Friday, January 14, 2011

The Stone Diaries

The Stone Diaries
By Carol Shields

We were supposed to read this book in grade 11 English, but I recall that my English teacher that year, Ms. White, had disliked the book so much that we opted for Lives of the Saints by Nino Ricci, a book I thoroughly did not enjoy. I have no idea why I would recall such a trivial bit of educational history (and still produce grades in the low 30s in math) but there you have it.

Since then I have, for one reason or another, managed to avoid this book. Apparently Ms. White's opinion of the book carried a lot of weight with me because at certain points in my reading career I have actually gone out of my way to NOT read this book. The fact that it won the Governor General's Award, the Pulitzer Prize and was short-listed for the Booker Prize meant (and still means) nothing to me. But obviously someone, somewhere thought this book was pretty swell. Just not Ms. White and, by extention, me.

This got me to thinking about Ms. White. Why would one woman's opinion about a book keep me from reading it for 20 years? I recall that she was (at the time) in her mid to late twenties and a lot of other male students in my high school thought she was the bee's knees. She was partial to calf length floral print skirts and librarian sweaters, which was pretty risque attire for a teachr in those days. But my teacher crush was Ms. Thompson (blue jeans and sweaters!). There was no mistaking that.

My only vivid memory of Ms White was her running down a corridor because she was late for her class. At the same time, a student exiting a classroom in said corridor opened the door outwards and she ran face-first into the door. Then she fell down.The only thing I remember about her class was sitting in front of the school narc. But for some reason her opinion about the Stone....

Wait.... This entire anecdote was about The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence. That was the book Ms. White hated so much.....

Anyway, The Stone Diaries reminded me of my grandmother.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Mirror Crack'd

The Mirror Crack'd
by Agatha Christie

One of my favorite columns at The Onion's AV Club is the genius Better Late Than Never where pop culture writers read or watch or listen to segments of culture they somehow missed along the way. I am flabbergasted when I see writers who have somehow missed Tron or Bill Hicks or the Breakfast Club (is that even possible!?!?!). But then I think about myself. Hell, until last week I'd never once seen Rear Window. There's all sorts of stuff I've missed over the years. And despite my love of reading, I haven't read everything.

While I do feel like I've read a good cross-section of everything from the Bible to Hunter S. Thompson to Thomas Pynchon, there still come moments when someone asks me whether I have read a book written by so-and-so and I respond in the negative.

Invariably eyebrows are raised and incredulity is expressed: "How have you not read _________ yet? Put everything down and read him/her next!"

Come to think of it, there are glaring holes in my reading. I've never read anything by Ernest Hemingway nor have I read Herman Melville. I've never finished a book written by J.R.R. Tolkien (and in this case, nor shall I ever). I've never read Lolita or Crime and Punishment or The Grapes of Wrath or Dune. I've never read H.P. Lovecraft, Edith Wharton or Ian Mcewan or Carson McCullers.

As a Canadian I've never read Hugh McLennan or Farley Mowat. Imagine that. I suspect a few Canucks out there would be screaming bloody murder for my citizenship to be rescinded.

I've not read Thornton Wilder or V.S. Naipaul or Jack London.

And until this book I had never once read Agatha Christie.

I'm not a huge fan of mysteries. I enjoy them when I read them, but I never actively search them out. I'm not the sort to try and figure out who the murderer was before the main character. I fall for red herrings and always tend to suspect the butler or the spouse. When the reveal comes, I'm always surprised.

So, for me, The Mirror Crack'd did its job. It had me guessing until the very end, and isn't that all one expects from a good murder mystery? Aside from the dated writing (and who can blame Ms. Christie for her writing style?) I was pleased with the Agatha Christie experience. I will not hesitate to go back to this well in the future.


P.S. The butler didn't do it.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Smoke Screen

Smoke Screen
by Sandra Brown

Sometimes books end up on my reading shelf and I have no idea how they got there. I suspect there is a book god that steals books from airport lounges, public toilets and youth hostels and deposits them randomly around the world. It's the only logical conclusion as to why this book was there in the first place. Nothing about this book would have convinced me to put this book on the shelf willingly, but since everything on that shelf must be read, I picked it up and had at it.

I suspected something was amiss right away when the writer consistently referred to the varying tightness of each character's clothes, but it wasn't until the first contrived and graphic sex scene that my fears manifested:

"Oh God! I'm reading an erotic thriller."

Three solid pages of sex. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but, like a good scare in a horror movie, I prefer my romance to be implied. Perhaps that is a personal character flaw.


Further reference to extra tight shirts, and heaps of unnecessary sexual tension later, the book took one last gargantuan twist that bordered on a leap of faith and ended.


The gods mock me.

I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell

I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell
by Tucker Max

I actually stumbled upon Tucker Max's blog several years ago and enjoyed his insane drinking stories. I spent a couple of hours chortling at his and his buddies antics which in turn got me reminiscing about my own wilder days (although I'm still capable of wildness when push comes to shove). While I'm not nearly the alpha male that Tucker Max is, it's hard not to relate to these stories, even if only tangentically.

I know that a lot of people take offense to Tucker Max and his brand of brash, unadulterated storytelling. He's an unapologetic chauvanist. He's a malicious womanizer. He's a bad example for today's youth. He's just a dumb frat boy wannabe. He's this. He's that. Whatever. Enough with all that. If you are offending someone, somewhere, well, you're probably doing something right in my books. All the power to you, so long as you aren't hurting anyone. (and for the record, I don't really think Tucker Max is any of the above. Like anyone who writes, honesty often manifests itself in a harsher light than fiction).

I challenge that Tucker Max is simply more honest than the rest of us. While most of us don't write these sorts of stories, a good many of us have stories like these rattling around in the recesses of our memories and given enough alcohol and peer pressure, these stories invariably get shared among drinking buddies at boozy tables in smoky places for the rest of our lives. You might not have a Sushi Pants story but, if you are like me, you have the Face in a Pile of Broken Glass story or the Infamous Hockey Bag story (neither of which I plan to commit to the internet... get me drunk enough and I'll tell them. You will not be disappointed).


I heard he had made the transition from blog to book and was unconvinced that he could make the move smoothly. Blogs are blogs and books are books. They rarely transition well.

Case in point, the excellent Baghdad Blog written by Salam Pax during the lead-up and subsequent invasion of Iraq by Coalition forces in 2002. The blog was citizen journalism at its best. Daily updates about the state of a city we otherwise had very little knowledge about. When the blog appeared in print it seemed like an afterthought. It didn't resonate the way logging onto a blog and finding a new update does. The book disappointed.

Tucker Max's find book suffers the same fate. The stories that seemed so fresh and insane on my computer screen seemed to lose their luster on the printed page. While I had read a lot of the stories online, there were many more I had not read at all and I couldn't muster up a chuckle throughout.

It's not that Tucker Max isn't a good writer. He's good enough. I have no problems with him as a human being. If he wasn't the asshole he professes himself to be, these stories would not exist. In a strange way, that would be a shame. It's just... well... I wish he's stick to the blog. Where it works.

Anyway, long story short. Like the blog. Disappointed in the book.

Monday, January 3, 2011

My Year in Books

OK, I know. This isn't about politics or anything, but I have other things going on in life, and reading is one of them. Plus Hualien is a small county. Not much happens. I need to fill this blog with something else in the interim.


I'm what you might call a disciplined reader. What that means is I carry a book everwhere I go. Shopping malls, class, bathrooms, bars, hiking. People who know me know this. It's usually on the table or in a bag or on the beach somewhere wherever I am. I sometimes forget to carry a cell phone, but I never forget my book.

I read a mandatory 25 pages of book every day. This rule is non-negotiable. It can be more, but never, ever less.

I cannot put a book down, no matter how bad it turns out to be. This rule often sucks (The Shack), but somtimes it has paid off (Cloud Atlas).

I also keep meticulous records of the books I read.

I have been doing this for three years now.

I can't remember why I started doing this.

I can't stop.

This is how it went down in 2010

I read a total of 82 books this year (although 10 of those were a series of graphic novels called
The Walking Dead so if you don't count 200 page comic books, I only read 72). I didn't count how many pages I read this year (nor do I care to go back and count that). I tried to difersify my reading this year. I read a lot of things I would probably never have picked up in previous years (graphic novels, books about Mormons, some suspect biographies, grammar and Henry James!?!?!?)

Anyway, here's the good, the bad and the ugly of the list (which appears in its entirety below). Note: In order to complete the unlicensed use of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly I have replaced Ugly with Non-Fiction. Non-Fiction is sort of ugly... right?

The Good

Geek Love: Katherine Dunn - The wierdest book I read last year. It's about a family of circus freaks who actively try to spawn more freaks. Kids with flippers. Fetuses in jars. hunchback albinos and more. Makes your family look like the Keatons from Family Ties. Strangest thing about the book? It's awesome.

The Time Traveler's Wife: Audrey Niffenegger - I'm a sucker for non-linear story-telling. It makes for compelling reading. So it's ironic that this ultra-linear book seems so non-linear. Had my brain doing back-flips. And once the back flips ceased, it was still a good book. Don't see the movie. Obviously.

Lamb: Christopher Moore - My good friend Troll recommended Moore last year and I read another book (A Dirty Job) and was sorely disappointed. But in fairness he told me to read this one. So I did, and it's cool. I like books about Jesus. I like alternate histories. I like the idea of a Kung Fu Jesus.

Cloud Atlas: David Mitchell - I remember the first time I saw the movie Baraka. I was forced by a friend to the theater to view it. I asked what it was about and I was told to shut up and simply watch. No prep, no background. Just go in blind and you will not be disappointed. Cloud Atlas is Baraka's literature equivalent.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo Series: Steig Larsson - I hope I don't shoot myself in the foot with this pick because it's probably a cliche and renders my other recommendations moot amongst classy readers who roll their eyes ar pulp fiction, but I read an average of 300 pages a day when I was in these books. That's like crack cocaine lit. You simply can't argue against something that starts to encroach on your work and relationships.

The Bad

Grotesque: Natsuo Kirino - I should learn my lesson about contemporary Japanese writers. If their name isn't Murakami, leave it on the shelf. Shock for the sake of shock. No compelling characters. No compelling story. I couldn't figure out why I continued to turn pages. Probably because I simply will not put a book down. If you don't play by my rules, you'll never get through this one.

The Book Thief: Martin Zuzak - Have read, loved and then re-read I Am The Messenger. While I didn't expect a repeat performance, I also didn't expect to be bored to tears.

Three Junes: Julia Glass - While I have nothing particularly against gay literature, this book is, well, gay.

Nobody's Fool: Richard Russo - Perhaps I went a little overboard on the Russo this year. I read Straight Man and Empire Falls prior to this book (and liked both, although the law of diminishing returns was in effect). Russo has been lauded for his ability to write about small town America is startlingly realistic fashion. This is true. Unfortunately, in Nobody's Fool, said small town is mind-numbingly boring.

Sea of Poppies: Amitav Ghosh - Two rules of writing a trilogy. First, the opening book should suck the reader in a la Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Second, there should be a second book literally in the press when the first one hits the shelves so that people who liked your book will seek out the second before time erases the story from their TV-addled brain. In these two respects, Sea of Poppies fails.

The Ugly (Non-Fiction)

Fargo Rock City: Chuck Klosterman - What can I say? I was a head-banger when I was growing up. This book hit close to home. I laughed out loud dozens of times while reading this in public. I was that guy for a couple of days. I also agree with Klosterman about Guns and Roses' song Rocket Queen being the pinnacle of both hair metal and the 1980s.

Blink: Malcolm Gladwell - I challenge anyone to read a Gladwell book and not come away impressed. His research is thorough, his conclusions sound and, most importantly, his writing doesn't suck.

The Greatest Show on Earth: Evidence for Evolution: Richard Dawkins - I'm a sucker for these books. I love it when complicated science is dumbed down enough for me to understand. I also appreciate a scientist who literally leaps out of bed every morning because if his love for his field. The world needs a thousand Richard Dawkins's.

The Dirt: Confessions of the World's Most Notorious Rock Band: Motley Crue - Like I said. I'm a recovering metalhead. How would someone like me NOT love this book? I learned that Vince Neil and Tommy Lee are worse people than I first assumed, and Nikki Sixx is an unappreciated genius. I did not learn how these men are still counted among the living.

God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything: Christopher Hitchens - This one is obvious. Fuel for my fire.

Here's the entire list:

  1. Fargo Rock City – Chuck Klosterman
  2. The Walking Dead Vol. II: Miles Behind Us – Robert Kirkman
  3. 84, Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff
  4. The Walking Dead Vol. III: Safety Behind Bars – Robert Kirkman
  5. Geek Love – Katherine Dunn
  6. The Reader – Bernhard Schlink
  7. The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
  8. American Pastoral – Philip Roth
  9. Under the Banner of Heaven – Jon Krakauer
  10. Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood
  11. Waiting for Time – Bernice Morgan
  12. The Walking Dead Vol. IV: The Heart’s Desire – Robert Kirkman
  13. Life Before Life: A Scientific Investigation of Children’s Memories of Previous Lives – Jim Tucker
  14. The Walking Dead Vol. V: The Best Defense – Robert Kirkman
  15. The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole, 1818-1909 – Pierre Berton
  16. The Walking Dead Vol. VI: This Sorrowful Life – Robert Kirkman
  17. The Last Kingdom – Bernard Cornwell
  18. The Walking Dead Vol. VII: The Calm Before – Robert Kirkman
  19. Grotesque – Natsuo Kirino
  20. The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks – Max Brooks
  21. Selkirk’s Island – Diana Souhami
  22. Mordecai Richler Was Here: Selected Writings – Mordecai Richler
  23. Fugitives Pieces – Anne Michaels
  24. The Moor’s Last Sigh – Salman Rushdie
  25. Until You Are Dead: The Book of Executions in America – Frederick Drimmer
  26. Famous Last Words – Timothy Findley
  27. The Walking Dead Vol. VIII: Made to Suffer – Robert Kirkman
  28. Pussy, King of the Pirates – Kathy Acker
  29. Lamb – Christopher Moore
  30. The Shack – William P. Young
  31. Water For Elephants – Sara Gruen
  32. The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency – Alexander McCall Smith
  33. Man and Boy – Tony Parsons
  34. Tuck Everlasting – Natalie Babbitt
  35. Foucault’s Pendulum – Umberto Eco
  36. Gazza: My Story – Paul Gascoigne
  37. Straight Man – Richard Russo
  38. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Burrows
  39. The Diary of a Young Girl – Anne Frank
  40. The Book Thief – Martin Zusak
  41. The Green Mile – Stephen King
  42. The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology – Robert Wright
  43. The Book of Illusions – Paul Auster
  44. The Walking Dead Vol. IX: Here We Remain - Robert Kirkman
  45. Three Junes – Julia Glass
  46. The Walking Dead Vol. X: What We Become - Robert Kirkman
  47. Wild Ducks Flying Backward – Tom Robbins
  48. The Walking Dead Vol. XI: Fear the Hunters – Robert Kirkman
  49. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking – Malcolm Gladwell
  50. Julie of the Wolves – Jean Craighead George
  51. The Predictioneer’s Game: Using the Logic of Brazen Self-Interest to See and Shape the Future – Bruce Bueno de Mesquita
  52. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream – Hunter S. Thompson
  53. Buttertea at Sunrise: A year in the Bhutan Himalaya – Britta Das
  54. Empire Falls – Richard Russo
  55. The Cay – Theodore Taylor
  56. The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution – Richard Dawkins
  57. Dos and Don’ts in Taiwan – Steven Crook
  58. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books – Azar Nafisi
  59. A Complicated Kindness – Miriam Toews
  60. Half Asleep In Frog Pajamas – Tom Robbins
  61. Anansi Boys – Neil Gaiman
  62. The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band – Tommy Lee, Mick Mars, Vince Neil & Nikki Sixx
  63. The Tragedy of the Moon – Isaac Asimov
  64. Everything’s Eventual: 14 Dark Tales – Stephen King
  65. Methuselah’s Children – Robert A. Heinlein
  66. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz
  67. Invictus: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation – John Carlin
  68. Nobody’s Fool – Richard Russo
  69. The Walking Dead Vol. XII: Life Among Them – Robert Kirkman
  70. Hatchet – Gary Paulsen
  71. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything – Christopher Hitchens
  72. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
  73. Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation – Lynne Truss
  74. Daisy Miller – Henry James
  75. Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace… One School at a Time – Greg Mortenson & David Oliver Relin
  76. Sea of Poppies – Amitav Ghosh
  77. Mormon America: The Power and the Promise – Richard Ostling
  78. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – Steig Larsson
  79. Azincourt – Bernard Cornwell
  80. The Girl Who Played With Fire – Steig Larsson
  81. The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare – G.K. Chesterton
  82. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest – Steig Larsson