Saturday, January 31, 2009

Medicine Makes You Feel 100 Years Old

Between the side effects and the long lists of things that could possibly interact with aforementioned medicines, I feel trapped by all of the modernities that are supposed to be making me better, my life better. Chemical taste in my mouth like a bad song stuck in your head, no matter what you do, you're never rid of it entirely. Woozy, nauseous, hair falling out, puffy cheeks, ever-increasing appetite, tired skin, upset tummy, tired, cranky, the list goes on. And fighting. It seems I just want to fight all the time. Maybe that'll be my superhero power: starting fights.

#12 - Ignorance

The last Milan Kundera book that I read was The Unbearable Lightness of Being. At the time I was living in Banff, Alberta with about six other women in a townhouse that had no furniture barring a really old, uncomfortable couch. We all slept on the floor in sleeping bags, worked awful jobs, drank too much and climbed many mountains (literally). I loved that book. But more I loved the experience of reading that book in that particular time and that particular place. In a way, it's like Melanie pointed out in the comments here a few weeks ago, sometimes the books just choose us.

Kundera's Ignorance takes these themes, or maybe ideas would be a better word, of time and place and how experience is tied explicitly to both, and explores them through two characters returning to their homeland after an extended absence. Irena and Josef run into one another in an airport, both having emigrated from their homeland (Prague) years ago, by chance. They make plans to have lunch the next day to catch up. For both, the return home is bittersweet, political regimes have changed, they've both moved on with their lives, had families, spouses, entire existences outside of the people they've left behind.

Is this right, if I say, "to coin a phrase"? -- "You can never go home again." The saying feels true for so many reasons. The time and the place will never be just the same again, it'll always be tempered by our particular experiences, and the philosophical implications of such, and that's what happens to both Irena and Josef. They feel the need to explain themselves: why they left, why it took them so long to come home, and what their lives turned out to be in their adopted countries. It can't be an easy thing, coming home after years away when everything is different, older, changed, and you somewhat expect it to be the same. Not because of a conscious realization that change didn't or couldn't happen while they were away but more so because it's impossible to imagine how much could be different.

Lives move so slowly in a way. Age catches up with people. Time turns hair gray and adds infinite bits and pieces to memories. But if you go ten, twenty years without seeing a member of your family or your friends, the awkwardness of the reunion will always remind you of how ignorant you are of the day-to-day occurences in their lives. There's no judgment in Kundera's novel about the impact of change for these two characters, in a sense, the narrator's merely observing the moments where they realize the implication of their emigration. For a girl who's always thinking of what it might be like to live somewhere different, it was an interesting book to read, a little bittersweet, and more than a little sad, but wholly fascinating.

READING CHALLENGES: One of the books from the 1001 Books list so I'll cross it off from there. Kundera was born in Brno, Czechslovakia, which is now the Czech Republic, so I'll add him to the Around the World in 52 Books challenge too. It's interesting, to read a book that's about returning to a place that has utterly changed since the collapse of communism. The book honestly made me want to go to Prague and isn't that just the point of my armchair travelling reading?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

#11 - Got You Back

Jane Fallon's latest novel, Got You Back, retreads familiar territory -- the novel starts off, like Getting Rid of Matthew, with a cheating spouse (him) and the two women who are left to deal with his emotional wreckage. But even if the situation feels similar, the new novel is wholly different than her first book, the characters are fresh and new, and she never lets her writing fall down or stumble into the well-trodden clich├ęs of the Sophie Kinsellas of the chick lit world.

Stephanie's husband of the last ten years, James, is leading a double life. He spends half his time in rural England tending to his veterinary practice -- and living with his mistress, Katie. He's got the best of both worlds: savvy, stylish Steph at home and comfy, cozy Katie while he's away. The trouble for James begins when Steph and Katie discover one another (and the fact that he's been lying to both of them) and they vow to get revenge. And let me just say: poor James. But also let me say that the book doesn't go or end up the way you'd think that it would. All of the characters grow and change and none in expected ways. Fallon's prose is light and frothy but she has such a knack for keeping the reader engaged. Also, her dialogue sparkles right off the page -- I know, it's a little cheesy, but it's true. Got You Back is a like a vacation -- warm, sunny, and always entertaining, and I'd highly recommend it for that one weekend you really wish you could just get away.

READING CHALLENGES: Fallon's British and the novel takes place in London and even though it's not the kind of book that I'd usually pick for Around the World in 52 Books, I'm counting it for now. Don't judge me.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

#10 - Confession

Perhaps it's apt to start off reviewing Lee Gowan's latest novel, Confession, with two of my own: 1) I've taken more than one creative writing class with the author and therefore admire him greatly both as a writer and as a teacher; and 2) I enjoyed the last book of his that I read, The Last Cowboy, very much so when I saw that he had a new book, I was excited.

But now, almost a week after finishing the book, I still have some mixed feelings -- not about the quality of the prose (which is excellent) or the fact that I enjoyed the book (which I did, immensely) -- about how to write the review. How much do I reveal about the plot without spoiling it? How do I characterize the interesting way the author has created the story? What kind of comps would I suggest?

Confession's unreliable and slightly off-kilter narrator, Dwight Froese, has changed his name, found himself a new job, and desperately wants to stay close to his daughter. Trapped by both circumstance and landscape in a life that truly presents him with little options for happiness, Dwight tells and retells the story of how he ended up in Toronto. Raised in Broken Head, Saskatchewan by a young mother and a much older father (a very complex situation if my instincts [and reading ability] are correct), Dwight has always had a particular relationship with God. Whether it was his father seeing Him one day profess his death by the hand of his son, or simply just the comfort he finds in his spirituality, Dwight's morals are dictated by a higher power. And because he sits outside of conventional society, in a way, Dwight can see, understand and imagine a world that's not necessarily the norm.

The tragedy in his story comes from the fall, as one might imagine, not necessarily from grace but maybe from reality or, rather, the clash of his own perspective with that of the rest of society. The novel is heady and spends a lot of time exploring Dwight's thoughts, actions and relationships. As it's told from his point of view, the book remains intense from start to finish. The voice feels wholly original but also harkens back to familiar characters -- pop culture icons like Travis Bickle -- in the sense that he's an outsider. Overall, both the strength and success of the novel lies in the author's ability to create a character that's at once as unlikeable as he is compelling. It's a delicate balance, a difficult one, but one worth the investment by the time the end of the book rolls around.

If I had to think of comparative titles, I'd say there's a touch of the fierceness from Theft, a little bit of the structure found within The Double Bind, and a fair bit of 1970s-early 80s New York cinema, think Scorsese and Badlands. Keep in mind, the novel opens with a quote from Dostoevsky, and there are existential themes of crime and punishment within as well. But I sure would love to know what anyone else you can probably tell, I'm still making up my mind about it all.

Bad Disease Day Blues

Yesterday might have been the worst "disease day" I've had in a few years. The full implication of the side effects from the prednisone came crashing down as I came face to face with the crazies. Suppressing my immune system means I keep catching all kinds of infections, which aren't worth noting except to say that combined it's all just a bit too much. Spent much of yesterday vacillating between bawling in my cubicle and wanting to drive myself head first out our 20th floor window. I know it's not rational. I know it's the prednisone. Having been through this all before, I can recognize that the medicine is turning my brain into a gloomy source of desperation and despair, but it still doesn't make it any easier to get through the day.

Sometimes, just sometimes, it's hard to stay positive when something so strong pulls you in the other direction. I fell down a little yesterday and just cried for a good long while. My RRHB was very kind by the time I got home and let me get it all out. Really, all I wanted was someone to tell me that it's all worth it, that it's a good thing to keep fighting the disease, that it's a good thing I'm not dead. I know none of this is rational. But there are moments when I can't pull myself up from under the weight of it all.

Today, though, is better.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

#9 - Once

I think I tweeted last week about being so caught up in one of Rebecca Rosenblum's stories from Once that I completely missed the fact that our VP was standing right next to me on the subway. He laughed and said, "Good book?" when I finally realized he'd been there for almost my entire ride. And they are just that addictive, drawing you in from almost the first sentence, creating a world that sits slightly askew of the one you live in everyday, and then finishing completely.

I'm consistently amazed by the innovative ways young writers have when looking at the world. Rosenblum's characters -- people waiting for the bus heading to awful jobs, young immigrants, a family struggling to make sense of their situation -- are atypical. And yet, how often do you sit on the bus completely oblivious to the girl wearing three inch heels who carries on up Landsdowne after we all pile off and into the subway? But those people, sometimes lonely, sometimes burdened, always intriguing, make up the core of her characters. There's always something to explore in Rosenblum's world, and her keen writer's eye leaves little untold.

In the end, I suppose picking out one or two favourite stories might be the way to go, but it's hard when they're all so different and so, well, good. If I had to choose, I'd say my absolutely favourite would been "Linh Lai." A young immigrant girl who lives with her relatives tries to navigate her new world, holding tight to some very special talents, she gets a part-time job at a restaurant that is frequented by more than a few characters in the book. Charming, whimsical and full of great sneakers, the story stood out for me. But I honestly enjoyed every single story, their sad undertones, their slightly awkward protagonists, and the thorough ache of lives bursting with the kind of promise that never seems to quite bubble to the surface as it should.

READING CHALLENGES: Rebecca Rosenblum lives and writes in Toronto, so I'm counting Once as a part of this year's The Canadian Book Challenge. I'm way off in terms of books I picked at the outset but I don't think it matters as long as I'm still within my "for the ladies" theme.

WHAT'S UP NEXT: Blogging Lee Gowan's Confession, which I might leave until tomorrow so I can think about the book a little more... For now, I think I might start my Harlequin assignment for this week and then watch a movie. Foggy-cold-head makes for very poor book reviewing.

#8 - The Almost Archer Sisters

I've been felled like a giant dead tree these past two days by the same nasty virus that took a hold of my RRHB last week. I slept ALL day yesterday. Didn't move from the couch, ran a fever, and read when I could keep my eyes open for more than fifteen minutes. I did manage to crawl out from under the duvet, have a shower, and accompany my family to the Marlies game, which was piles of fun. After we got home, I crashed on the couch again and was in bed two second after Lost was finished (does anyone understand what's going on with that show?). So, on top of disease crap I've caught whatever bug is going around. It's winter, it's to be expected. But I'm telling you, the only thought that's been going through my head all week is quitting my job and living in California for the next three months to write. Annnywaay. Three books. Three reviews. Here's the first.

#8 - The Almost Archer Sisters

Way, way, way back in the day when I actually went to a book club (a terribly scarring experience, truly), Lisa Gabriele came to meet with us and talk about her book Tempting Faith DiNapoli. She was lovely and it was a really nice experience (I, of course, had not read the book, but I did go back and read it afterwards). Fast-forward many years and I have been thankfully freed from book club for some time now. But I did want to read The Almost Archer Sisters for a few reasons: 1. the fond memories of talking with her about her first book; 2. the great review the novel got in the Globe and Mail and 3. because of the lovely note my friend Randy had attached to the book when it showed up in my mailbox. He said, "it's just the ticket when these cold winter months are upon us."

Peachy has always lived in the shadow of her older sister Beth. Both scarred by the death of their mother from a young age, how they've grown up and around the gaping hole left behind by her non-presence rolls itself out predictably: Peachy clings to safe and stable things, she wants to be a social worker, she's got a solid marriage (even if she did get knocked up at 20), and two great kids (one of whom suffers from seizures). Beth rumbles around her life like a constantly breaking wave, causing trouble for all the swimmers in her wake, ruining lives and always hurting those who love her the most. All of this leads to the action (plot device?) that spurns the rest of the novel: Peachy stumbles downstairs late at night to find her husband and sister having sex. Peachy's husband, Beau Laliberte, was once Beth's boyfriend, and she left him behind all busted up and broken, too. Peachy decides then and there that Beth needs a dose of reality -- she leaves her sister behind with her family while she goes off to enjoy a weekend in New York alone.

The novel's premise, while terribly contrived, enables the author to explore the ins and outs of Peachy's life from an emotional standpoint that could only be accessed after the kind of shocking event that tends to force someone into change. Her insights are open, honest and heartbreaking at times. And there are parts of the novel where you couldn't find a better writer describing the inner workings of long-term relationships and motherhood. The novel remains cinematic from start to finish and even includes a 'big city shopping montage' that makes it impossible for me not to compare The Almost Archer Sisters to some of the better chicklit out there, think Gemma Townley and not Sophie Kinsella. I will, however, say that there's a part of the novel I liked so much that I read it through about six times before finally closing the book. Yes, you can imagine it's the end, so I'm not going to spoil it except to say that Gabriele's story was just what I needed this week.

Lucky for me that Gabriele is Canadian, which means I'm counting this novel towards my Canadian Book Challenge. That makes nine books (and I'm just about to write up #10 too!).

Thursday, January 22, 2009

#7 - The Given Day

Since finishing The Given Day, I've written a number of opening sentences in my mind. "Dennis Lehane's epic novel is a true departure from his earlier work." "The Given Day marks the expansion of Lehane's already considerable talents." You all know that kind of sentence. We've all written them. They don't really do justice to the massive undertaking this novel must have been, regardless of whether or not it ultimately ends up being successful.

In short, The Given Day tells a story centered around the 1919 Boston police strike; its history told through the eyes of two main characters: Aiden ("Danny") Coughlin, a second-generation cop, second-generation Irish immigrant, and all around stand-up (albeit troubled) guy; and Luther, a black factory worker whose forced out of his life by two separate incidents (a "shotgun" wedding and a bad decision that leads to capital "b" big trouble). There are far too many secondary characters to list, crooked cops, Bolsheviks, union leaders, rabble-rousers, gangsters, thieves, cops, lovers, and baseball players (Babe Ruth, in particular). The novel creates a vast world that culminates in the violent events on September 9, 1919. Its story is mammoth and it can't help but sprawl. Even so, Lehane remains in control at every moment -- showing skills a lesser novelist who didn't come up writing hard plot-driving fiction couldn't maintain.

Lehane does two things exceptionally well: 1) he writes great dialogue and 2) he creates credible action. Because of these two things, it's easy for me to forgive both the cliches that pop up and the extensive (and sometimes clumsy) forced historical detail. Ultimately, once I started reading this novel, I simply couldn't put it down. Plus, the themes and issues Lehane explores are endlessly interesting -- the idea that socialism, even the mere hint of "red," pulled at the seams of American society in such a way as to cause massive riots and fear mongering is fascinating. That the essence of terrorism remains a rich theme to be mined, not just because it's ever-present in the ethos of our neighbours, but because it's obvious (at least to me, maybe I'm wrong) that Lehane belongs firmly in the camp of those who believe that without history we're doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

It's a big book, and while it's not perfect, I'd say that The Given Day might just be the one before the really, really great one, which is impressive any way you look at it. I know I hate to use this word because it's just so industry, so back-cover-jacket, but The Given Day truly is unputdownable.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sunday Sunday

We just finished watching The Big Chill. All the chores are done. I've got the last load of laundry in the wash so two more buckets to fold, not bad for 5 PM on a Sunday. Usually, I leave the laundry until the last possible moment and then it gets folded on Tuesday, maybe Wednesday. My head's so mixed up these days that everything's coming out all wrong and the more I keep busy, my fingers working, my shoulders hunched, the less time I can dedicate to wondering why, yet again, the disease is back. Wondering how come I have a huge list of all the things I want in my life and am not brave enough to get them all out in one place, to say them out loud. I know one thing for sure: perhaps I need to stop watching Intervention.

I'm halfway through The Given Day and Once (short stories are very good for the commute). I was reading one on Friday and was so engrossed that I didn't even notice my boss standing next to me on the subway. Whoops. The days are flying by and this week coming up proves to be just as busy. One freelance assignment, The Jersey Boys with my in-laws, my RRHB has a show on Friday night, and then we're seeing a hockey game with my dad (the Marlies, not the Leafs; we're not that connected) on Saturday night. I think I might have to call in sick on Monday because I'll be so tired.

Disease, what disease? That's what I'd love to say but I feel rotten this weekend. And that's hard to admit. Overall, I've been feeling so much better -- doing the GOOP detox and not eating sugar or dairy during the week, walking, restorative yoga earlier today -- but sometimes I just want to kick and scream and shout, "why f**&ing me." And enough is enough already. But it all just doesn't work out that way, does it? What I need is a top 10 list for dealing with super fancy diseases. Anyone got one of those?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

#6 - The Picture Of Dorian Gray

Like so many of the classics on the 1001 Books list, it's easy to know the premise and/or general story of the books, but be utterly ignorant of the details. I've never read an Oscar Wilde play, but seen quite a few, enjoyed the films (both Wilde and The Importance of Being Earnest), and had only heard of Dorian Gray because my RRHB dragged me to the truly horrible The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. What a surprise it was to read The Picture of Dorian Gray. It's different from what I expected, full of Wilde's infamous wit even if the writing is a little melodramatic, but it's also wonderfully spooky and even a little surprising in places.

A young, beautiful man becomes the subject of a painter, Basil Hallward. The blush and brilliance of his youth inspires the artist as nothing ever has before and the resulting piece contains a bit of magic he'll never achieve again. Dorian Gray, the subject, learns of his own beauty, through the painting and makes a vain wish to never suffer the indignities of losing his youth. The painting, once it hangs in Dorian's own house, starts to degrade each time he acts wickedly. It shoulders the burden of age. It withers, wrinkles and bleeds. Buoyed on by the psychology and philosophy of his best friend, Lord Henry Wotten, Dorian leads a life of purely hedonistic endeavors. He ruins women. He collects icons without any thought to their religious values. Society adores him, but he has enemies, women swoon, and men wish they were him. Sound familiar? Yet throughout it all, the painting haunts him, and makes it impossible for Dorian to completely forget his actions. The lives he ruined haunt Gray and by the end of the novel he questioning whether or not redemption is even possible.

The novel has gothic overtones, which I enjoyed immensely, as well as a character who's driven to act in ways he may not have had he not been celebrated for his external qualities. In a way, the novel reminded me of Woody Allen's film Match Point. There were so many quotable pages that I wished I had a physical copy of the book (instead of an ebook) so that I could earmark all the pages. And I was intensely curious about Wilde's decision to imbue the book with luscious and sometimes over the top descriptions of the natural world in which they live. Flowers, the smell of winter, the pine trees, lovely blossoms, everything compliments the glorious state of utter hedonism throughout. The malcontent Dorian feels towards the picture gets locked up in a dusty old schoolroom, closed off from his everyday life. The violence in the novel is contained and away from good society, as Lord Henry says, crime is beneath them. The moral of the story utterly apparent by the time the novel ends and, in a world where Hollywood images of ageless people rule the magazine stands, I'm surprised more references aren't made to the book in pop culture. A whole generation of Dorian Grays inhabit our modern world, raised up by millions wishing they too were young, beautiful and apparently indestructible.

READING CHALLENGES: The Picture of Dorian Gray is on the 1001 Books list, and is one of the 66 titles that I've highlighted for the year. Really I'm just trying to clean some space off my Sony Reader so that I can put some more classics on it. Truly, it's the best gadget I've ever owned. It's replaced my blackberry forever in my heart.

OSCAR WILDE SIGHTINGS: Left some lipstick behind and visited the statue in Dublin with Tina. Now I don't feel so much like a tourist.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

TRH Updates - The Sickness

It's been a hard week, I'm not going to lie. In a way I had worked myself up for it, knew that by taking the prednisone for a month this past December, and by how I was feeling that the disease was flaring. Finding myself again at the crossroads: my body working against me and me working hard to change my life only results in more disease activity. Sometimes, it just gets you down. There's a lot of protein in my urine and my creatinine is sneaking up again -- key markers in terms of the Wegener's being active in my body. It's nothing dramatic, it's just me being back on medicine.

At least this time the Super-Fancy disease doctor asked me what treatment I would prefer. I rallied hard against the methotrexate. I really don't like giving myself and injection once a week. But maybe that's just because my RRHB and I have been watching way too much Intervention (holy crap is that show addictive; how ironic). Plus, I can't gain back all the weight I'm trying so hard to lose. I managed a month on prednisone with really no change and I can't go back to marshmallow ragdoll on methotrexate. Kindly, SFDD agreed to let me go back on imuran. Baring any dramatic episodes like the last time, let's hope my body responds well and my bloodwork starts coming back with some improvements.

I have to say, though, that after months of feeling awful, of catching everything that wandered by, of battling just to get out of bed in the morning, that I've starting fresh in the New Year with better eating habits (no sugar [we'll see how long that lasts] this week; no dairy next week) and walking both ways to the subway in the morning. You know, I'm actually feeling better. I had energy all week and only one bad day (due to mucho stress at work) where I crashed the moment I got home. Overall, I've been reading more, sleeping fine (yes, chemically induced but without it the prednisone crazies will come up and bite me on the ass), and getting a lot of stuff done on a day to day basis. My horoscope is on my side, that's got to mean something, right?

Now the goal becomes squeezing in some writing.

#5 - Little Brother

Sometimes, even before I begin, I've got to digress. We've been watching The Wire, and after I finished reading and blogging on Tuesday I had no idea what to read. Pulled down a few books from the shelf, looked at them, and was not inspired. I gave up, put a novel beside my bed, and then started to watch "Dead Soldiers." The teleplay was written by Dennis Lehane. The literary lightbulb went off and, when we paused for a moment, I grabbed The Given Day down and read before bed.

The next morning was snowy, cold, miserable and full of bad news. I read the book waiting (an hour plus, weather delays and general mayhem) for the Super-Fancy Disease Doctor, and then went in to hear my fate. When he was asking me about the dose of one of my meds, I had to pull the book out of my bag. He picked it up, started going on about how a "buddy" had been raving about it, and that it's the best book he'd read in a long time. I said, "You can have that copy."

SFDD said, "Really?"

I said, "I have another one in my office, it's our book, we publish him."

He looked a little shocked for a moment, thanked me, laughed, said that he never takes gifts from patients and winked, "But I will take this though." Heh.

So, there goes my copy of The Given Day. On the way into the office via the TTC, I started reading The Picture of Dorian Gray on my Sony Reader until I got into the office. I had to run into a meeting the moment I got into work; afterwards, Liza (the key person for kids books in sales) pulled me into a little meeting and said, "You have to read this book." She handed me a copy of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother. So suddenly, in the span of 12 hours, I've been through three different books and not finished a single one.

And I loved it, Little Brother. In some ways it reminded me a little of War Games, but for this century. Marcus and his friends are out and about in San Francisco, bunking off school to play in a large-scale game organized online and played in the real world. And then a giant bomb goes off in San Francisco -- a terrorist attack upon the city. Marcus and his friends, Darryl, Van and Jolu, are scooped up and taken to a form of Guantanamo Bay. Eventually they let Marcus go, but after five days inside, the entire world has changed and DHS (Homeland Security) has taken over everything, tracking people by their public transit cards, their internet access and all kinds of other complex and unseemly stuff. While three of his friends get out, Darryl's left behind, and this spurns Marcus on to buck the system. To force his freedom as far out as humanly possible to make the point that living in a police state means the terrorist win.

There's a lot of complex material in the book, loads of interesting tidbits of information, and Doctorow dispels them in ways that pull you further into the story without making you feel like a dolt because you've never heard of arphids or Kerouac. There's a sweet love story, a kid with a great relationship with his parents, and a brain big enough to have DHS running around in circles until it all comes crashing to a head. Writing intelligent, engaging fiction for young adults isn't easy, the tone has to be just right, the subject matter can't alienate the audience, and if it has cross-over appeal to the adult market, all the better. Little Brother hits all of these points and then some. But mainly, I had fun reading it, completely unexpected, totally giddy fun.

And because Kerouac's one of my favourites too, I couldn't help but mark this lovely passage:
There was a rhythm to the words, it was luscious, I could hear it being read aloud in my head. It made me want to lie down in the bed of a pickup truck and wake up in a dusty little town somewhere in the central valley on the way to LA, one of those places with a gas station and a diner, and just walk out into the fields and meet people and see stuff and do stuff.
Me too.

READING CHALLENGES: Doesn't count toward a single one. In fact, knocked me off course completely in terms of my reading but when someone at work says, "you've got to read this," really, you don't have a choice.

WHAT'S UP NEXT: Finishing The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Given Day.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Pros and Cons of New Year's Revolutions

I know. I'm only two days in and I'm already fed up with my New Year's Revolutions. Yet, I'm only two days in and feel the need to write a little so here's another list:

1. Bringing your lunch means less garbage for the environment (pro) but it also means doing dishes at work (con) with the gross-ass, nasty jclothes they've got piled up in the sink where rude-ass people leave their dirties for the cleaning lady to pick up. (con)

2. I have been walking up to Landsdowne in the mornings to get in an extra walk. Now, um, I've been trying to use natural deodorant. Let's just say that I caught myself today and went, "WHAT I HAVE B.O.?" (con)

3. Watching less TV means more time thinking (pro) and reading (pro) and writing of to do lists. Currently, I'm 1/3 of the way through the one for this week (Jan 5th). (con; only because I'm tired, really, really tired, stupid prednisone)

4. "I will be zen at work. I will be zen at work. I will be zen at work." (pro/con).

5. Bringing your lunch means not seeing your friends. I like my friends. I miss them. I am giving myself one day a week for an "out" lunch. This week it's Friday with Munro. (pro)

6. I see the Super-Fancy Disease Doctor tomorrow for a check up. No fear. (pro)

7. Post-holiday gift baskets piled high with chocolate and other yummies remain untouchable to me. (con)

8. Detoxing and not eating sugar makes me one crabby person. (con)

9. Music is good. And I've been listening to tonnes of it lately as I'm writing as I'm cleaning as I'm working. (pro)

10. Next week as I add in the no dairy clause to the cleanse, I am sure I will be a nightmare to deal with. (con)

How you all doing with your resolutions?

#4.5 - "The Fall of the House of Usher"

Oh Sony Reader, I do love you. Before the holidays, I dumped a bunch of ebooks onto my reader, classics from 1001 Books that I could always have on hand in transit. Stuff that I could read when I finished whatever novel I was carting around at the time. One of the stories I put on was "The Fall of the House of Usher," and I'm not going to tell a fib, primarily because it was short and I'm all about the numbers these days.

I love how 1001 Books states, "It seems to be stretching the definition of the word to its very limits to describe The Fall of the House of Usher as a "novel." Note they use italics and I am sticking to quotes because you can't tell me this isn't a short story. I'm not complaining, I'm just clarifying for my own edification.

Annnywaay, this story scared the living crap of out me. It's creepy, chilling and totally gothic in that yummy way that only Edgar Allen Poe can accomplish. A young man returns to the house of Usher where the only two remaining family members, Roderick and his sister, Madeline, live in a decrepit and decaying house. They're both sick, Madeline from an illness that confounds the doctors, and Roderick from something that reads a whole lot like depression to my modern eye. The narrative creeps up to the last fateful night, and what Poe achieves in 61 electronic pages is really astounding. Stories within stories, pages devoted to mad poetry (as in its being written by a madman, not "mad" in the means "awesome" way), and a narrator who spends more time describing in intricate detail the abysmal surroundings than he does talking to his childhood friend.

One line in particular that I bookmarked: "Hitherto she had steadily borne up against the pressure of her malady..." Maybe I need to make that into a t-shirt it's so fitting to my life. Now, one question: why is it that in ghost stories, things always happen in threes? It was the same in A Christmas Carol. And why does it take someone three utterly terrifying occurrences before they wake up and, um, get the fark out? I read a lot of Poe in grad school, but because my mind is terrible with titles, and well, let's face it, entire plots, I haven't counted off any of the stories in 1001 Books. I am going to go back to Project Gutenberg, though, and download some more. They're just perfect for a stormy night barreling through the city in the red rocket.

READING CHALLENGES: 1001 Books, natch.

#4 - Babylon Rolling

Shall I be honest? I mean utterly, unflinchingly honest? I almost put this book down after the first page after the prologue. Amanda Boyden's second novel, Babylon Rolling starts off with a love letter of sorts to New Orleans, beleaguered already prior to Katrina and devastated afterwards, and it's touching if a bit affected, the use of the pronoun "we" and all that, and then the book itself carries on like a thunderclap before a storm. She's a powerful writer -- there's no denying it. When I finished the novel on the way home, there were tears in my eyes.

Now I'm going to digress. I know I'm sick of how much I've been talking about The Wire lately so I can only imagine how sick the rest of the world must be (listen me, the world, pshaw). For someone who doesn't live in the middle of a raging gang war or a city almost overrun by crime, I always feel there's an authenticity to The Wire that could be horribly misplaced. It's an ivory tower appreciation for something I have never experienced; the "realness" of it makes me feel like I'm involved in some way in the defeat of human society, if we're being honest. 'It's not a war,' The Wire keeps reminding us, 'because no one wins.' And this theme, the decay of civilization, in a way, pervades much of Babylon Rolling: people cheat on their spouses, horrible and traumatic accidents happen, dope slingers and their gangster counterparts reign in some corners, and tragedy seems to define a place that hasn't even seen the worst of it, the hurricane hasn't even hit yet.

But I felt like Fearius, the self-given nickname of a young boy christened Daniel, whose voice is written much like the dialogue in The Wire, wasn't as authentic as I would have imagined he could and/or should have been. So I found him and his bad grammar and his lack of punctuation and his misapprehension of vocabulary a little off-putting in ways that I would have never criticized had I watched him in the television show. Yet, the other characters, some mentally challenged, others simply lost, were so completely whole that it kind of made up for Fearius's terribly annoying everythingness.

I loved Cerise, a 70-year-old grandmother who loves her husband so fiercely she endangers her own life to save him, and her voice broke my heart all over the place. The simplicity and wisdom from which she lives her life is inspiring. The troubled marriage of Ed and Ariel reminded me a little of Tom Perrotta, and their actions not only underscored the main themes of the book, but they heightened the whole sense of troubled America in microcosm. But like Fearius, I felt Philomenia was a little over the top at times. The idea that all of these people live on the same street and that so much happens to them felt contrived, a little too Crash for me. But I can't say I didn't get caught up in the story and I can't deny that there's a powerful strength of voice to the book. I'm glad, too, that I didn't put the book down after the first few pages. It certainly showed me, didn't it?

READING CHALLENGES: Babylon Rolling is one of my Cleaning Out the Closet challenge books. That's one down and 19 more to go, and since Boyden was born in Minnesota, I'm counting this book as the United States for Around the World in 52 Books too. I'm sure as sh*t not going to get stuck reading so few countries this year. It's not exactly cheating to knock off all the easy ones first, is it?

WHAT'S UP NEXT: Blogging "The Fall of the House of Usher" for 1001 Books, I finished it too this evening. And reading? Who knows. I'll wait until something calls for me.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Sunday Evening Ramblings

It's back to work tomorrow. After over a week off, and a good time to decompress, I'm still not sure if I'm 100% in the mind set. Most of today was spent fiddling about with my to do list -- remincient of the last time I spent an extended period of time at home -- and trying to finish as many as humanly possible before starting to make dinner. Some things:

1. I tend to write the same item in different ways forgetting that I've listed it already, hence three or four entries relating to budget, charity payments and/or swapping out our new chequing account information.

2. Can you learn French simply by listening to Edith Piaf?

3. For two of my items I will need to pull out a needle and thread. Um, yeah, like that's going to happen...

4. Is it pathetic to have "read the paper" on your to do list so you don't forget and leave it sitting for two weeks before cutting out the crossword and then tossing the whole thing in the recycling bin?

5. I have grown quite attached to GOOP. Huh. It's actually full of good recipes, solid lifestyle-type content and the newsletter's really easy to read. The name, however, still sucks.

6. My RRHB is now completely and totally obsessed with Gordon Ramsay.

7. I managed to put off ANY work whatsoever until this afternoon. The break was brilliant. But it just made me think of how much I could get accomplished if I stayed at home all the time.

8. Procrastination is also a wonderful tool. I didn't write a single word for my own work but my house sure is clean. No more excuses.

9. The Wire is still the best show television has ever produced.

10. In the end I had 102 items on my to do list and managed to cross off 61 -- that's not so bad. Now I need to rewrite it for tomorrow! Whee!

#3 - In a Free State

The last thing I expected this morning was to get caught up in V.S. Naipaul's truly excellent In a Free State. I woke up early, as I usually do, crawled out of bed, grabbed my book and cuddled up under the duvet on the couch. My RRHB slept. I read. He slept. I read more. He woke up. I crawled back into bed, fell asleep for a bit, and then finished the book. What a perfect lazy day before the craziness of real life picks up again the moment the alarm goes off tomorrow morning.

The last Naipaul book I read was A House for Mr. Biswas way back in second year university. I was captivated but that never brought be back to Naipaul. My post-colonial reading in later years turned back to Canadian, I left university, did my M.A., and never picked up another of his books. Another of the surprises that I found on my shelf, I must have ordered this book back when 1001 Books came out. In a Free State was first published in 1971 and it won the Booker that year. Bookended by two diary-like travel journals, the collection contains two short stories and a novella, from which it takes its title.

The first story, "One Out of Many," follows a servant brought to Washington from Bombay. One day he steps away from his employer, leaves everything behind in the cupboard where he was sleeping, and becomes an illegal immigrant with an under the table job at a local restaurant owned by a fellow countryman. The story explores themes of alienation as Santosh makes his way in the United States, and slowly he discovers that he'll need to leave almost 100% of his old life behind to survive.

This idea, of the cost of freedom and the impact of the realities of immigration, is carried forth into the second story, "Tell Me Who to Kill." Leaving everything he knows behind, the narrator picks up and heads to London with the intention of giving his brother a better life, a life of studies, so he too can become "something." He works hard, saves his money, and then as so many stories go, makes a bad decision that ruins everything. Told through flashbacks as he takes the journey to his brother's wedding, the story becomes alive through his rich dialect, the obvious affection he feels for his brother, regardless of how he disappoints him, and the necessity of change when faced with adversity. It's a crushing and heartbreaking story.

"In a Free State" inverts the situation. Here a white, homosexual man has come to Africa to serve the government,under ideals of serving for the greater good. Away from the safe collective where he lives, Bobby attends a seminar and then must make his way back during a time of political upheaval. His passenger, the wife of a British journalist named Linda, makes pleasant enough conversation to begin with, but it soon becomes obvious she isn't happy either on the journey or in Africa. As their trip becomes even more arduous (they miss their curfew and are forced to stay at a ramshackle colonial resort), the polite nature of their relationship disintegrates. Armed with a sense of misapprehended colonial idealism, Bobby soon finds himself in all different kinds of trouble, some of his own making and much as a result of the political situations, and it's damning. Like in the first two stories, Naipaul explores themes of alienation and separation, of family and work, of place and displacement.

I couldn't put this book down. It's a book I'd love to study. A book that reminds you how words can sever a problem from its root, pull it apart and set it down in a way that makes you see things more clearly, even if in the end, for all three protagonists, little changes despite how hard the world presses up against them to force their currents in a new direction.

READING CHALLENGES: In a Free State is on the 1001 Books list, and so I'll cross it off there. But Naipaul was born in Trinidad, so I'll count this book on my Around the World in 52 Books list as well. It's actually a perfect book for that challenge. The landscapes, from the unknown African country that's the setting for the novella to Egypt, from London and Washington as seen through the eyes of those who settle and are not born there, there's an interesting sense of place that grounds the entire collection.

COMPS AND OBSERVATIONS: I couldn't help but think of Blood Diamond when I was reading "In a Free State," not because the stories are at all similar (it's a terribly mediocre film in the end), but because when Bobby speaks to an African man in the book, he uses that patois that Leo uses at the beginning of the film: "Who your boss-man? Who?" As Naipaul describes the country as it slips from colonial to post-colonial rule, I kept hearing, "T.I.A. This is Africa, right?" from that scene at the bar. In terms of comps, for much of the story, I kept thinking of Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants," despite the fact that it's obvious that Bobby and Linda are not at all lovers, their conversations have that same read-between-the-lines feel to them and the dialogue is excellent.

I picked up Amanda Boyden's Babylon Rolling while my RRHB was using the computer. Fingers crossed I'll finish it tonight, which means I'll have managed to finish 7 books while I've been off for vacation. Not bad indeed!

Saturday, January 03, 2009

#2 - Shakespeare

Years ago when I worked at History Television, I wrote a series of articles about Shakespeare. For a few weeks, I was obsessed by the Shakespeare question and read a pile of books both for and against the Bard's "real" identity. I've seen Shakespeare in Love about a million times and even wrote an article for the now-defunct (I wish I had a copy of it to share; it was a fun article to write) about the differences between the writer's life and how he was portrayed in the film, tying everything back into the research that I did for my job at the time. Needless to say, I think I'm more obsessed with the idea of all the controversy around Shakespeare's identity than I am by the man's work. Is that a bad thing? And let me just say for the record that I believe, as does Bill Bryson, that Shakespeare was the author of his work, not Francis Bacon or any number of other writers put forth in the years since his death and ultimate canonization.

Part of the Eminent Lives series, Bill Bryson's excellent Shakespeare: The World as Stage contextualizes the little known facts of the Bard's life into a compact and utterly readable package. As Bryson continually reminds us, there are very few known facts of Shakespeare's life: the date of his baptism, his marriage, the number of children he had, how many signatures exist (6), his will, etc. The rest is conjecture, scholars over the years uncovering new evidence, failing to prove their theories, and wishful thinking. What Bryson does so ingeniously is fill in his own spaces with interesting bits of history from the time period, padding Shakespeare's life with surrounding information, giving the reader a spirit of the age rather than trying to pull a biography from thin air. He addresses the Shakespeare question toward the end of the book, and I enjoyed reading about the interesting characters who contributed to seemingly never-ending debate.

I have to admit that I found the chapter about the plays themselves a little dry, but then he grabbed me again by making the point that part of Shakespeare's lasting impression on literature goes so far beyond the plays. So much of the language we use today, so many expressions that hadn't been used before are attributed to him, parts of our speech that we take so for granted that we barely give a thought to the fact that he wrote "be cruel to be kind." The book is full of information that could give anyone an edge should they end up on Jeopardy faced with a Shakespeare category, but it also has a grand sense of humour and a calm approach to sifting through what must have been miles upon miles of scholarship. By the nature of the lack of information about Shakespeare's life, it must have been hard to write a biography about him, but I think that Bryson's done a smashing job of it: a little Tom Stoppard, a little The Professor and the Madman, and a lot of what Bryson does so very well, write history so that it's engaging, interesting and utterly compelling.

READING CHALLENGES: The first book I've finished in the Shakespeare Challenge. Next up I think I'll read Shakespeare's Wife by Germaine Greer, but who knows when I'll get to it -- the master list for 2009 is a little overwhelming.

Friday, January 02, 2009

#1 - A Hard Witching

Happily celebrating the new year, I read most of this book in between bewitching viewings of The Wire and during a sleepless night on the day before New Year's Eve. I enjoyed Jacqueline Baker's novel, The Horseman's Graves for my Canadian challenge last year, and when I was cleaning off my shelves (have you noticed the trend?) I found a copy of her book of short stories. We were at writer's group yesterday discussing the merits of short books, quick reads of under 200 pages -- books just like A Hard Witching.

Comprised of eight stories, surprisingly not-interlocking, the sharp edges and hard lives of the characters are softened only slightly by Baker's expert eye when it comes to detail and storytelling. While the easiest comp that one could make about Baker's writing would be to Annie Proulx, but A Hard Witching lacks the "gothic" edge that colours many of Proulx's stories (this is not a bad thing; I count Annie Proulx among one of my favourite writers). Set exclusively in or around Sand Hills, Saskatchewan, it's impossible for the people within not to be affected by the landscape. It's a popular, familiar Canadian theme, but Baker allows herself to take it a little further, to flush out the emotional lives of her characters in ways that feel fresh and not simply a reaction to their environment.

In terms of my "favourites," I'd have to say that I enjoyed the title story most of all, for its somewhat strange, utterly compelling main character, a widow caught between the idea of how to lead her life post-her husband's death and who she was while she was married, and for its stark, captivating ending. I loved this line to death: "Oh, trouble comes in threes all right, Edna would say generously, but it's the weak who let it stay." As Omar from The Wire would say, "Indeed." An echo of sadness runs through many of the stories as well, not that it becomes overwhelming and certainly not to the detriment of the writing. They're real honest people within these pages and Baker tells their stories without unnecessary frills. In a way, a nice compliment to A Hard Witching might be Tim Winton's The Turning and I'm so glad I found this little volume just waiting to be read on my newly organized bookshelves.

READING CHALLENGES: As Jacqueline Baker is Canadian and a lady, A Hard Witching counts toward my Canadian Book Challenge. I'm going to swap out Gil Adamson's Help Me, Jacques Cousteau because my copy is buried in our closet and my RRHB convinced me those books would be out in the open soon enough that they didn't need to all be pulled out for the sake of me finding it and Moby-Dick. I'm also going to count this as Canada for Around the World in 52 Books because it's so evocative of our prairie landscape.

COMPS AND OBSERVATIONS: Baker has a talent for writing adolescent characters and their stories, similar, I think, to Kate Sutherland's excellent All in Together Girls. Not exactly YA, they do capture the awkward and utterly alienating time one spends as a teenager and both explore how your teenage years stick with you well into adulthood.

OTHER REVIEWS: Melanie also read A Hard Witching for her Canadian challenge last year.

WHAT'S UP NEXT: I finished Bill Bryson's Shakespeare this morning and pulled Sometimes a Great Notion off the shelf to start this evening.

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 ...