Friday, December 29, 2006

BOOKS: With a Bang AND a Whimper

Before I forget, if you're a listener of CBC Radio One -- or hey, even if you're not! -- I'm going to be on Definitely Not the Opera tomorrow (that's Saturday, for those of you playing along without a scorecard) at just past 1 pm. The theme of this week's show is "Back to the Future", so I'm going to be talking with host Sook-Yin Lee about post-apocalyptic and dystopic literature that freaks my shit out.

And now on to the post proper.

Holy CRAP, am I ever tired today. But it's of the staying-up-too-late-reading variety, and not of the baby-screaming-for-an-hour-in-the-middle-of-the-night variety or the drunken-loogans-yelling-outside-my-house variety, and man, despite feeling like death on wheels, it's strangely enjoyable to be back to my pre-Sam old-school reading-related fatigue. Sort of. Kind of. When I don't feel like throwing up from exhaustion, that is.

But I'm happy to report that the endeavour that kept me up much later than would be considered wise was finishing my fiftieth book of the year. Or if you want to look at it another way, the one hundredth book I've read since starting this entire project. Which begs the questions: is it weird that my tally came out to exactly fifty books two years in a row? Am I unconsciously adjusting my pace to meet this (rather arbitrary) goal? What would happen if I changed my target to, say, sixty-three books? Or one hundred and eleven? These, and other questions you don't give a crap about, will never be answered, because I've grown rather fond of my URL and my tiny goldfish brain won't allow me to commit a new one to memory.

Having already cleverly caveated my way out of writing a particularly good post, I can reassure you that, at the very least, the final three books of this hallowed year two-aught-aught-six were mighty fine. Any negative impressions you may make of them should be blamed squarely on me. (Don't worry. I can take it.)

By a strange coincidence, all of these books ended up in my hands, either directly or indirectly, through the power and influence of other people. This doesn't happen to me very often. I have this funny tendency, which perhaps some of you share, to distrust most people's reading recommendations. Oh, I may nod and smile politely when someone's suggesting a book to me, but my internal monologue is going something like, "Well, I'm sure it's a fine book FOR YOU, but thanks anyway." I'm not saying I'm RIGHT in my assumptions; I'm just saying it's what I do. Which is why it's just best to just thrust a book at me and tell me to read the damn thing. (This works. Really.)

The Shadow of the Wind
by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (#48)
When my dear friend and Platonic life partner The Fabulous Suzi was in town on her last fly-by visit, we exchanged a bunch of books that we were each done with. I can't remember what I gave her, but I hope it was good, because she gave me
The Shadow of the Wind, and while it's something I never, ever in a million years would have thought to pick up for myself, I enjoyed it immensely and found it, plot-wise, probably the best book I've read in months.

The Shadow of the Wind is a sort of contemporary Gothic romance/suspense novel. It's set in Barcelona during and after the Spanish Civil War, and the war provides a (frequently brutal) backdrop for the story about a young boy who finds a rare book that so enthralls him that he spends the next ten years trying to find out more about its author. As he gets closer to the truth, he learns a bit too much and suddenly finds himself embroiled in a tangled mystery that involves runaway lovers, secret weddings, old grudges, and pretty much the entire gamut of Shakespearean devices.

What I loved about this book was its shameless baroqueness. Given that its plot revolves around books, and also given that it's intelligently written, there's no worry about it falling into the guilty pleasure category (not that there's anything wrong with that). But at the same time, it satisfyingly tweaked the same chords in my brain that respond to books and movies such as
Jane Eyre and Moulin Rouge. There aren't a lot of books written in these post-ironic times that can be said to do that. Well played, Fabulous Suzi. Well played.

Jenny and the Jaws of Life
by Jincy Willett (#49)
I picked up this book my very own self, but I never would have heard of Jincy Willett if it weren't for Cap'n Ganch, who so generously and pushily (heh) gifted me with a copy of Willett's novel
Winner of the National Book Award a while back. I really liked Winner, so when I saw a copy of Willett's short-story collection Jenny and the Jaws of Life at a used bookstore, I picked it up, expecting it to be a good read -- but not prepared for the powerhouse that it ended up being.

This is ostensibly a collection of humorous stories. This is an understatement. This is a misleading understatement. I don't know about you, but when I think of funny short stories, I think of, say,
James Thurber or P.G. Wodehouse. I don't think of stories that make you go, "Oh. I see. Those stories were really funny and really well written, but I think I need to go and lie down for a little while. Do you have the number of a good therapist you could recommend? What's that? No, I'm not crying. Oh, wait. I think I am." Winner of the National Book Award, dark and funny though it is, did not sufficiently prepare me for this. Think Dorothy Parker by way of Kurt Vonnegut and David Sedaris.

(This is a recommendation, by the way.)

The Emperor's Children
by Claire Messud (#50)
I can't talk too much about this novel because my friend Libby, who gave it to me, sometimes reads my site, so I have to save all my insightful commentary (provided I actually have any) for our upcoming book date.

(I strongly advocate this book date idea, by the way. It has a bit of the necessary structure of a book club without any of the -- let me be candid here -- need to be diplomatic to nigh strangers whose discernment you suspect. I tried the book club thing once a few years ago, and I almost drove myself crazy trying to pussyfoot through the conversation. Life already requires so much pussyfooting. Must we pussyfoot about books, as well?)

All I can tell you is this is a really, really good book. Really good. I was struck by how much it reminded me in ways (without being at all derivative) of Zadie Smith's On Beauty, so if you liked that book, then yeah, you should probably read The Emperor's Children. (If you've read Smith's other novels and disliked them, as so many people seem to, I can't vouch for those because I haven't read them. But you should still read The Emperor's Children.)

And on that digressive note, what better way to sign off for the year? It just feels right somehow.

P.S. I wrote this entire post while eating chocolate bonbons. Everything they tell you about bored housewives is true.


... said...

weeeeeeird... i'm listening to you RIGHT NOW on the CBC. you sound smart! not that you don't always, but you totally sound like a CBC lady! in a good way, like in a hot-CBC-lady sort of way. im waiting for a shout-out from you... waiting... here it comes, I know it! ooh, i bet it will be in code! oh, yes! there's a word with a 'J' and...wait, yes I heard an 'E'! That was an 'N', I know it.

I can't type and listen.

Good show! Happy New Year!

Quillhill said...

Great to hear you!

Anonymous said...

Dude ... wasn't JITJOL great?!

I'm so glad you decided to read it because ... well, Christmas was rolling around and I almost thought of book-stalking you again with it. But I ended up buying Christmas presents for people I actually know (sorry) and never got around to it.


Anonymous said...


This would've been hella-easier if I'd just written the damn thing out.

Anonymous said...

Okay, back again. This spurred me to do more googling of Jincy Willett ... and I swear this website must be new because I'm sure I would've found it before.

Check it out. Damned funny. Lawd almight.

Anonymous said...

I love it when I read a book and really like it, and then someone else, very randomly, reads the same seemingly unheard of book and also likes it. I'm talking about The Shadow in the Wind. Cool. Mystery, foreign locale, romance, original plot; it had everything, including the awesome Barcelona.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed 'The Shadow of the Wind' and 'Winner of the National Book Award' was one of my favorite books this year. I also found a copy of 'Jenny and the Jaws of Life' at a used bookstore but haven't gotten around to reading it yet. Glad to hear it's as good as WofNBA.

Nicole said...

Shadow of the Wind was definitely among my favorite of the recently read books. It's stellar!

Sabine said...

I just finished "The emperor's children", ooh, I loved this book. All the characters in it were real people to me. Nice to discover your blog!
You have to read "White teeth" by Zadie Smith, if you liked "On beauty". (I did, a friend of mine hated it)

Anonymous said...

hi! I really like you vision to life! the way you write and everything... you must be a really nice person to spend some time with! :) cheers....