Saturday, October 30, 2004

Michael Dobbs, Whispers of Betrayal, 2000.

I've been trying to find the time to blog about this one for two weeks now, but have been a bit distracted.
At any rate, this one is much like the other Dobbs' novels I've read recently, but better plotted & paced than the others. Unlike the careful political intrigue of the first novel, or the silliness of the second, this one is a thriller that is carefully thought out and well executed, with moments of great humour and high pathos.

It was a fun one.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Jon Stewart and the Writers of the Daily Show, America (the Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction.

Hysterically funny. If you like the Daily Show, you will be a fan of this book that does everything from make penis jokes at the expense of Maya Angelou to the highbrow James Joyce teasing, while always keeping its eye on mocking the electoral process. It does that beautifully and viciously, in its textbook format. From the President (King of the Democracy) through to Congress (the Quagmire) to an examination of how other countries manage their leaders, it'll keep you in stitches.

Much of this book will date rapidly, but it's going to maintain a ring of truth--and it's a great companion to the 2004 Presidential Election amusement. So come on out, and laugh at the silliness of our neighbours to the south who can't properly spell the word neighbour.

Michael Dobbs, The Buddha of Bower Street, 1998.

Goodfellowe, part 2, not as desperate, and oddly connected with Tibet. This story is darker than Goodfellowe's first outing--the torturous villanies that Dobbs ascribes to the Chinese characters are particular difficult to read. The book tells of the search for the next Dalai Lama in England, and the desperate efforts made by Goodfellowe and the Tibetans to succeed before the Chinese forces can kidnap the child. Some more fun pulp.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Naomi Wolf, Promiscuities, 1997.

I hadn't read anything by Wolf, and this one had been recommended to me. Essentially, Wolf argues that women in our culture have an unfortunate time with their sexuality: they're not taught it well; they're exposed to an enormous number of inappropriate/wrong-headed examples, stereotypes, and media portrayals; they're asked to live within false dichotomies; as adults, they all too often remain uncomfortable with their sexualities because of these experiences.

Wolf goes through a number of reasons and offers a number of examples of why these things are true, performing what amounts to a series of close-readings of culture, history, texts, and experiences (her own and a selected peer-group). These close-readings are well and carefully done, and her arguments are persuasive. My hesitancy with treating this book in more of a sociological perspective, as opposed to a cultural studies perspective is caused by the very limited sample space that Wolf employs for the experiential histories that she incorporates into her work. Her conclusions, though, make a great deal of sense. While I'm not convinced that the suggestions that she offers for taking away the stigmatization that affects women in regards to their sexualities will in any way afford a comprehensive solution to the problems Wolf enumerates, her suggestions certainly offer a sensible beginning and important considerations (particularly for those people raising and teaching young women).
Miriam Toews, Summer of My Amazing Luck, 1996.

Fun, and funny, but I never really got into it. I'm still not quite sure why.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Miriam Toews, A Boy of Good Breeding, 1998.

When I read a book I like, by an author I've not read before, I tend to go a little bit overboard in terms of then reading a good chunk of stuff that he or she has written. Toews is currently getting my attention--I have two more to read after this one, and am looking forward to both.

That said, A Boy of Good Breeding is not in the same vein as A Complicated Kindness. This is deliberately funny, almost silly: this is small-town in the Mariposa sense, and not in the Horizon-sense. It's a book that seems nebulous, not as focused, as her most recent novel. It's the story of Hosea Funk, mayor of Algren, wanting to meet his father the Prime Minister by ensuring that Algren has exactly 1500 residents and is hence the smallest town in Canada; it's the story of Knute and her daughter Summer Feelin' trying to figure out how to live. Hosea's clueless-ness in life, governance, and love (his poor girlfriend, Lorna!) and Knute's haplessness & luckiness in life, work, and love are endearing. It's a cast of characters and an odd plot that makes you enjoy every moment you spend in Algren--and lament the fact that you'll read the book quickly enough that you wish you could have spent more time there. Like Mariposa, without being sent away back to the big city.
Richard B. Wright, Adultery.

I gave someone a copy of Clara Callan for Christmas a space back, but I must confess that it's not one I've read. Nor, in fact, had I read any of Wright's other books until I picked this one up.

Adultery is the story of Daniel Fielding, a middle-aged editor at a publishing firm. In fact, the adultery has already been committed, and is not to be repeated, when the novel opens: after beginning an affair with another editor from his firm at a book fair, the two travelled to Dover together. While stopped at a car-park, they have sex, and she goes to relieve herself while he sleeps--and she is killed.

The novel deals with the aftermath: Fielding explaining Denise's disappearance, identifying the body, telling Denise's mother, avoiding the press, clumsily apologising to his wife and to his daughter, attending the funeral. The story is how Fielding tries to make sense of these events, of what caused the affair and of his regret. It's well told, spare and elegant, but it never gripped me. I could have put it down without too much guilt or regret. I doubt I'll read it again, and unlike some pundits, I'm unsurprised that it didn't earn a Giller nomination.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Michael Dobbs, Goodfellowe MP.

Some nice fun pulp by the guy who wrote the novel on which was based a miniseries I loved some time back, House of Cards.

This story follows an MP, once a junior minister, whose fortunes have fallen: a drunk driving arrest, a wife in an asylum, a rebellious daughter, a difficult constituency committee, an overdrawn bank account... and a desire to improve his station. Sadly, his morals get the best of him, and he's drawn into trying to make the world better--by reforming the press. Not a good call, really, and so they go after him; all hell breaks loose, and a spot of fun happens. If you like politics, this book's a fun divertissement.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Miriam Toews, A Complicated Kindness.

Nomi Nickel lives with her Dad, Ray, in a Mennonite town somewhere in southern Manitoba. Nomi’s sister Tash left a space back, and after that, so did Nomi’s Mom, Trudie. A Complicated Kindness is the heartbreaking story of Nomi's "coming-of-age" without any of the trite sentimentality that normally accompanies such stories: she struggles to try to understand why her mother and her sister left, to figure out why her father keeps selling their furniture, to love her boyfriend, and she dreams of escaping—preferably to New York City.

The heartbreaking part is Nomi trying to make sense of the stifling nature of her small town, run by her uncle Hans—the leader of the church and hence of the local world as well. As she tells of the latest person to be excommunicated, and as she learns more about why her sister and mother left, the limiting fundamentalist strictures are harder and harder for Nomi to deal with.

Throughout it all—from the happiness that her boyfriend Travis occasionally offers, to the pathos of her Little Nell-like friend Lids, to the way she spins with her younger next door neighbour—Nomi is rendered by Toews’s deft hand as one of the most interesting and real teenagers I’ve ever encountered in a fictional world. Nomi’s first-person narration struck me as both wise beyond her years and yet eminently plausible as an interpretation of events by a sixteen-year-old. Toews’s commentary on the nature of a life circumscribed by fundamentalism is damning without ever being painful or overt: her light touch is just right. I got lost in this book: I might not want to live in East Village, but I enjoyed seeing it through Nomi’s eyes, even as I was saddened by it. I hope she meets Lou Reed one of these days.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago, 1958.

On the front of my copy of Doctor Zhivago, the catch-line is “One of the greatest love stories ever told.” This may well, in point of fact, be true. I don’t really care, though, and can’t say that I ever was all that interested in the passions that swept through the hearts of Yuri and Lara. Consider me a cold fish.

In the margins of page 412, I wrote that what “startles me so is that Lara seems plausible as a love interest only when Pasternak is describing Yuri writing about her. Here, as the two men who have loved her discuss her ‘special’-ness, while the writing is impressive, Lara’s worth doesn’t resonate.” What I like about Zhivago is what I like about Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, what I like about künstlerromans in general: an artistic need to consider the nature of the creative process, where art comes from, what it is to be an artist. I’m startled by the idea of the movie adaptation, and can’t imagine it being anything other than a love story, plain and simple, on the screen—and that seems to me to be an enormous loss from a book that is, to a large extent, a work of aesthetic philosophy.

The plot of the book, though, meanders so that I picked this book up and put it down far too often over the seemingly interminably many months in which I claimed to be reading it. Despite enjoying it, the book grated on me at times. Its pacing, its plotting, its tediousness were often frustrating. I remember reading someone describing reading Zhivago and starting to get cold from all the winter scenes; I never had that feeling of getting lost in it. The only time I came close was when I was camping, and reading beside a drop in the river: the roar of the water created one of the most pleasant juxtapositions of reading setting against the setting of what I was reading that I’ve ever encountered. It’s not a book that, while I read, I ever forgot that I was reading. I encountered moments of genius, and interesting ideas, and I’m glad that I did—but I don’t think I can echo the effusive praise on the dust jacket.