Monday, 28 April 2008

Please, sir, can I have some more?

I love Philip Pullman. The books of the His Dark Materials trilogy are among the best I've ever read, period, so you'd think that when Lyra's Oxford came out in 2003 or whenever it was, I would have scooped it up right away. However, it was in hardcover and it's really short and I just couldn't convince myself to spend $18 on a book I could read in an hour or less.

I've been resisting all these years, hoping someone would buy me the damned book but no one ever did (*sob*). I finally broke down last week and bought it (in soft cover for only $10) because I was buying Pullman's new book, Once Upon a Time in the North, which is about Iorek and Lee Scoresby - I really couldn't wait for that one to also hopefully fall into my lap someday. And I know that Pullman is busily writing away at The Book of Dust (which will be gigantic) and I have to be prepared for the day it's is released. That's a pretty convincing string of justifications, I think, for buying books that I can read over a lunch break.

Anyway, about Lyra's Oxford: it was sweet and enjoyable and just good enough to leave me desperate for something more substantial about these characters. I've got a few things to read first (including the much recommended The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson) and then I'll read Once Upon a Time in the North and then....I'll wish I was Pullman's editor so I could tell him to get his move on. Le sigh.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Punching 9/11 sentimentality in the neck

Yesterday, I finished reading Ken Kalfus's novel A Disorder Peculiar to the Country. I'd been looking forward to reading this one for awhile as it's part of a new sub-sub-genre of contemporary American fiction addressing the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the USA; I'm curious to see how this evolving mythology of good and evil is going to play out.

Fellow American Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close also fictionalized reaction to this event, but in a much kinder and more gingerly fashion than Kalfus's book does. Safran Foer is, I think, essentially a pretty optimistic guy and while he didn't reiterate the sort of fundamentalist/patriotic approach that has dominated in politics and talk shows since the event, he also doesn't really question it. Rather, he sort of side-steps the self-righteous hysteria and uses 9/11 as a backdrop for exploring inter-generational cultural trauma not obviously related thereto - the WW2 holocaust of the Jews in Europe.

Sherman Alexie, in one of the stories in Ten Little Indians (I can't remember which story, and in fact I'm not entirely sure it was even in Ten Little Indians), briefly wonders if some people aren't happy their dads or husbands or wives aren't coming home from the attacks, but backs off of really exploring the answer to that question. Kalfus, on the other hand, embraces that question and grabs 9/11 fundamentalist/patriotic sentimentalism by the balls and then punches it right in the neck, hard.

Spoiler Alert!
The story begins on Sept. 11 with Joyce and Marshall, a bitterly divorcing couple, arriving home (Marshall having escaped his office in one of the towers and Joyce missing her flight to California, which ended up crashing into the Pennsylvania countryside) to find one another and being desperately disappointed - both having earlier celebrated one another's presumed deaths. The rest of the book follows their increasing bitterness and vindictiveness, the attacks having in no way mitigated their animosity towards one another. The book spirals into divorce hell, exploding pretty much every aspect of the American dream and its associated cultural identity along the way until the book culminates in a strange (and to me very sad, because so very, very untrue) fantasy of the US simply liberating Iraq and leaving it in good hands, finding Osama bin Laden almost immediately (and being sure he was behind the attacks), and celebrating together in a strange moment of cultural cohesion outside Ground Zero.

I don't know if I enjoyed this book but I think it was a very good and maybe important one; I also think Kalfus is a pretty phenomenal writer. In a strange case of serendipity (and missing the showtime for the new Jet Li/Jackie Chan film), I saw a film last night that also punches 9/11 patriotism in the neck: Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay.

Another Spoiler Alert!
Harold and Kumar, two young stoners, are on a plane to Amsterdam when Kumar pulls out a homemade bong which everyone thinks is a bomb when they see him trying to light it - they, of course, end up in Guantanamo Bay. Many hi jinx ensue as they escape, are recaptured, etc. Nothing is sacred here and racial stereotypes are torn down just to be fairly gently reiterated and mocked.

Most interestingly, to me, was how viciously the government's Homeland Security organization was skewered. The primary agent in the case is kind of rapaciously aroused by the thought of punishing these guys and this is echoed in the uncomfortable way the guards at G.Bay make the prisoners "eat cock sandwiches" (I'm sure I don't need to explain that). This film doesn't hold back at all and I'm a little amazed that it was released, given the controversy that just won't die, although it's been blunted recently, surrounding the USA's continued abuse of prisoners at its various camps.

I guess the culture is becoming less sensitive and can handle some questioning - but is this the kind of questioning that changes things or is it the kind of questioning that allows people to laugh off their discomfort and forget about it? A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, I think, won't allow that kind of forgetting, but I'd say about a bazillion more people will see Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay than will read Kalfus's novel. And that's sad for lots of reasons.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

At right angles to reality

Friends have marveled and goggled at me for getting to my 30s without having read Douglas Adams' Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy 5-part trilogy. I admit it is surprising and somewhat shameful but I've been grateful for the newness of these books to me, especially this week when I really needed some laughs.

Over the past several days I've read Life, the Universe and Everything, the third in the series. It gave me many good chuckles, several guffaws, and some relief from the shit tornado to Oz that descended this week, starting on Monday with poor Penny bunny.

That said, Adams lost me a bit in the last 40 or so pages. It was all laughs and weirdness up until the end, when the weirdness took over and the laughs high-tailed it to the delta quadrant (you like my mixed Douglas Adams/Star Trek: Voyager metaphors, don't you?). It was a little disappointing, this strangeoid conclusion, but not so off-putting that I won't be reading the next book in the series, likely within the next few months.

In the meantime, I'm using this lazy, transit strike-stricken day to try to get my "people are complete wanksters and they just get worse over time" novel out of the way so I can move on to one of the happier books I've got lying around here.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Bookstore rage

Today I wasn't feeling extremely social and so during my lunch hour I went across the street to the Indigo to sit in one of their many, many comfy chairs and read my book. (Life, the Universe and Everything is my current laugh-inducing read. Thank goodness (and badness) for Douglas Adams.)

I was sitting comfortably in a chair reading and enjoying my book, next to many other people sitting in chairs enjoying their books, when this guy walked by and slammed a large book down in the empty chair next to me. He kept going and I kept reading. 10 minutes later, a woman came by, asked me if anyone was sitting there so I told her about the guy putting the book there but that I hadn't seen him in awhile. Not unreasonably, she moved the book and prepared to sit down.

Just as she was sitting, the book-slamming absentee guy returned and started screaming his bloody head off at her for stealing "his" seat (okay, his head wasn't bloody, but his face did get red very quickly). "Wha....?" I thought to myself as she tried to explain that she didn't think anyone was sitting there, as he drowned out her explanations with his big scary voice. I decided it was time for my exit and offered my seat to either of them but he would not be placated and she was just kind of scared by then and went elsewhere.

I thought this kind of crazy behaviour was reserved for aggressive drivers on highways and such - what's it doing in a bookstore? Bookstores should be all about the love, man. I should have asked that crazy guy if he needed a hug and then asked someone next to me if they'd be willing to deliver said hug.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

This was supposed to cheer me up

I'm already about 100 pages into an emotionally gruesome novel called A Disorder Peculiar to the Country but have decided to put it away for a little while. I'm sad. I need happy, or if not happy, at least distracting books right now. My sweet bunny Penny died suddenly and horribly yesterday and I just really don't want to be confronted with pain in my reading when I'm trying not to dwell in it in real life.

I decided a children's yarn would be both distracting and safe and so picked up George R. R. Martin's The Ice Dragon, which my husband bought some time ago, as a sad replacement for the final book in the Storm of Swords series that is already 1.5 years overdue.

The Ice Dragon was good, but it definitely wasn't safe. The long and short of it is, the ice dragon ends up dying to save the damned sprog that couldn't make up her mind between going to the place of always-winter or going home to her family.

I'm Wodehoused out but I really need something light that will lighten my heart a bit. Advice?

Saturday, 19 April 2008

The real mystery here is the pseudonym

I think I've read 4 mystery novels in my entire life, with Thomas King's The Red Power Murders being the 4th. I know pretty much nothing about the genre so in that regard, I can't comment on the quality of King's book. I can say, however, that when compared to other books of King's I've enjoyed (Green Grass, Running Water and One Good Story That One are among my favourite books of all time), The Red Power Murders isn't quite there.

There were hints and suggestions of the brilliant weirdness that I so love about King but there just wasn't enough of it. Also, King knows how to rock the hilarious and compelling conversation (check out his radio show, The Dead Dog Cafe sometime) but the main character here, Thumps, spent most of the book just thinking things through about past events (and being cold - apparently solving murders doesn't pay for winter coats). Nonetheless, it was a pretty good read - just not a show-stopping number like my other King favourites.

What's most curious to me about this book is the fact that it and DreadfulWater Shows Up (another mystery) were originally published under the nom de plume of Hartley GoodWeather. Given King's fame (at least in Canada), I'm not sure why he would do this. As you can see from the cover above it didn't last long and reprints soon revealed it was King behind the persona. Was he testing Canadian readers to see if they could handle having more than 2 popular native writers at a time? If so, they apparently couldn't and King dropped the pseudonym faster than the fastest simile-maker in the world. (I really tried to come up with some hilarious simile there but I'm just too tired. Plus, I just watched Alien vs. Predator on TV and it destroyed all my brain cells. Or gawd destroyed all my brain cells in retribution for enjoying it. Or the fact that I watched and enjoyed Alien vs. Predator implies that the brain cells were already fried and that this attempt to write something hilarious were already destined to fail. This is a philosophical conundrum I don't think I can solve right now.)

Okay, maybe it's time to go sleep. I hope that my brain starts working again soon. Brain. Brain. What is brain?

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Reader discretion is advised

The discretion mentioned above will not likely be required for this post as I'm sure I'm about to come off sounding like the uptight love child of a Nervous Nelly and a Crazy Conservative. But I really didn't enjoy this book much.

Spoiler Alert!
Ryu Murakami's In the Miso Soup is the story of a young man (Kenji) who works as a guide in the sexual tourism industry in Tokyo. He caters to gaijin a lot and this tale focuses on his work guiding around an American foreigner named Frank (most likely an alias) who turns out to be a vicious serial killer.

Murakami appears to be trying to use this basis to launch an exploration of 1) the difference between Japanese loneliness and gaijin loneliness (as manifested in the so clearly "foreign" way Frank kills his victims - I think I missed something there), and 2) a sociological consideration of the prevalence of sex work amongst Japanese women, especially among women and girls who are in no way either physically or economically coerced into it (lots of talk of high school girls being into what Kenji calls "compensated dating").

The idea's fine, but the execution wasn't up for the job. In the end, this book just read like some really bad blood porn - Frank's big killing scene went on for what seemed like 50 pages and actually made me come very close to vomiting - with some half-baked philosophical ideas thrown in for good measure.

Now, if this had just tried to be pulp and nothing else, I suspect I would have liked it more, but the juxtaposition of lame introspection and spectacularly gratuitous violence just didn't do it for me. Maybe it's a genre thing, maybe it's a Ryu Murakami thing, but either way there will be no more of the "other" Murakami for me - one of my online book-loving compatriots has informed me that Coin Locker Babies also fails to deliver what it promises.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Area blogger regrets promising to write report akin to grade 9 book report

A friend of mine is creating some sort of video game for kids to start them thinking about how they're killing the environment and everyone on earth (I may be exaggerating, a little). In preparation for this project, he's asked friends to read some novels with environmental themes and then write reports on them.

Said reports actually demand plot summary and explication of motifs. I haven't thought about motifs since high school but this should be a fun one because John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up is about as subtle as a smack in the face with a spiked baseball bat. The ten motifs that immediately come to mind after having read this book are (in no particular order):

1. Death
2. Death
3. Death
4. Suffering
5. Starvation
6. Desperation
7. Death
8. Human stupidity
9. Death
10. Death

Some claim this book actually started the modern environmental movement because it forced people to consider the long-term implications of what were then subtle signs of trouble. Part of the book's moral (oh yes, is there ever a MORAL) is that people just don't get it until it's too obvious to be ignored. Like when they're almost dead (see motifs above).

Joking and pissiness aside, The Sheep Look Up is a pretty good book. I liked the way Brunner continually moved between stories, telling most sides of it and not until the end, I think, taking sides with the "crazy" environmentalists. It kept things interesting but also made destruction on all levels the story itself instead of the background to the story.

What's scary about this book is not what it promises (it was published in 1972) but how much of what it promised then is true now, albeit in less extreme form - superbugs resulting from our overuse of antibiotics in both people and food animals, the increasing chronic health troubles due to air and water pollution, and food shortages globally, to name just a few.

Kudos to whomever decided to re-print this: it's on recycled paper.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Yello?, or, The post in which stops inadvertently censoring you

Since I started this blog, I've thought that the fact that only people with Gmail accounts could post comments was some horribly evil policy of Google/Blogger. Turns out, however, that that's the default setting and all along I could have changed it...Le sigh.

So, I've changed it. I don't know if this will make a difference in terms of commentary because 1) I feel like unless I either deeply offend or amuse someone who thus feels compelled to post, this isn't the kind of blog that demands lots of commentary, and 2) I'm so far too inept to figure out how to install Google Analytics, which would tell me how many people are actually reading this site. It might well be 3. But if I do have only 3 readers, then I adore them. IMMENSELY. In an appreciate and entirely non-creepy fashion.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Is reading actually sexy, as some claim?

I belong to a group on Facebook (yes, yes, I am a Facebookite, even though I'm 8-12 years older than its average demographic) called Reading is Sexy. This group has well over 45,000 members and unlike other groups to which people belong merely to display their allegiances, people post constantly on this group's wall and discussion boards.

In the photos section, which is also constantly updated, you will find some predictable photos of scantily clad, malnourished women pretending to read but the discussion boards' raciness is limited to exchanges like the following (which I've just made up, to protect the overly innocent):
Boy1: Do girls think guys who like to read are sexy?
Girl2: There r no cute boyz who like books in my school :(
Girl3: At my school too, sucks.
Girl4: My bf loves to read - so hot!
Boy1: I need to switch schools because girls here only go for stupid jocks.

It's cute, but no philosophical considerations of reading's sexiness are likely to be thrown down on Facebook's Reading is Sexy group.

It does seem to be on people's mind, though, especially since some chick on the Gilmore Girls (er, according to a friend of mine) sported a t-shirt claiming reading was, in fact, sexy. (Said t-shirt is for sale on the interwebs at or sometimes at Type Books on Queen West).

My bro Roger sent me an article from The New York Times a week or so ago called "It's not you, it's your books." Check it here:

The main thesis of this investigative reportage is that what someone hasn't read that they "should have read" or what they have read that embarrasses their partners has a much more tangible effect on a relationship than actually having the same tastes in books as one's lover. In spite of all the evidence suggesting this negative relationship between bad books and failed affairs, however, the conclusion reached is that books don't really matter in the end, for love (can you hear the birds singing?) conquers all. ALL I say! If so, I wonder why the article author (some bird named Rachel Donadio) wrote this at all. It's like she had a real idea and experimental results to support it but Oprah or Dr. Phil or some other wank blackmailed her into altering her conclusions to fit some weird Hallmarkesque agenda.

I will say that I personally can't imagine dating most non-readers because books are so hugely important to me. I have met a few hot dudes over the years (back when I was single, of course) that I could converse with without the common ground of reading but they were rare - and hey, I didn't marry them and that's a good a reason as any to explain why not, I suppose.

But seriously, to me this is why reading is sexy: it shows that someone likes to use their brain in their leisure time. Someone who flat lines every night on 6 hours of TV is someone I can't imagine having a great conversation with. Yes, conversation is sexy, for all the obvious reasons but also because, when it comes down to it, we're all going to get old and infirm someday and talking will be our only remaining intimate activity. And that talking had better not involve discussing what Shayla did to Rod on Survivor 11,324: The Sand Bank off Sable Island last night.

Another reason why reading is sexy is that it shows someone is comfortable enough to be with themselves for awhile, that they don't need to fill up their lives with constant noise.

And another reason: someone reading a long-ass book has patience and patience matters a helluva lot in other, less, ah, intellectual situations. Ahem.

So, three points about why reading is sexy may not, in fact, prove to be the definitive answer on this important philosophical issue - but it's a start and I am going to apply for a government grant to continue these studies.

PS-Yes, of course, I have a Reading is Sexy t-shirt - what do you take me for?

Saturday, 5 April 2008

A weepy post

W.G. Sebald's The Emigrants is one of the books I felt too headachey to continue with last night but which I finished this morning now that I'm feeling better. It's not a long book but it's taken me well over a week to read it. The Emigrants is an amazing, heart-stopping book, a book that demands one linger over it and consider the pain of exile (both internal and physical) of the subjects of the book's four long narratives. The writing, even in translation, was painfully beautiful at times - I say "painfully beautiful" because sometimes it actually choked me up (this almost never happens to me).

I found the last narrative, Max Ferber, to be the most affecting and it made me recall how painful it was to walk through the Holocaust museum in Prague in 2006 with Brook. In particular, this tale reminded me of the room in the museum filled with drawings done by Jewish children in concentration camps during the Second World War. The drawings described the children's fear and despair of being singled out and then isolated and often also revealed, in another hand, the date those children died in the concentration camps.

I cried a lot looking at those pictures as much because of the suffering they revealed as because of the fact that only Brook and I, in an ever-changing crowd of about a hundred, were the only ones emotionally reacting at all to these pictures. Most came in looking bored, very quickly scanned everything (as good tourists do) and then left. Such indifference scares the shit out of me.

I see The Emigrants in many ways as an answer and antidote to such quick considerations and glossings over of history - instead of rehashing a world history lesson people are becoming more and more inured to, Sebald tells the histories of 4 fictional people in that context that is so well known. The context is assumed to be understood so that personal history may take centre stage. Sebald gets down to the most personal of histories, including photographs that make this seem almost like someone's photo album/diary. I don't want to say anymore because I think you should just read it. Plus, I'm being horribly earnest and still feel weepy and it'll be better for all of us if I stop blubbering all over this post.

Friday, 4 April 2008

Twice-told tales

I already had three other books on the go when I picked this one up about 2 hours ago (yes, I'm already done - it's a YA book and it's short) but they're all too ponderous and I've got a bloody huge headache right now. Question: why is Colleen reading anything when she feels like her head is about to explode? Answer: The TV's broken. Le sigh.

I skipped out of tonight's Raptors game (and all that mind-shattering noise) and had to entertain myself sans idiot box. In the end, I decided it had been much, much too long since I'd read anything by Philip Pullman. A few years ago, my dear friend Shelley made me read Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy and I've been in literary love with Pullman ever since (and, of course, intensely and eternally grateful to Shelley!).

The White Mercedes is much more classic YA drama than I expected from Pullman but it was very good nonetheless. The guy can just straight up write and the comparisons that have been made between this book and a Shakespearean tragedy were surprisingly apt. I saw how this sad tale was going to end about halfway through but I'm not sure if it's because Pullman wasn't being cagey enough or because I've read so damned much Shakespeare. Still, knowing how it was going to end didn't lessen my enjoyment of the book - in fact, I'd say it increased it because the pain of anticipation was what made it such a pleasurable/painful read.

The reviews of this book on were interesting - people either loved it because they were surprised by the plot turns (most too young to have read any Shakespeare) or hated it because it was a "rip off" of Shakespeare. But the people who hated it because it was derivative of Shakespeare don't actually know enough about Shakespeare to be making good sense here - for if they did know enough about Shakespeare, they'd know he was the biggest story stealer of them all! And good on him, too, for keeping good stories alive and making them better. Ditto for Pullman.