Townhouse Books

Friday, September 22, 2006

Winterlong: Elizabeth Hand

Someone loaned this to me, and I accepted because many years ago I read another Elizabeth Hand book called Waking the Moon and remember vaguely enjoying it.

I did not enjoy, vaguely or otherwise, this one, but whether it's because I've changed or the author changed, I cannot tell. It had a few Oryx and Crake-y moments that sparked my interest, but Elizabeth Hand is no Margaret Atwood and sometimes-weak plots that one might ignore because Atwood's writing is so awesome becomes glaringly apparent when you're stuck with Hand and her thesaurus.

(Also: Loving descriptions of the "long russet tangle of hair spilling down [his] back," a main character with the name Raphael, and Hand's fondness for the word "whorl." It appeared numerous times throughout the book -- she should have used her thesaurus then -- and in one section twice on one page. (He traced the whorls of her breast, and then half a page later looked at the whorls in the wood of the ceiling. Seriously).

The story is something about twins in a near wasteland future. The girl is an empath who takes people dreams and the boy is a prostitute (caste: Paphians) in a complicated world of whorehouses and old museums tended to by Curators (caste: Curators). There's a madman and a prophecy (sort of) and a talking chimpanzee who is an actress (caste: Player) and poison from the sky.

I liked the first section where the sister and the science-fiction-like world is introduced, but the high school goth elements that later dominated the book I could have done without.


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Hotel World: Ali Smith

I had recommended this book for the book club because it sounded really cool -- five interlocking stories, including one of a dead girl floating around, stream of consciousness in a Virginia Woolf way, spooky and dreamy and shortlisted for the Booker Award.

I mostly take it back. The first story, the one of the dead girl whose vocabulary and ability to see/hear colors and sounds fades the longer she is dead, was thrilling and I recommend reading that section. It had fascinating concepts, eerie description of her death, and quick-moving language. Examples:

At her own funeral, when the things of life had already begun to disappear:

I chose the saddest people and I followed them to see where we'd lived. They seemed vaguely familiar. They sat at the front of the church. I couldn't be sure. I had to guess.


From summer to autumn, I did all that I can. I appeared to the father. I appeared to the mother. I appeared to the sister. The father pretended he couldn't see. The more he saw, the more he looked away. A wall crept inches higher from his shoulders round his head; every time I came he added a new layer of bricks to the top of it. By autumn, the wall was way past the top of his head, swaying, badly bricklayed and dangerously unbalanced, nearly up to the ceiling in the living room where it knocked against the lampshade and sent light and shadow spinning every time he crossed the room.

Actually, those were the best parts. You don't have to read any of it now.


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Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Cutting Room: Louise Welsh

Many authors develop a main character in their first mystery and carry on with him or her for years. I don't see that happening with The Cutting Room. The setting and plot are gritty and grim, with moral ambiguity a-plenty. The protagonist is not the kind of character you warm up to. He works for an auction house, and while taking an inventory of an old lady's antiques he finds an extensive pornographic library and snuff photography. He tries to find out what happened to the subject of the pictures without losing his lucrative job of auctioning off the house full of antiques. The ending is a bit of a letdown (one reviewer called it "muted") but the book is still worth reading, especially if you like that whole edgy Glasgow vibe.


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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The chapel of extreme experience: A short history of flicker, stroboscopic light and the dream machine

Very short read focused on the use of flickering lights to create visionary experiences in the 1960s. The book was one long chapter and somewhat unorganized but there were times I felt I was right there with Brion Gysin and William Burroughs, experimenting with the dream machine. I would love to get my hands on a dream machine today. If you enjoy reading about the lives of people involved in the psychedelic movement and are curious about the dream machine, you would probably greatly enjoy this book.

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Monday, September 11, 2006

The Death of Achilles: Boris Akunin

This was a fantastic read. Travis heard this author on NPR a while back, and he was described as the Russian Ian Fleming. Great plot, interesting characters, historical setting. Plus, you get that Russian absurdity factor - hard to describe, but recognizable in Bulgakov and Solzhenitsyn, the only other modern Russians I've read.

The main character is a Russian nobleman named Fandorin who has just returned to Moscow after living in Japan for years. He's acquired a devoted ninja manservant, Masa, and some decidedly non-Russian habits. Fandorin is asked to investigate the mysterious death of the folk hero, General Sobolev, dubbed "Achilles". The story that unfolds is quite interesting, and the novel makes an exciting narrative jump half-way through from the POV of the investigator to that of the investigatee.


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Monday, September 04, 2006

Rabbit Redux: John Updike

OK, this cured me of Updike, at least for a while. Dated and showing the worst of the late '60s and early'70s, misogynistic to such an excess it was boring (c-word literally on almost every page), with painful old-school race issues (Rabbit staring at the palms of the hands of the "Negro" Skeeter and wondering at their whiteness). Set 10 years after the first one, Rabbit's wife moves in with her lover (a Greek man, leaving open space for more derogatory racial remarks), abandoning Rabbit with their 13-year-old son. Rabbit takes up with an 18-year-old hippie/rich kid/hooker/druggie with visions of God who moves in along with a Black Power type of guy on the run from the law, and they all seem to have sex with her, maybe even the kid, I don't know. They spend inordinate amounts of time sitting around the house, listening to the girl play music, debating Vietnam (for pages and pages) and reading aloud from "The Life & Times of Frederick Douglas," passages of which are reprinted in their entirely with Rabbit's musings. Or something like that. I finished it but skimmed much throughout. I'm hating you today, Updike.


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