Monday, April 30, 2012

Mondays on the Margins: Coincidence Detection by Selaine Henriksen-Willis

Selaine Henriksen, an Ottawa writer, contacted me after reading one of my year-end book review posts (which I posted at the next year's beginning - doesn't everyone?). She asked if I would review her self-published book if she sent it to me. I said sure, and then afterwards I thought oh crap - this could be really awkward if I hate it. Fortunately, I quite liked it.

From Goodreads: Jane is a private investigator specializing in missing persons, but considers reading her true passion. She reads at every opportunity and her choice of books is eclectic. Over the course of time she has noticed that whatever she happens to be reading parallels her life. Her husband says this is just coincidence, to which Jane responds that keeping an open mind in order to detect and use these coincidences helps her solve cases. Jane is just starting to read a new book, Doris Lessing's "The Golden Notebook," when she is hired to find a missing girl. In this, Jane's first recorded case, she decides to conduct an experiment to demonstrate to herself, and to her doubting husband, that her coincidence detection theory is valid.

Jane Wilkinson is quite a likable character (does likable really not have an e? My computer spellcheck doesn't think it has an e. Makes me feel like I'm calling her 'lickable'.) I like her relationship with her equally book-addled mother and her handy builder of a husband; the anecdote about how their relationship was sparked by their shared love of the Montreal Canadiens is charming and adds a nice Canadian flavour (oh screw you, spellcheck, flavour DOES SO have a u.) The way she interviews people and conducts research is plausible. As for her belief that "whatever she's reading parallels her life" and investigations, although I loved it as a concept, I was a bit worried that it would come off hokey, but it's actually done quite well. 

The mystery is well plotted and engaging, and the weaving of the themes of the Golden Notebook with present-day feminism and university politics is clever and felicitous. A few of the characters just barely skiirt being types, but it's true that this issue does tend to attract and shape extreme personalities. I liked the way Jane discussed the issue with her friend Rachel - troubling matters were address without everything being wrapped up in a neat little paragraph or two.

One thing that did bother me, similarly to my other friend on Goodreads who reviewed this, was the fact that Jane didn't seem at all conversant with the internet - she doesn't even have a cell phone until her husband gives her one and shows her how to use it for her trip to Toronto. I understand that she loves books and may be a Luddite, but this wasn't really explained well enough for me, and I don't see how anyone could run a P.I. business without using the internet extensively at this point in time.

Overall this was an enjoyable read, easily as good or better than many non-self-published mysteries I've read. The character and setting reminded me of Amanda Cross's Kate Fansler mysteries (the character is actually mentioned at one point). I think the concept of Jungian synchronicity applied to books and investigations could make for a very satisfying series, and I would definitely read further additions.

Memorable Quotes:

-"I set it aside, too, along with 'Anne of Green Gables' and the follow-up stories, of which I remember nothing except Diana, Anna's friend, had violet eyes that looked even more striking when she was tired. For the longest time I was under the impression that I would look better when fatigued. That would be an example of why you shouldn't trust everything you read."

-"George and I have had an ongoing argument about this for the better part of our five-year marriage. For example, I'll be thinking about wasps and then, purely by chance, open a magazine and there will be an article on wasps. He says it's just a coincidence. I answer that it's too coincidental to be just a coincidence. He laughs and wonders how I ever manage to solve a case."

-"Despite my love of reading it still never fails to astonish me that the written word can arouse such strong emotions, strong enough to lead to threats. I was reminded of Anna, in the 'Golden Notebook,' and her her attempts to rectify social injustice by joining the communist party. Karl Marx wrote a book and changed the world. I shouldn't have been surprised that the escalation of anger, even through a small student paper, had lead to violence."

-"I was sitting, leaning against the wall of the living room. Any attempt to look around made me dizzy and I began to tip sideways. Inane thoughts like 'I can't possibly puke on this lovely carpet' and 'why can't I move?' were running through my head as I tried to catach myself. It turned out there was a good reason I couldn't move: my hands were tied behind my back. I fell onto my face and, yes, the carpet was just as lovely up close."

Coincidence Detection is available on Kindle, Goodreads and Smashwords

Saturday, April 28, 2012

My Own Worst Enemy

Okay, so who's going to strong-arm me into keeping my appointment with the allergist on Thursday? Does anyone else wait months and months to see specialists who might be able to address a years-long problem and then get incredibly, morbidly pessimistic about the whole thing as the appointment approaches? No? Just me? Somebody throw me a frikking bone here?

I do this all the time. Allergist, sleep specialists, respirologists, endocrinologists. I write it on the calendar in big letters and feel like I've done something positive and pro-active. Then as the appointment approaches I think, oh why bother? What if he's mean? What if he's arrogant and dismissive? What if he thinks I'm just a fat hysterical housewife? What if he's one of those doctors who angered by that woman who came up with the plastic-wrap wrinkle cure? I don't have many wrinkles - WHAT IF HE THINKS I'M USING IT?

Of course, a lot of specialists ARE mean bastards. When I had the infection that ate up my face in grad school my dermatologist (who was a sweetheart of a man, and his receptionist always fit me in when my face blew up again) sent me to an endocrinologist who, when I confessed that I'd cried a little that morning, said "oh, you were feeling sorry for yourself?" Dude - I was twenty-four, trying to finish a Master's degree and I looked like a burn victim from some infection no one could diagnose. Yeah, a few tears were shed, asshole. But a lot of them aren't mean, or dismissive, and here's the stupid part - I've seen this allergist before, years ago, and he was lovely.

So yeah - I'm an idiot. And I'm aware of it. But I'm still going to fight myself every step of the way. It's just what I do.


Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Mondays on the Margins have been postponed due to my post-traumatic field-trip disorder

Eve's class has been going to the community pool for the last three Mondays to learn 'life-saving skills'. It was great. She's been a very slow starter in swimming; she loved being in the water, but she wouldn't jump in, didn't like going under water, and needed water wings well after the other kids her age were eeling around without flotation devices. This was fine until she went to summer camp last year and couldn't pass the swimming test and ended up having to hang around in the shallow end with little boys in life jackets. So I put her in a private swimming class, and she's made enormous progress. Over March Break, my friend and I took the kids swimming and she passed the swimming test easily, even though it was a long swim in water over her head. She got a little nervous before the first Monday, but passed the test again, didn't have to wear a lifejacket, somersaulted into the water and jumped off the diving board for the first time ever. She was loving it. She was loving it so much she asked if I would come watch at the last class yesterday. Which also meant supervising the girls changing in the locker room.

The class has fourteen girls and six boys.

The proper life-saving technique would have been to say NO FUCKING WAY. But I said sure, why not? Because I'm stupid like that.

The thing with the girls at this age -- tell me you've noticed this -- is, even the ones that are sweet and nice and funny and obedient on their own turn into little turds when they're in a group. On a bus? They lose their everloving shit in five seconds flat. Trying to open windows. Trying to close windows. Flinging their bags of stuff up on the racks. Trying to get the same stuff down from the racks. Sitting backwards. Sitting upside down. Arguing over which guy in the Hunger Games is better and saying "My name is Slim Shady" over and over. There are rows of empty seats and nine kids squished into the very last ones, because ya know, having a quarter of a butt cheek on the last seat, that makes you cool.

Then we're in the locker room. All they have to do is take off their clothes, put their stuff in a locker, put on their bathing suits and get their towels out.

photo credit
I think it would have been easier to build a time machine. And I am not mechanically inclined.

Some of them took minutes just to pick out the perfect locker. Some of them collapsed on the bench and their stuff was immediately scattered in a five-metre radius. Some of them were so preoccupied with not being naked that it took them twice as long to get changed, and the rest took all their clothes off and looked around vacantly, as if they couldn't remember the next step. This tiny, cute-as-a-button blonde girl took out a plastic ziploc bag with her epi-pen, inhaler, and brush in it and looked at it and went 'oh my gosh!' and I said 'what? What?' in a total panic, thinking she was missing something vital and about to have some kind of medical crisis. She opened the bag, took out the brush and said "THAT'S not medicine!" and put it on the bench.

Then my head exploded, so that took a few more seconds.

Then we went out on the pool deck. It was raining, and there were some leaking pipes, so you can imagine, the "OH MY GOD, IT'S LEAKING, IT'S A FLOOD, WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE OH MY GOD, Selena can you sit beside me on the bus on the way home?" They were all supposed to sit down and wait for the instructors, which they did for about half a second, then they were up and changing seats, and inching along the wet ledge in front of the seats trying really hard to fall and crack their heads on the concrete until I snarled at them that they were all horrible, wretched little ingrates and if they didn't park their little butts in a seat and stay there, they would shortly be in need of some REAL life-saving. Because I'm good with kids like that.

Then they had the actual lesson, and that was cool. I just sat there sweating, had a brief conversation with another mom about how if we were teachers we would both be raging alcoholics, and Eve went off the HIGH DIVING BOARD! Then she wouldn't shut up about how it hurt her leg and she had a headache, and I told her I'd never met anyone who could ruin a magical moment as effectively, and she said "well then welcome to your first time!"

Then we had to get them changed back into their clothes. So, the first part in reverse, but much, much worse. Because now they were wet, and there were hair issues, and more pieces of clothing had to go ON their bodies, and oh god, the humanity.
Two girls disappeared into one of the private change rooms and every time I looked at their four little feet, they seemed distressingly still and not moving around in a putting-on-clothes-type manner AT ALL. The little blonde girl kept saying "Where's my Epi-pen?", which, okay, fine, you should know where your epi-pen is, but I'd told her EVERY TIME that I had put it back in her backpack, and I'm pretty sure it was for food allergies and WE WEREN'T EATING ANYTHING. Naked little girls were combing their tangles out with excrutiating slowness - I swear, they were staring at me challengingly at the same time. Did I mention there was a bus waiting for us, and we were edging up on school dismissal time? And that if we got out to the parking lot a bit early I might be able to score some meth or something to dull the pain?

photo credit
One girl put on her dress and then couldn't find her pink leggings. She searched along the piles of stuff on the bench and found them. The little blonde girl had a dress on and winter boots, but her legs were still bare. I said sweetie, don't you have something for your legs? She said 'oh yeah', and looked at the bench and picked up HER UNDERWEAR, which apparently was hitherto considered optional, and then said "where are my leggings?" And yes, you've got it, girl number one had put on girl number two's pink leggings. I grabbed the pink leggings girl number one found in her bag, thrust them at girl number two and ordered her to put them on and said they could trade back tomorrow (you know, the day when I would be hiding in my house lest I spy an 8-or-9-year old child and have a screaming flashback). 

Everybody was heading towards the door except me and the little blonde girl. Eve had gathered up my purse, her bag of wet stuff and my sweater. She said consolingly "all you have to do is grab your water bottle, Mom". Blessed child. I think she sensed that the next time blonde girl asked "where's my epi-pen?" my answer was going to be "in my neck". 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Surly Thursdays

In truth, I am not the least bit surly today. I got up and got the kids off, went for a lovely walk in the sun, got a few groceries, put some pictures in frames, and finished my exam. Matt gets home tonight and I'm going to a book launch tomorrow night with Pam and Denise. I also don't feel like the world is an inescapable vortex of cruelty and pain at the moment - it's a little thing, but it's a nice thing.

However, for you, dear readers, imaginary though you may be, I will happily recall some random surlinesses of the past few days? What was it that Wordsworth said? Something about extreme, eye-stabbing, ball-hoofing bitchiness recollected in tranquility? (I'm probably paraphrasing). I've been saving up my pet peeves for one of the Scintilla posts I missed anyway. Hence:

1. My exam. Specifically, my utter inability to grasp the inner workings of the Dewey Decimal System no matter HOW HARD I try. I took a first pass at it yesterday, then fed the kids supper, and when I went back less than an hour later I was already incapable of figuring out how I got the answers the first time. It's literally as if my mind gets wiped every time I look away from it. In one case, I got all excited thinking I'd figured out the way to get to a particularly complex number, which I had; however, when I looked at the answer I'd written, I realized I had ALREADY found that same complicated technique, TWO HOURS EARLIER.

Seriously. I'm like a monkey trying to make baked alaska.

2. My fingernails. They're weirdly shaped so they don't grow nicely, they turn into these ugly widely-splayed shovel-type things, and I can never cut them properly so when I can't sleep or when I'm reading I'm constantly feeling these weird edges and I can't stop rubbing the next finger on them or they catch on my clothes and it's EXTREMELY VEXING.

3. The number of things on my body that rest on other parts of my body. It's unsettling.

4. My head felt like it was in a vise all day Tuesday. My shoulder is acting up (old bookstore injury). I'm still doing physio for my patellar tendonitis. Head, shoulder, knee.... expecting a catastrophic toe injury any day now.

5. Water in my ear. My Dad always told me to stand on one foot, tip my head over and jump up and down to get it out. See number 3 - I'm worried that my house isn't structurally sound enough to withstand this kind of action on my part.

6. E-mail scams. Not on my own behalf. I just find it amusing when get emails that are purportedly from my child's Irish dance teacher or a long-lost relative or a Nigerian prince asking for money. And those tear-jerker ones that ask you to forward them on because some little cancer-stricken waif or brave soul with terminal Eyelash Disease will get money for every forward? Well, I know those are fake. Unfortunately, my daughter and her tender-hearted, soft-headed little e-mail demon friends don't. And when my daughter, as I'm trying to tuck her into bed, suddenly starts sobbing about some poor little girl from Texas whose arms and face got burnt off while she was in Wal-Mart with her brother who was buying her a birthday present, and I have to explain to her what is, and how if somebody lost their little girl in Wal-Mart during a fire they would PROBABLY check all the area hospitals and not wait until 'the hospital called them two days later because they found the little girl's name and address in her purse', well, I get a TAD IRATE. Whatever asshole thinks it's fun to send these little pieces of idiocy out into the world like some twenty-first-century stupid-ass version of a message in a bottle is in serious need of a new hobby.

7. Titanic hysteria. Fine, commemorate the anniversary. With some respect and decorum, maybe? As one of my Twitter friends said, "it's not a romantic story - a shitload of people died". My daughter, who is nine, put it pretty well: "I got this book about a little boy who had this stuffed bear on the Titanic. It's a true story. There are a lot of true stories about the Titanic. Well, but, there are a lot of lovey-dovey stories that aren't true. It's called historical FICTION, people!" (Too bad she's not as discerning about maudlin email stories).

There. Surly enough for you? Surely?

Monday, April 16, 2012

Just keep swimming, just keep swimming...

I still don't really know what the hell I'm doing, but the fog has lifted a little, so I'm just going with it, gratefully. My husband is in Poland (he emailed from the plane that he thinks he finally gets my mother, as he was settling down for a six-hour ride with a bunch of hyper-manic 60-plus-year-olds. Yikes). I get my four-day take-home exam at nine tomorrow morning, but I have to go to the school to walk over to the high school with Angus's class at eleven. In the rain, it looks like. When I would much rather just hunker down over the freaking exam for ten hours and get it DONE, but oh well. Matt figured out that if I get zero on the exam I should still get 52 in the course, so it's all gravy. Right?

The whole week-end was pretty much an exercise in survival. Not that there was much to do, but I just felt the constant urge to go curl up around the hard, spiky ball of sad and icky and hopeless and bad that was lodged under my ribcage, and Matt left Saturday morning, and Angus has this creepy sixth sense for when I'm un-okay in ANY POSSIBLE WAY and it stresses him the fuck out, and strangely enough is not terribly comforting for me to have him following me around going 'are you okay? are you okay?', so I was desperate to Maintain My Cover. Because they're smart kids, but if they asked me what was wrong, 'existential despair' was probably not really going to fly as an answer.

So, the old stand-bys (stands-by?): friends' houses, sports, television, video games, junk food, books. They both got invited over somewhere else for a while on Saturday, then Angus came home and I took him to his hockey game (the final: not the final-final, that's what it would be if we won this one, which should have been called the semi-final, I think, but that's what they called the one before it, which should have been...uh... just a game? ANYWAY. He lost, which was awesome because it meant we didn't have to come back on Sunday for the super-ultra-really-really-the-last-one-final final, which he was fine with, and I was more than fine, because if you think it's fun trying to hold your shit together in your own bedroom, try holding it together in a hockey arena. While some asshat keeps blowing a vuvuzela (it's not fucking SOCCER, jackass!). Then we picked up Eve at her friend's place and it was almost bedtime. Sunday I let them fry their brains in the digital medium of their choice while I hid in my room with books and my laptop.

In the late afternoon, someone tweeted about making empanadas. I felt a flicker of interest, which seemed encouraging. I started Googling recipes and making grocery lists and indulging in Cautious Optimism. THEN someone tweeted something from a website I had never heard of. I started clicking.

I sent this to my book club. I was giggling.

Then I saw this. Clearly, onto something good here.

This. Well, I already wasn't doing anything terribly productive, and suddenly I was feeling MUCH better about things.

At this, I was blinded with tears of laughter and gasping desperately for breath, and had to go hide in the bathroom for a while so my kids wouldn't call 911 for medical help.

Then this and this and this. I think this URL should be printed on anti-depressant bottles.

I swallowed enough pills to fell a rhinoceros and slept hard. I got up and took the kids to school. I went home and cleaned up a little (depression doesn't just hurt your mind and body and soul, it also trashes your kitchen) and showered and called Pam. We decided we would go for groceries, and stopped for pulled-pork poutine to fortify ourselves beforehand. 

Nothing puts the lid on a nasty stretch of bad soul road like simple carbs and laughing at people that are EVEN DUMBER THAN ME (yes, I KNOW that it would be more grammatically correct to write 'I', I JUST DON'T FEEL LIKE IT!).  

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Ravelled, Still

You know the kind of insomnia you get where you lie in bed and you're comfortable enough but you can't fall asleep because your mind starts going too fast and you plan what you're going to put in the loot bags for your  kid's next birthday party and try to figure out if you have all the ingredients for lasagna in the fridge for tomorrow night and go through the entire song list from Miss Saigon and finally you drift off?

That IS the kind of insomnia I'm having this week. Which is definitely better than that whole 'is someone sticking pins in a voodoo doll that looks like me right now?' deal I had going on last week, although there's still the problem of not, you know, sleeping at night.

Today Angus was home sick. I was still awake at four, so I cancelled my physio appointment and slept until nine-thirty. I got up and cried in the shower and worried that my son thought I was a useless waste of a human being who lazed around being a big lazy lazyhead while he was in school all day. Then I went down to the kitchen and he came up from the basement and immediately blurted out "I'm going to school tomorrow!", and I realized he was afraid that I was thinking he was a malingering malingerer who was faking sick (he wasn't; you can't fake that level of snot). At least that obviates the need for a DNA test.

So last Wednesday I went into Eve's class to volunteer for Scientists in the Schools, which they have every year. I've made playdough insects countless times, faked my way through Forces and made a dismal showing at Pulleys and Levers. This unit was called "Soil: It's too Important to be Treated Like Dirt (they're scientists, not copywriters).

Volunteering in Eve's class is a much different experience from volunteering in Angus's; the most Angus will condescend to do is flash me the odd pleased, goofy smile. Eve, on the other hand, goes into Extreme Show-off Mode. And on our way through the school on our way to the portable out back, Pam and I happened upon the recess yoga class, and I poked my daughter in the nose as she was trying to achieve an enlightened state - that's right; I gave her ammo before I even entered the classroom. Sometimes I'm just not that bright.

At my station, I had three little plant pots with perforated bottoms, suspended in glass jars. One contained sand, one contained loam, and one contained clay. The kids were supposed to form a hypothesis on which material would hold the most water before it dripped out the bottom, and then I dropped water from an eye-dropper into each pot while they counted. The kids were pretty good, even the jackass ones. My biggest concern was that I would somehow screw up the experiment and it would turn out that sand held more water than clay - that's right; I was afraid that the laws of physics would suddenly suspend themselves for the sole purpose of humiliating me. Not that bright.

Clay SoilSandy SoilLoam Soil
Clay and silt soils are made of very small particles. They feel slick and sticky when wet. Clay and silt hold moisture well, but resist water infiltration, especially when they are dry. Often puddles form on clay or silt soils, and they easily become compacted.
Loam soil is a mix of sand, silt or clay, and organic matter. Loam soils are loose and look rich. When squeezed in your fist, moist loam will form a ball which crumbles when poked with a finger. Loam soils normally absorb water and store moisture well. Loam soils can be sandy or clay based, and will vary in moisture absorbtion and retention accordingly.
Sandy soils contain large particles which are visible to the unaided eye, and are usually light in color. Sand feels coarse when wet or dry, and will not form a ball when squeezed in your fist. Sandy soils stay loose and allow moisture to penetrate easily, but do not retain it for long term use.

Eve's group developed the charming habit of drawing out the number they were saying for the entire time I was slooooowly dripping in the water: "Twooooooooo....... Threeeeeeeeeeee......... Foooooooouuuuuur......". So for the seventh dropper, I dripped the water in so slowly they were all turning blue with breathlessness. Then Eve reached over and squished the eye-dropper. Because she's a smartass like that.

My kid was also the first to shoot her hand in the air and volunteer that dirt was composed, partly of 'bug poop!' The scientist said "you're right, but you're a little bit ahead of me, sweetie."

Welcome to my world, scientist lady.

Going to try to sleep now. Because not sleeping is making me feel like dirt. The kind with lots of bug poop in it.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Mondays on the Margins: You comma Idiot by Doug Harris

From the publisher:
"Marginalized and alienated, perennial fuck-up Lee Goodstone is a resounding zero: a low-rent hash-dealer with delusions of inadequacy. He's content to while away the hours of his life drinking, smoking, hanging out, playing the occasional game of hockey, and generally ignoring the world outside his tiny neighbourhood. But Lee's near-idyllic existence is about to grind into second gear. His friend Henry has been accused of kidnapping and Lee's been cornered by the local media. Another friend has decided to shoehorn his way into Lee's drug business. And he's just made it with his best friend's girlfriend. Clearly, Lee needs a Plan B — not easy for a guy who long ago decided that the correct plan of action is to have no plan at all. 
A hip, comedic novel, Doug Harris' YOU comma Idiot is a dark, demented, deeply delightful excursion into youthful alienation and ennui."

In the reviews on the first page, Zoe Whittall from The Globe & Mail says "If you were ever a teenaged badass in Montreal, you will know Lee Goodstone".

I was never a teenaged badass. My friend Julie had to take me to Montreal and hold my hand all day to help me over my fear of the city entire. If I had met Lee Goodstone and his crowd, I probably would have run away screaming.

Nevertheless, there are qualities in Lee Goodstone that I recognize, and moments he lives through that I can close my eyes and feel, viscerally, with a painful immediacy. I think it's a pretty good endorsement of Doug Harris, that he can make a nearly amoral twenty-something dope-dealer slacker sympathetic and relatable to a forty-ish, straightest straight girl bleeding-heart mother. 

Lee Goodstone is a skinny, self-conscious, unlucky-in-love small-time dope dealer. His group of friends include: Henry, whose father worked in a jail and was killed in a riot when he was fourteen, and who is now "twenty-nine years old and sad and apologetic and lost and out of touch with even the simplest of tasks much of the time, another drug casualty left behind to live with his mother". He is also a suspect in the disappearance of a homeless girl; Johnny Karakis, who's handsome and cool and beloved by all and has a family of powerful, attractive parents and brothers; Stacy, whose two-year-old son Lee watches occasionally; and Honey, Johnny's girlfriend, after whom Lee has lusted for years. 

As the book begins, Lee has just slept with Honey, his best friend's girlfriend, at her instigation. He tries to believe that he's cynical enough to do this without guilt, and that he's spent enough years being Johnny's sidekick that this is a kind of justice, but he can't really sell it to himself. Honey's motivations are also questionable, and this, along with the question of Henry's possible guilt and the group's ambivalence about it, are woven through the events of the book like crooked threads. 

There are important questions about modern life here, from what the gaze of the media does to guilty and innocent parties alike, to how sincere and durable any friendship is under certain adverse circumstances,  to whether people who are legitimately employed have it figured out any better than people who coast by on illegal activities - witness the married-with-children couple in the group, Aaron and Maureen, who work their asses off and are still always short of money. If Maureen comes off a little bitchy and hysterical about the whole Henry situation, who can blame her? Well, I did a little, but truthfully I probably wouldn't want a druggie possible-murderer in the house where my kids were sleeping either.
Lee's ease and enjoyment with Stacy's son Zachary, which name he hates so he calls him Ack! went a long way towards making him more sympathetic in my eyes. I didn't understand why he would selflessly volunteer to babysit someone else's kid, but this is made clear later on.

Lee's dealer, only identified as Your Dealer, kept recalling to my mind the phrase "great sage and eminent junkie" introduced by Stephen King in the Dark Tower series. He's a drug dealer who's always on a cleanse or diet regimen or fitness kick that will allow him to live forever, who also dispenses nuggets of wisdom and shares unpleasant personal hygiene facts at random. He also musters up a decently menacing demeanour when Henry's trouble with the police threatens to focus attention on him and his business.

Oh yes - Your Dealer - the book is written in the second person. At the beginning it's a bit jarring, but it normalizes quickly, and it's an interesting technique, helping the reader identify with Lee a little more. 

All of these precipitating factors combine to make Lee's life, which was fairly uneventful if not really satisfying or fulfilling, a little less comfortable. Clearly, circumstances and alliances will shift throughout the course of the book, and a new reality will emerge. In the wrong hands, this could have been a charmless exercise, but Harris manages quite well. I wouldn't necessarily want to have these people over for dinner, but I did find myself caring what happened to them, and it was all rendered with enough humour and originality that it held my attention until the end.

Memorable Quotes:

-"You're the kind of guy who falls in love after one date. You're the kind of guy who rehearses a conversation fifty times in your head then blows it when it's for real. You're the kind of guy who washes your hair three times in a single day because you're meeting a chick at a restaurant that night. And then gets caught walking in the rain  to get there. You're the kind of guy who's kind of stupid that way."

-"Every time you've ever seen Sharon she's been pissed off at something. She makes you think now of a very large, very angry duck."

-"And the thing is, people forget what happened to you in life. Eventually they just shrug at your hardships and dismiss your bad luck, they've had their own. People expect you to move on. They want you to put it behind you. People have their own problems, Henry. It doesn't matter what was unfair or what could've been, you're the only one counting those chits now. If you act stupidly long enough, people come to think of you as stupid. And if you behave weirdly for long enough, they think of you as weird."

-"A pair of short-haired freaks. Ecch. You feel yourself shudder. Guys like this always get to you. So utterly disconnected. So uncool. It makes you wonder sometimes, what might have been. There but for the grace of dope go you."

-"You're one of Johnny's friends, Lee. The one that always has hash for him. The skinny one. The one he looks so good standing beside."

Disclaimer: I was sent a copy of the book by Goose Lane Editions for review purposes. Opinions are my own.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

My Sleave Remains Stubbornly Unknitted-up

I'm starting to write this post without titling it, which means that I will very likely forget to title it before I hit publish, and Betsy will take my award away, and THAT is the kind of week it's been! (okay, never mind, I remembered. My cleavage/captioning award is unthreatened.)

You know the kind of insomnia you get where you lie in bed and you're comfortable enough but you can't fall asleep because your mind starts going too fast and you plan what you're going to put in the loot bags for your  kid's next birthday party and try to figure out if you have all the ingredients for lasagna in the fridge for tomorrow night and go through the entire song list from Miss Saigon and finally you drift off?

Silvano was suffering from a rare disease called 
fatal familial insomnia (FFI), 
in which sleep is replaced by a terrible 
"state of hallucinated lucidity".

That's NOT the kind of insomnia I've had this week.

This week I had the kind of insomnia where you put down your book, turn off the light and lie down in the innocent expectation that you will shortly be off to Dreamland, and then within the subsequent two to three minutes reality shift sideways into some sort of infernal parallel reality wherein your really-quite-respectable-threadcount sheets suddenly morph into a bed of nails, your pajamas feel like they're lined with barbed wire and fire ants take up residence inside every bone and joint. Your feet get inexplicably twitchy, every position you switch to feels absolutely right the second you switch to it and then feels horribly, agonizingly, inhumanly WRONG a few seconds later.

If I tried to turn on the light and sit up and read some more, my tailbone ached. I got up and walked around a little to see if that would help. It didn't. My husband fled to the peace and safety of the downstairs couch - I'm not sure whether this was precipitated by the heaving of the bed or my increasingly menacing glare every time I had to rock him gently to stop him from snoring and he woke up and asked - as he does, every single fucking time - "was I snoring?". NO, Dumbass, I just thought of a good JOKE I wanted to share AT THREE A.M.

I seriously considered the possibility that I had died and gone to hell. I took half a sleeping pill. Nothing. I took the other half. Nothing. I considered taking the rest of the bottle of sleeping pills. I decided not to, not only because I love my children, but because obviously this was just one of those times when NOTHING. WAS GOING. TO WORK.

I moved and almost cried out because it hurt my knee so badly. Which isn't that weird, since I've been seeing a physiotherapist for months trying to fix my patellar femoral syndrome. Except it was the other knee. Right. Stupid topsy-turvy land. I laid on my right side and my shoulder hurt. I couldn't remember how I usually positioned my arms - how the hell are you supposed to sleep on your side with arms, shouldn't arms be removable for sleeping purposes? My hair kept falling in my face. Why do I have all this stupid hair? I propped myself up on pillows and laid my arms out at my sides and tried to breathe deeply. I tried to cup my palms around little mounds of my soft green blanket. My soft green blanket now felt like sandpaper.

Oh, and the song Somebody That I Used to Know was on permanent loop in my mind.

During the very worst night, I consoled myself with the fact that at least I don't have a full-time job. All I had to do in the morning was get up and go volunteer.... in my daughter's grade 3 class.

To be continued...

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Mondays on the Margins: 419 by Will Ferguson

A startlingly original tale of heartbreak and suspense
A car tumbles down a snowy ravine. Accident or suicide?
On the other side of the world, a young woman walks out of a sandstorm in sub-Saharan Africa. In the labyrinth of the Niger Delta, a young boy learns to survive by navigating through the gas flares and oil spills of a ruined landscape. In the seething heat of Lagos City, a criminal cartel scours the internet looking for victims.
Lives intersect, worlds collide, a family falls apart. And it all begins with a single email: “Dear Sir, I am the son of an exiled Nigerian diplomat, and I need your help ...”
419 takes readers behind the scene of the world’s most insidious internet scam. When Laura’s father gets caught up in one such swindle and pays with his life, she is forced to leave the comfort of North America to make a journey deep into the dangerous back streets and alleyways of the Lagos underworld to confront her father’s killer. What she finds there will change her life forever ...
From the internationally bestselling travel writer Will Ferguson, author of Happiness and Spanish Fly, comes a novel both epic in its sweep and intimate in its portrayal of human suffering. It’s a story of love in a time of darkness, of one woman’s search for redemption, and of a young boy who will triumph above it all. - from Penguin Canada.

I was a bit surprised when I started reading this, because I think I assumed, with a sort of unattractive level of smugness and naiveté, that no one ever fell for the Nigerian email scam (which is called the 419 scam because of the article of the Nigerian Criminal Code dealing with fraud). Not because I haven't myself been swindled by the most preposterous stories imaginable, but because... well, I don't know exactly. I certainly never considered the people behind the scams, which the character of Winston forces the reader to do. The fact that someone would actually consider this type of thing a career, even consider it legitimate in a way, is a completely new perspective for me. It doesn't make him sympathetic, or conjure up any kind of justification - indeed, his contempt for his victims is really quite off-putting - it just creates a story where, in my mind, there really wasn't one.

Nnamdi, the least sophisticated character, is probably the most sympathetic, along with Amina, which always makes me a touch suspicious, but I got over it. Laura's father seemed above reproach, but he is only viewed through her memories. Laura is the character who twisted the most in my estimation; at the beginning I felt sympathy for her, and admired her singleminded pursuit of revenge. By the end I just felt like she was self-centered and incapable of grasping any other reality besides her own. Maybe that's just what grief does. And, that said, the scene where Winston scream through the phone, "We are mafia! We will ruin you, we will leave your life in tatters! You will die in Lagos!" and she counters with "Tell your mom and dad I said hi" is huge enjoyable.

The contrast between the Canadian setting and the Nigerian ones is vivid and effective. The description of how the thirst for oil destroys an entire way of life is extremely upsetting (I say, or type, on my laptop, in my well-lit kitchen, with my kids watching tv in the next room). The use of dialect is perfectly balanced - enough to evoke the difference of the people, not enough to be alienating. I love the description of Nnamdi's and Igbo Joe's ("I'm not Igbo! And my name's not Joe!") road trip - a sixteen wheeler on the back roads of Nigeria. There were several times during the trip when I thought things were going to go horribly wrong, with roadblocks or soldiers, and then I realized I was reading it like a horror movie, instead of what it was; an illustration of how everything has ALREADY gone horribly wrong.

"Epic in its sweep and intimate in its portrayal of human suffering" sums it up pretty well. I couldn't stop reading this. The story, especially the ending, was less sentimental than I kind of wanted it to be, but more hopeful than I expected it to be. 

Memorable quotes:

-"These 'formats', as they were known, targeted stupid greed, people who snickered even as they schemed to steal from who they thought were gullible Nigerians. Winston was looking for intelligent greed or, at the very least, thoughtful greed. His approach was more.... refined."

-"He was no mere wayo man, a trickster, a huckster, a carnival conjurer. He was a true guyman, living by his wits, outsmarting the odds. This was what he told himself to buoy his spirits when he felt adrift."

-"It seemed she had always been walking, had been born of walking, could hardly remember a time when she hadn't been.... When a sudden gust - as hot and dry as camel's breath - threw itself against her, it was the Sahara itself that gritted her eyes, made her cough."

-" 'Commerce bears the fruits of history, Adam. If we Nigerians are good at thieving, we learned it from the British. We may plunder bank accounts; they plundered entire continents. But I say to you: if distrust is stronger than trust, and hate is stronger than love, envy is stronger than adulation. And I assure you, we will take back our share of what was stolen. The banks in Europe and America - rolling in money like a pig in slop, they have grown fat on our misery... Make no mistake, Adam, we are in the business of revenge.' "

-" 'I don't trust any city where the traffic lights work,' Joe said. 'Do you know how much that slows drivers down?' He hated touching the brake pedal.'"

-"These underground explosions had caused cracks to appear in the cement walls of Nnamdi's home, hair-thin fault lines that only got bigger. He would lie on his mat under the mosquito netting and listen to the dull thuds of Shell Men chasing the echoes of oil. He could feel the vibrations under his mat, would watch orange shadows play along the walls, would dream of hearts buried in oil."