Thursday 30 April 2009

Vitriol, I has it

Remember when I was reading 6 books at once? Me too. It wasn't pretty, and not just because there were too many books in play; of the 6, I hated one, and was alternately pleased and disappointed by another. Both of the books I'm referring to were short story collections, so it's not entirely their authors' faults; nothing short of 400 pages of sustained YARN can truly satisfy me these days.

The Paper Door and Other Stories by Shiga Naoya
I was SO excited to discover this at a local bookstore (no, not my own) because I've had it on my mental TBR list for years now. Naoya was a literary disciple of Soseki Natsume, who is one of my favourite writers and so I assumed Naoya would be comparable, at least in terms of quality.

Wrong. I put way too much pressure on Naoya. This poor guy could have helped himself by symbolically killing his teacher in some way; instead, he was so overwhelmed by Soseki's brilliance that he wrote almost nothing until after his teacher died and I suspect he missed out on the best years of his writing life for doing so.

The Paper Door and Other Stories wasn't bad; indeed, it was quite good at points but the energy and beauty weren't sustained and I found a number of the stories to be frustratingly similar to one another. Most annoying, Naoya's characters seemed to feel only "loneliness" (his - or the translator's - word, not mine), and never anything else. I don't know about you, but I think "lonely" isn't the most evocative of adjectives.

I think I'd read more of Naoya's work if it were presented to me, but I don't think I'll seek any out.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver
Yes, I know, I'm a little late to the party on this one. I think Carver's heyday was in the early 90s; at least that's when I recall all my friends raving about him; I once even found a collection of his works in the Halifax Public Library sporting in abundance the very recognizable handwriting of my friend S. But I resisted the hype, as I tend to.

But recently, I thought I'd finally give him a try to see what all the fuss was about, because a bunch of his stuff came into the store, including two copies of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The best I can say is this: thank goodness it was really short.

At first, I felt the same sort of nothing reading this that I felt reading The Virgin Suicides. But that comfortable enough nothing too soon turned into exasperation, and ultimately disgust.

It was just so boring. Aggressively boring. The stories were all very similar, and all about characters who were usually despicable, but never interestingly so. As far as I'm concerned, this is unforgivable because as any reviewer, blogger, lit critic, half-way competent fiction-writer and Erasmus knows: it's much easier to bring the vitriol with passion and originality than to bring the praise with the same.

In one or two cases, I could see where Cormac McCarthy (in The Road) was lifting Carver's style directly and then turning it up to 11, to which I say: if you're going to be bad, at least do so with gusto, like McCarthy does; at least, have an interesting idea, like McCarthy does! I have new respect for McCarthy's brand of bad, because at least The Road didn't cause my synapses to stop firing out of sheer disinterest.

I think I'm going to stay away from the short stories for awhile...which, of course, pushes my projected completion date on the Henry James collection into 2017. At least there are about eleventy-thousand good novels for me to read in the meantime.

Tuesday 28 April 2009

French literature project officially begun!

So, I have finally begun my French literature project, having slowly made my way through The Song of Roland - which required 3 copies of it from the library. The first copy was too marked up to be readable and the second was too completely unfootnoted and insufficiently introduced to make sense to a complete medieval French literature novice like me.

In the end, it was the Penguin Classics edition that satisfied, and I think this ordeal and abuse of library resources was a valuable lesson: until I get into the 19th century, it'll be nothing but Penguin or Oxford Classics for this French lit project.

The Song of Roland was likely penned around 1098-1100, but is based on a relatively minor incident in August of 778 (if you consider death and destruction minor). Charlemagne was making incursions into Spain at this time with various success; at the particular time of the incident in question, he was leading the Franks out of Spain when the rearguard was ambushed by Basques and slaughtered to a man.

Roland was apparently the (failed) hero of this battle, although the various editions of the poem I've looked at have differed on whether or not Roland was a real person, or if he was, if he lived at the same time as Charlemagne.

In any case, the tale as it is manifested in this epic poem is being mobilized quite strenuously to justify the Crusades and Christian antipathy towards Muslims, and therefore France's militaristic/imperialistic adventuring in foreign lands. I'm sure scholars have been all over the imperialist rhetoric in this one, for it's like most of the epics I've read (Paradise Lost notwithstanding, although even that has weird imperialist stuff going on) insofar as it's about vilifying/grudgingly admiring the Other (for if they're not at least somewhat admirable, kicking their asses doesn't look as good on Us) and seeking the glory of Our nation.

The Song of Roland, however, is also about the terrible choices individuals make in battle, and the far-reaching consequences thereof. In a sequence positively Shakespearean in its pathos, Roland refuses to blow the horn that would summon help to defeat their attackers, everyone's killed, and he's left to wander - entirely alone - amongst a field piled high with thousands and thousands of bodies, to confront directly the results of his hubris in imagining his small Frankish train could win against such superior numbers. A poignant moment, even if the power of the language (that I imagine is present in abundance in the medieval French original) is pretty much entirely lacking in the drab modern English of the Penguin Classics edition.

On the other hand, there were moments when I laughed a little at Roland and I honestly don't know if he was meant to be understood as somewhat foolish or entirely tragic (if the latter, I'm not convinced, but then this poem wasn't written for me, given as I am not up for a little Crusading, thank you). He faints a lot in the face of great grief, which to me doesn't seem like an appropriate response when in battle; when he realizes he's going to die, he arranges himself so that when his body is found he'll look extra heroic for being ahead of his troops in relation to the enemy; and he dies, not from battle wounds, but from bursting his temples due to strenuously blowing the horn (much too late) that would have brought help. He died of a bad headache? Are you sure that this wasn't a satire?

The editors three of this poem have said nothing of the possibility of this being a send-up and in fairness, it was never treated as one; indeed, it's well-known that at the Battle of Hastings, someone went on the attack singing parts of The Song of Roland. But then again, Ronald Reagan wanted to use "Born in the USA" as his campaign song, so it's not like people don't sometimes miss the point when they're on the hunt for some musical propaganda.

In the end, I enjoyed this more in an anthropological than a literary way, but I suspected this might happen with translations of the very early stuff. But I'm still keeping my fingers crossed that Chretien de Troyes' Arthurian Romances will be a rollicking good read.

PS-Please let me know what you think of this stretchy new layout - is it easier to read? Harder to read? The same? Prettier? More charming, but less sincere? Any feedback will be helpful!

Sunday 26 April 2009

Overworked and in frail health - trying to learn German

No, I'm not trying to learn German. And my husband, who speaks German as a second language, is quite robust, thank you. In fact, the title of this post is a partial quotation from a funny piece called "Frank Fuller and My First New York Lecture" (more below), published in a new collection called Who is Mark Twain?. This book was authored by - you guessed it - Mark Twain himself.

This is a collection of previously unpublished pieces Twain wrote but then decided against trying to place anywhere. As such, it's a motley collection of fiction, memoir, and editorial (to name just a few of the genres represented), all presented in bite-sized pieces. In fact, some of the entries aren't even finished and it's interesting to see how Twain sometimes began something, got distracted, and ultimately gave up - but not enough not to destroy it.

In his introduction, the editor of this book, Robert H. Hirst, notes that:
It is important to say that these works are not being offered here as a group of overlooked masterpieces that will somehow begin to compete with Mark Twain's most famous work. In large part, their interest lies elsewhere - in what they show us about how Mark Twain worked as a writer. But it would also be a mistake to assume that they were left unpublished because he thought they fell short of his usual standard. (xiii)
Hirst goes on to assert that "Most of them [the pieces included in this anthology] are quite capable of standing on their own merits" (xxiii). Generally, I agree with what Hirst is going for, i.e., that the interest here may be primarily archaeological, but prepare yourself for some hearty belly laughs and knee slapping (or cheek-rending, as appropriate, e.g., when reading "Telegraph Dog").

I personally enjoyed Who is Mark Twain? most for its signature Twainian hilarity, which while much less frequent than in his published works (such as "Hunting the Deceitful Turkey", which is probably one of the best short stories ever written), was still firmly present. Also, his writing is constantly impeccable and a pleasure to read for its own sake even if, I admit, I didn't find the subject matter of "On Postage Rates on Authors' Manuscript", for example, to be the most compelling.

My favourite piece was, by far, "Frank Fuller and My First New York Lecture." Sending up 19th-century celebrity worship (apparently not much has changed!), Twain begins this meta-lecture (as it was designed to be a lecture about a fictitious lecture he was supposed already to have delivered) by providing a list of all the famous people who were invited to said first lecture but who couldn't come:
Gen. Logan wanted to come but was not well and could not sleep where there was noise.

Admiral Farragut - just at that time a child was born to - not to him, and I don't remember now who it was born to, and now I come to think, I believe it was not born that year - but anyway he couldn't come.[...]

P. of Wales...tried to send regrets but was overcome by his feelings.[...]

The present Kaiser (about 3 yrs old) sent regrets - was overworked and frail in health - trying to learn German. (6)
I'm glad I read this, and if I didn't love every minute of it, it did remind me why I've always loved Twain. And why I should really get back to him, especially A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, which to my readerly detriment I haven't yet read.

There's a website for the book here AND The New Yorker is offering a free download of John Lithgow reading the book, for all you book listeners out there.

Also, I really like the cover and I think it may single-handedly bring the roguish mustache + top hat combination back into fashion.

Thursday 23 April 2009

The Reading Lamp: Rose City Reader reads all the time. Literally.

Rose City Reader lends new value to the perhaps over-used claim so many of us make to "reading all the time"; I like it. I also like her suggestion that it's time to put A Separate Peace to bed, and replace it with something else on high school reading lists everywhere. Really, why are kidz reading the same things I read in the early 90s, and which were already old then?

Your name: Rose City Reader

What are you reading now? The Echo Maker by Richard Powers, Basil’s Dream by Christine Hale, The Stettheimer Dollhouse, Davita’s Harp by Chaim Potok, and a whole mess of short story collections, including ones by Hemingway, Hawthorne, Maugham, Waugh, and Dahl.

Where are you reading them? Like so many fans, I read all the time. Thanks to audio books, this is almost literally true. I read books with my ears while I drive, go on daily walks, work out at the gym, and putter around the house. I cannot listen to an audio book while doing anything else involving words – no radio playing or internet, for instance.

I read “book books” for about 15 minutes in the morning before I get up, and again before I fall asleep. I try to read a couple of evenings a week and some more on weekends, but having just moved into a new (old) house, the projects have been interfering with my reading lately. This picture is me reading Davita’s Harp in the extra bedroom we converted to a library.

How did you discover these books? The Echo Maker: This won the National Book Award – one of the many book lists I am working my way through.

Basil’s Dream: This is a really, really good novel about Bermuda that power-publicist Mary Bisbee-Beek sent me to review.

The Stettheimer Dollhouse: This is a cool little book, mostly pictures, about the famous Stettheimer Dollhouse in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I got it through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program.

Davita’s Harp: This is the my Book Club's current book. I’m hosting in May, so I'd better finish it.

Short Story Collections: Hubby and I have a tradition of reading in the car on road trips. He prefers short stories, so we are always starting a new short story collection with each trip. The trouble is that we seldom finish one, but with my Teutonic need to finish all tasks, I cannot forget that they are sitting on my shelves, waiting to be read.

What would your ideal desert island book be? A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell. This is cheating, because although it is always included on lists such as the Modern Library’s Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, it is really a set of 12, separately-published novels, usually now published in four volumes of three novels each. But if I am going to be deserted on an island and can choose the book to bring with me, I’ll bend the rules a little.

Dance follows an intertwined group of friends and fellow travelers in England from 1914 to 1971. They move in an out of each other’s lives, from school days during World War I, through literary and political careers between the wars, to World War II and later pursuits. I could read it over and over again.

What's your favourite either unknown or underappreciated book? The Assistant by Bernard Malamud. I had never heard of this book until I came across it on Anthony Burgess’s list of 99 best novels. It is the story of an Italian-American stranger who works his way into the lives of an immigrant Jewish shopkeeper and his family. Malamud perfectly portrays the grinding worries of running a mom-and-pop grocery, but also brings out bigger themes such as the importance of education and an individual’s ability to overcome bigotry. Focusing on the value of loyalty, repentance, and personal responsibility, it is a story of the redemptive power of love and forgiveness. I think everyone should read it and that it would make a terrific high school book. Maybe it’s time to abandon A Separate Peace.

Do you have any reading superstitions? If so, what are they and have they ever been proven to be correct? This did not start as a superstition, more like a ritual, but it is so ingrained in me that I guess I am now superstitious about it – I certainly never read a book without following this “rule”: I do not look to see how many pages are in a book until I finish reading the 100th page. I don’t associate any consequences with the habit, but I also have never broken the rule.

How this started, I couldn’t really say. It’s not like I wanted to give a book a fair chance before deciding whether to finish it or not, because I virtually never abandon a book once I start it. It was more like I thought, if the book is going to be slow and dense, at least I would have accomplished something before I faced the reality of just how long it was going to take to finish it.

Do you buy books or borrow them from the library? Either way, what is your favourite place to get books and why? I buy most of the books I read because they have to sit and mellow for a long time on my shelves before I am in the mood to read them. It can sometimes take years for a book on my TBR shelves to percolate up to the top of my conscious and make me want to read it. I buy most of my books used, and particularly like library book sales and Friends of the Library book stores.

But I use my library a lot because I get audio books on CD from the library and load them into my iTunes library to play on my iPod. I have always enjoyed audio books on long road trips, but getting an iPod turned me into a real audio book zealot. The Multnomah County Library has a very good website with a dependable search engine. Instead of having to take pot luck from whatever is on my branch’s shelf when I pass by, I periodically search the library web site for books from my myriad Must Read lists, order what they have on CD, and load them into iTunes. There are over 50 TBR audio books in my iTunes library right now, including War and Peace, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and Lord of the Rings. As I make my way through these, I delete them to make room for the next batch.

How do you decide what to read next? Too often, it seems I choose to read a book because of some obligation, either because Book Club is coming up, or I got the book from a publisher and promised a review, or a friend wrote it and gave me a copy. I am trying hard to limit those obligations so I can get back to reading what I feel like reading.

But there should be some rhyme or reason to my choices or I will never get through all these Must Read lists I keep track of, let alone the 800-plus books currently sitting on my TBR shelves. So I have developed a totally idiosyncratic method of picking my next book:

My TBR books are arranged alphabetically on the shelves. When I am ready for a new book, I choose one from the first shelf. The next time, I chose one from the next shelf, and so on through the shelves. My rule is that I can choose any book on the designated shelf, but I have to chose from that shelf. So if I am in the mood for a prize winner, I can chose a prize winner, or a mystery, a book by a favorite author, a book I’ve been meaning to read but keep putting off – whatever the mood is, I chose a book to fit that mood. But only from the one shelf.

OK, actually describing this system makes it sound really nuts. Like, Rainman-level nuts. But there you have it.

If you'd like to be featured on The Reading Lamp, just drop me an email at colleen at bookphilia dot com!

Monday 20 April 2009

Area book-lover thrilled by return of missing reading mojo

I seem to have gotten my reading mojo back yesterday (my day off) for I finished Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe in one sitting, and I've been reading my Mark Twain book pretty steadily today, in between spurts of work productivity.

I loved Ivanhoe. It was a really good read and lots of things happened. It was just full of Happenings. Said Happenings caused a great deal of conflict and stress and it was all superbly handled by Scott, who I will now make a point of seeking out when I want a fat novel.

Besides being a really good read, Ivanhoe actually made me think a little (phew! that's tiring stuff!!), for the line between historical realism and his feelings about Jews (pretty much universally hated in late 12-century England, when the novel is set) wasn't always entirely clear to me. For me, this lack of narrative clarity made Rebecca's position seem all the more tenuous - for if even the narrator isn't completely on her side, then her escape from the various and extreme dangers she faces mightn't be counted on! While Rebecca is well-represented in the novel, the other Jewish characters seem to have been created by a writer torn between sympathy and condemnation for their financial power. Scott's devotion to Shakespeare (who, in the form of echoes of The Merchant of Venice and any number of history plays, is just all over this book), might also have further complicated his representations of Jews.

I won't tell you how Ivanhoe ends, but I will say this: regardless of how Scott felt about Jews or his Jewish characters, Rebecca is the centre of this novel and I really don't know why he decided to call it Ivanhoe. Ivanhoe is certainly tied up in the action but it's the role he plays in Rebecca's life that seems more dominant in the narrative.

Ivanhoe's conflicts are physical and their outcomes never surprising; Rebecca's conflicts are religious, emotional, physical, and their outcomes never certain, and not just because of the mixed feelings Scott may or may not have had about her. She truly is pressed on all sides and her choices difficult, painful, and sometimes impossible. She's a great character and even if Scott felt he couldn't make the book obviously about her by calling it Rebecca, it seems one of the novel's early frontispiece artists felt the way I do about her centrality to the story (see above - that's Rebecca threatening to kill herself in response to an attempted rape) .

So, what fat novel should I read next? Dostoevsky's The Adolescent is looking good, but then so are Tolstoy's Resurrection, and Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, and Stoker's Dracula, and Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence, and Banks' Steep Approach to Garbadale, and...

Saturday 18 April 2009

In which I barely address the book in question

I was supposed to be doing a 24-hour read-a-thon right now but illness and overworked-ness have put the kibosh on that. While kick-ass bloggers BookPsmith and Raych are read-a-thonning and blogging away, I've barely managed to read 13 pages of book today. 13 pages!! What am I, 5? Is it time to watch Battle of the Planets (go, G-Force, go!!) and books be damned?

No, I'm just knackered. Knackered. A good word. It makes me think of being kicked and punched a bit and that's sort of how I feel. My sweet hubby got sick earlier this week so I've been trying to take care of him, and I'm doing a fast and thorough inventory of our entire bookstore (with friends, thank gawd), and I'm a bit sick myself. It's mush I tell you.

The good news is, I found my missing Old Peter's Russian Tales, which I hair-tearingly misplaced with only one story left to go. Yes, said story was the 13 pages mentioned above. Pathetic.

I think most people read this one when they were kidlets but I ignored its presence on hubby's shelf until I read a YA novel based on Ransome's life, and then I became intrigued. I enjoyed Old Peter's Russian Tales, full as it is of fairy tales which are fantastic in the older sense of the word, i.e., they don't make any sense at all and don't need to.

I think, based on Sedgwick's novel about him, that I would like to read a biography of Arthur Ransome. And having read one biography in full and concluded that I didn't want to know that authors I liked were complete jerk-faces, that's saying something. But I probably won't even look into it because if you could see the book queue I've got going AND there's the fact that I'm currently reading 5 books...well, it's just too much.

I haven't said much about Old Peter's Russian Tales, have I? There isn't much to say. The stories were enjoyable the way fairy tales are. I especially liked "Tale of the Silver Saucer" which was lurid and bloody in the ways I think fairy tales should be.

Now, it's time for me to go back to bed. Peace and love and non-caffeinated energy sources to all you 24 read-a-thonners! I'll be with you next time!

Wednesday 15 April 2009

The Sarazens head without New-gate: Dear gawd, the inventory

I'm going blind here, people!
In case you've been wondering where I've been...we're doing store inventory. I don't mean the half-hearted inventory of a month ago, which I probably never mentioned.

No, this is the two friends have come in to do inventory with me and we all three work constantly from 11-5. At 5, they go home, and I keep working, to try to catch up on the parts of what they've done that only I can do, i.e., the inputting of the changes into our database. Except today. Today I'm taking a 5 pm mental health break and reconnecting with my little bloggy.

We're going full tilt on the inventory because of the problems with online sales mentioned in my previous Sarazens head post and there are just SO MANY books in each section that our database says we have and which we don't. It's truly daunting. And I don't think I accept the daunt easily.

And blindness makes reading somewhat difficult
Anyway, the inventory has to be completed so it is, but I am getting almost no reading done. Also, I'm slowly making my way through 6 books right now, which is ridiculous.

I keep taking breaks from Ivanhoe because the tension is just too high and it's making me want to whimper and rock back and forth.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love I'm finding to be utterly forgettable except when I read a story (as I did yesterday) which makes me think "Cormac McCarthy wishes he were Raymond Carver, but why? Why would someone wish that? Dull dull dull!"

I have one story left in Old Peter's Russian Tales and was all set to finish it yesterday but somehow lost it in the walk between my apartment and the bookstore. Yes, the apartment is above the bookstore. This is driving me a little crazy. This is also why you're getting a Sarazens head post instead of a post on Old Peter's Russian Tales, dammit!

What else am I reading again?

What people want to buy from my shop plus tangent
The advantage of being a used bookstore is that I carry weird shit that you might not see anywhere else, which is good for people whose tastes aren't mainstream - and we get quite a number of weird requests in person and orders online. The majority, however, of the books I sell are just what you'd expect to find anywhere: Eat, Pray, Love is a popular one these days, as are Eckhart Tolle books, Paulo Coelho books, The Road, The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and anything by Jodi Picoult.

I find this sort of homogeny in reading practices fairly depressing, I admit, but then someone will come in and buy a bunch of Russian lit or $100 worth of plays that cost $3.49 each (and none of it Shakespeare) or we'll talk about Rilke or George Elliott Clarke. My Russian boyfriend came in yesterday and bought some stuff and we talked about Russian lit, which he admitted he doesn't read a lot of, and how can I criticize when I don't read much Canadian lit? EXCEPT. Except, of course, Russian lit is infinitely more kick ass than Canadian lit!

But he told me something interesting after I suggested I was losing a lot of Dostoevsky in translation - it seems to be the case that Dostoevsky is better in English than in the original Russki! What!! If true, this is proof that gawd hasn't completely thrust me from his bosom.

The worst thing, perhaps, about inventory... that I won't be able to do the 24-hour read-a-thon after all. I have to work all weekend and my hubby is sick and I feel like I might be coming down with his cold so I'm making the executive decision to withdraw. But it pains me.

Thursday 9 April 2009

Thursday is the new Friday

I can't tell you how GRATEFUL I am that tomorrow is a holiday AND that I had the prescience to decide to close the store for the entire Easter weekend. I'm half dead here, people. You won't believe it but it's true: I'm just too tired today to read my fat 19th-century novel, Ivanhoe.

I don't blame you for being dubious about this claim; I can hardly countenance it myself. The store's empty, I'm lazy, it's Friday eve, and most importantly, Ivanhoe is a really damned good read. And I'm 3/4 of the way through! And Rebecca is in serious need of rescuing, stat!!!!! But I'm too pathetically tired. Ivanhoe is an adventure story but it also requires active mental engagement and I can't supply that right now.

My lack of brain action requires something simple, and what could be simpler than the short stories of Raymond Carver? Back when I was a teen, Carver was quite popular, but I somehow missed that boat and am now reading him for the first time. I just read the first three stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and they were fine. Not much happens. There's not much writing. It's all pretty much not much of anything. But it's inoffensive and I'm tired so that's all I can reasonably ask for at this point, I think.

But the introduction of this Carver book into my current reading list brings my active book number up to 5, which I feel is dangerous and irresponsible. Someone could get hurt, maybe even me. My instinct tells me that I'm reading too many books, but since 4 out of the 5 are collections of short pieces, it's not as critical as trying to read more than one novel at a time. But how many is too many?

Edward Gorey, even though he's dead, insists that the the phrase "too many books" is an oxymoron. Theoretically, I would agree; but I have to say that 5 is, I think, the farthest I've ever taken things and really, I'm feeling a little intimidated by my own ambition in this regard.

But maybe I could read many more than 5 at a time if I were able to don the protective gear of a 1920s flapper girl, like the girl in Gorey's instructional drawring here. If I had a hat that cool, maybe I could do anything!

What say you? What constitutes "too many" when it comes to books? What number of books in the currently reading pile would make you throw up the white flag in ignominious surrender?

PS-In case you're wondering what happened to my French literature project, I'm poised to begin it but I came up a very annoying road block: I ordered The Song of Roland from the library and it arrived but it's so full of highlighting and inky annotations that I can't read it. So I've ordered another copy and am waiting on that. People who write in indelible ink in library books should be subjected to the thumb screws, dammit!

Tuesday 7 April 2009

Still trying fruitlessly to catch up on the kiddy lit

A friend of mine recently lent me Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH because it's her favourite childhood book and she felt I'd been unduly deprived in not having read it before. Indeed, when I returned it to her, a bunch of other people were around and all responded with shock, horror, and perhaps a little disgust when they learned that I'd just read it for the first time.

I really enjoyed this book and know that it would have been an obsessive re-read if I'd discovered it 25 years ago. Now, though, I can't help but question the ideology of it - and if you think children's lit isn't replete with difficult and complex ideologies, you haven't been paying attention.

I mean that most respectfully; I didn't think of kids' books this way either until a friend started talking to me about the work she was doing on Philip Pullman...and now I can't escape it. Nor do I want to escape it, because I like the notion that children's authors imagine sprogs to be invested with the ability to think about what they read.

That said, the issues I have with Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH wouldn't have occurred to me back in the day. The rats of NIMH are a group of lab rats who've escaped and are trying to create their own civilization and stay out of sight of the Man. These particular rats, having been experimented on at the National Institute of Mental Health, are the results of tests designed to make them smarter - and it's worked so well that they've escaped, can use tools, can read, and are learning how to farm so they can be self-sustaining.

That's cool. What isn't cool is how benign O'Brien makes the lives of lab rats seem. While this book's idea was apparently based on experiments that were really happening at the real NIMH back in the 70s, the majority of lab animals are tortured and then killed for things as stupid as make-up and, I would think, already well figured out as cleaning products. What bothers me is how O'Brien acknowledges that being a lab rat isn't cool (because being in a cage sucks no matter what) but whitewashes just how uncool it generally is by having these rats actually benefit from what's happened to them.

I think it's better that I don't have kids. They wouldn't be able to just enjoy stories because I'd be analyzing everything for them and telling them what the authors were conveniently neglecting and where their logic was faulty.

Anyway, I still liked the book. It was a good story, and a pretty original one, I think.

In unrelated news...
So, I've begun posting my French literature list - you can check it out in the right-hand column near the bottom of the main page. I'll link to my posts on each book as I write them. Having just read Marie de France's Lais in January, I'm not going to re-read it now.

I am, however, going to re-read The Book of the City of Ladies and The Romance of the Rose because it's been about 10 years since I had the pleasure of immersing myself in them. I love me my medieval lit so that will not be onerous. Also, I just recently found the sequel to The Book of the City of Ladies that I didn't know existed so I need a refresher.

Also in unrelated news, I'm going to Halifax in early May to see my family. What this means is that I'll be visiting all my favourite bookstores there: Back Pages, J.W. Doull's, and The Last Word. In the past 5 years or so, every time I've gone to Back Pages, they've had the same copy of Gargantua and Pantagruel in the same spot. Each time, I've considered buying it and each time I've refrained, deciding I didn't have time for it. Well, now I have time for it AND it's on my French reading list! If it's not there, I'll shake my fist at the heavens in rage at the horrible irony of it all.

Friday 3 April 2009

The Sarazens head without New-gate: It's raining so I may as well begin

Well, sweeties, you asked for it: a feature about being a book-seller and book-store owner. Before I start, maybe you'd like an explanation of this new feature's title? I think that's fair. I'm happy to be starting this new feature but as I always imagined I would, I'll be keeping my actual bookstore completely separate from this blog. I like to think of my shop as non-partisan (how otherwise can I reconcile myself to selling V.C. Andrews novels? *shudder*) and as y'all know, one thing is not is non-partisan.

I needed a flash pseudonym, but I wanted one that was clearly associated with book-selling, and so I went back to the Renaissance where booksellers were probably much cooler although less clean than I am. Where you could purchase individual books in 16th- and early 17th-century England (well, London anyway) was printed on their frontispieces (I don't know what happens after that - there be dragons). (Goodness, I don't know much do I?)

And so, the title of this feature comes from the location of where you could have purchased Thomas Kyd's fantastically lurid play The Spanish Tragedy (1615 printing) - at The Sarazens head without New-gate. I found a few other frontispieces with cool name options that I considered - especially Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, sold at The spred Eagle in Paules Church-yeard, ouer against the great North doore; and Webster's The White Devil sold at Thomas Archer's shop in Popes head Pallace, neere the Royall Exchange. In the end, however, I decided on The Spanish Tragedy for two reasons: 1) It figured prominently in my dissertation, and 2) It's got a cool engraving on the cover, which will henceforth be the mascot for this feature (although much smaller):

Speaking of tragedy...
I hadn't planned on blogging today, but what better time to present the inaugural post of The Sarazens head than a Friday that's been so rainy that literally only 3 people have even come into the store? How about a Friday during which I had to cancel an online order because the mouth-breathing previous owners of the store listed the ordered book as in "like new" condition when it's actually full of highlighting and inked in annotations?

So, it's not a great day here, but those happen and it's just part of the deal. Wednesday and Thursday of this week, in contrast, were stellar - yesterday especially was stellar because it was warm and sunny out and everyone was feeling happy and hopeful. Indeed, no weenies at all came into the store yesterday, and there are weenies. Regular weenies. Like the guy who comes in twice a week and who blows his nose and drops his snotty tissue on the floor and never buys anything. Or the super well dressed lady who comes in every few weeks and besides knocking books off shelves and not picking them up, tends to sneer at me when I greet her. The romance of the bookstore wears off pretty quickly - it's still retail, after all!

But there are great people too with whom I have fabulous conversations about books. Sometimes there are even cute boys who buy lots of great books. Are these cute reading boys English majors? If they are, I was born at the wrong time. When I was a student, all the boys studying English at my uni were freaks and weirdos; indeed, there were only two cuties ever, and I married one of them.

Like a squirrel collecting nuts in advance of a very long nuclear winter
When we first took over the store, I couldn't stop stock-piling books that I wanted to read. I felt drunk with the thought that I was living in my own personal library that just happened to contain approximately 30,000 books. I greedily piled those books up...and then did what I always do with stock-piled books I own: I ignored them.

I soon realized that this was not sound business practice and so I slowly began putting them back except for books of which we have multiple copies. My rule now is, if I want to read a book from the store I have to begin reading it as soon as I pick it up. So far, I've read I think 4 books from stock, including The Rachel Papers and The Waves, which you've heard about already.

But I also recently finished two other bookstore books: Nicola Barker's Heading Inland and Cecilia Whitford's Japanese Prints. Heading Inland was quite good - good enough that I was so involved that I didn't realize until I was about halfway through that it was a short story collection and not a novel. The story "Wesley" was by far my favourite; I think it's pretty classic Barker (a good thing).

This book was also everything I hoped Barbara Gowdy's stuff would become after the great promise shown in Mister Sandman and We So Seldom Look on Love. Alas, no. Gowdy, instead of maturing in her portrayal of freaks and weirdos, wrote a Hallmark greeting card about alcoholism called The Romantic and I had to break up with her and deny to my friends that we'd ever even dated.

Cecilia Whitford's Japanese Prints is not normally the sort of book I'd pick up (thank you, bookstore) because it's an art book. It taught me a little about the history of wood block print-making and allowed me to look at lots of pretty pictures.

Discovering it was also a sort of perfect bookstore moment: I was helping a customer look for a particular book in the art section when he saw something else and exclaimed "Oh, that looks interesting!" at the same moment I spotted Japanese Prints and said something similar. We stood next to each other looking at our respective finds in the kind of companionable silence you can only really find in a used bookshop. Or so I imagine. Gawd knows, I don't stand in companionable silence next to others when I'm looking to buy new knickers.

Alright, back to work for bookstore worker bee.

Wednesday 1 April 2009

In which the gushing is so intense as to require cuss words

I know you're waiting for me to begin posting formally about what it's like to be a book-seller, and I promise I will do very soon. In the meantime, here's a little tidbit:

I fell asleep in the store today. I was sitting behind the desk, leaning against the wall behind me and I began to nod off. I didn't fight it too much because between 2 and 3:30 pm is the slowest period here. Also, there's a bell on the door to wake me if anyone comes in.

Yes, I've fallen asleep in the store before. But sleeping here today was kind of a meta-bookstore experience, because I dreamed I was wandering around the store trying to pick out a book to read. And I couldn't find anything. What a bunch of blasted weirdness! Like that would ever happen.

I wonder if it was more about the anxiety of what to follow up Gaetan Soucy's The Immaculate Conception with than about some deep-seated and hitherto unacknowledged concern that my bookstore stocks only crap - because The Immaculate Conception is the best book I've read in quite awhile.

Not only is this an amazing novel, but it also proves my theory that French Canadian literature is generally better than English Canadian literature, and I'm going to be testing that theory further by reading everything else Soucy has published (and has had translated into English, of course). I've also been eyeing some Marie-Claire Blais that's sitting on the shelf here, because her Mad Shadows also proves my theory (indeed, it may have given rise to it).

A former student of mine recommended The Immaculate Conception to me - the same person who introduced me to P.G. Wodehouse; talk about symbolically killing your teacher by outreading them on every front. Anyway, I am always happy to take reading advice from people I know aren't crazy and Fathima made fun of The Secret once so I know she's alright. Oh, and she likes Wodehouse and was a really good student. Ahem.

I don't think I can give you a plot synopsis of The Immaculate Conception without telling you almost everything. I can tell you that nothing about it was predictable; or almost nothing. I figured out one surprising thing but only very late in the book, right before it was revealed by the author.

The writing and translating were beautiful and if the translator (Lazar Lederhendler) wasn't doing the book entire justice it may have been to protect readers from the book's pure fucking awesomeness. Canadians, accustomed as they are to mostly mediocre offerings from their national authors, might not have been able to handle this.

Or I could be just be getting caught up in talking mush. I do that sometimes; it's kind of fun. You know, I thought when I started writing this post that I would have to defer it until later because I felt so sleepy. Apparently the cure for falling asleep at work is to blog and swear a little.

But back to The Immaculate Conception. It's gritty and mystical and genre-bending and disturbing and absolutely fucking brilliant. I am so happy to have read this book. I hope you're enjoying your reading as much :)