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).