Wednesday, August 03, 2005

BOOKS: Shocking! Shameful! Secrets!

It's a funny thing. My older brother, by his own count, has read exactly two (2) books in his adult life. If you're anything like me (and I suspect you are), it's hard for you to fathom this. Yet my brother is a smart, together kind of guy. Reading just isn't a part of his world.

But get this: my bro remembers all the characters' names, all the plot points, everything about those two books. I, on the other hand, have read thousands of books, and I remember... almost nothing. That's my sad confession.

If you're wondering how that tallies up in terms of wasted hours, here's the math:

Let's say I read for an hour a day on average. Multiply that by 365 days, then multiply THAT by 35 years. If you don't have a calculator handy, the grand total is over 12,000 hours.

Twelve thousand hours.


In other words, that's over 500 days. In yet another bunch of words, that's about a year and a third. And that's a conservative estimate. Jesus.

All this is by way of telling you that, while I've read a bunch of books in the past three months, my memories of these books are spotty at best. So before this entry disappears in a solipsistic puff, here's what I remember without revisiting the book jackets:

Some Great Thing
by Colin McAdam (#21)
I believe this was nominated for a Governor General's Award, and if memory serves, it probably deserved the nomination. It's about a guy... no, make that two guys... wait... actually, it's about two guys and a woman and another younger woman (and to a lesser degree her mother) and the first guy's son. The first guy is married to the first woman. Oh, and the novel is set in Ottawa, which -- while it may have the distinction of having been my teenage stomping grounds -- is not usually the backdrop for exciting stories.

There are two parallel -- and occasionally overlapping -- storylines, one involving the man/woman/kid and the second dealing with the rest of this batch of characters. The first narrative is your classic Duddy Kravitz-esque "obnoxious-but-compelling working stiff builds an empire by busting his (and everyone else's) balls" story. The second narrative involves a poncey public servant and his pursuit of a younger woman. Uh, and I don't remember how these storylines end.

Okay, all facetiousness aside, I really don't remember much in the way of hard-and-fast details, which is seriously sad. But I do recall being impressed by McAdam's ability to create characters who are almost wholly unlikeable, yet who still, against my will, spark tiny twinges of pity. Try it. It's not easy.

Would I recommend this novel? Sure, why the hell not. It's McAdam's first book, and I find the raggediness of most first novels is part of what makes them compelling.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (#22)
Okay, was I the only one who was slightly underwhelmed by Cloud Atlas? What with the Booker nom and all the critical praise, maybe my expectations were too high. But I've had high expectations of books before, and somehow they didn't spoil the books for me.

If you've read Cloud Atlas, you know that its structure is a big part of what all the fooferaw is about. There are multiple narratives -- from 18th century sea voyager to futuristic neo-neanderthal -- that seem disparate at first, but slowly and subtly the relationships between all these perspectives emerge.

It's clever, yes. And tightly crafted. And post-modern as all get-out. But clever po-mo shenanigans aside, to me this book had no heart. And at the end of the day, that's what a book needs in order to be great.

It's interesting: Cloud Atlas had the smooth construction that Some Great Thing lacked, and Some Great Thing had the heart that Cloud Atlas was missing. If you could put them together, they'd be a great book.

Right Ho, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse (#23)
I've written about my love of P.G. Wodehouse elsewhere in this site. In fact, after I wrote this entry, I felt this huge compulsion to read more Wodehouse... or more specifically, to re-read more Wodehouse.

Right Ho, Jeeves isn't my favourite (that would be The Code of the Woosters, if you're wondering), but it's pretty damn good. If you're familiar with the Wodehouse pantheon, it features Bertie and Jeeves, natch, as well as Aunt Dahlia, Anatole, Tuppy Glossop, cousin Angela, and the memorable first coupling of Madeline Basset and Gussie Fink-Nottle. Good times!

Microserfs by Douglas Coupland (#24)
This was another re-read, spurred by learning that Coupland's coming out with a sequel (which I will definitely be reading).

I don't care what all the literary reactionaries think: not everything Coupland wrote can be just unilaterally written off. I read Generation X well before the hype and, untainted by popular opinion, I thought it was an excellent book, and probably the first book about my generation that felt even remotely believable.

His subsequent books may have been a mixed bag of hits (Shampoo Planet, All Families Are Psychotic) and misses (Miss Wyoming, Life After God), but even Coupland's weaker efforts can't be summarily dismissed. The dude has a gift for cultural observation and snappy dialogue that deserves respect.

The wild thing about Microserfs is that it's coming up on its ten-year anniversary. (Ten years! I'm freaking out! I'M SO OLD!) Re-reading it was kind of like looking through your parents' old MAD magazines from the '60s: mildly anthropological, full of vicariously embarrassing slang (I-way! Infobahn! Egad!), but still cutely quaint.

Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul 2 (#25)
I bet you didn't see this one coming. No, I'm not normally one of those people with an appetite for Chicken Soup (did you know there are over 90 of these bad boys on the market, including Chicken Soup for the Baseball Player's Soul, Chicken Soup for the Canadian's Soul, and TWO volumes of Chicken Soup for the Golfer's Soul?).

But I was staying at my mother-in-law's house a month ago, running out of reading material, and hunting for the copy of The Stone Diaries that I loaned her TEN YEARS AGO, and I found this.

First off... there's a sequel?

Second, the cover was an example of some of the most egregiously awful cover art I've seen in some time.

Third, the full title of this book is Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul 2:
More Stories to Open the Hearts and Rekindle the Spirits of Mothers. Now, maybe it's just me, but I get a little ornery at a publisher who's presumptuous enough to tell me exactly how I'm supposed to feel when I read a book (notwithstanding A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which earns a get out of jail free card because at least it was being ironic). I'LL decide if my heart's open and my spirit's rekindled, thank you very much.

Fourth, and in the interest of full disclosure, I have to tell you that some of the stories in this book made me cry. So maybe my spirit was a little rekindled. I mean, this collection is no Dropped Threads, (and I could go on and on comparing these two books and what they say about mainstream literary tastes in Canada versus America), but it still manages to give you a little kick or two to the heart area.

So, how many shameful things have I admitted in just this one entry?
  • I can't remember storylines to almost every book I've ever read.
  • I like Douglas Coupland.
  • I also like Dave Eggers.
  • I didn't think much of the much-hyped Cloud Atlas.
  • And I read one of the Chicken Soup books.
What? You don't have any literary skeletons in your closet?


landismom said...

Well, I'm inspired to share my literary skeletons, after your excellent post.

1. I'm with you on the not-remembering problem.
2. I was deeply pissed off when I inadvertently read a spoiler about the new Harry Potter book before I had finished it.
3. I have read every Janet Evanovich book ever published. Yes, including the romance novels.

Anonymous said...

I just finished Microserfs last week and had not read it before. It made me nostalgic for a time I really didn't even experience (I'm about a decade younger than the characters). Can't wait to read the sequel, given what happened in both the industry and the world since.

Dave said...

Incredibly thankful for your lack-of-memory admission. Sometimes I look at my bookshelf and wonder just how much I remember from each of the titles staring back at me, or if I can even summarize the plots. Even books I consider my favourites, like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay for example. Loved it! What happened in it? Um, golems, and comic books, and uh... the war maybe? I dunno. Did I mention I loved it?

Anonymous said...

I totally remember books based on the overarching feeling I got from reading them.

I even organized my bookshelves once around this.

Anonymous said...

Oh thank lord, I thought it was just me.

It's the reason I can re-read my favourites, though - surprises at every turn!

Anonymous said...

I have a whole bookshelf full of fabulous books that I don't remember--but I remember that I loved them and someday that will make it even better when I re-read them, and I feel great when I hear others talk them up.
But I can't stand the Dave Eggers book--took his advice and quit reading on page 146 or whatever it was. So far the four or five other people I know who have read it hated it, too. I don't get it. But if the sales help him put his little bro through college, then more power!

Veronica said...

And on the note of Kavalier and Clay, what I'm embarrassed about is: Was that story true or not? Because I looked at a copy of The Escapist and it seemed true! I'm very confused. Is The Escapist just building off the K&C story or did Chabon draw from the real K&C to write the novel? I feel like this is something I should know. I did read the book and all.

Also, I like Douglas Coupland. You're not the only one :).

Tammy said...

I am SO relieved to know that I'm not alone. When people come to my house and see the bookshelves in every room, with the books double-stacked in most places, the always ask me why I don't get rid of some. I always say something about how much I love books, blah blah blah, but I never tell them the truth: that keeping these books around is the only way I'll remember that I ever read them. Or worse, I can totally picture myself getting rid of a shitload of books, then slowly re-acquiring them, thinking I've never read them before. How sad would that be? (The answer: Very.)

I loved Kavalier and Clay, too! But since I remember practically nothing about it (er, it's the one about comic books, right?), I can't help you out, Exxie.

(Hey, and weird coincidence: I was just on your site! Thirty books already, huh? Sweet.)

Veronica said...

Yep, K&C was about the comic book.

I'm actually at 32 books, but I've yet to blog about the last two. I'm lazy!