Sunday, May 30, 2010

Heat and Dust

I'm still really entertained  and enthralled by literature set during the British Raj. I continue my Booker Prize conquest by reading Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Heat and Dust, which won the titular prize in 1975. I very much liked the novel, but I didn't love it. 

The Siege of Krishnapur

J. G. Farrell won the Lost Booker Prize for his 1970 novel, Troubles, but since my library has a queue for it, I took out his 1973 winner The Siege of Krishnapur, and I reviewed it for the Complete Booker. Overall, I loved the book. It was very exciting and thematically deep, while still being engaging and enthralling.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Kung Fu Bear

Apparently this is real. And awesome.

Horatio makes my kind of pun

The first was mine, while the second (possibly the funnier one) was written by my beloved girlfriend.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Desert Island Essentials: More Music

If you click here, you can read the first ten albums that I said I couldn't live without. Now, I'm going to take a look at some more albums that I can't possibly live without.

Radiohead - The Bends
One of the most important albums of the nineties, this is one I frequently revisit after forgetting about for a couple years. I always forget how emotional, intense, cryptic, beautiful and epic each song seems to be. From the opening salvo of Planet Telex to the ominous sing-along Street Spirit, every single track is a winner. Consistently excellent, this is my favourite album from Radiohead.

Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here
At work, we used to listen to Shine on You Crazy Diamond over and over again, air-guitaring and air-saxophoning every time, having a fantastic time. From there, it segues into the classic triple-hit of Welcome to the Machine, Have a Cigar and the title track. What Floyd learned on the past few albums, plus the anger, and the technical virtuosity, make this an amazing album.

Led Zeppelin - Led Zeppelin III
Often overlooked in favour of IV or Houses of the Holy, I like this one best because it features some of the slower more folksy songs from Zep's catalogue. That's not to say that it doesn't have moments of face-melting like the opening thunder of Immigrant Song, or the blistering Since I've Been Loving You. More sonically varied than any other album they put out, this is the greatest rock n roll band at their best.

The Decemberists - The Hazards of Love
I liked all their previous albums. I love this album. I think it's because it's a concept album, that tells a bizarre prog-rock Victorian story that doesn't really make a lick of sense. But it's like every instrument they could get their hands on was used, and every studio trick. This is prog-rock, but it's very coherent, musically speaking. Always listenable.

Sublime - Sublime (eponymous album)
Great times, great grooves, great summer music. Sublime's previous albums are good, but again, just like other bands, they nail it with this exceedingly awesome disc. It's like Sublime refined and tested, and perfected.

Coldplay - A Rush of Blood to the Head
I thought of going with Parachutes, their first album, but it doesn't have the staying power that this one does. Every song is so pop-perfect, like it was created by a time of scientists for maximum popularity. That polish and sheen on every track makes this so good, the title track being the best of all.

Me First and the Gimme Gimmes - Take a Break
This is the hilarious punk supergroup's album of covers by black people, and it represents every single member's most shining moment sonically. Everybody is playing at a masterful level, and Spike's vocals are some of the best singing I've ever heard. He does serious justice to every single artist, from Lionel Richie to Stevie Wonder to Aretha Franklin. That's how good this is.

Paul Simon - Graceland
My first exposure to world music. If one can forget the cultural appropriation and all that Los Lobos crap, one can hear Simon's experimentation and pop skills at their finest. He really uses those African rhythms and makes them his own (hence the qualms of appropriation, but this isn't the venue for that discussion)

Thrice - Vheissu
I said it before, but again, it's like the band finally comes together after a couple good discs, and then produces a masterpiece. Every - single - track - on this album is crushing, epic, beautiful, dense, and always amazing. This is the band I've seen most live in my life, and I will always go see them live, no matter what.

Alice in Chains - Dirt
A lot of people say this is a depressing record, about addiction and despair. It never depresses me. In fact, this album always gives me energy. It's like Layne Staley is singing to me, saying "better yourself, or else you'll face this dirt" and every time, I look forward. This is the most positive downer album ever. I love every track, its grinding neverending guitar, Layne's piercing and soulful screams, and the bizarre moments of drug induced haziness. This is a fantastic record, and should be more highly regarded. Especially since this album is better than the entire Nirvana catalogue. There I said it.

Staying On

Here is another example of an author being awarded the Booker for a novel not their most famous. I encountered this first with V. S. Naipaul and In a Free State (which I hated. A lot), and with Kingsley Amis and The Old Devils. Paul Scott is more famous and heralded for his Raj Quartet, none of which I've read, but in 1978, he was presented with the Booker Prize for Staying On.

Tusker and Lucy Smalley are literally the last of the British Raj to stay on in India, and it's 1972, and they are both in their seventies. They live in a medium quality hotel being physically overshadowed by a better bigger hotel, which threatens to buy out the little hotel. Tusker is in ill health and ill temper, and Lucy feels empty and unfulfilled. This is the story of their last days together in India.

I certainly did not know what to expect with this novel. I was sure it was going to be a mixture of present day (1972) and flashbacks to the thirties and forties, Tusker's heyday in the Raj. However, that was not the case. Instead of retreading ground that he spent over 2000 pages doing, Scott chose to focus on what the end result is.

This is 200 pages of the couple, their servant, the married couple that owns the little hotel, and a couple other Indians living together, having conversations, arguments, tender moments. This is 200 pages of very minute social observation, but always with an extremely subtle and deft hand. Never did I feel that Scott was pointing to something excrutiatingly obvious.

Scott's prose is so clear, his dialogue rich, and his control over the story is fantastic. However, the lack of specific plot momentum sort of hinders this. This isn't a page-turner. It is a slow and methodical autopsy of a dying breed.

Apparently it's also a comic novel, but I never really laughed. The humour just didn't do it for me.

But these are minute problems. Overall, I enjoyed the book, and it made me want to read his Raj Quartet immediately. I have spoken of this theme numerous times on my blog, but really, the whole point of this challenge is to read different authors I would never normally expose myself to.

Staying On is an excellent novel written by a professional. It has great characters, clear coherent prose and structure, and it's consistently subtle. Fans of British or Indian history will have a great time with this.

Last Orders

I decided to post another Booker review for everyone to read, but I went with one that I had read awhile ago, which is Graham Swift's Last Orders, from 1996. I thought the novel was good, but not great, and overall it entertained me.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Booker Progress

Okay, let's take a look at my progress with the Booker Prize and see where we are. It's been a long time since I looked at the list, and calculated a total, so let's do this now. Here is the complete list of Booker Prize winners that I've read.

2008 - The White Tiger (Adiga)
2007 - The Gathering (Enright)
2006 - The Inheritance of Loss (Desai)
2005 - The Sea (Banville)
2004 - The Line of Beauty (Hollinghurst)
2003 - Vernon God Little (Pierre)
2001 - True History of the Kelly Gang (Carey)
2000 - The Blind Assassin (Atwood)
1999 - Disgrace (Coetzee)
1998 - Amsterdam (McEwan)
1996 - Last Orders (Swift)
1995 - The Ghost Road (Barker)
1993 - Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (Doyle)
1992 - The English Patient (Ondaatje)
1990 - Possession: A Romance (Byatt)
1989 - The Remains of the Day (Ishiguro)
1987 - Moon Tiger (Lively)
1983 - Life & Times of Michael K (Coetzee)
1976 - Saville (Storey)
1974 - The Conservationist (Gordimer)
1974 - Holiday (Middleton)
1971 - In a Free State (Naipaul)

There are 44 novels on the list of Booker Prize winners and I have read 22! That means that I am officially at the halfway point! Yay!

Right now, from the library, I have Scott's Staying On, Farrell's Siege of Krishnapur, Amis' The Old Devils, and Jhabvala's Heat and Dust. I'm about 20 pages in Staying On, so look forward to more Booker Prizes. I'm back on the Booker bus!


I think it's hilarious that I made a big to-do about not being able to finish a Pynchon book, and then I read four of them in a row, and loved them all. Here's the fourth, Vineland, and here's my review.

Zoyd Wheeler is an ex-hippie in the Eighties living a normal existence with his teenaged daughter Prairie in a northern California logging town called Vineland. Things suddenly change when Wheeler's old nemesis Brock Vond of the government comes swooping in with an army, tries to kidnap Prairie, takes away his home, and drives him deep into the underground where he used to live. Along the way, they meet ninjas, punk bands, Mafioso's, a possible time machine, anarchists, students, drug dealers, and any freaky character that you think Pynchon uses a lot.

Vineland seems like the runt of Pynchon's literary litter. Released twenty years after his undisputed masterpiece Gravity's Rainbow, his fans were left wanting. This is a shorter, more accessible work, and part of Pynchon's pattern of releasing novels about California (rather than everything). 

It's easy to see why this doesn't have the critical acclaim of his other novels. Frankly, it's just not that interesting. There's way too much happening with what little plot there is, and the characters and jokes aren't really that funny. We're supposed to imagine that Vineland is like a cartoon, which is reinforced in the text by cues. As a cartoon, this isn't cartoony enough, if that makes sense. Not enough bizarre antics, gratuitous violence, or zaniness.

There is zaniness, don't get me wrong, it's just that the zaniness isn't that funny. Maybe I just burned out on too much Pynchon, and the style and jokes wore thin for me. Maybe I need to give this another try.

I didn't hate or even dislike Vineland; I just thought it was satisfactory. There are too many books in the world for me to waste my time on something satisfactory. This is harsh, but it is true.

Vineland is definitely one of Pynchon's lesser works. It's more entertaining than most books in the stores nowadays, but it wasn't enough for me. Not deep enough, not funny enough, not cartoony enough. I will re-read it, to give it another shot, as I will all of Pynchon's books, but for now, I have encountered my second misstep with the reclusive author.

Moon Tiger

So, back on the Booker train, I suppose. You can read my review for Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively on the Complete Booker blog. In summary, I loved this novel, way more than I expected. It's the reason why I'm doing this challenge, so that I can be introduced to new authors and love them.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Things I'm Into Right Now

Thomas Pynchon - author
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec - Post-Impressionist painter
Frank Zappa - composer
Lost - American sci-fi television show
Supertramp - 70's pop-rock band

A Trio of Pynchon Reviews

Remember a long time ago I confessed to not being able to finish Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day? Well. I decided that I was going to defeat my personal Hydra of literature and read some Pynchon. Little did I know that once I finished one, I had to read them all. So here, for your reading pleasure, are mini-reviews of the three Pynchon novels I read in the past three weeks.

 I decided to start with his first novel, published in 1963. It's the saga of Benny Profane, Stencil, the Whole Sick Crew, and the mysterious mercurial woman called V. Alternating between episodes of Benny and the Crew, their misadventures, and a multigenerational epic spanning the globe in the past, charting the path of V.

Once I got a handle on Pynchon's bizarre and all over the map writing style, I realized that V. is a fun, hilarious book about everything. It's the kitchen sink approach to writing that threw me off about Against the Day, but here, it absolutely made the novel for me. From the hilarious names, to groan inducing puns, to proto-steampunk elements, to scary moments of "otherness", this book has it all.

Upon finishing V. I tried going back to Delillo and reading Underworld, but Delillo's flat style did nothing for me. What I wanted was Pynchon. I wanted his zany voice, his wacky characters and Star Trek references. I wanted more.

The Crying of Lot 49
The shortest of his novels, more of a novella, this features Oedipa Maas unraveling a labyrinthine conspiracy about an alternative mail delivery conspiracy, including an underground society, the bones of GIs being used to make cigarette filters, music groups, and everything in between.

Even though this book is short, it is filled to the brim. Ostensibly a potboiler, it lets the readers have a glimpse at a more paranoid and darker reality, the one beneath the surface. This metaphor extends through all that I've read about Pynchon, that there exists something deeper than what the straights and squares would have you believe.

I really liked this book, but I wished it had been much longer. I was left wanting more. So I kept going.

Inherent Vice
Instead of going with the next book chronologically (Gravity's Rainbow), I went with his most recent, and apparently more accessible work. This novel is Pynchon's twist on the detective fiction, set in the Free Love era of the 60's in a Californian surfing suburb, where everybody smokes pot and has no idea what's going on.

I'm decently well-read with detective fiction (I own two biographies about Raymond Chandler) so I was hugely entertained by Pynchon's spoof. Metaphors used so perfectly in The Long Goodbye and in Chinatown, are twisted and fogged by drugs. It's quite hilarious.

While Inherent Vice is more accessible than, say, V. or Gravity's Rainbow, it's not easy. This is one of the most over complicated mysteries I've ever read, almost out-complicating Ellroy's L.A. Quartet. I'm not even fully convinced that all the pieces fit. But a tidy resolution is not a requirement of detective fiction.

They say for Pynchon newbies to just let everything wash over you, and then on the second or third reading, the intricacies and meanings will be more clear to the reader. I will certainly agree that I missed tons, I'm sure. I can't wait to re-read all of Pynchon's stuff, and tease out what I can. But first, I have to finish Against The Day.

I know that I completely switched my stance on Pynchon, but I think I just wasn't ready to read Against the Day. It's over a 1000 pages of his unique insanity, and I needed to work my way up to that. Now I'm ready for his tricks.

Keep checking back for more updates. I'm already 50 pages into Vineland, and Gravity's Rainbow is next.

"Where have you been?"

Working 70 hours a week.

Sue me. It's my blog.

There will be some posts tomorrow, so stay tuned.