October 25, 2009

Review: Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte

Oh, Jane Eyre, how I do enjoy you. You've got everything: the plucky orphan, the brooding Byronic hero, the madwoman tucked up in the attic. You are great.

Now, does everybody know the story of Jane Eyre? It was first published in 1847 and has been made into a movie no less than 19 separate times, so I'm going to go ahead and spoil everything. Agreed? Yes? Excellent; we proceed.

So, once upon a time there is an orphan named Jane Eyre, who lives with her horrible foster family, the Reeds. And they are thoroughly awful, but at last she is sent to a boarding school, and is finally away from the awful Reeds -- except that everyone is starving at the school, and her best (only) friend dies of consumption. Tragedy! But Jane stays at the school -- goodness knows that the Reeds don't want her back -- and eventually becomes a teacher there. One day she decides that such a life is not enough, and at the age of eighteen she acquires a job as a governess for Adèle, the ward (and/or love child) of the brooding Mr Edward Rochester. And then Jane and Rochester fall in love, and are going to be married, except -- right at the altar -- Jane finds out that he actually has a wife already, and that she's not only alive, but she's crazy and has been tied up in the attic the whole time. Tragedy!

Jane runs away, therefore, and after nearly dying of exposure on the moors she falls in with a family of siblings, the Riverses, and their housekeeper. They give her a place to live, and eventually, a job as village schoolteacher. And then it turns out that they are actually all cousins. Coincidence! And they are very happy together, especially when Jane inherits a fortune from their mutual uncle -- whom none of them have actually ever met -- and splits it evenly among the. But then, St John Rivers, her drippy drip of a cousin, wants her to go to India with him as his wife, and Jane can't do that, as he is a drippy drip (and as she still loves Rochester, deep in her heart). Angst!

And she almost, almost goes off to India with dopey drip St John, but one night she hears Rochester's voice floating across the moors to her. So she re-runs away, and ends back at Thornfield Hall, Rochester's residence, only to find that, in the interim, it has burned right down to the ground, and its former inhabitants are gone. After some sleuthing, though, she finds Rochester again: he was severely injured in the fire and is now crippled and blind. Tragedy! But she loves him anyway, and crazy Bertha perished in the fire, and they get married (for real, this time) and live happily ever after. Relief!

There is the plot; and now that you have it out of the way, you will be able to concentrate on the writing itself, which is largely exquisite (and I don't mean that solely because it is filled with semi-colons, my favourite punctuation mark by far). The writing is both profound and beautiful, and I will give you two examples with which to whet your appetite:
Still indomitable was the reply -- 'I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad -- as I am now. Laws and principles are not for times when there is no temptation; they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I may break them, what would be their worth?' (p 280)

And again:
By this time he had sat down: he had laid the picture on the table before him, and with his brow supported on both hands, hung fondly over it. I discerned he was now neither angry nor shocked at my audacity. I saw even that to be thus frankly addressed on a subject he had deemed unapprochable -- to hear it thus freely handled -- was beginning to be felt by him as a new pleasure -- an unhoped-for relief. Reserved people often really need the frank discussion of their sentiments and griefs more than the expansive. The sternest-seeming stoic is human after all; and to 'burst' with boldness and good will into 'the silent sea' of their souls is often to confer on them the first of obligations. (p 329)

Is not that lovely? It is -- but even if you don't think so, read Jane Eyre anyway, so that you can go on to the reward of Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair. You won't regret either of them.

September 14, 2009

Review: Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis



Some of you may have read Connie Willis's other time-travel novel, To Say Nothing of the Dog, and may subsequently have the impression that her books are just barrels of smart and witty laughs and giggles. Please allow me to correct this impression: Doomsday Book is smart and full of time-travelling Oxfordians, but humourous it is not. Beautiful, yes. Haunting, yes. Funny? Not so much.

I mean, come on. It's about the Black Plague.

Our story begins in Oxford in 2054 -- long after the great Pandemic that will soon strike us all, but not so long that it's been forgotten. Time travel exists, but isn't particularly glamourous; it's used primarily by historians wishing to do on-site research. Kivrin Engle is one such historian, and she has taught herself Latin masses and cow milking and Middle English in preparation for a two-week research stint in 1320. Her tutor, James Dunwoody, doesn't want her to go; the drop is being supervised by the incompetent Gilchrist, who hadn't even sent an unmanned probe to the 14th century before approving Kivrin's journey.

His worrying has no effect, however. Kivrin is sent back in time, and his own hands are soon full as a mysterious viral epidemic breaks out in Oxford. In the meantime, Kivrin has landed in the correct century, at more or less the correct place, and has been taken in by the family of Sir Guillaume D'Iverie: his wife, mother, and two young daughters.

Do I need to tell you that things go wrong? Things go very wrong -- wrong like there-goes-half-of-Europe wrong. The middle ages are brutal, but not as brutal as the plague that swept through them. [Aside: did you know that people still fall ill from bubonic plague? No joke. It's no picnic, I'm sure, but it's easily taken care of with antibiotics and such now. Still, can you imagine? "Uh, boss, I can't come in to work today ... yeah, I'm a bit sick ... bubonic plague, actually ... no, I'm serious, I have the plague ... hello? hello?" End of aside.]

A great strength of Doomsday Book is Willis's research, which must have been extensive and meticulous. The passages set in the middle ages are exquisitely realized. The filth and grit and vibrancy of the "contemps" are all there, and the picture that is painted of the way people actually lived is much more vivid and real than anything I've ever encountered in a history book, or even in much historical fiction. This works especially because the facts and facets of medieval life are inextricably grounded in the lives of the characters -- and history is about people, and stories, after all.

Of course, one of the great facets of medieval life was the Black Death, which swept through Europe first in the sixth century, and then in the fourteenth and for several centuries thereafter. It doesn't give away too much to tell you that plague happens in Doomsday Book, and that it's horrible. Have you ever really thought about what it's like when plague buboes burst? You will.

That being said, Doomsday Book is tragic but not entirely hopeless. The ending is bleak but strangely satisfying. You know, triumph of the human spirit, blah de blah de blah. It's pretty great.

September 12, 2009

Review: A Hat Full of Sky, by Terry Pratchett



Over the last year or two my brother and I have both chewed our way through Terry Pratchett's Discworld series like a couple of termites through wood. But I finished reading the last one quite a few months ago -- perhaps close to a year, in fact -- and I've been hesitant to pick them up again. Sometimes it's hard to re-read a book; you're not sure how much you remember, or whether that remembrance will spoil it for you, or whether any of the jokes will be funny the second time around.

I am happy to report that Terry Pratchett is still excellent the second time through -- and, presumably, the third, fourth, and nth time as well.

A Hat Full of Sky is the second Discworld to feature Tiffany Aching, a "big wee young hag". She's a young witch of some considerable power, and she has a good relationship with the Nac Mac Feegle, tiny Pictsies (not pixies, thank you very much: these fairies are red-haired, kilt-wearing, covered with blue tattoos, and will fight anything -- including themselves -- at a drop of a hat) who  lives in the Chalk country and makes cheese. Of course, she's also been the kelda (queen) of a Nac Mac Feegle clan, which makes things rather ... interesting. In A Hat Full of Sky, Tiffany leaves the Chalk to apprentice with Miss Level, another witch.

There's trouble, of course. There always is. Tiffany is followed from the Chalk by a hiver, a semi-sentient being that feeds off the power of others -- takes them over, in fact. Tiffany must find a way to get rid of the hiver, as well as come into her own power as a witch (or a hag, to the Nac Mac Feegle). These things are not very easy, although perhaps for different reasons than you'd imagine.

One thing that I like about Pratchett's writing is that, among the qualities of intelligent insight, interestingness, and humour, he always has at least two out of three going, and usually all of them. Certain books run heavily to one or two of them, and A Hat Full of Sky -- like most of the witch books, actually -- runs heavily to insight. Here's something from toward the beginning:
The trouble with Tiffany was her Third Thoughts*. They thought: She lives by herself. Who lit the fire? A bubbling pot needs stirring from time to time. Who stirred it? And someone lit the candles. Who?

*First Thoughts are the everyday thoughts. Everyone has those. Second Thoughts are the thoughts you think about the way you think. People who enjoy thinking have those. Third Thoughts are thoughts that watch the world and think all by themselves. They're rare, and often troublesome. Listening to them is part of witchcraft. (p 71)

And something from toward the end:
What she wanted to say was: 'Where I come from, Annagramma, they have the Sheepdog Trials. Shephers travel there from all over the show off their dogs. And there're silver crooks and belts with silver buckles and prizes of all kinds, Annagramma, but do you know what the big prize was? No, you wouldn't. Oh, there were judges, but they didn't count, not for the big prize. There is -- There was a little old lady who was always at the front of the crowd, leaning on the hurdles with her pipe ion her mouth with the two finest sheepdogs ever pupped sitting at her feet. Their names were Thunder and Lightning and they moved so fast they set the air on fire and their coats outshone the sun, but she never, ever put them in the Trials. She knew more about sheep than even sheep knew. And what every young shepherd wanted, really wanted, wasn't some silly cup or belt but to see her take her pipe out of her mouth as he left the arena and quietly say "That'll do" because that meant he was a real shepherd and all the other shepherds would knew it too. And if you'd told him he had to challenge her, he'd cuss at you and stap his foot and tell you he'd sooner spit the sun dark. How could he ever win? She was shepherding. It was the whole of her life. What you took away from her you'd take away from yourself. You don't understand that, do you? But it's the heart and soul and centre of it! The soul . . . and . . . centre!' (pp 329-30)

Of course, the book has its fair share of funny as well, particularly when the narration is dealing with the Nac Mac Feegle -- who are awfully feisty, stupid, and irascible, but also thoroughly inventive and loyal. And aren't tiny blue drunks always good for a laugh? I assure you, they always are. But the humour is not limited to the Pictsies; as with most Pratchett, there are numerous authorial asides that make me giggle. Consider this footnote from page 176:
*The hermit elephant of Howondaland has a very thin hide, except on its head, and young ones will often move into a small mud hut while the owners are out. It is far too shy to harm anyone, but most people quit their huts pretty soon after an elephant moves in. For one thing, it lifts the hut off the ground and carries it away on its back across the veldt, settling it down over any patch of nice grass that it finds. This makes housework very unpredictable. Nevertheless, and entire village of hermit elephants moving across the plains is one of the finest sights on the continent.

It's the last sentence that really makes that paragraph, I think. And it's the last chapter that really makes this book -- but of course, I will not spoil that for you. You will simply have to read it for yourselves.

September 10, 2009

Things I Hate About Libraries

Well, it's one thing, really. But it's a doozy.

When I was in grade nine, one of the big projects for my art class was to find a painting -- I think it had to be by one of the Group of Seven -- and reproduce it with a graph scale. I chose Northern Lights, by Tom Thompson (below) which I found in an art book from the public libraryTom_Thomson_Northern_Lights_L.

And time went by, and I eventually finished the project (pencil crayon on sketch paper, slightly skewed) and handed it in, and that was that. Except, and there's always an "except", it had taken longer than I projected time allotment to finish the darn thing, and my library book -- my big, expensive-looking library book -- was now overdue.

And it was overdue, and then very overdue, and then crazy overdue. And it wouldn't have been so bad if I had been able to get it back to the library within the first week or two of it being past time. The fine would have been reasonable, but more to the point, the shame would be somewhat mitigated by the fact of its being so barely overdue. I mean, everyone is a few days late with a library book sometimes, right?

But it didn't work that way. I didn't get it back within a reasonable amount of time, and the phone calls from the library kept coming, and the book lay on my bedroom floor thinking nasty thoughts at me. After a time the thought of actually bringing the book back just made me writhe. What would they think of me, Book Thief, who had it out for so many extra months? How big would my fine be? Would the librarian glare? Would they restrict my card? I was mortified that I still had this book, but I was even more mortified at the thought of returning it.

(I did eventually return in; the fine was about $14 and the librarian was very nice. And it all would have turned out all right in the end, except for the fact that forgetting to bring library books is not, shall we say, a rare occurrence for me.)

Fast-forward nine years, and my copy of War and Peace is currently overdue. I know it's overdue. It's sitting right there on my desk, waiting patiently to be returned, should I ever get my butt in gear to actually do so. I do plan on returning it, but I feel I must at least make my case for why it's overdue: I simply had no idea of the due date.

I realize that this is a bit of a cop-out. I am a grown woman. I am able to look up due dates online. I know how to look at a calendar and figure out what day it is. And yet I can't keep a date in my head -- and especially not for this particular loan, which was quite a bit longer than usual, perhaps because War and Peace is a giant chunkster of a book, or perhaps because they figured nobody else would want it in the meantime. I don't know. So the first indication I had that a deadline was near or missed was that annoying computer voice on the telephone telling me that I blew it again.

What is the deal?

When I was in university, the library would automatically email you two days before an item became due. This is a fantastic system, my friends. Even if you can't keep your loans straight, it can, and two days is more than enough warning for a return or renewal.

Is there a reason that the public library can't do this? They certainly jump on it the moment you cross the line to overdue territory. If they can phone me then, why not two days before? Why can't I attach an email address to my library card, so that I can be sent the same sort of message in text form? Is the technology not there? Are they just trying to get more fine money? Or does it not matter, because everyone else on the planet is so much more diligent about these things?

Tell me. Does anybody''s public library offer this kind of service? Librarians, have you any yeas or nays? I want to know!*

*so I can wave it in my own library's face, obviously.

September 1, 2009

Just Phuling Around



One of the problems with reading an entire series back-to-back is that you start to see all the little things that the author -- and his editor -- didn't. Like how minor characters sometimes mysteriously change the spelling or their names between books. And their genders. And their entire characterizations. Or how the main character's father mysteriously starts calling his son Wilfred instead of Willard -- his actual name -- in book five.

Dang it, Robert Asprin, were you even reading this stuff as you wrote it? Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy.

*mutter mutter*

These books are clunky. They're repetitive. They're slow, and generally take about half the book just to start getting to the action. There are some serious problems with the writing. It's full of "As you know, Bob" dialogue. The prose sucks on all sorts of levels -- and yet I can't stop reading them. The trouble is that even though these books are kind of terrible, they're also ... really kind of fun. They amuse me.

Taken in smaller doses, Robert Asprin's (and sometimes Peter J. Heck's) Phule series is good summer reading, light space opera that doesn't need to be taken too seriously. The series follows the (mis)adventures of mega-millionaire Willard Phule, more often known as Captain Jester of the Space Legion. After ordering a peace conference strafed, Phule/Jester is reassigned to command of an Omega Company: a dumping ground for losers and misfits below even the Legion's usual lax standards. Unsurprisingly, Our Plucky Hero (tm) -- and his butler -- turn the ragtag troops into something rather more disciplined and much more amusing, punning all the while.

The characters are stereotypical -- the tiny-but-feisty woman, the Italian small-time thief, the inscrutable oriental, the gentle giant -- but, if anything, that only adds to the appeal of the series. Why wrestle with complex characterization when it's already all laid out for you? Exactly. And the situations are predictable enough that you don't worry too hard about them: Phule's company gets in trouble; Phule gets them out; Phule gets in trouble; Phule's company gets him out, etc. At the same time, though, they're zany enough to keep you guessing.

Plus, there's an entire denomination that worships Elvis.

In short, this series is terribly written, excellent brain candy.

August 29, 2009

We Meet Again, My Old Nemesis



Once upon a time, when I was in grade eight, my English teacher made the class read a book called Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen. To this day, I think that it's the only book that I've actually expressed a desire to burn. I thought that it was terrible -- a very babyish book for grade eights, and poorly written to boot. I thoroughly loathed Hatchet, but eventually we got through it, and I was able to put it from my mind.

Until now.

My family was en vacances the other week, and we stayed at a beach house type of place, which contained (as beach houses are wont to do) a rather esoteric collection of books left for vacationers to read. There were some kids' books, some Barbara Kingsolver, a trashy Judy Blume novel, and -- of all things -- Roget's Thesaurus. There were a handful of Babysitters' Club books, which I reread with great relish.

Also, there was a copy of Hatchet, which I picked up and started to read. I wanted to see whether my old opinion of it stood up, or whether my original reaction was just pre-teen emotional... ness.

The verdict? As in any story, it's probably better to show rather than to tell. Here is an excerpt from pages 2-3:
The thinking started.

Always it started with a single word.

Divorce.

It was an ugly word, he thought. A tearing, ugly word that meant fights and yelling, lawyers -- God, he thought, how he hated lawyers who sat with their comfortable smiles and tried to explain to him in legal terms how all that he lived in was coming apart -- and the breaking and shattering of all the solid things. His home, his life -- all the solid things. Divorce. A breaking word, and ugly breaking word.

Divorce.

Secrets.

No, not secrets so much as just the Secret. What he knew and had not told anybody, what he knew about his mother that had caused the divorce, what he knew, what he knew -- the Secret.

Divorce.

The Secret.

Brian felt his eyes beginning to burn and knew there would be tears. He had cried for a time, but that was gone now. He didn't cry now. Instead his eyes burned and tears came, the seeping tears that burned, but he didn't cry. He wiped his eyes with a finger and looked at the pilot out of the corner of his eye to make sure he hadn't noticed the burning and tears.

This is a Newberry Honor Book, people.

Aaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrgh.

August 25, 2009

I Made a Quilt!

I know that this is completely unrelated to books -- but I don't care, because I am still basking in my own stitching genius, and what better way to bask than to subject the rest of you to it? Exactly. This was made for my boyfriend's niece G, who is about a month and a half old now. She is very baby. I like her.

And now she has a quilt. Behold!

First, my fabric:
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Midway through piecing the first side (by machine):
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Completed first side:
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The first side, quilting completed:
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The second side, quilting also completed. I forgot to take any assembly pictures for this side, so here's the finished thing:
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Close up of the quilting. The assembly was all done on the machine, and the appliqué used some stitch witchery, but all of the quilting was done by hand.
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Waiting for binding:
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Binding fabric, pre-cutting:
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Assembled binding fabric + frazzled quilter:
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Making the binding: I followed instructions from this site. The first half of the binding was done on the machine, and the second half (on the opposite side) was done by hand.
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Bound quilt:
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And ready to go!
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And now that I've done a quilt, I've realised how fun and easy it is, and I'm kinda itching to do more. Anybody having a baby?

July 23, 2009

Summer Hiatus

Okay, so here's the thing. This summer is busy beyond all reason.

It's like this: graduate, quit job, find job, work, camp, new niece, camp bus falls off the highway (seriously), back from camp, work, more camp, back from camp, work, travel, more travel, camp again maybe, other camp after that maybe, BAM! September. (For those of you following along at home, I am currently in stage "work", coming up on "more camp" tomorrow.)

And, you know, there's not a huge amount of time in there for blogging. Or rather, there is, but I find myself more and more unwilling to make it. This, coupled with the fact that I'm not reading much*, plus all of the above where I'll be travelling or in a cabin or otherwise unable to do that internet thing, has led me to declare the great blog hiatus of 2009. I will be posting regularly once again in the fall -- and of course, my archives are up to date and available for browsing.

*Actually, I'm reading a lot. But it's all War and Peace, and after a while there's not much to say about that. I don't want to write a bunch  of "Still reading Tolstoy! A-yuhp!" posts and I suspect that few would want to read them.

Anyway. I hope that everyone has an excellent summer, and I look forward to jumping back in here in Sept.

July 4, 2009

Bye, Kids!

I'm off for a week, here:

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For some of this:

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With some of these:

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I love girls' camp.

Be good while I'm gone. There's food in the fridge and grandma has an extra key. Oh, and try not to break anything. I'll be back next Saturday.

July 2, 2009

Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary AnnSchaffer and Annie Barrows



I was severely sceptical of this book when it first came out, for three main reasons: because of all the hoopla, because it was written by two authors, and because I thought that the title was, besides being unwieldy, extremely dumb -- all of which give me the willies. But I finally cracked, and I bought a copy and read it, and I have to admit that it charmed me utterly.

For those of you still under the rock that I just left, TGLAPPPS is an epistolary novel set in England and Guernsey, just after the second world war. Juliet Ashton is a writer who has just published a collection of humourous newspaper columns written during the war, Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War, and who is relieved to finally be discarding the Izzy pseudonym. While touring the country and flailing around looking for something new to write about, she receives a letter from a Guernsey man who found her name and address in a second-hand book he adores. This spawns further correspondence with other Guernsey residents, a trip to said island, and an eventual happy ending for all and sundry.

Hooray!

As some readers have already pointed out, the story does derail about midway through the novel. What starts as an exploration of life on Guernsey during the Nazi occupation, and some great talk about books and their value, shifts into a fairly straightforward love story. Which is unexpected, but ... still fine? It makes the overall narrative path seem perhaps a bit ill-thought-out, but the love story is just as charming as the occupied Guernsey stuff, and so I am satisfied.

This may be a feature of the dual-author situation that I mentioned. Mary-Ann Schaffer wrote the bulk of the story before falling seriously ill; it was finished and edited by her niece, Annie Barrows, an author in her own right. Although I obviously was not privy to their writing process, I might speculate that the mid-process author-switch had a significant impact on the way that the story unfolds. Or, heck, I don't know, maybe Schaffer and Barrows just got tired of their first storyline. Doesn't really matter.

The great strength of this novel is the writing and characterization. Everyone's so English and clever and likable, and they're always dashing off charming notes and letters to one another -- makes me want to sit down with some stationery and have a go at it. The Guernsey islanders are well-rounded without being caricatures (well, except perhaps for Miss Adelaide Addison), and Juliet herself is absolutely sweet. TGLAPPS is a charming novel and excellent reading for summer.

June 26, 2009

How Not to Pitch

One of the things that happens to you when you're a book blogger is that authors and publicists email you about books they'd like you to read and review. And sometimes those emails are insane.

One time, early on in my book blogging saga, I received a poorly-written query from an author, let us call him MF, who addressed me as "Dear Editor". I wrote back -- admittedly, somewhat snarkily -- and  suggested that next time, MF might find out my name and use it rather than spam me with a form letter. Then I got this reply:
oh, dear, the anal-retentiveness has been awakened; the narcissism and the pomposity is too much. I have been reviewed all over the world by better and more expoxied reviewers than yourself. As a practicing psychotherapist you have more than issues, my dear, inflated sir. Do not respond as I will delete your email; that you would spend so much time crafting a response like yours reveals how little is going on in your life. You are not only an aberration but a self-important prig, a remnant of the 19th century.

I did not write back. It didn't matter; MF is a little notorious for spamming book bloggers and he queried me several more times both through email and through my blog. I don't know why he'd keep writing to a narcissistic, anal-retentive, pompous un-expoxied, inflated, self-important, aberrant, 19th-century prig, but there you have it.

I got another email this week -- two, actually -- from an author whom I'll call TR. This is the content of TR's first email to me:
I had a near death experince 9 months ago. As a result I reached nirvana. The buddhists suggest I am teh buddha of teh age but I assure them I am simply heimdall.
In the last 5 months I have written and published 5 books and I have determined to write ininfite books and everplain everything there is to explain in all of existence and I do it rather swiftly.
Now here is where you come in.
[amazon link redacted]
That is the link to the first fouth books.
I will attach the 2,3,4th volume in this main in PDF format becasue I am looking for a harsh critic.
I do not want you to be biased because you had to pay for the books. I am sending them to you freely so that you will be unbiased in your judgement of them. I am looking forward to hearing what you have to say about my books, sunshine.

Thank you for your compassion and understanding,
[TR]

And this is the content of his follow-up (sent 20 minutes later):
If you hate volume 2,3 & 4 you are going to love volume 5 & 6
Attempt to keep this comment in your mind written by freud as you read.

"Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity."

Thats a nice way of saying, if you hate my books it is becasue subconsiously you love them.

I would like to point out that this author's email display name was "Me". Do you know how odd it is to get mail from "Me" that you haven't yourself sent? It is truly bizarre (as is the rest of this pitch).

I don't even know where to start. There's the poor spelling, the linkening of oneself to a Norse god, the unsanctioned nickname, five books in five months (hello, iUniverse! Thanks for making publishing a joke industry!), the misunderstanding of some irrelevant Freud, the audacity of claiming that you'll write infinite books in order to explain everything ever ... this is a mess. The kicker, though, is the last line of the second email: "if you hate my books it is because subconsciously you love them."

Ladies and gentlemen, this is called denial. This means that even if you are asking for a harsh critic, you are going to have your hands on your ears and be yelling -- LALALA YOU ACTUALLY LOVE ME -- when harsh criticism comes. Up to this point I was almost interested, despite the trainwreck factor of it all.

Le sigh.

I hasten to assure you all that yes, it is possible to successfully pitch to a blogger or reviewer. Authors and publicists do it all of the time. Would you like to do this too? Here are some hints:

  1. Learn to spell. Or at least to use spellcheck, for the love of pete.

  2. Include a teaser or blurb, like on the back of a book.

  3. Ideally, include a writing sample as well.

  4. Do not give the reviewer you're querying an unsolicited nickname, sunshine.

  5. Show that you know who you're pitching too -- use their name, and be demonstrably familiar with what they like (ie, don't send a YA novel to a blog that only reviews nonfiction).

  6. If your pitch makes the person you're contacting afraid to give you her address, you're probably doing it wrong. Don't be these guys.

June 24, 2009

Review: My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, by Amos Tutuola



This is a book that you're either going to love or loathe, because it is absolutely crazy. C-R-A-Z-Y. Crazy.

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts was written by Amos Tutuola, a 20th-century Nigerian author. Tutuola was very briefly educated under the British system (Nigeria then being a colony) but led a largely unremarkable life until, at the age of twenty-six, he wrote his first novel, The Palm-Wine Drinkard, in the space of a few days. It was published some decades later and followed quickly by My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.

The guy who wrote the forward to My Life in the Bush of Ghosts comments that Tutuola's writing is "original and highly imaginative ... a beginning of a new type of Afro-English literature ... distinct from the correct but rather stiff essays that some more highly educated Africans produce." Er, yes. If by "a new type of Afro-English literature" we mean that Tutola's writing is completely batty, I agree completely. And while I'm not really in a position to judge his influence or importance in the wider literary scope, I can tell you that My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is a great read.

Consider, if you will, the chapter titles alone:

  1. The Meaning of "Bad" and "Good"

  2. In the Bush of Ghosts

  3. The Smelling-Ghost

  4. My Life in the 7th Town of Ghosts

  5. My Life with Cows

  6. A Cola Saved Me

  7. At a Ghost Mother's Birthday Function

  8. My First Wedding Day in the Bush of Ghosts

  9. On my Way to the 9th Town of Ghosts

  10. River-Ghosts. Gala-day under the River.

Those are the first ten; there are about thirty in all, each more wacky than the last. And, I ask you, how can we not be charmed by the above? "My Life with Cows" -- !

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts tells the story of a young Yoruba boy who, while escaping from a slave raid, finds himself in the bush, where the ghosts are.  He then spends the rest of the novel wandering more-or-less aimlessly through the Bush, while crazy things happen. He marries a ghostess. He's transformed into a cow. He's kept in a jar and worshipped. He sees a television-handed ghostess. He meets his dead cousin, who has set up a Methodist church and school in a ghost town. He runs from a "flash-eyed mother" who is covered with millions of baby heads. I can't even explain it. You'll just have to find it and read it for yourself.

Here's an excerpt from the first chapter:
In those days of unknown year, because I was too young to keep the number of the year in my mind till this time, so there were many kinds of African wars and some of them are as follows: general wars, tribal wars, burglary wars and the slave wars which were very common in every town and village and particularly in famous markets and on main roads of big towns at any time in the day or night. These slave-wars were causing dead luck to both old and young of those days, because if one is captured he or she would be sold into slavery for foreigners who would carry him or her to unknown destinations to be killed for the buyer's god or to be working for him.

But as my mother was a petty trader who was going here and there, so one morning she went to a market which was about three miles away from our town, she left two slices of cooked yam for us (my brother and myself) as she was usually doing. When it was twelve o'clock p.m. cocks began to crow continuously, then my brother and myself entered into our mother's room in which she kept the two sliced or cut yams safely for us, so that it might not be poisoned by the two wives who hated us, then my brother took one of the yams and I took the other one and began to eat it at the same time. But as we were eating the yam inside out mother's room, these two wives who hated us heard information before us that the war was nearly breaking into the town, so both of them and their daughters ran away from the town without informing us or taking us along with themselves and all of them knew already that our mother was out of the town.

Even as we were very young to know the meaning of "bad" and "good" both of us were dancing to the noises of the enemies' guns which were reverberating into the room in which we were eating the yam as the big trees and many hills with deep holes on them entirely surrounded the town and they changed the fearful noises of the enemies' guns to a lofty one for us, and we were dancing for these lofty noises of the enemies' guns. (pp 18-19)

So! My friends, this is wacky. It is what most of us would probably call ungrammatical, but there's a certain rhythm to it as well. I found that it took me about the first chapter to get into the prose -- at first I spent too much time noticing errors and trying to figure out what was going on -- but when I was able to relax into the story I was swept away and it was all very enjoyable. Albeit nuts.

June 15, 2009

Read More Canada

It has recently come to my attention that lots of people don't seem to know what's being written and read in Canada these days. "Canadian Literature?," they cry, "You mean that awful stuff we had to read in class?"

I do not mean that awful stuff, dear readers. I mean the stuff that you're not going to get in class. You know, the good stuff.

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood hardly needs an introduction, as her publication list is about as long as my leg -- and, furthermore, you probably have read her in school, at least a little. Most classes on Canadian lit will read The Handmaid's Tale (as well they should!). My favourite -- the one I'd tell people to start with -- would be Alias Grace. Both that and The Robber Bride are frequent re-reads of mine.

Pierre Berton

Do you like narrative nonfiction? Great, me too. Read Pierre Berton for very interesting histories of Canada. I enjoyed Invasion of Canada and Flames Across the Border (about the war of 1812). The Last Spike is one of his best-known books and is reputed to be very good indeed.

Douglas Coupland

Hey, remember Jpod and and Hey Nostradamus! and Girlfriend in a Coma? Coupland may be dang depressing, but he is also Canadian, and we will therefore crush him to our collective bosom with pride. Plus, sometimes you need to read something depressing. Too much happiness isn't good for you, right?

Robertson Davies

Another writer who is already well-represented on syllabi everywhere? Why, yes. Like Atwood, Davies deserves it. Davies was fond of writing trilogies, of which the perhaps best-known is the Deptford trilogy, comprised of Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wonders. I am also particularly fond of What's Bred in the Bone. If you're looking for something lighter (and more delightful) than the novels, try The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks.

Cory Doctorow

Woo, science fiction, woo! Start with Little Brother. Or, you know, his blog.

Lawrence Hill

Four words: The Book of Negroes. Hill is another Torontonian, now living in Brampton and writing things like said  The Book of Negroes (published in the States as Someone Knows My Name, because I guess you can't say "negro" there anymore?).

Michael Ignatieff

I haven't read any Ignatieff myself, but I think that I should, because he could well be our next Prime Minister. I do have smart friends who love everything he's ever written; they are also card-carrying members of the Liberal party, though, so take that as you will. A list of works published is here.

Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay is a fantasy writer who lives in Toronto, and deals with Toronto to greater or lesser extents in his writing. My first encounter with Kay was through The Fionavar Tapestry, which comprises three novels: The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road. You could start with those, or with Tigana which is monstrously brilliant.

Stephen Leacock

Stephen Leacock is a little dated now, and doesn't help the trend of Canadian reading lists being over-weighted with books that are old and not much else. But Leacock is more than just old; he is very funny, in that dry mostly British way. I would star with an anthology, like Laugh with Leacock or another best-of collection.

Ann-Marie MacDonald

Ann-Marie MacDonald writes chunksters, brilliant chunksters that will leave you reeling. At least, Fall on Your Knees affected me that way; I stopped reading As the Crow Flies early on because it's too big to easily carry around. But I'll finish it, don't you worry.

Alistair MacLeod

Alistair MacLeod wrote No Great Mischief, which I loved and my friend Elizabeth hated. But since this is my blog, and not hers, I urge you to consider my opinion the better one.

Stuart McLean

I actually first encountered Stuart McLean as a radio presenter -- he has a show on the CBC called The Vinyl Café, which you may listen to through various methods. Frankly, I don't think much of his taste in music, but I greatly enjoy the stories he tells on air, many of which have since been published. I would start with Stories from the Vinyl Café, or Secrets from the Vinyl Café. You can also get them as CDs, and we have many of those as well.

Yann Martel

Yann Martel wrote Life of Pi, which you will hate if you stop after the first hundred pages or so, but love if you make it through to the end. More interestingly, he maintains the site What is Stephen Harper Reading?, in which he sends our Prime Minister books every fortnigh.

Robert Munsch

Anybody who doesn't know who Robert Munsch is shall be punched in the face.

Michael Ondaatje

Another writer rightly found on reading lists. I liked In the Skin of a Lion very much. Many people have read The English Patient, or have seen the film, although I have done neither. I do, however, know a cat named after him.

Kenneth Oppel

I ask: who wouldn't love young adult novels about bats having adventures? Describing them like that makes them sound lamer than lame, I know, but they're actually pretty cool. First in the series is Silverwing.

Spider Robinson

Spider Robinson writes smutty science fiction / fantasy, and his books are very punny. Also, his name is "Spider". That's almost as good as Banana Yoshimoto.

Sinclair Ross

Just kidding! Sinclair Ross sucks.

Fred Wah

I read Diamond Grill, by Fred Wah, for my Asian-North American Lit class last year, and enjoyed it very much. It is almost poetry, and among the best of what we read in that class (at least as far as the Canadian books were concerned).

This is not a complete list by any means, and there are doubtless many writers I've overlooked. For those of you with adventuresome spirits, Wikipedia has a large list of Canadian writers for you. And, as always, you can click the covers below to be taken to Amazon for purchasing purposes.