Monday, 28 October 2013

The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

I was all prepared to bawl when I sat down to this book. For months, this review has been getting an inordinate number of "likes" on Goodreads, with pretty much just a picture of a girl with tears streaming down her face. It's supposed to be emotional. And I am a huge suck. (More with movies than books, but still.)

So, I girded my loins, laid in a supply of Kleenex (actually, I never know where the Kleenex is) and sat down to read and cry.

And didn't. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.

I teared up a tiny bit twice, but I don't think any tears even escaped my eyes.

This is a story about terminally ill teenagers. It's supposed to tug at the heartstrings. But what I actually did enjoy far more than that was the way it mostly avoided easy melodrama, too heroic characters and too much emotional manipulation. It was fairly matter-of-fact. Those who were dying were not saints. They struck me as, well, fairly precocious but not utterly unbelievable teenagers. The emotional manipulation was not overdone. I mean, you're dealing with dying young women and men, there's going to be emotion, but it didn't felt like it was purposefully done to make me feel all the feelings, without much underneath.

But here is what I liked best. None of the characters felt like they were supposed to be representative. I hate it when what I call "issue books" try to come up with representative characters - the mother who is the Mother Who Can't Deal With Her Child's Death and Is In Denial. The Father Who Is Sad and Withdrawn. The Child Who Is Facing Death Bravely. None of that here. These characters were only themselves, and not trying to stand in for textbook descriptions of How People Deal With Terminally Ill Children. I really liked both of Hazel's parents, and who they were and what they did and why.

Yes, the teenagers are precocious. But I've always said I'd rather listen to the witty dialogue of Veronica Mars, however "unrealistic" it might be, than to how teenagers actually talk. Plus, I was pretty precocious myself.

Hazel has terminal cancer, but at the moment the book starts, the growth of her metastases has been arrested by a new miracle drug. No one knows how long it will work, and she's still going to die, but the timeline has been thrown into absolute unknown territory. At a Support Group she hates, she meets a boy who had osteosarcoma, named Gus. Or August. These facts are far more important than his diagnosis.

How do you fall in love when you know you're not going to have a full lifespan? Do you try to stop it from happening, to protect others? What if they don't want to be protected? And is, in the end, the pain worth it?

This book picks its way fairly sensitively through the issues, through snarky and wiseass teenagers, and if I never teared up, I still enjoyed it. (One moment with Hazel's mother, in particular, did bring a tear to my eye.) I've never had to deal with someone young dying of cancer, but I've been up close and personal with someone dying of cancer, and I know some of the moments of waiting, of laughter, of tears, of snark, of grace and of excruciating, unattractive pain. This book does fairly well with those. It didn't make me bawl, it isn't my book of the year, but it's a solid Young Adult entry and Green avoids most of the pitfalls of "issues books" that make me want to tear out my hair in anger.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey

This book made me start thinking about what fantasy is, what makes something a fantasy book. Is merely setting a book in a world that is not our own, in a vaguely medieval/monarchical setting enough? Do you need magic? Those elements of fantasy? Because at the beginning, I wasn't getting much fantasy out of this fantasy. I was getting plenty else - characters, intrigue, plotting, sex. But not fantasy.

Of course, then the Master of the Straits came along and blew that whole digression out of the water. But if that hadn't been there, the other touches of "fantasy" could equally have been found in what might have been classified as perfectly normal fiction, were it set in our own time and place. Even all the religion, it didn't seem overly fantastical to me.

If Guy Gavriel Kay uses magic to reflect what people in certain places and time periods believed, this is one more step removed from that.

So what is fantasy? Does it need magic?

Anyone want to pipe in?

Because I'm not entirely convinced that just because this is an alternate universe, set in a world that is vaguely reminiscent of the British Isles, just because it's Terre d'Ange and the Skaldi and the Cruithne instead of the Viking and the Picts or Britanni or whatever, that makes it fantasy. It's a continuum, obviously, rather than a binary, but I dislike the idea that books have to slavishly reflect the world just as it is to be shelved in general fiction.

I may be nitpicking here. This digression may not be interesting to anyone but me. So, the book! I really enjoyed it. I found the main character, Phedre, to be interesting and complex. The many sex scenes I found enjoyable, even though I don't share the main character's kink. The turn the story took away from that, just as it might have started to become repetitive, was welcome. The court intrigue took me a little while to get on top of, but was thoroughly engrossing.

This is a damned good fantasy. If you are comfortable with sex and kink in your fantasy. Not, definitely not, for the prudish.

Phedre is dedicated to one of the Houses of the Night Court as a young girl (read: very high end brothels.) But the fleck of red in her eye marks her out as imperfect. At least until someone correctly recognizes it as "Kushiel's Dart," a mark that shows that her own sexual proclivities lie where sex and pain overlap. She is what's called in these books  an anguissette.

(But the only one who enjoys pain sexually in three generations of her whole country? Really? I know about the kink scene by rumour more than anything, but I'm pretty sure I know more people who share that kink myself. In this generation. In the circle of people I know.)

At any rate, she is taken on by a former poet and courtier (why he's a former poet is eventually explained), Anafiel Delaunay, who teaches her not only how to use her own nature for pleasure and profit, but how to gather information and analyze political situations. That becomes urgent when he is suddenly betrayed, and Phedre, along with her monk-knight guardian are sold into slavery amongst the Skaldi.

Suddenly, although far from home, Phedre is in the middle of the struggle to save herself, her companion, and her home. And it is to Carey's credit that I was convinced and engrossed all the way through. Phedre is not a fighter, but she is intelligent, resourceful, and creative. The book is also very good at examining levels of consent, particularly in situations where Phedre has no choice.

It's not a particularly fantastical fantasy, but this is an excellent read.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov

What does it say that I'm never quite sure which Foundation books I've read? I know I've read two or three, but which ones...that remains a mystery. Part of it is the titles - they're fairly nondescript. Part of it is the stories. But I do like them, so that sounds unwontedly harsh. They run together, though, in my mind.

Someone had described the first Foundation book as being written like a history - a little dry, a little detached, still very interesting. I think I buy that, for the most part, although it's been a long while since I read it.

Foundation and Empire, on the other hand, has quite a bit of immediacy, and if the prose isn't sparkling, it is always sufficient for the story Asimov's trying to tell. I'd never run out and quote a line, rapturously. But I'd almost always be willing to sit down and spend some time with him. And so it is with this one. Which I had read before, but wasn't sure until I sat down, and then, was more than willing to reread.

Foundation and Empire goes through the third and fourth crux moments in the life of the Foundation, out on the edge of the galaxy as they are, trying to survive the death throes of the Empire. Much of the science of psychohistory has been lost, and in some ways, the inheritors of the mantle of the Foundation are becoming complacent and bureaucratic.

But the Empire will not go so quietly. In the first of the two stories that make up this book, one enterprising general actually realizes what's going on out on the fringes of space, and decides to go investigate. How will Seldon's psychohistorical planning deal with this individual, as psychohistory is only the science of groups?

Asimov likes his endings that come with a bit of a twist, and neither story in this book is an exception. You can see his enjoyment of writing mysteries in every book that ends with a revelation of some sort. (I really do enjoy the Black Widows series of short mystery stories.)

But the second part of this novel is more ambitious. How could an individual actually break the Seldon plan? Well, if he's the Mule, he just might, and suddenly, the Foundation finds itself scrambling to deal with an emergency that has nothing to do with what Seldon thought would be happening.

Two low-level Foundation people are on the run with the Mule's jester, just one step ahead of his invading forces, and planets are falling with alarming regularity. Is this a chance to shorten the period of instability to a mere lifetime, or the start of a despotic reign that will ruin all the planning?

The end of the book hearkens forward to the mystery of the Second Foundation, which I believe I have read.

I don't read Asimov because I'm looking for indepth characters or literary prose. I read him because they're good stories, told in a clear if unstriking style, and always enjoy myself.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Wicked by Gregory Maguire

This was another in the series of my bathroom rereads. I had first read Wicked many years ago, and was revisiting it. Coincidentally, this happened at the same time I was listening to an audiobook of The Wizard of Oz, so the two were occupying space in my brain at the same time. (Side note: I don't really recommend the Brooke Shields-read version of The Wizard of Oz. She occasionally breaks into this singsongy way of reading, and it feels patronizing.)

And I have to say, I didn't enjoy it as much the second time. The first time, it was the shininess of something new - why hadn't anyone written from the Witch's perspective before? I was so entranced with the idea that any other flaws pretty much passed me by.

On this read, though, I was suddenly much more critical. I still love the idea, but I'm no longer convinced by the execution. Mostly because the characters are so shallowly explored. If you want to recast the Wicked Witch of the West, then, by gum, you've got to give me a character study! This time, I was noticing the jerkiness, the way the story sort of lurched from episode to episode, without a clear throughline, and with a Witch who was much less well-defined than I had wanted.

I mean, seriously. You have a Witch who's part of an Animal rights underground, and later in the book, she's suddenly a vivisectionist? If you want that kind of veer, you at least have to explain how she justified it to herself. I thought it would be cool if these monkeys had wings is not enough.

You want her to be scarred by her childhood? Would have helped if we'd seen some of that in her formative years, and not then related right near the end. And when it was related, it didn't help make sense of what had gone before. I was just baffled as to the placement. If you want her to be the neglected sister, use that as part of the book, don't just throw in a few vague allusions and then expand in the last hundred pages. If it's that integral to who she would become, it either needs to show up earlier, or be the kind of lightning bolt that truly does recast everything we've seen to that point. It did neither.

This book skirts around much of the Oz mythology, and makes references, but doesn't really take that opportunity to change and mess with it in interesting ways. So what are the Adepts supposed to do? That's kind of dropped. Why does the Wizard become a fascist dictator?

Which was another issue, reading two at once. As far as I'm concerned, you can have the Wizard as the evil despot. but I would have liked to seen the reason for that reign of terror come out of his fear of being unmasked as a humbug. I think that charlatanism is so essential to that character, and "powerful Wizard who came to Oz to find a magic book" just doesn't cut it. There's stuff in the book that you could unmask so beautifully - have Elphaba be the one to figure out that the Emerald City isn't really all emeralds, it's just that everyone is required to wearing locked green goggles at all times! That would be wonderful thing to delve into in a recasting of the legend, the way that what people are told doesn't reflect what is actually happening. Changing it from that to a titanic struggle for magic isn't as much fun.

I like what Wicked is trying to do. On the first read, I really enjoyed it. On reread, and particularly in close proximity to listening to The Wizard of Oz, it felt choppy and a bit clumsy.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks

This isn't terrible, it's just not great. (Yes, I'm back to my whining about generic fantasy. But there's so much of it out there, guys! It's so much rarer to find the really good stuff. The recurring moaning is mostly a function of how much more fantasy I've been reading recently, thanks to the continuing loan of a friend's Kindle. Have I mentioned that while I much prefer to read actual books, there's something delightful in being loaned a friend's entire library and getting to browse through it at my leisure?)

But mostly, I don't think this book knows what it is. It keeps wanting to be dark. Very dark. Dark enough that I physically drew back a few times and considered whether or not this book was really for me. But then, and this is even more irritating, it kept pulling its punches. Think that character was just horribly murdered in front of your eyes? Probably not! A huge massacre at which everyone's supposed to die? Not the characters we have any attachment to!

You don't need to kill everybody, but if you want to write dark, write dark. Don't write DARK and then quickly run away, squeaking "light, light, light!" I might not want to read it if it is truly that dark, but have the courage of your freaking convictions. Don't undercut yourself.

The main character is a streetrat named Azoth. (I've read a lot of these streetrat books recently. Scott Lynch and Patrick Rothfuss do it about a million times better - and Lynch, although his books are not overwhelmingly dark, carries through and does horrible things to characters I loved. And I thank him for it. Yes, I may have issues. Who's asking?) His streetrat friends have horrible things done to them. Azoth manages to get taken on as an assassin's apprentice. But not an assassin. A "wetboy," because a wetboy is way more fearsome and magical than an assassin. I was a little fuzzy on this.

And he grows up and is taught he has to forswear all human connection, and of course, discovers that he can't, and rediscovers his childhood love, and feels guilt, and anger, and it's all okay, I guess, but not really affecting. It didn't latch onto my heart and give it a good wrench at any point.

This is a story of underworld and court intrigue, and it's okay, but not great. The underworld is relatively stable, run by a council. Someone wants to change that. And a foreign empire is planning on attacking.

Also, the female characters are particularly sketchily drawn. They are mostly caricatures, running the traditional gamut (or should that be binary) from the impossibly saintly to the oversexed. 

This is fairly generic fantasy, that tries to be darker than it is. The writing style didn't grab me, and the characters weren't that appealing. It's not dire, but there is so much better out there.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Goodreads, This Is Not Okay

I've been away for a good deal of the past two weeks, so I'm coming to this a little late. And my prevailing emotion isn't anger, it's sorrow. I've been through the schisms and death throes of one of my online homes before, and it appears to be happening again. And I am saddened beyond words.

Let me tell you a little about why I loved Goodreads. It is and was the people. The community of reviewers, of supportive friends and witty allies. I got to talk about books to people who had intelligent things to say. I bared my soul in a few reviews, got very personal, and received amazing and supportive feedback. Hell, without Goodreads, I might not have ever discovered that I liked writing book reviews, let alone that I loved doing so. (Not to mention that ego boost every week when I got to check where I was on the "best reviewers" list. Let's be honest.)

The sale of Goodreads to Amazon worried me, and so I started a blog, to have a backup of my reviews if it became necessary to leave. But I hoped, truly and deeply hoped, it wouldn't come to that. Because I know from experience that when a group of people are scattered to the internet winds like that, you lose people. People you wanted to stay in touch with.

Goodreads' initial actions took their fairly reasonable terms of service on the subject of abuse being heaped on authors and greatly extended them, making it illegitimate to comment on author behaviour. Authors and their works are not easily extricable, and behaviour, I'm sorry, is perfectly legitimate as a source of reviews. If we're delving into libel territory, that's one thing. Acknowledging the public actions or political motivations of an author and saying that's why you choose not to read a book, that's entirely another.

But then their reaction to the dissent around this decision was even more troubling. Many creative, funny people have had innovative responses to the initial decision, and the response has been to crack down on reviews that have nothing to do with author behaviour, but which have been vehicles for dissent. They were deleted for being "off-topic." And we are down a very scary rabbit hole, brothers and sisters, when something as nebulous as "off-topic" is used as a tool for stifling disagreement.

I hadn't intended to leave, myself. And I'm not exactly leaving. I'll still be around to read the reviews of my friends who remain, and participate in the groups. But I won't be giving Goodreads my content anymore. Make no mistake, we are their content providers, and I will not have my reviews be beholden to the new policies they've instituted on both authors and on dissent and being off-topic. My own reviews might not be affected by the new rules, but these rules are not okay. Not even a little. Instead, I'll be posting my new reviews on my blog, and probably on Booklikes, which seems like the best alternative at the moment. I'll also gradually be withdrawing my older reviews, starting with the most popular.

If Goodreads takes a long, serious think about the damage they've been doing, reverses their recent policies on what can and can't be in reviews, and shows that they understand what the core issues here are, then my reviews will be returned to the site. But not until.

I'm so saddened to feel that I have to do this. I am going to miss the community, the comments, the "likes." And did I mention the community? If you want to see what I'm reviewing, please check out my blog, Smorgasbook and drop me a line. But I know I won't have the wonderful audience I have had. I hope perhaps someday we'll coalesce as a community once again, either at Goodreads or the new sparkly book site. If you want me to add you on Booklikes, please leave me a comment with your info.

But staying, right now, feels like tacit consent. And I can't do that.

Friday, 11 October 2013

The City and the City by China Mieville

This book has been causing thoughts since I finished it a couple of days ago. About cities, and what we see and don't see. And how those kinds of seeing are conditioned.

And then something happened yesterday that was both funny and a little frightening, illustrating exactly how much I might be missing as I walk down the streets of my city. My husband and I were walking towards the local gaming store, towards the lures of Free RPG Day, talking. I would have thought that I was fully aware of my surroundings, but...apparently not.

Because we somehow missed one of our closest friends walking down the street towards us, waving his arms in the air to attract our attention. It wasn't until we were turning a corner and he yelled out our names that I stopped, backtracked, and merrily said hello. I certainly wasn't trying to not see him, but I literally hadn't noticed someone half a block away, waving his arms in the air, trying to attract my attention.

So if I'm missing that, what else am I missing? What else am I conditioned to miss? How did that happen in the first place?

Seeing and unseeing in Ul Qoma and Beszel may be formally taught, but they do mimic something we do anyway, the people we try not to see, or truly don't see. The way that the surprising can walk right past us without anyone noticing, become the panda in the scene.

So with that experience under my belt, I sit down to write a review of The City and The City. I meant to write this review yesterday morning, but actually forgot and wrote another instead. It was like my brain was waiting for me to have that experience later in the day before it would let me do it.

Beszel and Ul Qoma occupy the same physical space, but they are two very different cities. One is modern, full of fluorescent lights, in the middle of an economic boom. The other is has a depressed economic situation, and different architecture. Ul Qoma seems to have a Middle Eastern vibe, while Beszel seems more Eastern European. And you live in one. Only one. You are allowed in only one. Crossing over in one of the areas where the cities intersect brings down the shadowy power of Breach, which can make you disappear and never reappear. Breach, however, can be as simple as staring somewhere you shouldn't be staring. You see what is in your city, and you work like hell not to see the other.

And in these cities, overlapping yet separate, a murder occurs, a young America graduate student's body is found in Beszel. But the lead Besz detective, Tyador Borlu, discovers that the woman was killed in Ul Qoma. A case of breach in the crime? Perhaps, perhaps not.

Despite the fact that he should turn this over to Breach, Tyador can't help prodding at it, working away at the edges. He uncovers nests of unificationists, who want the cities reunited and one once more. Nests of ultra-nationalists, for whom their city is the only city that matters.

But the murdered woman was looking into a third city, the stuff of legend, long rumoured to exist in a further space between the spaces of Ul Qoma and Beszel. Orciny. Does it exist? If it does, how has it kept itself secret? What powers would its occupants hold?

This is, at its core, an oldfashioned mystery, and a damned good one, packed full of ideas that spun my brain around and kept me occupied even when I wasn't actively reading it. If not as dense in vocabulary as I was expecting, given Mieville's reputation, it was stuffed with challenging and unsettling notions.

I don't want to say much more, because the mystery is such a good one, twisty and yet, when revealed, perfectly in keeping. But the mental stress of living in such a divided city, and the thoughts about seeing and not seeing, that is what will stay with me the longest.

For what city is not a divided city?


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman

*This review was originally written in 2011. As such, the book count doesn't reflect this year!

And with this book, I hit my goal for the year of reading 150 books. And what a book to go out on! I've only given five or six other five star ratings this year, and Life and Fate feels like the most consequential of them all.

This is a huge sprawling novel, centred around the battle of Stalingrad, but weaving in and out and incorporating the Holocaust, the Soviet detention centres, Soviet science under Stalin, life at the front, life at home, and the nature of freedom and humanity. (And I found Grossman's musings on the latter two more readable than Tolstoy's long philosophical digressions, to be perfectly honest.)

The cast is so sprawling that it wasn't until around page 500 that I was able to actually piece together who characters were and how they connected. Until then, I'd been treating it as a series of interesting vignettes, but was unable to make it into a more coherent picture. And suddenly it was all there, and the breadth and the detail really took my breath away.

There were parts of this book that almost moved me to tears, and that's unusual for books. And it took me weeks to read, which is also unusual, but I think gave the time to make everything I read seem more significant.

I don't know that this book is for everyone. It's a heavy Russian tome. The subject matter is heavy. But for me, it was one of the best I've read this year.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

A Passage to India by E.M. Forster

Can there ever be friendship between the colonizer and colonized? Individuals from each group? Can that trust last? Can it flourish? What happens when events put it under stress?

Forster has no easy answers in this book, as he dissects British colonial rule in India, and its impact on Indians and the British who have come there expressly to rule over India.

Adele Quested comes over to India with her prospective mother-in-law, Mrs. Moore. She wanted to see the country before she made up her mind whether or not to marry Ronny. Once there, she is determined to "see the real India" and not to become like the class- and race-bound community of the English.

Everyone arrives there wanting that, she is told. They change. The English think she will see how the Indians are not to be trusted. The Indians know that enough time being around people who are constantly telling you they aren't to be trusted will warp your perceptions.

Similarly, Mr. Fielding, who runs a school, has stayed largely apart from English society, and has mostly kept his autonomy. He becomes friends with Dr. Aziz, a Muslim doctor who, despite his suspicions, wants to believe he can be friends with both Fielding and Mrs. Moore.

Then, on an outing to the Marabar Caves, an incident occurs. But what occurs, and who is involved? The incident causes a crisis, and causes the English to demand that everyone fall into line and support an Englishwoman, no matter what. Fielding is unable to do so. He becomes persona non grata.

For the Indian population, the charges against Dr. Aziz throw them into a rage - with little evidence and no investigation, his guilt is presumed by the British legal system.

The incident becomes a flashpoint for long-simmering anger over the power of the British in India.

Even after it is resolved, and one would think that Aziz would trust Fielding, the man who stood by him the entire time, cultural expectations on both sides mean that even after the crucible, trust is not easily maintained, and far too easily broken. When power is so unequal, it is difficult, if not impossible, to extend the benefit of the doubt to those who hold power, even if only through the virtue of their nationality.

The effect of colonial power on individuals, both colonizers and colonized is examined, and no easy way out is found. Forster creates a broad range of characters, from the good-intentioned to the authoritarian, and puts them all in a pressure cooker.

That pressure cooker does not create tension, it allows the tensions that were already there to come to the point of exploding. And because the incident at the Marabar Caves centres around an English woman, gender expectations, and the ways in which the protection of white womanhood is at the core of colonial rhetoric, most of the British react with something near hysteria.

A Passage to India finds the colonial project deeply flawed, and exposes its worst assumptions and difficulties through a merciless eye. Even those who genuinely want to build bridges between the British and the Indian populations find that, in the end, it is difficult if not impossible.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

Ghostwritten, and ghostridden and by a ghost, ridden.

I have no idea how to talk about what I want to talk about without referring to specifics in this book. I'm not sure how spoiler-ish they may be, but you have been warned.

This is my second David Mitchell, and I like it almost as much as the first one I read, which was Cloud Atlas, and absolutely blew my socks off. I think Cloud Atlas is a more masterful and audacious use of the same technique that you can see developing in Ghostwritten, but I enjoyed it in its developing stages here quite a lot.

Initially, I was skeptical of the claim that this was a "novel in nine parts," as they seemed to be discrete stories, with occasional references to the preceding chapters, through incidence and coincidence. But as the stories continued, they start to pull together, to somehow knit into a whole, even though most of the characters never met, or if they did, never realized the importance of the other stories to their own.

This is a book full of life, and humanity, and beautiful writing, and intriguing ideas, and glimpses of the unknown and improbable. It switches genres and countries, transcends humanities, and in the end, resolves.

And that is what keeps this from being five stars for me. That, and that it isn't quite Cloud Atlas. I'm not sure about the ending. I'm not saying it isn't a good and logical, if shocking, ending. I'm saying I'm personally not particularly enamoured with a book so in love with humanity that ends with its end.

It's the second story I've read or heard in the last week that ends with the unexpected extinction of humanity by a larger, implacable, inexorable force. (The first was a John Varley short story.) 
While it was an ending that seized me and took me by surprise, it also overshadowed the entire previous 400 pages, and I loved those 400 pages. I feel like I'm struggling to remember all the things I enjoyed about the book, without having them completely drowned underneath all the emotions that the ending provoked.

That's what happens with a loss, I know. Initially, the end obscures all the times before.

But I realize I haven't really spoken in any specifics about the book, or the stories that make it up. But how can I tie together and make coherent a book that combines stories about a Japanese cultist responsible for a subway attack, a jazz-loving Japanese teenager, a shady English financier in Hong Kong, the life of a woman who owns a tea house on the side of the Holy Mountain through the tumultuous events in the 20th century in China, the travels of a noncorporeal entity that lives in human hosts, a Russian art theft ring, a penniless womanizing drummer and ghostwriter in England, an Irish expert in quantum cognition, and a New York late night talk radio host who gets yearly calls from a mysterious listener?

Except to say that although I couldn't tell you exactly what binds these stories together, I am absolutely, positively convinced that they are part of a whole. And that they were utterly engrossing to read, and provided constant delight.

I'm equally sure this isn't for everyone. Like many of the books I love, it requires a high tolerance of ambiguity, and a willingness to simply go along for a ride with no idea as to how it will end. So many books are predictable. This one is not.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Bossypants by Tina Fey

I was expecting more funny.

Having read a small portion of this book online (A Mother's Prayer), and having found that very entertaining, I had high hopes for this book. And I should say, it's not a bad read. It's just not that funny. I laughed out loud maybe once, and smiled a few times more. Most of the jokes fell under the category of fairly amusing. Maybe as a script, it'd be great.

But that isn't to say that this isn't a pleasant read. Her stories are interesting, and I looked forward to picking this up to read a few pages more. It wasn't gripping, but it was enjoyable. On the other hand, it's not going to stay with me. But I wasn't really expecting that anyway.

Does anyone else get unduly excited when you discover you have something in common with someone you admire? (Also known as "Joss Whedon has the same favourite comic book character as me!") I do this all the time. So I was so pleased to read that Tina Fey doesn't drive, and her husband has to do all the long drives, while she sleeps, and is probably trying to remember why he married her in the first place. 'Cause, yeah.

The book picks up after her daughter arrives - suddenly there's a lot more intensity to the writing (and, it sounds, to life as she was experiencing it at that moment.) The chapter on juggling her daughter's third birthday party, Oprah's appearance on 30 Rock and appearing as Sarah Palin on SNL for the first time, all on the same weekend, was probably my favourite. And they included the entire sketch, which is brilliant.

If you're looking for light entertainment, and you like Tina Fey, this is probably worth a read. Just don't expect belly laughs.

However, after having read a couple of reviews from Goodreads friends, I noticed that those who listened to this on audiobook gave it higher ratings than those who just read it, like me. For this one, that may be the way to go.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Ulysses by James Joyce

I finished this a couple of days ago, flew to the other side of the continent, and am right now jetlagged. So, maybe not the best time to be trying to sit down and review Ulysses.

Or maybe it's exactly the right time. Maybe when I'm tired and not thinking straight is the only time to sit down and let this review spill out, when I'm not overthinking it, or trying to figure out exactly what I want to say.

Because really, I have no idea. This book has been my constant companion for the last four or five months, reading 10-20 pages a day, taking my time, and for the most part enjoying myself. But I don't feel like I have deep insights to offer.

I'm glad I've read it. It was an accomplishment. It was a pain in the ass. It was enjoyable. It wasn't nearly as hard as I was expecting. It was harder than I had expected.

Ulysses is a tour de force of detail and lived experience and lyricism, and boringness. He explores virtually every kind of prose there is, every writing style you could imagine, from school examination to stuffy 19th century to stream of consciousness.

Leopold Bloom walks the streets of Dublin, intersecting the lives of others, walking through a history of literature styles from myth to overblown newspaper society pages. And a play.

And damned if I can explain any of it to you. But it's worth a read, worth the effort, and the joys and the struggles.

Perhaps when I have my wits more about me, I may come back and expand this.

 Read as part of the BBC Big Read

Saturday, 5 October 2013

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

I don't know if I can write this review. I really don't. It makes me feel extremely vulnerable, to contemplate putting so much of my heart out on view for people on the internet to see. I also don't know if I have the words.

Reading this book was both devastating and awe-inspiring. I was moved beyond words, particularly when I started reading it, started to let the words wash over me. When I realized how familiar they were, not the words, but the meanings behind them. It felt like something I'd been swimming in my whole life and never realized it.

Let me try to explain. I was raised by two people who found great meaning in this book. My mother read from it at my wedding reception. I don't mean they tried to make me read it, because they never did. Or conform to anything in it, because they never did. But having read it, I can see so many of the lessons they tried to teach me, the values they held dear, the ways they made sense of the world reflected in these pages. The way that they thought about love, and children, and work, and the world, I can see how this book was important to them. Whether they took inspiration from it, or found it a reflection of what they already believed, I'm not sure. I could ask my mother. I may.

I can't ask my father anymore. And reading this book made me miss him so much. Not that I don't already, every day for the past year and a half. The wonderful thing about reading this was that it took me out of the memories of those last few terrible weeks, and back to all the times I had before pancreatic cancer took him from us.

It made me think of riding in the car, having the front seat beside him while the rest of the family slept in the back, and talking about finding, not the work you love, but the work that you can't not do, the things that are so important that you would do them even if you weren't paid.

It made me remember how gently my parents pushed me to be an independent, reasonably sane adult, gave the room to make mistakes, never thought they owned me, but were always there when I needed them.

It made me realize how much of this book I already carry in me, how much of my heart is already out there on someone else's pages. That's a terrifying and wonderful thing.

So there is my heart, it's out there on display. I read this book, and could barely breathe.