2007-11-26

natasha joneski (I know, terrible, not even funny)

Read this think piece on chick lit going international from the New York Times -- sidenote, my new favourite blog featured this link today.

(Further sidenote: When I say "think piece," do you picture Philip Seymour Hoffman as a hippy loner music writer?)

the thaw

This series is so well done. The author spent much of last year in the Arctic, funded by a Canadian journalism fellowship. The fruits of his labour -- to date -- are running in the Edmonton Journal and the Toronto Star.

For me, it's the writer's voice that makes it a worthwhile read -- check out Saturday's piece, when he described, in great detail, a polar bear brawl -- but I would also argue (and, I'm sure, be disagreed with by some) that he walks the tightrope of telling the true stories of global warming without getting political.

(Run-on sentence, anyone?)

2007-11-25

sweetness

It is closing in on Christmas here; I'm reminded of this every day by the (alarming? over-the-top?) presence of bright decorations in the foyer of my apartment building, even blocking the elevators. And, this morning.... afternoon.... snow blows around outside my window.

But I am reading about a land where heat settles on the skin. Camilla Gibb's tale of an outsider in Ethiopia is seeping into my dreams.

Sweetness in the Belly is an absolutely gorgeous novel. Gibb writes about Lily, a British woman whose parents take her to Africa as a child, leave her with a Muslim scholar in Morocco, and then die. (Not ruining anything for you, that's the intro.) From there, she pursues her own studies of Islam across the continent to Ethiopia. At the same time, the reader is introduced to her several years later in the United Kingdom.

There's so much loneliness in Lily's voice, both in Ethiopia and London. Meanwhile, Gibb seems to draw this other world so perfectly. Obviously, I've never been there. But I feel like I'm there when I'm reading it -- take a look at this:

We took off our shoes and entered the last room, a place of discretion, dark and small, without windows. I felt burlap beneath my feet and could barely make out faces, but I could see the forms of several people, both young men and women, reclining against pillows lining the walls. In the middle of the room was an enormous pile of qat amassed on a scarf, and beside it, a tray with two thermoses of tea, a jug of cold water, plastic cups with daisies printed on them and the ubiquitous clay pot for burning incense. (p. 115)

It's just so fascinating, and really the best kind of book -- escape and intelligence weaved through a really strong voice.

2007-11-22

on stage

Christie Blatchford is not, frankly, someone you expect to like in real life.

Yes, she is sharp. Yes, a good writer. But nice?

She came through Edmonton tonight to promote her new book. And she was actually quite lovely, even funny. (And yes, she joked about her "rack", because apparently that is what women columnists must do.) She bantered with the small crowd of people there to listen to her and get their books signed. And there was an adorable moment when this very old man with white, white hair said he had no questions for her because every Saturday morning he sits down with a hot cup of coffee to read her columns, and there he finds all the answers he needs.

The Blatchford availability actually made me want to read the book, which up until now I wasn’t that interested in. She seems intent on telling the stories about the real men and women (mostly men?) on the ground in Afghanistan and in this country’s military bases. One can’t help but respect that. And grin at her crush on the soldiers she’s met.

Ooh, and roll your eyes at the questions people ask of journalists, like whether NATO forces can win in Afghanistan (a question better asked of politicians), or how journalists advocate for soldiers (they don’t, not their jobs).

2007-11-21

what would you do if I sang out of tune?

So, I was all set to rip apart Math Doesn't Suck. The book designer tried to make the cover look like a copy of YM, so among other advertising-like blurbs, there's some bizarre reference to whether you, the reader, still have a crush on him, the guy with the tongue ring you can't stop staring at in Math 11.

I got the marketing ploy. I was all ready to mock the cop-out in what is, essentially, a flirted-up tutorial text.

And then my friend pointed out the obvious: This is a book by Winnie Cooper.

Winnie Cooper! Kevin's girlfriend!

Now I'm just thrilled young women who are bad at math everywhere can take a moment to learn from the prototypical girl next door.

2007-11-19

crazy awesome

1. I LOVE this web site.

2. How weird is this? I've never really read Meg Cabot, but I have to say this sort of makes me want to. And I have read Little Women. As if any little girl who read the book, and who dreams of writing books, didn't think Jo should have done that exact thing....

2007-11-18

oh, high school

I've been feeling really young this weekend.

Not in a positive way, like when women in their 30s and 40s get goofy because the cashier boy at the liquor store asks them for their ID. It's more like I've felt like I was in high school all weekend.... Friends leaving town gave me a yearbook to remember them by (a scrap book telling the story of our lives so far in Edmonton, which I absolutely adore); boys at my rec volleyball game today seemed just a titch like those guys you knew in high school who were actually good at the game and kind of mad at you for showing up for gym class; and a good friend of mine seems poised to start an I Hate Trish Club. Maybe I'll luck out and find something gooey on the underside of my combination lock tomorrow.

All this just goes to show the steps between adolescence and adulthood are unfortunately few and rather stilted. One of my favourite authors capitalizes on this knowledge -- that you actually are who you were in high school, but without the stutter -- and uses it in Smart Women to tell the myriad tales of immature mothers and their over-mature daughters.

But the book I most link to high school?

Winter Dreams, Christmas Love. This, my friend, is the tale of a girl obsessed with a boy for years -- it's absolutely the perfect story for any young girl who goes through high school boyfriendless. I read it every single year from Grade 7 through 12, whenever the snow started falling.

(Note: Snow has not started to fall in Edmonton. But I saw a few drifts this morning as I made my way down Jasper to meet friends for brunch.)

Even now, I get a ridiculous grin when I think of this book. Basic storyline: Ellen Marlowe, freshman, falls for Michael Tyler, junior, pretty much on the first day of school. He's a massive tease. He leads her on throughout high school, all of which she spends trying to get over the guy, to no avail. Finally, at the end (um, spoiler alert?), he admits he's loved her for years, yadda yadda yadda, and she totally goes for it. Which actually sets no good example at all for adolescent girls, but when you're a teenager you feel all warm and fuzzy because you totally get why Ellen's thrilled. She cries tons, and as you're reading it (when you're 13, remember) you're crying too.

The Scholastic edition pulls this from the book to entice you:

At Ellen's door Michael lifted her chin, and looked at her for a long moment. Then he leaned over and touched her lips with his. In that moment, she realized that no other kisses but his could ever mean anything to her. Something almost like electricity tingled in her lips and down her entire body. She couldn't breathe but she didn't want to. She only wanted to hold him tight and keep that trembling excitement coursing through her forever. But almost at once, he had pulled away and was smiling down at her. "Merry Christmas, Ellen, and I hope the rest of your freshman year is great."

My, my, my. Pity the 13-year-old boy who has to live up to that.

2007-11-17

ooh....

I'm stealing this link from Caked in Red Clay -- but it just sounds so dreamy!

Dear Edmonton: You, and the puddles of puke -- three at last count -- on the sidewalks between my home and work, have failed me again.

thematic quotations

It was after-work drinks last night when someone stood from the table and quoted William Faulkner -- something like, "Believe that man will not merely endure; he will prevail."

And I realized the few stand-alone quotes chasing around in my head include, "Nobody puts Baby in the corner," and "Fiddle-dee-dee, tomorrow is another day."

I can ramble off the first handful of lines of Chaucer's prologue to the Canterbury Tales, but make a point with my remembered quotes? Not so much.

Oh, here's another from the vault'o'brilliance: "This is Bridget Jones, wonton sex goddess with a very bad man between her thighs.... Oh, hello Mom."

Yeah, I'm doomed.

2007-11-15

where there's smoke.... there's smoke, end of story

Warning: This has nothing to do with books.

Instead, I would like to share an embarrassing moment with you, dear reader, in which I put my oven on self-cleaner, causing smoky fumes to fill up my entire apartment. I had to open windows, and it's Edmonton and it is winter and it is cold. Then, just as the smell of chemicals got so powerful I couldn't really breathe and I started to wonder whether cleaning your oven is at all good for your health, two neighbours knocked on my door to find out whether a) I had a fire and b) they were in danger and c) I was in danger.

I appreciated the knock, since that does sort of table one of my longest-held fears, that I would die alone inside my apartment and no one would notice until my colleagues at work decided I had been a slacker for far too long.

Also, though, terribly embarrassing. And cold, cold, cold. My throat kind of hurts now.

And why is my life more like a bad sitcom than a cool romp of romance and chance? In a proper romance novel, my neighbour would be a gorgeous man who would be overwhelmed by the sight of me in my sweatpants and sweatshirt, my hair mussed from, well, nothing, and we would somehow live happily ever after, perhaps after striking up a really fantastic conversation about how we both mythologize Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

No? Not how my life works? Pity.

2007-11-13

therapy through denial

I don't eat chocolate. I don't drink alone. And I clearly couldn't read a self-help book if my life depended on it.

(Well, maybe if my life depended on it. But not if there is a picture of or reference to Dr. Phil.)

When everything goes to crap, I burrow into romance novels.

Sad, eh? Not as sad as getting drunk alone or anything, but still kind of sad.

Such novels allow for escape. They present stories where people go over the top, where grand gestures have to be made, where everyone is a Size 6 and jobs are merely a sidebar character descriptor rather than an all-out definition of who you are.

So, this weekend I got through two. One was good, one was SO bad.

First, the bad: Nina Vida's The End of Marriage. (Yes, even my pursuit of romance is shadowed by cynicism.)

Vida's book is unfortunately riddled with cliched characters (a man still obsessed with Viet Nam, etc.), melodrama and dialogue used to tell the story without any help from character development or scene setting. I love dialogue just as much as the next person -- possibly more -- but I also love when it connects and makes sense. I feel like Vida wanted her book to be a movie, and maybe it would work on the silver screen. I'm fairly certain she was thinking of Jimmy Smits when she drew up her lead male character, and I'm not wholly persuaded one should write a book with its screenplay version in mind.

Now, the good: Cecelia Ahern's Where Rainbows End.

Weepy, funny, weepy. I swallowed this one overnight, staying in bed much of Monday to read and read and read. I got lost in the love story of two best friends, even though Ahern chose to draw it out entirely in letters, e-mails and text messages. The history of technology can't possibly match the history of their friendship/love affair. And I generally believe telling a whole story in correspondence is cheap.

But if you need a break from reality, I'd suggest escaping with Ahern....

2007-11-11

last blog of the day -- probably should have been the first

Remembrance Day has a special poignancy for everyone.

For me, my grandfather always took such pride in leading the colour parade during ceremonies back home, which meant he got to carry the Canadian flag.

Also, for the last handful of years, Canada has again been at war. Remembrance Day is designed to celebrate a nation at peace, of course, and to honour the men and women who got us here.

But we are not really living in peaceful times, and the many Edmonton-based soldiers who have been killed or seriously injured in the last two years have been testament to that. Read this.

[insert more positive sentiment here]

Okay, so at the moment this blog is a little on the self-congratulatory/self-promotion side. But if you can get past that, the premise is pretty cool, there's a book to come, and skimming past the promotions, there's some great pieces in there....

[insert here]

[Complete sidenote: I love Poe's "Not a Virgin," because it has just the right amount of anger in it. Other perfect angry songs? Ani DiFranco's "Untouchable Face," Carly Simon's "You're So Vain," Alanis Morisette's "You Oughta Know," and Bif Naked's "I Love Myself Today." If you're feeling angry and weepy, Jann Arden's "Insensitive." I'm sure men have angry songs too, but none really resonate when I'm truly pissed off.]

I had one of those weeks. Whatever.

The opening line of Douglas Coupland's Hey Nostradamus! argues:

I believe that what separates humanity from everything else in this world -- spaghetti, binder paper, deep-sea creatures, edelweiss and Mount McKinley -- is that humanity alone has the capacity at any given moment to commit all possible sins.

This is probably true. But the ability to commit sin, or evil, or whatever, isn't the only thing that separates us from everything else. It's also our obsession with happiness, or sadness, or the pursuit of happiness, or whatever.

Take a spin along the self-help aisle at any bookstore, and Happy! screams at you so bloody obnoxiously. I guess I'm just not cut out for self-help books. Although in high school, when I got really down about things, a quick read through a selection of Chicken Soup for the Soul books could really brighten my day.

Today, I was disturbed to see the franchise has its own entire section. And it's been hi-jacked by causes and name brands. What the hell?

2007-11-10

allo random!

I wish I had the presence of mind to translate "random" to its French word partner.

Yup, word partner. Oy.

Some randomness to share:

http://facehunter.blogspot.com/2007/11/paris-rue-royale-rue-du-vieille-du.html

http://50books.blogspot.com/2007/11/probably-all-three.html

Okay. Off to bed.

2007-11-09

2007-11-08

hacker politics

Oh, Alberta.

And, this afternoon, the aftermath.

sullying the slate

Last night -- or yesterday morning, I guess -- I shared some of my favourite novel beginnings.

Today, I share some of my least -- although I admit to leaving out some of the worst, like Gone With the Wind or Wicked, because I love those novels too much to complain about them and their opening graphs are too long for me to transcribe tonight. This morning. Whatever.

(By the way, if the thought of the puddle lying half a block away from my building has been bothering you, I'm sorry to report it is still there. Mostly dried, but still aromatic and orangey.)

At first, I thought I would study art. Art history, to be exact. Then I thought, No, what about physical anthropology?--a point in my life thereafter referred to as My Jane Goodall Period. I tried to imagine my mother, Sarah Bennett-Dodd (called Sally by everyone with the exception of her mother), camping with me in the African bush, drinking strong coffee from battered tin cups, much in the way that Jane did with Mrs. Goodall. I saw us laid up with matching cases of malaria; in mother/daughter safari shorts; our hands weathering in exactly the same fashion.

This is the opening graph of Whitney Otto's How to Make an American Quilt. For the record, I like this book partly for Otto's ability to tell intertwining stories of women over the course of decades. Mostly, I bought it and loved it because it was the basis for a movie that featured my favourite actors and actresses of the mid-90s, like Winona Ryder, Jared Leto, Claire Danes and Samantha Mathis. (Only when I found a used video at the Wee Book Inn would I realize it also featured Anne Bancroft.)

Anyway, this opening graph definitely sets the tone for the book. Unfortunately, it kind of hits me now as dry. Why should I care? Okay, I get it. Finn's one of those wandering grad students who doesn't really plan to graduate from school ever, so she keeps picking away at whatever gets her attention for longer than 3.5 seconds. And she's quirky, so she thinks about dragging her mother into the jungle with her.... But if I weren't lulled by the film and memories of summer skies and swimming pools and old-school pickup trucks, not sure I'd buy the book....

A long night staggered into day. It was four a.m., the witching hour of the daily production schedule, and the crew was divided.

The opening of Leah McLaren's The Continuity Girl goes on from there, about things not being in sync and it being one of those days, etc.

I know exactly why I bought this book, and it had everything to do with the name of the author. I genuinely like McLaren's weekly columns, and nothing really could have stopped me from purchasing this novel if only because I was so curious about it the whole time she was writing it and dropping hints about writing something....

But she's a journalist. Or a columnist. She could have done better with the lede.

That day I was just about to lose my vocation, my job, my good sense, probably my mind, but what I thought I was losing was Mary Catherine O'Connor.
"You shouldn't go," I said to Mary Cat.

Oh, Sarah Smith. Your romp through London in Chasing Shakespeares is so well-crafted. It's like an adventure, perhaps even a Choose Your Own Adventure (not really), based on Shakespeare's works and manuscripts.

But the start.... Why should I care about this Mary Cat person? And when will Joe lose his mind? Maybe these were the questions that spurred me to buy this one in hardcover (or maybe it was the awesome discount at Perfect Books). And I harbour no regrets. I just long for a better start.

Of course, I have been disappointed by awesome starts before.

another episode of being wrong

I would like to note my friend Shannon is always right, and I do not mean this in a sarcastic or bitter way at all.

So, as I continue to read Sweetness in the Belly, I will get to understand why my first assumption -- that the main character aids a woman giving birth in a dark London alley in the early 80s, then performs a circumcision on the girl child -- is wrong. But this is the graph in question, which threw me off and set me in the wrong direction altogether:

I cut the umbilical cord with the razor blade I'd packed along with a towel and a bottle of rubbing alcohol. I'd feared I might have to use that blade for something else. If the woman had been infibulated the baby might have been in distress, might have even suffocated by the time we'd moved her into an operating theatre. In that case, I would have had to cut through her scar tissue to open up the birth canal, at the risk of injuring the baby, at the risk of the woman hemorrhaging or going into shock. But we were lucky; it was just a minor circumcision: clitoris and labia minora. (p. 14-15)

See where my confusion lies? This graph kind of shocked me last night, but I was too tired to keep reading. So when I shared my shock with Shannon today, she assured me I was wrong, wrong, wrong. I will see why soon enough.

Camilla Gibb's novel has enjoyed heaps of praise and so doesn't need more from me, who has not yet begun Chapter 2.... But suffice to say despite my misunderstanding the paragraph I've highlighted, the tone and prose are things to fall in love with.

2007-11-07

for starters

I think I become obsessed with Edmonton's streetscapes when I am working night shifts. If I believed in being lonely, perhaps I would blame loneliness. Instead, I think my curiosity or fascination stems from the quiet of Edmonton's downtown streets at night. Men curl up on the sidewalks to sleep, and taxi cabs slow way down to encourage you to take a lift.

There is really nothing special about my walk home each night. I suppose I could be walking home along any street in any city anywhere in the country. Last night, I was greeted by the sweet scent of the river valley. Tonight, a puddle of orange puke waited half a block from my apartment building. The puddle was actually there this afternoon, too, but in the hours since I last saw it someone placed a plastic bag atop. This does nothing to hide the smell but hopefully the street cleaners will have their way with it.

I know, I know. Not a lovely streetscape. I hope I'm not doing any particular injustice to Edmonton; it really is a lovely city, marked by the same problems as any other place.

So, a totally different subject....

I've been thinking a lot lately about proper starts. Books are not like newspaper articles; they do not have a lede, per se. But there is a certain expectation of having them start off on the right foot. They should draw the reader in with something special, some little curiosity that makes a person keep going.

You're probably thanking me for being Capt. Obvious now.

But I wanted to share some of my favourite starts, pretty randomly pulled from my book shelves. (While pulling, I grabbed a bunch of other books I expected to have bright starts, and was sorely disappointed. Perhaps tomorrow I will share the worst bunch in another blog entry.)

From John Irving's A Widow for One Year:

One night when she was four and sleeping in the bottom bunk of her bunk bed, Ruth Cole woke to the sound of lovemaking--it was coming from her parents' bedroom. It was a totally unfamilliar sound to her. Ruth had recently been ill with a stomach flu; when she first heard her mother making love, Ruth thought that her mother was throwing up.

From Amulya Malladi's The Mango Season:

Don't kill yourself if you get pregnant, was my mother's advice to me when I was fifteen years old and a classmate of mine was rumoured to have committed suicide because she was with child.

From Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle:

I planned my death carefully; unlike my life, which meandered along from one thing to another, despite my feeble attempts to control it. My life had a tendency to spread, to get flabby, to scroll and festoon like the frame of a baroque mirror, which came from following the line of least resistance. I wanted my death, by contrast, to be neat and simple, understated, even a little severe, like a Quaker church or the basic black dress with a single strand of pearls much praised by fashion magazines when I was fifteen. No trumpets, no megaphones, no spangles, no loose ends, this time. The trick was to disappear without a trace, leaving behind me the shadow of a corpse, a shadow everyone would mistake for solid reality. At first I thought I'd managed it.

And, perhaps the simplest of them all, from Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451:

It was a pleasure to burn.

2007-11-06

ah, nature.... the sweet-smelling kind

When I left the office tonight -- well, this morning, as I was on the late shift and didn't leave until half past midnight -- the scent of timber was blowing up from the river valley. I love these nights, when the clean smell of trees sweeps downtown. Such a welcome break from the smell of pee that often penetrates the sidewalks throughout the summer months.


A couple quick notes --
  • The Cecilia Ahern novel, for the most part, left me with a big smile. I have three people I wish to suggest it to, and about 10 friends I would caution not to read it. It's probably too soppy for some, and exactly warm and fuzzy enough for others. The premise, for example, is summed up in a letter at the start of the book: My darling Holly, I don't know where you are or when exactly you are reading this. I just hope that my letter has found you safe and healthy. You whispered to me not long ago that you couldn't go on alone. You can, Holly. You are strong and brave and you can get through this. We shared some beautiful times and you made my life . . . you made my life. I have no regrets..... I promised a list, so here it is. (p. 32-33) Yes, kind readers, this is a book written for women by a woman. This is the kind of letter some women, perhaps stupidly, dream of receiving. And really, my biggest beef about this vanilla book is the two capitalized letters at the very close: THE END. I hate the idea of any story just stopping abruptly.

  • The idea of this contest has me completely intrigued and sort of excited. To tell a story in 250 words? Easy peasy. To do it right and perhaps even poetically? Hm.

  • Okay, I'm not finished with dissecting the vanilla novel, although this barely counts.... How could they have translated a good Irish novel to cast an American in the key role? The reason Holly feels so very alone and out of control is because she and her husband actually grew up together and were never separated. If the movie has Hilary Swank travelling to Ireland for the first time to see where her husband grew up, I'm not sure I get how that works within the story Ahern wrote. And, when I look at the cast list, it seems a whole bunch of characters have been created who were never in the book. While I'm thrilled to see that puts a role in the hands of Jeffrey Dean Morgan -- and hopefully he won't be killed off for once -- I have a lot of question marks.

2007-11-04

I'm such an uncool blogger

Oh crap.

fear factor

You know when someone's so late getting to something, it's just kind of ridiculous? Like, say, the soccer mom who only started wearing slouch socks and tights in 1999? Between it being cool in the New Kids on the Block era and then almost cool again in the American Idol era?

Similarly, it's ridiculous when people talk Christmas presents in February, or when someone decides to discuss Halloween on, say, Nov. 4.

But I had a tough week last week, and didn't get around to it. People who did include a friend of a friend in Uganda and a local dad/reporter friend. Can I say how ridiculous I felt when I complained of not having enough time to get a simple costume together for a Halloween party (not even devil's ears or cat's whiskers or princess cape and wand), then saw how Chris wandered around Africa looking for the perfect Mountie uniform? Seriously, people, it's time I got my priorities straight.

On things that are scary, however, I offer the Philippa Gregory novel I just finished. I know, historical romance, etc. Mock me. Stone me. Etc.

But Gregory's latest novel is a reading on King Henry VIII's later years. While her first couple novels on that particularly woman-hating/woman-hungry English king cast the man as a petulant child and spoiled brat with a crown, her latest painted a picture of a yicky old monster with piggy eyes.

Her first novels on the subject of Henry VIII were told through the eyes of Anne Boleyn's sister and Queen Katherine of Aragon. The Other Boleyn Girl is going to be a movie at some point soon, starring Eric Bana as the king.

This last is narrated by Queen Anne of Cleves, Queen Katherine Howard and Jane Boleyn, Anne Boleyn's sister-in-law. Adding to the overall scary factor -- if you're not that familiar with English history, which I'm honestly not, you spend the entire book with your fingers crossed for Anne of Cleves -- it turns out, is actually kind of mad. I didn't catch on until the end of the book, at which point Gregory casts the evil craziness so well.

By this point reading my blog entry, I expect you, kind reader, are bored. If so, I would not suggest reading this particular novel. If you're not, I think you might want to take a spin....

Now I'm onto Cecilia Ahern. I know, romance novel. Mock me more. But I'm giving into my soppy nature this weekend.... The premise of this one is that childhood sweethearts Gerry and Holly are broken up when Gerry dies young. Holly can barely get back on her feet, and then she gets a packet of letters from Gerry, one for each month, with a list of tasks for her to get done. The tasks range from sweet and adventurous to simply sad. One might even say heart-breaking if they hadn't lost their tear ducts in 'Nam.

I promise my next book will be very smart. Sweetness in the Belly is the next book club selection, so I anticipate being smarter for reading it....