Wednesday, January 31, 2007

BOOKS: Just Like a Real Blog

I'm working on a big post (on Oprah, if you can imagine, because that's the kind of bleeding-edge cultural commentary you come here for, right?), but until I finish that, here are a few items of note that I thought were too nifty not to pass along. Look at me! I'm just like a real blogger!


I'm surprised that this hasn't happened earlier, but a novel consisting entirely of text messages has just been published in Finland, a hive of early technology adopters, it would seem.
The Last Messages tells the story of a fictitious information-technology executive in Finland who resigns from his job and travels throughout Europe and India, keeping in touch with his friends and relatives only through text messages.

"I believe that, at the end of the day, a text message may reveal much more about a person than you would initially think," said [author Hanna] Luntiala, who also is head of a company that keeps databases on people living in Finland.
[via MSNBC]


It's the Year of Vonnegut! I knew this joyful, celebratory feeling I've had lately must have a reason.


Not to be outdone by the bookish nerds at Wired, the bookish nerds at Esquire have recently announced the results of their "Napkin Project," in which they sent out napkins to 250 writers, asking them to pen some kind of tale on the back of each. They offer a sampling of the results here. I've only looked through a few so far, but I can say this: someone should offer to go massage the wicked writer's cramp Rick Moody must be suffering right now.


If you don't have the time to read that 1200-page biography of Dickens, the good people at the BBC have put together this animated short that pretty much covers the high points.


And finally, courtesy of Karen at Verbatim, this nifty little exercise will help you remember when and how you broke your Amazon cherry. Apparently, I lost my online book-shopping virtue back in the summer of '99 with The Bust Guide to the New Girl Order and Shiny Adidas Track Suits and the Death of Camp. I must've been going through one of those phases where I thought I was cool.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

BOOKS: Well Played, Art Garfunkel

Holy cow, you people deliver. I was expecting a solid handful of list ideas, but you guys have blown my mind. I love how specific some of them are, too, though methinks a few of you are projecting a tad. (I'm looking at you, Sandy D., with "Books Whose Authors Have Gone Psycho on You After a Bad Review." Heh. I think you're required by law to share that story with the class.)

So here's what I'm a-gonna do. I'm in the process of adding your list titles (and consolidating the duplicates) to the list in my original post, which I've linked from the sidebar. I'll keep updating this list, so please keep suggesting ideas. And every time I create a new list, I'll create a link from the master list. That all makes sense, right? How could it not?

One more thing. I noticed a few list suggestions that I think I may have already covered way back in the day. I'm going to add those list titles to the master list as well, and I'll dig through the archives and create links to those posts.

And to answer a few people's question: please do play along, either in the comments section here, or on your own site. If the latter, make sure you post a link here so I can read your lists!

And speaking of lists, I just came across a fantastic new one, courtesy of Bookliness: this complete chronological list of every book Art Garfunkel has read since 1968. Ever since watching part of the 1980 film Bad Timing, in which Garfunkel plays a sexually obsessed college professor, I've been looking for something to pave over the indelible mental image of his naked, fornicating ass.* This list, strangely, helps.

If I had the time, trust me, I would go through the entire list and tally all the books both Mr. Garfunkel and I have enjoyed. And if you're honest with yourself, I think you'll admit that you would, too. Instead, I perused his list of favourite books (also organized chronologically) and couldn't help noting with no small degree of pleasure that the man who brought us one half of the harmonies in "Scarborough Fair" counts Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, The Razor's Edge, and Vanity Fair among his all-time favourite reads.

Well played, Mr. Garfunkel. I almost forgive you for making me watch you have sex with that dead woman. Almost.

*I may have also sighted the Garfunkel unit, but this image, happily, seems to have been scoured from my retinas.

Monday, January 29, 2007

ETC: Odds

How many times has this happened to you:

Your washer and dryer both die within minutes of each other for seemingly unrelated reasons. Each has wet laundry inside it.

And, within moments, your toddler has the Biggest Poop in the Universe.

I can see you cocking one eyebrow incredulously at this last point. You're thinking to yourself, The biggest poop in the universe? I've had some big poops in my day. I'm sure you're right, but have your poops ever necessitated throwing out a pair of socks as a complete write-off? And contemplate also throwing out your pants? I thought not.

And I know. Someone buy me a lottery ticket.

We spent last night taking turns schlepping sodden clothes to the laundromat and using the elephant hose on Sam. After that we needed strong drink and the kind of warm, nurturing embrace one only gets from watching BBC versions of Jane Austen novels. If you haven't seen Persuasion yet -- because I'm going to assume you've read it, right? -- I think you've got your Monday night mapped out for you. And this is my gift to you, in lieu of a proper post.

On the plus side, my neighbour waited till 8:30 this morning to start jackhammering, for a change. Things are looking up!

Saturday, January 27, 2007

BOOKS: Adventures in Irony

Ever since I read the (possibly made-up) factoid that two-thirds of the human population are incapable of perceiving irony, sometimes I doubt my ability to tell if people are being for serious or not. For example, take this item -- a book entitled Magical Guide to Rainbows -- which I just found on Etsy:
Did you know there are hundreds of different kind of rainbows? Kacper, the Ambassador of Candy Land has recorded over 100 different rainbows, including: Double rainbows, Unicorn rainbows, and even Pirate rainbows! This is one reference book that you will keep referring to again and again!

P.S. All rainbows are in black 'n' white.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Big List of Lists

It's the Official 50 Books 2007 List Challenge! Here's how it works: You give me a list title. I will compile this list of list titles and keep a running list here on this post. (See? Things are getting excitingly meta already.) Each week, or as often as I feel like, I will run with one of these lists in my own imitable way. You, as always, are welcome to join in.

Trust me. It's going to be AWESOME.

Here's the list-in-progress:
  • Worst Books Ever, or Five Hours of My Life I'll Never Get Back
  • Books I Have Lied About Reading
  • Books I Have Lied About Liking
  • Book-to-Movie Adaptations Where, Frankly, the Movie Was Better
  • Books I Used to Love, of Which I Am Now Ashamed
  • Best Book Titles of All Time
  • Books That I Expected to Be Dirtier
  • My Real Guilty-Pleasure Reads, and Not the Decoys I Talk About Openly
  • Books You Must Read Before You Die, but Would Rather Die Than Read
  • Books I Refused to Read for a Long Time Because too Many (or the Wrong) People Recommended Them
  • Books I Read Only After Seeing the Movie
  • Books I Most Often Try to Persuade Other People to Read
  • Authors I Wish Had Written More Books Already
  • Overused Plot Points That Drive Me Nuts
  • Books I Have Lied About Hating
  • Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? Plots Gone Wild
  • Books in Which I Liked the Secondary Characters Better Than the Main Character, or Books in Which I Wanted to Beat the Main Character Senseless with a Tire Iron
  • Books I Lied About Reading and Then Wrote an A+ Term Paper On
  • Books I Lied About Reading/Liking Solely to Look Smart/Pretentious
  • Books I Wish I Hadn't Finished, or Worst. Ending. Ever.
  • Books I Read after Oprah Recommended Them
  • Books I Will Never Read Precisely Because Oprah Recommends Them
  • Literary Characters I've Developed Crushes On
  • Books I Only Read to Impress Other People
  • Books I Consider It My Duty as a Parent to Shield My Child from Reading
  • Books I've Caught Rusty Reading That Made Me Lose Respect for Him
  • Parenting Books That Are Full of Shit
  • Best Books Not to Read from Start to Finish, or Best Bathroom Books
  • Books I Shouldn't Admit Made Me Cry Like a Baby
  • Books I Only Read for the Title
  • Books I Re-Read When I Have Nothing Else to Read
  • Knee-Jerk Recommendations
  • Books People Keep Recommending That, Frankly, Sucked Ass
  • Books My Teacher Made Me Read That I Really, Really Liked
  • Books My Teacher Made Me read That Made Me Question the Value of My Education
  • Books That Made Me Want to Have Sex with at Least One Character
  • Books They Let Children Read for Reasons Passing Human Understanding
  • Books I Actually Read but Got a Poorer Grade on the Paper I Wrote on the Subject Than My Best Friend Who Did Not Read the Book
  • Books I Read Because the Author Looked Hot
  • Books I've Read Aloud
  • Books I Use as a Booster Seat for My Child
  • Books I Love Even Though the Last Twenty Pages Made No Damn Sense
  • Books I Have Written a Prequel/Sequel to in My Own Head
  • Books I Keep Meaning to Read, but Then I See Something Shiny
  • Books I Will Go to the Mattresses for, Even Though I Hate the Writer
  • Books You Must Read Because You Must Mock
  • Worst How-To Books Ever
  • Books That Were on the 'To Be Read' List the Longest
  • Books I Hated Having to Read in School, But Love Now
  • Books Whose References Have Worked Their Way into My Household Lexicon
  • Books I've Never Read But Have Read the Cliffnotes Version
  • Books I've Read Because I Liked Their Cover Design/Font
  • Books Which, When It Comes Right Down to It, I Would Have No Problem Burning
  • Books Which I Read Only for the Sex Scenes
  • Books I Pretend to Like So People Won't Think I'm a Snob, or Books I Pretend to Like So I Won't Hurt Your Feelings
  • Books with Covers So Embarrassing You Can't Read Them in Public
  • Books You Keep Checking out of the Library and Then Not Reading
  • Books That Gave You a Hangover
  • Books You Are Sorry You Didn't Read Decades Ago
  • Books I Have Read at Least Four Times
  • Books I Adored as a Child But My Son Thinks Are Boring
  • Books That Friends Gave Me That Make Me Question Our Friendship
  • Books I Bought More Than Once Because I Forgot I Already Owned It
  • Books My Friends Should Give Back: It Was Just a Loan
  • Books That I Have Spilled Food On
  • Books That Make Me Eat While I Read
  • Books I Ruined By Reading Them in the Bathtub
  • Books I Read, Then Tried to Imitate While Writing My Book
  • Books I Will Never Read but Have a Great Title
  • Weird and Wonderful Autobiographies Given to Me by the Author
  • Books That Made Me Wish I Was Drunk and/or High While Reading It
  • Books That Should Be Made into Movies
  • Books That I Have Physically Torn Up Because They Were So Bad
  • Books That Make Me Highlite Again
  • Books That People Need to STFU About Already
  • Movies That Would Have Been Better as Books
  • Books I Read Because They Were Alluded to in Other Books
  • Books That I Would Tear the Pages out of and Use in a Collage
  • Books That Make Me Wish I Could Have Lunch with the Author
  • Books That Have Had an Impact on Me and Changed Me or the Way I Think in Some Fundamental Way
  • Books I Used to Own, Then Got Rid of Without Ever Reading, but Now Wish I Still Had Because I've Since Heard They Were Good
  • Books I Only Picked Up Because the People/Person on the Cover Was Hot
  • Books I Only Picked Up Because the Cover Was Sparkly (don't judge me!)
  • Books I Only Read Because They're on Every Must-Read List in Existence, Didn't Like at the Time, but Later Grew to Appreciate
  • Books I Keep Re-reading, but Only After Enough Time Has Passed That I've Forgotten the Ending (Which Means I Must Not Like Them THAT Much and Should Therefore Not Even Bother)
  • Books You've Returned to the Bookstore Because They Blew
  • Books You Hope Oprah Never Recommends Because You Love Them and Don't Want Them Ghettoized by Her Sheep-like Audience
  • Books That I Have Dreamed Myself Into
  • Books That I Read Far Too Young. Why Didn't My Parents Stop Me?
  • Books That Affect My Emotional State for Days After Finishing
  • Books That I Was Sad to Finish Because I'd Never Get to Read Them Again for the First Time
  • Books a Man Has Given Me That Made Me Swear to NEVER Go on Another Date with Him EVER Again
  • Best Books to Read on Public Transportation
  • Best Books to Take to Jury Duty
  • Books I Have Read for Work and Enjoyed/Not Enjoyed
  • Books You Have Panned in Your Blog
  • Books I Have Hated So Much I Have Alienated Nice People (Who for Some Reason Have the Incredibly Poor Taste to Like These Books)
  • Books That Are Better Read While Travelling and/or Away from Home
  • Books You Feel Compelled to Own in Two Versions (A Beat-Up Paperback You Read Over and Over and a Handsome Leather Version You Keep on the Shelf)
  • Food That Makes You Think of a Specific Book/Character/Author Every Time You Eat It
  • Best Places to Read a Book
  • Favorite Thing to Do (Other Than Reading) While Reading
  • Books You've Put Notes in (or Added to Existing Notes) Warning Other Readers Not to Bother
  • Books You Read Despite Finding Notes from Previous Readers Warning You Not to Bother (and Then Wished You Hadn't)
  • Books That Are So Terrible, Either in Style or Content, That They Inspire You to Turn Them Over or Put Another Book in Front or on Top of Them at Bookstores in a Guerrilla-Style Effort to Keep Others from Reading Them
  • Books Too Depressing to Finish
  • Books with WAY Too Many Characters
  • Books I've Borrowed and Never Returned
  • Books Bought for Me by Loved Ones
  • Books That Live in the Bathroom
  • Series You Used to Like but Have Now Given Up On
  • Books You Wish You Had Written That Make You Question Why You Think You Could Be a Writer
  • Books You Put Off Reading Because You Were Afraid They Weren't Going to Live Up to Your Expectations
  • Books You Continued to Read Even Though You Would Have Rather Eaten Glass
  • Stupid Books That I Have Read and Forgotten but Would Totally Read Again (Despite the Fact That They Are, As I've Already Mentioned, Stupid)
You're excited now, I can tell. Let's be excited together. Chuck your list idea(s) in the comments section and I'll keep updating this master list as we go. Remember: no list idea is too grand or too trivial. In fact, the grander and more trivial, the better.

Let's keep the list love alive in '07! Boo-ya! Also, let's keep "boo-ya" alive in '07! BOO-YA!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

ETC: My Hero

You know, just when I was starting to feel kind of guilty for lolling around on the sofa rather than writing a thoughtful post, along comes this little guy to make me feel better about myself.
Scientists in the eastern German city of Jena said Wednesday they have finally given up after three years of failed attempts to entice a sloth into budging as part of an experiment in animal movement.
Read the full article here. And now, back to the couch.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

BOOKS: And the Moral of the Story Is...?

"Goddamnit, I hate The Poky Little Puppy. Sam made me read it to him twice this morning."

"Really? He just made me read it to him twice when I was putting him to bed. Why do you hate it?"

"Because he gets away with everything in the end."

"What do you mean? He gets screwed out of the strawberry shortcake and goes to bed feeling sorry for himself."

"Whatever. He still comes out ahead."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, he may miss out on one serving of strawberry shortcake, but before that he eats all five servings of rice pudding AND all five servings of the chocolate custard."

"Yeah, but he misses out on the shortcake, which is obviously the best dessert. That's why it's a sad ending for him."

"Shortcake isn't the best dessert."

"What? Are you KIDDING? Rice pudding? Custard? Those suck!"

"So does strawberry shortcake."

"You're crazy. If you don't get that strawberry shortcake is the Cadillac of desserts in this story, then you're missing out on the entire moral."

"This story HAS no moral."

"YOU have no moral."

Monday, January 22, 2007

BOOKS: Kids These Days. Also, Kids Those Days.

Despite his respectable vocabulary, young Master Sam’s penchant for one-word sentences, combined with his obsession with all things vehicular, means that our conversations tend to be limited in range. Here’s a typical mother-son exchange you might overhear if you followed us on one of our daily walks:
"That's right, it's a car."
Yup, it's a blue car."
Uh-huh, that's a van."
You're right, it's a white van."
I see that. It's another van."
I know, it's another white van."
That's right. Two white vans."
And so on. If you’re getting a sense of déjà vu right now, it’s probably because this conversation is hearkening you back to the glory days of the Algonquin Round Table.

I always knew that eventually there would be some generational divide in how Sam and I communicate, but I didn’t think it would happen so soon. I was thinking about this when I was midway through my third novel of the year.

Girl, 20
by Kingsley Amis (#3)
Say you’re in your early twenties, and your dad is a bigshot author. And then say your dad writes a novel all about how the youth of today are a bunch of obnoxious, disaffected, self-serving, two-dimensional, totally unlikeable nihilists. Older folks aren’t much better, what with their own obsession with youth and their hypocrisy and all, but at least they’re presented as having real souls and feelings and their own brand of charm.

How exactly do you take that?

You could whine and kvetch. "Daaa-aaad. That’s so not true! We totally care about stuff… such as… well… STUFF, and stuff."

You could give him the cold shoulder and refuse to make eye contact with him when he hands you your annual tuition cheque.

Or you could rebut with your own novel, one that doesn’t try to paint exactly a rosy picture of young people, but instead presents a protagonist who is obnoxious, disaffected, and self-serving, but also strangely likeable and charming, and possessing of at least three dimensions.

I am talking, first, about Kingsley Amis’s 1972 novel Girl, 20, and, second, about his son Martin Amis’s 1974 novel (his debut at age 25) The Rachel Papers, which I re-read last year and which was very much on my mind as I recently read Girl, 20.

Understand me. I liked Girl, 20 a lot, I really did. It’s caustically funny, and the narrative is extremely finely executed. The narrator is Douglas Yandell, a pompous 33-year-old (ages are important in this book) music writer, but the novel’s main character is Sir Roy Vandervane, a famed fifty-something composer whose obsession with youth leads him into relationships with younger and younger women. His latest female companion is Sylvia, a seventeen-year-old who is so egregiously horrible that, while funny, makes you wonder if Amis Sr. is really trying to convince us that people like this actually exist. Douglas is a sort of skewed moral compass through whose eyes we witness Sir Roy’s debauchery. The cast of characters also includes Penny, Sir Roy’s 21-year-old daughter, whose vast ennui may attract Douglas, but which makes any reader of sense want to give her a solid face slap. And so on.

While none of the characters in Girl, 20 are presented as exactly being the apex of goodness and solidity, the older folks are at least afforded glimmers of sympathy. Contrast this to The Rachel Papers, in which, again, none of the characters, young or old, are bastions of niceness, but at least each gets his or her moment of sympathy.

Now, obviously, this entire back-and-forth debate between father and son about the callowness of youth, and the relationship of this callowness with that of youth's elders, could be all in my head. (There's a lot of stuff in there. Much of it is specious.) But it makes you think, doesn't it?

When this theory first occurred to me -- that Amis the Elder wrote his novel, which pissed off Amis the Younger so much that it pushed him to write his first novel in response -- my next act was to wonder about the first meeting between father and son after that. Two words: AWK-WARD! But perhaps not. When you think about it, it's kind of cool, isn't it? That a man would write a story, and that his son would write a story back? I can imagine it as a fond (if acerbic) dialogue, an extension of an affectionately antagonistic lifelong relationship.

Did I just write that? Man, parenthood is making me soft.

Friday, January 19, 2007

BOOKS: Runaway Bride

On Jan. 21, CBC TV will air The Robber Bride, a television adaptation of Margaret Atwood's 1993 novel. The acerbic murder-mystery stars Mary-Louise Parker (Weeds) as an unscrupulous woman who betrays three female friends.


Thursday, January 18, 2007

ETC: My Other Pen Is a Camaro

Everyone knows the urban legend behind the Space Pen, right? Allegedly, NASA spent roughly a million bucks in the 1960s to develop a ballpoint pen that could write in zero gravity. In the meantime, the Soviets used a pencil. Ba-dum-dum.

The reason why this apocryphal story leaps to mind is because, ever since reading The Shadow of the Wind, I've been wondering why I don't own a really lovely pen. (Shut up. Seriously, I've been wondering this.) And then when I'm rummaging around in my bag for a crappy rollerball, I remember why: oh, yeah, I always lose them.

Can you believe there was a time when a pen was practically sacred object, when the time it took to painstakingly construct a quill (which apparently only lasted a week before needing to be replaced) meant that you kept it safely about your person and you definitely didn't lend it to the doofus in the next cubicle?

It's not too late to reject our disposable culture and invest in a serious, grown-up writing implement. Got an extra $850 of Christmas moolah kicking around? Why not treat yourself to the little 18K gold-plated beauty pictured up top? You deserve it. And believe it or not, they still have a few in stock.

This post is a little random, I know. I'm just working through this momentary pen fixation and, unfortunately, you have to suffer a little to help me. But if you think I'm fixated, check out this guy.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

BOOKS: I Trust You. You're Not Like the Others.

Have you ever had the following scenario happen to you?

After loaning out the bazillionth book that was never returned, you vowed to stop this habit. Never, ever, ever again, you told yourself. Ever. But then you were talking to this person about books, and it turned out that this person had never read one of your favourite books. And you thought to yourself, "This person would LOVE this book! It could change their life! And then they'd have me to thank for it! I'd be a life-changer! Maybe they'll write about me in their memoirs!" And despite your previous resolution about not lending books, you convince yourself that this person is different. No way they'll screw you. And besides, if they forget to return it, you'll remember and remind them (politely).

Fast-forward six months. You have a hankering to re-read one of your favourite books. You go to your bookcase to get it, but it's... not... there. Where could it be? Could you have loaned it to someone? But you vowed not to do that any more, remember? Though... you seem to vaguely recollect that maybe you did anyway. But to whom? Or is that who? You can never keep that straight. Never mind all that. Your book is gone -- where to, you have no idea -- and you're likely never to see it again.
Do you:
(a) Curse yourself, but hope that the book could still come back, possibly of its own volition à la The Incredible Journey, and wait for it like the Patient Griselda?
(b) Curse yourself and buy a new copy?

(c) Curse yourself and decide that, as punishment, you've lost your ownership privileges for this book for all time... and then renege a few months later and get yourself a new copy after all?
The most tragic thing about this entire scenario -- other than the pathetic cycle of stupidity, of course -- is that the books you lose are never just ANY books. They're your all-time favourite books, books you love so much that you're helpless not to foist them on any nigh-stranger who expresses the merest smidgen of a suggestion of an inkling that they might be interested in reading it.

Here are just a few of the books I've replaced at least twice:
  • Larry's Party
  • The Stone Diaries
  • East of Eden
  • Travels with Charley
  • Harriet the Spy
  • Breakfast at Tiffany's
  • On the Road (Okay, this isn't one of my favourites, but I liked it a lot at the time(s) I owned it. Note to others: Don't loan anything by Kerouac to the kinds of people who like Kerouac. If you can't learn from my mistakes, what am I doing here?)
See? It adds up! And those are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head. Rusty has witnessed my sad walk down this path countless times in the past ten or so years, which is why, for Christmas this year, he gave me one of those home library kits, which I've always secretly coveted, despite -- or perhaps because of (I am an enigma, after all) -- their utter dorkiness. I don't know what's in your peronal library kit, but mine comes with self-adhesive pockets, insert cards, a genuine pencil and, awesomest of all, a date stamp and stamp pad. All neatly contained in a nifty little compartmentalized wooden box that in and of itself is an anal-retentive's wet dream. It's the gift that keeps on giving... if you define "giving" as "taking back what's mine."

Now the only problem, as I see it, is mustering up the nerve to openly use this system in front of people to whom I'm loaning books. Is there a way to do this without looking like a dick?

"You're going to love this! I've read it eleven times! Now... there's just the small matter of the paperwork. How do you spell your last name again? Mm-hmm. And what's the best daytime number to reach you at? All righty! You've got it till March 16th. You do understand that late penalties may apply?"

That does sound potentially awkward, huh? How deep is the irony that this kit is created for and marketed to the one segment of the population (i.e. book nerds) too self-effacing to muster the
cojones to actually use it?

Probably the best policy would be if you just don't come to me for a book loan... well, unless you really, really, really want it. I can trust you, right?

(Note to Doppelsis, Suzi, Tara, Libby, Jenn, Shona and, possibly, others: I'm not talking about you, I swear! You guys rock! Actually, this makes me realize something I've never noticed before. All the people who borrow my books and don't return them don't even read my blog. Note to those people: Fuck you, you fuckers!)

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

ETC: As if I Needed More Proof That Change Is Bad

Don't be alarmed by the new layout. And rest assured: I hate it as much as you do. *

No new post today. I've just completed the painful task of migrating my old site template to the new Blogger template, which promised me ease! and choice! and flexibility! and possibly also handjobs!

Instead I've got nothing but a fouled-up layout and a raging headache. No exciting new features. Same uninspiring template selection as before. Clumsy font and colour customization tools. And those handjobs? Not forthcoming.

Curse you, Blogger. A pox upon all your developers' houses.

* I must've had one of those dreams where you figure things out in your sleep. I was too frustrated and befuddled to think of it last night, but while I slept I remembered how to revert back to my old template, which was the first thing I did when I woke up this morning. Because I'm an anal-retentive nerd. And not even the smart kind of computer nerd. The stupid, bumbling kind who can't even program C++ and is mocked and reviled by the other nerds. This is my tragic fate.

Thanks to the people who posted reassuring comments before I fixed my template. You're nice. Except for you, Doppelsis. You're a meanie. Can't you see my PAIN?

Monday, January 15, 2007

BOOKS: Kimbooktu, Kimbookmoi

Well, the weekend got away from me before I could wrangle the time for some serious posting, but in lieu of my own effervescent charm, may I introduce you to one of my new daily online pit stops? The site is called Kimbooktu, and its owner, Kim, updates it several times a day with some of the niftiest books-related gadgets available on the web. I've already been digging this site, but this recent post, about The Booklover's Repair Kit, clinched the deal:
The "repair kit" includes a hardbound instruction book, The Booklover's Repair Manual, which deals with the damage books receive in the home, with clear, step-by step, illustrated instructions on how to handle, among other problems, page tears, damaged dust jackets, frayed cover edges and recent minor water damage. (The authors advise that badly stained books, or leatherbound collectibles, be taken to a specialist; and they include a list of these.) The kit, packaged in a box that resembles an oversize hardcover, contains much more than the book, however. It holds all the non-household tools one needs to undertake the covered repairs, including, among other items, pH-neutral adhesive, cotton library tape, a microspatula and a bamboo brush. [From Amazon's description]
Given that I've just completed a brutal patch job on one of Sam's books (not that he tore it intentionally, let me clarify; Sammy don't roll that way), I've realized that book fixin' requires more than Scotch tape and a steady hand.

[Ups to Ragdoll for the link!]

Friday, January 12, 2007

BOOKS: But My Air of Mystery Is Part of My Charm

National Delurking Week is winding down, but it's not too late to say howdy. It's okay if you're shy -- so am I! And don't worry if your grammar ain't up to my snuff. I only judge my own (and that of The New York Times). I'd like to say I don't bite, but that would be a lie. In my own defence, let me add that I rarely break the skin.

I know you're out there. I can hear you breathing. Tell you what: I'm going to tap on my side of the monitor once, to say hi. If you can hear me, tap back twice.

Well, it was worth a try.

We're less than two weeks into the new year, and my reading luck has been incredible. Not only have the books that have come my way been consistently excellent, but at the rate I'm going (four and counting) I'm destined for 100 books this year. (Note: This will not happen. Something -- Moby Dick, a root canal gone horribly wrong, etc. -- will intervene. But it's nice to dream, and it's still early enough in the year that I'm letting myself gently tend a few delusions as if they were brand-new Tamagotchis.)

All this reading, however, comes at a price. You knew it had to, right? That price has been sleep. But hey, I can sleep when I'm dead. Can I read when I'm dead? Probably not. The choice is a no-brainer.

Coincidentally, death seems to be coming up as a weird recurring issue in half the books I've read so far. But not in the first one of the year, so let's start with that.

The Van
by Roddy Doyle (#1)
I loved The Snapper, so when I learned that it was part of a trilogy, I knew I'd end up reading the other two books in the set. Since I inadvertantly started in the middle, which is fairly typical, I wasn't too fussed about whether I moved backward or forward, so when The Van -- the final book in the series -- came my way, I was all over it.

Much as I liked The Snapper, The Van is an even better story. It focuses on the character of Jimmy Sr., the patriarch of a large working-class family in Dublin, as he struggles with unemployment and his feelings of inadequacy. Jimmy is an ordinary guy, a charming guy, a nice guy, and a bit of a dick, too, and it's to Doyle's credit that he's able to bundle these incongruencies -- incongruencies that apply to pretty much every normal person on earth -- into a likeable, believable character. He reminds me that what I love most about Doyle's writing is his huge talent for creating dialogue that's real and funny, and often really funny.

The Van is a comic novel, but like every great comic novel, it's also sad, with the ability to blindside you with moments that are terribly, terribly poignant. Apparently, The Commitments is widely considered the best book in this trilogy. I'm going to give myself a few months to let the anticipation build, and I'm definitely going to pick it up.

Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures
by Vincent Lam (#2)
So, after reading The Van -- this awesome, funny, life-affirming story -- I'm thinking I'm ready for Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, the most recent winner of the Giller Prize by first-time author Vincent Lam. It turns out I wasn't, but that's okay. It was an amazing book, and I forgive it for holding all my worst fears up to my face and laughing at me.

In my past, I have been obsessed with death in ways that have bordered on the unhealthy. If I were a bit younger, I might have even gone through a goth phase, though probably not, because I hate jobs that require a uniform. Instead, I am a (relatively) normal-looking person with an abnormal fixation on death. You could argue that a borderline obsessive fear of death is just good survival instincts -- if you worry about dying, you're more likely to be careful with your person, right? Unfortunately, caution doesn't seem to help the characters in these stories very much, which isn't very reassuring.

Oops. I've backed into my topic again. Okay. Again. From the top.

Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures is a collection of stories loosely gathered around a group of characters as they enter medical school and following the first few decades of their careers. Lam is, himself, a doctor, which lends these stories a degree of verisimilitude that is frequently unnerving, especially if one tends to be so squeamish that even hospital dramas on TV are too much to take.

The takeaway from this book is, in a nutshell, this: bad shit happens, usually for no good reason, and at the end of the day, we're all going to die anyway. That old pessimist Thomas Hobbes was right: life is nasty, brutish and short.

Or maybe not so brutish after all. Interwoven among the hyperreal scenes of hospital drama are passages of truly lovely writing, and maybe THAT is the takeaway from this book. That old saw about carpe-ing the diem. Find the beauty where you can. It's out there.

Crap. Was that depressing? It wasn't meant to be. Er, have a great weekend!

Thursday, January 11, 2007

BOOKS: Kids' Books That Don't Suck

Before I say what I'm about to say, I want you to stop and rewind the tapes (or whatever personal archiving system you choose) and make a note of the fact that I'm not one to use this space to brag about young Master Sam. Historically, I've actually been more likely to bemoan his little peccadilloes, such as his old habit of waking up six times a night and his unique gift for nursing grouchily and his tendency to blame me for all of his problems.

So bear all that in mind when your eyes are rolling in their sockets at the end of the following bragfest:

My Samuel has mastered the entire alphabet (English version).

That's right. From A to Zed (or as he prefers to say, in his cheekily yankified way, "Zee"), he knows all the letters, upper case AND lower, thankyouverymuch... though, admittedly, certain typefaces can leave him befuddled in matters relating to lower-case B, D, G and Q. He has his favourite letters, of course. He harbours a nostalgic fondness for A, B, C and D, the vanguard of his alphabetical achievement. And he can't pass any kind of signage with the letters K, M, U and V in it without stopping to exclaim (loudly) over them.

And *cough* did I mention he doesn't turn two until April?

It's easy for me to start getting excited about my budding genius -- sending away for Mensa applications and planning how he's going to start doing our taxes in '08 and whatnot -- but then I remind myself that this is a kid who still stuffs food in his mouth without chewing until he gags, and who can't seem to understand why it's not a good idea to pick up cat poop with his bare hands. Ahhh... sweet reality check.

All this is a roundabout way (and a not-even-remotely veiled excuse to brag, I know it) to get at something I've been thinking about lately, which is children's books. I don't know if Sam's preternatural love of the alphabet is connected to his love of books, but what I do know is that we're reading dozens of stories every day around our house and let me tell you: the wheat is quickly becoming apparent from the chaff.

Now, I've always given a fair bit of thought to kids' books, but this past holiday season -- when I was scouring bookstores and the web to find the very best stories I could for Sam -- really brought this issue into my mental spotlight. Specifically, what I noticed is that, while there are many, many GOOD books readily available, there aren't so many GREAT books. And then I started wondering about the long-term ramifications of this.

I had some specific titles in mind for Sam. As I've already posted, I really wanted to get him copies of semi-classics such as Olivia, Corduroy, and Where the Wild Things Are, among others. It was harder to find these than I anticipated. I visited every single independent bookseller in my proximity, and none carried these books. I ended up going to Chapters, where I was able to find all of them in the huge children's section... provided I didn't mind poring over shelf after shelf of mediocre books in my search. It took me an hour to locate seven books -- books whose titles and author names I'd written down completely and correctly -- among the store's oddly organized offerings. And when I tried to browse new, unfamiliar books... well, I gave up after another half hour with empty hands.

So on hand, you've got narrow selections at smaller booksellers. On the other hand, you've got huge -- if not exactly top-drawer -- selections at larger booksellers. But this isn't an indies-versus-big-boxes debate. Rather, as I've already asked, my question is, no matter where you go, whither the great books?

Because I'm not as bright as I'd like to think I am, it took me a couple of weeks to realize my approach was totally backward. I don't just go to bookstores and pick books I've never heard of off the shelves for myself. (Maybe this technique works for some of you, for which I applaud you, but it's worked for me maybe three times in my entire book-purchasing career, so I generally give it a miss.) No, I read bestseller lists, and I (sort of) follow the big literary awards, and I get recommendations from smart people like you. So I decided to do the same thing when it comes to getting books for Sam. And I'm starting right at the top, with the Caldecott Medal.

I've always been aware of the Caldecott on the periphery of my literary radar. I knew it was kind of a big deal, and that it -- and its runner-up, the Caldecott Honor -- has been bestowed on a few books I count among my favourites, such as
Where the Wild Things Are and Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin. But it wasn't until I started researching that I realized that this award has been around for almost seventy years, which is pretty amazing when you ask yourself how far back your knowledge of children's literature goes. I also didn't know that this prize is awarded to the book's artist, not the writer, and that it's named after nineteenth-century illustrator Randolph Caldecott.

Yet another incredible thing: a great many, if not all, of the past Caldecott winners are still available in print, which puts paid to my half-formed notion that kiddie lit is largely disposable. But don't get too excited just yet. When I made a longlist of titles I'd like to find, almost none of them were available in the bricks-and-mortar stores in my vicinity.

So here's the situation, in shorthand:
  • Great books for children exist. Yay!
  • But they're not necessarily in stores. Boo!
  • But you can look them up in places like the Caldecott site, and then order them online. (Did you know that sites like Amazon, Chapters and Barnes & Noble tag all their Caldecott recipients, so all you need to do is use "Caldecott" as a keyword?) Yay!
  • But how many people are actually going to do this? Boo!
  • Kids really can like books and reading. Yay!
  • But how can we foster this if the books that are readily available aren't the very best ones in existence? Put it this way: how would you feel if someone kept hectoring you for not reading enough, and then you found out they've been hiding the good books in the basement? Boo!
To speak to my last two points: I really do believe that kids have the innate ability to discern great books from kiddie pulp. Why is it that so many of us, with no adult prodding, managed to find wonderful books -- books like Alice in Wonderland and the Little House series and Harriet the Spy and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler -- all on our own, and then feel the compulsion to read and re-read them endlessly? Because we KNEW there was something special about these stories, even if we couldn't explain what it was (or more likely, didn't give a rat's ass about explaining it).

It's discouraging. I know I can order all these books, and it IS wonderful that they're still in print, but I picture all of these fabulous stories buried in a warehouse, truly like treasure in a cave. And in the meantime, pap like Barbie Fairytopia: Magic of the Rainbow lines bookstore shelves. I'd beat my head against a wall, but I need the brain cells.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

WEB: I'll Show You My Algorithm if You'll Show Me Yours

I know my huge enjoyment of this article probably speaks ill of me, but nonetheless, there you have it. Next thing you know I'll be copying Cathy comics in this space. Watch for it.
Amazon Recommendations Understand Area Woman Better Than Husband
Meyers, who has spent the past 15 years with a man who still believes she enjoys attending car shows, said she has kept her Amazon recommendation e-mails a secret from her husband so as not to corrupt the "deep and unstated understanding" between her and the popular website.

"Sure, I could send him the link to my Wish List, but that really defeats the purpose of gifts, as far as I'm concerned," Meyers said.
[from The Onion]

Monday, January 08, 2007

WORDS: Putting the "Antics" in "Semantics"

I'm at the end of another day, but does it find me at the end of a long, soul-searching, intellectually and creatively fulfilling post? Alas, it does not. I got distracted by my blogroll way down there somewhere in the mist-shrouded reaches of the sidebar to our right. I've been meaning to straighten it up for a while now, and I was suddenly struck by the fact that now! I must tidy it! Now!

So now, rather than having one long ragtag list of links, I've grouped things into three areas -- Books, Readers & Writers; Friends & Family; and Daily Distractions -- for no reason other than that these struck me as logical and right. It wasn't until I started dropping names within categories that I realized the flaw in my science: some of my favourite readers and writers are also my friends, and many of my friends can actually read and write. And of course I find all of them terribly, terribly distracting. But once I commit to a system, my follow-through is nothing if not pig-headed stalwart, so there you have it. Make of my blogroll what you will. At the very least, it's alphabetized.

Do you care about any of this? Do I? (Well, a little bit, but not with the blue-flame intensity I did 45 minutes ago.) Do you care about it as much as, say, you care that the word "pluto" has been chosen as the 2006 word of the year? Not as a noun, though. No, sir. This former planet/loveable cartoon dog has been verbed in a way that Rusty has aptly characterized as Coupland-esque. Look for it in such sentences as "Did you hear what happened to Donald Rumsfeld? Dude got plutoed!"

The decision to recognize this new meaning for the word "pluto" (the official definition is "to demote or devalue someone or something")
was made by the American Dialect Society, a noble institution that has been nitpicking word usage for 117 years. The society counts linguists, grammarians, historians, and independent scholars among its members.
"Our members believe the great emotional reaction of the public to the demotion of Pluto shows the importance of Pluto as a name," said society president Cleveland Evans. "We may no longer believe in the Roman god Pluto, but we still have a sense of personal connection with the former planet."
What's especially interesting is that "plutoed" has come into its own as a verb mere days before President George W. Bush announces his strategy for the war in Iraq. How handy. Hopefully we'll see some more plutoing in the White House very soon.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

BOOKS: Discuss Amongst Yourselves

I've had a couple of big questions and topics kicking around in my head these days, and I meant to write an in-depth post about at least one of them this afternoon. But then I got caught up in a cleaning frenzy and got a little overzealous with the solvents, which has couched me for the rest of the day. (We don't dabble in chemicals very often around our house, but when we do the results are always interesting. Remind me to tell you about the time Rusty created a home-made chlorine gas bomb out of bleach and ammonia in order to oust a trespassing raccoon from our porch roof.*)

But anyway, who wants to get on their computer first thing on a Monday and read some essay? Me? No. You? Maybe. Instead, I offer you a few neato book-related items of note:

50 Cent launches line of G-Unit novellas
"Rapper 50 Cent has ventured into the world of publishing with a line of books starring characters based on members of his former group, G-Unit.... The stories cover many of the same themes as 50 Cent's music, including sex, guns, cash and the short lives of street players, the publishers said." [from]

Catch the Next Chapter on Your iPod (It’s Even Cheaper)
Unlike onscreen e-books, which never quite caught on, downloadable audiobooks have taken off, driven by the explosive popularity of the iPod. [from The New York Times Book Review]

Getting It All Wrong
"We love stories, and we will continue to love them. But for more than 30 years, as Theory has established itself as 'the new hegemony in literary studies' (to echo the title of Tony Hilfer’s cogent critique), university literature departments in the English-speaking world have often done their best to stifle this thoroughly human emotion." [via Arts & Letters Daily]

Your Toddler: Socrates in Training Pants
"As I immersed myself in Spinoza, trying to find an answer for my inquisitive toddler, I realized how much I did not know. Not only how much I did not know of the world around me, but how much I did not know about my own characters. Taking a cue from Pascale, I now ask of my major characters, why did you choose this course? Why are you feeling this way? How did you become the person you are in this story?" [from Literary Mama]

Book Slaves
"Last year an anonymous letter-writer to Quill & Quire, identifying him or herself only as a bookseller, claimed that in addition to Canada Council grants and other allowances and prizes for authors and publishers, the publishing industry in Canada is also subsidized by the poor wages of booksellers.

"[Jason] Sullivan, the 30-year-old son of two teacher librarians, began work as a shipper/receiver for the Chapters B.C. flagship store two weeks before it opened in July of 1998. Seven years later to the month, he and his co-workers voted 95 per cent for union certification. He answered [reporter Charles Demers's] question about the process, as well as the place of booksellers and book retailers in the world of Canadian letters." [from The Tyee]

*No raccoons were harmed in this lab experiment -- just very, very angered.

Friday, January 05, 2007

ETC: Regrets, I Have a Few... Dozen

Doh! This week has been kookoo nutty, which means the first thing that suffers is this poor site. (Actually, my personal hygiene suffers first. Then this site.) But if you've been jonesing for more Doppelganger, regardless of my earthy aroma, I'll be on CBC Radio One's Definitely Not the Opera tomorrow, sometime between 1:30 and 2:00 pm.

I'll be talking with host Sook-Yin Lee about regrets. Not mine (though I do regret not having showered more this week) -- the media's. Specifically, I'll be talking about press critic Craig Silverman's awesome site Regret the Error, a daily compendium of mainstream media fuckuppery. Check it out, and plan to stay a while. It's like crack for word nerds.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

ETC: Overheard in Vancouver

SCENE: New Year's Eve day. Outside a busy liquor store, a teenaged male oh-so-casually asks various passersby to help him buy some booze. Upon being turned down by a rough-around-the-edges middle-aged guy, the following exchange erupts:
Teenager (bitterly): Why is it only old people are allowed to buy beer?
Middle-aged guy (more bitterly): Because we're the ones who NEED it.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

BOOKS: Another Year, Another 50 Books

One of the benefits of keeping this site -- aside from the dazzling exchange of ideas, of course -- is getting to go back and revisit books that I've read months ago, books that I would surely have forgotten if I hadn't recorded them here. (Did you remember that I read Lipstick Jungle way back last spring? Me neither!)

As I was glancing through the archives, I noticed a few patterns I hadn't been aware of when I was deep in the murky bowels of 2006:

  • I read three books by Douglas Coupland, which isn't something I actively intended to do. I was meh about his new novel, JPod, but I liked Polaroids from the Dead quite a bit, and Hey Nostradamus! was one of the best books I read last year. (See below for my top ten books of 2006.)
  • Similarly, I returned to a few other writers more than once: Bill Bryson, Jincy Willett, Matt Cohen, and Alexander McCall Smith. (I'll say this as many times as bears repeating: you simply can't go wrong with the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Angency series.)
  • I can't stay away from kids' literature. Awesome writers like Elizabeth Enright and E. Nesbit kept me coming back for more.
  • I went a bit nutty for short story collections. They comprised a full one-fifth of the books I read last year. This isn't such a big surprise. My time felt really fractured and fragmented, so short stories were often the only things I felt I could do justice to.
My Top Ten (New) Reads of 2006
Coming up with this list was a tough exercise. I had some incredible luck with my reading selections last year, which is lucky for me because I find slogging through a bad pick demoralizing. And we all know how a run of poor books can completely throw you off your game and headfirst into a book slump. You lose confidence in your ability to choose good material and next thing you know you're scratching your ass and watching Married with Children re-runs. We've all been there, friends.

And so, in no apparent order (or IS THERE?), I give you my favourite non-rereads of the year:

The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby
The true sign of a book freak is that you'll spend valuable reading time on books written by other book freaks about books THEY'VE read. If that's not a sign of a sick mind, I don't know what is. And yet here we all are. Anyway. Hornby does a great job of demonstrating the ongoing vagaries of a classic book-lover's buying and reading habits over the course of twelve months. This book is a funny, charming, inspiring read -- which reminds me that I need to review it again because I forgot to write down all the titles he recommends that I meant to pick up for myself.

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
One of the best, most honest novels about being a kid I've ever encountered. I shouldn't admit this (again) but I liked this better than Mitchell's earlier work,
Cloud Atlas.

Hey Nostradamus! by Douglas Coupland
The first section of this book gave me cold chills. The novel tells the story of a Columbine-style school shooting and its aftermath from the pespective of three different characters. Amazingly, it manages to be quite moving without being exploitive.
JPod may have disappointed, but Hey Nostradamus! has me convinced that Coupland has a truly great novel still waiting inside him.

Jenny and the Jaws of Life by Jincy Willett
I loved these stories, even if they may drive me to therapy. As I mentioned when I talked about this collection last week, imagine Dorothy Parker by way of Kurt Vonnegut and David Sedaris. Why don't more people know about this book? Why did it take me so long to hear about it? What else is the world withholding from me? ENOUGH WITH THE SECRETS.

A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon
A middle-class English family slowly comes apart at the seams. You want to laugh, you want to cry, but you never want this story to end. I was worried that Haddon wouldn't be able to follow up his runaway first novel
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, but not to worry. I think this guy's going to go places.

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson
This is my favourite of all Bryson's books. He deviates from his usual travelogue format to write instead about his childhood in Des Moines, Iowa, and the results are hilarious. I can picture myself reading this one again and again.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
If, like me, you enjoyed
Jane Eyre and Moulin Rouge (the movie, not the book -- is there a book?), you will really like this novel. If I'm wrong, I can't refund your money or anything like that, but you'll at least have the satisfaction of wiping that smug look off my face.

On Beauty by Zadie Smith
Masterfully written AND based on
Howard's End, one of my all-time favourite novels? You can't lose with this combination. This is probably the third time I've mentioned this, but popular wisdom tells me that Smith's other books (which I haven't read) are kind of underwhelming. Skip them and jump straight to this one. Or if you've already read them, wipe them from your memory and start fresh with this one.

The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud
I finished this novel a week ago, and it's still troubling me (in a good way). It's a deceptively simple set of plotlines involving a handful of characters in a relatively contemporary New York setting, but there's a moral ambiguity that permeates the entire book that has me still wondering what I'm supposed to think about it.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
In this quietly heartbreaking story, Ishiguro reminds me of why the novel exists and the standard to which we should hold all storytelling. Though if we did, probably a lot fewer novels would get published every year. But would that be so bad? I can only manage to read fifty a year, anyway.

Books I Started but Didn't Finish
I hate calling it quits on a book, but for various reasons, these defeated me:

A Reading Diary by Alberto Manguel
An incredible anthologist he may be, but Manguel's purple, pompous prose drove me loopy. This is one editor who needs an editor.

Middlemarch by George Eliot
Don't attempt this book during a difficult tax season, is all I can say.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Don't attempt this book during your first high-stress real-estate transaction, is all I can say.

The Copper Beech by Maeve Binchy
Ms. Binchy, do you have to explain EVERYTHING? Characters, motivations, metaphors -- you lay it all out on the table, which is accommodating of you, but it doesn't leave me with much to do. There's this thing called "subtext." Look into it.

Final Arrangements by Miles Keaton Andrew
Publishers Weekly loved this comic novel about the funeral industry, and the jacket copy claimed that its "offbeat irreverence" was reminiscent of Six Feet Under, one of my favourite shows in recent years. And yet... and yet... was I the only one who noticed that the author uses the word "impacted" within the first dozen or so pages -- and not within dialogue, either? Come on, now. If he's not even going to try to get along, why should I?

Books I Meant to Read but Was Too Chickenshit to Even Pick Up
I won't go into the individual reasons why I was unable to even consider reading these no-doubt fine tomes last year. Death, despair, desolation. I'm a fragile desert blossom these days. Maybe next year.
  • A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
  • In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  • The Darling by Russell Banks
Reading Resolutions for 2007
I don't normally make resolutions, but it strikes me that my reading habits definitely have room for improvement. I should try to read more fiction, and I should at least TRY to read books that scare me (see above). It strikes me that, even if one is escaping into excellent fiction, it's still escapism.

Don't get me wrong: escapism has its merits. I'll be the first person to get escapism's back when the going gets tough. But part of the reason I read is to (I hope) understand more about this crazy spaceship we call earth, as well as my fellow spacemen, and I'm not going to get very far if I persist in reading about boring, angsty, middle-class people who are, well, a lot like me.

What are your reading resolutions? And tell me, tell me do, what were your favourite books of the past year?