Monday, October 27, 2014


Day 22--22/501
General Musings: Here is my new resolution, after I'm done reading the 501 books I am going to divest myself of my library save a few reference books. As a bibliophile my books have taken over my life. I have bookcases in numerous rooms, hundreds if not thousands of books, and a daunting number of books that cry out to be read. I often say I'd like to be a minimalist but I need to stop my consumptive habits of acquiring books--the library is the way to go. Then again maybe I should get a Kindle...

Running Page Count: 5,929

Today's Title (Classic Fiction): Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Preface: Imagine having the name Frankenstein in 19th century England and then one day everybody is making cracks about reanimated corpses in the family tree--worse than having named your kid Britney or Homer a quarter century ago.

Mary Shelley was the homely child bride (and cousin) of P. B. Shelley [what part of that sentence do you most object to?]. She was also the daughter of writers William Godwin and Mary Wollencraft. One day she, hubby, Polidori, and Byron are sitting around vacationing at Lake Geneva and they decide to entertain themselves by telling scary stories--apparently the jet boat was broken and they couldn't go water skiing. Ironically of all the great writers in her family and among her friends she would make the biggest impression on the public with her Gothic novel.

Frankenstein is very well known but not often read. The monster is not Frankenstein, the creature doesn't mumble incoherently, and the good doctor has no Igor.

The Book: Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus opens with an exchange of letters and becomes a narrative told from the point of view of a ship's captain having encountered Victor Frankenstein. Victor is hunting the monster by dogsled, raft, and by foot--he has got a score to settle and if this was Die Hard he would be Bruce Willis. Flashback to school days in Germany and young Victor chooses dissection over intramural hockey. Victor burns the midnight oil and creates a monster--I suspect I'm not spoiling anything here. The monster goes away for self-study (I'm only half joking on this point) and comes back a little anti-social. Victor tries some therapy and then tough love and ends up a few steps short of a successful 12 step program. It is a protracted drama that lacks the urgency of the film version and only Frankenstein's chase after the monster (bookending the main narrative) is truly exciting.

Grade: B

Observations: Shelley is given to the melodramatic, the dialogue seems stilted, the narration pedantic, and the teenage author's take on men is, in my humble masculine opinion, a little off. It is a much different story than the one I knew from popular culture. But it is still a fabulous story.

Segues: There have been movies but my favorite is the 1931 version with Boris Karloff, in one brilliant scene there is an uncanny similarity to the theme of the annunciation in Renaissance painting.

The Bride of Frankenstein is a great film that has nothing to do with the book. Moreover, Young Dr. Frankenstein is a hilarious film that will ruin the book forever for you in exchange for some great laughs.

Tomorrow's Book (Modern Fiction): Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five 23/501

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Gulliver's Travels

Day 21--21/501

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 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 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.

Grade: A-

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

The Catcher in the Rye

Day 20--20/501

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.

Grade: A

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

The English Patient

Day 19--19/501

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.

Grade: A

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

The Day of the Triffids

Day 18--18/501

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.

Grade: D

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

Heart of Darkness

Day 17--17/501

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.

Grade: A+

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

Where the Wild Things Are

Day 16--16/501

General Musings: Today I was appointed Assistant Deputy Chief of Operations! Third highest rank in the CFD and the coolest division (I'm joking--a little). A great day for me and a day of infamy for our august department. I celebrated it by sitting in a very long meeting on strategic planning.

Running Page Count: 4,507

Today's Title (Children's Fiction): Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are

Preface: Originally published in 1963 Where the Wild Things Are is Sendak's masterpiece in writing and art. It is hard to believe that the story is a half-century old already. When it was published the grotesque fanged monsters (wild things) were a source of much debate and consternation. Originally Sendak drew horses instead of monsters but on his publishers suggestion he changed them to the awful teeth gnashing beasts. The book has sold over 19 million copies world wide so maybe his publisher was right. Sendak is a first generation American the son of Polish Jews and recently admitted to being gay and in a long time relationship--in a very non-Wild Things maneuver he actually waited for his parents to die before coming out.

The Book: A ten sentence story of a naughty boy Max that allows his emotions to get the best of him and escapes by sea to a far away land inhabited by monsters. Max has fun as ruler of the monsters until he becomes homesick and returns to his room despite the threats and exhortations of his beast subjects.

Grade: B

Observations: Great art that definitely steps out of the Disney friendly monster box. The story that is often denounced by conservatives for indulging children is in fact a treatise on how to handle feelings. Granted the story takes a severe turn into the psychoanalytic but the timeless anecdote works for both kids and adults. Some of the lines are scary, sweet, and weird all at the same time. The writing has a great rhythm and humour that I still enjoy as an adult.

Segues: An animated short feature, an opera, a video game, and most recently a live-action feature length film. The feature was directed and adapted by Spike Jonze and my son and I both enjoyed the long and challenging film. The film picks up the Freudian theme and takes it to the logical extreme. Ironically my son had a tantrum a short while after the film on the monstrous nature of anger.

Tomorrow's Book (Classic Fiction): Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness 17/501