August 23rd, 2017

Reading at Queen Books and Publishers Weekly Review

I know I said I wasn’t doing any summertime readings but–hey, I got asked to do one and it sounds fun. Queen Books in Leslieville is doing a Thank You party for all their loyal customers on Saturday and they’re having readings throughout the day. Mine’s at 6pm, so if you’re in the neighbourhood–or want to be–please come on out! I’ll only be reading for 10 minutes and the other readers are spaced throughout the day so you wouldn’t be able to see me and someone else too, unless you wanted to hang in the bookstore for a couple hours (not a bad plan, really; full schedule here) but I hear Queen Books is a lovely spot and I’m excited to see it–and I’d be excited to see a friend or two there too!

Also, So Much Love got got reviewed in Publishers Weekly. And it’s really nice. If you don’t feel like clicking on the link, a little bit of it says ” The novel is a delicate exploration of the lasting repercussions of the cruelty humans inflict on one another.” At another point, there’s the phrase “beautiful mundanity,” which is really a lot of what I’m trying to achieve with my writing, so I’m thrilled they got that. And no, I’m not 100% certain why a US magazine would review a book that’s only available in Canada, but I’ll take it!

July 26th, 2017

Reviews aren’t for authors; or, cry on your own time

Here’s the caveat–I am so so lucky. I know it, make no mistake–all three of my books have been reviewed in a good number of publications, often in a really thoughtful and insightful way, often even positively. Lots of fascinating and fantastic books don’t get that. I am lucky. Of course.

But publishing a book means taking years of your life and a lot of your heart, soul, and brain, and putting it into a package that invites comment, which is terrifying. It is necessary for work to be criticized and discussed–if no one is thinking hard about a book, what is it even for? But sometimes writing doesn’t feel like work–it feels like love. And it would be horrible if strangers criticized how we love our partners, our families, our children–if they said said we didn’t really love them properly, could have done better, could have done more. And a book isn’t a person and writing isn’t an emotion, but sometimes it feels that way–so it gets confusing.

The best piece of advice of advice I ever got about reviews, which I think I have mentioned in this space before, came from my friend Scott, a serious reader and all-around thoughtful person. I was agonizing over a review of my first collection that felt not constructive nor thoughtful but simply mean. I didn’t know what I should do with it or learn from it, what lesson I should take. “Reviews aren’t for authors, they’re for readers,” Scott told me. “You don’t need to do anything with it.” I don’t remember exactly, but I bet he suggested that if I was going to get so upset, I might be better off not even reading the reviews.

He was, as usual, very right. Reviews are written for readers–to help us decide what books are worth our attention and interest and reading time, not to mention book-buying dollars. Criticism–and I’m going to leave it up to you where the boundary line between reviews and criticism is–tries to engage the book in a larger conversation about what people are writing these days and ever and why and how and what it responds to and how that’s all going. Both forms strive to be interesting writing on their own, even if the reader has never and will never read the book in question. Helping the author is really nowhere on this list of things to do.

I would love to say that, from that day forward, I never worried about reviews but stopped reading them or just skimmed them with a quirked eyebrow, remarking “Interesting!” before going about my day. That is not true, though I manage the latter sometimes. I’m never going to stop reading reviews, nor do I even want to. It is so very hard to write a book, to get all those thoughts and ideas into the universe, and why do I do it if not communication? I love these pings from the universe back, these signals that I’ve been heard, my ideas thought about and engaged, even if not wholly positively. Or positively at all. I am always grateful for that engagement. It’s not just lip-service above about being lucky.

And I’ve learned things from reviews. Sometimes someone will say, “This is what this section of the book means, for these reasons!” and it will ring utterly true, even though that was not in my head when I wrote it. Reviewers–professional and otherwise–have connected things within my books in amazing ways, making me think harder about what I even knew when I wrote it. Sometimes it’s readers at events, or folks on Goodreads, who make a fascinating point, giving me credit for an idea I didn’t even know I had! Of course, sometimes they are criticizing a deficit I didn’t know was there but is glaringly obvious the second it’s mentioned and I want to crawl into a hole. “Oh, yes, that ignoble failure, now I see it.” Nevertheless, I want to know about these things, even if it results in spending the evening on the couch staring at the ceiling while clutching a squirming wailing cat. Though reviews are not for writers, sometimes there is good stuff in there for us, if we have the patience and strength to go looking.

Unfortunately, those are not the only kinds of review-reading experiences a writer can have. I have read reviews of my own work–both pans and raves–that seem to be reacting to another book entirely, and I can’t recognize anything they seem to be reading. They give me credit/blame for things I never thought I was writing and, unlike the kinds of reviews mentioned in the previous paragraph, no matter how carefully I read, I never get what they are talking about even if all the characters have the same names and experience the same events. These sorts of reviews feel terrible even if they are positive–no one likes to be misread, even if it’s every reader’s prerogative to interpret events through their own filters.

That is a difference of interpretation, I suppose, though a wide one, but then there’s differences of fact–occasionally you’ll run across a review that’s so riddled with errors it makes you squirm. Sadly, most book reviews have at least some tiny errors in them–I’ve noticed this in those of my own work and those about many others. Book reviewers get paid pretty little and I don’t blame them for not wanting to go back to see if the character’s name is Bill or Bob, or whether they get on the boat before or after the dance party, but it can be unnerving to read a review with lots of those little mistakes. I’ve never seen one egregious enough to make me write to the editor, who perhaps wouldn’t care anyway, but privately, it makes me nervous.

There are also negative reviews where, yes, I see how a reasonable person could hold that view, but I respectfully disagree. There’s nothing to do with those but quirk that eyebrow and move on, but they stay with me late at night. There’s nothing I can argue with, most of the time, in reviews like this–it’s like arguing about whether chocolate tastes good. I believe it fervently, but it’s not like I have any proof. The definition of an opinion is that there can be others–if there’s only one possibility, then that’s a fact, which “this book is good” could never be. But I feel so terrible when someone doesn’t like my work–see first paragraph–even when I accept that they aren’t wrong. I can go around and around in circles in my head for hours, trying to construct an argument about why the reviewer is wrong, but it never amounts to anything. Reviews in this category can be well or poorly written, intelligent or simplistic, but are always very sad for the author. I wish I could say that, when an intelligent thoughtful review of my work comes out and basically makes the point, “This book is bad, don’t read it” I share it around and say “isn’t this interesting” but that isn’t what I do. I cry privately and do nothing. There’s a couple such reviews out there for So Much Love–feel free to google, I just can’t bring myself to provide links.

The final category of reviews is the saddest: the vitriolic review. With these, the reviewer hates the book but also seems to hate the author or at least finds it appropriate to reference the author as someone who has deliberately or through great failure of intellect and heart written a bad book. These reviews are usually but not always poorly constructed–without references or examples, just an outpouring of emotions the reviewer feels about the book (ie., great distress, often rage). They can be smart, well-constructed pieces but they usually aren’t–a personal feeling of affront and thoughtful argument don’t often go together. Although occasionally you just get a really smart, insightful writer who for whatever reason, hates the book in a deep personal way–very devastating. Though it’s actually not all that much less devastating to be ridiculed in a badly written review.

In all but the final category, I can chat politely with the reviewer for a few minutes if I run into him or her at a party. It may not be a long or personal chat–if the best thing I have ever done, which I spent years of my life doing, did not impress you, I don’t think you’ll enjoy my restaurant recommendations or stories about my cat–but I respect you as a literary professional and I’ll try to be one too, even if I might have to cry in the bathroom later. Reviewers in the last category, at least in recent years, I google and find a photograph, which I memorize. I told someone this once, and before I could finish the thought, the person jumped in “So you can punch them?” which is insane, given my personality. So I can RUN AWAY before anyone attempts to introduce me. I cannot face a human who hates my work–and by extension me, I really make no distinction–that much.

I would never punch anyone. I would never even be rude to a reviewer unless they did something horrible like attempted to stop me from fleeing. Reviewing is a hard job–it takes 6-10 hours to read a book thoroughly and thoughtfully, and perhaps 3-5 more hours to write even a short pithy review–for this, most reviewers make $100-200, some less, some nothing. They do it for the byline and exposure, maybe, a little, but mainly most of them do it for the good of literature. To incite dialogue, to start a conversation, to offer a new perspective. If I think a reviewer is wrong–and I think lots of people are wrong about a whole world of things, including traffic signals and mayonnaise–I might politely try to open the topic, but not about my own work. Too close, too raw, and to dangerously likely to be a vested interest. I think I have clarified all my emotions about reviews into a fine intellectual strata, but witness this cat who has not been able to get free in several hours and perhaps that is not true.

So I keep my mouth shut, or rather I bitch to people I know for a fact love me and don’t bother anyone else. Anyone I have ever seen come aboard of a reviewer about a review of their own work has come off sounding pretty pathetic, even if the review was in fact poorly reasoned or poorly written or both. Basically, it doesn’t say much about our faith in our own work if we can’t let others speak freely about it, even if the wider group of “others” occasionally includes some morons. Trust that the truth will out. Or don’t. Find a cat. Write a very long blog post. Even better: write another book. Leave the reviewers alone–they’re working hard too.

April 24th, 2017

Globe review, Different Drummer Books and Brunch, Bibliobash

There was just a gorgeous review of So Much Love in the Globe and Mail on Saturday–I was really moved by the way the reviewer, Marsha Lederman, reacted to the book. And I feel incredibly lucky that my novel received such an attentive, thoughtful review.

Tomorrow I head off to the beautiful Royal Botanical Gardens in Aldershot for Different Drummer Books’ Books and Brunch event with Kyo Maclear and Trevor Cole. That should be fun (and delicious)!

Then on Thursday I’ll be at the Bibliobash to benefit the Toronto Public Library. How great that a fun and fancy night out can also benefit one of my favourite causes. Great when that sort of thing works out.

April 18th, 2017

Quill and Quire review/Pivot at the Steady

There’s a lovely starred review of So Much Love in the current issue of Quill and Quire by Josef Grubisic that is making me really happy. It is easy for sensitive writer to take even a positive review and get agitated about things we disagree with or feel aren’t quite accurate, but this review has none of that for me–how amazing! It’s online now and you can read it at the link above but I urge you to stay tuned–or pick up the print issue–because this issue of Q&Q contains another great review of a really wonderful book by an author I am VERY FOND OF. I’ll say no more.

In other news, I’m reading at Pivot at the Steady tomorrow night, with Shane Neilson, Erin Robinsong, and Kevin Connolly, which will be swell. I love Pivot, maybe most out of all reading series. Not just because I read at the very first night of Pivot, and for every book since, not just because it has always been amazingly curated even as a number of different folks have hosted it, all equally amazing in their own very different ways, and not just because everyone is always so nice there, the audiences so warm and supportive, the readers so interesting and engaged. But also because I met my husband there, in January 2009, when Kerry Clare brought me to hear Jessica Westhead read. I didn’t know Jessica either at that point and I now am lucky enough to count her as a friend, and a few weeks after that I was sitting alone at Pivot and a cool-looking couples set their coffees down on my table and we’re still friends too, despite the fact they now live on another continent.

But Mark is my biggest Pivot win and I’ll always be grateful to the series for bringing us together, even though that is corny and there are potentially 10 000 people on earth I could be happy with and perhaps I would have met one of them if I’d gone to a different reading. I don’t want to be married to those people. I only want to be married to Mark, and I am, and so–thank you, Pivot. See you tomorrow.

March 30th, 2017

Ongoing adventures

Hello from Vancouver, where last night I read at the Incite series and yesterday was on the Global BC News at Noon. I find the clip pretty unwatchable, but apparently that is how people feel about seeing themselves on TV–most other people who have watched it think it’s fine (or have been too kind to tell the truth). It was very fun to do the interview with Sophie Lui and Squire Barnes, who were total pros and very good and making me feel both comfortable and smart–what good TV presenters do! I still can’t watch the clip, though.

I’ve discovered this lovely blog review at the Bookshelf blog by Andrew Hood. Andrew is an old friend whose work I deeply admire, so this was a delight to stumble across.

I also finished off a blog interview with Steven Buechler at Sea of Pacific Tranquility about So Much Love. I talk about how we are all know about crimes like the ones described in SML but we know about them in tiny ways, and most of us have the privilege of turning off the news when it gets distressing–but some don’t. The people who experience the crimes and their families don’t, and I wanted to use fiction and whatever empathetic imagination I possess to explore that world and that experience, an experience that doesn’t end.

It’s hard thing to get right–and I’m never going to capture the breadth of experiences in the world, because I’ve only written about a handful of characters and also because fiction is an art and what people think of art can be subjective–but just because I’m done the writing of the book doesn’t mean I can stop thinking carefully and deeply about the subject matter and how I present it each and every time I’m in public or online. I think I need to work on that.

Can you tell I’ve had some tough talks recently? Or have been spending too much time by myself perhaps? Or both? I have one brilliant sunny day left in Vancouver and then I’m going to come home and read at The Ontario Writers Conference Festival of Authors. And then maybe lie down for a little while.

January 3rd, 2017

A tiny bit of buzz!

While I wait patiently for the 1000 things to come rolling in (hint!) I can tell you about the tiny bits of buzz that are floating around regarding So Much Love, a novel that will be out and available in actual stores to actual readers in just over two months. Terrifying.

I mean great, very exciting, it is just that I am a little nervous. Anyway! There is a print review in the most recent issue (winter) of Maisonneuve, which I subscribe to and was reading on the treadmill when all of the sudden, there was my book cover! I was NOT expecting that three months before publication. It’s just a couple hundred words and mainly summary–I’ve squinted at it for a long time and can’t be certain if the reviewer liked it or not but it is still very nice to be mentioned! The review isn’t online, but if you read it in print, please let me know what you think.

Also! I did a short interview with the wondrous Kerry Clare, with whom I’d be happy to chat for no reason, but this was actually for a little piece in University of Toronto Magazine, which is lovely.

And that, at two months and 11 days to publication, is what’s going on. Kind of lovely, really!

February 10th, 2016

Rose-coloured reviews: #Hair Expertise by Loreal

Intro: I am into giving my opinions on stuff—you might have noticed. When I combined that poverty in grad school and working at a very underused info desk at that same time, you wind up with me on a lot of market-research and focus group mailing lists. I would get free products to try and/or take surveys for money about which products I currently use or would use if they existed, and I attended focus groups with clickers and some very upbeat moderators. I have given my opinion on everything from songs on the radio to feminine hygiene to grocery stores to candy. Sometimes they even ask me about politics! I resigned my major focus-group affiliation a few years back. I regret that a little–$100 for talking about gum for 2 hours–but really at this point in my life I need 2 hours more than I need $100. On the other hand, I continue to do and like the surveys. My recompense is free products and the occasional little cheque in the mail–which is fine, I like the perks and the surveys are a good quick break from more strenuous work.

This is all just background to my new project, which is via Influenster. I don’t even remember where I heard about it or why I wanted to sign up, because I don’t understand the site at all. I remember being interested because oooh, surveys, but after I’d answered hundreds of questions I thought it might never end, and no one seemed to be sending me any prizes, so I gave up. It wanted me to log in via various social media, so I linked it to my Facebook account, but the site kept importuning me to let it post on my behalf, which I kept having to deny (obvs.) I tried to link Twitter, but it was IMPOSSIBLE without agreeing that Influenster could tweet on my behalf. I honestly think no one reads my tweets, but still–that seemed a bit much.

So I gave up on Influenster, but I guess I filled out enough surveys that they felt they understood my interests, because they asked me to fill out another survey to get a Vox Box. I didn’t know what that was but after I got a few more emails all saying the same thing, I went to the site and figured out that a Vox Box is a box full of products to review and voice (vox is Latin for voice) your opinion on via social media, blogs, surveys, etc.

Now we’re talking. So I did the survey and yesterday a big glossy specially designed box came in the mail filled with three full size Loreal Hair Expertise products, plus a brochure proclaiming their benefits. I was very pleased with all of it, though I gave the box to my cats to play in.

Anyway, they are big bottles and the testing period, according to the website last 48 days, though the website strongly implied that I might like to start tweeting about the experience immediately. I did post an “ooh, free shampoo” hashtag post, and then checked out the others using the same tag. Apparently I’m 15-20 years older than most of the other Influensters. I also hadn’t understood that there was so much push for me to post photos of the shampoo bottle and me with the shampoo bottle–who wants to see that? Well, some of the Influensters are very attractive with fab hair , even before the new product, so I guess that is why. I will not be doing that.

Anyway, here’s the day one report. I’ll check in over the 48 days whenever anything interesting happens, hairwise.

My products are the Arginine Resist line: shampoo, conditioner, and spray. It’s for hair that is weak and fragile and falls out easily, which is certainly true of mine, which is all over my apartment and which my roommate (the last one before I started living alone) once found in the fridge. It’s supposed to make your hair stronger by both strengthening the hair shaft and increasing circulation at the root. I didn’t fully understand–it’s interesting how beauty treatments get more and more medicinal sounding the older you get. I wonder how old I’ll have to be before they are palliative, just keeping my hair comfortable until the inevitable end.

Anyway, I normally wash my hair every other day because it’s healthier for the hair according to some, but I hate that, and feel like the swamp thing by the end of the second day, so I’m taking this opportunity to go back to every day washes for a while. I figure if the shampoo/conditioner itself is supposed to be making my hair healthier, I should use it as often as possible. Both looked like generic hair products, white creamy guck with a mild sweet scent, totally unproblematic. My hair felt really great afterwards, but that is often the case for me with new products, any new products. My hair enjoys novelty, apparently, but it wears off in a few days.

The spray, which isn’t hairspray in the usual styling sense, was harder to figure out. I didn’t know if I was supposed to put it on before or after combing, or styling, or what. The instructions on the back are pretty odd and minimal. I put it on first, and it combed through nicely. I debated other styling products, but decided against, to give the Arginine its full chance to shine. After a few minutes there was no smell, and my hair seemed a bit less frizzy than usual. All day long it felt extra soft, though after a few hours it didn’t really look different than on a normal day.

So that was the first day! I suspect this post was really boring, but as I wrote it on a break from various much harder things throughout the day, I thought it was delightful–sorry! I’ll strive to make the other ones at least shorter.

July 28th, 2015

My tiny heart–a review!

One of the hardest things about this long edit of So Much Love I’m into (we’re over a year and still going strong) is that no one reads my work except for the purpose of finding fault. I shouldn’t complain, that’s what editing is and I’m grateful for the help–and lucky to work with amazing people–but it’s hard. I submit work to my editor, to my writing group, my husband, and I get good, constructive notes and the occasional smiley face or checkmark, but that’s not what I wrote it for. I would like people to be engrossed, moved, entertained by my writing, and until I’m through editing, that can’t exactly happen. So I’m sad.

Because of the terms of the contract, I can’t publish the stories from the book in mags or journals right now, and because of the amount of time I have free (very little) I can’t give non-book stories the time they’d need to get into publishable form. So I can’t publish anything for anyone to read just for fun. Which means I was way disproportionately chuffed to find this itty-bitty review of my story Ms Universe on Joyland a couple years back, from Maggie Mason on The Book Mine Set. Yes, it’s only a few sentences, and most of those are spent on whether Martian is an antiquated term (is it? I sincerely didn’t know, and am not doing any of the clever things the reviewer thought I was!) But it also says the only thing a writer really wants to achieve, “it held my attention the whole way through and I quite enjoyed it.”

Honestly, the writing has been so tough lately that I was incredibly emotional about finding this. Also, I have had a migraine for two days, so that might have something to do with my state. But in any case, I’m grateful and will try to make my book live up to that sentence above. It’s what we’re all aiming for.

August 24th, 2014

Rose-coloured reviews *The Fault in Our Stars*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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