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March 31, 2010

Books in Motion #4

A book in motion for every leg of last night’s journey to the meeting at Literature for Life. The almost-not-awkward, soon-to-be-handsome young man riding east on the Bloor-Danforth line. He’s reading David Adams Richards’ Mercy Among the Children. The young woman in fabulous boots getting off the southbound train at Yonge Station carrying The Bell Jar. And then the man beside me reading The New Yorker eastbound on the Dundas streetcar. Which isn’t a book in motion, I realize, but the streetcar was crowded and everyone was being terribly private about whatever novels they were reading.

March 16, 2010

Where have all the mass-market paperbacks gone?

All right, wouldn’t you know it? My twenty-five year old mass market paperback copy of The Tiger in the Tiger Pit by Janette Turner Hospital (which had a very unappealing cover and I found in a box on the sidewalk) turned out to be a wonderful novel. So much in common with Orpheus Lost, the other book I’d read by her though– literary allusions (though here they were Shakespearean instead of classical), musical references, bits of it taking place in her native Australia. Are all her books like this? Perhaps I’ll start combing the sidewalks and soon I’ll find out.

I found it interesting also that such a literary book would have come out in mass market paperback– does that still happen (unless you’re Margaret Atwood, whose mass market The Blind Assassin is fantastic)?  Did they even have trade paperbacks in 1984? Because I never find those in sidewalk boxes.

Recently, when I read How the Heather Looks (published in the mid-sixties), I noted the passage where Joan Bodger recounts the university town her family had once resided in where they sold books at the supermarket, a necessary staple along with all the others– milk, cheese, etc. And she thought that was so brilliant. A funny perspective, since books in the supermarket are the worst thing that have ever happened to books in most places– because they’re sold at such a knock-down cost, of course, that publishers make no money, booksellers can’t compete, and all the books they sell there are crap anyway. So it’s too bad about that last point, or we could just about put a positive spin on the whole thing, but alas.

So, anyway: whither art thou, literary mass-market paperback? And where is the modern-day Allen Lane when we need him/her most?

March 9, 2010

Books in the City

Because I only ever read YA for purposes of nostalgia, I’ve probably not read a novel for young readers that’s been published since the early 1990s. I decided to read Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me after reading this piece on it at the Guardian Books Blog, and because it had won the estimable seal of the Newbery Medal. And yes, also because it’s the story of girl who’s reading A Wrinkle In Time.

I’d forgotten how wonderful YA fiction can be– there was nothing simple about Stead’s plot, and though the vocabulary was simpler than I was used to, and the font was bigger, she had me wrapped up in the story and completely baffled as to where it would go next. She wasn’t writing down to anyone.

When You Reach Me turned out to be a nostalgic read all the same, however. Perhaps in itself an ode to the great YA fiction of yore (whose heroines I’ve written about before, actually, on International Women’s Day exactly two years ago). The story takes place in 1979, which means its protagonist needs dimes for the payphone. And all the best YA took place in the ’70s, didn’t it? Which was sometimes weird, especially when girls needed belts for their sanitary napkins, or lost their virginity on unfortunate shag rugs, but there was something in the air then that leaked into these wonderful stories.

Stead’s Miranda is blunt, feisty, awkward, mortified by her mother (“…if she had the slightest idea what she looked like, she wouldn’t be laughing at all.”), gutsy, fearful and vividly drawn. The story was not at all dated (which makes it a bit different from the YA I remember so well– no one refers to anybody as a “woman’s libber”, for example). That Miranda lives in New York City too is only fitting, because everybody did then. With their unabashedly single mothers, in buildings without doormen, and they’d walk around the city with keys strung around their necks. It’s strange how much encountering adolescence in 1970s’ New York City is really a kind of literary homecoming for me.

Another book in the city I’ve read lately is Stacey May Fowles’ Fear of Fighting (which is a Canada Also Reads contender, and [insert “wow, do I ever love the internet!” comment here] available as a free download. Defender Zoe Whittall holds this book up as an example of an urban book set in the present day, the kind of book that cranky people like to complain doesn’t exist, and that many readers too fond of inter-generational prairie family sagas could end up ignoring.

I read Fear of Fighting skeptically, first, because I’m unconvinced that “contemporary urban tale” is necessarily shorthand for good. It’s very often been shorthand for complete crap, in my experience, with storytellers too conscious of what they’re up to, in Toronto referencing Parkdale for the sake of referencing Parkdale (and either not explaining what this means, or explaining too much), getting novel-writing confused with map-drawing, thinking they’re not required to actually do anything as storytellers because this is a “contemporary urban tale” after all.

I also wonder about this demand for contemporary urban tales– is this another way of asking for books about people like us? And I understand why a wide of variety of approaches to fiction is important, but I also know that when girls who collect shoes and go shopping a lot demand fiction that reflects their lives, the rest of us find that a bit disdainful.

Finally (and then I promise, I’ll stop with the provisos), unlike Whittall, I don’t necessarily love “good non-cliché-ridden mental illness narrative” (or perhaps I’ve just never encountered the first two descriptors).

When I started Fear of Fighting, I thought it had a YA sensibility, but having read When You Reach Me now, I realize that I was only recognizing another irrepressible narrative voice. Who doesn’t write down to anyone. Fowles’ work is so wonderful because it doesn’t try too hard, because her narrator is wry and discerning. After Marnie gets her heart broken, she eventually she stops leaving her house, even adandoning her lucrative career filing for a document shredding company. The book is the story of her piecing together what’s happened, and what she’s going to do next, and Zoe Whittall is right– the book is funny. “Fucking hilarious” may be taking it a bit far, but it’s true that Fowles’ Marnie is the most hilarious agoraphobe I’ve ever encountered in fiction, or anywhere.

March 5, 2010

Canada Reads: Independently. It's the Final Countdown

Okay, it’s not exactly a “countdown”, but “It’s the Final Vote” would bring to mind no song by Europe, and so what’s the point of that? I’ve just posted my final Canada Reads: Independently review, and my rankings are set with Hair Hat in the top spot. But my power only extends so far, of course, and the winner of Canada Reads: Independently isn’t up to me. It’s up to us!

For those of you who’ve taken part, reading all or some of these books, you’ve got a vote. Our little poll will close at midnight on Thursday March 11th. Before then, email me (at klclare AT gmail DOT com) your top pick of the Canada Reads: Independently selections, and the winning book will be announced on Friday March 12 (just in time for CBC Canada Reads champion to be unveiled!)

And my bets are on Century, but anything can happen!

February 26, 2010

The Wall of Pickles

At The Grilled Cheese in Kensington Market

May 7, 2009

Please bear

This would be a blog entry, but I am too fixated on cloth diaper brands and securing my next serving of ice cream. Plus everything I do these days seems to proceed in a most dilatory fashion. For example, I’ve been writing this for twenty minutes. Please bear with us, and thank you.

October 7, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving

Our very first turkey dinner: this is totally a milestone. Deliciousness intaken. Everybody is sleepy. Hooray hooray for harvest time.

May 2, 2007

Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje

In the midst of Divisadero, when I was asked if it was a good book, I wasn’t sure how to answer. “It’s a good book,” I supposed, “because I’m not sure Michael Ondaatje is not in the habit of writing bad books.” But I was not convinced from where I stood. Which is not to say that reading Divisadero was not an absolute pleasure, but I couldn’t tell where the plot was going. Where the plot eventually went, I could never have foreseen. Even now, having finished the book, I’m still not sure what to make of it, but then my response to that is to want to read it all over again.

Divisadero has a plot– an unconventional family, their ties forever severed by an act of brutal violence. One sister is researching the life of a French writer whose own story becomes the focus of the latter half of the book. Between the siblings’ separate lives and the life of the writer, Ondaatje draws connections through parallelesque plot lines, recurring symbols, characters haunted by their counterparts. But these connections are not in symmetry– symmetry would be too easy. And nothing is easy here. These connections are only suggestions, some of the story was so inaccessible to me (mainly due to my lack of familiarity with matters as divergent as the work of Balzac and the rules of Texas Hold’em), time shifts, narrative shifts, as a reader you are led you know not where.

And yet I trusted this writer completely. Clearly, I felt, I was in competant hands. This was not based solely on the writer’s reputation either, but rather the strength of the prose, the beauty of the imagery, the structure of the novel which demanded my engagement, no matter what else conspired to shut me out of it. Ondaatje’s ending tied up ends, not neatly of course, but in a way that cast the whole novel in a new light, which is why I so want to read it again. That so much can be obscured but made satisfying is a testament to great work. Similarly, that a book can be an abstraction, and yet well and truly solid.

January 17, 2007

My Wedding Dress

My wedding dress came off the rack. It wasn’t even a wedding dress. I’d set out that day with the sole specification that my dress be the prettiest one I find, and it was only by chance that the one I found was white.

My friend Bronwyn and I went shopping for dresses on Oxford Street in London a month before my wedding. Bronwyn had seen one already that she thought might be right, and I liked it too. A strapless dress from Coast, with red flowers beaded and embroidered around one side. I appreciated that it was white enough to be bridey, and the red was perfect. Red is my favourite colour. But of course, I still wanted to look around a bit. I tried on bridal dresses in a few other high street shops, and other distinctly non-bridal dresses. I don’t remember any of them. I do remember that by lunch time we knew the Coast dress was right, and when we found it in Debenhams with 20% off, we knew the universe was in agreement. We found a matching wrap in the accessories section, a pair of sandals, and got the underthings from M&S. Everything except the hair accessory, which I ended up making myself out of beads and a headband. And so basically, I was outfitted in a day, at a discounted rate no less. This is no romantic tale, but the dress was perfect. Bronwyn has good taste. I had the most beautiful bouquet in the world to match, and the red and white became our wedding theme. It was such a lovely day.

And so of course, I’ve got to weave a metaphor out of all of this. Which would be that I bought my wedding dress off the rack, on sale. The dress was gorgeous no doubt, but absolutely ordinary. The odds are that I will wear it again. And that ordinariness is my point. Our love for each other is so ordinary and absolutely unremarkable (and I mean this in the most romantic way one can), and I would not have to put on a costume to proclaim that. On my wedding day, I was dressed as myself, which was all that I had to be for us to work. It wasn’t a fairy tale, but it was our real life, and one which is wonderful every day.

December 30, 2006

The Monkees – Randy Scouse Git

I heard this song yesterday on the CBC, and while I don’t know what that says about the CBC, I am sort of obsessed with it.

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