Friday, 31 October 2014

Dracula / Bram Stoker

4 out of 5 stars
Dracula - Bram Stoker's Gothic thriller recounting the exploits of an aristocratic vampire - has transfixed and haunted generations of reader. Perhaps the most seductive villain in Western literature, bloodthirsty Count Dracula has inspired countless movies, books, and plays. Few of these, however, have been fully faithful to Stoker's original best-selling novel of mystery and horror, love and death, sin and redemption.

Written in the form of letters, diary entries, and news bits, Dracula chronicles the vampire's journey from his Transylvanian castle to the nighttime streets of London. There, he searches for the blood he needs to stay alive - the blood of strong men and beautiful women - while his enemies plot to rid the world of his frightful power. The now-famous cast of characters includes the English solicitor Jonathan Harker; his fiancee, the enchanting Mina Murray; and Van Helsing, the mysterious Dutch doctor and expert vampire killer.


This is where the vampire trend got its beginnings—Stoker is responsible for the plethora of vampiric fiction that we see today. He uses the folklore and old stories to set the parameters that constrain today’s fictional monsters. Because of him, we know that vampires hate garlic, crosses, holy water and communion wafers. We know that they must have caskets to rest in during the day, must have boxes of their native earth close at hand, cannot see themselves in mirrors and can transform into wolves or bats. Plus, they cannot enter a house until invited.

This book, which was originally considered a cheesy horror novel and never expected to amount to anything, has become a classic in the genre, a blueprint for things to come. And how far we have come! Dracula was horrid, evil and dreadful to look at. How different from today’s vampire characters, who preen in front of mirrors, dress decadently, seduce humans rather than deceiving them, and, occasionally, sparkle. What is it about the Undead that attracts us so greatly?

I speculate that it is our youth-loving culture that makes the un-aging Undead so attractive to modern audiences. In the Victorian Dracula, Val Helsing is respected because of his age and experience—when things start to go south, Dr. Seward immediately summons him, pitting the master of science against the master of evil. If Stoker were writing this today, I imagine that it would be a young scientist (whose research was cutting edge) who would get the call.

I think that I have said before that I love books written in diary and/or letter format, perhaps because I am an inveterate journal writer myself. This was a re-read—-I first perused it decades ago and I had completely forgotten the last half of the book and enjoyed reacquainting myself with the story. I was left with one question niggling at me from early in the book—-how did Jonathan Harker escape from Dracula’s securely-locked castle? It seemed to me that he should have been more traumatized than he was by the experience and that he should have been in peril of becoming a vampire after his encounter with the three vampire women in that castle. So there are a few loose ends, threads left dangling from the tapestry.

I also found that Lucy was awfully easily forgotten by the three men who had all requested her hand in marriage! It seemed that within a very short time, they were all pledged platonically to Mina Harker. Very interesting to see the brainy Mina surviving while the beautiful, flighty Lucy meets a grisly end. Stoker’s comment on women, perhaps?

An excellent book for the Halloween season!

Thursday, 23 October 2014

The Bell Jar / Sylvia Plath

4 out of 5 stars
Esther Greenwood is at college and is fighting two battles, one against her own desire for perfection in all things - grades, boyfriend, looks, career - and the other against remorseless mental illness. As her depression deepens she finds herself encased in it, bell-jarred away from the rest of the world. This is the story of her journey back into reality. Highly readable, witty and disturbing, The Bell Jar is Sylvia Plath's only novel and was originally published under a pseudonym in 1963. What it has to say about what women expect of themselves, and what society expects of women, is as sharply relevant today as it has always been.

Reading this book is like standing in a whirlpool, feeling the water pull at you, trying to draw you into its vortex.  This work is unnerving in its honesty and willingness to share the distressing details of a life that is running off the rails.  The confusion and fear are palpable.

There are tendencies towards depression that run through my family, and I have felt the cold fingers of depression laid on my forehead more than a few times.  There, but for the grace of the universe, go I.  It is a sobering thought.  

Like Plath, I came as an inexperienced country girl to the city (though not nearly so large a city as New York).  I had to find my way through the minefields of city life, university studies, social events, and eventually finding employment.  Also like her, I could usually make high academic marks if I paid even a little bit of attention to a subject.  Believe it or not, that is not helpful—someone who administered an aptitude test for me looked at the perfectly symmetrical marks that I had scored and said, “Oh my, you don’t know what you want to be when you grow up!”  No kidding, that was why I was taking the blessed test!  Like all the best oracles, it offered no certain advice.  “You can go any direction you choose, but you will have to choose,” reported the tester.  No help there with deciding where to aim myself; I might as well have consulted a fortune cookie.

It’s hard to find good advice on life’s decisions: what employment would you enjoy, how will you know when you find a good life partner, is everyone else having as difficult a time as I am?  We all have to manoeuver through them with minimal experience and hope for the best.  I am grateful that I didn’t have to fight the black beast at the same time during that phase of my life.  

I appreciate the “female-ness” of this book—trying to deal with not being taken seriously as a potential employee, student, even as a patient.  Knowing that you must appear “ladylike” in order to make a good impression and that your clothing choices can be more important that you are.  The choices that we have to make around sexuality (especially back in the day when there was little reliable birth control available and women were still judged by their “purity”).  The Bell Jar was written just as women were starting to strain against the straitjacket of the wife and mother role that they had been shoved into during the 1950s—Plath’s female voice seems startlingly honest for the time.

The Bell Jar ends on what seems to me to be a hopeful note, stepping into the doctors’ office to be released from hospital.  If only that feeling of hopefulness had held and Plath had been able to resist the pull of the grave—what might she have created?

Monday, 20 October 2014

Never Let Me Go / Kazuo Ishiguro

4 out of 5 stars
As a child, Kathy – now thirty-one years old – lived at Hailsham, a private school in the scenic English countryside where the children were sheltered from the outside world, brought up to believe that they were special and that their well-being was crucial not only for themselves but for the society they would eventually enter. Kathy had long ago put this idyllic past behind her, but when two of her Hailsham friends come back into her life, she stops resisting the pull of memory.

And so, as her friendship with Ruth is rekindled, and as the feelings that long ago fueled her adolescent crush on Tommy begin to deepen into love, Kathy recalls their years at Hailsham. She describes happy scenes of boys and girls growing up together, unperturbed – even comforted – by their isolation. But she describes other scenes as well: of discord and misunderstanding that hint at a dark secret behind Hailsham’s nurturing facade. With the dawning clarity of hindsight, the three friends are compelled to face the truth about their childhood–and about their lives now.

I went to a film screening of the National Theatre of Great Britain’s performance of Frankenstein last week and was forcibly reminded of this book. Both works explore the nature of humanity and our dabbling in the creation of life. In Frankenstein, the creator abandons his creature, offering no guidance or support and then must face his angry creation. In Never Let Me Go, clones are raised as if they are at a posh boarding school, learning art, literature, and sciences, things they will never actually have opportunity to use. Which is worse, really, to leave the created being alone and uneducated, without guidance, or to raise them, educate them, allow them to hope & dream, and then exploit them?

Both works of fiction start with acts of creation that cause moral dilemmas. What do you do with a lonely, hideous re-animated corpse? What do you do with hundreds of clones being reared to supply organs to “real people”? How do we draw the line between “real” and “fake” people? Both Frankenstein’s monster and the cloned children feel real emotions and are capable of reasoning, but are considered on “the other side” of the divide, as exploitable human creations. Apparently, one needs to be conceived during sexual congress in order to qualify as truly human.

During my reading of NLMG, I kept wondering, would children without parents and families really be this passive? How much of the human drive to compete, to learn, to shape your own life, is part of the social construct we grow up in, and how much is genetically programmed into us? Without a family to give examples of what adults can do, would we all be stuck in the teenage gossipy, angst-ridden stage forever, as Kath, Tommy and Ruth seem to be?

As far as I know, no one ever argued that Dolly, the cloned sheep, was not a sheep. Could it truly be argued that clones from human cells were not human? It might be easier to raise the whole human body, rather than growing separate organs in a laboratory, but easier is not necessarily better. Almost 200 years after the publication of Frankenstein, we are still exploring these ideas and no hard and fast conclusions have been achieved yet.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

The Number of the Beast / Robert A. Heinlein

1 out of 5 stars
When two male and two female supremely sensual, unspeakably cerebral humans find themselves under attack from aliens who want their awesome quantum breakthrough, they take to the skies -- and zoom into the cosmos on a rocket roller coaster ride of adventure and danger, ecstasy and peril. 

Recommended for Heinlein completists and/or insomniacs.

A complete stinker of a novel. It meanders, it wanders, it stutters, it changes direction, it digresses. Heinlein rides all of his hobby horses. The original premise is okay, though not up to Heinlein at his best: a machine which can translate our explorers into other times and alternate universes. They discover that all the fictional worlds that they have explored in literature can be accessed through this device (and have a visit in Oz with Glinda as a result). Time traveling aliens seem to feel threatened by their ability to travel in this way and seek to eliminate them (the reasons that the aliens feel this way is never explored or explained).

Unfortunately, although the book starts out strong with bombs and the protagonists being chased by murderous aliens, it wanders off track early and never gets back on point. Heinlein waves a tatter of this plot every now and then during the ensuing 511 pages which kept me plodding on in hopes of some kind of resolution. I wonder if he was trying to pad the manuscript to 666 pages, in keeping with the title? There is so much pointless conversation: Blah, blah, blah, look how smart I am, blah, blah, blah, look how sexually sophisticated I am, blah, blah, blah.

In the end, one learns more about Heinlein’s quirks and prejudices that about the aliens. We can surmise several things: he deeply resented any kind of authority and the paying of taxes; he felt that society’s rules were arbitrary (they are) and should be optional (some of them, sure); and he seems to have been a boob man, preferring the T in T&A. I assume that he was a naturist in his private life and I would guess that he and his wife had an “open relationship,” which likely meant that he got to do what he wanted sexually and she didn’t get to complain about it.

In the end, the book becomes very meta before meta was a thing. Heinlein takes the opportunity to feature characters from other writers’ work (e.g. the Gray Lensman of E.E. Smith, Glinda & Oz) and to weave in characters from his other works (Lazarus Long, Jubal Harshaw, et al.), even inserting himself and other writers like Isaac Asimov and Arthur Clarke. At this point, the book becomes just a masturbatory exercise and loses any pretense of moving the plot forward.

Heinlein seems to have been in love with his character Lazarus Long—I think he poured an awful lot of himself (and I mean awful as in icky) into that particular character, who of course appears again in Number. What can you say about a character who creates female clones of himself so he can basically fuck himself?

I’m sure that Heinlein thought he was being very feminist, portraying female characters with intelligence and sexual agency. Sure they are smart and horny, but they are still very much appendages to the men in the story. They are Heinlein’s fantasy women, what he would have liked to be surrounded by—women who want to do housework and cooking while plotting how to get their men into bed and get pregnant. (He certainly has a fixation on fertility—all these very fictional women ardently desire fertility when they get rejuvenated. I personally would choose sexual function with no chance of pregnancy—much sexier in my world!)

I assume that Heinlein at this point had become so popular that publishers knew that they would make profit even from this dreck. He must also have reached the stage where he could resist necessary editing. He did his reputation no favours with this book or Time Enough for Love, another pointless, masturbatory and loooooong tome. Read his earlier work—skip these two pieces of merde. 

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Life of Pi / Yann Martel

4 out of 5 stars
Life of Pi is a fantasy adventure novel by Yann Martel published in 2001. The protagonist, Piscine Molitor "Pi" Patel, a Tamil boy from Pondicherry, explores issues of spirituality and practicality from an early age. He survives 227 days after a shipwreck while stranded on a boat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

How many times have you heard the saying Stranger than fiction?  I’ve been known to look back at an event and declare that it would be unbelievable as fiction—that no one would deem it credible.  Life of Pi presents an extremely unlikely series of events, but they are strung together in a way that allows the reader to suspend their disbelief and continue on to see what happens.

I found the combination of zoology and theology to be very interesting.  If you are a militant atheist or an easily offended agnostic, this is not your book.  Although the book claims that it will make you believe in God, I found that to be a large exaggeration—instead it made me think about the status of the “Animal lover” in our society.

If you ask anyone, who will tell you that they don’t love animals?  Even serial killers, who often begin their trade with animals, know enough to feign warm & fuzzy feelings for cats or dogs—they know that they will stand out from normal people like a sore thumb if they admit that they really don’t care about animals (or people).  But not all animal lovers are the same.  It’s like Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, etc. 

There are Pet Owners, who are daft about cats or dogs or rabbits.  Pet ownership is often a gate way to becoming a member of an SPCA and becoming a member of a civilian “police” force, checking up on pet shops, volunteering at animal shelters, and leaving notes on car windshields where dogs have been left inside. 

Then there are Breeders—people who raise animals for a living.  They raise cattle, horses, dogs, cats, or rabbits.  Any species where money can be made and they often inbreed their animals to try to create offspring that conform to an ideal notion of what the breed should look like.  Think Thoroughbred horses, bred to run, or Pug dogs, which now have eye issues and breathing problems because they have been chosen for particular facial conformation.  Which is not to say that these people don’t love their animals—they clearly do care about them, value them, and take very good care of them.

Farmers are a subset of Breeders—they raise animals for various purposes.  Cattle become beef, pigs become pork, chickens produce eggs and meat, and farmers provide the food that the vast majority of us cannot raise ourselves.  Although the animals may be a business, the farmer is not an uncaring person.  Animal well-being is necessary down on the farm as well—unhealthy animals cannot be sold, certainly, but no one likes to see suffering in beings that they are responsible for.  Having grown up on a farm, I can tell you that we did make an effort to not get too attached to those animals which had been selected for future consumption.  It was much safer to become “friends” with animals which would either have long lives or would be sold and slaughtered somewhere else.  Having said that, our food animals often had names and my mother would sometimes tell us, “This is Pumpkin, isn’t he delicious?”  Although we cared about our animals, we weren’t sentimental about them.  Their purpose was to be food and we stayed very aware of that.

Many of those of us with farm upbringing also feel strongly about wild animals.  I remember seeing deer, coyotes, foxes, and even, once, a lynx from my bedroom window.  Most farm people are aware of the birds on their property, hearing frogs peeping from the ponds, and the progression of the seasons. 

Some of us even join the ranks of the Wildlife Warriors, those who advocate for wild animals and wild spaces.  These folks range from the mild (signing petitions, writing to politicians) to the extreme (Green Peace volunteers on ships harassing Japanese whalers).  I started in the mild category and I remember having discussions with my father, who believed that animals were secondary to humans.  As long as there were humans in need, he couldn’t understand worrying about endangered animals.  I didn’t believe it was an either/or situation—why couldn’t we help people AND try to save species?  I told him we needed both kinds of people, concerned about both issues.  I still see it that way, incidentally. 

Then there are the Animal Rights Advocates, those who believe that animals should be granted all the rights that we as humans claim.  According to them, we should all be vegan, we shouldn’t keep animals as slaves (i.e. pets), and we shouldn’t confine animals in any way.  Some of them also seem to feel that hurting people is okay, but hurting animals is evil.  I’ve attempted to be vegetarian several times (it is still an ideal that I aspire to for environmental reasons).  My experience of pet ownership is that of the owner as slave, filling bowls, cleaning up the furry dust bunnies, and scooping poop. 

I should also come clean at this point and tell you that I was a docent (education volunteer) at our city’s zoo for 17 years.  It felt like the job that I had been preparing for all of my life—my experience with livestock as a child, my fascination with wild animals, my concern for endangered species, all these factors made me an enthusiastic educator.  I appreciated our zoo’s programs for funding research and conservation work in Canada and elsewhere and for breeding endangered animals for potential return to the wild.  In fact, some of the Whooping Cranes that I helped to raise and some of the Vancouver Island Marmots born at our zoo have been returned to the wild to augment diminishing wild populations.  I know there are a lot of zoo haters out there, but I don’t know any of them who are actually doing things to truly help wild animals.  They seem solely focussed on shutting down zoos, not on solving the problems that zoos recognize. 

It seems to me that many of these positions are “religious” in nature—we have chosen our position and we stick to it and denounce the other religions.  You would think that all “animal lovers” would be able to work together for the benefit of all.  Instead, we are engaged in interdenominational warfare.  For example, our city’s zoo was affected by a major flooding event in 2013.  During the height of the waters, an animal rights advocate decided it was the perfect time to go to the zoo and to release the animals.  He was shocked to discover an army of zoo employees, busily saving animals under harrowing circumstances, who saw him off the premises.  Apparently, zoo keepers in his mind were uncaring, callous people who would simply leave their charges to sink or swim. 

We all care about animals, but we are as separate as Protestants and Catholics, as Sunni and Shiite Muslims, as Israelis and Arabs.  This week in Spain, people got very worked up—not over the fact that a Spanish nurse had contracted Ebola, but because her dog was euthanized as a precaution.  Thousands of people have died in Africa, but the death of one dog finally got people to care about Ebola.  I’m still not sure that they care about the people in Africa.

Perhaps this is why I love the writings of Kurt Vonnegut so much—babies, we just have to be kind!  To each other, to other beings, and to the planet.  Let’s put aside our dogma and work together.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Listen to the Squawking Chicken / Elaine Lui

3 out of 5 stars
As the 800,000+ U.S. fans of Elaine Lui’s site know, her mother, aka The Squawking Chicken, is a huge factor in Elaine’s life. She pulls no punches, especially with her only child. “Where’s my money?” she asks every time she sees Elaine. “You’ll never be Miss Hong Kong,” she informed her daughter when she was a girl. Listen to the Squawking Chicken lays bare the playbook of unusual advice, warnings, and unwavering love that has guided Elaine throughout her life. Using the nine principles that her mother used to raise her, Elaine tells us the story of the Squawking Chicken’s life—in which she walked an unusual path to parent with tough love, humor, and, through it all, a mother’s unyielding devotion to her daughter. This is a love letter to mothers everywhere.

This book made me miss my mother. I wish I could phone her. I wish I could get her to read this book and tell me what she thinks of it. I just wish I could hear her voice once more—something that I haven’t heard for eighteen years.

Now let me be clear—my mother was nothing like Elaine Lui’s mother, the Squawking Chicken. She had a happy childhood, a good marriage, and I think the normal desire to see her children do well. The Sqawking Chicken had a brutal childhood (her parents contemplated letting her die because she, as the oldest child, knew details about their lives that they would rather cover up), a husband who lost her for ten years when he refused to stand up to his family for her, and a child who she pushed hard to be successful. A tiger mother before such things were spoken of, a mother like that would have been a disaster for a quiet, introverted little girl such as me. Lui, however, seems to have survived and thrived.

Not that my mother was a quiet, submissive woman—far from it. She was a writer and I remember falling asleep in the evening to the sound of the typewriter as she worked on the latest project. She was a farm wife and she ran the household and garden, preserved the produce, managed the budget, did the taxes, and let us all know what we could and could not afford. When harvest time came, she added livestock care to her daily duties, while Dad swathed, combined and moved grain until after dark when the dampness of the evening would decrease the quality of the grain. It was expected that I would go out to the farm each fall to help her dig potatoes, carrots, and turnips. She used to tell me that Dad was too impatient—he ended up chopping into potatoes, which would then rot during storage. “You’re patient enough, you dig carefully, you wipe off the dirt, and you leave them out to dry properly. I’d much rather work with you.” She did me the favour of asking me each year, but I never turned her down. The only time I did turn her down was the spring that she decided that she was going to get chickens. “This fall, you and I can process chickens too,” she told me. Now, I know that I cannot wield the axe that kills the chickens, the smell of wet feathers during plucking makes me nauseous, and that I cannot cut up a chicken from the store, let alone cut into a recently deceased chicken and remove its internal organs. I had to regretfully tell me mother that if she bought chickens, she would be on her own when it came time to deal with them. And although she was capable of doing immense amounts of work without complaint, I noticed that she didn’t buy chickens that spring.

But what I enjoyed most was how much my mother enjoyed reading and discussing what she read. When she finished a book, it was often handed over to me. “Read it and tell me what you think,” she’d say. I remember her reading aloud vast portions of A Prayer for Owen Meany, and the two of us laughing hysterically at the ridiculous voice that she had chosen to use for Owen’s dialog. I remember passionate debates about which Canadian Margaret was the best writer—Margaret Laurence was her choice, Margaret Atwood was mine. I would drive home on a Friday evening and she would have a pot of coffee waiting—we would drink the coffee, talk about what we had been reading, watch the news, and go to bed. I never remember the caffeine keeping me awake. Like The End of Your Life Book Club, we talked about so many important personal matters by talking about books.

I’m glad for Ms. Lui’s sake that she still has her mother. But, not for the first time, I wish I could discuss books with my mother just one more time.

I’m sorry, this review tells you almost nothing about the book and probably way too much about me.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Wild Seed / Octavia Butler

4 out of 5 stars
Doro is an entity who changes bodies like clothes, killing his hosts by reflex or design. He fears no one until he meets Anyanwu. Anyanwu is a shapeshifter who can absorb bullets and heal with a kiss and savage anyone who threatens her. She fears no one until she meets Doro. Together they weave a pattern of destiny (from Africa to the New World) unimaginable to mortals.

A great book, I can’t believe that I just discovered Octavia Butler this year. She has been one the gems that I have encountered while reading through the NPR list of classic science fiction and fantasy. This novel could easily be a stand-alone novel, but I was intrigued when I realized it was the first in a series—I will be very interested to see where Butler takes the story from here.

Although this is another book about extraordinarily long life, Butler examines it from a very different view point. Two very long-lived beings encounter one another and despite a relationship that is uneven in power, their lives remain entwined. There is as interesting exploration of the nature of slavery and the uneven power situation (examined much more directly in Butler’s novel, Kindred). But what really spoke to me was the contrasting way that Doro and Anyanwu deal with people around them.

Now, I have found over the years that I enjoy my relatives immensely. I like spending time with them, talking to them regularly, and planning events to share with them. Anyanwu was my kind of immortal. She collected family around herself, surrounding herself with children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, etc., building a community of relatives all around her and enjoying their company. Completely different from Doro, who was also surrounded by descendants, but looked at them more as a farmer would regard his livestock—breeding them in an attempt to create people with special abilities including extra-long life. One doing it out of love, the other out of utility.

I’m only guessing, but I think that Anne Rice must have read this book—it reminds me strongly of her book The Witching Hour, where the family of Mayfair women are haunted by a malevolent spirit which nudges them towards the sexual liaisons that would be required to produce the qualities it required in their children in every bit as calculating a way as Doro manipulates his progeny.

This is the 151st book that I have read from the NPR list.