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...