Thursday, February 28, 2008

Dolly Wisdom

"Jolene" is one of my favourite writing songs. I have a whole list of them in a playlist on iTunes entitled, "The Western," that make me think about the story I'm working on, or the characters within, and so this quote by Dolly Parton made me chuckle. Who knew it was a true story?

A Post-Weekend Wordsmith Challenge

Clicking around, I found this challenge over at Words from a Wordsmith. Gosh, I love a good six-word memoir. Here's the one I came up with earlier in the summer:

"Girl almost dies tragically at nineteen."

Canada Reads 2008

I managed to remember to listen to Canada Reads this afternoon (thank goodness for time shifting, oh yeah!), and enjoyed the discussion. Especially considering that I really wasn't interested in any of the choices this year, I'm glad that the panelists are doing such an amazing job of pulling apart the books and making them relevant. So far, my vote's still with Icefields, and it's still alive...but I have a feeling Not Wanted on the Voyage will come out on top.

My favourite part of today's discussion? Dave Bidini and Lisa Moore going head to head (as much as possible) about the nature of why people read. Moore says it's to grow; Bidini says it's to have fun. My point? Does it have to be one or the other? I read to be inspired (like today, when I read this quote from Kundera: "She was too much at one with her body; that is why she always felt such anxiety about it.") but I'm also not embarrassed to admit that I absolutely pick up chicklit for one reason, and that's escapism.

My Interview With Beth Lisick

Is up on MSN today here. And if you don't feel like clicking through, my favourite question and answer:
DM: What are you working on now? And are you still taking banana jobs?

BL: Still taking banana jobs. I always feel the need to state that I really love my banana suit. I definitely don't do it because it's the only job out there. And my friend Tara and I are working on a stage show called "Getting In On The Ground Floor and Staying There." The title is in reference to the fact that we have been collaborating on comedy shows and films for the past 10 years, but have never "taken it to the next level." Or any level, really. There were a few meetings with some Hollywood people where we were promised things. We'll address those meetings in full detail in the show, as well as talk about things that make us laugh. Like the image of a bunch of helium balloons in a gazebo or those posters where a wet muscular man is holding a tiny newborn baby.

Creativity, in general, never ceases to amaze me.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Fire


Perhaps it's the same morbid curiosity or gravitational pull to tragedy that seems to orbit my life in general, but I went down to Queen and Portland today to see the devastation from the fire. On my way down, one of the stores was blasting The Last Waltz, and I smiled, despite the cold. Good grief that's an appropriate record. The streets are all blocked off and there are no traffic sounds, which always amazes me in the middle of a city holding upwards of 4 million people at any given time.

I was standing there taking some pictures when a fire fighter smiled at me, and then came over for a chat. He said it was hard to believe there were huge buildings there just a week ago. That the fire kept them busy for longer than a while. That the investigation is still underway because they don't know yet whether or not there was criminality involved. Also, he mentioned that they still haven't accounted for all of the missing people (and that's when a very irate neighbourhood woman started shouting at him that she was one of said souls). I left to let her get out what she needed to get out, and moved down taking even more pictures. Even though I grew up in a house with a fire fighter father, I've never really seen this kind of devastation up close, and the writer in me was sad and curious.



And even though we haven't lived in the area for three years, and even then were up at College, over the course of my lifetime having spent so much time down there, whether it was with Amanda and the skinheads when we were seventeen, or during university when I was home for Christmas going to hear bands on the various different levels of the Big Bop, or returning a video with Zesty, or having brunch just north at Mimi's, it's hard not to realize that another part of the city just won't be the same ever again.

Babysitting + Nephew = Baby Love


Because we missed M & B via Skype. Much fun was had by all. Plenty of lego, lots of stories, a ball getting kicked here and there, and my favourite, Duck and Goose.

Props In Unlikely Places

Kate sent over this review in NY Magazine of Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks from the Wide Web, a book that sets out to hand pick the best of the best in terms of the odd 80-million of us out there.
Most of Boxer’s [the author's] selections don’t read like a new species of writing [and are quite overdone in terms of media coverage; Smoking Gun anyone?], but like very close cousins of once-venerable print genres that have been forced out of public discourse by the shrinkage of major American media: passionate arts criticism, critical theory, colorful polemics, and, above all, the personal essay. Sometimes it seems like blogging is just the apotheosis of the personal essay, the logical heir to 500 years of work by proto-bloggers such as Montaigne, Charles Lamb, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Parker, and E. B. White. I see no reason for drawing an artificial line between screen and print.
But I have to admit that I love this thought, and it's one that I've been echoing for years in meetings, at seminars, and pretty much where anyone could possibly be listening. Hell, who wouldn't want to be compared to Dorothy Parker, that's quite a compliment for the peeps that made it into the book and onto the author's lists.

Denis Johnson - "Dirty Wedding"

This story knocked me flat this morning on the subway with these couple lines: "The last time I'd been in the Savoy, it had been in Omaha. I hadn't been anywhere near it in over a year, but I was just getting sicker. When I coughed I saw fireflies."

Six pages of story that travel as fast as the El train the narrator rides, but so rich with the experience about being a messed up kid who couldn't handle much of life, let alone getting his girlfriend pregnant and then not having the baby. If I hadn't finished, I would have missed my stop just so I could read the end.

My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead, Eugenides rich collection of love stories, made my day even before 9 AM. And I'm having a real hard time with this ridiculous hip hurting as much as it has over the past few days. The pain is angry, constant and frustrating. I hate limping, it makes me feel awkward, ungainly, and really unattractive; and it's not as if I need any more pushing in that direction anyway, being in this kind of pain just amplifies all of the things I hate about myself and all of the things that have happened to my body as a result of the disease. It's like the ache just settles into my whole being and forces its way into every little crack of my existence.

While I know that it's probably got something to do with my shoes and the weather, I refuse to give in to either. Bitter cold and high heels, who knew they'd be the death of me?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Great Sentences As Dictated In An Email

Reasons why one should never arrive early to work:

Because that allows for the chance to run into a fellow named XXX, whom you haven't seen in over 10 years, the last time he tried to, ahem, get friendly.

Said fellow is quite surprised to see you, and is confused as per why you might be riding the elevator in his public policy building, and then asks the ridiculous question, "So, how are you?" As if you can sum up 12 years of your life in the elevator ride to the 15th floor.

Goodness, what foolish youth.

My favourite response: Early mornings are never good for negative nostalgia.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Today

I won the Oscar pool at work. $48.00 means I can actually eat lunch this week.

Oh yeah, baby!*

EDITED TO ADD: The song from the movie Once that won the Oscar had this beautiful line, "Words fall through me and always fool me."

I liked it so much I emailed it to myself so I could remind myself to put it up here today. Sort of a quote of the weekend.

Did it manage to defray the many hours of boredom punctuated here and there by a Jon Stewart funny. Um, no.**

EDITED TO ADD TO ADD: I saw the female peregrine falcon today. And no word of a lie, I ripped the headphones off my head, shouted: "WHO ARE YOU?" and almost threw myself out the window. Clearly, the whole bird-obsession thing has got to stop.

And my tragic hip is bothering me a great deal. Making my whole right leg hurt, which is kind of bumming me out.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Oh, And...

Peeing in a jug really farking sucks.

Down To Work

So, it seems I may have committed myself to a completely and utterly undoable goal of having a finished draft of the book (see, see how I'm actually calling it a book instead of a long story) finished by May 1st. Having successfully surrounded myself not only with books, but with other writers, we all seem to be egging each other on in all the good ways. I'm still not convinced that I'll ever finish, but it's nice to not be alone, if that makes any sense at all.

The candle is lit. The email is all caught up. There's t-minus a couple hours until the Oscars. My RRHB has done all the laundry. I had brunch with one of my oldest friends who has just become engaged. I've obsessed over a certain something. Repeated"The King of Carrot Flowers" about sixteen times. This lead to a little dancing around my writing room. And read two stories in My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead, one of which contained this quote from Chekhov:
Repeated experience, and bitter experience indeed, had long since taught him that every intimacy, which in the beginning lends life such pleasant diversity and presents itself as a nice and light adventure, inevitably, with decent people -- especially irresolute Muscovites, who are slow starters -- grows into a major task, extremely complicated, and the situation finally becomes burdensome.
Perhaps it's time to start?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

What A Difference A Night Makes

Woke up after having a good night's sleep. Finished Jennifer Haigh's The Condition (#17). And managed to not only be on time for my appointment with Dr. Kidney today, but I was even fifteen minutes early, which gave me plenty of time to spend with Marianne and Elinor Dashwood.

I heart my kidney doctor, he's kind and gentle, and has always, always been on top of my care in terms of the disease. But today, today is a grand day: my tests (blood work) are better than they've been in 5 years. My creatinine level is 97 -- it hasn't been under 100 since 2003, well before the disease flared this time around.

On top of that, I've managed to lose 4 kilos!

So, things are moving in the right direction when it comes to my health. Maybe I should stop complaining about the medicine, because it's literally saved my life.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Oh What A Night

Let me first preface this entry by saying: I am an idiot who does not know how to drive a car.

Well, I have a license and I have never been in an accident, but I am not comfortable behind the wheel. In short, I have very little sense of myself in the world. Add to the mix a giant, hulking machine and I am stumped. If I bang into things all the time, imagine what happens when you put me behind the wheel.

Exactly.

So last night when I got home, I decided, oh so wrongly, to spare my RRHB the trouble of having to come out and drive the car up into the icy laneway to put it back in our garage. Oh yes, this was something I could totally do myself.

Or not.

As I made it halfway up the slight hill before the car slid back down and wedged itself into a snow bank kissing a concrete wall, and with ice all around, it wasn't moving.

We had to call a tow truck.

Which cost me $157.50.

And then the battery died.

Sigh.

Add to that the panic and upset I felt for a) inconveniencing us so much for b) spending money we really don't have right now and c) for pretty much ruining both of our evenings, and I didn't sleep very well.

"No biggie," I thought. "I'll just get up early and make my way to the hospital so Dr. Kidney has everything for my app't tomorrow."

Hear on the news: "There's a five alarm fire...all streetcars are going to be diverted."

Even so, I still managed to get to the hospital well before 9 AM. Only to NOT have my bloodwork ordered correctly and have to wait almost 1.5 hours to get poked. So, after fasting (hangry anyone? [tm Charidy]), not sleeping, waiting for hours, getting the car stuck, being frozen waiting for the tow truck angel to do his work, being late for my own work, falling behind, and feeling sorry for myself, I started to cry. IN THE BLOOD WORK CHAIR.

Annnnywaaay.

I'm here now. And am about to get cracking. But thankfully, I had Jennifer Haigh's upcoming novel The Condition, which is really quite riveting, to keep me company.

EDITED TO ADD: I just ate some soup for lunch and bit down (it was lentil, I like to chew), on a rock almost the size of my pinky finger.

It's just that kind of day.

Monday, February 18, 2008

#16 - After River

The family drama of Donna Milner's sweet, forgiving After River sweeps you away in its everyday life on a dairy farm in the beautiful East Kootenays. The story of the Wards, who come to accept a draft dodger named River into their lives, into their homes, until the book's fateful event tears them apart, rambles over thirty-five years through terrain well-told throughout Canadian literary history. Family novels told by Canadian women are a popular kind, and Milner has set herself up in line with no shortage of excellent company. The novel, with its strains of Crow Lake and Unless, feels familiar and unknown at the same time. A compelling tale that overcomes its stereotypical beginnings to crash into an uplifting end, After River came as a bit of surprise.

As Natalie Ward tells the story of how her life changed after River, the unbelievably handsome and utterly compelling young American came into it, she cannot do so without giving the reader the whole picture. River just didn't come into Natalie's life, he came into her whole family, and his presence changed everything. Like the water of his nickname, he slipped into their land and made himself as essential as the air or the cows themselves. For Natalie, and her eldest brother Boyer, River represents that instant when your childhood leaves forever, a burgeoning adulthood that comes with the cost of happiness, and how rich the price of forgiveness remains when conflict goes unresolved.

The setting swept me away as much as the story: a farm set on rich, fertile land, a town trapped in its own small mind and an even smaller belief structure, all trapped (or set free depending on how you look at it) by the mountains that tower above. A highly personal story, it's impossible not to feel empathetic with the events of Natalie's life, nor is it easy to watch her make the mistakes she's bound to make, or feel the weight of the guilt she carries away the moment she leaves the farm.

The prose isn't perfect, and there are first-novel moments all over the book, tired descriptions and worn out metaphors, but none of that matters by the end, when Natalie's life comes full circle, and the book comes to its pitch perfect end. Isn't it always the case that we end up so far from where we begin, only to come home in so many ways, whether literal or metaphorical, despite how strong the pull of life drags you in another direction.

READING CHALLENGES: I had chosen Stanley Park as my book for British Columbia, but I'm swapping in this book instead. I'll probably still read it, but I feel like this story and setting are just so evocative that I could see the mist rising up from the mountains in the dewy mornings and feel every inch of Natalie's pain, which means it's the right choice for The Canadian Book Challenge. It's such a Canadian novel, this After River.

PHOTO IN CONTEXT: As I read a terribly practical but not entirely gorgeous ARC, I'm showing off the glorious cover. I know it might not be for everyone, but it perfectly suits the story, and the colours are just so lovely.

As with so many of my ARCS, here we go again...would anyone like me to pass this one along?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

#15 - The Quiet American

Finishing up Graham Greene's exquisite little The Quiet American brings me up to speed now in terms of my 1001 Books club, and this post is a milestone in the blogging world too, as I've hit 1000 posts. Instead of writing the same things in two different places, I'm just going to copy and paste what I posted up on the boards:

What did you think of the book?

I appreciated the short, succinct nature of The Quiet American. I enjoyed the book's politics, its own powerful, yet stilted, observations about the conflict from Fowler's point of view, and the overwhelming drive for Pyle not only to save the country from itself, but to marry Phuong, to "save" her in a sense.

Had you read this author before?

No, but I had seen the movie (although I didn't remember all of it).

Would you read something by him again?

Absolutely.

What would you rank this book out of 10?

8.

Do you think it deserves to be included on the list of 1001 and why?

I do think it deserves to be on the 1001 Books list. Why is a much harder question. I think unlike books on the list like The Lambs of London (which absolutely do not belong on the list) or every single title that Ian McEwan has written (I think they were desperate to fill the pages by then; and not that many don't deserve to be, but every one?), The Quiet American has a fascinating sense of morality underlying its narrative: the line between good and evil isn't clear, not in war, not in life, and certainly not between men.

As a kind of conversation between neo-colonialism (of the quiet kind) and overwrought, more classic colonialism of the French and British, the novel puts the characters of Pyle and Fowler in impossible situations, if only to prove the utter uselessness of either side. Pyle can no more get over his innocence in terms of his believe in the justifiable reasons behind his cause than Fowler can actually return to his old life in London. Both are changed and immutable at the same time, much like the old ideals each side clings to during the war.

Any insightful literary critiques?

The edition that I found (it's a British Vintage, I think) has an introduction by Zadie Smith, who points out that Fowler's description of the war is never far behind a major plot point. That even though he states over and over again that he is neutral, whether that actually turns out to be true or not, not becoming involved is impossible. Narrative and politics become merged into one, as if the setting can't help but stretch itself into every single aspect of the story, which remains the reason why the novel succeeds.

And this line: "She put the needle down and sat back on her heels, looking at me. There was no scene, no tears, just thought -- the long private thought of somebody who has to alter a whole course of life."

PHOTO IN CONTEXT: I didn't like the cover of the one I have here so I just searched out one I preferred.

READING CHALLENGES: I'm on track now for the 2 per month 1001 Books challenge, and finishing this book brings my complete score to 151. I am enjoying these classics so much that I've already started Sense and Sensibility. I might not read anything written in this century for a while. However, I do have work reading and Canadian challenge to get back to too.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

My Favourite Sentence Of The Weekend

"She began working on her autobiography at 102."

I wonder if there's even a slight thought at that age: "Maybe I will live forever." And did she manage to finish before her untimely death at 104?

At This Very Moment

My RRHB and his cousin are creating the plumbing in what will become our downstairs bathroom. The house smells like propane from a blowtorch. The sound of work boots stomping up and down the stairs is thrilling. And this week maybe we'll pick out the toilet and sink. RRHB seems to laugh at me when I get excited about things like drywall being on the walls, but the closer we get to using all of our house, the less I feel like taking said blowtorch to it entirely.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Where Two Worlds Collide

It's as if someone reached inside my living room and created a mash-up of two things that are constantly conflicted in my house: Jane Austen and Zombies (link via galleycat).

Maybe zombies are the missing element to my own book?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Too Old For Snow Angels?

There's a crazy pile of snow in front of our house right now that I wanted to jump into -- so I sort of half-crashed into it last night after getting home from work. It's hard to tell but the pile is actually bigger than I am.

Two Birds: Two Vastly Different Meals



This might just be my favourite picture from Mexico. When we went into Puerto Vallarta, a man had a giant bucket full of fish bits (heads et al) that he was feeding to the various sea birds. If anyone out there knows what kind of pelican* this is, I'd love to know.


And then I had the camera with me because the falcon had flown so close to my window at work that I could catch the colour of its eye, and I wanted to be prepared to snap him if he came around again. Instead, this little black bird (again, I don't know what it is) was eating a pizza crust at my bus stop. All of his mates flew away. But he was bold enough to a) squack at me for interrupting and b) not be in the least bothered by the slushy snow while having his/her breakfast.

*Edited to add that I looked the pelican up in the bird book and it's a Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis). 

Ah, Valentine's Day

The RRHB and I sent each other anti-Valentine's Day cards from a really funny anti-Valentine's Day site. And then I had a fun day because lots of people are reading my interview with Diane Schoemperlen as a result of her article being up on the homepage of MSN. And then I had a little extra time to read The Quiet American on the way to work because I had a funny test at the hospital. And then I saw the falcon today in the distance. And then the snow is just so much fun. And then now it's just about time to go home where I can watch Coronation Street (gack, Leanne!) and Lost. And then I will go to bed early with a good book and a good husband and have a good sleep and wake up tomorrow barely noticing the saccharine holiday that usually puts just about everyone in a funk.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

#14 - The Talented Mr. Ripley

If I could choose only one word to describe Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley, it would be: thrilling. If you haven't seen the movie, I'd highly recommend reading the book first; it's so much richer and far less stereotypical than the film. And now I'd even go so far as to say the movie spoiled the book for me in many ways.

When first introduced to Tom Ripley, he's pulling a half-hearted tax scam and not even bothering to cash the cheques. When fate brings him into contact with Mr. Greenleaf Sr., and presents him with the opportunity of a lifetime, there's an instant when the story could have gone either way. Highsmith could have set out to write a beat-inspired (which is certainly what the movie picked up on) buddy tale, an On the Road Does Europe, but for one fact: ambition. Tom sees the life he wants and sets about getting it, doing anything he possibly can to abandon his pathetic life back home and reinvent himself as a man worthy of his surroundings.

When the wealthy Greenleaf sends Tom over to Mongibello with all of his expenses paid to "rescue" his son Dickie from a life of total and utter leisure, Sr. believes them to be friends, which is his first, utterly tragic mistake. From the very moment that Tom abandons his pitiful existence in New York for Europe, one can embrace the following statement from a 1001 Books:
Tom Ripley is the one of the great creations of twentieth-century pulp writing, a schizophrenic figure at once charming, ambitious, unknowable, utterly devoid of morality, and prone to outbursts of extreme violence.
See, thrilling.

Tom just doesn't want to live with Dickie, he wants to be Dickie. And Tom's decision to become him is so cold and calculated that it sends a chill down well below your spine. While the crimes add up (what's another murder, really?) and the lies become truth in Tom's head, the book races along to its utterly satisfying, yet somewhat open-ended, finish.

In a "is this book worth 1000 words" aside, here are the reasons why I book is just so much better than the Hollywood version:

1. There are far less characters. In fact, ones that play a huge role in terms of amping up the dramatic action, namely "Meredith Logue" (as played by Cate Blanchett) and Peter Smith-Kingsley (Jack Davenport), aren't even in the book (the former) or play an incredibly insignificant role (the latter).

2. So much of the action takes place in Ripley's head. You really get to explore the motivation behind his actions. They hint at that in the film, but the action has to be driven by impulses that can be read by even the most dense in the audience. Hammer. Meet head. Head. Meet hammer. The book is just so subtle, and that's what's so seductive about it.

3. Marge is pudgy. I think there's a point when Ripley refers to her as a gourd. Unkind, to be sure, but certainly not the svelt, sexy Paltrow as portrayed in the film.

4. I do admit that the film did justice to the setting of the novel. Yet, there's so much more in the little details: how Tom's only going to heat his bedroom in his palazzo in Venice; how Dickie's house has no refrigerator at first in Mongibello; how Greece looks when Tom first lands toward the end of the book. The descriptions are crisp and clean, like scissor cuts, and absolutely contribute to the atmosphere of the book. They don't need to make the book believable; they just are.

5. The film turned Dickie into a jazz musician. Yes, it's utterly sexy, but it's way more real when you discover he's a totally (from Tom's point of view, of course) mediocre painter.

6. The end of the film always, always sat wrong with me. I felt that it was overkill (ahem, pun not intended) and unnecessary. I could understand Ripley's motivation in terms of his other crimes, but not at all in terms of this one. It felt fake and constructed. Imagine my surprise to find that the ending to the novel is nothing like the one from the movie. Imagine my delight to see the pitch perfect note that Highsmith ends upon. And then imagine how redeemed I feel in terms of having the criticism in the first place. See, I knew it just wasn't right...

And while I realize I can't go back in time and unwatch the movie to preserve my reading experience, it has taught me an incredibly valuable lesson: always, always read the book first.

PHOTO IN CONTEXT: The Vintage Crime / Black Lizard trade paperback on the shelf with many other 1001 / Around the World in 52 Books titles. This one's a keeper.

READING CHALLENGES: Another title from the 24 that I'm trying to read this year from the 1001 Books challenge. Although, I have to say, that the classics are really inspiring me these days. They're all I seem to want to read. And I've now hit the nice number of 150 books read from the list. Whee!

More Snow = More Sickness. Anger Is The Answer

Everyone in my office is out with some form of illness this week, whether it's a cold or strep throat, I am in mortal fear that I'll catch something and be even sicker, with the stupid cough still hanging around after three weeks I'm ready to toss myself in a snowbank and just be done with it. So I'm holed up in my cubby at work frightened to leave or breath any air. Which means I did a bit of surfing this morning before settling in with a cup of Wild Sweet Orange tea.

So, there's an interesting article over at the Guardian blog about how publishers just don't know what to do with the internet. And while it's an interesting point of view, Nicholas Clee says:
It is 17 years since the creation of the world wide web, and still no publisher has any idea how to deal with it. Is it a threat? An opportunity? Will it be the medium for the spread of free, mostly pirated texts, or will it broaden the market for authors' works? How do you promote books on the internet? By giving them away? By giving them away in snippets? By charging small sums for snippets? We haven't got a clue.
And I don't entirely agree. I mean sure, publishers may still be working out how to work with content online; but I think many, if not all, agree that it's quite fun to promote books on the internet. In fact, many of my colleagues around the globe would agree that with the decline of traditional media devoted to books, the explosion of intelligent, well written and extremely well read book blogs, and the use of multimedia (podcasts, book trailers, author interviews, viral videos) books have found a natural home on the web.

And I think it's absolutely clear, even with the two or three big news items he points to, Random House offering chapters for a small fee and HarperCollins offering up whole books from its digital warehouse project, that publishers are testing in the space. And isn't that exactly what the internet is about? They're learning from industries who are currently getting absolutely whooped by the ease of content flowing online (anyone think the music peeps did a better job; the movie guys?). And so what if both models don't work: we'll simply try something else next time.

And why do so many journalists focus on the idea of recreating the reading experience online as the key way for publishers to (for lack of a better word) play in the digital age? It's just a part of overall strategy, one aspect of how book content can be used online, but it's all the media seems to glom onto these days. There's so much out there for books online, and every single person I know in the business is exploring many, many ways of not only promoting books, but building word of mouth, exposing readers to new authors, and breaking down the virtual walls that may have separated the publishers from the readers in days gone by.

Why so negative Nicholas? It seems to me that we've all got a pretty good idea that there are book lovers online who love not only to read our books, but to write about them, to talk about them, and to buy them. So what if we're taking baby steps.


Sunday, February 10, 2008

Dinner At Cowbell

Last night we had one of the best meals we've ever eaten in the city at Cowbell, which is just a hop away from Mitzi's Sister, where we eat all the time. My RRHB had gotten an email from the owner (we were friends in high school) wondering when he was going to come for dinner, and luckily we had Amanda here from Winnipeg for the night, so he replied, 'if there's a cancellation, we'd love to come.' Isn't life always about the timing?

The food was outstanding. Both my RRHB and Amanda had steak frites as their main course, and I had trout with oyster and corn meal fritters (B ate the oyster; he's good that way). We started with soup and salad, had a couple glasses of wine, and then dessert, which was definitely too much food, but my goodness was it worth it. Then we ended up having a tour of the restaurant, and having never seen the inner workings of any eatery before in my life (with the exception of the summer I worked at Smitty's pancake house, which hardly counts), it was utterly fascinating. The approach to the food at Cowbell is so inspired: they buy locally produced meat, whole (trust me, I've seen the cuts in the walk in fridge*), and then use every part of the animal, including the bones and fat, in various ways throughout the week. To top it all off, it's an understated, yet utterly lovely environment (wonderful tiles on the floors, gorgeous fabrics on the benches, good artwork), and the service was truly excellent.

Like I said, one of the most lovely dining experiences I've ever had in the city.

*edited to correct my own ignorance: we saw a walk-in fridge (as per someone's comment; thank you) and not a freezer. Apologies!

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Oddly Noticing That James McAvoy Is In Everything

Starter for 10, which was on this week on TMN, that I watched last night when I couldn't sleep because the meds were making my stomach so upset.

Becoming Jane, which I'm watching as we speak.

Penelope, which I saw a trailer for by accident the other day.

Atonement.

And some upcoming film with Angelina Jolie that Zesty and I saw advertised before we watched American Gangster.

I mean, that's not a bad thing, obviously.

#13 - Helping Me Help Myself

I had brought the ARC of Beth Lisick's Helping Me Help Myself to Mexico with me, and had planned to read it on the plane home, but then I got swept away in What is the What. Most of my thoughts about the book are already noted over at The Savvy Reader so I won't go into much more detail except to say that I'm really excited to send the author some questions next week for an email interview.

After a particularly grueling New Year's Eve party, Lisick decides to spend the next 12 months working through the works of 10 self-help guru's in an attempt to honestly change her life from the inside out, as she says, "What if I could just look at everything in my life that was bugging me, everything I wanted to make better, and systematically fix it all?" And despite being utterly skeptical of the whole self-help racket, she actually manages to find kernels of good advice in just about every aspect of her 'year spent on the bring of [her] comfort zone.'

This is not a self-help book, but a book about helping yourself, about discovering what holds you back, about finding humour and dedicating yourself to a cause even if it means spending a whack of money to attend a Richard Simmons fitness cruise. It's about approaching change honestly and openly, and taking what you need and leaving behind the rest, the bits that seem false, that seem like a racket, and improving your character because of it.

Also, it's got a banana suit. And who doesn't love a 30-something woman dressed up in a banana suit to pay the bills. Seriously?

As with many of my ARCs, I have no need to keep them and am very happy to use Canada Post, so, who wants my copy?

PHOTO IN CONTEXT: My own Achilles heel when it comes to home organization, the absolute exhaustion at the end of a work day that leads to every single piece of clothing being piled up on a chair instead of in my closet.

Friday, February 08, 2008

#12 - What Is The What


For the first time in my Around the World in 52 Books two-year reading odyssey, I am going to break the rules. You heard me. I'm going to bust them wide open and actually let the setting of the novel define my country choice, and not the author's birth. It's impossible to ignore the fact that the voice in Dave Egger's What is the What seems so completely that of Valentino Achak Deng that to name this my book from the US might do it a disservice.

When I saw Eggers back in November, I was very taken by the social commentary found within his slide show presentation. The idea that China's need for oil propels the terrible situation in Sudan still makes me think twice every time I see a Made In China stamp on just about everything we buy and/or own. But now that I've read the book, I'm thinking more about the accomplishments of its writer and main character, and not just about the social-political underpinnings of the book and its incredibly important message. It's as if it all has a human face now.

Subtitled "The Autobiography of Valentine Achak Deng," What is the What is such a skilled, intense and utterly compelling book that it held my interest through every one of its 535 pages. The structure of the novel develops around an epistolary format reminiscent to an early scene in the book where Achak, still living then with his parents quite happily in Marial Bal, sits with a group of men and listens to them debate 'What is the What.' Achak speaks to a number of different people directly within the novel as he tells his story, the nurse/clerk at the hospital, the boy set to watch him as he gets robbed in his own home, members of the health club where he works, and as a narrative tool, it's ridiculously effective. It's almost as if, as a larger theme, the entire story sets out with the need to find and define 'the What,' an elusive, angry at times, but always tragic quest for Valentino to discover not only his own purpose, but a larger sense of the universe.

It's an unbearably sat, yet utterly uplifting story, as the rebels fight against the Arab government, war breaks out and a country falls apart, and then Achak begins a long, arduous walk to Ethiopia surrounded by hundreds of other Lost Boys. Finally settling at a refugee camp in Kenya called Kakuma, Achak lives with a foster family, receives an education, and finds a decent job before being relocated to Atlanta to start a new life in the United States. The novel opens with a harrowing scene of Valentino being beaten and robbed in his own home, and still, the utter strength of his character remains steadfast. When any number of truly horrible events conspire against him, Achak carries on.

In places, Valentino describes a feeling that tears through him, not that he is cursed per se, but that bad luck has a way of following him around, shadow-like, in every facet of his life. I am not going to lie, and I know it might seem almost shameful for me to have felt akin to him in this way, but for many, many years I fought with the idea that I too must have been cursed in another life to have endured what I have. Nothing, nothing at all compared to Achak's own struggles, I know, I have always had a roof over my head and have never had to walk further then a few blocks to a bus stop, but the feeling that life seems to consistently be a current working against you, well that's something I can absolutely empathize with in more ways than one.

READING CHALLENGE UPDATE: Am declaring What is the What as my book from Sudan and not the United States as I had originally intended, which is good because I think I'd like to read Tom Perrotta's Little Children instead. And because I did not buy my copy of the book, and with all the author proceeds going to Valentino's charity, I went online and made a donation in lieu of the cost of the novel.

PHOTO IN CONTEXT: I want to thank Baby Got Books for linking to the place to buy the t-shirt that had just arrived the day I finished the novel, where it ended up on my desk amongst a whole bunch of mail clutter from when we were away. I also want to give Tim an extra shout-out for saying that I "had" to read Eggers's novel, because he was so very, very right, I did.

CURRENTLY READING: The Talented Mr. Ripley and last Saturday's Globe and Mail crossword puzzle.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Miss Me?

I've been posting like a maniac the past few days over at SavvyReader just to keep the momentum going again after I was away. If you miss me, head on over there, but I finished reading What is the What and have pictures of my new kitchen window that I want to share...so, I'll be back this afternoon.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Weekend So Far

Coughing, coughing, coughing.

TV, movies, TV.

Went out to see 27 Dresses.

Nap.

Outdoor rock show (perhaps a bit too much).

Bed.

Coughing, coughing, coughing.

Morning.

Breakfast at Mitzi's Sister. Saw some very cool robots by Iner.

Babysitting.

Coughing, coughing.

Home.

Nap?

Friday, February 01, 2008

Art Garfunckel's Library

Trisha sent me this link this week, and I'm absolutely fascinated. Not only is it a glorious list, but it represents a lifetime of reading from one of music's legends. I'm sure Garfunkel would score very well if he did the 1001 Books spreadsheet.

And it makes me wish that I had kept a more detailed list of the books that I had read throughout my life, which is what the blog is doing for me now, if only so I could put it all up online for people to comb through. Can you imagine? Forty years of books?

Wouldn't it be fun to create the Art Garfunkel Favourites challenge? I've read 16, not so bad...no so bad indeed.

#11 - Belong To Me

First of all, please forgive me because this post is going to be so weepy and girlie that anyone not feeling particularly feminine may feel alienated. As I had been doing so much non-work related reading on vacation, I felt that I had to pay some attention to some of our upcoming titles and took this book with me after Charidy sent around a note that was so compelling it was impossible NOT to want to read Belong to Me. She had read and loved Marisa de los Santos's first novel, Love Walked In, years ago, had high expectations for this book, and was not disappointed.

Fast forward to Wednesday afternoon, when I'm waiting and waiting and waiting for the doctor to see me. There was a wonderful old woman sitting next to me whose name was Diana, and her middle-aged daughter was so tender, caring, and well, good spirited, that I spent much of my time smiling at them and making idle chatter. Even so, I managed to read enough of Belong to Me to get so hooked that I actually turned off the television on Wednesday night waiting for my RRHB and our house guest to return from dinner. And then, I read the rest in bed until about 2 AM because the cough was keeping me up anyway and I might as well do something productive if I wasn't sleeping.

Annnywaaay. Told from three inter-connecting points of view, Belong to Me could be described as a modern suburban drama. Taking place in a sleepy, yet totally high brow suburb of Philadelphia where looks matter and status is everything, at first it's hard to tell where de los Santos is going. Each of the characters are so very different, it's almost impossible to see what connects them -- until the glistening, glorious and delicious end when it all becomes clear, that is.

Cornelia, married to the gorgeous Dr. Teo (he's an oncologist), finds herself adrift almost from the moment she lands in town, a place not unlike the wistful suburb where she and her husband grew up (they've known each other since they were four but their romantic relationship developed much later in their lives), and makes a quasi fool of herself at a dinner party. The novel opens: "My fall from suburban grace, or, more accurately, my failure to achieve the merest molehill of suburban grace from which to fall, began with a dinner party and a perfectly innocent, modestly clever, and only faintly quirky remark about Armand Assante."

From there, Cornelia tries to fit in to her new surroundings, failing to look, act or submit to the usual social niceties that would ensure she would make some new friends and become a good neighbour. Only it doesn't work that way, as Queen Bee Piper swoops in and shows Cornelia who's boss before we even hit page six. Shocking then, when Piper turns up as the protagonist whose point of view we take over in the next chapter. As we get inside Piper's head toward the beginning of the novel, she sort of comes across like a Bree from in the first season of Desperate Housewives clone, until a tragedy turns her life, her values and her whole world inside out.

The third narrator, a thirteen-year-old boy named Dev, might just be the heart and soul of the book, and de los Santos's talents at bringing to life his particular brand of teenage angst (hard luck at school, somewhat wacky but good intentioned mother, super-smart kid with a brain that's always going) soar in ways that made me a little nostalgic, especially in the scenes where he falls in love for the first time with an equally special young girl. As an aside, I couldn't help but think of the one boy that I felt that way about when I was their age, and how that relationship, idyllic, somewhat silly, and always special, remains one of the reasons (among many) that I can say I had a blissfully happy childhood. But there are emotional connections like that all through this book, which is why I think, overall, it's incredibly successful.

Heart spills out all over Belong to Me: messy, angry, wonderful, aching, honest, and open heart. It's a novel about women and their relationships with each other; it's about how tragedy can rip open your world and put it back together again in ways one might not recognize; it's about the meaning and making of family; and, in more ways than one, it's about love that comes in all shapes and sizes. Moments in this novel ring so true that it was impossible not to bawl like a baby (and I did cry openly at least four times). And while the emotional centre of the book switches as each character takes a turn telling their own story, it never looses any sense of the pure heart the narrative voice contains on the whole.

A bit Tom Perrotta (Charidy's comp), a bit Ann Patchett (it's a snow globe world for sure), with a little Carol Shields thrown in for good measure (it made me think of Unless), I highly recommend this book for bookclubs, for that lonely night when your significant other might be out of town and you're dying for that little something the latest Cameron Diaz movie has failed, yet again, to provide, for mothers or women looking to become mothers -- it's a book that deserves to be passed around from friend to friend like a secretly coded game of telephone that says, "look, this is how much I love you."

Now, who wants my copy? Anyone? Anyone?

PHOTO IN CONTEXT: The book sat atop What is the What, which I have now returned to reading, on my bedside table. Other things necessary for bedtime: ceramic holder for my rings, ear plugs, super-duper hand cream clutter the shot.

Am Sick of Being Sick And Am Blaming The Cab Driver And The TB Tourist

The end of the rope is nigh now that almost a week has passed and the sickness has evolved as such (and for those of you who don't care, please skip this post):

1. Slight tickle in the throat on the plane + no sleep + massive cold sore = the ominous beginning. When we exited the plane last Saturday at 5 AM Toronto time, my RRHB said: "WHAT is that?" This was followed by a look that can only be described as disgust.

2. Needle on Saturday AM + no sleep = feeling like I've been run over by the kind of truck that evens out pavement. Coughing, coughing, coughing, coughing, rinse, repeat.

3. Good night's sleep + good book + my own bed = waking up Sunday morning feeling refreshed, renewed and actually better. Go visiting, go grocery shopping, do all the laundry. See, I'm better!

4. Coughing + coughing (see above) - good night's sleep + 250+ emails = feeling worse on Monday morning and call in sick to school. Manage to make it through a whole day's work but walk home from the bus stop with legs so wobbly I am afraid I won't actually cross the threshold of our house.

5. See #4 + a fever - any sleep = sleeping in and heading to work late, but feeling actually well enough to make it through the rest of the day and attend every meeting I actually had so far in the week. But have possibly infected entire office. Perhaps not so smart.

6. 5 days of coughing + wicked sinus headaches + runny nose - any solid rest = doctor's appointment on Wednesday.

7. Ordered into quarantine for Thursday and Friday which means I've missed or am missing the following: The Book Lover's Ball (I was actually looking forward to dressing up like Sylvia Plath in my red dress and Mexican beads), two days of work, lunch with Sam and Chico, and quite possibly The Weakerthans outdoor show at Nathan Phillips Square tomorrow night. But forced quarantine means that I've caught up on all the TV on the PVR. Have now seen all the episodes of jPod (which looks, acts and smells a lot like the book, yes, that's a given, but the feature film Everything's Gone Green, right down to the set decoration and the secondary characters) and am enjoying it, quite liked Eli Stone, am shocked and dismayed by Paul's extra-curricular activities on Corrie Street, and was reduced to watching Wild Hogs (absolutely embarrassingly awful) and semi-delighted to see The Science of Sleep, which then led me to searching out Serge Gainsbourg on YouTube and falling into an internet coma (damn you Ethan Hawke, damn you for pulling me back into the spoils of celebrity gossip if only for a second) until I recovered enough to catch up somewhat on my posts since we've been back from vacation.

8. This morning: coughing up a bit of blood + meds + exhaustion + good night's sleep + a dry house = feeling better but not 100% and when will it end? Stupid disease medication. Stupid immune system. Bah! But isn't the snow pretty?

How is everyone else?