Thursday, December 31, 2009
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
Q: Are you aware that you can be made to forget words, if certain neurons are suppressed from firing?A: Certain what?Q: And that by suppressing the firing of others, you can be made to forget what words mean entirely? Like the word Jane, for instance.A: Which?Q: And do you know that if I do this--[inaudible]A: Oof!Q: --you will flatline? And if I do this--[inaudible]A: Aaa, aaa . . .Q: --you will cease flatlining? Do you really want to confuse that for God's work?
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Monday, December 21, 2009
Anyway, with that in mind, I've compiled my ten favourite works published in 2009.
5. Little Bee by Chris Cleave (Simon & Schuster, $24). How far would you go to protect someone, someone that you don't know, someone who is being treated unjustly? Why do you feel connected to another human in their plight? Cleave may write with the speed and sentimentality of a commercial author, but he poses questions that many literary artists wonder; the influence of DH Lawrence is certainly there: a journalistic intrigue into sociopolitical queries. Read the first chapter and you will be hooked. I've read both Cleave novels in a single sitting. No joke.
3. Goat Song by Brad Kessler (Scribner, $24). Simple, straightforward, honest, unassuming, Kessler's narrative tells how he and his wife take in a pair of goats and decide to raise them for milk and cheese. Kessler never claims to be an expert, but never feels like he's the fool. He goes through the process, and you feel as if you're learning with him. From my review: '[Kessler] also discusses a great deal of etymology [of 'goat'], linking goats and Greek and common English words together: from the obvious word tragedy to the concept of Pan to the fantastic idea of transhumance. Everything seems so tightly woven, and Kessler’s connections don’t seem out of place or make the reader make huge leaps of faith. We’re in good hands here.' [My review here.]
2. Columbine by Dave Cullen (Twelve, $26.99). This journalistic book unfolds like a Greek tragedy: you know what's going to happen, and you don't want to see it occur, but you read to understand. Because we want to know why this happened. It's a book that keeps you on edge, uncomfortable diving into the depths of this horrific incident and how it affected the town, students, parents, administrators alike. The most frightening aspect is knowing how all the signs were there; it's just that no one was interested enough to put them together. It will give you nightmares.
Friday, December 18, 2009
Photo from Flickr
- Finish reading Jill McCorkle's Ferris Beach, which has taken me entirely too long to read for some reason (busy).
- Watch Lost in Austen instantly on Netflix as my last title in the Everything Austen Challenge.
- Other books to read/begin: Joshua Ferris' The Unnamed, New Stories from the South
- Other movies on my instant queue: Steel Magnolias (which I have never seen in full—shame!), 2 Days in Paris, Phoebe in Wonderland, Torn Curtain
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Meanwhile there's something going on in the air as Manhattan smells like chocolate, making people wonder if they're drinking espresso or mocha. Eagles have taken over Richard Abneg's apartment window-ledges, Abneg being a hero of a riot in the East Village and currently the billionaire mayor's aid. Abneg falls in love with a Hawai'ian woman, Georgina Hawkmanaji, who he refers to as Hawkman, and who both desire to win a chaldron on eBay - one of the best scenes written in the novel, and one of the most memorable I've read in a long while.
All that, and a tiger is on the loose, roaming the streets of New York, creating tiger-neighbourhood-watch groups and suspicions that the tiger doesn't really exist or that the tiger is just code for the Second Avenue subway line that has been in the works for more years anyone cares to remember.
Chronic City is a paean to the Upper East Side; to city meandering, a meandering that can only happen in New York City; to the hysteria that Pynchon captures in LA and Dickens captures in London. It's a novel that allows you to enjoy the ridiculous ramblings of a narrator who enjoys tripping out and having conversations under said influence. It's a novel that delights in the chaos, in the concept that 'the city is a maze', exemplified in Perkus Tooth's own discussion of said eponymous 'film':
As Leonard Cohen tells us, "there is a war between the ones who say there is a
war and the ones who say there isn't." Equally, according to Iris Murdoch, "the
bereaved have no language for speaking to the unbereaved." For denizens of this
country of Noir, such protests delineate the incommensurable rift or gulf
between those doomed to patrol the night country and those moored in daylight, a
co-existence of realms, one laid upon the other as veneer. . . .
It goes on. Chronic City is full of incessant ruminations on life and culture and politics - all of which really boils down to a search for truth. The chaldron that these insane characters are searching for may be a stand-in for the holy grail. Chase's sometime lover and ghostwriter of bestselling memoirs, Oona, may be an updated version of Una, the one-true church of Spenser's Faerie Queene. A work so replete with real and false references, with parallel realities and THC-aided descriptions, Chronic City is a masterwork that if you're in the right kind of mood will be ridiculously well worth it.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
- Coming Home by Rosamunde Pilcher
- New York: The Novel by Edward Rutherfurd
- My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times by Harold Evans
- True Compass by Edward M. Kennedy
- When Everything Changed by Gail Collins
- The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff
- The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (also on my Back to School list)
- Swann's Way by Marcel Proust (attempted to read since season 1 of Gilmore Girls)
Monday, December 14, 2009
"Fugue state." Maybe it was the combination of the discordant arpeggios from the conservatory and the leaves in the street. "Fugue." A dissociative psychological state marked by sudden, unexpected travel away from home or one's customary place of work, with inability to recall one's past, confusion about personal identity, or the assumption of a new identity, or significant distress or impairment.
Friday, December 11, 2009
'I am so sorry, Harry' [Dorian] cried, 'but it is entirely your fault. That book you sent me so fascinated me that I forgot how the time was going.'
'Yes: I thought you would like it,' replied his host, rising from his chair.
'I didn't say I liked it, Harry. I said it fascinated me. There is a great difference.'
'Ah, you have discovered that?' murmured Lord Henry. And they passed into the dining room.
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Monday, December 7, 2009
The first half of this book felt muddled. It took me a long time to get into the flow of the narrative, between the flashbacks and the alternating focus on each character. By the middle, I was used to the language and perspective, and I could sense a different tone used when describing each character. Jack is very much a man of the times, torn between convention and passion; Ruth tries her best to maintain an outward image while longing for something more; Helen has the fire of a teenage; and Beth possesses that innocent childhood curiosity. But though the characters had very defined personalities, I never got the feeling that I really knew them. To me, they seemed rather flat, without much dimension.
One fun theme running throughout was that of the I-Spy books of 1950s Britain, in which children were given a list of things to hunt down in a variety of environments. Beth's I-Spy book serves as a means to explore the world by dragging her out of the bubble to which Ruth has restricted her. [It eventually leads Beth to The Palace of Strange Girls, a freak show attraction on the pier, but I still don't find it a pivotal enough scene or theme to have inspired the book's title.]
The Palace of Strange Girls entertained me for the second half, but I felt like it had tension that should have been building up towards something. Some novels can successfully serve as a snapshot of a life or time without ever culminating with a climactic scene and conclusion, but something about this one just didn't gently flow and allow that. I wasn't interested enough in any of the characters to care about what happened to any of them after I read the last page. Sallie Day has the skills to write an excellent story, and I bet her next novel will be more polished.
The Palace of Strange Girls was re-published in September by Grand Central Publishing.
Review copy provided by publisher. Thanks, Miriam!
Friday, December 4, 2009
Thursday, December 3, 2009
Though I haven't read it, I could only feel that Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter was alluded to in that by being the French Lieutenant's woman he means whore, not wife. And so as Sarah Woodruff - said 'woman' - wears her melancholy for her lost Frenchman as Hester Prynne wears her scarlet A around town. People gossip (and there's plenty of gossip in this story) about Ms Woodruff and her beginnings, her love affairs, her dark personality. She's a mysterious figure, so much so that she captures the attention of on Charles Smithson, a young fossil collecting scientist quite interested in Darwin's theories. Charles, with his painfully common surname, can't get Ms Woodruff out of his mind, even though he's engaged to the even more common, though quite wealthy, Earnestina ('Earnest', the importance of being!) Freeman ('Free man'!), a woman who is controlled more by hysterics and perhaps by the upbringing by her parents.
Slowly through Charles we discover Ms Woodruff's history, some through other media, mostly through Sarah herself. She talks about why she is so sullen, longing for her lost Varguennes (anyone know where this name could come from?), who as she found out was married to another woman when they had their 'affair de coeur'. And now she is married to her suffering. This makes Charles ever so sympathetic with her plight that his interest becomes more than a fascination.
There are some wild plot twists, and some plot changes of heart - as the narrator tells us that this is the way that things could have happened if the characters so chose to do one thing instead of the other. So in essence there is no ending but a serious of simultaneous ones, neither of which should technically win out, even though the narrator is fearful that 'The only way I can take no part in the fight is to show two versions of it. That leaves me with only one problem: I cannot give both versions at once, yet whichever is second will seem, so strong is the tyranny of the last chapter, the final, the "real" version. ...I extract a florin, I rest it on my right thumbnail, I flick it, spinning, two feet into the air and catch it in my left hand.' And that is how it is determined the order in which the stories are told. To chance, to randomness, to god's willfulness.
It's a trick like this that makes The French Lieutenant's Woman a beloved work of literature; for the narrator is one of the most self-aware narrators I have ever read, one that is more like a character than a person relating a story. For instance:
The French! Varguennes!
...[Charles] wondered where she was; and a vision of her running sodden through the lightning and rain momentarily distracted him from his own acute and self-directed anxiety. But it was too much! After such as day!
I am overdoing the exclamation marks.
I'll leave you with this pondering (and the amusing Simpsons reference to the film version): 'Death is not in the nature of things; it is the nature of things. But what dies is the form. The matter is immortal.' What follows in that paragraph seems quite an interesting take on Darwinism and storytelling in general.
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
New York is notoriously the largest and least loved of any of our great cities. Why should it be loved as a city? It is never the same for a dozen years together. A man born in New York forty years ago finds nothing, absolutely nothing, of the New York he knew.
—Harper’s Monthly, 1856
My novel, Totally Killer, is set in New York in 1991. Often in the book, I have the characters go to places that no longer exist. I lived in New York for the first time in 1993, moving there for a ten-year stretch two years later.
When I return these days, a different city—a new New York—greets me. Here are some of my favorite places (and things) that are no longer:
Dojo on St. Mark’s Place
Dirt-cheap Japanese place on the block of that vaunted street between Second and Third Avenues. How cheap was it? So cheap you could buy a tuna salad wrap (one part tuna, eighteen parts mayonnaise) for less than two bucks. So cheap you could gorge on a salmon dinner for less than ten. So cheap the bathrooms were kept under lock and key, with said key shackled to a sawed-off plunger handle. So cheap the cheapest Happy Hour specials in town could not entice you to linger by the bar.
The Dojo on Wavery is still there, I think, but that one is more sanitized. Totally different vibe. The St. Mark’s Dojo was pure East Village. Todd and Taylor go there in Totally Killer, and she sees a mouse scurrying into the kitchen. One of the few moments in the book based on actual events.
Dearly departed nightclub on West 14th Street, housed in what used to be an electronics store. Presided over by “Little Nell” Campbell, best known for her supporting role in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Was the spot to be for most of its early life. Fell out of style for awhile, then was reinvented as a hip hop heaven. Tupac Shakur once enjoyed a bee-jay on the downstairs dance floor.
It was during the hip hop phase that I used to go to the club, only because a friend of ours worked there so we could get in and drink for free. A loud nightclub where gorgeous gals cavorted with black luminaries like Prince and Charles Barkley was maybe not the best setting for a short, waddling white dork to pick up women. As I told my friend at the time, when explaining why I didn’t want to go to a party there one night: “It’s not a place where I can shine.”
They all worked, once upon a time. And if you were lost, or couldn’t find the place you were supposed to meet your friends, what you’d do is, you’d stride right up to a payphone like you were Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, pick up the receiver, dial 411 (free of charge), and ask for an address. This way, you projected a James Bond air even when you felt more like George W. Bush reading My Pet Goat.
Holiday Cocktail Lounge
With the Virgin Megastore, one of the city’s most egregious misnomers. The dive bar to end all dive bars. Owned and operated by Stefan, once a soccer star in his native Ukraine, whose mood swings were legend. He could give you beers on the house or snap your head off, depending on the time of day. But mostly he was charming, in a dirty-old-man sort of way.
Spent one memorable New Year’s Eve here. At 5pm, a guy in one booth was passed out, alseep in his own drool. By the time he came to and found his cowboy hat and his wife, it was after ten, and we were all three sheets to the wind. He wound up buying delivery pizza for the house. At midnight, his not-in-any-way-pulchritudinous wife, who had materialized, kissed me on the lips and slipped me tongue. He didn’t give a shit. On the way out, Stefan muttered something under his breath in his native language. My friend Roman, who happened coincidentally to speak fluent Ukrainian, burst out laughing. “It’s an old slang word,” he explained (the rough English equivalent rhymes with runt and will not be printed in this space).
The Speakeasy on Sixth Avenue
Right at the corner of Waverly, in the apartment above the Indian restaurant. There was no password or anything; you just rang the buzzer and went on up. The apartment was decorated in a sort of Deco style, and the drinks were a dollar or two more than what you paid in a legal bar. But there’s nothing that impresses your friends from out of town more than a speakeasy. Its run didn’t last long, unfortunately, which isn’t surprising when you consider that I was turned on to the place from a colleague who worked with me at Kaplan. What the geeks are on to your hipster hideaway, the end is near.
In the basement level of a townhouse on West 9th Street, half a block from the PATH entrance. It’s a Mexican place now, I think. The bar was up front, and it was quiet, with clientele that skewed older (which was appealing to me at age twenty-five, when I was on the prowl for what are now called cougars…a prowl that was never, alas, successful). The bartender was of the Old School variety. He was in his sixties, he read Raymond Chandler, he told funny stories. Jack Nicholson, he said, came to the bar once or twice, and told him this story:
Visit Greg's website at www.gregolear.com.
You can also visit the official Totally Killer site at www.totallykiller.com.
Thank you, Greg!