Saturday, December 27, 2008

Still Not Dead!

Hello, readers,
A brief update:
1. I moved. No one (especially not me) died. There was a brief moment of panic when the truck wouldn't start, and the fact that it was ninety million below zero didn't help. Still, the move is done. Yay!
2. I cracked 200 books! Details to follow.
3. I am using the library's high-speed wireless access because I don't have any of this innernets magic in my swanky new home. Have patience. Sooner or later, the Shaw people will call me back.
4. I don't have to go back to work until January 5. I love teaching, but I need a break.
5. Started a new sweater: Mine is greens and purples and blues - all the old favourites.
6. It's my gramma's 80th birthday on New Year's Day. Raise a glass!

That's about it... I've been at the library for a long time now (software upgrades, checking blogs, etc) and I want to go back to my new house (!!!) fire up the fireplace (!!!) and do something domestic.

Happy new year to all!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Unrepentent Thievery and Other Hijinks

I have stolen this, verbatim, without a shred of credit or permission, in complete and total violation of every copyright law known to man, from the website of Panopticon (which you can find at, for no other reason than that I find it unbearably funny.


Waxahachie, TX. Visitors to last night’s performance of the annual Living Nativity Pageant sponsored by the Waxahachie Full Bible Baptist Church were horrified to see a beloved local tradition come to an unexpected and violent end.

Witnesses say that as the Herald Angel (played by Wanda Meeks, daughter of the Reverend Lou Meeks) was lowered into the scene to begin her speech to the shepherds, a sheep broke loose from her tether and threw what appeared to be a half-empty bottle of Four Roses Bourbon into the air, narrowly missing Meeks’ head and knocking one of her wings to the ground.

Meeks began screaming to be let down, but remained suspended helplessly above the scenery while stagehands attempted to corral and subdue the angry sheep, whom police have identified as Dolores Van Hoofen of Chicago, Illinois.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Betsy Cartright of Midlothian, who was cast in the role of Shepherdess #2. “She just came out of nowhere cussing a blue streak. I knew she was trouble from day one. We had to keep telling her to put out her cigarettes around all the hay.”

According to pageant director Louise-Lynn Butler, the sheep had been a constant source of disruption during rehearsals, making overtures of a sexual nature to two of the three wise men and offering suggestions for enlarging her own role. At one point, Butler and Van Hoofen came to blows after Van Hoofen insisted on taking over Wanda Meeks' role as the Herald Angel, and replacing the traditional “Fear not, I bring you tidings of great joy” speech with a harmonica arrangement of the Frank Sinatra hit “Come Fly With Me.”

“I should’ve fired her, I guess,” says Butler. “But it was a big deal for Waxahachie to have a real sheep in the pageant this year instead of dressing up Lulu McWhirter’s lhasa apso the way we usually do.”

Before police and fire fighters could secure the scene, Van Hoofen bit or kicked at least three-quarters of her fellow cast members, and her cigarette sparked a blaze that within minutes had consumed most of the stable and severely damaged two papier-mache palm trees. A donkey and three chickens on loan to the production broke loose and were later apprehended in the parking lot of Pizza Hut.

Van Hoofen, who is presently in custody at the Waxahachie Jail, had no comment on the incident but says she still expects to receive the $35 she was promised in exchange for her performance in the Living Nativity. To which Louise-Lynn Butler responded, “Dream on, crazy Yankee bitch.”

As Texas state law has no precedent for filing criminal charges against livestock, the Waxahachie sheriff’s office has confirmed that tomorrow morning Van Hoofen will be escorted to the edge of town and put on a Greyhound bus heading north. A large crowd is expected to make sure she doesn’t try to turn around and come back.

That is all. Now kindly wander over to Panopticon yourselves to see the illustration of Dolores, before I get a "cease and desist" letter from anyone.

Happy Friday. Stay home and make soup.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Randomness and Readering

I am amazed, every day, by how little I know.

I thought I'd be pretty good at this teaching gig -- and I am good at the teaching part of it. What I'm struggling with (today) is the sheer amount of detail. Kids going out of class, kids coming in. Report cards and marking and lessons and homework and whose program needs to be modified in what way in order to please absolutely everyone.

That's why I so enjoy my reading time. It's time in which I can do only one thing. My attention is not pulled thirty-eleven ways from Sunday, and no one is shouting for my attention.

I'm edging up on 200 books, which is my personal goal for the year 2008 (isn't that crazy? If I was capable of math I'd totally figure out how many books a week that is), and because I really do want to reach this random and arbitrary goal I'm reading as fast as I can.

Also, I'm reading very, very short books.

Last night I started the sixth book in Margaret Peterson Haddix's "Among the Hidden" series. It's really good young adult stuff: about a world in which third children are illegal, their existence not recognized by the authorities, forced to hide their entire lives. The author has expanded the series to include other characters, each one an illegal third child (a "shadow child") and each with their own background and story.

I take comfort in books because reading is something that I am, without a shadow of a doubt, very very good at. No one can accuse me of not doing my reading properly. I do not wake in the night afraid that I have made a critical error in my reading and that everyone I respect will now think less of me. Reading belongs to me in a way that no other activity in my life does.

And that, on days like today, is the one thing that keeps me going.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Friday Friday Friday Friday Friday

That's mostly all I wanted to say.... Friday Friday Friday Friday Friday

And that there's a Santa Claus parade in my town tonight -- the only night-time parade in Western Canada -- and my boy and I will be there with people we love, greeting the holiday season and waving to The Man on The Sleigh, and thinking happy thoughts.

Stay warm. The light will be back soon.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Bookish Quote of the Day

"One can never have enough socks," said Dumbledore. "Another Christmas has come and gone and I didn't get a pair. People will insist on giving me books."

In other news, I'm up to book #185. Who thinks I can crack 200 before the new year?

PS Don't listen to Dumbledore. Give me books, any day.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

It's Spreading

It all started so innocently.

My work friend R. and I discovered one day that we both knit. She is the proud creator of several things that are flat, and was thrilled and astounded to learn that I know how to make things that are round. During our knitting discussion (it went like this: "You use THREE needles?" "Yes, it's dead easy" "Really? Three needles? Don't you ever poke yourself in the eye?" "Sure, sometimes, but that's why I wear glasses, really. It's a safety issue.") another teacher overheard and mentioned that she wanted to learn to knit.

Soon, the three of us found ourselves at a yarn store, fondling the merino.

Then it got worse.

There was knitting in the library after report cards were done. This, not unnaturally, attracted the attention of others, some of whom are also knitters. I have now corrupted the following members of staff:
1) R., who is convinced that knitting with three needles makes her look dangerous.
2) the cooking teacher, who is making a scarf that is as colourful and full of character as she is herself.
3) a teaching assistant who is actually pretty expert at knitting, but who can now curse her work with words taught to her by a student in one of my classes.
4) the admin secretary, who wants to knit a toque (preferably one with viking horns) and is quite miffed that I advised her to start with something flat.
5) I must include myself in this group, since I am knitting mittens for a friend who has unnaturally large hands (note to self: in the future, make friends only with small-handed persons). They are lovely warm plain mitts with an elegant little cable up the front. Very manly.

Today we had our very first "Stitch and Twitch", named in honour of the weird tick over my left eye.

Rock on, baby.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Long Time No Read

I have been busy.

I have been so busy that they are going to have to invent a new word for this level of busyness. It includes (but is not limited to) the following things:
1. Moving. Soon. Again. (This time to my own house, though. Or, at least, to a house that the bank owns but in which they will very kindly allow me to live in exchange for most of my money.)
2. Report cards. Enough said.
3. Drama related to adolescents and education and so on.
4. Knitting. Christmas-related.
5. Christmas. (I am afraid.)
6. Marking.
7. Marking.
8. Marking.
9. Planning lessons that will engage and educate at the same time.
10 A blog for school, so the young minds which I am shaping can look on the computer for what they're supposed to do, rather than LISTEN TO THE TEACHER and then WRITE THINGS DOWN.
11. Did I mention I'm moving? Again?
12. A couple of shockingly large bills, quite unexpected.

BUT this is what I really wanted to tell you about: I have made a discovery.


(or CD. Tomato, tomahto.)

I never thought I would be a books on tape kind of gal. Reading, for me, is very much about having a book, about the feel of the paper and the look of the type and the smell of it and the heft and the actual, physical, act of reading. However, I've been spending an awful lot of time in the car, and for a while I was spending that time worrying. Worrying is something that I'm actually already pretty good at, so I really didn't need to do any more of it. I thought I'd try something new.

A few weeks ago we (that is, my colleagues and I) went to see an author speak about teaching writing. The author was David Morrell, who is most famous for writing the book that became "Rambo." One of my colleagues has read this fellow's work before (he's written something like 30 books. Dear god.) I asked what he thought, and he was a little ambiguous. "Get the recording," he advised me. "The stories are good but the writing's not great."

So I did.

I listened to all 10 cds that made up the book "The Fraternity of the Stone" which is a pretty okay thriller. It was good: there were bits that made me roll my eyes ("his sinews tightened" "his jaw hardened" and so on) and there was a very naive view of organized religion (which is probably a rant for another day), but on the whole it did the job. I was distracted from my worrying, I was caught up in the story, and it made the time pass beautifully.

I think I'm hooked. Now if I could just figure out a way to knit while I drive....

Friday, November 14, 2008

It all makes sense now.

I was wondering yesterday why all my students were so crazy. Perhaps, I said to myself, it is because we had a short week (PD day on Monday, Remembrance Day on Tuesday). Perhaps it is something I am doing differently (I always rush to blame myself for the bad stuff). Maybe they're just mainlining the remainder of their Halloween candy. Maybe they've settled in to junior high a bit and are starting to act like their own true selves (that is: crazy). Could be the weather -- we had a couple of snow flurries yesterday in the midst of an weirdly warm fall. (My student from South Africa said "Is is too cold to wait outside for my mum? Will I get frostbite?" It was 2 degrees celsius.)

Then I took the Wonder Dog for a walk last night and voila. There in the sky was my answer.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Poem for Wednesday

Wild Geese
by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

I'm going to leave you with that. If you need me, I'll be doing my marking.

Saturday, November 8, 2008


I had the most amazing weekend. I went out with a couple of colleagues to Kananaskis, to attend a conference on ESL teaching.

It was wonderful. I learned a ton of stuff, bought a couple of books, had interesting conversations, ate and ate and ate, sat in front of fires and talked about the fine and noble art of teaching, ate some more, looked at the mountains in awe (pictures to come later) and then ate. Also, there may have been some wine. And a story that involves setting fire to a wine and cheese reception, of which we shall not speak.

So, it was really good.

BUT (and this is where the story gets interesting) when we arrived on Thursday night we unloaded all our stuff (and the food) (and maybe some wine too) from the car and got ourselves all into the elevator to go to our rooms. There was another lady getting on the elevator too, and she had some really nice yarn with her (not Wal Mart acrylic stuff, people, this was the real deal. Lorna's Laces fingering weight, I think. Nice colour too.)

"Oh!" I said to this total stranger. "You're a knitter! I brought my knitting too." I brandished my bag at her, because certainly she could see that the Purple Cardigan that Would Not End was mere stitches from completion.

"Are you here for the knitting retreat?" she asked, and I almost fell over.

Because I knew there was a big knitting thing this weekend, that it was put on by Make 1 Yarn Studio which I love, and that important knitters would be here. But, in the haze of exhaustion in which I live, it never occurred to me that I was going to the same place for a different event. "They're in Kananaskis," I said to myself. "Gee, that would be a nice place to go!"

"Oh," said the lovely knitting stranger, "well, Amy from Knitty is here, and so is the Yarn Harlot!" (She mentioned a few more too, but I was a bit gobsmacked.)

People, I went to the mountains to learn about ESL and I met the Yarn Harlot. I didn't exactly crash their party, because I went to my sessions and not the knitting ones, but I did mingle with knitters whenever possible, and had a few very interesting conversations (including one about the Central Park hoodie, which I fully intend to knit one day when I have the time.) But I met the Harlot.

And I talked to her.

And she's really nice.

My colleagues could not believe that: a) there are knitting rock stars and b) some of them were in the same hotel and that c) I was clearly overwhelmed by the coincidence.

So the long and the short of it is this: I had a great weekend. I learned a lot. I met some knitters.

I guess the only zen at the top of the mountain really is the zen you brought with you.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Maybe he was listening to me after all...

Guess what my boy wants to be for Halloween?

"A bloody man!"

Saturday, October 25, 2008

On Knitting and the Meaning of Life

I've been knitting a lot. There's still a sleeve and a half, plus a button band, to go on the Purple Cardigan that Would Not End, but I finished a pair of mittens today (Christmas knitting) for someone who shall not be named, and downloaded the pattern for the Yarn Harlot's Unordinary Hat, just in case. There's also the pretty cashmere hat for the baby who was born far too soon, and the lovely scarf in the wave pattern (the yarnovers of doom) which will surely end sooner or later.

"But why, dear, are you knitting so much?" I can hear you all asking. "What is driving you to this frenzy of yarnitude?"

I'm so glad you asked.

It's all because of that dude I worked with a couple of years ago, who I shall call Joe.

One day at lunch, Joe and I were discussing teachering, and writing, and reading, and fun stuff like that (he was a poet; I kid you not). Then he said these words:

"My grade 11 English teacher changed my life."

This is why I am knitting. Because I want, with all my soul, to be the teacher who changes some kid's life. I want one of my kids, my adolescent, crazy, silly, wonderful students, who howl with mirth when they hear the word "abutment," to look back and say "I am who I am today because of her."

But part of my first year teaching includes an evaluation process, which has just begun, and which is scaring me half to death. Not because I'm doing anything awful in my class (we do human sacrifices in the second semester) or because my principal is evil (he is, in fact, so good at his job that I think he should be cloned for the betterment of the human race) but because I want so badly to be someone who is good at this teaching gig, who changes the course of a student's life, that I can't bear to think that a person I respect very much indeed will be looking at my teaching and saying "hmmmmm.... well, I guess she's got some potential."

Knitting is easy compared to this. Knitting is a couple of stitches, a bit of yarn, the right-sized needles and the ability to read. Knitting is something that you can screw up six ways from Sunday and still end up with a product that is vaguely useful. Your sweater will not say to you "I hate English because of you." The mittens that you knit will not inflict third-degree burns on their wearers, or force them to despise poetry for the rest of their days. That scarf will never remember the hurtful remark you made without even thinking; the cardigan will not ever want to burn you in effigy.

Worst case scenario? If you screw up your knitting, you rip it back and start again.

I'm knitting up a storm this weekend because knitting is easy. But teaching? Teaching is hard.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Because I would hate to keep you in suspense.

The conference was very good -- it was in fact offered by the union and not the board, so the jargon (while still present) was a whole new kind. It was sort of refreshing, to have some new jargon.

So I hung out with my colleague (who kept a handout for me from the Saturday session, bless her heart) and met up with some people from teacher school and learned about a dozen new things and generally had a chance to sit and be talked to.

A good time was had by all.

Also, I thought I would tell you that when I become a hermit (not IF, but WHEN), this is where I am going to do it:

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The view a year later

I wrote this last year when I was just starting my practicum: it seems somehow oddly applicable here.

September 21, 2007

I have these dreams. I wake up (last time it was 3:17 am) in a literal cold sweat, thinking about teaching. I dream that I’m in front of a class and I can’t get their attention. I dream that the big kid in the back is threatening me and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it. I dream that my students fail, miserably, because I told them the wrong thing. I remember that someone very important to me said they wouldn’t be surprised if I’m one of those teachers who burn out in the first five years. I think of the thousands of dollars I have to repay in student loans, I think that my training as a writer and editor means I’m essentially unemployable, I think that I’ve spent the best earning years of my life, the time I should have spent solidifying my career, farting around in art school and then learning how to teach when I have no business being in a school.

I think of the horror stories I’ve heard about how hard the first year is. I think of how hard I’ve been working this week, just coming up with one unit plan for one class. I remember that I snapped at my son the other day because he was chattering about something while I was trying to figure out how I would grade this short story critique. I remember the bottle of Pepto-Bismol, which I now keep in the kitchen for easy access, and how the level has gone down in the last few days, even though I’m still scalding with heartburn in the middle of the night.

Someone refered to the thoughts we have in the middle of the night as 3 AM psychosis. It doesn’t feel psychotic at three in the morning, it feels real. (I try to remember those nights when I nursed my baby, and the grand plans and crazy fears that assailed me then. It seems very far away.)

But eventually I get back to sleep, and soon it’s morning. I make sure everyone has what they need (breakfast eaten, teeth brushed, lunches packed according to preference and facilities available, dog has been out and come back in, dog’s water dish is full, beds are made, we are all appropriately attired and well-shod, the boy’s agenda has been checked, library books are tucked in the bag, I have the books and materials I need, wallet, sunglasses, keys) and off I go.

And here’s the funny part. I walk in the front door of the school and I smell that school smell (floor polish, dust, books, eau de Adolescence, feet, Essence of Large Public Building) and get into the classroom and a kid comes up to me as soon as I’ve put my bag down and asks me a question about how to write a thesis statement and I think:

Oh. It’s alright then, after all. It was just a dream.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Comment is Free

I am going to a conference tomorrow; one for new teachers. I'm pretty excited, because it's supposed to be good, but it runs Thursday night (that's, oh, right now) all day Friday and most of Saturday. I'm signed up for it, but I'm only going to the sessions tomorrow.

I say that because I was in the staff room at lunch (first time in a couple of weeks, as a reward for fighting my way out of a pile of marking) and another teacher told me she was going too. She's going to attend every single moment of the damn thing, and she was horrified when I told her that I'm only going tomorrow.

"Why aren't you going to all three days?" she asked. "Can you do that? Is it allowed?"

And I'll tell you, people, I got mighty defensive very quickly. (I blame the marking, actually, I wasn't seeing straight.)

So HERE'S WHY, if you're interested:
My boy has spent upwards of 12 hours a day away from me this week. He's started to mix up my name with his babysitter's. (I love his babysitter and I'm glad that he does too, but really. It's the principle of the thing). (Also, I just typed "principal" in there. I think I need a break.)
The conference is in the deepest darkest northeast, and I live quite substantially south west. I'll drive there and back once, but not three times.
I have given ENOUGH of myself to my job lately and I need some time that is not related to teaching. Perhaps I need to spend some more time knitting.
A large part of my professional life has been given over to attending conferences (ask me to tell about the funeral service ones some day) and I have a pretty good idea of what I'll be missing on Saturday.
And, finally, my board has a great fondness for jargon, as all large organizations do. (I am going to count the number of times I hear the word "diversity" tomorrow.) As a writer, I don't have a lot of time for jargon, and I anticipate hitting my tolerance limit quite quickly.

So there.

In other news, I have changed the "comments" thing on this blog so that anyone who is so inclined can comment. Just watch your apostrophes, people.

Also, I am reading a young adult novel with the best title EVER: "I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You." Heh.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Sunday, October 12, 2008

After a brief delay...

Back to the book list.

I’ve been neglecting this a bit due to the pressures of a new job, etc., but I’m still reading as much as I can. (Did I mention that the town library is only one block from me? Last week my friend C. saw the boy and I (and the dog) taking a walk. She was sure that something was wrong, because we were heading away from the library.)

I’m up to book #160, "Saving Francesca" by Melina Marchetta.

There’s a couple of great things about this book. First of all, it’s Australian, and Australian literature is something about which I am woefully ignorant. (Why is that? I’m up to date on Canadian lit and British lit and even mostly au courant about American lit, but the Aussies have completely slipped under my radar. Weird.) The second great thing about this book is that it’s by the lady who wrote “Looking for Alibrandi.” That was a wonderful book about a teenaged girl who suddenly meets her father and has to form a completely new relationship with him…. I loved it. (I loved it so much that I kept it, even though it belongs to my mother. Thanks, mom!) I saw "Saving Francesca" in the school library the other day and snatched it up, hoping it would be good… I was not disappointed, the book was wonderful.

It’s about a girl (Francesca, obviously) whose dynamic, strong willed, opinionated, successful mother one day stops getting out of bed. She has slipped into a serious depression just as Francesca starts a new year at a different school: one that was, until the arrival of her and her classmates, a boy’s school.

Marchetta did a fabulous job of the first person narrative. First person is tricky because you’re trying to do two things at once: tell the story of the person who is the main character, while at the same time telling the reader what is really happening. At its best it’s about a narrator who is either reliable (you trust that what they say is true) or unreliable (you know that they are telling the story as they believe it to be, not as it necessarily is). At its worst, first person is irritating and self reflective and doesn’t work. Francesca is one of those narrators who begins as unreliable (but as the reader, you always begin by believing the narrator) and who gradually begins to understand what is really going on.

Another reason why I loved this book is because the author is a teacher, and she knows her kids. You can always tell an author who is writing about youth but hasn’t had enough exposure to them to be able to tell the truth. Adolescence is brutal, and the best thing you can say about it is that it doesn’t last. Marchetta understands that, and gives her readers hope that they just might make it through, too.

I read a lot. (You already know that.) One of the reasons I read so much is in hope of a book like this: one that makes me love reading all over again.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


The other day in one of my ESL classes we had a conversation about things you really shouldn't say. (Conversations like this are one of many reasons why I love teaching ESL.) One of my students had been using the expression "Holy crap!" a lot, and I told him a couple of times that it really isn't appropriate to say in school. He asked if "holy cow!" was better and I agreed that yes, it was an improvement.

Here's the hitch, though: every time he wants to express astonishment (or pain, or horror, or excitement) he doesn't yell out "crap!" any more: now he says "cow!"

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


Yesterday we were reading a short story in my grade 7 English class. The story included the word "hoarfrost" which had the students in absolute hysterics (as did the line in the next paragraph that mentioned a character had slept at the neighbours').

I almost said "what are you, TWELVE?" when I realized that yes, actually, they ARE twelve.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Be afraid.

So the other day my grade 7 English class had to talk about superstitions. All the usual ones came out (and a couple of unusual ones -- did you know that in Denmark on Halloween, they hide all the brooms so that witches can't come along and steal them? Cool) and then the students had to draw a picture of their favourite superstition.

One student came up with an elegantly rendered picture of a hat: it was black, possibly a fedora, with a lovely little flower on the side.

"What is that?" I asked, unsure if I'd ever heard the superstition about fedoras. My poor student looked confused.

"We just talked about it, teacher," he said. "If it crosses your path you get bad luck -- it's a black hat!"

I could not make this stuff up.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Art is what makes us human.

Go here, my people:

And then, if you're as furious as I am (and if you agree with the Yarn Harlot, as I so frequently do), go here and say so to the man in question:

"Art is an effort to create, beside the real world, a more humane world."
- Andre Maurois

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Why I Love Living Here, Part 1

Because this view is three blocks from my door.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A little light relief

Did you hear the one about the dyslexic agnostic?

He lay awake wondering if his dog exists.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Like Heidi's Grandfather

I want to be a hermit.

Oh yes, I want to live all by myself with a possible dog (but not my current dog, who peed on the floor of our rented house today) and a stack of books and some knitting (but not my current knitting, which I can't finish because I don't have the right sized needles to knit the sleeves) and a car (but not my current car because the motor that makes the warm air magically come in and keep your feet from freezing broke and cost me $250 to fix). I'll keep my kid, cause he's wonderful, but if he could just go somewhere and be quiet for a while that would be great.

I don't want a job (especially not my current job, where people just expect me to magically know things and at which I am both clueless and, today, not very good) and I DEFINITELY don't want a phone and I just want to sit and be alone for a while.

I am reading Peter Mayle and a book written by the mother of one of my students (it was really good) and I just finished some of the trash reading I was talking about earlier which included a freaking happy ending and Love. I hate Love.

But if my life were a book then Love is what I would get, and I wouldn't be able to be a hermit, because people always arrive in books to make the hermit come back to life. And I don't want to come back to life. I just want to read.

I want to be a hermit.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

I am Reading Trash, and I Don't Care.

I think that title says it all, don't you?

The other day I got an email from my cousin (hi Court!) who said that sometimes she reads lousy books just to have something to do that doesn't require a lot of thought. Well, I'm here to tell you that I do exactly the same thing. I'm a little self conscious about it, being that I'm keeping track of everything I read and all that, but it is the truth.

Sometimes I read trash.

There are limits, of course. Not too long ago I tried to read a book by this Debbie Macomber character -- a book about knitting, no less! -- but I just could not choke it down. The writing was so bad, the plot was predictable, and the characters were wooden. How do people get away with this stuff? When I think of all the great writers I've read over the years who never had a thing published, it makes me a little crazy.

For example, the guy I went to university with who wrote that if there was one hour left until the end of the world, he would spend that hour waiting for a bus. Why? Because the time passes very slowly, and you're always glad when the bus arrives.

Life is not fair, and that's a fact.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Parlay Voo?

I have 35 students in my grade 8 French class.

I have 26 desks.

Nothing good can come from this.

On the plus side, I'm all moved in, and I even found the little notebook where I keep track of the book list. September 1 saw book #147, "When You Are Engulfed In Flames" by David Sedaris. I love reading books of essays, especially when I don't have the attention span to keep track of characters in a work of fiction.

Speaking of works of fiction, I need to plan something for tomorrow (because 9 hours at work today just WASN'T ENOUGH).

That is all.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Three Minutes from Crazy

Hello, dear reader.

I haven't been here for a while, and let me tell you why:

On Saturday I'm moving, with my boy and the WonderDog, to a smaller place outside the city, where we will await the completion of our lovely new home.

Today I started my new job, where I am 100% of the French department, 50% of the ESL department, and a good chunk of the English Language Arts department. But no pressure or anything.

I am so busy and so worried about absolutely everything that I can hardly see straight, much less blog. You know how when you move, at first you think it's a great idea? Then you start to realize how much work it is, but you're still pretty excited? Then the new place starts to seem REAL to you and you long to be there, and you're frustrated cause you're not? And then how all your stuff (your BOOKS) are in boxes in your mom's garage and someone's come and taken the bookshelves away and moving day is SATURDAY whether you're ready or not and all you want to do is crawl into bed and stay there until it's all just gone away?
Yes, that's where I'm at. Wondering at my sanity, surrounded by boxes, and running out of time.

So anyway, I am three minutes away from crazy, awaiting messages from the mother ship, and needing a general break. I will be back, once everything is sorted and I'm able to breathe again.

Thanks for asking, though.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Writing about... Writing!

I have been spending some time reading about two of my favourite things: language and writing.

I read Mark Abley’s “The Prodigal Tongue” (book #123) and Ruth Wajnryb’s “Expletive Deleted: a good look at bad language” (book #128), as well as “The Maeve Binchy Writers’ Club” (guess who wrote it?) (book #130) and a writing book called “Writing Motherhood” by Lisa Garrigues (which doesn’t have a number yet cause I haven’t finished reading it).

I’m a little addicted to books about how to write. One day I plan to write one myself, in fact. (Maybe not now. My grandmother has told me not to even THINK about making jam this summer because of how busy everything is. I am reminded of the joke: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.) I think that this addiction to books about writing is a natural offshoot of the addiction to books. Whenever I’m faced with some kind of problem, my first instinct is to research it. Go to the library and get a book! Go to the internet and google it! Read! The information is out there; all I have to do is find it.

So when I wanted to make jam I didn’t ask my mother or my grandmother (except for some help, which my mother offered in the form of these immortal words: “Julie, paranoia will destroy ya.”). Oh, no, dear reader, I went and bought a book. Same with knitting.

I tell myself that buying books on the writing process is an investment. I am a teacher; I teach writing; these books are resources. And they are, certainly. More than that, though, I feel like a prospector. Surely in all this there will be a lump of gold. Surely there will be a secret in here that I didn’t know, which will open to me and my students the gates of the kingdom. Ann Lamott’s writing book, “Bird by Bird” (book #36) did offer me something I didn’t already know, as well as the helpfully descriptive phrase I used on my writing students at the time: “Shitty first drafts.”

As for the books on language, how can anyone fail to be astounded by it? Language is the thing that separates us from the animals: language is the one thing without which virtually no other human endeavour is possible.

Like swearing.

The best part of Wajnryb’s little book (besides the fact that it was five bucks on the remainders table at Chapters) was the chapter subtitles: she’s re-imagined all these critical moments as if the people involved had really spoken – as, in fact, they probably did speak. So we have Joan of Arc quoted as saying “I don’t suppose it’s gonna fucking rain, is it?” and Julius Caesar exclaiming “Fucking hell, Brutus, not you too!”

Mark Abley wrote about how English is changing in an international arena: he says that English is the new Latin, from which all new language will spring. What a wonderful thought. He also introduced me to, where new and exciting words are posted every minute (or so it seems) and people can vote, a la Wikipedia, on whether or not they accept those new words as words. Some of the new constructions Abley discusses are things I can’t quite get behind (“Off the lights” instead of “Turn off the lights”) but others are so fresh and so much fun that I kind of hope they catch on. One of the things that struck me about his book was that in every language he discussed there were purists (people not unlike me, I imagine) sitting in the wings and screaming with fear and anger that the holy of holies, the Mother Tongue, was being tampered with. What Abley said was, essentially, that these people can scream all they want, but language is going to change anyway.

To which I now say, foshizzle, man.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Leave me alone, I'm reading.

The lady at Ikea said "Are you moving a LIBRARY?" when I went to buy more book boxes on the weekend.

I just smiled enigmatically.

In other news, the evil Commissionaire was not at the library this morning, when I returned the resume books I got for my students and happened to pick up a couple (okay, three) books about reading.

Books about reading! How delightfully meta.

Thursday, July 31, 2008


I boldly made my second attempt at John Grisham today, and encountered the SAME Commissionaire bawling out some poor bemused lady who was not putting her books into the return slot spine first as the sign directed. ("No! Not like that love! SPINE FIRST!")

I am afraid.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

I said ALMOST.

So I’m doing a novel with my ESL class: the simplified version of John Grisham’s “The Runaway Jury.” Now I do not care for John Grisham at the best of times, and the Penguin Reader version was feeling a little dry to me this morning, so I thought I would wander across the street to the library (I work RIGHT ACROSS from the library!) and see if I could pick up the unabridged version. I thought it would be cool for my students to see the longer book, and if any of them are interested (this is a high-functioning crowd) they could compare the two versions.

Plus, any excuse to go to the library is good. Really now.

My new office is on the second floor, which means there’s a walkway right across the road and you can enter the library on the second floor, in the kids section. There was a sign on the door that said “+15 Access Ends Here” (Plus 15 is what we call our system of over-the-road walkways – an absolute godsend in winter, let me tell you.) Anyway, I read the sign, but I thought it meant that you couldn’t go any further than the library (as if anyone would want to). Besides, the door swung open for me so it wasn’t as if the access was barred or anything.

On the other side of the door was a commissionaire (I don’t know how to describe commissionaires to you non-Calgarian readers: they’re usually seniors and they wear uniforms and they help you out when you get lost and also they man parking booths and stuff – usually they’re super nice and always dependable, if occasionally a little hard of hearing.) She asked me where I was going and I said to the library, and the lady just started lecturing me. “You can’t get to the library through here, love,” she said, “Didn’t you read the sign?”

I explained that yes, I had actually read the sign, and the sign says nothing about the library entrance being closed.

“Well, the only thing you can get through to is the theatre, and you’d KNOW if you were going there, wouldn’t you, love?” By this time the “love” thing was really starting to get up my nose – believe me, I am no one’s love – and I felt like I was being bawled out for making an honest and completely harmless mistake.

Now I am not an arguer, in fact I usually go to great lengths to avoid arguments, but I found myself somehow stuck in the plus fifteen OUTSIDE THE LOCKED LIBRARY DOORS arguing about semantics with a British commissionaire. And finally, finally, I just turned around and walked away. I may have said “Oh, EXCUSE ME” in a voice that was dripping, as it were, with sarcasm (because I was trying to get to the library, for Pete’s sake, I was not trying pay an unannounced visit on the queen or anything).

And people, it pissed me off so mightily that once I had made my way downstairs and through the main entrance, I had completely forgotten about John Grisham and had to go sign myself out some knitting books just to calm down.

It was almost enough to put me off libraries forevermore.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

This is Beginning to Look Like Carelessness

I finished Elizabeth George’s new book, “Careless in Red,” on Sunday (it was book #129, for those of you who are keeping track at home). George has written some great books in her day – “Missing Joseph” and “Playing for the Ashes” were particularly good – and her last book, “What Came Before He Shot Her,” was like a good Barbara Vine (that is, when she’s not writing those tedious Inspector Wexford books under her real name, Ruth Rendell).

Over the last few years I’ve been trying to figure out why George has become more and more irritating to me, and I finally cracked it. It’s the women characters in her books -- I cannot abide them. This book, for example, has a crazed nymphomaniac as one of the main characters. She is completely amoral and causes untold damage because of her out of control urge to screw any man who crosses her path. This book also brings back Barbara Havers, Lynley’s requisite sidekick, who is very smart but whose intelligence is constantly undercut by George’s snide comments about her appearance. Havers is a mess in her dress and her personal life, she wears red high-top sneakers and her hair looks like it was cut over the bathroom sink by someone with no idea what they’re doing. She never has any meaningful personal relationships, and we’re given to understand that it’s because she’s ugly! (Of course it is! Women are only valuable if they are beautiful!)

Which brings us to the dear departed, Lynley’s lovely brainless wife, who died in the last Lynley novel and whose murder was the topic of George’s last book. Helen was a bimbo. A stupid, wealthy, ditz who spent one entire book (I can’t remember which one, it might have been “For the Sake of Elena”) trying to decide if she should marry Lynley or not. She was beautiful and useless and obsessed with her shoes, and she died on her doorstep surrounded by her shopping, which is supposed to be poignant or something, but is actually only sad and pathetic.

Even the normal women in George’s books are not normal. They are deeply unhappy in marriages where they are nothing more than glorified ornaments, completely supported by their husbands and yet moaning about the sad emptiness of their lives. They are stunning beauties who take whatever they want and leave the rest. They are without conscience, interested only in their own pleasures. Or they are housewives, happily dedicating themselves to the support and nurture of the people around them while completely ignoring their own internal lives, their own needs. (This is what women are supposed to be, apparently, because George does not vent her spleen on the lovely housewife or the dedicated matriarch the way she goes for the single gal.)

There is one female character in “Careless in Red” who is almost normal, and I suspect that she will be Lynley’s future love interest (at which point she will immediately give up her job as a veterinarian, perhaps to dedicate herself to shopping, but more likely she will keep her job and the book will drone on about the impossibility of living with that yet unknown species, a Woman With A Brain). Even she, though, has a dark and damaged past, which gives us to know that she will not, ultimately, be a suitable mate for the Earlish Lynley.

Why do authors do this? Why is it so often women authors who do this? What is it about women that we cannot see one another as we are, as human beings, but instead need to focus on stupid superficial things like hair and accessories and shoes? (And, while we’re asking unanswerable questions, what is it about shoes?) George’s male characters are okay; they’re a little one-sided sometimes but at least they are different from one another and are not treated with that vicious contempt.

“Careless in Red” was not Elizabeth George’s worst book, by any means. I think, though, that it may be the last book of hers I read – at least until she recognizes that women are people too.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Like the Meatballs.

There is nothing better than discovering a new author. Especially one who’s been around for a little while and has a whole SHELF full of books for you to read. It’s even better if the author is not dead, thus ensuring the supply of books will continue, at least for a while. I’m sad to say that Margaret Laurence and Robertson Davies both died the year I started reading their books – something I sincerely hope I have no responsibility for.

The very first book on the List (I finished it on January 2) was by the Swedish mystery author Henning Mankell. I read a review of one of his most recent books in the Globe and Mail’s Books section (which I adore) and went to the library in search of anything by this author. The Globe mystery book lady and I are frequently on the same page, as it were; she helps me satisfy one of my other book-related vices, British detective novels. (In fact right now I’m reading Elizabeth George’s new one, Careless in Red, although I know that she is not in fact British and therefore it probably doesn’t count. For myself, I think it only doesn’t count if I don’t like the book, and while George has been going steadily downhill for a number of years I’m willing to give her a chance based on our long and fruitful relationship.)

So there I was in the library faced with a huge number of books by this Swedish detective author, and I thought… why not? This could be fun. A fling, as it were.

Well, dear reader, a love affair was born in that moment. Books #1, 6, 8, 13, 22, 42, 44, 60 and 127 attest to that.

I don’t know what it is I love so much about this writer, particularly his Kurt Wallander series. I think it’s maybe that Sweden is just a little different than Canada – different enough to be exotic while similar enough to be familiar. Landscape is treated in a similar manner to how Canadian authors deal with it, as something that constantly needs to be taken into account. Mankell’s writing is lovely, especially the precision of Wallander’s voice. (It’s 22 degrees Celsius outside, so Wallander decides to open the window. He walks across the square to the police station, a distance of 17 metres.) The books are murder mysteries, but Mankell doesn’t get carried away by blood and gore; his detectives are real people with their own richly developed lives.

The detectives who are talking about the case eat sandwiches together while they unravel the complexities of the Swedish criminal mind. They are civilized people who are doing their best in a very Scandinavian way. Mankell has brought Africa into a number of his books (apparently he’s very involved in a theatre company of some sort in Mozambique) and it’s a credit to him that I don’t mind visiting Africa when I very clearly signed up for Sweden.

Maybe I like these books because Wallander is such a lonely man, with his grown up daughter and his ex wife and his best friend and mentor who died. He is so real to me that I care for him even when he’s unreasonable and irritating; even when he does something that I don’t understand. Somehow I trust that he’ll get there in the end, and take me with him.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Librarian Love

This past spring I was a substitute teacher for a while. Since my specialty is junior and senior high English, that’s where I tried to spend most of my time, although I did end up in a grade 1 class one day, and teaching gym (!!!) another. Subbing is not my favourite thing to do (because you don’t know the students, and the best thing about teaching English is talking to people about books, and if you don’t KNOW the people then when you try to talk about books with them they look at you as if you had two heads, because they are teenagers and that’s how teenagers are), but it paid the bills for a couple of months so I sucked it up.

One day I got called in to a high school in the south – one with a good reputation, but a big old box of a falling-down place nonetheless. The board I work for has a policy that subs can help out in other parts of the school on an as-needed basis when they’re not actually teaching, and on the day in question I was asked to help out in the library.

You can imagine my joy. At the end of a day surrounded by angsty teens, in which one class had a food fight and another spent their English period trying to set one another on fire, I was asked to sit in the back room of a library and label books for an hour and a half, with nothing but my iPod for company.


Anyway, the librarian and I got to talking (because one of my secret ambitions is to become a librarian and I really, really like them) about the sheer size and weight of a collection of books. I’ve been packing up my books in preparation for the big move later this summer, and I’m a little shocked at the sheer quantity of them. The librarian asked me how many books I own, and I admitted to about three thousand, give or take.

I knew I had found my spiritual home when, instead of acting horrified like most people do, she nodded and said, “That’s a good start for a personal collection.”

Sunday, July 20, 2008

C & J Got Hitched

My friends C and J got married yesterday. The bride, of course, was stunning, and the groom was grinning like a mad fool. I've never seen either of them so happy.

And yes, I did cry!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

O, Exaltation

I got the coolest book the other day. It’s not on the List because it’s a flipping-through-and-enjoying book, and one of my rules about the Book List Project was that only books that I sat down and read all the way through would make it. (I do tend to finish books, but sometimes I am defeated by boring writers and lazy copyeditors.) Really, it’s a practical restriction: I also flip through lots of knitting books and home interior books, and including those would artificially inflate the list. And you know, this is such a very important and serious project of mine that I have to put rules on it. But I’m not a control freak. Much.

Anyway. The book.

It’s called “An Exaltation of Larks” by some dude named James Lipton, who apparently is some kind of actor. The book itself, as you might be able to tell from the title, is a collection of … you guessed it…. Collective nouns! This book is a treasure trove for word freaks like myself. Not only does it include the usual “gaggle of geese” and “murder of crows” but also the amazingly lyrical “exaltation of larks” and “parliament of owls.” I’m also fond of “a worship of writers” (because Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary defined “patron” as “a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery”).

I’m hoping to work a few of these collectives into daily speech (as a means to get them back into common use – because English isn’t strange and wonderful enough already). Let’s see: I’ve been one of an “erudition of editors,” an “iamb of poets,” and “a conjunction of grammarians.”

I stand daily before “a failing of students” or “a dilation of pupils.” I am part of a “leap of overachievers” and sometimes I visit “a brood of researchers.”

I envy “a shush of librarians” who work in “a trove of libraries.”

How wonderful is that?

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Library as Fashion Statement

I remember the moment I figured it out.

It was one of those typical “ah-ha” moments so beloved of Oprah, as if the skies had opened and Enlightenment (or at least Awareness) descended.

It was junior high, a time I do not recall very fondly. The person who delivered this epiphany to my listening ears was called Nancy (I cannot for the life of me remember her last name) and she was fabulous. She was tall, she was pretty, she had curly red hair and adorable freckles; she was popular; she had boyfriends; she made the sports teams I was regularly cut from; she was everything I was not.

So of course I studied her. How did she know these things? Where did she get this ease, this instinctive knowledge of style and fashion? How did she know the exact moment when stirrup pants went OUT and something else came IN? (It was the eighties, people, cut me some slack.) How did she gauge shoes and skirt lengths and colours and the way to do one’s hair and how to apply makeup? Why was it that when I tried these things they just looked weird?

And then one day I overheard her talking to one of her friends (ever-so-slightly LESS cool, according to the junior high measurement of these essential things) and Nancy said the words that rocked me, a lament about the vagaries of fashion and how quickly styles change:

“You used to walk by Le Chateau and see nothing but black. Now all you see is white, white, white!”

It came to me then. THAT’s how they know! That’s how these girls know what’s in fashion and what isn’t! They look in the stores! It’s not a secret code, it’s not some weird genetic twist that I lack, it’s just that they go over to Market Mall and window shop and try things on and…look, I guess.

Sadly, this epiphany did not help my social life or my fashion sense. I never did care for Le Chateau, I never did crack the accessories code, and will always prefer flat and comfortable shoes to any other kind. Also, shopping is boring.

But that memory came to me the other day (my friend C. is getting married and my closet mysteriously shrunk the dress I was going to wear) in Market Mall, of all places, right about where Le Chateau used to be.

You don’t have to worry about getting things wrong in a library. Even if you don’t have the information you need, it’s not hard to find a book that will help you. The books are right there, where they are supposed to be. They don’t move around, changing black into white without any warning. The Dewey Decimal System, even if it is a little too much like math for my liking, is a wonder of exactitude and organization. A few years ago my own book collection got to the point where I needed to implement what one of my old professors used to call “An Organizational Principle.” It’s a quirky system and depends on an in-depth knowledge of an author’s nationality and the year in which the book was acquired, as well as when it was last read and the genre into which it fits, but I can still find the books I need.

I learned from Nancy that if you want to know what’s in style you should look in the stores where the young people shop. I now know that styles change and that the people you idolize in grade 8 are long gone from your consciousness a few years later on. I also know that I will never care for fashion or uncomfortable shoes, and that I will never understand the Secret of Accessories, nor will I ever be in possession of Good Hair.

But I do know where the libraries are, and how to find what I need inside a book.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Kite Runner

I read The Kite Runner (book #116) on a hot day.

Some of my students right now are from Afganistan, and I’ve always felt that reading fiction about a place was a good way into the heart of that place – when I was a kid I read James Michener’s Caravans and fell head over heels in love with the idea of travelling, of going away, of being someone different. I never did that, and I regret it bitterly, but I do frequently seek out books about places I’m never likely to see. In February I read extensively about Italy, and it helped me through an exceptionally difficult month.

So, The Kite Runner.

I’m sad to say that it did not blow my mind. The plot was predictable (there was only one twist in the whole book that actually surprised me) and the author glossed over a lot of things in the narrator’s life. I hate it when writers say something like “and then he went to university and studied creative writing, even though his dad didn’t want him to, and before too long he had published two dozen books.” Seriously! That’s like saying “then on Tuesday he decided to climb Everest, but not until after lunch, which he ate at the Ritz with whoever the bony model du jour is.” I want the nitty gritty. I want the blood, the sweat, the tears, the agony of writing, the pain of going through school, the deprivation, the hunger (physical and emotional), the rejection slips, the slush piles. Give me something real!

Real, though, is what I got in the rest of the book. I particularly liked seeing what it’s like (or what it was like, I guess) in Afghanistan, and those glimpses of Afghan culture in America. I often wonder about the lives of my students, because they are so limited in what they can tell me – they can only tell about the things they have words for, and their words are quite few. And I know they have also had experiences in their pasts that there are no words for, and it breaks my heart to think of that.

Another teacher I know said that her Afghani students hated the book; they said it was completely unrealistic and did not reflect anything true about the Afghan experience. Here’s what I think about that (thank you for asking): we can only tell the truth as we see it. We can only say “this is how it was for me.” When I was taking a poetry workshop at Concordia during part of my mis-spent youth I wrote about how autumn leaves smelled like cinnamon when you walk through them. Well, so kill me, they DO! They do to my nose, anyway, and I’ll stick to that, but one of the Pretentious Poets in my class took offence at my description. Because there’s apparently some kind of inherent truth to the scent of fall leaves in Montreal and HEAVEN FORBID you should get it wrong.

But you’re the author. To the author goes the authority.

And the last word, too.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Vindication at Last

People are suspicious of readers. What, they wonder, could be so enthralling about the inside of a book? Especially with the delights of daily existence all around?

I’ve lost track of the times I’ve been accused of anti-social behaviour, of being out of touch with reality, of preferring books to people. (A soon-to-be-ex boyfriend nailed me with that one: “You don’t even want to be with me, you’d rather read a book.” If you had known the fellow in question you would have fled to fiction, too, believe me.)

Well, vindication arrived today, in the form of the Globe and Mail. “A group of Toronto researchers have compiled a body of evidence showing that bookworms have exceptionally strong people skills,” the article says. (I love it when science confirms something that I’ve experienced: it just lets me know that the world does, indeed, revolve around me.) “Readers of narrative fiction scored higher on tests of empathy and social acumen than those who read non-fiction texts.”

I love books not because they are an escape from reality, but because they give me a different way of experiencing that reality. Instead of enduring the discomfort and inconvenience of a ride on Calgary’s public transit system (what non-readers call “real life”), I can have an adventure, meet new people, enjoy a completely different kind of existence, all without risking grease stains or a broken heart. Fiction is a way to understand the world.

Besides, in my experience reality is no great shakes. I’d rather be reading.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Stone Angel

Margaret Laurence made me want to be a writer.

That’s not quite true; I wanted to be a writer a long time before that. I wrote my first short story in Grade 1 – it featured Edward (the name of a kid in my class whose nose dripped perpetually, and whom no one would sit with) who was involved in some sort of tragic mining accident. (Oh, I was an odd, odd six year old.) The books of Margaret Laurence made me realize what good writing could be; she showed me the craft of writing, she made me want to write like she did.

My mom bought me a boxed set of three Margaret Laurence novels for Christmas when I was eleven. The books (I still have them) are the New Canadian Library versions of The Prophet’s Camel-Bell, The Diviners, and The Stone Angel.

Now, one of the things I hold as being absolutely true in my life is that The Diviners is the greatest work of fiction in the history of mankind. Best opening lines, anyway: “The river flowed both ways. The current moved from north to south, but the wind usually came from the south, rippling the bronze-green water in the opposite direction.” A metaphor for the whole book, are those two sentences. Simple but brilliant: the bits that take place here and now (Morag, the main character, awaiting news of her daughter Pique) are told in the past tense, and the story of Morag’s unfolding life, her becoming who she is, is told in the present. Everything flows both ways. Present and past, family and self.

This was, as I’m sure you can imagine, completely lost on me at eleven. But damn, I recognized good writing, and good story telling, and the fact that The Diviners is one of those books that you read over and over again, each time discovering something new.

That’s one of the things I love about Laurence: every reading is richer than the one before. Back in March (book #63) I re-read The Fire-Dwellers and admired Stacy Cameron and that absolutely honest narrative about loneliness. Last week (book #121) I read The Stone Angel again.

This is a book that never made much impression on me, at least not in comparison to Laurence’s others. Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about things like family dynamics, about the things we tell ourselves in order to keep on living and functioning as part of a larger group, and the way we do the most harm to those we love the most. That's what I noticed with this reading.

Hagar is over ninety and she’s dying. She’s losing her short-term memory and her other faculties, but there’s nothing wrong with her long-term memory or her spirit. Her son, in the last words we hear from him in the book, says to a nurse about his mother “She’s a holy terror.”

Hagar is a fabulous character. She can’t see herself clearly (who among us can?) and she damages all the people around her through carelessness and through a complete inability to accept who they are. She is responsible, almost directly, for the death of her favourite son and his fiance. She ignores and dislikes her other son, the one whose wife has cared for her for years. Hagar Shipley is all piss and vinegar, all old Scots and prairie pioneer and purely herself.

I read The Diviners to find out how to be a writer. I read The Fire-Dwellers to learn how to be lonely (or how to accept loneliness). I read The Stone Angel to learn how to live and how to get old. (Amazing that Laurence, who never got that old, was able to summon age and its indignities so clearly.)

I think that we tell stories to discover who we are. I think that we read stories to find little pieces of ourselves; to understand who we have become.

Margaret Laurence told the stories that made me who I am. What better reason for writing could there be than that?

Friday, July 4, 2008

Yeehaw! or even, Yahoo!

It was Stampede Parade day in my fair town, so the Boy and I went downtown to the rocking seats I scored, to watch all the action.

I do love a parade.

I love the marching bands, and the Mounties in their scarlet coats.

I love the soldiers and the fact that most people in the crowd have never been afraid to see soldiers in the street.

I loved that there was a float from the Calgary Public LIbrary! With people who were dressed as books! (I do believe I have found my tribe.)

I love that the parade shows Calgary's history as well as its diversity.

I even love the fact that you can see the former Alberta Premier Ralph Klein sitting in a chuckwagon not two feet away from you, and curse the fact that you have no rotten tomatoes to toss at him. (Schools -- and, more importantly, STUDENTS, are still suffering from the cuts to education that King Ralph implemented in the early 90s.)

And the Shriners, of course -- love them too. (Check out that guy's knees -- he must have needed a beer by the end of the parade.)

So the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth has begun, with a bang, and we were there, cheering.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Guilty as Charged

I found this on the internet, source of all that is wonderful.
How many of these apply to you?

1. I have read fiction when I was depressed or to cheer myself up.
2. I have gone on reading binges of an entire book or more in a day.
3. I read rapidly, often 'gulping' chapters.
4. I have sometimes read early in the morning or before work.
5. I have hidden books in different places to sneak a chapter without
being seen.
6. Sometimes I avoid friends or family obligations in order to read
7. Sometimes I re-write film or television dialog as the characters
8. I am unable to enjoy myself with others unless there is a book
9. At a party, I will often slip off unnoticed to read.
10. Reading has made me seek haunts and companions which I would
otherwise avoid.
11. I have neglected personal hygiene or household chores until I
have finished a novel.
12. I have spent money meant for necessities on books instead.
13. I have attempted to check out more library books than permitted.
14. Most of my friends are heavy fiction readers.
15. I have sometimes passed out from a night of heavy reading.
16. I have suffered 'blackouts' or memory loss from a bout of reading.
17. I sometimes read without a donut in one hand.
18. I do crossword puzzles in pen when there isn't a pencil handy.
19. I have spent hours trying to program TiVO only to record Oprah
when it's her book club.
20. I eat biscotti at Borders, even though it tastes terrible, so
I can disguise my reading habit.
21. I have wept, become angry or irrational because of something
I read.
22. I have sometimes wished I did not read so much.
23. Sometimes I think my reading is out of control.
24. Amazon knows my credit card number.

Perhaps you have..... a book addiction!

Well there are worse things, if I may say so.

And, please, wherever you are, raise a glass to Canada's 141st birthday. Preferably a glass of decent beer (Wild Rose? Sleemans? You choose).

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Petite Anglaise

Someone asked me how many books I read in a year. The truth is that I have no idea (it’s somewhere between “lots” and “holy cow”), so as my New Year’s Resolution (along with Be Tidier and More Patient and Buy a House and Get a Real Job and Knit a Sweater) I decided to keep track.

I bought a little Moleskine notebook (so long, Resolution #45, Spend Less Money) and started writing them down.

Well it’s almost July now and I just finished book #117, Petite Anglaise by Catherine Sanderson.

“Petite Anglaise,” if you don’t know, is the name of a blog. I am new to the whole blog writing thing myself, but I have long been a fan of blog reading. For one thing, you can read blogs wherever there’s a computer. In the library when you’re supposed to be writing a paper! At home when you should be cleaning the bathroom! And as much as I have heard people sneer at blogs, the truth is that there’s some darn fine writing out there.

Anyhow, “Petite Anglaise” is the nom de blog of Catherine Sanderson, an expat Brit living in Paris. (I am an anglophile. An unrepentant one.) She had all sorts of Parisian adventures in life an love on her blog, and eventually wrote a book. I like reading the published books of my favourite blog authors. I’m interested in how the two formats are different, and how they come down to the same thing: people, and writing, and reading, and life. It’s also nice to have a good big chunk of someone’s writing – blog entries are usually quite short, but a decent-sized book will take up a whole Saturday.

Petite Anglaise, the book, was pretty good. I don’t necessarily care for the way she writes – it’s not terribly fresh, a little precious and stilted here and there – but for some reason I really enjoy the blog and I liked the book too. I think it’s a question of voice. Sometimes my students ask me what voice means – it’s hard to explain. Here’s the best I can do: voice is like sitting down with your friend after a long absence and catching up. You hear the way she tells the stories, you see her eyes as they share the details with you, and you don’t care that an idiosyncratic turn of phrase is a little off because she’s your friend and that is the way she speaks. So although I’ve never met Ms. Sanderson and probably never will, I enjoyed the book and I enjoy the blog and I’ll buy whatever she writes next, too.

My favourite part, if you’re wondering, was her descriptions of Paris. I love hearing people talk about something they have a passion for– she loves Paris with a heartbreaking love and now I do, too.

“Although the air was still crisp and cold, the sky was a cheerful periwinkle blue, and birds chirped in the branches above…I decided on a whim to take a stroll. Narrowing my eyes, blocking out the cars parked bumper to bumper along the curbside, and substituting the tarmac for cobblestones, I imagined I was walking through a village, far from the capital. Belleville was full of surprises: cul-de-sacs of terraced houses with walled gardens hidden in the shadow of high-rise apartment buildings, private courtyards filled with greenery concealed behind heavy double doors, one- or two-storey structures that had once been farmhouses or workshops….”

Good stuff, Petite.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Library at Night

When I was a child I was locked in the library.

Yes, literally.

I was in grade 4, and I was an exceptionally lonely and socially inept child. I didn’t have a single friend. I spent a lot of time in that library, where the librarian was kind enough to let me “help” – sometimes I shelved some books but mostly I just wandered around. I stayed late every day, because that 15 minute delay after the final dismissal bell rang was just long enough for me to avoid the two bullying girls who lived on my street.

On the day in question I was putting cards back in the returned books (yes, I am that old; I clearly remember card catalogues). There was no one at all in the library, but the lights were on so I just sat quietly at my work.

And then I heard a key in the lock, and I looked over, shocked, to see the dead bolt rotate smoothly around. I was locked in.

Of course, it wasn’t a very big deal – the lock was easy to open, but I was obscurely happy, and I felt a certain amount of relief. It wasn’t so much that I was locked in as it was that everyone else was locked out.

And there I was, alone with the books.