Thursday, 24 September 2009

This may be the apocalypse!

It really took me too long to read David Lodge's The British Museum is Falling Down. It was really short and it was just fine - but I've been literally too tired to read the past few days. It's a shocking thing to admit. But life in bookstoreland has been very intense, plus I'm old and rickety, and so it's been difficult to focus the old peepers on the page.

Last night, my hubby went off to play basketball in spite of his old man knees and I always go do something deliciously solitary when he's off being sweaty with other sweaty boys; this usually means reading. But having worked from 6 am until 7:45 pm yesterday, the best I could manage was watching back-to-back episodes of some blood porn TV (Criminal Minds and CSI: New York) which both disturbed and managed to relax me a little. I was too tired to read! Friends, this may be the first sign of the end of the world! If you hear the persistent sound of hoof beats wherever you go, start praying to whatever god you believe in.

Kidding aside, it's been a long time since I've been too tired to read. It doesn't fit well with my idea of myself as voracious and hardcore, you know? Also, it makes me incredibly whinge-y and I like to imagine that I'm generally too sophisticated for such high-pitched behaviour. Ah well. There it is. I'm mentally shrieking and kicking my legs like a toddler in need of a nap and some Ritalin because dammit, I'm too tired to read!!

I did manage to finish The British Museum is Falling Down today, so I'm not technically too tired to read BUT reading Lodge (at least in this instance) requires so little effort that you can do it while sleeping; I know I did today. It wasn't bad. It made me laugh out loud a few times (which is what I was going for, and trying to do so without only reading Wodehouse), like when the main character Adam's doctoral thesis subject topic is described:
The subject of Adam's thesis had originally been, 'Language and Ideology in Modern Fiction' but had been whittled down by the Board of Studies until it now stood as 'The Structure of Long Sentences in Three Modern English Novels'. The whittling down didn't seem to have made the task any easier. He still hadn't decided which three novels he was going to analyse, nor had he decided how long a long sentence was. [D.H.] Lawrence, he thought hopefully, would produce lots of sentences where the issue would not be in doubt. (p. 46)
Teehee. But the majority of the novel was only just fine, kind of like the production of the bland love child of P.G. Wodehouse and Martin Amis. Well, most of the rest of the novel was fine; the epilogue was profoundly annoying and as far as I can tell a terrible and misguided attempt to add depth to a novel that should never have tried to be anything but fun. At least it was only 7 pages or so.

Oh right - what the book was about. Young doctoral student in the 1960s contends with the ennui of dissertation-writing and bleak chances for landing an academic job at the same time that he and his wife agonize about whether or not she's pregnant again (he's 25 and they already have 3 kids!) because they're Catholic and can't use birth control. Hi jinx and confusion and anxiety and misunderstanding ensue. It was just fine.

Monday, 21 September 2009


Nobel prize-winner Kenzaburo Oe was only 23 when he wrote his first novel, but Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids reads neither like a first attempt nor like the work of someone barely out of their teens. But then all the teens I've met didn't live through their country's defeat at the end of a World War, the disintegration of their nation's faith in their emperor as god-like, and the occupation of their country by US forces.

The 23-year old Oe was a very mature young man, and saw clearly what the war did to his country as well as what his country decided to use the war as permission to do, on both national and individual levels.

Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids is about the individual level, telling the story of a group of reform school boys being evacuated out of Tokyo. On their way to an un-named location in the mountains, they are meant to stay a week or so in a rural village along the way. Upon arriving in this village, they are abandoned almost immediately by the villagers due to an outbreak of the plague; the villagers, to try to stop the contagion, block the boys in and threaten to kill any boy who tries to escape. The boys spend 5 days alone in the village, during which time, they form a sort of cohesive community amongst themselves almost completely free of the petty fears and violence of their adult caretakers.

Soon, however, their paradise begins to break apart as the plague is shown not to have left with the villagers. As well, the villagers return and through threats of death and abuse if the boys don't keep quiet about how they were abandoned, their fragile community shows just how tenuous it really was.

According to the translator/editor of this book, this story also functions as a loose allegory for Japan's treatment of its citizens and soldiers during the war:
Nip the Buds presents its hero as an absolute outsider, a delinquent ostracized by the unbelievably brutish and callous villagers. Oe's anger against his elders' sheeplike complicity in the disastrous militarist adventure, against the generals who led the people to the end of the road only to abandon them, against the craven reversal of [national political] ideologies, is venomously evident [in this novel]. (p.8)
Yes, "venomously evident" is, I think, the appropriate phrase. Even if the allegory isn't detectable by those unfamiliar with the specifics of Japanese history, the bitterness with which Oe describes his young characters' abuse at the hands of those who hold them in their power certainly is. His utter disrespect for the way in which fear and self-preservation dictate every move of his adult characters is no less vicious. As such, this was a very difficult book to read, even as I found myself deeply admiring the imagery and the writing throughout.

Oe studied French literature at university and his admiration for the French realists I think shows itself quite clearly here; however, I would say that his rejection of the more traditional aspects of Japanese literary practice (i.e., the emphasis on sincerity and true sentiments) in favour of harsh realism and ideas (p. 10) far outstrips the French models that influenced him in his early career. The visceral nature of the realism here would simply not have made it into any of the 19th century novels I've ever read - but then, I haven't yet read Zola so it may be that I'm about to get schooled. And when I say "about to get schooled" I probably don't mean that something by Zola will be my next French book.

I need something light and happy after 2 books in a row on the horrors of war. And I don't think Zola = light and happy.

Friday, 18 September 2009

The unreturning army that was youth

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) is best known now as one of the War Poets (specifically, World War I), and is generally studied either in high school or first-year university along with such of his peers as Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), Rupert Brooke (1887-1915), and Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918). I have both been taught some of the poetry of this "unreturning army" and have taught it myself, although I focused only on Sassoon and Owen in my own classroom.

Pat Barker's novel Regeneration is the first in a trilogy devoted to Sassoon, Owen, their psychiatrist Rivers (1864-1922), and the fictional character Billy Prior. Rivers' job is to rehabilitate soldiers suffering from severe shell-shock and what we would now call Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome as the result of a badly run campaign in the muddy hell that was WWI France.

Rivers doesn't seem to consider or place much stock in the terrible irony of this, but things become less morally comfortable for him when Sassoon is sent to his hospital to be "cured" of his apparently "insane" insistence that the war be ended immediately. His so-called pacifism is concisely expressed in his famous A Soldier's Declaration:
I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.

I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defense and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow-soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.

I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practiced on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.
This text was written in July 1917, and Sassoon only narrowly avoided being court martialed for disseminating it; it was due to the intervention of his friend and fellow poet Robert Graves (1895-1985) that he ended up in Craiglockhart to be "healed" by Rivers instead of in jail.

Rivers is a good man and his methods of rehabilitation infinitely more humane than the majority of his colleagues'; he's also, however, certain that returning to the war is the best option for these young men, in spite of the variety of psychosomatic illnesses they suffer from in unconscious attempts to save themselves from an utterly hopeless situation in the trenches.

Speaking with Sassoon over the months of the latter's stay in hospital, however, begins to make Rivers' confidence in the rightness of his job unravel. Sitting in church while on stress leave, the contemplation of the biblical stories being played out on the stained glass windows forces some painful realizations onto the doctor:
Obvious choices for the east window: the two bloody bargains on which a civilization claims to be based. The bargain, Rivers thought, looking at Abraham and Isaac. The one on which all patriarchal societies are founded. If you, who are young and strong, will obey me, who am old and weak, even to the extent of being prepared to sacrifice your life, then in the course of time you will peacefully inherit, and be able to exact the same obedience from your sons. Only we're breaking the bargain, Rivers thought. All over northern France, at this very moment, in trenches and dugouts and flooded shell-holes, the inheritors were dying, not one by one, while old men, and women of all ages, gathered together and sang hymns. (p. 149)
What's painful and tragic about this increasing doubt in what he does is that Rivers nonetheless does not see or even try to see any way to behave any differently; he confronts his morally dubious role in the cycle of death and yet doesn't consider how he might if not break, at least briefly interrupt, that cycle. Perhaps he will do something startling in the next two books.

Which I will read, although Regeneration was as painful a reading experience as it was a satisfying one. I found Rivers' continued complicity almost too painful to bear. I usually prefer the narrative voice to remain morally neutral but in this case, it made the desperation of the soldiers who would unconsciously do literally any horrible thing to their own bodies not to be sent back, for they couldn't reconcile that desire to live with their sense of masculine duty, to be overwhelming. However, to have imposed some kind of moral bias into the narrative would have destroyed what made this book so powerful - its unflinching look at war without ever engaging in any of the sort of action scenes that can so easily be misused for pro-war, patriotic purposes.

I think Regeneration is a very, very good book; it's just not an easy or comfortable one. But it can't all be Ysabel and making fun of lazy editors can it?

Monday, 14 September 2009

Dear Guy, this is an intervention

Oh, Guy - Can I call you Guy? Thanks.

Ysabel is the second novel of yours I've read and I was hoping for something as good as The Lions of Al-Rassan. I didn't think The Lions of Al-Rassan was perfect; however, it was a rollicking good read and not only did I not want it to end, but I also wanted more books like it. I thought I could maybe count on you, Guy. I may have thought wrong but as I'm told The Last Light of the Sun is amazing, I won't give up on you just yet.

But I want to say some things to you which I know your editor won't say because he/she/it is enjoying the cash cow you've become and no longer gives a f*** if your work is actually any good. This might hurt a little but the book world will be a better place - and I know you can make it a better place! - if you pay attention.

Having read The Lions of Al-Rassan, I was worried maybe you couldn't create female characters that could be said to exist (well, be comfortably imaginable) in three dimensions. I'm afraid I'm even more worried now. Because it's not just women you can't seem to draw either convincingly or compellingly - it's also anyone in the real, modern world. As Ysabel is set in the modern world, this was a serious problem. All the characters in this novel seemed drawn from an after school special OR from a comedy skit in which Dave Chappelle makes fun of upper middle class white people.

To compound this issue, dear Guy, you're particularly not so good with the teenagers. Ned is about the lamest paper doll of a 15-year old I've ever been afflicted with. Adding some "likes" and "whatevers" to the kid's dialogue (internal and external) does not a convincing teenager make. I'm not really into them either, but I'm pretty sure they're a little more complicated than that, so give them their due! And to make Ned the hero, and this the most thinly disguised YA novel, like, ever (only disguise-able because of your reputation, man - can you not use your powers more responsibly?) - didn't make for a very satisfying read.

Yet, Ysabel was not a complete loss, so don't cry, Guy. It was good in that un-putdownable way, at points - but all those points involved Ysabel and/or Phelan and/or Cadell being placed in the foreground. Mostly Phelan and Cadell because you know, your woman thing still kinda sucks. Regardless, I didn't see these three characters nearly enough.

So, I'm a little disappointed in you but I also know you've still got the magic. It's just a matter of playing to your strengths: olde timey fantasy with a minimum of female characters. If you write that I will read it. But do us all a favour and kick that lazy-ass editor to the curb.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Radio silence

When I first heard the extraordinary story of how Suite Francaise came to be published, I knew I would have to read it. The author, Irene Nemirovsky, having hand-written it, had been taken to Auschwitz, where she'd died. Her daughters, who'd been horrifyingly young when their parents were murdered by the Nazis, managed to carry the manuscript around in a suitcase for 50 years or so before finding the courage to even look at it. Originally slated to be kept in a museum, Suite Francaise was so good it had to be published, adding a final laurel to Nemirovsky's short but prodigious career as a highly respected novelist.

The thing is, I read about this book, felt compelled to read it, and then promptly forgot both the book's title and its author several years ago. I foundered in ignorance, asked people about it who didn't know what I was talking about but said that they'd like to read it too, based on what I'd said - until my bibliophilic (Bibliophiliac? that sounds like a disease. Bibliophilial?) mom reminded me, when I was browsing her shelves back when I visited HFX in May, that this was that book.

Woot! If one can properly woot about a book that came to light against all odds and an evil organization's attempts to erase Nemirovsky's entire family. But I must woot, for this is a really damned AMAZING book. Dear gawd, the writing! I'm going to read everything Nemirovsky wrote just for the writing, no matter the subject matter. And to think that she wrote this well in a rough draft, penned in the last two or so years of her life when she knew that her adopted country of France was going to allow the Nazi death machine to consume her. Nemirovsky's use of language often made me pause in awe; the first time it happened was near the beginning when she's describing how the crowds of citizens fleeing Paris react to enemy planes flying overhead:
Young men and women called to one another from the cars and sometimes laughed. Then a dark shape would glide across the star-covered sky, everyone would look up and the laughter would stop. It wasn't exactly what you'd call fear, rather a strange sadness - a sadness that had nothing human about it any more, for it lacked both courage and hope. This was how animals waited to die. It was the way fish caught in a net watch the shadow of the fisherman moving back and forth above them. (p. 46)
I feel claustrophobic and helpless just thinking about this passage, never mind typing it out. And the whole book was this good, no matter what she was describing.

But Suite Francaise actually comprises two novellas, Storm in June and Dolce. Storm in June (which the above quotation is from) focuses on several sets of characters as they try to figure out how safely to leave Paris ahead of the German invasion. Focusing on so many characters, Nemirovsky provides a painful and often cynical look at how compassion and selflessness are so quickly abandoned in favour of self-preservation in times of extreme desperation.

, on the other hand, is a close look at the extent to which internal borders can be crossed by and for individuals. It tells the story of Lucile and Bruno, a French woman whose husband is stuck in a German POW camp, and a German officer billeted in her and her mother-in-law's house during the occupation of her town. They fall in love, in spite of everything, and the painful irony of it is that it's only because of the war that they've met and it's also because of the war that it can never work for them.

It's painful, but the scenes in which they allow themselves to enjoy their brief respites of imagined safety from the outside world are so beautiful that it made the inevitability of it ending seem somehow unreal and far, far away - it was not unlike Bel Canto in its dreamy rejection of the inevitable future.

I loved this book. But one thing kept occurring to me and it makes me uncomfortable. Nemirovsky knew she was going to die at the hands of the Germans for being Jewish, even though she and her family had converted to Catholicism. Yet, not one of her characters is Jewish and the issue of what was happening to Jews in France is really not touched upon. I'm baffled by this. Was she trying to erase her heritage via her art? Was her literary radio silence on this topic part of her critique of France's complete lack of comprehension of what was going on? I really can't guess at this; silence can just mean too many things.

I've begun reading Guy Gavriel Kay's Ysabel, as a sort of antidote to the heaviness of Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise. Unfortunately, it's also turning out to be an antidote to good writing and plot construction, but hopefully it'll get better. But more of that anon.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

The Sarazens head without New-gate: A catalogue of the ways in which I've been avoiding working today

This was supposed to be a post about Ueda Akinari's Tales of Moonlight and Rain, which I'll discuss very briefly and unsatisfactorily below. I just don't have a book review in me right now, at least not about a book that's more explanatory footnote than text. But more of that anon. Right now, I'm going to discuss what a slack bastard I'm being here in bookstoreland.

I do this not to perpetuate the stereotype that all book-sellers do all day is read - because while that would be astoundingly f***ing heavenly, we don't. Most days, I don't get to read for more than an hour in total, and I make a point of doing so because I don't get an actual lunch break.

How I've Been Wasting Time Today:
The day began with me coming back from my lovely coffee and read in the park this morning to find a crazy woman sitting on the front steps of the shop. I circled around, went to the grocery store, hoping she'd be gone when I returned. But no, she was waiting to be let in. I know she was crazy because she was yelling at herself over some slight, perceived or actual.

She stopped yelling in the store; in fact, the self-talking ended entirely to be replaced by her coughing her TB lungs up all over the books in the fashion section, then the drama section, then the bargain section...while I followed her about tidying up. So, maybe this wasn't a big waste of time but I should have been cataloguing some of the eleventy million books currently sitting on the floor of our back room.

- I've spent a lot of time staring off into space.

- I've been listening to Iron & Wine's fabu album The Shepherd's Dog and wishing I could sing out loud along with it, especially to "Flightless Bird, American Mouth".

- I've been playing Lexulous on the Facebook, which I suck at.

- I've been reading other people's blogs.

- I've been looking out the window and weeping inside because I can't go outside and frolic.

- And I've been eyeballing the gigantic stack of doubles I like to think I'll someday read but which I have no desire for at the moment.

I should be finishing Suite Francaise, if I'm not going to work much, as I have only 30 pages left. But see, I need a bio break and I haven't had one yet today, and it's hard to concentrate when your bladder is about to explode. Long stretches between being able to go pee pee is one of the occupational hazards of working alone in a bookstore. I know, TMI. Forgive me.

Today, I've also tried and failed to write a blog post solely about Tales of Moonlight and Rain, which is a tiny tome of late 18th-century stories by Ueda Akinari. Apparently it's the best damned example of the Japanese literature of the supernatural that ever existed. That may be true but I was so overwhelmed by the copious introducing and footnoting both of the book as a whole and of each of the 9 tales that I don't think I can give much of an opinion on its quality. It was all very distracting.

There were really great moments in these tales, but I found myself wishing that someone had published a version for people who don't care how well-read and given to making literary allusions Akinari was. The problem is, I can't look away from footnotes, like some people can't look away from a train wreck; the mind is willing but the flesh is weak.

Also, yeah, I wrote a catalogue of how I've been wasting time today. This is not a banner day at But it's not a banner day in the life of the Shea either; I'm sleepy and would sell my soul right now, not for the ability to play a mean guitar or for 24 years of unlimited knowledge, but for a comfy hammock in the shade between two trees overlooking a lake. While laying in said dream hammock, I would lazily be perusing the fattest, most Dickensian novel in the world. I believe in the devil but he doesn't believe in me, apparently, because I'm not getting any offers here. Sigh.

But next time, I promise that the Sarazens head will be a happy, joyous, gushy love-fest. Because I think that's what y'all really wanted when you said you wanted to hear about life as a book-seller.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

The Reading Lamp: he contains multitudes

Please note what the Golden Boy claims he's reading now and what his photo indicates he's actually reading and enjoy to the fullest the beautiful, terrifying, and hilarious disparity between the two. Or don't. But whatever you do, don't tell the GB he's got a purty mouth.

Your name: You can call me Golden. It's my nickname. And don't think it has a noble origin, either. I got it in college by drinking Molson Golden beer. But who has a four-syllable nickname? It's unheard of. So my friends lopped off the Molson bit and kept the Golden. So there you have it. Golden.

What are you currently reading? Thoughts? Jose Saramago's The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. I love this book, a lot. Until now, I haven't even been able to bring myself to talk about it. It's that important to me. Like a secret or a dream, something I want to protect.

If I could ramble on for hours, I'd sing the virtues of Saramago's prose, how he blends narrative and dialogue in ways that require the reader to be ultra-sensitive to the stresses, pauses, and transitions in his language, and how when this harmony happens, the dialogue glitters like quaking aspen.

Or I'd sing Saramago's insight, how he identifies guilt and remorse as the central experience of Christianity, not humility, not compassion, not even love — but guilt, and not just guilt for one's own misdeeds, but guilt for the crimes of others, and how the inheritance of guilt is the mustard seed of Christianity.

Or I'd sing Saramago's defiance, how his Gospel shatters the monopoly that Evangelicals, Born Agains, and other literalists would dearly love to have on the story of the birth and death of Jesus.

Or I'd sing Saramago's powers of description, how the pages of his Gospel are saturated with mucous and blood, how they are full of suffering and bitter regret, and how (heresy of heresies) they are more authentically rooted in psychological possibility than the Synoptic Gospels. But since rambling on endlessly is in very poor taste, I'll just say this: Jesus bangs a prostitute and then dies on a cross.

Where are you reading?
I'm reading at my second favorite coffee shop in the world, Crema. Even now, I tremble for excitement at the thought that I'll sip coffee and turn pages tomorrow morning!

How do you choose what to read next? Every year, I set myself a reading program; I can be single-minded that way. Last year, it was Roth and Cather. This year, Proust and Saramago. Next year, Shakespeare and George Eliot. But as soon as I feel pinched by Roth or Proust or Shakespeare, I set them down. Like a crow, I peck at bright, shiny objects that catch my fancy: John Crowley, J.M. Coetzee, Marilynne Robinson, David Mitchell, and others. So I'm definitely a hybrid, a Franken-reader, a cross between a terrier and a crow.

Do you generally buy or borrow books? This is a question of personal hygiene. I don't borrow underwear, razor blades, or toothbrushes. And I never, ever, borrow a book. That's just gross.

What is the one book you love so much that you can’t be objective about other people not loving it as well? Well, if I say Child of God or Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy and rhapsodize about the blind and very often cruel pursuit of something unnameable, I’d be telling you the truth but risking your good opinion of me. Which I’m desperate to court. So I’ll pawn off this nickel-plated truth instead: Song of Myself. Only the morally retrograde don’t like Whitman. That’s a fact. Like hating birdsong or something.

What is your favorite unknown or underappreciated book? There are several of them, including Little, Big and Gilead and A Simple Life. But I'm going to make a bold move here and say The World as Will and Representation by Schopenhauer. Before Nietzsche, Freud, and Wittgenstein begged, borrowed, and stole from him, the world's most brilliant pessimist offered a plausible solution to the problem of life — will as little as possible, know as much as possible, and play your flute (be your flute what it may) into the evening, even though your sun is setting, fast.

Do you have any reading superstitions? A few, yes. Never read while exercising on a treadmill or a stationary bike. If you do, God will note in Her registry that you're not committed to either — and you know how She is about commitment.

When a passage moves you in a profound or unexpected way, pay tribute to it by lightly kissing the page. This will make you feel strange in public at first. Get over yourself. Sancho Panza is eternal, you are not.

If you're interested in being interviewed for The Reading Lamp, drop me a line at colleen AT bookphilia DOT com!

Thursday, 3 September 2009

The milk of human kindness

It may be that I won't even try to read a murder mystery by anyone but Ellis Peters until I've read everything she's written - as Ellis Peters AND under her real name, Edith Pargeter. I like her works that much. Admittedly, that's a lot of reading to do, but I'm pretty sure I'm up for it.

I've noted here before that, for me, there's no one more reliable than Ellis Peters (not even P.G. Wodehouse!) and having just finished The Leper of St. Giles, the fifth in the 20-volume Brother Cadfael series, I stand by that assessment. Indeed, this was the best one yet and I can only imagine they'll get better and better as Peters becomes increasingly comfortable in negotiating the fictional world she's created.

Ellis Peters' Cadfael tales always make me incredibly happy and often teary-eyed but in a sort of pleased and hopeful way. The Leper of St. Giles was no different in these regards but Cadfael's conversation at the end of the novel with the titular character, Lazarus (as he prefers to be known), was incredibly powerful. Having solved the mystery of the two people found strangled to death in the woods outside Shrewsbury Abbey, Cadfael has also solved the mysteries both of this particular leper's involvement therein and his real identity.

Encouraging Lazarus to come out of hiding and re-enter the world, as his leprosy has long since ceased being contagious, Cadfael can only be halted in his persuasions when Lazarus removes his face cloth to reveal all the ravages of disease, time, and pain that have rendered him unable and unwilling to consider such a return. And Peters, so gentle and concise as she always is, writes simply, "And Cadfael was silenced."

No sentimentality, no drama, just a statement of fact, so short but so full of Cadfael's respect for the man and what he's endured, as well as humility when forced to contemplate an exclusion from life even he, in his cloistered world, would never have to live through. Ellis Peters, you were the most human and humane of writers! I adore you!

On a less breathy and emotional note, I for once figured out who the murderer was. Mind, I think Peters made this one easier than usual for even though this was a murder mystery, the focus was really on who Lazarus was, rather than on whodunnit. Yet, even though Peters gave me this one, I still blew it when it came to figuring out why he did it - I got all distracted by what I thought were echoes of the medieval story of Patient Griselde and missed the real clues.

Not only that, I was spectacularly wrong about the Griselde angle - so wrong, it's laughable! But here's an object lesson for me: the clues Peters provides, even if I should get them, are still for the characters and not for me, whereas literary allusions are for no one but the reader. Reading mysteries, it seems, is a different sort of reading than I'm accustomed to. But I'll learn, I hope, with Mz. Peters as my guide.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Why I can't break up with Sherman Alexie, part two

This is the second time I've read The Toughest Indian in the World, the first being sometime around 2000 or 2001. The first time around, I was in the airport waiting to go to Halifax; of course, I had a book with me. I'm so worried about running out of reading, even on two-hour flights, that I probably had three books with me. That were probably 700 pages long each.

But I was browsing in the airport bookstore, which is generally mush, because I can't help myself, when I saw this book. I'd thought I'd read all of Alexie's work at that point but clearly, he'd been outpacing me. I scooped it up, sat on the floor, and started reading - and almost missed my flight, I was that engrossed. All his early work is wonderful but I felt he'd reached new heights with The Toughest Indian in the World and I couldn't stop. I wish more books grabbed me this way.

A few years ago, Alexie came to Toronto to read at Toronto Women's Bookstore. The plan was for him to read from his new book, Flight, which was just okay; he may have agreed with my assessment for instead of reading from Flight, he read a short story called "South by Southwest" - which, in my view, is not only the best story in The Toughest Indian in the World, but also the best thing he's ever written, period. Hearing him read it was wonderful - he's got a great voice and sense of pacing, and hearing this one reminded me of why I keep reading his stuff, even though it continues to be pretty mediocre in its most recent incarnations.

Of course, he was a bit of jerk at the signing at Toronto Women's Bookstore. But after a couple of years of psychotherapy, I am now able to separate the author from the text and enjoy his stuff again.

Re-reading The Toughest Indian in the World was not a disappointment; and going back is always a risk, for my tastes have changed quite radically over the years and continue to do so. "South by Southwest" is still my favourite short story of all time. "The Sin Eaters" still scared the living shit out of me. I still loved every tale in this collection. And I want to cry knowing that Alexie will likely never again produce anything so devastatingly good.

I'm not being mean, really; he said so himself at that reading when, after finishing his telling of "South by Southwest", he said something like "I don't think I could write this again; I wouldn't have the energy." No shit, man. I just don't understand why - he's only 43 or so years old! I feel like it's too soon for him to be fatally afflicted by the Haruki Murakami syndrome; and yet it seems to be so.

Not that I won't be reading his new book of poetry, Face, in the next few months. It's hard to let go of the genius even if the genius hasn't shown itself in a long time. I once had trouble breaking up with a boy for similar reasons, but it wasn't genius he was hiding but general niceness. Le sigh.