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sean s. (montreal)

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by Michel Houellebecq
Edition: Paperback
15 used & new from CDN$ 15.66

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A provocative and insightful reflection on our era, Oct. 19 2015
This review is from: Submission (Paperback)
Michel Houellebecq is the most widely translated French author in the world. He won the Prix Goncourt, the most prestigious literary award in France, with his previous novel The Map and the Territory. His work is characterized by a critique of Enlightenment liberalism, and his portrayals of the values of our era expose the misery of individuals who have been “freed” of the traditions of the past that gave life meaning.

Always original, Houellebecq's style is cold and clinical, with an acute sense of reality, long intelligent and insightful dialogues, and dark humour.

Submission is the translation of the word "Islam." The novel is about the submission of women to men, and of men to God, as dictated by Islam and also by the other monotheisms: "But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God" (1 Corinthians, 11:3).

In an interview with the Paris Review, Houellebecq says that he is "hostile to Enlightenment philosophy. Today atheism is dead, secularism is dead. In terms of values, there is a deeper opposition between a Muslim and an atheist than between a Muslim and a Catholic... I tried to place myself in the shoes of a Muslim, and I realized that they are in a totally schizophrenic situation. Obviously they are extremely distant from the Left and even further from environmentalists, for example on gay marriage, but they are distant on everything. And it is not clear why they would vote for the Right or even less for the Extreme Right which rejects them utterly. So in my opinion an Islamic political party is an obvious option for them." This is the starting point for Submission.

The central character in the novel, Francois, is a university professor who specializes in Huysmans (a naturalist writer who converted to Catholicism at the end of the 19th century) who is ill at ease in today’s world.

In the French presidential election of 2022, the Socialists and the UMP/Republicans are both totally discredited, as well as an electoral system that has become nothing more than the sharing of power between two rival gangs. Only the National Front (Front National) is left, and is expected to win following a disastrous second term of Francois Hollande.

And, as predicted, the Front National of Marine Le Pen wins the first round of the presidential election.

However, the other parties are so opposed to allowing the FN to win, that in the final round the party is beaten by a candidate from a new party, the Muslim Brotherhood. The party’s program, negotiated secretly with Manuel Valls, ensures that each French child should have the opportunity for an Islamic education.

Mohamed Ben Abbes becomes the new president of France, a moderate Muslim who comes across like a friendly Tunisian grocer, but who is in fact the most savvy statesman in France in decades. His vision: nothing less than rebuilding an Islamic version of the Roman Empire.

The inequality of men and women is institutionalized. This, combined with boosted family allowances, results in women leaving the workforce, consequently reducing the unemployment rate. In troubled neighbourhoods, the crime rates decline.

Teachers and professors are compelled to convert to Islam. Robert Rediger, a newly-converted Muslim, is the president of the new Islamic Sorbonne. Thanks to Saudi Arabia, professors’ salaries are tripled compared to what secular universities paid.

The hero of the novel, Francois, is attracted by the new law permitting polygamy for men, as well as by the offer of a lucrative university chair, so he goes with the flow and converts to Islam. He believes that he can accommodate himself comfortably to the new situation – a sentiment reminiscent of the collaborators with the Nazis in World War II.

The philosopher Michel Foucault predicted that “One day, perhaps, the century will be Deleuzian.” But here a different, darker possibility is expressed, that perhaps the century will be Houellebecquian.

It’s difficult to disagree with Houellebecq’s criticism of Enlightenment philosophy, which is based on a misunderstanding of the nature and the clarity of the human mind. The most recent research in social psychology shows that all of the decisions of the conscious mind (5 percent of the mind, which Daniel Kahneman calls “system 2”), even those that appear clear and reasonable, are in large part based on the unconscious (95 percent of the mind, which Daniel Kahneman calls “system 1”). Therefore the idea of the autonomous and free individual is largely illusory.

That having been said, according to Ronald Inglehart and the World Values Survey, secularisation, the liberation of women and gays, and the environmental movement are all very real phenomena. In each society, whether it is Saudi Arabia at the extreme of traditional values, or Sweden at the leading edge of postmaterialist values, there is a mix of traditionalists, of modern materialists, and of secular postmaterialists such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Michel Onfray, Djemila Benhabib and Naomi Klein.

Even if Houellebecq and large numbers of traditionalists and modern materialists are complacently resigned to a return to theocracy, there will certainly be a strong resistance on the part of postmaterialists, as Charlie Hebdo demonstrated with courage.

Overall Submission is a provocative and insightful reflection on some of the most fundamental questions of our era.

How You Were Born
How You Were Born
by Kate Cayley
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 20.96
13 used & new from CDN$ 16.86

5.0 out of 5 stars An impressive understanding of the nuances of human psychology, Oct. 7 2015
This review is from: How You Were Born (Paperback)
Kate Cayley leaped onto the radar of many people when this collection of short stories beat the favourite Margaret Atwood for the Trillium Prize for the best fiction in Ontario this year. As amazing as it may seem, this was no fluke.

These brilliant stories demonstrate an incredible range in voice, sensibility and subject matter. What unifies them is an impressive understanding of the fine nuances of human psychology - for better and for worse. Recommended!

Fifteen Dogs
Fifteen Dogs
by Andre Alexis
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 10.77
17 used & new from CDN$ 10.77

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thought-provoking and entertaining - a great combination!, Sept. 29 2015
This review is from: Fifteen Dogs (Paperback)
Fifteen Dogs is an extremely entertaining but also deeply philosophical story. It is strong from the first page to the last.

It opens with the gods Apollo and Hermes making a bet over a beer in a bar in Toronto. "Humans, said Apollo, have no special merit, though they think themselves superior. Hermes took the opposing view, arguing that, for one thing, the human way of creating and using symbols, is more interesting than, say, the complex dancing done by bees."

"I'll wager a year's servitude, said Apollo, that animals - any animal you choose - would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they had human intelligence."

Hermes accepts the wager, which sets in motion the story of Fifteen Dogs.

Alexis is not the first to meditate on the double-edged sword of human consciousness. Most recently, Daniel Kahneman has done so in his magistral Thinking Fast and Slow, and Nietzsche observed a century ago that "Consciousness is the last and latest development of the organic and hence also what is most unfinished and weak. Consciousness gives rise to countless errors that lead an animal or man to perish sooner than necessary, 'exceeding destiny,' as Homer puts it. If the conserving association of the instincts were not so very much more powerful, and if it did not serve on the whole as a regulator, humanity would have to perish of its misjudgements and its fantasies with open eyes, of its lack of thoroughness and its credulity - in short of its consciousness; rather, without the former, humanity would long have disappeared.

Before a function is fully developed and mature it constitutes a danger for the organism, and it is good if during the interval it is subjected to some tyranny. Thus consciousness is tyrannized - not least by our pride in it. One thinks that it constitutes the kernel of man; what is abiding, eternal, ultimate, and most original in him. One takes consciousness for a determinate magnitude. One denies its growth and its intermittences. One takes it for the 'unity of the organism.'

This ridiculous over-estimation and misunderstanding of consciousness has the very useful consequence that it prevents an all-too-fast development of consciousness. Believing that they possess consciousness, men have not exerted themselves very much to acquire it; and things haven't changed much in this respect. To this day the task of incorporating knowledge and making it instinctive is only beginning to dawn on the human eye..."

"Man, like every living being, thinks continually without knowing it; the thinking that rises to consciousness is only the smallest part of all this - the most superficial and worst part - for only this conscious thinking takes the form of words."

The Fifteen Dogs of Andre Alexis react to their newfound consciousness in different ways that we also see among human beings - savouring it, pretending that it's not there, using it to increase coordination among the group, and of course using it to dominate others.

A thought-provoking and entertaining novel - a great combination!

If I Fall, If I Die
If I Fall, If I Die
by Michael Christie
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 22.45
6 used & new from CDN$ 3.56

5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating scenario that dramatizes unconscious motivations, Sept. 26 2015
This review is from: If I Fall, If I Die (Hardcover)
If I Fall, if I Die is a novel with a fascinating point of departure. Will Cardiel is the only child of a single mother in Thunder Bay – a very isolated situation. But it gets worse: his mother is pathologically depressed and agoraphobic, so Will has been trapped inside the house with his mother for the first 11 years of his life.

Will has been taught that the Outside is dangerous, so his entire world has been displaced into the confines of their home: the bathroom is Venice, the master bedroom is San Francisco, the studio is New York, the kitchen is Paris (of course), and the basement is Toronto (lol).

Gerald Zaltman, George Lakoff and other experts in embodied cognition have shown that the idea of “container” is one of the most fundamental deep metaphors that structure our unconscious thought processes, what Daniel Kahneman calls “system 1”. It favours stability, re-presentation of the old, the instinct for survival, and a sedentary inertia (contained Inside). But there is another deep metaphor, “connection”, that dissolves this stability, in favour of the presentation of the New, the affirmation of life, and nomadic discovery (connected to the Outside).

If I Fall, If I Die is a stimulating and inspiring novel that dramatizes the transition from fearfully remaining Inside, to courageously connecting Outside. Recommended!

Outline: A Novel
Outline: A Novel
by Rachel Cusk
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 11.99
3 used & new from CDN$ 11.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Drifting passively with an observant eye, Sept. 25 2015
This review is from: Outline: A Novel (Paperback)
Rachel Cook is an extremely talented writer, and Outline is an intriguing book that is perhaps better described as experimental fiction than as a novel, an expression of passive nihilism. The narrator recounts a series of events, but what is missing in this series is precisely… a narrative.

The philosopher Nietzsche, often accused of nihilism himself, made a nuanced diagnosis of four types of nihilism: the negative nihilism of belief in a God and an afterlife where things are better, thus denigrating this life, our one and only life; the reactive nihilism of humanism or socialism, which place an unattainable ideal of “Humanity” in the place formerly attributed to “God”, but still denigrating life in comparison with the unattainable ideal; the active nihilism of Nietzsche himself (as well as Foucault and Deleuze), which iconoclastically destroys these ideals/ idols; and the passive nihilism that realizes that ideals are unattainable, and consequently lacks any motivation for doing anything more than drifting. Outline falls in this last category.

This fine book is an exercise in style, in tone, and a semi-autobiographical account which has the reader witnessing the emptiness of someone who has basically given up on agency in her life, going with the flow, believing “more and more in the virtues of passivity, and of living a life as unmarked by self-will as possible.” In additional to being an accomplished writer, Cusk has a perspicacious, almost clinical perspective on human behaviour and social relations. Impressive!

Undermajordomo Minor
Undermajordomo Minor
by Patrick deWitt
Edition: Paperback
20 used & new from CDN$ 12.02

5.0 out of 5 stars A dark but joyful fairy tale, Sept. 22 2015
This review is from: Undermajordomo Minor (Paperback)
Undermajordomo Minor is not only the story of Lucien (Lucy) Minor, but also of the bizarre and fascinating characters who inhabit his world. At the age of 17 he goes to work in the castle of a mysterious baron, as an “undermajordomo”. The oneiric adventures that ensue remind one of both Kafka and of Beckett.

Indeed, Patrick DeWitt falls into the category of what philosopher Gilles Deleuze calls “minor literature”, subverting a major language (in this case English) to the point at which it reveals itself as a strange wonder, not re-presentative of anything, but evocative of unconscious affects and conscious emotions. Exhilarating!

Close to Hugh
Close to Hugh
by Marina Endicott
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 26.27
5 used & new from CDN$ 19.76

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Importance of Being Close to Hugh, Sept. 20 2015
This review is from: Close to Hugh (Hardcover)
The psychologist Brian P. Meier demonstrates that on an unconscious level, verticality is a pervasive metaphor that structures how we think about morality, power and social relations – what the philosopher Gilles Deleuze calls the arborescent model, as opposed to the horizontal rhizomatic model. In Marina Endicott’s Close to Hugh these images of verticality are everywhere: flights of stairs and ladders which people are literally climbing or descending, or in a pivotal moment, from which they are falling.

Hugh Argylle is an art gallery owner in his 50s in a fictionalized Peterborough, Ontario. The people around him are also figuratively climbing or descending, with his aging mother Mimi in the latter category. Though the themes are serious, there is also a lot of humour in the book, which alludes to Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and his appreciation of puns.

All True Not a Lie in It
All True Not a Lie in It
by Alix Hawley
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 22.45
3 used & new from CDN$ 17.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Daniel Boone, demythologized, Sept. 19 2015
All True Not a Lie in It is a fictional account of Daniel Boone’s life. It differs from other accounts in that the reader enters into the mind of Daniel Boone, and this treatment goes a long way to de-mythologize a quintessential American hero.

Several themes interweave in this story, including how charismatic leadership (in this case Boone’s), can be at the same time both inspiring and dangerously misleading. The hardship of life in America in the 1700’s is rendered faithfully, as is the reality that America (Kentucky in this case) was not virgin land waiting for settlers, but rather already populated by various native tribes that weren’t eager to just hand over Boone’s “Paradise”. Thought-provoking!

Martin John
Martin John
by Anakana Schofield
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 11.97
25 used & new from CDN$ 11.05

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating look inside the mind of a troubled individual, Sept. 18 2015
This review is from: Martin John (Paperback)
Martin John is the disjointed but exhilarating tale of Martin John Gaffney, a mentally-unhinged serial molester exiled from Ireland to London by his mother in a vain effort to protect him from himself.

Anakana Schofield’s masterful writing, redolent of Beckett, has the reader inside the head of this troubled individual on a long spiral downward. Despite the dark theme, there are several moments of laugh out loud humour in the novel, adding levity to an otherwise bleak reality. Fascinating!

Daydreams Of Angels
Daydreams Of Angels
by Heather O'Neill
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 13.79
5 used & new from CDN$ 4.28

5.0 out of 5 stars Fairy tales for adults, Sept. 12 2015
This review is from: Daydreams Of Angels (Paperback)
Heather O’Neill is a very talented Montreal writer, best known for her first novel Lullabies for Little Criminals. Due to the gritty realism of the book, some critics thought she would be limited to this style.

Her collection of short stories, Daydreams of Angels, demonstrates that her creative range is far greater, both in the incredible dexterity of her metaphors, and the powerful reach of her imagination. These stories are perhaps best described as fairy tales for adults, at which O’Neill is a consummate master. Though the language and scenarios are playful, the themes are sometimes dark and troubling. She knows how to sugarcoat a tragic message so that you benefit both from the tasty experience and the deep wisdom within it. Recommended!

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