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Category: Books

Sometimes A Light Sabre is Just a Light Sabre

Happy New Year! It must be time for me to post on my blog.

What I Did with My Winter Holidays

First, why do I hardly ever post? It’s not just “time,” because, let’s face it, we make the time for the things that we want to make the time for. I was telling folks in class today, I had “Watch Netflix” on my to-do list over the break, and as a result, I didn’t even, because putting it on a to-do list made it into work. (Hey Matt, the one thing I did watch was In Bruges, though! Thanks for the tip.)

Instead, I played video games and read books. I mostly only play one game. Final Fantasy VII. I played it when it came out in 1997, and I am too old to learn anything new, and I don’t really play games enough to justify buying anything else anyway. Plus, though I do have the original game and console somewhere in my basement, there’s an iPad port, and I always have the ol’ iPad with me.

There was absolutely no good reason for me to spend my precious leisure time playing Final Fantasy. This was just absolutely classic procrastination, with a strong hint of dopamine. I mean, sometimes it seems you are just SO CLOSE to earning a W-Summon in the Battle Arena, but then it takes another five hours for some reason. But to compensate for this phenomenal waste of time while pretending to be a little cartoon dude wielding a sword bigger than he is, I also spent some time reading a Very Serious Book which has itself been influential on storytelling in, among other things, games: Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

The Hero’s Journey

Oh, yes. I have been trying to read this book on and off for years, as I find it a bit of a slog. I’ve made better progress this time around, but I’m still only maybe a third of the way through, and man, I sort of want to punch him, except that he is dead and also may have been a nice man.

You can’t study screenwriting (or novel writing or game writing or comic writing or whatever) without hearing about The Hero’s Journey, ever since Christopher Vogler’s influential book on the subject in 1998. Vogler, who was a story editor at Disney, based his book on Campbell’s theory, applying it to story structure for screenwriting.

Campbell basically says that stories from around the world follow the same patterns, and then elaborates on those patterns. Which I’m willing to go with him on, because saying that you should recognize pattern in storytelling is kind of another way of saying that you should read a lot and learn from what’s successful in what you read (or consume in other media, too, but no matter what medium you want to write for, if you want to write, you need to read).

Vogler acknowledges the problem of the inherent maleness of the “hero” in the narrative journey, and the model he presents is flexible enough that the gendered nature of the journey didn’t seem like a big stumbling block to me when I read him. Not ideal, but it was something you could take and mess about with.

But now I’m reading Campbell, the legendary man himself. I’m paraphrasing here, but he says stuff like the hero needs to get past competing with the father in order to become “master of the world,” but that, if the character in the story is a woman, she has to similarly get past competing with the mother to become “the world that is mastered.” If I’m reading that right, he’s saying that the woman is the prize. People who defend this kind of thing will go all “you’re not meant to take it literally,” but if you’ve been paying attention you should know by now that language and symbols and stories matter and change the way that we see ourselves. (See Rebecca Solnit’s as-usual-excellent recent essay “Men Explain Lolita to Me.” )

The best part of the Campbell book for me, so far, is all the examples of stories from around the world, which he cites at length– the comparative mythology part. But he pulls the whole comparison through the filter of psychoanalysis (the book is from 1949), relying heavily on the traditional family as the be-all and end-all of human existence and leaving no room for anything other than a straight, male, cisgender hero.

Much more can, and has been, said about this, not by me. In Vogler’s nod to the topic alone, he cites a number of feminist takes on the hero’s journey. But my frustration with Campbell so far has just been one of those moments for me, you know, when you go WHAT THE HELL PEOPLE, IF THIS IS WHAT YOU HAVE BEEN CONSCIOUSLY BASING HOLLYWOOD MOVIES ON THEN NO WONDER!!!!!!!!!!!!! DIDN’T YOU NOTICE?????? DON’T YOU CARE????

Sometimes a Light Sabre is Just a Light Sabre

Which naturally brings me to Star Wars. George Lucas famously used Campbell in crafting the original series. A good article in the New Statesman the other day cited Campbell in a less than flattering way while discussing the seeming rise in female heroes lately (Rey, Furiosa, Jessica Jones). Let’s hope this rise is not a blip, because we’ve been here before. Thelma and Louise (1991) was supposed to usher in a whole new era. Did it? And that’s just at the edge of my adult memory – I’m suspecting there were moments like it before.

I’m a Buffy gal from way back. Reading Campbell has given me a new tingle of appreciation for a certain last-season episode in which Buffy gets transported back in time, to a mythic time, to meet the men who created the first Slayer, so they can basically give her a power boost for the final battle against evil. Thing is, it turns out that what they did to create the Slayer, and what they want to do to her again, is kidnap her, chain her to a rock, and force a demon on her to imbue her with demonic essence. Buffy says, no way, old dudes, I’ll find some other way to fight evil, and kicks their asses.

At the end of the series, of course, Buffy figures out how to fight evil by sharing her superpowers with others—she rejects the whole lone hero thing. My point? This mythic structure stuff can totally be messed with in a satisfying way. Buffy’s heroism still follows the pattern – descent to the underworld, fighting both inner and outer demons, encountering shape shifters, guidance from a wise mentor, death and resurrection, using her powers to change the “regular” world, check, check, check, check! Even her sharing of her superpowers fits the “return with the elixir” stage of the journey – the elixir being, in this case, heroism itself, which is the real twist on the structure.

Anyhoo. Enough Buffy talk. A casual glance at current Star Wars fan chatter does reveal some people commenting on how the essence of the Kylo/Rey conflict is potentially very gendered – not just, hey, a female hero! But, hey, a different manner of heroism! I’m not totally getting that yet, since there’s an awful lot of emphasis on daddies and light sabres. There was some interesting sexual subtext in the mind reading scene, though. (I’ll be murdered for likely misquoting, but is the line something like, “You know I can take from you anything I want?”)

It’s Late and I’m Tired Now

I also wanted to talk about Outlander and Game of Thrones. See, now I have something for next time. All part of the plan.

Back full circle: why I don’t much like blogging, and don’t do it often. Clearly, one reason is that I haven’t mastered the form. I’ve now been noodling about this topic for three hours (nearly four hours after a couple quick read-overs) and am at about 1400 words.

Also: I really put off making known my circuitous thoughts, because I feel like there’s no point in saying anything unless I’ve done a cartload of academic research to back up what I am talking about. Or at least, you know, finish the darn book before I shoot my mouth off about it. I’ve just committed all sorts of sins, not only in potentially misquoting Star Wars, but in, say, making sweeping generalizations about psychoanalysis without ever having studied it.

I’m basically reluctant to commit my informal noodlings to publication. I think I just have to get over this, because, heck, at least I’ve written something, and maybe someday with time and motivation aplenty, and after having finally achieved that W-Summon in the Battle Arena, I’ll take up Buffy scholarship and feminist comparative mythology and write an awesome paper.

But not today, and not on a blog.

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“I’m from the ’90s, and I’m a sucker for Puccini”: Q & A With Myself

Myself and I realized that we hadn’t posted anything for a while, so we sat down at our disorganized desk today to ask and answer a few questions. The theme: personal taste, naming the books, movies, TV, and music we’ve actually been into lately, because the actual titles can tell no lies.

Q: What happened to the other blog post you were working on about that play you went to see last term?

A: It’s gotten out of hand. I feel like I need to do scholarly research for it. Maybe some day I’ll release it.

Q: So this was the only lame thing you could come up with?

A: Apparently.

Q: What is the purpose of this Q and A?

A: You tell me.

Q: Um… okay. I’m trying to give readers an idea of my… your… our taste in movies, music, TV and books by listing stuff I/you/we having been consuming. Because people like reading about that stuff.

A: Awesome. You know, you could adopt the double “I” pronoun like the angels in Angels in America.

Q: Um, or not. Have you been reading that lately?

A: How astute. Yes, I just did.

Q: What are you listening to right now?

A: You mean, right this minute? Hang on, let me check… it’s something from La Boheme.

Q: Tell me about when you went to see that opera last year.

A: One of the singers fell off a piece of set furniture and twisted his ankle or something. They improvised by having one of the other dudes sing two parts. Luckily, it was close to the end.

Q: What books are on your desk right now?

A: Writing Short Films by Linda J. Cowgill, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.

Q: What’s the last thing you bought on iTunes?

A: The HBO miniseries of Angels in America.

Q: What have you been watching in Netflix?

A: The Killing, the U.S. one, just started Season 2.

Q: Last feature film you saw?

A: The F Word. Canadian! No, wait. I watched Frozen (again!) with my daughter since then.

Q: Last time you went to a movie in the theatre?

(Tumbleweeds blow by for a second.)

A: Um… I think it was one of those Hobbit movies. The one last year, the second one. I think.

Q: Last album you listened to in its entirety?

A: The new one by The Decemberists.

Q: Last novel you actually finished reading?

A: I finished book two of the Karl Ove Knausgaard thing. But that’s only sort of a novel. Before that, I read David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. I thought it was delightfully weird.

Q: New releases you are looking forward to?

A: My friend Peter Darbyshire’s new book The Dead Hamlets, under his Peter Roman pen-name. I’m always a season behind on Game of Thrones because I don’t have HBO and prefer to get it legally. I’m number 24 at the library for pre-ordered Season 4! Waiting impatiently for whenever there are going to be new seasons of Orphan Black and the French zombie show Les Revenants (I think there was one of the latter, but I haven’t got my hands on it yet).

Q: What are the songs in the “Top 25 Most Played” list in your iTunes?

A: Ooh, that’s an evil question. There is no hiding there. Here it is:

  1. Shot in the Arm – Wilco
  2. Zombie – Cranberries
  3. Loser – Beck
  4. Boy in the Bubble – Paul Simon
  5. La Boheme: O Mimi, tu plu non torni – Puccini
  6. (I’ll Love You) Till the End of the World – Nick Cave
  7. Manic Monday – Bangles
  8. Polyester Bride – Liz Phair
  9. Billie Jean – Michael Jackson
  10. It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine) – R.E.M.
  11. Girls Just Want to Have Fun – Cyndi Lauper
  12. Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana
  13. Once in a Lifetime – Talking Heads
  14. Bittersweet Symphony – The Verve
  15. All I Really Want – Alanis Morissette
  16. La Boheme: Si. Mi Chiamano Mimi – Puccini
  17. Nothing Compares 2 U – Sinead O’Connor
  18. 9 to 5 – Dolly Parton
  19. La Rondine: Chi Il Bel Sogno Di Doretta – Puccini
  20. Tubthumping – Chumbawamba
  21. Buffy Theme – Nerf Herder
  22. What’s the Frequency Kenneth? – R.E.M.
  23. Gianni Schicchi: O Mio Babbino Caro –– Puccini
  24. Islands in the Stream – Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers
  25. Carmen, Act 1: Près des Ramparts de Séville – Bizet

Q: What can we learn from this list?

A: I’m from the ’90s, and I’m a sucker for Puccini.

Q: Last thought?

A: Two of those songs were written by Prince. Who out there can name which two without the help of Google?

Reads, Goodreads, Badreads, Noreads

So, yeah, I’m on Goodreads, have been for a few years. I’m not entirely sure why—I’m not a big participator there. If I’m going to write a book review, I’d rather do it here on my blog, or in some forum with an actual editor. But I like to see what my tribe is reading, and I figured I better at least have some idea how this thing works before my next book happens (which I sent off to the publisher, BTW; now it’s a waiting game).

Though I’m engaged with peeking into the shelves of others, I know very well that book recommendations almost never work out. I’m not sure why this is, or if it’s because I’m just weird. It may be impossible to understand another reader’s taste in such a way that, among the millions of books in the world, another one can be recommended and subsequently appreciated. Neither people nor algorithms can do it. People are too focused on their own enthusiasms and their desire to make other people like what they like, to the omission of considering the actual taste of others; algorithms, say on Amazon, don’t do too badly on subject area in my experience (here are another five bestselling books on the topic you appear to be reading up on), but fail miserably at literature.

carson-shamrock-teaOne of my favourite books is Ciaran Carson’s novel Shamrock Tea, which I re-read every few years. My friend Shawna recommended it to me while we were browsing in Chapters one day a long time ago. I purchased it, read it, loved it, and later told her about my conversion to this book. She told me that she hadn’t actually read it – I must have misheard her recommendation, which was more of a suggestion or a pointing-out. She just liked the chapter titles—each named after a pigment colour.  (The story is about a lot of things – among them Wittgenstein, Irish nationalism, hallucinogenic drugs, time travel, Catholic saints, and the Arnolfini Wedding Portrait.) (And Shawna, if you read this, you should let me know if you remember this differently, or at all!)

Book jacket blurbs (testimonials, to those of you not in the book biz) don’t tell me anything about a book’s quality, but they do tell me about what kind of book the publisher is trying to make me think it is – how they are positioning it. I recently tried to read Joseph Boyden’s newest work, The Orenda, and noted that the blurbers—and there were  a lot of them—were all male. And all of the blurbs were Very Serious.

The book-recommendation social network Goodreads (recently purchased by Amazon) allows you to categorize your books as to-read, reading, and read. These three high-level categories are woefully insufficient. I have many, too many, books on my currently reading shelf. This is because I’m a notorious book abandoner. There just isn’t enough time in the week to keep plodding through something if I’m neither motivated nor compelled to do so. Some of these books that I abandon I know that I’ve really, really abandoned – I will never finish them. There needs to be a reading category for that. On the other hand, some books I haven’t picked up in years, and yet I consider myself to be “still reading” them: I remember the story, I think about them kind of nostalgically, and remember enjoying them – but maybe they just weren’t the thing for that particular time of my life. Maybe I’ll still go back there. There should be a category for that, too.

Books, bountiful and rare

So, a little over a week ago, we ordered Chinese food. My fortune read thusly:

"Something interesting will happen soon at work."

My fortune

In case you can’t read that terrible photo, it says, “Something interesting will happen soon at work.” Or, on the French side of the fortune, “Il se produira bientôt au travail quelque chose d’intéressant.”

Now, “interesting” is a weak, sickly and slippery word, so this fortune struck nervousness into my heart. A little bit. As Mindy says to Homer, “Desserts aren’t always right.” (It’s in the episode with Michelle Pfeiffer guest starring, for those who can’t quite remember the line.)

The next day at work, I got a mysterious email message from a new college librarian I’d never met before, saying there was a gift he wanted to give me that he’d had for a few years, and now that we were colleagues, he thought he should give it to me, sorry if this sounds creepy, etc.

The thorough LinkedIn background check I performed revealed only an affinity for books, and for rare books in particular, so I quickly assented to a meeting, despite feeling at the mercy of a fortune cookie.

It turned out I was gifted with the best surprise I’ve had in a long time: a copy of Henry J. Morgan’s 1903 illustrated biographical dictionary Types of Canadian Women. Volume 1.

Nearly six years ago, my book Types of Canadian Women—Volume 2—was published. It’s a mock biographical dictionary in poems and poetic prose, inspired, you guessed it, by Morgan’s Volume 1. I talked about the source material in the publishers’ bumpf, and in some interviews at the time. Morgan’s book says a Volume 2 was in the works, but, having never found trace of one, I thought I’d just have to write it.

Types of Canadian Women title page

Types of Canadian Women title page, with lovely 1903 print ads opposite.

I’d been in Winnipeg for about a year when Types came out. But our mysterious new librarian, Matthew Handscombe, was still in Toronto, where I’d written all but the last few drafts of the book–partly on Toronto Island at the fantastic Gibraltar Point centre, partly in a second-floor apartment in a Victorian brick oven in Parkdale, with no air-conditioning, one summer on a Canada Council grant.

Matthew was operating a tiny bookshop specializing in fine press books. My publisher, Gaspereau Press, does some pretty fine printing, so Matthew had no doubt seen my book in the catalogue, probably read one of the interviews, and may have been familiar with my earlier Gaspereau release, Spine, which contained, among other things, poems about fine printing. Somehow, my reference to Morgan’s Volume 1 stuck in his brain.

I used to consult Volume 1 in the Robarts Library at the University of Toronto, as part of my work as a researcher on Canadian history books and book proposals. The Robarts had a circulating copy, and while I was aware of a few copies on offer from book dealers, even after I’d fallen for the book and decided to write Volume 2, acquiring my own copy—which dealers listed for around $300—had never become a priority.

Still with me? Let’s get back to Matthew Handscombe, who, somewhere in the depths of his brain, catalogued this detail about my interest in this book.

A spread from Morgan's Types of Canadian Women, Volume 1: the book responsible for inflicting 50 of my poems on the world.

(Wait, I have to digress again to say how much I like librarians. There’s Wendy, with whom I hung out during my M.A. in Ottawa, and now works at Memorial University Newfoundland; my sister Christine who works at the library in the Law Courts in Edmonton and is finishing her MLS on the side; Brian in the cubicle opposite mine who teaches in the library tech program–Hi Brian!; his colleague Tabitha whose CanLit class I once bombarded with my collection of obscure–duh–Canadian poetry chapbooks. I used to think librarianship was my lost calling, but then remembered that I promised myself, after paying off my student loans, never to go to university again. In short–go visit your library.)

Matthew’s father, Richard Handscombe, taught linguistics and children’s literature at York University (scroll down the linked page for bio), and was an avid book collector. Though significant parts of his collection were donated to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the U of T—particularly a collection of over a thousand items by and about John Cowper Powys and his brothers—when Richard died, Matthew was left with a massive number of books to find homes for. Thirteen thousand, I think, was the number he told me (he’ll correct me if I’m wrong. Right?).

Types of Canadian Women was not, alas, lurking in the collection. But slowly, as Matthew and his family donated or sold books, he started to acquire things from the dealers, essentially doing part of the transaction in trade, with the intention of gifting specific books to individuals. It was at Greenfield Books here in Winnipeg that Matthew saw Types of Canadian Women and acquired it, somehow remembering that I, a writer he’d never met, had wanted it. It never occurred to him that I was also living in Winnipeg, until he noticed that I was a colleague at Red River College, where he’s only recently arrived.

Matthew styled the gift as a present from his father. I never met Richard Handscombe, and Matthew had never met me when he picked up this book and put it aside. I ran back to my office to get Matthew a copy of my little Volume 2, as an inadequate thank-you.

Types of Canadian Women Volumes 2 and 1

Types of Canadian Women Volumes 2 and 1

This post has gone on too long, and there is much I still want to research and write about: how books end up in rare book collections (my books are all in the Fisher, I can only assume by virtue of being Canadian small press books); more about Matthew’s father and his collection; how all this talk of book collecting reminds me of my father-in-law, Martin Levin, and his house filled with books; how Morgan’s Volume 1 will read to me now, years after I left my project behind on the poetry circuit; and how none of this would happen in a world where books are infinitely reproducible.

Julie Wilson with Jason Booth

February 9 • Julie Wilson • Evening reading 7 p.m. • with Jason Booth • Aqua Books • 274 Garry St.

February 10 • Julie Wilson • College reading 11 a.m.• RRC Roblin Centre at the Exchange District Campus • Room A104

Julie Wilson is a professional publishing fan, writer and blogger. The literary voyeur behind the SeenReading.com and the editor of BookMadam.com, she thinks reading looks good on you. She’s also the author of Truly, Madly, Deadly: The Unofficial True Blood Companion (ECW Press) written as Becca Wilcott. Follow Julie on Twitter: @BookMadam @SeenReading

Jason Booth is a graduate of the Creative Communications program. His poetry has been published in The Collective Consciousness, the quarterly journal of The Manitoba Writer’s Collective and the Winnipeg Free Press. He resides in Winnipeg with his wife and percolator.


Books I Have Loved: Favourite Children’s Books of 2010

This installment of Books I Have Loved is actually more like Books I Currently Love, and am reading, and reading, and reading, and reading, again, and again, and again, and again. To my toddler, that is, and if you have or ever have had a toddler, you know what I mean about reading it again.

I rarely read for “fun” these days—it’s either for work (Crafting Short Screenplays That Connect, anyone?) or to the baby. So when books land in my lap that both I and the girl love to read, those books become my own treasured reading material, too.

Close to the end of 2010, we added two books to our repertoire that I am so grateful for I feel compelled to review here. They are both big, yellow picture books published in 2010: 13 Words by Lemony Snicket (illustrated by Maira Kalman), and Paris in the Spring with Picasso by Joan Yolleck (illustrated by Marjorie Priceman). I should mention right away that, though my baby enjoys and requests them, these books are complex enough to last years. In the bookstores, they are categorized for ages 4-8.

Yes, I have linked you to Amazon, above.

13 Words by Lemony Snicket

The only thing I can quibble about in 13 Words is its title; there must be a better one. The story is structured, loosely, around said words, but I’m not convinced that structure was title-worthy. Not that it matters; it’s by Lemony Snicket, so they could just as easily have called it “Don’t Buy This Book” without any discernible effect.13  Words Cover

Anyway, the words are

    Bird
    Despondent
    Cake
    Dog
    Busy
    Convertible
    Goat
    Hat
    Haberdashery
    Scarlet
    Baby
    Panache, and
    Mezzo-Soprano

It’s a good list, though “ladders” is actually another key word in the story that could just as easily have been on it. “Despondent” is just pure Lemony Snicket, and by the time we get to “mezzo-soprano,” “haberdashery” has already upped the stakes so much that we hardly blink at the unexplained appearance of the diva in our story. And it does serve as a vocabulary-builder; I punched up some opera on the old iPod to explain what a mezzo-soprano was, and now my almost-two-year-old asks, “Listen to mezzo-ahprano?”

The list of words is meant to seem random. The book carries a mildly surreal aesthetic, especially in the scenes where the dog and goat drive through landscapes in their flashy green convertible, landscapes of impossible multicoloured hills populated with all manner of illustrations, sometimes unrelated to the text: a ballerina en pointe, a rectangular hot-pink cow (I think), an angel playing a tambourine, a mime, a porcupine enduring an isolated rain shower. Maira Kalman, a New Yorker illustrator, has truly added another dimension to this story—something which cannot be said for all picture books. At the centre of the centre spread lies an illustration of a dour, pudding-faced, bespectacled man wearing bunny ears, staring directly at the reader, which I’m going to guess is a representation of our author, Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler).

And yet, behind the whimsy there is a real story here, beyond the full comprehension of my toddler, but immediately apparent to me. The bird (female) and the dog (male) are the main characters, and the bird is despondent—it’s never explained why. But when the dog tells her to get busy painting ladders while he goes for a drive with his friend, the spiffily dressed goat, you get a hint of what’s going on here—there is something amiss with this bird/goat relationship. When the dog goes to the haberdashery to buy the bird a hat to cheer her up, he doesn’t just by the one hat—he buys himself one while he’s at it. (In fact, the text mentions the dog’s hat first: “The dog has finally chosen one hat for himself and one for the bird.”) It’s no wonder the bird is still despondent at the end of the book, despite the panache-ful hat, the copious cake, and the mezzo-soprano’s beautiful song. She lives with an oblivious and self-centred dog.

Around our house we’ve been putting on a falsetto and singing the mezzo-soprano’s summarizing song at the end of the book, and until now we’ve been using (more or less) the tune of “The Owl and the Pussycat.” I was going to say here that HarperCollins needs to package this book with a CD, but duh, what was I thinking? It’s on-line, of course, and you can get a $1 download of the mezzo-soprano’s song through lemonysnicket.com (or directly here). The composer is Nico Muhly, and the mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti.

One more reason to love this book: the design. I care deeply about book design, and this one’s got it going on. I expect that since a Lemony Snicket book is guaranteed to sell a bazillion copies, they were able to pull out all the stops in this department. No space is wasted—the end papers have been used for illustrations (the last spread continues right on to the inside back cover)—and even that always-bothersome copyright page has been used wisely, with the copyright text formed into a sort of visual poem in the shape of a bird. “Book design by Alison Donalty,” it says; good on you, Alison Donalty (she also worked on Lemony Snicket’s popular Unfortunate Events books).

The 13 Words book trailer is here.

Paris in the Spring with Picasso by Joan Yolleck

Paris in the Spring with Picasso cover

I also have a problem with the title of this book. Picasso is not the protagonist. He’s one of an ensemble cast, and if anyone in this book were the main character, it’s actually Gertrude Stein. Titles are marketing tools, of course, not literary ones, so the reason behind the title is pretty clear: Picasso is the household name among the book’s characters. They certainly weren’t going to call it Paris in the Spring with Guillaume Apollinaire.

This is the book for introducing your children to modernism, if you’re the kind of person who does that kind of thing (and I am!). A stray cat wanders around Paris peeking into the lives of Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and their respective partners (my baby’s vocabulary now also includes “Alice B. Toklas”). And we see them engaged in creating art: writing, painting. A picture book about the process of artistic creation? Yes! The story, and the illustrations (by Marjorie Priceman), contain a lot of movement as the cat-narrator jumps quickly from apartment to apartment, as Picasso frantically moves his brush, as Apollinaire is interrupted mid-poem; at one point you even need to turn the book sideways to look at a spread designed vertically, with Montmartre and Sacré Coeur at the top.

In the end, the artists all take a break and go to Gertrude Stein’s house at 27 rue de Fleurus for her salon.

It’s not much of a story, exactly—if I were to dissect the plot, it would be to say that their goal is to go to the party, but the complication is that they each need to make some art first.

Lots of books out there introduce art to young children. Baby Einstein does, but I’m not a fan of it, since I’ve found embarrassing factual errors in Baby Einstein materials. The popular Olivia series also comes to mind, a series I don’t mind, but am not really impressed with. Olivia introduces art in that the protagonist looks at a Jackson Pollock painting and takes a trip to Venice and wants to be a ballerina.

Paris in the Spring with Picasso introduces art too—among the works included are Stein’s Sacred Emily and Picasso’s Two Nudes—but the emphasis is on the process of making art, not exposure to the works themselves. As poet-parents, a book about art as process, and as vocation, is very appealing.

This book is also a great companion to the Madeline series (which my daughter adores) for the complementary illustration of Paris.

My only problem with this book, other than the title, is the uneasy feeling I get when Alice B. Toklas is referred to as Gertrude Stein’s “best friend” while the mistresses of other characters are called “girlfriends.” I can only imagine the gnashing of teeth that went on at the publisher (Random House) over this particular decision (guessing that this was a publisher’s cop-out rather than the author’s). The dialogue between Stein and Toklas does make the nature of their relationship pretty clear; in fact it’s so lovey-dovey, it seems like overcompensation. The biographical information at the back of the book calls them “lifelong companion[s].” While I strongly appreciate a book for children depicting a same-sex relationship in a normalized way alongside heterosexual ones, I’d appreciate it more if it called it what it was (in an age-appropriate manner, obviously) rather than use an inaccurate euphemism like “best friend.”

As an author, Joan Yolleck is the opposite of Lemony Snicket–it’s her first book, and I’m super-impressed with it. She lives in Toronto and reviews children’s books for the Globe and Mail.

In Conclusion

If you got this far, you must really care about children’s books. Good on you. Now go read something else. Not another blog.

Books I Have Loved: Alice in Wonderland

I posted last year about my reluctance to see the Tim Burton Alice movie. I’m a die-hard original Alice fan, so I was afraid it would disappoint. Still haven’t seen it. Maybe during the holidays? In December? 2021?

Alice was another book I write about, more than once in my “book about books” book. What is it that makes me love Alice so much? (If I ever get another tattoo, I’m thinking on Alician lines.)

Hard to pin down, but I’ll take a stab (to combine two very sharp clichés), and I’m sure there are as many and varied reasons to love Alice out there as there are memorable characters and lines in the book. Getting ahead of myself.

1. Memorable characters.
At one point as a child I actually had a crush on the Mad Hatter (also on Hamlet, Stephen Dedalus, and some other literary characters, too).

2. Memorable lines—and I mean that literally.
I wrote last time around about how Jabberwocky was the first poem I memorized. I went on, around age 10, to memorize all the poems and songs in the two books. I can no longer remember all of them, but I try to keep in practice with “Jabberwocky” and with “The Walrus and the Carpenter.” Today I’m afraid most people don’t even know where the phrase “of cabbages and kings” comes from. Er, actually, I’m thinking maybe people don’t even use that phrase much any more, but that’s your loss, people.

An aside about me is that I was a kid who read obsessively rather than omnivorously, which is partly why I memorized things. I’ve always had a thing about reading a book that I like over and over again, rather than moving on to another one. This is probably why the shocking gaps in my reading knowledge, which we just won’t speak of.

3. It’s both silly and terrifying. It’s the imagination run off in all directions. And imagination is my greatest friend.

Those are my top three reasons. I’ve never seen the entirety of the Disney Alice movie, so I can’t blame that on sending me to the book (though that movie did leave us with the “unbirthday”—something decidedly not in the book, but a very useful cultural invention).

Which reminds me that I must run, because it’s my unbirthday, wouldn’t you know it, and it’s getting late.

Books I Have Loved: Jane Eyre

I’m starting an occasionally series of posts in which I can wax sappily about some of my favourite books. Kenton, before you ask me what a book is, I’ll point out that the one below, at least, is public domain and I’ve already downloaded it for free on my iPod, you know, just to have at my disposal at all times.

The first book up is Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. I’d already determined this when this blog post about why Mr. Rochester is a creep made the rounds of my linked-up literary friends. This made me feel kind of psychic (like Jane; see below).

Jane Eyre is one of those books reviled by folks who “had” to read it in high school. I did read it in school, but for fun rather than for profit. The first time I read it, I stayed up all night to get to the end as fast as I could. A page-turner for me, Jane Eyre. I was 14.

It’s one of the books I featured in my second book, Spine, a book about reading. I imagined a world in which Anne of Green Gables and Jane Eyre met, as adults, and complained. They turned out to be very self-centred voices, pleased to commiserate, but not really listening each to the other. I imagined how they did not, not, get happy endings; it’s just that we weren’t told about them in the books.

Jane Eyre, like Anne, is a heroine who runs into trouble because she’s intelligent, poor, and “plain” (at least, that was always my interpretation). That’s why she’s loved by mousy, nerdy girls. Unfortunately, and this is dealt with plenty elsewhere (see above link, among others), the Rochester figure as a hero merely encourages girls to love inconsiderate (among other things) bad boys.

Good on Jane, though, that when enough is enough—er, when she finds out that he’s been hiding his first wife in the attic, which, I’ve got to admit, she should have been kind of suspicious about earlier—she just says no and runs away, and narrowly escapes becoming a missionary in China.

Timothy Dalton: Better as Rochester, or as James Bond?

Here’s where the book did break down for me: it’s when she hears Rochester calling, “Jane! Jane!” and she knows she has to return to him, and it turns out that he was calling because his house was burning down (see first wife, above) and now he’s blind and therefore humble and no longer such a creep. (In my version, he was still a creep anyway, because if you think you can burn that out of a character, you are much mistaken).

It’s the only place the plot resorts to the supernatural, to Jane’s apparently limited telepathic ability, and I just didn’t buy it.

In today’s world, Jane would have just seen Rochester pop up on “suggested friends” and know that it was a sign.

Writer’s Gym ed. Eliza Clark

Cover of Writer's GymRecently come across my desk: Writer’s Gym: Exercises and Training Tips for Writers, edited by Eliza Clark.

A lot of creative writing “how-to” books land on my desk. I skim through most of them and maybe, if I’m lucky, pick out one or two exercises or examples I want to use in class. But really, those how-to books are usually stuffy, sometimes pompous, and almost always big and heavy and intimidating. They aren’t inviting, they don’t offer a good entry point for me (or, I think, for students).

Writer’s Gym is completely different, so much so that I am tempted to start assigning it as a textbook (except for that students could look ahead for the punchline of each exercise!).

For one thing, many of the writers who contributed are Canadian (like the editor, Eliza Clark, and the publisher, Penguin Canada). Not that that is in any way a requirement for a good creative writing book, but it’s a good entry point. The fact that I’ve met and/or actually read the books of a lot of the contributors at least makes me, the instructor, unusually enthusiastic about it as a textbook.

(Some of the contributors are Andrew Pyper, Michael Redhill, Steven Heighton, Priscila Uppal, Lee Gowan, Antanas Sileika, Greg Hollingshead, Marnie Woodrow, and Catherine Bush. The heavy-hitters include Margaret Atwood, Douglas Coupland, and Dave Eggers.)

The book, and the essays, are short and pithy. (The book is less than 200 pages.) Because it’s an anthology, the exercises exhibit great variety in style and approach, something that’s often missing from the same-old how-to books. Some of my current favourites are Dave Eggers’s exercise (in which students interview each other and then put their classmates in stories as fictional characters), Andrew Pyper’s (in which clichés are ruthlessly exposed), and Steven Heighton’s (in which great prose is cluttered up and then de-cluttered again).

Look for those exercises in a classroom near you.

http://www.amazon.ca/Writers-Gym-Eliza-Clark/dp/0143054279