The School Visit

I have lingering flu weird head space. So forgive some wandering in this post. I've been living on Green Juice for days.

When I was in the 10th grade we had a Real! Live! Author! come give a talk to the budding writers among us. It was totally optional to go, and there were probably about 20 students collected in the library to hear her talk. I'd just handed in a short story that had received an unusually high mark (and I've probably not written any fiction as good since), and was told that I should go as well. So there I was.

The author was Elona Malterre. You might not have heard of her. Certainly the other students hadn't. But by some weird twist, I had. My Dad had bought and read her book, The Celts*. Since I was constantly raiding my Dad's library, I'd read it too. This was my encounter with a Real! Live! Author!, and I still remember thinking "Well if I'd have known it was her, I'd have brought the book for her to sign!" I was actually pretty thrilled to meet someone whose work I'd read. I'm still that way, and I'm totally in awe that people I call friends are Real! Live! Authors! It seems like a sort of magic to me, to be able to create a whole book.

Since this was 20 years ago, I don't remember terribly much. However, Malterre said one thing that has always stuck with me. She told us that every book has a time in your life. Even if you start a book and can't finish it, set it aside and pick it up again next year. Or the year after. As you grow and change, your perspective will be different, and that book will mean something new. She told us never to force yourself to finish a book, just wait until the time is right for you and that book. This was powerful advice. There have been a few books in my life (some Great Literature, some not) that haven't thrilled me on first, second, or third try, but when the time was right, I'd tear through them. The best example from my own life is The Crystal Cave, which I tried to read about five times between the 7th grade and University. Maybe it was all the Arthurian revival stuff I was reading in my Victorian poetry class, but things finally clicked, I spent a thrilling couple days with the book in 1996.

Sadly, I don't read like I used to. I finish almost** every book I start, owing mostly to my extensive use of the Toronto Public Library system, and the books don't have time to match my mood, or life path, or whatever. It no longer happens that I have no next-book scheduled and instead must peruse my shelves (or box of mass markets) for that book I didn't finish, but wouldn't give away (and there are still of few of those sitting there, so sadly neglected). I keep buying, too, and that pile just grows and grows. I still value what Elona Malterre said, though. It's great advice. I pass it on to others, when I can.

This post was sparked by an author who also does school visits, Jill Murray, and her post today on Bookmadam about how authors pay the bills. I don't know how common school visits are; I only ever remember having that one (my distant foggy elementary school past thinks we might have had one there too, but it was Calgary, and we didn't have a lot of local published talent). I think it's a great idea though, and something that really benefits the kids who get to participate. I didn't realise it was something authors did to supplement their income, but people need to be paid for their time, and to my mind, it's money well spent.

*I don't know where he came across it, and if it was just some freaky coincidence that she happened to be a local author. He and I both did most of our book shopping, at the time, in used bookstores, so the mass market paperback copy we had probably came from there. Sorry, Elona!
**Picoult is just really that bad.

One Day

My taste in most things seems to run to Brits. Depeche Mode, The Smiths, Radiohead. Quality Street, Sherbet, Jellybabies. A.S. Byatt, Thomas Hardy, Angela Carter. So One Day was an easy sell for me. It's a rock-'n'-roll candy-bag of a book, with an essential easy Englishness. While One Day deals with some more serious topics (death, divorce, alcoholism, life paths), it feels like reading Bridget Jones's Diary. This is a complementary comparison; One Day is filled with likeable, relateable characters, who are often very funny. These are people I'd have over for dinner, and Drunken YellingTM.

Spoiler-y things happen after here!

One Day's narrative trick is to relate the events of July 15th, starting in 1988. This is the day we find Emma and Dexter in bed, though not post-coitus. We are led through the next 20-odd years of their life, through the ups and downs of a vibrant and wonderful friendship, reminiscent of When Harry Met Sally. In fact, Emma's later boyfriend, Ian, actually alludes to that film, though derisively. I found myself tearing through the first 3/4ths of the book, just enjoying the ride. Unfortunately, no one can ever just let men and women be friends, and the thing I dreaded most happened: Emma and Dexter get together. Moreover, they get married. Emma, to this point, had been rather unconventional, with a wandering career path and a "not-for-me" attitude towards marriage and children. In fact, she resents the intrusion of children into the lives of all her friends. When she marries Dexter, however, she comes to realise she does want a child. I'm not sure if this is supposed to be a show of maturity for Emma, or an easy narrative out. Either way, seeing Emma become those things she fought against being was a let down. And then, Emma dies.

By this part of the book, I'd checked out a bit. I just didn't like them together any more. Maybe Nicholls didn't either, and had to kill Emma off to make things interesting. Emma dies suddenly, riding her bike in the rain, struck by a car. The passage itself is supposed to be startling:
Then Emma Mayhew dies, and everything that she thought or felt vanishes and is gone forever
I was reminded of another startling death scene I read a couple years ago, from a breakout French bestseller (this is probably spoiler-y too, but I'm trying not to be). Same sort of premise: quick death, struck by car. Yet that time, I wept from it. I didn't see it coming, and I cared so much, that I was brought to tears*. When Emma died, I thought "Oh, that was easy."

One Day remains an excellent read, though I resented the conventionality it stumbles into near the end, and the odd way Nicholl's tries to make up for it. One Day was yet another Lainey Liu recommendation (she's a hell of a reviewer and reader, whatever you think about the celebrity gossip biz), and I wouldn't say the less-than-great ending quarter of One Day would make me trust her taste in books any less. She nailed Room, and got me to read Furious Love, so I'll keep heeding her suggestions.

*I almost never cry at movies, but Hardy (for example) can make me bawl for days. I'm more invested in the word, I suppose

This Again (In Defence of the Humble Worker)

So often on book blogs, and book news sites, I see people complain about the chain bookstore employee. About how dull and stupid they are, what a crime it is they can't spell "Ondaatje," how tragic that the bookstore employee encountered can't read minds/hasn't read what you're looking for/doesn't know your favourite author. Whenever I see it, I'm not shy about yelling at the author of such comments.

During a morning meeting at Chapters, near the beginning of my time there, one of my managers said "Even if you read a book a week, that's only 52 books a year. Look around you. There's no possible way you will ever read even a tiny percentage of the books here in your lifetime. So when customers are frustrated that you don't know exactly which book they're vaguely talking about — and they will be — it's not your fault." We'd do the best we could to help customers. Most times we didn't have to work too hard to get it right; people are generally looking for popular books and showing them the best-seller shelf usually did the trick.

Chain or not, bookstore employees are usually readers. Maybe we weren't all chomping down on Dostoevsky, but we read. A lot of folks I worked with had post-secondary degrees (as do I), of the sort that don't have real practical applications. Yet there's an inherent classism that happens when some people enter a chain bookstore. The retail grunts can't possibly be human, right? "They don't really care about books, I mean, look at all these candles... oooooh lavendar!"* Fact is, your local Chapters/Indigo employee is probably pretty passionate about books, and reading. Sure, there's the odd person who's doing it solely for the paycheque (and that's totally fair too), but for readers who work retail, there's no better place to do it.

I worked at the Chapters location mentioned in the recent Eye Weekly article "In defence of Chapters." Unfortunatley, the piece does suffer from the same prejudice I mention above. Sarah Nicole Prickett writes "They make no suggestions, having nothing to prove; they work at Chapters." The implicit message is that they couldn't possibly care about literature, they work in a big box. She goes on to say that while spending time at Chapters "[t]he only risk is running into someone with a normal job, like in corporate PR or helping children[.]" Because, you know, people who work retail aren't really "normal" or "people" or any of that. Maybe I'm taking this a bit on the chin, but Prickett isn't defending anything here, other than her need to go to Chapters and casually rip up magazines (and actually, yes, they do mind when you do that, that's called "loss" and stores don't like it).

Given all this, it was nice to see that chain bookstores really can mean something. When the Barnes & Noble in Lincoln Sqaure closed, the employees left a heartfelt note in the window. Patrons, who had come to treasure this big store, and the people it employed, wrote back.

Click for larger version

*The number of people who would complain to frontline employees about the selection of non-book items in Chapters/Indigo was pretty hilarious. You think those folks have anything to do with the decision making? Or that they have a direct line to Reisman/Silver (is Silver still around)? Please. Fact is, the margins are better on that stuff, and it's what keeps the stores in business.

When She Takes a Walk

Missing woman dies after exposed to extreme cold.

My Mom hadn't been working for a while. Before we'd admit anything to ourselves she'd been let go from her job, unable to learn new computer systems. So she'd been spending her days indoors, wandering from room to room, wiping down counters and dusting bookshelves. Every day she'd clean the catbox then walk to the end of our street where there was a "poop and scoop" deposit bin for the surrounding off-leash park. The walk was a good idea; it got her out of the house every day, into the fresh air.

When her diagnosis finally came I went home as soon as I could. I arrived on Boxing Day. It was a relief to my Dad to have someone in the house. He'd been leaving her alone, going to work. He couldn't afford not to. Still can't. On returning he'd often find the oven or the taps on. It's what we expected to happen, eventually. So having me there was one whole week without the stress. I would turn off the taps and the stove, if needed. I'd make her eat. And every day she went for that walk.

I joke that cold weather follows me: when I moved to Toronto at the end of February the temperature suddenly dropped; I went to LA this Christmas and was met with rain and 10 degree temperatures; that December, leading into January, Calgary denied me a Chinook, and instead greeted me with snow and minus 30. Still, every day my Mom bundled up, walked a little over five minutes each way, and deposited the catbox refuse. One morning, half-asleep in the basement bedroom, I heard the back doorbell ring. Initially I ignored it. It wasn't my house anymore, the caller wouldn't be there to see me. The doorbell kept ringing. Then I realised my mother had gone for her walk. It was my mother at the door, outside, in minus 30 degree weather. I raced up the stairs to let her in.

She'd lost her keys somewhere along the way. She insisted we go back out and look for them, in the howling wind, on every lawn, in any disturbed snowbank. We never did find her keys. I was completely shaken. This event, more than the diagnosis, made her disease real to me.

It was minus 30 and 9am. My Dad wouldn't return home until 4. This morning, when I heard the story of the woman who died, all I could think of was that cold day my Mom locked herself out.

I told her that she had to suspend these walks, at least for the winter, trying somehow to reconcile the fact that this was both my mother and a person I had to make rules for. Sounding like a mother myself, I said "You could have frozen to death out there!" I was so thankful she'd remembered, somehow, that I was there. She had enough in her to ring that doorbell. Though maybe she'd have rung it anyway, all day, waiting. It hurts to think about.

I didn't show my Mom how upset I was. I tried to be calm, but I was so young, and so unprepared for this to happen. That was a real taste of the times we'd have moving forward. All the changes for her life.

I read Tangles on Christmas day this year. It was painful to read, and after the bit about how Sarah Leavitt's Mom got lost the first time, I had to put the book down because I was crying too hard to see.
Before my visit I asked Mom if she would let me videotape her talking about having Alzheimer’s. She though that would be a good idea[…] She said she had made some notes about the day she got lost. This is that story without all the pauses:
"I knew I had to walk down Smythe Street to our house. Part way down, I got lost. I mean, I could see where I had to go, but I couldn’t figure out how to get there. It seemed so far away. I ended up outside Harvey’s, where you used to go, remember? So I went inside. A nice young man […] called me a cab and I told the driver what happened. 'I got lost because I have Alzheimer’s.' 'Alzheimer’s . Phew. That’s rough. My Dad had it, used to go out to the bar in the middle of the night.' People here are so kind. They really care. I’m so lucky.
This is my new bracelet. It’s from the police in case I get lost. But I’ll never go out again by myself.
After my Mom lost her keys that day, my Dad didn't replace them. He'd just lock the back door when he left, and hoped she didn't decide to go out the front door (which has a knob deadbolt, not one you'd need a key for). I don't know why it didn't occur to either of us just to change the lock. None of us were in our right minds. Thankfully, using the front door was something my family never did, and she'd never got the habit of leaving that way. At that stage, she was relying a lot on rote. Later that year, in the summer, she did leave by the front door once, and wound up deep into a different suburban neighbourhood. From what my Dad told me, a nice older lady -- older, for my mother wasn't even 60 yet -- managed to get my Mom talking enough to piece together where she lived, and got her home. They waited there for my Dad to get home from work. Mom got the bracelet then, though Dad also changed the locks. She never needed to use the bracelet; she would never go anywhere unattended for the rest of her life.

The Wayback Machine

There's a lot of talk right now about the edited Huckleberry Finn.

I just keep thinking about this Family Ties* episode.

*Man, I totally forgot how didactic 80s sitcoms can be. "Aren't we the most perfect rich, white liberal family ever? Peachy!! Learn our ways!"

2010 Year End List Thing Blah Blah

I thought I might squeak one more book into the count this year, but I've actually read NOTHING over the past week, while on vacation in Los Angeles. Weird state of affairs that. Anyway, here's the 2010 Book Count.

I should have done this yesterday, but I spent the day convalescing, watching 30 Rock, and hoping the gin in my system would wear through eventually. Here are my no-particular-number-of 2010 standouts (and hopefully my from-memory details are right; I'm still partially made of gin):
The Glass Room - Should have won the Booker. My favourite of the 2009 field.
The Women's Room - When the Women's Movement was newish, finding its feet, and really, really active. This is some sort of Golden Age that I'm too young to remember.
Ten Storey Love Song - An entire novel in a single sentence, that starts on the front cover. Sounds gimmicky, but isn't. Bit of a Trainspotting vibe, but everything Brit+Drugs has that by default I suppose. (Linked review by Irvine Welsh doesn't help either, heh.) Even the Dogs is also a Brit+Drugs book, which is lesser only in that it isn't as daring.
Fauna - As much of a love song to Toronto as anything else. Reminded me why I live here (there, heh, I'm not in T.O. right now).
Gate at the Stairs - Rightfully in a lot of "Year's Best" lists. Deals with Big Issues (race, class, 9-11, becoming an adult) on an extremely personal level.
I Love Dick - I discovered Chris Kraus this year, rhapsodized about her, and haven't been the same since.
Fear of Fighting - Read in three hours, hurtling through breakups and mental illness, sadness and hopefull steps towards redemption.
Player One - Not because it's anywhere near his best work, but my copy is signed, and that's a definite highlight in my year.
Room - Truly amazing. A lot of people are put off by the 5-yr-old narrator, for various reasons, but the linked review by Lainey Lui (a noted gossip blogger) really, really nails why it worked for me.
Tangles - I cried my way through Tangles. I went through a lot of this with my Mom, who is still alive in a nursing home, but as gone from us as a living person can be. It was very, very difficult to read, but I'm glad I did. Yes, it upset me, but it also showed me that the absolute horror of this disease isn't something we do alone. There are others like us.