September 29th, 2014

Mark Sampson’s Sad Peninsula

As you may know, I am married to the novelist (among other things) Mark Sampson. As you may also know, his second novel, Sad Peninsula, is out in the world and the official Toronto launch is tomorrow night. Here’s the official details:

What: Sad Peninsula Launch
When: 6-8pm, Tuesday September 30th
Where: Ben McNally Books, 366 Bay Street (just south of Queen on the west side of Bay)
Why: Because it’s a great book according to not only me but Quill and Quire and many people on Goodreads, plus other reviews I know exist but can’t seem to track down at the moment. Also, we bought a lot of snacks and wine and someone’s got to consume them.

If for some crazy reason you aren’t free tomorrow night or don’t actually live in or near Toronto, fear not–there will be other events. Mark has the full list of upcoming readings on his blog, with more being added as they get booked.

And if you’re not a readings kind of person or tragically the tour isn’t coming to your town, you could always just get the book from your local bookstore, library, or online.

So exciting!!!

September 22nd, 2014

How to support a book

I get this question a lot about my own work–how can we help, how can we support your work? It’s awkward, because there are definite things I’d love for people to do to help me out, but I don’t want to put pressure on anyone if those aren’t really what they wanted to do. And it’s pretty squicky to be giving instructions for how to make my own work more famous.

However, my husband’s brilliant novel Sad Peninsula is launching next week and the topic is on my mind, so I thought I’d share here, in a “if you wanted to know” sort of format. Keep in mind that this is all optional–just a list of suggestions on how you might like to help out. If nothing below is your jam, feel free to ignore the whole thing.

1. Come to readings and events. Even for a pro, it’s scary to step in front of live, potentially judgmental, potentially drunk humans and read aloud something that has lived only in your own brain for years. It is so so so encouraging to see a friendly face beaming up at you, you have no idea. And if you laugh audibly at the jokes, oh my god, I owe you forever.

Everyone knows that literary events can be awkward to attend–out-of-the-way locations, late start times, weeknights. Completely understandable if you can’t make it, but that’s what makes it so awesome if you do. Really, it does.

A word about Facebook invitations and eVites: Though we all receive these through personal accounts, please keep in mind that they are marketing tools of a sort, not personal communications. If you can’t make it and want to write something on the wall, keep it about the event–“Wishing you well, sure it’ll be amazing, sorry I can’t be there.” If you honestly feel the event organizer needs to know why you’re not coming, drop them a personal message and let them know. Why? Because it is so discouraging for a potential attendee to go to an event page to see if maybe she’d like to go, and see a wall full of what others prefer to do that night instead. Seriously, I’ve seen everything from “there’s no parking around there” to “I’m planning on procrastinating all my work until that evening.” It’s really alientating to those who were on the fence about attending. Please don’t do this.

2. Buy the book. Books are usually between $20 and $30, and no one would suggest purchasing is required. If you can swing it, though, know that it’s appreciated. Sales make a difference, especially in physical stores where there’s limited shelf space and books get returned awfully fast if they aren’t selling. Online purchases certainly count towards sales numbers, though, though, and so do ebooks. Please note that if you don’t wish to buy a book, the library is another good way to go–authors receive payments through the Public Lending Right and so we are certainly fans of the libraries.
If you can’t find the book, one way to go the extra mile is to ask your local bookstore or library to order it. They might do it simply because you asked, or they might note it and if they get a critical mass of other requests, then order it. Either way, it helps!

3. Read the book and talk about it with the author. This is completely separate from #2–many people who have proudly shown me their copies of my books on their shelves have never mentioned the contents. And many who couldn’t afford to buy it borrowed it from friends or the library and chatted about it with me enthusiastically. Both are fine ways to go about things, believe me. Authors really value when you bring up their work and have an opinion on it. Most of us would never bring it up ourselves (“What did you think of page 43?”) because it seems showboaty and also risks embarrassing us both if you hated it. If you did hate 100% of the book, feel free to never bring it up, but if you have one nice thing to say, or even a question, bring it. Reviews are getting scarcer and scarcer in this country, and authors really value feedback, a sign their work is getting through to someone, at least a little.
If you don’t want to read it, please don’t mention it. I swear, I’ll never ask–it’s no one’s job to read my books. It’s just that there are no reasons for not reading my book that will not make me sad. (“I hate fiction.” “I actually don’t read anything ever.” “I only like vampire books.”)  I completely respect your decision, it’s just an awkward conversation.

4. Recommend the book and talk about it with friends. The easiest way to do this is some online reviewing–on Goodreads, on the sites of online retailers, your blog. These are wonderful, Google-able ways of offering support and do a lot to improve search results and automated recommendations from online sales sites.  But social media shares, which go to everyone, aren’t as awesome as the personal recommendation. A lot of stuff that pops up on social media I miss or ignore or assume isn’t relevant to me, but if a friend grabs my arm and says, “I was reading this book I think you would love,” I usually listen.

That’s it–all I can think of, anyway. If you have more suggestions for how to support a book, please do share in the comments. And then go read a book you love!

August 24th, 2014

Rose-coloured reviews *The Fault in Our Stars*

I was originally just going to post a review of The Fault in Our Stars by acclaimed young-adult writer John Green on GoodReads, but then I read some of the other discussions on that page on that page and decided to put it here instead. I might still post to GoodReads if I’m feeling brave later, but those teens get, um, intense about this book. They HATE it or they LOVE it, and if they LOVE it then they HATE the other teens who don’t love it, to the point of flame wars and (apparently) death threats. I’m not sure I can wade into those waters.

Nevertheless, I get it–this is a book that inspires an intense reaction. Even in me, 20 years older than the protagonists and, in Green’s own words in the Q&A at the end, not an audience he cares much about. For the first two-thirds, I was genuinely astounded at how much the book was living up to the insane hype that surrounds it. Not flawless, but riveting, and not in a way that made me feel cheap when I looked up from the book. The last third got a little slow and predictable, rounding up with a frantic chase for a document that, once found, contained no new information (this is the part I thought the teens would attack me for).

But oh my goodness, how delightful is that first chunk. Hazel Grace Lancaster is 16 and has thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs. She has been sick since she was thirteen, and probably always will be. Her cancer is terminal, but she is on a kind of miracle drug that is staving off the inevitable for…well, no one is sure how long. Hazel is on oxygen, has thought she was about to die more than once, and has never been to high-school. This gives Green license to do something he loves to do–create a teenage voice that doesn’t sound much like most teens. In his novels (those that I’ve read), he likes to take his protagonists out of normal life (child stardom, elite boarding school) in order to escape the constraints of voice and experience that would otherwise govern a teen character. I have seen a lot of not-hardly-realism in his other books, though I did find them charming, but Hazel Grace is his greatest success so far. She has that giant vocabulary that pretentious teens since time began have indulged in (including me), is an obsessive reader and an equally obsessive tv watcher, and has some additional quirks that I recognized from the home-schooled kids I used to know–an “everything is mine to question” confidence that is thrilling or tedious, depending on the listener (many of the GoodReads haters especially disliked such riffs, like why have hurdle races when one could run so much faster without them, and what qualities of scrambled eggs make then a breakfast food? I, for one, was pretty charmed.) And she has the black humour, patience, fortitude, misery, and fatalism of the dying.

Anyhoo…she goes to a cancer support group and she meets a guy who is recovering from a type of cancer that cost him half a leg. He is dreamy and funny and wry and kind–YOU KNOW, of course, because everyone has seen the movie based on this book or at least the coming attractions. A romance ensues, a lovely doomed romance (star-crossed), blah blah blah.

But it’s really good. I say that as someone who has read a bunch of YA novels in the past two years, and knows that YA books always feature instant connections, talks long into the night, etc.–things that are always mentioned, never enacted. These kids ACTUALLY talk about stuff–the dialogue is part of the book, not summarized as “an amazing conversation.” And every YA novelist knows that kids are always playing video games, reading books, watching tv, and looking at Facebook. And texting. But I have never seen these things actually realistically depicted–it’s always again, some bizarre summary that indicates very strongly that the author rounded up a bunch of kids and asked them what Facebook and Playstation are. Green has the first ever video-game scene that was both believable and fun to read–no small task. His characters make realistic use of Facebook and text when it is appropriate to do so–at other times, they call and email and even write letters. The shows they watch make sense for their age. In short, he gets the cultural context way right.

So the romance is believable because the conversations are believeable–they exchange favourite books and then talk about then, the boy invites the girl over to watch him play video games with his friend, they watch DVDs in his parents’ living room. Oh, and they comfort their friend whose cancer has made him blind. Just enough familiarity, just enough alien, to be compelling.

I don’t want to get into an analysis of the romance and subsequent sadness too much–you’ve heard it. Suffice to say, if you want to read a very sad love story about teenagers, this one is exceptionally well done. And if you don’t, well, I would understand. It’s the little things that got me–the above mentioned cultural stuff, and the fact that the mom is pretty much the most devastating character in the book. When Green mentioned, as quoted above, that I doesn’t really care about adults, I chuckled that that’s why he doesn’t bother to write them very well. But this mom–she doesn’t actually get a name, as I recall–has a rare emotional affect for an adult in a YA novel, a nuanced pain that read as real. For the first time I believed in adult Green had written. The dad, the boy’s parents, other adults they encounter along the way are so many stick figures, but Hazel’s mom made me cry. Really. And I’m not a crier at books, at all.

I’ve been trying to keep this short so I could have space to allude to the format–I got FiOR as an audiobook (this version) and it was brilliant. Probably the reason I was affected to the point of tears is Kate Rudd‘s pitch-perfect narration. Because it’s a first person narrative and Rudd sounds credibly like a teenage girl, the book comes across as an audio diary, which makes it all the more intimate and devastating. Rudd does teariness, out-of-breathness (Hazel spends the entire book on oxygen), and several accents perfectly. And the best parts of her performance is when she is being Hazel being her boyfriend, doing a teen-girl’s lower voice to imitate a boy. So funny and accurate!

Yes, the ending does get predictable, but even then there was a few surprises. There’s also a devastating scene involving Anne Frank (no, really) that is ruined at the last moment by a bit of over-the-top-ness, and assorted other little gaffs and foolishness. But overall this is an extremely strong novel, a 9/10 in its class–and to me there are no perfect books, so that’s really saying something. But I don’t know if the teens would believe me.

June 4th, 2014

I have figured out what’s wrong with *The Hunger Games*

During my period of reading tonnes of young-adult novels in case I wanted to write one (at press time: probably not), The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins was one of the few I read with pleasure for its own sake, rather than amusement/bafflement/anthropological fascination (the only one to really beat it out was The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Steven Chbosky, which just goes to show that sometimes what is popular is actually popular for a reason). I had put off reading HG for a long time, because I do not usually like sci-fi, or dystopian fiction, or post-apocolyptic fiction, or whatever category you want to put it in. More specifically: I do not like novels where starving children murder each other for basic survival.

I won’t outline the plot in more detail, since everyone in the universe has read it or seen the movie or sat next to someone who couldn’t shut up about it. These books are very VERY popular, and as I mention above, there’s good reason: Collins’s premise is incredibly inventive, which is not to say original–her clever mishmash of mythology and reality television is what makes her concept so stirring, and viscerally felt. Her plotting in the first novel is grimly tight–you can’t stop reading because there’s always something new to be worried about. And there’s nothing wrong with her prose, either–I could always picture every scene, characters and actions perfectly.

And while I applaud the achievement, I still felt pretty squicked by my enjoyment. I kept trying to argue with myself that the book makes clear that the Capitol rulers who pit these kids to the death are *evil* and it’s certainly not as if everything is peaches and cream in “real literature”–it’s not like things work out well for Anna Karenina, and Shakespeare is rife with despotic rulers, plus there’s tonnes of gore in Greek mythology.

That didn’t completely sit, but I let a year go by to forget the worst of my misgivings, and then I got the second of the HG novels, Catching Fire, out of the library. This one is not as good as the first–baggier, duller, too focussed on the silly love-triangle (I’m sorry, I know this pretty much rules me out of reading YA, but I cannot care all that much about whom a 16-year-old kisses or does not kiss) and bizarre things like what clothes people wear and identifying every single person who lives in the town. Seriously, there’s nearly 50 characters in this book, and I’m not sure why. We know them semi-well, get a bit of backstory, start to be interested, then they never come back. Very annoying, and constant.

Collins’s prose is as crystal-clear as ever, but the problem is there are much darker and more complex matters to illuminate. The evil President Snow is a dictator and an oppressor, starving the weaker districts to…exert control? This is where things started to fall apart for me. I tried SO hard to make HG a political parable–for apartheid? The Middle East? The most eerie resonances seemed to be Ukraine–Presidents Snow and Putin have some similarities–but the book was written before all that. And the truth is, the scenario with the Capitol and the Districts does not make a whole lot of sense. What do they get by all this violence other than a very expensive tv show? It’s really a child’s version of political oppression, with no real politics, just bad people and good people.

And that means I couldn’t sell the novels to myself as literature. That doesn’t mean I didn’t stay up late reading the end of Catching Fire (rushed ending and stupid cliffhanger, after 400 pages of babble about how the trees looked–not that I’m bitter). But the novel doesn’t really *do* anything–it doesn’t show us the complexity of political life, or political difference. It doesn’t examine how oppression serves the few, or how power corrupts. The first two HG novels really just comfortably underline what we already know: that good people are good and bad people are bad.

And if we’re not learning, growing, expanding our understanding of the world, then the books are just…entertainment. And there’s nothing wrong with entertainment, of course, many of my favourite books are nothing but–but the Hunger Games books are about the murder of starving children.

And that’s when the hammer dropped.

The Hunger Games becomes itself. The readers become, like the awful citizens of the Capitol, voyeurs of the sadistic torture of tweens and teens (and in the second book, some adults too). Whether it’s The Hunger Games I’m reading, or the Hunger Games that I’m watching on TV, I become complicit by not walking away from the book/screen–by indulging in the prurience of being entertained by others’ suffering. Of course, I don’t *want* anyone to die, but since I know that they must die regardless of my will, why not just wish they would hurry up and get offed already, and hopefully in the most entertaining, not-too-nauseating way. Is that a Capitol-viewer’s thought, or is that my thought?

Now I’m really uncomfortable with myself. I’m also not sure if Collins is a genius artist-saboteur, who created a slew of stupid, shallow entertainment gobblers, and then made her readers become them. Or is it all something a bit more benign and less meta? I can’t figure it out.

I suspect that someone has worked this out more insightfully than I did, and I’d really like to read THAT blog post, but I didn’t know what to Google. Anyone know?

Also, if I believe the theory above, does that mean I can’t read the third and final book in the series? Probably, right? Damn.

April 19th, 2014

Back(ish): *Once* play, poem repost, famous friends

Wow, I’ve never had a blog lull like this one before–and I hope to be somewhat back in the saddle as of now. The break was brought on by the insane busyness that I’m starting to think is just a part of adult life. Sometimes it’s a bit less, sometimes a bit more, but grownups who are lucky enough to have friends and family and a way of earning a living are just going to always be busy. We were in the “a bit more” side of things for all of 2014 so far, due to work stuff and (cough) trying to finish my book, but I’m heading into two weeks of vacation starting…sometime this week, and while the book is still a foot, it’s very close to done for this round. So I’m trying to do a bit more from the other categories of life, like blogging.

The other reason you haven’t heard much from me here is that I was taking my own advice not to take blogging as duty, since no one really cares that much and blog posts written out of drudgery are as unfun to read as they are to write. I haven’t had much that felt like it needed reporting, other than rants about people who are rude on the subway and in grocery stores, so I haven’t posted.

During my silence, a few interesting things have crept in, so please allow me to summarize:

–my poem Dead Boyfriend Disco got posted in a “from the archives” dealie on the echolocation blog. The poem appeared in their print journal way back in 2006, and still stands as my only published poem, as it is likely to remain. This one lone poem though seems to get mentioned and reprinted every now and again, so perhaps it is all I really need.

–the *Once* play is coming to fruition–April 25 and 26 down in Saint Catharines, you’ll be able to see it as part of the Soil festival. Here’s the Facebook invitation if you’re interested, though I know it’s far for many….*Once* presented by Twitches and Itches. I have no idea what to expect–the playwright and company worked up the play from the stories, but i don’t know more than that. I’m terribly excited, and will be there on the Saturday night to see it in all it’s glory.

–my beloved friend Fred was on Jeopardy on Thursday and won!! I had been looking forward to this for months, but it was still thrilling to actually see her face on my friends’ giant screen tv. That link above is to the full show, and though I’ve spoiled the ending for you, it’s worth watching for the fun trivia but also to see the tiny moment between when she wins and when she *realizes she won*. The Jeopardy party guests at I was with were SCREAMING, it was so amazing (too bad about the formerly sleeping baby upstairs). And then she went back last night and she won again (there’s a video out there that I can’t seem to post, but it exists). This time I was at my parents house for the holiday/to do my taxes, and again with the screaming. Quoth my brother: “Fred is really improving my life. It’s so much fun to watch something on tv I actually care about.” He was totally right. She’s back again on Monday and I can’t wait–if you have the opportunity to watch, I strongly encourage it!!

–I went to a few truly outstanding book launches in the past few weeks, and for some I’ve already read the books–that’s how exciting the launches were. I’ll try to give a report on some of these in the weeks to come, but I’m out of practice in the blogging department. So for now, wonderful things you might want to read include: Career Limiting Moves by Zachariah Wells, Mothering in the Age of Neoliberalism edited by Melinda Vandenbeld Giles (a little out of my subject area, that one, but that’s what I get for being friends with an anthropologist), Yaw by Dani Couture, and The M Word edited by Kerry Clare. That last one is what I am immersed in currently and it is SO good it’s addictive.

So that’s what I’ve been up to–not too shabby, eh?

August 19th, 2013

Rose-coloured reviews *Burning Ground* by Pearl Luke

Not only is Burning Ground by Pearl Luke my 13th book on my To Be Read *2012* list, I think someone actually gave it to me in 2002 and it got somehow lost in the shuffle…for 11 years. This is all to say that I’m basically an embarrassment to literature, but it’s not *Burning Ground*’s fault.

The book is the story of Percy, a young woman who had the roughest of rough childhoods, and now in her thirties is working in a fire tower in northern Alberta, which gives her income, space, and solitude to reflect on the twists and turns her life has taken.

I’m not a big one for the genre of Canadian novel of emotion recalled in tranquility and this book wasn’t really my cup of tea, but I can recognize it’s strengths nonetheless. Percy’s blazing strangeness, her *meanness* was fascinating and seemed to ring true though I’ve certainly never met anyone like that. At the end of the novel, she does something, or seems to do something or to be about to do something (it was a little fuzzy) so horrible I was shocked–but then I thought, “No, that is the logical outcome for her in this situation. Of course she would.”

Because the entire novel is in flashback, I wasn’t sure I got a totally accurate viewpoint on Percy’s life. Especially, I wasn’t sure who all the “friends” she reminisced about were, when none of them were ever really described in detail and she didn’t seem like the sort many would want to befriend. Was Percy an unreliable lens character (it’s third person narrative) or did Luke just not fill in the details appropriately? I always have this problem with this sort of tightly focussed, decontextualized writing.

There was lots of great detail about life in a fire tower, something I know nothing about. I particularly liked the descriptions of clouds, rain, and smoke. Less the technical details about how to triangular the distance a fire might be at. I can totally see an editor encouraging this level of instructiveness, but I found it a bit much.

The central emotional arc of the novel has to do with Percy’s friendship-sometime-affair with Marlea (I’d not seen that spelling before, but I like it!) That part was vibrant, sexy, weird, and felt honest. There were some things around the edges of that–about Percy’s parents and her childhood–that didn’t seem fully realized to me. There were some emotional bombs that left me reeling, but not in a good, feeling-with-the-character way. I felt like maybe there was a chapter missing.

The end of the novel is really cool in a natural science sort of way, but unfortunately I was really upset with the main character by that point and I did not care how things worked out for her. I’m not sure if that’s a problem with the novel or a success, as it certainly drew a strong emotional reaction from me. Definitely a novel worth reading, though equally certainly not my favourite.

July 16th, 2013

YA Roundup

Over the past 6 or 8 months, I’ve been reading a lot of YA (young adult) novels. This is something I haven’t done since I was, in fact, a young adult. Very young, actually, since I more or less stopped reading this sort of fiction when I entered high-school, before my critical skills were really up to par. A lot of what I was reading back then was pretty bad. Which is fine–I totally endorse a tween’s right to read crap, and I doubt it did me any harm (though I have an unquenchable desire for a red Spider Fiat).

But when I restarted YA reading after that 20-year hiatus, I wanted to read the good stuff, because someone had asked me if I could write a YA novel and I had no idea. I figured I would try to read the best of the genre and see if it inspired any ambition in me. No one wants to write trex, and while I probably can’t be the best myself, if you aim for the moon and miss, you are still among the stars, right?

The learning curve has been steep, because YA has *way* evolved since 1992–earnestness is out, drugs and sex aren’t just for bad girls (what, you think Jessica Wakefield had sex????), and the slang is all different now. I know, I know, there’s lots of good books from back in the day, but why not look at the current context, the one in which I could conceivably be writing in.

At first, I also had lots of other rules: no sci-fi or fantasy (because I can’t write that), all Canadian, a few others I can’t remember. Those went by the wayside–I don’t have a tonne of people in my life to recommend these books, so if it looks promising I go for it. Also, I can read a YA novel in a day or two, so they don’t take up much time (and make me feel smarty!) so why not try everything.

Here’s what I found out about the state of the YA novel in 2013. Please keep in mind I’ve only read a dozen or so books so far, with new ones regularly, so these impressions could change… Also I think I will break this post up into installments because, as ever, I am chatty.

Cad dads and trampy moms
If you trace the evolution of YA back to The Grimms’ Fairy Tales (I don’t know if anyone else does that, but it makes sense to me), you’ll see authors have been desperate to knock parents out of the picture for a long time. Moms are always dying in childbirth, dads off to war in the Grimm days. In mine, it was divorce and absentee dads–lots of sad moms drinking wine in the kitchen when their kids got back from the court-ordered non-custodial parent’s weekend. I know that that is a reality many kids face now, and always have in its various forms, but I do think it’s often a writer’s way of not having to write so many darn characters!

That is still going on, but it’s way dirtier now–if you’ll pardon the image, moms and dads are getting laid now. While plenty of dads ran off with mistresses back in the day, now it’s way more explicit: in one of my favourite reads so far, Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mother, Violet’s dad runs off with a big-breasted starlet (standard for me) and her mom dates a string of losers and flashes her thong in a Facebook photo. NON-STANDARD.

Now, instead of writing parents out of the action, authors are writing them off–I came across so many stupid, self-absorbed, slutty parents in my reading. I think this is a convenient way for authors to clear a path for kid characters to have adventures no parents would sanction if they were decent at the gig. In the incredibly far-fetched Saving June, Harper drives across the country with a stranger because her sister died and her depressive mom is so useless. Dad’s out of the picture. In the much more realistic Red Rage, Mara spirals into tragedy because her parents are basically the worst people one earth (but realistically depicted, I swear). In The Hunger Games (yes, I said no sci-fi, but who can stand up against that kind of hype?) Katniss’s mom is, again, a weak idiot who relys on her teen daughter to keep her from ruin.

When I complained to a friend who teaches grade 6 about this “all parents are losers” theme, she said I don’t know how bad some kids have it, and fair enough–I have good parents who never appear on Facebook. But I still think making a teen protagonist essentially parent-free is cheating. Like I’m not saying Jillian’s situation in Wicked Sweet–abandoned by her evil-incarnate mother day after day to take care of half a dozen siblings under 8–would not have happened in real life. I’m saying it would be an emergency and Children’s Aid would’ve shown up in chapter 2. A lot of these books give the false sense that 16-year-olds can do anything, and parents are just dead-weight.

That’s why I liked The Perks of Being a Wallflower so much (so did everyone, I guess). Charlie’s parents are present, his siblings are important parts of his life, grandparents, an aunt, cousins–he lives in a fully realized world that Steven Chbosky took pains to imagine in detail.

I guess what I’m saying is that I read as a writer, and as a writer summarily saying, “This person is bad, let’s not talk about them anymore” is sloppy writing most of the time.

***

Whoo, I have a lot to say on this topic–more topics soon!

June 18th, 2013

How to build a better book club

I am currently in a lovely book club, where every 6 weeks or so we gather to discuss a book we have all read, eat a delicious, vaguely thematic potluck, and draw the name of the next book-picker. It’s simple, it’s fun, and it’s added a lot to my life, but still the bad-book-club memories rear up. The time I was the only one to read the book, the time someone was mad at me for not choosing a better book, the time we read four super-depressing books in a row and then everyone quit.

Like people who have been in bad relationships and then find a good one, I’m much more aware of the loveliness than someone who had never known anything else. I would like to share with you some of the things I think make our book club awesome, in the hopes that you, too, can build a better book club.

1) Gather like-minded people and decide what you would like book club to do. Sounds silly–book club will allow you to chat about books with friends, won’t it–but trust me: different people have very different expectations of even this simple social/cultural exchange. Some people want book club to be a purely social occasion–the book is the excuse and it is only the subject of conversation for a little while, if at all. Some people want book club to take the place of undergraduate English classes, and help them understand serious works of literature. Some people want book club to keep them current on major best sellers and prize winners, so that they will be able to participate in the conversation when those books are mentioned. Some people haven’t read a book since university and are looking to get into reading as an adult for the first time.

These are all fine ways to construct a club, but note: not all compatible. If you’re forming the club, ask people what they’d like to do; if you’re thinking of joining, ask what they’ve read lately. This matters! The girl who was mad at me for picking a bad book had not read any other books that month. If book club was going to be her sole reading experience, she didn’t want it to suck. I, on the other hand, was picking books experimentally, just to see what they were like–if it sucked, oh well, I would just read something else. You see how we weren’t going to get along no matter what.

Our current club is the 250-pages-or-less book club. We all pick books according to our radically different tastes, and we all read open-mindedly whatever anyone else chose because it’s short and sweet. Even if it sucks, it’s over quickly, and we’ve discovered a lot of gems in genres I wouldn’t have otherwise touched. No one has a tonne of time to dedicate to the book club, but we are able to commit to 250 pages or less, and to trying something new. But that’s what works for us–not for everyone, for sure.

2) Appoint a leader. Not a boss–most book clubs aren’t too hierarchical–but an organizer, someone responsible and interested enough in the fate of the club that s/he will send out the emails, pick the dates, and gather RSVPs. It sounds like a minor role, but in “round-robin” clubs, where rotating book-pickers do the organizing and hosting, things can quickly descend into chaos or the club simply ends because no one ever sent that next email. You’d be surprised at how fragile a book-club is.

Our beloved leader actually takes things a step further and organizes space for our club AND a babysitter. This is really above and beyond, but it also really helps. Having a dedicated space for the meeting with the kids safe and nearby and NOT whining about how bored they are at bookclub is great for the parents among us. The whole thing tends to run like clockwork, which all members are grateful for.

You don’t have to have this super-hero level of engagement, but you do need a basic plan to keep the club going. If you want to pull off a round-robin structure, it might help to have certain “rules” in place–we meet the 3rd Tuesday of the month or BUST, for example. And perhaps meet in a public place, or at least have one as backup, so that a meeting doesn’t have to get cancelled if the host’s child gets the flu or similar.

3) Have fun! No matter how edifying they find it, no one will show up after a while if book club starts to feel like homework, just another responsibility that goes in the stack with work, housecleaning, cooking, and childcare. Bring good food–it doesn’t matter if it’s takeout, this is not a cook-off. Bring stuff that people like, and (if this sort of silliness floats your boat) is somehow related to the book. Our club also meets on the weekend, so people aren’t exhausted and running late from the workday. That’s probably not possible for every club, but it is nice if people come in a bit cheerful to start. Make sure members understand that disliking a book is just disliking a book, and shouldn’t be viewed as an attack on whoever chose it. People should feel comfortable making fun of characters, speculating about their sex lives, and talking about literary influences on the author, sometimes all at once. You don’t necessarily need to read on the level of analysis like in a university classroom–sometimes people just want to talk about how much they love a book, and that’s fine too.

We haven’t done many extra-curriculars as a club, but some fun ones are seeing the movie or theatrical version, seeing the author read, or visiting places that were settings in the book. Our one field trip was super-fun–I hope there are more. I’ve never been a bookclub that had a visiting author, but I have *been* that author. It was a bit awkward–I wasn’t sure if I should contribute to the potluck, not everyone liked the book and they felt bad about it–but overall a fun experience…

4) Accept when a book club is not for you, and find alternatives. A friend’s club was disintegrating because no one ever read the book, so it became a dinner-party club. For time-pressed people who just want to see their friends, that might be a really good solution. I also kind of like the idea of a “book-recommendation club” for people who like to read but don’t like to be given orders what to read. You get together and all talk about the books you’ve read in the last month, and which of those you’d recommend. Then maybe the next month, someone has taken one of your recommendations and you can talk about what you both think. That’s a little lower-pressure, but you still get your book-jollies in.

It’s amazing how something so utterly unnecessary has taken the world by storm–trust me when I say I’m not the only one who has experienced book-club angst. But if you get it right, book-clubs can be so fun. I hope you find, or build, a good one!

February 15th, 2013

Various Nice Things

It’s a bit vain, but every now again I look myself up in various places–embarrassing, but I often discover information worth knowing, so I keep doing it.

Anyway, yesterday I was ordering some books from the library and I search my name in their database. I was happy to find a bunch of my books and even a few holds, but was extra-delighted to see 9 copies of *Road Trips*. That was my 2010 chapbook with Frog Hollow–something I was proud of but I think very few people saw. It was pricey and available only by mail-order. The price has gone down now, if you’re interested in ordering it, and anyway I think it was worth every penny of the original price, as Frog Hollow does some of the most gorgeous printing and binding I’ve seen. Nevertheless, I know it just wasn’t realistic for many budgets.

But 9 copies in TPL–that means your hold would come in pretty fast! So if you were curious about *Road Trips*, this could be your chance…

Other nice things I found out about recently include Deanna McFadden’s lovely blog review of *The Big Dream*, and my contributor’s copy of Freefall Magazine. And then there are my Valentine’s gifts, the traditional perfume, candies, and George Saunders collection. And it’s Public Lending Right in the mail day today.

So basically, in summation, yay!

February 3rd, 2013

The Sky Has Always Been Falling

I came to Toronto to work in publishing at the beginning of 2002, just before Stoddart and General Publishing imploded. At the time, I was acquainted with only a very few bookfolk, but all were startled and scared about their jobs and the industry at large–they predicted that things were going to change a lot, for the worse, right away.

The sky was falling, and it’s been falling ever since.

Eventually, in my 10 years in the world of books–mainly publishing with brief forays into libraries, book stores, and the classroom–I’ve met more people, lots more people, in this world. And I discovered that publishing folks are uncomfortable without a catastrophe. It’s a hard job, making books for people who have so many shinier, easier forms of entertainment available for their leisure hours, and we–yeah, “we,” I’m in it–like it better when there is at least a focus for our frustrations, a suitable scapegoat for everything that makes delivering literature to readers so hard. Over the years it’s been everything from Dan Brown to Amazon to American dollars at par to ass-grabbing executives to Heather Reisman. I suppose this could be true of any industry–I’ve never worked in another one, come to think of it.

I started writing this post during the Douglas and McIntyre bankruptcy, lost interest as the news cycle wound down, and now I’m back because of the Globe and Mail books editor reshuffle. It’s always something! But every time is like the first time for most of us: I keep feeling like most of the conversation is all, “now we’re *really* doomed” with occasional breaks for nostalgizing how much better it was before this new bad thing happened. Which is fine, I guess, in small doses–cathartic, anyway. Bad things really have happened, we’ve got to get it out of our systems, and kvetching is sorta fun.

BUT–I feel like every literary article in the mainstream press that isn’t a straightup review lately is an end-of-days whinefest. We’re actually losing column inches across the board, but why are we squandering what we have saying over and over how it all is sucktastic?

And who knows, maybe it *is* that bad and my perspective is just clouded–see the name of this blog. But how is it going to get any better when our focus is so backwards facing, so sad about everything that has gone before that we’re unable to think of the future.

I’m hardly cutting edge, but I think some of my tiny bit of optimism comes from my unique position, which is actually multiple positions. I’ve published two old-fashioned, old-school paper books with a press that is actually still independent, still active, still innovative–somehow Biblioasis manages to keep their authors out in the world, relevant and engaged, while dealing primarily with printed pages.

But I’m also on the other side some of the time–5 days a week, in fact. I work in a publishing environment that is struggling pretty hard to do the new things–books that have no print dimension, or only a small one, but do things print could never do. Have I seen the future? No, I haven’t, but I have seen a lot of possibilities. It’s inspiring what people are coming up with. It’s also really really hard–this sort of work calls on a lot of skills that aren’t really active in most bookfolk. It’s another part of the brain–several other parts–and sometimes it makes me really sad how not-innate this stuff is to me. But I keep trying, because what choice do I have? Publishing *will* keep moving forward, and I would like to go with it as far as I can.

I do find it hard to be terribly pessimistic about the future of literature when I have seen all these great ideas–variations on the old and brand-new alike–that are coming forward. And if you’re more pessimistic than me, fine–there’s room to disagree. But surely the “we’re doomed, we’re doomed” folks must realize that they’re not the best friends a book ever had.

Literature is a vibrant part of culture–it reflects and questions and celebrates and protests what IS in our world, and therefore it has to be part of that world. If it’s hard to innovate right now, individuals and companies and the whole industry do suffer, but that’s the nature of growth. We’re just going to have to work harder. In tough times, well…you know what they say…

If you’re worried about who is going to be the next great books editor, apply for the job. If you think all the publishing houses suck, found a better one. If you don’t think there’s a book that really capitalizes on the new technologies, write one. Or write a book that transcends technology, that’s so good it would be relevant in any age. It’s something to shoot for, anyway.

Or hell, just read a book. Read anything, and engage with the content, and talk about what it is and could be. Even if the sky were truly falling, it would still be worth reading books, and I think it always will be.

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