ask again why I love atwood

Still puttering through the weekend Globe and Mail while packing, and I saw a piece in the Commentary section written by Margaret Atwood, entitled "And no flowers bloomed."

Contemplating why the new Tory government has slashed funding to the arts in general and promotion of Canadian arts abroad specifically, the veritable queen of CanLit has come up with the following six-point list:
  1. Ignorance. The Harperites have no idea how much money the arts generate.
  2. Willed ignorance. They've seen the figures, but have labelled them "junk economics" in the same way they once labelled global-warming statistics as "junk science."
  3. Hatred. The Harper Conservatives think artists are a bunch of whiners who don't have real jobs, and that any money spent on the arts is a degenerate frill.
  4. Frugality. There's lots of arts around. We can get them cheaper from across the border than it costs to make them here, and if you've seen one art, you've seen them all.
  5. Stupidity. They thought they were gassing a hornet's nest, not poking it with a stick.
  6. More hatred. They tried to slash local museums, until too many people screamed. They've cut the Canada Council top-up proposed by the Liberals down to a sixth of its size. They've stuck the knife into the National Literacy Program, perhaps on the theory that they won't be able to set up a working dictatorship if too many people can read. And that's just for starters. If these things can be done in a minority government, lo, I say unto you, what things shall be done in a majority?

The full article is available online, but you've got to pay for it.


thank goodness for the cinnamon dolce latte

I'm supposed to be doing an enormous amount of laundry today, in preparation for an upcoming trip. This, after all, is why I skipped tobogganing with friends this afternoon. Not because, when they called this morning, it was -17C. And certainly not because I am afraid of tobogganing or using a crazy carpet designed for small children that cost only $3.15.

But a poll in today's Globe and Mail puzzles me.

How is it possible a national poll on climate change, of 1,000 people, found 22 per cent believe global warming is occurring naturally and not because of human activity, while 83 per cent of those polled believe global warming can be solved?

The numbers overlap, and in a way that doesn't make sense -- if you fall in those five percentage points that believe global warming is natural, how can it be solved?

Also, why would only 54 per cent of those polled see water pollution as a threat to Canadians? C'mon, people, you can actually see bad, threatening water in the GTA. People who go to beaches in Niagara's Port Dalhousie (part of St. Catharines) refuse to step into Lake Ontario past their knees because they don't want the water to get into their orifices. Which is a completely ridiculous precaution at that point, anyway.

And for once, why can't national pollsters break down where their 1,000 respondents live? Because I think an Albertan might have different thoughts on global warming compared to an Ontarian, and they would both be different from a Newfoundlander. And most British Columbians would be on an altogether different playing field. The rural-urban divide speaks volumes, too. This is a country that lives on its divisions. Rural-urban, east-west, rich-poor -- these are differences we thrive on. They define us.

Sigh. I probably should only read the story in today's Focus section about Prince William's girlfriend. Anything else will clearly enrage me.

Apparently she's having a rough go of it, being rich and beautiful and all that. Must be hard waiting for a prince to offer you an engagement ring.

Wonder how she handles the whole pre-travel laundry thing.... probably not by ranting about climate change on blogs that are supposed to be about books.

**source of photo


the namesake

The one good part about going to the movies tonight, however -- besides hanging out with friends celebrating their birthdays, of course -- was seeing the trailer for the film based on Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake.

I read Lahiri's book last year and thought it was beautiful; not for its main character, the narcissistic Gogol, but for Gogol's mother. Everything about poor Ashima Ganguli, from the way she turns American food to Indian food, to the way she watches her self-centred boy grow up, is an experiment in love and patience and establishing a cultural identity in a melting pot. Ashima is doubtless the heroine of her son's story.

Before you check out the trailer, I offer this excerpt, from page 97:

Plenty of people changed their names: actors, writers, revolutionaries, transvestites. In history class, Gogol has learned that European immigrants had their names changed at Ellis Island, that slaves renamed themselves once they were emancipated. Though Gogol doesn't know it, even Nikolai Gogol renamed himself, simplifying his surname at the age of twenty-two from Gogol-Yanovsky to Gogol upon publication in the Literary Gazette....
That night at the dinner table, he brought it up with his parents. It was one thing for Gogol to be the name penned in calligraphy on his high school diploma, and printed below his picture in the yearbook, he'd begun. It was one thing, even for it to be typed on his applications to five Ivy League colleges, as well as to Stanford and Berkeley. But engraved, four years from now, on a bachelor of arts degree? Written at the top of a resume? Centered on a business card? It would be the name his parents picked out for him, he assured them, the good name they'd chosen for him when he was five.
'What's done is done,' his father had said. 'It would be a hassle. Gogol has, in effect, become your good name.'
'It's too complicated now,' his mother said, agreeing. 'You're too old.'
'I'm not,' he persisted. 'I don't get it. Why did you have to give me a pet name in the first place? What's the point?'
'It's our way, Gogol,' his mother maintained. 'It's what Bengalis do.'
'But it's not even a Bengali name..... I don't get it. How could you guys name me after someone so strange? No one takes me seriously.'
'Who? Who does not take you seriously?' his father wanted to know, lifting his fingers from his plate, looking up at him.
'People,' he said, lying to his parents.

flopsy, mopsy, cotton-tail, and peter

As a child, one of my all time favourite books included the tales of Peter Rabbit and his friends, by Beatrix Potter. My parents were fans of the "Easter present," and so a white hard-covered collection of the stories was my gift the spring I was seven years old. The tome fit on my lap when I sat up in bed, and I would read the adventures to myself or aloud to my brother.

And so, I had high hopes for Miss Potter, the film released this month to tell the author's story.

(Don't worry, the mini-review to follow does not include any spoilers.)

Real lives are hard to illustrate on the silver screen. At best, fitting a real person's life into the context of a greater story can be extremely rewarding -- see 2002's The Hours.

At worst.... well, let's remember real lives are boring. My life, translated to the big screen, would be painful. Especially if the screen writers chose not to emphasize any single story line, any single climax or struggle, or any bit of character development.

In fact, if the screenwriters decided to turn my life into a bizarre upside-down quest for marriage masquerading as the tale of one woman's pursuit of independence, perhaps they would end up with Miss Potter. Without the period clothing. And with more pairs of shoes.

Alas, even Ewan McGregor could not save this movie. And I happen to believe Ewan McGregor's voice, eyes, face and wonderful talent could save anything. Especially those expression-filled eyes that dance and sing and light up an entire film, even the bad bits outside turn-of-the-century train stations....

Of course, Ewan McGregor could not save Down with Love. Perhaps he and Renee Zellweger should avoid each other. Forever.

2007 has lots of opportunities to prove to me the lives of authors on the big screen can be interesting, however. I'm crossing my fingers for Becoming Jane and Bronte.


blasted winter

I had to stand outside for three hours today.

I won't bore you with the details of why, but I will tell you that I stupidly opted to wear black suede boots rather than the thick winter boots that protect my toes.

I am stupid because today was an Edmonton winter day. The kind that doesn't just taunt you with its coldness, but tricks you with cool calculation. The temperature dipped when the sun rose, which is a special kind of evil reserved for the tundra. Yes, it only dipped to around -15C, but I'll remind you of that three hours spent standing outside.

My feet felt like ice blocks. Painful ice blocks making their way forward on thin soles because the person to whom the ice blocks are attached is not very smart.
All this explains why this line in the book I'm currently reading, Louisa McCormack's Six Weeks to Toxic, really bugs me:
"Snow was falling on Maxi's patch of freeze-dried grass, the kind of purposeful,
chubby flakes that snow globes aim for. Soon we'd be saying 'But the wind chill
is minus23,' cursing hockey management, pulling our toques down past our ears
and resorting to all the other habits of the frigid." (page 19)

Where to start....

This book is set in Toronto.

You know, the city that hasn't won the Cup in almost 40 years. The city that's practically balmy throughout the winter, compared to Edmonton.
The city that called on the military during the Ice Storm. The centre of the frigging universe.


But obviously there are redeeming qualities to this piece of chick lit.
For example:
"Reading Alice Munro was like filling a syringe with maturity and injecting
some. But the hit never lasted long enough. Before I knew it I was back to my
own wobbly first person singular with no omniscience to my credit." (page 76)
I'll admit, I'm not really a fan of Alice Munro. I'm not not a fan of her, I'm just more of an Atwood girl. Or maybe an Urquhart girl. Definitely a MacDonald girl.
But McCormack's description is enough to make me reconsider. Even if I'm still a little mad about wimpy Torontonians and their wimpy winters.
Surely some hot chicken noodle soup and bad Sunday night TV will make me feel much better and less anti-Toronto.

A couple notes -- the Edmonton pic is courtesy of this website. And I love my Toronto friends, really I do.


high school, anyone?

I had a basketball game tonight. The other team.... smelled like alcohol. Which didn't prevent us from losing 48-32, sadly.
They reminded me of this.

by the way, if you like Crusie --

Try Jennifer Weiner, the author of In Her Shoes. Unlike the movie, however, Weiner's Rose Feller is actually fat. Not Toni "at most a size 12" Collette.


are you ready to be ugly?

As a teenager, I would ask my mom if I was ugly every six months or so. Probably less than that. The question was usually coupled with, "Will I ever have a boyfriend?" or "Am I going to be alone for the rest of my life?"

A pretty rich line of worries coming from a 14-year-old, I know.

My mom was never one to tell me I was beautiful -- she's my mom, after all. I'm beautiful to her, I guess, and that's that. (Yes, I'm putting words in her mouth, but you get my point.) She basically rolled her eyes at the series of self-obsessed, incredibly vain and short-sighted questions that followed. She continues to do this a decade later.

But what's so bad about ugly? What is ugly, after all?

This is a blog about books, as I insist on writing every time I get in front of my computer. But two wins for Ugly Betty earlier this week at the Golden Globes can't be ignored by a pop culture enthusiast.

Plus, I love that show. I love America Ferrera, I love Salma Hayek for putting it on TV, and I love that a girl with horrifying taste in clothes, a thick waist and bad hair goes out on her own limb every single day. After all, don't we all suffer from some degree of horrifying taste in clothes, thick waists or bad hair?

But the thing is, I still don't want to suffer from these things. I covet overpriced Balenciaga, I happen by a gym every once in awhile with the dream of having abs, and I curl, straighten or pin my hair to the closest perfection I can create. I know that society has adopted an "unfair, unrealistic definition of beauty" -- and I accidentally adopted it too.

Since the first time we hear the tales of Cinderella or the Ugly Duckling, most little girls dream of the day they, too, will break out of their ugly shells or transcend rags.

The modern (romance) author often adopts a similar story line -- girl is dumpy and ugly in high school, leaves small town, gets gorgeous, returns to small town, makes high school crush drool, finds out high school crush was a loser despite being hot, discovers geeky next-door-neighbour-turned-rich-hot-tycoon is actually the love of her life, gets married, lives happily ever after.

Or something like that.

In a typical romance novel, a physical description of the protagonist comes early, and it comes from the point of view of the male love interest, not the woman herself.

Take this example, from Julie Garwood's Guardian Angel (1990, page 6):
"His heart started slamming a wild beat and he couldn't seem to catch his
She did look like an angel. Caine didn't want to blink, certain his vision
would vanish into the night if he closed his eyes for just a second or
She was an incredibly beautiful woman. Her eyes captivated him. They were
the most magnificent shade of green...."

I'll spare you the moment he catches sight of her bosom. The book -- which, yes, I do own -- is set in the 1800s. One set in the 1990s or early 2000s would mention her silky long hair, which she tosses over her shoulder as she climbs into a cool car of some sort, then puts easy rock on the radio.

I don't know why.

There are exceptions to the rule, though, and not all in the sometimes hyper-academic world of CanLit.

Tilda Goodnight is the female protagonist of Jennifer Crusie's Faking It (2002). She's chubby and unfashionable with, apparently, a great mouth. Having read the book a couple years ago, I quickly skimmed the opening chapters again tonight to see if I could find an actual description of Tilda's body and face, but the sense of her roundness comes from her own sense of self. And her total disdain for women who are beautiful: gorgeous, manicured women are generally evil; accidentally beautiful women are scatter-brained and not altogether smart.

Like most of us, Tilda would probably dub herself ugly but for a few saving graces. Davy Dempsey, her partner in crime, notes the softness of her body compared to most other women's angular bits and the beauty of her mouth. Oh, yeah, and I'm fairly certain he fits her clothes....

Between art thievery and chasing bad guys, I think Tilda might have a moment for Ugly Betty. A campaign to actually be ugly, though? Might be a little bit too warm and fuzzy for her. Like those Dove commercials that are supposed to make us love ourselves in white underwear and loose flesh.


one more note on Becky Bloomwood

I know we all think of chick lit as post-feminist dribble, or a less pornorific little sister to romance novels. I'll probably have lots to say about that at some point.

In the meantime, suffice to say chick lit is a reality of popular culture. Read this article in Americana.

when I grow up

Welcome to adulthood.

I think. In this, my 25th year, I have a selection of shoes I love. I live in a gorgeous bachelor apartment near every necessity, including a mall. I am the woman I've always wanted to be.

Aside from that nasty load of debt -- the result of student loans, poor decision-making, and that lovely selection of shoes.

I find solace in the belief there are people out there who are far more irresponsible than me. Yes, I know that characters in fictional stories are, well, fictional. But they make me feel better.

Like Becky Bloomwood. The completely unbelievable, idiotic shopaholic in Sophie Kinsella's series of tales that make your chin drop to your lap and your eyelids slap your forehead with incredulity.

Becky is the kind of chick lit disaster you can really have fun with. Confessions of a Shopaholic opens when she opens a bill. Actually, that's not entirely true. It starts with a series of (horrendous? embarrassing? have I already said unbelievable?) letters exchanged between her and the poor man tasked with getting her out of overdraft and back onto the road of financial stability.

Becky's tales are painful. Brutal. Hilarious. The downside is that at the end of a day, she needs a man to save her. Frankly, Becky would never actually be able to get out of debt on her own. It's impossible on a PR girl's salary, or a journalist's salary, or a salesgirl's salary. But as a rich man's wife....

Cue Darcy Rhone. The heroine in Emily Giffin's novel, Something Blue, has no choice but to clean up her act without the help of a guy. Darcy finds herself ditched by her fiance, ditched by her new boyfriend, and pregnant. With little cash to start with, she heads across the ocean to London (one of my all-time favourite locations for chick lit), then completely loses her head and starts spending extravagantly with no thought for Baby.

I'll let you find out if or when she comes to her senses.

The classic femme money manipulator? Gone With The Wind's Scarlett O'Hara.

Yes, I admit, there's a giant leap between Becky Bloomwood's ill-fated discovery of e-Bay and Scarlett struggling to keep Tara in the middle of the American Civil War. Additionally, Kinsella's outlook may differ very much from Margaret Mitchell's Depression-era point of view.

But let's remember Scarlett isn't all about keeping the land throughout the book. Sure, by the end she's a tough dame able to keep the books at a lumberyard and keep her family afloat, with or without Ashley or Rhett or whomever. But at the start of Scarlett's tale, she really is a painfully ignorant daddy's girl. Had she the opportunity to pick up a pair of Manolo Blahnik's, she'd grab 'em.

Although I could probably learn a thing or two from her dandy curtain-turns-dress trick....

(By the way -- one of my favourite characters with no sense of financial responsibility? Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw. Technically, a character in a book, although I've never read it.)


....on the topic of food....

Yes, I am new to blogging. And no, all my book blogs will not be about what I eat. Or include pictures of my bottom.

But Food: A Culinary History is just fascinating. Edited by Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari. If you get a sec, flip through it.

Salon has a full review....

goodbye old friend

The holidays brought me home to small-town B.C. -- my family, gentle snowfalls on fir trees, childhood friends.

And home to all the books that have been waiting on my nightstand for weeks, unread and lonely. There was Lovely Bones, Belinda and I Am the Messenger.

But my must-read this winter? The book that's kept me up at night for weeks?
Carol Off's Bitter Chocolate.

Now, I love chocolate as much as the next girl. Possibly more. That's me on the right, after all, after a particularly wet ride at last year's Calgary Stampede....

But it's time we all take a very serious look at where it comes from. It's a subject I've been somewhat obsessed with since I was in my second year of university, in 2001. I caught this story that spring in the Ottawa Citizen:
"Agencies prepare to aid child slaves"
Jean-Luc Aplogan
COTONOU, Benin -- Aid agencies and authorities in Benin prepared yesterday to assist scores of suspected child slaves on board a ship turned back by two African countries.
The children, from Benin and neighboring Togo, were believed to be caught up in a lucrative trade in minors sold by poor families and forced to work abroad on plantations or as domestic servants....
Despite international efforts to curb the trade, child slavery persists in West and Central Africa, from where European slave traders shipped millions of people to the Americas from the 16th to 19th centuries.....
Many child slaves from countries such as Benin, Togo and Mali end up working on plantations producing cocoa and other cash crops in Gabon and Ivory Coast, where farmers can pay modern-day slave traders up to $340 per child....

The stories stemming from this news, mostly wire stuff buried on back international pages, put me off chocolate for well over a year. I was a good little humanitarian.

But milk chocolate lured me. Chocolate-dipped strawberries tempted me. Gorgeous Rogers' chocolates in Victoria won me over. I put aside my sensibilities for a summer. Then a fall. A winter.

You get my point.

But it's time for me, at least, to get back on track. If not because of child slaves in west Africa -- because there are those who would argue this is not as widespread a problem as some NGOs would have you believe -- at the end of the day, most of the people who pick the cocoa have never sampled the colourfully-wrapped chocolates we enjoy at Christmas. They've never sipped hot chocolate through a layer of whipped cream in a thick warm mug. They haven't a clue how good it all tastes because they simply don't have access to it.

As Off writes in her epilogue, "It's a measure of the separation in our worlds, a distance now so staggeringly vast.... the distance between the hand that picks the cocoa and the hand that reaches for the chocolate bar."

Read Off's detailed investigation of chocolate and its roots. At moments, the human stories will break your heart. Tales of reporters who have tried to uncover the story will tantalize you. But mostly, it will make you think about the food you eat and who makes it possible for you to eat it.

And yes, I know cocoa is just one food item that raises ethical flags. But giving it up is a start.