Sunday, December 17, 2006

Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics: A Novel, 2006.

This odd novel is the story of a young woman, Blue, who, with her father, settles in a town for an entire year from his nomadic existence as a constant visiting professor of political science. She is absorbed into the elite group at her new school, under the wing of an odd and yet luminous teacher, Hannah Schneider. Meeting the group each Sunday for dinner—pretending to her father that it is a discussion group of Ulysses that never progresses past “Telemachus”—Blue is drawn into a world of drinking and licentiousness, made better only by the group’s relationship with the mysterious Hannah… until Blue finds Hannah has killed herself (such fact not to be construed as a spoiler; revealed on page two before we even meet Hannah).

It’s an odd sort of bildungsroman, entirely unsatisfying as we don’t really see Blue grow or develop as a person, or not much anyway. The mystery side of the plot is intriguing, and reasonably well done. The style of the piece is why I had a difficult time reading the book. Laura Miller, in her review in Salon writes: “If only Pessl wouldn't try so hard to convince us that she is a novelist of grand, American-style ambition; she seems to think that if you fling enough metaphors at your readers' heads, their ducking can be interpreted as bows of reverence.” Miller’s inclined to forgive Pessl because some of the metaphors are wonderful: I agree, but am not convinced that this is an excuse. I wonder, though, how much of that is Pessl, and how much is Blue, because Blue is the narrator.

The book itself is arranged in a syllabus. Each chapter is titled with the name of a (at least semi-) canonical work, beginning with Othello and A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man and ending with The Secret Garden and Metamorphoses. There’s an odd postlude of a final exam (14 true/false, 7 multiple choice, 1 essay—and we’re instructed to take “all the time you need”). The structure is too precious by half, but what really bothers me is the pseudo-post-modern references to other works. Barely one paragraph goes by without some reference to another book, film, painting. In part, this technique fits both with the syllabus conceit and with Pessl’s establishment of Blue as a voracious reader. What bothers me is that it never seems anything other than sloppy writing. I suspect this is personal preference, but I feel that allusions should be allusive—half-hidden, not always fully revealed, casting a glance to another work. Pessl’s technique, though, names another piece and asks that an understanding of it be sorted by the reader into the novel. I never stopped thinking that it was sloppy writing. In fairness, Pessl is far from being the only writer who does this: but I want them all to stop it. Between this and Eliot, there’s room for sensible allusions!

Saturday, December 09, 2006

J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace, 1999.

I've been meaning to read something by Coetzee since he won the Nobel prize three years ago. Disgrace was mentioned on some CBC show I happened to be listening to, a few weeks back, and so I decided to pick it up as some seasonal reading for procrastination from paper writing.

It's the story of an English prof at the Technical University of Capetown. He is forced to teach writing, but is allowed one course of his own choosing: in his case, Romantic poetry. He has a sudden and impulsive affair with a student from his tutorial, and is unwilling to repent. He joins his daughter on an isolated farm. They are savagely attacked; he is burned, and she is raped. She is unwilling to act as he thinks she should, and their relationship shifts and is changed.

It's a novel about ideas, as much as anything else: Professor Lurie is attempting to write an opera about Byron, out on the farm, and in a way, his thought is consumed by the idea of relationships: with the prostitutes he hires, with his ex-wife, his daughter, with the student with whom he has the liaison, with her parents. It's a novel that wrestles with ideas of repentance, amends, right-living, racism, and the way place informs life. It feels almost opaque: one does not get a clear, omniscient view of Lurie's feelings--actually, I'm not convinced Lurie has any real sense of what he feels at most points--from the narration. That absence left me thinking more about the ideas, and the relatively sparse action.

It is a good book, certainly well worth reading. It's quite short. I daresay I'll end up reading a few more by Coetzee, when I can make time. Silly school.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Leah McLaren, The Continuity Girl, 2006.

I read McLaren's column each week in the Globe. I am... more of Russell Smith's camp, when it comes to how I feel about McLaren. She writes of a world that I don't wish to be part of, but does it with sufficient verve and insight that I read the column.

The story is that of Meredith Moore, a script supervisor--who manages to get fired twice--desperate to have a child, belaboured with hippy and wacky mother, heavy-drinking unstable friend, and an odd relationship with her gynecologist. Yes, you read that correctly: and yes, such a summary should be enough to convince you not to read the book. Just to reinforce that conclsion, I will say the following.

The book is trite, and unimpressive. I'm not a fan of the term chick-lit, or the ubiquitous references to Sex & the City (Toby Young's blurb on the back cover reads "Leah McLaren is Canada's Carrie Bradshaw and a wit for the ages."), but I'm at a loss for describing the book in any other terms. It is disposable, relies heavily on more than one happy deus ex machina, and reads like a month-old, four-times warmed-over version of Twelfth Night.

So. Waste of time, could have been reading something good, and far too long an entry on such a book. Now, to go re-read The Undertaking for a paper.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Michael Schwartzentruber, ed., The Emerging Christian Way, 2006. Contributions from Marcus Borg, Tim Scorer, Tom Harpur, Thomas Berry, Sallie McFague, Matthew Fox, Bruce Sanguin, Anne Squire, Bill Phipps, Mack MacLean, Bruce Harding, Susan Burt, Donald Grayston, Nancy Reeves, and the editor.

This is a decent collection of essays. It's one of those books that didn't particularly grab me, because I've read chunks of most of these authors before, and none of them really said anything new or dramatic--which is only to be expected, given that many of these pieces have been previously published elsewhere.

I enjoyed Borg's piece more than most of his books that I've read, perhaps because it articulates quite clearly a vision for which I have great sympathy, of faith-in-action, working to bring about the reign of God.

Harpur was Harpur, talking about the historic creeds as stumbling blocks, and the need for creeds more based on a faith that stresses the nature of our relationship with God as transformational. I thought that his offering of a new creed was weak, though he is clear that it's only a starting point. (A better couple of possible starting points, to my mind, can be found in the New Zealand prayer book.) Matthew

Fox's piece struck me as self-serving and egocentric. Bill Phipp's essay was quietly interesting, and worth further thought.

Grayston's thoughts on pastoral care--and really, about faith development--might well be the best thing in the book.

All in all, it's a spotty collection. It's one of those books to dip into, to get myself thinking, but not something that offers a lot of framework or leading ideas, nor really, anything but the questions I bring.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas, 2004.

W-- recommended this book to me, back in May, and I've been meaning to read it all this time. The book is beyond genius. It's one of the best things I've read in ages, though in many ways, it's unrelentingly bleak. It's hard to escape a line that appears near the end that in many ways sums up the nature of the stories in the novel: Mitchell quotes from the Aeneid, and writes "sunt lacrimae rerum". The line in context is from 1.426: "sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt", "these are the tears of things, and our mortality cuts to the heart."

It's not a happy book, but it's ingenious. A series of six stories, like nestled Russian dolls--an image that comes up in the book more than once, and to which Mitchell refers in this interview--they're intricately linked. "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" turns out to be a torn book in the second story, "Letters from Zedelghem", and so on to the central story "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After", and then back out again. Described in this way, the novel sounds precious, and hard to read: too intentionally post-modern to be of interest. It's anything but. Each of the six stories is compelling. They're allusive, and post-modern, to be sure, but intriguing and brilliantly told. I had a great deal of trouble putting the book down, especially as I read through the second, concluding parts of each story. Each one is fascinating, though I think I enjoyed "An Orison of Somni-451" and "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After" the best.

At any rate. Go forth, and read. It's an amazing book, and I can't wait to read more Mitchell.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Philip Pulman, the trilogy "His Dark Materials":
The Golden Compass (1995, in Britain Northern Lights)
The Subtle Knife (1997)
The Amber Spyglass (2000).

I'd hesitate to call this brilliant fantasy series children's literature, as it seems to be received (the library copies I've read have bright, fluorescent green stickers that read "Teen"). Early on, you get brilliant descriptions of cultures that practice trepanation, and the books never seem to condescend. Pulman assumes that the reader, of whatever age, is going to be able to learn about this world akin to ours but so radically different.

The first book starts with Lyra, in Oxford, and her world changing around her. Children are disappearing, and Lyra is taken away from the College in which she grew up by Mrs. Coulter. She runs away, and is swept up with gypsies, and the story swirls through the remainder of the book and throughout the next two. The fantasy world revolves around the idea of many worlds, separated only slightly, and transitions between the various worlds. The story swirls around Lord Asriel, seemingly Lyra's uncle, who makes war on the Authority who is running the world. Describing the story, I feel the urge not to give anything away, and so I can't speak in more than generalities.

It's an incredibly well-written series. The allusions to Paradise Lost seem endless, but the story is clever, well-structured, well-told. The idea that the story is anti-Christian is patently ludicrous. There's a brilliant moment that I'll share that I'm still thinking about, about the nature of faith:
He closed the book.
"And that was how sin came into the world," he said, "sin and shame and death. It came the moment their daemons became fixed."
"But..." Lyra stuggled to find the words she wanted: "but it en't true, is it? Not like chemistry or engineering, not that kind of true? There wasn't really an Adam and Eve? The Cassington Scholar told me it was just a kind of fairy tale."
"The Cassington Scholarship is traditionally give to a free-thinker; it's his function to challenge the faith of the Scholars. Naturally he'd say that. But think of Adam and Eve like an imaginary number, like the square root of minus one: you can never see any concrete proof that it exists, but if you include it in your equations, you can calculate all manner of things that couldn't be imagined without it."
(The Golden Compass 327)

Read these three books. They're well worth the time.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Harrison Owen, Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide, 1997.

I’ve been meaning to blog about this book since I read it back in May. It sat at my desk at work all summer, waiting for me to write about it. Of course, I’d been meaning to read the book for two years before I got around to it—ever since I heard the idea of Open Space mentioned by my friend Stephen, quite a space back now.

Put simply, open space technology is designed to get the people who care about particular ideas talking to one another with the goal of action. It’s quite a simple idea, really, and is quite profound as many simple ideas really are.

Basically, one has a theme. The theme is shared in a large open space, and people create sessions, and move between the sessions as they feel called. The organizing principle is that the right people show up to the right sessions at the right times. It's called the Law of Two Feet: if you're not contributing to a discussion, or getting something out of it, you're in the wrong discussion, and should move to another. Four ideas come from that:

  • Each person who comes to a discussion is one of the right people to be there

  • Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened

  • Whenever it starts, it starts at the right time

  • When it's over, it's over

If people thought like that more of the time, I'd have fewer painful meetings to sit through! Owen goes into detail about how to run such a conference, and offers some intriguing guidance, mostly in the form of stories about a variety of experiences in such a setting.

The idea of open space is fascinating, and I very much want to see it in an effective setting. The book impressed me enough that I mentioned it to my boss’s boss in my exit interview, as we were talking about how to get a group of people to move forward with ideas. Open space is really about taking responsibility to articulate ideas, and then to implement them: Owen’s book is well worth a read. I’m glad I bought it.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Leonard Mlodinow, Feynman's Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and in Life, 2003.

My father loaned me this series of reflections by a postdoc student at Caltech about his time there, and in particular, his interactions with Richard Feynman. It was a decent read: Mlodinow writes about feeling inadequate and unworthy of the fellowship he held, and of his desperate search for a research topic that would interest him and let him play the academic game.

He describes the culture of the Caltech physics department, and the Gell-Mann and Feynman camps: the fiercely protective secretary, the other postdocs, the difference in habits of dress and of dining. It's more of a mise en scène piece than a story or a memoir.

I found the transcripts of conversations with Feynman interesting but unexciting. There's nothing startlingly new, and nothing I'd feel sorry had I not read. What the conversations reveal about Feynman is much of what the cult that thinks so highly of him (of which cult I am a member): a deep and grounded wisdom, a narrow focus on problems that excite him, and a desire to be challenged. The book does to a better job of not being hagiographical than do things like Gleick's biography and much of the other writing; the irascible side of Feynman feels integral, and not highlighted nor diminished.

I enjoyed reading the book, but I'm glad it was loaned to me rather than me having purchased it. I really would like to get better at this frugal reading thing.

Monday, August 21, 2006

David Schickler, Kissing in Manhattan, 2001.

M.K. recommended this odd collection of not-quite-linked short stories to me. Schickler varies between a writing style of almost-realism to a style of outright magic-realism; I'm not sure which I preferred. The characters are an odd bunch; the satire is peculiar, and often biting. It was an enjoyable read, and the building that is at least peripherally important to most of the stories would be an interesting one in which to live. I think I may need to re-read some of the stories before I return this book to the library. The one firm thought I have is that Schickler seems to have first come to attention in The New Yorker, and that his stories seem to me to fit perfectly into that slightly off-kilter ilk.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Rhonda Wilcox, Why Buffy Matters: The Art of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 2005.

Rhonda Wilcox--co-editor of Slayage--has written a wonderful book. It's entertaining and funny, and remains a careful and intelligent examination of the seven seasons of Buffy as a text. The book is structured in two parts. The first part looks at broad themes across the series: light imagery, naming, use of language, globalization, etc. The second part is six chapters of close reading, one on each of six chosen Buffy episodes ("Surprise"/"Innocence", "The Zeppo", "Hush", "Restless", "The Body", "Once More, with Feeling").

I'm at a loss for further thoughts on the book: I'm still thinking about some of the ideas Wilcox presents, and want to re-watch a number of episodes (especially including those on which Wilcox offers such careful close readings). She has thought very carefully about the show, and her writing on specific topics does a better job of defending the idea of writing about television--and Buffy, in particular--in an academic setting than her explicit defence that introduces the book. In fact, the writing itself offers a strong argument that thinking carefully about television is indeed a thing well worth doing.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong, 1993.

The problem with delaying writing an entry for this reading journal after finishing the book is that I'm forgetful. That truth, after all, is part of the reason why I write the journal in the first place. It has been a couple of weeks now since I finished Birdsong, and it's starting to slip out of my memory. I can't recall why I picked up the book.

It was a beautiful book. It moves slowly at the beginning: Stephen Wraysford's visits a French factory manager, and falls in love with and begins an affair with the wife of the manager. They run off together, and though she leaves him, he remains in France rather than returning to England. The first World War starts, and he joins the BEF.

Much of the story is the abject terror of life in and under the trenches (Stephen befriends and then works with those who are mining underneath no-man's land, and underneath enemy trenches). The imagery is gorgeous, and Faulks' pacing is perfect.

Perhaps the most interesting part for me was the second half of the book's alternating in sequence between the bits about Stephen--and his developing relationship with Jeanne--and the bits about his grand-daughter, Elizabeth, making sense of her life and her own desire to know more about her grand-father. Birdsong is a book about finding and constructing meaning in stories, in shades of half-memories, and in historical possibilities. It was an entrancing book.

Ordinarily I try to quote a representative passage, but I'm still stuck on a bit near to the end, when Stephen says "'s not the details of a live I've lost. It's the reality itself" (344). There's a stunning sense of loss of self depicted by Faulks in this story about what it means to be in the midst of war, and that idea is causing me to reflect upon my own thoughts about war, peace, and conflict.

Monday, July 24, 2006

John Bellairs, The Face in the Frost, 1969. The House with a Clock In Its Walls, 1973.

A space back, I read the Wikipedia entry on Bellairs. I have read the children’s books many, many times--they’re some of my favourite books for children, or rather, for me as a child (and, at that, as one who’s not entirely grown up)--but was astonished to come across a reference to The Face in the Frost, a book for adults that I’d not heard of.
Various folk on Wikipedia write:

Bellairs undertook The Face in the Frost while living in England and after reading J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings; in the upshot, it is not much like that book, save for the fact that it shares the idea of a wizard who is palpably human and not a literary stereotype. Bellairs said of his third book: "The Face in the Frost was an attempt to write in the Tolkien manner. I was much taken by The Lord of the Rings and wanted to do a modest work on those lines. In reading the latter book I was struck by the fact that Gandalf was not much of a person--just a good guy. So I gave Prospero, my wizard, most of my phobias and crotchets. It was simply meant as entertainment and any profundity will have to be read in.

I placed a hold on the book when I read of it in Wikipedia, and the hold died because the book could not be found. I had forgotten that I agreed to the idea of placing an ILO (interlibrary loan request) to get a copy of the book--it had been so long!--and was thrilled to find the book when I went into the Dundas branch to pick the ILO up.

I read it yesterday afternoon. It’s very obviously an adult’s book; the death, and the killing, are more gruesome than I’d let even a teenager near. It shows the odd fascinations of Bellairs’ mind: the description of the wizard Prospero’s house bares an eerie resemblance to the house at 100 High Street, as do many of the unusual contents (oh, to live in such a shifting and intriguing place, never less than bursting with new things rushing to the fore).

The plot is typical of Bellairs’ work. I find his endings seem to skip a step, just before the very end, and this one left out more than I would have liked. Prospero and Roger Bacon are fun, interesting characters. It’s a book well worth reading, if you like Bellairs, and if you can find it. One I’d like to own, I think, though I doubt I’ll find it.

The allusions were what struck me the most; he borrows imagery flagrantly, but basically cites his source. The story of the Witch of Endor is incredibly important, but while obvious in the imagery and references to the story, the story itself is woven deftly into the plot. I was thrilled to read this book.

I promptly read The House with a Clock In Its Walls, and was surprised by how adult it seemed. Some of the events of that book still freak me out! I remembered it as a pleasantly unnerving superstitious suspense novel, but it is a spooky, spooky book. It was neat to read it after the other, and get some sense of how it was adapted from an adult novel into a children’s book. I’m going to have to read some more of Bellairs yet because of the ILO showing up after having been forgotten; I think I’m going to quite enjoy that. And, after all, how can one dislike reading books illustrated by the delightfully creepy pen and ink drawings of Edward Gorey?

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Henri Nouwen, With Burning Hearts, 1994.

Nouwen’s meditation on the Eucharist was a useful thing for me to read. He says a number of things that are quite akin to my own thoughts about the importance of the Eucharist, ideas of inclusivity, and the challenges that the Eucharist offers, but he thinks about these things in quite different ways. I found it fun to learn how he approached the ideas, what stories he used. The story of the road to Emmaus is the basis for an extended meditation, and it made me begin to re-evaluate that story and my own conception of it. So, I was challenged to think more about the Eucharist from a different perspective, but the book also talked me out of making an idol out of Nouwen, given my differences from him. A useful thing indeed to happen when one reads a lot of one author at a time.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

David L. Robbins, War of the Rats, 1999.

I picked this one up after reading Liberation Road. The plot of this book will be familiar territory for some: twisted and turned around, it became a good chunk of Enemy at the Gates.

The story is that of a Russian sniper, Zaitsev, who becomes involved in a sniper battle against the German expert sniper König. It’s a decent book, but makes sense as the basis for a movie; it’s neater than the history it portrays, and is interesting principally in so far as it attempts to capture what life was like in Stalingrad, before (and, briefly, after) the Russian rescue of the city. The book was a nice quick read.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, The Book of the Dead.

The sequel to Dance of Death, it was nice to return to this quick read (less than 24 hours, one late night, but no reading during my work day). An enjoyable yarn, totally implausible, but making me remember far too much of when I wanted to be an Egyptologist. At any rate, this one may be the last of the Pendergast novels; I think it’s a decent though far too obvious an ending.

Short version? Picks up right where Dance of the Dead left off: Pendergast in prison, D'Agosta working to bust him out, the evil brother Diogenes up to no good--and of course, all set at the American Museum of Natural History (wikipedia summary of museum here). The stories those walls could tell--how many murders, beasts, evil spirits, etc., have wandered through those 46 acres of downtown New York in the world of Preston and Child? Ah well. The story revolves around an exhibit being opened to restore the Museum to the good graces of the public: an exhibit of the tomb of Senef, supposedly a vizier to and regent for Thutmose IV. I can't actually think of anything else about the plot to write without giving things away.

Entertaining, overly contrived, but a fun bit of pulp. The most fun thing about these books is the imagined exhibits themselves; Preston and Child should go into the museum curator business. They populize well.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Kate Charles, Evil Intent, 2005.

A newly ordained, newly appointed curate enters life in a parish not sure what to make of female clergy: some of the parishoners won’t so much as shake her hand, the rector’s wife feels usurped in role—and is also worried that a romantic takeover of her husband’s affections is in hand—and the rector wants to use her to do the jobs he doesn’t want to do. (No concept of team ministry. Baffling to a Canadian church fellow like myself.) Making matters worse, a good chunk of the deanery’s priests seem to be against women joining there number, and Callie’s ex-fiancé just happens to be placed as curate in the next parish over. Thank heavens for her good friend, a chaplain at the hospital--who’s promptly accused of murdering another priest with his own stole.

Machinations abound in this relatively entertaining murder mystery. For my taste, there’s a bit too much of Callie’s romantic life and uncertainties, but the book loses all the appeal it has with its deus ex machina ending—far too neat, tidy, and convenient.

Convenient is not a word I care for in the realm of mysteries. I was disappointed that an otherwise well-written book should collapse so dramatically at the end.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Peter Carey, Theft, 2006.

Theft is the only one of Carey’s novels that I’ve read. No Oscar and Lucinda, no True History of the Kelly Gang for me. Clearly I have no respect for people who have won the Booker twice? I dunno.

At any rate. It’s an uninspiring book. Alternating in direct, first person narration by two brothers--“Butcher”, a brilliant painter, and Hugh, a person who is not balanced--the novel is not easy to get into. The oscillation between their styles makes it more difficult than I would like to find the rhythm for reading the book, and once found, the plot does not, to my mind, provide enough sustenance for one to remain interested. It's not overly intricate, but too detailed in too much depth. It's a fun story, though, of art-world manipulation and theft.

What Carey does well is the characterization: both Butcher and Hugh are phenomenally self-absorbed, though Hugh less so, and care for the other brother deeply. Perhaps Butcher’s problem is that he cares too deeply for his art to care enough for his brother? Or perhaps that’s too trite an assessment: I’m still not sure.

What’s difficult, to my mind, is to tell a story so enmeshed in the world of art that pictures have to be real for the reader. Carey kept me interested in the various canvasses that inhabit the world of Theft, and interested me in them enough that I’d like to see them.

Having read this book, I’m not sure that I’ll be in a rush to go near Carey’s Booker winners. It was a quick weekend read, but not worth the three-days’ worth of library fines that I’ll incur when I return the novel tomorrow evening.

Monday, June 19, 2006

David L. Robbins, Liberation Road: A Novel of World War II and the Red Ball Express, 2005.

I am not normally a fan of historical fiction. There's quite a bit of decent stuff--I'll admit to a weakness for Rutherford, as I enjoyed Sarum and Russka, for example--but I've never been excited. Having said that, this novel is quite good. It was recommended to me by a friend of my parents, TH, largely because of issues of faith.

The central character is Rabbi Ben Kahn, attached to the 90th American division, just after D-Day. His son is MIA, after the B-17 he was flying was shot down. Rabbi Khan is himself a veteran of the 90th, from the first World War, and is appalled by the lack of leadership in his old division. He integrates himself into the division, and his interactions with the doughboys are fascinating--but more fascinating still is the depiction of the Rabbi's relationship with G-d, and with another (Baptist) chaplain.

The other vital character is Joe Amos Biggs, a driver in one of the logistics/support companies. After shooting down a fighter with the .50 calibre on his truck, his position within the company changes--and he develops an interesting relationship with a couple of French civilians, almost taking the role of Pharaoh when Abram and Sarai first visit Egypt (Genesis 12--a spoiler for this book, if you don't recall the story off the top of your head). Much of Joe's story is what life was like in the Red Ball Express.

The final important plot element is Chien Blanc--a deserter, a GI running in the Parisian black market--and especially his gasoline scams.

At any rate, the various stories link up eventually, plausibly but too neatly. It's an interesting story that just seems to resolve too nicely. It was a good book, and it was fascinating to read about the fighting in the bocage in Normandy from the perspective of the 90th, and watching the division grow from an embarrassment into one of the best combat divisions in the ETO. It was well-researched, and nothing felt overly didactic--but for me, as with much historical fiction, it just didn't quite click. A good book to borrow from the library, and not to own.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Sigrid Nunez, The Last of Her Kind, 2006.

I was underwhelmed by this novel. Ostensibly the story of the friendship between Georgette George and Ann Drayton, who meet as room-mates at Barnard, it's more a drawing of New York City as affected by the climate and mores of the Vietnam War than a gripping story. I got sufficiently bored that I didn't finish it.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Jessica Cutler, The Washingtonienne, 2005.

At times, what I read depresses me. I read this because... because I was reading Wonkette two summers ago? And thus read the blog on which this was based? Really, I have no defence.

It's crap. Absolute, mindless crap that doesn't even rate me calling it pulp. The book is poorly written and plotted; it's a thinly re-worked version of Cutler's blog detailing her paramours/method for paying rent via... what is essentially prostitution. Lots of dirty sex, lots of drug use, more alcohol than I've read about. Well, no, not really. But it's poorly written. Stick with the blog: it's shorter. Save yourself the time. If you want to read about sex, find some decent erotica. If you want to read about drugs, go read some Brett Easton Ellis. But save yourself the hour it would take to read this dreck.

What truly baffles me is the prose that claims to be taking a step back and reflecting, and yet at the same time is so clearly self-involved and narcissistic that any decent editor should have made some effort to get Cutler to rewrite long segments. Oi with the poodles already. Find something decent to read, self.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Mary Gaitskill, Veronica, 2005.

Veronica was another book I decided to read based on its review in Salon. I didn’t really care for it. Part of my dislike was the overly complex structure of the plot: the story weaves the present and the past, both dreams and memoirs, of two characters told through the eyes of one of them. As Alison tries to make sense of the life she has lived, she tries especially to make sense of her friendship with Veronica.
The book was intriguing for me; despite disliking it, I couldn’t stop reading it because it tries to make sense of the dignity of the principal characters. Gaitskill draws the minor characters sharply: they exist so clearly in the flaws that Alison perceives in them. The descriptions are equally vivid. The reflections on life are stark and interesting, though I often disagreed with them. The omnipresent sex is necessary and harsh, never uplifting: love makes little sense when it ever appears in the world Gaitskill draws.
A representative excerpt:
…there was a soft dark place where prayer had been and sometimes my mind wandered into it. Sometimes this place was restful and kind. Sometimes it was not. Sometimes when I went into it, I felt like a little piece of flesh chewed by giant teeth. I felt that everyone was being chewed. To ease my terror, I pictured beautiful cows with liquid eyes eating acres of grass with their great loose jaws. I said to myself, Don’t be afraid. Everything is meant to be chewed, and also to keep making more flesh to be chewed. Maybe sometimes there is pity for the chewed thing, and that is what we pray to. Maybe sometimes there is love. (165)

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Julian Barnes, A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, 1989.

I picked this book off the shelf the other day for a reason I can’t now remember. I hadn’t reread it since I bought it, back at Western. It’s a wonderfully funny and dry book—exactly the kind of humour I enjoy.
What made me reread it now, though, was glancing through it and noticing a passage I had marked:

For the point is this: not that myth refers us back to some original event which has been fancifully transcribed as it passed through the collective memory; but that it refers us forward to something that will happen, that must happen. Myth will become reality, however sceptical we might be. (181)

Barnes captures something important about myth with that idea, though not quite how I’d enter into playing with the idea.

At any rate. A rollicking good read, this book is fascinating in its imaginations. It rewrites the story of the Ark several times, in many different ways, and takes it to places that that story might never otherwise have been thought to touch. I think what I like most about the book is that it does stretch me to read the world, and to imagine, differently than I tend so to do.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Zadie Smith. White Teeth, 2000. On Beauty, 2005.

OK, so first of all? I haven’t stopped reading. School, though, has meant that my reading has been more curtailed than I’d like. It’s also meant that I haven’t had time to post reflections on what little I have read. I’m hoping that may change a bit in the next while, and certainly my summer away from school will help.

Now, Ms. Smith. Wow.
I read White Teeth over Christmas. I greatly enjoyed it. I'm still not entirely sure what to make of it, though, in retrospect. Smith's clear, deft narration smoothly weaves plots and characters together, but there's something that unsettles me about the book that I can't quite identify. An acquaintance wrote that about the novel that:

I loved Irie and the twins. I love how Samad's wife seems so unsympathetic at first, but that you slowly come over to her side. I loved KEVIN's acronym problem. I loved the part about the Satanic Verses. I loved the first chapter. I loved Dr. Sick and the WW2 flashback.

I didn't love how it sort of fell apart at the end, but that's ok.

I agree with Nav: the characterization was brilliant, but that the plot didn’t manage to stay at the same level throughout the novel. The final melding of the three families seems forced, and lacks the power of many of the other descriptions. A really enjoyable book, though.

I started, and did not finish, The Autograph Man. It bored me quickly, actually: I only read the first fifty or so pages.

On Beauty, though, is phenomenal. It is just… wow. The characters are better: fuller, no sense of stereotyping in any of even the minor supporting characters. Monty could perhaps be slightly more fleshed out. Watching the central family and its various, weaving interactions, is fascinating. It’s enough to send me to read Forster’s Howards End, which I’ve not yet read. (On Beauty is a reconstruction and adaptation of that story.) I’m going to have to read that, and then reread On Beauty.

A quick excerpt:

Rarely does one see a squirrel tremble. It is not necessary to pick up a shovel in order to unearth your rubbish bins. This is because it is never really very cold in England. It is drizzly, and the wind will blow; hail happens, and there is a breed of Tuesday in January in which time creeps and no light comes and the air is full or water and nobody really loves anybody, but still a decent jumper and a waxen jacket lined with wool is sufficient for every weather England's got to give. (27)

Ms. Smith goes on my Keats List, for that kind of writing.