Saturday, February 20, 2010

Saturday

My RRHB's out and about this morning. He was up and gone before I even contemplated what being awake actually means. Still, hours later, I'm the same. Half-asleep, kind of dazed, and contemplating writing. Not the idea of writing. The actual fingers-to-the-keyboard-get-some-good-work-done-look-at-all-this-time-you-have writing. We have no food in the house, but there's a grocery store literally next door. Even that effort seems like too much when you had a shitty night's sleep and your brain remains muddled.

It's been a busy week. On Thursday night we went to see a rough cut of Small Town Murder Scenes, the film (somewhat) inspired by my RRHB's second record. Then yesterday we were at The Sixth to see Andrew Penner and The CFL Sessions (Henry Adam Svec). Work's been predictably crazy and all next week I'm in NYC for work/holiday (first half work; second half weekend getaway).

Funny, I was so taken in by Henry Adam Svec's CFL Sessions and his delightful storytelling -- which caught me off guard -- that I found myself uttering, "oh, how nice!" when he started talking about song collecting, archiving music, Lead Belly and the prison system, pure "Music," and this fictional character of Staunton R. Livingston that I was actually a little upset when my RRHB told me that it wasn't real. The laughter in the room turned ironic, which isn't a bad thing, just different from my original interpretation. The music was lovely, aching a little, a bit like Bob Wiseman, and when my RRHB and I were talking about that he said, "Wrench Tuttle wasn't real either and you love that record." And I said, "WHAT?" Shows you how much I know.

Andrew Penner came on around 10:30. The photo's above. He has an uncanny ability to create an entire song's worth of music by just his voice and a couple of instruments. It sounded like an entire band. I admire that -- it's kind of akin to someone writing much bigger than they are too. Long, luxurious sentences that invoke choruses of people standing behind the writer egging them on.

Yes, I'm tired. But I wrote this sentence sitting in the venue last night. I liked it then, I think it's kind of cheesy now: "He could learn to live without them, like eyes adjusting to the light, everything would eventually clarify."

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

All The Ladies In The House: A Question

A very intelligent and charming friend of mine recently finished Eat, Pray, Love and came to very different conclusions about it than I did.

Me: "I threw that book across the room it made me so mad. I hate the voice so much."

She: "But why do you think so many women are reading it and wanting to abandon their lives; shouldn't you give it a chance just based on that fact alone?"

She is, of course, correct. So. I'm asking you, reading friends, should I give it another chance and if yes, why, and if no, why not?

#11 - The Girl Who Played With Fire

So, being in the book business and all means that sometimes it's a good idea to read something everyone else reads. That can be an incredibly painful experience (see: Twilight and The Da Vinci Code), but sometimes the masses, they surprise you. Sometimes, the masses just get it right (see: The Book of Negroes) -- which is exactly the case with The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stiegg Larsson.

I could not put this book down, I kid you not. It's a traditional "good whack on the head" Swedish mystery starring a politically charged magazine editor, Mikael Blomkvist, a brilliant but psychologically damaged computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander, and the cops -- each racing to solve the same case. The murders in question, a couple, one a journalist and the other a PhD student, and a lawyer, happened relatively at the same time and all evidence points to Salander, wait, let me rephrase, all circumstantial evidence points to her, which is the point that Blomkvist and Lisbeth race towards, proving her innocence. Of course, they come up against many obstacles along the way, and it all makes for very good reading.

Larsson's internationally bestselling books have surrounded me while on the subway. And I resisted. I tried as hard as I could to ignore all the good things people were saying. All the recommendations, and it's not as if this review is free of criticism. There are elements to Larsson's writing that betray his journalistic roots -- he uses way, way too much extraneous detail and often digresses to make points, get out a history or fill in details that are simply unnecessary. I think, had he written the whole 10 books as he planned before his untimely death, a lot of this would have cleared itself up. You learn from doing -- novels don't need to be 500 pages long unless they're Russian, right?

But I like the characters so much, Salander's damaged but brilliant, which is always a good combination in a mystery novel. Blomkvist's principled and determined, and he reminds me of Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander, a character I enjoy so very much because he's simply who he is, if that makes any sense. He's just well written, and that's the way I feel about Blomkvist too. Also, there are twists I didn't expect, and that does not happen often. On the whole, it's no wonder that so many other crime novelists are feeling a bit of a pinch -- the entire world seems to be reading these books, and I don't blame them.

Oh, and I'm pretty excited that I can use this as perhaps the one and only Around the World in 52 Books entry for 2010, as Larsson's Swedish and that totally counts. So much for not having reading challenges this year.

WHAT'S NEXT: I'm going to finish Invisible Man for Black History Month, try to squeeze in a little Zora Neale Hurston, although I'm not sure what to read of hers since I've already read There Eyes Were Watching God and my experience of that book (when I read it) was so perfect that I don't want to ruin it with a reread.

Monday, February 15, 2010

TRH Movie - Fish Tank

We were supposed to go up north this weekend but an unexpected illness with our cat and a visiting friend from NYC had us changing our mind at the last moment. I'm sad not to see the cottage in the winter but I've got so much work to do that the extra-long weekend will surely fly by. Feeling a little, ahem, under the weather (read: hungover) meant the RRHB and I settled down this afternoon and watched Fish Tank, Andrea Arnold's exceptional film about a 15-year-old girl growing up in a terrible housing development in England (somewhere in Essex, if the NY Times is to be believed).

Fish Tank captures a moment in young Mia's life so raw and dangerous that you spend almost 100% of the film crushing the pillows on the couch in your fists you're so worried about her. Raised by a mother who spends more time drinking, smoking and fucking than parenting and a accompanied by a younger sister who's on exactly the same path does not a great environment make. Mia's rage, frequent and unyielding, coupled with her hormones leaves her confused about her life; she's terrifically naive but unyielding and street smart, and her life has her running just about everywhere. It's as if her mouth, frequently swearing and often pouting, is connected to an even shorter fuse; she has no frame of reference for happiness, she makes it all up as she goes along, and it's a miserable life.

Enter Connor (Michael Fassbender from Hunger, another great underrated film) and he's electric. He's Mia's mother's new boyfriend, comes into the kitchen shirtless and unannounced, watches her try out some dance moves as she boils water for tea. He's got a great smile, he's encouraging, and for a moment you can't tell whether he's sinister or simply friendly -- it's a balance that Connor achieves for most, and I highlight most, of the picture. Without any positive male roll models, hell, without any role models at all, it doesn't take long for Mia to react to his kindness; she's got a crush, but has no way to properly express herself. Connor takes advantage of the situation but for a while you give him the benefit of the doubt, especially after one majestic day they spend out of the city.

Self-taught, Mia practices her hip-hop, dance crew moves in an abandoned apartment above her own, drinking to stay numb (I'm inferring) rather than drunk, she practices and practices, imagines it's the way out. Encouraged by Connor, she applies to audition for a local club -- plain as the nose on your face the kind of dancing it is -- but Mia doesn't realize, has her dreams resting on becoming part of a crew. She's awkward, angry and frequently explodes, but you can't help but want her to just get out because she's also endearing, honest, and smart beneath her dirty jumpers and too-black eyeliner.

Arnold keeps the camera close to Mia at all times, up tight and in her face, echoing the character's personality. It's summer and there's a lightness to the housing project -- but it's unbearably bleak too -- kids are outside having fun, but it's not good honest fun, it's "what are they up to now" kind of fun, and you imagine half of them will either be on drugs or in jail over the course of the next few years. Little hope spills out all over the concrete and even when Mia stares out into the distance, to the city and country beyond, you get the sense that there's no freedom in the view, that even if she wanted to she couldn't leave.

There are plenty of words one could use to describe Katie Jarvis's Mia. Her performance is raw and heartbreaking, and seems to come from a place she knows well. Apparently, she was discovered while having a shouting match with her boyfriend at a train station -- Fish Tank is her first feature film. It's the kind of performance that feels so real, that elicits such an emotional response, that you can only praise the director for working in such a way to capture it on film. It's one of my favourite films so far for 2009. Certainly a million, gazillion times better than the dreck that's Avatar. Not an honest moment in that film, that's for sure.

[Um, ew, should I be freaked out that the Google Ad Sense ad that sat beside me while I was posting this review was for teen Christian counselling? /Shiver].

Sunday, February 14, 2010

#10 - The Parabolist

Because I was reading an ARC for The Parabolist, I didn't get a chance to see the book's package (the cover, right) or know anything about it beyond the fact that a friend from the publishing company sent it over to me. For the first half of the novel I didn't even realize it was a mystery -- or thriller, I should say -- and thought Nicholas Ruddock's writing reminded me of a Canadian Nick Hornby with a little Mark Haddon's A Spot of Bother tossed in.

I'll have to admit that when I discovered Ruddock's writer/doctor angle, it did make me a bit weary -- I felt that Vincent Lam's debut was heavily over-praised, he's a good short story writer but I'm not sure that book was worthy of the Giller, and it certainly makes for a terribly mediocre, melodramatic, rambling, muddled television show. I honestly thought, "oh, yet another doctor who writes. Yawn."

Annywaauy, I'm happy to say that Ruddock won me over. Treading over familiar Lam territory, The Parabolist follows a group of first-year medical students. The narrative spins around itself, and around its characters like tidal waves. Time moves forward and back, perspective consistently shifts, and yet, I never lost my way. I enjoyed the fact that the book was set in Toronto in what I assumed was the '70s (it cost $.10 to use the telephone!), and the medical students were cloyingly interesting, their interests far ranging past the core science they're learning for their degree into poetry, writing, and social issues.

John and Jasper Glass take their first year classes with the beautiful Valerie Anderson. The Parabolist, Roberto Moreno, a disaffected young Mexican poet, lives next door to the Glasses -- he's staying with his aunt and uncle in Toronto, and after a series of coincidences, begins teaching the first years poetry (something about them having to be well rounded to be good doctors). A number of mishaps unravel their expectations and form the novel's central plot, slowly pulling in new characters, quietly dispelling of those who are no longer needed. There's a strange subplot that involves Jasper and John's odd professor of a father but that's really the only string that didn't get tied up or become terrifically unraveled by the end of the book (he's trying to publish an odd book on French phrases with a small university press).

In addition to the series of mishaps, there are also serious crimes. From the fun, flirty nature of the book, I didn't expect the violence. It's not your stereotypical crime novel, it's definitely a hybrid -- more Nick Hornby meets Law and Order Toronto with a sense of humour, poetry and some sexy students thrown in. Ruddock's pace is relentless, the book hums along combining the antics of the younger kids with the developing mystery (whose crime work is lead by Detective Andy Ames [If I have one complaint it's with the names, sheesh "Andy Ames," "Roberto Moreno," they're all a bit too neat, in a way]) until it reaches a slightly shocking conclusion.

As per usual, I'm not going to spoil anything by revealing too much of the plot. Let's just say that I actually read the last bit of the book a couple of times so I could be sure that I understood exactly what happened and even then, it's not 100% clear. That's not a bad thing -- the ending kind of balances what Ruddock tries to achieve throughout the entire book, that equilibrium between the obvious and the interesting, the cliched and the adventerous, the apparent and the surprising. On the whole, I enjoyed the book, with its focus on medicine and poetry, life and death, love and hate, obsession and compulsion, and look forward to seeing what Ruddock comes up with next.

Friday, February 12, 2010

#9 - The Value of Happiness

The subtitle of Raj Patel's The Value of Nothing questions 'why everything costs so much more than we think.' It's an intelligent, dense book that explores our modern society, its economic context, and the very real implications of our lifestyles. Patel sustains his main thesis, that the true value of goods and services are completely at odds with their prices as set out by the market, while people never give it a second thought. Patel wrote an amazing piece of added-value content for our Book Guide here that explains, in short, the kinds of material things we pay heavily for but that are relatively cheap.

I'm not going to lie, this isn't an easy book to read -- Patel looks at everything under a microscope, he digs deep into economic theory and pushes the reader to think hard about what he's saying. The very idea that, as a society, we are blind to the terrible impact our consumerist ways are having on the world around us despite seeing it, literally, every day, is compelling. In ways, it's easy for me to support Patel's work. I believe in his politics, sit slightly to the left, and have already been convinced that we need to change as a society before we ruin everything. Like Patel, I believe the first step to change is concerted dialogue about the issues, exactly the kind of thinking that is represented here.

However, what really struck me about the book concern post-colonialism. It's not surprising to me that issues with modern economics are so essentially tied up in old colonial models. We don't think about it everyday. We don't turn on our work blackberries and think, "hey, I'm exploiting the Congolese today." Has anyone else out there read King Leopold's Ghost? Hasn't the Congo been through enough? But I can't stop it -- I don't have a personal cellphone but I do have my BB and I use it all the time, every waking moment, and I don't think twice about what went into building it or sourcing it or the power that it takes to use it. I send money every month to David Suzuki and the WWF to try and balance out my consumption. Somehow, I feel ashamed that I'm not doing enough.

You can't be faint of heart when you read this book. You can't expect to be unchanged. And you can't imagine you'll keep living your life as you had been living it. Once you know the true value of what we consume, the cost to human life, the cost to the planet, you'll think hard and then you'll think twice.

READING CHALLENGES: The Better You Read The Better You Get. Oddly, I'm, um, not actually finishing the books from my shelves. However, I do feel like reading more nonfiction has reminded me that it's important to challenge yourself with smarty-smart material every once in a while. School's good.

Read an excerpt of The Value of Nothing here.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Ragdoll Rambles #8549323

Things I want from my life at this very moment:

1. Potato chips and dip. Have neither.

2. An Ethan Hawke movie I haven't seen that doesn't suck. Will have to settle for Band of Brothers. A most excellent mini-series.

3. Documentation to make my application for a UK Ancestry Visa smooth as silk. Is next to impossible due to the fact that the very relatives I need the documents from are, unfortunately, deceased.

4. A book club.

5. A writing partner to do page-a-day challenges with. Swapping and all.

6. The end to my "cough due to cold" that's been nagging for two full weeks.

7. More money to donate to charity. Including: Haiti relief (my donation just wasn't enough) and money to save the Grace Hospital.

8. Someone to find this totally awesome EW article about THE fundamental hip hop songs to have in your library. I've looked online; it's nowhere to be found.

9. To be wittier. We had drinks with delightful friends to celebrate a birthday (not mine). Best quip of the evening: "Capital "F" failure -- it's all downhill from the "a"." Sigh. I wish I was that funny all the time.

10. I'm wrapping up my January Nonfiction reading with Raj Patel's excellent The Value of Nothing. Have already started my February is Black History Month reading with Invisible Man. A really good list of perfect BHM reading. Anyone have suggestions?

Social Media Week, Centennial & Me

This morning I went with my work colleague, Steve Osgoode (@sosgoode) to Centennial to speak to publishing students about online and, specifically, online marketing. It's invigorating and exciting to speak to kids (or students; they're not all youngsters) who are starting out in their careers. I can see how/why teachers find their jobs so fulfilling. Bright eyes and bushy tails and all that...

Then, this afternoon I sat on a panel for Social MediaWeek Toronto headed up by writer Arjun Basu (@arjunbasu) with Julie Wilson (@bookmadam) and Erin Balser (booksin140). It was an odd experience. Usually I am terrified of speaking in front of a large group, but because there were three of us, the pressure was off -- the same with earlier today, with Steve. The biggest problem I have, and will continue to have, is simply talking too much. Anyway, I'm going to spew some thoughts right now that came from my day today:

1. Miscommunication throughout companies can be deadly. It's no wonder that people don't know how to communicate or use social media when the basic fundamentals of getting proper, informed, well, information out to the people at the front lines of your business sometimes isn't even possible. Does Twitter change this fact? Not necessarily but it certainly amplifies it when there's a problem.

2. Not a single person thinks the same thing about the future of publishing. The question came up, "where do we think it's all headed," and I was flippant, said something about how we should wait for the iPad before making any prognostications. What I didn't say is that the moment that Apple device hits shelves, it's a different game. There are few moments when you're in an industry that has such momentous change. For the music industry it was Napster, file sharing and the collapse of the old models -- they melted like icebergs, for publishing folks, it's a bit different. We have the knowledge and the need to move things forward in ways that maybe the music business didn't have; it'll just be interesting to see where we end up. Hopefully, we'll empower authors, instill a sense of urgency in how our business needs to change, and step up to the plate. We're in the moment. It's inspiring.

3. Summing up your life in a bio is never satisfying. My professional bio reads so boring: [she] worked at Alliance Atlantis [read: was Executive Producer of many major branded web sites], Random House [was given a chance by someone who saw potential in me; that changed my life]; and ended up at HarperCollins [has a love/hate relationship with her current job; left the House simply because she couldn't stand the commute; read nothing more into it]. Here's what they didn't mention: has completed one solid draft of her first novel, has written many, many abridged classics for kids, is a published poet, has written tonnes of movie reviews, is married to an independent musician, blogs, reads and blogs some more, has a crazy-ass disease that almost killed her twice and ruined her health forever, but she survived just to almost die again this summer when her appendix ruptured. Somehow, that can't be captured in either 140 characters or a work-related bio.

4. People want to be noticed. They want to be heard. This doesn't change because you're in a public forum or not in a public forum. This is the power of social media. Now I suppose all that matters is whether or not you care if people are listening. For a long time, I've struggled with this -- shy, with little confidence, happy to type, not so happy to talk -- trying to find a balance between the need to be a public person in a very public world and to want to shrink back into the corner and hide, waiting for the popular boy to ask me to dance (he never did, by the way; I'm the better for it, don't you think). How much personality can one internet handle?

5. I love books. I have ever since I was small and winning Read-A-Thons at school and devouring everything with words written on them, cereal boxes, billboards, planes dragging signs, none of this has changed by working in publishing. The sense of wonder I lost by doing two English degrees was reclaimed by seeing Salman Rushdie walk the halls of Random House and spending the day with Curtis Sittenfeld. Today made me happy that other people feel this way too, we stand together far more than we stand apart, us book lovers, high fives and high kicks to that.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

My David Bezmozgis Weekend (#8 - Natasha)

Ever since we did the Summer is Short - Read a Story promotion at work, I've had David Bezmozgis's Natasha and Other Stories on my TBR pile. You can read one of the stories from the collection here, at the Globe, from when we expanded our promotion in their online books section. The stories are sparse but not sparing, swift without feeling rushed, and amazing portraits of a family in flux -- immigrants new to Toronto managing to balance their lives on the cusp of old and new.

The collection contains seven linked stories and you simply fly threw them. His prose manages to get to the heart of the human condition without feeling preachy. In style, his writing reminds me a little of Alexander Hemon, although I couldn't put my finger on why. The central characters in Bezmozgis's stories, Bella, Roman and Mark Berman, are Russian Jews who have come to Canada from Latvia, leaving behind their home, their family (although by the end of the book many have migrated as well), and trying to make their way in Canada. I find these in-between stories, from the perspective of first generation immigrants, absolutely fascinating. There's something about the in-between perspective that illuminates parts of Canada, of being Canadian, that those of us born here take for granted. I always liken it to the idea of speaking another language -- it's as if it's a different world.

There are deep similarities between Victoria Day, Bezmozgis's first feature film, which I also watched this weekend on TMN, and the stories. An only child, Mark (the stories) and Ben (the film) struggle with adolescence, balance parental expectations and eventually find a way to define themselves by being inclusive of everything they are. Victoria Day's more of a coming-of-age tale than is contained within the stories. The film resonated because I was a teenager then, and even remember the news stories surrounding the disappearance of Benji Hayward disappeared after a Pink Floyd concert. In the film, Ben loans his hockey teammate some money and then deals with his conflicted feelings once it surfaces that the teen too has gone missing.

The movie has echoes of The Ice Storm and other atmospheric films about teenagers finding their way. Far, far less "teen" than say John Hughes (and I LOVE John Hughes -- it's a comparison point not a criticism), the picture manages to feel Canadian without the earnest-ness of so many of our native pictures (I did love One Week, but man, holy Canadian batman). There are moments of pure beauty within the film making -- even if the performances feel a bit stiff at moments. Regardless, I very much like the ambiguity within the picture, something that Bezmozgis imbues in his fiction as well.

If I had to pick a favourite story, it would be the title tale, "Natasha." But coming a close second would absolutely be "Minyan," the story that closes the collection. Annywaay, I truly enjoyed my David Bezmozgis weekend, I'd highly recommend you give it a try, maybe next weekend?

READING CHALLENGES: I'm counting this towards this year's Canadian Book Challenge. At some point I'll tally up exactly where I am with this but there are other things to write at the moment.