Saturday, December 29, 2007

Book 19 – No Country For Old Men

By Cormac McCarthy

I won’t waste my breath providing a synopsis as Olman and Mount Benson have already written great reviews for this book.

This was a very cool read. To quote a review from The New Yorker, No Country For Old Men is “tight, reduced, simple and very violent”. Since I saw the film adaptation prior to reading the novel, it was an unexpected pleasure to discover a “different” ending, which revealed a more straightforward resolution compared to the inexplicable and jarring denouement of the Coen Brothers’ movie.

In the novel, the motives of Llewellyn Moss were definitely more questionable and complex. The nemesis, Anton Chigurh, really came across as this new breed of monster in human form, who, for whatever mysterious reason, ends up ascending the echelons of criminal society. And finally, there’s Sheriff Bell as the moral center, who seems even more a helpless and irrelevant figure, as the world he once knew gradually descends into lawlessness.

Even though it was mildly confusing at times, I didn’t mind the lack of punctuation and dialogue quotations. It was a self-conscious stylistic device for sure, but it also added a kind of detached surreal quality to the narrative.

From what I’ve read in the way of reviews, though McCarthy's talent for words is undisputed, there are some critics who question whether he’s really all that deep. He's post-moderney and intellectual but successfully mimics southern white trash vernacular. Does this make him inauthentic? His pessimistic takes on human nature and running themes of meaningless violence and the pervasiveness of evil... does this make his work morally empty?

I haven’t read enough of McCarthy’s stuff to know. But I do know that NCFOM certainly delivers as an existential action thriller. I also like his style, which is, as quoted by Mt Benson, “a consistent voice and a world of destruction and desolation”. In the future, I’ll definitely check out other books by McCarthy, particularly his latest: a post-apocalyptic father & son story called The Road (despite the fact that it was selected by Oprah for a Book Club pick!).

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Book 18 – I Am Legend (& Other Stories)

By Richard Matheson

This was the result of a very rare moment where I purchased a brand new trade paperback for myself (couldn’t find a used copy in time for the movie release), and it was worth every over-priced Canadian penny. What a totally wicked way to almost end my 2007 Book List!

I was so very glad I read the book before watching the movie. As I’m sure all the 50-bookers are already familiar with the premise of Matheson’s story, I won’t bother to summarize. The ending alone is priceless, exuding the kind of bleak pessimism that haunts your thoughts for days (unlike the movie’ version’s perversely uplifting ending which left me shuddering for the wrong reasons!). 'I Am Legend' is obviously a must-read for any fan of post-apocalyptic and/or horror fiction.

Adding more bang to my canuck-buck, my purchase also came with several short stories by the same author. Some aspects of the writing are a little pulpy in terms of subject matter and suffer from out-datedness a la the 1950’s, e.g. stereotypical heterosexual relationships and preconceived ideas about non-white cultures. But the majority of the stories were still page-turners with some creepy little gems like:

"Prey" – a woman is trapped inside her apartment with a possessed African-fetish doll! Now you get my drift? But her battle with the murderous doll was very well-written.

"Mad House" – a hapless man’s rage against his loser life is so great, it takes on a life of its own... and turns his own house against him! walkerp would definitely identify with the character’s furious outbursts ;-)

"From Shadowed Places" – a rich American man pisses off a vengeful African shaman and pays the price! And help comes in the most unlikely form.

"Person to Person" – a man hears a voice inside his head, a voice that telephones him every night! Is it a figment of his subconscious, or a sinister external entity that wants to take over his body? Neat twist at the end too.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Book 17 – Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants

By Jill Soloway

To continue my brief sojourn into 'chick-lit' is this collection of essays from one of the top writers from the TV show, Six Feet Under. This is most definitely not something I would ever consider reading (the only reason I delved into this was because the book was a gift). All in all, TLISP provided a mindless distraction from the usual stuff I read, providing amusing little nuggets about life as a middle-class Jewish girl growing up in Chicago to juicy anecdotes about being a struggling writer in L.A.

Some of the passages were funny and insightful, like bitching about public toilet seat “hoverers”. But others weren’t so funny, like her rants about patriarchy and feminism. If you’ve read a book or two by de Beauvoir or Friedan, or taken a first-year Women’s Studies course, you'll likely wince at Soloway's so-called theories, which have already been said more intelligently and articulately by a generation of feminists before her. But when Soloway sticks to cute subjects, like Why Jews Go to the Bathroom with the Door Open, or morsels of advice, like how to make a decent living as a writer in L.A., then it’s a little more bearable.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Book 16: The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things

by J.T. Leroy

The real story is truly more fascinating than fiction. In the late 90’s, out of nowhere, a 19-year old male author by the name of JT Leroy publishes ‘Sarah’, a haunting semi-autobiographical tale about a boy and his white-trash teenage mother, who eked out a living as a truck-stop prostitute. The novel and the subsequent ‘The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things’, catapulted Leroy into cult literary stardom, gaining admirers and devotees from the likes of Gus Van Sant and Courtenay Love.

What's more, Leroy was apparently very shy and didn’t make any public appearances until well after the publication of 'Sarah', and even then, he was always seen wearing large dark sunglasses, a blonde wig and a black hat. This added to his mystique even more, but also fueled public speculation and doubt.

Then in late 2005, it all came crashing down. The details of possibly one of the most notorious literary hoax of recent years can be found easily on the internet, but in a nutshell, JT Leroy was revealed to be the persona of 34 year old Laura Albert. The sunglass-wearing public figure who claimed to be Leroy was actually the sister of Albert’s boyfriend, Susanna Knoop. A media fallout and instant notoriety ensued, not to mention withdrawn book deals, void movie contracts, inevitable lawsuits and criminal charges. Forget about continuing to perpetuate the myth of JT Leroy. Once the dust has settled, I’m sure Albert and/or Knoop will somehow manage to sign a lucrative movie deal about their fantastic hoax, if they haven’t done so already.

Ok, so now we got the notorious backstory out of the way and are aware that ‘The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things’ was not really written by a 19-year old former male prostitute, but instead, was the fictional imagining of an adult woman. The book still stands on its own as a literary work. Plus it’s got all the trappings of ‘underground cult’ appeal: teenage motherhood, prostitution, physical and sexual abuse, social and sexual deviancy, drug addiction, vagrancy, and road trips.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that reading this book was my cup of tea. White trash subculture has never really appealed to me, but I was always curious about the mythos of JT Leroy. Funny how it took me several years to read one of ‘his’ books, only to find out that Leroy was actually a fraudulent creation of a gutsy con artist. Still, I’m glad I read the book after the fact and with full awareness, as opposed to reading the book before the revelation, and then feeling like you’ve been had.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Book 15 – Loose Lips

By Claire Berlinski

What caught me about this book was its rather charmingly unconventional premise: Selena Keller, a disenchanted academic of Sanskrit literature, decides on a whim to join the Agency. This and the portrayal of an unlikely yet endearing romance between the jaded young protagonist and the consummate nerdy chubby guy can be construed as yours truly succumbing to new-wave chick lit. But the satirical insider-esque account of life in a CIA training camp puts this short novel in an unique genre of its own.

You get a really good idea of the kind of people who’d enlist in the CIA, who’d willingly undergo the rigorous screening and subsequent training at “the Farm”, and then keep a good chunk of their lives classified from family and friends. What’s more, the petty rivalries, unexpected betrayals and social paranoia amongst the cloistered Intelligence trainees provide a dark undercurrent of substance to this otherwise enjoyable and light-hearted read.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Book 14 – The Big Blowdown

By George P. Pelecanos

My final hand-me-down review, as Olman had already given a spot-on one back in January.

This is everything one could ask for in a meaty, hard-boiled novel: a stylish page-turner with a multi-layered back story, compelling characters and occasional bursts of sex, action and violence.

It’s also a richly detailed homage to D.C. when the city was coming of age in the 1930’s and 40’s. The part where the protagonist, Pete Karras, walks into a gangster-run bar in a black neighborhood looking for answers is enough of a reason to read this book.

I’m totally looking forward to reading the rest of the books in the Washington Quartet.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Book 13 – Never Let Me Go

By Kazuo Ishiguro

Yet another book pre-reviewed by a fellow 50-booker, Mount Benson, who pretty much summed up how I felt about it as well, thus saving me the bloody trouble (sigh of relief) for reviewing a book that was a compelling read, but didn't leave me going 'wow'.

This is the only Ishiguro book I’ve read, but from what I know of the author, he’s Japanese-born and British-educated, writes in English, so it makes for an interesting fusion of worlds. Although I agree that Ishiguro writes confidently and rather well, his prose does tend towards the stilted side, as pointed out by Mt Benson. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, as I feel it suits his stories about people with repressed, underlying emotions. I knew not to expect a true sci-fi or speculative fiction novel, rather, Never Let Me Go is more like a long-form first-person allegory.

Sadly however, I’m not very motivated (again) to write much further, so I’m providing this perceptive Guardian review, which I warn, discloses the true purpose of what the Hailsham students are being groomed for.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Book 12 – Diary: A Novel

By Chuck Palahniuk

Another book already reviewed by Olman, who does a good synopsis of the story, so I won’t bother. Like Olman, Diary is my first Palahniuk book and I went in not knowing what to expect, perhaps anticipating a kinetic and visceral style like Fight Club, or ridiculously shocking content like Haunted.

What I got instead was a compelling, and deceptively traditional, cult horror story told in a rather unusual style, a mix of first-person narrated by someone in a coma, and third-person told from the perspective of his wife. Story-wise, nothing really stood out for me at first, but I got pulled into Palahniuk’s bizarre universe pretty quick, so Diary ended up being a really good, quick read and made me want to check out other books by the author.

Because I’m feeling lazy and I’ve got a backlog of book reviews, here’s a very decent online review I found.

So now I’ve discovered PK Dick and Chuck Palahniuk. Reading begets more reading… I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Book 11: The Man in the High Castle

By Philip K. Dick

My first introduction to Philip K. Dick is this 1962 Hugo Award winner. And what a fantastic read! I assume the majority of you 50-bookers already know the premise since the novel was also reviewed by Olman and Buzby.

But for the few that don’t, TMITHC is basically an alternate history novel that takes place about 15 years after the Allies were defeated by the Axis in World War II. The U.S. gets divided east and west between Germany and Japan respectively, and the narrative consists of what life is like under Axis rule by weaving together multiple storylines and various interconnected characters. There is also a novel-within-a-novel thread that’s like another what-if to the existing alternate universe. This meta-novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, influences many of the characters in TMITHC and is banned by the Germans since it’s written by an American who posits a world similar to ours where the Allies had won the war instead of the Axis.

Dick as well does a fascinating take on the portrayal of race relations, social hierarchies and politics in the context of a society under Axis rule. Some passages are disturbing in their candidness and 60’s era stereotyping. But Dick writes so thoughtfully and perceptively, that he draws you into his surreally logical yet aberrant universe.

Interestingly, not one race is portrayed in a very positive light. The Americans are meek and self-effacing, low in societal status, but not as low as the Chinese, Blacks or Jews. The Japanese are aesthetically and philosophically refined, yet obsessed with collecting artifacts from pre-war Americana. And the poor Germans, who are portrayed as crazed Nazis hell-bent on eradicating all undesirables, such as Jews and blacks, from the face of the earth. Much time is spent on how one race perceives the other.

One storyline deals with an American, Robert Childan, who runs a shop called American Artistic Handicrafts that mainly caters to a Japanese clientele. He gets invited to the home of a young & attractive upper-class Japanese couple who prepare an American-style dinner of steak and potatoes, steak being regarded as a luxury item by Americans.

Mrs Kasoura proudly declares to her guest: “Doing my best to be authentic… for instance, carefully shopping in teeny-tiny American markets down along Mission Street. Understand that’s the real McCoy.”

We then see how, during his visit, Childan’s initial delight turns to resentment, when he eventually sees past the Kasouras’ façade of sophistication. He thinks to himself:

“You cook the native foods to perfection, Robert Childan thought. What they say is true: your powers of imitation are immense. Apple pie, Coca-Cola, stroll after the movie, Glenn Miller… you could paste together out of tin and rice paper a complete artificial America. Rice-paper Mom in the kitchen, rice-paper Dad reading the newspaper. Rice-paper pup at his feet. Everything.”

As I mentioned earlier, disturbing in its candidness and stereotyping, but nevertheless perceptive and well-written! I also like this quote cuz you can see how Dick is a big influence on Chuck Palahniuk’s style.

Like in Olman’s review, I wholeheartedly agree Dick does an excellent job of writing the internal thought processes of his characters, especially with capturing the speech patterns of Asian-inflected English. One of my favourite characters is Nobusuke Tagomi, a representative at the Japanese Trade Mission in San Francisco, who becomes involved in a counter-intelligence plot to prevent a radical German faction from destroying the Japanese Home Islands with nuclear bombs.

Below are some particularly cool Tagomi quotes:

“This talk will fail, Mr. Tagomi thought. No matter what is at stake. We cannot enter the monstrous schizophrenic morass of Nazi internecine intrigue; our minds cannot adapt.”


He held the dull silver triangle only. Shadow had cut off the sun; Mr. Tagomi glanced up.
Tall, blue-suited policeman standing by his bench, smiling.
“Eh?” Mr. Tagomi said, startled.
“I was just watching you work that puzzle.” The policeman started on along the path.
“Puzzle,” Mr. Tagomi echoed. “Not a puzzle.”
“Isn’t that one of those little puzzles you have to take apart? My kid has a whole lot of them. Some are hard.” The policeman passed on.
Mr. Tagomi thought, Spoiled. My chance at nirvana. Gone. Interrupted by that white barbarian Neanderthal yank. That subhuman supposing I worked a child’s puerile toy.
Rising from the bench he took a few steps unsteadily. Must calm down. Dreadful low-class jingoistic racist invectives, unworthy of me.


Anyway, TMITHC is full of these awesome passages, and I can now see why Dick is such a popular and much-loved writer. However, the ending was a bit disappointing for me.


There was an exciting bit of action before the denouement where Mr. Tagomi & friends take on a bunch of Nazi thugs, and they just kick ass yet maintain their cool. But the final resolution where one of the characters, Juliana Frink, finally meets the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy and they consult the I Ching, and discover that their own world is also fictional. This was an awesome concept to end the novel’s theme of alternate realities, but how it was executed felt rushed and not very well thought out. As a result, it didn’t really ring true to me, and didn’t provide me with a satisfying ending.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Book 10: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

By Mark Haddon

Upon first glance, the premise rings very similar to Jonathan Lethem’s ’Motherless Brooklyn’ (scroll to the bottom) featuring an unlikely protagonist-detective with a mental condition determined to solve a murder.

‘Motherless Brooklyn’ has Tourette-afflicted Lionel trying to find out who killed his boss. ‘The Curious Incident’ has 15-year-old autistic math savant, Christopher, using his peculiar logistical skills to figure out who killed his neighbour’s poodle.

But where ‘Motherless’ plays like a straight-up homage to the hard-boiled detective genre, ‘Curious’ is more like a post-modern Hardy Boy. The dog-killer is actually revealed to Christopher in the middle of the story, so not much of a conventional mystery novel there. Ultimately, it’s a heartfelt story about a family dealing with the hardships of raising an autistic child which is told via the kid’s idiosyncratic POV and the odd quirky illustration.

Curious received much critical praise, was on a number of best-selling lists, and won a few awards, so you’ll find lots of online reviews if you’re interested in finding out more.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Book 9: Servants of the Map

by Andrea Barrett

Ok, I got a thing for stories about 19th century scientists. This collection of interlinked stories explores very similar themes as A.S. Byatt’s Angels and Insects.
Barrett’s storytelling deftly captures the scientific zeitgeist of the Victorian period, and her writing is tighter and crisper than Byatt’s, who at times has a tendency for long-winded prose. It's also worth noting that 'Servants of the Map' was a finalist for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

Although I enjoyed reading every single story in the book, I’m feeling lazy, so I’m going to provide the Salon review instead:


By Laura Miller

January 24, 2002 | In the 19th century Western culture was on an exhilarating and frightening cusp; thinking people were confronted with new scientific discoveries and theories that chipped away at their age-old vision of a static creation ordained and ordered by God. We can still feel tremors from that shift today, which is one reason why fiction writers like Andrea Barrett (and her British counterpart, A.S. Byatt) find the era so intriguing. Not all the characters in Barrett's engrossing new collection of linked stories, "Servants of the Map," are Victorians, but they're all enthralled with biology in one form or another. For them, the hunger for knowledge is as tempting and dangerous as any sexual passion, and sometimes they find that the two are strangely entwined.

The first and title story in the book concerns Max Vigne, a surveyor sent out to map the Himalayas in the 1860s. His journey to the fringes of humanity's domain is paralleled by his forays into a book given to him as a going-away present: Charles Darwin's "Origin of Species." Letters Max writes to his beloved wife, Clara, back home in England alternate with accounts of his gradual seduction by an unlikely siren: alpine botany. "When I am alone," he imagines writing to Clara when he doesn't dare tell her the truth, "with my notes and plants and the correlations of weather and geology and flora springing clear before me, I feel: This is who I am. This is what I was born to do."

For Max, the craving for knowledge, the forbidden knowledge of evolution, tugs at and frays the bonds connecting him to home and family. The same holds true for a character named Caleb Bernhard, in another story set 50 years earlier. Caleb takes a holiday from running the boys school he inherited from his creationist father in order to investigate fossils in Kentucky : He's guilty over betraying his father's beliefs, but unable to resist the allure of discovery. Later his widow, Miriam, will catch this craving like a virus and travel even farther afield, as will Rose, a contemporary biochemist in yet another story, a young woman distantly and obscurely related to Caleb.

Rose begins an affair with a girlhood crush, a friend of her parents who still works in the unfashionable area of "whole-animal biology." Rose herself, a rising star, studies a protein called ubiquitin, whose molecules "bind to other proteins and mark them for degradation." Her kind of science eclipses his (starving it of grant money and other resources) even as they both try to recapture in each other a bit of their lost past.

The relentless forward movement of science may sometimes seem a cold inevitability, but Barrett shows that it's driven by human desire. For her, the impulse to explore further and deeper, the need of each generation to surpass the one before, is a force often more powerful than love itself, one both beautiful and terrifying. Her characters bear the scars of its rendings and yet few of them can resist it. Most of the people in these six stories are connected in some way by blood (though you have to be observant to spot the links), and there's a suggestion that the curiosity that impells most of them is a secret way in which the past lives on even when we aren't aware of it. Even, in fact, when we believe we've cast it away.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Book 8: The Hunger

By Whitley Strieber

Went into the library looking for ‘The Wolfen’ and ended up with ‘The Hunger’. Didn’t realize the book came first (before the 1983 movie starring Catherine Deneuve & David Bowie).

I think people mostly know Strieber for ‘Communion’, which I never read. In any case, ‘The Hunger’ was really quite an excellent kick-ass fun read with a neat pseudo-scientific spin on the vampire mythos. It had everything I could ever ask for in a cool, modern bloodsucking novel. The central figure is the immortal Miriam, one of the very few left of her ‘kind’, who has managed to live from the dawn of ancient Egypt up to present day New York City (circa 1980).

Interestingly, the book actually never mentions the word ‘vampire’. Instead, Strieber posits these immortal humanoids are a separate species from the genus homo, having branched off from a common ancestor long ago. Able to pass as homo sapien, these creatures have lived under the radar of civilization, quietly preying on people and providing inspiration for supernatural legends. They are a contradiction because although superior in strength, lifespan, speed and intelligence, they are nevertheless a parasitic species that rely on human society for, not only food, but civilized comforts, finanical wealth and high culture.

The story weaves back and forth between the present and Miriam’s past lives in ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, and Napoleonic England. Much like our relationship with animals, Miriam depends on humans for nourishment and companionship, and always has a human lover in tow whom she has ‘transformed’. Her cyclical predicament is that, although her transformed partners live far longer than any normal human, they tend to rapidly deteriorate into shriveled up revenants after only a few hundred years! There are some horrifying passages when you realize what Miriam does with her expired zombie pets!

I realize the movie (directed by Tony Scott, who knew) had taken some liberties with the story and ending, but not the lesbian love scenes between Miriam and her new love interest, Sarah (she’s played by Susan Sarandon in the film). She happens to be a sleep researcher-scientist who may hold the key to human immortality, and who could potentially be Miriam’s newly transformed immortal girlfriend. Whereas the relationship-tension between Miriam and Sarah is actually quite engaging, it’s the hetero love scenes between Sarah and her boyfriend that are the cheesiest things in the book (like ugh! right out of a Danielle Steele book or something). But that’s my only complaint, the rest of the book kicks so much ass, I could easily forgive it.

There are also some good descriptions of New York City too. The story begins with Miriam and her pre-zombified current lover, John, off on a weekend trip stalking a teenaged couple in a sleepy Long Island town. They then return to their tricked out fortrified house in Manhattan's Sutton Place where there once was “a secret tunnel under the alley and garden, leading to a private dock on the East River, but the building of the East Side Drive had changed all that.” How cool is that?

What else. Strieber also does a commendable job of unifying the story with the running themes of hunger, need, and desire. It's this and the sympathetic and fascinating portrayal of the beautiful monstrous Miriam that elevates this book from just another vampire story. All in all, highly recommended!

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The New York Trilogy

Book 5: City of Glass
Book 6: Ghosts
Book 7: The Locked Room

by Paul Auster

Originally published as separate books, the three novellas have since been bound together within a single volume known as The New York Trilogy. Since I have in my possession the 1st edition Penguin paperbacks, I’m listing them as separate entities (jackpot!). Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find the original paperback covers of my 3 books on the web and thus, am making do with what's currently displayed.

Wikipedia’s plot introduction for 'The NY Trilogy' begins with: Ostensibly presented as detective fiction, the stories of The New York Trilogy have been described as "meta-detective-fiction"; "anti-detective fiction"; "mysteries about mysteries"; a "strangely humorous working of the detective novel"; "very soft-boiled"; a "metamystery"; "glassy little jigsaws"; a "mixture between the detective story and the nouveau roman".

If anyone’s familiar with Martin Amis, Don DeLillo, etc etc, ‘The NY Trilogy’ definitely wins the “meta-fiction” stamp of approval, as the author subtly (but more often not so subtly), insinuates himself into the narrative, and adds layers of internal/external references and clever complexity into each story.

But don’t let these Literary Labels fool you. Even if you find this meta self-reflexive stuff boring (as I sometimes do), or you don’t much like Auster’s later work, the stories in ‘The NY Trilogy’ are surreal, playful little gems. If you’re into detective fiction and postmodern lit, you’re in for a treat. But even if you tend toward the classic hard-boiled genre, and not so into the meta- self- post-whatever, the stories are short enough and fascinating enough to draw you into Auster’s strange and eerie world.

All three stories are distinct from each other, but thematically linked together, with a few of the same 'characters' weaving in and out. Like film noir, the stories start off in a harmless enough, even wisecracking, tone. But eventually the main character's identity unravels, and the protagonist sinks deeper n' deeper into whatever obsessive morass he got himself into in the first place, and ends up in a nihilistic hole he can't get out of.

The first volume, City of Glass, was adapted in 1994 into a critically acclaimed experimental graphic novel by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli, which was subsequently published as City of Glass: The Graphic Novel in 2004. I saw some sample panels on the web and the images looked very compelling; I’d be very curious to check this out too.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Book 4: Catlore

by Desmond Morris

If you’re a cat owner/lover, you’ve probably observed plenty of fascinating feline behaviour and wondered how much of it's due to nature or nurture.

As you know, Morris is known (in book and TV form) for his work on 'The Naked Ape'. 'Catlore' is like its feline equivalent where it attempts to tackle some serious questions that cat lovers have been asking since the Dawn of Kitty Domestication.

The book is structured into many short and digestible chapters, where each chapter deals with such common feline questions as:

>> How Do Cats Purr?

>> Why Do Cats Sulk?

>> Why Do Cats Sometimes Reject Their Food?

As you can see, the chapter names can be quite entertaining in themselves, for example:

>> Why Do Cats Interfere When Their Owners Are on the Telephone?

>> Why Do Cats Suddenly Make Mad Dashes Around the House?

>> Why Are Cats Attracted To People Who Dislike Them?

>> Why Do Some Cats Hate Men?

The book also deals with some more serious issues, such as feline history and health:

>> How Has Domestication Changed the Cat?

>> What is the History of the Tabby Cat?

>> Is it Cruel to Have a Cat Declawed?

>> How Does Being Neutered Affect a Cat’s Behaviour?

What's more, 'Catlore' is the sequel to the original 'Catwatching', which is just as engaging and informative, if not more.

So, if you’re still curious about quirky or conventional, but seemingly inexplicable, feline behaviour such as:

>> Why Do Cats Eat Grass?

>> Why Do Cat’s Eyes Glow in the Dark?

>> Why Does a Cat Tear at the Fabric of Your Favourite Chair?

>> Why Do Cats Keep Crying to Be Let Out, Then Cry to Be Let In Again?

Then this book is also for you!

Monday, March 12, 2007

Book 3: Mona in The Promised Land

By Gish Jen

A Xmas present from Conan’s mom (no, not this past Xmas but from the one before), and it’s finally taken me this long to get around to reading it (sorry to keep you waiting, Caroline).

MITPL starts off as a coming-of-age tale about a second-generation Chinese girl growing up in the large Jewish community of Scarshill, New York during the late 1960’s (like the author herself did). The protagonist Mona is constantly trying to balance pleasing her traditional parents while figuring out her own sense of self, an all-too-common theme in Asian-American literature. Jen adds a humourous twist by having the teenaged Mona, as part of her identity-searching, convert to Judaism early on in the story much to her family’s dismay and exasperation.

I found the novel difficult to get into at first, mainly because I found Jen’s style somewhat distracting (as if trying a bit too hard to be quirky & charming) and self-conscious in that stream-of-consciousness way of trying to create a flowing narrative using poetic-prose.

I felt Maxine Hong-Kingston had already explored this type of storytelling mode (with more success) when she used Walt Whitman as a muse for her free-style 1989 novel, Tripmaster Monkey, which featured the irreverent Wittman Ah Sing, a 23 year old fifth generation Chinese-American college-graduated wandering hippy. For me, MITPL was a bit like Jen’s ambitious answer to Hong-Kingston's novel, which also takes place in the 1960’s but in San Francisco. It’s been over a decade since I read Tripmaster Monkey, but I couldn’t help comparing the two, which share some similar traits and themes.

So those were the hurdles I was facing at the beginning, but nevertheless I plowed on and eventually, I got used to Jen’s style (or perhaps Jen’s style has finally settled down a bit) and got into her story, which did become genuinely quirky and charming, with an expanded cast of interesting side characters.

And there were many occasions where I identified with Jen’s comic observations of growing up Chinese in North America, although ironically, I never felt I could truly identify with the character of Mona, mostly because Jen would avoid exploring Mona’s emotional interior for very long. Perhaps this was Jen’s way of rendering Mona as a kind of cipher (the story is also told in third person), but to me, this is counter-productive for a coming-of-age tale. For example, when Mona suspected her boyfriend Seth of cheating on her with her friend Barbara, I wasn’t sure whether she was actually upset or trying to bury her feelings. When Mona was attacked and practically sexually assaulted by a stranger then rescued by said boyfriend, I didn’t get the impression that she was very disturbed about the incident afterwards.

Overall, MITPL ended up being a light funny clever read, with some good laughs. What’s more, reading Jen’s book now makes me want to revisit Tripmaster Monkey again.


Below is a link to a brief Salon review which sums up my experience of the book almost to a tee:

Monday, February 12, 2007

Book 2: About A Boy

By Nick Hornby

Like High Fidelity, the only other Hornby book I've read & reviewed, I'd already seen the movie adaptation first. And like High Fidelity, I quite enjoyed reading About a Boy too, and couldn’t help thinking what a good job the filmmakers (the Weitz brothers) did in capturing the spirit and humour of the original novel. And again, like Hi Fi, reading the book was like picturing the movie all over again (and I didn’t have to convert American accents to British ones!)

A surprise treat was that the ending of the novel was completely different from the movie version. Instead of the school music concert where the boy, Marcus, performed a wincingly painful a capella rendition of “Killing Me Softly” for his suicidal mum, Marcus and his rebellious friend Ellie embark on an ill-fated train trip to visit his Dad. This culminates in a rather farcical situation which has all the adult characters gathered at a police station of a small town to retrieve their troublesome kids.

In some ways, I prefered the final act of the movie version, since it focused exclusively on the relationship dynamic of the three main characters: Wil, the boy Marcus, and his mother Fiona. And to be honest, it also had more of a comedic and dramatic arc (better for a Hollywood movie I guess). On the other hand, the novel’s ending involved several side characters and took place in a completely new setting, which seemed to dilute the story arc and relationship focus between Wil, Marcus and Fiona.

In any case, it was still a treat to read Hornby’s novel from beginning to end. About A Boy wasn’t as cleverly sardonic as High Fidelity, but nevertheless, it had better character development and an actual narrative with the “just right” touching moments you’d expect from a man-boy buddy story, without the sentimental clichés.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Book 1: Running With Scissors

By Augusten Burroughs

Needed something light for the flight home from my Xmas holiday in Vancouver. So at Lawrence’s used bookstore, I picked up this “hilarious childhood memoir” that has adorned the NYTs bestsellers list and been made into a Hollywood movie (which I heard had made some critic’s list of the one of the Worst Movies of 2006). Despite that, the book ended up being quite enjoyable, and helped pass a good chunk of my 5+ hour flight.

Burroughs grew up in small-town Massachusetts with a distant, alcoholic father and a crackpot mother with delusions of poetic grandeur. His parents inevitably divorced, and in the turmoil, he got legally adopted by his mother’s psychiatrist, the highly unorthodox Dr Finch, who may or may not be as deranged as some of his patients, if not more.

Thus the 12-year-old journal-keeping Burroughs came to live in the disorderly, dilapidated Victorian mansion with Dr Finch’s bizarre family comprised of his wife, two daughters, an absent adopted son, and an obsessive-compulsive patient who has never left her guest room since she stepped in two years previous.

Yup, “Running with Scissors” felt very much like a Wes Anderson film with some “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” thrown in. You can see why Hollywood wanted to adapt this, as the cast of colourful characters ranged from the charmingly eccentric to the psychotically bananas. At times, it was a little hard to believe that every significant person in the author’s young life was some sort of unconventional oddball or nutcase. Even if some of the events were slightly exaggerated, still, you can’t make up some of the shit that went down in the Finch household (no pun intended).

The memoir covered a span of 4 years or so and comprised of very selective, yet cohesively narrative, vignettes. The tone was always kept somewhat light and casual, so you never felt like you could really get inside the author’s head of how it must have felt to have insanity rip your family apart.

Interestingly, Burroughs barely went to high school, but you can recognize that he nevertheless had a natural flair for writing and a sardonic wit. His editors must have had a field day correcting his spelling and grammar (why bother with learning such mundane things at school when you’re growing up in such a surreally entertaining environment). Although "Running With Scissors" didn’t exactly explore the depths of human emotions, it was ultimately a very good read with some touching, memorable moments.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Year End Wrap Up – 15 Books for 2006! aka Better Late Than Never!

Great year! I exceeded my goal of reading slightly more than 1 book every month. For some reason, I lost steam after October with nothing read for the remaining year (although I started several books, none of them grabbed me enough to finish by year’s end.

Book 14: Kafka On the Shore

By Haruki Murakami
(Translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel)

Mostly agree with dsgran’s summarized review of the same book see Book 7, except I wouldn’t call it a great book, per se, although it definitely had some great moments. Not as satisfying as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, disappointing in its unevenness and loose ends, and kind of lame in resorting to the clichéd device of “raining fish” (á la Magnolia). I also did not quite buy the March-November-Harold-and-Maude romance. Nevertheless, I kept getting drawn into Murakami’s surreal flights of unpredictability and the fascinating characters, such as the strangely androgynous Oshima and the cat-man Mr. Nakata. And then before I knew it, I finished the book!

Book 15: Necessary Betrayals

By Guillaume Vigneault

Picked this one up at the library after noting a decent review of it a while ago. It’s the debut novel of a young writer who lives and works as a bartender in the Plateau, the uber hip neighbourhood me & olman live.

Sadly, the book wasn’t so hip and it didn’t have much to do with living in the Plateau, or even Montreal, for that matter. Most of it takes place in the States because two brothers decide to go on a road trip and pick up a young woman along the way.

The older brother is old, not because he’s in his 30’s, but because he’s all washed-up due to some tragic event in his past. So he broods a lot while his younger brother is impulsive and slightly nuts. The woman is annoying because she is young, beautiful and hot, but she’s also surprisingly deep and smart. Of course, she has a big heart too because she falls in love with the older, washed up brother instead of the younger, wilder one even though she had sex with the younger one first, but it didn’t mean anything.

Ok, I think you’ve heard enough. This book pretty much felt like it was written by a bartender in his early-twenties who lives in the Plateau. It’s just too bad this one in particular had to be my last book for 2006.