This man is insane.

Offering up a contest to blog readers to submit the first 500 words of the first page of their novel, about 24 hours in he already has 326 entries and only one other judge to help him out.

And he's getting some real humdingers, too -- here's a fascinating start I'm sure someone, who is not me, would read: The smell of humans swirled over the village of Simmatra, teasing Rane’s nose with anticipation.

(Judging from first line alone, I would argue this sounds like the start of a Christopher Pike novel.)

Well, contest ends tomorrow.



Not only have I surely shared this before, it's really an unnecessary and unfit tribute.

Enjoy the continuing blizzard, people. If you're here, that is.


three links

Hello. Welcome to [Brilliant title to go here]. If you've been here before, you already have unfortunate insight into how my mind works and, wondrously, you've returned.

So here's another wee trip....

First, read this -- I love this guy, he's so California. I think. I mean, I've never actually been to California, but I feel like if Zack Morris were a 21st century book agent, he might be friends with this guy. (I'm so never going to get published.)

Now, from his blog, check this out. Isn't that a cool idea? (Although I would never pick up those books, even if they were free.)

And, finally, this. This seems like a really good and twisty adventure.

What book would you put out there? I think it has to be something you actually believe could make the world a better place.... I'm thinking it has to be poetry, because is there anything we're more missing in this world?


scary! scary!

I'm not going to pretend every second of my life is filled with fantastic, thrilling activity.... (yes, I am re-reading Cat's Eye, a fantastic depiction of how women can tear at each other).... but seriously? There are people in this world with nothing better to do than this?

(Also, why do people want to sound like something so scary?)



This is why I read novels: so I can escape my own unrelenting monologue. (p. 144)

In some ways, I feel like reading Carol Shields' novel Unless has changed my life.

I can't completely explain it at the moment.... in part because I'm not sure I've totally digested the book, in part because I don't want to ruin it for any book club members who might be reading this.

I just feel changed. And vaguely confused -- what to read now? Shall I go down the easy road and read something simple that takes little to no thought? Would reading the work of a male author at the moment be a betrayal of all I've learned? Is it fair to immediately compare and contrast Margaret Atwood's work?

(Side note: Don't you love how Shields actually manages to mention the works of Atwood and Munro? Or how she discusses the first George W. Bush election win in this way that at once captures the time she is writing about yet seems totally timeless. I love this about her work, how she makes it real and contemporary without sacrificing longevity.)

I feel like a whole new world has opened up, like there's a whole new shelf at the bookstore waiting for me.

And yes, reading a woman writing about a woman writing makes me want to write.

I'm sure this reads as a massive tangent -- if you've read the novel perhaps you understand or perhaps you'll think I'm awfully flighty.

Parting words (though not, at all, words from the end of the book):

Unless is the worry word of the English language. It flies like a moth in the ear, you hardly hear it, and yet everything depends on its breathy presence. Unless -- that’s the little subjunctive mineral you carry along in your pocket crease. It’s always there, or else not there. (p. 224)


Czech this out!

My Lonely Planet Prague guide discourages me from wearing a T-shirt with the above slogan. Seeing as I do not have such a T-shirt, I encourage you, fine reader, to find and send me one.

I love Lonely Planet guides. (Fact: They are considered must-haves by most Canadian foreign correspondents.) They're so steeped in helpful irony (apparently one should conspicuously carry a Kafka novel in one's pocket while in Prague) and, apparently, anti-communism.

For example: "Kidnapped by communism for 40 years, Prague has returned to the capitalist fold to become one of Europe's most popular tourist destinations."

Hm. Okay.

And then there's this, from my Poland guide: "In Poland, the past is not another country -- in fact, it's just along the road. Although Poland has emerged from the grim, grey decades of communism to rebuild itself as a proud and independent member of the New Europe, there are few places where history feels as close as it does here."

Sounds lovely. (Not being ironic.)

Must remind myself not to joke about how communism could work in theory.

I'm very excited. I briefly considered running around my apartment labelling everything by its Czech and Polish names. And then I talked to my mom, and she pointed out I will pretty much never have to say "refrigerator" in Polish or "DVD" in Czech. I should, however, learn how to say "bathroom" and "where is the...."


p.s. I heart you

Quick note -- the Valentines candy is out!

I know, any excitement about Valentine's Day is very unfashionable, especially among the single. I should be all anti-VDay, and generally I am, but I love red heart candies. So for about a month, we get to enjoy them (surely they are fat free? or it's not relevant, because it's just one month), and then they go on sale.

By the way, my favourite Valentine's Day movie? Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

(See? I'm not all sunshine and flowers and pink cards. And sadly I don't think I have a favourite Valentine's Day book. I imagine that would be a bit much, to be honest.)

chick flick alert

I would like to say, first off, that I liked P.S. I Love You.

(Yes, gentlemen, I am about to discuss a chick flick. Unlike in real life, when I have you cornered at your desk in the office or across from me at a restaurant, you can escape this conversation. Using most internet browsers, click on the “back” arrow, or perhaps type a new address into the navigation bar, also at the top of your screen. Be honest with yourself. You know you would rather visit something like this than read my thoughts on yet another chick flick I will henceforth use as one more pop cultural reference point to my life and the lives of those around me.)

Where was I….

Right. I liked P.S. I Love You. But it was a lot different than I expected.

Look, I knew it wasn’t going to match the book, since they cast an American actress in the key role and put most of the story in New York rather than Ireland. So right off the bat, it makes a little less sense -- you can’t help but ask yourself why this grown woman can’t cope at all with her life. In the movie, you’re asked to believe the death of someone so close to you will literally drive you mad for a year. In the book, you’re given to understand Holly and Gerry had been together since childhood, so of course she has no idea how to live in an adult world by herself.

(I love Gina Gershon’s character in this movie, though, specifically when she says the middle classes -- tied, as they are, to regular paycheques -- don’t have the luxury to be insane.)

Also, some kind of key characters were killed off for the sake of the movie. Which leaves Holly without her loving, wacky brothers or her dad. At the same time, the decision to take the father figure out of the story puts a totally different spin and depth to Holly’s mother and even Holly. In some ways, the Holly of the book world is kind of a simple character, and her mother is something out of an Austen novel. Kathy Bates’ Patricia is no Austen mom.

Further side note, Movie Holly was a lot more…. wincy than Book Holly. Honestly, I didn’t really understand why Hot Gerry (can I please order up a Gerard Butler with a side of James McAvoy?) liked Movie Holly until about the middle of the film.

Things I loved…. The shoes Hilary Swank got to wear. A scene featuring just Gershon, James Marster and Lisa Kudrow, in which Marster’s character decides it’s time to comment on Kudrow’s character’s “appreciation” for men, and she slams him down. The fact that some key plot points went missing, but the most important ones did not go astray.

Anyway, ladies, you should check this one out if you’re in the mood for a bit of a cry fest.

And -- spoiler alert -- I offer the last two lines of Ahern’s book for those who might have felt a little let down or isolated by the movie’s end:

Whatever lay ahead, she knew she would open her heart and follow where it led her.
In the meantime, she would just live.


geek moment '08

Does your TV ever suck you in?

I'm sorry, this is not going to be a post about books. I mean, I could take a moment to discuss how the University of Alberta gouged me out of nearly $200 for two text books for a night course I'm taking, but that's just whining and I'm fairly certain I covered all those angles when I was actually a university student.

(Besides, there's this little socialist inside me who can't help but think that, if it were fair to overcharge anyone on text books, it's more fair to gouge professionals who take night courses than starving students who scrimp away and live on just a few hundred dollars a month. Perhaps if I knew the money I overpaid subsidized someone studying social work or engineering or law or whatever, I would feel better.)

Anyway, I got sucked in by my TV the other night.

It started when I happened upon a channel called "Encore Avenue," which was broadcasting When Harry Met Sally... (I know, I have issues. Don't judge yet.) But what came next was much, much worse, no matter who you are. Because of the music and the opening scene of something flipping through space, I thought I was watching the beginning of Supergirl (I was really excited) when the credits came on announcing a movie called Krull.

Hilarious. But horrible. There was really bad acting, men crying on-screen, terrible fighting scenes, a wimpy main female character (who made traditional princesses like Cinderella or Snow White look tough as nails -- I really, really hate it when girls run around the screen screaming for boys to save them), and Liam Neeson.

That's right. Liam freaking Neeson. That's why I got sucked in for, like, an hour. As I listened to terrible dialogue and watched something that seemed to be the poor man's Star Wars meeting the poorer man's tale of King Arthur, and the absolutely penniless man's visual effects (even for 1983), I just wanted to see what Liam Neeson's part in the horror show was.

Answer: a bit part with very little dialogue. What was he thinking?

As penance for the loss of time I will never, ever get back, I have to keep my TV off for the rest of my life (read: today). And read a book or something.


also --


pause, sadness

"Rude and difficult people are more likely to be taken seriously. Curmudgeons are positively adored. I've noticed this. Even the fascinating unknowable earn respect." (p. 30)

I hope it's the long nights and short days that alter my mood.... this is something I talk about often, confused as my outlook sours through January and February.

I'm reading Unless at the moment, which is beautiful and lyrical and much better than I'd imagined. I mean, I knew it would be a Good Book by Good Canadian Standards, and that I would feel invigorated with the knowledge I was reading the work of a Great Canadian Novelist Loved by All, particularly Those Responsible for Handing Out Awards.

But honestly, I wasn't so sure I'd enjoy the experience. Turns out, I am enjoying it, even if I do feel a little melancholy. Not melancholy like when I happen upon The Biggest Loser on TV and I am suddenly filled with sorrow and an overwhelming urge to do 100 sit-ups while never eating again. (Don't worry. I've realized simply changing the channel quashes these urges. But do not flip to the Food Channel. It's too confusing.)

The story of a mother coming to terms (is that what's happening? I'm just 60 pages in) with the knowledge her daughter chooses homelessness over home is heart-breaking. Reta, the main character, is so storybook perfect, almost a modern-day Mrs. Brady if Mrs. Brady had a degree and the ability to self-evaluate. She's even, a bit, judgey or perhaps self-satisfied in her perfection (for example on p. 15 when she discusses the French feminist author she's been translating for years -- "She does not have a child, or any surviving blood connection for that matter, and perhaps it's this that makes the memoirs themselves childlike."). At the same time Reta is humble and confused by how her good luck and bad mesh, and hyper-aware of what others might be thinking of her. Like I said, it's early going, but the images of daughter Norah sitting on a Toronto street corner holding up a sign that reads "Goodness" and refusing to speak to her parents simply pulls at the heartstrings.

Anyway.... How to shake the melancholy....

Have I offered up John Donne before? Apologies if I have, but here is an excerpt from the elegy, "To His Mistress Going to Bed":

....License my roving hands, and let them go
Behind, before, between, above, below.
O my America! my new found land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned,
My mine of precious stones, my empery,
How blest am I in this discovering thee.
To enter in these bonds is to be free;
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be....

(Now, if you're still reading, please imagine the chortles and giggles of Beavis and Butt-head.)


it's the weekend!

In Edmonton, we say there comes a point when you can't tell the difference between -20C and -30C. This is a lot of bravado, but not actually bullshit. You really can't tell the difference mostly because you've lost all feeling in your cheeks and ears and toes and fingers. Your nose feels kind of weird as you breathe through it and if you opt to breathe through your mouth instead you create a puddle in the scarf your grandma knit for Christmas.

(My granny knit the best winter scarf ever this year. It's so warm I have to take it off as soon as I get inside a building in order to avoid sweating. This is a compliment, believe me. I love it.)

Anyway, not to harp too much on the weather, but where you really feel the temperature change is between, say -5C and -20C. It's that big drop, often overnight, that gets you. Suddenly your pants feel cold when they brush against your leg as you walk. And everyone starts coming up with ways to go places without going anywhere -- for example, walking all the way through Scotia Place to get to the Sutton Hotel.

I'll stop boring you with weather talk now. (Silly Canadians, we love dissecting our levels of cold so much.)

I'm off to Jasper for the weekend -- eeeh! So stay tuned for posts on:

1. Why Carol Shields is awesome. (So far.)
2. How Londoners look cooler than us always, even in the rain. Bastards.
3. How my dear friend Sour the Anti-Resolution managed to get through a Trish-Free Weekend. Sour the Anti-Resolution does not read this blog.... or does he?


P.S. Your homework while I'm gone? Well, if you are not in the middle of a great Russian novel -- it is winter, after all -- I suggest How To Make An American Quilt.

Sometimes, Constance Saunders thinks, the worst thing about being a woman is having women friends. And the worst part about having women friends is that one must share so many confidences, except the one confidence Constance longs to share, which is the one about not being wild over the idea of women friends. (p. 97)

It will warm your toes.


two more gems....

from The House on Mango Street:

(sorry, really can't help myself)

"People who live on hills sleep so close to the stars they forget those of us who live too much on earth." (p. 86)

"In the movies there is always one with red red lips who is beautiful and cruel. She is the one who drives the men crazy and laughs them all away. Her power is her own. She will not give it away." (p. 89)



I know, I know, I've said it before -- The House on Mango Street is gorgeous. I'll try not to gush like this about every single book given to me for Christmas by awesome people. Or would it be better if I did? Tough call....

But Sandra Cisneros tells her stories so simply, with short sentences and short vignettes you have to love. Apparently this book is used in classes, and I can totally see why -- I also think adults would really appreciate it, if you want an easy read that's still really good.

Anyway, one of my favourite stories is of Mamacita, whose husband saved and saved money driving taxis to bring her to the United States. And once she got there, to the largely Latino neighbourhood of families trying to find their place, she hated it. She cries and sighs and longs for home. She sings Spanish songs and refuses to learn English and, when anyone comes to her door, she yells only, "He not here," "No speak English," or "Holy smokes."

The story is really just two pages. But it's enough to make you cry.

"Cuando, cuando, cuando?" she asks.
"Ay, caray! We are home. This is home. Here I am and here I stay. Speak English. Speak English. Christ!"
"Ay!" Mamacita, who does not belong, every once in a while lets out a cry, hysterical, high, as if he had torn the only skinny thread that kept her alive, the only road out to that country.
And then to break her heart forever, the baby boy who has begun to talk, starts to sing the Pepsi commercial he heard on TV.
"No speak English," she says to the child who is singing in the language that sounds like tin. "No speak English, no speak English," and bubbles into tears. "No, no, no," as if she can't believe her ears. (p. 78)

[Off topic: For the record, I have high hopes for Canadian television this winter. This is going to sound all patriotic, but the good thing about the American writers' strike is that, if Canadian TV is good, people will turn to it.

Not if everything is Little Mosque on the Prairie, of course, because that show isn't bad but it's not awesome either. But new shows like The Secret Lives of Hockey Wives, or more interesting, jPod, could collect a big audience while Americans promote crappy reality shows like "Bachelor: Geeks Lose Weight" or whatever they plan next.

ANYWAY, I caught the end of jPod tonight, and while I was impressed by the twisty ending, which appeared to feature a group of illegal immigrants packed into a posh Vancouver apartment, I was not impressed by this scripted gem: "You hate metric, too?" "It's the worst."]


dinner conversation

Birth of the s'more.

Why I don't eat chocolate.

Best book I remember reading in high school (assigned -- also, while reading it on a 12-hour bus ride from my hometown to Vancouver in the 12th grade, a woman who sat beside me said, "Wow. A biography. I've always wanted to read the Marilyn Monroe story.").

Best book I remember reading in high school (unassigned, and embarrassing).

Key reason I don't like Richler.

Key reason I may try again someday. (But probably not.)

Restaurant in Edmonton you should try.

Restaurant in Edmonton bound to make you motion sick (but good food and excellent for dinners with dads).


and it begins....

It was a gorgeous, spring-like day in Edmonton today, with the temperature hovering around 0C -- a particular treat for those of us accustomed to, oh, six months of winter or so.

I went shopping along Whyte Avenue, which is wonderful on days like today. And I picked up homework for my spring trip....

(Only one question to mar an otherwise perfect day -- how does an opened condom wind up on the floor of a city bus at 4 o'clock in the afternoon?)


from friends

I've been meaning to post this for a couple weeks now -- it's an e-mail for my book club letting us all know what the next selection is, so some of you have already seen it in its complete, not-at-all edited version. Apologies for any changes, I was just trying to keep references to people we know to a minimum.... Anyway, reprinted with permission, this is hands-down the best book club announcement I've ever read. Enjoy.

Well, in the midst of making a rajma, a kidney bean dahl, I found myself with a few minutes and a recollection that I had to send out this email. The secret, by the way, to a good rajma is the tomato. Pick out how much you think you'll need and multiply by one-and-a-half. That is, if you think you'll need two tomatoes for what you got, use three instead. But I digress.

With the sugar in my tomatoes finishing its Maillard reaction, I will write to let you know that (we) have chosen Unless by Carol Shields. This is a book a good friend of mine insisted I read, a book that had shot straight into his top five list, and had begun a lifelong obsession with Shield's work and an extensive exploration of feminism. Seriously. The book hit him that hard.

I have read Unless, the second I had read from Shields, and while I wasn't as blown away as my friend, I was happy to have found a book so contemporary and even in its approach to the issues it raises. It ought to raise a lot of discussion. Beyond that, Shield's prose is wonderful. It's an astounding and nuanced performance. Her writing seems simple, but reading it will reveal great depth and meaning, without seeming overwhelming. I have never read, before or since, a book so sad and playful, so beguiling and gentle. It might not be the best I've ever read, but Carol Shield's last book is a gift. I hope you too can read it and spend an afternoon talking about it.

That afternoon will be in February....

PS For those who care, dahl is essentially a lentil soup, with a curried base. The broth of the soup should come from the lentils themselves, when they are cooked in water, very slowly, over very low heat, denaturing the proteins and creating a dense, thick liquid. The same technique maybe applied to kidney beans, to wonderful effect.

PPS Oh, the book is fairly short, so no need to dig in right away. But it might be difficult to find. Amazon.ca has it currently in stock.

PPPS How big a commitment did my friend make to learn about feminism? The biggest kind. He just married a women's studies major and soon to be grad student a couple of weeks ago.

*A note, not from the author of this fine e-mail but rather the author of this spinny ditzy blog -- when Carol Shields died a few years ago, I remember a source on the CBC telling radio listeners Shields could write about the way a curtain hung in three pages or more. This description has always made me nervous and intrigued me. More updates to come, I'm sure.

annual navel gaze

My favourite books of 2007:

Looks like a short pile, you're thinking. And yes, there are a few missing. Most notably Black Bird, by Michel Basilieres. This is because I send almost all book club books (um, not the one by Judy Blume) to my friend who moves to non-English countries where Canadian literature, in particular, is difficult to find. (Except Atwood, I guess. But I wonder how Atwood translates to Eastern European sensibilities? Or South Korean ones?)

(Um, another interruption. CBC is playing Bridget Jones's Diary again, and they actually SKIP the part at the end when Bridget says, "Nice boys don't kiss like that," and Mark says, "Oh yes they fucking do." Or something like that. My defense on this one is I've not necessarily memorized all the lines so much as the Van Morrison song at the end just skipped rather noticeably.)

Back to my points....

Big surprise of the year? I liked Nick Hornby. Not enough to ever try Fever Pitch again, but certainly enough to try About A Boy, for example.

Other discoveries.... Short stories can be inspiring, rather than boring. (I maintain the problem with Charlotte Gill's book was it felt like a paint-by-numbers, this-is-how-you-win-an-award collection of stories. I'm sure I'm wrong. And I'm probably just jealous.)

.... I can get through a year without reading a single Atwood novel. I feel kind of sad, though.

.... I didn't actually include Carol Off's Bitter Chocolate in my eye-pleasing pile here, but I loved that book. And a year without chocolate wasn't bad at all. Which is good, because I'm now entering Year 2.

No surprises: A soppy romance by an Irish writer was fun to read in about 24 hours. Still looking forward to the movie, even though the Americans will probably ruin it. And, a second soppy romance written by the same writer was even more fun to read in even less than 24 hours.

The author whose next work I'm most looking forward to? Alison Pick's. Read The Sweet Edge, people.



So, I rang in the new year at work. Sad, eh? Feel free to feel sorry for me. But not too sorry. A couple friends visited me with coffee and conversation. And I did get to watch Edmonton's fireworks show -- the city's biggest ever, apparently -- live on Global.

Now I'm sipping Baileys and milk and watching When Harry Met Sally... for the second time in a week. (In my defence, I had a head cold all weekend, so I nursed myself with three Meg Ryan movies, including Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail. As the years pass, it appears Ryan's forehead loses its ability to crinkle. Clearly a case of miraculous de-aging.)

(As I type this, it's the orgasm-in-a-deli scene! Woot!)

Anyway, it's time to set a resolution, but all I can think of is "do not lose my gloves this year" and "come up with better name for blog that doesn't steal directly from Tennyson." By the way, if anyone has help in these areas, for example one half of a set of black gloves or a good idea for a title, feel free to send'em along.

Now, some thoughts on books, since my Christmas break was spent in a zen-like state of relaxation at home, curled up reading.

  • Wuthering Heights is quite good. In the end, I really enjoyed it and couldn't put it down. I still don't get why it's billed as one of the most romantic books ever, but there are two very likeable characters in it towards the end, and you do pull for them. Sidenote, one of my favourite lines in Bridget Jones's Diary is: "It struck me as pretty ridiculous to be called Mr. Darcy and to stand on your own looking snooty at a party. It's like being called Heathcliff and insisting on spending the entire evening in the garden, shouting 'Cathy' and banging your head against a tree." And now I love that line even more.

  • When I think Douglas Coupland, the term "Gen X" pops into my head. Not sure if that's a compliment or not, it's just the first thing I think of. (And there's worse things than being associated with Generation X.) Anyway, I picked up my first Coupland novel, Hey Nostradamus! and it was fabulous. Starts out with a high school shooting in a Vancouver-area high school in the 80s, but more specifically it starts from the point of view of a girl stuck somewhere between life and heaven after she's been shot to death. From there, the book moves on to the life moments and narration of three other people connected, somehow, to the shooting. Amazingly, the book starts and ends on notes of hope. But the meat of it is somehow so disturbing and dire. And so well written. I think Coupland's one of my new favourite Canadian authors.

  • I got piles and piles of good books from all the people I love in my life, and I'm so thankful to everyone for their kindness. One of the first books I've delved into is The House on Mango Street, courtesy of my brother and his partner. The vignettes are very, very short, and startling in their choppy prose -- absolutely perfect for taking on a plane, by the way. An example of the clear writing: "My great-grandmother. I would've liked to have known her, a wild horse of a woman, so wild she wouldn't marry. Until my great-grandfather threw a sack over her head and carried her off. Just like that, as if she were a fancy chandelier. That's the way he did it. And the story goes she never forgave him. She looked out the window her whole life, the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow. I wonder if she made the best with what she got or was she sorry because she couldn't be all the things she wanted to be. Esperanza. I have inherited her name, but I don't want to inherit her place by the window." (p. 11)