Friday 31 October 2008

Another attempt at getting back on the horse

Last Saturday, I seemed to be on the mend and then the shit hit the fan and I actually ended up having emergency surgery on Monday. Since then, I've been floating in a world of mild hallucinations courtesy of the painkillers or mind-numbing pain; either way, my state of mind and body haven't made for good thesis-finishing, blog-writing, or witty repartee (except with people who aren't there, perhaps).

Today, I'm feeling somewhat less messed up and so am trying again to establish some normalcy in my life. Let's hope writing this blog post doesn't half kill me like the last one did!

I would just like to say that in terms of books that are so good they can help you ignore the annoying distraction of imploding internal organs, Neal Stephenson just can't be beat. I started Snow Crash right before I got sick and it carried me through until yesterday (when I was awake, that is, which actually hasn't been much).

Indeed, I found this book so compelling that it successfully got me through waiting to go into surgery, which I found terrifying. Anyway, I woke up, so my fears weren't all that grounded it seems.

Snow Crash is Stephenson's look at the dangerous directions in which a society based entirely on information exchange might go. It was an awesome blend of science fiction (how cool/wild west-ish virtual reality, what Stephenson more elegantly calls the Metaverse, can be) and historical speculation (how the Sumerians created Babel as an informational/biological metavirus to protect people from social mind control).

Yeah, I can't discuss these things as compellingly or intelligently as Stephenson does but hopefully what I've said will be enough to tempt you if you haven't already read Snow Crash. Plus, the main character's name is Hiro Protagonist; that alone makes the book worth a read.

Last night, I had tickets to see Neal Stephenson discussing his new novel, Anathem. I wasn't well enough to go, which I'm still bitter about, but some friends apparently picked us up a copy of the new book. Yay! As well, one of said friends, Jason, has posted some notes about the talk here.

Saturday 25 October 2008

An excuse to use a great term found in Dorothy Osborne's letters

The term to which this blog title refers is "buffle-headed" and that's how I feel right now. Or how I think I feel right now. I haven't looked up this glorious adjective in the dictionary to see if I'm understanding Osborne rightly but I just like the sound of it; I feel it reflects how I'm feeling.

I am currently on some serious painkillers and other drugs that are making me stupid and dizzy. I am writing this blog post as an experiment: to wit, if I can write a fairly lucid post now without insane amounts of effort, I will try to get back to my thesis conclusion this afternoon. I had to abandon my conclusion on Wednesday morning in favour of a trip to the emergency room and large doses of pain-managing narcotics. Yes, I'm going to be okay even if I'm not really right now. So, let's see how this goes, shall we?

The following books are all ones that I've read in 20 minutes or less while browsing happily in bookstores. Because all were perused in such short periods of time, I don't feel like I can fairly count them towards my year-end total, but they're all interesting and/or irresistibly charming and therefore deserve mention.

Ernie by Tony Mendoza. I've actually "read" this one a number of times which, while filled with boring and forgettable text, contains some of the most amazing photographs of cats I've ever seen. They're so amazing because they reveal how utterly manic, evil, and uncute cats can be.

The photos are all black and white and were taken in the late 70s, I think, and so the titular subject is by now long gone and presumably wandering about in cat heaven biting ankles, wrists, and faces.

I found this amazing book in Pages at Queen and John where one of the booksellers informed me that Ernie is actually a best-seller there. (Indeed, I've given this book to Vee, the subject of my most recent Reading Lamp post.)

It's perfect for those of us who love cats but not the cutsie renditions of cats we all too frequently receive in the forms of birthday cards, calendars, chain emails, and gawd forbid, t-shirts.

The Gas We Pass by Shinta Cho. Improbably as all get out, I found this book being aggressively displayed in the window of an upscale children's toy shop in snobilicious Yorkville several months ago. The incongruity of a fart book for kids being displayed in the land of "shit that smells like roses" was matched for me only by the fact that someone took the time to translate this Japanese book into English!!!

I bought it for a friend who appreciated it, or at least did an excellent job of pretending to. It doesn't matter; I enjoyed it immensely and showed it to many people before passing it along as a gift.

The Gas We Pass
is a really strange combination of veggie propaganda (it claims that people who eat meat have stinky farts while those who eat veg food don't - ha!), an anatomy lesson with (given the projected age group for the book) pretty complicated drawings and explanations of the GI tract, and, of course, fart jokes.

Genius, I say. If I'd received this book as a child I'm sure it would have been a total giggle-fest plus a major incentive to become a vegetarian doctor.

Varmints by Helen Ward and Marc Craste (illustrator). I don't have kids or nieces or nephews to buy awesome kids' books for but if I did, every single one of them would own a copy of Varmints (and not just because "varmints" is a wicked cool word, although that, admittedly, counts for a lot).

Varmints is a beautifully illustrated and sparcely worded look at how the beautiful sounds of the pastoral world inhabited by buzzy bees and the like are being drowned out and more disturbingly and permanently silenced by increasing urban- and suburbanization of the wild and farmlands.

A call for über-early environmentalism, I fear the message in Varmints will be lost on kids and their SUV-driving parents. I'm just cynical like that.

And at the complete opposite end of the spectrum is Mütter Museum: Historic Medical Photographs, put out by The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. This book should be shown only to children to whom you want to give nightmares or children whom you wish to mold into serial killers who collect body parts in jars.

This book, which was 99% photographic, features a bunch of late 19th- and early 20th-century photographs of the most horrifying medical oddities that you can imagine. I have a pretty strong stomach and so wasn't bothered by hair lips, elephantitis, truncated limbs, limbs in the wrong spots, or even most of the Siamese twins. Except for one picture. Oh. My. God.

In the series of photos of Siamese twins there was one featuring a set of twins (deceased, of course) who were attached by their faces. Which means they didn't have faces. Where each twin should have had a face, the other twin's head was growing out of that space. So there were two sets of perfectly formed ears...and nothing in between.

All it took for me to turn pale with sudden nausea was this thought: "How would someone react, in the late 1800s, to giving birth to babies like this?" I imagine it would be pretty hard not to go completely insane and end up like Rochester's first wife.

Zero Mostel Reads a Book by Robert Frank. Another book of photographs, although completely sans any explanation (as I recall anyway), is this solid gold book by Robert Frank, famous for his less than enthused look at US society in The Americans.

This volume comprises a series (although unconnected) of photographs of late comic actor Zero Mostel reading books and displaying all the emotions associated with a good read, but turned up to way past 11.

Mostel's looks of fear, anger, disgust, and joy are so ridiculously compelling that I went through the book about 3 times before hubby told me it was time to leave (we were in Pages again - this store has the best weird book finds ever!).

Here's a photo from the book that I found on that series of tubes known as the interwebs; unfortunately, I couldn't find any of the more dramatic ones.

As you can see, I like books in a variety of genres and you can be sure that if I were made of more money I wouldn't hesitate to buy every single thing I like, regardless of it taking me less than 20 minutes to read.

Vaguely related: I just did a quiz on BookBrowse that confirms what kind of reader I am, i.e., an "All-Rounder":

"Your responses showed you fitting equally into all four reading personalities:

Involved Reader: You don't just love to read books, you love to read about books. For you, half the fun of reading is the thrill of the chase - discovering new books and authors, and discussing your finds with others.

Exacting Reader: You love books but you rarely have as much time to read as you'd like - so you're very particular about the books you choose.

Serial Reader
Once you discover a favorite writer you tend to stick with him/her through thick and thin.

Eclectic Reader
You read for entertainment but also to expand your mind. You're open to new ideas and new writers, and are not wedded to a particular genre or limited range of authors."

You can find the quiz here, if you have approximately 5 minutes to spare.

PS-Since it's taken me over 2 hours to complete this post, the writing of which was interspersed with the frequent need to lie down, I'm going to hope that tomorrow will be the magical day of the return to my thesis conclusion.

Tuesday 21 October 2008

Just a little patience

I've been carrying this book around for a very long time - I'm guessing about 7 years now - and it's been making me feel incredibly guilty. The other night, though, in a fit of angry, insomnia-induced reading, I picked it up and I'm happy I did.

I have to say this book embodies something I miss about tomes written 80+ years ago: patience. Grahame doesn't hurry things too much; on the contrary, he lingers (dare I say it?) lovingly over the words, all of which are entirely apropos and well-placed.

Another thing: this was written back when kids' books authors weren't labouring under the current/North American assumption that sprogs are basically idiots. The words are big and the sentences very often display subordinate clauses. Crazy, I know. This book presupposes a readerly vocabulary I fear is much rarer these days than it was in 1908.

But about the story, or to be more precise, stories. The Wind in the Willows contains episodic tales of Rat, Mole, Badger, and Toad, some of which are connected and some of which are not. The stories about Toad tend to be connected and feature an early foray into the post-modern art of the intervention: Toad is addicted to driving, but he's a very bad driver, and so accidents and various other disasters invariably ensue. His friends try to cure him by locking him up in his house and watching him constantly until he gets it out of his system. Like any addict worth his salt, however, Toad escapes and engages in a really big driving binge which results in incarceration...but still, he's incorrigible! More hi jinx ensue but I won't reveal them here. Not-really-joking aside, the Toad stories are an interesting look at the privileges that come with class and the enabling by others that allows for.

Of the other stories, one in particular really stood out for me: "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn". This tale had a sort of a pre-Narnia magical Narnia feel to it, but was much better done than anything of C.S. Lewis's, I thought.

The Wind in the Willows was a nice book and the problem with nice books is that they're not so exciting. And not so exciting books don't make for exciting blog reviews. Nice books do, however, make for nice relaxing reading and I'm happy to have that right now, thank you very much. When I get to reading my fat Victorian novels I'm just going to be outraged at unfairness to women, children, and the lower classes all the time - so I'd better take my few and far between serenity reads while I can.

Sunday 19 October 2008

Oh the really long books I'll read!

Damn, fellow babies, I'm soooo tired. I'm really nearing the end of my thesis and as the light at the end of the tunnel comes to seem rather more real than hallucinatory (or mortal) I'm noticing just how deeply exhausted I am. I've finished reading for my conclusion and will begin the organizing and hopefully writing tomorrow. Also, I hope I can sleep tonight. I was up half the night last night with my mind doing a river dance (I know, embarrassing - why can't my sleepless mind be a fly hip hop dancer?).

So, here I am doing another 2-for-1 post. I really believe these will end soon and here's why: I'm going to be reading Victorian novels like mad when this is all over! Dear Dickens: I'm going to make it up to you for neglecting you so long. Sweet Balzac: I really want to get to know you; I think you have a beautiful mind. Sexy Collins: I know you're shallow and naughty but I love you for it. Lovely Eliot: It'll be so good to see you again!

Not that reading times have been bad lately. A few days ago, I finished Dorothy Osborne: Letters to Sir William Temple as edited by Kenneth Parker. Written between 1652 and 1654, these are some of the best letters ever written. Indeed, Osborne (who was not nearly as pretty as Temple - I'm giving you their portraits instead of the book cover), wooed this hotpants young Sir with her letters alone and if you've read them, you know why.

Dorothy Osborne could turn a phrase like the sexiest libertine could turn a well-shaped ankle and tiny foot encased in sexy boots. She could drop wit and knowledge like a pretty but predictably coquettish lady could drop a handkerchief at just the right time. If someone had ever written me letters like this I would have married them too, no question.

But yes, a turning point has been reached: this is the last book I'll ever read for my thesis. Well, for the writing of it anyway. I don't know what's involved in preparing for the defense but I can't think about that too much right now because then someone will have to unlace me and revive me with their smelling salts.

That said, I want for a moment to get back to what I'm going to read when this is all over. Yes, I'll be reading some insanely long Victorian novels and I can't wait. But I also envision a day when I can go back to reading Renaissance plays and romances just for fun, completely sans the emotional baggage I've collected in my time PhDing. Therapy may be required first, however: Vic Lit therapy, with some passionate and depressed Russians thrown in for good measure.

I also recently stormed my way through Yousef Al-Mohaimeed's Wolves of the Crescent Moon, which I found quite by accident in yet another late night used bookstore crawl. I am only somewhat ashamed to admit that I picked this one up entirely because of its pretty cover.

This book has been banned in Saudi Arabia, where the author is from, and it's been compared to the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. No, it doesn't seem as though the former is the result of the latter.

I don't think I know enough (i.e., anything) about Saudi Arabia to be able to speculate on why this book was banned and the back cover copy doesn't say why. Speaking of back cover copy, I don't believe, either, that comparing Al-Mohaimeed's writing to Marquez's is either fair or very accurate.

Al-Mohaimeed's writing seemed pretty unique and all his own to me; I suspect that comparing him to the well-known Marquez was a marketing ploy designed to draw in western readers, which I kind of understand. But I hate the way new or unknown writers end up being portrayed as derivative imitators of those that are well-established and have been deemed great by the arbiters of taste and distributors of large cash prizes for literature.

This sort of comparison may only be a marketing ploy; it may even be a successful one (but not with me - I did my usual page 40 test!). But I also have to wonder if such comparisons are the result of copy-writers simply running out of steam. In which case, I say we ban back cover copy right out, and not just because of the derivative/comparative impulse.

Back cover copy is too often written by the dangerous and irresponsible who, getting caught up in the summarizing skills they honed in grade 11 English class, forget themselves and reveal the entire plot on the back of the book!!!

Hissss! Just last night, I found a copy of George Elliot Clarke's Beatrice Chancy in my office and foolishly read the back cover copy. Before I knew it, 4 short sentences had given me the entire plot including the horrifying climax!! And this looks like a work that would have benefited from the reader being shocked and surprised. Curse you, you dirty bastard copy writer - may your hell include the revelation of all plots of every book you want to read!!

But back to Wolves of the Crescent Moon. I think this book was unique and in many ways compelling but I just feel like it didn't quite get there - "there" being wherever Al-Mohaimeed was trying to take it, and I'm not sure where that might be. However, as a first novel it's really good and I suspect he'll just get better and better. This book brings a whole world of pain though so don't read it if it's the only thing available when you're really trying to find some Wodehouse.

Friday 17 October 2008

The Reading Lamp: a more than simply passable baklava

Vee's idea for a dessert book is, hands down, the best has received so far - I challenge future Reading Lamp interviewees to top it!

In the meantime, Vee has reminded me why there are so many Neal Stephenson books lying around my house - they need to be read and savoured and used to remind me how little I know, the latter in the most gratifying way possible.

Your name: Vee Blackbourn

What are you reading now? Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson

Where are you reading it? Mostly on my couch, but this past weekend's reading venues also included my Mum's living room and a Subway sandwich restaurant in Deep River, Ontario.

How did you discover this book? I've been on a Neal Stephenson jag since reading Zodiac and then Snow Crash this summer. I was worried that I would be all Stephensoned-out by the time I got to this one, but I'm still going strong.

What do you think of it so far? Reading Cryptonomicon gives me a sense of what the world might look like to me if I actually understood math and computers. Stephenson seems to be really good at explaining what's interesting about scientific concepts (I can only assume that he's accurate about these things) while simultaneously drawing coherent characters in an engaging plot. It's all pretty impressive. Reading it has been one of those rare occasions in which I am glad that the book is a good 900 pages long.

What would your ideal desert island book be? The complete Oxford English Dictionary in two volumes. Not only would it take a long time to run out of reading material, but I would have a fantastic vocabulary by the time I was rescued. Also, I could use the tiny little magnifying glass that comes with it to start fires for warmth, cooking, keeping savage beasts at bay, and signaling ships and planes. Besides, etymology is really interesting.

What about a dessert book, a book you could read and then eat? I suppose any book liberally interleaved with honey and nuts could make a passable baklava, kind of like those war-time "apple pies" made out of crackers and old bicycle parts.

What writer do you think should be zapped out of history/existence and their works therefore never written? Sophocles! God, I hate that guy.

Favourite childhood book? Das kleine Ich-bin-ich, an illustrated book about an indeterminate animal which, after numerous unsuccessful attempts to bond with horses, hippos, birds, etc. comes to accept its indeterminate self-hood by gazing at its own reflection in a bubble (a Lacanian moment). "Now I know who I am," it cries in its moment of discovery, "I am myself!" And whoever does not know this, the book concludes, "is dumb". German children's books do not mince words.

Has a book ever made you physically ill? If yes, which book was it and why did it affect you this way? Triomf, by Marlene van Niekerk, makes me physically ill every time I read it. It's claustrophobic and full of casual violence, but van Niekerk also writes with wicked black humour, so that I laugh out loud even as my stomach lurches. It's a brilliant book.

I'm always looking for Reading Lamp subjects so drop me a line at colleen at bookphilia dot com if you're interested!

Wednesday 15 October 2008

A disappointing show

I picked Junichiro Tanizaki's early novel Naomi for several reasons: 1) I felt bad that I was neglecting the Japanese lit group I started on the Indigo online communities; 2) I felt equally bad that I hadn't yet posted on the Japanese Lit challenge blog I'm a member of; 3) I needed something distinctly un-English to read - I've been having too much of a Brit-fest this blog year; 4) Junichiro Tanizaki has, in the past, brought me nothing but joy.

I'll cut to the chase: I hated this book. I know!! How is this possible? Quicksand, The Gourmet Club, and The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi are among my favourite books of all time!

The problem comes down to this: I found the main characters, Naomi and Joji (the narrator), such pathetic, unlikeable, and unsympathetic figures that I found reading about them about as pleasurable as listening to someone running their fingernails down a chalkboard while I'm being forced to eat overcooked Brussels sprouts (for eternity). (That might be the strangest mixed simile I've ever come up with. It's kinda hot.)

I should say more about Naomi but I have no energy for an eviscerating book review today. I'm just so disappointed. I have no energy to write something venomous to try to cheer myself up because I wasn't ever supposed to have to think about scathing language in relationship to Tanizaki! Le sigh.

PS-8 pm: I just wrote a better review of this book for the Japanese Literature challenge blog. Check it out here.

Monday 13 October 2008

A series of laughs and good reads

I read the first Discworld novel, The Colour of Magic, a few months ago and thought it was clever but not hilarious. As I'd been expecting knock-down hilarity with my first Pratchett read, I was rather disappointed. The scolding I gave the book didn't inspire it to buck up and try harder either, bratty little tome that it is.

However, reader and interviewee Terry B. insisted (very politely) that I try at least the second Discworld novel, The Light Fantastic, before I give up. So I did, and he was right. The Light Fantastic was a rollicking good read - indeed, it was exactly the kind of read I was hoping for when I read The Colour of Magic.

I laughed out loud quite a lot while reading The Light Fantastic and found myself feeling sad when it was over. For me, the pleasure was in the details rather than in the larger plot, though. For example, Rincewind and Twoflower are walking through a scary dark wood when a wolf begins howling; it soon quits in embarrassment, however, when no other wolves join it. Silly, and not part of the plot, but so funny and ridiculous. And funny and ridiculous is really all I ask for in a book like this.

So, yes, I will now happily embark on a plan to read the next eleventy-thousand Discworld novels - because, you know, I haven't already begun enough series.

Tangent: Let's do a little run-down of how many series I currently have on the go. In some cases, I've read only the first book in the series but because I plan to read at least one more in each case, they must all be counted. Here we go:

1) Terry Pratchett's Discworld - as of today, I've read the first two. I'm told these can be read out of order but that makes my brain hurt.

2) Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael mysteries - again, I've read the first two and I'm chomping at the bit to read them all right now. But I've learned from overdosing on Wodehouse that one needs to approach these gems with a measure of restraint for their individuality doesn't always show so well in the cold light of day.

3) Douglas Adams' 5-part Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. I've read and enjoyed the first 3, although the second (The Restaurant at the End of the Universe) was my definite favourite. I must say this worries me somewhat.

Several years ago, I read the first six books in the Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. Yeah: only book 2 was good and that convinced me to keep trying when there was no godly reason to do so. Damn you, Lemony Snicket, damn you!!

4) Terry Brook's Shannara series. I've read The Sword of Shannara and The Elfstones of Shannara is sitting on my shelf feeling neglected enough to consider calling the authorities. I enjoyed The Sword of Shannara but it's true that as time goes by it's hard to recall it as anything other than a somewhat tubercular imitation of the Lord of the Rings books - which, to be honest, didn't excite me much. We'll see. It could be a good vacation book - you know, the kind of book you take on a trip with you and then leave on the beach when you're done with it because you don't care. Mmmmm, vacation books.

5) Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Stories - A few months ago I read hump-fest The Last Kingdom and enjoyed it rather more than I expected or am perhaps entirely proud of. My husband enjoys such extreme nerdiness and mega-manliness in books very much and so the next installment, The Pale Horsemen, is sitting here languishing as it waits for me to pick it up.

I think this one will be a sooner rather than a later read - silliness is what I'm in the mood for right now (and not getting with Tanizaki's Naomi. Not sure why I imagined I would get it there; not enough caffeine, I'm guessing).

6) Mary Stewart's Merlin series - I absolutely loved The Crystal Cave so I see no problem reading all 5 in this line. I'm actually saving the next one, maybe for Festivus. Or for when I'm feeling muscular enough to carry around a hardcover book.

7) Clive Barker's Abarat. Okay, there are currently only two books under this banner and so this doesn't really qualify as a series. But I've read the first one and am feeling like a jerk for not having read the second because a) my husband bought it for me as a giftie and b) twice. Yes, he bought it for me twice. On purpose. Because like the little book diva I am, I complained when the second one he bought didn't physically match the first.

8) Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl books. I've read the first 5 and have seen the next installment in this series in stores but won't grab it until it's in softcover. There's really no reason to spend $20+ on a book I'm going to read in less than 2 hours. I am looking forward to this though - the bad puns Colfer churns out are worth their weight in gold.

9) The Keys to the Kingdom by Garth Nix. I've read Monday through Thursday and while Lady Friday is out in softcover I'm putting it off until I read some other series' books I already have at home. And, to be honest, I can't distinguish in my memory amongst the first 4 anymore. I feel this doesn't recommend an expenditure from the dwindling book fund at this time.

This little tangent has made me feel rather like a bad parent who, when the kids come looking for attention, get instead a boiled potato and a smack in the mouth followed immediately by directions to go play outside because mommy's busy watching her stories. I'd say I'll reform but you know how I am with books - even I can't predict or much influence what I'll be reading next.

Saturday 11 October 2008

The surprise hit of the season

Yesterday, I finished reading Samuel Richardson's 1740 novel Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded and rewarded myself by going out to lunch and savouring the very silly and very contemporary The Light Fantastic. Indeed, I'm still enjoying Pratchett's book and am wishing it were longer than it is - but I guess that's what books 3-756 of the Discworld series are for.

Now, about Richardson's novel: Pamela is considered by many to be almost a manual on good conduct for randy young men and women. However, this book was much kinkier than Behn's Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister; what Pamela lacks in descriptions of physical exploits it more than makes up for in a both extremely disturbing and uncomfortably compelling examination of the psychology of powerlessness, subjection, and submission. Let's call it, instead, a manual for earlier practitioners of BDSM.

Samuel Richardson looks like a pretty straight-laced guy - but don't they always?

Spoiler Alert!
As noted, I have been compelled to read Pamela for dissertation reasons, but up until Pamela and Mr. B- married, it was, to my infinite surprise, a really compelling page-turner! Pamela, a young maid for a rich lady recently deceased, is beset by the lady's libertine son and as she resists he becomes more and more obsessed with her.

She's ultimately kidnapped and taken to his remote country house where she's subject to several instances of attempted rape, attempts to be bought, and her own almost suicidal despair - not to mention her growing love for her persecutor!

Richardson was such a good writer that I didn't find Pamela's constant pieties and innocence at all irritating as I would have with a lesser writer; indeed, I think literary historians may be right to attribute the first "modern" novel (this book) to Richardson, for Pamela displays a consciousness and verisimilitude that makes her and the book stand out from earlier prose pieces (like Behn's interminable Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister!) which tend to represent characters that read more like cardboard cut-outs than people.

That said, Richardson almost lost me when, having converted Mr. B- through her enduring goodness, Pamela marries him. Upon their marriage, there followed approximately 100 pages of extreme marital politeness which went something like this: Pamela: "Oh, Sir, you do me too much honour! How shall I ever repay you!"; Mr. B- : "The beauties of your mind do much to recompense me, sweet Pamela!"; Pamela (throwing herself at his feet): "Oh, you're too kind! I shall be overwhelmed."

During these endless and endlessly similar exchanges of respect and marital felicity, Pamela and Mr. B- move dangerously towards become mere caricatures but Richardson redeemed himself and his novel near the end when Mr. B- takes Pamela to meet his illegitimate daughter. Indeed, I found Pamela's meeting with the young Miss Goodwin really quite affecting and like the cry-baby I am, I actually teared up!!

So, I don't know if I'll read Richardson's Clarissa (still, I think, the longest novel ever written in English - it clocks in at over 1 million words!) but I'm glad I read Pamela and think I should probably read more 18th-century fiction - but not right now. Right now, I've got to, for work, move on to Dorothy Osborne's letters to Sir William Temple. And once I'm done The Light Fantastic, I'll have to find another short and hopefully hilarious good read to help me keep my sanity.

Wednesday 8 October 2008

Curious/Creepy: a non-musical fall mash-up

Fall is here which means Toronto is sodden and angry, and today I've been forced to use public transit instead of ride my bike. You know what that means: I've been looking over people's shoulders again! I think I may be close to perfecting the low creepiness to high effectiveness ratio; some tweaking may still be required, however.

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult. I don't know who Jodi Picoult is but she (I assume it's a she - do people name their boy-children Jodi anymore?) sure is popular these days. I see her stuff pretty much everywhere but no one I know seems to read her. Or they're keeping it secret...maybe because my theory below is correct, hmmm?

I'm guessing from the cover of Nineteen Minutes that this is a self-help/relationship book addressing the issue of what the kidz might call "two-minute brothers". If I'm right, I'm then going to further guess that this manual provides instructions on how to get as much pleasure as possible out of the 19 minutes of wiggy allotted to these poor unfortunates by their cruel and selfish god. Hey, there's always hand-holding - aaawwwww!

Joking aside, what a horribly personal thing to be reading on the subway!!

The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs. I've heard of this book and admire the spirit of scientific inquiry Jacobs purportedly brings to his experiment. I'm sure, though, that it can't be that hard to spend a whole year not killing people or coveting neighbours' wives.

Apparently, though, the Bible has a few more commandments than the Big Ten espoused by Charleston "The Cha Cha" Heston on the fake mountain on the movie set. I'm tempted to keep an eye out for this one, if only because I don't think my life is complicated enough yet.

The reader of this book was on a bus going south on Keele. She had an amazing 70s-style hipster afro, which I greatly admired (and yes, maybe I coveted it a little) and was so involved in her book I think she forget to get off the bus when we arrived at Keele Station. Now that's my kind of reader!

The Intention Experiment: Using Your Thoughts to Change Your Life and the World by Lynne McTaggart. So, I didn't see this one on transit, to be honest, but at the location to which I had to take today's first transit ride: a coffee shop, where I sat with my surprisingly good work novel Pamela.

The reader of this future Booker-winning tome was drinking the world's largest coffee; it was approaching 12 feet tall. Really. That's all true - except for what I just said.

What is true is what her giant coffee reminded me of: when I had the extreme misfortune, as a teenager, to work at Tim Hortons one of the regular customers used to come in and ask for an extra-large six and six - twice within 15 minutes, before he went to work. For those of you who drink medium double-doubles, try to imagine what a tooth-eroding candy treat an extra-large six and six means!! For non-Timmy fans, this is a coffee that's about 1 litre, of which approximately 1/3-1/2 is a heart-stopping-and-starting-again combination of heavy cream and sugar.

But about the book. I may be wrong, but hasn't this been written already but under a different name? Also, I wonder about its effectiveness, for the reader thereof gave up on it after about 15 minutes to do her puzzle. And drink another ginourmous coffee.

Eastern Body, Western Mind: Psychology and the Chakra System as a Path to the Self by Judith Anodea. I caught sight of this one on my last subway trip of the day. The reader was holding the book as though it were a fragile and priceless artifact she was worried she was sullying by touching; I honestly don't know if her obvious physical discomfort suggests either reverence or revulsion for the subject matter.

When I saw Eastern Body, Western Mind on the subway, I didn't see the subtitle which gives a clearer sense of what this book's about. Without it, I had all kinds of crazy (but, I suspect, more interesting than the book's reality would allow for) imaginings. My favourite of said crazy imaginings was a Broadway adaption of this book which would be called Bananas: the Musical! and would star the Dalai Lama doing a lot of jazz hands (in white gloves of course).

Yes, yes, I know that's mean. I didn't claim my idea was right; I just subtly implied (with the help of some subliminal messaging) that it was funny.

Sunday 5 October 2008

Kinky dull

The cover of my copy of Aphra Behn's 17th-century meditation on the nature of disguising one's desire for booty in the rhetoric of transcendent love doesn't look like the one pictured here. I've been reading a boring old Penguin Classics version of Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, which has been blinding me with its 7-point font and explosive combination of the melodramatic and the pornographic.

This early epistolary novel is surprisingly lurid and racy. Actually, having read Behn's Oroonoko (perhaps the first early English book to make African slaves sexual objects in their owners' eyes (*shudder*)), maybe I'm not surprised. But it certainly differs from the stuff I know best (written about 100-60 previous to this) for Behn uses all the romantic language that characterizes Renaissance Comedy and Romance but turns it up to 11; but then she totally takes the piss out of it by constantly revealing what all that highfalutin language is really about: sex, sex, and more sex.

There were some good moments (see below) but overall I can't say I really liked this one. As I've indicated, I read Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister for my thesis conclusion and so much faster and with a mind less given to enjoyment than usual. Also, did I mention the 7-point font? Do you think someone publishes 17th-century literary porn in big print for the old fogies like me whose eyesight is failing? How about Braille?

Of the few really gratifying moments in this book, the following is the best. It occurs near the beginning of the story while the titular main characters, Philander and Silvia, are still in raptures over one another. Philander is trying to get into Silvia's well-guarded chamber through the garden when he encounters her father out trying to getting into the knickers of Melinda, one of Silvia's ladies. Melinda hasn't shown up for the assignation and Philander is disguised as a woman to try to get to Silvia's chamber; he and Silvia's lecherous old dad invariably meet in the dark garden and the latter, thinking Philander is Melinda, makes this charming play for her love:

"Come, come Melinda, why all this foolish argument at this hour in this place, and after so much serious Courtship, believe me I'l be kind to thee for ever; with that he clapt fifty Guinnies in a Purse into one hand, and something else that shall be nameless into the other, presents that had both been worth Melinda's acceptance..." (p.61).

I say! How rude! But so funny. I thought, because this little vignette (worthy as it is of the best 1970s porn scripts featuring the incomparable Ron Jeremy ("Plumber? I didn't call a plumber!") occurred at the beginning of Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister that I was being promised a hilarious and kinky read. No. This was the book's only real instance of hilarity and it's amazing how boring kink gets when it revolves primarily around men swooning at women's feet and women drawing men in with their killing eyes (with lots of sex happening thereabouts).

(No, you pervert, there were no glowing bosoms in this book - glowing bosoms are the hallmark of the late 18th-century Gothic novel! Go, get your Radcliffe on!)

Friday 3 October 2008

In favour of dilettantism, or, Roald Dahl's racial politics make me uncomfortable

Yesterday, when I was reading Roald Dahl's The BFG, I should have been reading Aphra Behn's Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister. You see, all I have left of my dissertation is the conclusion and for it I am facing the prospect of reading approximately 1700 more pages of others' text to write 7-10 pages of my own.

I have to admit, I'm bridling against reading anything else for a project in which I long ago lost interest and which I just want done with so I can fulfill my real destiny: as an unabashed dilettante savouring the exceptionally wide world of literature.

Reading any more letters or epistolary fiction (which my diss. focuses on) makes me want to tear my hair, gnash my teeth, and rend my cheeks. I'm so repulsed by this final reading push that even though I'm kind of enjoying Behn's lurid, sensational, and almost pornographic novel, I would do almost anything not to have to read it now.

(I can only imagine what it'll be like to read Samuel Richardson's Pamela, which doesn't have any luridness, sensationalism, or soft-core porn to recommend it! My own personal Mephistopheles is recommending that rather than read Pamela I read about it but I will try to resist this demonic temptation.)

Anyway, about The BFG. It was okay. Yes, just okay. Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was crucial to my becoming an inveterate reader as a child but then I didn't see the questionable racial politics in the book; I just noted how world-explodingly good chocolate seemed to taste to Charlie. Now when I think of the Oompa Loompas, I cringe.

The BFG wasn't quite so obviously racially suspect as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but it has ideological problems that I found hard to dismiss and because of this, my enjoyment of the book was significantly circumscribed.

Spoiler Alert!
All the giants except the big friendly one like to eat human "beans", which in spite of what the giants call them, are definitely not examples of plant-based nutrition. The BFG thinks eating little childers is wrong and so confines himself to eating the most disgusting veggies in the world: snozzcumbers.

The giants' consumption of human flesh would continue unabated except that the BFG teams up with human child Sophie and the Queen of England to capture and trap the flesh-eating giants, all of whom end up in a zoo-like set-up for people to gape at.

Now, way back at the beginning of the book, when Sophie and the BFG first meet, she's trying to comprehend why giants can be so evil as to eat humans. Surprisingly, the BFG points out that humans eat pigs, which like humans don't consent to being eaten. This appears to draw her up short and question the moral superiority she had thus far been attributing to her own species.

But then Dahl completely glosses over? forgets? shits on? this point when Sophie brings the BFG to England where she enjoys, and has the BFG enjoy for the first time, bacon and eggs. This left me scratching my head: why have the BFG make this point at all if it was going to be so completely abandoned? I found this plot hole, if it can be called that, just plain irritating.

More pervasive and infinitely more irritating, however, was the way in which the BFG was drawn as a sort of noble savage who, because so good and simple, is naturally drawn towards serving his superiors (the English) while betraying his racial brethren (who are portrayed as straight up savages sans any natural nobility) to capture by his benevolent new masters.

When I indicated there was a spoiler alert coming, I wasn't kidding - so much for innocent pleasure in kiddie lit! Le sigh.