December 11th, 2013

Rose-coloured reviews *The Pickup Artist* by Terry Bisson

Yep, I’m still working my way through my “to be read” list for 2012. The Pickup Artist by Terry Bisson is number 14 of a very confused and long-suffering 15.

Near as I can figure from his baffling website and much clearer Wikipedia page, Bisson is a well-respected American sci-fi writer with many serious, vaguely political novels to his credit. I researched this only briefly, but it sounds about right because *The Pickup Artist* read like the sort of cool-idea light-hearted adventure that serious author writes as a fun exercise and/or a wink at his fans. I found it a one-note, dull slog, but I’m not a fan (or a person who had heard of this author outside of this book) so I guess that’s why.

What is this book doing in my home, you ask? I have a theory about that. I had surgery in 2007 and it put me out of commission for a good while. Knowing this was coming, a few kind folks gave me books to read during recuperation. Some close friends gave me lovely things, but some people, just sort of generally wanting to be kind, seemed to give me books at random. I ended up with some really odd stuff, but it didn’t matter because I was both in a lot of pain and on a lot of pain medication (you’d think those two would cancel each other out, but no) and thus unable to pursue anything more intellectually rigorous than episodes of *Friends*, of which I watched many. I’ve been working my way through the books very slowly ever since I went off the codeine.

Which all just to explain what I was doing with a book in my house that contained none of the things I like about books. *The Pickup Artist* is about life on earth an indeterminate number of years in the future. The future is hazily imagined except one thing that is explained at GREAT length throughout the book–at some point, the world could not tolerate the backlog of artistic creation. New artists could not gain attention when there was so much old, excellent art lurking around for people to enjoy: how could you enjoy some new poet if you were constantly distracted by the Modernist canon? It’s the sort of logical-conclusion conversation people have late at night, and it’s interesting enough as a concept.

There’s one or two other interesting ideas–a cloning experiment gone wrong, a listening bug that convinces the target to keep it close with sexual gratification–but this book never gets past the level of the late-night ramble. The protagonist has almost no personality and certainly no backstory–apparently he was just a rule-follower who lived with his mother and dog and NEVER KNEW ANY OTHER PEOPLE. When he teams up Hank, a big-breasted librarian, it seems like things might take off, but even though they set off on a madcap roadtrip through middle America, Hank spends most of the rest of the book in sullen silence and we never learn much about her, other than that she has been pregnant for 8 years (don’t ask). She is the least interesting character in the world but she wears a mood sweatshirt that Bisson references almost every single time he mentions her. Apparently, if we know her mood, we don’t need to know anything else about her as a person.

The personal level of this book is non-existent. It’s all about the extrapolation of that one cool idea about the canon-purge. We get alternating chapters of “historical” (history in terms of the present-tense of the book, but still future from 2013) descriptions of how the laws came to be in place to delete certain works of literature, music, and visual art. Those historical chapters are shorter than the “plot” chapters, but they are crazy dull. There’s a twist at the end involving some of the historical characters and though I remembered who they were all too well, I did not care one  iota.

Blech. There’s a tiny bit about the protagonist wishing he knew his absent father, but this is merely repeated, never expanded or explored. You don’t find out what happens to anyone at the end, which didn’t matter except I kinda wanted the zombie dog to make it. No one develops or learns anything, they just go places very slowly and repetitiously.

I wouldn’t be surprised to find out Bisson is a great writer–this book reads like it was written in a weekend, maybe at an airport–he’s probably better when he puts more effort in. But I won’t be doing that because I disliked this book enough to steer clear of this author for a good long while.

Off the shelf fail!

November 1st, 2013

Rose-coloured reviews Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason

I reread Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, the second in Helen Fielding’s series, to prepare for reading the third, which is just out. The first of these books is a classic, and when I reread it last Christmas it held up just fine. It’s a very Christmassy book, which is why I had it out, but beyond the holiday spirit, beyond the nostalgia for a time in my life when I saw my friends every second day and told them EVERY SINGLE THING, it’s simply a very funny, very charming book. Bridget’s a nitwit, of course, but a sweet one you can root for, and Fielding really makes a very simple girl-nabs-boy-after-lots-of-chaos story work in that first book.

In the second…eh, not so much. BJ #1 is a book that spawned a genre, and it really shouldn’t have–it’s a good book, but simply not deep or complex to support a host of imitators with much variation. The later chicklit was all. the. same. (I haven’t read everything, of course, and Marian Keynes is an exception, though a number of her novels are something other than the chicklit.) Some was a bit funnier than others, some a bit more realistic, some a bit less. But it was all manic and bouncy and reveling in the shallowness of fashion and self-help and dieting without Fielding’s dollop of self-aware irony. And, kinda, so is BJ #2–it’s later chick-lit, and it’s not as good.

Bridget’s still sweetly dopey, of course, but now sometimes she’s such a dope that it’s hard to believe she deserves to see everything work out. Her friends are bitchier and/or dumber in this book, depending on which friend, and sometimes you don’t really believe they’re doing her any favours with all their “support.” The biggest problem, surprisingly, is the absence of a villain. In the first BJ novel, we had Daniel Cleaver, Bridget’s boss, crush, and eventually, terrible boyfriend. He was a jerk, but a hilarious sardonic jerk and I loved reading about him even as I hated him (and Hugh Grant’s performance as Daniel is the best part of the film version, in my opinion, especially when he falls out of the boat).

There is no such delightful jerk in this novel. Bridget’s boyfriend is actually the dreamboat Mark Darcy, who is always right and super-sweet and thus a fairly dull foil for Bridget. He does have some nice moments–not being able to find the fridge in his own kitchen is sweet–but mainly Mark is banished from the narrative. Either Bridget or Fielding isn’t able to cope with the idea of a functioning adult relationship, so entangles Mark a barely funny series of misunderstandings and then they break up.

I do not accept Tolstoy’s premise of happiness being dull, and I think if Fielding had tried harder we could’ve had some fun with a happy couple (my parents have been married 41 years, and they’re hilarious).

Instead, the novel just kind of rambles for a while. When I first started the reread, I wondered why the movie centred so much on the Thailand bit, since that didn’t start up in the book for 200 pages. But, when I got there, I realized that it was because it was the funny bit. Actually, the immediately preceding bit, where Pretentious Jerome is reading essentially gay erotica to the Lifeboat book club, and then Bridget’s dad and Admiral Darcy burst in and begin reciting Rudyard Kipling’s “If” is one of the most sublime bits of comic writing I’ve read in a while. And the book gets better and better from there, ending at a point where you’re once again rooting for Bridget and Mark to hook it up, those crazy kids. But there’s the 200 pages before that that we’re just going to have to not count, because well…meh.

I am SO curious about the third book in the series. I’m also #600 on the library waiting list, so it’ll be a while. I’ll keep you posted.

October 3rd, 2013

Nora Ephron on Reading

I am about halfway through Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad about My Neck, which is largely a funny, silly book about things that don’t matter to me. The food essay was funny, but I don’t think she realizes how rare it is to have both the money and the leisure time to “need” twice weekly trips to the salon. But then, I’m about 20 years younger and a few hundred thou poorer than the target audience for this book, I imagine, so I’m trying to appreciate it for what it is, which is an extremely well-written book. And in passages like this, you see why:

“When I pass a bookshelf, I like to pick out a book from it and thumb through it. When I see a newspaper on the couch, I like to sit down with it. When the mail arrives, I like to rip it open. Reading is one of the main things I do. Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on. Reading is the unbelievably healthy way my attention deficit disorder medicates itself. Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape: it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss.”

Just about sums it all up, doesn’t it?

September 30th, 2013

Some thoughts on Olive Kitteridge

The harder I work on writing short stories, the more I read of them. I do it partly for professional reasons, of course: I like to see other interpretations of the form, be inspired by the successes and learn from the missteps. Sometimes I’m searching for specific clues and tricks, actually looking for problems similar to my own so I can see how others solve them. Sometimes I’m just generally keeping abreast of what’s going on in my world. And my world is short stories, no doubt about that, at least literarily speaking.

But thank goodness, I have not lost my ability to just enjoy short stories as a reader above all else. And honestly, the more I learn through my work about all the different pitfalls and pratfalls and challenges of the short story, the more I’m able to fully appreciate it when an author gets it really right. And when that happens, I lose my ability to read like a writer, looking for the technical bits, the seams and strings that allow the story to work the way it does. I just read like a reader, and live inside the stories. (This is one of the many reasons I’m bad at reviewing.)

Such is the case with Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. This is a wonderful collection of short stories about the small town of Crosby, Maine, and the various folks who live there. Some are happy, many are sad, but all of them are acquainted with the title character. Olive, her husband, and her son are central to many of the stories in the collection–many are told from either Olive’s perspective or her husband’s. In others, though, Olive, Henry, and their son Christopher are just passing through in the more central drama of other lives. In each story, though, one or more of the Kitteridges are *seen*: undestood, imagined, fathomed, or interpreted by the other characters, often in wildly different ways from one story to the next. Thus we see Olive is grim and fearful math teacher, or a wise inspirational one; as a grumpy wife or a good neighbour; or, in the end, a mixture of so many different personas, as we all are.

*Olive Kitteridge* is more than the sum of it’s parts. All short story collections should have pieces that mutually illuminate each other, even if they aren’t linked on the level of plot or character. This should occur even more strongly in a collection that *is* linked. Even if there are some individual stories that didn’t really work for me, I still saw how they worked in the context of the whole book. I simply could not buy that a teacher would recognize a former 7th grade student she hadn’t seen in 20 years through a car window and, moreover, would go and sit in his car with him uninvited AND divine that he was contemplating suicide AND attempt to talk him out of it. But in the context of the book as am exploration of Olive’s whole character well…yeah, ok, this is poignant, this is interesting, this expands what I know and how I feel about this character.

And what I said earlier, about not being able to see the seams and strings applies especially to Strout’s writing style. She thins the veil of author interpretation until it seems to disappear: I completely forgot about *reading* and just felt like I was living inside the book. It’s hard to go back and analyze the style; I didn’t think about it at the time. But that’s a style, too.

I have started going over to Goodreads to see what others think after I finish a book. A lot of apparently very young people found the book too dark and grim, and too much focussed on older people. I was surprised at this Gilmourian naivete, that what one personally prefers to read is objectively what is best. I actually thought it was refreshing to read about people in their 60s and 70s who weren’t consumed by reminiscence, but instead actually living out their present lives as if they were actual fascinating dramas: which of course they are. Too often, the elderly in novels are reduced to stage props of wisdom or nostalgia, rarely characters in their own right. Without getting all preachy about it, Strout goes a ways towards remedying the problem.

This is a bit piecemeal, which is why it’s just “thoughts” and not a review. But I really did enjoy *Olive Kitteridge*–grim at times, but a definitely pleasure to live so closely with such a fascinating character. I may read it again, possibly while sitting in an uncomfortable chair, to see if I can figure out how it all *worked*.

July 25th, 2013

YA Round Up part 2: Moral Ambiguity

Following up on my first post on my YA reading experiences, I’d like to talk about a topic not particularly dear to my heart but, I feel, still necessary to being a human: moral ambiguity.

This is one area where I feel that YA writers have advanced considerably since my youth. Maybe I’m just misremembering, or was reading the wrong books at the time, but I recall the YA novels of the late eighties and early nineties being exclusively about exclusively good people. Earnest souls trying to do the right thing while still having a good time and maybe getting a boyfriend/girlfriend. Whereas, in Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mother, Violet does something truly terrible in the first chapter–tricks her toddler half-sisters into eating cat excrement. She’s mad at her dad and taking it out on the little and vulnerable, but it takes her the whole book to own up to her failing. And that’s not even the plot of the book–lots of other stuff is going on, and Violet’s realization that she has hurt little children for no reason is interleaved carefully, not a huge moment, but a quiet meaningful one.

Just to be clear, the George Clooney book is technically middle-grades: the protagonist is 12 and the recommended readers are 10+. When you get to the teen years, a few things change–most particularly, genres split off from the whole mass of “age-appropriate books.” For instance, I read two Harlequin Teen books by Hannah Harrington (I didn’t mean to read two by the same author–I got confused–so I’ll try someone else from the imprint soon). In both of the these books, the heroine (definitely a heroine and not a protagonist) is kept pure as the driven–she feels so sensitive, so *guilty* for something that’s gone wrong, but in both the terrible Saving June and the kind of ok Speechless, the final catharsis is not the heroine taking responsibility for her actions but in fact, deciding her guilt is unreasonable and she’s not at fault for anything. Powerful role models–ha!

In better books, the characters are more complex and it’s not as simple as “good person/bad person” or even “good action/bad action.” In the super-famous The Hunger Games, 24 children battle to the death (I know, when you put it that way…) I was really scared that author Suzanne Collins would carefully set up the action so that protagonist Katniss Everdeen would never have to deliberately kill anyone, but somehow through her strength and ingenuity still win anyway. Such a classic YA move. But Collins comes through in the end, with Katniss causing some deaths indirectly and finally actually murdering some kid. It’s an odd kind of victory, but hurray!

Authors of the protagonists-are-heros camp believe that young readers can only root for a character that never does anything wrong. Actually, lots of writers of adult fiction believe that too, and hell, it’s true for some readers. But it’s condescending to assume I can’t tell the difference between someone who was put in a bad position or screwed up, and someone purely evil. I think it’s a good lesson for young adults to learn, and also reading about these grey-area folks makes reading so much lesson boring.

That said, I do feel the characters in Gossip Girl are so bad they’re boring. If no one ever tells the truth, it’s as predictable and dull as if they always are honest. My dislike of this book (I refer only to the first GG book, not the series–I think I’m done now) might stem not from the moral-one-noteness but from the entirely separate issue of incredibly low stakes. Who cares if the couple that has no love or respect for each other has sex with each other or other people entirely? Who cares if a pretty girl feels lonely at a party for a minute? I mean, I’ve known some shallow rich people in my day, but come *on.*

I think I’m going to read a grown-up book next–I need a break from all this youth! But I’ll be back with more YA roundup in August, promise!

You know you love me (Gossip Girl joke!)

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!

May 14th, 2013

Busy!

2013 has been quiet so far on the readings and publications fronts–up until last week, I’d done neither at all this year–it’s all been working and writing and editing and being stressed, the sort of thing that doesn’t do well on stage or in print. I think last week’s Windsor Review would’ve been sufficient to bolster me for a while, but of course it never rains but it pours. After 5 months of silence, two stories in the world within a week is weird, but not undelightful.

My story “Love-Story Story” is just out in the May/June issue of This Magazine, which I’m so pleased about. That story was a long time in process, and longer looking for the right home so I’m grateful to Dani Couture for giving it such an estimable one. To celebrate, I think I’ll read an excerpt from the story at Racket at the Rocket on Friday night.

The Racket is a new east-side reading series. Their website hasn’t been update, but here’s the details if you think you might like to join me and Mark Sampson, among other stellar writers, for an evening of literature and cookies (the Red Rocket cafe, which hosts, has nice baked items in addition to beer, wine, and caffeinated things). I’ve stolen these details from Mark…
When: Friday, May 17, 2013. 7:30 p.m.
Where: Red Rocket Coffee – 1364 Danforth Ave (near Greenwood Subway Station), Toronto.

And of course, this comes on the heels of another reading/panel discussion, which I did earlier yesterday–no readings for 6 months, then two in a week. Go figure. Anyway, it was fun and credit should be given to my lovely co-panellists–Christine Gilbert, Monica S. Kuebler, and Claire Horsnell.

 

 

January 30th, 2013

Rose-coloured reviews: The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

The Beauty Myth is the 11th book of my overlong 2012 Reading Challenge. Closer every day!

I know, I know–what’s wrong with me? This book came out in 1992 and 20 years later, I’m just getting around to it? In fact, my mom even read it right when it came out, and mentioned that my newly teenaged self might benefit from reading about where the enforced self-consciousness of females in our culture actually comes from. But I wasn’t interested. I did for some reason read Misconceptions when it came out in 2003. It was a fascinating but to me entirely irrelevant accounting of the medicalization–some would say patholisation–of childbirth in our society. It was also astoundingly gory–childbirth is, I guess. At that time, I didn’t know what an episiotomy was, and was much dismayed to find out. It was an eye-opening read.

At this point in history and in my life, *The Beauty Myth* was much less eye-opening. The link above on Naomi Wolf’s website says this book changed how we think about beauty and it’s true–Naomi Wolf’s dense and well-researched, imaginative and forceful treatise has wormed its way into the public consciousness. No one reads advertising or, indeed, models the same way anymore, and I’ve seen countless less-incisive writers spouting her ideas if they were original. They feel original; they feel as if we never didn’t know.

It was very interesting to go back to the source and read about how she investigated this stuff at a time when it just was what it was. But it was also…so earnest! One thing Wolf lacks is irony–her Biblical exegesis is soooo grad school (uglyness as sin), which doesn’t make it less brilliant. But sometimes, her inability to see pneumatic breasts and $100 skin cream as a humourous gets a little tiresome. I guess, too, I have the luxury of vantage point–Wolf didn’t know the near future would turn out the way it did. She assumed a woman’s ideal breast size would just keep getting bigger until we couldn’t walk upright, when in fact the ideal is now smaller but firmer, a la Megan Fox. Who knew?

So the reasons I don’t entirely relate to the book are various–20 years of distance and irony, the fact that I’m not exposed to a tonne of media–but intriguingly, the chapter that really resonated with me was the last one, “Violence.” I don’t know what I was expecting–domestic violence, I guess, which doesn’t really suit the context at all. It turns out that that chapter is about plastic surgery, and as in Misconceptions Wolf spares no sensibility in her gory evocation of how it really goes down.

Some of her panic is justified–in the late 80s and early 90s, women were dying from complications from liposuctions, breast implants were having to removed because they’d “gone rigid”–early plastic surgery was not a good scene. But it’s also improved greatly since the book was written, as all medical technologies do–she must have known that would happen. And also, though there’s always going to be a market for this sort of thing, most people actually don’t get their faces and bodies reconstructed. They don’t even think about it.

I was thinking this and then I realized…I did! I don’t think of it that way, because I was told by doctors that my jaw misalignment would eventually destroy the joint and therefore I needed the operation…but the fact remains that it was the same surgery many women have to look better. I’m always way too eager to explain I didn’t do it for cosmetic reasons, but the fuller story is a bit more complex. When I first began preparing for the operation, nearly 2 years out, they didn’t tell me I’d look different, and for some reason it didn’t occur to me that moving my jaw around would change my appearance. I found out when I was already well into the process and the surgeon, who was proud of his aesthetic successes, was disgusted that I didn’t want to be “improved.”

“Well, you don’t look normal now, you know,” he snapped. Now I think about what a weird statement that is–the ideal is not the median, and people with perfect faces are definitely not “normal.” Then I was just horrified. Anyway, he was extremely aggressive about persuading me that there was no non-stupid way to correct my medical problem without correcting my cosmetic “problem” to. I cried, but my jaw really hurt and I’d been preparing for the operation for a year. I didn’t research what I was told or try to dissect how much of the surgeon’s medical reasons were actually just a patholization of imperfection. I agreed to the operation, whatever it took.

I think that’s what Wolf was afraid of. Not that women walking down the street feeling good about ourselves will see a Botox poster and feel our self-esteem shatter, but that how self-perpetuating the beauty industry is, how proselytizing. It was strange for me, reading the book, not to get it and then to get it exactly.

*The Beauty Myth* is not a fun read, although unlike many academics Wolf writes with clarity, concision, and occasionally real beauty. It took me nearly 3 months to read it, and I stopped in the middle to read Bridget Jones’s Diary and Bossypants among other things, because it was just too sad for Christmastime. But it was instructive reading nonetheless and I feel good to have read it. Because far as we’ve all come in reading media for the commercial, coercive enterprise that it is, apparently we (or at least I) can still be stunned by an attack in the name of beauty. And it’s worth thinking about why.

For the record, I don’t look that different now, unless you’re one of the people who think I look very different. It depends on how you look at faces, I guess. I think I look fine and my new face is now entirely my face–I relate to it. However, although I know have a “perfect” ratio of space between my nose and upper lip, and lower lip and chin (seriously–I was told there’s a number), I still miss my old face, which was longer and seemed narrower. I believe Kathrine Mansfield would’ve called it “horsey” but it was mine and I always rather liked it.

 

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January 21st, 2013

What I’ve Been Doing

Despite the overwhelming tidal wave of job-related work I’ve been doing, there’s been some writing-related stuff going on too. Here’s some highlights if you’ve missed me:

–my story, “Anxiety Attack” is in the current issue of Freefall Magazine, which is delightful news. My contributer’s copy is currently winging its way towards me but if you spot a copy in the wild I’d love to know how it looks–awesome, I bet.

–an article I wrote, “When Your Culture Is Counter-culture” is now live on the website Offbeat Bride. A new year’s resolution I don’t think I’ve mentioned here yet is to do more of this sort of lifestyle writing and service journalism, and actually try to get it published in places other than on this blog, where it doesn’t really belong. Literary journalism and criticism, as you know, give me hives, and even when I manage, through much struggle and editing, to make something decent, I’m still miserable. The above article, an advice-y chatty piece about my wedding and what others might learn from it, filled me with delight while writing it and I’m so happy reading the few comments its garnered so far. Next to fiction, this sort of thing is my favourite to read and write, so I think I should pursue it. If you know a website I should be submitting to, please let me know!

–I’ll be reading at Racket at the Rocket, organized by Open Minds Toronto on May 17, sharing the stage with my beloved husband. Yes, we’re just that cute.

–And finally, my story “Love-Story Story” will be published in the next issue of This Magazine. If you’ve not read my fiction, or only my second book, this won’t mean anything to you, but LSS is an Isobel story–a character that appeared in 2 stories in Once as well as “I Have Never Loved You Less” in Road Trips, and half a dozen other stories in various places. I’m always happy to see her and write about her–I do hope you enjoy the story.

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!

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