Tuesday 31 March 2015

Top 10 Books Recently Added to my TBR List

Thanks to Broke and the Bookish for hosting the wonderful Top Ten Tuesday meme! This week's list is pretty self-explanatory. Similar to all book lovers out there, this list just continues to grow relentlessly. Here are my new additions:

1. The Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Recommended by Cleo. Read her wonderful review here. An influential philosophical thinker during the Enlightenment period, Rousseau had a huge impact on the French Revolution. I'd like to know more about the man behind radical social reform during a time of great political turmoil and unstable monarchies. I have not read many autobiographies and Confessions is often considered an apotheosis of the form. The only drawback that I can see is that it clocks in at 600+ pages!

2. The Fortune of the Rougons by Emile Zola: I've never read anything by Zola. Figured this might be the best place to start. Recommended by Cleo.

3. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: Everyone and their grandmother is reading this one at the moment. I don't know much about it and would like to keep it that way. 

4. Hombre by Elmore Leonard: I've been on a Western kick lately. This novel was also adapted into a film starring Paul Newman! Sold. I wonder how many people would be interested in signing up for an Elmore Leonard read-a-thon? Not many, I suspect. This is a shame because he tends to be overlooked, often dismissed as a writer of dime novels or entertaining fictions; thus, not qualifying as an author of "serious literature." I can't stand this type of elitism and literary snobbery--it's maddening! As much as I enjoy reading the classics, I tend to me more drawn towards engaging stories with well-drawn characters. Elmore Leonard knows how to spin a good yarn but he does it with very little exposition. His prose consists mostly of dialogue and he is one of the best in game in that department, hands down. As Terry Pratchett once wrote: “In theory it was, around now, Literature. Susan hated Literature. She'd much prefer to read a good book.” Yep, that sounds like me.

5. The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac: Another recommendation from Cleo. Initially, I was going to read "On the Road" by Kerouac for the Literary Movement challenge but she convinced to read this one instead. The Beat generation has always fascinated me and I often find myself partisan to their social ideologies and Zen-like outlooks on life. Really looking forward to this one.

6. 11/22/63 by Stephen King: I used to read a lot of King during my teenage years but have not read anything by him since. No doubt, he's a great story-teller but his writing tends to be bloated and excessively verbose, which partially explains why I have not returned to his works in so long. Nonetheless, the premise behind this novel sounds pretty darn cool. Time traveling and JFK? Ok Mr. King, you've got my attention.

7. The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly: Recommended to me for the Once Upon a Time Challenge. I don't know anything about the premise other than it involves a modern re-telling of fairy-tales. Neato.

8. Ilium by Dan Simmons: Greek Mythology and Homer's The Iliad/The Odyssesy collide in an epic science-fiction extravaganza. Consider me intrigued.

9. The Sellout by Paul Beatty: I stumbled upon this book randomly through one of Goodreads recommendations and reading the premise took me completely aback. I always enjoy a good satire but one that focuses on black culture and race relations in America? I've never come across anything quite like this one before. 

10. Till We have Faces by C.S. Lewis: A perfect addition to the Once Upon a Time Reading Challenge, this is a re-telling of the myth behind Cupid and Psyche. If I am not mistaken, C.S. Lewis is one of Cleo's favorite authors. I never would have even known of this title had it not been for her recommendation. C.S. Lewis is one of those iconic authors that I really need to read more from.

So, what other books have you added to your stack of TBR pile recently? Let me know in the comments below!

Monday 30 March 2015

Immanuel Kant: On the Beautiful and Sublime (Critique of Judgement)

The Age of Enlightenment saw the emergence of many great philosophers, one of the dominant figures being German-born Immanuel Kant. For this month's Literary Movement, I thought it might be a good idea to take a break from fiction and read some philosophy instead. Big mistake. After weeks of struggling to get through this dense and impenetrable work, I finally gave up. Kant's Critique of Judgement is divided into two books: The Analytic of the Beautiful and the Analytic of the Sublime. His sprawling and highly complex philosophical treatise that focuses primarily on the aesthetics of human reason and teleology only served to induce frustration and violent paroxysms of rage in me. The ideas and concepts in these essays actually interest me but Kant's writing is so arduous to get through, bogged down by interminable run-on sentences, endless sub-clauses, over-technicalities and repetitiveness. After slogging through a few paragraphs (often stretching for pages), my mind would quickly wander off before a migraine set in and then I would have no choice but to stop reading or else my eyes would start to bleed. He does not properly explain himself, throws around a lot of complex terminology and seems to be under the assumption that the reader already has prior knowledge of whatever he is talking about. Perhaps others who are interested in philosophy will get more out of reading Kant but I don't have the patience for it.

Since Kant's philosophical ramblings left me in a perpetual state of confusion, I really don't have much to go on in terms of analysis or critical interpretation. However, I did manage to discern some of his basic ideas and general areas of inquiry. Whenever we label something as 'beautiful' or 'sublime' like a scene in nature or a piece of art (i.e. literature) what do we mean exactly? Is it simply a matter of subjective taste, a form of pleasure or is it more complicated involving various facets of human reason and epistemology? For Kant, beauty and the sublime are oppositional whereas both provide different types of pleasure. He writes: 

"The Beautiful in nature is connected with the form of the object, which consists in having boundaries. The Sublime on the other hand, is to be found in a formless object, so far as in it or by occasion of its boundlessness is represented, and yet its totality is also present to thought. Thus the Beautiful seems to be regarded as the presentation of an indefinite concept of Understanding; the Sublime as that of a like concept of Reason. Therefore the satisfaction in the one case is bound up with the representation of quality, in the other with that of quantity."

Makes sense? Good.  

As far as the sublime is concerned, he is keen to reject any empirical and sensationalist explanations as advocated by other philosophers like Edmund Burke. Kant distinguishes between the great and absolutely great in the sublime. He is trying to say, or at least, I think he is trying to say, that it is not the object but the mind that undergoes this new heightened sense of reason, which he refers to as the "supersensible faculty." In essence, the sublime is beyond the senses, teasing one out of thought. Thus, the feeling of the sublime is not pleasure but pain that comes with the inadequacy to grasp the object because it is beyond human comprehension in its greatness, which produces an awe-inspiring effect. In other words, there exists a repulsion and attraction at work here. He also goes on to describe various subdivisions of the sublime, one of them being the Dynamically Sublime which occurs in nature or art that has no dominion over us. Picture yourself standing at the bottom of the French Alps, staring up at the highest peak. Indeed, the view would be 'sublime' but from a Kantian perspective, it is only sublime because of the great distance between the individual and the object. In this particular scenario, nature has no dominion over the individual; they are safe amidst the natural terror. Now climbing up the mountain, that would be a different story altogether--the sublime would clearly be most apparent.

Kant views the 'Beautiful' as an intellectual concept as well: "The mind feels itself moved in the representation of the Sublime in nature; whilst in aesthetical judgements about the Beautiful it is in restful contemplation (Loc 2774)." Once again, it is not the object that is beautiful; rather, it is the state of mind undergoing a specific rationalization of the object. Art cannot claim dominion over us, thus it is attractive and beautiful. So, how does this apply to literature? Using Virginia Woolf's writing as an example, let us try to apply Kant's principles of aesthetics. It would be accurate to call her writing 'beautiful' if one were able to show how it related to the "representation of quality" in human understanding or the author's ability to use language that produces the effect of "restful contemplation." Her writing does possess an attractive quality if one favors poetic language but such an assessment is subjective and might be more suited to Edmund Burke's philosophical perspective instead. Not to sound cheeky but it might be easier to explain Woolf's stream-of-consciousness as 'sublime' since its aesthetic is metaphysical, focusing on the inner-workings of the mind that is often difficult to understand. The Waves could certainly be placed in this category.

Most of the ideas outlined here in my review are taken from Section 25 of Book 2. I have barely scratched the surface of this immense philosophical work, which according to my calculations, will probably take more than a lifetime for me to read and to fully comprehend. Sorry, but life's way too short to torture myself with Kant's tedious philosophical discourse. 

Saturday 28 March 2015

Deal Me in Challenge: J.G. Ballard Part I

Hey you. Yeah, you. I can see right into the suburbanization of your soul.

Card Drawn: 8 of Spades.

J.G. Ballard wrote a lot during his lifetime and I mean A LOT. This massive collection of short-stories is a staggering 1,200+ pages and is bound to give me a hernia if I continue to lug it around for much longer. Not to brag or anything but while the goal for this challenge is to read 52 short-stories for the year, it seems that I have already surpassed that number by a wide margin. Heck, I've read 14 stories so far from this collection alone, which incidentally, has barely put a dent into this behemoth. My initial idea for this challenge when it came to anthologies was to pick one story at random to review, which seems more than sufficient. But then I got to thinking...how would people know which are the best stories to read and which ones to avoid if I only review one story from an entire collection? It goes without saying that writing a review for every short-story would be a daunting and impossible task (I have enough on my plate already). However, 'mini-reviews' could very well be the solution to this problem. I am not sure how this will work exactly, but I am going to give it a shot here. Instead of merely writing one review to represent an entire collection, I may decide to write mini-reviews instead--like here for instance--updating them periodically. At least that way people can decide which stories interest them the most instead of going through the arduous process of finding out for themselves. I will be doing all the heavy leg-work here and perhaps it will all be in vain because people might not even care, regardless. Still, I welcome the challenge and more than anything, it will prove to be mostly beneficial to myself--keeping a record of every single short-story read along with my thoughts on them. Here we go...

Prima Belladonna (1956): One of his earliest stories and it clearly shows by the disjointed writing and flat characters. Sluggish and frustratingly inexplicable, the narrative feels hastily constructed; a slapdash of disparate fragments that lack any forceful resonance as intended by the author. Not that a short-story must rely on a well-turning plot but ambiguity does not always result in profundity. Have you ever seen the movie Little Shop of Horrors starring Rick Moranis with those alien plants that eat people? This short-story reminded me of that wacky 80's film except Prima Belladonna is not a black comedy; the only similarity here are the mutated plants except in Ballard's story they produce music (comprising mostly of classical or opera) and aren't hell-bent on eating people. A famous opera singer becomes infatuated with one particular species of plant (photosynthesis-iality? Yes, I just coined that term.) and well...let's just say things get pretty weird. Considering Ballard's fondness for classical music, I am surprised he didn't include the 'Flower Duet' from Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Har-har-har. Sorry, I couldn't resist.  2 stars.

Venus Smiles (1957): Similar to Prima Belladonna, this story takes place in Ballard's futuristic world of Vermillion Sands, an isolated beach community that bears some resemblance to southern California. The author's love for classical music is evident once again but there are no singing plants this time, instead it is a "sonic sculpture" designed by a famous female artist. Going by her reputation, the arts committee blindly commissions her statue to be placed in the center of the town square but the unveiling is met with disapproval by the majority of the townspeople since it turns out to be a ghastly construction of metal parts. On top of that, it releases a high-pitched wailing sound that is soon driving everyone mental. The committee has no choice but to remove it and the head chairman, Mr. Hamilton, is left as the sole proprietor. Instead of sending the statue to the dump or to be melted down, he brings it home and places it in his garden. All is swell until the statue begins to come alive, grows exponentially and producing beautiful music...pretty cool. The title of the story is likely a reference to the famous Greek Venus De Milo statue. Ballard doesn't focus on idolatry as one might initially suspect; rather, he is more concerned with artistic posterity but in a very bizarre way. Great ending. 3 stars.
The Drowned Giant (1964): Ballard puts his own spin on Swift's Gulliver's Travels when he encounters the Lilliputians except there is a reversal: the perspective is from the little people (humans) who discover a dead giant that washes upon the beach. Everyone is fascinated by this strange monstrosity; soon becoming a popular  tourist attraction and a jungle-gym where people climb all over it for amusement. Steeped more in the fantasy genre than Science-Fiction, this story boasts an interesting premise but turns out to be quite vapid and dull. Skip it. 2 star.

The Dead Astronaut (1968): 'Relic hunters' of a by-gone space era and unresolved grief collide in one of Ballard's more emotionally resonant stories. A couple is in search of the mummified remains of an astronaut still in orbit that is bound to crash down to Earth in a few days. The wife is far more keen on the excursion than her current husband, since she is still haunted by the past, a one time romantic fling with with the dead astronaut that has left her emotionally scarred. She hopes that retrieving whatever is left of his body that burned up in a freak accident during a space-launch years ago will bring closure, allowing the couple to move on with their lives. A bunch of ragged brigands living in the dunes of an abandoned space port, collecting antique scrap metal and dead astronaut remains to sell on the black market is an interesting set-up. However, Ballard is not so much interested in character and narrative; rather, he's more of a surrealist type of writer, his best stories focusing on distorted realities, bizarre imagery, generating feelings of paranoia and mental distress; a predilection for centering upon characters experiencing hallucinogenic psychotic breakdowns. Hence, The Dead Astronaut is an anomaly--it is Ballardian in tone but not in literary motifs. 3 stars.

My Dream of Flying to Wake Island (1974): Feels inspired by Joseph Heller's Catch-22. Is Ballard making some kind of anti-war statement here? Maybe. Characters undergoing severe mental breakdowns is a familiar trope in Ballard's work, which shows up again here. An ex-pilot is a patient at a convalescent clinic at an abandoned air-field base. It's less of a mental facility and more of a vacation spot; he even gets his own private beach-house. As the title indicates, he dreams of getting back into the cockpit to fly to this tropical paradise known as Wake Island which is odd, since he is already staying at a luxurious resort with warm weather in the first place. It's not as if the doctor's are treating him poorly or spends his day in an isolated cell wearing a straight-jacket. On the contrary, there are no barbed wire; he can wander around or drive anywhere he wants on the premises. He spends most of his day digging up a B-17 bomber buried in the sand dunes. He befriends another female pilot and convinces her to join him on his journey to Wake Island once they can fix her plane. The incongruous and jumbled narrative strives for profundity but is hindered by its absurdity. An innocuous story at best. 2 stars. 


Friday 27 March 2015

Deal Me in Challenge: A&P by John Updike

Card Drawn: 3 of Spades.

One might think that my luck has run out for drawing another 'short-story anthology card' from the deck but lo and behold, it actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Ladies and gentleman, I am proud to announce the first 5-star short-story since embarking on this challenge. As the great J.G. Ballard once said: "There are no perfect novels but there are some perfect short-stories" and only a few come to my mind: Ernest Hemingway's Hills Like White Elephants, James Joyce's The Dead, Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man is Hard to Find, J.D. Salinger's A Perfect Day For Bananafish, maybe even Shirley's Jackson's The Lottery. I feel confident in adding A&P by John Updike to that highly exclusive list. There are bound to be others but I am still on the hunt to discover them. To my mind, A&P represents a paradigm of the form and should be an inspiration for any aspiring writer who might have literary ambitions to dabble in short-stories. Or for those who might be curious to see how a masterful short-story is done, look no further. It is so polished and constructed with such painstaking delicacy but this only becomes apparent on a closer inspection. With understated craftsmanship, Updike somehow manages to redefine the short-story, perfecting the less-is-more technique with such exquisite nuance that left me in awe.

I can't believe it took me so long to finally read something by John Updike. As a preeminent literary figure of the mid-20th century, reaching international fame during the 1960's (along with others like Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote Philip Roth, Harper Lee, etc), he remained on my radar for many years and it is embarrassing to admit that I have only recently discovered his brilliant writing talents. At the end of the introduction to his Early Stories: 1953-1975, Updike sums up his primary artistic vision as thus: "My only duty was to describe reality as it had come to me--to give the mundane is beautiful due." Keeping this in mind is a helpful way to approach his works but his writing is far too elusive and complex to be pigeon-holed into this one specific category. From what I can gather so far, he does tend to examine ordinary middle-class life with a microscope, often elevating the prosaic or banal into the sublime but he also happens to be a skilled prose stylist who uses language meticulously for dramatic effect. 

So, what is this story about exactly? Well, on its surface, the story is pretty simple. It takes  place at a grocery store (hence the title, for those who may not be familiar with American grocery-store chains) in a sleepy Midwestern town, narrated by one of the young male employees who works there. His boring shift starts off like any other except on this particular day, he is roused from his complacent stupor when three girls walk in wearing only their bathing suits. I'll leave the summary at that. What follows is an acerbic and razor sharp social critique of middle-class values that is unexpectedly poignant. I could easily write an extensive essay on the sociological underpinnings of the story from a Marxist perspective or on the way Updike handles gender. Or what about the importance of Updike's specific use of language and narrative devices? There is so much to discuss and endless interpretations but I'll let the story speak for itself. That ending though...talk about pitch-perfect. Some might view it as cynical but not me: It is the absolute TRUTH of the indifferent capitalist society we live in.

After doing a bit of research, it turns out that A&P is one of Updike's most famous stories, his most widely anthologized and one that has been taught in college classrooms since it's release in 1961. It's reputation does not surprise me but it is strange that I have not heard about it until now, John Updike was never mentioned once during my 20th century lit or short-story courses during university, nor does his name carry the same amount of prestige it might have when he was at his peak. Updike seems to have all but faded from public consciousness or at least it feels that way. I am beginning to wonder if he wrote anything else that could possibly match or come close to reaching the level of excellence achieved by this short-story. I aim to find out. Nonetheless, if he is still widely read and praised for his literary virtues, this is surely being carried out on the down-low.

Thursday 26 March 2015

My first Read-Along: The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

You might be thinking that I have really lost my mind this time for taking on another reading challenge but hold up! It will only be one book that participants have to read and the whole event is pretty casual, no specific time limit in effect. Thanks to O at Behold the Stars for hosting this read-along in celebration of the 100 year anniversary of Virginia Woolf's first published novel. Sorry for sounding like a broken record but I quite admire Woolf as an author, both To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway still maintaining their coveted top positions on my arbitrary all-time favorite novels list. Not having read any of her earlier works, how could I pass up this opportunity? Besides, this is also a great way to connect with other bloggers and to get some interesting discussions going about the text. 

While in the midst of what can accurately be described as a reading frenzy, I started The Voyage Out a few days ago, so my recollections are a little hazy at the moment. I will definitely need to go back and re-read certain chapters or passages to establish my bearings again.

Some general first impressions from Chapters 1-9 (possible spoilers):
  • A more 'traditional' narrative; one can notice brief glimpses of Woolf's stream-of-consciousness peaking through the crevices but it has yet to be fully realized.
  • Autobiographical associations? The young female protagonist could be a stand-in for Virginia herself along with some of the other characters as well. Worth looking into further.
  •  Elaborate descriptions of the physical environment is vintage Woolf. This "poetic" style will become more fully developed in her other works.
  • Emphasis on gender roles and strong feminist overtones.
  • Public life vs. inner life
  • English propriety is a form of social control and only produces a breakdown in communication, especially between the sexes.
  • Woolf often emphasizes the difficulties of human interaction; what is said/unsaid; the void between the self and the objective world. Ex: "It appeared that nobody ever said a thing they meant, or ever talked of a feeling they felt, but that was what music was for. Reality dwelling in what one saw and felt, but did not talk about, one could accept a system in which things went round and round quite satisfactorily to other people, whithout often troubling to think about it, except as something superficially strange." (Loc 477). So true. This idea will be reinforced more profoundly in other works, especially To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway. 
  • At age 24 and unmarried, Rachel is on the verge of being an old maid. Social customs were obviously different back then for women, they were expected to be married at a young age and popping out babies at a rapid rate. She is also ignorant of the world, has lived a sheltered life, does not understand what men really want from women as explained by Helen. Perhaps Anne Eliot from Austen's Persuasion is an influence on the character of Rachel? Helen is a guardian figure and personal confidante to Rachel, similar with Lady Russell to Anne. There is also a direct reference to Persuasion, Mrs. Dalloway praises Jane Austen's virtues as a writer because "she does not attempt to write like a man. Every other woman does; on that account, I don't read 'em." (Loc 896). Right on sista! Put that in your pipe and smoke it you patriarchal oppressors!
  • Mrs. Dalloway and her Richard make a special guest appearance! That was unexpected. Rachel forms a bond with the older woman. She wants to ask her lots of questions, is fascinated by the way she carries herself in manner, conversation and decorum.
  • Richard is a politician, his wife represents the arts--she is fond of Percy Shelly's 'Adonais.' A great poem and a mournful paean to his friend John Keats. Possible foreshadowing?
  • Richard makes an interesting argument between the merits of a politician vs. the artist: "We politicians doubtless seem to you a gross commonplace set of people; but we see both sides; we may be clumsy, but we do our best to get a grasp of things. Now your artists find things in a mess, shrug their shoulders, turn aside to their visions--which I grant may be very beautiful--and leave things in a mess. Now that seems to me evading one's responsibilities" (Loc 599.
  • Happiness: Mrs Dalloway is an optimistic soul; she believes that young people make the mistake of not letting themselves be happy (Loc 843).
  • Richard and Rachel have a very deep discussion about life: the mental stimulation derived from nature, childhood, university life, accomplishing one's goals, upholding ideals, philosophical perspectives. Richard believes in Unity but less concerned with personal interests, more to do with the greater good: "Unity of aim, of dominion, of progress. The dispersion of the best ideas of the greatest area." (Loc 940).
  • Richard admits to being a conservative; he represents the dominant hegemonic male, the aristocracy; he does not condemn women or treat them badly per se but believes that they should know their place as social custom dictates: "No woman has what I may call the political instinct. You have very great virtues; I am the first, I hope, to admit that; but I have never met a woman who even saw what is meant by statesmanship" (Loc 975).
  • Richard and Rachel share a passionate kiss in her cabin. She is stunned by his actions and has no idea how to react, finds herself in a daze after leaving him to go on deck to collect her thoughts after the awkward incident. 
  • Rachel's ignorance of the opposite sex produces moments of inadvertent comedy. It dawns on her after talking with Helen about her kiss with Richard: "So that's why I can't walk alone!...Because men are brutes! I hate men!" (Loc 1225). Silly girl. Not all men are interested in rape.
  • Woolf is keen to emphasize the importance of education for women, reinforced by Helen's views on the subject. At the turn of the 20th century, women like Rachel did not often attend school. Their role was in the household, taking care of children. Helen goes on to say: "If they were properly educated I don't see why they shouldn't be much the same as men--as satisfactory I mean; though of course, very different. The question is, how should educate them. The present method seems to me abominable." (Loc 1452). In other words, young women like Rachel are essentially thrown to the wolves without any knowledge of the so-called "real world" and their lives are controlled by men.
  • Chapter 9: Woolf shifts character perspectives from Rachel and others on-board the ship to various guests of the hotel located on the island of Santa Marina. Intriguing...
  • Thomas Hardy poem: life as incomprehensible ("dim profound"), suggests love as fundamental to achieving happiness before Death ("the curtain"). 
  • Homosexual undertones. Mr. Hirst and Mr. Hewet seem awfully close, they don't even mind undressing in front of each-other. Subtle hints and innuendos concerning their relationship brought up in their conversation about women and their private "inner circles." Odd business, indeed. 
Sorry, this write-up turned out to be a lot longer than expected. Anyways, the novel is pretty decent so far. Looking forward to reading more and seeing how others are coming along.

Wednesday 25 March 2015

Once Upon a Time IX

I just happened to stumble across one of the coolest reading challenges over at Stainless Steel Droppings and could not resist joining up. The main focus is on four genres: Fairy Tale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythology but the event is divided up into various sub-challenges to suit your reading schedule. Pretty neat. This is also the perfect opportunity to read more Guy Gavriel Kay. ;)

Taken from site: Read at least 5 books that fit somewhere within the Once Upon a Time categories. They might all be fantasy, or folklore, or fairy tales, or mythology…or your five books might be a combination from the four genres. My list so far (a general guideline, I won't be reading all of these):
  1. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Anonymous
  2. Dresden Files by Jim Butcher
  3. The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter 
  4. The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly 
  5. The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell
  6. Book of Greek Myths by D'aulaires
  7. The Iliad by Homer 
  8. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
  9. Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
  10. Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
  11. River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay
  12. Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay
  13. Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay
  14. Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis
  15. Kraken by China Mieville
  16. Discworld by Terry Pratchett 
  17. Ilium by Dan Simmons 
  18. The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth
  19. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland...by

Taken from site: Fulfill the requirements for The Journey or Quest the First or Quest the Second AND top it off with a June reading of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream OR a viewing of one of the many film versions of the play. Love the story, love the films, love the idea of that magical night of the year and so this is my chance to promote the enjoyment of this farcical love story.

Considering my love for Mr. Shakespeare and Midsummer Night's Dream, this one is a no-brainer.

I would really appreciate some recommendations of folklore, fairy tales and mythology. My knowledge on these genres is quite limited.

Tuesday 24 March 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: Top 10 Books From My Childhood That I Would Love To Revisit

Here we go again, you know the drill by now. Thanks to Broke and the Bookish for hosting this wonderful meme. This week's list is very nostalgic, bringing us down memory lane where we reflect on books that we loved during our childhood and would love to read again. I am sure that many would agree with me that as a young kid, you are far less critical and much easier to please when it comes to reading books. In most cases, it is such a joyous and innocent time; the world seems full of adventure and endless possibilities. I remember childhood as this magical time and looking back on it now feels like a dream-world. My loving parents deserve all the credit for introducing me to books at a very young age, often reading to my brother and I before bedtime. After learning to read on my own, I became obsessed with books, reading as much as possible, often begging my parents to buy books every week from the Scholastic Magazine. Does anyone else remember those? It was during the 90's and our middle-school would hand out these weekly catalogs for books on sale distributed by the company where you would circle the one you wanted, convince your parents to attach a check and then in a few days, your brand new book(s) would be sitting on your desk when you came to homeroom in the morning. It was pretty cool. I wonder if they still do something like that in schools nowadays but if they still do, then it's all probably done online. Oops, sorry, I'm babbling again. Ok, one last bit of business before proceeding with this list (promise!), which is that while the meme calls for books that you would want to revisit from childhood, I would not want to do that with some of these titles for obvious reasons--mainly, these books were read with a radically different pair of eyes and frame of mind. So, I'd like to make a slight modification to this list: Top 10 Books From My Childhood That I Would Love To Revisit but probably won't due to their sentimental value:

1. One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss: I could haven chosen any number of Dr. Seuss books but opted to go with the underdog (or underfish, whatever you prefer). It also holds a special place in my heart because it was the first book that I can recall ever reading on my own. Even though I didn't realize it at the time, Dr. Seuss was the first author to introduce me to the joys of rhyming and poetry. I always loved this line: “From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere!”

2. Love You Forever by Robert Munsch: Here is another author, whom I could have chosen any number of books to be on this list: 50 Below Zero, I Have to Go!, Mortimer, Thomas' Snow Suit. This was a tough choice but in the end, I decided to go with his most emotionally powerful work. Just thinking about this one makes me choke up. It's absolutely heartbreaking and one of the few books on this list that I think adults would appreciate a little more than youngsters because it deals with parenthood and mortality in such a simple, yet profound way. I dare anyone to read this and not be moved. I can also vaguely remember Robert Munsch coming to my junior school to talk to us kids in the library. I could not appreciate the honor and privilege of being in his presence at the time. 

3. Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli: I must have been like 6 or 7 when I first read this book and it left quite the impression. The protagonist was one of the coolest kids I had ever come across in a book and the author deals with a lot of important issues too, but not in a heavy-handed or complicated way so that young readers can understand them: racial segregation, poverty, death being the major ones.

4. The Stinky Cheese Man And other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka 

I grew up reading the standard fairy-tales like most kids but always loved coming back to this hilarious and wacky spoof on them. The illustrations are fantastic and have a surreal quality that is out of this world. Fun, clever and very very twisted.

5. Charlotte's Web by E.B. White: A children's classic. Not much needs to be said about this one. A real tear-jerker and I remember reading it many times and then moping around for days afterwards. I also remember the first crush I had on a girl in grade three was named Charlotte. Somehow reading this book along with my brief relationship with this girl that took place on the playground during recess was connected in my young mind.

Mom: Jason, why are so glum? It's a beautiful day. Why not go outside and play, huh?
Jason: I dunwanna.
Mom: Why not? you better have a better answer than that young man! 
Mom: Well...I'm waiting...
Jason: It's Charlotte. We ain't friends no more.
Mom: Who?
Jason: Girl in my class. I told you about her.
Mom: Oh, I thought you meant Charlotte from Charlotte's Web. You been carrying that book around for days.
Jason: Yeah, I been reading it again. I'm in love with two Charlottes.
Mom: You sure you got enough love to go around?
Jason: Plenty. But how come she don't want to see me no more? We were like best friends.
Mom: Could be any number of reasons. People change, move on with their lives. Find different interests, meet new people.
Jason: Don't make no sense.
Mom: Perhaps it will one day.
Jason: At least I still got the other Charlotte. But why's she gotta die in the end? It's so sad.
Mom: Well, death is a part of life. You'll understand that more when you're older.
Jason: Still don't make no sense. 

6. The Haunted Mask by R.L. Stine: Gotta love those taglines: "If Looks could kill..." R.L. Stine must have made a fortune off these books, seriously. As a kid growing up during the 90's, Goosebumps were all the rage and everyone was reading them. I was no exception  and spent a lot of parent's money purchasing each new release to add to my collection. The Haunted Mask was always my favorite. It's about this girl who is prone to bullies, buy's a freaky-ass mask during Halloween which ends up having evil super-natural powers to scare people. Problem is, she can't take it off and it starts taking over her mind. Dun dun dun! The premise is all sorts of ridiculous but fun and full of scary thrills for young kids. Here is one of those books that I was talking about in the introduction that would not hold up very well if I were to read it again. But I will not deny enjoying the heck out of this and all the other Goosebumps as an impressionable young lad.

7. I Want to Go Home! by Gordon Korman: This used to be my favorite book of all time. I read it so many times that the pages started to fall out and it is still a mystery as to what happened to my copy. Lost forever. This 1986 Apple PaperBacks edition is also out of print, which is a crying shame because my bookshelf feels empty without it. The protagonist was my literary hero at the time. Rudy is a kid sent to summer camp who doesn't want to be there and devises all these crazy schemes to get sent home. I used to be in Scouts and would often go camping with my outfit during the summer, so it was easy to relate to the story. It is not as if I always had a rotten time on these outings but there were some unpleasant instances that could have been avoided had I stayed home instead. The story is funny as hell (or at least, that is my distinct recollection) as Rudy's rebellious attitude disrupts camp life. The hijinks that ensue between him and the head counselor are a riot. It is highly doubtful that the book would hold up very well if I read it again but will always remain a sentimental favorite of mine.

8. The Witches by Roald Dahl: As a young reader, I read everything I could get my hands on by Roald Dahl. However, The Witches freaked the hell out of me. I read it several times and it still managed to scare me. I couldn't sleep for days. Then I watched the movie with Anjelica Houston and that freaked me out even more. Roald Dahl is a master-storyteller and I could read his novels over and over again without getting tired of them.

9. Hatchet by Gary Paulsen: I used to love story-time during middle school. My grade 4 teacher would have us sit down on the carpet and then read to the class. A few chapters a day, maybe more depending on the schedule. This was one of those books and I remember finding the story so intense and riveting. So did the rest of my classmates and we would all cry out in unison for our teacher to continue reading when he said it was time to do something else. Oh, the good ol' days...

10. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger: The quintessential teenage-angst novel. I read this one at 14 or 15 and my world was never the same. The problem is, I would probably hate this novel if I read it again. Salinger is still one of my favorite authors but Catcher in the Rye belongs to a certain time and place in my life, nor would I be able to relate to it in the same way. Still, it's a classic for a reason and should be read by everyone at least once in their lifetime, preferably during their teenage years.

And that's a wrap! I hope you enjoyed my list. Would any of these titles make your own personal list? I would like to know some of your childhood favorites so feel free to leave a comment below.

Monday 23 March 2015

Deal Me in Challenge: The Passenger by Vladimir Nabokov

"Our imagination flies -- we are its shadow on the earth.” 
Card Drawn: 7 of Diamonds.

What a brilliant piece of meta-fiction! Lolita is one of my favorite novels but I had yet to read anything else by Vladimir Nabokov...until now. The Passenger is such an intelligent and clever short-story that plays with the readers expectations of narrative conventions. In a sardonic and cheeky fashion, Nabokov designs an elaborate ruse to test the reader's response to fundamental narrative principles that have been indoctrinated into our learning and understanding of stories since we first learned how to read. Despite one's fondness for the abstract or experimentation in literature, most people, myself included, prefer a story with an arch plot: A-B-C. Perhaps not always in that order but we expect the author to tell a story that follows a certain narrative logic and moves forward towards a satisfying conclusion. How many times have you started a book and in the first opening pages, you have already established a general idea of where the story is heading, can anticipate various plot developments and can predict the climax? I would expect that this happens quite often. 

Our voracious appetite for story has made us incredibly perceptive readers. We seem to encounter the same stories over and over again, just told differently. We have become experts on particular genres, grown familiar with the various tropes, archetypes, themes, symbolism and other conventions associated with said genre. Hence, whenever we first encounter a story, our subconscious mind is already working out the details, conjecturing what comes next with almost pinpoint accuracy. It's kind of scary.  However, it is source of great amusement and pleasure when reading a story that is unpredictable, offering something new that we have never encountered before. Vladimir Nabokov's The Passenger is one of those rare gems that defies expectations; or at least, it did for me. While it may seem as if every story has already been told, genres saturated to the point of agonizing cliches and literary talent in short-supply, I believe that originality still exists--this is certainly the case here. I will not bother going into the details of the actual story because that will obviously ruin the fun of experiencing it on your own. As an experienced reader, do you think that you are smarter than most authors? I don't mean in terms of intelligence, knowledge or writing talent but in the ability to surmise their intentions and predict the plot with startling precision. Track down this short-story and see if you can beat Nabokov at his game. 

Deal Me in Challenge: Microcosmic God by Theodore Sturgeon

These vintage Sci-Fi covers are so cool.

Card Drawn: Jack of Spades.

Theodore Sturgeon is one of those dominating figures of the Science-Fiction genre who has yet to really impress me. Prior to this short-story, I had read two of his novels: Marry to Medusa and More Than Human--both decent but lacking a certain level of finesse that would otherwise propel him to greatness in my eyes. Sturgeon's ideas and unique approach to the genre is far more appealing to me than his actual writing.

In his introduction to The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon Vol. I, renowned Science-Fiction/Fantasy author Gene Wolfe writes, "The first [sf] story I read was 'Microscopic God' by Theodore Sturgeon. It has sometimes occurred to me that is has all been downhill from there." High praise, indeed. However, I must disagree with Mr. Wolfe's estimation of this particular short-story, which to my mind, is not nearly deserving of such a distinguished accolade. Surely, the story is adequate enough and contains certain positive attributes but let's be reasonable: there are so many better short-stories from this genre out there. Clearly, such an argument is a matter of personal opinion. While I do appreciate Sturgeon's attempt to deliver an interesting spin on 'mad scientist playing God' story-line, which goes far back as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the writing is choppy, sporadic and wildly uneven; more often than not coming across as amateurish. Perhaps Sturgeon can be forgiven for these blunders since this was one of his earliest attempts at writing, first published in"Astounding Science-Fiction" in 1941. With the outbreak of WWII, it is interesting to view this work within a social and historical context. The rapid advancement of nuclear technology proved to be a dangerous threat to the extinction of humanity and Sturgeon's work can certainly be interpreted as a parable or allegory, suggesting a certain level of fear for the future because of these scientific developments.

In 1984, Sturgeon commented on Microcosmic God

"I have always disliked this story--not for its basic idea, which has been called unique, but for its writing. Just out of my teens, I had not yet learned that nobody is ever and altogether good and nobody is all bad. Ignorant of that, one can produce 100% purified vintage dyed-in-the-wool cardboard characters." 

I couldn't have summed up my position on this story any better. The author's self-criticism and bold honesty deserves the utmost respect. He admits to being an obstinate young writer prone to making mistakes, which included weak writing and "dyed-in-the-wool cardboard characters." What a wonderful expression: Dyed-in-the-wool. I'll have to try and use that expression in casual conversation more often. But I digress, Sturgeon touches upon the main problems with this story: the writing is poor and the characters are flat. The story starts off with a very interesting premise but quickly dissolves into absurdity. A highly inventive biologist creates a species of super-intelligent micro-organisms (hence the title of the story) that he names "Neoterics," capable of adapting to any type of environment and able to make scientific breakthroughs at such a high speed beyond human capacity. He lives on an isolated island, cut off from the larger world. He spends most of his time in the laboratory, observing and experimenting with his fascinating new "children" as their intelligence evolves at an accelerated rate. His financial backer is a devious banking executive who becomes a very powerful figure in the world through the scientist's many inventions. This introverted scientist is only interested in the advancement of human knowledge; he cares nothing about financial gain and only wants to be left alone. Unfortunately, the banker has different plans for him and is compelled to use the scientist as a pawn for his diabolical plans for world domination. This is where the story becomes downright silly and preposterous, which is a shame because there is so much potential gone to waste. 

Since the writing is mediocre at best, the narrative and characters follow a similar pattern. Instead of a well-told story, the end result is a bloated, cheesy and incongruous collection of scenes and ideas. Reading this story felt like sitting through one of those incredibly lame Science-Fiction B-Movies with numerous plot-holes and hokey acting that makes you wonder if the people involved were all hopped up on psychedelics during film-making. Science-fiction demands the suspension of belief on the part of the reader more so than many other genres but unfortunately, the narrative here gets bogged down in trivialities, often meandering interminably without a clear sense of purpose. For a short-story, it's actually quite lengthy. Sturgeon could have really used a better editor but that might not even have saved the story from imploding on itself. Despite these numerous flaws, the story has one redeeming quality: the Neoterics. These are fascinating creatures and Sturgeon's creative inventiveness shines through. I only wish he had focused more on exploring the relationship between the scientist and these highly-intelligent beings instead of shifting gears towards the unfolding of a zany plot.

Deal Me in Challenge: Ray by Guy Vanderhaeghe

Card Drawn: Ace of Hearts

Guy Vanderhaege strikes me as a humble and sincere type of writer, someone who exhibits quiet restraint with a penchant for intimate portraits of human relationships. Perhaps such observations are presumptuous on my part; since, my only exposure to his writing is the short-story Ray taken from the excellent collection of Canadian Short Stories compiled by Jane Urquhart, but Vanderhaege's slice-of-life story evokes these particular qualities that feels distinctively Canadian. To a certain extent, the soft-spoken mildness and elegant simplicity of his aesthetic is reminiscent of Alice Munro but here one gets the recognizable impression that Vanderhaege is attempting to branch away from his Canadian influences and establish his own authorial voice. Having only just been introduced to this author, it is impossible for me to determine just what exactly constitutes his artistic vision and literary sensibilities without succumbing to some specious argument. Nonetheless, Ray is indicative of an author in the nascent stages of developing his craft, whose keen observation of human experience is deeply introspective and who seems capable of delivering heart-felt stories. 

This story begins in medias res, the titular character and his wife engaged in a heated argument. Ray is perturbed by the whole situation because not only is this the first major fight between the couple but revolves around sensitive subject matter: his childhood memories associated with his father. They live in a small unnamed rural town and while Ray is fairly content concerning their current living conditions, his wife feels differently. She is restless and frustrated; feels her youth slipping away, her married life not living up to her idealized expectations. Essentially, she is bored of this dull existence and wants more than this little town has to offer. The narrative consists mainly of a long flashback, switching intermittently back and forth from Ray's reflections on childhood to the present time where his marriage seems on the precipice of disaster. Vanderhaege purposefully avoids trite nostalgia and sentimentality and there is a hint of irony here since Ray's wife accosts him for indulging in these very same self-delusions about growing up in loving home with his father. Of course, he denies such allegations, looking back on his younger days with fondness, especially the relationship with his father. The fallibility of memories and how we choose to remember the past is of great importance to the story.

The effective use of subtlety and tacitness are two important elements of the short-story. However, Vanderhaege decides to eschew with these common principles in favor of a more blunt approach but is unable to pull it off successfully. The end result is a story that is far too "on the nose" with obtrusive symbolism that comes across as contrived. While sometimes prosaic and at other times on the verge of achieving something substantial, the story never quite maintains a semblance of wholeness. Thus, while a quick and interesting enough read, Ray will unlikely linger in my mind for very long.