felis_ultharus: The Pardoner from the Canterbury Tales (Default)
As usual, poking my head up for a rare update.

The death of Jack has been the big unhappy event lately. I didn't know him well - I had the pleasure of working with him a handful of times briefly, and I really admired his work.

Jack Layton really was as nice in real life as he was on camera. He only saw me a handful of times across the years, but - in spite of the thousands he met - he always remembered me, and remembered I was bad with crowds. Four months before he was dead, he was checking up on me. Funny, isn't it?

They used to say that Robert Stanfield was the best prime minister Canada never had. That title's been officially ceded.

Other than that, my own life has been going quite well. I increased my writing input, and I'm prepping myself mentally for a massive send-out to pretty much any Canadian publishing house I think might accept. That'll likely happen in October.

I've had a social life lately, too. Most recently at [profile] jenjoou's wonderful party on Saturday.

A lot of friends have been going through bad times, but because my own life's been going well I think I've been able to be there for most of them.

Anyway, for today's review, The King Must Die by Mary Renault.

Review continues, with some spoilers )
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Happy (belated) Midsummer/Solstice/Litha to those who celebrate it, and happy first day of summer to those who don't.

I did my usual high-speed catch-up on LJ. Which is why some of you have spammed inboxes today :)

I keep meaning to review books I have in an ever-growing stack on my desk. One that really deserves more than the short shrift it's going to get is Douglas Coupland's Generation A. I believe this to be his best book. In fact it pretty much gathers together the best of his other work in one delicious, richly-written piece, and leaves the dross. So if you only ever read one Coupland, this is it.

It's a short, simple novel of a likely dystopian future - one where "Colony Collapse Disorder" has wiped out the bee population. Most flowers are dead. Most kinds of fruit are rare delicacies. As the novel progresses, the dystopia deepens, and even worse horrors are in the offing.

In the midst of this, five strangers are stung by the supposedly-extinct bee. They're isolated, studied, and strangely become friends. They wind up on Haida Gwaii, where they start to piece together the mystery of what happened to them, to figure out how they got there and where they're going.

After years of mid-quality and poor-quality efforts, Coupland's more than back in form with this one. He restricts his obsession with ripping plotlines from the headlines to just the bee extinction, so it doesn't feel like he's just cribbing Yahoo News to flesh out his books. The iciness and callousness of his later work isn't here. This one is sensitive, intelligent, and the themes and plot and character are all rich and engaging.

More than that I couldn't say without giving too much away. Except that it's highly recommended.
felis_ultharus: The Pardoner from the Canterbury Tales (Default)
About a decade ago, I paid a visit to the Allan Memorial Institute - a psychiatric hospital where a friend of mine was being kept against his will. His parents had him committed. We snuck in to perform a Pagan ritual to mark the beginning of spring, which involved sneaking a ceremonial sword called an athame into his room. We made a little bit of sacred space in that ugly spot.

For anyone who's never seen the Allan Memorial, it's an imposing, grim building. It's a stone mansion up on a hill whose original owner named it Ravenscrag. It looks like the kind of building that would be haunted in a Gothic novel.

I didn't know anything about the building's history then. I'd never heard about MKUltra, and the now well-documented "Sleep Room" experiments. But if Naomi Klein is right, much of the uglier aspects of the modern world was born in that mansion on a hill in Montreal.

Review of The Shock Doctrine continues )

In short, highly recommended.

In more personal news, I know I need a vacation when I almost use the word "embiggens" in a student's English report card.
felis_ultharus: The Pardoner from the Canterbury Tales (Default)
So in the vein of reviewing books, I don't think I ever talked about The Gum Thief, by Douglas Coupland - though I finished it months ago.

I liked it. I was told it was his best book in years, and that's true, though it's really two books. The first is an epistolary novel about a washed-up middle-aged man and the daughter of an old high-school friend of his who both work at Staples. The other novel is the one the main character is writing - a story called Glove Pond, about the world's worst dinner party (the name is the first thing he Googled that came up with no real hits).

Review continues )

In other news, there's a lot to look forward to this month - starting with return from [livejournal.com profile] em_fish and [livejournal.com profile] sassysairs from Down Under, crossing both date line and seasonal divide to return home after the better part (or really, the worse part) of a year. I'm looking forward to seeing them again ^_^
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I was going to post about the Iliad, but right now I'm squeeing because I actually have an internet connection on my laptop. I've been using my roommate's computer and work computers for the last ten years.

I can actually chat again. How do I do that again? I haven't done it since the days of ICQ.

And yes - the Iliad is very, very good. The stuff about Achilles and Patroclus is very sweet, the battles are brilliant and ingeniously described, the stuff about the gods is beautiful, and descriptions of funerals and ceremonies was rich and wonderful. I'm glad I read it.

But I still help but be disappointed, because almost nothing I expected - the Trojan Horse, Achilles' Heel, the Judgement of Paris - was actually there. Nobody had warned me. It was strange to get to the end of Book 24, and Achilles was still alive and Troy unburnt.
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So I just finished Reinventing the Sacred by Stuart Kauffman. Kauffman is a biochemist and biophysicist at the University of Calgary with a master's in philosophy from Oxford -- impressive credentials for the author of this book, which argues for the non-deterministic complexity and creativity in nature as an alternative both to deterministic/atheistic science and religion.

It's an interesting introduction to some of the weirder and more wonderful aspects of science. And I sincerely do hope that he manages to make a dent in determinism and reductionism, which have done so much damage to the world. Here he follows in the footsteps of giants like John Ralston Saul and David Suzuki here.

But, largely, it's a failed book. If he'd taken an additional degree in military history, he might have known not to open up a war on two fronts, especially if you only understand the enemy on one flank.

I'll try to make this as un-dense as possible, and hope it's of some interest to some of my readers. )

My next read is Apuleius's Golden Ass I suspect my review of that will be a lot shorter, and I hope that the above wasn't all that bad.
felis_ultharus: The Pardoner from the Canterbury Tales (Default)
I haven't been online much. I've mostly been working on writing -- with two edited copies back from editors. I've also been working on financial stuff, putting in extra hours at work, and what little time I've had to myself has been mostly playing Okami and reading Stuart Kauffman's book, Reinventing the Sacred.

Kauffman's been on radio shows studiously misrepresenting his book. He talks about it as if he's trying to bridge the gap between atheism and religion with some kind of third way. Actually, he's an atheist who's arguing that classical science has gotten a lot wrong, but that doesn't mean there's (in his words) "a Creator God."

Kauffman is a University of Calgary professor who wears three hats -- biology, physics, and philosophy. He's clearly a genius in some ways, which only means that his failure to prove some of his points is more disappointing.

I'll save a full description for when I finish the book. But I just wanted to say that his arguments that consciousness is real and not an illusion generated by neurons is itself worth the read. He argues consciousness is Copenhagen-interpretation quantum -- acausal, probabilistic, nondeterminist, and not limited to matter or algorithms. This is how he tries to recuperate agency and free will without recourse to a god.

I haven't finished the chapter on "The Quantum Brain," but I'm waiting to see how he deals with certain problems raised by his (quite good) arguments on the subject. I'll see how he deals with these (or doesn't), but my suspicion is that he may have opened the door wider than he intended, and let divinity in through the back door.
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So I finally finished The Dark is Rising series, one of those Harry Potter precursors that have been returning to the limelight in the reflected glory of its famous progeny.

(I read one book of it when I was a kid, and enjoyed that. My sister and [livejournal.com profile] infinitecomplex got me the whole series for my birthday.)

It's a good series overall, and generally got better. The first entry is a bit lacklustre, but her writing improves throughout.

Review continues )

Right now, I'm reading a book called Reinventing the Sacred, which is one biologist's attempt to refute reductionism and recuperate concepts like free will in scientific terms. It's rather disappointing so far, I'm afraid.

However, it is impossible to hate a book that includes the sentence, "I will try to show that a tiger is both epistemologically and ontologically emergent with respect to physics."
felis_ultharus: The Pardoner from the Canterbury Tales (Default)
So we were without water here for 24 hours, after my parents' laundry room and the sun room flooded. Giant snow drifts kept us trapped indoors for 48 hours. So yeah, I've had better holidays.

It's given me a lot of time to read, though. I finished Skinny Legs and All by Tom Robbins.

Book review follows )

I'm now reading a history book, Christianity & Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries by Ramsay MacMullen. So far it's the best thing I've read since Beedle the Bard, which I read on the plane.
felis_ultharus: The Pardoner from the Canterbury Tales (Default)
I've been on a bit of a reading binge this week. I've finished two books and I'm about to finish a third, which is rare since I'm a slow reader.

It's helped that they've been entertaining.

On that note, I just finished JPod by Douglas Coupland, a book set in the video game industry. On the level of pure entertainment, I think it's one of the funniest books ever written.

And it's got all the Coupland strengths -- brilliantly-crafted, well-defined quirky characters, easy prose, and highly original figurative language. Also, Coupland is one of the few novelists who can actually write an office environment well, probably because he's one of the few who's been there.

But I found as I got farther into it that I began recommending it to fewer and fewer people. The book has some serious flaws.

The first of these is the filler. Most of this is built around the games played around the office as part of their daily procrastination -- "Write a love letter to Ronald Mcdonald" or "Write an ad for yourself on eBay." Those two were funny. But when they play pick-out-the-one-non-prime-number-in-ten-pages-of-primes or find-the-one-wrong-digit-of-pi-calculated-to-ten-million-digits -- and actually reproduce those numbers -- I honestly wonder if he was just trying to up his page count.

The second is that his knowledge of organized crime seems to come entirely from TV news reports. Even I could tell that.

But the worst problem by far is the Mary-Suing. And yes, it still counts as being a Mary Sue if you insert yourself into your novel as a sociopathic monster, especially if you're an evil business genius, though I admit I laughed out loud when the narrator described the experience of looking into Coupland's "cold, dead eyes" as like looking into "a well of drowned toddlers."

Again, it's still worth the read, especially if you're looking for something easy and not too serious, and if you like video games. But I'm disappointed because he used to be so interesting. Coupland used to be finding soul and beauty into the the unlikeliest corners of the modern world. Now he's tipped over the ledge of postmodernism, and doesn't seem to care.

The world celebrated in JPod is the shallow and empty world Margaret Atwood's Crake destroys in Oryx and Crake. I kept expecting the characters to be popping BlyssPluss.
felis_ultharus: The Pardoner from the Canterbury Tales (Default)
So I finished John Ralston Saul A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada last night. It's a brilliant book, although with a lot of tangents that don't seem to quite fit -- Saul is a little like that brilliant professor who tends to ramble off down brilliant side roads and forget what he's lecturing on.

But still, all Canadian progressives need to read this book. His basic argument:
Cut for length )

Saul said in an interview that Canadians who read this book say he put into words something they'd always felt but could never put into words. I concur.

The most interesting criticism is that people have accused him of romanticizing or misrepresenting First Nations people, or of oversimplifying the relationship between them and Europeans. Interestingly, none of these responses seem to be coming from First Nations people, and he's leaned heavily on their own words over four centuries for his arguments.

There are problems here, though. Saul is a little too much a booster of capitalism for this socialist to handle. I thought he'd given up on that after The Collapse of Globalism. Interestingly the book was finished just a little before the credit collapse, and I notice he's downplaying these elements in his interviews.

I also wonder what's up with him and gay people. He only seems to mention us dismissively in passing, whereas he has no problem championing other marginalized groups. This in spite of the fact that the relatively easy time we've had in Canada compared to other European countries (no recorded use of capital punishment for the 270 years when it was punishable by death) would seem to support his arguments.

Still, it's a great book, and highly recommended. Saul writes about history and philosophy in plain, easy-to-understand English, so it shouldn't be intimidating for anyone.
felis_ultharus: The Pardoner from the Canterbury Tales (Default)
So I just finished reading Fences and Windows, a collection of short articles and speeches by Naomi Klein.

Klein never set out to be spokeswoman for the anti-corporate, pro-democracy movement that gets mislabelled "anti-globalization." She considers herself a journalist documenting a movement that was there before her, and doesn't consider it right for such a diverse movement to have a single spokesperson. But with the publishing of No Logo, she's been thrust into that role anyway.

The book is overall excellent, spanning her writings from the "Battle in Seattle" to just after the terrorist attacks in New York. Mostly, it's an expansion and update of No Logo, but there's enough in the way of new ideas here to make it worth the read.

Review continues, with criticism )
felis_ultharus: The Pardoner from the Canterbury Tales (Default)
I just finished a book entitled Mysteries of the Middle Ages by Thomas Cahill. I gave it as a gift once and it seemed interesting, so I bought a copy for myself as well.

Cahill's built a career as the optimist's historian. What interests him aren't the wars, political struggles, glories, and evils, but the remarkable, positive moments -- like how Irish Catholic monks copied and preserved technically heretical Classical texts so as to keep them alive and in memory.

Mysteries is kind of a random sampling of the people and places he finds interesting, and which tend to get forgotten in the modern view of the Middle Ages as a sterile and superstitious age. He covers the City of Alexandria, the first universities, Hildegaard of Bingen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Francis of Assisi, Dante, Giotto, Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon, Héloïse and Abelard, among others.

Review continues )
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Malcolm Ross -- the man who almost single-handedly invented Canadian literary studies -- said that after 1967, every novel he'd read was influenced by either Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers or Scott Symon's Combat Journal Place d'Armes.

They're similar books. Both feature a member of the Canadian respectable classes who descends into into a kind of schizophrenic animism to deal with all the things he'd held back about himself -- largely sexual. Both books are written in stream-of-consciousness.

And Ross was right -- for about five years after, Canadians wrote nothing but this style. Margaret Atwood wrote this kind of novel twice -- her Surfacing is the only actually enjoyable book in the genre.

(Her Journal of Susanna Moodie is to be avoided -- it's a narrative whose speaker purports to be Susanna Moodie's subconscious, though it sounds suspiciously like Margaret Atwood.)

Cohen's book had managed to survive Canadians tendency to forget everything Canadian, mostly piggybacking on his fame as a musician. Even Cohen fans, though, wince when the book is mentioned.

Combat Journal Place d'Armes was just as influential at the time, and it was the first explicitly gay novel written in this country -- but it's been largely forgotten.

Well, I've read it now, and let me say, it's a very strange book.

Review Continues: Spoilers for a book you'll never read. )
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It's been a quiet, though brutally hot week. I've worked six of the last seven days, and spent most of what remained working on my novel and reading.

I finished Anansi Boys last week. It wasn't his best work -- it was poorly plotted, and character development was sudden and followed the logic of the plot only, not the logic of the characters. There was a lot of excess detail, and nothing new. It was frequently too safe, and the ending was cheesy.

One particular vector of the failure, though, is something I've been interested in -- it's his presentation of his black characters.

Reflection continues -- minor spoilers )
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I finished Beowulf last week. It really has stood the test of time, and I'm now able to read enough Anglo-Saxon to get the gist of things, so I can better appreciate the work of the anonymous master (or, more likely, series of masters) who first crafted the poem.

There are odd notes -- like when the poem slips in and out of the original local faiths and the Christian one, and you can see the stitches were the monk tried to graft his worldview onto the Pagan one. And I wondered at times if the author had some sympathy for Grendel, as Milton seems to have for Satan in Paradise Lost.

I used to wonder sometimes why the last part of the story -- the dragon's awakening -- rarely makes it into most modern retellings, but when I read it in Seamus Heaney's translation and the original, it seemed very familiar to me. Then I realized that J.R.R. Tolkien had stolen it and embellished it and fashioned it into the second half of The Hobbit. So it's made its way to the modern world too, though by a more secret route.

There are words in Beowulf I'd love to give a second life -- etonisc, for instance, which in modern English would come out to something like ettinish, and which means related to trolls, giants, or ogres. Or féondschipe -- fiendship -- which is the opposite of friendship, being the bond of hatred you have with your enemies.

("We come in fiendship," would be a great thing for an envoy of an approaching army to yell to a hard-of-hearing gatekeeper.)

I read the graphic novel version of Beowulf that the Royals gave me, bringing to three the versions of that poem I read last week. The art was good, and the adaptation was actually very faithful. This week, I've taken a break from Anansi Boys to re-read The Sandman. So it's really been a month for gods and monsters.
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Today I finished Lover's Legends: The Gay Greek Myths, Andrew Calimach's attempts to restore at least one version of the more homoerotic Greek stories. Few of them are direct translations -- they're all mixes and matches of different fragments from a wide variety of sources to create possible lost versions.

He uses the Erotes of pseudo-Lucian to frame it. The Erotes is an old debate (1700 years old) over which sexual orientation is best. I've read the Erotes before, and Calimach keeps close to the more popular translation (although his is more poetic).

It's absolutely beautiful, and Calimach puts a lot of his own poetic and spiritual energies into it -- he's especially interested in shamanic ideas underneath some of the mystery faiths and older myths.

One idea he discussed only in one of the footnotes intrigues me -- the idea that the mystery cult of Dionysus may be one of the sources of Christian mythology/religious practice. I've always been quite interested in the roles other religions played in the development of Christianity and Judaism, which have been traditionally portrayed as appearing fully-formed with the arrival of tablets and/or messiahs.

This claim always seemed suspicious to me, and it seems now that Christianity especially arose out of a soup of local religions and traditions in the eastern Empire -- the Cult of Isis (and Horus), Zoroastrianism, Cynic philosophy, and Mithraism. Virgin births were a dime a dozen, as were sons of gods, saviours of humanity, and harrowings of hell. Now we can add Dionysus to the mix, too.

I'm going to read Jim Egan's biography next, and after that -- having read something like five books in a row on gay topics -- I'm going to move on to other subjects. I have Seamus Heaney's Beowulf here, which is probably a good candidate.

After all, nothing less homoerotic than sweaty, muscled men.
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I came very close to simply giving up and stopping in the middle of David Nimmons' The Soul Beneath the Skin. I'm glad I kept with it, though. It got better after that chapter.

Some thoughts:

Review continues )

I'm now reading Gentleman of the Road by Michael Chabon. I'm only a tenth of the way through it, but it's already a brilliant novel. No one does historical fiction like Chabon.
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Last week, I finished Douglas Coupland's novel about lonely people, Eleanor Rigby. Overall, I liked it, but I thought it could've been much better.

A long time ago, Coupland was my favourite author. Gradually, he's waned on me. I'd read all his English-language novels up to Miss Wyoming, but after that last dull effort, I didn't really feel enthused enough to buy his later novels.

Eleanor Rigby looked interesting, though, and even if I hadn't gotten it as a gift, I'd have read it. Some thoughts (mostly criticism):

Review continues )

So, yeah -- I don't love Coupland as much as I used to, although I think he is gradually becoming a better writer, and I'll probably read more of his stuff in the future -- I already have JPod on my shelf. I'd also recommend Eleanor Rigby, for all its flaws.


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