Friday, December 05, 2008

Numero 27 this year is Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare. Funny enough, this is one of his plays that I somehow avoided reading til now. I know some classes read it in Grade 11, but mine wasn't one of them (we did... wow, I don't think we did any Shakespeare in grade 11 English now that I think about it. Heresy!). This choice was mainly born out of my recently having watched the entire first season of the HBO series Rome and enjoying that immensely. So, I was curious to see how their version stacked up to the Bard's. HBO's Julius at least got an almost full season before he got offed, Shakespeare's exits the mortal coil at the beginning of Act III, leaving two more acts where he only appears breifly and as a ghost.

Strangely, I found Ceasar to be almost a bit player in a play supposedly about him. I didn't find we got to really know too much about him, most of the time is given to the consipirators and their reasoning for wanting Caesar dead. Which is fine, motivation is good, but still, I think I would've liked more knowledge of Caesar as a counterpoint to the conspirators.

Shakespeare does do a lovely job with Marc Antony though. He is brash and angry, but he also does believe in what Caesar did and so his complete condemnation of the assassination was well done.

I liked the play overall, but I think I liked HBO's version better :)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Annnnnd number 26 of the year was actually finished a couple of weeks ago, but between work being an all-consuming bitch and buying a house, I haven't had much time to say anything about it. So here we are at Shakespeare by Bill Bryson.

I like Bill Bryson's work, I've read a few of them now. I find his interest in the English language very... well, interesting. As my husband often points out, I am a literary geek and that is true. Bryson's look at Shakespeare has resulted in a rather slim tome, since Bryson has resisted extrapolating or even making things up for Shakespeare's biography. Instead, Bryson takes the very little we actually KNOW about the Bard and then mainly debunks a lot of things we don't actually know about the Bard. Which really is a lot.

It's not a long read, but its a good read and a must read for anyone who is interested in the venerable William Shakespeare.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Number 25 is America Unchained by funny-man Brit, Dave Gorman. You may remember Dave as Danny Wallace's partner in crime in Are You Dave Gorman?. The two may not be doing any more 'stupid boy projects' together, but they certaintly have branched out to do more 'stupid boy projects' apart. I guess that means they're maximizing their 'stupid boy projects'.

Dave's latest grew from a month long comedy tour of the United States. He tried to enjoy it, but he wound up hating it. He hated the sameness, the homoginzation, the... corporateness of America. And he felt bad about hating America. He'd had a completely different idea of the country and when it didn't come true, he was upset and angry about it. So, he came upon the idea of seeing America the way he thought it should be seen; from coast to coast in an American made car as old as he was (so around 35 years old), and not giving any money to 'the Man'. And the Man in the case was anything that could be considered a chain. That meant Dave had to stay in independently run hotel, eat at independently owned restaurants, and fill up at independently owned gas stations. It would be this last that would prove the greatest challenge.

Dave begins his jaunt in Coronado, California (an island just off of San Diego, which I've been to and which is beautiful), where he buys a 1972 Ford Torino station wagon. He loves the car, but she will, of course, prove to be a fickle travelling companion.

We follow Dave on the road, from side trips all the way up to Oregon, to hilarity and maddness in Utah, to losing his first camera person (because he is making a documentary based on his cross-country run) due to excruciating back problems (and boy could I sympathize there), to the friendliness of Kansas, the meanness of Mississippi, all the way to Georgia where they reach the Atlantic coast and call their journey done.

It's an inspiring tale, one that truly shows you America in all her forms; good, bad, ugly, beautiful, but also allows you to see her as she was before all became corporate and chains and nothing but big box stores. It makes one want to set out on a road trip immediately.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Number 24 this year is Friends Like These by Danny Wallace. It was my husband who first introduced me to Danny Wallace (and his sometimes partner in crime, Dave Gorman) and their 'stupid boy projects', and I've enjoyed all Wallace's capers since then. Some more than others of course, and Friends Like These is enjoyable.

On the cusp of turning 30, recently married and burgeoning yuppie Danny has an about-to-turn-thirty crisis sparked by being asked to be a godparent to the child of some friends. This request galvanizes for him that he doesn't really want to fully grow up, to trade fun for throw cushions, to stop going to the pub, etc. He likes the IDEA of becoming a man, but not the actual participation in it completely.

With the arrival of a box of his old belongings from his Mum, Danny finds his old address book, from his childhood. It has 12 names it, people whom he's long since lost contact with and has only a few times in the past 16 years or so, wondered how these people are doing. Well, when Danny's closest current mates, Ian and Wag both announce that they are going away/moving away, Danny is spurred to track down all those people from his past. Danny also has the blessing of his wife, Lizzie, to do all this and finish it before his 30th birthday, a few months away.

Some are easier to find than others, and so he immediately gets together with them and finds it very rewarding. He also begins writing answers to letters he recieved from one friend 16 years ago, hoping that they will find their way to the sender. Danny ends up going to Los Angeles to meet one friend, and finish playing an elaborate prank upon him (which involves Danny masquerading as a furrie) in retaliation for a prank Danny was the butt of fifteen years ago. Danny also journeys to Australia and Japan in search of friends. All this travelling always makes me wonder how well Danny does off of the writing of his 'stupid boy projects'. And then I realize he's probably making a decent living off his stupid boy projects, and well, that's pretty damn awesome.

As usual, this is a funny, funny book, which also does make you think. In the era of Facebook, it's easy to find old friends online, but never really have to go farther than that. Danny takes it that step further and reconnects in person, and finds it much more rewarding. It's an interesting idea, but one I doubt I'd launch into.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Not as big a break between the last book and number 23 fortunately. Number 23 of the year is Just Fine the Way it Is: Wyoming Stories 3 by Annie Proulx. As you may surmize from Proulx's rather frequent presence on this list, I'm a fan of hers. I love her blunt, descriptive narrative, especially in her short stories.

Proulx can make Wyoming sound beautiful, but I also don't think she ever romanticizes it; Wyoming's beauty is double-edged, it can take your breath away permanently if you let it.

Most of these stories are quite nearly downright depressing. Most end with unhappiness and anger and death. No matter what some do to appreciate/impose themselves on the landscape of Wyoming, they end up dead for their troubles.

There were a couple of departures here, mainly a couple of short stories about the Devil and his remodelling of Hell. They're quite humourous, especially when Proulx makes mention that she thinks Revenue Canada is FAR scarier than the IRS. She would know, she splits her time between Wyoming and Newfoundland.

Overall, I enjoyed these stories again, and a couple of them really kicked me in the gut, the way Brokeback Mountain did. Which is both a good thing, and a bad thing. Much like Wyoming itself I guess.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Oh sad, so sad, how little I have to add to this list after nearly two months. The thing is, I had something happen to me that doesn't happen often; I started a book and didn't finish it. It was an Arthurian themed book, but I found it so laden with Celtic references that had little to do with anything except that they're there, that the book dragged on and I just couldn't get in to it. It was written by a very prominent Celtic scholar, but honestly, I felt like he was throwing all the Celtic references in there just to show off, not that they added anything.

But that's neither here nor there. I didn't finish a book, instead I lost myself in some re-reads (which I don't count towards my year totals any longer), and have only read one new book in the meantime. Sigh.

Number 22 this year is Orlando by Virginia Woolf. I picked up this book only because I had heard of it before, and because Orlando was one of those used by Alan Moore in his latest League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier. So, when I saw this novel in a used bookstore in Thunder Bay, I grabbed it.

My previous brush with Virginia Woolf took place way back in 2nd year university when I had to read To the Lighthouse for Contemporary Literature. I don't remember much about the book now, I really only remember not particularly liking it very much.

However, I did like Orlando.

Orlando is about a young man born to a wealthy, noble family in England during the reign of Elizabeth I, who decides not to grow old. Strangely enough, he does not (and I don't think it is ever really explained why he doesn't), and he passes through the ages as a young man ... until he wakes up one morning to find that he has metamorphosed into a woman -- the same person, with the same personality and intellect, but in a woman's body. The remaining centuries up to the time the book was written are seen through a woman's eyes.

It's an odd book for sure, but I realized I liked it because of it's slightly weird narrative, which is supposed to be written as a 'biography', but of course, Orlando's voice also comes through very clear and loud. The narrative can be almost stream of concious like as Orlando waxes poetic on... well poetry, or love, or life, etc. But the most fascinating thing about this novel is definitely the gender switch, where previously male Orlando begins to live his life as a woman. She doesn't seem to like being a woman for awhile, but also does come to appreciate the feminine, but, he appreciates it from a male point of view. Which seems strange, given that the book was written by a woman. Even when Orlando has a child, the whole pregnancy and birth are given perhaps a page's worth of mention. For someone such as Orlando, who seemed so caught up in the idea of immortality (not aging, writing something grand and profound), you'd think that leaving behind offspring would be explored more as a form of immortality, but nope, nada.

Anyway, this novel is also very tied up in poetry and literature and the creation of both. Orlando desperately wants to create literature and works on a single poem, the Oak Tree, for hundreds of years, but seemingly never feels it is quite good enough. He/she becomes patrons of various poets and usually always ends up disenchanted with those who create poetry, but nonetheless, she is always drawn back to it. Certain real life poets make appearances as characters as well, and it made me wonder if how they're represented in Orlando is how Woolf herself felt about them.

As I said, I liked Orlando. It felt strangely whimsical without being overly weighty and important. Even though I can, through the strange narrative and the gender/feminist issues, see how important this novel is.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Number 21 is The Dubious Hills by Pamela Dean. Dean wrote one of my all time favourite books Tamlin. I reread that book over and over again. So, because of this long term affection for Tamlin, I've of course read other books by Dean, hoping others have been as good.

They haven't. Basically, I've been pretty disappointed with the rest of her output overall. I wasn't even able to finish The Hidden Country which was about a group of children who find their way into another world (yeah, what SHOULDN'T I like about this conceit?), but the kids are so damn precocious I just couldn't handle them after awhile. So I stopped.

The Dubious Hills also have precocious children, but I was better able to handle them. The main character, Arry is all of fourteen years old and is raising her younger brother Beldi (9) and sister, Con (6). Their parents basically disappeared one day and that was that. Fortunately, the community they live in, the Dubious Hills is a true community, everyone helps everyone and pretty much begrudges no one anything.

This is due to a rather strange spell that was placed on the community ages ago, after a particularly devestating wizards' war. The wizards decided that war could be avoided if no one person had too much knowledge, so they made it that every person in the Dubious Hills would know only about one specific knowledge, or 'province' as they call them. So only one person knows about history, only one person knows about stories, only one can tell if things are beautiful or not, only one can explain the intricacies of language, etc. This makes for a community thoroughly dependent on one another, but strangely, they're not ignorant. They have no problem in admitting they do not know something, because basically, there will be a person who does.

Arry's province is that of pain. Pain is something only she can experience, on behalf of the others, so she can tell them if they are hurt or not. This makes her the Physci, obviously one of the more important provinces of knowledge, and it seems to be a difficult province for one so young to have. But Arry is smart and has had to grow up slightly quicker than she would probably like to, and she is forced to grow up even more when the wolves start coming around.

Like all good fairy tales, there are wolves in this one. And the wolves bring a knowledge of their own, a complete one, where they have lost their specialized knowledge, but now have a wider, more worldly knowledge. One of the wolves, the Hills' teacher, wants everyone in the Hills to follow his path and become a wolf. But not everyone wants this. They are content with what they know. They live in a very peaceful, almost idyllic place. Everyone knows everyone and everyone shares with everyone. This is something the wolf threatens to shatter.

The ending seemed to come from almost nowhere, and I almost wondered how they jumped to the conclusion on how to deal with the wolf, because it was an option that was never really touched on much throughout. Violence wasn't part of their lives (from what I could tell) before the wolves came, so I did wonder how they reached the decision to use it.

Overall though, I did enjoy this book far more than I have her other efforts. Its a well crafted world with an interesting idea (the knowledge provinces) and has that good sense of the familiar but still definitely Other. While I don't love it as much as Tamlin, I may revisit this one again.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

I'm actually a couple of books behind on this, I read two more during my vacation but have yet to write anything. I think that's the first time I've ever fallen behind on the writing, its usually the reading I fall behind on...

ANYWAY! Books 19 and 20 are That Old Ace in the Hole by Anne Proulx and A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway.

That Old Ace in the Hole deals with Bob Dollar, originally from Denver, where he was raised by a junk store owning uncle after his parents basically abandoned him on the uncle's doorstep, trying to find his place in the world. He's finished college and rather aimless (yeah, we've all been there), so he takes a job with Global Pork Rind, a big business pork farming company, scouting out big spreads of land that can be converted to hog farms. He's given a list of instructions by his not very symapthetic new boss (ie. find some place to set up base of operations, find out a little history to the town, don't tell them why you're there, befriend some of the natives, etc.) Soon he''s holed up in a tiny Texas town called Woolybucket, where he settles into LaVon Fronk's old bunkhouse for fifty dollars a month, helps out at Cy Frease''s Old Dog Café, and learns the hard way how vigorously the old Texas ranch owners will hold on to their land, even when their children want no part of it.

It's a novel about history and family and all the ways those are intertwined. Bob's personal history is not easy, but isn't bad either. When his parents abandoned him at age 8, he was taken in by his Uncle Tam, who owns a second hand/junk store. They live upstairs from the store, and are pretty poor, but Tam is kind and good to Bob and never makes his nephew feel like a burden. Bob wonders a lot about his absent parents, but they don't figure too prominently into the story. What Bob though is really looking for, is a place where he feels he belongs.

Once Bob gets to Woolybucket, he immerses himself into the culture of the town, and into the town (and surrounding county), listening to countless stories told to him and reading a journal detailing the first surveying of the surrounding county in the late 1800s. The narrative of the novel is told in lots of flashbacks that aren't really flashbacks, as we get to know the colorful characters of Woolybucket.

As always in a Prouxl novel, the characters are slightly off-kilter, there's lots of strange happenings, a little bit of tragedy, lots of good language, and just plain great description of the landscape. Prouxl's just so good at describing surroundings. The ending of this novel left me feeling kinda... unsatisfied at first. It is basically a happy ending, but at first it felt too pat to me, but once I thought about it, it really wasn't, as it was the logical ending that was being proposed from the beginning, and I, like Bob himself, didn't see that right away. So basically, Anne's yet to let me down.

Number 20 of the year is A Farewell to Arms. Even now, a couple of weeks after finishing this puppy, I realize I don't have much to say about it, even though its a great piece of literature, etc. The thing is, found this book wildly divergent in its tone. It takes place during WWI, on the Italian front, and tells the story of American ambulance driver Lt. Henry, and his love affair with English nurse, Catherine Barkley. Despite there being a war on, Henry seems to have a pretty sweet life. He's living in an Italian villa with others (mainly Italians) fighting the war, in particular a surgeon who is Henry's best friend. He meets Catherine and begins wooing her, and much of the first part of the novel is taken up with going to cafes and drinking wine and teasing the local priest; WWI in Italy sounds nearly idyllic here in comparison to dying in the mud of the trenches on the Western Front. I did find the relationship between Catherine and Henry to be almost... pathetically juvenille and even a little creepy at first. Catherine seems so... desperate for Henry's approval and love that it made me uncomfortable. She seems more invested in the relationship at first than he does.

However, about half way through the novel comes a pretty good shift in tone. The war actually intrudes and then we're reminded how Hemingway is one of the best there is at describing war. Henry is driving at the front when he gets wounded. He sees comrades die, and isn't even entirely sure he'll walk again. He is transferred to a hospital, and so is Catherine. Once again, things become almost idyllic as he and Catherine deepen their relationship (and it becomes very, very physical), and so the tone of their relationship switches too, where I felt that Henry was more invested in it than she was. But maybe that's just because he finally arrived at the emotional place she was, while hers remained unchanged. But, the war intrudes again and Henry is sent back to the front.

At this point, the war is going badly for the Italians and they are facing a hard push by combined Austrian/German forces. They cannot hold the line, and so retreat, but the retreat becomes more disorganized and scary than the actual fighting does, with demoralized men and frightened nationals picking out scapegoats from their own army and executing them for deriliction of duty in mock 'trials'. Henry is singled out for this form of 'justice', but manages to escape. He basically goes AWOL and ends up finding Catherine. At this point, he is done with the war and he and Catherine (who is now pregnant with Henry's child) go to Switzerland (after narrowly avoiding arrest) to await the birth of their child. Their idyllic life returns.

However, honestly, the ending of this novel is so gawdawful depressing that I threw it down with those very words. Yes, sometimes Hemingway likes to end on a down note, like in For Whom the Bell Tolls, although that one didn't feel so down, or on a very up note (literally) in The Sun Also Rises. Needless to say, I preferred both of those books over this one. The ending really did make me not like it.

Monday, July 28, 2008

I"ve been on holidays, so I've managed to read a lot. Yay me :)

Book number 18 for the year is The Knight by the Pool by Sophie Masson. It's a tale of early medieval France, specifically involving the quarrelsome Plantagent family of England, mainly Richard the Lion Heart himself. Although really, this novel is about Marie de France, a young, recently widowed woman who finds herself drawn into the rather magical world of French folklore.

Marie marries kind Hoel of Broceliande (a forest known throught French and Arthurian literature as being extremely magical), a man much older than herself, but loves her deeply and treats her well. Marie is a bit of a dreamer, well educated, with a passion for books. She is fond of Hoel, but does not feel great passion for him. She feels some regret about this, but really cannot figure out how to change how she feels. Their young child dies, and then Hoel himself passes away, and this loss moves Marie into deeper feeling for her family, but that, once again is tinged with guilt.

Deep in the forest though, she comes across a mysterious knight who tells her that she is to be beloved of another, mainly that she will be with Prince Richard of England (he's not king yet). She's not quite certain what to think of this, but does set out to eventually meet up with her brother, and return to her father's lands.

This mystery though, is not the only one surrounding the forest of Broceliande; Hoel's brother went missing in there, and Hoel's family history is wrapped up amongst tales of wolves and transforming beasts. But none of this is really known to Marie.

On her travels, Marie does indeed meet Richard the Lion Hearted, and it is love at first sight for both of them. But embarking on a love affair with a member of the powerful Plantagent family is no easy thing; there is much family betrayal, and Richard is supposed to marry a young, French princess, but none of this matters to Richard, and he swears he will be with Marie. And as far as Marie is concerned, she has found someone who has finally roused her passion.

All in all, this is a rather difficult book to explain, for there are many plot threads, including a betrayal by Marie's cousin, a monestary of nuns, tales of werewolves and shapeshifting and of course, the great French Trickster, Renard.

It is a well done book, the weaving of the folklore and the history of medieval France is very well done. The characters are crisp and interesting, and Masson writes Renard very well. I don't know a lot about French folklore (outside of the French Arthurian connections obviously), so I did find this book very interesting. It's the first of a trilogy, so I would like to find the others and continue on.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Number 17 is Dragon Harper by Anne McCaffery and her son Todd McCaffery. I've been reading the Dragonrider of Pern novels since I was about 14 years old. My father's friend Ray gifted me a box set of the first three novels (Dragonflight, Dragonquest, The White Dragon) for Christmas, and I've loved them ever since, reading my original copies into near tatters. Later, for my 27th birthday, a friend of mine gave me, for my birthday, a trade paperback, collected edition of those books, signed by McCaffery herself. I was touched. I actually haven't read all of the books done under the Dragonriders of Pern aegis; their quality has fallen off some over the years, and well, my first love will always be for the main characters of those first novels (Lessa, F'lar, Robinton etc.) and none of the characters introduced after that (such as the those in the Harper Hall trilogy) have interested me as much, although I did like the tale of Moreta quite a bit.

Anne McCaffery hasn't written as much in recent years, and as of late, it has been her son Todd who has taken over some of the chores (following in Christopher Tolkien's steps as administrator of his famous parent's literary wealth?). Dragon Harper is Todd's fourth book and its... ok really. It was a quick read overall, taking me about half a day's reading, entertaining enough, but definitely not as resonating to me as his mother's earlier works. I think I didn't like this one as much because the plot seemed to me to bit of a rehash of the plot of Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern in that it deals with a Pern-wide influenza pandemic. The only real difference here is that instead of seeing the pandemic mainly from the Weyr's point of view (as in Moreta), we are seeing it mainly from Hold and Harper Hall's pov, throught the eyes of young apprentice harper Kindan. He's a likeable enough character, slightly more mature for his age than he probably should be, but in Pernese society, I"ve often thought that people seem to mature much faster (Pernese society is not quite medieval in structure and thinking, but its not far off either).

The Weyrs and dragonriders are almost absent in this book, as they cannot risk themselves and their dragons so close to a time when Threadfall will once again happen (the next Pass scheduled to begin in a scant 12 years). This story takes place nearly 500 years after Pern was colonized (a story detailed in Dragondawn), and as always, I do find the slight differences interesting. Some information is known at this time (ie that they WERE colonized), fire-lizards are known and common, as is the practice of timing it (where dragons and their riders can time travel into the past). These things are unknown by the time we get to the original trilogy. But overall, Pernese society hasn't really changed much in the thousands of years between Pern's colonization and the events Lessa and F'lar live through in Dragonflight. While this is probably not very realistic (would society really remain that stagnat?), it is rather comforting; I want to read my Pernese stories as recognizable Pern stories with heroes and dragons and whatnot. A Pern story wouldn't be a Pern story if there's all of a sudden cities and non-dragon powered flight; that's not what I signed up for.

So, Dragonharper isn't spectacular, but its still not a bad sojourn back to one of my favourite worlds.
Number 16 is I Am Legend and other stories by Richard Matheson. I've seen both I Am Legend, starring Will Smith, and Omega Man, starring the late Charlton Heston, but I've never read the novella both were based upon. I think I hadn't read it mainly due to the subject matter; based on the movies, I had thought I Am Legend dealt with a post-apocalyptic world filled with zombies, and I don't deal well with post-apocalytpic worlds filled with zombies. It's the one horror genre that consistently freaks me out. I don't like the nihilism of it, for even if the film ends with 'hope', I can never get past the idea that any small victory is still a phyrric victory; can the survivors really ever win? Anyway, despite this, I decided to pick up the actual story and read it, mainly based on a fact I'd never realized before; the creatures that Robert Neville, as the last, surviving human faces, are not zombies, but vampires. For some reason, this simple shift in monster made the tale a little more palatable for me.

So, the two movies based on this story are there in spirit, but there are quite a few differences of course. We see Matheson's Neville in different snapshots of his solitary life, the first being three months after the last of the plague victims have turned and risen again, the second a year later, and the final one, three years later. We see him at differing points of despair, loneliness, hope, isolation and then resignation. In the beginning, he drinks a lot, hunts the victims of the plague (whom we learn are of two varities, those who are out and out vampires, and those who simply carry the disease and are really still technically 'alive'), but he must return to his barracaded home every night, to wait out the darkness for that is when the vampires come looking for him. They taunt him to come outside, and sometimes, he wonders why he holds on and doesn't simply join them, die and hopefully be reunited with his dead wife and daughter. But something keeps Neville going, and he begins to research the whole 'plague', which was actually spread by real vampires, and finds out it is caused by a bacteria in the blood stream, that needs blood to survive. Neville tries and tries to figure it out, but he (unlike Will Smith's version) is not a scientist, so he finds his ability to figure out a cure is limited.
The second time we see Neville, not much has changed, except his drive to figure out how to save humanity is obviously what saved him from drowning himself in alcoholic self-pity, but suddenly Neville finds himself consumed with a task; he discovers another survivor, and he must convince this survivor to come to him. The survivor is a mangy dog, who has obviously been on his own for quite some time, and doesn't trust his former 'masters', who, if he was caught by them, would be consumed by them for his blood. But Neville is desperate for the company, and tries again and again to have the dog befriend him. The relation between human survivor and canine survivor was an excellent part of the Will Smith movie, and in the book, it is just as heart wrenching, and it ends just as sadly.
The third time we see Neville, its has been three years since he last saw a person who didn't want to drain him of blood. He has hit a wall; he is (due to lots of experimentation on the afflicted) quite sure of what causes the plague and how it is transmitted, but he still has not been able to cure it. We learn more of Neville's background through flashbacks, but the caring, loving man he once was has disappeared; he has been alone for so long, he's forgotten a lot of those feelings. This is displayed in spades when he sees the last thing he ever thinks he'll see, a woman, in daylight, aparantly healthy. At first he is so shocked (as is she) that he's quite sure she isn't real, but when he figures she is, he chases after her, for she flees him, equally unsure of him. He brings her home, but he is instantly wary of her story, that she and her husband had survived, that he was killed only a week ago, and she had been roaming ever since. Relying on his survival instincts for so long, Neville cannot put them aside and enjoy the company of another person.
I don't want to give away too much, for the ending of the story is at once very different, and in some ways, slightly similar to the Will Smith movie. It is a phyrric victory ending though, leaving me feeling definitely uncomfortable.
The funny thing about this story though, is that reading this, I could easily understand the casting of Charlton Hestin as Neville in Omega Man; Matheson's Neville had a very Hestin-like quality to him.

I also enjoyed the other stories in this collection, especially Prey (which I actually recall seeing a movie version of when I was younger, and the sight of the protaganist hudled in the bathroom while the tribal doll tries to get at her from underneath the door has stayed with me till this day. I got a very delicious tremor of fearful recognition when I realized this was the same story), Dance of the Dead, The Funeral (I loved the notion of vampires and their horror monster collegues wanting to have funerals for themselves) and From Shadowed Places, a lovely collision of Western and African sensibilites that was also a very powerful story on prejudice.

After reading all these, I can easily see why Stephen King lists Richard Matheson as a major influence on his writing.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Number 15 of the year is about bananas. Like lots of people, I eat a lot of bananas. My husband puts them into our smoothies most mornings and I love to make banana bread. True, I don't really like banana flavoured things, but I do enjoy the actual banana. And like lots of people, I've never really thought about where all these bananas I eat came from.

With the book Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World by Dan Koeppel, I now know exactly where my bananas have come from, and that its not necessarily good.

Once again, I've heard the term 'banana republic' numerous, numerous times over my life. Heck, I've used the term. Heck, I've shopped in the ubiquitous store of the same name. It's a generic term for a small, ill-governed, (usually) South American country. But once again, I never gave much thought as to where the term came from. Well this book educated me in no uncertain terms, and I'm now really, really glad that the bananas I receive in my weekly shipment from the CSA I belong to, are fare-trade.

This book is an interesting companion almost, to Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine and Pollock's In Defense of Food as this book talks about the evils done by governments and corporations (those that became Chiquita, Dole, Del Monte, etc) done to small, South American countries all in the name of growing bananas, and now, how the only way the banana may survive, is by making it entirely dependent on food science.

This book made me think about the genetic manipulation of food more so than anything else, and, as he points out in the book, like most people, I get very uncomfortable with the idea that any food I eat might have been genetically manipulated. But the thing with bananas is that they the kind we eat, the Cavendish variety, is sterile, it doesn't breed like a normal plant, rather it is basically 'cloned', but taking clippings of one plant and growing nearly identical plants from that. This is the only method of banana plant reproduction. This is fine except for a few things, one of the main one being that since the plants are all the same, they are not very hardy and are very susceptible to things. There are certain diseases out there that are busily wiping out banana plantations across the globe, threatening the banana that millions of us eat. What makes it even worse is that, while we (i.e. the Western world) could make due without our daily banana in our cereal, there are millions in countries in Africa who rely on the banana as a sustience staple, as much as some rely on wheat or rice. But this staple is also under attack, and perhaps the only way to save this fruit and the millions of lives that depend on it, is to genetically modify the banana to resist the crippling diseases and other drawbacks. But these bananas would be developed in a lab, and this makes so many uneasy.

This book is packed full of information; the history of the banana, the history of the fruit companies and the countries they helped basically destroy in order to grow numerous, cheap bananas; and of course, the uncertain future of the banana. One thing is for sure, I'll never take another banana for granted again.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Sheesh. Over a month since my last post. I got completely bogged down by a thick, studious book about the Holy Grail in North America. It's interesting, but a bit of a tough slog. I finally 'gave up' (not really 'cause I'm still reading it) and decided to pick something better (and quicker) to read on the subway and whatnot. So number 14 of this year is Those Who Walk Away by Patricia Highsmith.

I've never read any of her stuff before, but like most, I have seen the movie version of The Talented Mr. Ripley. This book was one of those tossed on my nightstand by my husband when I complained I had nothing to read. I'd forgotten about it for awhile, but found it, realized it wouldn't take me long to read, and gave it a shot.

The crux of the novel is a cat and mouse game between Ray Garrett and his (former) father in law, Ed Coleman. Ray's wife (and Coleman's daughter) has recently committed suicide, and both men are blaming Ray for her death. Ray blames himself in that he didn't recognize signs of her depression and because he was out of the house on the day it happened; whereas Coleman blames Ray as he thinks he was the root cause of Peggy's suicide. Coleman firmly believes that had Peggy not married Ray, she'd still be alive.

Ray wants only to explain his side of things to Coleman. That Peggy was... immature in a lot of ways. She wanted to experience life, but kept thinking there was 'more' to it; more to life, more to painting, more to sex, just more. And whenever there wasn't more, when reality set in, Peggy became more and more disappointed and Ray just wasn't sure what to do with her diappointment as he felt they had a good life. And they did. They had money, happiness (well, at first), and goals. But none of this was enough for Peggy.

The book starts off in Rome, with Ray wanting to 'explain' things to Coleman. But Coleman's not really interested in listening to explanations, and instead, takes a shot at Ray and runs off, believing his son-in-law dead.

But Ray survives, and continues to come back for more. The story moves to Venice, and Ray follows Ed there. But Ed, not exactly thrilled to see Ray, consents to meet with him again, but after the dinner party (complete with witnesses as to Ray and Ed talking), Ed pushes Ray out of a boat into frigid water, and once again leaves him for dead.

But once again, Ray survives. He also finally realizes confronting Ed again may not be the wisest idea. He plays 'dead' for awhile, trying to figure out his next move, and starts shadowing Coleman. In the meantime though, Coleman is quite pleased with himself. His complete and utter contempt for his former son-in-law is quite aparent, and he had no qualms of conscience about killing him. He obviously sees Ray's life as (inadequate) payment for Peggy's, and is fine with this. However, Coleman's compainions (including his lady friend) start to wonder if Ed did have something to do with Ray's disappearance. Eventually, Coleman does see Ray tailing him, and the whole thing begins again.

I liked Highsmith's narrative structure, where she basically alternates chapters told from the POV of either Coleman or Ray. This structure really lends itself to the cat-mouse feeling of the book as we get inside the heads of these two men, and no one else really. Its not that the secondary characters aren't fleshed out, its just that really, they're not as important. This is all about what's going through the minds of Coleman and Ray, and I appreciate Highsmith for not straying from that.

The characters of Ray and Coleman are well done and vastly differnt. Ray is a young man, confused about what's happend regarding his wife's suicide and feeling desperately guilty about it. He's not exactly a strong-willed person, he comes from a wealthy family and he smacks a bit of that priviledged helplessnes, but he does seem earnest (although at times overly so). In general, he comes across as very, very lost.

Coleman, on the other hand, is happy to let his grief come out as anger. He wants to lash out at the only person he can see is to blame for Peggy's death, and that's Ray. So when Ray tries to explain that Coleman is partly to blame (due to Peggy's sheltered upbringing), this pushes him even more into the idea that the only way he'll get peace is to kill Ray. Coleman is more of a self-made man than Ray is. He's not overly wealthy, but a painter of some talent, however, he does have a talent for hooking up with wealthy, widowed women (of his own age, obviously) who contribute to his upkeeping. However, as Coleman does have some money of his own, it doesn't feel like he's completely taking advantage of his latest lady-friend. You get the idea though that Coleman was a completely moral person, but his loss has driven him to contemplate (and attempt) a rather un-moral plan of action.

I also liked Highsmith's writing style; its rather economical and definitley a desendent of the hark-boiled approach of early crime writers like Dashiell Hammett. She doesn't go out of her way to describe things (despite the setting being Venice, a place where you'd figure lots of description would be appropriate), and she also manages to make Venice sound way less glamorous than you'd expect, and this ties into the story nicely.

I liked this book quite a bit, and would be willing to check out a few more of her offerings.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Lucky number 13 is Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro.

Had a slight problem with this book, got to page 136, half way through a story, when bam, I noticed that the next page was 189. Missing pages! What the hell??? So, I discovered this on the weekend, didn't really have time to head over to Chapters (which is where I bought it and fortunately I did find the receipt), so I would've finished this sucker on the weekend, rather than yesterday, had I not hit this snag. Yesterday after work, headed to the Chapters I bought it at, returned it, and promptly found out that they didn't have any more copies in stock. Sigh. Fortunately, headed over to local bookstore Pages, and they did have a copy. So yeah, went home and finished reading.

As usual, this is a collection of short stories. I love Alice Munro's short stories. There's always something wonderfully off kilter about them, even though they're about pretty mundane things. Her collections often have a theme through them (or at least, I shoehorn one on them), and this one seemed to be marital strife. A lot of the stories had the protaganist divorced, or embarking on an affair, or running away from an unhappy union or, or widowed, or, in the last story, having to suffer through a loved one not recognizing their partner due to the ravages of Alzheimers (and yes, you may recognize this story as the basis for Sarah Polley's recent movie; Away From Her).

As usual, the reactions to these various characters and their various reasons for what they do are mixed; understanding, incredulousness, sadness, pity and even some revultion in one story.

The last story, The Bear Went Over the Mountain, is indeed a bit of a tearjerker. The husband is revealed to be a bit of a cad, but one who does deeply love his wife and had never dreamed of leaving her despite his numerous indiscretions. But due to the Alzheimers, she leaves him. In the home he is forced to put her in, she strikes up a deep relationship with another of the home's residents, and she doesn't remember her real husband at all, no matter how many times he comes to visit her. It's hard not to feel sorry for her husband, so doggedly visiting, hoping for her return, witnessing her 'affair' first hand, but there's also a little bit like, well, why did he cheat on her in the first place though, and is what's happening now almost a little karmic pay back? The story actually does end as happily as it can, given the circumstances.

Really enjoyed this collection.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Number 12 is In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto by Michael Pollan. Awhile ago, I saw Pollan being interviewed on George Stombopolous' The Hour, and I was immediately struck by his manifesto, "Eat food. Not too much. Mainly plants." It was a deceivingly simple manifesto, one that makes complete sense, and really, shouldn't have to pointed out to you. But in this day and age, the age of 'nutritionism' (a term that Pollan makes use of again and again) and the complete, industrialization and productization of our food, it is harder and harder to eat 'food', that is, non-packaged, non-synthetic, non-monkeyed with food.

Pollan looks closely at the decline of the Western Diet, and how our scientific approach to it, to the identification of nutrients and our idea that our diets should do without some things (such as fats), has made North Americans very nearly the most unhealthy eaters on the planet. He shows that in trying to analyze food, and in trying to replicate and replace in our diet what our industrialization of our diet has taken out has made us overweight and undernourished. He shows that food companies don't make any money off of whole foods (the kind we should be eating), but have gone through great lengths to prove to us that eating their products will make us healthier. With type-2 diabetes, heart disease and other aliments of the Western Diet running rampant in our population, its obvious that something isn't working and that we are not eating properly.

Its a scary book in some ways, as you realize just how far reaching the industrialization of our diet has gone; even if we do strive to stick to the outer rim in a supermarket (as Pollan says, this is where you will find food, going into the aisles of a grocery store will lead you into non-food territory), even that food is no longer the food our grandmother's or great-grandmothers ate. There are less nutrients in most of the produce and meat we eat today as the produce are bred for their greater yeild, not their nutritional value, and cattle and other animals are mass-raised on poorer corn-based feed, meaning that they're not as healthy as they used to be either. Pollan points out that it will now take eating three apples to gain the iron content of just one apple from our great-grandmothers' era. Scary indeed.

Pollan advocates getting out of the supermarket altogether. He recognizes that this is easier said than done, but also points out, that for the first time since the heavy duty industrialization of our diet became commonplace, that we have more choices. Farmers' markets and ordering boxes of fresh produce to be delivered are excellent ways to ensure that your food is real, is more diverse and is local. All three of which are important. He's also a huge advocate of growing your own, and I can completely understand why.

This book makes you examine your own diet very closely. My husband and I are compulsive label readers. Anything with even a trace of trans fats in it is ignored. We have, for quite awhile now, avoided the aisles of the supermarket. Of course, being the cereal hounds we are though, we cannot completely avoid it, but we're down to buying cereals with less than five ingrediants on the list. With things like Cheerios, Shredded Wheat and even Mini-Wheats, we're doing ok on the cereal front. But other than that, we're pretty good. Oh, we all still have our weaknesses, G's never going to be able to completely give up chips and I'm never going to completely kick my Coke habit, but I've also got him eating way more fruit and veggies than he used to, and he's got me more interested in cooking than I ever was in the past. Pollan also stresses that cooking for yourself, from scratch, gives you nearly omniscient control of what you're eating. You're not adding trans fats or monsaturatedglucose whathave you to your meal (unless you're starting with something pre-packaged, and well, that's not cooking), so you can be sure of what you're putting into your body. Anyway, I know we're not perfect eaters, but we're pretty darn good overall, but this book still made us realize we could be doing more.

Pollan says he knows his manifesto is simple. He never thought he would have to say it as he never thought he would have to defend food. But this book points out that food is under assault, and that unless we do go back to the basics, well, we're under assault too.

Now I'm thinking I must go and start planning a vegetable garden in my backyard.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Number 11. Thud! by Terry Pratchett. I used to read a lot of Pratchett's Disc World fare. They're fun, have excellent internal consistency and a lovely sense of humour. In some ways though, Pratchett's like the Grisham or King of the fantasy set; he churns them out and they're good, but that's about it.

I haven't read a Disc World novel for awhile. It wasn't that I grew out of them, but I did start to think they were becoming a little... boring. They were also starting to resemble Law & Order 'ripped from the headlines' episodes, where Pratchett would take something topical from our world and fit it into his world. And there's nothing wrong with that; fantasy as a genre (and science-fiction as well) is often about viewing our world through the lens of another; Tolkien himself was often queried if his Lord of the Rings was a thinly veiled allegory of WWII (he denied this).

I've also, through all my Disc World readings, realized that my favourite group of characters to read about are the Watch. Oh sure, I like the witches, and I like the wizards of the Unseen University, the Watch of Ankh-Morpork are my favourite characters. Probably because overall, I do love a good police procedural. I love the character of Sam Vimes, Commander of the Watch. He's a good cop, through and through, but he's also a Duke (through marriage) and a family man and I do like how Pratchett's actually grown the character a bit over the years, yet still lets him remain true to his inner 'copdom'.

Thud! is a bit of an amalgam of influences. There's some Da Vinci Code stuff going on, as well as a lot of racial tensions and religious extremism. It's long been established on Disc World that trolls and dwarves don't get along with one another. There was a historic battle at Koom Valley (where the dwarves may have ambushed the trolls, or the trolls may have ambushed the dwarves) that ended with everyone dead, and it is, unfortunately, celebrated every year. And by celebrate, they mean that tensions between the dwarves and the trolls get ugly, and even in cosmopolitan Anhk-Morpork, there are clashes between the two.

The anniversary of Koom Valley is almost upon Disc World again, and Commander Sam Vimes and his Watch are trying to deal with everything that means. Adding fuel to the fire this time though are the preachings of 'deep-downers', fantatical dwarves who never leave the mines beneath the mountains, and if they do, they swarth themselves from head to toe in black, lest the light corrupt them. They are known as Grags, and they are the foremost interpreters of the stuff Tak wrote, Tak being the dwarven equivalent of a god. One of the Grags in particular preaches for wiping out of all trolls, saying its like doing them a favour because trolls are too stupid to live. Hamcrusher is very vocal, and is gaining a lot of listeners in Ankh-Morpork, much to the dislike of Vimes, and the city's troll population of course. Now, when Hamcrusher turns up dead and the Grags' 'interpreter' Ardent says a troll did it, well, Vimes realized he could be facing an honest to goodness race war in his city. As this could interfere with his daily, 6 o'clock sharp reading of 'Where's My Cow' to his young son, Vimes is increadibly unhappy.

What follows is a very intricate mystery that includes a gigantic painting of the Battle of Koom Valley (which may or may not point to a hidden treasure), a huge mine dug out beneath Ankh-Morpork, missing miners, a drug-additcted troll witness, mysterious and dangerous dwarf signs that have perhaps awoken an ancient, dwarf curse, and a troll made of diamond, who could just very well be the Troll King. I found this to actually be one of Pratchett's deepest (forgive the pun) books as it really does tackle racism and fanaticism very well. Even down to the moments between Sgt. Angua (werewolf) and Lance-Constable Sally (vampire) where they try to overcome their prejudices against one another; all are handled well. And then ending, even if you're like Vimes and aren't into all that 'mystical stuff', is well done and not trite.

I think this is probably the Disc World novel I've enjoyed the most since Hogfather.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Numeral X. The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs.

A.J. Jacobs is a writer for Esquire magazine. He has a previously published book called The Know it All which chronicles his attempt to read the entire Encylcopeida Britannica. He is a man who will go to extremes for his craft. He's a New Yorker, technically Jewish, but he goes through great pains to tell his readers that he is a very secular Jew, one for whom his religion hasn't figured very greatly in his life, he has long labeled himself as agnostic, but one day, he gets it into his head that for one year, he will live his life by taking the Bible as literally as possible.

His idea grew from a story he was told about an ex-uncle of his, uncle Gil, a man whom the family treats as a bit of a boogey man, someone whom has dabbled in many religions (Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism), and has in fact been a leader of a couple of honest to goodness cults. He was married to Jacobs' one Orthodox Jew aunt, and the family is overall very happy that Uncle Gil is no longer in the family. But Jacobs hears that one day, Uncle Gil decided to live the Bible literally, and from this story, A.J.'s decision is born.

It's harder than he thought, especially since some of the laws make no sense whatsoever, and some are very exclusionary. Of course, he finds all the big ones (the 10 commandments), but he finds a lot of smaller ones, about not wearing clothes of mixed fibres and wearing tassles on your clothes, and of course, all the various things you can not, or should not eat.

He has help of course, and consults all sorts of people; rabbis, Christian preachers, Creationsists, even (in a visit that is funny but also a little disturbing) the infamous Uncle Gil.

He grows his beard, he begins to wear only white, he starts to resemble those that get stared at regularly in NYC. And yet, through it all, he definitely starts to feel more spiritual, and he starts to feel kindred with those who are also spiritual; there's a lovely moment where he's on the subway, and across from him is sitting a Buddhist Monk, and they exchange a knowing nod; they understand where the other is coming from.

Of course, A.J. isn't perfect. He has problems getting rid of all the little white lies we tell daily. He doesn't like the whole treating your wife as unclean during her period (nor is his wife a big fan of this), but as someone who is a bit of a germ a phobe, he's ok with the not touching people he doesn't really know for fear of their being unclean.

He has a harder time with the New Testament section, he comes to admire Jesus and his teachings, but of course, he doesn't come to accept him as his saviour, but he thinks the man had some good things to say.

It is a very fascinating journey he's on and it does affect him in positive ways. He learns to let go of a lot of the anger we all have at small things throughout our day. He feels more peaceful. He becomes a big fan of the thanksgiving type prayers. He comes to a greater understanding of why people worship. He doesn't always agree with it, but he starts to understand it more. And through his journey, I think we do too. He makes the Bible sound like a very interesting place, where lots of good things are said, but well, he also points out how things are interpreted or misinterpreted. He cannot seem to fully grasp fundamentalism because we can never fully grasp the intent of God's words.

By the end of it, A.J is still agnostic, but he has become what one of his advisors calls a 'reverent agnostic', that whether or not there is a God, he does believe in the sacred. He believes in the sacredness of Life, the sacredness of the Sabbath and the ritual of prayer. It makes the everyday more transcendent.

And I think that's a nice way to look at it.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Number 9 of 2008 is The Island of the Sequined Love Nun by Christopher Moore. You got to hand it to Moore, he comes up with the greatest titles.

The other thing you have to give to Moore is that, despite writing really funny books, he also manages to imbibe them with some rather dark moments that don't manage to completely wreck the tone of the book, but rather contribute to the overall sense of zany. And Moore's books are zany. They're zany but strangely plausible. The man's brilliant.

In this book we meet Tucker Chase, 'geek in a cool guy's body'. Chase seems to be a bit of a loser, a womanizing drunkard who's background story sounds strangely like Hamlet's (but without the whole Danish royalty thing); a good looking guy who seems to just float through life. When we meet Tuck, he's romancing a girl in an airport bar. Tucker's managed to find a gig as a private pilot for the head honcho of a cosmetics company (Mary Jean a thinly veiled Mary Kay), but within the first chapter, he completely blows this as he takes the girl for a tryst on the company Learjet, crashes it and gravely injures his man parts in the process. Mary Jean, not wanting to deal with the negative press Tucker has so kindly provided for her, 'disappears' Tucker to a tiny island in Micronesia, where he will now be a pilot for a Methodist missionary, flying medical supplies to and from Japan.

So Tucker, after surviving a typhoon in a row boat with only a (talking) fruitbat and the last navigator, a transvestite named Kimi, finds himself on his new home, a tiny island called Alualu; home to Dr. Sebastian Curtis and his wife Beth, a bunch of ninjas and the island's idingenous folks, the Shark People.

The Shark People are a little primitive, living on a rather sequestered island, but the Western World forcibly forced itself on them during WWII, when the Japanese built a small outpost and airfield on the island, and then the Americans took it from them. Due to these experiences, the Shark People have become what's called a 'cargo cult', the worship the American airman (a flyboy named Vincent) as a god who delivered them from the Japanese, and who gives them treasures from the Sky Priestess (Vincent's plane).

But it doesn't take long for Tucker to see that all is not right on AlauAlau. He is paid an exhorberant amount of money to take Beth Curtis to Japan where she drops off a small cooler and then heads right back. And when Tucker sees Beth's performance as the Sky Priestess (the Sequined Love Nun of the title), where she 'chooses' one of the Shark People, well, Tucker knows he has to figure out what's going on. Of course, this urge to know also stems from the fact that he's not allowed to drink and he's bored.

But somehow, Tucker knows that the Shark People are being exploited, he's just not sure how. He and his navigator Kimi befriend the Shark People, and he soon discovers just how badly the Curtis' are exploiting the Shark People, they're harvesting organs from them and selling them in Japan. Something awakes in the normally selfish, sodden and pitiful Tucker, and he realizes that he must help these people.

And help them he does. In an extremely over the top ending (which is something Moore does so very, very well), Tucker steals a 747 (no, he doesn't hijack it, there's an important distinction) and relocates the entire tribe of Shark People. It's all terribly satisfying.

Tucker Chase is a great character in the mold of 'pretty normal guy that has all sorts of weird shit happen to him and still manages to come out all right'. His exploits are fun because they are so bizarre and you really can't help but wonder how he's going to get out of it. True he's a pilot, but that really is the only remarkable skill about Tucker Chase. He's not a spy, he's not a ninja, and other than his ability to get into trouble, he's pretty unremarkable. But still, by the end of the book, he has grown as a character. Not hugely so, but just enough.

It's a fun book, like all Moore's books, complete with good lines, laugh out loud sections and improbable action scenes. They're always a good read.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Ick. Number 8 this year took me far too long to slog through. It was The Language of Stones, by Robert Carter.

This is a slightly off-kilter telling of a re-born Arthur, one who shows up at the beginning of the War of the Roses in the 1300s. It has a Merlyn-type character, called Gwydion here, who has hidden away his reincarnated Arthur, a boy called Willand, in an unassuming place in what sounds like the north of England.

Now, the thing is, aside from using some actual dramatis personale from the War of the Roses (i.e. Henry VI), Carter doesn't use any real place names, and I found this hugely distracting as I was constantly trying to figure out WHERE the hell they were in this place. Had I known that the author explains this and gives you a bit of a 'key' in an afterword, I would've read that first and not been so distracted. Damn.

Carter also has a hate-on for the Catholic church. Not that he calls it the Catholic church, but that's definitely what it is. He states that it 'enslaves minds' and 'keeps the poor poor and enthralled to promises that never come true'. Which is all very true. He makes the Church sound truly scary though, and I did appreciate that.

So basically, the gist of the story is that Willand is a Child of Destiny, a reincarnation of Great Arthur (who has come back twice before) destined to save the world basically. In this case though, Willand doesn't seem destined to be king, nor to be a warrior, he is more... wizard like than anything. But, Willand does seem to have a natural harmony with the land (a theme often seen in Celtic and Arthurian legends, where the king is a relflection of the land itself), and he hones this and uses it to find the 'battlestones' that Gwydion says are scattered throughout the land. These battlestones (and their opposing 'good' stones) have been corrupted over centuries, by having the mana flow through the natural ley lines disturbed (mainly by the building of Roman roads, cutting off the natural flow) and these battlestones are now holding a great deal of harm, and projecting this harm so that the country itself is poised on the brink of war. So Gwydion and Willand traverse the country trying to find and neutralize these battle stones before war starts.

They aren't quite successful, for there is a huge battle at one point where the rebel troops (those of the house of York, the rightful ruling family) massacre the troops of the king (the house of Lancaster, the family of the usurper Henry IV), but Willand manages to shatter the Doomstone and avoid the worst of it.

Its an interesting book and the dynamic between Willand and Gwydion is a good one, Willand being quite reminiscent of Wart from a Once and Future King, and the idea of mana flow and ley lines is done very well, but it does start to suffer from techo-babble syndrome after awhile, where they go into so much detail that I just skip over it and block it out. It might actually be magical, but its still babble after awhile if you get bogged down in the details.

There are other books in this series, but I haven't decided if I want to read them yet.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Last night, I blew through a silly Harlequin romance novel (and I use that word lightly) in about an hour, so I admit, I am loathe to count it towards my tally. Not only was it very short, but I also wasn't reading it very closely, more like... scanning the pages. And no, I wasn't rushing to the sex scenes, I kinda scanned through those too.

So, why did I bother reading it? Because Nat lent it to me, it was on my bedside table and I was too lazy to get out of my nice, warm, cozy bed to get the actual book I'm reading, which was in my purse in the living room. Yup, I'm THAT lazy :)

Therefore, A Night With the Boss, written by Natalie Somebodyorother (sorry, forgot her last name) will be book 7.5 for the year. Heh.

It's your basic Harlequin, girl meets boy, girl has all sorts of reasons not to be with boy, they end up together anyway, break up for awhile and (here's the twist!) girl ends up pregnant, but they plan to get married at the end and live happily ever after. Nothing ground breaking or earth shattering happening here.

I admit, it did amuse me on the level that, well, I also dated someone I worked with. No, not my boss, but still, I did find some... universal similarties in the whole idea of inter-office dating. The keeping it low key thing, the whole trying to avoid the office gossip but knowing full well people are talking anyway thing, yeah, we had all that too. And yes, I did end up marrying my workplace romance, and we are living happily ever after. Heh.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Book 7 is The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. This is the first novel of her's that I've read, previously I've only been exposed to her short stories, and this only came about because I loved Brokeback Mountain so much, which was in her Close Range collection of short stories. So, I wasn't quite sure what to expect from a full-length novel of hers.

The Shipping News won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1994, so obviously some people thought it was a good book. And they are right, for I did enjoy it. I've often thought Proulx to be an American version of Alice Munro, another author whose short stories I really enjoy. Both are excellent at conveying a very set time and space, both portray small town life and all the quirks of character and life that go with it, and both have an... off-kilter style of writing that can sometimes leave you feeling... almost uncomfortable. But anyway, I bring Alice Munro up here as a comparison simply because she sets her stories in small town Canada (usually Ontario), whereas most of Proulx's stories I've read use Wyoming as a backdrop. But with the Shipping News, Proulx journeys to Canada as well.

The novel is set (mostly) in a small fishing village in Newfoundland. It is very much a 'fish out of water' tale, the main character, a rather pathetic individual named Quoyle, is taken advantage by pretty much everyone in his life. He doesn't have the best relationship with his family (his parents don't seem to really support him much, and the brother sounds abusive in that way siblings can be), he is repeatedly hired and fired from his job at a local newspaper, and his wife makes no secret of cheating on him and basically abandoning him to look after their two little girls, whom Quoyle dotes on. Problem is, he also dotes on his nasty wife, whom he always thinks will calm down and return the burning love he has for her. It's all quite sad really.

But Quoyle's life begins to change when his parents participate in a sucide pact (father loses his job and they have no savings), his horrible wife dies in a car accident (after kidnapping the two girls and selling them to a pedophile for a few grand) and Quoyle's tough old bird aunt arrives in his life and convinces him to accompany her to their family's ancestral home in Newfoundland. Acquring a job there in record time and realizing that there is nothing for him in the States, he agrees.

Slowly but surely, Quoyle does put his life together. He becomes good at his job (writing the Shipping News column for the local paper), his parenting skills are actually quite good, he is accepted by the town (he actually has a group of friends) and he slowly, but surely finds love with townie Wavey, whose treatment by her husband sounds rather reminiscent of Quoyle's treatment by his wife.

Proulx does a great job of portraying Newfoundland. She doesn't shy away from the social problems of living there, the lack of jobs due to government mishandling of our fisheries resources, the sexual abuse (this story was written not long after the Mount Cashel Orphanage story was already well known across Canada) and just the hardships associated with living on the Rock.

It's a hard place to live all right, constant storms, not a lot of arrable land, the fish stock so many of them depended upon pretty much depleted, and it would be easy to see that these people might be depressed or hopeless, but they're not. They're resourceful and they're pretty darn happy overall, and pretty fiercly devoted to their way of life. Its not a stubborn devotion either, but one fueled by love.

This book actually has a happy ending. Which kinda suprised me as so mahy of Proulx's short stories, well, they end badly. But here, things started badly and ended well, with a lot of weirdness on the way.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Books 5 and 6 this year are also by John Varley, the continuation of the Titan series, Wizard and Demon.

I enjoyed these books obviously enough to continue reading them, but they weren't... great.

In Wizard, we continue the story of earth-born astronaut, Cirroco Jones, and her sidekick, Gaby Plauget, about 100 years after the events of Titan. Cirroco is well-established in her role as Gaea's Wizard, basically being more of the public face of Gaea's 'rule' amongst the people of Gaea. Cirroco's most important, and soul-sucking, role though, is that she is the arbitrator of who amongst the Titanides are allowed to breed. In order to keep the Titanide population under some form of control (as they have no natural predators, they would quickly overrun Gaea if they were allowed to breed unchecked. So, every year or so, the Titanides hold elaborate 'Carnivals', where they all present Cirroco with their breeding plans (Titanide genetics are extremely complicated given that Titanides have both male and female genetalia, and Varley seems inordiantely pleased to explain just how complicated this whole thing is) and she decides who's breeding plan will produce the strongest offspring, and these pairings (or quartets or whathave you) are rewarded with a 'fertilized' egg. But the weight of having an entire species depend upon her for their existence has taken its toll on Cirroco, and she spends much of her time drunk so as not to have to deal with the pain she causes most of the race in denying them their right to procreate.

So this is the state that two newcomers to Gaea, Chris Major and Robin, find Cirroco in when they arrive. Both Chris and Robin have come to Gaea to be cured of their mental afflictions. Chris seems to be a bit schizophrenic, he has episodes where he can't remember what he did, but basically, during these episodes, he looses all his inhibitions and can become rather dangerous. Robin, a young woman from an all lesbian outpost called the Coven that is in Earth orbit, seems to have a severe case of epliepsy. Both of them have an audience with Gaea, where she basically tells them that she will cure them, but they have to do something 'heroic' first. Gaea only rewards heroes.

Chris and Robin set off on an epic journey with Cirroco and Gaby to basically circumnavigate Gaea, as Cirroco, in her duties as Wizard, must touch base now and then with Gaea's 'sub-ordinate' brains, one governor for each region. Some of these regional brains are now openly hostile to Gaea (the one called Oceanus having led a rebellion against Gaea some eons ago), while others are allies of Gaea, and some are just insane at this point. But Cirroco must visit them all, and it turns out they are being visited for another reason as well, Cirroco and Gaby are thinking about instituting their own rebellion and would like Chris and Robin to be a part of it.

So, its basically another epic journey where we learn more about Gaea (specifically her regional brains), meet some new Gaean creations (buzz-bombs, which are like organic, WWII fighter planes) and are given yet more insight into Titanide sexual practices, including human-titanide relations. Also along the way, a main character is killed and Cirroco resigns her position as Wizard, killing Gaea's 'earth mother' incarnation of herself.

Book three in the series, Demon starts on Earth, where a particularly vicious nuclear war is raging, killing most of the Earth's population and rendering the planet pretty uninhabitable. No one really knows how or why the War began, but it doesn't really show any signs of stopping. We meet Conal, a young Canadian who is going to Gaea for one purpose; to kill Cirroco Jones.

He doesn't manage to do this of course, in fact, he finds Cirroco fairly quickly, but she gets the best of him, and after a round of 'torture', she also wins his undying loyalty. Cirroco is no longer the Wizard of Gaea, she is now in fact Gaea's sworn enemy, and given how insane and senile Gaea's acting of late, this is probably a good move. Gaea has become obsessed with movie making and watching Earth movies. She has adopted, as her latest incarnation, the form of a 50ft tall Marilyn Monroe, sexy and frightening at the same time. She has created countless new creatures all for the purpose of making movies. She doesn't seem to care about anything else. Cirroco knows Gaea must be removed.

Rejoining us again is Robin, this time with her two children in tow; Nova, 19 and Adam, 18 months old. Both are basically 'virgin' births, as Robin went back to the Coven, where everyone is a lesbian. But the fact that Adam is a boy is problematic and he (and Robin) are viewed as abominations. Knowing that Gaea is somehow responsible for both pregnancies, Robin returns to Gaea for some answers.
So basically, this novel deals a lot with sprituality, belief, free-will, and what to do when 'god' is insane. There is a lot of war in this novel, from the backdrop of the devestating nuclear war on Earth (discovered to have been manipulated by Gaea) to the overthrow of Gaea herself through Cirroco building herself an army of Earth refugees and Titanides, there is a bit of 'might makes right' questioning as well. But of course, there is a happy ending and Gaea is overthrown and basically a lot of questions are asked, but some are never answered, but that isn't annoying as you might think.

They're a good read overall, not too science fictiony for me and decent enough characters. Varley's internal consistency is well done though, he's obviously put a lot of thought into the world of Gaea, and it shows.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Book four! Whoohoo!

Book 4, which is Titan by John Varley, came about because, as I put it to my husband, "I've read all my Christmas books." This earned me a moment of disbelief, then an exasperated roll of the eyes, and then Titan and its sequels appeared on my bedside table.

These were books Graig purchased used, recommended by someone, but put aside by him as not really liking them too much, there was too much fantasy, not enough sci-fi for him, so he thought I might like them, seeing as how I like fantasy literature.

True enough, but upon reaching the end of it I smiled and said, "yeah, not bad, but there's too much sci-fi and not enough fantasy in it".

The gist of Titan is simple, group of astronauts are on mission to Saturn, discover something strange near one of Saturn's moons, are taken 'prisoner' on strange celestial object, discover it is an entire organic world/alien, make friends, have adventures and talk to 'god', or rather, the entity known as Gaea, the alien world itself.

The main character of this book is the Earth ship's captain, the oddly named Cirroco Jones. She's not a bad character, strong-willed, smart, not gorgeous, not infallible, she kind of puts in mind of the Ripley mold of space heroines. Jones and her crew all go through a lot upon their arrival on Gaea, some come through it ok, some not, and one completely looses her humanity.

The greatest discovery Jones and her crew makes though is of a race of natives called Titanides. They are pretty much like centaurs of Greek mythology, human heads and torsos attached to the torso and hindquarters of a horse. They are a friendly, complex people whose speech is all done in song, which is something Cirroco instinctively (she's not sure how) understands.

Cirroco and her remaining crew members settle in with the Titanides for awhile, but eventually, they are restless, not necessarily wanting to leave Gaea, but to get some questions answered, so, in undoubtedly what is the most fantasy like trope in this book, she and two companions go on a quest, a quest to come face to face with Gaea herself. This quest involves the extremely difficult journey up one of Gaea's support cables (think of a cable on a suspension bridge, except it would reach outerspace, and not just the top of the Golden Gate Bridge) to Gaea's central hub, basically on the roof of the world. Along they way are many trials and tribulations, suitable for an epic journey. In fact, once Cirroco and her remaining companion Gaby reach Gaea, Gaea is sufficiently impressed by Cirroco as to give her a job as Wizard to the world, basically Gaea's emissary amongst the people. Cirroco agrees (cue sequel).

Overall, its a pretty good book. Enough mystery and character development, but as I said, there is a little too much sci-fi in it for my liking. The descriptions of the ship and the structure of Gaea herself leave me a little uncertain, and after too much of the techo-babble, I start to tune it out.

There is a lot of frank talk about sex in this book. Not so much descriptive sex scenes or anything like that, but all the characters are comfortable with it, have it and think about it. Homosexuality is not presented as much of a taboo at all, and it is nice to read that Varley obviously thinks that society will be much more open minded in the future. However, there is also a double rape in the book, and that's the sort of (non)sexuality I can always do without.

So yeah, I did enjoy this enough to move onto the next book in the series, Wizard. Titan is nothing spectacular, but its a good quick read with enough going on to keep me interested.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Book three of 2008 is The Children of Hurin by J.R.R Tolkien.

Ok, it's really only kinda written by Tolkien, especially since he's been dead since the 70s. This, like the Simalrilion was cobbled together by Tolkien's son Christopher from unfinished writings Tolkien left behind. I don't actually have a problem with this, if you're named the executor of your father's literary estate, why not try to continue to publish as much stuff as you can? Although sometimes, it does make me wonder if Christopher does this because he has a gambling problem or something and needs an influx of cash every now and then.

I jest. Anyway, the Children of Hurin is a collection of stories Christopher basically took from an unfinished epic poem Tolkien had been writing. And not only writing, but he was writing it in the meter that was commonly used by Old English epic tales such as Beowulf or the Battle of Maldon. There's an excerpt of the poem in the book's appendix, and I was shocked at how well Tolkien was able to mimic the style of those poems. Although, I now realize I shouldn't have been shocked, after all, the man was a scholar in Old English.

But yes, reading this book was like a journey back to John Chamberlain's Old English class in second year university. I felt like I should be translating these lines as I read them, full as they are of strange (yet tantalizingly familiar) place names riddled with awkward combinations of consonants and vowels. The pronunciation guide at the beginning of the book was pretty much identical to the one at the beginning of my Guide to Old English. Of course, this means I knew I was pronouncing all those names correctly.

This book is not for fans of sword and sorcery fantasy. Heck, I wouldn't even completely recommend it to those who usually read high fantasy, the very genre Tolkien himself pretty much invented. The Children of Hurin is more like an epic historical legend, something from the Icelandic or Norse sagas, complete with ogres and dragons and tragic heroes who are at once noble and brave, but oh so flawed as well. They win the day, but are still brought low by much adversity.

There's actually lots of characterization in this book, but its almost hard to discern because you're tripping over so many names. Names of people, places, things. Damn Tolkien liked to name things. And he had a name for everything. But hey, you develop your own language, you should be allowed to show it off. I say there is characterization because the main child of Hurin, Turin, is almost unlikeable. He's such a prat sometimes you just want to slug him. He comes across as self righteous and with absolutely zero ability to take criticism. Unfortunately, he's also right a lot of the time, and somehow, he does manage to inspire loyalty and love from followers. Of course, he also manages to piss people off nearly as often as he gains respect though. He meets a suitably tragic end, although its also one that's very uncomfortable, but completely in line with type of legends that Tolkien was trying to write here.

As a literary work, The Children of Hurin is a masterpiece. I don't think it ever aspired to be anything else really. It certainly isn't like the majority of fantasy fiction out there, inspired by the author's earlier works. I know people often complain that the Lord of the Rings is nearly inaccessible, well, The Children of Hurin make LotR look like Harry Potter.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Second book of 2008 is Dave Bidini's Around the World in 57 1/2 Gigs .

First things first, by gigs, he means musical gigs, not computer terminology gigs.

I'm a big fan of Bidin's writing. In fact, at this point, I've read every single one of his books except Baseballissimo because I generally find Baseball boring. But I imagine if I did read it, I'd probably enjoy it because Bidin's style is very engaging. He has great sense of metaphor and also a wonderful sense of humour.

This book basically takes place over parts of 2006 and 2007, where Bidini finds himself facing the breakup of his long time band, the Rheostatics. The Rheostatics are a Canadian band of (as Bindini himself puts it) moderate success. They've been together for over 20 years at this point, have had highs, and a bunch of lows, and one of their main members, has just said he's quitting. Which causes another member to quit. Bidini has to decide if he should fight for the Rheos, or finally let them go.

He chooses the later.

As a way to continue in music and perhaps as a way to get over the breakup, he embarks on a whirlwind world tour, playing solo stuff, mainly of his own composition, but also a variety of Rheostatic tunes. Bidini's never really embarked on a solo tour before, so his nerves are high and his confidence low as he travels to Finland for his opening gig.

He obviously enjoys his time in Finland, where heavy metal is alive and well, the crowds restrained (he basically calls Finns 'everything that Canadians think we are, but aren't really'.) and the people friendly but reserved. He plays some successful gigs and works out some of his pre-jitters and realizes that he can do this and have fun.

Over the course of the book, Bidini intersperses tales of his own life (including the account of saving Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip's life), his introspection over the breakup of the Rheostatics and the history and impact of rock and roll not only on his own life, but on that of the world.

He travels to Russia, to China, to Liberia and Sierra Leone, places of poverty and recently stricken by war, all of whom searching for their own rebellious rock n' roll voice, some not finding it easily, some doing so. In China, there isn't much rock at all, but they do revere some Beatles tunes, while in post-communist Russia, there is a lot of rock n' roll being made, and there, the impact that the Beatles had was increadibly huge.

In Sierra Leone, he meets two young boys who lost large parts of their families in the recent civil war, who have been forced to grow up way too fast, and who are finding their voices through hip-hop and rap, singing about the state of their country and the hope they have for its future. Bidini is obviously very greatful to be there for this.

Overall, an enjoyable book, mainly for the tour of world music, both present and historical, told through the voice of a Canadian hoser.

Monday, January 07, 2008

First book of 2008 is the third book in Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, The Amber Spyglass.

It took me a little longer to get through this one because, as I discovered reading the back of this book, Pullman took some inspiration from Milton's Paradise Lost for this puppy, so I was sort of mentally cross-referencing stuff that happened in Spyglass with stuff that happened in Paradise Lost.

A large part of Amber Spyglass takes place in the alternate world Dr. Mary Malone found her in, living with mulefa and trying to solve their world's problems, specifically the dying trees (which the mulefa depend upon) and the dwindling amount of Dust in their world. Mary has supposedly been cast as the Serpent in the Garden of Eden (the mulefa's world) who will tempt Lyra, but honestly, I didn't really see it. Oh sure I could see the Garden of Eden comparison, but Mary not so much in the role of the Serpent.

And it is not that Lyra and Will are so much cast out of Eden, but they have to leave it as they (or anyone really) cannot survive for long out of the world that they were born into. They leave due to nessecity, not out of any wrong doing or transgression. Although, in Pullman's world, as there are characters trying to 'kill' God (or the Regent in this case), there really isn't any Authority to rebel against in this Eden.

So, anyway, the overall story though? Good, but bittersweet. Pullman kills off characters left and right with an abandon I haven't seen since George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire opus. And its cool. I always think characters should die during these large, fantasy epics. Its what makes them epic. And Pullman doesn't disappoint, killing off many, many characters, and always at times that make sense and are not just for shock value.

I also liked his 'redemption' of Mrs. Coulter. She's been one of the hardest characters ever to figure out, and right down to the last moment, Pullman did a really excellent job of making you wonder 'will she or won't she"? Its been difficult for two whole books to figure out whose side she was really on (other than her own), and when the answer is finally known, it doesn't feel forced either.

But its the overall ending that is the most bittersweet as Lyra and Will are not only forced to leave Eden, but they are forced to leave one another as well. Due to more circumstances beyond their control, they choose to live apart from one other, despite their great love, and live out their days in their respective home universes. It really was quite sad and I did feel myself choking up a little.

On the whole, His Dark Materials is a coming of age story. Lyra goes from child to young woman and her epic journey is vastly harrowing and difficult. I like stories like this one and the characters are all well done, as is Pullman's internal consistency. Everything is connected and tied up together very well.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Here we are, 2008. Another new year, another new bunch of books.

In 2007, I still did not manage to read 50 books. I have excuses though, as to why I only managed to read 30. I volunteer for the board of directors at my son's daycare, which amounts to a (non-paid) part time job on top of my regular job, we travelled to San Diego this year, oh and I got married, and between that and moving my new husband's myriad of belongings into our house, it was a pretty busy year.

So as we look upon 2007, what were those 30 books I read? Let's list 'em shall we?

The Golden Compass and the Subtle Knife by Phillip Pullman
Touch Wood: Confessions of an Accidental Porn Director by Anoymous
Yes Man by Danny Wallace
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier by Alan Moore
Making History by Stephen Fry
Cthulhu Tales by H.P. Lovecraft
Shock Doctrine: The Rise and Fall of Distaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
The Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
Fluke by Christopher Moore
Late for the Wedding by Amanda Quick
Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro
Fall of Knight by Peter David
Wilson: A Consideration of Sources by David Mamet
Mordred: Bastard Son by Douglas Clegg
Alice in Sunderland by Bryan Talbot
Curse of the Narrows by Laura M. MacDonald
Give Our Regards to the Atom Smashers: Writers on Comics by Various
Serpents Garden and Oracle Glass by Judith Merkle Riley
Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts
Anasasi Boys by Neil Gaiman
Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards
Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay
Bitten by Kelly Armstrong
Inheritance by Devin Grayson
Five Hole Stories by Dave Bidini

It's a nice cross section I think, of things I usually read. A smattering of horror (Bitten, the Night Watch, Cthuhlu Tales), some Arthurian Legends (Mordred:Bastard Son, Fall of Knight), some historical non-fiction (Curse of the Narrows, the Shock Doctrine), stuff written by people who also write comic books (Anasasi Boys, Inheritance), some funny stuff, both fiction and non (Fluke, Yes Man, Touch Wood), some 'serious literature' (For Whom the Bell Tolls, Rebecca) and of course, some fantasy (Ysabel, Harry Potter, The Golden Compass).

Some highlights? Any year where Guy Kay has a new book come out is a spectacular year as far as I'm concerned, and Ysabel did not disappoint. I was both inspired and entertained by Danny Wallace's Yes Man, educated about my own country with Curse of the Narrows, and made increadibly angry (in a good way) by The Shock Doctrine.

The disappointments? The final installment of Harry Potter fell a little flat. The promising Five Hole Stories by Dave Bidini, a collection of short, erotic hockey stories (sex and hockey, two of my favourite things), wasn't as... erotic as I hoped, and Alan Moore's the Black Dossier was nearly impenetrable in parts.

But as I did manage to read more new books than I did last year (and with nearly as many re-reads), I feel 2007 was a winner overall reading-wise and I look forward to 2008, which already sees me half way through the final book in Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, and on my nightstand, presently in queue are Dave Bidini's latest book, J.R.R Tolkien's Children of Hurin and Michael Palin's diary from his Monty Python years. All reads I'm looking forward to.