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 clich├ęs 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.