Monday, November 26, 2007

The other books lying around

In no particular order (except for maybe they happen to be piled this way, and ordering them in any other fashion is beyond me for the moment).

(At this very moment I am between (fiction) books — but just for the moment, having finished New Grub Street last night and intending to choose one of the following for when I tuck into bed early this evening. Oh, but which one?)

The Adventures of Amir Hamza: Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction, by Ghalib Lakhnavi.
An Islamic saga dating back to perhaps as early as the seventh century, chronicling warriors, kings, tricksters, fairies, courtesans, and magical creatures. Which I received on my birthday actually, but it's a review copy, so I'm not really sure it counts. But it kind of does, cuz it's an awesome gift of a book. "Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction"!

The florid news writers, the sweet-lipped historians, revivers of old tales and renewers of past legends, relate that there ruled at Ctesiphon in Persia (image of Heaven!) Emperor Qubad Kamran, who cherished his subjects and was a succor to the impecunious in their distress. He was unsurpassed in dispensing justice, and so rigorous in this exercise that the best justice appeared an injustice compared to his decree.


The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog, by Doris Lessing.
Because I love-love-loved Mara and Dann, and this is the sequel, and though I hear it's something of a letdown, I have-have-have to know what becomes of them.

Only Revolutions, by Mark Danielewski.
A review copy, received at the time of its release in paperback. I keep turning it over and over. Still I can't make up my mind which end to start reading it from.

The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks.
Because I've been intrigued by the write-ups of a few of this author's books, and last spring's discussion at Bookblog made me pick up a copy. I'm not sure if there are actually any wasps in it, but it seems to have enough else (its surreal quality! and a psychopath!) to recommend it, including a blurb on the back cover from The Times (London) calling it "Rubbish!"

Zig Zag, by José Carlos Somosa.
I loved The Art of Murder by this author, not least for its genre-blending but most particularly for its utterly unique premise. Zig Zag seems to lean toward more conventional SF, and I expect it will complement nicely the discussions we've had in this household of late regarding the possibility of watching the past as it unfolds (if you travel x light years and have a superstrong telescope...).

The Mustache, by Emmanuel Carrère.
Something a little metaphysical — that age-old problem of identity. A couple bloggers wrote about it last year, and I saw the movie in-between. My copy includes another novel, Class Trip, but I'll try the mustache on for size first.

The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, by Steven Pinker.
I hadn't meant to buy this book — I have another unfinished Pinker by my bed, and having read a full 3 of his already, I don't expect anything exactly new. Which is fine, because even if I'm familiar with the concepts, any idea he chooses to flesh out will make an interesting and entertaining read. But then I went to hear his presentation on the book, and I got caught up in all the excitement and bought one to get it signed. Yes, I will write about the lecture someday, but now I feel I should really read the book first to do it justice.

(The problem with reading non-fiction, for me, is that I need to digest it in small bites. Which means I need to be reading something else between meals. Literary snacking. Which for me is vaguely unsatisfying, and leaves me feeling spread thin, unfocused. I don't like this feeling, but don't see a way around it.)

Other Colors: Essays and a Story, by Orhan Pamuk.
Another review copy. I've dipped into it a few times. It's not the sort of book to read in one sitting. I will endeavour to post snippets and my thoughts about the book (I have some!) accordingly, from time to time.

Do you think I can read them all by year's end?

Of course, there's a ton of other books lying around, most notably Infinite Jest, which I vow to finish, erm, someday. Somehow I don't see myself even starting on Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle this year.

I, for one (probably the only one), wouldn't mind having an ebook reader. Heck, I've wanted one for years. Guarantee me that it won't be obsolete anytime soon and that books I actually want to read are available in this format, and I'm sold (assuming it's moderately priced). I've run out of shelf space as well as space for more shelves and money for more space.

Are you reading anything good right now? Anything great? Anything in particular you're trying to clean off your plate?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The books lying around, and Grub in particular

(Which post turns out to be really about just the one book, my having lost focus, or found focus, and saving some other ramblings for later.)

Books received for my birthday: None.
It's like no one really knows me.

Books I have hanging about the house, and which I'm dying to read, but seem to have absolutely no time for:

New Grub Street, by George Gissing.
This is a library book it seems like it's taking me forever to read, but it feels like very suddenly I'm approaching the end. I looked into Gissing on the recommendation of... something I read somewhere, ages ago, by someone I respect (was it Doris Lessing?), and because of comments regarding Patrick Hamilton to the effect that Hamilton is the literary descendant of Dickens via Gissing. Well, I'd read some Dickens, so now some Gissing.

I don't find Gissing to inspire page-turning the way either Hamilton or Dickens do, but he does show keen insight into the workings of the world. Two things in particular fascinate me about this book:

1. Publishing — is it about art or about business? which only goes to show that the various crises the publishing industry regularly faces along with the criticisms hurled at bestselling authors for writing to formula and having no literary merit are not new.

2. Women. The period covered is one of transition: women are finding independence and starting to earn their own way in the world without shame. The Married Women's Property Act has just come into effect.

The matter of divorce: "Isn't it a most ridiculous thing that married people who both wish to separate can't do so and be quite free again?"

Gissing is modern. He's a feminist.

(And it's this transition in women's status that I find profoundly interesting. There's a little of this in Hamilton, and more of it in Christina Stead's Letty Fox; women working in shops but still aspiring to husbands of means. I've read books about women on estates with servants and about modern women, but very little about those in between, as if they never existed, though they may be the most real of all.)

Oh, and 3. The middle class, the admission that there is one.

"Biffen," he continued, "when I first made his acquaintance, had an idea of writing for the working classes; and what do you think he was going to offer them? Stories about the working classes! Nay, never hang your head for it, old boy; it was excusable in the days of your youth. Why, Mr. Reardon, as no doubt you know well enough, nothing can induce working men or women to read stories that treat of their own world. They are the most consumed idealists in creation, especially the women. Again and again work-girls have said to me: 'Oh, I don't like that book; it's nothing but real life.'"

"It's the fault of women in general," remarked Reardon.

"So it is, but it comes out with delicious naiveté in the working classes. Now, educated people like to read of scenes that are familiar to them, though I grant you that the picture must be idealised if you're to appeal to more than one in a thousand. The working classes detest anything that tries to represent their daily life. It isn't because that life is too painful; no, no; it's downright snobbishness. Dickens goes down only with the best of them, and then solely because of his strength in farce and his melodrama."

It sounds like a backhanded compliment to Dickens, and Gissing may even be asserting his superiority over him. The whole thing's laden with irony: Of course, this is exactly the sort of novel Gissing has written — the daily life of the working class.

And the women characters (although not exactly work-girls), meanwhile, want to read precisely this kind of novel:

"Best or worse, novels are all the same. Nothing but love, love, love; what silly nonsense it is! Why don't people write about the really important thins of life? Some of the French novelists do; several of Balzac's, for instance. I have just been reading his 'Cousin Pons,' a terrible book, but I enjoyed it ever so much because it was nothing like a love story. What rubbish is printed about love!"

"I get rather tired of it sometimes," admitted Edith with amusement.

"I should hope you do, indeed. What downright lies are accepted as indisputable! That about love being a woman's whole life; who believes it really? Love is the most insignificant thing in most women's lives. It occupies a few months, possibly a year or two, and even then I doubt if it is often the first consideration."

Edith held her head aside, and pondered smilingly.

"I'm sure there's a great opportunity for some clever novelist who will never write about love at all."

"But then it does come into life."

"Yes, for a month or two, as I say. Think of the biographies of men and women; how many pages are devoted to their love affairs? Compare those books with novels which profess to be biographies, and you see how false such pictures are. Think of the very words 'novel,' 'romance' — what do they mean but exaggeration of one bit of life?"

"That may be true. But why do people find the subject so interesting.?"

"Because there is so little love in real life. That's the truth of it. Why do poor people care only for stories about the rich? The same principle."

Gissing's a realist, with a touch of the cynic about him. This novel does deal with matters of love, in fact, but these are matters of business and of complications, and of how other (better?) relationships are sullied by these.

And I'm enjoying this novel because it's nothing like a love story.

Has anyone else read Gissing?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Waiting for the Doctor

In 1984, you could exterminate a Dalek by pushing it out of a 2nd storey window.

Since the 3rd season of the new series of Doctor Who ended, Helena and I have been borrowing the old series from the library. Our selections are made in a haphazard fashion — in this sense I'm revisiting it the way I saw it in my youth, and Helena is experiencing it for the first time much the way I did: randomly, but memorably.

A current favourite: "The Resurrection of the Daleks." I marvel at the seeming ease with which the fearsome Daleks are disposed (see in particular this clip, through to about 1:39).

We're glad to know Davros now, as he's rumoured to be returning.

And we'll be scouring the web this weekend for a glimpse of the 5th Doctor.

See also Ed's impression of "The Caves of Androzani."

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

"Un tas de complete vieux bollox."

Did anyone besides myself actually read Kate Mosse's Labyrinth through to the end? Did you hate it as much as I did?

Do you care that Mosse has a new book out (Sepulchre)? Will you waste your time on it?

Read the digested read instead.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The literary man of 1882

"...But just understand the difference between a man like Reardon and a man like me. He is the old type of unpractical artist; I am the literary man of 1882. He won't make concessions, or rather, he can't make them; he can't supply the market. I — well, you may say that at present I do nothing; but that's a great mistake, I am learning my business. Literature nowadays is a trade. Putting aside men of genius, who may succeed by mere cosmic force, your successful man of letters is your skilful tradesman. He thinks first and foremost of the markets; when one kind of goods begins to go off slackly, he is ready with something new and appetising. He knows perfectly all the possible sources of income. Whatever he has to sell he'll get payment for it from all sorts of various quarters; none of your unpractical selling for a lump sum to a middleman who will make six distinct profits. Now, look you: if I had been in Reardon's place, I'd have made four hundred at least out of "The Optimist"; I should have gone shrewdly to work with magazines and newspapers and foreign publishers, and — all sorts of people. Reardon can't do that kind of thing, he's behind his age; he sells a manuscript as if he lived in Sam Johnson's Grub Street. But our Grub Street of to-day is quite a different place: it is supplied with telegraphic communication, it knows what literary fare is in demand in every part of the world, its inhabitants are men of business, however seedy."

— from New Grub Street, by George Gissing.

Monday, November 05, 2007

The 2007 Massey Lectures of which I was fortunate enough to attend (more on this as soon as I'm able)...

Read: The City of Words, by Alberto Manguel.
Listen: The Massey Lectures, broadcast on CBC Radio One's Ideas, November 5 – 9. The Q&A sessions that followed each lecture will likely not be aired on the radio, but will be podcast.
Participate: House of Anansi Press forum.

Browse past Massey Lectures (to read or listen, by the likes of Doris Lessing, Carlos Fuentes, John Ralston Saul).
The Massey Lectures: background.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Pirate girl

It was February when she announced she wanted to be a pirate for Halloween, and every few weeks thereafter, she reminded me of the fact.

For the third year in a row, Helena showed up at daycare in "home-made" costume. I'm not averse to spending the money on a prepackaged ensemble, but we've yet to come across one that satisfies Helena's whims to her standards.

Pirate, fortunately, is a fairly straightforward costume to assemble. This year's pièce de resistance: parrot on shoulder.

Halloween has been, and undoubtedly will continue to be, one of the toughest days of the year for me as a mother. I continue to grapple with encouraging Helena's individuality, while fearing for the potential devastation of not fitting in.

Meanwhile, Helena has the distinction of being one of very few non-princess girls.