Feminized Literature, Motherhood, & Canada Reads


It was with trepidation I opened the current CNQ, dubbed "The Gender Issue." I understand, and advocate, the need to be fair to all sides when delving into any issue, but today, this week, I'm tired of being angry. And if you're going to give equal time to all ideas on gender (specifically, gender and Canadian literature), I'm going to get angry at something. It's inevitable. I'm an "angry feminist" and generally pretty happy about that.

So I was gratified that the lead piece was Nicole Dixon's "The Other F-Word: The Disappearance of Feminism from Our Fiction." Dixon takes on the current landscape of Canadian female-authored fiction with a real "angry feminist" eye, that I appreciate. Sometimes, I feel that as feminists we have to pull our punches too often, so as not to offend. Third-wave feminism, as the reader no doubt knows, was a big, needed leap forward in terms of inclusivity. However, Dixon and many other feminists now take umbrage with a theory of feminism that has become too scared to make a point in fear of coming across as not inclusive enough. Feminism, so the thinking goes, has become too susceptible to alternative versions and definitions (Sarah Palin, anyone?). The resulting
problem with keeping feminism undefined and mutable is that the stereotypes the second-wavers fought against creep back into public thinking and published fiction, brought back and advanced by women as well as men.

One of the stereotypes Dixon rallies against, within a CanLit framework, is compulsory motherhood. As I've said before, I'm child-free – recently I chose to have a tubal ligation to (hurr hurr) seal the deal – but I am interested in motherhood narratives, sometimes just for the reassurance that I have made the right choice for me. So, for someone like me, it's always good to read a piece that fights against the notion that motherhood is a necessary part of the female experience, though it is one of the most common. Of Lisa Moore's February Dixon writes:
To write and publish such a novel and create such a character at a time when more women graduate from universities than men sends the message that breeding is more important than education... Why coach women toward publishing and graduate degrees when Canada's successful women authors literally coach them toward mental suicide?
I don't think Dixon is suggesting that those women who have had children are now brainless (though mothers with too little sleep might argue they feel as such). Rather, that the imagined women of CanLit, and indeed some of the authors, are defined not by their own personhood, but by the existence of their children.

There are, of course, some issues with Dixon's analysis. While I agree and/or am engaged by a lot of her critical analysis of the texts, the politics fall down a bit. In returning to a more second-wave activist viewpoint, Dixon does neglect some of the things the third-wave worked so hard to achieve, mainly understanding. First off, I'm troubled by the unthinking classism displayed here.
Nothing else a woman does is universally applauded as having a baby – not earning a PhD (more women attended a friend's baby shower than her PhD defense), not becoming a lawyer (most of my lawyer friends are now stay-at-home moms), not even running for president

Not all women have the opportunity to get graduate degrees, let alone attend post-secondary education. While I did get a BA, I'm not exactly a high-powered career woman, and there are lots more like me. Are these women invisible? Is the “loss” of people like me to motherhood okay, because we don't have graduate degrees? I doubt this is what Dixon means, but her examples are not exactly pan-experiential

Dixon also assumes that “women can choose to live whatever lives they want (in this country anyway)[.]” This again, seems to speak to a certain section of Canadian female experience that is, indeed, over-represented in CanLit. Some women don't have a choice (or don't know that they have a choice) about motherhood, due to cultural, familial, or religious obligations and constraints. However, if we're going to focus more on the white, likely middle-class women who write the books Dixon is looking at, there are still issues. The thing is, a lot of women really do choose motherhood. Not to beat the fandom horse, but Kerry Clare and Marita Dachsel have a wonderfully thoughtful conversation on motherhood and writing* posted at Pickle Me This. Many of my white, middle-class friends have, or want, kids. If motherhood narratives are popular, it must be at least partially due to the number of mothers reading and identifying with them. It's dangerous to call too many of these narratives mindless, because that view is suspect of the readership,** and in truth, there are a lot of really smart women out there, with children, who appreciate literature on the same level that Dixon does.

While I'm critical of Dixon's piece, I also want to make clear that I really, really like it. I think it's a really great bit of feminist analysis that has me thinking about CanLit in a new way, and it's given me a critical framework that I'll definitely employ going forward. It also reminded me, through some of the works it deals with (Lullabies for Little Criminals, The Birth House)and the mention of Dixon's roit grrrrrl university days, that a really deserving book missed making the Top 5 of Canada Reads this year, after making it to the top 10. Bottle Rocket Hearts is the story of Eve, making her way through life and love in mid-90s Montreal. Zoe Whittall belongs to the same cohort as Dixon and I, and Bottle Rocket Hearts inspires fond memories of how transgressive we felt, before "alt" was (ironically) so common a modifier as to be completely meaningless. Eve is unsure and tough, all at the same time, and reminds me of the 20-year-old arrogance and swagger we displayed, while not having any fucking clue what we were really doing. If I'd met Eve in 1995, I'd have wanted to be her, though I was probably more like her than I think. Bottle Rocket Hearts is, I hope, a book Nicole Dixon could get behind.

*Yet, I was also taken aback by the following comment: “My own view, of course, is that biological reproduction is intrinsic to creative work, and that the labour of giving birth and of finishing a book are pretty close to the same thing.” I felt this comment to be marginalizing to those of us who have chosen not to participate in the parenthood process (not to mention those women who – for whatever reason – can't have children but want to). The comment has since been contextualized for me, but honestly? It still rankles. I am definitely pro-mama, and I think as a society we still don't value mothers as people enough. However, we can't go so far as to assume that “biological reproduction” is a necessary pre-condition for a certain kind of work. Not only am I child-free, but I'm the second generation of my family to be adopted. This history, in part, leads me to believe that there is an over emphasis on biology and reproduction. Which is where Dixon and I meet up again.

**And this is something I find all too often with critical analysis in this country; if something is popular, it must be mindless. I feel there's a classism in this as well, and I don't believe that populism is necessarily a bad thing. But what do I know? I don't have a graduate degree.

It's odd to admit, within the context of a post dealing with feminism, that I read The Birth House because I saw Ami McKay give an award acceptance speech that made me cry. I ended up liking the speech more than the book.

And I could also write three times as much on all the times I said “Yes!!” in my head, or on some other little things I want to engage with, but I'm trying to be ever-so-slightly focused.

This Can't Be A Coincidence

Last night on Family Guy, Brian published a book with Penguin. And here's how that show portrayed a higher-up at Penguin:

This can't be a coincidence.

The Nature of Blog

I've had this post about Freedom sitting in the queue for weeks now, needing to be tied together, edited, and published. I haven't looked at it since I wrote the first draft in a frenzy of undergrad-like motif spotting. Which is often what I do here; write tiny, not-great undergrad papers. Partially I do this because I'm not sure how else to write about books; I don't know how to write a real review, though I do respect those who can. I feel like I don't have enough adjectives. I also don't just want to rehash those reviews. I want to bring something else to the table. With the Freedom post, I feel like I've caught onto something that reviewers missed, but I've written about it on such an elementary academic level, I'm a little hesitant about putting it up. Because, who cares, really? This is a blog, not a class. I've been told that the way I write about books can sometimes be difficult for the reader, because it relies so much on familiarity with the text. That's a fair assessment, and I don't deny it. Again, it's just my default of writing papers, something I enjoyed a lot, but haven't done for a grade in ten years.

I know I just need to write, for the practice. I find that my more successful blog posts (successful meaning interesting, insightful, thoughtful, maybe funny) have been written without too much thought. They were initial reactions, with a little research, maybe a couple pull quotes. This makes sense, when I think about how I wrote all those A papers: the night before, or the day they were due, from scratch. I'm good under pressure, good on my feet, better off-the-cuff. So I have to endeavour to do that; not over-think, just write.

One of the problems I'm encountering, with just getting it down, is the weird editorial board I seem to have contracted. I do advertise new blog posts on my Twitter, and almost every time the first commentary I get is a spelling, punctuation, or grammar correction. (It's always a man, not always the same man, that does this. I don't know what to make of that precisely, but I don't think it's just a coincidence*.) When I posted about Fauna a Twitter pal immediately launched into refutation mode, citing books written about Calgary. When I angrily suggested he was missing the whole point of the post, he admitted he hadn't even read it, he was just commenting on the title. And then I made this face: >_<

I started this blog, like so many do, because I simply love books. Reading is integral to my personhood. Boyfriend put new shelves up for me the other day and now I can see a small percentage of my books from my bed, and I'm filled with a sense of comfort and happiness every time I look at them. So I started writing here because I wanted to talk about books. Then I quit talking about books for a while. Then I wanted to talk about them again. My model has always been Pickle Me This**, and though I know I'll never be half the reader or writer Kerry is, the way she writes about living with books, not only about their content, is something I strongly identify with. I wish I could post multiple times a week, but I just don't have the content in me. I want to post about everything I read, but I never do. Sometimes I just have nothing to say about a book, like A Visit From the Goon Squad, which I just finished, enjoyed a lot, and then put away. What's to say? Egan is amazing. The end.

Thanks to Kerry, I'm currently reading Ex Libris. If she is "startlingly unoriginal in loving Anne Fadiman’s books of essays, not to mention about a decade late" then I'm not sure what rock I've been living under to have never heard of them till now. Fadiman and I agree on a lot of things: a well-used book is a loved book, annotating is a good thing, finding unexpected bits of paper in a book is a joy (I love when people leave their library slips in books, so I can see what else they've read), and so forth. I do envy Fadiman her hyper-intellectual upbringing, I'm a little annoyed with how often she name drops Mark Helprin, and I'd probably stab myself in my eye if a friend ever said the following to me:
I had repaired to the King's Arms, the pub closest to the Bodleian Library, with a fellow student, a dashing but bullheaded young Scotsman who proclaimed over coffee that Homer was vastly inferior to Virgil. As a Homeric partisan, I was much miffed[.]
I'm hoping this is a caricature, but even still, I don't find it an endearing one. Anyway, I'm mostly positive about Ex Libris, because it does what I want to do here: discuss how books shape my life, how I interact with them, how they make me feel, how I react, where they lead me, how their physicality touches me, and how reading is now -- and will ever be -- the most important thing in my life. The writing comes much further down the list.

*I'm sure I'm going to catch shit for reporting this, in this way, but it's the truth. No woman has ever (metaphorically) fallen upon me shouting "Oxford comma!" If pointing out errors is seen as a way to enter into the discussion, without having a literary framework, that's a flawed approach.
**I'm sure I've said this before, several times probably.
Really, who talks like this?! I sort of thought, "Well, if she's maybe British..." but no, the friend is American. If accurate, this is inexcusable affectation.

On Meeting Douglas Coupland


I was lucky enough to attend a conversation/lecture at Ryerson on Wednesday*, featuring one of my favourite authors, Douglas Coupland. As a part of Ryerson's Retail Week, Coupland was there with the co-founders of Roots, talking about his clothing line. It was an interesting talk, despite the chatty undergrads who were resentfully attending. I do work in the consumer goods sector, after all, so it wasn't as if everything they discussed was irrelevant to my interests. The Roots guys talked about Canadian manufacturing, cost measures, and design and company directions. Of course, I was more interested in the book signing afterwards, with Coupland. Anyone who knows me, or reads this blog, or is Steven W Beattie, knows how much I love Coupland. It's not a blind love; there are things I haven't liked, but overall he's one of the few authors who have me excitedly anticipating a new book as soon as I hear rumour of one.

We were sitting, during the lecture, with a television personality that we know. TV, as I'll call him, went right up to Coupland after the lecture and started a conversation. My boyfriend joined in. We began walking towards the book signing table. I grinned like an idiot. Then my boyfriend introduced me. I shook Coupland's hand and sort of stammered and said “I'm sorry I'm totally starstruck right now. I get this way around authors; I almost barfed on Margaret Atwood.” Expect I think that probably sounded like a Twitter hashtag, with all the spaces removed. He sort of chuckled and said, “Oh, she's a pussycat.” Easy for you to say, man!

One of the things I've noted, time and time again, about Coupland's work is his ability to convey loneliness and isolation in perfect, heartbreaking detail. In Player One one of the main characters contemplates a life alone:
He comforted himself with the belief that a quiet life of loneliness could be its own Great Experience.
Still, it's tough being alone in a room full of people. As Coupland went to get sorted for the book signing, TV told us that he noticed that no one was talking to the author, despite the number of people heading to the table with books. “I've been there,” he said. “When people know who you are, they think they can't talk to you, so you wind up standing alone and awkward a lot.” That's why he engaged, and brought us in. People, as Martin Gore wrote, are people, and unless you're Margaret Atwood, chances are you would actually enjoy conversation with your adoring public.

I can't say enough nice things about the man, by the way. He signed my book “To Panic” with only a slight eyebrow raise. He stood there while Boyfriend took a tonne of pictures that I kept ruining with an expression I can only describe as “surprised duck-face.” He joked around with us a bit, in his sort of deadpan way. He was a regular — albeit super nice — person, for which I'm grateful. Because I was a super dork. It must take a lot of patience and heart to deal with the public repeatedly, and yet sit alone often.

<3 Motherfuckin' three.

*Thank you so much, E!

Life of the Party

So, I went to a publishing party last night. I guess it's the triumph of social networking sites that allows me to do such a thing, being out of the industry so long. I knew more people last night than I ever did when I worked in publishing. I actually had fun, I think mostly due to that fact that I wasn't working. Parties can be great, but they're also work for the folks at them. I just went as an invited guest of people I am proud to call friends. I ran into folks I know through writing this blog, and others I've met through friends. I caught up with old co-workers. I had some passable wine, I had some evil wine (oh god, I can still kind of taste it). I really, really enjoyed myself.

I spotted a lot of earnest networking by the new youngsters (man, are they easy to recognize). A couple eager young things introduced themselves to me; I guess I look old enough to be "somebody." I didn't have the heart to tell them not to waste their time, but I also didn't engage them in any social chit-chat. I can't help your career, kid. Move along.

There was some weird slimy guy there, with an accent of course*. He seemed to know, by feel, all the bright young girl things. He complained about the Evil Wine like the rest of us, but continued to drink it, keeping a bottle in his hand. There's one in every crowd. Major Terry Richardson vibe. He's probably an author, I have no idea. I wasn't young and/or pretty enough to get felt up... er, have a conversation with.

A couple people asked me if I'd seen The Boss. For the record, I didn't see him, and I didn't bother to go looking. No throw-down; I'm just here to enjoy time with the people that matter to me. I have seen him around town though, and there hasn't been any confrontation or anything. We don't glare at each other, he doesn't try to talk to me (like he did the one time I ran into him after he fired me). We pass by. It works for me.

There's a freedom, when you leave — or are forced to leave — the industry. I've heard from people that they find their love of books again, once they were not forced to deal with them day-in, day-out. For my part, there's a relaxation in the party that I never had before. At some point, I was a young thing with something to prove, and I went to every party and launch I could. But because my position wasn't interesting enough for people, because even back then I couldn't help them, no one would talk to me at parties. I had people turn their back on me, for more networkingly lucrative options, when I told them what I did in my organization. I stopped going to parties after my first year in the industry. Who needs that sort of rejection? Now I'm simply an interesting** person, and my company is comprised of the only people that really matter: the people who believe in me, who are behind me, and who want know me. I am so lucky to have them. I hope they invite me out again!

Last night I said "I got away with that post because I have nothing to lose." The post still comes up a lot, and that's fair. It was a Big Deal. It has sort of become my calling card, and that's fine. If you only know me from that, I don't mind. I want people to know, though, that I can only write posts like that because I can go to publishing parties and simply enjoy. I remember what it's like to have a lot more to lose.

*No, I'm not talking about The Boss.
**Look, I'm not going to be falsely modest here. I basically kick ass.

No One Writes Books About Calgary

I read a lot of Margaret Atwood in university. Alias Grace hooked me, and I sought out everything previous, devouring second-hand paperbacks between the Rossetti and Tennyson poems, and second-wave feminist tracts. (Actually, those three things all worked rather nicely together.) Like Alice Munro and her connection to rural and small town Southern Ontario, Atwood is similarly a Toronto centered author. This is the city of her heart, despite (because of?) the time she's spend elsewhere, and it shows in her clear and detailed descriptions of the streets, the weather, civic engagement, and natural beauty. I remember Cats Eye and Robber Bride being deeply rooted in Toronto. They could not have happened anywhere else because Toronto is so important to who the characters are, and how they're formed. At the time I lived in Calgary and Toronto was a mysterious, possibly mythic location. I didn't know anyone from Toronto, everyone in Calgary hated everyone in Toronto (most without ever having been, or knowing anyone from Toronto). When I lived in Calgary it got annoying that most of my Canadian reading was based in Toronto. Sure I had the odd Margaret Lawrence on the prairies (Manitoba though, and people in Alberta don't consider that “The West”), there was Mordecai Richler's Montreal, and while I was in university, an strong East Coast literature was beginning to emerge (with Donna Morrissey being read afternoons on Bill Richardson's show), but Toronto was the real show. And no one writes books about Calgary.

About a year after I moved here, I re-read those two Atwood novels. It would be a couple years yet until I'd see the sort of house Charis owned on Toronto Island, in Robber Bride, but I understood what it meant to “[get] off at St. George and [take] the Bedford Road exit.” or walk “past the Queen Mother cafe,” which to my delight was, is, still there. So began years of getting a thrill every time I recognized a street name, a building, a restaurant, a landmark. I wanted to know the history too, so I read things like In the Skin of a Lion, and learned that the steam baths at Bathurst and Queen have been there an awfully long time. Consolation taught me the streets of my neighbourhood, extremely central and well-founded, were once extremely periphery. I read Fugitive Pieces, Once, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, Unless, to name a few. Always, always, I had the thrill that a book had been written about the place I lived in, and that I could walk those streets and see those things*. It was so engaging because it was so new; no one writes books about Calgary.

It was with a dulled-by-time excitement I approached Fauna, which is a Toronto Book**. The shine was beginning to wear off, and I found myself initially a little put off by the Torontoness of the book. There's a scene near the beginning of the novel, told from the point of view of a raccoon, hanging around on garbage night, waiting for his chance to pry open a green bin and eat the delicious waste inside. The raccoon, of course doesn't know what a “green bin” is, or that homeowners use bungee cords to keep them closed, against an adorable onslaught. The raccoon knows only “slender container” bound by “a kind of stretchy, spotted snake […] hooks in place of their heads and tails.” The raccoon knows that “[t]onight's the night when the lonely, feast-filled vessels stand unguarded, fastened with nothing but a clip that any yearling could undo.” As a Torontonian, I know exactly what's happening here, but I questioned if anyone outside Toronto would know just how quickly the raccoons figured out how to open the “animal-proof” bins, and the lengths people have gone to, to keep them closed before the night of unguarded garbage. A little bit of my old prairie sensibility flared up, because this scene is really a bit of an in-joke with other Torontonians. “Center of the Universe,” Calgary sniffs. “Think they're so important.”

Fauna mostly centers on happenings in the Don Valley, and those that live in and around it, including a homeless girl and her dog, and coyotes. The coyotes are under attack from “Coyote Cop,” an angry and traumatized young man (raised in Alberta no less), who expresses his inner turmoil through his determined to wipe the coyotes out. My reaction to the appearance of the coyotes, after being reminded of Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer, was that the book could just as easily have been set in a place like Calgary. My parents' house backs onto Nose Hill Park, and before 14th street was extended behind the house there was very little between us and the animals. I grew up with deer, gophers, and coyotes in the yard. When a new subdivision went up on the other side of the hill, we began to see news stories on TV about how dangerous coyotes were. Homeowners were terrified when off-leash Maltese dogs and outdoor cats were attacked and eaten within close range of the park. Those of us on the original side of the hill scoffed. We'd learned long ago that you don't let your dog off leash, or your cat outdoors, if you wanted to see them again. The coyotes were simply living in a wild space, and if you enter that space, the onus is on you. So, my thought goes, why not Calgary?

Not even halfway through, it's clear that Fauna really does belong in Toronto because of its humans, who are mostly new to the city. This one of the things that makes Toronto, currently, the great place it is. From other parts of the province, the country, the world, Fauna is populated with transplants. Fauna has to be about Toronto, because there's no other city in Canada that attracts such a diverse crowd. There's nothing unusual to us about, for example, a half-white, half-Indian lesbian. Such a character might be seen as sensationalistic set in Calgary, though I'm sure there are plenty of people there that fit the description. York's characters really do represent Toronto, in a way that is multi-experiential without being tokenistic. Perhaps living here means that a local reader of Fauna can simply take this as a matter of course, and pay closer attention to the inner lives and history of the characters, all of which are beautifully told and retold by York. However, I again have to wonder if someone outside the city would be able to accept all the things York cloaks in suggestion or takes as obvious, the small details and differences we as residents already breathe in everyday without noticing.

Perhaps what I'll take away from Fauna is that I need to remember all those details that struck me when I first got here, all the things I learned, and learned to love (the east end? What?!). I've got nothing against coyotes, but Darius the Coyote Cop and I share more than an Alberta heritage. I still get a thrill going over the valley in a subway car; I'm always going to feel a little bit new here. So I leave you with a long passage from Fauna, because this seems to be a pretty central experience for a lot of people who live here, native or not, and it's the best description I've read of it.
He loves crossing the Don Valley. It's been the highlight of every subway ride since he arrive in the city five months ago—that moment when the train leaves its dank tunnel for the viaduct's airy cage. He always makes it his business to stand in a doorway, even when it means shouldering someone out of the way. North-facing on the way downtown, south-facing on the way home—always the side with fewer girders, the clearest view down.
It made him giddy in those early days, feeling the long ravine open up beneath him. Much as he'd told himself he was done with backwoods life, there was something about that remnant of river stretched in its scrubby bed that cause the blood to thrill in his veins. When it was light out, the trees showed him their crowns, still black and bare; winter worked like an X-ray, the space between branches revealing riverbank and brush, trash-strewn campsites, snow and broken grass. When it was dark, the sunken forest grew. The river glinted. The roads—however jammed, however sparkling—were secondary. Some nights, they almost seemed to disappear
There's nothing like this in Calgary.

*I also read a lot of Canadian books set not in Toronto, but mostly in Montreal. Look, CanLit, I'm done chasing you eastward, and we are not going to talk about Michael Winter okay?
**I should definitely pickup Imagining Toronto. I'm pretty sure I used to read the blog.
You know what else we didn't have in Calgary? Raccoons. I'm still completely fascinated by them. I make squee noises.
Oh, but things, they are a-changing. Calgary, I'm proud of you.

Catch Up

I took last week off to have minor surgery. You'd think this would give me plenty of time to read*, but mostly I slept, or lay in bed groggy and unable to focus my eyes. By the weekend I had flushed enough of the drugs out of my system and started reading something that didn't require a lot of attention: Ken Follett's World Without End. My Dad read it when it came out (unlike me, he enjoys books in hardcover), and mentioned it wasn't as good as its sort-of prequel, Pillars of the Earth, which we both enjoyed very much. I'm about halfway through right now, and he's right. I remember loving Pillars the first and subsequent three or four times I read it, but those readings happened many years ago. Perhaps Follett's writing style has changed, or maybe I've grown out of it, but I'm finding myself scoffing at some details (especially in the sex scenes, good grief), and not transported in time as I was when I first read Pillars. Perhaps I need to re-read Pillars and see what's really going on here, but I don't really have the time to devote to another 1000 page monster right now. Anyway, it's fine, it's mindless narrative, and that's about all I can handle right now.

Before surgery, I finished Torpor, the second Chris Kraus novel. It's not nearly as world-changing as I Love Dick, but the thoughtful, well-read, extremely observant, honestly struggling voice is still very much present. Kraus continues to inspire, and makes me want to build little shrines to her. For some reason, the scene in which she casually writes of hanging out with Félix Guattari, and his heroin addicted wife, in Paris while watching the Romanian Revolution on TV really stuck with me. Three paragraphs later she quotes one of my favourite authors, Angela Carter. Her life is an amazing literary theory/rock 'n' roll dream; an autobiography of a literary, feminist Nancy to Sylvère Lotringer's professorial Sid**. Kraus, or the character Sylvie, is also my age in Torpor, dealing with the end of fecundity and the sexual magnetism that youth endows.
Sylvie remembers something her old acting teacher said when she was 22 and fucking him. She'd asked him why he left his wife and he'd replied, "When she was 35, she just became too bitter.
Once again, I tried to find an email, somehow, somewhere, but of course, no dice. I did, however, find a podcast of an interview and reading with Kraus, so the obsession continues. I feel a bit like Violette Leduc...

Sitting beside me, I have three magazines that need attention as well. I was tipped off to a Susan Faludi piece in Harper's by a friend who has a subscription. I do enjoy me some Faludi! As well, I went to Word on the Street on Sunday, and picked up the latest issue of Spacing, and subscribed to the Walrus, getting the October issue immediately.

And the library queue waits for no woman. Oy!


*Or write. I still feel like my brains are a bit scrambled, and this entry took far too long to write, but since I'm off work today, still feeling so, so ill, I thought I'd post something.
**This might not be nearly as weird as it sounds. Kraus was involved in the punk art community of New York in the 70s and 80s, and Sylvère is described as wearing leather jackets without shirts to teach classes, and constantly failing to meet publishing deadlines -- ie he's style over talent/substance. That said, they also marry, get a little dog, and own a house in a small town in upstate New York; I wonder how bourgeois Sid & Nancy may have become without the drugs...

Furious Love

I find it very difficult to allow my whole life to rest on the existence of another creature. I find it equally difficult, because of my innate arrogance, to believe in the idea of love. There is no such thing, I say to myself. There is lust, of course, and usage, and jealousy, and desire and spent powers, but no such thing as the idiocy of love. Who invented that concept? I have wracked my shabby brains and can find no answer. But when people die … those who are taken away from us can never come back. […] So I have decided that for a second or two, the precious potential of you in the next room is the only thing in the world worth living for.

You must know, of course, how much I love you. You must know, of course, how badly I treat you. But the fundamental and most vicious, swinish, murderous, and unchangeable fact is that we totally misunderstand each other. […] But how-so-be-it nevertheless. (A cliche among Welsh politicians.) I love you and I always will …. Come back to me as soon as you can …

BELOVED IDIOT. I MISS YOU TERRIBLY.

— Richard Burton

I suppose it's apt that I'm writing this post on day two of an epic hangover, given the prodigious amount of alcohol both Richarch Burton and Elizabeth Taylor are reported to have put down throughout their lives. I can't say as I've ever cared too much about Elizabeth Taylor, and Burton died when I was a child, so he was never in my consciousness. However, my favourite gossip columnist (I'm not going to pretend I'm above such things) raved over Furious Love for a month, and I'm always up for a good Hollywood story.

To get access to private documents, many of them not published before, I'm sure the authors of Furious Love had to promise not to do a hatchet job on the love story of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Then again, I never got the feeling that they were pulling back from wanting to be snarky. There's a feeling of real respect and goodwill on the part of Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, for the two actors. While Burton and Taylor created quite the scandal in their day, there's no judgement in the writing, merely a spirited reporting of the facts. This is not to say this biography is simply a dry retelling of events (which for my taste, too many bios happen to be). Furious Love has excellent narrative flow, and moves along quickly, even through the frequent details of film-making logistics. More than anything, I think the best aspect of Furious Love is that it avoids being melodramatic (in opposition to what the title would suggest). It would be so easy to make an overly flowery, purple-prose laden book from the subject matter, but Kashner and Schoenberger manage to strike a great balance of journalistic distance and sympathetic interest that reminds the reader that Burton and Taylor were real -- though extraordinary -- people. There's also an interesting subtextual theory running through Furious Love about how the modern concept of paparazzi perhaps started with Burton and Taylor, as they were arguably the first couple to be hounded by the press to such a degree.

One needs only to look at the recent Eminem video/song "Love the Way You Lie" to see that we still tend to conflate "anger" with "passion." Taylor and Burton did so, perhaps because of their booze intake, perhaps they were just fiery people, but it's often said in Furious Love that it was the fighting that somehow kept their connection strong. I've had a relationship that mostly consisted of fighting (though, let me be very clear, not violence), in its last year especially, and I can't say as that ever made me feel more passionate towards him. Quite the opposite in fact. Make up sex? Forget it. More like not speaking for days, or sniping passive-aggressively. That said, there's still a part of my brain that insists that "real" love is the way it's portrayed in the "real" life of Burton and Taylor, because media have always told me so. Burton and Taylor aren't much different from a romance novel couple, and of course that's what makes them interesting to read about. One wouldn't read 400 pages of "Burton ate some cereal, then washed and dried the bowl, replacing it in the kitchen cupboard where he had found it." The Fiery Couple is what books and movies are made of. Since life is, in general, really about the cereal bowls, and if they're left out dirty, we need stories of people like Burton and Taylor to relieve us of that mundane world. The distraction, I think, is what keeps us able to deal with the cereal bowls.

I Want to Care About Your Book


When you give your Dad the url of your book blog, it's inevitable you're going to write a post on said blog that might not be Dad-friendly. This is that post. Dear Dad, you may not enjoy some of the language or vague personal details in this post.

There was such a buzz, at least within nerd girl circles, about I Don't Care About Your Band when it came out. Finally! One of us! Julie Klauser is my age, judging by the stories inside; she's not a cheerleader or the popular girl, she's a "chubby" (?) Jewish redhead who's into Broadway musicals. She's a bit odd, she's smart, she's funny. Not stand-out odd, like the goth kids, or the troubled girls who wound up in group homes. Just odd enough that people forget she's there some of the time. She's that dorky kid I was in school, that no one thought would ever have a boyfriend, let alone engage in one-night stands and a series of flings. Julie Klausner and I figured out boys at some point, and we made up for lost time.

When Tiger Beatdown made a passing reference to Klausner a couple weeks back, that was all the motivation I needed to pick up a copy. Later, a friend Twittered about not quite knowing what to do with I Don't Care About Your Band. There was something vaguely wrong about the book for her. I felt it too, and having now finished the book, I have some specifics.

First, I found the overall tone to be a bit too Sex and the City. I loved Sex and the City, but there's only room for one Carrie Bradshaw. Carrie rides that line between awesome and annoying a lot, and any immitators will always fall on the "annoying" side, by virtue of not being first. While Klausner actually says something about not being Carrie, she actually kind of is. She lives in Manhattan with mystery money (her sketcky employment record does not say "apartment in the City" to me), she talks about about Manhattan as the centre of her world, and boys, and clothes, and fucking. Sure, she likes different boys and clothes than Carrie would, but the way she talks about sex is pretty similar. Yes, she throws in the references to Usenet and MST3K that the dorky girls will grok, and she likes Slater-Kinney so she's got the 90s cool chick band cred, but she doesn't show enough of this personality to convince me that she's something different than I've seen before. It's almost the same girl in new clothes (and Manhattan apartment, and boys, and fucking). All this is a shame, because when we get pure Klausner, she is really, really likeable, and probably someone I'd want to hang out with*.

Klausner has some honestly weird and troubling things to say about gays and lesbians. She spends a chapter insisting that every straight girl procure herself a gay, as if he was a consumer product a girl simply shouldn't live without. She insists that straight girlfriends are too often fairweather, and friendships with straight men will often be complicated by sexual attraction (and activity). And you know, she's probably right about the relationships between straights. Thing is, gay men are still people and they should probably have a say in existing soley to prop up straight girls. As well, she has this weird idea about what sort of porn lesbians are into **.
I'm not saying I don't watch porn. Of course I watch porn, because I am not a nun. And I don't watch "erotica" with a "story" or "period costumes" in it, because I am also not a lesbian."
I realise this is an attempt at humour, Klauser being first and foremost a comedy writer. It just wasn't funny, and it rang false. It seems to me that the "erotica" is more aimed at that stereotypical middle-America minivan mom who enjoys a good Danielle Steel novel. Then again, I'm making judgments here as well. Who knows who that shit is made for. Let's just all agree it's dull, and not make anyone watch it. The point is, Klausner too often uses gays and lesbians as punchlines and props for her comedy bits, and I thought we had sort of gotten past that.

Also, little picky thing, but I hate Klausner's editor. I think they reined in her personality too much, while asking her to amp up the sex and preachy advice. In the meantime, [they forgot to correct her when she calls a verb a noun ("He was 'chill,' which is a noun that dicks have recently made into an adjective.")I stand corrected! One can catch "a chill." Still, it feels damn verb-y to me!!] they let her get away with strange anachronisms, like mentioning Miley Cyrus in the chapter where she describes being 15. Miley, my friends, was not even born then.

There's some really great stuff in I Don't Care About Your Band, like the part where she classifies vegans (Animal Rights, Anti-Chemical, and Anorexic), or her very insightful ideas on why some men want the plain girl ("The ultimate emo-boy fantasy is to meet a nerdy, cute girl just like him, and nobody else will realise she's pretty."), which she wonderfully dovetails into a warning about "nice guys." Ultimately, my problem with I Don't Care About Your Band is that it comes off more like a self-help book about ego and relationships, than a memoir. I would have enjoyed and identified with a memoir, but instead I felt like I was reading "The Alterna-Rules for Young Women." The target audience is likely younger than Klausner and I, someone who's in the midst of trying to navigate the crazy casual-sex 20s. I've lived this, and while I wouldn't mind laughing along with someone who lived it too, I don't need the slight pedantry and weird/wise older-sister vibe.

*Except, she doesn't care about Star Wars, and that's kind of unforgivable.
**I really wish I could remember where I read something about lesbians watching gay male porn, but I can't, and I'm SOOOOO not googling "lesbian+gay+male+porn" because I'm pretty sure I'm not going to find what I'm looking for... or will I?

Canada's Most Predictable Punching Bags

The Huffington Post piece on overrated authors didn't make Anis Shivani any friends. Jezebel had a rather good take on the article, with their rebuttal "Literary Critic Hates Vaginas, 'Ghetto Volume'". Similar lists were inevitable. I find these lists to be nothing more than opportunities for critics to unleash a hail of insults on those they deem unworthy, somehow, of praise, sales, and awards, and they do nothing to broaden the reading public's understanding or appreciation of literature. (I do, however, see great value in lists of "underrated authors" who can definitely benefit from exposure.)

Today, we get the Canadian list, co-authored by Steven W. Beattie, and if you read his blog That Shakespearean Rag or his other work at all, there will be absolutely no surprises for you here. The same old complaints about the same old authors appear. How Michaels and Ondaatje* engage in overly complex tricks of language... oh excuse me, I mean "abstruse metaphoric language and self-conscious, sonorous prose." There are complaints about the derivative nature of Can Lit, which is funny in a third-hand copy-cat list, the details of which have been copy/pasted from previous reviews and blog posts, either verbatim or by rote memory.

Predictably, I want to give some love to Douglas Coupland. In the Canadian list we are also treated to complaints about Coupland's use of irony** and pop culture, which is such a throwaway Amazon Review reading of his work. In my discussions of Coupland, I don't pay overmuch attention to these issues. Yes, these are elements of his work, but they're set pieces, not the characters or novel itself. I have always enjoyed how much pop culture Coupland puts in his novels, because that's the world I live in. I pay attention to all aspects of the world around me, not just the highbrow. I don't pretend to live in an ivory tower and I would never want to. That Coupland writes from down on the ground makes his novels work with me, instead of making me work for them. And sometimes that's okay. Every novel doesn't need to be A.S. Byatt.

To miss the attention Coupland pays to human interaction, and the consequences of the lack of that interaction, is to call Coupland "overrated." If you don't see his funny, weird, and often intensely lonely people for the recognizable human beings they are, then you're missing the point entirely. I haven't loved every novel, but when he gets it right -- as in Eleanor Rigby or The Gum Thief -- Coupland can be devastatingly astute about what a commodified culture, overloaded with information, does to our psyche, and how this culture leaves some of us alone, alienated, and clinging to false talismans made of plastic and light.

Edit: I am remiss in not mentioning that Coupland can also be very funny, and has the ability to take our monstrous capitalist productions and turn them into Lego bricks of joy.

To call Coupland "lowbrow" is to be a self-apologist for not giving enough attention to a writer who would certainly do you the favour of close examination, should you appear in his work.

*I don't find him completely unreadable, but I really don't enjoy Ondaatje.
**Is it ironic that the word "lazy" appears in reference to Coupland, when this list is a pastiche of previously published opinions?
Oh, jPod, how sad you make me.
Ondaatje is too snooty! Coupland is not snooty enough! Perhaps Canadian authors could benefit from a Snoot-O-Meter, to help them meet the exacting specifications of the critical establishment?

Open Letter to Jodi Picoult

Dear Ms Picoult,
I agree, the New York Times really, really likes white dudes from Brooklyn. I noticed a while back, and the reviewers there are not real subtle in their idol worship. Further, I'm pretty sure the reviewer of the new Franzen book, Michiko Kakutani, is predisposed to hate female authored books. All this can definitely get pretty annoying.

However, I complain as a reader. You're complaining as a writer, and I have to assume that you're complaining because your reviews have been less than positive. Here's the thing: you're a horrible writer. Your situations are cliche and contrived. Your characters are more than unlikeable, they're hateful and unbelieveable. You seem to be writing to ensure a TV movie option.

You sell a lot of books and I can't figure out why. Maybe all this is unfair of me, since I've only read about 50 pages of one of your novels. I can't remember another book I've hated so much I had to put it down and quit. There are books I don't like, having finished them, but yours was the only one that so disgusted me I had to stop and give it back to the library, lest it contaminate my house further.

So maybe I just don't know enough of your work. But have you read Franzen? He's really, really good. So is Lethem. Some of the Wonderboys the NYT loves aren't all that, but those two? They kinda are. You are not now and will never be in the same league.

I'm annoyed that you co-opted a very valid complaint for your sour grapes. You cheapen and lessen the point. It almost feels like Sarah Palin calling herself a feminist. Right words, wrong people.

Next time the NYT fawns over Tao Lin, though, feel free to lose your shit.

Sincerely,
Panic

Mind Unchanged


As an avowed grump, I looked forward to reading Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America.

The first chapter on cancer, and the relentless positivity patients are expected to embrace, is the most convincing. In fact, Ehrenreich has some very interesting things to say about cancer, and her own experience as a patient. She writes that
the rebel cells that have realized that the genome they carry, the genetic essence of me in whatever deranged form has no further chance of normal reproduction in the postmenopausal body we share, so why not just start multiplying like bunnies and hope for a chance to break out?
Ehrenreich goes on to write of studies that show a correlation between positive attitudes and immune system health. However, the Journal of Clinical Oncology notes "the immune system does not appear to recognize cancers within an individual as foreign, because they are actually part of the self." It's an interesting and factual take on cancer, lacking in sensationalistic scare tactics. Cancer is so often seen as something that can be wholly prevented if one just tries hard enough, cutting risk factors, being born with the "right" genes, and even thought away, as Ehrenreich reports. However, to think of a cancer as an organic part of the self is almost a radical approach, though scientifically it's a bit of a no-brainer.

The next chapters, however, are less convincing. Ehrenreich comes out against positive thinking methods involving the rubber band trick (in which you snap a rubber band against your skin when you have a negative thought), and positive thinking and list making to reprogram negative attitudes. While she doesn't mention it by name, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy employs these tactics, and is often successful in treating illnesses like depression. I find Ehrenreich's dismissal of these techniques (and later her supposition that the pharmaceutical industry prompted psychologists to prove their worth with these and other thought exercises) to be a bit heavy-handed. There's a lot of research out there that says we're way, way over-medicated for depression, and I expected some critical analysis of this. Instead, she glosses over medications, and indeed, there's some tacit approval of them.

Ehrenreich also makes some pretty tenuous connections. For example, she seems to be hinting that Positive Thinking practitioners had a part, however small, in the layoffs and corporate restructuring of the 80s and 90s. Seems to me it's more likely that entrepreneurs were taking advantage of a new market. This would actually have seemed more sinister and proved the point that motivational speakers and the like were really just wanting to cash in on a social phenomenon at the expense of people in a difficult situation, rather than having a part in creating hardship.

In her chapter on the rise of positive thinking megachurches that take sin and God out of the equation, Ehrenreich spends a paragraph snarking on the appearance of a couple of the new breed of (very wealthy) preachers. The female of the couple, Victoria, is just back from winning court case in which she was being sued by a stewardess she treated miserably on a flight. Ehrenreich is part of the crowd at the megachurch that day.
I look around cautiously to see how everyone else is reacting to this celebration of a millionaire's court victory over a working woman, who happened in this case the be African American. The crowd, which is about two-thirds black and Latino and appears to contain few people who have ever landed a lucrative book deal or flown first-class, applauds Victoria enthusiastically.
Instead of attempting to explain this phenomenon, which would be well within the scope of the book, Ehrenreich devotes only a couple sentences, almost a literary shake of the head, an "aren't these folks silly" sort of dismissal. There's also a weird point she makes about modern megachurches that I can't shake off: Church buildings used to be built to inspire and be seen as something outside of the mundane world. "Not so the megachurches, which seem bent on camouflaging themselves as suburban banks or school buildings." A look at church architecture in Canada (I can't speak for anywhere else) from the 60s and 70s, across denominations, shows this as a phenomenon of the 20th century, not of any one particular turn of faith, though the megachurches do indeed hold more people, and are less community/neighbourhood sized.

What I find most troubling, is Ehrenreich's "patron at the zoo" way of writing. I did notice this when I read Nickel and Dimed many years ago. Ehrenreich often treats the poor and working class in her books like caged animals, with pity and disdain, instead of understanding. As mentioned above, she looks down on the "black and Latino" congregation of a couple of rich, white preachers, instead of attempting to look at how a supposedly poor group would find solace in the message. (I say "supposedly" because Ehrenreich doesn't mention actually talking to these people, she judges them simply by looking at them.) She finds certain psychologists merely silly or annoying, and makes her personal dislike known, while skimming over facts. This will be the last Ehrenreich I read, because I really can't take her classism (and possible racism!)any longer. Ehrenreich has pretensions of journalism, but her books read like a long, and in this case poorly thought-out, letter to the editor instead.

* * *

In the "things that do not suck" portion of this post, the always amazing Kerry Clare has a great post on the Toronto Women's Bookstore, and her life with feminism over at Pickle Me This.

Isolation

I suppose it's become normal for "setting" (usually a city or a decade) to be a character in novels. What made me realise this, is how background the 80s are in Model Home. I was expecting lots of shout-outs to... well, everything I remember from my childhood. Instead, the references that tie the characters to a time are minimal, and a bit startling when they do appear. Because I'm so used to being bombarded by reminders of where/when a novel is happening, I wondered why the novel had been set in the 80s at all. Why not now? What makes the 80s special and integral to the storyline in a way that, say, the 90s could not have been? As part two of the novel opened, I understood the reason: The Cold War.

I was a kid in the 80s, and I basically accepted nuclear annihilation as fact. We didn't have the "duck and cover" drills of the early 60s (though I'm not sure they ever had those in Canada), but we were hyper-aware of the USA/USSR conflict, and the way it was "fought." We had Red Dawn and "Wild, Wild West"* and "Land of Confusion" and probably about 1000 songs I'm forgetting, telling us we were just a step away from the earth being blown up six times over. Eldest son of the Ziller family, Dustin is also a product of this saturation of nuclear fear. When he awakens in the hospital, half-covered in third-degree burns, his first thought is of nuclear war.
When they told him he'd been burned, his first thought was World War III. The Russians must have attacked. He didn't remember the accident, but when they told him about it--the cigarette, the house exploding into flames--it seemed too ludicrous to be true.
The Ziller family, homeless from the explosion, and bankrupted by father Warren's investment in a non-starter of a desert subdivision, has no choice but to move to a house they own by default. The street is completely devoid of people, stinking from the garbage dump not far away, and full of scalding surfaces. Youngest son Jonas, who is blamed for the explosion in the former home, rides his bike "in a place with only one block [...] there were no pedestrians, the block was utterly, echoingly empty." They may as well be the last people on earth.

It's probably apocryphal, but there's a theory that bugs, roaches, would be the only animals to survive a nuclear holocaust. I began to think about this supposition, and the relationship of Mobile Home to Kafka's Metamorphosis** after a couple mentions of the proliferation of roaches, and of feeling "buglike." The explosion that displaces the Ziller family to the desert also changes the Ziller boys into twin Gregor Samsas; hideous, unlovable, and alienated. Jonas' parents acknowledge that they no longer love their youngest child, who they assume is responsible for physically changing their eldest son into something unrecognizable from the rock 'n' roll, golden boy surfer they knew previous. The family purposely barely recognize Jonas in their midst, in an effort to keep themselves from outright hating him. For his part, Dustin retreats to his room. The life he had pictured for himself is utterly destroyed by the immense change not only in his appearance, but health and mobility.

Model Home does an excellent job of personalizing the cultural anxiety of the West in the final, escalating stages of the Cold War. The Zillers have The Bomb dropped on them, but only them. They are isolated not only within their community of no-one, but within themselves. Technology encroaches, and isolates even further. Dustin remains with his father, in the desert, watching movie after movie on his VCR. Jonas plays Joust for hours, with no possible end, as the game is unwinnable. The future's not so bright.


*This video is as creepy as I remember it.
**Which I'd not read before, but borrowed from the library immediately after finishing Mobile Home so I could make sure I wasn't totally off-base.
I'm not proposing that Model Home is at all a retelling of Metamorphosis. However, there are thematic similarities.

We Meet Again, Booker


Last year I decided to go ahead and read everything on the Booker Prize Short List, though after the prize had been given out. I've consciously read Booker noms before (most memorably Darkmans: amazing), but didn't really make an effort to make a reading list out of the prize nominees.

The 2009 stand-out for me was easily Simon Mawer's The Glass Room. I was completely invested in each character, and the ending, while a bit reliant on Victorian-style contrivance and coincidence, was completely satisfying.

Wolf Hall, winner of the 2009 Booker, was enjoyable but less moving. It almost felt like a "summer read" to me. I gifted it to my Dad for Christmas, since he loves a good historical novel. I certainly get that from him. It's not often these days that my Dad and I read the same book, so it was nice to have a bookish conversation with him again. He also filled me in on what happens to Cromwell after Wolf Hall ends. As one would expect from the court of Henry VIII, it's not good.

The Little Stranger was more enjoyable for me than Tipping the Velvet, which I found a bit heavy-handed. I'd read The Children's Book a good while before the Booker list was announced, because it's A.S. Byatt, and I am a slobbering fan girl. I don't really get Coetzee, and found myself hating the dreariness of everything in Summertime. I wanted to like The Quickening Maze more than I did, but as in the Coetzee, I found pretty much everyone unlikeable (perhaps I was too put off by the portrayal of Tennyson), and was thus unable to invest much feeling for the outcome of the characters.

Yesterday, the 2010 long-list was announced, and I've not read anything on it. Which means I'll have plenty of titles to add to my library queue come the announcement of the shortlist. I hope Lisa Moore makes it, because I keep meaning to read her, and keep getting distracted by shiny objects. I hope David Mitchell doesn't make it, because I really disliked Cloud Atlas. Hell, I didn't even finish Cloud Atlas and there are very, very few books I don't finish. I felt like I was reading Tristam Shandy again. Too convoluted and proud of it*. Not my scene, man.

I'm really looking forward to repeating my Booker Shortlist reading series. Not all the 2009 books were in the "win" column for me, but I read books I might not normally pick up, and I suppose that's the whole point of these things in the end: exposure.

*I realise the same could be said for critical theory.

I Think I Got a C- in Critical Theory Class

There's a problem with finishing a book I really, really love: I have a hard time starting anything else. I stopped and started about four different books before I was able to get into Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer, which I picked up at the big Ithaca book sale in May. No idea why I bought that particular book there, since it's available in multitudes in every used book store everywhere. I'm odd. And yet, even after that, I was still stuck on I Love Dick.

This is long (for a blog post, but extremely brief for a real analysis), and I'm trying to twist my way through some theory that's new to me. It's probably nonsensical because I'm still trying to grasp so many things. Critical Theory has never been my strong suit, but I'm so intensely fascinated with it, after reading I Love Dick, that I can't help but try.

I love I Love Dick so much that I bought my own copy off Amazon, just so I could re-read and annotate it. I love I Love Dick so much that I tried, and failed, to find an email address for Chris Kraus so I could tell her how much that book meant to me. I Love Dick makes me want to read everything else Kraus has written, go back to school, and write a Master's thesis on her. And I love I Love Dick so much that I felt I had to come back and write more about it, since I basically just used it to introduce my thoughts on Russell Smith in a previous post. Yet writing this post, I know I still can't do it any justice. I really would need so much more space, and time, and education to even get close. What follows is what currently has my brain spinning.

Early on, Kraus writes about herself in the third person:
Chris was not a torture victim, not a peasant. She was an American artist, and for the first time it occurred to her that perhaps the only thing she had to offer was was her specificity. By writing Dick [the person, or the book?] she was offering her life as Case Study.
Throughout, Kraus introduces the reader to other case studies in love, but what these studies really are, and what they become, are introductions to the lives of individuals. Some of these people are artists, and thus possibly recognizable to people -- unlike me -- who know something about the art world. Some are activists, or writers. Some are "regular" people. It's possible, too, that some are entirely fictional. Because I Love Dick is memoir-as-fiction, it's purposely difficult, within the realm of this text only, to guess at the "authenticity" of the accounts, and it's possible that one shouldn't. In writing this book, Kraus brings into existence lives unknown to the reader, including her own. In other words, by writing to Dick, she writes herself into existence.

In the afterword, Joan Hawkins notes:
And while Kraus doesn't quote Guattari until late in the text, his presence is already felt in the first letter. In fact, what's interesting is Chris' idea that you can somehow use Baudillard's notion of the hyper-real, the simulacrum, to get to Delueze and Guattari's notion of intensification. And that perhaps is the theoretical drive behind the entire project, as the letters and the simulacrum of a passion which receives little encouragement emerge as the truest and best way outside the virtual gridlock and into Deleuzian rematerialization of experience.
Simulacrum is a new concept to me, but if my novice (and rusty theoretical) reading is correct, Kraus plays with the notion that "real" lives might not exist until they become a form of hyper-real, lived through life, through the author, then finally reader. The Wikipedia entry on Baudrillard's theory of Simulacra and Simulation states that "today there is no such thing as reality" Our world is one "in which the dominant simulacrum is the model, which by its nature already stands for endless reproducibility, and is itself already reproduced." When Kraus writes about a life, in a fictional way, it is a reproduction of a life lived, which is made more real with every reading, by a stranger, of each or every life. Each printing, or reproduction, of I Love Dick is an affirmation of these lives. While it is Baudrillard's opinion that hyper-reality renders experience meaningless, I feel that in working with a text like I Love Dick, simulacra can create an authentically meaningful experience for a reader who might not have had the opportunity otherwise.

There's an interesting typo that happens repeatedly -- but not consistently -- which I have to think is intentional: Kraus often confuses "it's" and "its." There is, I think, a purposeful mutability between "possessing" and "being" throughout I Love Dick. Dick is angry that he has become part of Chris' story ("I found the situation initially perplexing, then disturbing") but does Chris not own Dick, if she brings him into being (as postulated above)? Only through her authorial ownership, do Dick and the others exist.


* * *

Speaking of ownership, I tweeted the following, which some viewers found disturbing:
"I love cracking a spine so the book can lay flat for me to copy from it."
I get that some people like to keep their books more pristine, but as I said in my next tweet "I live with books. I mark them, I crease them, I use them and they look it. Dog-eared and underlined. LOVED."* I sometimes sleep with books beside me, and they get rolled on. I carry books with me, and they get banged up. It's interesting, the differences in how we treat our books, as book lovers. I don't think one approach is better than any other. The way we love books is as individual as the books we choose to love.

*I do want to note, as I did on Twitter, that I only do this to books in my personal collection; I try very hard to keep library books in the condition in which they were loaned to me.

I Don't Hate Catholics, and Neither Should You

"The Vatican issued a new set of rules Thursday to respond to the worldwide clerical abuse scandal, cracking down on priests who rape and molest minors and the mentally disabled." The document also states that ordaining a woman is a sin on the same level. That's right, anyone who ordains a woman is, to the Catholic Church, as bad as someone who sexually molests children. The actual sin, is ordaining anyone whom a bishop* has not given the okay to ordain, but since that permission will never be granted for a woman (and I use the word "never" consciously, given the context under which the action is described in the aforementioned document), that sin will always be as great as the destruction of a child's life. Of course, women and children always get lumped in together, and the Catholic Church has a pretty bad record with both. This is pretty offensive stuff, but it's unsurprising given that the Church is run by men.

Here's the point of this post, and weirdly, it's not to kvetch about the Catholic Church: I can't post this to Facebook. My first instinct on hearing the news this morning, was to put up a link on Facebook, and say "Oh look, The Dudes in Rome have done it again." I've done so before, when an American nun was excommunicated because she told a pregnant women that she was allowed control over her own body, to save her own life. I framed it as a feminist issue, because it is. I posted a link to an article about the case to my profile.

Catholics don't have a lock on denying women agency over their own bodies. In fact, most of the American anti-choice agitators are Protestant. Moreover, religious people aren't the only ones who openly practice misogyny. My point, when posting about the nun, is that anytime you have a group of (mostly) men running something, women are going to get the short end of the stick. That's the way it works. It could be sexual harassment in publishing, the Catholic Church, or the Canadian government. Of course, with a total lack of female voices in positions of power, the Catholic Church will commit especially egregious crimes against women. This does not mean that religious people are bad. This is one of the responses I got, however, on Facebook.

A dude missing the irony gene decided to tell me what is and is not a feminist issue. "I don't see this as a feminism issue at all," he said. "It's another notch in the RCC's hypocrisy belt. I still say draw the line: You either condemn the entire organization, or you endorse their behaviour." He went on to say "Focusing on the feminist slant only imposes a different form of oppressive discourse." Yep, if I'm interested in how women are treated, I'm imposing an oppressive discourse. The commenter's basic argument was that the Church, not the men who run it, are the source of oppression. Rather obviously, I disagree.

This went back and forth for hours but it's not isolated. I've seen people trash religion all over, even on the pages of people who are deeply committed to their faith. I've read of someone being "disappointed" that a celebrity they liked is an active Catholic. It's en vogue to paint people who believe in God (however you define that god) as stupid and/or evil, in part due to a mindset Terry Eagleton calls "Ditchkins" in his excellent Reason, Faith, and Revolution. The Dawkins/Hitchens school takes dogmatic -- and weirdly evangelical -- atheism as a higher calling. I have seen a form of hate spewed forth from Dogmatic Atheists directed to the religious, that I have not seen from those who are practicing Catholics, Jews, or Muslims (and yes, I count all these among my friends) in the other direction. Frankly, I'm fucking sick of it, and I call it out whenever I see it. Atheism and evil are not mutually exclusive.

I've been everything from a baptized COS Presbyterian, child atheist, LDS church attending friend, atheist again, Wiccan,** possible Jew, to finally agnostic. The thread that runs through my life, is that atheism never lasts long. I always come back to knowing that there's something out there, and I think it's bigger than me. I don't know what "God" is, but I think it's a mistake to discount it because evolution is real. I also think some atheists make a huge mistake in engaging in a form of bigoty because it's fashionable. There are certainly horrible things done in the name of religion, but in the absence of God, a lot of horrible things would still have happened and continue to happen.

So I won't post this to Facebook, because frankly I don't feel like reading all the misdirected hate.

Fight the real enemy.



* Archbishop? Cardinal? I'm not really sure who gets to make these decisions.
**It was the 90s. I was 19. Most of my cohort was Wiccan at some point.

Respect

A small note that turned into a larger note...

Lisa Rundle is going back to work at Penguin. For. The. Win.

I can't tell you how happy that makes me. She fought, she won, and she's going back. This outcome is far too rare in any sexual harassment case. I thought she had a boatload of courage to speak out, and to take action. To go back, and take her rightful place, is just a whole new level of amazing. Twitter chatter today had some opinions on how difficult it would be to go back to your employer after this. I don't doubt it will be. I'd like to say I'd do the same, I'd love to do the same, but I'd be scared too. I hope you're not scared, Lisa. You have so many of us behind you.

The coverage (I can find on google) of this has been pretty interesting. Most of the articles mentioning Rundle's return are really about the appointment of Mike Bryan, with a mention of Rundle in a later paragraph. I suppose there aren't many people who are able and willing to go on record about how they feel about Rundle returning to work, so they need the stuff on Bryan to fill the space. I get it, I'm just more interested in her.

Not for nothing, but it turns out that Bryan — Rundle's new boss, yes? — met his now-wife while he was her manager at a bookshop. Thanks to Steven W. Beattie for this little gem:
Some years passed, and books also brought Bryan and his wife, Heather Adams, together. He was working as a manager in a bookstore in the north of England and she was the “Saturday girl” there – which means, he explains, that she came to work only on Saturdays.
Yeeeeeeah.

Crazy Love

The arteries of the hand & arm that write lead straight into the heart -Chris Kraus

A couple weeks ago, Sady of Tiger Beatdown wrote one of the best (online) things I've ever read, on the nature of internet feminism, and being a bad feminist. The catalyst for that post was a book called I Love Dick, which I felt to be a must-read. Sady wasn't wrong about the power of this book, its honesty, heart, and intelligence. Of course, all readers bring their own baggage to a reading experience, and I got some additional things out of I Love Dick. I found complicated and wonderful musings on the nature of love: how and why we love, how our politics can get in and get pushed out of the way, and how we use and lose our brains, all in pursuit of the object of our desire. One finds, through author Chris Kraus' honesty, that nothing really changes from the all-or-nothing days of adolescence. Love can still make you crazy: you re-think and over-think, write and re-write. It's through the process of writing to Love -- and I feel that the titular personage of Dick is ultimately a stand-in for the emotion itself -- that the political and personal become delineated, detailed, and finally, finely, understood.

I Love Dick also elucidated the book I finished previous to it: Russell Smith's Girl Crazy. In one of the early letters to Dick, the object of Chris' unrequited and inexplicable love, she writes the following:
The "serious" contemporary hetero-male novel is a thinly veiled Story of Me, as voraciously consumptive as all of patriarchy. While the hero/anti-hero explicitly is the author, everybody else is reduced to "characters." *

In Girl Crazy our hero/anti-hero is Justin. I began reading Girl Crazy a couple days after Smith's weird Globe and Mail piece, though not because of it. It was evident pretty early on that Justin is a stand in for Smith, the wordy nerd** who longs for something Other. He finds that in Jenna, the archetypal wild girl that nerdy boys have always dreamed of, but never seem to get. She's the stripper with the heart of a poet; a girl who offers all orifices and speaks about philosophy, though at a second grade level. She's just slutty enough, and as such, lacks depth (as Zoe Whittall pointed out in her review). Justin's educated female peer group is no less shallow. They're catty when Jenna meets them, and late in the novel Justin's ex-girlfriend refuses any advance into territory that is unfamiliar or slightly risque. All this, of course, leads me to wonder if Smith really does love these PR girls for their brains.

Girl Crazy isn't a bad book. It's a quick, interesting read, with some glimpses of real emotion. However, when Justin walks off into the sunset with the phallic adjunct of a gun in his pants, one might conclude that what really makes the author/character crazy, is his own dick.


*See also, Sady's excellent piece Fond Memories of Vagina: Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow

**There's a Monty Python joke on pg 27. That's high-level nerd.

The virgin/whore dichotomy is alive and well.

Russell Smith is Awesome, According Russell Smith

From the missing the point files, Russel Smith writes about what a swell guy he is to not sleep with the women who work for him (or rather, his publisher):
I need these people working at their best and most relaxed. They make me look good. If I made any of my colleagues nervous about talking to me or seeing me then I would only be damaging myself. They wouldn’t want to help me. So you could say it’s a selfish self-control. Hell, even a consensual relationship would be idiotic: I need my colleagues to be objective and unemotional. And I need my career more than I need the ego-boost of impressing a lady. Perhaps I’m getting old, but believe it or not, I actually value my colleagues’ professional abilities more than their beauty.

Which is tough to believe, given the space he devotes to telling all the LAYDEEZ in publishing how smokin' they are. By the way, if you're not 32, gorgeous, with a graduate degree* from one of the best universities in the country, you're invisible. Because according to Smith, publishing is absolutely filled with these women. That's the "truth." Except, it's not. At all. Publishing is filled with bookish girls, nerdy girls. As Stacey May Fowles pointed out, working in publishing is a "labour of love." It's not the pay and the glamour that attracts women (and men) to the industry, because there isn't a lot of either. It's the chance to work with the love of our lives: books.

If Smith is attracted to women because of their brains, that's one thing, but the article makes it sound like publishing is filled with Runway Model PhDs turned publicists. (Granted, publicists have more pressure on them to look good — way more). Then he wants to be a hero for managing to keep things professional. Hell, maybe he is, since so few manage to do so. I could do without the massive self-congratulations though.

Edit: Something just struck me: isn't it amazing that an industry so "dominated" by women (as Smith points out) is one of the lowest paid and hardest to get into? If we're so dominant, how come all these really educated women are making so little? Look, I know the margins on books are next to nothing, I know the industry as a whole makes next to nothing, but.. yes. Amazing.

*Actually, the graduate degree thing might be right. You need one to be an assistant these days, the field is that crowded

Sex & Fantasy (But Not Like That)

In a moment of extreme cynicism*, I once said: "Every time a woman has sex, it's a transaction."

The characters in Sub Rosa are women who have sex for money. However, the book manages to be rather unsexy for the most part. I hope this was a conscious choice on the part of the author, Amber Dawn, because it works here. The book is a fantasy, about another world, or parallel universe, where sex work is always extremely well-paid, safe, and glamorous. Even the downtrodden on Sub Rosa are Goth Lollis who reside in -- to steal a phrase -- a majestically disheveled mansion. Perhaps, it is an effort to normalize sex work in the context of a unreal novel. I do appreciate Sub Rosa for attempting to be a female-led fantasy quest novel. I never could get through The Hobbit; I tried so many times to read the Shanara series when I was in grade school; I couldn't even get into Kushiel's Dart**. Perhaps it's that Sub Rosa still has a hand in the "real" world, that kept me interested. More likely, I think an author finally set aside whatever it is I find so tedious in the usual fantasy novel, and just gave good story.

I don't think I'd be too out-of-line to call Amber Dawn sexually progressive. It's clear she's into shaking up perceptions of what sex is, or should be. So why is it, that in a book which attempts to normalize and humanize sex workers, our heroine is, at the beginning of our story... a virgin? I mean, what!? How are we not past this trope? I remember the first, last, and only Jodi Picoult novel I tried to read. I don't even remember what it was called, but I do remember how our heroine finds the man of her dreams, is assumed a virgin, and never tells him different, because he's so incredibly invested in her "purity." I think I was about 50 pages in when I stopped in disgust. Right, also, Jodi Picoult is not very good, but the point is, why isn't this whole cult of virginity over already? What year are we in? Why is virginity still so important? Dawn doesn't dwell on Little's virginity, and it's only mentioned a couple times. Still, I was bothered by it, and couldn't help dwelling. What am I missing here? It's a small detail that got me thinking a lot, but overall Sub Rosa worked for me.

* * *


Yep, I just talked about sex after I talked about sexual harassment. No, I don't see a problem there. Anyway, the Quill Blog linked me (with permission) yesterday. Book Ninja followed suit this morning, and then somehow The Huffington Post got a hold of the post. My hit counter exploded.

Hi, People.

So many of the hits have been from publishing houses, and media sites. Names I spent my whole adult life wanting to work for. The irony of getting their attention only after I have likely burnt my last bridge is crushing my ribcage a little bit right now. *ow* In the end it's fine, because this whole thing isn't really about me. Weird head-space though.

I was talking to the Boyfriend a bit about it all, and he wondered how Boss could even live with himself. I'm not defending or making excuses, but Boss does not live in a vacuum. He had a corporate culture behind him that permitted and excused his behaviour. That corporate culture is part of a larger culture that still undervalues women as people, and overvalues them as receptacles. These "incidents" aren't isolated, they're symptoms of something larger, and you know, ladies, we're not "there" yet. Wherever the hell "there" is... sometimes it feels like they keep moving it on us.

*Ah, but did you know? Romantics make the best cynics
**A book which is supposed to be incredibly sexy, and kinky, and all that, and I was just bored.
Pick up Jessica Valenti's excellent The Purity Myth.
That's not me in the photo. We didn't even have a water cooler!

Day Two

When I wrote yesterday's post, I linked it on my Twitter account so my friends could read it. Over 500 hits later, I'm humbled and stunned that it has traveled so far. Thank-you, everyone, so many of you, for your kind linking and for your support.

On Twitter, yesterday, I said that if I can help just one woman call "bullshit," then I'll have done something good in the world. Or maybe get someone to think, "Wow, this isn't my fault." Because it's not your fault, and you're not asking for it, and you have a right not to be treated this way. Please remember that.

If you've subscribed to this blog*, but haven't read anything else, I want you to know this is generally a humble book blog, and the talk will go back to that soon. You should also know I'm a feminist, and I'm not afraid of that word, or the politics that go along with it. If none of this is your bag, jump ship now. If you're interested, I'm very happy to have you along for the ride.

I do wish I had written a better, more coherent post, but it was the sort of thing that you write up in five minutes, and hit send before you can talk yourself out of it. Truthfully, I might have deleted had it not been linked within the first couple moments of its life. I'm glad I didn't delete. I'm glad you read. I hope, one day, more will write their own stories. I hope we can blow the lid off this thing, because I know; it's not just me either.

*Thank you, too, anonymous commenter. I've set up a button for that purpose. I never thought to do such a thing!