Friday, December 28, 2012

Reading is sexy LII

The Japanese Mask, 1884, Gustave Claude Etienne Courtois. French (1852–1923). 

I have completely fallen out of the habit of regularly posting about my reading. Also, I read far less this year than previous years. I think it's because I haven't been commuting to work, which was always a good time to get in my daily read. I'm astonished to see I haven't posted about reading since August! I hope I can recall everything I read and my impressions!

13. Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash I read this book because reynardin told me to (roughly 300 times). In fairness, had I taken her advice a decade ago, perhaps I would have been more impressed. He does write very good sort of cyberpunk fiction. I appreciate his skewering consumerist society and the racist and nationalist tendencies he saw in the present and envisioning a 21st century, where our hero, Hiro Protagonist (and I feel we must admire the moxie of giving him such a ridiculous  name) is a hacker/pizza delivery boy for the mob-run Uncle Enzo's CosaNotra Pizza - a very dangerous job indeed. Likewise, being a courier, which involves skateboarding on the freeway after magnetically harpooning vehicles. In this future society, nations as we know them have crumbled into tiny industry controlled city-states, several of which are racially segregated, and each have their own security (including in some instances, genetically-modified, cyborg attack dogs called Rat Things). The story is about his battle to prevent a sort of infocalypse, brought about by a shadowy villain infecting programmers and hackers with a sort of visual computer virus which can infect their minds. His version of avatars interacting on the Internet, written in 1992, is wonderfully creative (if you can put yourself back to what you knew about the Internet in 1992). He writes a story which is fast-paced, which allows for critique of our society, and which even brings in Sumerian mythology. I love origin myths, but I must say, the Sumerian mythology subplot was pretty clunky. I appreciate the desire to credit scholarship, but if you have to invent a reason why someone or something might spew direct quotes with citations into your novel, you might not be doing the reader any favours. Further, if you are then going to decide to twist the myth around, you really had no excuse for such excessive literalism in the first place. Ultimately, I always end up with the same problem reading Stephenson. Hiro's young, female sidekick, Y.T. (again, with the names - say it out loud), not only sleeps with the giant, homicidal Aleut killer for no apparent reason, she also gives Hiro some advice about his own love interest which is dead wrong. She says, "Hiro, you are such a geek. She's a woman, you're a dude. You're not supposed to understand her. That's not what she's after." And this is why Stephenson pisses me off even when he writes a book I can largely enjoy. He makes me want to lock him in a room with nothing but Simone de Beauvoir to read. When he finally writes a novel in which the women are not other, then, I'll be happy. Generalizing about an entire gender is a foolhardy thing for me to do, so I'm just going to go ahead an do something more presumptuous and talk about humankind. ALL PEOPLE WANT TO BE UNDERSTOOD. This is the entire tragedy of the human condition; even when we care about others and strive for compassion, we cannot place ourselves inside another's mind or experience and we still have misunderstandings. The idea that any lover, male or female, is not aiming to be understood, is bizarre. While some might wish for some sort of mystique, exactly how does one love without understanding? The statement that men, in generally, are not "supposed to understand" their female lovers makes me furious. A good author writes characters whose motivations can be understood; Stephenson is too good an author to consistently write these female characters whose motivation does not make sense, who strike me as little more than walking, talking plot devices.

14. Edmund de Waal, The Hare With Amber Eyes This is an excellent family memoir by a renown British ceramic artist, a descendant of the Jewish grain and banking dynasty, the Ephrussi family. He investigates where he comes from through the device of tracing the history of his inheritance: a collection of 264 Japanese netsuke (beautiful little carvings in ivory and wood) over five generations. It's an incredible story, from Odessa, Vienna, Paris to Tokyo, and his strives to paint us a picture of his ancestors and their interactions with everyone from Proust, to the Impressionist painters, to Rilke, to a beloved maid who managed to preserve some of their heritage from the Nazis. This is a lovely, engaging book. I highly recommend it.

15. Andre Dubus III, Townie, A Memoir. This is an extraordinary book. I confess I had never previously read Dubus, or his father, also named Andre Dubus. Now I know I should. This is a beautiful book, a love story (of the cold, and broken hallelujah sort) to his own family. After spending his earliest childhood in Iowa, where his father was studying writing, and then more or less in the woods, he and his siblings grew up in a rough town adjacent to the college town where his father taught, after his parents' marriage failed. The word 'hardscrabble' is not strong enough. His father's income as a writer and college writing teacher, and his mother's income as a social worker, were simply not enough to support two households. The children were loved by their parents, but still lived in poverty, in a place where drugs and violence were the norm. His father, while he could barely afford to take his children out for meals, never truly understood their existence or their struggle, in the other town, over the river. It's the story of how Andre, shaken by his inability to defend his little brother from an adult man determined to beat him up, decides he must be able to physically defend his family. He works to bulk up and learn to be a fighter. In some ways it's a very male story, of this sort of sense of responsibility to provide physical protection, or the instinct to fight and how and why violence erupts. But, he writes not only with stark honesty about his experience of growing into a man and struggling to connect with his father, but with love and compassion for his mother, his sisters and the women in his life. It's also the story of how he became a writer; I'm sure many will also appreciate reading about his process, and his father's and that of the other writers who pass through the pages of this book. You should read this book.

16. Hilary Mantel, The Giant O'Brien In 1782, a desperately poor Irish giant and his entourage, travel to London to try to make some sort of living. O'Brien sings and tells fairytales to entertain, though his mere presence is, at first, spectacle enough to draw a paying crowd. London is the centre of commerce and science, including a formerly poor Scottish society doctor and master anatomist, John Hunter, employer of "resurrection men", the grave robbers who let him ply his trade. Hunter is more than a little interested in this extraordinary specimen. Inspired by true events, this is an engaging novel.

17. Zsuzsi Gartner, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives This is a brilliant, though dark and satirical, and occasionally magical, collection of short stories about evolution, BBQ, lovers who speak Ikea, protective mothers and uninspired art teachers, jealousy, advertising and Olympic mascots, adopted Chinese daughters, anti-science motivational speakers and the TRIUMPH particle accelerator, filmmaking, Haida Gwaii, and sweat lodges, angels, and 'recovering' terrorists. Need I say more?

18. Seth (with his father), Bannock, Beans and Black Tea Stark stories of the famed Canadian cartoonist's father's boyhood, in rural Nova Scotia during the Depression. Sad, but beautiful.

19. Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, Red - A Haida Manga I heard a scholar argue that in a time with things like graphic novels, we now need different types of literacy. That to 'read' a story told largely in pictures, demanded much of the reader, even if it were not our original idea of literacy. Red certainly interacts with the reader (viewer?) in a nontraditional way (for a book), by employing traditional design language of the Haida, in the form of a manga, with an over-arching structure as well as one tradition-inspired legendary story. The entire book can be read, page by page, as well as one complex drawing.

20. George Lois, Damn Good Advice (for people with talent) This is an interesting book, with of course, gripping and beautiful graphic design. It is written as a series of short points for creative people, though much of it relates more strictly to advertising. He argues, compellingly, that advertising is (or at least, can be) art. He is a braggart, but he had the track-record to back it up, having produced innovative work since the 60s. You'll recognize his Esquire cover with Muhammad Ali as the martyred St Sebastien shot with arrows, or 'I want my MTV' and many other campaigns. He's also endearing with his pride in his ethics (refusing work from bigots, and arguing that one should never knowingly work for bad people), and his history of fighting racism (including spearheading the campaign to free Hurricane Carter). He has no patience for comparisons to Mad Men, abhorring the womanizing, racist, anti-semite, Republican characters on the show - and also claims to have been more handsome than Don Drapper in his 30s. He brags of his 60 year marriage, and thanks his wife (though he confesses he's taken credit for her input through thoughts and copywriting on his work). He also straightforwardly commends good work by others, thanks his mentors and warns the sexists that they are fools. The book is beautiful, and it does contain some damn good advice, particularly about Big Ideas.

{Series so far: books read, more books read, books read, books read continues, more books read, I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV, XVI, XVII, XVIII,XIX, XX, XXI, XXII, XXIII XXIV, XXV, XXVI, XXVII, XXVIII, XXIX, XXX, XXXI, XXXII, XXXIII, XXXIV, XXXV, XXXVI, XXXVII, XXXVIII, XXXIX, XL,XLI, XLII, XLIII,XLIV, XLV, XLVI, XLVII, XLVIII, XLIX, L, LI}

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