Saturday, December 31, 2005

58. An Affair with the Moon by David Gilmour (and end of year summary!)

[note: end of year summary follows this write-up so that I can keep my book count consistent with my blog posting count.]

Affair with the Moon pictureI probably should have waited a little while longer before picking up my second novel by Gilmour, (Here's the first) but I was looking for a quick and entertaining train read. Affair is about the up and down friendship between the protagonist, who is a semi-slacker upper class Torontonian and his wild, charismatic friend. In an interview, Gilmour said that his books are all about his search for true love. Until his most recent publication, where, according to him, he realized he discovered the most pure love in the form of his son, all his books are about the failure of that search. An Affair with the Moon tracks his friendship with Harrow Winncup, beginning in their fancy private school and onwards through adult life where Harrow gets involved in music, drugs and eventually a scandalous murder.

The love theme comes to the surface of the narrative from time to time, sometimes even explicitly. Gilmour is toying with the notion of two good male friends being like lovers. I didn't buy it. It felt forced to me, overly psychological. The story is strong, but the stronger emotional theme, to my mind, was the protaganist's relationship with X's mother, who for various class reasons, hated him and forced him out socially. The narrator's anger seemed much more real when expressing the resentment created when a woman (mother in this case) separates male friendship. Those homoerotic overtones seem false, created to appeal to the female and/or post-modern reader, especially coming from such an overtly heterosexual writer. Gay is gay and that kind of homosexual romantic love and the love between two men who are friends are two very different things.

The book moves along nicely, with the similar witty and dark asides that Gilmour is so good at. It isn't quite as funny as Sparrow Nights, but it gets into slightly darker territory. I'm curious to see how Gilmour continues with his study, but judging by the two books of his that he's read, he expresses the love of a man for a woman better than that between friends.

End of the year summary

I close this 50 books meme with a great deal of personal satisfaction. I'm not into memes particularily, but when Hannibal Chew passed this along to me, it caught my attention. I can't remember exactly why, perhaps my subconscious recognized that it would be a helpful tool for me. I'm one of those people who considers himself a reader. I read a lot when I was young and I read fast. I got into books. This died down considerably in college, where I lost the desire to just read (too much forced reading, too much bullshit surrounding reading). I was aware of it at the time and it wasn't until 3 or 4 years after graduation that I started reading books again. So I was still considering myself a reader in the decade since. But I actually wasn't reading all that much. I always had a book going, but sometimes it would stay closed for weeks. The increasing power of the internet distracted me far worse than television had ever done. I think I implicitly realised that 50 books in a year (about a book a week), would be the path of fire through which I must cross in order to actually merit the title of "reader".

I have crossed that path and what I have learned is that for me to continue to be a reader, it is going to take the same kind of vigilance, discipline and constant self-awareness that an alchoholic uses to stay off the bottle. One day at a time.

If you look at a chart of my reading rate throughout 2005, you'll see a good start in January, a slow drop-off into spring, near cessation in summer with only a strong burst in August (thanks to a couple of weekends and a trip to the Gaspésie) to keep me alive. When autumn came, I got so busy with school that I only read 2 books each in the months of September and October. Something spurred me at the end of November, made me realize that I had to start busting it soon or I wouldn't make it. Again, I have to give a lot of credit to the Mount Benson Report, whose consistent, steady progress kept me focused on the passage of time. I had caught up to him very briefly at the end of the summer (at 32 books, I think), but then he quite quickly moved by me and I saw the truth of the parable of the tortoise and the hare.

Furthermore, the books that I had read had mostly been really good. They triggered long-dormant interests in genres, authors and specific books that I'd always been curious about. The Ballards, the Phillip K. Dicks re-opened a love for science fiction and all the ways the world can go in the future and thus got me interested in good new sci-fi. Just like physical training, I found my reading skills increasing. I could read faster, for longer periods and was retaining more. During the last part of the year, I was just tearing through books, driven by the tight schedule, but more importantly, riding the momentum of great stories and crazy ideas.

Coming out at the end of the year, having read 56 books, I feel I have learned a lot. The total of all this reading is more than the sum of its parts. As for the parts, I can now honestly say I have some understanding of Ballard, Philip K. Dick, a taste for the tone of Russian literature, a solid introductory foundation into contemporary science fiction, a good survey and starting point of modern english-Canadian authors and many important literary puzzle pieces that were previously missing in my picture of the world.

As for the total, well I'm not sure yet. I think the dividends are still calculating themselves in my mind and soul. Practically speaking, I know this has been a huge boon in my writing, both in motivation and in a realization of how much learning I still have to do. To consume such a range of imagination and craft is humbling. I may have some smidgen of talent, a good education, a bit of life experience and an open enough mind. Not a bad start, but I need training. If I'm lucky (and this is really pushing things) I could be considered the Toshiro Mifune character in the Seven Samurai, strong and loud, wearing the stolen armour and weapons but I've just run into a bunch of guys who could cut my topknot off while mending their kimonos.

Because, Damn, there are some writers out there! I won't even address the sheer quantity of good material these authors produce (which you don't want to think about too much anyways). I was forced to pause several times at the ability of a good writer to capture something (a moment, a feeling, an action, a description, a behaviour, a character) with a combination of words and just re-read that sentence or phrase. It's almost magical. If you look at the writing closely enough, you can build up arguments about the choice of words, the structure, the order, the rhythm that makes it so effective, but there is some invisible power going on that connects the words to your brain and makes them take off there. That is a miracle, that we have such a power in our consciousness, to be able to look at some words on a page and derive a profound sensation from that, so profound that it can be as exciting as the action itself. We are lucky creatures indeed.

So I'm going to push forth again this year, resetting the counter to zero and shooting for another 50 books. Aside from the manifold benefits I have listed above (which I hope will continue to develop in new, interesting ways) I also just have tons of more books that I want to read! Thanks for your support everyone (and all the great suggestions) and congrats to all of you who participated. I see that beyond me and Hannibal, most of you get around 20 to 30 which is still no joke, especially considering your burdens of fulltime employment. I hope you all keep posting write-ups whether you shoot for 50 or not. They were very helpful and enjoyable to me.

57. The Crystal Shard by R.L. Salvatore

shard pictureThe Crystal Shard is the first book in the Icewind Dale trilogy of the Dungeons & Dragons based series that takes place in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting. Geeked out yet? Good, because this was the book that sent Mr. Mond on his path towards that Satanic game. He was curious how it would be perceived by an adult who had already read a lot of that genre, to determine if his own feelings for the book were due to it's merits or his own sentimentality.

Simply because of the heavy branding, I felt a bit hesitant. But when Mr. Mond actually gave me a copy as a present, I dived right in. At first, I found some of the sentences a bit simple and felt a bit overwhelmed by way too much exposition. I was worried the book was aimed at adolescent boys who slaver over every little bit of world detail or background. But the story picks up it's pace and there are a lot of pretty cool characters. Furthermore, the plot is sufficiently complex to keep you interested, but well-structured so you don't get lost. It has lots of pretty well thought out regional strategy and local politics. Once all these elements came together and started moving forward, it made for a very satisfying read. On top of that, there are lots of cool magic and fantasy moments, where Salvatore does a great job of providing cool detail and context. The halfling character, an unwilling politician, has a gem that allows him to influence others. It ends up being both a major plot point and a great tool for revealing the character. There is also a great backstory of the creation of a powerful, magical war hammer that is really cool.

I had a great time with this book and would pass it on to others who are fans of the genre. I would read the next in the series, but I wouldn't rush to get it. It's nice to know that they are out there and if I'm looking for that kind of entertainment, there is a quality source of it. But it is firmly ensconced in its genre and the tropes of medieval fantasy can be emotionally limiting. I also have this sense of leaning over a cliff (or maybe starting to climb up a immensely long ladder) when I think about all the books you could end up reading, all the characters, all the maps, all the locations that would fill your brain. It makes me hesitant to get too much farther into this world.

I'll send it out to one of you. Mr. Mond has made a convert!

Friday, December 30, 2005

56. A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Arthur Warren Hughes

wind pictureThis was on my parents' bookshelf for as long as I can remember and my dad mentioned it several times as one of his favorites. It's about a group of english children who get kidnapped by pirates when leaving Jamaica for England sometime around the turn of the century. It's an amazing book, all told from the voice of an adult who sees things the way the children do. It has a similar tone to some of the english children's adventure books like Box of Delights or Swallows and Amazons but you as the reader can tell the whole thing is totally grounded in reality. It's the way the kids see the world that makes it all so fantastic and dreamlike.

There is also an interesting critique of colonialism and the wavering moral certitude of the British Empire just after its peak. I really don't want to say too much about what happens in the book because a lot of the pleasure is in just experiencing the narrative for yourself. Strongly recommended. A quick read that will take you far from yourself.

Friday, December 23, 2005

55. Dorsai! by Gordon R. Dickson

Dorsai! pictureIn my ongoing effort to read as much classic sci-fi as possible, I accepted this recommendation from my friend, Mr. Mond, whose father, an electrical engineer and silver age sci-fi aficionado (i.e. old-school nerd), recommended it to him.

It's the story of Donal, a young man from the Dorsai race, a planet of warriors in a galaxy of post-space colonization humans. The Dorsai hire themselves out as mercenaries. The relationships between the worlds are governed by contracts, basically a skill-sharing arrangement where contracts on labour are traded. So if you're a smart scientist, you can contract out to a planet that needs scientist. They in turn may provide (as the Dorsai do) good warriors.

Donal turns out to be extremely skilled, so good that most of the story is about him quickly impressing his superiors and making his way higher and higher in power. He is clearly geared for bigger conflicts and he becomes a central player in a war between who governs the contracts. This is one of those books where the scale is huge, but the book is quite short. A lot happens in few pages. I think this marks a lot of the sci-fi from the 50s and 60s, where authors were free to expand on epic cycles in great sweeping narrative, without getting too down and dirty with the detail. These days, most sci-fi books seem to have a lot more pages, and anything large in scale takes at least a trilogy before someone controls the universe.

This book was so popular that Dickson spun it off into a much larger series, called The Childe Cycle or the Dorsai Series, which deals with the notion of humans evolving into something beyond their current form. This theme is just touched upon in Dorsai!

It's a good read, quick and well put together. I found it more enjoyable as a military action book, where you get to see a serious ass-kicker kick ass. I can see how it would appeal to young men. There are some almost fascistic elements, or at least moments where the deaths of millions of civilians is basically treated like a good military strategy, though ultimately Dickson is addressing much bigger ideas. Still it made me wonder where he was going. I'll have to read more into the series to find out.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

54. A Gathering of Old Men by Ernest J. Gaines

Gathering pictureAnother grab at the library. This time a direct recommendation from Mike who was actually standing right there!

It's the story of a small parrish in Louisiana in the late 70s that is still pulling itself out of its history of slavery. A white foreman is shot by an old black man. The old guy is joined by a dozen of his peers, and the young white woman who owns the land he works. Each of them brings a shotgun fired once and claims that they did it. A standoff ensues that slowly unveils the history of pain and degradation as well as the intransigence of the various groups who live in this area: the poor blacks, the rich whites and the cajuns.

The book is structured so that almost each chapter is narrated by a different voice, giving the reader all the viewpoints. I found it really got interesting when it leaves the location of the standoff and follows the young football star brother of the guy killed. He represents the younger generation who wants the family to let go of its desire for revenge and move forward from its old traditions. There is an incredibly tense scene when he returns to his house and tries to convince his father to not go get revenge. The house is filled with all the hangers-on, supporters and just plain troublemakers who await the decision of the family patriarch (who has already been portrayed as a scary dude).

We forget the brutality of slavery and how it's really not that far away in time. This book, as well as being a rich portrayal of a complex region, reminds us of that.

Monday, December 19, 2005

53. Titan by John Varley

Titan pictureContinuing my foray into classic Science Fiction, I took up the recommendation of my friend Jeff, who not only put forth Titan but sent me a cool paperback copy of it in the mail. This is the first book of the Gaea trilogy, concerning a living planetoid shaped like a donut that orbits one of Uranus' moons. The living area is on the inside of the outer wall of the donut and a crew of an earth ship ends up there. The story is them discovering the world and then trying to figure out who runs it by making their way to the hub.

It's an amazing world, both on the planetar level and the space level. Inside of Gaea, there are all kinds of wild flora and fauna. This part of the book almost makes it like a really cool fantasy world. But Gaea itself is a crazy space concept (and I imagine one that is explored further in the later books). It's a nice blend of both sci-fi and fantasy, both elements of which are pretty mindblowing. I imagine it was even more so when it first came out in 1979.

I had my complaints in the first half of the book. Some of the characters were painted a bit broadly and thus become kind of annoying. They also spend a lot of time being all angry and not believing, an attitude we don't see so much these days fortunately. Look, if you're on the planet and shit is weird, you're going to accept it. This being all freaked out is a simplistic way to make a character and have conflict in a book. But once the main quest to get to the hub got underway, we get to see a bit more of the characters subtler sides and the story propels itself forward.

I wanted to review the science fiction field withough getting caught up in too many endless series, and now I've found myself having started my third set of books that I want to follow up on! (Starfish and Hyperion being the other two). But I shouldn't complain. There is some great science fiction out there.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

52. Happenstance by Carol Shields

Happenstance pictureCarol Shields is considered one of Canada's best writers. She died last year and there was a lot of press about her life and work. I heard most of her novel Larry's Party read on CBC and quite enjoyed it. I checked out what they had at the Library and decided upon this one because it was such a neat concept. Happenstance is actually two books, back to back (physically, you have to flip the book over to start the other story). Together, it is about a week in the life of a married couple. One book is the husband's story and the other is the wife's story. So it's looking at the relationship through the two different perspectives.

The couple in question are a middle-class couple in suburban Chicago in the early 80s. He is a professional historian at a think tank and she is a housewife who has recently become quite succesful at quiltmaking, to the point where she is going to a quiltmaker's convention in Philadelphia. The story begins with her getting ready to leave and ends when she gets back.

I started with the wife's story, because it was the real "front" of the book. It was enjoyable, if a bit neurotic. Carol Shields goes deeply into the thoughts of the wife and it was richly imagined. The wife is a lifetime housewife who is just starting to branch out with her quilting. It's not that she had no identity before. On the contrary, she is portrayed as a solid and independent individual, despite her social role. It's more the unfolding of her consciousness and mind as she becomes more creative and finds herself alone in a new social milieu. It's engrossing to watch the story unfold, both what is happening around her at the convention (which is quite fun, actually; the quiltmakers are a pretty rowdy bunch) and inside of her.

After finishing the wife's story, I was quite psyched to see the husband's take on things. Since they are physically apart for most of the book, you don't actually get a play-by-play analysis of the same situation seen through the two sets of eyes. Rather, you get to see the husband as he sees himself, compared with how the wife sees him and you get to see how the husband sees the wife, now that you have a feel for her. The differences in the way they see each other is actually quite large. Their entire worldviews are different. But by the end, you get the feeling that people can be very, very different and not even really know each other in a certain sense and yet still be deeply linked and extremely important for one another.

The husband, though, comes off as much more neurotic and self-conscious than the wife. He's constantly worried about every stupid little social situation. At first, because the wife is so stressed about her flight, you think she's the worry-wart, but when you read his story and how every stupid little thing freaks him out, you kind of find him a bit of a loser. I feel that Shields doesn't really understand men, unless this is how men were in the 80s (and they were pretty lame then, it's true). She goes to great lengths to suggest that men don't keep many long-term friends, while women do. She also tries to get us to believe that this guy has only ever fantasized about his wife. Not. Finally, there is a really jarring scene where the guy comes home and the 3rd quarter of a football game that he really wanted to watch is underway. He heats up some soup from a can and suddenly the game is almost over! He only gets to watch the final goal-line touchdown attempt. A quarter and a half in four minutes. Not even with a Tivo. It's clear that Shields had no idea about a football game. And she describes it from his perspective like it's all just a jumble of arms and legs. A goal-line stand may seem confusing to someone who has never watched football, but if the guy was a fan, he would have known what was going on. Her editor must have been a woman also. She went too far, flew too close to the sun. If you're going to try and think like a man, don't get into the sports unless you know what you're doing. It'd be like me trying to write about a woman picking out jewelry. I wouldn't dare try.

Still, it's a big challenge to write the opposite sex, especially if you are going deep into their thoughts. This is a pretty impressive book and has some good stuff in it. For my personal taste, there was just way too much worrying about stuff and obsessing over things. I'll try some of her later books at some point, but I need a little bit of good old-fashioned narrative first.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

51. Human Resources by Floyd Kemske

Human Resources pictureA random grab at the library, Human Resources is about a middle manager whose company undergoes a re-engineering by a vampire. It's an interesting concept and the author is interested both in the history and character of the vampire and by the nature of the modern corporation. It was the latter aspect that most appealed to me (and I see from his publisher's website that these themes are central to Kemske's other books as well). Unfortunately, it was all too surreal and didn't really go beyond looking at how the changes affected the psyche of the middle manager. A lot of the dialogue was very stilted, to the point that I thought it might have been translated from another language. Part of it might be that I just emerged from the depths of Middlemarch and part might be that Kemske is deliberately trying to write a fable, but I still found it off-putting. The main character was also excessively naive and clueless. I don't necessarily expect him to believe his company is being taken over by a vampire, but when your workmates are acting like zombies and their clothes smell bad, you're going to say something. I think this idea could have been done much more subtly to a more interesting end. I may give some of his other books at least a skim through because he is at least looking at the modern nature of work critically and interestingly. It's the delivery that seems to be the problem.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

50. Middlemarch by George Eliot

George Eliot pictureWho

Yeah boyee. Where there is a will there's a way. I was really in the pit of despair back there in September. I don't know what got me going, but I got it done and am a much better person for it. I have completed the 50 book meme. And I intend to do it again next year. At the end of the year, I'll write an overview about the whole thing and how it affected me. Now, let us return to the text at hand.

Middlemarch is a classic of english literature and a bit of a symbol of something virtuous around my house as I was growing up. My sister read it when she was in her early teens, demonstrating her subtler and more persevering mind. My mother brought it up on the phone again a couple weeks ago, thinking that I had read it. I felt I needed to make my 50th book a big one. War and Peace would have been pretty impressive, but I was a little tired of the Russian thing and it was checked out.

First of all, this is a ripping good yarn. George Eliot can tell a story. Both the complexity of the narrative and it's unravelling are masterful. Her command of the english language is on a level that just doesn't exist today. She was obviously talented but also the result of a much more rigorous (though far from perfect and exclusive) educational system that makes me cringe to think of the watered down and mediocre methods with which we train our children today. Think of an inverse-time basketball metaphor. The best writer of our time is to Jane Austen as the best basketball player of her time would be to Michael Jordan. She would bitch-slap any contemporary opponent off the page. Check this shit out:

Caleb was a powerful man and knew little of any fear except the fear of hurting others and the fear of having to speechify.

Ka-jang! One sentence, one rich character.

Or how about:

The fact is unalterable, that a fellow mortal with whose nature you are acquainted solely through the brief entrances and exits of a few imaginative weeks called courtship, may, when seen in the continuity of married companionship be disclosed of something better or worse than what you have preconceived, but will certainly not appear altogether the same.

In your face! Try to put that sentence together on your own, 21st century "writer". [I can think of several males of my own acquaintance who would do well to have those words tattooed on the inside of their upper forearm, in order that they may be constantly referenced and kept foremost in their minds and hearts.]

It took my soft brain a while to acclimatize to the more complex turns of phrase and I must confess that I read a lot of the first half in a semi-distracted state. However, as I got caught up in the narrative, I found the reading flowed more easily and the writing became a real joy.

Now on to the substance. I can not fault the contents of this book except from my own limited, masculine perspective. From that perspective, though, I might suggest that Middlemarch be subtitled "Silly Rich Women and the Men Who Are Compelled To Marry Them." The characters are richly drawn and the revelations of the depths of their characters and the changes to those characters are a joy to read. But the characters themselves can be pretty annoying. I'm sure there are arguments to the historical context and the role of women in upper class, rural england that justify and explain their behaviours, but that doesn't satisfy this readers desire to step in to Middlemarch and slap Dorothea in the back of the head, saying "He's a bitter old man and will never satisfy you, so take off the hair shirt and go make some friends."

To be fair, Eliot paints their character flaws so well and so deftly in relation to their circumstances, that you have to believe these people would have acted the way they did. But I'm just not all that interested in people struggling to find love amidst a rigid social structure. Especially when they are surrounded by that awesome British countryside right at the dawn of the railroad.

Most of the novel concerns Dorothea and her quest for love, but also follows closely the spoiled Rosamund and her hard-working, idealistic but also spoiled (by class) husband. These stories were interesting, but I think I would have rather spent over half of the 900 pages following Mr. Caleb Garth around as he made innovative improvements to the farmers' cottages and their agricultural techniques. Now that was a cool character. Perhaps with another 200 pages devoted to following Monk the St. Bernard on his travels on the Brooke family estate. He only gets two measly mentions in the whole book!

Reading Middlemarch was a revelation though. I can see the pernicious influence it had on my sister at a very young age. While I was reading Sgt. Rock and Conan Doyle and recognizing the value of being able to outflank a german machine-gun nest and making my way in disguise around the waterfront, she was reading obsessive details about the color and fabric of women's clothes, the importance of having the right kind of dinnerware and the power of women talking together in drawing rooms. I was worried about the influence of those women's fashion magazines, but I can see now these British classics of romantic literature were far more subtle and insidious.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

49. The Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson

The Chronoliths in the Ring book picture
Wilson is another Canadian science fiction author (I also heard him interviewed on The Arts Tonight on CBC). They seem to need to mention that he was born in California but moved to Canada at a young age, grew up there and currently lives in Toronto. Did he not take Canadian citizenship?

The Chronoliths takes place in the near future and is the story of a man who was present when the first chronolith appeared in Thailand. These giant crystal pillars just appear, one by one, either in the remote countryside or later in the middle of Asian cities, destroying everything around them. According to the inscriptions at their base, they are memorials to battles that take place 20 years in the future. As they continue to appear, they disrupt the world, with their physical destruction but more with their psychological impact. Societies begin to brace for this unknown world tyrant who appears to be taking over the world from the future. But as the world adapts to this future threat, it starts to create the conditions that will make it happen.

Caught up in this conceptual time struggle, the protaganist leads us through the development and how it impacts his own life. The appearance of these giant memorials are like a destiny he can't avoid and they mess with him and his family in direct and indirect ways as much as they affect the earth. The book follows both storylines, though more of the impact is with the psychology of the narrator.

It's an interesting book and an intriguing premise. The story plays out well, keeping you engaged with suspense and interesting characters. The conceptual element and the way the potential time paradox is resolved is satisfying as well. I found it just a bit dark. The mood was sort of sombre and regretful throughout, which may have been appropriate. It just didn't make me feel super excited. There were also a couple of small little errors that stood out for me, like the suggestion that downtown Baltimore had gone to seed during the protaganist's lifetime (when it's pretty common knowledge that that happened in the second half of the twentieth century) and a misuse of the term syllogism.

Overall, though, Robert Charles Wilson is a skilled writer and his story delivers. If all his books have such a sombre tone, I might not be so interested. Otherwise, I'll check out his other works. There are some good Canadian sci-fi authors!

Monday, November 28, 2005

48. Brown Girl in the Ring by Nola Hopkinson

Brown Girl in the Ring book pictureNola Hopkinson was recommended by Peter Watts on his excellent website as "the woman who climbed into the future and saw way too many white guys in spaceships, and did something about it." I also heard her on the CBC and she had some interesting stuff to say about science fiction. She's a Toronto native of Caribean descent. Brown Girl in the Ring is her first novel.

It's about a young Caribbean woman living in downtown Toronto in the near future. The city's core has become a walled-off place where the poor live. The upper classes have fled to the burbs, leaving the the inner city to criminals like Rudy, the gang lord who runs the place. Rudy get a commission to find a good human heart to replace the Premiere's dying one. This is some kind of transgression because organ donation has been made illegal and people rely on pig farms for their organs. This is the area where the book really suffered. Hopkinson's depiction of this dystopic future was, to my mind, simplistic and flawed. It also seemed to stem from some weird conservative viewpoints. Voters (in the suburbs) were fighting against the pig farms because they considered them inhumane, while the premiere hired criminals to find a human heart. I get the point, but it seems unrealistic and exaggerated. Furthermore, the whole reason for Toronto's economic collapes was because the world put a trade embargo on Ontario for a certain kind of wood that was on native land. So it almost seems like she's blaming the natives! I'd have to read more of her novels to see if this kind of politics of resentment is a real theme, or if it was just the incompletely thought out future of a first-time novelist (which is perfectly acceptable).

The story itself is okay, about the girl dealing with her new baby, her lame boyfriend and her witch-doctor grandmother. You kind of new where it was going to end up. What really shone, though, was the depiction of ritual magic and the role of the old African and Caribean gods. That was really cool and Hopkinson didn't pull any punches. It kind of seems that this book was targeted for young adults, but there was some nasty stuff in it. And the way she describes the various gods as they take form by "riding" a human host was incredibly visual and evocative.

Overall, Brown Girl in the Ring suffered from being a bit simplistic, but there was enough pretty cool material to warrant checking out Nalo Hopkinson's other work. She is a black woman sci-fi writer and she obviously has drawn heavily from her own background and spirit and that is an important and necessary addition to a genre that must continue to evolve.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

47. Nobody Runs Forever by Richard Stark

Nobody Lives Forever book pictureI'd been eagerly awaiting this book, the latest in the Parker saga, to come in to the library. Parker is a cold-blooded, efficient heister in a series of books written in the 60s and 70s by Richard Stark, who is actually Donald E. Westlake. They are far and away the best crime books and in my opinion, some of the best series of books ever. The thing is, Parker doesn't fuck around, like so many other supposed crime books (especially American ones) that are diluted with whiny prevaricating, inefficient behaviour and general lameness (and this is saying nothing about movies). What made the Parker books so cool, was that deep down they were about going against the man, about independence from any organization that wanted to impose its rules on you, be it the cops, the mob or the company you have to work for. The last in the first iteration of the series, Butcher's Moon is a climax of anti-authoritanism, where Parker takes it hard to the outfit and houses them royally. Start with The Hunter (the first Parker book, which was turned into the movie Point Blank) and keep going.

Unfortunately, Richard Stark started writing the Parker books again in the late '90s and they just weren't as good. They were watered down, Parker was doing stupid things like talking to people and walking around in disguise. They were decent enough books, but nothing compared to the heights reached in the first set. I didn't feel too critical because Westlake is getting older and a lot of his toughness was probably the result of the anger of a young man (which we see in several of his other books, such as Killy). Though, The Axe, one of his recent books about a downsized guy who goes around killing his potential competitors for jobs, was pretty hardcore. Anyways, I stopped reading the new ones unless they fell into my lap, as they did at the library.

I read Breakout in August and it wasn't bad. It was solid but not spectacular. I'd say it was on the level of some of the less great in the first series, such as the Black Ice Score. Well I'm very happy to report that Nobody Runs Forever is really quite good. Parker is back in form. The side characters are interesting and the heist is very cool. Usually the heist take place in the middle of the Parker books. This one is all about the build up, as Parker and the guys he's working with try to hold all the loose ends in place as the other weak humans involved slowly break down. The end of the book is a gripping timeline as Stark takes us through all the actions of the characters involved step by step. As a reader, you're not sure which of them is going to fuck the whole thing up, or even if they will. It's very tense. There are also two really hardcore kickass moments where Westlake shows us why he calls himself "stark". When he writes tough, he doesn't blink and it can be quite startling. I don't know if he's gotten grumpy again in his old age, or if this is his last Parker book so he gave it his all, but I was quite happily surprised at how much a return to the form of the original series this was.

I'd like to recommend it to you, but as I've said before, you really should read the original series first.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

46. Starfish by Peter Watts

Starfish book pictureI'm very psyched about this book. It's the first one of the whole year that got me really excited. I grabbed it off the shelf at the library because the cover looked cool and it was by a Canadian author. It claims to fall under the heading of "hard sci-fi" whatever that means. I think it's just because it has a lot of science in it.

It's about a group of psychologically damaged people who have been genetically altered and put into a deep sea station where they are supposed to be handling the maintenance of these generators taking energy from powerful hydrothermal vents. These vents are supplying a lot of the energy to the world. The people running the project found that certain types of victims of abuse were the only ones capable of existing in such an oppressive atmosphere. They are modified and trained so that they can swim around.

So basically, you've got a pod of psychos who are practically amphibious. But what happens is that they start to discover that they are much happier outside of the pod in the ocean. They start to adapt to it and it changes their personalities. On top of that, the reasons for them being down their start to get really interesting, which I don't even want to get into. Suffice it to say that this book deals with a lot of cool themes: a dystopic society, complex psychological relationships, accelerated human evolution, morality politics and biological plague. It's taut and fast-moving, with really cool science and tech concepts. Most of the action takes place underwater, which is described beautifully (as is the characters' slowly developing empathy and eventual dependence on the environment). But there are tantalizing hints of the world on the surface.

This book stands on it's own, but I think the series continues and I'm psyched.

Highly recommended. Very psyched to have discovered this author.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

45. High Rise by J.G. Ballard

High Rise book pictureI must deliver a mixed report on High Rise. First, it's a great book. I strongly recommend that you read it if you haven't already. It's a dark and complex exploration into the deterioration of bourgeois civilization, in the form of a giant self-sufficient high-rise for upper middle and middle class professionals. Hierarchical social groups begin to devolve into warring clans. I don't know if he's critiquing western bourgeois society or mankind in general, but Ballard's prognosis is dark. Quite quickly, men are ganging up on the weak, killing their dogs, barricading hallways, marking their territory with urine. The women become status property, something to protect, or form matriarchal gangs of their own. He really takes the idea to the limit and the last few chapters are delicious in their excess.

However, in the context of Ballard's other work, there is not a lot that is original in High Rise. That's why I'm giving it the mixed review. He pulls out so many elements, especially from his first four post-apocalyptic novels, that I felt for a lot of the book that I was going over the same ground. The mysterious patriarch is in both The Drought and The Wind From Nowhere. There are many other examples, and probably the differences in how he presents these themes and iconic characters would be worth analysis. It's just that I felt I'd been treading over the same ground and that Ballard hadn't taken things much farther.

However, the ending redeemed a lot of my concerns, First, it was wildly entertaining (Wilder, has business suit reduced to cutoffs, fly open to expose his genitals, body covered in tribal lipstick patterns, fighting his way to the penthouse apartment from the first floor). Second, though he didn't really push his theme farther, he committed himself to it. He made it pretty clear that this is where he believes our consumerized and sheltered society will end up.

Read it.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

44. The Duel by Anton Chekhov

The Duel book pictureI'm pushing things a bit considering The Duel a book, but it's more a novella, even a very long short story, but it is published alone and is thus literally "a book". Chekhov is one of those authors that I would sort of pretend to myself that I kind of new about but would never (except perhaps when really drunk or in my 20's) have expressed this out loud. After reading The Fixer and after being quite rewarded by getting through Oblomov last year, I'm starting to find Russian literature interesting, even entertaining. They are a bizarre people, judging by their literature and the one Russian friend I had (my strongest memory of Dima, my old workmate in the Chain Division of Western Books, is him standing next to our delivery truck, holding a bag of his own puke in the air, saying "Do I look suspicious?") and I can see why a certain segment of young academics fall in love with them and go off to Russia to study.

The Duel is about a small group of the gentry in an isolated seaside town. One of them, Laevky, has fallen out of love with his mistress, but he's such a pathetic, ineffectual person that he can't do anything about it. Another character, an agressive opinionated zoologist constantly attacks Laevky verbally behind his back. The duel is almost an afterthought to the study of the two men and the people around them. In the end, everybody seems flawed but ultimately pleasant and gentle. It's a very different tone from The Fixer. The only cruelty (and even that is too extreme of a word) is more a result of the inevitable conflicts of life and society and human flaws than any deliberate malevolance.

I had thought Chekhov was more about intrigue, plotting and nasty machinations, dark studies of human conflict. This is only one story, but from the introduction, it sounds like Chekhov's books were very sympathetic to his characters. He himself sounds like an amazing person. He came out of poverty, supported his family by writing, became a doctor and wrote and treated thousands of poor people for free before dying at 41 of tuberculosis.

I'll read more Chekhov for sure.

Friday, November 18, 2005

43. Sparrow Nights by David Gilmour

Sparrow book pictureThis author was interviewed on Sounds Like Canada (the interview will probably be up for a couple more days) because he just won the Governor General's award for literature for his latest book, A Perfect Night to Go to China. He was a lively and straightforward speaker and quite funny. Up until this latest book, his theme has tended to be about sex, older men and younger woman. He also said how he rigorously edits down his prose, to make it as lean as possible, a strong advertisement for a writer when one is at the final lap of a 50 books project. Plus, I need to get some CanLit here.

I picked up Sparrow Nights at the library again and immediately got into it. It's a modern novel and I mean that in the sense that it's contemporary and adult, hardback with a fancy looking cover. It makes you feel very grown up and today reading it. It's basically the story about a slightly unhinged french lit professor and his recovery from a breakup with a younger woman. It's really about getting over heartbreak. The story and theme are not particularily original (it seems that most everybody has gone through the same feelings his character did, but usually in their 30s. I sure hope that it won't happen again in the 50s!), but his writing style and observations are hilarious. He's raunchy and critical and speaks with the angry, clever voice of the intelligent victim, whose last resistance against defeat is simply the colour of his own personality. There were several moments where I laughed out loud.

I'll definitely pick up some of his other books. I'm curious if the style will be as distinct and yet have a different voice.

Strongly recommended.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

42. What Is History? by Edward Hallett Carr

What is History? book pictureThe principal of the school I'm teaching at lent me this book, when I we were discussing ways to approach the 10th grade history class I'm covering for the month of November. It's a series of lectures from the early '60s by a Cambridge professor and covers very broadly the history of the study and philosophy of history.

He looks at the relationship between the historian and history, the relationship between historical facts and theories, the place for morality in history, the role of accident and causality in history, the concept of history as progress and how these notions have changed through time. It's an excellent survey of historiography, seen primarily through examples of European historians in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. He is a moderate and progressive thinker, arguing for a balanced approach to history that takes into account both sides of the various arguments:

"The historian and the facts of history are necessary to one another. The historian without his facts is rootless and futile; the facts without their historian are dead and meaningless. My first answer, therefore to the question What is history?, is that it is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past."

He builds from these balances and develops a rich and nuanced overview to the state of history today, with a progressive conclusion that calls for historians and society to recognize the dynamic state of change in the world and not stay stuck in the structures of the past.

I studied history in college, so most of the ideas in this book were not new to me. Some of them I studied quite explicitly and others were implicit in whatever else was being studied. But I never had a chance to read them all summarized as an overall study of the discipline in such a concise, clear and well-written manner. Had I the patience and the mental sophistication to read this book in my first or second year, I would have had a much better appreciation of the discipline as a whole and my mind would have been much better prepared to approach the work. I think this is an excellent book for someone who likes history and politics but hasn't really studied it in any depth. It will open your eyes to very important concepts of interpretation and give you a much more sophisticated understanding of what you are being told about history when you read it or see it in other media.

Personally, I was also quite inspired (as you can probably tell by the length of this posting) and it made me feel that desire to just focus on one historical period and study the shit out of it. Unfortunately, I also still seem to have real difficulty reading non-fiction, where I just phase out for whole paragraphs, even pages and have to force myself to re-read them several times. I had it in college and it hasn't gotten much better (though my motivation to read the material has). I'm just a distractable person and in these wired days, there is too much competing information. So that dream of intense, focused scholarship is one more on the Theoretical Project World shelf. But I'm happy to know that my love of history is still there.

As for the class I'm subbing, I have to cover 100 years of material (including Canada's three most significant political developments) in roughly 12 hours of class using only a skinny textbook that has whittled out anything but the most basic facts. So we're taking notes and memorizing.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

41. Sundiver by David Brin

Sundiver book pictureI'm trying to get a few popular science fiction novels read and this was the first of the Uplift series that seems pretty popular. For some reason, which may have had to do with the physical binding of the book more than anything else, it took me a while to get into Sundiver.

It's an interesting concept. Its all about aliens and posits a universe where all sentient beings were brought into sentience (or uplifted") by another sentient species. There are complex codes of social dependency based on who uplifted whom and everyone is searching for the species that first uplifted the others (the Progenitors) now lost in the mists of time. The humans are an anomaly because they appear to have uplifted themselves, though the dogma of the other species claims that they were uplifted and then abandond.

Sundiver is about a human-sponsored trip to the sun and the politics and intrigue that takes place on the ship.

The universe is pretty interesting and the politics around uplift are quite rich and well thought out. The sci-fi stuff is pretty wild too. Theres lots of flying around in the sun's atmosphere and cool descriptions thereof.

The main character was really interesting as well, because he had a split personality, which he kept under control with extreme mental discipline. His "Hyde" personality was also the ass-kicking one, so he would release it every now and then when he needed to be a badass. Pretty cool concept.

Unfortunately, other than the main guy, the characters were very difficult to get a handle on. They didn't behave consistently and their dialogue seemed to jump all over the place. It was sort of supposed to be like that, because it turns out their minds were being messed with. Also, the big mystery that was going on in the first part of the book seemed so obvious, It was unbelievable that nobody was aware that something weird was going on.

Cool concept and a well-developed universe, but it just didn't grab me enough to want to continue on in the series.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

40. The man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

The Man in the High Castle book pictureI've always wanted to read this book and Buzby's recent review spurred me to action. I picked it up at the Library.

I love the idea of the alternate history where the Allies lost the Second World War. It would be fascinating to see how the Japanese and Nazi governments ran the world and Dick does a great job. What I found really interesting was the aesthetic and philosophical affects that Japanese occupation had on western North America. I don't know if he made it all up or if he studied the Japanese psyche, but it seemed pretty convincing. The upper class Japanese are very focused on the relationship of designed elements to existence and spend a lot of time philosophizing on them. There is no current abstract art. Everything is functional or carries some connection to the past. There is a great scene where a Japanese collector spends hours on a park bench trying to understand a piece of jewelry that has no purpose other than its design.

The Nazi leadership and how their internecine struggles play out are also really cool. I like that he put Bormann as the next leader of the Reich after Hitler. There are some very disturbing ideas here. The Nazis drain the mediterranean and make it farmland and they basically destroy Africa.

Ultimately, I'm not sure where the plot ends up. It pulls away from the various narratives, which are mostly fully grounded in the reality he creates and suddenly makes the reader self-aware and questioning of that reality. I'm not sure where to go with that. It definitely begs further analysis.

My only complaint is that the female character, though as interesting and complex as all of Dick's characters (he does a great job of writing peoples internal thought processes), kind of falls apart in a way that doesn't ring true. She suddenly becomes an unhinged female that really smelled of the way that women were perceived in the period when he wrote the novel. He may have had some greater purpose in portraying her in this way, where she almost becomes schizophrenic when confronted with the notion that her boyfriend is a Nazi spy. But it came off to this reader as not quite forward-looking as good sci-fi should be.

Still, Dick had an amazing mind and having read The Man in the High Castle has made me much more interested in the body of his work.

Friday, November 11, 2005

39. The Fixer by Bernard Malamud

The Fixer book pictureI picked this one up because The Assistant by the same author was on the Time top 100 list, but they didn't have it in the library. I read that that one, this one and a third were considered Malamud's classics and that he was considered a classic writer of Jewish literature. Thought I should know more about him.

The Fixer is about a poor Jew in Tsarist Russia at the beginning of the 20th century. He lives in a small village and decides to go to Kiev. By luck, he gets a job in a brick factory in a part of town where Jews are forbidden. A small child is brutally murdered and the Fixer is framed for it, his Judaism revealed and is the main reason he is scapegoated.

The rest of the book is him in jail, awaiting an indictment, being treated more and more cruelly. The terrible things that are done to him, and the anti-Semitism portrayed is almost farcical. Unfortunately, it rings very true. I don't know much about the history of this period. The Fixer inspires me to learn more. You hear so much about the Nazi persecution of the Jews and only rare references to the pogroms in Russia. My own great-grandparents fled Byelorussia in 1905 to come to Canada.

But the way Russia is portrayed in The Fixer is shocking. People are easily convinced that a Jew would kidnap a small boy, bleed him ritually in order to drink his blood in a religious ceremony. He's separated out from the rest of the prisoners, kept under constant guard, chained to the wall. High-ranking priests give evidence that Jewish rituals that require Christian blood. It's the kind of book that makes you very angry when you read it. It is almost to the point where you start to feel towards the Russians as they seem to feel in the book towards the Jews! This made me a bit suspicious of the bent of the book, though I think it is much more complex than just a polemic against Russian anti-Semitism. One thing that I am convinced of, every time I read a Russian novel or a book about Russia, is that Russians may have the consistently most brutal history towards themselves.

As a novel, it is engrossing and moving. You spend a lot of time with the fixer's (or Yakov Bok, which is his name) thoughts, which I usually find boring. But he goes over his past and questions the value of god and suffering in the world in a way that gets into your soul without you having to do a lot of intellectual struggling as a reader. I'm not sure what conclusion to make, though I would say there is some teeny hope for humanity (or Jewmanity, at least) but it is buried way down deep in a mountain of suffering.

Note that this review is informed only by the book. I go now to do some internet research on Malamud and what others have to say about The Fixer.

[10 minutes later: Okay, just found out this book was based on a true story. Holy shit.]

Thursday, November 10, 2005

38. Death in a Canadian Military Hospital by Victor Dyer

I picked this one up on the library, looking for a book by a different Dyer. It had Canadian in the title and a cool red cover with a skull on it. It was published in 1961, I guess as a mystery and perhaps the only book by this author. It's about a woman who gets murdered on a park bench that is somehow connected with a terrible veteran's hospital, where they patients are treated like crap by the doctors and orderlies.

The portrayal of the hospital is heartfelt and disturbing. I get the feeling that the author had very personal reasons for portraying the hospital in such a bad light. The mystery itself is complex and kind of compelling. But it seems as if it was written by a computer or a really organized 8th grader. Every single person talks in this direct and mannered way, just like the narrator, with no contractions, just like a robot. And the town, though in Canada, is in some bizarre, unnamed province that bears no resemblance to any Canada I've ever heard of.

Really a strange book, and I'm surprised it got published at all. But it was earnest and has a cool title.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

37. Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Hyperion book pictureThere is a decent english science fiction section at La Bibliotheque Nationale here and I chose Hyperion simply because it had a cool cover and I felt pretty sure it was popular. I'm trying to catch up on my sci-fi.

It's about 7 people who come together on a remote planet called Hyperion that is just about to be the site of an interstellar battle between the dominant human Hegemony and an outcast society called the Ousters. For various reasons not made clear at the beginning, Hyperion and some ancient tombs on it are extremely important to the fate of the galaxy. Because of the war, and because of a mysterious and viciously deadly monster called the Shrike who has somehow been released from the tombs, everyone is fleeing Hyperion, except for the 7 pilgrims.

I know it all sounds kind of complicated and at first it is, but what's really great about this book is the structure and the way it unfolds the backstory. Each of the 7 pilgrims has a reason connected with the tombs and the Shrike for coming to Hyperion. And they decide that they should tell each other their story as they make their journey to the tombs. The book, then, becomes a collection of stories, each framed on top of the journey. Each story reveals a little bit more about the galaxy and man's development in space. It also reveals more and more about the nature of the Shrike and the tombs and the war. Into this mix is a rich future history that explores man's relation with computers (the AI's play an important role) and the destructive nature of colonialism.

The writing is solid and entertaining and the setting and science fiction concepts are rich and imaginative (there are a people who float around space in giant space trees). My only real complaint is that by the time you get to the last pilgrim's story, you realize there just can't be enough pages left to complete the larger story. And it doesn't end. I picked this book up because it didn't appear to be necessary to read the sequels. But I see that was just because the copy I got was printed before the sequels came out. It's definitely a part of a series, something I'm trying to avoid. But I'm hooked and I'll at least give the next book a read to see how the pilgrims' progress turns out.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

36. Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

Brighton Rock book pictureI've read a couple Graham Greene books in the past (Ministry of Fear, the End of the Affair) but I don't think I was really old enough to appreciate them at the time. I was looking for good english crime and he is good at that, but his books also have so much more going on that I found myself a bit distant from the narrative the first time around.

Brighton Rock was on a friend's top 11 list and because I had a sense that I had not given Greene a real chance, I picked it up. I'm glad I did. From the first sentence that I was in good hands:

"Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him."

That's how you start a book.

The story revolves around a young psychopath who has elevated himself to the top of his small and small-time gang. There are several narrative threads going on, around and through the anti-hero, but the book concentrates on his own crazy mind and the actions that he does. This is an extremely dark book. Brighton is portrayed as a desperate, tawdry middle-class vacation spot where there is no success and less hope. Every metaphor is brutal, waves hitting pilings are like punches to the face, a shop window is a future of despair. The characters are confused, driven by fear or hatred.

The Boy (as the young gangster is referred to) is Catholic and has a twisted view of sexuality (and pleasure of any kind). Trying to close the trail of clues to several murders, he makes acquaintances with a young waitress and ends up having to marry her, which fills him with constant dread and disgust. It's almost funny (but it's so dark that it's not funny at all) the agony he goes through just trying to respond to her requests for a kiss.

Brighton Rock is a rich and disturbing study of a people, a place and a time. It's so tortured and painful that I can't say it's the most enjoyable read, but it is convincing and interesting and extremely well-written. Read this if you're feeling dark and mysanthropic.

Friday, November 04, 2005

35. Earth Abides by George R. Stewart

Earth Abides book pictureWell I jumped on the bandwagon with this one, following in the footsteps of the Mt. Benson report as well as the Crumbolst response. Unfortunately, June 23rd accidently erased his archives, so I can't compare his reaction to the others. I do know that he is using the book in his 9th grade humanities class, which will be very interesting to hear about.

It took me a while to realize how different this book is from the rest of the Post-Apocalyptic genre. As the previous readers mentioned above have noted, it is the grand-daddy of the genre, since it was written in 1949 and it really does avoid the standard tact of some kind of conflict after the fall. Rather, the nature of the apocalypse is relatively gentle. Almost everybody dies from a disease. But there is no horror of violence and fear. It all happens very quickly and society is very ordered about their response, right up into the end. So for the protagonist, who was up in the mountains, it's more like the world just emptied out all of a sudden. We get to see the slow degradation of what man has left behind, as some animals die out and others multiply. Building begin to collapse, forest fires rage, the roads deteriorate. The first third of the book is a thorough and delicious exploration of this slow reversion to nature.

The rest of the book then deals with society as the narrator finds a wife and a few other people and they start a little community. There are conflicts, but only one major one and it is not the point of the narrative. The narrator is much more concerned with the graual detachment from the traditions, behaviours and learnings from the past and how this affects the older people (who were around in the past) and the younger ones differently.

By the end of the book, the narrator is old and feeble and the last person around before the disease came. Society and mankind look like they are going to begin again, but down a very different path, semi-primitive but perhaps socially more sophisticated and maybe freer.

Overall, I'm not sure if this is a pessimistic or optimistic vision. It almost seems more like a very indifferent anthropological study, as if the author just wanted to explore "what would happen". The main character is a geographer and is constantly positing himself as a researcher, just on the outside of society.

I have two points of disagreement with the author. First, he makes a huge distinction between intelligent people and stupid people. I don't know if this is because of the period, but he seems to be making eugenic assumptions. There is a half-wit girl who (thought treated with kindness by the tribe) is treated as basically a non-human. There is no sense at all that she might have something to offer. All the children are considered unteachable because they came from "unintelligent" parents. He theorizes that the reason their parents survived the shock of the post-disease world was because they were not intellectually sensitive enough to appreciate the horror of it. I found this to be a limiting scope on the study of how man would react to such world. That kind of thinking was quite common at the time.

I found that it played into his views on education. The narrator just gives up on teaching the kids because they (except one) don't have the bright eyes and natural desire for learning. Well what kid does? If all kids wanted to learn, we'd all be teachers (or we wouldn't need any). It's the same with how sort of lame and pathetic the first wave of survivors were. He tried to suggest that it was because they could just scavenge, but I have a more optimistic view of human nature (at least in this context). We are a busy and progressing species. Even if we could just scavenge for food, there would be so many other projects that people would undertake. It could be that this took place in America. The people almost seemed like the cast of Survivor. Perhaps had it been Canada, some serious shit would have been getting done.

Overall, a really enjoyable book, though I found the prose a bit too lyrical at times. It does make you think about how humans would rebuild and paints a rich and detailed, though in my opinion, fundamentally flawed, picture of this process.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

34. Fargo Rock City by Chuck Klosterman

Fargo Rock City book pictureI found out about Chuck Klosterman after reading an email exchange between him and Sports Guy (Bill Simmons, whom I would consider one of the funniest and liveliest collumnists today) that was quite entertaining. After a bit of research, I realized Klosterman is a fairly well-known music and social critic. This was the only one of his books I could find at the library.

It's a bunch of semi-chronological essays about his love for heavy metal, a love he developed as a teenager in the midwest of America. I myself was a hater of heavy metal, seeing it as the enemy music of all the trendoids in my own small town. Klosterman sees himself and his fellow metalheads as outsiders as well, which seems weird to me. Maybe things are different in North Dakota, but in Lantzville, the headbangers were the dominant, aggressive musical force and if you dressed differently or listened to different music, you were often victimized by them.

Because of this, it's taken me years to appreciate the musical qualities of metal. I do appreciate them today and can often be found rocking out to Sweet Leaf in the kitchen. But Klosterman is really pushing the envelope. His book is an appreciation of the most poppy glam metal bands like Mötley Crüe, Warrant, Guns and Roses, KISS, Def Leppard. He makes a strong case for all of them, and though I don't buy his arguments enough to make me really like those bands, I do believe that his love for them is real and that they do deserve some level of respect.

Arguments aside, Fargo Rock City is an excellent informational overview to the whole genre. Read this, with iTunes nearby to listen to the many songs and albums he describes, and you will be comfortable having an intelligent discussion with a fan of 80s glam metal. Some of Klosterman's analysis is a bit meandering and uninspired but there are nice ideas and it doesn't really get boring.

If you do want to learn more about 80's metal, than you should definitely read this book. If you want some insightful social commentary from our generation, you might want to try some of his other books (which I'll probably pick up at some point in the future).

Sunday, October 30, 2005

33. A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul

A House for Mr. Biswas book pictureThis book was recommended to me by the Dean of the University of Crumbolst during a discussion about Time Magazine's 100 best english novels written after 1929. I asked people for recommendations from that much-maligned list because I was in need of some new reading material, outside of my comfort zones (which had clearly stagnated in the last month as you can tell by the few books that have been read) and that might add some prestige to me, either in cocktail party conversations or when visibly seen reading at a café.

A House for Mr. Biswas is a great book. It's the story of one man's life, beginning with his birth (after a brief prologue at his death) and going through his entire life until he dies. Mr. Biswas is a poor Brahmin, part of the Indian diaspora living in Trinidad. His life is defined by a lack of power and freedom and his constant, often aggravating, often self-defeating, struggle against the things that oppress him. The progress of his struggle is his domestic situation, most of the time under the roof of his wife's (whom he also married against his will) family home, a sprawling, female-dominated network that is almost a society in and of itself.

Mr. Biswas is not a likeable person. He treats his wife terribly, constantly attacking her family (because he's too scared to confront them directly), belittling her, ignoring her, trying to escape from her. The first half of the book is a bit trying just because Mr. Biswas is so difficult. But the rich descriptions, both of the physical and social environment, and the steady layering of character development (of really engaging, interesting and often eccentric characters) keep you reading. By the time Mr. Biswas starts to develop some character, you've suffered with him so much, that you have total sympathy for him.

Most of the time, he is either thinking about a future house, worrying about his current one, or hating it. The house and the freedom and independence associated with it is the central theme, from beginning to end. And even though you know, in outline, what happens to Mr. Biswas by the end of his life, the story is so rich and engaging that you really want to find out how and why it all turns out.

By the end, you close the book feeling like you have a deep and intimate connection with a single man and the family around him. I strongly recommend this book.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

32. Killy by Donald E. Westlake

Killy book pictureI actually read this almost a month ago, but since I'm getting back on the book-reading wagon, I realize I'd better start keeping track.

This is an early Westlake, about a young man who gets an intern job at a union headquarters. He works for a man named Walter Killy. Their job is to encourage unionization. At first it's all presented as business-like and professional, creating PR and publicity and talking with people who are interested. But when they go to a single-factory town where some of the men want to unionize, things get ugly really fast.

Most of the book is an interesting look at how the unions operate in situations like this. As it moves forward, it becomes more about the narrator and his growing confidence in the position. It foreshadows Westlake's study of the psychology of jobs and workers which we see more of in The Axe and is always an undercurrent in most of his books.

Watching the union respond to the locked-down town, the corrupt cops and the plant owners is really cool and worth the read alone. The ending is a bit abrupt and not totally satisfying, mostly because the protaganist is a bit soulless. Enjoyable, though.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

31. Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard

Concrete Island book pictureI'm sort of surprised at how much Ballard I've ended up reading this past year or so. I always had a negative feeling towards him. Not based on anything substantial but just because his name came to me surrounded by all that "alternative" hype when ReSearch published The Atrocity Exhibit and Crash the movie came out (which I kind of enjoyed). Now I've read enough of his early work to feel that I have a decent handle on his style and some of the themes he deals with.

Concrete Island is the story of a succesful London architect who loses control on the freeway and drives his Jaguar over the edge, crashing in an isolated island underneath a huge interchange. He is mildly injured and in a bit of shock (or perhaps insane; it's often hard to tell with Ballard's characters) but it's not a big deal until he tries to get off of the island. It turns out that he's trapped. There's no obvious way out and on the only road he can reach, the motorists are driving too fast and won't stop. He acts a bit rashly, makes some mistakes and ends up looking pretty disheveled, which makes people even less likely to stop.

It is of course a metaphor for the isolated modern man as well as a condemnation of society's separation (or, considering Ballard's morally neutral tone, a confirmation of man's nature). The storyline does get more complex, but ultimately he's addressing many of the same themes he deals with in his first four apocalypse novels: man's psychological distance from civilization, the flimsiness of bourgeois trappings, etc.

It's a quick read, very dark, even cruel at times. His description of the island (it's fairly complex, being the remains of an old neighborhood) is excellent. It's a small study and engaging, but it will not make you very happy.

Monday, September 05, 2005

30. Ghost Story by Peter Straub

Ghost Story book pictureMy S.O. picked this one out from the library. She'd heard a good recommendation a while ago and had wanted to read it. I was dismissive at first. I read The Talisman that Straub wrote with Stephen King and really enjoyed it, especially the pulp narrative elements, but I sort of considered Straub to be a "mainstream" horror author and most of those that I have tried to read, I've found pretty boring.

But I got stuck bookless and read the first chapter and found the writing style to be rich and entertaining, with some depth there. My S.O. had a bit of trouble getting started but then after the first third, she blazed through it, barely able to put it down. So I erased my previous uninformed opinion and read the book.

It's a story about a small town in upstate New York and 4 old, succesful men who have a dark secret in their past and are starting to have all kinds of freaky nightmares. They get together regularily and tell each other ghost stories, stories that they won't admit to each other seem to come from out of nowhere. The plot sounds a bit hoary, especially the dark past, but it becomes much more complex and multi-layered with all kinds of things of gripping stories going on in an interconnected web. Even better, the evil (and I don't want to be precise because the fun is in the discovery) isn't just some vague menace, but has methods and characteristics that make it quite interesting.

Also, as I found on my first read, the writing is good. There are many well-developed and varied characters. Even better, he captures the claustrophobia of a small town. In the few times I've spent in small towns in upstate New York, they all had this old, sort of closed-off feeling, like an unopened chest of drawers in an attic somewhere. He really conveys that feeling, of nostalgia and innocent times past mixed with fear and social segregation and cheating and all the usual small town evils. In some ways, the town itself is almost evil by definition and the evil that comes to it secondary.

This book is not perfect. There are some inconsistencies in the plot and one of the major protagonists has a questionable presence in the story at all, but it's thoroughly entertaining and quite dark and creepy. It's a great summer time read and definitely the kind of book that deserves to be a bestseller in that it appeals to the masses without being stupid and easy. Quite fun, I recommend it.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

29. Freaky Deaky by Elmore Leonard

Freaky Deaky book pictureMy girlfriend took this out of the library and I wanted to get another taste of Elmore Leonard. The only book of his I can remember reading is Mr. Majestyk, which I picked up for cheap right after seeing the movie with Charles Bronson (there's a great scene where the badguys shoot his watermelons).

It's quick reading, with many different characters revolving around each other in a moral morass of cons and backstabbing, with a thick strain of romance for the protagonist driving the whole thing forward. Some ex-radicals from the '60s decide to try to extort money from a rich friend of theirs who has become basically brain dead through excessive partying. He's like Ozzie and he has this ex-Black Panther as his manservant who is also scamming him. An explosives expert who just left his department and then gets suspended gets involved to help a woman who'd been sexually assaulted by the wasted millionaire. I think these are classic Elmore Leonard plots (think Get Shorty or Jackie Brown) and they are entertaining in their convolutions. They also make people look pretty morally fallible.

Ultimately, though, this one just didn't grab me. The style is not sparse enough to be really tough (like Richard Stark), though that's the milieu he's aiming for, nor is it wacky enough to be truly fun (like Carl Hiaasen). So it basically boils down to a small crime story with decently portrayed but not all that interesting characters. It was okay and I'd grab other Elmore Leonards if I was desperate, but I won't be picking up any more in the near future.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

28. Breakout by Richard Stark

Breakout book pictureRichard Stark is my favorite author. He is the pseudoym of Donald E. Westlake who has written all kinds of crime and mystery novels, including the screenplay for The Grifters. The Stark books were a series of caper novels, written in the early '60s and early '70s starring a tough, methodical and cold-blooded thief named Parker. They kicked ass. He wrote the last of the series "Butcher's Moon" in 1974 and it was a perfect ending to the series. For whatever reasons, he started writing Parker books again '97 and sadly they just weren't as good. The plots weren't as tight, Stark had trouble fitting Parker into the '90s and Parker just wasn't himself. He talked way too much, put on disguises, things like that. In the original series, there was no fooling around. It had lines like "Parker shot him." or "Parker hit him twice." or "Parker waited."

The basic structure of the Parker books is four parts. Part I Parker plans a job or gets involved in one. Part II we see the behaviour and personalities of some of the other characters, often involved tangentially or on the victim side of the job. Part III the job goes sour. Part IV Parker deals. There were some variations, and the overall story arc is really great, with Parker taking on the mob, but the real enjoyment of these books is a super-efficient character cleaning up the mess of life's screw-ups in order to save his own ass.

Anyways, I picked up the latest in the second iteration of Parker books, Breakout, at the new Bibliotheque Nationale here in Montreal. This time, Parker gets caught on a job and goes to a holding facility, where he decides to break out rather than wait for the cops to connect the identity he gave them to the real him and thus expose all the crime he's done over the years and finish his career for good. There is a pretty cool heist and the way things go sour are cool. It's all a bit implausible and it kind of lacks punch, but Westlake is such a good writer that he is always enjoyable to read. It's a quick and decent read, but I would only recommend it to completists. What I would recommend is you start reading the original Parker series, which starts with The Hunter (or Point Blank as the movie of it was called) and go from there, in order if possible. They will kick your ass.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

27. Dark Mirror by Diane Duane

Dark Mirror book pictureOkay, I just crossed a threshold to a higher levil of nerdiness. I just read a Star Trek novel, Next Generation at that. The author was recommended as one of the better of the series. I have nothing to compare it with, but Dark Mirror was entertaining and fun to read, but probably would appeal mainly to those who were familiar with the TV show. I watched the first few seasons of Next Generation and quite enjoyed it when it stayed on strategic and exploratory subjects. It started to get more and more soap-operaesque as the seasons went on and I dropped it.

The Dark Mirror crew deals with a parrallel, evil universe, the same one that the original Star Trek crew encountered (with Evil Mr. Spock, one of the most bad-ass concepts in the history of character development). This time, the evil universe has figured out how to pull things from our universe and they pull the good Enterprise into their universe in an attempt to take it over, send it back and infiltrate then conquer our universe.

Duane does a great job with the original characters and a pretty good job of developing the future history of the evil universe, where humans have conquered, destroyed or enslaved everything in the galaxy. Her portrayal of the evil counterparts is mixed. They were interesting, but not quite evil enough. The whole book is kind of G-rated, which is not inappropriate for the source material, but makes it difficult to portray real evil.

I think I may turn off this road now, but if I come upon some other Diane Duane star trek's for cheap, I may pick them up.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

26. Flic Story by Roger Borniche

Flic Story book pictureThey have a giant used book sale at this Arena in Rosemount every year. I think most of the books are the ones the libraries are getting rid of. I picked this book up there, on a whim. It was a hardback missing the dust jacket, so pretty anonymous but the age and quality of the paper and binding caught my eye. It was written in 1973, originally in French, and is the true story of a french cop hunting down criminals in Paris in the period after the end of the Second World War. The author is the cop (flic is slang for cop in France) and he prefaces the book with a bit of bitterness, suggesting that all the books about crime are written from the criminals perspective and he wanted to show what it was like to be a cop.

The translation is a bit awkward, especially considering that a lot of the dialogue is in gangster jargon and french underworld sland. Also, the book moves forward jerkily, sometimes going to the past, sometimes changing perspectives (Borniche often narrates the criminals behaviour as if he were part of it, without any explanation of how he knows the things he knows. But once you get a quarter way through the book, the stories (and the main story, his attempt to collar France's enemy #1 of the period) really pick up momentum and those things stop bothering you. You also get the feeling that he really wrote this book on his own and his writing, though not the best, is honest and filled with real detail. He has a humble and sardonic voice, and though it is often marred by the translation, when he talks about trying to afford a new stove for his mistress (this means girlfriend in the context; he isn't married), it's endearing.

The french criminal scene of the '40s and '50s, at least according to this book, seems as cool as it is portrayed in movies like The Red Circle and Touchez Pas au Grisby! The gangsters (and the cops) are constantly stopping what they are doing to get something good to eat (and describing it in sophisticated detail), drinking wine, champagne and pastis (pernod mixed with water, turns all milky) and smoking cigars and black-market american cigarettes. They cops and robbers always seem to be hanging out in the same place. You get the feeling that Paris was a small place or that the culture was just very consistent.

I'm really glad I found this book. Besides being fun to read, filled with great heists, collars and characters, it also gave me a much stronger and more authentic sense of the french postwar criminal world. I'm also happy to discover they made a movie of it with Alain Delon.

Monday, August 15, 2005

25. Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks

Feersum Endjinn book pictureThis is another one of Banks' Culture novels, a collection which I've really loved. He is a great moralist, great in the sense that his books are powerfully moral without ever being preachy or getting in the way of the story. Feersum Endjinn concerns the earth far in the future. The technological and social situation is quite complex, almost too complex to describe here, but basically the future earth is in danger of "The Encroachment" a wave of black dust that may block out the sun and thus freeze the solar system. Instead of working together to address the problem, the leaders are fighting a civil war. Everyone lives in the ruins of giant statues and castles and have access to a virtual reality called the Crypt, all of which was left by a previous society. They don't know much about them, but suspect they have a way to fight the Encroachment. The book traces the paths of the various characters whose actions will impact the plot.

As usual, with the Culture books, there is awesome technology as well as really amazing descriptions and locations. His presentation of the Crypt as a kind of advanced internet in which people can exist for millenia as avatars (or copies) of themselves is thought-provoking and a reasonable guess as to the future of our own data net. So for sci-fi nerds, it's a great read. I think it may be a bit obscure if you're not familiar with Banks' style and the Culture books. For instance, there is a character who can only think and express himself phonetically and there are chapters and chapters written phonetically, which is tough at first (though once your brain is able to read it quickly, it's amazingly well-written).

I think it is quite obviously a metaphor for global warming in our own time and from that perspective, this book actually lacks some of the moral depth and complexity that his other books have. It all ends kind of abruptly and easily, suggesting there is some deus ex machina solution to human stupidity and selfishness that will save us all in the end.

I'm not really able to do justice to the fantastic and rich world that Banks has created here. He really is a master. I strongly recommend any of the Culture books (most of which aren't for sale in the States, or weren't), the listing of which can be found at his website.

For you Culture geeks out there, Feersum Endjinn takes place on earth and only gives very teeny hints to the origin of the Culture and the future of the humans who left the planet (referred to as the Diaspora). The only direct link to the Culture is, I believe, a tiny ant, but I'll need to dig a little deeper to confirm that.

24. A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss

A Conspiracy of Paper book pictureMy dad lent me this because he wanted to know what I "thought about it." This worried me, but he assured me that it was an entertaining read and he was correct. It's kind of a heroic adventure (almost pulp) novel taking place in early 18th century england, when the modern notion of money and markets was just starting to develop. The hero is a jewish ex-boxer who has set himself up as a sort of Rennaisance bounty hunter, hunting down criminals and returning stolen material. It's a great idea, because the period is full of fantastic adventure potential. From the perspective of an entertaining read, it's pretty well executed. The plot is engaging and the characters, especially the hero, are well drawn out. There's lots of satisfying butt-kicking and revenge-getting. The plot becomes a bit overly complex and its mystery dependent more on many others holding out information rather than any real detective work. The author did some study in the field and knows the period well, but the language, the thinking and a lot of the goings-on in the book seem just a bit too contemporary. Probably it had to be done to make a rollicking adventure, but I guess I would have liked just a bit more detail and period verisimillitude. Compared, for instance, to Neal Stephenson's portrayal of the same period in his recent trilogy, A Conspiracy of Paper seems simplified, as if written for a poorly educated audience (i.e. the American book-buying public). Still, tons of fun and I'd definitely recommend it for a vacation read.

23. Buddha's Money by Martin Limón

Buddha's Money book pictureBuddha's Money was discovered, reviewed and lent to me from the good folks at Mount Benson Report. I generally agree with most everything written there. The book starts out with some action and keeps delivering, which makes for a quick and entertaining read. It does go a bit astray at times and because of its pacing nothing is ever that deep. My favorite aspect of the book (and probably the element presented with the most depth) is the setting itself. I don't know much about Korea or Korean history (which is interesting in and of itself in that I know a fair amount about Chinese and Japanese culture and history) and Limón does a great job of describing that halfway world created by the impact of a foreign army on the local culture. I would like to get a better sense of the two main characters, though the thoughtful Chicano with a respect for history and the violent black GI are a pretty good team for investigating this kind of mayhem. One other thing to note is that it is quite brutal. So violent and cruel at times that it actually made me go and check when it was written. It was 1998 and the more grisly elements seem to come from someone writing something today rather than in the '50s or '60s, which is when I had originally thought they were published.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

22. The IF Reader of Science Fiction edited by Frederik Pohl

Though a collection of short stories by different authors, it was bound in book format and was book length, so I'm counting it! The IF Reader is an anthology of the best stories of 1962 from IF magazine. They represent many of the major authors of the period, A.E. Van Vogt, John Brunner, Fritz Leiber, Fred Saberhagen. They were all fairly light, better read for their speculations and concepts than an involving story or deep theme (though, as always in sci-fi, many interesting human themes were present, just not touched on in depth in short story format). All pretty fun and light. Glad I passed the time with it. Probably, if I knew more about the history of science fiction literature, I would be able to put these stories in context better.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

21. The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant

The Golden Spruce book picture
Non-fiction book #2!

This is the true story of a giant golden spruce in the Queen Charlotte Islands, a genetic freak, tourist attraction and sacred symbol to the Haida people, that was cut down by an ex-logger turned environmentalist. Grant Hadwin's story is the center narrative for an excellent history of the region and logging and wood production in the world.

It's not totally clear why Hadwin cut the tree down, but part of it was his outrage that this tree was protected while the rest of the Queen Charlottes was basically clearcut. He was angry about the little symbolic patches of trees that the big logging companies saved to show their concern for the environment. He didn't seem to know the power that the symbol held for the Haida people (who basically want to kill him now) and showed signs of mental instability.

It's an interesting and sad story, but it's the incredible greed and waste that surrounds the story, and the strong sense of the power of human consumption, that makes this book so compelling. I know this is my opinion already, but when you read about how the region was first completely raked clean of sea otters (for their fur), then of species after species of tree (starting from the best and biggest, to the smaller and lower quality), it really drives home how incredibly out of control we are as a species and how terribly we handle the planet. We are like rats that have taken over the house, are reproducing out of control and consuming anything and everything in our path. Foul creatures.

We can write some good books, though! And I strongly recommend the Golden Spruce.

Monday, July 11, 2005

20. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick

The 3 Stigmata book pictureFound this one in a box on the street. I've read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Ubik, but years ago, so I was curious about getting a better sense of Dick's writing.

My first reaction after finishing it was further annoyance at these snobby pseudo-intellectuals (like Margaret Atwood) who make this forced distinction between Science Fiction and Speculative Fiction, the former being considered adolescent and the latter somehow literature, because they supposedly deal with complex human themes that the former doesn't touch. All of the science fiction books that I have read this year have been very philosophical, with explorations of god, man's perception of himself and the meaning of existence.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch starts out in a future world where the earth is overheated to the point that living things can't go out in the day without dying. The wealthy take evolution therapy and the poor are slowly recruited to be colonists on distant planets. The colony effort is basically to get the people off of earth and is considered a punishment. Physical survival is not an issue, but morale is as most of the colonists just sit around and mope on their bleary, depressing planets. Their only escape is a drug called Can-D that puts them into an alternate fantasy earth reality. However, for the drug to work they need to have precise miniatures of the world they are going to enter. The biggest industry on Earth is the production of these miniatures and the drug.

That's the setting. The plot is quite complex and very open to interpretation. I think it's about an invasion of a single, powerful alien being in the personification of Palmer Eldritch, a space explorer who is trying to set up a new drug called Chew-Z that's supposedly way better than Can-D. The book is about the employees of the Can-D company trying to stop him. But because it's constantly dealing with alternate realities, it's difficult to figure out what's real and what's in the drug world and by the end, the two have blurred together. Plus, many of the colonists equate the use of Can-D with a religious experience, so there are all kinds of discussion of translation and transubstantiation.

It's quickly paced and has some interesting ideas. Dick does have a strong sense of the malleability of our reality and he plays well with that in his writing. He is also able to create a future with some big, crazy ideas and not get caught up in the tone and culture of the time he's writing in. I'll pick up another one of his novels in a bit.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

19. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

Stranger in a Strange Land book pictureIt's obviously a science fiction classic and one that I've been meaning to read for a long time. I have to say that I really didn't like it very much. I'm sure there is a lot of contextual information of which I'm ignorant that would help me appreciate the book more and I'm also sure that it hasn't aged well (which is not necessarily a valid criticism of a work of art). I found it to be inconsistently structured, with long passages of conversation that were basically philosophical musings interspersed with short narrative steps forward. The philosophy was very annoying for me because most of it was relayed through the voice of Jubal Harshaw who talked like Travis McGhee. He had that early 60s american hip style where nobody can seem to say anything in a straightforward manner. There always has to be some clever little joke, exaggeration or sarcasm. And since all the philosophy was about human sexual relations, it didn't help that it was totally sexist. This free love perfect world seemed based on the idea that all the women were young and beautiful, playful and willing to do anything the men asked. They still cook the dinner even though all you have to do is push a button! And Michael's perfect world of free love, which all the characters in the book perfectly accept, had absolutely no room for homosexuality. Very convenient, indeed.

Perhaps this book was a real wake-up call to audiences of the late '50s. But today, it seemed like unsophisticated and self-indulgent rambings about north american sexual mores.