Thursday, June 30, 2011

Drowning Ruth

Drowning Ruth
By Christina Schwarz

Way back at book twenty-three (Clara Callan if you have forgotten) I wrote out a checklist of things that make for the definitive Canadian novel. There are eleven criteria that make the stereotypical Canadian novel and I have created a scientific scale to gauge exactly HOW Canadian a novel is. This scale is called the Tragically Hip Sacle of Canadiana and it is measured from 0 to 12 hips (a hip is a unit of measure on the THSoC. 1 hip is equal to 1 unit of Canadian-ness). The scale works thusly:

0 ~ 1 hips: Foreign language novel (not set in Quebec), translated into English
1 ~ 3 hips: Native language novel written by non-Commonwealth/American writer (e.g. Singaporean, South African)
3 ~ 4 hips: American writer (excluding border state writers)
4 ~ 5 hips: American writer (border state)
5 ~ 6 hips: Non Canadian, Commonwealth writer.
6 ~ 7 hips: French writers from Quebec writing in French.
7 ~ 8 hips: Writers from Alberta.
8 ~ 9 hips: English writers from Quebec writing in English.
9 ~ 10 hips: Canadian writers trying to be a little different (e.g. Douglas Coupland)
10 ~ 11 hips: Writer has a tattoo of the maple leaf under right nipple and/or right ankle
11 ~ 12 hips: Writer lives on an island, in a northern settlement (probably in an igloo), eats moose meat and Kraft Dinner with ketchup, listens to CBC radio and probably owns more than one Bombardier product, eh?

Realistically, if a novelist measures 9.0 hips on the Tragically Hip Scale of Canadiana then they should be awarded an honorary Giller Prize, Governor General's Award, a Juno, a Genie and a Gemini (if you don't understand 100% of those references, then you must measure lower than 4.3 hips, which means you are Non-Canadian Commonwealth or, worse, American).

Drowning Ruth, a period novel by Christina Scharz is up for scrutiny today. Let's see how it scores on the THSoC scale:

1. Novel set between 1900~1945.

The novel is begins in the early 1900s and ends in 1941, thus spanning almost the exact timeframe deemed to be perfectly Canadian. Score 1.5 hips.

2. Novel is set in/on a small town/island/northern settlement.

The novel is set in a small town in the north and an island figures extremely prominently in the narrative. Score 3 hips.

3. Novel involves a strong/complicated/deranged female protagonist on a journey of self-identification.

Main characters are almost all female. One strong, one deranged and one complicated. Score 1.5 hip.

4. Novel involves one or more conservative/despicable/sexually deviant men.

Of course. Score 1 hip.

5. Story involves one or more hard-boiled sidekicks.

The character of Imogene qualifies as a sidekick, although i would be pressed to admit that she is entirely hard-bolied. Score 0.7 hips.

6. Story involves an unwanted pregnancy/abortion/infant mortality.

Yes. Score 1 hip.

7. Story mentions the Dionne quintuplets/Edward's abdication/Vimy Ridge.

Not entirely, but World War One figures prominently so score 0.5 hips.

8. Story involves a major snowstorm.

More than one. Score 1 hip.

9. Story contains mild to overt anti-Americanism.

This is a complicated answer as you will see in my conclusions. While I can't say for certai that this book has anti-American undertones, it certainly isn'y pro-America. Score 0.4 hips.

10. Story explores multiculturalism.

OK. No. Score 0 hips.

11. Story contains mild to overt anti-Religion themes.

Yes. Score 1 hips.

Final score: 11.6 on a scale of 12. Drowning Ruth is definitively a Canadian novel. In fact, it could be held up as a textbook example of Canadian literature in any University anywhere north of the 49th. A perfect storm of Canadiana. This is entirely strange since Drowning Ruth was written by an American (Christina Schwarz) and is set in Wisconsin (which, last I checked, still lies within the national boundaries of the United States).

I know. I couldn't believe it either.

This is why I was unable to score the Anti-American criterion since it is virtually impossible for an American citizen to actively write an anti-American novel, no matter how much they question authority. There seem to be elements of anti-Americanism but it was not overt enough for me to score scientifically. Pity.

How does an American write the definitive Canadian novel? Perhaps growing up in Wisconsin (which is American in name only) helps. The Great Lakes are far more pourous than the land border. Ms. Schwarz therefore probably grew up with a healthy diet of Farley Mowat, Margaret Atwood and Robertson Davies. She has probably read enough Canadian novels to stop the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Oprah Winfrey, however, obviously does not read enough Canadian literature as Drowning Ruth was selected as part of the Oprah Book Club. If she was familiar whe THSoC she would have known that Drowning Ruth wasn't the mysteriously dark novel she thought it to be but rather a paint-by-numbers example of virtually every book published in Canada since 1945.

Chicago isn't far enough north, apparently.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


By Stephen King (aka Richard Bachman)

After a critical reading of Thinner, the last book ever written by Richard Bachman (Stephen King) I only have two questions:

1. Why does a thirty-something year-old man who is a partner at his law firm, has a wife and daughter and is a pillar of the community, allow people in his town to continue to refer to him as "Billy?"

The only adult males who are allowed to get away with the name "Billy" play professional sports.


2. What is it with Stephen King and hand jobs?

Seriously. The hand job doled out by Heidi, the wife of Billy Halek plays a more central part in this Kafka-esque metamorphosis tale than most of the other human characters. King, erm... Bachman, spends more time examining, dissecting and re-evaluating said hand job than he does developing characters such as Taduz Lemke, the mysterious Gypsy who curses Halek after Halek hits and kills his daughter in an automobile accident while the aforementioned hand job was taking place.

Got that? Good.

We learn that this was the first time Halek had ever received a hand job from his wife while operating a motor vehicle ("Why, Heidi? why did you pick that day to give me my first hand job!" whined Billy). We learn that when his car grill made impact with Taduz Lemke's daughter he climaxed, but his wife's kung fu grip retained his ejaculation, thereby causing Billy a moment of both extreme pleasure and extreme pain (this is actually mentioned twice in the novel!). We learn that Billy Halek is capable of harboring a hell of a lot of hate based on a single act of manual stimulation but we never learn a damned thing about who Taduz Lemke is or what he's been up to the past 105 of his 106 years on this planet. Priorities, Mr. King. We have a story to tell and there's a hell of a lot more going on than simply a hand job.

If this were the first instance of Stephen King glorifying the pitiful sex lives of Vanilla America I would excuse it, but King has made a career out of writing badly about sex. Gratuitous breaking-and-entering-turned-masturbation sessions in Cujo, group orgies in It and don't even get me started with Gerald's Game. I know that sex and violence are two of the pillars of the horror genre but I find that sex fits into a Stephen King story the way a Slayer song fits into a romantic mixed tape.

Billy Halek could have been doing literally anything else when he hit that woman. Anything would have made more sense. He could have been eating a Super-Sized McDonald's Valu-Pack or a bucket of KFC chicken when he hit her. Certainly that would have fit the narrative a little more. After all, The old Gypsy curse causes him to get thinner, not receive continuous hand jobs until his penis falls off, which would have made a lot more sense considering Taduz Lemke knew exactly what Billy's wife was doing at the time the car struck his daughter.

Too ironic, you say? OK. He could have been arguing with his wife about their daughter or discussing shady business with Richard Ginelli or pretending he was in the lead at the Indianapolis 500 like I do. Hell, he could have been checking out Taduz Lemke's great-granddaughter's ass in a pair of Jordache Jeans for all the sense the hand job made.

I like Stephen King, but it's high time someone called him out on this. For all his wonderfully freaky storylines he concocts he throws in uncomfortable fornication in virtually everything he writes. He must think that everyone in White Middle America is a potential sexual deviant. It's possible he does this as a way to upset his readers further, but I don't think King's readers go back to the fount again and again thinking: "Geez... he had a bunch of 12 year-olds gang rape their best friend at the end of his last book, let's see what kind of kink he's thrown into Tommyknockers." It's the very definition of the word gratuitous.

Wait a minute.

I'm no right-wing Christian prude nor am I a left-wing cop for political correctness. I'm not implying that these scenes shock me or bother me or, god forbid, offend me. They don't. I've read far raunchier material from better (and worse) writers and enjoyed the hell out of it for what it was worth. Most probably because the debauched acts in those stories furthered the storyline rather than sat alongside it like a red-headed step-child. As a reader I question their existence in the story because I like my stories to be closed circuits where everything happens for a reason and furthers the storyline created. If there's no need for a hand job, why include it? If the narrative begs for a hand job, well sir, write it in, proudly.

Perhaps Stephen King should stick to writing horror and leave the sex in abler hands. I know he has mentioned in interviews that he has trouble writing about sex, which begs the question: Why bother? King is good at so much else, why continue to beat the proverbial dead horse? Perhaps Stephen King is a masochist.

Of course, you didn't need to read this blog to know that.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Think of Number

Think of Number
By John Verdon

Oh man, I really wanted to like this novel.

For a murder mystery novel it is compelling enough. And as debut novels go, John Verdon should be proud and I hope he does well with it and future books. I like the way this book was paced and never felt like it was dragging on. But Think Of A Number fails in a lot of fundamental ways. Here are a few:

My main problem with Think Like a Number is that Verdon sets up Dave Gurney, his main character, as the expert in hunting and catching psychopathic serial murderers. Think Clarice Starling from Silence of the Lambs. In Verdon's world, there simply isn't a cop alive better equipped to catch a killer than Dave Gurney. He's even a minor celebrity among cops on the Eastern Seaboard. Gurney's a retired cop that has lead the investigations against several high-profile serial killers. In Think Of A Number he gets dragged back into service when a series of strange notes lead to the death of a college friend. Once the crime scene is established and the investigation gets underway I assumed that Gurney was going to take the reader into the mind of the killer, tracing his motives and methods, each more cold and calculating than the first, revealing his madness a little at a time.... you know, like a good murder mystery.

The problem was that I had most things figured out long before Gurney and the cops. And on several occasions it was Gurney's wife, Madeleine, who tells him what I already knew. So much for celebrity expert in the field. My wife continuously tells me that I'm the least perceptive person in the world. I notice very little, and yet I seem to be solving a case a solid week in advance of these experts. That's inexcusable. These guys are supposed to be a professional crime unit. The reader and the retired cop's hippie wife are solving the crime faster than these chumps. Think of the lives that would have been saved if I had Kilgore Trout-ed into the book and taken over. Certainly Detective Sissek would not have perished. We could have spared Mrs. Sissek such a needless tragedy, coming only two weeks before the detective's retirement from the Wycherly Police Department. So much wasted time, fellas.

And that's another thing! Aside from Gurney and his wife, Verdon's characters seem to be merely caricatures of real people, cartoonish in their cliched existence. There's Detective Sissek, as mentioned above. He was only two weeks away from retirement, like I said. In the world of books, television and movies, all cops are within a month of retirement. Police Departments around the world should really address the problem of aging officers. Perhaps departments should give officers an inside job for their last month to avoid these all too common last month murders. Other characters include a clueless DA, a brown-nosing chief of police who insists that the murder follow a more conventional crime pattern, the requisite round peg in a square hole guy and the slightly racist but ultimately professional crime scene officer who nobody likes but everyone respects. Do police departments in America hire specifically for these particular quirks?

Another aspect in which Verdon fails is his sub-plots. He establishes several throughout the novel involving the death of his 9-year-old son, issues with his other son, on-going tension with his wife and a potential affair with an art gallery proprietor. Verdon either fails to develop these sub-plots and wraps them up clumsily in the last ten pages following the resolution of the primary story, leaves them completely unresolved, or, in one particularly galling instance involving a Gurney's burgeoning art career, forgets about it entirely. I have no problem with stories that follow a single trajectory. Writers need to know their limitations and if one story is all you can handle, fine. Do it, and do it well. Don't bite off more than you can chew. In this instance, Think Of A Number would have been better served without any sub-plots. The main plot was compelling enough to carry the reader, why bother with the other issues if you can't follow through?

And while we are on the subject of wrapping up a story, Gurney spends a lot of time toward the end of the book discussing the psychology of the killer and what was once a well-paced murder-mystery descends into a morass of psycho-babble that somehow renders his killer from perfectionist to a bumbling insane man simply by articulating his psychology. At no point previous to the killer's psychological profile did he ever make a mistake. Once we are presented with the full flower of his insanity, he becomes a complete moron. And finally, for the millionth time: If you are a killer, victory soliloquies always end badly. If committing the perfect murder is your business, shut up and do it. Never explain yourself. I can't believe I'm typing this in 2011. You'd think villains would have learned by now. I'm surprised the killer wasn't stroking his cat while divulging his secrets. The victory soliloquy is a classic blunder akin to starting a land war in Asia or going against a Sicilian when death is on the line. Don't do it!

Alas, Silence of the Lambs this is not. While I would like to wish John Verdon luck in his future writing (he really does have talent) if you are looking for a really good murder mystery and/or cop drama this summer, I will forever recommend Lush Life by Richard Price. This is perhaps the best crime drama I have read in recent years. It keeps you guessing and never disappoints. Something I really wish I could say for Think Of A Number.

Monday, June 13, 2011


By David Moody

These days, it is rare that I finish a book in a single sitting. The conditions required for such an event (readable book + large, uninterrupted chunks of time) are not easy to come by. I'm a busier man and a more jaded reader than I was when I read Johnny Got His Gun in a single six hour sitting at the age of sixteen (or A Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy hours before a final exam in first year university). In fact, I haven't read many books in a single sitting. This probably has a lot to do with why I can't sit still for movies, either.

As it turns out the conditions necessary for a single-day read were ideal yesterday. We were having some screen doors and windows installed at our house and, in true Taiwanese fashion, the workers told us they would come by sometimes between 8am and 4pm. Typical.

I cleared my Monday schedule (Monday is actually a light day for me, anyhow) in anticipation for the long wait and picked up Hater by David Moody. It's been on my shelf for a few months. It was given to my by a friend who never really endorsed it or recommended it, just handed it over and told me I might like it. I didn't much like the cover and I hadn't bothered to find anything out about it so I always managed to pick something else up in the meantime. By yesterday it had become a festering sore on my bookshelf. It had been there so long it was actually offending me. So I opened the damned thing figuring I could read it and get it on its way.

Little did I know.

Oh boy, was this book right up my alley. By page 25 I knew I was in for one of those days. Everything was going to come second. Lunch? It could wait. Walk the dogs? They don't really need it. Let the workers in? OK, I did that... at 3pm. On any other day I would have been livid, but since I was neck deep in Hater, I barely noticed. In fact I barely noticed when the workers left and my teaching hours were approaching. I was almost late for work, not that it mattered, I was going to find a way to continue reading at work, anyway. Nothing, but nothing was going to stand in the way of me and the last page of this book, which i reached by 10pm, following my usual Monday teaching schedule.

What, by god, could this book be about that would send a grown man diving for sofas and scuttling into corners in order to read a couple more pages? Essentially, Hater follows the classic storyline of a burgeoning zombie apocalypse. Unassuming man with crappy life starts to vaguely notice strange occurances happening all around him, most of which involve gorily inventive deaths of random strangers. Soon, these arbitrary attacks are happening with more frequency and they begin to close themselves in around the central character. People seem to be transforming from mild-mannered citizens into blood-thirsty killers at a rate far too rapid for authorities to handle. The situation declines at an exponential rate. The attacks are all over the news, while the news continues to broadcast, and what was, at first, a breaking news story has transformed itself into total societal collapse. Awesome!

But it's not zombies.

This is where Hater takes the twist it desperately needed to take. Had this been yet another book about the zombie hordes, it would have taken a miracle for it to follow through. As much as I like the zombie genre, its scope is limited and there are only so many directions you can go with mindless, fleash-eating drones. Max Brooks did a stellar job of re-inventing the genre a few years back with World War Z but David Moody was taking us zombie freaks on a ride in an entirely new, and more intelligent direction.

Zombies, by nature, are interesting insofar as they take the world by surprise and in large numbers. But once the collapse of the establisment is complete and the zombies cease to be a surprise to those who remain living, it is hard to maintain story momentum. Ask Robert Kirkman, the creator of The Walking Dead. Trying to write a serial comic about a post-apocalyptic world over-run by zombies can get difficult and writers are forced to rely heavily on human relationships under stress, since deconstructing the zombie mind would be an exercise in hilarious futility.

The genre has been in need of a major overhaul for years and David Moody has taken the zombie theme in an interesting new direction that enables him to transcend the authoratarian style and write within the post-apocalyptic world with a lot more freedom than traditional zombie writers. He will be able to move from one side to the other with ease and expand on the ideas and theories he has brought to life in Hater.

I can't really say much more than that without ruining the book and the overall storyline going into book two. It is, after all, the first in a trilogy and going ahead and spoiling the first reveal would be a literary crime. Rest assured that this long-time zombie fan and sci-fi freak spent every page of this book riveted. Moody maintains the suspense right up to the last sentence, reveals enough to leave the reader satisfied but leaves enough questions unanswered to ensure I read the next book. Naturally, that's the aim of writing the first novel in a trilogy, but it's surprising how may authors are incapable of pulling that off.

Must make a mental note to add Dog Blood, the second book in the trilogy to my Amazon wish-list. If it is even half what Hater was, I will be losing another day in the coming months.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

People of the Book

People of the Book
By Geraldine Brooks

This isn't a great book. It's good, but not great. It's uneven, sometimes uninspired and its characters are often un-engaging. Some bits have all the drama of a visit to the Pottery Barn on a Sunday afternoon. I'll get to that in a moment, but first I want to defend this novel against a critical travesty. People of the Book, despite what critics would lead you to believe, is not The Da Vinci Code. So I find it unfair to see this novel being compared incessantly to a lesser novel everywhere I look. Even a friend of mine who saw the book sitting on the table when we met earlier in the week noted that it was an academic's Da Vinci Code, a comment that made my head hurt all the more. First, because a friend who espouses critical thinking was echoing back a comparison that has been made ad nauseam throughout the literary world and second, because if this is what passes for academic literature, we are in for a bumpy ride.

As far as I'm concerned, the fact that both People of the Book and The Da Vinci Code are slightly less-than-average historical fiction is the beginning and end of the comparison. If that were enough to merit comparison why not Gore Vidal's Lincoln or the collected works of Bernard Cornwell or Ken Follett? Why? I'll tell you why... because they are all different! That's why!

Whereas the Da Vinci Code is a crap pseudo-history of the Catholic Church, its marginal weirdoes, Gnostics, creepy Freemasons and virtually every other dusty European secret society mentioned in Foucault's Pendulum trying to pass bad fiction off as solid history (or at the very least conspiracy theory on a millennial scale), People of the Book is a pretty honest attempt at a fictionalized history that remains within a manageable time frame and nothing more. While it often fails, it doesn't do so on the scale of the Da Vinci Code.

People of the Book examines the possible history of an illuminated 14th century Jewish manuscript called the Sarajevo Haggadah, a very real and very famous codex. Scholars agree that the book was copied and bound in Spain somewhere around 1350 and has spent the past three quarters of a millennium avoiding destruction at the hand of the Inquisition, Nazis, the Ustache, Tito, the Bosnian War and various other European catastrophes that have made Europe so popular. It is a literary survivor if there ever was, and the people of Sarajevo (rightfully) have a great sense of pride in this particular manuscript. Here. Take a look. It really does have striking illustrations:

Brooks' novel examines the possible history of the book as it travels from Spain to Bosnia (via Italy) over the centuries. The over-arching story unfolds as an infuriating Australian book conservator is called in to do some work on the recently rescued (from the Bosnian War) manuscript. She happens to find several interesting things hidden within the pages (an insect wing, a wine stain, crystalized salt and a white hair). Each of these things is a catalyst for an ever more intriguing history of the book that continues to reach backward in time to its earliest days.

Brooks' fictionalized history of the book is interesting and a wonderful insight into the life of Jews and Muslims in Christian Europe during the late Medieval period, through the Renaissance and into the Modern Era. The contemporary story ties the histories together (that of the grating Australian book conservator and her even more grating mother). It is so painful to read, I found it hard to get to the next bit about the actual book. That's how much I didn't care about Brook' protagonist.

I like the idea of using a modern story to stitch the history together. It has been done well in other books and I suspect will continue to be done well in books in the future. It is, however, very important to make the over-arching story interesting enough to carry the novel. Since the reader will not revisit the characters involved in the history of the book, it's important to make us care about the contemporary characters.

This is where People of the Book ultimately fails. Hannah Heath is as interesting as warm milk and her globe trotting dramas involving her family history, a slightly swarthy Bosnian lover with a dying child, an auto accident and her relationship with her beast of a mother completely miss the mark. It all plays out like a bad weekday soap opera, which only serves to trivialize the rich history Brooks is trying to illuminate. Her modern day characters do nothing to honor Haggadah and its ability to survive the centuries. Perhaps if Brooks had concentrated on one of these elements rather than trying to accomplish too much, too fast, this could have been a great book. It's a shame, too. The history of the codex is wonderfully rendered and left me doing a bunch of research on the manuscript. If only her modern characters could carry that feeling.

I can see where the comparisons to Dan Brown's book come from, but they don't really stand up. People of the Book is a slow-paced account of a possible history of a single book. there are no conspiracies. No Freemasons. The papacy doesn't get involved. People of the Book actually has a few compelling characters and, unlike The Da Vinci Code, Brooks has the capacity to bring history to life, something Dan Brown only wishes he could do. While I won't go out on the limb and recommend People of the Book, I won't condemn it either. It has its moments and sometimes a few moments is all a book needs.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Dead Famous

Dead Famous
By Ben Elton

According to Ben Elton, England is going down the tubes and it's all reality television's fault. Once a proud nation that resolutely stood up to the Nazis during the Battle of Britain and stared imminent annihilation in the face with cool determination and a stiff upper lip. British men were made of moxy and steel and their women, well, they were made of moxy and steel, too! Winston Churchill defiantly proclaimed that:
"We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."
Immortal words from one of the great modern statesmen. Britain would stand proud for another thousand years thanks to Churchill's (and Britain's) resolve.

Just a half-century later and we have an entirely different generation with entirely different values and an entirely different vocabulary. It's probably worth lamenting, if it weren't so damned funny. In Dead Famous, Ben Elton's highly improbable, post-post-modern novel about a preposterous reality television program, characters have insanely amped up names such as Woggle or Gazzer or Moon, probably don't know where to buy Winston Churchill brand cigarettes if you asked them and speak like this:
"Woggle, he da man! Da top man. Respect! But the whole show is totally wicked, so fair play to all the posse in the house. Kelly's my girl, Oojah, Oojah!"
There's a lot in that quote I really don't understand. I can't imagine that anyone, anywhere actually talks like this, but if there is, I never want to meet him or her. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer eloquence.

Now, I should have known I wasn't going to like a book that featured characters with names like Woggle or Gazzer or Moon, especially one that centered on a third-rate reality game show called House Arrest. I despise reality TV with a passion and have never understood people's fascination with such thinly-veiled voyeurism. But, I persevered and, at the end of the day, I actually enjoyed this book for what it was, and that what it's all fookin' about, inn't? Respect!

So what gives?

I suppose the reason enjoyed this book is that it was such an over-the-top parody of reality television and didn't attempt to squeeze some sort of moral or philosophical point out of what is, ultimately, an extremely hollow genre of entertainment. I mean, anyone who stops to consider the social and cultural implications of reality television is simply going to think themselves into a considerable headache and be nowhere closer to a solution than they were an hour previous. It's lowest-common-denominator television and anyone who argues otherwise is delusional or simply dim.

Had this book taken itself even a little seriously, it would have fallen flat on its face. Instead Elton carefully portrays each of the "housemates" as the cardboard cut-outs they are: The boozer, the struggling actor looking for a break, the quiet doctor who is trying to blend into the surroundings. the lesbian, the manipulative and money-grubbing producer, the bitter evictee, and the smelly hippie anarchist that endears himself to the public. Elton's characters have about as much depth as a puddle. There are no subtle personalities and no extended networks of friends or family (only those relevant to the plot). Each character is no more than the sum of their parts as they appear on television. Single-serving characters as Edward Norton might say.

When a murder is introduced to the plot (something that would obviously send a REAL reality show to a screeching, lawsuit-addled halt), the already absurd cast of characters is thrust into improbability hyperdrive that includes attempted suicide, and a kick-boxing Irish lass. I mean, what's not to like? Had they added a fifty-foot giant iguana that terrorized London I wouldn't have batted an eyelash.

Add the impossible circumstances in which the murder takes place (in an enclosed environment littered with cameras that document the happenings in literally every corner of the house) and give each and every "housemate" a motive for killing the victim (some very flimsy motives, I might add) and you've got yourself an enjoyable, if ultimately pointless read. The wonderfully pyrrhic conclusion is worth the price of admission alone. It was so unnecessarily convoluted that I had to read it twice and it still made my head hurt, but who cares? It's reality television literature which means it's like the junk food of fiction. I'll feel bad for a few hours after finishing the book and forget the entire thing by next week (unless of course I descend into a downward spiral of junk food books and choke on my own vomit).

For the one or two people who read this blog on a regular basis, you might ask: "Why give Dead Famous a pass and Henry's Sisters such a colossal fail?"

Well, my dear reader, it was all about delivery. While Cathy Lamb wrote with all the sincerity in her entire body and failed, failed, failed, you get the impression throughout Dead Famous that Ben Elton is simply taking the piss out of our modern culture (or lack of culture). As is mentioned before if at any point in this book had Elton waxed intellectual on the state of modern pop culture and the decline of Western civilization you would be reading a blog post akin to Henry's Sisters. As it stands, he didn't and the book is every bit as vacant as you would expect. It's the difference between Zoolander and It's Pat: The Movie. One is so stupid it becomes smart parody, the other is simply stupid. There is a fine line and one that is not easily explained. I would suspect that the people who cannot tell the difference between parody and stupid are also fans of reality television.

Anyway, I've wasted enough time on this book. Let me give a closing example to prove my point about stupid-turned-funny. At a crucial point in the book when the remaining non-murdered "housemates" are sitting around chatting about God, one of the characters spews this thought-provoking sound bite of wisdom:

"I'm quite interested in Eastern religions. For instance, I reckon that Dalai Lama is a fookin' ace bloke, because with him it's all about peace and serenity, ain't it? And at the end of the day, fair play to him because I really really respect that."

Take away the annoying Britishisms and you have a Hansel quote, right there. That's comedy gold, right there, Jerry!


Friday, June 3, 2011

Just So Stories

Just So Stories
By Rudyard Kipling

People never ask me: "What do you use for a bookmark," but they should. It's an interesting question. One that deserves some thought.

Since moving to Taiwan nine years ago I have tended to use people's name cards. In Taiwan, name cards are serious business and everyone falls all over themselves to give you theirs. So I've always got a handful of ideally sized paper rectangles in the pocket of my pants waiting for something to do. And since I don't often pick my teeth with them, bookmark is a perfect job. While I usually favor my wife's name card (they are most readily available to me) I am currently using a friend's card. She makes women's jewelry. Since I am never going to be her target market and I could never pick my teeth with it, I figured her card acting as my current bookmark is the highest show of support I can give her. Being my bookmark is an honor.

But I have not always used name cards. In my younger days I tended toward folded lined paper, Post-It Notes, photos, bank books and unpaid bills. In my more desperate hours I have been known to use TV remotes, pens, my wallet, foreign currency, keys, photographs, a cell phone, tissue or even other books. In a pinch, virtually anything that within reaching distance will do so long as it is of a certain size, and dry. Someone will be along shortly with a name card and I can return to normalcy.

I have, on occasion, owned actual bookmarks. Some were promotional materials for new releases when I worked in publishing, others were more finely crafted bits of art. I once was in possession of a leather bookmark with my initials engraved on a gold plate near the top. It was a gift from my great aunt... one I wish I hadn't lost. I would never pay for a bookmark as a luxury item. Like pens and CDs, bookmarks exist to be lost. The world is just too full of things to mark your page.

I have never been a fan of turning the book upside down on a table. I believe that flipping a book ages it prematurely and I'm not interested in the systematic destruction of literature, thankyouverymuch. Furthermore, if you leave a book in that state too long, it develops an affinity for that particular page and it's hard to train that out of a book, especially if you crack the spine.

As for dog-earring, I'm of two minds. A dog-eared book looks well-read, but too many and it makes the book look unnecessarily ragged and worn (or ends up looking like a research book for a doctorate candidate). One has to treat a book well on its journey through life lest it end up in a recycling bin long before it should. Dog-ear with caution.

In conclusion, what I use for a bookmark is an interesting topic. Far more interesting than Rudyard Kipling's almost unreadable collection of Just So Stories. If you are desperate for something of this nature, and I can't see why, read Aesop's Fables.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Every Man Dies Alone

Every Man Dies Alone
By Hans Fallada

"Would you rather live for an unjust cause than die for a just one?"

Every Man Dies Alone is Hans Fallada's extraordinary novel of crippling repression, resistance and the triumph of life in Germany under Nazi rule. It follows the compelling story of Otto and Anna Quangel, an aging couple whose only son has been unceremoniously killed in France early in the war. In response to their grief, they begin to write anti-Nazi postcards and drop them around Berlin. Although this is a work of fiction, this novel is based on the true story of Otto and elise Hampel who committed similar acts of civil disobedience and were executed in Plotzensee Prison. Italian chemist (and holocaust survivor) Primo Levi called Fallada's book: "The greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis."

Concurrently, the novel follows the antics of several characters inside the Gestapo as try, fail, continue to fail and then ultimately succeed in solving the case. While the story of the Quangels and their circle of everyday Germans is interesting, I found the murderous and petty machinations of the Gestapo far more riveting, especially knowing that these monsters agents will eventually get their culprits and the fear that goes with not knowing exactly what they will do once they get them.

In discussing the Third Reich it is so easy to lose site of the fact that there existed a large population within Germany who actively plotted against the Party from distributing anti-Nazi leaflets to harboring their Jewish friends and neighbors.

Before I get to my more philosophical musings on this subject I should review this book a little. If you are looking for some light summer reading, pass this one by. I was glad that the weather remained gloomy and cold while I read this book, otherwise it would have really brought me down. Every Man Dies Alone is one of the bleakest books I have ever read. Along the lines of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich and George Orwell's 1984, Every Man Dies Alone starts off bleak, remains bleak and ends on a sad note. However, along the way there are glimmers of hope and, like I mentioned before, the triumph of the human spirit.

To say that this book deals with some weighty issues is an understatement. To say that this book, first published in German in 1947 (not translated to English until 2009), has little value upon readers in 2011 is categorically false. I found that this book spoke to me in a way that many other books with similar themes have not. Through its bleak, hopeless tone, Hans Fallada speaks a message through the generations and, if anyone is listening, it could very well save us a repeat performance of these historical shenanigans.

When I started this book, I was caught up in a discussion over Facebook about the usefulness of conspiracy theories and whether or not their vocal and ofttimes obfuscating manner was not perhaps a detriment to a large cause of change and social justice. Whether a horde of people yelling often nonsensical theories perhaps clouded issues that might otherwise gain more tread in this world. I wasn't speaking against freedom of speech (I would never, ever do that), just the jumbling of messages that could be something more fluid, more tangible, more cohesive. Millions of voices screaming billions of theories seemed counter-productive against an establishment with one common, conservative and potentially dangerous voice.

After reading Fallada's novel and delving into the tyrannical fear of Nazi Germany, I think I may have changed my tone on this point. Shouting from the rafters is exactly the sort of thing we should all be doing, and often. Silence is equal to support. If you don't speak out when you have a chance, what will you do when you lose that chance? This is the sort of stuff we as citizens of this world are dealing with every hour of every day.

Got a problem with your leader? Do something about it. Dislike the environmental practices of a local industry? Make it known. Think someone in a position of power is lying to you? Call them on it. Sitting idly by and saying things like: "That's somebody else's problem" is exactly the sort of attitude that allowed for the emergence of the Nazi State in Germany and, given that Adolf Hitler is poised to exit from our collective consciousness in the next generation or so, this sort of rampant, oppressive power is very much ripe for a return. Question everything. We owe it to ourselves.

For Otto and Anna they began their revolution far too late but at least they had the guts to do something. Far better people did far less. They realized an inherent truth about their government at a time when doing even the smallest act against the state meant death not only for them but also for anyone associated with them. In a climate of crushing fear it's a wonder that people had the courage to do even as little as the Quangels. Far more simply kept quiet and hoped and waited for it all to end.

There is so much to gain from reading Every Man Dies Alone. This should be required reading for any student of critical thinking.

Silence can be violence.