31 July 2009

Review: Adverbs by Daniel Handler

There's not a lot I won't try if given the right incentive, so when a co-worker friend offered me a hard-cover copy of Daniel Handler's Adverbs, free, since she couldn't remember either buying it or borrowing it, I decided to give it a try. I liked A Series of Unfortunate Events (with some reservations), so why not a novel for adults by the same guy? She did warn me that it was impossibly annoying, but hey – free book.

Opening paragraph:
Love was in the air, so both of us walked through love on our way to the corner. We breathed it in, particularly me: the air was also full of smells and birds, but it was the love, I was sure, that was tumbling down to my lungs, the heart's neighbors and confidants. Andrea was tall and angry. I was a little bit shorter. She smoked cigarettes. I worked in a store that sold things. We always walked to this same corner, Thirty-seventh and what's-it, Third Avenue, in New York, because it was easier to get a cab there, the entire time we were in love.

I could see almost immediately why my friend gave up on it. It's annoyingly disjointed and enigmatic, but frustratingly rather than intriguingly so. It's not quite a novel, but a collection of stories that occasionally link up and often share nothing more than character names (not characters, just the names) in common, a mention each chapter of black birds, an adverb for a chapter title, and love in a variety of incarnations as the single constant note throughout.

Review: The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews

So Miriam Toews' The Flying Troutmans. I was expecting, because of previous experience with Toews' work, that this would be a story about Mennonites and possibly also the clash between their culture and Canadian culture. I wouldn't have been bothered if that's what I'd gotten because I quite enjoyed A Complicated Kindness and it's something that Toews does well, that sense of connection to a shared culture, while also trying to break free of it. I'd been pleased enough by what I read before that I didn't even read the back of this book before buying it.

The Flying Troutmans is a road trip novel. When her boyfriend leaves her for an ashram in India and her unstable sister Min needs to be admitted to a psych ward, Hattie Troutman finds herself suddenly in charge of her niece Thebes (11) and nephew Logan (15). She doesn't know what to do with them or how to deal with their behaviour so she decides to take them to North Dakota to find their father, Cherkis, who'd left the family (on Min's orders) years earlier. They end up in California before finding him, but as in any road novel I can think of it's really about finding oneself.

Opening paragraph:
Yeah, so things have fallen apart. A few weeks ago I got a collect call from my niece, Thebes, in the middle of the night, asking me to please come back to help with Min. She told me she'd been trying to take care of things but it wasn't working any more. Min was stranded in her bed, hooked on blue torpedoes and convinced that a million silver cars were closing in on her (I didn't know what Thebes meant either), Logan was in trouble at school, something about the disturbing stories he was writing, Thebes was pretending to be Min on the phone with his principle, the house was crumbling around them, the back screen door had blown off in the wind, a family of aggressive mice was living behind the piano, the neighbours were pissed off because of hatchets being thrown into their yard at all hours (again, confusing, something to do with Logan)… basically, things were out of control. And Thebes is only eleven.

My memories of this book are pretty clouded and that's not a good thing since I finished it just two days ago. I don't know if it's that that book wasn't memorable, that the feeling rather than the events were more important (and so I'm left with good feelings but few memories), or that the books I'm reading now are so good that they've pushed out everything else already. Or all of it together.

30 July 2009

Review: Interworld by Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves

Like a lot of people, I'm a sucker for mostly anything with Neil Gaiman's name on it. (Not so much movie tie-ins or merchandise, but otherwise.) My latest bout of Gaiman-induced spending resulted in my owning M is for Magic and Interworld, a novel co-written with Michael Reaves.

Interworld is an adventure story for pre-teens (at least it read about that level to me) featuring Joey Harker, a rather average kid. Average except that one day he walked into a fog and out into another universe, one very much like his own, except that his parents gave birth to a daughter, Josephine, and not a son. Joey soon finds himself in another world still, but in this one Joey Harker has died by drowning. Joey's ability to walk between worlds puts him at risk to two opposing forces – Magic (called HEX) and Science (called Binary) – that each want control over all the worlds in the all possible universes. Joey learns that his double in each other world is also able to walk between worlds and that it is that duty to fight for balance between the forces of science and magic.

Once I got lost in my own house.
I guess it wasn't quite as bad as it sounds. We had just built a new annex – added a hallway and a bedroom for the squid, aka Kevin, my really little brother – but still, the carpenters had left and the dust had settled over a month ago. Mom had just sounded the dinner call and I was on my way downstairs. I took a wrong turn on the second floor and found myself in a room wallpapered with clouds and bunnies. I realized I'd turned right instead of left, so I promptly made the same mistake again and blundered into the closet.

Wow, long intro. I'm distracted – got a computer virus, yay! Or, you know, 83 infiltrations – and it's showing. Right now I could use a little less binary and a little more hex-the-pants off whoever did this.

26 July 2009

Review: Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammet

Two memoirs in such a short period of time is unusual for me, and two dealing with brain disorders no less. The first, of course, was The Man who Forgot How to Read, which I reviewed about a month ago, but read around the same time as this, Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammet. This book deals with the way Savant syndrome, a form of Asperger's syndrome, and Synaesthesia combined in Tammet, record holder of most digits of pi recited from memory (22 514) and learner of the Icelandic language in one week.

This memoir is a record of how Tammet grew up and learned to become independent as an adult in spite of the difficulties his various syndromes gave him. It's also an explanation of some of the many ways his brain works differently from yours and mine, from his general lack of empathy to his experience of numbers as colours, shapes, and movements.

Opening paragraph:
One of the things I struggle with in writing about this book (and the reason it's taken me nearly a month to finish writing this) is distinguishing between the quality of the writing and enjoyment I get from the information it offers. It's not an especially well-written book. Sometimes it rambles or describes things Tammet couldn't possibly know about. Sometimes he latches onto a subject like a dog with a bone and doesn't seem to understand how tedious the subject actually is, such as the many many paragraphs he devotes to his own variation on solitaire. (He is aware of that tendency in himself, but that doesn't make it any less boring to know that he knows he can occasionally be dull and repetitious.) There is a sort of cautious and considered tone to the book that probably reads to most people as being simplistic. (My impression is coloured by having seen Tammet speak on television, when I got the impression of a deeply shy person who thinks everything through and then presents it very carefully.)

I'd have liked to read more about what Tammet described in interviews as learning how to experience emotions – learning what love is, for example – but I did feel that the book focused more on the difficulties of understanding emotions rather than how he overcame those difficulties.

On the better side, I found the actual content to be quite fascinating. There is nearly always something very interesting about the ways that the brain can go "wrong." Not that Tammet's brain is wrong, it just makes different connections than most people's minds make. A lot of things I've read about Tammet talk about how remarkable he is for his ability to describe the way he sees things – many people with similar conditions are unable to articulate the differences so clearly. Here is one quotation on the way he experiences words:

Some words are perfect fits for the things they describe. A raspberry is both a red word and a red fruit, while 'grass' and 'glass' are both green words that describe green things… Conversely, some words do not seem to me to fit the things they describe: 'geese' is a green word, but describes white birds ('heese' would seem a better choice to me), the word 'white' is blue while 'orange' is clear and shiny like ice. 'Four' is a blue word but a pointy number, at least to me. The colour of wine (a blue word) is better described by the French word vin, which is purple.
Other sections when he talks about his ability to process mathematical equations or to learn languages are similarly interesting because they are so different from the average experience.

As I said, reading the book is a bit of a mixed experience. I think it's more interesting to think about than it is to read, if that makes sense. I liked to read about the way his brain works, and I think he described it well, but I wish the actual writing of it had been a bit tighter.

Daniel Tammet has written two books, Born on a Blue Day and more recently Embracing the Wide Sky, which tries to explain more about the Savant mind and how the average person's mind isn't so very different. He's appeared on several talk shows, including The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos, which you can see here, and The Late Show, and was the subject of the documentary, Brainman. His website can be found here, Optimnem.co.uk.

Tammet, Daniel. Born on a Blue Day. London: Hodder, 2007.
Finished: 02 July 2009
Rating: 4 of 5 sieves of Eratosthenes
This was my 1st book in July and my 23rd in 2009.

*Psst... my ratings are numbered 1-5, meaning something like 1=sucky, 2=meh, 3=okay, 4=good, 5=great.

Retread Review: Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland

[I wrote this review in 2007. Just digging up some old stuff to add to the collection here. It might be interesting to read some of these books again and see if I've got a different perspective now. Probably I won't bother though.]

I read most of Douglas Coupland's Eleanor Rigby in one go last night, laying in the bathtub and letting the water get cold around me. I think I absorbed a pound of water through skin that might never unprune itself.

I really liked this book.

Opening Paragraph:
I had always thought that a person born blind and given sight later on in life would feel reborn. Just imagine looking at our world with brand new eyes, everything fresh, covered with dew and charged with beauty—pale skin and yellow daffodils, boiled lobsters and a full moon. And yet I've read books that tell me this isn't the way newly created vision plays out in real life. Gifted with sight, previously blind patients become frightened and confused. They can't make sense of shape or colour or depth. Everything shocks, and nothing brings solace. My brother, William, says, "Well think about it, Liz—kids lie in their cribs for nearly a year watching hand puppets and colourful toys come and go. They're dumb as planks, and it takes them a long time to even twig to the notion of where they end and the world begins. Why should it be any different just because you're older and technically wiser?"

Eleanor Rigby is the story of Liz Dunn, a lonely woman who finally gets woken up from a life she's been sleepwalking through. It makes me feel pathetic to admit it, but in many ways, she reminds me of me.

Review: JPod by Douglas Coupland

So jPod. jPod was my most recent favourite-new-tv-show-that's-bound-to-be-cancelled. And was. There were a lot of problems with jPod, mainly related to the fact that CBC was staffed by a bunch of poor-decision making tools. They advertised, but not enough that I ever learned what date/time the show as to premiere or even air. Then they moved it to a new night, mid-season, but once again didn't very widely advertise the new day. A new day which happened to be Friday evenings, a night when the show's target market (20-30 somethings) tends not to be hanging around at home waiting to watch tv. (I watched online myself.) Not surprisingly, the ratings weren't great and so they cancelled it. Sigh.

The show ended on a cliffhanger – one of the characters winds up in a coma after being too vigorously hugged by an Artificial Intelligence-run hugging machine – and we never learn what really happens. So I thought… why not read it?

Opening paragraph:
"Oh God. I feel like a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel."
That asshole."
"Who does he think he is?"
"Come on, guys,
focus. We've got a major problem on our hands."
The six of us were silent, but for our footsteps. The main corridor's muted plasma TVs blipped out the news and sports, while co-workers in long-sleeved blue and black T-shirts oompah-loompahed in and out of laminate-access doors, elevated walkways, staircases and elevators, their missions inscrutable and squirrelly. It was a rare sunny day. Freakishly articulated sunbeams highlighted specks of mica in the hallway's designer granite. They looked like randomized particle events.

JPod the book by Douglas Coupland is ridiculously funny. More so than the tv show or perhaps funny in a different way. In fact, the show and the book have little in common beyond characters and a handful of scenes/story lines. They are very different beasts. (And rightly so - a book can only be a jumping off point really, otherwise you might just as well make a movie or do a miniseries.)

23 July 2009

Review: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut is one of those iconic American writers who it feels like everything I know has read except me. I recently bought a boat-load of books (well, okay, 11 or 12 of them, which fit in a smallish box delivered from an online bookseller's warehouse in Ontario), including Slaughterhouse-Five. I don't know why I choose that book in particular and I didn't even read a synopsis before buying it. I didn't have any preconceived ideas of what it might be like – except a vague notion that it maybe involved children or young adults – but it still was nothing like I'd imagined. (And not just because it was about soldiers rather than children. The entire thing was somehow askew from whatever non-formed ideas I had.)

Opening paragraph:
All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn't his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I've changed all the names.
I didn't know that Vonnegut wrote science fiction, though I'd some idea about the satire. I did know he had a penchant for "So it goes" and that he'd included the phrase "Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt" in at least one of his books. (That, I knew, because it was referenced in a song by, I think but can't remember for certain, Maybe Smith.) After Vonnegut died, I read some tributes people had written and some lists of the best bits (according to whoever) from his books. Having now read Slaughterhouse-Five I do feel a little like I'd have been okay with reading only those lists.

What I said in my one-line review for anobii.com was "This was interesting and sometimes funny, but mostly I feel like I missed the point." Many of the particularly funny bits I'd already read (without context) in those best bits lists. The interesting bits were mostly the references to war – the irreverent tone was refreshing, probably because I'm so used to the pro-war (or pro-America, anyway) rhetoric of so many American war films – and also the ideas put forth by the Trafalmadorians. Those were such curious segments. I suppose because of the banality of both the war/regular life sections and the otherworld alien sections. Even though Billy Pilgrim ends up a fish out of water in those sections, he approaches everything in exactly the same way.

Still, as I said, I'm not sure I got from this book whatever I was supposed to get from it. It's probably partly lazy reading – I stretched out this short book over several weeks – but also because it was so wholly outside of whatever I thought I was getting myself into that I spent more time going "Wait… what?" than I did really paying attention.

Worth the read? I don't know. I thought it was okay, but I'm not as sold on Vonnegut as everything else seems to be.

Kurt Vonnegut was the author of several novels, including Cat's Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, and Slapstick. He also published short stories and essays in several collections, including Welcome to the Monkey House and the posthumously published Armageddon in Retrospect. You can read "The Blood of Dresden" here, an essay extracted from Armageddon in Retrospect, on the subject of the bombing of Dresden.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Dell, 1991.
Finished: 22 July 2009
Rating: 2 of 5 Kilgore Trout novels
This was my 5th book in July and my 27th in 2009.

*Psst... my ratings are numbered 1-5, meaning something like 1=sucky, 2=meh, 3=okay, 4=good, 5=great.

Review: When You are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

When You are Engulfed in Flames is the 3rd book from David Sedaris that I've read. The first was Me Talk Pretty One Day, which had me laughing like a maniac in public places. It was a great experience and sing I'd come quite late to his books, I had several others to choose from to read next. Unfortunately, I picked up Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, which was only so-so. I can't really remember what put me off about it, though I assume it just wasn't that funny. But I was a bit wary after that and hadn't picked up any of Sedaris' books since. When You are Engulfed in Flames had a great cover though and it was 40% off, so why not?

Opening paragraph, from "It's Catching":
My friend Patsy was telling me a story. "So I'm at the movie theater," she said, "and I've got my coat all neatly laid out against the back of my seat, when this guy comes along –" And here I stopped her, because I've always wondered about this coat business. When I'm in a theater, I either fold mine in my lap or throw it over my armrest, but Patsy always spreads hers out, acting as if the seat back were cold, and she couldn't possibly enjoy herself while it was suffering.
I can't remember if Sedaris' other books had any sort of thematic element to tie the essays together. (I assume I was being a lazy reader and that there actually was.) This collection is mainly about death and endings. Very entertaining takes on these subjects, of course.

For the most part this book brought me back to the laughing-out-loud-on-the-bus mode. It makes me feel like a tit just to grin in public when doing something so private as reading, but it couldn't be helped. There were a few mediocre stories, but more were absolute gems, and most of the collection fell on the very enjoyable side of somewhere in between.

On the whole, I think I prefer Me Talk Pretty One Day, but it's been a long time since I read it, and I'm very happy with the experience of reading When You are Engulfed in Flames. It was worth every moment spent.

David Sedaris has written several books, beginning with Barrel Fever and Naked, neither of which I've read, and a handful of others (most of which I've also not read). He has co-written several plays I've neither seen nor read with his sister Amy Sedaris, and he's also been a contributor to Ira Glass' This American Life radio show. (Which I've never listened to, incidentally.)

Sedaris, David. When You Are Engulfed in Flames. New York: Back Bay Books, 2009.
Finished: 12 July 2009
Rating: 4 of 5 human skeletons
This was my 4th book in July and my 26th in 2009.

*Psst... my ratings are numbered 1-5, meaning something like 1=sucky, 2=meh, 3=okay, 4=good, 5=great.

19 July 2009

August Fields Handbags

A while back now, I made a set of hand bags for a craft exchange I was doing online. I could make anything I wanted, and when I found this gorgeous collection of fabrics - August Fields from Amy Butler - it sort of snapped right into place.

What I loved about it, especially, is how summery it is. The colours are gorgeous and the prints fun and if I'd made the bags a bit bigger, they're the sort of thing I could imagine carrying around to the beach with a ton of junk stuffed in. I didn't have enough fabric to make them very big, though - I had a set of fat quarters, plus one extra half metre, and a few inches each of green and yellow, which was enough for six bags this size.

I've only got pictures of four of the six bags, so here are close-ups. I made three bags using this material, because they had more of this fabric than any of the others. (And I wasn't as fond of some of the other options they had on the bolt.)

This was definitely one of my favourite fabrics, anyway, so it all worked out. The three bags I made each had different coloured linings - one white, one yellow, and one bright pink. (I kept the one with pink lining for myself.)

This is probably my least favourite of the fabrics - I probably wouldn't have chosen it if it hadn't been part of the fat quarter pack. I like the shape of the pattern, it's just more yellow than I care for.

This is probably the prettiest of the prints - it's a bit more restrained and, I guess, realistic. It's probably the easiest bag to actually use because the colours are a bit less garish.

Nothing wrong with garish either, though. This is my absolute favourite of the bags with the bright pink lining and the fun sort of lollipop print. I didn't keep it, but I really did want to because I liked it that much.

I think I could make a dozen of these, if I could find the right fabrics. Not that I will, I don't really need a dozen bags in different colours. They came out pretty nice, though, if I do say so myself.