Thursday, February 24, 2011

Stanley Park

Stanley Park
By Timothy Taylor

Spoiler Alert: If you haven't read this book and intend to, better stop here. Also, if you are Timothy Taylor, also stop reading. Feelings might get hurt.


It really does make or break a book. It's not about length. I've read a few romping good 1000 page books and some plodding 145 page books. It's about keeping the plot moving at a speed that is constant with both the tone of the book and the patience of the reader. It's a fine line between describing a moment in clear detail and stalling the movement of the plot. This, I found, was the primary problem with Timothy Taylor's Giller Award nominated novel Stanley Park.

Perhaps it had to do with the food-as-fetish plot that required detailed descriptions of the meals served up by the protagonist, Jeremy Papier, a "Blood" style chef who apparently dislikes the "Crips."


Anyway, I love food as much as the next guy but there is only so much "caramelization" and "chevre" I can handle in one book (take note Haruki Murakami!). Pages and pages of stalled plot is devoted to the description of Jeremy's ironic-and-oh-so-clever culinary concoctions and when the polt DOES move, it jumps over bits I was (mildly) excited to read and covers the episode in flashback.

I said pacing was the primary problem, but certainly not the only problem.

I think I was put off by this book from the very beginning when I noticed borderline plagerism between this book and Richard Russo's smalltown epic, Empire Falls. Struggling restaurant owner with kooky-yet-intelligent father (in a folksy sort of way) who is bailed out of his financial woes by a local millionaire (who also happens to be evil and manipulative).

Since Timothy Taylor is not Richard Russo, my plagerism claim went out the window once it became clear that this story is following a well trodden plot arc. Allow me to demonstrate: The aforementioned evil millionaire in Stanley Park happens to be named Dante and owns a chain of coffee shops known as Inferno Coffee. He also happens to be the protagonist's landlord.

And of course, Dante is that special sort of evil that one only finds in movies like Breakin' II: The Electric Boogaloo. You know the sort. Guy in a slick suit who wants to tear down the ramshackle old rec center to build extravagant condos for other soulless yuppie evil-doers who tie their sweaters around their necks. Instead, Dante usurps Jeremy's struggling but honest restaurant (called the Monkey's Paw... get it?) and hires a team of market researchers (the lowest pits of hell as reserved for people in this field, by the way) to revamp the place into a carfully market-researched bistro (Trattoria? Cucina? Which title is hippest?) for other soulless yuppie evil-doers who tie their sweaters around their necks. Jeremy becomes the plucky little nobody taking on the evil corporate empire all by himself. Did I mention that the baddie's name was Dante? You can imagine how this story progresses.

And what sort of novel would this be without a fall from grace? Enter Benny. The hip-urban-design-student-turned-love-interest who helps Jeremy defraud Canadian Tire (the highlight of the book, I might add) then later aligns herself with Dante during the renovation of his (er... Dante's) restaurant.

And of course the subplot of the wise homeless people living a charmed and happy life on the outskirts of our miserable existences in the city just irked me to no end. Have we not exhausted the paradigm of the noble savage enough? And if we are going to use it, does it always have to be a homeless guy? Is there no better way to include this paradigm into a novel than yet another misunderstood saint living on the streets?

I wouldn't have been so hard on this book if it didn't have the words "Giller Prize Finalist" splashed across the top of the cover. Seriously, was their only three books published in Canada in 2001? Was there absolutely nothing out there in CanLit that year Stanley Park deserved a nod? Something that didn't follow literally every single over-used convention in the history of writing prose?

I just read up on the book at Wikipedia and it mentions that Jim Cuddy really liked this book. That's just sad because I always liked Blue Rodeo. Now I have to give that a good think.

If you are wondering, everything turns out fine in the end. Rewards and punishments are doled out in standard fashion. I'm surprised it didn't end with Dante slipping from Jeremy's grasp and falling into a foggy Vancouver oblivion.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Power of Myth

The Power of Myth
By Joseph Campbell

Note: I am finally caught up on my vacation reading. These blog updates will now come at more reasonable intervals as I actually finish books I'm currently reading.

In my mind I invite the following three people to my house for dinner: Richard Dawkins, Joseph Campbell and C.S. Lewis. somewhere after a delicious smoked salmon dinner while we lounge in the parlor sipping a glass of port I pose the following question:

Ryan: Is there a God?

To which I imagine I would get the following responses:

Lewis: "Unequivocally, yes."

Dawkins: "Categorically, no."

Campbell: "Who cares?"

The Power of Myth was Campbell's literary swan song from 1988 and coincided with a PBS special of the same name. The book reads as a long interview with Bill Moyers and after having finished it, I'm already wondering whether this was the best possible introduction to Bill Campbell, a writer I have been dying to read for quite some time.

First off, the interview style lets Campbell go off in all sorts of directions concerning mythologies from around the world while only loosely adhering to a particular theme. I have a decent handle on mythology via the Bible, Edith Hamilton, a smattering of Eastern texts and whatnot, but I couldn't call myself an expert on the subject either. So it was difficult to follow a man with a lifetime of learning, especially as he jumps from Pima Indian folklore to Japanese legends to Hindu myths. But I managed and came away with a lot to think about.

I especially enjoyed the moment when he told the story of how he feared his teaching would rattle the faith of his more religious students. He worried that his more dogmatic students might question their faith based on the recurring themes in mythology and how that fit within the framework of their own beliefs, somehow lessening them. What he found instead was that these mythologies actually illuminated their religious lives, added color to their beliefs.

As for me, an avowed atheist, I found that a lot of what he wrote made a lot of sense. We as people spend a lot of time wondering about the purpose of life and whether or not God exists. Campbell argues that life has no purpose and the existence of a personal god is beside the point. Mythologies don't exist as a way to explain this world and the afterlife. They are constantly evolving lessons (often anthropomorphized) that help us understand that we do not move through this life alone. Myths play an important role in our journey through life and they are just as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago. God has very little to do with it. n fact, the idea of god (or gods) is up for debate. The idea of God, in fact, is inward, rather than outward. God is within us rather than the unknowable being in the sky. each of us is a god and we find god within the other.

Oh man, trying to sum up Campbell's ideas in a single paragraph sounds like the ramblings of a new-age weirdo. I'm not really doing him justice. But to be fair, the book isn't well organized. I realized that I need to read some of Campbell's earlier work to get a firmer handle on his teachings. The Power of Myth was not the best place to start. But the book fell in my lap and if nothing else, it has whetted my palette for more.

I also quite liked the bits about Star Wars. I'm glad Campbell died before the prequels were made. I suspect his insistence on George Lucas being a modern myth-maker would have disintegrated had he seen Jar Jar Binks

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Walking Dead Volume 13: Too Far Gone

The Walking Dead Volume 13: Too Far Gone
By Robert Kirkman

Before continuing with this blog post, please bear in mind that I am not a comic book collector. I know precious little about comics, and it will show.

I have always strived to keep my reading as expansive as possible. I try to move from genre to genre as often as I can, shifting from fiction to non-fiction to historical fiction. As far as I'm concerned, I'll try anything once. A lot of this attitude comes from living in a non-English speaking country. Let me rephrase: A remote part of a non-English speaking country that provides the bare minimum of English anything, least of all, books. I have learned to read anything and everything placed in front of me. This includes graphic novels.

I used to be of the mind that graphic novels (or comics. I don't know how to differentiate) didn't count. They were like five-pin bowling, The Monkees or RC Cola. Reasonable facsimiles of something more substantial. Something more real.

It was The Dark Knight series by Frank Miller that changed my opinion. Until that point,my entire comic book reading career had consisted of a few dozen Archie comics and Bazooka Joe. It just wasn't something I did as a kid. When other kids were reading Batman and Superman, I was reading Encyclopedia Brown. When those same kids were discovering The Sandman I was reading Midnight's Children. When I finally had The Dark Knight stuffed under my chin, I had all but dismissed graphic novels as a mutated form of arrested development.

Of course Frank Miller's depiction of Batman as an aging anti-hero who borders on the suicidal was eye opening to me. I had no idea that comic books had progressed past Jughead vs. hamburger jokes. I was that much in the dark. Miller's distopian world and his litany of villians was right up my alley. I read The Dark Knight three times in succession, on the same day. I simply couldn't believe what I had just read and seen.

To give you an example of my awe, imagine the that last movie you saw was the Ray Harryhausen version of Clash of the Titans complete with plasticene Kraken and Rubber Medusa head. Fast forward several decades and sit down and watch The Matrix or Avatar or any one of the special-effects driven movies out today and you've got an idea of my misconceptions about comics.

I'm still not much of a comic reader. I've only really been sucked into the one series. And granted, the appeal of The Walking Dead series owes more to my love for all things zombie than to my love of comics. But my eyes are opened to the possibilities of the graphic novel. Any serious reader cannot and should not dismiss comic books. Comics are as much a part of our modern literature as any novel, play or poem. If you are dismissing graphic novels, you are dismissing a very large and very complex portion of the global library and that would be a shame. I'm not remotely qualified to talk comics on the internet, but as a reformed book reader addressing other book readers who may not read comics, give them a chance.

They'll surprise you.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Pillars of the Earth

Pillars of the Earth
by Ken Follett

Transitioning from one book to another is never an easy exercise. Some people let a few days go by between books. Let it stew. Ruminate on it a little. I don't. I insist on starting a new book on the same day I finish my previous book (and I never, ever read two books at the same time). Some people think that's crazy. Sometimes I agree, but it's what I've done for so long, there's no real way for me to break the habit.

Transitions can often be quite smooth, especially if the previous book was simply terrible. Moving from The Shack by William P. Young to Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen, for example, was a slice of heaven. I'm was so happy to be back in a good book that I began devouring it. As well, it could be a book that I have been anticipating for quite some time (like Keith Richard's Life) and I'm just in a hurry to get things started. These transtitions are easy.

But sometimes transtitions are difficult, especially after having read an extremely good book. Leaving behind a great read such as Replay by Ken Grimwood and starting up something entirely unknown is heart-wrenching. You're leaving behind characters you have come to love and understand. Like any break-up, you're not entirely sure you can go on without them right away. Perhaps you need a little time on your own to rest, meditate and catch up on some television. You just couldn't possibly care about any other characters right now. I have to ease into books slowly when this occurs.

This happened to me last year while making my way through The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series. I was determined not to read all three in succession, so I broke the series up with two books in between. When I finished the first book, it took all my energy to stick to my austere program. As luck would have it, I picked up Azincourt by Bernard Cornwell and enjoyed it immensely ( I love me some medieval history). It was the proverbial slice of cheddar between sips of red at a wine tasting. With my pallette cleansed, I dove into The Girl Who Played With Fire. No problem.

It was between The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest that I made a critical error. Cheekily, I picked up G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday. I should have taken this selection far more seriously. Chesterton is torturous reading when you know you have the finale of something you care about sitting on the shelf 10 feet away. I crept through the book. The only thing pushing me on was the promise of a better book at the end. Not the best attitude to have while reading. I have promised myself to give G.K. Chesterton another chance.

This is not exactly what happened with Pillars of the Earth. I had just come out of The Unbearable Lightness of Being and I had had just about enough of that one, so I was ready for something new. But there is a little of the 10 year-old reader in me and when I saw the 983 page opus sitting on the shelf, I got intimidated. That's a lot of pages to slog through if I don't like it. And I haven't given up on a book in four years. My first few days in Pillars of the Earth were very tentative. I wasn't really ready to settle into such a large book and I wasn't giving it much of a chance. I usually get a kick out of watching my bookmark move its way through a novel, but with Ken Follett it doesn't ever seem to move! I waited and waited for Follett to make me care.

I had this same problem with Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, but for slightly different reasons. I was given Cloud Atlas by two people within a month and told to drop all other books and read it immediately, which I did. Two people who seprated by the Pacific who don't know each other insisting I read something is a fairly ringing endorsement. The first two chapters (before I realized what Mitchell was doing and subsequently fell head over heels in love with the book) made me feel like I was being cheated. I read the bare minimum (25 pages a day) for days and grumbled how both a friend and a relative could be so terribly wrong about a book. I was never going to finish this brick.

But there comes a point in these sorts of books when it begins to click. The characters seep into your subconcious and you need to get back in there, see how things progress. In Cloud Atlas, it was the third chapter. In Pillars of the Earth it was the burning of the church. From that point on, you know things are going to be ok. It doesn't matter if the book is 183 pages or 1183 pages, you're hooked. The bookmark makes steady progress and by the time you finish, you agonize about your next book.

Can it possibly compare to this one?

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The Unbearable Lightness of Being
By Milan Kundera

This blog is about brutal honesty.

I could write something long and philosophical about this book. Lord knows it delves into some pretty weighty issues and philosophical arguments about life. I mean, the title alone suggests to the reader that you are not simply sitting down for a light afternoon of reading. This novel explores the relationship between love, sex, violent, domination and hatred. The fact that the book is set in Prague during the 1960s and you have a recipe for a very bleak tale (which it is by the way). One should expect something equally serious from a blog post on the subject of such a weighty (pun intended) literary piece.

I could write something like that, but the purpose of this blog is not so much to review the books I read but rather apply them to my life in some manner. So if you were looking for something about life, love and sex as philosophical topics, go away now.

So how does The Unbearable Lightness of Being relate to me as a reader?

It's one of the few books I have read after having seen the movie.

I should probably fess up a little here. I have sat through the entire 1988 film starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche and Lena Olin. I was probably 15 or 16 at the time I watched it. No, I wasn't a coffee-drinking art-house film nerd in high school. I didn't understand a single moment of the movie. I had a vague idea that is was something pretty deep and often dark, but that didn't really concern me. I sat through the entire running time (including the credits) not because I had a keen interest in insignificance and eternal recurrence but rather this movie had copious amounts of full frontal nudity (I told you this blog is hell bent on brutal honesty).

For a 16 year old boy staying up late on a Friday night to watch Late, Great Movies on CityTV in Toronto, this was the godsend of films. It also was the beginning of a lifelong crush on Juliette Binoche. I spent another three years scouring the TV guide for a replay. It never happened, to my knowledge. Shame.

Sixteen years later, I still recall the film (or parts of it, anyway) but certainly not the plot. I usually have a rule about reading a book if I have already seen the movie, but this hardly felt like cheating. And if it is cheating, certainly this is the book in which one would be excused for it. Only once while reading did I recall a scene from the movie (the scene where Juliette Binoche photographs Lena Olin in the nude and then they are both nude... these sorts of cinimatic memories stay with you). Otherwise, it was an entirely unread novel to me.

The book, of course, is more satisfying than the film because Kundera takes more time to get to the heart of what he is trying to say. Kundera seems to have a very negative view on relationships in general, often bordering on misoginistic. But the book is what it is and one cannot fault an author simply because you disagree with him or her. The death of Karenin was a particularly poignant episode in the novel both as a plot device and metaphor for Thomas and Teresa's "lightness" becoming less "unbearable." But I couldn't have read this book at the age of 16 (or 26 for that matter). It would have bored me to tears like Wuthering Heights. I think reading it now, at the age of 35, was probably perfect timing. I'm probably just old enough to understand what Kundera is getting at (assuming I understand, that is... but I think I do).

In the end, reading this book was like coming full circle. It was the same as reading Catcher in the Rye for the second (or fifth) time and realizing that Holden Caufield isn't a misunderstood teenage genius but rather a boy hopelessly in danger of irrelevance. I'm obviously a more layered onion than I was at the age of 16. At the age of 35, The Unbearable Lightness of Being amounts to a bit more than just Juliette Binoche's naked body.

Although, it did add a nice touch to the overall package, don't you think?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Welcome Home: Travels in Smalltown Canada

Welcome Home: Travels in Smalltown Canada
By Stuart McLean

When the topic of books comes up in conversation, which is not as often as I would like, I usually get around to asking one of my favorite questions:

When you read, whose voice narrates in your head?

I've never been able to word this question quite the way I want so it usually requires a little more explanation. Obviously, every book has a different tone, the main characters could be male, female, a child, an extremely old man, an android, black, white, asian, autistic, Panamanian, mute, etc... so a lot of books will develop their own specific voices inside a reader's head. And within each book, each character obviously develops their own voice whether sassy, lonesome, eager or what have you. But I assume that most readers have a default narrator, especially for books that are third person omniscient. So who is it? Who is your default internal narrator?

Mine, if you can believe this, is Tom Waits, when the author is a man, and Terry Gross from NPR, if the author is a woman.

Welcome Home was not narrated by Tom Waits in my head. Instead, this book was one of the rare books that was narrated by the actual author, in my head.

Countless Sunday mornings in the winter have burned the sweet musical cadence of Stuart McLean's voice into my head. Sitting in silence at the kitchen table with a cup of hot coffee while listening to the Vinyl Cafe on CBC radio, staring out the window at a world that I was not particularly ready to enter before noon was a favorite pastime of mine back in my days in Canada. McLean's ability to pace a story are extraordinary. Say what you will about Stuart McLean but he is probably one of Canada's most treasured media personalities. His brand of smalltown folk wisdom worked on even the hardest of those living the mean streets of Toronto. It's simply too difficult to dislike Stuart McLean.

So, listening (in my own head) to Stuart wax philosophical about what hockey means to a small town in Manitoba or the ongoing friction between students in townies in Sackville, New Brunswick instantly put a smile on my face throughout the reading of this book. I read this book on a beach in Bohol, Philippines, but I could have been on Manatoulin Island for all I knew. He has that ability to take you out of time and space and bring you back home. I half expected Morley and Dave to show up in Ferryland, Newfoundland. A few times I tried to fit Tom Waits into his usual position but I found that Tom wasn't able to conjure the old-photo folksiness of logging towns in B.C. or sleepy villages in rural Quebec. That is a job completely monopolized by Stuart McLean (sorry Peter Gzowski). I suspect that future novels I read featuring smalltown Canada (and lord knows there are enough of those!) will star Stuart as my celebrity-guest internal narrator.

So, thanks (internal) Stuart McLean for rekindling my love affair with your voice. Seems fitting that I am writing this entry on a Sunday morning, coffee in hand. Think I'll head over to my iTunes and play me a podcast of the Vinyl Cafe. I wonder what Dave and Morley are up t these days?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
By: Steven D. Levitt and Stephen D. Dubner

Freakonomics is quite the sensation. It's a book. It's a column. It's a blog. It's a podcast. It's going to be a movie? It's everywhere.

While I wasn't as impressed with Freakonomics as I was with the work of Malcolm Gladwell or some of the things I've read about Game Theory it was still fun to watch connections being made in unlikely places. The history student in me was overjoyed.

Until I stumbled upon this article from the column in the New York Times about the Freakonomics of Trash in Taipei City (in Taiwan for those scratching their heads).

This is when I became slightly disenchanted with Freakonomics.

First, I should explain that I do live in Taiwan. I have lived here for almost a decade. Although I do not live in Taipei City I have visited Taipei dozens of times and I can assure you that trash pick up is essentially the same all over the island (As Canadians are often want to say: Canada is more than just Toronto, Taiwan is more than just Taipei). You wait with your trash outside your home for the garbage truck to pass at a designated time. You can tell when it is coming by the distinct music eminating from the truck at obcene decibel levels. This happens every day all over the island.

Dubner gets the basics right. Daily manual garbage pick-up by trucks that play classical music but seemed to leave oh so much out. Freakonomic reader Nick Grisanti wrote to the writers to fill a few more blanks about the system and secondary trash economies that are built around the current system.

Grisanti even takes the time to mention the lack of public trash recepticals in Taipei (I can assure you, this lack of garbage cans is island-wide). The reason being, if public trash cans were available, many households would simple drop their daily garbage in the public bin and cause massive pile-ups of refuse on the streets. Believe me, this has been a point of contention for me in Taiwan since the day I got here and it hasnever really abated. The lack of trash ans simple encouraged most to drop their trash on the ground where it may wash away or get swept up by a shopkeeper, but will most likely sit their for weeks.

But what neither Dubner nor Grisanti address is WHY this system is the way it is. Why doesn't Taiwan impliment a more Western style of garbage collection? Certainly this system is in need to some reform. The answer to this is a much larger social and humanitarian problem: stray dogs. Taiwan has an enormous population of stray dogs roaming the streets of cities and towns all over the island. Any organic trash left unattended would fall prey to these packs of canines looking for their next meal. I've seen what my dogs can do to a garbage bag full of rotten leftovers and thy're tame. Imagine what a pack of ten or twelve strays can do? Without daily pick-up, Taiwan would have a much larger pollution problem than it already has.

But it's not simply that Taiwan has gone to the dogs.

There is a social advantage to the current do-it-yourself situation in Taiwan. Taiwan is notoriously shut-in society. My wife, who is Taiwanese, was startled on her first trip to Canada when cahiers, baristas, fast food servers etc... all idly chatted with her.

"How are you?"
"Nice weather, eh?"
"Have a great day, there!"

In Taiwan, despite the urban over-population, people can go weeks without speaking to another living soul. Trips to supermarkets, coffee shops and restaurants can be done in abject silence. It can be a maddening experience for those not expecting it. Some people would characterize it as being shy or cold. I'm not here to philosophize, but interaction with the community is minimal and usually relegated to the 10 minutes each day when people in a neighborhood stand outside their houses or apartment blocks waiting for the singing truck to come round. It's the time of day when people exchange gossip from their neighborhood and the vast majority of face-to-face social networking is done.

This doesn't even address the Taiwanese propensity for all things new and a general aversion to all things old, while propels the trash economy even more. But that's a subject I don't have the time or resources to investigate. The trash culture in Taiwan is a fascinating topic worthy of more than simply a passing reference by Freakonomics. I was really hoping for something more enlightening.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Blue World

Blue World
by Robert McCammon

The short story is the red-headed stepchild of literature. Science Fiction is the geeky teenage tenant than lives in the basement. Together, they amount to vitually zero.

In the introduction to Stephen King's collection of short stories Everything's Eventual, he laments the slow demise of the short story, especially within the genres of horror and science fiction (well, of course he would... I doubt Stephen King would lament the demise of romance novels). I couldn't agree more. Oh sure, you can find all sorts of short fiction in things like Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, but that a whole different ballgame and usually concerns some writer recalling some isolated moment from their childhood in an oh so whimsical fashion. There's not a single alien or swamp creature to be found in THOSE pages. Gone are the glory days of short story magazines such as The Twilight Zone and Terror Tales. Not that I was a subscriber to these publications as a kid. I would have, though, if I wasn't so busy collecting baseball cards.

But I do have a special relationship with the short story (and Stephen King for that matter). Allow me to flashback...

My first exposure to short stories and Stephen King was Skeleton Crew. For whatever reason, the hardcover edition of this monster was sitting around my house for a dog's age around the time I turned 13. I'm going to assume that my mother, who is an avowed Stephen King fanatic had just finished reading it, or was about to read it. I say assume because I have never known my mother to buy or even be in possession of a hardcover before or since, so it was a very slight mystery.

I remember that the dust-jacket was a picture one of those mechanical monkeys with the hat and cymbals and it coincided with a third rate horror movie release called Monkey Shines. (Is there anything written by Stephen King that wasn't made into a movie?) By 13 I was already a card-carrying fan of horror movies. Sure they still gave me nightmares, but it was like a rite of passage to sit through them. Every one more of them you watched was a feather in your cap. I still hadn't discovered taste, however, and didn't see the difference between Night of the Living Dead and Sleepaway Camp III.

At 13 I wasn't the reader I am today. I was often scared off by the volume of books because I was 13 and I wanted instant gratification. If I couldn't finish it in a sitting, I wasn't interested. And 500 page books were not nearly as interesting as the TV. But, when it occured to me that this massive tome with the creepy cover sitting on the bookshelf was a book of short stories (and possibly scary at that) I slipped it in my backpack the day before I went on a camping trip with my best friend where there would be no TV.

Without even referring to Wikipedia I can still recall some of those stories: "The Mist," "Gramma" and (of course) "The Monkey."

But the one that always torments me in my weaker moments was a little science fiction number called "The Jaunt." It's essentially a retelling of the history of matter transference as told by a father to his curious son. The majority of the story is interesting enough, but not in the least bit scary, but the payoff (while I will not recap) left me sleepless in a tent for nights on that camping trip and is one of the books (stories) that I credit when anyone cares to ask how I developed my love for reading.

Blue World by Robert McCammon had some really interesting moments, some of which reminded me of that camping trip (I read this while lounging on the beach on Bohol Island in the Philippines). More science fiction (yay!) and less horror (aww...) but, because they are short stories, the plots move nice and quick for those in need of instant gratification (I'm still 13 on the inside).

So here's to red-headed step-children and geeks in the basement. And here's to sleepless nights while on vacation.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


By Keith Richards

For me, choosing a book to read while traveling is of the utmost importance. Long waits at train stations and airports and hours spent on trains and airplanes afford me large blocks of time in which to read. (fun fact: we travel on the cheap, which means longer waits than you). Additionally, my wife falls asleep on anything that moves and in virtually any waiting area so you can understand why the choice of book becomes importance as a way to fend off boredom.

But the most crucial reason for a good book while traveling owes to my lingering distrust of aviation. After three decades, thousands of hours in the air and countless long-haul flights over the Pacific Ocean, I have never assuaged my fear of flying. My rational side explains to me all about the safety mechanisms that are in place both on the ground and in the plane that make accidents virtually negligible and the millions upon millions of flights that take off and land every day without a hitch. I argue with myself that the law of averages are firmly on my side and flying is safer than driving a motorcycle in Southeast Asia, which I do with impunity... blah, blah, blah...

But all that goes out the little oval window once the wheels leave the tarmac. At that point I have thousands of meters of empty space under my feet and I spend hours conscious of the things that might go wrong. Most people complain about the cramped conditions of flying coach. I never get that far. I'm imagining a horrific mid-air collision between two 737s. Blocks of people in airplane seats being sucked out into a five minute free fall. I'm also sure that guy waiting for the bathroom is going to accidentally slip and open the cabin door, depressurizing the cabin, killing us all.

I know, I'm not that fun at parties.

But I have found a solution for the worse of this irrational fear: A good book.

No, not The Good Book, although there are some out there that might argue that I might find solace in the ramshackle, slapdash writings of superstitious ancient Hebrews and Greeks. But I'm talking about any good book. And finding just the right book for the flight is imperitive to my psychological well-being.

Good books on the ground and good books in the air are two very different things. For example, Richard Dawkins is an excellent scientific writer who I enjoy reading, but his work is extraordinarily taxing and requires a lot of brain power, something I cannot count on when I'm in the air thinking about random air pockets that might send the plane careening into the ocean at 600 km/h. Conversely, Kurt Vonnegut is probably my favorite author of all time, but his books tend to be a bit on the short side, creating a horrifying possibility: I might finish the book mid-flight and be left with thoughts of my own fiery demise.

A good airplane book needs to be long (The Stand, anything by Neil Gaiman), not intellectually taxing (Harry Potter has always served me well on airplanes) but not stupid (sorry Twilight), cannot have any mention of airplanes or fiery demises (Catch-22 is a bad choice and so is the Bible). It needs to be light, preferably funny and immensely readable... as in eyes-on-the-book-for-six-hours readable.

Over the years I have had some pretty good luck with in-flight books. The Harry Potter series, as mentioned above, has got me through at least three flights. Other books that engaged me though the perils of flying include The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood and Hollywood by Gore Vidal.

A famous failure was The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl which I mistakenly took on a flight from Hong Kong to Toronto a couple of years ago. It was so mind-numbingly boring that I had to actually (gasp!) watch the in-flight entertainment. Six straight episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond and a viewing of Along Came Polly. These atrocities frayed my sanity so much it took me a week, two books and a viewing of the Big Lebowski to settle down after landing.

Life by Keith Richards (and a ghost writer, obviously) fell seamlessly into its role as caretaker of Ryan's psyche on our trip to the Philippines. It was long and infinitely interesting. It was actually the sort of book that I would have read voraciously no matter where I was because I'm a sucker for rock n' roll biographies. Nothing like anecdotes about famous rock stars (Gram Parsons!!!!) and overdoses (Everybody!!!) to keep me turning pages (never mind that the bits about Maggie Trudeau didn't come until page 500 or so... that also kept me reading).

Keith Richards was a safe bet for me. Wildly entertaining. And after The Dante Club, I'm not particularly interested in wagering on a book come boarding time.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Peter Pan

Peter Pan
By J.M. Barrie

I've been in the Philippines not using a computer for the past three weeks so I've got a little catching up to do with my reading blog.

Everyone always says that the book is better than the movie and if you play the percentage game "everyone" is right most of the time, but not always. There are more than just a handful of movies that lay the book to waste. Case in point: Peter Pan. But before I get to that, let's look at a few other examples:

Lord of the Rings

I know I will take the ire of a billion hobbit-heads out there but Peter Jackson's three films are infinitely more watchable than J.R.R. Tolkien's books are readable. Lord of the Rings is one of only two books I have never finished (the other being Wuthering Heights, but that's another story). Reading Tolkien is the literary equivalent of flying from New York to Hong Kong economy class without in-flight entertainment. Jackson was able to pare down Gandalf and Frodo's 30 page soliloquies about duty and honor into three fairly exciting movies.

Heart of Darkness

I know that Apocalypse Now is not a literal interpretation of the novel, but it's close enough to merit mention. While Apocalypse Now is an infinitely rewatchable classic with at least three career-defining performances (possibly more), Heart of Darkness is a wooden post-Victorian snooze-fest. Brando's Kurtz was so much more fascinating than Conrad's version. It's hard to even think about the book and the film in the same instance.


I admit, I'm not a big fan of Irving Welsh. His brand of shock literature appealed to to a younger me (I went through a phase) but it quickly lost appeal once I realized that he was trying so very hard to shock his readers by writing what people assumed you could not write about. I can only assume he'd never heard of Charles Bukowski. Trainspotting is simply 300 pages of terrible people who do terrible things to each other for a while then one of them does something extraordinarily terrible... the end. At some point in a novel the reader needs to have an emotional attachment to at least one character (whether it's good or bad). I didn't have either for any character. If you've seen the movie but not read the book, imagine a book filled with characters as unlikeable as Francis Begbie.

On the other hand, Trainspotting the movie softened the characters just enough to make than at least partly human (well, except Begbie... he alone remains as terrible in the movie as he is in the book. At least one charater had to). It's that humanity that made the movie. In the book one cannot understand how these people came to be friends in the first place. In the movie there is an undercurrent of a past before the drugs and crime . An idea that these guys are bound by filial and familial ties within the community. It's odd that a movie addresses this when a book was unable.

Peter Pan

I can't really put my finger on what, exactly, put me off this book. Perhaps it was the characterization of Peter (who has much more sinister undertones in the book). Peter is characterized as all that is good about childhood (imagination and a sense of the carefree) but more often than not, he represents all that is bad about childhood (a skewed sense of justice and morality, irresponsibility etc...). Since this is ostensibly a children's book I figured that the moral of the story would laud the qualities of childhood over those of adulthood... but I was sorely mistaken.

When I finished I got the feeling that J.M. Barrie was writing a story for kids in which he is preparing them for the cold, callous world of adults and that the carefree days of childhood should be packed away like so much junk never to be revisited again.

Or not. I dunno. I just liked the Disney movie better, which is odd because I usually detest Disney movies.