Friday, December 23, 2011

Book 41 – Crocodile on the Sandbank

By Elizabeth Peters

Olman picked up this book while we were in the Maritimes this summer and highly recommended it to me, saying I’d really like the heroine, Amelia Peabody - “a feisty and headstrong Victorian woman, who embodies all the values of the British Empire, but is somewhat restricted by doing so in a female form” - as well as the friendship that develops between Peabody and a younger woman (no, there is no lezzing out á la Fingersmith).  Just don’t expect it to be a satisfying mystery.

Olman was right. I did enjoy Crocodile on the Sandbank very much. The beginning was awesome, as it sets up the adventure in which Amelia Peabody is about to begin. What else is an unconventional Victorian woman to do when she inherits a modest fortune and has no wish to marry? She embarks on an exotic voyage, of course! Almost immediately, she rescues, adopts and befriends an abandoned, fallen young woman named Evelyn, who becomes her travelling companion. You can’t help but admire this female protagonist, who proclaims:

I may say, without undue egotism, that when I make up my mind to do something, it is done quickly. The lethargic old city of the Popes fairly quaked under my ruthless hand during the following week.”

For once, I am of complete accord with Olman on both the strengths and weaknesses of Crocodile on the Sandback - it had a great premise that got undermined by the narrative.  I also agree with Olman that there wasn’t much of a mystery, and that the so-called mystery was actually in service of the narrative, which is more of action-adventure than a mystery (which I guessed early on anyway, so it must have been pretty obvious!).

[SPOILER ALERT]

Even more so than Olman, I was terribly disappointed with the ending when Amelia got married and had a child. Don’t get me wrong, as I quite enjoyed the sexual tension between her and Emerson. But what made Peabody so appealing for me was her fierce independence and unconventionality. She was proud being a thirty-two year old spinster, and makes a point of explaining her opinions about marriage to Evelyn:

…my nature does not lend itself to the meekness required of a wife in our society. I could not endure a man who would let himself be ruled by me, and I would not endure a man who tried to rule me.

As a result, I wasn’t expecting Peabody to settle down so soon, and was hoping that her romance with Emerson would continue for at least a few more books, so that readers could enjoy her as Amelia Peabody (not Emerson), not beholden to any man, or any prosaic duties of domesticity. So I'm in no dire need to read the next book.  But like Olman, I wouldn’t say no if someone were to lend me the next Peabody book.

Addendum:  after perusing the wikipedia, it seems that Peters had originally thought this was a one-off, and I think the book was so popular that a series was born.  Peters had rued the fact that in Crocodile, she had stated Peabody's age, and would've probably made her a few years younger had she been planning a whole series.  So that was interesting to know.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Book 40 - The G.N.B. Double C

The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists

A Story from the sketchbook of the cartoonist “Seth”

This is my first time reading a comic by Seth. Being already familiar with the work of Joe Matt and Chester Brown, I knew a little bit about the friendship and history (as well as the idiosyncracies) of this trio. A mutual friend recently lent Conan and I a bunch of comics (City of Glass, The Death Ray), which helped boost my book quota. The G.N.B. Double C comes in at an auspicious Number 40.

At first, I wasn’t really sure what I was reading – was it fact or fiction?  I expressed my confusion to Olman, who told me to keep reading, as this is “Seth’s conceit”, to create a fictional universe where cartoons are revered like works of art.  To quote The Comics Journal, Seth “deftly mixes real and imagined cartoon history in its depiction of a fictional cartoon society in the city of Dominion, where artists from every facet of the medium once gathered to drink, carouse, and sometimes even discuss cartooning.”

The book has an appealing old school hardcover, and there is a nicely crafted quality to the overall design and narrative, yet I wasn’t particularly fond of the cartoon style within. I think Seth succeeded too well in invoking the thick-lined, squat-figured cartoons of old. I just didn’t find the old-time, cornballish style very graceful or aesthetically interesting.


This National review did a good job explaining this oddball comic, but the opinion of the reviewer was not very clear. For myself, I liked this comic ok, and it was indeed a neat conceit. But it just didn’t really do much for me. I think I might enjoy Seth’s other work, like Palookaville or Clyde Fans, so I will have to see if Olman or Dan has any of those comics.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Book 39 – The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest

By Stieg Larsson

Well-- it’s been over year since I became The Girl Who Kicked Herself For Not Getting The Cheap Hardcover at Chainon.

Last we left off with the exciting conclusion of The Girl Who Played With Fire, Lisbeth Salander was shot in the head by her estranged Pa, her semi-conscious body airlifted to the nearest hospital. Even though you know our heroine is going to pull through somehow, it was still one hell of a cliffhanger to nurse for a year and three months. When hubs got me an iPad last Xmas, I was tempted to get the e-book, but thought the $11 price tag was a little steep. Now that it’s finally released in paperback (for $8! so Why-TF was the e-version more expensive?), I promptly ordered a copy.

Lemme tell ya, it was well worth the wait, despite the fact that this 563–page action-packed tome kept me up multiple nights in a row.  To quote that silly line from the new Cronenberg movie: “It excited me!

Unlike the majority of trilogies or series where each sequel is like a watered-down and/or inferior version of the original (take The Dark Materials trilogy, for instance), each installment of the Millenium trilogy was better than the last. I liked The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo all right, but The Girl Who Played With Fire took it to the next level, focusing on the character development of the fascinating Lisbeth Salander, as well as allowing her to kick even more ass (physical and cyber-spatial) than before.

The second book also introduced a whole web of new characters and how they were all inter-related to one another. Of course, the common denominator was The Girl herself, but there were new writers working for Millenium, various police inspectors, government officials, secret police agents, biker gang members, old friends of Lisbeth, as well as not-so-friendly people from her tragic past.

The third book has many of the same characters, and then some. It’s like a crazy Swedish version of The Wire, except we have a young woman entangled in some secret government conspiracy to have her locked away in an institution for life. And all because her father happens to be a badass Russian defector and ex-spy who keeps getting into trouble with the authorities because he's an underworld gangster as well as a wife-beater!

Despite the fact that Salander is not able to kick as much ass as she did in the previous book (due to her recovering from a bullet hole in the head (--oops I gave it away, oh well!), Salander’s motley crue of unlikely allies (a few who have friends in strategic places) rise to the occasion to help her out of this conspiracy mess, and Lisbeth also turns to her comrades at the exclusive Hacker Republic for help. The plot of TGWKTHN has been criticized for being preposterous, which is ridiculous. I mean, the Millenium trilogy from the get-go has been about as realistic as, say, the Bourne books. This is escapist fiction, for chrissakes, and other than the not so subtle theme of Men Hating Women, these books aren’t pretending to be anything more. If you want to read a more realistic story, then go read some Margaret Atwood or something.

More importantly, despite the phenomenal number of subplots and characters, Larsson managed to tie everything together into something that was competently cohesive. There was a whole other seemingly unrelated subplot where Erika Berger quit Millenium to work as editor-in-chief for the major newspaper, SMP, and within the first two weeks of her new job, conventiently acquired a stalker. That storyline could have been cut out, but at the same time, it felt like it fit into the narrative, logistically and thematically. It could’ve been a structural mess in the hands of a less disciplined writer. As an experienced journalist, Larsson also did a great job writing about the bustling newsroom of a major daily, the inner workings of Swedish governmental politics or a general overview of constitutional laws. The complicated plot allowed Larsson to touch on various aspects of Swedish society, from the high-ranking offices of CEOs and government officials to some shabby apartment of a lowly drug dealer.

Even if you think the story was rather preposterous, Larsson grounded his universe in such a confident, straightforward maner that you won’t immediately realize how much info you’ve been absorbing at once… that is, until you’re having a fitful night of sleep as the various elements from the novel float about inside your head! Even after more than a year between the 2nd and 3rd books, I was able to remember many of the plot points and characters. I think, after reading the Millenium books, everyone becomes a little like Lisbeth Salander, with her photographic memory and careful observation of details. And the finale was awesome. There were no loose strings I could find.

Immediately after finishing The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Olman and I watched the movie version, which was rather hurried, omitting tons of details and subplots. A few times Olman went “huh?” after the movie skipped or altered something from the book. Since he hasn’t read the Millenium books, I had to fill him in on some background info. So if you’re gonna watch the last movie, it might not make as much sense if you haven’t read the final book. It might have been worthwhile to split the book into two parts, like what they did with Twilight and Harry Potter. Let’s hope the American remake will do this!

Friday, December 02, 2011

Book 38 – The Death-Ray

By Daniel Clowes

Originally published in 2004 as a stand-alone issue of the Eightball series, The Death-Ray was recently reprinted as a nicely bound hardcover edition from Drawn & Quarterly. Shortly after reading a review of this release, a copy was  loaned to Olman via my coworker (thanks Dan!).

I don’t believe I’ve ever read anything by Clowes, though I very much liked the charmingly sarcastic movies version of Ghost World. All I know is that The Death-Ray is Clowes’ first and only stab at the superhero genre. Perhaps it would be better described as a “stab and twist” since there is a definite subversion of form. However, despite the pastel palette of the colour illustrations, there is hardly any humour to be found, only existential emptiness.

The story is basically about an ordinary and awkward teenaged boy in the 1970’s who grows up to be a lonely bitter man. Andy has the ability to be bestowed with superhuman strength when his body absorbs nicotine by simply smoking a cigarette. The death-ray is the gun he inherits from his odd, scientist father long after he had passed away. Just a single pull of the trigger will zap any living organism into non-existence.

Unlike Spider Man, great power does not come with great responsibility for our young Andy. He doesn’t blossom into a ripped example of sparkling masculinity but keeps his 90-pound weakling physique. Nor does he rise up to save the world from evil. Like any naive teenaged loser, Andy doesn’t quite abuse his power, but he definitely misuses it. Let’s just say this sad sack falls short of living up to any superhero potential, using his rather extraordinary gifts to solve his sadly ordinary problems. It’s a great premise to explore, and I’m sure the upcoming movie, Chronicle, was probably influenced to some extent by this comic.

Though I found the concept of The Death-Ray very interesting, I’m not sure if I liked it as much as, say, Charles Burns’ Black Hole, a comic which also explores the teenage psyche in 1970’s American suburbia in a supernatural manner. But it’s a little like comparing apples and oranges since The Death-Ray was a one-off, while Black Hole was the result of a ten-year effort. But I had felt so immersed in the dark, surreal universe of Black Hole, while The Death-Ray was like dipping into a wading pool by comparison. The brevity of The Death-Ray does not seem allow enough time for Clowes’ to explore his themes with any real depth.


The way Clowes’ jumps in time from panel to panel was probably intentional, but it felt quite disjointed to me. For example, after Andy discovers his new found powers, he decides to confront a school bully when he’s picking on his best friend Louie. All of a sudden, the next panel just shows Andy's bloodied hand, but never follows up on the bully. This happens fairly often throughout the comic. You never see the consequences when Andy decides to use violence against violence. I don’t mind jump cuts in movies, if they work for the story, and it can work visually in comics. Perhaps I am missing some kind of important symbolism that Clowes is trying to get at, but I found the panel jump a little annoying in The Death-Ray.

On the other hand, D&Q did a very professional job with the quality of the hardcover edition. The paper feels nice and thick, and shows off Clowes’ coloured illustrations well. And twenty bucks is a pretty reasonable price if you’re a fan of Clowes' work.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Book 37 – City of Glass: the Graphic Novel

By Paul Auster
Adaptation by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli

I had read Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy a few years ago as separate books (City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room). My review did not provide any plot summary, so I don’t remember much except the exquisite atmosphere of dreamy dread that permeated each book.  And that I really liked them. This turned out to be advantageous since the 1994 comic adaptation of City of Glass recently fell into my hands thanks to my coworker via Olman (the copy was the 2004 Picador edition). Reading the comic made me remember everything about the original novella as I went along, so it was almost like re-experiencing the story in a new way.

As Art Spiegelman mentioned in his introduction, I was impressed with how Karasik and Mazzucchelli created such an effective comic out of a strange and metaphysical work as City of Glass, which apparently posed a challenge for many to visualize (there have been a number of unsuccessful attempts to adapt it as a screenplay).

City of Glass starts off as a fairly straightforward detective mystery, though with a pervasive feeling that something is a little off. At some point, the narrative becomes unhinged and takes a turn toward po-mo existentialism, but compellingly so. I always wondered what City of Glass would’ve been like had Auster stuck to genre conventions because I think it would’ve made a great detective story. But that’s crazy talk since part of the story’s power lies in its deconstruction of narrative and character. After all, City of Glass is one of many novels where Auster explores his trademark themes: the disintegration of reality and identity.

Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli were able to take those trademark Auster themes and visualize them in comic form. They utilized everything they knew about the art of comics into City of Glass, but each panel is designed in a very controlled and thoughtful way.  It is a wonderful synthesis of two different but complementary mediums.  For anyone interested in a deeper analysis of how Karasik & Mazzuchhelli translate prose to the comic form, take a look at this blog.


If you haven’t read the original novel or the comic adaptation, then I would recommend reading the novel first then waiting a long while before reading the comic. Like long enough to not remember any details of the novel (say a few years!). But if you lack the discipline and cannot wait that long, then I liked what this Guardian review had to say about this little quandary: 

If you haven't read City of Glass, then you have an intriguing dilemma: not which of the two books to read - you should read both - but which to read first. I can't really answer that question, because setting them against one another, trying to decide which is more successful, seems pointless. Both are wonderful works of art. Both are worth reading again and again. And each complements the other, the comic driving you back the novel, and vice versa.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Book 36 - Tokyo On Foot: A Graphic Memoir

By Florent Chavouet

This was one of those rare impulsive purchases when I was at Drawn & Quarterly. Though I didn’t have any luck finding a birthday gift for a friend, I had no trouble spotting something I wanted for myself, as my eye was immediately drawn to the cover of Tokyo On Foot, the last English copy in the store (the original version is in French).

Having visited Japan over a decade ago, leafing through Chavouet’s images evoked warm, fuzzy feelings of that memorable trip, hence the impulsive purchase. This was also the book I sought solace in when I wanted to momentarily escape from exploring the human capacity for war and violence in Three Day Road.

Chavouet is a French graphic artist who moved to Japan with his girlfriend when she landed a one year internship at an unnamed company. The more accurate title would have been "Tokyo By Bike". When Chavouet wasn’t trying to find the odd job as a French waiter, he'd bike to an unexplored area of Tokyo with his portable chair, stopping to sketch something interesting.


His subjects range from random people on the street who’d stop and check out what he’s drawing to a run-down house that stuck out like a sore thumb across the street, or maybe a jumbled view of shops and noodle houses within a city block, or a secluded spot in a park away from the urban hullabaloo.


The hand-drawn maps of each neighbourhood (21 in total) are amazingly intricate, yet useful if you were to use the maps to trace his daily route. Each chapter begins with a map of the district or prefecture with highlights of the various spots where he stops to capture the scenery. Each highlight has a page number so you can find the sketch of what took his fancy and sometimes there are charming little captions or annotations to explain what he observed.


Reading some reviews on Goodreads, there were a few complaints how the book is only an outsider’s superficial interpretation of Tokyo, and Chavouet never learned more than a few Japanese phrases. Well, yeah, the guy did only spend a year there. He’s an illustrator, not a scholar or journalist. I felt that part of the appeal was that his drawings are exactly that, a view from an outsider’s perspective. Chavouet’s art contains a mixture of curiosity, interest, amusement, bemusement and/or mild dislocation. Perhaps his interpretations are not always accurate, but they seem genuine in feeling.

I also really enjoyed his profiles of random people’s fashion styles on the street, such as this cross-section of Shibuya:



Here’s a review which pretty much explains more articulately how I felt about it.

And this blog gives a good idea of what it's like flipping through Tokyo On Foot.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Book 35 – Uglies

By Scott Westerfeld

I’ve officially broken last year’s record with my 35th book. Yay.

Uglies was on my “maybe to read” list since it’s a futuristic dystopian young adult novel that received mixed reviews. When I found a cheap copy at my good ol’ reliable thrift shop, I thought it would make a quick n’ easy read (as I’m still aiming to read 40 books this year). And it turned out to be the case indeed!

The premise sounds intriguing enough. A few hundred years after some mysterious catastrophe obliterated the world’s oil supply (thus ending human civilization as we know it), society has rebuilt itself by harnessing renewable energy resources and going vegan. Technology has evolved to sustain and populate the cities again. Isolated and self-sufficient yet also fearful of war and dissent, these eco-friendly cities hit upon the need to create standards for the greater good.

Societal ills largely stem from people having vast differences over things like status and wealth, but obviously, not everyone can be rich and fabulous. And going all communist and making everyone poor wouldn’t be very fun either. But since everyone is born with inherent flaws in their physical appearance, wouldn’t the world be a happier place if everyone were beautiful? And even better, beautiful and blissfully ignorant!  It would be the perfect equalizer!

When children turn 16, the benevolent government bestows upon them a series of extreme surgeries to have their faces and bodies (among other things) molded to fit societal standards of perfect beauty.  Since humans are evolutionarily preconditioned to have positive responses to facial symmetry, clear complexions and proportionate bodies, applying these standards equally for everyone will reduce conflict and create a more harmonious society. By agreeing to go under the knife, you are also rewarded by getting to party every day and every night (at least until it's time to reproduce) with all the fancy clothes and cosmos you could possibly want!

Westerfeld thus takes a page off of Dystopian Fiction 101 where you have a “vision of an orderly world in which suffering is minimized and pleasure maximized”.  But for me, it is only a partially complete world.  As a science fiction novel, the author does not explain how a society (even one with highly advanced technology) can support a whole class of perfectly sculpted hedonists (like who makes their disposable fancy clothes or distills the alcohol that gets them loaded?), nor how it can sustain itself when the majority of its young citizens are partying during their stage of post-educational development instead of working towards being productive members of society (like cosmetic surgeons, for instance). But this pretty little book does not want to bother with such trivial details.

Instead we have a world where everyone is supermodel-gorgeous, so now normal people seem ugly by comparison (one wonders what this world would do with the truly hideous or deformed but, surprise, the book doesn't bother with that either). Children are considered Littlies and therefore exempt from being ugly.  As soon as they turn twelve, they are relegated to official “Ugly” status, spending the next four years loathing themselves and longing to be “Pretty”. Sound familiar?

Westerfeld has put a clever spin on the awkward stage of adolescence, but I still found Uglies rather "meh". There just wasn’t anything particularly original or refreshing in the themes, nor in the execution of those themes. We have some dystopian teen angst embodied in fifteen-year-old protagonist Tally Youngblood, and there is the obvious social commentary about how society perpetuates unrealistic images of beauty to our youth. But it doesn’t go beyond, well, the obvious.

What happens to young naive Tally Youngblood is also pretty rote stuff, so I won’t get into how Tally loses her best friend Peris once he becomes a Pretty, then finds a new BFF in rebellious Shay, who convinces Tally to journey to the Rusty Ruins which leads her to a band of merry Uglies living in a secluded mountain valley (as well as fall for the same boy named David who is -surprise!- actually pretty cute for "ugly" standards). To Tally’s amazement, David and his fellow Uglies don’t see themselves as ugly at all.  They are content to live out their lives without any surgical intervention imposed on their bodies. Imagine that!

It’s no surprise that the "urban dystopia versus utopian wilderness" theme has become somewhat clichéd:   people are unwittingly domesticated by a [enter –ist word, ie. fascist, agist, uglist] society, yet one individual manages to see through the false utopia, escapes to discover an alternate community of [enter synonym for dissenters, counter-culture types, etc.] who eventually overcome the system, and reclaim humanity. I have not read much dystopian fiction, but already Logan’s Run (1967) and John Christopher’s Wild Jack (1974) come to mind. The Hunger Games is another recent example which recycles familiar tropes, but the excellent pacing and tight narrative makes you forgive some inherent flaws.  More importantly, the world that Suzanne Collins depicts feels more complete.  There are no gaping logistical holes that fester in the back of your mind, like it did for me when reading Uglies.

For whatever reason, I didn’t get the same thrill and enjoyment with Uglies. For one thing, I couldn’t get past the cutesy terms for categorizing people:  Littlies, Uglies, New Pretties, Middle Pretties and Late Pretties (or Crumblies). I mean, where are the SILLIES when you need ‘em? Ok, there are the Specials, but they should really be called the SCARIES, since they are government agents surgically enhanced for intelligence, strength and, wait for it, terrifying beauty. Let’s not forget the people of old who used to live in pollution-choked cities and kill animals for food. They were known as the Rusties. Nothing is too complicated that would potentially hurt a reader's pretty little head.

Westerfeld, however, does do a decent job capturing the mentality of a typical teenage girl growing up in a screwed up world. Tally’s guilt for being a potential traitor to the cause is also portrayed quite realistically, as you definitely get the sense that our heroine is a naive character who has a LOT to learn and develops some backbone and principles toward the end. At the end of the day, though, Westerfeld's bland writing style combined with fairly half-baked ideas made Uglies seem like a book aimed at the lowest common denominator.

It’s too bad I don’t feel inclined to read the rest of the series, as it would help get me closer to 40 books!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Book 34 – Three Day Road

By Joseph Boyden

It’s hard to imagine that Three Day Road is Boyden’s first novel. Not only is it ambitious in scope, it’s remarkably cohesive for its unusual narrative structure and quite gracefully written too (as Kate also noted in her review). However the ambitiousness of the novel is not meant to impress (like Cloud Atlas, for instance), but instead bring to life voices not commonly heard and stories often overlooked by history.

The heart of the novel is centred on thre friendship between Xavier Bird and Elijah Whiskeyjack, young Cree men who voluntarily enlist and become legendary snipers in Europe during the Great War. They leave behind Xavier’s aunt Niska, a medicine woman who, having avoided assimilation, raised both boys in the Oji-Cree tradition in the wilds of Northern Ontario. The story begins after the war is over when Xavier returns home to Niska, physically and emotionally damaged, and addicted to morphine. As aunt and nephew journey back to their camp by canoe, the narrative weaves between the voices of the three characters: Xavier reliving the nightmare of his war experiences in a morphine-induced fever, Elijah obsessively confessing to Xavier about his war exploits, and Niska reaching out to Xavier by telling him about her past. Within this cyclical structure, Boyden also attempts to evoke the Cree and Ojibwe tradition of storytelling.

As a more conventional narrative, Three Day Road has the potential to appeal to a range of readers in the way it taps into multiple experiences.   If you’re interested in war history, the novel is a harrowing account of trench warfare yet on a smaller scale presents an intimate portrait of the modern sniper, whose skill is taken to a new level of specialty during WWI.  If First Nations history is more your thing, the little known WWI hero, Francis "Peggy" Pegahmagabow, served as inspiration for the characters of Elijah and Xavier. This in itself is a great story premise because you have the combination of Native game hunters making the transition to deadly snipers, utilizing their skills on the battlefield to "devastating effect” with the narrative freedom of having them leave the confines of mud-filled trenches into more varied geography (from the Penguin Readers Guide).

To make it even more historically realistic, Boyden places Elijah and Xavier as infantry in the real-life Second Canadian Division, tracing their route throughout their three-year involvement in the war. The 2nd Division also participated in the Western Front’s most atrocious battles (like Passchendale), their victories having (ironically) helped put Canada on the international map. The novel is further enriched by the importance the role Native Canadian soldiers played in the conflict yet only to return home without any official recognition.

Three Day Road portrays the period of upheaval when Aboriginal Canadians were forced to assimilate into early 20th century European-Canadian society by separating children from their families and placing them in residential schools. Niska and Xavier managed to escape assimilation and live out in the bush, but Elijah was a product of a residential upbringing.  Even though Elijah experienced some abuse at the hands of a nun, Boyden does not dwell on him as a victim, but rather, as a survivor making use of his Western education and English skills to gain favour with his division when he and Xavier are stationed in Europe.

Though much of the novel is grounded in historical reality, there are also elements of the supernatural woven into the tale. This is mostly due to Niska being the last of a lineage of shamans and windigo-killers. Some readers may be wary of this potential for cliché, but her character is nevertheless realistically portrayed as a strong, proud woman who maintains her independence and way of life while her people live in towns as second-class citizens and/or have succumbed to alcoholism.

This was the first time I’ve read about WW1 in a fictional work, and frankly, it's not a subject matter I would voluntarily read about. I remembered enough from my history classes to know how horrifying both World Wars were. Part of the reason why this book took a while for me to finish was because it was so very, very dark.  There were many violent depictions of death yet each death was not treated lightly.  As Kate mentioned in her review, “the strength and spirit of the characters really overpowered the dark stuff in a good way so that the book felt really balanced in its depiction of events”. But I still had to take the occasional break from the novel to read something else (which is too bad, as it would've been so fitting had I finished it for Remembrance Day on 11/11/11).

I was nevertheless impressed by Boyden’s meticulous research and skill as a writer. He brought to life all the gruesome details of trench warfare and the cultural genocide of aboriginals while at the same time avoided almost all the clichés associated with writing about those subjects in the “native voice”. Combined with the occasional magic realist touches, I admit Boyden did at times verge dangerously close to cliché, but overall he was able to pull it off without being too hokey. What was amazing was that he was able to make a believable symbolic connection between Niska’s background as a windigo-killer and the disintegrating friendship of Xavier and Elijah as the continuing war took its toll on their sanity. Hopefully I’m not revealing too much, but Boyden ties this all together quite effectively.

Overall There Day Road succeeds as a novel because it was a very personal work for the author. Having a grandfather who served in WWI and a father as a decorated medical officer in WWII, Boyden obviously has a vested personal interest in the history of war. Being of mixed Scottish, Irish and Metis heritage also gives Boyden a measure of legitimacy in writing from a First Nations perspective.  I would definitely recommend Three Day Road for anyone interested in contemporary Canadian literature.  Despite its moments of terrible darkness, it proved in the end to be a very rewarding and enlightening reading experience.

(p.s. was very siked to find a copy of this at my local thrift shop too)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Book 33 – Post Office

By Charles Bukowski

Amy's Used Books in Amherst, Nova Scotia was probably the most plentiful and least musty-smelling bookstore Olman and I have come across, at least in Canada. However, the over-abundance of books resulted in stacks taller than myself which obscured the alphabetaized books in the shelves. I won't go into detail about how I toppled a six-foot stack when I attempted to extract a copy of Post Office. Suffice to say I was rather surprised that a book by the Buk wasn’t displayed behind the cashier. In fact the book (which was in great condition) was like six bucks (I saw the same used copy online asking for twenty-something euros).  So I thought it was a good find.

As the title suggests, Post Office chronicles the sordid life of Bukoswki’s alter ego Henry Chinaski when he lands a job as a substitute for the U.S. Postal Service. And what a miserable job it is. When he is not nursing another hungover at work, Chinaski is either chasing tail, getting gassed or betting on horses.  If it's a good day it's all of the above.  I've always been midly curious about Bukowski, and asked Olman if he had ever read anything by him.  He said he tried reading his stuff back in college but couldn’t finish because he found it too sexist. I thought that was kind of funny considering the male-centric genre books Olman likes to read. I do admit it was at times offputting the way Chinaski regards every female he encounters as potential lays and how he ogles a woman's breasts before even looking at her eyes.

In any case, this is a book where the author’s reputation far precedes it. But I liked Post Office both for and despite its dated sexism, racism and self-destructivism.  The fascistic and miserable environment of the post office is offset by the debauchery of the boozy, lusty Henry Chinaski. There is a colloquial deadpan style to the writing that is rather appealing, perhaps due to the fact that it might have been regarded as obscene at the time, but now comes off as rather quaint.  But the heart of the novel is still there. Anyone, male or female, who has ever been stuck working at a shitty dead-end job can definitely relate to how soul-deadening it can be. Bukowski was probably one of the first writers to truly express this.

Here is a review that sums up more thoughtfully and eloquently how I felt about Post Office.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Book 32 - Far from the Madding Crowd

by Thomas Hardy

"This novel digs deep into the rhythms of rural existence. Hardy is unsurpassed when it comes to a sense of place and rich unsentimental evocations of landscape and local culture within which the characters find their fates."
–Charles Frazier

A few months ago, I watched the 2010 film, Tamara Drewe, which was likable enough, but more importantly, it got me to read the Thomas Hardy novel that the original comic drew inspiration from. And I’m so glad I finally did. I knew that this was arguably Hardy’s “happiest” novel, having only read Jude the Obscure, which, though beautifully tragic, was also a bit of a weepfest. Anyway, Far From the Madding Crowd was a wonderful read, it being easily another favourite of the year.

I very recently came across the Charles Frazier quote on Goodreads when he listed his favourite novels “with rural settings”. Though I agree with Frazier wholeheartedly, the quote makes it seem like character is secondary to setting or theme in this novel, which is far from the case. Hardy’s character studies are just as solid as his “rich and unsentimental” evocation of landscape. It's the depth of characterization and the strong pull of narrative that keeps 19th-century literature alive today, according to Jeffrey Eugenides (very curious abou his new novel The Marriage Plot).  The fact that Hardy's story is basically a love quadrangle amidst a pastoral setting does not give it credit either. Within this quadrangle (at one point, it even becomes a love pentangle!), Hardy explores every aspect of love in all its human drama: the rituals of courtship, societal versus individual expectations and desires, infatuation versus love, the pains of unrequited love, and so much more.

The person that undergoes all this drama and transformation is the protagonist Bathsheba Everdene: a handsome, independent young woman who has inherited a farm and is courted by three suitors in the course of the novel. (Interesting piece of trivia: Suzanne Collins named her Hunger Games heroine Katniss Everdeen in homage to Hardy’s Bathsheba). The first suitor to court our heroine is Gabriel Oak, a shepherd of solid character but little money to his name; then it's William Boldwood, a respectable yet introverted gentleman in the neighbouring farm whose passion is set alight when he receives an innocent valentine from Bathsheba; and finally there is the dashing Francis Troy, a sergeant who has a way with the ladies, if you know what my mean. Bathsheba ends up falling for the wrong guy, tragedy ensues, but after learning from her mistakes, she ends up marrying the right guy in the end (well, kind of by default since by then, one suitor ends up dead and the other imprisoned for life!).

Through it all, Hardy explores what makes a bad romantic relationship and what makes a solid and healthy long-term relationship (known as a marriage back in those days). I have not read many 19th century novels, but this was also the first time I’ve come across a study in obsessive love, or “pathetic evidences of a mind crazed with care and love”, that was not set in a contemporary period. A lot of stuff gets explored in this novel. Hardy des a wonderful job in letting you inhabit the characters and understand how their actions impact each other’s behaviour.  Like this one particular passage about Bathsheba’s unwitting influence on Farmer Boldwood:

   The phases of Boldwood's life were ordinary enough, but his was not an ordinary nature. That stillness, which struck casual observers more than anything else in his character and habit, and seemed so precisely like the rest of inanition, may have been the perfect balance of enormous antagonistic forces--positives and negatives in fine adjustment. His equilibrium disturbed, he was in extremity at once. If an emotion possessed him at all, it ruled him; a feeling not mastering him was entirely latent...

    Bathsheba was far from dreaming that the dark and silent shape upon which she had so carelessly thrown a seed was a hotbed of tropic intensity. Had she known Boldwood's moods, her blame would have been fearful, and the stain upon her heart ineradicable. Moreover, had she known her present power for good or evil over this man, she would have trembled at her responsibility. Luckily for her present, unluckily for her future tranquillity, her understanding had not yet told her what Boldwood was. Nobody knew entirely; for though it was possible to form guesses concerning his wild capabilities from old floodmarks faintly visible, he had never been seen at the high tides which caused them.

I also really admired Hardy for creating such an interesting female character in Bathsheba Everdene. As described in the Wiki, FFTMC “might also be described as an early piece of feminist literature, since it features an independent woman with the courage to defy convention by running a farm herself. Although Bathsheba's passionate nature leads her into serious errors of judgment, Hardy endows her with sufficient resilience, intelligence, and good luck to overcome her youthful folly.”

Feminist or no, there are times, however, when Hardy goes a little overboard with Bathsheba’s very “female” attributes and flaws, but ultimately Bathsheba is a remarkable character who is “indispensable to high generation, hated at tea parties, feared in shops, and loved at crises”.

Lastly, it is Hardy’s evocation of landscape that is also memorable. If anyone has ever seen paintings by Romantic landscape artist JMW Turner or French Realist painter Jean-Francois Millet, one could see that Hardy’s pastoral prose is a happy combination of romanticism and realism:

To persons standing alone on a hill during a clear midnight such as this, the roll of the world eastward is almost a palpable movement. The sensation may be caused by the panoramic glide of the stars past earthly objects, which is perceptible in a few minutes of stillness, or by the better outlook upon space that a hill affords, or by the wind, or by the solitude; but whatever be its origin the impression of riding along is vivid and abiding. The poetry of motion is a phrase much in use, and to enjoy the epic form of that gratification it is necessary to stand on a hill at a small hours of the night, and, having first expanded with a sense of difference from the mass of civilized mankind, who are dreamwrapt and disregardful of all such proceedings at this time, long and quietly watch your stately progress through the stars. After such a nocturnal reconnoiter it is hard to get back to earth, and to believe that the consciousness of such majestic speeding is derived from a tiny human figure.

One significant blight on my reading experience was not in the narrative itself, but in how the used trade paperback I had was bound. I only realized upon reaching page 289 that the next page was 320, so it was missing thirty pages! Luckily Hardy’s work is available from the Gutenberg Library and I was able to read the missing pages on my iPad. But as soon as I got to the first sentence on p. 321, I switched back to paper.

And get this. When I reached p. 352, the next page was 321 and it kept going until it got to p. 352 and from there I was able to read the novel to the end. But how fucked up was that? I had missing AND repeating pages in a single book. Never experienced such a thing before. Sadly I could not find the cover for this sorry excuse of a paperback online, but it kind of looked like the one pictured here.  So I’m thinking it’s probably best that I throw this book into the recycling bin.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Book 31 – The Wasp Factory

By Iain Banks

I remember this vaguely being in my radar back in the 90’s when The Wasp Factory was touted as a top 100 book of the century. But I wasn’t much of a reader back then, as I was busy either studying, making 16mm films or going to raves. When I spotted a cheap copy at my neighborhood thrift shop, I thought it would make a nice addition to my reading list. Of course, not being familiar with Iain Banks at all, I had always thought that The Wasp Factory was science fiction, confusing the fact that Iain Banks only uses Iain M. Banks for his sci fi work. Guess I only have myself to blame for tricking myself into reading a work of literary fiction!

So I had to get used to the fact that the story was not about a strange boy in a futuristic dystopian world, but a strange boy living in a hippy homestead somewhere in rural Scotland sometime in the now. Then I had to get used to the fact that this odd, obese teenager (his name is Frank) had his wee-wee bitten off by a cantankerous dog when he was little and this traumatic event caused him to be a bit of a child serial killer, a phase which he outgrew when he reached his teens. Not only is Frank compulsively obsessed with death, he collects his bodily fluids and uses the dead animals he has killed for fantastic rituals which helps him deal with the fact that his wee-wee is gone and he will never grow to be a man.  Frank lives with his eccentric and distant father, a former hippy now silently tormented by his own demons.  Can’t blame the guy since all his sons have met unfortunate fates: one was killed when very young (secretly by Frank); the eldest went insane and has escaped from the asylum (again); and the remaining somewhat sane one (this be Frank) is an overweight eunuch living off the grid since the dad never bothered registering him at birth.

As you can gather from my overview, TWF is not for everyone.  If I knew I was delving into an entire novel narrated by a chubby child-killin’ castratee, I would certainly have thought twice. One thing I appreciated about this trade paperback copy was that it featured blurbs both good and bad as Bank’s debut made quite a controversial splash in 1984. There were reviews that praised the novel for its “curdling power and originality” as a modern Gothic horror story and critics who condemned it for its “ghoulish frivolity” and “preposterous sadism”.  Here are a couple of my favourites:

"A silly, gloatingly sadistic and grisly yarn of a family of Scots lunatics... the lurid literary equivalent of a video nasty" (Sunday Express)

"A repulsive piece of work and will therefore be widely admired. Piles upon piles of horror in a way that is certain to satisfy those readers who subscribe to the currently fashionable notion that Man is vile" (Evening Standard)

For myself, I didn't love or hate The Wasp Factory, nor was I particularly offended by it, but I also didn’t really enjoy it either. At best, TWF was different from many of the books I’ve read, as it was on the bizarre and macabre side. But these factors made it an interesting reading experience and I don’t regret having read it. One good thing about not knowing anything about The Wasp Factory was that I was completely unaware that there was a twist at the end. If I have ever come across the most unreliable of narrators, Frank Cauldhame takes the cake, and it’s not just because he’s a little bit insane. Banks crafted a story with layers of symbolism and meaning, but has taken care in not being too heavy-handed. When you think about it, the author has created a compelling and clever story that services the rather ambitious theme of gender as construct. The quality of writing is remarkable enough to draw you in, despite the abundance of repellent subject matter (rabbits getting blown to bits, a child plotting the murder of another child, a dog being set on fire, misogynistic rants, etc… yeah, you get the drift). You also feel some empathy for Frank, despite the fact that he is a castrated, fat little freak who has committed some abhorrent acts. This is no small achievement.

Nevertheless, it isn't quite Lord of the Flies either. After I was finished, I really wanted my next book to be something bright and sparkling, to wash away the unpleasantness that was TWF.

Monday, September 26, 2011

My idiosyncratic way of posting

I like to keep a chronological log of the books I read, so my posts are based on the date when I actually finish the book.  Obviously, it takes at least a few days before I follow up with a review. Olman complains he never knows when I have a new post since it never rises to the top of his feed, but for my own obsessive-compulsive reasons, I prefer to track how many books I've read each month.

Of course, when I ranted about that stupid Globe & Mail article last week, it got posted in real-time but since I was two book reviews behind, they appear as older entries.

But in case there are any followers who are vaguely curious, here are reviews for Little Brother and The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Book 30 – A Dog’s Ransom

Patricia Highsmith

Synopsis from the Wikipedia:

One day, publishing house executive Ed Reynolds finds a disturbing ransom note in the Manhattan apartment he shares with his wife: "Dear sir: I have your dog, Lisa. She is well and happy... I gather she is important to you? We'll see."

How can anyone resist this clever premise that begins with the meaninglessly cruel act of dognapping?

The novel starts off in a straightforward manner then gradually escalates to nightmarish proportions though Highsmith maintains a level of realism throughout, never stooping to gut-wrenching melodrama (like Strangers On a Train did at times). Since I’m feeling a little lazy, I’ll let this Bros Judd review summarize A Dog’s Ransom in a nutshell:

Familiar to most readers via her Ripley books and Strangers on a Train, Patricia Highsmith specialized in creepy portraits of sociopaths as their paths crossed and destroyed the lives of ordinary folk. This less well known little gem starts out innocently enough with a wealthy Manhattan couple and their missing dog, but gets ugly fast as the dognapper proves to be obsessed with teaching them a lesson and the young cop investigating the case turns out to be equally obsessed with protecting the couple and imposing justice.

With the kooks on both sides of the law this time there's an even more claustrophobic effect, as she shows just how frightening the people around us may be and how dangerous everyday life is, but it's all offset by a dark sense of humor. It's not as good as her best, but it's worth seeking out.

If you don’t mind spoilers, then read on.

It’s a great summary, but I disagree that A Dog’s Ransom is not as good as her best work. I certainly thought this was better than Strangers On a Train, mainly because it’s in her subsequent novels where the motivations of her characters maintain believability, even after they’ve become unhinged and commit heinous crimes. Clarence is a young cop who volunteers to help Ed  and Greta Reynolds find their dog, simply because no one else in the department gives a rat’s ass. He is obviously idealistic and naive, but nevertheless a rarity in the force where corruption runs rampant, even in the lowliest ranks.

But poor, misguided Clarence gets too emotionally involved with the Reynolds, makes a fatal mistake in his investigation and ends up paying for it dearly. You soon realize how weak a person Clarence is (another fictional example warning parents to never spoil your only son), and that he is not that much different from Kenneth the dognapper.  Both characters are pathetic yet still sympathetic.  Highsmith also provides a dark backdrop of a morally indifferent and fragmented New York City that swallows up innocents whole, but again, she never over-dramatizes anything.

As I said about A Suspension of Mercy:

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.

A Dog’s Ransom is no exception.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Book 29 – Rosemary’s Baby

By Ira Levin

Found this 1st edition 1967 hardback at a recent garage sale but was unfortunately missing the slipcover. I’d imagine it'd look like the very cool image shown here. Ira Levin had a real knack for tapping into the weird sexual politics of his time, creating bestselling novels out of tried and true themes.  

Rosemary’s Baby uses practically the same template as The Stepford Wives (or more like, The Stepford Wives uses the same template established by Rosemary’s Baby, since it came out after in 1972). Instead of a town conspiracy bent on dehumanizing its women, we have a conspiracy of Satanists out to get one woman within an apartment building in Manhattan. All the familiar Levin hallmarks are there:  the creepy underlying misogyny, the disintegrating marriage, the wife struggling to please her self-absorbed husband, the wife suspecting that her husband may not have her best interests at heart….

I don’t think I’m giving too much away here since everyone and their dog has seen the Roman Polanski film which, if I recall, is pretty faithful to the book.  The book was an entertaining read, but it didn’t blow my mind or anything. The satanic ritual where the drugged out Rosemary gets it on with the Devil was memorably dark and creepy, yet also hilarious at the same time (she thought it was her husband but at the same time wondered why he felt huger than normal).

Even though I knew how the story was going to play out, I still wanted to find out how events would unfold.  The narrative was nicely paced where everything seemed very normal at first, but as clues gradually got revealed, you felt that mounting sense of claustrophobic anxiety which the film also portrayed so well. Also in the book, more stuff happened after Rosemary gave birth unlike the abrupt ending in the movie version. Really made me want to watch the film again, since it’s been many, many years.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Literary fiction versus genre fiction

The Globe and Mail books section recently featured an article about how reading fiction is good for you.

I appreciate Keith Oatley's study that reading fiction is indeed good for the mind and soul by fostering empathy for others and expanding worldviews.  However, it's towards the end of the article that Oakley makes the specific case that only literary fiction (not any other fiction) can have the capacity to change you:

For his part, Oatley is convinced that the better the writer, the more powerful the simulation, and he makes a distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction.

“You can have a good read, but it is sort of like going on a roller coaster. The engineers have constructed it so you have a particular set of experiences. You get off, your heart is beating a bit, but you are still the same person,” he says of reading a thriller or detective story. On the other hand, “Chekhov was a great artist: The effect is different – the extent to which [the reader] can really inhabit another mind.”

The roller coaster may be fun, but the flight simulator … now that's art.

Does this mean then, that reading genre fiction would not have any of the same benefits – at all?  Does reading lowly genre fiction serve to merely excite the mind, rather than enlighten it?  Oatley says that in order to truly inhabit the mind of someone else, the story should contain three of six elements (the article doesn't list them; I guess you have to buy a book or something).  But what if a story contains the required elements but the characters you are inhabiting the mind of happen to fly spaceships, slay dragons, or investigate murders?

I’m sure if I were to only read Dan Brown or Danielle Steele, I would probably suffer some mental deficiency over time and perhaps become even more self-absorbed than usual.  But I can’t get over Oatley's (and the Globe & Mail's) condescending attitude towards genre fiction -- that is, fiction that is not in the lofty form of literature.  This kind of smug attitude seems all too common among those who read literary fiction primarily to be enlightened, and if they were to read any other fiction, it would be for simple edification, escapism or entertainment.  

For one thing, Oatley sings the praises of how Pride and Prejudice is "a wonderful example of the simulator effect", conveniently overlooking the fact that this classic novel is also a romance at heart. An extremely well-written romance, to be sure, but P&P nevertheless uses the same tropes found in any Harlequin paperback. Even Austen herself admitted that P&P was like a sparkling flight of fancy which stood apart from her other works.  Oatley is right in that the power of simulation depends on the talent and skills of the writer, yet he argues that thrillers and detective novels don’t count. So I guess Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Patricia Highsmith just don’t cut it when it comes to rewarding simulation then.

I just recently read my first Alice Munro book, a classic coming of age novel that was banned from schools because of its sexual content. Alice Munro is considered a sacred cow of CanLit, a master of storytelling.  Legions of fans revere her for the powerful realness and understatedness of her writing. But personally I found her book to be a snooze-fest.  It failed to have any of that simulator effect on me, and other than a few exceptional passages, the novel failed as a whole to stimulate my mind in any real way, suffering from too much description, a lack of plot and a meandering structure (which happen to be -surprise- the clichés of literary fiction).

At first I felt a little guilty. I consider myself a fairly well-read person who has read all kinds of books (modern and classic literature, romance, fantasy, sci-fi, thrillers, horror, non-fiction, etc), surely I’m missing something important by being bored with a Munro book (and a classic one at that)? But no, I realize that there are plenty of other well-read people who feel the same way.

For me, it’s not about being on a rollercoaster, it's about being engaged – the equivalent is the suture effect when watching a movie. How can I really inhabit another person’s mind (or appreciate the true artistry of literary fiction) if I’m bored to tears? Or worse, if I feel obligated to read literary fiction because it's considered important.  Literary fiction shouldn't be a chore, or like a root vegetable  (it's not about enjoying it, it's about what's good for you).  I get that literature can allow us to understand the human condition better, but I also like to be engaged with what I'm reading at the same time.

In many ways, Alice Munro writes more beautifully than Austen, yet her stories are much harder for me to engage with. What makes Jane Austen distinctive (and so popular) is her brilliant social insight wrapped up in the form of a tightly structured (and appealing) narrative. There are plenty of gifted writers who follow this tradition of mixing "high" (quality writing) with “low” (genre conventions) – Sarah Waters, Gil Adamson, Susanna Clarke, Laura Lippman (no reason why I only came up with female authors), but also Juno Diaz, Jonathan Lethem, Patrick O’Brian also come to mind -- who have made far more impact on my mind than any Munro or Atwood or literary icon of "serious" fiction.

The thing is, I don't believe there is a qualitative difference between literary and genre fiction, as it's apparent that literature borrows much from genre fiction, and all the better for it.  By the same token, genre fiction can provide a deeper understanding of human foibles.  Again, it's a matter of context.  Sherlock Holmes was probably considered pulp fiction in its day, but those books are now regarded as literary classics.  These books are most definitely detective novels, but they also contain sharp character studies of the protagonists - do they not qualify as wonderful simulators in Oakley's mind because the stories also happen to be driven by plot?  Certainly, reading about the friendship between Holmes and Watson must help readers understand, as Oatley says, "what goes on between people” in real life.

And I'll bet a lot of the simulator effect depends on how the reader responds to the work of fiction.  I'm sure if Oatley were to take MRI scans from me and an avid Munro fan on how we respond to Lives of Girls and Women, the mental synapses of the Munro fan would be firing while mine would be dormant.  But I'm sure my synapses would awaken if I were to read a Stieg Larsson book.  He is not a great writer, but he does a wonderful job of painting a picture of a bleak Stockholm and making the unrealistic yet very identifiable Lisbeth Salander come alive in my mind.  Does that make me, as a reader, less capable of empathy?  One person's response is not superior or inferior to the other; we're just different people with different perceptions and experiences.

I think that Oatley must have equated genre fiction with sensational writing (which elicits cheap emotions), and literary fiction with great writing (that provokes thought and intelligent emotions), overlooking the fact that great writing is not strictly limited to the lofty realm of literary fiction.  That is the only explanation I can think of to understand where his snobby attitude and silly arguments came from.

Perhaps I should pick up Such Stuff as Dreams, as I'd really like to see the type of reader cross-section that was used for these MRI scans.  Because at the moment, it strikes me as ironic how Oatley makes the case for fiction fostering greater empathy, yet he himself holds such close-minded regard for genre fiction.

Anyway, that’s my rant for the year!

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Book 28 – The Hound of the Baskervilles

By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I’ve always wanted to read a Sherlock Holmes book, and when I found this nice old Penguin copy at the thrift shop, I wasted no time.  Though I knew I've never read anything by Sir AC Doyle, the way the narrative unfolded in The Hound of the Baskervilles seemed so comforting and familiar, it felt like I already had. Not surprising since THoB is fairly well entrenched in popular culture. I think I must have watched at least one adaptation on TV when I was growing up. And since THotB is so well-known, I’m not sure what I can offer that has not already been said.

Reading The Hound of the Baskervilles was such a treat it left me wondering why I hadn’t read any of these books sooner.  I can totally see why Olman's such a big fan. Not only was the depiction of the friendship between Watson and Holmes a pleasure to read, but I also loved the way Doyle described the surrounding area of Baskerville Hall, especially the Dartmoor bogs. Characters were either creeping about the mansion, going for walksies along the moors, or chasing each other in the dark of night.  As a reader, you always had a good sense of geography and place. And the manner in which all these strange events unfolded elicited all these creepy Gothic sensibilities, despite the fact that everything got rationally explained by good ol’ Holmes in the end.

Now I have to get my butt in gear and read the other books. This is, after all, the third out of four Sherlock Holmes books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Book 27 – Little Brother

By Cory Doctorow

You can’t declare war on the government of the USA. It’s not a fight you’re going to win. Watching you try is like watching a bird fly into a window again and again.

Little Brother was one of the first books I downloaded after getting an ipad last xmas, but ironically, I only started reading it after I picked up a hardback copy at the local thrift shop. For whatever reason, I just haven’t yet made the leap to ebooks. But I’m glad I finally read Little Brother, which came out in 2008. Though the post 9/11 pre-Obama alternative reality situation was already starting to feel a bit dated, by the time I was halfway through the book, the media onslaught of the 10th anniversary of 9/11 was running at full steam. So really, the timing was spot on!

The story takes place in San Francisco, not long after the twin towers had collapsed in NYC. Marcus and his three friends (Darryl, Jose Luis aka Jolu and Vanessa aka Van) skip class to go downtown and play an alternate reality game (or ARG) called Harajuku Fun Madness. On that fateful day, terrorists blow up the Bay Bridge, killing thousands of innocent civilians. Caught in the mayhem of panicking crowds, the four friends get taken into custody by Homeland Security. During an interrogation, Marcus makes the fatal mistake of expressing his individual rights, and ends up going through a mini version of Guantanamo Bay Hell. Suffice to say, HS chose the wrong dude to pick on, as Marcus happens to be an uber-smart computer geek who decides to take on the US Government after getting released.

At least two other 50-bookers have read Little Brother: Assignment X via his now defunct Doc’s 50 blog and Mt. Benson who wrote:

Doctorow writes here in a very broad manner and clearly sets up the straw dog of the terrorist attack to drive home his points about freedom of speech and government repression. Nevertheless he manages to make the story fun and interesting without getting too preachy.

I pretty much agree. In broad strokes, Doctorow does a good job in portraying how a democratic country like the USA can gradually become a police state and how the War on Terrorism can infringe upon the rights and freedoms of its citizens and create frighteningly inaccurate systems of security checks. But there have been a couple of times, like any speech by former President Bush, where Doctorow drives home his themes rather unsubtly.

   It’s not about doing something shameful. It’s about doing something private. It’s about your life belonging to you.
   They were taking that from me, piece by piece.

But Doctorow does frame those themes within a convincing and engaging narrative chock full of geek culture references, like LARPing, and stealth survival tips, like how to create a homemade hidden video camera-detector with an empty roll of toilet paper and LEDs.  There were many things in the novel that I liked, such as the thoughtful portrayal of Marcus’ relationships with his friends, girlfriend and parents.  With the exception of the two-dimensional portrayal of the Homeland Security agents as convenient villains, I felt all the characters were very realistically well drawn.

Little Brother also made me realize how San Francisco-based novelists love to write about their city. This tradition has been going on long before the Beat Gen poets came on the scene, and is still going strong with contemporary SF writers I admire, such as Lisa Lutz.  Doctorow is no exception.  Whether he’s talking about how SF has always been a hotbed for political activism and civil rights or how Mission burritos are an institution, he loves to dole out constant homages to his beloved city. At one point, he even name-drops fellow San Franscisco writer, Pat Murphy, which I thought was pretty cool.

This is a great read for all ages, but as a YA novel, it hits all the right notes with a cool setup, a well-paced story, three-dimensional characters, pop culture references and a call for political activism - particularly among the younger generation - in times of need.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Book 26 – Lives of Girls and Women

Alice Munro

The past few years have seen the emergence of interesting contemporary Canadian fiction and I’ve definitely enjoyed the fruits of writers like Miriam Towes, Ian Hamilton, Alan Bradley and Gil Adamson. Though I’ve never liked Margaret Atwood much, the only CanLit icon I’ve ever bothered to explore was Timothy Findley. Alice Munro is a definite gap in my CanLit reading. When I found a cheap copy of Lives of Girls and Women at a used bookstore in Nova Scotia (dontcha just love the cheezy 70’s cover?), I admit I was kind of expecting a coming-of-age version of The Diviners, or maybe a CanLit version of Judy Blume, since this controversial coming-of-age classic was banned from a number of schools in the 1970s due to its frank portrayal of sexuality.

What I got was a slow-paced anecdotal novel in the form of a “short story cycle”, or a series of episodes, chronicling the life of a young girl growing up in Ontario. All the CanLit tropes are there: a coming-of-age story featuring the minutiae of daily life in a rural setting interspersed with thoughtful introspection… Unfortunately the sex stuff doesn’t occur until at least three-quarters into the book. The very 70’s paperback edition makes much of the sex as the blurb states this is an “intensely readable story of Del Jordan grappling with life’s problems as she moves from the carelessness of childhood through uneasy adolescence in search of love and sexual experience.”

So I waded through mucho exposition about Del and the Jordan family living in rural Ontario, like how Uncle Benny tells Del and her brother about his experience driving around Toronto looking for the young wife who ran away from him:

He remembered everything. A map of the journey was burnt into his mind. And as he talked a different landscape—cars, billboards, industrial buildings, roads and locked gates and high wire fences, railway tracks, steep cindery embankments, tin sheds, ditches with a little brown water in them, also tin cans, mashed cardboard cartons, all kinds of clogged or barely floating waste—all this seemed to grow up around us created by his monotonous, meticulously remembering voice, and we could see it, we could see how it was to be lost there, how it was just not possible to find anything, or go on looking.

To be perfectly honest, that “monotonous, meticulously remembering voice” also aptly describes Munro’s writing. There are certainly moments of brilliance--she is, after all, Alice Munro--but you also get lost in the landscape of that droning voice. It’s not unlike the experience of politely listening to your eloquent yet doddering aunt who goes on a little too long with her stories, occasionally dropping a juicy tidbit of family gossip.

Don’t get me wrong -- I'm didn't pick up LoGaW just for the sex stuff (mostly).   But I wasn’t expecting this book to be, so… well…. (Munro fans can take heart that I feel slightly like a Philistine when I say this)… but I found this book to be really rather boring!

Apparently I’m not the only literate person who feels this. But when you have the Quill and Quire pounce on a Calgary Herald reviewer who slammed Munro’s Selected Stories, you have to be a little careful in what you say.  Still, I can’t help but agree with the reviewer’s opinion:

It may be one of the seven deadly sins of CanLit to utter a critical word about Munro, but the sin of a scanty plot is an even bigger one. This collection can’t rightfully be called stories. They’re unsatisfying sketches of characters who wander through depressive environments, observing the idiosyncrasies of those around them. Yet, those idiosyncrasies are there simply for the sake of being there; they do not lead to climaxes or denouements.

And just note how the Q&Q smugly puts down the reviewer as not being well-read!

Now, although we’re certainly Munro fans here at Quillblog, we’re also in favour of critical reviewing and disinclined to kneel before sacred cows… However, it does seem painfully apparent that Lakritz simply hasn’t read much literary fiction before. Which is the real issue here: surely some sensitivity and expertise should be a prerequisite for a book reviewer?

How the hell do they know what or how much Lakritz has read?  The real question is if there are any literate, well-read people who actually (or even secretly) find Munro boring? A quick google search for “Is Alice Munro boring?” yielded some interesting results.

Take this earthgoat blog for example:

Why are her stories so much longer than most people's? Are her plots more involved, does she bite off larger chunks of time and jump around in them more, does she include more character details or scene description than most writers, are her stories really micronovels? Maybe. Certainly it's working for her. She must be one of the top five most respected living short story writers. I won't spend time here praising her style, use of language, etc. -- her mastery of the form is well known.

Or cracking spines, who provides a fitting analogy:

I imagine that if Alice Munro were a painter, she would paint landscapes. Her finished canvases would look clear and precise as photographs - that is, they would look real... Like her stories, her paintings would be perfect in terms of craft, and as truthful as possible, and probably just a little boring… Still, I can never seem to pull myself away from a Munro story once I’ve started…

My minutes of research resulted in the fact that there does exist intelligent, well-read people who readily admit that Munro can indeed be boring, but nevertheless still enjoy her writing. So where does that leave me? I appreciate that Munro is a gifted writer, and amidst some of the dreary and/or droning descriptive passages, there are as many brilliantly written ones that really hit the nail on the head, like this passage that says so much about female self-esteem and a friendship grown apart:

Well-groomed girls frightened me to death. I didn’t like to even go near them, for fear I would be smelly. I felt there was a radical difference, between them and me, as if we were made of different substances. Their cool hands did not mottle or sweat, their hair kept its calculated shape, their underarms were never wet—they did not know what it was to have to keep their elbows pinned to their sides to hide the dark, disgraceful half-moon stains on their dresses—and never, never would they feel that little extra gush of blood, little bonus that no Kotex is going to hold, that will trickle horrifyingly down the inside of the thighs...  But what about Naomi? She had been like me; once she had an epidemic of warts on her fingers; she had suffered from athlete’s foot; we had hidden in the girls’ toilet together when we had the curse at the same time and were afraid to do tumbling… What was this masquerade she was going in for now, with her nail polish, her pastel sweater?

And some of the sex stuff is brilliantly written too, such as Del’s horrifying yet fascinating encounter with Mr Chamberlain in the woods. 

His breathing became loud and shaky, now he worked furiously with his hand, moaned, almost doubled over in spasmodic agony. The face he thrust out at me, from his crouch, was blind and wobbling like a mask on a stick, and those sounds coming out of his mouth, involuntary, last-ditch human noises, were at the same time theatrical, unlikely. In fact the whole performance, surrounded by calm flowering branches, seemed imposed, fantastically and predictably exaggerated, like an Indian dance. I had read about the body being in extremities of pleasure, possessed, but these expressions did not seem equal to the terrible benighted effort, deliberate frenzy, of what was going on here. If he did not soon get to where he wanted to be, I thought he would die.

I don't think I have ever read such vivid words about the simple act of jacking off in my life!

But then there are also moments that come across as ploddingly somber, like the time Del’s mother tells her daughter: “There is a change coming I think in the lives of girls and women. Yes. But it is up to us to make it come. All women have had up till now has been their connections with men. All we have had. No more lives of our own, really, than domestic animals.

I also like to read people's opinions on Goodreads and one reviewer notes:

A lot of people find Alice Munro boring, even dated, but I like the fact that her stories are real - about real people and places, and never over the top.

And here is an interesting blog post that looks at why Munro is revered in Canada, but not as well-known outside:

None of that is earth-shaking stuff — Munro does not do earth-shaking. Everything in it, however, is something that every one of us experiences as we go through life. And great writer that she is, Munro has a way of exploring that in such meticulous detail that a reader — even an aging male like myself — can’t help but be touched.

Perhaps literate Canadian readers prefer their fiction to have a realness and seriousness to it.  But they should also respect the fact that there may be other well-read people who may prefer to have their fiction with a little more punch or action.  Why anyway is "serious literary fiction" considered so much more "worthy" than any other fiction?  It's the same mindset where readers found The Outlander too unbelievable for it be "real".  Much as Munro is respected and/or revered, it really boils down to a matter of taste, does it not?  If you’re a literary snob who’s afraid to admit that Munro is boring, then you might as well stick to your RealLit then.  You're probably the type of reader who now and then deigns to read speculative fiction (by Margaret Atwood), but never sci-fi.  But as someone who enjoys brilliant writing with equally brilliant pacing and structure (occasionally punctuated by the odd earth-shattering moment), Alice Munro is probably not for me.  And I'm not afraid to say that I find her a little too boring ;-)

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Book 25 – The Tourist

Olen Steinhauer

In mid-July, I found myself sans un livre a couple of days before my vacation and wanted something non-committal that I could easily resume upon my return home. The Tourist seemed like a good choice. Coincidentally, both Mount Benson and Kate had also read this book around the same time.

I had never heard of The Tourist before spotting a review copy on the freebie shelf at my work. At first I thought it was related to that silly Johnny Depp/Angelina Jolie vehicle that came out recently.  Though it also features undercover agents in Europe, Steinhauer’s novel is a totally different animal. In Steinhauer’s novel, a Tourist is code for a CIA black-op agent with highly specialized skills. Somewhere in the CIA building on the Avenue of the Americas are secret floors stocked with Travel Agents who gather information from Tourists scattered “in all the populated continents”.

Like Kate and Mt Benson, I wasn’t expecting to be blown away or anything, but I did enjoy The Tourist. It had an interesting enough storyline, a decent amount of action and believable human drama, though the premise itself is far from original. If you’ve seen enough spy movies such as the likes of Mission Impossible or the Bourne series, you’ll recognize the tropes:

All Tourists know the importance of awareness. When you enter a room or a park, you chart the escapes immediately. You take in the potential weapons around you—a chair, ballpoint pen, letter opener, or even the loose, low-hanging branch on the tree behind Milo’s bench. At the same time, you consider the faces. Are they aware of you? Or are they feigning a forced ignorance that is the hallmark of other Tourists?

And you won’t be all that surprised who the “bad guy” turns out to be, like I wasn’t. But unlike a typical Hollywood action movie, there was a level of realism that I quite appreciated in Steinhauer's book.

There is definitely a bit of self-deprecating humour in the name given to Milo Weaver, the protagonist who is the Tourist in question. He could have been Mark Whacker or something like that – a tough, ass-kicking kind of guy whom you can escape - but not really identity - with. Whether he’s burned out by amphetamines, listening to France Gall on his ipod at the airport or longing to be with his family (again), there is a world-weary frailty to Milo Weaver that helps make The Tourist likable and fairly memorable.

The NYT review writes: Milo would be the kind of principled hero we long to believe still exists in fiction, if not in life. The only drawback to this warm close-up of the protagonist is that it skews the novel, rendering it more of a character study than a full-bodied espionage novel.

It’s not surprising (as Mt Benson already mentioned) that George Clooney has already optioned the book. The character of Milo Weaver would make a great role for someone like Clooney, though it would bear remarkable similarities to the tired assassin he played in the somewhat boring, The American. And The Tourist has the potential to be a much better movie than The American (as well as that Johnny Depp/Angelina vehicle of the same name, for that matter!).

The Washington Post writes: Much of the time, neither we nor Weaver has much idea what's going on, but we keep reading because he is likable -- a mess but still the most honorable man in view -- and because Steinhauer seems to know the world of spies and assassins all too well. In his telling, it's a nasty, duplicitous world, but it feels real. The question is whether our reluctant Tourist can get out alive and return to the wife and daughter who are counting on him to take them to Disney World. We are clearly being asked to consider which is more surreal: the spy world or Disney World.

One thing that rang false for me was how Milo met his wife, Tina. Olenhauer devotes barely any time to their first meeting, and assumes the reader will fill in the blanks regarding the reasons behind Milo’s near blind devotion to his wife and stepdaughter (whom he considers to be his own flesh and blood). It was on that day Milo had decided that his Tourist days were over, but there was no emotional explanation for how that fateful encounter with Tina changed the course of his life. It seemed rather lazy that the author avoided any exploration of this. Instead we have Tina explain to Homeland Security agent Janet Simmons how she and Milo bonded after seeing the World Trade Center collapse on TV when they were recovering at the hospital.  It was 9/11 that brought them together!

“When I figured out what had happened, I started crying, and that woke Milo. I showed him what my tears were about, and when he got it, he started crying, too. Both of us, in that hospital room, wept together. From then on, we were inseparable.”

Yikes.

That little snippet alone would be enough to make Olman stay away from this book!

But really, that was the only, if rather ringing, false note for me.

“It was a basic truth of Tourism,” Milo reminds himself, “that you trusted no one. Yet, if you had to trust anyone, it had better not be another Tourist.” 

I agree with the NYT reviewer who notes:   This is the kind of tough thinking (and strong writing) that surfaces whenever Steinhauer gets to what really interests him — the crippling disillusion and nerve-snapping paranoia that breed in closed cultures where trust is absent and internal intrigue rampant.

So yeah, I would definitely read the sequel, The Nearest Exit, if it ever appears on the freebie shelf at work!