So, from time to time, the downstairs vestibule is graced with the presence of the small entrepreneur otherwise known lovingly as "the book man". He's been quite helpful with my recent project, providing many good books for the list that I would not have otherwise picked up. #42 is one of those - not something I would likely have selected for myself, but also not something I could let sit alone in a box after having discussed it the day previous. Harrison has a certain economy of words that give his memoir a memorable and distinct appeal. A literary master he is not, and his book is better for it. Whereas one knows that Hemingway milked his horror for all it was worth to write A Farewell to Arms, Harrison's effort has the texture of a book that needed to be written, of something that would have destroyed the writer had it not been excised into written form. And where Hemingway's visuals stood out grotesquely against the backdrop of his stories, the more truly repulsive visuals of Generals Die in Bed are seamlessly integrated into the story, making them horrible and bizarre but not gratuitous. Considering the extremes of violence and purification we are talking about here, that is quite an accomplishment.

#20 The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

Weird. The literary equivalent of children's bedtime stories as told by your (chronically) drunk Uncle. I can see why it has the following it does, and why it was irresistible to Terry Gilliam. Even the relatively conservative Gustave Dore was taking liberties with the illustrations here, lending a Rablaisian flair to the goings on. Ribald and magnificently offensive, the book manages to be difficult to read quickly because the events insist on just not making sense. Not that it's a problem - it's part of the charm, but it made for a few instances of having to go back to double-check where the storyline veered off uncontrollably. And as challenging as the book was to read coherently, the bizarre visuals it induced were even more taxing - particularly for those of us with overactive visual imaginations. Which is still tame, compared to dear Mr. Harrison's book, which I read next.

#13, #21 & #50: Red is my new favourite colour

Yes, that's right, I read all three back-to-back. Um, because one can never have enough of the political classics. After all, sleep deprivation is good for the absorption of propaganda (or so I hear, Thanks Mr. Orwell).

The Communist Manifesto - lovingly bought as a birthday present for someone who wasn't me and hasn't yet read the book - was just exactly what I expected. I suppose this is the trouble with having read one too many feminist/Marxist tracts. I have heard this poor work quoted three ways from Sunday without any hope of discovery left. It was passionate and well argued and truly, a good idea. Unfortunately politics would get in the way of political theory, and armed with the knowledge of how haphazardly Marx's ideas were to be implemented in the future, there was a certain sadness to reading them raw and bleeding from his mind. And the ideas reeked of the urgency of a document written overnight to punishing deadlines - all the better to drive the pleading desire that fires the rage and desperate necessity behind them.

Mao Tse-Tung is one consistent thinker - or at least that is the image that emerges from his collection of quotations otherwise known as the "Little Red Book." Thanks to G. H. Armstrong, the Fort La Bosse School Division and Bookmart through whom this lovely little secondhand book flowed. My favourite quote stands as "If you want knowledge, you must take part in the changing reality." p109. This book is really so much better to come to with some background, be it in Chinese cultural or political behaviour, something anyways with which to evaluate what you are reading. The selections are far more interesting for what they inadvertently reveal than for what they are actually trying to say. It is fascinating in retrospect, with all the changes that have happened in China in recent years, as well as from the perspective of how neatly the "Party" fit into traditional Chinese ideas of hierarchy. Probably an important book to read, should one have the time.

Lastly we have Thomas More's Utopia - a strange and wondrous tale of Utopia that leaves one questioning whether the author ever read the book cover-to-cover, let alone intended anyone else to. The lack of continuity distressed me, and should I return to this book for any reason it will be to look at selected passages, and not at the work as a whole. Admittedly I came to this book in not the best shape (having just read two heavy political tracts previously) and distracted by Jeremy Northam's portrayal of Thomas in The Tudors. The creeping intolerance which suffuses this work left me with a decidedly Distopian feeling. And while the passionate pleading of Marx was corrupted by reality, More's vision of a finer tomorrow contained within itself the seeds of its own destruction from the very beginning.


Still More Books

43. Seeds of Peace. Sulak Sivaraksa. 1992. 129pgs.
44. The Politics of Buddhist Organizations in Taiwan: 1989-2003. Andre Laliberte. 2004. 178pgs.
45. In Defense of Dharma: Just war ideology in Buddhist Sri Lanka. Tessa Bartholomeusz. 2002. 207pgs.
46. Buddhist Fundamentalism and Minority Identities in Sri Lanka. Tessa Bartholomeusz. 1998. 207pgs.
47. Baudelaire. Jean-Paul Sartre. 1950. 192pgs.
48. The Phenomenon of Man. Teilhard de Chardin. 1955. 352pgs.
49. Far From the Maddening Crowd. Thomas Hardy. 1874. 491pgs.
50. The Communist Manifesto. Marx and Engels. 1848. 87pgs.
51. Meditations. Marcus Aurelius. 1944ed. 250pgs.
52. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Michael Chabon. 2000. 648pgs.
53. An Arsonists Guide to Writers' Homes in New England. Brock Clarke. 2007. 303pgs.
54. I Like Food, Food Tastes Good. Kara Zuaro. 2007. 254pgs.
55. Lamb. Christopher Moore. 2007. 432pgs.
56. On Beauty. Zadie Smith. 2006. 464pgs.
57. Inheritance of Loss. Kiran Densai. 2007. 336pgs.
58. Naked. David Sedaris. 1998. 224pgs.
59. A Prayer for Owen Meany. John Irving. 2001. 544pgs.
60. The Time Traveller's Wife. Audrey Niffenegger. 2004. 536pgs.
61. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. Haruki Murakami. 1998. 624pgs.
62. Underworld. Don DeLillo. 1998. 832pgs.
63. Wicked. Gregory Maguire. 1995. 538pgs.
64. Looking Backward 2000-1887. Edward Bellamy. 1888ed. 470pgs.
65. Catch-22. Joseph Heller. 1955. 567 pgs.

#4 Beyond This Dark House

GGK wrote this incredible series of books in the 80's which many folks have read and thought quite good. The experience of gradual awareness and recognition, of a setting that seem somehow familiar, was a truly incredible feeling, and not one that us middle of nowhere people get very often. The same familiar recognition is woven through the poems of Beyond This Dark House. Good poetry is always deeply personal, whether a system of signs and signals is employed, or spoken plainly - so to applaud GGK for the intensity and candor of his work is unnecessary here. It is enough to say that it was good, and for all the reasons that poetry is good (when it is, and that is seldom).

Beyond This Dark house is the first literary work that made me seriously consider that there is some regional style, some economy of words and favoured adjectives that make up the expression of a group of people used to being roasted in the summer and frozen solid in winter. The possibility shakes my own personal attachment to the concept of brash individualism on which I have previously prided myself. I'll reserve my judgment for the time being, but suspect that I am a product of my environment in this, as much as in anything else. Drat.


#12 Dark Age Ahead

Jane Jacobs is my favourite adopted Canadian. She is/was a brilliant thinker, a common-sense advocate and a role-model. Dark Age Ahead was her last work before her death in 2006, and it contains a time-honed wisdom that is enviable. Her prose is exacting and refreshingly to the point when discussing issues that are normally couched in specialized vocabulary. Her predictions are eerily correct, and when explained by her, clearly obvious (which makes it even scarier).

I think you should read this book. That's fairly high praise, I don't often recommend a book across the board like that, but her ideas on activism, education, the use of science and how to live in a city are so widely applicable that there is something of value in this book for most readers. That is not to say that everyone will agree with everything she says, nor even find all her arguments sound. There are strengths and weaknesses here, and she does have a few pet ideas that she uses somewhat broadly. But, her ideas are only as good as the conversations they start and the actions that result. More readers means more possible conversations, and more opportunities for a future that is a little less dark. Go read this book.

#19 The Museum At Purgatory

Great in concept, average in execution. Nick Bantock (of Griffin and Sabine fame) does romance far better than he does metaphysics, or at least, I'm so jaded and overread in the metaphysics department that non-academic writing in the area is no longer accessible. Visually the book was detailed and original, I found myself enjoying the artistic worth of the images over the text. The strongest writing in the book centered around a story of love wasted (and then lost, and then found - sort of), which was momentarily breath-taking. The disconnect with this book was clearly a case of "right book, wrong reader".

#25 Beloved

This book is unreviewable by anyone who has actually read it. Wow. I'm on a fairly tight schedule reading-wise, yet after I finished this book I had to take a day off to stare at the floor and recover. My flamboyant vocabulary doesn't include the adjectives I need to do Morrison's book justice. A word of warning (well, there are several, but...) it is not the easiest book to get into. Stay with it for a few chapters till the story begins to make sense. It is well worth it.

#41 The Mermaid Chair or Midlife Crisis in Six Easy Steps

I'm sorry Pandy, I got your book soggy. I challenge any hormonally functioning female to read this book and not sob*. Good Luck.

So, this book is for women, there's really no way around that fact. It's a page-turner, a love story, a middle-age manifesto and shockingly conservative all at the same time. It's not a book meant to make you think, in fact, it doesn't stand up well at all to any type of actual analysis. Once the experience of reading the book is done, the story itself fades away leaving the best parts of the book undiscussable. The value of this novel lays entirely in the emotional response it evokes in the reader at the time. I don't really read many books like that - probably I actively avoid them - so I don't have much to weigh this one against. It was good for what it was though.

*that is, unless you are exceptionally bitter and angry and would never even think about reading "the kind of tripe that women are supposed to read nowadays, omg, was that a bookclub book," etc. etc. You people can read Beloved.

#27 Marcovaldo (Seasons in the City)

This is not one of Italo Calvino's more accessible works. Or maybe it is, and that is why I did not enjoy it as much as Invisible Cities, Castle of Crossed Destinies or If on a Winter's Night a Traveller. There is deep satire and compassion in this work, Marcovaldo is basically a punching bag, his misfortunes becoming the things of dark comedy. There is an almost palpable rage under the surface of this book. The misplaced hope of the main character, trapped by industrialzation and cruelly mocked by fate at every turn, reflects on the reader who on one level responds to the humour but is also left disquieted by the mounting sense of loss. We can laugh at fate's cruelty to Marcovaldo, but something of his hope and innocence evokes empathy. Calvino nods sternly and knowingly at the jaded and the stoic, but prefers to keep company with the rabbits.

#18 Alabaster

Caitlin R. Kiernan is one of my favourite writers for her dark, glowing and sensually charged view of the world. She has written two of my most prized books. Having said that, Alabaster was disappointing. Dancy Flammarion is an engaging character in her own right, and the lead story in this collection is tight, well-written and vivdly imagined. However, the momentum does not carry through - and the reverse order does not help with one bit. Part of the problem with this collection clearly rests with the editor. The work here could have been cleaned up and reordered without too much effort, resulting in a much more professional feeling book. I look forward to better books from her in the future.

#28 & #30: Fun With Jung

Marie-Louise Von Franz was just a bit wacky. I mean that in a nice crazy aunt sort of way. "The Problem of the Puer Aeternus" was my last book of hers before "Animus and Anima in Fairy Tales" and both had similar hard to swallow undertones. Her extreme polarization of gender is problematic at best, at worst you could say she has an axe to grind where gender fluidity is concerned (it'll all end in tears!). That particular criticism aside she offers some insightful analysis of the roles masculine and feminine psychologies as they play out in folktale literature. I'm at a loss whether point out the general lack of contextualisation regarding the cultures from which she extracts her source literature, or just shake my head at the few times she actually does. You have to give her credit for being wildly politically incorrect. I have two more of her books to get through, "Alchemy: An Introduction to the Symbolism and the Psychology" and her edition of the Aurora Consurgens. I can't wait!! (but I have to because they are very long, incredibly difficult and would test my limits of sanity if I tried to read them in one day)

Edinger is a far less colourful writer but no less devoted to Jung than Von Franz. His commentary on Goethe's Faust is a smart interpretation of the work, offering isolated snapshot-style ideas that work best taken individually. The book does not necessarily work as a complete narrative, but it goes a long way to explaining Jung's fascination with Goethe's Faust, specifically, how he aligned the play with his own spiritual worldview. Since that is my main interest (as opposed to the applied psychological aspect) I found this little commentary both succinct and helpful. As a bonus, his Jungian-flavoured evaluation of the various translations available should be useful when it comes to picking the edition for the library.


#26 & #11: Altered States

Having finished the double pack of The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell I can honestly say that Huxley, despite all his carefully chosen language (great vocabulary!) still managed to present a basic and compelling argument. I learnt several useful things including:

1. People really do dream in black and white (I thought that was a folktale, or people just not being able to remember their dreams!)
2. My beautiful, intensely colour and detail saturated world is, perhaps, not for everyone.
3. To be very careful what trousers I'm wearing if I ever come down with ergot poisoning.
4. That unique perceptions of the world during a time of oppressive conformity = mental instability. Gee thanks Aldous.

This morning I read through #11 The Book of the Law by Uncle Al. This is the first quasi ersatz entry. I almost -know- I've read this before in my misspent youth. Or possibly I've never read it in its entirety and have just suffered through myriad quotations all these years. Well, hard to say, really. The edition I have contains a scan of the original manuscript and it is truly incredible. It is actually possible to see the change in handwriting where his stream of consciousness is interrupted by his own preformed thoughts. Nifty. It is an impressive manuscript, both for its coherence under gruelling psychological circumstances (3 days of trance? no thanks!) and for its eloquence.

"For I am divided for love's sake, for the chance of union."

#6 & #40: Let's Hear it for Death!

A Chronicle of a Death Foretold would have been better if I hadn't been horrifically distracted by trying to sort out who the narrator was. I know, minor point, but it took me right out of the story and the supposed message, etc. Every now and then I get waylaid by a book, thinking that something neat is going on - when in fact, it isn't. Ultimately I am disappointed by the end, when it is clear that the author is not the least bit interested in answering my obscure questions or speaking to my wild theories. Aside from my mental meanderings though, the book was lovely, original and much like A Farewell to Arms, unflinchingly detailed in it's medical descriptiveness. Sheesh.

Deadeye Dick was amazingly, surprisingly good. Clearly this is not an opinion shared by all - though the funniest review of it that I found complained that it peaked about 3/4 of the way through and the rest was just filler. hehe. I was enamoured of his concept of endings and the bravery needed to confront this idea. Some things just need saying, and I thought he said them very well. This is my fourth Vonnegut book and while there were connections to his other work (Dwayne the auto guy!) the tone of the book separates it from his larger body of writing. Highly recommended - and not just for the recipes.

#39 A Farewell to Arms (among other things)

Oh Hemingway, how you cheer me up, with your medically and anatomically correct descriptions of battlefield wounds. As a critique of the time this book delivers over and over again, a dark little work of fiction (or not, depending on your perspective I suppose). The dialogue heavy style lends an almost hypnotic quality to the reading, and a strong sense of being a fly on the wall to private events. After I was done I had the urge to just give him a hug (he obviously needed one) but likely he would have spit on my shoes. Er... metaphorically speaking of course.


#34 & #17: Strife and Striving

Maya Angelou is one of those lyrical combination of words that's just fun to say. Her autobiography "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" captures a shifting individual perspective with immediacy and candour. The narrative is much stronger in the first half of the book, gradually withdrawing as the story progresses. This gradual retreat and shift in style robs the second half of the book of the same emotional impact that made the first half so engaging. Still, Angelou remains a compelling storyteller and her prose is both unique and easy to follow.

#17, Orson Scott Card's "An Open Book" has its moments, a few beautiful and bleeding moments in the middle of the book that are worth wading through the rest of the content for. His section of apocalyptic poetry also makes for juicy reading though I found his conclusions a little too neatly wrapped up. While reading cover-to-cover in this case provided much valuable context, at the same time it diluted the experience of the great moments in this work. I imagine that my reaction is partly a lack of empathy/interest in the subject matter as well, which is entirely my own concern and no fault of his.


July 1986

Between beginnings and endings are stories worth telling.
Picture credits: P. Prince.


#35 & #38: The good, the bad and the snuggly

Despite being reassured by the helpful mid-book advertising (yesterday's teaser post) that Beardsley's Under the Hill was a book for "people with tastes like yours" I have to admit to a sense of disappointment with the prose of this otherwise fine visual artist. It was terrible. As in, one of the worst books I've ever read - almost to the point of hilarity. Ok, I admit, I was laughing when I wasn't staring at the book in complete disbelief. Now, I'm not exactly a connoisseur of erotica, but I'm fairly certain that this book failed in that department as spectacularly as it failed at being even a semi-serious attempt at literature. In all fairness, Beardsley was likely inspired by Bulwer-Lytton but that doesn't excuse anything. I might save the book just in case I ever have the need for truly atrocious quotations.

Infinitely better was #38, Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence. This was a lush and sensual work (occasionally interrupted by surprising accurate but incredibly dull historical accounts) that succeeded at being florid without being fussy. It was perfect for a cover-to-cover read through while wrapped up in the comfy chair with a cup of chai. That's the extent of what I am going to say about the book though. Hopefully those who choose to read it will know as little about it as I did when they begin. I think that's the best way. I was a little taken aback to find myself on familiar ground, mmrrph... Alright, I'll say no more.


Teaser for tomorrow's review

#37 It's all Paul's fault

People can't stop referencing Tillich. Not that I suppose you have this particular problem, unless you hang around religious studies scholars/Unitarian theologians/existential philosophers. Of course, if you're reading this there's a good chance this is a regular occurrence for you. Right, so Tillich comes up and often. And for good reason - this man is brilliant and one of the theological scholars for whom I have the most respect. He regularly combines two fields of knowledge, either of which one their own represent an extremely challenging area of thought. The dialogue he creates between protestant theology and existential philosophy takes the merely difficult to new levels of intellectual sophistication. Yum.

This is my second complete Tillich book. I've yet to read The Courage to Be, though I have read his autobiographical My Search For Absolutes. The Shaking of the Foundations is vital and raw, a response to the evil he saw manifest in the world at the end of WWII. There is a lot of struggle evident in his words, and much coming to terms with the darker side of religious belief. I recommend Tillich highly, unless you have a hate-on for Christian references (his chosen symbol system). His answer to suffering is that in which he finds deliverance - which isn't to say that everyone calls their hope by the same name, to each their own. I like to think I've understood him enough to say that he would agree.

#22 & #24 - The perfect performance is (all) in my head

I love reading plays, the whole stage stretches out in my mind as I read. Beautiful visuals, perfect performances, impeccable timing... all without actual people to mess with it. Of course, there is something daunting, isolating and not a little depressing about a performance for one. Nevertheless - I polished off two intriguing plays, Cyrano de Bergerac and A Streetcar Named Desire for days 4 and 5. My last experience with Cyrano was probably Gerald Depardieu (or, ugh, Steve Martin in Roxanne - blech). Come to think of it the Monsterpiece Theatre version's pretty decent too. Anyways, the play is unabashedly entertaining, clever and heavy on the romance. It worth keeping in mind that the first performance of this play was in 1897 (though the story behind it is older) and would have been playing to a repressed but expectant Victorian audience as opposed to a ribald 17th century crowd.

I also had a chance to read Streetcar, which was not the play I thought it was. I don't know why but the events I assumed made up this drama were not, in fact, the plot at all. Again, my experience of the play is marred/enhanced by pop culture references, mostly Simpsons related. Overall though, I enjoyed reading the play and it was a needed break in between heavy readings. Likely I will gather a few more to add to the list. That is not to say that I didn't come up alongside the deeply hopeless and suffocating atmosphere of the play itself. The growing pains and explorations of morality/immorality in early 20th century southern American society do not light bedtime reading make.


#10 - Foot, meet mouth.

It seems only responsible to read some small literary offering of the man wants to be prime minister. So thinking, I embarked on "The Lesser Evil" with a sense of reserved judgement and curiosity. I think the reading itself would have gone a lot faster if I hadn't had to periodically stop and argue out loud with the book (crazy behaviour, I know). The seductiveness of a well-argued position is that it sounds compelling even when it is wrong. That's not to say that I didn't find much of value in his arguments, but I certainly disagreed on occasion with his interpretation of international events. I, of course, have the considerable benefit of hindsight (after all, he was writing in 2004).

In order to make his argument he relies on the reader's acceptance of a number of qualities that distinguish both the collective identity of a democracy and the behaviour of organised resistance within that system. In both cases I found his assumptions to be overly simplified for the sake of making a good argument. While this is an admirable debating strategy, it falls short of recognising the more nuanced (and even contradictory) positions held by real human beings.

This invocation of "real people" is vital in an argument that hinges on public opinion and purports to speak for a rational middle-ground approach. If the competing ideologies are excessively polarised, the range of the middle-ground solution expands well beyond the bounds of comfortable compromise. In other words, once two highly undesirable extremes are established, anything in the middle looks like a better choice by comparison. This allows less extreme but still unsettling "solutions" to be offered that are more likely to be accepted by a moderating general public.

Ignatieff's proposal of the guidelines for how to fight an ethical war on terror, positioned between two theoretical polarities, ends up sounding like the best solution by virtue of it's well-considered and non-reactionary position. The logical extension of this position, though, needs a closer evaluation. The practical application of an ethic of "the lesser evil" has been put into practise both domestically and internationally - providing ample opportunity for reflection. It is the thinking person's responsibility to evaluate for themselves both the empty space and the common ground between the theory and the practise.


#23 & #31

The reading goes well. I'm through two books so far, A Room of One's Own (#23) was yesterday's and Gilead (#31), which I just finished tonight. Both were excellent and full to bursting with personality. I wish I had read A Room of One's Own sooner - occasionally I think I have read a book when, in fact, I have not. I end up having this completely logical and well laid out concept of the plot and characters, none of which has much of anything to do with what is actually written between the covers. Virginia Woolf made me sad, though, every time she pointed out something painfully unjust and I was forced to realise that some things have not changed as much as they should have since 1928. That type of "life of the mind" coupled with the freedom to speak the self-same truths is a dangerous combination. Or at the very least, a very lonely one.

Speaking of loneliness, Gilead was a very delicate, sparse and well-crafted book as well - if for completely different reasons. It was a gorgeous testament to intelligent faith (though having written that there are now a whole group of people who will avoid the book for that very reason). Sections of the book were clearly deeply personal, developed from a significant and ongoing engagement on the part of the author with an internal theological dialogue. There are good reviews of it on the web, the NY Times does a good job for the curious and/or undecided.

Next up I'm thinking of something dirty, gritty and nasty - just to keep things interesting. Perhaps #10 or #26?