February 10th, 2014

Cheap Writing Hacks: Characters

I’ve been reading tonnes and tonnes lately, which I guess I always do, but I’ve also been tired and busy and grouchy, and thus less patient with the lousy stuff. There’s a list of cheap writing hacks that I’ve noticed over the years–things we might do in fiction with plot or characters not because it makes sense or is interesting, but because it makes the writer’s life easier. Of course, I’m a giant snob, but to my mind they are cheating–even when I do it myself, I’m conscious of cheating–I’ll edit or rewrite or junk the story if I can’t fix it. Either I write what the fictional universe of the story demands or I don’t get to write the story–or at least, that’s the ideal I’m striving for.

In my current snarky mood, I have been mentally listing the fictional dodges I see most often–here’s a few about characters. Let’s be honest: character is what I care most about and I may well have a few unconscious hacks in other areas that aren’t priorities for me in my writing. But I’ll try to cover them later. If I’m not too tired. If you think of more hacks, about character writing or anything else, please comment to add to the list:

Prenaturally intelligent/wise-beyond-their-years children are written by people unable to write believable kid dialogue. So they about write short, slightly odd adults who like video games.

Loners are wildly popular in short stories and novels. There are any number of reasons why this is, but I suspect that a certain percentage of it is because it’s extremely hard to create the impression of a complex, interconnected social world without giving it undue space if that’s not what the story is actually about. The worst is in YA novels, because for kids their varying levels of friends and acquaintances are the whole world, but inevitably YA novels give protagonists one friend apiece, and rarely even mention other acquaintances by name.

Only children/people isolated from their families/people whose families are dead: see previous point.

Freelancers and other people with flexible schedules: see previous point but also this is a research failing. For some full-time writers, it’s very hard to imagine what a structured scheduled lifestyle with enforced contact with strangers and/or people they don’t like. So they give the characters a “freelance” gig that they spend almost no time on, and that never interferes with anything or causes them to have to do anything they wouldn’t have done anyway.

Villains are people who have no motivation other than to oppose the protagonist of a book or story, and seem to have little back story or indeed personality beyond their evilness. These people are distinct from fully imagined assholes, which everyone is welcome to write about all the time because they are so interesting.

Horrible marriages for apparently no reason: Fiction is often populated by spousal villains–jerkfaces that exist to thwart the main characters but are also somehow married to them. They have no positive characteristics and no one seems remember why they hooked up in the first place but now here we are…

***

Sorry for the snarkfest–I have had a headache for nearly a week now. Hopefully I will feel better soon and write something nice about something…

June 3rd, 2012

Writing and Money, Part 3

This is the third part of my writing and money series. This post gets waaaay into the minutia of reading in public and getting paid for it/not getting paid for it. If this isn’t your life right now, or it has been for years and you’re totally used to it, this won’t be too interesting, but it might be valuable if you’re getting started with the readings and are simultaneously terrified of appearing greedy and getting taken advantage of. This is just what I’ve been able to surmise the past few years–feel free to chime in if you have more or better info than I do!

Doing a reading. The Canada Council has nice clear guidelines on what readers should be paid when the CC is funding the event. tTey fund a lot of readings, so their guidelines are often taken as standard and used even when they aren’t the funders. A solo reading (I’m the whole show–I have to make it worth it for the audience to have shown up at all) is $250; a shared reading (with one or more others sharing the load) is $125. I’ve occasionally been paid a little more or a little less than these rates, but they are typical of readings that pay.

 Many readings, however, do not pay, and are totally legit. Anything that happens in a bookstore, for instance, is sorta thought of as book-sales promotion and is thus pretty much never paid. But they sell books, which is kinda the same thing. By the same token, book and journal launches, and certain independent events put on by your publisher won’t be paid–again, it’s all promotion. In truth, you might give exactly the same reading at a “promotional” event in a bookstore that’s free and unpaid, and at an “entertainment” literary festival where the audience has paid admission and you’ve been remunerated for your work. That’s just the way it is sometimes–be grateful for both opportunities and don’t think too much about it.

 Libraries, schools, colleges and universities usually pay something for readings, and in general they really should as they have budgets for just this sort of thing. I wouldn’t name a number though–it depends on too many factors. Once, a teenager wrote to me on Facebook to say he liked my work and would I please come visit his writers’ group? Of course I was thrilled and emailed the librarian who ran the group to ask if I could stop by next week and chat with the teens. She insisted on filing the proper paperwork, which took 6 months, and paying me $300. I was fine with that! But I’m also fine with doing a reading for a teacher-friend who doesn’t have the budget to pay me for whatever reason. Reading to the young is really rewarding–they ask the best questions. Always worth keeping in mind…

 Reading series that happen in bars typically don’t pay or simply offer writers a cut of a “pay what you can” bucket, which usually at least covers your drinks. Of course, such series also occasionally have drink tickets too! And there’s a few bar series that do have funding or charge admission or have some other way of paying writers–that’s always a nice surprise, too.

 When should you do a reading for free? Whenever you want to and are comfortable with it. Unlike publications in the previous post–where you basically have one chance to get the story into print and don’t want to blow it on something lame–you can do as many readings as you have free time. However, pretty much everyone in the universe has limited free time, for reasons of work or childcare or commuting or whatever, so you’re going to want to at least try to choose reading invitations you know you will enjoy, will have an audience, will expose you to co-readers you find interesting, or whatever other vectors you desire. Do ask around to find out if a particular reading series is poorly run–you don’t want to find out when you show up that they don’t advertise or properly organize the space, etc. etc. That’s way worse than no dough. Seriously, ask other writers, ask *me* if you’re invited somewhere you’re not sure about–we all have a duty not to let fellow writers waste their time.

Be *very* careful on out-of-town readings where they don’t pay travel expenses. It’s tacky (and odd!) to nickel-and-dime on in-town gas mileage or bus fare (though if you truly can’t afford it, I guess it’s worth mentioning to the reading organizer). Beyond the city limits, though, you should be recompensed for whatever expenses it takes to get you there. Otherwise, you’re not just working for free–you’re actually paying for the privilege. With gas prices these days, think really hard before you commit.

It’s surprising how many novice reading-organizers don’t think of travel expenses–sometimes I think they honestly have no idea where I live when they email me, but I’m not sure why they assume it’s in the same place as they do. But nervous as I am about appearing grabby, six simple words help a lot: “Do you have a travel budget?” You convey that you are sensitive to their budgetary constraints, but also that they need to be sensitive to yours. It’s up to them to offer to give you some $$ to fund travel, arrange a carpool, whatever they need to do to get you there–or explain why you should essentially donate your time and your bus-ticket-buying cash to get there yourself.

I always assume that if I was at home, I would be feeding myself so I don’t feel alarmed if I have to buy my own dinner while on a reading-related trip. If you’re being “hosted” by a specific group or association, they may take you out (this seems to happen at universities especially–which makes for a good evening both food-choices and conversation-wise). At a very few big-deal festivals, per diems are offered to buy your meals, but that’s quite rare. More common at festivals are communal meals for the writers and volunteers and/or a “hospitality suite,” which is basically a room full of snacks, drinks, and comfy chairs. All of these things are pretty great, but shouldn’t be expected–bring some cash and some granola bars wherever you go, and hope for the best.

If you were at home, though, you wouldn’t have to rent a bed for the night, though, so expect accommodations to be covered. These may not be plush, mind you–in the literary community, there’s nothing wrong with “billeting,” which is essentially crashing on a stranger’s futon. Even there isn’t anything wrong with that, you might still not be comfortable with it–speak up if you aren’t, and try to work out a solution. Maybe there’s someone in town you’d feel more comfortable staying with because you actually know them, maybe the organization hosting you can spring for a hotel, or worst case scenario, there’s always the last train home after the reading!

*

I’ve mainly run out of topics in this area (money and writing) that I’m sufficiently knowledgeable about–I’ve thought about it and I simply don’t know enough about how people besides me fare on book advances, film options, etc., plus there are a number of things I’ve never experienced, like translations and foreign rights sales. If you or someone you know has that experience, I’d certainly welcome guest posts. Otherwise, we’ll put this series on a hiatus until I learn something new!

March 8th, 2012

For the love of looking forward

One of the best and worst things about getting older is the way time speeds up. I remember when the distance between the first day of school and the winter break was practically unfathomable–I had changed so much in those three months the two Rebeccas were unrelatable. Now, of course, I scarcely twitch and the holidays are upon me–I really feel I don’t have enough time to relish the anticipation!

So I’ve started looking forward to things from further afield–it’s the only solution! And I do have lots to look forward to. Here are some readings, some near in time, and some rather more distant, only probably actually not once we’ve experienced the time at this breathless pace at which we hurtle forward.

March 14–Reading in Barrie on the Laurentian Campus there–see this
link (and scroll down) for deets. And it’ll be awesome, I guarantee (pretty much).

March 21–Pivot at the Press Club at 8pm. I heart Pivot–I read at their first reading ever for Once, then did a second reading for Road Trips, plus I have all kinds of personal mushy reasons for loving it. Should be a great night–with Sandra Ridley and Ayelet Tsabari.

Then at the end of March I have my own fantastic East Coast road trip with Amy Jones, but I’ve already told you about that and will again, so we can save that for a separate post.

In April, I’ll be a giving some presentations to the youth of Kitchener-Waterloo at the Renison Writer’s Workshop, in May heading to St. Catherines for the Virus Reading Series, and in June reading here in Toronto for the Eh List reading series. And in July (this one’s new) reading in Orilla as part of the Leacock Festival.

That’s as far in the future as I know for sure (well, pretty for sure) but I hear rumours of Ottawa this fall…stay tuned…

October 13th, 2011

Rose-coloured reviews *Real Life* by Sharon Butala

Real Life by Sharon Butala is the 10th book I’ve read for the Off the Shelf reading challenge. Like many books on this list, I read it because it was starting to get embarrassing that I hadn’t. Not so much the specific book as the author: Butala has a strong reputation as a serious writer, for “writ[ing] with scrupulous honesty and without a lick of pretension.” (so says *Books in Canada*)

She does and, though I had some serious problems with the book, I too am in awe of Butala’s subtle, wry, taut prose. I felt the best story in the collection was “Light.” The story is about Lucia, a fairly average middle-aged woman who leaves her city, her home, and her husband to stay with her developmentally delayed, polio-crippled sister during her–probably final–struggle with cancer. During their time together, she cares for Elaine matter-of-factly, with no obvious tenderness but a great deal of love. Nevertheless, the gap between their lives and their minds is so great that there is little connection, almost no dialogue.

At home, her husband George misses her, but tries to support her in her task. He’s a professor, and lends her books to help pass the long hours of vigilance, but balks when she asks him for books about the Holocaust. He gives in almost immediately, though, and eventually explains to her the difference between the Holocaust narratives she’s reading, and the ones he suggests: “‘Those books will tell you the story…[b]ut none of them are works of art, and they have in common a failure to express the full scope of what happened…The books on this list will help you…’ he hesitated ‘come to terms,’ he added finally, shrugging, as if such a thing were hardly possible.”

And that’s the crux of the story–the inevitably failed struggle to understand true suffering from the outside. Lucia never really understands Elaine’s feelings, and through the story seems to move towards the knowledge that she can’t. “Now Lucia can’t bring herself to try to talk to Elaine about her impending death, and she hates herself for her desire, which she can no longer deny, that Elaine should give up this fight she can’t win.”

Empathy is so hard, is what I think this story is really about, and the more obvious where we should place our sympathies–those who suffered and died at the hands of Nazis, Elaine who was dealt a bad genetic hand thrice over–the more distance we have to cross to do so. That’s how I read the story, anyway, and also gorgeous evocation of love in all it’s horrible imperfection.

Though I enjoyed the rest of the book–the other 9 stories–a good deal, in a way “Light” points up some of the things I found troublesome in the others. Because Elaine is so delayed, illiterate, and often struggling to breathe, the lack of dialogue in that story is appropriate, and serves to emphasize the loneliness of dying. However, almost all the stories in the collection are grounded in the interior monologue of a single character, and this works sometimes better than others. In “Night Class,” Christine spends a great deal of time alone, driving to a far-off university outpost, but even before she takes the job she is so deeply ensconced in her own–admittedly persuasive–viewpoint that she neglects others with almost unforgivable ease. That story makes perfect sense in terms of POV, however excruciating it actually is to read (very, but that’s an achievement, too).

However, if I were the sort of person who put down books unfinished, I might’ve done it after the first and title story, concerning a woman whose ex husband suddenly reappears decades after their divorce. You find, extremely gradually, that there was a complex and heart-rending series of events at the root of their split. But this all comes out slow-fade memories from the much older woman, and I felt like we never get to hear anyone’s real feelings or motivations for what they did. I mean, I didn’t–I couldn’t put together from the tense and grim conversation in a coffee shop decades later where the connection between these people ever existed, much less what truly severed with it.

Lack of connection is what was truly problematic for me in this collection. Many of the stories were really single-character pieces, someone thinking through situations and insights alone in her own head. They might think *about* other people, but never actually engage with them. This worked when there was a true impediment to connection, as in “Light” or “Night Class;” people devastated by their inability to interact with other humans are much more relatable than characters like Jenna in “Saskatchewan,” who doesn’t seem to try. Jenna is a writer from a small town in the title province, “has a real cowboy for a husband,” writes semi-successful books for a publisher in Toronto, but dreams of more praise, a bigger readership, more than somewhat success.

The story concerns Jenna’s time on a literary prize jury–topical now as ever–and reads like autobiography. I say that not because the description of Jenna above almost exactly matches the bio on Sharon Butala’s webpage–that’s too simple. I think it’s autobiography because of how boring it is. There are no other developed characters besides Jenna, no meaningful relationships, no real sense of an adult life at all–just a single interior monologue and a single focus of interest. Despite the fact that the story takes place months after the adjudication (there are many retrospective stories in this book), it is Jenna’s only real focus other than her thwarted ambition. Her husband, her friends, her day-to-day life, whatever it is she actually writes about–all is elided from the story.

Which is exactly like how I feel reading memoir in which the memoirist wants to talk about one specific bit of her life while keeping the rest perfectly private–she constructs a false wall around the experience being focussed on. It ends up being an empty experience, at least for me. I didn’t care about cranky Jenna and her interior monologue, and if the story was some kind of story a clef I couldn’t guess what real event it was based on. Anyone know? The book came out in 2002, so prior to that. I certainly couldn’t understand or imagine the experience of the locked jury–we get no dialogue or sense of the characters of the other jurors, nor of the scorned author. The end of the story seemed to be trying to unlock some of the mystery, but I couldn’t parse it. Maybe it’s me?

What I’m saying is that Butala is extremely good, but her blindspots are substantial, and so are mine, and they are exactly at odds. A lot of the stories in this book were in the “not my thing” category, but the pieces that cracked through were utterly sublime.

July 27th, 2011

When Stories Die

I am usually willing to rework a story for nigh on forever if I want to save it–if I’ve changed every word but the heart is the same, I consider it saved still. But I just had to go through my entire freaking hard drive for a piece I’d forgotten the file name for (I found it, amazingly) and I realized how many stories I just kind of quietly forget about so I don’t have to face the fact that they are failures and I can never fix them. I tell myself I’m just taking a break and will come back and solve the problem, but I never do, and the stories live quietly forever on the hard drive, ill-conceived and awkwardly paced and all the rest.

It’s worse when I am actually staring at a story that I subjectively like, but objectively I know that there is not enough worthwhile substance there to save–to save it would mean a heart transplant, making it a different story, and what I should really do is start again. I do it, but I hate it.

Here’s a couple paragraphs–maybe the only good ones–from a story called “Wives.” The piece is truly not very good–glib and maudlin, both, and upon rereading also really skirting what I wanted to say. It deserves to rest in piece–let this be its memorial.

The setup is that some men have escaped from the waiting room while their wives are intensive care, and gone up to the hospital roof to blow off steam by having wheelchair races.

~~~

The grips felt slick and cutting to Grey’s soft palms. He had to lean his whole weight into the first turn, but he got it. On the second turn he lost sight of Collin in his peripheral vision. He was winning.

“Fuck, Collin, knock it off,” he heard Mees bellow, then footsteps pounding on the sticky gravel of the roof.

Grey turned to see what had upset Mees. Collin hadn’t turned, that was it. He was continuing on towards the edge of the roof. It was a sizable concrete lip, a foot, maybe, and there was no real likelihood that a wheelchair could roll up and over it, but still it was startling to see Collin’s long stringy arms thrusting his chair towards the sky’s edge.

Startling enough to send Mees sprinting to tackle him just as the chair tipped up on the concrete. They both hit the gravel hard, Collin on his back in the chair, Mees draped on top of him.

July 22nd, 2011

Rose-coloured reviews *London Fields* by Martin Amis

Martin Amis’s London Fields is a novel about murderee constructing her own murder. But a 470-page (my edition, anyway) book, like this one is, is going to be about a lot of other things, other people. There are four central characters, and a good dozen secondaries whom we get to know well, plus a dozen minor characters after that that we at least recognize. The most central of the centrals is  Nicola Six, the best named character ever, who is gorgeous, at the end of men, and wanting to die–in her own way, though not by her own hand. She befriends three men–Keith Talent, a London cheat (what it sounds like–small-time hustler) who wants to be a darting champion; Guy Clinch, a rich and titled father with a difficult home-life; and Samson Young, a would-be novelist whose one failing is his complete inability to make anything up.

That last is a fun little po-mo conceit–the novelist decides to write the novel of Nicola’s murder, because it is unspooling in front of him, no making-up required. Sam weaves in and out of the action, sometimes directly addressing the reader, or a future editor, or a rival writer. Sam comments on the action throughout and also, because he knows all the constituents, is sometimes a part of it. I’m even now trying to work out exactly the ways he might’ve been–could’ve been unreliable. I’m not really sure.

Sam is a fascinating character, though–the best-fleshed in the novel. He is American, in London because he has traded flats with another, much more successful writer, Mark Asprey. Through living in Asprey’s home and reading various notes and articles he has left about, Sam grows to loathe him both professionally and personally. But he has other problems–the novel he wants to write is deadline to his publisher and he has another deadline, too: he is dying. It is never explicitly said what disease is killing him, but various physical symptoms plus his unremitting vague references to global crisis caused me to think probably AIDS, or whatever they were calling AIDS in 1989 (when the book was published). Anyone else who has read it want to take another guess?

By a stunning string of coincidences, Sam finds Nicola’s discarded diaries and meets her when he tries to return them. Nicola meets Keith when she stops by his local pub after a funeral. Sam meets Keith when Keith is his driver from Heathrow to London and cheats him mercilessly. I think everyone meets Guy at the pub, too, but I sorta forget. This event happens at the very beginning, and it took me close to two weeks to read the book–long for me in general, though short for me on such a dense book. And it’s super-hard to flip back and double-check something, again owing to density–everything is embedded in a giant paragraph, each paragraph a swirl of useful info about the plot and random ephemera.

I found a lot of the ephemera funny–very funny–but I don’t know what it was doing in the book. Amis’s pet filler topics are: the strategies of competitive darts, traffic in London, unrelieved erections, and ill-behaved children. A single riff on any of these topics–and there’s probably at least half a dozen on each–can go on for over a page, not advancing the plot in any way, or even illuminating character. I guess it adds to tension, maybe, all these little peeves…

No, dammit–I can’t talk myself out of the notion that this book is just too long, and I’m speaking as someone who mainly enjoyed it. *London Fields* feels almost Dickensian at times, as if Amis were serializing it and being paid by the penny. Nicola’s plot is extremely complicated and goes on for ages. I’m not sure how long because the timelines are a bit obscure (it’s often not clear whether it’s the same day or a week later) but it seems part of her plan to leave Guy with a constant erection for over a month. At one point his penis seems to turn gangrenous and he has to start walking with a cane…no, I don’t know if any of that’s actually possible. Anyway! The point is, I was like, “Wow, this is so messed up, I wonder what purpose it serves–must be so clever and obscure. I can’t wait to get to the end.” As the book went on and Nicola’s actions got more bizarre, I read faster and faster, wanting to find out why, why, why.

I can say without wrecking it that there is no why for *many* of the events in the book–not for Nicola’s endless sexual tease of Guy, nor Guy’s bizarre embargo against masturbation. The novel’s crisis is a rat’s nest of plot fragments and characters with no clear motivation. And the climax is, yes, incredibly bizarre and moving, but part of me wanted to scream, “This could’ve happened 200 pages ago!!”

What saves the book, in the end, is Amis’s incredible joy in writing. This book is an indulgence–it seems pretty clear to me that he wrote if for fun and fun is what he had. That’s no bad thing, though, since he shares the fun. The rants about double-parking in London are as witty and entertaining as traffic rants can be, though that’s a limited sphere. The best writing is reserved for the kids–Keith has a baby daughter who is an angel, and Guy has a toddler who is a terror (poetic reversals much?) and all the riffs on both kids are fine and fizzy writing (though, in the case of Guy’s son Marmaduke[!] often disgusting: I have to admit I laughed when he “swamped himself with ordure” but still–ugh).

So…I liked *London Fields* just fine…I simply have no idea what the rave reviews referring to the novel being such a comment on modern times, so intellectual, so “nourishing”–I worry that I’ve missed a great deal of the content of the book. I really just thought it was funny. Anyone who wants to explain the rest, feel free.

This is my ninth book for the To Be Read Reading Challenge–3 books in the next 5 months should be no problem (famous last words??)

May 9th, 2011

Rose-coloured reviews CoverGirl Natureluxe foundation

Warning: I suspect that this post is not going to be of interest to many. I’ve often thought it would be fun to write service pieces for women’s magazines: getting paid to write zippy little articles about how I made use of some lovely free sample the magazine would give me. But I actually have plenty of free samples, due to a boring and impoverished period a few years back when I put myself on every mailing list on earth. So I thought I’d give the form a try here, just to see if I like it. Also, as you might guess, I still haven’t fully settled into my new at-home lifestyle, and now there is something baffling wrong with my neck. Thus the paucity of posts, so I’m just glad I’ve gotten myself to my desk long enough to write this.

I do not normally wear foundations. I think a lot of females got into the habit of foundation in early adolescence, when so many people’s skin goes crazy. Mine didn’t, actually–I only got the occasional zit throughout high school, so I never bothered with cover-up. And this remains the case–I think if you don’t use up your lifetime alottment of zits in youth, you’ll just keep getting them once in a while forever, at least in my case, well into your thirties. So while I don’t have amazing skin, it is largely fine and I am very lazy and cheap, and therefore I do not wear foundation.

Except when it comes in the mail at a time in my life when I am looking for distractions. Natureluxe foundation came in two tiny packets in the mail last week. I tried the “Aspen” first (will there be a follow-up post about the “Maple” packet? Probably not.) It was immediately apparent that I am not aspen-complected–the goop out of the packet was several shades fairer than my actual face. However, since it was already there, I rubbed it in and strangely it blended ok. The subtitle of this stuff is “liquid silk foundation” and it is actually very silky. There was a lot in the packet, and it took me four uses over five days to use it all up. By the fifth day, it was a bit thick and gritty, but I think if you were to actually pay money for the stuff and it came in a bottle with a lid, that wouldn’t happen.

I applied a really small amount the first time, and the stuff was thin and runny, but the coverage was actually really amazing. As I say, I believe my skin to be fine, but it was shocking to see all the veins and shadows around my eyes disappear, all the little blotches and colour variations and ghosts of zits past. When I finally had it all worked it in, my face was completely monochromatic except mouth and eyes–without depth or shadow. Successful foundation, I guess, but slightly creepy.

What this pushed me to do is I suppose what the CoverGirl people want–I put on more makeup. Blush, eye-shadow, even mascara gave my face back some depth, and I felt I looked more or less normal, and not like I was about to star in a musical.

I spent the day, and the several subsequent, watching people closely for their reactions to my miraculously even skin tones. There were none; even those I asked about it couldn’t go much farther than “You look very nice!” Which just goes to show what I always believed about most beauty products–they are far more for the wearer than the viewer. I actually felt kind of glam with my smoothed-out aspen-coloured skin, and if that helped me enjoy my day more, I’d probably go out and buy Natureluxe. But otherwise–no one cares.

Oh, I should note that it was easy to get this stuff off with cleanser and a washcloth at the end of the evenings–a very important plus in the makeup world, in my book anyway. It really is nice to wear, too–my skin didn’t get that naked burny feeling after it was off (I have had some bad makeup experiences). Really, it’s a nice product and I think many people would like it, though I personally remain too cheap and lazy to do more than use the free samples.

EDIT: It turns out I’m a “maple,” almost exactly. The effect is not as spooky when the skin tone matches, it turns out. You know, I might actually buy some of this stuff…someday. But first I have about 4 more uses in the packet.

April 25th, 2011

Rose-coloured Reviews *Away from Her* by Alice Munro

The movie tie-in paperback of *Away from Her* is cagey about what it actually is. It took me to the very fine print on the copyright page to determine that it’s a recovered, retitled copy of Hateship Friendship Courtship Loveship Marriage from 2004. Which I always thought was a bit much as a title, so perhaps the editors were always dying to make the switch, and the film coming out gave them a shot.

The other difference about the film tie-in copy is that Sarah Polley, who adapted and directed the film, wrote the intro. Now, I like Polley’s acting a great deal, and though I’ve not seen her work as a director, I’ve heard that’s very good too. But whenever I’ve heard/read her speaking in her own voice, in interviews or essays, I’ve thought she sounded like a nitwit, and this foreword is no exception. I’m not sure how her revealing that her love-life in her twenties was a dreary cliche helps us to understand or appreciate the stories. Especially when she has censored almost all that would be specific or emotional or interesting about her anecdotes, to protect her privacy, I guess. The impersonal-personal is my least favourite form of writing.

I understand that we all read fiction through the prism of our personal experiences, and that good fiction can offer a measure of self-help. But it seems so limited to read through that prism *only*; couldn’t Polley have said *something* about art?

I don’t know the order of the original book, but this version leads with the title story, and it is as good–in fact much better than–Polley says. (The story too, has been retitled, from “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” which is good because I don’t understand in the least what that title would mean.) Polley calls it “the greatest love story I’d ever read,” and the story in part is about the endurance of love. But it’s also about the weird turns and uncomfortable moral machinations love can have us take, the comprimises that seem necessary yet we never fully forgive ourselves for.

The story, in case you haven’t read it or seen the movie (I honestly feel like I’m the last one) is about a bright, vivacious, elderly woman named Fiona who seems to be slipping in to Alzheimer’s disease (the disease isn’t, I believe, named in the story), and has to be institutionalized by her devoted husband, Grant. The story of this sad arrangement is realistic and touching, but what’s far more interesting is Grant’s reflections on his treatment of Fiona earlier in their marriage–his dalliances and indiscretions–and his negotiation with her once in the institution, where she appears to forget who he is.

Munro’s stories are really impossible to summarize–they’re long, but they wouldn’t make sense one word shorter, so I’ll leave it at that for “Away from Her.” It’s as moving as Polley tells us, but it’s also morally squirmy and terribly complicated–you’ll think about it for days, or weeks.

The original title story, “Hateship, etc.” is my favourite in the collection, despite the odd title and some other issues. It’s about housekeeper in her midthirties leaving her post and moving out west to pursue a chance at love. I couldn’t quite guess the period–I suspect this was obtuse of me–1950s, maybe? Anyway, a lot of class consciousness plays into the story, and the narration roams freely from one perspective to another, so we see all the levels and angles. Munro is so widely, wildly good–I can’t imagine being about to just drift from one POV to another without seeming awkward or jarring, but she does it at least 4 times in this story, and it seems the most natural thing in the world.

The story, about 2/3 of the way through, becomes excruciating–I almost had to put it down, my terror for the main character was so intense. I’m glad I didn’t; Munro always has a strange twist to share, and I was really delighted with how things came together at the end. However, and one almost never says this about this author, it was not terrible realistic, the ending anyway. I don’t care, I loved it, but I was surprised.

And then, after these two wildly different stories come the other 7, which I thought were very much like each other and very different from either of the other two. In “Floating Bridge,” Jinny is weak from chemotherapy but forced to drive around town in a hot car while her husband Neal indulges his infatuation with a young offender he’s been teaching, and whom he has now hired to work in their home. “Family Furnishing” has a narrator who violently disapproves of her aunts and uncles marriages, full of gender roles and grim silences. In “Comfort,” Nina’s husband is so obsessed with a political battle that he has nothing left to say to his wife.

And so on. Over and over, in this book and really throughout Munro’s ouevre, hetrosexual relationships betray and humiliate: men are stodgy, judgmental, and selfish (“Post and Beam”) and women are pathetic and desperate for approval (“Nettles,” another favourite from this collection, though it did make me squirm at the protagonist’s utter pathos). Munro is unsparing in her grim portrait of the way men and women–especially women–sacrifice bits of their lives adding up to the whole, just to get and keep a mate.

It’s been a while since I read a Munro collection, and since the last one I’ve read several by Mavis Gallant. If Munro and Gallant are the twin stars in the Canadian short-story firmament, I’m starting to think that my horoscope is more Gallantian. There is, I’m convinced, no disparity of talent between the two of them, nor can I really call it a disparitity of kindness–both seem to extend a measure of patience and generosity towards the characters while never sparing them a glaring exposure if that’s what the story demands. And yet…Gallant’s humour can soften some of her hardest truths, while the reverse seems true for Munro–she uses humour to mock:

“I had known this man before I left my marriage and he was the immediate reason I had left it, though I pretended to him–and to everyone else–that this was not so. When I met him I tried to be carefree and to show an independent spirit. We exchanged news–I made sure I had news–and we laughed and went for walks in the ravine, but all I really wanted was to entice him to have sex with me, because I thought the high enthusiasm of sex fused people’s best selves.”

Ouch! The fact that the mockery comes in the first person–many of these stories are written from a point of view of long retrospect–seems to make the vitriol less poisonous, but to me doesn’t really. And yet there is an elegance to Munro’s savaging of dimwitted youth–the mysteries of what is autobiographical and what isn’t, as well her perfect and surprising ways of situating the stories in time. This is a favourite: “In a hotel room in Vanvouver, Meriel as a young woman is putting on her short white summer gloves.” How lovely, and how efficient an opening.

But I still don’t much like Meriel, and I can’t necessarily decipher her motivations, which is true of so many of Munro’s young women. The retrospecitive narration often implies that the women can’t understand their former selves, either, and the men don’t care to do so. A theme of this collection seems to be youth as a foreign country, and that’s a hard one for this reader to work with. I am close enough to being young to think I remember it well, and it wasn’t such a bingo cage as Munro makes it out to be. It’s hard to take seriously women who marry seemingly at random and then resent their husbands “…she admired his thick shoulders, his bull’s neck, his laughing and commanding golden-brown eyes. When she learned that he was a teacher of mathematics she feel in love with what was inside his head also. She was excited by whatever knowledge a man might have that was utterly strange to her. A knowledge of auto mechanics would have worked as well.”

The fault is mine, for I certainly know that in the 50s and even later, there were many women who married at 18 for sillier reasons. But I am me, now, and I can’t help but thinking Meriel is an idiot, and if she feels so badly done by in her marriage she should just get a divorce.

So. I guess what I’m saying is that Meriel’s story–“Post and Beam”–is a very good story about a character who is very realistically rendered as a person I would not want to talk to if I met her. Which is a good an accomplishment as any.

I’m just saying that reading so many such stories in a row can be a little hard on the soul. But maybe my soul needs the expansion and I’m certainly not sorry I read any of these fine, demanding short stories.

This is my 6th book in the Books to Be Read challenge. More to come!

April 21st, 2011

Rose-coloured reviews the launch party for *And Also Sharks*

Jessica Westhead is the author of the acclaimed novel Pulpy and Midge from 2007, and a new collection of short stories, And Also Sharks, which launched yesterday evening at Toronto Underground Cinema.

Jessica is also a warmhearted, endlessly engaged and generous presence on the Toronto literary scene, always organizing something cool and cheering others on to do likewise. Her launch party was a chance not only for those of us who adore her and her work to show our support (and you should have seen the crowd), but for Jessica’s generosity to find a new expression, as an expert hostess. I’ve never seen a writer work so hard to make her book launch not just a sale opportunity or a validictory address, but a fun and delightful evening for all who attended.

The Toronto Underground Cinema is at the back of a mall in Chinatown. It’s badly marked from the street, and once inside the (mainly defunct) mall, you have to walk down a long hallway, the floor covered in kraft paper for some reason. Then there’s a flight of stairs, and the smell of popcorn. You turn around on a landing and suddenly you can see a milling crowd of chattering friends at the bottom of the stairs–and those down there can watch new arrivals cruise down the stairs, as if at the Oscars. It’s really neat–and the space is huge, spiffy, and adorned with tentacles coming out of the wall(??)

It was nice to see the author all dolled up for the occasion, at the bottom of the stairs giving and receiving hugs. After I’d gotten mine, I milled and chatted for a bit, then went to the photo area, where Jessica’s husband Derek Wuenschirs would take your portrait (with a very professional setup!), then photoshop it onto the cover of *And Also Sharks* as a keepsake souvenir. See Kerry and Stuart‘s photo for an adorable example.

After that, there was buying a book–of course–and picking up *And Also Sharks* swag like a button, a bookmark, and some blue-raspberry shark gummies. The table was run by the folks at Type Books, and was very well-stocked and well-organized. They even took credit cards!!

The movie theatre’s concession stand was also running, serving soda and popcorn, as well as wine and beer. I can’t figure out from the website if the Underground is usually licensed, or this was a special thing for the night, but either way, the crowd seemed quite appreciative.

And, then! As if that weren’t enough, we all filed into the theatre for a speech from Marc Cote of Cormorant Books, *And Also Sharks*’s publisher. He was genuinely enthused, and funny, and then he very gallantly helped the author of the evening onto the stage.

Jessica introduced the two book trailers she and many talented others put together, which were both wonderful. After the trailers, she gave a series of heartfelt thanks for the help with the evening and book, which made you realize how much planning had gone into the launch: the folks at the theatre, the photography setup, the specially selected music, the trailers, etc., etc. You could see why the evening was so great–because great people worked hard to make it so.

And then, in my opinion, the best part: Jessica gave a short, stellar reading from her story “Coconut.” Then we applauded hard, and all filed back out to the foyer (actually, I think some stayed to watch a silent version of *Jaws). Some left, some joined the long but friendly line for autographs (I did), some got further librations. I know the party raged much longer into the evening, but I had to depart. What a great time!

A book launch is such a great chance to for an author to celebrate his/her work, as well as share it with others, but I’ve noticed a trend towards the less-is-more launch, lately–mainly chatting and drinking, with a quick set of thank yous and a mini-reading, totalling perhaps 5 or 10 minutes. This is lovely if you are good friends with the author and his or her other friends; rather awkward if you’re just a fan or someone who saw a Facebook invitation and thought the book looked interesting. It’s also a bit anticlimatic for those of us who need to take a bus, a subway, and a streetcar to arrive at most downtown events (cough). The thing I loved about the *And Also Sharks* launch is that it was for everyone–friends and fans and people who just turned up wondering what all the fuss was about. You were able to get a good idea of what both book and author are like, and make a fairly well-considered decision at the book table, if so inclined. And it was tonnes of fun and the author made it charmingly clear she was glad each of us came.

But the best part is now I get to read the book.

January 18th, 2011

Rose-coloured reviews *Jenny and the Jaws of Life* by Jincy Willet

This book was loaned to me–rather forcefully–by my friend M, and the introduction by David Sedaris is about how the book is so hilarious that he also proselytizes for it and pushes others to read it, or simply reads bits aloud to them.

Strong praise indeed, for I consider Sedaris one the best and funniest…actually, I’ve never been able to pin down what he does. It is essayist? Memoirist? Well, he’s pretty much the funniest *writer*, of anything, I know of. For him to write an intro and blurb for a book–let alone a bout that came out in the 80s and was being re-released in England in 2006 (??) seemed like a pretty big deal. And really, my friend M is pretty sharp, too–she spotted this perfect-condition hardcover on the sidewalk in a box!

I did not find this book all that funny, but I liked it anyway. Isn’t that weird? Usually, if I find the marketing inaccurate, it’s because the book isn’t good and I just hate the whole thing, but this is a great weird disturbing book. I found it flawed at certain points, but really riveting, inventive, striking…and yes, some bits made me laugh.

My favourite story in the collection was probably the first, “Julie in the Funhouse.” It’s about a man whose sister is murdered by her teenage son and daughter. Hahaha, right? It is true that both the man and his sister are of an ironic turn of mind, and flashbacks of them together and some scenes of him by himself are mordantly funny, but just funny in the fabric of the story, which is very much like the fabric of life. I culled through looking for a “hilarious” passage in this story, but the laughs when they come are pretty modest, in keeping with the tragic subject of the story.

But enough about baffling marketing–it’s a brilliant, achingly sad story. I think Willet’s real gift is an ability to go towards melodrama asymptotically, closer and closer without ever touching. She’s able to pull of huge scary subjects, like the murder one above, or “Under the Bed,” which is probably the best story about rape I’ve read. And yes, that one has it’s small wry laughs–probably more than most rape stories, but that’s only because it’s more realistic than most rape stories. The humour is only in keeping with the ironies of life. Even “Justine Laughs at Death,” which is a sort of paranormal take on sexual violence winds up being affecting, even exciting, and quite witty. It’s about a guy who is the single concentrated personification of all sexual violence, and what happens when he encounters the single concentrated personification of all women. You couldn’t really find a “bigger” story to write, but she does it (I think; I can see folks disagreeing with me) with minimum porteneousness and maximum inventiveness–it’s a wild story.

And that may bea flaw of Willet’s–she’s incredible with wild situations, and she can make things work that you’d never think possible, but she does best in elevated or extreme moments; sometimes the more ordinary stuff rings false or if not false then too heavily stylized, conceptualized to be real. “The Haunting of the Lingards” is about a “perfect marriage,” in which the couple had one argument early in their relationship, 16 more years of perfection, then the argument resurfaces and destroys them. However, the pages of the story are almost entirely devoted to the first and second fights, and the subsequent fallout from the second. The other 16 years are described in a quick summary of neighbourly envy, which in the face of no other evidence seems untrue–it seems like the narrator has lied to us and the Lingards were *never* happy. But what would be the point of that lie–then the story makes no sense. The concept behind the story–spiritual belief can never be successfully debated or explained, even for love–is far stronger than the story itself. The characters feel like props made for the purpose of explaining an idea.

A few of the more quotidian ones do in fact work quite well, so maybe my thesis isn’t going to fly. “My Father at the Wheel” is a lovely emotional set of postcards from a girl growing into a woman, and all the times her father gave her a life somewhere. A very simple, no-fireworks story that is genuinely moving.

Willett is also an interesting author–she published this book, then mainly stopped writing to raise her son. When Sedaris pushed for the republish 16 years later, the publisher asked her to finish the novel she’d been plugging away at so she could publish that too, which got her back into the game. You can read a nice interview with her here–sharp lady. Apparently she’s got a new book out lately, which I think I’d probably like to check out.

This is the second review for my To Be Read reading challenge–10 more to go!

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