Saturday, January 21, 2012
General Musings: Just a reminder that tomorrow I am leaving for three weeks in Victoria for my residency at Royal Roads University. I will be taking a respite from blogging but will return to my sisyphean task once I am home.
My addled arithmetic tells me that I am 5% done my project--okay a fraction of a percent under but allow me a whole number. Just 480 more books and days to go--is it just me or does that seem like a big number?
Back at work and I am very excited by the pace and challenges of being an Assistant Deputy Chief. I'm also back into the physical fitness scheme of things. By mistake (or my wife's insidious design) I am watching a Zip.ca offering, Julie and Julia. It has just started and the characters are talking about blogging--very apropos. The husband of the blogging protagonist seems very supportive--I should be so lucky. Cooking a meal or two a day--what a joke--I think my challenge is better. I wonder if Meryl Streep will play me in the film--I bet she'll get my voice dead-on--if she can do Thatcher she can do McAsey.
Recently, the reading is going well although my commute home is not allowing me to get my full reading time in. I need to get up in the night for an hour and read--I'll let you know if it works.
Okay, sorry to prattle on but this movie is the most inspirational movie on blogging ever! Maybe I should plan on writing a book on my blog about Julie Powell's blog cum film about Julia Child's life.
Running Page Count: 5,689
Today's Title (Classic Fiction): Jonathon Swift's Gulliver's Travels
Preface: "One of the keystones of English literature...an exceedingly odd book" says 501 Must Read Books' entry on the novel. Swift was an Irishman (word to the brothers of Erin) and a satirist, poet, pamphleteer, clerk, essayist and alligator wrestler--okay his alligator wrestling is purely my conjecture, but feel free to cite me on it.
Swift's humour was timeless and a little more potent than battery acid. In A Modest Proposal Swift suggests (on the square) the Irish eat their children as a solution to the famine--he was the Stephen Colbert of the 18th century (you can quote me on that too). He was also a grammarian of unequaled snobbery and wanted to establish an English Academy to safeguard the deteriating language--I fear what he would do if he saw my blog!
Gulliver's Travels is a treatise within a satire posing as a travel book--confused? Excellent. Allow me to muddy the waters some more.
The Book: Lemuel Gulliver is a traveller extraordinaire and we are treated to four of his adventures. There are small minded little people who try to blind him, large people who keep him as a novelty in a cage, a kingdom dedicated to music and math that bores him, and a race of horses that are superior in character to humanity. Sound silly--well stupid, it is allegorical--it is supposed to be silly.
Observations: I think Swift is my new favorite 18th century writer. The book is very funny--my favorite section is with the Lilliputians. When Gulliver needs to pee he causes a flood I found downright hysterical--you've got to love the corporeal humor. The second adventure needed an editor and the closing of the book is sobering but it is rock solid besides.
Segues: When I was a kid I read a book (entirely inappropriate for my age) in which a character referenced a game in which boys were tied to trees by girls and stripped naked and excited by precocious nymphets. The game was called Gulliver, the novel's title alas is lost in my memory but I remember the plot of two families on a volcanic island that becomes active while three relationships develop. It was my first introduction to sex and it no doubt is partially responsible for some of my neuroses. It has been cathartic to write this but wholly inappropriate and I fear trying any Google search about it. Something Explosion--if you know the book I'd love to read it again as an adult.
Segue update: After some Googling I believe the book I read at age 12 was authored by Robert Rimmer entitled The Love Explosion (out of print). Maddeningly, I can't find a synopsis or image of the book [so much for decoding my sexual programming].
There are films--more than a dozen-- including a Tamil film from 2007. I haven't seen one that I'm crazy about.
On my return the next book (Classic Fiction): Mary Shelley's Frankenstein 22/501
Friday, January 20, 2012
General Musings: Sorry for the delay! Yesterday I changed my ISP and it has been a bit trying with the new system. But I now have a PVR, a faster web connection, and caller ID--I feel like I'm living in the 21st century! My email is still in flux and I'll be sure to post my new address ASAP (done). The best part, I have HBO Canada on demand and I caught up on Entourage and Mad Men past episodes. Tomorrow night I'm going to watch some Classic Star Trek--my wife is not impressed.
This weekend I'm leaving to Victoria for three weeks for a residency at Royal Roads University. I'm told that it will be demanding and the web access is dodgy. I'll have to take a short break from this project--at least with the postings. Like MacArthur, I shall return. Please feel free to message me on Twitter @brian_on_fire if you have any objections, advice or want to work as my executive assistant (the pay is poor but I will write you a helluva recommendation letter).
Running Page Count: 5,353
Today's Title (Modern Fiction): J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye
Preface: J.D. Salinger is probably the most famous writer hermit in the history of literature--he didn't return my calls for an interview when I first read his book as a teen--so you know he's serious. He is also dead.
Catcher in the Rye is no doubt the most censored book in American schools for the past century. Published in 1951 the book (written for adults) features a teenage protagonist and the novel unintentionally became a touchstone for teenage rebellion. It also holds the dubious distinction as being the manifesto for both John Lennon's killer and Reagan's shooter.
The novel is written in the first person as if the malcontent teenage protagonist Holden Caulfield wrote it--a New York times book critic did a great imitation of the style that can be a bit grating for those who don't like the story (sorry I can't find a link). Some have said the book is an embrace of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's philosophy others have seen it as a modern version of David Copperfield (born with a big caul, hence the name). Regardless, it is the most famous bildungsroman in the American canon.
The Book : When the story opens Holden Caulfield is getting kicked out of school--again. Holden finds many of his schoolmates and teachers are "phony" and is anxious to leave his residence. He catches a train into the Big Apple and not wanting to return home rents a hotel room. He then spends three days in the city alone in which he manages to get drunk, hire a prostitute, visits a museum, breaks into his parent's house, and visits a possibly pedophile teacher. Holden sees himself as a protector of innocence and sees this charge manifest in his care of his younger sister.
Observations: Great book that reminds me of how discontent and profoundly lost and unhappy I was as a teenager. I love the ending--I won't discuss it so as to avoid spoiling it for others but it is divine. If you haven't read this book you need to so as to understand nearly every other allusion in popular culture.
Segues: There is no film and I hope to God there never is one. This year a specious sequel was written by a writer who appropriated the character of Holden Caulfield to have him return to New York as an old man. Salinger launched a lawsuit against John California (a pseudonym) for the rip-off entitled 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye.
My favorite homages to the book are the film Bottle Rocket and the novel Shoeless Joe (adapted to the screen as Field of Dreams) in which the protagonist kidnaps Salinger (in the film a fictitious author of similar stature).
Speaking of Field of Dreams--did I ever mention that W.P. Kinsella used to be a writer in residence at the U of C and I used to share an elevator with him every morning? I had no idea who he was and talked with him on numerous occasions thinking him to be a bit of a nut but a great guy, Btw last year he wrote his first book in years, Butterfly Winter--he had a brain injury and gave up the craft in 1997. He is also an ardent Scrabble player--they seem to be popping up in my life lately.
Tomorrow's Book (Classic Fiction): Jonathon Swift's Gulliver's Travels 21/501
Thursday, January 19, 2012
General Musings: Today I realized that my new phone that took four days to get working is not sending or receiving text messages properly--anyone want a broken Torch?
Some people have been asking me about a schedule for the books and I just want to explain why it has not been forthcoming. I have been scrambling to get enough books from the library due to availability of titles and the caprice of the hold system. I often don`t know what books I`ll be reading from week to week and only after I acquire books do I then adjust my daily reading to suit my life`s schedule. Reading three hundred pages a day is my typical reading project pace so a big book or little book can cause a schedule headache. There are several books on the list that far exceed daily norms and will need to planned months in advance--looking at you Proust (Remembrance of Things Past at 4000 pages). So far I have been faithful to my announced title from the day before.
Do you remember that my recent searches in the Calgary Public Library (CPL) led to some questions on how books were chosen and categorized--well today I have answers. There is a materials selection policy that guides the library through their purchasing choices. In terms of regular stock, the CPL uses (although not exclusively) Benet's Reader Encyclopedia, the Fiction Catalogue and the Oxford (American, Canadian, English) Companion[s] to Literature as their canon guides. The library also has a link for suggestions to the collection located here and on their main website's FAQ section.
The library also suggested the following books for me (why is it that when you tell someone you are reading a book they suggest another one and if you tell someone you are reading a list they suggest several more?):
1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die edited by Peter Boxall (on my to-do list)
The Book of Great Books: a guide to 100 world classics by W. John Campbell
Good Fiction Guide: 4000 great books to read by Jane Rogers
Now that you know a bit more about how the CPL works I just want to reiterate my plea for books. The CPL only has a portion of the books on the 501 Must Read Books (buy the book here) list the rest I'm desperate to acquire through other means. If you have a copy of a book on the 501 book list please lend (lease or sell) it to me and I'll make quick work of it. As an incentive I'll give you props on the blog.
Running Page Count: 5,139
Today's Title (Modern Fiction): Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient
Preface: Ondaatje is a Sri Lankan-Canadian poet and novelist who won the Governor General`s Award along with the Booker prize for The English Patient. I was first introduced to Ondaatje's work when I knocked a book off of a shelf on the 10th story of the University of Calgary Library Tower. I picked up the book with the odd title There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do: Poems, 1963-1978 and found it to be the most approachable and interesting poetry I had ever read to that moment. I had read several books of Ondaatje`s poetry in the weeks before reading his book In the Skin of a Lion and was interested in what he could do with prose--I`ll never know since Ondaatje`s writing seems always to be a luxuriant verse. I was concurrently reading The Epic of Gilgamesh for a university class and found the title and theme to be serendipitous as my initial exposure to his writing. The English Patient is considered to be his greatest work. I once wrote him asking to option a poem for screen treatment but he hasn`t got back to me and I suspect he has bigger fish to fry.
The Book: The English Patient is a story about four people holed up in an Italian villa. There is a female nurse (Hanah), a Hungarian cartographer desert specialist (Almasy-he's actually the English patient--seriously), a thief sans thumbs (Caravaggio), and an Indian sapper (Kip). The narrative is non-linear and explores the lives of all four characters with an emphasis on the badly burned Englishman (I believe they would call him a crisp on the island) and his doomed romance with a married woman (Katherine).
There is romance at the villa with Kip and Hanah and in flashback with Almasy and Katherine, there is intrigue, betrayal, heartbreak, and a lot of desert geography. I don't want to spoil any of the plot (it is sad and romantic) but the story isn't in the plot points but in the telling.
Observations: Another great Canadian book--maybe Canada is the greatest country in the world after all. Ondaatje's writing is like honey and like any good treat you have to slow down to savor it. There is a great deal of eroticism and the exotic about it that really turns my crank. By the end of the novel you love the characters and the story although sublime it leaves you wanting much more.
Segues: The 1996 film The English Patient won nine Academy Awards including the Oscar for best picture. It was a commercial failure but a critical success--interesting piece of trivia: Demi Moore was originally cast as Hanah (shiver) but lost out to Juliette Binoche.
Ondaatje was involved in the filming and later wrote a book of his dialogues with the editor Walter Murc called (appropriately) The Conversations. The best book on film editing ever.
The character Elaine Benice from Seinfeld was not a big fan of the film and I have included two outtakes (the video is above) from the Seinfeld episode entitled The English Patient.
Elaine and Peterman are watching The English Patient:
Peterman: Elaine, I hope you're watching the clothes, because I can't take my eyes off the passion.
Elaine: (nearly in tears) No, I can't, I can't, it's too long. (to the screen) Quit telling your stupid story about the stupid desert and just die already! (louder) Die! (the crowd shushes her)
Peterman: Elaine, you don't like the movie?
Elaine: I hate it! (the crowd yells at her) Go to hell!
Peterman: Why didn't you say so in the first place? You're fired.
Elaine: Great. I'll wait for you outside.
Tomorrow`s Book (Modern Fiction): J. D. Salinger`s The Catcher in the Rye 20 of 501
Wednesday, January 18, 2012
General Musings: Today I was downtown at a major flood call that displaced 400 people--it was a tough day but I think we did a good job with a tough situation.
Yesterday I took a test to see if my vasectomy was successful--it was of course humiliating and comical in equal parts. One-guy-one-cup says it all [I'd love to include a segue video here but this is not that kind of webpage]. Wish me luck with the results since I'd like to think having someone go medieval on my scrotum was for something.
After my lab visit I went to the mall and bought socks and underwear since I had successfully worn through all but three pairs of socks. The remaining trio were all running socks and didn't look too sharp in regular attire. Also, my underwear stock always needs replenishing--once I'm down to two pairs that usually raises a flag. I rarely shop and I found the activity to be both challenging and exhausting.
A good day to finish my book and get caught up on my school work. I am going to get back with my cycling workouts now that I have a Lemonde Spinmaster and no excuses. Feel free to call me for a workout--I'm always interested.
Running Page Count: 4,837
Today's Title (Science Fiction): John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids
Preface: I had confused the Star Trek episode The Trouble with Tribbles with The Day of the Triffids and had assumed the plot was about cute fuzzy little beings that multiplied quickly--my bad. However my error led me to watch the classic Star Trek episode again for fun and I just love Bones' line "they reproduce at will. And brother, have they got a lot of will! ".
The Day of the Triffids is in fact a 1951 post-apocalyptic story that deals primarily with sociological imperatives and choices in times of crisis. John Wyndham had written several sci-fi stories before but this was the first book published under his real name. The book conceptually owes a great deal to H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds but is really the first post-apocalyptic novel in the modern strain. Reading the book it is easy to understand the current fascination with Zombie films and stories--funny (often unintentionally), scary, philosophical, and sometimes profound the book is nothing if not archetypal. Did I mention that I love zombies?
The Book: Bill Masen is in a London hospital due to an injury on the job. His head is bandaged and since he cannot see he misses the most extraordinary comet and meteor shower that has everyone talking. Bill is a bourgeois priss, a pussy, a whiner, and a geek so when he wakes up the day after the astronomical event and doesn't get his tea on time he gets into a tizzy and begins to come up with worst case scenarios. Did I mention that Bill is biologist working with killer plants?
Oddly, the world is indeed in a worst case scenario and everyone that Bill meets up with is blind and highly anxious. In short order Bill abandons the hospital patients, begins looting, watches the enslavement of sighted people by the blind masses, and is witness (and a party) to serial suicide by the newly blind. What boggles the mind is that it has only been a few hours since the crisis developed! My God the British are pussies! How did they manage to beat the Nazis? But I digress.
Bill ends up in the company of a beautiful and practical young woman (Josella) who is infamous for writing a book on-- (wait for it computer nerds) sex. Bill and Josella witness more suicide and dying while eating crumpets, courting, correcting Latin grammar and Byronic poetry and waxing philosophical about ethical issues. Soon they are separated and experience the new world through different realized paradigms of various groups of survivors.
I don't want to spoil the story for you haven't read the book and I have omitted some big plot points. Suffice to say the world is never the same and Bill and humanity learn some hard lessons.
Observations: This is pretty juvenile stuff and the contrivances in the plot are so outlandish they make you laugh out loud. Killer plants and a blindness causing meteor storm seem a bit far-fetched to me. Wyndham treats both the protagonist's temporary blindness and the mass blind affliction like it was super-herpes. If I was blind I'd punch him in the mouth (I'd pretend to be feeling his face and then wham!). Wyndham obviously doesn't make much for his residuals on talking books or braille translations.
The protagonist Bill is so egomaniacal and preposterous that he seems a mix of James Bond and that Latin professor who had your number. Although my edition had a preface written by Desmond Morris pleading the superior writing of Wyndham over contemporary popular writers like Stephen King I don't buy it. Wyndham is an erudite thinker but a plodder of a writer and ought to learn the mechanics of story.
Also, who smokes in a hospital? I know it is set in the fifties but was that ever a cool thing to do?
Segues: There is a British film that makes the lame science even lamer with special effects from sock puppeters (skip it). Recently, the book cum film Blindness by Jose Saramago deals with a plague of blindness in which the victims are rounded up and imprisoned by society. Bill from Triffids would definitely be in favour of that!
Tomorrow's Book (Modern Fiction): Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient 19/501
Tuesday, January 17, 2012
General Musings: Today, after 9 hours of meetings and 2 projects that are ghastly in scope, I was in a bookstore and I was craving a new book but I am disciplined and will persevere with my prescribed reading. However, I bought my niece a great book--the graphic novel Persepolis about a girl's coming of age in revolutionary Iran. My niece goes to a French language school and although I have an English edition I hope she considers the original French version or the film that followed the same language course of the book. My prediction is that she doesn't read it or see the film--no vampires or werewolves and worse, her friends haven't heard of it.
Running Page Count: 4,609
Today's Title (Classic Fiction): Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness
Preface: Originally published in three parts in Blackwood's Magazine in 1899 the novella was later published in a book with his story Youth in 1902. Heart of Darkness is often considered to be the most important novella/novel in the English language and at the very least it figures in the English canon in seemingly every must read list--including ours. It is a story within a story (and sometimes within another story yet again) and remarkable piece of colonial literature. Conrad used elements of his own experience aboard a steamship in the Congo to frame the story of egomania fueled African exploitation and genocide. It does have its detractors namely Chinua Achebe (also of 501 Must Read Books [Things Fall Apart] fame) who feels it is a proto-neo-colonial novel typical of European stories that make Africa exotic and is condescending in its treatment of natives.
The Book: Marlow is on deck a ship on the Thames with a group of men and tells a story about his time in Africa as a steamship captain. Flashing back we learn Marlow's mission is to go up the Congo river and find an important company man. Kurtz is a legend in Africa getting more ivory than any other agent. Marlow's trip is fraught with danger and he slowly learns of the unorthodox methods and bizarre tales about Kurtz. Suffice to say Kurtz has "gone native" and trouble abounds in the aftermath of Marlow's mission. Kurtz's final words "The horror! The horror!" reflect a clarity of self, mission, and empire that epitomize the cryptic and damning novel that shows imperialism at its worst.
Observations: Holy cow! This guy learned English as an adult! Can you imagine? An unbelievable work of genius. I've read the book a half dozen times and each time I'm blown away by it. Next time some Pollyanna tells you about the upside of colonialism remember the horror, the horror.
Segues: Maybe you heard about a little film called Apocalypse Now? In case you haven't you should watch the original, the redux and the Academy Award winning documentary on the film entitled (ahem) Heart of Darkness. There are film versions of Conrad's Heart of Darkness but none of them are any good--read the book! Conrad wrote dozens of novellas and novels that have figured highly in literature studies but Heart of Darkness is in a class by itself.
Tomorrow's Book (Science Fiction): John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids 18/501
Monday, January 16, 2012
Tomorrow's Book (Classic Fiction): Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness 17/501
Sunday, January 15, 2012
General Musings: My MBA is full swing and I am learning a great deal about financial accounting. At first I was scared stupid about it. Now, I'm scared stupid and totally confounded by it! It is actually a lot of fun and I take all the challenges as a game--or dare I say a mystery? Leaving me with the perfect segue for today's review.
Running Page Count: 4,459
Today's title (Thriller): Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest
Preface: Hard boiled detective fiction and literature noir are simply my favourite genres. I fell in love with film noir when I was young--Blade Runner, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Le Samurai, etc and later I realized the splendor of the originals. There is something very pleasing about a genre that deals with the ambiguity of right and wrong in relative circumstances. Being a good person isn't about being a saint but a selective sinner--Travis McGee is my ideal of the modern knight errant and I'd rather read John D McDonald pulp than Joyce any day.
Hammett single handily invented the hard boiled detective story and although he only wrote five novels his books are archetypal of all such stories. Hammett was born on a farm, dropped out of middle school, and became a Pinkerton detective in his teens. Red Harvest is semi-autobiographical and the events depicted (believe it or not) closely follow his own final case in Butte for the Pinkerton Agency.
Red Harvest was one of Time Magazine's All Time 100 English language novels. It was Hammett's first novel and today one of his least known titles but best known story.
The Book: The story is of a murder in a town beset by pervasive corruption by unions, police, criminal gangs, and mining magnates. The protagonist, simply known as the Continental Operative (or Op) plays all sides against the middle in an attempt to implode the Dantesque town of Personville better known to denizens as Poisonville (I would die for a Poisonville High School team jacket).
Observations: A great book that is equal parts cynicism, terse dialogue, violence, and pragmatic killing. By the time it's done you'll be ready to take a roll of nickels in your fist and beat down a dirty cop (or a dirty cop communications person--don't get me started). Usually stories like this are set up for a wholly different pay-off but this one is very dark and very satisfying for the Eumenides-like justice that rains down on them.
Full disclosure: I am a bigger fan of Hammett's Maltese Falcon, the restraint of Spade and the influence of the Huston film make it a firmer if less violent story. But I believe my preference is a matter of taste and not quality.
Segues: You've seen the story before in films like Roadhouse Nights, Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars, and Last Man Standing. Moreover, the Coen brothers' (my favourite film director fraternity) first film Blood Simple owes the title to a neat snatch of dialogue from Red Harvest.
Tomorrow's Book (Children's Fiction): Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are 16/501