Friday, June 27, 2008

Lame-Ass Updates

We're off to the cottage. I'll be up north until Canada Day. I'm closing in on my Canadian Book Challenge. I've been awake for about a bajillion hours. Today I went to the dentist (gross) and discovered that I've been brushing my teeth the wrong way my ENTIRE life. You think someone would have told me by now. Oh, and I need to floss. But who doesn't, right?

Annywaaay. Life doesn't seem to be slowing down and I have little time for anything these days, no posting, no reading, nothing except working and travelling, or so it seems. Maybe there will be wireless at the cottage at long last.

Then you guys will get sick of me.

Sleepless Night

It's almost 1 AM and I'm not necessarily wide awake but I sure am unable to sleep. Reading hasn't done the trick and so I'm making lists. Fingers crossed that works.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

#41 - Chasing Harry Winston

My reading table has been heavy with chicklit these days because I'm working on a new project with Scarbie. And for reasons that probably have to do with too much bottled plane air and consistent movement, my concentration has been nil. Enter Chasing Harry Winston. The perfect book to read on the subway into work because you're too lazy to pump up your bike tires. The perfect book to read before bed because you don't really miss that much by only getting through 2.5 pages before falling utterly asleep. The perfect book to read without concentration, well, because it doesn't need any.

Lauren Weisberger has achieved a level of lit stardom few writers achieve. It's funny, that the US lit stars are all men writing serious fiction, the Jonathons, the Eggers, and the ladies who sell those kinds of numbers are all either British, Irish or Lauren Weisberger writing bland books of a certain genre that will probably never end up on the 1001 Books list. In the end, though, if someone enjoys the book, does any of that stuff even matter? I'll read anything by anyone, the popular stuff, chicklit, literary fiction, commercial fiction, because all that really matters to me is a good story. And right now, I'm really wondering if chicklit writers can come up with something original. To wit it seems that the purpose of books like Chasing Harry Winston is to make a movie about them two or three years after they're published. In a sense, couldn't they save the trees and just skip right to the cinematic version and save us all the trouble?

That said, Weisberger's latest novel attempts to pull itself up and out of the cliches of its cover (a furry spiked heel with three gorgeous rings stacked from tip to mid-inch). Considering the title is more Plum Sykes than what the actual book is about, and the characters more Sex and the City than anything else, it's an interesting bit of shoe not entirely fitting the foot, I'd say. Three characters, Emmy, Adriana and Leigh, navigate the final year of their thirties while living and working in New York. Only one of them, Emmy, is truly chasing the married with children dream; the other two look a little deeper in terms of self-satisfaction, Leigh in the form of where she'd like her career to go and Adriana simply needs to grow up. Bits and pieces of the story are told from each girl's perspective and the characters are well-drawn, quite engaging and utterly trapped by their circumstances at the moment. Weisberger plays the role well, they wear "the latest" Chloe shoes, are cognizant of trends and fashion, but you can feel her writing trying to pull away from the cliches as she attempts to be a little less "chick" and a bit more "lit."

There are conflicts, petty jealousies, and the reader wishes again and again for the book to delve a bit deeper into the idea of female friendship and less into silly "pacts" and false start-ups to plot. In the end, I can't say that I didn't enjoy the book, because I did, and I can't say that Weisberger isn't a talented writer, because she obviously is, I just hope that her next book abandons all pretense of Harry Winston and lets her spread her wings a little.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Bits And Pieces Of The Past

It's been a busy Saturday. I got up early with my RRHB as he went off to work for about the hundredth weekend in a row (save for the last one when we were in NYC), watched Swingtown, which I'm enjoying more each week, ate some yoghurt, and decided it was now or never in terms of the gardening.

Wait. Does everyone know how much I hate gardening?

K.

So it's me against the weeds that grow in between the gross patio stones on our front yard. The outside of the house will be the last to get fixed up and because I never see it when I'm inside and the renos are making me mental, I don't usually bother with it. Like, at all. But today I was out there pulling all the weeds out and sweeping. And then I tackled some of the back where our neighbour had planted some vegetables. Seeing as I want to eat the lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes, I thought I had better do some weeding out there too. I lasted about an hour and a half, all tolled. By then I'd had enough.

Back inside to make some toast while I watched the bits of The Departed that I like. At which point I felt guilty for watching TV and started puttering.

Wait. Does everyone know that I love puttering?

I've been trying to search down some old writing to see if there's any value in trying to finish the two serious books I started before the one that's currently with my editor friend. But since I have only hard copies of everything, and they're spread from here to who knows where, I went through piles of old writing today. Here are some things I discovered:

1. The clinical "our plan" notes from my shrink when I was bonkers about 10 years ago. They are awesome. From basic things like: "try to eat 3x/ day" to "if feeling very depressed, out of control, suicidal, etc, come to Emergency Department." Can I just say that about 2 weeks later I took a whole pile of sleeping pills, not to kill myself, but simply because they had stopped working and I wanted nothing more than to sleep. It's the craziest the prednisone has ever made me. Coupled with my own inner-wackiness, I am lucky to a) have survived and b) to have had a doctor that was kind enough to give me this plan that pretty much saved my sh*t at the time.

2. A note from Deborah who used to run Chicklit.com that says: "I thought you'd toss off a couple of pages, not sweat blood onto paper." Aw. Oddly, I have no record of what I actually wrote to illicit such a reaction.

3. A really excellent map to my cottage.

4. A recipe for vegan banana blueberry muffins that I will give to Sam for Sadie.

5. "The Night, The Porch" by Mark Strand that contains these lines: "...why even now we seem to be waiting/For something whose appearance would be its vanishing..."

6. The photocopy of a print from Alciato's Book of Emblems that represents Hope and Nemesis that says the two "are together at the same time upon our altars, clearly that you may not hope for that which is not lawful."

7. A print-out of this article from the NY Times because it mentions my RRHB. I have to admit, I recycled this -- there's an online archive.

8. The "how to retire rich" article that our old VP from the Evil Empire photocopied and gave to everyone in the department before he set up a meeting with his insurance broker. He was an awesome boss. The article is full of things he's underlined and notated. I wish I were lying.

9. The YES checklist. A 12-step program for writers and other bits of wisdom for scribes. And a note that Peter Mansbridge was born in Churchill, Manitoba and this quote: "I'll never lie to you but don't think that means I'm telling you the truth." My take-home from a day-long writing seminar.

10. "Art," Ken Kesey said, "is a lie in the service of the truth." Don DeLillo: "Every sentence has a truth waiting at the end of it and the writer knows when he finally gets there. On one level the truth is the swing of the sentence, the beat and the poise, but down deeper it's the integrity of the writer as he matches with the language."

Friday, June 20, 2008

Mies, My Heart

My favourite photograph from NYC this past weekend.

#40 - The Book Of Negroes

There are few books these days that can honestly be called epic. Many that aspire to be so, and many writers who set out to be "epic" without really understanding that it's not just page count that matters when a book stands up and marks its place in time. Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes is epic and it surely marks its place in time.

Over the past weekend when we were in NYC with my RRHB's parents, he was the Author of the Year at the Libris Awards. That says a lot, it's an award decided upon by booksellers and not a jury. Last year, Ami McKay won for her haunting, beautiful, and uplifting The Birth House. The books that win please readers and booksellers alike, a little bit commercial, a lot literary, and with a story that seems endless in its scope and telling, I'm not surprised at all that The Book of Negroes, and Lawrence Hill, won this year.

The novel finds Aminata Diallo, a young African girl aged about eleven, growing up as many generations before her have grown up. She has a mother, a father, a religion (she's Muslim), a village, and is in training to follow her mother into midwifery. But everything changes the moment she's captured by traders and sold into slavery. Transported by ship to the southern colonies before they've become the United States, she barely survives the journey. After she arrives, she's branded, sold, and taken under the wing of a woman who ensures she comes back to health. And the story simply doesn't stop there, she's sold to a Jewish man who treats her well, but keeps her enslaved.

More skilled than many, especially other women, Meena, as she's known, can write and read. Skills that serve her well and help her to survive the many injustices life tosses her way as easily as paper carries on the wind. The second half of Meena's life finds her freed, a member of the new loyalist colony in Nova Scotia. Still unhappy at the crown's treatment, a group of Nova Scotians travel back to the motherland and settle in Freetown, on the coast of Sierra Leone.

I read this book to satisfy my Nova Scotia requirement of the Canadian Book Challenge. I had planned on reading a Lynn Coady novel, but once this novel won the Commonwealth Prize, I figured I should probably read it sooner rather than later. And wow, what an achievement for Hill, it's a wonderful and important book. The sadness of Aminata's story is tempered by her own words, her strength and her amazing sense of herself in the world. Despite the hardship, despite her children being taken away from her at different stages in the book, despite being bought and sold and then bought again, despite the aches in her bones, she tells her stories again and again, all in aid of ending the terrifying and awful trade in humans.

Honestly, I enjoyed every moment of this book, even if it did take me three weeks to read. Now, I've got two provinces/territories to go before July 1st and only one slight problem. Anyone have an idea about reading Nunavut?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

#39 - The Importance Of Being Married

First, a confession. I adore Gemma Townley. Personally, I think she's one of the best writers working in chicklit these days. Her characters are never cliched beyond repair, her stories are always original while remaining within the bounds of the genre, and even if the girl always get the boy at the end (even if it's not the boy she thought she'd end up with), how she gets there is consistently original and charming.

Jess, the main character in Townley's latest novel, The Importance of Being Married, doesn't believe in marriage. But when a combination of pure goodness and luck leaves her with an inheritance neither expected nor necessarily appreciated (at least at that moment in time) considering it comes with a caveat. The lawyer handing over the property thinks she married. And why does he think Jess is married? Because she told the kindly old lady she'd be visiting in the home a very long, detailed story about how she married her gorgeous, successful and utterly charming boss. Oops.

So, Jess and her roommate quickly sum up a plan called operation marriage or something of the like, as if it's a project to be managed, and work on getting her married by the time the two-week deadline to inherit arrives. Hilarity ensues. As does a little old-fashioned honesty. It's a happy ending. I'm sure that's not a spoiler, it's chicklit after all, and I'd be curious to see what Townley would come up with if she wasn't sticking to a rigorous book-a-year publishing schedule and stepped outside the genre just a little. I'm sure we'd all be pleasantly surprised.

Monday, June 16, 2008

So...

We're still in NYC. Our flight was cancelled. Bad weather on both ends and bam, we're SOL in terms of getting home. A few panicked phone calls later and we've secured a hotel (with a shuttle service).

It's funny. I am beginning to think I might be cursed when it comes to getting home. Paris. Mexico re-routed. Now a cancelled flight.

Annnywaaay. We're in Long Island City New York. It has its charms, which includes a bird's eye view of the LIE and Harp on tap. Two pints and a hotel room for the 4 of us. Life is nothing but an adventure.

We spent the morning on Coney Island. When we arrived, the place was shuttered, iron grates on the doors and nothing opened. But soon, as the haze disappeared and people shed their layers, it opened up.

We walked through Central Park, rested, and then made our way to the airport. Now, it's 5 hours until we're back at the airport to try and get home.

Is It Monday Already?

We had a bit of a slower day yesterday. After brunch (only in New York can you ask for banana pancakes and get regular pancakes with six sliver-thin wafers of fruit on top). Then we walked down through the fair on 6th Ave, felt like we were in a bit of a time warp as the booths kept repeating themselves, and then ended up back at the halfprice ticket booth only to discover it was the Sunday of the Tonys so many of the shows were skipping their Sunday matinees and evening performances. In a stroke of luck, we decided to see "Gypsy" with Patti LuPone, which I enjoyed, but that almost killed my RRHB with boredom. Good thing too because she won the Tony for lead actress.

In between buying the tickets and seeing the play, we managed to make it over and see the Seagram building, and that made me quite happy.

Then my RRHB and I had dinner with some friends, parted as they headed back to Brooklyn, and we wandered into The Strand. A pile of books later and we're on the subway back uptown.

Today, we're headed for Coney Island. And then it's back to LaGuardia and home.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Saturday In The Big Apple

We're back at the hotel now after another busy day. My RR M-I-L wanted to see Times Square, so we had breakfast and made our way down there. Today was hot, humid and packed with tourists all crammed into the city block where everyone in the world should visit at least once in their lives.

From there we walked to Macy's (I had just a half-hour to shop) and then took the subway to the WTC site, which is still sobering, and ever-changing. Different each time we come here. Too hot and really exhausted we took a cab to Katz's Deli, had a traditional NY lunch, and the walked back over to Broadway through the Lower East Side and bits of Chinatown.

Then our RR in laws (parents) retired and we walked up to the Lincoln Centre to see "The Hulk." Honestly, I enjoyed it. The film is way, way better than I expected it to be.

We came out of the amazing-looking theatre to the rain. Oh, I forgot to say that we stood earlier through a crazy thunderstorm on Delancey Street. My RRHB wanted a slice so we stopped along the way. Greasy, hot, delicious. Kind of sums of my day.

Pardon my spelling. There are albatrosses on TV.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Friday In NYC

We've been up for hours, lots and lots of hours. Our plane left at 6:50 this morning so we were at Pearson by 5 AM. My RRHB's parents were already there. Zipped through customs, and the flight took less time (1 hour) than it did to taxi to the gate at LaGuardia.

The weather was extraordinary today. We walked from the hotel (the Hilton; there was a snafu with the room) along Park Avenue, stopped in at St. Patrick and St. Thomas cathedrals, and then ended up at my all-time favourite NYC destination: the NYPL building in midtown. The exhibits, always free, we saw were: Milton at 400 (very excellent old books), the portraits in the 3rd floor reading room, which includes the original Winnie-the-Pooh stuffed toys.

Then we walked down to the Empire State Building and stood in line forever and ever and ever. It was worth it and my RR in-laws were amazed and awestruck.

After hours spent being ideal NYC tourists we ended up having a snack at some swanky gastro-eatery place. Delicious, yes. Waste of time, yes. The bitchiest waitress I have ever encountered served us. She was 12 if she was a day and had more attitude than poundage.

Then it was on the 1 subway line to the Staten Island Ferry for a view of the lady and her islands. Quick turnaround and we're back on Manhattan making our way in rush hour traffic to the hotel. A fellow on the train kept directing pedestrian traffic by saying, "Come on people, let's fluctuate, fluctuate in here right now."

Yes, indeed, let's.

For dinner we cabbed it slightly south to Grand Cental and enjoyed the Oyster Bar. Is it ironic if noone had an oyster just delicious fishy courses. Now, I'm a little tipsy from our hotel nightcap and utterly exhausted.

Maybe tomorrow I'll squeeze in a little shopping.

(Pardon the spelling and grammar: I'm on the blackberry).

Thursday, June 12, 2008

IMPAC Win

Quinn posted up a note this morning that Rawi Hage has won the IMPAC award. I only made it through three of the shortlisted books (too many challenges; too much travelling; very little reading) but DeNiro's Game was one that I read and loved. It's nice to see novels that were shortlisted for Canadian prizes, like the book I'm currently about 20 pages away from finishing, The Book of Negroes (which just won The Commonwealth Prize), go on to win international prizes. It's not as if I'm writing a "here's the trouble with the Giller" note or anything, but I'm glad that both DeNiro's Game and The Book of Negroes will go on to find larger audiences as a result of the attention.

Posting has been sparse, life seems to be overwhelmingly busy these days. And we're on the road again tomorrow, taking a family trip to NYC. Right now I feel like I've been travelling for months. And for those moments where I'm sitting behind my desk staring out the window thinking how nice it would be to have a job where I travelled even more, I'll need to remember this feeling. The one where I just want to be home with a good book, my two working hands, and some time to get caught up on my writing.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

#38 - Gilead

Over the course of the 10 days I was away, I stopped and started a number of books. But Marilynne Robinson's Gilead was the only one out of the five or so paperbacks I brought with me to capture my exhausted attention and hold it tight in its hands.

The narrator, a Reverend John Ames, nears the end of his life and wants to leave a record behind for his only son, a seven-year-old boy. Told in epistolary format, the Reverend mixes scripture, sermons, stories and observations into the narrative of his life, loves words and their meanings, and takes the spirit of his life very seriously. He means to leave a legacy behind for his son; it's the only way, he'll not survive into his adulthood. Interwoven into his own history is that of his grandfather, his father (both reverends as well) and his neighbour, an aging Presbyterian minister, Boughton.

Novels that are technically brilliant, novels like this one, make one appreciate the sheer talent that a voice can bring to a book. Ames's remains loud, clear and unclouded throughout the entire novel. Robinson uses the form to her advantage, and you can hear the tenor reverberating throughout each sentence of the love letter to his son. There were so many passages that I wanted to soak up like clouds do mist and the book is so heartfelt that one can't help but feel that Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer was utterly and rightly deserved.

Here's a passage that I put up earlier this week on Savvy Reader:
Our dream of life will end as dreams do end, abruptly and completely, when the sun rises, when the light comes. And we will think, All that fear and all that grief were about nothing. But that cannot be true. I can't believe we will forget our sorrows altogether. Sorrow seems to me to be a great part of the substance of human life.
Just, astonishing and awesome, as in its original meaning. Truly.

PHOTO IN CONTEXT: I read the bulk of this book in the Jardin des Tulieries in Paris after visiting the Musee D'Orsay after Sam went home on Friday. Also included is me in thoughtful repose, flaws, freckles, dirty hair and all.

#37 - High Crimes

If anyone's familiar with my reading habits, you know that I don't read a lot of nonfiction. But it seems the nonfiction that always grabs my interest are nightmare stories about Mount Everest. I read Into Thin Air in about 20 minutes, and my curiosity of the people who willingly put themselves through the grueling, punishing task on purpose always gets the best of me. I only wish my interview with Peter Hillary was still live on the National Geographic Canada web site so I could link to it -- we talked for two hours and it was, to date, the best interview I have ever done.

Annnywaaay. High Crimes: The Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed. Michael Kodas's book has a point to prove, and it's quite compelling: How is it that crimes that take place at 8,000 metres are not considered so, when they'd be heavily punished back at sea level? Unskilled guides passing themselves off as "experts" leading unsuspecting tourists up a mountain to perish is doing damage to the very serious sport of mountaineering. It's ruining Everest. As is greed, human selfishness and the age-old challenge of tackling all of the biggest peaks in the world. His tale centres on two specific stories: the crumbling of his own expedition from ego, theft and a whole host of other problems; and the death of a doctor, left behind by a man who had a reputation for being not only a liar but one utterly unqualified to be a guide.

How can you just leave someone behind when he's your responsibility in the first place? When does summiting become so all-consuming (for its material benefits) when it costs the life of someone who trusted you to take them up and then back down? It's an impossible question. It's easy to know your own moral code, your values, until you're thousands of metres in the air, deprived of oxygen and the weather turns. But there's a difference between malicious intent and an accident, the feeling of getting yourself in over your head. Even experienced climbers get into trouble, but that's the point that Kodas, and many writers like him consistently make, Everest has become so commercial that people think they can just buy their way to the top.

On more than one page, I was utterly horrified by what I'd just read. Greed, mayhem, even murder in a place where people are supposed to be in awe of the sheer power of the Earth itself. And even while Kodas's writing tends to the sensational (it's very headliney, if that makes any sense), it's an easy book to read. Perfect for a plane ride to Paris, I'd say.

PHOTO IN CONTEXT: The ARC I got from work on my tiny plane tray.

The Events Leading To My Untimely Demise

Yesterday I was so tired that everything I looked at was blurry. My own face, my RRHB's face, the television, my life, work, everything. And after the hell on wheels experience of getting to the airport I almost melted after getting home. But first, let me relate via list and ensure you that it's a whole lot more entertaining when I tell the story in person.

The Day I Left Paris And Almost Lost My Mind

1. I woke up an hour early before the time I set my BB to because I was obsessed with the weight of my suitcase. Halfway through the night I'd had a brainwave about repacking. Yes. I know. But the way I had done it I couldn't fit everything in, and I didn't want to leave anything behind. So, 6 AM after a wedding is not recommended.

2. The guardian for the apartment was 15 minutes late showing up, but whatever. We got our deposit back. She was pleased with my cleaning.

3. I left 1 rue Jacques Coeur at 8:20 or so AM for a noon flight at Charles d. G. airport. It should have been enough time, right?

4. My luggage was heavy. Like 30 kgs. But I carried it down the Metro stairs, settled myself in, and got to Chatelet okay, and even found the RER entrance to take the train to the airport. Here's where the trouble started.

5. A ticket for the train costs $8.60 (Euros). I had eight. I needed sixty centimes. There were no attendents and nor was there a change machine. "No biggie," I thought, "I'll just take the Metro to L'Opera and take the Roissy bus." Gathered up my luggage and dragged my ass back down to the train levels and got on the pink line. And sat there. And sat there. And sat there.

6. An announcement bings and I sort of half-understand that there are problems at Pont Neuf, which means I can't get to L'Opera unless I go halfway around the city and that would take forever. Sigh. So, I gather up my luggage again and make my way back out to the myriad tunnels of Chatelet with the hope of discovering the one store I saw was open when I descended from the 1st line from Bastille. No such luck.

7. The clock is ticking.

8. Again, dragging my impossibly heavy luggage with me, I go back up to street level. When I reach the sunshined streets I am bawling.

9. There is NOTHING OPEN. Not a bakery, not McDonald's, nothing. So I wander around the area heaving and sobbing.

10. At least I spot a cafe opening up. I trudge inside and am so verclempt that I can't even barely get out the English version of needing change vs. the French. They refuse me. I ask, in French, to buy a bottle of water. They say no. But then the guy pours me a glass of water. Um, thanks. I offer to pay. He says no. I pull out ALL OF MY EUROS and half-scream, "I JUST NEED SOME CHANGE." They refuse me. I refuse to leave until I get my change. This goes on for about 10 minutes.

11. 5 fresh Euro coins in hand, I make my way back down to the RER platform (after using up 2 Metro tickets because my luggage got stuck before I could get through. I kicked it) and buy a ticket from the automatic machine. The entrance to the CDG section of the RER won't let me through even though the machine says my ticket is good to go. I cry some more.

12. I then go in a different entrance and find my way to the tracks. With terrible signage (it looks like I'm going to Orly, not CGG), I stand and wait for a train. The illumination board says it'll be 26 minutes until the next one comes. Um, it's now 9:30 and my flight's at noon.

13. Some random guy comes up to me and says, "Hey, are you from Canada." I do not have time for him. But he does reassure me I am in the right place. He makes awkward conversation. The train comes in 3 versus 26 minutes. I am saved.

14. The stop for Terminal 3 is the second-to-last, at least I didn't have to take a bus from the wrong place.

15. The lineup is huge. It's now well after 10.

16. Finally get up to the check-in and have discovered that you can take ZERO liquids on French flights. I furiously repack my girlie bits and am happy that my luggage is well under the weight restrictions. The check-in fellow was kind as it took me A WHILE to pull all the liquids out of everywhere and repack them in my bursting suitcase.

17. The funny security girl makes a witty remark about having to leave my tragic hip behind as I go through the metal detector.

18. The next security check rifles through the Louis. Contraband liquids? Of course! I'd forgotten a lip gloss. I hand her all my papers and go throw it out. The colour was awful anyway.

19. I return to collect my things and discover: SOMEONE HAS TAKEN MY BOARDING PASS.

20. Without shouting, I calmly say, "Um, where's my [totally wishing I could swear but I didn't] boarding pass?" A second security woman who had waved some sort of magic wand over my carry-on hands it back five minutes later. She gives me no explanation as per why she took it in the first place.

21. At last, the gate! I'm there at 11:15, exactly when boarding was supposed to start.

22. The plane was late.