Saturday, August 3, 2013

2013.07.16 — In Celebration of AlMFr's inclusion into Humanity, Some Koontz: The Good Guy

I have adopted a policy of not reading giant American bestselling authors, but an American friend has sited Dean R. Koontz as a favourite writer. AlMFr has joined the 21+ set, and given that i cannot meet her face-to-face to give her a prim and proper public toast in celebration of my pleasure in having come to know her, I thought I would toast her from afar by dipping into her reading world and give Koontz a read.

Although this wasn't going to be my first stab at him. I remember reading Demon Seed in 1975 or so. (Can you believe that this book warrants its own Wikipedia page?!) The book wasn't great, I think because I didn't like the ending. However, it must have something in it because almost 40 years later I still remember this book. (The movie was SO VERY bad. Perhaps the worst book to movie adaptation I have seen, ranking in rankness with Soylent Green. And may actually worse then even Schwarzenegger's Commando and Eastwood's The Gauntlet.)

What to pick? I wandered to my nearby used book store. OMG, he is prolific! J&L of Renaissance Books have about two and half shelves of Koontz, few of them duplicates.

Dean Koontz.
The Good Guy.
Random House. 2012.06.26.
ISBN: 978-0-345-53332-6.

Began July 16, 2013
Finished July 31, 2013


This is an easy summer read with a fun, nicely drawn sociopathic killer with connections to a secret government organization. It has the strong, silent, modest hero, rising to the challenge of unbeatable odds. It has an equally strong female who is not a victim of the attempt to kill her. I was delighted by how much this book echoed my own youthful favourites, in particular Dead Cert by Dick Francis.
[Note: per Wikipedia, Dead Cert is listed in 100 Must-Read Crime Novels.] Now that I am a bit older, it would seem that the stoicism and survival of the characters was what appealed to me and now appeals to my friend. It was a very pleasant surprise that reading The Good Guy brought back youthful memories and feelings.

There is a but, however. Stop reading if you don't want to read me disclosing in some detail the ending. It ended very badly, enough to take it from a five star book, to four. When I told Al of my reaction, she agreed with me. And added 'Koontz writes bad endings. Usually.' Actually, it was so bad that I found myself 'needing' to extemporaneously re-write it for Koontz. I have included that below my review. After I told Al that, she confessed to having re-written five endings for Koontz as well, but without publishing them. (Al, please publish them!)

What could have been so bad? After surviving against all odds, in what had been generally very strong writing for this genre, the protagonist suffers through a deus ex machina as bad as any I've read in at least ten years. The protagonist talks to the President of the USA, who cleans house of the evil secret security organizations. Really? Not only does this assume the president doesn't know about it, which is, although possible, somewhat improbable. But then, if he doesn't, how would he be able to so quickly effect such a housecleaning? And if he did know about them, how would he clean house? They would be an accepted part of managing a free democracy, and he would have little ability to change that.

Yes, The Good Guy had a very bad ending, indeed. Too bad, as it hurt an otherwise very entertaining read.

Normally I include extended citations from the books I review, but in stead I will post my re-write of the ending.
In February, nine months after Tim killed Linda's would-be murderer, six months after his meeting with the president, Michael McCready's house burnt to the ground. What remains were left were tentatively identified as those of McCready, and the initial survey indicated it was an accident.

But Tim didn't learn that for several days after the fact. The day before McCready died, Tim's sophisticated and expertly hidden security surveillance system disclosed someone's presence where no one was supposed to be. Without flinching with the pain of this betrayal, Tim texted Linda with their pre-determined code-word. Without seeking each other, they exited their home via two divergent underground paths. Each picked up the stowed survival kits that had been carefully prepared. Before hurrying to meet her, Tim texted Pete another code word one of the disposable cell phones in the survival kit. He left it and his regular cell phone behind after removing their batteries.

Several hours later, Tim was looking at Linda looking at him. For the first time he thought he saw a touch of fear in her eyes. 'We're not dead yet,' was all he said. It was enough.
Okay, okay. I'll cite something real, as well. I fully acknowledge this is not great heavy-handed literature, but it entertained me for a few hours over a couple of weeks. Here's Koontz:
Taking swift strides, Krait went after her, but he did not run. A pursuit that required running was probably a pursuit lost.

Besides, a running man did not appear to be a man in control. He might even give the impression of being panicked.

Appearances are not reality, but they often can be a convincing alternative to it. You can control appearances most of the time, but facts are what they are. When the facts are too sharp, you can craft a cheerful version of the situation and cover the facts the way that you can cover a battered old four-slice toaster with a knitted cozy featuring images of kittens (120).
See, not great writing, but moves the narrative along while establishing the civil ethos of the sociopathic killer.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

2013.07.04 — The Divine Economy of Salvation by Priscilla Uppal; Finished 2003

This is a belated review in that I read Divine Economy of Salvation in 2003. DES was one of those great little serendipities that I enjoy so much, in that I stumbled across it in my local library. Well, stumbled is not accurate. I heard it call my name as I was glancing at the books on new acquisitions shelf. And I was so glad to have been there to discover it.

Priscila Uppal
Random House (Canada)
2003. ISBN 9780385658058

I loved the book! But, at the time I read it I put off my usual practice of buying my own copy of a library-read book that grabbed me by the short and curleys.

When I did go to buy it, I found it was out of print, at the time and for many years subsequently. (It appears that it is now back in print.) I purchased it this year with a gift certificate to (And I will here say that that was my first purchase from them, and I found it to be an experience worth publicly praising. I would do it again, and would recommend other on-line purchase phobics give it a try.)

This is a beautiful read. I was blown away by the power and complexity and poetry of the language and ideas.

It is told as a reflection to a childhood and, interwoven within that the story is also told from the point of view of that childhood, of a murder. The language that describes the brutality of children in childhood is soft and exquisite. I found myself savouring the language as if it were a fine chocolate or spirit. I'd re-read passages, and pause to enjoy the language and the irony of its beauty in contrast to the events being remembered.

This book isn't filled with histrionics or melodramatic angst. It is about a person's quiet but persistent quest for some kind of spiritual redemption after discovering, as a child, the evil that man can do because she was that evil.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough to people in love with language and quiet reflective reading on the psychology of spiritual redemption.
BELLA is SINGING, HER thin body like a candle in the darkness of the church, her braids like curls of wax. Her arms are raised up to the heavens, and a bright white light shines down from the rafters. There are other singers, hazy outlines swaying in the background, their voices muffled. Bella is clear, her voice piercing the air like a swift bird flying through an open window in winter. She sings with confidence, as if the church were empty, her own heart fixed on a spot beyond this time.
Lamb of God, You take away the sins of the World

Have Mercy on us
The song is a round, but all the voices are Bella's. She is her own chorus, the notes sombre and haunting, the pubescent girl growing older as each new voice enters the chant. I am alone in the confessional, gazing at her through the screen that should house the priest. "The Lord be praised," I whisper, but there is no man there to receive me, only Bella's lungs filling with air and exhaling her song.
Lamb of God, You take away the sins of the World

Have Mercy on us
As she nears the end of the hymn, her many voices slowing, steadily softer in tone, the white ghosts behind her lower themselves onto their knees. Bella screams, her hands against her stomach. Blood appears and she looks down at them with her dark eyes as if her fingers have sinned against her, their tips like foreign objects in her sight, bloody wet flowers sprouting from the nails, pricking her flesh. I try to open the door to the confessional to help, but it is locked. I can hear the trampling of footsteps towards the doors. "Why are you leaving her there?" I yell, pounding the weight of my body against the wood, the small compartment filling with smoke, the screen sizzling. "She's burning! She's burning!"

I wake to the deep rumble of thunder breaking in the winter sky outside. Wet snow against my window in the darkness like tiny hands. I am parched, my throat sore and scratchy, the air in the room dry. A flash of lightning, and the silver candle holder on the dresser is momentarily illuminated as if standing in judgement, its long body a sparkling robe. I put on my housecoat, turn my back on my accuser, and decide to fetch a glass of water from upstairs.

The hallway on the first floor, unlike mine of grey stone, is plaster. There is a washroom in the basement, a single toilet and basin, but no shower. I walk between the white painted walls, lined with wooden engravings of palms and crosses, and pause by Sister Josie's door.
Sister Josie and Sister Sarah, both in their fifties, comprise a convent of two. They are virtually inseparable: take their meals together and say their prayers in unison. It is fairly common knowledge that in the night one might make her way into the room (93-4).

I read this around the same time I read Ann-Marie MacDonald's amazing book The Way the Crow Flies. I mention this because these two books are a nearly perfect pairing of complementary ideas and themes, told from completely different perspectives.
Those being personal redemption, injustice, and an exploration of the brutality of children, a theme we squeamish adults would rather pretend did not exist.

The Divine Economy of Salvation is brilliant, and is still sitting in my top 20 all time favourite books. (And I will be posting a review of The Way the Crow Flies.)

Saturday, June 29, 2013

2013.06.29 — Something Different: 'Florescence', A Poetry Reading by Me

A few weeks ago a couple of poems I read in The Weekly Short Story Contests and Company inspired me to read them. With the writer's okay, I did, and discovered that I wanted to read the entire lot of them twelve in total, when you include mine.

See Note Below for Image Credit
The topic was Florescence, the 170th topic. You can read the contest at Weekly Poetry Stuffage :) > Week 170 (June 10-17). Topic: Florescence.

I am biased by my membership with this group, but I feel that this quiet little place on the web has some real talent. Several of these poems read amazingly well, even with my relatively poor effort. So well, I wanted to advertise their efforts, and publicly praise and thank them for their contributions.

You can hear them in Soundcloud here.

The poems, in order of reading, can be read:

1. light bleating by Belly

2. Eating by Al

3. Beyond by Hannah

4. Imagine by Rikki

5. Funnels look Flowers look Flutes . . . by Ajay

6. Untitled by Roshan

7. Terribly Cheesy Villanelle by Robyn

8. the price of flowers for lunch by Guy

9. Reversion to Swamp by M

10. Flowers by CJ

11. I'll take that pill now doctor by Paula Tohline

12. Amber Fort Goats by Jim Pascual Agustin.

Image Credit
The image I have used is courtesy of AshtrayheartRomina of Deviant Art. I have used this with her permission. And, with her generosity, without payment. I proffer her my sincere thank you for allowing me to share with you her creative eye. If find the image engaging, please visit her gallery at the Deviant Art web page, linked above.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

2013.05.26 — Elizabeth Costello by J.M.Coetzee: Finished

It's been too long since I've blogged a review — or anything, for that matter. But, now to break the silence. I have been busy, and I've been reading too. Since my last book blog (2012.12.25!) I've read the following books, from the most recent:
Elizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee;
Archetypes and Strange Attractors: The Chaotic World of Symbols by John R. Van Eenwyk;
The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden by Robert A. Johnson;
The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many by Noam Chomsky;
Marcovaldo by Italo Calviino.

And I am in the process of, actively, reading the following:
World Orders, Old and New by Noam Chomsky;

The Cult of Personality: How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves by Annie Murphy Paul.
With some luck and a bit of diligence I will blog the rest of these books in the near future.

But this blog will be of Elizabeth Costello by the much lauded J.M. Coetzee.

Begun: 2013.04.21.
Finished 2013.05.08


It would seem that I have become something of a literary recluse because I do not remember anything distinctive about the author or his books despite his having won a Booker Prize, for Disgrace and even that has not jogged the grey cells. My friend, and expansive book reader, TR called me to him when I was walking by his desk. 'I think you might like this,' he said. 'It is really making a strong criticism of the humanities! Shockingly so and funny.'And TR was right! The obnoxious and eccentric narrator is the famous Australian writer Elizabeth Costello. She is bitter that she is famous for one book, an early one, and that bitterness colours much of her interaction with those who are either giving her literary awards or are seeking her opinion on writing. She is not just critical of generally accepted standards of literary discourse and the general zeitgeist of the humanities, but castigates them and their adherents. I confess to laughing with pleasure, too, because Coetzee articulates through Costello some of the criticisms I've expressed about the intellectual state of university schooling.

There are some delightful ironies, such as when Costello's sister, who is a practicing nun, is awarded an honorary degree in the humanities. In her acceptance speech Blanche (the sister) articulates that the history and evolution of the study of the humanities as being the study of anything but 'humans'. The birth of the so-called humanities began as the search for the literal truth of Scripture by trying to find the original language, the original text, the original 'tribe,' etc. The development and evolutions of the humanities had nothing to do with man and mankind's search for meaning in artistic expression.

This section acts as delightful counterpoint to Costello's ostensibly vain pursuit that the meaning and truth of life to are to be found within reason's purview. Coetzee suggests with humour and brilliant language, that enlightenment was wrong, that reason is a bastard child and leads to people developing disagreeable tempers with poor digestions. (Costello becomes an obsessive, perhaps even irrational, animal rights advocated.)

Blanche's acceptance speech is a fabulous articulation of the problem of reason, the arts, and the meaning of life:
'Eilizabeth,' Blanche (is there something new in her tone, something softer, or is she just imagining it?), 'remember it is their gospel, their Christ. It is what they made of him, they, the ordinary people. Out of love. And not just in Africa... Ordinary people do no want the Greeks. They do not want the realm of pure forms. They do not want marble statues. They want someone who suffers like them. Like them and for them.'

Jesus. The Greeks. It is not what she expected, not what she wanted, nat at this last minute when they are saying their goodbye for perhaps the last time. Something unrelenting about Blanche. Unto death. She should have learned her lesson. Sisters never let go of each other. Unlike men, who let go all too easily. Locked to the end in Blanche's embrace.

'So: Thou has triumphed, O pale Galilean,' she says, not trying to hide her bitterness in her voice. 'Is that what you want to hear me say, Blanche?'

Matt's Sketch of Orpheus
'More or less. You backed a loser, my dear. If you had put your money on a different Greek you might still have stood a chance. Orpheus instead of Apollo, the ecstatic instead of the rational. Someone who changes form, changes colour, according to his surroundings. Someone who can die but then come back. A chameleon. A phoenix. Someone who appeals to women. Because it is women who live closest to the ground. Someone who moves among the people, whom they can touch — put their hand into the side of, feel the wound, smell the blood. But you didn't, and you lost. You went for the wrong Greeks, Elizabeth.'
From the acknowledgements, this 'novel' is a compilation of stories written over a long period of time, for different purposes, that have been patched together. This may have been it's weakest element, as the voice changes in rather unusual ways as the book progresses. It creates a curious reading tension, which I found complemented the arc of the tales very well, but which may be off-putting to some.

Also, for those who are not to enamoured of philosophical arguments couched in a novel-like form, this will likely not be the book for you. But the philosophy and argument I found engaging and challenging and, above all, fun, despite Costello being rather obnoxious character.

The cleverness of Coetzee's writing is expressed through an ironic compulsion of Costello. Costello has become fanatical about the horrid state of our animal husbandry practices, and cannot keep herself from condemning the people around her for their insensitivity and ignorance to this dire situation regardless how inappropriately timed or expressed. But Costello has enough self awareness to know that her obsession is irrational, even fanatical. But that awareness was not enough for her to temper let alone eliminate her irrational compulsion with reason. Rather, her emphasis on the importance of reason to guide action demands of her that she rationalize her compulsion in a manner her sister admonishes in the acceptance speech, and in Costello herself.

To the 'right' reader this is highly recommended. But to the wrong one, I suspect it will barely eke out a single star. All I can say is 'Thank you TR, for your recommendation!' I have subsequently purchased his Booker Prize winning Disgrace and added yet another book to my growing reading list.