Sunday, October 25, 2009

#58 - Labour Day

I've been waiting to review Labor Day until my interview with Joyce Maynard was posted over on our company blog, The Savvy Reader. Then, all of a sudden weeks go by and I haven't managed to type a single word let alone post any book reviews. Thankfully, I'm only behind by about three reads so it's not that bad.

The novel takes place in a small New Hampshire town during a moment when all of the main characters are on the cusp of major changes in their lives. As the hot, uncomfortable last weekend of summer begins, Henry, who's thirteen, and his mother, Adele, head out to get school clothes. For most, it's an everyday kind of errand, for Henry and Adele, it represents a rare moment when she actually leaves the house.

While they're at the store, Henry comes upon a bleeding, baseball cap-wearing stranger who asks for a ride home. Turns out Frank's an escaped prisoner who takes refuge (and hostages if we're being entirely correct) at Adele's. There's an element of suspended disbelief here, it's Maynard writing the novel, and not McEwan, and while Frank might have committed a crime to get in jail, it's never apparent he actually belongs there. There's an element of Shawshank to his backstory, which gets unraveled over the course of the time he spends purposefully sequestered with Henry and Adele at their house.

The tumultuous relationship between Henry and his parents (who are divorced; his father's remarried with a stepson and a new daughter) is necessarily exacerbated by Frank's illegal presence. But not in the ways that you would expect. They're not in danger. And the fear comes from the impending change more so than anything else. Maynard told me that she wanted to write a novel that looked at how this thirteen-year-old dealt with the sex lives of his parents -- while he's on the cusp of his own. This journey, or realization might be a better word, starts Henry off on the dangerous path that forces the unlikely situation to its necessary conclusion.

There's an urgency to Maynard's novel that echoes its tight timeframe. The major action of the book all takes place over those few days and the constraints of time drive the story. In turn, this makes the novel utterly readable -- the perfect title to sit down for a couple of hours in an afternoon to finish, a book utterly meant for a "book-a-day" challenge. In some ways, the book reminded me, in setting only, to John Irving and Elizabeth Stout; story-wise, there's a little of Ann Patchett's Run in this book. Overall, the achingly and lovely last passages of the novel brought tears to my eyes.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

#56 - #57 Crush It & The Tipping Point

There's nothing new that I can possibly blog about Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point. It's a book that's back in the top 100 today, I'm guessing because of all the Nook news, and it's simply one of those titles that you imagine everyone to have already reviewed, if not read. So when I was browsing around the Vancouver Public Library sale last Thursday trying to ward off the persistent stomach butterflies (there because of the whole public speaking element to happen the next day; bleech), I was pleased to find a battered copy of The Tipping Point from the Kitsilano Branch for a whopping $0.55.

The central thesis of Gladwell's book, that little "things" can lead to sweeping change, seemed particularly relevant reading for the days leading up to and passing by Book Camp. The iconic work looks at all of the social conditions that surround a product, event or action "tipping" into an epidemic. From smoking to book sales, the book comes to some pretty cool conclusions about the power of word of mouth. Words that we toss around all the time, like connectors and mavens, this theory of something "tipping" has become part of the everyday business lexicon. And it's easy to see why.

Gary Vaynerchuk's Crush It! isn't as intellectual nor as everlasting as The Tipping Point, but it's a really good example of putting Malcolm Gladwell's theories into action. Vaynerchuk grew his business exponentially by investing in his own personal brand, used the "free" tools of the internet to grow it, and then tipped over into the uber-successful range by simply working hard and "crushing it." It's a veritable how-to manual for his kind of success and a good handbook for anyone somewhat curious about social media.

I like how both books focus on finding/offering solutions instead of lamenting the demise of the "old" ways of doing business. Vaynerchuk's work isn't necessarily innovative; it's stuff people have been doing on the internet for as long as the web's been around. But what he managed to achieve goes above and beyond how everyday people use the tools, which is impressive. Also, he's driven to succeed in ways that, yes I'm going to say it, regular people may not be -- he's a born Salesman, a picture perfect Connector, and proof positive that word of mouth absolutely works to drive community, which in turn drives sales, which in turn allowed his endeavours to tip into an epidemic.

The stickiness of Gladwell's book versus Vaynerchuk's can't really be compared. I dogeared piles of pages of the former and returned my copy to work the morning after I read the latter. One's a book that would benefit from repeated reads and the other I'd recommend as a handbook to anyone looking to build their brand through social media. All the way through The Tipping Point, I tried to define myself in terms of the different personalities Gladwell presented. All the way through Crush It!, I wondered how much coffee Vaynerchuk must drink in a day to get himself out there to the extent that he does -- two very different intellectual exercises on my part.

Regardless, there were lessons from both books that I'd apply to my everyday and my work life.

1. That you need to pull the best, most relevant ideas from everything you read, fiction to non, and everything in between, and apply this learning to your life. Maybe it's just in the sense that you enjoyed something and want to pass it on, but that your passion, about anything, can be contagious. And that's not a bad thing.

2. Pay close attention to what goes on around you. You might not think you have anything in common with how "cool" becomes relevant, but within that, you'll discover what's authentic and what's rubbish -- especially in areas of your own expertise.

3. Don't be afraid of people. Or situations. Or of doing things that might make you uncomfortable (read: running a seminar in front a large group of people). Ahem. YES, I realize how ironic this is coming from shy, scaredy-cat me.

4. Read more nonfiction.

5. Getting people excited about reading isn't just about selling books. For me, it's about the survival of our culture, whether it's pop or otherwise, it's a record of who we are as a people at the time. It's necessary. It's important. It's valuable and it's a part of our survival. Art matters. Fighting about it won't get us to our goals any quicker.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Book Camp Vancouver

Over the past few days, I've been trying to synthesize my thoughts about Book Camp Vancouver into some cohesive post that captures everything that happened over the couple of days. Beyond the networking and the bookish talking, I met some really great people who seem to be just as passionate about dealing with the issues within our industry and moving forward. As a friend tweeted, we just want people to read books and figure everything else out as we go along. In my case, I don't care where or how people are reading books, just that they are reading. In short order here are the talking points (some from my own session on Content Would be King and some that arose from others) that have consumed me in the wee hours of the morning as my body stubbornly refuses to adjust to West Coast time:

1. As an industry on the whole we need to start separating our selling tools, our B2B assets from the messages we're sending out D2C. We can't keep using the same messaging for both and expecting the consumer to be thrilled. The audiences are different. These differences are crucial to creating content both around authors and books. We need to imagine strategy and technique to talk to both camps effectively and accurately.

2. Everyone is so panicked about losing traditional book sales and the impending ebook revolution that they're focusing all their energy in the wrong direction. We shouldn't be sitting up complaining that the physical book is disappearing. Let's move beyond the fear and decide to push in the direction of having our content available cross-platform. This isn't revolutionary; it's just common sense. In my session, when a woman held up a notebook and proclaimed her deep love and affection for the format, I held up my blackberry. It's not one or the other. I read books, ebooks, web content, web books, and once we can figure out a way to have all of these devices talk to each other, we'll be golden. From commute to bedtime, you'll be able to enjoy the same content -- just because we want more options doesn't mean we want the book to go away. This is a common misconception that just means we do more and more arguing and defending one position against the other. How about we meet in the middle and find a solution?

3. The internet/online/digital is not marketing's slushpile. It's not something you should be doing just because you think you have to but because you think it has value. It also can't be an afterthought. It has to have clean, concise and effective strategy behind it. It's another argument I can't believe we're all still having. It's cache (cash) -- not cache (cash-shay). Traditional marketing has the cache; big full-page ads in the Globe and Mail are incredible, but they don't have the cache -- the sticky power of the internet to hold on to every bit of information that gets posted. We need to push the power of the cache and keep driving as much content as possible. Eventually we'll get to conversion, which is what everyone wants.

4. We have a problem with revenue, not audience. This was revolutionary with me; it's almost as if it freed my mind to accept the fact that the seismic shift needs to encompass new business models.

5. More and more the truly brilliant people I come into contact with, whether they work at the chain or for an independent bookstore, whether they're readers, bloggers or writers, whether they're in the press or starting up an online business, are open to saying good-bye, and in shocking ways, to the way things have always been done. Some of the most interesting conversations I had weren't just about what wasn't working but about what we can do within the confines of the business itself.

There's so much more that I'm sure I'll be talking about as the days go by and my brain keeps mulling over and over how to truly move forward in a way that gets everyone paid. Holler back your thoughts and let me know if I'm truly crazy or if you think, like I do, that we can get there too.

#55 - Serena

After being on vacation for almost five days, one would have thought I'd have gotten further through the stack of books I brought with me, bought at the sale at the Vancouver Public Library, and purchased on Granville Island. Not so. I managed to finish Ron Rash's Serena, and am about halfway through The Tipping Point (and I have read Gary Vaynerchuk's Crush It!, which is technically #56, but I'm going to talk about it and the Gladwell in the same post).

Annnywaay. This is the first book that I've read from American writer Rash, and not to be cliched but it certainly won't be the last. Set in the Appalachians during the Depression, Serena tells the story of an ambitious lumber baron who marries an enigmatic, determined young woman who changes his life irrevocably. When Pemberton arrives back to the logging settlement with his new wife, Serena, in tow, he's met at the station by Rachel Harmon and her father. The former there at the behest of her father, out to protect her dignity, as Pemberton has gotten the young girl pregnant.

A fight ensues, and Harmon ends up overpowered by the tall, powerful Pemberton. Estranged from her former lover and about to give birth, Rachel heads back to their cabin to make her way on her own while Pemberton and his new bride are similarly disposed to making their mark on the landscape that surrounds the community of Waynesville. Serena's driven by money and success. She sees natural resources as simply a means to gain more and more power and status. She's cold, calculating and focussed. Yet, it's this focus and intensity that attracted Pemberton to her in the first place. As the relationship grows more complex, their attachment suffers from the stress of her ambition, and the lengths to which she'll go to achieve her goals. The results are deadly, not just for the trees, but for anyone who might stand in her way -- and that includes young Rachel and her little baby boy.

The idea that human beings are inescapably tied to their environment runs throughout the narrative. As Serena destroys the forests, their workers suffer more and more accidents. As they drive further and further to clearcut the entire area of its trees, there's a movement to create a national park and save the environment. Of course, Serena and Pemberton stand on the side of progress, remark upon the size and structure of the forest in terms of a profit and loss statement. There's a particularly poignant scene where Pemberton and his wife pose for a photograph in front of a raw, clearcut field proud of their accomplishment. However, what they've left behind is a crew of maimed, injured and, in many cases, deceased men who gave their lives for their profit.

The novel truly picks up about two-thirds of the way in. The further Serena will go to get what she wants, the more intriguing and active the story becomes. In some ways, the beginning of the novel is a bit muddled -- and there are sections that switch point of view to some of the loggers themselves that I think would have been more effective if they hadn't the Rosencrantz and Gildenstern-type, Waiting for Godot-esque dialogue that felt a little affected. That said, there's nothing I like more than a truly intriguing female lead character who refuses to be defined in any true way, and Serena more than fits this bill. Not unlike Catherine Land in Robert Goolrick's equally excellent A Reliable Wife, Serena's lack of a moral compass more than makes up for any of the novel's shortcomings. In parts, especially the more shocking scenes, there were moments that I actually physically gasped over her actions. You can't ask more from a novel than to that, can you?

There's a reading group guide, Browse Inside, and a really interesting article Rash wrote for the P.S. section about the interesting places his research took him.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Holy Crap

Time seems to be escaping me on so many levels. It's like a balloon with a leak -- all of a sudden it's completely deflated and you don't really know what happened. So, here's a rundown of me over the last little while:

1. I saw Whip It and it was 100 kinds of awesome: sweet when it needed to be, subversive enough to make the cynic in me satisfied and exactly the kind of film I needed to see with my girlfriends. I'm sad that it failed so miserably at the box office. I'd recommend it. Fame, on the other hand, insulted me as a human being. And considering the kind of movies that I watch on a regular basis, that's really saying something.

2. I'm heading to Vancouver tomorrow for a whirlwind vacation of sorts that includes: participating in Vancouver Book Camp, visiting my cousins who have just had a baby, hopping over to the island and staying with my aunt and uncle and squeezing in some time with a pal who lives in the city. Vacation sounds AS busy as my life. Wha?

3. Six minutes to go until I leave work and go swimming. Can I finish two blog posts and all my other work by then? Probably not.

4. It was minus 4 with the windchill this morning. That sucked balls.

5. I need new books to read. Anyone have suggestions?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

#54 - Mathilda Savitch

I wasn't expecting to read or even review Mathilda Savitch. But I was lucky enough to interview the author, Victor Lodato, for Experience Toronto, which meant that I obviously had to read the book. So the night before I was furiously (in between a rock show and a houseguest, indeed!) reading as much of the novel as I could while trying to come up with half-way intelligent questions.

"I want to be awful." Mathilda Savitch declares as the novel opens. She's ballsy, self-deprecating, intelligent and more than a little odd. In many ways, she's a semi-typical teenager, but in many ways she's also not -- she's sharper and has been through something traumatic enough to effect her for the rest of her life. In fact, the tragic death of her sister has marked her entire family: her mother refuses to get dressed, drinks, and acts a little like Mathilda's not even there; her father's barely holding the family together. And to make sense of the tragedy, Mathilda acts out in many different ways. It's a complex thing, finding yourself in the world, being okay with yourself. This act of individuality that's so much a rite of passage when you're an almost teenager becomes even more complicated when you add impossible situations to the mix.

Her prepossessed nature questions everything naturally, and this comes through clearly in the story. She's been damaged by the loss of her sister and needs to work through it -- even if the process is destructive to herself, to her family, to her friends. The author, in his interview with me, mentioned that the voice of Mathilda was so strong that he just gave in and let her take him where she wanted to go. As a playwright, Lodato seems comfortable with listening to the voices that invade his head, and it's truly Mathilda that drives this novel. You can't seem to get her out of your head, kind of like Owen Meany, she's that strong of a character. One part Goldengrove and more than one part The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mathilda Savitch also stands on its own simply for this incredible sense of voice.

What a nice surprise.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

#53 - Drop City

When I bought my second-hand copy of Drop City by TC Boyle, I knew nothing about the book except for the fact that it's on the 1001 Books list. My copy cost $3.99 and I bought from a now-defunct bookstore in Stratford, Ontario one snowy winter day my RRHB and I were out exploring my Irish roots in Millbank, Ontario. It was a great day. Then, like so many of my books, it sat on the shelf, and sat on the shelf, and sat on the shelf.

But once I started this book I resented anything taking time away from the reading of it. Drop City provides a refuge for anyone who wants to drop of out of society. A commune on an idyllic plot of land in California where hippies of all sorts call home, Drop City's inhabitants don't go for the Man's version of how they should live their lives. But when he comes calling in the form of an injunction (coupled with some back taxes and compounded by more than one run in with the law), their fearless leader decides that the only free place left on earth is Alaska, and "Let's go!"

Interspersed within the story of the caravan of hippies abandoning their commune (complete with a few goats strapped to the top of a merry-making old bus), is the other side of "dropping out." The very real people who already make a life in Alaska by truly living off the land. There are benefits to both ways of life, but to say that the hippies are prepared for the harsh Alaska winter would be an understatement.

Ronnie (aka "Pan") and Star had travelled across the USA to get to Drop City. They abandoned their education and their livelihoods (she was a teacher) for a chance to live a real life among truly free people. And they do find free love and a free life, if only for a fleeting moment before the reality of life, and their disparate personalities gets in the way of their idealism. Star's soon left Ronnie behind for Marco, a violent drop out who is on the run from the law and from his entire identity (it seems), who represents a different kind of life and love for her by the time the novel reaches its conclusions.

Interspersed with the idealistic, even indiotic (at times), hippies, are the real societal "drop outs." The people who live on the cold, permafrost borders of Alaska hunting, trapping and camping in cold wooden houses not meant for much more than a temporary stop along the way. The dramatic difference, not necessarily in idealism, but in common sense, between the Drop City band of ragtag, Ken Kesey-like bus people and the actual Alaskan settlers causes the necessary friction the book needs.

I can't stress enough how engrossing this novel is from beginning to end. It's one of those books whose narrative drives along at such a breakneck speed that you barely even register the fact that you've already read 150 pages, the sun's gone down and you're fingers are freezing from holding the book so tight. T.C. Boyle has a way of slowly building steam that will eventually boil, both within characters and situations, that overshadows the entire work with a sense of forboding. This isn't a bad thing -- it's more that the novel knows its outcome already and you, as the reader, need to catch up as quickly as possible. Parts of this novel just made me cringe too -- the idea of free love equalling the utter objectification of some of the women, that the mother among the bunch openly gives her children acid to prove they're "turned on," and the asumption that you can simply head to Alaska with little more than the goats on top of your broken down bus and expect to survive, all of which add to the dramatic tension of the most basic themes found in literature: humanity versus their environment.

I know I say this a lot but the 1001 Books list hasn't let me down with Drop City. I'd highly recommend it. I'd loan you my copy, but I'm sending it to a friend as we speak.

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 ...