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.