Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Teaser Tuesdays -- The Female Quixote

Teaser Tuesday time again, hosted by MizB. How it works is you grab the book you're reading, open to a page, and pick a juicy two-sentence teaser. No spoilers, obviously.

While waiting FORTY-FIVE FREAKING MINUTES for the subway this morning, I started a new book: The Female Quixote by Charlotte Lennox, another one from the 18th century. I think I may like it because it doesn't take itself too seriously. Anyway here we go:

You must know, Sir, said Lucy, sobbing, that there came a Man here to take away my Lady: A great Man he is, though he worked in the Gardens; for he was in Love with her: And so he would not own who he was.

Ah the stuggles of class. Also this happened in Season 1 of Desperate Housewives.



Piercing / Ryu Murakami
New York : Penguin, 2007
Originally published: 1997
Translated by Ralph McCarthy
192 p.

Kawashima Masayuki s a successful graphic designer living in Tokyo with his loving wife, Yoko, and their baby girl. Outwardly, their lives are a picture of happiness and contentment, but every night while his wife sleeps Kawashima creeps from his bed and watches of the baby's crib with an icepick in his hand and an almost visceral desire to use it.

One particular night, as this struggle unfolds once more, Kawashima makes a decision to confront his demons, and sets into motion an uncontrollable chain of events seeming to lead inexorably to murder. The follow-up to In the Miso Soup, Piercing confirms Ryu Murakami as the master of the psycho-thriller -- terrifying, sickening, and utterly gripping.

Ryu Murakami's work is very hit and miss to me. Some I find thoughtfully-crafted and insightful (like 69) and some I find to be overwrought pseudo-psychological ineffective cheap-shock drek (like Almost Transparent Blue.) Piercing lies somewhere in between.

Though the back cover advertizes the book as a follow-up to In the Miso Soup -- my favorite Ryu Murakami work and the only one where he successfully tells a story both horrific and sympathetic without overdoing either -- I don't find Piercing nearly as compelling.

It tells the story of Masayuki, described above standing over his baby's cradle with an ice pick. In order to get this drive out of his system, he decides to stab a woman and meticulously plans the murder. He calls an S&M callgirl service for his victim and is sent Chiaki, our other protagonist, who is also deranged and prone to psychotic breaks and cutting herself. The novel switches haphazardly between their perspectives through a night that goes horribly wrong for both of them, leading to them eventually finding a strange understanding and making some sort of connection.

Murakami does a good job in getting into their minds and portraying their psychosis and torment, but overall the story itself doesn't stand up, at least in today's society. Both characters' problems stem from parental abuse, which is not only somewhat cliche, but also (as presented here) too simplistic. "My mom hit me" and "My dad touched me" isn't enough to explain their current states. It just doesn't track. Plus, their individual breaks from reality are too disjointed and eventually leave the reader (not just the characters) alienated from any real connection.

This story was originally written in 1994, and our culture has come a long way since then, especially Japanese culture. We've seen this stuff before in other books and films like -- pardon the example -- Hostel, which, though miserably bad, makes Piercing feel dated. Today's audiences need more from their psychopaths.


Monday, June 29, 2009

Microbe Monday -- The Runt

We're all very into books here, but Microbe Monday is more about the blurb. The article. The short story. The haiku.

So over the weekend, I'll seek out a new literary magazine or open a collection to a random poem or just pick a story I remember from my past and riff on it. Briefly! I don't expect this to turn into a meme, but feel free to gank my little graphic and do it yourself too!

Microbe Monday

This week I discovered a comic book series I think I'm really going to enjoy. As usual, I think I'm last in line in finding out about it. It's called Fables, and as far as I can tell, it's about all of these storybook characters like Snow White, the Frog Prince, and the three bears fleeing an enemy in the land of fables and taking refuge in New York.

All I've read so far is half of a graphic novel outside the main series called 1001 Nights of Snowfall. It's a collection of short works about Fable characters, each done by a different artist.

"The Runt" is one of those short tales. Illustrated by Mark Wheatley, it's the story of a wolf pup sired when the North Wind takes the form of a wolf. Being so small, he's constantly teased and bullied by his six older brothers until he's left bitter and feeling useless. He vows to hunt a larger animal every day until he is strong enough that he will never feel useless again.

Although it may have been obvious to anyone else reading, it didn't occur to me right away that this was a Big Bad Wolf origin story until the cameos of the Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood, all victims of the wolf pup's gradual descent into corruption.

This is a time where you can't spit without grossing out a fairytale character's origin story, but this one stood out to me because it also felt very much like a fairy tale on its own. It didn't modernize anything or take a contemporary tone, and it would fit right into a Grimm collection. Also, since you sympathize with the "cute little puppy dog" so much at first, his transformation is all the more jarring. (Not to mention the fact that even though you always knew he was Big and Bad, you've probably never seen a painting of him standing among a sea of bodies with a bloody human arm in his mouth.)

Anyway, I'm already a huge an of this series even though I haven't even gotten volume one yet. The wolf story alone makes this collection worth checking out.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling

Tom Jones

Tom Jones / Henry Fielding
Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2008
Originally published: 1749
xliii, 916 p.

Fielding's comic masteriece of 1749 was immediately attacked as 'A motley history of bastardism, fornication, and adultery.'

Indeed, this novel overflows with a marvellous assortment of prudes, whores, libertines, bumpkins, misanthropes, hypocrites, scoundrels, virgins, and all too fallible humanitarians. At the centre of one of the most ingenious plots in English fiction stands a hero whose actions were, in 1749, as shocking as they are funny today. Expelled from Mr Allworthy's country estate for his wild temper and sexual conquests, Tom Jones loses his money, joins the army, and pursues his beloved across Britain to London, where he becomes a kept lover and confronts the possibility of incest. Rightly regarded as Fielding's greatest work, Tom Jones is one of the first and most influential English novels.

This carefully modernized edition is based on Fielding's emended fourth edition text and offers the most thorough notes, maps, and bibliography and up-to-date introduction.

Ok guys, I've been reading this book for like 2 months now. I'd go about 200 pages and then quit and read a short novel or two as a little break and then come back. Of all the 18th-century literature I've read (very little), I liked this the best. It was believable, eloquent, and legitimately funny, which is really didn't expect. but I think it appealed to me most because it had a much broader scope than other novels I've read from the time. It was loosely modelled after Don Quixote, and the picaresque quality -- especially of the second half -- paints a picture of English society on a scale larger than the more private worlds of say Pamela (which I did not like) or Roxana (which I did). It allowed Fielding to develop a large cast of diverse characters to critique a whole society rather than just a portion of one.

The only problem I had with the large scope of the novel was that many times I got confused as to who was who and what in the name of Dog was going on, especially in the last 250 pages. We all know what eighteenth-century prose is like, and my brain has a tendency to get swept up in it, too lost in the scansion to realize that I've gone three pages without taking in any meaning. Often I'd find a paragraph full of pronouns and have no idea to whom they referred. That's not to say Fielding is an unclear author. The opposite is true, in fact. I'm just kinda crap at keeping focused.

My favorite aspect of the novel was the voice of the narrator. While not a character in the story, Fielding (if it was indeed meant to be him) engaged the reader, often addressing him directly. The book is fraught with little asides about writing or opinions on what's going on, and it gives the novel and intimacy and charm I found very appealing. They can also guide the reader through how Fielding intends for them to interpret certain events, oftentimes contradicting what a modern reader would instinctually think. It's helpful for understanding the book in its context.

Also, the novel is divided into 18 "books" with about 12-18 "chapters" each, and the first chapter of each book deviates from the main story so the narrator can expound on a topic of his choice, usually a moral issue or something about the craft of writing. These aren't all interesting, and you can skip them entirely if you want, but I rather enjoyed hearing his take on reality vs. fiction, literary critics, or the art of writing prologues.

So if you're at all interested in the origins of the novel or 18th-century fiction and haven't really explored the body of work from that time, I recommend this as a good starting point. Tom Jones is a brick and a committment to get through, but it's highly entertaining and despite its age retains an oddly modern feel.


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Wondrous Word Wednesday


This is the only other meme I'll do, I promise. Hosted by Bermuda Onion, the point is to share all the new words you came across this week. I do this anyway in a little notebook, so why not share, y'know?

This week I'm determined to finally finish Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, so it's 18-century words here... probably some that deserve resurrection.

spleen -- melancholy ; from another footnote, "'The fever on the spirits'... is a psychosomatic disorder, also called hysterics, the vapours, and the spleen. Doctors were especially fond of diagnosing their female patients with this condition."

Jones began to entertain strong hopes that his Sophia was present; and these hopes gave him more spirits than the lights, the music, and the company, though these are pretty strong antidotes against the spleen.

quinsy -- inflammation of the throat

caudle -- a warm drink of spiced gruel and wine or ale, for women in childbed

And I'm also reading The Golem's Eye by Jonathan Stroud, which managed to stir up three words on one page:

denuded -- without the natural or usual covering ; bald

antimacassar -- a cloth put over the back of a chair to prevent it getting dirty

Everything was much as she remembered: the frayed carpet, denuded of color; the little mirror over the mantelpiece; the elderly sofa and chair that her father had inherited from his father, complete with lacy antimacassars on the headrests.

acquisitive -- characterized by a strong desire to gain and possess

It was a gleeful, acquisitive smile, struggling hard to be contained.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Teaser Tuesdays -- Tom Jones

Teaser Tuesday time again, hosted by MizB. How it works is you grab the book you're reading, open to a page, and pick a juicy two-sentence teaser. No spoilers, obviously, and I'm making up a new rule right now where it can't be about anything gross like mushrooms so everybody start following that rule, ok? K, thanks.

I'm reading Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, and I have been for ages, but I'm finally in the home stretch. Anyway:

And hence, I think, we may very fairly draw an argument, to prove how extremely natural virtue is to the fair sex; for, though there is not, perhaps, one in ten thousand who is capable of making a good actress, and even among these we rarely see two who are equally able to personate the same character, yet this of virtue they can all admirably well put on; and as well those individuals who have it not, as those who possess it, can all act it to the utmost degree of perfection.

Sorry for that one, ladies. Thank heavens for social development, yeah?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Microbe Monday -- Tobermory

I'm starting a new tradition. It's called Microbe Monday, see, and it's in response to the generally accepted idea that Mondays are kinda crappy and nobody wants to do anything. I dunno how true it is for anyone. Personally, I like Mondays.

Whatever, the whole idea is to talk about something small. We're all very into books here, but Microbe Monday is more about the blurb. The article. The short story. The haiku.

So over the weekend, I'll seek out a new literary magazine or open a collection to a random poem or just pick a story I remember from my past and riff on it. Briefly! I don't expect this to turn into a meme, but feel free to gank my little graphic and do it yourself too!

Incidentally, the microbe mascot of Microbe Monday is Grover. He's kinda surly, so just ignore him.

Microbe Monday

For this first ever Microbe Monday, I picked a short story by Saki called "Tobermory." It's about a cat who, through the wonders of Edwardian era science, has learned to speak English. Kudos, Tobermory! Actually, kudos to the scientist who developed the technique, Mr. Appin, who decides to showcase this marvel at Lady Blemley's house party, Tobermory being her cat.

Naturally, the cat tells all the guests' secrets and repeats all the mean things they've said about each other behind closed doors. Obviously... I mean if they're not battling evil, what else do talking cats ever do? Anyway, it's hilarious. Soon, Lady Blemley laments that her cat will have to be put down.

Saki's whole raison d'être is to critique the hypocracy of Edwardian society, and of all the stories I've read by him this one does it most bluntly. It's a concise and amusing introduction to his work, and you can read it in five minutes.

I read "Tobermory" out of The Penguin Complete Saki (1982), but it's in the public domain along with all of Saki's works, and therefore available online. Go read it immediately.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Stranger in a Strange Land

stranger cover

Stranger in a Strange Land / Robert A. Heinlein
New York : Ace Books, c1987
Originally published: 1961
438 p.

Here is Heinlein's masterpiece -- the brilliant spectacular and incredibly popular novel that grew from a cult favorite to a bestseller to a classic in a few short years. It is the story of Valentine Michael Smith, the man from Mars who taught humankind grokking and water-sharing. And love.

I'm having trouble starting this review because I have such ambivalent feelings about this book. The first half -- and you'll hear this a lot -- was great, but the second half degenerated into drawn-out proselytizing that was outdated, self-important, and most of all boring.

The book takes place in a not-too-distant future. The first mission to Mars takes place, and someone thought it'd be a good idea to have 4 married couples go because obviously it's so important that everybody be able to have sex on the way and what could possibly go wrong?

The answer is everything could go wrong because one of them gets pregnant, dies in childbirth, her husband isn't the father, jealous murder, yadda yadda, basically the baby is raised by Martians and picked up over 20 years later by the crew of the second mission to Mars. Nevermind how a baby can survive on Mars with no air, running water, or formula with a species that we find out later in the book throws babies out the window and lets them fight for their own survival. This was written in 1961 when we still thought the moon was made of cheese, so you just have to accept it.

Anyway, the alien-raised human is named Mike Smith, and through some legal weirdness of Earth-That-Will-Be, he's a billionaire. Also, in an amusing jab at mankind's obsession with imperialism, he ends up basically King of Mars. The latter is legally dismissed eventually. Anyway, this is a great premise, and the first half of the novel is excellent. Smith has no concept of human culture, language, or thought, and characters like this are perfect for dissecting and criticizing the human condition... if they're written well.

And Mike is definitely written well at first. Innocence like his can only be captured by an talented and self-examining author, whom we apparently have here. The way the government reacts to him and tries to manipulate the situation is also hauntingly realistic. Kudos, Heinlein.

So Mike lives in a government hospital for a while, though the government lies and keeps him captive, which is fine because he is perfectly content knowing nothing more. But a nurse, Jill, helps him escape, and they wind up at the house of Jubal Harshaw, a doctor/lawyer/recluse/general grumpypants, who lives how he wants with three secretaries and two men who work as electrician and groundskeeper. The best parts of the book take place here because Jubal is a fun character. He's a smart, jaded, irascible libertarian who I pretty much hope to be when I grow up.

Mike and the others learn from each other, and everything is great until the third section of the book starts and everything turns around. Suddenly Mike left with Jill and they join some carnaval or something and she dances in vaudeville acts (which is just as satisfying as nursing because as much as people laud Heinlein for his empowered female characters, they're ultimately exploited) and then suddenly Mike discovers why people laugh (to make the pain go away) and has sex and totally understands humanity all of a sudden. It's hard to explain, none of the characters develop any further except to join the extreme SEX CULT Mike starts where everyone lives in harmony and learns the Martian language, which grants them special powers like telepathy, telekinesis, and never having to eat or sleep. Everyone has sex with everyone (except no gay touching, that is a wrongness) and we all live happily ever after and Mike dies like Jesus or something and they eat soup made of him. I'd go more into it, but it's really not worth it and I need to take a shower in a minute.

The whole philosophy was pretty revolutionary for the age. If you consider this book was plotted through the '50's and published in '61, it anticipated the free love movement, and indeed "grokking" and "water sharing" are still aspects of what's left of that movement. But honestly, the book just got dull and preachy. All the characters changed on a totally transparent level, just accepting this great new life. Nobody developed, there was very little naval-gazing... even the writing style got worse. It was all told in long, boring conversations by people who were obviously just standing in for Heinlein's own voice. It read more like a manifesto with characters than a real story.

As a historical document of the '60's, I suppose it has value, but you're much better off reading actual historical documents. The novel itself is totally skippable.

The oddest thing about Heinlein's free-love utopia is that I can't tell if he's actually in favor of it. Yes, he's clearly pushing it since by the end of the novel, almost every character is immersed in it and ostensibly a drooling, shiny happy, but there's this ellusive cynical undertone I can't put my finger on. It might be that Jubal never officially joins up with the Martian hippies because, as he claims, he's too old and set in his ways at this point. Since Jubal has been Heinlein's own voicebox, maybe the cynicism I'm picking up is the author's jealousy of his own characters. Maybe he regrets never being able to live in the society he is promoting.

I dunno, obviously I'm making stuff up at this point so I'll stop. I didn't even like this book, why am I still here?

Stranger in a Strange Land Review

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Meet Dieter

I figured my new blog should have a mascot: something that fit in with the theme of "dust and spores (and other potentially deadly organisms that can enter your body as a result of reading books)". So I opened up Adobe Illustrator, which I had NEVER used and which is, incidentally, INCREDIBLY HARD TO USE if you don't know anything about anything, but eventually I slogged my way through some basic functions and came up with this guy!


Meet Dieter! He is a spore, and he's not very smart. Even though he can't read, he loves books! If you ever open an old, moldy book and hear a tiny voice going "GRAAAAH!" as a microscopic organism flies towards your mouth, it's probably just Dieter saying hello.

He took me an hour and a half to make, so expect to see more of him in this exact pose.

And maybe some of his cousins!?!?!

Teaser Tuesdays

This is a little meme hosted by MizB, which I found via Lisa.

Basically, grab the book you're reading, open to a page, and pick a juicy two-sentence teaser. Oh and make sure the sentence is not "Snape kills *DELETED*" or anything that would make you a jerk.

I'm reading Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein and probably will be for 50,000 years at the rate I'm going. Nonetheless:

You know I wouldn't be rude to the old woman who posed for that. What I can't understand is a so-called artist having the gall to pose somebody's great grandmother in her skin... and you having the bad taste to want it around.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

I Am Here, It Is Me, the Author of this Blog Here Writing This, Hello

Because people who write want to be read and people who read want to write and be read.

Because reading is communal even if the act of reading is private.

Because books smell.

Because no computer, iFad, PSP, Blackberry, or 3G Smartphone works as a security blanket.

Because printed paper can never become obsolete. As long as there's light it does it's job.

Because I TOTALLY acknowledge the irony of using a blog to condemn transient technology in favor of dusty old books.

And because whatever happened to LeVar Burton...

Because of these reasons and more, I present to you Dust and Spores, my sophomore voyage into the world of book blogging.

I say "sophomore voyage" because I used to have a book blog, which I stopped posting in about a year and a half ago. It was called Booky Ooky, and yes, I find the name a bit embarrassing. Go poke around for a bit. I'll wait.

Because reading is communal even if the act of reading is private.

It's a bit sad, isn't it? I stopped posting for one simple, yet incontrovertible reason: I got lazy. This happens a lot. Truly, it's a bit more complex than that, but let's be honest: I can't think of really anything I've followed through to the end. But that's no reason to stop doing anything altogether, right?.

Anyway, you may wonder why I don't just start posting there again. This also has a simple explanation: I just tried to and can't for the life of me remember the URL I'm supposed to type to access the WordPress administrator thingamawhozit. I might import the entries from there to here if I ever figure it out, but maybe not. You know me and promises.

So if any posts predate this one, just know they were not here before. THIS is my maiden voyage.... my SECOND maiden voyage... like those girls in high school who reclaim their virginity.

Anyway, lastly I plan to ditch this boring blogger template for something more home-brewed and 1995ish, so mind the dust and don't judge me for being generic for a while.

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