May 3rd, 2012
I’ve been reading my bookshelves alphabetically for a while now, not consistently, if someone recommends a book to me or if I’ve got a book club meeting coming up, or if I’m particularly inspired, I stray, but I have managed to read many titles that have been sitting for ages this way, and I’m glad I’m doing it. I bought a copy of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch in 1992. That’s right — that book has been sitting on my TBR shelf for twenty years. I went through a phase in high school where I read all kinds of beat literature, Kerouac, who still remains a favourite, changed my world when I first read him. I didn’t know books could be like that — On the Road was the perfect book for me as a kid, it filled me with a wonderful sense of curiosity, spit me out into the world, on road trips, to different provinces, adventures away from home and I have such fond memories of the physical act of reading those books.
So, I bought Naked Lunch way in the way back from Pages on Queen Street and started it once, twice, three, times, read Junkie in between and loved it, and carted the battered paperback copy around to a half-dozen apartments. Then, when I finally gave in to the fact that I honestly just had to suck it up and read the damn book, it took me a good three weeks because, and I am saying this with all honesty, I could not understand what the heck was going on half the time. So, yes, I know it’s a moderately incoherent, rambling, deeply intense and evocative piece of writing by one of America’s most controversial figures in literature. I can see why it’s important. But maybe I’m so far passed the point now of looking at my life as a long list of the “cool” things that I have read that all I really wanted was the good junkie story and far less of the Interzone oddities.
I really, really liked the Appendix, where Burroughs outlines his drug use, all of the effects, and what worked in terms of him getting clean. His dialogue is terrific, and there are some amazing characters sprinkled throughout the book, but the whole “cut up technique” (as described in my 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die text): “which serves to render the reader equally unable to make full sense of the surroundings.” Indeed. “Narratives begin, interweave, become lost, and are found again; scenarios are glimpsed then vanish from sight.” Exactly. And then all I’m screaming in my head is “What on earth is going on and that’s a lot of naked peeps and body parts and excrement and swearing and shooting up and holy hell I am one tired mother right now.”
However, I did listen to a lot of Junkie via this great link that Brain Pickings posted via Twitter, and was reminded that it is, indeed a terrific book, especially when read by Burroughs himself. Really all I have to say about this in conclusion is that I am really glad to have finished it. That’s all.
Other books read: The Last Tycoon by Fitzgerald (#39).
March 10th, 2012
I follow @Angie_Abdou on Twitter, and she follows me. It’s a fun internet friendship. We have similar tastes in books and a penchant for crying at inopportune moments. And when I confessed that I have a strange obsession with climbing-related nonfiction, she asked if I’d enjoy climbing-related fiction and promptly mailed me a copy of her intense, addictive, and refreshing novel, The Canterbury Trail.
Of course, I’m going to digress — I lived in a town not unlike the fictional Coalton, BC. I fooled around with a boy or two insanely like F-Bomb, SOR and Loco, and while I never stayed in Banff long enough to get to ski season, I certainly did my share of dumb, dangerous things the two summers I spent there during university. And I got it. The reason why people live in places like Coalton. For me, and it’s not this way for everyone, it was one-part my youth and another part my need to run away, it wasn’t real life. I completely got Alison, the slightly-older journalist who decamped to the town and invited herself up the mountain with the boys just for the ride. When I lived in Banff, we had no television, no phone, no internet, no radio, no newspapers, nothing to tether us back down to society except beer, mountains, and elk. It was awesome. (more…)
So, let’s give up the ghost — I’m working on a massive public domain project at work, and it’s amazingly fun. We’re creating really beautiful ebooks from PD texts, and creating some fun content around events (like the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic) and it’s a really great list. It’s also a little like a cyclone — we whirl around and pile on more books into the never-ending spreadsheet and very rarely come out the other side as the wind whips us along.
As a result, I’ve been reading a whole pile of PD texts, from the utterly strange (John Jacob Astor’s A Journey In Other Worlds, #12), to the utterly brilliant (Hemingway’s The Old Man in the Sea), to lesser works by great writers (To Have and Have Not [an abysmally bad Hemingway novel, #13] and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym by Edgar Allan Poe), to a whole host of nonfiction around the sinking of the Titanic (#s 14, 15, 16: The Loss of the S.S. Titanic, The Truth About the Titanic & The Wreck of the Titan), to some classic children’s literature that I had never actually read (The Secret Garden, #17), and the list goes on (well, to a reread of Tender is the Night (#18) even though I was sure I read it in university).
Anyway, by the time I’m finished reading through the books, checking the ePubs, getting frustrated with how Edgar Allan Poe uses so much flapjacking Greek, I don’t feel like blogging about the books at all. However, I am making great inroads in terms of my 1001 Books challenge, which is enough of a reason to continue with the public domain project in general…
PS – I forgot one yesterday, Gulliver’s Travels (#20), which I enjoyed immensely and had a great conversation with my RRHB about, he insists it’s the first of science fiction, I equate it to the rollicking adventure stories of the time, like Robinson Crusoe. I did admit that the end bored me a bit, and that I preferred the first three parts to the fourth, but, overall, it’s probably my favourite that I’ve read since embarking upon this project…
February 20th, 2012
When @em_ingram walked into my cube last week and told me that I absolutely had to read The Flight of Gemma Hardy, I took it to heart. Margot Livesay’s love letter to Jane Eyre, surprised and delighted me. It’s a familiar story, not just because of the latest filmed adaptation (which I thought was excellent), but because, like so many of these great novels, these stories are embedded in our collective reading consciousness. I’ve read a number of books that write back to Brontë, and I count Jean Rhy’s Wide Sargasso Sea among one of my favourite novels, of all time.
Ten-year-old Gemma, an orphan now twice-over, finds herself shunted away to Claypoole, where she’s a “working girl,” scrubbing floors and dusting shelves for just to sustain her Annie-like existence and meagre education. But she’s strong willed and good of heart, and lands an au pair position in the Orkneys, where her fate is forever linked with that of her employer’s, Mr. Sinclair. As with the original book, morality and secrets are the enemy of love, and Gemma finds herself chased away, yet again, from yet another home. She lands not fifty miles from her awful aunt’s house, and must come to face the truth of her own existence, her own life’s story, before she can even consider whether or not she’d like to be married. Set after the Second World War, when Scotland itself must have been changing, where the men and the women who had been through the battles faced a different world when they returned, Gemma’s life opens up for her in ways that her predecessor, Jane, would have most likely reveled in.
While I found some of the strings tying this novel to the other a bit flimsy, in the end, it didn’t matter because Gemma’s such a wonderful character in her own right. When she sets off to “find herself,” pushed to the brink by the choices forced upon her by both society and “good” morals, you root for her entirely, and that’s enough for me. Knowing the “other” Jane’s story so well becomes irrelevant by the end of the book, as if Livesay wrote herself out of it on purpose, if only to prove how far we’ve all come, to examine the roots of feminism, of free will, of delight in the power of learning, all of which, I’m sure, Brontë would have reveled in herself. Like Emma described it to me, this is a book for people who love books, and she’s not at all wrong.
The one bright spot that I pulled off my shelf of “Bs” in the last week or so has got to be Julie Booker’s incredibly adept story collection, Up, Up, Up. I like, first of all, how she puts “short” back in “short story,” with many of the tales clocking in at less than ten or so pages. I also like the whimsical package, the pretty colours, and how the word “twee” never once entered my mind as I raced through the collection.
By far my favourite stories are the ones taking place in a natural setting. And by far by far, the one I enjoyed the best was the very first one, “Geology in Motion.” Because, how could you not love a story that starts like this: “Lorrie and Kate tended to say too much.” You see, they talk themselves right into an Alaskan vacation, two over-sized ladies in an under-sized kayak — woman against nature. And immediately the story brought to mind the infamous line from one of my favourite Flannery O’Connor stories, “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” where Julian accompanies his mother to the Y for her reducing classes. (more…)
February 5th, 2012
My copy of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die characterizes Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot as such: “This is a fascinating jigsaw puzzle of a book.” And while it’s not an untrue statement, it’s also a little dismissive of what I feel is the real, true accomplishment of this novella — Barnes’s complete ability to broadly reimagine the constructs of the “novel.” In a way, if you were reading critically, you could define the book in so many different ways: a post-modern collection speaking back to one of the greats of Western literature, Flaubert; a finely tuned, self-referential critique of the Ivory Tower nature of literary history and criticism; a highly personal story of a man (a doctor) relating so deeply to a story and characters (in Madame Bovary) that it allows him the space to come to terms with the state of his own life; and the more you read it, the more you see in it — that’s the utter brilliance of this work. (more…)
February 4th, 2012
Oh, Mo Hayder. I’ve told anyone who’ll listen that Mo Hayder is my favourite thriller writer. While, yes, sometimes there are gruesome aspects to her novels, but they are just so damn well written that even when the words make me cringe, I’m impressed by them. Hanging Hill is a standalone novel, written outside of her current series, The Walking Man books, and while there are familiar aspects to the story (a tough-as-nails cop; family conflict; great villains), this is one hell of a mystery.
First, let’s examine the set up: two sisters, recently reconciled, sit on a bench outside of a funeral. The reader (ahem, me) makes an assumption, it’s one you’re led right into like a fly to a sticky trap, about the funeral’s protagonist, if you will, and Hayder expertly unravels bits and pieces throughout the novel until you get to the shocker of an ending — and are stunned by its final pages. (more…)
After rearranging all of my books in alphabetical order, I was disheartened to have to start at the “As” again — but it meant that I am finally getting to some of the nonfiction that has been collecting dust bunnies for more years than I’d care to count, and hence: The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong. A friend of mine, Deborah Birkett, who used to run a terrific website called Chicklit, had mentioned Armstrong either in passing or in something she had written or in some conversation she may have moderated. I am pretty sure that’s how this book ended up on my shelves — through her recommendation.
Armstrong, a failed nun, a failed post-doc, a failed teacher and a failed television presenter (yes, I’m being harsh but bear with me), finally finds her calling when she, after a long struggle with real life, comes to writing about comparative religion. It’s funny, I finished The Night Circus, a whimsical novel about real magic only to come to a very real memoir about a woman who loses her faith so colossally that she fears she’ll never find her place in the real world, the magic in her ideas about God and religion, so to speak, lost for the foreseeable future. In so many ways, Armstrong’s struggles to find her right place in the world are so powerful that it’s impossible not to cheer for her every single time life churns her out in a direction she never imagined for herself. (more…)
December 19th, 2011
Getting caught up with book reviews might be an impossibility at this point. There are a few that I think deserve full, thoughtful reviews. But for some of the books that I’ve finished over the last little while I just want to note that I’ve read them, you know?
So, here’s my lesson: do not buy multiple books by the same author if you a) have never read the author and b) don’t know if you’d like the author’s voice in the first place. Way in the way back, I bought a copy of The Polished Hoe because it won the Giller. Then, because I thought to myself, Clarke was a Giller-winner and therefore must be a great writer, I bought a copy of another novel of his, More, before actually reading The Polished Hoe. And I found More an exceptionally hard book to get through. I’m glad I read it — it’s an interesting look at a woman living in downtown Toronto who abandoned her life’s dreams upon arriving here after taking up with a rogue of a man and having a son who becomes difficult to raise as he grows older. Yet the story, told in extreme stream of consciousness over the course of a few days when Idora discovers her son is missing (and she refuses/is scared to go to the police), remains incredibly hard to follow. And the voice, complex, issue-driven, and difficult, yet heartbreaking at the same time — it’s a highly personalized narrative, but it’s also confusing in terms of locating a coherent time/place in terms of the story. And that about did me in, I often found myself wondering where is she, what happened? how long has passed? throughout each of the diversions from the actual time frame of the novel. And then, I discovered that The Polished Hoe is written in much the same vernacular. Oh boy. Avoiding reading The Polished Hoe had me reorganizing ALL of my books in alphabetical order (instead of alphabetical by country/reading challenge) JUST to put it off for a few more days/weeks.
I read this book over a few weeks on my iPad and enjoyed it immensely. Former EW writer Jennifer Reese. Over the course of many, many months Reese undertook an enormous task: is it actually cheaper to make anythings and everything at home? From butter to cheese to vermouth to chickens to turkeys to you name it, Reese tried to make it. And you know, the results were fascinating. It was an interesting experiment — and wholly interesting in terms of the comparisons. I don’t think I’d ever make a cheesie from scratch but I might actually go back to using our breadmaker in the new year (if I can find it). The only downfall was that the formatting of the ebook was terrible — drop boxes ending up in places that didn’t make sense, strange typos, and odd recipe layouts.
To be perfectly honest, I have no idea how this book ended up on my shelves. I avoided it for months, giving up my British shelf to focus on the Canadian, because I had zero interest in reading this novel. And yet, the novel was a complete delight — the story of a young girl, coming of age, coming out, who has to cope not only with being an awkward, outcast of a teenager, but with her mother’s manic depression. Jesse wants nothing more than to fit in and, after her mother returns from hospitalization, her father moves the family to a new town where she falls in with the popular (cruel) kids. The difficulties of leading a double life, not only hiding her mother’s troubling state of mind from her friends, but also her own sexuality, come to fruition with a somewhat cliched but still utterly engrossing conclusion. This novel completely surprised me, in a good way. Beale’s a strong, empathetic writer, and by the end I was rooting so hard for Jesse that I had to remind myself she wasn’t real.
SJ Watson’s thriller seems to have done the impossible — thrilled literary and non-literary readers alike with an insanely addictive novel that is literally impossible to put down once you’ve started. In many ways, we, as a society are spoiled by the massive amount of entertainment that’s available to us. To someone who consumes a lot of pop culture, surprises are hard to come by. I mean, I can count on one hand how many times in the last ten years I’ve actually been fooled by “twists” in movies. I’m not going to step out and say that Watson’s novel is perfect — there are little inconsistencies that made me a little mental — but here’s the trick, I roared through this novel in less than a day and that’s while working full-time and taking care of a toddler. And that’s saying something about the power of his writing. When Christine wakes up, she has no idea who or where she is, amnesia has taken her life, and not for weeks, for years. Kept carefully and safely by her husband (or IS she?), Christine slowly manages to both overcome her medical condition and discover what really happened all those years ago. The novel keeps you hooked (although, like I said, anyone who knows their pop culture/thrillers/Julia Roberts movies will guess the ending) and it’s a terrific novel for a rainy Sunday afternoon when there are no good films on your PVR .
October 27th, 2011
After reading Lucky Jim for book club, there was chatter about other “set in post-secondary education” novels and whether or not they were successful. One of the books that was mentioned was Lynn Coady’s Mean Boy. As I’ve talked about earlier, I’ve been on a quest this year to clear off my shelves and get through all the books gathering dust in my life. It’s an impossible task — I’ve been reading my “old” books in a haphazard, semi-alphabetical/dewey-like system since a few months into the RRBB’s life. I was, at first, reading “A” titles from Canada, England, etc., and then gave up and just wanted to power through one country before moving on to another. So, I’ve started with my Canada shelf, and I’m at C now (FINALLY) and have three Lynn Coady novels to get through (four if I add the *new* The Antagonist to the list even though I’ve promised myself that I’ll only read one new book for every one from the TBR pile), which means it’s weeks before I get through just this one particular author, sheesh. All of this rambling is to say that I’m knee-deep in Coady these days. I raced through Mean Boy, am half-way through The Saints of Big Harbour, and had actually started The Antagonist weeks ago before I felt too guilty for not reading all of her backlist. In a lesser writer I’d be frustrated by having to read so many of their books in such a short period of time. Lucky for me then to discover that I LOVE Lynn Coady. (more…)