Thursday 31 December 2009

And then a random recipe fell from the sky!

The following recipe is from Vegan with a Vengeance by Isa Chandra Moskowitz; I've altered it slightly according to my tastes.

I must say, I love this book. One of these days, I'll post Isa's recipe for Jerk Seitan and then you'll know what's what.

And now I'm hungry. Sigh.

Banana pancakes

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1 1/4 cups well mashed bananas
1 1/2 cups soy milk + 1 tsp vinegar - I use apple cider vinegar (let sit for 5 minutes at least before using)
1 tbsp canola or olive oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup hemp seeds

Combine dry ingredients. Combine wet ingredients in a separate bowl and then combine the two. Mix well but don't over-mix (I'm not sure what this means, to be honest. However I mix it up, this recipe always works for me.)

Brush a large skillet with oil if it's not non-stick and heat to med-high. Pour 1/4 cup of batter for each pancake. Flip when the bubbles begin to appear in a definitive way; you know the deal. Serve with whatever pancake toppings you see fit. Rock on.

Tuesday 29 December 2009

Curious/Creepy: is this really the most wonderful time of the year?

It's that time of the year, the time of the year during which you can't go anywhere without hearing that all Mariah Carey wants for Christmas is YOUUUUUUUUUUUUU!!!!!! I know. I just threw up in my mouth a little too. But don't worry, it's almost all over. And you got good books for Festivus, didn't you? I sure did! I got Orhan Pamuk's new novel, The Museum of Innocence from my seeester; Michael Slater's new Dickens bio from my bruther; hubby gave me Qian Zhongshu's Fortress Besieged for our wediversary, which is close enough to Festivus for the purposes of this braggy prelude; and then for Festivus proper hubby got me a lovely book about Japanese art. Woot! All these things made me do the opposite of throw up in my mouth.

But this isn't why I'm here. You see, the other thing about this time of the year is that people have other people over for festive festivities. And for me and hubby, this means taking public transit. Ah, love - nothing says peace on earth and good will towards men like spying on cranky readers, so here are the few books I managed to effectively ferret out yesterday on the west-bound Queen streetcar. (Sadly, I only managed to espy 5 books. The streetcar was a veritable cornucopia of reading crankies but the car was so crowded that I was forced directly to the back and couldn't make out even half of the books I saw. I waved my kerchief tragically at them as I went by, but because this is Toronto, the readers steadfastly avoided mine tear-filled eyen and sincere salutes.)

I'm honestly a bit surprised that every Curious/Creepy to date hasn't just been about the Harry Potter books. J.K. Rowling is so rich she's probably going to buy the British government and make herself queen soon.

Prophesying aside, this book was being perused by a very gangly teenage boyo who was wedged in against the window by a mysterious object with much shorter legs and no respect for the damage this kid's knees must have been suffering. This reader's wrists are the kind of wrists that stick out from all jacket and shirt sleeves because the arms are a shade too monkey-like in their excessive length. You know, the kind of teenage boy wrists that look like they'll snap under the weight of their idiot-string secured mittens, never mind the massive tome that is The Deathly Hallows installment of the Harry Potter racket.

God bless him, he was trying to get comfy so he could read like a good boy but there was simply no room. Looking at him, I remembered how I felt squished into a Korean Air flight for 15 hours of turbulence so bad we weren't allowed to get up, next to a snoring ajuma, and with less than the usual amount of leg room because of the wheel casing (or something) being underneath my seat; I ached inside for him but turned away looking indifferent because this is Toronto where being nice will get the cops called on ya.

But really, I had no choice. As mentioned above, I was being forced to the back of the streetcar, wading through a forest of trees made of puffy gortex angels. Ha. Next to be spotted was Lynn Coady's Saints of Big Harbour which I've never heard of but I'm guessing this Coady woman is Canadian because she's spelled "harbour" correctly in her book's title.

I have no idea about the reader of this book. Besides being bundled to the max, he/she/it was hunched over the book as though it were a crystal ball revealing dark things. If this book is from Canadia, as it appears to be, I'm going to guess, based on its title, that it features some hard-drinking men and some long-suffering women; a terrible life eked out on the rocky shores of the east coast where feeling good and making money means you've gotten above yerself; that reading this book will make you cold, so cold, because the damp atmospheric mood will be so intense that you'll have to wear a raincoat even if you're reading it on the beach in Florida, where east coasters go in January to escape the ever-living hell that is their lives, and also because going to Florida in January is super-cheap and there's Tom Collinses to be imbibed by the bucket-full.

Next on the whirlwind tour to the back of the car I noted Frank McCourt's 'Tis, the sequel to Angela's Ashes; if you somehow haven't read Angela's Ashes, it's like my plot summary of Saints of Big Harbour minus the happiness, money, and Florida bits.

I haven't read 'Tis. But really, I don't know why McCourt, gawd rest his soul, wrote this one - what, really, is there to say after you've described sexing up a girl dying of the consumption? That's straight gangsta.

Seriously, I enjoyed Angela's Ashes very much and think it makes perfect sense that everyone who's 1/32 Irish wants to go back to the motherland and get in touch with their roots.

In the back of the streetcar, where I quickly found myself trapped, I spotted 2 books being read. The first was being perused by a lady sitting directly across from me. She was deep into a library book, and it was a well-thumbed hardback copy of Kate Atkinson's Case Histories. For a change, I was actually able to see the person doing the reading and I have to say, I've never seen so many brown items of clothing on one person. Brown hat, coat, pants, boots, bag, glasses, mittens, scarf, EARRINGS!. All brown.

It takes a superfine glam diva who's about eight feet tall, possessing naturally red hair, and an attitude that would make Billy Bob Thornton whimper and lay down on the floor the minute she walked in the room to get away with that much brown and this lady weren't said diva. Not that the rest of us puffy angels in our sleeping bags with sleeves and hoods attached were looking any sexier.

And finally, there was Ken Follett's The Hammer of Eden. This one was in the hands of the most under-dressed person on the streetcar - while the rest of us were cursing the accident that placed us in Toronto and not Fiji (it was -25C with the wind last night! - the interwebs tell me this is about -13F), she was bare-headed, bare-handed, and indifferent and she plowed through her extremely abused paperback. I like me them abused paperbacks. There's something satisfying about being able to bend a book into unnatural shapes while you're reading it; it's just that I can't be the person to abuse it in the first place.

But about Follett: what's the deal with this guy anyway? If you went into a bookstore, would you expect to find his stuff in fiction or lit? Because this cover looks a lot like the kind of book that involves serial killers who cut people up and save their organs in their deepfreezers for special occasions. (Oh, with a little bit of religious horror a la The Seventh Sign or Legion thrown in, for good measure. Nothing says Festivus like body parts in the deep freeze and god breathing angrily down your neck!) But then hasn't he won some schmancy award for The Pillars of the Earth? And hasn't he been Chosen by Oprah who, while I don't like her taste generally, goes more for the lit than the mass markety fiction stuff?

Alright, so I didn't give you my best Curious/Creepy work for the holidays, what can I say? I'm going through sugar withdrawal and feel a leetel bit crazy right now. Also, I'm reading Dostoevsky which makes me want to throw myself on people's necks and be deep and dramatic and repentant, not witty and erudite and cutting. Maybe next time?

Thursday 24 December 2009

Offended on Camus's behalf

I knew that whatever poor sucker of a book followed up David Copperfield was likely going to be a disappointment, but Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island greatly exceeded my expectations in this regard. God lord, I loathed this book by the end! I didn't loathe it at first; at first, I thought it quite promising but it turns out that extremely wordy and fairly repetitive cleverness parading as profound genius pretty quickly loses its appeal for me. Who'd a thunk it?

Houellebecq has been and continues to be praised to the stars for this novel; some people who don't read enough have even compared him to Albert Camus. I feel offended enough to roll over in my grave, which I don't have yet, on Camus's behalf! The nerve of some literary critics who want to appear well-read and thoughtful by invoking the names of properly classic authors but who can't discriminate between the likes of Houellebecq and Camus, or Dan Brown and Umberto Eco, or any such obscenely paired writers that strike your fancy in a gorge-raising sort of way.

The Possibility of an Island has been marketed as a modern-day dystopia, and that's why I read it. I love dystopias. Or at least I have in the past; lately (and by lately, I refer to this novel and The Road), I have been much, much less than impressed.

See, the thing about dystopias is that they work because they're scary, and they're scary because the futuristic hell they portray isn't so unthinkable in the here and now; indeed, it should be seen to be the natural culmination of the here and now, i.e., terrifyingly inevitable. Houellebecq clearly understood the formula for writing such books as created and perfected by Orwell, Wyndham, Zamyatin, and Huxley but...

But. He takes too long to reveal what the scary future looks like, what with the primary narrator's story alternating with two of his future clones' stories. I've nothing against the slow reveal but this is much too slow; it's rather like a 4-hour striptease, by someone who's not so sexy under their clothes after all, and isn't even a very good dancer. You see, the writing was fine but in no way stellar; the plotting was fine, but also in no way compelling.

And anyway, this book is much less about a horrifying dystopic future than it is about how cults form and attract people; it's also about western culture's increasing obsessions with maintaining youth and beauty at all costs. It's not that these topics aren't timely and compelling, but that I just don't think Houellebecq does anything new or interesting with them.

The cult thing especially. The Possibility of an Island reminded me a fair bit of Kenzaburo Oe's Somersault, which I found disappointing for being all about cults but not, ultimately, either illuminating anything about cult psychology or making them appealing. The Possibility of an Island similarly failed in these regards, but somehow more so. I was just so bored. Oh wait, sometimes I was irritated too; you see, the narrator of Houellebecq's novel is a clone (ha, get the joke? Eh!) of any number of sex-obssessed, sexist, boring, misanthropic, self-absorbed narrators from novels writen by Roth or Richler in the 70s. Don't get me wrong, I love protagonists who happen also to be jerks - but only if they're either original or funny in their jerkiness, and Daniel1 doesn't have either going for him.

For the airing of the grievances aspect of Festivus, I think this blog fulfills that obligation. Tomorrow, some feats of strength, including bench-pressing my 20+-pound Jeoffy-cat. Also, I'm going to begin a good book, dammit. I don't know what it is yet, but dammit, it's going to be good! Happy holidays, all youse guys out in the etherwebs!

Saturday 19 December 2009

The Sarazens head without New-gate: happy anniversary to me!

So, it's December 19, 2009, which means that hubby and I have been book-sellers in our very own store for exactly one year today. Let there be celebratory cake, for everyone!

(As well, it was our 4th wedding anniversary 2 days ago, so all in all, mid- to late December is both a busy and excellent time of year for us.)

As you know from previous editions of The Sarazens head, it's been a year filled with hilarity, terror, boredom, and pure awesomeness. I won't recap, in part because I see no need to tip your experience in favour of the boredom and in part because I'd rather relate to you a conversation I overheard here yesterday.

This conversation was so steeped in fearless intellectual inquiry and philosophical depth that I felt it was not only a sign of the central role bookstores can play in the life of the mind for the general mass of people, but also a portent about how our next year here will go.

Picture, if you will, two women, approximately 20 years old, lounging near the literature section.
A: So I went to this like potluck last night. And Andrew was there and he had a new girlfriend.
And she was like so ugghhh. And I was like unggg!! and aaah!!!*Sigh.*
You know?

B: Yeah, well, hmmm.
This Franz Kafka, do we know him?
The Trial
[To me] Is this a true story?
I couldn't answer in a properly illuminating way for I was too busy transcribing said Socratic dialogue. What a feather in the cap of a pretty successful first year! I am speechless with wonder and gratitude. (FYI: I say "pretty" successful because we did okay but the recession definitely got us like it got everyone else.)

The coming year in bookstoreland
Having, especially in the first few months, taken pretty much any book downsizing baby boomers were willing to throw at us, we're much more selective than we initially were and will continue to become even more so, and not just because we're seriously running out of space.

Our predecessors never got over this early inclination of fear and desperation and as a consequence we are currently saddled with no fewer than 15 hardcover copies of The Da Vinci Code, not to mention the Pulitzer Prize-winning smash hit Full House: Behind the Scenes.

You would think a book-seller being selective about what they acquire would be a pretty common sense thing, but people often become offended when I won't take their books - even though they don't want them anymore themselves! Ah, the peculiar psychology of those who secretly feel guilty about getting rid of their personal libraries and maybe shame that their personal libraries contained Full House: Behind the Scenes in the first place...

Also, I've been getting better at working steadily but with breaks as the year has worn on. My former practice had been to spend several days a week working maniacally and putting 150 books at a time into our catalogue and then spending the other days rocking back and forth with my thumb in my mouth, unable to talk. Balance is getting easier on the job and I think I'm getting more done because of it...The next frontier will be, in the spirit of Captain Picard, to find time between my incredibly important duties for working on my super-fine body at the gym (much) more often.

We plan to spend likely a great deal of money on a new awning for above the outside door, if our accountant doesn't tell us, at the end of the tax year, that this is a losing game. You see, eight years or so ago, this used to be a bookstore and cafe. The second owners never bothered to get the awning changed and so every once in a while some tourist who doesn't know better comes in incredibly excited...only to have me break their hearts mercilessly by pityingly informing them that what was once the cafe is now a room full of children's books, parenting books, teaching resources books, porn books, and recovery books. A curious mixture of topics, yes, which I can't take credit for but am sort of shame-facedly proud of.

And now, having done a bunch of work AND blogged, I think it's time to turn to my current novel, The Possibility of an Island, which is turning out to be one of the most over-hyped books I've ever read. But I'm open to it still surprising and impressing me.

Wednesday 16 December 2009

Sad and thoughtful

I finished this novel this morning and have been feeling rather sad and thoughtful ever since, in part because it's over and I really didn't want it to end. But the book itself feels sad and thoughtful, in spite of its mostly happy ending.

I was about to assert that this novel feels much different from any other Dickens book I've read but I realize that every Dickens book has felt different to me, in spite of all the clearly Dickensian characters and moments and observations they all boast. I think with David Copperfield I'm beginning to see just how varied Dickens could be within the (imagined? by modern readers?) confines of his very recognizable writing style.

This will be news to no one, likely, but my understanding of the Victorians is fuzzy and warm and quite vague. I've always imagined that as in no other era, the authors of the Victorian period were simultaneously for the "feeling" readers and the "thinking" readers; both for the common, minimally educated folk and the privileged owners of libraries, etc. (to break Victorian England, quite erroneously, into only two distinct social classes). Based on this likely ludicrous construction of the period, I thought Dickens was rather more for the touchy-feely types - which with him, I had/have absolutely no problem with, no matter how much I mock such tendencies in contemporary fiction writers.

David Copperfield was written in the first person, as the memoir of an established novelist, and apparently presents a number of parallels to Dickens's own life. If ever an emotional gush-fest were likely to occur, this would be the novel for it; and yet, this book is much, much quieter than the last Dickensian emotional explosion I read (A Tale of Two Cities) and is indeed, very pensive and introspective.

Not that there weren't happenings, and pain, and love, and death, and disaster! everywhere in David Copperfield, because of course there were. But this novel looked not so much at a specific social problem rooted in some form of injustice, but rather at what may be the most pressing social problem going: how to create family, both filial and friendly, out of nothing. The difficulties and pitfalls of the attempt, the ongoing heartaches, the mis-steps, the losses - but also the surprising things that become possible when you start at zero and have nothing left to lose.

Speaking of starting at zero so that the impossible might become less so, here's a drawing (by Phiz, of course) showing young Davey presenting himself to his Aunt Betsey Trotwood for the first time.

For a real review of the book, check out what Tony has to say here.

Monday 14 December 2009


Check out the alternative blog banner my friend Darren made for me:

I would like to have the traditional and the newfangled banners alternating continually for my own shits and giggles, but making a .gif file is infinitely too schmancy for me. So this one will be the official footer of Bookphilia from now on, reminding everyone that pumpkin pie recipes could begin falling from the sky at any moment.

Sunday 13 December 2009

Throwing your body at the mark

Amateur Reader has been, via Emerson and Thoreau, discussing the issue of writing and what a trial it can be. The quotation at the centre of his most recent post on this topic is worth repeating:
"The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when your arrows are spent."
That's precisely how I finished my thesis - and I frankly enjoyed it. Did I ever tell you about the conclusion of my thesis? How it was exhausting and landed me briefly in hospital but was the best fun I'd had with the damned thing in years? Apologies if I'm like your grand-dad, ponderously telling you the same tale you've heard 547 times before.

Hubby and I had bought a bookstore and all of a sudden, there was a deadline for me getting the hell out of grad school Dodge, a real deadline. There would be no time for anything but figuring out how to be a bookseller come Dec 19 2008. So in August 2008, knowing what was to come, I put the pedal to the metal, my nose to the grindstone, I turned the volume up to 11, and with the help of my supportive cliches, got 'er done. It took about 2 or 2.5 months to get 'er done and what was required to do so was:
  • get up very early with my hubby and cycle to work with him. Upon arrival, I planted myself in a coffee shop or the Toronto Reference Library and worked like a fiend until lunch;
  • had lunch and pep talks with dear, perfect hubby;
  • went back to work at library or coffee shop;
  • went home for dinner;
  • repeated on the morrow.
Increasingly, my place of work was a coffee shop at the corner of Bloor and Sherbourne where they came to know my name and what drink I wanted (soy matcha latte with lavender or Irish cream coffee with soy) and became part of the pep talk team in between other customers.

I read and took notes and wrote desperately and on full-adrenaline mode at all times. My eyes hurt. I took frequent bathroom breaks, but drank almost no water in order to take fewer for they were getting in the way of my work - which is what landed me in the hospital, Toronto East General, in fact, which is about as high-tech and up-to-date as Pacman for Atari.

I loved reading Pamela, which I realize complicates my clear-cut distinctions between desperate and non-desperate reading in my previous post. What can I say? I'm like Whitman, save for the talent, in that I contradict myself and contain multitudes. And I found myself loving writing my conclusion when gawd struck me down. Quite literally, in the middle of writing what would turn out to be a 20-page conclusion, having just hit the page 10 mark and thinking "My goodness, what good times this is turning out to be!", I found myself lying on the floor in front of my computer and shaking my fist at the sky yelling "FUCK YOU, YOU FUCKING FUCK!! WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME NOW!!!!"

And so I went to the hospital and after 8 hours of waiting to see a doctor discovered that while I am not a cheese-eating old man, I had a kidney stone, which can also be caused by extreme dehydration. (Coffee, how can you taste so good and be so evil?) The first thing I asked the tired and impatient and over-worked doctor was, of course, could she give me pain pills that would allow me to go back to working on my thesis conclusion the next day. After having spent hours in the waiting room clutching the chair arms so much I was beginning to tear them off. Yeah. That may be considered throwing my body at the mark, arrows spent; or it could be insane. Maybe they're the same.

It took weeks to recover for I had the 1973 operation for the problem and not the 2008 procedure which is much more humane and not at all invasive or requiring of general anesthetic. I spent a lot of time sleeping and not eating and trying to feel better and getting nothing done when my supervisor reminded me on a Friday afternoon at 5 that I needed to submit by 9 am on Tuesday or I'd have to wait until the new year. I did sort of know this but was hoping for a reprieve, a magical one.

Again, dear hubby took me to work, but instead of leaving me in a coffee shop to self-destruct further, he took me to his office and set me up with my computer and brought me water and restorative soups and walked me around when I was having trouble staying awake. I wrote the final ten pages over 2 days and in a complete fog and managed to say everything I'd planned to say. And defended on Dec 10 and took over our store 9 days later.

What a bunch of bloody drama! I don't think I could ever write or read that way again for nothing similar or so much, at least as far as I can imagine, could ever be at stake. I doubt that when the Russian mafia takes my cats hostage that they'll demand I write them a 500-page novel with the breadth and scope of Dostoevsky, the gentle humour of Wodehouse, and the post-modern genius of David Mitchell. In a post-modern world, I suppose, nothing's impossible. It does seem more likely though that the pressure I feel in my professional life will continue to be about recommending books to customers based on insufficient information and my blog pressure, internal of course, will continue to be alleviated, at least in part, by your general awesomeness.

So maybe I'll figuratively throw my body at the mark sometimes, but not from such a long distance, or over hot coals, or at a mark with spikes pointing out. Which means, really, that I should stopping being such a whiner.

Friday 11 December 2009

Pre- and post-desperation reading

I haven't been here in a while; it's good to see you. I deleted my blog for a little while to give myself real space to think; about what I want/need/expect to get out of book blogging now that it's no longer a refuge from anything; what I owe to the people who read this blog, whether or no they remain "silent"; just how much, and what kind of, consideration I owe to readers; whether or not I should take Celine's advice and turn Bookphilia into Pumpkin Pie Recipe-philia, with Stuff About Books Sometimes, Maybe.

I haven't actually come up with any definitive answers. I have had some revelatory (or almost so) moments, that may lead to something eventually.

1) I am reading David Copperfield, and have been doing so for a couple of weeks now. I'm taking it slowly, often on purpose. I freaked out a little a few days ago when I realized this is the first book in approximately 10 years that I haven't read desperately. And I mean real, sickening desperation.

In grad school (yes, I'll stop blaming everything on that soon, very soon, I promise!), I read desperately both microcosmically and macrocosmically, and in both my work and leisure reading experiences. For school, I read desperately quickly, in order to get things done; for example, I recall reading Wuthering Heights in one very long and excruciating day because I had so many other things to do; during that day, I neither left my house, nor washed, nor ate anything that didn't come out of a box. While studying for my comprehensive exams, I read two plays every day, and took extensive notes on them.

When I read for leisure, which I did in a manic attempt to not feel too defined by my studies, I read with all the desperation of the drowning; reading for pleasure only was, for me, evidence that I wasn't lost yet. But I read with so much fear in my heart - the fear of individual books being interrupted and the general fear of running out of time before I got to everything I wanted to get to that in the end, these experiences weren't really so different. I just didn't realize this until recently, when I noticed I was magically back to reading in pre-desperation mode.

Pre-desperation mode involved lingering over books to make them last as long as possible, purposefully not reading at all some days so my immersion in the artistic world of Dickens or Boccaccio or whomever could be prolonged in my deeply satisfied brain. Apparently, just 2 weeks away and an impossibly lengthy Dickens novel have taken me back there.

The question is, can I blog without that desperation? I honestly don't know. The last time I was accustomed to reading this way, my email was in Pine, more than half my professors (and I) didn't know how to send attachments over the email, and Blogger didn't even exist! Maybe that's where the pumpkin pie recipes come in, hey? I hope you like pumpkin pie.

2) Substance has gotten lost in style here somehow. I like to be funny. Sometimes, I think I succeed. I must succeed sometimes; otherwise, Tina Fey wouldn't have created an entire tv show based on the crazy hi jinx of my awkward social life and professional gaffs. But I was positively ashamed of myself today when I saw my flip and shallow interview about Shakespeare bumping up against an interview with David Mitchell on Between the Lines.

Also, I can be dismissive. Admittedly, this is my blog and I should without shame state my opinions but this is where I get confused - at what point does the blog stop being about the individual and become about the community? And how does one maintain the individual (which in my case is allergic to sugar-coating anything) without alienating the community? I honestly don't know, and this is why I'm not certain this return of mine will last.

3) I'm not sure I can write without desperation, but just as importantly, I'm not sure I want to. That's not a rhetorical way of saying I don't want to; I really don't know if I want to! To try to answer this, I'm going to list what I've consistently enjoyed about working on this here bloggy:
  • Curious/Creepy: Besides just loving to find out what people are reading, I like the venue for creative but relatively harmless bitchiness this allows for. But I rarely take transit so this is a difficult one to do often.
  • The Sarazens head: It's good to point out that all the crazy people that come in here aren't just fictions of my disordered brain. Ditto for the super-nice and interesting people.
  • I enjoy writing about books I really love and books I really hate. Both inspire passion, and it's satisfying to engage with that passion. Unfortunately, my passionate responses to books I hate have elicited death threats and illiterate abuse, e.g., "Your a stupid cunt faced bitch go fuck yourselv" [sic], and that's frankly rather tiring now that I've grown Kevlar skin and it doesn't hurt me anymore. Also, it's hard to read only books that inspire an excessive use of superlatives; there's just so much middling stuff out there.
And now for what I don't like (anymore):
  • I used to love The Reading Lamp but that's on the chopping block if Bookphilia stays alive for it's SO FREAKIN' HARD to get people to participate. I find this surprising. But I guess I imagine everyone will be as much of an egomaniac as I am and want to spout their blah blahs all over the place as much as I do.
  • Book challenges. Granted, I'm only currently involved in two - one of my own devising (talk about commitment-phobia!) and the other which requires only one book in six months, which I've fulfilled - but I somehow can't deal with the pressure. But I'm not blaming things on grad school anymore so this is an entirely mysterious ailment that cannot be diagnosed!
  • I don't know if I can actually do things any differently, no matter how much I analyze myself and tire you by treating you like my father confessor/shrink/bartender/sympathetic looking but quietly uncomfortable guy at the bus stop. Er, yeah, sorry.
I guess all I know at this point is that reading has suddenly become entirely magical again. And laid back. And much more deeply satisfying. And slooooow.

And I'm out of steam. More later, maybe.

Wednesday 25 November 2009

Reading as a political act/The political inefficacy of reading

I've recently tried to push the admittedly narrow limits of my reading by focusing on two (very different) books of non-fiction: Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals and Alberto Manguel's The Library at Night.

Foer's book is a qualified argument in favour of vegetarianism, the researching and writing of which were inspired by the birth of his son and the suddenly much more important need to know exactly what comprised the food he was buying for his family. In terms of effectiveness (for inspiring people to look into what they put in their mouths and into their families' mouths), Eating Animals might really work for two reasons: First, many, many people know and love Foer's novels (Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) and so not only will this book end up on a lot of people's radars the way any number of other similar books simply would not, but he's also working the daytime television circuit pretty well.

Second, as has been pointed out elsewhere, even though Foer is now vegetarian himself, this is really an "outsider" book. Written as a voyage of discovery, it offers nothing that's really new to those of us who have been thinking seriously about this issue for a long time. However, the newness of both Foer's experience and his perspective are potentially quite powerful things, rhetorically, because Eating Animals displays none of the creeping self-righteousness that can too often show up in tomes penned by those who've been veg*n a really long time and can no longer recall how difficult it is to even contemplate changing one's diet in the ways they propose.

Also, because it's written by Jonathan Safran Foer, the writing is excellent and thoughtful in terms of looking at the larger social picture, both of which are also, in my experience, new additions to the bevy of "vegetarian" books out there. (And Foer's the hottest vegetarian out there except, of course, for my husband. And maybe me. And some friends of mine. But I digress.)

Alberto Manguel's The Library at Night is a sort of anthropological history of the library and its cultural, political, and personal significance. It's a love letter, really, to books and to the people who collect them for others' use and to the places in which they are collected. It's also a eulogy of books lost to time, to destruction (intentional and otherwise), and to indifference by our increasingly tech-savvy but distractable 21st-century world.

Like Foer's book, Manguel's is very well-written - and I have to say, the writing of non-fiction has always been a major sticking point for me; so often, in my previous experience, non-fiction writing has treated as something to be used in the most starkly utilitarian ways, not something to be cherished, lingered over, or played with. Manguel's love letter is thus also a love letter to the act of writing itself, even though he claims his focus for reading and a long and varied culture of collecting books.

In spite of the rhapsodies he permits himself, however, Manguel is clear about one thing: reading is a political act, and so therefore is collecting books into libraries, regardless of size. Censorship, he argues at one point is, in a case of rather devastating irony, an inescapable aspect of creating libraries for there's no possible way every book can be included in any one library structure - and those who tried to create one (Babel) are famously known for having destruction rained down upon their heads, at least mythically.

And yet, Manguel sees nothing more dangerous in terms of a culture's awareness of itself as a culture than to allow censorship, to not try to circumvent that necessary censorship as much as possible. Citing a sadly very long list of the ways in which censorship has been enacted on reading throughout our world's history, he reminds us that in our apparently very open-minded and "safe" western world, things haven't changed nearly enough:
In the aftermath of 11 September 2001, the Congress of the United States passed a law, Section 215 of the U.S.A. Patriot Act, allowing federal agents to obtain records of books borrowed at any public library or bought at any private bookstore. "Unlike traditional search warrants, this new power does not require officers to have evidence of any crime, nor provide evidence to a court that their target is suspected of one. Nor are library staff allowed to tell targeted individuals that they are being investigated." [From Lawrence Donegan, 'Anger as CIA homes in on new target: library users,' in The Observer (London, 16 March 2003)] Under such requirements, a number of libraries in the United States, kowtowing to the authorities, reconsidered the purchase of various titles. (p. 125)
I would be interested - very interested - to know how often this law has been put into effect in the U.S. - and with what (sorts) of books and what (sorts) of penalties ensuing. Eating Animals may very well end up being one of the books whose readers are investigated, for vegans are considered to be the number one domestic terrorism threat in the U.S.! Eating Animals is not a pro-vegan book; it's a pro-vegetarian book as, I say above, with qualifications - but it does go after big corporations with a lot of governmental power on their side.

And much more importantly, when it comes to book banning and condemning, those doing the banning and condemning don't generally read the books they take aim at. Not a few times in Canadian educational history, in my lifetime, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird has been banned from high school curricula by those who've neither read the book nor understand its historical importance - or because school boards have kowtowed to angry parents who've neither read the book nor understand its context.

Thus, simply reading Eating Animals could well constitute a political act. And Foer argues that whether you change your diet after learning what he reveals or not, that too is political - for not doing has inescapable significance. I take his point, but not doing anything generally leads to nothing changing - which is the same, in this case, as not having read the book. So, while I know using the example of one book is not fair, I will nonetheless ask: is reading a political act if the reading effects no change? Or, how many people does a book have to inspire to change or act for the reading of it to be considered a political act worth noting?

And is reading any book or any text really a political act? Manguel discusses how in the American south, many slave owners worked very hard to ensure their slaves didn't learn to read because direct personal access to information and education could incite rebellion; confronted with such an example, it's hard to deny that reading bears some sort of political meaning. But reading a Harlequin romance - or even, as enjoyable and informative as it is, The Library at Night! - doesn't seem to me to have any political implications, regardless of how any given reader or group of readers might respond.

The majority of people I deal with in my store and the majority of readers I know (self included) generally read to relax, to escape, to feel pleasure. If that sort of reading is political, it's only political in the negative sort of way Foer attributes to doing nothing, as I note above - and that's not a political choice that can be measured, for readers who do nothing can on the face of doing nothing be in no way distinguished from those who don't read to begin with, unless by CIA agents with naught to do but trawl library records.

I personally can't conclude that reading is inherently political; when political, reading is contextually so. I do agree with Manguel's assertion that individuals receiving educations which enable them comfortably to read texts penned for adult audiences is of political importance, as is universal access to reading materials of choice. Apart from that, I think political action happens entirely elsewhere and likely doesn't involve a comfy chair, tea, and home-made cookies (my ideal reading set-up).

Tuesday 17 November 2009

What ho! Shakespeare!

As you know, I've been trying to think of ways to inject some pizazz into Bookphilia and my feelings about it. I'm afraid none of my ideas are looking very well in the cold light of day, which I guess leaves me with two immediate options: stop blogging, or, keep writing reviews as I know how to (and hope that the romance will reignite all on its lonesome). For today, at least, I suppose my simply being here and showing you a picture of a P.G. Wodehouse book means I'm going for the latter option.

In my experience so far, P.G. Wodehouse's books are quite predictable and all pretty similar; the characters get switched up a bit and the hairy situations are somewhat altered but really, they're all the same. I have no problem with this and obviously, neither does the rest of the reading world, for all his books are being re-printed in purdy new soft covers.

Wodehouse's novels are fun and generally reliable and forgettable; I can't even remember the details of my favourite Wodehouse novel, Leave it to Psmith. But hey, if it's good enough for Shakespeare, it's good enough for me (and our man Pelham Grenville) - because really, all Wodehouse's books, in spirit for sure and also often in detail, are modern renditions of Shakespearean Comedies. Engagements arranged in record time, engagements broken, engagements remade and broken and remade, confused identities, young people running about in the green world well beyond the reach of the city, youth's conflict with the oldsters/parent figures, and the ultimate triumph of youth - all Shakespeare AND all Wodehouse. Wodehouse has no shame about his literary lineage, for he loves to drop little snippets from Shakespeare's oeuvre - who loved his intertextual references too. Wodehouse is like the meta-Shakespeare of 300 and change years later.

Obviously, such an analogy can only go so far; while Shakespeare's Comedies ARE all remarkably similar, he still had a great deal more breadth than Wodehouse, who did not pen tragedies or histories, or most interestingly, "problem" novels defying genre and the readerly expectations surrounding it. But this doesn't mean Wodehouse's Comedies aren't interesting. One of the things I find fascinating about them is how much more deeply than Shakespeare he thrusts his characters into the proverbial forest removed from the real world. Contemporary politics are barely gestured towards, if at all (e.g., in The Code of the Woosters, Roderick Spode is a rather intimidating fascist dictator in the making, but when crushed up against the meditative and ever firing brain of Jeeves, he has no chance there, in the country - and more importantly, his political ties and proclivities in no way affect the major plot points). The insularity of the English country mansion and its environs become inviolable to all negative forces save those of parent figures' in direct conflict with young people's desires.

The one way in which Wodehouse does not maintain his fairly consistent generic homage to Shakespeare, however, is in relation to the issue of class. In Shakespeare's Comedies, class distinctions are allowed to break down and be toyed with in the forest - although they will, of course, be re-established directly prior to the characters' re-entry into the "real" world. A great deal of Wodehousian Comedy relies on the strict maintenance of those class distinctions throughout whatever chaos ensues. With Shakespeare, the temporary disintegration of class is a true fantasy in the non-literary sense of the world - in Renaissance England, to what class one belonged was very clearly marked by the clothes worn. Indeed, that Renaissance actors, low rent by anyone's standards, could dress themselves as kings on the stage caused a fair bit of anxiety - for external markers were the only markers of social position (and therefore power) that were universally understood.

So, I wonder, was Wodehouse simply not enamoured of that particular aspect of his mentor's Comedic style, or is the sharp delineation of class in Wodehouse's novels itself the fantasy? Is the thing to be yearned for, in a Europe shaken by wars, the rise of a strong union culture, and an increasing influx of immigrants, not more social diversity but less? Given Wodehouse's political affiliations during World War II, that's a rather disquieting hypothesis. (It's also disquieting that I say this, given how many years I spent trying to teach my students to avoid engaging in biography criticism!) Or, are Wodehouse's novels simply a gentle send-up of the old guard who would imagine that larger cultural changes would leave their country (estates) entirely untouched in every way? Or, even more basically, is Wodehouse just having a simple laugh at those who would imagine that youth won't triumph over age?

I don't know the answers to these questions. I do know, having just come up for air and looked around with blinky eyes and racing heart, that I've apparently just written, not a review of The Code of the Woosters (which I very much enjoyed), but rather a hasty and un-researched lecture geared towards a first year English course - if anyone taught Wodehouse to first years, which I can't say I've ever heard of. Having not taught uni courses in 3 years now, I find what I've just done confusing. And perhaps more, not less evidence, of the fact that I don't know what kind of relationship I want there to be between the books I read and how and what I write about them. Sigh.

Friday 13 November 2009

The best sort of YA book is not really for YAs

That I have read Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels is a testament to the power of the interwebs, friends - specifically to the power of the book blog, for if it weren't for Raych's post on this book I would not have read it. If it weren't for the interwebs and my bookstore, I don't think any very recently published tomes would penetrate my consciousness these days (except for The Time Traveller's Wife, which 50 people a week ask me for; no one's yet asked me for Tender Morsels, the fools). I just want to dive into a pool filled not with water but with novels penned by a variety of Victorians, P.G. Wodehouse, and Ellis Peters and drown in bookish happiness.

What I'm saying is, Tender Morsels is a little bit of a departure from what I'm craving at this particular moment but it's exactly what I wanted when I found myself disappointed by that half-arsed Philip Pullman book a little ways back. Lanagan's book abounds in magic and inexplicable happenings, and the writing is really damned good in a capital-s Story sort of way, and like all the best YA novels out there, it isn't what many parents would consider suitable for YAs. It is fully of nasties and terrors and sex good, confusing, and very, very bad - and I absolutely loved it.

Reading books like this makes me feel a desperate sort of pain about my own inability to write creatively anymore. I want to write books like this, more than I can say. But every time I come up with a halfway good idea, I kill it to death by immediately analyzing it as though I were still a literary critic. I do this much against my will and can only hope that as more time passes, I'll be able to shed that aspect of my grad school life as well.

Back to Tender Morsels. It's a retelling of Snow White and Rose Red, a fairy tale I read repeatedly as a child, as it was in my favourite books, the 2-volume set of The World's Best Loved Fairy Tales. Like the original story, Tender Morsels includes the angry little dwarf with the beard and love of gold, as well as the bear who wins the hearts of the beautiful sisters. But the sort of suppressed sexuality barely hinted at in the original is in Lanagan's book explored with a great deal of confidence (and sometimes rather grisly relish) for the book begins and ends with gang rape and there's a whole bunch of alternately compelling and disturbing looks at human-animal sex in between.

If you're disturbed by the notion of human-animal sex being compelling, just make yourself feel better by thinking of this book as saying something allegorically about the limits of human civilization and what lies beneath the surface. I'm sure this book, and most other fairy tales, function primarily at the level of the allegorical, but Tender Morsels is so good - and so uncomfortably so at points - precisely because it keeps the allegorical so earthly and literally immediate.

PS-Raych not only reviewed Tender Morsels, but also interviewed Lanagan - check it out here.

PPS-I've had a number of ideas for reviewing books without writing book reviews but in the cold light of day they're none of them very good; indeed, some are downright embarrassing. I'll keep my thinking cap on and see if I can come up with some better ideas. Or maybe in the meantime, I'll magically go back to loving my blog just as it is.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

The Sarazens head without New-gate: time for some gushy good feelings

While I continue to meditate on how to infuse new life into my blog (or to my feelings about my blog), I will fulfill a long overdue promise: waxing ecstatic on what's so great about being a self-employed bookseller. If the following begins to look suspiciously therapeutic, like a gratitude list for some kind of self-help event, don't be surprised: I've been rather cranky this week and I'm writing this post now in an effort to remind myself why I should be excited about being a book-wallah.

Employment for the unemployable
In partial response to my "confession" of a few days ago, Amateur Reader assured me that I was doing the world a service by reminding it that doctoral studies are not like other forms of school; that doing a PhD is, in fact, rather like a shitquake in its destruction of health, hopes, minds, and relationships. (Okay, he didn't say anything about shit tectonics, but you get my point.)

What grad school also destroyed, for me, is the ability to work in a so-called normal job. Having made my own schedule for so many years, I find being somewhere that isn't my kitchen, in apparel other than pyjamas, by 9 am to be closely related to being punched in the neck by Andre the Giant in the amount of pleasure it provides. Not only do I find getting up early to be convulsion-inducing, but I also have a very hard time working steadily.

In grad school, I acquired the very bad habit of waiting until the last possible moment to do anything and then riding the adrenalin-mare to the terrifying and deadline-skirting finish. Of course, this didn't work so well with my thesis as there was no real deadline; and it also maybe didn't work so well in the "real" jobs I've (briefly) held in attempts either to continue to afford grad school or to try something entirely unrelated in my early bids at escaping the academy.

But. But! As a book-wallah who owns her own proverbial stall, I can open whenever I see fit to do so; and luckily, I bought a shop in a 'hood that doesn't see customers before 11 am as a general rule. This is important not only because getting out of bed is so evil, but also because sitting around with a hot drink surfing the interwebs before starting work is actually pleasurable now that thesis-writing doesn't follow it! There is no guilt whatsoever in these sometimes exceedingly lazy mornings.

More importantly, perhaps, if there are days on which I really don't feel like working, I don't. And reading all day in a bookstore isn't really an unrelated activity. It's like research, for which I'm paying myself a wage that puts me well below the poverty line. So double that no guilt thing above. Not that I have entirely unproductive days very often, for there's always a mountain of books to be cataloged and/or shelved. But there's some leeway. It's the perfect job for someone with a great deal of edjumakayshun and no discipline whatsoever.

It's a buyer's market
Back in my undergraduate days, selling used books was a profitable activity. A few times, in desperate circs, I managed to pay my rent just by off-loading a third of my books at a local second-hand shop. That wouldn't happen now. I get literally 15+ calls a week from people wanting to sell their entire libraries and then there are the walk-ins, with just a bag or two of books. Every baby boomer in Toronto is apparently trying to make space and so not only do I have to turn potential sellers away quite frequently because there's just no space, but I also don't have to pay very much for these books. In fact, I pretty often open the front door in the morning to find someone has left hundreds of books on the stairs for me.

It may not be a seller's market though, and so at some point, the beautiful dream will likely end. If we didn't sell our books online as well as in the shop, we wouldn't survive. And I've spoken with many other booksellers who either say the same, or who aren't online and are really struggling just to make ends meet. So, who knows what will happen? I'm just going to run with it until it no longer makes sense to do so. And then I'll become a twitchy, Valium-addled housewife with nothing to do but read a couple 1000-page novels a week and write angry letters to the papers about what a bunch of illiterate little bastards the kids are these days. I like the sound of that actually; I'll include it in my 5-year plan.

Book-buyers are the coolest people to have to deal with if you work in retail
You've all read about the crazy people I sometimes have to deal with but the majority of my customers are calm, nice (or nice enough), and not given to temper tantrums. Most want simply to browse because unlike some big box store working, ridiculous vest wearing booksellers I've met, I don't push at all. Most indie booksellers don't; it hearkens back to a rather more civilized age, I think.

At the same time, I often have excellent and stimulating conversations with people about books. I've had great talks with disaffected academics in which we shot the intellectual shit completely free of any anxieties about how up-to-date our ideas or interests were. I met one prof who revealed that while she had tenure, was employed at the most respected (by certain magazines) university in the country, was about to begin a year-long sabbatical, and working only on things she was interested in, STILL regretted not chucking it all to do something else. She fervently informed me I'd made the right choice. She looked really tired. Her unhappiness saddened me but think of how generous she was to admit so much to someone she didn't know, just to alleviate any doubts I might have had about the choice I'd made! Amazing.

And she's not the only generous person I've met. One day, a crazy man was in here harassing me. He kept insisting that I let him go get me a coffee, or a juice, or a tea, or why didn't I have some of the JOLT he had in his bag, etc and he was so loud and manic that while I firmly insisted I wanted nothing to drink (from a crazy man I'd never seen before!) he would not take the direct hint and just kept on trying. I was getting nervous but what kept me relatively calm was the presence of 4 - 4! - people who hadn't come in together but who all stayed for a long time and were obviously only pretending to browse as this went on. They all 4 stayed close to my desk (behind which I was hiding) and only left after crazyJOLTman left. And they left immediately after he did; two of them even turned to look at me and offered conspiratorial/comforting smiles! I wanted to hug them all and yell, a la Sherman Alexie, "How many good men are there in the world? Too many to count!"

And one more gushy story for you. I was chatting with a woman about a lurid mystery novel we'd both read and enjoyed a few years back - Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind. I asked her if she'd read the prequel, The Angel's Game, which had recently been released and she said yes; I said I was waiting for it from the library but was 200th in line. She came back the next day and gifted me her copy, insisting that I shouldn't have to wait that long. She didn't try to sell it or ask for credit or anything; she just handed it to me with a smile and left. And that's a fat, new hardcover book.

(Sidebar: I've since learned that being 200th on a library waiting list isn't such a big deal here. A couple of months ago, I put The Elegance of the Hedgehog on hold - 450th in line. And recently I decided I'd check out Wolf Hall because another blogger whose taste I trust said it was good so I put that on hold - I'm 950th in line!!!)

Oh yeah, the books part
Yes, and I live in a giant library of my own. This seems so obviously a Good Thing that I don't think I need to say anything else about it.

My boss is okay too
Sometimes she's a jerk but it could be worse. She brings me lunch every day and sometimes also snacky cakes.

Alright, so there you go. The next installment of The Sarazens head without New-gate will likely involve some weirdness, if I know myself at all. Looking forward to it.

Sunday 8 November 2009

A confession

Today, between segments of a very long bicycle ride and a delicious greasy brunch with my dear hubby, I finished Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone. It was action-packed, full of confusion and misdirection and red herrings, and it was well-written to boot. Most enjoyable. But I want to write about something else right now. Please bear with me.

I've mentioned before that I began this blog simply to discover how many books I read on average per year. It quickly turned into something I enjoyed for its own sake, primarily because it gave me an opportunity to write about books in an entirely casual, and therefore pleasurable, way in direct contradistinction to the "professional" writing I was doing for my dissertation.

Blogging about books was a vacation, a relief, but also a reminder of what got me so far in the study of literature to begin with. Not that anything I've ever written here would have ever functioned as even a good undergraduate essay, of course; it was simply that writing about books in this way reminded me of a simpler time during which I had a much simpler relationship with literature - and it helped sustain me until it was all over.

Now, I've been done with school for almost a year. For some time after completing what I hope will be my final university degree, I think my blogging became, overall, quite a lot better than it had been. I had more time and brain for engaging with what I was reading and for considering what I might say about it. I've even, in the last 6+ months, had some Thoughts along the way. Things were looking good.

And things continue to improve, in one sense. I feel fantastic. I feel free of any lingering anxieties, fatigues, etc associated with my unhappy times in academe. I feel recovered from it. I feel like a normal person (!!), and many people I know who have been done with grad school much longer than I have unfortunately cannot say the same. I feel lucky and blessed and given to playing in the fall leaves like someone either very spiritually free or a bit slow. I feel good.

The thing is, the better I feel, the harder I'm finding it to blog. I struggle more with every post and am less satisfied with the results every time (except maybe for my Curious/Creepy posts, but I am the kind of hopeless nerd who laughs at her own jokes). I'm certainly not finding it difficult to read; indeed, all I want to do is read incredibly long novels (hence the Victorian novels of late, gawd luv 'em); yet, when it comes time to post about them, I find myself longing simply to start another novel, immediately.

So, what I'm hoping for with this confession, I suppose, is some perspective and advice. If you blog, how do you maintain your interest and energy in the activity? If you've felt like this, how have you gotten past it? I like my blog. I worked hard to make it this darned purrty. But I'm losing stamina right now. So please, share. I'm all ears - interweb-ally speaking.

Thursday 5 November 2009

The Reading Lamp: Guy Fawkes edition

This installment of The Reading Lamp actually has nothing to do with Guy Fawkes but as it is Guy Fawkes Day, I encourage you to remember, remember the fifth of November for I know of no reason why the Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot.

I also know that you should read Celine's interview below and enjoy it AND not set anything on fire tonight. - Colleen

Your name: Celine Kiernan

What are you currently reading?
Houdini!!! The Career of Erich Weiss by Kenneth Silverman. (Also just started Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger.)

Where are you reading them?
'Til now, mostly in snippets on trains and in the toilet because I’ve been so busy. But I’m done with the edits on the trilogy and the book fest season is over now, so for the next little while I intend to snuggle on my sofa with my big red blankie and my books and luxuriate in some head-space.

How did you discover these books?
Houdini: Been lusting after it forever. It’s usually out of my price range. But I recently found it cheap as chips on Amazon and snapped it up!

Symmetry: Been vacillating over it since it came out. Was afraid it wouldn’t live up to The Time Traveler's Wife.

What do you think of them so far?
Houdini: By far the best Houdini bio I’ve read so far. No aggravating flights of fancy (unlike some I could mention).

Symmetry: Only 24 pages in and I already love and envy Audrey N. for having lived up to my expectations.

What is the one book you love so much that you can’t be objective about other people not loving it as well? Have disagreements ever come to blows? There are quite a few – but I must tighten my jaw against harsh words if folks diss Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels.

How do you choose what to read next? I’m very often researching my own work so that is a factor in my non-fiction reading. But for fiction I usually go by friends'/trusted book-bloggers' recommendations; occasionally I choose a book at random from a bookshop shelf. I’ve recently started listening to audio books (for non-fiction only) so that I can get some exercise while researching. (Currently listening to William Wilberforce: Life of the Great Anti-slave-Trade Campaigner by William Hague.)

What is your favourite indie bookstore? Why? The Crannóg in Cavan Town (Ireland). It’s a bloody gorgeous little shop and the owners/staff treat each customer as if they were the only person who mattered.

What book have you hated so much you wanted to cause it or its author harm? I’ve only ever struggled through one such book (life’s too short to read books you hate and I usually put them down, but I stuck with this one to the long-protracted end.) I won’t publicly diss another author, so the book shall remain unnamed. Suffice it to say the dude was on the radio shortly after I had endured his waffle; he was so smugly pleased with himself that I wanted to drag him through the speakers and throttle him until he gave me back the week of my life I had wasted on his drivel.

What is your favourite either unknown or underappreciated book? Well it’s hardly unknown or underappreciated, but I think Animal’s People by Indra Sinha is a wonderful book which no-one I know has read and which, therefore, I’ve no-one to talk to about. This makes me go WAH!

Monday 2 November 2009

In which I become increasingly more nervous that Bel Canto was just a beautiful accident

A few months ago, I read Ann Patchett's Bel Canto and was just blown away by the writing, the story, the gentleness with which the author treated her doomed and fragile characters. I enjoyed Bel Canto so much that it made me both extremely interested in and tensely wary of reading any of Patchett's other novels; I have this fear that books as good as Bel Canto can't be matched by their authors because they're too good, and that everything else must surely disappoint. But I took the plunge, friends, in spite of my fears and read Run. So, it's really too bad that it confirmed my fears.

Plot spoilers!
Run tells the story of the Doyles and the Mosers, two families who on the surface of things have nothing much in common, but who turn out to be intimately connected in profoundly unexpected ways. Tip and Teddy Doyle are young African American men in their twenties, adopted into an affluent white family as babies and who enjoy the educational and social benefits thereof. Their adoptive father, as former mayor of Boston, has high political aspirations for his sons, sons whom he deeply loves but whose real desires (Tip loves nothing but fishes and wants to do a PhD in ichthyology, while Teddy feels called to become a Catholic priest) he tends to dismiss in favour of constantly pushing them both to become politicians.

The Moser family comprises a single mother, Tennessee, and her 11 year old daughter Kenya; they live in a housing project, and Tennessee barely makes ends meet in her job as an elder care worker.

The two families meet in a snowstorm when, coming out of a lecture by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Tip almost gets hit by a car but is saved by Tennessee, who takes the hit and is severely injured. At the hospital (Tip ends up with a fractured ankle and so must go too) it becomes clear that these two families coming together this way may not be accidental because Kenya reveals amidst a great deal of shock and awe that she is Tip and Teddy's sister!! and that Tennessee is their birth mother!!!

How does Kenya know this? Because Tennessee has been watching them for years now, to make sure they're alright. If being stalked by their birth mother isn't enough, it's revealed that the Mosers also live literally a 5-minute walk away - yes, the beautiful part of Boston is apparently literally on the other side of the tracks from Cathedral, a rather rough part of town. Not so surprisingly, I guess; Toronto's just like that in points as well. But in Run, it does make the stalking seem a little less benign.

It is benign, however, as the Doyles come to see as Kenya stays with them (there's nowhere else for her to go, for secret reasons I won't reveal here) while her mother undergoes multiple surgeries in hospital.

Now, Run gestures towards all kinds of huge and important things like class, and parents' expectations of their children, and race, and how genetics affect family dynamics and the identities of individuals within families and the larger social pool. But in the end, these gestures felt rather half-hearted and the issues weren't explored in the depth they could - and, I think, should - have been. So, there was a lot of story and not a lot of substance here, just shadows of substance not fully materialized.

In which I really spoil the plot
Also, the way the book wrapped up was really too pat; it's so glib and easy that it almost makes me angry. Kenya is a smart kid at a shitty, ghetto school; she's got natural talent for the piano but no money for lessons and no instrument to practice on; she's a startlingly gifted runner but isn't getting to as many meets as she should be because of the whole shitty school and no money problem. So, instead of having Tennessee live so that the Doyles and Mosers can try to sift through the complicated historical intersections of their lives and try to create some kind of new familial relationship, Patchett just kills Tennessee off via some handy undetected internal bleeding. This, of course, ensures that Kenya is adopted and saved by Daddy Doyle and his money just like Tip and Teddy were.

Really, I can't tell you how disappointed I was by this ending, which I saw coming halfway through the book. After Bel Canto, I couldn't believe Patchett was actually going to wimp out and do this but she did. All I can think is that she got a little lazy, which is probably the worst adjective one could throw at a writer, but it seems too terribly apropos not to use. Had Patchett decided to explore how these two socially and financially divided families might try to come together in some unique way, she would have written a potentially phenomenal novel; as it stands, I think Run was, while often very engaging for her writing is still very good, ultimately a disappointment and for me, a failure.

I'll likely give Patchett at least one more shot before deciding that Bel Canto was the beautiful anomaly in her unexceptional oeuvre. But I have to admit that I'm even less excited and more nervous to do so than I was before I read Run. Sigh.

Friday 30 October 2009

Sickbed reading

I hadn't planned on reading another Brother Cadfael murder mystery quite so soon but I was sick with the flu or something else that much nastier than your basic cold this week and needed an easy read. I tried to read Stephen King's The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon because I thought, hey, Stephen King is a nice light snack. Well, it was light - ON PLOT AND ATMOSPHERE, which is all the man has going for him - and so halfway through I kicked that shit to the curb and went with Old Reliable, Ellis Peters.

In my laying in for the flu (I actually had to close the store on Wednesday and on Thursday someone else worked) I completed the sixth in the Brother Cadfael series of medieval murder mysteries, The Virgin in the Ice. As always, any Cadfael story satisfies. And, shockingly, Peters presents her first female murder victim - and more shockingly - she was raped! Peters maintains her cozy medieval world even as she shows more with each book how its borders are fraying and vulnerable and its inhabitants the playthings of larger and dangerous, if not malevolent, forces - all mostly resulting from the chaos brought on by King Stephen's and the Empress Maud's continuing civil war over the crown.

I am still a little under the weather but back at work as necessity demands. I don't have much to say about this book. It was easy and enjoyable, just as I required it to be. What do you like to read when you're under the weather and stuck in bed? My brother will probably show off and email to tell me he likes to read Finnegans Wake or Herodotus when he's feverish. Boo.

Tuesday 27 October 2009

Science is scary

Well, two things had to happen eventually: I had to get a real, honest to gawd cold that I can't fight off (it's been 2 years!), and I had to finally finish Koji Suzuki's Ring trilogy with Loop. Because of the former I don't think my review of the latter is going to be at my usual level of mind-blowing awesomeness. Er, yeah.

So, Loop, is sci-fi horror designed, I'm sure, to get your lower brain stem freaking out re: viruses and contagion. Which is already happening pretty much everywhere right now anyway; I saw on the news the other day that 1/3 of all Canadians will no longer shake hands because they're afraid of getting the ol' H1N1. Every week there's either some new viral hysteria or some new nuance added to the current viral hysteria, and so I think this book might make some people's skin crawl rather severely.

But Loop is a fascinating conclusion to the trilogy and one I didn't see coming at all. I'm not sure Koji Suzuki saw it coming either; if he did, he's a crazy and dangerous genius of planning. Ring is a straightforward "dark corners and ghosties" sort of affair (far superior to the film versions, especially the American film one, which was pure shite) which I enjoyed incredibly and found to be suitably creepy. Spiral, the second book, also freaked me out because nothing gets my lower brain stem squirming like the idea of giving birth to something not quite human (and child zombies, of course), but I still didn't see where it was going to end up with Loop. In fact, the whole fear of viruses thing is much worse in Spiral than in the other two, so you might not want to read that if you're already showering with Purell or flavouring your morning coffee with it.

But, in fact, you needn't actually read either Ring or Spiral in order to understand Loop, for Suzuki brings back the most relevant plot points of those two books when they're required in Loop and, I think, in a pretty seamless way. However, I'm still glad I read the first two. And I may still be just a little bit afraid of leaving VHS tapes in the machine.

I think Loop is effective because it explores not just one, but two, of society's biggest fears as becoming horrifyingly connected: viruses and A.I. If you think we're not all afraid of the artificial intelligence, it's time to re-watch The Matrix. And that's all I can really say. Actually, I've probably already said too much, for Loop's plot is basically a series of revelations about one character's attempt to figure out where this crazy new cancer virus that is contagious like AIDS came from and what to do about it. It's nerdy, and scary, and convincing.

And that last adjective is probably at the heart of what makes Suzuki such a powerhouse of horror fiction in Japan - he's basically 3 fairly short steps ahead of where humans are now and so the science and logic of what he proposes makes total sense...which is the best kind of sci-fi AND the best kind of horror, as far as I'm concerned. But then, I'm the person who sat in the cinema watching The Blair Witch Project bored out of her tree while her then-boyfriend screamed like a 5-year old; I'm the kind of person to still have nightmares about one scene from a sci-fi book read 20 years ago in which this guy tears the computer pack out of the skin on his back. *Shudder*.

Saturday 24 October 2009

An interlude which was neither all that I'd hoped for nor more

I'm enjoying Marguerite de Navarre's The Heptameron but I confess I needed a little break from all that courtly love; every story discusses the most beautiful and virtuous woman in the world, or the most gallant and honourable man in the world, but it's never the same man or the same woman. I know such excessive and straight-faced used of the superlatives is standard to the genre but it was wearing on me just a little bit, so I had to walk away and let everyone cool down, lest someone say or do something we'd all regret.

As a break, I wanted a good fantasy novel that might be geared more towards the YAs than the adults. I kind of wanted books I'd already read - like A Swiftly Tilting Planet or Gryphon's Eyrie - but I didn't want to reread. I wanted a book that would give me a reading experience like those books gave me back in the day (and in subsequent rereads). In quest of such a book I betook myself to the library and basically couldn't find anything that looked promising in the way I wanted, so I picked up the only non-Victorian-esque Philip Pullman book I haven't yet read - because what could be more reliable than a Philip Pullman book?

Oh right. If only I'd remembered that I didn't like that Victorian-esque book, The Ruby in the Smoke, so much, and actually, except for the His Dark Materials trilogy and Clockwork and I Was a Rat!, I generally haven't been so impressed. I've actually loved about half of what I've read of Pullman's stuff. The other half, meh. It's just hard to remember the "meh" moments when I remember His Dark Materials, which is just so bloody good!!!! It's hard to believe Pullman could write anything except pure awesomeness except that now that I think of it, he did write some pure not-awesomeness. Like those two mini-additions to His Dark Materials and The Ruby in the Smoke and Count Karlstein and The Firework-maker's Daughter. Sigh.

Sadly, The Scarecrow and His Servant is one of those efforts of Mr. P.'s which I must relegate to the not-awesome pile. It was okay. It had moments. But it didn't blow me away at all with its magic and mystery and imagination, and that's what I wanted. It was fast; took me about a total of 2.5 hours to read. And if I had sprogs of my own or little relatives to read to, I would likely include this one in Reading Time, if only because Pullman never freaks me out with his weird ideologies (even though there was some consumption of someone's head!! (which, to be fair, was made of turnip)) and his writing is always very good. But I would probably also secretly hope that it wouldn't be the book they wanted me to re-read to them every night for a year.

Anyway, you can be sure that I'll be reading The Book of Dust whenever it's released. But you can also be sure that I'm becoming increasingly skeptical about the consistency of our man's genius. Which makes me feel like I did when I found out Santa Claus wasn't real. I kind of knew because I'd begun to recognize my mother's handwriting on those gifties; but a little more genius-ish use of the smoke and mirrors could have delayed the trauma. So come on, Phil, pull out the smoke and mirrors one more time! Show us some more good Moses tricks!!! PLEASE.

Wednesday 21 October 2009

Where the work begins

Can You Forgive Her? is the first of Anthony Trollope's six Palliser novels, of which I will be reading the next five, and in relatively short order. A Victorian novel set against the backdrop of English parliamentary politics may not sound promising but, in fact, it adds a great deal of nuance to the personal struggles of Trollope's various characters.

Not that his characters, at least in this novel, wouldn't have been nuanced anyway; in my short experience of his writing, I would like to proclaim that Trollope may have been one of the masters of characterization in the mid- to late-19th century. All the characters seemed really alive and entirely distinct from one another, and like real people, kept undermining my expectations of them by showing themselves to be entirely complex and full of contradiction.

Plot Spoilers in Abundance!
Alive Vavasor is the protagonist potentially in need of readerly forgiveness, for she has a tendency to make marital engagements and then break them. Of especial need of forgiveness is the way she continues to try to push away John Grey, the man she actually loves. Why she fears to marry someone she adores and who adores her is not as mysterious as, say, Isabel's shocking marital choice at the end of The Portrait of a Lady, but it's also not the simple matter that Alice's friends make it out to be.

Alice is frequently accused of having been spoiled for being allowed too much independence in her upbringing, for she finds herself frequently trying to avoid allowing her relatives to make all of her life choices for her. Making her own choices is important to Alice but it doesn't account for why she breaks her engagement with Grey for that was her choice, entirely; it does, however, in part account for why it takes her so long to reconcile herself to reforming the engagement.

No, I think she rightly feels that Grey, as much as he loves her, will in some metaphysical or spiritual way, consume her. In the end, she happily reconciles herself to this but it's not a painless reconciliation. She knows she's giving up something about her identity that is essential but the unhappiness that life without him would be is ultimately too much of a price for her to pay.

This is one of the things I loved about Can You Forgive Her? - there are conflicts and there are resolutions but those resolutions are neither easy nor, in fact, entirely complete. Trollope, I think, was more interested in the processes of complicated human interactions than in leading his narrative to the conclusions thereof.

This messy verisimilitude is best seen in the marriage of Plantagenet Palliser and Lady Glencora. Glencora has been forced by her family and friends to abandon Burgo Fitzgerald, the man she really loves, for a politically and monetarily advantageous union with Palliser. She struggles constantly with her dissatisfaction, with the coldness of her marriage, and with her husband's apparently sole focuses of interest - becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer and begetting a male heir - the latter of which, after almost a year of marriage, is quite terribly not forthcoming.

Burgo, because he is lazy, irresponsible, and profligate (as well as beautiful and irresistible) tries to convince Glencora to run away with him - and she almost succumbs to the temptation! Alice tries constantly to talk sense into her but it's Palliser's revelation of something of his unknown depths to her that keeps Glencora from making such a fatal move. Having revealed all her true feelings about Burgo and her marriage to Palliser, he responds thus:
Softly, slowly, very gradually, as though he were afraid of what he was doing, he put his arm around her waist. 'You are wrong in one thing,' he said. 'I do love you.'
She shook her head, touching his breast with her hair as she did so.
'I do love you,' he repeated. 'If you mean that I am not apt at telling you so, it is true, I know. My mind is running on other things.'
'Yes,' she said, 'your mind is running on other things.'
'But I do love you. If you cannot love me, it is a great misfortune to us both. But we need not therefore be disgraced. As for that other thing of which you spoke, - of our having, as yet, no child' - and in saying this he pressed her somewhat closer with his arm - 'you allow yourself to think too much of it; - much more of it than I do. I have made no complaints on that head, even within my own heart.'
'I know what your thoughts are, Plantagenet.'
'Believe me that you wrong my thoughts. Of course I have been anxious, and have, perhaps, shown my anxiety by the struggle I have made to hide it. I have never told you what is false, Glencora.'
'No; you are not false!'
'I would rather have you for my wife, childless, - if you will try to love me, - than any other woman, though another might give me an heir. Will you try to love me?' (Vol. II, p. 190)
I did not expect this from Plantagenet, especially as he married Glencora for her money and the political ambition it would help him realize. Further, the combination of sentiment and sense in this interchange is part of what shocks Glencora into a silence reflective of how much more she could have in her marriage than she has hitherto imagined. I feel that in a Dickens novel, the answer to the question of trying to love would be definitive - yes or no, but definitive, and our readerly concern with the conflict would be pretty much at an end. With Trollope's characters, the work doesn't end here; rather, it's at this point that it only really begins!

If Can You Forgive Her? is representative, Trollope was the complete package - highly skilled in characterization, a great writer, and the creator of compelling plots. I read this book for about 5 hours straight on Sunday, which is a feat I don't often accomplish anymore. But it was just that good.

My mother asked me recently why Trollope isn't so widely respected amongst Victorians; I didn't have an answer as I hadn't heard that Trollope was in the dog house. But here's an article by Rohan Maitzen of Novel Readings which provides an excellent response to that question, not to mention more incentive to read Trollope if you haven't already.