Fables of Elbow Drive

When I was 23, I had a weekly, weeknight DJ gig in an alternative bar in Calgary. Well, the alternative bar in Calgary, not by dint of being the best but the only. I was a regular there, had been for years, so I knew most of the patrons. Weeknights in a dance club were for students (as I was), people without office jobs ("industry workers" as they were called), the underemployed, the artists and musicians, and the gainfully employed who really like to drink. The weekday crowd was less boisterous, more friendly, more willing to be silly, more likely to request a lesser-heard track. There was no pressure to pack the dance floor — it wasn't possible with a quarter-full bar — so I'd happily oblige with a flurry of odd songs. It was on one of these nights a fellow DJ friend wandered up to the booth. "I've taken six hits of acid," he said. He was probably exaggerating, but he was definitely tripping balls. "My friends have all left. Can we hang out?" (Acid, by the way, is one of those drugs you don't have to be on to find hilarious. People on acid are hilarious on their own.)

When the club closed for the night, my friend wanted to go through Mount Royal to where Elbow Drive follows the curve of the Elbow River. He told me he'd grown up around there. So we drove south and east from the club, to the outskirts of downtown. I'd never spent much time in this part of the city. It was relatively old, and far away from my parents' house in the north. Unlike the rocky banks of the fast-moving Bow, the Elbow River was bordered by flat and manicured grass, parks, and stately homes.* I could just barely hear the water moving along in the moonlight. He told me stories of being a kid around the area, where he used to play, the place where he kissed his first girlfriend. 3 a.m. on a summer Wednesday night is a pretty great time to discover a place in a city you've lived in all your life.

It was a picture of that night that entered — and stayed in — my mind reading "Home for Good" in Katherine Govier's Fables of Brunswick Avenue. I picked up the collection after it was mentioned a couple times by friends, one of whom quoted the axiom "Everyone lives on Brunswick Avenue sooner or later." I was apartment hunting at the time, and my library request for the collection came in the same day as a viewing of an apartment on Brunswick. A good omen, I thought. I didn't get the apartment, and I didn't exactly get what I was expecting from Fables either. The title of the collection is a bit misleading; very few of the stories take place in Toronto at all. However, a couple take place in Alberta, one of those in Calgary.

"Home for Good" begins with my nightmare scenario: a woman, Suzanne, returns to Calgary after many years of living in Toronto. While the job she has secured in Calgary is a step up and the ostensible reason for her move, the truth is that her life in Toronto was in utter shambles.
She walked over to the dormer window which made an alcove in her living room. She was a tenant in the attic of the kind of old house she had grown up in. The house had been painted and papered and divided into “heritage” apartments, although only fifteen years had passed since she left. Surely things happened too quickly in this town. Everything was a mistake, including the apartment. It had reminded her of a Toronto apartment, that was why she had taken it. But in Calgary it didn’t seem so choice; it made her feel as if she couldn’t afford anything better.
(I live in one of those third-floor Toronto apartments currently, by the way.) Suzanne visits friends who live by the Elbow, "From the window [of her apartment] she could see over to the riverside park." Suzanne remembers sneaking out to that park at 2 a.m. as a kid. I probably sat in that same park at 3 a.m. Govier captures exactly how it would feel to have to go back, to have to stare that feeling of failure in the face, to have to relive every moment everyone back home failed you, and the ways they've changed in your absence to fail you now.

It's true, things happen really quickly in Calgary. It's a city that really likes to knock things down and build new things as fast as it can. Yet when Govier's character remembers her 1968 student apartment near the university (probably still called an outpost of the U of A back then), I can picture the whole neighbourhood perfectly. The LRT I took to that same university cut through Motel Village. That Denny's saw late-night milkshakes in high-school. The bar I got into underage was right there. It's the same city. Some things never change.

I was kind of spooked by "Home for Good." I've still got my Norton anthologies as Suzanne does; they go where I go. I know I'm not the only one who takes all her school books with her through every move, but I could so perfectly see everything in "Home for Good," understood Suzanne's want for "a book somewhere that said how you were supposed to feel when you were no longer young, but you were not yet dead." There was a moment a year into living in Toronto when I almost went back, when everything seemed too hard and too expensive. I always fear I'll be forced to go back, that some misfortune will drive me there... When I picked up Fables of Brunswick Avenue I expected a fictional primer on my new stomping-ground. I didn't move to Brunswick Avenue; I was moved — thankfully, in time only — back home.

*Image found through Google; click on it for the site it came from. I suppose it being broad daylight in that photo takes away from the image I'm going for there, but so be it.


I've been trying to avoid the navel-gazey "what is the nature of blogging" posts, and for the most part I've been successful. Probably because I just don't bother to feel pressure to write anymore. Weirdly this has resulted in more blog posts this year than any other. To get even more "nature of blog," about five minutes ago a fellow blogger published her own thoughts on the topic I discuss in this post, and even though I've been sitting on it since late yesterday afternoon, just needing 15 minutes downtime to edit and clean it up, I feel like I shouldn't even bother now. Meh! Anyway...

I want to talk a bit about an article that I read via Twitter yesterday: Has book blogging hit the wall?. There was a little debate after the link was posted. Bloggers were cast as a whole, an amorphous blob of want and entitlement, satiated only by free goods. I got a little miffed, like I do. I responded that I've reviewed three free books here, one of which was offered to me on the blog itself. The other two are from the one publisher list I'm on. I'm careful to only ask for books I know I'll read even though many more are offered. This is only fair: copies are limited and the books should go to someone who wants them. I don't really understand that idea that if something is "free" it must be taken, especially since the books they send are ARCs, so it's not like they look pretty on your shelf or anything. Raj Patel says interesting things about "free" stuff in The Value of Nothing. Paraphrasing Marcel Mauss' The Gift he says
in sociology as in economics, there's rarely anything that comes free from expectations of reciprocity and respect.
Patel is talking about companies much larger than Harper or Penguin, like Nestle or AT&T, but the concept is the same: companies are not your friends, they (probably) don't know you or care about you as a person, they are entering into an agreement with you. There isn't ever something for nothing. Yes, there is a sense of entitlement among some, and my Twitter pal did state that entitlement is definitely not limited to book bloggers. But it's also not a defining characteristic of all book bloggers. I can't be the only one out there who doesn't feel that my internet connection means I'm owed something. The article, however, makes it sound as if my pal's initial assessment was correct. Wow, these are unsavoury people!

I know a bit about how all this works. I've sent out free books myself, when I had the opportunity to do such things. It's a relationship, and it should be one of respect. To diverge a bit, in the days of Panic Yore, I was a club and college radio DJ. Those are pretty much the only venues non-top 40 music gets played, or were before the Rise of the Machines — er, internet — so genre labels would "service" DJs with new releases. However, the DJs had to keep playlists and send those back to the record label. As with book blogging and free books, you need to prove to the publisher or label that their investment in you is worth it. Further, it seems to me that if book bloggers want to be taken seriously they need to act professionally. If they want to treat their blog as a hobby, with no deadlines or professional courtesy, which is probably closer to what I do, then bloggers need to be prepared to pay for that hobby. If you wanted to be treated like a professional (from the article, "Can you imagine them sending this to Horn Book or The NYTimes?") then you must be prepared to meet deadlines and act responsibly. (Note, I say "be prepared" to do so: there doesn't need to be a deadline involved, but if one is provided, it should be respected.) The relationship William Morrow wants to have with its bloggers is sensible and reasonable, and it's exactly how the one publisher I deal with runs things now. You can't just send books out into the dark and hope they stick. Targeted and focused marketing just makes sense. Larry from the article just doesn't understand the concept of "relationship" or "fairness."
It's not enough that it is 'your job' to review their books within a one month span before or after its release date," wrote Larry at The OF Blog, "but they couch in sweet talk the threat to pull review copies because you don't want to play their game."
"Play their game"!? Getting adversarial is no way to conduct a relationship, Larry. Perhaps publishers who operated like William Morrow, with a buffet style, have to shoulder some of the blame for not figuring out a better strategy from the get-go. Though maybe they were just optimistic about human nature. Fools!

It's really too bad the article has the tone it does. It does make bloggers seem whiny and entitled, where most of the ones I know are anything but. I wrote a garbled Tweet about the number of books I own but haven't read (I blame the head cold), which sounded a bit like I had no intention of reading them. What I meant was, I buy so many books, and have so many in the library queue, that I sometimes get a bit bogged down in the To-Read List. What I wanted to convey in that Tweet, was that I spend my money at readings, and launches, and indie bookstores (and the chains when all else fails) because it's important that I put my money where my mouth is.** I want those publishers and writers to have my dollars, because they are providing me with the thing I love the most: the written word. I'm saddened that there are bloggers out there that feel it is their right to receive freebies, especially in an industry with such low margins, where the producers of of the content almost always have a second, 40-hour a week job.

Update! I've compiled responses from other bloggers here. If you know of others, let me know and I'll link them. It's interesting, to me at least, how others have reacted.
From Pickle Me This: What I Hate About Book Bloggers
From Books Under Skin: On book blogging
From Bella's Bookshelves: The Book Blogger’s Responsibility: What?
Larry, of the OF Blog, responds to the uproar (and to me): Fallout from last week's posts on reviewing/William Morrow letter

*I've been the same with running, coincidentally. The year I don't set a goal or do any races is the year I have the best results, and most gains. I thought I worked well under pressure. Turns out, maybe not so much.
**I use the library system pretty extensively too. I wouldn't ever have enough space in my tiny apartment for all the books I want. But I want to.