Sunday, November 29, 2009

goodreads book review: perdido street station, china miéville

Perdido Street Station Perdido Street Station by China Miéville

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
some interesting ideas in a book that seemed bloated with words to me. i knew it wasn't going to be favourite even into the first four pages that introduce us to the reek of the rivers of the city new crobuzon. i thought it was london at first, a gross yet achingly familiar dickensian london, but as the book unfolded i realized that the author had created a different world, steampunk in flavour, with a weird populace that includes humanoids like the scientist isaac who is in love with lin, a khepri sculptress with a human body and the head of a bug. there are also what i think are toad people, the voldanoi (frustratingly i felt not enough time was spent introducing these people and other parts of the universe, and he wasted exposition on wyrman, i could have figured those out because they are akin to gargoyles). there's also cactus people, and bird people called the garuda, and the first two hundred pages tell the story of the two lovers, with lin accepting a sculpting commission with a crime boss, and isaac being engaged by a garuda that wants his wings back. abruptly all hell breaks loose, and then the book becomes about an adventure quest/chase through the city following isaac and a motley crew of cronies.

the most intriguing thing in this universe was the idea of the "remade", people who had bodies that were altered, either out of their own choice, or more usually, as punishments for crimes, usually with a pointed and horrific flair. people have dog parts and metal parts, and sealed mouths, and more eyes, and arms than usual, or less. metamorphosis, transition, body, and self-image are ideas that underpin the novel, with big questions asked, and left unanswered.

there are too many sub-plots, and too many words on things that didn't seem important. all through i felt impatient because everything was taking too long, and that's the reason why i can't give this book a better review. it's inventive, and creepy, but it was hard work for me to get through all of it. there's too much of it, and too many pieces. it's too florid. it's just too too. i would have edited this book right down, and structurally some of it frustrates the hell out of me.. this is a common complaint of mine. so if you like books that meander in the telling, don't mind my two stars.

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Friday, November 27, 2009

goodreads book review: that summer in paris, morley callaghan

That Summer in Paris (Exile Classics series) That Summer in Paris by Morley Callaghan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
that summer in paris was like old home week for me: i got to visit with hemingway, fitzgerald, and joyce back in the heyday of paris in the 20s which i haven't done in some time. callaghan writes cleanly and well, but sometimes his ego is exhausting. despite the fact i'm canadian as he is, and from toronto, none of his books were on my school syllabus growing up, whereas mordecai richler, robertson davies, and margaret atwood are staples, and i'm sure that would have burned him up because he had such a high estimation of his own talent. nonetheless, it is an easy read, filled with interesting little observations and memories of some of the greatest writers we have yet seen. it warmed the cockles of my heart to walk with callaghan and hemingway on the streets i know so well, in the centre of my city. the book was written in the year after hemingway's death, and begins at the beginning with callaghan's luck in joining the newspaper staff at the toronto [daily:] star when hemingway worked there.

lesser figures like robert mcalmon are also old friends to me, and even buffy and graeme make an appearance. buffy was john glassco's nickname, and he wrote another account of these days, from the perspective of a very minor writer entitled memoirs of montparnasse which i read and enjoyed many years ago. glassco never palled around with hemingway, but i recall a very fascinating and poignant portrait of lord alfred douglas, (affectionately known as bosie to his friends, lover wilde, and to posterity) in his later years.

perhaps the most interesting thing to me about this book was the stand against florid writing that hemingway and callaghan and others made during this era. the journalistic school that they embraced changed the face of literature for a time, and while i see strengths in all styles of writing, i am coming to a crossroads for myself about what i need the writing i read to be, and his observations shed some light on that.

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Monday, November 23, 2009

goodreads book review: sharp objects, gillian flynn

Sharp Objects: A Novel Sharp Objects: A Novel by Gillian Flynn

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
i'm not sure what to say about this book because while i think it reads like a bestseller should, i didn't enjoy it. the prose is compelling in that i felt compelled to finish it, and i did. i couldn't put it down but i wanted to get it over with. i think the writing is engaging but nothing special. i will remember no turns of phrase, or kernels of wisdom but then again, this is not shirley jackson, or daphne du maurier.

i can say it seemed pretty obvious to me who would turn out to be guilty of the crimes in the end, and i was right. all of the characters in this book except for the guilty and the protagonist seemed clear types to me: the out-of-towner cop, the sheriff, the older brother of one of the girls killed, his girlfriend, all of the women of the reporter protagonists generation, of her mother's, of her sister's.. i have seen all these characters on sicker episodes of law and order or some other crime procedural, which for the record, i usually have no trouble anticipating the conclusions of either. i won't say i was surprised when i read that author, flynn, was a former television critic for entertainment weekly, in addition to a film degree. she has a very firm hold on characterization, and tropes, and she knows just when to serve up something that seems contrary to what you expect, to turn it on its head, and sufficiently creep her reader out. certainly, i exclaimed "this is disgusting" in a crowded subway because i couldn't help myself.

if you are looking for a dark and shocking read that includes shades of southern gothic, perversion, and self-mutilation, this may be the book for you. having finished this book, i don't think i ever want to see it again because it didn't really give me anything. it grossed me out, yes, but it never really scared me, or enlightened me, or surprised me. i respect the writing crafted here, but i don't admire it. i'm glad that it's finished and i don't have to read it anymore.

sharp objects had nuances of an elizabeth george book called missing joseph i once read that i liked better, probably because it was more difficult to figure out and a lot lot less grotesque.

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Friday, November 20, 2009

goodreads book review: ali smith, girl meets boy

Girl Meets Boy: The Myth of Iphis (Canongate Myths) Girl Meets Boy: The Myth of Iphis by Ali Smith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
a book that plays out at a break-neck pace, except for the moments where the language is allowed to meander into scenes of poetry and gives one pause in the midst of beauty it captures. there is much to love in ali smith's finesse with language. this novel contains re-tellings but i don't think this novel is so much a re-telling of the myth of iphis, even though that's how it was positioned as part of "the myths series" published by canongate books, but rather it uses that story as the fulcrum on which it turns. there are very interesting characters here, and notions about people, and love, and sexuality, and the myths that we tell and re-tell to ourselves, to each other.

there's not really much in the way of plot but that doesn't much matter because the writing is so engaging, and the book is so short that you don't miss it. i had trouble with some of the pop culture references at the beginning of the novel which made it harder for me to find my bearings: it seemed that if i was british, i would understand some of it better. i didn't know what the generation game was and it wasn't really explained, and the description of blind date confused me because i'd only seen american blind date, and it didn't seem to be anything like british blind date.

ultimately i did find myself wishing that the book wasn't so short, and that the writer had given me a bit more time with some of her characters, especially the grandparents we meet at the beginning of the novel. the book has potentials oozing through its pages, and when it was over, it did feel like there was book wasn't finished, that it was a sketch of a book, that it could say much more.

interestingly, girl meets boy was a lot more like what i had expected middlesex to be than middlesex actually was. i will definitely read this again, perhaps when more in the mood for a love story, and i'm interested in reading more of ali smith's work.

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how like people

The worms had risen again in the rain. They were strewn across the pavement. To the unsuspecting eye they might look like long, slightly swollen pine needles, or some other tree relics; mostly inert, merging with the twilight, they showed only in faint relief, except for that one that undulated purposefully across my path and tipped me off to their coming.

I stepped gingerly through them, hoping to avoid contact, wondering how there could be this many, and how it was that they performed this trick, this act of levitation, rising through the earth and then somehow through the concrete, to make the world a worm mine field.

I didn’t want worm guts all over my shoes. I just wanted to get by and not be hemmed in by all these beings who couldn’t shout a “look out!” to me, who aside from that lone go-getter, seemed resigned to stay in the place where they miraculously appeared and trust to fate that they would not end up a smudge in my rubber tread.

How modern of you, I thought. How like people. I was glad that it was dark, that i did not have to take responsibility for their deaths, and I wiped my feet vigorously on the mat when I came back to this place while everyone else slept.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

goodreads book review: a handful of dust, evelyn waugh

A Handful of Dust A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
i found this to be much, much better than the two other waugh books i read: vile bodies, and the loved one. i would have liked it immensely had it ended about three quarters in, as stopping there would have satisfied my need for comeuppance for jerks but that comeuppance never came. the last quarter of the book is almost a sequel to the first part, and left a darkness in its wake.

and yet, from what i have come to understand in reading waugh, he never would have let me have what i craved, and i have to come to believe he is much like the other e.w., edith wharton, after all. the tarnished polished people they describe wallow, and they wallow deep. there is no rising above here. there is only a hard, empty entitlement or failure, or death. his books always have shocking deaths in them -- i have actually gasped aloud. i felt waugh had a much better handle on his characters here: they are more believable to me than the caricatures of the previous novels, and breathe, if pathetically, or malignantly.

that last quarter ending i have since found has also been published previously and separately as a short story called "the man who liked dickens". it was in fact a prequel rather than a sequel. it is intensely creepy: never before has the reference to the works of charles dickens left with me such dread. and yet, i do think the casual reader might feel a slight disconnect when they embark upon this as a section of the novel. they feel like two different works, i think.

(when the lovely mariel left me a comment, i did a bit more research and found a link to a paris review interview with waugh. he mentions this novel and the separate story and their genesis there, so i thought i'd post it here:
paris review art of fiction no. 30.)

Creative Commons License
This work by Maureen de Sousa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

cross-posted at booklikes and
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goodreads book review: all fires the fire, julio cortazar

All Fires the Fire All Fires the Fire by Julio Cortázar

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
i like cortazar's facility with language, and inevitably, as with any latin literature, it resonates with my own understanding of how families operate and cultural proclivities. and yet, for the most part these stories did not move me. there are a few that i admired very much, most of all, the island at noon, the most simply told of the stories, of a male flight attendant who happens to glance out with the window, and espy a small island which he comes to see as the focus of his life. he calls it the golden turtle island and he plans and thinks and daydreams for the day he will be there: swimming in its coves and sheltering under its trees. it ends in an ingenious, and satisfying, yet disturbing way. simple and visceral: just the way i like it.

the southern thruway, instructions for john howell, and the other heaven are quite good, and fascinating, in their ways. the rest of the stories are stylistically innovative and yet leave me cold. i think well worth reading as a first cortazar to give an appreciation of his style, and interests as a writer, and am interested in reading another sample. for some reason he reminds of the richard ford stuff i read, but some of his ideas aspire to borges and dick.

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