Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Rules of Reviewing

Presented here is John Updike's rules for reviewing and critiquing fiction.
1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

2. Give him enough direct quotation--at least one extended passage--of the book's prose so the review's reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending. (How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords reporting on a peasants' revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and surpriseful narrative! Most ironically, the only readers who approach a book as the author intends, unpolluted by pre-knowledge of the plot, are the detested reviewers themselves. And then, years later, the blessed fool who picks the volume at random from a library shelf.)

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author's ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it's his and not yours?

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author "in his place," making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.
I'm not sure if I follow all of these perfectly. Obviously, I almost never give examples of the prose. But most of the others I try to follow fairly well. I often put the book into context of the rest of the author's output, and I am ready to admit when it's my fault that I don't get a book.

The first rule is of most interest to me. I think there's nothing more important than trying to understand what the book is trying to do. One should judge the book on the basis of its intent as well as its contents. For example, if a novel attempts to display the banalities of common drudgery, and it's boring, but it's successful in that portrayal, then the novel is a success. But then again, we run into a perennial topic of this blog: Status or Contract? (Click here if you'd like to read a discussion on Barbelith I had about it with other literary-minded people; and click here if you want to read some thoughts I have about Pynchon).

But something related to this first rule is the idea of authorial intent. A lot of critics, and I mean a lot, seem to think that authorial intent is completely irrelevant to the proper interpretation and criticism of a text. Now, I'm not terribly knowledgeable about this, but these anti-intent critics tend to rationalize parts of a text through other methods, such as the author's subconscious leaking through. These are all interesting and potentially valid points, but to me, authorial intent is probably the second most important part of criticism, with context (historical and textual) being number one (someone could easily argue that context envelopes authorial intent as well). 

It seems to me that Updike is asking the reviewer to understand the intent of the author and of, by proxy, the novel in order to properly gauge whether or not the novel is a success. To make a long story short here, I'm essentially using Updike's maxims to further my own opinions regarding literature. 

I may not always follow these rules to the letter, as inflexible rules are meant to be broken, but I follow in spirit the tenets that Updike has provided us with.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Still Life

The last book I reviewed for this blog was The Virgin in the Garden, the first in a quartet about Frederica Potter. Now, I have finished the second, Still Life. I didn't mean for this blog to become a Byatt-blog, but here we are. I find I cannot put down Byatt's doorstoppers; I compulsively read, to the detriment of my relationship with my girlfriend, almost. So what of Still Life? Does it match the brilliance and size of the previous volume? Let's take a look.

Starting pretty much where the last one finished off, Still Life examines the intellectual and social development of England during the last half of the Fifties, using the scholarly and bookish Potter family as symbols. Frederica is at Cambridge, jumping in and out of various lovers' beds; Stephanie is pregnant and stifled by domesticity; Marcus slowly approaches the real world, one not of abstract geometry or life inside his head. Alexander, the playwright of the last book, is composing a drama in verse about the final years of Vincent Van Gogh. The famous painter plays a subtle role in all of the main characters' lives.

Just like in her other books, the title plays a massive part in the successful interpretation of Byatt's texts. With this one, Still Life seems to refer to Van Gogh's paintings and to each of the main characters' stagnant and stilted existence. On a grander scale, the novel seems to imply the same about the English during this time.

There's a lot to talk about with this novel. The same compliments I lavished upon the last book apply here: the exquisite and exact prose, the level of detail, the immediate characters, and the proliferation of idea after idea after idea.

This time, George Eliot's influence becomes more apparent: Byatt's narrator takes a much stronger stance and directly refers to itself. The narrator is omniscient and godlike in this book, but with a definite Fowlesian postmodern outlook. The future, possible futures, seem visible to this narrator. This isn't a negative aspect, considering Byatt's seeming intent to create a sprawling nineteenth century novel of characters and society. In fact, it's apropos.

Spoiler alert for the novel's climax....

Stephanie becomes the victim of a tragic accident at the end of the novel. Her death lets the novel look at a myriad of different topics. Prominently, the social aspect of grief. Like The Virgin the Garden, Byatt is examining English-ness, like the tendency to overlook the more embarrassing of emotions. The narrator explicitly tells us that novels often skip ahead. Instead, the novel bears down on this idea, and looks at grief, specifically Daniel, Stephanie bereaved husband. Daniel muses on death, and interpretations of it. King Lear figures once again into the life of Daniel. The narrator details different critical approaches to the death at the end of King Lear, that it is a moral lesson, at a high cost, taught to Lear.

It seems to me, that Byatt is obliquely doing the same to Daniel and the rest of the cast. They are stagnant and unmoving. They are still. Change must happen, and the novel kills off a cast member to affect change. Instead of a moral lesson on hubris, etc, Still Life's lesson is of personal growth. Stephanie neglects her intellectual pursuits due to domestic duties, and she pays a mental cost for it. The novels asks us to consider this, in an implied way. The intellectual development must continue.

Another interesting thing that I've been mulling, and might look at when I finish the next volume, is Byatt's use of literary motifs. She associates characters with works of great literature, like the aforementioned connection of King Lear and Daniel. I hadn't really thought of it until I finished this novel. Byatt's interest in intertextuality is almost worth examining in an academic work, if it hasn't already been done. Like Possession and letters, etc, like The Children's Book and - well - children's books, the Frederica Quartet seems to have tons of intertextuality play. For Byatt, and I think she's said this in interviews, the world of the mind is made of works of art, all connected. It is the human subconscious desire for order that makes the a-ha experience so rewarding. It's like Byatt's novels are all about making a-ha connections. This idea is even discussed within Still Life.

Just like the last book, I adored Still Life. It's verbose, heavy, physically and with meaning, and it's not for everybody. I absolutely loved this book and I cannot wait to read the next book, called Babel Tower. However, I just got from the library The Children's Book, so I will be starting that immediately. I highly recommend Still Life to fans of big Victorian novels, and to fans of books about ideas, for this surely is both.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Random Thoughts

Here is a collection of random things, none of which I want to examine in a whole post.

I saw Shutter Island last night. This is the fourth collaboration between Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese, to me, a very fruitful friendship. Does the newest film hold up to the standard set by The Departed or The Aviator? No, but it's damn close. Shutter Island is a fantastic Hitchcockian thriller, with a great soundtrack (by Robbie Robertson!), a great cast, and some amazing virtuoso camera work by one of the masters. I thoroughly enjoyed, however... I wish I hadn't read the book by Lehane before. I wish I could've enjoyed the new Scorsese movie as a new experience. The book is good, but the movie appears better. It's hard to separate them. Perhaps in a few weeks, I'll revisit some classic Scorsese movies and a few I haven't seen, and do some reviews. Spoiler alert: The Color of Money is one of Scorsese's best, and most underrated.

Peter Gabriel's new album is an excellent concept. One CD of covers by Gabriel of songs he likes, and another forthcoming CD of covers of Gabriel songs by those artists he covered. The first release is called "Scratch my Back" and the second is "I'll Scratch Yours". I'm most looking forward to Paul Simon's cover of Biko. Not only is Biko one of my favourite songs ever, but Paul Simon is one of my favourite artists ever. As for the album itself? Gabriel's covers are static and unemotional.

Did you know that the Australians call ketchup "dead horse"? That's fascinating. Why do they do it? Rhyming slang, the best of all slangs. Tomato sauce (in Aussie accent) rhymes with dead horse. Don't ask me explain how that works. But it's great.

Here's a fascinating article on Slate about Canada's aggressive campaign to procure more gold medals than ever. It's written from an outsider's perspective, which I rarely get unless it's from the UK. Typically, The British press are hounding us for our taking advantage of home turf, but if it isn't Prince Harry or Becks/Posh, the British press is complaining.

Random Classic Doctor Who Review

Okay I'm starting a new thing on this blog today. This will be a new recurring feature in which I review a classic Doctor Who serial - sometimes chosen at random, sometimes selected. The first one we will go with is the Fifth Doctor's Resurrection of the Daleks from series 21. I chose this serial because it's one of the major stories from the Fifth Doctor's era, and it's considered good. Let's take a look.

The Doctor, Turlough and Tegan are caught in some sort of Time Corridor and are deposited randomly in London of 1984. They attempt to find the Corridor and figure out what drew them here. Meanwhile, a Dalek space vessel invades a prison ship with the intent on freeing a mysterious prisoner. The Daleks are employing humanoid mercenaries in order to conquer this ship at the same time using the mercenaries for some mysterious purpose in London 1984. The Doctor and his companions run into a bomb defusing squad in a warehouse where the Time Corridor is, and lo and behold, suddenly they are assaulted by a Dalek. What is buried underneath this warehouse? Who is the mysterious prisoner and what do the Daleks want with him?

Let's get this out of the way right away: yes, the special effects are dodgy. Doctor Who operates on a budget a fraction of the size of American television shows. The effects don't really bother me. Sometimes they're laughably bad, and other times they're surprisingly effective. But what of the story?

This is an extremely entertaining Doctor Who serial. The dialogue is decent enough, the plotting is pitch perfect. Each cliffhanger is set up well enough and the mystery unfolds slowly enough to keep my attention. That being said, this serial suffers from some pretty poor acting, specifically, from Tegan and from the prisoner. There's often the sense of theatrical acting, trying to shout to the back seats when there's no need. It's not enough to ruin the story for me.

The prison ship features some terrific characters such as the doctor who attempts self-destructing the ship and the new recruit with a desire for change in working conditions. All of the character building is done quickly, making room for what appears to be a huge death count for a Doctor Who serial.

That being said, character development stops completely by the end of the second of four parts, giving way to action and chases. It's not a terrible thing. I just wanted more from the writing.

I really enjoyed Resurrection of the Daleks. I thought it was well-plotted, staged professionally, and the acting from most participants was excellent. I loved the fanservice nods to previous continuity without being intrusive or attention-grabbing. I look forward to more Fifth Doctor adventures.

So concludes the first Random Classic Doctor Who Review post. Keep your browser here for more exciting reviews of Doctor Who and other things.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Virgin in the Garden

When I read Byatt's Possession, I was bored by the endless poetry, but enchanted by the exquisite prose. I was determined to give Byatt another go, and I thought that the first book in a quartet would be a decent place to start. I finished The Virgin in the Garden, and I'm ready to take a look at it.

Set during the summer of the new Queen's coronation in 1953, this novel is the story of the Potter children: eldest Stephanie, falling in love with a clergyman, middle child Frederica, falling in love with a teacher, a colleague of her professor father, and finally, youngest Marcus, a mathematical prodigy who has entered into a strange and phantasmagorical relationship with another teacher.
This is a character-oriented novel about the developing relationships between the large-ish cast. At its center is Frederica, strong-willed, proud, fiercely intelligent and not altogether beautiful. The narrator never really explicitly tells us whether or not Frederica is gorgeous; mostly it's Alexander, the professor she loves, who lets us know this.

Alexander has written a play about the first Elizabeth's coronation, and it is to be staged around the time of the new Elizabeth's coronation. As well, it is to be staged in the beautiful garden at the school where Alexander and the Potter paterfamilias teach. 

Just like in Possession, Byatt plays with the title of the novel in a myriad of ways. The Virgin of the title can refer to almost all of the major characters, even if the virginity is figurative rather than literal. The Garden also refers to plenty of things. The main garden in the school is the scene of a wedding reception, of confrontation, of sexual dalliances, and of course, of the play at the novel's heart.

The play in this novel is used as a fabrication like the play within Hamlet or the beginning scene of Yates' Revolutionary Road. The narrator uses the play to obliquely comment on the characters who are acting. It's a clever method to get important information across about the characters.

For most of this book, I was again plagued by questions of "why". I wasn't sure what Byatt was trying to tell me. It's a very long and slow moving novel, and filled with excellent examples of Byatt's ultra-specific prose, in which she zeroes in on something, a room, an outfit, a painting, and details it for paragraphs. But to me, the novel's true meaning is hidden in throwaway lines and small references.

The Virgin in the Garden is a novel about the English at a specific time in a specific place. Evidently, the entire quartet traces the intellectual and emotional development of the English from the coronation to the present day. This is no more apparent than in this first novel of the series. 

Often, the narrator will refer to a character's forced politeness, a compulsion to look away from something potentially embarrassing. They are repressed: sexually, emotionally, intellectually, living in an Elizabethan or Victorian past, obsessed with the literature and poetry of another era.

D. H. Lawrence figures into this novel in a big way. While numerous characters live in their head, reciting lines of Spenser or Tennyson, only a couple characters have read Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover or more importantly, Women in Love. (There's a reason why I'm always harping on Lawrence to be included in "best-of" lists.) Lawrence is an important figure in literature for introducing the modern reader to modern thoughts of sexuality, of awakening. 

This novel is set during the coronation for a couple reasons, including historical as the new era was supposed to be one of prosperity. But it's also the Fifties: the final breath before the sexual and intellectual revolution of the Sixties were to begin. 

I've gone on and on about what the novel is about rather than what the novel is about. Even if one was to not gather any hidden subtext or meaning, one could enjoy this novel on the surface as a great soap opera. The rise and fall of this family is interesting unto itself. Byatt's prose and characters are vivid as always. 

A word of negativity, however. Of the three main story threads snaking through the novel, the least interesting of all is the one featuring Marcus, the youngest Potter. His descent into madness is well-schematized, but unfortunately, reading pages upon pages of incoherent prose becomes tiresome. I thought it was clever how Byatt shows (rather than tells) his developing madness, but I never found it entertaining or engaging.

The Virgin in the Garden is a fantastic novel, and I'm glad to have given Byatt another chance. I really look forward to the next novel in the sequence, Still Life, which is said to be the best in the series. Check back here for more reviews and thanks for reading.

Omega The Unknown (2007)

I haven't reviewed a comic book for this blog in a long time. There's a couple reasons for that.... Mostly, a lot of mainstream comic books suffer from a plague of sameness: the same situations, the same characters, the same "shocks" and "twists". Superhero comics are stagnant and in dire need of a huge paradigm shift. In the spirit of that, we have Jonathan Lethem's revamp of Steve Gerber's enigmatic Omega the Unknown.

The 2007 series of Omega the Unknown is different than the original in a couple ways. First of all, it's drawn in a very unique and idiosyncratic thanks to Farel Dalrymple, a mostly indie artist. Also, it's set during the present day. The story is of Alex, just a kid who is a little smarter than most. His parents perish in a car crash and Alex becomes the ward of the nurse who took care of him while he recuperated in the hospital. Alex is introduced to regular school in the heart of Hell's Kitchen in New York; it is a bildungsroman of growing up in modern era New York, just like Gerber's original series.

And just like the original, Alex is tied to a mysterious and silent superhero by the name of Omega. Robots are attacking regular people and infiltrating their homes and restaurants. Only Omega stands up to them. However, there's another element: the Mink, the very brand-orientated superhero who boasts a comic, action figures, and movies with his name.

What is the connection between Alex and Omega? Who is controlling these evil robots? Who is the Mink and how will he benefit from these two warring groups?

Lethem and Dalrymple set up mystery after mystery and build towards a confusing climax with this comic book. Lethem's talents at plotting are from his work with novels, not comics. It's very clear, considering he doesn't set up each issue as standalone stories. Rather, each issue is simply a chapter in a longer narrative. This isn't a good or bad thing; it's just different than sequential serial storytelling.

The story itself isn't terribly compelling to be frank. I never found Omega or Alex to be engaging enough characters for me to care, and the Mink was as subtle a satire as a screwdriver to the face.

I didn't hate this book, but I didn't like it either. It was a chore to sludge through the middle chapters in which Lethem sets up more mysteries. Does the conclusion of the story tie up all these loose ends? Sort of, I guess. There's no dialogue in the final issue for some bizarre reason.

I found this revamp of Omega the Unknown to be pretentious in that indie way, lackluster in the mainstream superhero way, and most egregious of all, boring in terms of story and character; there's no greater crime in fiction. I have only read one Lethem novel, Motherless Brooklyn, which I found entertaining if disposable, so I wasn't expecting Watchmen. I just found Omega the Unknown to be mediocre unfortunately.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A new Bret Easton Ellis novel?

Yes, it appears Bret Easton Ellis has scheduled for publication his seventh novel. It's called Imperial Bedrooms, and it is a sequel to his first novel, Less Than Zero. Here is the synopsis and the cover art.
The book is expected to focus on Clay as a middle-aged screenwriter drawn back into his old circle, where Blair has become married to Trent and Julian has become a high-class pimp and Rip is into even more sinister activities. Amidst this, Clay begins dating a young actress with mysterious ties to Julian, Rip and a recently-murdered Hollywood producer and his life begins to spin out of control.

Huh. I'm not sure if I'm interested in this. Of course I will read it. Of course I will buy it in hardcover. But I'm not sure. I absolutely adore Lunar Park. I thought it was a great postmodern ghost story, and seemingly, the end of an era for Ellis. For him to return to the same story of 25 years ago is unsettling. Is there no growth for you, Ellis? That's my big fear. However, Less Than Zero is a tremendous novel. The tone and voice are perfect. Perhaps Imperial Bedrooms will be good. I hope so, considering that cover is godawful. 

Check back here come May of 2010 for my review.

Doctor Who: The 2009 Specials

Well, the girlfriend and I finally did it. We watched all of the revival series of Doctor Who, all of the Ninth Doctor, all of the Tenth Doctor, and all of Russel T. Davies' era. Instead of reviewing the second, third and fourth series like I should, I'm going to skip them and focus on the four specials of 2009.

Planet of the Dead

The Doctor gets on a bus with a bunch of strangers when he's trying to track some sort of rip in space-time. The bus goes through the rip and they end up on a desert planet where a mysterious storm is approaching, and a couple of visually arresting aliens have become very interested in the humans.

It starts off like a pretty normal Doctor Who special except at the end, when the prophecy is told to the Doctor, about the end of his song, which was also foretold by the Ood in a previous episode. What makes this special, and the others, so interesting is the mental deterioration of the Doctor. He's a sad, lonely god, who has chosen to travel solo as to avoid any more emotional attachment and heartbreak.

Other than this aspect, Planet of the Dead is fairly run of the mill. The mystery at the heart is fairly simple, the humour is spot on, and in true Russel T Davies fashion, the foreshadowing is direct and never oblique. It's a higher quality episode but it's still just another Doctor Who episode.

Waters of Mars

The Doctor has landed on Mars by coincidence on the very same day that the first human outpost on Mars gets mysteriously destroyed. He realizes that this is a fixed point in time, and shouldn't intervene, but he just can't quite leave the humans alone, especially when they're becoming infected by something and dripping water everywhere.

Definitely an improvement on the previous special, this one raises the stakes quite a bit. For the Doctor that is. Without ruining the ending of this special, let me just say that it is awesome to see a Doctor who is badass.

David Tennant's Doctor is often maniacal, jumpy, energetic and sometimes loopy. He's also sometimes cruel. More cruel than a human could ever be. Like at the end of the third series' episode "Family of Blood" in which the Doctor devises particularly devious and cruel punishments for the Family.

This is applies also to this special. The Doctor is not human and we should never forget it. The Waters of Mars is a fantastic episode of Doctor Who and a fantastic lead in to the next special.

The End of Time

Split over two parts, The End of Time is the last story of the Tenth Doctor, the end of his era, the final singing of his song. I am not going into spoilers about this special, so the only thing I will say about this is that Donna Noble's Gramps returns, and so does the Master, but in what circumstances, I will not divulge.

That being said, I can honestly say that I enjoyed this final two part special, but I didn't love it. As a goodbye to David Tennant, the epilogue works perfectly as Davies ties all the loose ends up. There's even a heartbreaking callback to the aforementioned "Human Nature"/"Family of Blood" two parter.

But the actual plot left me a little cold. It's just a setup for a new era, a new showrunner, and a chance to blow a bunch of things up. The most positive thing I can say about the plot is that it's a terrifically ingenious use of time travel, the way Steven Moffat writes time travel.

As goodbyes go, this was sad, but the second series' two parter, "Army of Ghosts"/"Doomsday" remains the ultimate new-era Doctor Who episode. The goodbye between the Doctor and Rose is heartwrenching. There's an echo of that in the final moments of The End of Time, but it's not the same.

All in all, I enjoyed The End of Time and I certainly looked forward to Series 30 of Doctor Who, especially since Steven Moffat is the showrunner. However, the new Doctor looks weird and is far too young. His head is too big. Oh well, you can't always have perfect transitions.

Watch here for more Doctor Who reviews as the girlfriend and I are about to embark on a journey through classic Doctor Who. As in Doctors Four through Seven!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A quick quote from E. M. Forster

I'm knee-deep in A. S. Byatt's The Virgin in the Garden and in Forster's Howards End right now, and it might be a few days before a post a review of either. But for now, enjoy with me, this delicious quote taken from Chapter 7 of Howards End.
"...I began to think that the very soul of the world is economic, and that the lowest abyss is not the absence of love but the absence of coin"
What a gorgeous and cynical thing to say. Very prescient of Forster I think.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Spectator Bird

It's hard to argue with Wallace Stegner's resume. Not only is there a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, three O. Henry awards, but he was awarded two Guggenheim Fellowship grants! When people talk of Stegner, they mostly speak of his 1971 opus Angle of Repose. I've heard amazing things about it, and in working my way up to it, I thought I'd read his shorter work The Spectator Bird, from 1976, which won Stegner his National Book Award.

The Spectator Bird is about Joe Allston, a former literary agent living out his retirement in rural California with his wife of forty something years. He's a cranky old man, full of complaints and arthritis and rage against the world. When a postcard from Denmark jogs his memory, he digs out his journals from when he and his wife traveled to Denmark to escape the pain of losing their middle-aged son. Allston reads the journals aloud to his wife Ruth, and they begin to remember the painful memories of the countess they lived with, and her dark familial secrets.

This is a strange novel. Written in perfect particular prose, this appears to be a novel about incest. There are two main storylines. In the present is the story of Joe and Ruth and their tenuous relationship to society. Joe is often angry, ranting about youngsters, novels, art, and everything in between. In the second storyline, we have the past, a trip to Denmark in the past which involves a countess, her incestuous family and Joe's infatuation with her. The Gothic story of the past features many discussions on the nature of eugenics before Hitler got ahold of it and made it fascist and racist. The countess' father was up to no good, but in the spirit of scientific discovery, of maximizing the potential of the human race through controlled and inspired breeding.

As I said, this is a strange novel. At first I thought this was a meditation on aging, on man's relationship to his past. There's many examples of Joe referring to classic authors and orators of the Hellenistic and Roman era. There is also a recurring image of a mummmifed Dane from thousands of years ago, completely preserved. All of these things led to me believe I was reading a novel about growing old.

But it turns out, there are two novels in this slim volume. One of a Gothic tale of incest and family secrets, and another about the tender blessings of a long and beautiful marriage.

It also about the nature of the observer. Not in the cool scientific meaning of the word, but as in the man who observes all and never partakes in anything. Only once, in Joe's view, does he ever actually do something, and it is a bad decision. So is this novel about the spirit of carpe diem? Who knows?

I'm not quite sure what to say about this book. I can't say I liked it, but I can't say I hated. Stegner's prose is exact and evocative. His characters were lifelike and realistic. But the plot was so unexpected that I wasn't sure if I was going to finish it.

For over half of this novel, I was consumed with the question of "why" as in "why was this novel written?" - "What is the author trying to tell me?" - "Why is author trying to tell me whatever it is?"

Perhaps the deeper meanings of The Spectator Bird are far too subtle for me. I thought it was an okay experience, but one that I will never willfully repeat. This doesn't change my desire to read his alleged masterpiece Angle of Repose, but it does fill me with doubts about the aforementioned novel's contents. Will I be treated to a same diverging essay about eugenics? I'm not sure. The Spectator Bird is a bizarre novel that seemingly has depth and is well-written from a aesthetic point of view. I wouldn't recommend it.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Random Thoughts

Here's a journalist who is doing something similar to what I'm doing. Except he's getting paid for it and I'm not. Here is the link to Sam Jordison's page at the Guardian. It links to all the articles he's written, many of which are starting points for me when reading Booker Prize winners. Most importantly, he provides context for each Booker Prize winner when he reviews them. (Before we get into a discussion on proper critical study, I'm of the view that context, historical and authorial, are integral to fully appreciating a text). What is often surprising about the Booker is the amount of controversy surrounding almost every selection. Did you know that Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda was awarded the prize after only 30 minutes of deliberation? I didn't, and that's fascinating.

Here is the link to Asylum, a blog by John Self which reviews books. Nowadays there are a million bloggers who review books, but I like this blog. The writer is self-assured and intelligent and his reviews are insightful and never superficial. Plus, he's reviewing Booker Prizes too.

Here is another link to a blog, this time the Caustic Cover Critic, a blog about book design. For me, book design is extremely important to me as a consumer (rather than as a critic). I love book design and one day, I would love to do a book about it.

I'm contemplating starting A. S. Byatt's quartet of novels starting with Virgin in the Garden. I really enjoyed Byatt's prose, playfulness and sense of humour in Possession. Her characters were vivid and interesting and I had a decent time. Perhaps if she writes without the tedious Victorian poetry, I'll really enjoy her novels. 

This is really really really important...
Does anybody know the name of the font that Faber & Faber use in almost all their books? I have been Googling forever and I cannot for the life of me find out. Somebody tell me before I go nuts.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Remains of the Day

Kazuo Ishiguro's 2005 novel Never Let Me Go was one of my favourite books that I read last year. It was with great anticipation that I saw Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day on the Booker Prize list. It was my duty, if you'll pardon the joke, to read this work. Now that I have, let's take a look.

It's 1956 and Stevens, the butler at the famous Darlington Hall, has been given a week's holiday and permission to use the classic Ford to drive around. He intends to see Miss Kenton, a former co-worker from the good old day, and he will try to lure her back to the manor as he needs staff. Throughout his drive, Stevens revisits the memories of these happy days in which his employer, Lord Darlington held conferences to fix the situation in Germany post-WW1, and when Stevens and Kenton had such a great working relationship.

If this isn't one of the most English novels I've ever read, I'm not sure what is. Essentially this is a love story between a butler and a housemaid who are so repressed and so into their jobs that nothing ever comes of it. Every character seems to be completely oblivious to each other, and when there is a moment where the mask slips, the old proper way of doing things takes hold, stifling any real emotion or intimacy.

There are countless examples of this in The Remains of the Day, and probably one of the best examples is when Stevens' father dies. During an extremely important gathering, maybe the biggest for Darlington Hall, Stevens Sr, a footman underneath his son, suffers a stroke and is confined to his bed. He is going to die and he knows it. Stevens the younger, while attending to this great conference, full of important policy-makers, cannot find it in himself to be excused from these proceedings. He must always be on-duty. Being a butler is not a role, he keeps reminding the reader, but is a state of being. When he does go see his dying father, Stevens Sr's mask falls away and he wonders aloud if he's been a good father. The younger Stevens politely laughs and asks if he's feeling any better. There is no moment of tenderness or intimacy or reality for Stevens. All that exists is his duty.

The images and metaphors in this novel are an absolute delight and Ishiguro's construction is impeccable. The job for Stevens is his all, is Ishiguro's objective correlative. One of Ishiguro's common features in his novel is the first person narrator, who by definition, is unreliable. The reader must be an active one, attempting to read between what Stevens is telling us.

Stevens' pretext for visiting Miss Kenton is one of professional reasons. The reader knows that it's just a pretext. Stevens misses Miss Kenton quite a bit, and this is evidenced by Stevens re-reading her letter over and over and over, going through it line by line. It's this type of subtlety that lends the novel its excellence.

There is a lot happening in this novel and very worthy of closer inspection. I said a couple posts ago that I measure a novel by how well it could be taught, how much could be teased out. There is no doubt in my mind that The Remains of the Day would be an excellent novel on a course devoted to English literature.

The Remains of the Day is a fascinating complex character study of an archetype, and a character study of Great Britain of the time between the two World Wars. This is as English as it comes, and it is a terrific read. I heartily recommend this novel to all. It is definitely worthy of the Booker Prize.

Next up on my reading table is Wallace Stegner's National Book Award-winning The Spectator Bird, E. M. Forster's Howards End, and Booker Prize-winning The Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. Check back for reviews and thanks for reading.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


In the world of American literature, Beloved reigns supreme. Famous authors consider Toni Morrison's bestseller to be a masterpiece. It is taught in universities all over the world. Oprah Winfrey made a movie of it. But is this one of those cases where the hype is just too much? Is Beloved really this good? I've finished reading it and I can happily review it for you.

Beloved is concerned with the haunting presence of slavery over a black woman in Ohio after the Civil War. This haunting presence takes the form of a mysterious girl who shows up at Sethe's door one day, a mysterious girl who may or may not be Sethe's deceased third child. The arrival of this girl disrupts Sethe's small family, made up of the youngest child Denver, and a fellow former slave Paul D who has taken to Sethe. But who is this girl and what does her arrival mean?

It's obvious to see what Morrison is preoccupied with by the first twenty pages. This is a novel concerned with memory and our relationship to the past. The horrific crime of slavery is personified with a literal ghost that haunts the main characters of this novel. The mystery of who is the girl is completely peripheral to the unraveling of the characters' memories.

A lot has been said about the structure of the novel. Like the last book I reviewed, Possession, Beloved is a structuralist's dream. Alan Moore couldn't have created a more beautiful artifice upon which to hang a plot. Beloved works like a spiral almost - we're given bits of information about events. This revelation works in a circle, going back and revealing more about each event, going deeper in detail each time, until we get to the heart of Sethe and her story.

Even if this novel just had the fine structure, I would have liked it. But we're treated to Morrison's sumptuous prose as well. Her sentences are lush and descriptive; her similes and metaphors are ingenious.

A perfect example of this is the address of the house in which the present day action happens. The number of the house is 124. This number visually emphasizes the missing third child by omitting the number three. That's absolutely genius.

Another way that Morrison reinforces her themes is through the characters' speech. These are former slaves who aren't very well educated. Sometimes they make errors. One of these errors is extremely significant. Instead of saying "remember", Sethe says "rememory" which perfectly highlights the cyclical nature of the story. You have memory, and you have rememory, where you revisit the past atrocities and crimes committed against you.

The ghost of slavery looms over this entire novel. The reader is bombarded with images and details of the awful things these poor folk have put up with. The major event of the plot is a very bloody crime.

Spoiler warning for the next paragraph. Don't read this unless you want the entire novel ruined for you

Beloved is a Greek tragedy almost. At the centre is Sethe's murder of her third child. Faced with the possibility of her children going into slavery, Sethe chooses to take their lives, to show them the mercy they won't get while in chains. She only successfully kills the one, but that crime haunts her figuratively and literally for the rest of her life. In Greek drama, murder of kin is the most heinous of all crimes, with the Furies chasing you until the ends of the earth because of it. Murder of kin reverberates through generations with Greek tragedy. Morrison does her own version of this by highlighting the three generation of women in this house, and how the murder echoes through them. It is a brilliant effect.

This revelation is revealed slowly and methodically, and when it is finally shown to the audience it is with a sharp strong shock, like the act itself. Morrison's prose floats and stings depending on the content. A perfect synthesis of method and form.

Beloved is a fascinating novel with absolutely marvelous storytelling power. Morrison's skills at structure and sentence construction are masterful. I really enjoyed reading this novel, and I'm glad I did. I'm not necessarily convinced of its dominance of American literature of the past 25 years like TIME Magazine dictates. While the novel is technically impressive, I found the conclusion to be too sparse. We find out what happens after the fact, from a secondary character. This robs the denouement of its emotional impact.

One misstep does not undo a novel. I heartily recommend Beloved for lovers of fine fiction, and students of history. This novel brings to mind Quebec's slogan of "Je me souviens". I will not forget. I will remember. Beloved is deserving of its status in the canon and should be taught in schools.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Fallout New Vegas teaser trailer

Fall 2010 comes one of my most anticipated video games of the year... Fallout: New Vegas. Here's the teaser - very enigmatic, and yet revealing at the same time.

Friday, February 5, 2010

I wish we could have the old Dan Simmons back

Dan Simmons used to be one of my favourite authors. His quartet of Hyperion novels stand as some of the best space opera I've ever read, and the Ilium/Olympos novels are fun metatextual sci-fi epics. He's also written a handful of hardboiled crime novels, a bunch of horror novels and some efficient if plain thrillers. Just the fact that he's written successfully (or at least competently) in a whole variety of genres raises his profile in my esteem. It's just an awful tragedy that Simmons is preoccupied with absolutely tedious boring historical novels right now.

It started with 2008's The Terror. It's the fictionalized story of the lost voyage of a couple ships through the Arctic in the 19th century. A very long and powerful novel, The Terror wears down the reader with endless descriptions about the cold, about the conditions, and about the mysterious creature that's picking off crew members. I liked The Terror. I didn't hate it. I just thought it was too long, and that I wasn't really intrigued by the mystery. 

Unfortunately, Simmons followed it up with Drood, a fictionalized story of Dickens' final years as he wrote The Mystery of Edwin Drood and whatever bizarre mystery inspired him. It's narrated by Dickens' friend and contemporary Wilkie Collins, author of the fantastic Woman in White. It's too bad that Simmons' Drood, attempting to emulate both authors, fails completely to engage this reader. The novel is overly long, boring, and filled to the brim with stilted overwrought prose and a plot that creaks loudly as it goes through the motions. I never finished reading it. I hated it so much.

I read about a week ago that Simmons has a new novel coming out. It's called Black Hills, and I was ever so disappointed to read the synopsis:
In the author's retelling of Custer's last stand at the Little Big Horn in 1876, the dying general's ghost enters the body of Paha Sapa, a 10-year-old Sioux warrior who's able to see both the past and the future by touching people. The action leaps around in time to illustrate the arc of Sapa's life, but focuses on 1936, when, as a septuagenarian, he plots to blow up the monuments on Mount Rushmore in time for a visit to the site by FDR to atone for his role in constructing the stone likenesses. In his ability to create complex characters and pair them with suspenseful situations, Simmons stands almost unmatched among his contemporaries.
Ugh, this sounds awful. At least the page count isn't nearly as bloated as his previous snorefests. Black Hills is around 500 pages while the godawful Drood is a punishing 800 pages.

It's not like the combination of history and fiction hasn't been a staple of Simmons' oeuvre. In fact, quite the contrary. Both the Hyperion Cantos and the Ilium/Olympos works rely heavily upon a vast amount of great literature. The former uses Keats while the latter uses the Iliad and The Tempest. In both cases the use of the canon is inspired and comes from the plot, rather than being a gimmick to hang a creature-feature on. 

You combine these terrible books with Simmons' bizarre and baffling Islam-ophobia and you've lost this reader. Until Simmons returns to a semblance of his former self, I'm staying away.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Possession: A Romance

I've always been a fan of stories about stories. Metafiction and postmodernism are great friends of mine. No better example of this is the winner of the 1990 Booker Prize, Possession by A. S. Byatt. This ingenious novel also features on the TIME Magazine list that I posted about a couple days ago. So what of this postmodern Victorian novel? Does it deserve the praise that's been heaped upon it? Let's take a look.

Possession is the story of two academics studying the love affair between their respective areas of scholarship, specifically two Victorian poets that seem completely unrelated until the discovery of a series of love letters. It is also the story of the love that grows between both scholars while researching this new development, and it is also the story of the rival scholars.

This is an extremely complex and rich novel made up of regular narration, letters, poems, epigrams, excerpts from books, and everything else. It's like this novel is an old dusty box of documents and the reader gets to sift through all the history. 

It's subtitled "A Romance" for a reason. Possession is at its heart, a Romance as in a type of story, not as in a love story, ie a Romance and a Novel used to be Victorian terms for types of story. There's all the cliched elements of Victorian novels such as a Will at the last moment that changes everything, grave robbers, a chase, love affairs and detailed histories. The plot that the scholars are engaged in resembles a Victorian plot, even though they're studying a Victorian love affair. 

This refraction is focused through the title. Possession refers to the possession of the letters, possession of the story of the love affair, possession of the poets themselves, possession as in "possessed by something" and possession as in the arcane euphemism for sex. On and on, this theme is hammered home. Since it's a postmodern novel, the scholars even comment on the "determinism" at the heart of the plot.

The use of epigrams is inspired as well. Taking a note from George Eliot's Middlemarch, Byatt prefaces each chapter with a bit of poetry from the two fictional Victorian poets. Each epigram focuses indirectly on the following bit of narrative. It's quite clever.

However, now we arrive at my major problem with the novel. There's a reason why I don't read Victorian romances. Frankly, they're tedious. The prose is gilded and overwrought I find. With Possession, the reader is treated to pages upon pages of seemingly-authentic Victorian letters... which I found to be extremely dry. The aforementioned epigrams? Sometimes they last pages. I just don't find Victorian poetry to be that interesting. 

This is mostly an issue of taste, rather than of quality. Byatt's verse is good, I guess, but I'm not a critic of poetry. Her simulations of the Victorian style of journal, letter or what-have-you is fairly seamless. Again, I just found it to be dry.

I would say that the poetry, letters, etc takes up about 35 percent of the novel. The other 65 percent? Gorgeous supple prose that's engaging and essentially a literary detective novel but with a cast of scholars.

I really liked most of this book, but by the end I was tired the obvious uses of the word and concept "possession" - sometimes it was in the form of a groan-inducing pun. 

All of my criticisms aren't substantial enough for me to outright dismiss the novel. As an exercise in postmodernism and Victorianism, I found it to be excellent, if a little dry. The scholars and poets were well-drawn and the dialogue to be spot on. Overall, Possession is a great novel and I would definitely seek out more of Byatt's work.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

TIME Magazine's 100 Best Novels: UPDATE

TIME Magazine's 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century is a huge list, brimming with some safe and obvious choices and a couple daring choices. When I last catalogued the list, I had read only 31. Now that's it's been a long time, I'm going to details the books I have read since I posted the list. This post has some shared content with some other posts, so bear with me. You can read all three posts about the catalogue here, here and here.

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell
(I read the first three books of twelve, that counts, right?)
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Light in August by William Faulkner
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Possession by A.S. Byatt
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

So good for me, right? I read 6 more on the list. That brings me up to thirty seven percent completion. As well as more books that I've read, I found out about most of the books, and whether or not I would be interested in reading. My endeavour to read all the Booker Prizes will do double duty as a bunch of Booker Prizes show up on this list.

While on the flipside, my Booker Prize quest allows me to see the facetiousness of both lists. These are such arbitrary lists. The Booker Prize leaves behind massive literary icons such as Robertson Davies while giving prizes to some minor works by major authors such as The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis (it should be Lucky Jim) and In A Free State by V. S. Naipaul (it should be A House For Mr Biswas). On the other hand, this TIME Magazine list is ignoring huge talents such as J. M. Coetzee, Richard Powers, John Irving, D. H. Lawrence, Wallace Stegner, Peter Carey and a bunch of others. 

Bias seems to be the pervading theme. Bias for their home country and bias for safe writers. Only one African author appears on the TIME Magazine list: Chinua Achebe, whereas he has only been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. And again, this same complaint I raise, where is the literature of South Africa, New Zealand or Australia? 

Well, we can't always win. Maybe once I've finished both lists, and conquered a couple other lists I will divulge my top fifty novels of the 20th century. Maybe.

The Great Gatsby

Shocking revelation forthcoming. Set your faces to stun! Here it is: I've never finished reading The Great Gatsby. Well, that is until last night when I read it in one mammoth sitting. Did you also know that The Great Gatsby is considered one of the greatest novels ever written? Often considered the quintessential Great American Novel? Well, I did. I felt it was my duty to read this book, and I'm upset with myself that I had avoided it for so long. Why? No reason in particular; I was always more concerned with other books and other literary movements. Modernism and I haven't always been the best of friends.

For those of you who don't know, this book is the story of Jay Gatsby, a young and rich party-thrower, as told by our narrator, Nick Carraway. Nick watches and records and promises not to judge as Gatsby has an affair with Daisy, a young rich woman that Gatsby knew before she was married. As the characters move from mansion to hotel to party, the affair comes to the light and Daisy's husband, Tom figures out the truth, leading to a disastrous conclusion. 

The novel is a searing indictment of the materialism and excess of the "Roaring Twenties" as Prohibition helped raise the caliber of organized crime, and money for everybody. It is also a blistering critique of the American Dream, the self-made man, and the manifest destiny inherent in a lot of American art.

This book is essentially critic-proof. It's a perfect novel. Once I had finished the novel, I understood why it is so highly regarded. Fitzgerald's unreliable narrator, the use of symbols, the use of language, the careful dialogue, everything.

I was reminded a lot of Ralph Waldo Emerson's highly influential essays, "Nature" and "Self-Reliance", both of which I had to study in depth when examining early American literature.

In "Nature", Emerson lays out the idea that the new continent is free from history's long stretch, that we can appreciate nature with new eyes, that it's a blank slate. "Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe" he writes. In "Self-Reliance" the themes pertaining to The Great Gatsby are even more apparent. Emerson writes, 
"These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence."
This is a perfect summation of what Gatsby is trying to do.

Gatsby is the self-made man. He changes his name, which in literature is always synonymous with changing identity. He changes his history - his-STORY - and makes his own way in the world. Gatsby is the American Dream now, but it comes at a price. 

He stands aloof at his own parties, constantly an outsider, a voyeur to all that happens. The "old rich" are rude to him and ostracize him based on the idea that he's "new rich". He experiences paradigm shifts in his estimation of his own possessions in light of what others say. Jay Gatsby is a blank slate. He's beating back the steady movement of time, for there is nothing worse to Gatsby than the ticking of a clock.

If The Great Gatsby were only about Gatsby, then it would still be good, but not perfect. What makes this novel absolutely perfect is that the story is refracted through Nick's narration. He tells us right at the outset that he is not here to judge. He prides himself that he is one of the few honest people out there. 

But he's an unreliable narrator. The novel is full of small phrases such as "I suppose" or "I think" or "Perhaps". He's consistently making the observant audience second-guess him. Nick is proud of himself for giving Jay a compliment, "You're worth the whole damn bunch put together." He tells us after this that he has always disapproved of Jay on moral grounds. This is definitely in stark contrast to his promise not to judge.

However many times Nick tells us that he doesn't approve of Gatsby, it's obvious that Nick adores him. After all, Gatsby is the quintessential American Dream.

Another thing that holds this book up is the plot's reliance on accidents. The conclusion of the book hinges on an automobile accident, but not only that, many of the relationships and friendships only start due to an accidental meeting. What's interesting is that accidents are the antithesis of the concept of the "self-made man", of the self-reliance, of the manifest destiny of the American Dream. A person who has created himself in a new image, and has created a new story for themselves can't have accidents and coincidences running amok. Accidents are messy; self-made men are neat and tidy.

I could go on and on and on and on about this book. There's just so much going on: the use of colours, the images of the moon and of the clock that Gatsby almost accidentally drops, the dialogue, the narration. This is an endlessly rich novel.

I often ultimately judge a book by how well it could be taught, that is to say, how much a teacher could get out of the book for a classroom full of students who are not all readers like I am. Definitely, The Great Gatsby is a book that I could form a whole course around. It is a perfect example of the American Novel.

As an aside, I purchased this book in the new Penguin Modern Classics imprint, the new design that Penguin's rolling out to replace the stark and beautiful blank imprint. Here's the two books I picked up by Fitzgerald:

Aren't those nice? I also got Mrs Dalloway and To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf in the same design. I absolutely adore Penguin Classics. I have a whole bunch, in different designs and different sizes, but they always look nice on a shelf, and the introductions are often fantastic. 

Thanks for reading.