Saturday, October 24, 2009

september reading, part 2

I forgot about this bit...

Poe's Children
edited by: Peter Straub

This is the first book I've ever picked up from the horror section of a bookstore. It has a terrifying cover: some sort of shadow box filled with dolls in pieces and eyeballs, shadowy and gruesome and one of those covers that I actually make sure to turn the book facedown on the bedside table because I can't stand the thought of it looking at me while I sleep. The stories themselves were mostly not the kind of horror that keeps me awake at night, but the kind of insidious, creeping unease that stuck in my head and invaded my dreams. This is an anthology of what Straub calls "new horror," and also, "beautiful, disturbing, and fearless." (His introduction is an interesting essay on genres, and the excitement of work that blurs or ignores the boundaries between them.) The stories are exceptionally well written. Some of them seem more effective than others, though I think that's to be expected with any stories that make a point of titillating fear... fear being such a personal thing, after all. They all excited me though, and I think it's because they all got around to the fear in such different, elegant ways.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

by: Haruki Murakami

Basically, Murakami makes me feel like I am an underachieving, lazy, lump of a human being. He does this by talking about his odd, obsessive, extremely effective routines in the most straightforward and everyday manner. At the end of the book, I had started to think that, of course, strapping on a pair of running shoes and training for an ultramarathon was the most obvious thing in the world to do. I should just start right now. Not to mention the writing of strange and brilliant novels. One just needs to start such projects and then finish them, and that is that. I still can't decide if I find this inspiring or disheartening.

Going Bovine
by: Libba Bray

There were parts of this novel that I LOVED (capital letters and all), and parts that I did not like at all. The first category is filled with the insane, wildly disparate bits that only stick together because of the solidity and energy of the main character. I believe in him, because he is rude and real and has problems that aren't laid out in soppy, vague issues, so I believe in the stuff that he tells me, even if it veers from the luscious desirability of his sister's friends to angels in combat boots and graffitied wings. The second category is for things that I found silly, or flimsy, or obvious ... the sort of things that made me feel like someone was whacking me over the head and yelling, "Have you got it? Have you got it? Are you sure?" It didn't entirely connect up for me; the lines didn't quite come together, so I ended up not being sure about the whole thing.

by: Kazuo Ishiguro

Ishiguro is the kind of writer who peels your heart with thin, gentle, almost surgical strokes, laying it bare while hardly leaving even a fingerprint on it. And then he drops it into a vat of salt water. The shock is so huge that you can't remember the moment when it first hit you. The Remains of the Day is one of my very favourite novels, and these short stories don't come close to touching the huge, brain-breaking effect that it had on me, but they are still good in a understated way. "Quietly devastating" is a cliche that is probably tailored precisely for any description of Ishiguro's work. He somehow manages to present a story in such a clear, stripped down, disciplined way that you fill the space around and through it with all of your own experience. They're not opaque or vague in the way that kind of story can be. They just encourage you to slide your life into them, so when the devastating part comes along, it usually beats your breath out of you.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

unexpected consequences of reading C. S. Lewis as a child

It dawned on me yesterday that one of the most stubborn and lasting side effects of reading C. S. Lewis as a child, at least for me, has to do with LEFT and RIGHT.

My mom read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to me, a chapter at a time, as one of our bed time stories. I remember staring at the little illustrations. In particular, I remember how Mr. Tumnus with his skinny scarf was both sad and frightening, and how the celebrating animals that were turned to stone made my skin twitch. Still, I liked the book enough that my mom (a firm believer in the necessity of a book read aloud) bought a dramatization of The Magician's Nephew on audio cassette.

My sister and I listened to those cassettes over and over again. The tape stretched out sometimes and made Aslan's voice sound wobbly and strange. There is a part in The Magician's Nephew when the creepy Uncle Andrew puts two magical rings in Digory's pocket. The rings are green, and Uncle Andrew puts them in Digory's right-hand pocket. "Remember very carefully which pocket the Greens are in," he says. "G for Green and R for right. G. R., you see, which are the first two letters of Green."

I thought this made very good sense.

I have a contact lens case with two lids, one blue and one orange. In my mind, because of Uncle Andrew and C. S. Lewis, the blue lid should be for the left eye because "blue" has an L in it. "Orange" has an R in it, so, obviously it should stand for "right." The contact lens case makers must not have read The Magician's Nephew though, because they put the wrong letters with the wrong colors. Every time I use the case, I grumble at it. R! I think. L! Is it so difficult?

There are certain details in stories that I never forget. Sometimes these are grand, or creepy, or gorgeous. And sometimes they are incredibly mundane. Like a permanent attachment to the proper colors for left and right.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

books and pizza

So, my amazing sister, Shannon, and I are hosting a bookclub for young people at the bookstore (this bookstore being Kepler's, a place that both infuriates and tickles me on a daily basis). Our very first meeting is on the 13th of October at 5:30 PM. Our very first book will be Coraline by the lovely Neil Gaiman. There will be pizza. (Why will there be pizza? Our cohorts at the bookstore thought that this would mollify any fears of conflict with suppertime. It's all quite incomprehensible to us, who have always thought that dinner is not really dinner unless it's dark outside.)

Normally, I would be slightly mortified to tack up a verbal brochure for the infuriating/amusing bookstore here, but so far I've only received one lonely RSVP for a pair of brothers with names that really should be in a Lemony Snicket book, and the 13th is less than ten days away. This makes me feel faintly blue. Coraline is one of my favourite books. This is my poorly veiled attempt to bring shadowy edges with button eyes to the imagination of young people who have hitherto not experienced the delightful shivers of encountering the Other Mother. My sister and I are very much against the force feeding of books, even good ones, to unwilling young minds, but very much in favor of leaving the books out to be discovered.

And then my sister goes and quotes Roald Dahl, ususally something Oompa Loompa-ish.

So, please, if you live in the area and know any young people who would like to read Coraline and discuss it over pizza with a pair of only slightly book-crazed sisters, the information is here. RSVPs go to my work email, which is: megan(at) (yes, I have a work email. I find this just as bemusing as you.)

Saturday, October 3, 2009

september reading, part 1

Two parts to this batch of books. I'm feeling talkative.

The Children's Book
by: A. S. Byatt

When it comes to Byatt, I'm torn. I hated Possession, found it dusty and dully irritating, though I probably read it when I was too young to let it get a grip on my imagination. The Little Black Book of Stories thrilled me, but in that infectious, chilling way where something lodges in your imagination and lingers despite any attempts to not think about it. There's a streak of cruelty through Byatt's work that disturbs me and fascinates me at the same time.

I read The Children's Book for work. I wouldn't usually volunteer to read a 700 page ARC, but I was curious. The novel is, in part, about stories and storytelling. It's about people who hurt each other, mostly from selfishness and claustrophobic self absorption, rather than focussed malice. It's also about England just before the first World War, and how that particular world crumbled and was lost. It's an epic, and I don't usually read epics because I find it difficult to care about characters when there is a legion of them I have to remember. Byatt throws in pages and pages of historical ballast, and sometimes I felt like I was getting a history lesson instead of reading a story, but her characters managed to latch onto my imagination through all the padding, and I couldn't stop reading.

There are fragments of fairy tales in there, stories within the story, that made me wish I could read the fictional book that contained the rest of them. I think that, in another life, Byatt could have been a stunning, creepily effective writer of doorstop fantasy novels.

It's lovely, old-fashioned writing, with a Narrator who feeds you the world and who knows more than you or anyone else. It bogs down in places, but that cruelty is in there to prick and shock.

The Ask and the Answer

by: Patrick Ness

I was madly obsessed with The Knife of Never Letting Go, so I was practically counting the days down until this came out (my hints to the kid's department at work being woefully ineffective in producing an ARC). I still think that Ness is a genius when it comes to the breathless, galloping pace of these books. I don't know how he manages it. Even when the story happens in an enclosed space, it feels like its rushing at high speed across vast distances.

I didn't like this one as much as the first one though, and I think it's because the story has less of the collisions and astonishment that comes from running away into an entirely unfamiliar world. I still want to know what happens next, and I still love the characters, but there's less of that desperate shine of strangeness that was so thrilling in the first book.