Monday, June 23, 2014

Mondays on the Margins: Various Assorted

A couple of months back, I got wind of, a website through which publishers "provide digital review copies to professional readers, including booksellers, librarians, media, bloggers, reviewers and educators". I shouldn't visit that website, I thought. I'm drowning in books. Even though the review copy stream has slowed down since my original contacts at a few Canadian publishers have left, between library books, Kindle books (DAMN those daily deals, DAMN them!) and books I've bought, the stacks have grown, the queue is alarmingly long, and sometimes it makes me feel a little stressed. Not grateful and happy and excited, the way one SHOULD feel when blessed with this embarrassment of riches, but stressed. For no really good reason, because aside from a course or two, I'm free to read whatever the hell I want, but I definitely wasn't in need of a further source of books. Certainly not one where the requesting and delivering of said books is as easy as a mouse click.

So I definitely didn't go on NetGalley and create a profile and request sixty-six or so books and then feel all giggly and smug when the approvals started rolling in and my Kindle app filled up with YET MORE books. Free books. Books that haven't quite been published yet. 

It's true. I have a problem. 

Sometimes I get turned down, for one reason or another. I feel unreasonably annoyed by this.

One of the quirks and - sometimes - pleasures of my NetGalley shelf is that, when I click on a book to begin reading it, unless I research it on Goodreads first, I generally have no idea of what I'm about to plunge into. Unless it's an author I already know, there are so many books that I've usually lost all memory of the plot synopsis, and with some titles and covers it's really hard to tell what you're getting into. The first book where this really made me feel like I'd been (in the immortal words of one of my old professors) "led down the garden path and then clobbered with a birdfeeder", was The Quick by Lauren Owen. It starts off like a prim, proper, everything-in-its-place Victorian novel, then takes a whiplash left turn into.... well, it's also one of those books where you can't say much without giving everything away. It was a really interesting reading experience.

Recently, I read in a Book Riot article that The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey was a book that I should read immediately, before more was given away about it. I was giddy with the realization that I had the book from NetGalley RIGHT THAT MINUTE, and it was AWESOME, and I .... can't say a whole lot more about that one either. Except it's so much more than just a book of.... this genre, and I loved the nuanced characters, and the clear-eyed presentation of the human condition, and the perfect, poignant rendering of the child-teacher relationship in extreme circumstances, and if you like books of this genre you should definitely read it, except you don't know if you like books of this genre because I haven't told you which genre it is, because I don't want to give anything away. It's a dilemma. Use your best judgment.

The tagline for reviewing NetGalley books on Goodreads is always "review copy provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review". We'll see how they feel about that when I review Fields of Elysium, because oh, my god, oh, the badness is so bad with this one. It's the worst kind of adolescent wish-fulfillment Twilight rip-off, written by someone whose first language almost certainly isn't English, or reality. There are phrases like "she tossed her head back, burying her hands into her glossy hair in the sexiest way I'd ever seen a girl act. That picture was too much for my eyes. I looked away and bored my eyes into the waterfall." Also, "I had become a ghost, just drifting down the corridors, unnoticed by their Gucci bags and Prada shoes". Aw, their bags and shoes didn't notice you? Stupid unsentient accessories. The requisite situations where the heroine is hurt or put in danger so the hero (who acts like he hates her but of course loves her) can rescue her are cringe-worthy. At one point she blacks out and hits her head on a desk, and then laments the disfiguring scar that will ensure that no man wants her (grow some bangs, duh). The hero visits with some future-world healing ointment, and she piteously requests that he put it on for her because she doesn't have a mirror. That's right - she's too stupid to find her own forehead.

Eve came downstairs a while ago and said "there was this book at school called Jacob's New Dress. Can Jacob be a girl's name?" I said maybe, but maybe it was more about gender roles. We looked it up, and it is, which is cool. She said "like - he's a drag queen?" and I said, no, he just doesn't conform to normal gender stereotypes. She said she was a little surprised that there would be a kids' book about that, and I reminded her about my friend Amanda who has an eleven-year-old transgender daughter, which means that a book explaining gender fluidity to kids is, in my book (ha), a good thing. Then I said "of course, some parents probably won't WANT their kids reading about it", and Eve said "well, tough bananas. It's a thing."

So there.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Everything's Coming Up Penises!

 You know when a common theme just keeps popping up (snicker) in every area of your life? Sometimes I'm reading two books that ostensibly have nothing to do with each other, and the same German philosopher is mentioned. Sometimes everyone I meet in a day has something wrong with their foot. It's a funny kind of synchronicity that means nothing but always amuses and delights me anyway.

A couple of weeks ago, my personal zeitgeist went completely phallic.

First, it was book club. My friend Sharon, a freelance writer, volunteered that she was doing some work involving the San Francisco Healthy Penis Project, which is focused on raising awareness of syphilis and persuading gay and bisexual men to get tested. Along with lists of clinics and super-fun comic strip ads like these,

there were also people wandering the streets of the Castro (SF's gay district) wearing seven-foot-tall penis costumes.

Apparently the campaign has also been used in other parts of California, and in Winnipeg here in Canada, where I assume the seven-foot-tall penises are wearing parkas, or a lot of mosquito repellent.

(Shut up, Pedro! HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA).

Later in the week, it was beer-and-fifty-cent-wings night with our crew at Johnny Canucks. The topic of circumcision came up, and my friend said her husband was of the opinion that circumcision was a Catholic tradition as well as a Jewish one, because all the Catholic men of his age that he knew were circumcised. I said that I didn't think it had anything to do with Catholicism, but rather was the trend in hospitals and health care at that time. Being of curious mind, my friend did some research and emailed it out the next day. Since his inbox was filling up with "penis research", another friend graced us with the link to Double Dick Reddit Guy, so, you know, there went that afternoon.
Photo credit amy_buthod

Then Eve came home from school "totally traumatized" by the puberty unit in health class. She kept waving the penis diagram in my face and saying "WE HAVE TO NAME ALL THE PARTS!" She said they all felt really bad for Jonathan because he had to write the word 'penis' on the board. She regaled us with quotes from the antiquated video they were shown, where little Johnny asks his Uncle Pat what happens if his penis never gets any bigger, and hollered about fallopian tubes at random intervals. There was a quiz on the Friday, so every few hours we'd ask how her studying was going for the penis test. My mom and Marianna's grandmother tried the "why is it any different from talking about eyes, or elbows, or any other body part?" tactic, but I didn't even bother. Penises are funny. They just are.

So yeah, that week was a total ball (I kill me). On the week-end my husband came to bed and indicated some amorous intentions. I looked up from my book and saw that he had left the bedroom door open, and reminded him that Eve had just gone to bed one room away, and that she had probably had enough of penises for one seven-day period.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Blue Monday. And Tuesday. And all the other days.

So last week was tough. I was recovering from my second mysterious barfing plague in two weeks, my husband was in France, and Tuesday evening it started raining and didn't stop until Friday afternoon. It wasn't that there was so much to do - there were two baseball games and a school barbecue to deal with, but none of them actually ended up happening, because of illness (Angus's) or weather. It wasn't that I fed the kids leftover macaroni and bacon on Monday and ordered pizza on Tuesday and then made chicken souvlaki on Wednesday and made them eat it for the rest of the week.

Photo credit John Beales
It was that I was doing everything while dragging these shackles around. You know, the depression shackles, the ones that clank around behind you and make every step a huge effort, while hollering lie after lie. You're ugly. You're useless. Nobody loves you. Your kids wish they had a better mother. They also whisper a few things that are probably true. You will never be totally free of this.

Sometimes there's no way out but through, right? Even though I tried to open the curtains in my room and pulled the whole curtain rod down. Even though I spilled every container of juice I reached for.  By Friday I felt like I couldn't move. I had a long-overdue haircut booked for 12:30. I took the kids to school and took a shower and sat in a chair to read but I could hardly turn the pages. I fell asleep reading. Later I fell asleep under the hair dryer. But hair has to be cut, kids have to be fed, husbands eventually return from France, and I only have one book club end-of-year dinner a year (it's a hence-the-name thing).

I forced myself out of the house. I kept fake smiling until my smile felt less fake. One of my book club friends said, at one point, "she's strange. She works hard during the week, but then on Saturday she'll just sit in a chair and read all day and not interact with anyone!" I said "yeah, what a freak." and everyone laughed, and it was okay because suddenly I was basically okay with my book-freakiness again.

Just so this post isn't all about my pain, here is our book club list for the forthcoming year:

Crow Lake, Mary Lawson

The Beautiful Mystery, Louise Penny

And now I can see that last week was tough, because I'm in a different week. And today I had to water the flowers because it hasn't rained for a couple of days. And I feel a little lighter. And it's okay, because if I was totally free of those periodic shackles, my life would probably be way too easy. 

Monday, June 9, 2014

May I Have a Re-entry Permit?

A lot of things suck about being really sick and out of it for a few days. I staggered around with laundry a few times, because baseball, and Matt needed underwear to take to France, so the piles aren't as bad as they would normally be, but the back yard was supposed to be dug up and planted by now and instead it looks like Day of the Triffids meets The Lost World back there. Eve was left pretty much on her own with her giant project on Mesopotamia, although I did manage to slowly and laboriously reload a tape runner for her. The hanging baskets almost died.
Photo from Flickr by Sean O'Neill

But the worst, I find, is this creepy and unshakable sense of strangeness. Like you don't quite fit into the world any more. Like you've lost the knack of syncing your actions to the people around you, and you feel like everyone's staring if you go out, which you'd really rather not, because, weirdness.

Me, looking in the mirror: Is that really what I look like? Did I look like that before? I'm sure that wasn't there before. Was my nose always that length? Why does my mouth look so weird? Am I holding it weird? What if I...GAH, NO, THAT'S WORSE!

Eve's best friend came over twice in two weeks, (Eve went over there five times in the same time period) and both times I was locked in my room throwing up. Now composing an email to her parents assuring them that I am not a) an alcoholic or b) allergic to their child.

Also, I haven't been able to read for five days.

No wonder I don't feel like myself.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Book Review: A Beckoning War by Matthew Murphy

Full disclosure: I know Matt Murphy. I've known Matt Murphy since he was about ten, when I started hanging out with his sister Patti, one of my dearest friends. He was a writer then, too; his stories were most often accompanied by elaborate drawings of flying machines spewing bullets and dismembered, blood-jetting carcasses. This work, therefore, isn't a huge departure, although it adds a little more gravitas to the carnage. I was a fan of the horror genre as well, so we would discuss the relative merits of John Saul and Stephen King, until I realized we were talking about books that he had gazed adoringly on in the bookstore but wasn't actually allowed to read yet.

I don't read a lot of war fiction. I don't have anything in particular against it, it just doesn't call to me the way young adult apocalyptic dystopias or adult mysteries do. I have read The Wars by Timothy Findley. While this book is not quite The Wars, considering that this is a first novel, I was fairly impressed. I like that the protagonist, Captain Jim McFarlane, is a sort of classic everyman; he is not a hero, not without flaws - in fact, he's pretty up front about the fact that he looks on the war as an opportunity to shake the boredom of his job and gain some status in his family. His relationship with his wife isn't a Grand Passion, she isn't a perfect ideal of a woman, and he goes to war over her objections. This makes the book read more like a legitimate exploration of a soldier's experience than a Hollywood rendering.

That said, A Beckoning War headed Kirkus Review's list of 12 Most Cinematic Indie Books of 2014 (so far). Indeed, one of the first things I noticed was the almost palpable rhythm of the book, the contrast between the quiet passages detailing McFarlane's increasingly tormented musings and the sections vividly describing the frenzied bedlam of battle. There is ample demonstration of the fact that war is never one thing - there is boredom, and terror, and extreme bodily discomfort, and camaraderie and humour, and, with McFarlane, the questioning of whether he will emerge from this experience in any way intact.

The humour emerges in McFarlane's interactions with his superior officers: at one point, McFarlane offers to share his whiskey with Major Gordon, the battalion's second in command, who has just rather frostily instructed McFarlane to stop complaining about being understaffed and overstretched. Gordon, a Calvinist teetotaller, "says, with a trace of disdain, 'I'd sooner take one in the arm'. 'I've already done that,' retorts Jim, feeling the knotted dent of his healed arm wound from the Liri Valley battle, 'and I'll tell you, I prefer booze, thank you very much'". There is also an enjoyably raucous dinnertime conversation that includes a play on words merging "veni, vidi, vici" with V.D. This contrasts sharply with a chilling moment where McFarlane has an extended conversation over breakfast with three friends, then says something to a confused Lieutenant and realizes he's been talking with two dead men and one who's been invalided out.
Here he is rocking some writerly facial hair

There were times when I read a passage and thought, damn, Murphy's developed some writing chops: "the rains having extinguished the last of the fires of the great battle and left in their wake a match-stink of old burning, the scorched and bitter essence of incendiary decay"; "A slight wave of dizziness washes over him, and the wound in his arm throbs in cutaneous remembrance.” There were other times (I feel I can be honest about this, because he's a published author, and he used to harass me when I was sleeping hungover on his living-room couch in the morning) when I thought, "NO, MATTHEW, NO". For instance, "He can hear her voice through the medium of her pen, through tonal vibrations of squiggles of ink”. Squiggles of ink do not vibrate tonally, Matt, not with all the poetic license in the world. And this: From his pocket he produced a packet of Wrigley’s gum, unwrapping the foil covering of a piece, unleashing a cool wintry zing of peppermint as he did so, and popped the pliable rectangular stick of gum into his mouth.” Unless he uses the gum to save the world, MacGyver-like, within the next few pages, this reads more like a product placement than a descriptive detail. But I quibble. 

Truthfully, I am pleased, admiring and a tiny bit envious of my friend's little brother's accomplishment. Way to go, Matt.