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War and Peace Newbies Read-Along Volume I, Part II: Did you get the memo?

Et bienmes readers-along, si vous n’avez rien de mieux à faire, go to the master post for the read-along schedule and more.

THE FIRST OF THE DREADED WAR PARTS.

And it was okay! Fascinating, even. As a Canadian, I’ve read plenty about World War I. I read Fifth Business in grade 11 and The Wars in first year University. Both were stark, realistic portrayals of the horror and confusion of war. Lots of mud and gas. But neither got that deep into the bureaucracy of war. The posturing, the double speak, the sycophancy, the ass-covering…. the memos.

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You Want it Darker?

They’re lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle-class and tame
I didn’t know I had permission
To murder and to maim
You want it darker

-Leonard Cohen, “You Want it Darker”

Here’s a first-world reading problem (recognizing that all reading problems are first-world problems): when you expect to be emotionally devastated by a book, but you remained unmoved. You wish the characters made even worse choices, or that they suffered even harsher consequences. You may question your drive to see (fictional) people suffer, but the drive remains: you want it darker.

If you have that problem, here are some solutions.

Only this first example is legit. I read the first book, and specifically sought out the second because I wanted the same thing, only darker:

 

You want to read: Historical CanLit about sexual exploitation
You want it dark: The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay
You want it darker: Slammerkin by Emma Donaghue
For a book about a twelve year old girl sold into domestic slavery, and then to a brothel, The Virgin Cure is so light and inconsequential, from the plot points to the convenient feminist mentor/mother figure, to the main character’s name, “Moth”. There was no character development, no insight, and no dark, dirty horror – shouldn’t be tough given the story and the squalor of the setting. So, enter Slammerkin. Mary, another poor, unwanted young girl, sells herself into the sex trade – not on purpose, of course. But she’s soon whispering “fourteen and clean” at men on the street and meets her own mother/mentor figure, Doll Higgins, who is anything but convenient. These characters are real, the setting horrifically evoked as just as dirty and fetid as you’d imagine 18th century London to be, and there are several moments, not only the end but especially the end, that will leave the reader breathless. The Crimson Petal and the White would probably fall somewhere in the middle of these, for your gritty historical prostitute tales, but for unrelenting darkness, Slammerkin wins.

The rest of these pairings came to me in hindsight, and in some cases I read the “darker” book first. Continue reading

The Corrections: A character study

Please welcome Meghan Hayes to #FranzeninFebruary! Meghan lives in my spiritual home of Saint John New Brunswick, and is one half of Bibliotaphs, one of my new favourite book blogs – this post in particular caught my eye. Her review of The Corrections takes a close look at each of the characters and reveals the contradictions at the heart of a funny/sad book.

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The Bibliotaph Cat approves

The Corrections is easily Franzen’s funniest book. I think the comedy that comes out of this story works because Christmastime is often hell for all of us, and nothing makes it more unbearable than all the pressure to “be with family.” It’s something we all relate to. The Corrections is similar to Franzen’s other work (notably Freedom and Purity) in that each section deals with another character and it often spans a generation.

This was the second Franzen book I ever read. I started with his essay collection How to be Alone and bought The Corrections immediately afterwards in a Target. So I first read this book ~five years ago. I decided to pick it up again so I could take part in Laura’s #FranzenFebruary.

Something that struck me as interesting in the book is that the characters are often trying to convince the reader that they are not “clinically depressed.” They all seem to be experiencing “depressive episodes” but they are always fighting the “clinical” label (e.g. Chip saying he is unable to behave like a depressed person by ignoring a phone call, Gary openly refuses the diagnosis by his wife).

I remember loving this line from a Chuck Klosterman novel where he says “I wanted to write about people who were depressed, but not depressed for any kind of specific cataclysmic reason. I mean the high school kid is kind of abstractly depressed, which I think is what a lot of people feel like. It’s not like they have anything bad about their lives and if you were to ask them if they were depressed, they’d probably say no.”

And I think this is what Franzen is doing in The Corrections. Each character seems to be depressed but in a way that any married / newly graduated / everyday-human can often be. It’s not necessarily biological, but they feel it nonetheless.

I’m going to divide up this “review” by each of the main characters … because this is the only way I’ll be able to organize my thoughts in any coherent way. Let’s goooooo: Continue reading

Good grief, Franzen!

Jonathan Franzen is a Peanuts fan. Big time. It’s well documented in his memoir, The Discomfort Zone (excerpt here):

Like most of the nation’s ten-year-olds, I had an intense, private relationship with Snoopy, the cartoon beagle. He was a solitary not-animal animal who lived among larger creatures of a different species, which was more or less my feeling in my own house… He was the perfect sunny egoist, starring in his ridiculous fantasies and basking in everyone’s attention. In a cartoon strip full of children, the dog was the character I recognized as a child.

I bet he set Freedom in St. Paul just so he could visit Charles Schultz’s hometown and these sweet statues:

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Photo by yours truly; also just realized that the heroine in Freedom is named PATTY

In The Discomfort Zone, Franzen draws parallels between Peanuts and his own life, but did he draw Peanuts into his fiction? Santa brought my boys a Peanuts collection this Christmas, and I’ve been compiling the Franzeniest strips. Here’s a selection with accompanying quotes:

Unnatural relationships with inanimate objects:

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The night of Alfred’s seventh-fifth birthday had found Chip alone at Tilton Ledge pursuing sexual congress with his red chaise longue. (The Corrections)

 

Brain chemistry

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Gary understood this feeling. He hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in three weeks. His circadian schedule was 180 degrees out of phase, he was revved all night and sandy-eyed all day, and he found it ever more arduous to believe that his problem wasn’t neurochemical but personal. (The Corrections)

Turning into the thing you hate:

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His conception grew dropsical and comprehensive. What if he was the city? More than centrally located: the thing itself? (The Twenty-Seventh City)

Adult-speak (panel wasn’t in this collection, but the passage was too good to pass up)

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“Noun adjective,” his mother said, “contraction possessive noun. Conjunction conjunction stressed pronoun counterfactual verb pronoun I’d just gobble that up and temporal adverb pronoun conditional auxiliary infinitive-” (The Corrections)

As an aside, we didn’t read Peanuts as kids, and I recently found out why: when my mom saw that Santa has brought the kids this Peanuts book, she told me that she hates Peanuts, and it’s the unfunniest comic strip ever. This was not an offhand comment; she was angry and rather suspicious of my (or Santa’s) motives. Henry adores it.

When a comfort read is discomforting: Mary Green by Melanie Kerr

My latest review for Vue Weekly is up, and I need to write a different kind of disclaimer:

This review is not sponsored and I paid full retail for the book. The author did, however, make me sourdough waffles with homemade preserves. I swear it didn’t affect this review, even though they were the best damn waffles I’ve ever had.

With that in mind, here follows my director’s cut review. Or, click here for the shorter version that appears in Vue.

It’s worth noting the unintentionally hilarious typo in the print headline. Not sure whose fans are rejoicing; Stone Cold Steve Austin’s?

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Photo by Melanie Kerr

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A #readwomen of one’s own

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When you realize the introduction to your novel was written by a man and you’re not sure if that’s #readwomen approved (Woman Reading by Robert James Gordon, late 19th century)

At the beginning of the year, I wrote about my 2016 reading rules– only read books I own for the first three months, only read 35 books total –  but didn’t mention the most significant restriction on my reading: In 2016 I only read books by authors who identify as women*.

In that post I referenced LitHub’s “Reader’s Manifesto“, in which a male literary editor sought head pats for deigning to read (certain, hip) women and minorities. My decision to take on a #readwomen challenge without telling anyone was a direct response to it. Is reading women, or “reading diversely” (i.e. not reading white men) still worthwhile if nobody knows you’re doing it?

I may not have told anyone, but between this blog, YouTube, Instagram, and Litsy, my reading habits aren’t exactly a secret. I wondered, vainly, if anyone would notice. Could I host a month-long Franzen Fest with out actually reading Franzen? Could I do a big, chunky classic readalong and not pick a dead white guy?  Yes. Easily. Turns out, no one really cares what you’re reading (unless they stand to make money off it, probably).

I also wondered if I would react like other #readwomen-ers? Would I have a better year of reading? Would I learn something about myself? Be a more discerning reader? Renew my commitment to feminism? Would I vow to never go back, and read mostly or only women from now on?

I went in cynical. If you read my blog, you know I’m dubious of reading challenges. Reading women, in particular, means subscribing to a gender binary, and assigning genders to authors, which can be dicey. Yes, I included trans and queer authors, but is that enough? Really, it’s more #dontreadmen than #readwomen. That doesn’t sound as good, does it?

So, my conclusion after a year of reading women: it was fine. I read some great books, and some not-great books. I read some new-to-me authors that I’ll never read again, and some that I’ll eventually read in their entirety. I didn’t come to any grand realizations. I’m still a feminist, but still struggle with hashtag #feminism. I still think “reading diversely” is often more about virtue signalling than actual commitment to diversity.

I did notice a few things. They just didn’t have much to do with what I was (or wasn’t) reading.

  1. Maybe it’s not books we should be worried about: Reading women made me notice gender imbalances in other arts and media, particularly music. I have a 25 minute commute, and can flip between four rock radio stations (3 local + CBC) and not hear a single woman’s voice, which I’d never noticed before. The indie music scene is super male dominated, too. My husband joined a band in late 2015, which means I’m going to local shows for the first time in many years. Between dozens of opening acts and battles of the band entries, in 2016 I saw a total of one band with a (single) female musician.
  2. Or at least, not fiction we should be worried about. I delved into some work-related reading this year, and found myself in the business section of my local Coles. If you wanna #readwomen but don’t want to #leanin with Sheryl Sandberg, you’re pretty much out of luck. I’m also into productivity lately (ask me about my #bujo!), and you’d think that since women are so famously into multitasking and having it all, there’d be plenty of #readwomen books to choose from, but you’d be wrong.

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    Coles City Centre, Edmonton, circa September 2016. Spot the single woman in this display of “Essential Business Books”!

  3. Maybe I should worry about myself. It’s easy (and satisfying!) to bitch about how traditional media and publishing is still male dominated, but what about the media that I curate for myself? In 2016 I started listening to podcasts, and really got into Booktube. Of the 21 literary podcasts I’m subscribed to, 11 have at least one woman host, and about three quarters of the literary YouTube channels I subscribe to are hosted by women. Sounds pretty great, right? What you have to realize is that literary podcasts and Booktube, like book blogs, are super female dominated. The fact that I’m not subscribed to 90% women means I’m skewing things. And I don’t have stats on this, but I know that the small fraction of those subscriptions that actually get watched or listened to are even more skewed towards men. Sometimes for superficial reasons – a soothing voice is an absolute must and I cannot abide vocal fry or uptalk, and yes I know it’s problematic for me to say so – but there might be more to it and I’ve not figured it out yet.

Where to go from here? I considered reading men for a year, or, at least the first 35 books of the year, to even things out. I also considered only reading books by people of colour for a year. I don’t think I’ll do either. I was worried that my year of reading women would become a year of reading white women, but it didn’t, so I trust myself to read broadly without making it a numbers game. I’ve got some other plans in mind that have less to do with who the author is and more to do with who I am as a reader. Less “read women” and more “woman reading”, you could say. More on that soon!

*I cheated by reading The Short Story Advent Calendar, which included male authors. It’s a tradition!

The Best Kind of CanLit

I guest hosted on CanLit podcast Write Reads earlier this month and we talked about Zoe Whittall’s Giller shortlisted The Best Kind Of People. We recorded on Giller Prize eve, and I said I didn’t think it should win, but I did think it would be a contender on Canada Reads.

I’ve felt bad about the podcast since, hence I haven’t shared it till now. I felt bad because it was a little snobby of me to say this book, which I thoroughly enjoyed, doesn’t deserve a prize. I was a bit condescending. But I also felt bad for holding back on the discussion about rape culture. I walked into the recording thinking about Stephen Galloway, and brought him up as soon as we stopped recording. Now everyone’s talking about him and I have to wonder why I didn’t say something sooner. Continue reading

Why I want to be friends with Imbolo Mbue (and a review of her novel Behold the Dreamers)

I have no time for Booktubers who apologize for not knowing how to pronounce an author’s name – look that shit up! And so I did for Imbolo Mbue (Em-boo-wey), author of Behold the Dreamers,  and discovered that, in addition to having four letter names that are difficult to pronounce, we both worked in market research, and we both love Jonathan Franzen.

Today, I still work in market research, while Mbue is a famous novelist; and the closest I got to Franzen was being in the same room, while she shares an agent with him. But I’m not the jealous type. I totally think we could be friends.

I made friends with her novel and reviewed it here:

What author do you think you could be friends with?

It’s a CanLit Celebration

Facebook memories are good for one thing: reminding me that at this time last year, I’d already published a comprehensive post about Edmonton’s fall line up of literary festivals and events. This year, I’m attending just one event. (Insert excuses such as work, kids, and rockstar husband* here.) But it’s going to be a gooder.

Edmonton’s LitFest is celebrating its tenth anniversary, and so is the Canadian Literature Centre. As if that wasn’t enough to justify a party, the CLC also just released a book of essays, Ten Canadian Writers in Context, edited by friend-of-Reading in Bed Jason Purcell. This party just got upgraded to a soirée: the LitFest Ten-Ten Soirée and CLC Celebration to be exact.

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The book. Jason’s famous!

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Cecilia Read-Along Book I: It’s Frances (Miss Burney if you’re nasty)

Fair travelers, journey to the master post if thou art lost.

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Don’t call me Fanny

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Before we get into Book I, we must address a controversy: Is it Fanny Burney, or Frances? Does it matter? AS A FEMINIST, must I go with Frances? Rick at Read the North weighs in, backed up by Lives of the Novelists, which I must obtain: Continue reading