I had not to buy it. It hurt me not to buy it. Indeed, I think I owe myself an apology for unduly depriving myself this way. Le sigh.

Wednesday 17 September 2008

The Reading Lamp: reading on a hidden path atop Tunnel Mountain

Thomas, whom I know cyberspacially (indeed, I created the word just to talk about him!), has this irksome habit of not noticing what a thoughtful and kick-ass writer and reader he is.

If the following represents the work of the "flabby-witted and the soft-minded" then please, someone put me out of my sub-moronic misery. Thomas makes me feel like that poor bastard in Flowers for Algernon before the operation (or, even worse, after it had worn off).

Your name:
Thomas McIntyre

What are you reading now? The Psychoanalysis of Fire – Gaston Bachelard

Where are you reading it? I started reading it on a hidden path atop Tunnel Mountain, but as fall creeps in and the snow continues to pile up I’ll have to move to a quiet little spot along the Bow River. I do read at home as well, but roommates are such a distraction.

How did you discover this book? I adore Bachelard (whom I discovered ten years ago after reading a sort of pamphlet by William H. Gass entitled Temple of Texts), whose Poetics of Space profoundly altered my thoughts about the environments we inhabit.

What would your ideal desert island book be? W.H. Auden once suggested the dictionary would be the ultimate desert island book, as it contained all books therein. I am not that glib however, and would take The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton. The rants, the sadness, the passion, the medical advice: what more could one ask for?

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.) Colette, no question. Of course she would eat me up for breakfast, but she did have a wonderful habit of letting her lovers steal her work. My back up is Rosalind from As You Like It.

What writer do you think should be zapped out of history/existence and their works therefore never written? Paulo Coelho. 'Nuff said.

What's your favourite either unknown or underappreciated book or author? I fear that Stanley Elkin may disappear unless his readership grows. His is a major American voice, as significant as James', Faulkner's, or Hawkes's, that remains sadly unknown. He also brings the funny in a big, hard way. I recommend The Dick Gibson Show, The Living End, or The Franchiser. His book Searches and Seizures features a novella called The Making of Ashenden which is notorious for its bear-fuck scene. Can I say "fuck" on bookphilia.com? [Yes. –Ed.]

Do you buy books or borrow them from the library? Either way, what is your favourite place to get books and why? I covet books, and so must buy them. At Woozles if possible. Because it is just plain fun there.

Favourite literary time period? Why? The Latin American Boom. Aside from Elizabethan England, no other literary time period/movement has produced such a copious and sustained variety of genius. Unlike their European and American contemporaries, who developed and explored literary forms, writers of The Boom set out to explode and destroy those same forms with a sort of Baroque glee.

Has a book ever made you physically ill? If yes, which book was it and why did it affect you this way? Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus made my head swim and stomach hurt. I remember shaking and sweating on the D line from Canal so terribly the kind lady next to me asked if she could walk me to the clinic. It made me realize once and for all what a flabby-witted, soft-minded fool I am. I actually had to buy the book three times as I “accidentally” would lose it so I wouldn’t have to prove to my advisor that I was as dim as I’m sure he thought I was. Hey, we’ve all done that. I’m not ashamed.

Remember: if you're interested in being featured on the Reading Lamp, all you have to do is email me at colleen at bookphilia dot com!

Monday 15 September 2008

Permit me to pull your nose

I really have to start reading longer books. Posting book reviews every 2 days and waiting 1 day to do so because I've finished the book but don't want the content on the front page to fly by too quickly is starting to wear on me. And, no doubt, it's also wearing on you, given that I'm only finding time to write these reviews first thing in the morning when I'm still in full coma mode.

My attention span is just so bloody short lately. I'm sure we've got some great yarns hidden away here somewhere that would keep me focused for more than 200 pages in a row but I'm feeling really picky lately AND half our books are out of reach because we've had to move the three biggest bookcases away from their wall so I can paint it. (Yes, the bookcases' wall, not mine - I'm just their servant!)

See what I mean about focus? I haven't said one word yet about book 50 of blog year two, G. K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare. The fact that Chesterton subtitled this in such a macabre way and the fact that Kingsley Amis called this "The most thrilling book I have ever read" led me to believe I was in for a hair-raising ride.

Wrong. Wrong. There wasn't one frightening, anxiety-inducing, or even tense moment to be found in The Man Who Was Thursday. On the contrary, it was amusing overall and sometimes downright hilarious. I feel as though Kingsley and I read entirely different books and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that mine was the better one.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and thought the hilarity, which I can't believe wasn't intentional, was a great way to send up the fin de siècle anxieties it's supposedly expressing in such a chilling way. According to Wikipedia, the essence of all truthiness, The Man Who Was Thursday is a metaphysical thriller - try metaphysical giggle-fest! I really don't know why people are identifying this book as being so very serious. I don't think I'm being insensitive to differences in context (this book was published 100 years ago) - I'm the one, after all, who is able to be pleasurably frightened by the most cheese-ball Gothic fiction of the 18th century.

Here's one of my favourite scenes in the book, when Syme tries to tempt the Marquis to challenge him to a duel; I think you'll see what I mean:

“You are Mr. Syme, I think,” he said.

Syme bowed.

“And you are the Marquis de Saint Eustache,” he said gracefully. “Permit me to pull your nose.”

He leant over to do so, but the Marquis started backwards, upsetting his chair, and the two men in top hats held Syme back by the shoulders.

“This man has insulted me!” said Syme, with gestures of explanation.

“Insulted you?” cried the gentleman with the red rosette, “when?”

“Oh, just now,” said Syme recklessly. “He insulted my mother.”

“Insulted your mother!” exclaimed the gentleman incredulously.

“Well, anyhow,” said Syme, conceding a point, “my aunt.”

“But how can the Marquis have insulted your aunt just now?” said the second gentleman with some legitimate wonder. “He has been sitting here all the time.”

“Ah, it was what he said!” said Syme darkly.

“I said nothing at all,” said the Marquis, “except something about the band. I only said that I liked Wagner played well.”

“It was an allusion to my family,” said Syme firmly. “My aunt played Wagner badly. It was a painful subject. We are always being insulted about it.”

“This seems most extraordinary,” said the gentleman who was décoré, looking doubtfully at the Marquis.

“Oh, I assure you,” said Syme earnestly, “the whole of your conversation was simply packed with sinister allusions to my aunt’s weaknesses.”

“This is nonsense!” said the second gentleman. “I for one have said nothing for half an hour except that I liked the singing of that girl with black hair.”

“Well, there you are again!” said Syme indignantly. “My aunt’s was red.” (pp. 121-22)

That's what I'm talkin' 'bout!

Saturday 13 September 2008

Overall, a disappointing show by William "Bad-Ass" Yeats

I had no idea that W.B. Yeats wrote anything but dense and headache-inducing (in the positive sense) poetry until I happened upon Mythologies during one late night's browsing on Bloor St. West many moons ago.

I was intrigued to read some folk tales by a writer as uber-modern as Yeats, and to be honest, was not very secretly hoping that these old tales would be as kick-ass as the old folk tales in Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (though much different, of course).

Whereas Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio had me from the word go, I had trouble getting into Mythologies, unfortunately. Yeats' book is a collection of several smaller works of his, so is actually quite diverse; indeed, the diversity of Yeats' writing is stunning even if I don't always enjoy how it manifests.

The first part, The Celtic Twilight, was a collection of ghost stories which were quite often related to Yeats by "an old woman of Mayo" and they read like ramble-y, unformalized oral tales - that is, not very well.

The following sections, especially about the one about Red Hanrahan, I enjoyed for while they were folksy, Yeats brought his considerable linguistic skills to bear on telling simple tales pretty well.

But then naughty William B. lost me again in the final three sections, but especially with Per Amica Silentia Lunae, which was a convoluted collection of meditations on writing and the nature of the soul, with the latter ideas being pretty basic and uninteresting ones dressed up in fancy clothes and fawned over for much too long.

I think it's been quite some time since I wrote a post so boring. It's true that it is early in the morning and my brain is being squeezed by lack of caffeine. It's also true that it's cloudy again here, which makes me want to hibernate and eat chocolate; yes, somehow at the same time. But in the end, Mythologies, which had some parts I did enjoy, has already almost completely faded from my memory and I think this lukewarm (in every way) review reflects that. Hopefully, my stunning intellect and irresistible charm will be revived for the next post. Le sigh.

Thursday 11 September 2008

Mental indigestion

I read Haruki Murakami's Sputnik Sweetheart much too quickly and was left feeling a bit headachy afterwards. It really deserved a slow, meditative read, which I gave the first third or so of it. But on Tuesday night I felt the fit upon me (the fit being the irresistible desire to stay up way too late reading) and ended up reading 2/3 of it in one sitting.

For the sake of both myself and the book, I should have resisted giving into that temptation for Murakami's dreamy tale of an existentially wrought love triangle is pretty much the opposite of a good ol' yarn (which is really what I was yearning for when I decided to stay up half the night).

Not that this wasn't a good book, it was (again, making me feel more disposed towards Murakami) - the character of K (also the narrator) was, to me, one of Murakami's most compelling so far; but I feel like maybe this wasn't the right time for me to delve into it. Having just read the excellent yarn Peters spun in A Morbid Taste for Bones, I really just want more of that sort of tale right now.

I find it really quite difficult to find good ol' yarns though; it's really more challenging than it should be. I feel sometimes as though too many authors are working too hard at being super deep or profound when a passing strange tale told exceptionally well would be much more in order. Recommendations for well-spun yarns are currently being accepted at Bookphilia.com - you know how to get in touch with me!

Tuesday 9 September 2008

Old book smell

This post isn't going to be about old book smell per se but it does deserve some discussion because the copy of Ellis Peters' A Morbid Taste for Bones that I just finished is quite fragrant with this particular perfume.

Old book smell tends to be found in mass market paperbacks older than 20 years, whose pages are yellowing, and which have often spent much of their lives mouldering in someone's damp basement or cottage. It's a delicious smell for those of us who love books and aren't, gawd forfend, allergic to book dust.

I think I love old book smell because so many of the books I read in Junior High School (when I regularly stayed awake all night reading) were old and stinky; a friend of mine used to feed my reading habit with old books from her basement, and that includes many of the texts I had to write school book reports on.

Indeed, the first and before now last time I read anything by Ellis Peters, it was the 80s; I was between 12 and 14 years old; I was wearing black jeans, a leather jacket, incredibly big hair and a bad attitude; and had to write two book reports on two books by one author. M., the Jr. High friend, produced Ellis Peters' A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs and Funeral of Figaro out of the cavernous depths of her ill-lit basement and I went to work. I recall enjoying these books but while I read a lot back then, I don't think I was yet smart enough to make a point of reading more books by authors I found myself enjoying.

Somehow I recently had the sense to get the first Brother Cadfael mystery by Peters, A Morbid Taste for Bones, from Bookmooch and I'm bursting so I'll just say: I LOVED THIS BOOK!!! I haven't enjoyed a book this much in a long, long time.

The writing was fantastic and as a nice change from all the chronologically fractured narratives of contemporary fiction I've been reading lately, pleasantly straightforward. In perfect harmony with these things was how plot-driven, yet patiently plot-driven, this novel was. Finally, the mysterious goings-on were opaque enough to keep me hooked but never so fantastical and unlikely to make me doubt either Brother Cadfael or Peters. I can't wait to read the next one - because luckily for me, there are at least ten more books about this 12th century Benedictine monk/savvy and subtle solver of murders and mayhem.

(Hopefully, the next one I get my hands on will also be redolent of old book smell - just to further add to the atmosphere.)

In an interesting aside about the blogosphere, I was searching about for some info on this novel on that series of tubes known as the interwebs and found a blog called "Catholic Fiction: Reading suggestions for the undergraduate student at a Catholic university" (said university being the University of St. Thomas at Houston). I was wary of reading what I assumed would be doctrinally conservative reviews of books, especially given how much of a maverick Brother Cadfael is (quietly so, but a maverick nonetheless).

However, the reviews I read were entirely balanced and seemed most interested in simply providing access to books with Catholic themes, entirely in line with doctrine or not. Indeed, there were a number of really good books discussed on this site, including books by Frank O'Connor, Muriel Spark, and J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey, the last of which I loved but was apparently too young at the time (15?) to get any references to religion. Bookphilia.com: schooled again.

Sunday 7 September 2008

Strange bedfellows

Here's another double book post for yer - I'm trying to catch up on my posting so my reviews of these 2 books, as unlikely a pair as you can imagine, must go together. Also, this post will be very short. I'm knackered and this rainy weather is making me want to curl up for a 7-hour nap.

The Enlightened Mind: An Anthology of Sacred Prose ed. by Stephen Mitchell. I've been reading this book almost forever (i.e., since the very beginning of Blog Year 2, a.k.a and henceforth to be referred to as 2 B.Y.) and was beginning to wonder if I'd ever finish it. It's not exactly bus reading.

As an anthology of selected passages, The Enlightened Mind is good insofar as it gives (I think) a fair and generally compelling overview of sacred writings from the 8th c. BCE to the 20th c., and from across a wide variety of cultures. It was kind of like taking a first-year university introduction to world religions without ever going to class.

The disadvantage of not going to class is, of course, that you don't get any contextual information surrounding the texts and this anthology didn't really attempt to fill in those gaps. In fact, I found the lack of information (there was one paragraph per author, at the back of the book) providing significant context a bit irritating at points, but that irritation was in no way overwhelming.

Many of the texts and authors Mitchell chose just didn't grab me but a number did, especially The Upanishads, Dogen, Rumi, Michel de Montaigne, Baruch Spinoza, Thomas Traherne, and Shmelke of Nikolsburg.

And as I already have the complete Essais of Montaigne (courtesy of my bro), I think that's where I'll next pick up my Mitchell-inspired reading (one of these days - I'm beginning to see that making public pronouncements about what I'll read next seems to ensure that I'll read something else next).

Un Lun Dun by China Mieville. I chose Un Lun Dun to serve as a pick-me-up/damned relief read after Swift's The Light of Day, and it definitely fulfilled its intended purpose.

Un Lun Dun (recommended by A.C. - thanks, sir!) is some sweet YA fantasy fiction in which, as is often the case with YA fantasy, the fate of the world (or in this case, UnLondon and its much less fascinating mirror image, London) is in the hands of an adolescent. As is the case with such tales, in no way mentally deficient adults place their entire trust in a child and then do whatever they're told.

Described this way, YA fantasy sounds very silly, but with good YA fantasy (and Mieville's novel certainly must be included in this category), the story is really about the fantasy world in which everything takes place and the details of the plot itself, rather than the main character.

Indeed, in my experience with this stuff, the supporting characters tend to be much more interesting than the central/saviour one and make the ridiculousness of the premise fade a bit into the neat twists and turns of the plot. And hey, it's fantasy, so who cares? - reality's not the name of the game anyway. Mmmmm, unreality.

Friday 5 September 2008

The Reading Lamp: Vonnegut's butthole and scary trousers

I also took a great deal of pleasure in the drawr-ings in Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, especially the asshole...but I was 22 when I read it so my giggles were much creepier than the 13-year old Wayne's, I suspect.

Speaking of creepy: I wonder how much richer my childhood would have been had my massive collection of Dr. Seuss books included The Sneeches? I must read this book.

Your name: Wayne Lowther

What are you reading now? 3 books on the go: The Rifles by William T Vollmann, Tilt: A Skewed History of the Tower of Pisa by Nicholas Shardy, and The Abolition of Work and Other Essays by Bob Black.

Where are you reading them? Usually lying in bed.

How did you discover these books? I found The Rifles in John W Doull’s used bookstore in Halifax. I like Vollmann from reading past books. Tilt I found in a box of “Free Books” on the sidewalk. Abolition of Work was given to me by a friend.

What would your ideal desert island book be? Some of the past Reading Lamp interviews seem to think “desert island” means “beach resort”. I’m a bit more pragmatic. I’m assuming I’ll be stuck there for awhile, so it would be a toss-up between: SAS Survival Handbook or The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Erotica.

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.) I would have to say my literary girlfriend is the main female character referred to as “V” in Thomas Pynchon’s book of the same name. If only because I think I’ve crossed paths with this profoundly enigmatic woman numerous times over the last twenty-five years.

As for male friends, I’d enjoy hanging out and having a few beers with Linus van Pelt.

What writer do you think should be zapped out of history/existence and their works therefore never written? Start with L. Ron Hubbard, and putting aside his whole insidious creation of Scientology; his science fiction is absolutely the least intelligent and least imaginative stuff out there. The guy was a hack of the highest calibre. This man has given nothing to literature and is probably at the root of the worse kind of “self-help” movements since the mid-20th century.

What's your favourite either unknown or underappreciated book? Moravagine by Blaise Cendrars. I’ll let your readers look search it out.

Favourite childhood book? I didn’t come from a family of readers, so books were not around much. My grandmother had more books around for the pile of grandchildren that would visit, usually comic books.

There were Dr Seuss books, but I generally didn’t like them. I hated Green Eggs and Ham and The Cat in the Hat, but I remember finding a Seuss collection of The Sneeches (with stars upon thars) discarded in the garbage and really liked the stories and illustrations. It also had the most un-nerving story I had ever read when I was young, called "Pale Green Pants" (with nobody in ’em). The illustrations for it were really nightmarish to me: an empty pair of green pants chasing a little girl in pyjamas around in the woods in the dark; very weird and scary!

I was also an encyclopedia geek. Parents bought a set of World Book Encyclopedias in 1968 and I was the only one in the family who would look at them. I always had my nose in one on a rainy day.

First novel I read was Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut when I was 13. I got it out of the library of Quebec City High School, while researching some assignment. It was in really bad condition, as it was probably the most read book in that library. What made me want to read it were the funny pencil sketches (cool), especially the drawing of an “asshole” (even cooler).

Upon taking the book to the check-out desk, the librarian gave me a dirty look. I was really looking forward to reading this now! I wasn’t disappointed.

What's the most embarrassing book you've ever received as a gift? Did you read it? I’ve never received a book as a gift that I didn’t give a chance. I’ve been pretty lucky with my reading, although Roger, your last Reading Lamp interviewee, once lent me a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I despised! Gaaahh!

Weirdest/creepiest/most awesome thing you've ever found inside a used book? Weird and creepy: A rubber stamp image of a coelacanth in my copy of V.

Awesome: A small 4x6 pencil draft of a map of some remote island atoll in the Pacific, I kid you not! It was found in an old volume of Encyclopedia Britannica in the library of the College of Geographic Sciences in Nova Scotia. Most of the books in this particular section of the library were donated by an influential cartographer who worked at National Geographic and who founded the cartography course at that school. This was probably some work in progress of his for a National Geographic article that he used for a bookmark.

How do you decide what to read next? I just let it come to me while browsing bookstores or find them on the sidewalk. Something in the back of my brain will say, “read this”. I’m willing to take chances with unknown material. I like your idea of the “page 40 test”.

Favourite author? Why? Jorges Luis Borges, the Rene Magritte of literature. Simple, concise and straightforward storytelling that manages to twist one’s brain around. He can write about just sitting in a chair, or walking down a sidewalk and make it sound other-worldly.

Wednesday 3 September 2008

But where's my fool?

I just read an older article on The Guardian online about a new film version of Shakespeare's King Lear that will be coming out in the next couple of years. Set to star Anthony Hopkins as the man, and Gwyneth Paltrow, Naomi Watts, and Keira Knightley as his daughters, it will also feature a number of big names (as yet to be determined) in smaller roles. And for all you kids addicted to Vin Diesel films, the battle scenes are going to be totally awesome and big budget, according to the site Film School Rejects.

The director (Joshua Michael Stern), whose credits include adaptations of Classical Greek plays such as Queer Eye for the Homeless Guy and Jewz N The Hood, insists that he'll keep his version of King Lear traditional insofar as it won't feature Lear raging at the storm while executing a hip hop dance routine or Goneril and Regan got up like gangsters' molls.

In spite of my obvious enthusiasm about this new film version of King Lear, I do have some reservations about the casting. I'm not worried about Gwyneth Paltrow, however, who is a classically trained British thespian trapped in the body of an American starlet whose agent thinks it's a good idea to get her roles in gems like Shallow Hal.

Keira Knightley has already helped crucify one great book-into-film endeavour (Pride and Prejudice), though in fairness, it would have sucked anyway - I just don't think Austen imagined her characters to be quite so gushy. Knightley looks to me like an emaciated vampire gearing up to rip out your jugular - oh and she generally can't act very well either, though her performance in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl should at least have earned her an Oscar nom.

Anthony Hopkins isn't an obviously bad choice but I don't think he's an interesting choice either. I've seen him in quite a number of productions of Shakespeare's plays and he's pretty much the same every time, although I will give him kudos for appearing to understand what he's saying. He just seems to imagine that Shakespeare's heroes feel only two things, regardless of the situation: rage and confusion.

I would be even more pleased about this new film version if Stern had cast Sir Ian McKellen, what with the latter having just finished a world tour playing Lear. McKellen is a veritable genius and y'all should see his version of Richard III. My hubby theorizes that Stern may have been afraid to cast McKellen because people will associate him too completely with Gandalf and Magneto.

But I think that can't be it, because it's just as likely that people won't be able to stop thinking of Hannibal Lecter when they see Hopkins up on the screen, especially when he eats off Cordelia's face at the end (which he'll have to do before Cordelia, played by Knightley, eats his face off!).

Several other crucial roles have yet to be cast: Edmund, Gloucester, and the Fool. All I'm going to say right now is, if they get Orlando Bloom to play Edmund or Jack Black to play the Fool, I'm going to punch someone in the neck.

Here are the links that inspired this little pre-review:

Monday 1 September 2008

A labourious read

Is "The Haruki Murakami Syndrome" on the verge of being rebranded as "The Graham Swift Syndrome"? It may be apropos to rename this pernicious literary disease in this way, though I'll have to read at least one more recent-ish novel of Swift's (that being Tomorrow, published 2007) to be sure. Also, given that Murakami is more wildly popular than Swift, this potential new title won't have quite the same bite. But we'll see: if the name has to be changed to apply to Swift, it just has to be changed.

It's a long time since I've read any of Swift's novels, but Waterland is in my top ten all time favourites and Last Orders got me addicted to Swift in the first place. I think it was not unreasonable of me to really look forward to The Light of Day.

Published in 2003, The Light of Day was his first new publication after Last Orders for which he won the 1996 Booker. That's a long time to write some serious shite, if you ask me. Not that The Light of Day was complete shite, really - it's just that it went on for way too long and was painfully repetitive (a difficult and embarrassing feat, I think, in a book that's only just over 300 pages and has chapters that are between 2 and 10 pages).

Someone (i.e., Swift's editor, dammit!) should have told him either to wrap it up much earlier or to give this tale significantly more substance. It takes place during one day with ex-policeman turned P.I. George Webb going to visit the woman (Sarah Nash) he's fallen in love with (who happens also to be a convicted murderer). There are lots of flashbacks, both to George's earlier life and to his involvement in Sarah's disintegrating marriage (which George was employed to document as Sarah's husband engaged in a doomed affair with a younger woman). Really, this required only 200 pages to tell well; the remaining 100 were simply bland and increasingly irritating repetitions of what had already been revealed, examined, and obsessed over.

I think I'm going to have to read something hilarious and/or silly next to help me get over my irritation and minor sadness about Swift falling into the "too famous to edit" trap.