May 27, 2008

Revenge: Limited Edition by Ellen von Unswerth

Last week was a hard week and I didn't much done in the way of reading. Still, while I didn't get to finish anything that I've got started, I did manage to get side-tracked by Ellen von Unwerth's lovely book of photographic erotica, Revenge.

While there is a general narrative arc (taken as "excerpts" from the diaries of the nubile young heroines), von Unwerth primarily uses stylized black and white photography (think Helmut Newton meets Man Rey) to tell the story of how the Baroness "disciplines" her newly orphaned nieces.

It is not an original story, but Revenge is really not about the story. What little narrative there is, is executed with a tongue-in-cheek panache that sets the winkingly saucy tone of the book. And the eroticism in Revenge really does have panache. The models are gorgeous (think Robert Palmer's Wall of Babes), the clothes (when there are clothes) are gorgeous, the set (a glorious mansion and its extensive grounds) is gorgeous - all in the style of the lovely pornography of early 20th century France and Italy. 

The sado-masochistic elements tend less towards real pain and suffering and more towards the discomforts of dominance and submission in a campy, Vogue Paris sort of way. You can't help but laugh, but you also can't put it down - it's just too damn pretty.

Though I found the pleasure of reading Revenge to be more aesthetic than erotic, I certainly won't deny that it was a pleasure all the same. Revenge: Limited Edition is a sexy little volume, all the more so because it doesn't take it so too terribly seriously. If a book could wink, this one would.

May 19, 2008

Library Thing


Loss of words. Just great. Love it. Spent week-end inputing ISBN's and cataloguing personal library. Am serious geek. So happy. Love it.

Sigh. Wonderful.

May 18, 2008

The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan

The Cement Garden is Ian McEwan's first novel, written in 1978 after having published two successful short story collections. As first novels go, it's good in a strange sort of way. I'm much more familiar with the Ian McEwan of Atonement and Amsterdam  (for which he won the Booker Prize). His later work is fairly well defined by a light hand, psychological sensitivity and thematic subtlety. His prose is, by turns, both searing and delicate, a balance that draws the reader over the fine line of his characters' minds. The Ian McEwan of The Cement Garden is most definitely younger, more gleefully brutal and quite psychologically cold. 

Without revealing too much about the plot (though anyone who's read the Greeks will see the nature of the novel's climax coming), the story concerns four children, ranging in age from the youngest, Tom who is about six or seven, to the eldest, Julie, who is a beautiful seventeen year old. Their parents die in quick succession, and the story concerns what happens after they are left to their own devices, isolated and with no supervision. 

The brutally offhand tone with which McEwan tells this story, so jarring in light of his later work, is actually appropriate for the kind of tale he seems to have intended. The device that allows him to reach this tone is his narrator - the eldest brother, fifteen year old Jack. McEwan captures the naturally obsessive self-concern of the teen-ager (yes, I'm generalizing), and in this way executes a chilling series of events without making the reader feel that the children are actively monstrous. They are simply young, and the young can be quite monstrous at times, and at other times, nothing but pathos. 

I've read some reviews of this book in which the reviewers were either profoundly disgusted or terrifically disturbed by The Cement Garden. I suppose I can see why, but I would say that this makes it a successful novel. Disturbing things occur, but the story drives forward and remains incredibly readable. It's the offhand delivery of disturbing events that make the novel thought-provoking and worth the read. You'll either like it or you won't, but you will not be ambiguous about it, and that, I would say, is quite a compliment to Mr. McEwan.


May 11, 2008

Bound to Please by Michael Dirda

I've been reading Michael Dirda's book, Bound to Please, piecemeal for a couple of weeks and have found it to be a fantastic cure for the overtaxed attention span (some week-nights it's even hard for me to concentrate on what the cats mean by "meow", but I read one review and I'm re-engaged and not mentally multi-tasking).

Bound to Please is a selection of Michael Dirda's essays and reviews on lesser known books that deserve to be read. Michael Dirda is the editor of the Washington Post Book Review and holds a PhD in comparative literature (I'm biased on this because I got my MA in comp. lit. and it's still a pretty young field). His insights are educated and erudite, as well as charming and accessible, almost all the time, whether he's writing about Herodotus or Terry Pratchett or a lesser known biography of George Bernard Shaw  (reviews for all of which appear in this book). That he should be both titanically intelligent and a complete lit. geek is just kind of formidably adorable....

OK, at this point, I think it's only fair to admit that I have a crush on Michael Dirda, or least on Michael Dirda's brain. 

But anyway, according to his introduction to Bound to Please (which is charming... sigh) Dirda's whole reason for compiling this particular collection of essays/reviews was to introduce a selection of books that deserve reading but don't often get read. It does this quite nicely too - my 'to read' list has nearly doubled (plus Name of the Rose is getting a bump up in the queue). It was also neat to read his fantastic review/criticism of two books that I already love - Possession by A.S. Byatt and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series. 

All in all, if you like reading book reviews (I do) or you enjoy light but insightful literary criticism, Bound to Please is a lovely book to have around. It's the sort of thing you can just pick up and browse through - especially when you're not sure what you want to read next.

May 5, 2008

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

I finished Kazuo Ishiguro's Booker Prize winning novel, The Remains of the Day on Saturday and needed a day or two to think about it. 

On the surface it is a wonderfully subtle comedy of manners, but what is so brilliant about Ishiguro's prose is that what appears on the surface, to be nothing but the amusingly miopic recollections of an iconic English butler, is in fact, a tragedy unfolding in slow motion. This novel is, as Salmon Rushdie put it, "a story both beautiful and cruel" about a man who suspects he has wasted his life but cannot truly acknowledge this waste and so he cannot redeem it. He is cauterized and this cauterization dooms him. 

I'm not qualified to say anything new about The Remains of the Day - it's long been hailed by scholars and critics as a modern classic for good reason (and the fact that it won the Booker Prize really does speak for itself). That said, I was impressed by one thing that I feel is especially worth mentioning from a craft perspective. That is the subtlety and respect with which Ishiguro portrays his narrator and protagonist, the butler, Stevens. 

In lesser hands, Stevens could have been a ridiculous figure, with his seemingly hollow obsessions, such as with his "staff plans" (a brilliant device on Ishiguro's part), the superiority of a particular silver polish, and his somewhat horrifying understanding of the nature "dignity". His blind faith in his employer, Lord Darlington's, judgement could frustrate as much as his inability to emote in even the most extreme situations (as with his father's death). It is a testimony to Ishiguro's sensitivity as a writer that all of these qualities, qualities that could so easily have read as farcical, should instead break your heart slowly. There is an intense vulnerability in Stevens that is entirely implied through repeated actions (such as his obsessive rereading of Miss Kenton's letter) and Ishiguro's 'quoting' of certain words and phrases that are outside of Stevens' comfort zone ('bantering' and 'having one on' among them). All of these work to create a narrator/protagonist who prides himself on being an inscrutable professional (something he largely succeeds in, if he is to be believed). But he is also a man who constantly and subtly betrays an astonishing depth of pain and bewilderment in private moments. Of course, Stevens would be horrified to hear that.

The Remains of the Day is simply excellent, as excellent as anyone who has ever told me that I absolutely must read it, insisted it would be. And so I'm going to hop in line with all of those people and say, "you absolutely must read it - it's absolutely excellent." You won't be sorry if you do (though you may be a little melancholy for a day or two after).

May 2, 2008

I, Lucifer, or, I might as well have fallen off the edge of the Earth....

There are no words to describe how sheepish I feel as I write this post more than a year after I wrote the last one. No words. But being me, I'll try.

All I can say is that I had a rough year, followed by a hectic couple of months. Happily, things are settling down. We're back in California (which is lovely), I'm tutoring kids (which is by turns both rewarding and fantastically frustrating) and writing short stories (which I simply love). 

One day, in the middle of all of this new found sort-of-calm, I was gently reminded by my Lemur and my very good friend, Mexalapotis, that eons ago (which translates to slightly over a year in the language hyperbole), I had written book reviews and posted them on a blog. This had really seemed like something that I'd enjoyed - perhaps that was something I might want to do again? I said, "Hey, great idea!" Then three months passed.

Then last week, Mexalapotis came to visit. It was a terrific week-end all around - we took her to see both the ocean and the Bay (because they are different, though both are full of water), Sutro Baths, our old apartments, Golden Gate Park, Park Chow (yummers), the Seven Sisters at Alamo Square and the Palace of Fine Arts. Then at her request, we went to Green Apple Books on Clement. 

Now, I really have to say that Green Apple is, outside of Powells in Portland, the most dangerous place in the world for me... and I'll just stop right there. If I don't, I'll go off on a tangent about independent bookstores and new/used stock and the beauty of remainders and two story buildings stuffed to the rafters (literally) with new/used stock and beautiful remainders.

So, there she bought I, Lucifer by Glen Duncan, which is an absolutely fantastic book - almost everyone (including nuns with a sense of humor and/or a lot of pathos) should read it at some point or another, if only to appreciate Lucifer's incredibly un-trustworthy yet appealing narrative voice.... But I'm getting off track.   

Mexalapotis. She visited and we had fun, and she bought I, Lucifer, and then sadly went home. But before she did, she mentioned the whole forgotten blog thing again. This time, I said "Oh, yeah, huh..."

Meanwhile, Mexalapotis wrote a wonderful review of I, Lucifer which can be found here. And after getting all excited and reading it and commenting, I realized that it really is time for me to get off my duff and start posting the reviews again, if only for my own pleasure of my own reading and the pleasure it gives me.

 So now here I am, and this time I'll try not to fall off the edge of the Earth.