Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Testament of Mary

The Testament of Mary
By Colm Tóibín

The Man Booker Prize was awarded to Eleanor Catton for her novel her novel The Luminaries (Congrats Ms. Catton). At 28 years old, Catton becomes the youngest winner of the Booker Prize. But that is not the only superlative we can superimpose one this year's crop of nominees for (arguably) literature's most prestigious award. Colm Tóibín's 81 page novel The Testament of Mary is the shortest book to ever be shortlisted (or even long listed for that matter). It barely qualifies as a novel. I've read novellas longer that The Testament of Mary. But what it lacks in density, it more than makes up for in controversy. Not only due to it's subject matter, but also due to the delivery of the narrative.

The controversy involved in Tóibín's novel is twofold. First, any novel written from the historical perspective of a contemporary of Jesus of Nazareth is contentious by nature among those who will take issue with the way in which Jesus and other Bible personages are characterized. There are always going to be those who will take issue with elements of Biblical accuracy. Of more interest, though, is the literary controversy The Testament of Mary has generated, particularly the unconventional way in which Mary has been characterized. 

The Testament of Mary is a first person account of the life of Jesus as told by his mother, many years after the crucifixion. Mary has been kept protected (hidden) by the disciples and is tended to by several watchers at Ephesus in Asia Minor. The disciples themselves often visit to gather stories from Mary, but only those that fit their particular needs. It is at this point, in her extreme old age, that Mary feels compelled to disclose the truth of her son's life as she recalls it. I suppose her motivation is the direction in which the disciples are steering the ship: toward a division with the Jewish tradition and the founding of a new religion.

What Mary recounts is a far more ephemeral account of the life of Jesus. His miracles as witnessed by his mother are open to critical interpretation and his death and resurrection are recalled in far more corporeal tones. In fact, Mary seems to be confounded by the cult of personality that spouts up around her son and professes to not understanding much of what his followers are saying. This, of course, implies that Mary was never a follower of her son. But Tóibín takes it one step further and hints at a possible reversion to paganism in her old age, a rather confounding notion, to say the least.

Mary is characterized as both brutally honest and absolutely sure about the events that lead up to the arrest and death of her son, but at the same time rather confused about the events that transpired in the days and years that followed the crucifixion. Her voice is lucid and exacting and her attention to the details surrounding both the wedding at Cana and the resurrection of Lazarus are vividly fascinating. But when it comes to the politicking of her son's life and martyrdom, Mary seems utterly confounded. 

Surely one can excuse the bereaved for not entirely understand what is going on in the wake of death, but Mary's complete ignorance concerning the machinations of the disciples in  the aftermath of the crucifixion is inexcusable and a real fault in Tóibín's characterization. Mary seems oblivious to the fact that she is being used by the embryonic Christian Church to further their political cause within the Empire.

Which leads me to wonder what is purpose of this little novel. Surely it's not an examination of Mary as a literary heroine. We learn very little about her throughout the novel. In fact this novel has very little to do with Mary other than the fact that she is the voice in which it flyers through. And surely it's not simply to suggest that Jesus was not, in fact, the son of God. That theme has been done to death in longer and far more insightful novel than this one. So if The Testament of Mary isn't about Mary and isn't about Jesus (in the historical sense) than what is it about?

My best guess is that Tóibín is investigating the nature of truth. The story of Jesus is one narrative that tends to get a free pass on revisionism. Through Mary, we throw the entire Jesus story through the first person wringer, allowing the writer to take license with virtually every detail of the story they see fit to alter. Here Tóibín chooses to reduce Christ to the status of man retrofitted as a godhead. Further to that point, it would seem that Colm Tóibín is examining the politics of myth-making and how an agenda trumps truth when the chips are on the proverbial table. Mary is simply a puppet to be manipulated when the need arises. A tool to be kept alive but also carefully choreographed.

But if that's the case, if Toibin's over-arching purpose was to somehow point out that the Bible is either patently untrue or (at the very least) decidedly unreliable, then this novel seems rather like flogging a dead horse. Only the most fervent zealots believe that the Bible is the literal word of God rather than a flawed and contradictory text written by hundreds of people over thousands of years. If pointing this out was Toibin's intent it's sort of like spending a pleasant afternoon proving that the sky is blue to a group of people, a small percentage of whom are color-blind.

To be honest, I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this novel. In the spirit of this blog, I wrote this immediately after finishing the book. But this is the sort of novel that will take days or weeks to sort out. I need to mull over the more intricate nuances of this tight little narrative. I know the novel is flawed, but I'm trying to decide whether or not it is intentionally flawed in order to make a point about the nature of truth, or critically flawed because Colm Tóibín is simply mean-spirited.

Has anyone else read this book yet? I'd be curious to know what you took away from it. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Zone One

Zone One
By Colson Whitehead

I've said this before and I'll say it again and again: The zombie genre is, by nature, limited. Films, television and books that are written within the genre appeal to a very specific sub-section of horror fans and rarely find purchase among a wider audience. Case in point, the relative failure of this past summer's film adaptation of World War Z. If Brad Pitt can't generate a wider audience for zombies, I doubt anyone can (though the failures of that film run far deeper, but that's another blog post for another day).

In fact, more often than not there is little effort made by creators of zombie lore to appeal to a wider audience. Why? With such a solid, rabid core following, why would an author or director bother to expand an audience in a genre that is notorious for being limited in scope and hopelessly bereft of innovation. The dead reanimate, infect the unsuspecting living, a motley crew of lucky people eke out a corner of survival where they wax philosophical on the nature of the apocalypse and what it all means. The fundamental themes of these stories tend to be hopelessness, desperation and the contrast between the living and the walking dead. I'm not slag gin on this formula. Obviously I'm part of the rabid core, but that's the essential alpha and omega of zombie stories. There are only so many avenues for the zombie to shuffle down and the widest ones also happen to be the most profitable.

But despite the rigidity of the genre, there is a certain degree of wiggle room and there have been a slew of Very Good Books written in the past few years that intersect the zombie genre with literary fiction. Here I'm thinking of Max Brooks's World War Z and Joan Frances Turner's novel Dust. But the best of the literary zombie lot (that I have read) is Colson Whitehead's Zone One.

Zone One refers to the southern tip of Manhattan Island. It is several months since the beginning of the zombie apocalypse and the remains of humanity are busy. A provisional government has sprung up in (of all places!) Buffalo and the world is in full clean up mode. The novel is told from the perspective of a nameless protagonist only known as Mark Spitz. Mark Spitz is part of a sweeper team that is charged with sweeping though Zone One building by building, room by room eliminating stragglers and making the city once again inhabitable. It's slow going, but things seem to be looking up for humanity.

The narrative is non-linear and tangential. Given that most of the survivors are suffering from what one psychologist refers to as post-apocalyptic stress disorder (PASD), the narrative structure fits the tone of the novel perfectly. It becomes a wonderful tool for keeping the reader in the dark about a lot of things until Whitehead is ready to reveal them. The reader only begins to get a full idea of the state of the world by the middle of the novel. And that idea is that survival is a great deal more boring that we all expected.

And that is really the over-arching theme of Zone One. Past the typical themes of hopelessness, isolation, and the psychological repercussions of mass death, Whitehead tackles a subject that few writers in the genre would dare to tackle: The sheer monotony of survival. The tedium of scavenging food and water, avoiding the walking dead and finding an adequate place to sleep the night. Unlike other novels in the genre Zone One is large swaths of tedium interspersed with First Night stories, a full reversal of the usual formula of viscera and victory.

Indeed mendacity is revered in Zone One and the novel break down the fetishization of the zombie apocalypse. In that respect Zone One is the very antithesis of the fanboy novel. Mark Spitz the very definition of an average man. There is literally nothing extraordinary about him except his complete lack of extraordinariness (the irony of his nickname is not lost). And that's the point. The survivors of the zombie apocalypse won't be the extraordinary. They will be the hopelessly average. The fact that the provisional government sets up shop in Buffalo, a cookie-cutter sort of American city devoid of character or flavor only accentuates that point (sorry people of Buffalo. I grew up in Toronto. Of course I was going to slag your fine city. It's my duty). Survival is not the stuff of action, adventure and romance. It is an oblivion of banality.

Beyond that, Whitehead uses his vast swaths of free time within the narrative to build a thought-provoking comparison between our modern world (of iPods, tablets and streaming videos) and that of a post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland. Whitehead constructs and then deconstructs (all too cleverly) the age old question of whether we are already zombies, asleep at the wheel of society. But Whitehead takes it a step further by applying modern business jargon and newspeak to the equation by introducing the notion of marketing and branding to the world of survival noting that we will all bring our particular strengths to the table in a post-apocalyptic world. It's just a matter of whether our strengths have any benefit. In this sense Zone One skirts precariously close to satire and the point is crystal clear. Whitehead has a lot to say about us as a society without zombies and he has full license to rant away now that he's done away with the vast majority of it. And the rants are fun to behold and satisfying in their hypothetical outrage.

Zone One is a thinking man's zombie novel. While it does have it's fair share of gore, it is expressed in matter of fact tones and is not intended to shock or terrify the reader, rather it is presented as the unfortunate reality of the world of Zone One. And while I am certain that I would catch a lot of flak for comparing this novel to Cormac McCarthy's The Road, there are obvious similarities that cannot be ignored. All of this makes Zone One the top of the heap among zombie novels and the first of its kind that I can confidently categorize as capital L, capital F Literary Fiction. If for no other reason that Zone One has the courage to drag zombies out of their traditional realm and placed under full literary examination. If you are only ever going to read one zombie novel, make it this one.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep
By Raymond Chandler

As I mentioned a few posts back, I am making a concerted effort to read novels by authors I have previously ignored or, for whatever reason, passed by over the years. I'm trying to round off my reading in such a way that I have less unexplored corners and reading renowned writers who have otherwise travelled under my radar seems like the perfect way to cover a few bases. One such writer is Raymond Chandler, the detective writer extraordinaire and the grandfather of hard-boiled mysteries Chandler, along with Dashiell Hammett are single handedly responsible for the careers of a half dozen leading men in Hollywood between 1930 and 1960. Hard-boiled lingo has continued to exist right down to the present day. Chandler is certainly not a lightweight.

I admit, I was a little apprehensive about picking up a Chandler novel because, much like my first Agatha Christie, I was certain I wasn't going to like it. But I approached The Big Sleep with an open mind. Maybe I would like this one. Maybe I've read all the wrong early 206th century detective novels. Maybe this one would change everything.

Turns out, I was right. I hated it. I should listen to myself more often.

Before anyone gets mad at me, I better take this opportunity to caveat this blog post with a few reading facts about myself. First, I really don't like detective novels or mysteries in general. Rarely does a mystery hold my attention. I really have a hard time maintaining a level of concern for the intricacies of the plot. I know that connoisseurs of the genre have the ability to pinpoint definitive clues and red herrings from the prose. I'm lucky if I can maintain the direction of the general plot. Somewhere in the middle of the first act I will miss a key plot device that will leave me with one foot out the door for the rest of the novel. Obviously it goes without saying that I will not be solving any mystery before the reveal. I just can't bring myself to care.

Mystery writers are trying to outsmart their smartest, most loyal readers. They take great pains to keep the reveal a secret to the very end of the story and, therefore throw all sorts of nonsense at the reader in an effort to deflect their attention away from the important issues. I am neither smart nor loyal so I get lost in the morass of false flags, red herrings and misleading tangents. What makes it worse, I get lost and I don't care. I simply shrug my shoulders and check to see how many more pages until a chapter break so I can nod off, guilt-free.

Second, I hate hard-boiled jargon. There's opacity to the language that makes me feel like I'm standing in a crowd of investment bankers or lighting technicians or something. It makes me feel the same as when two high school friends would be talking about a new band and you ask "who?" and they look at you as if you've lived the past three seasons under a a pile of dirty wrestling tights in the school gym. There is very little in this world I hate more than exclusionary jargon whether it's street lingo or managerial nonsense. The Big Sleep is full of this sort of language.

The Big Sleep is a mystery (strike one) that is rife with exclusionary jargon (strike two). It is also interesting that The Big Sleep is not only the title of this novel but also the effect it has on the reader. It's not a long novel, but it took me over a week to read because every single time I picked it up I would drift off into a dreamless slumber after a dozen pages. I swear, I've never felt so rested as I have during the reading of this novel. I averaged about ten hours of sleep a day throughout this novel. In that sense, it is I who got the big sleep, unwittingly.

Like all of Chandler's novels, The Big Sleep centers around Detective Philip Marlowe. Marlowe is hired by aged General Sternwood to investigate something or other to do with his naughty daughters (both of which throw themselves at Marlowe through the course of the book). There is something to do with a lost husband, pornography and a half dozen murders. It all happens at the excruciating slow pace of a bad Japanese horror movie and at no point could I have given a damn. Once the mystery is revealed I had simply lost all interest in every character in the novel and couldn't wait to be rid of the book.

Now, it's not all bad or else I would have put it down long before the end. Chandler does have a way with words. If you are a lover of language (and can wade through jargon to get to the good stuff), I have to admit that Chandler has a way with similes and comparisons. and for this alone, The Big Sleep is worth the price of admission. How could it not be when you get lines like: "Her legs were as long as a couple of Dickens' novel and I read them cover to cover." (note: I made that one up because I'm too lazy to open the book and find a real example even though the book is within arms length. I just don't care enough to be precise).

And to be fair, The Big Sleep does seem a little cliched and predictable from thdays perspective simply because the story has been regurgitated in lesser forms for over half a century via film, television and parodies. It has been the subject of imitation, lampoon and homage to the point that even those who have never even heard of The Big Sleep probably know enough aspects of the story to piece it together if they so wish. But historical and stylistic context still don't excuse the lack of a compelling story, and this is where Chandler fails in my mind, no mater if it's 1933 or 2013.

All in all, The Big Sleep is similar to eating crab from the shell. It's more trouble than it's worth what with the exclusionary language and the plodding pace of the mystery (that I couldn't care less about... did I mention that yet?). Sure there is some really sumptuous morsels of goodness buried deep in the shrapnel-like shell, but it's difficult to get to and not enough of it to make it entirely worth your while.

I'll pass on any more Raymond Chandler.

Friday, September 27, 2013


By Steve Martin

I need to pay more attention. I've been dismissing Shopgirl for over a decade because I, apparently, don't listen.

Somehow, I managed to confuse this little gem of a novel with the series of Shopaholic novels written by Sophie Kinsella, despite the fact that several people have repeatedly told me that it has nothing to do with the Shopaholic series. But, like I said, I don't listen. and since there is virtually zero chance of my ever picking up a Shopaholic novel (with no offense intended to either the Shopaholic series or Sophie Kinsella), this book almost passed me by due to my stubborn insistence that this book was going to be about shopping. Thank god my mother finally got it through my thick skull that Shopgirl was written by Steve Martin, untethering the book from Kinsella in my mind and placing it high on my list of novels to read. I love Steve Martin. I love his stand-up. I love his work on television. I love his films. I love his Twitter feed and I love that he can play the banjo. It would make sense that I would love his books as well. If you, like me, have dismissed this novel because you think it's going to be about shopping or something akin to consumption of items from a department store and/or a boutique on Rodeo Drive, I'm here to rest your worried mind. It's not about any of that.

Shopgirl is a bleak little love story told from the perspective of four individuals in the Los Angeles area as some point prior to the cell phone era (the novel was published in 2000). It centers around the doomed-from-the-beginning relationship between Ray, a wealthy, middle-aged man, and Mirabelle, a twenty something artist currently working the glove counter at an expensive LA department store (thus the name, Shopgirl). Jeremy, a going-nowhere slacker and Lisa, a ferocious sexual predator fill out the novel's dance card. The dating triangle of four is complete.

Martin is not exploring new territory. The modern dating scene has been raked throughout with a fine-toothed comb since the term "modern dating" came into existence. Much of the action is predictable and the outcomes are plain even to the most oblivious daters out there (read: me). Expect no Roald Dahl-esque twists in Shopgirl because they are not forthcoming. But, that's the nature of "modern dating in the pre-cell phone era," isn't it? There are no surprise endings. Only the same predictable results, relationship after relationship until we all die lonely and miserable in a house full of cats and tins of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup. It all seems so pointless.

Well, I did say it was a bleak story.

But there is a lot of charm and wit packed into this 130-page story to make it worth reading despite the fact that you know exactly how it's all going to turn out by page 25. Steve Martin has an observational tone that implies that he has lived this sort of life long enough to understand the exact physical, intellectual, emotional and psychological machinations, but not quite long enough to understand why we delude ourselves into pretending to not see those same machinations in our own relationships. This makes me like Steve Martin all the more because it's a war zone out there, kids.

Or something like that.

In Shopgirl, Martin explores the various manifestations of loneliness in an urban landscape where we are both surrounded by a millions of people and, at the same time, completely alone. Sort of like Facebook except with actual faces that move and talk and react to what you say immediately via speech rather than comments and pokes. Martin writes with a sincerity that is both comedic (expected) and tragic (surprising). Many of the observations within the novel are the sorts that we have all vaguely noticed but probably have never spent the time to collect up into a formal observation. Once Martin expresses them in words we find ourselves nodding in sad affirmation that he has nailed it on the head. Each of Martin's four principal characters have found ways in which to live with their loneliness, whether it is anti-depressants, psychological walls or dependence of self-help literature. It is fitting that one of the central characters in the novel, Lisa, works at the cosmetics counter. Her brand of loneliness is so completely covered over by vapidity and materialism that Lisa isn't even aware that she has set the controls of her life on a trajectory to disaster.

But the real strength of Shopgirl is setting. As with many of his better films, Martin brings a unique understanding of Los Angeles (or at least I think he has a unique understanding. I've never been to LA and most of what I believe about LA has been gleaned from Steve Martin Movies and The Big Lebowski). Much the same way Stephen King has the ability to capture the essence of Maine, Steve Martin has a keen sense of the particular eccentricities that make Los Angeles different and employs these eccentricities in a manner that accentuates rather than smothers the narrative. When Martin describes the various patrons entering and exiting a medical clinic while waiting for Mirabelle to fill a prescription for anti-depressants, he is expressing just enough of LAs unique qualities without over-burdening the reader with an editorial rant. It is plainly obvious that Martin loves Los Angeles and it permeates the novel, making it better as a result.

The literary style is simple. Martin employs simple, flat sentences in the present tense to convey complex social and sexual politics with the keen eye of a seasoned social scientist. However, the narrative remains stolidly detached and non-judgmental. In fact, Martin manages to evoke empathy for all his characters by focusing on the universal complexities of human relationships. I found it easy to relate to both Ray and Mirabelle despite the fact that their lives have virtually nothing in common with my own.

This is an exquisite little novel.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Switch Bitch

Switch Bitch
By Roald Dahl

Keeping it short today...

And for anyone who, like me, was unaware... Yes, that Roald Dahl.

This might come as a shock, but I had no idea that Roald Dahl, the writer of some of my favorite children's novels including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Fantastic Mr. Fox and The BFG, was also a prolific writer of short fiction for adults as well. I kew that Shel Silverstein wrote a lot of adult content, but not Dahl. So I approached Switch Bitch, a collection of four short stories for adults, with equal parts trepidation and eager anticipation. Was my childhood to be ruined or would I be opened up to an entirely new side of a writer I have always enjoyed?

Turns out, neither. If you have never read Roald Dahl's adult fiction he provides wonderfully fantastical premises and gorgeous twist endings to his admittedly addictive stories. I simply dare a reader to settle into one of these stories and then try and put it down for the evening. It won't happen. In that respect, Switch Bitch, like Dahl's children's literature is virtually impossible to ignore and a delightful romp from start to finish.

But I also found the stories lacking a certain quality. My fundamental problem with Switch Bitch (and this is my problem with so many works ofd fantasy and science fiction) is that he could have taken his premises so much further. I yearn for the extremes. I was literally begging the pages to take his ideas farther afield than Dahl seemed prepared to go. In the story "Bitch" the possibilities of a perfume that renders the human male into a helplessly unstoppable sexual beast are tantalizing, but Dahl reins the story in just as I was prepared to go all the way. And in "The Great Switcheroo" I was prepared for a bigger twist than what was eventually revealed I thought. Dahl owed it to his readers to take that premise to the ends of the earth. Alas, he did not, or at least not as far as this reader would have liked. I sincerely hope this is because Dahl was showing a modicum of literary restraint and not because I have become so wholly depraved that I am wishing sexual cataclysm on unsuspecting literary characters. Of course, on the list of things I'd rather no be known for "More Deviant than Roald Dahl" falls pretty low on the list.

Is it worth a read? Of course. It's an interesting insight into the mind of one of the 20th century's greatest writers. Just don't expect the unexpected (as the cover implores). There's nothing particularly new on these pages. But if you like Roald Dahl you owe it to yourself to check this one out. Don't worry. Your virgin eyes will absorb the impact. Dahl may have hit his fair share of literary home runs, but Switch Bitch is second base is so many more ways than one. Of course, Dahl's second base is still pretty sweet.

Monday, September 23, 2013


By Elmore Leonard


I am in the middle of my own personal reading challenge. I didn't mention this in the previous blogpost because I was too busy getting pseudo-academic on the subject of Ernest Hemingway (I insist on using the "pseudo" prefix because A) I drink rather heavily while writing and B) even if I weren't, I rarely know what I'm talking about). It wasn't planned. It's not particularly organized and I didn't invite other bloggers to participate, though you are more than welcome to hop aboard if you wish.

From now until Christmas I plan on reading as many novels by notable authors that I have previously never read. The first in this challenge was Ernest Hemingway, an author I have somehow managed to avoid for 38 years prior to last week. Other authors officially queued up for a peek this season are Iris Murdoch, Truman Capote and Raymond Chandler. But this week I finally tackled an author I've been dying to read for a few decades: Elmore Leonard.

As I am sure I have mentioned on more than one occasion on this blog, one of my favorite sites on the web is The Onion's AV Club. For anyone who takes popular culture seriously, it is an invaluable resource for books, film, music and games, both old and new. One of my favorite columns on the AV Club is something called Gateway to Geekery, which provides step-by-step tutorials for Johnny-Come-Latelys who would like to get into the work of prolific artists. For example, perhaps you are interested in exploring Lou Reed's discography but you feel hopelessly intimidated by the sheer volume of material. Where do you start? Gateway to Geekery is there to help lest you make the mistake of picking up a copy of Metal Machine Music.

Anyway, I wish there was a Gateway to Geekery article available to anyone late to the Elmore Leonard Party because I'm pretty sure they would have advised me against reading Killshot.

Killshot is mid-career novel by Elmore Leonard. Written in 1989, it is the story of Wayne Colson and his wife, Carmen who inadvertently get caught in the middle of the shakedown of Carmen's boss. After a brief physical altercation, Wayne sends Armand Degas, an Ojibway hit man, and Richie Nix, a dim-witted loose cannon away, with their tails between their legs. Degas is a professional and knows that both Wayne and Carmen have seen their faces and could positively identify them in a police line-up. He is determined to do away with Wayne and Carmen as a measure of job security and maintained anonymity. As with any novel of this sort, the police are ineffectual. Wayne and Carmen are natually forced to take matters into their own hands.

I was expecting a fast-paced novel with lots of slick-talking characters and what I got was a slow plot that seemed unsure of where to go next. It felt as if Leonard was throwing in all sorts of half-concocted ideas and ill-formed plot lines only to abandon them before they fully materialized. While the characters are indeed strong, I found it impossible to believe that a professional such as Armand Degas would have partnered up with someone as dull-witted as Richie Nix. Degas must have known upon meeting this half-wit that doing any sort of business with him was going to end in disaster and it's not like they were forced to work together. Furthermore, Degas could have dissolved their partnership at any time. So why does he let such an unstable partner continue to live despite his erratic behavior? Degas's motivations remained concealed throughout and that weakened the novel considerably.

Furthermore, the legendary dialog that I expected from Leonard never really materialized. The dialog was by no means awful, but given what I had heard about his ability to write a conversation, I was decidedly underwhelmed. It is possible that it was built up too much prior to reading, but I found that the dialog in Killshot is a far cry from the brilliant work of Richard Price. Perhaps I picked the wrong book.

One area in which this book excels is Leonard's exploration of the theme of security. Leonard takes aim at the myth that we can insulate ourselves from crime and violence via various methods of self defense (in this case firearms and police protection but it could extend to more contemporary methods such as video surveillance, home security firms etc...). The fact of the matter is that security is a complete myth. The amount of time, money and effort we put into security does not directly translate into a more secured existence. In fact, it is impossible to protect ourselves from anything or anyone if that thing or person is determined to get you. Leonard did a fine job of expressing this from both the perspective of the terrorized Colson couple trying to protect themselves from would-be killers and Armand Degas, a professional killer trying to protect his anonymity.

Unfortunately the themes of the novel are not enough to carry the slow, meandering plot. Killshot had the makings of a decent novel but too many weird directions and loose ends makes it feel like an unfinished idea rather than a fully actualized novel. Given Elmore Leonard's reputation and his sheer volume of work, I will definitely give him another chance (though I am going to solicit recommendations before I jump into another title).

Monday, September 16, 2013

For Whom the Bell Tolls

For Whom the Bell Tolls
By Ernest Hemingway

I am doing this review as part of of Banned Book Week. I am participating in a blog tour hosted by Sheila over at Book Journey. This is my second year participating in this event. I feel privileged to be invited back. When I got the email invite last week it just so happened that I was in the middle of For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, a book I had never previously read and, it just so happens, to be number 30 on the American Library Association's list of Most Banned Books in America. Serendipity, indeed.

I can't believe I have to do this but For Whom the Bell Tolls follows about a week in the life of Robert Jordan, an American fighting on the side of the Republic during the Spanish Civil War. Jordan is charged with blowing up a strategic bridge in advance of a Republic offensive. In the course of the week leading up to the explosion, Jordan meets Maria, a young Spanish woman who was the victim of a brutal gang rape at the hands of the Fascists. As time passes and a lot of Hamlet-esque drama unfolds, Jordan begins to rethink his commitment to the war and his mission.

Published in 1929, For Whom the Bell Tolls was Hemingway's literary confessional about the Spanish Civil War, a conflict he covered as a writer. I'm of the opinion that if it weren't for Hemingway and the enduring legacy of his literature, the Spanish Civil War, which was Europe's dry run prior to the Second World War, would be largely forgotten today. So in that way one might liken For Whom the Bell Tolls to M*A*S*H, which has kept the Korean War from becoming a historical footnote. And if it weren't for Banned Book Week, this was where my blog post was going to go. I'll have to find another book in which to compare to M*A*S*H.

So let's get to the $50,000 question. Why was For Whom the Bell Tolls book banned?

I use the past tense here because it is not a book that gets a lot of attention from Book Banners these days. Indeed, there are no For Whom the Bell Tolls is the sort of innocuous novel about the graphic brutality of war set during on the last century's most obscure conflicts. But graphic depictions of wartime atrocities were not a new concept. A slew of novels about World War I including classics such as All Quiet on the Western Front and Hemingway's own A Farewell to Arms had sufficiently shocked a generation of readers with their grotesque accounts of death and disease during history's most pointless war. But back in the 1940s and especially the 1950s For Whom the Bell Tolls was a novel of quite a bit of discussion not for it's graphic accounts of rape, torture and murder but because of its pro-Communist slant (Of course, it was also banned in Spain under the rule of Franco and, interestingly enough, in Nazi Germany where it was burned in bonfires prior to the Second World War).

So let's make this clear. For Whom the Bell Tolls was banned because it was perceived as pro-communist. What a dated reason to ban a book. If there are people who supported this ban who are still alive today, I have to assume they are pretty damned quiet about it. It would be hard to convince anyone that this is a viable reason to ban a book in 2013. Hell, it would be hard to convince someone that this is a viable reason to ban a book in 1983.

Allow me to explain...

As the years progress and the Baby Boomers fade into cultural obscurity it will be increasingly difficult for us as members of the modern Western World to fully comprehend the fear, the sheer terror that Communism evoked in the American psyche in the years immediately after World War II. Obviously there are millions of people who still remember the Cold War (myself included) and the fear that it was capable of invoking but as it slips ever farther from our public discourse it becomes increasingly difficult to reconcile the blood-curdling frenzy of McCarthy era America and its obsession with eliminating all remnants of communism from its social, political and cultural landscape. Censorship and suppression of seditious literature was a big thing in during the early days of the Cold War.

Unfortunately for Ernest Hemingway, his novels about the Spanish Civil War, and particularly For Whom the Bell Tolls, fell squarely in the crosshairs of America's suppression set. It was guilty of several political crimes that seemed to be of the utmost importance at the time. For Whom the Bell Tolls first unthinkable mistake was to give the reader an accurate depiction of the Spanish Civil War in which the Republican forces, which consisted in large part of communists and communist-sympathizers from around the world, fought valiantly against the (eventually victorious) Fascists. It would have been difficult for Hemingway to write a well-reasoned novel about the Spanish conflict without making it clear that the Republicans were littered with communists, some of which were American.

Which brings me to strike two. Robert Jordan is an American citizen that seems to be at the very least sympathetic to the communist plight in Spain. This was never going to sit well in the parlors and cocktail parties frequented by the McCarthites of the 1950s. Just like homosexuals in Iran, communists didn't exist in post-war America, and if they did, they would be silenced. Hemingway was one of the victims of that suppression. The nail in the proverbial coffin was the inclusion of one particular sentence: Hold out and fortify, and you will win. This was a verbatim Communist Party slogan and therefore seen as proof positive that Hemingway was perpetuating the Communist menace in America. It got so bad that in 1941 the U.S. Post Office refused to mail the novel due to it's perceived Communist sympathies.

It all looks rather silly to a reader of this blog in 2013. A novel being banned because it perhaps, maybe favored one political ideal over another seems rather heavy-handed. In fact, as I read this novel I noted that it was wonderful that we now live in an age in which one's politics will not land one in hot water, least of which a writer. That is until I thought a little harder. We like to assume that political freedom is a hallmark of our post Cold War world. But when we take a closer look, such heavy-handed tactics are still very much in play, though not so much on the literary front. Consider the cases of Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. None of them are writers but their particular situations are at least akin to those of Ernest Hemingway's from over a half century ago. By adhering to a political ideal that falls outside the accepted social parameters (ironically, Communism is well within those parameters now, precisely because it has been rendered marginal) they have been demonized, harassed and muzzled.

But I digress. This is not a political blog and I have no intention of making it so.

I do, however, think there is a cautionary tale to be told here. When looking back on the rationale for the banning of For Whom the Bell Tolls we can collectively roll our eyes at the absurdity of the reasoning.As I mentioned earlier, it all seems so silly. So what of today? what of the slew of books banned for excessive violence and/or sex or novels that portray particular religious groups in a negative light? what will we say about these bans twenty, thirty or fifty years from now? Will we look back on the furor over these novels and say to ourselves: "Yeah, we were fighting the good fight and those decisions were right decisions." or will we look back and say: "What the hell were we thinking? That was much ado about nothing."

Given the fact that it has been decades since For Whom the Bell Tolls has provoked the ire of American cultural police, I'm going to assume the latter.

In conclusion, there is never, ever, ever, ever an acceptable reason to ban a book.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013


By Joan Frances Turner

Faithful readers of this blog will know that I am a sucker for all things zombie. I've been a fan of zombie lore since I was in junior high school and it has been a pet obsession for the past three decades with no apparent end in site. I don't profess to be an expert on the subject, but I can talk knowledgeably and one thing I love to talk about is what's wrong with the zombie sub-genre. Over the years, I have developed a singular pet peeve in relation to my obsession: that of the endgame in the zombie story arc. It's a dead end (pun intended). Once a writer goes all in with a zombie apocalypse, it is danced near impossible to write an ending that doesn't involve the demise of the human race or the defeat of the zombie hordes. Just look at the situation Robert Kirkman finds himself with The Walking Dead comic and television series. How is he supposed to find an end to that story that doesn't involve the eventual death of all his human characters?

Zombie lore has long been in need of a kick start. Something more nuanced. Something more creative than the simple local militia walking through the field armed with rifles picking off wayward corpses (and giving poorly scripted interviews with local newscasters: "They'll all messed up!"). I was waiting for someone to take zombie lore to another level.

To a certain extent, there is a generation of writers doing just that. Experimenting with the genre, chewing it up and spitting out all sorts of interesting variables to the venerable zombie story. One of my recent favorites is Bob Fingerman's excellent novel Pariah. Another is Joan Frances Turner's exquisite 2010 novel, Dust. At the time, I heaped a good amount of praise on Turner's take on the zombie sub-genre and how she was able to finally add something interesting to the typical war of attrition that all zombie apocalypse stories eventually devolve into. I made some pretty salient points, I must admit, but since I'm not nearly Gore Vidal-ish enough to quote myself, you'll have to suffice with Douglas Preston's decidedly succinct review: "Joan Frances Turner has done for zombies what Anne Rice did for vampires." It's not a perfect encapsulation of Dust or what it entails, but if you insist on not clicking on my review, it will have to do in a pinch. Turner made zombies both more terrifying and more human at the same time. Pretty nuanced, if you ask me.

So here we are in 2013 and Turner has released the much anticipated (at least by me) sequel to Dust: Frail. If you haven't read Dust, I would recommend you read it before attempting Frail as the story picks up at the end of the Dust narrative and Frail refers back to many of the characters and events in Dust without explaining them in the sort of detail that would make anything clear.Turner, I suspect, is assuming that you read the first novel before cracking Frail. Turner takes the zombie lore into the stratosphere in her first book, so jumping into the second will leave you utterly lost, so forewarned is forearmed.

Frail is the first person account of a human named Amy. Left for dead by her mother, Amy is one of the few humans left following the zombie apocalypse and the subsequent evolution of a second species of undead creatures (known in the novels as exes) who are neither human nor zombie but have appetites larger than both (metaphor for crass consumerism, anyone?). The exes are now the clear masters and humans (or frails) have been relegated to slavery and/or food. Amy has managed to stay away from both the zombies and the exes throughout the winter but after being attacked by a starving dog in a small Indiana town, she is rescued and befriended by Lisa, an ex with a heart of gold (who just so happens to be the sister of Jessie, the protagonist zombie from Dust). Amy and Lisa embark on an, at times, surreal journey into what is left of their world and in the process uncover many of the secrets kept hidden by the local Thanological Laboratory, which, in turn, reveals the truth about zombies and exes.

I want so badly to tell you that Frail picks up where Dust left off and fleshes out (pun intended) the intriguing mythology that Turner concocted in her first book. and to be fair, Frail has some legitimately terrifying and disturbing moments, some of which I will carry for years. But I must admit that much of the book is a slow, plodding melodrama between the trails and exes, much of which is shrouded in unnecessarily convoluted dialogue. The characters often talk over Amy's head about things she doesn't understand which, in turn leaves the reader in the same situation. I was literally lost for the fist two thirds of the novel because not a single character was able to make a direct statement about what the hell was going on. Because of this, the novel seems to tread water interminably.

Furthermore, Frail's characters are depressingly forgettable. It's funny that over the years critics have derided the zombie sub-genre as two-dimensional, that zombies make terrible villains due to their utter brainlessness. lack of character, motivation, no possibility of deconstruction. Zombie stories could only be as good as the human characters involved. So it is ironic that Dust, with it's cast of zombies,  has infinitely better characters and characterization than Frail which has no zombie characters whatsoever. I never got any sense of Amy as a character other than she was slowly losing her mind, and she was the protagonist. The rest of the characters were a formless mass of dialogue that ceased to make sense very quickly. Perhaps Turner has a knack for writing from the perspective of a zombie and human frailty (pun intended) is an art best left to others.

The confusion of this novel is all too much, butt does let up. Toward the end of the novel when much of the narrative fog begins to lift, Frail begins heaping on fresh piles of new confusion in anticipation of a third book in the series (no spoilers). So while Frail does (eventually) clear up a number of outstanding questions from Dust, it does so in such a meandering way that I fear many readers will give up (or cease to care) long before the reveals.

I know I did.

it's a shame, really, because deep within Frail's narrative curlicues and cardboard characters there lies a very compelling story but it will take a Herculean effort on my part to muster the enthusiasm to read the third book in this series.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Primal Blueprint

The Primal Blueprint
By Mark Sisson

I admit it, I've always thought of myself as being in pretty reasonable shape and I have all sorts of reasons to make that assumption.

I'm a very active person. I've been a regular swimmer since college and have become an avid runner in my thirties. I do a fair bit of hiking and I prefer walking to cared and motorcycles.

I eat healthy. I haven't eaten at a fast food restaurant since I was a teenager (other than Subway... full disclosure). I avoid processed foods and a good amount of the fresh produce that enters my home is organic.

I have a very low stress life. I work, on average, about 20 hours a week and my job, which pays well and is rarely taxing. The rest of my time is devoted to my family and friends and travel when I can afford it.

I feel pretty blessed that I have attained the age of 38 without having to take any medication. I don't wear glasses and I don't smoke. I get more than enough sun, reasonable amounts of sleep and I try to have fun wherever I m and whatever I am doing. Granted, I do have a weakness for alcohol, particularly beer and red wine, but I'm hardly an alcoholic.

So it can as a shock to me when a could of weeks back my wife showed a photo of me and my mother from when she visited Taiwan a few months back. In the photo, clear as day, was a pot belly. It was not an optical illusion or a sudden gust of wind caught on film but a fully formed and rather round belly. It was like my entire world came crashing down. How could this be? All that running and swimming for nothing? Sure they tell you that your metabolism slows down with age, but I wasn't particularly ready for a gut at age 38.

I immediately hit the scale, something I haven't felt the need to do in years and lo and behold! 78 kilograms. Hardly obese by any measure, but the last time I weighed myself in my early thirties I was holding steady at my typical adult weight of 70kg. Where did this 8 kilos come from? I was mortified and more than a little scared. I mean, I guess I had noticed that my pants were a little tighter, but I just assumed they had shrunk in the wash! There was no way I had gained that much weight.

Sometimes, the truth hurts.

I've never subscribed to a workout system or participated in a structured fitness program or weight loss program. I've always eschewed them in favor of my own brand of fitness: cardio plus sensible eating equals healthy. But I was rattled and impressionable. My co-worker gave me his copy of The Primal Blueprint and told me that he'd gone through something similar. I began to feel like my life was turning into a spam email. I half-expected him to tell me that the book was going to change my life forever, then spew off a bunch of nonsensical keywords.

So here I am, at the insistence of a co-worker, reading and reviewing, The Primal Blueprint, the sort of book I never thought I'd ever read. A self-help fitness book. And this post is going to sound like an infomercial because, well, let's just get this out of the way: it's working for me (more on that later). The Primal Blueprint hardly a diet or a workout regime. It is an amalgam of anthropology, hard science and common sense. The Primal Blueprint presupposes that, from a human health perspective, the agricultural revolution has been a detriment to humanity and has caused us far more harm than good. The Primal Blueprint is not going to win any literary awards. It is written in the same informal style as Mark Sisson's blog, (but seriously, if you are reading a self-help book and critiquing style and form, you need to reassess your priorities). Where it lacks in style it more than makes up for un substance. And it does have a narrative, of sorts.

At the core of The Primal Blueprint is Grok. Grok is a neolithic hunter gatherer whose life pre-dates the agricultural revolution. Sisson gives us a peak into a typical (though a tad idyllic) day in Grok and his family's life. It is an eye-opening deconstruction of a hunter-gatherer's daily life from sunrise to sunrise. Sisson chronicles every mundane detail of the family's life from what they ate and how often, how they move and how much. How they divide there time and so forth. In the process, he paints a vivid picture of pre-agrarian life and then juxtaposes it with a glimpse into the lives of a typical American family in our times. The differences are striking. It's a real shock to see how Grok and us, two specimens of the same species separated by a mere microsecond in evolutionary history living such vastly difference lives and doing such vastly different things.

That's when Sisson hits you with the kicker. Grok's lifestyle is what drove human evolution for two million years. The agricultural revolution, they domestication of grains for human consumption, occurred roughly 10,000 years ago. Hardly enough time for our bodies to adjust to this new form of sustenance. Add to that the more recent introduction of processed foods and we, as a species of animal, are now sitting two seats over from where we should be seating. We were never build to consume large quantities of carbohydrates. The vast quantities of carbohydrates that exist in the modern diet (in the form of grain: rice, corn, wheat, barley, etc...) is the primary culprit for the increase in obesity and related illnesses. The consumption of carbohydrates spikes our insulin levels for short periods of time. Over the course of a lifetime of consumption, these spikes in insulin lead to all sorts of health problems (obesity being one). The book goes into painstaking detail about how and why this occurs as well as other events happening at a cellular and organic level within our bodies when we ingest and digest our food.

What Sisson is advocating is hardly new. Low-carb diets have been all the rage over the past few years. From the Atkins Diet (which Sisson is quick to distant himself from) to the strict Paleo diet (eat only food that was available to Paleolithic man). But The Primal Blueprint is absolutely not a diet in the sense that we understand it today. It's not designed to help you lose weight (though you will). It's designed to maintain optimum health and vitality through diet and exercise. It's an entire philosophical shift. What's more, unlike virtually every other health plan, it's not designed to deny or test a person's will. Rather it begs the question: What would Grok do? And while the book is comprehensive (it has to be, it needs to convince you), it can all be boiled down to ten points, known as The Ten Primal Blueprint Laws:

1. Eat lots of plants and animals
2. Avoid poisonous things
3. Move frequently at a slow pace.
4. Lift heavy things
5. Sprint once in a while.
6. Get adequate sleep.
7. Play
8. Get adequate sunlight
9. Avoid stupid mistakes
10. Use your brain

Simple, practical stuff, right there.

So, what of me? Well, I've been adhering to the system now for about a month and a half. Granted, my lifestyle prior to The Primal Blueprint gave me a bit of a head start, but it has been ridiculously easy to follow. I have cut out all grains (even rice... in Asia... can you even believe that?) and refined sugars and added a half dozen servins of meat, fruits and vegetables to my daily diet. I have modified my workout schedule to be a bit more low-impact and allow for more time to heal. and I'm proud to say that I have already shed six of the eight kilos I had gained. I'm more alert, less tired and generally feel better than I have in years. My daily aches and pains have all but disappeared (apparently grains are inflammatory) and I don't miss bread rice or pasta at all (never really liked corn, so that was nothing). My wife has also subsequently joined me and in her month on the Blueprint she lost the last of her pregnancy weight with almost no effort. Best of all, we seem to eat like kings in the process.

This system is, obviously, not for everyone, but from what I read and experienced, it makes a whole ton of sense and it has been working. I apologize for the infomercial-ness of this blogpost. I promise, I will not give you an 800 number to call or offer you a free set of steak knives if you comment on this post in the next hour, but I do urge you to look into Sisson's program. I don't mean to come off as a shill, but the fact that I'm almost the same size as I was when I was 28 says a lot.

I'm totally sold.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a Wallflower
By Michael Chbosky

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is the sort of book that was written for me to hate. You know the type: A quirky 90210-esque coming of age story involving an awkward teen who feels alone, finds an amazing group of friends, loses those friends and then, ultimately, regains them in a flourish of altruism. Along the way, said troubled teen manages to safely navigate the potholed landscape of modern adolescence with relative  style and panache coming out the other end a better and more well rounded person.

Well,  The Perks of Being a Wallflower follows that tried and true story line. This epistolary novel follows the hijinks of Charlie, a sensitive (and slightly troubled) teen who begins his correspondence with an unnamed person (known as Friend) on the eve of his first day at high school. Over the course of the next twelve months of letters, Charlie meets a group of amazing friends centered around Patrick, an openly gay senior and his sister Sam, with whom Charlie immediately falls hopelessly in love like only high school boys are capable.

Like so many teenagers, Charlie is forced to deal with the full spectrum of adolescent problems: alcohol, drugs, suicide, relationships, sex, teenage pregnancy, abusive parents, homosexuality, mental disorders and the dreaded Rocky Horror Picture Show. And given that this is a book about teenagers, and given that the novel is set in Nirvana-drenched plaid of 1991, this potholed landscape of adolescence is served with a man-sized helping of angst.

I should have hated it. But I didn't. I liked it. And I liked it an unhealthy amount. And there are two reasons why.

I started high school back in 1990, which would make me a year (give or take) older than Charlie and slightly younger than his senior year friends. I suspect that if this novel was set any more recently (or any farther back in time) that I would have dismissed it with a series of eye rolls and gimme-a-breaks. But since it hit the proverbial nail (me) on the head (my susceptibility to nostalgia and sentimentalism), I was sucked in hook, line and sinker. The cultural markers were comfortably familiar and I liked the fact that the social hierarchy is (as it was back in my day) based on the movies you watched, the music you listened to and the clothes you wore. I have no idea whether that intricate social classification system is still in place, but it was comforting to read a very specific high school caste system and know where 15-year old me would have slotted in. The cultural references consistently made me smile, especially each mention of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, a film I watched literally dozens of times throughout my own school career.

Second, I recently chose The Perks of Being a Wallflower as the next book to teach my advanced English class in Taiwan. Taiwanese teenagers have such a different school experience from their North American peers. Theirs is a life filled with tests, studying and academic competition. High school students in Taiwan have very little free time to socialize. My students often hear me talk about high school in Canada and they are amazed at the swaths of free time I used to have. How I used to have a part-time job, friends and a social life. They are aghast to know that I got drunk as a teenager and the topic of drugs is so completely foreign to them that I simply don't even bother.

I thought The Perks of Being a Wallflower would be the perfect novel to give my students a taste of what high school life is like for the average North American. Granted, Charlie experiences an entire student body's worth of triumph and tragedy in a single year, but the sentiment is there. While I was reading the novel I felt a sense of pride that this novel was able to convey a lot of the emotion and atmosphere of high school life in North America and that my students would gain some perspective on it. They have always told me that North American high school sounds easy. I have always told them that it is difficult, but a different kind of difficult. This novel seemed like an apt presentation of the point I have been trying to make for a few years.

And the writing isn't terrible either. It is fun to watch how Charlie's writing ability matures throughout the novel indicating that despite the lack of mention in his letters, he is indeed attending and succeeding in the classroom (especially English). I also thought it was a cute literary trick to have the story vaguely mimic the novels his English teacher has assigned to him. Parts of the novel felt like an homage to various classic fiction.... especially Catcher in the Rye.

That's not to say that the novel is without its faults. The ending was particularly disappointing. I thought Chbosky had set himself up for a nice non-traditional ending but I found that he left it feeling far too much like the ending of one of Charlie's assigned novels. As well, it did suffer from an over abundance of issues whereby the characters literally endure every possible After School Special ever addressed. But when I read the novel through the eyes of my students these little things hardly seemed to matter. I'm really looking forward to the illuminating comparisons that The Perks of Being a Wallflower will illicit in class, and how they correspond with my own experiences in high school in the early 1990s.

I can't wait.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials Vol. I)
By Philip Pullman

(I am keeping it short because I've got house guests this week and don't want to appear as antisocial as I actually am. This blog post is intentionally incomplete in anticipation of the second and third in the series, in which I will flesh out some of the ideas I'm vomited onto this post).

So what is becoming of me? The self-professed fantasy hater goes right ahead and loves yet another fantasy novel? Oh noes!

For those (like me) who have either lived under or on a rock for past couple of decades, The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights, depending on where you live) is the first novel in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series. It is a series that has been pressed on me for a few years now and the weight of the recommendations finally crushed my will to resist. I'm glad I caved.

The novel follows the adventures of Lyra, a semi-feral child living on the Oxford campus in some sort of alternate reality version of Earth where everything is distinctly recognizable but fundamentally different in every way. The Christian Church, for example exists, but there doesn't seem to have been a schism and they are infinitely powerful. Lyra, like every other human on the planet has a daemon that is psychologically attached to her being. The daemon exists in the form of a shape-shifting animal for children until it settles into a single animal form when a child reaches puberty. Lyra's father, Asriel, is some sort of strange cross between a scientist and wizard who works with (or against) the Church in trying to uncover the secret behind some sort of mystical matter that falls from the sky, known as Dust. It may or may not have something to do with the aurora borealis. Oh, and there are baddies trying to severe daemons from children (causing them to die) and armored polar bears and some really interesting global politics that involve Tartars, witches and a powerful kingdom on the island of Svalbard.

OK, when I put it like that, it doesn't sound nearly as cool as it really is but if you haven't read the series you'll have to trust me that the above elements come together in a coherent and decidedly awesome way.

What struck me was how dark The Golden Compass is. I'm guessing that it was intended for younger readers but the themes are so philosophically heavy. In setting up the novel, Pullman makes the Christian theology far more tangible. The daemon is a physical representation of the soul. Dust is some sort of physical representation of God or the holy spirit or something infinite. It seems to be the catalyst for the infinite multiverse that Pullman concocts (and here, His Dark Materials reminded me somewhat of Diane Wynne Jones's novel The Homeward Bounders).

Medieval theologians obsessed over whether a human soul had mass. Hundreds of experiments were carried out in dimly lit 12th century churches whereby theologians and physicians tried to measure the weight of a man immediately before and immediately after death to determine the differential, which would, logically, be the soul. They failed. Every time. Had they succeeded and proven that there was corporeal evidence for the existence of the soul (and therefore the existence of the Christian God), history would have taken a far different path, I'm sure. Pullman supposes that something to that effect indeed happened sometime in the past. By making the intangible elements of Christianity absolutely tangible, Pullman is free to express their absolute purpose and experiment with what it would mean to alter the fundamental laws of his version of the Christian Church. Is God a omnipotent and omnipresent entity that is full of love for His creation, or is He a manifestation of some non-sentient but all-pervasive matter? Such ideas give the novel a decidedly anti-Christian bias (which I will certainly discuss as I make my way through the series but not yet as I don't feel like I've got a handle on Pullman's ideas just yet) but the fantasy elements mask the full effect. All this brings me to the best part of this novel.

Unlike so many young adult novels (and a good many adult novels) this book not only encourages a significant amount of critical thinking on the part of the reader, it practically necessitates it. While other fantasy novels that involve children as protagonists (and here I'm thinking specifically of Harry Potter, but most others apply) place them solidly within socially acceptable parameters i.e. they attend school, behave in a manner that is considered appropriate for their age and social status, Lyra is semi-feral, patchily educated (there is no mention of any sort of education system in Pullman's world) and unpredictable. The children in the series either run around in gangs and fight wars or else they have a job. In that sense The Golden Compass seems to break the mold in terms of how children are written into modern young adult fiction. Pullman does not coddle Lyra and doesn't ask the reader to feel any sympathy for her either. In fact, while Lyra and her daemon were indeed the central characters in the novel, I never found that I developed any significant feelings for or against them throughout. The story drove this novel rather than the characters, and that was fine. The story had the strength to endure the weak character study.

Anyway, I'm going to save the meat and potatoes of these talking points for books two and three and get back to attending to my houseguest, wife and daughter. But before I wrap up this admittedly inchoate blog post I'd like to make a formal statement:

I like fantasy.

There. I admit it. Never again will you see me write about how much I hate the genre. I've read far too much good fantasy over the past three years to say that with a straight face any longer.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall
By Hilary Mantel

(Note: Before reading, I want to be clear that this post has very little to do with Hilary Mantel's Booker Prize winning novel Wolf Hall. I know it's the title of the blog post, but I'm feeling tangential.)

When I first started Reading in Taiwan, it was my mission statement that I would anything and everything that fell into my grubby, book-devouring little hands. The thought process was that I was living in a small town on a small, non-English speaking island with the bare minimum of English books at my disposal. It was a great social experiment and for a time it was pretty damned awesome. I read books I would have otherwise never have read. I read romance, fantasy and non-fiction novels about soccer players. I read I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. I was taking one for the proverbial team.

But over the course of three years, things have changed in my neck of the woods. I am not as isolated from the literary world as I once was. A couple of years back my wife was thoughtful enough to buy me a Kindle which made acquiring new books a cinch. Furthermore, acquiring actual bound books made of paper has become a lot easier in Taiwan due to the Internet and 7-11 (God bless 7-11). Nevertheless, I remained resolute in my stubbornness to read anything that came my way and finish everything I started, regardless of how good or bad it was. I mean I read The Story of O when I really didn't have to. I wanted to keep the spirit of the blog intact despite the encroachment of modern technology and increased access to books.

That is, until today.

I was driving home tonight thinking about how I was 40% through Hilary Mantel's 2009 Booker Prize winning novel Wolf Hall. I set the same goal I had set for myself every day this past week: to finish at least 10% before going to sleep. I have accomplished that goal exactly zero times this past week and it suddenly occurred to me that I would not achieve it tonight either, nor tomorrow night nor any night after that. I was staring down another two weeks (minimum) of slogging through Wolf Hall. It felt like the literary equivalent of sitting in a dentist office waiting room waiting for a voluntary, and completely unnecessary, root canal. Why was I subjecting myself to such an avalanche of torture when there are perfectly corpulent books awaiting me on my shelf and Kindle? And considering I was trying to read Wolf Hall quickly just so I could start something new, well, that's a terrible reason to read.

"But what about your mission statement?" I thought to myself.

"A cute but antiquainted dogma," I rebutted. "One rooted in another time. Another place."

"But what will people think when you say you couldn't finish Wolf Hall, a novel that was so celebrated? and why do I sound like Yoda?"

"Care not what people think. Nothing to prove, you have."

(Seriously, this is actually how I think).

The truth is, I was never going to like Wolf Hall. And I should have known.

Don't get me wrong, Wolf Hall is well written and painstakingly researched and probably deserves the Booker Prize for its meticulous (almost obssessive-compulsive) attention to detail alone. But Wolf Hall had three strikes against it right from the start and I should have seen the signs.

First, Wolf Hall is about the English Royal Family in general and unless the novel was written by Bernard Cornwell and is set on a blood-soaked 10th century battlefield in Essex, I'm not interested. As an unwilling citizen of the Commonwealth, I have a knee-jerk disinterest in the Royal Family. Just mention the names of Prince William and whatshername and my mind switches to auto-pilot whereby I continue looking at the speaker and nodding in a polite fashion but internally I have begun to ponder new and interesting ways in which to rip the speaker's tongue from his or her mouth.

Second, Wolf Hall is about Tudor England in specific. As a history major, there are nations and time periods I like better than others and I am hard-pressed to think of a time and place that interests me less than Tudor-era England. (maybe modern day England, but I'll have to run some tests to see which sets off the boredom alarm first and that's a diagnostic I'm in no hurry to run). Give me the Mongol Hordes riding across the Asian steppe or the Early Christian Church fathers or Qing Dynasty China any day of the week. But try to get me excited about Henry disengaging from Rome due to his inability to conceive a son and you've got a recipe for a nap.

Third, the length of the novel was the nail in the coffin. I have a pretty high threshold for shit. I can usually roll my eyes through a bad book just to say I've suffered like Jesus on the cross or something at parties. My mother always called me a masochist, but even I have limits. It's one thing to press on through a 250 page novel you hate. It's quite another to press on through a 700 page novel of the same ilk. I'll force down a bad meal, but I won't eat the leftovers for a week. That's just dumb.

Of course, I want to be clear that I'm not calling Wolf Hall a bad book. It most certainly isn't. It's just not my thing. Not at all. Not even a little.

But all this got me to thinking about novels that I have left unfinished. Surprisingly, in a lifetime of voracious reading the novels I have quit are few and far between. I've read lots of books that seem to pop up on other people's Did Not Finish lists. I've read (and enjoyed) long books like Infinite Jest. I've read difficult books like V. by Thomas Pynchon (I didn't understand it, though) and I've read the entire Old Testament. I've also read my share of terrible novels (Cathy Lamb comes to mind) But when it came to finding books I never actually finished, I could actually only think of six (though I'm sure there are more):

1. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien: Of all the books I have ever hated, I hate this one the most. I hated it from the beginning. I hated the language. I hated the fact that each character took three pages to ask for a cup of tea and I hated Tom Bombadil (seriously... WTF?). I think I dropped this book somewhere around page 400 and have vowed never, ever to pick it up again.

2. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: At the age of 16 I had this notion that I was going to become a man of letters or some such nonsense. I determined to read all the great works of literature and I was going to start with The Brothers Karamazov. Great start. I got about 60 pages in, realized I didn't understand a single thing that was going on and I went back to reading Michael Creighton novels. I've been meaning to pick this one up in recent years, but there is always something more interesting on my shelf. I think my 16-year old self has 37-year old me spooked.

3. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: I love Marquez and I've read several of his other novels, but this one eluded me. Perhaps it had something to do with every character having the SAME GODDAMNED NAME!

4. Wuthering Heights by Charlotte Bronte: I recall literally throwing this novel out my bedroom window with only 40 pages to read. I recall hating it with every fiber of my being but for the life of me, I cannot recall why. As I said before, I'm a masochist, but not so much of one that would willingly revisit this novel to find out why I hated it.

5. The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson: Because it's plain terrible.

6. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig: I honestly believe that everyone who loves this novel didn't actually read it. It's worse than The Black Arrow.

I can now add Wolf Hall to this esteemed list of personal literary failures.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Seven Years in Tibet

Seven Years in Tibet
By Heinrich Harrer

While reading Seven Years in Tibet, Heinrich Harrer's sublime work of travel literature, I was struck by a disturbing question. Has the epitaph for travel literature already been written?

For centuries, armchair travelers have marveled at the tales of adventurers who have traveled to distant lands. From the works of Marco Polo and Ibn al-Battuta to the invaluable works of Charles Darwin to the amazing stories of Thor Hyerdahl, travel writers have taken readers to places they could only imagine, told stories of exotic people and extraordinary cultures.

But with the relatively recent advent of cheap flights, social media, the Internet and, most devastatingly, globalization, is the era of travel... real exploratory travel... finished? Well, until the advent of interplanetary travel, I think it just might be.

Let introduce the book and then let me explain.

In Seven Years in Tibet, Heinrich Harrer takes us inside one of the most insular cultures ever to exist on this planet. Not only was the Tibet that Harrer visited suspicious of outsiders, it had the luxury of being nestled on the other side of the almost impassable Himalayan mountain chain. When Harrer entered the country in the middle of the Second World War as an escaped POW he became one of only a handful of Europeans who had ever gained access to Tibet. Over his seven years in the country (just in case the title wasn't clear on that) he would meet less than a dozen other Europeans (conversely, I met over a dozen western expats on my first night in taiwan in 2002). There is literally no place on earth left that hasn't felt the impact of Western culture (aka globalization). In that sense, Harrer was given the rare opportunity to see one of the last nations on the planet completely untouched by the Western world prior to the Great Flattening.

The book itself is divided into four parts. The first part deals mainly with Harrer's time in a prison camp in India. As a German on British soil during the early days of World War II he was taken into custody. But he planned and executed his escape and crossed the border into Tibet with the intent of reaching the Japanese lines. The second part of the novel recounts the two years he spent trying to get a foothold in the notoriously insular nation. This part was most interesting to me because it was, by far the most harrowing portion of the book and recounted incidents that could only occur in the duty nowheres of Asia. The third part consists of his first years in Lhasa and the final part is essentially an early biography of the thirteenth Dalai Lama, their friendship and his ultimate flight from Tibet when the Chinese invaded in 1951.

This is travel writing in its purest form. Harrer has no Western crutch, no expat community that has paved the way for his arrival and provided for a nice cushy landing. This is the story of a man who made his way in a nation where he may have been the first of his kind (i.e. German) to ever live in Lhasa. Harrer saw a Tibet that few travelers had seen before and none will ever see again. He saw the pure, unadulterated culture prior to the onslaught of the Chinese invasion and the inevitable incursion of the modern world. And since 99% of the religious buildings in Tibet have been destroyed since the invasion and over 70% of the current population of Lhasa is non-Tibetan, Harrer's work is essentially a eulogy for an entire culture.

Now, I haven't been to Lhasa but I have done my fair bit of travel and, while I still love to do it, I have no misgivings about it. I'm never going to have a unique experience in any of the exotic locales I choose to visit (unless, of course i choose to visit a war zone, which of course I won't). No matter where I go, no matter how far off the beaten path I venture, I am treading on roads well worn by millions of people who have come before me. Every medium sized town in Vietnam and Sri Lanka has a Starbucks. There are fast food outlets in Rangoon and Nairobi. You can buy Bulgari watches at the airport in Ankara and Calcutta and I'm sure if you can't buy a McDonalds Happy Meal in the shadow of the Potala Palace, it's not long in coming.

This incursion has made the notion of travel problematic. If you can experience gourmet Indian cuisine in the comfort of your own home, view the cultural splendors of India from on the television and purchase authentic Indian handicrafts via the Internet why, exactly, would you pay vast quantities of money to fly half way around the globe only to find that Mumbai is a morass of the same 18 fast food chains, coffee shops and clothing outlets you just left? And unless you traveled for a very specific reason (i.e. mountain climbing, surfing, archaeological dig) there is never really much difference between Paris, Pretoria and Phnom Penh. Did you travel for the smell? Because that might be the only thing you couldn't have gotten back home.

With all due respect to Michael Palin, Bill Bryson and Neil Peart, who have written some fabulous travel literature in the past 20 years (focusing on travel with very distinct purposes, I might add), we will never again have a book that represents an introduction to a major nation, city or culture that The Travels of Marco Polo or Seven Years in Tibet was. At the time of publication, Tibet was perhaps the last great unexplored culture on the planet. It's a shame that Harrer's work coincided with its demise (and make no mistake, no amount of Beastie Boys concerts will ever resurrect the Tibetan Nation). The Epilogue to the edition I wrote is a thousand times more heart breaking than the book since Harrer' has had a half century to reflect on the events of his book and see it for what we all know it is, an epitaph.

In that respect, this book is also a cautionary tale for Taiwan, the country I live in (Ten Years in Taiwan?). Taiwan has been the focus of a relentless propaganda campaign since 1949 and while the situation with Tibet doesn't provide exact parallels, there are lessons to be taken for any Taiwanese who cares to listen. The recent self-immolations that have plagued the Tibetan capital represent a desperate endgame that has no happy ending. Is this Taiwan's future should China get the opportunity to act? Let's how for Taiwan (and my) sake we never find out.

Anyway, long story short, Seven Years in Tibet is deserving of the moniker classic travel literature and should be placed on the bookshelf with the other heavyweights in the genre. Perhaps (and lamentably so) at the far right.

(Note: I never saw the Brad Pitt movie)

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Where'd You Go, Bernadette?

Where'd You Go, Bernadette?
By Maria Semple

Note: Please read this blog entry in Ron Howard's voice. Thanks.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette? opens with a report card. But it's not just any report card. It's Balakrishna (Bee) Elgin's report card from The Galer Street School, a snobby private school where the parents pick their children up in Subaru's (but not, lamentably for the administrators of the school, in Mercedes). Bee is a special student who has achieved straight Ss throughout her academic career.  Galer School is one of those educational institutions that does't like the stigma of traditional "grades" and thereby gives their students Ss (Surpasses Exellence), As (Achieves Excellence) and Ws (Working toward Excellence), presumably to assure parents that their precious little snowflakes are all some incarnation of excellent.

Bee, however is not your typical special little snowflake. She is the daughter of Elgin Branch, workaholic Microsoft employee with a rabid geek cult-following ever since a now legendary TED Talk (fourth most watched TED Talk, ever!) about a technology that allows people to control a robot simply by thinking about it. Elgin enjoys reticulated bicycles and irrigating his sinuses among other pastimes. Bee's mother is Bernadette Fox, a legend in architecture the way Harper Lee and J.D. Salinger are legends in literature. Within the world of architecture, Fox is both a genius and a ghost. A former recipient of a McArthur Grant and the designer of the now mythologized Twenty-Mile House (mythologized because it was torn down immediately after it was completed). Fox has not designed a house in two decades and has become an angry, agoraphobic recluse to the point that she has outsourced her life to a personal assistant in India for seventy-five cents an hour.

Together, the Branch family live in the ruins Straight House, a former Catholic school for wayward girls which has now been overrun with blackberry bushes and rot. Despite being an architectural and design genius, Bernadette has not so much as lifted a drafting pencil since moving in and renovations have yet to commence. Much like The Branch family's collective sanity, the house is literally crumbling in on top of them. So, the house is, quite obviously, a metaphor about unrequited homosexual desire and to sum up, Bee is pedigree of genius. And with genius comes madness. Beautiful, anti-social madness.

In an attempt to stave off a pony, Bee's parent's had promised to get her anything she ways upon graduation from Galer School (on the condition she achieve straight Ss, of course). Bee calls them on their promise and demands a trip to Antarctica (it is here that I should note that upon my graduation from middle school I was given a pat on the back and told to keep out of trouble in high school).  From that point on, the novel shifts into overdrive and truly awful but seriously hilarious things start happening in rapid-fire succession. There's a landslide, an intervention gone horribly wrong, physical altercations, an arrest, someone scratches their eyeball and, of course, all sorts of Three's Company/Frasier style misunderstandings. The situation is so grave that it requires a trip to the ends of the Earth to rectify the situation (the aforementioned trip to Antarctica, of course). Naturally, Antarctica is a metaphor for cultural erosion.

If the Where'd You Go, Bernadette? sounds like good television, it's no wonder. Maria Semple is a former television writer who worked on (among other things) Arrested Development, which is why I: a) hated every single character and b) loved every single character because I hated them so much (this is exactly why I think Arrested Development is the best television comedy of its generation (sorry 30 Rock). How can you not hate and love to hate Lucille Bluth?). Where'd You Go, Bernadette? is a tightly-constructed narrative populated by delusional Tiger Moms, snobby private school parents, neurotic tech geeks, scatterbrained artists and the now ubiquitous overly-ambitious Asian woman who will do anything to succeed. The characters you are meant to hate are atrocious human beings (that you will recognize from your own life) who get their comeuppance in stunning fashion. But the protagonists are no better. Semple has not written then in such a way that a reader will immediately empathize with them. Nope. Not in the least.. The Branches (Branch's?) themselves are the worst sort of Bobos, a term coined by David Brooks in his book Bobos in Paradise. But who's thinking about sociology while personal assistants based in India are procuring anti-psychotics for you and research scientists are ordering pink penguins at the bar.

As in any good ensemble comedy (whether it is Arrested Development, The Simpsons or Where'd You Go, Bernadette?), the absurdity only works when there is a straight man to counterbalance the insanity. Arrested Development has Michael Bluth, The Simpsons has Lisa and Where's You Go, Bernadette? has Bee. These characters, while often seen as bland, are the lynch pins to the comedic payoff. They are the link between the off-kilter characters and the readers/viewers. In this particular instance, Bee is both the most and least interesting character in the novel, depending on how you read it. It's not terribly difficult to lose sight of her what with all the drug abuse, Russian mafia and dental appointments but make no mistake, this novel is essentially about Bee, not Bernadette.

Written in several formats including e-mail correspondence, psychiatric evaluations, FBI documents, report cards and even a receipt or two, the entire novel comes across as a case file that is weaved intricately and imaginatively without repeating information (a common occurrence in multiple format style novels (see: Dracula)). Semple is one hell of a good comedic writer and now that I know she worked on my favorite television show, I'm sorry that she didn't write more of the novel in dialogue form (there is a transcript of the intervention but it's a tantalizing snippet of what Semple might be capable of doing. I cannot wait to get my hands on more of her work.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette? is the very definition of a summer read but with the added bonus of having literary cred. It's a wild ride and absolutely impossible to put down. I picked it up with more than a little trepidation that it was going to be one of those definitive women's novels (no offense intended, I'm using this term for lack of a better. But there are so very many novels written and marketed to women specifically and I try to steer clear). If you are looking for something light to read on the beach this summer or if you are looking for something a little more literary than the usual check-out fare or if you are simply looking for a book that mentions Antarctica because it's too damned hot and you want to forget about it, you will find something to take away from Where'd You Go, Bernadette. It's impossible to put down.

Kenny Bania inadvertently summed up Where'd You Go, Bernadette? years ago when he succinctly noted: "That's comedy GOLD, Jerry!"

Monday, July 1, 2013

The White Tiger

The White Tiger
By Aravind Adiga

Happy Canada Day!

And like any red-blooded Canadian citizen, I like to enjoy our nation's birthday by sitting down and writing a blog post about modern Indian literature. This year I have the pleasure of cracking a Moosehead, turning up Blue Rodeo on the stereo and getting down to business with Aravind Adiga's "blazingly savage" debut (and short-listed for the Man Booker Prize) novel The White Tiger. I put those words, "blazingly savage," in quotations because they are not my words but rather those of Neel Mukherjee, reviewer for the Sunday Telegraph. I'm not familiar with Mr. (Mrs.?) Mukherjee's work for the Telegraph but a simple racial profile (i.e. reading his (her?) name off the byline) indicates that he (she?) probably knows significant amount more than me about India, Indian culture and Indian literature.

That's not to say that I'm writing about this novel in a vacuum. Long-term readers of this blog know that I am an avid fan of Indian literature and read as much of it as I can get my hands on. And I don't know it you have noticed or not but I have been reading quite a few recent Man Booker Prize winners and nominees, recently. It hasn't been a conscious thing, but I have been made aware of my recent trend and it's true (I picked up a recent nominee this morning, so expect more in the near future). So, I'm not entirely devoid of opinion on this novel and I'd like to think that my opinion has some weight on this stiflingly hot Canada Day in Asia.

I bring up Mukherjee's words because I cannot think of a more succinct way in which to express my feelings toward this novel. Set in modern day India, Adiga's novel is told from the perspective of Balram who is introduced as an entrepreneur at the onset of the novel. Narrator via a series of letters from Balram to the premier of China, it is revealed that Balram a small-town indian who has work his way out of The Darkness as a driver for Ashok, a local landowner based in Delhi. As driver, Balram is singly endeared, repressed, ignored and abused by his employer, resulting in a complex relationship that culminates in Balram murdering his boss (note: this is not a spoiler as it is mentioned in the first 20 pages of the book). The result is a "blazingly savage" (see I can't help myself) treatise on the injustice of India's caste, the human quest for freedom and the nature of individualism in a collective culture.

On the surface, The White Tiger is a simple (yet effective) examination of the stifling caste system in India and the way in which it maintains and perpetuates itself. Through Balram we are introduced to the knee-jerk servitude of the lower castes and the way in which lower castes are disregarded entirely. In all the novels I have read about India I have never encountered such a naked appraisal of the injustice of the caste system than in The White Tiger. But nowhere in this novel is the injustice more manifest than Adiga's blistering rant on the nature of Indian democracy and the manner in which the ruling castes manipulate elections to their advantage. Scathing stuff.

But for all the ways in which the caste system hinders social mobility in India, there resides within each individual a burning desire for freedom in some form. In this case, it is Balram's desire for freedom from his master's inconsistent and increasingly erratic relationship. Throughout the novel, despite Balram's questionable behavior, the reader finds it difficult to fault Balram in his often wayward quest to find his way out of the intricate web of relationships and obligations that was woven for him since birth.

Which brings us to the theme of individualism. At a young age, Balram is given the moniker of "The White Tiger" by a local luminary touring the schools in the area. In Indian lore, a white tiger is someone who comes around only once in a generation and is different from everyone around them. Despite the fact that his life trajectory seems to follow the median for his particular caste, Balram maintains the notion that he is somehow different from everyone in his village. Is this a partial motive for his later crime? Perhaps, but more telling of his idea that he is different from everyone around him is that the entire novel is a series of letters from Balram to Wen Jiaobao, Premier of China and the leader of the world's most collective culture. What significance is there in Balram, the stalwart white tiger of individualism, in writing to the very antithesis of individualism? Vanity, perhaps. The same confession written to the office of the President of the United States of America would be received with an anticlimactic shrug. Perhaps Balram has an inherent sense of irony.

It should also be noted that aside from these fun themes, there is an underlying current of globalization gone horribly wrong. In a recent blog post I noted that naive protagonists are often better than those in the know simply because it is more entertaining from a reader's perspective to read  a story told from the perspective of someone who knows precious little about the world around them. Despite his recent success, Balram is the poster child for the half-educated child of globalization. In a sense, technology has permeated our culture (and one would presume Indian culture as well) enough to misinform a significant portion of the population about everything from poetry to physics. We see it in America among the adherents of intelligent design and we see it throughout The White Tiger.

This is the novel that Slumdog Millionaire desperately tried to be and failed. That's not a knock on Slumdog Millionaire so much as it's a heap of respect for Adiga's ability to actualize modern India in a way that is both endearing and horrifying at the same time. This novel is unrelentingly ferocious in its depiction of India and its caste system. The White Tiger deserves all of its accolades. If I had somehow read this novel a few Canada Days ago, before Neel Mukherjee, I would have said that The White Tiger is "blazingly savage."

Read it.