Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Psychic Reading

I am forever amazed at the seemingly psychic ways that reading makes its way into your life. How sometimes, books just choose you. Yesterday after picking my brother up from the hospital, I was driving back to work (and I never drive to work) and noticed how windy it was in the city. The multicoloured leaves were strewn (and continually blowing) all around the streets and it was an amazing site to be seen. You know, it's one thing to know that the seasons are changing, to see the treetops from the 20th floor and to remark about the prettiness of it all. But it's quite another thing to experience the seasons: to stand on Bloor Street as the wind whips you into next week, to put out the recycling and kick a pile of leaves around at the bottom of your stairs, to smell the cold, autumn air. It's so easy to forget the importance of noticing these things as the days get busy with life, stress and (in my case) seemingly never-ending drama (and, well, trauma).

I've been reading Oryx and Crake, slowly and it's reminding me of The Road. Anyway, the edition I have is hardcover and I didn't want to lug it all the way to work so I picked up Knut Hamsun's Hunger this morning instead. I bought a second-hand paperback when we were in NYC this summer because it's been on numerous 'to be read' lists that I've made over the years. Imagine my delight at finding this sentence: "The fall had come, that cool delicious time of year when everything changed colour and died."

Just perfect.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Page A Day?

Now that I'm in between assignments, I'm thinking I'll get back to my page-a-day work schedule that made up the bulk of the first draft of the manuscript. I'm also going to have to get back into the habit of writing on my own stuff instead of a) wasting time blogging and b) wasting time putting myself into an internet coma. Even if I stretch out a few sentences before failing myself in front of the television I'll at least get back in the habit of working on the book. Next to my family and my RRHB, writing is the most important part of my life. It's strange how the time slips away around it and I just can't get there these days.

Deep breaths, right?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

TRH Movie - Pack Oops "Body Of Lies"

I skipped out on work early this afternoon and went to see a matinee. Normally, one of my favourite things to do, but even my heart wasn't it in today. There was an older woman sitting beside me who obviously snuck in from another movie because she didn't arrive until a good third into the film eating potato chips through the entire picture. With each crunch I did nothing but picture my own depressing future.

And then I'd slap myself out of it in my mind and get back to watching the atrocious Body of Lies. Some of the things I noticed:

1. Leonardo's character is supposed to be "the" US / CIA guy in the Middle East, and sure he speaks Arabic and wears some pretty bad silver jewellry but he's a terrible spy. And gets beaten up like every five minutes in the picture.

2. If you're a spy, one guesses one should probably, um, blend in and not try to start up a really inappropriate relationship with a Muslim nurse as she's giving you a rabies shot. Suuurree she believes that you're a "political advisor." Yawn.

3. When a big-time Jordanian intelligence officer says to you, "Don't you ever lie to me," that's Hollywood code for everyone in his immediate surroundings telling whoppers for the remainder of the film and getting their comeuppance. Double O Yawns.

4. Does every single "action" movie need to have a damsel in distress? I'm so over it.

5. Shut up Russell Crowe and stop calling him "Buddy."

6. Torture is bad. I get it. No, really, I get it, we don't need a torture flashback within the torture scene, it's okay, we'll remember the half-naked Arab guy getting his knees knocked worse than any sh*t Hollywood used to put the Irish through.

7. Why oh why would you go unprepared to a meeting with a terrorist organization without so much as a knife hidden somewhere in your spy gear underwear? Why just surrender? Syndey Bristow had more sense and she's a girl. At the very least, don't forget your hat. It's hot in the desert.

8. Race to save the girl. Sacrifice yourself for the girl. Run around acting like a fool because the girl's life is in jeopardy. Seen it all before. Saw it on the way down and barfed it all back up again.

9. For the smartest "spy," Leo sure makes a lot of rookie mistakes that get a lot of people killed, but he's got contact lenses, dark hair and a southern accent (please, no more accents, please) so that's supposed to make you think that he knows what he's doing.

10. Does anything actually happen in the movie? No, wrong way of writing that, let me re-cast: does anything change at the end of this movie? Nope. Nada. Zilch. Can I have my Scene points back?

Too Early On A Sunday

Over the past few days I've been finding it harder and harder to sleep. I'm averaging about five hours a night, which is better than nothing but still means I'm not getting any better in terms of the cold that seems to be hanging on for dear life. I've now been sick since the week my mother died and it's like trying to live through a constant, pressing hard wind. The more I push myself forward, the more it presses against me. The cough rattles through like turbulence and it shakes me around in its wake at all hours. The wakefulness is one thing: I know what to do with it. But my body seems unable to rest no matter how many hours I spend at home.

Last night, after spending the afternoon with my husband's family for our niece's third birthday (and what fun that was despite the above), I came home, did some work, and then settled down to watch HBO's Recount. The film stars Kevin Spacey, Denis Leary and a whole host of other people, and dramatizes the events surrounding the Florida voting fiasco from the 2000 presidential election. Knowing now what a complete and utter mess W.'s made of it, the film almost feels a bit self-congratulatory in a way, as it's told from the point of view of the Democrats (who obviously lost the court battle to finish the Florida recount), who have the advantage of the moral high ground. Regardless, like so much of modern history, the truth will consistently be bifurcated by the teller (sue me; I'm still a post-modernist!), but that sure makes for solid entertainment even if the film feels more like a Michael Moore picture than a feature film (again, I'm not saying that's a bad thing). And the performances were stellar (Denis Leary, Tom Wilkinson, Laura Dern in particular). All in all watching Recount was a perfectly good way to spend a lonely Saturday night coughing and crumpled up on the couch.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

2009 Beta

I wonder if I need to make New Year's Revolutions for 2009 Beta, which we're starting soon (I think), if I haven't already missed it (props to K for the reminder).

Regardless, some photos of our trip out west on Flickr.

#62 - Goldengrove (& The IFOA)

I didn't set out to read Francine Prose's Goldengrove this week. And the IFOA's kind of snuck up on me. A number of our authors are here to do readings and we've tried to organize On the Fly videos for them. Emma, Francine Prose's publicist, gave me a copy of the book so I could come up with a couple of questions for her author video and, as well, because I'm going to see if the author has time to do a quick email interview for Savvy Reader. To make a longish (and somewhat boring) story shorter, I read the first few pages of Goldengrove and couldn't stop.

Before you read any further, if you have any inclination towards reading Goldengrove, be warned there may be spoilers in my review.

Nico and her older sister, Margaret, live in upstate New York on the idyllic Mirror Lake. Their mother writes liner music for classical CDs and their father owns and runs a bookstore called Goldengrove after "Spring and Fall," the Hopkins poem. On a lazy, gorgeous day before summer truly begins, one of those days where you enjoy all the promise of the season after the slush of spring has finally cleared up entirely, the two sisters float on a rowboat on the lake. Wearing their bathing suits to get a jump on their tans (Margaret) they have one of those shorthand sibling conversations that the skilled Prose uses to set up the entire family dynamic.

"This is heaven," Margaret says. She's dreamy: gorgeous, full of promise, a superstar singer in the process with an equally gorgeous painter of a boyfriend named Aaron. Nico, the book's protagonist replies, "Don't you ever worry about the polar ice caps melting?" She's a precocious thirteen-year-old who loves science and gets straight As. The two float around the lake until Margaret has had enough, maybe of her little sister nagging her about her smoking, maybe to be dramatic (she loves old movies; the melodrama of black and white), and jumps into the lake. Nico closes her eyes and falls asleep. When she wakes, her sister is nowhere to be found, her mother's piano music drifts over the lake as Nico pulls herself back to shore. Only they don't find Margaret until much later -- her heart condition more serious than anyone thought becomes the cause of her sudden death.

The sudden shock of the magnitude of the tragedy propels the entire family into a summer they'll never forget and their grief manifests itself in each in different ways. An endemic loss of appetite. An inability to continue with everyday activities. The closed door of Margaret's room. The hot, insufferable summer, their creaking train car of a house, and the slow ruination of Mirror Lake as a result of algae all become metaphors for how Nico and her parents cope with their loss. But it's not until Nico begins a strange friendship with Aaron, her sister's boyfriend, that the implications of how grief can truly change a person becomes evident. Nico and Aaron start off being a comfort to one another. They take drives. They talk about Margaret. They do things the two used to do together. Only Nico's not her sister, she's four years younger and Aaron pulls her further and further away from herself, into someone she doesn't recognize. Nico's desire at once to be more like Margaret feels right in a way, maybe it's a necessary stage she needs to go through to deal with her death, or maybe it's just the only way she knows how to cope, but it's not something that can sustain her, and as she realizes more and more of what's happening, her body, her mind, finds its way back to itself.

Last night at the IFOA, Francine Prose prefaced her reading by telling the audience that many of the reviews she's read about Goldengrove take note with the fact that "it's not a Francine Prose novel." Some postulate that she's written it "just to sell books" (whatever that means). As I've only ever read Goldengrove, I can't really compare it to any of her other books. I can only say that I was utterly captivated by Nico's voice, by her pain, by her experiences, by her loss. Prose read from the book's first section, as I sort of guessed that she would, to go any further in the story might be to spoil it in ways that would stop the reader from taking that journey from Nico. The months after the loss of someone so important to someone so young change your life forever. Prose captures her voice so very well that Nico's grief becomes almost exquisite in a way (but never precious, that's something different entirely). It's sharp and painful and has depths that need to be explored before one can come out the other end.

This morning while lying in bed coughing up a lung and cursing my headache, I kept thinking about why I enjoyed the novel so much. One reason, of course, is because I can completely identify with Nico, in how she coped with the tragedy, in her strange behavior, her odd relationship with Aaron. Beyond the more personal reasons for liking the book, I admired Prose's ability to capture the voice of the character in such profound ways. You're never pulled out of the story. You never feel as though the author is using the situation to prove a point (read: American Pastoral). You're never frustrated with the mistakes Nico makes beyond you're heart aching just a little for what she's going through.

Prose was a definite highlight of last night's readings. The other readers were enjoyable too, especially Emma Donoghue, whom I also enjoy, and Joan Barfoot, whom I've never read but thought she did a great job. The only reader that didn't really catch me was Anita Shreve. Her latest novel feels too overwrought and movie-of-the-week for me. Regardless, it was a whirlwind two days with Goldengrove, and I'd highly recommend the novel.

Friday Night Nuggat

"Now don't get mad at me because I didn't invent the world, but nobody likes an angry woman."

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A Quote from Goldengrove

Just finished up a meeting with my writer's group, and it was delightful as always. I am consistently impressed with the talent of my two friends. The deathly illness continues to cloud my overall cheery outlook. If I could only stop coughing, life could finally return to normal. I miss normal. I miss the everyday. I miss September. I miss my mother.

But I was talking about inspiration, so here's a particularly lovely quote from the beginning of Francine Prose's Goldengrove:
My father used to say that he and I always wanted to know what everything meant, but that my mother and Margaret only cared about how it sounded.
Delicious, right? One short sentence that sets up an entire family dynamic. Reminds me of the time I stood beside my RRHB at a Tricky Woo show and told him that I loved music that went up and down and not back and forth, and he just understood what I meant.

Love This Review

Of my RRHB's latest record.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Free Time

My brain actually physically hurts from work today. I'm uploading the majority of the content for the new corporate website and it's a little overwhelming. So, for today, a list:

1. I ran into a casual friend on the subway this morning who told me that she'd given up writing for now. My face might have betrayed me ever-so-slightly because I think I was kind of shocked. I've never honestly thought of giving up writing completely and I don't honestly know if I could. So far, my writing hasn't made me millions but I'm not convinced I'm toiling away in obscurity either. I've finished the first draft of one (as yet) unpublished novel, eight or so abridged classics, published some poems, make a fairly decent freelance living so all is not dire. Yet. But writing is such a part of my daily life that I don't know if I could ever just say, "that's it, I'm done." What say you other writers out there?

2. Yawn. Am so tired of the post-blog natterers out there. See above: is a measurable sense of success really the value people put on this product now? Does everything anyone does need to end up with either acclaim or riches for it to be a worthwhile investment of someone's time?

3. Fringe. When our Faux-Vo exploded last week while we were on vacation, this was the one show that I was truly upset that it didn't tape. And I can't quite figure out why. I mean the beginnings are super strong; they're sharp, intriguing and scary as fark. But the moment that the bad dialogue and the hair flipping starts I simply turn out. When Pacey said some of the doozys he was assigned this week I honestly rolled my eyes. Yet, I can't turn away.

4. Our cat has lost his voice. Ideas?

5. A new twist on the jump around my writing room dancing: jumping around the hardwood downstairs and racing from corner to corner like I'm back in dance class. Awesome.

6. If you live in Winnipeg, go see my RRHB play tonight.

7. Tonight I have dubbed "Lipstick and Nachos." Oh yes. Oh yes I have.

8. Has Angelina Jolie reached that Tom Hanksian stage where she's too famous to disappear into her roles? I'm somewhat intrigued by Changling, only because I generally enjoy Clint Eastwood films (and count Unforgiven as one of my all-time fav pictures) but I'm not sure I'll be able to forget who she is and enjoy her performance anymore.

9. We watched a crapload of television last weekend. A) Because we had been travelling for what felt like days. B) Because the Faux-Vo was totally clogged up and needed some relief somewhat akin to my gently weeping, cold-infused head. C) Because we were somewhat hungover by our second wedding in two weeks (both were totally fun events BTW) and D) Because sometimes it's fun to eat chips, watch bad TV and complain about it. Some observations: Dexter pretty much sucks this year; Mad Men has finally come to show some signs of life, I loved this week's episode; True Blood still isn't doing anything for me (hot vampire sex aside); and I kind of like where Entourage is headed, maybe something will finally change?

9.5. Okay, I know it's totally double-u-to-the-rong to ill-eagle-ly dump down pirated episodes of Friday Night Lights but I just. Can't. Help. It. Last week's episode made my teeth hurt it was so good. Coach. Oh, Coach. That's all I'm going to say.

10. With only one outstanding freelance assignment, it seems I no longer have any excuse not to work on my novel. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

#61 - American Pastoral

Sometimes I really resent the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list. Like when you slog through umpteen pages of books like Philip Roth's bloated and self-indulgent masterpiece American Pastoral. I'm honestly shocked that a book that so clearly needed an editor won the Pulitzer Prize. I liken Roth's writing in ways to Canadian David Adams Richards, who remains highly regarded by many people in the literary world (and is ever-acclaimed and never-endingly nominated). It's just not the book for me. Honestly, I'm barely surprised that I finished.

In theory, and at the beginning of my reading experience, I couldn't put the book down. I was fascinated by Seymour "The Swede" Levov, the golden-blond, all-American, football-playing, Riggins-reminding main character. The novel does an excellent job of exploring how his Jewish roots somewhat sit in opposition to his golden boy lifestyle thus setting up this ideal of the American pastoral. In a world where a man, who has worked incredibly hard (he took over his father's glove business) and married a woman he adores (and is a beautiful Irish-American beauty queen), can't even succeed, what hope is there for the rest of us? The Swede's more than a character: he's an archetype, one that Roth's narrator, the bachelor-slash-writer Nathan "Skip" Zuckerman explores in tireless detail.

After a chance meeting at a baseball game when they're both well advanced into middle age, The Swede approaches Skip and asks if he'd like to write a book about his father, Lou Levov. This becomes the premise behind telling the Swede's story. And then retelling it. And then retelling it a little more. And then a little more. Like a record that skips, the book plods along in ceaseless and sometimes utterly unnecessary detail about every aspect of the Swede's life, his relationship with his first wife, Dawn, and their troublesome daughter, Merry.

When Merry's (as described on the jacket) "savage act of political terrorism" destroys the family, much of the novel is dedicated to trying to understand the reasons behind why she did it. The breakdown of the family is never explored in detail, only hinted at, as we discover at the beginning of the book that the Swede has remarried and has three teenage sons. For the majority of the novel, he tries to keep his life on course despite it's consistent derailing. As the nature of tragedy in and of itself is cyclical, I can see why Roth spent so much time writing around and around the events; but it took a sheer force of will for me to finish this book.

I am not, however, giving up. Anyone who can write sentences like Roth deserves a second chance:
Marcia was all talk -- always had been: senseless, ostentatious talk, words with the sole purpose of scandalously exhibiting themselves, uncompromising, quarrelsome words expressing little more than Marcia's intellectual vanity and her odd belief that all her posturing added up to an independent mind.
I started The Plot Against America this morning and am already enjoying it. Also, let's make note that I read the majority of this book during my own tedious and utterly frustrating moments: waiting for the doctor; waiting for the ferry; riding on the ferry; sitting in the car and waiting for the ferry...and so on. Maybe that had something to do with my frustration?

READING CHALLENGES: Yes! A title in my woefully underrepresented 1001 Books Challenge and if I were actually still doing the Around the World in 52 Books I might have counted this title for the United States.

PHOTO IN CONTEXT: The book. My lap. The ferry. Boredom.

#60 - Whetstone

As life returns to its normal cadence and rhythm of work and sleep and TV and work and sleep and TV, I managed to finish Lorna Crozier's lovely book of poetry, Whetstone. I had taken the volume with me to read in Tofino but was still struggling through American Pastoral (more tk on that). So I went back to my poetry in transit and started the book on the Friday I returned to work.

Crozier's poems have their roots in the natural world and are almost conversations over the course of a life. Some of them are meditations on a life in the process of being lived (like "Autobiography: Birth" that opens the book). And some are lovely pieces of almost Romantic-like poetry that express an almost whimsical yet utterly grounded adoration for the natural world ("Winter Birches"). Overall, my favourite poems in the collection were the three all with the same title, "Drought" sprinkled throughout the book. The first begins, "Water is suddenly old. / It feels stiffness, / a lessoning deep down."

I found this idea, this image, of water growing old with whiskers and wrinkles and weathered utterly fascinating. I couldn't help but think about our whale. About how my RRHB said that it's no wonder he/she came up to see us at the side of the boat because they must swim to some of the loneliest places on earth. Some of the places where even the water, the ocean itself, must feel old and aching. As each takes the idea of drought in a different direction, the opposing wetness of it, the ache for that same wet, and the dusty, dirt-hemmed skirtness of it, the poems are nice compliments to one another.

Even if Crozier's language remains simple and straightforward throughout, her thoughts, her comparisons and her poet's eye is complex, and more often than not, I went back to re-read many of the pieces, underlining phrases that caught my breath and left me alone with my own thoughts.

READING CHALLENGES: Listed as #10 in my "For the Ladies" 2008 Canadian Book Challenge, finishing Whetstone brings me up to #5!

#59 - One Fifth Avenue

"Pleasantly surprised."

I know. Two words I never thought I'd use when it came to a book by Candace Bushnell. But, um, One Fifth Avenue is good. It's entertaining, well written and quite a departure from her earlier books. In fact, I'd even go so far as to say that in a way it's kind of a modern comedy of manners. There are hints of bawdy Restoration literature and even a dash of Edith Wharton thrown in for good measure sprinkled in between the Vanity Fair-like plot that revolves around the very wealthy (and quite silly) people that live at One Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

When actress Schiffer Diamond returns to One Fifth after a substantial absence, quite a few things have changed. Most importantly, the ridiculously wealthy woman (and I can't remember her name and left my book in Tofino) who occupied the top two floors of the building has died and her apartment is up for grabs. The infighting begins between the remaining residents: Enid Merle, an aging gossip columnist, Philip Oakland, her screenwriter nephew, and Mindy and James Gooch, an online director and an author, respectively. The rivalry continues even as the new tenants, the newly rich Annalisa and Paul Rice, move into the building and cause problems of their own. Completing the cast of characters is Billy Litchfield and Lola Fabrikant, outsiders who both want in for different reasons.

In the kind of New York world where address means everything, the people who live in One Fifth exemplify the idiocy of a certain kind of lifestyle. Bushnell's ability to be cutting comes out freely in this book -- the characters are all double-sided. Of course, they do have amazing lives, but they aren't without their own flaws, making them at least human in this novel (unlike, say, the women of Lipstick Jungle). Strange, and maybe it was the wicked cold I've now caught after just finishing (barely) with the stupid bronchitis, that I enjoyed this book for reasons well beyond the usual insipid happiness I feel after reading chicklit. Kudos to Candace.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Oh, What A Day

After a ridiculously frustrating day taking two ferries yesterday, our karma was restored and was actually somewhat glorious. Yesterday: rain and misery. Today: sun and happiness.

We set off, as my bro said, on ferry time this morning (40 minutes late) and charted our way to Tofino. Even before breakfast we hiked (walked) through Cathedral Grove and looked an old growth forest. Snapped a million pictures and then got back in the car. Stopped in Port Alberni for some strip mall diner breakfast and then drove past some truly exquisite scenery.

When we arrived in Tofino the sun had just warmed up the coast. We wandered the beach after checking into our amazing hotel. Toss of the coin meant we opted for whale watching instead of surfing (my sick chest really decided for us) and we hopped back in the car to set off for town. Five minutes to spare and the three last spots meant we landed on the whale watching 3 PM tour.

What riches. Two killer whales, a harbour seal and four grey whales. Now here comes the mind blowing part: the whale came right beside the boat so close my brother touched him and I took some amazing photos.

The whale was bigger than the boat.

But it almost seemed that he (or she) wanted to be touched. The gentle way it brushed the boat could not have been any more amazing. I don't even have words. Saw some cool birds I'd like to identify and we got back windswept and awestruck.

we ate an incredible dinner at Shelter restaurant in town and I have just climbed out of a bath dusted with Aveda products. Being any more relaxed could not be possible. There's a fire and the ocean just outside my window.

And I have run out of adjectives, so I think I'll sign off until tomorrow. Today could not sit in any more opposition to yesterday. Vacation has arrived. I just wish I wasn't sick.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Waiting In Vain

My brother, husband and I are sitting in a huge line of cars on the Sunshine Coast trying to get on to a ferry. It's going to be a long day. We haven't even really started our journey. We're trying to end up in Parksville at my aunt and uncle's, but it seems we may be in transit and sitting in a rental car for many, many hours.

The wedding was lovely. The bride beautiful. The groom dashing. The service respectful and moving. The meal delicious. The setting quite spectacular and meaningful for the bride's family.

Tomorrow we're heading (fingers crossed) to Tofino, and then home on Thursday. I have been felled again by illness but I did my best not to cough my way on the dance floor last night.

One of my favourite parts of the night was when my RRHB danced with me to The Clash and my brother said we looked like Uma Thurman and John Travolta, and he wasn't even being sarcastic.

And still we wait. If we're lucky, we'll get on the 4:30 PM ferry. If not, the 6:30 PM.

Oh, the joys of travelling.

Thursday, October 09, 2008


I had perhaps a little TOO much to drink tonight. There's a reason why I never do that, I think, but I can't really remember.

But, on the whole, I feel better. I can't see to type my name, but drunk blogging is way better than drunk anything else, right? I feel a little bit more like myself. Maybe just a touch.

I also feel like things are going to be okay. Everything might be shit right now but it won't always be that way. People love me. I love people. The rest is inconsequential.

My RRHB is in Fredericton tonight. Fingers crossed he has a rocking show.

OH, and the peeps at the table next to us were speaking Czech. That's cool. And (this is for Tina) when I said kif-kif to the cab driver he told me I must know someone Arabic. And then he called me sister. A lot. A proper ending to a very fitting evening.

Now, I must watch the rest of The Office.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

You Don't Know How It Feels

I'm listening to a playlist on iTunes that I just call "Favourite Songs" as I pack for my cousin's wedding in Vancouver. Right now, it's Tom Petty's "You Don't Know How It Feels," the next song is Neko Case's "In California," and at least I'm not listening to The Raconteurs again.

My dress that I ordered online hasn't shown up yet and I'm afraid it won't get here before I have to leave on Friday. And I'm not sleeping again. The week I had the drugs was good but I'm always so stoned in the mornings, which makes it even harder to get through the already hard days that I decided I'd stop taking them until I really needed them again.

I wish I knew when I'd feel better. I wish I knew where the end of it all would be. I guess that's how it goes, right? I do feel more myself. But my heart's not in a lot of things. I turned in a manuscript that wasn't great -- no that needs a lot of work -- and I haven't looked at the novel in weeks.

September just disappeared. Whoosh and then it's fall and colder and I have no fresh vegetables and nothing growing and my stomach won't settle and I miss so many different pieces of my life that I don't even know where to start putting them all back together again.

I think I'll start tagging these posts "gloomy gus" and maybe I'll start trying to find things a little more inspiring to talk about. Wait, I've got one -- there will be dancing at the wedding. I love dancing.

#58 - Ritual

Oh, Mo Hayder, I should not read your books when I am at home alone with only two cats for protection. But once I picked up Ritual, I could not put it down and if that's not the sign of a great, plot-driven book, I don't know what is.

When a hand washes up unannounced and with no body attached, Sgt. Flea Marley, a member of the police dive unit in Bath, and her CID (I think?) Caffrey unravel a complex and shocking case founded in the immigrant experience in England. Their investigation uncovers an underground market for muti that soon becomes focus of their policework. Muti, African rituals brought from the continent to England that broker in human body parts and fear (among the believers), forms the basis for Hayder to bring race, class and colonialism into her work, and the book is all the better for it.

Yesterday I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with Ms. Hayder for an interview that'll appear on The Savvy Reader later this week. A self-described autodidact, Hayder researches carefully but not without really great instincts, and in Ritual she's written a daring and addictive thriller that has echoes of Henning Mankell. When I walked into the room, I said, "Your book scared the pants off of me!" She laughed and replied, "Good!" And it's true, there's an element of fear that pervades the entire novel: people (even the police) are being watched, stalked even, and no one seems untouched by tragedy. Both main characters are broken in some way from major life events that alter their perspectives; Flea's parents are dead and Caffery lost a brother at a very young age. Yet, as 'outsiders' in a way (they're also lonely and have little true human contact with other people), the tragedies are exactly what make Flea and Caffery good at their jobs.

Subtitled "A Walking Man novel," Ritual introduces a character who will appear in upcoming books. He's a man who lives outside, cooks his own food, follows his own path, and is kind of a sooth-sayer for Caffery. Yet, the Walking Man also has a past. He committed one of the most heinous crimes the district has ever seen and now that he's paid his debt to society, he's determined to stay at its edges. Captivating, creepy, smart and ridiculously readable, I loved Ritual. Although I have to say that the fellow standing next to me on the subway yesterday must have thought I was reading something utterly disturbing. Every time I'd look up from my book he'd give me a sweet little smile trying to make me feel a bit better because I was honestly scared out of my wits and it must have shown on my face.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

#57 - American Wife

I stayed in bed far too late this morning finishing Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife. As it's no secret, the novel fictionalizes the life of an American First Lady, and is loosely based on the life of Laura Bush. Alice Lindgren grows up in a small town in Wisconsin, goes to high school, college, and then settles down for a quiet life as a librarian of a primary school. She meets Charlie Blackwell, a happy-go-lucky sort of fellow at a party, and he pursues her somewhat recklessly. As boisterous as she is quiet, Charlie and Alice make an unlikely couple, but they fall into a traditional kind of love, marry, and have a daughter, Ella. Coming from a political family, Charlie (as one can guess) becomes president and Alice's life takes a turn she never asked for nor expected.

Yet, the politics are not even the point of Curtis Sittenfeld's utterly captivating novel. At it's heart, I think American Wife is the story of a life. The novel creates a rich, deeply felt, deeply thought examination of the human experience as it grows from childhood into adulthood as told from the point of view of one remarkable woman. Throughout the novel, the irony of her position is never lost on Alice, and it's as if Sittenfeld imagines a woman holding her tongue for decades just waiting for the right moment to let everything out. Alice has always been a reader; it's the quality that most defines her, as does her dignity, her intelligence and her (sometimes) naiveté. The book is epic in its scope of Alice's story; it leaves no part unexplored, and the subject is at once freeing as it is limiting.

When Alice is a teenager, experiencing if not the first blush of true love than something definitely close to it, a tragedy happens that takes hold and defines her life, as many unexpected events tend to do. The events around the tragedy snowball and dig further into her psyche. She makes mistakes. And then she makes more mistakes. But they are the events that lead her to Charlie in the first place and it's a happy life, overall. That's not to say that there isn't a questioning that runs through the course of the events. Alice questions everything: her good fortune, her own politics (she's a Democrat; Charlie's a Republican), her marriage, and her own values. That's not to say that she ever stops loving her husband. There's simply a recognition that after decades of marriage the nature of a relationship changes, evolves, and then sometimes reverts to its previous incarnations.

I can't pretend to dislike anything about the book. The structure works (each major section follows Alice's addresses, from her childhood home to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue) and the character is so fully realized that it's almost refreshing to read. If I had to make one comment (because no reviewer can fail to make one critical note), it's that the dialogue at times felt stilted and forced, but when you're attacking an idea that's so honest and, well, original, one can fault the author for falling down ever-so-slightly when it comes to the banality of everyday conversations. Regardless, the book is its strongest at the beginning and at the end, and there's a particularly poignant section about the impact of fame upon someone who has never once in their life craved to be famous.

American Wife is a fascinating book, one that cements Sittenfeld's already firm place as one of the most refreshing talents working today. I had the pleasure of having lunch with her a few years ago while I was working at Random House, and it doesn't mean that I know her nor even pretend to do so, but the one piece of writing advice she gave that day has stuck with me for the last three years: "If one sentence can be that good, all of the sentences can be that good." Sittenfeld admits that it's not even her advice to give, that it came from a professor she had while she was in Iowa, but in the end it doesn't matter because it's glaringly apparent that she's mastered many, many sentences, and I'm more than willing to read every single one.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Today A Top 10 List

Wow, it's been a while since I ragdoll-rambled a top 10 list and, while I'm not feeling 100% myself these days, maybe it's just what I need:

1. Friday Night Lights only available in the US UNTIL FEBRUARY. If this isn't a call for, ahem, a little ill-eagle downloading I don't know what is, I just hope they don't arrest me before catching (SPOILER) a little Lyla / Riggins romp.

2. Other things I've noticed about television: the Walkers fight way too much, everyone on SVU is a ham bone, and the woman from Fringe is seriously annoying (but PACEY. Sigh). And many of the new shows this year are lacking in direction, like True Blood (which I'm only watching now so I can see Brad "The Iceman" Colbert).

3. Doesn't the word GOOP just inspire to you to want to "do better" and "be better" or does it just say WTF is Gwyneth Paltrow on? And who extensively designs a web site all in flash and then doesn't proceed to upload ANY content. So it's a lifestyle-type magazine site with one paragraph repeated over and over again in every channel. Content is so king. Whatevs GP, oohhh, maybe it stands for Gwyneth on on Paltrow? Or Go Poop? Because all of that makes sense. Not. (props to Zesty for the link).

4. I hate the new EW redesign. If I wanted to subscribe to Us Weekly, I would have subscribed to US Weekly. I've given it a few months and I might not renew my subscription purely out of the fact that it'll make it that much easier to skip Diablo Cody's "column." Meow. I know.

5. Curtis Sittenfeld is one hell of a farking good writer. More on this tk once I finish American Wife, which is one of the best books I've read in a long, long time.

6. I am going to be a band widow for a month minus about 5 days. That's a long time.

7. The Fall makes me want to drink tea.

8. I've listened to The Raconteurs concert on NPR about sixteen thousand times. It's getting so that I know the live versions of the songs better than the recorded ones and get confused in my sing-a-longs. I know one thing for sure: there will be a lot of Racon-racket this month as I can play it as much as I want with my RRHB on the road with the band.

9. My latest abridged classic might honestly be the death of me. I'm 5k words over, two weeks passed the deadline (there were extenuating circumstances), and my fingers have never hurt so much in my entire life.

10. Today my RRHB had our new backdoor and transom installed. He also built a new garage roof. The house is definitely coming together. At least that's what Astrology Zone keeps telling me will happen this month. I need some good news from the stars. September just about cracked me in half like a nut at Christmas.

US Writers Too "Insular" For Nobel Prize

While skimming stuff for The Savvy Reader this morning, this article came up through Publisher's Lunch. I know the Nobel Prize pretty much defines big "L" literature, but don't you think that it's small minded to cut out a major driving force in big "C" culture for being too insular is kind of insular of them? I'm the first person to defend the need a broad reading base from all cultures and to be honoured with a Nobel Prize for Literature is pretty much the icing on the cake in terms of one's career. But I feel kind of bad for the wonderful writers being (for lack of a better word) discriminated against by the sheer fact of their geography and/or subject matter.

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 ...