Thursday, February 24, 2011

Book Review #2: A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel is a consummate lover of books. I suspect that reading, for him, is somewhat akin to breathing, that intimate, that essential.

An award-winning editor and writer, Manguel has published numerous works including
The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, The Gates of Paradise, and News From a Foreign Country Came.

A History of Reading, published in 1996, is a tour de force, an elegant book, handsomely illustrated, thoroughly researched. As an anecdotal and highly personal history, the work celebrates the joys, delights and endless quirky details of reading, writing and books.

Manguel points out that a book, unlike life, can be reread and relived. Reading can also be a private or a public act. In a chapter titled “Being Read To”, he explores the role of the lector in nineteenth century Cuba, when tobacco workers paid one of their number to read aloud political tracts, histories, novels and poetry while they rolled cigars.

From the mysteries of cuneiform to the visual language of an Absolut vodka ad, Manguel ranges from our earliest written languages up to the present age of information.

He sneaks behind private walls to give us a view of medieval Japanese women reading in their chambers and takes us back to the bookstores, stationery shops and literary cafes of his youth in Buenos Aires. He introduces us to the greatest book thieves of all time and reminds us that Don Quixote went mad from reading too many novels of chivalry.

A History of Reading is, quite simply, a bible for bibliophiles. As Miss Prothero said to the firemen standing among the cinders of her burnt house in Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales: “Would you like anything to read?”

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Short Book Reviews

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I have decided to remove all but nine of the short essays from this blog, for the simple reason that the entire collection of these essays will be published in Spring 2012 by Fourfront Press (Toronto). So, look for Colourless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously at that time and get the entire package!

At this point, I am going to begin posting short reviews of various novels, non-fiction and poetry collections that asked me to write. They were all published on the amazon site between 2001 and 2006. Over that period, I wrote over 150 very short reviews. My editor at amazon gave me complete editorial freedom (almost), never changing a single line except the removal of the last line in this review of Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake.

Review #1: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

In this science fiction novel that is more Swift than Heinlein, more cautionary tale than ‘fictional science’ (no flying cars here), Atwood depicts a world that turns from the merely horrible to the horrific, from a Fool’s Paradise to a bio-wasteland. Snowman, who sleeps in a tree and just might be the only human left on our devastated planet, recalls how the world fell apart. He is not entirely alone, however, as he considers himself the shepherd of a group of human-like experiments called the Children of Crake.

While the first 70 pages or so are a rather ponderous set-up of what has become a cliché of the human endgame, the novel takes life when Snowman (known as Jimmy then) recalls meeting Crake, his best friend. A dark genius, Crake is the book’s most intriguing character. Crake and Jimmy live with all the other smart, rich people in the Compounds, protected facilities owned by bio-tech companies. Ordinary folks live in the chaotic pleeblands. This is the near future, our time still within living memory.

Meanwhile, beautiful Oryx, raised as a child prostitute in Southeast Asia, finds her way to the West and meets Crake and Jimmy, setting up the obligatory love triangle. Eventually Crake’s experiments in biotechnology run amok and cause the world’s shockingly quick demise (uncanny echoes of SARS, ebola and mad cow disease). Snowman is left to try to pick up the pieces.

Once the bleak narrative gets moving, it clips along at a good pace, with a healthy dose of wry humor. Nevertheless, there are enough speed bumps (some clunky dialogue; heavy-handed symbols such as the broken watch Snowman wears; and the silliness of naming the Children of Crake after famous characters such as Abraham Lincoln) that this cannot be considered among Atwood’s best.

If the sky really is falling and you’re heading for that desert island, this isn’t the one book to take.