Last week I stumbled upon some highlights of Jonah Campbell's recently launched book Food & Trembling, based on his excellent blog, in an article...moreLast week I stumbled upon some highlights of Jonah Campbell's recently launched book Food & Trembling, based on his excellent blog, in an article at the Toronto AV Club. I was so taken by the excerpts that I went out that night to my closest, oppressively gargantuan, big-box-bookstore and snagged a copy. I've had it close to hand ever since.
Food & Trembling is a wonderful collection of essays on our (I say "our", meaning humanity's) obsession with food—in both the upliftingly positive and soul-crushingly negative aspects of that obsession...but mostly positive.
Mr. Campbell is clearly enamoured with M.F.K. Fisher and that special technique she had of combining intellectual inquiry and descriptions of sensual experience in her writing. I applaud (and share) his crush. But there are lots of food writers influenced by Mary Frances who seem exclusively drawn to her ability to captivate, with lucid and vivid detail, the experience of dining & eating, but not many who share something of her rigorous intellect.
Mr. Campbell seems as interested in the intersection of language and food—the way we talk about food and the etymology of food terms—as he is in the way we experience food. Many of the essays in Food & Trembling feel like they were written by a post-punk Wittgenstein trying to explore how the way we express ourselves about food is related to the way we prepare and consume...and over-consume it.
One of the most striking essays for me was the one titled Food as Destroyer. Not many food writers are willing to stare as unblinkingly into the abyss of over-indulgence:
"Somewhere in the process of this meal...I become faintly conscious that I am 'eating to destroy'—not just the food but myself."
In particular, Mr. Campbell is referring to that desire some of us apparently have to consume foods that are bad for us when we're sick. This touched a nerve for me personally as I am often lured to the canned products of the late Maestro Boiardi during illness—a comfort-food association from childhood—that usually results in regret.
Food as Destroyer also has one of many footnotes scattered throughout the book—most of which are hilarious and/or illuminating, and I would not say so numerous as to be considered at excessive DFW-worshiping levels—this was one of my favourites:
"It is on faith alone that I accept that there exist those people who move through the world indifferent to what they put in their bodies, so long as it meets their basic survival need. Such characters, with their emotionless or at least emotionally uncomplicated engagements with food, will remain forever slightly opaque to me, like people who don't read books or listen to music..."
Mr. Campbell's essays swing wildly from erudite examination to personnel confessional to comedic reportage—a charming and highly engaging way to explore the sociological background of food while simultaneously celebrating the joy of eating it.
If I have any complaint, it's that the book is a little too beholden to the blog of its origin. There are a couple super-brief chapters that smack of that I just had a stray cool thought so I'ma post it approach that any long-running blog endulges in occasionally. There's nothing particularly wrong with these pieces, they just seem a little lightweight compared to most of the other essays—a minor quibble.
In an essay on the etymology of the word croissant, I think Mr. Campbell states lucidly himself the appeal of his blog and book for me:
"...it is this very lack of rigour that I think renders my company tolerable. Who really wants to suffer the smug self-satisfaction of the expert, when one could enjoy the fumbling charm of the amateur? But for all my insistence upon quality...if there's one lesson to be drawn from my dumb life it's that if you're not going to do something right, you should at least enjoy doing it."
The above passage may have been written in a spirit of self-deprecating comedy, but I find it true to my tastes. I often prefer the explorations of a bright generalist to the didactic certainty of the expert. Sometimes, at least for me, the expert can seem limited by a rigid framework of absolute certainty. Unanswered questions are in no way a limitation of a given piece of writing and can, in fact, make the reader feel more engaged—like part of the conversation. I have almost unlimited access to Google, I can look up the finer points myself if I'm really keen. There aren't many hyper-specialized experts that can make you laugh out loud reading their dissertations.
Food & Trembling is a great little book: funny, affecting, thoughtful—winningly puerile—and wholly engaging. Pick it up.(less)
One of my top-five favourite books. Each small chapter—a page or two—in a deceptively slight book, contains poetic prose describing different cities....moreOne of my top-five favourite books. Each small chapter—a page or two—in a deceptively slight book, contains poetic prose describing different cities. The cities are being described by Marco Polo to Kublai Khan. The great Khan ruminates in his luxurious palace about his vast empire and about how there are no more worlds to conquer. He asks Marco to tell him about the many places he has traveled beyond the Khan's dominion. Marco spins out his mesmerizing visions of cities, but he is really only telling a tale of one city: Venice—Marco's home. Each city described represents an aspect of Venice, both in specifics and in the universal qualities of all cities. A post-modern Michelin guide to the imagination of cities and the people who build and inhabit them. The breathtaking simplicity of true genius.(less)
Rudy Rucker is something of an unsung hero of the Cyberpunk movement. Rudy should rightfully be considered the third aspect in a trinity that would in...moreRudy Rucker is something of an unsung hero of the Cyberpunk movement. Rudy should rightfully be considered the third aspect in a trinity that would include Bruce Sterling and William Gibson. In fact, one of my favourite stories in the seminal Mirroshades anthology—absolutely fundamental to understanding Cyberpunk—is Rudy’s Tales of Houdini. Possibly one of the earliest examples—along with Software—of posthuman or transhumanist literature; Wetware spins the central conceit of Software (humans downloading their consciousness into robots/computers) further along the posthuman continuum through robots trying to design biological entities to land on an unexpected other: humans and robots merging into something new. Wetware is Darwinism and tech long gone wild and then waking up together trying to remember how they ended up on a sticky carpet in a hotel in Brazil with missing organs. Rudy also invents a new drug called merge that can reduce those who partake into muddy puddles of bio-mass with undifferentiated boundaries between individual users. The barrage of metaphors that spin out of the ideas in Wetware seem like organic growths of the concepts themselves. What’s magical about the book though is it also, somehow, realistic (in terms of character and emotion) and incredibly light of touch. Rudy is clearly a wizard, not a mathematician—or something in between as makes no difference.(less)
One of my top five my favourite books, Earthly Powers is, above all, a compelling bit of storytelling. A sprawling, multi-generational tale that follo...moreOne of my top five my favourite books, Earthly Powers is, above all, a compelling bit of storytelling. A sprawling, multi-generational tale that follows the protagonist's life from teenager to octogenarian and includes a number of real people such as Churchill and James Joyce. It is essentially the 20th Century distilled through the eyes of its' protagonist—who is cynical, but a humanist at heart. It's the fictional autobiography of a gay, expatriate English novelist now living in Malta. It opens with the writer being visited by an arch-bishop who asks him to be a witness in the canonization process of a dead Pope, who was a long-time friend of the writer. Most of the book is a series of flashbacks consisting of the bulk of the writer's life. Using this architecture, Burgess comments on the nature of art: "All fiction is autobiographical and all autobiography is fiction". Utterly captivating: funny, moving and an intellectual feast.(less)
On Stranger Tides is one of the most purely fun books I've ever read. Published in 1987, it's difficult, in hindsight, not to imagine On Stranger Tide...moreOn Stranger Tides is one of the most purely fun books I've ever read. Published in 1987, it's difficult, in hindsight, not to imagine On Stranger Tides being an unacknowledged inspiration for the entire Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise—despite Disney having only bought the rights to the novel in 2009 and apparently only plundered it (pun intended) as the loose basis for the fourth installment. We shall have to take them at their word.
Unsubstantiated conspiracy theories aside, Tim Powers is a mad genius who, if there were any real justice in this world, should be much better known. Mr Powers has created some of the most unique fantastic fiction in several genres and is one of the key progenitors of what we think of as steampunk today, through his seminal 1983 novel The Anubis Gates.
In On Stranger Tides Mr Powers manages to refresh the incredibly tired clichés of pirate stories through the layering of a wild palimpsest of real sixteenth century pirate history with voudoun ritual & afro-Caribbean folklore, tangled familial & criminal intrigue, taut thrill-filled action, love story & comedy, and full-on supernatural horror.
It's this last element that really elevates the book. Mr Powers shades in the background of his rousing high-seas adventure with a system of magic based equally in the psychological histories of its wielders & victims as in a deep, fathomless (pun intended) supernatural other-world of shadowy semi-human spirits. He drags his characters through frightening scenes of violence and hardship during which they drift between the real world, supernaturally altered states or other dimensions and psychologically traumatic scenes of their own past.
And in all these scenes he describes highly original and creepily perverse depictions of undead apparitions and weird creatures. I don't want to spoil anything, so let's just say I'll never look at tree fungus the same way again.
My minor complaint is that the only real female character, Beth, is a bit thinly drawn, as she disappears off the page for long stretches. However, this marginalization is a largely necessary side effect of the plot. In the end, the character of Beth becomes key in an interesting and unanticipated way (at least by me, but maybe sharper readers would see it coming...the hints are there).
In fact, the novel pays off all of its incredibly dense plotting in such a satisfyingly clockwork manner by the conclusion, that I'm a little jealous of Mr Powers' ability to successfully wrangle all the concepts he's jammed into this book.
Hollywood, please take note: big fun doesn't have to exist in the absence of big ideas.(less)
Wholly unoriginal, but such a deft pastiche of various sources—Dracula, Salem's Lot, Del Toro's own Blade II and others—that The Strain stands out in...moreWholly unoriginal, but such a deft pastiche of various sources—Dracula, Salem's Lot, Del Toro's own Blade II and others—that The Strain stands out in the crowded vampire-book market. The prose is a little clunky in spots, which I suspect has to do with the duel authors involved. Certain passages bear the unmistakable flavour of Del Toro's lyricism—best represented in Pan's Labyrinth—while others are standard jargon and slang-filled pedestrian thriller-speak (which I have to assume are the work of Chuck Hogan). Here's the thing though: these opposing styles mesh (awkwardly at first) into a highly entertaining whole. The ancient-seeming vampiric supernatural myth forced into a very twenty-first century framework of terrorism, contagion and post-9/11 paranoid conspiracy. One of the aspects of the book that really worked for me was simply spotting all of Del Toro's pet obsessions: folk tales and oral history, children in peril, dark underground spaces (and specifically subways), disease and transformation, autopsies, blue collar and white-collar heroes finding common ground, secretive assassins/strike teams and baroque weapons. All of these elements can be found in Del Toro's movies—from Mimic to Hellboy II—and all feature prominently in The Strain. For me, a true auteur or artist is revealed through his or her obsessive revisiting of themes and motifs. I thoroughly enjoy following Del Toro's process of working out how and why these things obsess him—whether in movies or on the page.(less)
I have a soft spot for the classic SF “fix-up”—a book that began as short stories and was later Frankensteined into a novel. It’s a concept that is co...moreI have a soft spot for the classic SF “fix-up”—a book that began as short stories and was later Frankensteined into a novel. It’s a concept that is common to classic SF, due to the fact that the genre emerged from pulp magazine roots, which were the province of short stories and serials. (Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and Sturgeon’s More Than Human are two of the most famous examples of successful fix-ups—and personal favourites of mine). I’m not sure why I enjoy the fix-up so much. Something about the way in which the shifts in tone and approach from story to story can’t be entirely smoothed over appeals to me on a gut level. Accelerando is the perfect fix-up for the 21st Century. Using black plastic nerd glasses as a metaphor for posthumanism is only the first of a long line of brilliant devices littered throughout the book’s ramshackle tour of our immediate, near-term and far-flung futures. Stross bombards the reader with so many—at least to me—new and radical concepts about the future of economics, technology, identity and intelligence that he almost overwhelms. What saves Accelerando from being too didactic is its whirlwind approach to pacing and its endearing sense of humour. The musical term “accelerando” is the perfect title: the book moves faster and faster into and beyond the singularity—rushing past the point in which our whole solar system is inhospitable to old fashioned humans. Accelerando was the first book I ever read that employed the “rapture of the nerds” concept of the singularity, and I haven’t looked at any technology the same way since. Accelerando’s starting point is: what does a real post-scarcity economy look like? And it finishes deep in the mists of a post-human, post-everything futurescape—using the through-line of a single family to keep us on the rails—gutsy and brilliant.(less)
An SF riff on The Count of Monte Cristo; a precursor to cyberpunk; a stylistically ambitious 1950’s-era modernist experiment; and an Arthur C. Clarke-...moreAn SF riff on The Count of Monte Cristo; a precursor to cyberpunk; a stylistically ambitious 1950’s-era modernist experiment; and an Arthur C. Clarke-style cosmic freak-out about the evolution of man—The Stars My Destination is all of these and more. An initially despicable lump of a protagonist who evolves first into the perfect case study for the limits and costs of revenge and then moves beyond that into something completely different: Gully Foyle becomes a stand-in for mankind on the brink of real change. A breathlessly fast and hugely entertaining book—stop reading this right now and acquire a copy. Trust me.(less)
China Miéville is the master of sticky, multi-purpose metaphors and The City & the City ("City) features one of his best: two distinct cites, with...moreChina Miéville is the master of sticky, multi-purpose metaphors and The City & the City ("City) features one of his best: two distinct cites, with separate histories, cultures, foods, architectural styles, clothing—even body language and attitudes to life—that nevertheless occupy the same geography. How China accomplishes this slight of hand—this Hugo winning novel without a shred of the impossible or fantastic—is best learned through reading. The less you know about City going in, the more gripping the novel’s effects. However, I’m also convinced that repeat readings will be rewarding in other ways. City is, at heart, a fairly straightforward and highly engaging murder mystery. But City is also Orwellian in terms of its understanding of culture; an anarchistic Utopia set amid realistic depictions of both capitalism and socialism and the sometime permeable barrier between the two schools of thought; a parable about immigration, tribal divisiveness and fear of the other; and a love letter to urban living.(less)
Alberto Manguel's excellent article on The Wind in the Willows encouraged me to finally read a classic that had somehow eluded me in childhood; despit...moreAlberto Manguel's excellent article on The Wind in the Willows encouraged me to finally read a classic that had somehow eluded me in childhood; despite being one of my sister's favourites. This is odd because of the overall influence my sister had on my early reading. I always looked up to her and picked up any number of books based on her preferences and recommendations. How I avoided The Wind in the Willows until into my forties is something of a mystery to me. If my sister read the book every year—which she still claims to do—I certainly would have seen it around the house. I can only assume that as a boy drawn to violent adventure, the weird and the fantastic, The Wind in the Willows probably just seemed too pastoral based on the title alone.
Having finally read it, I can attest that it is exactly as pastoral and leisurely as I expected, but alternetely more violent and adventurous than I could have imagined. And also, The Wind in the Willows is—most surprisingly—a deeply, deeply weird little book.
It's a little like something the amazing China Miéville might have written if he was more obsessed with camping in parks than urban spaces.
There are many chapters of leisurely meals, rowing and philosophical ruminating—as expected—but these parts alternate with chapters of fast-paced and brilliantly executed scenes of action. Further, the action and adventure often leads to the potential of real peril for the lovingly rendered characters.
But let's talk about the weirdness. There's the obvious chapter number 7, "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn", which later became a favourite of hippies everywhere due to the startling appearance of Pan. I'm sure you could spin this chapter into some kind of Christian allegory, but I think it resists simple interpretations. However, I'm really more interested in all the intimations of the rise and fall of man:
"People come—they stay for a while, they flourish, they build--and they go. It is their way. But we remain. There were badgers here, I've been told, long before that same city ever came to be. And now there are badgers here again. We are an enduring lot, and we may move out for a time, but we wait, and are patient, and back we come. And so it will ever be."
These bits and pieces throughout add an unusually post-apocalyptic tinge to a standard anthropomorphic animal romp, no? When you add this to the lack of clear scale between the animal and human characters and the amazing chapter where Toad ends up in the dungeon of a medieval castle—in a world with both horse-drawn carriages and motor cars—The Wind in the Willows takes on a depth and complexity that surprised the hell out of me.
Don't get me wrong: lots of leisurely snacking and rowing go on, but these parts become more soothing and sublime in contrast with the book's rampant weirdness and violence—true classic by any measure.(less)
Reading a book like The Maltese Falcon is a little challenging for me. I've seen the beloved second film version many times since I was a child—it was...moreReading a book like The Maltese Falcon is a little challenging for me. I've seen the beloved second film version many times since I was a child—it was also the first movie I watched in the first film studies class I ever took—so my expectations going in were that I would find little in the way of fresh experience. There's a distancing effect that happens to me where I find I'm often comparing what I'm reading to my recollections of the film. And those recollections aren't always accurate, despite how many times I've seen the movie, so the distancing is multiplied while I interrogate myself about my memories.
Look, I'm not going to argue that I'm not too introverted sometimes.
Anyway, the surprising thing is, about halfway through The Maltese Falcon I got completely engrossed in what I was reading and achieved the highly sought after Nirvana of total escapism. Mr. Hammett was that good.
From the first page, I was first surprised by the differences from the 1941 film. In the book, Hammet describes his main character Sam Spade as looking like a tall "blonde Satan." Like most people, when I hear the name Sam Spade, I think of Bogart, who was neither tall nor really devilish (at least in appearance).
But, this was still the point in the book where I was wrestling with my preconceptions. At about the point where Spade roughs up "the Levantine" Joe Cairo, I was fully immersed in Hammett's morally grey world of tough guys and femme fatales. I stopped seeing Peter Lorre and Bogart and started seeing the characters as Hammett described them.
Part of my ability to lose myself in the book is the slightly different tone it takes. Probably as a result of censorship at the time, Hammett's novel seems harsher and darker than the movie. The book is not elaborately violent or sexy, but it definitely has more edge than the film. And Spade as a character displays an even more dubious morality than his film counterpart.
Do I need to recap the plot? It doesn't differ that much from one of the most popular films of all time. Sam Spade, a detective, and assorted criminals including one legendary femme fatale scheme and swindle each other over a rare historical object from Malta.
Hammett goes into considerable detail about the history and provenance of his MacGuffin; to the point where I felt like I was watching a lost Indiana Jones movie. It's a startling effective passage in the book and provides an interesting resonance to the proceedings that might otherwise be lacking if the characters were squabbling over more conventional spoils. It's easier to imagine everyone becoming obsessed with the Maltese Falcon because Hammett provides it with more back-story than some of the main characters—which is not at all a criticism on my part.
But what's really striking about the book is the absolute ambiguity (I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but stick with me) of Spade's moral calculus. There's some suggestion that Spade makes the decisions he makes in the course of the book because he believes in criminals being brought to justice, but it could just as easily be interpreted as Spade favouring that side of the game—slightly. In fact, his calculated approach to life ends up alienating his loyal to a fault secretary Effie. She comes late to realize what the reader has a few scenes earlier: Spade is basically a bastard, who may or may not have some rudimentary motivations left related to issues of justice.
The Maltese Falcon, the book, expresses a deeply nihilistic worldview that the movie only really suggests. The movie is a classic film noir, but can only touch on the blackness of the novel—still a bracily modern read, even over 80 years later.(less)
I've spent some time now staring at my screen wondering what to rate this book. The four stars I've given it seem excessive for a book this slight, bu...moreI've spent some time now staring at my screen wondering what to rate this book. The four stars I've given it seem excessive for a book this slight, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Does Goodreads require a new system with half-stars or am I getting hopelessly pedantic about something I'm not getting paid to do? (The correct answer is: "yes" to both.)
Star ratings aside, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu'sCarmilla is worth reading for anyone with even a passing interest in vampires or Victorian Goth. Published 25 years prior to Stoker's masterpiece, to call Carmilla an influence is an understatement. Stoker lifted elements of Carmilla wholesale: Central European castles & ruins, a menacing coachman, a man of action a victim's relative and an eccentric old expert banning together to finish off the beast—and more. Carmilla is also presented as the notes of a Doctor who is an expert in the occult, but these kinds of framing devices were common to many Victorian gothics.
And here's the point where I wish I had more expertise in Victorian lit. Some of the elements of Carmilla—particularly the use of multiple, jarringly easy anagrams along the lines of "Alucard" from a hokey Universal monster pic—throw the modern reader (by which I guess I mean me) right out of the flow of the narrative. The anagrams almost seem like satire now—Monty Python-esque. Was Le Fanu poking a little fun at the concept of the gothic story? I tend to favour that interpretation because the climatic scenes of true horror in the story are well written, but almost perfunctory. Le Fanu lavishes much more time on the scenes of (largely suggested but visceral) lesbianism and doomed affection between the young female leads. These scenes are so atmospheric and effective—sensual, yet creepy—that they become the whole raison d'être of the book.
Stoker lifted a number of story components from Carmilla, but was more interested in the horrific elements of the vampire mythos. Don't get me wrong, I love Dracula, but, in part, Carmilla seems more contemporary in its lush romanticism. Le Fanu understood the appeal of the sexy, doomed "children-of-the-night" in a more direct way than Stoker. Most of Carmilla wouldn't be too out of place in a contemporary anthology of urban fantasy or vampire-romance stories; except that Le Fanu's atmospherics are more resonant than any dozen vampire-lit toss-offs on the shelves today. (less)
Good comics adaptations of novels are rare in my experience. In the past, whenever I tried to think examples, the list included David Mazzucchelli and...moreGood comics adaptations of novels are rare in my experience. In the past, whenever I tried to think examples, the list included David Mazzucchelli and Paul Karasik’s City of Glass—which, incidentally, I prefer somewhat to Auster’s book—and pretty much ended there. Now, when asked the same question, The Hunter adapted by Darwyn Cooke, is number one. Mr. Cooke brings the perfect artistic sensibility to adapting Stark’s harboiled noir novels. He has a style that is simultaneously retro and contemporary—clean, almost minimalist lines combined with economical yet fluid layouts and a clarity of storytelling technique that’s bracing. Mr. Cooke had the courage to open The Hunter with roughly twenty pages of nearly wordless visual story that ends by revealing the protagonist’s face. His Hunter is a near-perfect balance of parts that favour visual narrative alongside text-heavy sections of backstory. He knows exactly what to tell and what to show and when. Brilliant.(less)