Monday, March 25, 2013

Mondays on the Margins: Sadness and the People You Love

I've abandoned Scintilla for the moment. I will finish when I can, and I'm loving reading other peoples' posts, but right now it's just choking me with performance anxiety and making me feel like maybe I'm just not an interesting enough person to HAVE this many bloggable stories about my life.

I'm still in a low-grade reading rut. To Bunnyslippers: I have started reading Good Omens and I am looking upon it and finding it good. To whoever asked me what I thought about The Fault in our Stars (Jenny?): it's on my bedside pile.

I read another Dexter novel yesterday, thinking something light would be good. If you haven't watched or read Dexter, or if you've only watched it and you're thinking that calling it light is cracked in the head, the books actually are pretty light. Unfortunately, I'm starting to feel like they're light (and delicious) in a junk food kind of way. I start out reading each one and it's pleasing to the palate - there are some nice turns of phrase in the first few pages of this one about how he feels about his new daughter, Lily Anne - but by the end his sister punching him in the arm and his Dark Passenger jerking him around and whoever the current murderer is almost killing him and/or half of his family and friends (and failing) just feels sort of flaky, icing-sugary and teeth-aching. And of all the characters, Rita (Dexter's wife) in the book pisses me off when compared against Rita in the HBO series most of all. On television, she busts his balls and gives him a reason to at least fake being a decent human being. In the book she doesn't get to finish a sentence, which of course explains how he can fool her so easily, and of course the author has no particular obligation to me in this regard, but regardless, it makes me cranky.

In the past week, I also read: a book about a gunman in a school that was mildly diverting but ultimately a little too 'women's fiction'; and a mystery with tangled family elements that was really quite good. I finally read the last story in Peter S. Beagle's Sleight of Hand and that, naturally, was breathtakingly wonderful. I keep feeling like I don't really have the focus or presence of mind or strength to start something really demanding or robust, and yet much of what I'm reading seems unsatisfying so I probably should just force myself, and yes I realize it's kind of dumb to be talking about reading this way.

We had a dinner party here with four other couples on Saturday night. Matt was away three weeks ago in Asia, then home for March Break, then away in California until Friday night, and Saturday morning we were both exhausted and demoralized and thinking it was pure stupidity that we had agreed to host a dinner party in seven hours. Then of course the party was perfect and fabulous and everybody served meticulously-prepared delicious food and we laughed until our cheeks hurt and felt so grateful that we have these fantastic, generous, hilarious, twisted, fascinating people in our lives. And Sunday I was sad, like I always am after intense experiences, and it made me think of this book.

You know when you find books that look pulpy, that you expect to be quick, time-filling, throwaway reads? And you know how most of them are exactly what they first appear to be, and then every now and then one is immeasurably more? When I lived in Toronto and didn't have money to buy new books and the library was too far to get to conveniently, I would haunt the used bookstores in my neighbourhood, sweeping up shelves of insomnia-killers and then returning them for credit on the next wave. I read Brothers first. I didn't know anything about William Goldman. I didn't know that he wrote The Princess Bride (which is also The Princess Bride), that he was kind of a big deal in Hollywood, or that the prequel to Brothers was Marathon Man which was made into a movie starring Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier. After I read Brothers, though, I bought everything by Goldman that I could find, because even if he had only been a paperback writer, he had clearly figured some stuff out, he had shit going on. The love stories between the characters in the merest of subplots in his books were more compelling than some love stories that took up entire novels. He was funny in that deep, true way that was always kind, never mean. He understood loss and jealousy and yearning.

So Control was the third of fourth Goldman book I read. I mean, look at the cover:

Impossibly cheesy. But such a great story, and, like one of the Amazon reviewers said, you have love affairs with the wonderful characters and when something horrible happens to them you are utterly destroyed. And one of the characters, who was that wonderful, and who I identified with as a stay-at-home-mother long before I was one, and who did absolutely destroy me when the horrible thing happened to her, was named Edith Mazursky. She is wry and self-deprecating and one of her convictions about life is that it is chiefly made up of "sadness, and the people you love". At least I think that's how it was - I can't find my copy and I can't find confirmation of it on the internet and I'm a little worried that I'm fabulating here, so take it for what it is. It's always something that's resonated hugely with me. The people you love are something in your life other than sadness - joy, when it's at its least complicated, or pleasure. Or they're part of the sadness - they cause you sadness, or you share in their sadness, or you lose them, which causes sadness. But even if the people you love are all in the not-sadness column, there's everything else in the world which, in the balance, is sadness. Saturday night I was with my friends, and we shared food and laughter, and my children were with their friends or my parents, and I knew they were well-cared for, and I was without care in the truest sense. Sunday I was not with my friends, and the weight of the rest of the world got in. And when Eve ran in and bellowed "my hug tank is empty!" and hug-mugged me and ran out again leaving me half-wondering what the hell had just happened, or when Angus asked me to tuck him in even though he's twelve and taller than me, and said "I love you" back, I was happy, because they're the people I love. But still, the sadness. You know?

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Scintilla Day 6, on Day 7, skipping Days 4 and 5 because I'm badass like that

That's right. I'm knocking my Scintilla experience even further askew. 

2. Write about a chance meeting that has stayed with you ever since.

After I finished my Master's Degree but before I figured out what to do next, we moved to Toronto for Matt's first job. We didn't have a lot of money, and the place we found was great - the main floor of a house lovingly refinished by a really great contractor who we became friendly with - but in a sort of crappy part of town. Which was fine - we were youngish and had no kids and I never actually felt unsafe. We just said we lived in a full-service neighbourhood - you could get a gyro, a joint and a blowjob without having to walk more than a block in any direction.

We had a little truck that Matt used to go to work every day, so I took the subway or walked everywhere. Our front door was only two houses away from Dundas West, which I would walk down pretty much every day, to the No Frills for groceries, to the laundromat to wash clothes, or the used bookstore where I bought used stamps that I made art with. 

Is it proper to call them chance meetings when I was basically assured of at least one a week? Sometimes I felt like Alice in Wonderland, except the Cheshire Cat and Tweedledee probably didn't smell like curry, or urine. There was Isaac from Trinidad who I bought fiery-spiced Caribbean chicken from on Fridays until he disappeared, then one day I heard him yelling at me from the other side of the street telling me to come see him at his new location. I went in and his mother-in-law gave me a free coffee, which I don't drink, and while I choked it down to be polite we talked about religion and Leo Buscaglia all afternoon. Isaac said I had run across his head the other night, and when I raised my eyebrows and looked questioningly at his wife she said "he means he dreamed about you". Okay then. When Matt  husband got up for work the next morning I was still awake reading. He told me not to drink the coffee the next time.

There was the girl with the fabulous long curly hair I always ran into at the laundromat. She would turn the tv on to music videos and sing note-perfect Shania Twain songs with an admirable lack of self-consciousness.

There was the guy in biker boots and chains and leather leaning on the mailbox. "Excuse me, " I said. "Yes?" he smiled politely. "Oh - I meant literally excuse me, I just need to mail something." He moved aside and said "oh - I thought maybe we were going to have an adventure", which made me think "oh....wait....damn." It was probably just as well - I was mailing my wedding invitations.

There was the blind woman who was walking in front of me and suddenly stopped and asked no one in particular "didn't there used to be a restaurant around here? I can't smell it", and took my arm agreeably while I led her to the nearest restaurant I knew of and she ascertained whether they had the kind of soup she wanted before going in.

There were other, less agreeable encounters, and I don't really feel like talking about them now, so I won't.

I knew that I didn't really want to raise kids there - there were crackhouses within spitting distance and if there was nothing on tv you could usually watch a takedown out the back window. The guy in the house behind us put out a bunch of furniture he said he was going to sell, but he didn't cover it, and this is Canada - we get weather. Some guy wandered around for two hours one very early morning yelling out that someone had stolen his hat and sounding genuinely grieved about it. My husband and I grew up in the suburbs, and we just weren't hip enough to have kids on the rough edge of downtown Toronto. But I think of the hilarious interactions that could have occurred walking down that street with small Angus or Eve, the way they always greeted everyone with genuine interest and openness and how that could have led to some really exceptional moments. I think of that street fondly - it was a little vanilla danger in my safe, safe life. 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Scintilla Day 3: Finding my voice

Scintilla Day 3: 

B: Talk about a time when you were driving and you sang in the car, all alone. Why do you remember this song and that stretch of road?

I'm finding it difficult to get any real traction on the prompts this year. Last year I had to reach but it still felt within my grasp; this year I'm just starting to emerge from weeks of leaden, joyless trudging, and I'm wondering if maybe I'm just not up to this right now. I'm torn between not wanting to submit what feels like mediocre splattering and wondering if just making the effort will help me move out of the Slough of Despond.

I don't think I drive anywhere alone without singing. Once a year I drive four or five hours to Barrie to visit my best friend, and I think I usually choose the music for the drive before I decide what clothes to bring. Angus and I used to measure how long it took to drive to somebody's house by how many times we could sing the Spiderman theme song before we got there. Eve sings in three languages. I don't have nearly the upper register that I used to - asthma medication, hormones, lack of practice, whatever - but in the car I still reach for all the high notes with a complete lack of self-consciousness, and sometimes I get there and sometimes I crack and squeak horribly and then kill myself laughing. There's no way I could pick one song and one stretch of road.

So I'm going metaphorical. 

I was told from the age of seven or so that I had writing ability way above my grade level. I was always praised extravagantly for my essays, short stories and any other assignment where I could string words together (long division and completing the square were another matter entirely). I sailed through a few years taking it for granted that I would have some kind of career featuring writing. 

Then I started really thinking about what that meant. I considered journalism, until I realized that my crippling fear of questioning, talking to or in any way interacting with people I didn't know would probably be a bit of a hindrance. I went to university, got undergraduate and graduate degrees in Comparative Literature and then realized that, although I was pretty good at it, I didn't really love academic writing. Engaging in exhaustive, analytical, recursive discussion of brilliant literature by other people was engaging and amusing up to a certain point, but I didn't think I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing it and teaching other people to do it. 

I left school. I got married. I went to work for an audio publisher, thinking I would start writing fiction in my spare time.

I wrote some fiction. The fiction sucked real bad.

I tried a variety of attack points. I wrote literary short stories based on pivotal moments in a character's life. I wrote science fiction short stories. I started collaborating with a friend on a mystery novel with a strong romantic sub-plot. It was all bad. I couldn't find my voice. I knew the way my favourite books spoke to me, and I knew without a doubt that nothing I wrote was going to speak to anyone in that way. It wasn't going to say anything, in fact, except "hello, I am some really grotesquely bad fiction written by a complete waste of a human being who hates her job and still watches Beverly Hills 90210 even though she's well above the appropriate demographic". 

I took some time off to be horribly depressed. I worked in a couple of bookstores, which was twenty percent good and eighty percent wretched, on account of a large proportion of humanity being absolute wanking assholes. I quit working and had a couple of kids. Someone said once again to me that I was a really great writer. 

I said "but I never write anything."

And I didn't. I gave up. I read somewhere that if you hadn't been published by the time you were thirty that it was really all over. I felt, in a lot of ways, that I had already wasted whatever early promise I had, that I had missed some crucial turning and lost all my chances.

I heard about blogging. I rolled my eyes and mocked and wondered why anyone would think the world desired access to their thoughts, and declared that I would never, ever blog.

I started blogging. And within a very short period of time, I felt like I was singing the most soaring of arias after years of laryngitis. Trying to give a thoughtful or entertaining shape to my thoughts was vastly different from just.... trying to make things up. When I was trying to write fiction, every single sentence seemed limping, crooked, pitiful. When I was blogging, words flew faster than I could type them. I had a place to put all those thoughts that hummed or chanted or raged in my head, and see what I could do with them. Reading my own words over MADE ME SMILE. 

I often say that one of the most wonderful gifts that blogging confers is the almost-instantaneous knowledge and comfort and reassurance that, no matter what your burden, you are most assuredly not alone. But the other thing, for me, is that it gave me my voice. Some people seem to look on their blogging as a kind of consolation prize or second-best endeavour that either salves their regret for not having fiction published or keeps them from writing more fiction. And I get that, because some people are meant to write fiction, and many of them probably deserve to be published, and it's hard to get published, and maybe blogging IS sort of second-best. For me? It feels a lot like I finally found the song that I was meant to sing, the song that gives me the greatest joy and peace, and blogging is my long, straight stretch of road. 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Scintilla Day 2: Instructions

Prompt 2: Tell a story about something interesting (anything!) that happened to you, but tell it in the form of an instruction manual.


Step 1: Find yourself living in Toronto with your husband of a few months, working for a cool little independent bookstore, finally getting treatment for depression which will surely solve all of those problems in short order and forever (insert slightly bitter snort).

Step 2: Figure things are going pretty well and it would be a good thing to find a way to give back to the community.

Step 3: See an ad for PAL-Reading Services in the paper.

Step 4: Feel struck to the core with the conviction that this was Meant To Be in every possible way - Blind People who are Tragically Denied the Joys of the Written Word (because you don't know Braille, or there aren't enough books in Braille, or something!), LET ME BE YOUR READER!

Step 5: Go in for a short test. Be accepted with alacrity and praise despite a slight quibble over the pronunciation of the word 'eschew'.

Step 6: Take the subway to that part of town a few times a month. Enjoy being ensconced in your own tiny room with a window, a counter, a tape recorder and a book. Resist the temptation to add editorial comments or introduce yourself ("Hi, I'm Allison and I'll be your reader today").

Step 7. Marvel at the range and variety of material you're asked to read. Biology textbooks. Historical treatises. Inspirational memoirs that make it necessary to remove all traces of eye-rolling from your voice.

Step 8: Encounter issues such as: How do I read the word 'deftness' without making it apt to be mistaken for 'deafness' and yet still maintain the flow of the narrative?; Should I vary my voice to indicate when different people are speaking?; Have I really been pronouncing 'detritus' wrongly my whole life?

Step 9: Show up as usual one day and enter your little room.

Step 10: Find a volume of poetry for the first time and think that this will be interesting.

Step 11: Get set up and scan the first poem.

Step 12: Realize in short order that the book is, in fact, a volume of African-American lesbian erotic poetry.

Step 13: Check the room reflexively for hidden cameras -


Step 14: Wonder if you're being punk'd, except Punk'd doesn't actually exist yet.

Step 15: Decide that perhaps you're being silly.

Step 16: But then think, are you really? It's Toronto, for crying out loud - centre of multiculturalism and diversity and difference. And if you're not the straightest, whitest straight white girl they could have given this to, you have to be close.

Step 17: Look around more carefully for hidden cameras.

Step 18: Decide that you're probably just being silly. Who knows what kind of roster of readers they have? And hey, blind African-Canadian lesbians deserve their sexy poems as much as anyone else. And you haven't been Catholic, strictly speaking, for quite a while.

Step 19: Become involved in the work at hand.

Step 20: Do a pretty damned good job, if you do say so yourself, including reading out the phrase "To the woman who makes my clit dance" without exclaiming 'okay, seriously?' afterwards.

Step 21: Turn in the book and tape recorder and give some pretty serious side-eye to the chick at the front desk on your way out. Be unable to decide whether her expression is a little TOO suspiciously deadpan.

Step 22: Spend the subway ride home alternately blushing and giggling like an idiot.

Step 23: Resolve to become less naive and easily embarrassed.

Step 24: Take a second, many years later, to be fervently grateful that you weren't doing this kind of volunteer work when Fifty Shades of Grey was published.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Late to the party

Scintilla started yesterday. I spent yesterday afternoon seeing a mediocre movie with my kids and yesterday evening having an absolutely stellar drunkfest with my girlfriend. So it's all good. Because Scintilla doesn't judge, yo. When you roll in late with a hangover, Scintilla rolls its eyes, tosses you an Advil and lets you pull up a chair. Or so I'm choosing to believe, particularly since this beloved visage is one of its threefold faces (part of its threefold face? Gah. There's three faces, hers is one of 'em. Geez.)

So I'm late. And stuck.

Prompt A: Tell a story about a time you got drunk before you were legally old enough to do so.

Prompt B: Tell a story set at your first job.

I considered telling the story about when my friend Kim and I got drunk while babysitting my Mom's friend's son Clifton but it would appear that my other friend Kim has already written that post. Damn (I still love your face, Kim). 

My first job was cleaning rooms at The Hotel at the Bottom of the Hill. It had an orange roof, and its actual name was either The Tradewinds or possibly The Waters - it changed ownership and names at some point, but it was a two-minute drive or a ten-minute bike ride from my house down a hill where the grocery store and the pizza place and the lumber store were, and we called that whole area The Bottom of the Hill.

It was icky. Let's face it, spending your days cleaning up after other people is unpleasant (and look at my life now! Somehow when those people came out of you, it's, uh.... painful and degrading in a completely different way). It was kind of satisfying, too - you'd go in and everything would be a disaster and when you left it would be clean and well-ordered. And then you'd go back the next day and do it all over again. Sisyphus, thy name is chambermaid.

I was a pretty sheltered and naive 15 year old - enough that I was shocked and appalled by the businessman and his secretary coming in through the back door at lunch time, spending an hour or so in a room and then leaving, again through the back door. A few years later I was working at another hotel - at the front desk this time - and a man came in and asked if we had a reduced rate if he only needed the room for a couple of hours. I was kind of happy and relieved that my boss said no.

I've always loved staying in a hotel. When our kids were little and we went on vacations, I completely recognized that look of wonder and delight - it's inexplicably giddy-making, this little room that can belong to anyone on any given day.

The hotel that I stayed in wasn't especially nice, or in a big tourist destination. "Seedy" is a pretty apt description. One day we went to one room and one girl let us in. There were two men already in the room, and as we started cleaning, the other girl came out of the bathroom. There was a towel wrapped around her head, but otherwise she was completely naked. She went sashaying up to the two men who were sitting in chairs and I realized she was one of the strippers that worked in the hotel, but I was still completely gobsmacked, although I think I managed not to show it. Even though I knew she took her clothes off for a living, it still surprised me that she would be unconcerned parading nude in front of a room full of people, at least some of whom were complete strangers.

It wasn't a big revelation, or a pivotal moment or anything. I would probably still be shocked if this happened today, except now I would want to take her home and feed her or send her to university or something because, thinking back, a lot of those girls were really young. I still love staying in hotels, although my germophobe nature means I have to not-think about a lot of stuff while I'm doing it. And I'm always very, very considerate of the housekeeping staff.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Mondays on the Margins: We Need to Talk About This Goddamned Kevin Book

Warning: here be spoilers. This could be alternately titled My Big Fat Spoiler-y Review of We Need to Talk About Kevin, because I can't talk about this book without delving into the entirety of my experience with it. I think/hope enough people expressed to me either their advice that I not read it (indicating that they had) or their vehement desire never to read it themselves that everyone won't run screaming, but it won't be the first or last time I've just sat here talking to myself.

So. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver.

Here is the picture of Lionel Shriver (from Google images) that was on the back flap of the edition I was reading:

It's an odd picture, isn't it? It's not terribly well-composed - on the book flap it's really hard to tell where her hair ends and the wrought iron begins. And that expression - would you call it sardonic? I think I would. I tend to flip to the back and gaze at the author photos every few pages while I'm reading, and I became irretrievably convinced that this was the picture of someone who delighted in Fucking With Me.

So. The book. Why did I decide to read the book, and now, in the bleak midwinter, in the winter of my seasonally affective discontent, of all times? Hell if I know. I thought I might see the movie at some point, and someone advised me to read the book first. And I swore up and down when Room came out that I'd never read it (just like I said I'd never have a blog), and Room was excellent. So....

The movie stars Tilda Swinton, who I adore, and having her androgynous, strongly sculpted face in my mind while reading Eva Katchadourian's life was perfect. For the first half of the book or so, I was delightfully engaged and yet not at all viscerally affected. The style is so cerebral, Eva's gaze so scalpel-sharp and analytical, that I was lost in admiration for the writing and yet felt detached from any kind of emotional fallout.  Eva as a character is....I want to say sort of sympathetically unlikable; hysterically self-conscious, hyper-successful and competitive, almost cruelly observant of the foibles of others, but equally ruthless when she turns her gaze inwards.

When Kevin is born, rejecting her breast and apparently every other maternal comfort and joy she offers, I was still feeling pretty safely distanced. I got mildly exercised at the way her husband Franklin kept finding excuses for Kevin's behaviour and being monstrously dismissive of Eva's feelings, and this just gets worse and worse as Kevin gets older, but this was so completely opposite from my experience of parenting with my husband that I was able to hold it apart.

So here I am, trundling along feeling almost smug about how well I'm handling this WORK OF FICTION. Yes, Eva Katchadourian gave birth to a sociopath, very unfortunate for her. I already know Something Horrible happens, so I'm braced for that.

Each chapter is a letter she's writing to her husband Franklin. At some point it occurred to me to wonder whether Franklin was dead, rather than just separated from her. There is a fairly recent canon that births suspicions like this: The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, Season 6 of Dexter. I thought, since we already know the chief catastrophic event, maybe this is how she's going to zing us (because look at her, clearly she wants to zing us). I steeled myself to meet this eventuality.

Then. THEN. There's a section where Eva is talking about the fact that, despite the possible expectation that what has happened would make her hard-hearted and unfeeling, she finds herself easily moved by small acts of kindness or sentimental stories. She says, "I am amazed when I drop a glove in the street and a teenager runs two blocks to return it. I am amazed when  checkout girl flashes me a wide smile with my change, though my own face had been a mask of expedience...." and she finishes this passage with "Celia amazed me".

Celia? Who the hell is Celia? And then it struck me like an icicle through the heart: Jesus Christ, they had another kid.

And that changed everything. Because where was that other child? Up until now, I had been reading a fairly short section every night, reading slow, flipping pages tidily. Now I was in a sweaty, breathless, page-tearing frenzy to get to the end. And I was pissed off. Even if she was an unreliable narrator, Eva and I had been pretty squarely on the same page - Kevin was a harmful force in the world. Why on earth would one add another hostage to fortune into that environment?

It could have been presented in a way that would have been acceptable to me. If she'd said that she had  basically lost her husband to her son, which was true, that she was lonely and desperate and she wanted a child that would be normal and love her. But she doesn't. She presents it as a whim: "Honestly, I'd no idea what I was going to say until I said it." Her husband refuses, because he's so disgusted with her behaviour towards the child they have already. She gets pregnant on the sly. They have a normal, sweet, daughter. SHE LETS HER HUSBAND PERSUADE HER TO LET KEVIN BABYSIT. Drain cleaner gets mysteriously dribbled on the daughter's face and she is scarred and blinded in one eye.

I know. I can't know what I would be like in the same situation. You can't argue on the givens. But this had me thinking of something Sasha said the other night, which is "the thing about fiction is, it has to be believable". And the book kind of lost me here. Not completely, but after this I could not be quite as destroyed as I feared I might be by the inevitable ending, because the belief just wasn't there. She wonders why she didn't take Celia and leave, although she could have afforded it. I know, I know - she was beaten down, numbed by years of fighting and horror and being alone in her infernal knowledge. Still...

I've heard people talk about certain authors being manipulative, and it always makes me roll my eyes a little because duh - isn't every author manipulative? But there is skillful manipulation and clumsy manipulation, and what I started to think of as The Celia Factor seems every so slightly like clumsy manipulation.

Then there is the ending. After Kevin has killed nine children and a teacher and a cafeteria worker at school, and Eva has discovered her daughter and husband dead at their house, she visits Kevin regularly in prison. It's unclear precisely what her intent is - seeking answers, punishing herself, punishing him by refusing to show emotion or by mentioning other school shooters with higher body counts - but again, it all hits the proper pitch until the last visit before the end of the book, when suddenly he looks "dismayed" at the thought of being moved to an adult prison, he thanks her for assuring him that she will still visit, and he hands over Celia's glass eye which he had previously hoarded as a way of tormenting Eva on previous visits. She finishes the book by telling her dead husband that "after three days short of eighteen years, I can finally announce that I am too exhausted and too confused and too lonely to keep fighting, and if only out of desperation or even laziness I love my son", and describing the second bedroom that is ready for Kevin when he comes out of the adult penitentiary.

It isn't that I can't conceive of someone loving their child no matter what. And maybe he's playing her - I think either she's projecting or he's playing her, because sociopaths don't spontaneously grow emotions. So I don't know. But the ending struck a false note for me.

Still, on the whole this was fairly brilliant. I've completely ignored the possibility of an unreliable narrator, because frankly I just can't go there. Seems clear there's a fierce talent and intelligence behind that sardonic smirk. I feel lucky to have escaped relatively unscathed. And my kids are so getting a pony. Oh, and all the reviewers on Goodreads complaining about "too many big words" and Shriver "just trying to impress the reader"? Seriously? Twelve lashes for lameness.

Questions? Comments? I could really use some back-and-forthing here.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Surly Thursday or a Reasonable Facsimile

Yeah, I'm faking it because you can't be authentically surly when you're dead inside, but Clara was looking forward to surliness and I adore Clara and I'm stalled in this assignment until my husband gets home and shows me how to make a concept map in Powerpoint.

Things that would make me surly if I still had feelings:

When the Rideau Canal was still open, Alan Neal was talking on CBC about the no-pickup-hockey-games rule that the National Capital Commission instituted. The reasons given were 1) it's dangerous and disruptive with so many people skating and, more importantly 2)the kind of 'static weight' generated by these games, as opposed to the 'moving weight' of people simply skating could cause the ice to sink and result in dangerous skating conditions. Neal concluded the piece with "what do you think"?

What do they think? Who gives a crap what they think? Are you going to ask them what they think about the rule about not knocking over liquor stores too? It's been determined that this is something that could shorten the canal skating season or result in injury, but let's all vote? Stuff a beaver tail in it, Alan Neal.

It's silly to get surly over a column in the newspaper, right? I always kind of know even while reading and feeling pissy that this writer needed to fill their column inches for the week, there's a good chance they're exaggerating or even just making stuff up, and that it's likely that my outrage is, in fact, the intended effect. And yet....

There was a column in the paper this week or last bitching about people bitching about winter. You know, we're soft, we're whiny, we should suck it up and embrace the chill, celebrate the upper-body-workout given by shovelling a foot and a half of snow, etc. etc.

Suck it, Pollyanna. Complaining about winter is a Canadian birthright. Sometimes I wonder what it's like living somewhere without winter. Are people always happy? What do you lament about in January if it's sunny and warm and you can leave the house without girding your loins in gore tex and sorels? I don't expect to ever find out. I live here, and it's unlikely that I'm ever leaving. I'm partial to many aspects of it. But right now, backing out of my driveway is an act of blind faith. The main intersection at the end of my street only has one lane clear, so if someone is coming around the corner as I pull up I have to drive up onto the snowbank in order not to get scraped by the other vehicle. My skin is raw, and Vaseline Intensive Rescue lotion has suddenly started smelling like something unpleasantly male and biological to me. Sure, there have been a handful of days where I've gotten out and frolicked in the snow or enjoyed the bracing frigidity, but mostly it's a slog. It's not tragic, and it's not insurmountable, but it's wearing and it's my winter and I'll complain if I want to.

The other column was about how people shouldn't sneer at ereaders or the people who love them. Which is a fair point, except when people with ereaders are snotty and sneer at people who are still reading those laughably antiquated things called books. The columnist says she still wants to own beloved books or first editions, but for a flimsy paperback she'll just download it onto her ereader for a few bucks. Uh, yeah, I don't own all the flimsy paperbacks I read either - I get them from the library, for free (fuck off, this is NOT the place to ask how much I pay in overdue fees). Other people have written about how giddy they are about getting rid of all their books and then replacing them on their ereader. Uh yeah, okay, so you've now paid for the books twice but now yay! Your collection is now portable. And invisible. Clearly this confers some kind of superiority. I didn't particularly love the Kindle I had for a few weeks before I gave it to my mother, but I could completely see their appeal and understand why people liked them. Douchebags who think their way is the only way? Turns out I'm still against them. Maybe I'll write a column about it.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

So I (still) have a strange relationship with numbers

My husband's in China (on what I just realized is his birthday), four of the five bulbs in my kitchen light fixture are burnt out and we're out of milk. I bought a treadmill this morning and now I can't get it out of the van until my husband comes home. I'm too dispirited to even work up a decent head of surliness, but I did manage to go in and shelve books today, so I'm replaying a post from very early in my blogging days.

I was working in the school library this morning. I do the basic library stuff -- check books in and out, catalogue new books, fix hurt books, but mostly I shelve. it's sort of tedious and repetitive and back-breaking, especially the lower shelves, but after a while it becomes sort of a Zen exercise.

It's kind of interesting seeing the books that go out and come back on a regular basis (Harry Potter and Geronimo Stilton in fiction, fast vehicles and puppy and kitten books in non-fiction), or putting back one that I haven't seen get any play before (in which case I kind of root for it -- is that weird?). Oddly, I find the numbers of the Dewey Decimal System taking on resonances, personalities almost. Not just that I don't like the numbers on the bottom shelf, although that's true. For some reason, some numbers are appealing and some are unsavoury. 398.2 is fairy tales -- three shelves of them, it takes up more room than any other number. 001.9 is a couple of UFO and scary story books that look really cheesy, which makes the number seem sort of appropriate -- it's almost nothing. Not to mention how close it is to the Chicken Soup for the Dippy Happy Marshmallow Mermaid Soul (sorry, is my cynicism showing?).

For some reason I really like 551 and 552 -- natural phenomena and geology, respectively. The numbers seem somehow nicely balanced to me (also, I do like rocks). 567, on the other hand, is a horrid quagmire of dinosaur books, and the shelf seems to have some evil force field around it that actually prevents anyone from being able to put the books in correctly. Don't tell Bonnie, but whenever I get these books, I mash them all together, pick a point on the shelf and just jam them all in -- there's no other way, I swear. 736 through 750 is a series of incredibly skinny or imposingly fat books, about drawing and crafts, which also resist proper ordering, but in a more benign fashion (you know, that flaky artsy vibe -- it's chaotic, but not malicious). 811 is a sort of jolly number which seems utterly appropriate for Shel Silverstein. 597, 8 and 9 are animals in the wild, and they seem to serenely float into the proper place. 636, on the other hand, is pets, and they're much less cooperative. 629.133 is a messy, unwieldy number that shelters a phalanx of flimsy sideways-bound books about airplanes and sports cars, and I find the whole business sort of tiresome.

I adore all of the 900s, and I have no idea why. Today I saw some rare 400s -- they were gleaming new, as if they had never been touched. There seem to be an inordinate number of non-fiction books bearing the letters PAR under the number. I haven't conducted extensive enough research to ascertain whether there are just a disproportionate number of authors whose names start with PAR, or if there's one manic dude out there churning out books on hurricanes, dolphins, backhoes and Van Gogh (he'd be a hit at parties, I guess. Or incredibly pompous and boring. One or the other). There's also a lot of SJO, which makes my brain hurt a little -- no offense to the eastern Europeans, but S and J are two letters that just don't belong together in my book.

I go in at about nine-thirty, then I go get Eve when her SK class finishes at 10:45 and she hangs in the library while I finish. Bonnie lets her put away the picture books, because you only need to know the first letter of the author's last name. I can hear her muttering to herself and singing as she shelves them. I wonder if she's developing her own baby neurosis about the alphabet...(B is awesome! I love B! On the other hand, I really wish L would quit looking at me like that....)

Monday, March 4, 2013

Mondays on the Margins: Book....Stuff

There are a few ways I can tell I'm depressed if I'm not on-the-surface aware of it - you know how things just become the new normal and it seems like it's always been this way: I can't make decisions - trying to decide what to buy or cook for the week sends me into a tailspin, I don't try to watch tv because I know the list of shows on the pvr will just blur into an inchoate mass, and if I listen to music while I'm working out I can't pick a playlist, I just listen to songs alphabetically; I find myself sobbing while lifting weights and listening to The Song of Bernadette; and some of the joy goes out of reading.

It gets really hard to review books in this state, because I kind of feel like I have to concurrently review my mood, or I'm not being fair to the book (I realize no one's FORCING me to review books, or PAYING me to review books, or really even ASKING me to review books, so this is a matter of no urgency. Nevertheless.) There are still books that I feel like I should reread because they seemed so much like something I would like or people I generally agree with liked them, so it seems likely that my mental state was a factor - Zone One, Salamander, The Diagnosis, Open Secrets - and yet the very thought of them generates a kind of psychic nausea and revulsion.

So I got sick and didn't read for four days. I'm not sure there has been that long a string of non-reading days since I learned to read. No, wait - when we go on vacation sometimes I don't read. After I had Angus and was in a state of post-general-anaesthetic delirium, it was difficult to focus on reading, but I did it, because everything else in my world felt so suddenly strange and dislocated that I couldn't bear to lose that too. But the flu erased even my need to read. Or eat. Or sit upright. Or do anything except sleep and watch Netflix on my ipad.

Once I was ready to read again, I couldn't figure out what to reach for. So first I finished A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which I had been about a fifth of the way through when I got sick. I have to start using the "recommended by" feature on Goodreads because I know something spurred me to finally request this from the library, but I can't remember what it was. The copy I got was paper, and not encased in plastic, and starting to wear away - the 'Y' in 'Brooklyn' is totally gone. I like this - it made it easier to imagine that I was reading a beloved tome from someone's collection. What an amazing book. It makes it hard to say anything, because it seems like anything I say will be trite and inadequate, and even if I did come up with something good, it would certainly already have been mentioned somewhere in the years of scholarship. And yet something must be said. It was such an effective, visceral rendering of turn-of-the-century Brooklyn that it's like - no, it's not even like watching a movie about it, it's like BEING THERE, so you feel slightly begrimed with turn-of-the-century Brooklyn street dust when you put the book down. And at the same time, the interior lives of the characters are so vivid that it's like the reader has been atomized and floated gently down over the entire city and into all the characters. And the push-pull conflicting intense relationships between parents and children, particularly when poverty and struggle and alcoholism are involved, and how romantic love thrives even in the absence of the necessities of life, and how someone can sometimes say the absolute right thing at the absolute right time that will change your life - or the wrong thing, and it changes in a whole different way.

Yup, I was right. Sounds dorky. Anyway, if you happen to be the person whose comment or blog post or review made me read this book now, profuse thanks.

So now I was doubly screwed - coming off being sick AND reading something brain-smashing. I took the easy out - reading the next book due back at the library, which was Jo Nesbo's The Bat (for some reason Goodreads doesn't give an English title although this entry seems to be for the English version, but it's kind of fun to try saying Flaggermusmannen, so there's that). I've read some of this series all out of order, and it's generally pretty good. For the first half of this book, I was wondering if I was totally wrong about the other books, or if Nesbo was just a slow starter who learned on the job. It may have been a bad translation or just things lost in translation - chapters kept ending with people making remarks that seemed like they were perceived as clever or witty, but to my ears they were baseless and nonsensical ("One should never drink chocolate milk while driving a tractor" - that kind of thing). I was trying to decide whether I should give up, when suddenly things started to pick up, and then simultaneously things got train-wreck depressing and almost everybody died. Is that an illustration of 'be careful what you wish for'?

And now I'm between books again. And still not sure where I'm going next. Maybe here. Although if that doesn't cheer me up I might feel like things really are beyond hope.