Thursday 30 December 2010

This is not a year-end round-up of my favourite 2010 reads

For better or for worse, I continue to stick to an annual listing of my favourite books only on the anniversary of the creation of this blog (sometime near the end of March) - so you'll have to wait till then. I have, however, been enjoying perusing others' lists.

Some of my 2010 favourites include Tony's - we have very similar tastes in books, so I feel inspired to check out the books on his list which I haven't read. Then, there's my friend Andrew's 14-year old son's list - when I was 14, I think I read as much as young Harry does but the most intelligent thing I was likely to say about the Stephen King books I tended to stay up all night reading is that they were either "awesome" or "gross" - or both. Finally, there is Rohan's year-end list of hits and misses - as always, I'm humbled by Rohan's enthusiasm and variety of tastes even if I can't wrap my head around her not loving Cloud Atlas; no one's perfect, I guess, not even brilliant Victorianists who write brilliant book blogs. ;)


2010 has been, for me, a unique, complicated, horrible, and amazing year. Some of this you'll know due to my many posts on the demise of our bookstore. After three months of post-disaster rest, I'm feeling almost entirely human again and will begin looking for work in January. There have been other difficulties and decisions too personal to discuss here but all of the ups and downs of this year, in their sheer persistence and volume, have made reading more difficult for me than it's ever been. I've abandoned a lot of books that I should without difficulty have been able to delve into and finish. Indeed, I've just officially abandoned Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black after only 50 pages - after finding both Wolf Hall and The Giant, O'Brien to be two of the best novels I've read not only this year, but perhaps in my entire reading career!

Luckily, I still have a number of Ellis Peters's Brother Cadfael chronicles to help me through the worst reading slumps, and this morning I completed the 12th - The Raven in the Foregate. It's not my favourite in the series, certainly, but it did what I knew it would - it allowed me to enter a familiar and favourite literary world and get my brain into a comfortable reading groove again.

Peters has made me so book-hungry again, in fact, that I'm already half-way through Ian MacEwan's On Chesil Beach, which as it's so short and I find it so compelling, I may find time to write about tomorrow; if not then, on Saturday.


I received a number of books for Festivus, but they were mostly cookbooks. Great cookbooks they look to be though:

Caribbean Vegan, Taymer Mason

I haven't made anything from this book yet but it has a recipe for macaroni pie, which is one of the best things I've ever heard of and desired to stuff my face with.

Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar, Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero

I've already made the pumpkin pie brownies from this one, and I have one thing to say: show-stopping number. Oh mah god! So decadent, so delicious, so fattening, so tooth-rotting, so perfect.

The authors of this also have a fantastic cupcake book. If you're not made at yourself, go get both books, now!

Kansha: Celebrating Japan's Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions, Elizabeth Andoh

This book both pleases and frightens me. The recipes look amazing but I don't recognize even half of the ingredients! 2011 is promising to be an exciting year for expanding my culinary repertoire.

I also got the short stories of J.G. Ballard which, as I've read Crash (one furtive afternoon in my alma mater library, I read it when I was getting paid to re-shelve books), fills me with no little trepidation either.


The only thing I'll say about my 2010 reading overall is that I'm sorry at how entirely my French Literature Project reading has been sidelined. I'd like to get that back on track, once I become disciplined enough to finish books that I don't adore from page 1. Perhaps Memoirs of Hadrian will be good practice; I really don't want to abandon that one entirely, too.God, I haven't even read Proust or Stendhal - I can't give up yet!


And here's a random link for your amusement: Palinode's Shakespeare quiz.

Saturday 25 December 2010

Now that's what I'm talkin' 'bout - almost

Dear Mr. Westerfeld,

Wherever you currently find yourself in the world, Happy Holidays. I hope you're enjoying time off with friends and family, as well as a liberal supply of festive bon-bons.

I want to thank you for making my December 25 almost perfect. After sleeping in late, making Brazilian French toast for brunch, and then taking a walk in the park with my hubby, I sat down with some double chocolate muffins, a warm blanky, a cat in a good mood, and your book, Leviathan.

I had a rollicking good time for several reasons: 1) I think you're a pretty gosh darn good writer. 2) This is a YA novel in which the two teen protagonists were made to say nothing dumb in that cliched teen sort of way which ultimately made The Knife of Never Letting Go and Ysabel, especially, so disappointing. 3) I think this book introduced me to steampunk in a more than theoretical way - and I think I am already in love with the steampunk.

Aside for people who are not Scott Westerfeld: Leviathan is set in Europe during the first World War, but with the difference that the central powers are what is known as Clankers - their warfare is based on highly developed machinery which mimics animal structures, i.e., their tanks are called walkers. The allies, on the other hand, are known as Darwinists - they have harnessed the kind of DNA-manipulation powers just being developed now and their war vehicles are all animals that have been spliced and mutated - so the great ship Leviathan is, in fact, mostly a whale that runs on helium gas. This info alone got me interested in reading this novel, and I'm happy to report that Westerfeld is very good at interweaving plot action and explication of the world he's created.

But, Scott, there's one important thing that kept my reading of Leviathan today from being entirely perfect: You have done the (for me) unforgivable and made the conclusion of the novel a cliff-hanger. Leviathan is not a complete novel at all, in fact; it is, rather, the first 440 pages of a novel I suspect will round out at approximately 1500 pages. I find this tactic incredibly lame. Dammit man, Leviathan is good enough that you didn't need to resort to this tired trick of daytime TV drama to get people to read your next book!

If your editor advised you to do this instead of making Leviathan a self-sustained entity, I would like to respectfully suggest that you punch him or her in the nose, fire him or her, and get someone with a little more faith in your ability to draw in readers for the next installment. If you did it of your own volition...well, maybe you should sit back and remember what it means to be a simple reader, and how fucking annoying the non-ending ending is. Also, I think steampunk fans would be more than happy for 1500 consecutive pages of really engaging steampunkiness.

That is all. I will read the next installments but know that I am irritated and disappointed. I really hope you will have remedied this problem by then.

All the best,

Friday 24 December 2010

All I want for Christmas is escapist fiction that isn't lame

Sigh. I'd been holding Miyuki Miyabe's detective-thriller Crossfire in reserve for at least a year, holding it ready for a time during which I would feel compelled to read something terrible, but terrible in a very entertaining way. Alas, in the end, this book irritated me in an increasingly distracting way with its plot holes the size of Lake Michigan. "Entertaining" is not my final word on this novel.

I'm game for vengeful folk who also happen to be able to set things on fire with their minds. I'm game for secret societies who take down vicious criminals who escape the weak clutches of the law. I'm also up for young people feeling lonely and full of ennui in modern Japan. Somehow, all these things, while promising at the beginning of Crossfire, somehow just didn't combine to form an entertaining product. Why? See above re: plot holes.

I won't give the plot holes away because the most shocking ones, the ones that made me want to tear my hair and gnash my teeth, were clustered primarily near the end of the book. I mean they were so damned obvious- Hang on. I'll be right back.


Ah, that's better: freshly baked double chocolate muffins. That makes everything better. So, as I was saying:

I was not in love with Crossfire and was mightily relieved when I finished it. Actually, there's not much more to say about it, without giving away an unconscionable amount of plot, except this: I recently recommended this book to a friend's mother, even though I hadn't read it yet, based on the fact that I quite enjoyed All She Was Worth. How can I ever face her again? I've been considering writing her an email full of abject self-loathing and loud apology in the hopes she'll forgive me - or at least not read the damned thing at all if she hasn't already.

I think I need another double chocolate muffin now. Happy Holidays, friends. May your evenings and days always be filled with double chocolate muffins and books better than Miyuki Miyabe's Crossfire.

Sunday 19 December 2010

You gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em

I've been thinking a lot about Rohan's post late last week about reading well and the result has been that I've put down Middlemarch, which I boldly began just a few days ago. I began Eliot's most famous novel after becoming increasingly irritated and bored by Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian.

I think Wolf Hall has ruined me for fictionalized biography of historical figures. Yourcenar decided to structure her novel as an epistle penned by Hadrian and addressed to his heir, a choice which I felt held a great deal of possibility for the kind of subtle and minute, yet utterly irresistible, explication of character firmly tied to historical context which characterizes Wolf Hall and which has made it one of my favourite books, period.

Memoirs of Hadrian, however, primarily comprises long and rather dusty lists of Hadrian's accomplishments, interspersed with compellingly unsettling meditations on politics, life, family, war, etc delivered in shockingly gorgeous writing. If the latter outweighed the former - hell, if the latter and the former were going 50-50 on the book - I don't think I'd have ever considered not finishing it. As it is, I'm not sure what I'll do with it but because it's the sort of book that can be picked up after a lengthy bit of time without anything being lost (it is a story that has no momentum whatsoever), it's possible I'll pick it up again. I've passed the 100-page mark with it; it would be a shame to let it go completely.

Having only gotten to page 50 with Middlemarch, however, the decision to lay it aside was a much easier choice. I am an unabashed fan-girl of George Eliot, but even before I read Rohan's post, I already knew I couldn't give it the attention and care it deserves. Reading that post - and re-reading the posts I did on Romola, and which Rohan so graciously linked to - clinched it. Not only does Eliot deserve better - she deserves everything I've got, and more - but I also know I am generally capable of much more than I seem to be capable of right now. And so, I've moved on to the readable (in spite of phrases such as "She had the mouth of an underfed rabbit") and plot-drenched mystery novel Crossfire, by Miyuki Miyabe.

What's wrong with me? Well, nothing, really. I can identify two things that might explain the fact that I currently don't feel like reading anything very heavily literary. When I was laid low with that horrible flu or whatever it was, I found myself both out of caffeinated beverages at home and unable to leave the house to go get more. I endured an enforced, but much less unpleasant than it could have been, detox from coffee and other lesser caffeinated drinks of extreme deliciousness. So, having already gone through detox, when I became well enough to leave the house I decided not to immediately re-addict myself to the noble bean, even though my friend Jason has rightly assured me that I'll be back. The point is, while I don't have a caffeine deprivation headache, I still feel some residual fuzziness associated with removing an important column in the support of my brain function.

The other thing is, after months of just plain burn-out, I'm starting to feel like very few 35-year-olds are likely to feel - I feel, as I am currently an unemployed waster and have been since the end of September, like I'm a kid on summer vacation. And the best thing about summer vacation is the horizon-less vista of fun and silly book-reading that is also often practiced in tandem with staying up very late with well-thumbed mass market paperbacks, getting 15 books from one trip to the library, and eating delicious sugary things while reclining in decidedly un-ergonomic positions. (I'm actually too old for the spindly-spine sprawl of the 15-year-old I once was; I, in fact, sit very correctly both for present comfort and to ensure that I have a long reading life ahead of me; but you take my point.)

I know you're likely sick of me posting on why I'm not rocking Bookphilia like a hurricane of pure awesomeness, and the fact is so am I. It's also true that I've finally decided to stop worrying about it; I know, I'm such a bloody drama queen. Summer vacation is not about worrying. It's about eating chips and reading fun things and sometimes making fun of them and sometimes enjoying them, and sometimes both. So, unless I'm struck by inspiration from a divinity whose existence I mostly doubt, expect a hopefully not entirely unreadable combination of laziness and silliness here for the foreseeable future. And enjoy your holiday reading too, my friends.

Wednesday 15 December 2010

Bookphilia's triumphant return from Pervertville, or, Anthony Trollope gets called out

I just got home from my trip to Pervertville. This is the first trip I've taken in living memory during which I bought myself no books. I'm still surprised about this, even given my squeamishness as described in my previous post. The trip was very relaxing and enjoyable in every other way and it was while there that I finally completely recovered from my prolonged winter malady - triumph. Also, I began reading Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian on the train home, a book which I've been carrying around and not reading for years, and it is a damned fine novel. TRIUMPH!

Yesterday, I finished reading Anthony Trollope's The Eustace Diamonds, the third novel in his series about the Pallisers. I enjoyed it - but not as much as the first two books in the series - and I didn't enjoy Volume 2 nearly as much as I enjoyed Volume 1. I really admired Volume 1 for the patience with which Trollope explicated the complexities of the novel's villainous and fatally selfish hero, Lizzie Eustace. I was pleased that he was taking the time to do so, because villains are so often 2-dimensional cliches of badness and madness.

But Volume 2 didn't live up to the promise of its predecessor. The explication of Lizzie's character came to a rather screeching halt; both her dialogue and what the narrator said of her became extremely repetitious and therefore rather dull at points. As well, the fact that this novel first appeared in serial form in the Fortnightly Review was only too obvious - for plot details of import were repeated every two chapters or so in fairly obvious and uninteresting ways.

Plot spoiler of sorts!
AND, which I find most problematic about the novel - Frank Greystock is never made to account to anyone, human or divine, for his cruelty to Lucy Morris, because he makes things right in the end. I am as surprised as you are by my moral outrage about this but Trollope took so much time setting up Frank's weakness of character in the face of Lizzie's dubious charms that it seems either rushed or lazy (in any case, frankly outrageous) that he wouldn't also take the time to describe the consequences - or say anything at all about why there weren't any. That Lucy slavishly adores Frank is true - but this fact didn't read like a sufficient reason for Trollope's silence on this. Here's hoping book 4 in the series (Phineas Redux, I believe) is more even in terms of quality!

Sunday 12 December 2010

In which Bookphilia's sexual hangups get in the way of her buying herself more books (SFW)

Just a short note - I am pretty much over my nasty winter illness and am out of town visiting a friend. I am laying around eating delicious things such as 70% dark chocolate flavoured with mint shards, garlic mashed potatoes, and fatkes with apple sauce. I am snug and comfortable and deep into Anthony Trollope's The Eustace Diamonds. We watched The Wrestler and were sad because it was really good; we watched a recent episode of Bones and were sad because it was a shit storm of embarrassing awfulness. And I'm not buying books.

I also attended a very enjoyable party last night, peopled by my favourite kind of people - funny and mean people.  One person offhandedly revealed that she lives near the owner of one of the bookstores I like here and that she sees him - frequently - going in and out of the seedy adult video store on their street. This is what you get for being internet-averse - people can too easily discover that you're a perv and/or not getting laid. This knowledge makes my skin crawl and I never want to go to this shop again. Am I too prissy to live or what? I know. But there it is.

I like my booksellers mean, abrupt, rude, smelly, flakey, obsessed with conspiracy theories or the British royal family, given to pissing on the legs of customers who say how much they like The Secret, or even illiterate - but pervy? I cannae bear it. Sigh.

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Sickbed reading round-up

Friends, I am so damned sick! I have been mostly housebound for almost a week and am reading tonnes but don't have the brain or stamina to write full reviews of what's gone by. Welcome the hopefully brief return of the mini-review! I'm eating some restorative chickpea noodle soup as I write this.

The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa

This novel is So. Damned. Good. I am tremendously sad that this is the only thing di Lampedusa wrote, because I think he may have been a genius. Also, his translator (Archibald Colquhoun) is/was a genius - this English version read more smoothly than probably any other translation I can remember encountering; I kept forgetting that I was reading a translation. Loved it, loved it, loved it.

Also, I believe that in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell re-wrote a key scene from The Leopard - I immediately thought of Jacob's death scene when I read the Leopard's. No one can do literary homage (and kill their teacher dead) like David Mitchell can.

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

Thank goodness Dorothy Sayers didn't die young, for it means there are more books and I have much to look forward to. Gaudy Night is also So. Damned. Good. It's one of the best books I've read this year. It made think I made a wrong turn in life by not reading mysteries almost exclusively, like my friend Sarah does. But then, they can't all be this good, they just can't.

Reading Gaudy Night also made me wish I'd been born in England, at the beginning of the last century, so that I could have been a lady scholar at the lady's college at Oxford. I would have rowed, and scholared, and been unbelievably dry and witty, and maybe also have solved mysteries alongside extremely hot, rich British types like Lord Peter Wimsey.

The only bad news: this edition, published by New English Library, is filled with a shocking number of ridiculous typos. Avoid this publisher!

An Excellent Mystery by Ellis Peters.

During the worst part of this wretched winter affliction, I had to go back to my reading equivalent of a favourite blanket - Brother Cadfael. An Excellent Mystery is the 11th of Ellis Peters's medieval whodunnits and it was as lovely and satisfying as the previous ten have been.

AND, I solved the mystery, which I very rarely do, and very early on to boot. This didn't detract from my enjoyment of the book at all; indeed, it increased it, because I knew what was at stake! I was on edge a lot, and also, as always, surprised and humbled by how humane and good Peters's characters are. Really, no author I've come across has made nice characters so interesting. Love!

The Ghost Road by Pat Barker

The third installment in the Regeneration trilogy, The Ghost Road didn't really satisfy. The writing is very good, of course. But two things bugged me: 1) Dr. Rivers's flashbacks to his time as a missionary doctor in the South Seas just didn't make for good reading - and also didn't comment so profoundly on Europe's false sense of itself as civilized as I think Barker imagines it did.

2) Wilfred Owen was totally wasted in this one, being present only, it seems, to forebode Billy Prior's death a week before the end of the war. I thought making Siegfried Sassoon a major character in the first book was both gutsy and well done; he had life and energy which both added to and supported what is known about him. Owen in The Ghost Road was less than two-dimensional. Disappointing.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

I really didn't like this book. It had some good moments and the writing was fine but if I were hell-bent on winning the Booker, I'd try to write a book like this. It's witty and gritty and it tells the "truth" about how shitty it is to be poor in India. It also blames poor brown people for keeping poor brown people down. Or, at least, the narrator does; I have no idea what Adiga thinks, but I'm not sure he's a good enough writer (yet?) to make distinctions between author and narrator clear in a first-person narrative.

I do know that I found The White Tiger profoundly irritating and not a good enough read for me to quibble less about its seemingly problematic politics. Thankfully, it was short. And I borrowed it from the library. And I have a public blog which my family and friends read, so they'll not buy me anything else by this guy.

Wednesday 1 December 2010

Bluebeard in Japan

I have written a thing about Yoko Ogawa's Hotel Iris. It took me months, off and on, for I began it during the disintegration of our bookstore. It is here at Open Letters Monthly. It was very difficult to finish this piece on Hotel Iris for it became quite painfully associated with all that bookstore stress. (I still have bookstore nightmares every once in a while; I had one last night, in fact.)

The same thing has happened to Charles Dickens's Little Dorrit, which I was halfway through before I had to put it down out of a fatal combination of fatigue and irritation; I don't think I can pick it up again.When I think about delving back into Little Dorrit, I feel a great deal of anxiety as well as a deep desire to punch each member of that entire family dead in the face. So, I think I need to find a nicer way back into the Victorians and just let it go.

If I seem quite glum this week, I am, but I'm sure it won't last. I'm reading a fantastically good book (Gaudy Night) and have some other fantastically good stuff I have completed (Giuseppe di Lampedusa's The Leopard; the "The Country" section of William Faulkner's Collected Stories) and want to write about.

In the meantime, perhaps I should go back to Te Aro for another beautiful coffee...

Monday 29 November 2010

Instead of one of two belated book reviews...

....I present you with a coffee dragon, made for me today at a lovely indie coffee shop here in Toronto called Te Aro.

This is, by far, the highlight of the past week, or even month. Okay, maybe year. It's been a tough one. I'm still struggling. But this made me grin like a gorm for a few moments today, in the best possible way. I take solace in small things.

Thursday 25 November 2010

Got plans this evening?

Hey friends, if you like YA fiction featuring girl spies in Victorian London, you should come to Type Books at 883 Queen St. West in Toronto tonight. Author Y.S. Lee will be reading from The Agency: The Body at the Tower from 7-8:30 pm.

I finished reading The Body at the Tower a few days ago, and thought it was even more of a rollicking good read than the first book in the trilogy, A Spy in the House. Like the first, Lee's second installment in this series features a mystery to be solved, novice spy Mary Quinn skulking about trying to solve it and generally being a bit awkward, and Mary also being alternately distracted and assisted by the dangerously attractive James Easton (attractive in spite of especially because he's recently acquired that brink of death look).

Lee is a Victorianist and this book is uber-Victorian in its creation of atmosphere; the story, however, is positively Shakespearean in its playful approach to girls dressing up as boys - the very best kind of sexiness and hi jinx ensue. I'm really looking forward to the third installment in the series!

FYI: I know Ying, from the grad school, but neither she nor her publisher gifted me this book for review. I bought it and read it just because I felt like it.

I wish I could say I enjoyed Ihara Saikaku's Comrade Loves of the Samurai half as much as I did The Body at the Tower. Like Five Women Who Loved Love, this is a collection of short stories connected by a common theme - in this case, how awesome manly man on man love is. The stories were okay, but ultimately indistinguishable. Part of the problem is that Saikaku was perhaps a little overly repetitive, but I think the translator, E. Powys Mathers, was a bit of a disaster too.

Comrade Loves of the Samurai is just so damned clunky; the Songs of the Geisha Mathers appended is even worse. Translating poetry is always risky, and I have to say that in this case, I don't think Mathers was up to the job. I read all of the songs in this section, but I remember none except those that made me cringe; I won't quote them here.

Ihara Saikaku will not be having a reading tonight at Type Books because he died in 1693. He also didn't send me a review copy of his book, for the same reason.

Tuesday 23 November 2010

Curious/Creepy: not a banner day for high lit on the TTC

I should actually be reviewing one or both of the two books I recently finished, but I don't feel at all review-ish today. I did, however, feel sufficiently skulky to change my seat on the subway train 5 times this afternoon in order to bring you this long overdue installment of everybody's favourite bloggish equivalent of their icky Uncle Arty: Curious/Creepy!

Things began very promisingly with the unexpected presentation by a young Whore of Mensa reading Antoine Berman's The Experience of the Foreign: Culture and Translation in Romantic Germany. I rarely see such dense academic offerings on display, in spite of the fact that I very often see students and very often pass by the stops which lead inexorably to the University of Toronto campus.

Besides admiring the reader's glasses and blunt cut hair, I fearfully noted that she was reading this dust-filled tome without a writing implement for taking notes. Does she have a photographic memory? If so, she will have to be destroyed; if one doesn't use photographic memory for quickly absorbing the complete works of either William Shakespeare or Kilgour Trout then one is casting pearls before swine. And we all know there'll be trouble when the dead metaphors start flying.

Next came Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, the only book in today's catch that I've actually read. Mind, I read it a very, very long time ago, and remember nothing about it except perhaps that the protagonist loses his dangly bits in the war. Perhaps that's a different Hemingway book; I believe I've read at least two. Or maybe that was one of my great uncles, who shall remain nameless. OR, perhaps Hemingway wrote a prophetic roman à clef about my poor uncle, just 30 or so years before the family name died the death on the mud fields of France. In any case, I suspect that Uncle is more famous and central to literary history than anyone has hitherto imagined.

Strangely, I completely failed to notice who was reading this book; I didn't even register if they were male or female! Such a failure to curiously creepify is surely a sign of the rotting fear that was developing in my entrails, resulting from the fact that I'd just purchased a copy of James Joyce's Ulysses. This is what comes of playing used bookstore roulette: I vowed, as I walked into the lovely Eliot's Bookshop on Yonge St. today that if they had a copy of Ulysses that was 1) annotated; 2) had a nice, readable font; 3) was affordable; and 4) had no previous reader's notes written in it, that I would buy it and actually READ it. This nefarious semi-colon laden thought appeared so suddenly and irresistibly in my brain that I can only conclude that the Devil hisself put it there. However, a bargain is a bargain and I mun read it. Someday.

And, yes, for the eleventy-thousandth time, I saw someone reading Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. This time, with this lurid cover, which is better than those yellow and green ones I see everywhere. That said, it boggles the mind that a book in which shopping trips to IKEA figure prominently at all can be so popular.

No, I haven't read it. A friend of mine who is mad enough at herself to read Robin Cook novels on purpose also read at least one of these Larsson books and informed me of the post-murder scene-discovery IKEA shopping trip in the second or third one. It's not because of the IKEA product plugs that I haven't read these books, however; and in spite of my snobbishness, it's not entirely, or even mostly, because they're so popular.

It's because of the 10,000 people who came breathlessly into my bookshop asking for it and telling me how good it was, none could ever actually tell me anything about why they thought it was good. They couldn't say anything, generally, except that it was "totally awesome", and in spite of my choice of paraphrase here, I'm not suggesting that the majority of people were in their tweenties (tweens + teens + twenties, natch). This inability to come up with anything so complex as "plot" or "good writing" made me distrust the Larsson implicitly.

Another book I espied today and will never read except on pain of death or gruesome bloody torture was Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol. The large, Teutonic, coke-bottle bespectaclled fellow reading this book was reading this book in hardcover. Reading a book in hardcover long after it's become available in a lovely trade paperback or a manageably sized mass market paperback means one of three things: 1) It was acquired when it was first released, but then allowed to gather dust as the reader's guilt increased; 2) It was gifted to the reader, and they're now reading it out of guilt of a different sort; 3) They got it for $4 on the remainder table.

Ah, the remainder table. I used to buy tonnes of hardcovers that way, books that I wouldn't otherwise pick up. I've read a lot of shit. Not that being remaindered says anything about quality, for things seem to get remaindered these days approximately three days after they're released. Rather, it is, I've realized, bad form to bother with any book that I'm not sufficiently interested in to pay more than remaindered prices for.

Of course, there's no way to know what the case was with the friendly giant reading this book; but I must say, he didn't look like he was having the time of his life.

Then there was Michael Crichton's Pirate Latitudes, being read by a middle-aged balding fellow looking rather knackered after a long day at work. This was Crichton's last completed novel. If Crichton is an author whose importance equals either V.C. Andrews's or Robert Jordan's, I'm sure he will continue to write from beyond the grave. His name will be copyrighted and become a brand. That it ever attached to a real person will fade from cultural memory.

Unless of course he's been cloned. In which case, I hope 2Michael will finally get on to writing about zombies, because pirates and dinosaurs are alright but they don't eat your face. Actually, dinosaurs will eat your face, but even when Jurassic Park (the movie) came out, it seemed kind of outdated. And besides, now that The Oatmeal has covered dinosaurs (NSWF), there's really nothing to do but let them go, for there's naught left worth saying about them.

Then, because the train today was a bookish labyrinth, I also saw Secret Daughter, by Shilipi Somaya Gowda. Secret Daughter is probably a luminous novel penned in elegant and sparse prose; a tale of generations; a tale of love, loss, faith, and hope; it is will make suburban feminists' hearts beat in sympathetic rage for oppressed brown women really far away, but this sympathy will be interrupted by their need to roar at their Philipino nannies to get off the goddamn phone because little Johnny has pooed his Ralph Lauren corduroys again and is smearing it on the wall; it will be an Oprah's book club pick; it will be a book club favourite throughout North America; it will be extremely popular until the next thing just like it comes along and then used booksellers won't be able to give it away.

Before you set my house on fire and hang me by my thumbs from the tallest oak in the village, let me clarify: whatever lazy bastard created the cover for this book has ensured that it is doomed to die the lame-ass life and death described above. Good lord, how many books have I seen with just such a cover with just the same set of flaky suggestions? Secret Daughter may very well be the best book ever written but no one will ever know because the publisher didn't give a shit about marketing it to anyone but middle-class, 30- and 40-something ladies with a little too much time on their hands and a good dose of glamourous moral outrage to share.

And then! there was James Patterson's Cat & Mouse. I actually wouldn't have noticed this book at all except that I couldn't help but notice the reader. She was smallish, and had very large eyes which were rolling about in her head a great deal and staring at other passengers. Her staring alternated between expressing anxiety, terror, and rabid accusation (of what, I don't know). I know, I know - I'm anthropomorphizing! But I'm sure that's what was going on in the lines and twitches of her very active face.

What I like about this cover is that, contrary to expectation, the title of the book is much larger than the author's name. Patterson belongs to a whole class of authors (or their publishers and lame-ass marketers!) who rely on the name/brand rather than the book itself to sell the thing. (See the Michael Crichton novel cover above.) I think what Patterson needs to have done in this book, if he really expects to win the Pulitzer next year, is to inject the speed into our sleepy expectations and have a zombie-mouse pursuing an extremely fat and trusting house cat, like my cat Jeoffy.

And FINALLY, A Memoir According to Kathy Griffin. The last time I saw Kathy Griffin on TV, she was about to get a whole busload of scary plastic surgery done. As I recall, it involved cutting out large parts of her arms and bum and legs and stomach and face. She was uncritically going on and on and on about how you need to do this cutty-cutty thing to make it in Hollywood.

Maybe I'm missing something, but isn't she still an F-list celebrity? I thought the whole point of being hilarious is that you didn't have to be beautiful. Indeed, as Brad Pitt knows very well, being beautiful is a positive hindrance to being funny - that is, until you become rich enough not only to produce the kinds of movies you really want to do (funny ones), but also to buy the rights to the word "movie". And adopt entire nations as appropriate. And make out with the world's most naturally beautiful but too thin crazy woman. See, he didn't need plastic surgery to get all this, Kathy! He just had to be...Brad Pitt. Right, never mind.

Friday 19 November 2010

The author for whom we dance

I'd been planning to dig into David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet when I ventured down east for a family visit in December. I'd been waiting because I like to ration Mitchell's new stuff out, though I'm rarely able to do so for long; also, I kept hearing that it wasn't as good as his previous novels and that frightened me a little.

Last week, I became entirely unable to wait any longer, partly because I suddenly dismissed all the doubters' warnings, wondering to myself how many who were disappointed with this new novel have read only Cloud Atlas? The narrative and structural pyrotechnics of Cloud Atlas make it stand apart from almost everything else going, and rightly so. But one of the many things that makes Mitchell a genius, and probably the English-speaking world's greatest living author, is that not only does it make no sense to compare him to other writers - he can't even be compared to himself! Every book is too radically different from the last for such comparisons to make sense. The only thing one can really say is, as my friend Vee did the other day: Even if a David Mitchell book isn't the best David Mitchell book, it's still better than everything else.

Cloud Atlas is the high literary equivalent of explosions and jazz hands; The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a quiet, subtle study of longing and desire with some spooky fantasy thrown in for good measure. It's a romance that defies everything that romance does, while still containing echoes of Romeo and Juliet, of all things! Well, perhaps I shouldn't use that surprised exclamation point - Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy in large part because its lovers are so stupidly, adolescently naive. Jacob is similarly afflicted with the great heaving sighs of the young at the beginning of his tale but experience quickly teaches him that there are boundaries between individuals that really cannot be crossed. Not just that the price to be paid trying to do so will be death; but that there is really no way over.

I don't claim that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is perfect; it probably isn't, but I personally can't say how. I know that there are sections of it that I liked better than others; I am not as fond of the space devoted to Captain Penhaligon as I am of the rest of the novel. Cloud Atlas, I believe to be perfect - not perfect in the fun but ultimately rather sterile way Tom Jones is, but in that way literature should be - it exceeds and defies all expectations and is ridiculously gorgeously written to boot. In this way, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is also perfect, or very close, in my opinion. Every move Mitchell made in this novel surprised me, but it always worked. And I have an extremely annoying inability to be surprised by books much anymore, so this is saying something. And the writing...if I were given to keeping a commonplace book of beautiful quotations, which I am not, because that is much too Victorian, it would be half-filled just with lines from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

Yes, this post was the bloggish equivalent of a shrieking fangirl shrieking a lot. I never claimed to be impartial about David Mitchell. Which author(s) are you unable to be impartial about?

Thursday 11 November 2010

William Gibson created the word "cyberspace"; I would like to add "future-sciencey" to the lexicon

William Gibson, like all the best Sci-Fi writers, was (is? I don't know; I've read only this one book, his first) a visionary. Neuromancer, written in 1983 and published in 1984, imagines a world that was crazy and future-sciencey then and is pretty damned familiar in lots of ways now, but still also compellingly future-sciencey.

Our strung out hero is Case, a cowboy of the new frontier in what Gibson coined "cyberspace". Yes, Gibson is the author that created that word that's nestled so comfortably into modern English parlance. Cyberspace is a vast, abstract plain in which information can be manipulated and contained, infected with a virus or used like one, and perhaps gain its own sense of itself. Gibson may be the first author to fully imagine this brave new world of the internet, its vulnerabilities and potential for attack, and artificial intelligence, and it continues to be born around and through us now.

Or, a little practical perspective on how creatively and prophetically forward-thinking Gibson was when he wrote Neuromancer. Gibson wrote Neuromancer in 1983, when I was 8 years old; I didn't get my first email account until I was 18 - 10 years later. And I certainly didn't try to resist the unstoppable introduction of the interwebs into my life; I got an email account pretty much the second I heard about such things - which was, for me, first-year university. It was all text-based at my undergraduate institution - until 1999, when I completed my MA.

I draw this time line only to point out how quickly the technology is changing and improving. And to remind my husband that while the internet as it currently stands does kind of suck (as he recently proclaimed), it's because as a culture we're now comfortable imagining how awesome it can and should be, and we're impatient that it's not there yet. We're living that frontier life every day, where the computer nerds are hackers and the limits are only our brilliant and sick imaginations.

You'll indulge my enthusiasm here (something which I am often simply too cool for); but Neuromancer embodies everything I think Sci-Fi should be - gutsy, out there, and committed to a future that's infinitely more interesting than the present, if not nearly as safe. You may have noticed that I don't actually read very much Sci-Fi at all, however. The fact is, I'm afraid to - because of Neal Stephenson (awesome), and this crazy book I read as a kid and can't recall the name of (it involved someone tearing their information pack out of the skin on their back) but which still haunts me, and plenty of terrible Sci-Fi films.

All these things make me afraid of bad Sci-Fi and because I've read so little Sci-Fi at all, I have no idea what's good. Well, Gibson's really good. The story is kick ass but the guy can actually really write too, and that makes Neuromancer solid gold. I've also been told by one of my favourite nerds in the know to read Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon, and my husband is currently being bedazzled by China Mieville's The Scar. So, there are some books to look forward to, including the two sequels to Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive.

Slight Tangent
But to continue the Gibson-Mitchell struggle for my deepest devotion, I've begun The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. There couldn't be two more different books...but that's the way I like it, this flipping between radically different worlds. Indeed, this is something I've always known about myself but it somehow just occurred to me today that it's an important part of why I think Cloud Atlas is one of the best novels ever written, and why it's my clear favourite (I never had a clear favourite before I read Cloud Atlas, just a fairly malleable top 5). Because it is simultaneously unified and shockingly diversified - unlike any other novel, it leaves me completely satisfied.

Goddamn, I love to read.

Tuesday 9 November 2010

Well worth the wait

Since I began, in my modest and generally paperback way, collecting Japanese literature in translation, I've been looking for something, anything by Osamu Dazai. It's been years, my friends. I could have ordered some things online and would have done so eventually, but the satisfaction of the good find in a local shop is so profound that I kept putting it off - I have lots of other things to read in the meantime, after all.

A few weeks ago, however, the miracle happened. There, at the lovely She Said Boom! on College St. (which has been getting a great deal of my money lately), was this delicious Dazai morsel. And not only was it there, affordable, and in good shape, not long before this find I'd realized that my love of the short story had miraculously returned, after years of internal anti-Henry James backlash.

Dazai is considered one of the best, most important Japanese authors of the 20th century, and I can see why. This book was just so perfect and lovely. Especially compelling were the opening and concluding stories, "On Love and Beauty" and "Lanterns of Romance", which deal with the same set of characters - a family comprising five siblings who like to wile away dull Sunday afternoons and holidays constructing stories together.

"On Love and Beauty" is one of Dazai's earlier pieces, and much less sophisticated than its later counterpart. Dazai himself was not entirely pleased with it, but also felt a real attachment to these unique characters:
All the members of the family of the famous painter Irie Shinnosuke, who passed away some eight years ago, seem a bit on the eccentric side. This is not to say that the family is abnormal; it's possible that their way of life is as it should be and that the rest of us are the abnormal ones, but, at any rate, the atmosphere of the Irie home is definitely somewhat different from most. It was this atmosphere that suggested to me the idea for "On Love and Beauty," a short story I wrote quite some time ago.

The story opened with a description of the five Irie brothers and sisters and went on to sketch a certain insignificant little incident, It was a naive, sentimental, and trivial work, to be sure, but one that I nonetheless remain quite fond of, though I must admit that my affection is not so much for the story itself as for the family described therein. I loved that family. ("Lanterns of Romance", p. 135)
In "On Love and Beauty" it is the family and their alternately exasperating and amusing failure to create a cohesive story that is so enjoyable. Theirs really is a terrible tale, and Dazai's overarching story is rather more clever than engaging. In "Lanterns of Romance", however, not only are the characters more completely and therefore compellingly drawn, but their story is just ridiculously good and not in spite of each sibling's often wildly different approaches, but because of them. A wild and unique re-imagining of "Rapunzel", the Irie siblings create a pastiche that incorporates elements of fairy tale, romance, Romance, feminist critique, and a pedagogical lecture on filial and marital duty - and it really works. And it doesn't just work, it's probably the best version of "Rapunzel" going, for it manages to clunkily highlight all of the original's plot holes and then smoothly amend them. And, of course, all of this to show the curious way in which the Irie family members express their mutual affection for one another by competing in the telling of group stories.

And because I enjoyed Blue Bamboo: Tales of Fantasy and Romance (and Eliot's Scenes of Clerical Life) so much, I've not only re-immersed myself in my Wodehouse/Jeeves short fiction collection, but I've also purchased that 900-page bruiser, the Collected Stories of William Faulkner - and am 60 pages happily into that as well.

Wednesday 3 November 2010

More catching up; new fall fashion

Four more books to get caught up on!

1) Mort, Terry Pratchett.

The fourth book in the Discworld series is about a gormless young would-be scholar (the cleverly named Mort) who, because he is made almost entirely of elbows and knees, can't seem to find an apprenticeship - except with DEATH. Hi jinx and kittens and myriad shades of black and the kitchens of greasy spoons ensue. This has all the elements of silly hilarity and somehow isn't hilarious. Pratchett, I just don't understand why your humour isn't working for me. I will keep trying.

2) Scoop, Evelyn Waugh.

Another gormless protagonist, this time one who desires only to remain in his comfy house in the country and write a column about Nature. While not apprenticed to DEATH, William Boot does go through hell after mistakenly becoming the foreign correspondent for a dripping London tabloid. He is sent to Ishmaelia to cover the coup that is apparently about to begin. Hi jinx, attractive German women, portable Christmas dinners, and a great deal of casual racism ensue. Much better than Vile Bodies, which I loathed, and certainly well-written, but altogether not Wodehousian enough for me.

3) Scenes of Clerical Life, George Eliot.

George Eliot's first book is not, I think, often taught in 19th-century lit classes or even in George Eliot seminars. It is not ranked up there with Middlemarch. In his introduction to the 1973 Penguin Classics edition of the book, David Lodge bloody well almost apologizes for its existence, beginning with this marketing fail: "Scenes of Clerical Life is not a title likely to set the pulse of a modern reader racing with anticipation" (p. 7).

Well, dummy, you're not helping. And besides, why should increased heart-rate be part of the measure of a good book anyway? Damn your fashionable eyes, Lodge. Scenes of Clerical Life contains the important elements present in all of Eliot's brilliant work: primarily, excellent writing, and her unique combination of ruthlessness and almost infinite compassion when exposing her characters' flaws, weaknesses, and cruelties. This is not as good as Silas Marner or The Mill on the Floss, maybe, but it's all relative - it seems clear to me that George Eliot sprang out the God's forehead fully formed.

4) Armadillo, William Boyd.

I really enjoyed Armadillo, even if it was maybe a bit pretentious and copped out with the whole "Oh, is this real, or is it a dream, WHAT THE HELL is it? non-ending" ending that is so annoying. But before said non-ending, the writing was very good, the scenes compelling, the characters convincing enough. Pinky rings, kilts, hairy bums, infidelity, 3,000 year-old masks, intrigue, unrequited love, and head wounds ensued. Most importantly, Boyd managed to make the ins and outs of the insurance business utterly fascinating. No matter what other faults this book might have, this alone makes it clear that the man is a genius. Looking forward to reading Restless at some point, which everyone (and by everyone I mean Ying) says is even better.

So, now I'm all caught up, and I'm hoping (but not promising) that all the books I read from here on in will get posts of their very own.

So, what do you think of Bookphilia's new look? It seemed overdue for a change. And I've been waiting a long time to use that illuminate MS. pic with the horse kicking the lion in the head.

Sunday 31 October 2010

A brief study of the Early Modern Emo

The story of how I got to read this book when I did is, for me, much more interesting than the book itself.

Several weeks ago, one of my dearest friends informed me that I must read Robin Cook's Crisis for it was, in her estimation, one of the worst books ever written. Sarah characterized it something like this: "Crisis reads like it was written by a semi-literate mental case, in another language, and then it was translated into English by a machine." I wondered why she finished it? Because, she said, it was so bad, that it made her laugh out loud, in joyous disbelief, multiple times. She pressed it upon me, and I took it, but only after she read aloud some of its choicest passages of pure shittitude and I, too, laughed uproarously.

Well, without Sarah to read this twice-cursed pile of pants aloud to me, it was doomed. But before I even tried to read Crisis, I was imagining stealing Raych's Horrible Dare Challenge idea and turning it into a book club for me and my friends. Sarah and I discussed it, and wondered how we'd be able to find anything as shockingly back as Crisis. Soon after, I picked up a copy of Flowers in the Attic and knew it wouldn't be difficult at all. Behold the first 1.5 paragraphs of Flowers in the Attic, which is a book about child abuse (bad!) and incest (good? Gah!):
It is so appropriate  to color hope yellow, like that sun we seldom saw. And as I begin to copy from the old memorandum journals that I kept for so long, a title comes as if inspired. Open the Window and Stand in the Sunshine. Yet, I hesitate to name our story that. For I think of us more as flowers in the attic. Paper flowers. Born so brightly colored, and fading duller through all those long, grim, dreary, nightmarish days when we were held prisoners of hope, and kept captives by greed. But, we were never to color even one of our paper blossoms yellow.

Charles Dickens would often start his novels with the birth of the protagonist and, being a favorite author of both mine and Chris's, I would duplicate his style - if I could. But he was a genius born to write without difficulty while I find every word I put down, I put down with tears, with bitter blood, with sour gall, well mixed and blended with shame and guilt. 
Aaahhh, aaah! The horror of this novel's writing was something I could get behind; its salaciousness, luridness, hideousness, and repetitive use of melodramatic and mixed metaphors could be great good fun. I read it when I was 12, and remember very clearly all the brother-sister make-out sessions. So, in preparation for this future book club of barfiness, I began reading Crisis on the subway one day. I got about 15 pages in when, in pure rage, I got off the subway, tossed the book violently into a trashcan, and went to a nearby shop to find myself something better to read. I picked André Gide's The Immoralist because the writing seemed good, it was short, and the font was large. All good reasons, really.

The Immoralist was immeasurably better to read than either Crisis or Flowers in the Attic. Of course it was. But while both the writing and translating were very, very good, and I could certainly write a very fine undergraduate essay about the narrator's suppressed and racially problematic homoerotic inclinations, I didn't enjoy it much. You see, I'm beginning to detect a trend in the French literature that I'm not pleased with.

The narrators of too many of the books I've already read for the French literature project - and I have at least 20 more planned for!! - are all some version of the same whinging, self-centred little bastard who thinks very intensely about (if not also highly of) himself, but not very much or very nicely of others, particularly women. The main characteristics of what I shall henceforth refer to as the Early Modern Emo are masturbatory navel-gazing, Profound Ennui, a fairly deeply felt but shallowly executed commitment to what is Authentic and Real (ill defined, of course), and careless abuse of those who truly (and inexplicably) care about him. As far as I can tell, the only French author talented enough to make this compelling was Balzac.

Reading about a gold-plated asshole is interesting once, maybe even twice depending on who the author is, but as a literary sub-tradition? Bah, it's tiresome and dulls quickly. When I next delve into the French lit, I clearly need to try something either hilarious or written before the year 1700, ideally both; otherwise, I may kick my self-edumacation in this country's bookish history to the curb.

Thursday 28 October 2010

David Mitchell and William Gibson dance-fight to win my heart

Last night, I went to an event at Toronto's annual International Festival of Authors - David Mitchell and William Gibson in conversation with someone else who I hadn't heard of, and who persisted in mispronouncing the name of the titular hero of Mitchell's latest novel, even after being corrected. Let's pretend that he wasn't there. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

First, William Gibson read from his new novel, Zero History. I have yet to read any of Gibson's work, but what I heard was very engaging, so I'll make a point of checking him out. He does have a very unique voice, as Jason mentioned a long time ago now.  It kind of made everything sound like a slightly stoned and somewhat funny hard-boiled detective novel; very enjoyable to listen to.

As Jason is a big fan of Gibson's, I picked him up a copy of the new novel and got it signed. In between "Jason" and "William Gibson" I got the author to write that now famous blurb about the internet being a series of tubes...which increased the value of the book in my mind, but maybe not in either Gibson's or Jason's. Sigh.

Right before I met Gibson (so much for my attempt at strict linearity here!), I witnessed a fan-Gibson interaction that filled me with some hope about the yout' of today. Hope, mind, not unshakable confidence. Here's what happened: A girl-fan of approximately 16 years got Gibson to sign all her copies of all of his books. There was a limit on each person - only four books each - so she had a friend in tow to get the others signed on her behalf.

She got all her books signed. She got her friend to take a photo of her and Gibson. And then she fled, shrieking in a very teenage girl sort of way. Hope: she was a teenaged reader absolutely stricken, not by Stephanie Meyer and not by whoever wrote those damned Gossip Girl books, but by William Gibson, who was writing what I'm told is the bestest of Sci-Fi long before she was even a high-pitched gleam in either of her parents' eyes. Incomplete confidence: She did still shriek like a harpy wielding a mystical sword to cut your face off with.

Back to linearity. Right after Gibson read from his book, David Mitchell came out to read - not, as expected, from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, but from the new book he's currently writing! And it was really good, although he very humourously called himself out on some sentences he wasn't satisfied with.

Afterward, they sat down with unknown fellow mentioned above and proceeded to show just what a bloody damned smart and cagey choice it was to put them together. They're both brilliant and funny and compelling, but even more so together, I think. A lot of the best parts - like when Gibson said people were "now-centric" and Mitchell said, "Oh, that's good!" and as he was writing it down asked in a very precocious way, "Can I have that?" - have been likely already been tweeted (hashtag #IFOA).

But what likely won't make it to the Twitter - because it simply defies being put into words by everyone but me, for whom it happened - is how once the conversation ended, Mitchell and Gibson engaged in a complicated and highly ritualistic dance-fight, in which they attempted to win ascendancy in my heart. David Mitchell entered the competition with a huge handicap in his favour, for Cloud Atlas remains my favourite novel of all time (even if Hilary Mantel ought to be making him very nervous). Gibson, however, had the advantage of being a hippie draft dodger AND wearing cool sneakers AND owning a Twitter account called GAYDOLPHIN2.

First they circled one another, executing flawless pirouettes, Gibson in his kicks and Mitchell in his signature steel-toes. Neither appeared to gain an advantage at this point, so they quickly changed tactics and re-enacted the dance-knife fight scene from Michael Jackson's "Beat It" but both quickly learned that if the pen isn't as mighty as the switchblade, it does cause some fearful stains on favourite shirts, and so altered their respective strategies again.

While David Mitchell performed a modern, interpretive routine to Iron & Wine's "Flightless Bird, American Mouth" (a song which, for reasons I can't entirely explain, always makes me think of Black Swan Green), Gibson countered by performing the Robot to Run DMC's "It's Like That". At this point, it seemed as though Gibson would triumph for the Robot is the Michael Jordan slam dunk of dance-fight moves - it wins the game 99% of the time.

But Mitchell had the advantage of greater variety, and countered with a transcendent pas de deux in which he performed both parts simultaneously. In the end, Mitchell won the pitched battle for my heart, but Gibson will certainly not be banished...

Meanwhile, Hilary Mantel lurks in the background, waiting for her moment...

That's all true - except for what I just said.

Tuesday 26 October 2010

The Sarazens head without New-gate: Final post

I thought I'd posted my final Sarazens head entry back in August, but two things: 1) I don't want to conclude this series with whinging and begging in such unbecoming fashion; and, 2) I just remembered that I ran a very popular series on the Twitter back in September, in which I expressed the many ways in which I fantasized answering customers' queries about why we were closing up shop, instead of telling them the sordid, anti-climactic truth.

I know that it's shitty and sometimes, even, traumatic to discover that an indie bookstore one likes is being disappeared, but I very quickly became incredibly tired of having to explain. I felt overwhelmed by the stress of it all anyway; I didn't feel up for addressing strangers' feelings about it as well.

So, my friend Jason suggested the first one on this list, and then I began dreaming about what else I'd really like to say for my own amusement, and then I began writing them down, and then my husband and our friend Andy began contributing, and then some of them went up on the Twitter. One or two, I actually said out loud to customers when they asked, and managed to do so with a straight face. Their responses - one of pure confusion, and then deep personal affront; another of uprorious and joyous laughter (same answer as previous); and one hiss (yes, really!) - were all worth, well, everything. Enjoy!

Possible responses to “Why is your bookstore closing?”
(Favourites marked with an *)

1) We lost our liquor license.*
2) Freemasons.
3) I’m quitting to become a hip hop artist.
4) Because you made God cry and kittens die when you asked for Dan Brown’s latest.
5) Because you called the Twilight books "classics”.*
6) We’re not closing, we’re going paperless.
7) We’re being sucked into a hole in the ground.
8) Because, like, all the really spiritual journeys happen inside your heart, you know?
9) I fundamentally believe people just don’t like words.
10) We’ve been here 13 years and the landlord never once bought a book from us. I just couldn’t take it any more.
11) Who said we were closing?
12) “Didn’t I tell you last time you were here?” “I haven’t been here in years.” “That’s why.”*
13) I’m tired of people asking me about when I’m going to have a baby.
14) Turns out people don’t buy stuff.
15) We just sold our last copy of The Da Vinci Code. Thought we’d go out on a high note.*
16) Couldn’t get the stink of Freddie Prinze, Jr. out of the rare books section.
17) Need time to dance.
18) Tired of winning.*
19) I like giving books as gifts, but ever since we got the store it just seemed insincere.
20) Big Pharma.
21) Unfortunately, the first rule of the Recycled Book Shop is you do not talk about the Recycled Book Shop.
22) I was just never going to win a championship here. It’s nothing personal.*
23) Umm… Yeah. What was the question again? No, not that one, the one about your face.
24) Kept cutting into my D&D time.
25) Every time you sell a used book it puts a thorn in the heart of Baby Jesus. After a while the thrill just wasn’t there anymore.*
26) You love Lady Gaga! That is so cool. And it explains some things.
27) Too many customers howling at my beauty like dogs in heat.
28) I just can't bear parting with another of my precious babies.
29) We were developing an allergy to the past tense, and couldn't weed out the offending titles.
30) My Etsy bunny-hair potholder business has taken off and I don't have time for this.
31) It's a condition of our settlement with Dan Brown in his defamation suit.
32) We're trying to stay one jump ahead of the stroller nazis.
33) We're opening a deli/tobacconist.
34) Too many ley lines connecting here - can't take the dark energy anymore.*
35) Tired of customers re-enacting the dress-up scene from Silence of the Lambs. (Jason’s response to this response: "It puts the Dan Brown back on the shelf, or else it gets the hose again.")*
36) So I never again have to deal with people who think Virginia Woolf wrote Shakespeare’s plays.

Second most common question and some possible responses: 
So, you’re closing, eh? Do you know what’ll be going in here?

1) Jihad.
2) The future.*
3) In conjunction with the Toronto Vegetarian Association around the corner on Baldwin, Northbound Pleather.
4) Clearing house for missing socks.
5) One of those exclusive places.
6) With the hospital so close by, I'd assume some sort of sex shop.*
7) Apparently Starbucks and Wendy's are in some sort of bidding war over the site.
8) Hopefully something that rhymes with "fuck you."
9) M. Night Shyamalan's next movie idea.
10) Hungry Hungry Hippo franchise.
11) Mice.
12) Whatever the Basement of Bad Dreams wants.

So, that's it. I'm just your garden variety reader and book-buyer now - and it's lovely!

Sunday 17 October 2010

More reviewlets, ten words or less

Yes, I've had to up the word limit to ten for this one as my brainkin is still broken. Also, I'm listening to Lady Gaga real loud so as to block out the mouth-breathers having a shouting party upstairs; while Lady Gaga inspires me to do many things (like stay on the treadmill and happily run real fast), thinking isn't one of them.

Here we go.

1) Paddy Clarke, Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle.

Too much personal resonance to be enjoyable, but damned good.

2) Little Novels by Wilkie Collins.

All sort of similar, all similarly enjoyable.

3) The Pilgrim of Hate, Ellis Peters.

I wish Brother Cadfael was my dad.

4) The Giant, O'Brien by Hilary Mantel.

Both the bliss and the blood did me great good.

5) The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits by Emma Donoghue.

Emma Donoghue is the homeless man's Hilary Mantel.

Thursday 7 October 2010

I spoke too soon, it seems

Friends, it turns out I'm much, much tiredererer than I thought. I've basically been asleep since I blogged last week. I am able to read, and I do, and I enjoy it. But I am currently unable to write, in part because I don't stay awake long enough to do so, and in part because my brain won't cooperate. The words just aren't there. So, I am resting, like I mean it. Sometimes, I ride my bike; I also take some walks. I don't know when I'll be back for real, but I really hope it's soon. Until then, I hope you're all fantastic. Here's a photo of my bike in the gorgeous park by my house to give you a sense of what I'm trying to do while awake.

Wednesday 29 September 2010

Blank pages

My story
gets told in various ways: a romance,
a dirty joke, a war, a vacancy.

- The Essential Rumi, New Expanded Edition, Trans. Coleman Barks et al., p. 47
The bookstore is closed. I am in my new apartment; there are still boxes on the floor and some of those boxes contain essentials to be assembled, such as the new dining room table. But the bookcases? The bookcases are up and they are stocked. For the first time, my personal collection has been wrangled into a certain amount of order - each shelf is organized alphabetically by author, even though each bookcase boasts no universal order. Also, all my Japanese books are together. I am no longer a book-seller but I can't return to my youthful glorying in total bookish chaos and having no idea where anything is.

Perhaps bookshelf chaos is no longer attractive now that my life, for at least the next three months, will possess no structure. I had enrolled in a Japanese language class for Monday and Wednesday evenings but the instructor was atrocious so I dropped out; dammit, I've done enough school that wasn't fun - now that it's entirely voluntary, there will be no suffering through. Hubby and I have agreed that I'm not to begin looking for work until Jan 1, 2011.
It's been ten years since I had a real break, and I really need one. I was meant to have a break in between finishing grad school and taking over the bookshop but that was reduced to a mere 10 days as my defense date was pushed to its outer limits after I landed myself in hospital in the middle of writing my thesis conclusion. So, it's time for me to learn to relax again, to take the time so generously offered me by the universe (and my rich, indulgent husband) to think hard about what I might like to do to bring in some donuts.

I'm not the first 35-year-old to have to contemplate a whole new professional course in life. But if I'm to be honest, my resume is the sort of resume that will make HR monkeys' heads explode. A brief summary of my salient qualifications and experiences:
  • PhD English Literature, but can't/don't want to pursue an academic career
  • I like teaching literature, but only Shakespeare, and only his drama, and only to 18-22-year-olds
  • Excellent writing and editing skills
  • Really, really good at reading!
  • I kind of hate working with the public
  • I've travelled literally around the globe
  • I like deadlines, a lot
  • Don't want to sell any more books
  • Don't want to sit in front of a computer all day
Er, yeah. This is going to take some figuring. But right now, all my figuring's going towards determining what to do when dinner isn't concluded at 9pm because I've worked till 7. Seriously, hubby and I finished dinner at 7 tonight and we literally did not know how to cope! I'm a bit lost, I guess. I've got 3 months to re-write myself in some ways. In the lead-up to closing the shop, I found this prospect to be tremendously exciting; today, I'm a bit overwhelmed by the open-endedness of it all.

One good thing: I'm reading again. I finished Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, which wins the 2010 Bookphilia Prize for Most Deceptive Title. I was expecting a comedy full of sharp, snappy back-and-forth and instead got a slowly unravelling domestic tragedy. Gah. But it was good, and I want to write a little more about it later.

I started reading a swords and muscles and political intrigue book by Bernard Cornwell but lost it for a week or so in the move and by the time I'd found it, had lost interest.

Now, I'm reading a lesser known Wilkie Collins called Little Novels. Delicious and easily digestible little morsels they are, perfect for my weary brain. Apparently, it wasn't popular when it was first published in 1887; silly Victorians!

More anon. I think I will soon be able to begin posting again with regularity, and hopefully also charm, wit, and the usual, er, genius.

Tuesday 14 September 2010

Insomniac reviews in five words or less!

I really hope this will be the one and only episode of Insomniac reviews in five words or less! here on

Books I've read since the bookstore closing shit storm began:

1) The More Than Complete Action Philosophers!, Fred van Lente and Ryan Dunleavy.


2) The Knife of Never Letting Go, Patrick Ness.


3) Real World, Natsuo Kirino.


4) Sister of the Dead, Barb & J.C. Hendee.


I'm still reading Dickens' Little Dorrit, but it's been packed in anticipation of next week's move to our deluxe apartment in the sky, so I'm not sure when I'll see it again. Or have the brain to engage with it. Next up: some Bernard Cornwell and more swords and people with lice.

Tuesday 7 September 2010

The best thing about bookstore closing sales... that people sometimes give you money, on purpose, for Nick Carter bios that are 10 years old.

That's the beauty of capitalism, my friends.

PS-I miss you. I also miss books that aren't about vampires and elves and immortal beings trapped in dogs' bodies.

Wednesday 25 August 2010

Get me the f*** out of here

I am sitting in my store, even though it's closed, because I'm waiting for the cops to arrive. I am waiting for the cops to arrive because this afternoon while one greasy bastard distracted me, his greasy bastard friend went upstairs and broke into my apartment. Our perfunctory search didn't show anything as missing, but then my husband did come home and surprise the guy in the apartment, who fled. Our search for missing things was perfunctory because we couldn't find our cat Aoki right away. The other cats nervously showed themselves but Aoki hid (smart, but heart attack-inducing when she wouldn't come when we called her, for 20 minutes - and our apartment is very small). We found her looking terrified behind some framed photos sitting on the floor. Now we can't go look to see if he got anything because the cops told us not to touch anything until they arrive. I. Hate. This.

Monday 16 August 2010

The Sarazens head without New-gate: a brief note on why I won't be posting for awhile, or, abandoning my dignity for a moment

Well, friends, we have succumbed, not to the poor economy because we've been doing mostly fine financially, but to irreconcilable differences with our landlord. My bookstore will be closing at the end of September. Now, I am faced with the daunting task of getting rid of at least 14,000 books.

I promise never to do this again, but I just today realized what it means to move 14,000+ books in approximately 5 weeks and am freaking out a little, and so I'm going to shamelessly whore my bookstore to you while it still exists. If you buy books online from me at my shop's website. (Be sure to click the button that says "search only our books" or you'll get everything in the world in Biblio) I will not only love you forever, but I will also give you a discount!

This would come in the form of a partial refund after the fact. 30% off for 1-2 books, 40% off for 3-5 books, and 50% off for 6+ books (before shipping). Or, you can email me (and use paypal) or order stuff over the phone with a credit card. I have a service that mails books to the US from the US side of the border so we can take advantage of the US's incredibly civilized "media mail" and "first class" mail costs. :)

Or, if you happen to live in Toronto, come by and you'll see what kind of crazy sale is going on here.

I imagine my next regular blog post will be no earlier than the end of September. I'll miss you till then. :(


Friday 6 August 2010

Bits and bobs

Just some updates, in no great detail, of my current reading - and non-reading. I'm tired.

I just finished Ellis Peters's ninth Brother Cadfael mystery, Dead Man's Ransom. It was as perfect and lovely as both predicted and expected. This one, though, has gone further towards integrating historical setting into plot than the previous novels, and I think it really works.

Dead Man's Ransom is set in the winter of 1141; the war for the throne between Empress Maud and King Stephen and their respective followers continues but in this installment, the consequences for Shrewsbury have become personal. The town's sheriff, Gilbert Prestcote, has returned gravely injured from fighting for the king (and the king has been captured and imprisoned by the empress's devotees!). Prestcote is settled into the infirmary of Shrewsbury Abbey and his healing begun only to be murdered in his bed there...

Brother Cadfael, of course, eventually solves the crime but not before participating in some sensitive political maneuvering to help form an alliance between his adopted English town and some of his Welsh countrymen to the northwest. The outside world persists in intruding into Cadfael and his brethren's sheltered world and the lesson of this novel would be, if there were anything so pedestrian and pedantic as a lesson here, that the official removal from society which constitutes entering the cloister is no removal at all. Indeed, Cadfael and his peers are allowed respites from the outside world almost as short as their secular peers enjoy.

For me these novels constitute a sort of sincere utopia, not in which nothing bad ever happens, but in which the majority of people behave in ways motivated primarily by lovingkindness. I'm sure I say the same thing every time I blog about Peters but I can't help it; I'm continually astonished by her portrayal of the majority of people as both essentially good and generally likable - convincingly. In my cynical world, nothing is more fantastic - and sweet - than the world according to Ellis Peters.

I've abandoned two books in the last month or so. The first to go was Pope Brock's Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam. I began this book during my latest round with the reading block and it seemed like the remedy. It was non-fiction, easy to read, and incredibly interesting. Charlatan tells the story of early twentieth-century fake doctor John Brinkley, who became famous for his apparent cure for male impotence through the implantation of goat testicles into his patients. Yes, that's what I said. *Shudder*

The horror of it all was interesting but what was more compelling was Brock's consideration of the power of marketing to convince otherwise sane and sufficiently intelligent people of the craziest bullshit imaginable. Brinkley's success was all about marketing and what is scary is that all his effective and almost exclusively unethical techniques are the norm now, particularly with regards to pharmaceuticals advertising! Brinkley was the first to really successfully use - on a mass scale - people's anxieties about their health and wellness against them. He set the stage for the world we live in now - the world in which shyness (at any age) and not being able to f*** 5 hours a day when you're 95 are illnesses properly treated with drugs.

I was there for 2/3 of the book but then I completely lost interest. When Brinkley decided to spend the majority of his time politicking - which he also approached with panache and a complete lack of moral consideration - I put the book down for good. But I was already beginning to lose interest. I like Brock's topic but sometimes his choices on what to focus on annoyed me. For example, he spent perhaps one paragraph on the fact that doctors didn't have to be licensed or educated in medicine in many states in the '10s and '20s because it seemed too snooty to exclude people that way. Wha-what? This is part of what allowed Brinkley to get away with so much...but I wanted to know more about that. At least a chapter! But no, one paragraph. Grrr. This sort of thing and the politics lost me, and so back to the library it went.

Another and more recent reading fail was Haruki Murakami's A Wild Sheep Chase, my second Murakami fail in the past 6 or so months. I'm wondering if my time with Murakami is done; I hope not. I got about 80 pages into this one and it was so gimmicky and empty that I wanted to tear my hair and gnash my teeth. That I was completely unable to enjoy gimmicky and shallow just for fun also made me want to tear my hair and gnash my teeth AND rend my cheeks AND beat my breast.

I would like to tell you about what I'm reading and enjoying now, because it's not free of the gimmick or the fun, but I'm afraid I'll jinx myself. It'll have to be a secret until I actually finish it, which I hope I'll do. Perhaps I've already said too much.

Always look on the bright side of life
Even though I hate to give up on books, especially if I've made it past page 50, I think the fact that I'm able to do so now is a positive thing. I used to feel compelled to finish any- and everything I began, regardless of how atrocious or offensive or boring it might be. I'm glad I'm able to move on to something more enjoyable when the going is too irritating. Life's too short to waste reading time. I'm 35 - I might have only another 35 years left of reading to me!!