Thursday, December 10, 2009

Book 21 – The Navigator of New York

By Wayne Johnston

I can be pretty ignorant about certain things in history and politics, as I had no idea the two central characters in TNoNY were actually based on real-life turn-of-the-century explorers until after I had finished the novel!

The longstanding competition between Admiral Robert E. Peary and Dr. Frederick A. Cook came to a head in 1909 when both claimed to be the first man to reach the North Pole, setting off “the dispute of the century.” Johnston fleshes out the lives of these fascinating characters and what drove them to become bitter rivals. He also inserts fictional characters into the narrative, including the hero and narrator Devlin Stead, a young man hailing from Newfoundland who journeys to New York City to become Dr. Cook’s protégé.

I guess if one is a novelist who specializes in writing about Newfoundland and harbors a love for early arctic exploration and New York history, you’d figure out a way to combine all these aspects into a historical epic. And this is exactly what Johnston does – with mixed success. For one thing, Cook never had a son, legitimate or otherwise. According to one reviewer:

“Would we countenance such a story about, say, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson? One in which the author invents an illegitimate son for Adams, who is not only plays a part in all of his father’s most momentous triumphs and failures, but who is also a pivotal figure in the feud between the two men? Who saves Jefferson’s life, and whose own story proves the true unsavoriness of Jefferson’s character? If the author intended to stray so far from the historical prototypes, comes the inevitable question, why not simply invent the entire story in the first place?

Yet Johnston gets away with it, I think, thanks to the strength of his fictional melodrama.”

Indeed the aspects of melodrama were strong. Reading The Navigator of New York was like experiencing a well-crafted TV mini-series, as opposed to a PG-13 or R-rated period drama. Johnston’s descriptions of place have physicality and conviction - whether it’s the vast Arctic landscape or the teeming metropolis of New York - his elegant passages transports you back in time. Yet for me, in the end it was just romanticized fiction without any real edge. Enjoyable enough to read, but not ultimately very memorable.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Book 20 – The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work

By John M. Gottman, PhD, and Nan Silver

This was a birthday gift from my brother before my impending wedding in September and the first time I’ve ever started and finished a self-help book ever. It’s a quick practical-minded book, and it basically outlines the general principles that make a happy and satisfying marriage.

After studying several hundred couples and tracking their development for up to sixteen years, Dr. Gottman claims he can predict whether a couple will divorce after watching and listening to them for just 5 minutes.

But the key to his discoveries didn’t come from studying the negative aspects of bad marriages, but by actually analyzing what works for happy couples. The more he studied happy marriages the more it became clear that they were like in seven telltale ways.

According to Gottman: “What can make a marriage work is surprisingly simple. Happily married couples aren’t smarter, richer, or more psychologically astute than others. But in their day-to-day lives, they have hit upon a dynamic that keeps their negative thoughts and feelings about each other (which all couples have) from overwhelming their positive ones. They have what I call an emotionally intelligent marriage.”

He also debunks the biggest myths perpetuated by conventional marriage counseling - communication and conflict resolution isn’t what makes marriages work. The key to salvaging a damaged relationship is not in how a couple handles disagreements but in how they are with each other when they’re not fighting. So although Gottman’s Seven Principles provides a guide for coping with conflict, the core of his approach is to strengthen the friendship that is the foundation of any marriage. For this, I found this quite enlightening and helpful.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Book 19 – Poor George

By Paula Fox

A children’s author and novelist since the 1960’s, Paula Fox experienced a bit of a resurgence several years ago when a few of her key novels were republished by WW Norton after being out of print for over a decade. Writers such as Jonathan Franzen, Andrea Barrett and Jonathan Lethem praised her as a profound influence on their work.

Her adult fiction tends to be realistically bleak portraits of personal and social malaise. Not usually the kind of literature I seek out. Although Poor George was indeed bleak, it was also quite beautifully written and even funny at times.

The setting is very similar to the Highsmith novel I just read, A Suspension of Mercy: seeking a change of pace and to save some money, a young husband and wife leave Manhattan to live in a small house in the country. The isolation and close quarters exaggerate whatever inherent personal and marital issues they have, and then well, things gradually implode. Similar premise I suppose, but different vibe -- main differences being the degree of tragedy and suspense, and lack of police involvement and body count!

Fox is an elegant writer and she makes a compelling story about a rather unremarkable English school teacher George Mecklin. As soon as I read this passage, I knew that I was going to like the novel:

His hands in his pockets, his shoulders hunched over, George pressed his forehead against window. Why was everything so shabby? … Suddenly he pictured himself throwing out everything they possessed, sweeping out every corner of the little house, leaving only the washed, sweet air of the country in their four rooms. Then, frightened at the prospect of such nakedness – what would they be without their little wretched accretion of objects? – he ran upstairs.

Poor George, so miserably sympathetic, and yet Fox doesn’t let you take her principal character too seriously. The funniest parts tend to take place at the private school where George works. I’m sure some of the 50-bookin’ teachers here can relate to George as he’s caught in the middle of trivial infighting among the teachers or trying to find some motivation marking papers at home:

Tonight he must start reports; some would make him writhe with impatience. The school never gave up. Students who failed seemed to be its raison d’etre; hysterical parents had to be cozened into a patience they could only simulate. “He needs more confidence…” How many times would he have to write that before the day was out?

Good stuff. I’m definitely keen on reading her other novels now, even her recent memoir Borrowed Finery.

Interesting factoid: not too long ago, Fox discovered she was the biological grandmother of Courtenay Love after being reunited with the daughter she had given up for adoption when she was 20. Fox and her notorious granddaughter apparently “do not get on”!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Book 18 – A Suspension of Mercy

By Patricia Highsmith

Thanks to Olman’s collection, I had my first opportunity to read Highsmith. And man, her writing is good! For an excellent summary, check out Olman’s impressions of this tight, well-crafted novel.

For myself, I really appreciated how Highsmith set up a situation where you understand the characters underlying psychology and background. Whatever issues that lurk in their veneer of normalcy creates the required conflict to get the plot moving. And as the characters dig themselves into a crazier and self-destructive situation, you may think what an idiot or nutcase this person is, but at the same time, you totally see where they’re coming from. The choices they make, however irrational, makes sense according to their motive. This makes for an intelligent and satisfying suspense novel that also succeeds in being genuinely tragic.

I would so love to read some more Highsmith now. I don’t know if her other books are even darker than this, but I love dark depressing fiction… so bring it on!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Book 17 – Lush Life

By Richard Price

I remember reading how Richard Price has a marvelously uncanny ear for street talk and police procedure. As a fan of The Wire, I also noted he was part of the show’s elite team of crime fiction writers and how reviewers often drew comparisons between his earlier work and The Wire even before he came on board. When I spotted Lush Life at my local thrift shop for $3, I was siked.

From the blurb, I already knew that the novel was about a shooting that occurred in the Lower East Side, where Price grew up. Other than what I already mentioned, I didn’t know anything more than that. It took me a while to get into it as the author sets up the characters and scene. I was also a little wary about the central character, Eric Cash, a restaurant bar manager, who at 35, is close to giving up on any hope of achieving whatever youthful aspirations he once had.

While out drinking with people whom he barely likes, they get robbed at gunpoint and one is shot dead. Emanating with self-loathing, Eric quickly transforms from key witness to suspect in the eyes of the two police detectives, who are otherwise capable, but end up making a fatal mistake. Once I was left trying to figure out what was going on, I was hooked, as the narrative scope swiftly and confidently expanded from the shooting incident to encompass a whole cross-section of people that intersect as the police investigation progresses.

As the author put it in a NY Times article: “An investigation will take you through a landscape.” The landscape being the Lower East Side, which Price depicts as a neighborhood of colliding populations. “This place is like Byzantium. It’s tomorrow, yesterday — anyplace but today.”

Although the intersecting kaleidoscopic narrative device has been done to death recently in overblown Hollywood dreck like Crash and Babel, it’s rarely ever put to accomplished and meaningful use. Reading Lush Life felt very much like experiencing the world of The Wire all over again, albeit with different characters and location, of course. You’ve got the police investigation hampered by politics, the law and the media; the sharp observation of class conflict and individual interactions; the wry humour. And Price’s portrayal of the middle-class white hipsters at the victim’s memorial was dead-on and merciless.

This is probably due to the fact that the new wave of "La Bohemer" gentrifiers are taking over a bygone neighbourhood. As one Salon reviewer notes: "Price seems so fond of streetwise impudence and cynicism that middle-class hypocrisy and cant become in some ways a less forgivable crime than murder". There is definitely a wary and cynical undercurrent there as you can feel how Price laments the loss of the old New York – just enough to make you feel a little sad, instead of merely rolling your eyes. I think knowing a little bit about the overall and recent history of New York helps in appreciating the novel a little more. For instance, I had to ask Olman what this Quality of Life business was about, as the author rarely explains away context to outsiders or tourists so readily. It'd be interesting to know Olman's thought about this book, since he had to jump in and read it while I was still trying to finish Post Captain!

Lush Life was a very straightforward read, but at over 400 pages, it was no quickie either! Still comes strongly recommended if you’re a fan of The Wire, interested in New York and/or you're simply looking for a well-written recent bestseller. I'd definitely seek out his other fiction work, like Clockers for one.

Friday, September 11, 2009

(16) The Shining

By Stephen King

Inside its shell the three of them went about their early evening routine, like microbes trapped in the intestine of a monster.

Mainly due to my mildly snobby attitude towards mainstream fiction in general, I’ve never given King’s oeuvre much of a chance. I’ve only read Carrie and parts of Cujo as a youngster, and just recently his stab at apocalyptic-horror, Cell. Since I found a used copy of The Shining for only a buck, I thought I’d give it a try, since I very much admired the film adaptation.

First off, reading the book made me realize what an extraordinary job Stanley Kubrick had done with the film version. The creative licenses he took made the movie much more intense, and much more frightening, than King’s original novel.

Some surprises for me:

- the endlessly typewritten “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”, the ghostly twin girls and blood pouring out of the elevator were all from the movie, not the novel

- the novel was definitely in the genre of supernatural horror whereas the movie was more psychological horror

- the novel actually had a happy, or much happier ending, than the movie

These surprises stemmed from my assumption that the movie borrowed the major plot points and minor details from the book, while the well-known deviations, e.g. the labyrinth instead of the topiary and the ax instead of the roque mallet, would be few and far between. Since these deviations have become iconic cinematic images, it was weird to visualize the original source of the novel.

In any case, King’s novel was still really good and although I didn’t find it very scary, there were definitely some creepy and disturbing moments in there. But the experience is nevertheless marred by the powerful influence of Kubrick’s adaptation where at times I felt the novel to be a pale echo of the movie! This is where I felt that the movie version is superior to the book. The book was very good, but the movie was definitely a masterpiece in its own right.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

(15) Party Of One: The Loners’ Manifesto

By Anneli Rufus

Alone, we are alive.

Everyone’s got an idea about what the archetypal ‘loner’ is. Usually the associations are negative. Like loners are anti-social or asocial dweebs. Loners have no life. Loners are, well, losers. At first glance, a manifesto for loners seems, well, paradoxical. But the author makes the argument that a loner is an oft-misused identity label, and her book pretty much tries to dispel the common misconceptions, and in the end, reclaim the word for the loner community – if there is such a thing!

Though I’m more of an introvert than a loner (more like an introvert\extravert, or ambivert, really!), I’ve always valued solitude and a part of me has always identified with the loner mentality. So when I heard about this book, I was quite interested in reading it.

Early on, the author makes clear that this is not a new agey or self-help book. Yet a title search for Party of One on online bookstores yields a bevy of recommended reads such as “Solitude: A Return to the Self”, or “The Highly Sensitive Person”, or “Intimacy and Solitude”, or “The Happy Introvert: A Wild and Crazy Guide for Celebrating Your True Self”. Of course, Rufus regards these types of books disdainfully, as she writes:

There are books, out there, about solitude. They give instructions on being alone. These books talk of “stealing away,” of “retreats” and of “seeking sanctuary.” They pose solitude as novelty and a desperate act: the work of thieves and refugees. But for loners, the idea of solitude is not some stark departure from our normal state. We do not need writers to tell us how lovely apartness is, how sacred it was to the sages, what it did for Thoreau, that we must demand it. Those books are not for loners, not really. This is not one of those books.

So Rufus embarks on the task of defining what it means to be a loner. It has absolutely nothing to do with being lonely and has everything to do with embracing true independence. Yes, loners prefer to be left alone, but they use their solitude constructively. They tend to be opinionated, curious, intelligent, creative, and nonconformist. Largely because they feel no need to compete, they ae notably calm and stress-free and robustly happy.

There are basically two camps: the loners and nonloners (guess which group the status quo belong). The reason she is so critical of nonloners is because they are the ones that have given loners a bad name, mainly because they simply cannot conceive of true loneness. Take for example, the almost “ironclad” conventional attitude that holidays should never be celebrated alone, since for nonloners, the prospect of holidays alone is “truly horrifying”. Ah, those silly nonloners!

Rufus explores how pop culture and the media have perpetuated positive and negative images of the socalled loner, much of which comes from loners themselves. She looks at loners of yore, ie. hermits, monks and anchoresses, and phony loners, ie. bedcases. She looks at how loners deal with love and work. And she also brings up famous loners, like Piet Mondrian, and makes the case of how loners can be misunderstood:

By all accounts, Mondrian was a contented man. He was not a crazy man or a lonely man or a suicidal man or a failure or a man who lived in squalor. He had social graces, knew his manners, but chose not to be in situations where these would be called upon. Fully functional, he published an art magazine and achieved great renown in his own time. For his troubles this quiet figure was lambasted by one art critic as a “cold, ruthless Dutchman.: Like any loner whose openness to others goes only this far and no farther, Mondrian would of course be called ruthless.

When Rufus gets to the subject of loner-bashing in law enforcement it gets the most interesting. It’s amazing to learn how the vast majority of criminology experts and FBI profilers still rely on archaic definitions of personality types and fail to grasp some basic distinctions. The l-word is far too often “too loosely applied, or even misapplied”. The author writes:

What we have here is a crisis of semantics. The word “loner,” based on the shallowest impressions of surface appearances, is being used wholesale to tar an amazing diversity of people – most of them not loners – with the same mucky brush.

Rufus wants to make clear that being a loner is not the same as being a social outcast or sociopath. But too often “loner” is used in place of these words. She uses Theodore Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber as the classic example of the mislabeled criminal loner. As a teenager who was so far ahead of his peers intellectually, he became regarded as “a freak by a large segment of the student body.” Kacynski was actually a nonloner who came to resemble a loner because he was an outcast. As he admitted once in a letter to his mother: “…the many rejections, humiliations and other painful influences that I underwent during adolescence at home, in high school and at Harvard have conditioned me to be afraid of people.”

What Rufus tries to point out that these so-called loner criminals who seek revenge, retaliation or retribution… well, these are not the motives that move loners. We do not want those things from others – acceptance and admiration and control and power – that make social people kill. We neither hang nor thrive on what others think, say or do. The fact that we mind our own business saves us from the types of torment that typically lead to violence. We want nothing from others but to be left alone.

Yes. It did take me a little while to get past the overall snooty tone of the writing. As a writer, Rufus is more insightful than entertaining. There are no humorous anecdotes, as she does not aim to amuse, but to enlighten. In the end though, I was indeed very much enlightened and I ended up enjoying this book after all!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Book 14 – Post Captain

By Patrick O’Brian

Even though Redwing beat me to it, his review was rather paltry ;-), so here’s my attempt!

I was quite looking forward to reading this, as I enjoyed Master and Commander tremendously. The 2nd installment picks up where the first book left off, and begins rather like a Jane Austen novel with Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin ensconced in the English countryside. They soon become acquainted with their neighbours -- the “feminine household” of Mapes Court. O’Brian does a wonderful job of introducing each female character. I was immediately drawn to the cynical and brilliant widow, Diana Villiers, who becomes entangled in a romantic triangle with Jack and Stephen. She says things like “Thou looks’t like Antichrist in that lewd hat” to her younger cousin.

Even though Diana believes that “there is no friendship in men”, she and Stephen strike up an unusual yet platonic relationship. “You do know I am a woman, Maturin?” Yet the harmony does not last long, as things get complicated when Jack enters the scene!

As expected, there are many humourous and lighthearted moments, like when Stephen and Jack flee to Spain in a ridiculous disguise that I won’t give away, and how Preserved Killick becomes Jack’s steward. And there is O’Brian’s brilliant writing. Whether it’s describing Jack’s internal thoughts:

Yet the surface of his mind was taken up less with his coming interview than with getting the utmost possible service from a single handkerchief and with vague darting reflections upon poverty – an old acquaintance, almost a friend – a more natural state for sea-officers than wealth – wealth very charming – should love to be rich again; but there was the loss of all those little satisfactions of contriving – the triumph of a guinea found in an old waistcoat pocket – the breathless tension over the turn of a card.

Or about Jack and Stephen’s friendship:

They were looking after themselves, living with rigid economy; and there was no greater proof of their friendship than the way their harmony withstood their very grave differences in domestic behaviour. In Jack’s opinion Stephen was little better than a slut: his papers, odd bits of dry, garlic’d bread, his razors and small-clothes lay on and about his private table in a miserable squalor; and from the appearance of the grizzled wig that was now acting as a tea-cozy for his milk-saucepan, it was clear that he had breakfasted on marmalade.

I can understand why fans would read all 20 books in the series. If every book contained scatterings of little gems such as these, I too would be happy to read all 20 indeed!

However, nothing is ever perfect, not even a Patrick O’Brian book.

With Post Captain at almost 500 pages, it was frankly, quite a slog at times. Master & Commander was tighter in structure and plot, and thus more consistently engaging, while Post Captain suffered from too many storylines and lack of cohesion. At times the threads were too vague or subtle for the stop-start reading or perhaps it was that certain key points got buried amidst all the male-driven action and politics, cuz I didn’t realize until much later that Jack & Diana were actually having an illicit affair!

In the end, it took me much longer to read the second installment than the first. In order to recall all the events, I found a blog which provides an amusing condensed version of what goes down in Post Captain. Another review also sums up the more critical feelings I had for the 2nd installment quite nicely.

So yes, as many flaws as there are gems, but I'd read the next installment without hesitation, though I may take a long break before I do so, as there are many other books to read!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Book 13 – The Intrepid Art Collector

By Lisa Hunter

I don’t tend to read much non-fiction, but when I do it’s usually for a practical benefit and to better myself as a person (not self-help either!). Although I have some background in art history and have fairly developed taste and appreciation, I know surprisingly very little about buying art. I must say I don’t think I’ve ever bought any art in my life. I’ve bought some nicely crafted things, like jewelry and pottery, but nothing that would involve a dealer.

I’d really like to buy cool and interesting art one day. Not anything flashy or trendy, just something that just speaks to me, or something that’s just simply beautiful to hang on the wall of my home. But for many people, like yours truly, buying art can be a little overwhelming, if not downright intimidating.

Which was why this was my only non-fiction purchase of last year. I found this book extremely informative and helpful. Even if I never end up buying that special piece of art, reading the book left me feeling confident and armed enough to walk into a gallery and just look around, and maybe even ask the right questions.

The book is also organized very efficiently with each chapter focusing on contemporary art, 19th and 20th century art, photography, prints, vintage posters, native American, African art, oriental rugs and antiquities.

There are also practical sections about dealing with dealers, buying at auction, off the beaten path, buying art online and art in your home.

Now the next step is to find the resources and time to go about finding some cool art!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Book 12 – Zot!

The Complete Black & White Collection

By Scott McCloud

Zot! was great in that it was a dense comic read, and came in handy for in-between books where I was left dangling as to what to read next. So Zot! was on my bedside table for a few months this year.

Although I very much enjoyed the collection and appreciated this as McCloud’s early gem before he became known for Understanding Comics, it was ultimately not my style in terms of aesthetics and story. Some of the villains and ideas were fantastic, but overall, it just wasn’t dark and meaty enough for me. Yes, Zot! is like on the totally opposite spectrum as The Walking Dead (see post below).

The comic is given due respect and justice by fellow posters dsgran and Olman.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Book 11 - The Walking Dead: Books One to Four

writer Robert Kirkman & artists Tony Moore / Charlie Adlard

A continuing story of survival horror…

Book I - The Walking Dead #1-12
Book II - The Walking Dead #13-24
Book III - The Walking Dead #25-36
Book IV - The Walking Dead #37-48

A friend of Olman’s lent him all 4 books of The Walking Dead comic series. Each slickly bound hardcover contains 12 issues and two story arcs from the series. Naturally, I glommed onto Kirkman's spin on the post-apocalyptic zombie genre before Olman could get his grubby hands on ‘em. Yet right away, I was extremely wary of how fresh this take on the zombie genre would be. I mean, the story starts off with the protagonist Rick, a small-town police officer from Kentucky, waking up from a coma in an abandoned hospital! Even for non-fans, this is an obvious rip-off from a rather well-known Danny Boyle flick.

In the bonus write-ups, Kirkman has stated his passion for the zombie genre and how he wanted to take all the elements from all the movies he’s ever seen to make a kickass continuous saga about what it’s like for the survivors to live in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. So the goal was not originality or innovation, but to create a harrowing action-packed story of the struggle for human existence. Kirkman did a really bang-up job of achieving this. Once I got into the story, I was unstoppable. There was action, there was drama, there was fortitude, there was despair and very little hope. But most of all, there was mucho gore and violence. Mucho. Violence. As the story escalates, so does the brutality and despair. This is not a story for the squeamish or faint of heart!

Kirkman also does a decent job of portraying the variables of human nature fairly effectively. In a post-apocalyptic world, civilized morality is replaced by group survival where some people are better adapted and psychologically stronger than others. Even though Kirkman wanted to avoid readers having to see characters being stupid or making unbelievable mistakes (like in the movies), people still make mistakes and bad choices. I guess it ain’t easy being a survivor. But there are quite a few kickass characters, and in the tradition of James Cameron and Joss Whedon, there are definitely some strong female characters in there too.

I agree with dsgran’s assessment that this is a highly recommended read for anyone who’s interested in this kind of stuff. Hope Jocelyn will be getting the next book soon, so he can lend it to Olman!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Book 10 – The Road

By Cormac McCarthy

For the most part, I share a similar opinion as Mount Benson -- this is quite an excellent novel with some very minor flaws. I agree with Buzby that the narration can be quite repetitive in regards to the day-to-day survival of the father and son, and with Mt Benson that there is very little in the way of story arc.

But for me, these were minor quibbles that I had only at the beginning. I felt that this was intentionally done to immerse you in their microcosm, and that worked for me. About a third way through, I became quite absorbed in the duo's journey and got quite caught up when they found themselves in horrific or uncompromising situations.

And boy, was this novel ever bleak. Probably one of the bleakest, most desolate stories I’ve ever read. But it’s also quite beautifully written, in the typical sparse, lean style of the author. Life on earth is so utterly destroyed, the only living things are humans, and they have been reduced to a primitive existence of scavenging or pillaging. Many have resorted to violence and cannibalism. There seems little hope that any remnant of humanity can be salvaged.

This was why I was a little surprised by the ending. I think with this kind of story McCarthy could’ve taken any kind of approach with the ending, whether to leave it ambiguous, pessimistic or optimistic. The fact that he chose a certain kind of ending was interesting, and it didn’t exactly detract from the story but I have to admit I was a little disappointed that McCarthy copped out a little bit.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Book 9 – In the Country of Last Things

By Paul Auster

(*Book 8 has yet to be posted, please stay tuned!)

Mount Benson picked this for our online discussion. Even though I’ve already read two, as mentioned by his truly, I’ve never heard of this particular Auster book until he suggested it. Since I already like Auster and want to read more post-apocalyptic fiction, this was the perfect combination that inspired me to finally join in on the group review, so thanks for that, Mt B!

An unnamed country has been devastated by some unexplained event in the past. Anna Blume lives across the ocean, in a place apparently unaffected by the disaster. But she leaves her home and journeys to the ruined city in search of her brother, who disappeared some time ago. Although the country is fictional with its currency measured in glots, I had the sense that it represented America, with the city being New York and Anna's home was England. What do you guys think?

Like all the Auster protagonists I’ve encountered, Anna Blume is an insightful yet emotionally detached narrator. She writes a long letter to a former lover she has left behind relating the events of her life in the destroyed city. The general tone has the feel of a “low-key” post-apocalyptic tale. There is a lot of recounting of events and perceptions, but the most exciting thing that happens is when she’s lured away to an abandoned building to buy shoes, gets a glimpse of butchered human bodies hanging on meat hooks and makes a dramatic escape.

Like Mount Benson, I was surprised that In the Country of Last Things was fairly straight-ahead speculative fiction, with no genre deconstruction or post-modern devices that I could see. Although the action was low-key, there were some interesting and cool ideas. The aside about the Assassination Club could have been a story in itself yet only a couple of pages were devoted to it:

Rather than submit passively to the inevitable, those marked for assassination tend to become more alert, more vigorous in their movements, more filled with a sense of life – as though transformed by some new understanding of things. Many of them actually recant and opt for life again. But this is a complicated business. For once you join an Assassination Club, you are not allowed to quit. On the other hand, if you manage to kill your assassin, you can be released from your obligation – and, if you choose, be hired as an assassin yourself. That is the danger of the assassin’s job and the reason why it is so well paid.

In a devastated civilization, since nothing new is made anymore and trade with the outside world has almost entirely ceased, everyone has to make do with what they already have, and nothing, absolutely nothing, gets thrown out. And this goes for everything, from human waste to dead bodies. Everything gets re-used and recycled. Everyone’s trash is now everyone’s treasure. The trouble is, nothing lasts forever.

At some point, in order to survive in the city, Anna becomes a licensed scavenger, or object hunter. One of my favourite passages in the novel is when she’s out collecting and this particular section is probably why I enjoy Auster so much. He takes everyday things, like the lowly act of scavenging, and although he doesn’t necessarily elevate it, he definitely portrays it in a new and interesting light:

It is an odd thing, I believe, to be constantly looking down at the ground, always searching for broken and discarded things. For nothing is really itself anymore…
As an object hunter, you must rescue things before they reach this state of absolute decay. You can never expect to find something whole – for that is an accident, a mistake on the part of the person who lost it – but neither can you spend your time looking for what is totally used up. You hover somewhere in between, on the lookout for things that still retain a semblance of their original shape – even if their usefulness is gone. What another has seen fit to throw away, you must examine, dissect, bring back to life. A piece of string, a bottle-cap, an undamaged board from a bashed-in crate – none of these things should be neglected. Everything falls apart, but not every part of every thing, at least not at the same time. The job is to zero in on these little islands of intactness, to imagine them joined to other such islands, and those islands to still others, and thus to create new archipelagoes of matter. You must salvage the salvageable and learn to ignore the rest. The trick is to do it as fast as you can.

And because objects that were once plentiful or mass-produced are quickly disappearing, so too, are the words associated with them.

It is a slow but ineluctable process of erasure. Words tend to last a bit longer than things, but eventually they fade too, along with the pictures they once evoked. Entire categories of objects disappear—flowerpots, for example, or cigarette filters, or rubber bands—and for a time you will be able to recognize those words, even if you cannot recall what they mean. But then, little by little, the words become only sounds, a random collection of glottals and fricatives, a storm of whirling phonemes, and finally the whole thing just collapses into gibberish.

For Mount Benson, the theme of the novel was hope, which did not really occur to me until the end of the story. My first thought for the overall theme driving the novel was impermanence. But I think impermanence and hope are inextricably linked together. For Anna and the other characters, they need to let go of whatever they're clinging to before hope can even enter into the equation. The ones that cling to objects, like the bottle ship maker, or to people, like simple caretaker Willie, or to material comforts, like many of the former Woburn House patients, eventually meet their end. But the ones who learn how to let go, like Anna, who accepts the fact that she may never see her brother again, or Sam, who eventually gets over the loss of his book, or Victoria, who finally severs her connection to Woburn House and therefore, the memories of her father, then there is a remote chance for survival and maybe some hope for the future. It seems there are some very existential concepts here, but they can be construed as very Buddhist as well. I'd be very interested in hearing what others think. In any case, I thought this was a very good novel with some thought-provoking themes and ideas tying it together quite strongly.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Book 8 – Déja Dead

By Kathy Reichs

Conan picked this up when he was used book hunting in Berkeley last Christmas, but soon had to put it down half way simply because the writing was so bad and he just couldn’t get into the serial killer thing. Although I don’t disagree with his first assessment, there are other things going for me: I can enjoy a good serial killer thriller if it’s decently crafted, I have a soft spot for forensic/crime scene investigation stories and I’ve always wanted to read something by Kathy Reichs, who, in case you didn’t know, is an American forensic anthropologist who divides her time between working for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in North Carolina and for the Laboratoire des Sciences Judiciaires et de Médecine Légale in Quebec. She is probably better known for her series of crime novels featuring her alter ego, Dr Temperance Brennan, which also inspired the TV series, Bones.

Deja Dead is the first book in the series with Dr. Brennan stationed in Montreal at the medico-legal lab, which is located in what is known as the QPP or SQ building, depending on your linguistic preference. To Anglophones, it is the Quebec Provincial Police—to francophones, La Sureté du Québec. The Laboratoire de Médecine Légale, similar to a medical examiner’s office in the States, shares the fifth floor with the Laboratoire des Sciences Judiciaires, the central crime lab for the province.

I suppose if I were Conan, reading about an intrepid female forensic anthropologist who tries to convince her mostly male colleagues of detectives that they have a serial murderer on their hands, may come across as a bit clichéd and tiresome, but I got quite into it. As soon as Dr. Brennan was called in to investigate a body found on the grounds of Le Grand Seminaire in Westmount, where Olman and I actually stomped around in, I was already hooked.

Alas, the quality of writing can be pretty bad, ie. awkward dialogue, cringe-inducing details about her love life, the internal reflections that are more hackneyed than insightful, ie. the deaths of these women had stirred something in me. I ached for their fear, their pain. I felt anger and outrage, and a need to root out the animal responsible for the slaughter. The depiction of the underlying sexism in a male-dominated profession can be a little simplistic at times, like Brennan’s conflicts with Luc Claudel, the SQ investigator, or city detective. Furthermore, the attempts at humour or irony are rather pedestrian, where Reichs comes across more square than, say, hard boiled. I’m also disappointed that she neglects to exploit the humour of the CUM squad car (the French acronym for the Montreal Urban Community).

But when Reichs delivers the straight goods of the investigation itself, ie. pretty much writing what she knows best, the extraneous stuff gets pared down and the story can get pretty gripping. I also like it when she explains the police procedural stuff since I actually don’t know too much how it works in Quebec, and what she says still probably has some truth to it, like:

The Communauté Urbaine de Montréal police handle murders occurring on the island itself. Off the island, they fall to local police departments, or to La Sureté du Québec. Coordination is not always good.

Ultimately, for me, the main draw of Deja Dead is that it’s set in Montreal in the early 1990’s. You can tell that Reichs adores the city and she tries to squeeze in brief histories of the various places as much as possible, especially the Boulevard St-Laurent, aka the Main. Some of the landmarks she mentions are still standing, others long gone: fresh fish at Waldman’s, smoked meat at Schwartz’s, apples and strawberries at Warshaw’s, baked goods at La Boulangerie Polonaise. In a kind of morbid homage, Reichs sets the various murder scenes all over Montreal and the surrounding island, from the grounds of Le Grand Seminaire in Westmount to The Gay Village, as well Hochelaga-Maisonneuve and Ile-St-Helene. I was also able to pinpoint the specific time period of the novel when Reichs describes the heroine looking at a poster for the Tamara de Lempicka exhibition at the Musée des Beaux Arts. I had seen that awesome show when I was in Montreal as a French bursary student in the summer of ’91!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Book 7 – Breakfast At Tiffany’s

By Truman Capote

Never read any Capote before, so this famous little novella made a nice introduction.

It’s a light, straightforward tale about a young woman who transforms herself from a country hick to a Manhattan party girl. She’s constantly trying to run away from her past while struggling to find her own life. Written in 1958 yet set in the late 1940’s, the novel really encapsulated a feeling, time and place. Capote also brings to life the upper east side area where the characters live a particular modern lifestyle that probably doesn’t exist anymore.

I think I would’ve loved this book as a girl, as it’s a bit like a post-war Sex and the City. But reading it at this point in my life, I can see how Holly Golightly, as a young woman with an unconventional lifestyle and lack of options, represent some of the social hurdles Capote had to probably contend with, while at the same time, Holly’s desire for freedom and independence embodies some of his ideals as well.

Although much as been made about the narrator, I really did not have the sense that “Fred” was gay. Whatever I missed it was probably very subtle. I mean the guy seems obsessed about Holly, keeping tabs of her comings and goings, and at least a couple times reveals that he’s in love with her. He seems like a typically introverted straight guy to me! But then again, one could also say that Andy Warhol actually fell head over heels for Edie Sedgewick, in his own kind of way!

A disquieting loneliness came into my life, but it induced no hunger for friends of longer acquaintance: they seemed now like a salt-free, sugarless diet. ~Truman Capote

Friday, March 20, 2009

Book 6 – Wuthering Heights

By Emily Brontë

When I was in university, I studied Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, loved it, then sought out sister Emily’s famous novel, but ended up losing interest about a third way through. Now more than a dozen years later, I’m finally able to get through this ‘Slough of Despond’. Although I can’t say I like it more than I would have, I did end up having some appreciation for this rather remarkable novel.

Wuthering Heights is the name of the Yorkshire manor built upon the moorlands and home of the Earnshaw family. Isolated and far from the stir of society, the land is described by one of the narrators as the “perfect misanthropist’s Heaven”. The novel can also be described as such. For one thing, it’s far from a traditional love story, and rather, more like an anti-love story. Here you have Catherine and Heathcliff, two very emotionally imbalanced people, falling into an all-encompassing codependent relationship, yet you never see them declare their love for each other. All the romantic action is peripheral. Their thwarted love has dire consequences for their immediate family. Even their descendants fall into the same trap and suffer from the ridiculously foolish choices they make.

What bothered me at first about Wuthering Heights was how the main characters are so prone to their human follies. The men and women both are emotionally immature, manipulative, vindictive and given to histrionics. In some ways, I was glad there were barely any passages with Heathcliff and Catherine together because my eyes would’ve rolled out of their sockets!

At that earnest appeal he turned to her, looking absolutely desperate. His eyes wide, and wet at last, flashed fiercely on her; his breast heaved convulsively. An instant they held asunder, and then how they met I hardly saw, but Catherine made a spring, and he caught her, and they were locked in an embrace from which I thought my mistress would never be released alive: in fact, to my eyes, she seemed directly insensible. He flung himself into the nearest seat, and on my approaching hurriedly to ascertain if she had fainted, he gnashed at me, and foamed like a mad dog, and gathered her to him with greedy jealousy.

What Brontë is really good at is the clever dissection of social niceties. With the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights and neighbouring Thrushcross Grange removed from society and given free reign to develop anti-social tendencies galore, there is plenty of opportunity for misanthropic humour. Take the fascinatingly wicked Heathcliff, who becomes misanthropy incarnate once he thinks Catherine has rejected him, and is called by various characters such names as monster, devil, and fiend. He even tricks the nubile and naïve neighbour, Isabella, into marrying him, yet you feel it was really her fault for being so foolishly gullible when he tells the narrator:

She abandoned them under a delusion… picturing in me a hero of romance, and expecting unlimited indulgences from my chivalrous devotion. I can hardly regard her in the light of a rational creature, so obstinately has she persisted in forming a fabulous notion of my character, and acting on the false impressions she cherished.

Brontë pulls no punches in portraying Heathcliff as anti-christ and villain, ‘notable for savage sullenness and ferocity’. The guy gets downright emotionally and physically abusive after he takes over Wuthering Heights and its inhabitants, which apparently shocked readers at the time. I wouldn’t say that Brontë’s portrayal of Heathcliff is very three-dimensional, yet somehow he still comes across as a complex and sympathetic character.

Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the strapping and masculine self-made landowner ends up having a son who is a complete pansy. But it could also be the very unusual narrative structure, which is non-linear, involving multiple flashbacks and two narrators—Mr. Lockwood, who is renting Thrushcross Grange, and Ellen "Nelly" Dean, the ever so patient housekeeper. It is probably a conscious decision that the narrators are mentally and emotionally stable, so the reader can identify with them as a cool spectator, since all the other characters, past and present, seem so preoccupied in making their own train wrecks!

All in all, I can’t say I totally enjoyed the novel, as I couldn’t lose myself in the story as I did with Jane Eyre, and I was too busy rolling my eyes at every stupid decision and emotional outburst. It was still a very interesting read and I'm glad I finally read it.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Book 5 – The Music of Chance

By Paul Auster

Another weird and wonderful story from Paul Auster. My last encounter was The New York Trilogy, and I’m definitely seeing some recurring themes in his work, which is not necessarily a bad thing since Auster’s got the po-mo deconstruction of genre fiction down pat and he does it quite well.

Jim Nashe, an ordinary everyman kinda guy suddenly inherits some money from his father, whom he hasn’t seen since he was a boy. He leaves his job as a fireman, buys a new car and drives all over America, succumbing to a solipsistic addiction to long-distance driving. After several months, he realizes he’s going to run out of money soon if he doesn't do something about it. On a quiet road, he comes across a young card shark named Jack Pozzi who got away from a poker game gone sour. For Nashe it’s like a match made in heaven:

He would play the old man to Pozzi’s upstart, using the advantage he had in size and age to give off an aura of hard-earned wisdom, a steadiness that would counterbalance the kid’s nervous, impulsive manner.

Soon enough, Nashe offers to bankroll Pozzi’s next game with two wealthy eccentrics named Flower and Stone, who love poker, but are amateur players -- easy money. When Nashe and Pozzi arrive at the mansion, they learn that Flower and Stone became millionaires by winning the lottery. The card game becomes a contest of luck, and the outcome has very dire consequences for Nashe and Pozzi.

Like The NY Trilogy’s po-mo take on the detective genre, TMoC starts off with very familiar narrative motifs - man running away from his past, gambling buddies-on-the-road, poker game gone wrong – then at some point switches to something surreal and scary well after you’re suckered into what seems like an amusing and conventional story. Auster can also take a well-worn cliché, like a budding yet unlikely friendship, and make it work with solid thoughtful writing:

All during Pozzi’s reminiscences, Nashe had inevitably thought about his own boyhood, and the curious correspondence he found between their two lives had struck a chord in him: the early abandonment, the unexpected gift of money, the abiding anger. Once a man begins to recognize himself in another, he can no longer look on that person as a stranger. Like it or not, a bond is formed. Nashe understood the potential trap of such thinking, but at that point there was little he could do to prevent himself from feeling drawn to this lost and emaciated creature. The distance between them had suddenly narrowed.

Nothing's perfect however. There are times where Auster resorts to heavy-handed symbolism and trite existentialism, but for the most part, I found The Music of Chance quite a mesmerizing read. And I like the deceptively simple writing. There’s always this dreamy sense of foreboding, which compels me to keep reading, even though I know something meaningless and terrible is going to happen to the protagonist. Although his characters tend to be rather archetypal and cipher-like, Auster is also really good at making you immediately identify with them. When he describes Nashe on the road in his car, it just makes me want to jump in a car and drive to the hills:

He was a fixed point in a whirl of changes, a body poised in utter stillness as the world rushed through him and disappeared. The car became a sanctum of invulnerability, a refuge in which nothing could hurt him anymore. As long as he was driving, he carried no burdens, was unencumbered by even the slightest particle of his former life… After three or four months, he had only to enter the car to feel that he was coming loose from his body, that once he put his foot down on the gas and started driving, the music would carry him into a realm of weightlessness.
Empty roads were always preferable to crowded roads. They demanded fewer slackenings and decelerations, and because he did not have to pay attention to other cars, he could drive with the assurance that his thoughts would not be interrupted.

A good solid satisfying read! Apparently there is also a film adaptation from the mid-90's starring Mandy Patinkin and James Spader, two of the last actors I would picture playing the role of Nashe and Pozzi respectively, so I'm a little wary of check it out... unless it's really good, of course!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Book 4 - The Nature of Monsters

By Clare Clark

Master and Commander gave me a taste for British historical fiction, so I thought I’d experience a more female perspective via Clark’s tale of a pregnant village girl who becomes an apothecary’s maid in the teeming metropolis of 18th century London.

Much darker and far less humorous, TNoM is more of a gothic horror story, and quite Dickensian in its account of Eliza Tally’s bleak existence: getting whored out to a landowner’s son by her mother, dealing with an unwanted pregnancy, being sent to London to become a servant at an apothecary, and enduring the cold and rather demeaning treatment from the apothecary’s wife, Mrs. Black, and the lecherous the shop assistant, Edgar.

Although sullen and defiant by nature, Eliza is still a poor outsider stuck in an unknown city without family or commendation. She has very few options but to remain confined in the claustrophobic Black household, and share her duties and sleeping area with Mary, the idiot maidservant. She is also naturally wary of and fascinated by her mysterious master, the oddly disfigured apothecary, Grayson Black:

My master was as present and yet as invisible in the house in Swan-street as God Himself was in church, except that, as Mrs. Black and the frog-voiced parson like to instruct me, God was the one true Light. My master, on the other hand, seemed to me to be composed of darkness, of shadows and locked doors and windowless stairwells and the sour black smoke of extinguished candles.

Since the narrative is interspersed with fragments of Black’s journal entries and letters, you get a pretty clear idea that Grayson Black is a ego-maniacal man whose deep-seated misogyny informs the core of his beliefs and area of study:

My work with the parish women has shown me clearly that the low faculty of imagination that so dominates women is brought most effectively to the fore by the cultivation of such fear. It weakens the solids & fibres of the body, already so much feebler than those of the male, so that they are at their most receptive to impression.

Not to mention whose delusions of grandeur allow him to bully those around him, most especially Mrs.Black:

”Madam, I stand at the threshold of greatness and you threaten me with a debtors’ gaol? I will not be goaded so, do you hear me? Was Mr. Sydenham assailed with petty concerns such as yours? Was Hippocrates?”

At first Eliza thinks that Black will help restore her wayward reputation by getting rid of her child, but little does she know the mad apothecary has other designs, such as subjecting her and Mary to horrifying experiments! When Eliza is sent out to run errands, she slowly befriends the bookseller Mr. Honfleur, and eventually summons the courage to ask him the nature of her master’s work (warning: spoiler ahead!):

“Ah, it is hardly a secret. Your esteemed master writes a treatise… the notion of maternal impression of something close… the effects of strong emotions, fear, desire, and such like, upon the physical form of a foetus… the eminent gentlemen of the Royal Society have long been fascinated with monsters…"

Overall the story is quite compelling and complex without being too dense and over-laden with period detail. Indeed, the prose can be a little overly expository at times as typical of this type of fiction, and Eliza’s articulate inner dialogue doesn’t quite mesh with how an uneducated yet intelligent village girl would think in her head.

Even though the details of Eliza’s living situation can get a bit bogged down with bleak pessimism where most of the characters are motivated by greed, status and/or cruelty, Clark keeps it balanced with enough action, suspense and itty bit of hope to keep me gripped throughout the depressing sections. Plus, the character arc of Eliza starting off as an illiterate, self-centred maidservant who hates the idiot maid Mary and ending up as a sympathetic, street-smart heroine who ends up loving the idiot maid after all was a gradual and convincing enough transition to pull me through to the end. A flawed but satisfying read!

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Book 3 – Master and Commander

By Patrick O’Brian

It’s too bad this wasn’t considered a book club pick since four 50-bookers have read it this year so far, and it’s an awesome book. Perhaps it should, mmm?

Despite the common complaint from readers of the constant looking up of nautical terms that filled up the book, I didn’t mind this so much. First, I didn’t bother looking up anything at all, and I still managed to enjoy and appreciate the adventures of Captain Aubrey and his merry 80-odd member crew. Besides I wasn’t sure if I wanted to know what a cunt-splice was anyway. And yet the attentive description of ships, especially the lovingly imperfect Sophie, who is like a character in herself, didn’t seem fetishistic at all!

So anyway, since Olman has read it. And June23 has read it. And last but not least, Buzby has read it -- and since we all know M & C has the action, adventure, naval politics and male-bonding that has already won die-hard fans the world over -- I thought instead of writing a standard review, lemme tell you some of my favourite little moments from Master & Commander:

• When Captain Jack Aubrey was just promoted, given charge of the Sophie and made the realization that his new life as master & commander would be a lonely one:

he was no longer one of ‘us’: he was ‘they’. Indeed, he was the immediately-present incarnation of ‘them’. In his tour of the brig he had been surrounded with deference – a respect different in kind from that accorded to a lieutenant, different in kind from that accorded to a fellow human-being: it had surrounded him like a glass bell, quite shutting him off from the ship’s company…

• When Jack was having a bad day, experiencing a non-stop “series of disappointments”, which included

Ellis’ horrible parents had not yet left the island, and he and Stephen had been obliged to undergo their hospitality – the only occasion in his life he had ever seen a half bottle of small white wine divided between four. Disappointments.

• Stephen Maturin not able to lose his frugal habits due to his period of poverty:

With intense mortification he saw that the piece of meat he had hidden at yesterday’s dinner had oozed grease through his handkerchief and his pocket. ‘How wonderfully strange,’ he thought, ‘to be upset by this trifle; yet I am upset.’ He sat down and ate his piece of meat (the eye of mutton chop)…

• Dr Maturin’s various idiosyncratic thoughts and quips about…

…older men of authority:

James Dillon was a delightful being. Now he is closing in. It is odd – will I say heart-breaking? – how cheerfulness goes: gaiety of mind, natural free-springing joy. Authority is its great enemy – the assumption of authority. I know few men over fifty that seem to me entirely human: virtually none who has long exercised authority. The senior post-captains here; Admiral Warne. Shrivelled men (shriveled in essence: not, alas, in belly).

… whether the progeny of an annoying, upper class couple will take after them:

’And having seen the parents I am impatient to see this youth, the fruit of their strangely unattractive loins: will he be a wretched mammothrept? A little corporal?…’

… Captain Aubrey and Lieutenant James Dillon (JA and JD) not quite getting along:

’But I confess that much as I love them, I could wish them both to the Devil, with their high-flown, egocentrical points of honour and their purblind spurring one another to remarkable exploits that may very well end in unnecessary death… There is a systemic flocci-nauci-nihili-pilification of all other aspects of existence that angers me… I have no patience for them. They are strangely immature for men of their age and their position: though, indeed, it is supposed that if they were not, they would not be here – the mature, the ponderate mind does not embark itself upon a man-of-war – is not to be found wandering about the face of the ocean in quest of violence.’

Finally, the many small moments of humour are harder to quantify. But I did get a very good chuckle when JA had to deal with the “infernal bore” of the report of a lowly seaman who committed the unnatural crime of sodomy on a goat. And then Stephen politely declined the offer of goat’s milk for his tea.

Capital! Just capital! A truly excellent book. And to think there are at least 20 more of them in the entire series!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Book 2 – King Suckerman

By George P. Pelecanos

It’s been a long time coming getting back to the Washington Quartet. I reviewed the first, The Big Blowdown, in 2007, as did Olman (note he’s also reviewed King Suckerman here, so I’ll keep it short).

It’s the summer of 1976. Dimitri Karras and Marcus Clay are best friends who, through random events, clash with a motley crew of psychotic criminals and hillbillies. All you need to know is that the novel delivers on this premise.

Pelecanos has an excellent ear for the colloquial rhythms of the period he sets his story in. You read some of the sharp dialogue in The Big Blowdown and you’re instantly transported back in the 1940s. The same for King Suckerman’s breezy laid-back slang and the bountiful pop cultural references. You can totally tell Pelecanos came of age as a young man in the 70’s. That he's listened to all the soul and rock albums mentioned in Marcus' record store, and watched all the bad-ass movies that played at the drive-ins and B-houses.

My only complaint was the over-repetition of the King Suckerman reference. The title of the book is the name of the much-anticipated blaxploitation flick that opens up in Washington just before all the shit goes down. It seems that whenever we’re introduced to a new male character, the movie invariably gets brought up, and someone else always goes: “the one about the pimp?” Ta da bam ta da boom. I was quite surprised that someone of Pelecanos’ stature would resort to such a schticky device.

Then you read one of the character’s rundown of the fictional flick he just watched, and all is forgiven:

King Suckerman started out exactly that way, though from the beginning the audience sensed that there was something unsettling going on in the film. For one thing, Ron St. John, who played the title role, he was one stone ugly motherfucker, scarred in the face and narrow of shoulder and chest. Cooper had liked The Mack, thought it was more authentic than most, but in truth Max Julien as the pimp had always bothered him. Julien could be tough, but with his smooth skin, too-easy smile, and deep dimples, he was way too pretty to be believable as the hard man a pimp had to be. You needed someone tougher in the face and body to make the story true. But Ron St. John? He went all the way in the other direction.

Ugly as he was, though, Ron St. John was cool. Cool
and bad. No one could fuck with King Suckerman, ‘cause the man feared no one and had all the bitches in his stable.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Book 1 - Breaking Dawn

By Stephanie Meyer

The final book of the Twlight quartet. I forgot to mention that in the previous installment, Eclipse, Edward asks for Bella's hand in marriage. It’s kinda like, well, if I’m going to damn your soul to hell then the least you can be is my virtuous vamp. Despite their differences, they both have one thing in common, the mark of the V, and it has nothing to do with vampirism! The only catch is, Bella wants to consummate their love while she’s still human.

So Breaking Dawn starts off with Bella and Edward getting hitched, then going off to their Caribbean honeymoon in fantasy Isle Esme. This is probably what every faithful follower has been waiting for since Twilight - to see these two finally get it on! Meyer definitely spares no expense in depicting the corny PG-rated love scenes with, I kid you not, ripped-up feather-down pillows a-flying and destroyed headboards a-plenty.

Of course we all know that the honeymoon is going to end abruptly. I really should have seen it coming, with Bella's weird dreams about blood-suckling babies. Before I could even say “noooo… they’re not gonna have….they can’t possibly have….” Wham! Bella gets knocked up with vampire spawn! Nobody saw it coming, not even Edward’s foster dad, the eminent Dr Carlisle! This is where Meyer’s absurd attempt at a ‘scientific’ explanation doesn’t quite satisfy the WTF? reaction. Anyway, I’ve already made it this far with this preposterous love story, I can suspend my disbelief a little more!

So here we go. Bella and Edward return to Forks, where in the sanctity of the Cullen home, Bella undergoes an accelerated pregnancy (human-vampire hybrids being so rare, they simply can’t wait to come out and show themselves off). There is a surprisingly Cronenberg-esque segment where demon-spawn is practically torturing Mommy from the inside with its super bone-breaking fetal powers. When the big B-day occurs, Meyer delivers the ultimate birth/death motif: Bella dies giving birth and is reborn again as an immortal bloodsucker.

And during this whole ordeal, Jacob the werewolf has been hanging around like a sad masochistic puppy, even forsaking his beloved pack in order to protect Bella from them. When he finally sets eyes on hybrid-baby Renesmee, he discovers his true calling (you’ll have to read the books to find out about the imprinting thing -- it’s not quite as gross as it sounds). At least he finally gets over Bella and he becomes the leader of this own pack of motley mutineers!

So yes, many wonderful things happen to Bella in her new and improved life as a beautified vampire (immortality suits her so well, it’s no wonder she felt so dull being a drab human!). The once distant, difficult Rosalie is now Bella’s best friend through their love of cute demonic babies and motherhood. Bella’s prodigious self-control as a newborn allows her to keep in touch with her still human dad, while also inspiring vampires who have difficulty in weaning off humans to remain strong – if Bella can do it, you can too! Most importantly, being a vampire has greatly improved her and Edward’s sex life – they can both play rough now!

But life ain’t always wine n’ roses, even for vampires. A betrayal triggers the Volturi to come calling as they’re lead to believe that wee Renesmee is a full-blown vampire baby, which is totally forbidden. Since Alice can foresee their arrival, the Cullen family rush to assemble all the vampires of the world in -gulp- the wee town of Forks, in order to bear witness that Renesmee is unique. The vampires of the world can be a pretty fascinating and exotic bunch. There are human-friendly and nonhuman-friendly covens, nomads, and the ancient yet persecuted Romanians. Having an extra-sensory talent is rare and prized. So the original 7-member Cullen family with Edward, Jasper and Alice having special gifts is rather exceptional (and envied by the Volturi). So it comes as no surprise that Bella soon discovers that she has a rather unique power too. She can shield herself and others from malicious psychic attacks.

So in a very remote yet open field somewhere in the Olympic Peninsula, the Volturi finally come head to head against the Cullen clan, the assembled vampires, plus the Quileute shape-shifters (we learn finally that they’re not really true werewolves, aka Children of the Moon). Unlike the ending of Eclipse, we disappointingly don’t get delivered on much physical action and carnage, thought there’s a bit of psychic strategy at play.

What we do get is the message that even diabolical creatures like vampires can indeed rise above their bestial natures and become more civilized by abstaining from human blood. If they keep it up long enough, by jove, they can even forge bonds of love! One of the nomadic vampires named Garrett is so impressed, he makes a moving speech to the assembly:

I have witnessed the bonds within this family—I say family and not coven. These strange golden-eyed ones deny their very natures. But in return have they found something worth even more, perhaps, than mere gratification of desire? I’ve made a little study of them in my time here, and it seems to me that intrinsic to this intense family binding—that which makes them possible at all—is the peaceful character of this life of sacrifice. There is no aggression here like we all saw in the large southern clans that grew and diminished so quickly in their wild feuds. There is no thought for domination… Are the Volturi here to protect the safety of our secrecy, or to protect their own power? Did they come to destroy an illegal creation, or a way of life?

So love and respect all Mormons! Oops, did just I say that? Ultimately the Twilight Saga is one big modernized fairy tale and Meyer makes no pretension that it is anything else. The series ends so happily, you either want to hurl the book across the room, or cry tears of joy. I wanted to do both!

It was a place where anyone could believe magic existed. A place where you just expected Snow White to walk right in with her apple in hand, or a unicorn to stop and nibble at the rosebushes. Edward had always thought that he belonged to the world of horror stories. Of course, I’d known he was dead wrong. It was obvious that he belonged here. In a fairy tale. And now I was in the story with him.

I was caught between the awareness of reading something completely ridiculous, yet unable to stop myself in wanting to read more. That is the power of competently crafted populist fiction!

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

2008 Wrap Up!

With 27 under my belt, this was my best year ever! Don’t think I’ve ever read this many in one year before in my entire life. Definitely surpassed my original goal of 24 (roughly 2 books per month).

This was mostly due to the spur of sudden reading activity in December, like consuming the 1st three 600-page Twilight tomes in quick succession! 2008 also represented more varied and exploratory reading, with a mixture of classics, sci fi, graphic novels, high brow & low brow. All fiction, however. It’s still difficult for me to read non-fiction of anything longer than magazine article length.

Perhaps I’ll try to endeavor for 2009!

Still… a stellar year for Meezly!