Friday, 31 December 2010

Hey guys, all pages now consolidated at Come on by!

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Tears of a Wallet: Latest Acquisitions

I accidentally ended up in an Oxfam bookshop today, and perhaps predictably, carnage ensued. They had a 3 for 2 deal on, and given that most books cost less than 2 quid...

Let's get the preconceived notions out of the way! Maybe if I write them down I can banish them until I've completed the book (this is part of my quest to honor Updike's Rule #6.)

I've been meaning to give Sawyer a go for ages, especially Flashforward. So when Oxfam offered me the choice of TWO Sawyer novels (the other being Frameshift, which sounded a little too Robin Cook for what I expect from Sawyer), I snatched Factoring Humanity.

What do I expect from Sawyer? Hard physics, multiple universe paradoxes, elegant human relationships. Basically I expect Fringe in book form.

I'm already 86 pages into it, and it's very good so far, if a bit heavy on scientific and psychological theory. It seems to be struggling to find the correct balance between it's science and its humanity, but I'm not far enough in to determine whether these currently disparate elements come together later.

I won't lie, this is the random pick necessary to complete the 3 for 2 deal. That said, I haven't read Garland before, and I have heard that his novels tend to be masterpieces of plotting and suspense without being airplane trash. So this was a curiosity pick.  (Basically I have little to write here because for a change I have few ideas of what to expect!)

It's no secret that I really did not like the movie. That said, I keep reading and re-reading about how impressively Burgess recharacterizes the English language in this novel. By all accounts, the themes that the movie seemed only to grasp at are given full attention in the novel.

Also, I have realized that if I really want to be at all authoritative as a blogger, I need to be open to different types of novels that go outside of my comfort zone. While I have no idea what that zone is (I have read multiple books in pretty much any genre you can think of), I thought that the novel inspiring a movie that I hate is firmly outside of it. So when I spotted it on the shelves, I thought it was time to put aside preconceived notions and give Clockwork Orange another try, and maybe to approach it with a more critical eye.

This one needs no introduction I think. Like Clockwork Orange, part of its reputation rests with its fluid use of the English language. But the plot interests me: the main character is a music and sci-fi nerd who is cursed by the Dominican Republican dictator responsible for his family's exile to the United States.

I have a slight concern, based on what I've read, that this book might turn out to be like Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude, a novel about teenage superheroes and jazz music that commits the unfathomable crime of being BORING.

But this one comes recommended to me by people I trust, so I look forward to it.
Again and again, I've read about how Henry James is one of the greatest literary stylists that America has ever produced. He is apparently one of the earliest experimenters with form and style, and is also considered a master of transnational social commentary, much like Twain or Moliere. All this is high praise indeed.

Given his reputation, I was shocked to discover I had never read ANYTHING by James apart from a few short stories. Filling the gaps, indeed.

I really look forward to this one as it's a ghost story (who doesn't love a good atmospheric scare), but once I'm done I'll delve into the Merchant-Ivory stuff.

(FYI, I do blame Merchant-Ivory for my lack of desire to read James until recently.)

I actually squealed when I saw this one. McInerney's been in my thoughts a lot lately. Bright Lights, Big City, considered his masterpiece, is a book I loved despite every expectation not to, and more surprisingly, it has stuck with me.

Like that novel, I understand this one is loosely autobiographical. But in a little bit of strange yet recently topical gossip, the model ex-girlfriend McInerney alludes to in this novel is based on *drumroll please* Rielle Hunter! AKA the temptress at the heart of the so-out-of-control-you-couldn't-have-made-it-up-if-you-tried John Edwards scandal.
I've always wanted to read this but never gotten around to it (actually, the same goes for the movie). When I graduated from high school and had that endless summer  anticipating college, it was my mission to be as well-read on the 'canon' as possible, so I could have late night conversations with like minded young aesthetes under romantic lighting in various parts of campus.  (This did happen, but 18th century classics were rarely the topic. Ayn Rand yes. Politics yes. But mostly I seemed to gravitate toward lovers of Dashboard Confessional and Jimmy Eat World. And Donnie Darko.)

But this was never top of the list, and it seems to be alluded to a lot more in recent times. But can I just mention how much I loath the cover? Basically I thought, "for God's sake, do we really need to put a bright chick-lit cover on E.M. FORSTER?!? Imagine my surprise when I found out that this cover was printed in 1990, well before the chick-lit genre existed. Still. Ew. Bergdorf font. The end.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of the most haunting books ever written, a tale of depravity right up there with Notes on the Underground, and a wantonly unreliable narrator to boot. Before I read Kevin, it had been a long time since I'd read a novel that made me want to shower every time I put it down.

So yes, please, more Shriver. That said, I don't know if she can ever live up to the brilliance of Kevin. But then we'll see.

Also this is a first for me, reading a novel about tennis players. Could hit me too close to home, or be a straight ace (PUN!)

Friday, 3 December 2010

Thoughts on John Updike's Rules for Reviewing

As any of you who have read the reviews featured on this blog know, there's a fairly intense struggle to determine exactly what should be the main approach, the reason for existence of this extra voice in the blog-verse. Of course, one of the beauties of the internet is that you can get published even without any overriding thesis, but I find that lack of direction to be analogous to stepping into a giant abyss.

For years, I have been interested in the philosophy and underlying ethics of any work of art, of its creation, of its presentation, of its place in the universe. So in keeping with that interest, I am going to start looking at different frameworks related to that. Today's debut will be thoughts on John Updike's Rules for Reviewing. I recognize that many of my comments might be internally contradictiory, but these are guerilla observations, and I look forward to arguing about them.


  1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.
  2. Give him enough direct quotation—at least one extended passage—of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.
  3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.
  4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending. (How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords reporting on a peasants’ revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and surpriseful narrative! Most ironically, the only readers who approach a book as the author intends, unpolluted by pre-knowledge of the plot, are the detested reviewers themselves. And then, years later, the blessed fool who picks the volume at random from a library shelf.)
  5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?
  6. To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author “in his place,” making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.
Ok, now that you've read the rules, let's look at them a little more closely. As you can see, there's a little touch of 'Updike's Golden Rule' about the whole thing, with more than a hint of self-preservation.

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

Taken on its own, this rule is ridiculous. Surely the choice of content can be just as disappointing as any technical failings within the book? After all, how many novels do we need that are written by White Male Narcissists about White Male Narcissist midlife crises? (Granted, Updike may not be the best person to ask that question of).

How many novels do we need about post-adolescence ennui? The triteness of this topic was more than enough to reduce my enjoyment of Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise. I couldn't get past the fact that I was 24 and still reading about Holden Caulfield, slightly older but infinitely less wise. Just because it was Fitzgerald's intent to write about post-college drift, doesn't mean I have to judge it purely as a member of the genre of 'novels about post-college drift.'

If an author cannot start with subject matter that is ambitious, or at least interesting, of course that would color my review of it. Just as I couldn't help but blame The Help for being flat when it had such rich potential. Stockett set out to give voice to the black maid whose personal life she knew nothing about. She succeeded in this 100%, and failed on almost every other level. Under Updike's rule, I should ignore every other one of those levels.

To me, this rule sounds too much like saying 'don't bring your life experience and philosophy into your reading and reviewing,' which is inane as an observation, and practically impossible.

2. Give him enough direct quotation—at least one extended passage—of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

This rule can only serve MFA style writers. Why is that? One word: NARRATIVE. While a quote is useful to illustrate the overall style of the novel, an extended passage serves little purpose, as it gives you no idea of the scope of the narrative. A novel needs a lot more than pretty sentences to be readable (in fact, novels written with such minute focus tend to drag). So while I agree that the reviewer's job is to give the reader enough information to form his or her own impression, recording extended passages is not the best way to achieve it.

Madame Bovary may now be considered the finest novel ever written, but that's not why it became a bestseller. Everyone who read it in 18th century France saw a version of themselves or their everyday problems in the novel. So in a sense, the job of the reviewer is to convey the relevance of the book to the reader, whether that relevance is cultural, moral, educational or strictly emotional.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.

I had to read this five times before I could even understand what it meant. So he's saying you need to find a quote from the author's novel in order to validate your own review? What if your issue is with character, plot, setting, detail or any of those other things that influence the quality of a book? Surely a review is all about creating a fuzzy precis: you want to give a little bite, a slight taste of the novel, without giving away any of the surprises. Let's see if I can break this down by example.

Say I was reviewing Les Miserables. To put it simply (what Updike calls a fuzzy precis), I would summarize it something like follows. "Les Miserables is the story of one man's desperate attempt to find redemption after one life-changing mistake, a quest that involves challenging both the conventions of society and the strong arm of the law." Can there possibly be ONE QUOTE in the entire novel that encompasses that theme?

Granted, that's a very top-level description of the novel's themes. Let's move a little closer in. "Through the course of the novel, Valjean learns that there is no salvation for himself, only for those touched by his revolution against social norms and expectations." Again, same question.

Which brings me to my main point: how can a review that is normally 3 columns on one page provide anything more than a fuzzy precis? And more to the point, would you want it to?

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending. (How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords reporting on a peasants’ revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and surpriseful narrative! Most ironically, the only readers who approach a book as the author intends, unpolluted by pre-knowledge of the plot, are the detested reviewers themselves. And then, years later, the blessed fool who picks the volume at random from a library shelf.)

DO NOT GIVE AWAY THE ENDING. No arguing with that.

I also tend to agree about providing too much plot summary. Honestly, when I read a review, I want a holistic appraisal of a novel's merits, its themes, and whether the narrative ties together. That said, I do not want to know about exactly how the story arrives at its conclusion, I just want assurance that it does arrive in a satisfactory (and preferably unique) manner. Some reviews read like they're giving away the magician's tricks five minutes before the show.

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

I understand the point being made here; points of reference are the quickest shorthand for readers to determine whether a novel succeeds or not without reading anything but the review. But this also reminds me of the dominant creative writing teacher attitude: "Yes it's good, it's exciting, BUT WHY DON'T YOU WRITE MORE LIKE HEMINGWAY!" In which case the fault is absolutely with the reader.

Also, this rule is predicated on the assumption that one work can be objectively cited as more or less successful than another. How do you prove this, do you nitpick at sentences? In that case, see my response to Rule 2. If not, how do you judge the totality of a work against another? My opinion of Anna Karenina was tempered because I thought it had the same plot as Madame Bovary but wasn't executed as well. But I know a hundred people who would say the exact opposite, and I think both sides can justify themselves pretty well. So if I see a sentence in a review like, "The author would have been well served to refer to the exemplar of the female adultery story, Anna Karenina," then the trust is broken between me and the reviewer. And there's no reason for that sentence to really be there except to express the reviewer's own opinion on an unrelated work and then create false equivalences.

6 (ish). To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author “in his place,” making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

Principally, I agree with this rule completely. Practically speaking though, I'm not sure how feasible it is, especially with books; so few make it to the level of societal conversation that I can imagine professional reviewers are forced to read them even if they are predisposed against them. Frankly, some books just fail to provide any joy in reading them, and if that is so, then it becomes the responsibility of the reviewer to convey that.

But I subscribe to the Nick Hornby theory of reading: if you really really don't like it, don't feel obliged to finish it, so then you don't feel resentful towards the author and the novel for taking up your time and preventing you from reading something else.

As for the point about never putting an author in his place to make an ideological point, I've already broken that in the course of this review by employing the phrase "White Male Narcissist." But in Updike's time, the majority of the literati were white men. Now, the majority of readers and writers are women. It is absolutely an ideological concern that novels about male midlife crises are considered "Great American Novels" while novels about female midlife crises are considered women's fiction, so often I am compelled to fight back against that. But should I be doing that as a reviewer? Probably not, but it's impossible to leave such concerns at the door.

I do agree that in an ideal world, you should surrender yourself to a novel free of any knowledge of its reputation, and review it on those merits. But in this era of universal media saturation, I don't always think that's possible.

What is the purpose of a review, at the end of the day? It is not the same as criticism. It serves to inform people's awareness of art that is being produced, and enable them to make their own judgment. If I were to follow Updike's rules, I don't think that I'd actually be providing enough information for a reader to make that decision, and would in fact be misleading them on multiple points. (Now off to find objective proof of this in reviews written by Updike, so I can discuss this in more than just abstract terms in a future post. I might even be proven wrong.)

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Kathryn Stockett: The Help

The Help is a book I enjoyed despite a million reasons not to. The writing is clunky, the story frequently crosses the line into melodrama, there are many side plots that don't quite resolve, and it commits the ultimate sin - a blonde white woman writes in the voice of multiple African-American maidservants. The author's note goes some way in resolving these issues (obviously Stockett was aware that these elements might be dealbreakers). She makes clear that the white protagonist is a stand-in for herself, and the black protagonists stand in for the imagined lives of her beloved family maid. Like Skeeter, Stockett lost her maid very suddenly and realized, to her sadness, that she knew nothing about the woman who was the most important caregiver in her life due to the inattention of her blood family.

The explanation Stockett provides helped me to forgive the use (overuse!) of written dialect during the Minny and Aibileen chapters, which is jarring at best. But that's been covered extensively by other reviewers, so I won't dwell, except to say that by the end of the novel, this choice isn't as offensive as I thought it might be. Previously voiceless African-American characters are given rich, three dimensional attention. We come to love them, and the very threat of anything bad happening to them burns our hearts. But apart from Skeeter, the Stockett stand-in character, the white women in the novel are written with no such attention. The story of white trash Celia had so much potential but was ultimately wasted.

The book is tagged as 'the other side of Gone With the Wind,' but I thought it more accurately represented 'the other side of the Betty Draper household.' This period in the 1960s was as much a transforming era for white women as for black: the identities of many black women were sublimated by the needs of their white mistresses, whose identities were in turn defined only by their husbands' needs and ambitions. I'd say the biggest problem in the book lies in the lack of definition of that second disempowerment; there is absolutely nothing in the book to humanize the 'evil white mistresses,' nothing to explain or even contextualize their brutality. As a consequence, we end up with rubbish like "Oh, we love her like family, but can you imagine if she turned up at the DAR meeting?" The Help is not a social comedy, and such flippancy is not welcome.

If you took the book at face value, you would believe that the reason these 'evil white women' maintain these attitudes is snobbery and a particularly perverse version of 'keeping up with the joneses', downplaying the more insidious societal frameworks that actually entrenched these power structures. Again and again, the men in the novel (including the senators and governors who are actually responsible for segregationist policies) are shown to be more compassionate and to have a more thoughtful perspective on the issue, even if political reality prevents them from acting. The women, on the other hand, just follow what their friends do, and then brag about it. It's impossible to believe that an entire social structure could have been maintained on so flimsy a foundation.

This leads to a secondary problem, where plot threads dealing with the 'evil white mistresses' are not resolved in any satisfactory manner. Nowhere is the problem more evident than with the 'villain' of the piece, an ex-sorority shrew named Hilly. You can almost see her twirling her mustache in the last 3rd of the novel. Before that, she is certainly a horrible woman, but you can see that many of her negative aspects come from a limitless quest for power, coupled with a heinous lack of self-awareness. Then, all of a sudden, she becomes Dr. Evil, which makes absolutely no sense for a character who's entire reason for being is standing up as the voice of moral righteousness in the community. So Stockett's choice for Hilly to take this turn on the road to an evil mountain lair does not serve as a revelation of deep seated hatred so much as it becomes a magical plot cop-out.

But even that story does not peter out as badly as Celia Foote's. Celia is introduced as a white trash interloper who married the uptown boy that Hilly once had her eye on. Stockett repeatedly alludes to the horrors of Celia's home life that she would do anything to avoid, but never fills in any blanks beyond that. We learn at various points that she's a drunk, that she's unable to carry a baby to term, that she really could be the town slattern if she so aspired. That she looks like Marilyn Monroe. That she is the laziest human being alive. But all of these points are mere attributes, they do not amount to character. In every one of her scenes, I was waiting for some sort of point to the story that failed to materialize. If the only point is that indentured servitude is not the sorriest fate in the South, well that's pretty weak, and grossly undermines the stories of the black women.

But I suspect that the real problem is that there are too many characters and too many stories and too many points to make and so they all suffer in the end. So many characters are introduced, and then take up so many pages of the novel, and yet they don't change in the slightest. We see no development, no change in their attitude one way or the other, which should happen given how many words are devoted to them.

But, as I mentioned, the novel was not really intended to tell their stories, but to bring out the stories of the voiceless servants who have always been treated as background rather than foreground. But let's be honest, the book is short, and there is ample room to give enough detail for characters to be more than caricatures.

I think the most important thing to keep in mind for any new readers of the book is that in the end, it's a light book that's not really intended to take readers out of their comfort zone, but to remind them of the basic human compassion that can shine through even in the most humiliating of circumstances. It definitely succeeds in that, even though it doesn't have the socio-anthropological intrigue that it could have had.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Halloween Round-Up

Ah, October . . . 

When there's a chill in the air and a pumpkin on every doorstep and Halloween is just around the corner. And what better way to celebrate that last fact than by reading something . . . spirited? Spooky? Spine-tingling? 


But if you're like me, you're probably sick and tired of reading the same ol' same ol' each and every/.,km year. "If I have to re-read Dracula one more time," you say. Or, "What? Another Edgar Allen Poe story? Again?!"

And that's where I come in, dear reader. Because I am here to help you find something new and sufficiently spook--or, at the very least, help you avoid anything outright lame. What follows is my list of picks and pans for creative Halloween-themed reading. Enjoy them . . . if you dare! Buwahahahaha!

* * * * *

Grimm's Complete Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm.

I know, I know. "Fairy tales?" you say. "I'm asking for scary stories and you're recommending fairy tales?!" Well . . . yes. But not just any fairy tales! The Brothers Grimm's fairy tales. And that makes all the difference. Because these are not the sugary-sweet stories you knew and loved as a child.


My childhood Cinderella was a kind, sweet, forgiving girl, a girl who most definitely did not have her stepsisters' eyeballs plucked out by birds at her story's end. 

"Soon, my pretties. Soon."
And my childhood Snow White? Most definitely did not make her stepmother dance to death in red-hot iron shoes, not matter how wicked she may have been.

"Wait. What kind of shoes did you say are in here?
And you want me to do what with them?"
And that is just the tip of the iceberg, my friends. Because these 200-plus stories contain enough violence, death, and all-around depravity to make the witch from "Hansel and Gretel" look sweet by comparison--and she wanted to eat everybody!

You don't even want to know what is happening
in this illustration. Seriously. 
All of which makes these tales of magic and mayhem, witches and wolves, ghosts and goblins, perfect for reading on Halloween. Just make sure to leave the lights on when you do!

My rating: pick!
* * * * *
The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories by H. P. Lovecraft:

A collection of short stories from one of the horror genre's most celebrated authors. And why is Lovecraft so celebrated? Because he was the first to discard gothic constructs--ghosts and witches and whatnot--and instead envision mankind as a tiny outpost of sanity in an otherwise chaotic and malevolent universe. More specifically, he envisioned his protagonists losing said sanity upon encountering a race of ancient and alien fish-people. That's right--fish-people. Dum dum dum!

"I will destroy everything you know and love!"

Although, to be fair, they're more like octopus/dragon/human hybrids, as demonstrated by the oh-so-lovely Cthulhu below:

"You like?"
Yes, it seems Cthulhu and the rest of his sexy brethren are lying in wait deep beneath the sea, dreaming of the day when they will once again rise to lay waste to the world above--and humanity with it.

Honestly? I know a lot of famous author--Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and Neil Gaiman included--looooooove Lovecraft, but I just don’t get his stuff. It doesn’t seem scary to me. Just . . . weird. Really weird. Really he-obviously-should-have-sought-counseling-for-how-much-he-clearly-feared-seafood weird. But that's just me. 

My rating: pan!
* * * * *
Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill:

A horror novel written by Stephen King's son. I know, sounds like nepotism run amok, doesn't it? But Hill totally brings it in this page-turner of a ghost story centered on one Judas Coyne, former heavy metal rocker and current retiree/collection enthusiast.

I don't have a picture for this entry. So look! A ghostie!
So what's Coyne collecing? Some pretty icky stuff: a cookbook for cannibals; a used hangman's noose; a snuff film; and, most recently, a ghost he found for sale on the Internet, gift-wrapped and delivered to his door in a shiny heart-shaped box. 

Big mistake.

Because this ghost is real. Very real. And it's out for revenge . . .

Not the best description, but trust me, it's a great Halloween read. Fun, frightening--and addictive, too! Exactly the sort of thing you want to stay up late into the night reading. 

But, again, be sure to leave those lights on when you do . . .

My rating: pick!
* * * * * 

From the Dust Returned by Ray Bradbury:

Looking for something more chilling than thrilling? Then look no further than this creepy collection of short stories about "the Family," a close-knit clan of vampires, ghosts, ghouls, and other stranger things still: A Thousand Times Great Grandmere, a walking mummy who roamed the Nile's shores over 4,000 years ago; Uncle Einar, who flies through the night sky on giant bat wings; strange Cecy, whose mind can go anywhere and see anything without her body ever stirring; and young Timothy, a foundling child raised by the Family though he is not--and can never be--one of them. Because he and he alone among them is mortal, so he and he alone must age and wither and die . . .

Sound familiar? Sound like The Addams Family redux? Trust me, it's not. Because this Family is more dark and dangerous than the comedic Addams could ever be. They are the things that go bump in the night, and they do mean you harm.

Not the Family. 
Still, Bradbury manages to make them sympathetic--almost likable--without ever being too malicious. Their trials and tribulations are oddly affecting, and their place in the world, in Bradbury’s skilled hands, oddly thought-provoking. The result? A collection that’s at once eerie and understated--the perfect thing to curl up with on All Hallows’ Eve. 

My rating: pick!

* * * * *

Button, Button: Uncanny Stories by Richard Matheson:

A collection of short stories from the author of I Am Legend. Not horrors stories, per se, so much as tales that examine the darker side of human nature. In the title story, for example, a couple is given a push-button unit and told that if they hit it they will receive 50,000 dollars. Also, someone, somewhere, will die. To hit the button or not? That is the question. 

Ever see the movie version of "Button, Button," aka The Box?
No? Lucky you. 

Most of the other stories pose similar ethical quandaries, almost always ending with an all-too-predictable "twist." My opinion of Matheson? Interesting, but overrated.   

My rating: pan!

And last but certainly not least . . .

* * * * *

Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman:

Is there a more versatile fantasy writer alive today than Neil Gaiman? If so, I certainly haven’t come across him or her. Because Gaiman can slip from fantasy to horror to comedy and back again as easily as the rest of us can pick up our pens. 

"I'm a genius!"

Luckily for us, he uses that talent to full effect in this short story collection that both frightens and amuses. Heck, he even pays homage to some of the other authors on this list with his Lovecraftian “Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar” and Bradbury-esque “Don’t Ask Jack.” And he honors the Grimms with not one but two fairy tale retellings (see? told you fairytales are scary!) in “Troll Bridge,” an updated version of “The Three Billy Goats Gruff*,” and “Snow, Glass, Apples,” an extremely excellent retelling of “Snow White” with a vampiric twist.

Turns out the Queen was right:
Snow White's just a bitch.

My own personal favorite, however, has got to be "The Price," which is about a black cat, the devil, and the unfortunate family caught in between. Spooooooooky stuff!

My rating: pick!

*And, yes, I know the Grimms didn't actually include "The Billy Goats Gruff" in their infamous collection. But a fairy tale is a fairy tale. Get over it, picky. 

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Me And My Books

Hey guys, I realize I've been quite un-generous with personal detail (ah, the world wide stalk-o-sphere), so I'm doing this so that you can get to know a little bit about me and my reading taste (and probably make fun of me, but oh well).

1. What author do you own the most books by?
For reasons having to do with frequent out-of-town tennis tournaments when I was younger, it's probably Robin Cook.

2. What book do you own the most copies of?
For some reason, I have three copies each of The Fountainhead and of Mrs. Dalloway. The Fountainhead because I love it, and have been frequently seized with a necessity to read it while living in different countries. Mrs. Dalloway, on the other hand, I keep picking up in charity shops because I forget I already have a copy (it took me years to finish this book, cause I kept picking it up and then forgetting about it!)

3. Did it bother you that both those questions ended with prepositions?
Should it worry me that I didn't notice or care?

4. What fictional character are you secretly in love with?
In my extreme youth I was in love with Frank Hardy (Hardy Boys), then when older, I was in love with Marius (Les Miserables), until I graduated to my true love, Bran, the man with the facial tattoo from Juliet Marillier's Son of the Shadows, Book II of the Sevenwaters Trilogy (I don't really read much fantasy, but I LOVED that series).

5. What book have you read the most times in your life (excluding picture books read to children)?
Hmmm…lots of children's books certainly. I have read Goblet of Fire many times, but probably not as much as particular Nancy Drew books, or Les Miserables. I particularly reread the one where Nancy hooks up with Frank Hardy a million times.

6. What was your favourite book when you were ten years old?
That would definitely be The Secret Garden.

7. What is the worst book you’ve read in the past year?
I hate to admit it, but it might be 2666, by Robert Bolano. I love his short stories, but this one was boring and pretentious (and I didn't finish it, though I might still try)

8. What is the best book you’ve read in the past year?
Easy. We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver.

9. If you could force everyone you tagged to read one book, what would it be?
We Need to Talk About Kevin, it's just so disturbing and wonderful, and goes places you'd never expect.

10. Who deserves to win the next Nobel Prize for Literature?

11. What book would you most like to see made into a movie?
I want to see a proper, big budget adaptation of Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain. I LOVED them when I was young, and the Disney version of The Black Cauldron was dire (so dire, in fact, that Michael Eisner almost shut down their animation division afterwards).

12. What book would you least like to see made into a movie?
Oh, there are so many options here. I am very worried about the We Need To Talk About Kevin movie, but they've cast Tilda Swinton so there's still hope.

13. What is the most difficult book you’ve ever read?
The Golden Notebook, by Doris Lessing. Extremely difficult bits to get through, but I'm so glad I did.

14. Roth or Updike?
As David Foster Wallace describes them, 'The Great White American Narcissists.' (I'm surprised how often I've been able to use that quote of late). I vote for Richard Yates. Go read Easter Parade if you haven't.

David Sedaris or Dave Eggers?
Eggers wins this one by default, I've never read Sedaris (nor do I have any particular desire to!)

Shakespeare, Milton, or Chaucer?

Austen or Eliot?
Again, this is Austen by default. I really should read Middlemarch at some point. But I somehow doubt that Eliot can transplant Austen in my heart.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Short Story Book Club: "A Tiny Feast"

Hello hello hello, welcome to the inaugural edition of Short Story Book Club!

This week's tall tale (short tale?) is of Titania and Oberon, caught in a moment of crisis. The New Yorker originally published it, which is surprising, but to be fair they have slowly moved into more and more 'genre' fiction. (I think about 10 stories last year were pure science fiction/fantasy).

But without further ado, the story is here:

Come back here and tell me your favorite lines, least favorite lines, what worked and what didn't, and then I'll publish a roundup post before next week's Short Story Club. Any recommendations for future stories are also welcome!

Monday, 11 October 2010

Salute Your Shorts! "Pumpkinhead" by Joyce Carol Oates

The story can be read in its entirety here: "Pumpkinhead" by Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates is one of those authors, where you go in expecting something sick and/or twisted to happen, even if everything is puppies and flowers until the last page. Part of the joy of reading her short stories is hunting for every possible clue as to what the final horror might be.

But this time, strangeness struck on page one, when our widow answers a knock to find a man with a pumpkin in place of his head. Lonely after the death of her husband, she invites him in for a drink, and we find out that he is not a stranger; she knows him as one knows a foreigner, cataloguing his attributes in terms of misprononciations and failures to assimilate. You have to believe that he can sense her disdain; as open as she is to us, these thoughts can not be far from her every action.

In that sense, it functions as a metaphor for hegemonic power - and the dangerous lengths that the powerless might go to obtain some semblance of control.

There is one lingering mystery though - a throwaway line almost: "She was a widow who had caused her husband to be burnt to ashes and was unrepentant, unpunished." The story offers no explanation for this, but I welcome the interpretation of others.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Salute Your Shorts! "The Harvest," by Amy Hempel

While Amy Hempel is considered a quintessential minimalist writer (she came out from the umbrella of Gordon Lish and Raymond Carver), this short story, probably her most famous, is more of a post-modern reflection on the nature of stories and story-telling. (Go ahead and read it here, then come back).

I can't remember how I came across her, but it seems a lot of people discover her thanks to Chuck Palahniuk, who wrote this loving essay in praise of Ms. Hempel. While I am not quite as inclined to gush as Mr. Palahniuk, I did enjoy the story. It's one of very few short stories that made me want to reread it immediately after the first run through.

"The year I began to say vahz instead of vase, a man I barely knew nearly accidentally killed me."

This is the first and last true statement in the story, as far as we can tell. It's a hell of an introductory sentence, conveying tons of descriptive detail about the narrator without stating it outright. What happens in the short story is that the narrator tells one story, full of embellishment, and then tells the second, 'real' story.

From the start, Hempel draws attention to the subterfuge that all storytellers use, not just writers:

"What happened to one of my legs required four hundred stitches, which, when I told it, became five hundred stitches, because nothing is ever quite as bad as it could be.

The five days they didn’t know if they could save my leg or not I stretched to ten."

I know that everything I've stated so far might give you the impression that it's quite a gimmicky little tale. But it isn't. Even though she's stated upfront that the story is not entirely true, the strength of detail draws you in anyway; we, the reader, are complicit in Hempel's deception. Every line is loaded with meaning and genuine depth of feeling. Even if the details are wrong, the emotions are real.
And that's what's important.

Fantasy Friday:Hope Mirrlees: "Lud in the Mist"

My copy of Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees, sits on my dressing table. I can’t bear to put it away, but every time I see it fills me with envy for others who will embark on that journey, one that I can never take again.

And what a journey it was.

Written in the 1920s, 30 years or so before Tolkien transformed speculative fiction with Lord of the Rings, and rarely in print since, Lud-in-the-Mist is a fantasy written before fantasy became a genre. To give you an idea of its pedigree, it has blurbs written by both Virginia Woolf and Neil Gaiman, one attesting to the quality of the language, and one to the depth of imagination involved.

Genre-wise, Lud-in-the-Mist hops between fantasy, mystery, political drama and social drama. In today’s publishing world, this sort of thing would be edited out before publishing, and made to fit in one clean category.

The book is remarkable for its post-modern elements, especially in the characterization. Nathan Chanticleer is Our Hero, to use the phrase quite loosely. The fact that he’s laughable, boorish, and largely unlikeable elevates the plot from being about ‘a hero doing heroic things’ into the more realistic ‘man with neither wit nor charm nor strength nor magic is fighting for his family, and really makes quite a hash of it.’

All the characters are treading the soft line between dark and light; you can never be quite sure of your own footing within this treacherous world of music and madness. And that’s where the book really succeeds. Atmosphere. The beauty of not being an all-out fantasy. Very little of the book is set in the realm of the fairies, most of it is firmly set in a familiar Northern English town, where strangeness and uncertainty invade slowly and then more forcefully.

Lud-in-the-Mist is that extremely rare find, a highly literate novel, witty and warm, full of social commentary on educational practices for young women at the time, and the pedantic, back-biting nature of small-town politics. It reflects some of the common courtroom practices of the time, never sacrificing on language or imagery. It also happens to include magical fairies.

But when you feel a need to chase your Tesco-value copy of Dan Brown with something a bit more top-shelf, reach for Lud-in-the-Mist.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

The third and final installment of Stieg Larsson’s mega-selling Millennium Trilogy opens with Lisbeth Salander, hacker extraordinaire, lying in critical condition in a Swedish hospital, a bullet buried deep within her brain. And if—if—she survives emergency surgery, she’ll still have to stand trial against a slew of trumped up charges covering everything from possession of an illegal can of Mace to attempted murder.

Salander, portrayed by Noomi Rapace, in the Swedish films.

Luckily, Mikael Blomkvist (former lover/investigative reporter/patron saint of lost causes) is determined to prove Salander’s innocence—or die trying. Literally. Dum dum dum!

Blomkvist, portrayed by Michael Nyqvist, in the Swedish films.

It's a good story, but also a surprisingly slow starter. The first 100 or so pages feature nothing but characters rehashing plot points already hashed quite thoroughly in the previous novel, which is, in a word, omgsoeffingirritating! (Okay, that’s not actually one word, but I stand by my statement.) Still, once the story gets going, it really gets going, and the trial sequence at the end is pure perfection. And while a few improbable things do happen in the characters’ personal lives—Blomkvist in love?—I suppose Larsson did have to wrap up the trilogy somehow.

All-in-all, a very satisfying conclusion to a very satisfying series. Or maybe not. Because, apparently, there is an as-yet-unpublished fourth novel that will only see print if the deceased Larsson’s family members can ever stop squabbling over royalties. Seems unlikely, but still . . .

Bring on more Salander?

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The Girl Who Played with Fire

The second installment of Stieg Larsson’s phenomenally popular Millennium Trilogy finds everyone’s favorite hacker, Lisbeth Salander, accused of killing two journalists about to publish an exposé on Sweden’s sex trafficking industry in none other than Millennium, the magazine owned and operated by Salander’s ex-colleague and -lover, Mikael Blomkvist. Now it’s up to him and him alone to prove her innocence before the police—or the real killers—track her down. Can Blomkvist save Salander in time? And, more importantly, does Salander even need saving?

Finally, Larsson puts the spotlight where it belongs—Salander!

Salander (aka Noomi Rapace) from the Swedish films.
Who wouldn't trust that sweet little face? 

And that—coupled with the cliffhanger ending—makes this a much more entertaining read than The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Because who the heck cares about boring old Blomkvist? Not me.

Bring on more Salander!

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" or "How America Spent Its Summer"

Unless you were living under a rock this past summer, you’ve probably encountered Stieg Larsson’s mega-selling Millennium TrilogyThe Girl with the Dragon TattooThe Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest—in some form or fashion: heard it, seen it, bumped into one of the half-million copies seemingly required by law in every American bookstore.

This is all Americans read this summer.

The trilogy, already a hit in its native Sweden where it came out in 2005, didn’t conclude in its American format until this past June, making it the must-read event of the summer. Its final installment, Hornet’s Nest
debuted at number one on The New York Times hardcover fiction list and remains strong at number three 18 weeks later. Impressive, but nothing next to the 66 weeks of best-sellerdom the paperback version of book one, Dragon Tattoo, can currently claim. 

But enough with the pedigree.

Dragon Tattoo's sexy UK cover.

So what the first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, all about? Well, in a nutshell:

When disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist is offered a private job investigating the mysterious disappearance of Harriet Vanger, member of one of Sweden’s wealthiest families, it seems like just what he needs—a chance to flex his PI muscles while taking a much needed break from the suddenly hostile world of publishing. And besides, Vanger disappeared over 40 years ago, so it’s not as if Blomkvist will be in any danger. Or will he? Because soon Blomkvist is hot on the trail of a serial killer who will stop at nothing—nothing!—to keep him from uncovering the shocking—shocking!—truth . . .

Honestly? It’s a pretty standard murder mystery. Except, of course, for one thing—Blomkvist’s sidekick, the pierced and tattooed cyber punk prodigy known as Lisbeth Salander.

Salander, portrayed by Noomi Rapace, in the Swedish movie version.

Because Salander steals each and every scene in which she appears. Heck, she even steals the title—it's not called Blomkvist’s Book of Boring, after all—making the only real mystery in this novel why Larsson ever thought relegating her to mere sidekick status was a good idea. Because it's not. At all.

Bring on more Salander!

Monday, 4 October 2010

Review: Joshua Ferris - Then We Came to the End

We were fractious and overpaid. Our mornings lacked promise. At least those of us who smoked had something to look forward to at ten-fifteen. Most of us liked most everyone, a few of us hated specific individuals, one or two people loved everyone one and everything. Those who loved everyone were unanimously reviled.”

So begins Then We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris's poignant yet amusing tale of an ad agency in decline. There is a large cast of characters, slipping in and out of the main story, but we get to know them well enough that we're sad when they're gone.

Ferris employed a 1st person collective point of view (probably not the grammatical term), a Greek chorus to add insight into daily disappointments, emotional explosions, coworker relations and other hilarities. We are one of them, always sensitive to the absurdities inherent in office life but powerless to do anything about it, except engage in petty games such as chair swapping and pranks that are effective only in ruining productivity.

We have all been in this situation: the endless tug-of-war between people whose life begins at 8:00 Monday morning, and people whose life begins at 5:00 PM Friday.

Then, halfway through the book, once we think we've established our relationship with this book - something to read in your off periods, not requiring much concentration, with little impetus to get through to the end - Ferris finds its heart. The second half of the novel is no less funny or insightful, but these characters become more than ciphers, they come alive, with their own contradictions, motivations.

And with that shift, we are exposed to surprises and unexpected twists; this is not a 'literary' novel; the plotting is strong. Best of all, Ferris shows how the most offhand sliver of information can alter our entire view of someone we think we know, that we've 'typed' into a comfortable box.

Ferris has said that he was trying to probe the nature of 'groupthink.' Instead, he has created an engaging portrait of the seismic shifts caused by the most minute changes.