April 30, 2008

Music Librarianship

I am a happy cataloguer -- it's true. It doesn't even have to be books. I catalogue my books for fun, but I've also been working (both paid and volunteer) as a music librarian for about three years with my current choir, and for a year with a previous group.

You might be wondering what a music librarian does, actually. I guess this because I was asked that very question last Saturday night, driving with A on the way to see a play. Here is what I do, as a choral music librarian:

At the beginning of term, I find all of the repertoire our conductor wants us to sing. This may involve using music from our own library, purchasing new music, or borrowing or renting copies from other choirs. Once I have the music, each copy is given a unique number, as is each choristers. The copies are then matched, and a folder is assembled for each chorister, containing all of the pieces for the year.

While this assembling is going on, I am also on the lookout for music that is falling apart. Choral music can take quite a beating over the years, especially when it comes to smaller pieces (the bulk of our holdings, in fact) which are stapled rather than bound. If a copy is falling apart, I repair it using surgical tape. Regular tape will dry and become useless, and also cannot be removed without causing damage to the thing it's trying to hold together. Surgical tape does not have these problems, and we order it in bulk. Sometimes a piece is beyond repair, and some creative re-numbering happens after I make the trip to the recycling bin.

Once the folders are finished, they are distributed to choristers. I keep track of who has paid their fee for the term, because choristers can't keep their music between rehearsals until they have paid their music deposit for the year. Once a chorister has paid, he or she is allowed to keep the music -- and I can stop carting it around.

Around this time of year, we also get requests from other choirs who wish to borrow some of our music. If we have the wanted piece, I make sure that no in-house groups need it, and negotiate for its safe lending and return.

During our season, after everything is distributed, I am responsible for making any repairs that become necessary. I also provide extra copies of the music to choristers who have forgotten their folders, pencils to those who have none, and such like. I also badger our conductor about setting the repertoire for next term, so that I have time to redo all of the above.

After our final (well, only) concert of each term, I collect all of the music that has been returned. That music is put in order, and the copies are checked against a master list of choristers and their numbers. Once a chorister has returned all of his music, he is able to have his music deposit refunded to him. If music is lost forever, I withhold the fee, do some more creative renumbering, and update the catalogue to reflect the new number of copies we own. I don't purchase a replacement copy as, generally speaking, the music store makes you buy a minimum of five copies of any particular piece. After all of the music is collected, collated, and accounted for, it is re-shelved. This end-of-term process can take about five hours, all told, depending on how many pieces we sang.

Then it all begins again.

Also, I catalogue -- in fact, this has been the bulk of my work as a music librarian since last summer. Our library had vastly outgrown its space, an incredibly small and very fire-hazardous room. Accordingly, it had to be moved to a better location, and so my friend L and I were hired to facilitate that. We boxed up the entire library, moved it between floors, and then began the job of cataloguing and shelving.

You have no idea how much work that was.

To put it in perspective, our library holds about 1,000 individual titles. The last time I ran a sum-check, those 1,000 pieces were made up of roughly 34,000 copies. When we started the job, we found that the catalogue hadn't been updated in fifteen years -- and the catalogue as it existed was handwritten on index cards.

Oh boy.

So, we went to it. The first half of the job was boxing everything up for the move, getting rid of any garbage or illegal photocopies that had found their way into the piles, badgering facilities to please please take away our empty boxes, bagging up archival material for removal to the university archives, and dragging piles of flattened cardboard boxes across campus because we had to find our own moving containers. The second half was the un-packing, and cataloguing, and sorting, and counting, and shelving, and re-shelving ... and that took, by far, the longest amount of time. It's still not done, in fact -- although everything is done except for our small holdings, pieces of which we have ten copies or fewer. The job stopped when school began again, and now that I'm out for the summer, I'll be finishing it off.

That's what I was doing today -- cataloguing, stamping, numbering, counting, ordering, and shelving -- for about six hours. It's tedious work, and it involves heavy lifting, and lots of standing because the library table is a weird height for the chair, and on days like today it involves screaming grade nines attending a workshop in the room right under me (the music library is housed in the loft of this room, and so it's open on one side to what's down below).

I love it.

There's something eminently satisfying about a cataloguing job well done. When the music is in order, and in the box, and the box is in order ... it's just lovely. And, believe me, very satisfying.

Music librarianship: now you know.

Top 106 Books on LibraryThing

Yes, it's another meme -- but this one involves LibraryThing, my favouritest website in the whole wide world, and so I could hardly exist resist. (I totally just typed "exist" instead of "resist" -- but what the hey, I'm leaving it). My variation on the rules as laid out below is that I haven't struck through any books, but instead appended comments here and there.

At any rate, the list below is of the top 106 books tagged as "unread" on LibraryThing.

The rules:

Bold what you have read, italicize books you’ve started but couldn’t finish, and strike through books you hated. Add an asterisk* to those you’ve read more than once. Underline those on your tbr list.

Jonathan Strange & M. Norrell
Anna Karenina
Crime and Punishment
Catch-22
One hundred years of solitude
*Wuthering Heights
The Silmarillion [so! boring!]
*Life of Pi: a novel
The Name of the Rose
Don Quixote [read the first 200 pages...]
Moby Dick
Ulysses
Madame Bovary
The Odyssey
*Pride and Prejudice
*Jane Eyre
A Tale of Two Cities
The Brothers Karamazov
Guns, Germs, and Steel: the fates of human societies

War and Peace
Vanity Fair
The Time Traveller’s Wife
The Iliad
Emma
The Blind Assassin
The Kite Runner
Mrs. Dalloway [started once, started twice, and then finally I just pretended to read it]
Great Expectations
American Gods
A heartbreaking work of staggering genius
Atlas shrugged
Reading Lolita in Tehran
Memoirs of a Geisha [started, put down, never picked up]
Middlesex
Quicksilver
Wicked : the life and times of the wicked witch of the West
The Canterbury tales [I've read a number of them, but not all of it]
The Historian
A portrait of the artist as a young man
Love in the time of cholera
Brave new world
The Fountainhead
Foucault’s Pendulum
Middlemarch
Frankenstein
The Count of Monte Cristo
Dracula
A clockwork orange
Anansi Boys
The Once and Future King
The Grapes of Wrath
The Poisonwood Bible
1984
Angels & Demons
The Inferno
The Satanic Verses
Sense and sensibility
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Mansfield Park
One flew over the cuckoo’s nest
To the Lighthouse
Tess of the D’Urbervilles [a favourite]
Oliver Twist
*Gulliver’s Travels
Les misérables
The Corrections
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
The curious incident of the dog in the night-time
Dune [booooooooring -- but I finished it]
The Prince
The Sound and the Fury
Angela’s Ashes
The God of Small Things
A people’s history of the United States : 1492-present
Cryptonomicon
Neverwhere
A confederacy of dunces
A Short History of Nearly Everything
Dubliners
The unbearable lightness of being
Beloved
Slaughterhouse-five
The Scarlet Letter [holy cow, Hawthorne is prosy]
*Eats, Shoots & Leaves
The mists of Avalon
Oryx and Crake : a novel
Collapse : how societies choose to fail or succeed
Cloud Atlas
The Confusion
Lolita
Persuasion
*Northanger Abbey
The Catcher in the Rye
[hated it]
On the Road
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Freakonomics
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
The Aeneid
Watership Down
Gravity’s Rainbow
*The Hobbit
In Cold Blood
White teeth
Treasure Island
David Copperfield
*The Three Musketeers
[another longtime favourite]

In unrelated news, I'm now watching Stardust for the third time in a week and a half. It's just so good!

April 26, 2008

From A to Z

I found this meme over on things mean a lot. I believe you're supposed to list favourite books as well as favourite authors, but I haven't done so because I'm difficult that way. Some days I just don't know what to do with me. So my list is authors only, on the grounds that I probably can't pick a particularly favourite book for most of them. I have therefore added a link to each author's profile on LibraryThing, and you can peruse their titles at your leisure.

Besides Pride and Prejudice, anyway. That's just a given.

Austen, Jane
Bujold, Lois McMaster
Colfer, Eoin
Davies, Robertson
Eliot, George
Fforde, Jasper
George, Elizabeth
Heinlein, Robert A.
I
Jonson, Ben
Kay, Guy Gavriel
Lewis, C. S.
Moon, Elizabeth
Nesbit, Edith
O
Pratchett, Terry
Queen, Ellery
Rutherfurd, Edward
Sayers, Dorothy L.
Tolkein, J. R. R.
U
V
Wodehouse, P. G.
X
Yancy, Philip
Zelazny, Roger

I couldn't fill a couple of letters. Anybody have recommendations for authors to read whose surnames start with I, O, U, V, and X? That reads like a mediocre scrabble hand -- although I note that one could make "vox" for 13 points before any multipliers.

I note also that my list runs fairly heavily to fantasy, science fiction, and mystery writers.  I'm not surprised; I think it would have been that way even if I had made other choices (since some letters have an abundance of authors to their credit).

Has anyone else done this? Drop a comment and I'll come visit.

April 25, 2008

Review: The Ovum Factor, by Marvin L. Zimmerman


Title: The Ovum Factor
Author: Marvin L. Zimmerman
Original Publication: 2008
This edition: 2008
ISBN: 9781933538990 / 1933538996

I was initially a little sceptical about this book. "Eco-thriller?" I thought (sceptically). But what the hey, it was free, and so I waited for my copy to arrive in the mail, received it, and eventually read it. Now I'm writing a review. Amazing, isn't it?

Here's what the back of the book says:
Destruction of Earth's ecology threatens the survival of humanity. With time ticking away, a clandestine think tank of leading scientists and world leaders has identified our last hope -- the controversial research of a Nobel Prize-winning professor aimed at unleashing the power of a unique molecule that can alter the course of human history.

When David Rose, a young investment banker from New York, is assigned to evaluate the professor's research, he soon becomes swept up in a whirlwind of international espionage, assassination, and sabotage. David finds himself on a journey that takes him to the unexplored depths of the Amazon in order to fulfill [sic] two ancient prophecies for saving mankind and at the same time to realize his own destiny.

From New York to California, from China to the slums of Rio de Janeiro, and into the Amazon, the search for the mysterious source of this rare molecule will take you into the heart of the unknown and unseen forces of nature.

More or less, this is what happens. I say more or less because, as we know, book jackets aren't always particularly good at giving accurate assessments of book contents. Jacket blurbs are there to sell books, after all. But this is a fairly accurate descriptor.

The Ovum Factor is a fast-paced and enjoyable read, full of all of the promised intrigue and drama. It's got all the requirements: science, secret societies, explosions, adultery, secret jungle missions, kidnapping, exotic locales ... and you get the picture. It's fun.

One downside is that the ecological message -- OH NOES we are KILLING the EARTH -- is pretty heavy-handed, at least in the beginning chapters. It gets toned down as the action takes over, which is a good thing.

I mentioned already how fast-paced this book is. Even the chapters are over quickly; the book is 383 pages long and has 78 chapters. For those of you who are too lazy to do the math (it's okay; I usually am too), that gives us an average chapter length of just under five pages. Most are actually shorter than that. Chapter twenty-five, for example, is less than a page long. This was a little weird for me -- I tend to read lots of giant books with novel-length chapters (Dickens, this means you) -- but it does help to keep the action moving. The quick scene changes make this novel seem almost ready to become a screenplay.

Oh, and the book website has pictures.

April 24, 2008

My Dear, Inflated Sir

Ah, my first hate mail. This means that I've made it, right? Clearly the next step is to get fired.

A few days ago I received the an email from an author wishing me to review his book. The subject line was "FW: Query Letter" and the email began "Dear Editor," and went on in a rather confusing manner from there. The author has written a short story collection, and mentioned that one of those stories was published in a 1974 anthology. The author also talked fairly extensively about his previous novel, and a fair bit about what other reviewers had said about his work. It was a bit hard to follow; he seemed to switch p.o.v. on occasion.

As an opening issue, I was more than a little surprised to receive an email from someone who hadn't bothered to put my name on the top of it. Granted, my friends do that all the time -- but this was from a stranger, someone ostensibly writing a professional query letter. And this also was clearly a forwarded message, a copy of something sent out to who knows how many other editiors and/or reviewers. It just seems flabbergastingly unprofessional. He does want people to review his book, right?

Actually, Miss Snark talks about much the same thing.

At any rate, here's what I wrote back, after puzzling over this very odd email for a day or two. I will leave it unedited, except for our names, so that you may feel free to judge me as well:
Dear Mr. [So-and-so],

If you would please take a moment to read over the text of the email you sent me (appended below) you may be able to understand my surprise and consternation at receiving it. I can only hope that this is an extremely unusual example of your query letters -- otherwise, I am very surprised that you've managed to become published at all!

Consider your opening phrase: "Dear Editor." It is a shame that you couldn't be bothered to use either my name or my title. I am not an editor; I am a reviewer. You should have known that and your query should have reflected that. I also have a name, which is given in several spots on my website (from which I assume you got my email address). Like most, I tend to respond better to people who know and use my name.

I am not adverse to reviewing your short story collection as such, but I wouldn't do it on the strength of this query. If you can write back to me with a more professional effort, I will give you an address to which you can send a copy for me to review. I will not buy my own copy, as you seem to imply I should. In my experience, most reviewers won't do that.

Perhaps I am being too blunt, and I apologize for my rudeness. But you're doing yourself no favours by sending things like this out. You're selling yourself short, and aggravating the people you want to impress. That's just silly.

Try again, if you'd like, and we'll move from there.

Sincerely,

Christine [Surname]

I got a response this afternoon:
oh, dear, the anal-retentiveness has been awakened; the narcissism and the pomposity is too much. I have been reviewed all over the world by better and more expoxied reviewers than yourself. As a practicing psychotherapist you have more than issues, my dear, inflated sir.
Do not respond as I will delete your email; that you would spend so much time crafting a response like yours reveals how little is going on in your life. You are not only an aberration but a self-important prig, a remnant of the 19th century.

The first reading of this stung a little, but since then I've mostly been chortling. It just rolls off the tongue. He gets bonus points, of course, for using the word "expoxied." I've checked three dictionaries and none of them recognize the word; I suspect that he meant "experienced" although I obviously can't write back and ask for clarification. And I don't think I spent more than ten minutes on the email I sent to him; next time I will take longer and see if the vitriol flows exponentially. I'm not sure why you would send a query in the first place to such a poor and un-expoxied reviewer as myself.

Neither am I a practising psychotherapist. I just thought that I should make that clear.

Still, at least the important thing got sorted out:

I am an anal-retentive, narcissistic, pompous, issue-ridden, inflated, male[!], self-important, nineteenth-century prig of an aberration.

I wonder if any of that is marketable?

April 22, 2008

The Belligerent Reader

I've recently come to realize something about myself: At least some of the time, I am a belligerent reader.

What I mean is this: when someone talks a book up to me, and then gives it to me to read (or I find it on my own on account of their recommendation), I tend to read it like this:

"Oh yeah? Prove it!"

If I just pick up a book on my own and read it, I'll probably enjoy it. I have very broad tastes, and I enjoy most of the books that I read -- the vast bulk of them, in fact. But if somebody tells me that a book is amazingly good, or changed their life, or is luminously brilliant, the odds are good that I won't like it. I may, in fact, actively dislike it (which is different from just not liking something -- this is where it gets personal).

It's very contrary of me and I don't know why I do it.

Now I'm worried that I'm missing out on books which actually are amazing.

How do you react to books you've heard great things about? Do you read them and expect greatness? Or do you read belligerently, expecting them to fail?

April 21, 2008

Canadian Fiction, Woo!

I had the (mostly) pleasure of taking a course in Canadian Fiction at the university this year. Like my Victorian Fiction class, I enjoyed the reading material much more than I enjoyed the class itself. I think that if I am being honest, all of my classes tend to be like that. After all, most professors can't teach as well as the authors they talk about can write. Which is a pity.

At any rate, we read eleven texts over eight months, and their names and authors I now do list for you, with some commentary (which may or may not be useful):

Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, by Stephen Leacock.

This is the book that a classmate of mind felt "wasn't a novel" because "there's no sex in it" and "how can you claim to write a novel but leave out that huge facet of the human experience?" Personally, I tend to judge whether a book is a novel on whether it has, you know, a protagonist and chapters. But maybe that's just me.

The Temptations of Big Bear, by Rudy Wiebe.

I've heard it said that Rudy Weibe's books are "all vision and no style" which I think is a fairly accurate way of summing up this book. Its vision is breathtaking, but boy is it hard to get through.

Who Has Seen the Wind, by W. O. Mitchell.

This is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read, and it has shot to quite near the top of my all-time favourites list. It captures childhood perfectly. If you're reading this, try and make sure that you get the Canadian setting of the text -- some American editor cut quite a bit of it for the American publication, apparently, and so it's best to look for the original. American editors seem to do this to Canadian books fairly often, actually. I really can't tell you why, on account of it not making any sense to me.

The Mountain and the Valley, by Ernest Buckler.

I'm David Canaan, I'm super-special, I can't commit to anything, whine whine whine . . .

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, by Mordecai Richler.

Months after we read this, I was putting together a list of books in a collection I own, for the existence of which I hope to be granted $500 in prize money, and I realized that Modecai Richler also wrote Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang. Blew. My. Mind. In case you're wondering, this book is nothing like Jacob Two-Two. It's still good -- just written for grownups.

Tempest-tost, by Robertson Davies.

My prof maintained that you can't get any understanding or enjoyment out of this book unless you have read The Tempest. I don't agree with that; I haven't read The Tempest but I have enjoyed this book for many years. I am perhaps not getting the full experience, but you know, I think that I'm okay with that.

As For Me and My House, by Sinclair Ross.

This is my prof's favourite book in all the world, as far as I can tell, which is probably why we spent close to a month reading it. In actuality, I was sick at home with a bad bronchitis for the vast bulk of that time. When I returned and realized that my prof was repeating things verbatim from the first lecture on this text (which was some three weeks previous to my return) I was both relieved that I hadn't missed much and relieved that I hadn't had to sit through those weeks.

Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies.

If you've never read anything by Robertson Davies, start with this book. It's the first of a trilogy; the next two are The Manticore and World of Wonders.

Who Do You Think You Are?, by Alice Munro.

Who does your MOM think she is? Ooh! Snap! (I told you that my commentary may not be helpful.)

Home Truths, by Mavis Gallant.

This is a collection of short stories, of which we read six or seven or something like that. They were good. Now you know.

The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood.

Probably no Canadian fiction course is allowed to end without having read Margaret Atwood, and probably without reading this book in particular. That's okay because it's still good, even on a re-read. Interesting fact: Margaret Atwood's mother used to live nextdoor to my friend N. N has a crazy dog named Lola who likes to eat underwear. This habit involves much chasing through the yard, and often as not, when N would be in mad pursuit of Lola, trying to get her bra back, there would be Margaret Atwood, peeking and waving over the fence. We're still waiting for Lola to make a cameo in one of her books. Hope springs eternal!

April 17, 2008

Lists and Categories

I ran across a link to this today, which is the 110 Best Books as determined by The Telegraph. I don't know if there's anything particularly new or original about it -- people are always making lists of "best" books -- but a couple of things did catch my eye.

One of the things I noticed is that all of the listed books (unless I've missed one or two) are European, and nearly all of those are British, and most of those are English. Well, it is the Telegraph, so perhaps nobody ought to be surprised. Annoyed, yes; surprised, no. There's quite an on-going kerfuffle in the comments section over this, which I think is well worth a look.

The other thing I noticed, which is really more what I wanted to talk about* is how the books are categorized.

The list is divided into several helpful categories, presumably in case you want to avoid certain genres. Or seek them out. Or perhaps because things in lists look neat and tidy when they also have subdivisions. Here are the categories:
Classics
Poetry
Literary Fiction
Romantic Fiction
Sci-Fi
Crime
Books that Changed the World
Books that Changed Your World
History
Lives

All very neat, at least written out as above. But when I started looking at the actual books listed, some of these categories started to break down.

The Classics are pretty straightforward: The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Barchester Chronicles, Pride & Prejudice, Gulliver's Travels, one-two-skip-a-few, Madame Bovary, Middlemarch. Yup, those are classics. I think that everyone would agree that these are classics, even though people's individual definitions of "classic" may differ.

But there are lots of books which would fit in multiple categories, or which don't seem to fit their spot on the list at all. The Lord of the Rings, for example, is listed as children's fiction. I don't object to children reading it, by any means, but I don't think the fact that children read it sometimes makes it children's fiction.

1984 is listed as science fiction; most would probably peg it as speculative fiction. Brave New World is in the same position. A la recherche du temps perdu is pegged as literary fiction (whatever that means) but I think you could make compelling arguments for its being a classic and romantic as well. Of course, that might mean using the term "romantic fiction" in a slightly subtler way than the Telegraph does. The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, surprisingly, is not categorized as science fiction. (It is, apparently, a book which has Changed My World).

Very strange. Wouldn't they have been better served by having a fantasy category as well as one for science fiction?

It makes me wonder (again) about genre distinctions and how we use them to "grade" books. Classics are worthy but boring, literary fiction is better than romance, science fiction is interesting but unworthy -- isn't that how it's supposed to go? And how, if you're making a list such as this one, are you supposed to decide where certain books go? Is Sherlock Holmes crime or classic, or classic crime? Is The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe children's fiction or narrative theology? And what on earth do people mean when they use the term "literary fiction"? Fiction that's highbrow but too new to be a classic? Fiction that isn't bubblegum? What about the fact that literature means, basically, "stuff written down"?

Maybe I'm being overly picky. But it's a strange little list they've put together.

(Also, 110 books is only, what, a years' worth of reading? If you're looking for something more substantial, try the list of 1001 Books to Read Before Your Die. There's even a spreadsheet you can download for keeping track).

*I know, I know, Eurocentrism = bad. We get it already. I just want to talk about genre distinctions.

April 16, 2008

Review: Four Secrets to Liking Your Work, by Munzio, Fisher, and Thomas


Title: Four Secrets to Liking Your Work: You May Not Need to Quit to Get the Job You Want
Authors: Edward G. Munzio, Deborah J. Fisher, and Erv Thomas
Originally Published: 2008
This Edition: 2008 (ARC)
ISBN: 9780132344456 / 0132344459

This is yet another book from LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program. I received it probably about a month ago, and I've been trying to read it since.

Hmm, I feel almost as if my review could stop with that last sentence.

The basic premise of this long-named text is that you can find ways to enjoy your work by shifting your perspective, learning about the work styles of yourself and of your colleagues, finding keys to motivating yourself, and the like. All that is well and good, I'm sure. I happen to like my job, but I could see myself applying some of these techniques if I didn't.

However. I could not get through this book for laughing. It's not supposed to be funny; the prose is just that bad. Here are the opening two paragraphs of the prologue:
Prologue: "Monday Morning Dread"

The alarm broke the peaceful silence of the bedroom with an ugly metallic buzz, the dial glowing sallow green numerals of an obscene hour. Brian rubbed his eyes; consciousness came slowly. Soon, that old feeling of "work dread" began to smother his spirit. The day ahead of him drifted into focus, and his all too familiar feeling of dismay was close behind: It's time to go to work.

Like many, Brian lost his "will to work" years ago. The thought of a whole week at "that place" made him want to go back to sleep or to vanish and never return. The conflict, the oppression, the sadness, and the boredom were unbearable. Yet he could find no alternative. Bills needed to be paid, and he had become fond of eating.

Where to begin? Even ignoring the tense change at the end of the first paragraph and the "unnecessary" quotation "marks," this is bad prose. This is bad like NaNoWriMo at three am. This is the "if I insert enough adjectives it will be good" school of writing. It's bad, and the whole book is like it. And where does Brian work, exactly? The gulag? And does he know that he can find another job and still pay his bills? People do it all of the time. And wouldn't he have quit if the job actually was unbearable? These paragraphs confuse me.

Nevertheless, we'll leave Brian aside for the moment. I will now turn to the back of the book. Remember, this is a non-fiction work that is trying to be taken seriously. It's aimed at business professionals. It has pages and pages of spectacular quotations from reviews. And in the reference section, it cites wikipedia. Four times. Can I be more emphatic? It CITES WIKIPEDIA. Do I need to explain why this is stupid?

Prose, style, and scholarship aside -- I think that this book would be useful for someone who is in the unhappy position of disliking a job they can't quit. There are some good techniques and some good insights. You just have to wade through a lot of much to get to them.

April 15, 2008

Review: Dining with Death, by Kathleen Molloy

Title: Dining with Death
Author: Kathleeen Molloy
Originally Published: 2008
This Edition: 2008 (ARC)
ISBN: 9780978459901

This book came to me a few days ago for review, and I read it pretty much straightaway -- well, as soon as I finished the other book I was reading, anyway. And since then, I've been thinking and thinking about how best to review it. It was good -- very good -- but it wasn't what I expected from the promotional material, and that's throwing me a bit.

Let me remind you; here is the back-cover synopsis:
As friends leave her state-subsidized seniors' building, "Goodbye for now" becomes goodbye forever. Afraid to die alone, Zophia Žvirgzdas hunts for the perfect gay grandson. Can a topless walkathon, a marriage proposal, or the misadventures of a seeing-eye monkey distract her from her pursuit of progeny? Will the Angel of Death convince her that life is for the Living -- before it's too late?

To me, at least, that sounds like a comedy. More or less, anyway. But you shouldn't read this book thinking that it's a comedy. That doesn't mean that it isn't funny. It's very funny -- though it maybe would be less so to non-Canuckians, since it's choc-a-bloc full of Canadian topical humour -- and anyone picking this book up can expect some giggles. Maybe some guffaws.

But it's not all fun and laughter. Bad things happen. And, echoing the warning given in The Princess Bride, some of the wrong people die. Most of the deaths are bitter-sweet, or even humourous . . . but not all of them. Granted, this is a book about seniors and the Angel of Death (in the guise of various Canadian celebrities) is a featured character -- and so all the dying does make sense.

Molloy's prose is very strong. She has a good style and it works with the subject matter. There are lots of little things worth noting, like the pun-worthy names of some of the minor characters: Harry Kerry, Kermit von Tootalot. Dewalt Brody, the local unionized Angel of Death, who was unfortunately named for a power-tool company. Then there's the all-pervasive pharmaceutical chain, Pharmaphuk.

Not to say that there aren't parts that don't work. Here's the worst: during one of the last chapters of the book, Molloy puts in a reference to her own website. I know, it's all metafictional and whatever. It's also tacky, tacky, tacky. It's also redundant; the website link is also on the back cover and in two separate places inside the front cover. That certainly ought to be enough for anyone.

Apart from that (seriously: so tacky) I would recommend Dining with Death. Apparently there are a number of books in the series which are upcoming; the next novel, Rumbles in Arse du monde, takes us from Winnepeg to Quebec as the second stop in an eventual virtual cross-Canada tour.

This books reads like a blood-and-guts, bitter love-song to ageing. It tackles a lot of tough issues -- getting old, dying alone, cancer, widowhood, suicide, poverty -- with a twinkle in its (metaphorical) eye. And there's lots of sex.

I'm just sayin'.

April 12, 2008

Victorian Fiction, Woo!

This past year I took a Victorian Fiction course. It was actually called "British Fiction 1832-1900" -- but Victorian Fiction, I think, is what is really meant. English Victorian fiction, at that; for all the "British" in the title we only ended up reading one work which weren't by an English author.

At any rate, here's what we got through in the last eight months:

Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens.

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte.

Vanity Fair, by William Thackeray.

David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens.

North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell.

Adam Bede, by George Eliot.

Lady Audley's Secret, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon.

Middlemarch, by George Eliot.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy.

The War of the Worlds, by H. G. Wells.

Those are a lot of very big books. One of the things about publishing fiction serially is that authors, being paid by the word or at least by the installment, write a whole hecka lot of words. And, you know, I've read all of them -- except for the last chapter of North and South, and the last three hundred or so of Middlemarch. But I do intend to finish them. Someday.

And, since the books are so long, let's do some two-sentence reviews:

Oliver Twist: I'm Oliver Twist and I'm perfect and syrupy sweet! I don't understand why you hate me so much!

Wuthering Heights: I used to think that this book was garbage, over-rated rubbish, and a complete waste of time. After writing two papers on it, however, I've found that it's really grown on me.

Vanity Fair: This is another long mother, clocking in at about more than 800 pages. It's quite fun, but I found it difficult to keep who was who and who married whom straight in my head.

David Copperfield: This is one of the optimistic Dickenses, which makes it easier to get through the 900+ pages of story. Oh, and I cheered when David's first wife died, the little twit.

North and South: This is a sweet and feminine novel about the some of the North-South clashes during the earlier days of industrialization, with a romance and a couple of riots thrown in to boot. I still don't know how it ends.

Adam Bede: I love George Eliot's novels. This is one of them, and I love it.

Lady Audley's Secret: This is actually the best-selling novel of the Victorian period, having reached its eighth printing just two weeks after its initial publication -- although you've probably never heard of it.

Middlemarch: I haven't finished Middlemarch, but I liked it enough to buy my own copy. I had been reading for class from a copy borrowed from someone who had taken the class last summer.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: Very boring. Blessedly short.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles: This is probably my favourite book from this class, and probably in my top-twenty favourites of all time (don't ask for the rest; the list is highly amorphous). It is beautiful and sad.

The War of the Worlds: It was nice to read the original text of something so widely adapted. This book may just teach you to appreciate germs, at least if an alien invasion is expected.

The class moved through these at a fairly steady rate of one book every two weeks, with some of the larger books getting two and a half or three weeks, as needed. I didn't much enjoy the class itself -- I especially did not enjoy the amount of time spent reading passages aloud -- but I really enjoyed the fiction that we read. That I read. I love nineteenth-century fiction.

Don't be scared of the classics. You might have to make some adjustments to your reading -- read more slowly, for example, so that you can get through those long twisty sentences -- but these books are well worth the read (except maybe for Jekyll & Hyde). These books aren't worthy just because they are old, but it is telling that they have withstood the test of time. The above list is, I think, a good place to start.

But don't take my word for it. Why not read one, and tell me what you think?

April 11, 2008

Oh frabjous day, calloo callay!

I finished classes today. In essence I finished my third year of university today, barring one more exam which will take place later this month. I am finished! (I would like to say that it feels glorious, or something, but I've been up since 6:30 and in truth it feels like any other day, except tireder). Perhaps I will be excited later; my immediate plans involve napping.

At any rate, some bookish things have been happening to me lately. In the past two days, for example, I have received not one, not even two or three, but four books in the mail for me. Four books. For free! It's very exciting.

The first to arrive, yesterday, was The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher, by Beatrix Potter. We've got the whole set of Potter books, except we somehow ended up with two copies of The Tale of the Pie and the Patty Pan, and nothing about poor Mr. Fisher. BookMooch came to the rescue, and the book came in the mail, straight from . . . the States somewhere. It was garbage day so I don't have the envelope any more to tell you better than that. It's a different edition than the rest of the set -- the cover is large and green instead of small and white -- but it's nice to have it. Complete sets make me happy, especially when shelved in chronological order.

Order is good.

And then today, I came home after my exam to find two different packages containing a total of three books. Isn't that cool?

The two that came together are Virus Games, by G. L. Sheerin, and The Ovum Factor, by Marvin L. Zimmerman. The former is a YA techno-fantasy story about a boy who is struck by lightning and is then able to see and interact with the beings who live inside our computers. The latter is an "eco-thriller" concerning a rare molecule which will change the course of human history . . . forever! Dun dun dunnnnn. All joking aside, they both look fun, and I should have some reviews up fairly soon. These books were sent to my by Phenix & Phenix (the publicist company, not the blog).

The other book is Dining with Death, by Kathleen Molloy, with whom I've been in contact after she left a comment on my review of Atonement. I think the best way to describe this is just to quote the jacket:
As friends leave her state-subsidized seniors’ building, “Goodbye for now” becomes goodbye forever. Afraid to die alone, Zophia Žvirgzdas hunts for the perfect gay grandson. Can a topless walkathon, a marriage proposal, or the misadventures of a seeing-eye monkey distract her from her pursuit of progeny? Will the Angel of Death convince her that life is for the living – before it’s too late?

I confess that I have no idea how one would pronounce "Žvirgzdas," although I suspect it starts out with a sound that's a cross between a SH and a J. Or something. Nevertheless, I greatly look forward to this book. And, as above, I will get a review up soon.

I look forward to all of them, actually, which means that it'll be hard to choose what to focus on first. Right now I'm primarily reading Thud, by Terry Pratchett, and so I expect that I'll finish that before deciding. Probably.

Books, books, books! Such riches!

April 7, 2008

Review: Atonement, by Ian McEwan


Dear Mr. McEwan,

I am writing to express my profound disappointment and irritation with your novel Atonement, recently purchased by me on the strength of several rave reviews. I bought the book yesterday afternoon, dove in, and have been finished for perhaps half an hour. The novel in question is now lying on my bedroom floor, where I dropped it in disgust.

Please don't take this as a criticism of your prose. It's not your prose. Your writing is all of the things they say on the cover: luminous, gripping, et cetera. Lyrical, perhaps. Brilliant, possibly. You've got the chops for great things. And it's on the strength of your writing that I will be looking up other books of your authorship, despite my current ire. After all, I was hooked on this book from the start. It's evocative, spot-on. You use it to say brilliant things. Your prose is not the problem.

It's the plot. It's the utter disaster that you've made of the last, say, hundred pages of the book. It's the shocking twist ending which was anything but. In fact, the ending was both predictable and banal.  What a waste of talent! What a waste of time! What a waste of potential. This book could have been so much better.

And yes, I know what you're going to say: I just don't get it, it's metafiction, the ending forces the reader to question the validity and reliability of the narrator, yada yada yada. I do get it. The metafiction is painfully obvious -- in fact I pinged on who had to be writing very early in the novel. That the narration is unstable should have been surprising to no one.  It's not like this hasn't been done before, and better: see Margaret Atwood's work, for example, in both The Handmaid's Tale and The Blind Assassin. Good grief, your ending isn't even necessary. Does it tell us anything new? Not really. It over-extends the narrative, going far past the point at which it would have been appropriate to stop.

Maybe I'm not so angry so much as just plain disappointed. This could have been SO GOOD. Atonement was on its way to being the best thing I've read in a year or more. But you screwed up. You let us down. And that grieves me.

I wish this book had lived up to its reviews. I wish this book had lived up to its first three hundred pages. But instead of a bang, it ended with a pathetic sort of fizzle.

I'm sorry I couldn't like it. I'm sorry I'm judging you on your dismal-ish performance rather than on your enormous and stunning potential. And, sadly, I'm almost sorry that I read Atonement. Almost.

Better luck next time,

Christine

April 2, 2008

Another Link Round-Up

Things I've noticed:

1) DailyLit. Their premise: while lots of people don't feel that they have time to read books, everyone has time to read their email. DailyLit will email you books in installments sent as often as you wish -- out-of-copyright books are free, as are those distributed under a creative commons liscence, while books still in copyright cost a small fee (less than buying the actual book). I'm currently reading Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte, in 82 daily installments.

2) Wordsy.com. Think Digg, but for authors, publishers, word nerds, and book lovers.  It's neat-o.

3) BookMooch. I've had a link up for a while -- I've even had an account up for a while -- but it's only been very recently that I've started participating. The idea is very simple: it's a worldwide fora for exchanging used books. You list books you wish to get rid of; other users request to mooch your books; you mail them the books in question. You pay shipping to them, and you receive books for free. (You can also choose whether to send internationally or just to your own and/or neighbouring countries, which can help to mitigate the cost). It may be easier to get some books from the library -- but if it's something hard to find, or something you'd like to keep for yourself, BookMooch is a very useful place, methinks.

4) TOC About Writing. This is a webpage put up by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, as a one-stop shop for all sorts of advice on writing, editing, and submitting your masterpiece. And most of it is pretty funny, too.

5) Medieval Book Curses! Now you know what to write on your ex-libris page to really prevent your books from being stolen . . .

6) Ex-Libris: a cool e-zine for librarians. I like it.

April 1, 2008

March Books

Happy April! It is, I think, so far, a happy April -- we here are finally seeing evidence of spring. Almost all of the snow is gone, and though things aren't really growing much yet, there is a lot of mud, which is a good sign.

Over the past month, I seem to have read 17 books, which I think is not too shabby. That's just about one book every two days -- which seems wrong to me, I think mostly because I've been reading lots of these concurrently rather than consecutively, and so I don't remember finishing books as often as every two days. But, that's what the math says . . . and so I suppose I must believe it.

Here's the breakdown:
17 books total
6 read for school
11 read for personal pleasure
2 plays
11 novels
2 short-story collections
2 non-fiction texts

I would have to say that everything I read in March was good. Some was excellent. To whet your appetites, I have appended a list of March's books to this post, in the following format:
Title, by Author. First sentence.

- - - - - - - - - -

Who Do You Think You Are?, by Alice Munro. Royal beating. That was Flo's promise. You are going to get one Royal Beating.

The Roaring Girl, by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker. A play expected long makes the audience look / For wonders, that each scene should be a book, / Composed to all perfection.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson. Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scant and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary and yet somehow lovable. (reviewed)

Soul Music, by Terry Pratchett. This is a story about memory.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy. On an evening in the latter part of May a middle-aged man was walking homeward from Shaston to the village of Marlott, in the adjoining Vale of Blakemore or Blackmoor.

If Only They Could Talk, by James Herriott. They didn't say anything about this in the books, I thought, as the snow blew in through the gaping doorway and settled on my naked back.

Whitethorn, by Bryce Courtenay. True love came to me one crisp late autumn morning when the sky had lost the faded blue of a long hot summer and taken on the deeper colour of winter yet to come.

Swimming Pool Sunday, by Madeleine Wickham. It was only May, and it was only ten o'clock in the morning.

What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, by Daniel Pool. [returned to the library before I remembered to write down the first sentence]

Ellis Island and Other Stories, by Mark Helprin. In Munich are many men who look like weasels.

Feet of Clay, by Terry Pratchett. It was a warm spring night when a fist knocked at the door so hard that the hinges bent.

Jingo, by Terry Pratchett. It was a moonless night, which was good for the purposes of Solid Jackson.

The King's Daughter, by Suzanne Martel. "A king's daughter! I'm a king's daughter!"

Women Astronomers: Reaching for the Stars, by Mabel Armstrong. Women have always studied the night sky.

Four Letter Word, by Joshua Knelman and Rosalind Porter (eds.). Dear E(arth), I am writing to tell you to give up.

Red Rabbit, by Tom Clancy. The scary part, Jack decided, was going to be driving.

Sourcery, by Terry Pratchett. There was a man and he had eight sons.

Ram-Alley, or Merry Tricks, by Lording Barry. Home-bred mirth our Muse doth sing; / The satyr's tooth and waspish sting, /Which most do hurt, when least suspected, / By this play are not affected.