Tuesday, March 26, 2013

3 Japanese master directors

I'm afraid I don't have anything particularly profound to say about the three Japanese master directors: Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse.  This is a case, similar to the complete masterworks list (novel version) from a couple of days ago, where I own far more films that I have actually watched.  I do hope to correct this.  Last summer, I had planned to watch a film each evening and get through the Kurosawa collection at least, but that plan was quickly derailed.  I then watched a handful of Ingmar Bergman films and everything went to pot (a little bit like the "If you give a mouse a cookie" books where I just kept jumping around as one film led me off in a different direction, then another, and I never did find my way back).  It isn't entirely my fault, as the very early Kurosawa films are not that great and I was getting a bit bored.  The next time around I will try much harder to stay on track -- Kurosawa, then perhaps Bergman, then Ozu, then Rohmer perhaps, and finally whatever there is of Naruse (not much that has been legally released, alas), then Antonioni and wrapping up with the Godard Collection as a fitting bookend (another director who really changed the direction of cinema).  There are other side roads I need to explore, but these would cover some of the main highlights.  (Though I am wondering if so much Bergman at one time is wise, maybe I should alternate with Fellini for a real mind bender.  Another truly bizarre pairing that just occurred to me is Satyajit Ray and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, though I can pretty much guarantee that won't happen this year and maybe not even next year -- I really don't sit down and watch that many films straight through.)  Anyway, this post is just be an attempt to keep track of which movies I have watched and perhaps I will add a few comments here and there.

Akira Kurosawa

Certainly the best known Japanese director in the West.  Essentially all of his films are on DVD for Region 1, and apparently they are nearly all on Hulu.

X 1943     Sanshiro Sugata
X 1944     The Most Beautiful   (Ichiban utsukushiku)
X 1945     Sanshiro Sugata Part II
X 1945     The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail  (Tora no o wo fumu otokotachi)
X 1946     No Regrets for Our Youth    (Waga seishun ni kuinashi)
X 1947     One Wonderful Sunday     (Subarashiki nichiyōbi)
1948     Drunken Angel   (Yoidore tenshi)
1949     The Quiet Duel   (Shizukanaru ketto)
1949    Stray Dog   (Nora inu)
1950     Scandal
X 1950 Rashōmon
1951     The Idiot   (Hakuchi)
X 1952     Ikiru aka To Live
1954     Seven Samurai     (Shichinin no samurai)
1955     I Live in Fear (Ikimono no kiroku)
1957     Throne of Blood (Kumonosu-jō)
1957    The Lower Depths     (Donzoko)
1958     The Hidden Fortress    (Kakushi toride no san akunin)
1960     The Bad Sleep Well     (Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru)
1961     Yojimbo
1962     Sanjurō    
1963     High and Low (Tengoku to jigoku)
1965     Red Beard     (Akahige)
1970     Dodesukaden
1975     Dersu Uzala
1980     Kagemusha
X 1985     Ran    
X 1990     Dreams aka Akira Kurosawa's Dreams   
1991     Rhapsody in August     ( Hachigatsu no rapusodī)
1993     Madadayo

Ironically, I stopped at 1948, just when Kurosawa starts getting really good.  Oh well, something to look forward to, perhaps this summer.  Of the ones I've seen, Ikiru is the most profound, maybe even life-changing for me.  I'll write about this in more detail when I get around to watching it again.  (Just a quick note that Roger Ebert (RIP) really loved this film.)  Rashōmon is quite the mind-bender, but the problem was that while it was an incredibly fresh idea in 1950 (unreliable narrators being more of a staple of fiction and not movies up to that point), it has lost some of its potency just because of the many (often inferior) films that borrowed from it.  Still quite an achievement, however.  If I am recalling correctly, Kurosawa went a little overboard at the end of the shoot and overdid it with the artificial wind and rain.

I've only seen Ran and Dreams on the big screen (Dreams in its initial US run incidentally).  Definitely worth catching Ran on the big screen, and I hope to again some day, along with Seven Samurai (if I have an entire afternoon free!).

Yasujirō Ozu
I've tried to reformat the Ozu filmography from wiki just a bit (though it may not display well at all), and then indicate whether it is available in Criterion/Eclipse put it out (meaning it is Region 1) or BFI (meaning it is R2).  R3 means basically only available in that region (and the subtitles may be really lacking).  To fully follow Ozu and the other directors below, you need to invest in a region-free DVD, which is not really the case for Kurosawa.

1929  Days of Youth                    BFI Student
1930  Walk Cheerfully                 BFI Gangster         
1930   I Flunked But...                  BFI Student       
1930   That Night's Wife           BFI Gangster             
1931   The Lady and The Beard       BFI Student                 
X 1931  Tokyo Chorus                           Eclipse 10
X 1932   Otona no miru ehon  ... aka I Was Born, But...    Eclipse 10
1932   Seishun no yume imaizuko  ... aka Where Are the Dreams of Youth?  BFI Student     
1932   Mata au hi made         ... aka Until the Day We Meet Again               
1933   Tokyo no onna         ... aka Woman of Tokyo            BFI Melodrama   
1933    Hijosen no onna         ... aka Dragnet Girl            BFI Gangster
X 1933   Dekigokoro         ... aka Passing Fancy                 Eclipse 10
1934   Haha wo kowazuya     ... aka A Mother Should Be Loved  (incomplete)     R2/R3
1934   Ukikusa monogatari      ... aka A Story of Floating Weeds         Criterion (232)
1935   Hakoiri musume         ... aka An Innocent Maid               
1935   Tokyo no yado         ... aka An Inn in Tokyo                 R3
1936   Kagamijishi                       
1936   Daigaku yoitoko   ... aka College Is a Nice Place   ... aka Tokyo Is a Nice Place 
1936   Hitori musuko         ... aka The Only Son            Criterion (524)
1937   Shukujo wa nani o wasureta ka    ... aka What Did the Lady Forget?     R2/R3
1941    Todake no kyodai         ... aka The Toda Brothers and Sisters             R3
1942    Chichi ariki         ... aka There Was a Father               Criterion (524)
1947    Nagaya shinshiroku         ... aka The Record of a Tenement Gentleman      R3
1948    Kaze no naka no mendori       ... aka A Hen in the Wind              R2/R3
1949    Banshun         ... aka Late Spring           Criterion (331)
1950    Munekata kyoudai       ... aka The Munekata Sisters               
1951    Bakushû         ... aka Early Summer                 Criterion (240)
1952    Ochazuke no aji       ... aka Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice R2/R3                
1953    Tokyo monogatari       ... aka Tokyo Story (USA)        Criterion (217)
1956    Soshun      ... aka Early Spring (USA)                 Eclipse 3/BFI
1957    Tokyo boshoku      ... aka Tokyo Twilight              Eclipse 3/BFI
1958    Higanbana       ... aka Equinox Flower                 Eclipse 3
1959    Ohayô      ... aka Good Morning    Criterion/BFI               
1959    Ukigusa       ... aka Floating Weeds                 Criterion (232)/BFI
1960    Akibiyori      ... aka Late Autumn                 Eclipse 3
1961    Kohayagawa-ke no aki  ... aka Early Autumn (or The End of Summer)    Eclipse 3
1962    Sanma no aji     ... aka An Autumn Afternoon (USA)     Criterion (446)

I've watched very few of these films, mostly the early silents, though I own quite a number of them.  Criterion/Eclipse has done a really good job of the later films (past 1950) and they also released some early Family comedies and The Only Son/There was a Father (I kind of hoped they would have included the incomplete A Mother Should Be Loved, but they didn't do so).  In general, BFI has done a better job collecting the early surviving Ozu films. The Student Comedies is probably the best value with four early films, including I Flunked But... .  BFI has just released The Gangster Films, which includes Dragnet Girl and Last Night's Wife.  I have to say, the price is a bit steep for fairly marginal films in Ozu's discography, but I may eventually spring for them.

I am also still torn over Three Melodramas, which contains Woman of Tokyo, but then two other films available from Eclipse (the Late Ozu box).  The price would have to drop quite a bit.  I've just noticed that BFI has paired A Mother Should be Loved with Late Autumn (also in the Late Ozu box), but the price is a bit better and I may eventually pick this up, despite the overlap.

Mikio Naruse

He is clearly the least known of the three in the U.S., mostly because his work is so hard to find (legally anyway).  Criterion/Eclipse does have his early surviving works, which I have actually watched and When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, and Masters of Cinema and BFI in the UK (Region 2) have released two box sets of 6 films total (with overlap of Woman Ascends unfortunately).

Thus, this is all that is out on DVD with English subtitles:
 X   Flunky, Work Hard (Koshiben ganbare, 1931) R1
 X  No Blood Relation (Nasanu naka, 1932) R1
 X   Apart From You (Kimi to Wakarete, 1933) R1
 X   Every-Night Dreams (Yogoto no yume, 1933) R1
 X   Street Without End (Kagirinaki hodo, 1934) R1
 O  Repast (Meshi, 1951) R2
 O  Sound of the Mountain (Yama no oto, 1954) R2
 O  Late Chrysanthemums (Bangiku, 1954) R2
 O   Floating Clouds (Ukigumo, 1955) R2
 O   Flowing (Nagareru, 1956) R2
 O   When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Onna ga kaidan o agaru toki, 1960) R1/R2

I am not going to post this entire list, but he has 30+ surviving films (list at Wikipedia).  To me this really suggests a market failure.  Most of his later films are not available, and virtually none of his works from the 1960s, which are highly regarded (well, curiously I read recently that his 1950s films may be his greatest achievement).  In any case, I can only hope that Criterion is working on an Eclipse set of his 1960s films; I would snatch that up as soon as I knew the street date.

I've actually only watched the silent Naruse so far.  Street Without End had some good moments, though I think my favorite was Apart From You, which is about a famous actress who wants to be reunited with the child she gave up for adoption.

I've sort of been saving the more sophisticated "talkies" for later, and I will most likely watch them in order.  Maybe some day his color films will be released.  Now some of the other films are on Hulu (up to 13 apparently), but that doesn't do me much good at the moment.  I think it is a bit more likely that someone puts these out on DVD before Hulu comes to Canada, but we'll see.

Kenji Mizoguchi is another figure only partially well served by Criterion/Eclipse and then Masters of Cinema/Eureka.  I would say that at least his final works, as well as those films generally regarded as his best, are out on DVD, and I don't think you can say that about Naruse.  Since I don't have as many films to catch up on with Mizoguchi, I won't bother listing them.  I really thought Street of Shame was incredible, though depressing.  I also enjoyed (if that's the right word) Sisters of the Gion (Gion bayashi).  The only film I didn't care much for in the Fallen Women box was Women of the Night, which was far too melodramatic, even compared to the others in this vein; it was frankly unbelievable when one of the characters seemed about to get into a "rumble" with some street prostitutes (I think I am remembering this correctly).  Of the available Mizoguchi, the main one I still need to watch is Ugetsu, though I probably also ought to also get around some day to Sancho the Bailiff.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

"Complete works" - 9 authors

While I used to as a young adult, I don't read that many books in series any more.  I actually may go ahead and read Pullman's Golden Compass Trilogy, since I am deciding whether my son is old enough to read it, or if he needs to wait another few years.

What I tend to do instead is to try to read through an author's complete works, ideally chronologically, though that isn't a huge sticking point. I've generally listed the date of first publication, when that was clear, rather than the date of the published translation.

So far, I have managed to get through Saul Bellow's novels (except Ravelstein), Graham Greene, Barbara Pym, and Robert Kroetsch (except for But We Are Exiles).

Here is my progress to date on the next couple of rounds of authors I hope to cover.

The codes are: X (read), XX (re-read), O (own but haven't read), VPL (at the Vancouver Library).  I am only using VPL codes for Mahfouz, though perhaps way, way, way down the road might use it for Skvorecky as well, since he can also be hard to track down.  The other authors are pretty easy.

Naguib Mahfouz  (actually I am not listing his ancient Egypt novels, since I don't intend to ever read them.  There are a few I read so long ago, including Midaq Alley, that I probably ought to re-read them.)

X Cairo Modern  (1945)
X Khan Al-Khalili (1945)
X Midaq Alley (1947)
X The Mirage (1948)
X The Beginning and The End (1950)
X The Cairo Trilogy (1956-7) (Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street)
X The Children of Gebelawi/Children of the Alley (1959)
X The Thief and the Dogs (1961)
X Autumn Quail (1962)
. God's World (1962) & Zaabalawi (1963) (short stories)
O The Search (1964)
O The Beggar (1965)
O Adrift on the Nile (1966)
O Miramar (1967)
O Mirrors (1972)
X Love in the Rain (1973?)
X Karnak Cafe (1974)
. Heart of the Night (1974?)
O Respected Sir (1975)
TPL The Harafish (1977)
. In the Time of Love (1980) 
O Arabian Nights and Days (1981)
O Wedding Song (1981)
. The Final Hour (1982)
O The Journey of Ibn Fattouma (1983)
X The Day the Leader was Killed (1985)
The Hunger (1986)
TPL Morning and Evening Talk
O The Fountain and the Tomb (1988)
X The Coffee House (1988)
O The Time and the Place and Other Stories (1965-89)
TPL Echoes of an Autobiography
TPL The Seventh Heaven
TPL Voices from the Other World
O Mahfouz at Sidi Gaber (2001)
O The Dreams (2004)
O Dreams of Departure (2005)

R.K. Narayan

Curiously it is not terribly difficult to get all his novels in 4 omnibus volumes from Penguin India (The Magic of Malgudi, Memories of Malgudi, The World of Malgudi and A Town Called Malgudi), but the short stories are a different matter.  I own all of these novels, as well as the novella The Grandmother's Tale, so I won't bother noting that.

X    Swami and Friends (1935)
X    The Bachelor of Arts (1937)
X    The Dark Room (1938)
X    The English Teacher (1945)
X    Mr. Sampath: The Printer of Malgudi (1948)
X    The Financial Expert (1952)
X    Waiting for the Mahatma (1955)
X    The Guide (1958)
    The Man-Eater of Malgudi (1961)
    The Vendor of Sweets (1967)
    The Painter of Signs (1977)
    A Tiger for Malgudi (1983)
    Talkative Man (1986)
    The World of Nagaraj (1990)
    Grandmother's Tale (1992)

Vladimir Nabokov

Novels written in Russian:
X King, Queen, Knave (1928)
X The Eye (1938)
Glory (1932)
X Laughter in the Dark (1938)
X Invitation to a Beheading (1936)
X Despair (1937, rewritten by Nabokov in 1965)
X The Gift (1938)
The Enchanter (1939)

Novels written in English:
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight  (1941)
Bend Sinister (1947)
X Lolita (1955)
Pnin (1957)
Pale Fire (1962)
Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969)
Transparent Things (1972)
Look at the Harlequins! (1974)

(The Library of America 3 volume set covers the novels written in English.  I currently own them, but probably will part with them before too long.  Nabokov is really not my cup of tea. Definitely don't think reading the index cards comprising The Original of Laura is worth my time or really anyone's other than a complete Nabokov fanatic.)

Margaret Atwood

X   The Edible Woman (1969)
X   Surfacing (1972)
X    Lady Oracle (1976)
    Dancing Girls (1977)
    Life Before Man (1979)
    Bodily Harm (1981)
    Murder in the Dark (1983)
    Bluebeard's Egg (1983)
X    The Handmaid's Tale (1985)
XX    Cat's Eye (1988)
   Wilderness Tips (1991)
    The Robber Bride (1993)
   Good Bones and Simple Murders (1994)
    Alias Grace (1996)
O    The Blind Assassin (2000)
O    Oryx and Crake (2003)
    The Penelopiad (2005)
X   Moral Disorder (2006)
X  Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (2008)
    The Year of the Flood (2009)
    Maddaddam (2013) (third novel in Oryx and Crake trilogy)
X   The Heart Goes Last

Timothy Findley

    The Last of the Crazy People (1967)
O    The Butterfly Plague (1969)
X    The Wars (1977)
X   Famous Last Words (1981)
XX   Not Wanted on the Voyage (1984) -- also saw a musical version of this!
    Dinner Along the Amazon (1984)
O  The Telling of Lies (1986)
O  Stones (1988)
XX   Headhunter (1993)
O   The Piano Man's Daughter (1995)
X  You Went Away (1996)
O  Dust to Dust
O  From Stone Orchard (1998)
O  Pilgrim (1999)
O  Spadework (2001)
X  Elizabeth Rex (actually a play)

Josef Skvorecky

The Cowards 1958
X The Bass Saxophone  1967
O Miss Silver's Past 1969
The Republic of Whores 1969
O The Mournful Demeanor of Lieutenant Boruvka
O The Miracle Game 1972
O Sins for Father Knox 1973
The Swell Season 1975
O The End of Lieutenant Boruvka 1975
X The Engineer of Human Souls 1977
O The Return of Lieutenant Boruvka 1980
O Dvorak In Love 1984
The Bride from Texas 1992
The Tenor Saxophonist's Story 1993
The Edenvale Stories 1996
Two Murders in My Double Life 1999
An Inexplicable Story, or, The Narrative Of Questus Firmus Siculus 1998
Brief Encounter, With Murder 1999
O When Eve Was Naked 2000
Encounter at the End of an Era, With Murder 2001

Don DeLillo

X   Americana (1971)
    End Zone (1972)
O   Great Jones Street (1973)
O   Ratner's Star (1976)
O   Players (1977)
    Running Dog (1978)
O   The Names (1982)
X   White Noise (1985)
    Libra (1988)
O   Mao II (1991)
X  Underworld (1997)
O  The Body Artist (2001)
O  Cosmopolis (2003)
O  Falling Man (2007)
O  Point Omega (2010)

(I will re-read White Noise for sure; I am just as sure I won't be rereading Underworld.  Minor update: I came very close to buying a second copy of The Names -- glad I held off.  I'd actually like to get back around to White Noise -- and am contemplating rereading Atwood's The Edible Woman at about the same time -- but this raises the question of whether just to go and do it, or wait until I read it in sequence, which would mean reading 6 more DeLillo novels in the interim, and probably at least two more years from now.  One semi-compromise would be to start at Running Dog and then circle back around to End Zone down the road perhaps after Mao II.  That idea has potential.)

Haruki Murakami

O  A Wild Sheep Chase   1982
X Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World   1985
O Norwegian Wood    1987
Dance Dance Dance     1988
South of the Border, West of the Sun     1992
O The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle     1995
O The Elephant Vanishes
O Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
X Sputnik Sweetheart    1999
X After the Quake 1999
O Kafka on the Shore    2002
X After Dark     2004
X 1Q84   2009
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage   2013
Men Without Women   2017

(I got quite a good deal on 1Q84, but it is obvious that by the time I finally get around to reading this book, I could have waited and gotten the super discounts, even if it never goes down to a penny plus shipping.  I've brought most of Murakami out of storage, which certainly increases the odds of reading some, and I believe that a few have been added at the tail end of my current TBR pile.  However, I cannot locate Norwegian Wood, so I might just check that one out from the library.)

John Steinbeck

The Pastures of Heaven (1932)
The Red Pony (1933)
To a God Unknown (1933)
Tortilla Flat (1935)
In Dubious Battle (1936)
Of Mice and Men (1937)
The Long Valley (1938)
The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
The Forgotten Village (1941)
The Moon Is Down (1942)
X Cannery Row (1945)
X The Wayward Bus (1947)
The Pearl (1947)
Burning Bright (1950)
The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951)
East of Eden (1952)
Sweet Thursday (1954)
X The Short Reign of Pippin IV: A Fabrication (1957)
Once There Was A War (1958)
The Winter of Our Discontent (1961)
X Travels with Charley: In Search of America (1962)
America and Americans and Selected Non-fiction 
X The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (1976)

(I probably ought to throw Faulkner in right about here, but I think I'll just wait until I can cross off a couple of authors at the top of the list.  Similarly, I am starting to wonder about Iris Murdoch and her oeuvre.  She's fallen out of fashion lately, and I am just perverse enough to read all her novels simply because nobody else is doing so.  I have her works listed here.)

These are not complete works by these two authors, but still are significant series that I may tackle some day:

Elizabeth Jane Howard's The Cazalet series:
The Light Years, Marking Time, Confusion, Casting Off, All Change

C.P. Snow's Strangers and Brothers series (in (internal) chronological order):
    Time of Hope (1949)
    George Passant (first called Strangers and Brothers) (1940)
    The Conscience of the Rich (1958)
    The Light and the Dark (1947)
    The Masters (1951)
    The New Men (1954)
    Homecomings (1956)
    The Affair (1960)
    Corridors of Power (1964)
    The Sleep of Reason (1968)
    Last Things (1970)

While I probably have all of Pym listed somewhere (and indeed I now own most of her novels aside from one or two) and I have sort of committed to Elizabeth Jane Howard's Cazalet series (one of these days), I got quite interested in another British female author, who was actually a friend of Howard's and Pym and Elizabeth Bowen: Elizabeth Taylor.  She wrote 12 novels and 4 collections of short stories (which were all collected into a large Complete Short Stories by Virago as well as a Selected Stories published by NYRB).  Well, it wasn't too long before I finally wavered and I ordered a fair number of them (for not much more than shipping):

O At Mrs. Lippincote's (1945)
X Palladian (1946) shows most clearly the influence of Jane Austen.
X A View of the Harbour (1947)
. A Wreath of Roses (1949)
X A Game of Hide and Seek (1951)
O The Sleeping Beauty (1953)
. The Real Life of Angel Deverell (published as Angel,1957)
O In a Summer Season (1961)
The Soul of Kindness (1964)
. The Wedding Group (1968)
O Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (1971).
O Blaming (1976), posthumous

Short story collections
Hester Lilly (1954)
The Blush and Other Stories (1958)
A Dedicated Man and Other Stories (1965)
The Devastating Boys (1972)
(All included in Complete Short Stories (O).)

For good measure, I might as well list Elizabeth Bowen as well, though I may be slightly more measured in gathering her novels up.

X The Hotel (1927)
The Last September (1929)
Friends and Relations (1931)
X To the North (1932)
X The House in Paris (1935)
X The Death of the Heart (1938)
. The Heat of the Day (1949)
A World of Love (1955)
A Time in Rome (1960)
. The Little Girls (1964)
. Eva Trout (1968)

O The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen (1980)
. The Bazaar and Other Stories (2008) (uncollected stories)

Update (11/16)

I decided to go ahead and add V.S. Naipaul as well, even though he is a somewhat grumpier writer than I usually "collect."  I believe at one point I owned The Mimic Men, but I don't believe I do any longer nor did I get around to reading it.  Fairly recently, I picked up The Nightwatchman's Occurrence Book, which collects several of Naipaul's shorter books: The Suffrage of Elvira, Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion and A Flag on the Island. I did read A Bend in the River, but I don't recall a lot about it.  I suspect some day I will reread A House for Mr Biswas, but I'm not nearly as sure about A Bend in the River.

V.S. Naipaul

O  The Mystic Masseur (1957)
O  The Suffrage of Elvira (1958)
O  Miguel Street (1959)
X  A House for Mr Biswas (1961)
X  Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion (1963)
    The Mimic Men (1967)
O  A Flag on the Island (1967)
    In a Free State (1971) (won the Booker Prize)
    Guerrillas (1975)
X   A Bend in the River (1979)
X  The Enigma of Arrival (1987)
     A Way in the World (1994)
     Half a Life (2001)
     Magic Seeds (2004)

Books to read

I haven't quite figured out how to list the books on deck the way that some of those sophisticated bloggers do (maybe it is a rolling list or something).  It would be kind of weird to keep coming back to this post as I update the list, and I have noticed that John does repost some version of his TBR pile with some frequency.  So I may do that.

The real reason I am writing this list out is that I tracked down my TBR list from 2010, and I realized that I basically just stopped cold mid-list and had totally forgotten that I was even planning on reading some of these books.  This is particularly true for books I had planned to get from the library, as opposed to those in my personal library.  I remember I had very high hopes of getting through the complete novels of Mahfouz, Narayan and Nabokov that year.  This isn't completely out of character for me.  In 1994-95, I read the complete works of Bellow (stopping short of Ravelstein, which of course hadn't come out then), Barbara Pym and Graham Greene.  I was notably more successful then, but I only had work responsibilities and no children!  Generally, I only tackle these projects if the author has 10-15 books, since it means just one a month, which seems somewhat manageable (I did have to double up on Greene most months, but his novels tend to be short and are engaging reads).

Since then I have gotten partway through Don DeLillo's novels, but I also set that aside, at least in part because I kept just missing out on his earlier books at Swap-a-Book.  The other thing that came up is that I got really tied into the Canadian book challenge promoted at Bookmineset. And in fact, I succeeded in reading all of Robert Kroetsch's novels, save his very first one. I think my current plan is to get through 2013 with my current list, which is a little heavy on travel novels but with some classic Russian novels thrown in (I'm basically topped up on Canadian fiction for the moment) and then it gets quite random. 

Then I will circle back to the 2010-2011 books and try to finish up Mahfouz, Narayan and Nabokov.  Now the truth is, I just really was not enjoying Nabokov at all, and I may drop him in the end and substitute in DeLillo.

If I don't do that, then I will probably do another three author combination of DeLillo, Steinbeck and perhaps Josef Skvorecky.  I think I will eventually get through all of Margaret Atwood's and Timothy Findley's novels and all of Alice Munro's short stories, but I don't feel I need to get through them in a single intense burst.  Stretching them out over time seems more reasonable.  Depending on my free time (and how much other creative writing I do), this will probably last me to close to 2017!  If I manage to make it through that, I would probably tackle Perec's Life: A User's Manual, Musil's The Man without Qualities, Updike's Rabbit novels, possibly Palliser's The Quincunx and then the Library of America volumes that I actually own (and the non-LOA Faulkner as well).  So I guess I had better buckle down.  (While it may be only of marginal interest, I will set up another post where I go ahead and track my progress across these 7 or 8 authors.)

Current TBR list
Michael Crummey Galore
Mark Twain Life on the Mississippi 
John Steinbeck Travels with Charley
Julia Alvarez In the Time of the Butterflies
Vasily Grossman Everything Flows
Nabokov Lolita
Steinbeck The Short Reign of Pippen IV
Dostovesky The Idiot
Marilynne Robinson Housekeeping
Tolstoy Anna Karenina
Achebe Things Fall Apart 
Z.N. Hurston Their Eyes Were Watching God
Mahfouz The Cairo Trilogy:
                  Palace Walk
                  Palace of Desire
                  Sugar Street
Tom Rachman The Imperfectionists 
Klima Love and Garbage
Mahfouz The Children of Gebelawi
Faulkner Light in August
Proust Remembrance of Things Past:
                                  Swann's Way
                                  Within a Budding Grove
                                  The Guermantes Way
                                  Sodom and Gomorrah
                                  The Captive
                                  The Fugitive
                                  Time Regained
    (perhaps a good time to take a break and read some graphic novels for a while)
Edward P. Jones All Aunt Hagar's Children
Hugh MacLennan Two Solitudes
Gabrielle Roy The Tin Flute
John A. Williams The Man Who Cried I Am
Joseph Heller Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man
Dostovesky The Demons
Ken Kalfus PU-239
Eduardo Mendoza The City of Marvels
Oscar Cesares Amigoland
Vargas Llosa The Bad Girl
Garcia Marquez The General in his Labyrinth
Hamid The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Elizabeth Taylor A Game of Hide and Seek
Charles Baxter The Book of Love
Elizabeth Bowen The House in Paris
John Nichols The Empanada Brotherhood
Kate Christensen Jeremy Thrane
Faulkner As I Lay Dying
Dos Passos U.S.A. Trilogy
John A. Williams  !Click Song
Vassily Aksyonov The Burn
Hanif Kureishi Intimacy and Midnight All Day
Geoff Nicholson Bleeding London 
Ivan Vladislavic The Restless Supermarket
Gabrielle Roy The Cashier
Ivan Vladislavic The Exploded View
Gabrielle Roy Street of Riches
Machado De Assis Epitaph of a Small Winner
Machado De Assis Philosopher or Dog?
Michael Ondaatje The Cat's Table
Witold Gombrowicz Ferydurke
Henri Alain-Fournier Le Grand Meaulnes
Nescio Amsterdam Stories
Carlo Gadda That Awful Mess on Via Merulana
Amara Lakhous Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio

(Getting through this list would clear out a fair number of books that I don't want to have to move again.  I really hope to have made a lot of progress by the summer of 2014.  I haven't thought too much beyond this, though I have a lot of random books still, and I probably would want to read more Dostoevsky in the Pevear and Volokhonsky translations, which is almost like reading them as completely new novels.  I'll also have to make sure I add a few more Canadian novels to keep from getting kicked out of the Canadian challenge!  And I feel quite badly for neglecting Narayan so badly, but I'll get back on track eventually.)

Now the TBR pile from 2010 (with minor edits)

Mahfouz Children of the Alley 
Narayan Mr Sampath
Joyce Johnson In the Night Cafe
City of Light Cyrus Colter (This was a terrible book, esp. the ending, and it is not recommended)
Jedediah Berry The Manual of Detection
Nabokov The Gift
Mahfouz Thief and the Dogs
Narayan The Financial Expert
Nabokov Invitation to a Beheading
Zachary Mason Lost Books of the Odyssey
Narayan Waiting for Mahatma
Mahfouz Autumn Quail
Nabokov The Enchanter
B. Mukherjee Miss New India
Ama Ata Aidoo Our Sister Killjoy
Charles Johnson Oxherding Tale
Abdourahman Waberi In the United States of Africa
Muriel Barbery The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Muriel Barbery Gourmet Rhapsody
Machado De Assis Dom Casmurro 

(to be inserted after the 2010 list:
Alain Mabanckou Broken Glass
Dany Laferrière How to Make Love to A Negro (without Getting Tired)
Dany Laferrière Heading South
Marilynne Robinson Gilead
Adiga Last Man in Tower
Yamashita I Hotel
Lethem Chronic City
Eileen Chang Love in a Fallen City
Renata Adler Speedboat 
Christina Garcia Dreaming in Cuban

So if I get through all this, and the Library of America volumes, then consume the bulk of Dickens and eventually Trollope, I guess I can die fulfilled or something.  I know I'll never read all the non-fiction books I own (at least not cover to cover), but I may be able to get through all the fiction, poetry and drama on the bookcases (clearly leaving myself an out for all those books that didn't quite make the cut and are still in boxes in the basement...).  Well, we have to have goals after all, or we'd barely make it out of bed in the morning, right?

Given that I have actually made pretty good headway on the older, longer novels, I probably will add a few more to the list, maybe interspersing them with the 2010 list.  I'm thinking in particular some lighter novels like Grossmith's Diary of a Nobody, Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat, and Smollett's Roderick Random and Peregrine Pickle and Humphrey Clinker (in that order).  Then I would want to tackle Thackeray's Vanity Fair and Trollope's The Way We Live Now.  Eventually I will get back into Trollope in a more systematic way, but this is probably the most self-contained novel (and might pair up well with Vanity Fair). 

Friday, March 22, 2013

6th Challenge - 18th review - Lady Oracle

I have to admit, I am fairly astounded that my review of Cat's Eye has passed 400 views (though perhaps more than a few my own before I figured out how to stop tracking my own views).  I bring this up because Atwood's early novel Lady Oracle has some interesting parallels with Cat's Eye, which I probably would have overlooked had I not reacquainted myself with the later novel, though it is in no sense a sequel.  Indeed, had I not read several of the intervening novels, I would definitely be wondering if Atwood was working through some traumatic experience, endlessly recycling the same material, much in the way that Saul Bellow kept coming back to troubled marriages and problematic ex-wives and conniving uncles.  I'll be on the lookout in her other work, but as far as I know, she only used this particular event in two books.  What I am referring to specifically is the outsider being picked on by a group of other girls (several years older in Lady Oracle, but closer in age in Cat's Eye), which then leads to a scene where the outsider is left behind in a scary ravine in Toronto's suburban fringes.  She is more or less abandoned (and comes close to drowning) in Cat's Eye, but the abuse is actually worse in Lady Oracle when she is tied to a trestle of some sort and the other girls flee.  Only the intervention of the neighbourhood's dirty old man (who had already exposed himself to Joan in the ravine on an earlier crossing) saves her possible death from exposure or some other unpleasant fate.

I think in both cases, Atwood rightly points out that the cruelty of little children, including girls, is often overlooked and sugar-coated.  I do think, not surprisingly, the tormentors are a bit more believable in the more mature work, Cat's Eye, than in Lady Oracle.  Another thing that Atwood gets right is that often (though certainly not always) the bullies manage to forget their awful behaviour and move on as if nothing had happened.  It simply wasn't meaningful or even memorable to them, whereas it might well eat away at the bullied.  (Not to get too political, but this seemed so true of Romney's inability to remember hazing a fellow-student who was suspected of being gay.  Romney could hardly credit that he had done such a thing and tried to minimize it.)  It is somewhat more unlikely in Lady Oracle that her chief tormentor reenters her life through acquaintances of her husband long down the road.  I thought it was slightly more realistic the way it was handled in Cat's Eye where her frenemy, Cordelia, comes back into her life the next school year on quite different terms and they are essentially on even footing and closer to being true friends.  I also thought it was quite realistic how eventually Cordelia becomes the left-behind friend as Elaine outgrows her.  (This has happened with my university friend, Todd, who ultimately just seemed trapped in the past in odd ways (somewhat ironic coming from me) and his troubles started to mount and I found I had less and less in common with him.  Obviously, it didn't help that we were several states apart and then I moved to Canada and he has apparently moved to Trinidad!)

But where the novels are significantly different is that Elaine's mother is a bit of a cypher (at least in my memory where the father is a much more interesting figure) though Elaine got along well with both her parents (a rarity in contemporary fiction!).  Still, Elaine did want her mother to fit in a bit more and be more conventional like her friends' mothers.  Many of these mothers are portrayed transformed in her adult artwork, suggesting in some ways they were a bit more influential on her than her own family (aside from her brother).  And Elaine does react negatively to one of the mothers -- a particularly religious one if I am not mistaken.  So the conflict is essentially outside the home with her "friends" and that one mother.

In contrast, in Lady Oracle, Joan's mother is a real nightmare and the main cause of anxiety in her childhood and early adulthood.  Her father is also a fairly interesting character but really does not do much to intervene and keep his daughter safe from emotional abuse and blackmail.  Joan basically only finds comfort in the company of her Aunt Lou.  Joan overeats and, curiously, is finally redirected down the path of getting in shape due to a bequest from her aunt.  This allows her to run away from home and escape her family.  I can't vouch for all the editions, but in the one I had, in an interview at the end, Atwood wanted to make it clear that she had not been overweight as a child and this was totally the product of her imagination.  She did a pretty good job in getting inside Joan's head, I thought, including some interesting comments on what it is like to be thin (and pretty) but having grown up fat.


The plot is somewhat in the same line as Cat's Eye.  The events in the novel conspire to keep forcing Joan into flashback mode, so that eventually you have her whole life story.  The events, however, are a bit more fantastical than getting ready for an artist's retrospective, as in Cat's Eye.  Joan makes it to England and ends up in desultory affair in London with an older Polish count.  He reveals that he makes money as romance novelist, and Joan ends up getting into the business.  She starts dating a somewhat inept radical agitator who is in London to stir up trouble.  There are certainly some parallels to the BBC series Citizen Smith, though it appears Lady Oracle appeared before the tv show.  I guess inept radicals were just comic fodder after the 60s had passed and the excesses of that decade became clearer.

Joan has to hurry back to Canada because her mother is dying. (She is at least that conventional.)  The boyfriend eventually follows and they are married.  He goes back to grad school and eventually becomes a lecturer (perhaps a professor) but his main aspirations hinge around publishing a radical journal with all the ridiculous in-fighting that that entails.  He definitely doesn't seem like a catch to me, and eventually Joan does seem to get bored of him.  She has continued to do well with the romance novels, and it is a bit of a running joke that we read part of the current novel she is working on.  But the plot gets raggeder as her life starts collapsing around her. 

She actually publishes some poetry under her own name (not her pen name), and she becomes an overnight success.  This leads to more tension in her marriage and she somehow ends up in an affair with an artist, who is frankly a loser.  She certainly has horrible taste in men, that is for sure.  Eventually, a reporter shows up and tries to blackmail her, and she basically snaps.  She repeats her flight from family response and stages her own death.  Then she takes off for Italy.

Perhaps it is not an enormous surprise that while the plot goes as plans, she bungles the follow through.  She goes to a village where people know her from a previous visit, and before too long she has to re-emerge into public life (at least in part to keep one of her co-conspirators from going to jail for her murder). I suppose instead of an "American tragedy" Atwood gives us a Canadian farce, particularly in how Joan nearly drowns for real.  I think anyone writing a scene where there is a drowning or mock drowning in a rented boat has to be paying some sort of homage to Dreiser. (The "Anxiety of Influence" and all that jazz...)

There are certainly some heavy themes running through the novel, particularly when she thinks back to her childhood.  What I have not conveyed, however, is that it really is a quite funny novel in many sections and quite readable.  I didn't fully believe in all of Joan's choices, and I certainly would have made different choices myself, but she was a very sympathetic character with an odd background.  She seemed fairly easily overwhelmed by life, and definitely had some trouble making a clear distinction between reality and fantasy.  I was a little troubled that Atwood left a few loose ends.  She never cleared up who was leaving dead animals on Joan's porch.  It certainly seemed likely to be the artist, though he swore he didn't do it, and Atwood doesn't provide enough details to know if this is true or not (and the other potential suspects also seem fairly unlikely).  Yet Atwood seems to indicate that this was a real threat and not just Joan's imagination boiling over.

The ending is sort of a suspended one.  Joan seems to think that upon her return to Canada, her life with her husband will be renewed and recharged and interesting again (she has totally broken things off with the artist), though he wasn't really worth the effort in my opinion.  It is a bit amusing that Joan has decided that the romance novels are bad for her psyche and that she will try science fiction from now on.  Roughly a decade after Lady Oracle, Atwood published The Handmaid's Tale, which is surely speculative fiction, though it is not nearly as funny as Lady Oracle (or even Cat's Eye for that matter, and Cat's Eye only has a relatively few funny sections to it).  I wonder if she had the germ of the idea for The Handmaid's Tale even back then or if it was just a fortuitous bit of inadvertent foreshadowing. 
Lady Oracle

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Road works1

I've noticed that many of the books I've enjoyed the most over the past couple of years are the ones with some kind of travel embedded in them.  Of course, there is a bit of movement in virtually any piece of fiction longer than a short story, though in some cases this may all be flashback (here I am thinking of life flashing before the eyes of a firing squad victim in Borges' "The Secret Miracle").  But I have particularly been attracted to books with long-distance travel, often in the form of a road trip.

Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene was a book that I had remembered enjoying quite a bit when I read it over 20 years ago (in 1992-3 I read all of Green's novels while living in Newark -- really hard to believe it's been that long).  While there are few auto trips in the book, there are several train trips of increasing length (first Brighton then Paris to Istanbul on the Orient Express -- long past its heyday) and then a trip to South America (probably by plane rather than boat, but I can't remember if this is spelled out).  As the narrator gets more enmeshed in his aunt's outrageous behaviour, he eventually gets into the smuggling business, which I think entailed him getting into small airplanes down in Paraguay.  Definitely an interesting novel (and still entertaining though I found it a bit more wry than side-splittingly funny this time around) but not one with any substantial road trips.  There is a fair bit of travel (mostly implied rather than shown in Gerhardie's Futility) but the most lively part of the book is the train ride with this crazy extended family, which I discuss a bit here).

I wonder if these fictional journeys can be classified into pilgrimages, where there is a definite end goal to the trip, versus quests.  In virtually all quests, it turns out that it was the journey that is far more important than the eventual destination.  Clambering about the countryside is ennobling, apparently.  The best quest novel I've read in some time is Michael Malone's Handling Sin, which incidentally is also one of the better road trip novels I've ever read (though Faulkner's The Reivers gets a special award for being a road novel taking place long before the advent of the Interstate System).  Handling Sin is a long book (about 600 pages) but a very entertaining one, and actually a product of a humane view on those who depart from the straight and narrow.  Malone has a very generous outlook on the foibles of his main characters, though some of the secondary characters are literally thugs and criminals and some of them are not "redeemed" in any way.

It is quite an epic road journey with Raleigh Hayes sent on a quest (by his father) from North Carolina, to Charlotte, Atlanta and then to New Orleans with many memorable stops along the way.  A few times things go over the top, and there is one somewhat odd section at the end of the second part of the book where Malone spells things out to his "challenged" readers who can't guess the relationship between Raleigh's Aunt Victoria and the bitter (& Black) musician Jubal Rogers.  But highly recommended anyway.  (I wonder if this exuberance and good-natured tolerance will rub off on this fiction piece I am working on.)

To stay in this road trip groove, I decided I would reread On the Road.  My dog-eared paperback is kind of buried at the moment and I was too lazy to find it, so I went over the library.  All were checked out (I guess the movie version inspired people to pick it up?) but oddly the original, original version (not the Visions of Cody version) was in.  It is called "The Original Scroll" version.  I decided to take that out.  A bit later I did borrow On the Road and compared the two versions.  It turns out that On the Road is actually fairly close to the Original Scroll, though all the names were changed, including some place names.  The editors were really worried about libel suits!  Some of the changes are kind of dopey.  The Kerouac character is now of Italian descent and lives with his aunt, rather than French-Canadian, living with his mother.  Some of the drug use was trimmed, and they cut out a lot of material on what William Burroughs was up to, at least according to Kerouac.  But there really doesn't seem to be an advantage to flipping back and forth between the versions, as they are essentially the same book.  I'd say The Original Scroll version is a bit more entertaining and a bit fresher, so I'll just continue reading it.  (Perhaps my single favorite moment is at the end when the editor breaks in and says that Kerouac's dog literally ate the last few feet of the scroll and they had to patch it together from the published (and thus edited) version.)

I suspect Visions of Cody is more substantially different from On the Road, but I just don't have the time or inclination to find out.  I'm not really that taken by the antics of Jack, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg and a bunch of hangers-on, but it moves fairly quickly.  I don't even think I was that interested in them when I was in my twenties when I first read the book, but I can't really remember.  I like road trips just fine, but don't like spending long stretches of time with drug addicts and people who see themselves as the reincarnation of the Beats. I think more than anything else, I have so little sympathy with people who are truly aimless and who go through life without any direction whatsoever.  So On the Road wasn't any kind of rallying cry for me, that's for sure.  Some additional thoughts on On the Road here.

After I wrap this up, I have two more books about travel, and then I'll probably move onto some other theme or topic for a while.  I plan to read Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, which I've never read, as well as Steinbeck's Travels with Charley (ditto).  I have some hope they will be at least as interesting as On the Road.  Maybe if I can track down the appropriate journal entries, I will jot down some notes about my most epic road trip from Toronto to Calgary, which we did essentially non-stop in 40 hours.  I clearly remember doing most of the driving through the fog as we rounded Lake Superior, with the fog finally easing up a bit after Thunder Bay. I actually still have (faint) hopes to turn this into fiction (even if the expiry date seems long past at this point), but this trip was far more like a pilgrimage with a fixed destination (ultimately Victoria) rather than a more meandering quest.  In fact, I don't think the main character would or should learn anything particularly new about himself on the trip.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

6th Challenge - 17th review - Sea Captain's Wife

To be completely upfront, this is a review of 2/3rds of Beth Powning's The Sea Captain's Wife. You may want to read why I bailed on this book, or you can choose to bail on this review right now.  Your choice.

While I am sure it is completely unfair, as I was reading the novel, I kept feeling that it was Oprah-bait -- a kind of high toned chick lit.  Clearly Oprah promoted quite a few other types of novels, including most memorably Franzen's The Corrections and perhaps most atypically McCarthy's The Road.  I think The Sea Captain's Wife would have been right up Oprah's alley, in that it is intensely about family and the dangers to family and the internal strains on women who are trying to keep family together.  Though the book is a little more complicated than that, and actually this isn't the main issue I have with the book.

Where I have issues is that the set-up is so unbelievably static.  Despite all these hair-raising adventures of the family at sea, the dynamic doesn't change much throughout.  Azuba, the wife, is resentful of being ordered around by Nathaniel, her husband and captain of the Traveller.  He still doesn't fully trust her and considers her presence a huge burden.  They reconcile a bit, particularly over his bonding with the daughter, Carrie.  Azuba starts to see things Nathaniel's way, and he mellows a bit.  She proves her worth and goes up in his esteem, and then things backslide a bit.  Two-steps forward, one step-back in the relationship over and over.  So tedious, even if it might be realistic.  My real objections have yet to arrive on the scene.  But first:


What Powning does well is to paint a believable character in Azuba.  She may be slightly too set on having her own way for a woman in the 1860s (in some ways more liberated than Penelope in MacLennan's Barometer Rising from 50 years down the road) but clearly does feel bound by social constraints even if she chafes under them.

Powning also gets the action underway quite quickly.  She effectively sets up how Azuba always thought that she would have the freedom to sail on her husband's ship and not be a stay-at-home captain's wife.  And that might have been the initial "deal" with Nathaniel, but he later decided that the dangers were too great and she is set up in a really nice house not far from her parents (her father is also in the shipping business).  She starts spending time with a young minister, who is critically not from Saint John, New Brunswick.  They get trapped by the tides in an compromising situation and basically no one, not even her parents, believe it was an innocent mistake.  This enrages Nathaniel when he finally arrives home and he says that Azuba will get her wish to sail with him but it has become a kind of punishment.  "She felt as if he had taken her desire {to travel} like a beloved toy and torn it and thrown it in her lap.  Have it, then, he'd said."

This is one of the most effective passages in the book, but at the same time, Azuba feels so wronged that she really does not see things from others' perspectives.  The whole voyage she is resentful of being put in her place and being ordered around by Nathaniel.  Gradually she at least comes to understand his need to enforce discipline.

Azuba is actually a more complex character than I am making out, but I still didn't care much for her, since she continues to have unrealistic expectations about traveling and being a family at sea.  And indeed, Powning does keep undermining things by having Azuba occasionally think tenderly of the Rev. Simon, who started the whole mess.  In other words, she wants the strong sea captain to have more of the delicacy of Rev. Simon.  And this is where the whole thing keeps threatening to devolve right into chick lit.

I wasn't that convinced by the month stuck in the Doldrums.  I think there would have been far more mutinies than just the two Powning outlines.  Maybe revising this downwards to two weeks would have been more believable.  I'm sure it wasn't what was on the author's mind, but I kept thinking about the Waiting Place from Dr. Seuss's Oh, the Places You'll Go!

Anyway, they do escape the Doldrums and just manage to get new provisions at the Isle of Wight before the crew all starve to death.  (On top of everything else, they were cheated out of several barrels of beef and other foodstuffs by an unscrupulous agent.  While I wouldn't put it past Powning to have Nathaniel and crew find this agent and give him "rough justice," it seems unlikely their paths would cross again.)

Azuba makes it to Antwerp just in time to give birth to a son, who doesn't seem too damaged by the whole ordeal.  And this is where we think a huge decision must be made.  Will Azuba ever travel with Nathaniel again?  Will she decide it just isn't safe for her children and send them home to her parents as other captains' wives have done?  (Quite frankly, Azuba seems to keep running into a lot of women on these ships when it was still a statistical rarity.) Will she agree to travel back to Canada or insist on all of them going one one last trip on the Traveller? As it happens, we do know from the map in the front of the book that the Traveller only makes it from Antwerp to Hong Kong and not back to Saint John.  So that signifies some important plot twists and turns.


One would think that would be plenty, but then Powning pulls a stunt that I found truly outrageous.  As Azuba is recovering from the birth and out strolling a bit and sight-seeing in Antwerp, she runs into the former Rev. Simon.  It isn't that surprising that he was removed from his local ministry, but he apparently left the Church altogether and now wants to be an artist.  He went to Paris to learn photography but was visiting Antwerp.  As one might imagine, Nathaniel is flabbergasted and outraged.  As am I as a reader.  What are the odds of this happening?  One million to one?  Ten million to one?  You have to recall, the American Civil War is still on, and Saint John is still close enough to Maine that I imagine ship traffic was significantly curtailed.  It just seems pleasure cruises across the Atlantic for people who just happen to want to be artists might not be the wisest or safest of choices at that time.  Simon says that he thought they had all been lost at sea (and thus he wasn't actually following Azuba).  Now it is certainly possible that Powning is setting him up to be a monstrous liar, and thus driving Azuba into Nathaniel's arms once and for all.  I personally would find that an even bigger plot cheat -- completely inconsistent with what the reader had been told about him in the opening chapters.  In any case, I just find this situation (being confronted by the two men she has feelings for) so trite and cliched --.  Let me start again. More precisely, the lengths Powning goes to to set up this conflict in a way that is not at all believable to me makes it mere chick lit and not worthy of true literature and certainly not worthy of my time.  I actually started hating the book at that precise moment and will not read another word of it.  So alas, for me, poor misunderstood Azuba, strong but suspicious Nathaniel, and senstitive but possibly sneaky Simon will remain forever in their unresolved triangle.  I'll just never know how it all ends.

(Ok, if it turns out that Azuba ends up running an opium den in Hong Kong, go ahead and tell me in the comments, and I will read the rest of the book just for that.  But for anything less, I'm truly out.)

6th Challenge - 16th review - Monkey Ranch

Monkey Ranch is a somewhat whimsical poetry collection by Julie Bruck.  It is her third poetry collection, and I may check out the earlier ones from the library.

On the whole, many of the poems strike me as Sharon Olds-lite, not that this is necessarily a bad thing.  I am still struggling with my reviews of her [Old's] work where I am torn between acknowledging the needs of artists to write about their experience and the fact that she consistently trampled on the privacy of her children.  Julie Bruck occasionally touches on her children and even her husband once in a while, but making far more innocuous observations and avoiding any soul-searing invasions.  Basically, the difference between taking a photo with one's camera phone in a public space and in a private space, if that makes any sense.

Although the author is from Quebec, she has apparently set up house in San Francisco.  She writes about Chinese New Year there in "Gold Coin."  It is less clear if the sweet old geezers in the book shop in "New, Used & Rare" are in S.F. or indeed the lonely diners in "Islands": "The lunch rush ended hours ago, set-up for dinner / hasn't begun, and the waiters eating at a booth /  in back are only too happy to look away."

"Islands" strikes me as a little like Hopper's "Nighthawks," though she is talking about the loneliness of the afternoon, not evening.  His "Automat" is most likely another evening painting, but not one set in the dead of night.

"Live News Feed" does return to Canada, at least by way of a phone call to her father and his girlfriend living in B.C. while the author watches breaking news from Montreal (possibly related to the various student strikes of late).  Her father and the girlfriend don't seem too fazed by the news, even though there is a SWAT team right outside the author's mother's apartment.  The fact that the poem actually dwells more on the girlfriend having taken her father away than the risk to her mother makes me wonder if maybe, on balance, their nonchalance isn't the better approach to news of this sort.

However, the violence really does hit home in "Mutanabbi Street, Baghdad," which focuses on a father who has lost his son in a bombing of a street full of bookstalls that was part of a campaign to decimate the literary and artistic scene of Baghdad.  The poem was part of a broader response by international poets, writers and artists called Al Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, which raised money for Doctors Without Borders.  It is a moving poem that doesn't delve too deeply into the broader politics of the Iraq War and its aftermath.

There is one poem in the collection that really rubbed me the wrong way, and I'll try to explain afterwards:

Scientists Say
      After Neruda

Deep in the seabed,
when the Twin Towers fell,
two enormous tremors
rocked the eels
of Jamaica Bay, Queens.
A small disturbance
under the great water,
quickly settled.  Now
they lie like circles
of the earth again,
mating and devouring,
dressed in ritual mud.

I have to say, so many things seem "off" about this poem.  While I am not one of those people who say you can't use tragedy, or even this particular tragedy, for artistic purposes, you have to be willing to back up your words and accept that some people will get upset and challenge your right to trade on their suffering.  She doesn't do enough here to justify her use of the Twin Towers in my eyes.  She kind of shies away from really openly saying what she seems to mean.  Does she really mean to say that in the grand scheme of "nature," the disruptions caused by human activity/conflict are trivial?  That the impact on the eels should be taken into consideration and not one word about the people (or other animals) damaged by the impact?

I think she is being particularly disingenuous in referring to Neruda, since she doesn't put her cards on the table and say that she is aligned with the leftists who largely blamed 9/11 on U.S. foreign policy.  Neruda was a great poet, but he basically never retreated from his support of Communism, only his specific support of Stalin.  Neruda most likely would have been horrified by the attacks, but still felt that the U.S. was reaping what it had sowed.  If I had to sum up my feelings about the poem, I would say that it is coming out of an anti-humanist position, which is certainly unpleasant to read but not a completely illegitimate position to hold.  But then almost all her other poems are more upbeat, bubbly and go into the trivial details of her and her family's happiness, i.e. she may or may not be left-leaning but she values the human condition/experience (as do nearly all of us).  So the poem is jarring and inconsistent with the rest of the collection and frankly I do find it diminishes her.  I am a lot less willing to cut her slack (or even read her other collections) because she chose to publish it.  This is the risk one runs when one writes political or politicized poetry.  In truth, I would have had more respect for her if she had actually been bolder, but this just strikes me as trying to have it both ways, implying something but never quite coming out and saying it.  In fact, the title makes it even worse, since she can just displace the whole thing onto some anonymous scientists -- they (not me) are the ones who say...

It's unfortunate that this seems to be the poem that will stick with me the longest, though I did like "Mutanabbi Street, Baghdad" and "Islands."  Sometimes it is the art that sets off a bad reaction that you remember most, though sometimes all you remember in the end that this is a writer you want to avoid in the future.  I don't think I would carry it quite that far, but I do think that it wouldn't take more than another poem or two that annoyed me as much before I decided I really wasn't interested in finding out more about what Ms. Bruck had to say...

So sick

I just can't seem to quite get healthy.  I finally went and saw a doctor about a nagging cough and she gave me a cough suppressant, but now I seem to have some viral thing.  Probably my daughter does as well.  I would really hope this is the last day of this, since I am thoroughly sick of being sick.  I've almost completely lost my appetite, which under other circumstances might not be too terrible...

I did spend a bit of time checking work emails and things seem to be moving on ok without me (which can be a bit of a shock as the hero of Handling Sin finds out).  We all like to think we are irreplaceable, though in this case, things really will go off the rails pretty quickly without me.  On the other hand, my manager has been on sick leave since October and it has now been extended through May.  No one seems to really feel her absence...

Anyway, hope to make it in at least part of the day tomorrow.