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Electric Pages
books made me

Electric Pages
Date: 2009-01-18 23:40
Subject: "A brother Shamus? You mean like an Irish monk?"
Security: Public
Tags:max_phillips, mystery, usa
Fade to Blonde (2004)
by Max Phillips
220 pages - Hard Case Crime

Ray Corson moved out to Los Angeles following his dream of being a writer, but ended up just getting one or two roles as an extra in films, and then working some odd jobs, including being a bodyguard, before settling in on being a sort of handyman. But his life changes when an odd-looking blonde, Rebecca LaFontaine, seeks him out and hires him to deal with a gangster who's been bothering her - deal with him by killing him, if necessary. But Corson wants to investigate more first, and ends up moving through dope parties and gangster-run clubs and other fixtures of 1950s California. This book won the 2005 Shamus Award for best paperback original.

The author Phillips is apparently more of a 'literary' author who wrote this novel for reasons I'm not sure of, but are probably easy to guess. And there's signficant skill displayed in the prose; in sharp, well-drawn descriptions of people and places, and the noir-style wisecracks that are peppered throughout ("Her hair was done Kim Novak-style and blonde enough to hurt. You could have sterilized a cut by running your fingers through that hair." pg.151). But unfortunately it's all in the service of a plot that's not just ludicrous, but entirely incomprehensible in the way it plays out. I have no idea why any of the things happen, or why the characters act the way they do. Someone hires you to 'stop/kill' another person, and so you start investigating every scrap of paper you come across, join a mob and start into the drug trade, get all Dirty Harry on brothels, etc? Maybe I just missed something, but the motivations didn't make any sense to me at all. Which ruined the enjoyment of what could have been a good read.

There was also a definite air of mean-spiritedness that didn't sit right with me, and wasn't necessary merely to be faithful to the characters and their world.
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Electric Pages
Date: 2009-01-06 17:39
Subject: Imagine, going through your whole life looking like that!
Security: Public
Tags:film, jane_goldman, science, science_fiction, the_unexplained
The X-Files Book of the Unexplained: Volume II (1996)
by Jane Goldman
351 pages - Simon & Schuster

This second and final volume in the series takes the episodes of the second and third seasons of The X-Files as a starting point from which to examine various subject matter from voodoo and conspiracies to freakshows and, of course, alien abductions. I think this second volume is even a bit stronger than the first, as it pulls less punches and presents more facts, even when some of them are a bit cringe-worthy (such as the section on scientific experimentation on captive or uninformed human populations).

There's lots to learn in here, such as the relationship between witches, the drugs they took, and sitting on broomsticks, or the case of the woman who found her partially-formed parasitic twin to be pregnant, as that was the one her husband usually had sex with. Or weird things falling from the sky, such as frogs or one specific species of fish, or even perfectly legitimate banknotes that no one has reported missing or stolen. The most fascinating chapter is probably the one on lightning. Some people (or even generations of families) seem to attract it to a remarkable degree. And ball lightning is fascinating, at times seeming to move in an intelligent fashion, and until recently dismissed by scientific minds as entirely fictional (a fate it shares with things such as meteors).

On a related note, since I saw it in the summer, I was among the biggest detractors of the latest X-Files movie, but after seeing it again recently on DVD, in the slightly-longer, and slightly-smoother cut, putting away any judgmental attitude as best I could, I have to say...I didn't hate it. It didn't really belong on cinema screens, but I have to say that it's okay.

    Dr. Blockhead: Twenty-first century genetic engineering will not only eliminate the siamese twins and the alligator-skin people, but you're gonna be hard-pressed to find a slight overbite, or a not-so-high cheekbone. You see, I've seen the future, and the future looks just like him! [points to Mulder] Imagine, going through your whole life looking like that. That's why it's up to the self-made freaks like me and The Conundrum to remind people.
    Dana Scully: Remind people of what?
    Dr. Blockhead: Nature abhors normality. It can't go for long without creating a mutant. Do you know why?
    Dana Scully: No, why?
    Dr. Blockhead: I don't know either. It's a mystery. Maybe some mysteries are never meant to be solved.
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Electric Pages
Date: 2009-01-01 10:28
Subject: Year in Review 2008
Security: Public
So, summing up 2008, it was...er, a year. Let's leave it at that. Here's a top-5 for the year:

5) Seven Storey Mountain - Thomas Merton
4) Enchanted Night - Steven Millhauser
3) The Captive Mind - Czeslaw Milosz
2) Bread and Wine - Ignazio Silone
1) The Perennial Philosophy - Aldous Huxley

For 2009 I'd like to...read more, lol. Actually, I do have a few reading goals written down as my birthday/New Year's resolutions, but I think I'll leave them private for now. After all, I still need to finish up some books I intended to read in 2008.

Happy New Year, everyone!
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Electric Pages
Date: 2008-12-28 14:42
Subject: Bad Cops, Bad Cops
Security: Public
Tags:canada, giles_blunt, mystery
By the Time You Read This (2006)
by Giles Blunt
308 pages - Random House Canada

John Cardinal is a police detective in fictional Algonquin Bay, Ontario, an obvious stand-in for the city of North Bay. At the start of the novel his wife, who has a history of severe depression, is found to have fallen from the roof of a tall building, and everyone except Cardinal considers it suicide. Then Cardinal starts receiving taunting anonymous mail, which leads him to suspect that his wife has been murdered. But everyone else thinks he is just going through stress related to her suicide. At the same time, one of the other detectives in the department is tracking down a lead consisting of some internet images of child abuse that may have taken place in Algonquin Bay. This is the fourth novel featuring detective John Cardinal, but it's the first I've read. Some UK editions of this book use the title The Fields of Grief (why? did they think *that's* the title to turn it into a bestseller?).

The author was apparently a writer for Law & Order, among other TV shows, and the novel gets off to quite a strong beginning, and the characters of people in the police department are drawn very well. I'd say it's an above-average mystery novel up until the last third, when it really takes a nosedive as the methods of the various villains are brought to the forefront. One of the main problems in both investigations is that it seems that very obvious pieces of evidence are ignored or not followed up on until the plot calls for them. Also, the villain behind the rash of 'suicides' is just not believable the way he's portrayed (even though the narrative goes out of its way to mention a real-life figure who was the obvious inspiration). Also, I think the child abuse/pornography subplot is a cliche right up there with having a subplot with a wiser older character who was a holocaust survivor (which seems to be on the back of half the books on the remainder shelves). I don't have anything against exploring these topics in an in-depth or original way, but when inserted into a thriller they're usually just a lazy way to try to stimulate people's emotional responses. And the way the author goes into details of the child abuse, it seemed to be there either to titillate or otherwise existed on almost a parody level, since it went on for unnecessary pages.

But I don't think that's what the author was trying to do. He probably wasn't trying to do much of anything other than tell a story to take up some time, since if you think of some of the issues that are brought up, such as suicide or therapy or depression, the novel has really muddled views that wouldn't bear much scrutiny. It does start with some promise, but all you need to know about the level of cliche it descends to is that in the end the detective leaves the police station all alone to arrest his wife's murderer, not even calling for backup when he finds a dead body, and personally carries the one convincing piece of evidence along (presumably before any copy of it has been made), so he can dramatically brandish it in the one-on-one show-down finale.
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Electric Pages
Date: 2008-12-19 23:37
Subject: Why are the pretty ones always so insane?
Security: Public
Tags:gil_brewer, mystery, usa
The Vengeful Virgin (1958)
by Gil Brewer
220 pages - Hard Case Crime

Jack Ruxton never accomplished much in his life, and now runs a small home electronics sales and repair shop in Florida. One day he's called over to install some televisions and an intercom system in the home of an old sick man whose only caretaker is his eighteen-year-old stepdaughter, the smouldering Shirley Angela. Pretty soon the house-bound teen and the dim-witted repairman have a plan in place to knock off the old man and keep the contents of his bank account.

There's some promise in the early set-up of the story, and Brewer certainly knows how to use his powers of description to make a woman an object of lust. But the biggest flaw is that Jack the narrator is dumb as a post. The plot he devises is obviously full of many things that can go wrong, and then when things start to happen, he seems oblivious to even the most basic details (as in, not having a clue what would happen with the estate after death, not realizing that there would be a funeral - though the author seems to be aware of these faults in thinking). And then, what happens in the last 20 pages or so really doesn't mach with the way the characters have been built up in the novel.

I will say, though, that that is probably the most fetching book cover I have seen.
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Electric Pages
Date: 2008-12-12 10:36
Subject: X-Files Book of the Unexplained: Vol. 1
Security: Public
Tags:film, jane_goldman, science, science_fiction, the_unexplained
The X-Files Book of the Unexplained: Volume One (1995)
by Jane Goldman
352 pages - Simon & Schuster

The X Files, in its nine season television run, explored many mysteries in fictional form, from UFOs and government cover-ups to monsters hiding in forests and new diseases. This book takes the episodes of the first season and expands on the subject matter by exploring various myths, allegations, and confirmed events. Areas covered include ghosts, extrasensory perception, human physical anomalies, legendary beasts, UFOs, and even profiles of some real-life 'experts on the unknown' (one of them points out how nonsensical a term like that is).

The author takes a relatively neutral view, being somewhat on the materialist side on most of the subject matter, except in the area of UFOs and government cover-ups of said activity, where she presents a lot of evidence both in favour of the phenomenon and various admitted untruths put forward by the government, the military, and NASA. Though the book does not go into very much depth on each subject, a very welcome inclusion is a bibliography at the end of each chapter, so you can continue reading if you want to know more.

There's some really interesting stuff in here, like the people who only shed their skin once a year, like a snake, and various cases of setting fire by psychic power that have landed people in jail even in just the last few decades. In 1990, a law was passed in the state of Connecticut that protects realtors from disclosing the haunting (or, legally speaking, 'psychological impacting') of a property to potential buyers, unless presented with a formal written request.

Sometimes, when reading material like this, your imagination can start really running away from you, which is both thrilling and slightly unnerving.
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Electric Pages
Date: 2008-12-09 17:04
Subject: Town House by Cohen
Security: Public
Tags:canada, tish_cohen
Town House (2007)
by Tish Cohen
276 pages - HarperCollins

Jack is in his middle-thirties, and living off the royalties of his father's recordings, a rocker in the Ozzy Osbourne or Alice Cooper mould. He's divorced and still living in his childhood home, a townhouse in Boston which he shares with his teenage son and a cat deformed by an accident. And he has severe agoraphobia, to the point where he is afraid to venture out to the sidewalk in front of his house. He's pushed out of his comfort zone when he can no longer make his mortgage payments and the bank decides to sell his house from underneath him.

I decided to read this book without knowing too much about it. It was featured in one of those occasional lists of recommendations the library puts out, and I thought to myself, 'Hmm, a book about the son of a rock star who never goes out of his house, written by someone living in Toronto, sounds interesting.' Unfortunately it's really pretty bad. I guess this is what they call 'commercial fiction', and it turns out that the movie rights were sold for the novel even before it got a publishing deal. I also looked at the cover art and thought 'Hmm, it looks a tiny bit like a chick lit novel, but it can't be, right, with the story about a guy and his son, and rock music, old houses, etc... But I think this actually comes pretty close, as it turns out that Jack's passion is creating paint shades for interior decorating(!) and the son is so obsessed with trashy 70s fashions and accessories that from the way he dresses and acts, even an anti-bullying workshop might take time out to beat him up.

I think this book could have been successful if it was just more something. Maybe more funny. Or more caustic. More brief. More in-depth. Everything's really shallow and lacking in weight (especially for a novel about a hardcore agoraphobic, who you would think would be tortured with self-loathing, or loathing the world, or something), and I have to agree with the amazon reviewer (one of the few reviewers out there who I assume isn't a friend of the author) who says it's basically 'television in book form'.
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Electric Pages
Date: 2008-12-06 22:36
Subject: Foods that Fight Cancer
Security: Public
Tags:denis_gingras, food, health, richard_beliveau, science
Foods that Fight Cancer: Preventing Cancer Through Diet (2005)
by Richard Béliveau & Denis Gingras, translated by Miléna Stojanac
214 pages - McClelland & Stewart

As the title states, this is a book that's focused on foods that are scientifically proven, to one extent or another, to fight cancer. The authors are two researchers in Montreal who have done a lot of pioneering work in the role of diet in health, both as it relates to cancer and just in general. It's an area that's not very well funded because nobody can put a patent on broccoli.

The first part of the book describes what's currently understood about the way cancer functions. To be honest this is the weakest part of the book, as the authors describe things in kind of a confusing way, and bring in a lot of information that isn't very relevant. I've read much better summaries elsewhere. The second part is the meat of the book, which concentrates on foods such as cabbage, garlic, onions, soy, green tea, berries, dark chocolate, and red wine. It's structured so that each chapter gives you some information about a food, but it doesn't really provide comprehensive information about a diet (they recommend another book for that, and I think the follow-up to this book, Cooking with Foods that Fight Cancer, takes a wider view).

So, the book is fairly good, but it's really just a starting point, and is probably more technical and less practical than would be ideal (how much of the audience is going to benefit by molecular diagrams?). It's also interesting how the authors incorporate full-colour and quotes and lots of historical details about legends and stories regarding each food - I could never imagine anyone from Ontario writing a medical book quite like this.
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Electric Pages
Date: 2008-12-01 16:49
Subject: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Spark
Security: Public
Tags:muriel_spark, uk
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)
by Muriel Spark
128 pages - Penguin Books

Miss Jean Brodie is a teacher at a girls' school in Edinburgh in the years before the Second World War. This short comic novel follows the lives of a particular set of girls, six girls who become known as the 'Brodie Set', who have her as a teacher for two years between the ages of approximately ten and twelve, and then still carry on a relationship with her as they attend the school into their late teens. Brodie is a very idiosyncratic teacher, as she keeps track of the school day in order to know what textbooks her students should be pretending to be studying from as she regails them with stories of her past loves, and the way the fascists are straightening out and improving Italy and Germany, and instructs the girls on how they must always recoginze their prime, in order to be the crème de la crème.

It's hard to point out a particular plot as such, and this can probably be categorized more as a character study. A very, very funny and witty and clever and observant character study. It made me laugh more than a few times, and if the second half hadn't slowed down a bit from the brilliance of the beginning, it might have been the best book I'd read all year. I hadn't read anything by Spark before, but I did enjoy her writing style very much, and the way she jumps from the present day to events far in the future (sometimes the moment of the character's death) before going right back into the narrative, or the way that she depicts a character interacting in the world while at the same time living out some imaginary scenario in their own head.

I think one of the things that makes the novel so successful is the enigmatic figure of Miss Brodie. On the one hand she is the kind of teacher you would love to have, who only teaches enough of the curriculum to get you by on tests, and otherwise spends the time talking to her students more about life and the world and just plain injecting a bit of life into the classroom. On the other hand, it's quite obvious that in the end Miss Brodie is intended to be a negative example, something the student Sandy ultimately reacts against, though Brodie has given up to despair in a much more vibrant and eccentric way than most of the world around her. In the end, I think that what this novel is about is also the title of the book Sandy writes later on in life, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. Allow me, in conclusion, to congratulate you warmly upon your sexual intercourse, as well as your singing.
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Electric Pages
Date: 2008-11-29 12:14
Subject: Beneath the Wheel by Hesse
Security: Public
Tags:germany, hermann_hesse, highly_recommended
Beneath the Wheel (1906)
by Hermann Hesse, translated by Michael Roloff
216 pages - Bantam Books

This is the story of young Hans Giebenrath, who is an accomplished student in a small German town, and gets chosen to take special exams in order to be enrolled in a special academy that will mean a bright future for him with a career either in the church or academics. As Hans progresses further on, he feels more pressure from all sides - his father, schoolteachers, prominent townspeople - and life becomes less and less meaningful and enjoyable. After a series of events at the academy, Hans begins to fall just as quickly as he rose, unable any longer to resolve his alienation and disconnection from the people around him. This novel has also been published under the title The Prodigy.

A lot of people consider this Hesse's spiritual autobiography, as well as an attack on the educational system, and in about a hundred years it's clear that not much has changed. Hans is full of potential, but he's thrust into a system which is designed to take the dull and thick-skinned average student and turn them into relatively productive members of society, while any sign of uniqueness or difference is usually seen as a threat by the teachers. As another saying goes, the educational system turns coal into diamonds, and diamonds into dust. Even the pastor who counsels Hans is someone striving to be modern, and concerned with textual interpretation and historical truths, while evidently not even believing in the Resurrection or the living presence of the Holy Ghost. Hans later on tries to simply become a craftsman, but his intelligence and sensitivity means he can never fully integrate himself into the world of manual labour.

In some ways this novel is not that ambitious, and so it's not usually counted as being among Hesse's great works. But there are some sequences which are wonderfully evocative, and really spring to life. And there are also some fantastic passages describing the natural world. I actually think it's the best traditional 'novel' I've read by Hesse, as a lot of his other works seem overwhelmed by ideas, whereas here the guides are character, story, and atmosphere.

One point of interest is that in the little biographical sketch at the back it mentions that Hesse attempted to commit suicide before he became a writer (an event mirrored somewhat in the novel), and it does seem to match an uncanny pattern where if you look at the biography of a lot of great writers, an incredible number of them either attempted or seriously contemplated suicide at some point in their formative days.
    'A schoolmaster will prefer to have a couple of dumbheads in his class than a single genius, and if you regard it objectively, he is of course right. His task is not to produce extravagant intellects but good Latinists, arithmeticians and sober decent folk. The question of who suffers more acutely at the other's hands--the teacher at the boy's or vice versa--who is more of a tyrant, more of a tormentor, and who profanes parts of the other's soul, student or teacher, is something you cannot examine without remembering your own youth in anger and shame.' (pg.113)
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January 2010