Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Book Review: Nora Bonesteel's Christmas Past

I'm pretty sure I've read - and really liked -  all of Sharyn McCrumb's Ballad novels, although it was quite a few years ago, so I was happy when Abingdon Press sent me this novella. The character of Nora Bonesteel was always a fascinating aspect of the series; the unassuming but canny old woman with the gift of sight that blurs past and future, living and dead. The fact that McCrumb blended her so seamlessly into otherwise realistic stories was impressive, although the Appalachian landscape and folklore always lent themselves well to an ever-so-slightly magical 'realism'. It was this series that first introduced me to the intriguing concept of liminality - the vulnerabilities, powers and possibilities inherent in in-between states in time or space.

This novella has the same shadings of history and lovingly detailed descriptions of the distinctive landscape that gave the novels such a vivid sense of place - you can practically smell woodsmoke and mountain air while reading. In addition to Nora, two other recurring characters from the series make an appearance - Sheriff Spencer Arrowood and Deputy Joe LeDonne, who have to drive into the mountains to make an arrest that doesn't go as smoothly as they'd hoped.

This is a lovely story - the humour (much of it at the expense of "summer people") is gentle, the treatment of the aging is respectful, and the overall tone is bittersweet. I enjoyed it very much.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Mondays on the Margins: Paper Books vs. Digital

So Lynn asked whether I usually read paper books or ebooks. Everybody say "Hi, Lynn", and then go over to her blog like I just did and get lost in a mini-wormhole of tiny potatoes and cool picture books (what's with all the hat-stealing animals, WHAT'S WITH THEM?).

We all know what my principles are worth. I mean, odds are pretty good that I will stand staunchly by rules such as the No Drop-Kicking Babies Rule and the No Leaving Mean-Spirited Comments on Blog Posts or Online Articles Rule, and I'm pretty sure I'll never set anyone's house on fire ON PURPOSE (look, there was a lot of caramel spilled, it seemed reasonable to turn on the self-cleaning function and the flames were all out within ten minutes - fifteen, tops - the smoke detectors didn't even go off). But other than that, don't believe me. "I will never start a blog". "I will never join Twitter." "I will never speak in public unless my children are being held hostage at gunpoint." These are all words that have left my mouth, and well, here we are.

So I did say I wasn't crazy about the idea of ereaders, but I didn't really trust myself to abjure them for all time.

A couple of years ago my sister and I got my mom a Kindle for Christmas. My sister told me to order it well ahead of time and it came quickly, so I had it to play around with for a few weeks. I actually fully expected that I would fall in love with it, but I didn't, really. My mom loves it, and she and my dad then gave my husband one for his birthday - he loves it too, for travelling.

That said, once I had an ipad and put the Kindle and Overdrive Media apps on it, my feelings changed. I could develop a sudden burning need for a specific book and obtain it instantaneously - this is a very dangerous thing. There's also the handy fact that I can read late into the night without the light on, which is beneficial for my poor husband, who learned long ago to sleep with a reading light shining on the other side of the bed, and also for family trips when we're all sharing a hotel room.

The ipad is kind of heavy, though, so I can only read on it if I have a pillow or something to support it. And the fact that ebooks from the library disappear when they've expired is good from the point of view of my continuing effort to finance my own wing of the Ottawa Public Library, and because I don't actually have to drive them back, but once in a while it's really vexing - a few months back I was in the middle of a really good book by Mo Hayder, and I thought I had one day left; when I got into bed I realized it was just after midnight and GODDAMMIT! I had to wait weeks to get it back again and then reread most of what I had read, which actually turned into kind of a cool reading experience. But I'm kind of suspicious of any book that can become unattainable due to a low battery.

I try to limit myself severely in the Kindle store, because it's way too easy to spend way too much money way too quickly. I try to limit myself (less severely) to library ebooks because once I borrow them I feel obligated to read them, and when downloading on a whim it's easy to load up on unanticipated dreck, and it also multiplies my problem of loading up on library books which then need to be read within a specific time frame, while the books I actually own wait even longer. It's so intoxicating, though! I'm borrowing a book RIGHT NOW when it's not even REGULAR LIBRARY HOURS! It's like I'm a library cat thief!

So anything I'm just borrowing from the library or that I want to travel with or just make sure that I can access any time, I'm fine putting on my ipad. But if I really love a book, I want to own the book. I've also realized that I have this habit, when I'm reading a book, of stopping fairly frequently to look at the author photo. I'm not sure if it's to remind me of whose book I'm reading, or because my feeling of my communication with the author changes as I read, or if it's something completely unconscious, but I feel kind of thwarted when I remember that I'm reading a book that doesn't have an author photo, and an ebook rarely does.

There's also the fact that, once you buy a Kindle version of a book, it stays in the cloud forever (as far as I know). Last month when I realized that I had book club in two days and had neglected to obtain the book, I bought How Should a Person Be by Sheila Heti for Kindle. I thought this was great - I could read the book in time. Then I read it and hated it, I mean, HATED it, and realized that I could never get rid of it now - its indelible stain sits there putridly in my digital library for all time.

I'm also a frequent and happy lender of books. I love knowing that part of my collection is out there in the world being loved by my friends (or at least getting some kind of action). But again, if I read a book digitally and love it enough that it needs to be lent, I can just buy a copy.

I did read a rather silly article by someone who gave away all her books and just bought e-copies of them. The descriptions of setting her books free in the wild was amusing and whimsical, but the notion that this made her somehow less materialistic than someone who owned the real books was perplexing. I still want to live in a house with books in it. I still love beautiful covers and real, turnable pages. Ereaders just mean I can carry even more books to even more places and read even when it's dark. So it's all good.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Mondays on the Margins: Station Eleven

I'm sure it will come as no big surprise when I confess that I generally prefer my post-apocalyptic
novels a little more science-fictiony than this one. But both the cover and the plot description lured me in, and once I picked it up it became part of a string of books that has made me feel like my bad reading patch was blessedly over. Admittedly, the cover kept luring me in initially because I kept confusing it with Adam Mansbach's Go the F*ck to Sleep (go on and look, tell me I'm wrong) but I eventually managed to address this book on its own merits.

I can't quite articulate why this worked so much better for me than others of its ilk. There was something hypnotic about the way it veered from a panoramic view to a microscopic one. Some people find it contrived when a story is about a random assortment of people and their various interactions, glancing or intimate - and of course it is contrived, it's kind of supposed to be, so I've always found this criticism a little confusing. 

I found the character of Arthur, the actor, and the treatment of success and fame fascinating. I loved the Traveling Symphony and their creed "Because survival is insufficient" and the habit of referring to its members as First Tuba and Third Violin. There were a lot of characters, but I really felt that the author managed to do justice to all of them, which is no small feat. And the spectre of the all-too-human "prophet" was plenty scary for anyone who requires a little more tension than that provided by, you know, the total collapse of civilization. 

And let's just talk about the author for a second, and how it pains me ever so slightly to heap praise on her, because I am at heart a petty, petty person, and she lives in New York and writes like this, and looks like this.
Author photo by Dese'Rae L.

I mean, COME ON. 

Also, a couple of things: number one, a bunch of people get stranded in an airport because they were on the last planes that came in before everything shut down. A girl walks around asking if anyone has any of her antidepressant because she's run out, then goes into shivering horrible withdrawal and DIES. So when I told my doctor that I NEEDED to get off mine because what if there was a zombie apocalypse and I slowed down my band of survivors with my tiresome withdrawal agonies, well, my girl Emily had my back on that, am I right? Also, somebody does make a comment at one point that usually when she'd read about these scenarios, there were zombies involved and  "I'm just saying, it could be a lot worse." Which makes me forgive the author for being frigging drop-dead gorgeous and able to rock a peacoat like nobody's business in addition to being a really top-rate writer.

Really, really liked this. Probably buying it at some point.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Pieces (Parts?)

In my university residence, there were two guys named Andrew. I knew one of them had a glass eye, but I could never keep straight which one it was, so whenever I was with one of them, especially if there was alcohol involved, I was always stealing surreptitious glances at their eyes trying to figure out if one was fake.

In one of my Comp Lit seminars, there was a guy with one arm. When he wore a shirt with the guy from A Clockwork Orange on it to class one day, I realized he looked almost exactly like the guy from A Clockwork Orange. A few times the class went out for drinks, but I was always afraid to get drunk around him because I was terrified that I would blurt out an insensitive question about what happened to his arm. Which, in retrospect, probably wouldn't have been that big a deal and he probably got asked all the time. But back then, many things seemed like a big deal that probably weren't.

Also, it's possible that I drank too much.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Where are the Barmaids of Yesteryear?*

Eight of us get together on Tuesdays every few weeks at a neighbourhood sports bar for beers on fifty-cent wing night. We have a waitress who knows what we all drink and brings us the right thing without asking, and it's a fun way to break up the weekly routine, and sometimes I don't feel like going out after dinner, but I make myself go and I'm always glad I did.

Collette and I always drink Stella. Bridget always brings us a Stella. One Saturday night in October (ONE time, when we've gone to the bar for a couple of YEARS now), we went out for a friend's birthday to a restaurant that had Heineken, so we had a Heineken. The next time we were at Johnny Canuck's, Bridget came over and opened her mouth to ask Collette if she wanted a Stella and Collette said "can I have a Heineken?" Bridget looked confused, and said they didn't have Heineken, and Collette said "isn't that what I always drink here?" We all laughed and said she was adorable, and having no memory is part of her charm, etc. etc.

Tonight my husband and I walked in. Our friend Dave was the only one already there, and Bridget was getting our table ready. Except she turned around and it wasn't Bridget. We asked where Bridget was and not-Bridget says "she works Mondays and Wednesdays". We sat down and Dave looked at me and said "wait, what do I drink?" Dave and I asked for a Stella and not-Bridget said "sorry, we just switched to Molson, so we only have Heineken."

So we were sitting there, half bereft, half feeling like our bar had slipped into a parallel universe. Then I saw a bright spot and said "okay, but when our friend Collette gets here and orders a Stella, you HAVE to act like you've only ever had Heineken, okay?"

Not-Bridget was pretty cool. But I hate change.


*trying for a half-assed Catch-22 reference, but I dunno, I'm pretty drunk. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Mondays on the Margins Postponed Because Someone Pissed Me Off

How do you feel when someone says "I hate kids"? I just read a review on Goodreads, and admittedly I'm not predisposed to adore this reviewer because she's kind of arrogant and seems to really fancy herself as a force to be reckoned with, and her sycophantic followers just feed into this. She said she hates kids used as plot devices, which is fine, but the whole statement is "I hate kids, and I hate kids used as plot devices."

Would you say "I hate Chinese people" or "I hate short people" the same way? Why is it acceptable for anyone to dismiss an entire segment of the population this way? It's not like kids can help the fact that they're kids. If we didn't keep making them, there would be no damned people left. I get that there can be a divide between parents and child-free people. I think it's valid for child-free people to express their opinions and concerns on how children behave in public spaces. But "I hate kids?" All kids? All the time? You HATE them?

It's not that I think everybody should love kids. It's not that I'm thinking 'oh, if you'd met mine you wouldn't say that.' Sometimes my kids ARE annoying. It's entirely possible that someone could meet them and not be completely enchanted. But hate them? Just because they're kids?

I guess it doesn't really matter. I'm probably being oversensitive. I've just seen this exact statement made a few times in the past few months, and I keep writing bitchy Facebook statuses about it and then erasing them. It's her review, I guess she can say whatever she wants, which is why I haven't responded there. But I'm kind of angry. I guess I don't like people who say they hate kids.