book review: fifteen dogs

The idea behind André Alexis’ novel Fifteen Dogs is that Apollo and Hermes lay a bet on whether it would be possible for a dog to die happy if given human consciousness. To settle the bet they grant fifteen dogs in a Toronto veterinary office consciousness and see what happens, and that’s what the novel is about.

For some reason going in I’d assumed there would be one chapter for each of the dogs, but that’s not how it worked out. Some of the dogs came to a bad end right away, and then a pack was formed and eventually dissolved.

It was a story about language and about the purpose of consciousness and about finding a place in a world that wants beings to fit a certain mould. It was a good book.

I really liked it but it shouldn’t have won Canada Reads this year. The question the program asked was “what book do Canadians need to read right now?” or along those lines. As soon as you’re introducing Canada you’re making this a political question and the political inhabitants of the nation state of Canada with its history *need* to read something like The Break.

book review: dingers

Dingers is an anthology of short stories and poems about baseball. It’s also a Canadian anthology which is kind of neat. There were stories about the Expos and a leprechaun-assisted pitcher for the Vancouver Canadians. Dave Bidini had a story in it, and his was the only name I recognized.

The story of the author who had to pitch for a library visit was kind of memorable, as was the aforementioned leprechaun story, but as a whole the book didn’t set me on fire or anything. I think the reason might be because of how much baseball journalism I read, which twisted my notion of what this anthology would try to do.

book review: under heaven

Under Heaven is the first Guy Gavriel Kay book I’ve read in years and years. I don’t know why I haven’t read more of his since the Fionavar Tapestry, but I haven’t. Weird.

Under Heaven is a fantasy novel set in a world almost but not exactly like Tang Dynasty China. The difference is basically just enough to let Kay stray from history and include ghosts and someone who is something else. Also women have stronger roles than you’d usually see in a story actually from the first millennium.

When the book begins Shen Tai has spent the last two years burying bones from a decades-old massacre. He is given a gift in recognition for his service, a gift that means he must go to the capital. Someone is also trying to assassinate him, even before the extremely valuable gift is made known. The story follows Shen Tai and his bodygurd (and eventually a poet he befriends, who is one of the Banished Immortals) as they go to the capital to see the emperor and confront whoever is trying to kill him.

Shen Tai’s younger sister is a secondary character who has been traded to the barbarians beyond the Long Wall by her other brother (who’s at court in the capital). Her story is interesting and provides motivation for Shen Tai, but even though it’s the more fantastical part of the book, it feels a bit perfunctory.

I really enjoyed the book, especially since it is self-contained. As the end nears we’re learning more and more about what happened in history because of these events and the sense that we’re just dipping a ladle into a river of events that make up these lives is emphasized. It feels right in the way a historical epic should. Traditional, I suppose. Romantic. Very recommended for fantasy/historical fans.

book review: the beats: a graphic history

I remember when Harvey Pekar’s comic The Beats came out and it got profiled on BoingBoing and I feel like I’ve seen it everywhere since. I’ve read a bit of Kerouac Ginsberg and Burroughs in my day, so I was interested. Those big three are well represented in a non-hagiographic kind of way. What really made this book for me was the information about all the Beats I hadn’t heard of. There are comics in here about a bunch of people who were also at Ginsberg’s first City Lights reading of Howl, and they are very interesting.

For instance, I hadn’t ever really thought about how anti-woman the big-name beats were until seeing some of this stuff laid out on paper. Having stuff about the women who were also creative forces at the time was really good for provoking at least a Wikipedia-binge or two.

book review: love that dog

Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog is a novel in verse about a kid and being a poet. The poems are very short, and are often responses to poems written in class. The narrator is astute when he talks about poems only being poems if they look like poems and maybe this whole criticism thing is kind of silly, don’t you think? The book is good and has some good emotion to it. It also includes (excerpts from) the poems some of these are in response to. A good little book.

book review: about writing

About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, & Five Interviews by Samuel R. Delany is the best book about writing I’ve ever read. Bar none. If you care about the art of writing and not just “how to get published” this is the book I would recommend without reservation.

The key pieces of advice from the book are fairly pedestrian when laid out: “Don’t overwrite; don’t let your writing become thin or superficial; don’t indulge clichés,” but there’s much more. He talks about what writers should read, and about how story is just false memory, and how the best stories are economic (stories that don’t acknowledge how the protagonists are paying their rent tend to be less satisfying because how we afford things is integral to our experience of life).

Delany discusses about the formation of a literary canon, and about how science fiction, pornography and experimental writing exist as para-literature, but also gets into punctuation and the use of tenses to convey different moods and feelings. He discusses dramatic structure in a way that is incredibly simple, so simple it’s not formulaic. He talks about the poetry of language and what talent is and how it’s different from being able to use the tools of writing. He talks about how to construct a scene by observation, that that’s the writer’s real job, to observe better than everyone else and remember and write it down (which prompted this tweet from my research methods class yesterday).

There’s a lot to this book. I’ve used it already to improve a piece of fiction I’m working on and I will continue to use it since this is about as close as I’ll get to learning from the man himself.

book review: still life with woodpecker

I like Tom Robbins’ books, but it’s one of these weird blind spots in my memory that I can never connect the titles with the stories so I’m never sure which ones I’ve read. I was halfway through Still Life With Woodpecker before recognizing a scene from the last time I’d read it. It was a line about a finger in an asshole being in Outlaw Territory that made me remember a specific seat I slouched in in one of the reading rooms in one of the Arts buildings at the University of Manitoba back in my undergrad days when I would devour novels instead of worrying too much about my classes. Good times. It’s funny how that one bit is all that sticks in my head. I mean, I’d remembered the themes and stuff, but nothing specific.

And the themes to this one are Choice and individualist romanticism and the only serious question anyone should ever ask: “How do you make love stay?” The story is about an exiled princess who falls in love with an outlaw bomber and they try to answer that question with explosions and pyramids and causes. It feels a bit like a 70s book (which it is), but not so much that you can’t squint and ignore it if the time period is not to your liking. You do need to know who Ralph Nader is though. And be familiar with the kind of people who join causes. Not too tough even today.

But the big thing it does is glorify the individual who makes choices. Which is not too bad a thing to focus on. There’s a running fixation on the moon and, one of the bits I quite liked was this:

Poetry, the best of it, is lunar and is concerned with the essential insanities. Journalism is solar (there are numerous newspapers called The Sun, none called The Moon) and is devoted to the inessential.

Essential insanities do seem important in this world.