Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Jasper Fforde, The Fourth Bear

I didn't mean to read The Fourth Bear yet, in spite of the praise showered on it by one Nicole (as she remarked in her comments to my recent review of Fforde's The Big Over Easy). I've got stuff to do, after all, and just finished a big novel for the book club, so I didn't think I was in the market for another fat novel.

Fforde has this effect, though; I can't stop reading them once I start. And Nicole was right, The Fourth Bear is far superior - imho - to The Big Over Easy. It handles the metafiction more smoothly, and the characters are more nuanced - in part because detective Jack Spratt turns out to recognize after all that he's a nursery character. He's just hiding it (even from us in internal monologues, apparently, in the first book...).

If you've enjoyed bits of the other Fforde novels, read this one. You should read The Big Over Easy first as necessary background, but this book is seriously for you. If you haven't read it, and are worried about Eoin Colfer writing the upcoming Hitchhiker's volume, read this book - it's as if Douglas Adams wrote a mystery novel set partially inside fiction, and it'll relax you like nobody's business.

I mentioned in reviewing The Big Over Easy that said volume had great chapter epigraphs, mostly from fictional newspapers. Well, these ones are at least as good, as well as mostly from The Bumper Book of Berkshire Records (2004 edition), like this one:
Most Dangerous Baked Object. A hands-down win for the Gingerbreadman, incarcerated at St Cerebellum's secure hospital for the criminally deranged since 1984. Currently serving a four-hundred-year sentence for the murder and torture of his 104 known victims. His crimes easily outrank those of the second-most dangerous baked object, a fruitcake accidentally soaked in weed-killer rather than sherry by Mrs Austen of Pembridge, then served up to members of the Women's Federation during a talk about the remedial benefits of basket-weaving. The final death toll is reputed to have been sixty-two.
Plus I never thought I'd be able to link Jasper Fforde to my (ahem) scholarly research, but this one fits nicely into my eco reading. Delightful.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Bookblogs, litblogs, critblogs

There was an interesting post at The Reading Experience recently, discussing the reconfiguration of the site's blogroll as well as the status of blogging about books, publishing, and criticism.

Bright guy, Dan Green, even though our reading spheres make up a barely connected Venn diagram - heck, I rarely comment over there, because I've so rarely read what he's talking so apparently sensibly about. And it should go without saying that I'm ok that he's booted me from his roll, given the wide discrepancy between our interests. I'll keep him on my roll anyway. Such is the depth (breadth?) of my magnanimity.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

This book got some serious praise last year, especially from the inimitable Tim at Baby Got Books, from whom I received the book long enough ago that I'm embarrassed not to have read it before now: Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Tim's review is longer and more positive than mine, so make sure you read it - I do love a passionate review, and you're not getting one from me this time.

But that certainly doesn't mean I'm coming down against this novel, far from it. It's just so, so far from being my kind of thing, though, that I'm not sure how much sense I can make of it - or (God save me) how much I really want to make out of it. Complicated to explain. It's facile to say that since I'm a heck of a lot more repressed than any one of Diaz' characters, I have real trouble finding the energy to embed myself imaginatively into their story. Actually this answer feels not just facile but wrong, even though I don't have a better answer to give you.

Maybe if I knew some Dominicans, if I had an inch of the confidence necessary to be a playa, if I had a body worth prizing, etc etc? I'm seriously impressed by Diaz' characters and language, and by his intricate bundling of Dominican history into the mythology of Oscar's own family. Diaz gives us something new and valuable by merging a Dungeons & Dragons sensibility with high-end literary fiction; it's an inspired move. This novel is a legit entrant into the Latin-American pantheon, no lying, and yes, I'm very much aware of how highly prized novels from that part of the world are, since I love many of them myself.

In other words, stylistically the novel has strengths to burn - but I ended up not caring all that much about it. Oscar as a character reminded me of Oskar Matzerath, the narrator and core character in Gunter Grass' The Tin Drum, complete with strange physiology and sexual obsessions. Same reading experience for me, actually: I definitely think both novels deserve a wide readership and critical acclaim, but I'm just not the right reader.

Mind you, I didn't care that much about Spook Country either, so there may be something in the water around here....

Friday, September 19, 2008

Roy Kiyooka, Pear Tree Pomes

Lovely, lovely! I had only vaguely heard of Roy Kiyooka until this spring, when a colleague suggested - forcefully - that I look at including his 1997 Pacific Windows: Collected Poems in my BC literature course. Really, she meant that I should include his Pear Tree Pomes, so I was delighted (in a mixed sort of way) to find an edition of the earlier book among Margot Louis' books for sale in the department.

I didn't know what to expect, in spite of the recommendation, because I didn't add the book to the course, and I didn't go track it down to see whether and why I should have considered doing so. See, I'm still overcoming some surprisingly enduring biases that I acquired unaccountably in my late teens and early twenties, in my abrupt and incomplete transition from math geek to literature nerd. Chief among those biases was a general discomfort with what I think of as 70s poetry - the misspelled and underpunctuated, like that of bill bissett and bpNichol. Bits and pieces of their work amaze me, so beautiful they are, but in a bulk reading I develop something like fatigue, intense enough that I lose interest in the work. Very strange experience for a compulsive reader. The infrequent and glancing mentions of Kiyooka had me thinking of him as one of Those, so to speak.

But Pear Tree Pomes is utterly fantastic. It was written between 1982 and 1985, after the departure of Kiyooka's wife for another woman, and there's a persistent and gentle sadness behind and among the poems of this volume. They're certainly not elegies, though, not by any stretch - his reflections on the pear tree's place in his life, in his family, in his community are coloured by the experience, but alternatively one might say that his recollection and re-telling of the experience are coloured by the intimacy of his awareness of the tree.

I didn't read this book for the biography, though, and you shouldn't either. In any case my pleasure doesn't come from the story. It's all about the phrasing, the wording, and - to a lesser extent - the pairing with David Bolduc's illustrations. The apparent clarity of its phrasing and the seeming transparency of its communication are seductive, really beautifully seductive, but don't trust me - read some of it.
just the other day i ate up the last bowlful of

your preserved pears and wasn't it just the day before
'yesterday' we stood in the back-alley looking up
at its array of white blossoms and under our breath say
how lucky we are to find such a splendid clapboard
house with its own tall pear tree . eight brimfilld years
spoke to me as i put the last sliver in my mouth and
suckt up all the sweet pear juice . from here on in i'll
have to go it alone if i'm to compost another spring .
i'll miss your preserved pears your paring knife and son .

p/s there's a dozen pears rotting on top of the camper
(p. 41)
This book goes into my regular list for re-reading, as of now.

William Gibson, Spook Country

I've always enjoyed myself reading William Gibson. I haven't made time for Neuromancer or Idoru in a long time, but they're both terrific reads, with stylish details, sparks of fun that make me reflect on the reality I happen to find myself in, and characters worth your time.

But the Gibson I've read in the past was never about a present world, and while the world in Spook Country shows traces of difference (slightly different vehicle technology, for example, unless I misunderstood that, which is a real possibility), it's our world. It's the Vancouver I go to occasionally, the New York I'm used to reading about or seeing in movies and on TV news, the LA I can imagine, and so on.

So I'm conflicted about this book. On the one hand I'm pleased to have Gibson directly helping me make sense of the new world, such as the variously counter-counter-terrorism ops, cyber art, or international shipping patterns. On the other, I'm sorely disappointed that I don't get to map on my own the un- or hyperreal world of Gibson's other novels onto the world I see around me. This disappointment was stronger than my reading pleasure, much to my surprise.

I'm disappointed, I guess, that it turns out that my Gibson taste owes more to the encrustations of style and detail than to the stories themselves. Or maybe that's the wrong way to put it. Maybe it's not that I've been blinded to the weakness of Gibson's stories' weakness by detail, so much as impressed by his usual artistry.

Spook Country was definitely a page-turner, and it felt like a true Gibson novel (whatever that means), but really, I'm not the least bit sad it ended. Not the least bit.

Darn it, I gotta go re-read Neuromancer to check my instincts....

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Sept 17 - Margot Louis 3

And the final batch from Margot Louis' books being sold in the department library:
  • Leona Gom, The Collected Poems
  • Karen Lawrence, The Inanna Poems
  • Patricia Young, Airstream (short stories)
  • Patricia Young, Melancholy Ain't No Baby
  • Patricia Young, Ruin & Beauty: New & Selected Poems
  • Patricia Young, Those Were the Mermaid Days
Yes, yes I do have something of a crush on local poet Patricia Young - some of her poems are startlingly good, enough that I go and read everything she writes, just in case I find another of these rare gems!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Publisher input

Here's a question for the book bloggers out there: how many of you accept free copies from publishes, on the assumption that you'll consider reviewing them?

I ask because I'm getting a bit of a roster of requests now, from small publishers I already do a fair bit to support (including teaching their books - hi, Rachel!) as well as from larger ones to whose fortunes I would have assumed I was incidental. I mean, do Random House and National Geographic, to use a couple of examples, really need me? My default position is that I'll pursue my own interests, thank you very much, but of course I do cheerfully follow up recommendations from people - no man is an island etc.

Maybe I'm missing something, but I haven't seen many policy statements out there from places like the inestimable Baby Got Books, John Mutford at The Book Mine Set, Kate at Kate's Book Blog, Beth at BooksEtc., Patricia at BookLust, RagDoll at My Tragic Right Hip, The Literate Kitten....

Monday, September 08, 2008

Alastair Reynolds, Pushing Ice

I'll never find this to be definitively my genre, space opera, but I'm pleased to have finally read something definitively belonging to said genre so I can make sense of the term. As it turns out I'd read a few things from it before, but I hadn't heard the term until recently, so I hadn't gone to look it up. Even the most casual browser of this blog sees the patterns in my reading - environment, poetry, local fiction, nonfiction (usually memoir that has something to do with either environmental or social justice).

Making it highly logical, then, that I'd go read me some space opera.

Alastair Reynolds, according to the Times blurb on the cover of Pushing Ice, is a "mastersinger of the space opera." I don't know about that, since it's far from clear to me quite what Ian Cadman of the Times meant by that appellation, coined for a previous Reynolds novel entitled Redemption Ark, but this novel is, as they say, a ripping yarn. (Or as the back cover puts it, "a deep space adventure story with a scope as big as the Galaxy itself." I'm quietly pleased there wasn't an exclamation mark at the end of that sentence - good sense for that sort of thing, the Brits.) Grand gestures, grand feuds, grand crises successfully negotiated, grand themes very easily summarized, a small group of idiosyncratic core characters: yeah, it actually could make a decent opera.

As much as I enjoyed it, though, it's not at all why I read. I admire real opera as well, but it's not something I'm keen to see. It worries me that I may be more wedded to realism than I'd like, but that wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. Admittedly I'm a neanderthal who can't get past the idea of singing throughout one's real life, ie can't suspend my disbelief enough to accept the genre's founding assumptions, but with theatre I'm usually seduced by the actors, and in opera I just can't connect. With this novel, similarly, I tired of the plot eddies and of the narrative logic, and I found myself wishing hard for a little quiet time with one or more of the characters. I didn't want comic relief, just relief from the pressure of narrative, but it's not the kind of genre where I'm going to get that.

Science fiction, in its many modes, is a real pleasure for me, but I don't find it as rewarding as my usuals. A nice diversion, though, as the semester gets rolling!

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories

It's not that I forget this book between readings of it, Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories, it's not. When I get into conversations about good books to read, an occupational hazard that occurs an awful lot, I do remember to tell people - usually - that Haroun is worth the price of admission.

But you know, then I read the thing again, and I'm impressed all over again. There are some negative reviews out there that call it predictable, and it's not wrong to call it that, but I'm with Samuel Johnson, who said about the gripping 1500-page Clarissa that if you read it for the plot, you'd hang yourself. If the rest of the stars align, then I'm OK with predictable. After all, this is the fourth or fifth time I've read Haroun, so I'm really, really not surprised by the plot anymore, and I enjoy it more each time I read it.

Here are the opening two paragraphs:
There was once, in the country of Alifbay, a sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name. It stood by a mournful sea full of glumfish, which were so miserable to eat that they made people belch with melancholy even though the skies were blue.

In the north of the sad city stood mighty factories in which (so I'm told) sadness was actually manufactured, packaged, and sent all over the world, which never seemed to get enough of it. Black smoke poured out of the chimneys of the sadness factories and hung over the city like bad news.
The next paragraph introduces Haroun and his father, and, well, I'm not going to spoil it for you. Trust me on this one.

My daughter isn't ready to hear me read it aloud yet, but if your child is, my goodness, what a treat you're both in for. There are a few points that might be trouble (the bus driver early on, for example, who points out the scenes of particularly gruesome crashes - and whose name is sure to be a kid favourite, Mr. Butt), but there aren't many points where junior might need a wee edit. The joys, too, far outweigh them, and maybe you should save the book for yourself anyway, so you don't have to slow down and explain anything!

(And yes, Clarissa really is gripping. Forty or fifty fun, fun hours of reading. Trust me on that one, too, but you might find Haroun a better fit for your lifestyle.)

Friday, September 05, 2008

Sept 5 - more from Margot Louis

The sale continues in the department library, so naturally I had to wander back in. Eventually I'll just sign over my pay-cheque, I imagine. In amongst the heartbreakers (Surviving Cancer, for example, and Living Fully with Shyness and Social Anxiety) were several more I had to claim:
  • Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (new edition, 2004, in Cambridge UP's important Studies in Environment & History series)
  • Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism
  • Joy Harjo, In Mad Love and War (a Creek [Muscogee] poet)
  • Linda M. Hasselstrom, Between Grass and Sky: Where I Live and Work (cover description - "nature writing from a a rancher's point of view")
  • John McPhee, Annals of the Former World (a massive chestnut that confirms the depth of my geekness - know anyone else excited to read a 700-page geological history of North America, loosely organized around Interstate 80, which runs from Teaneck, New Jersey, to San Francisco)
  • Richard Rhodes, John James Audobon: The Making of an American (yep, the subtitle almost kept me from claiming this one - in fact it did prevent it on Wednesday)
  • Albert Schweitzer, On the Edge of the Primeval Forest (not primarily about the forest, but about his renouncing his future in Europe to become a doctor and build a hospital at the edge of said forest in what was then the Belgian Congo)
  • Ronald Wright, Stolen Continents: The "New World" Through Indian Eyes
I think that'll do me for this sale - but I'll likely be back in there browsing next week in spite of myself.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Sept 3 - dept sale

It's the first day of classes, and we were welcomed back with another heartbreaking book sale, this one completely filling the department library's tables and floor. Longtime and favoured prof Margot Louis passed away a little while ago now, and there was a sale in the department's main office of all the books from her office that the library didn't want, and that her friends didn't want as mementoes. This was a sad thing, made more so because some books remained there for months, unwanted even for the cost of donation.

Well, Margot's home office has now had the same treatment, so the rest of her book-owning life is spread out, spine-up, across six tables and a few hundred square feet of floor. I can't imagine anyone would ever want simply to take on my own library, and I understand I've got individual and somewhat peculiar tastes, but it's difficult to see a dissolution in progress.

Not difficult enough, mind you, to prevent me from adding to my own library of things no one but me would want:
  • George Bowering, Burning Water (historical but somewhat pomo novel of the founding of Vancouver)
  • Christopher Dewdney, The Natural History (an epic poem of natural history, among other things, including a four-page "Bibliography of Creatures Mentioned": the Red Backed Salamander, the Wood Frog, the Green Darner Dragonfly, line storms, rhubarb, catalpa, spruce (blue), Niagara Escarpment, Rondeau...)
  • ed. Robert Finch and John Elder, The Norton Book of Nature Writing (908 big pages, from Gilbert White to Terry Tempest Williams)
  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman (ed. Larry Ceplair), Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Nonfiction Reader
  • Tomson Highway, Kiss of the Fur Queen (a Cree novel about residential school survivors who become artists, under the eye of "the wily, shape-shifting Fur Queen")
  • Roy Kiyooka, Pear Tree Pomes (yes, he did spell it that way, and I'm very excited to find this book!)
  • ed. Peter Nabokov, Native American Testimony: A Chronicle of Indian-White Relations from Prophecy to the Present, 1492-1992 (a compilation of oral history, more or less, that I'll need to research before I know what to think of it)
  • comp. and ed. Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon, Plants of Coastal British Columbia, including Washington, Oregon & Alaska
  • Sharon Pollock, The Komagata Maru Incident (a play about an important and gob-smacking BC historical event)
  • Dale Zieroth, Mid-river (poems by a writer I've so far wanted to like a bit more than I have...)