Thursday, May 30, 2013

Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest

David Foster Wallace

Some books you forget the second you’ve turned the last page. Others linger on for as long as you do, the pages still unfolding in the mind decades after the book was last taken off the shelf. For me, as for many others, Infinite Jest is the latter sort of work. But it’s hard to capture just why that’s so—describing the effect of such a book is a bit like describing the effect that a person close to you has had on your life. It’s easy to summarize the impression made on us by people who show only one side of themselves to the world, or whom we only know in a narrow way, but a person who becomes an integral part of your life may bring joy, frustration, enlightenment, amusement, and despair—sometimes in the same instant. Like a person, such a book doesn’t just shape itself to you; it also demands that you shape yourself to it, and if the book is meant for you, when you’re finished the bends and folds you’ve undergone in the process of reading stick, and life itself assumes a different shape because you have.

Lots of people have heard of Infinite Jest (the adjective often applied to it is something like “generation-defining”), and so when people learned that I was reading it, they’d often ask me what it was about. I couldn’t give a decent answer after the first hundred pages, or the second hundred, or even the third. I was in a state of thoroughly bewildered enjoyment throughout the first chunk of the novel, but I must admit I was hoping to be able to answer that question in some coherent way by the time I’d turned page 1100. By the time I was half-way through, I could give a relatively stock—though entirely inadequate—answer [NOTE: If you want to experience the book in the same way, skip to the following paragraph.]: “It’s a near-future science-fiction novel, set mostly in a tennis academy and a drug rehab facility, which seems to be mainly about drug/alcohol rehab and features a group of deadly Quebecois terrorists who are all wheelchair-bound and are looking for a fatal videotape that is so compelling that people who see it want to do nothing else but watch it.”

The very stupidity of my summary shows how futile a synopsis is. I've mentioned before the Zen story about a young monk walking down to the river to wash and passing an old monk coming back. The young monk asks “How’s the water?” and, without a word, the old monk shoves him off the bank and into the drink. Really, if the novel was a river I would have loved to just shove people in.

Infinite Jest is an intensely intellectual work—in a radio interview Wallace revealed that he structured the novel along fractal lines, and I guarantee that, no matter how broad your vocabulary is, if you track down a quarter of the 50-cent words Wallace mixes into the legion of voices that populate the novel, you’ll increase your word power by 20 percent. It’s funny, sometimes farcically so—for entertainment the kids at the Tennis academy regularly engage in a game called Eschaton, in which they simulate various nuclear warfare scenarios by staking out a space on the academy’s field of tennis courts and then lobbing balls at each other, following instructions fed to them by a computer; and Hugh Steeply, a hefty security agent tracking the Quebecois wheelchair terrorists, persists in disguising himself as a woman even though he is a massively incompetent cross-dresser. It’s tragic—examining in gritty, sometimes disturbing detail the effects of substance addiction and the various traps that ensnare addicts. Some are socially set, but the deadliest ones are self-sprung (and among the panoply of addictions in the book, perhaps the most toxic is the all-American aspiration for success). And, most importantly, it’s human—given the genre-mixing, the off-putting, skewed reflections of contemporary society and technology, and the free-floating paranoia that infuses some of its chapters, the world of Infinite Jest can sometimes feel like DeLillo- or Pynchon-land. But there’s an in-earnest nature to the novel, and a profound empathy attached to the portrayal of even the most unsympathetic of characters (and there are more than a few) that makes us care deeply about what happens to them, even as we steer our way through the disorienting postmodern framework they inhabit.

No book is for everybody, especially one that’s 1100 pages long, with 100 pages of endnotes—388 of them, some of which have their own footnotes—and includes just about every literary technique imaginable. But if you’ve been looking sideways at that sky-blue cover and wondering if you should take the plunge, as I did for about ten years, I’d say wade in and take your first strokes. As you would with any long, worthwhile journey, you’ll experience both challenges and joys, and if you’re open to them, both of those will leave you changed. By the time you’ve found your pace, you’ll be heading for the far shore. One often-described reaction to finishing Infinite Jest is, after navigating its 1100 pages, to turn the book over and start again from page one; I experienced this urge myself. I needed to move on to other things and resisted (well, I did re-read the first fifty pages), but I’m already looking forward to the time when I can wander into its weirdly familiar world again. Having been through it once, I feel like I’m finally ready to read it.

- Bruce

PS If you’re tempted but feel like you're needing some support before you set out, check out the How to Read Infinite Jest site, this 1996 Bookworm interview with Wallace on his book, and Brain Pickings's display of Three Ways to Visualize Infinite Jest

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Looking for Photos

 Do you have any Bookshelf photos from the last forty years? We're putting together a photo archive for our 40th birthday celebrations, so if you have a picture taken in the Bookshelf or at a Bookshelf event that you'd like to share, send them along to bruce[at]bookshelf[dot]ca. Planning for events is ongoing, so it would be great to receive any photos ASAP, and if you have a story that goes with your photo, we'd love to receive that too.

Thanks much!

- Bruce

Guelph Music Club: Top Albums 1963-1973

 One of the things that I like most about Twitter (and which I find rather amusing) is how quickly a single idea can give way to action and how collaborative that action can become. Music Lives does a great job of demonstrating that process in this terrific blog. As you can see, a single tweet organically evolves into a fun forum for people to talk about music by gradually revealing their five favorite albums from each decade, starting with the 1960s and working their way toward the present.

One of the Bookshelf's best kept secrets is that we have a small but excellent music section. It has been an interesting journey--we love music!

Steph has been curating our music section for the last eight months, and I thought people would get some insight into the music we carry if she put her own picks out there. Here are her first selections for Guelph Music Club's Best Albums of 1963-1973--album choices are posted once a week, and these are for the first two weeks. More will come each week!

- Ben

Let me preface my choices by explaining that while I enjoy a lot of the Beatles' music, I wouldn't deem myself enough of a fan to choose their best album. Thus, I am deliberately leaving the Fab Four out of my selection process (Bob Dylan has been excluded for the same reason). Okay, okay, stop booing. Here are my #4 and #5 pics:

5. What's Going On by Marvin Gaye. This album is not only great, it's important. Sure the songs are excellent ("Mercy Mercy Me" and "Wholly Holy" are personal favourites) but the message is equally powerful. Gaye imagined this concept album around the experiences of a Vietnam Vet returning from duty, and the songs functioned as both an anti-war and civil rights message. A lot of great protest music came out of this era, and What's Going On ranks among the best (Sorry Bob, I guess I just prefer a funk groove to a harmonica, when it gets right down to it).

4) Pearl by Janis Joplin. I love this record; everything about it is perfect. Janis is at the height of her considerable powers--rowdy, sad, seductive, and loud. The pounding beat that begins the opening track, "Move Over," warns you that something very powerful is about to happen, and the album delivers on that promise throughout, with the sweetness of "Me and Bobby McGee" and the pure singalong pleasure of "Mercedes Benz." Incredible.



Dan Brown 

One of the things I like the most about working in a bookstore is the multiplicity of opinions that customers and staff have about the books we have on our shelves. Dan Brown, made famous by writing little books such as The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons, and The Lost Symbol, has been loved and criticized by the people that frequent this joint. He has a new book out—it's titled Inferno, and I couldn't put it down.

Here are some comments I've heard about the book in the store:


"You want me to read that? Ummmm, no."
"I'm not into conspiracy theories."
"It's pop schlock."


"I loved Inferno, Dante here I come."
"It was incredibly well researched and well thought out."
"I couldn't put it down."

Inferno is about Harvard symbolist Robert Langdon, who is on a quest to decipher the meaning of an altered Botticelli painting.  He is racing against time to save humanity from a terrible plague. Bertrand Zobrist, a brilliant scientist with a questionable moral compass and a love for Dante Alighieri, is of the scary but real opinion that due to Malthusian exponential population growth, humanity is on the verge of collapse. To save humanity, he creates a plague to control the population. The book is fast-paced, smart, and very well researched, with lots of twists and turns. Want more information? See this interview Random House supplied to us.

Inferno is, quite simply, the ultimate summer read! If you find yourself on a beach, in a back yard, or lying in hammock over the summer, pick up a copy of this book. Right now, Inferno is on for 30% off in the bookstore!


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Guelph Reads--Our Story: Aboriginal Voices of Canada's Past

Our Story: Aboriginal Voices on Canada's Past
Tantoo Cardinal, Tomson Highway, et al.

When Laurel from the library emailed me and asked me to be part of Guelph Reads, I immediately experienced a couple of conundrums.  First, I’m not a really big fan of everyone reading one book--I guess I’m a Darwinian at heart and love it when people read a wide range of things. But it was an honour to be asked to participate, so I told myself, get over it and pick something. The second problem was that as a bookseller, I would normally ask you, "What do you like to read? What have you read before?" but I had no idea who the average Guelph reader was, so I thought and thought and what I came up with was a book that I thought I should read but hadn’t. As it turns out, that also addressed my first problem, because the book I picked, Our Story: Aboriginal Voices of Canada’s Past, was a book of stories by nine different writers, none of whom I had read, although now there are definitely some that I will read more of.

Admittedly, I picked Our Story when the Idle No More Protest was at its height, and during those weeks of protest I kept thinking that I really needed to understand the Native perspective more fully than I did. So I started the book with my fingers crossed--so to speak.

The first thing I was struck by was the two excellent introductions.

Rudyard Griffiths tells us how each author in the book has chosen a historical event and turned it into a story, and how in the preface for each tale the story's author explains to us what the story actually meant to them.  I found this exceedingly informative and now wish that many other writers would write their own forewords. Griffiths eloquently explains his take on native sensibility--how time and ownership are in conflict with the way European Canadians view the same things. Adrienne Clarkson, who visited the north so often as Governor General, speaks honestly about how Aboriginal people didn't even get the same educational or financial help after the war as every other Canadian got. This is a real example of how Native Canadians have historically been neglected.

I will just quickly give you some glimpses of what you will experience if you read this book.

Brian Maracle

Brian, who is from the Six Nation Iroquois, describes the blood feuds that happened in the beginning of the world, and through a mythological story show us how the Peacemaker restored harmony.  There is no word for failure in his language--something "just does not succeed." The Iroquois in Brian's story are so people focussed; there is one word for we in English, whereas there are four in their language. The three gifts that the Iroquois were given are speech, the responsibility to give thanks, and the knowledge of how to survive.

Rachel Qitsualik

Rachel says that if you want to understand a people, live with them. But if you can’t do that, knowing their story is the next best thing. So in her story we live with a couple of groups and a shaman who roamed the north centuries ago.

Basil Johnston

Basil says that he talked to a little guy in grade five who always wanted to be an Indian, but then he spent a month on a school project building long houses and hated it. Johnston has written a story to show the reader what it would be like to live in a Native culture. The whites worked for Cartier and then are kidnapped by a Anishinaube group. They married and became acclimatized and never wanted to go back to the serfdom of eighteenth-century Europe

Tantoo Cardinal

Tantoo writes about a time of hopelessness: 1915-1929, when Metis jobs were filled by whites. Metis became obsolete. Her story is about someone who is forced to leave his kids behind when his wife dies due to tuberculosis.

Jovette Marchessault

Jovette writes an invocation of natives lost in the war and describes how all reserves were emptied and men were sent to war. Her writing is beautiful.

Thomas King

Tom says that he doesn’t know why he writes: "something falls into my lap." He writes coyotes stories to bite our toes. Coyote tales are fun and almost have a road runner quality to them, but they're much smarter and it's for us to chase them around.

Tomson Highway

Tomson wanted to write something that would reflect on the time when natives got the vote in 1960. His story is about a little Native boy who lives in a residential school. The details are concrete and brilliant. The boy plays Clementi on the piano and is driven to his lesson every week by a kind teacher. This is one of the best short stories that I have ever read.

Lee Maracle

Lee feels strongly that Canada should see its history through the eyes of those who have been disadvantaged by its actions. False Creek was sold by her people to Chinese billionaires to develop, which she thinks is ironic, as the Chinese were treated so badly by the B.C. government.

Drew Hayden Taylor

Drew wanted to bring Oka alive, and he did it through the perspective of a white woman who once lived with a Native man and then divorced. When she sees him on TV at the Oka demonstrations she gets worried, as there are tanks and people are shot at.

In closing, if you read these stories you will become educated and open hearted about the plot against Native peoples that has been going on for years. You will read grand story telling without any clichés, and you will certainly be enriched by all of the wonderful words on the page.

- Barb

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Inferno, Dan Brown

Dan Brown 

To mark today's release of Dan Brown's new novel Inferno, here's a Q&A with Brown, courtesy of Random House. 

Inferno refers to Dante Alighieri´s The Divine Comedy. What is Dante’s significance? What features of his work or life inspired you?

The Divine Comedy—like the Mona Lisa—is one of those rare artistic achievements that transcends its moment in history and becomes an enduring cultural touchstone. Like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, The Divine Comedy speaks to us centuries after its creation and is considered an example of one of the finest works ever produced in its artistic field. For me, the most captivating quality of Dante Alighieri is his staggering influence on culture, religion, history, and the arts. In addition to codifying the early Christian vision of Hell, Dante’s work has inspired some of history’s greatest luminaries—Longfellow, Chaucer, Borges, Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Monteverdi, Michelangelo, Blake, Dalí—and even a few modern video game designers. Despite Dante’s enduring influence on the arts, however, most of us today have only a vague notion of what his work actually says—both literally and symbolically (which, of course, is of great interest to Robert Langdon). A few years ago, I became very excited about the prospect of writing a contemporary thriller that incorporated the philosophy, history, and text of Dante’s timeless descent into The Inferno.

When you start on a new book, do you begin with the writing or the research? Do you enjoy doing one more than the other? 

Research definitely drives everything I do. Before beginning the writing process, I spend a lot of time exploring worlds in which I intend to set the book. In Angels & Demons, those worlds included Vatican City, particle physics, and the ongoing battle between science and religion. In Inferno, the worlds include Florence, Venice, the writings of Dante Alighieri, as well as a frightening new science that I believe has the potential either to save humankind or to destroy it.

Where did do your research for Inferno? How long did you spend on it?

Researching Inferno began with six months of reading, including several translations of The Divine Comedy, various annotations by Dante scholars, historical texts about Dante’s life and philosophies, as well as a lot of background reading on Florence itself. At the same time, I was poring over all the new scientific information that I could find on a cutting edge technology that I had decided to incorporate into the novel. Once I had enough understanding of these topics to proceed, I traveled to Florence and Venice, where I was fortunate to meet with some wonderful art historians, librarians, and other scholars who helped me enormously.

Once this initial phase of research was complete, I began outlining and writing the novel. As is always the case, when a book begins to take shape, I am drawn in unexpected directions that require additional research. This was also the case with Inferno, which took about three years from conception to publication

With respect to the process, the success of these novels has been a bit of a Catch-22. On one hand, I now have wonderful access to specialists, authorities, and even secret archives from which to draw information and inspiration. On the other hand, because there is increased speculation about my works in progress, I need to be increasingly discreet about the places I go and the specialists with whom I speak. Even so, there is one aspect of my research that will never change—making personal visits to the locations about which I’m writing. When it comes to capturing the feel of a novel’s setting, I find there is no substitute for being there in the flesh...even if sometimes I need to do it incognito.

What kind of adventure will Robert Langdon face this time? Can you give us any sneak peak at the new novel?

Inferno is very much a Robert Langdon thriller. It’s filled with codes, symbols, art, and the exotic locations that my readers love to explore. In this novel, Dante Alighieri’s ancient literary masterpiece—The Divine Comedy—becomes a catalyst that inspires a macabre genius to unleash a scientific creation of enormous destructive potential. Robert Langdon must battle this dark adversary by deciphering a Dante-related riddle, which leads him to Florence, where he finds himself in a desperate race through a landscape of classical art, secret passageways, and futuristic technology.

What was the most exciting idea or story that you found in your research?

For me, one of the most exciting themes of Dante’s Inferno is the portrayal of pride as the most serious of the seven deadly sins—a transgression punished in the deepest ring of hell. The notion of pride as the ultimate sin dovetails perfectly with Greek mythology, in which hubris is responsible for the downfall of the archetypal hero. In mythology, no man was more prideful than the man who considers himself above the problems of the world…for example, he who ignores injustice because it does not affect him directly. This notion is reflected in a famous paraphrasing of Dante’s text: THE DARKEST PLACES IN HELL ARE RESERVED FOR THOSE WHO MAINTAIN THEIR NEUTRALITY IN TIMES OF MORAL CRISIS. This is a recurring theme of the novel.

What made Florence the ideal location for Inferno?

No city on earth is more closely tied to Dante Alighieri. Dante grew up in Florence, fell in love in Florence, and began writing in Florence. Later in life, when he was exiled for political reasons, the longing he felt for his beloved Florence became a catalyst for The Divine Comedy. Through his enduring poem, Dante enjoyed the “last word” over his political enemies, banishing them to various rings of the Inferno where they suffered terrible tortures.

Do you have a favorite place to visit in Florence, like a library or a museum?  

Every visit to Florence should include a trip to the popular highlights—The David, The Uffizi Gallery, The Boboli Gardens, and Il Duomo. In addition, there are a number of other locations that I find particularly inspiring. The Laurentian Library contains a breathtaking staircase by Michelangelo as well as archives of ancient manuscripts that are literally chained to their shelves. Palazzo Vecchio’s spectacular Salone dei Cinquecento is home to one of the great unsolved mysteries in art history, which remains an enigma to this day. And the Battistero di San Giovanni boasts a dazzling mosaic cieling that is said to have terrified the young Dante Alighieri and later inspired his enduring vision of hell. All of these locations make an appearence in the new novel.

The great detective in your novels, Robert Langdon, shares your birth date as well as your place of birth. What else do the two of you have in common?

Langdon and I both share a fascination with history, symbols, and codes, but this is where the similarities end. Langdon is far more daring and exciting than I am. He is, in many ways, the hero I wish I could be.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

1001 Books: Cloud Atlas, The Elementary Particles, The Island of Dr. Moreau

Have you ever read a book so fascinating that, even though you're still not really sure what it was about, you would still recommend it? For me, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas is just such a book. I remember that when I reached Cloud Atlas on The List I was pregnant with my first son, and thus in the perfect headspace to explore new, complicated worlds and to oscillate frequently between many different narrative voices. I still can't tell you exactly what the "storyline" was, but I can tell you that Cloud Atlas certainly draws you into its universe--and that you won't want to leave.

From David Mitchell's masterpiece The List catapulted me into the completely pointless world of Michel Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles. Needless to say, cynicism has never really been my bag, but some books with this perspective can still manage to be important or even entertaining, intent as they are on challenging our notions of meaningfulness and goodness. I get that. It wasn't the book's intentions that rubbed me the wrong way. The problem was in the execution: Houellebecq's special brand of nihilist crap was so dull in spite of all its attempts to shock me via rampant ugliness and amorality. Imagine Chuck Palahniuk minus the dark humour. Yawn. Also, did I mention that The Elementary Particles doesn't really deserve to be on any Best Books list? Hmmm, maybe that was implied.

Fortunately, my soul was soon soothed by The Island of Dr. Moreau. Heck, next time you read a crummy book, immediately follow it up with anything by H. G. Wells and I assure you that your day will get immediately sunnier. Moreau is a genuinely terrifying tale of genetic modification gone horribly awry. Two words: MUTANT ANIMALS. Feel free to stop reading this blog and just start reading Wells now. I'm serious.

For those of you still with me, you should know that I tried to read Tristram Shandy, but it didn't work out. Sometimes reading through the 1001 Books list feels like letting strangers set you up on blind dates....

- Steph 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Three Sisters Back to the Beginning: Timeless Greek Recipes Made Simple

"Food is Love": The Bakopoulos Sisters' Second Cookbook

During my early twenties I had the opportunity to live in Greece. It is a country of islands, olive groves, mountains, and gorgeous azure water. Greeks are a passionate bunch, and place a lot of value on food and family.

Last month we held a book launch for the Sisters Bakopoulos (Betty, Eleni, and Samantha), who were launching their new cookbook, Three Sisters Back To The Beginning: Timeless Greek Recipes Made Simple. It was an evening of good folks, good food, good drink, and some fantastic biodynamic olive oil from Acropolis Organics.

The sisters' first cookbook, Three Sisters Around The Greek Table, received international acclaim by winning the Gourmand Award for best foreign cookbook in Canada in 2009, first place at the New York Book Festival, and fourth place at the Best in the World competition in Paris, France.

We tasted a number of canapes throughout the evening, including grilled halloumi cheese, warmed citrus olives, shrimp saganaki, shrimp and orzo salad, red lentil soup, and lamb burgers. All of them were delicious, but halloumi cheese is my new favourite appetizer. Try this recipe—it will become a staple in your household!

Grilled Halloumi

A tasty, salty, and squeaky cheese made in Cyprus. It is made from sheep’s and goat’s milk, and can withstand very high temperatures, making it an ideal cheese for grilling or frying. Try it on vegetarian skewers for added protein.

Serves 4


4 halloumi cheese slices, ¼-inch (6 mm) thick
Olive oil for greasing


2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp fresh mint, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
1 fresh red chili pepper, deseeded, minced
2 Kalamata olives, sliced

Heat a large skillet over high heat. Brush both sides of the halloumi cheese with olive oil and place in the hot skillet. Cook cheese on both sides until cheese has a golden-brown colour, about 1-2 minutes per side. Transfer grilled cheese to a serving platter.

In a separate small bowl whisk the vinaigrette ingredients together and drizzle over the cheese. Serve warm.

Alternatively: Halloumi can also be grilled on a barbecue.

If you like this recipe, there are dozens more Mediterranean delicacies in the Bakopoulos sisters' new cookbook. Do your taste buds and your stomach a favour and pick up your copy at The Bookshelf.

Thanks for throwing a fantastic party ladies!


- Ben