Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Confessions Of An Office Nature

Ragdolls are, by their very nature, social beings. They flit, sometimes flirt with either gender just because it's fun, and chat; they love to chat. They were admonished on almost every single report card for being too chatty. So, if there's one thing that brings a ragdoll down, it's loneliness. And while I've been talking a lot about this to other people in my life, and as this blog isn't really of the confessionary sort (see Scarbie, who remains far better at baring her soul than I do), I don't normally go into too much detail about my personal life.

You never know who might be reading, right?

But today, today I feel the need to share. I've got a great work life, don't get me wrong, but as I left a place where I was constantly surrounded by people I could chat with, people I could goof around with and people I could, well, feel like I'm friends with, I'm feeling a little out of sorts at my new job. It hasn't really been that long and it's really not why you're at work, and I don't have a negative thing to say about a single person I work with, as they are all lovely, lovely people, it's just been a long time since I was the 'new girl.'

High school was particularly traumatic if only because I lost my mom at the beginning of it and simply didn't recover by the end of it. I caught the crazy disease, and things were slightly insane with my father. So, I decided to go far away to university. Not another province, but as far away as I could get within reason. What a mistake! With the exception of my cousin, again, who is lovely and who saved me more times than I can count when we were at school, I had no friends. I cried a lot, felt strange and awkward, and did a lot of listening to moody music and walking around in combat boots. It's not until right now that I've figured out it's because I was probably lonely.

That's another thing about ragdolls: they're sometimes a bit slow to get to the point.

Here I am again feeling a bit glum, a bit down in the dumps, and I think I've put my finger on it: I'm lonely. I miss having a buddy to go to lunch with or grab a cup of tea with, all of those things you do at work with your work friends. I'm sure it's just a phase, and in a couple of weeks I'll have turned it all around and found my place here, but for right now, I'm feeling a little like the grade eight girl at the dance who's standing by herself in the corner rocking back and forth to "Somebody."

And I don't expect a chorus of "awwws" (as such from the Smiling Otter's Writing Group last night) because it's really not THAT big a deal, it's just kind of hard when you'd love to talk to someone other than yourself.


Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Alissa York

Having met the charming and winning Alissa York in person a couple of times, I encourage everyone to read this charming and winning interview-slash-blog entry she's done with Words at Large. I'm consistently fascinated by the process of writing and how different authors approach research. But I absolutely adore how things pop into Alissa York's mind and then she's like, "hum, I know nothing about it." Like bog-living, Bountiful, and all the other flotsam and jetsam that writers come across in their daily lives and think, "that would make a good story."

I collected an idea like this from The Toronto Star, and ended up writing a short story for my class based on the article the other day. It's kind of liberating to discover that not every single bit of a story needs to be the product of an amusing muse or an overactive imagination. In my earlier years, I simply wrote exactly what I knew, which wasn't much. Now, I'm obsessed by the fact that ideas, words, sentences, books, stories, can come from just about anywhere, real or imagined.

Man Asian Literary Prize

I wish these titles were available in English, if only because then I'd have the opportunity to put them on next year's Around the World in 52 Countries.

But I am encouraged to learn that Smile As They Bow by Burmese author Nu Nu Yi Inwa will be available next fall in translation. Considering the book spent a year being reviewed by Government officials even before publication, it's lingered long enough behind those kinds of oppressive closed doors, and maybe now the book will reach a wider audience, even if it doesn't win the coveted prize.

After Burma (or Myanmar, as CBC consistently reminds us, like every single second of every single day) has been so much in the news lately, it would be good to learn more about the country through the voices of its fiction writers. So, I guess it's already on the list!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

TRH Updates - Fall Colours

Yesterday we had a busy time of it as I sped through the day high on the first good night's sleep I'd had in what felt like weeks. (It's all lost today though as I barely fell asleep before midnight, tossed, turned, and then woke up at 6 AM without a chance of falling back into slumber). I read a book, got some blogging done, did some homework, read part of the book for my next Harlequin assignment, and then we raced up to Bolton for our niece's second birthday.

And oh my goodness is she ever cute at two, loving being the centre of attention, she played, cajoled, laughed, and squealed, and said the cutest thing, like, ever. Toward the end of the party, she piped up from her caked-covered high chair and said, "I'd like some coffee."


The leaves are starting to change, and when we came back from the movies last night, there was a definitive chill in the air. The leaves are all changing and falling in piles on the sidewalk, and I've almost accepted that summer is truly and definitely over.

That doesn't mean I won't miss it, though.

TRH Movie - 30 Days Of Night

Oh, horror of horrors.

Goodness. Regardless of whether or not 30 Days of Night ends up succeeding as a film, which I'm not entirely convinced it does, it sure as heck scared the crap out of me last night in the theatre. Based on the graphic novel by Steve Niles (story) and Ben Templesmith (art), the film takes place in Barrow, Alaska during the winter's 30 day absence of sunlight. The most northern community in North America, the community hunkers down for the month of darkness when strange acts of violence and odd behaviour start happening.

First, Sheriff Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett) and his deputy Billy discover a pile of burnt cell phones (everyone's in town), and then he's called out to find that someone's entire pack of sled dogs has been slaughtered. The culprit, a filthy, rotten-toothed stranger, called aptly The Stranger (Ben Foster), rolls up into the local cafe asking for raw hamburger meat when Eben apprehends him. No one knows what's going on, but nor do they know what's about to hit them as a league (again is that the right word) of vampires descends upon the town for a feast they've never seen the likes of...and it's as bloody and as horrific as you'd think.

The rest of the film pits a core group of townies against their bloodthirsty enemies led by a frightfully made up Danny Huston; the former trying to stay safe, the later trying to eat them. The vampires, with makeup and prosthetics done by Weta, are ridiculously horrifying, and they all speak some language I didn't recognize (if anyone knows, please enlighten me) in strange philosophical sentences that sounded more like doctrine than any kind of normal dialogue.

On the whole, the film felt forced in places, and I'm not sure Josh Hartnett, who will live forever in my mind's eye as the luscious Trip Fontaine, was the right choice for the town sheriff charged with saving his community, his brother and his ex-wife. He's a little too teary in places, but man, can he ever wield an ax when necessary. Also, as Kate pointed out, there was a whole subplot about his having asthma that seemed contrary to him running all over the place in the dead of winter in Alaska and a) not being out of breath and b) not coughing like a maniac. As a girl who has lived through winter with plenty of disease-induced lung problems, I know of what I speak.

Also, my RRHB, who read the original graphic novel, made a lot out of the fact that the film didn't do enough with the vampire's backstory. That by keeping the focus entirely upon the humans in the film, you didn't get enough of the reasons why they picked Barrow or the in-fighting that apparently went on within the sect once they arrived. And if I'm listing complaints, Ben Foster might need to invent another character other than crazy to play. It seemed a lot like he stepped right off his horse in 3:10 To Yuma, pulled on some boots and a parka, and whipped up the same kind of mental instability he played in the other film. Regardless, he's an actor who's got a spark of something that I certainly appreciate, and he did scare the living crap out of me, which I guess was the whole point.

In that sense, to me, whose not a horror movie aficionado by any stretch of the imagination (the last scary movie I saw in the theatre was The Exorcist when it had its anniversary many years ago and afterwards I told the RRHB never again, I was THAT scared), it sure did the trick. There were numerous points during the movie where I had my hands clasped on my lap and was physically shaking because I was so scared. I fell asleep with the light on last night and even when I went to bed I still had to tell myself over and over again that it's just a movie. So, if you're looking for bloody, scary fun, it's not a bad place to spend a few hard-earned dollars, just don't expect it to be one of the best films you'll watch all year, because it's certainly not.

And just one last question, if the film takes place so far north, where are all the Inuit?

Saturday, October 27, 2007

#70 - The Gathering

After hearing Anne Enright read last weekend at the festival, I raced home afterwards and started The Gathering right away (well, after I'd finished with Hemingway, of course). In part because I loved her reading of the work, powerfully spoken with a voice fraught with emotion and a hint of exhaustion, but also because the novel just won the Booker. (I get caught up in awards, I'm not ashamed to say. It's a good way to discover new writers, right?). Not surprisingly, the book reads in much the same way: it too is powerful, full of emotion, and teeters on the emotional edge that Veronica, the novel's 39-year-old protagonist, finds herself.

Charged with telling her aging mother, worn out after raising twelve children and enduring another seven miscarriages, that her brother's body has been found in Brighton, Veronica struggles to cope with his death. As if the absence now of him from her life entirely puts her entire existence into a sharper focus, and until she gets it all down, until she tells the story of what happened when she was eight or nine in the living room of her grandmother's house, Veronica simply can't move on. As if the past has finally come up and choked her future, and without blowing it all out around her, she'll never breath the same way again.

The narrative that spills out over the next few hundreds pages fights with itself at every turn, angry, raw, overwhelmed, Veronica takes hold of what's left of her life and shakes it, pulls all the pieces down around her and then can't really tell how to put them back together again. In the end, I'm not clear if she has or not, but it doesn't really matter because this book is so painfully honest about life, about family, about tragedy, that becoming 'normal' again isn't much the point.

Just before she started her reading, Enright mentioned that now The Gathering had taken the prize, she felt far more tender toward it, considering so many more people were going to read it now with the shiny gold sticker on its cover. And I can see why she might need to make the distinction. Veronica isn't a character that you feel an affinity for, she's a character that pulls you into loving her with sharp fingernails and a bitter edge to her voice. She's at once complex and plain, difficult and bright, and smart and ridiculous all at the same time. But she's also got to get to the end of this, not her life, but just these feelings hauling her out to the metaphorical sea of her family's existence.

It's a book about memory, about the lies we tell ourselves every day, about what family means and what it doesn't, and about how people don't change, 'they are merely revealed.'

Highly recommended.

#69 - Let The Northern Lights Erase Your Name

Moments ago, lying in bed trying at long last to finally get rid of this stupid cold that's been plaguing me for one whole week now, I finished Vendela Vida's Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name. I started this morning. Less than two hours ago, truly. The book pulls you along like a long drive made shorter by great conversation, good scenery and brilliant company. It kind of makes time disappear.

Upon the death of her dad, Richard, Clarissa, 28 years old and engaged to a lovely philosophy professor named Pankaj, discovers that he's not really her father. When her mother abandoned the family fourteen years ago, she left no clues to Clarissa's true identity past a never-ending dissertation on the Sami and a birth certificate. Clarissa feels betrayed and abandoned by almost everyone in her life who knew that Richard was not her biological parent, and leaves behind her entire existence one night to travel to Lapland, where she hopes to find her real father, and maybe some clues about why her mother left all those years ago.

To give any more away would spoil the novel, as its prose is so tight, there's not a wasted word, really, that almost all of the 226 pages carry important bits of story. Vida's writing is crisp, clean, and echoes the scenery in a way, it too is sparse, complex with history, and utilitarian. So much of the story in the novel comes as a surprise, from beginning to end, and it goes in places that you, as a reader, simply don't expect. The title, taken from a Sami poet named Marry Ailoniedia Somby, becomes so meaningful once you come to the end of the book, and it's impossible not to feel a great deal of pain alongside Clarissa, as she takes this incredible journey towards finding out her true identity.

And it's not what you'd expect.

I also wish that I could bend my rules about my Around the World in 52 Books challenge to maybe count this book as Lapland, if only because Vida does an excellent job of exploring the culture of the Sami without turning her novel into a lesson in anthropology. In that way, it's like Mister Pip, and I feel richer for having read the book. I am also ashamed at how little I know about the non-Irish and non-British origins of my family. I recognized the glögg that Clarissa drinks in Helsinki only because my aunt once told me her grandmother always made it at Christmas. We've now lost all those traditions. But this novel almost makes me want to take a trip to Sweden right now and discover all the things about our family that have been lost over the many years since immigration.

Regardless, the book remains steadfast with Clarissa's view, and that's its strength, how she understands and sees the world, and how she sees herself, as one part of her life definitively ends and another begins at a moment she would never see coming. How nothing in life turns out how you would expect on the day before your father dies. How everything changes afterwards.

PHOTO IN CONTEXT: Boring, yes, but the book sitting on my desk surrounded by all the various drafts of my longish story that I'm working through at the moment.

EDITED TO ADD: I had totally forgotten about this BookTV interview with Vendela Vida about the book. Isn't she lovely and well spoken?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Moment When You Let It All Go

So I've been working on this super-long story for about one full year now. Pretty much all last summer and through to this fall, so maybe that's more like eighteen months. I find that I write so much more in warmer weather that perhaps it's a sign we need to finish up this house and move to different climes.

I hesitate to call it a book, especially considering that I never finish anything, I don't want to jinx myself when I'm so far along with one project and have started another bit of school to try and keep my focus.

But I'm struggling because I can write until my fingers want to fall off, typing has never been a problem, and still be unsatisfied with all the bits of the work that I've done. Which means I usually abandon the longish stories before they're really anything other than half-done and start something else.

Cycle meet perpetuity.

So while I'm not 100% at the jump ship stage, I can feel myself keening slowly in that direction. I wrote a short story in class that I quite like and want to clean up for submission, and I've got another longish story idea buzzing about in my head.

I feel like a Carrie Bradshaw moment: "How do you know when to stop or when to keep going? Are we all just waiting for the right last words?"

But more importantly, how do I keep going and get to the finish line?

#68 - A Farewell To Arms

Right now, I think I might just be in a Hemingway phase. I mean, I'm not daft in thinking that this is an original phase to be in, but I'm still so taken with his gorgeous house in Cuba, that my curiosity is now officially getting the better of me. I've seen how the man lived, now I can't get enough of knowing what the man wrote.

Annnywaay, I finished A Farewell to Arms this morning on the way to work, and while I agree it's a great piece of literature that I enjoyed very much, I perhaps might have to disagree with its position in the canon as the defining novel of the First World War. In my humble opinion, there are Canadian books that perhaps come closer to really bringing the experience of the war to life, like Timothy Findley's The Wars or Joseph Boyden's excellent Three Day Road, just to name two. But I'd have to say that the parts of the book that I found most effective were those scenes of Frederic Henry, or "Tenente" as the boys call him, in the war zones. The love story, while moving, especially in its tragic conclusions, didn't feel as authentic as the parts of the book when bombs are exploding and men are heading up to the "show."

As we get closer to Remembrance Day, I seem to get the urge to learn more and more about the First World War, and Americans in the war in particular. My great-grandfather, G.H. Copeland, came to Canada from Ohio to get into the show himself, and I often think of him running in the trenches with Faulkner or winding up meeting Hemingway on his Red Cross ambulance, although I know G.H. wasn't in Italy, but mainly in France. Maybe there's a book in there somewhere?

Up next in my Hemingway phase: The Old Man and the Sea.

Currently reading: Anne Enright's gut-wrenching Booker-winning The Gathering.

PHOTO IN CONTEXT: The novel on my desk beneath its 1001 Books entry.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Two Nights At The IFOA

I've spent the past two nights out at the 28th annual International Festival of Authors. Even though I barely made it out the door yesterday, having come down with one awesomely evil cold, I am so glad that I did because it was the best night of readings I'd been to in ages.

But maybe I'm getting ahead of myself. Friday night was also star-studded, with Michael Ondaatje, whom I adore, ending the evening with his dulcet tones and brilliant accent, reading from Divisadero, a novel I'm still deeply conflicted about despite its multiple nominations this fall. It's been years since I'd heard Ondaatje read his work, and the last time I saw him at Harbourfront, he read poetry. Small things I noticed this time: he's so jaunty, floating up to the stage with a bounce in his step, and being very unobtrusive about his own words that it belies the actual age, success and experience of the author himself. He stood with one foot slightly stepping on the other, like a child at a candy counter, shifting his weight back and forth as he read three different sections from the novel.

The other readers that night, including a new part to the evenings, poets "opening" for the fiction and memoir writers, were all satisfactory. And Marina Lewycka stood out in particular. But on the whole it was nothing compared to the brilliance of the readings we heard last night: Shalom Auslander, Amy Bloom, Anne Enright, Vendela Vida, Souvankham Thammavongsa.

Every single reader was excellent, even Souvankham Thammavongsa who seemed terribly nervous, did a good job, even if I might need to read her poetry on paper so I can truly understand the context of her work. Truly, however, it was Anne Enright's passionate, brittle (she'd had only four hours of sleep since her novel The Gathering "took" [her words] the Man-Booker on Tuesday), and gut-wrenching reading that made the night for me. So much so that I've moved The Gathering up on the night stand pile to follow A Farewell to Arms, which I'm enjoying immensely.

As always, it's such a treat to be at a "classy" (Vendela Vida's words) festival surrounded by literary superstars who glide up on stage to share their words and their voices with the masses of adoring fans like myself. Oh, and I heard some awesome gossip that I will not share in these pages but would be happy to get into over lunch at some point (insert wimpy emoticon here). And I would have more to say except this cold is forcing my fingers into numbness, fogging up my head, and I've still got a pile of editing to do for my latest abridgment.

A writer's work is never done (insert another lame emoticon here if you'd like and don't blame me that I'm resorting to them in a time of need). Sigh.

Friday, October 19, 2007

TRH Movie - Gone, Baby, Gone

There must be something in the water in Hollywood this fall, because out of the four pictures I've seen (3:10 to Yuma, Into the Wild, Michael Clayton, and now Gone, Baby, Gone), there's not a bad one in the bunch. Sure, they all have their flaws, but that's what makes filmmaking so interesting as an art form.

So I refrained from writing a full review of Dennis Lehane's novel until I had seen the movie. I wanted to really explore the idea (in my head) of how a movie adaptation might work or not work. Gone, Baby, Gone seems, at first glance, to be a strange book to start with, considering it's one of the middle books in Lehane's series centering on Dorchester-native and private investigator Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and his partner, Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan). But in the end, I think it was a good choice, although I haven't read the others, if only for its utterly current storyline and setting.

In this particular story, Patrick and Angie are called upon to help find a missing neighbourhood girl after she's taken one night from her mother's apartment. The mother, a drug addict and terrible mother, is forced into a sort of reckoning for her lifestyle by her older brother and his wife, who are the ones who actually hire Patrick and Angie. From the beginning, something's just not right with the case, whether it's the involvement of the cops, how the girl disappeared, or the story behind the story that starts to unravel the deeper Patrick and Angie get into it.

The film does an excellent job of streamlining the complex plot for a theatre audience. While plot details are tightened up, the film remains contextually in tact, despite its extreme complexity, which always doesn't translate easily to the big screen. Affleck pays homage to noir films before him, but sometimes, he takes the elements a bit too far (although not to the crazy degree found in last year's similar noir-influenced The Black Dhalia). Yet, despite the film's few shortcomings, it remains tight, riveting and well-acted throughout.

If I have one complaint, it's that the character of Angie becomes so very secondary in the film. She really doesn't have a lot to do, she stands beside Patrick, asks a couple of questions, and has one pivotal moment that they took directly from the novel. Yet, in the book she's complex, troubled, and deeply confused about elements of the case. The movie, I guess to keep it clear on Patrick, turns her into a truly supporting character, a partner in name only, and much less the strong, tough woman in Lehane's narrative.

But the film's got amazing art direction that brings the setting to life, fabulous performances by character actors like Amy Madigan and Ed Harris, and Deadwood's Titus Welliver and The Wire's Amy Ryan, and Casey Affleck, who brings a heart to the film that Lehane's controlled style and hard-hitting language doesn't always reflect. Affleck's deft hand behind the camera and with the script show real talent and promise. And that's a sentence I never thought I'd write, let alone think. He took everything he could from the book, changed what he needed to, remained faithful to the rest, and created a film that's poignant, aching, bright, and honestly worthy of praise.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

And The Booker Goes To...

The Gathering by Anne Enright, only the second Irish woman in the history of the prize to win. I was intrigued by the chair's description of the novel as "a powerful, uncomfortable and, at times, angry book..."

Who wouldn't be interested after that?

EDITED TO ADD: I'm actually going to see Anne Enright and Vendela Vida tomorrow night for IFOA. I will report back on the "angry" discomfort found in the book...

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Governor General's Award Short List

The short list for the other giant Canadian literary prize has been announced. Some surprises, Heather O'Neill's wonderful Lullabies for Little Criminals being one of them, on the fiction list. And now the guessing game begins. The conversation around here has Ondaatje winning the Giller and Vassanji winning the GG. Any takers on that action?

#67 - The Septembers of Shiraz

I always feel like Phil Keoghan when I start a post off with, "The Iran stop in my reading trip around the world..." But hell, it's the truth, I picked The Septembers of Shiraz because I didn't have an Iranian author on the list and the book got a whoppingly good NY Times review by Claire Messud. But in retrospect, I am certainly glad that any measure of influence got me to read Sofer's work, whether it was word of mouth because of the review, the Facebook peeps that read the title through our group, or the fact that I got a copy of the novel from work, because The Septembers of Shiraz truly broke my heart in a good way.

For a first novelist, Sofer has a voice that's assured, strong, and tender at the same time as she tells the story of Isaac Amin, a Jewish jeweler living in Tehran just after the revolution that brought the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power and overthrew (is that the right way of looking at it?) the monarchy. Not a monarchist, but suspected of being a spy, Isaac is arrested just before lunch on September 20, 1981. He spends the better part of the next year in jail being interrogated, beaten, and locked up in solitary. The life of an imprisoned man turns Isaac inside himself as he relives his life, his marriage to Farnaz, and tries to convince the Revolutionary Guard that he has never spied in his life.

As Isaac suffers inside the prison, his family tries to go on living without him. Farnaz tries to track him down, attempts to fight off being taken herself, and comes to terms with why her marriage might have turned stiff, if not sour, in the months before her husbands arrest. Their son Parviz, away in New York studying architecture, broke and unable to pay his rent, must come to terms with the ideas and ideals of his faith while living in the heard of Hasidic Jewish neighbourhood in Brooklyn. Young Shirin, Isaac's nine-year-old daughter, also copes with the disappearance of her father in her own way, by becoming involved in her own anti-revolutionary cause.

Sofer has a tendency to use metaphoric language to really let the reader into the experience of Isaac in prison. While it might be a bit on the flowery side sometimes, there's an underlying ache to her prose that remains convincing throughout. As always, Around the World in 52 Countries has opened my eyes to a different world, and made me thankful that I can experience it through the comforts of my warm, dry, half-built house.

PHOTO IN CONTEXT: No photo that I took this time around, but just an image of the book cover...

HOWEVER: I've got three extra copies of the book sitting here in my office and I want to share. Email me via the blog here if you want one. And then I can't wait to read your thoughts.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

#66 - Half a Yellow Sun

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half a Yellow Sun took me ages to finish. And it's not because it's not a good book or didn't hold my interest, even if it was perhaps just a bit too long, but more because so much other reading came up in the mean time. Work and school reading meant that I had to keep putting the book down and picking it back up again days, weeks, months even, after I started.

On the whole, it's a complex, well-written story about the grown twin daughters of a wealthy Nigerian couple who profited from the fall of colonialism. As civil unrest tears the country apart, and the nation of Biafra fights for its independence, the two sisters are torn in different directions, both personal and political. The story moves back and forwards in the year or two before the war, and then tells of their struggles during the three years between 1967 and 1970 when Biafra became nation consistently struggling against Nigerian forces that refuse to recognize its status.

Kainene, who falls in love with a British man named Richard, fails to support the cause until an event happens that changes her outlook forever. Then she removes herself from the coastal city of Port Harcourt, and she and Richard run a refugee camp until the end of the war. There are personal difficulties, between Kainene and her sister that run throughout the book. Kainene, plain, tall, thin, regal, is plain compared to her beautiful sister. Not that this defines their relationship, but it sets them on very different paths in the years leading up to and during the war.

Olanna and her husband Odenigbo flee from their home in a university town to places that become harder and harder for them to survive within. They are revolutionaries who believe in the cause, who support the new Biafran government, who teach the noble reasons for the uprising to the children who surround them, starving and malnourished, many of whom die from the lack of food when the relief trucks are stopped at the border. Not without her own personal problems, Olanna fights to keep her daughter, Baby, healthy, and watches as her husband falls deeper and deeper into depression.

The other main character within the novel, concerns a house boy who grows up during the course of the book, Ugwu, who works for Odenigbo and Olanna. His story truly forms the heart of the book, from the girl he loves from a distance back in his village, to the terror he feels each time a bomb stops life in its tracks.

The Nigerian entry in my Around the World in 52 Books, Half a Yellow Sun is certainly a novel about an important (to use such a trite word feels wrong, somehow) time in the country's history. I learned so much about the struggle, was shocked and saddened by the events in the novel, and felt a quiet strength in the author's words. The sentences aren't fancy, symbolism doesn't fall off the page, but the stark reality of the events themselves drive the narrative in a way that shows the wisdom and tenacious ability of the writer. Epic would be a good word to describe this novel, and I am so glad I finally finished, for it's the kind of book that truly reminds you of the importance of reading in the first place.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Let's Talk About Love

So when I posted my opinions a few days back about Eye's Fall Book Guide, David Barker from 33 1/3 reached out and asked if I'd like to read the first two chapters of Carl Wilson's Let's Talk About Love. Always willing to eat my words, of course, I said yes.

Now let me digress for a moment. First off, I don't read a lot of nonfiction, but when I do I like it to act like fiction, which means I read a lot of popular, bestselling authors like Jon Krakauer and Sebastian Junger, with a little Simon Winchester thrown in for good measure. So maybe I wasn't the best person to be critical of Eye's choices in the first place because I don't read a lot books that aren't make believe. Secondly, while I enjoy music, I would not consider myself in the slightest to be an aficionado in any way shape or form. Without my RRHB, I wouldn't have heard of half of the music that I listen to on a regular basis.

So keeping those two faults decidedly in mind, I also want to make note of a scene in The Departed, which I've now seen about a dozen times. Not for its music (even though the soundtrack is quite exceptional), but for its intent. Matt Damn and Vera Farmiga are having dinner, it's their first date, and he's ribbing her about head-shrinking a bunch of "Mick cops" who keep all their feelings bottled up inside, knowing, as he does, what Freud says about the Irish. He laughs, and I'm paraphrasing, of course, and says something like, 'They're impervious to therapy.' When he asks her with a grin on his face why she counsels them, she replies, 'Because some people do get better.' And at that moment all the kidding stops and he says something along the lines of being unable to make fun of something that truthful.

There's a point in here, I promise.

So, about Carl Wilson's book, I said something along the lines of the whole project making me want to roll my eyes and feeling like it's a giant F U to pop music lovers everywhere. But that's not the case at all. And now remember, I've only read the first two chapters, but so far it's an intelligent, well-written, deeply thoughtful book easily on par in tone with any of those nonfiction superstars I've noted above. And, for me, the Colin Sullivan (Damon's character) moment came within the first few pages. The book starts off recounting the 1998 Academy Awards when Titanic blew its giant steam over the box office, the world, the universe, and you couldn't take a step outside your house without hearing the weeping strains of that damn theme song by Dion.

But what I didn't realize, having only started watching the Oscars over the last few years, was that Elliott Smith performed that year too. Nominated for Best Song for Good Will Hunting, Wilson explains that this moment was when his necessary dislike of Dion turned, in his words, "personal." Even beyond Smith's obvious discomfort with the show, his reluctance to perform, and his odd attire, Wilson notes that one of the hardest parts about the night to understand was Smith's own feelings towards Dion, how he defended her regularly and always described her as a 'really nice person.'

It's within this framework that Wilson himself sets out to explore the record he despised moments ago with an open mind. I can't find any fault with this, my own reverence for Elliot Smith making any further criticism, however warranted or not, impossible. In short, I can't tease him any longer. And there's an ease to his writing that finds the strains of this odd coupling and threads them through any number of discourses, from music criticism to pop culture itself, to try and truly understand what it is about the human condition that creates an Oprah-defended, chest-thumping, French Canadian superstar.

In short, I'm more than willing to admit how very wrong I was to be so flippant about the book in the first place. If only for Elliott Smith.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Meme From Try Harder

1. Hardcover or paperback, and why?
Hardcover. I like the feel of a book on my lap. And it's not as easy for the cat to bonk it while in bed.

2. If I were to own a book shop I would call it…
Hannah's Book Emporium.

3. My favorite quote from a book (mention the title) is…
Just like Carrie, who kindly memed me (is it a verb?) a few weeks back, I am terrible at remembering quotes. I do, however, enjoy first lines. Here are a few of my favourites:

This is the saddest story I have ever heard. —Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier (even though I've never finished the book)

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. —Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. —Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

4. The author (alive or diseased) I would love to have lunch with would be…
Jack Kerouac. I know it's trite but I'd love to have a beer with him in San Francisco while listening to jazz before it became affected and sung by Diana Krall. Maybe Jane Austen just so I could wear a pretty dress. And perhaps Thomas Hardy just so I could talk to him about Jude the Obscure, one of my favourite all-time books.

5. If I was going to a deserted island and could only bring one book, except from the SAS survival guide, it would be…

Goodness. Really? Just one? You can fit plenty of paperbacks into a suitcase. Probably something practical then, I couldn't pick just one book of fiction, so I would take something about the natural world, so I didn't end up eating a poisonous plant.

6. I would love someone to invent a bookish gadget that…
Makes the pages smell like lavender.

7. The smell of an old book reminds me of…
Sneezing. But in a good way. But in all truthfulness, Balfour Books on College Street where we lived across the way from for almost five years. Stacks and stacks of books and dust and words and pages and classics and none and crusty booksellers. Brilliant.

8. If I could be the lead character in a book (mention the title), it would be…
Henry Miller in a Tropic of Cancer or Capricorn. If only to experience Paris at the time that he did, or New York.

9. The most overestimated book of all time is…
I know people will not think kindly but I tried to read The Lord of the Rings and simply couldn't get past the precious hobbits and their bloody singing. I adored the movies, though.

10. I hate it when a book…
Is full of tired cliches about romance like a certain movie tie-in book I just finished that shall remain nameless.

I am terrible at tagging. Yeah. I'm not so good with the Pay It Forward. Take it away if you're intrigued.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Doris Lessing And The Lettuce

It's not verbatim what I've already posted elsewhere but I'm intrigued by all of the articles about Doris Lessing's amazing Nobel Prize win that mention how she was out shopping during the time of the announcement. Like the press was so incredibly needy for bits of information that it's essential to note that the significant author of a life of amazing (albeit unread by me) work was getting on with the business of life when elsewhere in the world she was being decidedly celebrated.

I know sometimes it's hard to find a hook to a story, and I know that filling a word count is sometimes hard but, really, is that tidbit of information essential to the telling of the piece? I'm sure there are hundreds of authors out there just sitting by the phone waiting to be told they've just won the Nobel Prize.

Or not.

But you're telling me that someone from some camp somewhere couldn't have maybe let her in on the secret if only to make sure she's home when they call?

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

And He's Thoughtful Too

A journalist friend of mine covering TIFF last month reveals this about Ethan Hawke:
Ethan Hawke came out of the interview suite and saw me and about four other journalists waiting in the hall and he said, ‘What, they can’t get chairs for you guys? They make you wait in the hall?’ Then, he added, ‘Man, this festival is getting too big’.
Sigh. Stuff like that makes me think that I should become a journalist and start standing in hallways just so he could worry about the state of my butt.

Giller Shortlist Announced

In case you haven't already heard. Am thrilled for Alissa York -- that's pretty darn exciting. And can't say I'm too surprised about the others, but I am sad that October isn't on the shortlist. Right now my book sense puts money on Elizabeth Hay to win. However, as I am always wrong about these things, don't be surprised if I'm totally incorrect.

Creative Writing Class Fall 2007

What a boring title. But what an exciting class. After working so hard on my own with Humber last year, I'm kind of excited to get back into a classroom scenario this fall with my Novel Writing Master Class through the University of Toronto. It's a shame that I can't find enough inspiration to work on my own but find that the structure of a class really helps in terms of deadlines and actually getting things done.

(Case in point was this weekend where we spent all weekend lounged on the couch [with the exception of hospital visits and Thanksgiving turkey and a quick jaunt to the Farmer's Market] watching movies, TV, and HBO-Showtime dramas).

Anyway, David Gilmour is our teacher, and judging from the first class, he'll be using the same teaching techniques with us as he did with his own son. I was really impressed with the first class and was even inspired to write a truly terrible first draft of a short story (Gilmour has 4 rules; one of which is to allow yourself the latitude to write very badly) that I shared with a couple friends last week.

Even though I won't get to workshop as much of the book as I did at Humber, but I'm really looking forward to getting a group's feedback about the story.

Ken Babstock On Words At Large

Awesome interview with poet Ken Babstock. I took a class he taught a couple of years ago and can attest to his general brilliance. Oh, and Airstream Land Yacht is an amazing book of poetry.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

TRH Movie - Michael Clayton

We had a free half-day on Friday, which I was terribly happy to receive, for the Thanksgiving holiday this weekend. I went out for lunch by myself, finished reading PS, I Love You (#65), bought some books for my Around the World in 52 Countries challenge, and then went to go see Michael Clayton. Really I just needed some time to myself, to wander around regardless of how my tragic hip hurt, and think. Quietly.

I suppose spending two hours in a movie theatre isn't necessarily quiet time, but for me it's a place to sit alone with no one talking to me, or talking at me, where I can't punch the keys of the blackberry and sort of get lost. So, yes, it's a good place for me after what felt like weeks of non-stop activity. And while the film drags a bit in its middle section, I have to say that the more I think about it, the more I have to say that it's one of the best pictures I've seen this year.

Michael Clayton, played to precision by George Clooney, pulls himself out of a high stakes back door poker game to answer his particular call of duty. The Willy Loman of lawyers, and I felt Arthur Miller's influence is all over this picture, he's a fixer, the guy the other lawyers in the New York mega-firm call when there's a problem with one of their clients. From shoplifting wives to hit and run accidents, he's got a reputation for being a lawyer among cops and a cop among lawyers, which puts him in a very complicated position when it comes to cleaning up a particular mess his associate, a brilliant but manic corporate lawyer named Arthur Edens creates.

See, Clayton's cleaned up the mess left behind by Edens before, and his particular brand of mental illness, while it leads to utterly brilliant lawyering, has also caused him to become completely unhinged when dealing with the UNorth class action suit. They're defending the company against claims their fertilizer, growth products, and/or genetically modified seeds, are killing farmers and poisoning their land. We see very little of the case itself but more the people around the case, like Tilda Swinton's Karen Crowder, lead counsel for UNorth, who manically plots to save the company and herself from harm.

What this film is not is a terribly rehashing of bland early 90s legal thrillers of the John Grisham variety where big, bad business comes down hard on the good guy. The lines are blurred, the action more subtle, and the end result less Hollywood. In the middle of getting to the bottom of Edens breakdown (or breakout he would say), Clayton needs to deal with many issues in his personal life, the failure of his restaurant, his gambling, a tenuous relationship with his son, and the urge to throw away his career because he's simply tired of being on the cleanup crew.

The struggle between the responsibility of work and the responsibility in a larger, more global sense is at play, as it is in many of the films Clooney makes these days. Right and wrong are blurry but not blurred and as the picture moves towards its conclusion, there's a sense that you've picked up in the middle of the story. There's the feeling that Clayton will continue for years to come in this role that he's created for himself, driving a company car, cleaning up the messes of the rich and richer, and always hoping that doing the right thing means more than collecting a paycheque or an exorbitant bonus. Personally, the end of this film, which I won't go into for fear of spoiling it, really made the movie for me. It's a film that made me think a lot of about the state of men being 'men' and what it means to be successful in this past postmodern world. Regardless, it's definitely a must see this season.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Love In The Time Of Oprah

Baby Got Books alerted me to Oprah's new Book Club choice, Love in the Time of Cholera, and it got me thinking, maybe she's also doing a 1001 Books challenge. This choice along with the last one, Middlesex, are both on the list. Coincidence? Perhaps not.

And why doesn't Random House just give Oprah her own imprint and get it over with?

(Note that I am totally smiling and teasing when I say this).


What happened at WOTS on our publisher's blog...

You know, my feet still hurt.

Fall Book Guide

Eye's main feature this week is a Fall Book Guide. I imagine that kudos goes out to them for calling attention to so many small press books, and I always enjoy a cover story on Michael Winter. But I also kind of feel like a ninny for never having heard of many of these books (the Coupland and Hitchens obvious exceptions to the statement).

The one other book I have heard of, Carl Wilson's, just makes me want to roll my eyes. I know I'm not the target hipster demographic but, and no offense meant to Wilson's obvious writing talent, going from Pere Ubu to Celine Dion somewhat makes me feel like the book is more of a giant F U to everyone involved. Is it just me or are books that want to make a point this heavy-handed simply trying too hard?

But then again, having only ever written abridged classics for kids, I'm not one to put anyone else down for writing something they want or finishing a book at all. But really, one of the BIGGEST books for the season? All of the other books on the list, yes, I can see how they fit, but I do have to admit a giant yawn when I read the first blurb on the page.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Random Thoughts On A Thursday

When I rode my bike into work this morning, still happy that even though it's October, the weather doesn't necessitate a heavy wool "biking" (translation old and crappy) sweater just yet, it was so foggy that it reminded me of Dublin. Which got me thinking about other things that have served to bring me out of my eternal state of crabbiness:

1. Biking in on Monday a fellow two-wheeler shouted at a car, "Your breaking my tender heart!" When the driver cut him off. Awesome.

2. My RRHB was so nice to me yesterday. I had to work late and miss yoga (which I hate doing) because things are so busy with it being the Fall season and all. When I got home he had made me a pizza, tidied up the living room, and organized our evening's entertainment (the last third of the current season of Rescue Me). What's not to love?

3. I powered through Dennis Lehane's truly engrossing Gone, Baby, Gone for our Facebook reading group (that's #64 for the year) and have started to read PS, I Love You (also for Facebook), which is cute even if it feels a little like it was rather inspired by Marian Keyes.

4. Mad Men is the best show on television. Now, it goes head to head with Rescue Me, it's true, but I'm having trouble wondering who's hotter Denis Leary or Don Draper? Don't force me to choose. Just don't.

5. We are spending a relaxing weekend at home instead of going up north to the cottage. I couldn't be more pleased. That means I can do hospital visits and farmers markets and eat my MIL's turkey and make soup and organize my closet and clean off the exercise bike and read and watch movies and not have to race home to race onto the highway and maybe even do some of my own writing. Of course, I will use commas there.

My Boy is Ten

My friend Heather took this photo a couple of weekends ago. We went for a walk in the woods. It was a bit cold at first, neither my boy nor ...