Sunday, July 24, 2011

Beyond Belfast by Will Ferguson

The people of the Ulster Province in Northern Ireland are pretty pragmatic about their climate. In fact, they have a saying: "There is no such thing as bad weather. Only the wrong clothes." I suspect Will Ferguson would not only disagree with that statement but he'd probably try to strangle the next well meaning Irishman to offer it.

Beyond Belfast is the chronicle of his 560-mile hike around Northern Ireland following the longest way-marked trail in the United Kingdom. The Ulster Way as he experiences it is nothing short of a microcosm for the country it winds through. A beautiful landscape of extremes still groping for identity and waging war on itself. Pubs seem to grow organically from the hills, nourished by the near constant rain. Pretty little sea-side villages loudly proclaim either Catholic or Protestant allegiance where the ruins of Gaelic castles bear witness to atrocities both ancient and recent.

Descriptions of landscape and the quirky characters that inhabit it are wonderful and although they comprise the bulk of the book, they never feel stale or recycled. Ferguson has a great self-deprecating sense of humor which comes in handy as he slops through bogs, races across busy highways, faces down ill-tempered farm dogs and risks "scrotal entanglement" jumping over barbed wire fences.

His off-hand history lessons are spot-on as well. I never felt like I was being force fed dry facts about old rocks and moldy hills. He makes it all feel juicy and relevant. This is a population still living in the long shadow of sectarian violence and Ferguson conveys this with just the right mix of respect and wide-eyed naivety.

The only element that didn't work for me was a sub plot involving family history. Ferguson feels that he has to justify this crazy adventure under the auspices of digging up information on his Grandfather.  This is one of those "it's about the journey, not the destination" type of books, and this cheapened the experience for me a little by giving it the flavor of a quest. Let's be honest, we all started to lose interest in The Lord of The Rings as soon as Frodo and Sam actually got to Mordor. The same applies here. We don't want you to find what you are looking for, Mr. Ferguson, it's more fun to follow you as you get lost in the Sperrin Mountains and tip-toe past wandering bulls.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

That's a Nice Fire You've Got There

Back in June a Dutch group was so offended by the title of a book they have never read they did the only rational thing they could think of. They burned it. Not the whole book, of course, that would be Nazi-flavored madness. They just torched the offensive bits they did read, namely the cover. It was Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes which has been renamed to "Someone Knows My Name" for those word-fearing folks in the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

When first hearing about this I flew into a violent, moralistic rage. I yelled obscenities at my dog that would make an Irish dockworker blush. After reading the book last year, I not only felt better educated but more sympathetic to the plight and history of African Americans living in North America. What could possibly be accomplished by burning the cover?!?

Then it occurred to me. Those Freaky-Deaky Dutch were onto something. Burning stuff that offends you feels really good. It's cathartic and provides a medium for making s'mores. The following is a list of things I would like to throw on the Dutch fire of intolerance:

1. The Millennium series by Stieg Larsson - What kind of a name is Stieg anyway?

2. Justin Bieber - For obvious reasons.

3. Dancing With the Stars - The next time I hear a serious conversation about this show, I'm punching everyone within range Right. In. The. Face.

4. Inter-office Memos - Was anything important ever really communicated with one of these?

5. Stephen Spielberg's Money - Please stop paying for other director's crappy movies and make one of your own. People are starting for forget why we are supposed to hold you in such high esteem. Saving Private Ryan was, like 13 years ago.

6. Cell Phones - I'm willing to set telecommunications back twenty years if it means I don't have to watch people fiddle with these stupid things anymore.

7. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare - Just for shock value.

This is not a complete list by any means but I'd better stop there. These kinds of fires have a tendency to get out of hand. Anyone who was hanging around Berlin in 1933 could tell you that.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Stories That Transcend Language

Charlie Boorman is a motorcycle enthusiast who has traveled around the globe. When asked is a recent interview what the most memorable part of his journey was he said it was the realization that people everywhere, regardless of culture, class or country have a lot more in common than most of us think. If we choose to focus on all the things that we share (a lot) rather than the things that separate us (not much), the world might just be a little better off for it.

It is in this worldly spirit of connectedness that Shaun Tan's The Arrival exists. It is a picture book absent of language but full of images that stir ghosts from some long forgotten corner of the mind. The artwork is gorgeous, and the story of a man who is forced to leave his home for a strange and foreign land is not only an immigrant's tale, but the tale of anyone who has ever felt lost and adrift in their own life (I assume pretty much all of us).

The silent movie aesthetic might turn off a few language-obsessed word junkies. The rest of us can just bask in the beauty of it's dim light and experience something unique and wonderful. I think Mr. Boorman would appreciate it. I think you will too.

Monday, June 27, 2011

HBO verses the Booksnobs

I hate Booksnobs.

Booksnobs are those unsavory elitists who feel that every scrap of entertainment pales in comparison with the written word. They are often seen sitting on crowded buses reading Tolstoy. Holding the book in such a way that everyone can see they are reading Tolstoy. They have extensive collections of unread novels meant to impress guests. They circulate wine and cheese parties loudly declaiming: "The book was much better than the movie!" When cornered they may even try to convince you that The Lord of The Rings films were inferior to the Tolkien novels.

The worst part is, they are often right. About the movie adaptations, anyway. Tolkien was flowery and obtuse. Get over it.

This is all about to change. Specialty networks like HBO and Showcase are ushering in a golden age of book-to-movie adaptations. The 10-episode cycle gives writers and directors lots of time for story arc and the absence of Big Studio Funding allows for plenty of creative freedom. The recent Game of Thrones series was the most entertaining thing shown on a screen all year. Now with Stephen King's The Dark Tower in the works and casting rumors for Neil Gaiman's American Gods the future of books-as-movies looks bright for a change.

Eat that Booksnobs. And you're never going to finish Tolstoy. No one ever has.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

There is a book leaning on the shelf in my living room that I should have returned to the library nineteen years ago. It is a book of poetry, quotations and proverbs with a worn blue cover and inset gold lettering on the spine. The guilt I feel for depriving other library patrons is assuaged by the wonderful memories I associate with it. It was the book that dragged my sleepy teenage brain away from the dark basements of Stephen King and into the warm autumn light of Tennyson, Keats, Poe and Wordsworth. It started a flirtatious, arms-length affair with poetry that I still maintain today. I don't write it much any more, but I still love to read it. The good stuff can shift the axis of the earth. The bad stuff can give you mental heartburn.

The Anthologist introduces us to Paul Chowder, an aging and increasingly irrelevant poet who is struggling to write an introduction to his new anthology. Through Paul, Nicholson Baker takes us on a guided tour of his own relationship with rhyme, and what he reveals is a jewelry box stuffed with good verse. Paul Chowder claims that "good" poems all have a couple of things in common; they all have rhythmic four-beat lines and they all use small, simple words. He despairs the lost art of rhyming and rallies against the modern trend towards free verse. It is all very clever and funny and I came away with an even deeper appreciation for this art.

I will not be returning that library book any time soon but I will be lending this one out to anyone with more than a passing interest in poetry. Yes, for the record, I am a hypocrite. 

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks

Those familiar with the Culture Universe and all of its complex machinations are in for a HUGE treat with Surface Detail. The uninitiated, however, may find themselves wondering what the hell they've gotten themselves into. So for those people I'll offer a little help:

Read this first: Wikipedia's Handy-Dandy Culture Primer

Got all that? Okay, quick...What is the pejorative term used by Sentient Minds to describe GSV's that take an unhealthy interest in human beings? Hint: think "protein fornicator".

It's a lot to take in, I realize. It`s going to stretch that brain a bit. You might even wonder why you are devoting all this mental real estate to made-up stuff when you could be studying for exams or learning how to properly cook fish. Here`s why: Iain M. Banks has crafted a monumental playground for the mind and filled it with characters and stories that are totally original and wonderful to behold. Just beneath the surface of all the whiz-bang special effects and theoretical physics there are classic themes of love, loss and triumph. Mix it all up with a great, sly sense of humor and we have a smart, stylish Star Trek for the 21st century. Minus William  Shatner of course. Pity that.

Monday, June 13, 2011

What is it Good For? Absolutely....Something.

Embedded journalism has lost both its impact and its credibility in this post-Wikileaks age. Reporters who strap on body armor and go on patrol with the troops may be getting the "total experience" but as we all know, that experience gets thoroughly cleansed, edited and sterilized before being disseminated to a public that is increasingly apathetic regarding the war in Afghanistan.

Sebastian Junger wants to change that with War, and for the most part he succeeds. He wisely avoids all the political controversy surrounding this conflict, and shines the journalistic spotlight where it belongs: On the kids who are fighting and dying every day. This is the human story behind the headlines. The kind of story that cuts both ways: Flag waving patriots will be moved by the against-all-odds sacrifice, while left-leaning humanists will be appalled by the barbarity and senseless death.

Junger's enthusiasm for all things military can be a bit exasperating, however. I couldn't help rolling my eyes at his "ain't-that-cool" descriptions of weapons, tactics and the manly men who employ them. On some levels this is shameless War Porn  in the same vein of  Blackhawk Down  by Mark Bowden. But that's okay, because War Porn, just like conventional porn can be a lot of fun. As long as it's not TOO MUCH fun. If you catch my meaning.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Cure for Seasonal Affective Stupidity

I'm going to keep this simple. I'll use small words and throw in a picture or two so you don't get bored and wander off. It is now early June and temperatures are steadily going up and as a result our IQ's are beginning to plummet. It's a fancy-shmancy mathematical principle called inverse proportion, but that's like five syllables of confusing wordiness, so for our purposes we'll call it S.A.S. (Seasonal Affective Stupidity).

I typically like to ascribe some evolutionary context to human behavior. It helps me sleep at night knowing that my stupidity can be explained away with genetic heredity and such. So with that in mind I believe S.A.S. is the product of one of the following biologic principles:

1. Human beings, after a long winter of near-starvation and physical deprivation become, by necessity, more efficient machines in the warm season. We had all winter to huddle in caves and think deep, abstract thoughts but now that the sun's out we have work to do (find food, make babies, golf, etc.). In order to facilitate all this extra work, the brain starts shutting off all non-essential systems in order to concentrate on sheer physicality. Those crops aren't going to plant themselves and nobody is going to be doing algebra come October if there is nothing to eat.


2. The chicken did, indeed, come before the egg and we have been made stupider by the entertainment industry. All of the books that qualify as "great summer beach reads" but contain neither style nor substance. All of the hyper-kinetic movies that over stimulate our adrenal glands with pyrotechnic wizardry but leave our brains completely unfulfilled. It is the intellectual equivalent of an Extra Value Meal from McDonald's. The bar has been set so low from June through September that we just happily trip over it and land in a shallow pool of American Idol re-runs and Dairy Queen CheeseQuake Blizzards.

If the former is the truth than there is nothing I can do. You can`t fight Darwinian natural selection. But if the latter is the culprit than I can help cure S.A.S. in my own small way, by recommending some `beach reads` that are both entertaining and intellectually gratifying. So you can have your CheeseQuake and eat it too.

Nelson Demille introduces us to New York homicide detective John Corey in this Swiss Army Knife of a book that is part murder mystery, part conspiracy theory and part knuckle biting thriller. Corey is the classic ``too smart for his own good`` alpha male who often plays the buffoon to keep his adversaries off-balance. He is, hands down, the best fictional character working in this genre to date. You`re gonna love him.

This tale of the only teacher to stay behind on an unnamed island in the midst of a civil war keeps it`s cards close to the vest. The reader is left to guess at the motivations of  Mr. Watts as he reads Charles Dicken`s Great Expectations to the schoolchildren, while all around them war is turning their lives upside down. A masterful meditation on sacrifice and loss and a spectacular payoff.

Spoiler Alert!

This wonderfully quirky story is actually one of the best allegorical treatments of modern religion and the murky questions of faith that I have ever read. That`s pretty high praise too, considering that I am an atheist.

Here it is folks, the Bible of Justification for all of your disgusting excess. While it might not help you explain to your wife why playing eight straight hours of Call of Duty: Black Ops is actually `healthy`. It does provide some great insight into the positive effects of our favorite guilty pleasures. Pretending to be a half-elf wizard in your parent`s basement isn`t so bad after all, despite what your virtual friends say. 

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Tiger - A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant

I am sitting here in my fully adjustable office chair in a large, environmentally controlled dwelling listening to one of thousands of songs that I have downloaded instantly over a high speed network connection. The cursor on the LCD monitor in front of me flashes rhythmically, awaiting my next thought. Ready to serve my whim. It is all ready to serve my whim. For I am Homo Sapiens, winner of the millennial-old battle for biologic supremacy on planet earth. Master of the iPod, social network and internal combustion engine. There is nothing that nature provides that is not mine by right. It is all mine and I am legion.

This is precisely the sort of illusion that is eviscerated -violently, and explosively- in John Vaillant's true story of the Russian far east and the tigers that live there in fragile co-existence with dirt-poor subsistence villagers and indigenous people.  Predatory big cats, like the one central to this story have been our partners in evolution. They are, as John Vaillant so eloquently argues, the reason that we hide in caves when the sun goes down and have an abiding fear of the dark that still exists in our collective, primeval minds. 

Much like his first book, The Golden Spruce, there is a focus here, but it is not a very tight one. Mr. Vaillant uses the central narrative as a nucleus from which he spins arguments about conservation, political and social injustice and, at one point, one of the most fascinating philosophical discussions on the nature of empathy I've ever come across.

The Tiger is a perfect illustration of the "truth is stranger than fiction" principle. It is a horror story, a love story, and a Shakespearian tragedy of monumental proportions. We eat. And we are eaten. A more epic story of man's place in the natural order has not been penned since Grendel came knocking on Beowulf's keep. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Admitting Defeat

T.S. Eliot was onto something when he declared April "The cruelest month". It is a stagnant month of schizophrenic weather. Old Man Winter says a long goodbye and steps out the door only to realize that he`s forgot his hat. So he comes back, and hey, he might as well have one more for the road. The bastard. It has also been my worst reading month in recent memory, as evidenced by the complete lack of bloggerific content here of late. I'm not going to apologize for that because I suspect the three of you who read this don't really care about my lack of motivation.

So instead I will appeal to your boundless sympathy. It is a strange phenomenon, reading. Strange how it gets a little harder to do as we get older. I don't have any hard data to back up that claim, but I have seen it happen with my own eyes. My father, for example is one of the most avid and voracious readers I know but lately he seems unable or unwilling to dive into a book and see it through to completion. Maybe it's due to a certain inflexibility of the mind that upsets us when a book doesn't conform to familiar paradigms, maybe it's because we are busy with other things, or, hell, maybe it's just a dry spell. Whatever the case, here are the books that have defeated me since I last shouted my love of The Wise Man's Fear from this little rooftop...

1. The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud

I lurched to the end of this one feeling like I've been through a more traumatic experience than the central character who watched villagers get slaughtered during the Vietnam War. Mrs Skibsurd can not finish a thought without lapsing into at least three asides, making everything feel like disjointed fluffy nonsense. It's too bad because the idea is interesting, it just gets hamstrung by an overly poetic style.

2. You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier

I made it to page fifty two. Fifty two out of two hundred and seven. I think I was enjoying it, but I'm not really sure. The topic of information technology bulldozing the intuitive power of human creativity is of profound interest to me (It's one of the reasons behind my exodus from Facebook) but this book was the square peg being forced through the round hole of my reading appetite. I was in the mood for something else when I started this. It was a bit like eating broccoli for desert. I will revisit you at another time Mr. Lanier. After I have some cheesecake.

3. The Piano Man's Daughter by Timothy Findley

This was meant to be my cheesecake; and for a while it was. Timothy Findley's reputation as a master word-smith is on full display. The characters are wonderfully drawn and comfortably relatable. It is four hundred and ninety four pages long. I made it to one-sixteen. You might be wondering at this point what the hell my problem is. Well, aside from a mysterious and uncomfortable outbreak of acne on the back of my neck, I really can't say for sure. Let's just say that this was chocolate cheesecake. I wanted strawberry. Also, I was intimidated by all the piano stuff. Pianos make me uneasy.

Never fear, loyal readers! I am currently neck-deep in a truly awesome book that is re-igniting my passion for the pastime. I've got the review coming soon, as well as a list of good summer beach reads. Until then, I'll see you at the library. That's right, The LIBRARY. If I'm not going to finish it, I'm not going to pay for it.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

Back in 2007, I was walking around completely disillusioned with the fantasy genre. The conventions that I loved as a wild-eyed teen were becoming tired and predictable. I could not suffer through one more coming of age story about a naive farm boy who is orphaned by murdering trolls, given a magic Gee-Gaw by the King of the Elves and saves the world from nameless and vague evil forces. Just when I thought I had outgrown this stuff, The Name of The Wind by Patrick Rothfuss landed in my lap, courtesy of my father who is normally quite allergic to books with pictures of dragons on them. It was book one of The Kingkiller Chronicle and the quality of the writing, the depth of the characters and the fresh reboot of the familiar Tolkien landscape blew my mind. This wasn't just a fantasy novel. This was literature.

Here we are four years later and I have just finished the dreaded "middle book" of the trilogy. The one in the middle always gets a bad rap. Questions are posed, yet few are answered. Characters develop, but not fully. Bad things happen and the good guys don't always win. We nerds call this "The Empire Strikes Back conundrum". The author has to advance the story, yet he still has to hold most of his cards close to the vest to keep readers invested for the big finale. It is not an easy thing to do. So with that in mind, I must say this: Mr. Rothfuss, my hat is off to you sir. The Wise Man's Fear is a brilliantly crafted piece of The Kingkiller Chronicle puzzle.

This is the story of Kvothe the Bloodless, a legendary adventurer who has hung up his sword and cast himself into self-imposed, witness protection-style exile as an innkeeper named Kote. Songs, stories and epic poems have been written about his deeds but Kvothe wants to set the record straight by recounting the gritty reality of his life to a scribe named Chronicler. We see how legends are made, and how at the heart of legends there often sits a tragic and wounded man who desires neither praise nor adoration. It deftly touches on issues of racism, cultural and ethnic divides and the power of human potential. All of this heavy stuff is well rounded with a snappy sense of humor and some of the funniest dialogue I've read since Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett teamed up to write Good Omens.

This hefty tome clocked in at just under 1000 pages, and after turning the last one I wished there were 1000 more. I just hope I don't have to wait another four years to read the conclusion. If Mr. Rothfuss wasn't so busy being accessible to his fans, signing their books, posting and replying to his blog and just generally being an all around great guy, it might not take so long. So I guess there is my one complaint. Now you can't call me an obsessed fanboy or whatever. 

Friday, April 1, 2011

A Hidden Gem

John Steakley passed away on November 27th, 2010. During his entire career as an author he wrote two books. One was an orgy of testosterone about a bunch of bounty hunters who killed vampires for fun and profit. It was eventually adapted into a John Carpenter-directed train wreck that hit theaters for about five minutes before fading into obscurity. His other book however, is something very special and deserves more than just the bargain bin at Barnes and Noble. It is a thoughtful meditation on the destructive nature of war and the toll it takes on all those who fight. It is the story of a man driven to the precipice of madness and then nudged gently over the edge by the unseen hand of authority. It's called Armor and it should occupy a proud place on the bookshelves of science fiction fans everywhere. You should probably read it too. Don't worry, it's got plenty of action and slick dialogue to go along with the philosophy stuff. It opens with a quote from "The Masao" which is probably one of my favorite opening quote/poem thingies ever:

You are
What you do
When it counts.

How can you not love a book that starts out like that? However, if this is true than I guess you might as well call me "Runs away and screams like a little girl". Still, great book.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Crazy Uncle Steve vs. The Library

I've never been a library guy. They make me vaguely uneasy. I believe this stems from bad childhood memories of research projects gone wrong. Back when computers were just an expensive novelty that only a few uber nerds knew how to use, we had to get all of our information from either The Library, or Crazy Uncle Steve who knew everything and smelled like cheap whiskey. Putting Steve in the bibliography of my History essay was problematic so I was forced to mine facts from the rows of thick tomes under the silent, malevolent gaze of The Librarian. We were taught to fear the wrath of The Librarian, who had been known to cook and eat little boys and girls who damaged books, made too much noise or didn't return things on time.

I'm more of a bookstore guy. They don't give anything away for free so there are no trust issues. You can make as much noise as you want and if you want to buy a book, take it home and deface it that's your prerogative. I'm also less likely to finish a book I didn't pay for and the thin plastic coating they put on all the hardcovers makes me angry. I can't say why, it just does.

However, there is one little corner of the library that I love. A little nook tucked away from the judgmental gaze of the Librarian where loud noises are not the exception, they are the rule. My daughter and I have been spending some time in the oasis that is the Children's Section and it is becoming one of our favorite places to play. It is filled with unfamiliar toys and unfamiliar little people fooling around with them. It is also the home to some of the best books in the whole place (and no plastic book condoms either). We found something on our last trip that has been the source of laughter in our house for weeks now:

I have a newfound respect for my local public library. Not only is it a cultural hub of the community, it is also the home of hard to find literary masterworks like The Dumb Bunnies. It still can't spin a yarn like Crazy Uncle Steve, but it also never called me a Communist and shoved me when I had to take it's car keys away at noon.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

When Fantasy Goes Wrong

Now that I am deep into one of the best fantasy novels to come along in forever it got me thinking about some of the worst. There is no middle road in this genre; books with dragons, elves and fairy princesses on the cover are one of two things: Great escapist fiction brimming with social commentary, or a big steaming pile of Ogre poop. The fantasy novel one-off is harder to find than the One Ring, so when you buy one of these books, get ready to buy at least three more in the unforeseeable future just to get some story resolution.  The following represents an example of this genre going very, very wrong. It is also a painful memory from my childhood that I won't get into here....

The good old Wheel of Time series by James Oliver Rigney, Jr. (a.k.a Robert Jordan). I read the first book when I was about fifteen and I couldn't wait to get the next one or two and finish the story. Now take a look at all those books in that picture up there and guess if I ever finished it. Keep in mind that the first one was released in 1990 and the final book IS STILL FORTHCOMING. I don't mean to be insensitive, bearing in mind that the author passed away in 2007 before he could pen the final book(s). The problem I have with this series is that after reading six of them the loose ends just got looser, the cast of characters just got bigger and the whole thing started to feel like a daytime soap opera that was meant to go on forever. I guess I will never know if Rand fulfills the prophecy and defeats the Dark One or whatever and the true tragedy is, I no longer even care.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

For the Girls

In honor of International Women's Day I thought I would share a few novels that feature great female protagonists. Here are three of my favorites, in no particular order:

A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews

Naomi Nickel is not your average Mennonite. She is a 16-year old malcontent who consistently pushes the limits of her cult-like community. A community that would not seem out of place featured in an episode of The Twilight Zone. Her family is slowly disappearing one member at a time into the abyss of excommunication and Naomi is not sure she wants to join them. It would mean leaving her father behind. The whole thing is wonderfully quirky and more than a little sad.

Even Cowgirls get the Blues by Tom Robbins

Sissy Hankshaw has giant thumbs and she`s okay with that. For her it is a matter of fate. What would a girl with sausage sized thumbs be fated to do? Become the world's greatest hitchhiker, of course. Her highway odyssey eventually leads her to the Rubber Rose Ranch, a western-themed feminine hygiene spa that has been taken over by the all girl staff and converted to a "real" ranch for cowgirls. In typical Tom Robbins style, the pages are bursting with playful language and philosophical musings.

Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neil

This is the coming of age story of a little girl named Baby. Sounds sweet and heartwarming, right? Only if your little black heart is warmed by things like heroine addiction and prostitution. Needless to say, this is not a story about a spoiled little girl who cries because she doesn't get a pony for her birthday. Baby is in and out of foster homes, is taken advantage of by drug dealers and eventually starts selling her body for heroine. It is the kind of story that we are always seeing the end results of on the evening news. Tragedy of the "how could this happen" variety. But there is redemption here as well and a character with more strength and determination than any macho male super soldier.

What would a hopeless guy like me do without all the wonderful women in my life? Where would any of us be without the contributions of intelligent, nurturing women? We would probably just sit around scratching ourselves and fighting over the best brand of nacho dip. Not the kind of world I want my daughter growing up in, that's for sure.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Need a Laugh?

Spring is taking an awful long time getting here. Scraping the windshield of the car sucks all the joy out of life and if I have to shovel the driveway again I'm going to opt to walk wherever I'm going instead. We could all use a good laugh. Here is my suggestion:

It looks like a bible. It feels like a bible. It is most definitely not a bible. It is the story of Jesus Christ's "forgotten years". In the Old Testament version we witness his birth, then we don't see him again until he is fully grown. What happened in those formative teenage years? Did he have buddies? Drink too much wine and go donkey tipping? Lamb by Christopher Moore sets out to answer those questions. It is told from the perspective of Biff, his best friend, and it is absolutely hilarious and at times, quite touching without ever feeling like complete blasphemy. If your sense of humor tips towards the Monty Python direction it is the perfect cure for the winter blues.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Wait is Over

The bookstore called yesterday to tell me my Patrick Rothfuss novel was in. Hurrah! Life being what it is right now though, I didn't have time to retrieve it. If I could just train the dog to change diapers and send a clone to work every night in my place I'd be all set. But alas, it is not so.

Finding a little free time, I went to pick it up today. I gave my name to a friendly member of the staff and she went to haul the massive cinder block thing to the counter. I love big books. Bookstore employees probably wouldn't share my enthusiasm if they had to schlep around The Wise Man's Fear all day. 

To my surprise, it was already paid for. There was a little note inside:

I want this when you are finished. 

The only thing better than a book you have been waiting a long time to read is a generous parent who has been waiting even longer. Thanks dad. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Truck

I hope I can change my "Currently Reading" widget to this soon:

My little local bookstore is expecting The Truck today. The Truck comes every Tuesday and delivers presents to all the good little book lovers who eat all their vegetables and finish reading all their tedious literary novels (I could be in trouble here, see post below).

Maybe The Truck will overlook my past transgressions and bring me what I want. The telephone will be ringing any minute with news that I have been found worthy. The Truck will have a little box full of goodies for me tucked in behind the giant skid of Justin Bieber autobiographies. OH! It's the phone...Hang on........

Damn Telemarketers! If I was willing and able to take a Caribbean cruise, I'D CALL YOU!  


Monday, February 28, 2011

The Dirty Little Secret of the Avid Reader

It's Friday night. You and your loved ones have settled in for a nice movie. It starts off okay, with talking monkeys and spaceships. You sure do like spaceships. But wait, Adam Sandler does a cameo and it's all downhill from there. The forty-five minute mark of this ninety minute movie and you can't help noticing that your fingernails could use a good trimming. Your spouse is resuming work on his/her knitting project and the kids are making promises to finish the dinner vegetables you already slopped into the garbage if you will pleeeeease turn the movie off. What do you do, sparky? WHAT DO YOU DO?!?!

You probably finish the movie. You did pay five bucks for it, after all. It's almost over and the alternative -actually talking to your kids- is too grim to consider at the end of a grueling work week.

I'm sure you savvy readers have figured this out by now, but when I say "movie", I actually mean "book".  If a movie is a one-night stand then a book is a marriage with children. So what happens when you are more than halfway through a book and you suddenly realize that you can't stand what you are reading.....

Exhibit "A" 
You probably give up on it. The act of reading should be enjoyable, right? The average trade paperback is about twenty bucks and it takes the average reader about three weeks to read it. That is a pretty big investment. So what did I do? I didn't finish it. I have been defeated and shamed by a book that the New York Times calls "..hilarious and heart wrenching..". The glowing reviews splashed across the cover lied to me. It was not "a beguiling first novel". It was a huge waste of time for someone who has three kids and a full time job. I just can't afford to spend three weeks of scarce, valuable leisure time beating my head against this literary wall.

Of course, the enjoyment of all art is subjective. You might like it. the critics sure did. Let's just say: caveat emptor.

So I won't be reviewing this book. I do have some principles. Judgment may only be passed on those books that I actually finish. This one will go on my shelf of shame, beside Nikolski, Beatrice and Virgil and Against the Day. My father calls this "putting it in the vault". The assumption being that he will remove it and  finish it in the future. Let's not kid ourselves. We won't. Life is too short and there are too many good books out there.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

You Comma Idiot by Doug Harris

In his first novel, Doug Harris casts you as a 28-year old hash dealer from Montreal named Lee Goodstone. This second-person perspective made me nostalgic for the Choose Your Own Adventure series of my youth and although it was initially awkward I warmed up to it by the third chapter. Unlike those young adult masterworks, you do not get to make any decisions here. Do you want to sell drugs? Sleep with your best friend's girlfriend? Alienate people with your sarcastic, self-deprecating sense of humor? Well, Lee Goodstone does and by extension, so do you.

What does it say about me that I actually enjoyed being Lee Goodstone?

Don't answer that.

The problem or perhaps the point of this novel is that by the end you start to discover just how unsavory this character is. It's a nifty little psychological sleight-of hand. You like Lee/yourself at first. He's a lot like you. Doesn't quite fit in, not the best looking guy in the room, a little too smart for his own good. As you dig deeper into Lee's/your psyche you don't always like what you find there. It leaves you wondering, at the end, if you didn't just waste a lot of time being somebody you don't really like. What is the point of that?

Then I took a moment to reflect on my own misspent youth.

Oh. I get it now.

Monday, February 7, 2011

A Fantasy Author For People Who Don`t Like Fantasy

Winter really gets me down. Especially mid-February. Whenever I can rally enough willpower to haul myself off the couch and go look out the window all I see is slight variations on the whole grey and white theme. Piles of dirty snow lurk malevolently on every corner. Kids play in it half-hearted, understanding in their own kid way that this is not the same, fun, let's-make-a-snowman snow that came down before Christmas. This is the kind of snow that causes car accidents and kills the unfit who attempt to shovel it.

There is hope though, courtesy of the man pictured above. Patrick Rothfuss just announced that the second novel in his Kingkiller Chronicle, The Wise Man's Fear, will hit the shelves on March 1st. This is the perfect antidote to my little bout of Seasonal Affective Disorder. If you haven't already read his first book; The Name of the Wind, it's probably because you pass right by the Fantasy section on the way to more literary and highbrow stuff. Well, let me tell you something sunshine, this book was recommended to me by my father who can't even look at the cover of a fantasy novel without retching. Rothfuss turns the genre on it's head by forsaking the commandments laid down by Tolkien  (Thou shalt have elves. Thou shalt have wizards. Etc...) for a more gritty, character driven story about a guy named Kvothe and how he became the most feared assassin in the world. You would also do well to check out Pat's blog which I have handily added the link to (just click on his picture). He's a pretty interesting guy, and a very gifted writer.

Maybe you have your own way of beating the winter blues. Maybe you are one of those mentally unstable people who claims to enjoy the snow. Maybe you are one of the lucky bastards who lives in a temperate climate. Whatever the case, go read these books.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Disposable Word

I have a confession to make. It's not something I'm proud of so please don't think less of me. Deep breath....Okay, here goes...I have downloaded music illegally. In fact, I used to do it all the time back in the days of reliable peer to peer file sharing networks. I thought, hey, I love music and I'm pretty handy with this internet stuff, so why am I still paying for CDs?

Several years, and a few computer viruses later (thanks a lot Limewire) I learned the answer to that question.

My hard drive was stuffed with thousands of songs, yet I felt strangely unfulfilled. It wasn't until I got drunk one night and downloaded the complete discography of Led Zepplin that I understood why. It was Houses of the Holy. When I was sixteen I had it on cassette with a crack in the plastic case and the song titles worn off from too much handling. A friend who had forsaken Zepplin for Def Leppard gave it to me. I not only loved the music on that album, but I loved it's physical presence. It had a history. It occupied space in my life. It had eight tracks that could only be skipped by a very practiced fast forward or a lucky rewind-and-flip. The digitized representation of Houses of the Holy that now resided on my hard drive was soulless and insubstantial. I could remove it from my life with the flick of a finger. So I did, along with all my other downloaded albums.

I recently had the same experience with books, courtesy of an app called iBooks for my iPhone and it made me very, very sad.

As e-readers like amazon`s Kindle and Apple`s iPad gain popularity let us not forget the lessons we have learned from the rise of the mp3. No two-dimensional, touch screen representation of a novel will ever replace the real thing. the iTunes software environment will never be as sweet as the shelves of your local bookstore. A book you buy and take home, read and then proudly display on a bookshelf has real value. The personalized inscription, dog-eared corners and smudged food stain on page 55 are important. You can lend it to a friend and tell them you picked it up at the airport and read it on the plane. You just can`t do that with a Kindle. The books contained in those things, even though they may be excellent reads are ultimately disposable and meaningless. Just like Def Leppard. 

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

John Vaillant and His $40K Tiger. No Golf or Mistresses Involved

Vancouver's John Vaillant just won Canada's biggest prize for non-fiction: The $40,000 British Columbia National Award. He won for The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, a book that I  pick up and put back on the shelf every time I go in The Bookkeeper. I read his first offering, The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed last year and I loved it. So, what's stopped me from making the leap from browsing to buying this one? Well, upon reading the dust jacket images of the 1996 movie The Ghost and the Darkness parade through my head. They seem awfully similar. Killer cat? Check. True story? Check. Meditations on the folly of progress and the displacement of local wildlife? Check. Val Kilmer? Thankfully not. Now that this book has two things going for it, a prestigious award and the absence of Val Kilmer, I think I will officially put it on my must-buy list. You'll get my review when I get to it. My bedside table is being crushed under the weight of books-to-be-read so it might be a while.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

Last Christmas, instead of buying my wife something she didn't really need with money we didn't really have, I donated some money to the Central Asia Institute in her name. Being the socially conscious, compassionate person that she is I figured the gesture would be appreciated. It was, but I didn't do it just to win points with her. I did it because after reading both this book and Stones into Schools I discovered a cause I am now passionate about. 

I believe that one of the greatest threats to our freedom as individuals is radical fundamentalism. This comes not just in the Islamic flavor (al-Qaeda) but Western ultra-conservative Christian as well (the CCoA) and anywhere that intolerance trumps altruism as the order of the day. I also believe that the root cause of intolerance is ignorance. Greg Mortenson believes this too, and he has set out to remedy it by building secular schools (mostly for girls) in some of the most  remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. A balanced education and hope for the future will do more for the people of this region than military might can ever accomplish. The pen is indeed mightier than the sword. 

My only small criticism of the book is a stylistic one. At times David Relin writes in a gushing, aw-shucks fashion about Mortenson's accomplishments. This makes him sound like a super-human living saint while at the same time, the quotes that Mortenson himself provides are very humble and self-deprecating. I much prefer the first-person style of Stones into Schools where the humility is front and center.

This book is now required reading for senior U.S. military commanders, Pentagon officers in counter-insurgency training and Special Forces deploying to Afghanistan. It should also top the reading list of everyone who needs a little reassurance that there are still people out there fighting the good fight. 

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Genre Spotlight: Science Fiction

What is the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions Sci-Fi? A 35-year-old guy in his parents basement studying the Klingon language? A giant toy robot from Mars destroying a scale model of New York City? William Shatner? That's all part of it, but that's like saying Harlequin Romance novels tell us everything we need to know about love.

The secret to Sci-Fi's success and recent surge in popularity (an Oscar nod for Inception and most of the new shows on television) is the rich, fertile ground it offers for great storytelling. Its speculative nature offers a unique way to view and make sense of the world. Whether it's District 9's take on Apartheid in South Africa or Isaac Asimov's three laws of robotics which are now essential for "real world" artificial intelligence research, science fiction will always find new ways to challenge, inspire and sometimes frighten us. Even if your Klingon is a bit rusty.

Here are a few of my favorite wordsmiths in this wonderful genre:

Peter F. Hamilton
His Nights Dawn trilogy is space opera at its finest. A huge cast of characters, a dilemma that threatens the entire human race and some of the most memorable moments in modern fiction make this an instant classic. His most recent Void Trilogy has kept me up way past my bed time, bending my mind with wonderfully complex ideas.

 Richard Morgan
Sometimes the best thing about a novel is a great protagonist. Meet Takeshi Kovacs, the anti-hero of Altered Carbon, Broken Angels and Woken Furies. He is smart, funny and just a little bit psychotic. He kills with savage indifference and consistently outmaneuvers the powerful forces aligned against him. You can't help but love a guy that makes James Bond look like a spineless pansy.

Iain M. Banks
Nobody does far-future science fiction better than this guy. His Culture series takes place during a golden age of human civilization. This "post-scarcity" society has evolved beyond primitive things like economics, poverty and biological death. People are free to do what they want, as long as it doesn't interfere with the  omnipotent A.I. starships called "Minds" that watch over us. Each novel set in this Universe is a completely unique and wonderful blend of humor, action and deep philosophical questions.

Dan Simmons
No longer a strict Sci-Fi scribe, Dan Simmons' first offerings to the reading public were some of the most emotionally resonant space faring yarns ever spun. I'm talking, of course about the Hyperion series. Originally conceived as a story to entertain his elementary school students, Dan took this fable filled with Time Tombs, Farcasters and a mysterious bladed creature known as The Shrike and turned it into a five novel opus that is easily one of the most entertaining things I have ever read.

Let's dismiss the notion right now that you have to hang out at comic book conventions and possess a scale model of The Enterprise in order to "get" this stuff. Science Fiction is for everyone, so let your geek flag fly! You might even learn something about theoretical physics or quantum mechanics. Or you can just enjoy evil aliens getting blown up by laser guns. Whatever makes you happy.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon

Aristotle was a pretty interesting guy. According to Annabel Lyon's fictionalization of this intellectual giant he was also wracked with self loathing, burdened by bipolar illness and forced to endure his own brilliance during an era of ignorance and warmongering. This account of his relationship with a young Alexander the Great starts off wonderfully but loses its way at the midpoint. The focus shifts jarringly from an exploration of interesting characters to a more broad (and far less engaging) exploration of historical events. I really wanted to love this book, and I almost did. But just as Aristotle learns while trying to teach compassion to a young Macedonian who was weaned on war; you can't change the nature of something to fit your own idea of greatness.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Raising a Reader

Now that my wife is back to work and we are socked in with snow, my daughter and I are hanging out with lots of free time on our hands. I figure this is a great opportunity to teach her the joys of reading. So far she is laughing at Dr. Seuss and drooling on Hemingway. She seems to prefer fiction and has a penchant for peek-a-boo narratives. Any plot that involves stuffed bunny rabbits hiding behind flaps or textured glitter pictures are a hit.

As I make my way through Three Cups of Tea, I am constantly reminded how fortunate we are that every person in this country has the right to a quality education (whether or not that quality is actually provided is another matter). I just hope that my daughter continues to share my love of reading and learning as she gets older and becomes a rebellious teen. Literacy is the most important gift I can give her.

Now, on to chewing Salman Rushdie!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Room by Emma Donoghue

Ever been inside the head of a five year old boy? It's a funny place; filled with cartoon puppy fireworks and lots of questions about the world. Meet Jack, the voice of Room and a voice that is going to be in your head for a very long time.  Emma Donoghue has pulled off something astonishing here. We see everything through the eyes of a little boy who's only frame of reference for making sense of the world is an 11 X 11 foot room, the few things inside it and his Ma who is stuck in there with him. The way Jack anthropomorphizes everything  like Meltedy Spoon, who got to close to Oven once is downright adorable and sorta' heartbreaking all at once. The way Jack and Ma's story plays out will have you up all night worrying about them.

The Matter with Morris by David Bergen

This is a book about a guy, written for guys by a guy. Not to say that ladies shouldn't read it, but I don't think  they would get the same punch-in-the-guts emotional payback. Morris is in full midlife crisis mode, struggling with the death of his son in Afghanistan. He is estranged from his wife, he liquidates all of his assets and he hires escorts to satisfy his sexual appetites. He is utterly lost in a hell of his own creation. I dare you not to cheer for him though. Despite his unsavory characteristics, his redemption becomes something we long for by the end.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

I'm not a Franzenite. I didn't follow his Oprah-anointed rise to demi-god status. I've never washed his car or been in his living room. I thought this was his first book. Damn you, Jonathan Fanzen; who ARE you?!? You  won't find him in these pages and that anonymity is his greatest asset. Freedom isn't about Jonathan Franzen, it is a return to an almost Dickensian style of pure narrative. Characters rule the day. Characters so finely drawn that you will be unable to put this novel down for fear of what might happen to them in your absence.

Quitting Facebook = Quitting Smoking

I quit smoking about seven years ago and man, it was hard. The withdraw and the inability to do anything I associated with it like drinking coffee, having a couple of beers or driving to work on a cold January morning was almost too much to bear. Most of my friends were still smoking so it also made me feel like a bit of an outsider to be the guy who spent his 15 minute break in the cafeteria reading his book, rather than outside having a butt and socializing.

I was out of the somewhat secret Social Smokers Network. Don't kid yourself, there are some pretty monumental secrets and juicy bits of gossip being traded out there on those partially enclosed patios ten feet from the entrance to any public building. Non smokers would lose sleep if they knew a fraction of what was being discussed. Mr. Assange, are you getting this?

I didn't really want to do it. I had to do it because it was bad for me. The worst cravings lasted about 14 days and despite the best efforts of my dubiously intentioned smoker friends, i.e: "Hey Ward, you want a smoke? Ha. Ha." I was able to stay clean and remain so to this day.

Yesterday I quit Facebook because I realized it was bad for me too. It was my first (and sometimes only) online destination despite the wealth of good stuff on the net. I needed it in the morning with my coffee. I liked to look an it and post on it in the evening while I was having a couple of beers, and I couldn't drive to work on a cold January morning without first updating my status. As my narcissistic fire was stoked by the idea of hundreds of "friends" that actually cared what I was doing on Saturday night my family was waiting for me to get off the computer and come open the Christmas presents while I was busy typing "Merry Christmas Everyone!" into the What's on your mind? widget.  I'm no psychiatrist, but I'd be willing to bet this behavior falls well within the criteria for addiction.. I would not be at all surprised to see support groups for Facebook addicts start popping up in the next few years.

When I booted up my computer to do the deed, the first thing I discovered was Facebook doesn't want you to quit. Big surprise. Tobacco companies didn't want me to quit either. I could deactivate my account, but isn't this the same thing as trying to kick the nicotine habit while you still have half a pack of smokes in your pocket? Also, the deactivation page has pictures of your friends saying "I'll miss you...". I won't really miss them though, because I see most of them at work every day. This kind of emotional blackmail is beneath even you, Mr. Zuckerberg and I've seen The Social Network. I know what you are capable of.

A helpful tech forum (forums are one of the greatest things about the 'net) provided me with instructions for permanently deleting my account. That's more like it: Cold turkey.

Telling Facebook why you are leaving is disturbingly mandatory. I felt a little indignant at being forced to explain myself so I chose the "other: please explain" option from the list and wrote:

This is nothing more than a highly sophisticated marketing tool. 
My personality is not for sale.
I prefer real interactions with actual people.

I hit "submit" and Facebook informed me that they will permanently delete my account in 14 days. If I log in before that time expires, it will be like I never even tried to quit at all. 

Looks like it's back to the cafeteria with a good book.