Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Book 13: Murder As a Fine Art

By John Ballem

This was read in August. I originally got this book for my dad since he enjoys reading mystery thrillers, plus I was still living in Banff and working at the Banff Centre for the Arts at the time. And I read a review saying that Ballem does a very good job of recreating the intimate community of artists doing short-term residencies in the famous artist colony. So I thought that this would give my dad a bit of an idea of what my experience was like, at least with hobnobbing and collaborating with artists at the Centre… not the part with psycho-killers and grisly murders!

However, other than prima donnas spazzing out, flamboyant egos clashing, and the worse thing of all, having to endure bad performance art every now and then… and believe me, there were some atrocious ones, and usually those ones make the headlines (there was once an artist from Mexico City who apparently masturbated at various well-known locations in the town of Banff, then presented the results of his work by carting around a dozen or so test tubes of his semen along Banff Avenue). So yup, other than that, there was never anything as exciting and dramatic as a juicy murder.

Anyway, I’m really too lazy to write a concise review of the novel (it took me over a month to get off my ass to even write this), so I’m quoting this excellent one from: http://gauntlet.ucalgary.ca/story/8198

"The novel opens with the discovery of Alan Montrose, who has fatally fallen down a flight of stairs in the Banff Centre for the Arts. Even though the death is classified as an accident, visual artist Laura Janeway becomes suspicious. Laura uses her keen sense of observation to work with the authorities to discover the truth, especially after a second death comes into play. Yet when she discovers a motive, she must dispel the suspect's air-tight alibi. It is obvious Ballem has a great knowledge of Banff and the Banff Centre. His accuracy not only allows those who have been to Sulphur Mountain or the Upper Hot Springs to mentally retrace their trip, but also includes those who have never seen Banff themselves. Ballem's use of details effectively illustrates the text and at the same time does not slow the book's pace. The characters are well developed and well described. Each character's individual art form is well researched and gives a sense of variety in the Centre. However, there are a few instances when Corporal Karen Lindstrom, the Mountie heading the investigation, and Laura Janeway appear to be the same person. This leads to some confusion."

So reading about psycho-killers and dead bodies, well, gave a slight whiff of unreality. At times I really had to force myself to suspend my disbelief, saying there’s no way that would ever happen at the Banff Centre, no matter how loopy the artist is! Nevertheless, Ballem did such a good job capturing the non-dramatic stuff this ultimately made a very enjoyable read with a fairly surprising, but kind of unlikely, twist at the end. For anyone who enjoys a decent mystery thriller, who wants to get a feel for what life is like being a residency artist at the BCFTA and being out n’ about in the town of Banff, then this book is worth checking out. Parts of it really took me back to those good ol’ days.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Meezly's Trip to Vietnam

Finally, what everyone has been waiting for, hehe...

vietnam gallery


Sunday, August 13, 2006

Book 12: Angels & Insects

by A.S. Byatt

Two novellas are found in this book, “Morpho Eugenia” (what the film Angels & Insects is adapted from) and “The Conjugial Angel”. I sought this out for the former, but frankly, couldn’t get through the latter, despite its cool subject matter: a motley circle of mediums and what they discover in the course of their semi-regular séances.

I’m not an A.S. Byatt fan, as this is the first book I’ve read of hers. But I do have a romantic fondness for 19th century natural science, the era that spawned Charles Darwin, so I naturally sought this work out. And it really delivered what I was hankering for. Byatt is really masterful at what she does, recreating the culture, language, aethetics and mindset of the Victorian period. There are beautiful passages detailing how the protagonist, an English naturalist, is esconced in the categorization of his benefactor’s animal and plant collection, his explorations and discoveries when he takes to long walks in the English countryside:

"His journal was for the first time alive with a purposeful happiness. He began also to collect insects, and was amazed to discover how many hundreds of species of beetle existed in a few square miles of rough moorland. He haunted the slaughterhouse, making notes on where the blowflies preferred to lay their eggs, how the maggots moved and chewed, the swarming, the pullulation, a mass of mess moved by an ordering principle. The world looked different, and larger, and brighter, not water-colour washes of green and blue and grey, but a dazzling pattern of fine lines and dizzying pinpoints, jet-black, striped and spotted crimson, iridescent emerald, sloppy caramel, slime-silver."

The story was also excellent, as I was surprised to find multiple complex and interesting themes and subplots woven into this dense, well-crafted 200 –page novella. Byatt’s obviously a big fan of Darwin, and she doesn’t disappoint in how she capably manages to integrate his evolutionary theories into, yes, a Victorian bodice-ripper. "Morpho Eugenia" deals with the Victorian obsession with Darwinian theories of breeding and sexuality, the parallels between insect and human society, the capture and taming of nature, and the age-old philosophical debate between religion and science. Heavy themes indeed, but hardly tedious at all. What distinguishes this story for me, is that these themes still ring true today, particularly the rift between those who believe in the comforting solace of divine design and those who understand and accept the pandora’s box of natural selection.

The character that portrays the religious side is Harald Alabaster, who’s struggling to write his magnum opus, “the kind of impossible book everyone now is trying to write. A book which shall demonstrate – with some kind of intellectual respectability – that is not impossible that the world is the work of a Creator, a Designer.” Alabaster is an intelligent, even wise, old man who once had his own radical views of evolution: “If I were a young man now, a young man such as you, I would be compelled towards atheistic materialism by the sheer beauty, the intricacy, of the arguments of Mr Darwin…” But now in his twilight years, he feels a desperate need to find some kind of meaning.

On the other hand, the protagonist, William Adamson, is a young naturalist who has accepted a creator-less universe. At Alabaster’s request, he’s invited into his study to read his drafts and play the devil’s advocate. Because Alabaster is also Williams’ benefactor, the naturalist has to bite his tongue at times:

William sat down in his father-in-law’s chair and tried to make sense of it, with mounting irritation. It was a new rehearsal of old arguments, some of which Harald had already, in conversation, rejected as untenable.

“… It may be an emotional deficiency in myself, Sir, that I cannot feel the strength of the argument. I have been much changed by the pattern of my life, of my work. My own father was very much in the image of a terribly Judge, who preached rivers of blood and destruction, and whose own profession was bloody too. And then the vast disorder – the indifference to human scale and preoccupations – in the Amazon – I have not been left with a propensity to find kindness in the face of things.”

Ah, the stuff of genius!

Book 11: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

by Haruki Murakami
(translated from Japanese By Jay Rubin)

I finally finished reading TWUBC back in June after my return from Vietnam, and for my first Murakami novel, it was a surprisingly rich and rewarding read. I didn't know anything about the author, only that he’s a well-regarded “Gen X” writer in Japan and he must have a decent following because I had some trouble finishing the library copy of this book because other people kept placing holds on it!

The novel begins by introducing the daily routine of recently unemployed Toro Okada. While his wife, Kumiko, goes to work during the day, Toro runs errands, makes lunch, reads, takes a nap, and prepares dinner for his wife’s return. The only conflict is that Toro and Kumiko have just lost their cat, and once in a while, Toro gets the odd strange phone call from an unknown woman. Other than that, nothing much happens.

Then Kumiko arranges for Toro to meet with a charismatic psychic to help them find their cat. And Toro starts to take walks around this neighbourhood, partly to search for the missing cat and partly to explore the abandoned house down the back alley. From there, various characters are introduced, and through their seemingly random histories, the novel expands into a multi-layered tale of near-epic proportion where we go back and forth between present-day Tokyo, the Mongolian front, a Soviet prison camp and a Shanghai zoo during WWII, as well as explorations into the subconscious netherworld of the protagonist’s mind. Before you know it, this self-effacing slacker embarks on a heroic quest to save his loved one!

The best thing about the book is that even though it quite capably juggles a confluence of Japanese history, personal tragedies, magic realism, the supernatural, operatic influences of The Magic Flute, not to mention over 600 pages of text… elements which contribute to an epic novel, the author still imbues a very subtle, low-key atmosphere. I hate to sound clichéd, but I find the approach zen-like, very Japanese, yet still familiar to the western reader. The only critique I had was the device of the wind-up bird to "tie things together", the only element which I found a bit too contrived.

Reading TWUBC was like watching a film by Ozu and Jarmusch. There’s a tension between reality and unreality; there’s a real-ness to Toro’s unassuming life, in how people go in and out of it, and a disconnected style to the writing and how the characters speak when describing bizarre events. So when things get progressively more surreal and Lynchian, it also seems to happen in the most normal and natural way. The protagonist, especially, has a sense of quiet acceptance and distance, even when he discovers there’s more to his slacker persona than he realizes. Like dsgran’s review, I appreciated how the story didn’t explain too much, like what exactly was the nature of Kumiko and her brother’s strange power? It made for a more interesting and enigmatic read. I’ll definitely be reading more by this author.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Otto... part cat, part sea otter!

Why dontcha take a load off, little buddy...

Monday, June 26, 2006

Book 10: High Fidelity

By Nick Hornby

I must say, this was a brilliant find at The Word bookstore. I was looking for a light, undemanding read for my upcoming trip to Vietnam, and there it was, in perfect paperback condition, for only $6! Usually, due to my packrat tendencies to cherish things which give me pleasure, I hold on to books that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, to revisit eloquent passages, to lend to others, to maybe even save for a future re-read.

So I was sadly reluctant to leave Hi Fi behind in Hanoi for my host, Seb, who expressed interest in reading it. How could I refuse someone who provided me free, comfortable lodging for a full week? Sigh. Besides, “High Fidelity” is the kind of poignantly funny book that’s meant to be shared, because it will frivolously enrich other people’s lives just as it frivolously enriched yours.

If you’ve seen the movie and read the book, you’ll see how the movie version is one of the best adaptations of a novel in cinematic history, despite the fact that the film producers had replaced the very English Crouch End setting with the very Americanized one of Chicago, Illinois. Reading the novel was a lot like watching the movie all over again, and more, because you get the itty bitty novelistic gems a movie normally glosses over, such as the brilliant term “snob obscurantist”. What’s more, by reading the novel, you get to experience the original droll British wit. By the same token, the movie did capture a good chunk of the book’s subtle, but all-important gemmy little details, and most significantly, it faithfully captured the novel’s humour, insight and spirit.

Anyway, we all know the premise of “High Fidelity”, so I won’t bother with a plot summary. What I will say is that what I most appreciate about Hornby’s novel are its sly jabs at people with bad, aka populist, taste. If you’ve ever been a bit of a snob about anything, esp. music, and have visited many a friend, or a friend of a friend’s home, you may have had many of the following experience:

"So I wander over to the shelf, and turn my head to one side and squint, and sure enough, it’s a disaster area, the sort of CD collection that is so poisonously awful that it should be put in a steel case and shipped off to some Third World waste dump. They’re all there: Tina Turner, Billy Joel, Kate Bush, Pink Floyd, Simply Red, the Beatles, of course, Mike Oldfield (Tubular Bells I and II), Meat Loaf … "

Brilliant, just fucking brilliant!

Book 9: The Story of the Eye (by Lord Auch)

By Georges Bataille (1928)
Translated by Joachim Neugroschel (1977)

Hopping from the populist genre fiction of Stephen King to a classic of transgressive pornographic literature by Surrealist bad-boy, Georges Bataille… what will Meezly read next?

I’ve been curious about this book since my university days (not because it’s Bjork’s fave book of all time and that everyone should read it. Eeesh.) and it’s exactly the kind of book a liberal arts student would be curious about. Ah, remember that time? when you were young and everything was new and cool and exciting, and you were constantly seeking out works of art and literature that’s shocking and bursts your sheltered middle-class bubble. I don’t actively seek this stuff out anymore, but I was nevertheless pleased to come across a cheap used copy at The Word bookshop.

Originally published in 1928, “The Story of the Eye” is still shockingly obscene today, and still strangely compelling notwithstanding. The no-holds-barred profane attacks against the Catholic Church are definitely the best thing about this book: the money shots, if you will. This short novella is basically about the depraved exploits of two lovers and soul-mates, a boy and a girl, who grow up to be sophisticated libertines.

Their misadventures finally result in death, which force them to flee their native France and seek refuge in Spain, where they hook up with a like-minded older benefactor. The exploits of this bizarre trio finally culminate in a (surprise) Catholic Church where they commit unimaginable atrocities against a very unlucky handsome young Spanish priest. Just when you think the level of depravity has reached its (civilized?) limit, Bataille lays it on even more! The two protagonist-lovers, Simone and the unnamed narrator, make Micky and Mallory look like kindergarten teachers.

I suppose what elevates this work from mere exploitative pap like Natural Born Killers … is the philosophy and passion behind it. You get a very clear idea as to what kind of people they are, and what drives them to commit these inconceivable offenses. Although the narration is stiff at times (could be the translation, and the fact that Batailles is not a great writer), the writing is still laughingly very French:

“I associate the moon with the vaginal blood of mothers, sisters, that is, the menstrua with their sickening stench …”

Mm hmm, right, dude.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Book 8: Cell

by Stephen King (2006)

Like Charles Burns’ “Black Hole”, this was a totally spontaneous read. Next up was supposed to be “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle”, but Olman excitedly acquired Stephen King’s latest after being on the library waiting list for 3 weeks. With my inherent mistrust of mass fiction, I was skeptical at first. But Olman informed me of the story’s premise: on a certain day, a strange signal is broadcast. Anyone who uses their cell phone turns into a blathering, rage-filled lunatic who's only purpose is to kill every living thing in sight. In the blink of an eye, civilization is reduced to pure mayhem and soon afterwards, burning stinking rubble. We then follow a rag-tag bunch of survivors and see how they fare amidst the post-apocalyptic desolation and teeming “phone-crazies” who’ve now become zombie-like drones with a strange hive-like mentality…

I knew then I had to see what this post-apoca-zombie book had in store for me. Luckily, Olman has been so immersed in his bande dessinee serials that I was able to jump into “Cell” immediately after finishing “Bee Season”. I had my share of art-house literature, time for some serious kickass horror action!

And boy, “Cell” really delivers. Within a couple of pages, death, destruction and gore are already in full swing, boyee! King wears all the old and new horror movie influences on his sleeves: One Missed Call, Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, War of the Worlds, and Land of the Dead. He doesn’t even wince with those post-9/11 references. But he gets away with it because he’s so damn good at what he does. Most importantly, he’s able to build characters that are ordinary, identifiable and compassionate folk who also possess reasoning, intelligence and a good dose of survival instincts. Although the characters are from a range of age, sex and background, my only beef is that they’re all caucasian. But I should’ve known better. King wields total authorial control and every element of his story is accounted when, towards the end of the novel, one of the protagonists remarks, upon witnessing a fair ground full of nearly all-white phone-zombies, that “this is New England after all”.

The novel’s packed full of everything and there was never a dull moment; a real page-turner that kept me up until 3am on Sunday night. There was a section where I didn’t like the way the zombies were going in their “developments”, just a bit too far-fetched for me. But I soon got into it and accepted it as a new twist in the zombie genre. Anyway, I don’t believe I need to say much more. Go and read it, it’s a lot of fun!

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Book 7: Bee Season

By Myla Goldberg (2001)

When I was a kid, I secretly fantasized about being a champion speller. Unfortunately, spelling bees are not granted the same stature and prevalence in Canada as they are in the U.S. It just ain't in our culture. Thus whatever pullulating spelling talents I may've had as a child went forever untapped. So now I spend my adult days vicariously devouring definitive ‘spelling bee’ classics such as the documentary “Spellbound” and Myla Goldberg’s debut novel “Bee Season” (I'm joking really).

I initially thought “Bee Season” was going to be a charming, coming of age tale about an unremarkable Jewish girl who finds her true calling as a spelling bee champion. But Eliza’s sudden, unexpected rise to spelling stardom occurs early on in the novel, and serves as a catalyst for the gradual disintegration of her close, but precariously balanced, family unit.

The author thoughtfully explores the themes of human relationships and spirituality. The spelling bee becomes a metaphor for life’s double-edged sword as each family member embarks on a self-fulfilling search for spiritual meaning… or is it really an inexplicable psychological need to fill their emotional and existential emptiness? In this way, the book was much darker than I anticipated, but it’s nevertheless a fascinating and lyrical portrayal of a contradictory and eccentric family of outsiders.

However, what I enjoyed best about the novel is its portrayal of behind-the-scenes spelling bees. In a single paragraph, Goldberg conjures up the fleeting microcosm of the national championships with elegance and humour:

" The press arrive on Friday morning. In each press kit, spellers are listed by number, their names and vital statistics printed below their photos. They come from Neptune, New Jersey; Gallup, New Mexico; and Kokomo, Indiana. They come from Fairbands, Alaska; Naples, Florida; and Rome, Georgia. Their local papers featured them in last Sunday’s human interest column. Between them they have 276 siblings, 89 dogs, 54 cats, and 108 fish. Sixty five have dreamed of accidentally attending Friday’s competition in their underwear. Forty four have churches praying for them. Twenty nine have been constipated for the past two days. Twelve are afraid of vomiting onstage. Five have been wagered upon by overconfident parents.
One will win."

Then there are the wonderful passages describing Eliza’s innate gift, from upstart speller to jedi knight, as her kinship with letters goes beyond mere rote memorization. With her father’s guidance as a Judaic scholar and his library of sacred texts, Eliza learns to decode language itself as her study and encantations of the alphabet take her deeper and deeper into the realms of cabbalistic mysticism. It’s pretty heady stuff.

I end this with one of my favourite excerpts from “Bee Season”:

"Paging through the dictionary is like looking through a microscope. Every word breaks down into parts with properties – prefix, suffix, root. Eliza gleans not only the natural laws that govern the letters but their individual behaviors. R, M, and D are strong, unbending and faithful. The sometimes silent B and G and the slippery K follow strident codes of conduct. Even the redoubtable H, which can make P sound like F and turn ROOM into RHEUM, obeys etymology. Consonants are the camels of language, proudly carrying their lingual loads.

Vowels, however, are a different species, the fish that flash and glisten in the watery depths. Vowels are elastic and inconstant, fickle and unfaithful. E can sound like I or U. –IBLE and –ABLE are impossible to discern. There is no combination the vowels haven’t tried, exhaustive and incestuous in their couplings. E will just as soon pair with A, I, or O, leading the dance or being led. Eliza prefers the vowels’ unpredictability and, of all vowels, favors Y. Y defies categorization, the only letter than can be two things at once. Before the bee, Eliza had been a consonant, slow and unsurprising. With her bee success, she has entered vowelhood. Eliza begins to look at life in alphabetical terms. School is consonantal in its unchanging schedule. God, full of possibility, is a vowel. Death: the ultimate consonant."

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Book 6: Time’s Arrow

By Martin Amis (1991)

This is probably my third Martin Amis book. I was curious about Time’s Arrow mainly because it’s known as his “backwards” novel. Using Memento-style reverse chronology isn’t exactly an original literary device, as writers such as JG Ballard and Philip K Dick (faves amongst you 50-bookers) have used this gimmick in earlier works. But unlike them, this backwards novel was short-listed for the Booker prize.

As I’ve been meaning to read this book for several years, I had mostly forgotten what the premise was about, which was a good thing. The original title was supposed to be “The Nature of the Offense” and the story begins with the awakening of an old man in a U.S. hospital surrounded by doctors. From there, the reader quickly grasps that the novel is starting from the protagonist’s death and moving backwards in time, and soon learns that this man has been harboring a terrible and long buried secret. As the story regresses through the man’s life, he becomes younger and younger, goes through a couple of identity changes, returns to Europe, WWII is ending... or is it just beginning? And the reverse structure of the book begins to make sense.

Amis takes full advantage of the backwards device to reveal his crafty talents and show off his usual detached and savage irony. He even has a bit of fun sometimes:

The other guy stared at us, with raised, churning face. Then he did some shouting and strode out of there – though he paused, and thoughtfully dimmed the lights, as he left the room. We heard his boots on the stairs. The lady clutched me.
“My husband!” she explained.

Also interestingly was how Amis used the protagonist’s detached soul as the 3rd person narrator for the entire novel except for one section: when we finally arrive at where the nature of the offense took place. Only then does the novel switch to the 1st person. Once the protagonist reaches his younger state of innocence does the novel return to his detached and passive “inner soul” as narrator.

Amis can be known as a cold, pretentious and meta-fictional English writer, but the books I’ve read, like "London Fields" and "Other People: A Mystery", have always managed to surprise me in its twists and provoke some critical thoughts out of me. "Time’s Arrow" has definitely been one of the more interesting reads I’ve had in the past couple of years.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Book 5: Black Hole

By Charles Burns

Olman and I were visiting his sister and brother-in-law this past weekend, and this unusual graphic novel was brought out from a shelf. Right away I was intrigued by the black & white art and the premise of suburban teens in the 1970’s plagued by a horrifying STD that inspires grotesque deformations. I read the entire thing in a single evening.

Here’s a short online review that describes “Black Hole” better than I can at the moment: Black Hole Review

I included this as a 50-booker because “Black Hole” was such a rich and surreal reading experience. It really felt like I had entered Burns’ twisted and hallucinatory world where diseased, outcast teens run rampant in the woods and growing up is like a living Cronenberg-esque nightmare.

Critics liken the strange plague as a metaphor for AIDS, but for me, it’s more like a narrative device to explore the teenage psyche and societal behaviour toward aberrations, which the comic does frighteningly well. Also, the disease doesn’t behave like AIDS and is referred to very vaguely. Once it sets in, the disease doesn’t progressively worsen, or kill its victim. Rather it seems to either transform, or deform, the victim into a mutant-like, almost chimerical, creature.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Book 4: The Fortress of Solitude

By Jonathan Lethem (2003)

If "Motherless Brooklyn" was a quick compact read, this was not. I had to renew this bloody book twice. Then because my cat died, I was late renewing a third time and the library refused to renew it, as it’s now considered overdue. (see my Rant in wordsmiths) So I said, fuck this, it took me almost 3 months to read this tome, I’ll pay the 25 cents per day until I goddamn finish it!

"The Fortress of Solitude" has everything: epic coming of age tale, homage to a bygone Brooklyn; elements of magic realism, comic book fantasy, multicultural mish-mash, pop culture commentary and social critique. It’s kind of like a Brooklyn-ized version of "White Teeth" (Zadie Smith), or "Midnight’s Children" (Salman Rushdie). However, the core of the novel is the unlikely (yet likely) friendship between a black kid named Mingus and a white kid named Dylan.

Although rich in period detail and mood, I found it overly expository at times. It made for a tough read, especially at the beginning, due to lack of narrative momentum and its mellow chronological pacing. It began with Dylan as a young boy adjusting to a mostly black and Hispanic Brooklyn neighbourhood. Each section was devoted to a grade, or season, of Dylan’s life until he finally reaches high school.

When it dawned on me that every densely paragraphed chapter was going to represent a year of his teenaged life, I knew it was going to be a long haul. But even as I was tempted to skim through expounding paragraphs, there were worthy details I didn’t want to miss. TFoS is the kind of book that’s got enough cool shit that a former-geekboy-turned-hipster reader would perhaps devour and reminisce about.

Take this quote for instance:

Mingus Rude excavated four comic books from the closet floor: Daredevil #77, Black Panther #4, Doctor Strange #12, The incredible Hulk #115. They’d been tenderly handled to death, corners rounded, paper browned by hot attentive breath, pages chewed by eyes.

You can just tell that Lethem loves, even almost fetishizes, this kind of stuff!

And despite being a gawky white kid, Dylan’s privy to the cultural trends of his era. Through him, you get to experience childhood in the 1960’s, a time when kids hung out and played spaldeen on the street. During the adolescent 70’s, the two boys discover the world of comic books (and superpowers, even!). Through Mingus, Dylan gets exposed to hiphop and the delinquent pastimes of shoplifting, getting stoned and territorial tagging. When their friendship becomes estranged, he befriends geeks who memorize Al Jaffe’s Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions and spout lines from Monty Python. Then Dylan goes punk, catching shows at CBGB’s and dealing LSD on the Bowery.

Dylan eventually becomes a music journalist, while Mingus takes the more stereotypical and tragically “black” path via Requiem for a Dream-like descent into drug addiction, crime and prison sentences at Spofford, Riker’s, Elmira, and finally, Watertown.

Highlights in the book are the protagonists’ respective dads. Dylan’s father is a failed artist-filmmaker who fell into painting sci-fi paperback covers for a living. Lethem has a knack for finding humour in the sci-fi subculture, as Abraham Ebdus, much to his chagrin, finds semi-success at what he does, winning Nebula awards and spots as a guest speaker on esoteric panels. The background of Mingus’ father is less thought out. The background of Barrett Rude Jr’s musical career has its own chapter awkwardly inserted near the end of the novel instead of woven through the book. It’s a fascinating rise and fall account, but interferes with the flow of the narrative.

Jonathan Lethem is definitely one of the more original and interesting contemporary writers, and he’s got a wonderful way with words. It’s no easy feat to deftly weave (almost) so many disparate elements together. TFoS is a flawed woult-be masterpiece only because it tries to capture and chronicle so much.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Remembering Gunther

Rest in peace, little guy...

Feel free to visit his memorial

Monday, February 20, 2006

Book 3: Mrs Frisby & the Rats of NIMH

By Robert C. O’Brien

Yup, following on the coattails of Olman, who was influenced by Jarrett’s review. With 2 co-habitating 50-bookers, this kind of book-sharing was bound to happen!

The book truly delivered – I was instantly caught up in the story & adventure, and read it all up in a weekend. Although the story itself was deceptively simple, I appreciated its deep philosophical themes, which of course, helped to make it an enduring children’s novel. And the adventures! The NIMH backstory was the best part (as in the film), but I especially loved how the rats discover the Boniface mansion and the toy tinker.

As with truly excellent animal stories, there are the recognizable themes of human-animal relationships, ruminations on how different species and/or groups perceive one another, how that makes us think of human society, and how that makes us wonder and hopefully respect the sentiency of other creatures. Yeah, there’s a bit of that anthropomorphizing thing going on. But how else would one deal with the usual “human” themes of love, sacrifice, friendship, honour, courage, knowledge and wisdom?

** spoilers ahead **

Here's a crazy theory of mine. On another level, the Rats of Nimh were like a spiritual metaphor and a warning for humans, especially North Americans in general. The rats were given the gifts of intelligence and longevity by a superior species. They proceed to acquire all of human knowledge and history, but with the potential “blank slate” of a newly created sentient life-form.

For instance, in his quest for knowledge, Nicodemus takes to heart the Rat Race story he read in the library of the Boniface mansion. The story teaches him the dangers that can befall a society in which the lifestyle of its citizens becomes too easy and complicit. As civilization advances, it also gets spoiled by the comforts of convenience and technological progress. Eventually, the rats themselves reach a stage where they can no longer rely on humans. They make a democratic decision to forsake their worldly comforts and possessions in order to take the next step of pure self-reliance (and enlightenment). The rat utopia in Thorn Hill is what human civilization should be striving for.

My only small and very trivial beef with the book is the lack of female rats of Nimh. Surely, out of the 20 rats that were in Group A, some of them would have been female?

But man, when Olman finds the movie-version of the book, you can bet yer bottom dollar I’m gonna be watching it again!

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Book 2: The Anglo Guide to Survival in Québec

Edited by Josh Freed & Jon Kalina
Eden Press, 1983

“After the Parti Quebecois came to power, the world discovered the plight of a previously unknown minority group: English-speaking Quebecers, better known as Anglophones.”

So begins the jacket blurb of this funny little handbook…

A coworker gave TAGTSIQ to my friend Heather, who had moved to Montreal from Calgary a few years ago. Whenever she’s in a used bookstore, this coworker would always make a point of looking for a copy of the book, in case there’s a newby Anglophone to welcome to Montreal. Then, just before Heather embarked on a year long global voyage with her francophone fiancé, she lent this book to me.

Published in 1983, TAGTSIQ was a surprise hit in its day, but far as I know, it’s out of print and there were no subsequent editions, except maybe a less successful 1988 sequel. In the context of that period in history, Bill 101 had been in force for several years and the failed 1980 referendum occurred a few years ago. Tension and ill-feeling between the French and English were perhaps at an all-time high. Nevertheless, this period generated some inspiring work from English artists and writers, such as William Weintraub's The Underdogs (1979), a satirical novel about a dystopian future in which the Anglos are the "underdogs" in a sovereign Quebec.

According to an online essay I found by Linda Leith, “Quebec Fiction in English during the 1980’s: A Case of Marginality”, TAGTSIQ was “precisely to create a lighthearted satiric antidote to The Underdogs and to the cloud of anglophone Quebec gloom and doom that had been generally prevalent in the late 1970s and early 1980s.”

Since I was merely a child during that time, I wasn’t familiar with most of the book’s contributors except maybe Nick Auf der Maur (father of Melissa), Eleanor Wachtel (CBC Radio) and political cartoonist Aislin.

Though at times I found the humour to be fairly cornball, the book was nevertheless an enjoyable, heartwarming read. I already knew it was normal to have feelings of inadequacy and mild alienation living in Montreal, but the book really cemented that knowledge for me. I really haven’t felt this way since I was one of 4 chinese kids in a west side Vancouver elementary school. Although TAGTSIQ pokes fun at the awkwardness of the English and the defensiveness of the French, ultimately, it celebrates both cultures. Plus it gives props to those who remained the Guardian Anglos, “the English-speaking stalwarts that kept the anglo fires burning”. The book also encourages you to not feel threatened, but instead be positive and open-minded, because it’s exciting living in weird and wonderful Montreal.

A quick overview of the book’s contents include: the A.Q. (Anglo Quotient) quiz; crash courses in joual and cursing; the English history of Montreal street names; fitting into a francophone workplace (smoking Gitanes instead of Players, reading the right newspaper, which schools to send your children to, how to “bec” or greet one another by kissing on both cheeks); wilderness survival tips such as how to cross a Montreal street… and live, and how to survive a daytrip to East-End Montreal, an area that represented the heart of darkness to many Anglophones.

Some interesting facts about Montreal gleaned from reading this book:

- Since 1874, the official name for Fletcher’s Field has always been Mount Royal Park. The English community started calling it Fletcher’s Field when an officer by the name of Fletcher began holding military drills there in 1875.

- There was once a City of Montreal bus labeled “Nowhere” that took passengers on an all-night excursion around town, destination unknown. Popular with young couples, it was Montreal’s “Streetcar Named Desire”. Price: 2 bus tickets.

- “Je me souviens” refers to the glory of the French regime. This line first appeared in 1883 in a work by Eugene Taché.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Book 1 - Cosmopolis

 By Don Delillo

Meezly’s unofficial entry into the “50 books” circle. If I can read one book per month, making a grand total of 12 books for 2006, I’d be a happy person! So here’s my first:

I’ve been curious about Delillo, as he’s considered an “important” writer. I tried reading The Body Artist in November, but the stilted dialogue and self-conscious style put me off, so I quit early on in the book. Then I gave Cosmopolis a shot, as the story of a billionaire financial genius taking a limousine ride across an otherworldly Manhattan seemed a more promising premise.

When the limo gets gridlocked in traffic many improbable events occur: the protagonist gets swarmed by an anti-globalization protest movement, witnesses an act of self-immolation (yeah, in Manhattan), gets his daily anal probe by his doctor, has multiple sexual encounters with various women, has lunch with his wife, joins a Sufi rapper’s mega-funeral procession, gets naked as an extra in a street-wide movie set, gets stalked by assassins, and loses his entire fortune. And that ain’t all of it either. Oh, and he gets a haircut, which was what got him out of the house in the first place.

I suppose the limo ride was like a metaphorical journey or visionary concept, but I just wasn’t buying it, the events seemed so utterly contrived. Perhaps Cosmopolis could’ve been a great satire. The novel had that disjointed quality and its share of ludicrous twists and turns. It was even quite humorous at times, like when the protagonist gets hit by a Romanian tartiste. The exchange was very well put together and spoke volumes. But those moments were few and far between and I spent much of the time annoyed by the author’s heavy-handedness. Alas, Delillo is a “serious” writer, and he takes himself and his subject way too seriously.

As a serious writer, however, there were passages that were quite eloquently constructed, and the novel had some things to say about society and technology, consumerism and conscience, meaning and randomness. It also had action, sex, rap and violence (yes, there were rap lyrics thrown in too). Then I came across dialogue that was so ponderously worded and pretentious, it just jarred me into annoyance.

Delillo’s style belongs to a certain camp and I guess ultimately, his books just ain’t for me. Maybe I should’ve started with Underworld instead.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Of Movies and Men

Just recently saw three mainstream movies in a row: all very different in genre, but nevertheless male-oriented movies. Beware, major spoilers ahead!

Thursday Jan 12: ‘HOSTEL’ (Paramount Theatre)

In the presence of a bored Slovakian babe, the whiny, wimpy American traveler drones on about his ex-girlfriend. To my delight, he is consequently subjected to the ultimate torture scene in Eli Roth’s backpacking horror movie.

The victim’s confident and fun-loving buddy, thanks to old-fashioned luck and smarts, manages to escape his grisly fate to become the “hero” of the story.

Roth’s previous film, Cabin Fever, wasn’t terribly good, but I appreciated his dark, pessimistic view of human nature. ‘Hostel’ takes a similar approach where the protagonist, instead of alerting the authorities (he learns the Slovakian police were complicit anyway), takes matters into his own hands. The film can be construed as sanctioning the use of violence against violence, but it also illustrates this situation quite well: when confronted by such merciless and dehumanizing evil, no God or government body can save you. Yes, evil lurks within the darkest recesses of the human soul!

The protagonist, by rescuing a fellow Japanese victim, is endowed with enough humanity needed for viewers to relate to and thus, be surprised by the mad violence that’s to come. Although the vengeful dispatch of those responsible for the suffering and demise of the protagonist’s friends came way too unbelievably easy, it was, however, deeply gratifying to see the bad guys get what was comin’ to them!

Friday Jan 13: ‘BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN’ (Cinéma du Parc)

At heart, a tender love story between two cowboys, who discover how wonderful sex between men can be: there’s no need to shower before screwing and you can indulge in rough, nose-bleeding foreplay amidst a gorgeous mountain backdrop.
Sex with women only result in being saddled with child-rearing responsibilities and father-in-laws who hate your guts. Ah, ‘twas hard being a homo in 1960’s & 70’s mid-western America. One of the better love stories I’ve seen in a long time, Ang Lee is indeed a master of below-the-surface emotion and complex inter-relationships.

Saturday Jan 14: ‘THE WEDDING CRASHERS’ (DVD rental)

Even if you’ve got the most ingenious scheme of getting women, good guys will eventually fall in love and marry the right girl. This movie could’ve been so much better if it was just a comedy about two bachelor buddies and their game, and not wasting screen time on the hackneyed romance between Owen Wilson and Rachel Macadams.

A corny, hand-slapping routine posing as chemistry? Ick, come on. I was much more interested in the developing relationship between Vince Vaughn and Isla Fisher (who plays Macadams sister) as two sexually adventurous wackos falling for each other. Way more spicy and funny, and most importantly, it’s plausible. Do they really expect me to believe that fresh young Rachel Macadams would want to end up with an aging sleazebag who crashed weddings for a hobby, who actually admitted “And I’ve had women, a lot of women”!

It would’ve been much more fun had he ended up with Macadams sassy mom (Jane Seymour) instead. Owen Wilson used to be quite artlessly charming, but his schtick is gettin’ old. And he’s gotta lose the shellacked shag-do soon, cuz that and the caked-on makeup isn’t making him look any younger; it’s only making him look like Rod Stewart, or a 30-something Shawn Cassidy.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

My 11 Books for 2005

Well 2005 is at an end and some bookworm read, like, 56 books!! But that ain't me, that's Olman. Good work, babe!

I'm a close second though... Just finished 11 for the year! In summation, a brief review of the last four books:

8. Paul en Appartement (Paul Moves Out)

I read this graphic novel by Michel Rebagliatti in its original French version (with the occasional help of ye good olde french-eng dictionary). It's part of an autobiographical series about the author growing up in Montreal during the 1980's and this particular issue chronicles the experience of moving into his first apartment with his girlfriend. Most of the novel takes place in the Plateau area where I live, so it's a treat to see how familiar landmarks are portrayed by Rebagliatti's retro-elegant style. Like any day-to-day events in the life of a normal twenty-something year old, a lot and nothing much happens, but Rebagliatti is a gifted storyteller-artist and renders even the most banal moments an engaging read.

9. The Magic Toyshop

This is an early novel by British author, Angela Carter, who's probably best known for The Bloody Chamber, a feminist and adult reworking of classic fairy-tales. "The Company of Wolves", Carter's blend of Little Red Riding Hood and the werewolf legend became the 1984 film of the same name by Neil Jordan. The Magic Toyshop is a coming of age story about a newly orphaned teenage girl who, along with her younger brother and sister, go to live with their tyrannical uncle and his strange family. Although there's no magic to be found in the uncle's toyshop, the story is told in Carter's detached, ethereal style. I kept forgetting that the story takes place in London during the 1960’s (when this book was written) because the setting was so Dickensian. Although I wasn’t blown away, I’m glad I finally read this book, which hints at the dark surreal quality of some of her later work, such as The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman and Heroes and Villains.

10. Appointment in Samarra

An excellent classic by John O'Hara about how frighteningly easy it is to: make enemies, alienate your wife, become a reckless driver and social pariah, and best of all, just plain self-destruct, all within a span of three days in depression-era New England. One moment you're making the tallest highball in the world, the next moment... well, you'll have to read it to find out what happens. Tight, scathing and complex. In Time Magazine's Top 100. Need I say more.

  • Time Magazine's Top 100

  • 11. Motherless Brooklyn

    A highly enjoyable holiday read. I’m not familiar at all with the hard-boiled genre, but this book plays like a hip, comic detective novel featuring, uh, an unlikely protagonist with Tourette's syndrome. Yeah yeah, you're saying to yourself, sounds very promising... Well yes, Lionel is the tourettic narrator and yes, his speech is punctuated by sporadic outbursts of twitching and nonsensical cussing. But somehow, Lethem succeeds in making him likable and articulate. No small feat. Lionel is one of four teenage orphans picked up by Frank, a small-time mobster recruit, to do the occasional odd job. About 15 years later, they're still doing odd jobs for Frank, now under the guise of a car service-slash-detective agency. When the boss gets murdered, the motley crew is divided by degrees of loyalty and ineptitude. So it’s up to Lionel to find Frank’s killer! As people write him off as a harmless idiot, Lionel digs deeper into layers of betrayal and corruption that take him beyond his Brooklyn hood. He even gets laid. Eat me, Bailey!