Thursday, December 25, 2008

F-Stop's Rating System

@@@@@ - Fully sated and ready to hibernate.
@@@@ - Enough room left for coffee and cheesecake.
@@@! - Even tastier treat.
@@@ - Tasty treat.
@@ - Not much to that. Let's get takeout on the way home.
@ - Call the Health Department. I think there was a Band-Aid in the soup!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Thank Heavens I Live in a Land of Pixies and Unicorns

A few months ago I wrote about Natsuo Kirino's Grotesque, which I found disturbing and yet compelling. As promised then, I've had my eye out for the release of her new book, which finally happened July 15th. The book is called Real World and, not surprisingly, I found it disturbing and compelling. My only complaint with it is that it isn't long enough, only 207 pages. The last time that I read a book so slim, I was the age of the characters in this book.

There are five teenagers at the center of this novel, four female friends and the boy next door who ruins their lives. Worm, the boy next door, is a dark, little, twisted creature that I never really got a good grasp on. I'm not sure if he's psychotic or just pressed too hard against the wall of growing up, but it's clear that he's a sociopath. He begins the story by killing his mother with a baseball bat, very calmly leaving his house and heading off for a life on the run. Along the way, he steals his neighbor's bike and cellphone.

When Toshi, Worm's neighbor, hears about the crime, she realizes that she has key information, having witnessed the noise made by the murder and Worm's calm departure from the house. However, she decides to lie to the police and her family and continues to protect him throughout the novel. It's not as if they are friends; she barely knows him and doesn't like what she does know but cheers for his escape due to her own psychological demons.

All the teens in this book are hanging on to society's edges with one tiny claw. There's Yanzu who receives the first call from Worm, using Toshi's stolen cellphone. Yanzu is struggling to find a comfortable place uniting her family life and school friends with her underground life as a lesbian. She is the first to help Worm by providing him with a new cellphone and bike and returning the stolen ones.

Kirinin has problems with her sexuality as well. By day, a happy go lucky, innocent schoolgirl but every night she goes to Seedyville and has as much casual sex and she can before morning. She becomes fascinated with the idea of the rebel Worm and runs off to join him. She wants a new life and he seems the perfect answer. Unfortunately, he is not what she thought and things end badly.

Our best hope for a normal view of teenage Japan seems to be Terauchi. She is bright, studious, seemingly well grounded and sane. She rejects Worm's attempts to draw her into his drama - outright rejection at first, later playing coy to keep things under control once Kirinin joins him. But her life is just as angsty as the next kid's. She is contemptuous of her schoolwork and her family has created a situation for her that is intolerable. Her calm exterior just covers the lack of life that lies within.

Things come to a head and our teens start falling like dominoes. Kirino's point is that the culture around teens is very unhealthy and it's amazing any of them make it out unscathed. Toshi rants against commercialism. Worm seems to be burdened and yet under the spell of Japan's military history. Terauchi's childhood innocence has been destroyed by a social structure that demands scholastic excellence. Kirinin's problems clearly come from all the sexual crosscurrents that buffet her (and us) daily.

Natsuo Kirino's books get classified as Mystery in bookstores but I'm not so sure that they should. The mystery at the heart of her novels is not "Who did the crime and will he/she be caught?" It is the mystery of what goes on inside us that makes us act as we do and that's what I love about her books, the inner darkness of the human mind.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Thoroughly Modern Beepy

The most astute of you may have noticed that I haven't been around for awhile. Let me explain that. About two months ago I was resting on my rock, dreaming of all the books that Cap'n Ahab would be bring me, when I was approached by the demon Ursula. The deal was made in minutes and it has taken me all this time to wrestle my voice back from her. Let that be a warning to all of us.

So now to business. Back in January I offered a free meal to anyone who bet against me reading two books per week this year. Silly readers, you'd all be sated and sighing if you'd taken me up on my bet. But July is the halfway point of the year and it seems to me a good point to cut my losses and start again. There will be no free meals this time unless someone decides to feed me.
Ursula has taught me to be relentless.

My "New Year" begins with a memoir by Josh Kilmer-Purcell called I Am Not Myself These Days. Mr. Kilmer-Purcell lived a double-careered life in New York City. By day he was a hungover adman, by night she was a drunken drag queen named Aqua. I got a kick out of both lives.

Now a few of you might be wondering why I would waste my time on fluffy memoirs, but I think that if you really give it some thought, you'll realize that I've been attempting to live as a woman for years. If you add to that the fact that both JK-P and I enjoy waking up with strange men, I think that it will all become clear to you.

Anyway, this photo is of Aquadisiac. If you look very carefully you will notice that her breasts are clear little bowls containing goldfish. Living goldfish! Why didn't I think of that? Now we all understand why there is a goldfish on the cover of the book.

The book covers the period of a few months (about eight or nine if I remember correctly) that JK-P shared his life with a male prostitute whom he calls Jack. Jack meets a drunken Aqua one night and takes her home. Aqua meets Jack the next day when Jack returns her clothes to a hungover Josh at his ad agency. It's a storybook romance that should be read to all little girls before they go to sleep at night.

Soon the two are in love and moving in together. Jack is a very successful male prostitute, seeming to deal mostly in S&M; he wears his beeper at all times and occasionally brings clients to the apartment for the weekend. Otherwise, he seems to be the perfect boyfriend - gentle, loving, supportive, freely doling out gifts and love notes. He worries about Josh's drinking, orders in breakfast for two every morning and even refuses to have sex with Josh until the relationship is ready. Josh continues on with his day job and Aqua's night life and wonders how he got so lucky. If it weren't for the prologue which has Jack standing over a sleeping JK-P with a knife, I'd nominate this for Romance of the Year.

Yes, you read it right, "with a knife", a giant machete-like knife by the way. Somewhere down the line, Jack has become addicted to crack (a whore addicted to crack - Stop the Presses) and is now a violent maniac. I'm being a bit sassy here; his descent isn't as sudden as I make it out to be. There are a lot of broken promises, false steps and ruined fresh starts (if you're thinking it's kinda like my blog, shaddup!) and eventually Jack and Josh split. Josh has moved on to a stable relationship, a good job and life as a full time man. Jack? Who knows but we wish him well.

If you can't tell by what I've written so far, this book entertained the hell out of me. It was a peek inside a world I'll never get to see. There was, for example, an illuminating description of the process of becoming a woman (a hint - it involves a lot of shaving), smoking crack, dealing with drunken men wanting to touch your - er - goldfish, etc. I also learned a bit about the pain there is involved in being a drag queen and I'm not just talking the tucking away of inconvenient bits and pieces or winching a corset up to rib crushing tightness. Our no-holds barred author describes a gruesome drag act in which a 300lb. queen shoots M&M's out her ass. That's real pain. (If, by the way, that's the scene that entices you to read I Am Not Myself These Days, I don't want to know about it, okay? We really don't know each other well enough.)

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Look What the Tide Washed In

Okay, folks, it's been a long, long time. I hope that I haven't lost you all during the time that I've been saving up enough money to buy another book. (Since Cap'n Ahab isn't interested in my wo-manatee's curves, I have to pay his fee in cold, hard cash) This week he swung by and dropped off two books The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman and The Star Machine by Jeanine Basinger.

The Star Machine is about Hollywood and the Studio System of the 30's and 40's. It very clearly explains how the major studios created stars like Lana Turner, Tyrone Power and Errol Flynn. It did seriously work like a machine. A young wanna-be was signed to a seven year contract by the studio and for those seven years, he or she had no autonomy. Hair color, style of dress, cosmetic surgery, etc were all under the control of the studio bosses. Interview answers were scripted. Movie roles were, of course, chosen by the studio. After being signed, the actor was given a small role in one or two films to test their audience appeal. Then, if the audience noticed the player, there would be a starring role. If the young star balked at any of this, they were put on suspension without pay until they agreed. Since they were bound to that studio and couldn't make movies elsewhere, they were screwed unless they did exactly as the studio said.

Ms. Basinger splits her book into several different sections, each dealing with a different star and a problem they had with the studio system. Errol Flynn, for example, was not happy with his endless swashbuckling, tight-wearing roles. He was from an acting family, had talent and wanted to be an "actor". Plus he had a wild personal life that the studio found hard to keep under wraps. Lana Turner had a similar problem. Deanna Durbin was fed endless kid roles well after she was grown and married. Some stars were destroyed by the Machine, but some (Loretta Young, Irene Dunne)managed to escape the system and still have careers. Given the way stars arise today, reading about Hollywood of this era is like reading about another planet.

The best part of the book, for me, is reading about all the movies I've never watched. I read about Tyrone Power and Netflix "Witness for the Prosecution". I read about Lana Turner and Netflix "The Bad and the Beautiful." This and the tasty tidbits of Hollywood gossip, made this a fun book. If any of you boys need the perfect gift for Grandma this Mother's Day, I hope you'll keep this book in mind.

The other book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down has been a customer favorite over the last few years. I've had my eyes on it for several years as well, being nothing but a customer at heart. It concerns the clash of cultures between the California health care system and the parents of an epileptic Hmong child. I don't know that I can sum things up without making the family sound simple and stupid but Fadiman does a wonderful job of presenting their case. It's obvious that she has a lot of respect for the family and their culture and is wonderful at presenting everyone's side fairly. The reader can feel the distrust the family has toward western medicine as easily as the frustration of the doctors for patients who don't follow their directions.

The child, Lia Lee, had her first epileptic seizure as a young baby, less than a year old if I remember correctly. The Hmong believe epilepsy to be caused by the soul leaving the body. In order to return the soul, one must sacrifice an animal (trading their soul for the errant one) and perform various rituals. The epileptic is consider special and more in touch with the spirit world than the rest of us. We, most of us anyway, believe it to be caused by a neurological fuck-up and can only be helped by drugs, drugs, drugs. This was the course followed by the medical staff involved in Lia's care and it didn't seem to work too well. Lia's family didn't speak or read English, couldn't follow the dosing directions (three different kinds of pills at various times of day, at varying dosages), were completely confused by the doctor's directions, and suspicious of things to begin with. When the doctors performed blood tests they found that the levels of drugs in Lia's system were below the helpful amount and kept changing drugs and dosages trying to make things easier. The Lees saw this as proof that the doctors didn't know what they were doing. My brothers would refer to this whole situation as a clusterfuck.

I'm still reading this fascinating book and therefore don't know the outcome (although I suspect it's not going to be a pleasant one). I think that the thing I'll take away with me is a question Fadiman asks. She talks to several doctors in the area about their experiences dealing with the Hmong patients they see. One simplifies things, giving less than perfect care so that his patients will have some care at all. Others give the same care they would to middle class, English speaking, cultural-Americans and hope that their directions are followed. Fadiman asks "Which would have been more discriminatory, to deprive Lia of the optimal care that another child would have received, or to fail to tailor her treatment in such a way that her family would be most likely to comply with it?" It's a damn fine question.

Steve has provided my with this week's reading (Nah,nah, Cap'n Ahab) The Terror by Dan Simmons and Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell. More to follow...

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Treading Water

Every so often I find myself with too many choices. This week has been one of those times. The week starts like any other. I choose a book and begin to read. But something just isn't right. The book isn't moving quickly enough, it's too vague, the author takes his time getting to the point, the dialogue seems forced, there's too much dialogue or not enough. I don't want to read about Eskimos or endangered species or hobgoblins after what happened on Monday or didn't happen on Tuesday. Suddenly, though nothing has changed, the story's fire has dimmed while another book on the shelf starts blazing with light. So I pick up that book; I'll finish the first one, sure I will...just let me read this one first. Suddenly I look around and find that the stack by my bedside is about to topple over with the half-read and the put aside. That's what happened this morning. I took a good look at the bedside stand.

The book that's been there the longest (or at least the oldest one I'll admit to) is The Duke's Children. You'll remember that I started that back before the New Year. It was to be the last book that I read in 2007 but instead was pushed aside by the glittering possibilities of 2008's reading. Steve has been at me non-stop about this fickleness towards one of his favorite authors. Even I had thought my romance with the book was over but this morning I woke up feeling flushed with nostalgia and moved it back to the top of the stack. Maybe this time I'll follow through. Yes, definitely this time.

Next we have two books that I started before going on vacation a few weeks ago, Garcia's Heart by Liam Durcan and Wise Children by Angela Carter. Garcia's Heart is a first novel and was recommended to me by The Mama Chan. She has never steered me wrong and this book is no exception. It is good. Not flashy, just very solidly good. It's about a neurologist who travels to The Hague to sit in on the trial for war crimes of his old mentor, Hernan Garcia. He knew Garcia and his family in Canada, where the Honduran cardiologist had settled down to run a small store and forget his past. The protagonist cannot reconcile this man with the one portrayed at the tribunal and neither can we, the reader. There is also a subplot involving the protagonist and Garcia's daughter, who used to be his lover. This is not nearly as interesting as the main plot and is probably what keeps me from finishing it. I don't care about this romance and my reading gets derailed every time the writer switches over to it. What I want to know is the secret that Garcia's heart holds.

Wise Children is quite the opposite. It is filled with flash and glitter, dancing girls, ponies walking on their hind legs, magicians making beautiful girls disappear, etc. It's a three ring circus in other words. I spent two round trips to work on the subway reading it and here's what I know. The main characters are two elderly, bastard twins who made their living in vaudeville. Eccentricity is everywhere. It is just the kind of story that I love, so what happened? I went on my vacation, leaving it behind and here it still sits. But, yeah, I'm going to read it...soon...

And with that, we arrive at the top strata. You're not feeling ill are you? We do have oxygen handy, should you need it. At the top we have two books, King Dork by Frank Portman and Lost In Translation by Eva Hoffman. I can't say very much yet about King Dork; I've barely cracked it open. It's a teen read that caught my eye because the main character has his life turned around by Catcher In the Rye. I'm bound to have more to say later.

Lost in Translation is a beautifully written memoir of a Polish girl who moves to Canada in her early teens and finds herself untethered by the experience. I'm about half way through reading it and am a bit in awe of both the writing and the girl's experience. I could open the book at random and find something worth quoting. For example:

The yellowed pages I take out of the library draw me into them as into a trance--but only on the condition that they create a convincing mimetic illusion. I feel subtly cheated by Alice in Wonderland, because it is all pretend, a game, and of what interest is that? My reading is all mixed up, and it's not so long after I read Alice that I'm given War and Peace. This is something I should read carefully, my parents convey to me, a classic, something very important--but the usually discouraging invocation of duty has no effect on me this time. I don't notice that War and Peace is a book, something I'm
reading. Surely, this is just life.

What's the problem, then?, you ask. You love it, read it, you say. Aha, here's where you are not me. Although I love it, I'm finding that it reads slowly, because I must stop and think about each passage. I can read the passage above, for example, set the book down and drift away in my own thoughts for a half hour or more. Can one be thrown off by reading something too damned good? I find that I don't want to pick it up because I'll only put it back down. (I never finished Tess of the D'Urbervilles because I loved it so much I couldn't bear for it to end. I still have two pages left after 5 years of reading it.)

There are also those books that are getting very close to joining the pile and may by the end of today. A new one by Steven Millhauser, Dangerous Laughter, because it's very, very shiny and Oblomov, because some book I've read recently kept referencing it. Also drifting towards the stack is a book by Stephen Fry, because I signed it out from the library and it's winking at me suggestively, not to mention whatever new thing that Steve shoves at me.
I guess the only answer is to brew a giant pot of coffee; the Camels are just not going to cut it tonight.

Monday, March 3, 2008

I feel dirty

About a year ago, I went on Stevereads and said a few kind words about Out by Natsuo Kirino. Kirino is a popular, so the dust jacket claims, Japanese mystery author. Out was her first book translated into English and, to be frank, it was a rush. Four female factory workers band together to dismember and dispose of the remains of their friend's husband before anyone catches on to the murder. It was gritty realism at its best, full of physical and psychological details and it really got under my skin.

The latest book to be translated is Grotesque, brand new in paperback. I'm still trying to digest this novel but like the veal scallopini they served us in college, it just won't stay down. I feel as if I've been dragged through every cesspool and love hotel in Tokyo and am none the wiser for it. So break out the penicillin and join me on a run through the plot and characters.

I can't remember the first narrator's name and I'm not sure we were ever given it, so let's just call her Sis. Sis is the older of two biracial siblings. Her younger sister Yuriko is a perfect blend of genes and is the most beautiful creature that any human being ever laid eyes on. Sis is described as unattractive and is therefore wildly jealous of Yuriko. She becomes warped by this jealousy. When her dad takes the family back to Switzerland, Sis stays behind and wins a place in the Q School of Girls. She does this mainly to get away from her sister, whom she describes as a monster. At Q school, she meets the other main characters of the novel, Kazue and Mitsuru. Kazue is the classic dork. She tries too hard. She does the wrong thing in any social situation. All the other girls make fun of her, but she doesn't have the self-understanding to see it. She wants to be the smartest girl in the class but just isn't smart enough. Mitsuru is her opposite, smart and well accepted.

Everything starts to unravel when Yuriko returns from Europe and joins Q School. Yuriko is dumb as toast but gets in because her beauty charms the professor in charge. She immediately causes trouble for everybody, not maliciously but because of her perfection. For example, whereas Sis was previously ignored, she is now the center of attention because no one can believe that the two girls are related, Beauty and the Beast. Kazue falls into the web formed by Sis's hatred and ends up ruined. I'm not sure how Mitsuru ties in, but I do know it's all the fault of Sis and Yuriko.

Years go by and the girls are grown. Yuriko, clearly understanding her worth, has become a prostitute. She states in her journal that she hates men but loves sex. She loves the power her beauty has over them, but claims that it only lasts until she gives in, then she must find another man. Kazue has a Corporate job but is not satisfied. She wants to be loved for her body and since that is unlikely, goes into prostitution as a second job. Both women end up murdered by one of their johns. Sis becomes the center of attention again, and again it's because of Yuriko (with the added kick of having been schoolmates with Kazue.)

The problem with this book is twofold. First off, the women are brutally unpleasant. Except for Mitsuru (who becomes part of a group of religious nuts who gas a bunch of innocent people - which only lets you know how bad the rest of them must be), they are totally unlikable. They are all monsters, which I think is Kirino's point. Yuriko is completely heartless. It's as if her skin shelters a completely empty psyche. She is only there for sex, and that is totally cold no matter what Brian thinks. We eventually get to read Kazue's diary, which reveals her to be a total nutjob. She continually brags about her beauty while at the same time reporting how everyone refers to her as ugly or a bag of bones. I can't really pin down what makes Sis so terrible, she just is. Maybe it's that there is nothing redeeming about her with which to contrast the evil.

The second problem that I have with Grotesque is the way it is narrated. The story was told in a string of first person narratives. We start with Sis talking to someone, representing us. There are too many instances of things like "You ask me what I thought of...?" No, actually, I didn't. Yuriko and Kazue both tell their stories in diary form. Now I'm not saying that a prostitute wouldn't keep a diary but I'm sure she wouldn't be focusing on how long someones hair was or what color shoes the john had. It was not believable. There was also a confession by Zhang who admits to killing Yuriko but not Kazue although he did "do" her on several occasions. He is as unreliable as Kazue, but where she is self deluded, I think he might be lying. There are some letters addressed to Mitsuru but I can't figure out what they may be about other than to refute some of the things that Sis and Kazue have said.I think Kirino would have been better off with an omniscient 3rd person narrator. Maybe not. That might have created even more problems. I'm a reader, after all, not a writer.

All that having been said, I can't really recommend this book to anyone unless I want them to feel as dirty as I do. But you can bet I'll read the next book Kirino puts out in the US and I suggest you all keep your eyes open for it (and go read Out!) Any writer that can get me to finish their book when I didn't like it and wasn't forced to read it, has got something special about them.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Back On My Sunny Rock

Well, I've just returned from Maine, where I got 8 inches every single day - of snow, Steve. I forget from year to year how cold winter in Maine can be. But it was delightful and I'm almost sorry to return to my real life.

Speaking of real life, I find my mailbox full with requests to know what a typical reading experience is like for me. How, where and when does all this fun being me take place? I have finally decided to be truthful about my life. I read every night until dawn in my little sanctuary. Like myself, the design of my room is lean and simple. There is a small pile of books, usually 10 or 15 at a time, which make up the only furnishings of my room. I sleep, when I sleep, on two blankets; one to cushion my fragile little body from the tiled floor, the other to keep me warm. But most nights I just lean against the wall, using a small lamp to light the pages, as I balance my ashtray and glass of gin on my flat, well toned midsection. Slightly to my left and a few feet off the floor, there is a shelf which houses the bottle, my Camels and a few knick-knacks from old love affairs (yeah, I'm pretty sentimental that way.) The rest of the empty room is where the rabbits run.

Now for me. My favorite outfit to read in is a pair of my father's old jeans (the kind construction workers wear) and an emerald green sports bra. If I didn't shave my head every morning, my hair would be long, curly and chestnut brown. The last time I wore shoes was at my high school graduation, when I molded them out of an old Cap'n Crunch box and decorated them with glitter. I find that this sparseness of room and self frees up my mind to absorb the most books in the fewest number of hours.

Any further questions?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happy Valentine's Day

Happy Valentine's Day, my little lovebunnies!

(I'm still here. Just spending every free hour with my one true love - reading - and haven't gotten as far as sharing my thoughts. I promise that I'll put down the book and put together a post very soon.)

Sunday, January 20, 2008

BooMOBYle - drop off 3

This week Cap'n Ahab hoped to soothe me a bit (after Atonement, you know) by bringing me a bit of fluff. I blew through it in a afternoon while sitting in the tub. It was the most perfect afternoon I've spent in quite a while and although Steve will sneer and groan, I'm not going to apologize for it. And what book has charmed me. Prepare to lower your opinion of me. It was
Bitter Is the New Black, a memoir by Jen Lancaster. Jen and her boyfriend had high paying jobs and lived the kind of life that I can only imagine. I, for example, have one pair of shoes, one pair of sneakers and one pair of sandals. Jen on the other hand had a closet full and I'm not talking Payless. They had a gorgeous apartment, cool cars, hung out in the hottest bars; they were everything I live to hate. But then Jen loses her job and can not find another. The top jobs, the ones she feels that she deserves, are swamped with applications from other unemployed, deserving people and the jobs she feels are below her don't want her either. Her unemployment runs out and then her boyfriend, by now her husband, is laid off. Then she becomes a real person.

What I enjoyed about this book is that she is funny. I'm still giggling about the scene where she goes to pick up Marathon information for a friend and realizes that she's the only fat person in the hall. She's also sassy and is not above telling unflattering stories about herself (she cancels her COBRA because her boyfriend's insurance covers "domestic partners" never dreaming that she doesn't qualify.)

So it's not Ulysses. I fell for it and I'm going to read the follow up Bright Lights, Big Ass. Put that in your shoe, Steve, and smoke it

Cap'n Ahab also brought me Everything Bad is Good For You by Steven Johnson. I found it quite interesting although I'm not sure that I'm completely buying it. I guess it depends a lot on what your definition of "smarter" is. His point is that the complexities of modern video games, television shows, movies and Internet are increasing our abilities to learn new things and to adapt our ways of thinking. I'll agree with that; we've all watched our children or young relatives pick up some new technology in minutes. He cites studies that indicate that IQ scores are increasing even in areas where standards of living have not. Okay, I'll go along with that.

I couldn't help but think of Steve while reading this, especially during the chapter on video games. I think that we'll all agree that Steve doesn't understand the complexities in video games because he doesn't play them. I, however, am addicted to Sims and do think that it does indeed teach something about life to kids (I, for example, have learned that raising twins is NOT fun.) Johnson discusses how the average video game takes 40 hours to complete and that a lot of logic is involved in solving the maze like sequences. There is a continual repetition of searching for and trying various alternatives that takes patience and hones thinking skills. Read this part of the book again, Steve, because it makes sense. Better yet, play a video game start to finish.

Johnson's take on television & movies is that plots are becoming more complex, more self-referential and the storytelling less temporally linear thereby making us think while watching. He cites "Momento" and "The Usual Suspects" as examples of movies that give our brains a work out; at the end of the movie, we often want to see it again immediately just to fill in things we missed. True enough. When I watched these two movies, I hit the play button on the DVD player seconds after the closing credits ran.

As for the Internet, Johnson focuses on e-mail and blogging, making the claim that although we may spend less time reading novels, we spend a lot more time writing and that this is beneficial. How can that be a bad thing? (Steve?)

My only complaint with the book is that Johnson overlooks the value of knowledge and that's where things fall apart. I think that we might be soothed by his arguments and not focus on the fact that kids "know" less than they did. It's an interesting topic for debate, so jump into the fray.

Because I enjoyed this, I'd like to read other, similar things and ask you all to make suggestions. I don't mean "similar" as in "presenting the same arguments". I just mean that I want to read other things that will make me look at things in a different way. I want to read some non-fiction that will get me thinking or will present facts in a new light. Recommend away.

Monday, January 14, 2008

(i'm owed) Atonement

I am very angry at Ian McEwan. In fact if he were here right now, I'd slap him. Not the little playful kind of slap that I give Steve when he is being an ass (ie daily) but a swinging-for-Landsdowne-Street slap. The kind of slap that would make every head in the room snap around and gasp. Yeah, I'm that angry.

It's an odd feeling, this anger. I've never felt it before toward an author or a book I've read. I've read books that disappointed me, books that betrayed me by their banality, books that I've hated but never a book that made me want to hurl it across the room in anger and hit the author. What happened?

I was with this book from the get go; it had me captivated. I was completely drawn into this world and its characters. I had absolute feelings for each and every one of them. We are first introduced to Briony Tallis, a 13 year old British girl who wishes to become an author. She is the villain of the piece because she has the kind of imagination that must create a story for every chain of events, despite the fact that, at thirteen, she doesn't have the understanding to do so successfully. She witnesses a scene from the playroom window involving her adult sister, Cecilia and the charlady's son, Robbie. She doesn't understand the sexual tension involved and describes to herself a scene of malevolence and perversion. Later, after a few more misunderstood events, her testimony sends Robbie off to prison.

Part two of the novel takes place in France, where Robbie is part of the retreat taking place at Dunkirk. He has been released early from prison upon his agreement to fight in the war. This is an amazing section of the book. McEwan writes the hell out of Robbie's experiences. I'm not sure that I took a breath for the full 70 pages of part two. It doesn't forward the initial plot very much, but it does add a whole new dimension to the idea of atonement.

Part three takes place in London, where a grown up Briony is working as a nurse. She realizes her errors and the nursing is part of her personal atonement. This is another well written section which pulled me into the era and the horror of the war. There is a small scene that seemed to me like a misstep on the author's part; Briony writes the story of what she saw from the playroom window and sends it off to a magazine for publication. The story is rejected for being too vague and stream of conscience. "Poof," I thought, "what does this have to do with anything?" But a few pages later, I found out that it does.

The interminable pages about light and stone and water, a narrative split between three different points of view, the hovering stillness of nothing much seeming to happen-none of this could conceal her cowardice. Did she really think she could hide behind some borrowed notions of modern writing, and drown her guilt in a stream-three streams!-of consciousness? The evasions of her little novel were exactly those of her life. Everything she did not wish to confront was also missing from her novella-and was necessary to it. What was she to do now? It was not the backbone of a story that she lacked. It was backbone.

Redeemed. The tiny misstep has been redeemed. How will McEwan atone for his giant misstep at the end (also known as London 1999)? I'm afraid that I can't discuss what I hated so much about this ending without talking about the plot. I can't discuss McEwan's betrayal of me, the reader, without giving things away. THIS IS YOUR SPOILER ALERT! Stop reading now if you care.

What so destroyed any enjoyment that I had gained for this novel is that when we fast forward to 1999, we discover that Briony is now an old woman and attending her birthday party, surrounded by her adoring young relatives. Since when does Briony deserve such adoration? Not since I started reading the novel. But okay, even Hitler had friends. Then we learn that Briony has polished up her novella, added to it and it has become the novel we have just read. A crappy ending to be sure, but Briony has also fucked with the details, just to piss me off even more. For example, the young couple separated by her misunderstanding as a child have not been reunited after all, but died during the war. Everything that we have just read unravels in that moment. It's all been a big fat lie as far as I'm concerned and that just isn't right. If I'm reading a story, I want to believe in that story entirely. If I shouldn't believe,I want the narrative to clue me in along the way-give me that unreliable narrator, give me shifting perspectives and contradictory facts- just don't slap it on as a postscript-like ending.

McEwan owes me.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

BookMOBYle - drop off 2

I've been having a little trouble accessing blogspot this past week, but things seem to be fine now.

Cap'n Ahab and his crew made their scheduled drop off last Tuesday, right on time. As you might guess, this week's package contained Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. For those keeping track, it was the Two of Diamonds.

I immediately jumped right into it, having good memories from the last time I read it. If you've never read it, I'm not even going to explain what it is about. You are obviously a)illiterate b)unamerican or c)subhuman. What I'm saying is that everyone who has been a teenager has dug this book and if you didn't, how can I help you now? Even crazy serial killers have read this book!

I initially read it in college. I wanted to see if, now that I'm an adult, I'd bring anything new to the reading. I'm not so sure that I did really. Mostly I was just filled with a feeling of nostalgia. I remembered what it was like to be a much younger Beepy, which was a lot of fun (both being the younger Beepy and remembering her). I also realized that the guy I was dating at the time had a lot in common with Holden, except the craziness. He was a nice memory too. If you're out there, baby, Kiss Kiss.

By the way, the cover I have downloaded here is not the cover of my copy. Mine is the plain red cover with yellow lettering. I picked this cover to download because J.D. would hate it. I heard that he wanted the cover to be plain white and was horrified by the original cover which, I remember, was very busy. There was a kid, a bunch of shops, a street sign. It was not hip and cool. So angry was he, at the first opportunity he resold the rights to a different publisher. And yes, this ex-boyfriend of mine had a copy of that unapproved cover. Sigh.

The second book of this shipment is Spartina by John Casey (the Seven of Spades). It won the National Book Award a million years ago. Okay maybe 1988 or 1989.
You younger readers won't remember but it was once all the rage among the reading public. So far all I can tell you is that it is about a guy, who doesn't have a lot of money, building a boat - a big boat - in his back yard. I'll be spending today getting more acquainted.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison

Somewhere on the open seas Cap'n Ahab is laughing. Ha Ha, the joke's on me. The salty dog picked a real killer as my first novel of the year. I think he knew full well that it would take me the entire week to read, therefore setting me back in my goal of two books a week in the VERY FIRST WEEK. Yes, he is a clever one. But Ha Ha, the joke's on him, because I loved this book.

Why was it so difficult to read?, you ask. Eddison's style and language is the culprit, although it is exactly that which made the book so delightful. Imagine that the daughter of Shakespeare and Elric of Melibone had a child with the son of Tolkien and Homer. Imagine that King Arthur was the godfather and you've pretty much got a sense of what The Worm Ouroboros is like. The language is archaic, as one can see by a brief scan through the notes at the end. gaberlunzie, I'd liever, tassel-gentle, trisulk, disard, cere-cloth, towsed - you get the idea. Speech is fancy and none to swift to the point:

"Well I see the blood thou didst drink in Melikaphkhaz will not allay thy
thirst, and war is to thee thy pearl and thy paramour. Yet, if it be, turn back
from Carce. Thou standest now on the pinnacle of thine ambition; wilt leap
higher, thou fall'st in the abyss. Let the four corners of the earth be shaken
with our wars, but not this centre. For here shall no man gather fruit, but and
if it be death he gather; or if, then this fruit only, that Zoacum, that fruit
of bitterness, which when he shall have tasted of, all the bright lights of
heaven shall become as darkness and all earth's goodness as ashes in his mouth
all his life's days until he die."

I'm just sayin' it's tough reading.

The basic plot is very basic. Witchland and Demonland go to war. Witchland's King is a greedy bastard named Gorice XII who has great powers in the dark arts. We don't see a whole lot of him; most of our time in Witchland is spent among his generals Corund, Corsus and Corinius. Demonland is led by several great warriors, the brothers Juss, Goldry Bluszco and Spitfire and by their cousin Brandoch Daha. Here we see the kinsman all lined up and ready for war:

Other lands become involved in the struggle through their alliances, Goblinland, Pixyland and Impland foremost among them. There is also my favorite character Lord Gro. He is a Goblin by birth and a traitor by inclination. At some point in the past he has gone over to the Witches and is quite tight with King Gorice XII (as he was with Gorice XI as well). If Gro were alive today, he'd be a jet-setting, cocaine snorting, champagne bathing socialite, although one with brains.

There is a diversion from the battle by an expedition by Juss and Brandoch Daha in an attempt to rescue Goldry Bluszco, who has been swept away into enchanted mountains by the evil of Gorice XII. Here, in these mountains, our heroes encounter manticores, enchanted castles, a hippogriff and the immortal Queen Sophonisba. We are also introduced to the idea of the worm ouroboros and it's importance to the plot. Ouroboros, for those who may not know, is a serpent or dragon feeding on it's own tail. It represents eternity and, we are told, is the symbol of the Gorice reign. Apparently when Gorice dies his spirit finds a new physical host and the next Gorice comes to power. Pretty cool, if you ask me.

Anyway, I don't want to ruin the plot for any brave soul that might take to reading this book. It's not perfect by any means (come on, Lord Spitfire?) but overall it is magic. I wish there were sequels and prequels but alas, being written in 1922 instead of 2002, there aren't. It has won a permanent place of my bookshelf (cough, cough, I mean Ahab's BookMOBYle) so I can reread it.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

BookMOBYle - Drop off 1

Here they are. The crew of Cap'n Ahab's BookMOBYle have arrived. After waiting nearly all day for my initial shipment, they have finally arrived. They reek of liquor and sea salt; they are disheveled and hungover but they are here. Ahab descends via the gangplank, throws a bundle at my "feet" and sneers "Thar ya are, ya dingy cow."

The package is small and rectangular, done up with brown paper and string. I am overcome with excitement. As I struggle to open the package, I realize the great drawback to my manatee flesh - I curse Neptune who gave me these fused digits and no thumb. I'll have to speak to the good Cap'n about different packaging for the next shipment.

After hours of tearing at the paper with my teeth, a small crab takes pity on me and snips my books free in a matter of seconds. The books tumble onto the rocks proving the old adage "no good deed goes unpunished" by nearly crushing my helpful friend, who scurries off a wiser crustacean.

I present to you the first two books I'll read in 2008. Atonement by Ian McEwan and The Worm Ouroboros by E.R.Eddison. For those of you who are keeping track, the former is the King of Clubs, the latter the Two of Clubs.

Check back later this week for my progress.