Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Book 27 – Curse of the Spellmans

By Lisa Lutz

Yay, my final book for 2008! I seem to be closing the year with some worthwhile chick lit. This was actually consumed in between Books 1 and 2 of the Twilight saga, but in the interest of keeping the series together and saving the best for last, I hereby present Lisa Lutz's delightful sequel to The Spellman Files.

The past year I had the good fortune of experiencing many great books, but the Spellman books were undoubtedly my faves, only because they were simply the most fun to read. Olman can attest as he heard me chuckle out loud many times while we were reading in bed, which I don’t often do even when I’m reading something that’s supposed to be humorous!

In The Spellman Files, Isabel had to reassess how her lifestyle as a twenty-something was affecting her very impressionable adolescent sister Rae. Now at 31 years old, Isabel tries to impart some wisdom to now fifteen year old Rae as they walk to the corner store to get more snacks for their Dr Who marathon:

“The whole grown up thing is a myth. Whatever is wrong with you now will probably be wrong with you in twenty years.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me now,” Rae said.

“If people really grew up, there would be no crime, no divorce, no Civil War reenactors. Think about it. Was Uncle Ray a grown-up? Does Dad always behave like a grown-up? It’s all bullshit. I can’t tell you what Mom’s been doing lately, but I will say,
not grown-up.”

For me it’s hard not to like a caper comedy featuring a street-smart screwball but still lovable heroine, and Lutz balances the hard-boiled and the farcical with finesse. The repeated arrests do get a little over-the-top, as Isabel can’t stop her obsessive-compulsive need to uncover the truth once she’s on the case. But there are little moments of vulnerability with Isabel and her relationship to her family that imbues the novel with some emotion and depth.

And her sparkling conversations with her octogenarian lawyer, Mort Schilling, and possible love interest and almost unflappable police detective, Henry Stone, are an absolute delight.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Book 26 – Eclipse

By Stephanie Meyer

IMHO, Eclipse is the most exciting installment of the Twilight Saga. You’ve got the primal hostilities between vampires and werewolves, the still human and danger-prone Bella caught in between, the Volturi making an unexpected appearance and a vengeful vamp raising an army of newborn bloodsuckers and terrorizing the citizens of Seattle.

There's also more development and backstory from the minor characters. Jasper, with his origins as a Civil War veteran and subsequent initiation into the Monterrey vampire coven to train newborns, gets the best account of all. While Rosalie’s story, although a bit weak, explains why she's the only Cullen member opposed to Bella’s ardent desire to become a vampire. The Quileute wolf pack also grows with younger members as the increase in vampire activity in the La Push/Forks area seems to trigger the protective instinct among the Black/Uley/Clearwater bloodlines.

Of course, there’s the continuing love triangle between Edward, Bella and Jacob. Like fire and ice, Jake n' Eddie cannot be any more diametrical, and neither can their respective clans, despite the fragile truce between the Cullens and Quileutes. Like the metaphor of bringing together two opposing magnets, Bella acts as the human bridge between the age-old antipathies between vampire and werewolf. Eventually, the coming of the newborn vampire army from Seattle forces an alliance between the Cullens and Quileutes.

In Eclipse, Meyer’s Mormon beliefs become more apparent, and mostly embodied by Edward, who with his old-fashioned chasteness, has –ahem- retained much of his Edwardian values, much to Bella’s hormonally-charged chagrin. By the same token, the erotic tension of abstinence always make for more exciting romance, especially if you want to maintain audience interest. Look at Mulder and Scully in the X-Files, or David Addison & Maddie Hayes in Moonlighting (yep I’m that old). As soon as the guy and gal do it… that’s it, the thrill is gone!

Based on the various online forums that he often peruses, Olman mentioned that geeks (mostly male) generally diss the Twilight series on the basis that they’re teen romances disguised as thin-skinned fantasy. Not sure if these fellas had bothered even reading any of the books in the first place, but this is a rather snobby attitude to have. Meyer’s work isn’t exactly in the same league as His Dark Materials trilogy (Philip Pullman) in darkness and complexity, but the Twilight books ain’t bad either in terms of entertainment.

I'd probably compare Meyer more with Charles De Lint, as she juggles the worlds of mythic fantasy with the banalities of reality quite competently, and often with much humour. The vampire world of the Volturi is complex enough to illicit the creep factor and the fabricated Quileute legends about how the spirit warriors became the wolfen protectors are quite well thought out and told. Despite the obsessive attention of detail over Edward and Bella’s relationship, the supporting characters are well-developed and charismatic in their own right. Most importantly, Meyer’s books are inspiring hordes of teenage girls who wouldn’t normally touch the fantasy genre with a 10-foot jousting lance to read an adventure-romance about vampires and werewolves!

Perhaps the most disturbing thing I found with the series so far, is how indifferent Bella is to the Cullens regular hunting of wild grizzly bear and mountain lion. If Meyer really wanted them to be good vegetarian vampires (hence ethical consumers), she should’ve made a plug about the Cullens being rather generous supporters of conversation societies, like the WWF. But alas, Meyer is a Mormon, not an environmentalist!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Book 25 – New Moon

By Stephanie Meyer

The sequel to Twilight begins happily enough with Edward inviting the reluctant yet still very human Bella to celebrate her 18th birthday with the Cullen clan at their swanky yet isolated lair. Birthday girl is disgruntled she’s now older than her boyfriend, who’s been frozen at 17 for almost a century, but that’s the least of her worries. The party comes to a crashing end when Edward realizes what a dangerous predicament he’s put his human girlfriend in by having her associate with his family of vampires, some still prone to weakness at the sight of human blood.

Edward decides that the best thing to do is to leave Bella – for good. A few months after his abandonment, we spend a good chunk of the first third of New Moon dealing with our heroine putting up a brave face despite her catatonic depression. In her struggle with vampire withdrawal, Bella renews her friendship with Jacob, the teenage son of Billy Black.

There were hints dropped in the previous installment about Jacob’s possible supernatural Quileute heritage, but before you can say “love triangle”, Jacob discovers he’s turned into a teenage werewolf! Sounds ridiculous, but Meyer somehow manages to spin out a rather captivating yarn behind Jacob’s transformation. He’s one of the direct descendents of shape-shifting ancestors who protect the tribe against the evil Cold Ones, since bloodsuckers are part of the Quileute legends too.

Things get rolling when one of the bad vamps from the previous book is back looking for vengeance. Learning that her mate James was eliminated by the Cullens, Victoria seeks to destroy Bella, who was James' original prize. Since Edward’s stepsister has the gift of seeing into the future, Alice returns to Forks thinking that Bella is dead. Due to some catastrophic misunderstanding, Alice and Bella then race to Italy to rescue Edward from the ancient and formidable vampire coven, the Volturi.

The Volturi keep all the vampires of the world in check and their guards have deadly vampire abilities of their own. Aro, the Volturi leader, covets the gifts of the Cullen coven, and discovers that Bella is impervious to their psychic attacks. He decides to release Edward out of respect to Carlisle and with the promise that Bella will one day be turned into a vampire. Bella is thus reunited with her beloved Edward, and she learns that he truly loves her after all. Bella, Edward and his family return to Forks to resume their lives, but now there is the complication with Jacob and the Quileute werewolves!

Like the past book, Meyer does a great job describing the gloomy beauty of the rainy Pacific Northwest and the geography of the Olympic Peninsula. It seems to be a pattern now where Meyer starts off the first chunk of the story with a near-banal lull with Bella entrenched in her all-too-real and all-too-ordinary small town existence. Then she suddenly turns on the action switch, ramps up the conflict and delivers on the fun and fantastic. There’s a reason why the saga has become such a popular phenomenon.

Of course, there’s the romance between Bella and Edward that sends young hearts racing, although their love for each other is so totally unreal. These two spend almost every waking and sleeping moment together! The hyper-romantic codependent relationship between human and supernatural being does not exactly make a healthy influence on teenage girls! The copious cliches of two souls intertwined and words describing the pain of heart-wrenching separation were enough to make me gag. The positive part is that Bella and Edward are still compelling protagonists, if you can get past their self-deprecating declarations of love.

Plus, the interesting backstories on the other vampires, such as Carlisle and Alice, and the Quileute characters who are tied to Jacob, like Sam Uley and Leah Clearwater, also enrich the narrative. There is definitely enough there to move on to the next installment!

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Book 24 – Twilight

By Stephanie Meyer

Thanks to a coworker who generously lent me the entire Twilight saga, December became the month for gratuitous self-indulgence!

If I was a teenager today I don't think I'd be able to resist the whole Twilight phenomenon (having read a fair number of Sweet Dreams books and young adult fantasy at that tender age). Now as an adult in pre-holiday mode, I can allow myself to be swept up again in pure flights of fancy... albeit with a slightly more, ahem, mature perspective.

The rather unremarkable heroine, Bella Swan, is the perfect cipher for the young adult reader of the female persuasion. Plagued by the usual teen foibles -- shyness, extreme awkwardness and low self-esteem -- she's ordinary enough to make her identifiable, but pretty enough to make her appealing to the boys in her new high school. Bella is mature beyond her years for a 17-year-old, which sets her apart as a kind of loner, but she’s compassionate and loves those who are close to her, so she remains connected to humanity. When Bella moves from sunny Arizona to rainy small-town Forks to live with her Dad, she becomes the new girl in town, the one who’d rather be a wallflower than the centre of attention.

Not surprisingly, Edward Cullen is a preternaturally gorgeous youth with perfectly tousled bronze hair, brooding intelligence and the kind of mysterious qualities that make him wholly unattainable for the average teenage girl. It's obvious from the get-go that what really sets Edward and his siblings apart from the regular crowd is their secret vampire identities. And the reason why they even attend high school and coexist with human society in the first place is because they are civilized and humane bloodsuckers: they don’t believe in killing people for food (instead preferring to hunt large, and let's hope, non-endangered animals in the wild expanse of the Pacific Northwest), thus distinguishing the Cullen family as kind of, well, unconventional vampires.

Edward’s immortal zen gets totally thrown when he gets a whiff of the enticing blood coursing through Bella’s veins and is sent into a state of barely controlled frenzy. When he gets over his baser instincts of objectifying Bella as tasty game (he is a deep and conscientious vamp, after all), he sees past her ordinariness and recognizes a potential soul mate, aka The One he’s been searching for, like, the past 90 years of his brief immortal existence.

Though the first meeting is a twist on the “attraction” at first sight, the first half of Twilight is disappointingly on the banal side. Edward’s rescue of Bella from a car accident and then assault from Port Angeles rednecks felt rather contrived and Bella’s discovery of Edward’s true identity is rather ho-hum. And the courtship between the young lovers develops quite normally: they converse over dinner at a restaurant, e.g. what’s it like to be Bella, the vulnerable self-effacing human? What’s it like to be Edward, the sulky hunky teenage vampire with a heart of gold? They talk and talk some more while driving in the car, over lunch at the school cafeteria, and walking to class together, etc etc. Bella learns that Edward can read minds, but the only mind he can’t read is Bella’s. Big Whoop. Things get hot n’ heavy when Edward shows Bella his special place in the woods. But oh, they can’t go all the way because Edward is afraid he might lose all self-control and kill his one true love by drinking all her blood!

I was getting highly skeptical that this was going to be anything more than a hyped-up teen romance disguised as a vapid vampire story. Where was the friggin’ action? And I don’t mean action in the sense of the heavy petting variety, but action in the form of adventure, physical violence and carnage! Finally about halfway through, the plot gets more interesting when Bella meets Edward’s “family”, which is actually more like a coven of vampires comprised of 3 couples: Carlisle and Esme, Rosalie and Emmett, and Alice and Jasper. Since Edward is the odd one out, his family members are mostly accepting of Edward’s rather unorthodox choice for a mate.

Carlisle and Esme appear the oldest, so their ‘official’ story is of a couple who have adopted the others into a kind of extended family. In vampire terms, Carlisle is the leader who established his ‘humane’ coven out of years of loneliness as an eccentric vampire who wishes not to murder. The Cullens only drink human blood when ‘rescuing’ those who are going to die anyway, and transform them into immortal companions. Interestingly enough, Edward has no wish to turn Bella into a vampire for reasons of his own, despite Bella’s desire to love him forever and forever.

Then real conflict arises during a fateful Cullen family baseball game in the form of three visiting vampires. Laurent, James and Victoria are vampires of the typical variety who feed on humans: they tend to be nomadic, avoid human society as much as possible and travel in small groups out of practicality. Although Laurent expresses interest in the Cullen’s unconventional lifestyle, James and Victoria are ‘trackers’, amoral hunters who are obsessed with the challenge of a chase, be it human or otherwise. And the challenge of a strong vampire clan protecting their only vulnerability, a frail human, proves too much to resist. Things then actually get quite exciting and suspenseful when the Cullen Clan strategize like pieces on a chess board to protect their human queen while, at the same time, try to eliminate their threat.

It’s just too bad all this action and excitement is rushed through the last third of the novel. Twilight is primarily a romance, after all, about an ordinary heroine thrown into a set up extraordinary circumstances. So when Meyer decides to turn on the action switch, the story falls into fantastic mode seamlessly and compellingly. There is definitely enough interest sustained in the story development and characters for me to read the next installment. My only complaint is how much is made of Edward’s youthful beauty, his dazzling this and his perfect that. I know vampires are supposed to be seductively pulchritudinous but does almost every member of the Cullen family has to be described looking either like supermodels or movie stars? The constant worship of mainstream beauty gets a little tiresome (alas this isn't about being clever) but I guess this stokes the bland imaginations of the Seventeen or Teen Vogue set just fine!

I’m also a little suspicious about Bella’s association with Billy Black, one of the elders of the Quileute Indian reservation outside the town of Forks, who's close friends with her father, Charlie. Billy still believes in the ‘old legends’ and seems to be the only person who knows of the Cullens’ true nature. Through his son Jacob, Billy makes a few attempts to warn Bella of the dangers of associating with such creatures. Although the Quileutes is a real tribe based in the coastal region of Washington state, I’m highly suspicious of the creative license Meyer will make riffing on First Nations culture, which may likely happen the next book, so let’s just see what happens next…

Friday, November 28, 2008

Book 23 - The Icarus Girl

By Helen Oyeyemi

When I heard that Oyeyemi was a hot young British writer whose debut novel, about a little girl wrestling with the supernatural, was garnering critical attention, I had to check it out.

Jessamy Wuraola Harrison is a quiet, precocious 8-year-old girl living in a London suburb. Half Nigerian and half British, she’s caught between two worlds in more ways than one. Somewhat introverted and strange, Jess prefers spending time alone talking to herself in a closet, or personally annotating published books, rather than playing with friends. The turning point is when her parents bring Jess along to visit her mother’s family in Nigeria. In the abandoned servants quarters on her grandfather’s property, Jess meets a mysterious young girl named Titiola. Since Jess has trouble pronouncing it, she calls her TillyTilly, and the two girls become fast friends. Not only does TillyTilly like Jess just the way she is, she has a knack for sneaking into places that are locked or forbidden, like Jess’ grandfather’s library or an abandoned playground. One day, Tilly asks Jess:

‘Would you like to be like me? Like, be able to do the things I do, I mean?’
Jess nodded so hard she felt as if her brains were bouncing about inside her head. Tilly nodded too, and Jess briefly got that odd feeling again that her actions were being mirrored…
‘Don’t worry about it,’ she said. ‘You’ll see me again.’


Eventually Jess has to return to London and says a tearful goodbye to TillyTilly, thinking she’ll never see her again. But a few weeks later, her faraway friend magically shows up at her doorstep. Sure enough, this TillyTilly isn't quite who she appears to be, being more than just an ordinary ‘imaginary’ friend. The mixed heritage coming-of-age portrait of a girl gradually morphs into a ghost story, but since this is supposed to be a modern Penguin novel, the narrative gets quite creepy, but never really downright scary. But still, having a supernatural friend eventually takes a psychological toll, and Jess soon becomes a problem child. She always had difficulty making friends, but now she’s getting into fights and having screaming tantrums at school. As TillyTilly gradually insinuates herself into Jess’ life, Jess slowly realizes how little control she has over her so-called friend, and most importantly, her own life.

She had just realized with stunning clarity that she was the only person who saw TillyTilly. She put a hand to her mouth as she tried to sort this out in her mind. She didn’t know why it hadn’t occurred to her before. TillyTilly had not met anyone in her family, no one had met her, and she refused to meet anyone. And even when Jess was with TillyTilly, never mind that people couldn’t see Jess; the most noticeable thing was that they couldn’t see TillyTilly. She suddenly felt very small and a little bit scared. Is TillyTilly… real?

Finally TillyTilly confesses to Jess who she really is… sort of. It has to do with a long buried family secret, and when Jess reveals to her mother what she knows, yet shouldn't know, she freaks out big time:

Sarah began rambling, her voice trembling: ‘Three worlds! Jess lives in three worlds. She lives in this world, and she lives in the spirit world, and she lives in the Bush. She’s abiku, she always would have known! The spirits tell her things, Fern tells her things. We should’ve… oh, oh… Mama! Mummy-mi, help me…’

Not realizing that Tilly is trying to set her against her mother, Jess realizes too late what TillyTilly is really after…. This is where the story gets creepy. Like when Jess starts hiding in bed because a strange creature with very long arms keeps visiting her at night. Or when TillyTilly tells Jess she’s going to ‘get’ anybody that tries to get in 'their' way, or how she coyly suggests to Jess that they swap places: ‘you’ll be me for a little bit, Jessy, and I’m going to be you!’. Or when Jess convinces her only human friend Siobhan to ‘meet’ TillyTilly: ‘from the moment that Tilly had come into the room, Shivs had felt a … badness. It was the only way to describe it; it was like being sick and hearing rattling in her head as well, slowly building in pressure.’

Though the novel was very good and had many captivating and disturbing moments, at times it did come across as if it was written by a young writer (I believe Oyeyemi was only 20 when the book was published). The world of young girlhood is realistically portrayed, but the precociously gifted child, mature and articulate beyond her years, is such an over-abused theme, and there were several moments where I questioned the credibility of Jess’ thoughts and dialogue. The second trip to Nigeria felt very rushed, and there wasn’t enough time spent with the Nigerian family stepping in to deal with the restless spirit of TillyTilly. The ending also lacked a satisfying resolution, like a much-needed symbolic exorcism, and seemed to cop out with a deliberately ambiguous ending. This could have been a truly exciting story of possession if it didn't have such lofty ambitions of being a 'serious' novel. This is still quite an accomplished story for a young writer, and overall is worth checking out.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Book 22 - Everyone’s Pretty

By Lydia Millet

I heard Millet was a funny writer to watch out for, so I picked up a used copy for a read n’ see. It was amusing for sure, but it mostly felt like the novel was trying to be a quirky indie film (perhaps directed by David O. Russell) about a bunch of disparate oddballs n' freaks in L.A. who humorously intersect in one way or another. The main character, Dean Decetes, a porn flick reviewer (as well as chronic masturbator and loser), reminded me too much of Ignatius Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces, with his unkempt appearance, penchant for lofty language and delusional god complex.

And Dean’s living and freeloading off of his devout spinster sister, Bucella, is a setup very similar to Ignatius’ relationship with his poor, Irene. Dean is always getting himself into trouble and/or embarrassing her with his drunken rampages, and Bucella is getting tired of looking after her younger brother. There’s only one little tender exchange between Dean and Bucella, where he tries to convince her to bail him out one more time by reminding her of how, when they were little, he used ro sneak food to her when their abusive father locked her in the bathroom for two weeks. That was one of few genuine emotional moments in the novel.

But overlooking the somewhat hackneyed setup and borrowed influences, Everyone’s Pretty is a light quick entertaining read with some genuinely funny moments. Dean Decetes may talk like Ignatius Reilly but the words that spew from his mouth are pretty clever. Take the scene where he’s arrested for drunk driving, and while sitting in the back of the police car, he attempts to converse with the rookie about value systems:

-Are you of the Pentecostal persuasion? he asked. –Your brother or father handle snakes? Snake-handling in the family? I handle one myself. Frequently.

Millet also loves to poke fun at religious ignoramuses, such as Philip Kreuz, Bucella’s coworker at Statistical Diagnostics. A misguided Christian Scientist who married a dim-wit for the purpose of converting her, Phil has some very laughable views about Catholics (notoriously flighty and given to weeping and gruesome depictions of the Crucifixion), the Three Tenors (he would not be surprised if the one with the beard soiled innocent children on a regular basis… too fruity even for the other Sodomites), and Murder She Wrote (a virtual Gomorrah of prime-time indecency in which females far past their prime rudely rejected appropriate modes of behavior and seldom if ever acknowledged their spiritual debt to the savior).

I read in an interview that it was Millet’s desire to make Dean Decetes sympathetic despite his outrageous defective character traits. The problem is that I failed to identify with any of the characters. All in all, it made for an amusing but ultimately forgettable read.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Book 21 – The Sun Also Rises

By Ernest Hemingway

“You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed by sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafés.”

“It sounds like a swell life,” I said. “When do I work?”


A couple of years ago, a friend, downsizing his collection, gave this book to me when I was over for a visit. It became my “commute” book over the winter, but my metro rides were usually too short and/or too crowded to read more than a couple of pages at a time. Then winter was over and I was cycling, and this book got left under a pile of other books, forgotten. More than a year later, I picked it up again, but had to skim over the first third again since it’s been so long!

I haven’t done this book much service as a reader, but it’s actually quite a terrific book. I mean, it’s Hemingway, so quality writing and literary merit are a given. The only other Hemingway I’ve ever read was his memoir, A Movable Feast, which I don’t remember much except that it had great atmosphere, in that Paris-was-yesterday kinda way. The Sun Also Rises is very similar in that respect, except it’s a fictionalized story of a group of American expatriates who pilgrimage to the Spanish town of Pamplona for the annual fiesta and bull fights. The story is told from the POV of Jake Barnes, an American WWI veteran and now a writer living in Paris.

Although I knew that Jake was injured from the War, I didn’t realize until much later that he actually lost his manhood as a result! The reference to Jake’s unfortunate injury is quite subtle if you’re not paying attention, which was what happened to me. If I had figured this out earlier, I would’ve understood better why Jake and Lady Brett Ashley have such an interesting, but complicated friendship. Brett is beautiful, narcissistic, self-destructive and destined to a series of failed relationships, while Jake is doomed to a life of celibacy, and unconsummated love for Brett. Sure this may sound clichéd and stupid, even back in the day, but with Hemingway, it works. It helps that the main characters are sympathetic and so goddamned likable. Like Brett’s talent as a quick wit and social catalyst, or Jake’s high-powered observations about his friends’ strengths and foibles, and his willingness to overlook gibes if a good repartee is going.

There is still a very modern and sophisticated quality about The Sun Also Rises, while at the same time, the novel truly encapsulates its own zeitgeist. There are fine and funny moments in 1920’s Paris when the characters go out on the town, wandering from café to café, or meeting up for a nice meal...

We ate dinner at Madame Lecomte’s restaurant on the far side of the island. It was crowded with Americans and we had to stand up and wait for a place. Someone had put it in the American Women’s Club list as a quaint restaurant on the Paris quais as yet untouched by Americans, so we had to wait forty-five minutes for a table.

Most of the key characters have been directly, or indirectly, affected by the War, having lost their purpose in some way (hence the “Lost Generation”). Since the majority of these early day slackers are full-fledged adults in their late-twenties or early thirties, they may lack direction in life, but they still appreciate good company, lively conversation and drink. The dialogue among these colourful people is constantly amusing – they exchange pleasantries, they gossip, they rib on each other. But above all, they imbibe.

There is a lovely moment when Jake and his friend Bill take a side trip to a remote Spanish village and go trout fishing. They pack a picnic and a couple of bottles of wine and have a great time. They get along with the locals and they drink more bottles of wine. They meet a British fellow named Harris and they get along well with him too. They find a pub and he buys each of them a bottle of wine apiece. Harris confesses to Jake and Bill that he hasn’t had this much fun since the war.

There are definitely undercurrents of loss and emptiness, and lots of post-modern aimlessness, but for me, it’s this awareness combined with the many little moments of humanity that makes this novel a memorable and enjoyable read.

It was like certain dinners I remember from the war. There was much wine, an ignored tension, and a feeling of things coming that you could not prevent happening. Under the wine I lost the disgusted feeling and was happy. It seemed they were all such nice people.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Book 20 – The Chrysalids

By John Wyndham

I’ve had this sweet 1965 Penguin paperback edition for years and years. And for some unfathomable reason, I never bothered to read this 1955 sci fi classic… until now.

I guess I’ve always been a bit picky about which books I want to read. But I think being part of the 50-Books blog-circle the past 3 years has really opened my mind to exploring books I’ve always been curious about, but never felt a strong enough compulsion to indulge. Recent examples have been Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, The Watchmen, and Animal Farm. And hey, I already broke last year's record of reading 19 books!

But out of all of these golden oldies, The Chrysalids is my favourite so far, mostly because the confluence of elements that make an excellent novel are all there: a simple yet effective story, first-rate narration, well-developed characters, formidable foes, oodles of tension, conflict, loss and sacrifice, powerfully enduring and relevant themes, and a satisfying resolution. There is a timelessness to The Chrysalids that does not feel dated for the most part, even when dealing with male-female relationships or ideas about the future. Not bad for a novel that was written in the 1950s, and this is a real tribute to Wyndham’s writing talents.

I believe most of you are familiar with the premise of The Chrysalids. It’s a classic post-apocalyptic tale about the survival of the human race after the planet is devastated by nuclear holocaust. Thousands of years later, where the land hasn’t been scorched black, vegetation and wildlife return (and reproduce to some degree of normalcy), and human civilization starts anew. Although genetic mutations run less rampant, they still exist, and the fear of deviations among these frontier societies proliferates into an institutionalized fanaticism to keep strains of livestock and agriculture “pure” like they were in times before the “Tribulation”. Any plant or animal species that deviates from the norm are called “Offences”, and thus promptly destroyed.

Nowhere is this practiced more zealously than in the farming villages of Labrador (yeah, Canada!), where the culture seems to be modeled after orthodox Christian communities of the 19th century. And human deviations, known as “Blasphemies”, are feared the most (what is done to these Blasphemers are not revealed until later in the novel ;-) Although it is easy enough to spot a physical deformity, like an extra finger or toe, unbeknownst to the villagers of Waknuk, a small group of young people soon discover they have the ability to silently communicate with one another across distances with their minds…

There is so much more going on, however, that I’d rather not ruin with summarizing. In any case, there are already many things written online about The Chrysalids. As it’s a compact novel, you’re better off just reading this for yourself (or re-reading if it’s been a long time, as in the case for Olman).

What I also appreciate about The Chrysalids are Wyndham’s Darwinist ideas ("But life is change, that is how it differs from rocks, change is its very nature") and his uncompromising stance against fundamentalist religious views, ie. Christianity, which are almost always based on fear of change and/or fear of the unknown. Wyndham does a bang-up job portraying the stranglehold of frightful oppressiveness that surrounds the village of Waknuk, and the constant vigilance the invisible minority of mutants must maintain on a daily basis in order to protect themselves. The panel inscriptions that decorate the God-fearing home of the Strorm family are priceless in themselves:

ONLY THE IMAGE OF GOD IS MAN
KEEP PURE THE STOCK OF THE LORD
IN PURITY OUR SALVATION
WATCH THOU FOR THE MUTANT!
THE NORM IS THE WILL OF GOD
THE DEVIL IS THE FATHER OF DEVIATION

Change is what’s needed most for the most dominant and self-delusional species on Earth. Wyndham seems to be saying that human beings are, not just tragically flawed, but totally fucked, and if we don't end up destroying ourselves and our environment, the only hope we have is the remote possibility of evolving into something better.


< WARNING -- SPOILER >


In the end, the discovery of a telepathically-evolved race of human beings and their advanced society in faraway Sealand (yeah, New Zealand!) gives hope to the persecuted mutants of Labrador.


< END OF SPOILER >


Another good thing about reading John Wyndham for the first time is the pleasure of looking forward to reading his other classics. Yay!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Book 19 – Max & The Cats

By Moacyr Scliar

Although Moacyr Scliar is a distinguished Brazilian author, his compact novella is perhaps more famous as being the inspiration for Yann Martel’s Booker prize-winning, Life of Pi. Since I haven’t read Martel’s book, and Scliar’s being quite a bit slimmer, I figured this would be a quick, light read. I had the original impression that Max & The Cats was a story for young adults, with the magic realist premise of a boy adrift at sea with a wild jaguar.

It’s actually an allegorical tale for grown-ups (there is adultery and violence) which spans the life of Max: from his boyhood in Berlin in the 1920’s to his death in Brazil in 1977. Max grows up working at his father’s fur shop, The Bengal Tiger, named after the prominently displayed stuffed tiger that Max's father had shot in India. Although fearful of the watchful gaze of this immobilized animal, Max is afraid of his father even more. During this period, Germany is in the grip of political instability, but Max is too caught up in his own life as a university student and his ongoing affair with a married woman to really pay attention. He even ingratiates himself to Professor Kunz, famous for his research on animal psychology, but who eventually starts experimenting on gypsies! Professor Kunz’s work also involves studying the behaviour of cats in situations involving conflict: He would place the animals in huge labyrinths, where they are subjected to constant dilemmas, such as choosing between two paths – one leading to a saucer with milk, the other to a fierce bulldog. (yep, foreshadowing)

Eventually Max incurs the wrath of a high-ranking Nazi officer and is forced to flee Germany. He finds passage to Brazil on a ship full of animals, unaware that the shady captain plans to sink the ship and flee with the insurance. This is where we find Max held captive in a little dinghy with a menacing jaguar, adrift in the middle of the ocean. Another uneasy relationship with a feline develops, as Max tries to appease the big cat with fish that he has caught. The jaguar inadvertently saves his life by striking at a shark that was attempting to make a meal out of the both of them. This is probably the most adventurous part of the tale.

Max miraculously makes it over to Brazil and starts a new life as a farmer. As a German he faces some difficulties when Brazil declares war on Germany in 1942, but on the whole manages reasonably well. After the war he visits his homeland, but finds nothing there he can really return to. Back in Brazil, a newly arrived German neighbour builds a palacial mansion overlooking his modest farm, and Max recognizes him as the former Nazi officer. This third variation of the feline-theme is a different yet equally threatening one, but Max confronts this one head-on, without a few consequences.

The story is structured into 3 distinct phases, each representing a different aspect of Max’s – I don’t know how else to say it – psychic development, which is represented by his attitude and relationship with his various “cat encounters”. The first phase of his life is based around fear, the second is one of resignation and/or complacency and the final phase is one of self-actualization. If you’re thinking this sounds a little on the Freudian side, well, it is! Later in the story, a doctor living in Brazil tells Max that he likes to share his story to the indigenous people about a craftsman named Ego, his nemesis named Id and an authoritarian figure named Super Ego. You get the drift.

Max & The Cats has been called everything from brilliant, to appealing yet unfulfilling. I would side with the latter. The tone of the narrative is rather allegorical, and it was told in a detached and removed style, so there wasn’t much in the way of substance for me (not much to identify with). I think that the novel would have hit the mark better if it was aimed at young adults as the ideas were interesting, but the symbolism was a little too trite and obvious for my liking. So really, more unfulfilling than appealing, overall!

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Book 18 – The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz

By Mordecai Richler

Spending the past several years on the Plateau Montreal has definitely been a privilege, but living in such close proximity to St Urbain St and having never read any Mordecai Richler the whole time is almost a crime. So if I’m going to start things off right, I figure the best intro would be none other than Duddy Kravitz. Indeed, the titular character’s old stomping grounds are now my own, the only major difference being what was once a working-class Jewish neighbourhood is now a gentrified and coveted area to reside in. Reading about Duddy’s boyhood on the Plateau evokes a mixed sense of loss for a bygone era and awe at how many things manage to remain unchanged since, say, WWII.

To the middle-class stranger, it’s true, one street would have seemed as squalid as the next. On each corner a cigar store, a grocery, and a fruit man. Outside staircases everywhere. Winding ones, wooden ones, rusty and risky ones. Here’s a prized plot of grass splendidly barbered, there a spitefully weedy patch. An endless repetition of precious peeling balconies and waste lots making the occasional gap here and there. But, as the boys knew, each street between St Dominique and Park Avenue represented subtle differences in income. No two cold-water flats were alike… No two stores were the same, either. Best Fruit gypped on the scales, but Smiley’s didn’t give credit.

The beginning of the novel is splendid, with teenaged Duddy Kravitz and his gang of Warriors pretty much ruling over Fletcher Fields High School, tormenting their pathetic teacher, Mr MacPherson, and getting into tussles with the CPS, a kind of civil defense organization during the war. Kravitz is a born troublemaker, but this doesn’t mean he’s lacking in ambition and drive. His biggest dream of all is to someday own his own land. As his Grandpa Simcha would constantly drive it home to Duddy, “A man without land is nobody”.

At night, lying exhausted on his cot, Duddy realized how little money he had in big business terms and he dreamed about his future. He knew what he wanted, and that was to own his own land and to be rich, a somebody, but he was not sure of the smartest way to go about it. He was confident. But there had been other comers before him. South America, for instance, could no longer be discovered. It had been found. Toni Home Permanent had been invented. Another guy had already thought up Kleenex. But there was something out there, like let’s say the atom bomb formula before it had been discovered, and Duddy dreamed that he would find it and make his fortune.

The last sentence is telling, implying that Duddy is willing to resort to rather unscrupulous methods if it means he can get that much closer to achieving his dream. That turns out to be a bit of an understatement. The rest of the novel is pretty much about Duddy’s various ill-conceived yet audacious enterprises, the business men he comes across who are varying shades of shady and legit, the friends and lovers he meets and eventually screws over. The stuff about Duddy’s half-baked schemes, like his stint as a socalled movie producer who hires a washed-up alcoholic filmmaker to shoot bar mitzvahs and weddings in and around Westmount, can be down-right hilarious.

Before all the scheming and manipulating, Duddy starts off humbly and honestly working as a waiter at a summer resort in Ste Agathe. This section is also fun to read since I stayed at a friend’s summer cottage out there, and could almost visualize how it must’ve been like back in the day:

Some sixty miles from Montreal, set high in the Laurentian hills on the shore of a splendid blue lake, Ste Agathe des Monts had been made the middle-class Jewish community’s own resort town many years ago. Here, as they prospered, the Jews came from Outremont to build summer cottages and hotels and children’s camps. … There were still some pockets of Gentile resistance, it’s true … For even as they played croquet and sipped their gin and tonics behind protecting pines they could not miss the loud, swarthy parade outside. The short husbands with their outrageously patterned sports shirts arm in arm with purring wives too obviously full for slacks… The lake was out of the question. Sailboats and canoes had no chance against speedboats, spilling over with relatives and leaving behind a wash of empty Pepsi bottles.

What really makes this coming-of-age story rather unorthodox and memorable, if not always likable, is the dark and ugly side of Duddy Kravitz. This would imply that there could also be a good and appealing side, which does on occasion surface when it involves Duddy’s immediate family. Other than that, Duddy is pretty much pure ambition and mostly driven by his obsession to come out on top. TAoDK is a brutally honest and unsympathetic portrayal of a protagonist that sinks to despicable lows, and ends up getting what he wants in the end... at a cost. There is no disguising that Duddy Kravitz represents the epitome of the Jewish nightmare. In this sense, Richler’s novel kind of plays out as a morality tale. The ending is ambiguous in that it lacks any kind of satisfying reconciliation -- Duddy never learns his lesson and ends up alienating everyone around him. What’s certain is that Duddy will always be driven to make money and will never change his ways.

I want some land, Uncle Benjy. I’m going to own my own place one day. King of the castle, that’s me. And there won’t be any superior drecks there to laugh at me or run me off. That’s just about the size of it.

---

The 1974 film version by Ted Kotcheff, which stars the young Richard Dreyfuss as the titular character, is considered a Canadian landmark. I saw it long ago in film school, and will likely revisit the film again now that I finally read Richler’s book many years later!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Book 17 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

By Philip K. Dick

Yup, believe it. Just read this for the very first time! Plenty of spoilers ahead since I assume the rest of the world has read it…

First off, I understand that Blade Runner is only very loosely based on this PKD classic. But since I’ve seen the movie, like, multiple times, and the cinematic imagery and storyline are so deeply ingrained in me, it’s almost impossible not to go in without any preconceptions or inevitable comparisons. Guess it’s rather fitting that I found a used paperback featuring Blade Runner as the cover!

In this respect, DADoES was a bit of a let-down for me, with none of the action and violence of the film version. Although everything took place over the course of a 24-hour period in which Deckard retired a total of 6 androids… mostly executed in a weirdly un-dramatic manner. There was no race against time where the rogue Nexus-6 androids seek a cure to extend their robot lives, no “lemme tell you about my mother” confrontations, nor a maker meets his doom scenario where his android creation squeezes eyes n’ brains out of skull. And lastly, no final laser tube showdown between human and machine. In fact, the ending where Deckard finishes off the remaining androids was rather anti-climactic and remarkably unexciting.

There was also a very un-sexy bedroom scene with Deckard and Rachael, a female android (unsexy because the dated descriptions and dialogue rendered it tame and rather laughable). Even Dick’s earlier work The Man In The High Castle had some excellent ass-kicking in there, so it’s not like ass-kicking was out of the realm of his stylistic milieu.

Ok, now the negative stuff is out of the say. What Blade Runner lacks in background setting, contextual details and thematic exploration, the novel provides in abundance -- PKD-style. Sometime after an unnamed nuclear war, a mysterious radioactive dust contaminates most of the planet’s surface and almost wipes out every species in the animal kingdom. With the human race at risk, a colonization program is escalated on a massive scale. As an immigration incentive, and under U.N. law:

Each emigrant automatically receives in possession an android subtype of his choice, and, by 2019, the variety of subtypes passed all understanding, in the manner of American automobiles of the 1960s.

It’s this cool sci-fi background stuff that naturally makes the novel interesting. That, and how the leftover defective Earthlings live out their lives. One of the few things worth possessing is a real, live animal. Not necessarily for companionship, but because life of any kind is so rare, and a living thing, even a little toad, is worth its weight in gold. For the unfortunates who can’t afford a live animal, they fool their neighbours by acquiring an electric one that looks and behaves almost like the real thing. While the indigenous life on Earth dies a slow death, the evolution of android sentiency grows increasingly complex, thanks to the snazzy new Nexus-6 line developed by the Rosen Association.

With newfangled brainchips, a minority of rogue androids escape the oppressive colonies and gradually infiltrate all aspects of human society on Earth. Some androids even think they’re human due to implanted synthetic memories. But no matter how humanized an android becomes, they can never acquire the same right to life as human beings, or any living thing for that matter. As one android-in-hiding puts it: “… it’s a chance anyway, breaking free and coming here to Earth, where we’re not even considered animals. Where every worm and louse is considered more desirable than all of us put together.”

Apparently, the only remaining attribute that separates humans from androids is empathy, and administering the Voigt-Kampff test is standard practice in order to distinguish android from authentic human. From early on in the novel, inherent flaws in the VK empathy test are revealed, not in determining a lack of empathy in an android per se, but rather the failure to account for humans with underdeveloped empathic ability. Thus, this calls into question various moral and ethical reasoning and beliefs.

So yes, very familiar and universal themes at play here, ie. the science fiction exploration of the ethical dimensions inherent to the android concept literary device, in order to understand the persecution of a person based upon artificial distinctions such as "ethnic group" (wikipedia). Even though Deckard and all the other characters were rather flat and the lack of ass-kicking was a big letdown, Dick’s ideas and themes remain engaging and timeless.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Book 16 - The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

by Junot Diaz

Olman’s awesome experience with this Pulitzer Prize winner pretty much spurred me on to read it ASAP. Although I’d heard about the book before (something about a Dominican ghetto nerd and his immigrant family with lots of pop cultural refs thrown in), never in my wildest imagining would I’ve guessed that this would speak to Olman and nerds of the world (the kind of people who would not otherwise touch postcolonial, or magic realist, literature with a 10-foot jousting lance) in such a profoundly visceral way!

After reading the first few pages, you quickly realize TBWLOW wields a powerful combo of nerdery and historical fiction that's confidently told by a colloquial voice rich in a mishmash of Spanglish & hiphop influences. Even though the style is consistently entertaining in its delivery, it does not take away from any of the personal tragedy & struggles that permeate the novel. Right off the bat, an unknown narrator introduces this as a fukú story. Fukú is a kind of superstitious curse or doom, first unleashed upon the Hispanic New World with the arrival of the Europeans. And this vague sinister force of the fukú, we learn, follows the lives of various members of the Cabral family.

I had originally thought the story would mainly focus on Oscar Cabral (Wao is more like a nickname), but it actually vacillates between him, his mother Belicia, his sister Lola and his grandfather Abelard, who are all, in various ways, misfits or outcasts in society, whether it’s in the city of Santo Domingo or the suburbs of New Jersey. Our mysterious narrator (whose identity is revealed later in the novel) first introduces Oscar as a guy who “wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber”, and who couldn’t hide his otakuness to save his life. Sadly, our anti-hero is likely the only Dominican male on planet Earth who is still a virgin due to the fact that:

Oscar’s idea of G was to talk about role-playing games! How fucking crazy is that? (My favorite was the day on the E bus when he informed some hot morena, If you were in my game I would give you an eighteen Charisma!)

If you still don’t understand why Olman loves this book so much, well then, may Saruman help you (my feeble attempt at infusing this review with Tolkien plugs). Even I re-discovered my inner geek while reading this book, getting a frisson of gratifying pleasure whenever I recognized a nerdy reference (except the ones that have to do with gaming, of course), which isn’t hard since nerdery is generously scattered throughout the book. Even the female characters cannot escape the geek mythologizing, like Oscar’s rebellious sister, Lola, the only teenage punk Latina in her hood whose favorite books are about runaways, e.g. Watership Down, The Incredible Journey, My Side of the Mountain (like, hey, that was like me too!).

Most importantly and impressively is how Diaz integrates his one-of-a-kind vernacular into his historical accounts of the Dominican Republic (most of which is in the form of David Foster Wallace-inspired footnotes), particularly when it was under the Trujillo dictatorship throughout the 1930s and 1960s:

In some ways living in Santo Domingo during the Trujillato was a lot like being in that famous Twilight Zone episode that Oscar loved so much, the one where the monstrous white kid with the godlike powers rules over a town that is completely isolated from the rest of the world, a town called Peaksville… You might roll your eyes at this comparison, but friends: it would be hard to exaggerate the power Trujillo exerted over the Dominican people and the shadow of fear he cast throughout the region. Homeboy dominated Santo Domingo like it was his very own private Mordor…

I don’t know about you, but who would’ve thought that learning about 20th century Latin American history and how it impacts an immigrant family can be so freakin’ fun? Not to mention the fact that history can sometimes be truly stranger than any sci-fi or fantasy and more horrific than any Stephen King concoction. What’s also notable in Diaz’s writing style is the seamless lack of quotations in regards to all the dialogue. I remember Olman had a big problem with this very same stylistic device in No Country For Old Men, so I asked him: so you didn’t have a problem with it here? The funny thing was, Olman didn’t even notice the lack of dialogue quotations, he was so into the story! Even if you don’t know any Spanish, or anything about Latin history, Tolkien, Star Trek, comic books and/or Akira, believe it or not, this is still a remarkable and unique novel. A highly recommended reading experience!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Book 15 – The Watchmen

By Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

With the excitement over the movie teaser earlier this summer, comic shops all over were sold out of the bound soft cover edition. Since I never read The Watchmen, Olman thoughtfully picked up a copy for me when he was in Berkeley. Of course, it’s been over 15 years since he read the original landmark series, so Olman patiently waited for me to finish it, then re-read it himself and promptly stole my thunder by giving it a nostalgic and glowing review (note I pre-date my posts, so it’s actually late October as I write this).

It’s just as well, since Olman pretty much expresses my feelings about The Watchmen, and does so with more passion and comic-reading experience than I, since I’m a fairly recent newcomer in the world of comics. What can I say other that I’m psyched I got to read this amazing work untainted way before the movie’s due out (can’t say the same for From Hell or V For Vendetta sadly)!

I will say, however, that I was very impressed with Moore’s complex, innovative story. Although Scott McCloud doesn't mention The Watchmen in Understanding Comics, I'd say this work belongs in the elevated level of pioneering work that made a difference. The idea of a superhero comic about regular people being costumed vigilantes and their love-hate relationship with society/humanity is ironically appealing. The interspersed sections of expository text provide a meta-fictional quality and fills in a lot of biographical background of the various characters. It also helps make this a valid 50-book entry as there’s a goodly amount of text! Olman tells me that the original comic series was the first of its kind with its glossy design, slick format and lack of ads.

The story-within-a-story about the shipwrecked man and his raft of human carcasses seemed somewhat bewildering and digressive at first, but the "he who fights monsters must take care lest he become a monster" theme does tie into the conflicts and turmoil of the vigilante heroes. Adding to this, Dr. Manhattan’s ability to transcend time and space contributes to a non-linear narrative structure with multi-layered subplots.

I can’t help but think how the TV show Heroes has been influenced by this comic, and its attempt to possibly one-up the narrative complexity with multiple heroes jumping back and forth in time suffers with mixed results. I was wondering why I was getting fed up with that silly TV show with all the heroes running around trying to save the world, repeating the same stupid and/or inexplicably irrational mistakes, then trying to re-save the world again. The heroes in the The Watchmen do save the world, in a sense, but at great cost and sacrifice. You get a clear idea of where each individual hero stands in their complex moral spectrum, their relationship to one another and how their past histories affect their present choices. You also get a satisfyingly solid ending!

Although I wasn’t as much into the aesthetic style of Dave Gibbons’ illustrations, nevertheless, I appreciated the care and attention to detail, which totally does the text justice. Perhaps it was done on purpose, but I found that the panels didn’t ‘open up’ to reveal wide shots very often and were kept consistently small. This added a very claustrophobic effect for me. But once I got to the climax of the story, the illustrations do become more psychedelic, creative and expansive, which was really eye-opening!

Based on Olman's observation, I can see why reading the entire bound edition or re-reading the entire series in one go would be a more rewarding experience than reading the original series piecemeal in stops and starts. With all the intricacy of plot and details you really need to keep a consistent flow to absorb this work properly. If I had to sum up The Watchmen, it is intricate, surreal, dark, complex, violent, uncompromising, and mindblowingly cool. It’s no wonder The Watchmen remains the only comic to ever win a Hugo award. Try to read it before the movie comes out!

Friday, September 05, 2008

Book 14 – Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art

By Scott McCloud

Art Spiegelman sums up this enlightening book quite nicely in the rear blurb:

Cleverly disguised as an easy-to-read comic book, Scott McCloud’s simple-looking tome deconstructs the secret language of comix while casually revealing secrets of Time, Space, Art and the Cosmos! The most intelligent comix I’ve seen in a long time. Bravo.

Over the past couple of decades, comics of all kinds have experienced unprecedented cachet and commercial appeal. As a graphic medium, comics have been around since the dawn of civilization. Like painting, music and film, comics have their own language and modes of expression. But as a legitimate art form, recognition is still a long ways away.

There has been some recent progress with the publication of Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean and Thierry Groensteen’s academic tome, The System of Comics. But for aficionados and newcomers alike, what better way to explain the history and theory of comics than to convey the information in actual comic form? And to make it even more fun and personal, the self-illustrated Scott McCloud himself takes you on this magical mystery tour of the world of comics. What’s more, Understanding Comics came out at least a whole decade before Wolk’s and Groensteen’s work.

If you’ve had some background in art history, the first couple of chapters are familiar territory as McCloud covers the developments in drawing and painting. It’s important to note that he does this in order to contextualize comics’ place in the history of art, literature, photography and film, since the only thing missing from academic textbooks seems to be gasp comics!

McCloud helps put comics back on the map, and really deconstructs the medium down to its fundamental components of theory, vocabulary, time-spatial relations, and color in a way that is engaging and thought-provoking to readers of various backgrounds. That’s no small feat. For myself, I'd say I'm fairly new to comics, but I have a decently substantial background in art, photography and film and I found Understanding Comics really quite a fascinating, thoughtfully put-together book. I thought that reading this would be a breeze, but at over 200 pages, it’s actually quite wide in scope and jam-packed full of information. Of course, McCloud has some very strong opinions about comics that some may disagree on, but that’s to be expected for someone who’s become a kind of spokeperson for comics as an art form.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Book 13 – The Secret History

By Donna Tartt

I unwittingly read two back-to-back similar sounding books: outsider freshman in isolated American liberal arts college ends up in unusual class led by unorthodox, charismatic professor.

But this is where the similarities end.

The Cheese Monkeys is light, funny and satirical. The Secret History is the equivalent of a modern Greek tragedy in collegiate proportions. The main character, Richard Pepin, finally able to escape his small town roots in California, starts a new life in a New England college. With some previous background in Greek, he discovers a class taught by a distinguished classics scholar who accepts only a limited number of students. When another professor informs him that Julian Morrow conducts his selection on a personal rather than academic basis, and that he and his students have virtually no contact with the rest of the campus, Richard is intrigued.

How Richard gradually ingratiates himself with the professor and the classics clique is well executed and really sucked me into the narrative. At first, he observes the oddly anachronistic students from afar. There’s Henry, who is quiet, unassuming and always in a suit; Charles and Camilla, who like to dress in white; Francis, who’s a bit of a dandy, and lastly, Bunny, an affable freeloader. The early stages of friendship are just awkward enough to make it realistic and compelling enough to make it interesting. Like Richard, getting to know these people is like getting sucked into another time and place outside of “asphalt and shopping malls and modular furniture”. You want to know more about these characters, and what happens next.

Richard’s first day in Julian’s class, in the inner sanctum, is also excellently described. Julian’s exquisite taste has transformed a drab office into a philosopher’s library, and Richard realizes why his students are so devoted as “ he was a marvelous talker, a magical talker.” The discussion that day also sets the tone for the rest of the novel: Plato’s four divine madnesses, the burden of self, why people want to lose the self in the first place, and the powerful mystery of the Dionysiac ritual. That seductive desire to become absolutely free, to attain that “fire of pure being”, if only for a fleeting moment.

Sure enough, the clique holds an unusual secret. But we only see it through the perspective of Richard, the newcomer, who is liked but not yet fully accepted into the circle. As the reader, you really don’t know what’s going on, everything seems opaque. Let’s just say the fragile harmony of the group is thrown off when they embark on their own customized Dionysiac clusterfuck, and things go downhill from there. One of the clique undergoes psychological change from familiar friend to cutting, vindictive tormentor and this has deadly ramifications for the entire group.

The novel also has an unusual structure, where you’re informed at the beginning that one of the main characters is murdered, and Richard reflects back on what happened. The mystery isn’t about who killed whom. This doesn’t interest Tartt, so much as using the framing of the Greek tragedy to explore the darkness that lurks in human nature. What makes reasonably intelligent people latch onto to each other and succumb to the pack instinct? What forces or catalytic factors propel otherwise civilized people into barbaric murderers?

There was also good sociological insight into the relationship between the individuals in the clique against the rest of the students at the isolated liberal arts college. One of the main reasons The Secret History was given to Olman when it first came out was that the setting was so much like Reed.

Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally believed to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmostphere made it a thriving black Petri dish of melodrama and distortion. I remember well, for instance, the blind animal terror which ensued when some townie set off the civil defense sirens as a joke.

The Secret History was published in 1992, and the setting was of that period in time, but I kept picturing the story taking place much earlier in the century, like the 1920’s or 30’s. The style of writing, the way the professors and students spoke with each other and behaved, their strangely anachronistic lifestyle. The only people that seemed contemporary were the students outside of that clique. But this is the only part where I could find fault in Tartt’s writing. She excels in her classic style of writing and philosophical discourse, but slangy urban banter sounds somewhat forced and stilted. But I guess it’d be hard to write in slang when topics of conversation tend to be about arguing how far apart the soldiers in a Roman legion had stood, or whether Hesiod’s primordial Chaos was simply empty space or chaos in the modern sense of the word!

So this novel had just about everything. Sociological insight. Manipulation, paranoia and psychological tension. Some police/FBI investigation thrown in. The familiar tragic ingredients of love, sacrifice, betrayal. And just a tiny bit of the supernatural to seriously creep you out. Tartt confidently weaves all these together, making for a marvelously satisfying read. The story is rich, dense, complex and apparently took 10 non-continuous years to write. This is indeed a beautiful and terrifying book. I would definitely be interested in reading Tartt’s next book, The Little Friend.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Book 12 – The Cheese Monkeys: A Novel in Two Semesters

By Chip Kidd

Note to reader: I’m going to use the word “clever” a lot for this review.

In case you didn’t know, Kidd made his mark as a graphic designer and his work has graced the covers of some fairly distinguished works of fiction. In 2001, he got his first book published -- as a writer. So not surprisingly, this particular trade paperback has:

1) his hands all over it (although the cover design is by “TK” – aka The Kidd perhaps?)

2) every single aspect of its design artfully and cleverly done.

I’m not just talking the front cover either. Oh no. Before you even start reading the damn thing, you’re looking at all the subversive little details in almost every structural piece of the book: the front and rear cover are the obvious places, then there’s a blurbs page, a spliced up copyright page and title page. Heck, even the inside front cover and the frickin’ fore edge (I had to look up which part of the damn book this was called in the Wikipedia, fcol) featured a clever little statement. I think the only thing left untouched was the ISBN barcode.

Ok then, the superficial stuff is now out of the way, we can finally get to the actual meat of the book. Well, first off, the content is cleverly structured. After all, the novel is subtitled A Novel in Two Semesters, so that is how the chapters are organized, and thus, how our clever little story unfolds.

Ok, already, so what is this book all about? Does it even have a story? Well let’s see. The story starts off about a college freshman student in 1957. Being somewhat late registering for art classes, he inadvertently ends up in a graphic design class taught by a young, charismatic pipe-smoking prof named Winter Sorbeck. Sorbeck is unorthodox, fascistically hardball, and likes to call his students ‘kiddies’, but damn, the guy is really passionate about design. If you’re listening, he’ll drop smart little graphic design tips, such as:

Always remember: Limits are possibilities. That sounds like Orwell, I know. It’s not – it’s Patton. Formal restrictions, contrary to what you might think, free you up by allowing you to concentrate on purer ideas.

Or

Today we’re going to talk about Left to Right. We are the Western world. We read, see, think. Left. To. Right. We can’t help it. You have a few givens in this life, in this class. That is one of them. Use it.

Our protagonist also befriends who could be the most annoyingly cool girl on campus, Himillsy Dodd. Hims has very precociously leftfield opinions about institutional art. She hates Magritte (he ruined it for everybody – he gives everyone with an accelerated imagination a bad name!) and Picasso (a walking castration anxiety). More importantly, she is the best person to be with when running into the Campus Crusaders because her voice has just the right note of archness when slinging a witty retort to “Jesus loves you”.

The protagonist, known only by Sorbeck’s nickname, which is, ahem, Happy, soon becomes infatuated with both characters. Looking at photos of Kidd on the web, wearing a smart suit jacket and sporting either tortoise-shell or wire-rimmed glasses, or posing in wife-beater and cigarette for a black & white Kerouac-style portrait, I somehow get the feeling that The Cheese Monkeys is his ultimate liberal arts college fantasy.

That’s ok. Cuz I kinda enjoyed being in Kidd’s happy little vision of 1950’s collegiate life. It allows Kidd to insinuate clever remarks via his Happy channel. Like what would Happy’s internal thoughts be if he were to end up at a boring dinner party of uber-urbane architectural graduate students, which he does:

The guests started to arrive, and after thirty minutes I could have sworn I was in the first draft of an Ayn Rand novel. That this little pocket of proto-aesthetes really existed in State’s Disneyland of academic banality was more than I could have expected, let alone hoped to get a load of.

It’s ultimately a fluffy and very clever-funny read full of clever writing, but there are some real moments too, like learning cool things about design, and the awesomeness of finding a cool friend who inspires you to look at life differently, and how fun it is to be a student learning about something that really excites you and being challenged. The story may not be completely memorable, but little gems like this below (which totally reminds me of my film school days and of a certain French Fold) make up the sum of its parts:

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when The Difference began, but as I bought my ticket from the Beaver Bus Travel Company to go home for Easter, I was really, really bothered by the fact that the color and shape of the logo on it… did not match those on the sign above the sales booth… And that’s when I realized things like this had been occurring to me a lot lately. All signage – indeed, any typesetting, color schemes, and printed materials my eyes pounced on were automatically dissected and held to Draconian standards of graphic worthiness. It was all I could do to keep from grabbing the station attendant by the shoulders and shaking her into sense, screaming, “None of it’s CONSISTENT! Don’t you understand?! Somebody DO SOMETHING!!”

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Book 11 – Skinny

By Ibi Kaslik

From The Spellman Files to Skinny, I went from fun to serious. Fun reading is definitely superior in many ways (I must admit, I unhesitatingly took a break from Skinny after acquiring TSF so I actually went from serious to fun and then back to serious again), but once in a while you can learn about life stuff by undergoing “serious” reading. For instance, you can learn firsthand how such a bright and promising medical student and her little eating disorder can tear a Hungarian-Canadian family apart. Yes, welcome to teen Can Lit!

So here we have Giselle and her younger teenage sister, Holly, with each chapter alternating from the perspective of each character as they deal with the familiar struggles of growing up, school, boys, etc. Some serious trepidations I had when the first chapter awkwardly introduces Giselle in the hospital recovering from her first anorexic bout, with her wondering how she ended up there: The image I had of my future was all straight out of a Hollywood film – melancholy little suburban girl goes to university, finds herself, gets a life, a boy, a degree. Start nostalgic music, cut to me inside my tiny shared student apartment… She is me, this girl, she is Hello-My-Name-Is…

Oh dear. Olman would’ve thrown the book across the room after reading this. But I being meezly, and a far more dauntless reader, plowed on. After all, I had picked this up for only $5 at a used bookshop while passing through a quaint and nameless town in Ontario, not to mention Kaslik is a hot young Montreal writer with some hipster cachet. So even though the self-conscious writing had the unsurprising tendency of taking itself a little too seriously by wallowing in troubled lives, it wasn’t so bad. The sincerity was there. I mean, it’s unpleasant dealing with troubled people in life, let alone reading about them. I myself am a fairly well-adjusted gal who’s had a fairly stable upbringing. And I’ve known friends or relatives who’ve experienced real setbacks before, but no one has ever really been a real fuckup. The difference between a regular person and a fuckup is when shit’s falling apart, the fuckup will, inadvertently or willingly, take down everyone with her.

Kaslik has no qualms about exploring how Giselle ends up fucking up her life by delving into her complex relationship with her father. If you know deep down that your father never really loved you and that he always maintained an inexplicable distance towards you, and then he dies, and you realize in college that it was due to some untold family secret. The lack of love and reconciliation is like a little demon seed that grows inside an already very delicate psyche, and then add to that medical school and trying to have a normal college life, then well yeah, that could be a recipe for a psychological timebomb.

As a female, I’ve never had much sympathy for women obsessed with their bodies, and I can’t say reading this book helped in garnering any more sympathy for Giselle and Holly. It didn’t help that I couldn’t’ relate to their personalities nor their trials and tribulations. But the book did give me an interesting perspective into why certain people behave so irrationally in life. And how some people end up as total fuckups.

I don't know if I'd ever check out Kaslik's next book, which is supposed to be about the Montreal indie music scene. I can imagine Olman having a field day with this one!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Book 10 – The Spellman Files

By Lisa Lutz

With movies, I every so often delve into a classic, but the bulk of what I consume is recent. Same with books. Though not exactly a ‘new release’ kinda girl when it comes to contemporary reading (publish date being 10+ years ago) since I mostly get my fix free via public library and never buy new. The past year or so, I’ve been making a habit of perusing used bookstores whenever I visit "English-speaking" areas, and thus to my delight have discovered more recent works. Take The Spellman Files, for instance, which came out just -gasp- last year!

Isabel’s parents, Albert and Olivia Spellman, run a private detective agency called Spellman Investigations from their multi-storied Victorian house in San Francisco. They employ Isabel and Al's brother, Uncle Ray, both licensed PIs, and would sometimes give the odd tailing job to their 14-year-old daughter, Rae. This itself isn't so unusual since 28-year-old Isabel first started helping out on cases when she was only 12. David, the eldest son and a high-powered lawyer, never having been interested in the family business, is possibly the only sensible member of the family to have moved out of the Spellman nest.

“Most people don’t spy on each other. Most people don’t run background checks on their friends. Most people aren’t suspicious of everyone they meet. Most people aren’t like us.”

This is the reality check that Isabel tries to impart upon adolescent Rae after a particularly trying week. It turns out that their parents have sent Rae to spy on Isabel and Daniel, who soon becomes ex-boyfriend #9. He just couldn’t handle her and her oddball family! When the Spellmans aren’t working on cases, or spying on each other, they’re busy tracking down wayward Uncle Ray on his drunken, poker binges in Las Vegas.

There are family melodramas for sure. Or more like outright declarations of war (the battle between Rae and Uncle Ray is pretty good stuff). But there are also interesting insights into detective work: the exciting, the not-so-exciting, and the overbearingly irksom, especially when both the personal and professional gets all messily entangled within the "family business".

Which brings us to Isabel’s love life, or lack of one thereof. When Isabel realizes she’ll never find a lasting relationship if her family keeps bugging her room and running credit checks on potential suitors, she finally threatens to quit and move out of the Spellman house. But her savvier parents strike a deal: if she can crack a 10-year-old unsolved case about a missing person named Andrew Snow, she’s free to go. This is where Isabel jumps into the case with such obstinacy no living PI has ever seen before!

“An addictively entertaining read…”
“Fast-paced, irreverent and very funny debut…”
“She’s part Bridget Jones, part Colombo…”

These blurbs are blessed by the likes of USA Today, People and Glamour. Yup, TSF was a bit of a mainstream hit and a NYT bestseller which became promptly optioned for movie rights. Not surprising, since TSF was so much fun to read. Though it does get a little too cutesy at times, á la The Royal Tanenbaums meet Dashiel Hammett, this is still a wickedly funny, and at over 350 pages, a substantially enjoyable read.

So help me out folks: keep your eyes peeled for the sequel, The Curse of the Spellmans!

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Book 9 – Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

By Alison Bechdel

This critically acclaimed graphic novel was highly recommended by Olman’s sister. Olman then picked up a copy in TO, read it and lent it to his aunt, who then passed it back onto me when we were staying at her lovely cottage by Georgian Bay, Ontario.

I very much agree with the first half of Olman’s review, but understand the other half is based on his own taste and perspective.

The premise may not sound terribly inviting to some: an autobiographical graphic novel about a queer girl growing up in a tragically dysfunctional family. But Bechdel’s story is, nevertheless, wonderfully and exceptionally told. Just flipping through the pages, the casual peruser may feel that there is nothing particularly remarkable about the eloquent illustrations. And even though the narrative structure is fairly nonlinear throughout, at heart Bechdel uses the framing device of “author looking back at her past” in order to posthumously reconcile with her father, who never came out of the closet.

Once you start reading, however, you soon realize that Fun Home is a rare combination, where both mediums, image and text, are executed with harmonious insight and beauty by the same author/artist. Bechdel's various accounts: of her growing up in a Victorian-style funeral home (hence the title), her awkward relationship with her father, her obsessive-compulsive diary entries that become more and more indecipherable as she's gripped by adolescent uncertainties, flashbacks of family trips to New York City, her coming-out in college and yes, even all those literary references... they all made for a fascinating, engrossing, heartfelt, moving and very personal story.

Douglas Wolk writes an in-depth review that really does this work justice, if you’re considering checking this one out. I myself would certainly recommend it!

Monday, June 30, 2008

Book 8 – Fight Club

By Chuck Palahniuk

From the refreshingly feminist romance of My Brilliant Career to the male-driven mental maelstrom that is Fight Club, there is no pattern to my pursuit of leisurely reading!

I’m sure all you 50-bookers are already well acquainted as to what Fight Club is all about, mostly likely thanks to David Fincher’s ambitious 1999 movie adaptation (which I saw when it first debuted). I see now how faithfully Fincher captured the voice of this wacky cult writer, and then some. Like the flick, the book crackles and pops with Palahniuk’s brand of nihilistic humour and seethes with a tightly wound masculine energy.

Palahniuk’s sordid world of basement support groups and clandestine fight clubs; his endearingly deranged protagonists caught up in familiar themes of male identity crisis and individual worth in society; the twisted use of plot devices, such as a schizophrenic love triangle, provide the perfect boxing ring for Palahniuk to make his irreverent jabs and punches at the big C’s: Consumerism, Conformism and Corporations.

The fight clubs of men beating up men somehow evolve into an underground society of brotherly militants conspiring to wreak pure, unadulterated mischief upon society, and then of course, this becomes a global network of terrorist cells to bring down civilization as we know it!

Despite the constant lust for mayhem and anarchy, I still appreciated the post 9/11 relevance of Fight Club. You know that Palahniuk wrote it all in good clean fun. Though his voice calls for chaos, the writing itself is tight and spare, and the style articulate, distinct and most of all, not too self-consciously clever. All in all, an entertainingly excellent read!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Book 7 – My Brilliant Career

By Miles Franklin

This wonderfully brilliant novel was published in 1901, but it feels so timeless and universal it could have been written yesterday, albeit by a precociously gifted young writer. This is the kind of book that makes me realize why I love reading great fiction so much. It also makes a 6 hour train ride to Toronto so much breezier and sweeter!

The tale is archetypically simple yet strikingly and passionately written. Sybylla Melvyn is a fiery, headstrong girl growing up in an impoverished farm way out in the Australian bush. Too clever for her own good, she longs for an artistic life far removed from the reality of unending farmwork and drudgery. By a stroke of good fortune, Sybylla is sent to live with her wealthy grandmother in her estate along with her jovial uncle and lovely aunt. She soon strikes up an unlikely romance with the neighbouring landowner, Harry Beecham.

Yes, this all sounds like a typical Victorian fairy tale, except this is where our plucky heroine turns down the man at the end, refusing to marry in order to maintain a sense of true independence. This is the kind of totally left-field ending that’s practically unheard of at that period in history. What’s even more remarkable is that the book was written when the author was only 16. You gotta wonder where a young girl, even a precocious one, got such ideas having only grown up in an isolated rural community in New South Wales at the turn-of-the-century, as this is truly a feminist's happy ending.

The book was a big hit in Australia and abroad, and much speculation was made about the autobiographical aspects of the novel. Indeed the fictional Sybylla Melvyn and the young Franklin are very much one and the same (the author’s full name is Stella Franklin, as she used her more masculine-sounding middle name, Miles, for professional and practical reasons). Sybylla/Stella is impulsive, egotistical and self-centred, but somehow she becomes one of the most endearing characters I've come across in fiction in a long while, and I was quickly hooked. This is also definitely a tale from the Australian bush, a world which Franklin knows intimately. There are plenty of rich, detailed accounts of the landscape and life in the outback, from the harsh and impoverished conditions of nomadic farmhands and sheepherders to the privileged and leisurely pursuits of the upper classes.

The average male reader may not be so interested in this book. But if you’re a fan of Jane Austen and such, this is a must-read. Definitely recommended for female readers young and old, as this has been a highlight read of the year so far! It’s even inspired me to re-rent the equally brilliant 1979 film adaptation by Gillian Armstrong, featuring a young Judy Davis and Sam Neill!

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Book 6 – Jenny & The Jaws of Life

By Jincy Willett

This short story collection was published in 1987 and reprinted in 2002 with a foreword by David Sedaris, who first discovered JATHJOL in the New Fiction section of the Chicago Public Library. The stories left a profound impression on the young Sedaris, 'a voracious reader then, a student shoplifting for a voice…'

Willett’s stories have also been described as ‘wonderfully funny’. Sadly, however, I personally found the majority of them not very amusing nor impressionable. After writing this review 3 months after reading them, I find I can’t recall what most of them were about. It also didn't help that I've been forcing myself to finish this book since early last year.

I find Willett’s expository writing style very bland and kind of boring. There is very little dialogue, external or internal, and she has a tendency to employ the 3rd person, which results in a fairy tale-like narratives about unconventional, complex people living ordinary lives. But this also has the adverse effect of creating a greater distance for the reader, at least for this one.

Out of the dozen or so stories, I found the following few worthwhile:

“The Haunting of the Lingards” -- How a married couple of differing personalities and beliefs get along with each other.

“Melinda Falling” -- How a man loves an extremely accident-prone woman, who grows to a ripe old age, but nevertheless still rails at God.

“Justine Laughs At Death” – a clever one about Evil personified as an immortal serial killer, a kind of Jack the Ripper in the 20th c. who picks his victims out of a list in his black book. Over the course of many nights, he gets phone calls from various females, young and old, who seem impervious to his cruel and wicked banter. In a fit of rage he calls the phone company and a rep named Justine answers. She turns out to be the representative of all his past victims and is Vengeance, Justice, Revenge, and Woman rolled into a convenient package. Sadly, the story ends rather anti-climactically.

The best story, the funniest and most memorable, is “The Best of Betty”, written entirely in the format of an advice column.

And there you go, a review to quickly get it over with. Next!