Sunday, December 12, 2010

Book 34 – To Kill A Mockingbird

By Harper Lee

I came across this article about how To Kill A Mockingbird is America’s most overrated book, which reminded me that I still haven’t read it. Luckily, last month while in Seattle, I picked up a cheap copy at a cute used bookshop at Pike Place Market.

Naturally, it is quite easy to hate on a widely popular Pulitzer Prize-winning classic that has been such an endearing influence and favourite amongst white Liberal elites and idealistic law students. Especially when you have Hollywood celebrity types like Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, who named their second child after the girl character Scout (which was actually a nickname), or Jake Gyllenhaal who named his two dogs Atticus Finch and Boo Radley.

The Allen Barra article makes some pretty valid points:

• Its sentiments and moral grandeur are as unimpeachable as the character of its hero, Atticus. He is an idealized version of Ms. Lee's father … Atticus bears an uncanny resemblance to another pillar of moral authority—the Thomas More depicted in Robert Bolt's "A Man for All Seasons"… Atticus does not become a martyr for his cause like Sir Thomas, but he is the only saint in a courtroom full of the weak, the foolish and the wicked. And like Sir Thomas, Atticus gets all the best lines.

• In all great novels there is some quality of moral ambiguity, some potentially controversial element that keeps the book from being easily grasped or explained... There is no ambiguity in "To Kill a Mockingbird"; at the end of the book, we know exactly what we knew at the beginning: that Atticus Finch is a good man, that Tom Robinson was an innocent victim of racism, and that lynching is bad. As Thomas Mallon wrote in a 2006 story in The New Yorker, the book acts as "an ungainsayable endorser of the obvious."

• Harper Lee's contemporary and fellow Southerner Flannery O'Connor (and a far worthier subject for high-school reading lists) once made a killing observation about "To Kill a Mockingbird": "It's interesting that all the folks that are buying it don't know they are reading a children's book."

I agree with all these points, but I still very much enjoyed TKAMB. Sure the novel had some of that “bloodless liberal humanism” which seems a bit dated now, but it was also extremely engaging human drama that hit all the right notes of childhood wish-fulfillment and romantic sentimentality. It's the equivalent of watching a really good Oscar-contending Hollywood film. If I were in my early teens I probably would have loved this book. So I don’t understand the full intent of this article. Yes, it may be overrated as a great work of classic American literature, but it is definitely a very American book. And wasn’t TKAMB always considered a children’s (or young adult) book? Isn’t this why it’s still required reading for junior high school English in America? And can you fault a book for inspiring generations of lawyers and civil rights activists, no matter how idealistic it is? Maybe we should just hate the unimaginative celebs who like to name their babies and pets after their fave TKAMB characters!

Monday, December 06, 2010

Book 33 – Pride & Prejudice

By Jane Austen

I remember how one of my Arts One professors professed, in her introduction of Austen’s most famous novel, that she was an Austen fan who made a point of re-reading Pride & Prejudice every year or two. At the time, I was like, whatever, but now I can kind of see what she meant. Though I wouldn’t read P&P every two years, it was definitely a delight and a treat to revisit this after 17 years, especially having read the silly mashup Pride & Prejudice & Zombies and having finally watched the 2005 film adaptation, which wasn’t bad considering my skepticism of the casting. Also helped that I found this Dover Thrift paperback for a buck in the P section at old reliable Chainon.

This year will be Napoleonic era year as I have several Austen classics and Patrick O’Brian Aubrey-Mathurin installments to get through on my every growing on-deck shelf. Very excited about 2011!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Book 32 – Momofuku

By David Chang and Peter Meehan

As the lifestyle editor of a well-known fashion magazine, Olman’s sister gets a fair share of freebies, especially cookbooks, and Momofuku was thoughtfully passed onto us. It has been on our dining table for a few months as I slowly leaf through it over tea or breakfast.

Thanks to the Globe and Mail’s fascination over all things New York, I’ve heard of Chang’s success, but not soon enough to have actually gone to Momofuku when we were last in NYC (we probably wouldn’t have been able to get in anyway!). I’m not exactly a foodie, but I do love Asian food, be it Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, etc. My favourite appliance is our Zojirushi rice cooker; I can make sushi, a decent Thai curry, any type of fried rice and I have almost perfected the art of making a killer okonomyaki. So it’s not surprising that someone like Chang would do something amazing and inventive with Asian comfort food. And I love my noodles. I have instant ramen every week because it’s like a treat. But instead of having it plain, I like to dress it up with vegetables, chicken broth and a fried egg. And now Chang has provided a recipe for his famous pork ramen dish. Not all of the recipes are exactly easy and straightforward to make, but there are a few that are doable in a layman’s kitchen. I’d definitely have to enlist the help of Olman to roast that pork belly!

But Momofuku isn’t just a recipe book, it’s also part autobiography and part homage to his favourite foods, and lots of neat stuff about noodle-making. There's probably lots of media gossip about Chang being a difficult person, but in the book he comes across as genuinely humble and appreciative of his success, and he makes a point of paying credit where it’s due. My new year’s resolution is to either visit NYC in the spring and check out a David Chang establishment, or make one of his goddam recipes or die trying!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Book 31 - Cloud Atlas

By David Mitchell

I knew nothing about author or book until earlier this year when a friend (actually a couple, so do I say “a couple friend” in terms of them as a single unit?) voluntarily lent me Cloud Atlas with a high recommendation.

Yet I couldn't get past the first 30 pages or so, wondering if the entire novel was going to be about some 19th century American notary stuck in the South Pacific. I took a peak on the internets and became suspicious this was going to be another one of those epic stories about the interconnectedness of humanity that transcends geography and time. It sat unread on my bedside table for months. At some point I admitted having difficulty to one-half of said couple friend, who then assured me to stick with it - it’ll get better. So I gave it another go. Thankfully, she was right.

But as soon as I was starting to get quite absorbed by “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing”, it abruptly ends in mid-sentence! WTF?! And then it launches into a series of letters from a dropout music student who shacks up with a reclusive composer he admires in pre-WW2 Belgium. This section had some moments of pure comic genius. When Frobisher attempts to impress the miserly composer by playing Chopin on the piano, I couldn’t help but LOL when Ayrs interrupts with a whiny, “Trying to slip my petticoats off my ankles, Frobisher?”

It didn’t take me long to realize that this David Mitchell guy can really write or figure out what he’s trying to accomplish by jumping around in time and dabbling in different voices, style and genre. The entire novel is a tour de force of virtuoso writing, which is part of Cloud Atlas’ appeal but ironically, also its shortcoming. As one NY Times critic notes: “It is not unheard of for a novelist of exceptional talent to write a deliberately difficult book.”

Like some of those recent overrated movies (the horrid Crash, Babel, etc.) that portray seemingly disconnected people from disparate places and races who are somehow linked by some meaningfully profound commonality, when it boils down to it, is a conceit whose ultimate purpose is to showcase complexity in the service of talent. Cloud Atlas is pretty much the literary version of this. I mean, all the characters, though they live centuries apart, share similar circumstances and, get this, a comet-shaped birthmark! And yet Mitchell almost gets away with it (yes, he is that talented!).

I must confess that I only quickly skimmed the middle sections “An Orison of Sonmi~451” (an interview with an upstart cloned human or 'fabricant' in dystopian Korea before her execution) and “Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After” (a post-apocalyptic yarn about a Hawaiian goat herder whose tribe comes across the inspirational recording of Sonmi’s testimony). Though it may be a feat of genre-bending creative writing, 'twas a bit difficult losin' myself in the narrative and I wasn't in the mood to make a mental effort. I kept recalling one of Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Writing Fiction:

“Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apos­trophes, you won't be able to stop.”

Others may beg to differ and argue that the spec-fi/sci-fi sections are sheer poetry, so it’s likely I’m just a conservative (and lazy) reader at heart. Writers like AS Byatt absolutely adored every word in Cloud Atlas - perhaps Mitchell is more of a writer’s writer than a reader’s writer?

On the other hand, I very much enjoyed “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” and “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish”. With Luisa Rey, Mitchell skillfully uses clichéd noir prose to tell a familiar tale of a plucky young journalist who uncovers corporate greed and conspiracy in Nixon-era California. With Timothy Cavendish, we have a hapless vanity publisher who’s like an evolved version of Ignatius Reilly, trapped in an old folk’s home presided over by a Nurse Ratchett-like figure.

Cloud Atlas proved to be quite a wonderful treat, but it wasn't exactly a cohesive work. Although the disparate stories are linked by a unifying theme, it felt like the author constructed the framework to also showoff what he can do. But when it works, the story and characters can really fly off the page. Without a doubt Mitchell is a brilliant and clever writer (like a friendlier Christopher Priest who doesn't try to mess with the reader's head and annihilate structure) and I look forward to reading his other books. But I would only recommend Cloud Atlas to those who like unusual novels or writerly writers ;-)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Book 30 – The Elegance of the Hedgehog

By Muriel Barbery (translated from the French by Alison Anderson)

My 30th book! I don’t think I’ve ever read 30 books in a year before. My last record was 27 books in 2008.

One of the best films I saw this year was Le Hérisson. A little suspicious at first of the cutesy premise - unlikely friendship develops between precocious adolescent girl, middle-aged female concierge and retired Japanese businessman! – but the positive reviews convinced me to give it a try. With the sole exception of the generic music score, I loved the film. It's not often you see female curmudgeons onscreen, and a well-drawn one at that. When I discovered that Le Hérisson was based on a novel by Muriel Barbery, I did something rather unusual – I immediately ordered it online!

Unfortunately, I had a preconceived bias that I’d enjoy the book as much as the film adaptation, if not more. Although the novel allowed a deeper understanding of the two anti-heroines and a better platform for philosophical ruminations than what cinematic voiceovers could afford, there were some pretty serious flaws which prevented me from truly enjoying the book as a whole.

The titular character, Renée Michel, is the prickly 54-year-old concierge of a luxury apartment building in Paris. The uppity occupants of 7 rue de Grenelle hardly suspect their custodial drudge is leading a clandestine life (no, Madame Michel does not supplement her meager income by being a Lady of the Night). Off-duty, she is an autodidact who hides in her tiny library reading Tolstoy or watching videos of obscure art house films. Little does she know, Madame Michel has more in common with 12-year-old Paloma Josse, the youngest daughter of an upper class family living on the fifth floor, than she realizes. Gifted with high IQs and keen observation (with a soft spot for Japanese culture), both are painfully aware these qualities make them distinct (if not isolated) from society. Burdened by their brilliance and conceit, they have each made their own decision to opt out of life, albeit in different ways. Paloma silently vows to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday, while Renee is content to hide her intellectual pursuits behind the façade of a lowly concierge:

Let us just say that the idea of struggling to make my way in a world of privileged, affluent people exhausted me before I even tried: I was the child of nothing, I had not the slightest savoir-faire or sparkle. There was only one thing I wanted: to be left alone, without too many demands upon my person, so that for a few moments each day I might be allowed to assuage my hunger [for books].

Sounds annoyingly French, n’est-ce pas? Indeed, Renée says things like: “Phenomenology is beyond my reach and that I cannot bear” and “how distressing to stumble on a dominant social habitus, just when one was convinced of one’s own uniqueness in the matter!” As for Paloma, when she’s tired of listening to her older sister and her boyfriend riffing like banlieu homies, she puts in foam earplugs and immerses herself in classical Japanese haikus so that she won’t be able hear their “degenerate conversation”. Cue the eye-roll, s’il vous plait!

As one reviewer puts it, Barbery’s characters are a little too good to be true: “either utterly beguiling or completely infuriating, according to taste.” Indeed, though I found Renée and Paloma to be both, leaning more perhaps toward the latter! Another critic
hits it right on the nail by explaining how the author:

underpins her writing with an infectious, if occasionally unsubtle, didactic ardour. All three protagonists offer specific antidotes to the ills of modern life: Renée contradicts class prejudice and intellectual pretension… Paloma presents the alternative to a generation of rioting banlieue-dwellers and cosseted little rich kids. And Kakuro embodies a sort of rose-tinted eastern answer to western wretchedness. He, more than anything else, demonstrates how Barbery's charm and cleverness allow for certain cultural and narrative simplifications that might otherwise prove to be insufferable.

From a North American perspective, it’s quite an eye-opener to see how European society operates in such a class-conscious paradigm still, especially in France, and especially so in Paris. Barbery’s rather bold criticisms against the French upper class has mixed success. Although the original book was a huge hit in its native country when it first came out in 2006 (more than 1.2 million copies sold), it’s evident that French readers did not find Barbery’s barbs too offensive. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that, as one reviewer put it, the “Amélie-esque, Parisian setting and cast of eccentrics” probably appealed to many; and “the enormous numbers who bought into the pseudo-philosophical twittering of Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist” probably bought into this as well.

Perhaps this is so, but I think a big part of Hedgehog’s appeal is that the book flatters the reader. You feel so superior when Barbery makes jabs at the stupidity of the intellectual elite via Paloma and Renée. You feel so smug and satisfied when Paloma’s self-absorbed family falls for her normal girl act, or when Paloma’s sister Colombe talks to Renée as if she’s a half-wit. Then when Renée comes across Colombe’s graduate thesis, she totally tears into its contents (albeit silently to herself):

… For the quest for meaning and beauty is hardly a sign that man has an elevated nature… no, it is a primed weapon in the service of a trivial and material goal. And when the weapon becomes its own subject, this is the simple consequence of the specific neuronal wiring that distinguishes us from other animals; by allowing us to survive, the efficiency of intelligence also offers us the possibility of complexity without foundation, thought without usefulness, and beauty without purpose…

Fair enough. But then Renée asks herself what she would do if she were in Columbe Josse’s shoes, leading a privileged existence as a young student at the École Normale. She answers:

I would dedicate myself to the progress of Humanity… The only thing that matters is your intention: are you elevating thought and contributing to the common good, or rather joining the ranks in a field of study whose only purpose is its own perpetuation, and only function the self-reproduction of a sterile elite…

Right. [MAJOR SPOILER coming up...]

Later, Renée confesses to Kakuro: “You are the son of a diplomat, I am the daughter of impoverished peasants. It is inconceivable for me even to be having dinner here this evening.”

So although Renée is an intellectual force to be reckoned with, is it so inconceivable for her to consort with someone above her station? In a way, the book claims to possess the very things it criticizes others for lacking; it claims to have integrity and profundity, but its criticisms only run skin deep, and never transcends any real boundaries. Here we have an intellectually formidable character who is paralyzed by insecurities and social conditioning, making Renée Michel even more helpless than any Jane Austen heroine from two centuries before. To top it off, she dies at the end of the story just after she has found some measure of happiness, her death symbolic of the fact that you can’t fight the system if you don’t have the right background. One reviewer remarks how:

Barbery's entire tale is soaked in sentimentality. What is most irritating is that it steadfastly refuses to acknowledge itself as such - hiding under a mask of philosophical fuss.

Matters aren't helped much by the English translation “which too often mimics the structure of French sentences, and slips into translatorese”. Indeed, at times I found the translation to be quite clunky, inelegant, and painfully unfunny when it’s actually trying to be humourous. When Renée is invited to Kakuro’s swanky apartment for the first time, she has a rather surprising encounter with a Japanese toilet while alone in the bathroom:

Did I press the wrong button, misjudging the amount produced—such presumptuousness, such pride, Renée, two lotus flowers for such a ridiculous contribution—and consequently I am being punished by the earsplitting thunder of divine justice? Am I guilty of overindulging—of luxuriating—in the voluptuousness of the act in a place that inspires voluptuousness, when we should actually think of it as impure? … Have my lumpen manual laborer’s fingers, succumbing to the effect of some unconscious wrath, abused the subtle mechanism of the lotus button, thereby unleashing a cataclysm in the plumbing that threatens the entire fourth floor with seismic collapse?

Mon dieu. I have a feeling the original French sounds a little better (but it might not be entirely the fault of the translator either). In any case, the result has the opposite effect of being amusing – it comes across as overly contrived, wordy and unfortunately, very French. I’m sorry, but the French are not as capable of comedy and wit in the way that the British are, and this passage sadly illustrates this fact.

And yet despite all these glaring flaws, I still enjoyed the book - if you can believe it. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely LOVE reading about over-privileged rich folk making asses of themselves. When the author isn’t too busy admonishing the affluent and aggrandizing the marginalized, there are some moments of good satire and human observation. And some of the French ruminations on the nature of beauty and art, the meaning of life and death can be more thoughtful than pseudo. Though it yields to some sentimentality, the genuine appreciation of friendship and love quietly overcomes the awkwardness in its execution (and translation).

I must say, however, that Mona Achache’s Le Hérisson is the superior work, and would recommend the movie adaptation over the original novel, as the screenplay does away with all that pontificating and conceit and simply distills the best parts of Barbery’s book!

Friday, October 08, 2010

Book 29 – The Night Watch

By Sarah Waters

Been hearing nothin' but praise for Sarah Waters, so was delighted to find used copies of her two most recent while perusing English bookshops in Amsterdam earlier this fall. It was not my intention to read two novels in succession about WWII London featuring conscientious objectors and ambulance drivers (see previous post about Christopher Priest’s The Separation). How often does that happen?

Comparatively speaking, The Night Watch has a somewhat more conventional structure than The Separation. Don’t know if some reviewers are on drugs or what, but one had likened it to a topsy-turvy time scheme or jigsaw puzzle, the equivalent of walking into a movie and watching the second half first. This is so not the case. The narrative moves in a linear fashion, though backwards in time.

In 1947, we are introduced to four main characters who seem somewhat stuck in limbo as they adjust to postwar life, yet they are all linked by their past experiences in wartime London. There's mysterious, solitary Kay - a courageous ambulance driver during the war - now trying to search for some purpose; sweet naïve Helen, who suspects her girlfriend Julia of being unfaithful; pretty and charismatic Vivian, stuck in a doomed relationship with a married ex-soldier; and Vivian’s brother Duncan, formerly in prison for some mysterious reason and now wrestling with demons from the past. The bulk of the novel is comprised of 1944, and then finally the shortest section, 1941. Thus we first see what kind of jaded, disappointed people these characters have become after the war, what happened to them during the war, and the sense of hope or foreboding they had before the war.

I would agree with this Guardian review that not much happens in the first chunk of the book: coworkers take a tea break and have “desultory, guarded conversations"; a lesbian couple go for a picnic and run into a friend; two chaps meet for a beer. Generally "ordinary life beautifully described - the ‘chill, bitter, marvellous’ taste of beer in a porcelain cup.”

The middle section, 1944, gets a little more interesting. As the story goes back in time, Waters gradually reveals secrets or establishes the connection one character has with another. However, I did not like the deliberate withholding of Duncan’s back-story for being in prison. This was set up as this big dark secret that does not get revealed until the very end of the novel, and it was disappointingly anti-climactic. I felt that knowing Duncan’s secret earlier in the novel would have helped relate to his character better, since that traumatic event really shaped how he behaved in the present. The whole time, I was wondering why he was so meek and insecure and these character traits can be rather tiring when you don’t know what drives this behaviour. I was glad to hear that another reviewer felt the same way:

“By comparison, Duncan's story doesn't quite work. He is beautifully done, and both his imprisonment and its consequences are utterly convincing. But the cause of the imprisonment, when we get to it, is so bizarre that the reader needs what the form won't allow - a considerable amount of back story. Some plainer offence would have done quite well.”

The one thing that shines in The Night Watch is the portrayal of rather ordinary people living in extraordinary circumstances. Indeed, TNW was praised by critics for its attention to detail and meticulous research as for Waters’ earlier Victorian era novels, but TNW goes further in its thoughtful character study combined with a believable evocation of period and place. As the Guardian review observes:

Her ability to bring the times to life is stunning, whether through smell - the "talcum powder, permanent waves, typewriter ink, cigarette smoke, BO" of the typing pool, the "unwashed feet, sour mops, bad food, bad breath" of prison - or through her minute enumerations of her characters' physical lives. There is much face-washing, teeth-cleaning and kettle-boiling carefully described, alongside the illicit sex and bodily peril; Waters brings such a clear-eyed honesty and fresh interest to the everyday that she could probably make drying paint a lively read.

I mostly agree -- up to a point. I’m just not sure if I actually liked TNW as a whole. Like The Separation, both novels were compelling and well-written, but also disappointing for different reasons. The Separation was like a brilliant exercise whose purpose seemed to confound the average reader, while The Night Watch was basically a thoughtful yet ultimately ho-hum soap opera with WWII London as backdrop. The characters in TNW were very ordinary indeed, and all too real, but not exactly likable or identifiable. What is the point of evoking the past in such rich detail if you can't really relate to the characters?

Sometimes it takes an eloquent and like-minded reviewer to make you realize why you didn’t quite like an otherwise generally well-praised book:

I don’t recall another account of wartime London that so faithfully captures the atmosphere of not only the extraordinary, but also – and especially – the quotidian.

… Yet it is the sheer banality of the characters and their lives that to me is both the main strength and the main weakness of this book... how much do we really care about ordinary, self-absorbed people? On the other hand, don’t we, the majority of us who just pass our days on jobs and errands and our small universe of friends and relationships deserve to have our stories told? And yet, how much interest can there ultimately be in insular stories that have no more to say than “I was happy, then I was sad,” or the reverse?

Before The Night Watch, Waters was known for her brilliant novels about young Victorian women reinventing their identities (lovingly known as her Victorian lesbian romps), which were full of melodrama and satisfying plot twists. With TNW, Waters took a different turn with a more downbeat and dispassionate approach with a focus on somber character study. I have a feeling I may enjoy her pre-TNW novels much more! But I still have her next book, The Little Stranger, on my on-deck shelf … so we'll have to see!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Book 28 – The Separation

By Christopher Priest

WARNING: this will contain spoilers, but with this unusual book, it won't much matter...

The novel begins harmlessly enough with a framing device - in 1999 historian Stuart Gratton embarks on research about these mysterious twin brothers with the family name Sawyer. It makes a point of saying how the historian is adopted. At some point, Stuart encounters Angela Chipperton, the daughter of one of the Sawyer brothers, who gives him copies of her father’s old journal notes.

But the meat of the novel is the back story of the twins Jack and Joe Sawyer. One is a WWII RAF pilot and the other is a conscientious objector. It doesn’t matter who is who since both are confused and get confused throughout the novel. Ok, fair enough. Also some historical facts about WWII are true while others are completely fabricated. Fine, I’m down with this alternate history stuff.

Now skip towards the end of the novel. I realized that Stuart Gratton is the illegitimate son of Jack Sawyer when Joe was having one of his alternate reality hallucinations, while Angela Chipperton was the product of another parallel universe. And then I realized Priest allowed two characters to exist in the same world when they shouldn’t. And then I went WTF? What the hell did I just read?

Thankfully I found this helpful essay by Paul Kincaid that really analyzes the structure of the novel and the author’s motive for creating such a complex, rug-pulling narrative by summing up in a simple sentence: It is not the narrators who are unreliable, but the worlds that they narrate.

Don’t get me wrong. I really enjoyed The Separation. Not only was it brilliantly written, but the nonlinear narrative, despite its elliptical surrealism, was quite absorbing and sucked me right in. But I must admit that Priest is a little too clever a writer for me. There is definitely a logic in how Priest deviates from narrative linearity and it’s a tribute to his skill that he can still maintain a connective suture with the reader, even if the reader doesn’t get everything. The amount of knowledge and detail in regards to WWII historical backdrop was a significant factor. But I lacked the patience and discipline to pay attention to the cues and clues that would have made the reading experience truly rewarding. And when I realized I should have been paying more attention, it was way too late, and I'm damn well not going to re-read the book to get my "oh yeah!".

For example, early in the novel there is a passage where after the Hamburg raid, Jack is driven from a convalescent hospital to a rehabilitation centre. About 300 pages later, Joe is riding in a Red Cross ambulance back to Manchester, but Priest recycles the earlier passage almost word for word. I would not have noticed this duplication at all if I had not found Kincaid’s essay! According to Kincaid, these parallel passages between Jack and Joe are one of a number of deliberate duplications where it may signal a time shift, or symbolize a developing crossover or overlap between the twin identities.

The essay further states “in a very important sense this is not a novel about separation but about unification.” The themes of separation and unification are constantly played out not just between the twin brothers, but between England and Germany, the motives of Winston Churchill and Rudolf Hess, reality and non-reality, etc etc.

A very interesting and absorbing read this was, but The Separation ultimately lacked any emotionally satisfying resolution that usually comes with a more traditionally structured novel. My sentiments lie with what is outlined in this nicely pithy review as well as Olman’s review. Olman also points out that The Prestige is a much more satisfying read for unsophisticated empiricists like him since it lacks the twists and tricks of this book, so I would not hesitate in checking that out too.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Book 27 – Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters

By Matt Ridley

Ok, so this book was published way back in 1999. I especially like how on the final page the author makes a point of how this book will be out of date before it even gets published… and here I am reading it more than a decade later. That’s ok cuz I know next to nothing about genetics, and what little I know I’d forgotten in Biology 11. So really now I’m just a dozen years out of date as opposed to +20!

Genome is categorized as “popular science” but this doesn’t quite do it justice. Not only does Ridley explain scientific phenomena clearly and concisely for the average layperson, he also writes beautifully and eloquently. Even when describing homogentisate dioxygenase, a “boring gene, doing a boring chemical job in boring parts of the body, causing a boring disease when broken” it’s all quite fascinating. Right off the bat, he lays out what he wants to accomplish in Genome :

A coherent glimpse of the whole: a whistle-stop tour of some of the more interesting sites in the genome and what they tell us about ourselves. For we, this lucky generation, will be the first to read the book that is the genome. Being able to read the genome will tell us more about our origins, our evolution, our nature and our minds than all the efforts of science to date. It will revolutionize anthropology, psychology, medicine, palaeontology and virtually every other science.

This is not a book about the Human Genome Project –about mapping and sequencing techniques-but a book about what that project has found. Some time in the year 2000, we shall probably have a rough first draft of the complete human genome. In just a few short years we will have moved from knowing almost nothing about our genes to knowing everything.

He was right. The HGP completed this goal in April 2003. As the HGP website states: Though the HGP is finished, analyses of the data will continue for many years. And since I have a better understanding of genetics, I can see how the HGP will be busy for a while yet!

The bibliography is also impressively well laid out, including websites the author visited in order to get up to date information as he was writing his book. Not only does Ridley want to share the knowledge with his readers but encourages them to do research on their own, if they feel inspired to further their understanding. I can attest that as a non-sciencey layman, I have learned a good many neat things about genetics and how they play a part in the human condition. Here are just a few things that particularly struck me:

a) Ridley repeatedly states “genes are not there to cause diseases”. Read up on it if you want to find out more!

b) Genes don’t just work together but they can also conflict with each other, like a kind of battlefield between parental genes and childhood genes, or between male genes and female genes. This was “a little-known story outside a small group of evolutionary biologists. Yet it has profoundly shaken the philosophical foundations of biology.”

A quick google search of “genes in conflict” resulted in a recent scientific discovery that was published earlier this year in March:

Traits that help one sex can harm the other, resulting in conflicting evolutionary pressures on males and females…This battle of the sexes is thought to extend to the genetic level, with individual genes favoring one sex over the other. Some of the strongest evidence for these sexually antagonistic genes comes from studies showing that fruit fly lines with high reproductive success in one sex typically have low reproductive success in the other. Thus, if males in a particular line have many offspring, the females do not and vice versa.

The genes underlying this sexual tug-of-war, however, have been difficult to find. Now, Paolo Innocenti and Edward Morrow reveal this conflict's genetic basis by linking the expression of sexually antagonistic genes in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster to the reproductive success of one sex at the expense of the other.

Pretty neat stuff! This goes to show that Ridley was onto something, since the theory of sexual antagonism as an important evolutionary force was open to debate in the 1980s, but it was only in the first decade of the 21st century that the subject has gained substantial attention.

c) I have wondered why people have different blood types and I’ve read articles about studies where men and women actually prefer the body odour of members of the opposite sex who are most different from them genetically. Since blood groups tend to be linked to cultural groups, this has not only provided insight into the history of human migrations, but since the 1990s they “promise understanding of how and why our genes are all so different. They hold the key to human polymorphism.” Ridley further states “Variation is an inherent and integral part of the human – or indeed any – genome”!

d) The fact that what we know as “personality” is to a considerable degree based on mere brain chemistry, in how our system manages serotonin levels. Romantics and spiritualists may cry “our behavior isn’t based on mere biological determinism!” and may never bother to delve any deeper than that since it’s easier to be in denial. But Ridley explains this does not mean, as it is usually assumed to mean, that our behaviour is socially immutable. Quite the reverse: our brain chemistry is determined by the social signals to which we are exposed. “Biology determines behaviour yet is determined by society.” He further clarifies by saying:

There are a score of different ways in which this one chemical, serotonin, can be related to innate differences in personality. These are overlaid on the score of different ways that the mind’s serotonin system responds to outside influences such as social signals. Some people are more sensitive to some outside signals than others. This is the reality of genes and environments: a maze of complicated interactions between them, not a one-directional determinism. Social behaviour is not some external series of events that takes our minds and bodies by surprise. It is an intimate part of our make-up, and our genes are programmed not only to produce social behaviour, but to respond to it as well.

e) “ … so close are the similarities between genes that geneticists can now do, almost routinely, an experiment so incredible that it boggles the mind. They can knock out a gene in a fly by deliberately mutating it, replace it by genetic engineering with the equivalent gene from a human being and grow a normal fly. The technique is known as genetic rescue. …Indeed, they work so well that it is often impossible to tell which flies have been rescued with human genes and which with fly genes.

This is the culminating triumph of the digital hypothesis with which this book began. Genes are just chunks of software that can run on any system: they use the same code and do the same jobs. Even after 530 million years of separation, our computer can recognize a fly’s software and vice versa. Indeed, the computer analogy is quite a good one.”

f) I have often wondered by different species of animals can have such different life spans. A trio of evolutionists separately put together the most satisfying account of the aging process: “Each species, it seems, comes equipped with a program of planned obsolescence chosen to suit its expected life-span and the age at which it is likely to have finished breeding. Natural selection carefully weeds out all genes that might allow damage to the body before or during reproduction… But natural selection cannot weed out genes that damage the body in post-reproductive old age, because there is no reproduction of the successful in old age… A mouse is unlikely to make it past three years of age, so genes that damage four-year-old mouse bodies are under virtually no selection to die out. Fulmars are very likely to be around to breed at twenty, so genes that damage twenty-year-old fulmar bodies are still being ruthlessly weeded out.” Well, how about that!

g) There is a little protein called P53 which is also known as ‘Guardian of the Genome’, or even the ‘Guardian Angel Gene’ because it regulates the cell cycle and plays a role in apoptosis, genetic stability (apoptosis is the suicide of cells and is Greek for the fall of autumn leaves – pretty ,no?). In fact, apoptosis is the most important of the body’s weapons against cancer, the last line of defence. But what’s interesting is that for a while, many people including specialists, did not fully understand how therapeutic cancer treatment worked against cancer. It’s only been quite recently that chemotherapy works not in killing cancer cells, but because it induces apoptosis by alerting P53 and its colleagues.

h) Instinct versus learning. “The two have little in common, or so the behaviourist school of psychology would have had us all believe during much of the twentieth century. But why are some things learnt and others instinctive? Why is language an instinct, while dialect and vocabulary are learnt? “ Ridley’s book explains very eloquently!

i) How baffling and unique these protein-y genes known as prions are. Prions cause neurodegenerative disease, such as BSE (aka mad cow disease) in cattle and CJD in people. They are not only not like viruses, they replicate in a protein-like manner that nobody quite knows how exactly, thus undermining one of the messages Ridley has been evangelizing throughout his book, that the core of biology is digital.

Here, in the prion gene, we have respectable digital changes, substituting one word for another, yet causing changes that cannot be wholly predicted without other knowledge. The prion system is analogue, not digital. It is a change not of sequence but of shape and it depends on does, location and whether the wind is in the west. That is not to say that it lacks determination. If anything, CJD is even more precise than Huntington’s disease in the age at which it strikes.

More than a decade later after the publication of Genome, not much more is known about prion disease. Yet Ridley holds nothing but humble respect for mysteries that cannot yet be explained by science, he is still able eloquently explain how:

Prions have humbled us with our ignorance. We did not suspect that there was a form of self-replication that did not use DNA—did not indeed use digital information at all. We did not imagine that a disease of such profound mystery could emerge from such unlikely quarters and prove so deadly. We still do not quite see how changes in the folding of a peptide chain can cause such havoc, or how tiny changes in the composition of the chain can have such complicated implications. As two prion experts have written, ‘Personal and family tragedies, ethnological catastrophes and economic disasters can all be traced back to the mischievous misfolding of one small molecule.’

Another reason that compelled me to read this book is my self-education on the science of evolution. Many of the theories Charles Darwin had were proven by genetic discoveries in the 20th century, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that for the first time, evolution became genetic. In the 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins wrote what many evolutionary biologists at the time were just starting to grasp: that evolution by natural selection was not much about competition between species, not much about competition between groups, not even most about competition between individuals, but was about competition between genes using individuals and occasionally societies as their temporary vehicles.

When scientists started reading the code for life, they found that each gene is far more complicated than it needs to be: it is broken up into many different chunks with “long stretches of random nonsense and repetitive burst of wholly irrelevant sense, some of which contain real genes of a completely different (and sinister) kind.” In fact, 97 per cent of the human genome does not consist of true genes at all, but rather “a menagerie of strange entities called pseudogenes, retropseudogenes, satellites, minisatellites, micrsatellites, transposons and retrotransposons, all collectively known as ‘junk DNA’, or sometimes, probably more accurately, as ‘selfish DNA’. Some of these are genes of a special kind, but most are just chunks of DNA that are never transcribed into the language of protein.”

Nobody predicted that when we read the code for life we would find it so riddled with barely controlled examples of selfish exploitation. Yet we should have predicted it, because every other level of life is parasitized. There are worms in animals’ guts, bacteria in their blood, viruses in their cells. Why not retrotransposons in their genes?

So what does it all mean then? I suppose nothing and everything, depending on how you want to look at it. Once more, Ridley brings it all home:

The truth is nobody is in charge. It is the hardest thing for human beings to get used to, but the world is full of intricate, cleverly designed and interconnected systems that do not have control centres.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Book 26 – The Incredible Journey

By Sheila Burnford

A good animal story is always welcome, and this 1960 Canadian classic is no exception. This little novel was quickly consumed in a day while I was sick at home with an early autumn viral attack. Not only that, it takes place as summer is transitioning to fall - perfecto! In case you’re not familiar with the story, it’s about three friends: an old pit bull terrier (Bodger), a Siamese cat (Tao) and a young Labrador retriever (Luath) who travel almost 300 miles of Ontario wilderness to find their long lost human family.

Their journey is indeed incredible in distance as well as hardship and adventure. But what I like best about the story is that the animals never “talk” to one another. They are just ordinary animals that communicate realistically with body language and vocalization. Burnford made the brilliant decision to simply describe the animals’ actions and emotions in her deceptively straightforward and naturalistic style.

Burnford is also very knowledgeable about the personality traits inherent in popular dog and cat breeds, yet she endows each animal character with unique characteristics and histories. And of course special attention is given to the royal lineage of the Siamese cat, my favourite! She also writes of the affection and camaraderie the animals have for one another with a genuine fondness that is never phony or saccharine. It’s obvious she’s a big dog and cat lover.

I never saw the 1963 Disney adaptation and I’m curious about it, but would never bother with the 1993 remake since they cop out with voicing the animal characters.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Book 25 – The Stepford Wives

By Ira Levin

There’s already been two movies based on this novel by Ira Levin, who also wrote Rosemary’s Baby. Published in 1972, Levin captured the zeitgeist of his time with this dark, satirical thriller. It’s been nine years since Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique came out and sparked a new wave of feminism in America. In 1969, Friedan helped organize the nation-wide Women's Strike for Equality and then in 1971, she helped found the National Women's Political Caucus.

So it’s not surprising that Levin references Friedan a few times in his novel. The Stepford Wives is also a horror story about the extent of what certain men are willing to do to prevent women from taking away what they feel is theirs by right. Although there is no outright hatred toward women expressed by any of the male characters á la Stieg Larsson, the undercurrent of creepy misogyny is definitely felt throughout the book.

When Manhattan couple Walter and Joanna Eberhart and their two children move into the quiet suburban community of Stepford, Connecticut, it seems they have timewarped back at least a decade. Walter and the kids seem to be happily adjusting to their new home, but for Joanna, there’s something about the Stepford community that isn’t quite right.

Hmm, could it be that the only thriving club in town is the men-only Men’s Association? How archaic is that? And why are all the housewives in the neighbourhood obsessive-compulsive housecleaners? And despite scrubbing floors well into the night how do they manage to look so perfectly coiffed and maintain their knockout figures? But what really makes Joanna suspicious is that none of the Stepford hausfraus are the least bit interested in forming a women’s club with her!

The Stepford Wives, in this day and age, does come across as a little simplistic and naïve. But I think the novel was quite successful when it came out, mostly because it hit the right note at the right time. The novel’s title even entered into the modern American lexicon where a Stepford wife is used to describe:

1.) a servile, compliant, submissive, spineless wife who happily does her husband's bidding and serves his every whim dutifully.
2.) a wife who is cookie-cutter & bland in appearance and behavior, like an attractive robotic doll devoid of emotion or thought.

Hmm, with the cultural phenomena of Japanese men vacationing with and even marrying their $16,000 silicone sex dolls, perhaps Levin’s novel is not so archaic after all! In any case, it was an enjoyable story with a nice pace, tight structure, good characterization and a nicely ambiguous ending. Perfect for a movie adaptation - I may even check out the 1974 version some day (not so sure about the newer one).

P.S. this 1973 Fawcett paperback edition was acquired at a neighbour's garage sale for a whopping 25 cents.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Book 24 – The Girl Who Played With Fire

By Stieg Larsson

Even though Chainon had $1 books out on the street for August Main Madness, I went inside for the non-discounted books anyway. At the end of the month, you never know if someone moving house will be offloading some books or what. My instincts proved right – I hit pay dirt – before my eyes lay a pristine paperback of The Girl Who Played With Fire as well as a hardbound of The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest. Since I wasn’t interested in owning a hardcover, I just got the former. I would later regret this and become The Girl Who Kicked Herself For Not Getting The $4 Hardcover When She Coulda!

While still inside the thrift shop, two old ladies saw TGWPWF in my hand and had to comment on the fact that they have read all three Millenium books and how much they enjoyed them. The first was a francophone lady who worked there and she told me the books are “so much better than the movies” and the latter was an English visitor: “I love it when a book keeps me up all night!”

I mean, I liked The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo well enough, in a gripping and page-turning way, and enjoyed the parts where Lisbeth kicks some men-hatin' ass. But it was also at times cheesy and fantastical, and the themes too simplistically tied together. I guess I like my suspense to be more subtle and grounded in reality. That was part of the reason why I held off on getting the hardcover. Maybe I was in a better frame of mind, but TGWPWF proved to be ass-kickingly awesome! It helped that the 2nd book focuses on mysterious Lisbeth Salander instead of “Mikael fucking Blomkvist”, who thankfully beds only one new conquest this time instead of every frackin' female character that makes an appearance in the storyline.

Anyway, in the 2nd book, Larsson really fleshes out the character of Lisbeth as well as her entire back story. The novel starts off about a year later with Lisbeth vacationing in the Carribbean - alone of course. Larsson really takes his time describing Lisbeth’s almost day-to-day activities and has her involved in a murder-mystery side story that is not directly connected to any later events in the novel. In fact, that section could well be its own short story. When Lisbeth returns to Stockholm, there is a lot of detail about her apartment hunting and shopping for furniture and new car (since she’s now armed with Wennerström’s billions) in her methodical, calculated way. This may be deadweight to some, but I found this “Lisbeth makes a life for herself” section quite fascinating and in fact, this may be my favourite part of the book! I wonder if the two old ladies I met thought the same?

Soon enough, Lisbeth gets herself into trouble. Big Trouble with a capital T! I won’t say anything more, except that Larsson does a great job juggling the other characters and storylines to make it all mesh. And of course, he makes attacks on his favourite hot button issues, including the media machine à la Season 5 of The Wire.

I will repeat again the manner in which the novel ends really left me with bitter regret that I did not buy the 3rd book when I could have. Unlike the first book where everything was tied up neatly, the ending of TGWPWF really left my hanging! Damn I should’ve just gotten the hardcover!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Book 23 - The Talented Mr. Ripley

By Patricia Highsmith

I’m surprised at myself for not being aware of Patricia Highsmith sooner - she has such a deliciously sardonic yet razor-sharp view of human nature. I’d already seen the Anthony Minghella movie when it came out in 2000, and even though it was a very good film and quite well-cast, it nevertheless tainted my own personal envisioning of the novel. I can’t help but picture the big stars Matt Damon, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow in their respective roles. I hate it when that happens!

In any case, TTMR was excellent. I’ve mentioned before in my review of A Suspension of Mercy how Highsmith has a way of making you relate to her characters, no matter how unlikable or despicable they may be. When characters get themselves into crazy or self-destructive situations the choices they make, however irrational, are understandable according to their motive and reasoning. This makes for intelligent and satisfying suspense.

TTMR was published a decade before ASoM, so Highsmith was on the right track for her characterization of Tom Ripley. The title itself describes the basic premise of an ordinary young man who discovers he has some special talents indeed. In a way, the novel is like a twisted version of A Portrait of the Serial Killer As a Young Man. By all accounts, Tom Ripley sounds like a very scary dude. But the story begins with Tom leading a rather unhappy mediocre existence in NYC and you kinda feel sorry for the guy as he seems kind of stuck in a rut and lacks the resources to get himself out.

Then our dear Tom is presented with an opportunity to go to Europe for the first time with the task of bringing home an errant millionaire’s son, Dickie Greenleaf. Tom is completely enthralled by Dickie and wants more than anything to be his friend. At first Dickie genuinely enjoys Tom’s company, but soon enough gets the creepy feeling that his new friend may like him just a little too much. And of course it doesn’t help that Dickie’s girlfriend Marge insinuates that Tom might be gay. It’s in meeting Dickie that Tom realizes his true nature. Does Tom really want to be with Dickie, or does he actually want to be Dickie? Creepy!

The novel smoothly vacillates between you feeling repulsed yet fascinated by Tom Ripley. When Dickie distances himself from Tom, you really do feel Tom’s torment at the possibility of being rejected and alone again.

Tom felt a painful wrench in his breast, and he covered his face with his hands. It was as if Dickie had been suddenly snatched away from him. They were not friends. They didn’t know each other. It struck Tom like a horrible truth, true for all time, true for the people he had known in the past and for those he would know in the future: each had stood and would stand before him, and he would know time and time again that he would never know them, and the worst was that there would always be the illusion, for a time, that he did know them, and that he and the wordless shock of his realization seemed more than he could bear.

When Tom assumes Dickie’s identify, not only is he uncannily good at impersonating the one-time friend he murdered, he also relishes being him, like how he spends his evenings “handling Dickie’s possessions, simply looking at his rings on his own fingers, or his woolen ties, or his black alligator wallet”. Creepy!

And then, when it looks like Tom has to give up Dickie's identity because the police are closing in, you go back to feeling bad for Tom again:

This was the end of Dickie Greenleaf, he knew. He hated becoming Thomas Ripley again, hated being nobody, hated putting on his old set of habits again, and feeling that people looked down on him and were bored with him unless he put on an act for them like a clown, feeling incompetent and incapable of doing anything with himself except entertaining people for minutes at a time. He hated going back to himself as he would have hated putting on a shabby suit of clothes, a grease-spotted, unpressed suit of clothes that had not been very good even when it was new.

It’s a real tribute to Highsmith’s skill as a writer. As another reviewer sums this up rather well:

What the reader has to remember again and again is that you are inside Ripley's head, and that every word is skewed toward his notion of reality. Reader's can conclude for themselves Ripley's motives and feelings, as he will never tell them outright. This, I think, is the most intriguing quality of reading the novel -- what the reader brings to the book and their own perceptions of emotion and morals informs the story almost more than anything Highsmith lays before you. In that way, she manages to insinuate just how much Ripley is like the reader, and as uncomfortable as that may be to conclude, it also rings impressively true.

Reading the book also inspired me to finally see the 1960 film adaptation by Rene Clement, Plein Soleil (aka Purple Noon), which was in itself a good film, but it disappointingly over-simplified or white-washed some key elements of the novel, namely replacing any homosexual undercurrents for friendly male competition and conceding to the conventional need for the murderer to get caught. Perhaps this was an indication that having a complex yet sympathetic protagonist-villain was still an unthinkable concept, at least in cinema, a few decades ago.

My only complaint is that the 1992 Vintage Crime paperback edition had a fair number of typos in it. It made for distracting reading!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Book 22 - The Little Friend

By Donna Tartt

Finally! Here is what I think of the 600+ page tome I’ve been laboring thru for bloody weeks. The one where I had to take two breaks for some needed levity and brevity, even if to endure subpar werewolf fantasy. Despite the fact that Tartt is a wonderfully gifted writer, her long-awaited second novel has some huge flaws – it's much too wordy and hubristically long-winded for its own good. If only she had a Nazi editor to mercilessly trim down 200 pages, The Little Friend would’ve been a less torturous read. I much admired her debut novel The Secret History and considered it a bit of a masterpiece, as did legions of fans and critics. It must have been a Herculean task for Tartt to equal or surpass TSH (and a decade later too), and unsurprisintly her sophomore effort received a deal of buzz and fanfare. Ironically, what I enjoyed most about TLF was reading the divided yet entertaining reviews it generated at the time. One Guardian reviewer summed up quite well how I felt:

No [worthy fan] is going to let the author of The Secret History's second book pass by unread, though what they will find is frankly frustrating. For most of its length, The Little Friend lacks the drive of a book that needs to be written, even if it offers the considerable pleasures of being the work of someone who knows how to write.

On the surface, TLF takes a familiar premise—the plucky child sleuth—to a new literary level—kind of like a twisted Southern Gothic fairy tale meets Harriet the Spy. In a backyard somewhere in Alexandria, Mississippi, a little boy named Robin is found dead hanging from a black tupelo tree. Ten years later, the mystery of Robin’s death remains unsolved and the various members of the Dufresnes and Cleve clan are still struggling to move on from that tragic event. The story centres on Harriet, who was only a baby when her brother died. She grows up to be a highly precocious yet troubled 12-year-old who becomes obsessed with finding Robin’s purported killer. She enlists Hely, her best (and only) friend, to exact clumsy, misguided vengeance.

The first half of the book moves along languidly yet interestingly. Tartt does a meticulous job recreating Southern society in the 1970s with its decaying colonial houses overtaken by bland suburbia. Tartt grew up in Mississippi, so she’s obviously writing what she knows. Her treatment of societal subsets -- the tottering spinsters clinging to what’s left of their Southern ways and aging black maids, or the poor white trashy folk who live on the edge of town -- verges on caricature at times. But she take a lot of care in her depiction of Harriet’s dysfunctional, female-dominated family: comatose pill-popping mother, Charlotte, dreamy older sister, Allison, indomitable grandmother-matriarch, Edie and the cluster of doting great-aunts.

Tartt also mines the vast body of juvenile literature to make her own unsentimental, anti-coming-of-age novel and she does a great job portraying Harriet as an anti-heroine who is more hedgehog than Nancy Drew. According to her friend Hely, who is also her secret admirer:

There were plenty of girls at school prettier than Harriet, and nicer. But none of them are as smart, or as brave. Sadly, he thought of her many gifts. She could forge handwriting—teacher handwriting—and compose adult-sounding excuse notes like a pro; she could make bombs from vinegar and baking soda, mimic voices over the telephone. She loved to shoot fireworks—unlike a lot of girls, who wouldn’t go near a string of firecrackers. She had got sent home in second grade for tricking a boy into eating a spoonful of cayenne pepper; and two years ago she had started a panic by saying that the spooky old lunchroom in the school basement was a portal to Hell.

A NYT reviewer described TLF as a young-adult novel for grown-ups and how Tartt bestows Harriet with a

fierce, adolescent sense of right and wrong and [a] dangerous habit of sticking her nose where it doesn't belong. If these aspects of her personality make her recognizable, they also make her memorable and unique: she is part of a literary sisterhood of smart, prickly loners, and as such she is likely to attract generations of loyal followers.

But somewhere around the halfway point, I didn’t feel like reading TLF anymore. I became impatient and frustrated at how slowly events were unfolding. I started skimming through the densely descriptive passages because I had enough of the precious atmosphere and just wanted to find out what happens next. Looking back, I pinned down the key events or turning points:

p. 150 - Harriet pins Robin’s old classmate Danny Ratliff as the murderer.

p. 234 - Harriet and Hely stalk out Danny for the first time.

p. 370 - Harriet and Hely make their first clumsy and failed attempt to kill Danny.

There are 220 pages between 150 and 370, and I started losing interest around p. 300.

Now I understand that TLF isn’t meant to be a plot-driven novel, but there was definitely an overwhelming amount of exposition to muddle through, and worse, it was bogged down by overindulgent prose, which did not go unnoticed by reviewers, one of whom was rather unforgiving by describing TLF as a pretentious, incoherent melodrama as well as “an extended prose catastrophe”, where Tartt has strained too hard to create an air of unreality at the expense of plot and character:

Characters say things ''soberly,'' ''belligerently,'' ''faintly,'' and ''impassively,'' while exhaling ''audibly'' and stuffing bills into pockets ''laboriously.'' That's just page 204. Laughingly, I turned to discover Danny twisting ''rather spasmodically.'' Dumbfoundedly, I wondered how a mosquito might sting someone ''luxuriously.'' Such prose events disqualify ''The Little Friend'' as literature and also rule it out as decent trash. It's hard to dive into an action scene when people running for their lives turn to notice ''the path they'd beaten through the yellow-flowered scraggle of bitterweed, and the melancholy pastels of the dropped lunchbox....''

Even those who liked the book couldn’t help but notice “her tendency to describe things in threes, in arching adjectival triplets”:

Someone’s heart "vaulted up for a soaring, incredulous, gorgeously cruel moment".
A china dinner service that is "heavenly, glorious, a complete set”
A photograph in which the light is "fractured, sentimental, incandescent with disaster".

But despite Tartt’s overwrought writing style, the same reviewer also thought she ultimately succeeded in creating a richly detailed universe.

Even if she stumbles over details, the pace of this novel remains impressive. Tartt is able to make "reading time" slow down, so that you feel you are experiencing the events she describes in real time, or even more slowly than real time. This groggy, dreamlike pace is particularly effective at moments of high drama. One action scene, in which Harriet and her best friend are caught for a few hours between a set of poisonous snakes and two violent criminals high on drugs, takes up 24 pages of unflagging description, which will speed your pulse as if you were trapped along with the children.

And here is someone actually defending Tartt’s overwrought writing style:

Critical puritans (or merely Yankees) will point to its Dixie weakness for verbosity, caricature and melodrama. Yet the verbosity yields passages of mesmerising beauty; the caricature, stretches of delirious comedy; and the melodrama, moments of nerve-shredding excitement. At its close, few readers will wish The Little Friend a page shorter, or a shade paler.

TLF also made me think of the disappointing The Lovely Bones (TLB!), which was also published the same year in 2002. Both novels received mucho hype, both are set in 1970’s suburbia and present realistic portrayals of a family dealing with the tragic aftermath of a murdered son or daughter. More significantly, both are burdened with glaring flaws that pretty much ruined the entire reading experience for me. Also interesting to note that the killer in both novels never gets caught. But where Sebold resorts to a consolatory ending: the killer gets his comeuppance and the victim finds heavenly harmony, Tartt offers no such reassurance nor does she feels a need to assuage her readers in such romantically saccharine notions.

So let’s close with this fair assessment from the NYT :

What this all adds up to is a tragic, fever-dream realism. Though the world Harriet discovers is unquestionably haunted, there is nothing magical about it, or about the furious, lyrical rationality of Tartt's voice. Her book is a ruthlessly precise reckoning of the world as it is -- drab, ugly, scary, inconclusive -- filtered through the bright colors and impossible demands of childhood perception. It grips you like a fairy tale, but denies you the consoling assurance that it's all just make-believe.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Book 21 - Stolen

By Kelley Armstrong

(interesting how the cover design of this 2009 trade paperback reprint has the same blood-red monochromatic look of the mega successful Twilight books)

So this next installment continues with Elena, our very special female werewolf, resuming her Pack duties by sniffing out misbehaving mutts and researching the internet to see if anyone’s got any dirt on werewolf activity. The Pack must protect their secret identify at all cost!

Elena follows a lead and encounters an elder witch and her young apprentice, who seem to know everything about Elena and her Pack. Once upon a time, reps of various supernatural races would gather together to share info and discuss issues about potential exposure – like a “Supernatural United Nations”. This is no longer the case, which is a bit odd considering how easy it'd be for undercover supernaturals to exploit today’s technology in order to communicate with each other, so you’d think the situation would be the reverse. Anyway, the witches warn Elena that human bad guys are kidnapping shamans and half-demons for nefarious purposes. And witches, vampires and werewolves are next. What’s more, the whole operation is funded by an evil Bill Gates-type billionaire named Ty Winsloe!

Soon enough, Elena gets caught in a trap and spends the bulk of the novel imprisoned inside a high security underground research facility along with other fascinating nonhumans. Sound familiar? Buffy fans will recognize this premise from Season 4 which aired in 1999 (Stolen was published in 2003). Vampires and demons were captured by a secret military project called "The Initiative" and imprisoned in cells within a high tech underground complex. In good form, Armstrong meta-references this fact but she also makes a cheap diss: her heroine blithely quips about how subpar that season was and how she fell asleep for half the episodes.

Ok, I understand that Season 4 was voted least favourite by a number of Buffy fans, but when it’s so obvious that you’re basing an entire storyline on a season’s premise from a well-regarded TV series, wouldn’t you want, at the very least, to pay it some respect? Especially how even the worst S4 episodes have been funnier and more entertaining than any passage I’ve read in Bitten and Stolen so far.

So that confirms it for me: Kelley Armstrong is a misguided snob who’s really a square. I understand not everyone can be Anne Rice or Stephen King in terms of writing quality genre fiction, but if you can’t reference pop culture properly, then don’t do it. At their best, Joss Whedon and Sam Raimi have taken the horror/sci-fi genres to new levels while at the same time giving respect where its due. Armstrong, at best, merely recycles already tried and true tropes, and worse, seems ignorant of the influences she’s drawing from (at least this provides unintentional meaning to the title Stolen). With this in mind, I can see how Armstrong wants to model Elena as a smart-talking Buffy-esque heroine (Elena the Mutt-Slayer doesn’t quite have the same ring), but lacks the referential know-how and finesse to make her novel truly playful and clever.

On a more positive note, I did enjoy the setup and pacing of Stolen much better than the previous Bitten. Perhaps this was due to there being less romantic Elena/Clay time (sadly they had to have corny reunion sex like multiple times for what seemed like pages and pages; there was even a scene where Clay feeds Elena ham and pancakes as he’s penetrating her, I kid you not). And this time, there were some interesting (mainly supernatural) characters introduced during Elena’s imprisonment at the nefarious research facility. Armstrong does a competent job in weaving together the various character dynamics and motivations. But again she doesn’t explore her universe deeply enough and focuses her attention on action and plot.

For one thing, almost every human portrayed in Stolen is basically bad, since they are all involved in the nefarious research project, with the exception of one resesarch assistant, who gets killed anyway. The three or four dozen human stormtroopers, I mean, guards employed at the nefarious facility are basically faceless entities, like the Mutts. And if they do have a bit of characterization, they are violent would-be rapists in the guise of military men. In Stolen, Elena is just starting to feel like she belongs to her werewolf pack, but you’re not sure if she still considers herself part human, since she already killed a couple of guards without any remorse. When the baddest military dudes, under Winsloe’s command, cruelly kill a Mutt (even though this Mutt tried to rape her too), Elena draws the line between us (the supernaturals) and them (human baddies who try to mess with supernaturals).

Eventually, Elena escapes (I don’t think I’m giving too much away) and subsequently returns with the Pack and some supernatural friends to infiltrate the nefarious compound and a bloodbath ensues. After a particularly violent confrontation, she thinks about all the stormtroop— I mean, guards she has killed and wonders “if they had wives, girlfriends, children”. But then she justifies it by telling herself: “They had to die to protect our secrets. They’d understood the danger when they signed on to this project… there was no other way. Everyone had to die.”

So Elena has a pang of conscience for a few sentences, and then she promptly moves on, taking disappointing revenge on the billionaire Ty Winslow . So a potentially complex moral grey area is conveniently left unexplored, given over by the need to deliver mediocre action and drama. It also makes for boring reading.

Stolen was interesting enough to pass the time, but it also relieved me of any remaining interest in pursuing the next Otherworld installment. I’m glad because there are way better books out there to explore. In fact, after reading Bitten and Stolen almost back-to-back, I really need to immerse myself in some high-caliber writing again - a tautly structured thriller by a writer who can really delve into the complex psychological examination of a character's amoral universe - Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley!

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Book 20 - Bitten

By Kelley Armstrong

I had only a hundred pages left of the “serious” novel, but then it took yet another dark and heavy turn. Damn this 600+ tome which has dramatically reduced my reading rate to ONE book for the month of July. Then a friend lent me Bitten, the first book in the Women of the Otherworld series about werewolves, witches, necromancers, and vampires struggling to fit into contemporary human society. Perfect – just when I needed to take a break with something fluffy!

And did it deliver some fluff. Bitten introduces us to Elena Michaels, the only female werewolf in the world. Cuz one, the werewolf gene only gets passed from father to son. Two, werewolves don't have long-term relationships but they can mate with a human woman. If a male baby pops out, the father kidnaps said baby and boy is secretly raised with his werewolf brethren. Three, humans can turn into werewolves by getting bitten, but the majority do not to survive their first agonizing transformation. And it’s super duper rare for a woman to survive a werewolf bite. This is why Elena is so highly coveted in the werewolf world, they all want to do her.

The back-story is told via flashback when our heroine falls hard for Clayton Danvers, a blonde curly-locked academic with piercing blue eyes and a body straight out of Baywatch. Clay has a dirty little secret: he is actually the Beta male of the only werewolf pack in the world, aka the Pack, as well as the foster son & bodyguard of Jeremy, the Alpha (leader of the Pack :-). Clay may lack basic social skills and possess a disdainful attitude towards people, but Elena would never suspect this is because her BF is more wolf than man! Did I mention that on top of Clay’s wolfish sex appeal, he is also a brilliant academic who earned his Ph.D. specializing in ancient anthropomorphic religions?

When Clay ends up biting Elena without her consent, she doesn’t exactly embrace her newfound wolfenness. Instead she spends much of the novel being pissed off at her BF. It isn’t so much that he lied to Elena about his true identity, but he had to thoughtlessly ruin any chance for her to attain the normal happy human life she never had. How bloody inconvenient is that? Elena may not get past the indignant “how could you!” phase but it doesn't stop her from having hot outdoor sex with the guy (in bipedal form unfortunately). You see, our heroine was orphaned at a tender age and subsequently suffered abuse in the hands of foster daddies. After surviving her childhood she became a strong, independent woman, yet she still longs for acceptance and belonging. So Bitten begins with Elena having left the Pack to salvage and resume the ordinary life she was having in… Toronto (what better place to live out a bland, conformist lifestyle?).

Of course, Elena’s attempt at a normal lifestyle gets kiboshed when Jeremy summons her back to his estate in upstate New York to deal with an emergency. Non-Pack werewolves are stirring up trouble in their territory of Stonehaven, perhaps even staging a coup. Pack werewolves use the more derogatory term – mutts (I know, don't laugh) - for these problematic lone wolves. To keep mutts in check, the Pack routinely seeks out and punishes those who try to settle down, since making a home for oneself means claiming territory - and only the Pack could claim territory. As a result, mutts drift from place to place, stealing and killing humans for food.

Armstrong has a couple of interesting spins on the werewolf mythos, but she doesn’t delve into her universe deeply enough for me. The Pack versus Mutts issue plays out like werewolf politics, where the Pack is like a fascistic oligarchy, but I’m not sure Armstrong sees it this way, therefore dodging any complexity by portraying mutts as bad werewolves who really just want to kill people whenever they want, just like in the good old pre-Industrial days.

Pack werewolves are more highly evolved somehow and they also have successful careers in the human world (due to the ability to live in one place and cultivate yourself). Since all mutts live by their own rules, they aren’t exactly team players and thus, not worthy of the Pack. What’s more, murderous mutts call attention to themselves and threaten the safety of all werewolves, so this gives reason for the Pack to eliminate them with impunity. So yes, the Pack is good, Mutts are baaaad. There is no comparison, I know, but if you really want to read a meaty novel about how otherwise civilized people succumb to the pack instinct and transform themselves into barbaric murderers, I suggest you read The Secret History.

But what if there are mutts who don’t want to kill, keep a low profile and want a bit of territory? Just enough land to hunt some wild game, so they don’t have the urge to kill humans. This way the Pack won’t have to waste time traveling around the world rousting out stray mutts, and werewolves can all live happily ever after… oh but wait, we won’t have much of a story then, will we?

So a few conniving mutts want to either destroy the Pack or negotiate territory for themselves, so they come up with the brilliant idea of turning human serial killers into werewolves and sicking them on members the Pack. This would be an exciting plot device but the villainous mutts and serial killers-turned-werewolves are disappointingly two-dimensional characters. Come to think of it, the good guys aren’t very dynamic or charismatic either, but at least they're given a little more development and back-story.

There are also some nagging logistical omissions in the storylines. Since bodies can pile up during werewolf skirmishes, the narrator explains it can take at least half a day to make a body disappear. When Pack brother Logan gets killed, they just bury him in the forest and move on. But didn’t Logan fly in from Los Angeles in order to help his pack? In the human world, didn’t he have a successful career as a lawyer and a long-term girlfriend in Albany? If he had loved ones, they’d want to know what happened to him. His law firm would no doubt report him missing. Yet the novel conveniently avoids going into the ramifications of dealing with the recently deceased.

Another issue I have is the interpersonal dynamics within the Pack itself. Armstrong models much of these dynamics on real wolf behaviour, ie. the pack hierarchy. If Elena is the only female werewolf in existence, then wouldn’t wolf behaviour dictate she belong to the Alpha male, and not the Beta? When Clay betrays Elena and Jeremy spends time taking care of her and teaching her the ways of the werewolf, wouldn’t he want to claim Elena as his mate? Oh wait, but the Alpha is conveniently beyond that, ie. the bonds of brotherhood is stronger than succumbing to instinctual behaviour, or whatever. And why can’t mutts claim any territory again? In any case, it is more convenient for Jeremy to be the benevolent father-figure than for the story to have a potentially interesting love triangle.

I’m also not big on Armstrong’s writing style and Elena’s smart-alecky sense of humour is more jarring than amusing. What’s more, the author’s few attempts at pop culture reference backfires. Badly. When Elena tells her hohum human BF that she’s watching Evil Dead 2 on TV, she quips: “This one’s pure camp… It’s a sequel. Horror sequels suck.” Armstrong may have wanted our heroine to sound clever, but she is embarrassingly unaware that ED2 is the rare classic sequel that surpasses its predecessor in sheer awesomeness! But that isn’t the worse offense. She had to have another character proclaim that Scream 2 is actually superior, pretty much destroying any hipster or geek cred she may be trying to grab.

There was another thing about the novel that bugged me, but I couldn’t put a finger on it until near the end, when Elena’s Pack brother Nick confesses:

“I don’t know how you did it in Toronto all those months,” he [Nick] said with a shudder. “I had to do it a couple times last winter… Anyway, I had to Change by myself…. It was awful. It was, like walk out to the woods, Change, stand there until enough time passed, Change back. It was about as much fun as taking a shit… I’m serious. Come on, Elena. Admit it. That’s what it’s like if you’re by yourself.”

I guess if you’re a Pack werewolf there is no joy in embracing the freedom of running in solitude. Elena ends up making fun of her Pack brother because she was a true loner, not by choice, but by circumstance. What Elena ultimately wants is to belong to a community or family because she never had those things growing up. The running theme of Bitten may be about how supernatural beings (outsiders) try to fit into normal society, but it seems the idea it's perpetuating is that the desire to belong to a group is normal and good. To want to be alone, or worse, to want to live a fulfilling life alone, is bad or undesirable. For me, it seems that Armstrong is an extravert who does not understand non-extravert mentality.

As a werewolf, Elena still clings to the artifacts of human society, like wanting to celebrate Christmas every year. Eventually her werewolf family replaces her need for a human one. But the novel provides no option for her to reconcile her humanity with her werewolf side. Genetic werewolves do not identify with humankind, which makes sense, and neither do made werewolves like Clay, who were bitten when they were young. But what about werewolves like Elena, who were turned as adults, what's more a female adult? Sadly, this potentially interesting theme isn’t explored as deeply as I'd like either, or in the way that I was expecting.

I guess the reason I’m giving this book a hard time is because I was really looking forward to reading this book, and it’s the first in a series of like a dozen. But Armstrong’s universe just didn't turn out as rich and rewarding as I hoped it’d be. Her style, humor and aesthetics seem to be opposite of mine and I didn't find anything particularly remarkable or different in her take on the werewolf mythos. Even though I’m already reading the next book, Stolen, it’s mainly because it's already been lent to me, it’s a quick read and I have a mild curiosity in wanting to know what happens next. But it isn’t strong enough to sustain an interest in following the rest of the Otherworld series. One thing Bitten did do for me though, was to rekindle my interest in going back to the ordinary, yet ultimately much more complex, world of my “serious” novel.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Book 19 – The Spellmans Strike Again

By Lisa Lutz

The fourth installment of The Spellman series!

Hardcover was published earlier in March, pristine copy discovered at fave thrift shop Chainon (Olman was there as I gasped aloud in delight upon sighting it) and reading commenced the next day. After weeks of reading and only getting halfway through a 600+ page novel, TSSA was a welcome break.

If you recall, the first installment was The Spellman Files followed by Curse of the Spellmans. The third in the series, Revenge of the Spellmans was reviewed just last February.

The latest Spellman book does not bring anything startling new. As our protagonist and narrator Isabelle Spellman explains:

I suppose the most defining characteristic of my family is that we take our work home with us. If your family’s job is investigating other people, you inevitably investigate each other. This single trait has been our primary point of conflict for most of my life.

This single trait is also what makes the continuing saga so entertaining and is the primary source of humour (and misery) in this dysfunctional family saga. Isabelle is busy as ever juggling cases both paid and pro bono, getting dirt on her enemies (and family), keeping current boyfriend from becoming Ex-Boyfriend #12 while appeasing her mother by embarking on a series of “lawyer dates”. Not only that. In order to prove to her mother she actually went on said dates, she has to ask her “date” if she can record part of their conversation.

The purpose of the recordings was to prove that the “dates” had the feel of dates – the uncomfortable, bio-swapping, dead-silent, ice-clinking, dread-filled feel of a date. As far as I could tell, I only had to be myself to bring about all that and more.

And that’s not even reaching the first half of the book. After the halfway point, our (anti)heroine “can barely keep track of the galaxy of investigations, deceit, turmoil, clashes, and chaos that [she travels] through every day…” At some point, she even resorts to making a to-do list, itemized in descending order of urgency:

• Free Merriweather.
• Destroy Harkey.
• Discover Mrs. Enright’s angle.
• Solve the doorknob conspiracy at Spellman headquarters.
• Find out what dirt David has on Rae to explain extra gardening.
• Take shower.

Yes, this latest edition is not short on the usual comic hijnks we’ve seen in previous installments, nor any of the usual pop culture references, such as Get Smart and Doctor Who, not to mention some witty homages to Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein and The Wire.

But at 32, we finally see Isabelle starting to grow up, just a little, both personally and professionally (since for the Spellmans there is no separation between the two). Although Isabelle has gazed at her obsessive-compulsive abyss in the past, she has never really confronted or gotten over it, despite the court-ordered therapy sessions. Not only that, her dear old friend (old as in he was an octogenarian) Morty succumbs to “the cancer” at the same time everything else seems to be falling apart. Then her younger sister Rae locks her up in a filing room all night, and she kind of has an epiphany. It sounds messy and all over the place, but eventually, Isabelle ends up solving her cases and tying up some of her personal loose ends -- but in her own terms.

In case you’re curious, I didn’t tell my parents the whole story. They like to keep their cases out of the gray area. You serve the client and the client only. But I lived so many years of my life in that land where rules exist only to be broken that I still sympathize with those who can’t seem to follow them all, including the law breakers. I was one of them once. I guess, if you think about it, I still am. I know that a world of people ignoring absolutes could create a society that cannot function, but I am so sure of my ideals that I make this choice. If, one day, I notice the world slipping and feel that I am truly part of it, I’ll snap back in line. Until then, this is how I’m going to play the game.