Thursday, September 29, 2011

George.

Yes. I have named this post George because this post has proven otherwise unnameable. I considered 'Spinning my Wheels' or "Blurry and lacking in focus" and "little nuggets of pure crazy" and nothing worked. I will call it George.

So apparently I should put a honking big slash between the Biblio and the Mama because (and I really should have known this), I can only do ONE THING at a time. I can blog regularly, or I can do book reviews. So not surprising. Whenever people talk about working out at lunch hour or stopping at the gym on the way home from work I try not to stare at them with my mouth gaping unattractively, but I'm always thinking "huh. So not everyone has Exercise Day, where they exercise first thing in the morning and then spend the rest of the day recovering from said exercise?"

I've been on this baking-for-the-lunch-boxes kick because it's the beginning of the year and I'm still optimistic and energetic (well anyway, I'm marginally less beaten down and demoralized than I will be come February). The kids love those chocolate-covered-coconut bars, so I've turned out batch after batch of chocolate-dipped coconut macaroons, because they're fresh and homemade! and I know all the ingredients! Of course, the fact that those ingredients include sweetened condensed milk and chocolate detracts from the virtuousness somewhat, but still.... Tonight I realized two things. 1. I don't have to look at the recipe any more. 2. We're all so sick of chocolate-covered coconut things we never want to see another one. Naturally I have NO IDEA where to go from here.

I couldn't sleep last night. Then the back of my head got itchy and I scratched it and then spent the next two hours obsessing over the weirdness of back of my skull. Does everyone have this odd shelf of bone halfway up, or have I been walking around with a permanent depressed skull fracture? God help me if I ever go bald.

Remember when I took the kids to Lafl├Ęche and we did the kids' obstacle course? My friend Collette has decided that the adults of our four families need to do the adult course. The three-and-a-half-hour really-high-up I'll-make-a-man-out-of-you adult course. Except Matt's going to be away. I said I couldn't go without someone to encourage and support me and tolerate being cursed at without holding a grudge and everyone else said I could use their husbands for that. So I'm going. Even though I'm afraid of heights and those harnesses are really unflattering. What does it say about me that I'm slightly more afraid of humiliation than I am of death?

Wow. This post may have reached a new pinnacle of frivolous lunacy (lunatic frivolity?) Of course, I went to the gym this morning, so really, what did you expect?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Mondays on the Margins: Book Review - The Broken Teaglass

First, I have to get this off my chest.

If you're an author whose first book is called Promise Not to Tell and the cover looks like this:



and then a subsequent book is called Don't Breathe a Word and the cover looks like this:



don't you think maybe you need to fire your editor?

Anyway.

I just finished The Broken Teaglass by Emily Arsenault. It was a quiet kind of mystery, sort of understated and faintly sad, but also quite original and thought-provoking.

I can't remember how I came across it, but what hooked me, not surprisingly, was that the main character works as a lexicographer, preparing citations and definitions for a new edition of a dictionary. The eccentric characters who work at the Samuelson Company are entertainingly drawn, and I love the descriptions of how new words or definitions are decided on, and how questions from the public are dealt with. Billy, the fresh-out-of-college protagonist, is unsure of whether he really belongs there. He finds a heightened sense of purpose when his colleague, Mona, discovers some citations in the files that don't seem to belong, but instead appear to suggest that someone who worked at the company previously has sown fragments of a mysterious narrative among the company's voluminous citation archives.

The developing relationship between Billy and Mona is sort of frustrating, but in a very realistic way - if this was a Hollywood movie, you know they totally would have ended up naked on a dining room table full of word citations. It doesn't happen that way in the book (for this I am thankful). There is also no point where someone "comes too close to the truth and discovers that the next victim may be closer than he thinks". I know it seems like I'm defining this book largely by what it's not - so maybe I am, shut up, it's my blog. There are also no zombies, but I'm not going to hold that against it.

Memorable Quotes:

-"Now that you've paused to look up lexicographer, are you impressed? Are you imagining lexicographers as a council of cloaked, wizened men rubbing their snowy-white beards while they consult their dusty folios? I'm afraid you might have to adjust your thinking just a little. Imagine instead a guy right out of college -- a guy who says yup, and watches too much Conan O'Brien. Imagine this guy sitting in a cubicle, shuffling through little bits of magazine articles, hoping for words like boink and tatas to cross his desk and spice up his afternoons."

-"I'd have preferred we didn't end the conversation there, with my morbid dental hygiene theory just hanging in the air. But before I could say more, she gave me a little wave and headed back to her cubicle, where she could think about how creepy I was for the rest of the morning."

-"Because I keep picturing all of the terrible ways this could end." "Like how?" "Well. Let's see. There's you getting fired. Or you ending up sleeping with the fishes in the Connecticut River. Or at the very least, Mr. Phillips being dragged away by a cop, shaking a fist and screaming 'And I would've gotten away with it if it weren't for those meddling kids!'"

-"How could I start disliking such a thing? Three innocent little letters, signifying something so basic, even charming: a small treasured object, a key. A tiny magical device that opens doors and old hope chests and secret diaries. Ah, and people's hearts! the more I thought about it, the more I grew to hate it. Key. KEY. KHHHEEEEEEY. I could imagine myself near-catatonic in a padded white room, hoarsely repeating the word, trying to clear the syllable out of my throat like a tenacious bit of phlegm."

-"Self-defense is an act that implies you have something valuable to defend. After the instinct, you begin to wonder. What, specifically, was I aiming to save? What, beyond instinct, makes life worth saving?"

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Letter to my Optometrist

Dear Dr. N.:

On the off chance that you're curious why neither I nor my children are any longer frequenting your office, I've decided to share my reasons with you.

As you know, I've been a patient of yours for twelve years, since I first moved to Ottawa. I have never had the slightest issue with your friendliness or professionalism. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for your front counter staff, particularly the one older woman (I'm sure you know who I mean). I'm not sure why I put up with the customer service I've received here for as long as I have - I suspect it's a combination of laziness and the fact that I only come here two or three times a year.

I've worked retail myself, and I do realize that it's a bit much to expect staff to invariably act like 'the customer is always right'. However, it is a somewhat baffling customer service model I've experienced here, one which seems to dictate that 'the customer is a blithering idiot and not deserving of the slightest courtesy or respect'.

This individual has made several mistakes such as calling my house to confirm an appointment for my mother (same last name, different address and phone number), obviously having confused two patients. However, it's more the fact that she acts like I am an intrusion and an annoyance every time I call to make an appointment that I find more vexing, as well as curious; did she not know when she took the job that patients would have to call to make appointments to see their eye doctors?

I would probably still be subjecting myself to this sort of treatment, if not for the incident which occurred in July of this year. I started bringing my children to your office when they were old enough to require eye exams, even though the office is twenty minutes away from where I live, because I have been satisfied with your services as an optometrist and I believe in customer loyalty (I know - how charmingly misguided). A few weeks ago I booked eye exams for my children and wrote the appointments down on the calendar for Wednesday July 6 at 1:00. However, when I received my confirmation call, the individual in question clearly stated that she was calling to confirm appointments for Thursday, July 7 at 1:00. I was a bit confused, and I considered calling to clarify, but then I thought that presumably she had the appointment calendar in front of her while she was calling, and that perhaps I had thought our calendar week started on Saturday instead of Sunday and wrote it down wrong.

At any rate, I showed up in the office on the Thursday. When I gave her my children's names, she couldn't find them. I said that I hoped she hadn't made a mistake when she called, since the appointment I had originally written down was on the Wednesday. She checked, said "yes, it was yesterday. And I don't have anything for today," very brusquely, then looked down dismissively and moved her chair over. I said rather tartly that it would be nice if she would be a little bit more careful about her reminder calls, and asked to make another appointment (because why wouldn't I want to keep coming back for this kind of treatment?). She made it, with fairly bad grace - when I asked if I could look at a calendar she simply said 'no'. When it was done, before leaving, I said it would be nice if she would make some sort of expression of regret for a mistake that had caused me to drag my kids out of the sandbox on a summer afternoon, dress them up and drive them half an hour for an appointment that now had to be rescheduled. She remarked somewhat incomprehensibly that "we always call and say the date and the time", whereupon I said "that's what I'm telling you -- you said the WRONG ONE". She retorted "well I didn't do it", which is really not the point (although it was, in fact, her - she has a very distinctive voice). Totally bemused, I asked her if she WAS at all sorry that we drove out here for nothing because of a mistake on her end, and naturally she said "I don't know that we made a mistake." Really? Really? All she had to say was "if a mistake was made, I'm sorry." That's in the COMPLETE IDIOTS guide to customer service. She was so clearly more concerned with being right than being polite or the least bit professional, I would have been amused if I wasn't livid. I had the impression that she knew she had made a mistake and just wanted to get rid of me as soon as possible. She turned what should have been a minor inconvenience into a deeply unpleasant experience for both me and my children.

I believe that by leaving this individual on the front line of your business, you are doing it a disservice; however, after delivering this letter I don't intend to commit any further headspace to the matter. On the drive back to Barrhaven I came to the obvious yet incredibly liberating conclusion that I don't actually have to drive twenty minutes out of my way and pay good money to put up with -- and be treated like -- total garbage.

Very Sincerely,

Allison McCaskill

Monday, September 19, 2011

Mondays on the Margins: Book Review - Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes by Jonathan Auxier


First of all, this book is knock-your-eye-out GORGEOUS. If I'd seen it in the bookstore before Penguin sent it to me I would have been helpless in its thrall. Second of all, it seems that Jonathan Auxier wrote the enchanting story AND drew all the amazing little pictures at the beginning of each chapter, which irritates me in the way that I was irritated when I watched Disney's Aladdin and realized that Robin Williams could also SING. It's kind of like hogging more than your fair share of talent, you know? Anyway...

This is the kind of story I love. Destitute orphan with a mysterious and fascinating destiny involving a quest? Check. Eccentric characters and sophisticated dialogue, wherein people insult each other elaborately and at great length? Check. Impossible-to-believe coincidence following on wildly improbable event? Check.

If I had one quibble with the book, it may be that it seems a little more like a children's book for grownups than a children's book for children, but that might be my underestimating of the average ten-year-old's to read unbothered about a baby's eyes being pecked out by a large raven or... actually, it was mostly the pecked-out eyes that were the sticking point for me, and the empty sockets that Peter would slip the appropriate pair of fantastic eyes into. Once you're past that, everything else is...well, there is some slaughter and bloodshed and what-have-you, but kids are used to that.

I very much enjoyed escaping into this magical adventure. It made me want to hang with a bunch of orphans and overthrow an evil dictator.

Memorable quotes:

-"For a thief, death is something of an occupational hazard."

-"Those of you who are asking the very same question have clearly never been pirates or buccaneers. If you had been, then you would know that lemons and other citrus fruits are used to defend against a nasty disease called 'scurvy.' Scurvy comes from a lack of a magical vitamin that prevents one's teeth from rotting away during ocean voyages, which is why they call it 'Vitamin Sea.'"

-"Some of you may even be thinking to yourselves, 'Boy! I wish I were blind like the great Peter Nimble!' If you are thinking that, stop right now. Because whatever benefits you may believe that blindness carries with it, you must understand that there are just as many disadvantages. For example, if you were to give an order to a bunch of thieving prisoners, and they answered 'of course' while smiling to one another and rubbing their hands, you would see this and know that they were planning something terrible - which was exactly the case here."

-"The princess shrugged. 'You call them the Night Patrol, but for us they are simply monsters. When you have seen enough of your friends eaten whole, you put aside all formalities.'"

Friday, September 16, 2011

Friday Funny

Because sometimes you have to laugh or you'll be so frustrated from searching for a double loft bed for your son (after finding one in the IKEA catalogue and realizing that it's actually the PERFECT SOLUTION and MUST BE OBTAINED and then finding out that the IKEA in your city doesn't carry it any more and then searching every other goddamned furniture store that is searchable without your ass actually leaving a chair and not finding one ANYWHERE) that you'll cry. Or at least use a lot of objectionable language and feel kind of cranky.

I can't remember where I came across this for the first time, but I came across a copy of it in my pictures file and it made me snort unbecomingly again. It's the corollary to those magical experiences where students come back and tell teachers what a positive difference they made in the student's life. As my son would say, Mrs. Johanson totally pwned Larry. Plus, his name is Larry - for some reason that also makes me giggle.

Also, if you haven't seen possibly the best legal typo of all time, check this out. My lawyer friend said he's considering it as a new template for his retainer letter.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Book Review: Wild Abandon by Joe Dunthorne





"The last day on earth is coming. Bring your own booze." (you know it's going to be a good book when....)

I had trouble pinning down exactly what I loved so much about this book. Once given the premise of a 'secluded communal farm disintegrating' and the cast of characters - the teenage daughter chafing against the hippie constraints of her parents' philosophy, her younger brother who just wants the family to stay together, their struggling parents and the various other eccentric residents of the farm, it's not hard to guess where the action is leading, and it's only the details that need to be filled in. The details, however, are superb - we see how the seeds of the 'Community' were planted (college graduate friends and lovers living in subdivided office space), the long arc to the place the characters now find themselves in, and the ways in which they all cope with their various disappointments.

Kate, the 17-year-old daughter, is an interesting, if not likeable, character. Her situation reminded me a little of Nomi Nickel in A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews, where we come upon a character who belongs to a certain faction when that faction has already eroded so much as to be unrecognizable; part of me wished to see more of when the Community had been whole and functional, and yet there is a certain giddy freedom and potential in witnessing the end times. Kate is perhaps as lost as Noni, but her casting about for a new normal seems much more selfish and calculating - she throws over homeschooling to attend a real college, meets a boy, moves in with his family who welcome her warmly, and then sets about seducing his father. Albert, her 11-year-old brother, is the most tragic figure - trying desperately to hold his fragmenting family together until the impending apocalypse in which he profoundly believes. Don, the commune's patriarch, and Patrick, the commune's main financial benefactor (a former greeting-card franchise regional manager), come across like middle aged Welsh frenemies, unable to express anything without a one-upping subtext, even though they do have genuine affection for each other. And Freya, Don's wife, is worried about her son and wants a break from her husband. Patrick's unrequited love for Janet, another member of the commune, is another sore point, as is the doomsaying of Marina, mother of the Community's only other child, a further sign of its depletion. Freya is considering sending Albert to school, while Don is determined to keep him sheltered from the evils of the outside world. Events and personalities devolve, culminating in a huge rave party at the commune, Don's desperate bid both to engage the surrounding community and draw back together the members of the commune.

There is both humour and pathos here, since the characters are so real, and for the most part so earnest. I want to believe that cooperative communal living off the grid is possible, and yet I know I would be one of those people pulling out the "contraband shampoo" when the homemade egg yolk and oatmeal shampoo didn't produce any lather. The problem with such an idealized mode of existence is that humans aren't ideal, which is precisely what Dunthorne shows us, with a light and affectionate touch.

Memorable Quotes:

-"(Albert), through years of collecting words from international visitors to the community, had compiled an armoury of exotic insults. He tutted and proceeded to call her something bad in Bengali. She tried not to react."

-"With classes of nearly a dozen young people of all different ages, subject matter had been pitched to the cleverest person, but with simpler alternatives. Their education had peaked with Arlo's now infamous class on cinquecento Italian architecture, which involved a high-level discussion of the villas of Palladio alongside an ambitious attempt to build 'La Rotonda' from Lego."

-...according to Patrick's pet theory -- Don only became condescending when something bad was happening in his personal life. Patrick had noted that, during times of marital strain, Don would aggressively encourage individuals to streamline their recycling process, for example."

-"There is no perceptible difference between something made with love and something made with spite, except spite works to a schedule."

Monday, September 12, 2011

Mondays on the Margins: Book Review - Bloodlines by Richelle Mead



It's my day on the Canadian Bloodlines Blog Tour!

Bloodlines is a spinoff series by Vampire Academy author Richelle Mead. The protagonist, Sydney Sage, was introduced in one of the Vampire Diaries books, and her decision to go against her community and help the falsely accused Rose Hathaway escape from prison and clear her name follows her into the events of this book.

This universe contains humans, Dhampir - half human, half-vampire, protectors of the Moroi - mortal vampires from whom vampire royalty are drawn, and Strigoi - evil undead vampires. Sydney is a human and a member of a family of alchemists - people who use magic to protect humans from vampires, for whom alchemists harbour deep suspicion and dislike. In Bloodlines, she ends up smack in the middle of a mission to protect Jill Mastrano, who is the sister of the Moroi Queen. Because of a law which is in the process of being changed, if Jill is assassinated the Queen will be deposed. Sydney is therefore dispatched to a human boarding school in California to act as a bodyguard.

I've read some of the other reviews on this blog tour, and several people who had read the Vampire Academy books didn't like this one as much. I actually liked it a little more, since Rose Hathaway, the V.A. heroine, was such a natural at kicking ass and taking names, and also at breaking rules with barely a flicker of conscience, that she was admirable but not extremely sympathetic. Sydney was raised in an extremely strict and rule-bound society, and it's much more difficult for her to trust her gut and go against protocol, so I actually found her a more relatable protagonist. A few people also expressed distaste about her bigotry towards vampires, but this was one of the most compelling aspects of the book for me -- I found that the unreasoning fear and hatred of the alchemists toward vampires, bred into Sydney from birth, which dissipates upon acquaintance with actual vampires who have admirable qualities, had strong parallels with other types of racism, and was interesting to view in this context. Sydney is treated pretty harshly by her father and other family members, and her community seems much more focused on duty than affection, but this is also similar to many real-life communities.

It's a good story, with some good characters and a lot of humour. I'm less enamoured of Adrian Ivashkov, the bad boy in need of redeeming by a good woman, than others, but I do see his appeal. Keith, Sydney's fellow alchemist who clings to his evil-vampire stereotypes, is almost too over-the-top an asshole, but maybe not quite. There are some nice twists near the end that I totally didn't see coming. There's a nice subplot involving tattoos that ties in with the alchemists' facial tattoos. It's bloody good escapist fun, and a solid addition to the vampire YA genre - less overwrought and hand-wringy than Twilight (which I also loved, I won't lie). In my research for this review, I learned that Mead also writes an adult series about a succubus who works in a bookstore - this, I am thinking, MUST be checked out.

Esther's Ever After is the next stop on the tour tomorrow.

Bloodlines was released on August 23, 2011.

Lots of fun stuff about the series here.

Download the first chapter of Bloodlines here.


Disclosure: Penguin Canada sent me an Advance Reading Copy of Bloodlines. Opinions are my own, although if you ever DID want to buy my opinion, free books would definitely be the way, so.....

Thursday, September 8, 2011

He Who Rejects Change is the Architect of Decay

Then BRING ON THE DECAY, I say. I don't do well with change (I may have mentioned this before). It doesn't matter if the change is mighty or miniscule, positive or pissy, it stresses me the fuck out. Not intellectually - I look forward to the changing of the seasons; I like the freedom that summer holidays bring; I also like getting back into the routine of school, piano lessons, me and the kids reading in my room at night before bed. I like the satisfaction of finishing one course and the challenge of starting a new one.

But something in my body there is that does not love change (I was trying to do a takeoff on that line of poetry about something in nature not loving a wall, but I just ended up sounding like Yoda. Fuck.) The kids get out of school and I'm a panicky ball of angst. The kids go back to school and I'm a weepy mess. I got new glasses a couple of years ago and I actually wrote in my diary "I hate how they feel when I'm washing them. The lenses used to feel curvy and welcoming and now they feel flat and unfamiliar in my hands." (yes yes, I'm even a teeny bit MORE insane than you suspected, take a moment to process and let's move on). My hair dryer finally died a few weeks ago and I HATE the new one, almost solely because it's new.

So I'm focusing my negative energy on clearing the crap out of my house. Again. Because apparently there is an invisible Crap Factory somewhere in my house that keeps churning out more crap to replace every bit of crap I get rid of. Pam and I dropped five garbage bags and multiple boxes of stuff at Value Village today. Then we went shopping. Oops.

I also kind of want to start doing a regular book review day here, but I'm hobbled by the fact that none of the days of the week has a first letter that is amenable to alliteration with 'book' or 'review'. I mean 'Wordless Wednesdays' is a no-brainer and Amber used to have her 'Mat leave Mondays', there was a Friday Funny for a while...I just don't know if I can properly do a regular feature that doesn't have a catchy title -- is that even allowed in blogging?

Now I will distract you from my whining with multiple cute pictures of my daughter with her home-improved backpack and on the first day of school - and the one or two pictures Angus would consent to pose for.































Friday, September 2, 2011

Memorable moments from our Summer of Awesome

Eve feeds a baby for the first time: "Oh, she's so cute, she wants the spoon."; "Dani, you have to....okay, she keeps throwing that magnet on the floor."; "Here, baby, do you want...AGH! There's yogurt ALL OVER MY HAND!"; "THIS BABY IS HORRIFYING!"; "Wait...was I this bad when you fed me?"

>

Angus discovers that, no matter how good a pitcher you are, you can't beat a rigged carnival game:

>

Eve rides a carousel, and halfway through her ride Angus and I realize all the horses on it are really freaking scary.



Matt discovers, to his great disgust, that our kids suck at bumper cars:



We babysit a bird for five weeks and get quite attached. The little bugger dies two hours before we're due to bring him home. At least his owner (Eve's friend) was already here and had seen him alive so they didn't suspect we'd been keeping him in the freezer or something, but still, it sucked.



Angus wins the ground ball competition at baseball practice and reaps the somewhat unorthodox reward (Ultimate Fighting Championship belt):



I follow my friend Janis into EQ3 in the market to look at sectionals and stumble upoon the purple rocking chair of awesome that OBVIOUSLY must be obtained for Eve's soon-to-be new room:



Just FYI, if your herb garden looks like this, it's probably past time to weed:



Eve and Marielle take Britannia Beach by storm and I have a huge laugh at Marielle's Mom's expense (that's the bikini she was ONLY allowed to wear on the cruise they're taking next March):



One minute it's all football and sandcastles, the next you're smack in the middle of the Zombie Apocalypse:



For Swistle: me, practically full-length, wearing the EXACT SAME SHIRT as tiny little Zarah. (Eve demanded it, and since we made the kids wear matching shirts I capitulated)



This year the kids (Zarah's and mine) would only agree to pose nicely if we subsequently photographed them beating on each other:








Our enterprising children engage in both theatre and marketing:



And the cast photo, naturally....



During the Provincials championship game, Angus falters while pitching his fourth of five innings. The first baseman walks out to centre field, punches him lightly on the shoulder, and returns to first base. This makes me cry.



Eve decides to pick a recipe from my Mrs. Fields cookbook for us to cook. We make black and white cupcakes. She doesn't really like them.



Eve gets over her fear of driving ("WHAT? I can't drive THAT!"):



Angus gets off the baseball diamond and onto the beach - somewhat unfortunately for photo ops, his friend Jacob has been there for four days already.



Helmets!


My Mom drives a go-kart. Pretty much worth the price of admission right there, wouldn't you say?


I get my act together in time to participate in one of Amber's monthly round-up posts. Yippee.