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.