April 12th, 2013
Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead seems to be garnering speed. Of course, Sheryl Sandberg’s in a position to spread the gospel of her book as the current COO of the world’s biggest social media site, Facebook. Her overarching message, that women need to lean in to their work life instead of falling back, resonates without. In a sense, it doesn’t really need to be a whole book–there’s a lot of repetition in terms of message–but I’m choosing to celebrate what it is: a manifesto of how feminism hasn’t quite achieved the equality women need in the workplace.
Manifesto, defined: a piece of work that urges readers/users/doers to carry out the change they wish to see in the world. In a sense, while ‘manifesto’ rings perhaps a bit to the left for Sandberg, it’s how it reads to me. There’s great research in here, both empirical and anecdotal, about how, regardless of the impact of the various waves of feminism over the last fifty years, there is still not equality in the upper levels of the companies that are running the world. How do we change that? Sandberg has very real and actually quite straightforward opinions about how to exact change–and, for once, I’m happy that she’s using the “f” word–feminism.
Those of us who would consider themselves feminists have no issues with the terminology. And I’m consistently surprised at how much we’re still divided by simply using the word. Strong women come from strong women. I’ve been lucky in my life to have role models, whether they worked primarily in the home or outside of it, where women are strong minded, intelligent, and have worked impossibly to build both family and foster their children to unite in a different kind of world. I was shocked that less than 4% of parents that stay home in the US are dads. For the majority of my friends, the women are the breadwinners–and that’s an exciting change. It’s challenging for all of us, because we’re still looking for that balance between work life and home life, and it’s forever changing. But it’s wholly different from my mother’s generation. Anyway, I’m still thinking about this book. I was all fired up at work a couple of weeks ago when I finished it, and now I’m not quite sure where to go next…
April 1st, 2013
I’m not sure what to say about Tamara Faith Bergen’s Maidenhead. I know it was hard for me to read, something akin to watching that film Thirteen where you know a world exists like this, but it’s just perhaps too real. Myra, a relatively inexperienced sixteen-year-old “meets” Elijah (and I say that in quotes because he was actually hunting her or someone like her, young, virginal, easy to be preyed upon) while on holiday in Key West. What follows is a story of sexual awakening coupled with some very extreme emotional issues as Myra’s mother leaves the family, and her father retreats into the basement, emerging red-eyed and downtrodden. Like many smart teenagers with little adult supervision, she’s back and forth between drugs, sex, and this Elijah character who doesn’t necessarily take advantage of her at first (as she’s ready and willing to be with him)… but, I don’t even know. She’s young, wild, and knows her own mind, but the situation, as much as it frees her, is dangerous.
There are a lot of themes, threads, and intelligent issues in the novel, but overall I felt it lacking something. In a sense, I wanted Myra to be more than just a f*#ked up teenager with a value to shock. I wanted the relationships with her parents to be less stereotypical, and I found the odd play-type dialogue between Myra’s friend Lee and Elijah’s girlfriend Gayl, a little off-putting. And the p0*n, which really isn’t my thing, was a little overwhelming. I do, however, appreciate that Coach House published the book–even if it ended up not quite being for me.
March 20th, 2013
Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome had been on my “this book seems interesting to me” list ever since I read the New Yorker article that Jonathan Franzen wrote, while the specifics of the article faded away rather quickly, the general sense that I should be reading more of her work stayed with me. We have done a version of this book for our public domain ebooks, and I glanced through it briefly, which gave me an idea of the tone and scope of the novel. But upon a closer reading, it’s actually quite incredible what Wharton accomplishes in the novella–she tells the entire story of the very sad, very tragic lives of Ethan, his wife Zeena, and her cousin Mattie with brevity, which actually allows for the weight of what happens to them to settle without it feeling overwhelming.
In short, Ethan’s unhappily married to a hypochondriac woman. Zeena wasn’t always that way–there was a point where she helped Ethan’s family out immensely (the reason they married), but for years they’d been engaged in a psychological battle. Zeena’s “illnesses” defining reasons why their lives are incapable of moving forward. When Mattie shows up, a poor cousin of Zeena’s without anywhere else to go, Ethan’s life changes. And when Zeena leaves for a far-flung doctor’s appointment, the two nights he and Mattie spend together have the potential to change their unhappy lives forever. For upon her return, Zeena means to turn Mattie out, and as she’s his last glance at happiness, Ethan will do anything to prevent it from happening.
Oh, the heartbreak in this little book. It’s truly and completely engrossing. Her choice of words, how she structures the story, it all comes together in a way that elevates the everyday-ness of the events to new levels. Parts of the house is described (and I’m paraphrasing) as “grungy” even for this poor area. Ethan schlumps and slogs through his life despite his relatively young age, and Zeena, with her greasy hair and dowdy clothes remains unbearable from day one. The narrator’s removed–a stranger, an outsider–they’re able to honestly look at what happened in ways that someone intimately involved with the events in the book would be unable to. Does their slight poverty increase the tragic elements in the novel? Absolutely. But it doesn’t define them. They act the way they do simply because they have no choice to otherwise. It’s a novel that explores how limited the choices are for women of a certain class, and it does that expertly. In a way, I enjoyed this little book even more than I enjoyed The House of Mirth or The Age of Innocence, both books I adore, by the way, because of its simplicity and sadness.
March 18th, 2013
In The Blondes, Emily Schultz has written a terrific, original novel. I think, in my perfect pop culture world, it’s exactly my kind of book. The writing is great, the story is compelling, and it’s fresh in its tone. Hazel, a Phd student in film, embarks upon post-grad work in New York City. She’s left behind a disastrous relationship with her faculty adviser, the aptly renamed Karl Mann (having changed his moniker from Dichlicher [sp]), and has just found out she’s pregnant. Accident or no, finding yourself up the duff at the very moment of an apocalypse, well, it’s not terrific luck.
The epidemic starts with just one or two incidents–blonde women losing it both literally and metaphorically as a result of a virus that soon turns the world into a place where any light-headed person, peroxided or not, could fall victim. Hazel, a natural light-haired red-head, soon finds herself face-to-face with the kinds of situations most familiar to people who have seen and studied Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. North America on lockdown, Hazel tries to get home, and she ends up at a government run containment centre with other women who may or may not develop the virus, SHV.
Government officials let her out, eventually. And this part of the book eerily reminded me of Blindness, the moment when the government fully admits that it no longer has control over the situation. She manages to get herself back to Toronto, to see her best friend, but then, from there, it seems that everyone, anyone will do what it takes to survive. I’m making the book feel more Walking Dead than it actually is–there’s great humour here, a lot of laugh out loud, smart revelations by the writer. It’s funny, essentially, the novel is epistolary in format, Hazel’s retelling the story to her unborn child. And she moves back and forth from events deeper into the past and from where she is at the moment–in a cottage owned by her ex-lover and his wife, Grace.
All in all, if you are looking for an intelligent mash up of 28 Days Later without the terrifically horror elements, with a dash of Blindness, as above, with a wholly original, satirical point of view, The Blondes is the book for you. I, for one, would love to see Sarah Polley make this into a movie, because I think it would be great fun on the big screen.
March 16th, 2013
What has happened? Where has the time gone? I realize that it’s been ages since I’ve caught up here, and I’m woefully behind on so many writing projects, but things are good. We are going with forward momentum these days. My job is busy. My life is busy. I have thoughts that I’m constantly trying to get down on some form of paper. I have blog posts backed up like traffic on the Gardiner in mind. And yet, I’m also craving stillness. Ten minutes of yoga a day seems to be doing the trick. I loved my book about meditation. I’ve downloaded the exercises and have listened to them a couple of times on the subway. In the midst of the thrum of people cruising back and forth to work, I close my eyes and become that girl. You know the one. Breathing heavily and not caring what anyone thinks. This is what motherhood has taught me. I can leave my house in jogging pants with unwashed hair, not wearing any, ahem, support, all tucked into my winter coat, not having slept for days and go grocery shopping. S*#t just needs to get done. And if meditating on the streetcar on the way to get my sixth bit of bloodwork tests done in as many weeks, well so the flapjack be it.
For the first time in a long time, it’s not the disease making me sick. For all intents and purposes, it’s actually in remission. There’s a significant amount of damage to my kidneys, and they’ll never make enough red blood cells for me not to feel anemic, but I’m alive. I’m in remission. That’s something to celebrate. And then. And then, well, I started feeling truly crappy. Run down, exhausted, with lots of pain, feeling lethargic, and I thought, no, no, no, please Wegener’s please don’t be flaring again. I just can’t take it. And the bloodwork shows that it’s just my WBC (white blood cell count). It’s too low. And that has all the same symptoms as the disease. So, bam, the meds are making me sick, but that’s not unusual. They’ve slowed down on the imuran, and my counts are coming back up little by little.
We’ve been on two short ‘mini-breaks’ as the Brits say in the past couple months. The first, we thought was a super-cheap couple of days at Great Wolf Lodge. We got an amazing deal on the hotel, but then the fact that it’s an actual resort, complete with people walking around in flip-flops in February, and you have to pay for your ridiculously expensive meals meant our budget simply did not stretch to meet those demands. That said, the water park is really amazing, and we had a great time sploshing about. Of course, we got stuck in the epic snowstorm coming home, almost slipped off the road a few times, and dealt with a puking toddler not five minutes away from home. Awesome.
We’re trying to break the RRBB into travelling slowly. He’s habit-dependent, so it’s rough for him. He doesn’t sleep well while we’re away and nor does he eat terrifically. Just a couple of weeks ago we spent a really fun few days in Collingwood. Super cheap, ate mostly in the rented condo, and enjoyed the best that winter can offer (excellent skating, great tobogganing, cursing around the village near the ski hills). But, again, after his cousins left, our kid had a complete meltdown, and it was time to go home. Funny, I don’t think I’ve spent this much time outside, enjoying the winter, in years. A blessing, of sorts. You forget how terrific and crisp the snow is. You forget how great it feels to climb up a steep hill and come barrelling right back down. You forget a lot, until you remember.
Now comes the thaw. A whole host of to do lists revolving around spring cleaning and summer planning and trying to stretch what little royalty money we have left until the next cheque comes. They can’t be depended upon. And it’s glaringly apparent that I need to find alternative sources of income. That we need to find some ways to make ends meet in these lean months. Gift cards. Air miles. Gift cards and air miles. We’ll figure it out, we always do, scraping the backs of the cupboards, eating through the freezer. The thing is, I really, really don’t want to go in any more debt. There’s a glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel, and if we buckle down, we just might get out of the maternity leave hole.
I’m in a funny place these days. An in-between place. Slightly between sick and healthy. Busy and bored. Pushed along from the current when I really want to be swimming in the other direction. But soon, really soon, I’ll be up at the lake. And that’s a balm for anyone. We’re lucky. I am lucky. It’s so easy to forget that with all that’s happened. I am lucky. What if I just keep repeating that?
March 13th, 2013
I read a lot of good books. Books I’d recommend heartily to friends and family. Books I push on strangers at various events. Books I try to sell. Books with good writing, a solid story, and that provide a solid experience from start to finish. Good writing is good writing. But great writing, well, that brings an emotional depth that resonates and goes beyond the story itself. Poached Eggs on Toast is, simply put, great writing. Frances Itani’s Deafening was a glorious novel, but I think that when she’s faced with the short story, her work packs a punch that the format allows–there’s no doubt that the pieces in this collection benefit from their length. They are focussed, sharp, intense, and brilliantly characterized.
It’s true. I had often devalued the short story in my own reading. Preferring the length of a novel, I grew tired of the collections I was coming across that depended on “twee” (ugh, I despise ‘twee’) and “quirkiness” to get them to the end. But here, the basis for all of Itani’s work are the very rich and very real experiences of life. Real life. Lives that are shared, and put under pressure. Disease, war, destruction–they provide the backdrop, the impetus for her characters to do something, but Itani writes about life like nobody’s business, and that I appreciated.
A few of the stories take place in war-torn countries, wives of soldiers, diplomats, peace-keepers themselves in a very different way, leave the comfort of their homes to exist on bottled water and food in packets to keep their lives safe. One story that has resonated with me, “Marx & Co.”, which is about two friends, one of whom is dying of breast cancer, remains one of the strongest portrayals of female friendship I’ve ever read in print. Overall, I read these stories in short bursts, subway rides, before bed, moments when I’m frayed and exhausted and burnt out from the grind, and found them to be inspiring, achingly so, and I didn’t want the collection to end.
February 20th, 2013
I had a moment of panic over the weekend where I tried to get caught up on a bunch of work reading before a big presentation, and to my delight, found myself embedded in Sight Reading by Daphne Kalotay when I probably should have been doing something motherly, like, well, taking my child outside.
Here’s the opening: a middle-aged woman gets her toes done, steps outside in paper plate-improvised flip-flops and runs, spectacularly, into the woman who stole her husband. Yes, many years of passed. Yes, much water has flowed through under various bridges. But, still, Hazel, finds it hard to run into Remy, and the story moves back from there. To the first days of Hazel’s marriage to the gifted composer/conductor/music professor Nicholas Elko, to the how’s and why’s their marriage fell apart, to how he and Remy fall in love, their life together (she’s a violinist), and the many people and piece of music they touch. At its heart, it’s a simple story–but it contains everything that makes life complex. Human relationships don’t work–and even though it’s not always the fault of the parties involved, the sounds resonate throughout the rest of their lives on a very personal level.
Sight Reading is a play on words, of course, the skill whereby musicians look at a piece of music and play it in the moment (am I getting that right?), for the novel, it also means the difference between the many different layers of a relationship. A note can go up, it can go down–and the musician can recognize the subtle changes–and the same holds true for a life, for love. It ebbs and flows with time, as people grow, as they grow apart, and Kalotay has visualized it brilliantly in this novel. I’d compare it to the great novels by Ann Patchett or Barbara Kingsolver, but where those two authors have political undertones, globalization of healthcare for example in State of Wonder, or environmental concerns in Flight Behaviour, Kalotay roots Sight Reading very strongly in human emotion and experience. The music is the backdrop to the novel, and she understands musicians (I think?) very well.
Throughout the book, it’s apparent how long it takes Hazel to come to terms with the breakdown of her marriage, and the idiosyncratic nature of Nicholas makes it difficult for Remy, too, despite the long-term nature of their relationship. Love is gentle, kind, but also heartbreaking in this book–and it truly puts into focus something that everyone tries hard to understand, how it sometimes simply takes over a life and leaves wreckage in its path. But these are adults. They have flaws. They have sadness, happiness, embarrassment; they are parents, partners, lovers, best friends, and even it its simplicity, I found this book exhilarating. I read it one big gulp, often how I listen to classical music, too, in long uninterrupted stretches that drive my husband crazy. Sometimes, all you crave is a good book with a good story, relatable characters, and a strong sense of its overarching themes. Sight Reading is all this and more.
February 14th, 2013
When I finished Rebecca Rosenblum’s latest book of short stories, The Big Dream, I had one thought in my head: she’s, to put it simply, a natural writer. I’ve been reading a sh*t tonne of short stories lately, mainly for work, but also for pleasure (and my work is pleasurably so figure that dichotomy out!), because I can digest them in the 10 minutes I have before crashing at bedtime, and they’re really great for commuting. So, The Big Dream. It’s different from Rosenblum’s first collection, Once, in that there was an element of whimsy to the stories, a few of them even touching into magic realism for lack of a better term, while staying true to their urban core. The same urban/suburban settings apply to this collection–many of the stories are centered around characters who work for or on a series of trade magazines that honestly reminded me of Rogers, even though I probably shouldn’t say that out loud.
Rosenblum has an uncanny ability for writing intensely modern stories with fresh characters, but they’re all leading lives that anyone might recognize. The core issues that all of our Toronto-centric humanity deals with–love, family, happiness, selfish/less/ness, the TTC, job insecurity etc.–run like undercurrents throughout. I don’t want to point one story out to be my favourite, because I think the whole collection is so even and well-written that it wouldn’t do the pieces justice. Taken as a whole, with its links between (emails from members of the Dream magazine company), the book pieces together modern life through the myriad different people who work for, around or in the organization, but in these ordinary lives are extraordinary occurrences, observations, the things that make people individuals. I love that.
There’s a lightness and a freshness to Rosenblum’s voice. Her metaphors are exacting, and her sentences direct, but the writing isn’t sparse. It’s rich and vibrant and keeps your attention. These stories are like good episodes of a some great television you’d see on HBO, they’re definitely cable, not mainstream, if that makes any sense. Overall, I was consistently impressed–reading this book made me happy, full stop. And isn’t that a wonderful thing for a book to do?
(other books finished: Jennifer McMahon’s creepy Don’t Breathe A Word, which I found really implausible but still read it recklessly to the end, and The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier, which I enjoyed but found a bit light; however, am intensely curious about all of the quilting designs she describes, and really loved Honor Bright, the main character).
February 13th, 2013
I finished my January book last month, When the Body Says No, and was actually a little disappointed. It’s funny, living with a chronic disease for the better part of my entire adult life, I’d already learned a lot of what Gabor Mate outlines. Stress contributes to the disease, and your life choices can impact your health–you need to live in balance, as much as possible. What I wanted from this book was more prescriptive advice, and less “I had this patient who had this terrible life and this terrible experience” narrative-style storytelling to make the same point over and over again, and more “this is how you cope with ongoing life with a crazy-ass disease.” So this led me to the recommendations from my friend Kate about meditation. The first book that showed up from TPL was Real Happiness, and I’ve been slowly going through it this month. It’s a 28 day program with interesting exercises like walking meditation (which I find compelling). The other two books that I have out are Breath by Breath and Teach Us to Sit Still.
Also, I’ve been doing some restorative yoga at home, my lungs have been bothering me lately, and I’ve been doing a lot of pranayama breathing to work them out–it’s helping. It’s a bit hard to do anything with a toddler, but at least once I’ve got my legs up on the wall, I can handle him bouncing up and down around me. Taking five minutes isn’t hard–it’s not ideal in terms of trying to calm down while there’s a manic energy around me, but I’m doing it anyway. I had thought I might tackle my diet this month but I’m still so harried on a day-to-day basis that finding five quiet minutes is something more than I had a couple of months ago.
I find that rhythmic breathing, counting in, counting out, to be so restorative. I know it sounds simple and kind of silly but the more I concentrate on the simplicities in my life, the easier it is to deal with the giant bits. So there’s my revolution for the month, breath. Belly breathe, if you may.
Like so many of my posts, I’ll start off with a confession–ever since coming back to work after mat leave almost eighteen months ago now, I’ve been woefully behind on my “work” reading. Keeping abreast of HCC books, etc., before publication was one of the perks of my job–reading books before they’re on the shelves is kind of like the ultimate spoiler to me, and I can’t resist a galley at the best of times, and for my favourite authors, I usually even read them in manuscript, that’s just how I roll.
To further confuse things, it used to be my job, as a digital marketing peep, to know and be able to talk about various titles, you know, building buzz, that sort of thing. Now that I work exclusively in ebooks, I never seem to get on top of our books until they are actually published. This brings me to The Painted Girls. I didn’t read it in manuscript or galley format–and I didn’t read our ebook, I actually took the physical book with me, a true break from my life, on my trip to New York a couple of weeks back. I read 90% of it while away, and then it took me almost two weeks to finish it as work reading (Bonnie Burnard’s Casino and Other Stories [#5]) and my January theme book, When the Body Says No, #6 crowded around.
Annnywaaay, told from the perspective of Marie and Antoinette van Goethem, the story follows the two sisters as they make their way in the world of La Belle Époque Paris at a moment in time when lives could change in an instant if a young girl, a petit rat, a ballerina, was chosen for the main stage of the Opéra, and even more if they caught the fancy of an abonné, a rich patron whose roses were always accompanied by other favours. Wrapped around them like the tulle of their practice skirts is the story of a band of ruffians, criminals who Antoinette falls in with, and Charlotte, their youngest sister, who eventually becomes a beloved fixture of the ballet.
For Marie, a young girl of just thirteen when the story opens, dance is the way up from impoverished existence, a world where hard work could change the circumstances defined by a dead father and an absinthe-addicted mother. She catches the eye of Degas, infamous now for his portraits, portrayals of young ballet girls, and begins to model for him, eventually becoming the inspiration for his sculpture, “Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen.” You would think, with all of these opportunities, coupled with Marie’s own amazing and intense work ethic, that ballet would be the making of her. As it is with most good stories, opportunity is always coupled with some sort of adversity, and Marie’s path becomes obscured by the pressures of her own moral compass as it becomes tested with the new world she inhabits.
For Antoinette, the dance has already been spoiled, and her world consists of hard scrabble to find her way, taking a terribly wrong turns after falling in love with a ruffian named Émile, whose story comprises the second historical vein running through the novel–as he’s on trial for murder. Antoinette has always been the glue that holds the girls together–pulling their hair taut into buns, mending their skirts, stealing their bread, and when her love for Émile challenges the tender bonds of family, all three sisters are tested, and no one comes out unscathed.
At its heart, one would imagine this is a book about ballet, and it is, Buchanan, herself a former dancer, writes confidently and accurately about the art–it’s hard to do, dance in novels and films is often trivialized or sensationalized (Black Swan, anyone? bleech). The other novel that I read recently that presented the most honest portrayal of dance I’d ever read was Zelda Fitzgerald’s Save Me the Waltz, a terrifically underrated gem. The Painted Girls does an exceptional job with the ballet portion of the story, it feels inherent and right, and it reminded me, like so many other girls, of a time in my life when I was emboldened by pink tights and plain black leotards, feet bruised and insteps aching, stretching myself to the limits even for a basic plié. I was never meant to be a ballerina, however, modern dance was always more for me, and so I felt for Antoinette, who wasn’t quite right for the Opéra, who struggled to find herself in a world insistent upon sending her in the wrong direction. But I think this is a book about sisters, about the bonds of family, and about the lengths that you’ll go to save someone you love–that’s what it becomes for Marie, that’s what it becomes for Antoinette.
Like Girl with a Pearl Earring, Buchanan expertly weaves art, experience, history, with the very human experiences of life and love. Breathing history and backstory seamlessly into the narrative, Buchanan creates a book that’s both rich and vivid, as beautiful as its cover. Highly recommended.