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In Search of a Distant Voice by Taichi Yamada

Sunday, February 3rd, 2008

I liked it, then I didn’t like it, then I wasn’t sure, then I liked it.

Final verdict: worth reading.

After I read it, I looked up the author and wasn’t surprised to find that he’d written for TV and film. The book is quite visual, but unlike most books that read like this, it’s not a blatant screenplay-in-waiting.

Like most modern fiction, it is thin. The main premise of the book — the “ghost” story part — doesn’t really work. Everything else in the book is much more interesting. He would have been much better off just doing a straight character study.

Overall, it felt more like a young adult novel. Not just because of the simplicity, but because it had an adolescent mentality. I did like the main character, though, and his situation was interesting.

Modern angst in general is getting a little dull, however: I don’t know who I am and what I want, except it’s not what I’ve got. Plus I have no interests. Why am I so unhappy?? Come on folks, get a hobby, figure it out, peel your ass off the sofa, wake up, get therapy if you need it, change your life. It’s all too short.

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The Pleasure of My Company by Steve Martin

Sunday, January 1st, 2006

A light, enjoyable and interesting read. Steve Martin is not only an intelligent man, but perceptive. He notices the small details of people and places. I think anyone truly funny has to be paying close attention to life.

One thing I found interesting in all the newspaper reviews that I read, is that no one is touching the mental illness - and Steve Martin’s treatment of it - that this book centers around. I thought he did a really great job, in a lot of ways, of capturing the way a person with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is. Either he’s done his research really well or knows someone with it.

There were two major problems with his portrayal of the disorder, though. The first is that the character came off as a little too quirky. This disorder is agonizing to live with. My oldest friend has it, and we were roommates for 5 years, so I know what I’m talking about. It’s not just about taking an extra shower now and then, or being “squeaky clean” as Mr. Martin portrays it in the book. It’s about being terrified of “contamination.” Of not being able to try on clothes anymore because you’re petrified of catching syphilis — which you know is totally ridiculous but logic is irrelevant. Of having to wear gloves all the time, touching things only with a great wad of paper towels wrapped around your hand, not being able to let anyone touch you. Of running your clothes through the washer 4 times, then the dryer for two hours, then having to start all over again because someone in the room coughed while you were loading the clothes back into a brand new plastic bag while wearing latex gloves. And counting things isn’t just soothing - it can go on for hours unstoppably until the person is sobbing in exhaustion but has to start again because they got mixed up between 4873 and 4874.

Steve Martin shows the compulsion, the need to do these things and the story a person tells themselves to make it all fit an inner logic, but he doesn’t show what happens when they are thwarted. He shows the panic to a point, but not the agony - and it really is agony. The person feels utter despair, anger and a life or death terror when one little thing goes wrong or they are kept from fulfilling a compulsion.

The second major problem with his portrayal of the disorder, [spoiler warning - skip to next paragraph to avoid!] is that the character has a couple of revelations, his circumstances change and he decides that he wants to change and so, miraculously, he is able to convert his most serious obsessions into abstractions. In other words, he just chooses not to do them anymore. Too bad that doesn’t work for my friend. I’m sure Steve Martin means no harm, but this is a real disorder and this kind of flippant treatment of it is a real insult to people whose lives are ruined and made desolate because of it.

The reason I’m dwelling on this, is that I think it embodies the reason why Steve Martin (and lots of others) never rises above being a “good” writer. He’s afraid of the dark side. He’s afraid of deep/intense pain, anger, ugliness, despair and all the rest. You can’t be great without acknowledging the that everything exists in contrast. If you only have a little pain, you only have a little joy and you only examine a little of what being alive is like.

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Snow by Orhan Pamuk

Sunday, October 30th, 2005

No, I haven’t expired. Thanks for asking, though. I have, in fact, been reading a fair bit and am about 20 book reviews behind. Sigh. Instead of starting at the beginning, I’m going to start with the one I just finished.

This is my first Orhan Pamuk book, so I’m coming at it from a different angle than people who’ve read his others, which I hear were quite different. People always seem to get a bit discombobulated when an author heads out into different terrain.

I certainly have a handful of mixed feelings on this one. It was deeply atmospheric and I’ll say that the device of a snowstorm cutting off a small town from the outside world, leaving its inhabitants to create/follow/succumb to their fates was quite successful. I found the main character got on my nerves sometimes, he was like a ghost of himself. Of course, some people are like that, but I really wanted him to wake up, snap out of it. Perhaps he reminded me of my chronically depressed friend a little too much. So I guess the character may have been too well done.

The frame of the book was a fifth business narrative that let us know right away that we’re imagining walking for a while in another man’s shoes. And that gives us a strange closeness combined with distance. Sometimes we stand at a washroom window looking out into the snow and the night, smoking a cigarette and we feel we are completely inside his skin. Then an incredibly important choice is made completely off-stage. We aren’t with him when he makes or follows through on it and even though we are fairly certain how it went, this absence puts a big distance between us. This is not necessarily a bad thing and definitely serves to remind us that no matter how well we feel we know someone, how close we feel, we are never in that other person’s skin. They are forever separate from us.

Living in a country that only last year passed a headscarf ban in the schools, I admit I was a bit disappointed that there wasn’t more about this, but I can see how it just wouldn’t have fit in with the story. The main character really has no interest in the politics of the issue. He feels bad for the girls but he doesn’t have any political opinion on the subject, let alone any answers. So good on the author for not cramming more of the issue in there. There are political issues in the novel, but the novel and the characters always come first. A lot of authors trip up there, it’s pretty tempting. Pamuk didn’t.

Sometimes, when I finish a book I have a root about on the web to see what the reviews say. I thought this blog had some interesting reviews of the reviews. Pretty embarrassing that everyone kept mentioning Thousand and One Nights. God Westerners embarrass themselves a lot. And there, amongst the Thousand and One Nights reviews was my arch nemesis: Margaret Atwood. I have loathed this woman for years. Between that and statements like”[Pamuk is] narrating his country into being.” I wanted to punch her all over again. When I left Canada, I thought I would finally be rid of her. With my luck, she’ll win the Nobel Prize for Literature next. Al Purdy (Canadian poet) once wrote a little poem about her maybe 25, 30 years ago, before anybody outside of Ontario even heard of her. It’s called “Concerning Ms. Atwood.” Here’s a little excerpt:

There is Margaret Atwood
-she is accepting the Nobel Prize
and reporters are crowding around
with tears in their eyes
asking why she is so marvelous
she replies modestly
“I am Margaret Atwood”

There is Margaret Atwood…
she walks at the edge of the universe
where someone says “Hello
Pleased to meet you Ms. Atwood
My name is God” She smiles
and writes the name down promptly
in her little notebook to prevent
forgetfulness

That gives you a nice little glimpse of her before she became world famous. Don’t even try to imagine her now. I could write a book about why I don’t like her, why I find her unbelievably overrated and why her writing is rubbish. I’d probably give myself an aneurysm just thinking about it though, so I won’t.
Back to my subject. I will end with a link that I hope will remain active for a while. It’s “an article adapted from a speech given by Orhan Pamuk in Frankfurt.”

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