Eccentric Musings (jakaEM)

"I have undergone sharp discipline which has taught me wisdom; and then, I have read more than you would fancy." Emily Brontë


still figuring this place out - Jen W

25 following

Currently reading

Friend of My Youth
Alice Munro
Progress: 115/288 pages
Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature
Margaret Atwood

A sign from the universe

Over the past two days, I've been noticing friends reading Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, one of my favourite novels and one I haven't read in years.


Both ko and kinga have inspired me to pick it up and re-read it. I have a really cool hardcover that was my father's from his school days ... omg, strike that.

I just pulled it off the shelf and checked inside the cover, and it was not my father's: it was my Uncle Bill's.


Not to be maudlin or overshare or anything, but he died just this past Tuesday.  He was the last of that generation; my mother's only brother.  A class act; a really interesting, kind and generous man.  He left Canada in the 60s and moved to L.A., where he sold Volkswagens in Hollywood - "to movie stars", we all believed! hahaha


His funeral is tomorrow in Atlanta, and I am unable to go. I am thinking about him and remembering his life, and then here is this book - making an appearance on two threads in as many days, here at booklikes and on gr too.

If that's not a sign from the universe about what to put on my reading list next, I don't know what is.  

Rest in peace, Uncle Bill.  You were loved.

p. 325 (51%)

The Portrait of a Lady - Henry James, Anita Brookner, Pierre A. Walker

Wow, a day concentrating on it has improved this thing immensely!


I am picking up some definite Shakespearean influences, e.g. (Osmond to Isabel):


"My envy's not dangerous; it wouldn't hurt a mouse. I don't want to destroy the people--I only want to be them. You see it would destroy only myself." p. 288


And then: "Women--when they are very, very good--sometimes pity men after they've hurt them; that's their great way of showing kindness," said Ralph, joining in the conversation for the first time and with a cynicism so transparently ingenious as to be virtually innocent."


"with a cynicism so transparently ingenious as to be virtually innocent."

 That is such a fantastic line - and kind of sums up a main theme, yeah?



Why on earth did Isabel have a change of heart and agree to marry Osmond? Is this more of her fatalistic paradoxical reasoning? Her motivations are so unclear to me, it almost reads like a plot contrivance, but I must be missing something.

(show spoiler)



p. 215 (34%)

The Portrait of a Lady - Henry James, Anita Brookner, Pierre A. Walker

"Isabel saw them arrive with a good deal of assiduity at her aunt's hotel, and pronounced on them with a trenchancy doubtless to be accounted for by the temporary exaltation of her sense of human duty." p. 200


Must not read before bed ... must ... not .... (c'mon now, you really must agree that's a terrible sentence)


But this Isabel, she is a wonderful character. Watching her being played like a puppet by some (whose intentions are as yet unclear), and worn away and broken down by others' cynicism, and by her own fatalistic drive for independence and - it seems? - melancholy, is heartbreaking.


"She was intelligent and generous; it was a fine free nature; but what was she going to do with herself? This question was irregular, for with most women one had no occasion to ask it. Most women did with themselves nothing at all; they waited, in attitudes more or less gracefully passive, for a man to come that way and furnish them with a destiny. Isabel's originality was that she gave one an impression of having intentions of her own. "Whenever she executes them," said Ralph, "may I be there to see!"" p. 59


Cool book covers.

Hawthorn & Child - Keith Ridgway The Sisters Brothers - Patrick deWitt

Same designer?

18% (p 111)

The Portrait of a Lady - Henry James, Anita Brookner, Pierre A. Walker

I don't see where to create a reading progress post?


So I'm faking it - let me just say, 100 pp. in a month is bad even for me. Every now and then there's a flash of something about this Isabel Archer ... but then a whole bunch of words and England v America and they walk on the lawn and lots more words.


<<<<<<<<< it makes me feel like this


I really wonder where this is going.  I hear the ending is a doozy, but I might not make it there.


Beloved - Toni Morrison

Beloved, I felt, at one point, as though you were flaying me – repeatedly striking me with the details of Sethe's story, as they were revealed in layers, by her, by others. Each lash landed from a slightly different angle; each one dug a little deeper into my flesh.


I’ve read novels about slavery, and also non-fiction. Not much of the physical or emotional reality of the slave’s life was new to me. But somehow, in her presentation of it, Morrison took me deeper. She pulled me into Sethe’s mind – a confusing, terrifying, possibly insane place – and into each of her characters’ situations, with a ferocious, unyielding veracity that I’ve never felt with any other novel. Lots of literary reasons: devices of narration and imagery that I suppose I could unearth and analyze – and that could, perhaps, be used by other writers.  But not like this, none with this effect.

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Wheat the f*ck?

Wheat Belly - William Davis Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs,  and Sugar--Your Brain's Silent Killers - Kristin Loberg, David  Perlmutter

Wheat Belly's insulting, belittling, disrespectful tone and a holier-than-thou author attitude caused me to skim. But a CBC radio interview with Pelmutter on Grain Brain - and a Thanksgiving weekend stuffed with carbs coinciding with increasingly frequent incidents of a complete inability to find a .... a...... a..... NOUN! when I most needed one, kept me thinking -- muddled and confused tho' I might be.


Weight gain, a complete lack of energy, and a desire not to become a fat, sick, old lady add to the mounting, and compelling, argument that it's time to change my eating habits radically.


Cold turkey - and I don't mean in a sandwich - seems to be the most recommended modus operandi for quick results and minimal withdrawal.


And a side of getting off my ass and away from the internet.




The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire - Edward Gibbon, Daniel J. Boorstin, Gian Battista Piranesi, Hans-Friedrich Mueller Isn't it just absolutely extraordinary that we've gone from this:

The Top 25 Book Reviewers on Goodreads, Forbes, Oct 16, 2012

to this:

Amazon buys social network Goodreads and its growing ranks of 16M book lovers,, Mar 28, 2013

to this:

Is Goodreads' new policy censorship?, The Washington Post, Sept 23, 2013

to this:

Giving Offense: Full on Revolt on Goodreads, Ceridwen, soapboxing, Oct 11, 2013

to this:

Why I will no longer review on Goodreads, Elizabeth, Oct 12, 2013

in just one year, almost to the very day?

Well, no. No it's not.

Catch-22 - Christopher Buckley, Joseph Heller A high school re-read. An absolutely amazing book - I had remembered it as shorter, less complex, funnier. I had forgotten all about the style - those many, many, many adjectives! I remembered the absurdity - but had forgotten the surrealism and the grotesque. I had forgotten that it was written in 1961 - on the vanguard of a certain kind of 60s art and thought. I thought it was about Vietnam, but its setting was WW II. I had forgotten its sexism - but also forgotten its essential humanism.

In short, I had remembered how culturally important it was; but had forgotten how literarily excellent it is.

Definitely recommend you re-read this if you've maybe forgotten too. It is a truly timeless novel.
Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell Count me among those who are blown away, moved, enraptured by this novel. It worked for me on at least six different levels: plot/narrative; structure; voice; theme; symbolic/linguistic; genre.

It worked in the grandest sense of its philosophy (its dismantling of the Nietzchean 'will to power' concept) and the plainest: it's damn fine story-tellin'!

In fact, I loved this novel so much that it's going on my "for the desert island" shelf. By which I mean, if stranded on a desert island (interesting resonance there), this is a book that will sustain me; keep me thinking; keep me interested on repeated readings.

Many others on goodreads have written fabulous reviews for this - I've liked a slew of them; sorry if I missed yours. I can't add much to them except to note that it's interesting which sections are pointed to as favourites. Me, I can't pick one - although Sonmi-451 was perhaps the most disturbing, and I'm not sure I've fully understood it. So that one scratches, scratches at me.

Here is one, overarching comment: the thing needs to be read as a whole (and in the order presented, breaks and all); none of these sections would stand up particularly well (I don't think?) on their own AND it needs to be broken down in its parts to the most micro-level to suck the true goodness out of its marrow.

And I mean down to the sentence, even word, level. The repetitions in symbols/objects and connections at the sentence-level were extraordinary; and fun! Did you play the same game I did, trying to spot them?

And then another layer: each section in the first half started with a fall; each in the second with an escape.

And then another: can we escape the fall?

It's a tapestry ... and it's a piece of music: themes appear and re-appear, threaded together by single notes, by motifs.

I see in it what motivated the movie. I see why the movie may have been crap (I don't know; I haven't seen it - but will). This novel is very visual, as well as visionary -- although I say that, and I'm not sure how original it really is, except again as viewed as the sum of its parts. It was published the year after [b:Oryx Crake|46756|Oryx and Crake (MaddAddam Trilogy, #1)|Margaret Atwood||3143431] and perhaps that reference is fresh for me thanks to Moira's recent reading/posting about it, but there are striking similarities (CorpSeCorps v. Neo So Copros - freaky, huh?). And then both of them, Cloud Atlas in particular, harken back to [b:A Canticle for Liebowitz|989239|A Canticle for Liebowitz|Walter M. Miller Jr.||250975]. Maybe that is the way of post-apoc dystopias. Even in the future, nothing is original. Hah!

Cloud Atlas begs to be understood by being taken out of its element and plopped into a new one. Or maybe not for the understanding so much as the experience - that Matryoshka doll thing. The genres are one thing, but I'd like to see a sextet of translations of the novel into other artforms entirely, aside from film: musical (of course); the aforesaid tapestry; a painting; a play (?); a poem; would sculpture work?

And then all of those artforms would be presented as one piece of performance art, delivered in a marathon 12 hours.

Two hundred years to grow; two hundred years to live; two hundred years to die. The idea of growth, life, death in an endless cycle. Cowardice and courage and choices. Rises and falls. Entrapment and escape. Damnation and salvation and states of limbo in between.

This novel is in 6/8 time.

"It ain't savages what are stronger'n Civ'lizeds, Meronym reck'ned, it's big numbers what're stronger'n small numbers. Smart gived us a plus for many years, like my shooter gived me a plus back at Slopin' Pond, but with 'nuff hands'n'minds that plus'll be zeroed one day."

This is the first read, the taking-in of it all, the macro-micro view that skips details.

I'll be back after the next one.
The Antagonist - Lynn Coady This novel gets the early nod for the 2013 EccentricMuse Skippy Dies Award (a novel starring adolescent males that I’m completely surprised I enjoyed as much as I did).

Coady balances gritty realism with literary flourish to carve a portrait of a young man who grows up to become something other than everyone thought he would; and one who excavates his past in a series of emails spurred on by reading a former friend's novel in which he plays either a major or a minor role (it's not clear which; it doesn't matter).

In telling Gord Rankin Jr.'s story ("Rank" - a hockey-scholarship-earning/bouncer/enforcer who seems fated for a life of "innate criminality"), Coady creates a beautifully nuanced portrait of an adolescent boy who's endured traumas and been pigeon-holed by, among other things, his size - his sheer physical presence, or maybe just his presence itself - into a life he doesn't fit but doesn't seem able to escape. But she does a whole lot of other things, too, including painting an introspective, mid-life musing on identity - the shaping of it; the truth of self-fulfilling prophecies and the falsehood of fate; the early patterns and events that seem to lead inevitably in one direction and then, just as inevitably, veer off in another.

It's a novel about tragic, random events that seem like omens - at least, to 20-year-old Rank; conclusions that seem foregone but aren't, as it takes a series of unanswered emails and and additional 20 years to reveal to him. It's a novel about how stories can seem to be our own, how stories are important, but how stories never tell the whole story. It's a novel of deep feeling, of friendships and how fragile they are - like a human heart, Rank! - of adolescent boys inside of grown-up bodies, and how fragile they are.

Looking forward to reading more by Lynn Coady.

Half of a Yellow Sun - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie An extraordinary novel about a time/place that I know little about except - as the author mentions through one of her characters - as the device used by Western parents to get their children to finish their dinners.

What is amazing about this novel is how Adichie creates a set of characters involved in regular domestic affairs (working, studying, falling in love, being in love, cheating or worried about cheating, finding an identity, growing up, just generally living, etc. etc.) within the context of Nigeria's civil war and the creation (and starvation) of Biafra.

Then, within the set of characters, she subtly arranges them so that they exist in social strata that we rarely see or give credit to, when conducting our armchair political analysis from afar. Ever so gently, but oh-so-directly, she explains the West's complicity in allowing a level of suffering that is almost unimaginable. Yet - she stays within the framework of a conventional, domestic drama.

She takes us back and forth in time from the pre-revolutionary early 60s to the midst of the Biafran war in the late 60s. This structure works for a whole bunch of different reasons, one of which is that the events of the novel unpeel in a way that both reveals and adds layers of complexity, with the effect that we really get to know these characters over time - without the thing bloating up to be a huge, epic, family drama. We live their history with each other, with them. We see their shifting alliances, their conflicts, their individual idiosyncrasies, their humanity.

But with each switch in time (and a couple of other devices that I'll leave you to find out) - we also see the day-to-day horror as it unfolds. Subtle details that foreshadow and then recall key events that mark each phase of each character's decline as the war unfolds.

So it is a domestic drama - very conventional - within a novel about a truly horrific series of events, with these almost surreal, grisly details shown to the reader through the eyes of these characters - privileged characters, for the most part.

We see how their relative privilege declines - how society 'evens out' in a time of great deprivation. We see, as one character says, "There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable."

Technically, I think this novel is almost perfection. But ultimately what I love most about it is how much I cared for these characters, how much I felt for each of them as their stories unfolded.

This Adichie, she can really write.
Woodcutters - Thomas Bernhard, David McLintock monomaniacal curmudgeon aka unreliable narrator whom I think doth protest too much spews hate from a wing chair.

lots of words, no point. also no chapter breaks, no dialogue, no plot, no relief in sight. mind-numbingly repetitive - the perfect before-bed soporofic.

this is highly rated and lauded by my very smart friends who've read it - so what am I missing? does it get better? does it get different? is there a reason to pick this up again?


ETA: To clarify, I have put this on my "abandoned-for-now" shelf and after further thought, I have cleared my rating. The last questions I ask, above (almost rhetorically) are enough to indicate that I recognize this one's gonna nag at me. I had the thought on the drive in to work this a.m. that this character is so very lonely, sitting in his wing chair, in the dark, in the entry way, in his two-sizes-too-small funeral suit (he loved Joana deeply, it is clear; as he did/does the Auersbergers); an entirely self-imposed barrier of pride and sadness and bitterness between himself and the rest of the dinner party guests; muttering to himself and ranting about them though he longs to join them, his protestations and vehement condemnation of them - and of himself as one-but-not-one-of-them - notwithstanding.

This is - or, I suspect, will be - the re-entry point for me; one that will pull me back to this - eventually, and at a time that I'm more receptive to its style.

Three Day Road - Joseph Boyden This is two of my favourite reads: a "futility-of-war" novel by a Native Canadian writer, and with a unique Native Canadian angle.

Xavier and Elijah are Ojibwe-Cree from "the North Country" (which in this case means James Bay area) who sign up for WW I, and - because of their hunting prowess - make for excellent warriors. Niska - X's auntie - welcomes a deeply changed X home, and does what she can to help X cope with all he has seen, suffered and lost.

The novel is about killing and healing and incredible, profound, spirit-driven love. Of the boys for each other; of Niska for her would-be sons, and for X in particular. Love and bonds that are forged in one kind of trauma and tested in another kind of hell. Of a way of life that is lost to all kinds of wemistikishiw slaughter and madness; of transition between one way of life and another, physical, cultural, spiritual.

Though I am not a masochist, both types of novels - the war novel, the Native Canadian novel - cause great pain and therefore they often feel cathartic, cleansing in some way. But more: like an atonement for my privileged whiteness and the luck of the draw time and place-wise.

This idea of privilege - and how it factors into reading choices - is an interesting one to me these days (as I look at my bookshelves stacked to the brim with female authors; goodreads having made me more acutely aware of gender aspects of writing and reading).

Boyden, with his sensitivity; his writing that contains such depth of raw emotion; his male-femaleness/female-maleness (as Woolf would say) - has pride of place next to Erdrich, Thomas King and Richard Wagamese; and novels like Marlantes' [b:Matterhorn|6411016|Matterhorn A Novel of the Vietnam War|Karl Marlantes||6599953], Vonnegut's [b:Slaughterhouse Five|4981|Slaughterhouse-Five|Kurt Vonnegut||1683562], Findley's [b:The Wars|29898|The Wars|Timothy Findley||1005136] and Wright's [b:Meditations In Green|297334|Meditations in Green|Stephen Wright||288484].

Orlando - Virginia Woolf At the risk of writing a gushing, kneejerk non-review in the immediate flush of finishing, I think ... I think ... this is the one.

You can have your lighthouses and your dalloways - they are (indisputably?) more literary, more artful (I write that; I don't know if it's true). And for all the blurb writers' condescending labelling of this one as more accessible - gasp! - I will accept that there is just simply something I don't get about those others - get in my heart, that is. Get at a visceral level.

I like them a lot. I will re-read them - particularly To The Lighthouse, which needed more of my attention than I gave it at the time.

But this one. Filled to the brim with whimsy and poetry. Cheeky and satirical. Funny, funny, funny. So light-hearted and filled with joy and self-deprecation, but no less intelligent for it. Structurally extraordinary - think of it: Dalloway tried to pack all of life into one day; this turns that on its head and says - the writer can't ever get life on the page without having lived life, lives ... two thousand and fifty-two of them! Four hundred years' worth!

As it comes roaring to a close and into the present, it almost made my heart burst, it did.

This is the one that makes me wish I knew her. This is the one that makes me mourn her loss.
The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America - Thomas King Tough one to review. King explicitly states at the outset it will be his own personal approach to a topic that spans 500+ years, consists of hundreds if not thousands of independent tribes (not a heterogeneous group - call them First Nations, Aboriginals, Native Americans, or Indians, as he prefers), and is fraught with legal, political, tribal and even linguistic complexity that crosses and differs across borders.

He acknowledges that he is more comfortable with fiction, and that he won't be presenting a scholarly, historical account filled with facts.

And he doesn't. Yet - as the chapters mount (once the Hollywood chapter is out of the way), the facts he does present, welded together by anger and - if you're familiar with his fiction, this is no surprise - the surehandedness of a seasoned story-teller, are as or more compelling than if this was more rigorously footnoted.

And, he's Thomas King - he's got authorly, as well as Indian, credibility. So we can cut him some slack for the occasional lapse into cherry-picking and/or a feigned non-chalant irony that started to grate on me a bit.

He's not trying to persuade the reader to a particular point of view or a preferred solution. Still, the book is persuasive - even if it needs to be read in context with a lot of other fictional and non-fictional explorations of the topic.

Even if you're pretty up to date with Native history, you'll probably pick up a few tidbits here and there. What you won't find are any easy answers - because there just aren't any to be found.

When you're dealing with 500 years of messy, brutal colonization, and fundamentally two very different worlds on a collision course, is there any definitive way to make sense of it? Don't we all have to grapple with it in our own way, coming at it from our own unique perspective - either as colonist or colonized?

For me, on this topic, the question is: what happens after "I'm sorry"? How do we move forward, and to where?

I'm surprised King didn't write about the Truth & Reconciliation Commission (he was covering a LOT of ground and being as even-handed as possible in his focus on US v. Canada; I wonder if some honing in on one or the other might have been beneficial?). Also, in a subsequent edition - if there is to be one - I imagine he will add commentary about the Idle No More movement (which really got going around the time this was first published) - I'd like to hear his take on both things.

As a digression, a month or so ago we had an event at work that brought together leaders from a bunch of First Nations groups. The event started with a brief welcome to "our" offices, then we turned it over to a Cree elder, who performed a smudging ceremony. She translated her prayers into English. She called on "the spirits of all the animals, the birds, the insects, the rocks and our ancestors of this land of the Mississaugas of the New Credit" - the band that currently has an outstanding land claim on the very ground on which we were standing. Subtle but powerful moment. We thought we were welcoming them. Our colossal arrogance - entirely unintentional - but still.

This is where King leaves off ... with the land, and who has it, who wants it, who "owns" it.

It's messy. And the only way through it, I think, is honest, authentic dialogue. This book is part of that dialogue.

Still, that dialogue is not going to fix anything. It won't erase the past or heal it. I'm not even sure it can carve out a constructive future.

But is there anything else?