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Lean In, Loser.

September 23, 2013 1 comment

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I took an entire day off of work to host my book club last week (I work from home on small contracts, so no work means no pay). Since the book was Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, in which the COO of Facebook encourages women to go for gold in their careers, and stop settling for less, this was ironic.

Two things occurred to me while I was stashing shoes under beds and spearing mini bocconcini with toothpicks: There’s no way Sheryl Sandberg could be in a book club, let alone host one. And secondly, the Cyndi Lauper anthem that I grew up with, girls just want to have fun, does not apply all women. So we have our differences.

But I digress. Back to the book.

I was prepared to love Lean In. Feminism just happens to be my thing, don’t let my SAHM status fool you. I’m quick to support anything that advocates more women in power positions and equally represented everywhere (I’m looking at you, government). But before you think I’m just another jaded housewife, jealous of successful women like Sandberg and her ilk, let’s get a few things straight:

1. I am a jaded housewife.

2. I am jealous of successful women like Sandberg and her ilk.

3. I would feel differently about this book if I was twenty-one year-old graduate of Barnard College, and about to start my MBA at Harvard (naturally).

Because unlike Betty Friedan‘s The Feminine Mystique, which was more universal in nature, Sandberg’s book is most applicable to women in privileged positions. Take, for example, her advice for women to take risks with their careers, like she did when she left Google to work for the then little known start up, Facebook. Perhaps that’s easier for someone who counts Arianna Huffington and Oprah Winfrey among her friends.

While it’s not Sheryl’s fault that she had the highest grades in her Harvard business class (and felt she had to hide them). Or that Larry Summers, the white house economic advisor, kept jobs open for her, in the hopes she would move back to Washington. Or that she rubbed elbows with (or was patted on the head by) people like Tip O’Neill. This was her experience, and it’s the only place she can write from. But her advice would have a softer and broader landing if her life wasn’t so charmed.

Yes, the woman is brilliant. Yes, she has worked hard for every inch of progress. But for those of us with resume’s that don’t read like a who’s who of Silicon Valley or People magazine, it seems full of unobtainable goals. If there’s one thing women don’t need, it’s yet another brass ring, dangling out of reach.

I love that she wants to improve the world. I agree it would be better with more input by women. She gives great advice about sitting at the table and encourages women to be more assertive. She advises women to ask for raises and recognition when warranted. And most importantly, she encourages women to continue with their careers after having children, even when the cost of childcare seems to override the decision. Ahem. All valid points. All great advice.

Where were you when I needed you, ten years ago?

Her many good points aside, those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Sandberg’s shiny house is more like the diamond variety, consisting of Ivy League schools, complete with Gloria Steinem on speed dial. Comparatively, straw and mud huts require constant attention.

I wish I could tell you what my book club thought about Lean In, but I was outside barbecuing salmon when they had the discussion. So really, my book club is like the advice Sandberg dishes out: good in theory, but at the end of the day, we all need to eat. Sometimes, real life gets in the way.

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Stay Gold, Ponyboy

April 12, 2013 5 comments

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As a parent, there is nothing better than introducing your children to things that you loved as a child, and watching the amazement on their face as they likewise are enamored by that same thing.

Or not, as may be the case. In fact, as always seems to be the case. That is to say, if I loved something as a child, it is almost a certainty that my children will abhor it.

Now, in both my and their defense, things like technology have come a long way in my thirty or so years (#liar!). With movies, for instance, special effects have evolved to the point where it is almost impossible for my kids to enjoy the same movies I loved. When I staged a screening of Pete’s Dragon for my children, my hopeful enthusiasm that they would cherish Eliot and Pete’s friendship as much as I did quickly went south when they started laughing in all the wrong places. Same thing with Bedknobs and Broomsticks and The Shaggy D.A.

But they are vintage, I explained. It was a simpler time, you have to ignore the grainy picture, the poor acting, and the strange voice-overs.

They choose their movies now.

I moved on to books, and enjoyed a small window of success. I introduced my charges to The Paper Bag Princess and Where the Wild Things Are, with huge fanfare. When they asked me to reread these at night, my confidence in my tiny self was restored. Oh yeah, who’s your momma now?

As a fan of books, my kids are used to me shoveling them down their throats. I know, I know, I should back off, let them come to titles on their own terms, but I can’t help myself. YOU. MUST. LOVE. THIS. My enthusiasm gets the best of me. I can’t be tamed.

Yet with certain things I truly obsessed over loved, I tried to take a more delicate path, in order to ensure success. Since I know from past experience, when I return from the library with an armload of books for my kids, I’m met with three eye rolls, I have purposefully kept my lips sealed about the best book ever written for adolescents. The Outsiders, duh.

I speak for the generation of teenagers who listened to Kool and the Gang when I explain what The Outsiders meant to me. Despite never knowing how to properly pronounce The Socs, this book, about a family of orphaned boys and their peers, the Greasers, stole my heart and my imagination and made me pine for chocolate cake for breakfast. I went on to read every book S.E. Hinton ever wrote and wore out our Betamax machine replaying Francis Ford Coppola’s movie adaptation. Ponyboy, Sodapop, and Dally, ripped from Teen Beat magazine, adorned my walls. I committed half of the screenplay, including Robert Frost’s poem that Johnny reads, to memory, and in times of trouble I quietly utter, ‘stay gold, Ponyboy,’ which has been met with quizzical looks.

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This gem of a book I’ve been saving, wanting to offer it to my own flesh and blood at just the right moment. Several times I held it in my trembling hands in the library, only to kiss it and replace it on the shelf. It’s not time, said a voice in my head, similar to Darth Vader’s.

Then, goddammit, the school system stole my thunder, and my daughter brought it home for required reading – required reading being the kiss of death for any novel. (Note that the school telling you to read a novel and your own mother telling you to read a novel are radically different.) It took me years to come around to Charles Dickens after being force fed Great Expectations, so I can relate.

But surely, reading a book with your mother hanging over your shoulder, you know, just in case you had any questions about the context, or a need to expand and discuss on the themes presented, would only help someone enjoy it more. There is nothing worse than ambiguity, after all. I made myself available.

So, I asked her once or twenty times, what do you think? She looked at me with one of those looks. I backed off, but noted her progress, and when she neared the end I begged suggested we read it together. Savour the moment. Surely, this would be her ‘aha’ moment.

We snuggled in bed with the book between us. I bawled openly. She looked at me with a new strangeness. Through my tears I tried to bestow the magic that the book itself failed to reveal. S.E. Hinton couldn’t make her love it, but surely I could.

Yeah, that didn’t work.

It’s a hard lesson for me to learn, but I’m taking ownership. Thou shalt not expect my children to love what I loved as a child, ever again. I do, however, have my very own copies of Jane Eyre and The Catcher in the Rye, underlined in all the poignant places, should she ever want to take them for a spin. #HopeSpringsEternal

A Little Slice of Heaven Hidden in a Summer Reading List

June 13, 2012 5 comments

A good reading list should be as balanced as our diet: filled with nutritious niblets of several genres, with some servings of pure alcohol, caffeine and chocolate in good measure (or mainlined, whatever.) Biographies, sagas, mysteries, and classics are the food groups of literature, with romance at the top of the pyramid to provide those sugar highs we occasionally crave. A little of everything for any diet is on this list. What these books have in common is they are all beautifully written, with characters so real you expect to look up and find them in your bedroom (or car, or kitchen, wherever you happen to be reading). For the most part, they’re not even new books; but books that I happened to love this year.

What is not on this list is Fifty Shades of Grey (or Fifty Shades of Awful, by my estimation.) Don’t get me started on that trilogy of tragedy.

Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

This book takes you into the mind and struggles of a hermaphrodite, Callie. When was the last time you were there? Ya huh. It’s a family saga that spans three generations, beginning in Smyma in the early 1900’s, and their harrowing emigration to Detroit. It’s filled with colourful characters and poignant moments, and made me ponder the strong relationship between sexuality and identity. It kept me reading into the wee hours; Eugenides deserves his reputation for being a master storyteller.

When God Was a Rabbit, by Sarah Winman

Life rarely makes sense. And so it goes for Elly, the heroine of this book. A traumatic event shapes her early years, and as the book unfolds its repercussions are felt, again and again. The book is as quirky as Elly herself. It’s beautifully written, charming and funny in spite of itself.

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

She’s best known for her award winning Bel Canto, but my personal favorite of Patchett’s is still The Magician’s Assistant, by the by. A hint of mystery kept me turning the pages of her latest novel, set in the jungle of the Amazon, as the protagonist, Marina, discovers the wonders of the Lakashi people deep in the heart of the rain forest.

The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton

A story before its time, Wharton depicts societal norm as the joke that it really is. Ellen, the protagonist, challenges standards by leaving her loveless marriage. When she meets Newland Archer, who is newly engaged, Ellen and Newland begin a lifelong game of cat and mouse, and a love for all time. If you read one classic this summer, or ever, choose this.

Your Voice in My Head, by Emma Forrest

This memoir by Forrest reminds us that life is filled with ups and downs, and that no relationships are easy. As she spirals into sadness, Forrest finds a light in her therapist; when he dies from cancer she is left wandering in the dark once again. Her hostile and lonely world make for beautiful passages, and a wonderful memoir leaking with truth and life.

Here are the books that are burning a hole in my bedside table, and I’m excited to devour them this July, come sun or what may:

The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt (Back to my tomboy days with some country and western. And the author happens to be too chilled for words, great non-vibe from this guy.)

Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan (Oooh so excited for this one.)

A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway (Why have I not read this book?!)

The Dovekeepers, by Alice Hoffman (When my tenth friend told me to read this, I put my hands up in surrender. I surrender!)

I’m hungry just looking at them. Read ’em and weep. Or read ’em and eat. Whatever you do, fold yourself into the pages of a delicious dessert this summer. Happy summer reading.

Lessons in Life (and Self-Publishing an E-Book)

May 4, 2012 12 comments

Not everything in life is fraught with difficulty, and littered with obstacles, like the garbage can I had to hurdle this morning while walking the kids to school. For instance, did you know any idiot can string a few sentences together and self-publish an e-book?

I’ve tested it. It’s true, and fairly easy. If you have all of your ducks in order, it takes about five minutes. By ducks, I mean a written manuscript, cover artwork, and a marketing description.

I thought it would be fun and fancy to put together a book of essays on motherhood in time for Mother’s Day. I found a graphic artist on Craigslist, Ed, who deftly assembled a cover for a miniscule amount of money. While Ed was creating his masterpiece, I cut and pasted essays I have written over the years into a Word document, and voilá, my main ducks were assembled. I planned on winging the marketing description duck. (In fact, I more than winged it, I wrote it in one minute when I heard my children coming up the driveway from school. In a bid to get something accomplished that day, I panicked and hit ‘publish’. I’m not sure what I said, but am hoping it can be changed if it’s as cheesy as the hamburger I’m about to eat.)

Since I have a Kindle, Amazon seemed the like the most natural recipient for my prose. They offer their own publishing service, Kindle Direct Publishing, and it’s simple to navigate the process. There were a few things I had to investigate further: ISBN numbers, Digital Rights Management, and the issue of dealing with an American company as a Canadian citizen, but nothing critical. It wasn’t brain surgery, or as difficult as getting my kids to eat vegetables.

I was hoping to publish it as a Kindle Single, but it turns out you have to apply for that special status. I am waiting for the Gods of Kindle Singles to get back to me on that one, fingers crossed.

But in the meantime, my status has changed from in review to publishing, so that has to be a good sign. I’m not trying to sell myself short here, but if I can do this, anyone can. Getting my children to eat vegetables, on the other hand, takes true genius.

A Mother’s Tonic: Tales from a Real Housewife of Vancouver, is available for $2.99 in the Kindle Store on Amazon, I think.

Fifty Shades of Awful

April 20, 2012 13 comments

I heard about it on Twitter, which should have given me pause. But since I had an hour to kill and a handy new e-reader on which to burn money, I thought I would flaunt 2012 technology in my face, and download Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James, right away, to see what all the fuss was about.

It’s a hot mess, that’s for sure, but not the kind I was hoping for.

This novel, which women are gushing about and apparently buying since it’s on the New York Times Best Seller list, is best described as a poorly written Harlequin romance that tousled with sadomasochism in a back alley (or in Christian Grey’s red room, whichever.) It’s Danielle Steele’s alter ego. It’s Twilight gone wrong. It does for literature what porn does for the film industry – which is to say, extremely little.

Taken at that level, if that’s all you’re looking for, it has its fair share of sex scenes. My greatest disappointment was that the characters having the terrific, “mind-blowing” orgasms – as they are often described (does that mean anything to you?) are, how can I put this delicately; dumb. Thus, the dialogue, and the email correspondence that we must endure is more painful than the positions Christian puts Anastasia through.

I love being taken new places in literature, and within the confines of an S&M relationship is definitely new to me. I thought I might learn something. Stop snickering. Not just a few new moves; I was hoping to get a glimpse into why people get off on getting whipped. It’s the inflicting pain thing that I stumble with, the line (or, in my case, the mile between) where agony becomes pleasure. The protagonist (I can’t use the word heroine, I just can’t), Anastasia, is as perplexed as I am about this, but is so desperate to keep Christian that she bends over backwards (and sideways, and stays on her knees, and gets tied up, etc.) in order to keep him.

Here is the very likely, believable scenario: Christian Grey is a young, enigmatic, billionaire, who meets and is bedazzled by Anastasia Steele, despite her being a clumsy, virginal, poor, insecure college student. She has a habit of biting her lip, which drives Christian mad with desire. This either leads to his eyes darkening, or alternatively causes him to look at her with hooded eyes.

A small aside here: have you ever been driven mad with desire by someone chewing on their lip? Have you ever noticed someone’s eyes changing color simply because they are turned on? And by hooded eyes, does the author mean half-closed? If the answer is yes, and you don’t have a problem with eyes being hooded, you might in fact enjoy this book. But beware, it happens repeatedly.

The kicker, the most unforgivable aspect, is that James tries to use Anastasia’s favorite book, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, as a metaphor for her twisted relationship with Christian. As though Tess and Anastasia can have anything in common, besides youth and breath. If Anastasia were to be dragged dramatically to the guillotine, she would likely grace us with her usual eloquent answer to everything, “Oh, crap.” Or might it call for her more earnest reaction of “Double crap?”

I can only wonder. I certainly won’t read the other books in the trilogy to find out.

Hitching a Ride On the E-Reader Train

January 10, 2012 6 comments

Not for me! I said of the e-reader revolution that was rolling through towns and cities, polarizing readers and providing a hot topic for book clubs. No way, no how, a digital tablet will never replace my relationship with the pure-driven paper variety that I caress each night by the light of my bedside table.  As Amazon is my witness.

I love books. I love their weight perched against my bent legs and love their smell, whether hot-off -the-press fresh or mouldy with age. I love the act of turning a page and the feeling of accomplishment it provides (I aim low). I love gazing at my book shelf, where I group my favorites together, and how the briefest glimpse of certain titles can make me feel happy. Books have a visceral impact on me; when the going gets tough, I head to the library or nearest book store.

What I don’t like about books is moving them. I discovered this the year we changed addresses three times. This set me off on a tumultuous relationship with my local library – it’s all  friendly and lovey dovey when my books are returned on time, not so much when a hardcover goes missing.

After one such recent episode, I turned my house upside down looking for my latest library book, and then headed to the Emergency Room of our hospital, where I’d last seen my copy, and turned that upside down. Twice. As luck would have it, my book was entitled When God Was a Rabbit, so the nurses in their scrubs looked at me quizzically when I described what I was looking for, wondering if I was a quack or simply a Buddhist.

At some point during this drama, I started to consider the purchase of an e-reader. Then the world began to conspire:  I read an article trumpeting how easy the e-ink is on your eyes (way better than the iPad, btw), and on the same day, my friend visiting from Atlanta whipped out her e-reader before I could even pour her glass of wine. She sang its praises, saying it was the best thing since, well, books.

After five minutes of extensive research, I ordered a Kindle. At best, I was mildly curious. At worst, it would gather dust alongside the ab-cruncher I thought I couldn’t live without.

The slim box was delivered a few days later. It was as streamlined as any Apple product I have had the pleasure of opening – no confusing manual to master and no assembly required. I plugged it in and an hour later was off to the virtual Kindle store. I was digging it so far.

I quickly realized there were a couple of clever advantages my gadget had that my native books lacked: an online dictionary, the ability to highlight passages, and of course the ability to have any book I would ever want  delivered to my device in about one minute. Inexplicably, I never turned my mind to that last little detail, which is enormously impressive but also potentially as dangerous as crack cocaine to my bank account. Hopefully I can read responsibly.

Here is a familiar scene: I fall into my bed, lights turned low, excited to escape into a fictional world, and I quickly come across a word that I don’t know, and can only guess at its meaning from the context. Or worse, it’s a word that I’m familiar with but unsure of its essence. I would like to know what it means, and suspect if I was the owner of a British accent I would indeed know what it means. But my dictionary resides a couple of staircases below where I am lying, as is my computer, and I am too lazy and forgetful to do anything about it. Two things you can never find in my house are matching socks and working pens, so writing the word down for future reference is also a challenge. Ergo the word remains masked in uncertainty.

E-reader to my rescue: I simply move a cursor anywhere on my page, and the dictionary meaning is automatically displayed in the bottom. The clouds just parted and the sun is shining a light on my swelling vocabulary.

When a passage or a line particularly catches my fancy, I like to make note of it. However, I have an odd phobia about writing in my books – I can’t bring myself to do it, I feel like I’m defacing property. Instead, I write the passage down in a journal, which can take a long time, assuming of course I find a working pen.  And if the author happens to be David Mitchell, this can bring on writer’s cramp. With my new gadget, I can easily highlight passages with a press of a button and it will be saved under my notes for that book. Narly stuff.

I find it as easy to hold as a book, and in fact easier than some weighty hardcovers, and I can’t remember the last time I charged it – the battery kicks my laptop’s butt. To be clear, it’s no tablet, but that’s okay with me, since I don’t want to be tempted by the internet during my sacred reading time.

Still, there are drawbacks: puddles and baths pose problems. So many books at my fingertips might be hard on my wallet. The gadget itself isn’t as attractive as the beautiful kaleidoscope of spines on my bookshelf.  And what could be more alluring than scouring second-hand book stores for gems? I don’t expect my e-reader to replace physical books altogether, but it only took five minutes to decide it is a brilliant addition to my library.

‘Gosh Darn It, Go To Sleep Already’ Just Doesn’t Have the Same Ring

December 5, 2011 8 comments

My timing is always off. By the time I was done with strollers, luxury all-terrain vehicles were gliding past me on trails. When I was done with maternity clothes, everyone from Michael Kors to Old Navy were in the business, and the tents of my gestation were replaced with sleek skinny jeans. So it was no surprise that I happened across a parenting book that finally spoke to me, just as my children are leaving their glorified toddler years: Go the F*** To Sleep, by Adam Mansbach.

The storm of controversy that followed its release occurred months ago, but I am not particularly well versed in news that doesn’t constitute traffic and weather. In keeping with my poor timing, I’m wading in.

This brilliant book perfectly chronicles every night of my life for the past twelve years. And if you happen to be one of those people who say to me, “Oh, I never have any trouble getting my child to sleep.” Or worse, one of those parents who coo, “My baby has slept through the night since the day we brought her home.” Or someone who has an endless amount of patience, or a prude, then this book isn’t for you.

But for the rest of us mortals, who labour each day to clothe and feed children whose limbs don’t want to be covered and whose mouths don’t wish to devour nutrients; bedtime is a ritual which puts us tantalizingly close to the person we once were, yet hovers out of reach as our children put us through a marathon bedtime session. By the time I’ve finished with the agonizing task, I’ve not only put my children to bed, but myself as well.  The carefree, fun-loving interesting person I was before I became a nag remains in hibernation.

You see, the idea of laying down with my offspring to quietly whisper words of wisdom from Shel Silverstein, Dr. Seuss, or Sandra Boynton, until their eyelids droop shut and I tiptoe out of their bedroom sounds magical, but rarely ends with the ‘eyelids drooping’ detail. Every night starts this way, but ends up with me wearing down the carpet between their bedroom, the bathroom, and the kitchen as I go through the motions of appeasing their every whim and desire they can come up with in order for their eyelids to remain wide open.

I approach each night with both a sassy verve and forlorn sense of hope that tonight, by God, will be different. Tonight my children will not beg for one more book, one more hug, one more snack, one more bathroom trip, or complain of growing pains or monsters under their beds or being hot or cold. Each night I am disappointed.

I come by this honestly. Eating and sleeping were not my strong points as a child – singing and dancing, yes, basics of life –  not so much. I remember fighting sleep with every scrawny scrap of my being, so I’m particularly good at empathizing for the first twenty minutes of nocturnal attempts. After that, my patience fades and is replaced by fury. As Adam Mansbach suggests so eloquently, “A hot crimson rage fills my heart, love. For real, shut the f*** up and sleep.”

From the fury, I typically spiral down to self-loathing and personal failure, which again is perfectly and poetically encapsulated in one line: “My life is a failure. I’m a shitty-ass parent. Stop f***ing with me, please, and sleep.”

Like any book worth its salt, and life itself, it doesn’t have a tidy or neat ending, but a more realistic one that is repeated in my household – even still – on a nightly basis.

I weep with love for my children as they lay sprawled in their beds or curled around their teddy bears. I breathe in their sweet aroma and fall in love with them all over again at the sight. But getting them to that spent state takes indefatigable stamina that I can barely muster, night after f***ing night, and finally some angel of mercy has recognized this.

Adam Mansbach, I never seem to bump into parents like you, but wish I did. Thanks for keeping it real, and giving us something to laugh about – it sure beats screaming in isolation. This book is like a giant, group hug for parents who, in pursuit of smooth bedtime transitions, taste defeat nightly.