Friday 28 October 2011

Mo money, mo moustaches

It's almost Movember, friends, the month during which those who can grow hair above their upper lips do so to help raise money for men's health. My husband is participating, and there will be photographic evidence every day here. Join the very silly fun! Magnum P.I. wants you to.

Wednesday 26 October 2011

An unlikely trio

Another round-up, my friends! I'm looking forward to soon finding the time for writing round-ups of one. Today, three books that in no way belong together form the subject of my early morning musings. (Actually, it's not that early; it's almost 9:30 ayem as I begin writing this. I woke up late. Yesterday, I gymmed for an hour and then later had an hour-long swimming lesson. I feel both very strong and very tired today.)

Last week, I finished reading China Miéville's fat novel Perdido Street Station. I can't give you a plot summary without telling you the whole story, so I won't even try. Some generalities: it's fantasy completely sans swords but not sorcery (but no funny hats or wands are involved), it's sci-fi, it's an excellent example of literary world-building, it's absolutely full of disturbing and bad shit.

Perdido Street Station is almost 700 pages of trouble going down. For a long while, I loved the perpetual climax (crisis!) of the plot but 300+ pages of unremitting tension started to wear on me a little by the end. China Miéville, who is lovely because he looks like a bouncer but has a PhD from the London School of Economics and a vocabulary at least 10 times larger than most people's, is also generally a very good writer. As I noted in my review of The City & The City, I really admire his ability to write compelling fiction in a semi-academic "voice"; I honestly don't know how he manages to make this work, but he does, and that's my third reason for adoring him.

But I didn't adore Perdido Street Station, at least not as a whole. And my biggest complaint about the book is something I'm not sure is, in fact, a problem with the book; it might very well be only a reflection of the limitations of my being a Bear of Very Little Brain. This is the problem: I kind of hate descriptions of the physical context of a story. I like some very basic information to set the stage, and then my own brain takes over and aggressively creates its own set of visuals. This compulsion was set repeatedly in conflict with Mieville's extensive, rich, and unending details about the physical aspects of the world he creates; unfortunately, all his information couldn't silence my own notions of how things looked and so I suffered from a mild but persistent headache the whole time I was reading this book. Also, and this is a much smaller issue but it grated on me more and more as I neared the book's conclusion: the word "architecture" was so over-used it started to make me feel crazy. With a vocabulary bigger than god's boots, I know Mieville needn't have relied so heavily on this one word.

These seem like pretty minor problems, yes. Indeed, much of the book was wonderful, fantastic. But there is one major problem with Perdido Street Station that doesn't seem minor to me at all, but which I can't reveal here as it occurs at the very end of the book and to discuss it in any detail would be to blow the whole plot up in the air. But I will say this: Isaac's reasons are damned stupid, because the moral bind Miéville puts him is a total cop-out. That said, I'm still desperate to read Kraken.

Next up was a collection of short stories edited by Kenzaburo Oe: The Crazy Iris and Other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath. In terms of historical, archaeological reflection this is an excellent collection as it covers writers of different ages, experiences, and gender. As a literary collection, it is wildly uneven and the only reason I see this is a problem is that, given how rich Japan's literary history is, I just can't imagine it was actually necessary to choose historical variety over artistic merit.

Indeed, stories by Tamiki Hara and especially Hiroko Takenishi's "The Rite" were literarily amazing which, of course, lent much greater poignancy and pathos to the historical moments they addressed. These two recognized, or at least were able to articulate, that the physical calamity of the A-bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II was only the beginning; that the emotional, familial, social, mental calamities would go deeper and last much, much longer. So, this book was also not all it could have been, but I'm incredibly grateful to have been introduced to two excellent Japanese writers I hadn't before known of.

And to make it three partial disappointments in a row, there's Roddy Doyle's The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, which I finished yesterday. I keep reading Roddy Doyle but the fact is, I think I've actually only really loved one of his novels so far: The Snapper. All his books have great moments, and sometimes those great moments are lengthy. But his writing style is so set, his approach so uniform that even different topics come out looking pretty similar. All his characters speak exactly the same way.

I've concluded that Roddy Doyle is quite good at what he does, but he only does one thing. Or, he sort of does two things: funny books and not funny books, but the writing style and voice issues remain problems, and so it's really just one thing. And that one thing is lower middle class Dubliners screwing shit up and having tough lives. The question is simply whether or not there will be laughs involved.

The Woman Who Walked Into Doors is about one Paula Spenser, a woman with an abusive husband and a problem with the bottle. There are some truly powerful moments in this novel; indeed, I found myself tearing up on the subway train yesterday. But I already can't remember why; Doyle's style just isn't strong enough, on the whole, to find any purchase in either my short- or long-term memories. I'll still read the sequel, Paula Spenser, just to find out what happens though; if Doyle's writing isn't memorable, it's easy and sometimes that's what's required.

Being such a negative Nelly isn't enjoyable for me either, by the way. But it's mid-morning and it's as dark outside as midnight during the apocalypse; sprightly blog writing simply can't occur under such conditions.

Wednesday 12 October 2011

Autumn has well and truly arrived

This afternoon, I was wearing all black and riding my shiny black bicycle (with flash red panniers) when I felt autumn arrive. As I came around the corner on Annette Street by my favourite coffee shop, I was caught in a rainstorm that didn't exclusively comprise rain; manically swirling yellow leaves were at least as abundant as the cold water running down the back of my hoodie. It was lovely, not to mention slippery. After a month of relatively endless ("relatively" because, after all, the sun is setting before 8pm these days) sunshine and sandals and bare legs, summer has finally moved on. And you know what that means: Bookphilia has come back inside and has some blogging to do.

I have been reading steadily, of course, as well as physically covering a great deal of ground, both on foot and on wheel. And I've been busy with other "life" things (don't ask me what those scare quotes imply, for I can't quite recall at the moment), but the fact is, a persistent and slow-burning internet disaster has been afflicting Bookphilia Castle. I am writing this post on a laptop that is from the Stone Age of Computing, i.e., it's about 8 years old. It takes 5-10 minutes to load pictures to Blogger (and given that this post contains 3 images, let's just say that I'm in the process of developing a Zen-like state of calm and disconnection (double entendre fully intended)). The real computer, the newish computer, the fast computer can't be reliably used these days because it breaks up with the wireless connection approximately every 45 minutes; it's behaving like a fussy and dramatic 14-year old boyfriend I once had (we were both 14, relax).

This problem began well over a month ago and my dear husband, Master of Computery Things, has been unable to fix it. So I've been stuck. When I was spending almost every minute of every day outside, this clearly wasn't a big problem; now, however, that we are all quickly becoming dead leaf- and rain-bound, things have reached a crisis point. There may be a duel, but I'm not yet sure who I'll have to challenge.

But yes, I've been reading. And now I am sitting cozily and happily ready to discuss. Several weeks ago, I finished a mad romp by Nick Harkaway called The Gone Away World. Part sci-fi, part action adventure, part slapstick, part surprisingly touching coming of age story, this novel was simply over-stuffed; Harkaway tried to pack too much into his first novel. But here's the thing: it was still really good and it still worked. My initial concerns that Harkaway didn't have complete control over his own narrative enthusiasm have, for the most part, proven to have been rather too prim and worried of me. Given how the whole thing ties up, he clearly knew from the beginning where he was going.

And while, yes, he did pack a lot in, which created an appearance of literary chaos, the fact is, there were a whole packet of connecting clues I failed to pick up on. Why? The danger of the good romp is that you're too busy enjoying yourself bouncing around in the apparent chaos to get down to analyzing. That's one possibility. It could also have been residual coffee withdrawal, which I think (after two months) I am now finally free of.

It may also have been the writing. I don't know how else to describe the energy of Harkaway's writing except to say that I think it entirely possible that every day when he sat down to write, he roared, in the spirit of that living genius Maurice Sendak, "LET THE WILD RUMPUS START!" I don't think it necessary that Harkaway wore a monster onesie in order to channel the Sendak God, but I do imagine he regularly pounded his chest while belting out this ageless, good-time battle cry.

It doesn't matter why I missed all those damned connections; The Gone Away World is a bloody good, if not perfect, novel; I can't wait to see what Harkaway does next.

In an attempt to circle stealthily back towards my Victorian Lit project and my unappetizing copy of Thackeray's The History of Henry Esmond, I picked up Honoré de Balzac's Lost Illusions. This seemed like a safe bet, given how completely I loved my first Balzac novel, Père Goriot; alas, this latest foray into the father of French realism's vast oeuvre was not entirely satisfying.

I think it should have been, though. Balzac's writing was just as stellar, as penetrating, as incisively cynical and condemnatory, as strangely compassionate of extreme and ridiculous human failing as it was in Père Goriot; which may have been the problem, actually—Lost Illusions didn't seem sufficiently distinct from this other novel. Indeed, I'm fairly certain that in a year's time, I won't be able to distinguish the two in my memory except in very broad and fuzzy outline. As with Père Goriot, Lost Illusions features a naive provincial man-boy moving to Paris to be corrupted and to ruin those who believe in and adore him. The temptations Eugène and Lucien face are similarly shallow, fleeting, and amorphous, having entirely to do with succeeding in "Society." Because of this, Balzac's moral scalpel-wielding seemed less convincing overall, and that makes me incredibly sad.

Of course, I will read more of Balzac's work; I still think he was likely a genius of a very high (and well caffeinated order) and so I am more than willing to eat the above expressions of disappointment if further reading shows them to have been premature. Also, I have a lovely little reading copy of Cousin Bette sitting patiently but persistently on my shelf...

Meanwhile, my frustrated love affair with Haruki Murakami has reached a new low. I recently finished After Dark, the last novel published before this month's (well, this month in English) hysterically anticipated 1Q84. Don't get me wrong, After Dark contains some very, very good bits, but of all the Murakami novels I've thus far read, it makes the least overall sense.

Murakami has with this novel made explicit something that I've always unconsciously believed—his works read best around 3 am, preferably when accompanied by a hard dose of insomnia. The dark and quiet whispered life of reading alone after midnight is his fiction's proper milieu. In the middle of the night (not when I've read most of the Murakami I've read, but when I've enjoyed it most), it doesn't seem problematic that much of his narrative makes no recognizable human sense (the lovely Norwegian Wood excluded, of course); indeed, it seems appropriate. As I still have several of his major works left to me, I almost miss the heyday of my grad school insomnia/Murakami renaissance.

Even knowing that Murakami belongs in the cracks of existence made visible only after the sun goes down, and even knowing that Murakami clearly knows this about himself, After Dark is nonetheless the weakest, most self-indulgent, most inconsistently written novel he has in my experience produced. It should have been hacked at with a sacred editorial machete; it should have been cleansed in ritual re-writing fires. It was not; it simply cannot have been interfered with in the way it needed to be interfered with. It was, I'm guessing, published in the malformed state in which it burst original and entire from its author's forehead.

But original...yes, Murakami is still absolutely original, at least in comparison with other writers, if not with himself. Nobody else writes the way he writes, and sometimes it's just so irresistible...Yes, I will probably eventually read the 900-page monstrosity 1Q84; I suspect there will be gnashing of teeth and tearing of hair though.