Wednesday, December 30, 2009

TRH Movie - Up in the Air

Time started to be on my side yesterday afternoon. We finished up all of our massive holiday celebrations, paused for a moment together to enjoy our anniversary, and then went our separate ways. I had a couple of things to do at work, and my RRHB went off to do some recording with a friend, which meant I had a free afternoon. What! How could that happen? By the time I got home last night, I hadn't just hit the proverbial wall, I had ran headlong into it with all the power of an 18-wheeler. However, before that and just after managing to jump in the pool for a bit of swimming, I treated myself to Up in the Air.

George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a high flying (literally) corporate consultant called in to "manage" the termination of large groups of people during restructuring or firms going out of business. Like any industry, even one based on the massive economic problems ransacking the United States, Bingham comes face to face with change. In his instance, the rolling bag, hotel-living lifestyle that goes along with being on the road 330 days of the year comes to a crashing halt the moment a young inky pup upstart presents the idea that the company needs to go "Glocal." They need to take their "global" and make it "local."

They're bringing termination in-house and doing it via Skype. Bingham's essentially grounded. But before they clip his wings, he argues that Natalie Keener (no irony in her name there, yawn [played by Anna Kendricks]), should come with him to see how impossible virtual firings truly are -- real human beings in awful situations faced with a computer screen telling them their life is effectively stopped short seems painfully inhumane to me. And having been through it myself, I tend to agree. If I had walked into the evil corpration and found myself face to face with a talking head Skyped in version of HR, I probably would have lost it even more so than I did during the actual termination interview.

Of course, conclusions are made, lives are changed -- because the purpose of the film is to find Ryan Bingham at the crossroads, but like (500) Days of Summer, (which might just be one of my favourite movies of the year) the results aren't what you'd normally expect, and that's where you find the true magic in the movie. That's the thing about indie movies. They take cliched moments, essential rom-com stuff, and turn them slightly in another direction, making them seem more real in a way that, say, The Ugly Truth, just can't.

And, there are lots of these moments in Up in the Air: the meet cute (Bingham and his love interest, fellow high flyer Alex [played to perfection by Vera Farmiga], meet in an airport bar and bond over Air Miles, bonus points and hotel room service); the wedding shinanigans (Bingham's sister's nuptuials); the not-so honest confessions of "real lives" and "real intentions" (Ryan + Alex may or may not have a happy ending); and the aforementions upstart inky pup gets some worldly experience that changes her course (if we've all seen In Good Company we know how this turns out).

But I was surprised by a lot of the film too, especially by the cameos, the name actors who drop in for moments when you least expect them, and all of the quasi-documentary-like sections of the film when Ryan and Natalie are at work busy firing people. This film couldn't have been made even five years ago. It wouldn't have had the same resonance in terms of the economic situation. It's real life that makes this movie poignant, and not the other way around, which isn't normally the way that movies work on an emotional level.

There's something unsustaining about the lives we've created. Maybe this is the message from the film. That all of the modern advances that have brought us to the brink of collapse can do as Ryan suggests, send a message to take you in another direction. That having a goal that's tangible on a human rather than a socio-economic level isn't necessarily a weakness but a sign of a different kind of strength. There's poetry in that, I think. Also, I'm thinking that it's probably never a good idea for me to go see these kinds of movies by myself. It's always good to have company to stop the philosophical stuff from just roaming around in my head until I feel a little batty.

Lastly, just like Michael Clayton, another film I absolutely loved, George Clooney proves time and time again that he can play one hell of a modern leading man. Oh, and on the way home, I managed to sit in a subway car littered with ads for Ryerson University's continuing ed programs. Shaky photo attached. Interesting coincidence, I'd say.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

#68 - The Law of Dreams

In a way, I think I've been waiting for The Law of Dreams. It's that kind of book that fills up a void: the missing space after I finished reading Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin, another sweeping epic of a book that changed me when I closed the cover. These are stories that stay with you. These are the books meant to be read. These are the ones that you add to life lists.

The Law of Dreams won the GG in 2006, rightfully. It's a story about the Irish Famine, but like Let the Great World Spin, the event itself serves as a backdrop, as an impetus, for the novel's protagonist, Fergus, to step out into the world. He doesn't really have any choice. The famine has devastated his way of life -- tenant farmers on a large estate, a roaming father comes home the minute the potatoes turn up black, refuses to leave, and months later, families all across Ireland are destitute, starving, and forced out into the world to not only find a fortune, but to survive.

Once Fergus leaves as his house burns, he joins a rag-tag group of children who beg, steal, and even much worse until one tragic event forces him to leave this second family behind. This pattern continues for the poor boy. He travels, works for a bit, finds a subtle sense of stability until the moment when an act of unprecedented violence forces him in yet another direction. He works the rails for a time to earn enough money for passage to Canada. He barely survives the passage. He manages to set foot on Canadian soil but that doesn't mean Fergus remains headed for a happy ending. These pedestrian, modern concerns, a quest for happiness in a world where the basics of life are taken for granted, well, that's just not what's on his mind.

Behrens writes, "Sometimes your heart cracks and tells you what to do." Throughout this entire story, Fergus follows his heart, often to his detriment, all the way to Grosse Île, where one utterly heartbreaking moment changes his course yet once again. It's Homeric, this odyssey, and this young man grows up in a way that the traditional sense of a buldingsroman can't encompass. There's no artifice to this story but that's not to say Behrens use of language and form isn't beautiful, it is, but it's not hiding anything either. There's a plainness to his observations that cuts right to the essence of human nature, of suffering, and of the need to consistently make decisions under excruciatingly hard circumstances.

Epic yet understated, rough yet delicate, honest yet heart wrenching, The Law of Dreams was one of the best books I've read in a long, long time. Highly, highly recommended.

READING CHALLENGES: I'm not at all sure where I am in this year's Canadian Book Challenge. I'm going to try to figure that out by the end of the year. But this book fits the bill and I'm counting it, hoping that it'll inspire others to pick it up.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Feeling A Little More Like Myself

This weekend has flown by. We've finally got chairs for our dining room, a bookshelf for the living room, and a menu for our three days of holiday entertaining. All the shopping (for our families) is done and I've got a new pair of winter boots that don't leak. It was non-stop yesterday and that compounded with a terrible night's sleep means I'm a little groggy today as I finish up editing my latest Classic Start.

We went to see The Constantines on Friday night for their 10th anniversary show. We had a grand old time. I did a lot of yelling and shouting. And dancing. And singing along. There was a moment where I thought it would be a fantastically fun idea to dive into the mosh pit as if I were in my early 20s again. A moment of teasing and an insistence on crowd surfing happened, and I changed my mind. On the first week of January, it'll have been five years since I was let go from Alliance Atlantis, and listening to the Cons made me think of that time again. I listened non-stop to Shine a Light record the summer before they "reorganized" me out of a job. I played it loud and obnoxiously at work when I was there late, frustrated by the lack of support I received, frustrated by the bad management, leaving work tired, angry and upset most days. It was no way to live. But I'm a sensitive girl, and the whole experience left its mark. It's funny -- there's an element of karma to the fact that the woman who made all of our lives so miserable was herself out of a job a couple of years later and I've certainly moved on to a better place.

Perspective isn't really something that can be taught. It's like a simple shift in point of view in a narrative -- you know that it'll tell the story better but you're so wrapped up in the writing you can't separate yourself from it. I'm a goal setter but that doesn't necessarily make me a goal getter. I'm not big at risks. I've always been afraid to take a leap without having something holding me up. For the most part, that's my RRHB. He has the most reassuring shoulders. I can always find him in the crowd.

And so I've been contemplating what's next. This year has been so difficult, the one year anniversary of losing my mother, the appendix nightmare, the lack of a proper vacation -- it's all taken its toll. I'm finding myself rushed and irritable, frustrated by the lack of momentum in my life, but always recognizing that every inch equals a decision. Perhaps I should have entered the mosh pit -- age and tragic hip be damned. But I had just as much fun from the sidelines surrounded by friends, and remembering that even if I'm lonely most days, that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with me. I should be brave enough for it not to matter. I should know what's really important.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

#67 - Little Black Book of Stories

Have you ever noticed I generally start all of my reviews with some long, rambling introduction? Today will be no different.

I'm reading about 4 different books right now (What Should I Do With My Life, The Law of Dreams, Slowing Down to the Speed of Life; can you sense a theme there?), including the only one I've finished so far, A.S. Byatt's engaging short story collection, Little Black Book of Stories. Monday was spent in transit (doctor's app't, to and fro from work), which ensured I had a few spare moments to read (and by spare I mean an entire hour in the middle of the day waiting for the damn doctor).

We were at a birthday party this summer when the sister of a friend of mine was telling me the book that she had most enjoyed reading so far in 2009 was A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book. As I don't have a copy that book in my possession, when I found this book just sitting on my shelf, I thought, "yes, that's it for this week." Because if you can't have THE book why not at least try A book by one of the year's most celebrated writers?

Comprised of five lengthy short stories, Byatt's expansive imagination coupled with her never-ending quest to aptly describe human saddness (or longing, that might even be a better word), the book reminded me a little of Too Much Happiness. Every single character in the stories has been marred emotionally by their lives -- happiness isn't expected and nor is it gained. Life is rough, untidy, difficult and downright miserable in places. But because Byatt's an exceptional writer, the undercurrents running through each story, the little bits of lives that exude joy, are there as well. She also has some lovely fantastical elements in each -- the stories themselves tend a little toward fairy tales for adults.

My favourite of the five would have to be "Body Art": an aging doctor released from an unhappy marriage but not his religious convictions finds himself entangled with a young (apparently almost-homeless) artist charged with "brightening" up the ward. Universal questions like how and why is art important to a life are, of course, raised, but the unlikely relationship between the two resonates even more. The central tale, "A Stone Woman," has lovely fantastic elements, and "The Pink Ribbon" too -- even if that story is achingly sad (it too reminded me of Munro, specifically, "The Bear Came Over the Mountain").

On the whole, this collection was far more satisfying to read than Nocturnes. Because, holy cow, what a snoozer of a book that was.

READING CHALLENGES: Cleaning Out My Closet -- a book from the dark corners of my bookshelf, for once. And because this book just feels so British (along with A.S. Byatt being born in England), I'm tagging it for Around the World in 52 Books too. My only reading challenge for next year? To keep up with all of my other reading challenges. Or maybe even finish one or two.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Sunday Papers, TRH TV & Jersey Shore

We slept in this morning, and I've decided that today will not be a complete waste, as was yesterday. The work week was exceptionally long, with sales conference and a general sense of wariness on my part, and so we went out on Friday night with friends for much-needed release. Of course, in my semi-non-drinking state, the three pints that I had rendered me utterly useless almost all day yesterday. And so I watched Jersey Shore online after Zesty sent a funny note about it last week. Good grief. It's hard not to judge these people. And I suppose that's the point -- the strange obsession that we have with "reality" television seems to be ruining entertainment, as Vanity Fair pointed out in its December issue -- as we spend hours (as I did) following the lives of vapid, self-involved, idiotic wastes of earthly space from a fairly protected sense of being morally better than they are.

As everyone starts to follow the Copenhagen conference (the Globe had extensive coverage of global warming in this weekend's Focus section), a huge discrepancy between where pop culture seems to be headed and the real issues facing our society today. In short, I kind of feel like the environment just doesn't matter to the masses. I'm sure I'm making ridiculous generalizations, and shouldn't just use the vapid, ridiculous "characters" from Jersey Shore as my test subjects, but I was honestly disgusted by their lack of awareness, the amount of garbage they produced on screen (all those disposable cups!), and the kinds of things that caused an emotional reaction (feeling "outcasted" and fighting in bars). The men use bucketfuls of product on their hair and the girls who claim they're "all natural" (in that they aren't augmented) while piling on ridiculous amounts of make-up and wearing next to nothing.

Maybe I'm just trying to attach a sense of righteousness where it doesn't belong. The stereotypical muscle-bound meat heads and the girls who love them seem to be partying their way into a z-level fame. These kids can't aspire to much or else they wouldn't be on the show in the first place and I often wonder if these shows aren't meant to depress the viewership as much as appeal to it. How can you not feel defeated about the state of feminism when you watch young girls come up into a house of strangers, allow themselves to be filmed jumping half-naked into a jacuzzi, and pull off their underwear while the three other women in the house call them "skanks" and "whores." In the same breath, two of the four women in the house then go on to cheat on their significant others while being so drunk they can't remember what happened, one girl gets "sloppy" (which none of the men appreciate?) on the first night, and the last girl, nicknamed "Sweetheart" leads one roommate on only to make-out minutes later with another fellow from the house. Where's the dividing line between skank and whore? The determination lies solely with whomever shouts the loudest?

I shouldn't have watched it. The comedic value of it all was lost on me. Or maybe I'm just too serious these days. Feeling a little lost and neglected in terms of my own life and far too hungover yesterday to contemplate anything more intellectual. But when and how did society fall so far and how do you think these kids are going to feel about themselves when they gain some perspective? Some of them are simply old enough to know better -- a man on the cusp of his 30s who is still chasing tail and judging his success in life by how many women are entrapped by his abs should be ashamed of himself. The idea of instant gratification is taken to the nth degrees by this snippet of American life. These kids don't really want to work (their room and board is paid for by working a shift or two a couple of times a week in a t-shirt shop), their values are family-orientated in a way (they're mainly Italian-American) when it suits them, there's no discussion of safe sex, common decency seems non-existent, and sexism on both counts gets confused with sexual attraction in ways that make me feel far, far older than my years.

And the whole time I'm watched, mindful of being entirely the wrong demographic, I kept thinking: we're wasting the earth's precious resources on this sh*t. And no one seems to care. I wonder how ironic Pauly D's Cadillac tattoos will be in however many years when there's no more gas and there's nothing left to power their beloved cars. Do you think he'll even understand the irony?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Three Books To End November (#s 64,65 & 66)

This cold has lingered, and actually rendered me quite useless yesterday, which meant I did a lot of reading (and watching of movies). I finished Mo Hayder's latest Walking Man novel, Skin (it's excellent), Anne Giardini's enjoyable Advice for Italian Boys, and Twilight (note the lack of adjective).

#64 - Skin

Mo Hayder's writing scares the living bejeezus out of me. She writes excellent mysteries that keep you guessing to the very end. This book picks up right where Ritual ends, picking up the threads of the story just a couple days after Flea Marley and Jack Caffrey solve the muti case they were working on. There's a serial killer in this book who will send shivers up and down your spine, and the twists and turns that the book takes will no doubt have you shouting, "No!" as much as I did. Mo Hayder's writing's as addictive as her stories are -- once I started this book, I didn't put it down until I was finished. There's a lovely image of Flea in the middle of the book feeling as if the sky is pressing down on her -- squeezing all of the air out of her lungs -- and the passage was just so perfect, so indicative of Hayder's simple prose powers, that even if the book had stopped there I would have been satisfied.

#65- Advice for Italian Boys
Full disclosure -- I interviewed Anne Giardini for work the other day and had managed to read half the book before sitting down to talk to her (it was a REALLY busy week). Let's keep in mind that Ms. Giardini's a CEO of a giant company in her day job as I tell this story.

1. I forgot the battery to my recorder. And had to race back to my desk to get them.

2. Then I put said battery in upside down and had to fight with it to get the little thingy back open to switch it over.

3. I turned it on and set it down in front of her and started the interview. But I didn't press RECORD. So we had to start the whole interview over again after I realized that I wouldn't have a single note because I was relying on the audio... Sigh.

Regardless, she's lovely, and talks how she writes -- in long, luxurious sentences. The novel loosely follows the almost coming of age of Nicolo, a twenty-something Italian-Canadian man whose trying to find his way in the world. He still lives at home, works at the gym, and hasn't quite had a significant relationship with the opposite sex. The middle child (in between two Enzos), Nicolo has a very special relationship to his advice-spilling Nonna, whose sayings pepper the story and the text with old-world common sense. Giardini said that she wanted to write a book about a good man, a man who isn't without conflict, but one who at his core has a moral centre that's just right. She accomplishes this, and it's a breezy, delightful novel that presents the picture of a lovely family that you'd be happy sitting down and sharing a meal with -- and damn, I'd bet the food would be fantastic.

#66 - Twilight
I finished it. And that's all I'm going to say. More to come via our Undeath Match next week.

TRH Movie - The Road

We had saved up our entertainment budget and put our Air Miles to good use (movie passes) so my RRHB said, "why don't we go to the movies." At first, he wanted to go see 2012, and then he actually read the reviews. Looking up showtimes, I noticed that The Road was screening at the Queensway, so I suggested we see that instead -- it took a little convincing. It's honestly one of our favourite books -- and that doesn't happen often. We have drastically different taste in reading material.

This film has so many things working in its favour: excellent source material, Viggo Mortensen, a score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and a director, John Hillcoat, who has a bit of a track record (he directed The Proposition). All the pieces are there, but the film doesn't quite reach its potential. It's too long, and the liberties that they take to adapt it to the screen didn't quite work for me.

Let's pause for a moment because by no means is this a bad film. Quite the opposite, actually, it's a very good film. I just wanted it to be a great film (and so did A.O. Scott).

So, let's start with the positives -- Viggo Mortensen plays the Man, the narrator, the father who takes his only child on the road after the apocolypse, consistently heading south because it means survival. He's excellent: nuanced when necessary, protective, angry, solid, and worthy of the role. The young fellow (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who plays the son was good too -- and the pair, worked significantly well together. There's a lovely balance to the film, don't get me wrong, the story is heartbreaking, between the son who only knows this ravished world and the father who still remembers aspects of what it was like before the cold. The two of them work this contradiction exceptionally well.

For the most part, it's a faithful adaptation of the novel. But there are Hollywood elements that I wasn't sure the story needed: the history of the man's relationship to the boy's mother (played by Charlize Theron), a strange trip back to his childhood home (did I miss that from the book?), and cemented the ending.

In a way, it's these very "movie"-like parts that kind of ruined the film for me -- I wanted more The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and we got a little too much of a film like Gerry. I felt the book deserved something a little more stylized, a little less Hollywood, and a little more reflective of McCarthy's book. More varied dialogue between the two would have helped. It wasn't to be done away with as a minor part of the book sacrificed as a means to pump up the action so the movie could be more broad-reaching. They tended to repeat the same conversations over and over again -- and I remember this differently in the book. The film could have been shorter too -- that's one of the things that I admire about McCarthy's writing -- it's effective because it's so sparse.

One thing about the picture that's utterly worth raving about is the art direction. It's sobering to see the remnants of our civilization laid to waste and even more so to see humanity loose its essence as food becomes increasingly sparse. The whole film feels bathed in this greyish light, burned out fields where trees used to stand, garbage everywhere, stuff that people hold tight to becomes meaningless if you can't eat it -- strands of pearls are stepped on and over and money blows around like paper. The film looks amazing. Truly. Like I said, it's a good picture, totally worth seeing in the theatre, and wholly deserving (fingers crossed) of its Oscar potential.

But, holy crap were there knuckleheads in the theatre with us. It was packed but I'm not sure people knew what film they were seeing. Or taking their teenagers too? Wha? I know! One family left twenty minutes in and the kid beside me was half-asleep before the film ever really started. When the movie was over, the group of drunken middle-agers in front of us stood up and said, "Well, they sure were spare on the action in that weren't they?" I honestly wanted to ask them if they'd even heard of the book, but I held my tongue. Sort of...

Monday, November 23, 2009

TRH Movie - New Moon

Oh, be ready to throw the tomatoes at me, yes, I spent hard-earned money to go see New Moon for our Undeath Match. Luckily, I was accompanied by someone (Rachel) who both saw the cheese potential (so bad it's good) and has a similar penchant for some good, old girlie fun. But, wow, is this film ever bad.

Like, really, really bad.

Shame on you EW for giving it a B+. And shame on all you CinemaScore peeps for coming out of the film and handing over an average of A-.

For anyone living under a rock, a soppy teenage girl (Bella Swan, what a stupid name) is abandoned by her mother (awesome role model there) who got remarried and shipped her off to Forks, WA to be reared by her silent but sturdy father (town sheriff, natch), falls in love with a "smoldering" perma-teenage vampire (Edward Cullen). They swoon. They stare into one another's eyes. And by the end of Twilight, they were actually an honest to goodness couple -- chaste even by Mormon standards -- but a couple nonetheless. Enter New Moon and all the horrible metaphors that title implies.

Open Scene: It's Bella's birthday. Of course, no one's allowed to give her presents (because teenage girls just HATE stuff), and no one listens to her. Yawn. There's a party at the Cullen Manor and she gets a paper cut. Oh, the blood! It's so hard for the vampires to resist. Why? Because they're vampires, that's what they do, they suck the blood. Yawn. Edward decides that it's over, for Bella's own good. Because Bella, for the love of Pete, has no mind of her own. He leaves. She dies inside and suffers from an almost life-ending depression coupled with sweat-stained, sheet-scrunching nightmares.

Enter buffed up buddy Jacob who glides in with the cheesiest wig to end all wigs and abs to rival Tim Riggins. He's the only one who can pull Bella out of her post-Edward coma. They build motorcycles together because she needs to live on the "edge." Why? Oh, because that's when Spectral Edward shows up to tell her what to do. Again, why? Because Bella has no brain nor mind of her own. Quadruple yawn. Oh, and Jacob's a werewolf. Did I forget to mention that? Because all of her boyfriends are supernatural. She's just that special.

Jake and Bella bond. He wants more but there's a treaty in play, blah vampires versus werewolves, blah de blah. Edward moan, groan, moan. And I'm already tired of recapping the plot so let me just cut to a list of why this movie sucked so much I would have walked out if I was there by myself:

1. Why can't teenagers have fun? Even a little? Why are they always pouting and acting all angrily and not doing anything remotely like regular kids?

2. Seriously, shut up Edward.

3. Bella stands in a meadow (even though a terrible red-headed vampire named Victoria is hunting her) alone as a dread-locked vamp says, "I'm going to kill you, okay?" She sort of shrugs and doesn't move. Let's repeat that, she does NOT MOVE. She just waits for Edward to come and save her but because he's convinced being together would put her in too much danger, he's nowhere to be found. Wha? Run little girl, run. Fight, kick, scream, just do something other than pout cross-eyed at the damn man.

4. Again, even when he's not on screen I want Edward to shut up. Spectral Edward should have a sock shoved in his fog-inducing ass.

5. What happened to quality role models for girls? Where's Judy Blume when you need her? Where's Nancy Drew or Andie or Jo? Bella mopes around because of a boy, abandons her friends, who don't even say WTF when she decides to start talking to them again, abandons both school and her parents to run off at the very slight chance she'll even see Edward, and only acts when it relates to a boy (Edward or Jacob). She is consistently needing to be saved. She never, ever saves herself. And when they both say, "oh we can't be together because you might get hurt or I might hurt you," she curls up into a little ball and does a fat lot of nothing.

6. So, the whole wolf pack runs around with no shirts and cut-off pants. But when they change, what happens to the pants? The werewolves aren't wearing them and they're not flopping around anywhere on the ground. They magically disappear and then magically appear when they turn back. Those are some magical pants. Who cares about continuity when you have Taylor Lautner's abs?

7. Shut up Edward.

8. If Bella's dad's supposed to be a cop, and a good cop at that, how come he never notices a) her boyfriends all have freaky eyes and often walk around all the time without shirts and b) that they're supernatural? Hasn't he lived in Forks his entire life and isn't one of his closest friends a Native American?

9. The first movie sucked, but at least there was a cheese factor that made it kind of hilarious. That first moment when Edward sparkles, priceless. Here, they're all dour and angry -- pushing and pulling each other with no payoff.

10. The whole Team This or Team That is just dumb. Even though Edward got his ass kicked by the strange Michael Sheen headed cult thingy, Bella's so obviously in love with him (and if you've read the spoilers and/or the books) you know what happens. In fact, it doesn't matter what happens because it's all filler anyway -- it's a road block in between the happy ending. The story's been told a million times. However, IF I were to pick a side (and no serious, book-loving, 30-something woman has any right to even be talking about this), I'd have to go with Jacob. I know he has no chance but, let's face it, Edward got his pasty-emo handed right back to him in that (SPOILER) battle toward the end, and rightly so. The werewolves, as goofy as they are running around the forest in basically their underwear, can truly fight. That was the best part of the film, actually. The wolves battling it out and ripping the heads of the vampires. Pretty, pretty awesome. But don't tell Kimberly I said that.

11. SHUT UP, Edward.

I've been reading Twilight and I doubt I'll review it here -- what can I possibly say. Everyone knows the writing is horrible. It's akin to the worst stuff I've ever read in some of the worst creative writing classes I've attended. She tells way more than she shows, Meyer has never met a useless, moronic detail she didn't like, and, other than the setting, which I quite like, she breaks taboos that undermine the merit (if any) of her work. The struggle to be good, to be in love, all that good, juicy teenage stuff makes for good ingredients but what she cooks up couldn't be any more contrived if she tried. And yet, she's sold millions and millions of books. Let's just hope she's using some of her royalties for good and re-planting some of the trees she's destroyed over the years. It's like Stephen King pointed out, at least J.K. Rowling can write, you know?

Friday, November 20, 2009

#ShortcoversFail

Last week I was excited to try Shortcovers -- I've been reading manuscripts and classics on my Sony eReader for over a year, and now wanted to try to buy new content from a source that made it easy to transfer from device to device. Shortcovers promises this is easy. And let's keep in mind that I am not one to be afraid of technology. But many, many things went wrong:

1. On my way home from The Giller Light, I thought -- "cool, I'll download the winner (The Bishop's Man) to my blackberry and start reading it tonight." No such luck, I searched and searched, and couldn't find the book. #shortcoversfail.

2. The next day I thought, "it's got to be there now," as I searched for The Bishop's Man again. There it was, kudos to Shortcovers for having it up quickly. When I clicked, I got a message that I needed to buy this book. "Sure," I thought, and clicked to buy. I entered my credit card information. "This is not a valid credit card." I did it again. And again. And again. And again. It. Would. Not. Work. #shortcoversfail.

3. Then, Friday as I was tidying up my office, I dusted off my Sony eReader (I haven't been reading a pile of books electronically in the last little while), plugged it in and thought, "okay, I'll buy the books from Shortcovers, dump them on my eReader, and then transfer them to my blackberry." Logon to Shortcovers, buy The Bishop's Man and Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, and download them to my Adobe Digital Editions. Adobe Digital Editions says, "here they are!" And I can see the books. Next step, "plug in your reader and it'll automatically recognize it." Nope. I followed all the steps and for the life of me could not get my reader to pick up the Shortcovers content; this might not be their fault -- apparently I might need to update my Sony interface but because I'm at work, I don't have adminstrative capabilities for my laptop, I couldn't do that. #shortcoversfail.

4. Back to my blackberry. Apparently, once you've bought the books they should automatically download onto your phone because they're paid for. No. They don't. Oh, I can get the sample chapters but I've paid for the whole book -- not just the sample chapters. Nothing happened automatically nor was there a single useful "help" section that could be of assistance. Also, there's no phone number, just those annoying email customer service forms. #shortcoversfail.

5. Now, I've got two great books, both I'm dying to read digitally marooned on my laptop at work with no way of getting them anywhere else and feel like I've wasted $25.00. I HATE wasting $25.00. And what's worse -- I want the content, I want to be able to read it in both places, I want it to work. #shortcoversfail.

Anyone have any suggestions?

#63 - Nocturnes

Even before finishing the first story in Kazuo Ishiguro's Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, I had a sinking feeling that I shouldn't have started another book of short stories so soon after finishing Too Much Happiness. Overall, Nocturnes reads and feels like a bridge -- not a structure that connects two pieces of land, but that instrumental section in a song that marks a transition. The entire book feels like something Ishiguro has written in between major works. I missed the exacting, perfectly balanced narrative from Never Let Me Go, and had a hard time believing the characters in many of these stories. In places, the dialogue seemed forced, pitched in because it needed to be there and not because organic and/or interesting things were happening within the scene. And two of the middle stories were so, I don't know, cliched and almost forced, that I almost didn't finish the book. The last story, as I detail below, was a saving grace.

Sometimes, stories about music and the people who play and/or create it, never capture the true essence of the experience. You always feel as though it's not real -- the bands are made up, the musicians are made up, even when the author uses actual music to ground the story in some form of reality. In a sense, a lot of these stories read like those "ripped from the headlines" episodes of Law and Order where they take a real scene, Puff Daddy and J-Lo involved in a shoot out at a club, use no-name actors and tack on a murder to take the whole drama up a notch. Overall, this collection felt a bit like that, not utterly authentic, and I was disappointed because I firmly believe Ishiguro to be one of the world's best living writers.

The first story, "Crooner," follows a young guitar player who has emigrated from an Eastern block country to Italy where he's making a living. He meets a very famous singer, a kind of "great one" who came up in the days when crooning lead to fortunes being made in Vegas at a time when the original Ocean's Eleven was released into theatres. The aging crooner hires the young guitarist to accompany him as he serenades his wife. The performance, for many reasons is bittersweet, but the contract between the young and the old, their very different lives, what the crooner meant to the young man (who grew up with his mother listening to all of his albums), is poignant. Things are never as they seem, lives are never what they appear, and music doesn't always have the meaning it suggests.

The other three, and especially "Come Rain or Come Shine," are somewhat forgettable. There's a ridiculous element to that particular story ("Come Rain or Come Shine") that I didn't find believable, and despite liking the main character, a fellow who teaches English in Spain (who's kind of trapped in this transitory life), not a single secondary moved beyond a level of caricature. The tenuous connection to music wasn't enough to keep me interested in the mess the this fellow finds himself in as he visits two, married, university friends. Yet, even when I don't find the situation or the characters particularly engaging, I can still respect Ishiguro's talent -- a bad Ishiguro story is still better than most. There just didn't seem to be enough emotional consequence in any of the stories to keep me interested throughout the read.

The other story worth mentioning, the very last piece in the book, "Cellists," that was, by far, my favourite of the five. A young cellist starting me make his way in the world finds himself a teacher in an American tourist. They develop a deep and lasting teacher/student relationship over the course of a summer. She's running away from a relationship she can't quite decide if she wants to be in or not, and he's trying desperately to live up to both his talent and his potential. They each take something different from one another: she believes she's a genius, like him, and he believes his work is getting better simply through the power of her words, her explanations of what's wrong with his playing.

The narrator of this story, a bandmate and friend of the cellist, tells the story with a detached sense of wonder, in a way -- he sees the cellist years later, better dressed, nicely groomed, and is reminded of the strange summer they spent together. The last paragraph of the story might just be the best of the entire book -- it's pitch perfect in its assessment of both what happened to the cellist and how potential, or any kind of gift really, can easily slip away. It was utterly, heartbreakingly, authentic.

READING CHALLENGES: Ishiguro was born in Japan (even though he's lived in the UK since he was 5 or something), so I'm counting it as Around the World in 52 Books, which might just bring me to, oh, five books read for that challenge this year. Pathetic!

Monday, November 16, 2009

#62 - Too Much Happiness

Alice Munro has the ability to describe in one sentence what would take lesser writers paragraph upon paragraph to explore. She can disintegrate a years-long relationship in a sentence and it never feels jarring to the reader. She explores the essence of human experience in a way that highlights the aching, pressure-cooker way that people relate to one another. Nothing seems easy in Munro's world, yet it doesn't seem overtly melodramatic or necessarily posed to be dramatic. It's her innate skill to highlight the utter randomness of life and it's inherent losses. Secrets that are taken to people's graves. Lovers that ruin marriages. Short story writers that present a different view of a shared time period. It all sounds so cliche -- like the worst of Hollywood's blockbusters (yawn 2012). Yet at the deft hand of Munro these experiences are concise, cutting and often heartbreaking.

Of the 10 stories in the collection, I'd be hard pressed to pick a favourite. The novel-like depth of the title story, "Too Much Happiness," its ironic title, its compelling heroine (novelist-slash-mathematician Sophia Kovalevsky), was the weightiest in terms of page count, and somewhat unlike the other stories in the collection with its historical, non-Canadian setting. The day-to-day structure of Kovalevsky's life was in clear contrast to her academic life. In a way, the more successful she was at her work (regardless of how that success plays out in terms of stature), the less her personal life seemed in order. Regardless, Munro's story charges forward, driving home until its sad conclusions (I hope that's not a spoiler).

The underlying irony behind the entire collection, the idea that happiness, in its most cliched, Hollywood form, doesn't exist. The people in Munro's stories are content. They move forward in their lives because there's nothing else but to do -- and yet the existence of happiness haunts them all, from the young woman who has suffered an unspeakable tragedy, to the music teacher-slash-hippie-slash-performer. Each of the stories pulls you into a certain precise moment of human bliss, whether it's the birth of a child, a problem solved, or comfort in a marriage. And then, without being content to have her characters simply enjoy these moments, Munro pulls them out of their reverie, even if it's an everyday kind of thing, and puts them through the tough times. The opposite of happiness. Where survival means life has changed and change, coping or not coping with it, remains an integral part in what makes us human.

There's a scene in "Dimensions" that will haunt me forever -- it's a visceral, unthinking reaction that her character has to the horrible events going on around her. And there's moment in "Wenlock Edge" where the narrator describes another woman's hair (blonde) as a colour that always meant cheap to her (I'm paraphrasing terribly here; my copy of the book has been leant to a friend). Both of these small, tight sentences that appear not in the end, but in the middle of these two stories, are indicative of the power of Munro's work. I've been thinking about them for days. And once I get my book back I'll add the proper quotes (how's that for a lame review).

Masterful yet never manipulative, Munro gives you happiness, and its consequences, in its many forms in this collection. Take your own human heart with you as you read, realizing that it might be broken a little bit long the way.

READING CHALLENGES: Too Much Happiness is book four for this year's Canadian Book Challenge.

Monday: A Reading List

Our email is down at work for the moment and that means it's oddly quiet in terms of the interwebs. So, I'm stealing, "It's Monday! What Are You Reading?" from Jonita who participates in the original meme? idea? post? from J. Kaye's blog.

Books I Completed This Week Are: Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro and The Human Stain by Philip Roth.

Books I'm Currently Reading: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (ereader), Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro, Bitten by Kelley Armstrong (for The Undeath Match), The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. It's a toss-up which ones I'll actually finish this week.

What's Up Next?: Goodness, gracious me, I have no idea. Let's see what I finish above first of all.

What are you all reading?

Friday, November 13, 2009

#61 - The Human Stain

I'm not keeping any secrets here when I admit that I had a really, really hard time reading American Pastoral. In fact, I would say I was very anti-Philip Roth after finishing that novel. Never wanted to read another of his books again. Openly gave my copy of The Human Stain the stink-eye for littering my TBR shelf. Yet, I'm also addicted to lists (for reasons I'm still trying to work out, seriously, in therapy), and decided to give it a shot -- after all, I didn't hate the film, and I really liked the beginning of the book when it landed on my desk about four years ago.

Fast forward a few years. As I'm trying to clear off my shelves before bringing any more new books into the fold, I took The Human Stain OFF the giant TBR shelf and moving it to the bedside table. And am I ever glad that I did (how many of my book reviews start out this way? With my preconceived and often wrong perspectives of the various books on my shelves?).

In short, I loved this book.

Honestly.

I did.

The Human Stain tells the story of Coleman "Silky" Silk, a semi-retired Classics professor is forced into full retirement over the disgrace after using the word "spooks" (meant as ghosts; read as racist). The novel's narrator, a writer who hides up in the hills of this small Massachusetts town, slowly reveals the deep, and shaded, history of this broken man. An odd friendship between the two develops as Coleman's disgrace becomes at once both unbearably personal and utterly absurd at the same time. No one, least of all the woman who was married to him for years, and who subsequently died during the whole fiasco, knows the truth about the man -- (and if you've seen the movie this isn't a spoiler, if you haven't then SPOILER) that he's actually black and has been passing as a white, Jewish man for over 40 years.

At 71, Coleman has found a renewed interest in life post-incident in the relationship he's been having with 34-year-old Faunia, a janitor at the university who lives at a dairy farm, milking the cows to pay for her rent. Damaged by a disastrous relationship with her ex-husband, who has severe PTSD after returning home from Vietnam, Faunia is also coping with the tragic losses of her two children who died in a fire.

No one escapes untouched in Roth's world, characters are flawed, ashamed, damaged, destroyed, suffer physically, mentally, anguish over all kinds of things, and yet, in this novel it all works. At first, I thought he really didn't like women, when I read that Faunia was molested, illiterate and beaten, I did roll my eyes a little -- but then as you go deeper in the novel, she's actually one of the stronger characters. Sure she makes up lies to get through the day, but who doesn't. And sure she hasn't had a very nice life, but she also doesn't make excuses for herself. Regardless, their relationship seems almost redemptive in a way, for both of them. Which means, of course, SPOILER, that drastic, awful things must happen.

The narrative structure of the novel is simple -- a writer tells the story of Coleman's life, so close sometimes that we forget he's even there -- and that leaves way for Roth's complex and rich sentences to pull you deeply into the lives of these characters. It's an effective, literary novel, one that rewards the reader by the quality of the writing and not just simply by the essence of the story, if that makes sense. All in all, the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list didn't let me down this time. But Roth's still one-for-one: I'm still not convinced he's entirely an author for me.

READING CHALLENGES: 1001 Books.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

#60 - Long Past Stopping

When the US presented this book at conference a world and a half ago, I was totally taken with the cover. The idea that the son of Jack Canfield, the author of those (ridiculous?) Chicken Soup for the Soul books, became a heroin addict and lived to tell the tale was intriguing. I did two things I never do: 1) judged a book by its cover and 2) picked up the book solely based on the fact that its blurb intrigued me. And trust me when I say I've got some issues with a book blurb. So much so that I rarely read them and almost never pick up the book because of them.

Annnywaaay. Oran Canfield's roughly my age but we've had two very different lives. First of all, he grew up with a fiercely intelligent mother (that's not so different from me) who pretty much kept him outside of your typical societal norms. He was raised by libertarians, went to an anarchist boarding school, joined the circus for a while (and competed as a juggler), and was often left with individuals who had questionable parenting skills yet nonetheless took part in forming him as he grew older. Secondly, his father left the family when he was very young and before his brother, Kyle, was born. Lastly, there's that whole heroin addict situation. Oh, and then there's the whole his dad became a multi-millionaire thingy too.

His memoir, Long Past Stopping, not unlike Dry by Augusten Burroughs, presents addiction in a harrowing yet utterly matter-of-fact way which makes it impossible not to get pulled into his story. There's irony in how addictive these kinds of memoirs are -- how easy it is to just keep reading as the hero (or heroine) moves from fix to fix. Gets themselves deeper and deeper into the black hole when they'd much rather be with that great girl that's finally showing them the time of day. Also, it might just be me, but it's so much easier to read addiction stories than it is to watch them (like say Intervention). There's a level of separateness once you know the author's gone through it and come out the other side. Also, Canfield's a survivor. He doesn't set out to get hooked on heroin. In fact, his introduction to the drug seems innocent rather than ominous, and the practical nature of how he starts shooting (he's simply wasting too much of the drug by smoking it) seems almost blase when you read it.

The tone of this book is consistently infused with his infectious, intelligent sense of humour. And while the writing might not be Nobel-prize worthy (I have to admit I felt the dialogue was particularly weak), it's impossible not to be interested in this book from start to finish. I'm willing to forgive things that I don't normally (like weak dialogue) when it comes to this book (because, let's face it, I'm a snob) primarily because the story itself, his life, is just so damn fascinating. And I'm willing to bet anyone else who picks up this book will end up with a Totally Inappropriate Crush on its author too. Just try it and see if you can put it down after browsing a few chapters. The structure of the book is smart too -- it vacillates between his childhood and his adulthood in a way that breaks up the more dramatic, traumatic moments, and it's certainly a relief when he finally finds his way off the junk.

Never say I don't use my power for good. Here's a quirky and fun road trip guest blog post he wrote for us over on The Savvy Reader. And to get a sense of his sense of humour, watch this video.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Where Does The Time Go?

There's a line in one of my (currently) favourite songs by The Raconteurs: "It's been a wasted, worried year." Kind of fitting, I think, for the last twelve or fourteen months. Usually it's my birthday that sends me into a fit of introspection -- but as I'm well passed my birthday and it was hell bent on almost-killing me this year, I've been spending the last few weeks thinking about what on earth I'm doing with my life. Ever since my mom died just over a year ago, it's as if my life was physically holding me back -- if that makes any sense. For every step I'd take forward, my own body would push me back, culminating in the "episode" from the summer with my appendix.

Like bits of shrapnel left behind, all of the stuff that's happened over the last year has finally started to work its way out. At least I feel that way. I feel lighter, and not just because I've lost a bunch of weight, but also because the sheer force of all that came down to rest upon my shoulders wasn't terrible. It was awful, don't get me wrong, I wouldn't wish this year on my worst enemy, but it's taught me a lot, and if you can take those lessons and move them into a more positive space, then it's not a complete mess, right?

Oh, how I wish that things turned out differently. I wish that a lot. But there are so many parts to my life that I don't control, and now that the disease seems back in remission for what feels like the umpteenth time, maybe what I need to do now is appreciate how much feeling healthy contributes to a better outlook on life. Yesterday, I walked halfway home and met my RRHB along the way (he was driving). I wasn't tired. I wasn't grumpy. I wasn't exhausted. The day hadn't pulled the life out of me teeth first. And it's easy to be mad at life. It's easy to hate your job, your station, your advantages, your disadvantages, your face, your legs, your grey hair, but it's another to stop for a moment, plugged into the iPod, enjoying the crisp air and the onset of my most-hated season, winter.

Anyway. I'm going to try to post more often. But holy crap, life is busy at the moment.

#59 - The Year of The Flood

Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood was a slow burn kind of book for me. It took me ages to read, I think I finished five other novels while I was reading this one, but that's not a comment on how much I enjoyed this book. A companion piece to Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood is a wholly satisfying story about a world hit by a waterless flood, and those people within who survive. I may be wrong, but I'd classify the book as speculative fiction -- it takes place just far enough in the future to make you second guess how we're living our lives and treating the earth, but it's familiar enough not to seem too out there (if that makes any sense).

The novel moves back and forth between life pre- and post-flood. For a time, the main characters, Toby and Ren, one older, one younger, despite the different ways they arrived, live together in the Gardeners commune, where traditional religion that we'd recognize as Western in its influence mixes with holistic approaches to health, the earth, and life. The Gardeners, lead by Adams and Eves, don't put chemicals in their bodies, they eat food that they grow, and many of them survive the waterless flood because of these skills.

At first, Toby resists the world of the Gardeners. She's survived this long by going underground, as dangerous as it is, and becoming a part of a community wasn't something she thought she needed to do. But slowly, as her skills as a naturalist, a healer, a beekeeper both evolve and are discovered, it's apparent she's found a place where she can belong -- whether or not she wants to become Eve Six.

Ren, however, doesn't have it so easy. As a young girl, her mother drags her away from her father's house -- safely ensconced in the highly programmed, chemical world -- as a result of an affair she has with one of the key Gardener men. She's a flake, there's no getting around it, and when the relationship goes sour, Ren's dragged back into the sterile world of her father's people, sent off to university at Martha Graham, and then out into the workforce, perhaps not in the job she would have once imagined for herself in high school. High school and the Gardeners define Ren (oh how this happens for so many people, ahem) and without these key people in her life, she's a little lost, a little heartbroken (over Jimmy, you'd remember him from the previous book -- Snowman). But both Toby and Ren are survivors and their stories, when woven together, are equally compelling.

There's nothing to do but be in awe of Atwood's imagination. But if I were to make one slight criticism -- I wasn't as inspired by the "poems" that started off each of the Gardener sections -- they seemed a bit contrived to me, but then, when you look through a hymn book in church, the sentiment is much the same, so perhaps I should just take them at face value. It's a sad book, a book that makes you appreciate the fact that you can still put a seed in the ground and have it grow into a plant that could feed you, the birds, and the butterflies. And one that perhaps sets a new standard for saint-like worship of unconventional heroes, especially those that survive.

READING CHALLENGES: The Year of the Flood is my third book in this year's Canadian Book Challenge.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

#58 - Labour Day

I've been waiting to review Labor Day until my interview with Joyce Maynard was posted over on our company blog, The Savvy Reader. Then, all of a sudden weeks go by and I haven't managed to type a single word let alone post any book reviews. Thankfully, I'm only behind by about three reads so it's not that bad.

The novel takes place in a small New Hampshire town during a moment when all of the main characters are on the cusp of major changes in their lives. As the hot, uncomfortable last weekend of summer begins, Henry, who's thirteen, and his mother, Adele, head out to get school clothes. For most, it's an everyday kind of errand, for Henry and Adele, it represents a rare moment when she actually leaves the house.

While they're at the store, Henry comes upon a bleeding, baseball cap-wearing stranger who asks for a ride home. Turns out Frank's an escaped prisoner who takes refuge (and hostages if we're being entirely correct) at Adele's. There's an element of suspended disbelief here, it's Maynard writing the novel, and not McEwan, and while Frank might have committed a crime to get in jail, it's never apparent he actually belongs there. There's an element of Shawshank to his backstory, which gets unraveled over the course of the time he spends purposefully sequestered with Henry and Adele at their house.

The tumultuous relationship between Henry and his parents (who are divorced; his father's remarried with a stepson and a new daughter) is necessarily exacerbated by Frank's illegal presence. But not in the ways that you would expect. They're not in danger. And the fear comes from the impending change more so than anything else. Maynard told me that she wanted to write a novel that looked at how this thirteen-year-old dealt with the sex lives of his parents -- while he's on the cusp of his own. This journey, or realization might be a better word, starts Henry off on the dangerous path that forces the unlikely situation to its necessary conclusion.

There's an urgency to Maynard's novel that echoes its tight timeframe. The major action of the book all takes place over those few days and the constraints of time drive the story. In turn, this makes the novel utterly readable -- the perfect title to sit down for a couple of hours in an afternoon to finish, a book utterly meant for a "book-a-day" challenge. In some ways, the book reminded me, in setting only, to John Irving and Elizabeth Stout; story-wise, there's a little of Ann Patchett's Run in this book. Overall, the achingly and lovely last passages of the novel brought tears to my eyes.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

#56 - #57 Crush It & The Tipping Point

There's nothing new that I can possibly blog about Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point. It's a book that's back in the Amazon.ca top 100 today, I'm guessing because of all the Nook news, and it's simply one of those titles that you imagine everyone to have already reviewed, if not read. So when I was browsing around the Vancouver Public Library sale last Thursday trying to ward off the persistent stomach butterflies (there because of the whole public speaking element to happen the next day; bleech), I was pleased to find a battered copy of The Tipping Point from the Kitsilano Branch for a whopping $0.55.

The central thesis of Gladwell's book, that little "things" can lead to sweeping change, seemed particularly relevant reading for the days leading up to and passing by Book Camp. The iconic work looks at all of the social conditions that surround a product, event or action "tipping" into an epidemic. From smoking to book sales, the book comes to some pretty cool conclusions about the power of word of mouth. Words that we toss around all the time, like connectors and mavens, this theory of something "tipping" has become part of the everyday business lexicon. And it's easy to see why.

Gary Vaynerchuk's Crush It! isn't as intellectual nor as everlasting as The Tipping Point, but it's a really good example of putting Malcolm Gladwell's theories into action. Vaynerchuk grew his business exponentially by investing in his own personal brand, used the "free" tools of the internet to grow it, and then tipped over into the uber-successful range by simply working hard and "crushing it." It's a veritable how-to manual for his kind of success and a good handbook for anyone somewhat curious about social media.

I like how both books focus on finding/offering solutions instead of lamenting the demise of the "old" ways of doing business. Vaynerchuk's work isn't necessarily innovative; it's stuff people have been doing on the internet for as long as the web's been around. But what he managed to achieve goes above and beyond how everyday people use the tools, which is impressive. Also, he's driven to succeed in ways that, yes I'm going to say it, regular people may not be -- he's a born Salesman, a picture perfect Connector, and proof positive that word of mouth absolutely works to drive community, which in turn drives sales, which in turn allowed his endeavours to tip into an epidemic.

The stickiness of Gladwell's book versus Vaynerchuk's can't really be compared. I dogeared piles of pages of the former and returned my copy to work the morning after I read the latter. One's a book that would benefit from repeated reads and the other I'd recommend as a handbook to anyone looking to build their brand through social media. All the way through The Tipping Point, I tried to define myself in terms of the different personalities Gladwell presented. All the way through Crush It!, I wondered how much coffee Vaynerchuk must drink in a day to get himself out there to the extent that he does -- two very different intellectual exercises on my part.

Regardless, there were lessons from both books that I'd apply to my everyday and my work life.

1. That you need to pull the best, most relevant ideas from everything you read, fiction to non, and everything in between, and apply this learning to your life. Maybe it's just in the sense that you enjoyed something and want to pass it on, but that your passion, about anything, can be contagious. And that's not a bad thing.

2. Pay close attention to what goes on around you. You might not think you have anything in common with how "cool" becomes relevant, but within that, you'll discover what's authentic and what's rubbish -- especially in areas of your own expertise.

3. Don't be afraid of people. Or situations. Or of doing things that might make you uncomfortable (read: running a seminar in front a large group of people). Ahem. YES, I realize how ironic this is coming from shy, scaredy-cat me.

4. Read more nonfiction.

5. Getting people excited about reading isn't just about selling books. For me, it's about the survival of our culture, whether it's pop or otherwise, it's a record of who we are as a people at the time. It's necessary. It's important. It's valuable and it's a part of our survival. Art matters. Fighting about it won't get us to our goals any quicker.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Book Camp Vancouver

Over the past few days, I've been trying to synthesize my thoughts about Book Camp Vancouver into some cohesive post that captures everything that happened over the couple of days. Beyond the networking and the bookish talking, I met some really great people who seem to be just as passionate about dealing with the issues within our industry and moving forward. As a friend tweeted, we just want people to read books and figure everything else out as we go along. In my case, I don't care where or how people are reading books, just that they are reading. In short order here are the talking points (some from my own session on Content Would be King and some that arose from others) that have consumed me in the wee hours of the morning as my body stubbornly refuses to adjust to West Coast time:

1. As an industry on the whole we need to start separating our selling tools, our B2B assets from the messages we're sending out D2C. We can't keep using the same messaging for both and expecting the consumer to be thrilled. The audiences are different. These differences are crucial to creating content both around authors and books. We need to imagine strategy and technique to talk to both camps effectively and accurately.

2. Everyone is so panicked about losing traditional book sales and the impending ebook revolution that they're focusing all their energy in the wrong direction. We shouldn't be sitting up complaining that the physical book is disappearing. Let's move beyond the fear and decide to push in the direction of having our content available cross-platform. This isn't revolutionary; it's just common sense. In my session, when a woman held up a notebook and proclaimed her deep love and affection for the format, I held up my blackberry. It's not one or the other. I read books, ebooks, web content, web books, and once we can figure out a way to have all of these devices talk to each other, we'll be golden. From commute to bedtime, you'll be able to enjoy the same content -- just because we want more options doesn't mean we want the book to go away. This is a common misconception that just means we do more and more arguing and defending one position against the other. How about we meet in the middle and find a solution?

3. The internet/online/digital is not marketing's slushpile. It's not something you should be doing just because you think you have to but because you think it has value. It also can't be an afterthought. It has to have clean, concise and effective strategy behind it. It's another argument I can't believe we're all still having. It's cache (cash) -- not cache (cash-shay). Traditional marketing has the cache; big full-page ads in the Globe and Mail are incredible, but they don't have the cache -- the sticky power of the internet to hold on to every bit of information that gets posted. We need to push the power of the cache and keep driving as much content as possible. Eventually we'll get to conversion, which is what everyone wants.

4. We have a problem with revenue, not audience. This was revolutionary with me; it's almost as if it freed my mind to accept the fact that the seismic shift needs to encompass new business models.

5. More and more the truly brilliant people I come into contact with, whether they work at the chain or for an independent bookstore, whether they're readers, bloggers or writers, whether they're in the press or starting up an online business, are open to saying good-bye, and in shocking ways, to the way things have always been done. Some of the most interesting conversations I had weren't just about what wasn't working but about what we can do within the confines of the business itself.

There's so much more that I'm sure I'll be talking about as the days go by and my brain keeps mulling over and over how to truly move forward in a way that gets everyone paid. Holler back your thoughts and let me know if I'm truly crazy or if you think, like I do, that we can get there too.

#55 - Serena

After being on vacation for almost five days, one would have thought I'd have gotten further through the stack of books I brought with me, bought at the sale at the Vancouver Public Library, and purchased on Granville Island. Not so. I managed to finish Ron Rash's Serena, and am about halfway through The Tipping Point (and I have read Gary Vaynerchuk's Crush It!, which is technically #56, but I'm going to talk about it and the Gladwell in the same post).

Annnywaay. This is the first book that I've read from American writer Rash, and not to be cliched but it certainly won't be the last. Set in the Appalachians during the Depression, Serena tells the story of an ambitious lumber baron who marries an enigmatic, determined young woman who changes his life irrevocably. When Pemberton arrives back to the logging settlement with his new wife, Serena, in tow, he's met at the station by Rachel Harmon and her father. The former there at the behest of her father, out to protect her dignity, as Pemberton has gotten the young girl pregnant.

A fight ensues, and Harmon ends up overpowered by the tall, powerful Pemberton. Estranged from her former lover and about to give birth, Rachel heads back to their cabin to make her way on her own while Pemberton and his new bride are similarly disposed to making their mark on the landscape that surrounds the community of Waynesville. Serena's driven by money and success. She sees natural resources as simply a means to gain more and more power and status. She's cold, calculating and focussed. Yet, it's this focus and intensity that attracted Pemberton to her in the first place. As the relationship grows more complex, their attachment suffers from the stress of her ambition, and the lengths to which she'll go to achieve her goals. The results are deadly, not just for the trees, but for anyone who might stand in her way -- and that includes young Rachel and her little baby boy.

The idea that human beings are inescapably tied to their environment runs throughout the narrative. As Serena destroys the forests, their workers suffer more and more accidents. As they drive further and further to clearcut the entire area of its trees, there's a movement to create a national park and save the environment. Of course, Serena and Pemberton stand on the side of progress, remark upon the size and structure of the forest in terms of a profit and loss statement. There's a particularly poignant scene where Pemberton and his wife pose for a photograph in front of a raw, clearcut field proud of their accomplishment. However, what they've left behind is a crew of maimed, injured and, in many cases, deceased men who gave their lives for their profit.

The novel truly picks up about two-thirds of the way in. The further Serena will go to get what she wants, the more intriguing and active the story becomes. In some ways, the beginning of the novel is a bit muddled -- and there are sections that switch point of view to some of the loggers themselves that I think would have been more effective if they hadn't the Rosencrantz and Gildenstern-type, Waiting for Godot-esque dialogue that felt a little affected. That said, there's nothing I like more than a truly intriguing female lead character who refuses to be defined in any true way, and Serena more than fits this bill. Not unlike Catherine Land in Robert Goolrick's equally excellent A Reliable Wife, Serena's lack of a moral compass more than makes up for any of the novel's shortcomings. In parts, especially the more shocking scenes, there were moments that I actually physically gasped over her actions. You can't ask more from a novel than to that, can you?

There's a reading group guide, Browse Inside, and a really interesting article Rash wrote for the P.S. section about the interesting places his research took him.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Holy Crap

Time seems to be escaping me on so many levels. It's like a balloon with a leak -- all of a sudden it's completely deflated and you don't really know what happened. So, here's a rundown of me over the last little while:

1. I saw Whip It and it was 100 kinds of awesome: sweet when it needed to be, subversive enough to make the cynic in me satisfied and exactly the kind of film I needed to see with my girlfriends. I'm sad that it failed so miserably at the box office. I'd recommend it. Fame, on the other hand, insulted me as a human being. And considering the kind of movies that I watch on a regular basis, that's really saying something.

2. I'm heading to Vancouver tomorrow for a whirlwind vacation of sorts that includes: participating in Vancouver Book Camp, visiting my cousins who have just had a baby, hopping over to the island and staying with my aunt and uncle and squeezing in some time with a pal who lives in the city. Vacation sounds AS busy as my life. Wha?

3. Six minutes to go until I leave work and go swimming. Can I finish two blog posts and all my other work by then? Probably not.

4. It was minus 4 with the windchill this morning. That sucked balls.

5. I need new books to read. Anyone have suggestions?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

#54 - Mathilda Savitch

I wasn't expecting to read or even review Mathilda Savitch. But I was lucky enough to interview the author, Victor Lodato, for Experience Toronto, which meant that I obviously had to read the book. So the night before I was furiously (in between a rock show and a houseguest, indeed!) reading as much of the novel as I could while trying to come up with half-way intelligent questions.

"I want to be awful." Mathilda Savitch declares as the novel opens. She's ballsy, self-deprecating, intelligent and more than a little odd. In many ways, she's a semi-typical teenager, but in many ways she's also not -- she's sharper and has been through something traumatic enough to effect her for the rest of her life. In fact, the tragic death of her sister has marked her entire family: her mother refuses to get dressed, drinks, and acts a little like Mathilda's not even there; her father's barely holding the family together. And to make sense of the tragedy, Mathilda acts out in many different ways. It's a complex thing, finding yourself in the world, being okay with yourself. This act of individuality that's so much a rite of passage when you're an almost teenager becomes even more complicated when you add impossible situations to the mix.

Her prepossessed nature questions everything naturally, and this comes through clearly in the story. She's been damaged by the loss of her sister and needs to work through it -- even if the process is destructive to herself, to her family, to her friends. The author, in his interview with me, mentioned that the voice of Mathilda was so strong that he just gave in and let her take him where she wanted to go. As a playwright, Lodato seems comfortable with listening to the voices that invade his head, and it's truly Mathilda that drives this novel. You can't seem to get her out of your head, kind of like Owen Meany, she's that strong of a character. One part Goldengrove and more than one part The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mathilda Savitch also stands on its own simply for this incredible sense of voice.

What a nice surprise.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

#53 - Drop City

When I bought my second-hand copy of Drop City by TC Boyle, I knew nothing about the book except for the fact that it's on the 1001 Books list. My copy cost $3.99 and I bought from a now-defunct bookstore in Stratford, Ontario one snowy winter day my RRHB and I were out exploring my Irish roots in Millbank, Ontario. It was a great day. Then, like so many of my books, it sat on the shelf, and sat on the shelf, and sat on the shelf.

But once I started this book I resented anything taking time away from the reading of it. Drop City provides a refuge for anyone who wants to drop of out of society. A commune on an idyllic plot of land in California where hippies of all sorts call home, Drop City's inhabitants don't go for the Man's version of how they should live their lives. But when he comes calling in the form of an injunction (coupled with some back taxes and compounded by more than one run in with the law), their fearless leader decides that the only free place left on earth is Alaska, and "Let's go!"

Interspersed within the story of the caravan of hippies abandoning their commune (complete with a few goats strapped to the top of a merry-making old bus), is the other side of "dropping out." The very real people who already make a life in Alaska by truly living off the land. There are benefits to both ways of life, but to say that the hippies are prepared for the harsh Alaska winter would be an understatement.

Ronnie (aka "Pan") and Star had travelled across the USA to get to Drop City. They abandoned their education and their livelihoods (she was a teacher) for a chance to live a real life among truly free people. And they do find free love and a free life, if only for a fleeting moment before the reality of life, and their disparate personalities gets in the way of their idealism. Star's soon left Ronnie behind for Marco, a violent drop out who is on the run from the law and from his entire identity (it seems), who represents a different kind of life and love for her by the time the novel reaches its conclusions.

Interspersed with the idealistic, even indiotic (at times), hippies, are the real societal "drop outs." The people who live on the cold, permafrost borders of Alaska hunting, trapping and camping in cold wooden houses not meant for much more than a temporary stop along the way. The dramatic difference, not necessarily in idealism, but in common sense, between the Drop City band of ragtag, Ken Kesey-like bus people and the actual Alaskan settlers causes the necessary friction the book needs.

I can't stress enough how engrossing this novel is from beginning to end. It's one of those books whose narrative drives along at such a breakneck speed that you barely even register the fact that you've already read 150 pages, the sun's gone down and you're fingers are freezing from holding the book so tight. T.C. Boyle has a way of slowly building steam that will eventually boil, both within characters and situations, that overshadows the entire work with a sense of forboding. This isn't a bad thing -- it's more that the novel knows its outcome already and you, as the reader, need to catch up as quickly as possible. Parts of this novel just made me cringe too -- the idea of free love equalling the utter objectification of some of the women, that the mother among the bunch openly gives her children acid to prove they're "turned on," and the asumption that you can simply head to Alaska with little more than the goats on top of your broken down bus and expect to survive, all of which add to the dramatic tension of the most basic themes found in literature: humanity versus their environment.

I know I say this a lot but the 1001 Books list hasn't let me down with Drop City. I'd highly recommend it. I'd loan you my copy, but I'm sending it to a friend as we speak.