Thursday 28 May 2009
I think it's ironic and intriguing that, working as I am on my French Literature reading project, I've just read a set of romances which deal with subject matter central to England's national mythology.
The introduction to the Penguin edition of Chretien de Troyes' Arthurian Romances indicates that, in fact, "Chretien de Troyes was the inventor of Arthurian literature as we know it" (p. 1). Indeed, Chretien was responsible not only for the form - the combination of courtly manners and love, and tests and displays of physical violence - but also for many of the elements now considered integral to Arthurian tales: for example, "He was the first to speak of Queen Guinevere's affair with Lancelot of the Lake, the first to mention Camelot, and the first to write of the adventures of the Grail" (p. 1).
Apparently, Chretien spent time in England and was thus familiar with English history and literature, which may explain how he became interested in the story of Arthur and his knights via Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain (p. 6). How his works remained on people's radars as prose romance replaced poetry (which Chretien wrote) in popular esteem was via Thomas Malory, who ensured that Arthur remained central to literary production in Britain even as stories about him were eventually almost entirely forgotten in France (p. 22).
So, extremely fascinating history aside, I found Chretien's romances, as literature, to be generally incredibly good reads. I say generally, because I absolutely loved the first four (Erec and Enide, Cliges, The Knight of the Cart, and The Knight with the Lion - especially The Knight with the Lion) but found the final romance, The Story of the Grail, to be irritating and unpleasant to immerse myself in.
The first four romances had everything: i.e., plot and style, as well as fascinating meditations on the inherent impossibility of behaving courteously to everyone all the time (for more, see Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which also features a talking severed head!), how courtly social ties become almost mystical in their power to determine people's behaviour, and the ability to help me pass a lot of time at work enjoyably when I don't feel like earning my pay.
But The Story of the Grail was really disappointing, and not just because it's incomplete; I can't blame Chretien for that, given that he likely didn't finish it because he died. It was disappointing because Perceval is stupid, rude, and generally unlikable - and yet he's somehow lauded by other characters as a very courteous knight and ladies want to sleep with him, insufferable idiot that he is.
It was disappointing because structurally, it didn't make sense. Three quarters of the way through, the narrator began focusing all his attention on Gawain, and he and Perceval had barely spoken to one another. Did I mention that Perceval was a twat? Anyway, it was somewhat souring to end a fantastically good collection with this wankerish character (pictured below).
Almost as satisfying as Chretien's first four stories was the way in which a customer in the shop responded one day when she saw me reading Arthurian Romances. Having walked around the store with her friend being loud and exuberant about a book she was about to start reading - Pride and Prejudice and Zombies - she walked by my desk and asked me what I was reading. I showed her the cover and she positively roared, "AAAAAAAHH! I thought that's what you were reading! BEST BOOK EVER!!!!" and then left. People have approved of my reading choices before but I think never with so much loud or unpolished enthusiasm; it was kind of nice.
Monday 25 May 2009
W.E. Williams, the editor of my copy of George and Weedon Grossmith's The Diary of a Nobody, before I began reading this novel, informed me that unless I was British and middle-class, I couldn't possibly understand or appreciate the incredible hilarity of the book I held in my hands.
With that stern warning in mind, I proceeded to find this book to be entirely unfunny, even though I "got" quite a number of the jokes. Either Williams is remarkably prescient OR his irritating pride in the specificity and insularity of British comic fiction put me off too much for me to even contemplate enjoying myself.
For not enjoy it I did, maybe not intensely, but entirely. I found The Diary of a Nobody to be generally quite boring, even when I found myself thinking, "Oh yes, the Grossmiths are now sending up middle-class pretenders to Society and this is why diary-writer Pooter's present faux pas is amusing."
Besides Williams' either prophecy or command about colonials like myself being incapable of enjoying The Diary of a Nobody, I think I was also put off because Pooter was unbearably conservative and un-ironic, very much like a few real people I've met over the years and couldn't abide. For me, I think realism when combined with a satirical humour (even a gentle one, as this book evinced) must not be too real - otherwise, I stop enjoying what I'm reading and begin thinking about how I'd like to punch hyper-earnest So-and-So in the neck if I ever have the misfortune of running into them again.
Nonetheless, I am doubly disappointed, for on top of not enjoying this book, it has shattered my notion that the Victorian period presented a literature sans crap - for indeed, this is the first Victorian novel I have failed to very much enjoy. This is a sad day, my friends.
Thursday 21 May 2009
No, there are no ghosts in Miyuki Miyabe's novel All She Was Worth, but there is a shady financial underworld which is often linked to violence and murder most foul.
In this case, the "ghost" is an increasingly dangerous money market which allows people who can't afford it to buy more and more on credit. Having over-extended themselves, they end up turning to the grey market of loan sharks, etc, which increases the problem exponentially.
Such a context doesn't make an obvious choice for a thrilling detective novel but All She Was Worth was a really enjoyable read. Honma, a detective on leave after being shot in the knee, is approached by a distant relative of his deceased wife - Jun needs helps tracking down his fiancee who has gone missing with no warning and has left no traces.
Honma's search for Shoko, the missing woman, quickly turns into more than a missing person hunt as Honma learns all about the disturbing holes in the country's protections on privacy in financial matters and how easy it is to take over someone else's identity at any cost...and how Shoko's involved.
Knowing several people who've had their identity stolen or partially stolen (self included), I suspect that the social disaster Miyabe sees occurring in Japan is pretty easily reflected in North America. So, in spite of being highly cerebral and pretty much devoid of action of any sort, All She Was Worth was actually a pretty terrifying - and therefore enjoyable - read.
I feel a rather extreme measure of relief here for having enjoyed this book, given how dismal my last foray into Japanese pulp was. I just want to know that if I feel like reading pulp, it's more likely to be good than otherwise; and right now, the balance is tipping in favour of the positive view.
Tuesday 19 May 2009
If the third book I'm going to discuss in this post were either funny or horrifying in an even slightly compelling way, it might not be a fail. However, it's a FAIL in all caps because it straight up sucks too much for me to even bother finishing it. It sucks even more than that previous sentence.
WIN: Suggestion by Illegal Art. This book came into the store last week and I was intrigued as I often am by community arts projects. (Yes, I read PostSecret faithfully, but I find it a little repetitive sometimes. I didn't use to find it repetitive but I think it's perhaps time it was retired. It may be going on too long, like Friends or Star Trek: Voyager.)
Illegal Art is a group from NYC who took gigantic suggestion boxes and writing implements to the 5 Burroughs and hounded people to write something for them. They then picked as wide a variety as possible submissions from their collection to make up this book.
By turns hilarious, maudlin, offensive, weird, and rude (all at varying levels of literacy), the suggestions in this book made me think that perhaps humanity is more interesting than I've assumed (or than PostSecret makes it seem). Here are some of my favourites:
Free pumpkin pie every Thursday. (p. 15)All good suggestions these, especially the ones involving pie and Bollywood. Ooooh, oooh! I suggest Bollywood/pumpkin pie/Pancho Villa mustache evenings! I'll be at your place at seven on Thursday!!
Always keep a bucket of bleach on hand. (p.83)
That the world be covered in linoleum so we could tap dance all day! - Adam (p. 89)
More Bollywood. (p. 99)
It shouldn't be called "blue". It should be called "ronk". (p. 189)
My friend, Jonathan, should kiss me. (p. 271)
I'd like to suggest that the Hassidic men consider a lighter summer look. (p. 298)
We suggest to take down the man. (p. 333)
Bring back the Pancho Villa mustache - by any means necessary. (p. 342)
I sejust they put more fish in it. (p. 392)
More Fellini. Less trophy dogs. (p. 407)
WIN: The Snapper by Roddy Doyle. I plucked this off the shelf to give myself a little break from Troyes' Arthurian Romances and it was a nice light snack - a BRILLIANT nice light snack. I mean that in a "what Adrian Mole or Harry Potter would say about something that really pleased them" kind of way, not a "genius" kind of way.
I'm embarrassed for myself a little. I read The Commitments back in 1994 or so and loved it and somehow never even tried to read any more Doyle after that. This book made me laugh SO MUCH. Customers would walk by in the store and see me reading The Snapper and tell me that they love it so much they've read it 5 times!
I don't know if it's good enough to be a 5-timer, but The Snapper has some of the best dialogue I've ever seen in a novel. Ever! I can't wait to read The Van, which my gushy customers assured me I couldn't deprive myself of. Right you are, gushy strangers, right you are.
FAIL: The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature by Neal Pollack. I'm not sure why I picked this one up. In any case, it doesn't recommend trying to read random things from my store just because we have two copies.
I got about 40 pages into this one before I decided (this morning) to kick it to the curb. This is another McSweeney's h-....er, guy trying his hand at the funny - so, a bunch of essays written with Hilarious Intentions and significantly too much self-assurance.
At first, I found it kind of funny (even though I'd already read a few of the pieces in Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans and didn't find them funny there) but then realized that Neal Pollock has only one joke (sending up literary pretension) - and I'm sorry, but there's only one person who can get away with telling the same joke repeatedly and that's Napoleon Dynamite. And also maybe my dad.
Saturday 16 May 2009
It seems that this spring, the sunshine is as elusive in Oregon as it is here in Ontario. Luckily, readers are out in abundance for here's another committed book-lover from the west coast.
Besides the readers, Oregon seems to have its share of well-established indie bookstores - young man, I may just have to advise you to go west.
Your name: Helen
What are you currently reading? The Pig Did It by Joseph Caldwell.
Where are you reading it? In the elusive Oregon sunshine.
How did you discover this book? My favorite place to buy books is Broadway Books (Portland Oregon) where the newest selections are laid on a table for easy perusal and I always seem to find something I like. The staff also recommends books they have enjoyed. They have an excellent blog where they list and describe newly arrived books and upcoming events. That is where I bought The Pig Did It. I had just finished reading City of Thieves by David Benioff and although I enjoyed it, I wanted to read something lighter.
What do you think of it so far? Well it was off to a good start, but the pig has disappeared from the scene and he provided the comic relief. I am almost done and I hope the pig returns soon!
How do you choose what to read next? I check a great local website for tips called Reading Local run by Gabe Barber to see what he or his followers recommend and/or I just go back to Broadway Books and see what looks good. They once had a display of mystery books by writers from around the world and that is where I found The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill which I highly recommend. It takes place in Laos after the Communist takeover and it combines history, mystery, and magic.
What is your favourite indie bookstore? Why? As I mentioned earlier, I love to shop at Broadway Books. They celebrated 17 years of business this year and here is video, made by my husband Mario, of their 15th anniversary party. The staff is knowledgeable and very helpful in recommending books.
Who do you talk to about books? Anyone who will listen but now in the age of the internet, I exchange ideas with other readers on blogs and websites such as Reading Local.
If you're interested in being featured on The Reading Lamp, email me at colleen AT bookphilia DOT com!
Wednesday 13 May 2009
Back Pages is a tiny place, comprising only 3 small rooms, but I always find books I can't resist there. During this visit, what I couldn't resist were some Ellis Peters novels and that Hardy book which I hope I'll read before my next visit to Halifax.
The past 3 or so times I've been in Halifax (so over the past 3 years), I've noted that Back Pages always had the same copy of Gargantua and Pantagruel prominently displayed in the literature section. I always felt tempted to buy it but never did; this time, however, I vowed that if it was still there, I would have to buy it, because clearly it was the subconscious inspiration for my French Literature Reading Project. But alas, or thankfully, it had finally found its way out the door.
My other favourite tiny Halifax used bookstore, which is even tinier than Back Pages as it consists of only one room, is The Last Word on Windsor Street. That this shop has been thriving for at least ten years (run by a former sea captain, yaaaarrrr), is a testament to how kick-ass it is - Windsor Street is kind of a weird place to have a business, and many have tried and failed. It's sort of a major street but it links up primarily with residential streets and is mostly residential itself, at least at The Last Word's end of it.
I didn't actually buy anything at The Last Word this time around, but in the past it's been one of my best sources of Japanese literature, and the cap'n and I have spent a lot of time discussing our favourites. I think he might be hiding them behind the counter now, which is fair; in the past, I've forced him to sell me his stash of Japanese novels, which made him look quite demoralized and downtrodden. This time around I didn't have the heart to do it; also, my suitcase was already getting pretty full.
Right on Barrington Street, which used to be the heart of downtown, and then died, and which now appears to be reviving itself somewhat, is the gargantuan J.W. Doull's Books. The ceilings are 20 feet high and the bookshelves the same, the stacks on the floor are 3 feet high, and the space itself is about 3 times the size of my bookstore - and we have about 35,000 books in stock. Yes, Doull's can be a little overwhelming.
But in a place this size that hasn't given in to the selling remaindered bestsellers racket/cop-out, the treasures to be discovered are endless. This is where I got my new Gaetan Soucy novel (yay!), as well as some later Ellis Peters, Diary of a Nobody, and My Cousin Rachel. I could have bought a lot more, especially because they had a big sale going on but I had to show a little bit of restraint...because I was worried Porter Airlines would tell me I couldn't check my baggage on the trip back because it was too heavy. Also, I was shocked to discover that they didn't currently have any Wodehouse in stock, which I likely wouldn't have been able to resist either.
My friend Yuri and I took a road trip when I was down east and we ended up in Wolfville, where he took me to a great used bookstore called The Odd Book. It's not located on the main street but it seems to do well enough anyway.
It's also not at all pretty on the outside, and the lighting inside is rather too bright for my tastes (I like used bookstores with dark corners and an abundance of dust), but the selection was great - this is where I got The Vinland Sagas, which I'd never even heard of. Presenting previously unknown reading gems is, to me, one of the most important functions of used bookstores.
It may seem as though all I did in Halifax was go book shopping, and that's almost true. But I also ate and so that you don't think that my book addiction is endangering my health, here's proof that I sometimes put down the book to feed the machine:
Monday 11 May 2009
I'm so pleased to have found a copy of Ellis Peters' Saint Peter's Fair (the fourth Brother Cadfael medieval whodunnit) when I was in Halifax last week, because all of my attempts to find it in Toronto failed. I had a customer at the store who also likes Ellis Peters tell me knowingly and somewhat pityingly that Saint Peter's Fair can be quite difficult to find. I may have felt a measure of panic at this grim proclamation, but I tried to play it cool.
It took 3 bookshops in Hali, but I found it and then read it in a day and a half. As always, Peters' writing and story-telling were excellent; indeed, Saint Peter's Fair was rather more excitingly action-packed than the first three Cadfael books were - and the first in this series to see Brother Cadfael incorrectly read someone's personality, and to almost fatal effect! It was very good.
In some ways, the denouement was rather too exciting for me, for I was reading it while flying home to Toronto and my attempts to finish this novel were continually interrupted by the worst air turbulence I've ever experienced. People's water bottles went flying up into the air when we made our first dramatic and unexpected drop and a few people screamed. It went on like this, off and on, for about an hour and while most people were very quiet about it, they were generally so (within my view, anyway) in a determined kind of way. One guy was trying to pray or meditate. The woman next to me was crying silently but with the utmost despair. I was aggressively believing in the plane's ability to remain aloft, for someone I know who hates flying once told me that he was certain planes only flew because everyone on board believed they could and would. And nothing whatsoever from the flight crew except we should put our seat belts on! Bastardoes!
I made it back alive, obviously, with no crashing involved. It didn't make me eager to fly anywhere again though, in spite of the fact that my trip to Halifax was both relaxing and lucrative in terms of the stack of books I bought myself.
I'm glad to be back, to see my hubby, our catties and bunnies, and the cherry blossoms which bloomed in my absence, and to begin the next book in my French Literature Project! So far, Chretien de Troyes is rocking my world.
Friday 8 May 2009
Well, sweeties, my vacation is almost at an end: tomorrow morning, at the obscene hour of 8:30, I will be flying on a jet plane back to Toronto, work, and my dear hubby. It's been a good rest - I've slept and read a hell of a lot and allowed myself the pleasure of going a little crazy in all my favourite Halifax (used) bookstores. (I'll be doing a little feature on said bookstores sometime next week so stay tuned!)
This is what I've purchased for myself: Gaetan Soucy's Vaudeville!, Thomas Hardy's A Pair of Blue Eyes, Daphne du Maurier's My Cousin Rachel, George and Weedon Grossmith's Diary of a Nobody, 5 by Ellis Peters (!!!), and my mother gave me her copy of Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise. Of course, except for the Ellis Peters novel I'm about to begin reading (the fourth Brother Cadfael mystery, which it took me ages to find), it'll likely be 6 months to a year before I read any of these.
As is the case for Rose City Reader, books usually need to sort of percolate in my brain for awhile before I'm ready to read them. For example, I bought Jorge Amado's Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon just about a year ago now, when I was working at Bay and Bloor and going out every three days to spend my hard earned cash on more books. I wanted to read it immediately, but just somehow didn't...
But my goodness, it was worth the wait. Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon is just a beautiful novel. The writing and translating are amazing and the story so utterly compelling that absolutely the only thing I've wanted to do for the past 2 days is sit alone somewhere and lose myself in it. This novel tells the story of a coastal cacao town in Brazil in the 20s and the resulting pains and joys as it strives against the old guard to become a modern city. Amado presents a very large cast of characters, all of whom are entirely unique and completely unforgettable, but at the centre are Nacib and Gabriela, a local bar owner and his cook/lover/wife (briefly).
As Ilheus is figuring out what it means to civilize itself in terms of politics and commerce, it's also figuring out what for it civilization means in terms of relationships between men and women. Nacib and Gabriela cause each other a lot of bliss and agony as they figure things out (well, while Nacib does - Gabriela is always just herself, which Nacib takes a long time to accept.)
I think I like this book almost too much to say anything about it. I still feel as though I'm there, in Ilheus, with the flowers blooming in the plaza and the dust blowing down the streets and Gloria looking longingly out of her window and the men in the Vesuvius looking longingly back at her. I'll stop. I'm going to become insufferably gushy and maudlin if I don't. The only other thing I'll add is this: Gabriela always refers to Nacib as "Beautiful man", and because I am a little in love with Jorge Amado and maybe a little with Nacib as well, that will be the title of this post.
Wednesday 6 May 2009
I have a question, not about Dracula, but about the experience of
reading Dracula, in fact, the experience of reading any book, for that matter.
You say you read for hours in one sitting, which raises a series of
questions for me concerning the psychology of reading, in part because I can no longer read for hours, to sit motionless and disappear into fictional worlds entire, sadly.
When you read, do you see the scene unfolding in your mind's eye? Does the scene take on a life of its own, as it does, say, in a hypnogogic dream state? After you read a particularly beautiful sentence, can you recite it without re-reading it? Or only the gist?
I'm often astonished by how little I remember of a book, not only words in sentences but incidents and names of characters, not to mention the qualia of their inner lives. Very frustrating. Do you have this "problem?"
Maybe others will weigh in, too.
Monday 4 May 2009
Oh sweeties, I can't tell you how happy I am right now. I am on vacation! This is my first post-grad school vacation, i.e., the first trip I've taken in about a hunnert years during which I haven't spent any time feeling guilty about the grad schoolish work I should be doing.
Let me tell you about my glorious Sunday. I slept in. I ate a lot. I went for a long walk around my native city of sunny, tropical Halifax, NS (the city that never sleeps except at night, and sometimes for naps as well). I sat in a cafe and read Dracula. I walked more. I came back to my mom's place and then I did something I haven't done in about 10 years: I laid in bed - FOR HOURS - reading. It was so amazing to be relaxed enough to do that; and not being sufficiently relaxed is the only reason why I haven't done this is an age and a half.
I finished Dracula yesterday during my relaxed, layabout reading love-fest and it certainly added to the dreaminess of this whole vacation experience. When I began this novel, I assumed I couldn't possibly be surprised by anything Stoker could throw at me but I was constantly surprised and generally incredibly pleased (and often jumpy). It was a damned good read and there were some incredibly interesting things going on with gender (female agency in particular) that I am currently too happy and glutted to either contemplate or discuss.
But two things did stand in the way of this being a 5/5 book for me (were I given to rating books, which I'm not). The first was how inconsistent Stoker was about representing Van Helsing's English (as a second language) skills; sometimes Van Helsing's grammar was perfect and sometimes it was laughably poor. I feel as though Stoker's editor should have bonked him on the head a little. But this was pretty minor.
Spoiler Alert! Less minor was the major plot hole surrounding Mina's victimization at Dracula's hands (er, teeth. Sharp, pointy teeth). As the reader, I had the exact same information as Van Helsing, Harker, Seward, Goldaming, and Morris had - the narrative structure was such that there was no room anywhere for an omniscient narrator that could provide me with info the characters lacked.
The erstwhile vampire slayers all knew that Dracula was able to get into spaces that happened to house vulnerable female characters, as Lucy was already dead and they'd pooled their info when they congregated at Seward's asylum. AND YET, they all insisted on sending Mina off to bed every night unguarded while they went sniffing after Dracula's trail! And then were surprised and CLUELESS when she started to look pale and behave lethargically in EXACTLY the same way Lucy did when Dracula was victimizing her.
I have to say, this mis-step drove me a little crazy. Given how clever and thoughtful these characters were, this blindness was just too unbelievable - less believable even than the possibility of blood-sucking vampires. I'm sure Stoker could have found another way to make Mina into a victim - required for the tense climax of the novel! - in some way more suited to not making the genius Van Helsing and his semi-genius helpers look like complete and utter dolts.
Still, a good read which is helping to sustain my return to the Victorians love-in. But next, I have some decidedly 20th-century lit to wrangle with.