May 5th, 2014

Hanging with the youth

During my vacation, I offered to participate in a couple of old-leading-young type events. I had the free time, plus lots of people helped me when I was a whippersnapper, so I like to pay it forward. Plus, more selfishly, I’ve crossed the age wire where young people will talk to me socially without a reason, and I miss them. Sometimes they talk to me in social situations, but only if I am friends with their parents and their parents have taught/ordered/prodded them to be polite. That opportunity with teens or older is rare, as most of my friends have little kids–7 and under–and those ones still like me for no real reason. If I want to talk to teens or early-twentysomethings, I need to find something I have that they want, and wave it like a carrot.

Why do I want to do this? Because I’m a writer, and an inherently nosy person. I want to know what everyone is doing, wearing, thinking about, and listening to on their iPods. It irritates me that there are demographics I don’t have access to right now, and so while I’m waiting for my friends’ kids to get older, I go further afield.

Hence the two events last week. The first one was a career-day type event for graduate students/those considering grad school at UofT, run by the Backpack to Briefcase folks. Unlike previous panels of this nature that I’ve been on, no one on this panel was spouting nonsense like, “Follow your dreams” and “Be the best you you can be” so I didn’t feel I had to run interference to give elementary practical advice like “get practical skills and put them on your resume.” In fact, everyone on this panel was REALLY sharp and accomplished–I was actually the least so, and the youth weren’t too interested in talking to me. That was a little boring, but fine since they were receiving really excellent advice from my colleagues.

Impressions: students were tidy, well-dressed in mainly nondescript ways, polite and respectful. They were all obviously accomplished students and sometimes had to dumb down descriptions of their academic work so that we could understand. Almost everyone asked clear and interesting questions, though some of them seemed a little under-researched–there are lots of easy templates you can find to make a resume, so asking at a panel discussion seemed odd. But I think a lot of the folks at the presentation were not yet graduating, so it makes sense that they weren’t really ready for the job market. They were all quite sharp and poised, but I did wish they had a *little* less distain for non-academic jobs. My real advice, which no one asked for, is that they should take part-time or summer work outside of the university while they worked on their degrees, so they could see for themselves what maybe their profs aren’t telling them–every job has its good and bad bits, and none are completely fulfilling. There are many ways to put together a good life. Seeing one ideal option (professorship) and a host of lesser ones is a good way to be sad a lot of the time. Again, no one asked for that sort of advice, so I didn’t say it straight up, but I tried strongly to hint at it.

The second event was probably a lot more up my alley: the Toronto Council of Teachers of English run a short-story contest for high-schoolers every year, and if you make the long list your prize is a lunch and afternoon workshop with a local writer. I was thrilled to be one of said writers, and tried hard to be worthy of my “prize” status. I couldn’t have been more impressed with the 10 students I got to work with–actually, all the other writers said the same, so apparently there was pretty uniform awesomeness at this event.

There was little hyper-fashion in my group of 14-18 year-olds–just lots of jeans and long flowing hair for the girls, jeans and plain shirts for the boys. The girl sitting next to me had picked a pattern of holes in her black tights that looked like a solar system–gorgeous–but otherwise it was mainly the teen standard of trying not to try.

But outside of fashion, these kids were SO keen. I have a speech I make to young workshoppers about being generous in giving as much and as detailed feedback as possible, and doing the work of specifically digging into the details rather than generically chirping, “So good!” which doesn’t help anyone. These kids did NOT need these speech–right through 10 stories they kept up lending each insight, support, and genuinely constructive criticism.

The standard of the stories was also very high–obviously I had my favourites, but everything brought to the table was worth reading. If you are curious, I suggest having a browse through the many awesome stories posted on the website for the contest. You’ll be impressed!

So in short, the kids are more than all right–they are smart, self-possessed, generous and funny. I would have loved a few more hours to pick their brains about tv, movies, their studies, and their parents, but I couldn’t make that not seem creepy. There was actually a “networking event” after the Backpack to Briefcase panel, but I didn’t quite feel comfortable accosting strange young people and asking them career questions, even if it was ostensibly for their own benefit. I left quickly, with complete confidence that they’d be fine without me.

January 8th, 2013

Cohabitational Reading Project 2: The Information, by Martin Amis

Longtime readers will recall that after we moved in together, my now-husband and I thought it might be charming to read the same book at the same time–dinner table and long drive conversation fodder. We also thought it would be cool to revisit books we had read separately in our unformed youth, the reassess their merits in the cold hard light of maturity (ha!)

The first read was A Prayer for Owen Meaney last summer. This winter’s read is The Information by Martin Amis.

Some background: I first read the book as an 18-year-old naif on my first (and so far only) trip to Europe, pretty shortly after it came out. Like anything cool I read in those days, a member of my family had hand-picked it for me–in this case, my younger brother, though my mom ended up reading it too so we could all discuss. Making the original read “cohabitational,” too, though I was technically on another continent for a chunk of it.

Reading the first few chapters, I am stunned at how much I liked the both in my naif-hood–how did I even know what was going on? This is an extremely cynical, caustic book, and if you think I’m saccharine now, you should’ve seen me on that art-student trip I’d waitressed so many hours for, off to see instructive European art and not drink any alcohol or talk to strangers.

*The Information*’s protagonist is Richard Tull, a novelist with 2 published novels behind him and 3.5 unpublished. He also works at a vanity press 1 day a week, and is an indifferent husband to Gina and father to small twin boys Marius and Marco. He’s also a terrible person, constantly drunk, taking any drug he can find, financially dependent on his wife, adultrous, and mean. His “oldest and stupidest friend,” Gwynn has in the past few years decided he wants to be a novelist too, and been monstrously successful at it.

Richard’s failure as a writer coupled with Gwynn’s success coupled with Richard’s general loathesomeness means that he is undone by Gwynn’s success. He actually strikes one of his little boys upon finding out that Gwynn’s second novel is on the bestseller list. He sets out, amid the ruins of his own career and his marginally less ruined life, to “fuck Gwynn up.”

I’m not accurately portraying how *funny* this all is–Richard’s loserishness and self-pity, Gwynn’s self-aggrandizement, the always looming spectre of London weirdness that pervades all of Amis’s writing–so much fun to read.

Of course, when I was 18, it barely even registered that these men were writers. To me, they were just old people doing stupid stuff. I wrote all the time, too, and even published a few things in high school, but I didn’t think of myself as a writer or having anything in common with these deluded gents.

Now, of course, I realize I’m only a few years younger than Gwynn and Richard, who both turn 40 in the first few chapters. I know all about little magazines, slush piles, vanity presses, agents, advances, PLR, and all the other writerly in-jokes Amis makes. I wonder what I was laughing at before, because despite the dreadful earnestness of me in my youth, I did realize the information was supposed to be funny.

Probably it’s the narration–Amis makes very VERY good on Thoreau’s comment that it is always the first person that is speaking. The narrator wanders the line between writing the book and living in it, and at this point in the narrative we aren’t sure how real the characters are to each other. As a youth, I was obsessed with narrative devices (no, I didn’t date a lot, actually) and this was and is one of my favourites.

But I’m not even 100 pages in and a *lot* more happens, I know. In fact, Mark’s already written a kickoff post and an update, and is out in the living room reading right now.

Have you read *The Information*? Do you read along with your co-locataires? Feel free to share experiences in the comments!

December 18th, 2009

Rose-coloured Reviews *The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy* by Douglas Adams

I am rereading my old Hitchhikers’ omnibus partly in response to Rosalynn and Catherine’s dialogue on rereading. I used to reread like crazy–there are books on this earth that I have read close to 20 times–but as I age, more and more I feel the cold hand of mortality on my shoulder as I read, and I fear I won’t get to read all the books I want even once in my life, and this stops me from doing much rereading.

Thus, a lot of books are frozen in my mind the way I read them and thought about them when I was a whippersnapper–I say something’s “brilliant” but don’t take into account that my 15-year-old mind may have been easier to impress than it is now.

I loved the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy series with all my tiny geeky heart when I was a teenager. So when I found out that, after Adams’s death, some totally other person was writing a sixth book in the series, I was incensed. I could say, “Those books are perfect, Adams was unique, and this is a terrible idea.” But I hadn’t read those books in at least a decade, so what did I know?

So the other reason for rereading is to have some context by the time Eoin Colfer‘s book, titled *And Another Thing*, comes out in paperback. I want to read it, certainly, and give it a fair shake–not wrapped up in nostalgia.

I first came upon these books because I picked up the fourth title in the series (it was originally a trilogy that overspilled its limits). I read it because it was called So Long and Thanks for All the Fish and in those days I picked up any book with a funny title and read almost everything I picked up. (Other hits from that period include Elvis Jesus Coca Cola, Lady Slings the Booze, and The Paper Grail).

Of all those “funny title” reads, I loved *Fish* the most, and so went back to the beginning and read the whole series, and then the scripts for the radio show on which it was based (those made little sense to me; too much British humour, perhaps?), all the other books Adams wrote. And I watched the old film based on the book/show (the new one makes a lot more sense, by the way) and tried to get the old BBC tv show based on same, though I think by that point even my adolescent geek enthusiasm tapped out.

So it was in at least one sense very very nice to go back once more and read the old omnibus introduction, which endeavours to set the record “firmly crooked” in explaining the books’ path to creation. I probably could have read it more objectively if parts of the intro hadn’t been my grade 11 drama monologue, which I had (and apparently still have) memorized.

Then into the story–you know that story. Arthur Dent being sleepy and baffled, Ford Prefect being suave and fatalistic, saving Arthur while the rest of the earth is destroyed by a race called Vogons from a distant plant because they are creating a hyperspace expressway.

And their adventures therewith: cruising the galaxy, they run into Ford’s semi-cousin, Zaphod Beeblebrox, erstwhile president of the galaxy, and the pretty lil thing he picked up on earth, Tricia McMillan (whose name he has condensed, naturally, to Trillian). And their impossibly weird spaceship, the Heart of Gold, and Marvin the Paranoid Android, their robot. And the contented doors, and…oh, it’s all so funny and silly and great.

I love all these characters so much that the nostalgia followed me into the present reading–it took me a while to start reading like my 31-year-old self. The first clue that I could be critical was when I noticed that Ford Prefect’s name was explained twice (he’s an alien seeking to blend in on earth, and chose a name that seemed to him common among dominant lifeform, but turned out to be the name of a British subcompact car). A little editorial drop that has survived 20 years of re-issues…or maybe Adams worried readers wouldn’t catch the joke.

Whatevs. Adams is *such* an imaginative thinker that it’s totally natural, no matter what your age, to fall under his spell. The flights of fancy are thrilling, like a ship that runs on an Infinite Improbability drive: in can do anything, provided it is told exactly how improbable that thing is. The book, *The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy* exists in this fictional world to calm and instruct the characters, but it is also a pretty top-heavy expositional device. Every time Adams wants to insert some new crazy planet/lifeform/foodstuff he just makes up, he has one of the characters read about it in the guide and the narrative reproduces the whole page of info. It’s really funny, so one is often distracted from the fact that that’s bit sloppy storytelling, doncha think?

Although this is a book by, for, and about adults, there is a ring of adolescent idyllicness and naivete here that I don’t think I am importing. Everyone is always moments away from death, but no one (besides a sperm whale) dies onstage. Of course, all of earth and its inhabitants are destroyed, but this is treated as a rather larky bad moment rather than a soul-destroying tragedy for the two remaining Earthlings.

People occasionally make fun of me for taking *So Long…* as my favourite Hitchhikers’ book. They dismiss it as the “romantic one”, but the fact is it is the only book in the series in which man-woman relationships make even a touch of sense (this is not a critique, but just a note: everyone in this version of the galaxy appears to be heterosexual). In this first book (the one that I am ostensibly reviewing here, in case you forgot), Trillian is the woman who travels around with Zaphod and “tells him what she thinks of him.” The relationship is left at that, but she did leave her home planet to be with him. I wonder if they’re snogging?

But I am being pennyante–this isn’t photorealist stuff, it’s semi-satire. Not satire of science-fiction but using the form of sci-fi to satirize real-life (I think). It’s sharp and believeable, within it’s own parameters, with a few (not all) well-drawn characters. The only other complaint I could possibly level against the book is that because this first book was based on several in a series of radio plays, it doesn’t quite have the structure of a self-contained book. The five books perhaps somewhat have a single structure, but not quite that either–they basically all blur into one hilarious episodic adventure.

I’ve already started reading the second book in the series, *The Restaurant at the End of the Universe* (always with the good titles, Adams–my favourite books of his are actually the Dirk Gently books: *Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency* and *The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul* [possible the best title in the history of books]). I’m finding as I try to write this review, I’m finding that bits of *Restaurant* are getting mixed up with the first book in my mind and I’ve got to be careful to reference the right book.

For example, I wanted to tell you that possible my favourite conversation-quashing line was in this book, but it’s actually in *Restaurant*–I’ll share it anway:

“Don’t try to outweird me, three-eyes. I get stranger things than you free with my breakfast cereal.”

Nuff said.

July 23rd, 2009


When I graduated from highschool, we were supposed to write “obits”–little responses to abbreviated questions to squish beside our grad pictures in the yearbook and apparently sum up our personalities and lives in high school and after. The queries were PP: pet peeve, AM: ambition, PD: probable destination and K4: known for. Here’s mine (if I were braver I’d scan in the picture; I’m not):

AM: to have one, to be a licensed driver, to blowdry, to reincarnate my fetal pig, to name that smell, to get the fish joke
PD: the bus 4ever, sleeping thru the apocalypse, K.N.’s floor, crushing my rage into a tiny ball
K4: too much hair, “I don’t get it…oh, yeah, I do.”

Though I did get my license (I corrected the spelling error–“liscenced”!! jeez!!) that’s pretty much the same as I would write now, especially the last bit. But you’ll note–no PP! At the time, I thought there were no peeves I wished to be remembered by (if you think I’m obnoxiously rose-coloured now, you should’ve seen high school, especially at intramural badminton!)

So things have changed, as I do have a few peeves now. And as KateN’s dissection of a pet peeve has inspired me, here’s some headliners from recent peevishness:

–the tap of a fork-tine against tooth enamel
–the rainbow-coloured spinning wheel Macs replace the cursor with when something’s not responding
–when people say “How are you?” as an alternative to “hello,” without waiting for an answer.
–Cyclists on the sidewalk! oh, my most hated ever, cause it’s dangerous and not just annoying!! Like, I get that that many drivers in Toronto are horrible to cyclists, but taking a bike onto the sidewalk is like someone who is pushed around at work coming home and taking it out on their family–sidewalk abuse!! I got clipped by a bike-rearview mirror recently and was so very unimpressed.

Ahem. So, yeah, I get a little more tetchy as I age, I suppose. But I really would love it still if someone would explain the fish joke to me.

I was waitin’ for the hot flashes to come

July 20th, 2008


Reviewing is tough! Such is the restrictive nature of the form that yesterday’s review did not even include what I felt was the best bit of my film-going experience: what happened in the women’s bathroom after the show.

It was very crowded and noisy with the post-*Get Smart*, post-theatre-size soda crowd. Above the hubbub, though, I could hear teenaged voices yelling,
“Mira, are you here?”
“Yeah, I’m at the sinks!”
“Are you here?”
“I’m here.”
“If you’re here, I’m gonna come out.”
“Come out!”
“I’m gonna come out.”
If you are not a frequenter of women’s bathrooms in multiplexes, I should point that this is not abnormal aural wallpaper–I barely registered it. I did happen to notice the reunion of Mira with her companion exiting her stall–they turned out, unsurprisingly, to be pretty 17ish girls in shorts and elaborate ponytails. More surprisingly, their greeting to each other was not exchange of whispers and lipgloss, but whispers followed by shrieking and bouncing up and down in a tight embrace.

By this point I was registering the interaction rather accutely, and possibly doing a rather over-thorough job of washing my hands. As I turned, dripping, in search of hand towels, the girls approached me through the crowd (possibly because I was staring at them like a movie screen) and asked me for a tampon, which I gave them. I really feel I gave it to them both, they were such an intimate unit, though I’m sure they weren’t going share.

I don’t know, I was a little pleased to be involved in such a happy ending to a drama I’ll never really know, though I can sort of guess. I don’t really need more information, I don’t think. How much do I adore fluffy goofy teenagers? And how much do I want them not to be pregnant? *So much, both!*

Don’t wanna end up a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard

October 15th, 2007


We’re running a week behind at Rose-coloured, because I still haven’t told you about the least-exciting part of my Thanksgiving weekend: looking through my writings from years past and chucking out most of it, I don’t need every piece of creativity-oriented paper I’ve ever had, and storing it there is crowding my parents’ ever-expanding wardrobes. So I spent all the lulls of the weekend (and there are many in LTH) sorting juvenalia, and yes, I called it that, to anyone who would listen, a la Adrian Mole (“Well, it’s a good thing I lost at Scrabble by 200 points in 45 minutes–I have to get on sorting my juvenalia!”)

I only looked at high school, skipping those ever-portenous grade-school diaries, and in fact all diaries, since I was undisciplined back then (and now?) and only wrote in diaries when I was sad, so I know those books would be litanies of complaints with five-month silences. I also didn’t look at university days, when I think I might have actually written some good stuff. One thing at a time (yes, I am calling university juvenalia–I mean, who would I be kidding?)

Anyways, reading over the high school stuff, I did not find many of the diamonds in the rough that I had been hoping for–some of it sounded, well, like it was written by a teenager. Depressing, but not really surprising. I’ve never been an early bloomer (despite the name). What was gratifying was to find that there was so much work–apparently I wrote constantly as a kid, which I totally don’t remember doing. This too makes sense, though: see above-mentioned lulls in LTH.

So after I winnowed out Kiwanis drama festival assessments (“that busines with Becky and the chair doesn’t help at all”), every note my lab partners ever sent me (“M. is now wearing her purse *all the time*, in case she has to flee the building or something. It’s a new level of annoyingness. What’s the thesis of your English essay?”) I have a big stack of stories to read in more detail at my leisure (plus all the grade school/uni stuff still to sort…Christmas?)

What I’ve gone through so far is fascinating, because it proves that, in rudimentary ways, I was *always* obsessed with the same stuff. I’ve found stories from the late nineties that seem to be very loose, very bad first drafts of things I’ve written this year, except I *don’t remember writing* those earlier stories, and thought I was making everything up fresh. I dunno, do you find that creepy? It’s like I’m stealing from my younger self.) On the up-side even the not-good bulk of it shows what style I was, and still am, aiming for. I can’t find much that I feel super proud of, but for the sake of full disclosure, this, an excerpt from “In the Time of the Radio Gods,” my OAC Writer’s Craft project. Oh, remember OACs? Those were the *days*!

“Trying to stop thinking, that afternoon Tyler went to the beach. The water was too cool yet for swimming, and too polluted anyway. Still, he liked being able to sit in the sand in his shorts and t-shirt, read the paper and listen to his radio play staticky Beatles. He needed a tan.

“Noel sat down suddenly in the sand on his right and hugged him warmly, just as he always had. Without thinking, Tyler kissed his brother lightly on the cheek. His face did not feel waxy or icy. It was warm, toasted by the sun that would turn it burnt-blush red.”

Noel is, of course, dead–it seems like everything I wrote that year was a ghost story, a pattern I certainly didn’t notice at the time. It’s a good thing I save these things, so that my mature self can ferret out what was really going on. I’m actually already starting to regret I didn’t keep those chem notes.

Oh the boys /on the radio / they crash and burn

So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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