The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Occasionally I come across a book that seems to be speaking directly to me. No, not in the crazy way, but with such alarming accuracy that the words seem anticipated. The Unbearable Lightness of Being has been around for quite a while and has even spawned an arthouse softcore movie version. So armed with my prejudices, I waded bravely into this book never expecting the intensity and beauty that it would conjure. Sexy existentialism seems a unlikely combination but Kundera blends both with skill. The characters in this book are so vivid and unique that there could be a sequel where they all did nothing but sit around drinking tea and I would still read it. This book has become the literary equivalent of I Heart Huckabees in my list of favourites. Beautiful.

This book is not for everyone, in fact, this book is not for most people. It will offend and disturb a good section its readers. To explain the book would take much more patience than you, dear reader, are likely to want to spend here. Suffice to say that it is not what it seems at first. I would recommend this book to bitter romantics, ballsy women and beleaguered men. There is salve for all wounds in Kudera's words.


Late Nights on Air

Popular literature at its best, this novel (set in Yellowknife in the early 1970's) tells the story of a small outreach radio station of the CBC and its late night denizens. The simplicity of this book highlights the incredible insight of the author, who with deft ease drops piercing pieces of truth seamlessly into the narrative. Highly readable and entertaining, Hay manages to keep pace with the characters she creates, stretching and growing the story in truly spectacular fashion. There are several stories happening here, and the most singular thing about the book is how she manages to maintain the simplicity of the plot while incorporating so many intricacies on both the conscious and metaconscious level.

Of all the books I have read over the past few months this is the first one I would recommend without hesitation to the family. It is enjoyable, unpretentious and enriching - in short, deeply satisfying.

On Beauty

I was saving this one for a day when I needed a bit of a pick-me-up. I'll admit, I had some idea of what the covers of this book contained - but didn't expect the close-to-homeness of the setting. Yes, the Art History department of a small but prestigious American university (I cheered for the secretary - obviously). And set among this unfortunate setting are the equally unfortunate intellectual creatures and their torturous affairs. In one single great literary thrust the author offers forth the emotionally mangled lives of otherwise brilliant people, proof that the intellect is a gawking younger brother to matters of the heart. There's something for everyone here, all the forms of shame (sexual, intellectual, emotional) that follow affairs, humiliations and awkward failings of the the same. The sexual infidelities take a backseat to the crushing emotional entanglements that seize upon these relationships like cankers, infecting and slowly disintegrating the lives they touch. Nice!

The human story of this book was well done, but lacked balance. I found the setting off-putting, in a strongly American Liberal sort of way. It tried just a little too hard to be fair to everyone politically. I felt pandered to. Luckily, the political aspect of the book is told both explicitly and implicitly. One can ignore the more amateurish brush strokes of the explicit plot while enjoying their mirrored retelling in the personal lives of the characters. I felt at times out of my depth in this book as well, some of the aspects of marriage and 50+ life were simply beyond my meagre experience.


The Gathering

Incredible in a twisted and dark way, Anne's book is the dark sister to books like the Mermaid Chair. Brutally honest and deliciously interwoven, the story moves back and forth through the past and present, and from created and remembered memories in a fluid and simple way. While this book is not written in glowing prose, the effect is nevertheless engaging and immersive. There are numerous points of connection throughout the story that help to draw the reader in to what is otherwise an (arguably) tragic story. Yet at the same time, the unreliableness of the narrator encourages a detachment in the reader that compliments the overall mental state of the main voice. The result is both moving and dramatic, making this one of the few books that I felt deserved a standing ovation when I was finished.


The Myth of the Eternal Return

Eliade has this habit of turning out veritable grocery lists of practises that he's culled from various literary sources. This leaves something to be desired in the world of actual comparative religion. The first sections of his work are encyclopedic in scope, and that's not a good thing. His discussions of cosmic time and cyclical regeneration are tentative to begin with, and much of his initial argument could easily be dispensed with without seriously harming his thesis.

If you are going to read this book read it not for the hit and miss examples but for the final chapter, "The Terror of History", where Eliade takes on existentialism and time/history. This is an amazing chapter, full of well-articulated ideas and strong reasoning. I wish he had carried through with his thesis though, instead of going the Tillich route and deciding that Christian faith is the answer to modern existential crisis. He jumps to this conclusion preempting the much more interesting reasoning that was happening in this final chapter. So close...


The Time Traveller's Wife

An easy read but a difficult book to review. It's not that the book is bad, lots of folks are really going to like this book. Much like a good horoscope, there's a little of everything here, enough for people to recognise themselves and thrum along with the narrative. It's well written, the characters are fleshed out with enough flaws to make them seem real and the pacing of the book is well suited to the basic story. It is post-modern in its flow, creative in its approach and challenging enough to make folks feel good about reading something they can consider to be literature.

I really hated it.

There are very few non-ranty ways of approaching this. This is a romantic fantasy novel dressed up as serious writing, and cleverly so. That doesn't prevent the story from providing what is basically an escapist love story that indulges every romantic stereotype out there. Revolting is a strong word, strong but appropriate. It is as if the author read every self-help book out there on how to have a healthy relationship, stole the basic vocabulary, and then wrote a Cinderella-type story with archaic gender roles and Freudian overtones that violates the most basic real-world experiences of actual interaction. (ok, that was ranty anyways, I tried).


Moses and Monotheism

Admittedly, I've read portions of this collection of essays from Freud before. However, in reading it all the way through I've come to appreciate a couple of things about Freud. a) the man can really make an argument and b) that this book is underrated. Scholars such as Jan Assman are hard on Freud for being a self-hating Jew and use this book as a testament to that perceived character flaw. This criticism is weak when one considers the careful thinking and logic that go into Freud's argument that Moses was an Egyptian and the implications for the development of his religious faith. This is a personal struggle, but one that is carefully articulated and presented not so much to exorcise his internal demons but to instead provide some jumping-off point for reconsidering the genesis of the Jewish faith.

While the reconstruction of Moses as a historical figure is a shaky and not entirely legitimate pursuit given the scantiness of the records and the vast amounts of time that have passed, Freud does his best to respect the figure of Moses while postulating various theories on his hagiography and possible multiple identities. The result is refreshing in it's clarity and unique in it's approach. Freud uses his latency theory to explain the development of monotheism, drawing on Ahkenaten's failed campaign for the same. Basically he argues that the religion given by Moses fell into disuse before it was reformed by a later Midanite Moses who reinvigorated the concept of monotheism in order to galvanize a fractured group into a military powerhouse. He loses points for suggesting that all religion is basically neurosis, but what can you do? The man had to make a living.

"Perhaps man declares simply that the higher achievement is what is more difficult to attain, and his pride in it is only narcissism heightened by his consciousness of having overcome difficulty." p.151

Beowulf (with a little Grendel on the side)

I've been subjected to some very bad cinema over the years on this subject. However, the actual story is opaque and awkward so to some degree I forgive the wild variations of interpretation to which it has been subjected. This is not so much a story that was meant to be read, but one that should have been told by drunken folks with lots of impromptu acting (and beer).

Of note are the interloping Christian references which are absurd to the point of hilarity (or just plain annoying depending on your temperament). If the Grimm's Fairly Tales didn't bother you too much with this sort of nonsense you'll be just fine. They reminded me of an out-of-place Greek Chorus, or the back-up singers from Little Shop of Horrors depending on the context.

Klee Wyck

This book was loosely assembled, a group of impressions crafted into writing that didn't necessarily make a cohesive narrative. There is power in the writing, but in coming from such an intense environment they feel stripped down and bare compared to the spirit of the setting. Carr shows empathy and concern for the people she encounters, and touches on interesting themes that she then leaves barely sketched. At the very places where she could have fleshed out her stories she lets go of the story, and the reading is frustrating as a result.

This is a classic case of the writer bring more of herself along on the journey than anything else. One gets the feeling that she has insulated herself against the very place she is trying to explore. And having been to many of the locations in the book I couldn't help but be disappointed that rather than seeing the violent extremes of the landscape and the people all she saw were reflections of herself.

The Princess Bride

This is one case where the movie very closely follows the original book. The dialogue and plot are almost identical, making this a very quick and easy read. The book is a little bit darker than I expected, and has a few extra scenes which are worth the read. The love story in the book touches on more adult themes such as marriages of convenience and carefully draws the line between fairytale romance and a slightly jaded view of reality.

Though the original was written in 1973, the book manages to avoid sounding dated. I was actively looking for telltale signs of the time, or attitudes of that era to come through in the writing. It does a very good job of navigating it's contemporary circumstances - there are no clear references to mid-20th century moires.

While having read the book is now something I can lay claim to I don't think that there was much to be gained here. With all the other good writing out there, I think this one can easily be passed on.

The White Rose

This record of the Scholl siblings was originally intended as a study of character for German youths following WWII. It documents the resistance movement organized by a group of University of Munich students in 42-43. Their subsequent capture and execution for treason is treated gently and with insight by their youngest of the siblings, herself a concentration camp survivor. The writing is not, by any stretch of the imagination, professional nor well done. But despite this particular shortcoming the message remains, that not all Germans supported Hitler. The expression of the 'Good German' as an example of triumphant national character is conveyed with sincerity and urgency making this a compelling read. The simplicity of the writing also makes it quite suitable for the younger crowd - though without some background as to what was happening at the time I think it might be tough for contemporary youths to understand the importance of the events in the book. The second portion of the book contains supporting documentation; letters, leaflets and court documents, that provide some of the most vital moments of connection in the work.



Christopher Moore's Lamb was everything I thought it would be and more (there was actual research!). Not that I'm saying there is any value to it as temporally correct - it's really really not, but it is a great story with just enough detail to make the biblical scholar in me happy. Moore has an amazing talent for masterful humour and manages to be a very satisfactory fake Canadian about it (trust me on that one). The story he gives us is full, provocative and wide-ranging. I especially liked the Yak shaving parts, but then, that's just me.

To fully appreciate this one though you'll need to have a reasonable background in religion(s). If you don't, you are only going to get half the jokes. I'm sorry, but there's no way around it. So, to the five people I know who actually have the background to read and fully appreciate this one, go for it. For the rest of you, even with only half of the jokes accessible this is still a great read.

I need to know though, what is it with Moore and blue folks?

Naked Lawnbowling

Well, that title ought to mess up my google results.

I was really looking forward to reading Naked by David Sedaris. I was hyped, which is never really a good thing - few books can stand up to that sort of expectation. This one did. It was truly funny and the profanity exceeds the level of art that I thought possible in the written word. I could never in my adult life fill in the streams of blanks in bleeped out conversations. Now (thanks to Sedaris) I have a whole new range of vocabulary. Not that I would use it, but I feel more like a woman of the world for having expanded my range.

The 17 essays which make up this book range in their emotional impact and succeed most brilliantly when the author is the most uncomfortable. There is wisdom here, but it makes way for what is essentially a snapshot of one person's life who just happens to attract the most bizarre of circumstances. Some folks are a magnet for that sort of thing. Enough said.

While I enjoyed the humour in this book it was not without a certain forced quality. Self-depreciating as it is, the book nevertheless maintains a distinctly American feel. The jokes here are carefully crafted and delivered, done well but with a sense of manufacture that makes the prose perspective just a little off-key. Though, if this is the only humorous thing that you read other than the cartoons in the New Yorker you will be fine.