Thursday, November 15, 2012

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

As soon as it came out, I wanted to read this book.  Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra: A Life had lingered in the back of my mind for far too long, and I pounced on it the moment that I saw it in my sister's bookcase.  

I always had a fascination for Cleopatra as a woman and a ruler, and harboured a sneaking suspicion that a lot of the literature written about her was probably more the result of an over active imagination than actual facts.  A lot of the myths about Cleopatra are explored through Schiff's analysis of what few texts exist from her era, and she confirms some of the thoughts that I had when hearing about her life story.  Often times female political prowess and female sexual power are viewed as interchangeable, and Cleopatra has borne the brunt of this stereotype.  Her romantic conquests include two of the most influential figures in Roman history, which has positioned her as a kind of sorceress/seductress, rather than the charismatic, savvy person she really was. 

Schiff makes a number of points which allow the reader to question the Cleopatra portrayed by her Roman biographers.  One of the theories that resonated with me, was the connection which existed between Cleopatra and Julius Caesar centred around the fact that neither had anyone else who could relate to their demi-god statuses.  It would be a lofty, but lonely position.  The other lure that Cleopatra possessed which is not often brought up in contemporary accounts, is the vast amounts of wealth in the Egyptian coffers.  Cleopatra was the richest ruler in the entire world, and so keeping her pacified would be one of the chief aims of her would-be collaborators.  She could and did bankroll the ambitions of Mark Antony, and as such, he treated her as an equal.  

The other portion of the story of Cleopatra that always seemed false is her death at the hands of the asp.  It seems doubtful that anyone would choose to commit suicide with a six-foot long snake, rather than drinking poison.  Schiff puts forth the idea that someone would have smuggled poison into her quarters, and this is far more plausible.  Though the image of a snake is more dramatic, than a swift death at the hands of a potion.

I will not go into any more detail, but needless to say this book is a fascinating portrayal of Cleopatra which is rare in its frankness.  

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

When You Come Back, I Won't Be There

In my day-to-day life I tend to put a lot of my energy into my job, home and whatever familial drama happens to surface (usually at the worst time).  Needless to say, when I do stop to smell the roses, I morph into a jellyfish-like creature who watches reality television.  The other thing that is relevant to this discussion is the fact that I do not have cable and take the time to seek out my favourite shows online.  I make a point to watch what I do.  

One of the shows that I tune into faithfully is America's Next Top Model, and I have watched both the British and Canadian spin-offs.  Normally I don't write about particular television programs, but the current cycle of ANTM has been disappointing enough to spur me to devote a blog post to it.  In order to talk about my current issues with the show, I will go back to a previous post I wrote about the book Reality Bites Back.  This book discusses ANTM at great length, and how it promotes unhealthy body image, racism and the idea that a group of women will inevitably turn on each other.  There are opportunities for genuine conversations about these topics between Tyra and her young protegees, but instead the focus is on tears, fights and the quest to overcome difficult pasts.  

Over the years, several models have been criticized for weight fluctuations, deficiency in height, or the appearance of a lack of effort.  In some cases, they are pretty cringe-worthy for anyone in possession of critical thinking, and so going into this cycle I lost some of the enthusiasm that I once had for the show.  What eroded my enjoyment even more was how the producers have gutted the usual cast members: Nigel Barker, Jay Manuel and Miss Jay Alexander.  Whether they all happened to want to pursue other goals, or Tyra tyrannically banished them, there is something to be said for keeping long-time characters so that the audience has a sense of familiarity.  

These casting changes, in addition to the new format which allows fan votes to count for who will be eliminated, make for a very different season than those previous.  It is almost like the show is either trying to evolve (and alienating fans in the process), or the rats fled the sinking ship and ANTM had to make some necessary changes. Whatever the real story is (and I do not think I will ever hear the real truth), this season is below par and I will not be going out of my way to see where the show is headed next.   

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Elizabeth and After

After reading the first book in the Twilight series, I wanted to dive into something completely different.  I opted to read  Elizabeth and After by Matt Cohen, a book set in a small town outside of Kingston, Ontario.  

.The story centres around Elizabeth McKelvey, a teacher who dies tragically and shapes the   lives of the three men closest to her in life.  She is always in the background of the narrative, quietly influencing the decisions of her son Carl, husband William, and former lover, Adam.  Her absence seems to be as powerful as her presence may have been had she lived.  Up until late in the novel, the reader does not get Elizabeth's perspective and her thoughts and feelings are described through her effect on these men. Their reactions to her actions and death are how Cohen presents her as a silent (for the most part) central character. I found this to be the most fascinating aspect of the book, as I am accustomed to stories told from a first person point of view, centring around an interesting protagonist.  

The male characters, whose lives are continuing to be impacted by the loss of Elizabeth, are interesting studies in denial and self-destruction.  Each in their own way, they cope with their grief and try to struggle through their remaining days.  Carl is particularly adept at getting into scrapes and causing collateral damage to the women in his life.  He is the subject of much conflict when he returns to town, and his strain of the narrative provides the most suspense. Especially in the latter hundred pages of the novel, where the action comes to a head.  I personally related to Adam Goldsmith, who always seems on the outside looking in, but who plays a vital role as tensions intensify between Carl and just about everyone.  

If I am totally being honest, I would say that I had my struggles getting through this book, reading twenty pages here and there, taking my sweet time.  In my mind I know that this is due to my restless mind, rather than the quality of the writing or the way that I related to the characters.  Despite my frustrations, which were with myself, I would recommend this book as an interesting study in the effects of grief, on both a family and a small community.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

PAX 2012: My Weekend At Video Game Mecca

In any relationship, there are sacrifices made by both parties for the betterment of the union.  My sacrifices usually involve video games in one form or another.  With great anticipation (he practically vibrated with it), my boyfriend and I went to PAX 2012 this past Labour Day Weekend.  For the uninitiated, PAX (the Penny Arcade Expo) is the biggest non-industry video game conference in North America held every year in Seattle.  Since its humble beginnings, PAX has now expanded, with a second conference in Boston called PAX East and a third in Australia.  The appeal of PAX is that it gives video gamers the ability to try video games before they are released to the public and allows them to interact with developers.  Swag is another bonus.  

Needless to say, I am not a fan of video games and cannot stand it when my boyfriend sits in his favourite comfy chair, pressing buttons for hours on end.  There are some notable exceptions, like Assassins Creed, which has a cinematic quality and an engaging story, but for the most part, the dialogue is forced and the storylines are far-fetched. This being said, when a person's significant other is a passionate lover of the medium, then you learn to make the best of it.  In this spirit, I got up early to get in line and jogged towards the Halo 4 display when the doors opened, because that is what you do for those you love. Standing around in lines and people watching, became surprisingly amusing.  Despite all the studies which say that video games promote violence, I must say that the gamers I came in contact with were all very friendly, swapping opinions and tips.  The costumes were also very interesting as well, though I had no idea which game they were associated with.  

My favourite part of the conference was attending the panels that included game developers talking about their creative process.  The similarities are quite striking between writing a book and producing a video game, and I found the connection to be very interesting.  I went to a panel discussion which focused on games which were cancelled or otherwise not released to the public.  Like in literature, some ideas are never fully realized for various reasons, and seeing the mixed successes of video game developers fascinated me in particular.  Often times, it takes many revisions to produce the final product and thus there is a lot of crossover between video games and other artistic mediums.  

Though you won't catch me wielding a fake wooden AK-47 (on sale this year in the Skybridge kiosk) at next year's conference, I do admire the passion and creativity that gamers display.  If only I knew what they were talking about.       

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Okay So Far: The Twilight Series

For a while I had avoided reading any of the Twilight books, because I enjoy a good night's sleep and am suspicious of popular books. Sometimes people equate commercial success with boring, safe writing, and I am usually in that camp. My friends convinced me that I should at least give the Twilight books a chance before rendering a verdict.

Stephenie Meyer is inspired by literary classics such as Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice and the influence is very much apparent in the plot, characterization and setting of the first book in the series.  In Wuthering Heights, the moors provide a dark presence which almost serves as a character in an of itself.  Twilight features the scenery of the Pacific Northwest and its near-constant state of rain, is essential in creating the dreary mood of the novel.  Arguably this is is not executed as well as the Gothic Wuthering Heights, one still gets the general idea that this effect is what Meyer is trying to achieve.  

The other work which Twilight owes a debt to is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Clearly, Edward's character is deeply rooted in the tradition of brooding, aloof, but ultimately good heroes that was originated by Austen.  Though Edward falls short of the Mr. Darcy standard, an alert reader can definitely spot the similarities.  I see the appeal that such a character would have with grown women and teenage girls alike, and Meyer is clever to use a time-tested formula. Personally, I am not all that enamoured with standoffish, yet perfectly formed men, maybe based on the negative effect that they had on my love life before I hit age twenty-five.  After that, I basically went over to Team Jacob, before such a thing even existed.  

I was pleasantly surprised, however, with the character of Bella.  The movies don't really fully delve into her quirks and clumsy nature in the way that the book does, and it is a bit of a shame.  Her humanity and utter ordinariness are at the heart of the narrative and allow the average person to connect with what her character is going through.  I think that Bella is one of the rare rays of sunshine in this somewhat dreary story, although I think that she is a bit quick to set her sights on immortality.  I'm not sure how good an example it is that Bella wishes to give up her family and friends in favour of a boy that she hasn't known for all that long.  Maybe being close to death every moment she is with Edward serves to enhance their time together.  Who knows.  

I've only read the first book in the series, and I am under the impression that it is just a warm-up for the books yet to come, thus I don't want to be too hasty in passing judgement. At the same time, I have to be honest and I felt like the book was just satisfactory and borrowed a bit too much from classic works.  I would have liked Edward to be a more three-dimensional character, and for the scenery to be better utilized. The uniquely depressing quality of the Pacific Northwest (I live there and therefore I can say it) could be more thoroughly described and used to create a more mournful mood.  What I will say is that I plan on slowly making my way through the entire series, rather than making this my final verdict.  Though biased, I am still fair.  

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Mixed Success: A Vegetable Garden Update

In my previous post on the subject "Trial and Error: Vegetable Edition", I talked about how I am learning how to garden with help from The Zero-Mile Diet by Carolyn Herriot. I thought that I would do a follow-up blog post so that readers can see the results of my toil.  
The results were mixed at best.  To be fair to Herriot, I have not yet totally followed her gardening advice for an entire year, and gone rogue several times due to my own impatience.  Clover has taken over my vegetable patch due to the lack of nitrogen in the soil, and this is a battle that I don't want to wage.  I also used a very ad hoc planting plan (and the robins played a part too) so my seeds grew all over the place, rather than in tidy rows.  Several veggies cropped up which I cannot identify (pictured below), and the phrase that I would use to describe it is "what the?" rather than "wow".This being said, I enjoyed some level of success with my tomatoes, rhubarb, Romaine lettuce, and apple tree and they made their way to the dinner table. 

Generally, my success in the garden is more consistent in the flower beds.  Luckily, one of the former owners of our house was a gardener by trade, and we inherited some stunning roses and lilacs.  The roses take very little effort on my part, just pruning off the dead after a flower is finished blooming, but look beautiful.  Our lilac trees caused me some anxiety due to the fact that our trees are late-bloomers which only began flowering a few months after every other lilac tree in the neighbourhood.  I thought that maybe they were having an off year, or that my pruning skills were lacking.  Then suddenly there appeared these beautiful blooms in a very vivid purple (see below).  

I am currently on vacation trying to get caught up on my household projects, and I wanted to tackle one of the borders around our yard.  I neglected this pitiful strip for some time because I had no concrete plan for what I wanted to plant there, and no time to put in the research.  Now that I was away from work, I looked into different shrubs and settled on hydrangeas.  Though Madonna may not like them, they seem to do well around the neighbourhood and the last thing that I wanted to be was the one house on the block with an overgrown garden.  

I tackled the project with gusto, enjoying the possibility that this patch would no longer be a nagging reminder of my failings. After I began a preliminary hatchet job on the existing grasses and random perennials, one of my neighbours stopped to ask me what I was up to.  I told her about my project, and she said that she admired my courage, admitting that she would have called a gardener to handle it.  This comment chipped away at the confidence instilled in me at the Canadian Tire Garden Centre, and I enlisted the help of my boyfriend to mow down the whole bed.  Fortunately he has little regard for his lawnmower, and agreed to aid me in the digging despite our understanding that gardening is my domain. 

Now that the project is finished and the hydrangeas have been planted, I feel a lot better and look forward to dealing with some other problem areas, including my so so vegetable garden.  If nothing else, I know what not to do.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Bishop's Man

I bought The Bishop's Man by Linden MacIntyre about two years back with every intention of reading it quickly.  It had a good combination of critical acclaim and my sister's stamp of approval, but I haven't managed to read it until now.  Instead, it was one of those novels that you think about in the back of your mind, and eventually get around to. Happily, this book lived up to the hype.  It is written by journalist Linden MacIntyre, best known for the CBC television show the fifth estate. I had seen a special that MacIntyre hosted which drew upon the subject matter discussed in the book, and I found myself both repulsed and intrigued.  

Though this book is fairly well-known, I will give a brief sketch of the plot. The story is set in Cape Breton in the early 1990s and the main character is Father Duncan MacAskill, a priest charged with the task of helping his bishop cover up allegations of child molestation. His detached, cool-headed approach to this job belies the toll that it takes on him emotionally, and results in a gradual unravelling throughout the narrative.  Due to this role as the bishop's man, MacAskill faces a great deal of isolation, and this is one of the most profound elements of the novel.  MacAskill experiences a separation between himself and his flock which is attributed to the respect that people have for his role.  Additionally, he cannot have candid conversations with fellow priests due to their distrust of his closeness with the bishop.  

The novel centres around the struggles that MacAskill faces, and I found his inner turmoil to be the most fascinating aspect of the story.  I respond to him as a character because he is a flawed individual, with his own chequered past and temptations, rather than a sterling crusader.  His growing isolation and distaste for the tasks that the bishop gives him, present an interesting portrait. Though blog entries don't really lend themselves to a more detailed breakdown of the plot (I don't want to give it away), I will say that I am leaving a lot of meaty plotlines out of this post and that this novel is more rich than these few paragraphs can convey.  

I would heartily recommend that readers take this brief sketch as an appetizer to a larger tale.  It's subject matter may not be the ideal summer read for some, but the inner angst of the main character really draws you into the story and has its own rewards.     

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger

Usually when I choose a book to read, I pick a title that has been in the back of my mind for awhile, or I decide on a novel from a specific genre.  This time around I had a yen for a historical novel of a shorter length.  I recently bought The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger from a book sale and thought that this would fit the bill.  Also, for lack of knowledge about the author and the critical reviews, the fact that this book won a Governor General's Literary Award swayed my opinion.

The premise of the book also presented itself as a lure from the first time that I read the short caption on the back cover.  The Mistress of Nothing takes place in 1865, and begins in the household of Lady Duff Gordon, a well-connected socialite who makes the heart wrenching decision to travel to Egypt to alleviate her serious health problems.  The story is told through the eyes of Gordon's private ladies maid, Sally Naldrett who accompanies her.  Both are seasoned, having previously sailed to South Africa on another mission to make a positive difference in Gordon's health.  As such, Sally and her mistress do take on the climatic and cultural adjustments with an enthusiasm that more sheltered females of their station would not possess.  They adopt Egyptian dress, learn Arabic and live within the Egyptian community rather than just staying within the European quarter of Cairo or Alexandria.  

Their ability to integrate into local society is aided by their servant, Omar Haleweh, who joins them in Cairo and provides a go-between in their interactions with Egyptians. Omar becomes indispensable to them, and becomes very dear to both ladies, as they journey the Nile and settle in Luxor (aka Thebes).  This closeness with Omar causes events to unfold in a way that Sally never expected, and reveals the true nature of her relationship with her mistress.  As a faithful maid and the sole female companion for Lady Duff Gordon, Sally felt that the boundaries that normally exist between servants and their employers had eroded.  When her story takes a twist (which I will not reveal), Sally is brought to the realization that those distinctions were very much in place.  

This story is based upon the real-life story of Lady Duff Gordon as told through her book, Letters from Egypt. I think that her story is worth telling and, in my opinion, she is the most fascinating character in the book. Though I don't think that Pullinger's prose style is all that poetic in nature with memorable lines which stop you in your tracks, she is a gifted storyteller and that is more the strength of this book.  She also does not romanticize Sally's situation in a manner that other authors would be tempted to and I found this touch to be refreshing.  The tension between the characters rang true when I try to envision what actually may have taken place. Overall I am pleased that I decided to pull this book off my shelf and it provided me with an interesting look into a unique personal history and a snapshot of Egyptian life.  

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Trouble With Guilty Pleasures

I was listening to a radio program about two months ago which was about the controversy surrounding the Bachelor/Bachelorette television franchises.  Two would-be contestants on the Bachelorette were suing the producers of the show, claiming that they were rejected due to the fact that they were both African American.  The media expert brought in by the radio show to discuss this issue was Jennifer Pozner, a media critic with the group Women In Media & News.  

I was so interested with what she had to say on this concept of racism in reality show casting, that I ended up reading her book, Reality Bites Back.  In it, she describes how, if one were an alien who just had reality television as a frame of reference, they would be under the impression that the women's rights movement, the civil rights movement and the gay rights movements had never taken place.  This skewed casting towards heterosexual, Caucasian woman and men is a staple of the Bachelor/Bachelorette franchises, and Pozner argues that this is to pander to a specific audience.  In other words, these decisions are driven by advertisers, who want to reach a suburban, mainly white, demographic.  Unfortunately for those minorities who are lucky enough to be cast, they usually are cut in the first few episodes of these dating shows.

Cast members are not exclusively chosen because of their ethnic background/marketability. Appearance plays a huge role as well.  With the inevitable hot tubs scenes which are par for the course, the average woman would have difficulty meeting the producers' requirements, unless they are genetically/surgically blessed. Another aspect of these dating shows that has always riled me up is that the women who try out for these shows will often put their own lives and careers on the backburner, agreeing to relocate for true love.  Not many women in the real world would consent to leave their jobs, family, friends, etc. for someone that they met a few weeks ago.  Knowing full well the poor track record for real romance that dating show alumni face when the cameras turn off, I would be even more inclined to keep my day job.  

Pozner does address issues beyond the controversy about dating shows including issues of female stereotyping, virulent amounts of product placement, and manipulative practices which erode whatever "reality" is left in these types of programs.  Though I was aware of how producers tend to cast people (mostly women) to type in reality shows, with the staples being whiny, bitchy, or sugary sweet girl-next-door types which pervade shows like America's Next Top Model and the like, there is more to it. The extent to ehich producers will go to get juicy confessional soundbites from contestants is really deplorable.  Seeing as these are real people and not SAG actors, they don't have the same labour laws protecting them.  Thus coercion, lack of sleep, etc. are all fair game.  One particularly disturbing practice is that of "frankenbiting" where a contestant's words are chopped up and remixed into a totally different sentence, which is then dubbed as a voiceover.  This way they avoid the clips where lips are moving, but different words are coming out, Japanese film style.  

I could continue on for a long time about this book because it is a fascinating read which is incredibly topical and worthwhile for the average reality tv show consumer to read.  The concepts she puts forward definitely will make me a more critical viewer of some of my favourite guilty pleasures.  

Speaking of which, I have included a link to a YouTube video that Pozner mentions in her book.  It is a speculative piece which poses the question of what would happen if Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Edward Cullen of Twilight met.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Game by Ken Dryden

My grandmother has a huge collection of books.  Being a ninety-one year old woman who has subscribed to the book-of-the-month club for decades, her basement is filled with books. She moved to a nursing home after Christmas, which left her family to deal with her possessions.  We were perusing her book collection when I came across The Game by Ken Dryden, a rare title owned by my grandfather.This find is no surprise to me, seeing as my grandfather was a huge hockey fan and my grandmother continues to listen to every Canuck game on the radio from her nursing home bed.  The Game was also recently featured on the latest instalment of Canada Reads, and my interest was piqued by Allan Thicke's passionate defence of its merits.  So with an enthusiasm which usually borderlines on crassness, I pounced on it.  

The background behind this book is very important.  At this point in time, Ken Dryden is a washed-up (in his eyes) goalie for the storied Montreal Canadians dynasty of the 1970s. At only thirty years of age and with a handful of Stanley Cups under his belt, he is ready to retire and pursue a career as a lawyer.  The Game is a collection of his thoughts on hockey, character sketches of his team mates, and a fascinating insight into the life of a hockey player.  As he writes, there are a number of sweeping ideological changes in Quebec society and the rise of the Soviets as a threat in international tournaments.  As a celebrity Anglophone in Quebec during the Quiet Revolution, he is in a unique position where he is within the action, and yet somewhat psychologically removed.  There is one memorable passage where he describes walking down the street to the forum with tanks rolling down the street past him.  He remarks that at the time he didn't think too much about it because he was new to the province and assumed it was routine.  

His analysis of the Soviet game and certain key hockey players is a key highlight of the book.  Dryden delves into the old practices of the Soviets and how they have adapted their offensive style to combat the Canadian approach.  He hopes that Canada will make the necessary evolution so that our nation can keep up with them, but is not entirely optimistic.  Though his thoughts on the Soviet hockey style are interesting, I was most captivated by his sketches of key players of his era.  Though I am familiar with both Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito, Dryden outlines their impact on the game.  He informs us about how Orr created the role of the "offensive defenseman", the first player to use his speed to join the rush rather than hanging back as forwards assume the lion's share of the goal-scoring responsibilities.  Esposito is another fascinating figure.  In modern hockey, the practice of going to the front of the opposition's net and hoping that a deflection will go off a player's stick, is extremely commonplace and most analysts advocate it.  Go to the front of the net, agitate the goalie/defenseman, and maybe score a dirty looking goal.  This strategy was first employed by Esposito, and he was extremely successful at it, though at the time it was dismissed.  

I could go on and on about the colourful characters and the great insights which Ken Dryden provides into the game of hockey.  His is a unique perspective and he articulates it brilliantly, making this book required reading for any hockey fan.  Even Maple Leafs fans who will have to overcome their natural distrust of a former Montreal Canadian.  Dryden is, after all, from Toronto.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Trial and Error: Vegetable Edition

During the winter my boyfriend and I purchased our first house together and the prospect of being a homeowner is a daunting enterprise.  Though we've been in our house for six months  now, there are constant challenges and any romantic notions that I had went out the window very quickly.  The problems that crop up are none that HGTV prepared me for. There were none of those magical makeover moments, nor did those scary Holmes on Holmes issues come to light (knock on wood).  Instead we found ourselves replacing gutters and fantasizing about a life which might include an on-demand hot water heater.  

One of the elements of owning a house of which I was completely ignorant of was the overhauling and maintenance of a garden. As an apartment dweller for most of my life, I never had the need to learn anything about taking care of a garden, and my past as an indoor plant serial killer made my chances of success doubtful at best. Still I approached this challenge with gusto, and did the only thing I knew what to do when confronted by my own lack of knowledge, research.  I bought The Zero-Mile Diet by Carolyn Herriot and used it as my guide to planting a respectable vegetable garden which might bring about something edible.  

The book is structured like a calendar and I found this approach to be very helpful. For each month, there are different topics and instructions of what you should be doing to prepare, plant or harvest your garden.  Particularly being from the West Coast where temperatures are much different than those of other parts of the country, I was happy to find a resource which has advice that corresponds to our unique climate.  Although I think that the advice could be applied to other areas if one were to shift the calendar two months or so forward.  The tidbits of advice which Herriot gives throughout the book are clear and very practical, and I can easily envision myself carrying out some of her tips as I become more confident of my abilities.  

At this point I am doing the gardening equivalent of throwing a bunch of things against the wall and hoping that something sticks.  If anything grows, I will consider it to be a victory and with The Zero-Mile Diet, I feel that I have a better chance.      

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Second Look

I have many books in my past, good books, which I failed to finish for one reason or another.  These books haunt me every time I go to my shelves to pick out my reading material.  Above all others, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, and my inability to read it cover to cover, bothered me more than any other botched attempt.  My tastes are fickle with little logic behind my decisions to read or give up and move on.  

When embarking on a recent vacation to a destination with no phone reception, internet or cable, I chose to finally go back to this spurned novel and give it another chance.  This time around, the book was equally as gripping and my understanding of the characters only deepened with my more mature perspective (such as it is).  The plot revolves around a family who are about to spend their last Christmas together in their family home in the heart of the American Midwest.  Leading up to this holiday, each character muses how, for different reasons, they are dreading the holiday and the inevitable confrontation it will entail.  There are three grown children in this family, Chip, an overindulged former academic, Denise, a brilliant chef with a weakness for married men, and Gary, the depressed dictator of the Lambert brood.  These siblings, each with their own serious issues, come together (or butt heads) while trying to deal with their father's ailing health and their mother's denial.  

It is this story about the Lambert patriarch's broken body and deteriorating mind,that drives the narrative and provides relevant insights.  Though the book was written over a decade ago, the plot of grown children looking after their aging parents and having to make tough choices, is even more topical today with the Baby Boomer generation heading into their golden years.  I thought that Franzen's treatment of the dilemma's facing the siblings had a realism which struck a chord with me, though I felt that their dysfunctional lives were a little over the top.  Another theme that appeared throughout the book, was the complex relationship that the characters had with pharmaceuticals.  At the time that the book was written, the concept of people medicating their way out of their problems was new and this theme is played out in the lives of different characters spanning across both generations.  

Although I have pointed out these two themes as being particularly strong, there is a lot of depth to this novel and it really presents a thorough snapshot of American life in the late nineties.  With the constraints of a short blog entry, I sometimes worry about not doing justice to a book which is vast in scope, and this book in particular presents challenges to this medium. After all these years of sitting on my shelf and eliciting feelings of guilt, I am glad that I finally picked this book up again, and took an unexpectedly great journey.    

Sunday, March 25, 2012

This One`s For You

When you write a blog about reading, people often come to you with suggestions about what books would make good fodder for your blog posts.  People mean well and I appreciate their enthusiasm both for reading and the blog itself.  No one has been a more diligent campaigner for a book than my friend Alysia.  For many years she advocated A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith with relentless passion and sentimentality for a book which she views as a beloved companion.  Needless to say, I was worried that I wouldn't like it for fear of her disappointment in my reaction.  

It turns out that I didn't worry for long.  The book is the coming of age story of Francie Nolan, an impoverished girl living in Brooklyn just prior to WWI.  Her family includes her father Johnny, an alcoholic singing waiter, and his long-suffering wife, Katie.  The family is rounded out by her younger brother Neeley who manages to inherit the best qualities of both parents.  Throughout the story, there emerges many other singular characters that people Francie's community, so many that it is difficult to mention them all.  These characters emerge through a series of of short vignettes which make up the story as a whole.  It is an atypical plot structure which allows the reader to learn about Francie's life through the stories of her family and neighborhood.  Therefore, unlike other books that  have discussed in my blog, the plot cannot be summed up within a few sentences and proves to make for a more rewarding reading experience. 

I feel like I understand what it meant to be a girl growing up poor in Brooklyn in that period of time, without the romanticism that usually colours the pages of coming of age stories.  Due to Johnny's personal foibles, the family lives in a crushing poverty which is constantly in the background of their lives like another character.  Alysia makes the astute point, that though the family lives on very little, there isn't an overwhelming sense of despair.  The kids have happy moments where they manage to have the unconventional brand of fun that poor children often experience, full of imagination.  Though the subject matter is serious, and I'm not sure how I would have reacted to the book had I read it at another stage in my life, but there is not the unrelenting melancholy of similar works. 

Though I can't get into what happens in the book in any sort of detail (because I'd be writing all day), it does tackle such controversial topics like premarital sex, infertility, and the general complexity of romantic love.  It delves into issues that many coming of age stories of this time period gloss over and author Anna Quindlen effectively makes this argument in the introduction to the edition that I read. She draws interesting parallels between this book and Little Women, a childhood favourite of many readers.  Quindlen asserts that Smith`s account differs from Louisa May Alcott`s tale because the Nolan family dwells in a more gritty realism than the noble poverty of the March family.  I see the truth of Quindlen`s observations, and though I love both books, I can relate more to Francie`s childhood than the experiences of Jo March and company.  

I would heartily recommend that more girls read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and would like to see it reach the same sentimental literary space that other books like Little Women and Anne of Green Gables occupy.  Because Alysia is right, as usual. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Vinyl Cafe: A Sunday Morning Staple

There are very few books, television shows, movies, etc. that bring out the sentimental streak in my otherwise overly critical soul, but somehow The Vinyl Cafe has done just that.  For those who aren't familiar with The Vinyl Cafe, I will elaborate.  It is a radio show which airs every Sunday at noon on CBC Radio One, and features musical guests and stories written by the host, Stuart McLean.  These stories feature an average family, that always seem to get into interesting scrapes, especially the patriarch, Dave. Along with his long-suffering wife, Morley, he bumbles his way through life with the best of intentions and the worst stroke of luck. Dave's two children, Sam and Stephanie round out the family along with Arthur the loyal hound dog. Every week, McLean tells another story of their adventures, with a puckish, yet wholesome delivery.  

I was first introduced to this show by my high school English teacher who impressed upon her students that some stories just sounded better read aloud.  We read McLean's stories to each and found ourselves chuckling along despite our attempts to appear aloof.  Though I can picture some other teenagers rolling their eyes, the stories really are ageless and they are richer through McLean's reading.  This show reminds me of the oral tradition of storytelling which predates the written word and how people would it for hours as a wandering troubadour would recite Beowulf or The Iliad from memory.  Similarly, The Vinyl Cafe travels all over Canada, rather than simply touring the larger cities, and McLean makes a point of talking about each individual place and supporting local musicians as well. 

Though my previous arguments about the quality of the stories, and the community involvement of the show are good ones, I think that the most compelling thing about the show is the hos himself.  McLean is charming in a folksy way with that typically Canadian self-effacing sense of humour.  In fact, there is nothing more Canadian than The Vinyl Cafe and it doesn't fall into the trap of over-the-top Canadian content like so many other productions.  A biopic of Laura Secord  told from the point of view of a Metis voyageur, for instance.  It mentions on The Vinyl Cafe website that their podcast was chosen by Apple as the best audio podcast of the year in 2011.  This is not surprising to me as a fan of the show, and I hope that you will take the time to follow the link I am adding to this post so that you can listen and judge for yourself. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Great Oxymoron

I knew at some point I would have to bring up this topic, but was somewhat dreading wading into the troubled waters of the creative non-fiction debate.  Firstly, I don't know if I am adequately able to define the vague oxymoron that is creative non-fiction in an academic fashion.  So this is going to be a conversation about creative non-fiction as I see it.  

From the beginning, I will give you the working definition that I use to describe it.  Everyone has at least one friend who is a great storyteller, but seems to embellish the events to the point of slight absurdity.  This is how I identify creative non-fiction.  There may be an element of truth to the tale, and the details might be fudged to make for a more engaging experience for the listener or reader.  Another point worth stating is that perhaps the limits of memory force some authors to fill in the blanks.  Marina Nemat admits in her book Prisoner of Tehran that she is not capable of remembering all that happened to her during her stay in prison.  As a result of her experience, including torture and rape at the hands of her captors, her memory of that period of her life is imperfect. Due to this confession within the pages of her memoir and my compassion for her situation, I tend to be more forgiving of any possible untruthful elements of her personal narrative.  

To my mind the debate comes own to a question of truth in advertising.  I think that the literary world (and Oprah) rightly came down on James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, who fabricated a large portion of his book which was marketed as a non-fiction.  His readers felt personally deceived when it surfaced that his story was largely untrue.  Rather than possible memory loss due to a traumatic situation, he knowingly lied about the events documented in his so-called memoir.  If he had marketed the book as a fictional book inspired by true incidents of his life, than that is a completely different animal.  When people pull a book from the shelves of the non-fiction shelf, there is an unspoken trust that the book contains facts or the facts as they are perceived by the author.  What Frey did was a violation of that trust.

Another aspect of this issue of creative non-fiction is that of books that are marketed as fiction which are largely autobiographical.  Authors will often draw upon personal experience for their writing material and some arguably delve a little too deeply.  Though he is one of the greats of Canadian literature and a personal favourite of mine,  Mordecai Richler seemingly borrowed a lot from his own life when creating his protagonists.  As Jewish men in Montreal, they shared many of his life experiences and even his personality traits.  Should these novels be considered creative non-fiction?  I am not sure, and discussing these questions of categorization are perhaps a silly game for people like me that enjoy such debates.  Some would argue that the labels no longer hold the same relevance as they once did, especially where memoirs are concerned. Others would say that the distinctions do still matter, and they want to know if they are consuming the truth or the product of the author's imagination.  My primary concern is always the entertainment value of what I read, but these issues do inform if I pick up a book in the first place and they are worth thinking about when making conscious choices about what one reads.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Canada Reads: Oh What a Year

Every year I tune in to CBC's annual CanLit contest, Canada Reads just for the pure entertainment of listening to Canada's version of celebrities debate the merits of five books. For the uninitiated, I will give you a quick rundown of what Canada Reads is.  This is an annual contest put on by CBC Radio in which five celebrities champion books which are in turn voted off in the spirit of Survivor. Over the years, this competition has become a large factor in the Canadian publishing industry, with last year's winner, Terry Fallis, seeing a jump in sales of 700%.  Normally it is strictly a battle between fiction books, but this year was the first time that only non-fiction books were up for the crown. 

I think that the addition this year of non-fiction books brought a different level of discourse to the debate.  Particularly there was a war of words across the table and in the media, the focus of which was Anne-France Goldwater.  Her book, The Tiger by John Vaillant, was being pilloried by the other debaters for poor characterization and she launched an attack on the other books that was both scathing and ignorant all at once.  She accused Marina Nemat, the author of Prisoner of Tehran, of lying about the events which she claims happened during her incarceration in Iran.  Another author which drew Goldwater's ire was Carmen Aguirre, who she dubbed a "terrorist".  I found Goldwater generally off-putting in her quest to mix things up, and when she refrained from badmouthing the authors of her competitors' books, I found her long-winded rants more annoying than anything. 

Thankfully the quality of the debate outshone some of the more, and I was pleasantly surprised at how invested the other panelists became in the outcome.  Each of them brought a special perspective to the panel and were very diplomatic in the face of Goldwater's extremist notions and insulting comments.  This debate did become more personal due to the fact that four out of the five books were memoirs and the authors themselves drew most of the attention.  As I pointed out earlier, Canada Reads is a force in the publishing industry, and as such it provides a good platform for any author to increase their audience and sales.  The stakes are high for everyone involved, and that, coupled with the emotional nature of memoirs, made for a more lively discussion.  There were a number of issues brought up which shape our current landscape, and hopefully will propel more people to read the books discussed.  

As usual, the moderator, Gian Ghomeshi, managed to objectively referee the participants and elevate the conversation.  I really enjoyed this season and feel that it really allowed for some interesting questions to be posed through the works presented.  A dark part of me relishes the controversy that this installment has caused, but another, more dominant portion of my mind will look forward to next year when the biggest topic is whether or not the protagonist's husband is a jerk or the narrative plodding.  Those were the days.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Rewards of Patience

After reading the two books about the Missing Women from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, I needed a break from darker subject matter and Life Mask by Emma Donoghue presented itself as a good choice.  Seemingly this period drama would be an excellent relief.  

The story revolves around three main characters whose lives and reputations become intertwined.  Eliza Farren is a successful comedic actress who rose up the ranks and now desires to make strategic friendships in High Society (or the Beau Monde).  Her connection with one of the highest ranking peers in the country, the Earl of Derby, will allow her to enter the most fashionable drawing rooms in the city.  This alliance with such a powerful man is the subject of much speculation, and though Derby is clearly in love with the actress, her feelings for the married aristocrat are unclear.  Derby pledges that when his unfaithful invalid wife passes away, he will propose marriage, but until such time, Eliza won't entertain the idea of becoming his mistress.  At the beginning of the novel, their strictly platonic romance had gone on for six years, and no one in their social circles seems to understand it.  

Once Eliza and Derby's situation is outlined, Anne Damer is introduced to the reader.  She is a sculptress who was widowed over a decade previously when her scoundrel of a husband committed suicide.  Due to her rank and financial circumstances, she is able to live alone in fashionable Mayfair and pursue her sculpture without answering to a spouse.  She and Derby have a longstanding friendship and share political sensibilities, and a friendship blossoms between her and Eliza.  Anne's love of independence makes her a lightning rod for controversy, and her tendency to be in the forefront of idle gossip often causes friction in her friendship with the actress.  When rumours surface that there is a secret romance going on between Anne and Eliza, Eliza breaks off their relationship and retreats into hiding.  

Now that I've set up the plot,  will tell you what I really think of this book.  I had a very hard time reading it at first, and often was on the brink of giving up, but somehow managed to persevere.  I had difficulties both with the pace of the plot and the characters themselves.  My issues with Eliza were numerous.  I felt that she was grasping, self-important, and superficial and could not understand her relationship with Derby.  She seemed to string him along without giving him any promises and not settling for the perfectly acceptable status of mistress.  Though she claims that she does not want to suffer from the same fates of other actresses who become romantically involved with aristocrats, one gets the impression that this is snobbishness rather than self-preservation.  The manner in which she ceases her friendship with Anne, also reinforces the idea that she is nothing more than a cold fish.  Eliza does become more likable towards the end of the book, but my prejudice against her at that point was firmly in place.  

In addition to my loathing of Eliza, I didn't enjoy the pacing of the book either.  I don't possess a large amount of patience, and I was on the verge of giving up on it a few times.  My interest in plot only started to peak after the 350 page mark, which is a long time to read in the hopes that the plot will take off.  But, take off it did, and I read the remaining pages very quickly. Before the story sped up, I barely managed to stay engaged and I attribute this mostly to the overwhelming amount of details about the political situation in England.  The references to the French Revolution were interesting, but the internal struggles of the Whig Party failed to captivate me.  I felt the book was bogged down by the scenes between Derby and his Whig contemporaries, and though the main characters were all involved in Party matters, I found myself not caring about the political fate of the Whigs.  

Though I won't reveal the plot lines that did allow me to continue to read, there is an incident which puts events into motion, and thus a story happens.  This series of events is engaging, I just find myself resenting the amount of time that it took to get there.

Monday, January 23, 2012

E-Books and the Public Library

I was having my morning bowl of cereal when I heard an interesting interview on the local radio station.  Two representatives from the Greater Victoria Public Library were talking about their e-books program which enables patrons to check out e-books online.  Rather than going to your local branch and combing through the shelves, provided they have a library card, one can borrow an e-book instead.  The reason why these two women were being interviewed on morning talk radio is that two major publishers (who remained nameless) will no longer sell e-books to the public library.  Their rationale is that people will be disinclined to buy e-books or their traditional paper counterparts if the library is allowing them to download them for free.  Also, e-books don't suffer from the same rate of deterioration that hard copies do and publishers make their money when libraries have to replace popular titles.  

In the interest of full disclosure, I will reveal that at this point in time I'm not an e-books fan.  I don't own an e-reader and the very thought of staring at a screen for hours does not fill me with enthusiasm.  My sister and a coworker of mine have persuaded me that they are not all bad, providing book lovers with the enjoyment of reading their favourite titles without having to commit to the shelf space.  Though it is not my preferred medium, I recognize that this technology and its availability probably attract people to reading who would not otherwise pick up a book.  Ever since they introduced e-books to their catalogue, the library has seen an increase in traffic of 800%; a number which speaks for itself.  Another point worth noting is that e-books are checked out in the same way as their paper equivalents, only one patron can borrow each one at a time.  So, like popular library books, if it's taken out by someone else, you will have to wait your turn or buy it.  

I know that I will buy a book simply because I know that the book I want to read will be on the wait-list until I'm old and gray. E-books shouldn't be any different in that respect.  Libraries help out the publishing industry in ways that aren't as apparent to the superficial observer.  Certainly there are people who exclusively borrow from the library simply because the cost of books outweighs the joy of owning them.  Then there are other people who take books out of the library in order to give them a sort of test drive.  Without fully committing to buying that cookbook, or novel by an unknown author, one can give them a try and see what happens.  My mother is notorious for taking out knitting books from the library, reading them, and eventually buying a copy for herself at the local book store.  Once a person is exposed to an author that they enjoy, they are more likely to purchase their work.  

Though I don't think that you'll catch me with a Kindle anytime in the near future, I do applaud how e-books are converting more people into readers and regular library patrons.  I also think that libraries that adapt to our changing culture and offer new services, should be supported by the publishing industry as they are more interdependent than one would think.   

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Viking!: My Past in the Discard Bin

At work the other day, one of my co-workers revealed that she was overtired because she was up late reading a book in her Kindle.  In hushed tones and after much prying she confessed that the Twilight saga was to blame for her nocturnal lifestyle.  She then went on to say how she felt less than intelligent because she liked escaping to that world of romance and suspense.  I find that often because of the fact that I am a book blogger and have an English background, people think that I am judging their book selections, that they somehow reflect their intellectual abilities.  

I don't view people's taste in books as a way of determining whether or not they are smart. People choose what they read with different goals in mind, and so it is difficult from the outside to judge other people's preferences.  I will confess that while I was in university the was a long period where most of the books that I read for fun were romance novels. Interspersed with Dickens, Joyce and Atwood, I liked nothing more than to cuddle up with the usual cast of heroes and heroines as they cultivated their improbable romances.  The stress of school, living at home with my mother and my lacklustre love life all meant that escapism was my primary motive for reading.  I kid you not, my favourite book was Viking! by Connie Mason, a tale of a viking who enslaves a woman only to find that she captures his heart.  

When things are going well for me personally, I tend to choose to read books with darker subject matter, because I can spend large swaths of time immersed in gritty reality and still maintain an optimistic approach. Escapism and realism are not types of literature that require ranking, because both have their benefits to the psyche.  After having gone through my collection this past weekend, I can look back on my time with Viking! fondly, and will probably find myself pulling another romance out and take another journey.  I may not ever go through the library discard cart with the fervour of a dumpster diver in search of the perfect historical story, complete with chiseled hero on the cover.  The smuttier the better.

At least I know that I am not alone in my need for guilty-pleasure reading. Though my mother finds solace in those Chick Lit books which cater to the women-over forty demographic, and my boyfriend loses himself in post-apocalyptic stories, they are the same need for escapism. So I don't judge my co-worker for her Twilight-related insomnia, because next week it could be me yawning.