Tuesday 27 January 2009

All heaven's gifts being heaven's due

The title of this post comes from Ben Jonson's elegy "On My First Daughter", his daughter having died in infancy - an unfortunately common fate for children born in 17th-century England. This post is not about infant mortality, however. This post is about my junior high school English teacher, Mr. Clancey - or Mr. C, as we all called him - who died on Monday after what could only be a losing battle with spinal cancer. Here's part of his obituary, which appeared yesterday in The Chronicle Herald:

CLANCEY, Richard William
July 26, 1943- January 24, 2009. He was a son of William J. and Mary Catherine Clancey. He is survived by his wife, Mary Ellen; Liam, Raina and Fionn, Moira, Dylan, Jake, Sam, and Sylvie, Joey, Ellen, Eamon, Tom; brothers, Jim and Bill. Richard was a family man, wealthy beyond price in the love and regard of his children and the boundless joy of his dear grandchildren. His pleasures were simple, life at the "tree house", a round or two of golf, a day at the beach, winter walks, good books, great music, "kitchen" bridge in pleasant company. The affection and kindness of wonderful friends enriched his whole life and, at the end of his journey, there was much comfort to be found in their care and regard for him. We knew always that we had been blessed, greatly blessed in our friends, and we find our sad hearts a little eased by their steadfast love and compassion. Richard was always touched by the appreciation expressed by you who were once his students, but he was quite astounded by the outpouring of your remembrance and affection in these past weeks. He never realized fully the weight of his influence as the outstanding teacher you described in your letters and cards, as his great ability was ever tempered by his equally great humility. Our gratitude to all you kind young people who recognized his gift by so generously giving it back to him in his hour of need. He loved the residents at Bonny Lea Farm, the family of L'Arche Halifax, and the babies of Project Rachel. He would be most pleased by any remembrance made in honor of his life. "But since it falls unto my lot / That I should go and you should not / I'll gently rise and softly call, / Good night and joy be with you all. / Fill to him the parting glass."

I am not one for revealing very personal things here but I will now, in honour of Mr. C. for to say that he was a great inspiration, infused a love of literature in me, or was the best teacher I've ever had, while all true statements, do not in any way cover it. When I was in Mr. C's English and Social Studies classes, I was a kid well on my way to becoming one of those tragic statistics you hear about on the evening news. Mr. C saw that I needed help in a desperate way and he did the best possible thing he could for me: he kindly and constantly showed me I was good at things - specifically, reading and writing critically - and that was sometimes the only thread keeping me attached to this world.

I called Mr. C before he died, there being no way I could get down to Halifax to do so in person, and he remembered me right away and was amazingly positive. I can't imagine having that kind of strength in the face of such pain.

I know I'm being very maudlin and sad, but there was much to celebrate about Mr. C and my great good luck in having him for a teacher for 3 years. I've been sitting here at work, quite red about the nose and eyes, wondering how best to look back in a positive way. I could only come up with one thing: it's time to write some mini-book reports on the books I remember studying in Mr. C's classes. I'm going to do this based only on memory so these will be very short indeed.

1) Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare. I recall really struggling with the Renaissance language which is now so second nature to me. Reading this play for the first time, in grade 7, was only about comprehension for me and yet that same year I found myself struggling through A Midsummer Night's Dream on my own, just because I'd glimpsed a whole new world of reading in my first foray into Shakespeare.

This play also provided our entire class with its first real glimpse into SEX, for Mr. C had us watch the Zeferelli film adaptation of the play. The actors playing the titular characters got naked and my whole grade 7 class got very tense.

2) Barometer Rising by Hugh MacLennan. This is a novel about the Halifax explosion (which occurred Dec. 6, 1917) and killed several thousand people in the city, including the majority of my paternal grandfather's family. I think this was the first instance for me of reading literature translating into empathy for real people; it made the stories of my grandfather's losses real to me. It also made me red about the eyes and nose a lot, and inspired several years' commitment to Canadian literature which I have since mostly recovered from.

3) Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad. I recall not enjoying this one much; I think I was too young/immature to appreciate Conrad's incredibly concise and dense writing style. However, by the time I got to Heart of Darkness in high school, I was better able to deal with the language than my peers who hadn't been in Mr. C's extended achievement English class.

4) Shane by Jack Schaefer. A classic coming of age/western, I best remember the end of this book which concludes with the kid yelling (I think) "Shane, don't go, Shane!" It's sort of iconic, isn't? I will forever associate this novel with old book smell and hand-written book reports.

5) Of Mice and Men and 6) The Pearl by John Steinbeck. I recall both these books surprisingly well considering it's about 20 years since I read them. I remember lots of details, but most of all I can still feel the creeping desperation in both books and that's probably why I haven't read any Steinbeck since - it's too effective in that regard to be enjoyable.

Also, there was the eye/nose redness surrounding the event of Lennie's demise and George's destruction/loss of his own dream of livin' off the fatta the lan'.

6) The Pigman by Paul Zindel. I don't remember much except maybe two teenagers visiting an old hermit-like fellow; also, the cover featured the two teens wearing jeans and jackets very similar to what my babysitters wore in the early to mid-80s. I was torn between thinking they were hopelessly uncool and wishing I could wear jeans that tight.

7) Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare. The language was easier to handle by grade 8 and I've been sonorously intoning "BEWARE THE IDES OF MARCH" at the appropriate time every year since. (Perhaps not the most charming manifestation of my intimacy with Renaissance drama.)

These book reports of school days past have made me realize something else that Mr. C did for me - he made me realize school could be fun. Now that's a gift. Rest in sweet peace, sir.

Friday 23 January 2009

Tactile associations

I've been thinking about the relationship western society has with books as both physical and metaphysical objects, and what the connections between those two aspects might mean. These thoughts began when the following occurred:

I was sitting here in the shop on Monday when a customer came in looking for books that looked like one he was using as a prop in a TV show. The book was old and so the only place he might find books that looked sufficiently like his was the rare book section. He found some - two lovely old George Eliot novels (The Mill on the Floss and Felix Holt), both published around 1902.

I have to admit that I almost didn't sell the guy these books when he told me what they were for. The original book, having become part of the show's storyline, needs to be preserved for future episodes and the episodes he needed the books he bought for needed to be disposable. Some character would be throwing said understudy books - they had to be destroyable so that the original wouldn't be. It hurt me to think about what would happen to those lovely old books but I sold them anyway for two reasons, one infinitely less respectable than the other: 1) This is a business and we need to make sales; 2) It's not my business what people do with books they own.

The latter gave rise to some musings about what responsibility individuals have to others' books. No one would argue that burning books, as in Nazi Germany, was criminal and nightmarish. The question then becomes wherein lies the crime and the nightmare. Destroying art and information is frightening for it generally accompanies other forms of destruction of human autonomy, and specifically the right to think one's own thoughts and to seek out the thoughts of others according only to one's inclinations.

The problem with destroying books though is more than losses of autonomy or knowledge, for if someone decided to burn their own books, we might be disgusted but it couldn't literally be considered criminal and we'd probably just assume the guy burning his own library was insane and keep our distance.

Burning other people's books holds the more intensely disturbing associations discussed above, associations that go well beyond outrage at the destruction of private property stolen from unwilling owners. Indeed, the destruction of books is not, at least as far as I've seen, ever really associated with destruction of property the way the destruction of someone's furniture (for example) would be.

No, books are something other than physical property. But what are they?

1) Books are clearly (but not solely) intellectual property with many owners. Authors assert the right of ownership over the works they produce by having their names indelibly associated with their texts and by asserting copyright.

Publishers become owners insofar as they determine the appearance, print runs, market campaigns, and of course the published existence of books at all.

Readers have some kind of ownership too, for they determine whether or not a book makes it to the best-seller list or whether or not a publisher decides to drop an author; they decide who else reads what they read by recommending it or not, via reviews, word of mouth, and even just being seen reading in public.

Just as important as readers' public ownership over books is their private ownership - to buy and keep a book involves some kind of investment in the book as object that, except for the case of collectors who collect only for the sake of collecting, is not really financial at all. Some kind of relationship forms that lasts well after the book has been read. If it were just about the reading experience, there would be no reason to keep books after they've been read. And while lots of people get rid of books (otherwise, stores like mine couldn't exist), many many keep more than they can handle or will reasonably expect to read ever again.

Books then, I think, can become attachments that can't be explained according only to either their physical shapes or the mental or emotional pleasure taken in reading them.

2) Yet, the physical object matters for history attests to a rather contradictory relationship between readers and books as physical objects (and here I'm going to make some sweeping generalizations bereft of any real subtlety).

Before Gutenberg created the printing press in Europe (circa 1439), books were rare and extremely expensive. All had to be handmade and so the time and materials could could cause a book made in the Middle Ages to be worth upwards of the modern equivalent of $6,000 (this according to my undergraduate Middle English Literature professor). The contents and the object were, theoretically, of equivalent value - i.e., priceless. Books were not only informational and artistic, they were artifacts - things to be treasured as physical items equally for their beauty, their contents, and for what they testified to about their authors, makers, and readers, as well as the larger culture they inhabited.

The printing press made books much more widely available, both in terms of numbers and in terms of affordability and with that came increased literacy levels; without this change, I don't believe we would be where we are now in the western world in terms of either literacy or access to text: almost everyone can read and almost anyone can buy books, including the classics as publishers like Signet and the Everyman Library make sure that a fat Dickens novel or a play by Shakespeare need cost you not much more than $10 or so a piece.

Further, the lovely Ben Franklin's commitment to the idea and realization of the public library has ensured that those who can't buy a $10 book can still gain access to books.

So, now, the metaphysical worth of the book far outstrips the physical worth in the majority of cases and yet burning books, even a pile of abused Signet Classics, would likely make a lot of people extremely uncomfortable.

The next stage in the digital world is, of course, the digital book. A friend of mine has an iPod that allows him to read entire novels (e.g., Frankenstein) thereon and entirely by-pass the physicality that has previously defined reading. Such practices don't necessarily deny the tactile aspects and associations of reading but they certainly divorce the physical from the metaphysical to some degree. The iPod and other digital readers like Amazon Kindle are objects, of course, but the smells, sounds, and feel of reading is lost/sanitized in such an experience and I wonder what that does to the mental experience.

Based on my own reading of literary blogs, I would guess that it would very often seriously shorten the attention span. The only thing I read on the internet is the news and blogs and I very often don't finish very long pieces, especially of news. It's ironic, but with me, I need the physical experience of reading a traditionally created book to be able to lose myself in the metaphysical narrative. When I read from a computer screen, I'm always aware that that's what I'm doing; when I'm reading a good novel made of paper, I often surface after hours of involvement to become aware again of having a physical existence separate from the text.

Now, this may well be in part a generational thing; it may be that people who grew up reading from and working on computers would have as much of an involved reading experience with an iPod as I do with books. But I have to say, as someone who spies on readers in public, that I've yet to see someone really engrossed in an iBook (and I've been looking). So far, in my experience, looking over an iPod-holder's shoulder yields their music play list and that's all. When I see the digital generation (let's say anyone born around 1988 and beyond) engrossed in a book, it's in a physical book.

My theory, half-formed as it is, is that the book as physical object has its complex metaphysical associations because at heart it connotes membership in a community, and I mean a tangible physical community, unlike internet chat rooms and the like. Access to books, it seems to me, somehow functions to tie the solitary reader to his or her fellow humans. I don't think I can speculate on precisely how I think this might work, and it's certainly counter-intuitive in some ways if you've seen people reading on public transit for the activity there can seem like a shield.

But people don't usually engage with one another in such situations anyway. Perhaps reading alone is a sort of preparation for active engagement with others later? Perhaps it helps develop social vocabularies? And perhaps it can do these things better than a digital reader can because books still invoke the idea of human labour (that of writing and book-making) even though books aren't really made by hand anymore.

Anyway, it's all theory without any evidence; likely this post says only something about me and nothing about others. But I've wondered since finishing my PhD if reviews and other forms of criticism do anything buy reveal something about their authors. But that's a "thot" for another day.

Monday 19 January 2009

The Reading Lamp: the voice of William Gibson in Jason's head

Jason's cat is clearly smarter than my cats, all of whom like books only for either lying on or chewing. The question is: is Jason teaching MistyBob to read, or vice versa?

Oh. Gulp. Let's not talk about vices. You'll see why momentarily.

Your name:
Jason Doucette

What are you reading now? The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.

Where are you reading it? At home.

How did you discover this book? It was making the rounds earlier this year in the news circles I follow.

What do you think of it so far? I'm about halfway through it, but it got me interested right away with Umberto Eco's concept of the anti-library - it's more valuable to have a room full of books you haven't read than a bunch of books that you have. The rest of the book is good too, but it's the kind of book that you have to actually read every page of, so it's taking a while compared to business fluff.

What would your ideal desert island book be? Probably not a cookbook.

What writer do you think should be zapped out of history/existence and their works therefore never written? Wow, that's cold. Unless you mean that then I could write their stuff and take all the credit, which is still pretty cold, but possibly more lucrative. In my case, it'd be a waste. I'd start writing from memory and by midway through chapter two there'd be robot zombies everywhere making ice sculptures or something. And no, the author in question wouldn't have ever written about zombie robots or ice sculptures. In summary, my works should probably never be written, but I'd like to stay in existence, thanks.

What book would you like to put into a mine shaft and blown up? Why? The only reason I can think of would be to see what would happen, in which case any book would do, though I'd probably pick a heavy one.

What's your favourite either unknown or underappreciated book? As far as I know it's out of print, but F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Crack Up is always nice to flip through every few years, if only for the line "she was lovely and expensive and about nineteen."

Favourite childhood book? I was all about the Hardy Boys when I was a kid.

Do you buy books or borrow them from the library? Either way, what is your favourite place to get books and why? I like the library, but I've found I have this period of time in between acquiring a book and actually reading it that can span months, which doesn't work well with time-based loans. I ended up having to buy The Black Swan because I couldn't finish it in time and there was another hold on it so I couldn't renew. I still get a lot of my books from the business section of remaindered book shops, used book stores, and hybrids like BMV. My favourite place to get books is still online, since it fits my schedule, but I've been trying to get more stuff from local businesses lately.

How do you decide what to read next? Whichever book on my shelf is making me the maddest for not having opened it yet.

Favourite author? Why? For non-fiction, it's Seth Godin, both for his insights and because he knows how to make thin books that work. For fiction I still keep coming back to William Gibson. When I read a new book of his I race through it, but when I'm re-reading I like to use a drawling voice in my head like he uses when he does a reading. Reading in another voice somehow makes it into a new book.

Has a book ever made you physically ill? If yes, which book was it and why did it affect you this way? Oh yeah! It was some short story collection by Piers Anthony, I was maybe 12 or 13, and I think the story was called "On the Uses of Torture" or something. It was all about this guy getting tortured by aliens, and there was about a page dedicated to a description of one of his testicles being squashed flat in a vice. I remember it being really detailed, like Creative Writing class detailed. Why'd it make me ill? Uh, I was 12 or 13 and it was about nads in vices.

Do you prefer hardcover or softcover books? Why? Hardcover at home, softcover if I'm travelling or commuting. Hardcover usually is easier to read, with better layouts etc, but it's also bigger and bulkier and heavier which doesn't work as well when you're on the run from the cops, uh, for instance (ever notice that the criminal code of Canada is available in paperback?)

Remember - email me at colleen at bookphilia dot com if you'd like to be featured on The Reading Lamp, or if you'd like to suggest questions to add to the list from which interviewees choose!

Friday 16 January 2009

Emotional facial hair

I found this book while trying to reorganize the humour section in my bookstore and I admit that I read this book for two very shallow and lazy reasons: 1) funny title; 2) pretty cover.

Not my finest hour in book-choosing but it didn't turn out too badly. Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans is an anthology of some of the best (as decided by editors Dave Eggers et al) in the humour category of the ever-accumulating McSweeney's collection.

For me, it was mixed. I definitely had some good laughs, especially over Chris Bachelder's "My Beard, Reviewed" which had me crying. But some of it was just too clever and sophisticated to be funny. Ah well. You can't win them all.

Actually, Chris Bachelder could probably win them all. Representing reviews of his beard like movie write-ups is one of the most amusing things I've ever read. E.g.,:

Reviewer: JD Vulture from Greenville, NC, USA
Oh my God this is an incredible beard!!! I saw a small part of Chris Bachelder's beard on the Internet and I just had to go see the whole thing. I was blown away. It's a hilarious beard, but it's also sad and touching. This girl beside me was crying because the beard was so emotional. I can't do it justice. Just do yourself a favor and see this beard. It's an instant classic, and I know you'll love it as much as I did. (p.124)

The beard was so emotional. Oh dear, I'm having another giggle-fest just typing that in. Yay.

Wednesday 14 January 2009

Dulled in translation

Breaking news: I'm almost settled enough into the bookstore and into the new apartment to get back to reading Henry James' short stories. In the meantime, I'm reading some cool books I've discovered in the shop while frantically trying to fill an online order or desperately re-alphabetizing things.

First said short book was The Lais of Marie de France, which I picked up 1) because it was written during the Middle Ages; and 2). I've taught one of Marie's lais, Lanval, and really enjoyed it. Really, what's not to like about sex and the supernatural and chivalry?

Of the 12 lais included in this book, Lanval is in the end still my clear favourite. This may be because of the creepy and ambiguous conclusion but it may also be that I just don't particularly admire the Penguin translation I read.

Lais are poems around the 12th century in France, composed to be sung and accompanied by harp; Marie de France simply took some popular ones of her day and re-wrote them in her own verse and they were very popular. This translation doesn't even try to maintain the verse and so the language often becomes that indistinguishable and forgettable Penguin Classics prose which makes The Iliad sound like The Lais of Marie de France which sounds like Anna Karenina. When I originally read and taught Lanval, it was a verse version and while much was surely lost in translation, it was still more fun than this was.

In the future, I'm going to avoid Penguin for things that aren't reproduced in whatever their original form is. Marie de France was a learned and sexy lady; she deserves better.

Saturday 10 January 2009

Behind the mask

I sometimes wish I could be as open-minded about other kinds of books as I am about Japanese literature. At this point in my life, I'll try pretty much anything by a Japanese author, and that is absolutely not true about any other authorial country of origin, genre, time period, etc.

Realistically speaking, however, were I as open-minded about everything else I probably wouldn't get much done and I might miss out on gems like Fumiko Enchi's Masks just because of the sheer busy-ness of it all.

I found Masks in a remainder pile at Book City in the summer, I think (I think this because I believe the book bin was outside). I saw the name, saw it was translated, and bought it. No page 40 test, no corroborating page 1 test, no perusal of the back cover. It was a financial-literary leap of faith.

Friends, there was a net - Masks is a really, really good book. Enchi was clearly influenced by Junichiro Tanizaki at his best (i.e., not Naomi) but her authorial voice was entirely her own too. I loved the way she was able to blur the lines between physical and intellectual obsessions and passions. Many writers see these as antithetical but Enchi really explored the disturbing things that can occur when research into mythology, spirit possession, and Noh theatre get mixed up with physical lust and emotional desire.

And the writing was fantastic. Thank all good things for talented translators.

Central to the book's look at the complicated relationships between the widow Yasuko, her mother-in-law Mieko and Yasuko's two suitors Ibuki and Mikame is the ethereal magic of the masks used in Noh drama. The masks are made with static impressions but the way actors position their heads and pose their bodies appear to change the masks' expressions according to the needs of the plays performed.

Mieko is deeply interested in Noh masks and she is both directly and obliquely compared to an actor manipulating a mask to establish certain "dramatic" ends known entirely only to her.

When it was finally revealed what her ends were, I was both incredibly disturbed and somewhat disappointed; I'm not certain how to reconcile such contradictory feelings. But my confusion over the book's conclusion is minor. Masks is an absolutely beautiful book and I recommend it whole-heartedly.

Thursday 8 January 2009

This book made me cold, so cold

Geraldine McCaughrean's The White Darkness is one of the best YA novels I've ever read. That's a bold statement, I know, but I think McCaughrean's up there with Philip Pullman when it comes to good writing - and Pullman's talent is turned up to 11. What I'm saying is, if you like YA novels, go read The White Darkness now (NOW), in spite of its terrible cover art. Show some love and don't judge a book by its cover.

My friend Shelley, who's a children's lit specialist, recommended this one to me so I jumped on it as soon as I could. I would say I couldn't put it down but at times I had to because it was making me feel so anxious and claustrophobic. Not many books affect me viscerally but when they do it's because the writing is so transcendent that it makes me forget I'm reading.

The White Darkness tells the story of the dangerously naive 14-year old Symone whose best friend is the long dead "Titus" Oates of the Scott expedition to the Antarctic. She talks with him constantly in her head and she's obsessed with The Ice and has read voraciously about it. Her "uncle" Victor is a prize jerk, a fact which everyone but Sym can see, who basically kidnaps her to the Antarctic because...well, I won't tell you. Let's just say, I was continually surprised and disturbed by the plot twists and turns. Also, Sym's relationship with Titus becomes key to her survival and that's all I'll tell you about the plot.

This book made me want to read more about the Scott expedition and I realized when I was done that I already have another fictional account on hand: Beryl Bainbridge's The Birthday Boys. Given my commitment issues, it's not certain when I'll get to Bainbridge but there is some hope on that front: having just blogmented about not being able to commit to a Japanese book to finish The Japanese Literature Challenge, I started reading Fumiko Enchi's Masks AND I'm about halfway through AND I'm really enjoying it. So there's reason to be optimistic in terms of reading commitment. Or, I'm just so contrary that I have to act to prove myself wrong too.

Monday 5 January 2009

I shouldn't be writing this post

Indeed, I shouldn't. We're moving on Wednesday and I should really be doing some more packing. This whole taking over a bookstore thing has been pretty intense and tiring, however, and I maybe want to whinge about that a little, and also about how I don't have nearly enough time to read right now (because I'm supposed to be packing and running the store and my mom's coming to visit this coming weekend).

My dream is to somehow end up in an interwebs-free cottage on a lake with a stack of novels and lots of delicious eats. (Lake is optional.)

I'm reading an amazing book right now, recommended to me by my children's lit genius friend Shelley; it's called The White Darkness and the plot is in no way predictable and the writing is fantastically good. It's also making me claustrophobic. If you read it, you'll understand.

I've joined this Support Your Local Library Challenge for 2009. I don't think I indicated anywhere how many books' worth of support I was willing to show, but I'm going to aim for 20. That's not too unreasonable a goal but even with my beloved books I'm a bit of a commitment-phobe - e.g., ever since I joined the Japanese Literature Challenge my interest in Japanese lit has almost disappeared and I've got a copy of The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, dammit!

Okay, I'm so spaced out right now, I can't even think of how to conclude this post of random blah blah blahs so I'll do so the way real authors do. Fin. (Ha.)

Friday 2 January 2009

My brain is still on sabbatical

My friend Erin, whom you very recently met on The Reading Lamp, gave me her copy of Cornelia Funke's Inkheart when I met her for dinner in Kingston back in December.

As anyone who knows me well enough to shower me with presents knows, it usually takes me much longer than three weeks to read a gifted book. I'm years behind with my brother Roger's gifties. (Sorry, Roger.) But in the post-defense, extreme burn-out phase I'm currently stuck in, children's lit is exactly what I need. And still all I'm capable of reading, to be honest.

For example, this morning I tried to start reading Yasunari Kawabata's The Sound of the Mountain because it's been a long time since I've read any Japanese lit and because the clock is ticking on the Japanese Literature Challenge I'm participating in; but I had to give up after 20 pages or so because my eyes and brain simply refused to cooperate. I have no idea if the book was good or bad; I am certain, however, that I'm currently suffering from the mental equivalent of lazy eye. It's hard to focus on things that aren't either exciting or very bright and shiny.

Speaking of exciting, bright, and shiny, Inkheart is a rollicking good read, basing as it does an entire 500-page novel on the intrigues and nail-bitings which occur as the result of literally bringing characters to life by reading their stories out loud. I love it when authors literalize metaphors.

(But it's also good that people can't really read characters out of books and into the flesh, not for the villains (as in Inkheart) but because of the murders that would be committed: Jane Austen's gossipy harridans Emma Woodhouse and Mrs. Bennet would both have to die immediately, as would that whiny wanker in Of Human Bondage whose name I can't recall now.)

Inkheart is also an amazing nerd fest dedicated to the arts of book restoration. I love that Funke has the chutzpah to make that central to a YA story - it bespeaks both a confidence and a faith in young readers that is too often sadly lacking. That's it: I'm going have to place Inkheart in that sad category of "THIS SHOULD HAVE BEEN WRITTEN WHEN I WAS STILL A KIDLET, DAMMIT!"