Sunday, December 26, 2010

Year in Review Part Two



Yesterday I posted a giant post about two of my loves: movies and video games. Today, I'm going to post about the third: literature. I read 94 books by the 26th of December. I don't expect to finish what I started today by New Years, so I'm going to call it as the end. 94 books is quite a feat! It's definitely the most I've ever read in one year. Let's take a look:



The White
Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Last Orders
by Graham Swift

In A Free
State by V. S. Naipaul

The Ghost
Road by Pat Barker

The
Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer

The
Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

Holiday by Stanley Middleton

Possession by A. S. Byatt

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Saville by David Storey

The Spectator
Bird by Wallace Stegner

Beloved by
Toni Morrison

The Great
Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Things Fall
Apart by Chinua Achebe

The Virgin in
the Garden by A. S. Byatt

Still Life by
A. S. Byatt

The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt

Daniel Martin by John Fowles

Babel Tower by A. S. Byatt

The Wapshot Chronicle by John
Cheever

Appointment
in Samarra by John O'Hara

White Noise
by Don Delillo

V by Thomas
Pynchon

The Crying of
Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

Inherent Vice
by Thomas Pynchon

Vineland by
Thomas Pynchon

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

Last Orders by Graham Swift

Staying On by Paul Scott

The Siege of Krishnapur by J.
G. Farrell

Heat and Dust
by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala'

Rites of
Passage by William Golding

Sacred Hunger
by Barry Unsworth

The Jewel in
the Crown by Paul Scott

Troubles by
J. G. Farrell

The Robber
Bride by Margaret Atwood

The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers

Blind Lake by Robert Charles Wilson

Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood

To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer

Childhood's
End by Arthur C Clarke

Darwinia by Robert Charles Wilson

The Jewels of
Aptor by Samuel R Delany

The Wanderers
by Richard Price

The Einstein
Intersection by Samuel R Delany

Nova by
Samuel R Delany

Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

High Rise by J. G. Ballard

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Elsewhere by
William Peter Blatty

August by
Gerard Woodward

Hell House by
Richard Matheson

Clara Callan by Richard Wright

The Flanders
Panel by Arturo Perez-Reverte

The Long Home
by William Gay

Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron

Provinces of Night by William Gay

Twilight by William Gay

From the Terrace by John O'Hara

Union
Atlantic by Adam Haslett

Hope of
Heaven by John O'Hara

Nocturnes by
Kazuo Ishiguro

The Thin Man
by Dashiell Hammett

Grifter's Game by Laurence Block

Swag by
Elmore Leonard

Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco

The Underground Man by Ross MacDonald

Nightfall by David Goodis

The Doomsters by Ross MacDonald

The Killer
Inside Me by Jim Thompson

Down There by
David Goodis

At End of Day
by George V. Higgins

The Man with
the Getaway Face by Richard Stark

Horns by Joe
Hill

The Keeper by
Sarah Langan

The Caretaker of Lorne Field by David Zeltserman

The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow

The Missing by Sarah Langan

The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V Higgins

The Risen
Empire by Scott Westerfeld

Unknown Man
#89 by Elmore Leonard

The Killing
of Worlds by Scott Westerfeld

The Day of
the Scorpion by Paul Scott

The Towers of
Silence by Paul Scott

The Snow
Queen by Joan Vinge

Nineteen Seventy-Four by David Peace

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

Boyhood by J.
M. Coetzee

Nineteen
Seventy-Seven by David Peace

Nineteen
Eighty by David Peace

A Whistling
Woman by A. S. Byatt

Nineteen
Eighty-Three by David Peace

What did I think of them? Well you know. I reviewed most of them for this blog. You already know which books I loved and which I hated. But let's do what everybody else does and rank them! Nothing like putting an arbitrary system on things as diverse as novels! Without further ado, the top ten books I read in 2010.
10 The Power of the Dog
9 Twilight (William Gay, not the vampire book)
8 Blind Lake
7 White Noise
6 V
5 Still Life
4 Freedom
3 The Siege of Krishnapur
2 The Red Riding Quartet
1 The Raj Quartet (or at least the first three)
So I definitely cheated with spots 2 and 1. That's seven books instead of 2. But whatever it's my blog. Surely someone could argue that both quartets are meant to stand as one singular work each.
The Power of the Dog was an amazing book. It was long, epic, fast, fierce and read like Ellory on speed, if that's possible. While it's not the deepest or most literary of all my choices, it represents how to do genre fiction properly. It's doesn't have to be stupid.
Twilight by William Gay was a spectacular surprise. I just randomly picked up his three novels from the library because I wanted to read some Southern fiction, and I was blown away.
Every time I read a Robert Charles Wilson book, I'm pleased as punch. Blind Lake was a typical Wilson book, but typical is not really a good word to describe the experience. Again, it's genre fiction done properly.
I can't believe I hadn't read White Noise until this year. It was astonishing good. I even lent it to a friend, and I never lend books, that's how much I thought of it.
V was a great ride, funny, accessible, giant, epic and always entertaining. I read a bunch of Pynchon this year, and I think V might be his best novel I've read by him. Also a book I lent out.
Still Life is Byatt's best novel, of which I've read 6. Byatt is a writer's writer, for sure. She throws everything she can into the pot, and sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn't. Still Life however, manages to be human, emotional, intelligent and gripping.
Freedom was a great read. And it's going to be read over and over again by the literati. It's a big important book and it was really good. I really liked it.
The Siege of Krishnapur would have totally dominated this list if it wasn't for the two quartets. I had no idea what I was getting into when I started it, but I absolutely adore this book. I think of it from time to time and always with fondness, a true sign of quality.
The Raj Quartet, even though I haven't finished it, manages to loom over all of 2010. It's a fascinating byzantine and crystalline work of art and it's truly criminal that people don't give Paul Scott the recognition he deserves.

General thoughts:
My desire to keep with classics petered out rather quickly as I strayed from genre to genre throughout the year. As always, genre fiction remains a go-to book for me, be it noir or science fiction or what have you. However, reading classics and classics of genre seemed to be a winning formula, considering there's only maybe 5 books that I hated throughout the year.


Using an arbitrary scoring system of 1 to 5 with half-steps between, here's a chart that took me ages to make that shows that there is no Bell Curve. Since I tried to read classics, scores ended up being closer to 4 than anything. In fact, the average is 3.63 out of 5 for the entire year. Not bad! As you can see, only 5 books ended up with 1, the lowest score I could give.

What is up next for 2011, you ask? Well, let's take a look at my to-be-read pile.

I want to continue with the Bookers, of course. I'm over halfway, but that doesn't mean I should slack. I kind of left some clunkers on the list left to read, and it's going to be difficult reading the more esoteric or controversial choices.
In no particular order, here are the top novels I'd like to complete in 2011
A Division of the Spoils by Paul Scott
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
GB84 by David Peace
Anathem by Neal Stephenson
Sophie's Choice by William Styron
Spin by Robert Charles Wilson
Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane
Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
Blood's a Rover by James Ellroy
Wish me luck!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Year in Review Part One

Ah, 2010, the year that my finances came to a crushing and awful point. I shall never forget being forced to choose between food or laundry. But enough about my woes. I'd like to take this opportunity, as we edge closer to 2011, to reflect on what happened to me, what I did, and what I reviewed for this blog. I haven't done a year in review for awhile, and back in January, I did two posts about film I saw and books I read, but nothing comprehensive. For this year, I'm going to do 2 posts again, one on film/video games, and the second on books.

Let's start with some personal stuff first. The big thing that happened to me this year was that I went back to school. I said that I was going to do paramedic stuff, but I ended up doing computer programming. Quite a switch, I know. But I feel like programming is a better fit for one such as myself, that is to say, a total geek. My g/f was finally accepted into the Canadian Forces, specifically the Navy, and once her training is complete, she is going to be a badass force to be reckoned with. My cousin was born in April, bringing my cousin tally to a total of 2! Yes, I know everybody has a million cousins, but I come from hearty Protestant stock, and we don't believe in mass procreation like our Catholic brethren. I got to visit my cousin on his birthday, and it was spectacular. However, it didn't instill baby-fever in me.

All in all, not a terrible year. I would have loved to have not been so stressed about money, but wouldn't we all?

Now let's take a look at this blog's major focus: art to consume greedily.

I'll start with movies. Frankly, I can't remember every single movie I saw this year, which says to me that it wasn't a stellar year for film. Or maybe, I just didn't see everything I wanted to. Let's take a look at that post in March where I posted what I wanted to see.... Huh. It appears that Iron Man 2 and Tron: Legacy were the only two major flicks I missed. Let's take a look at the Top Five movies of 2010:
5 Inception
4 The A-Team
3 The Town
2 The Social Network
1 Toy Story 3
The clear winner was Toy Story 3 - a movie I thought so much of, I was sad because it couldn't be topped. I really liked The Social Network's screenplay and performances, and I was blown away by The Town. I thought The A-Team was a really fun action movie, big, loud, stupid, and ignorant of basic physics. I loved Inception on my first viewing, but it didn't hold up on a second, but it was still better than most movies I saw. What about the worst?
5 Nightmare on Elm Street
4 Robin Hood
3 MacGruber
2 Due Date
1 Get Him to the Greek
I didn't care for these films, but I didn't really see a lot of "bad" movies, so the list is skewed. I know for a fact that I actively hated Get Him to the Greek. Never before have I see a comedy so purposefully malicious and unconcerned with tone or character. It was awkward and not in the funny way - in the annoying and frustrating way. Due Date was a huge disappointment considering the two leads, but the few funny bits were Robert Downey Jr and he was saddled with being the straight man. Robin Hood was stunningly mediocre and Nightmare on Elm Street was uneven and a missed opportunity.

What's coming up for 2011? Here's my list of movies I want to see
7 Tintin
6 Final Destination 5
5 Transformers 3
4 The Muppets
3 Thor
2 Green Lantern
1 Tree of Life
Can't wait for a new Terence Malick flick. And Jason Segal doing The Muppets? Yes, please. Looks a decent year for movies. There'll be another Paranormal Activity, which doesn't make me want to puke. Yet.

I also played a lot of video games this year. A lot. I got a new laptop for school, and I went ahead and played every video game I had always wanted to play and didn't. Let's take a look at video games that I loved, regardless of their release date.
6 Chess Titans (Windows 7)
5 Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2
4 Half Life 2
3 Grand Theft Auto IV: Complete Edition
2 Red Dead Redemption
1 Fallout: New Vegas
Yes, Fallout is number one. Would there have been anything else? There's certainly one million bugs, some of them game-breaking, but that doesn't mean I didn't have a blast walking around the Mojave Wasteland. I think the highlight of my experience was when I spent an hour, perched on a mining crane, using an almost broken sniper rifle, and slowly but surely picking off a family of Deathclaws. I took me forever but it was so satisfying when it was over. I also played Half Life 2 for the very first time and I fell absolutely in love with it. It's a perfect video game. Yes, perfect. GTA IV was given a second try by yours truly, and I found it to be totally immersive. There's nothing cooler than walking around in a suit, stealing a car, and then cruising around listening to Heaven and Hell by Black Sabbath. Red Dead Redemption was also particularly addicting! It was always just amazing to hop into the saddle and ride into the bush. I still played a lot of Modern Warfare 2 going into the new year, but I sort of dropped off.

What about video games that I still want to play (in no particular order or by release date)?
7 Uncharted 3
6 GoldenEye 007 (Wii)
5 Super Mario Galaxy 2
4 F.E.A.R. 3
3 Crysis 2
2 Resistance 3
1 Mass Effect 2 (PS3)
I just received for Christmas Uncharted 2 and God of War 3, so that removes them (finally!) from the list of video games I want. I cannot wait to play Mass Effect 2. I've only hear amazing things about it, and it's one of the very few instances where I wish I had an XBOX. But if I didn't have a PS3 I wouldn't get Uncharted or Resistance or Killzone. I think I'm going to give Killzone 2 another try. I liked it, but I didn't love it. I am super excited about Crysis 2. My new laptop can't even handle the original Crysis, but with the sequel, it'll be on PS3, which means I'm in! The two F.E.A.R. games were really fun so hopefully the quality remains high with the third.

Some general thoughts on things:
I played more video games than watched any movie or television show. The g/f and I watched all of Lost this year and a ton of Doctor Who and I still played more video games. I find now I've read so much and played so much, I have trouble sitting through TV or movies. I need something to do during it. It's not an attention span thing: I sit and read all night at work. I have no problems with attention span. I just feel like TV and movies just aren't challenging me. Video games are where I want to be. That, or books.

Speaking of books, return tomorrow for a mammoth post on what I read and what I thought were the best books I read all year - and let me tell you, the sample pile is giant.

Nineteen Eighty-Three

Well, we've come to the end, and I'm equal parts elated and sad. It's always bittersweet to finish something you've liked so much, but it had to be done. The third book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, so I was mighty interested in getting my mitts on the fourth book. Too bad there's a two month waiting list at the library. What ho? What's this? My g/f gave me the rest of my Christmas gift, and yes, it's the complete set of books. Let's dive into the fourth and final volume of the Red Riding quartet.


Nineteen Eighty-Three follows three narrators across about 11 years. There's John Piggott, solicitor who has been tasked to appeal on behalf of Michael Myshkin, convicted of murdering the missing girls from the first book. Piggott is the "moral" character of this book, as Peter Hunter was of the last one, and Jack Whitehead of the second book.

There's also Maurice Jobson, a brass cop dubbed the Owl due to his thick glasses. And finally, there's BJ, the rentboy and frequent supplier of info to previous narrators.

Piggott's narration follows the 1983 course, as another ten year old girl has gone missing. Jobson and BJ, on the other hand, jump around in time, filling in gaps from the past three books, recontextualizing events.

While I say that the two narrators fill in the gaps, I don't mean they explain or reveal everything there is to know. Surprisingly, the solution to both mysteries of the entire series comes from the end of the first two books. But that's the point. This isn't a whodunit. In fact, it's harder to figure who wasn't involved in some way with this giant cast.

Peace's style is as expected: short, staccato, blunt, and oblique. He spices up a little using three different techniques for the three narrators. One is in first person present, another in second person present, and finally in first person, but using third person. This last one, BJ's narration, can be irritating, if only because when BJ is narrating, he's speaking in third person and omitting words such as "the". An example of this:
BJ step inside. BJ look about room.
On table in window there's his old red exercise book.
BJ walk over. BJ open it.
BJ close book. BJ turn to go
This could definitely be irritating, but somehow it isn't. Even the second person narration isn't annoying either. Maybe it's because I had already read a thousand pages of Peace's staccato style, so I was willing to go along with anything. Or maybe it's Peace's extraordinary storytelling skills.

Certainly the oeuvre as a whole is a work of art. I've previously read books about police corruption, about conspiracies, about the evils that men do, but never before have I been so totally engrossed and immersed in that noirish world. Peace completely engulfs the reader with just enough detail to sustain his image, but not enough to make it a history lesson.

Nineteen Eighty-Three is the most impressionistic of the quartet, I find. It's more ambitious and more interested in grander themes and ideas than the last three. It's a great finale that summarizes, recontextualizes, twists and turns what's come before.

But that impressionism can work against Peace. I personally would have enjoyed a bit more clarity in events. There's a hundred characters, most of them important, and over 13 years of history to know. It's already going to be complex, but when you add in Peace's distaste for directness, it's really complicated. Ultimately, I understood what happened to the major characters, and I understood what happened as a whole. I just would have preferred to know a little bit more.

The Red Riding quartet is a masterpiece of style and theme. Peace has created an amazing work of art that will last a long long long time. Nineteen Eighty-Three kept up the insanely high level of quality set by the other books, and I wasn't disappointed in the ending at all. There's even some catharsis to be had, and it's pretty damn satisfying.

Stay with me, because now I'm going to watch the movies!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Whistling Woman

It's taken me a long time to wash the foul taste of Babel Tower out of my mouth. I really didn't like it. And then when I tried reading A Whistling Woman, the final novel of Byatt's quartet, I was put off by the same problems immediately. It's taken me months, but I finally fucking finished this book.


In 1968, Frederica has become the host of a talk show on the exploding medium of television. At the big university, students are uprising and creating their own anti-university. The Ottokar twins have got involved with a cult leader, who has already captured Ruth.

That's about it for plot with this book, and it is unbelievably tedious to read it. Instead of a well-written novel about the English family and the English intellectual, Byatt has opted for a novel of ideas rather than a conventional book. It's just idea after idea after idea, thrown at the reader, as if the author's hoping something, anything will stick and make the book seem clever.

Byatt's favourite thing in the world appears to be contextual references and Frankenstein patchworks of novels already written. We saw this before with the first three books, but now, Byatt goes out of her way to point it out to the reader: Frederica's annoying cut-up book Laminations gets published and the critics misunderstand it but lavish praise on it. That's so irritating, Byatt.

Instead of tying loose ends, or even developing further her large cast, Byatt decides to introduce a bunch of new people and have them talk at each other about philosophy and math. This is in addition to copious scenes of established cast members talking at each other about math and fucking snails.

There isn't an idea or concept that Byatt can't tie to her grandiose theme of the inadequacy of language and the inadequacy of humanity. Every single goddamn Sixties revolutionary idea is thrown in the blender and mashed with everything else.

It's interesting at first, but becomes absolute work by the halfway point of the novel. If only there was some sort of counterpoint, some plot development that saved the rest of the novel. Well, no there isn't. In fact, there's an even more boring and irritating subplot, that of the messianic cult figure, whose back story is told in painfully detailed fashion, as if anybody gave a shit about him.

I can't believe how much I hated this novel. When I started it, I thought Byatt would do something with the concept of endings and how real life isn't like that, or something. Hell, anything! But instead, we're treated to endless fucking pages of snails, hippies having group sex, stupid flashbacks to a moron, and more tedious imagery.

A Whistling Woman might one of the worst books I've ever read. Not because of Byatt's usual crisp prose, or her ability to connect disparate dots, but for this novel's sheer pretension and self-indulgence, and it's totally without merit. It doesn't amount to any grand idea about England's intellectual revolution. In fact, the conclusion I came to upon finishing this book is that hippies are fucking annoying, and the four hundred pages to get there are boring.

Irritating and annoying are the two best adjectives to describe A Whistling Woman. I can hardly believe this was written by the same author as the first two books in the series. At least, those books aren't affected by this frustrating exercise in testing a reader's patience. I'm done with Byatt for a long time.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Nineteen Eighty

Okay, let's get right into it, shall we?

It's three years later, and the police still haven't caught the Yorkshire Ripper. Under pressure from the public, the upper echelons have brought in Peter Hunter, a clean cop from Manchester to head up a second investigation, looking back on how the police have handled the case thus far.

As soon as Hunter starts getting into things, connections are being made that somehow implicate Hunter himself with crooked property owners, pornographers, and some bent cops. Hunter struggles to retain his reputation and still manage to investigate a police force that resists, sometimes violently, any outsider.


Peace has reached the three quarter mark of the Red Riding quartet, and it's still going strong. I might consider this to be the strongest of all three so far, actually. Peace chooses to keep with a single narrator, one who isn't totally crazy at the outset. In typical fashion, Peace slowly tears away Hunter's sanity. It works best in this book because the starting point was so normal. The nervous breakdown, inevitable it seems, is organic and authentic feeling.

Hunter's downward spiral is matched by the style of narration. Probably the best synthesis of style and subject I've seen from Peace. This isn't to say that it didn't work in the last two books, but it somehow manages to gel better with Nineteen Eighty.

I found myself comparing this book to the Raj Quartet while I was reading. Not just because of the superficial similarity of quantity, but both Paul Scott's and Peace's retreading of ground, going over and over the same facts, but then shedding a different light on them later. This is especially true with Nineteen Eighty. There isn't as much "new" information in terms of intricate conspiracy. Hunter spends a good portion of the novel just going over events we've previously seen.

What new information there is to be had is of the fate of Jack Whitehead and what the Ripper has been up in the past three years, and he has been busy. If you hadn't got your fill of descriptions of gruesome corpses with the past two books, then you're in for a treat. For a small amount of pages, this book is a real chore to read. Not because of quality issues, but because there's only so much goddamn gore I can handle in one sitting.

This is also the saddest of the three books so far. Hunter isn't a bad guy. He doesn't fully deserve what happens to him. Peace puts him through the ringer, that's for sure. And while it's not "fun" to read Hunter's descent, it's utterly gripping and nerve wracking.

Peace manages to sustain that crazed pace from the last two books, and he manages to do so even with the inclusion of domestic interludes that shed light on how fucked up Hunter was before being assigned his new post.

But there are a couple problems to be had with Nineteen Eighty, none of them especially devastating. First is the newest feature of the Red Riding quartet: at the beginning of every chapter, there's a solid page of small point text that reads like a cross between TV news and interior monologue, usually from the Ripper's victims. I understand why it's included (humanize the victims) but I never liked reading them. They feel like affectation, like Peace didn't think he was artsy enough, so he added it in for respectability. They don't feel authentic, and that's a crime, seeing as how they're supposed to be interior monologue.

The other problem I can't go into major detail because of spoilers, but suffice it to say that during Peace's usual final act, when he reveals things and twists things, there comes a revelation that's utter nonsense and is a total cheat. A good twist should outsmart the reader, but play fair. An astute or observant reader would pick up on the clues. The twist that mars the end of Nineteen Eighty doesn't ruin the book or the overarching plot. In fact, it can be considered forgettable in the grand scheme of things. But the twist's unfairness and how it changes something fundamental about a character makes it irritating.

Other than those couple issues, neither of which are major, Nineteen Eighty is an impressive feat. Using his unique voice and his unique style, Peace has carved out a chunk of history and called it his own. I can't believe these books are more widely read or more critically acclaimed. So far, at the three quarter mark, I'm willing to call the Red Riding quartet a masterpiece.

Nineteen Seventy-Seven

I started and stopped probably six books in the past week. It was exam time, and I was training for a new job, which meant less reading time. But my girlfriend, probably the best one in the world, decided to help me out of my reading funk with an early Christmas gift. She gave me the second book in the Red Riding quartet, and I read it in about one day.



Jack Whitehead, crime reporter for the Yorkshire Post, and Bob Fraser, detective for the Yorkshire police, are both going through personal hell. Whitehead is still in shock from Eddie's fate back in 1974, while Fraser's father in law is dying of cancer. Both of them are dealing with what's been called the Yorkshire Ripper, a killer of prostitutes. Of course, things aren't as simple as they seem, especially when the two men get involved with prostitutes and their lives unravel completely.

Nineteen Seventy-Seven seems to cover all of the same themes of the last book, that is to say, of police corruption, and the madness that ensues from being corrupt. But unlike the first book, Nineteen Seventy-Seven uses dual narrators and a much larger canvas, if that's even possible.

Peace's style has evolved slightly since the previous volume. He's hardened it, refined it, made it even crisper. He still has some occasional problems with coherency or overall clarity, but his Ellroy pastiche has moved on from imitation to his own voice. It will be interesting to read the next two volumes to see where his voice takes him.

Some readers will no doubt be turned off by Peace's unrelenting bleakness or by his stylized prose, which is characterized by repetition, short staccato sentences and tons of obscenity. But it's his style that sustains Peace's best trick up his sleeve: his absolutely manic pacing. Both books I've read by him are just nonstop. Because Peace needs to do so much exposition, Nineteen Seventy-Seven could have been bogged down. There's a lot of heavy lifting to do in terms of characters and plot, if the plot is going to last for three books. Peace succeeds at all of this because of his confidence in his style.

I've been going on about the style and tone of the novel, but I haven't really said anything about the subject. Rest assured, if you were disturbed and abused by Nineteen Seventy-Four, you're going to get the same reaction from this book. This book descends as low into the murk and dark as possible for fiction. This is true noir: no light escapes Nineteen Seventy-Seven.

Peace also achieves something that the first book didn't quite manage to do. Peace gets to the lofty level of literature where what he's saying is important. As in how The Wire is important. As in that the books are saying something that needs to be said because nobody else has the balls to do it.

To top it all off, Peace even manages to make his imagery stand out. His symbols start to compound, the benefit of the series structure as opposed to standalone novels. The wings of the last book come back, and Peace develops that slightly, but also sets up other images that will no doubt reverb throughout the last two books.

Nineteen Seventy-Seven is the whole package: a gripping taut read, an important work of social commentary, an impressive and complicated mystery, and a large sizable cast that mostly stays delineated. With only his second book, the Red Riding Quartet is going to go down as an extremely important and classic work of art.

Boyhood

J. M. Coetzee is a good reliable author. I was looking at Coetzee novels to read, because I hadn't read one in awhile, so I thought I'd give the first book in his weird biography trilogy a go. Here's what I thought.



The nameless protagonist of Boyhood is growing up in South Africa in the fifties, son to a Afrikaans attorney father and English former teacher mother. He is an avid reader, distrusting of his father, cruel to his mother, exceedingly smart, but always confused at the different people who live in South Africa. The protagonist is growing up in this country of many worlds.

While this is a slim volume, Coetzee really does a lot with a limited cast and a limited scope. It's told mostly in episodic format, but there is a development over the course of the novel, as John (the child) grows up and reaches awkward adolescence all of which Coetzee details sharply.

But I didn't love this novel. It's a very minor low key work, imminently forgettable save for a fantastic chapter set on a family farm in the veld. Coetzee's prose is simple and clear, but distant from the poetic fullness of his prose in other works.

Boyhood shares a couple things with Coetzee's obvious masterpiece, The Life and Times of Michael K: the protagonist with mother issues, the difficulty of duality in identity, and the love of the natural world, the land, the nature. But where Boyhood differs is Coetzee's timidity. Boyhood could have been something more, something transcendent, but it's missing it.

It's hard to understand why. It's not like Coetzee really needed to create characters or invent situations. Everything supposedly comes from memory.

Boyhood isn't a bad novel, though. Not at all. For it's 166 pages, it's utterly fascinating. I've never been to South Africa, so I have no previous experience with his 1950's childhood. The book is good if only for Coetzee's descriptions of what life was like back then. But this isn't a history book, and one can't judge it by those standards.

While I liked Boyhood, I don't think it's anything more than average quality. That being said, average quality for Coetzee is still miles ahead of most authors. Even if Boyhood doesn't reach the heights of previous works, it's still a fascinating, entertaining read.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Offshore

I found the smallest Booker Prize winner and gave it a go. Here's what I thought of the 1979 winner.



On the river Thames, there lives a collection of people in houseboats. There's Richard, married to Laura. There's Maurice, a male prostitute. There's Nenna, a single mother of two. There's Willis, an artist. They all reach a crisis, and deal with it.

I hated this book. Hated it. I wasn't sure at any point if this was a comedy or a tragedy. The tone is so off putting that I struggled to finish a 140 page novel.

Penelope Fitzgerald, the author, introduces a sizable cast, considering the book's short length, and she only bothers to develop maybe two or three of them. The characters are mostly interchangeable, especially in voice. Every single person seems to have the same stilted distant dialogue, with oddly formal vocabulary, including the eleven year old. But even the eleven year old can be switched with the male prostitute, and the results are the same.

I know what the book is about: people living in between worlds, the land and the sea, their divided selves. It's not good when the exceedingly helpful dust jacket does all the thematic heavy lifting. Only at a couple points does Fitzgerald allude to her thesis - no, allude isn't the word for it. Perhaps a better way of saying it is that when Fitzgerald mentions her theme, she points to it with neon signs.

I think the major problem of this book, the one from which all other complaints stem, is the novel's length. It's either too short or too long. If Fitzgerald had written another 100 pages, and drawn her characters out a little more, I probably would have liked it better. Conversely, if this novel had been trimmed to short story length, I would have no doubt loved it for its minimalism. But Fitzgerald tries to have it both ways, striving for minimalism, but complicating it with detail.

I hated Offshore. I thought the tone was so off putting as to make the novel interminable, an amazing feat for a 140 page novel. I hated the interchangeable characters. I hated the forced themes. I'm not even convinced Fitzgerald even said anything relevant about the duality of her own cast. I will not be reading another novel by her.

Looking at the novels shortlisted in 1979, I can see why the Booker Prize was awarded to this slight, disposable volume: there were no alternatives.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Skippy Dies

I won't lie. The only reason I looked at this book was because of the book design: three volumes in a slipcase. But when I found out what was the book's subject, I became very interested. Also, it was longlisted for the Booker Prize. Let's take a look.


Skippy Dies is set in Seabrook, a prestigious and expensive boarding school in Ireland. The story follows a group of friends in their second year, Skippy and Ruprecht mostly, as they navigate the murky waters of adolescence, girls, history, M-Theory, and Robert Graves. There's also Howard, a former student, now history teacher who is stuck on auto-pilot, until a beautiful substitute teacher arrives and messes up his life.

One thing that always pulls me out of a book is a jarring unrealistic character voice. This happens all the time with American TV shows, where 20 year old men are writing scripts starring teenage girls. It's extremely difficult to pull that off, so it's especially impressive when Paul Murray seems to "get" all the voices in this book.

He absolutely nails the modern teenager, with their never-ending stream of sarcasm and irony, obsession over sex, and their ever-present awkwardness. The boys are so cynical, or at least, present a cynical facade, so it's all the more heartbreaking and authentic when Murray shows the boys as... well, boys.

While at its surface, Skippy Dies is a 660 page boarding school comedy, there also exists darker things below. Murray doesn't turn away from more adult themes such as death and the First World War, especially when Howard, the depressed and stuck history teacher, discovers the memoir of Robert Graves.

In this giant book, Murray mixes into the big pot: Graves' The White Goddess, string theory, time travel, Irish history, and a whole bunch of Edwardian poets. But at no point is it ever boring. Murray skips around the cast with a deft hand, leaving us always wanting more.

I was reminded a lot of reading big American novels, modern ones I mean, where authors such as Franzen and his legion of imitators, try to cram everything they can, including misunderstood science to give a newer sense of imagery and counterpoint. Murray tends to write in that expansive showy way that Franzen et al. write in and it tends to work most of the time.

What doesn't work in Skippy Dies is that there's just a little bit too much to be had here. Not that I was ever bored, but I felt a bit of a trim may not have been a bad thing, especially in the last third of the book. Once Skippy has died, Ruprecht goes on a quest which uses dodgey Victorian science and music. It's clever how Murray ties a lot of the themes together in the big climactic memorial concert, but that doesn't mean it isn't a little tedious to get to the point.

Other than the last third needing an edit, I thought Skippy Dies was fantastic. It's alternatively hilarious and heartbreaking, and it always feels very authentic, even when Murray writing in the voice of teenagers, a notoriously hard group to pin down. While it may be a big novel, on a grand scale, Murray keeps it consistently great with a well drawn cast and a deft ear for dialogue. Very good!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Brooklyn

Colm Tóibín is a writer that I have been meaning to read. I foolishly started two large novels (700+ pages) and I thought I'd take a break from them with a smaller volume. I saw this at the library, and I gave it a try - in one long sitting.


Eilis Lacey is a young woman in 1950's Ireland, where there are no jobs and no visible future. At the behest of her fashionable sister, Eilis leaves her village for Brooklyn, where she gets a job in a department store, studies to become a bookkeeper, and eventually falls in love. When tragedy strikes back home, Eilis must figure out what to do about her new and old life.

Tóibín's prose is very sparse and very distant. He lets us into the protagonist's head a little, but not enough that we understand the decisions that she makes. We get the bare minimum of motivation.

The sparseness of the prose extends to descriptions and such. Tóibín barely sketches the physical shapes of his cast. It forces the attention of the reader onto the events and the significance of said events.

Brooklyn is a good novel. I wouldn't say a great novel. What's missing from creating a great experience is a sense of scale. At no point was I ever transported to 1950's New York; Tóibín doesn't sustain immersion. However, I was enthralled the entire time. I was more interested in "what happens" rather than "what's going on".

A lot of the serious literary stuff is all between the lines. There are a few instances where we are treated to a glimpse into Eilis' head, but it's not fully truthful. The book grasps for greatness at these moments, but they are too far and between.

I enjoyed Brooklyn, and read it in one sitting. I thought it was an enjoyable experience, but too focused on plot than serious significance. On the whole, a good read, slight but good.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Nineteen Seventy-Four

I have a funny relationship with David Peace's Red Riding Quartet. I put the first book on hold at the library, about a year ago, and some douchebag didn't return it. Finally, the library bought a replacement copy, and I was able to read it, but of course, some douchebag didn't return the second book in the quartet, so I can't read that until my library replaces that one, too. Which is a shame, because I really want to continue with this series. I don't want to watch the movies until I'm finished the entire quartet, not only because I don't want the books ruined, but because when I tried watching the series, I couldn't understand their deep Northern accents (and I'm normally good with accents). So... unfortunately, I have to wait. But I still read the first book.


A little girl named Clare has gone missing. Eddie Dunford, recently promoted to crime correspondent for the Yorkshire Post, has been tasked with reporting on this. He's just buried his father after a long illness, and he's a little messed up from it. Eddie notices a pattern between Clare and two other girls, but when he starts to look into the link, the police advise him to let sleeping dogs lie.

When Clare's mutilated body turns up, Eddie makes it his personal mission to uncover the secrets of this town. One of Eddie's colleagues is murdered, and he leaves a bag of evidence for Eddie to find, and it shows a link between these missing girls and the powerful men in the town, men in control of construction, the police, and a new shopping mall being built.

Absolutely - brutal. There's almost no other word for it. Brutal. Nineteen Seventy-Four is a a very effective punch in the face, not just in terms of the sheer brutality of the plot, but of Peace's ridiculously sharp prose.

There's no way to avoid this comparison, but Nineteen Seventy-Four is like James Ellroy in Northern England. Peace employs that same quick sparse staccato prose that Ellroy has so refined, but Peace doesn't bother with affecting slang. It's too ornate for Peace. What Nineteen Seventy-Four does is give the barest of all description because that's not what's important.

The themes are shared by Ellroy and Peace, however. Massive corruption, and the madness that occurs to those in power. I have never read a book that features this much corruption. There isn't a single innocent in this whole town, apparently, save for the little girls murdered and tortured beyond imagination.

This is a sick book. It's not going to give anyone a warm fuzzy feeling. Especially when Peace gets to the last third of the book, and the truth begins to be revealed. But there's more to this story than meets the eye, apparently. Not every question is answered, but certainly lots of blood is spilled to try.

Peace keeps an incredible pace throughout the book. It's extremely fast and there's tons of background information to retain, so this is not for the lazy Sunday mystery reader. One has to pay attention. But Peace never makes it confusing or needlessly obfuscating. It's a careful balance that the prose keeps, between revealing and keeping the speed up. It's hard to believe that this is Peace's debut novel.

I really liked Nineteen Seventy-Four. Really liked it. I can't wait to re-read it, once I've finished the entire oeuvre. It's a masterpiece of crime fiction. This is true noir; there is no morality. But it is not for the faint of heart. I am superexcited to read the next book - sigh.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Christmas Tree is officially up!

Notice the Ghostbusters ornament in the centre of the tree! Yay!

The Snow Queen

I read this book because of the write-up that io9.com did on this book. The article made the book seem interesting and epic, and it won a Hugo, so it can't be that bad. The writer of the article compares The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge to the ultimate space opera, Star Wars, but with a feminist angle. That doesn't bother me. Feminist science fiction has been an excellent subgenre. Hopefully, The Snow Queen holds to that standard.


Every 150 years, the planet Tiamat is closed off to the rest of the Hegemony, and to commemorate that, the ruling class changes, from the Winter Queen, ruler of the technologically inclined Winters to the Summer Queen, representative of more simple, working class folks called the Summers. But the Winter Queen has other plans; she doesn't want to give up her crown in ritual sacrifice. To avoid this, she plants a clone of herself in the Summers so that at least her genes continue to rule the world.

The clone, a young girl named Moon has aspirations of being a sibyl, a mystic that taps into mysterious founts of knowledge, while her beloved, Sparks, decides to move to the big city, but when he arrives, he becomes the corrupt consort of the Queen.

Moon travels to the big city to rescue her beloved, but finds herself swept up in a conspiracy of smugglers and freedom fighters, men and women looking to stop the Queen from continuing to harvest mers, sea creatures whose blood provides immortality to those who drink it.

As the big Change approaches, Moon and her friends conspire to change everything about Tiamat and stop the ruthless corrupt Queen from completing her plan.

The Snow Queen is conversely epic and not epic all at the same time. There's space travel, black holes, robots, alien lifeforms, and a centuries old mystery at the heart of it, but even with all of this space opera stuff, I never got a sense of epic scale from the book, and that's because of Vinge's tendency to keep scenes small and intimate. Every scene is brief and usually contains a conversation between two people. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does detract from the size of the book.

I don't think Vinge is interested in trappings of space opera. She absolutely loads the book with excellent imagery: Moon, Tiamat, queens, sibyls, and all sorts of angry men saying ignorant things about the lesser gender. This book is about the female, through and through. The name Moon gives a female character a more mythic base, considering we've always associated the moon with the female. Same with sibyls.

But Vinge isn't a one-trick pony. She also sets up a more subtle layer of identity issues. One of the more important elements of the ritual is the donning of masks. Throughout the book, the identity of Moon and Sparks comes into question. Who they thought they were, they aren't, and what's more important than that is who they become, when they finally remove their masks. When Sparks becomes the consort, he changes names. When Moon returns to the city, she takes on the guise of the Winter Queen. She struggles with who she is - is she the Winter Queen or her own person?

All the imagery and the world-building is clever and imaginative One doesn't have to be an expert to know where things are going. The conclusion of the novel has everything put in its place in a nice little bow. Half of the book is just putting pieces back where they started so that it can end.

Also, it doesn't help that Vinge's prose is simply boring. Straight up boring. She takes the time to describe everything that needs to be described, and she sometimes does so with nice lyrical prose, but for the most part, her prose is an exercise in blandness and tasteless. Her style is one of no-style.

I'm ultimately on the fence on The Snow Queen. I enjoyed the imagery and the metaphors, but that doesn't save the book from its predictable plot and flavorless prose. If only Atwood had written this book and not Vinge, then we'd have got something astonishing. Most of the time, I liked The Snow Queen, but I didn't love it. I won't read it again.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Towers of Silence

Now we reach the three quarters mark of my long and winding trek through Paul Scott's Raj Quartet. So let's get into it right away.


The Towers of Silence is an interesting animal in relation to the other books in the series. Often the penultimate chapter of a series is setup, putting all the final pieces in place before endgame. But the Raj Quartet is not about endgame or moving pieces around the board, which makes the third volume somewhat different. Structurally speaking, the whole series has been about telling the same important events, but from as many perspectives as possible. I found that this led to complaints in regards to The Towers of Silence; the novel was a re-write of the second volume. I did not find this to be the case.

The third volume follows very closely Barbie Bachelor, a minor character introduced in the previous book as a live-in companion to Mabel Layton, a step-grandmother-in-law to Sarah and Susan Layton. Barbie is a former missionary and schoolteacher and distant acquaintance of Edwina Crane, the self-immolating schoolteacher from The Jewel in the Crown. Barbie moves in with Mabel, and ingratiates herself into Mabel's life.

Events from the second novel are re-examined, such as Susan and Teddie's wedding, Teddie's subsequent death, the birth of Edward and the death of Mabel. At no point did I feel bored by retreading the same ground. Barbie is a complicated character, and Scott offers her and the reader a different angle by which to view these events. Detail not previously available to Sarah (as per The Day of the Scorpion) is readily presented to us in this book, layering our vision of what happened.

However, Barbie is not the only central character in this book. Teddie gets a chance in the spotlight for an extended sequence in which we're introduced to Merrick through Teddie and their brief conjoined military career. In the last book, Teddie was often accused of being shallow or cold or obsessed with the grandeur of the old school, but with this novel, Teddie is drawn more deep, making him a counterpoint to Merrick and thus to Kumar.

I said in the last review that the Raj Quartet is all about comparison of different Englishmen and women to each other, and how none of them have escaped corruption by the occupation of India. This holds true for even this volume. The towers of silence themselves, as an image, is reverberated through the focal characters, in an direct and sometimes ironic sense. Barbie is extremely chatty, but caring for a tower of silence, Mabel, affected by the deaths of her husbands in India. Barbie herself ultimately becomes a tower of silence.

The symbolism that Scott has been building upon becomes intricately layered with this book. In the first book, we have the jewel in the crown, specifically an allegorical painting of the Queen receiving a crown with a jewel in it. This painting belongs to Edwina Crane, and a reproduction is found with Barbie's property. The scorpion, in the second book, seems to refer to India and England at the same time. The towers of silence refer to the towers of Parsi where corpses are said to be laid.

But with the third book, Scott performs a masterful task of layering the central images. Both the painting, the scorpion and the towers come into play, sometimes with different meaning. Barbie gives her reproduction of the painting to Merrick, the racist policeman, while an English officer explains that the scorpion isn't actually stinging itself to death - it's that its skin is too tender to handle the flames. Its armor isn't strong enough.

I can understand how somebody could be disappointed with The Towers of Silence. I wasn't. I thought I was going to be bored, going over and over the same key events. But if I wasn't into that, then I was missing the point of The Raj Quartet. I'll get into this more when I finish the whole thing, but suffice it to say that the entire oeuvre stands together. It's hard to review one single element considering how intricately connected everything is.

Luckily, this novel is never boring, never stilted, never irritating. Scott's prose is crisp and clear, and his skill with characters is absolutely masterful. I might never forget the cast of the Raj Quartet; they are so well drawn.

The Towers of Silence is a fantastic novel, but it is the penultimate book. I was almost sad to finish this one, not only because of the tragic conclusion, but because it means I'm another step closer to finishing this grand work of art. I cannot understand why Paul Scott doesn't enjoy the same reputation as his more lauded peers. He looms over many authors publishing around the same time, but he's not widely read. That's a tragedy! I look forward to reading the final volume.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Is the Golden Age of Pixar at an end?

I'm a huge Pixar fan. I've seen every Pixar film except Cars. The reason why I've never seen Cars is that I don't want to taint my Pixar experience. Every - single - Pixar movie I've seen has been revelatory, emotional, beautiful, complex and utterly wondrous. I can't have Cars, often considered the weakest effort, poison my opinion. That being said, I think the Golden Age of Pixar has come to an end, and I will tell you why I think this.


Firstly, Toy Story 3 might be the apotheosis of Pixar's sensibilities. It's the culmination of a lot of themes and techniques that the studio has been working with. Toy Story 3 is a meditation on loss, coming to grips with it, moving on, and letting the past be the past, looking forward. It's an unbelievably good ending to a movie and to a series. It feels like a natural and organic ending to the adventures of Woody and Buzz, et al. But it also functions as an ending to the Pixar story, if you will.

Toy Story is the movie that started Pixar - what better way to end the era than with the movie that started it all? While Toy Story holds up as a great movie, even today, it still kind of feels like a warm-up to the imagination and skill the filmmakers would show with The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up.

Toy Story 2 began the trend, the trend of real Pixar movies, not just fun fluffy pieces of animation. The theme of coping with reality is compounded with more realistic situations and a truer emotional core, with Jessie mourning the loss of her owner. That is the nugget of Pixar: putting away childish things is inevitable.


Tell me that Toy Story 3 doesn't crystallize this idea, and tell me that it doesn't do it in an adult and mature way. There are jokes for kids, but they're going to be kids born after the first Toy Story. This second sequel is for the people who grew up with Disney and Pixar.

At the climactic scene, when all seems hopeless for the toys, they hold hands and steel themselves for the end. That was one of the most intense scenes in a film that I have ever seen. It's absolutely heartbreaking. This is a scene for grown-ups, made by adults, who have grown past simple kids' fluff. The filmmakers at Pixar want to make a real movie, and they succeeded.


Is there anything left for Pixar to do? Should they stop? No, of course not. But Pixar's future leaves me a little nervous. Their 2011 release is a sequel to Cars. Maybe it will be awesome. I hope so. I hope to watch it and love it.

But after Cars 2? Pixar has decided to make a fairytale movie, complete with princess, and this disappoints me. I'm sure it will still be entertaining. No doubt the fine people at Pixar are putting their all into it, and it will be a fun magical hour and a half.

It disappoints me because Pixar is the studio that gave me The Incredibles, a superhero deconstruction that rises above its sources, thanks to an excellent story and a rather complicated moral. And it's the studio that gave me Wall-E, a cynical love story, that believes even if mankind loses humanity, we'll find it regardless. And it's the studio that gave me Up. And Monsters Inc. And Ratatouille. And Finding Nemo.

Every time I get to see a new Pixar movie, I think that they can't possibly top themselves in terms of quality. I loved Wall-E, but then I saw Up, and Up became the new favourite. This was supplanted by Toy Story 3 right after. Can Pixar really keep up that measure of quality?

I fear not. That's why I think the Golden Age of Pixar has come to its natural organic end. It reminds me of the final Calvin and Hobbes strip. Can you think of any better way to end things than with another beginning?