Friday, December 14, 2012

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - book review

My rating: 4/5

This book is a revelation on multiple levels.

The premise is that the narrator is autistic and is relating a narrative in the first person, telling his tale as a murder mystery novel. The victim of the murder is a dog, to which the main character is initially challenged by the school official overseeing his writing as a real murder victim, but he stubbornly insists that a dog can indeed constitute a proper murder victim.

Autism obliging, the style of writing is extremely clear and direct. No long sentences, no adverbs, very few scene descriptions, almost all matter-of-fact stuff. Also, the autism obliging again, the style is completely emotionally detached, only barely touching on emotions, and even then never going into depth on them. At certain points, Christopher will be “frightened”. At others, he will have a “weight on his chest” or a sensation like a “thumb pressed against a radiator that continues to hurt after being removed from the radiator”. Yet, with these simplified building blocks, the novel never fails to transmit a sense of the narrator’s self, his troubles, the intense way he reacts to people and objects that intrude into his perception (“I screamed”).

While reading it, I was wondering how the book was managing to keep me so rapt using such simple language, and it’s not in spite of it but very much because of it. At certain points, there will be some dramatic event unfolding and Christopher will relate the writing on a poster on the wall, or the exact words spoken by another character with no relation to the event unfolding: I felt Christopher’s systemic mind latching onto tangible facts to avoid the intangible implications of other ones. He is apprehending reality as close as bearable to him, which is of course much more distantly than the reader would, and forces the reader to contend with an unwilling agent.

The narrative upholds its immediacy, often by explicitly subverting an expected reaction and putting that reaction in a one-sentence paragraph by itself. This kind of broke the illusion sometimes, because the importance of the subverted expectations is known to the author but shouldn’t be to the narrator, so it creates a false disingenuosity.

All in all, though, the book is gripping, and demonstrates just how very powerful and inspiring the show-don’t-tell ethic can be.

As concerns the plot, it’s not a murder mystery, really. One realizes early on that Christopher’s investigative capabilities are so severely limited (incidentally, it highlights how real-life detectives must rely on their intuitive capabilities in a way that a purely logical detective cannot) that he never really stands a chance to make any headway. But that’s not what the book is about, of course. It’s about an autistic teen, his relationship to his parents, his attempt to take control of his destiny, and the myriad difficulties that beset the autistic in a world in which we heavily so very much on our empathic mind that it’s impossible to navigate without simple empathic abilities: read facial expressions, understand innuendo, react to subtext.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Song of Achilles - book review

my rating: 3.5/5

Well, it's about Achilles, and of course Achilles’ story has already been told quite a few times. So it begs the question: why another version of Achilles’ legend? Why not just read the Odyssey, or skim wikipedia while watching Troy?

This novel’s answer, in my opinion, is that Achilles deserved to be portrayed by he that had loved him most, he who knew the hero and the son of a goddess but who also shared his most intimate moments. 

And of course, by ‘intimate’, I mean gay sex.

So it's unabashedly lush. And though at times Patroclus' voice comes off as too feminine, his standpoint is a fascinating one by which to witness the feats and mishaps of Aristos Achaion, the Best of the Greeks.

The writing is imbued with realism, which makes the odd supernatural elements attendant on a story involving gods simultaneously casual and remote.

Oh, and I learned that there was actually a god named Tantalus. And boy oh boy does the definition of ‘tantalizing’ do well to refer to his fate.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Bell Jar - Book Review

My rating: 5/5

Esther Greenwood describes her slow descent into depression in 50’s America. One should think that such a book would be bleak, but it’s not. Far from it.

There’s a writing lesson here: in describing an imploding sun, rather than attach oneself to the encroaching darkness the author focuses on the last rays of light and the way they tend to thin out and pour into a desolate, cold universe.

And boy oh boy does she do it in style. The writing is chock-full of metaphors and similes that are sprayed as by a machine gun, and they land fast and furious.

The narrative glides effortlessly from her summer job in New York as assistant editor to a fashion and literary magazine, trying to catch as much as possible of the city even as her life is on female 1950’s rails: she lives in a woman-only hotel and spends her time either at work or at quasi-mandatory social appearances.

Here’s a quote I found salient:
‘They had the windows fixed so you couldn't really open them and lean out, and for some reason this made me furious.’
The windows are saying that she doesn’t need to decide whether they should open or not, because the decision has been made for her, at some higher, abstract level.

Fast-forward. The summer in New York ends. She was hoping to lose her virginity (I am consciously using the term ‘lose her virginity’ here because it weighs on her like an anchor to childhood that she feels compelled to buckle) and the closest she has come to it is by being almost raped by a woman-hater. That while the rape was under way her first thought was to ‘let it happen’ is the first glimmer that she isn’t merely living through adolescent angst but slipping into real psychological turmoil.

Back at home, sleep begins to elude her. This is described just so: that she hasn’t slept in so many days. As the novel unfolds, the tally grows worryingly and her perception of her surroundings grows increasingly surreal. Her mother takes her to see a psychiatrist. The ensuing conversation is historically relevant:
‘“Suppose you try and tell me what you think is wrong.”
I turned the words over suspiciously, like round, sea-polished pebbles that might suddenly put out a claw and change into something else.
What did I think was wrong?
That made it sound as if nothing was really wrong, I only thought it was wrong.’
I won’t insert a spoiler here, but really, what would a patriarchal psychiatrist in the 1950’s prescribe for a young woman whose problems seem neurological in nature?

Esther’s descent accelerates.

The downward sweep isn’t into a bottomless pit, and here the author offers real indications of psychiatry’s usefulness when Esther eventually finds the help she needs. The ‘Bell Jar’ that descended on her life and put a rift between her and the outside world is not a foregone conclusion but can be alleviated, even if it can never be totally allayed.

An amazing read, one that realizes the difficult feat of rendering depression realistically, showing the texture of despair, while simultaneously sparing the reader its unbearable weight.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Invisible Cities - book review

My rating: 5/5

Kublai Khan, having ravished lands and treasures in an immense empire, having submitted men and cities over incommensurable distances, sometimes gets a little sad in the evenings when he's not exactly sure what he's acquired, not totally convinced all the bloodshed was worth it, not persuaded he can keep the empire, and mostly confused about what his empire really holds.

What is the purest value of what his empire has to offer?

Marco Polo knows! A spice merchant by trade, dreamer by nature, he's been everywhere and has had a lot of time to reflect on such matters. Polo sits in the evenings with our melancholy emperor and shows him the fine structure of those most wondrous cities that populate the empire.

Excepting a few passages where the Khan and Polo dialog back and forth, and Polo acting so smart one is sure the Khan will strangle him eventually, most of the chapters are descriptions of cities.

But what cities are these? Roaming through those chapters are like roaming through a dream, where one suspects that on some level all of this makes sense, only not in any way about a city. Describing a city, its inhabitants, its past and destiny, its fears and hopes, Polo is describing something else, that sometimes resembles the paradoxes and contradictions of the human psyche, sometimes the barriers and tunnels of language itself, sometimes the poetry of cohabitation, sometimes the dualities and ambivalence of ambition.

The cities are sometimes blueprints, sometimes metaphors, sometimes memories.

Having read Invisible Cities, one is unsure of what one has read, uncertain what one will remember of it, wondering how to describe it.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Alexios, Before Dying - book review

"Alexios, Before Dying", by Chance Maree

My rating: 4/5

Books such as this one are hard to write reviews of. For one, there’s a real danger of giving away important plot elements. It’s not too much of a giveaway to state that one enters this book like a giant labyrinth, in which the way “forward” is anything but evident. Characters are thrown into the universe, and the link between them is initially unclear.

We start with Velia, a young black girl in 1924 New York City, who has a severe case of synesthesia. She becomes the apprentice of a street performer, The Magician, whose real name is not revealed and whose sexuality and lifestyle have held him on the fringes of society long enough to recognize a kindred soul in the misfit Velia.

Then, in a totally different setting, we encounter Kimi, a woman burying herself alone in the desert on a shamanic journey. She is shepherded by The Shaman (real name not given), an Australian exile whose choices (in this life and past ones) have trapped him in a relationship with a cruel woman.

Then, there’s Leta, a blue-eyed redhead with a gift for seeing scenes of the past and supernatural beings, visiting the muslim holy lands in the company of The Sufi (real name not given).

Just now realizing that the male characters are identified by their function (magician, shaman, sufi) and female characters by their name. Anyway.

As the story unfolds, it appears that these characters do not occupy the same time periods and the links from one to another slowly appear. It’s not until they actually die that the links become even more clear, and then not until the … sorry, can’t explain without spoiling.

The novel is focused on the transformations that the characters undergo personally and collectively. They enchant, beguile, cajole, sometimes brusque one another, and the accumulated momentum carries over into the afterlife.

I must admit I sometimes found the characters to overly virtuous. For instance, The Magician will sometimes steal a watch, but with his talent, the ease with which he does it and the economically difficult context in which he lives, you’d expect him to do a lot more of it. Similarly, Kimi shows herself to be laudable in thinking of her husband and handicapped step son even in the middle of her shamanic journey undertaken to wean meaning from her terminal illness.

The writing, nevertheless, is quite enjoyable. It skips merrily and never shies from going straight to the point. Here’s an example, in which Kimi has buried herself:

“Here, in her grave, Kimi’s soul felt stripped bare; all that remained was flesh and whinning bones. She felt she were no longer either a wife or a step-mother. Not an in-law, employee, co-worker, citizen, consumer, friend, or even a woman. Only a body. A stray hman being planted in earth for safekeeping.
In certain moments, whole strands of existence are smartly captured.
“The boys adored their father and thought him the wisest man on Earth. He’d wink at them when their mother hauled them off to religious studies. The boys learned to wink, too.”
I enjoyed the depictions of the afterlife and found they were treated with the required humour and distance. Overall, the novel is one of journeys undertaken, relationships forged and bonds made that have unsuspected weight.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Easy Freestyle - book review

"Easy Freestyle", by Terry Laughlin

My rating: 3/5

This is a guide that teaches you do swim freestyle, or crawl If you prefer.

I’ve often found that in any approach to a discipline with any physical aspect to it, you’ll have a die-hard materialist approach on one end of the spectrum, and an eastern-looking mindful approach on the other. The materialist approach will draw scientific-minded individuals, masochists and alpha individuals, the other will draw magicians, social misfits, hippies and strong silent types. None of these categories are mutually exclusive, of course, so a lot of people won’t stick to a single approach.

If you came to martial arts and found your prefer tai-chi to boxing, or enjoy running through the pose method/chi-running and never do intervals or fartleks, if you prefer U2’s “One” to U2’s “Pride”, if you would rather watch Jeff Bridges in “the Big Lebowski” than Jeff Bridges in “Tron”, if you love the faraway surfer’s gaze when they talk about “the wave” yet hate the surfer’s obsession with six-pack abs, etc. etc., there is a strong chance that you will enjoy learning to swim the crawl through this guide.

It uses a method called “Total Immersion”. Such an evocative name, no? “Total” speaks of oneness, being at peace with oneself. “Immersion” points toward a holistic approach.

Is it the real deal? Or a marketing ploy? I don’t care, really. I’m just reviewing the guide from a literary point of view. The fact of the matter is, if you spend enough hours in the pool trying to swim freestyle, I’m sure it’ll eventually work for you. What you need, to really get into it, is a narrative. The narrative begins with you not being able to swim a pool length without puffing your lungs out, and ends with you doing dozens of them without stopping, somersaulting underwater off the wall at either end. You need a guide or an instructor to provide the plot.

This guide is the mindful type. It teaches through exercises that promote relaxation and calm in the water. It starts by showing you how to glide in the water, minimize your drag, feel at ease and calm just slowly moving through just under the surface. It’s called the “superman glide”, during which you push off from your feet in the shallow water and let yourself glide with both arms extended in front of you. 

From the “superman glide”, you learn to flutter your legs behind you, just enough to balance yourself in the water, not let your legs sink, maintain a streamlined form.

From the flutter, you learn to hold one arm ahead of you and another tucked into your side, the “skating” position. Then, you learn to roll your shoulder up, just enough to allow your head to turn, your face to emerge from the water and your mouth to suck air.

It goes on, a series of small, attainable levels of proficiency that eventually turn into a freestyle swim.

It teaches how to swim “with your body” instead of against it. It explains that you must let gravity work for you instead of fighting it (this is generally where the scientists get off the bus).

It speaks of “Perpetual Motion Propulsion” and the ZenSkate.

It offers images of a laser emitted from the top of your head pointing the way toward which your energies will be channelled.

If you look up “Total Immersion” on the internet, you’ll find some videos that demo the method. You’ll see people gliding gracefully through the water, apparently effortlessly, with the leg kick and arm movement synchronized (this is what is referred to as a two-beat kick). Look up some more, and you’ll come upon internet forums (oh, the brackish acidity of an internet forum!) where swimmers clamour about the “Swim Smooth” method being superior to the “Total Immersion” because the “Total Immersion” teaches fluidity at the expense of speed and performance, and puts a limit on your progression. Other swimmers clamour that they were hopeless in the pool until they tried “Total Immersion” and have never looked back since.

I’m going to go with this method (no, I haven’t yet done so), for the simple reason that I’ll sound a lot cooler talking about “Total Immersion” to people at social events, and if I’m talking to a swimmer I’ll just change the subject anyhow. I really hate hearing athletes recount their achievements and when they do I excuse myself and head for the buffet.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Catcher in the Rye - book review

The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinder - book review

My rating: 5/5!

The first time I read this book was in the mid-80’s, in high school. I went to a French-speaking high school about a hundred kilometers west of Montréal. At the time, everyone was listening to U2 and Tears for Fears and The Cure and only the anglophone minority of which I was a part actually understood the words to those songs. That used to kill me. You’d have a high school dance and everyone would be kind of surf-dancing to “Boys don’t cry” and most of them had no idea what the song was about, but it didn’t keep them from adopting that pouting stance with their front hair hanging over the left side of their downcast faces.

Claudia had that look too. She had this shock of really blond hair that hung down about to her cheek. She didn’t pout, though. She ruined the goddamn look by smiling all the time. God, she had a beautiful smile. She was part of the anglophone minority too on account of her parents being German, so we’d trade cassettes and joke about song lyrics and that tv show Moonlighting. I’d seek her out in the recreation hall at lunchtime, I could recognize her from way back at the end of the hall just from the set of her shoulders, even though in the mid-80’s in private schools everyone wore these jackets with huge shoulder pads, boys included, and some even went as far as to roll up the sleeves of their jackets even when they were wearing a shirt and tie, like they were in Miami Vice or something. That fad died pretty quick, but you can be sure that the French speakers were among the last ones to maintain it. So I’d seek out Claudia, she had a really straight back and she always stood with one leg straight and the other kind of bent at the knee and slightly in front of her, and this being a private school she’d be in a skirt, which was just torture, and I’d sidle up and act real cool and bored with both hands in my pockets wrinkling my blazer at the hips like I hardly cared about anything and was just passing by to talk to her because why not.

At the time I was a huge cynic, the way teenagers can be when they want to appear older, and all my jokes were cynical, and Claudia would laugh at them anyway and she’d add “oh, Renaaaay, Renaaay, Renaaaay” like that, pronouncing it like “heyyyy” and I’d drop the cynical act for a moment before returning to it later.

Anyways, my English teacher recommended we read the Catcher in the Rye and told us we’d find it very funny. I don’t think anyone else in my class read it, just me, and I didn’t find it funny much, but I really identified to Holden Caulfield. I think you have to be an adult to find it funny. I mostly read it and pictured myself as Holden getting kicked out of school and wandering around New York and being simultaneously charmed and repulsed by humanity. Just the opening page was enough to grasp my attention, and though the school I went to didn’t advertise with horse-riding ads, the following paragraph about Holden’s school Pencey spoke to me directly:

‘They advertise in about a thousand magazines, always showing some hotshot guy on a horse jumping over a fence. Like as if all you ever did at Pencey was play polo all the time. I never even once saw a horse anywhere near the place. And underneath the guy on the horse's picture, it always says: "Since 1888 we have been molding boys into splendid, clear-thinking young men." Strictly for the birds. They don't do any damn more molding at Pencey than they do at any other school. And I didn't know anybody there that was splendid and clear-thinking and all. Maybe two guys. If that many. And they probably came to Pencey that way.’

And, of course, I pictured my best friend Claudia as the character of Jane. Only it didn’t really fit, because Jane had a lousy childhood and Claudia was a happy girl who ruined her goddamn pouty look by smiling all the time. Anyways, there is this scene in the book where Holden describes how he came close to necking with Jane, and Jane’s stepfather comes around and asks her where his cigarettes are, and Jane doesn’t answer him:

‘Finally the guy went inside the house. When he did, I asked Jane what the hell was going on. She wouldn't even answer me, then. She made out like she was concentrating on her next move in the game and all. Then all of a sudden, this tear plopped down on the checkerboard. On one of the red squares--boy, I can still see it. She just rubbed it into the board with her finger. I don't know why, but it bothered hell out of me. So what I did was, I went over and made her move over on the glider so that I could sit down next to her--I practically sat down in her lap, as a matter of fact. Then she really started to cry, and the next thing I knew, I was kissing her all over--anywhere--her eyes, her nose, her forehead, her eyebrows and all, her ears--her whole face except her mouth and all. She sort of wouldn't let me get to her mouth. Anyway, it was the closest we ever got to necking. After a while, she got up and went in and put on this red and white sweater she had, that knocked me out, and we went to a goddam movie.’

You can bet your boots I read that and pictured myself kissing Claudia. I must have read that single paragraph a dozen times over until it was etched in my mind. There was no way I was going to be around if and when Claudia cried, she was a happy girl, but I goddamn well read it over and over and pictured Claudia putting on that red and white sweater and us going to a movie anyway.

Claudia actually made an atheist out of me. She sat at a desk just behind me and in religious studies, she’d lean forward and whisper in my ear, just to goad me, asking me if I believed in what it was we were being taught, and of course I defended the existence of God as well I could by using Voltaire’s argument about there being no clock without a clock-maker, and we’d have a whispered argument right there in class. Teenagers in religious schools entertain a kind of familiarity toward faith. As in the following passage that describes the guy after whom was named a wing of the school Holden attends:

‘ It was named after this guy Ossenburger that went to Pencey. He made a pot of dough in the undertaking business after he got out of Pencey. What he did, he started these undertaking parlors all over the country that you could get members of your family buried for about five bucks apiece. You should see old Ossenburger. He probably just shoves them in a sack and dumps them in the river. Anyway, he gave Pencey a pile of dough, and they named our wing alter him.
He told us we should always pray to God--talk to Him and all-wherever we were. He told us we ought to think of Jesus as our buddy and all. He said he talked to Jesus all the time. Even when he was driving his car. That killed me. I just see the big phony bastard shifting into first gear and asking Jesus to send him a few more stiffs. The only good part of his speech was right in the middle of it. He was telling us all about what a swell guy he was, what a hot-shot and all, then all of a sudden this guy sitting in the row in front of me, Edgar Marsalla, laid this terrific fart.’

Claudia worked at me for two weeks, we’d have these whispered arguments in class, and she actually convinced me that I was mostly praying for no good reason, and I was really impressed by the way she did it and I got even more infatuated with her than I already was.

Good ol’ Claudia. She didn’t play checkers that I knew of. She liked ping-pong, and she could laugh at losing a game.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Review of: A Visit from the Goon Squad

A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan - book review

My rating: 1/5

What a bunch of crap.

A thing I find unbearable is the forced pathos of one-dimensional characters.

Take Benny, for instance. Benny can't get an erection. So he puts gold flakes in his coffee and stares at his assistant's tits with various degrees of discretion. We get it. Why then are we led through the ritual over and over? Benny starts his day with a coffee, stares at assistant's tits, self-scans and finds no erection. Later, in the car with the assistant, he stares at her tits. No reaction. But wait! Later, he's banging on a cowbell accompanying a rock band he might be signing (he's a music producer), stares at his assistant's tits and, lo and behold! Erection! We are thus given to understand that music is a big part of his erection process. But then, he has his erection shattered by shameful memories that assail him. So now we understand that his erectile dysfunction is a product of a failed marriage, failed relationships and disaffection for the music industry. The ageing music fan who feels that music was once grand and is now a lifeless aseptic hulk is a tired, fatigued cliché that I hoped I wouldn't encounter in this book, only to have it thrown in my face. Benny is just a hodge podge of music producer clichés. Divorced. Has a son who he would like to be close to but who remains distant.

As for his assistant, Sasha, she has her own first-world problem, a galloping kleptomania of which secret she only divulges to her shrink, Coz. She mentally spells out that she and Coz are writing a narrative together that ends with her being cured of kleptomania (never mind that this is the readers’ job, not the writers’), which is just another way of saying that Coz is a stand-in for the author, which is rather facile (and also cliché). Add to this that she only seems to come awake, sexually, when her partner is remotely aware of her stash of stolen goods. So her character is basically Benny, only younger and pretty (i.e. female cliché) while Benny is older, wilful and entrepreneurial (male cliché).

Then comes Rhea, who used to love Benny, and they were part of a punk band called the Flaming Dildos (wow, how long did it take to come up with that name?), and they went to concerts and they'd all dance near the stage and Rhea mentions that Benny was the only one who really listened to the music. How cute. Benny is special. Benny profoundly cares about music in the midst of a jaded generation of hedonistic party-goers.

This nauseating assembly of trite point-of-view fragments appears to hail from the we-live-in-new-york-and-make-lots-of-money-and-sleep-with-the-wrong-people-and-share-it-with-our-shrink school of literature and film. It’s basically a soap opera, wherein the reader is invited to keep track of who’s screwing who, and try to muster some form of reaction to it that somehow ignores the fact that this book is about people with, yes, I’ll say it again, first-world problems.

Oh sure, it has its’ share of divorces, suicides, betrayals, but the problems are self-inflicted, and I’d much rather be reading about people fighting real diseases than people succumbing to the psychological equivalent of auto-immune disorders.

Mostly though, the writing is terrible. The situations are forced, and there’s no depth or insight anywhere. And it’s fraught with clichés.

Take the following extract, about Lou (music producer) and Mindy (anthropology student) on a safari:

‘After his swim, Lou goes in search of spears and snorkeling gear, resisting his temptation to follow Mindy back to their room, though clearly she’d like him to. She’s gone bananas in the sack since they left the tents (women can be funny about tents) – hungry for it now, pawing off Lou’s clothes at odd moments, ready to start again when he’s barely finished. He feels tenderly toward Mindy, now that the trip is winding down. She’s studying something at Berkeley, and Lou has never traveled for a woman. It’s doubtful that he’ll lay eyes on her again.’

Sound schematic? The whole book is like that! Guess how this story ends? Lou marries Mindy, because though he was going to dump her, she made him jealous by eyeing another male. I had trouble reading it because I was rolling my eyes the whole time.

Are we ready for another example? Here goes, a history of a character Jules who’s a failed writer:
‘he’d gotten himself a job at Harper’s, an apartment on Eighty-first and York, and three roommates – two of whom now edited magazines. The third had won a Pulitzer.’

Not only is this blatantly schematic, it’s hardly believable. The writing style is contemporary, which could lull into an illusion of realism, if everything wasn’t so over-the-top, trading loudness for substance.

This is the eerie announcement that the worst of television has found its way into literature.

Still don’t believe me? Here’s one more example, about a rock-and-roll guitarist (everyone in this book is either a musician or screwing one or hoping to screw one):
‘Bosco was unrecognizable as the scrawny, stovepipe-panted practitioner of a late-eighties sound somewhere between punk and ska, a hive of redheaded mania who had made Iggy Pop look indolent onstage. More than once, club owners had called 911 during Conduits shows, convinced that Bosco was having a seizure.’

Forget, for a moment, the shameless (and lazy) name-dropping of Iggy Pop. Are we really supposed to believe that a club owner will see a guitarist being vigorous onstage and call 911 because it looks like a seizure? Are we further supposed to believe that this has happened multiple times?


Gimme a break.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Dog of the South - book review

“Dog of the South”, by Charles Portis – book review

My rating: 4/5

Ray Midge has constructed a sheltered existence for himself, structured and predictable, and though his attempts at getting a college degree have been stymied by his incapacity to follow a single field of study through, he’s not worried and regales himself with reading and drinking with his friend Guy Dupree. His world is punctured, though, when the same Dupree, fleeing from the law after proffering death threats on the president, heads down to Mexico with Ray’s credit card, car, and wife Norma. The book is an account of Midge’s attempt to get it all back by following Dupree into Belize and tracking him down.

On the outset, Ray’s motivations are fuzzy. After all, he’s going after Dupree for three different reasons, and one wonders which he cares the most for: the credit card, the car, or the wife? It becomes clearer, as the story unfolds, that Midge is keen on redeeming his honour, to somehow show himself worthy of some kind of respect in this great big world. In the process, he meets a slew of colourful characters who, each in their own way, are striving to cut out a piece of world for themselves as well, and his perspective gradually shifts as being outside his initial comfort zone loses its’ sting and he allows himself to be invaded by the commonality he shares with Dr. Symes, a junkie ex-doctor, and Webster, a young boy who works as a go-fer in the hotel where Ray is staying.

The story is told in a charming kind of rigid stubbornness, and Ray never loses an occasion to point out how people make a mockery of him. A common running gag in the book is how people continually call him by other people’s names, even toward the end when his own wife call’s him Guy, the name of the man who took her away from him.

I really enjoyed the earnest tone, the laugh-out-loud self-deprecating, wry humour, and the occasional twinges of real emotion that occur in times when Ray is just too tired or battered to protect himself from the events unfolding around him. Also, when he does finally find his wife, the meeting is told in a way that is touchingly sincere and believable, and reading it I couldn’t help but admire the way a man will go after a woman who left him, and then try to get her back, and swallow his pride in the process and not look to punish her but merely try to reconstruct the fragile edifice of the relationship they once shared together.

Passages I much liked:

‘Whenever that kind of thing came up, he would always say – boast, the way those people do – that he had no head for figures and couldn’t do things with his hands, slyly suggesting the presence of finer qualities.’
‘I ordered roast beef and I told the waitress I wanted plenty of gristle and would like for the meat to be gray with an iridescent rainbow sheen.’
‘The desert road was straight and the guidebook said it was boring but I didn’t find it so. I was interested in everything, the gray-green bushes, the cactus, a low brown hill, a spider crossing the road.’
‘The doctor had deposited bits of gray snot on every page and these boogers were dried and crystallized.’
‘Ruth didn’t like the Americans but he, Webster, rather liked them, even if they did keep him hopping with their endless demands for ice and light bulbs and towels and flyswatters. Even the wretched hippies expected service. It was in their blood.’
‘Webster Spooner was in front of the hotel dancing around the tomato plant and jabbing the air with his tiny fists. He too had attended the matinee showing of the Muhammed Ali fight.
“I’m one bad-ass nigger,” he said to me.
“No, you’re not.”
“I’m one bad-ass nigger.”
“No, you’re not.”’
‘She made a cheery progress from bed to bed, in the confident manner of a draftdodger athlete signing autographs for mutilated soldiers.’

Monday, July 30, 2012

Review of: Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

Review of: Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

Rating: 5/5

One is often tempted to give a perfect rating to a book merely because one can find nothing wrong with it. When I read this book, though, I was reassured in my conservative ratings by the way the writing transported me to unforeseeable heights.

An absolute marvel. An astounding piece of literature.

Basically, the story is that of Calliope Stephanides, third-generation American greek girl, who, due a recessive gene that was expressed after two generations of inbreeding, is a hermaphrodite. She has both male and female sex organs. Born a girl, her male identity will assert itself toward puberty, with earth-trembling consequences to her existence. But in a larger context, this is a book about identity and belonging.

Dual identities: Greek and American, Male and Female, White and Ethnic.

Note: this review contains spoilers, not so much in what is stated, but rather in the quotes. If you wish to avoid having anything spoiled, I suggest you don’t read the quotes, or just skim them.

Cal starts the story at his grandparents in Smyrna just before the routing of the Greek army by the Turks, in the first world war. They come to America, settle in Detroit, have children, who have children, which spawns Cal. In the backdrop, we are treated to the conflict of Greeks and Turks, Ford’s car-making factory and the heavy-handed treatment of employees, the rum-running of the prohibition, the birth of the Nation of Islam, the second world war, race riots and the civil rights movement, the slow downfall of Detroit. Cal is both a omniscient narrator and a personal voice, just because he decides so, and we forgive him the transgression of the literary code because, after all, this is a book about transgressions. And the writing is beautiful, and insightful.

Beautiful like this:
‘And so it began. He played “Begin the Beguine” against Tessie’s collarbone. He played “Moonface” against her smooth cheeks. Pressing the clarinet right up against the red toenails that had so dazzled him, he played “It Goes to Your Feet.” With a secrecy they didn’t acknowledge, Milton and Tessie drifted off to quiet parts of the house, and there, lifting her skirt a little, or removing a sock, or once, when nobody was home, pulling up her blouse to expose her lower back, Tessie allowed Milton to press his clarinet to her skin and fill her body with music. At first it only tickled her. But after a while the notes spread deeper into her body. She felt the vibrations penetrate her muscles, pulsing in waves, until they rattled her bones and made her inner organs hum.’
Insightful like this:
‘This is my country,” Lefty said, and to prove it, he did a very American thing: he reached under the counter and produced a pistol.’
Sometimes, the writing is just downright, ribald funny. Like in this paragraph where he describes, movie-like, the initial success of the family restaurant:
‘“Give me two fried whiskey down!” Milton shouts, showing off his new lingo. “Dry white, 68, hold the ice!” Close-up of the cash register ringing open and closed; of Milton’s hands counting money; of Lefty putting on his hat and leaving unnoticed. Then more eggs; eggs being cracked, fried, flipped, and scrambled; eggs arriving in cartons through the back door and coming out on plates through the front hatch; fluffy heaps of scrambled eggs in gleaming yellow Technicolor; and the cash register banging open again; and money piling up. Until, finally, we see Milton and Tessie, dressed in their best, following a real estate agent through a big house.’
What particularly struck me is the way language itself is decrypted. A character that is both male and female necessarily has a particular voice, and this is not merely used but addressed in it’s own right. For instance:
‘Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in “sadness,” “joy,” or “regret.” Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling. I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, “the happiness that attends disaster.” Or: “the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.” I’d like to show how “intimations of mortality brought on by aging family members” connects with “the hatred of mirrors that begins in middle age.” I’d like to have a word for “the sadness inspired by failing restaurants” as well as for “the excitement of getting a room with a minibar.”’
Cal even manages to capture fundamental ways a child perceives the world. In this paragraph, Cal is fooling around in a bath with a girl her age:
‘We aren’t kissing. This game is far less serious, more playful, free-style, but we’re gripping each other, trying not to let the other’s slippery body go, and our knees bump, our tummies slap, our hips slide back and forth. Various submerged softnesses on Clementine’s body are delivering crucial information to mine, information I store away but won’t understand until years later.’
Sometimes, the story is so poignant it is heart-wrenching:
‘and finally one morning he looked up into the face of the woman who’d been the greatest love of his life and failed to recognize her. And then there was another kind of blow inside his head; blood pooled in his brain for the last time, washing even the last fragments of his self away.’
What I loved is the way insight is transmitted in such a curt yet eloquent manner. Cal’s father Milton is a republican. What better way to describe his trouble with literature than to evoke the pinnacle of republican lterature?
‘“Here’s a good one,” said Milton, holding up Milton. The only thing that disappointed him was that the series didn’t contain a book by Ayn Rand.’
Or how better to capture the sixties then the following sentence about Cal’s older brother?
‘He bought a motorcycle. He started meditating. He claimed to understand 2001: A Space Odyssey, even the ending.’
There is a recurring reference to literary tropes such as Chekhov’s Gun. In a few sections, a gun manifests itself, Cal does more than mention it, he overtly expounds on Chekhov. We are left to wonder when the gun will go off. One wonders how far the story can go without delving into science. When Cal does, it is brief and humorous. It feels like a debunking, as in this passage about the hunter-gatherer anthropological model:
‘Why can’t men communicate? (Because they had to be quiet on the hunt.) Why do women communicate so well? (Because they had to call out to one another where the fruits and berries were.) Why can men never find things around the house? (Because they have a narrow field of vision, useful in tracking prey.) Why can women find things so easily? (Because in protecting the nest they were used to scanning a wide field.) Why can’t women parallel-park? (Because low testosterone inhibits spatial ability.) Why won’t men ask for directions? (Because asking for directions is a sign of weakness, and hunters never show weakness.) This is where we are today. Men and women, tired of being the same, want to be different again.’
I was utterly spellbound reading this book. In another transgression, Cal switches to magic realism in describing his father’s death.
‘Milton no longer had any brain waves, so it was understandable why, hovering in the Cadillac, he might have forgotten that the Zebra Room had burned down long ago. He was mystified at not being able to find it. All that was left of the old neighborhood was empty land. It seemed that most of the city was gone, as he gazed down.’
Utterly spellbound.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Review of: Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick

My rating: 2/5

I found this book on an internet list of books to read. The title was alluring to me, evoking as it did a culture clash of America and Europe and some form of budding teen romance. It promised laughs galore and some level of adrenaline.

I can't say I'm disappointed because all those elements are there. The female crazy euro character is everything we have come to expect of the female euro assassin as developped during 40+ years of Cold War: rational, willul, determined, slim, naturally sexy, cultured, sophisticated, versed in the dark arts of assassination and wistully inclined to give her heart to the doughy American boy whose naïve whimsicality wins her heart almost from the get-go. The male character is everything we have come to expect from the post-generation-X adolescent whose cooky journal we are privy to: he's in a rock band with an ironic name, he is hopelessly a virgin due to his lack of self-possession in female presence, he has good marks in school and could be promised to a bright future if he could only avoid letting his girl problem pull him into the dregs of some urban gun fight.

So we follow our two heroes, she having 5 targets to kill before the night is through, he just hanging on and trying to do the right thing, they gradually giving in to the ever more pressing need to abandon themselves in a member of the opposite sex. The plot works, though the mechanisms used to keep it on track feel contrived. Mostly, though, it's not that funny.

Oh, I did chuckle a little! But the ingredients don't coalesce, and I think it's because they weren't pushed beyong their nominal definition, so the read mostly feels wooden.

The interesting aspect of the writing is that each chapter is formulated as an answer to a college application form question.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Chekhov's Gun

Just came upon this nifty expression: Chekhov's Gun.

From wikipedia:

"Chekhov's gun is a literary technique whereby an apparently irrelevant element is introduced early in the story whose significance becomes clear later in the narrative.[dubious – discuss] The concept is named after Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, who mentioned several variants of the concept in letters."

The article goes on to state that, in Chekhov's view, one must not put a loaded gun onstage if one does not have the intention of having someone fire it at some time in the play.

Review of "Youth in Revolt", by C.D. Payne

Review of "Youth in Revolt", by C.D. Payne

My rating: 4/5

This is really a peculiar read.

It's the journal of Nick Twisp, a manipulative, cynical, sex-obsessed youth whose erstwhile (I'm using that word because the author likes it so much) good behavior is succombing to the adolescent prime imperative of losing one's virginity. He hones in on his new amour Shinee, who is willing, experienced and cooperative, though enigmatically distant and drifting. Things get in the way, obstacles made of arbitrary parental actions and decisions, space, timing, his constrictive teen existence, his lack of economic freedom.

I found this book very funny. Nick's über-logical approach to things make him undertake courses of action that made me cringe and squirm and giggle (think fellatio with his best male friend), and it occurred to me that, had I read this book as an actual teen I would have been rather shocked. I myself was as rational a teen as Nick is, but I wasn't one to brave borders and stand up to adults. Much. Well, maybe a little, but not in any way as much as Nick. But Nick has no real respect for adults, he's an adult trapped in an adolescent body and in an adolescent's life. As such, being a virgin at his ripe old age of 14 seems to him egregious, and the end will justify all means at his disposal (and then some).

It seems that this is less a believable account of a 14-year-old than the attempt of the same character at 40 to rewrite his past. That would illuminate the latent understanding of adult intentions and levers, the self-deprecating humor, and the candid avowal of the utter simplicity of what he wants: sexual congress, as soon as possible.


Arcadia, by Lauren Goff - book review

I only read the kindle excerpt, which I believe is the first chapter. That's as far as I'll be going for now until my reading schedule loosens up a bit.

I had to check it out because there's so much noise about this book right now. I think America is reaching a turning point where the whole sixties (this book is set in the seventies, but it's about a hippy commune so we'll just call it the sixties) is leaving the realm of collective memory to enter the history books, and books about the period, free love, Vietnam war etc. will proceed less from first-person accounts and more from research and the usual framework of historical fiction (interviews, going through scanned newspapers, searching for period diaries, etc.)

I'd probably have been more partial to this read if I hadn't had my expectations bulked up by all the hype. Many reviewers note the writing as "lush", which it isn't, not really. In fact, I wouldn't call it 'bare', but it's closer to 'bare' than 'lush'.

Anyway, my expectations were busted by the actual text. Somehow, I thought I'd get a closer glimpse of the personalities in just such a commune. I'm really fascinated by communities that put their individuality aside and willingly participate in a collective adventure, suspend relations of power and economics, and fully let the spell of the group take command of their destiny. It must be frightening. In this case, we won't know, because the main character Bit was born into the community, so he isn't given any choice, it's the only reality he has known from birth. My other problem with this is that, as a child, he has no real judgment on the adult characters, he merely witnesses them through their speech and smell and gifts and bad teeth.

**spoiler ahead**

It's a fun read, though. When the people of the commune need to work together, there are invariably tensions arising from the wants and wills of each and every, and the text describes how they undergo tension-releasing yoga sessions, prescribed by the group's yoga specialist, as often as needed to maintain peace and harmony. Or how Bit's view of the world beyond the commune is the chemical taste of peppermints smuggled to him by a grizzled Vietnam vet.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Male and female authors on my reading lists

There’s a feature on goodreads that allows one to see one’s list of most-read authors. One clicks on “My Books” then the the “Most read authors” link. My ten most-read authors are all men. Mary Stewart arrives in 11th place, though she’s tied with the three authors ahead of her.

Is my reading really that male-dominated?

I exported my list of goodreads “read“ books and did a quick tally of male and female authors.

The result:  just over 10% of books authored by women, the rest by men. 

More surprise. I knew I read more books by men than women, but wouldn’t have imagined it being that different. Also, my tastes aren’t really eclectic, in fact I mostly read books that were discovered or suggested by friends (real-life and goodreads), mentioned on book sites or prize lists (that, I admit, I am ashamed of, reading books because they won some stupid prize). Then I realized that the huge bias is mostly a product of my teenage reading years. I don’t particularly gravitate toward male-dominated genres like sci-fi and fantasy, but I used to, and I used to read more books by major sci-fi and fantasy authors. 

So that explains it, right? Wrong. I exported my to-read list and the result is just about as damning:  13% women writers.

What surprises me the most is that, of the many functions that literature fulfills, I look to it to spend time in other people’s skins, to see life from the eyes of those whose life is far removed from my own. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Review of 1Q84, book #1

Review of IQ84, book #1 - by Haruki Murakami

Rating: 4/5

It helps to know a little about Murakami to properly appreciate this novel. I’m not versed in lit-crit, but I believe this is called “context”, or as the French say, “texte con” (if you are a grad student reading this thousands of years from now, please note that that was a joke and do not spawn silly theories on historically alternative meanings of the word “con”).

Murakami is a seasoned and dedicated runner, and draws many parallels from his joint universes of running and writing. In distance running, it is important to move forward, find the pace that suits the distance, avoid friction and unnecessary energy expenditure, find a rhythm and occupy the mind with music and daydreams to allay the monotony.

From what I can discern in Murakami’s writing, the same applies. The plot moves forward, the characters patiently pursue whatever is awaiting them in the barely-discernable distance, and bounce along avoiding getting hurt and keeping their heads level with the horizon. Then, toward the end, an all-out sprint that releases a cascade of adrenaline, and it’s done. This appears to be his model. His plot is on a path from which he does not veer, his characters are always in character and self-coherent, there are no superfluous digressions, the whole is like a well-greased machine that glides forward, seemingly effortlessly.

(Note to assistant: engage the spoiler machine, full power)

The novel has two main characters: Tengo and Aomame. Tengo is a math teacher and writer, whose writing talent is stymied by some form of writer’s block until he does a rewrite of a strange girl Fuka-Eri’s story about mysterious Little People who enter this world to build air chrysalises, which may or may not be made up, who knows. Fuka-Eri asks questions that don’t end in audible question marks, which adds to her strangeness. Tengo met Aomame in his school days and retains an intense memory of her, and of the one time she held his hand and peered deeply into his eyes. Aomame is a martial arts instructor with a fetish for intense sex with middle-aged men with thinning hair that may be proxies for Murakami, who knows. She also dabbles in contract killing of abusive husbands, contracts given to her by a rich dowager who is referred to as the dowager, whose security by a burly gay man named Tamaru, who may be a contract killer himself, who knows.

This is how the plot moves forward: Tengo rewrites Fuka-Eri’s story and in the process is drawn closer to her, thus learning of her past in a a cultish organic farming institution called Sakigake. Aomame kills abusive husbands and is introduced to the women who have retreated from them, among which Tsubasa, who escaped from the Sakigake compound. Ramification point identified. Oh, and Aomame’s world is strangely different from our own, because the police carry berettas not revolvers like she seems to remember, and by-the-way don’t look now but there are two moons in the sky just like, it is revealed, is the basis of Tengo’s novel. Whoooooooooooa, dude!

(Note to assistant: turn off the spoiler machine, NOW!)

I will admit to being bored during much of my reading of this novel, though the strangely familiar strange elements make up for it. I expect more grit in a novel, more dissonance and friction and pain. Maybe, too, I expect all these things as a runner which is why I suck so much at running, who knows.
Still, that final sprint in the novel, what a rush! Enough to bump this review’s rating from three to four stars.

Sunday, July 8, 2012


Well, I was doing a bit of writing this week, toying with novel ideas like any other recently-turned-40 corporate drone, and then it all came to a screeching halt.

Because of this scene from Adventureland:

I watched it, then I watched it over again, then I watched it ten times over. And I wondered: how would you go about putting something like that into words?

It must have been simple enough to put into a screenplay:

And, just like that, you can borrow all the soulful longing of Lou Reed's song by just playing it at the right moment, thus evoking a state of mind, a time period in American history, and New York, and the ache of the end of adolescence, and the yearning for a soulmate, and the smell of desire and 80's carseat leather, and a sense of aimlessness. Just like that, with Lou Reed's song plastered across a sequence in a car at night under a bridge. And it's not cheating.

Really, how can a novel hope to contend with this medium? Oh, I know, they mustn't be compared, they can't, a literary work will move you in ways a film won't, but that pure, total experience of music over images, simple and straightforward, totally open and unprotected, will never, ever, be conveyable in words on paper. And it made me sad, enough anyhow to put the pen and notebook away for the week, maybe more, enough time to let the charm of those few seconds in a car with James and Emily wear off.

Maybe I'll go watch it again.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Review of English, August

Critique of : English, August, by Upamanyu Chatterjee

My rating: 5/5

It’s very difficult to articulate exactly what this book elicited in me while reading and make it cohere, so I’ll just throw stuff at the ceiling like semi-cooked pasta and hope some of it sticks, to amuse the guests.
Agastya (August) is an Indian Administrative Service officer in training, who has left the bustling energy of Calcutta for a forlorn existence in Madna, buffeted from one official to the next and trying to conserve some sense of self. He is unhappy, and lends this unhappiness the credence it warrants.
Afternoons, he spends time with exiles such as himself, drinking whiskey, smoking marijuana and voicing desultory thoughts. His mind wanders, restless, and during sleepless evenings he engages in nightly runs to tire his body and force it to remember what life should feel like. He sits in his room listening to of jazz music on cassette player (the story takes place in the 80’s) and reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. He suspects that his cook serves him faeces so scrounges meals off his social acquaintances and observes their family dynamics.

But Agastya is not lazy or without ambition. He aspires whole-heartedly to be happy. His senses are keen and he is always on lookout for perspective on his existence, the possibility of a way out, the conclusions of kindred travellers.

I read this book in the mornings. After dropping off my younger girl at school, I walk toward work and stop off every day at a youth hostel in Paris’ 19th arrondissement that has an open café. There, seated in a corner with my coffee and book, I hear other languages, mostly European but also some Asian, people come from all over, there’s a tingling in the air. It’s a good place to read a book like this one, steeped in an sense of passage, of curiosity, of search.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Review of: Immortality, by Milan Kundera

Immortality, by Milan Kundera - book review

My rating: 3/5

This is one of those novels that I read and am not quite sure what I am reading. Then, the reading ends and I’m not at all sure of what I have read. Then, I attempt the delicate operation of mentally piecing together all the characters, ideas, storylines, dichotomies, and the exercise is so infructuous that I wonder if really, do the pieces fit together, or is it all just a jumble of mismatched parts that only share a common color?

Oh, botheration.

What can I say about this book? The title doesn’t lie, for one. It is about immortality, that which remains when the person has gone, and persists through the ages a relatively long time. Kundera starts with a gesture offered by a woman at a swimming pool, a type of wave that seems to be throwing a ball into the air. The gesture is not that of the elderly woman doing it but more that of a young woman, a come-hither wave that invites to unspecified mysterious glee. Kundera (he actually puts himself into the novel as a wine-drinking swimming-pool visiting guy) states that there are more people in the world than ideas and gestures, so these ideas and gestures get borrowed around a lot and the people who may think they have their own ideas and gestures are deluding themselves. He sets out to illustrate this.

So, we encounter Agnes, who has a head that bores downwards and an ass that points to the heavens. Her sister Laura is the opposite, with an ass that bears her toward the ground and a head that seeks to go ever higher. We enjoy a diversion in the past where Goethe holds at bay a young would-be mistress Bettina who is intent on writing his biography and thus steal his grasp on immortality. We meet Paul, Agnes’ husband who hosts a cultural television show but upholds the sanctity of the media image over cultural complexity, and who is the aid of his own executioners. There is Rubens, whose sexual life serves to highlight the five phases of erotic in-bed dialogue (athletic mutism, metaphore, truthful obscenity, hearsay, and mysticism). There’s Avenarius, ecologist who slashes tires to rid the city of the pervasive movement of cars. Through these characters, Kundera traces lines and highlights hidden structure.

I read this book entirely in the bath, all 500 or so pages of it, after putting into place a technique for toweling off my forearms and holding the book directly above the bath water with my elbows resting on the bath bottom. I suspect that it’s a good read for a bath, because it requires relaxation to indulge the style, given to massive, aimless digressions and a pace that often trudges forward ever so slowly. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this read, and I wonder how much of it I’ll remember tomorrow, next week, next month,  next year. 

Friday, June 15, 2012

Review of The Chocolate War

The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier

My rating: 4/5

This book reminded me a lot of the Lord of The Flies, in that the microcosm of youth is used as a model in which to explore power dynamics and group relations.

Jerry Renault is a high school freshman who is mandated by a secret mafia-like seniors club the Vigils to refuse to participate in a chocolate sale. At first a pawn of the Vigils, he becomes an embarrassment after the Vigils rally to the chocolate sale yet Jerry, in an existential act, decides to brave the collective ire and persists in refusing to sell the chocolates.

The tension is palpable, drawn with precision and rhythm. Dialogues are pivotal in showing how pressure is applied and status maintained in this closed system of a religious school in which Christian virtue is a founding value but is never evoked. The absence of any tangible female character only compounds the prison ambiance: there is light at the end of the tunnel because high school cannot last forever, but the brothers taint this light by showing that even as adults, the world continues to function with pressure and domination.
Jerry becomes a focal point for the frustration and cruelty of the student body. Progressively, he comes to embody both the scapegoat and a proxy for the figure of Christ, as symbolized by the football goal posts in the form of a cross. As such, his refusal to sell the chocolates, to participate in the economics of the system, is a punishable retreat from the material world into the spiritual world of existential affirmation, seen both on the “Do I dare disturb the Universe?” poster in his locker and also the “do your own thing” motto.

I was enthralled by this book. The only real negative point I’d make about it is that, having read it, the ending seems to be proposed by the author as the sole one possible, that the forces in place in this universe are implacable. As such, and probably because I don’t agree with the conclusion, I would have preferred a more open ending.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Review of: A Moveable Feast

A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway

My rating: 4/5

What a fascinating read!

Hemingway’s legend precedes and slanders him. What image we have of him, magnified by the myriad portrayals and caricatures of the man in film and literature, utterly fails to capture the essence of the man as a writer.

Reading ‘A Moveable Feast’, Hemingway’s memoirs of Paris, I was at first frowning at the simplicity of the wording, thinking that the lack of nuance was abandoning much depth of experience, until details thrown out in stark contrast to the canvas started coming out to punch me in the face. The turning point in the reading is a scene where Hemingway describes a boxing session he is having with Ezra Pound, the simplicity of stance and movement, and it seemed to me (I may be wrong about this, or simply reading too much into it) that Hemingway is describing his writing as he writes it, that this was a sort of meta-message to the reader enjoining him to be wary of the sudden jabs and uppercuts that the writing will be throwing.

At some moments, the previous chapter almost needs to be re-read in light of how he finishes it, as when he describes a light conversation with Pascin at a bar.

Sometimes the book is laugh-out-loud as when he’s trying to get some writing done on the terrace of a café and an aspiring writer/critic (mercifully unnamed) keeps butting in. Or the whole description of travelling across France with Scott Fitzgerald, or when Scott Fitzgerald confesses the crux of his marital woes, I laughed, I couldn’t believe what I was reading!

All in all, I think the main interest of this book lies in capturing the experience of the American writer in Paris at a time when an American-writer-in-Paris was the thing to be. That may seem trite and it is, but what can you do, that period in literary history has come and gone, and while there will certainly be other Parises and other expatriate writers in search of themselves, a party and a bit of exoticism, but each time will be different and this one really, drop-fed in parsimonious detail, is a pleasure to take in.

Monday, June 4, 2012

American Gods review

American Gods - Neil Gaiman

My rating: 2/5

I must admit I'm underwhelmed by this book. The premise is interesting, the difficultly of gods to throw and maintain roots in American soil, and a conflict of old and new gods to determine who keeps the mindshare of the American people. The story, however, is just comic-book-ish in both content and execution: psychology and description take a distant backdrop to dialogue, which left me frustratingly wondering just what goes on in a god's mind. The powers and vulnerabilities of gods are never explained, which gives the story full latitude to bend and adapt to the necessities of the plot: sometimes the characters are above human frailties, sometimes not.

Plot twists and an interesting trip to the land of the dead do a good job of redeeming this book in the final quarter, however.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Le Photographe

Le Photographe, by Emmanuel Guibert (Illustrator), Didier Lefèvre, Fréderic Lemercier

My rating: 5/5

This is the true story of Didier Lefevre, who accompanied an MSF (Médecins Sns Frontières - Doctors Without Borders) mission in 1986 to photograph the people involved in bringing medical care to war-stricken Afghanistan.

The first surprise is the format. Lefevre's original photographs are set in the graphic novel, interspersed with the canonical drawings and text boxes. The effect is seizing. Often, the next photograph is announced by the Lefevre in the situation, and then when it comes is is stark, often surprising, sometimes poignant.

True to his profession, Lefevre has an "eye" for those details that are utterly revealing of the situation, the cultural context, the contrast of western traveller's expectancies and the realities on the field.

The dialogues between himself and the doctors are often hilarious - low-key, tongue-in-cheek stuff. Sometimes things get serious, a doctor will launch into a rant and Lefevre transcribes it and sets it alongside the photo of the ranter.

Lefevre also reveals himself to be a cunning narrator, rumbling along and choosing to describe just those situations that give an impression of being there with him.

Also, quite surprising, one finds onself wishing to be there with him.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Internet literary prize, take 2

In a previous post, I tackled the issue of the feasibility of creating an internet literary prize, addressing the main obstacle of having a finite number of readers read an (also finite) number of books but having insufficient time to read all-the-books. My solution was to divide the reading world into user groups, then allowing each group to push books forward.

I’d go to further subdivision, say allow book categories: per genre, per year, per decade, per  century, per language, per country. Any category (or set of categories, for that matter) could give rise to a prize.

Now, imagine we’ve opened a category: best English-language novel about supernatural athletes written in 2012. Let’s further imagine that you have a group of users prepared to read a fixed number of the novels on the list. What we want to do is prevent the tournament from being “gamed” by the supposed worth of books being hyped by their publishers and allow un-hyped books the same consideration as their better-known brethren.  We know that the un-hyped books will be readily read by the author’s friends (who will therefore not be objective) and maybe not at all by others.

What I would like to do, as a designer of this algorithm, is propose a system wherein the author’s friends can propose un-hyped book X but have it cost them, so that they will only vote for their friend’s book if the book is truly worthwhile.

What can it cost them?

My clue to the pursuit of my thought on this is that I’ve introduced the notion of cost, hence currency. I can even make a game of this! Imagine that readers are a kind of investor in this game. I want to design the game so that investing in a little-known book that eventually makes it will be more interesting an investment than a better-known book that makes it as well.

So, not a tournament of books, but an *economy* of books.

Here, I hit a snag, admittedly. In this system of comparison I’m creating, the investors are the same as the consumers, so investors will consume their own product. This precludes objectivity, and I want to preserve objectivity.

Could I then create a system in which you can’t promote (vote for) a book in which you are an investor? That’s a possibility. Of course, there’s nothing to prevent relationships arising between investors and consumers, and negotiations taking place, etc.

This is not simple, but I’m not about to cede to the sirens of “select juries” and elitist closed-door selections.

More thought is necessary on the subject.

The Life of Pi

The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

My rating: 5/5

What a strange, wonderful book!

A writer traveling in India is accosted by a man purporting to tell him a story that will make him believe in God. A hundred pages later, our hero Pi is on a boat with a tiger, drifting in the currents of the Pacific ocean, with nary another human embarkation in sight. The premise seems scarcely believable, and indeed it does require a leap of faith, of sorts. But readers are always more than prepared to offer these leaps of faith, so the premise laid, the ramifications ensue. And what ramifications they are! Traveling on a boat with a tiger is a dangerous proposition, but Pi sees no way to get rid of him, and he becomes predictably attached to the beast, having known him from his early years in the Pondicherry zoo that his father owned.

Pi's character is overly religious: he cumulates religious practices like most adolescents collect sporting activities. He is a Hindu, then a Christian, then a Muslim. All these approaches to God hold no contradiction for him, and together with his childhood in a zoo they form the skeleton of his character: respectful of nature and searching for God in all his manifestations.

The story is artfully layered, and many details that appear to have been put in for descriptive purposes actually serve to inform subsequent events in the story.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Time for an internet literary prize?

Literary prizes.

They aren't born equal. In France, there is the annual Goncourt prize, the Renaudot, the Prix Femina, and quite a few others. But the French are openly admirative of the prize from accross the pond, the Booker, the prize to make all prizes blush and stammer. The selection process seems more open, more meritocratic, and of course a good part of French would like for everyone to accept that books can be both popular, legible and of high literary merit, that there's no innate contradiction there.

Of course, the Booker is not as open as all that. For one, it's publishers that put forward their champions. You couldn't get a (*obligatory gasp*) self-published author in the run.

Would a self-published author stand any chance, anyway? Probably not. Still, I'd like to imagine a literary prize structure in which any author's progeny could bubble up (sorry, I'm an IT professional) in some virtuous algorithm that lets quality shoot up and crap descend magestically.

Never one to underestimate the overwhelming amount of work ahead of me, I can think of a few, out of hand.

1. New novels come to light before we get through the existing ones.

Let's say we imagine a kind of sorting algorithm where a bunch of books are listed online and people vote for the ones they prefer. Leave aside for the moment that there are a myriad ways the voting could be implemented: allow one vote per person, or as many votes as there are books in the list, allow/disallow downvotes, etc., a huge obstacle to this is that readers would have to read everything on the list.


Everyone can't read everything. Reading 50 pages a day, one can get through perhaps one or two books a week, and this estimate, I think, relates to the above-average reader. So figure maybe 50-100 books a year for serious readers (I don't mean people reading serious work, just people reading a good quantity of it). Any serious list representing any yearly production would have thousands of titles on it, so there's no way you could get everyone to read everything.

This is what truly sets books apart from other media, in my opinion. A top-of-the-charts for pop music doesn't have this problem, really. It's not unfeasible to have people listen to more or less complete lists of pop songs. Film, too, for that matter: although a film takes a good few hours to watch, film production is expensive enough that the yearly batch can be "consummed" by serious film buffs.

So what's the solution? From an algorithmic perspective, you either chop the list into sublists, by genre, year, country, etc. and then again chop each sublist into smaller sublists, or you chop the books up and have readers read a small portion of each.

I'm not sure what the solution is, but I think I'd go for the sublist feature. What we'd need to do is divide the literary universe into countries, provinces, cities, and apply the best of what we've learned of democracy, and of course leave out the worst.

I don't have the solution yet, though I am thinking about it. This is where I'd start: no author can get everyone to read his work, but most authors can at least get their friends to read their work. So authors could group into subgroups of varying size, among which the books written are voted upon and the winner "pushed up" (again, the pushing algorithm yet to be specified), with as much weight as there are authors in the subgroup.

My next point would concern the system needed to implement the voting process, and how to make it failsafe and fraud-resistant. But this post ist starting to get a little lengthy, so maybe I'll just stop here for today.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

While reading Kundera's "Immortality"

Kundera always attacks his themes head-on. In this case, immortality is viewed from a few perspectives. On of those is historical: Kundera explores Goethe's struggle to remain the sole custodian of his own legend, thwarting his friend and literary rival Bettina's attempt to cut in on his action by writing his biography. Immortality here is a commodity, to be bought, sold, and when possible: stolen.

Kundera makes the point that the only immortals are artists and politicians. It's not clear in which category he places prophets.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Hedge Knight, by George R.R. Martin

The Hedge Knight, by George R.R. Martin - book review

My rating: 2/5

This novel is set in the same universe as the Game of Thrones series, though the action takes place a century before. As such, it draws the inevitable comparisons to Game of Thrones, so I thought I might start my review there.

The world of Game of Thrones is, magic excepted, a simplification of our own world. We have telecommunications: telephone networks, internet, mobiles, etc. The Game of Thrones world has ravens, and communicate between castles by attaching messages to their legs. We have the world's major religions, the Game of Throne's world has the religion of the seven, the lord of light, and the old gods. We have governments and heads of state, the Game of Thrones world has kings, lords, and councils. We have sport fans, the Game of Thrones world has tourneys. We have courts of law, the Game of Thrones world has...

Well nothing, really. There is no justice for the common man/woman in the Game of Thrones series, which is why everyone is so desperate to remain a lord or a king, because though it won't spare one a violent death, it certainly enables one to expect it, sword in hand. The only safeguard against injustice is the oath that knights take to defend the meek. In the Game of Thrones series, a war is under foot and knights' oaths have taken back stage to their war duties, save a band of outlaws.
Hence the interest of this book, the Hedge Knight. George R.R. Martin shows here how one knight will uphold the oath of the knight and defend a maiden against the abuse of a mad prince. The act is spontaneous, unplanned, and plunges the hedge knight into a forward flight in which he risks all to save himself.

The initial act of courage is taken by our hot-headed hero without premediation, and here one could expect that the character's reasons for desiring justice were more detailed, explained. However, this one act accomplished, our hedge knight can do nothing but regret it, ruefully damning his thick-headedness. Was this an existential act? We don't have time to ponder the philosophical implications as the hedge knight scrambles to assemble a team of champions to defend against the opposing accusers who have decreed that he should be given trial by combat.

The plot relies heavily on action, to the neglect of political intrigues and human persuasion we've come to expect from Game of Thrones. Also, I found that the different plot mechanisms fit together a little too easily, and would have liked to see the hedge knight struggle more to gain the adherence of those that will eventually abet him.