Wednesday, January 31, 2007

On Procrastination, and pondering what makes Notes On a Scandal 'literary'.

I am so behind on reviewing books, that I have rather developed a guilt complex towards it. One that makes me feel like hiding behind bushes, or creeping around with a paper bag on my head in case anyone recognizes how much of a procrastinator I am or want to remind me that I have several reviews on my to-do-list that have been there for quite a while.

The trick I think, for future reference, is not to actually claim that I'm going to do such and such until after I have done it. The trick is to not try to take on so many books that I want review, and then feel overwhelmed because really its been a month, and I can't remember exactly what I wanted to say except cliched things like "fantastic, a mixture of the [insert great literary author name] and [insert another great literary author]", etc.

Of course I promptly ignore my own advice, and decide, to in fact write a entry about my procrastination therefore calling attention to the fact that I haven't really written many reviews lately, and also in doing so, promise once again, that I will get those reviews written very very soon.

Which really brings me to the point of today's post, my thoughts on What Was She Thinking: [Notes On A Scandal] - Zoe Heller. As many of you know the novel was made into a movie starring Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench very recently. Those of you who are waiting to get your hands on the book after seeing the movie may be a little disappointed, since the book proves to be a very much watered-down version of what you see on screen.

In the novel, Judi Dench's character, Barbara is not so much a manipulative, controlling she-demon, as she is a pathetic middle-aged spinster who has very nasty and opinionated thoughts about most of the people in her life. While there were some lesbian undertones in her character towards Cate Blanchett's Sheba , I felt the book version of Barbara wanted what Sheba has: youth, beauty, people that adored her, and most essentially human companionship, more than a relationship with Sheba. The book is a study of loneliness, and the human desire to be loved and wanted by others.

Interestingly enough, Babara of the book reminds me distinctly of the character, Amelia, from Kate Atkinson's Case Histories. While Judi Dench's version of Babara can be horrifying to watch, the book Barbara inspires more feelings of pity than loathing. The book and movie differ in this aspect.

Having said that, I'm not so sure that I would prefer the book over the movie. I certainly think that the words 'literary thriller', as touted by the back cover, is a stretch.

While I had no problems with the book as it is written (it tells the story in a straightforward Bridget Jonesy type narrative), I'm not sure exactly why critics found this book stellar in comparison to others. Critics have made claims that this novel is an intense study of psychological and emotional complexity but half way through the novel, I began to wonder if I was reading the same book as those people.

Admittedly the novel does tackle taboo and slightly sinister issues, and yes it uses an unreliable narrative.

But that's it.

There seems very little that is complex about the story or how it is told once we figure out that Barbara is a shaky narrator with very delusional, and needy personality and that Sheba is just the self-absorbed counterpart who feeds on Babara's attention as Babara feeds on her.

Some critics have also mentioned that the novel is darkly comic, but I found this gives the reader a very warped sense of the story, unless we now count sarcasm in its most bitter form as comic. While the novel is an careful study of character, the story seems to function just as well on screen as it does in words. Certainly I felt the story (in the novel) was told just as simply if only more subtlety in comparison to the movie

Although I did not find this novel to be bad, I can not help but be disappointed with the critical assessment which lead me to believe that I was going to read a much better and more interesting novel than this. Overall a disappointment, especially considering the quality and inventiveness of the books that I have recently been reading.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

It's meme time!

  • Hardback or trade paperback or mass market paperback? Trade paperback. Although for any of my favorite books, I'll usually end up acquiring the hardback later on. There are times when I've also been known to buy every edition of a book that I can get my hands on. I have no idea why I do this, except maybe a deeply rooted fear that some of these authors will sadly be out-of-print one day, and if something should happen to one copy of the book, then at least I'll have another. This behavior is usually reserved for those authors who should be more widely read anyways, so I never feel bad about spending the money.
  • Amazon or brick and mortar? Almost always Amazon (and, usually because of the price and the selection. However if I lived closer to something like the Strand, I prefer brick and mortar. I still go to bookstores on the weekends for the pure joy of browsing the shelves and displays.

  • Barnes & Noble or Borders? Whichever one is closer. I have to confess that I love these huge megastores, most likely because this is where I choose to hide from the mandatory socializing events that they forced on us freshman year of college. I always found these events startling as you had to put everything you've got: SAT scores, looks, aspirations, social graces, etc., on the table so that your peers may decide whether you were friend-worthy or not. It just seemed so silly and terrifying at the same time. Thank goodness for my college Barnes and Noble.

  • Bookmark or dogear? Neither, I can't ever seem to keep one bookmark long enough to actually use it. And I couldn't stand to dogear a book unless it was something that I was only reading for class (and only if I find myself despising the author for some reason). Really, the only book I've ever dog-eared is my copy of Pillar of Hercules by Paul Theroux. I found him to be a pretentious gasbag. Anyways, whenever I read, I usually spend 3 or 4 minutes looking for the right page, it's very inefficient.

  • Alphabetize by author or alphabetize by title or random? I use to alphabetize by author. Now the arrangement is a bit more eclectic. I tend to group authors by themes that they work on, or how I feel about them.
  • Keep, throw away, or sell? Keep. It's very very painful for me to get rid of any book that I took the trouble to buy. But now that I've found BookMooch, I've gotten better at getting rid of some things.

  • Keep dustjacket or toss it? Why would you ever want to toss it?

  • Read with dustjacket or remove it? Remove it. Unfortunately, I'm very OCD about my books.

  • Short story or novel? Before last year, I would have said novel with some certainty. However, I've been reading more collections in the last two years, and now, I'm no longer so sure. A good short story is a very profound experience. There are some stories that evoke a mood or make a impression that never leaves you. I find that very powerful. I'm also very fond of the novella.

  • Collection (short stories by same author) or anthology (short stories by different authors)? I like both for different reasons: anthology - to try new authors; collection - to experience an author that I already enjoy. I find I have to skip around a lot more in anthologies because the constant change in style makes it hard for me to focus for a long period of time.

  • Harry Potter or Lemony Snicket? Well...Potter I guess, although I feel that this isn't much of a contest. I consider Lemony Snicket one of those rip offs of Harry Potter that actually succeeded. More of a good marketing effort than anything else.

  • Stop reading when tired or at chapter breaks? When tired.

  • Buy or Borrow? As a kid, I used to frequent the library as much as I did school, so it's embarrassing to admit that answer is Buy.

  • New or used? New, or gently used.

  • Buying choice: book reviews, recommendation or browse? I try not to read book-reviews to in-depth because often they reveal too much or color my own opinions of the book. I do enjoy reading reviews after finishing a novel. I love recommendations and browsing, and rely heavily on both.

  • Tidy ending or cliffhanger? To be honest, both sound unappealing. My only criteria for endings is that they must make sense in relation to the rest of the book. Although usually books that tie up everything make me feel slightly uncomfortable.

  • Morning reading, afternoon reading or nighttime reading? Reading in the afternoon is very pleasurable to me because this usually means it's the holidays or my day off. I prefer to read in daylight, but actually spend much more time reading at night.

  • Standalone or series? Standalone, although I preferred series as a kid. I think series for adults are difficult to write. They are generally a disappointment for me.

  • Favorite series? Follow the link.

  • Favorite book of which nobody else has heard? Nothing pops immediately to mind although I have just discovered a beautiful "children's" book called The Rabbits by John Marsden, illustrated by Shaun Tan, which tells an allegorical tale about colonialism and the ecological destruction and culture exploitation that follows. Here is the cover:

Go to Shaun Tan's website for more pictures from the book.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Traveling with the Colleague from Hell

I was out in Chicago for business earlier this week, and have just returned tired and worn out from the trip. The business itself was fairly pleasant, but I ended up traveling with a colleague who has a rather "difficult" personality. It is incredibly hard to be professional with someone, when you just want to tell the person to shut the hell up. I felt that I was channeling Jack Nicholson in the end, you know, in The Shining, when he starts going psychotic inside, but manages to remain seemingly normal.

I also have developed pet peeves for people who cough on other people, who whisper loudly and rudely about strangers, who always have conversations three or four decibels too high in crowded places, who insist on telling me about how they're constipated every time we eat, who pick at themselves with their hands, who eat at nice restaurants with their hands, who is clearly homophobic and makes jokes about people with handicaps, who complains about how it's so cold that they will surely die from hypothermia, and then, when you turn up the heat, about how it's so hot that that they can't breathe, and who in general have no social graces or sensitivity and kindness to anyone but themselves. You think people like this only exist as grandiose caricatures in movies or books, but apparently not. I was traveling with just such a person for three whole days. It was three of the most difficult days of my life.

On the brighter note, I did end up reading my fair share of books on the trip, finishing up Whats Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal, and Martin Dressler. I will be posting my thoughts about these a little later.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Apparently cat-ownership is equivalent to devil worship...

Thanks to Syntax of Things, I found this little gem.

I'm speechless, really, I don't know what to say...

Here's an excerpt

Additionally, cats practice many unclean habits not befitting a Christian household: coughing up fur balls, licking inappropriate body areas on their own bodies (inappropriate handling) and even, in some cases, on the bodies of their human owners (wrongful motive?), urination on the floor, vocal and blatant promiscuity (unknown to any other species, all others being endowed with Godly chastity and decorum)
Obviously this person has never watched Animal Planet. . .


I stumbled across this great website called Gnooks, where you can get author or book recommendations based on authors you already enjoy. While many sites have algorithms that generate recommendations based on preferences, I feel this program creates more interesting if not better suggestions.

My favorite function on Gnooks is the literature map. This program generates a map of authors based on any name that you enter. You can also click any of the names on the map to create a new map.

The other great function is Gnod's Suggestions. After entering three authors you like, you are given a string of recommendations based on your input. The website appears to have similar functions for music and movies, so if you have a free minute, I would highly recommend a visit.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Peru, here we come!!!!

We're going to Peru!

That's right, David and I, along with one of our best friends, will be planning a trip there in March. It was this or a new laptop, and, well, you can have a new laptop at any point in life; but the opportunity for travel sadly diminishes as you get older (not for everyone, I know, but it certainly becomes more difficult with jobs and families). Naturally we had to go with Peru.

I will make an attempt to journal our experiences while we are on the trip, which should apear here afterwards if everything goes well. If anyone has any travel suggestions or advice, feel free to leave us a comment.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Impetus of Dreams: Daniel Merriam

While pilfering book piles at home in West Virginia, I came upon this art book, by surrealist Daniel Merriam. I had completely forgotten I had this book!

A couple of years ago, I discovered his mesmerizing work, and purchased his art book: The Impetus of Dreams (something I'm very glad that I did, because sadly it is now out of print).

He ranks as one of my favorite contemporary artists, along with Michael Parkes. I'll post some samples from the book later. If you are interested in obtaining a copy, is probably your best bet at this point.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Atonement and White Noise

I was in West Virginia this past weekend (it's an actual state, not western'd be surprised how many times I have to make this distinction). I went down with some friends for a quiet weekend in the woods. It turned out to be a very quiet weekend indeed, since rain and mud made most of the hiking and walking about that I had planned unappealing. However it was a great weekend for reading and pillaging my old bookshelves for books that I didn't even remember purchasing.

I also finished Atonement by Ian McEwan, a book that I now wish we had picked to read for our book group instead of White Noise. In every way, Atonement is the more appealing novel. It is easier to read and at the same time more substantive.

I guess, the disclaimer here is that I found White Noise to be stylistically interesting but ultimately unsatisfying as a novel. To me, White Noise would've been more effective as a short story or novella. I felt that the central ideas and themes were too thin to justify the entire book. Certainly, the first half of the novel gave ample space to Delillo's exploration of 'rampant consumerism', 'media saturation' and other central themes. By the time we reach the end, the novelty and repetitiveness of his technique has long worn off, leaving the reader somewhat bored, apathetic, if not a little at a loss for words.

Atonement on the other hand, is a well-crafted if complex novel set before, during, and after Word War II. The story centers around 13-year-old Briony Tallis and the crime that she commits unwittingly one summer day on her parents' estate. The crime and it's repercussions haunt Briony through World War II, and into the final years of the 20th century. Atonement is a heartbreaking novel that examines themes of class, war, regret and guilt. (I spent the last half of the book intermittently weeping and trying to convince David that I was fine.)

While Atonement is a tragic book, it is not oppressively so. The plot is excellent, and while I have my own opinions about the alleged plagiarism of Lucilla Andrews' autobiography No Time for Romance in the latter half of the book---no one should be able to lift passages from someone's else's book almost verbatim without giving proper credit to the original--- it does not make me think any less of the merit of Atonement.

With or without those plagiarized passages, Atonement is a fantastic novel, one that I would highly recommend to anyone.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Ford Airstream Concept

3 things:

First, I'm not an expert, but isn't it rather a mistake to make a car that could be mistaken for the passing landscape?

Secondly, I can see other cars being blinded on a sunny day by those reflective surfaces. I mean is it really safe to drive this thing?

Lastly it's really just not very attractive.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

An Enchanted Bestiary

Another book I got for Christmas was Sowa's Ark: An Enchanted Bestiary, an artbook filled with the whimsical paintings by the German artist Michael Sowa. I love his work for its fascinating and often surreal paintings of animals.

Some people may recognize Sowa's name because his artwork is featured in the film Amélie. His paintings adorn the walls of Amélie's bedroom, and at one point come to life to have a conversation about her love life.

Here are several pictures taken from the book. As the artbook has gone out of print several times, and it is incredibly hard to find compilations of his work in the US. Those who are interested in getting a copy should do so sooner rather than later.

Christmas pile - Part 1

Here are some of the books that David and I gave each other for Christmas.

From top to bottom:

1. A Passion For Books - A compilation of lists, essays, and other interesting tidbits about our favorite subject, books.

2. An beautiful volume of Raymond Chandler novels from Everyman's Library - A gift for David, since I am not a big fan of the hardboiled detective novel.

3. The Intellectual Devotional - A book of 365 lessons in 7 subjects: literature, history, science, music, religion, philosophy, and visual arts. It is meant to be read daily for an year as a way to round out your education and stimulate your mind. Reading it is kind of like browsing Wikipedia. And I find I have a hard time sticking to just one lesson per day.

4. J.M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello which I think is brilliant.

5. Dana Copithorne's The Steam Magnate, a book I'm saving to be devoured on a rainy day.

6. A Walk in the Woods
by Bill Bryson. It is so entertaining, that I took a break from The Wings of the Dove, and finished this in two sittings. Bill Bryson's travel writing is as intelligent as it is uproariously funny. Highly recommended, although it has given me an irrational phobia of bears. . . especially considering I live in the city.

7. The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (Surprisingly light for it's size and absolutely a must have for us)

8. Nova Swing,
M. John Harrison's new novel. David ordered this from the UK for me much to my delight and surprise. It's not out in the U.S. yet, so I wasn't expecting to get a copy until later this year.

9. Rain Forest - An absolutely gorgeous coffee table book on the flora and fauna of rain forests around the world.

That's all for now, I'll have the rest posted hopefully by next week.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Did you know. . .

Sherlock Holmes was a habitual user of cocaine and morphine?

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Blog Transformations

I eventually had to switch back to a blogger design because, everything I wanted to do was taking up so much time. Sighh, I hated to give up the 3 column design, but the fiddling with code was driving me insane.

The Barnum Museum - Steve Millhauser

I was in the bookstore yesterday enjoying my last day before work, when I happened upon several books by Steven Millhauser, A name that had popped up on a friend's TBR list and intrigued me since his stories often have fantastical elements. He has won numerous awards including a Pulitzer, although sadly from the availability of his work on Amazon, I take it that he is not as widely read as he should be.

While in the bookstore, I managed to read a short story of his from his collection titled: The Barnum Museum. The story takes place around a game table in the midst of a game of Clue. Somehow within the breadth of a few pages, Steven Millhauser manages to take you into the people that surround the table exploring fears and desires, and the definitions of a family. At the same time, Millhauser breathes life into the game of Clue, which itself becomes populated with real characters and their own individual sets of motivations and desires. As the game progresses, and the the characters of Clue wander through the mansion trying to find a murderer or maybe themselves, so does our understanding of those who sit around the table.

I was so enchanted with the story that I have ordered The Barnum Museum online, and will be going to the bookstore after work to pick up another collection titled, Little Kingdoms. If you're a fan of Kelly Link, be sure to check him out!
(*Update* - Just found out that The Illusionist was based on a short story of his.)

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

A Belated Happy New Year

Happy Belated New Year!!! I just got back from a trip to New York, so there's not much to report. At some point today or tomorrow, I will be posting pictures of the new books that David and I received this Christmas.

Currently reading: The Wings of the Dove and Shamrock Tea - I know late Henry James is not easy but I have to admit this book has been more frustrating that I had expected. In my mind I keep on hearing a phrase quoted by Scuttle the Seagull from Disney's The Little Mermaid. The phrase screeched during the grotto scene pretty much sums up how I feel about what I've read so far of The Wings of the Dove.

"Nothing is happening!!!!!!"

I know, not a very original or constructive complaint when talking about James, and even an odder reference to The Little Mermaid, but maybe I'm just a little tired from my trip. Happy New Year!