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My Latest Dilemma

August 16, 2011

reading at the cottageSome people tie themselves in knots about what clothes to pack when they go on vacation. Others debate what gear and equipment they will need. Me, I fret over what books to take with me!

In the near future we will be going away to a chalet in cottage country for a week with my extended family. We’ve never taken a family vacation together before, and I anticipate that there might be some moments when quiet, solitary contemplation will be needed. Therefore, some reading material will be required.

As I have mentioned before, I don’t usually plan my reading in advance. I prefer to go with the flow and pick up whatever I’m moved to read at the time. Nevertheless, I have a feeling I might want to read something light and fun.  That rules out The Bell Jar, and The Jungle among others on Mt.  TBR. I’ve been keen to read The Information and The Long Goodbye, but the copies I have are really nice and I don’t want to wreck them by dropping them in the lake or getting them covered with molten marshmallow debris. That rationale also rules out library books despite having The Uncommon Reader on hold.

After some hand-wringing I have narrowed it down to a short list. For kicks, let’s make it into a poll. Please vote for the book you think I should take on vacation:

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Everything Is Illuminated

August 7, 2011

There’s an awkward fact that I feel I must finally acknowledge two years into this reading challenge – Some of the books on the 1,000 Novels Everyone Must Read list are lame. Some are mildly lame, while others (e.g. The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom by Tobias Smollett) are mind-bogglingly, I’d-rather-wear-a-hairshirt-than-read-any-more-of-this-thing lame. (I bet you can’t wait for that review!)

I half expected Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer to be lame. I wasn’t exactly looking forward to reading it, but the copy I have is a BookCrossing book and I picked it to read so that I could move the book along on its journey.

Red flags of potential lameness:

  • Blurbs on steroids – The largest and loudest signal of potential lameness was the blurbs on the cover tripping over themselHuge Red Flagves in effusive praise, declaring the book “Brilliant!” and “a book that transcends genre to become experience.” This was troubling because I find that reviewers sometimes mistake impenetrability, and even incoherence, for brilliance. It’s as though they can’t be seen to admit that they didn’t understand a work, so they declare it brilliant to save face and seem cool.
  • Kind of a big deal –Perhaps I’m just a stubborn contrarian, but I am automatically somewhat suspicious of things that receive a lot of hype and are very popular. There’s nothing wrong with being popular, but I’ve often been disappointed by many books that people told me were amazing.
  • We have issuesEverything is Illuminated purports to be about a young traveller who sets out to find a women from a photograph who may or may not have saved his grandfather from the Holocaust. It seemed to me that there was a great deal of potential for the work to have an agenda and/or be incredibly depressing. Neither of these are marks of lameness. I like it when people have something to say, and some of the most moving books are depressing, but if not handled skilfully by the author, the potential for lameness is huge.
  • It’s my first time – It’s the debut novel by a young author, prominently featuring a very heavy subject in an edgy style. Look at the author picture – Foer makes baby-faced Mark Zuckerberg look like an aged sage. Looking at that photo, I knew that the book would either be a work of genius or utter crap.
  • WTF kind of language is that? – The novel begins in the voice of one of the main characters, a grossly under-qualified Ukrainian “translator” whose English is so full of malapropisms it’s as though it were run back and forth through a digital thesaurus or translation program several times. Playing the Telephone Game with my elderly, hearing-impaired, slightly inebriated aunties doesn’t even come close to yielding phrases this messed up.  I really wondered what I was getting myself into.

Now that I have discussed my apprehensions ad nauseam, let’s see what I thought once I actually read it.

Why Everything is Illuminated is not lame:

  • Jack WebbJust the fiction, Ma’am –To me, the best thing about this novel is that it’s concise. It would have been easy for the author to get carried away with the imaginative flights of fancy that he takes, with different subplots meandering through various periods in history – but he either has amazing instincts, or an awesome editor (or both) because there is nothing in it that doesn’t need to be.
  • Weird, in a good way – There are certain kinds of contemporary fiction that get on my nerves. I don’t know that there is a particular genre to label it with, but the characteristic that stands out for me is that they try very hard to be original, novel, and clever. Painfully clever. Impenetrably clever. Convolutedly clever. Pointlessly clever. I feared that Everything Is Illuminated would fall into this category, that it would be full of gimmicks and novelty for novelty’s sake –especially when it begins with the bizarre version of English that Alex speaks. I was pleasantly surprised.  Foer uses some very unconventional ways and interesting devices to tell the story, but that’s the thing – they serve the story, rather than the story becoming a platform for showcasing how clever and original the author is.
  • LMAO – I never expected a book about the Holocaust to be this funny. Then again, Everything Is Illuminated isn’t really about the Holocaust, despite what the jacket description led me to believe. It’s about a lot of things, some of which are tragic, but many of which are downright knee-slappingly hilarious. Most amusing to me is how he satirizes the process through which traditions and folklore form and morph over time. It takes a lot of skill to deftly mix humour with tragedy and contentious subjects, but he nailed it.

So this has been a rather long-winded way of saying that I didn’t expect to like Everything is Illuminated, but I did. A lot.

Why I’ve Never Read Harry Potter

July 15, 2011
Mom as Dementor from Harry Potter

The past couple of days I have been reminded that I just might be the only person left in the western world who has not read any of the Harry Potter novels.

Last night I went to a BookCrossing Toronto gathering, where the new Harry Potter movie was the primary topic of conversation. The group is full of very passionate HP fans so that was not a surprise –and despite this shocking lacuna in my reading career, I am at least somewhat conversant in the Potterverse.

Riding the subway on the way home at nearly midnight, I was in a car with two young women in their late teens or early twenties dressed in school uniforms. It occurred to me that it was rather late in both the evening and the year for school uniforms, and I thought it a bit peculiar that they were wearing different uniforms despite obviously being together. Then it dawned on me that they were wearing Hogwarts uniforms and each girl was showing her affinity for a different house (sorry, I cannot yet tell my Gryffindors from my Hufflepuffs by sight.)

Even my seventy-year-old mother dresses up in Potter garb occasionally, and ravenously read each book as they were released. So how has it come to pass that, as a person whose enthusiasm for books and reading is a defining attribute, I have not read the most talked-about books of the last century?

It’s not as though I’m staging a Harry Potter boycott.  I almost wish I had some kind of dramatic reason for not having read the books so that I could manufacture an entertaining retort to use when people express their bafflement at this fact.

As is nearly always the case, the truth is much more mundane. Here are the totally underwhelming reasons I haven’t read the Harry Potter books yet:

  • At first it was because they are kids’ books and I was unsure whether I would enjoy them
  • Then I saw the first movie and I agonized over whether to read the first book or start with the second, and I couldn’t reach a decision so I forgot about it
  • Then I saw the second movie which caused further hand-wringing
  • Then I found out that the last books would be divided into two parts, and I dislike cliffhangers so I decided to wait until all of the parts were published and read them all straight through
  • Then started my business and didn’t have time for such things
  • And the biggest, yet pathetically dull, reason I have not read any Harry Potter books is – I haven’t got around to it yet

Somewhere in this book-infested house I possess a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I’m coming to the realization that it’s about time I read it — not just to impress my Quidditch-playing friends, or to appease my butter-beer-loving mother, but because I want to.

We interrupt the regularly scheduled reading…

June 19, 2011

hatsI haven’t read much in the past couple of months. Actually, that’s incorrect.  I haven’t read many books in the past couple of months.  Now that I have a full-time gig that involves writing all day, every day, I’ve been finding that my eyes and my brain aren’t that interested in processing more words when I get home.

In my old job I wore many hats, so writing was interspersed with lots of other activities.  From there I went on to be self-employed, and anyone who’s ever run their own business will tell you that you don’t just wear a lot of hats, you wear ALL the hats, so I was accustomed to being not just a writer, but also the Finance department, the IT department, the Collections department (sigh) and so forth.  In my new role I have people who look after everything else, and so all I do is write and edit all day long.  In many respects it is blissful.  It is so refreshing to really focus on doing one thing extremely well. My inner perfectionist is loving it. My eyes, not so much. At least for the first while I have felt very tired and drained at the end of each day. Spent is a good way to describe it. I would come home, veg in front of the TV for a couple of hours and go to bed, having put everything I had into the day’s writing, and taking on board all of the information necessary for the new job.

Thankfully I seem to have settled in now and my energy is returning. I know a lot more about the business now, and I feel more at ease on the job. I’ve started working from home two days of the week, which cuts the exhausting commute down to size. Things are looking up again for recreational reading. I read The Sign of Four last weekend, and recently finished The Eyre Affair (having thought it was on the list. It isn’t, but I’m not bothered about it because it was a fun read.) I’m optimistic that I’ll pick up the pace of novel-reading again very soon.  Nevertheless, at the moment I’m reading several books on Search Engine Optimization in the hope that one day soon I will be able to sustain a conversation with my tech-savvy colleagues without any blank stares on my part.

My eyes can’t be that tired.  I just sat here and wrote this blog post, after all.

Life Intervenes

April 10, 2011
BCinDC Convention

The universe has a funny way of mocking me whenever I make plans. As I wrote about in March, I had compiled a rather ambitious list of books I hoped to read before attending the upcoming BookCrossing Convention in DC. Not long after that post I followed up with one of my freelance clients on the status of a project that we’d discussed earlier in the year but was on hold. He responded with an unexpected offer to work for them full-time. So, to make a long story short, virtually overnight I have gone from being self-employed to having a full-time job. To crank the  irony dial to 11, the moment I accepted the job I suddenly had a surge in demand for my freelance services. Silly universe.

Needless to say, I’ve had a lot on my mind and my reading list hasn’t been a top priority.Nevertheless I’ve still plowed through a few of the titles on the list.  I read Black Sunday, Pest Control, Nikolski, Emotionally Weird, and I have just started The Eyre Affair. I started Lake Woebegon Days early on, but it got left in a handbag I seldom use and I haven’t come back to it yet. It was also threatening to fall apart at the spine as I was reading it, which is a bit of a deterrent.

We leave for the BCinDC convention on Thursday morning, and I am so looking forward to it.  I haven’t been to a BC convention since London in 2008 and it will be marvellous to see so many old friends again.  What will it mean for the books I picked out but didn’t get around to reading?  I suppose it means I’d better start saving my pennies so that I can take them to Dublin next year. Oh yes, and also get reading.

I Don’t Normally Do This

March 2, 2011

I’ve said before that I like to be spontaneous in my reading. One of the rewards of finishing a book is the frisson of excitement when I get to pick the next one. So I surprised myself recently when I went to my bookshelf and selected a whole stack of books to read, and proceeded to determine the order in which to read them.

You see, the 2011 BookCrossing Convention is coming up in April. When I go to a BC convention I like to take books with me that I have received from other BookCrossers, especially ones that have passed through the hands of several people. Some of the books I picked are ones that have been on my shelf for a long time, and their presence has been weighing on me. I’ve felt a measure of guilt that I have had them for years and not got around to reading them.

Guilt’s always a good motivator, but there are also books that I am just really keen to read. There are still others that I want to read, but mostly I want to get them out of the house. That’s not a slight against them, but merely a sign that I know I have too many books.

Here’s what’s in the big stack now piled between my bedside table and the bed (and which is currently the same height as both.) Not all of them are 1000 Novels titles, but many are.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
The Sign of Four
Lake Wobegon Days
Black Sunday
Pest Control
Nikolski
Emotionally Weird
The Jade Peony
The Eyre Affair
White Teeth
Beautiful Losers
A Fine Balance
Loving Frank
Atmospheric Disturbances
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Everything is Illuminated

I’m generally not that good at doing what I am told, even if I am the one doing the telling. So we’ll see how this goes. It could prove to have been nothing more than an exercise in procrastination (I was putting off doing something else when I started pulling the books off the shelf), or I might surprise myself and read them all in order. It will be interesting to see how many I manage to read before the convention starts on April 15th.

March 2, 2011 –137 read

P.S. Happy Birthday to one of my all-time favourite authors, Dr. Seuss.  I think that if I hadn’t read his books as a child I would have ended up a different person. That is, I would be a far less interesting and articulate version of myself.

A Princess of Mars

September 29, 2010

A Princess of MarsI came away from reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, thinking how great it must have been to write in an age when you could just make stuff up. The novel, as the title suggests, is largely set on the planet Mars. The landscape and life on the planet seem to have sprung entirely from Burroughs’ imagination, which is refreshing to read if a bit preposterous.  He wrote it nearly a century ago when the idea of Martians was still very much in the public imagination and at least one prominent astronomer claimed to see canals on the surface of Mars which he cited as evidence of advanced Martian civilization.

Today’s writers are expected to research their subject extensively. The science-fiction writer who does not underpin his/her speculative fiction with solid a scientific basis invites a mailbox overflowing with pedantic missives or even outright dismissal by readers. Even the slightest minutiae are trotted out as errata and subject to criticism and ridicule on the internet.  

Not long after reading A Princess of Mars I watched Darren Aronofsky’s film The Fountain, which I found highly inventive, awe-inspiring, and thought-provoking. I loved it and so I did a search to find out more. Much of what I came up with concerned nitpicky quibbles such as how the image used to depict the Xibalba Nebula is actually the Orion Nebula which differs in colour and many of the other properties described in the film, or that one of the Mayan sites is referred to by a name that was not adopted until a later period in history.

The Fountain

The Fountain

What kind of reception would A Princess of Mars receive if it were released today? It probably would be a laughingstock, which would be a shame given that, regardless of its faults and overall pulp fiction schlockiness, it fired imaginations at the time and went on to inspire the likes of Carl Sagan, Arthur C. Clark, Ray Bradbury, H.P. Lovecraft, and Robert Heinlein.

I wonder if society is losing its ability to be inspired.  Are our imaginations being supplanted by the urge to rate, criticize and deconstruct? Is it more fun to scrutinize and find fault in something great than to allow oneself  to be outlandish or aspire to greatness? Does the current culture of armchair criticism and emphasis on factuality put a chill on imagination in fiction?

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