Sunday, December 30, 2007

The best of the season

Best read of the year, hands down the oh-my-gawd-this-book-is-so-devastatingly-inside-my-head book:
The Gold Bug Variations, by Richard Powers.

Best book published in 2007:
Well, I didn't read them all, did I?, but I have a fondness for Divisadero, by Michael Ondaatje.

Book that made me cry:
Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, by Patrick Hamilton, in particular The Plains of Cement, being Ella's story and the last of the trilogy of novellas published under that umbrella title.

Book that didn't live up to its hype:
The Post-Birthday World, by Lionel Shriver.
Oh, and The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, was a pretty gawdawful excuse for a dystopian postapocaptic novel — hated it.

Best "discovery":
Last Evenings on Earth, by Roberto Bolaño.

Book I couldn't finish:
Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace.

Book I feel I wasted my time on:
The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks.

Most awesome book to have received as a review copy and keep on one's coffee table:
The Annotated Cat: Under the Hats of Seuss and His Cats, introduced and annotated by Philip Nel.

Book I've raved about and recommended to the most people, and to cross-dressing lesbians in particular:
The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas.

Book whose publication I'm most anticipating:
The Painter of Battles, by Arturo Perez-Reverte.

Book (on my shelf) I'm most looking forward to reading — OK, books plural, I can't pick one, but oh, which one do I start next?, I can't decide:
The Last Cavalier: Being the Adventures of Count Sainte-Hermine in the Age of Napoleon, by Alexandre Dumas.
The Adventures of Amir Hamza: Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction, by Ghalib Lakhnavi and Abdullah Bilgrami.

Number of books read in 2007, including the one I expect to finish in the next day or two but not counting the one (of the 2 listed above) that I intend to start when I crawl into bed tonight: 50.

Books I'm still thinking about, 1 and 2 years after the fact, and concerning which I continue to have revelations and mean to explore further (in writing, here):

War and Peace (read 2006), the crux of my idea being that the post-hunt scene — the meal, the dance — is central, the near physical centre of the novel, but the heart and soul of it too, and a turning point, when characters finally feel — know — their Russianness, and the French militarily begin to flounder, almost as if this reclaiming of Russianness thumbs its nose at all things French and aristocratic to claim a moral, soulful victory over war itself.

Don Quixote (read 2005), having an understanding (thanks to Alberto Manguel's Massey lectures) of why it is a quintessentially Spanish book — while its themes are pretty universal, blah, blah, blah, I hadn't understood what was so Spanish about it, why it should strike a chord in the Spanish soul more so than that of any other reader, and realizing that it is because it taps into a cultural memory, that the Spanish reader may not even consciously know, that the book parallels Spain's own history in its struggle for identity, with there always being some doubt as to whether it is authentically Spanish or Moorish in origin, with any physical/cultural/social artefact evidencing the one often masquerading as the other.

Hours spent watching Doctor Who this holiday season (including the Christmas special, available on youtube if you didn't already know): infinite, matching the number of times we've said "Allons-y, Alonso!" in this household.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Poet avenger


What we expect from poets is that they avenge evil somehow.

— From "A Note on Poetic Justice," in Other Colors: Essays and a Story, by Orhan Pamuk.

[In what must be a subconscious attempt at editorialization, I keep typing "pests" instead of "poets"...]

Sunday, December 09, 2007

When books talk to each other

Doris Lessing meets Lady Mary Wortley Montagu:

It's a way of unprivileging our own position as readers, reminding us, as Ms. Lessing does, that we are only one of the many sets of people who will leave traces of themselves during this planet's existence.

(Via ScribblingWoman2.)

What I read this past week

(Whittling my way through the stack.)

The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks.
Hmm. Didn't like it much. It's not exactly "Rubbish!" but nor would I name it one of my "top 100 novels of the century." There's some humour in it, the kind that makes you chuckle uncomfortably. It's unsettling, not least because you have to rely on a narrator that seems not entirely credible. Frank in his childhood killed a few kids, but it was just a stage he was going through. But Frank's boastful, and he exaggerates, and he's prone to melodrama of a macabre kind. So we don't know. So many things are left unexplained — the questions, of course, drove me forward. But. Hmm. Surprise ending, yes. The ending makes the journey worthwhile, though it only raises more questions, but it finally places the whole of the book in a context by which to ask and consider the right questions.

Right. I'm not convincing anyone to read this book, am I? It's not without merit. It's weird and kind of creepy (to its credit), and I would recommend it if you have a thing for exploring gender roles and social experiments (of the 'let's raise the kid by homeschooling/by extreme indulgence or the opposite/by dumping the responsibility on distant relatives' kind, kind of).

The Mustache, by Emmanuel Carrère.
Neat. Great premise: A guy shaves his mustache, the one he's worn forever, and no one notices, not his wife, friends, or colleagues, so he figures they're playing an elaborate joke, but his wife's insistence leads him to think she must be crazy, or that he's crazy, and his whole sense of self — his whole life — unravels.

I liked the movie better. The focus is a little different: you spend the book inside the husband's head, but in the movie you watch the disconnect in a married relationship. The acting is superb: silent glances convey pages of 'he knows she knows he thinks she's thinking...' (And the soundtrack featuring Philip Glass's Violin Concerto is perfectly hypnotic.) But the book has a better ending, that he's "appeased by the certitude that now it was over, everything was back in place."

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Nobel words

Doris Lessing's Nobel lecture: On Not Winning the Nobel Prize.

Writing, writers, do not come out of houses without books.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

One down, far to go

This week I read Doris Lessing's The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog, her sequel to Mara and Dann.

It wasn't so much of a letdown as I'd been led to expect. On the other hand, while it could stand as its own story, I don't see it working for someone who doesn't have the baggage of Mara and Dann.

For all the other characters named in the title, it's mostly about Dann. I'd've liked to hear more about Griot. But Griot doesn't seem to know himself very well — he doesn't remember his childhood; he realizes that he's not particularly clever, or charismatic, or ambitious even, and he's jealous of people who are; he's never really questioned himself or his way about things — no one's ever asked him "What did you see?" (but really see) — but maybe he's just starting to when the story ends.

As I said, it's mostly about Dann — Dann wandering around and not doing much at first, and then Dann moping about and being depressed. Which finally made sense to me, because if you've been wandering around your whole life struggling against starvation and drought and slavery and tyranny and war and evil in general, and you somehow get past it all, and you keep wandering around and all you see around you is people fighting more of the same kind, or some variation, of starvation and flooding and slavery and tyranny and war and evil in general, you start to think what is the fucking point of it all. Which is what Dann does. And like all the millions of people who've lived Dann's life and got past it, Dann gets past it too. More or less.

The writing is simple. In Mara and Dann the style helps lend it the quality of fable. This story doesn't have the sweep to let simple stand; it's more psychological and could do with more exposition. On the other hand, given the phrasing, I can hear the story being told — it's of an oral tradition — which lends it sincerity.

Blah, blah, blah, don't bother reading it unless you're a big Lessing fan; it's kind of depressing.


I'm finding my reading rhythm again. I hadn't realized how important was reading on my short commute until I'd lost that rhythm. And how important it is to have this respite as the weather grows colder and the commute becomes more unpleasant (I no longer shake my head and gripe to myself — I speak up. Don't lean on the pole — 6 people need to hold on to that pole. Move away from the door — look, 3 people could stand in that pocket you've created — no matter if you're getting off next stop. Speaking up gets results, dammit.). The trick is having a book in hand; it's not good enough to have one tucked in my bag somewhere. And just do it: read while waiting, read in the metro, while standing and hanging on for dear life, but considerately — keep your book close; rummaging about in your bag will not do. Read while waiting for your espresso (allongé 3/4) to be drawn. Just do it, like going to bed early and eating right and walking more and blogging.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Easy Reader

"Top to bottom and left to right, readin' stuff is outta sight!"