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.


Bellezza said...

I really disliked both The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The Lost Symbol. The former had about 300 unnecessary pages, and I love long novels; the later pisses me off because Brown either out of ignorance, or worse, knowledge, misquotes the Bible. It seems he deliberate, as if he knows what he's talking about when he clearly hasn't a clue.

I would have loved sitting on the train with you and discussing each person with his novel.

J.G. said...

If you weren't so clever with this post, it would be really depressing. So much trash on the train, alas.

TSAR is a great book despite the accuracy of your memory. I recommend a re-read.

But what I really want to know is, is there a platform under that cat, or is he trying out for Cirque du Soleil?

The above fore-mentioned. said...

The Sun also Rises is about a bunch of ex-pats in Paris. The main character does have a war wound though and is in love with a woman named Brett. I read it some time ago too and sadly my Hemingway runs together at times. But I know that this is one of the key texts of the lost generation.

Unknown said...

Now that's a bad day by anyone's standards :)

Stefanie said...

Oh my, thanks for a good laugh! I am curious, how do you remember all these books and their people? Do you take notes? Or are you like that Whore of Mensa and have a photographic memory? :-)

interpolations said...

Colleen, thank you for this!

Moony said...

I have no idea what the Dragon Tattoo books are about... which is odd because most popular books you get an idea what it is from all the hype.

Anonymous said...

I love this feature of yours.

Bookphilia said...

Bellezza: I've heard before that Brown is rather...relaxed...with his use of the historical and his sources in his books. Didn't too people who wrote a respected book of some sort accuse him of plagiarism?

J.G.: We must laugh lest we weep all the livelong day.

Jeoffy does have a platform beneath him, yes; it's simply being enveloped by his copious amounts of belly swag. Mr. Jeoff weighs a solid 20 lbs right now.

The above: The other Hemingway book I read was For Whom the Bell Tolls. When I try to remember what it's about, all I can think about is Metallica.

Tony: Except for the standards of the people reading these books? And publishers, who make gajillions of such things?

Stefanie: I type in what I see into my Blackberry then email it to myself. :) No photographic memory here, sadly.

interpolations: De nada.

Moony: You know, I don't either, not really. I know there's murder. And a girl with a tattoo of a dragon. And trips to IKEA. But that's it.

kinna: Thank you! And welcome!

Dr. Kunstsprecher said...

Finally, Ulysses!

Nan said...

I love The Sun Also Rises. It is one of my favorite books. I read it again not too long ago, and found it just as wonderful as when I was much younger.
And I'm one of the few left in the world who hasn't read Dragon Tattoo and never will.:<)
This is a great feature.

verbivore said...

My goodness, I wish I had a subway to go book peeping on!

Anonymous said...

I love your curious/creepy post and I too stare at people who read on the tube/subway. Ha ha, I actually read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and liked it (with the same cover as in your post). It's great for travelling. And I also have The Lost Symbol which I borrowed off a friend (I don't know why, but I feel compelled to read it as I've read both of Brown's previous books). And I'm sure Brown 'borrowed' lots of bits from that other book as there wasn't anything really new in 'The Da Vinci Code'.