The Back Forty

i-cant-keep-calm-its-my-birthday-bitches-66Back forty: n. wild or rough terrain adjacent to a developed area.

I wasn’t sure what to expect of this morning—I only know that it far exceeded what I could have imagined. My husband of 11 years woke me up with the best birthday card I’ve ever received. I was ugly crying before I even got out of bed. Then he led me around the house while I found and opened 50 gifts. Forty of them were wee baggies of candy with slips of paper describing beautiful, touching reasons he loves me. I was, still am, overwhelmed by them. It’s really amazing to see yourself the way someone who loves you see you. The rest of the gifts were treats to spoil me with. There was lots more ugly crying in my pjs and tons of bear hugs and so much freaking happiness!

I put 40 years of life behind me today. This was never going to be a big deal—until a couple of months ago when suddenly it was. Before that, I laughed about it. It sounded ridiculous. After all, I still thought I was going to be in my thirties forever, invincible, even.  I look younger than forty, I think younger, I act younger, I feel younger. But as the days passed, I suddenly found myself saying “forty” with emphasis, like this: FORTY. It sounds fat and old and ominous. Rationally, I know it’s not. But now I feel left behind by time. As though it’s passing without letting me do and be and have the things I want now. It’s leaving me in the dust. I don’t want to turn 50 and never have been on a tropical vacation! I wanted things to be different by now! But there’s no point in denying it: you can’t think that the day before. It’s happening whether I’m ready or not.

Over the past few months I’ve found myself questioning everything, unable to make decisions because what I once knew and liked and saw and did no longer hold the same certainty of interest. Whereas I simply went for the things I always went for, because they were me, now I’m not so sure about what I like and want to do and where I want to be. I’m not so sure of who I am. Plus I’m…softer. Just a little. Okay, ten pounds. Anyway, I’m in the process of some major shift (with any luck it will be more than just a gravitational pull of skin). I’m changing. I FEEL IT. I’m in the back forty, that wild or rough terrain adjacent to a developed area (the fifties, seventies, nineties?). This isn’t the time I’ve got everything figured out, even after thirty years. Hang on, Self, you’re in for a bumpy ride (that will likely, hopefully? never end!).

Today, though, instead of grabbing the sick bag, I’ve decided to raise my arms in the air and yell “Yeehaw!” That might be the Jack Daniel’s talking already, but it’s also reflective of the choice I want to make. For this new time to be fun. For the bumps to be so ridiculous I’m airborne and laughing. Hello, 40, and welcome! Let’s be fabulous. Let’s write better stories than we did in our thirties—and publish. Let’s go on that tropical vacation we’ve never had. Let’s help others write better stories. Let’s read more fantastic books out of which we’ll get more because we’re older and wiser and more empathetic. Let’s just do everything, only better, because now we can. Let’s celebrate!

That’s a pretty good segue into what I want to do next. One of my favourite things to do on my birthday is give. It makes me feel good, of course, and I love the anticipation and seeing others happy. I bought my sister and my husband a gift for today. They don’t know it yet (unless they’re reading this post or I’ve given it to them already). Admittedly, neither gift was a book, but that’s only because today I didn’t want to be predictable—to them.

To you, I’m going to be somewhat predictable. First I’m going to list forty books on my shelves that I really love. They’re not all of my absolute favourites, of which I have an insane number, and they’re in no particular order. They’re just forty books I very much enjoyed for various reasons.

Second, one of you will receive a SIGNED (to you!) copy of Sarah Selecky’s superb collection This Cake is for the Party! (Finalist for the 2010 Giller, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Fiction, longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award, CBC Bookie Award for Best New Writer, and Globe 100 Best Canadian Fiction). No, it’s not a new book, but it’s a great book. The writing is crystal clean, strong, evocative, and memorable. This book did so much for me, I can’t even tell you, not least of which was to introduce me to Sarah, a wonderful, beautiful, talented woman who has inspired me, hired me, and made me a better person. I’m celebrating with her cake.

To win: comment and tell me your best birthday ever. I’ll pick one of you and let you know you won. And then I’ll send you the book. (If you’d like to comment without entering the contest, you can! Simply let me know you don’t want to enter.)

Thank you all for reading and supporting and encouraging and sharing the book love!

~40-year-old Steph

 Forty Books I Recommend

  1. The Carnivore, by Mark Sinnet (ECW Press)
  2. The End of the Alphabet, by C.S. Richardson (Anchor Canada)
  3. Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan (Thomas Allen)
  4. The Bear, by Claire Cameron (Doubleday Canada)
  5. A Blessed Snarl, by Samual Thomas Martin (Breakwater Books)
  6. Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine (Europa Editions)
  7. Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh (Simon and Schuster)
  8. Ablutions, by Patrick deWitt (Anansi Press)
  9. Sandra Beck, by John Lavery (Anansi Press)
  10. Dead Politician’s Society, by Robin Spano (ECW Press)
  11. The House on Sugarbush Lane, by Méira Cook (Enfield and Wizenty)
  12. On Sal Mal Lane, by Ru Freeman (Anansi International)
  13. The Kept, by James Scott (HarperCollins)
  14. The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride (Riverhead Books)
  15. The Outlaw Album, by Daniel Woodrell (short stories) (Little, Brown)
  16. A Land More Kind than Home, by Wiley Cash (William Morrow)
  17. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce (Anchor Canada)
  18. The Book of Lost Things, by John Connolly (Simon & Schuster)
  19. The Beggar’s Garden, by Michael Christie (short stories) (HarperCollins)
  20. Sleeping Funny, by Miranda Hill (short stories) (Anchor Canada)
  21. Mad Hope, by Heather Birrell (short stories) (Coach House)
  22. Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility, by Théodora Armstrong (short stories) (Anansi)
  23. Radio Belly, by Buffy Cram (short stories) (Douglas & McIntyre)
  24. Bird Eat Bird, by Katrina Best (short stories) (Insomniac Press)
  25. The Divinity Gene, by Matthew Trafford (short stories) (Douglas & McIntyre)
  26. A Matter of Life and Death or Something, by Ben Stephenson (Douglas & McIntyre)
  27. And Also Sharks, by Jessica Westhead (short stories) (Cormorant)
  28. All We Want is Everything, by Andrew F. Sullivan (short stories) (Arbeiter Ring Pub)
  29. The Miracles of Ordinary Men, by Amanda Leduc (ECW Press)
  30. Once You Break a Knuckle, by D.W. Wilson (short stories) (Penguin Canada)
  31. Bull Head, by John Vigna (short stories) (Arsenal Pulp Press)
  32. Pilgrims, by Elizabeth Gilbert (short stories) (Penguin)
  33. I Want to Show You More, by Jamie Quatro (short stories) (Grove Press)
  34. Tenth of December, by George Saunders (short stories) (Random House)
  35. We Live in Water, by Jess Walter (short stories) (Harper Perennial)
  36. How to Get Along with Women, by Elisabeth de Mariaffi (short stories) (Invisible Pub)
  37. Welding with Children, by Tim Gautreaux (short stories) (Picador)
  38. The Help, by Kathleen Stockett (Berkley Trade)
  39. Bobcat, by Rebecca Lee (short stories) (Hamish Hamilton)
  40. The Odious Child, by Carolyn Black (short stories) (Nightwood Press)

Shit! Am I at forty already?? (SEE WHAT I MEAN?)

There are so many I missed. There may be some overlap but you can check my reviews page, and also always feel free to ask me for recommendations. I have SO MANY to recommend beyond these forty here.

Thank you again, everyone, for reading! I look forward to your b-day stories!

xxx

The Book Blogger’s Responsibility: What?

There’s an article called “Has book blogging hit the wall? William Morrow’s blogger notice” posted online in the LA Times Books section. Apparently it’s causing a stir, though I admit to not having read a single reactionary comment yet. My apologies, then, if the following smacks of ignorance.

The gist of the article, though I recommend you read the entire piece if you haven’t already, is that William Morrow, a division of HarperCollins, sent out an email to book bloggers stating that they are streamlining their review copies process. Review books now have to be requested by filling out a form, with a max number of three books per form, and if said books are not reviewed with two weeks to a month of the book’s release, the blogger will no longer receive offers. (This last statement was later altered to assure bloggers that they would not be suspended from the publisher’s send list.)

Think this is harsh? Feel indignant at all? Many do. “‘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.'” Many feel as though “their hobby [i]s being treated like an obligation.”

I have to say right off the bat here: What?

While I do understand that reviewing WM’s books in their time-frame will likely be stressful if you get books from other publishers as well, perhaps the answer then is not accepting so many books. Or not accepting books from WM, since they’re not playing “the game” the way you want them to. Truthfully, the indignation strikes me as not only exceedingly, embarrassingly whiny but also odd, since we as recreational bloggers are not “obligated” to even take copies from a publisher. I understand that it could mean a loss for you if you can’t get their books reviewed when they ask, but there is the—gasp!—option of paying for WM’s books if you want them that badly. If you’re not a paid reviewer, it doesn’t have to be your job to review anyone’s books. It’s your blog, you decide. On the flip side, they’re the publisher’s books; they too get to decide what to do with them and how.

In my view, William Morrow’s email sounds less like raining on our parade than like a publisher realizing they’ve been perhaps too generous in their distribution of ARCs and published copies for review. They’re realizing just how expensive this venture is, and they’re wondering if book bloggers generate enough sales to make it worth it. We’re also not the only ones to whom they send galleys or finished copies, and we certainly can’t be pretentious enough to imagine our opinions are, while valuable, the be all and end all of book talk or sales. As far as I know, whether or not bloggers are effectively boosting sales isn’t something that can be accurately measured, but it’s a fair question, especially for a business. If a publisher’s goal is to sell more books, and the way they do this most effectively is by promotion of said books in a timely manner, doesn’t it make sense that they’d ask us, to whom they send such books free of charge, to please review in such and such a time, and then offer only the number of books we can do in that time? And doesn’t it make sense, then, that if we don’t, we’re not as effective to their cause and are also thus costing them money?

But these questions were also asked:

But if the role of bloggers is different [other than “creating buzz for publishers’ projects”], to expand the conversation around books, things are a little more complicated. Does the number of readers a blogger has matter? Can and should there be room for disliking a book? Can and should book bloggers be book buyers, and are they? If some bloggers reject publishers’ freebies in order to establish their own freedom, should those that accept them somehow make that relationship clear? Should publishers make any demands on bloggers at all — and if so, are free books an even trade?

Here’s what I think, if you’re interested:

Helping create book buzz and expanding conversation around books aren’t mutually exclusive, and I’m not even sure there’s much of a difference between the two in the end, but if publishers are sending you books, they’re ultimately more concerned about sales than anything else. Even though there are publicists who delight in making book lovers happy by sending them books, in the end they still want to see your review. This is still all part of their job.

I can’t say there’s any one role of a book blogger—since book bloggers start up for different reasons and decide their own roles (if they even decide to adopt a role)—unless that book blogger is getting copies for review. Then I’d say those review copies makes a blogger’s role reviewer, and with that comes responsibility, even if the reviews are not for money. More on this further down.

The number of readers a blogger has is relevant to an extent, but there is also potential for sharing over social media platforms, which will typically reach many more people. And who those readers are also makes a difference.

Most certainly there should be room for disliking a book; I find it difficult to understand why such a question would be asked. That’s what reviews are about, after all, but if publishers are looking for only positive reviews or nothing at all, that should be made clear to the blogger—and what also should be clear, then, is that only those books that cater to the blogger’s likes are to be sent.

Most book bloggers, because they love books, still buy—at an impressive rate, actually. Why couldn’t or shouldn’t they be buyers? The next question is confusing and I can’t answer it since I fail to understand it. But yes, simply put, I believe publishers have every right to attach stipulations to the copies they send out.

As to whether or not the books are a fair trade, that’s for the individual to decide. If you asked me, I would tell you that while I choose to spend way too much time on writing reviews I’m not paid for, I am also a bibliophile and as such find the free books, most of them lovely finished copies, a good enough trade for me to do the reviews. The time I spend also pays off when publishers and authors express their satisfaction with what I’ve written, and that includes the constructive criticism I’ve offered in my reviews. And then, when I get hired by publishers to write stuff, there’s an even better payoff.

So while I suppose I could argue that I still sell a fair amount of backlist, or new books months after their release, at least as a bookseller, that’s probably besides the point. Whatever William Morrow’s reason for asking that books be reviewed within a month of release, I’m not crying about it. This makes good, smart sense to me on the part of publishers. After all, it’s not as though my tbr pile will ever be depleted; it’s not as though they’re saying I’ll never see a review copy from anyone again. They’re not asking us to sign a contract and make our fun blogging a job: they’re just asking us to pick the books we know we’ll be able to get to in a timely manner for promotional purposes. They’re just ensuring they’re not wasting money. Can you blame them?

But this backlash about the WM email doesn’t seem to me just a gripe about feeling our blogs are becoming jobs, what with “all these rules.” It’s also the suggestion that one will be penalized if one doesn’t review in a timely manner, or the prospect of publishers in general sending out fewer copies, that has people like Larry up in arms.

So if we’re also talking about being upset that we may not receive as many books as we used to, well. To start, I’ve received several books from certain publishers that don’t even fit within my reading preferences, as stated on my Statement on Book Reviews page, and I have no intention, then, of reading them. It’s a waste of money and time on the publisher’s part. My Statement page is there for a reason. (To be fair, the majority of publicists who send me books know me as Steph, not Bella [they’ve actually read my About page], and they know exactly what I like (they’ve also bothered to read a review or two) and otherwise ask if I might like a particular book. Many of said publicists have even become friends, and their books always arrive accompanied by personal notes. A few of these books have been purely gifts, but most are for review.)

But how many times have I read that a book blogger can’t keep up with all the free books she’s getting? I’m always mouth agape when I read about bloggers getting daily book dumps and establishing first-name relationships with their postman or postwoman. Unless you don’t work and all you do is read, it’s damn near impossible to properly (that is, according to the stipulations) read and review everything that comes, which was the main WM issue that ruffled people’s feathers in the first place.

I started out with one publisher sending me books and now I have at least 17, plus authors. I’m not complaining, because these are books I very much wish to read and will review, but I admit it didn’t take long before I felt overwhelmed by my sense of responsibility to those who send me packages and before I was sending apology emails and even turning down books. (I still happily accept some, depending on what they are.) And this guilt is without being a paid reviewer, in which case each review would be done when it was expected of me to produce it. I’m also acknowledging here, I add, that there is a difference between paid reviewer and book blogger—but this difference has nothing whatsoever to do with entitlement.

It’s a very cool thing to get books you really want, free in the mail. Sure, it’s saving me money, but mainly it’s giving me the chance to network and participate in book discussions and actually know what I’m talking about. It’s making me a much more effective bookseller, too. Truly, I feel downright privileged—I’m not entitled to receive books just because I’ve decided to write a book blog for fun, and this sense of entitlement that seems to emanate from the article perplexes me. I know this is costing publishers money and the idea is ultimately to help generate sales (we can’t forget these are businesses, these publishers), and they trust me to help them do this. So, yes, I’m wracked with guilt for not reviewing books, particularly ARCs, within the month I receive them.

The difference is, then, I’m feeling I owe the publishers something, which I don’t think is unfair, whereas it seems to me that those who feel upset about this article feel the opposite; that they’re owed something for being bloggers, an occupation, paid or not, they chose. The simple fact is Publisher = business; unpaid book blogger = hobby. Explain to me again why we are entitled to handouts without some restriction? These books, they’re simply the perks of your hobby.

Listen, it’s really not my intent to sound smug or righteous. I’m merely expressing how I feel about this and trying to offer perspective, even though my experience as a book blogger isn’t necessarily the same as another’s. I have two jobs. I work full time at a bookstore and I am also a freelance copyeditor and writer. These occupations take up the majority of my time. No matter what, I have to focus first on my paying jobs. This means that this blog, as much as I love it and want it to be more, can’t be updated daily or even weekly sometimes, and there’s very little chance I’ll read a book a week. Sometimes I can’t read a book in three weeks or even a month (I also run the book club at the store where I work).

So of course I’m okay with having the book-giving process streamlined. But I’m willing to bet that most book bloggers also have jobs, and even those who stay at home can’t always keep up with the books they’re getting. Most of us book lovers are in possession of far more books than we’ve read or could ever read. So why, again, does this WM email upset people? Now it’s striking me as not only being blown out of proportion but also smacking of greed.

Here’s the rub, and I know I’ve suggested as much already but it may bear repeating: as much as publishers love book bloggers and people who are passionate about books in general, they have a bottom line to think about. Unsurprisingly, they’re not out to stock my shelves with the books on my wishlist. Their mission is not to foster my or anyone’s book reviewing hobby. Instead, they’re hoping that when they send me a free book, I’ll repay them, so to speak, by giving the book some careful consideration and putting that consideration out there in a timely manner. I’m not saying that it has to be a positive review, but it should be something worth a reader’s time.

I believe we have a responsibility to treat a book with as  much care as went into it. If I don’t deliver quality, as well as honesty and fairness, and thus give you something with which to make an informed purchase, then there’s no point to my book blogging. There’s also not much point to my receiving books, then, because what favours am I doing the publisher whose just done me a favour? Even if you’re a bookseller, you get ARCs because if you read them, you can promote them and sell them. It’s always a two-way street, and therein lies the responsibility of a person who receives books from publishers or authors. Those books don’t cost you money, but because getting them is a privilege and not a right, I’m thinking they should cost us a little something—even if we’re doing this for fun.

And I guess this cost is ultimately what has people up in arms. They don’t want their freeflow of books stopped; they certainly object to rules and regulations. They don’t want obligation. Many book bloggers make enough of their own rules, anyway, with challenges they have to stick to, times they swear not to buy new books, etc. But they fear that with publishers cracking down and asking that books be reviewed within the month, their book blogging is going to become work. It’s going to be English classes all over again.

I readily admit the timely manner issue has felt this is becoming work and has sometimes made this venture more stressful than fun. As I said, I have a fair number of people who send me books, and considering this is likely the case for many book bloggers, it’s not reasonable then, perhaps, to ask a reader to review a book within the month. It’s hard to write reviews as it is.

The fact is, though—and I apologize that it’s taken me this long to reach this point—that I have too many books to review is really my problem, even if some publishers have also perhaps been overly generous. It’s my responsibility (there’s that word again!) to let them know I can’t keep up. It’s not up to the publisher to make this fun for me. It’s not up to them to keep me enthused by “plying me with more goodies.” That’s ridiculous. I’m enthused already by my love of good books, by my excitement of seeing books I can’t wait to read on my shelves. I don’t want to be bribed to write great reviews. I want to write great reviews, whether they’re positive or negative, because I want to be someone people can depend on. But I also want to write thoughtful reviews because those people who have chosen to send me a book deserve to get something in return. I’ve noticed that certain publishers have stopped sending me books, and I understand why. In a way, I’m relieved. But I’ve also noticed that others don’t mind waiting for my reviews because when they do finally get them, they’re worth it. In the end, as usual, quality outweighs quantity.

That’s how I believe this should work. Publishers should be more discerning about who they send out copies to as well as how many, and book reviewers should remain mindful of the real reasons they’re receiving those books. Out of that should be born, yes, a sense of responsibility. This responsibility doesn’t have to be as heavy as Marley’s shackles if, one, we don’t receive as many books, but also, two, if we treat that responsibility as a chance to prove our worth, as something to be proud of.

LitBits 9

1. I hope everyone had a lovely Christmas, with some literary treats to boot! Of the 5 gifts I received, every single one paid tribute to my love of books. My sisters are great is awesome! I received the new Oxford Classics edition of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (and his other Christmas stories); the CD of Alfred Hitchcock’s Ghost Stories for Young People, which we used to listen to on record as kids, and the stories of which I’ve posted here at Halloween; a gift certificate for books; a handmade ornament of a snowman reading a book, customized with my name on it and called “booklover”; and a bibliophile tee (mine’s in grey), which I’m wearing now. My sis in England sent me a second-hand copy she’d found of Beastly Tales by Vikram Seth and a cloth bookbag from Waterstones with a bookish illustration on it. These things all make me very happy! For more bibliophile merch like my new tee, go to cafepress and type “bibliophile” in the search box. Browse more than 14,000 items!! A few of my faves are here, here, here, here (though as a print), here, here, here, here (yes, I spent too much time browsing).

2. Did any of you have an idea that there is a National Reading Campaign? I didn’t, or if did, I forgot, until I got wind of it in an email recently sent to me, inviting me to participate (as media?!). The first summit was already in Toronto, and the second, upcoming one is in Montreal, called Toward a Nation of Readers. The registration fee is prohibitive, to be honest, at least for me, but this does sound pretty cool, doesn’t it?

3. Oliver Jeffers is one of my favourite picture-book authors/illustrators. There aren’t many who can do what he does—that is, convey volumes in terms of story and expression and atmosphere and emotion with minimal text and simple lines. My favourite of his books are Lost and Found and Up and Down. They’re sweet without being saccharine, poignant without being devastating, hilarious in a Calvin & Hobbes kind of way, the kind that gives you such delight it’s more internal than laugh-out-loud. My sister sent me a video of Jeffers’s creating process, and I found it extremely interesting. You might too. PS. Yes, the mustache is for real!

4. I have no idea where I’d put these, but I’d find a space. Check out the all-natural wood brackets for these bookshelves, via Booklicious.

5. I happen to have a thing for magazines almost as much as books, and I find they’re rarely mentioned on book blogs I read. Granted, they’re not books. But they’re just as much print as books, and I do keep the ones I buy. My special interest is home decorating and I have subscriptions to Canadian House & Home and Style at Home. I also have a secret (though not secret anymore) and utterly inexplicable obsession with buying InStyle mag, and the March and September issues of North American Vogue (mainly because they’re nice and fat!). My own wee Christmas prezzie to myself this year, because I’m experiencing a particularly keen yearning for England, was three British magazines for the holidays: Country Living, Britain, and Country Homes and Interiors, which came with a free 25 Beautiful Homes mag (which I didn’t like). I spent a good chunk of my days off reading the first three cover to cover, which I rarely do with mags. I’m thinking of subscribing to my favourite of the bunch—Country Living. It embodies pretty much everything I look for but mainly just caters to my love of English countryside. I willingly, unabashedly admit it: I’m a Brit wannabe. But I promise you I won’t pull a Madonna and start faking an English accent (though it was alarmingly easy to pick up while I was there for two weeks last year!). But I was raised by a mother who spoke using British expressions all the time, having been raised in Malta, a former British colony, by a headmaster father who’d attended Oxford, and having been educated in the English school system. I also grew up reading many books set in the UK, and so the stuff isn’t totally foreign to me. It’s the only way I can explain my soul’s yearning for it. Others have said I must have lived there in a past life.

All that to say that magazines are print, too (I ignore my digital copy of Style at Home that I receive by email before the print copy comes), and shouldn’t go unnoticed by us book lovers, I think. In fact, apparently magazine consumption is up. Which are your favourites?

6. New to me but you may love as well: book blog Entomology of a Bookworm. It’s very exciting, as you know, to find someone whose tastes are similar and who’s experience mirrors your own in many ways!

7. I have more but that can come later. I don’t want to spend too much time on the computer the last two days I have before going back to work. The dark, rainy days make it good for catching up on reading. Maybe I can start fulfilling my goal of doing things I really want to do while feeling positive about them, not being distracted or feeling guilty. If there’s anything I have to work on this year, it’s sloughing off the shackles of guilt and obligation, and if I do have to do something I don’t want to do, like give up some of the food I enjoy but doesn’t make me feel good, I want to be able to come to terms with it positively. I’ve been so weighted down this year by stuff I must do, and the stress does nothing for me. As it has been for many other book bloggers, keeping up with new books and churning out reviews has been very stressful for me. I have two jobs. I don’t have the time some others have to read as well as keep up with book news and tweets and contests, etc. I’m also horribly distracted and find it very difficult to overcome this.

Increasingly bloggers are aiming to relax this new year, to not accept books they aren’t very interested in, and to not feel the guilt of trying to get everything done immediately. We’ll review when we feel like it and can write fair ones. We’ll stop comparing ourselves to those who have more time than we do because of different circumstances, and we won’t fall “prey” to every rave review or major hype campaign of a book. In short, we’ll remember our passion for books and reading, and we’ll try not to let that passion be annihilated by the stress of giant tbr piles and such.

I don’t count the books I read, I don’t tally up anything: no favourites, no number of readers or comments or blog posts or anything. There are simply no stats. I can’t. It’s not about that for me. It’s about my love of literature, and sharing it. Pure and simple—and that’s how I want to keep it, in the very sense of the expression: pure and simple passion.

So, and I say this to myself, as well, I wish you all the strength and drive necessary to achieve all you put your mind to in the new year—regardless of who you are and what you pledge—and fun in doing it! May all your goals be fulfilled. May we all be less needy in terms of being instantly gratified.

May we be happy in the lives we have chosen.

To Read, Perchance to Redeem Myself

Sunday morning on the couch in my pajama bottoms, a Go Korea soccer tee-shirt that C bought me when he went there, and a purple yoga hoodie. The 30-year old furnace growls comfortingly yet I leech heat from the dog and cup after cup of select herbal teas. I listen to the steady rain, random drips of water into the kitchen sink, and the clocks here and in my office, ticking. If I’m not careful, I will fall asleep.

It is a perfect day for staying home and reading. Nothing but—though it can be to ourselves or each other—especially not driving back to Wal-Mart to return the Toy Story DVD we bought yesterday for my nephew for Christmas but which, it turns out, my sister had forgotten to tell me she’d already bought. The alternative title she gave me, when I finally gritted my teeth and asked for one, was Mickey’s Christmas Carol. I gritted my teeth harder, because that was precisely what I’d picked up and walked about with for several minutes before buying instead what was on my nephew’s list. The only copy of Mickey’s Christmas Carol, in that zoo of a store. I chastise myself: Trust your instincts. Next time, do what your self tells you.

This brings me to reading, which my self tells me I want to and should do every day, instead of being on the computer. The first thing I did this morning on opening my eyes was finally not get out of bed for work but pick up one of the books I’m reading, Martha Baillie’s The Incident Report, which I haven’t touched, not on purpose, since the day I read 40 pages at lunch time at the store and then bought it. That was weeks ago.

I want to keep reading but I’d also like to review Yellowknife, by Steve Zipp, because I finished it at least a week ago. I finished a book! Yes. It’s been worrying me that I have turned into that person who reads and tweets and facebooks and blogs about books but never reads them. It’s been bothering me that a person who loves to read more than anything in the world chooses rather to stare at a monitor than make time for a book, except while brushing her teeth or right before she falls asleep after midnight. It doesn’t make sense and it reminds me of my childhood, teenage, and even university days, when I dropped everything for a book, for escape, for the utter appreciation of skillfully crafted stories and essays. Those memories make me want to weep over the loss of the old me. Suddenly, it’s as though my reading life, and all the books I read in all the places I read—under the Lone Tree on our ten acres, wedged between shelves and counter in the library where my mom worked, on the bed, on the floor, in the van, in the bath, waiting in lines, on the bus, on the train, on the couch, by the woodstove, etc.—are determined to flash before me. If this could happen as I’m dying, instead of the typical life that flashes before your eyes, I’d be okay with that. But with my luck and the way I’ve been behaving, it will be all the books I meant to read but didn’t that show themselves.

I know that Steve Zipp, the author who sent me his book, the author who has been supremely patient waiting for me to read it and then review it, will be okay if I don’t review his book today. He told me there was no rush. I think he means this, because if I were an author, I wouldn’t want to rush a writer, or a reviewer. More than anything, I’d want the person to settle down to review when she was relaxed and in a reviewing mood. That way everyone benefits.

So I think I’ll read. I think for the first time in months, perhaps even years, I’ll do only that, all day. I am home, for once, and thus able to hear the rain on the roof for hours, watch a strange fog patch drift by like smoke, able to sit by the lit Christmas tree, able to think I’ll be free from unexpected visits since the heavy rain is dangerously icy and this is a storm, which the WeatherEye in my toolbar tells me is “right on track.”

bedside table

There are many reasons one reads. And when I put those reasons together with time I didn’t even have to carve out of a tightly squeezing, wrenching, grasping day but which the universe seems finally to have conspired to give me, and when the feeling that I could read right through The Incident Report and through Breakfast at the Exit Cafe and then through the entire ridiculous, though of course incomplete, “immediate pile” threatening to kill me as I sleep, I think I should listen to what my self is telling me: read. Read to redeem yourself. Read while you still can.

Reading Roulette and the Art of Persuasion

Illustration © my sister, Therese Neelands

I’ve made mention of Reading Roulette before, but if you haven’t yet seen what it is, it’s the exciting project instigated by Jen Knoch and Erin Balser over at the Keepin’ It Real Book Club site. The objective of Reading Roulette is to persuade fellow readers to step out onto that dangerous road (you never know where you’ll be swept off to!), out of your reading comfort zone, to pick up something you are normally loath to read.

All of us who wanted to participate first sent in a paragraph about what we don’t like to read. Of course, there’s always going to be someone with different taste than you, and that someone will be eager to convince you to think otherwise about your preferences, or at least to try something new in the hope you might actually like it. So, we made a video, wrote a paragraph, or even composed a poem pitching a book to persuade whomever we wanted to read something on their “meh” list.

When I read that Reeder dislikes fantasy and hugely popular mainstream books, and particularly that she’d been avoiding Harry Potter, I couldn’t keep myself from choosing her to respond to for this challenge. I have a special place in my heart for Harry and his magical world, fostered both by rereading the books and repeatedly watching the movies, and even keeping up with J.K. Rowling (did you see she was reconsidering writing another HP book?). The KIRBC post with our dislikes came shortly after I’d written a little tribute to Harry Potter (accidentally but coolly on Rowling and Potter’s birthday), but I was ready to share my love again and try and get Reeder to open up her heart and mind and with any luck love the magic of Potter. There really is nothing more satisfying than suggesting a book to someone and finding out they really enjoyed it. It makes me so happy!

This is what I wrote:

When I wrote that post about HP not that long ago (http://www.bellasbookshelves.com/?p=2537), you said you thought about giving the books a go since you saw one of the movies and liked it. I have to tell you we’ve not only read the books more than once but we own the movies, too, and have watched them all numerous times. They don’t depart much from the books. They and the books have a special magic to them; they have an atmosphere that seems to prevent them from growing old, that makes you crave them at a certain time of year. They are substantial books, too, but page-turners, which make for satisfying reads. And they’re deliciously, ridiculously rich in imagination and encompass courage, fear, life, death, love, friendship, finding one’s true potential and purpose. There are chocolate frogs, every flavour jelly beans, butter beer, all manner of birds and beasts, real or mythical; there’s a room of requirement that houses anything you desperately need, a dining room whose ceiling mirrors the seasons and current climate of events. There are spells and potions and secrets, and fireworks and dark alleys and dangerous villains. There is everything you could possibly want out of a children’s book and then some, to make the story just as readable by adults; there is every bit of magic you want for yourself. You will laugh and be sad, you will fall in love with some characters and hate others. One thing that can be said for Harry Potter is that it is impossible to feel nothing at all.

I too don’t read much that is so hyped up, and I think Harry Potter was my first time really buying into that hype; I wanted to see what it was about, opened the first page of the first book, and the rest, as they say…well. After Harry proved not to disappoint, I thought that perhaps, like a cliche, there’s truth to the hype in some cases, and I’d be a fool to not try reading a book. What if I am, indeed, missing out on something that can make me happy in the enjoyment of it?

Reeder responded right away by agreeing to try Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I’ve been eagerly awaiting her verdict, and now that I’ve read it, I wanted to share it with you. Head on over to Reeder Reads to see what she thought of the book I convinced her to read.

I too was challenged: Jen entreated me to try Sandra Gulland’s Josephine B. trilogy, which I actually own because I got it for free from a donation box to the library (we had too many copies already), but which I’d left to molder on my shelves along with War and Peace.

The thing is, I’ve always thought life too short, and great books too plentiful, to step out of my comfort zone, and yet those few times I’ve done it, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the adventure. Consequently, I find myself more open to trying new things than I used to be; a graphic novel (but only one so far, Persepolis!), the Twilight series, and the giant Kristin Lavransdatter (actually a trilogy), which is now one of my favourite books.

Working in a bookshop now, as well as book blogging and reading book blogs and tweeting about books, I’m bombarded with tons of suggestions, books I’ve never heard of, books I’ve heard of but hadn’t been interested in. What intrigues me all the time about reading is how different people’s tastes are. The whole business is so utterly subjective, when it comes down to it, but that’s what makes it interesting; there are people who absolutely loved a book I absolutely hated. I find that fascinating—and increasingly so as I read more and more reviews.

As I struggle with the fact that the book club I’m trying to organize at Greenley’s will read not only my choices but the choices of everyone, not only literary fiction but whatever strikes someone’s idea as a good book to discuss, I find myself learning to broaden my reading horizons, to become less judgemental about what other people read and enjoy. I am more willing, even, to venture into uncharted worlds. I’ve always believed in knowing why you like or dislike something. Reading outside my comfort level—not all the time but now and then—not only exposes me to pleasant surprises but also allows me the pleasure of being able to intelligently defend my preferences.

Word on the Street Toronto Day 2

Word on the Street Day 2 is continued from Word on the Street Day 1.

I awoke after about three hours’ sleep on Sunday morning. Maybe less. I don’t know, that night is a blur. We went to bed ridiculously late, I buzzing with the heebie jeebies from having just witnessed a cockroach (flippantly nicknamed Sebastian by my sister’s husband, I later discovered) scuttle under a chair. I’ve never seen a cockroach in real life, and my sister’s place is clean and neat. But it’s very old, and in the city, cockroaches and bed bugs and things I never dreamed of till now are apparently common.

What happened was this: I was flaking out on the couch with Margaret Atwood after enjoying some dark chocolate and an episode of Damages when my sister’s husband got up to leave. Out of the corner of my eye I caught him quickly toeing something aside on his way out of the room. I saw the dark thing move, rather like a wind-up toy, back under the chair (to think it had been out in plain sight, in the light! Ugh!), and at first I thought it was a dog toy or something, though it was more appropriately sized for a cat. And then it hit me.

“Um, A—?” I said, suddenly shivering. “What was that?”

“Nothing,” came the prompt reply.

“No, but it moved. I saw you toe it.” No answer. My voice escalating to a squeak, I threw at his back, “A—, was that a cockroach? It was a cockroach, wasn’t it?”

No answer.

For five minutes my sister and I huddled on the couch after A— had left, while I wondered aloud if I could kill it or scare it into a crack somewhere or throw something over it and take it outside. Neither of us could be spurred to action, unable to move past the nausea and repulsion, and in the end, I thinking I would never get any sleep with that thing and the possibility of its many family members in the apartment, we got up and turned off the light and left Sebastian to his own evil activities.

Needless to say, I could have slept longer. But in anticipation of Word on the Street, both of us got up and showered (I had to check for cockroaches. Don’t they like damp places?) and had a big breakfast of gently scrambled eggs and English muffins and homemade jam and brie and strawberries, and set out.

We were about a half hour late leaving, which wasn’t unexpected, and walking along College, I gaping at all the different places to eat, we found ourselves unable to demagnetize from a second-hand book and record shop called She Said Boom. We stepped in. Doesn’t look like much on the outside but I actually could have spent an hour or more there. Everything was nice and neat and organized and the extraordinary girl at the counter said she couldn’t look anything up but she knew what was on the shelves if I wanted something in particular. Amazing.

I resolved not to spend anything (though I found myself really struggling as well as wanting to support the shop), because I knew WOTS would have lots to tempt me with, and I had a budget of $60. Yes, $60. My to-be-read pile and our bank account can’t really justify more right now. A half hour later, we left She Said Boom and made our way to the festival in Queen’s Park.

The photo I didn't take because I was too distracted. Photo blogto.com

I wish I had thought to take pictures when we arrived. My jaw dropped at the scope of the festival, the mobs of people (unlike many festivals, WOTS is free!), many already gnawing at cobs of corn. Policemen directed traffic or sat on patient horses. The gazillion tents just on the perimeter immediately overwhelmed me as we looked at the map and everyone listed. But as is always best, we started at the beginning and made our way around the Fringe Beat tables on Queen’s Park Cres. E, then past Magazine Mews (I had to google mews, by the way, and found out it is a row of stables, or a lane or alley that the stables open onto), down to Writers Block, Digital Drive, and Literacy Lane.  (We mostly skipped the kids’ stuff because of all the kids.) There were water fountains labelled H2O to Go (rather clever!) and portable toilets and an ATM, First Aid booth, food vendors, and info booths. I know this isn’t the first time the festival has run but I was impressed by the organization as well as the helpful maps.

Admittedly, it didn’t take me long to get a bit annoyed. I dislike not having some breathing and moving room, and being jostled or trapped at a table by a stroller behind me and people to my right and left or not being able to get to a table at all because of the people pushing in ahead isn’t my cup of tea. At the same time I understood the eagerness to get at the book selections, particularly if they were heavily discounted, as at one HarperCollins table, but being unaccustomed to so many people, I ended up often standing too long waiting to get in rather than elbowing my way in, and thus skipped some tables and moved on to see others.

Most tents had different groups on either side, so it was necessary to move up and down a street, which took quite a bit of time, and even then there were some publishers I didn’t see. But we stopped to listen to promoters and picked up a few bits and bobs here and there, like the Mammalian Daily (written by animals for animals they said), and entered a contest at the Freedom to Read table. We chatted oh so briefly with reps and assured fellow attendees who were hemming and hawing at the books in their hands that their purchase would be totally worth it (if we’d read the book). By the time we reached the end of Literacy Lane we were ready to collapse under the weight of our new books and from lack of food.

And this was where I was disappointed. The lineups were reasonable, but the choice of food was not great for a vegetarian. We had thought to pack a lunch but then decided against it because neither of us wanted the added weight. Even the vegetarian pad thai wasn’t vegetarian, which I unfortunately discovered after paying $7 for a meagre serving of unpalatable food (normally I love Thai!). This made me pissy and I griped to my sister, much in the same way my mother used to about how many chickens she could have bought with that money, that I could have spent my Thai food money on a book. In the end, I bought a (ridiculously expensive, considering they’re 79 cents a pound at the grocery store) baked sweet potato, and had I done that in the first place, I would have been happy. It was delicious and hit the spot.

By this time we were flagging. We’d been in the sun getting hot and then chilly in the shade for several hours. Our bags were loaded and we were beginning to imagine shortened life spans due to husbands who while supporting our love of reading don’t understand how we could possibly need more books. (How many times must we say it has nothing to do with need?)

I LOVE how intense this woman is, getting her books signed by Yann Martel. Photo blogto.com

And yet by 4:30 we still hadn’t visited a single tent inside the park! I had wanted to go to all the tents. I’d wanted to hear Reviewing the Book Reviewer and Look at Me! and Blog to Book. I’d wanted to meet Iain Read, whose book One Bird’s Choice is now perched beside me, and hear Wayson Choy and Alissa York and Richard Wright and Stuart McLean and Steven Heighton and Yann Martel, and see Mark Leslie Lefebvre, who was my first manager at Chapters back in 1998 in Ancaster, and then also those I tweet and blog with, like BookMadam (Julie Wilson). I heard and met not one. And this is why I wish the festival was two days, rather than one.

But I did meet great booksellers and reps, particularly those at the Anansi and HarperCollins and Coach House tables, whom near the end of the day were finally reachable and to whom I could introduce myself and thank personally for generously sending me great books to review. I bought at those tables, too. (It was so awesome to meet these people in person! If you’re reading, you guys, it was my pleasure, and thank you!)

No one, however, surpassed the bookselling skills of Melville House Publishing (authors of the blog MobyLives: that whale is out there, man!). Talk about convincing and enthusiastic! It was they who should have been wearing the tee-shirts that said BookThugs. Instead they wore shirts that read “The main thing is, you fight back.” The slogan was to promote a book called Every Man Dies Alone (which they’d sold out of by the time we’d got there), but also had significance, I thought, in light of Banned Books Week and in defence of the paper book. Maylin Scott, forcefully and gleefully threatening us with the creepiness of The Unit (which I bought last week already) and publisher Dennis Johnson were both phenomenal, obviously passionate about what they do and produce, which was exciting to see, and I did leave with a most beautiful copy of Aurorarama, a new literary steampunk novel about which Mr. Johnson would be much better at telling you. Think Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, sort of, but more adult. Apparently the French author wanted to learn English and went about it in an interesting way that’s reflected in the poetic and unique prose.

My train was to arrive at 6:35 and by 4:30 pm we were knackered and parched and our feet were aching and we still had about a half hour’s walk home. I wanted some time for my sister and I to make tea and dump our bags and sift through and check out our purchases, like we did with our Halloween bags of candy when we were kids. I made a last effort to find a few people I’d wanted to meet but I admit this was half-hearted because of the sprawling nature of the event.

So we parted ways with Word on the Street (I thinking that next year I’ll focus on the event tents and check out the perimeter afterward, when it’s easier to get to the tables). On the way to her apartment I convinced my sister she needs to read One Bird’s Choice simply by reading her the jacket flap. That was before I got all choked up when an Italian Catholic procession slowly passed us by, murmuring the rosary and singing in that slow, quavery, off-key, and unsynched way processions do, thick-ankled women in knee stockings, heeled slip-ons, and skirts clutching their little dogs, short men dressed in tight suits and smoking cigarettes; it made me all nostalgic. My family is Maltese and Catholic (my parents live in Malta), and, sure, there’s Little Malta in TO, with the inimitable Malta Bakeshop and St. Paul’s church, where we used to go to mass when we were kids (which we didn’t understand because it was in Maltese) but Little Italy makes me teary, too. It’s close enough. Sometimes I experience things in Toronto that make me warm up to the city. It’s as though she knows I generally dislike her, and now and then throws a treat.

Three of the ten I bought at WOTS! Aurorarama (Melville House Pub), Heaven is Small (Anansi), One Bird's Choice (Anansi). PS. Sebastian was not under the chair at the time this photo was taken. I checked.

Water. Shoes kicked off. Dumped loot. Photos. We’re tired and happy and tired. We peruse each other’s books and each regret not buying certain ones at the same time as fight off guilt at how much money we spent. I did say my budget was $60, didn’t I. But 10 books bought at a festival, 4 of them hardcover, will never cost $6o. Both of us went over, like typical booklovers. What to do? In the end, we shrug. It’s in our nature when it comes to books.

On the hushed sold-out train home in the dark I read Sandra Beck and contemplate what to tell my husband about the blown budget. It’s WOTS, I think. What do you expect? But just in case, I decide to ask forgiveness via text before I arrive. It’s easier that way. Maybe I can promise I won’t buy another book until the next festival (I have enough to keep me going till then, anyway). Well…maybe.

List of books bought:

Aurorarama by Jean-Christophe Valtat (Melville House Publishing)

Lemon by Cordelia Strube (Coach House Books)

Heaven is Small by Emily Schultz (Anansi)

One Bird’s Choice by Iain Reid (Anansi)

Men without Women by Ernest Hemingway (BMV)

Going Solo by Roald Dahl (The Labyrinth)

Matilda by Roald Dahl (The Labyrinth)

Boy by Roald Dahl (The Labyrinth)

The Umbrella Man and other stories by Roald Dahl (The Labyrinth)

Paddington Treasury by Michael Bond (The Labyrinth. What can I say, their prices rocked!)

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For Love or Money

So even though when I started at our indie bookstore a month ago I was told that full time was very unlikely, possibly not until over a year from now, if ever, I’ve been offered full time. When the boss sent a message on Sunday asking if I could meet her in a couple of hours for a chat (and was kind enough to include in her email that it wasn’t anything bad), I suspected the offer, though I don’t know why. Just an exciting thought.

And when she put it to me, saying she couldn’t afford to hire me full time but she also couldn’t afford not to, in light of what I can and am contributing, in light of the fact that we are short-staffed, I wanted to interrupt her by shrieking YES! But she knew that, of course. She put up her finger and said, “I want you to promise me you’ll go home and think about this. That you’ll talk to your hubby about it.”

Yes, yes. I needed to consider several things: one, I would be taking a major paycut and making minimum wage, about a hundred bucks less per cheque. Since we’re both practically working for peanuts already, we really can’t afford this. And working 40 hours, I wouldn’t have much time for freelance copyediting for more money. I also needed to consider that I would be leaving what is a relatively secure job for a totally insecure one. The store is currently surviving pretty much on school purchases alone. It’s the same story as everywhere else: bookshops are in jeopardy. It could close in a few months, and then where would I be?

And so on.

I dutifully and then seriously hemmed and hawed, then. When C asked me over supper what I preferred, to be happy in a job or to have money, I actually struggled with the question. We’ve been through financial hell and are slowly coming back. Sort of. And while I would be working at a bookstore, would I be able to afford buying books anymore?

The thing is, while fear grips my heart about losing our small but beloved house, about having to cut out yet more things, if possible, about perhaps losing the job and trying to find another one in this crappy town (it took C almost two years after being laid off); while the (purported?) threat of all bookstores being inevitably doomed grows in my mind, what keeps overriding that is how I feel when I’m at the store now, how I feel in comparison to how I’ve felt at all my other jobs…possibly ever (and I’ve had a ton of jobs).

Matilda. ©Quentin Blake

I’m very happy at the store, surrounded by books, overwhelmed by books, to be honest. I love browsing the shelves, meeting and chatting with people who are buying or searching for something new. People who read excite me. I love seeing what’s coming out, what’s going back. I want to know, to absorb everything, all the knowledge and know-how. I want to constantly be enveloped by the fragrance of books. Even in a bookshop I’m called weird. I am like a dog—I sniff every book upon greeting, with various reactions. But they also call me Matilda, after Roald Dahl‘s spunky young bookworm. (Previously unbeknown to them, I use a Quentin Blake Matilda bookmark, so this new nickname makes me doubly happy.)

Being happy, not noticing the hours, not wanting to leave, not wanting to miss a day, being really good at what I do, and fitting in with confidence, finally—that all counts for something huge, in my mind.

And if you’ve read my about page, you already know that having my own shop is my goal. I’ve tried Chapters, the library, publishing. I wasn’t happy in those jobs for various reasons. Until I started working at the indie, I truly thought that maybe I was wrong in thinking I wanted a career in books. Maybe I was simply supposed to buy and read and collect them and then have something boring to do for 8 hours a day, five days a week. Believe it or not, I’ve actually been told as much. But that’s depressing! I refuse to believe it. So I started my blog, just to have something more to do with books, and I attended more author signings (and that’s how I got the job at the indie!). I don’t want to separate passion and work. I want work to be less…work.

I’ve been at our indie now almost two months and I’m surprised to find myself still smiling and happy no matter what time of day it is there. I’m not disenchanted, not bored. True, I work there only two days a week. But I simply seem incapable of being unhappy around books. If there’s a person who’s tiresome or a coworker in a bad mood, I have those books. They’re like…better than people.

So. I am surrounded by books, I get to talk about books, and I like my coworkers. Now, too, I’m beginning to recognize regulars, the ones who come in for their daily paper or the mom and tot who kill time but always buy or order something. People are starting to come to me for suggestions, to trust me even though I’m the newbie. Giant points for that. I am content being in an indie selling books freely without people breathing down my neck about what I can and can’t do. If I want to change a display that’s been around for a while and that isn’t selling, I can. If I want to be creative, host an event, try something new, all I need do is ask, and the idea will be considered and usually simply given the go-ahead. It’s all confirming that, yes, ideally I would like to have my own bookshop. I still dream of Biblio all the time. I LOVE that place in my head. I always see myself milling about with customers, discussing their choices, pouring their tea, suggesting what to read next and placing books in their hands, making up gift baskets of tea matched with books, sponsoring events, comparing notes with customers, making them happy. I am always grinning ear to ear. At the end of a busy day, I’m sitting at the staff room table, cupping a mug of tea and feeling utterly content.

Idealist? Of course it is. Of course I am. Of course I’m also afraid I’m setting myself up for disappointment. I’m afraid that it’s not feasible. If bookstores are not going to survive, my life might as well be over. I have no other desire, no other ideas. As drama queen as that sounds. I mean, I don’t know. Maybe I could move to the country and open an animal sanctuary or something. Animals are my second love. Maybe I could move to Yorkshire and tend pigs and horses and sheep.

Books make me happy. This one came from England as a b-day gift from my sister: a boxed Pippi Longstocking, illustrated by Lauren Child.

If my goal is to open my own shop one day, then this experience is perfect for me. It’s good training. In five years, say, or less, I want to be an expert on books and their publishers, on ordering and receiving, on knowing how an indie works as opposed to how a library or Chapters works. I want to be on a first-name friendly basis with publicists and the rest of the industry people an indie deals with. I want events to be plentiful, teeming with delighted people. I want to keep the paper book culture alive—not only alive but kicking. I want success. And mostly, I think, I want to be where I fit, doing what I do best.

So I’m saying yes to full time at the indie in spite of the things that niggle at me: the money issue, the security issue, the horrible dread of telling my current boss at the clinic. Maybe something will happen where money isn’t so much an issue. Maybe the store, which will celebrate it’s 30th year in a couple of m0nths, will surge forward and prove everyone wrong. And my current boss will get over me.

I’m saying yes because I’m tired of choosing based on money. Because being me I have to choose passion and potential and ultimately hope (mainly that bookstores will prevail) over everything else in order to feel some sense of fulfillment. Love over money. I know it’s horribly romantic. But it also makes sense considering what my goals are and what I’d face otherwise—stagnation, dreary days of laundry, booking appointments, listening to patients go on about their ailments, etc.

The thought of taking such a leap, the sense of feeling I’m finally starting life (at age 36 no less), is weighted with the thrill of risk, but also the promise of potential, achievement, experience, and, most of all, joy.

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Cool Stuff for Booklovers

[NB: Clicking on photos should take you to the websites they come from so you can see more pics as well.]

I have wanted one of Caitlin Phillips‘s book purses for eons. But I still can’t decide which book I want and it would have to be one that could be found in rough shape so that I wouldn’t mind her removing the pages…. Which would you pick?

Caitlin Phillips's Rebound Designs: book purse

Here’s another book purse, a clutch by Kate Spade:

Kate Spade clutch: she has a Great Gatsby one featured now!

And then there’s the yummy Penguin canvases. I came across these when I saw one in a house featured in Canadian House & Home. Who wouldn’t want one of these? At £100–£300, though, I doubt I’ll get one anytime soon:

Penguin canvas for your wall

Speaking of cool Penguin stuff, what about these deck chairs?

Penguin deck chair

And the espresso cup and mugs?

Penguin espresso cups

Penguin Pride and Prejudice mug

Penguin Classics mug, modern design

Next we have the Livroche bookstand, designed by David Fleishman. When I have a library again, I’d like an old wooden table in it on which I can showcase special books. This stone stand would go nicely on the distressed wood I imagine. I keep seeing something like Alberto Manguel’s library, which I featured in my “Betrayed by Your Bookshelves” post, but with an older table.

Livroche bookstand, designed by David Fleishman

Although I have far too many books now and too few shelves to be able to use bookends, I still like these:

David McCullough's Typewriter Bookend

Beta fishbowl bookends (though I hate seeing fish in so small a container!)

Bookends for the sculpture lover

This necklace is pretty neat: the artist makes pendants from vintage dictionary entries as well as other found objects, and sells them on her etsy page.

Soldered Vintage Dictionary Pendant: Bookworm

Soldered Vintage Dictionary Pendant: Bookish

Naturally, I also love these bookplates, made by Stephanie Fizer on etsy:

Personalized bookplates (with owls, my fave!)

Personalized bookplates by Stephanie Fizer

Are you a bibliophile but also love jewellery? How about this charm bracelet made by A Likely Story?

Bookish charm bracelet

Or this one? You don’t have to wear them, you could just hang them somewhere near your collection of books. There are plenty more literary themed ones where these came from:

Librarian book charm bracelet

If you’re anything like me, you carry your books everywhere you go, just in case you’ll get a chance to read, even if only for a few minutes. I love these wool bags, made from skirts and coats by Wooly Bison. I had a very hard time choosing which one to post here; I like so many! I have a huge thing for handbags, almost as much as I do for books!

Black and grey recycled herringbone satchel

Okay, I could probably go on finding neat things, but I want to see what you come up with, too. Any suggestions for booklovers to check out? Let us know in the comments.

I didn’t include bookshelves here because there is one site that does it for me. Check out Bookshelf Porn. Ooooh. Okay, here is one photo: it shows gorgeous white bookshelves, which I’m pretty sure I want. I would love this whole house, actually. I don’t know whether to try and paint my shelves to immediately satisfy the urge I have to redecorate or make new ones. I think making new ones is more exciting. That way I can have ones exactly the way I want, and higher, since we have vaulted ceilings. And I can post the progress of the project!

“]”]

fitzhugh and lindsay of the brooklyn home co. I covet this entire house!

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"This is not about food": An evening with Joanne Harris

Ottawa, Mayfair Theatre, 18 May 2010

Who’s Who lists her hobbies as “‘mooching, lounging, strutting, strumming, priest-baiting and quiet subversion of the system,’ although she also enjoys obfuscation, sleaze, rebellion, witchcraft, armed robbery, tea and biscuits. She is not above bribery and would not necessarily refuse an offer involving exotic travel, champagne or yellow diamonds from Graff. She plays bass guitar in a band first formed when she was 16, is currently studying Old Norse and lives with her husband Kevin and her daughter Anouchka, about 15 miles from the place she was born” (taken from her website).

Now I ask you, is there any more intriguing author description than this? I think not.

Even better, I’m sitting at the Mayfair Theatre in Ottawa, several rows up from the stage, waiting with bated breath and pounding heart to meet this very person, someone I’ve admired for years—and not because I too love witchcraft, rebellion, diamonds, tea, and biscuits, although I do. It’s because she is none other than Joanne Harris. If you don’t know who Joanne Harris is, shame on you. (You’re missing out.)

As part of the Ottawa International Writers Festival, Harris is to read from her newest novel blueeyedboy and then participate in a Q&A, later open to the audience. After that you can get your book(s) signed (there’s a limit of 42 per person, artistic director Sean Wilson jokes, and thank God, because I brought five and had wanted to bring more), and then nestle back into your seats, popcorn on your knee, for a special screening of Chocolat, which is, of course, one of my favourite films.

My coffee table overfloweth

Before everything starts, I quickly visit the book table where Harris’s books are being sold and pick up a copy of Chocolat. Mine has the film cover, and I don’t prefer that for my books, but after deciding I don’t much like this other cover either and considering the sentimentality I have for my well-read copy, I put the new book back and return to my seat. I’m trying to remain calm but I’m buzzing. Harris has come all the way from Yorkshire (incidentally my favourite place on the planet) and this is her first visit to Canada, the first time I’m seeing her in person.

And then I turn to my right, wondering where the throngs of fans are, and there she is. Joanne Harris, author extraordinaire, is casually perched on the arm of one of the theatre seats, clutching a gargantuan cup of what I later learn is Coke, sipping merrily through her straw while chatting with two other women. She’s smaller than I thought, topped with a close-cropped pixie, clad in a black soft leather motorcycle jacket, red blouse, and black jeans. The finishing touches: ballerina flats and a sparkling necklace. She looks edgy but sweet: a little dark with the light. How very like her.

I realize I’m beaming. Joanne Harris looks to me like an imp, and I do not mean that in a bad way. Suddenly she laughs, and her youthful, vibrant face is instantly and amazingly transformed. She is one of those people who lights up when she smiles, eyes crinkling to crescent-moon slits. I want to gobble her up.

I also want to go over there and meet her. But I’m looking about and not a single person aside from the two women with her, who seem to be involved in the event, acknowledge her presence. Either they don’t think it’s proper writers festival event etiquette or they’re too polite. They can’t possibly not know it’s her. But no one is even looking her way. I’m both flabbergasted and trying to swallow my racing heart. Aw, screw polite, I finally decide (I’m not totally Canadian anyway!), and make my way over to her. I’m not missing out on this opportunity. I came three hours to see her, after all.

Of course I’m a complete bumbling fool when I ask if I can interrupt and then try hard not to come across as the creepy fan who ends up in horror stories, or the Twihard-ish enthusiast. But I can’t help it. I’m practically vibrating with nervousness and excitement and I say stupid, inarticulate things. And then it’s Joanne being polite and calming me down by being so remarkably grounded and casual and making it seem as though she’s an old friend. She’s one of us. But I know there’s something special about her. One of the women obliges me with a photo of the authoress and me, which comes out looking as though we are two classmates goofing around in a photo booth. It is brilliant—until I realize later I had forgotten to save it. Merde.

We chat about Yorkshire and I tell her I’ve brought her a taste of home—Yorkshire Tea—and she thanks me for being so thoughtful and says that had she had it this morning, her day would have been completely different: hence the giant Coke. Apparently we don’t know how to make tea here (I quite agree!). She tells me a story about Betty’s, where both of us have been, that makes me guffaw and thus embarrass myself. But Joanne Harris is full of stories, and before long we’re chatting and laughing almost like people who’ve met before. I’m enamoured, and suddenly I know that tonight will never be long enough to say all the things that have been building up for years. Especially since most of it won’t come to me till she’s gone.

The lights dim and I return to my seat. The magic is about to begin. A spotlight illuminates the already glowing author, and she begins to introduce blueeyedboy, warning us that this is not a book about food, and it is not a book that takes place in France. It is not, in fact, even a book that many people like, seeing as they found no likable characters in it. With this, she elicits appreciative laughter from the mostly senior audience. Then she begins to read. In my seat I shiver with delight, listening to her round tones and alto voice as she enunciates the words she’s written as though she remembers the love of her craft, which she poured into this book. Her rich English accent makes me think of hot chocolate with cream and chili. I could listen forever.

All too soon, the bit she is reading is over and she takes a seat, concession stand drink in hand, one leg crossed over another at the ankle. The questions are good, about blueeyedboy (though because the book has many twists, not much can be discussed at the risk of spoiling it for those who haven’t yet read it) and herself, too, and she answers them freely and off the cuff, intermittently taking sips through her straw. What we learn is that she is not at all like Gloria, a horrid woman in blueeyedboy, and that she does not like to be asked which of her characters she is. (This is understandable. People have this very interesting need to make books at least somewhat autobiographical regarding the author, which confounds me because it strips away the author’s very purpose, which is to imagine outside herself.) We also discover that a certain red evokes the smell of chocolate for her (thus she calls it chocolate red), and that she dislikes and ignores when people tell her she must write a certain way about certain things (e.g., about food and France).

Listening intently, I realize with chagrin that I’ve been a very naughty and negligent girl having written a review directly after finishing blueeyedboy far too late at night and having read others’ reviews to feed my own. It’s irresponsible and unintelligent, and even kind of cheating, and I’m deeply ashamed. Of course the point was not to like the characters. Of course there’s deeper things going on than I allowed myself to process, having devoured the book as quickly as possible in preparation for this event. In light of having met Joanne and hearing her speak her mind, in remembrance of the brilliance of her other books, and thinking about the book in retrospect, I feel diminished, and look forward to racing home to delete or vet my review, as cowardly as that is. The things is, I’m still not sure what exactly I would change, even though it’s not a good review.

I find myself also desperately wanting to chime in during the Q&A period, to get in on the conversation, to protest that indeed blueeyedboy does have food in it, and lots, as a matter of fact. There’s biscuits and pies and rotting vegetables and fruit and likely more I don’t remember, not only the vitamin drink. Joanne can’t help but include food, it seems (and I certainly don’t object). In fact, what I’ve noticed about all her books is how sensual she is: how prominent are the senses of taste and touch and smell and hearing. Colours also factor in many of her books, right from her first novel, The Evil Seed. These are thesis topics, methinks, and though it’s been ten years since I graduated from uni, I think I may yet pursue them.

One audience member asks her question in French, and without hesitation Joanne answers her back also in French, with an impeccable accent. Of course I knew she could speak it, but for me to hear it, and for her to have the opportunity to do it here in Ottawa seems meaningful to me. Even more so when the audience obviously understands her answer.

Finally, it is time for her to sign our books. The lineup isn’t long but, sadly, neither are there many in the audience. “Better than Glasgow,” Joanne said to me earlier, where only two men showed up, and one of them to escape the weather. Nothing could be worse than Glasgow, she said wryly, though apparently she still managed to enjoy herself.

Gamely, Joanne signs all five of the books I’ve brought and takes two more photos with me, unfortunately neither as good as the one that got away. She accepts the Yorkshire Tea as well, but only one teabag to sneak for breakfast next morning. Much to my pleasure she remembers the story of my copy of The Evil Seed, which was out of print until recently and is still unavailable in Canada. I’d written her about how I acquired it a few years ago, and now looking at it she tells me that only 1000–2000 copies had been printed, and only in the format I own. I have in my possession a rare book indeed, and now it’s signed. Too bad it’s also stamped by the Nipissing Public Library.

Joanne Harris and me

I can’t stay for the viewing of Chocolat, as much as I would like to. I am happy at this event, with Joanne, mingling with other people who appreciate good literature. I’m in my element, and I know in my heart this is where I ought to be on a regular basis, among authors and good books, and people who love to read. But I am staying with a friend, who eagerly awaits my report on the evening.

Amid moviegoers trickling in, I leave the theatre and Joanne, stepping out into the cool night regretfully but also exhilarated, and at the same time somehow knowing I will meet her again. Joanne Harris is not a woman one easily forgets, her magical writing not so easily put aside. I feel certain that her next book, or perhaps the next after that, will have me not on the train but rather boarding a plane for Yorkshire.

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Canada Reads Day Four

Phew, what a long, busy day at work. I’m finally home, finally fed, and finally ready to post commentary on Day Four of Canada Reads. Once again, I’m not recapping but assuming you’ve already heard the discussion.

These debates interest me immensely, and as we edge closer to the number one book, I find myself unable to confidently predict things as they’re currently going. There are several surprises and it seems things can go any which way—and didn’t they today! A “Canada Reads shocker,” said Jian, when Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees was voted off. I have to agree with Simi Sara about the reasons for voting off the book, but Perdita had an interesting point about choosing your vote based on the merit of the book rather than going with strategy (though I have my doubts she followed that herself. She was, after all, plotting revenge, and in trying to survive, I wonder if she did indeed always vote with her heart). Because this is a contest, how does one balance the two?

Great reasons why they chose their books this time from Simi Sara and Samantha Nutt, but not so much, I thought, fromVézina or Felicien. I’m worried, frankly, about Vézina; at first I was undaunted by his somewhat challenged command of English but wonder now if it will affect, as some have suggested, his ability to effectively defend Nikolski, the book I think should win. On the other hand, most of his points have been full of insight and it’s obvious he appreciates and understands the book as it is meant to be read, at least in my opinion. He sees the layers, the way in which it was written, the multiple themes, the richness of it. It works for him much in the same way it works for me, and I wonder if this is chiefly because he himself is a writer.

Based on what’s been going on during the discussions, and on the way the panelists voted this time, I think Simi Sarah might vote off The Jade Peony next, since that one too has had its day and she wants to see newer books and authors be allowed to shine. Perdita’s reaction to her book going down was not surprising, and though the result was rather unexpected, she said afterward she thought this would happen, right from the beginning. Her reaction was strong, which is okay, of course. You know she was struggling with the loss, but I wonder, knowing her background, if she felt this way about losing because of her absolute passion for FOYK or her competitive nature. Perhaps both.

The questions disappointed a little me today because, like yesterday’s question on class division, I couldn’t really see how the answers would put one book forward before the rest as that which Canada should be reading. The first question was: Which family resonated for you most and made you want to continue reading? I think the second part of this question was the most significant in terms of the contest.

What was interesting here were the different definitions of family: from Sam’s mention of family being who loves you, whether you’re related or not, to the nuclear family in Good to a Fault, to the “non-family,” as Jian called it—the extended family members of Nikolski who never met (though there were also the families of Noah and his mother, Joyce and her grandfather and cousins, etc., and the dad linking them all like a thread over time and place.

Nikolski was criticized for not having the family members meet, but I have to say, the characters not meeting is precisely what made me keep reading, because I kept expecting them to meet and I kept wondering how they would; I absolutely loved that they were so close and had no idea. It’s the same feeling you get, somewhat akin to excitement, when you see this in movies, when you as the reader or the viewer know how close they are and yet they have no idea. It makes you want to stand up and point, to shout, “Turn around, look!”

The tactic of not satisfying the reader’s desire for them to meet, as I’ve mentioned before, was in the end for me a clever move by the author. Meeting would have been too neat, too predictable, too happy an ending, and the journey, the process, is really what the book is about, so tying off those loose ends would make the theme come to a close. Instead, I like the fact that I can imagine them continuing their searches for meaning, family, belonging. In spite of the magic realism in the book, this element of related characters not meeting felt like real life, and got me wondering how close I may ever have been to meeting someone I know but without knowing it. Ships in the night, I said in my first review, and I think Rollie too described it as such in the first or second session as well.

In answer to the criticism about Nikolski‘s family members not meeting, Vézina had an excellent point, and I admit to not having thought of this while reading the book: we don’t know our neighbours, we don’t know the people we are even related to; we are a much more private society and less apt to get to know the people around us. This is a timely comment because I just read about this in the Toronto Star last week (and of course I can’t find the article now!).

When The Jade Peony was brought into the debate here, Sam again championed the book with evidence from the text. I love this, and I think she’s the only one who’s really done this rather than generalizing. It makes me lean toward her as my second choice. All through the debates, I haven’t been getting a good, solid sense of Good to a Fault, which I think is important if they’re trying to convince Canada it’s the book to read.

As to which book didn’t work well on an emotional level for the panelist, here is where I got slightly frustrated, but mainly because I can’t relate much to anyone’s answers. I was really disappointed that the “thinness” of Nikolski was brought up again—that just won’t die! It’s too strange to me, seeing as I feel the total opposite. More and more I lean toward Vézina’s defence that it’s the reader, not the book, that’s the problem in this case. This “hard to follow” complaint, or that it’s a novel you have to work at, is totally weird to me! I didn’t have any trouble following it, I certainly didn’t find reading it work, by any stretch of the imagination, and I didn’t find I had to “fill in the blanks,” as Jian said and even Vézina agreed. Although filling in the blanks, I must point out, is exactly what each character strives to do for the duration of the novel, and in many ways! They try to fill in their history, the locations of others, the voids in themselves, the missing pieces of relationships, the very apartments they live in. I mean, there are “missing pieces of the puzzle” (courtesy of SS) because there are supposed to be! Why do we always want fiction to be so neat and tidy? I just can’t even get to the point of seeing what Nikolski is being accused of. Vézina’s “family photos” simile at this point in the debate was bloody brilliant.

The final question before the vote was: Which book is likely to polarize readers; which is a love it or hate it book? My immediate answer was Nikolski, though I’m not sure why. Perhaps because I’ve already heard it described as such. But when Simi Sara mentioned Good to  a Fault, I thought perhaps she was right. The Jade Peony, I think, wouldn’t elicit such strong reactions, and hasn’t in the debates; people would either find it their thing or not, but I don’t think they’d hate it. However, both Nikolski and Good to a Fault brought out quite strong opinions about either characters or format, whether or not they could relate, etc. If Gen X was still in the running, I suspect that one might have come out as first choice in answer to this question because it’s so different. I find that in general about Coupland—people either really love him or really don’t.

And then all of a sudden, all too soon, it was time to vote. Again, I have to say I have no clue which way this will go, but I think Nikolski has taken a significant hit today, though there were some positive comments and some good defence. It’s just that all three books left seem almost on equal footing, that perhaps there are no favourites right now. Will there be another upset tomorrow?

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Delicious

I know you’re very busy, Mr. Harper. We’re all busy. But every person has a space next to where they sleep, whether a patch of pavement or a fine bedside table. In that space, at night, a book can glow. And in those moments of docile wakefulness, when we begin to let go of the day, then is the perfect time to pick up a book and be someone else, somewhere else, for a few minutes, a few pages, before we fall asleep. —Yann Martel

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Betrayed by Your Bookshelves?

Manguel’s personal library from the NYT h/t Alan Jacobs

My library is not a single beast but a composite of many others, a fantastic animal made up of the several libraries built and then abandoned, over and over again, throughout my life. I can’t remember a time in which I didn’t have a library of some sort. The present one is a sort of multilayered autobiography, each book holding the moment in which I opened it for the first time. The scribbles on the margins, the occasional date on the flyleaf, the faded bus ticket marking a page for a reason today mysterious, all try to remind me of who I was then. For the most part, they fail. My memory is less interested in me than in my books, and I find it easier to remember the story read once than the young man who then read it. — Alberto Manguel

Isn’t this picture of Manguel’s collection gorgeous? I’m so jealous! And look, he even has Harry Potter on his shelves! (You can guess all you want what that might mean about him, but instead read this. It’s excellent. Manguel is a man after my own heart and I feel sure he and I would get on famously.)

For a while I had a page on this site where I had planned on posting pictures of readers’ bookshelves. Unfortunately, I haven’t received any photos and I decided to scrap the page to conserve space. That may change as more readers visit this site, though, or if I find a better theme. The voyeur in me really wants to see your photos!

Since I’m into my own library and books, I’m incurably curious about what others are reading and particularly what their own collections look like. When I visit someone’s home, that’s where I gravitate to: their books. I take note of their bookcases, whether shelves on milk crates, Billy configurations from IKEA, antique shelves, or contemporary and unconventional shelves. Then I peruse the collections. I can spend hours doing this, I must confess, though I have only been rude enough to do it at my sister’s house in England.

BBC News Magazine has an article today called “What Does Your Bookcase Say About You?” Apparently, I’m not the only one who’s had the idea of posting people’s personal library photos. I’m also not alone in being interested in other readers’ libraries, of course. Peter Sandico is a bibliophile who feels the same way I do. He has a theory, as well, about what our books say about us. While I wholeheartedly concur that books are an extension of the self, I can’t agree that I display my books because I want people to think a certain way about me (that never occurred to me!)—I display my books because I’m in love with them and enjoy being surrounded by them, and adore looking at them and browsing through them, and because I firmly believe that books make a room. I also agree that our books and the way we shelve them say things about us.

I display my books neatly; they line up nicely at the edge of the shelves. This might be from my Chapters or library days but I think I’ve always done it. It tells you that I like order and neatness, which is very true—er, in most cases. But I also have let go of the control a bit (as in life in general) and whereas I used to organize my books by nationality (Canadian, American, Indian, and so on, though children’s were just all together, and then even alphabetically), I’ve become more lax.

Generally, all the books an author has written are together, but otherwise I pretty much put the books where they fit best on the shelves. Sometimes I care about how they look beside each other; thus I have a bunch of beautiful fat novels together (Kristin Lavransdatter, Anna Karenina, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, The Historian, etc.). No matter what, though, my little library is completely for me. I feel so strongly about my books, my dear friends, that I couldn’t care less if anyone judges me or my choices negatively. I like what I like for me, not for anyone else—books are after all highly personal belongings—though I admit it is lovely when people compliment me on my collection. It makes me happy.

What do your bookshelves look like? Are they neat and organized or piled willy-nilly on top of each other? Do you have uniform shelves or mismatched ones? Do you put other things on your shelves besides books?

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