Tuesday, June 30, 2009

My Recession Garden

My Recession Garden looks nothing like the one from the White House (thanks to @kattancock for the link). First of all, it's a lot less organized and doesn't come with a beautiful plan with lots of walking space. Instead it's a lot of messy overgrown plants beside some plants that just haven't grown well (yet). My cucumbers have started to flower, as have my cocozelle zucchinis (I had to look them up; I planted a mix of summer squash and didn't know what's what), and I have some baby beans sprouting which left me with endless joy this morning.

I spent a few minutes searching through Epicurious for recipes using summer squash because I think we might be inundated in another few weeks. So if anyone has tried and tested veggie recipes for zucchini, cocozelles or other summer growers, holler back. But so far we've eaten our own lettuce for weeks, starting off with arugula (which was delicious and has prompted RRHB on more than one occasion to say how much he loves it), then moving on to my own mix of red leaf lettuce, drunken lettuce (isn't that an awesome name) and two more that I can't remember off the top of my head. I bought more lettuce seeds yesterday to keep replanting (I already ripped out my arugula and spinach and have started second crops). And we tried our rapini but I let it grow for too long; it was inedible.

Up next are trying to save the tomato plants given to us by our neighbour -- even though they're in separate pots and are not being watered with the same frequency as the rest of the garden -- they're still developing blight. Oddly, the plants that I bought from the nursery are absolutely disease free so I'm not sure what's causing the problem.

Here's my complete growing list: cucumbers (two different kind of slicers), yellow cucumbers, nasturtiums, sage, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, bush beans (three different kinds), summer squash (three or four different kinds), lettuce, rosemary, french taragon, oregano, thyme, basil, garlic, onions, carrots (just planted), radishes and some hot, spicy peppers. So far, the only "crop" that failed has been the rapini -- but in its place I planted some melons and I'm afraid they haven't even sprouted yet.

I keep saying it to many people: I am really not a fan of gardening, but I sure do love to eat my own vegetables. I also love to share. And swap. What about you other recession gardeners out there?

Also, I posted some Recession Garden photos up on Flickr.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Random Thoughts for a Monday Morning

The weather reports on the CBC keep telling me it's going to thunderstorm this afternoon but it's brilliant and sunny out right now. I believe in the sunshine even if the CBC doesn't. Of course, I'm only saying that because I don't want to get completely soaking heading home tonight. Here's a little rambling list for today:

1. Started and abandoned Dorothy Allison's Trash. Her writing is powerful, personal and honest but the content of the short stories really didn't interest me at all. As I said on Twitter this week, I really like where she writes from but not what she writes about. I did, however, find both introductions incredibly inspiring, and how her writing gave her a power she never expected to have in her life. Also, Cavedweller and Bastard Out of Carolina are two of my favourite books.

2. Am now feverishly reading The Winter Vault to be finished by the time Canada Day kicks up so I can finish my Canadian Reading Challenge. Then I'll need to decide what to read for the 09-10 challenge. All Poetry Edition? New Releases? Backlist Frenzy? Anyone else have suggestions?

3. Our garden has exploded. Soon we'll have about a half-dozen cocozelle zucchinis, beans, basil, and cucumbers (well, they're flowering so that's something). We've been eating our recession garden lettuce for about a month now and I'm about to start brown bagging my lunch every day if only because I'm working my butt off to get more of our house renovations paid down.

4. Speaking of which, I hope most of you are around late summer-early September because we'll finally have a housewarming party almost five years after moving in. Trust me, it'll be worth it. My house is gorgeous these days.

5. Feeling diseasy is intensified when I'm covered in hives from a strange allergic reaction to the sun. It only happens on my arms (well, sometimes my legs) and I've been sitting at my desk itching for the past five hours. Argh.

6. Newsweek has 50 books "for our time." I've read 5. Obviously, I'm not very timely.

7. You know what still makes me laugh? Thinking about The Hangover three weeks after seeing the film. That and my 3-year-old nephew rapping.

Short and sweet today friends. Short and sweet.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

#36 - The Little Stranger

After finally (with a month-long struggle) finishing Sarah Waters's The Little Stranger, I have to admit that I'm hit or miss with her books. I adored both Fingersmith and The Night Watch. But really didn't like Tipping the Velvet. And I'm afraid I'll have to add The Little Stranger to the cons side simply because the book just failed to grab me. No, wait, let me restate that, after the first 100 pages or so, I lost interest in the book entirely.

By fate and circumstance, a bachelor rural doctor becomes inextricably involved with the fading Ayers family (Mrs. Ayers, Caroline and Roderick), owners of Hundreds Hall, a decaying house that was once the centre of society for their corner of Warwickshire. The war has just ended, leaving the country and its young men wounded, and Roderick, the eldest son, suffers. Dr. Faraday, called out to the house in place of the Ayers's regular doctor, soon finds himself an indispensible friend to the family.

With his frequent visits to Hundreds Hall, Dr. Faraday soon becomes embroiled in the myriad problems the family begins to have. First, it's a terrible accident involving a family pet, a particular favourite of Caroline's. Then, as Roderick suffers through emotional and physical difficulties, another terrible accident happens. Soon, the family, and even the servants, a young Betty and the older Mrs. Bazeley, feel as if all of the bad luck converging remains squarely the fault of the house itself.

This theme, of suspicious activity coupled with the belief that the house is haunted felt a little like The X-Files, the Ayers's Mulder to Dr. Faraday's Scully. In a fairly typical way, each occurance is dismissed by various members of the scientific community and yet life for the Ayers's doesn't seem to get any better. It's almost as if Waters was watching far too many episodes of Most Haunted during the writing of this novel. But, mainly, for me, I couldn't hang on to the main character -- I found him staid, kind of boring and a little two predictable. I'm a huge fan of Waters, as I've said above, but this novel put me right to sleep, and despite one or two truly terrifying scenes, left me without the necessary chill required from a book that's supposed to scare the pants off of you.

READING CHALLENGES: Nothing to see here.

WHAT'S UP NEXT: Summer is short: reading Dorothy Allison's Trash. And I've got to finish a Canadian book this weekend to sum up my Canadian Book Challenge.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

My Plastic Life

We watched a documentary over the weekend about plastic bags. For the most part, I'd like to think I'm a responsible shopper -- I tote around a canvas bag wherever I go, we use those giant recycled plastic ones at the grocery store, and we attempt to recycle everything we possibly can. And yet, the facts from that one-hour doc were so upsetting that I've been thinking about it for days. Canadians use 6 billion plastic bags a year, and less than 1% of these are recycled or reused. The rest go into landfills. And this got me thinking about My Plastic Life, how much of the stuff I use on a daily basis and make a list to see where I can cut back and/or down:

1. Plastic bottles for shampoo, conditioner and body wash. Last year Zesty took me to Costco around this time and I bought a MASSIVE bottle of shampoo that I used for about ten straight months. Considering that's one bottle versus many smaller bottles, maybe I'll have to see if I can tag along again.

2. Plastic water bottle: this is already reusable, so I think I'm okay there.

3. Plastic wrap for all of the fruit & veggies from the grocery store, the farmer's market, and from Whole Foods. Everything I pack a lunch in is plastic, but reusable, so that's something, but still -- I haven't even gotten on my bike yet and I've already used plastic every step of the way.

4. Water bottles and plastic bags all strewn on the side of the road (when I started this post the garbage strike hadn't even begun; now it's even worse). None of these are directly my fault but I'd never really LOOKED before. Now I notice them everywhere.

5. Plastic hair clip.

6. I'm sure there's plastic in my keyboard. What else is it made out of?

7. My phone too.

8. Plastic water glasses and container (both made in China) for drinking water at work. Again, I use these everyday and have stopped buying water bottles altogether. Do I get a pat on the back for that at least?

9. Whew. Wax paper for my bagel and a brown paper bag. Both of which can go in my green bin.

10. Plastic pens.

11. Wait. My glasses are also plastic.

12. And so on...

I'm not even at 11 AM and I've already used plastic in every single inch of my daily life. Where do I start? And how do I make a change? The #1 thing I'm going to do is start taking containers to the farmer's market instead of just bringing my cloth shopping bags. But that's such a small change -- and I'm afraid it simply won't make any difference whatsoever.

Anyone else have suggestions? How do you work on cutting excess plastic out of your life?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

#35 - Dune Road

I've been conflicted over the last few days about whether or not to create a post for Jane Green's latest book, Dune Road. There were two things I liked about the book -- the attempt to move beyond generic chicklit into a more mature story and it's perfection for an easy read if you're sitting on the beach for an afternoon. That said, there were a lot of problems with the book too. Continuity (or lack thereof) really makes me crazy, both in film and in fiction, and when authors repeat themselves, use the same cliches to describe multiple situations, add in unnecessary and completely irrelevant scenes, I get a little frustrated. So much about Dune Road could have been better -- that's not to say that it's bad -- but there are too many characters with too disperate storylines that don't always connect. Simply, there's just too much going on in this book and had Green slowed down and tackled maybe just one relationship instead of four or five, Dune Road would have been all the better improved by it.

But maybe I'm putting too much pressure on a book that's clearly meant to be escapist in terms of its read. The novel tells the story of divorcee (she's in her early 40s) Kit Hargrove and her family, which includes her ex-husband, two kids, a mother, and surrogate mother (her next door neighbour) as she navigates her new life. That means finding a new love (but can he be trusted?), a new job (as an assistant to a best-selling but secretive novelist with a tragic past akin to Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood), and finding her way to happiness. Accompanying her on this journey are her two best friends, Charlie and Tracy, who each have their own complex stories that further complicate both the novel and Kit's life. The book throws in multiple mysteries, then tops them off with various cliched happenstances (long-lost relatives; shady pasts; soap opera love affairs) and tosses all of this about like a salad hoping a novel appears.

Primarily what the books could haved used was a bit of editing. Please let's not use the exact same phraseology to describe more than one relationship. Please don't introduce characters with vivid backstories who have absolutely no relevance to the central storyline. Please take more care to introduce shady characters who actually appear in the novel. More action, less telling, and for goodness sake, why not make it a triology -- exploring each character: Kit, Charlie and Tracy in a full-length book so we feel at least satisfied that we, as readers, are getting the whole story.

In general, I can accept commercial fiction as it is -- fun, frivolous and frothy. That's why I whip through these books at lightning speed when I need a bit of a holiday from the tedium of everyday life. Remember, I'm nothing but a sappy girl at heart, as I've said many times in the past, but I also enjoy and am consistently impressed by writers who take up the challenge of moving beyond the cliches and the "read it all befores" to kickstart a genre that's truly in need of a little facelift. I've been consistently disappointed with my latest chicklit reads, and have honestly enjoyed some of the Harlequins I blurbed over the last year far more. They may be predictable (as was this novel), but at least they feel a little bit more honest in terms of using their formulas in new and innovative ways.

However, I don't want to end on such a negative note. I was sucked in from the very beginning of this book and read it over the course of a day. I even took the long way home via the TTC so I could get in a few more moments with the characters. There's something special in a writer who can convincingly pull you along until the end of the book -- someone who creates emotional lives for her characters in a way that you are consistently empathizing versus sympatizing, which for me, is always a richer reading experience. All in all this is a very good book for me to pass along to my adorable mother-in-law who broadly reads this kind of woman's fiction. I think she'd like it very, very much.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

To Be Or Not To Be

Thoughts of BookCampTO are still funneling around my head, and one in particular -- Mitch Joel (@mitchjoel) (much quoted and oft-called upon) after stating a very obvious fact that authors should come to their online presence with a strategy and not feel they need to jump into every social media avenue available to them, said something akin to: "What does it mean if you've only got three followers on Twitter? You suck."

By definition then, little old me with my barely 130-odd followers, sucks. My teeny little book blog has never exploded or made me rich. It's never gotten me a book deal. I barely have 6 followers (I think). So overall, does my online persona suck balls in his eyes? Is audience the only thing that matters? Is my platform over even before it began? I was having a crisis of online consciousness after hearing that because deep down I've never put the words up here for anything other than the pure pleasure of typing one letter after the other.

Maybe that's short-sighted of me. Another friend at BookCamp TO mentioned that she was going to spend the good part of the upcoming year just 'getting her name out there.' And I do recognize the importance of putting yourself forth as an expert, as someone with valuable opinions to share, as someone with thoughts that are worth expressing, and I did some of that this weekend.

However, I've been hiding behind a "pen name" for years, never wanting my online life to converge with my offline life. I enjoy the bliss of anonymity. But it's been years since I published anything under "ragdoll" -- it was a holdover from the years of recapping at Television Without Pity. And then came the Boss From Hell incident where I did a lot of complaining after I lost a job I wasn't all that fond of anyway. The need not to get sued (as dooced was no longer an option) was foremost in my mind. Now my online life and offline life are so mixed up there's no easy way to keep them separate.

I was afraid of speaking up at BookCampTO simply because I like being a little behind the scenes. I like thinking what I think and sharing those opinions with like-minded individuals who love me for who I am not what I do. Anyone who was there knows that I got over that rather quickly and couldn't quite help myself but to open my mouth and let some thoughts spew forth. So maybe I need a bit of a retool, a bit of a rethink, maybe I need a 2.0 or a 3.0 version of myself that's not afraid to step from one side of the internets to the other worried that people will find out that I type more often than I think.

But then, Sassymonkey's intelligent and thoughtful post "Can't we just stop with "right" and "wrong"" also got me thinking yesterday that maybe Mitch Joel, as smartypants as he is, perhaps spoke a bit too quickly -- that there's nothing wrong with having three followers if you're happy and pleased with your online life. That if you enjoy using the technology and its ability to add value to your life, that's all that matters. Not all of us are here to find a way to do much more than say what might be on our minds. Even if it is behind a cloak of a poorly conceived moniker that came out of hearing a truly awful Aerosmith song that was stuck in one's head for far longer than it should have been.

So, I don't think I'll take the "ragdoll" off the site any time soon. I mean, truly, all I want to do here is talk about good books. And I think that's probably okay, right?

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

#34 - Love Begins in Winter

From the P.S. Section of Simon Van Booy's collection of short stories, Love Begins in Winter, I learned he's a solitary writer. Not that writing isn't always a solitary act, but that he actively heads out of town and travels alone specifically so he can conceptualize a story before he puts it down on paper. His writing embodies the nature of this travel -- it's touched with the insights of a keen observer but not without a haunting sense of loneliness, one that informs every character that comes alive throughout the five stories.

Each has its basis in a love story, whether it's traditional or parental, love in its various forms remains the central theme of each piece. Entire lives are defined by it, or the absence of it, and as his characters come to find it, unexpectedly in most cases, love changes them in not-so subtle ways. Setting informs every inch of this book -- it's rich in its description, from the rain on the streets of Sweden to the snow in Quebec, you get the feeling that the author, and not just the characters, have walked the streets, lain in the cold white sheets of the hotels, and explored every inch of what's detailed.

Poets have such a way with prose. I know we take that forgranted, that poets actually know what to do with language, but sometimes they stumble over the longer form (I'm sorry Anne Michaels, I am sorry to say that outloud; I know you are beloved), and get lost in trying to find the right words. And yes, what Van Booy does with language is breathtaking. I'm forever impressed by writers who can create a vivid character, a vivacious situation, with just one sentence, and this book was full of moments that made me hand the book over to my RRHB and say, "see, THIS is how I feel."

I'm a romantic at heart. I wept at the sickly-sweet ending of the utterly terrible He's Just Not That Into You. I stumble over cliches of chicklit, and often find myself welling up even though I know I've read it all before. But here, in Love Begins in Winter, I've never come across love in quite this way before -- never stretched it out like a road underneath a motorcycle or jumped with it off a cliff as a backstory, and it's refreshing to see how it changes Van Booy's characters when it appears in front of them whether they're expecting it or not. Walter the Irish-Romany's knees get a little weak but pages later you see how true love vests itself into his life. George gets a letter in the mail and it changes his life forever, and for the better. And if you're patient, and read this book slowly, carefully, you can't help but get swept away in the romance of it all, at least I couldn't.

READING CHALLENGES: The "Summer is Short. Read a Story." challenge for work. Next up is actually trying to finish Sarah Waters' latest novel, and hoping that it doesn't continue to put me to sleep at the turn of every single page. Zzzzzzzz. Wait? What?

NOT FOR A WHOLE POST, BUT STILL: Speaking of romantics, I finished Gemma Townley's latest novel, A Wild Affair (#35) and have to admit that I wasn't as enamoured as I usually am with her books. The plot seemed really contrived and her usual way of writing smart situations within a genre that really exploits cliches just wasn't there. On the whole, I'm not sure if the Jessica Wild character is someone to hang a series of novels upon, and the "twist" felt more like a plot necessity than a life-shattering event. However, I still adore her, and highly recommend her chicklit as a cut above many of the other writers attempting the same kind of fiction.

Monday, June 08, 2009

BookCamp TO

Giving up a hard-earned Saturday isn't always easy, and I'm so glad that the experience of BookCamp TO made it worthwhile. Billed as an unconference, Book Camp TO brought together a wide variety of bookish folks, some from the big publishers like me, some from smaller publishers, some writers, some marketers, the list goes goes on, for a day of discussion around the future of book publishing. In a way, I think it would be worthwhile for us to move past the idea that the future is coming and just accept the fact that the future is here. It's not something we need to bemoan or begrudge, but look at and decide what we want to do in terms of what's right for any particular author or business.

The biggest takeaway for me from the day would be a point that @janinelaporte made early in the day: "content is content and it doesn't matter how you get it, just that you get it." I'm in a unique position, having come up through the ranks of online vs. general publishing, accepting the fact that content is malleable has never been an issue for me. The fact that people can read in so many different ways isn't a threat, it's an opportunity, and ensuring that we figure out the right way for everyone to get paid, the possibilities are limitless. We spend too much time as an industry (forgive me, but it's true) whining about the death of traditional publishing.

Again, maybe it's just my sunny personality (not, yawn) but I'm really tired of all the complaining. Book sales are up in Canada. Anyone who takes the TTC knows that there are at least 7-10 people in each car with an open book on their laps (I am usually the only one with a Sony Reader). Mobile devices and downloadable reading applications are the fastest growing segment in that industry. Sure, we don't have a Kindle yet, but even the hint of a story that Indigo intends to create their own device has me all atwitter. Never before in the history of the bricks and mortar business has such innovation made such evolution possible. We just need to get over the mindset that we're in the book industry and not in the business of creating content.

That doesn't mean that all of our authors are commodities, nor does it mean that books as they have existed will cease to exist, but simply that we need to explore the opportunities of doing things differently. Why can't we celebrate this fact? Why are we always focusing on what we're doing wrong and what we've lost (who actually misses that Globe stand-alone Books section please raise your hand?) instead of imagining all of the great stuff that's going to happen once we make that simple shift in conception? Authors are important. Books are important. None of that is going to change by the nature of how one gets their content, whether it's a mobile phone or a magazine. Whether they're listening to it via an iPod or whether they've cracked the spine on a freshly bought tome from Book City. I want it all to survive. In fact, I've staked my family's livelihood on that fact that it will -- or else what am I even doing in the business in the first place?

I had so many interesting conversations on Saturday that trying to dispel them into one singular blog post might not be helpful, but for me, the best part of the day was hanging out with smart, interesting, intelligent people who all feel passionately about the survival of books in general. And if anything, I learned that my unique position: as an author, as a blogger, as a person who works at a publishing company, has knowledge that's actually worth sharing. Funny thing, that.