Friday 30 October 2009

Sickbed reading

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

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

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

Tuesday 27 October 2009

Science is scary

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 24 October 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 21 October 2009

Where the work begins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 19 October 2009

The Reading Lamp: reading east

Bellezza hosts the Japanese Literature Challenge 3, besides being a committed reader and blogger. She also sometimes sends me purty Japanese bookmarks in the mail.

Speaking of Japanese lit, I remember feeling a similar sense of wonder to Bellezza's when I first began immersing myself in it. As I can't recapture that feeling now, I'll continue to live vicariously through Bellezza and the JLC3 participants coming to the literature of the land of the rising sun for the first time. - Colleen

Your name:

What are you currently reading? The Help by Kathryn Stockett.

Where and when are you reading it? Any moment I can catch, usually before bedtime. However, this Saturday I got up before any one else so that I could have a few pre-dawn moments in the living room to be alone with my book.

How did you discover this book? An old friend recommended it to me while we were eating lunch in the lounge one day at school. But, I'd also seen it on Lesley's blog so I was interested in reading it already.

What do you think of it so far? I'm amazed how an "old" subject, of prejudice and inequality in the South, can be presented with such freshness. I feel that I am living in the homes of the women whose lives we view, especially the Black 'help'. It tears my heart how much they gave, and the fear they lived in that their lives would be destroyed at the whim of some White person. I'm absolutely enraptured with this book.

Favourite childhood book? Without a doubt it's Charlotte's Web. I took that book with me, in 1969, on a trip to Europe. I was allowed to take ONE book, and that was it. I read it, and read it, and reread it, and it never seemed old. What that book has to say about friendships, loyalty, and death is impossible to convey with words. And yet, E.B. White did it masterfully.

Who is your literary boyfriend or girlfriend? (They need not still be living, or they can be a character in a book.) I wish I could meet John Galt from Atlas Shrugged. A man as handsome as he, but more importantly, as brilliant and independent, is my idea of a man. No wonder Dagny left everything, and everyone, for him.

What book have you hated so much you wanted to cause it or its author harm? These are pretty strong words; I've never wanted to cause any one harm, least of all an author. But, I don't understand how Toni Morrison can be so highly acclaimed. Her book Beloved remains one of the greatest literary mysteries to me."The New York Times found Beloved the best work of American fiction of the past 25 years; Time Magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005" (from Wikipedia). I disliked it, but I loathed Paradise more.

What’s the strangest/most interesting/creepiest/most amazing thing you’ve ever found inside a book? The most amazing thing I ever found in a book is the message of salvation found in the Bible. Every time I read the Scriptures I find myself with greater inner peace; every time I read the Word I find it new. There is always something to learn, and I've read the Bible straight through for at least 9 years in a row now.

Who do you talk to about books? My mother. My two Book Club friends. But, most of all, my book blogging buddies.

Does the literature of a particular country or region appeal to you particularly? Explain. I am absolutely enthralled by Japanese literature. The eastern perspective is so new to me, the style of writing so unlike what I've been accustomed to, that I can't read enough. Hosting The Japanese Literature Challenge for three years has really helped expand my understanding, and appreciation, of this genre because the participants' reviews are so enlightening. I've come to understand that a big part of Japanese authors' style is often to leave the plot alone; instead, they seem to focus on characterization, or a 'slice of life.' At first, I didn't understand why things weren't neatly tied up at the conclusion of a novel; now I enjoy pondering it on my own. For days.

If you're interested in being featured on the Reading Lamp, drop me an email at colleen AT bookphilia DOT com!

Saturday 17 October 2009

Curious/Creepy: the coolest grandma in the world

So, here I am in sunny Kingston, ON. I took the train down last night and am here to visit friends. AND, I may say, to make myself fat for I have gone to the Saturday farmers' market downtown and I have purchased Wolfe Island bread (Red River style) and Betty's Byre strawberry rhubarb jam and I have put these together with Earth Balance between them and lo, it is very effin' good. So good I can't stop eating it and I'm going to explode soon. Also, my friend Vee and I are going to make pierogies tonight so the belly-busting will continue. Yeeeessssssss.

But I had to get here somehow (train) and that means I had a rare opportunity to be creepy. So here's what I saw people reading last night.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith and Jane Austen. I was actually not even on the train yet when I spotted this one. I was walking in the line to board my train when I saw someone in another line reading this. She was white-haired. She wore bifocals. She was the essence of frumpitude. SHE WAS THE COOLEST GRANDMA EVER.

Not that I've read or want to read this book. I tried, very briefly, to read this book and was so irritated by it that I gave up almost immediately. However, I admit, and it may be prejudiced of me (har har), but I don't generally assume that little old ladies are into zombies. They make great zombies (just like little kids - eeek!), but it doesn't seem like a natural match to me, reading interest-wise. But maybe she's seen Zombieland and knows what's what.

This zombie- and Austen-loving g-ma was so cool that I was tempted to jump lines and beg her to adopt me and take me to her gingerbread house full of books. But there's bread to be ett in Kingston. Also, living in Toronto, I was running a little short on oxygen. But the infusion has done me good and already I've run 4 marathons, saved a family from a burning house, and been book-shopping.

Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz Smith. This tome (hardcover, from a library) was being perused by the guy I sat next to on the train. In fact, I sat next to him precisely because he was reading and I wanted to make the spying on him easier for myself AND I didn't want someone who would try to talk to me. You see, I'm reading Anthony Trollope's Can You Forgive Her? and this novel is so satisfying and irresistible that Anthony may have to be my new boyfriend.

I know nothing, absolutely nothing, about Smith. I know the name but have never heard anyone say anything about him for either good or ill. I do notice, however, that he's one of those authors whose name tends to figure about fifty times larger on his book covers than the actual book titles do.

What's that aboot anyhow? When they do this, are publishers secretly acknowledging that books by authors like this are entirely interchangeable? Is it the subliminal equivalent of adding jazz hands and show tunes to potential buyers' internal dialogue when they're contemplating a stack of indistinguishable authors? INSERT THOUGHT BUBBLE NOW:

"Hmmm, we've got some Wilbur Smith here, and some Tre Smith, and some Agent Smith...not sure...Oh hey, MARTIN CRUZ SMITH!!! I bet this book will be great! It'll tell the story of a small-town girl with a big heart and a small purse who goes to Hollywood to make it big, and there'll be tears and dancing and singing and hand-wringing, and a corrupt agent and a heartless director but another director (his rival!! There was another girl and a gun fight and a back alley abortion and a ruined career), from the same small town who also started off with a big heart and no cash, will discover her when she's waiting tables and looking longingly out the window and subconsciously striking poses because she's just that much of a natural, and not only will he discover her but also he'll fall in love with her, yeah! and...this looks like it might be alright."

Ahem. So, the reader of this book was a middle-aged fella who liked electronic thingies like the kids use. He had a Crackberry which he texted on a lot. He had an iPod which he'd very sensibly strapped to his wrist. And he was much more interested in not talking than I was so we got along fabulously.

The Castle of Wizardry by David Eddings. This well-thumbed paperback Fantasy novel was being read by a woman one row up and to the right of me. It took me a long time to see what she was reading because apparently even with my glasses on, I'm still half-blind.

Reader was in her forties I'd guess, had her hair in a pony tail, was wearing gigantic 80s earrings, a sweatshirt, her pj bottoms, sneakers. It's time for the pot to call the kettle, white. It's time for the white trash kettle to call out the other white trash kettle in the vicinity. There, you've been called out, Fantasy-written-for-14-year-old-boys-reading lady in pj pants. I'm just better disguised than you are but I recognize my people when I see them. See you at the Trailer Park Boys convention in May!

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, etc by some unknown but talented m.f. from the middle ages. One row behind me, to my right. Taking a Via train on the weekends exponentially increases one's chances of witnessing an undergraduate studying. I know this. It's science.

This kid was maybe 20 and was wearing a University of Western Ontario shirt. It was purple, like a certain large dinosaur I once knew. This guy read all the time. Unlike my SMITH!!!!-reading row-mate, he never allowed himself to be distracted by electronic thingies with lights and cute bleeping sounds.

He wasn't even distracted by his persistent and painful-sounding cough. It may have been the consumption. It mayn't have been a galloping consumption but it was trotting, and with purpose and direction. I'm surprised his lungs stayed anchored in his skinny chest. But he was committed to the olde Englyshe poetrye and would not be stopped.

FAIL. Also, I failed in one of my spying attempts. I know. I feel the pain of it too. I'd been on such a good run. The person in the row ahead of me, but in the seat in front of me, was reading a fat novel. I was sure I'd established that it was a book called The Apprentice by Clive Cussler but I can find no evidence on the interwebs that such a book exists. Sigh. Please, don't turn me into glue; I'll keep working!!!!!

Wednesday 14 October 2009

Weak gamesters in poetry

I recently claimed that having read an epistolary novel without ending up in hospital was a sure sign that was I sufficiently over my grad school experience to claim the entire literary world as my oyster again.

That I'm reading the poems of Ben Jonson is perhaps more convincing proof of this. Ben Jonson is the quintessential Renaissance writer, as the breadth of his work was matched by none of his peers, not even your man Shakespeare.

Jonson (1572-1637) wrote plays, masques, and the most widely varied (in topic and style) abundance of poetry that you can imagine. He also consciously worked towards making the notion of paid authorship respectable (and he succeeded), although he initially scandalized some by calling his collected works Works, which until then had only been done by that talented amateur King James VI. Jonson also escaped death for killing a man by claiming benefit of clergy, and was the son of a brick-layer. Like Whitman, he contained multitudes.

And most people (Renaissance scholars excluded) tend to know him, if at all, for two poems only: the beautiful and sad elegies "On My First Son" and "On My First Daughter." These are stunning poems, but in no way reflect where Jonson's concerns tended to lie: in the intellectual, and very often in the satirical.

I've recently finished reading his collection Epigrams, which was included in his 1616 publication of the Works. Jonson's epigrams were written in respectful homage to Martial who was the master of the Latin epigram. Like Martial, Jonson was going for variety and wit in his epigrams; his emotional elegies to his lost babies stand out for not fitting into their surroundings at all. You see, "On My First Daughter" is rather awkwardly sandwiched in between a poem dedicated to the abuse of a "reformed gamester" and a poem dedicated to the praise of one of his poetic contemporaries (that sexy beast, John Donne)!

Indeed, Jonson's epigrams almost entirely comprise either abuse of his fellows or praise of his peers or, most often, his patrons. The poems to patrons, like all Jonson's poems, display his erudition and stunning command of language; but for me, their interest is still more academic than pleasurable (the literary world may be my oyster now, but that opposition still stands) for while the details change, the sentiment in these celebrations of literary influence doesn't vary all that much.

However, Jonson, also often combined two traits that I find irresistible when placed together: that's right, funny and mean. Jonson abusing people is a pure joy to read both silently and aloud - and now to post, for your edification. That's correct, I sift out bitchy, smart, and hilarious poems so you never ever again have to crack a tome in which any rhyming occurs! The following are from Epigrams, of course.
XLII On Giles and Joan

Who says that Giles and Joan at discord be?
Th' observing neighbors no such mood can see.
Indeed, poor Giles repents he married ever;
But that his Joan doth too. And Giles would never,
By his free-will, be in Joan's company:
No more would Joan he should. Giles riseth early,
And having got him out of doors is glad;
The like is Joan: but turning home is sad;
And so is Joan. Oftimes when Giles doth find
Harsh sights at home, Giles wisheth he were blind;
All this doth Joan: or that his long-yearn'd life
Were quite out-spun; the like wish hath his wife.
The children that he keeps, Giles swears are none
Of his getting; and so swears his Joan.
In all affections she concurreth still.
If now, with man and wife, to will and nill
The self-same things, a note of concord be:
I know no couple better can agree! (p. 47)

LVI On Poet-Ape

Poor Poet-Ape, that would be thought our chief,
Whose works are e'en the frippery of wit,
From brokage is become so bold a thief,
As we, the robbed, leave rage, and pity it.
At first he made low shifts, would pick and glean,
Buy the reversion of old plays; now grown
To a little wealth, and credit in the scene,
He takes up all, makes each man's wit his own.
And, told of this, he slights it. Tut, such crimes
The sluggish gaping auditor devours;
He marks not whose 'twas first, and after-times
May judge it to be his, as well as ours.
Fool, as if half eyes will not know a fleece
From locks of wool, or shreds from the whole piece. (pp. 51-52)
Now, back to Trollope!

Sunday 11 October 2009

Long weekend reading...and eating

It's Thanksgiving here in Canada and I've been reading my fat novel (courtesy of Anthony Trollope) a lot, but not as much as I'd hoped to; I'm hoping to make up for it tomorrow. I'm reading Can You Forgive Her?, the first of the Palliser novels, and I'm enjoying it immensely.

The Victorians are so tough and awesome. Look at Trollope here; you know that if you got into a fight with him, he'd poke you in the eyes and then kick you in the back when you fell down before running away with all your money. Just kidding. Sugar high!

(I'd also planned to win the Nobel Prize for sleeping this weekend but that's looking like it's a bust; the award is likely going to go to some teenager who's barely done anything but appears to be the epitome of potential awesomeness.)

I ate a lot tonight. I made a pumpkin "cheese" pie with a gluten-free (father-in-law has Celiac) crust for dessert; I'm told it turned out well but I can't be sure as I don't actually like pumpkin pie in any form. This didn't keep me from eating a bunch of course; the celestial cream and chocolate ganache that went on top were pretty kick-ass! What I'm saying is that, in spite of all my efforts, I did what nature intended and ate way too much. Now I feel sick with quintuplet food babies.

I can't complain though because as Juno and Mac guy reveal here, Canadian Thanksgiving can be much less fun than a simple over-full belly. Ha!

If you're Canadian, I hope you're enjoying your long weekend! If you're not, and you're American, rest assured I will also be eating too much with you in spirit in November. My Nana was born in Colfax, Washington; it's only right to honour her memory by making myself barfy with over-consumption in tandem with my 15th American cousins, 42 times removed!

Friday 9 October 2009

Splendid young things in a young world

told me two things a while back: one, that I must read Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio; and two, that he'd cut me if I didn't love it. Well, I've read it. Also, I've mostly loved it, although not with complete abandon. Now, I'm going into the bookish equivalent of the witness protection program.

Seriously, I think Winesburg, Ohio is a very special book, and not in that super slow but really sweet and likes to hug a lot kind of way. It's a set of interlocking stories about small-town Ohio at the beginning of the 20th century; one character, George Willard, features in every story, generally as the unwitting but curious listener of the other characters' tales.

The writing of Winesburg, Ohio is really amazing, in a quiet, lonely sort of way. It's really a book that is to be savoured and the good bits (of which there is an abundance) re-read repeatedly. I could quote about half the book if I wanted to give you a sense of such moments, but here's a paragraph from "Departure", one of my favourite stories in the collection:
In the darkness, they played like two splendid young things in a young world. Once, running swiftly forward, Helen tripped George and he fell. He squirmed and shouted. Shaking with laughter, he rolled down the hill. Helen ran after him. For just a moment she stopped in the darkness. There is no way of knowing what woman's thoughts went through her mind but, when the bottom of the hill was reached and she came up to the boy, she took his arm and walked beside him in a dignified silence. For some reason they could not have explained they had both got from their silent evening together what they needed. Man or boy, woman or girl, they had for a moment taken hold of the thing that makes the mature life of men and women in the modern world possible. (p. 200)
Just lovely. But my favourite story, by far, was "Hands" which tells the story of a former teacher exiled to Winesburg after being wrongly accused of molesting his male students. This story is worth reading both on its own and as part of the larger narrative of Winesburg, Ohio. It's one of the most perfect short stories I've ever read. And I've read a lot of Frank O'Connor, so that's saying a lot.

What I love about this book is how beautiful Anderson makes his characters seem in their fragility, and naivety, and desperation. It is not a happy book, yet its characters have these unbelievable moments of transcendent, almost divine clarity.

My only disappointment with this book is that I didn't find the stories to be consistently breath-taking; "Hands" and "Departure" stand out as exceptional but I feel a book like this relies on every tale being equally compelling, even as they address very different individuals suffering their very different and private pains. And I will admit that even as I continued to be struck by those deceptively simple but just gorgeous passages that appear everywhere in the book, there were some stories in the middle to end that I already can't quite distinguish in my memory.

So, for me, this isn't a perfect, earth-jangling kind of book. But it's a damned fine book, a unique book, a book that I am incredibly pleased to have read. And you should read it too. Or Kevin will find you.

Tuesday 6 October 2009


The Lords of the North is the third installment in Bernard Cornwell's series of historical novels dealing with the rise of King Alfred in late 9th-century England. Uhtred, at the ripe old age of 23 or so, is again the hero of the story and he continues to enjoy humping and killing, although not at the same time. In fact, he falls in love with Gisela, a dark-haired Dane and sister of a puppet-king, so his humping becomes rather more monogamous than perhaps it's been in the previous two novels.

Someone recently saw me reading The Lords of the North and asked me what it was about. I said it was a boy book, full of killing and fighting and aggression. Full of preposterone, in other words: preposterous amounts of testosterone. Cornwell certainly emphasizes the (literal) blood and guts of how England as we know it now was begun to be brought painfully into being but he doesn't stint on the strategy and cunning and manipulations involved either.

Indeed, what we see here is at heart the development of realpolitik (if I may be permitted to use this term so incredibly anachronistically) in England. The violence is really just the means to the end, and when Uhtred reflects on how fate is manipulating him it's really a larger political system manipulating him, even as this political system is in the midst of being created.

But I'm making this book sound in some measure complicated, but it isn't at all. My husband and I agreed while discussing this novel that what we like about Cornwell is how easy it is to read his stuff. The writing is A+ adequate but it doesn't stand out or get in the way of the story - and The Lords of the North and its predecessors are all story, all the time. So, an enjoyable read but not an extremely profound one. I'll go back to being Incredibly Deep soon, don't worry.

Friday 2 October 2009

The death-throes of virtue

It seems that I'm really pretty much over the stress and horror of grad school generally and my dissertation specifically for I've just read AND enjoyed an epistolary novel. (My dissertation was all about letters, and previous attempts at reading epistolary fiction have inspired hyperventilation and self-loathing.) Woot, I say! The literary world is my figurative oyster again.

Choderlos de Laclos's Dangerous Liaisons was suggested to me by Amateur Reader when I lamented the lack of naughtiness in Abbe Prevost's Manon Lescaut, and Dangerous Liaisons certainly made up for the former's lack of promiscuity and cruelty. Laclos's novel focuses primarily on the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, their complicated relationship with one another, and their diabolical manipulations of their greener companions. There was Sex!, Intrigue!, and Death! and it was a damned good read.

Laclos was rather cagey about whether or not he believed Dangerous Liaisons ought to be an enjoyable read; he seemed clearer, however, that it should be an edifying read:
The usefulness of the work, which will be perhaps even more disputed, seems to me to be easier to establish. It seems to me at least that it is doing a service to society to unveil the strategies used by the immoral to corrupt the moral and I believe these letters will make an effective contribution to this end. (p. 6)
It's hard to know whether or not Laclos really intended this novel to inspire moral contemplation; after all, many other epistolary novelists of the 18th century made similar claims - so often, in fact, that these claims seems rather more calculated to create readerly goodwill, like the humility topos attached to so many works of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, than to actually function as reading instruction. Richardson's Pamela is supposed to be the pinnacle of epistolary moral didacticism, after all, but it's one of the kinkiest novels out there!

The thing about epistolary fiction is that it can make claims to represent reality in a way other, more distant, narrative forms cannot, for letters are meant to reveal the innermost workings of the characters, unfiltered through the lenses of either delicacy or censorship. And indeed, titillation ought to be a primary keyword in any search for Dangerous Liaisons. The Marquise de Merteuil, as sort of adopted older sister to the extremely naive Cecile, describes in a letter to the Vicomte how she "consoles" the 15 year old over one of her various adolescent heartbreaks:
You would not credit how beautiful she is in her grief! I guarantee that if she were trying to be charming she would often be in tears. This time it was not a ploy...At first I was very struck by this new allurement which I had not previously encountered and which I was very glad to observe, and I only offered consolation in a clumsy fashion, which made her feel worse rather than better. And thus I brought her to a point where she really did seem to be suffocating. She was no longer weeping, and for a moment I feared she might have convulsions. I advised her to go to bed and she acquiesced. I took on the role of lady's maid. She had not yet begun to dress and soon her fine hair fell down over her shoulders and bosom, which were entirely uncovered. I kissed her. She let herself go into my arms and her tears once more began to flow effortlessly. My God, how beautiful! Ah, if Magdalene was like that, she must have been much more dangerous as penitent than sinner!

When my grief-stricken beauty was in her bed I set myself to consoling her in good faith. I reassured her first of all on that subject of the convent. I instilled in her the hope of seeing Danceny secretly. 'If only he were here,' I said, sitting on the bed; then elaborating on that theme, I led her by one distraction or another to forget her suffering entirely. (p. 133)
Phew! Hot! Cecile is corrupted and dishevelled fairly easily (and frequently) at the adept hands of the Marquise and the Vicomte, who are using her as a pawn in an elaborate revenge scheme against others who've slighted them. The Vicomte is also responsible for the fall of Madame de Tourvel, a lady whom everyone rightly sees as the epitome of virtue. Madame de Tourvel's seduction is prolonged, cruel, and sexy in a degrading sort of way and titillation is even more so the primary keyword.

However, Laclos ultimately does fulfill his promise of making Dangerous Liaisons into a moral treatise as well as a novel, for the Marquise, the Vicomte, and Madame de Tourvel are all punished in ways that just scream DIVINE JUSTICE. Yet, for all the tidiness surrounding these characters' ends in the book, Cecile's and Danceny's positions (they being the original young, innocent lovers who their elders work so very hard to corrupt) are much more ambiguous. Cecile ends up in a convent but only because she chooses to and it's suggested that her motives are not religious. As well, Danceny, having killed someone (!!), is allowed to go unpunished because he does the delicate thing in making sure everyone's letters end up in the hands of someone who won't use them to cause more scandal. And yet, there's this novel...

This is what I find so fascinating about epistolary fiction - so often the moral work it claims to be intended to do is overwhelmed by the base and rather shabby pleasure it provides in offering a close look into the sordid details of humans rather more interesting and morally complicated than we generally are.