Monday, September 21, 2015

Mondays on the Margins: Reading: It's Possible I've Been Doing it Wrong

Not for my whole life, of course. I learned how to make the letters form words, make the words form sentences, and I was off to the races. I read everything I could get my hands on, which wasn't a great big amount back then, but most of it was fucking magical and blew the doors of my mind wide open. The Faraway Tree. Narnia. The Cricket in Times Square. I would go to the library alone and the librarian would make me call my father to come and get me and approve my book choices (because I had blown through the kids' section and was on to adult reading). If I couldn't get it at the library, I would beg my parents to buy it for me.

Once school started, I read for marks and for pleasure. In high school, I was reading a science fiction anthology in homeroom and a girl asked me which class I was reading it for. Her expression when I said I wasn't reading it for a class was uncomprehending.

I did a B.A. and and M.A. in Comparative Literature. I had to read some fiction that I wouldn't have read otherwise. Some of it I thought was great, and with some of it it seemed like the entire Western world agreed that it was great except for me. I had to read a lot of critical theory, some of which was intriguing and fun and some of which was dry and pedantic and entirely too impressed with itself. And then I would read something fun - once I stayed up all night reading The Animal Hour by Andrew Klavan even though my parents were coming to visit the next day, early. I regretted nothing.

Then I got a job in audio publishing. Then I worked in a bookstore. There were always things I 'should' be reading, and things I wanted to be reading, with a good amount of overlap between the two.

Then I had kids and stopped working at a formal, official, 'job'-type thing. Other than some usually pretty light course reading, I am now the captain of my own reading destiny.

I have recently come to realize that I am kind of a shitty captain and that it's possible I should be keel-hauled, or mutinied, or some other negative ship-related term.

Generally I try strike a good balance between reading for pure pleasure and reading for education. The books I love, the books I anticipate, the books I pounce on like a deranged slinky,  tend to be mysteries and science fiction and fantasy and horror, and I do think that the best of the books in these genres are valuable as more than escapism - they have things to say about being in the world, about longing for things and searching for things and loving people and loss, and empathy and hope and redemption – more than enough to qualify as “the axe for the frozen sea within us” that Franz Kafka says literature must be. But I also try to read non-fiction and literary fiction, stuff that sometimes takes a little more work, and even if it takes me a while I almost always find it rewarding. I think of these books as my broccoli books. There’s nothing wrong with broccoli. It’s green and crunchy and chock-full of fibre and anti-oxidants. It really rounds out a meal, although you don’t necessarily want to curl up on the couch with a carton of it after a bad break-up. I like broccoli. I like asparagus. I even like Brussels sprouts.

You know what I hate, though? Green beans. To each his own and everything, but I don’t get green beans. The texture seems like a cross between fishing line and shoe leather. The taste is incredibly dull while still being disagreeable. I was always exceedingly bitter as a child when on fish night my fish-hating sister got chicken, but on green bean night I always had to eat a few. I decided quite a few years ago that I’m an adult now and, barring extreme circumstances, green beans will not pass these lips again.

So I have this thing I do with books that I'm almost sure I will love - because I know and love the author, because it's the next in a series, because I've read them before and I'm due to reread. I stockpile them. I build them into walls and towers around my room, and I defer them endlessly. Sometimes I buy a book in hardcover because I really, really want to read it, and by the time I actually let myself it's already out in paperback. And in the meantime, I read not just broccoli books, but books that I realize at some point don’t have any redeeming qualities at all – green bean books, if you will.

It would be one thing if there was a really good reason for this. If there were things I needed to read first, for some reason, or I just got busy. But I've suddenly realized that that's not really it. Partly it's that I feel the need to keep Really Great Books in reserve for some theoretical day when I might really need one. This is stupid. There is no possible way I can keep up with and surpass the literary output of all the really great present and future writers that make my reading brain sing. When the zombie apocalypse comes, a wall of unread Fred Vargas and Susan Palwick will not stop them. There is absolutely no need for me to browse the library ebooks and fill up my ipad with them and finish even the really bad ones against some day when I might run out of things to read.

The other part? The Super-Dumbass-with-Extra-Stupid part? I think I'm not letting myself read all the Really Great Books right away because I don't feel like I deserve to. And this is not because they’re empty calories, but because they are sweet, and rich, and nourishing on a whole other level. For this reason, I feel like I can't let myself read one until after I've done something really difficult or unpleasant. Which would be fine if I was reasonable about it – sure, rake up some leaves, or shovel some snow, or clean out a closet, and then settle in with a good book. Except I do that thing and it’s never enough. I still don’t deserve the – let’s call it the doughnut book. Because I don't have a job that I hate that takes up all my time. Because I haven't published anything. Because I have trouble getting up early. Because I feed my kids kraft dinner and hot dogs some days. Because I shot the Archduke Ferdinand and started World War One that time (yep – depression lies, and, in my case, also has delusions of grandeur.) What I’m trying to say, before I torture this poor beleaguered metaphor any further, is that sometimes when you live in Depressionland, it feels like there’s no possible way to choke down enough green beans to earn your doughnut.

I've decided this is bullshit. Life is too short to read bad books on purpose, and I've punished myself for just being who I am enough for several lifetimes. I've spent the last couple of weeks rereading the first two books in the Magicians Trilogy by Lev Grossman, and it's been delicious. After that I'm going to read the second book in the Colours of Madeleine series by Jaclyn Moriarty, and then something else by Christopher Moore. I might stick a broccoli book in there, but I will NOT stuff myself with green bean books anymore.

It feels simultaneously like a momentous decision and an effortless no-brainer.

These are strange, exhilarating times.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Sky is So Very Blue

Just before Labour Day Week-end, I started on a nice little hyper-manic upward slope. Even if I didn't HAVE to be early, I popped out of bed first thing in the morning with no brain fog, I got some organizing done that I've been putting off for months, I walked the dog four times a day and never felt too tired to do one more thing in the day if it occurred to me. 

Along with this, as usual, came some less awesome stuff: a sort of hardened mental glaze over my mind, obsessive thoughts that wouldn't clear for more than a few seconds at a time, and that uncomfortable sense that the air around me is crowded with screaming or crying. 

Honestly, it's not the worst trade-off in the world. Going to bed every night knowing that the morning is going to be either a battle-slog out of a pit of quicksand or another dismal failure is really demoralizing. A bit of mental glitchiness isn't too high a price to pay for some time above water. 

Yesterday, I suddenly felt a strange puncturing and it was like a balloon inside my head had popped. Obsessive thoughts - gone. Vague feeling of doom - gone. It was sort of like my mind had been slightly short-winded, and suddenly it could take a deep, lovely breath.

Okay, I thought. It was nice (ish) while it lasted. I fully expected to be back to business as usual today - stabbing the snooze button and dreaming about getting up five times before actually managing it.

Woke up fine, early, no brain fog. Had dinner for a friend in the crock pot by nine. Coursework, gardening, dog walked by eleven. I had lunch at regular lunch time. I'm going to have to go clean out a closet or something because the kids aren't home yet and suddenly there's more DAY in my day. I went outside and sat in the swinging chair in my weedy back yard and looked up at the sky and laughed because, holy shit, this might be one day's grace, and it might not last, but for the moment I'm so purely grateful I could weep. 

Monday, September 14, 2015

Newbery Medal Series: Holes by Louis Sachar

Synopsis from Goodreads: Stanley Yelnats is under a curse. A curse that began with his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather and has since followed generations of Yelnatses. Now Stanley has been unjustly sent to a boys’ detention center, Camp Green Lake, where the boys build character by spending all day, every day digging holes exactly five feet wide and five feet deep. There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. But there are an awful lot of holes.

It doesn’t take long for Stanley to realize there’s more than character improvement going on at Camp Green Lake. The boys are digging holes because the warden is looking for something. But what could be buried under a dried-up lake? Stanley tries to dig up the truth in this inventive and darkly humorous tale of crime and punishment—and redemption.


This book has been on my radar for quite a while, both because I have the impression that I like Louis Sachar as an author without actually being able to name any Louis Sachar books that I have read, and because I had the vague impression that the Dulé Hill, who I adore, was in the movie, which I've never seen. 

Clear enough?

So I had to take my mother to the hospital for an eye test last week and I grabbed this for the waiting room. It's one of those books that I really wish I had read as a child, because reading it as an adult trying to imagine it from the perspective of a child is disorienting. It's quite harsh, but then so was Annie, and 101 Dalmatians was terrifying, and  The Rescuers - poor Penny being lowered down the well to search for the diamond... hey waitaminnit, Holes totally rips off The Rescuers! 

So, yes. It was harsh. The camp environment made my stomach hurt. The injustice and cruelty were so upsetting, and then the descriptions of the past in Latvia where the threads of destiny begin to weave this story are sort of charming, and then the story of Kate Barlow and Sam the Onion Man is so wonderful but so desperately sad, and then wham it all comes together at the end and overall I liked it, but I had a slight impression that some of the parts didn't quite match the others in tone. 

What do we think about stories where young people are powerless in the grip of self-interested adults without conscience? Is it cathartic for them (since usually the children triumph, through a mixture of ingenuity, pluck and some kind of intangible force for good in the universe, over the bad guys?) or does it just heighten their feelings of powerlessness? It always fills me with a kind of impotent rage, knowing that as cartoonish as a lot of the situations are, there are real-life situations that are dishearteningly similar. But I do enjoy the redemption.

And speaking of impotent rage, remind me to tell you about being stuck in a tiny traffic jam with my mother, who was convinced we were going to be late for her appointment even though we'd left an hour earlier than necessary and were already halfway there. The world does not understand my pain. 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Well here we are

I'm restless. The kids are back in school. Eve has calmed down, although her stories of her homeroom group wandering the halls looking for their next class, complicated by incorrect timetables and sections that are closed for construction are quite entertaining. Angus has somehow ended up as the only grade ten student in an eleventh-grade fitness class - no one is quite sure how this happened.

I don't know quite what to do with myself. I don't feel like working on my course. I don't feel like writing. I barely feel like reading. So right now I'm just walking. I get the kids to school, and I get Lucy leashed up, and I wander all over Barrhaven. Sometimes I stop in somewhere. Sometimes I don't. My feet hurt. My hips hurt. My back hurts. But my dog is really happy.

I guess for now I'll just keep walking until I get somewhere.


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Mondays on the Margins (or whatever, it's still summer, shut up): Sacré Bleu by Christopher Moore


I bought this book quite a while ago because I had read and loved (and reviewed, to a thundering silence, geez man) Lamb, and I found the synopsis intriguing, and ultramarine blue is one of my very favourite colours and has always seemed a little mysterious to me. . Then I put it in my stack and promptly forgot about it or passed it over for library books that were about to expire. Over the summer, I packed it every time we were going somewhere where I'd want an actual book to read - in the sun, on the beach, anywhere it wouldn't be convenient to read on my ipad. It took me all summer to finish, and it is now extensively foxed and sandy and water-swollen, and I savoured every line of it and never once wished that I had brought another book (yes, another summer has passed wherein I read no Trollope). It was magnificent.

I accidentally just glanced at the praise page and now my head is crowded with the phrases of others that describe the book perfectly: "Art history is playfully - and perilously - rewritten" (Publishers Weekly); "exultant joie de vivre" (Kirkus Reviews); "surprisingly complex novel full of love, death, art, and mystery" (Library Journal); "consistently delightful journey into the sweetly demented mind of novelist Christopher Moore" (Philadelphia Inquirer).

More than anything, it just seemed like Moore had a hell of a good time writing this - immersing himself in the art and history of the Impressionists and then swirling it all into a mad reimagined palette of riotous colour. And like in Lamb, the humour, the debauchery, the cutting wit, even the suffering and death (frequently by syphilis), is rendered with such a light and loving hand - it is for this reason that I'm contemplating reading nothing but Moore's entire oeuvre for the next while. That or inventing a time machine so I can go back to 1890 and hang out in bars and whorehouses with Toulouse-Lautrec. This, along with Jaclyn Moriarty's A Corner of White, busted me right out of my "oh my god, I'm so jaded, every book seems like an echo of a bunch of other books, nothing feels fresh, nothing feels new, nothing feels transporting and fantastic and galvanizing" rut. It also gave me the same possibly spurious but still warm feeling that I got from the Vincent Van Gogh episode of Dr. Who - not that Van Gogh needed to be rehabilitated, but that he has been gathered in tenderly by history and imagination more than he ever would have imagined. 

It's very much not for everyone - I'm sure it would seem heretical, or glib, or silly to some. I love reading about people who are passionate about something, I love witty banter, I love fantastical elements like stopping time and time pockets, and the word 'penis', coupled with the phrase 'Accident. Couldn't be helped.' made me giggle helplessly almost every single time. So loved it. I really, really loved it. 

Memorable Quotes (A very narrow selection - I felt like highlighting most of the book):

-"'Yes, painter,' said the blond. 'But you make your living as a baker, right?' 'I sold two paintings just last month,' said Lucien. 'I sucked off two bankers just last night,' said the whore. 'I'm a stockbroker now, no?'"

-"She smacked young Lucien in the head with a baguette. The crunchy yet tender crust wrapped around his head, bending but not breaking, showing that the oven had been precisely the right temperature, there had been exactly enough moisture, and in fact, by the ancient Lessard test method, it was perfect.. Lucien thought this was the way of all French boulangers, and he would be a young man before anyone explained to him that other bakers did not have a test boy who was smacked in the head with a loaf of bread every morning."

-"Monet had trained himself to be a machine for the harvest of color. With brush in hand, he was no longer a man, a father, or a husband, but a device of singular purpose; he was, as he had always introduced himself, the painter Monet."

-"The Colorman is like that carp, Lucien. In all of our paintings, Pissarro's, Renoir's, Sisley's, Morisot's - even poor Bazille, before he was shot in the war - even back then, from the first days when we all met in Paris, he is there, in all our art, just below the surface."

-"'Yes, but when you did the poster for the Moulin Rouge you didn't do a clown fucking a windmill.' 'Sadly, no, they rejected my first drawings. And I'm good friends with one of the clowns there, Cha-U-Kao. She would have modeled for me. She's both a clown and a lesbian. At the same time! Art weeps for the missed opportunity."

-"Toulouse-Lautrec unfolded the map until he had revealed the seventh level below the city, then looked to Lucien. 'It follows the streets as if on the surface.' 'Yes, but with fewer cafés, more corpses, and it's dark, of course.' 'Oh, well then, we'll just pretend we're visiting London.'"