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.

January 24th, 2013

The Co-habitational Reading Challenge #2: Wrap up

So I finished *The Information* and it was devastatingly sad and grimly ironic and brilliantly written–you guys already know I love this book. I probably shouldn’t have left it to the end, but I do have to address the one really problematic aspect in the novel, and that’s the portrayal of women.

I think there’s some rumours going around about Amis being anti-woman, misogynist, what-have-you. I usually don’t give too much attention, because a good book with creditable characters and a plot that affects me is much more valuable than political correctness. And Amis *can* draw a creditable, even sympathetic and interesting female character–the problem is he chooses to draw pretty much exclusively the worst of the feminine race–Gwynn’s wife, Demi, is depressingly familiar as a sweet nitwit whose husband doesn’t respect her; his and Richard’s shared agent, Gal, is familiar too as successful striver with a desperate fear of getting fat and an unexpected slutty streak. Lizette the teenaged babysitter lives only to give her boyfriend blow jobs in cars, and Belladonna the crazed fan just has sex with anyone who asks.

Amis is usually too subtle to write bad caricatures of simplistic female ciphers. He writes fully fledged women who can imagine meeting, though you’d probably try to avoid them. The only female in the novel who seems to have a braincell and be worth talking to is Gina, Richard’s wife. Unfortunately, she is one of the least believeable characters in the novel–written as a black box, because that’s what she is to Richard, I had no idea why she did anything she did, or what she truly felt about anything else anyone did. She seemed smart, but she did some questionable things–or did Richard just think she did? Or was she a woefully inconsistent character? I have no idea, and honestly, I didn’t care at all about Gina–she wasn’t human enough to worry me, even though the narration alleges that she’s much more sympathetic than Richard.

Well, who cares, right? This is a novel about men and what they do to each other–the women are only collateral damage. A few lame female characters does not really disrupt that. The only character I can really complain about is Anstice. A vicious parody or outrageous stereotype–take your pick–Anstice is the 44-year-old administrative assistant at Richard’s literary magazine. When she takes him to bed with her, he’s impotent, but Anstice–clearly a pathetic and elderly virgin–thinks his fumbling *is* sex and talks for the rest of the novel about his “hugeness” in her. She also melodramatically plots suicide since Richard is married and cannot be with her.

And then she kills herself.

And that’s it! It!! Don’t worry that I’m giving something away about the plot, but Anstice’s suicide is utterly immaterial to anything. There’s an incidental comment that this has happened, and then Anstice is simply absent–first conveniently, then inconveniently–for the rest of the novel.

This is, of course, supposed to be evidence of Richard’s immorality, lack of human emotion and empathy. And it is, repellantly.

The problem is not that no one cares that Anstice is dead-it’s that she was never a real character to begin with. She is a spinster, as Richard thinks and comments over and over again, and so alone in the world the doesn’t even bother to clean herself or her apartment. She not only doesn’t know how sex works, she’s weirdly over-confident enough to talk about her one non-sex experience constantly. And she has other no other characteristics, interests, or associations. She’s just a weird sad pastiche of what both men and women fear most about women.

I’m sorry to go on and on about this–women truly are a small part of the novel and the actual story is populated by fascinating horrible males–the whole book is about wretched people, but I just feel the wretchedness is far more accurate and active in the dudes than in the ladies. And Anstice is a bridge to far for me.

Nevertheless, I loved the book and again apologize for ending the series with this post, which is not representative of my feelings overall. Still, it had to be said.

It was a pleasure reading with Mark, who has now moved on to a new rereading project with James Joyce’s *Ulysses.* I won’t be joining for that one, but cheering from the sidelines.

January 16th, 2013

Cohabitational Reading Challenge: The Information: Update

I’m on a break from Mr. Amis right now, due to pressing book-club committments, but I’m already about 2/3 of the way through *The Information* and finding it as good as I remembered. Better, even, because now I understand a great deal more. Amis compares impotency with trying to put an oyster in a parking metre, and compares *that* with Caussabon having sex with Dorothea. I laughed until I choked, which I’m almost positive I didn’t do at 18, not least because I hadn’t read *Middlemarch* yet. The nice thing about Amis, however, is that despite his smarty-smart pants-ness, he still provides a layer of the book that’s for everyone. Well, everyone but prudish teenagers, I guess, can laugh at the oyster/parking metre thing.

But actually, I’m feeling increasingly that the book’s target market is *me*, and not in comforting way. The book is very hard on the posturing and entitlement on the minor writer–“such people and their delusions of grander need to be put in their place” is the message I’m taking home. Richard has now signed his book with an independent American press with no advance $$, and has accompanied Gwynn on a book tour. Partly, Richard is writing a grudging profile of Gwynn for a large magazine and a large sum of money. Partly, he’s attempting to publicize his own book, and that’s of course going spectacularly badly. I recognize all the worst moments–sitting alone at the signing table heaped with your books while another author is surrounded by admirers; being forced to listen to lunatics at literary events because they’re the only one interested in speaking to me; carrying a heavy sack of my books to a sales event, only to have to lug them all home again.

Poor Richard. But also, 15 years later, poor *everybody*–at least in this country. If only Amis could’ve seen what was coming for the literary world–there are so very few mega-successes now, so many of us are comfortable with the idea that we can’t sit in our home offices dreaming all day, so much of a writer’s time is spent earning money often in non-literary ways, that Richard’s goals kinda do seem entitled, selfish, naive.

But, um, this would all be so much more poignant if Amis weren’t one of the few writers in the world that *does* fly first class, and never gets ignored at parties. Is this novel a parody of *himself*? My mother’s theory was that Amis saw Richard as himself if everything had gone wrong instead of right, as it actually did go. I now wonder if Amis isn’t supposed to be *Gwynn.* And how much less funny it is then.

I almost never do this, this decoding of the author’s secret self in the novel, but *The Information* almost begs it–too much of the author tour in the US rings like notebook observations of a stranger in a strange land himself.

In the end (or 2/3s, whatever), I don’t care who is supposed to be whom, orif this book is mean or anything, because it is SO funny, well observed, and gorgeously written. I’m pretty sure I don’t want Mr. Amis to be my friend, but he’s probably not interested in that position anyway.

I’m off to read Edgar Allen Poe for a few days, back at Amis next week. In the meantime, Mark’s farther ahead and probably will be finishing up soon.

And yes, it has been delightful reading the funny bits aloud to each other. The Cohabitational Reading Challenge is one of our better ideas, actually.

October 1st, 2012

What I’ve Been Up To

I was doing so well at the regular posting for a while there, but seem to have fallen off last week. Do I have excuses? Not really, but here’s what I was doing instead of blogging:

1) On Tuesday night, I went to the Bibliobash, where my fellow Biblioasis authors were reading. I was late, because of my evening class, and so missed all the actual readings, but still managed to a) get Alice Peterson’s excellent collection signed, purchase CP Boyko’s new one and c) chat up the authors. I meant to buy the new Chekov translation by David Helwig, but due to a miscommunication, didn’t–next time!

2) Following that, I had a migraine for 48 hours (unrelated…I think). For those familiar with migraines, mine are not the worst kind–some people see auras, throw up, and basically have to be alone in a silent dark room until things improve. My migraines are usually of the sort I can function through, albeit not cheerfully. The worst-case scenario is fairly serious pain, shaking hands, nausea, and an inability to concentrate, which is where we were on Wednesday, a day on which I slept for close to 16 hours. It was sort of glorious, in a way. The worst of the pain had abated by evening, but it took another day to shake it completely.

3) On the weekend, we went to stay in a fancy hotel, a treat given to us as a very lovely wedding gift. Since the hotel was in Toronto, we figured we didn’t need to bother with tourism or posh restaurants, so we spent the whole time in the hotel. Swam in the pool, examined the fancy piano bar, then ordered pizza and watched 4 hours of televisions–we don’t have TV at home, and the lost art of channel surfing is sorely missed. The best part was re-watching *Edward Scissorhands* after an interval of 20 years. It’s still so gorgeous and moving, but the ending???? SPOILER ALERT: Winona Ryder decides their love is too difficult so she leaves Edward all alone in his house at the top of the hill. Then she returns to her normal surburban life for FIFTY MORE YEARS, with only a slight tinge of regret. Why is she not a really horrible person??? Why????? Ahem.

4) Throughout all of this, I was reading Pasha Malla’s People Park, an extremely overwhelming experience. Were it not for my abiding love of Malla’s first book, I would not have touched *People Park*–500-page alternative realities are not my friends, normally. Just a personal preference, not a judgement. So perhaps it was for lack of context that I was so overwhelmed by People Park–so wildly ambitious, so diverse and imaginative, so *weird.* I don’t know if it was brilliant or terrible or what. I’m leaning towards brilliant, but I would really like to talk this through with someone, only no one I know has read it yet. I tried reviews online, but seem to stick with effusions or excoriations without much explanation or examples. I know, I know, reviews aren’t tutorials, but you’d think someone could help a girl out here. Did *you* read People Park? Any thoughts?

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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