Friday, September 28, 2007

Outed

I'd like to thank (?) author, local celebrity and all-around good chap Rob Wiersema for outing me last night at book club. Rob, we really appreciated your attending, and I think I speak for the rest of the mook club when I say that you're welcome to come by even when we're not discussing your book.

I've been doing this blog for about 18 months now, but I've deliberately kept it apart from my daily life. It's about the books. I read a lot, and I talk about literature a lot in class here at the university, but these are different literatures, and I wanted to find a way to talk about what I like to read. That was one reason for setting up the mook club, too: to talk about books with people who aren't expecting a grade just for listening to me.

This started out purely as a record of book purchases, but I started adding comments on books I've read because my recollection of detail becomes increasingly weak as time goes on -- I remember how I felt about a book, and what I got out of it, but I lose touch with what happens in it. (As I demonstrated last night by forgetting that James Earl Jones' fictional novelist in Field of Dreams was named in the WP Kinsella novel Shoeless Joe as actual novelist JD Salinger....) This gives me a way to keep track of my own thoughts, in other words, and it turned out that the hype was correct: even without actual readers, there's a sense of obligation to keep writing that isn't there in a private diary, failed versions of which litter the years behind me.

As I say, this began anonymously, but genies and bottles, I guess -- unless what happens at book club stays at book club?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Jasper Fforde, The Well of Lost Plots

Such fun, these novels by Jasper Fforde! I've already said my piece about The Eyre Affair, the brilliant first novel in this brilliant series, and I'm feeling poorly about skipping (so far) the second one (Lost in a Good Book), but I thoroughly enjoyed The Well of Lost Plots. No point puffing a hugely popular series, but I will say that Fforde deserves every pound, dollar, kroner, and guilder that he earns from them.

The Well itself is a physically manifesting place where the bits that become books live before they finish becoming -- it's literally the underworld, in that it's 26 subterranean floors beneath the 26 above-ground floors of the Bookworld. Our heroine at one point goes to a bar:
The roughest place in the Well. A haven for cutthroats, bounty hunters, murderers, thieves, cheats, shape-shifters, scene-stealers, brigands and plagiarists. (p.54)
I just love that last word in the list. Sounds about right to me, when I'm busy marking papers.

There are all kinds of funny throwaway bits, like the character who keeps getting described in sentences with dangling modifiers - and apologizing for it, since characters are partially responsible for the text in which they appear:
     [a] knock at the door revealed an untidy man wearing a hat named Wyatt.
     "Sorry," he said sheepishly, apologizing for the misrelated grammatical construction almost immediately, "Wyatt is my name, not the hat's."
     "I kind of figured that," I said.
     Wooden and worn with use, he was holding a clipboard.
     "Oh, bother!" he said in the manner of someone who had just referred to George Eliot as "he" in a room full of English professors. "I've done it again!"(p.15)
Wonder who I can buy these for, come Christmas....

Craig Thompson, Blankets

I've always had positive associations with the genre of the graphic novel. I have, really. I fondly remember Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns from the late 1980s, for example, and Art Spiegelman's Maus remains one of my persistent recommendations for people, even though I read the two volumes very quickly at a difficult time in my life -- maybe because of that, now that I think of it, but that's another story for another time.

But as I said in relation to Watchmen, I haven't read much of it. In spite of the positive examples of Miller and Spiegelman, I've gotten used to thinking of it as long-form comic books, with an accompanying lack of density, but of course there's lots of academic work to remind me that's just plain wrong.

I've been thinking about this more over the last few weeks, but nothing prepared me for the intimacy, the delicacy, the ambivalent grace of Craig Thompson's semi-autobiographical Blankets. It's just another coming-of-age novel, perhaps, with family conflicts (divorce, religion), personal trauma (abuse, bullying), and the rest of it, but somehow it won't let go of my heart. I know, I know, I'm a sucker for other people's emotions, and my book-passions sometimes wear off with time and distance, but honestly, this is one of the most powerfully personal books I've read in a long time. A long, long time, and I'm not the only one; here's a typically positive review, but with an eight-page excerpt.

I refuse to surrender the outcome of the plot, but the passion between Craig and his beloved Raina is enough to make you cry, long before there's any need to think about an ending of some kind for this almost-600-page novel, even though the Raina story is only one thread (albeit a major one) in Craig's growth toward an awkward adulthood.

Ignore every other recommendation I've ever made: this, this, is a book in which one can dwell.

I'm thinking I may need to read Joe Sacco's Palestine next (comix as long-form journalism), or maybe Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid on Earth (first graphic novel to win a major fiction prize, the Guardian First Book Award). Or maybe I should get back to work....

September 22 - St. Dunstan's fall fair

Many churches around here have what they call "fall fairs." There's always plenty of baking and jam to buy, usually a silent auction, a sales area of dubious quality, that sort of thing. At St. Dunstan's this year, along with a jar of Rhubarb & Ginger Jam and a half-dozen plates of goodies, I picked up some paperbacks at two bits apiece and hardcovers at a buck apiece, for a total of $3.75:
  • Joe Garner, Never Fly Over an Eagle's Nest (paper -- a provincial classic about pioneering; I still haven't seen one that isn't autographed)
  • Hugh MacLennan, Seven Rivers of Canada (hard -- I won't know until I get to the office, but I think it later became a coffee-table book with the overlay of photos)
  • George Plimpton, The Bogey Man (paper -- perhaps the best golfing nonfiction ever written, and among the funniest as well)
  • Ernest Thompson Seton, Wild Animals I Have Known (hard -- wonderful stuff, first published in 1898)
  • Edward Streeter, Father of the Bride (hard -- who knew that the Spencer Tracy movie on which the Steve Martin film was based was itself based on a novel illustrated by New Yorker cartoonist Gluyas Williams?)
  • Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels (paper -- not sure how I didn't already have a copy of this one -- may have been lost in the Great Purge).

Friday, September 21, 2007

September 21 - UVic Bookstore

The siren call, the siren call of an academic bookstore....
  • ed. Simon Glendinning, Arguing with Derrida (a series of papers on deconstruction delivered in front of Jacques Derrida, who responded to each one, as well as a series of pointed and thorny questions that he answered off the cuff -- $17.98)
  • Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fiction ("In an age of globalization characterized by the dizzying technologies of the First World, and the social disintegration of the Third, is the concept of utopia still meaningful?" -- $31)

Moore & Gibbons, Watchmen

I'm still learning about graphic novels, but gosh I did enjoy Watchmen! It reminded me how much I loved raiding my elementary school friend Matt's shelves, which were just stuffed with comics. Matt's family wasn't well off, but he had his priorities straight: comics, with just about every nickel of allowance, and specifically requested for every birthday and Christmas. It's been a long time since I read about superheroes, though ever since I delighted in the Mystery Men movie I've been meaning to get back to them.

(Uh oh, I'm going to lose my green and sensitive rep....)

Watchmen is the only graphic novel on Time's "Best 100 Novels" list, so obviously it's on the "10 Best Graphic Novels" list. Not that Time is somewhere I look for advice, not on books, at least -- actually, not on anything at all -- but these are pretty good lists. Too American, but that's to be expected, but it does say something about this book's canonical status.

The book alternates chapters between comics and sections of text, like newspaper articles, psych reports, that sort of thing. On one hand the text lends legitimacy to the graphics, but it's not that simple. This is a layered, textured story, and the graphics have great atmosphere. It'd be well worth the read just in comic form, but the current form draws on every element of the reading experience.

Oddly, though, I can't really figure out how to talk about it. Plot summary always seems so obvious, but there's no prose style as such, and I don't have the language for graphics. Guess I get to read Scott McCloud's fascinating Understanding Comics after all, which I browsed through AGAIN at the bookstore today....

Even though I keep hearing that Watchmen is one of the best, I'm totally jumping into more of these!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Robert J. Wiersema, Before I Wake

I expected Rob Wiersema's Before I Wake to be Literary Fiction. You know the type, highbrow Canadiana, all family angst and minor tragedies, perhaps alcoholism, probably a catastrophic affair, dubious parenting practices, that sort of thing. I like LF, don't get me wrong, but it can get predictable.

This wasn't LF. Or rather, it was, but it's several other things as well. Most obviously, it mixes the conventions of LF and ... popular fiction? is that the right term? yes? ... popular fiction to place believable characters in circumstances simultaneously believable and un-. I don't like giving plot summaries, because I don't want to cheat someone thinking of reading a book, but it's tricky to discuss this book without giving something away. The plot matters a great deal, even though it's very well written, with lovely prose style.

But I think it's safe to say that the book opens with a three-year-old girl being hit by a pickup truck on Hillside Avenue in Victoria, and follows the effect this has on her already strained family. When miracles seem to start happening, things get much more complicated, and wee Sherilynn becomes the most recent object in the Catholic Church's centuries-old struggle with the apparently miraculous.

It's the first novel set in Victoria that I can remember reading with as clear a sense of what the city feels like, too. The places are accurate and clear and named, unlike in Terence Young's distinctly LF After Goodlake's. Sense of place matters a great deal to me, and this one felt like home.

Before I Wake is no Da Vinci Code, thank goodness, but the history involved is just as old, and just as central to the Christian faith.  The action isn't nearly as gripping, but that's not what I read for anyway. The characters are seriously gripping, and the suspense kept me terrifically hooked. I didn't buy some of the late-stage historical stuff (we can talk about that in the comments, if necessary, to avoid spoilers), but there was real energy in this book.

Highly recommended, even to the mad atheist :-)

Sunday, September 16, 2007

September 15 - Coles

  • ed. Michael Lascelle, A Place in the Rain: Designing the West Coast Garden ($5.99)
  • Jasper Fforde, The Well of Lost Plots ($2.00)
Already well into Fforde - the third novel in the series, and unfortunately I've missed the second one....

Book surfeit

It's crazy, this never happens. I'm usually cautious about book commitments, because I know how deeply I tend to get embedded into them, so I read one book at a time - I might dip into another, so I know where I'm going next, but right now I'm reading:
  1. M. Wylie Blanchet, The Curve of Time
  2. Jasper Fforde, The Well of Lost Plots
  3. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen
  4. Craig Thompson, Blankets
  5. Robert J. Wiersema, Before I Wake
Just finishing Wiersema now, at least. What a read that's been!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

September 12 - subTEXT

Five bucks each (but only because the first one was 50% off):
  • Gary Alan Fine, Morel Tales: The Culture of Mushrooming
  • Stephen Hume, Lilies and Fireweed: Frontier Women of British Columbia (Raincoast Chronicles 20)
Fine's book looks really engaging. I remember visiting Mount Ida, near Salmon Arm, the year after the forest fire swept through, and the mountain was awash with mushroom pickers.

As for Hume's, the Raincoast Chronicles series is one of the great publishing ventures of the Pacific Coast, and I'm happy to get another one on the shelf.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Marina Lewycka, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

Such a fun title, Marina Lewycka's debut novel A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian! The book itself is less fun, but how could it be otherwise? I felt the same way about Dave Eggers' memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which hooked me with its game-playing but nearly lost me in the prose.

That wasn't an issue here. Lewycka does a very nice job with her prose, with her characters, with the set-up: nice job all around, actually. But if that doesn't sound like high praise, well, it isn't meant to. [Argh! I just went sniffing for online comments on it, and I'm dashed if Grumpy Old Bookman didn't call it "nice" in precisely the same context two years ago!] The novel was nominated for the Orange Prize in 2006, for the best novel by a woman that was published in Britain, losing out to Zadie Smith's On Beauty. The sticker on the cover says it was also nominated for the Man Booker, for the best Commonwealth or Irish novel written in English, too, but I can't find confirmation of that online. Not that a publisher would lie, you understand.

But to both of which I say, really? This book?

I certainly wouldn't recommend that you avoid A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, because it does many things well. The characterization is very good, for example, and the speech rhythms of the individual characters (plus the little tics that mark their speech patterns) really are top notch. But the tractor narrative felt like it was imposed to be Artistic; it's central to the life of the elderly chap writing it (the narrator's father), but I expected there'd be clearer connections between it and the rest of the story. But there weren't, and it felt unnecessary.

Actually, no, not unnecessary. I'd have been fascinated if this story was told by the elderly gentleman in relation to his history of tractors, either embedded somehow into that narrative or peripherally to his tale of writing that history. The problem really was that the narrator didn't work for me. There's a running gag that her sister thinks she's a social worker when she's actually a sociology professor, so maybe I'm supposed to find her bland and difficult to pin down, but it didn't work for me. I kept being surprised that she had a daughter, for example, and her profession and knowledge seemed irrelevant.

'Nuff said, I think. Nice book. On to something better, I hope.

September 11 - UVic Bookstore

University bookstores are magical places, frankly. The selection of interesting fiction from wee presses is usually smaller than it should be, but their poetry shelves are often capacious. And as was important today, their sale selections can be terrific:
  • Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers ($3.99)
  • Aaron Sachs, The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism ($2.99)
Indeed yes, I am a nerd -- why do you ask?

I very nearly bought Sachs' book for $34 when I saw it this summer, but I didn't want to carry this hardback monster home. It traces the cultural influence of early American explorer Alexander von Humboldt, and it looks like an absolute gem, I must say. Seventy pages of footnotes, twenty-five of bibliography, nineteen of index alone, oh heavens, I'm getting the vapours! Sample passage:
America would expand in every direction in the nineteenth century, usually with overtly imperialistic goals.... But the actual explorers dispatched to America's various frontiers tended to have more complicated motivations. Often, they focused on understanding the interrelationships of the peoples and landscapes they encountered in the wild, and they would up questioning the values of their home civilization--in part, at least, because they were trying to follow in Humboldt's footsteps. (pp.6-7)
Appiah teaches philosophy at Princeton, and each blurb on the back cover is from a different Nobel winner: Nadine Gordimer (1991, literature), Kofi Annan (2001, peace), and Orham Pamuk (2006, literature). The book's in a series edited by the esteemed Henry Louis Gates, Jr., too, so I'm expecting good things. Sample sentence:
If what it's reasonable to believe depends on what you believe already..., then you can't test the reasonableness of all your beliefs. You respond to new evidence in the light of what you already believe, and that gives you new beliefs.... You can't get into the game of belief by starting with nothing. (p.41)