Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year's Revolutions 2009

Last year I had 5 New Year's Revolutions (thus named because it's so easy to break a "resolution", natch) and a few of them I actually managed to integrate into my life.

Revisiting 2008 and 2007
I did finish an entire draft of my first novel, much to my surprise. I have lost weight, about 14 pounds so far, and know that it was the methotrexate contributing to my being unable to lose it. Now that I'm back on prednisone, I'll have to work even harder to try and keep it off. And while I'm not sure if I'm less judgmental, I have learned from my mistakes, am more positive, and my life is certainly is better for it. Again this year I failed to watch less TV, and I did cut down on my celebrity gossip (with a few slacker "internet coma" days where I relapsed), but the budgeting has gone haywire over the past few months. I am still saving, though.

New Years Revolutions for 2009

I think I'll do a top 10 list this year just for fun:

1. Try to Live with Less Clutter
I've spent the past few days gutting my house of clutter. Our ENTIRE giant recycling bin is full of stuff I have purged -- from old credit card statements to useless office accoutrements (why did I hang on to those strange mesh-like inboxes from Shift magazine when the office closed, oh, 10 YEARS AGO?). My bedroom closet is clean and organized. My drawers have all been vacuumed and neatly organized. I know where things are and plan to keep it that way. As my RRHB says, "the problem starts when you bring all that stuff INTO the house." I am a packrat with a sentimental streak; it's in my nature, but I simply can't live with all the junk anymore. Something has to give. There's a great article here on Style at Home that's already helped me in terms of decluttering.

2. Be Zen About Work
One of the greatest lessons I've had in my life came in the form of being let go from a job that I hated in the first place. I spent a lot of time being angry about it. I spent a lot of energy despising the woman who was once my boss. I spent a lot of time worrying about what I'd do differently. In the end, all it did was make me sick, all the stress from that situation kicked off fighting the disease for another five years, and I vowed I'd not make that mistake again. But here we are, all these years later and the week that my job imploded happily corresponded with the death of my mother and my father-in-law's heart attack. It was one of the hardest weeks of my life.

I've decided that my job might not be perfect, it might not be everything I'd hoped it would be, but I'm going to give it a chance and not make all the same mistakes I did when I worked for the television empire. So far, it's working: I'm calmer, I don't react with my temper, I do my best, I do what's asked of me, and I've started asking for things in return. By "zen" I don't mean to debase anyone's religion, it's more the approach I want to take about work: I can't change the fact that I have to work, I can only change my response to it. Taking more deep breaths, not getting worked up, thinking before I act and then acting responsibly -- all in order to achieve a sense of balance, that's my goal.

3. Watch Less TV
TV is the ultimate time waster, as much as I do adore it. I've only watched a little bit in the evenings this past week and have accomplished so much. I'm going to try and watch less TV on the weekends and try to limit weeknights to just a couple of hours.

4. Bring My Lunch
This one's simple: we're sitting on the edge of broke right now. We need to save more, spend less and one easy way of doing this is bringing my lunch more than once a month. I also want to eat more wholesome food, more soups, less bagels, more vegetables, less candy, and this is one way of eating better. That doesn't mean I won't go out once or twice a week, it just means I'll stop running to the food court when I feel desperate.

5. Buy Less, Use What I Have, Create More
As above, we're trying to finish the house so every penny is allocated and I need to break the bad online shopping habit. I know I won't be able to NOT shop at all, but I can cut down on the amount I spend, buy things on sale, wait until I have more than just one item to purchase so that there are more bits and pieces in each packages (better for the environment). I'm also going to try to use things I already have: wear all the clothes in my closet; buy and then eat the groceries we have in the fridge and in the cupboard; fix things before throwing them out, etc. I also want to knit more -- but that's a separate entry. I'm also thinking of pulling out my sewing machine, getting it tuned up, and taking a course or two in dressmaking. I love skirts and wish that I could make some of my own. Maybe this is the year to try. I'm also including gardening in this revolution: it'll be bigger, better and yummier this year, I'm already feeling positive -- the photo for this entry is one of my bean plants from last year, and it just reminds me how much I enjoy eating, cooking, and growing my own vegetables (even if I hate gardening).

6. Stop The Internet Coma
I remember the heady days of my first internet usage where I surfed for literary magazines and sent off all kinds of submissions. I remember doing research for grad school and discovering great information. Fast forward 10 years and I can spend entire days reading celebrity gossip, hounding the IMDB for who knows what and chasing down obscure pop culture references. I'm not saying any of this is a bad thing; it's who I am, a pop culture junkie, but when it takes over AN ENTIRE DAY of my life, it's more of a symptom of boredom than anything else. It's time that could be put to better use.

7. Get More Regular Exercise
I know, this is on everyone's list. Over the past few years I've managed yoga, dance classes, biking, walking, swimming -- but all sporadically. There's a community centre around the corner from our house. My to-do list for this week includes stopping by and finding out the swim times, the gym times and membership-type stuff. My RRHB also had a wonderful suggestion to combat my winter blues: "get outside for winter activities." He says that if we just did more winter-type stuff, ice skating, skiing, walking, we'd find it less depressing. He's right.

8. No Fear
So much of my anxiety comes from being afraid of things, of what might happen, of the disease, of getting fired, of people thinking poorly of me, of my own self-imposed criticism -- and it all contributes to a knot that sits in the middle of my chest on an almost daily basis. I don't know what makes me so afraid and I don't know how to change this part of my personality. But I do know that it's a great part of where my stress comes from and I'm going to need to figure a way through it. I don't want to live in fear anymore. I'm too young and too old to be dealing with such a basic nothing in terms of what really matters.

9. Finish What I Start
Another self-explanatory item, but it's so true, I have half-done knitting projects, unfinished manuscripts, outstanding to do lists, and it's never ending. 2009 is The Year of Finishing Dangerously. I need to complete projects before moving on to the next one.

10. Read Even More
Books are glorious things. There are so many I want to read so again I'm setting the goal at 100 books that I can blog. I think I probably hit about 90 this year with Harlequin and books I read for work and didn't blog. I guess we'll see if I hit the goal this year!

So that's about it -- 2009 New Year's Revolutions. Any suggestions for how I can get there?

#76 - Enduring Love

I remember reading an interview with Ann Patchett this past year (and please don't ask me to find the reference; I have no idea where I found it) where she said something about each of her novels being somewhat the same in terms of their plot and premise. In a sense, she said, she keeps writing the same books over and over again. When it comes to writers as skilled as Patchett, exploring the same themes, working through similar plots, doesn't detract from the quality of her prose, and I feel like this is the same with Ian McEwan.

So many of his novels begin with an event that forever impacts the lives of his characters, and you can see that pattern in Saturday, On Chesil Beach, and Atonement. The set-up for Enduring Love would fit as well: Joe Rose steps out of his everyday life to jump into action (a balloon accident; a boy hovering towards death; a helpless tragedy) and this act of altruism ends up changing the course of his life forever. It was a happy moment, a reunion, Joe's lover, Clarissa, had just returned from a trip to the US and the two were in the park for a picnic. They were about to pop the cork on the champagne when the pair noticed the trouble with the giant helium balloon. The novel starts: "The beginning is simple to mark." And it's true: a hulking, and at times literal, metaphor dropped into the beginning, middle and end of the novel in the form of this balloon, meant to symbolize the tenuous state of life's expectations: they're blown off course, trumped by tragedy and then chased by a slightly insane man.

As the balloon teeters away, Joe loses hold of it, and runs to help the one man left hanging on (who soon falls to his death), but before he gets there, he's faced with the odd character Jed Parry. Joe's life, up until this point, was happy with the usual adult disappointments (his career isn't what he expected). But the moment Jed becomes fixated upon him, the constructs that kept Joe tethered to his reality, his relationship with Clarissa, his work, his own grasp on his particular existence, fall apart. The further obsessed Jed becomes with Joe, the more Joe copes in ways that feel unnatural to his personality.

One of the blurbs on the cover of my edition says, "Utterly thrilling... as riveting at the finish as it is at the start," The Globe and Mail, and I'd have to agree. I read the novel in about three hours and simply couldn't put it down. I loved Joe's work as a science writer, found Clarissa's work with Keats reminiscent of one of my favourite good/bad movies of all time, Possession, and didn't once feel at all like the action was either forced and/or contrived. McEwan, one of the English language's most skilled novelists, has a way with these dramatic situations, he can use an almost clinical eye to pull them apart from every direction, exploring the impact upon his characters like a coroner would do a cadaver. Enduring Love wholly deserves its place on the 1001 Books list. I'm not sure every single one of McEwan's novels should be there (I do question Amsterdam but only because I think it's an utterly forgettable book) but I'm glad this one is, if only because it gave me the chance to read it.

READING CHALLENGES: Another of my "lost" 1001 Books from the master list for 2009. We're still 12 hours away from the new year and I'm already two books into my 66 book challenge. The odds are looking good for me to make quite a dent in it over the year! Fingers crossed, indeed.

WHAT'S UP NEXT: I'm about to clean out the last upstairs closet (finished the one in the bedroom yesterday) where boxes and boxes of books are hidden. I want to go through these ones too for 1001 Books that I know I have an haven't finished (Moby-Dick, I'm looking at you) so that I can put them all on the right shelf and update the online list. God, I am LOVING this week off.

#75 - In The Heart Of The Country

There are a few authors I turn to, in a sense, innately. Writers that I know so intently that I might mistake them for old family friends. People I've known all my life. Uncles that sit to my right at the holiday table and make intellectual conversation. J.M. Coetzee remains one such author, as does Peter Carey and Jack Kerouac (albeit the latter two are never related to me in my mind, for, ahem, complex and quite strange reasons of an overactive, um, "romantic," imagination).

Annnywaaay, as I feel I'll be alive for many, many years (wishful thinking and anti-disease positivity), I tend to stagger books by my favourite authors so I'll don't run out, so that I've always got something to read during weeks like this one, rare time that's not jam-packed with everyday life, days I like to spend with people who put words together in the best possible ways.

I finished In the Heart of the Country a couple of days ago. It's an older novel, first published in 1977, about a lonely spinster named Magda who lives in the heart of the South African veld on a farm with her aging father and a black sheep-herding servant named Hendrik. When Hendrik brings home a beautiful young woman to be his bride, the divisions of race and class rear up and bring to a head the psychological and even psychotic nature of poor Magda. The novel is written from her point of view. The short, diary-style entries waver back and forth between truth and fiction. Magda makes up as much of her life as exists in reality, driven to this madness by desire, by the lack of intensely human experience, and a strange, stilted relationship with a father from whom she desires inappropriate emotions.

When her father takes up with Hendrik's wife, Magda's life goes off the rails. A desperate and violent act pushes her further into insanity but it's never clear what actually happened and what Magda makes up. The fanciful way of creating a life on paper that she could never lead in life. As with all of Coetzee's novels, the writing is sparse, the violence unexpected and bloody, and the conflict coloured by the unique and systematic effects of colonialism. Of all the Coetzee books I've read in the last little while, I have to admit that this is the one that I enjoyed the most. In tone and texture, it's a lot like Waiting for the Barbarians and a lot less like Elizabeth Costello, thankfully, as I still remember how frustrated I was when reading that book.

There were so many narrative aspects to the novel that intrigued me -- how Coetzee has a talent for ensuring that the landscape matches and even mimics the vast, lonely nature of Magda's own mind. But at the same time, nature mocks her -- coupling all around makes the cold, dry experience of her her lack of sexuality utterly apparent. And when race and class fall apart, when the world turns itself on its head, she clings to her gender, to her reedy sexuality as a way of at least trying to stay a conscious member of the world, even if her society soon becomes a population of just one. For such a short book (my copy runs 149 pages), In the Heart of the Country demands attention and reflection. I'm glad I waited a couple of days to blog about it so I could set my thoughts somewhat straight. Magda's the ultimate unreliable narrator and I have to say sometimes that I really enjoy novels with such protagonists.

READING CHALLENGES: This was one of the 1001 Books titles that was lost on my bookshelves and I didn't even realize it was there. So it's on my master list for 2009, and I guess this puts me a little ahead of my reading for next year. I can already cross off two of the titles from that massive list of 66 (review of Enduring Love coming up next!).

After finishing up the abysmal The Almost Moon a few days ago about a slightly crazy woman who commits matricide, it's funny that one of the next books I should pick up is about a seemingly nutty woman who commits unspeakable acts of violence against her father.

WHAT'S UP NEXT: More book lists and more closets to be cleaned out before I'll really make this decision.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Another Day, Another Pile Of Junk

I'm back at it today, culling, organizing, tidying up, all kinds of busy activities to rid my life of clutter. It's an ongoing battle. I feel kind of like Henry V at Agincourt but without the poetry of Shakespeare.

Have you voted for your "Obama's playlist" song yet? I just sent in a note about my RRHB's song "The City." Are we taking bets to see how many terribly lame and utterly overused Canadian music will actually end up on the list? To be truthful, the music should be more than simply by a Canadian artist but truly reflect who we are as a country. Not an easy task, I'm sure.

I finally got around to reading the weekend paper this morning only to discover (where have I been?) that Harold Pinter passed away. J. Kelly Nestruck's tribute was lovely but I was inspired by Pinter's Nobel Prize acceptance speech:
It's a strange moment, the moment of creating characters who up to that moment have had no existence. What follows is fitful, uncertain, even hallucinatory, although sometimes it can be an unstoppable avalanche. The author's position is an odd one. In a sense he is not welcomed by the characters. The characters resist him, they are not easy to live with, they are impossible to define. You certainly can't dictate to them. To a certain extent you play a never-ending game with them, cat and mouse, blind man's buff, hide and seek. But finally you find that you have people of flesh and blood on your hands, people with will and an individual sensibility of their own, made out of component parts you are unable to change, manipulate or distort.

So language in art remains a highly ambiguous transaction, a quicksand, a trampoline, a frozen pool which might give way under you, the author, at any time.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Reading Master List For 2009

I've spent the better part of today, my 3rd anniversary, puttering around the house trying to organize the massive amounts of books we have scattered from pillar to post. I wanted to accomplish a couple of things: 1) be able to find the book I have in my mind to read next, 2) organize some reading challenges for 2009, and 3) make sure that I've got my books in chronological alphabetical order outside of the ones set aside for challenge purposes.


It's never an easy task culling and organizing books but I've become overrun with titles after four years of working in publishing at two different houses. I'm being ruthless. Will I read that book again? If the answer's no, it's going. Why did I bring that home again? Who knows? Toss it across the room. So I'm still knee-deep in piles and piles of books, but here's what I'm thinking for 2009:

1. Around the World in 52 Books
I managed to read just 13 books in this challenge last year, so not close to one a week but close to one a month. I've got 20 titles on the list for 2009.

2. 1001 Books Challenge
Over the past year, I managed 14 books from my master 1001 Books list for 2008. Today I spent a good part of the day going through ALL of our books and finding every title that we have in the house that's on the list. We have, um, 66 -- so it's doubtful I'll manage EVERY one, but I've got them all listed according to the reference book's order. Knowing they're all there and on the shelf or on my Sony Reader will absolutely keep me from buying any more. Goodness.

3. Cleaning Out My Closet
Working in publishing, loving books, knowing other book lovers, all of this means that I've got piles upon piles of books in my house that never seem to get read. I've narrowed down the top 20 that I'd like to at least try to crack the spines of over the next year, so here's my "off the shelf challenge."

4. A Shakespeare Challenge for 2009
I came across this today (thanks Melanie!) and I've been staring at Shakespeare by Bill Bryson for months. The rules are simple: "You can read anything about or related to Shakespeare -- fiction or non fiction, straight bio or authorship debate -- and you can read the plays and sonnets as well." The challenge is to read 6 of the above; and so far I've got one on my list.

5. The 2nd Canadian Book Challenge
I'm still working my way through the challenge I set out for myself this year: "For the ladies." I've collected a number of books in one place that are all by Canadian women authors. I've got 6 more books to read by July 1st, 2009.

6. The Better You Read -- The Better You Get
Going through the books I've come across a definite theme: I collect all kinds of "green" themed and "self-help" type titles and then NEVER EVER read them.

Now I've read 74 books this year, plus a number of titles that I haven't mentioned (at least 20 Harlequin romances for copy work) and some books that I've read for work that aren't even close to being published yet so I don't want to blog about them. Next year my goal is to finally get to 100, even though I haven't once (in the past few years of blogging) even come close, it's time I stepped up! I suppose that means one of my New Year's Revolutions will have to be watch less television. But I was headed there anyway. Lately, I've been bored to tears by the tube. Haven't you? Of course, I've got to leave room for the 100+ books that'll probably come in through work, through good reviews, through prize winning, through blog reviewing, through friendly recommendations...but it's a start.

TRH Excursion - The New AGO

Yesterday morning I went with my aunt and nephew to the new AGO. The cost of admission is quite steep at $18.00 for an adult, and considering you could become a member for under $100.00, I'm guessing they're keeping the costs high to encourage people to spend in that way. The new Gehry building is breathtaking from the outside, the oblong exterior, the brushed concrete, it's open and inviting as well as stoic. But the interior honestly took my breath away. The new second floor, with the blond wood and natural light just adds warmth to the collection. I remember going to the AGO back in grade school -- it was dark, gloomy and crowded. Not a single of these adjectives apply anymore. The new building is simply spectacular.

We went with a toddler, who was very good at sitting in his stroller and looking (not touching, I was told many times, "not touching Auntie Deanna, not touching!" He was particularly impressed with the ship's models in the lower floor, as well as the kids' space, where we spent some time too. We didn't see enough of the collection, but enough to make me honestly consider becoming a member so I could stop by after work sometimes and simply wander around. Another part of that "becoming a tourist in my own city" new year's resolution from way back.

#74 - The Boys in the Trees

After finishing Mary Swan's Giller-nominated novel, The Boys in the Trees, this morning I started again from the beginning, flipping through passages and re-reading the first few chapters because I was not the least bit ready for the book to be finished. The structure of the novel is unique, the bits and pieces of the lives of the main characters, William Heath and his family, are sewn together slowly by alternating points of view in and outside of the family.

The novel starts off with a young William running from an awful home life and hiding up in the trees. A view that allows both the boy his imagination and us foreshadowing for only trepidation should set in when characters boldly state, "...that one day people would know his name." The narrative shifts forward in time to William with his family in London, to illness, to their emigration to Canada, to hard times, and then the book takes their perspective away and starts handing it to other people.

To Sarah and Alice, spinster-sisters, the latter a temperance worker who stumps for her cause and the former, a school-teacher who has Heath's two remaining children in his classroom. From here we move to Dr. Robinson's point of view, through his ex-servant Abby, to Eaton, the doctor's son, much older now and well removed from the tragedy. The action that forms the impetus for the heinous act that no one truly understands: why William commits the crime that he does, and the ramifications of his actions.

It's a swift, sure-footed novel that talks around the main action, spares the reader the gory bits, but discusses the implications regardless. Set just before the turn of the century, it's also a picture of immigrant life, of the harsh nature of what it meant to leave everything behind and still find your life no better. I think the part of the novel that captured my attention, the two characters I would have liked to have spent a bit more time with, were the two sisters, and I'd happily read an entire book about the pair.

Swan's writing style reminded me a little of Richard Wright's Clara Callan, not that it's epistolery, but rather the idea of indirect story telling and how effective it can be when done with a delicate grace. On a personal note, the book also gives me hope for my own novel, in the sense that I've been hearing plenty of industry talk that there's too much fiction coming out of Canada with the same themes of "death, immigrant experience and back to the land." Even if we, as a collective writerly conscious, move in similar ways, it's still possible, as Mary Swan has shown, to create something hauntingly original.

READING CHALLENGES: I'm counting The Boys in the Trees towards my 2008 Canadian Book Challenge. I'm seven books in with six more to go by July 1st. I am confident that I'll make it.

WHAT'S UP NEXT: The tally for the 2008 Race to the Finish Line Reading Stack so far: "Here's my stack: "A Christmas Carol, The Other Queen, The Given Day, The Plot Against America, Lush Life, Through Black Spruce, The Origin of Species, The Boys in the Trees, The Double, The Almost Moon and Middlemarch." I'm not sure where I'll go next, but it'll be something from the above list."

READING COMPS: Clara Callan, Afterimage, Effigy. This is also a novel I would recommend to my friend Sam.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

#73 - The Almost Moon

I finished up The Almost Moon, Alice Sebold's second novel, this morning. Having read most of this book in a fluish fever, I'm not really sure what to write. Overall? I'd say that the story remains utterly unconvincing from start to finish because I didn't sympathize in any way with main character, Helen Knightly. The novel starts off with a very strong first sentence: "When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily." But the trouble with a book based around matricide is that despite how Joan Crawford-awful the mother might have been it's still a book about killing your mother.

Helen's aged and decrepit mother, Clair (aged 88), has suffered from agoraphobia her entire adult life. All of the usual issues with growing older, and especially the idea of having to leave your house and live in a home, are intensified when the occupant is already suffering from non-age-related mental illness. It's dementia on top of an already embittered and angst-ridden mind. So, we're supposed to understand that after years of suffering through her mother's issues, Helen has simply had enough on this particular day, and without even thinking she kills her mother.

What follows is a strange hodgepodge of events: Helen calls her ex for help, she lands on the doorstep of her best friend to be greeted by her 30-year-old son, her ex shows up, she acts strangely, goes to work the next morning, and then there's even more odd behaviour. Tangled throughout the present like a vine are various bits of backstory, about Helen's marriage, her two kids, and of course, her relationship to her parents. In the end, the novel tries to represent the 24 hours after the act in real time, depicting the fragile state of Helen's own mind, bringing to the surface the reasons why she did what she did. Only, I didn't really believe it -- the whole thing seemed suspended in a haze somehow.

One of the best conversations about writing I've ever had was about protagonists. Whether or not a novel can be successful if the reader doesn't have an emotional reaction to the main character. In The Almost Moon, all of the haunting goodness that I remembered from The Lovely Bones was missing, and while it's a worthwhile attempt to push the boundaries in terms of mental illness in popular fiction, overall I found the character of Helen simply disappointing. I didn't care if she got caught. In fact, I kind of hoped that she did, and the ambiguous ending kind of left me thinking that I'm glad I only paid $2.99 for the book. So I'd have to say, "meh."

WHAT'S UP NEXT: From a previous post: "Here's my stack: "A Christmas Carol, The Other Queen, The Given Day, The Plot Against America, Lush Life, Through Black Spruce, The Origin of Species, The Boys in the Trees, The Double, The Almost Moon and Middlemarch." I'm not sure where I'll go next, but it'll be something from the above list."

#72 - When Will There Be Good News

Having spent the last few days in the whirlwind of the holidays with the added spice of my father's wedding on Xmas eve, of course I conked out with a touch of the flu yesterday. Spent the day in bed with Vicks on my chest and the added pressure of a hot water bottle keeping everything all warm and probably infected. Love the holiday flu. Spirits refused to be dampened as we trundled over to my cousin's for our third, and final, Christmas. It was delightful. The nephew continues to be the funniest little fellow ever. Remember what it was like to just scream for joy at the top of your lungs?

Annnnywaaay, the not-sleeping from the prednisone is working in my favour because I'm getting a lot of reading done. Kate Atkinson's When Will There Be Good News, the third novel to feature Jackson Brodie, kept me company well into Christmas eve when everyone should have been sleeping while awaiting a visit from ye old guy in the red suit. Another brilliantly paced, densely plotted, utterly readable novel from one of the most refreshing writers working in genre fiction today.

Kate Atkinson has a gift with voice. She manages to keep three distinct and different characters alive within the narrative without falling down once in terms of their particular stories. Jackson Brodie's still bent, still broken, and still having trouble with women in this novel, but there's an added tragedy that lands him in Edinburgh. This catastrophic event also causes him to land back into the life of DI Louise Munroe and she encounters him in the oddest of places, stuck in the oddest of situations. Tying them both together is Reggie, a sixteen-year-old girl who hasn't had the easiest of lives, but she's plucky, resourceful and kind of reminds me a little of Thebes.

As the story barrels along, their personal lives gets mixed up in the mystery, Reggie's employer, a doctor who suffered an unspeakable tragedy when she was a young girl, goes missing. Reggie needs to convince DI Munroe that she's actually been kidnapped and Jackson finds himself right smack in the middle after the young girl tears herself into his life. The central mystery in the novel is coupled with a disaster of epic proportions -- a train crash -- that muddles up identities, destroys lives and propels the action in ways that one wouldn't expect. The way its described in the novel conjures up Unbreakable in so much as you can hear the metal as much as the terror in your mind as you read along.

Never trite or contrived, Atkinson's endings are thought out in ways that ensure they're as pragmatic as her prose. The characters don't employ any kind of revolutionary change. They get on with life as life gets on with them and it's Atkinson's refreshingly unadorned style of writing that ensures the success of this novel.

READING CHALLENGES: For a moment I had thought that Atkinson was Scottish, which meant I could have added a country to the Around the World in 52 Books challenge. But as she's British and I've already got England covered, that pipe dream gets washed away with the tide (how about a mixed metaphor for a lazy post-holiday Saturday?).

WHAT'S UP NEXT: From a previous post: "Here's my stack: "A Christmas Carol, The Other Queen, The Given Day, The Plot Against America, Lush Life, Through Black Spruce, The Origin of Species, The Boys in the Trees, The Double, The Almost Moon and Middlemarch." I'm not sure where I'll go next, but it'll be something from the above list."

STRANGE ASIDES: My RRHB and I watched an old Albert Finney film the other day, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, which is mentioned in the book. Had we not seen it at the exact moment when we did (moments before crawling into bed with the book), I would have missed the reference completely. Thank you universe.

Monday, December 22, 2008

#71 - Middlemarch

What more can I possibly add to decades upon decades of criticism about George Eliot's masterwork, Middlemarch, one of the best novels ever written? Nothing original, I'd have to say. All I think I can do is comment upon why I enjoyed the novel so very much. Set against the "provincial community" of Middlemarch, England, a group of intertwining stories create a pastoral-like landscape peopled by the (somewhat) upper classes. This isn't the territory of The Duchess per se, but more an extension of Austen's kind, good, solid people from good, solid backgrounds trying to better their lives.

Eliot's broad strokes and epic storylines hold all the characters in check. There's Dorothea, a beautiful girl with a mind of her own who marries poorly and is then trapped into a terrible codicil by her ridiculous husband, Casaubon. Dorothea's somewhat silly sister Celia, their Uncle Brooke, a landowner, and his "pet project," Will Ladislaw, a young man of great curls and not much else, who is a cousin of Dorothea's husband. There's the doctor, Lydgate, his wife Rosamund (silly, silly girl), her brother Fred and his beloved, Mary (will she ever accept his hand in marriage; will he ever stop being foolish?). And then all the parents and rectors and other doctors and clergymen and their mothers and aunts and so on and so on. Goodness, their stories intertwine almost as much as their bloodlines, indeed. And it's amazing to me how the author kept it all straight. The ways in which the novel progresses, the scope of the story, and her consistent and unwavering narrative voice all combine for an utterly delightful (there's really no other way of putting it) reading experience.

But what I enjoyed most about the book is Eliot's heightened, almost philosophical prose. Her pages of snappish, witty dialogue, the lovely way she has of creating a character by broad, sweeping strokes and then allows the reader to get to know them even better as the 800+ pages trundle on like a good walk through the countryside. Happiness finds some people, but not all of the characters. Distressing, even traumatic events happen, but it all works out in a way as it ultimately should, with grand love stories and well-intentioned elders making way for the next generation to carry on. Leave many hours in front of you if you want to tackle this book -- it's perfect for long days with nothing to do except read so your imagination can picture the dresses, the landscape, Ladislaw's curls, the horses, Raffles, and everything else in Eliot's world. It's a book for the dreamers among us, that's for sure.

READING CHALLENGES: Another one for the 1001 Books challenge, of which I am going to come in woefully incomplete before year's end...

NOTES ON MY EDITION: The physical edition I read was the Penguin classic, but I also read a great deal on my Sony Reader with files from Project Gutenberg.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Nattering Nothings

All the freelance is done for now. My latest Classic Start doesn't need any further revisions (oh yeah baby!). I haven't heard back from Penguin about the sample chapter I wrote for them so I'm guessing I didn't get that job (which is totally okay). Got some good feedback from Harlequin about my latest blurbs. Things are slowing down at work-work. We babysat our nephew yesterday which was a ball (there's a fun picture on Facebook). My RRHB's over his cold (almost). I'm feeling puffy, tired and crabby about the meds (and the multiple doctors visits and now-starting neverending pokes and prods re: tests). I love the week between Christmas and New Year (our anniversary; lots of reading time; plenty of afternoon movies). The world is about to be dumped in piles of snow (white Christmas, yay!). Spent most of the day catching up on book blogs for work (have been so busy haven't read any in ages). Am working through a 3 AM to do list and already resenting the prednisone for mucking up my sleeping. Is it 5 PM yet? Am mulling over Reading Challenges and how to organize my sh*t for next year. Wish that I finished another draft of my own novel this year but have decided my two new years revolutions will be: "Don't live in fear" and "Finish what you start." Two of my bestest friends will be in Ontario over the holidays (one from Paris; the other Vancouver) and I'll get to see them both. What's new with you?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Starting To See The Light

There's only so many ways of saying that life is so ridiculously busy that it's impossible even to keep up with the things that I like to do, this blog for example. This week I've got two more freelance assignments to get to after one that I handed in earlier in the week (holler to Scarbie for the work!), my RRHB's web redesign (which is going really well), a full-time job, Christmas shopping (thankfully almost done), knitting (come on, it's relaxing!) and babysitting. And surprisingly, this is a quiet week.

Annywaay, what I have been doing is trying like crazy to finish up some classics for the 1001 Books challenge by the end of the year. One book in particular, Middlemarch, so I can cross at least one massive classic off the list. In my ballistic state, I bought a copy of the Penguin classic only to discover a second-hand version on my shelf, and then I decided that it'd be easier to read the 900-odd page book on my Sony Reader because then I wouldn't have to cart the giant book around everywhere. Let me just say that it comes up at 1800+ pages when dumped in ebook format from Project Gutenberg so even though it's a quicker read, it's still a bit daunting.

But I'm loving it. I've totally decided that not all Victorians deserve to be abolished to the dusty bins at used bookstores and university course lists. The book is engaging, has great dialogue and effortlessly shows Eliot's irony (writing of women who have no opinions whilst being a woman who obviously had many opinions) in surprisingly refreshing ways. I'm already thinking of what my life would have been like had I married the first person I fell for when I was Dorothea's age. Of course, now that I've started watching the impeccable Brideshead Revisited with Jeremy Irons, I'm wondering if there's some sort of miniseries I can buy for Middlemarch too.


Obsessions are just so expensive.

Other classics I dumped on the Sony Reader: Dracula, Dead Souls, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Mansfield Park. Combined, it's well over 5,000 pages so I'm not sure I'll get through even one of them by the end of the year, but still, I love my Sony Reader.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Back on meds. I think it's the most depressing news I've had this month. After valiantly battling back to health, I saw the Super Fancy Disease Doctor today and even though my tests are looking okay, my symptoms are of concern. He doesn't know if the disease is flaring yet but to be careful, he's put me back on the dreaded prednisone. I hate prednisone.

I go back to see him in a month and then he'll decide if I need to go back on the methotrexate again. I really don't want to do any of it. I really don't want to cry either but that doesn't seem to matter either.

Monday, December 08, 2008

#70 - Through Black Spruce

My head has been pounding all day and my stomach just won't settle. I've been peeing in a jug -- the test that I hate the most when it comes to disease maintenance -- and this morning the blood tech took forever to draw out what she needed. All of these petty insufferables, the annoyance of the snow blowing around, the pain in my sinuses that just won't seem to go away, the same pain that woke me at 3 AM and held on tight until 6 when I managed to fall back asleep for an hour, were simply swept away when I finished Joseph Boyden's amazing Through Black Spruce.

Easily one of the best novels I've read this year, entirely deserving of its Giller crown, and utterly unstoppable in its narrative, the novel echoed around my heart like sweet poetry and made me fall hard for the words between its covers. Carrying forth with the descendants of Xavier and Elijah from his first beloved book, Three Day Road, the novel's protagonists, Will Bird, son of the former and his niece Annie, take turns spilling out their stories in interchanging chapters. The novels reads as though they're telling one another all of their secrets. Bits and pieces that need to be put together for either to move on with their lives. Annie, back from the south, back from searching for her lost sister, Suzanne, tends to her uncle who lies in a coma in a hospital in Moose Factory.

Back and forth from past to present, the pair unravel the reasons why and how they've ended up where they are -- Annie's found trouble of her own in Toronto, in NYC, in Montreal; Will's been out in the bush for reasons that I won't spoil. Their lives, far more intertwined and complex than simply saying they share the same blood, spill over into one another's over and over again as the story pushes forth, as reliable as the weather, as the seasons.

The ending, oh, the ending, moments ago, me, crying like a baby wrapped up in my bedcovers, wishing for my headache to go away but silently thanking it for giving me a whole day to experience this book. I'm gushing, I know, but phooey to those who say that Through Black Spruce isn't as good as Three Day Road. I remember reading the latter when I first started working in publishing, a tattered ARC broken almost entirely apart in the 24 hours it was in my possession, a ridiculously long transit ride sped by in what felt like minutes as the narrative simply swept me away. The same happened here. And while the first book, if I had to boil it down to just one theme (and how dare I, really), I'd say it was about change -- both on an epic as well as a more personal level. This novel, while continuing that general idea, is also about loss, both on a grand scale, in dealing with an entire culture, and on a personal one, in dealing with the acute pain that comes with the absence of loved ones.

One of the best books I've read this year, hands down. I just adored it, all of it, flaws and all.

READING CHALLENGES: I could count this novel towards my Canadian Reading Challenge but as Joseph Boyden's not a lady...I'm afraid it'll just have to be another in the list of books I've read this year.

WHAT'S UP NEXT: Here's my stack: "A Christmas Carol, The Other Queen, The Given Day, The Plot Against America, Lush Life, Through Black Spruce, The Origin of Species, The Boys in the Trees, The Double, The Almost Moon and Middlemarch." I'm not sure where I'll go next, but it'll be something from the above list.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

#69 - A Christmas Carol

Let me first put it out there that I am not necessarily what you would call a fan of Dickens. In fact, all of the Victorians have been giving me trouble ever since second year university. And then I made the colossal mistake of trying them again in grad school. I still haven't recovered. They are impossible to avoid, these Victorians. Their influence is everywhere. There are a pile of them on the 1001 Books list. They are classics. What can you do except keep trying? Right?

So, "A Christmas Carol." I know it's not technically a full book but it's on the 1001 Books list and I'm trying to at least part-way finish that challenge before the end of the year. The story is so well known, so ingrained in our society, that it's impossible not to have seen at least one version of it in your lifetime (at least that's what I think). Of my favourites, I remember watching a very old movie (made in the 50s, I think?) when I was a teenager and adoring it. It's hard to read the original when it's been interpreted so many different ways over the years. No matter that you haven't actually read the story before, you know it so well that when each of the Ghosts show up, I wasn't really surprised. Except, it's also interesting to note the differences between the original, classic story and how it's been interpreted over the years.

The parts that I enjoyed the most were obviously the bits and pieces attributed to the time -- the colloquial sayings, the references that firmly represent the day and age that Dickens was writing from. In particular, I thought it interesting how Scrooge kept referring to the prevalent fears of overpopulation. All in all, it's a delightful, entertaining, lovely story. And not bad at all to be at 158 classics read from the 1001 Books list. Now only 12 more to go until I reach my goals for this year. Ha! As if I'm even going to get there.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

TRH Movie - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

We had screening passes for this book through work and bundled ourselves up on a cold Sunday morning last weekend to make the 10 AM showing. Based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story of the same name (we're publishing a gorgeous, illustrated edition), the film stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. The movie opens on the eve of Hurricane Katrina where a daughter (Julia Ormond) sits beside her dying mother (Cate Blanchett) as the storm rages outside the hospital. This I would like to call the Titanic portion of the film -- the cliched way of telling a story by which an old, dying person brings out a long lost diary and begins to tell a fantastic tale. (Note this isn't always bad, let's use Big Fish as an example; I loved that movie). The film then moves back and forth from the life of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) to the hospital as Daisy (Blanchett) dies. Thus begins what we were calling the Forrest Gump portion of the film, complete with many a token sayings that I will not repeat.

Being born with a strange and rare disease that causes him to age backwards, Benjamin Button's mother, who dies in childbirth, makes his father promise to always look after him. Of course, it's a film, so he promptly takes off with his oddly misshapen barely born baby and dumps him on the steps of a home for the elderly in New Orleans. Picked up by the woman who runs the home, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) and raised as her own, Benjamin survives despite all of the odds. Here let's insert The Lord of the Rings-style special effects, as from a young child it's glaringly apparent that Benjamin is played by Brad Pitt, who portrays the character at many stages over the course of his life.

When Benjamin meets the young Daisy, his life changes and the two of them form an awkward, if not lovingly, friendship. He grows younger. She grows older. He leaves home to sail the seas. She leaves home to become a dancer. Things happen. They come back together. Other things happen. They meet again. More happens. Well, you get the picture. It's not that the movie isn't beautifully shot or wonderfully acted (it is; the performances are particularly good). It's not that the movie isn't about a half-hour too long (it is). It's not that the special effects aren't amazing (they are). It's just that the whole film felt like something I'd seen before, something that has been done before. A giant studio picture meant to get people to enjoy the spectacle (and sweet humour) of the amazing story. Like we both said when we left the theatre, it's not that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a bad film -- it's just not very original and I think that's what we were both hoping for, a touch of originality.

#67 - Choke

What a crazy week. I actually finished reading Chuck Palahniuk's Choke on Monday and haven't had a single spare moment to post about it book until now. The novel opens with a very young Victor Mancini on the run in a stolen school bus with his mother who suffers from mental instability. Every now and again she "saves" Victor from his foster homes, from his temporary shelters, and takes him on the run with her until the cops catch up to them.

Along the way "The Mommy" might be conducting a mail scam (not to benefit herself, of course) to encourage havoc (people receiving coupons for a free dinner in the mail -- hundreds of them to besiege one poor restaurant where she may have worked). Interspersed with the stories of his childhood, parts of Victor's story take place in the few weeks leading up to his mother's death. Now in a long-term care facility, Ida Mancini is wasting away, refusing to eat, and has no idea who Victor is when he comes to visit. So Victor pretends to be people from their past, and branches out to pretending to be many other people for the many other patients in the hospital.

In order to afford the stay, Victor works at a theme park (of sorts) that depicts early Colonial America. His best friend, Denny, works with him, and the two are both fighting their own sexual addictions. He also fakes choking at various restaurants around town, picking up cheques along the way from the various people who have "saved" his life. The closer his mother gets to death, and the more he's propositioned by the very strange and somewhat awkward Dr. Paige Marshall, the more Victor examines his own life, the more he falls into patterns of bad, almost destructive behaviour.

On more than one occasion, this book, which is included in the 1001 Books list, felt so much like Fight Club (thematically) that I wondered how close they were published to one another. The voices, the characters, even the predilection towards mining support groups, felt tired, but maybe because we've spent years with Palahniuk's characters being enmeshed in the the pop culture ether that I didn't find this novel particularly original. That's not to say that I didn't enjoy it overall, more that I just felt that in a way he was continuing with many of the same themes and same type of character that he wrote in his 1996 book.

The cover for my trade paperback is quite amazing though, the human anatomy stripped away from the skin, maybe metaphorical, even a little bit literal as Victor attended medical school before his life started to fall apart. And I didn't dislike the book, it's easy to read, flows well, has great characterization and the observations of Victor are quite poignant at times: "You don't see fish agonized by mood swings. Sponges never have a bad day." But I did feel it suffered maybe a little from the cult of Palahniuk, but that's just me -- I do have to admit that I'm not necessarily his target audience.

READING CHALLENGES: It's on the 1001 Books list, so it's one of my challenge books for the year. As you can probably tell, I'm reading like a maniac to try and at least finish the ones that I've picked for this year (or others I'll substitute).

WHAT'S UP NEXT: I finished a book for work (#68 Wings) that I can't blog about because it's months away from publication, and have a book stack for the rest of the year that contains: A Christmas Carol, The Other Queen, The Given Day, The Plot Against America, Lush Life, Through Black Spruce, The Origin of Species, The Boys in the Trees, The Double, The Almost Moon and Middlemarch. Fingers crossed, eh? And if I add all of the Harlequins to my reading tally for the year, I'd probably be up around 80 (but I'm going to keep those separate).

Monday, December 01, 2008

The Better You Read -- The Better You Get Challenge

I know I preach a lot about "green" and all that jazz. Collecting books that I never read certainly isn't the "greenest" way I could be living, especially if many of those books have socio- and/or environmental causes behind them. So here are the 10 titles I'll try to read this year:

1. What Should I Do With My Life by Po Bronson
2. Living Like Ed by Ed Begley Jr.
3. Gorgeously Green by Sophie Uliano
4. Stuffed and Starved by Raj Patel
5. Bottomfeeder by Taras Grescoe
6. The 100-Mile Diet by Alisa Smith & J.B. MacKinnon
7. The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein
8. Dark Age Ahead by Jane Jacobs
9. The Geography of Hope by Chris Turner
10. When the Body Says No by Gabor Mate

11. The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
12. Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
13. The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
14. The Value of Nothing by Raj Patel

The Off The Shelf Challenge - 2009

The third challenge for 2009 will be styled after Eminem, and I'm "cleaning out my closets." I'm getting these books read and off my shelves. The list could be endless, but I'm starting here:

1. Serena by Ron Rash: Serena is a "must read" by Salon and it was a huge in-house fav at work too.
2. A Mercy by Toni Morrison
3. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski: The latest Oprah pick.
4. Cockroach by Rawi Hage: Giller short-listed, IMPAC-award winning author.
5. The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai: The Booker winner for 2006.
6. Beowulf by Seamus Heaney
7. Ten Days in the Hills by Jane Smiley
8. Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier
9. Naked by David Sedaris
10. Affinity by Sarah Waters
11. Blue Angel by Francine Prose: Recommended by a friend. I adored Goldengrove.
12. The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy
13. Babylon Rolling by Amanda Boyden: Another recommendation
14. The Wig My Father Wore by Anne Enright: Found a great secondhand copy at The Strand in NYC; loved The Gathering
15. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
16. Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
17. The Retreat by David Bergen
18. Reservation Road by John Burnham Schwartz
19. Lush Life by Richard Pride
20. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
21. Little Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt

1001 Books Challenge - 2009 - Whenever

After hours of cleaning off the shelves and organizing the books from various different places in the house, here are the 1001 Books titles that we have ready to be read. I highly doubt that I'll get through 60+ of them in one calendar year, but we can always hope. They're in book order:

1. Joseph Andrews by Henry Fielding
2. Candide by Voltaire
3. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Lawrence Sterne
4. The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe (Sony Reader)
5. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (Sony Reader)
6. Emma by Jane Austen
7. Ormond by Maria Edgeworth (Sony Reader)
8. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (Sony Reader)
9. The Nose by Nikolay Gogol
10. The Fall of the House of Usher (Sony Reader)
11. Dead Souls by Nikolay Gogol (Sony Reader)
12. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
13. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
14. The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
15. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
16. Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
17. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
18. The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
19. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
20. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (Sony Reader)
21. Dracula by Bram Stoker
22. Nostromo by Joseph Conrad
23. Howard's End by E.M. Forster
24. Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham
25. Ulysses by James Joyce
26. The Trial by Franz Kafka
27. Nightwood by Djuna Barnes
28. Independent People by Halldor Laxness
29. The Hamlet by William Faulkner
30. Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry
31. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
32. Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
33. Rabbit, Run by John Updike
34. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
35. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
36. Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
37. The Master and the Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
38. Cancer Ward by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
39. In a Free State by V.S. Naipaul
40. Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
41. A Question of Power by Bessie Head
42. Grimus by Salman Rushdie
43. Petals of Blood by Ngugi wa Thiong'o
44. In the Heart of the Country by J.M. Coetzee
45. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
46. Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
47. The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende
48. Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis
49. The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster
50. The Passion by Jeanette Winterson
51. Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud
52. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
53. Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres
54. The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro
55. Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
56. Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks
57. Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates
58. The Human Stain by Philip Roth
59. Ignorance by Milan Kundera
60. Schooling by Heather McGowan
61. Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald
62. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
63. Islands by Dan Sleigh
64. Drop City by T.C. Boyle
65. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
66. The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
67. Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho
68. Under the Skin by Michel Faber
69. Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan
70. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

Around the World in 52 Books - 2009

So, here are some of the titles to work towards another year of reading around the world. As I barely made it through 13 titles in an ENTIRE year last year, I'm starting off with these 20 and will add as I go along the way:

1. The Successor, Ismail Kadare, Albania
2. The Swallows of Kabul, Yasmina Khadra, Algeria
3. The Witch of Portobello, Paulo Coelho, Brazil
4. Soul Mountain, Gao Xingjian, China
5. Tales from the Town of Widows, James Canon, Columbia
6. The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz, Dominican Republic
7. Sugar Street, Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt
8. The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai, India
9. Let It Be Morning, Sayed Kashua, Isreal
10. From Harvey River, Lorna Goodison, Jamaica
11. In the Country of Men, Hisham Matar, Libya
12. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid, Pakistan
13. Links, Naruddin Farah, Somolia
14. The Quarry, Damon Galgut, South Africa
15. The Speed of Light, Javier Cercas, Spain
16. In a Free State, V.S. Naipul, Trinidad
17. Snow or My Name is Red, Orham Pamuk, Turkey
18. Babylon Rolling, Amanda Boyden, United States

Additions to the list because I don't feel like alphabetizing before dinner:

19. A Hard Witching, Jacqueline Baker, Canada.
20. Got You Back, Jane Fallon, England. Or Somewhere Towards the End, Diana Atill, England. Or Little Black Book of Stories, A.S. Byatt, England.
21. Ignorance, Milan Kundera, Czech Republic.
22. The House of Spirits, Isabel Allende, Chile.*
*Technically, Allende was born in Peru, and so if I was sticking to my own self-imposed regulations around the challenge, I'd be crossing off that country instead. But the blurb in the back of the book specifically calls her a "Chilean" novelist and I'm not about to argue.
23. Under the Skin, Michel Faber, The Netherlands
24. Bonjour Tristesse, Francoise Sagan, France
25. Brooklyn, Colm Toibin, Ireland

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 ...