Out With the Old, In With the New

I’ve been quite busy the last few days, so there was no time for me to do an end-of-year roundup of all the books I’ve read, nor was there really time to let you know what I’ve got in store for the coming year. I’ll try to do both now. Last year I launched a project called Reading 2007, for which I reviewed (well, sort of reviewed) every single book I read during the calendar year. I started out with the notion of doing serious reviews, but to be perfectly frank I don’t see this blog as that serious a thing, so they eventually became more like impressionist rambles inspired by the books. I only made it through fifty-three books during the year, well below my average, but adult life certainly takes its toll on both the energy and the free time. I did find, though, that the project made… Continue Reading

#53 – Where is the Voice Coming From?, by Rudy Wiebe

I read The Temptations of Big Bear several years ago as part of a course on contemporary Canadian literature. I was struck by Wiebe’s formal experimentation and his deft, original approach at dealing with aspects of Canada’s history that can be uncomfortable for many contemporary Canadians to acknowledge. It was a delicate, graceful book, and I’d squeeze the word “accomplished” in there somewhere if I could figure out how. So I was definitely looking forward to his 1974 follow-up book of short stories, Where is the Voice Coming From?. Turns out it was pretty terrible. Wiebe does not excel at the short story form at all. There are a few piece like “Scrapbook” and “Tudor King” that read like they were intended to be poignant coming of age tales about children dealing with the harsh realities of mortality in the prairies, but instead they are empty, amateurish scraps of narrative… Continue Reading

#52 – Fat Woman, by Leon Rooke

I met Leon Rooke briefly in 2001 at the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival, the same day I met Sheila Heti and George Elliott Clarke. I heard him read some stories, at least one of which hadn’t been published yet. He didn’t need a microphone; his voice wasn’t just loud, it was big. You could hear it through the entire festival grounds. You could feel it. I told him that I had never read any of his books, but that after that performance I would go and buy the next one I found. And I did, in fact I bought two (Shakespeare’s Dog, and Painting the Dog). Fat Woman is my third, and I didn’t realize until I was nearly finished it that it was his first novel. My edition isn’t the one you see pictured here. Mine is a tacky blue mass-market paperback from a company called General Publishing, part… Continue Reading

#51 – The Republic of Love, by Carol Shields

My first experience with Canadian literature was with a Carol Shields novel. I was in the seventh or eighth grade, I can’t exactly remember which, and I had just gotten into the habit of listening to talk radio on the CBC before going to bed (don’t ask; I was a strange child), and the program that aired just as I was nodding off was one in which selections from a Canadian novel were read every night over the course of several days or weeks. That novel was The Stone Diaries. My parents bought me a copy on our next trip to “the city” (Winnipeg), and I was off. To this day it remains tied for the much coveted title of “Favourite Novel” (the other contender is A.S. Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale). Despite becoming enamoured with her work at such an early age, The Republic of Love is only the third… Continue Reading

#50 – Invitation to a Beheading, by Vladimir Nabokov

I’m trying to remember if this is my fifteenth or sixteenth Navokov, but at any rate, it’s the weakest, although that on its own doesn’t say much. The weakest Nabokov is still stronger than the best work many other authors produce. Invitation to a Beheading was translated from the Russian (and quite ably, I must say) by Dmitri Nabokov, the author’s son. It reads very much like Nabokov’s later English-language novels. Invitation to a Beheading follows Cincinnatus C. as he spends three weeks on death row at a dream-like prison in an equally dream-like country. His crime is “gnostical turpitude,” a concept that is never fully explained, but based on the little information made available in the novel, has something to do with his being “opaque” at the level of his soul. What this actually means, I have no idea, but it frightens the other characters in the novel, who… Continue Reading

#49 – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, by Ian Fleming

So two Bond novels in a row. I don’t know if I’m spoiling myself, or setting myself up for a disappointment, because I’m now going to reach the end of my “guilty pleasure” series that much sooner. Ah well. Too late now, either way. I’ve been told by various folk that until the recent production of Casino Royale, this was the Bond novel that made it to film with the least radical changes, and that seems like it could still be a pretty fair assessment. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was a slightly atypical Bond adventure, in the sense that he was genuinely undercover, right down to the fake name, and so there are a number of different challenges in this book; it’s interesting to note that Bond may shy away from false identities simply because it is too difficult to play out convincingly, even with major preparation. The other… Continue Reading

#48 – The Spy Who Loved Me, by Ian Fleming

What has kept the Bond franchise from falling apart entirely, in terms of the films, are two things. First, the casting of Daniel Craig, who comes across as dangerous and slightly brutal, in addition to charismatic. Second, it is a return to the source material, and not just the content, but the spirit as well. Fleming’s novels are simple, tough, and entertaining. What kept them fresh (what still keeps them fresh, for me at least) is the inclusion of new perspectives on the Bond character. Some previous books spent some time dealing with how Bond behaves at home, what it’s like when he spends extended periods at the office, and how he prepares for and deals with a life of danger, rather than just, like the films, showing fast-paced glimpses of the danger itself. Such things keep him human. The Spy Who Loved Me offers yet another perspective, that of… Continue Reading

#47 – The Cheese Monkeys, by Chip Kidd

It’s strange, starting to read a novel by someone made famous for their visual skills. You hope, frankly, that they aren’t downright illiterate, being published simply because they have a name rather than because they have any talent with words. Thank God that Chip Kidd can write. Okay, so he makes some rookie mistakes. The pacing The Cheese Monkeys is way too fast, and the ending is a bit of a cop-out (I’m given to understand that this is partly based on his own experiences, but still, give us some closure). The only reason the book clocks in at 274 pages is because Kidd has given the text some insanely large margins (I must admit, the book is pretty cool to look at, fits comfortably in the hand, etc.; if nothing else, Kidd is an amazing designer). I would imagine that in word count it’s barely more than a novella.… Continue Reading

#46 – Jitterbug Perfume, by Tom Robbins

This was a fun little book, and though it’s actually wildly different, in many ways I was reminded of Christopher Moore’s Lamb, my first book of the year. Robbins leans less towards the reverence than Moore, but also doesn’t go quite as readily for the cheap laugh, either. What we have in Jitterbug Perfume is an unfinished quest, three or four rather strange romances (all, in some way resolved with a certain level of satisfaction) and an unusual mediation on the relation between biochemistry and longevity. Oh yes, and beets. I feel better about eating beets, having read this. I can’t really tell you that I was expecting this novel to be quite so grand (although it felt quite small), but after having seen the film adaptation of Robbins’ Even Cowgirls Get The Blues it would have been wrong of me to go in with any real expectations at all.… Continue Reading

#45 – The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick

As I said earlier this year, every Philip K. Dick novel is like your first Philip K. Dick novel. And this one was no exception. The premise of the novel, “what would the world look like had Japan and the Nazis won WW2?” is a strange one to imagine from my vantage point this far from the war (my father, though older than average for fathers of twenty-eight year olds, is still not old enough to remember the war). The Allied victory seems inevitable, and we forget that there were times when it was very much in doubt. So how does it play out? The Japanese of Dick’s fictional late 1960s turn out to be very much like the Japanese of today (or rather, like our Western view of the Japanese people), and offer a reasonable, although not entirely likable to my eyes, way of living and dealing with the… Continue Reading