Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Anansi Boys - Neil Gaiman

I've been a big fan of Neil Gaiman ever since Matt lent me the Sandman series back in undergrad. I don't remember when I started reading his journal regularly, but I've been reading it for many years now, and it is just awesome because I get to find out when all his new stuff is coming out. And that can be tricky, because he doesn't just stick to one genre or age category. Mostly I love everything I've read - a few of his short stories I haven't quite puzzled out yet, and some of his earlier stuff is a bit too dark for me, but I always enjoy it.

Anansi Boys is one of my favorites. It has scary bits, but there are lots of lighthearted and fun bits to balance those out. There's a lot of depth, and much to think about, but you don't need a serious background in comparative mythology to puzzle out who all the characters are, there is more than enough background material included in the book for everything to make sense. I suspect that a deeper understanding of African mythology would make the book even more interesting, but it isn't necessary.

Fat Charlie Nancy is living a totally unremarkable, and rather boring life. He has a boring little flat in London, a boring little fiancee who only started dating him because her mother disliked him so intently, and and extraordinarily boring little job. Fat Charlie is enjoying his boring little life, and fantasizing about how wonderful things will be once he and Rosie actually get married, right up until the day his irascible and thoroughly embarrassing father manages to die in the most embarrassing way imaginable (at least to Charlie), and is revealed to have been not just any old man, but in fact Anansi, the trickster god of African & Caribbean mythology. Also, Charlie discovers that he has a brother, Spider. Spider is the exact opposite of Charlie. Spider has no fear of social situations, and commonly has a string of women dangling off of him. He doesn't have a job, but he does have lots of money, and he appears to have inherited all of their father's magic. Spider waltzes right into Charlie's life, moves into his spare room, steals his fiancee, ruins his job, and lands him in jail. Charlie attempts to retaliate, bungles things horribly (with the help of some little old ladies who really were trying to help), and they both wind up on the run for their lives from some supernatural beings who are well and truly pissed off with Anansi. And don't mind taking this out on his sons. Charlie and Spider team up and eventually manage to overcome the supernatural threat to themselves, and then sort out the rest of the situation. In the process Charlie learns a lot about himself and all the things he has been repressing because of who his father was. It is a fabulous and hilarious adventure as well as a wonderful story about the power of stories.

Ultimately though, I think this is a coming of age story. But not a teenage story, it is the coming of age of people who already thought they had found their place in the world - except that it was the place they had wound up as a result of their parents, their community, and their own fears. It is about bursting free of artificial confines and becoming the person you actually want to be, deep down, doing the things that make you feel most alive, even if they scare you sometimes. It's about not letting yourself be defined by the bad things that have happened to you, and letting yourself love people, even if you don't always like them.

The story is wonderful. Lots of action, lots of insanity, wonderful little bits of magic. A lime. Fabulous characters. This is one that I will read over and over again, like going to visit an old friend.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


This past weekend involved almost no reading at all, but this seems like as good a place as any to write about it.

The whole Stanisz lab took off to Killarney for 4 days. It was a bit of a gong-show, we had several people who had never been canoe camping before, and a seriously staggered start (group 1 set out Friday morning, group 2 Friday afternoon, and group 3 Saturday morning - having waited for the last person to fly in from Cuba on Friday night), and one group needing to be back in Toronto fairly early on Monday. Also, we were going in September, when the weather can be pretty iffy. So we needed a really flexible plan: 2 nights on Balsam Lake, followed by 1 night on Bell Lake which was right next to the put-in.

We spent the first 2 nights on Balsam lake - about 7km of paddling, and only 30m of portage. It threatened to rain in the morning, but wound up being absolutely beautiful by the time we finally got into our canoes. Nicole was supposed to come along, but wound up being too sick, so Sky & Firas shared a canoe, and I soloed mine. In retrospect, switching to an 18 ft canoe would have made more sense, but I really liked the prospect of having my very own canoe - and there was the whole argument I was having with Sky about how fast one can actually solo a canoe - he was convinced it would be about 30% of the speed of a 2-man canoe, and I was convinced it was significantly higher. I did really well on Bell & Three Mile Lakes, going at least 50% of the guys speed (although every time I glanced up at them, Sky was giving Firas paddling lessons and they were just drifting along...and I was starting to get a wee bit demoralized), then the little portage, and I set off happily, figuring we were almost there and feeling very proud of myself for having managed so well...and then the wind picked up. Everything was going ok for about 10 minutes, I angled myself so that I was still mostly moving in the right direction, but I was having to paddle really hard, on my off side, and I was already a bit worn out. Eventually I had to swap sides, which meant that the direction the wind now forced me to go in was not at all the right direction (and in fact, looked to the guys in the other boat like I was headed straight back to the portage!). I probably could have gotten there eventually, basically tacking back and forth across the lake, but I would have totally worn myself out, so they came back and attached a tow rope. Definitely a frustrating end to the adventure!

We had been hoping to get the two sites on a tiny island up at the very end of Balsam lake, but the first group had headed up there only to find them already occupied, so we wound up camping on another island, located in the middle of a cranberry bog. Probably not the best site in the summer, but it was late enough that there were no bugs at all. Turned out there was a muskrat super-highway going right past our camp, which was pretty cool.

Everyone was remarkably uninterested in dinner, but the homemade halal sausages and "sh'mores" later on around the campfire were a huge hit. Saturday morning started out with scattered showers, but then got down to several hours worth of serious rain. Luckily we'd brought the world's most enormous tarp which, while it looked pretty silly, did an absolutely awesome job of keeping us out of the wind and rain. Firas retreated to his tent to study and sleep, Kim tested the waterproofing on her gear in order to continue fishing, and the rest of us lounged under the tarp and chatted with the resident loon who was really curious about these strange people who didn't seem to like the rain very much - he was only about 10 ft offshore, and swam back and forth staring at us for at least an hour. Eventually the rain was coming down hard enough that a giant puddle started to encroach on our shelter, so Kim gave up on fishing and started digging a drainage ditch.

Eventually the rain let up, just as the final group arrived at Bell Lake and put in. I spent the afternoon napping and reading (sitting there watching the rain fall had been pretty exhausting) and we waited for the others to show up. Conveniently they rounded the point just as people started asking about dinner (which was arriving with group 3). After dinner we drank mulled wine and roasted sausages on the campfire until we thought we were going to burst.

Sunday morning we mostly got up early. Rafal, Lucy & Eve were headed off to hike up to the top of Silver Peak, and do a complete loop (involving several long portages) to get back to Bell Lake. The rest of us were headed back the way we'd come for a much more relaxing day. Which turned out to be a really good thing as Greg's migraine hadn't gone away overnight. We set out just after lunch, had a nice relaxing paddle, and then Sky & I left folks napping in their canoes while we headed off to scout out campsites. We found the most amazing site - space for two separate groups of tents, nice private thunder-box, gorgeous campfire site with some nice dry wood already waiting for us, bear-hang, and clothesline. We got camp all set up, had a quick swim, then Sky, Colleen & I headed out in one canoe to meet up with the three hikers. I'd been hoping to at least hike along the portage trail, but we managed to time things so closely that we arrived only minutes before they walked out of the woods. In another remarkable feat of timing, Adrienne & Kim had dinner almost ready as we got back to the camp - we hadn't been sure the fuel on the campstove would hold out, and they used up the very last of it just as Raf arrived with more.

Then we sat around a campfire until way way too late stuffing ourselves on sausages and roasted marshmallows. The fact that we had 2lbs of sausages and 2 full packages of marshmallows left over was a little astonishing. The 4 loaves of bread that didn't get eaten were a bit less astonishing given the amount of stuffing ourselves with sausages that was going on in the evenings.

Monday morning was bright and sunny. Greg was finally feeling up to enjoying himself and we lounged around on the rocks eating breakfast and drinking tea and hot chocolate. It was so warm that by the time we set out I was down to only a t-shirt. The sun was bright, hardly a cloud in the sky, and no wind at all. Soloing my canoe back to the put-in was no problem at all - I felt on top of the world. I love being all on my own in a canoe, with the whole lake spreading out in front of me. It's been a really long time since I've felt completely healthy and like I could actually rely on my body. It's such a wonderful feeling. Of course I pushed it just a bit too hard (really should have gotten Sky to drive all the way home) and wound up collapsing into bed at 7pm and sleeping 12 hours straight! Next camping trip I definitely have to bring my little inflatable pillow. Stuffing a pillowcase with my winter fleece just didn't cut it. My ears are just way too fragile.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Possession - A.S. Byatt

I read "The Children's Book" by Byatt not too long ago, drawn in by the cover art, and totally enthralled by it. I was also a little confused by it, as literary fiction is way outside the realm of what I ordinarily read, and so I went looking for other people's opinions on the internet, and was directed by many random strangers to go read Possession. And so I did. Because I always do what the internet tells me to do. Ahem.

Then I stumbled across a cheap copy in a used book store, and the rest is history. In a lovely coincidence, Emily over at Evening All Afternoon was also reading it at the same time, and just happened to post a review on the very same day that I finished reading Possession. Which was just awesome, since I had totally missed many literary allusions, and parallels with other poets.

Possession is a couple love stories, all wrapped up in a mystery. It is set in the 1980s, where two academics, one studying Christabel LaMotte and the other studying Randolph Henry Ash, start investigating a possible correspondence between these two authors, and in the process uncover a mystery. It is gorgeously written with lots of fictional excerpts from the various authors and their critics. Initially I was rather baffled by the logic of studying the personal lives of long dead authors, but by the end of this story I understood how it would help to interpret their writings, and why this would be desirable. Everything written, has been written for a particular audience, and so understanding the audience helps to understand what has been written. But also, understanding what is written can help you to learn more about the audience. It can really wind up looking like morbid curiosity, but interesting things do come out of it.

The story is lovely, but one of the most fascinating things for me was seeing the process of research in a field that is not my own. And seeing the effect which the internet has had on research. In the story, the characters have to write each other letters. Answering machines don't exist, personal cell phones, email -- the characters wind up having to write each other letters, and leave messages which don't necessarily get delivered. People have to travel in order to look at new manuscripts - they can't just be scanned and emailed. And then you get to contrast this with the period these scholars are studying - where there wasn't even a telephone - communications were either letters, or face to face.

The whole book was beautiful. I just loved the bits of poetry interspersed. I have a lot of trouble reading poetry, so it was rough going at times, but totally worth it, especially since I would then get to read various characters discussing the poetry, and see how fuller understanding of the poets lives led to new views of the poem. Totally fascinating and a lot of fun. I suspect that reading poetry takes more effort than I usually go to while reading, but now I see that that effort might be really worthwhile.

My favorite part was the ending. Byatt (based on my reading of two books) is just fabulous at writing endings. There is a definite villain in the story...he isn't really all that bad, but he certainly seems like a villain to the other characters. In the final scene he is doing something villainous that is going to actually provide the solution to the mystery, and the rest of the characters rationalize letting him go through with it -- they figure that unless he's caught in the act he can't possibly get punished, which is probably true -- but they are all also deeply involved and desperately wanting a resolution to the mystery as well. Byatt manages to set things up so that in the end they actually have to rescue the villain, and then they all resolve the mystery together. It felt deeply satisfying to me that the ending involved all the characters working together rather than competing with each other. Without the villain, the rest of them may not ever have solved the mystery, at best they would have had to wait years for official permission, but he was willing to do something highly unethical, and they all benefited as a result. Yet it was clear that he would be punished for unearthing the evidence. It was a really interesting moral situation. The resolution to the mystery was, itself, deeply satisfying, which just makes the whole book even better.

I suspect this is going to be a fun book to re-read. Now that I know what happens, I'm looking forward to seeing if I can pick up on some of the hints that get dropped earlier on. But I think I will go dig up some more of her stories first.