Monday, May 25, 2015

Mondays on the Margins: Writing About Books for Marks

In my School Libraries course last term (the one with the instructor who annoyed me), I did a Book Talk project on five YA books that had been made into movies. I thought I did an awesome job, but of course the instructor found all kinds of nit-picky details that weren't in the assignment instructions but we somehow should have just guessed that she wanted. One of her comments was "you should be honest about whether or not you've read all the books - students will be able to tell if you haven't, and you'll lose their trust."

SAY WHAT? As IF I'd do a book talk on a book I hadn't read. If I hadn't read it, I would just read it the night before. Okay fine, I can't read every single book in the library, but I can read all the books I do book talks about - are you saying you don't, Ms. Instructor, because maybe that's why I don't trust you. Hmph.

So my course right now is called Genre Fiction and Readers' Advisory, and so far it does seem like a Golden Age in Library Tech Courses for me. The whole discussion board is people going "omg, you loved that book? I loved that book! Have you read this book? I've totally read that book too!" And my first assignment is a book review.

......

I CAN DO BOOK REVIEWS. I'M AWESOME AT BOOK REVIEWS. THIS IS GOING TO BE SO FUN.

But you know what's coming, right? Yeah, cue the choke.

But wait. What if I'm NOT as awesome as I thought? I don't usually do them for marks. I usually just do them however I feel like. People TELL me they're awesome, but those people aren't college instructors, mostly. I put in my student profile that I have a book blog - what if that set up an unreasonable expectation of greatness? What if I do it wrong? What if I leave something out? Think, think, overthink, obsess....

Give head a shake. Pick awesome book, write awesome review.

Here it is:

*************

                I’ve been a fan of the horror genre since I was quite young, although at this point in my life I find that the best horror is at least as sad as it is funny, stemming from an archetypal fear of loss and mortality. Horror is also a very pure expression of Aristotle’s catharsis, as evoking the emotions of pity and fear is paramount in the genre.

                Also, although I agree with Diana Tixier Herald that “each genre follows rules governing plot and characters - and abides by certain taboos - that are acknowledged by authors, required by publishers, and expected by readers”, and that some “readers of genre fiction do not like to be surprised, and often feel cheated by twists in the formula”, I personally find that the best examples of genre fiction do tend to put an original twist on the genre blueprint.

                M.R. Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts succeeds admirably, in my opinion, in bringing a fresh perspective to a common horror trope (which is not revealed until partway through the book, so I won’t reveal it here), and in evoking pity and fear in abundance. The events in the book take place in a future version of England, after an event known as “The Breakdown” has caused widespread death and destruction. A small cast of characters are on an army base at the beginning, but events force them to flee into the dangers of the surrounding area in search of a new safe haven. Carey tells the story in the present tense, which lends an urgency and immediacy to the proceedings. He also reveals the full details of the threat gradually, building suspense throughout the opening chapters, which only tell us that a group of children are held on the army base and given the basics of a classical education by a succession of teachers.

                After the first violent upheaval in the action, the cast of characters is culled to four principal players: Melanie, who is infected, and considered by most other people to be a monster, yet she exhibits the most integrity and the strongest moral code of all the characters; Helen Justineau, Melanie’s favourite of the teachers, who is determined to protect Melanie at all costs, because she cares for her but also to atone for past transgressions; Sergeant Eddie Parks, stoic and embittered by the state of the world, determined to complete his mission and baffled by Justineau’s feelings for Melanie; and Dr. Caroline Caldwell, whose missionary zeal and ferociously single-minded quest for medical truth and personal glory have erased all vestiges of compassion or empathy or humanity. Later in the story, Private Kieran Gallagher is introduced, with a quick, vivid sketch that fills in his background and personality to an amazing extent with the fewest possible words. Carey has a gift for flawed, nuanced characters.

                The fact that the beginning of the book takes place largely in a classroom setting allows Carey to set in place a solid underpinning of great literature and Greek myth. The discussion of Pandora and Epimetheus creates resonant themes of human curiosity and hubris, while references to the Brothers Grimm foreshadow dark fairy tale elements with no happy endings. Words and language are important to Melanie throughout the story, as tools both to understand and control the world; this, along with Carey’s remarkably assured writing, strengthens the narrative thread and elevates it beyond much purely formulaic genre fiction. With Melanie and Miss Justineau, Carey perfectly renders the relationship between the worshipful student and the beloved teacher, while Dr. Caldwell’s solid, detailed scientific explanation of the pathogen that generated The Breakdown lends the story a chilling element of plausibility.

                Although there are moments of pathos and connection, the story is devoid of easy sentimentalism, reflecting on some fairly unpalatable but uncomfortably discerning truths about human nature. There is no deus ex machina or Hollywood ending, although the conclusion does contain a skewed kind of optimism.


                I would recommend The Girl With All the Gifts for anyone who likes intelligent, literate horror, and look forward to future books from this author. 

****************

Let's be honest, yours are the only opinions that really matter to me anyway. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

To Be the Squeaky Wheel Or Not

I struggle often with how to be assertive enough. I don't like feeling like a sucker, but I also don't like causing a scene or being obnoxious, and it can be difficult to find a balance between the two. When I'm in a store or a restaurant, I'm fine with someone complaining about bad service, but sometimes people are bitching out sales clerks or wait staff for things they have no direct control over, and that makes me want to sink into the ground and disappear. I also get that people make mistakes, so if something is done wrong, my first step is to nicely point it out, and if they apologize and fix it, then I'm their customer/best friend for life. Some people are good at calling attention to themselves in order to get extra attention or privileges in any given situation - I sort of admire this in a person, but not in the way that means I wish I could do it. 

I'm sure everyone remembers me bitching about mentioning my course on school libraries last term where the instructor was new and I was finding it frustrating figuring out how to satisfy her seemingly fluid and randomly-changing criteria for assignments. We always get instructor evaluations emailed to us as the end of term approaches, and I was wondering how much time I should spend on it, since I wasn't sure if it would actually make any difference or if it was just a sop to make students feel like they had a voice.

Then two things happened to clarify the situation for me. First, I visited my sister in London over March Break and we talked about it; she's a pharmacist and works at a hospital, but she teaches courses in pharmacy through colleges sometimes, and according to her, a few bad evaluations definitely have an effect - not necessarily punitive, but at the least the instructor has to be observed by someone else to see if the complaints have any merit. My sister said she has sat in on lectures where she doesn't understand what's going on, and she's certified in the subject matter. 

Second, a professor friend on Facebook was talking about how evaluations are, in her opinion, given too much weight, and students who carelessly or vindictively give a bad evaluation can really affect a person's chances at tenure, among other things. So I did fill out the evaluation and I was honest but fair. I really think the problem was that the instructor was new and a bit out of her depth, and I didn't want to make trouble for her, just make sure that she realizes what areas need to be worked on. 

Yesterday morning I pulled out the bottles of juice I bought at Loblaws yesterday - one kale, mango orange, one orange. I love the fresh juice from Loblaws, but the bottles are stupidly designed - there's no way to open them without squirting juice everywhere, and I have to do it in the sink, close the bottles again and rinse them off before proceeding. It's one of those things that is always low-level infuriating, but I accept it because I'm not going to stop buying the juice and I don't really believe that Loblaws will care if I complain.

Then I remembered the Farm Boy butter croissants - my kids love croissants and I usually just buy the box of 40 frozen ones and bake them at home because it's cheaper, but every now and then I buy them a fresh-baked grocery store one as a treat. Farm Boy had these new, expensive, supposedly authentic French butter croissants, and I bought one for Angus one day, and it was awful. It tasted like one or more ingredients were burned. I thought maybe it was just a bad batch, but I tried once more and that one was awful too. So I stopped buying them. A few months later I was in Farm Boy and there was a bin of croissant pieces with a sign saying "NEW butter croissant - please try!" I tried it, and it was amazing. So either enough people complained or stopped buying the croissant, and what do you know? THEY FIXED IT. So I fired off an email to Loblaws. Maybe someday I can open my juice without a hazmat suit. Maybe not. At least I tried.

Then there was the epic farce that was trying to get new filters and a mask from my CPAP supplier. The machine is supposed to last five years, but there are white filters you have to change once a month, black filters you have to change every six months and the nose piece has to be changed every six months to a year. So I drove the half hour to the place and asked for a year's supply of filters and extra-small nasal pillows. The receptionist handed me two packages and then rung up the bill. As I was standing there, I looked at the filters and realized there were no black ones. When I pointed this out, she said "oh, we sell those separately". Um, okay, but I still asked for all the filters for a year. She got them and rung up a second bill. Then I left, stupidly not double-checking the mask package, and before I had gotten far down the hall she chased me down and said she'd rung up the bill under another Allison's name, which might affect any insurance claim. I was mildly exasperated but polite, as we went back and she rung through yet another bill. Then I got some groceries at the Food Basics next door, which was a wholly depressing and soul-sucking experience, and came home.

That night, as I unpacked everything and went to change my mask, I realized she had given me the completely wrong mask. I fired off a terse but still polite email to my CPAP therapist explaining what had happened, just to make sure I would be able to exchange the mask without any problems. She apologized and said I would. A couple of days later, I was taking my mom shopping, so we went to the CPAP place first. The receptionist was apologetic, though not really as apologetic as I think I would have been if our positions were reversed. The reason it had happened was that she was in the other Allison's file, so she gave me HER mask. I was also pissed off at myself for not checking the mask package, which I did this time - there were nasal pillows in a clear plastic envelope with an XS on it. 

So that was that. Except when I got home and opened it, the nasal pillows INSIDE the envelope that said XS were ACTUALLY ONLY S. 

ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?

It would have been funny if it wasn't so rage-inducing. My email to the therapist was angry, but still polite. She emailed back that she had sent an email to her supervisor to ask what they could do, and that she was really sorry. I thought for a minute, realized that there was no way I should have to drive back to that godforsaken place for a third time, and that if I didn't speak up, I might end up diong just that. I emailed back that HERE was what we were going to do: I was going to stuff the nasal pillows I had into an envelope, address it to her personally, and she was going to mail me the one I had ACTUALLY PAID FOR.

She emailed back "okay". I felt like a badass in-control queen of my destiny.

Guess there's something to be said for being the squeaky wheel now and then. 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Nurturing-Good-Thoughts Thursday

Does it sound weird if I say I think of myself generally as a happy person? I know I complain a lot. I know my serotonin and dopamine levels are frequently recalcitrant. But I also know I have a really great life. Parents, sister, husband, kids, friends - all pretty much beyond reproach (not that I don't reproach the heck out of all of them on occasion). Food, shelter, clothing, more books than you can shake a stick at.

So if I'm feeling a little flat this week, and I can feel the cancer-thoughts sparking like malevolent little fireflies in my head every time I feel an ache or pain, and everything I'm reading seems dumb, and things are just kind of lustreless and wearying, I know it will pass. And so as not to let the whole week go by post-less, I'm concentrating on the things that have made me happy instead of surly recently:

My Dad and Lucy: "I always said I didn't like little dogs. Guess I have to eat my words." Happily, the words taste like puppy snuggles.

Walking around the arboretum with Pam, watching people and dogs and the odd woman dressed as  a Flower Fairy for a photo shoot, and an old man on a rock in Dow's Lake who I thought was peeing but was actually fishing. Whew.
Having a baseball-playing birthday boy who just wants hot dogs for dinner.

These. Duh.

Watching Eve and the school basketball team win six straight games, including the final...

with two of her best friends since birth.


Convertible ride! With Swiss Chalet and Paddington on the other end!


Mother's Day was low-key (boys were away) but nice. Eve and I went to my mom and dad's and I thought while we were there how nice it is to have a family where everyone just really enjoys hanging out together. 

And I took my first bathroom mirror selfie, and it didn't suck.




Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Fifteen Times Around the Sun

Angus is fifteen years old today.



Fifteen. Three whole hands.






So much has changed.




Wait. What?


Monday, May 4, 2015

Mondays on the Margins: Batting Clean-up

I keep trying to assure myself that when my reading focus goes off it's a temporary thing, but sometimes I worry that it's just an increasingly present phenomenon related to aging. Today I've decided that it's cyclical - even if the scatterbrained cycles come around more often, they will always pass. That's what I'm sticking with for now.

So, as I mentioned in this post, I've been having trouble finishing books. Starting them comes easily enough, middling them consists of bits of reading interspersed with other books, too much Netflix and lurking on social media, and then I realize I haven't marked a book as read on Goodreads for way too long, panic slightly, sit my ass down and finish something. Lather, rinse, repeat. I showed at book club with the book unfinished TWICE already this year, which is very unusual for me (I'm still working on digesting The Inconvenient Indian in small, spaced-out bites). Sometimes I'm not-reading for more defensible reasons - I just finished two fairly demanding courses and with Eve sick and the boys away all week-end I could have devoted many hours to the reading chair in between nursing duties, but I made myself walk Lucy and spend some time outside both days - but mostly not.

Happily, since we're talking nearly two months ago, I have managed to finish the books in the aforementioned post, so I thought I'd report back on them.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: I found it as utterly captivating all the way through as I did in the beginning. A lot of reviewers complained that not enough happened, which I acknowledge as a valid criticism, it just didn't bother me. I did think once or twice that some of it was almost a cheat because writing about magic is easy, but again, I didn't really care - I've read that it's being made into a movie (no great shock) and it will be really interesting to see the vision rendered cinematically. I read it slowly over a long period of time and every time I picked it up again I was just as happy to fall back into the world. Not something recommended for people who like plot-driven books with a lot of action.

Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel: I was able to renew the ebook after it expired, so I went back to it. It was probably my favourite of the fairly few steampunk novels I've read, especially with regards to characters. The zombie romance when it got going was quite charming, although the series worldbuilding seems to be sticking with the logical fact that, not to put too fine a point on it, zombies can't get erections due to lack of blood-flow (unlike in the series iZombie, which I love, but come on, if zombies are getting it on we need some kind of anatomical explanation to justify it). I'm not feeling any urgency to pick up the next book in the series, but on the whole it turned out better than I expected.

Conjured by Sarah Beth Durst: Huge disappointment. A really promising plot and setting that completely fizzled out, and a protagonist that was so limp and without agency that by the time she actually did something I could not have cared less. The reviews are pretty polarized on Goodreads, so go ahead and try it if you were already going to.

Emergence by David R. Palmer: SO FREAKING GOOD. I had to read it very slowly, interspersed with other books, because of the style (and possibly the print, *whimper*), but it completely bore out its early promise. I just realized I said I would review it "more comprehensively", so I'll wait and do a whole post on it.

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain: After reading this, I now have on my reading pile "Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald" and "Under the Wide and Starry Sky" which is about Robert Louis Stevenson and his American wife, so I guess I've been shaken loose from my 'no fictional novels about actual historical characters' rule for the time being. Except that when you find certain things about the book really annoying - like how Hemingway and Hadley call each other by unbearably cutesy nicknames - you're not allowed to be annoyed at the author because they have some dumb excuse like it actually happened in real life, *eye roll*. Overall, really enjoyable.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Blissed-Out Love Orgy 2015 (With MANY UPPER CASE LETTERS)

So I read at Blogging Out Loud Ottawa (HI LYNN) on Tuesday night and now it's Thursday and THIS is why I can't be a current-events blogger.

My friend Patti (HI PATTI) said about BOLO three (!!) years ago that reading there was a "small jump into a very soft landing", and that being nervous was silly. And I agree, but I was still nervous. But Pam picked me up so I didn't have to find the church or the parking lot or not down two gin and tonics for courage. We had dinner with Nat and Jennifer and Amanda, with so much laughter and loudness (and an incredibly patient waitress) that much of the nervousness drained away (and not just because of the gin), although a big part of me (and Nat) was saying "OR, we could just sit here and while the evening away in beer and idle chatter...."

Then we walked over to the church and tried to wander through the halls quietly and respectfully, looking for the right room. Then a small child bolted out in front of Jennifer and she said (ejaculated, really) "OH JESUS!", so we chucked the quiet part and a woman at the door remarked that we were really putting the Loud in Blogging Out Loud. She had curly gray hair and was wearing pearls all church-lady-ish, and I thought she might have meant it disapprovingly, but she totally dropped the f-bomb on me and Pam later while we were buying drinks from her, so it's all good.

Five - FIVE - of my non-blogging (NON-BLOGGING) friends (HI COLLETTE) drove DOWNTOWN, from BARRHAVEN, to watch me read. I feel like it really needs to be emphasized that they didn't know the event was licensed UNTIL THEY GOT THERE. Helen, my dance-mom friend who, come to think of it, is really just a friend since our daughters haven't danced together - or at all, in any organized capacity- for about four years - drove DOWNTOWN from KANATA, ALL ALONE, and she has driving anxiety just like me, and her GPS crapped out on her so she panicked and had to park in a garage which she hates. Did I mention she was ALL ALONE? I can't draw, I can't dance, I'm bad at math and my sense of direction is for shit, but I ROCK at picking friends.

I had to scan the room to see if enough people would get the part of the post that's only funny if you know me. I thought enough people probably would, so I left it in. And a bunch of people laughed, THANK GOD.

On the way out, a woman told me she loved my post and my hair. Of course, we all know intelligence and creativity is so much more important than hair, so the compliment on the post meant much more. Of course. (I am a sad, vain, petty creature).

Photo credit: Nat Hanson

I'm pretty sure that last year the podium covered everything from the boobs down, so I really just worked on looking good from the boobs up. I'm trying really hard (and mostly succeeding) not to let the 'oops-I-forgot-I-need-to-stop-being-so-fat' part of the evening overshadow the fizzy ginger-ale bubble joy.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. BOLO is awesome. And the waitresses at the Black Bear Pub are hot. The end.



Monday, April 27, 2015

Mondays on the Margins Newbery Post: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

You know the great thing about doing a blog post series of your own volition with no pay and no deadlines? No urgency or unpleasant repercussions if you get busy and your husband leaves the country a lot and you lose the will to live for a few months. This is also probably the bad thing about doing a blog post series of your own volition with no pay and no deadlines. Anyway.

Not a clue how I missed this one on my first pass through childhood. Lynn (HI LYNN) lent it to me a few months ago, but I've been watching too much Supernatural and reading too much after Lucy goes to bed (which means ipad only) to attack the pile of actual books lately. Yesterday I got home from dropping Angus at basketball, went upstairs and declared that I would read the book at the top of the first pile my eyes fell on. And it was this book.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH won the Newbery Medal in 1972. It's a great story, with strong characters and a fantastic plot that has suspenseful intrigue and strong motherly love and duty, as well as some quite dense moral questions. What I think I loved most is that, although it's clearly targeted at juvenile readers, the writing doesn't talk down to children AT ALL. In the description of young Timothy Frisby's illness, Robert O'Brien uses terms like 'hypochondriac' and 'delirious' without overexplaining them, and this continues throughout the novel with descriptions of farm work, forest geography,  laboratory procedures, power tools and and basic physics. This reminded me of how there was outrage expressed on social media at one point about words related to the natural world such as 'almond', 'blackberry', 'minnow' and 'budgerigar' had been dropped from the Oxford Junior Dictionary in favour of terms such as 'broadband' and 'mp3 player'. Was there just an assumption back then that children would know about this stuff, or would ask their parents? I feel like a book written right now wouldn't make those assumptions. Of course, I could be totally tripping. There is also death and lack of closure on one thread (Justin? Justin, come back!). I just really felt like Robert C. O'Brien told the story he wanted to tell without trying to dumb it down or make it more marketable, and I love that the Newbery committee rewarded that.

I haven't seen the movie either, although I'm ninety-five-percent sure it was sitting on a shelf in my best friend's living room when I used to go over there all the time. I have it on good authority that Justin, the rat described in the book as "alert, dark gray in color, and extraordinarily handsome", is extremely crushable in the movie (and I completely had a thing for Goliath from Gargoyles, so I'm not judging). I have also been told that NIMH stands for National Institute of Mental Health, although this is NOT revealed in the book, which nearly made me blow a gasket (I LIKE TO KNOW STUFF, OKAY?)

On Goodreads, the book's title is modified with The Rats of Nimh #1, but apparently the only #2 book was actually written by the original author's daughter, and the reviews are somewhat uneven. There's also a second movie, but the consensus seems to be that it was an abomination, and the description I found keeps changing the name Frisby to Brisby, so my hopes are not high. Unless.... wait..... the original movie seems to call Mrs. Frisby Mrs. Brisby too, WTF, all is ashes, why? Was Mrs. Frisby too reminiscent of a .... frisbee? And how do we all feel, just by the by, about the fact that she doesn't get to have a first name? Mrs. Frisby or Mrs. Jonathan Frisby, or Mrs. Jonathan, that's it. I mean, yes, she's all about the family, but.. Alice Frisby? Jane Frisby? Catherine Emily Frisby? I guess maybe good old Robert C. wasn't catering to women's libbers either.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a Sunday afternoon, and for the next few weeks I'm going to have a really hard time doing anything permanently harmful to the mice that keep getting into our garage. "Here, Mrs. Frisby, have a tiny blanket for poor little Timothy". I'm sure that will wear off in time.