Friday, November 24, 2006

Adverbs by Daniel Handler

My students loved The Series of Unfortunate Events, so when I saw that Daniel Handler/Lemony Snicket had written a book called Adverbs (I'm a sucker for a good part of speech), I had to read it.

You can't read this book like you would any other book. I tried to, for the first three or four chapters, and in chapter five, I realized that this book isn't stable. The characters don't stay the same. It's not just that they're dynamic characters, it's that the characters literally aren't the same from chapter to chapter. People who seemed to have something to do with Andrea or David in chapter one don't have anything to do with the Andrea in chapter six or thirteen (I'm making these numbers up--I had to return the book to the library and don't have it on hand to refer to).

I never quite stopped trying to connect one David to another, but everyone started blurring together. The result, other than confusion, is that everyone eventually seemed to be living the same, or at least similar, story.

If you've ever read Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, you know how he retells several stories, and how details change in the retellings. Well, Adverbs is like that but on speed or cocaine or something. The characters live in a topsy-turvy world where half the people are expecting a huge disaster. The characters are, themselves, topsy-turvy. It all makes for a brilliant, if jarring ride.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

A Map of the World by Jane Hamilton

This book had its moments. Maybe it would have had more, but I stopped reading 2/3 of the way through. I couldn't muster enough concern about Alice or her husband or their children to make the last third of the book worthwhile. I don't even care whether Alice did what she was accused of or not.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Preservationist by David Maine

There's nothing new under the sun. Plots are plots. Everything just gets reinvented. This I was told in high school English.

My latest successful reading endeavor is The Preservationist by David Maine, which is a reinvention of the story of Noah and the ark. Rewriting mythological stories has become a popular idea, though it's not an uncommon one--writers like Jeannette Winterson, Piers Anthony, and (my favorite) Robin McKinley have been reinventing myths and fairy tales for a long time. The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley is a famous and wonderful reseeing of Aruthurian legends, and Margaret Atwood has rewritten the myth of Penelope and Odysseus. I could delve here into questioning just how new or original any of these stories are, how new they can be made. Mostly, I suspect it would become an inspection worthy of a Women's Studies paper, since most retellings seem to focus on previously unconsidered female points of view.

Instead (and for now), I'll stick to the book at hand. David Maine's The Preservationist tells the story of Noah and his family in the days of ship-building, the flood, and the days after. Just about everyone's perspectives are covered--Noah's, his wife's, and Noah's sons and daughters-in-law. Noah's wife doesn't have a name and is only referred to as "the Wife." Two of his daughters-in-law are from southern and northern tribes; one of them sounds strikingly like a 20th century, almost man-hating feminist, grating under the patriarchy it seems she has just been exposed to, though she had allegedly been married to Noah's son for several years. This isn't the only 20th century-esque bit in the book; there's also the use of "rut" as an alternative to "f---", so you get a lot of "Rut you"s between the brothers. That brought me out of the book quite a bit. And then there are frequent references to literaly rutting (but no details, so don't go paging through the book for smutty sections...

We're not really sure what to think of the characters because we spend so little time in their heads and so much time being told the others' thoughts of them. At some point, two of the sons seem to switch personalities. The most constant characters were Noah himself and his youngest daughter-in-law (who's a bit flaky and though you might think that this wouldn't be difficult to keep consistent, it's actually pretty hard to not make not-so-bright characters suddenly smarter). With the inconsistencies, it would feel like an underdeveloped book in the end, if there wasn't so much "rutting" going on that any more would have become tedious.

Overall, it was an entertaining read, even if I haven't made it sound like it. (Keep in mind that I did finish reading the book.) At least, it was entertaining as long as I didn't think too hard.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Last Notes and Other Stories by Tamas Dobozy

I know I said that I'm not usually drawn to short stories, but . . . .

Last Notes is, foremost, a collection of character studies. The character holds more sway than setting or plot. And no character exists as comedy relief. Each occupies his(/her) own space and insists on being taken seriously, even while tottering on the edge of madness.

Subjects which would easily lead other authors to humorous writing are instead treated with all formality, credibility, and compassion, even in "Phillip's Killer Hat," the story of two brothers, one with an unidentified mental illness and the other who acts as his caretaker and his foil, and in "The Man Who Came out of the Corner of My Eye," the story of a man who alienates himself from his friends and his wife and then begins to see and hear a man who only appears in his peripheral vision, and who claims to want to make a business of helping people detach from their friends and family.

I found myself thinking fondly of literary critics (only because I don't have to tease out these ideas unless I actually want to) and what they would have to say about the resistance of the Hunagrian immigrant characters to accept Canada as 'home'. What would be made of the woman in "Tales of Hungarian Resistance" who had no stories of her own to tell, but only commentary based on her husband's stories? or of the two main characters who box out their marital issues in "Into the Ring"? And then there's "Radio Blik," a story with postmodern tendencies, and so many other critical crevices that I would have to turn to my old literary criticism book to even get started.

Dobozy's collection was a fast and furious switch from Carol Shields's stories. I found it harder to read cover to cover because the humor was darker, less playful, but no less impressive for its more serious nature.

Like a rich seven course meal, these stories are not to be ingested in giant gulps, but in small bites. Each story needs to be given time to settle before moving onto the next course; to try to inhale these experiences like a lunch in less than half an hour would be a mistake. This is a collection to savor.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Maid Marian: A Novel by Elsa Watson

I picked this up at a local bookstore. I've enjoyed Robin Hood literature in the past, and thought I would give Elsa Watson's book a try. Though it's easy to read, I am disappointed that the author doesn't take more liberties with the story. The characters are mostly flat, even Robin Hood.

Watson, through Marian, informs the readers of what they are to understand about the characters, rather than to let the characters' actions speak for themselves, and more often than not, the author's idea for the plot seems to define the characters and drive their (sometimes jarringly uncharacteristic) actions rather than the other way around.

If you're in the mood for a tale of Sherwood Forest, I would find another. If you're particularly interested in Marian's perspective, I would recommend Lady of the Forest by Jennifer Roberson. You'll find more interesting adventures and more developed characters, and (as I recall) far less character navel-gazing.

Dressing Up for the Carnival by Carol Shields

I don't usually go for short story collections when I select what to read next. Maybe they remind me too much of forced readings from school (both from my days as a student and as a teacher). Or maybe I've just been confused by what was supposed to be top notch writing in upper tier publications because I didn't understand them, or what about them was considered good. Lately, though, I've found myself gravitating towards a few different authors, just to try them out. First was Alice Munroe, whose collection Runaway I enjoyed, but I gave up on whichever collection I tried to read next.

Then came Dressing Up for the Carnival. This collection of stories--truly short, with the longest story being a mere 20 pages--is easy and pleasurable to read. I particularly enjoyed Shield's playful sense of language. "Absence" was delightful, ticklish to the intellect, a story about a writer with a stuck key on her keyboard ("But after she had typed half a dozen words, she found that one of the letters on the keyboard was broken, and to make matters worse, a vowel, the very letter that attaches to the hungry self."). Shields herself doesn't use an instance of that vowel in her story.

I intend to reread Dressing Up for the Carnival, to peel away some of the skins of the stories, because I'm quite certain I will love this book all the more for a second reading, and find quite a different collection underneath than the first reading presented me with. Other stories that I look forward to re-encountering are:
  • "Ilk"--the meeting of a pair of English professors at a conference; the narrative (as a mode) is treated almost as a debatable scientific phenomenon.
  • "Windows"--a couple of artists find the recently imposed "window tax" a new challenge to their creativity.
  • "Weather"--all of the nation's weathermen go on strike, and the country suffers a subsequent lack of weather.
  • "A Scarf"--an author on tour decides to search for the perfect scarf for her daughter.
I suppose I could just list them all.

About the book, from Random House of Canada