history's fools

I haven't had a good rant on the blog in a while. This one is going to be a little weirder than usual, because it's centred on a book I've only ever read the first five pages of.

As you may recall, when James Frey's A Million Little Pieces was released, there was a bit of a shitstorm over it. Oprah's Bookclub first endorsed it, then reversed and demanded an apology (although it seems there is still an OBC version around). What happened was that it eventually came out that it was not, as originally publicised, a non-fiction memoir, but a novel told as a memoir.

There was a brief period where some people were saying it was fiction, while others were still maintaining it was non-fiction (and Frey was trying to keep mum as to the real answer). A friend of mine bought the book, started reading it, and by the end of Chapter 1 was passionately telling anyone within earshot that the story had to be true. She mentioned she'd heard people criticising Frey for his weird use of grammar and word capitalisation, but she said that if you actually read the book, it was clear he was using his own, authentic voice, and anyone who thought otherwise was just hung up on conventions.

That's when I decided to take a look. I read the first five or so pages of my friend's copy, closed the book, and said, "It's definitely fiction."

"You're just prejudiced from the controversy and from what Oprah said..." my friend started to say.

"Nyuh uh," I said. "I know it's fiction because he's ripping off Daniel Defoe."

And it's always been pretty clear to me that's exactly what was going on. That "authentic voice" my friend fell in love with followed eighteenth-century conventions — that's why so many of the common nouns were capitalised. Defoe, of course, was a master of making an immediate first-person narrative read like a personal account, when really it was fiction shored up with a bit of research. After all, Defoe was a journalist as well as a novelist.

And the marketing? Defoe did the same thing, using pseudonyms and subterfuges to make his books appear to be non-fiction when they weren't, and then letting word-of-mouth do the rest. A Journal of the Plague Year was hailed as an authentic eyewitness account. Same thing with Moll Flanders. And yes, Defoe too had to endure uproars when it was revealed he'd gulled the reading classes yet again, but they kept reading him anyhow. Perhaps people in the eighteenth century were more cynical than we are, and didn't mind having the wool pulled over their eyes if they got some fun out of it.

Now, understand I'm no expert in eighteenth-century literature. I have a BA Hon in English Literature, no MA, certainly no PhD. I just happened to wind up taking both a full-credit course and a one-semester seminar in works from the eighteenth century, because I had to fulfil degree requirements and had run out of available options. To be totally honest, I wasn't expecting to enjoy either course, but I lucked out with excellent professors who presented great reading lists.

And that's why this bothers me so much. Yeah, I have a post-secondary education, but it's not a remarkable one. If I could figure out Frey's work was riffing on Defoe in five pages, at least one of Oprah's book evaluation people should have been able to. Maybe they did and just thought enough other people would as well (people with a strong voice about books, like book reviewers, journalists, and book club moderators). It really boggles me that so few supposedly well-read people were able to spot the reference. Go and Google, and you'll find a few mentions of the Defoe connection (I'm hardly the only person in the world to spot it), but it's swamped by the outrage. And the outrage has more authority than the style analysis.

I don't know if there's a direct connection, but it seems to me that after A Million Little Pieces is when publishers started tagging "a novel" on the cover of every fictional book. I hate that. It assumes the reader is gullible and stupid, yet somehow has the reading level to handle the language in the book. It assumes the reader is too proud to take a risk on a text.

There's a similar controversy brewing right now. I read on The Passive Voice blog that the creator of the @GSElevator Twitter account landed a book deal. The book is based on their supposed observations at Goldman Sachs, but now it's said that he's never actually worked there. Interestingly, even though this revelation is coming out in advance of the book's release this time, the publisher says they are going to go through with publishing the book. I'd like to think it's a sign we're ready to re-embrace what was taken for granted in the eighteenth century, but I suspect that the reasoning is closer to "any publicity is good publicity".

There were similar reactions when JK Rowling's The Cuckoo's Calling was revealed to be by her and not the Robert Galbraith pen name (with accompanying fictional biography) she'd used. In that case, I even read several calls to charge Rowling with fraud. To me that's patently absurd. Even if you bought the Galbraith back story, the book was presented as a novel — not to be believed word-for-word.

Maybe it's time to remind people that the saying, "Don't believe what you read" was coined for a reason. Anything written, anything recorded in any fashion, is always filtered and distorted by the act of recording. This is not in itself a bad thing, but I believe a lack of awareness of the process — especially in the face of all this history — could be in itself dangerous.

book review: mind noise by helen howell

"Different" has had a mixed history when applied to people. "Different" can mean "wrong", but it can also mean "special". Sometimes it means both at the same time.

Helen Howell's Mind Noise portrays an adolescent boy whose difference is both a tremendous gift and a curse. Mikey can hear the thoughts of others -- whether he wants to or not. Just like it can be difficult for a "normal" person to pretend they didn't overhear something when they really did, Mikey struggles with keeping straight what he doesn't know and what he does.

The story follows Mikey's progress as he is tutored in how to control his gift... and groomed for other purposes.

What I liked best about Mind Noise were its ambiguities. The story itself is told clearly and in a straightforward manner, but the motives, actions, and plans of the characters are never black-and-white. The ambiguous ending especially was pleasing, and I could see it launching all sorts of discussions.

The language, story length and the age of the main characters make this book suitable for adolescents, but adults will enjoy it too.

if you or someone you love might be a zombie...

Welcome to the second stop of the Alice Hearts Welsh Zombies Hallowe'en blog tour! Today's entry is a public service announcement brought to you courtesy of Victoria Dunn, The Workshorsery, and Odyssey International. Don't forget to enter the contest listed at the end of this post!

Welcome to Zombiehood!

Stage 1: Infection

Life is a joy filled with tasty surprises.

Zombie movies, TV shows, and popular books all say that zombies lead short, brutal lives obsessed with chewing through people’s craniums. Not true! With proper medical care and a positive attitude, people of decomposition can now look forward to years of slow-paced, anxiety-free living.

You wouldn’t even know you were infected, if not for the dizziness, confusion, and the open bite wound. Don’t worry, it’s not going to hurt for long!

Stage 2: Borderline Zombism

Let the zombies wrap you in their love.

You’ve fainted, and woken up scared. Don’t be alarmed, low blood pressure is common at this stage and that’s why you passed out. It’s important to remain level-headed, as the virus and oxygen deprivation damage your brain tissues. Once again, remain calm. Remember, high IQs never made anyone happy.

If you become obsessed with daily routines and repetitive phrases, feel free to indulge yourself. You’re worth it! However, engaging in stereotypical zombie behaviour, such as home renovation while droning “brains, brains, brains...,” can alienate your friends and family.

You’re virally-abled now, which means you can infect other people with your bodily fluids. Therefore, it is vitally important to practice safe sex.

Stage 3: Zombism

I am a putrefied blessing to the world.

Subtle clues such as increased gaseous emissions, bloating, and generalized rotting indicate that you’re a full-fledged zombie now! Soft tissues are especially vulnerable to damage or even detachment during this stage, but don’t despair. Five fingers per hand is an extravagance in this modern age of touch screens. Think of decomposing as extreme composting, and congratulate yourself for your wholehearted dedication to going green.

If there is a body part you feel especially attached to, duct tape is an excellent adhesive which does not damage delicate zombie skin (unlike staples). In cases of permanent loss, you’re just as much of a man, woman, or transgendered person as you’ve always been regardless of how many reproductive organs you’ve retained.

Stage 4: Mummification

I am at the perfect level of decay for me.

Putrefying doesn’t last forever, so ignore your neighbour’s complaints. Eventually, your remaining tissue will dry out. As your digestive system has slowed to almost nil, sports drinks are not a reliable solution. Instead, get a friend to help you apply vitamin E and aloe enriched body lotions. Also, stay clear of museums, as an afternoon’s nap could result in you being put on permanent display on the Egyptology floor.

Zombies frequently report heartbreaking hazing and cruel discrimination during Stages 3 and 4. Just because you’re differently-living, doesn’t mean you’re not human! Therefore, the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights still protects your access to employment, voting, and a public trial should you foolishly fall in with a bad crowd. Local law enforcement officers, especially small town sheriffs, do not have the legal right to shoot you in the head. Not even once, let alone twice.

Stage 5: Death

I release all my decaying body parts and allow life to find me.

Unfortunately, until there is a cure, zombies will sadly suffer from shortened life expectancies. Severe decay, hostile populations, and traffic lights that change too quickly all take their toll. However, you’re not dead yet. In fact, you’re UNdead! So embrace the many unexpected blessings of your viral years. No more flu shots, no more diets, and best of all, no more noisy neighbours.

And if you’re feeling down because your neighbours have all fled or been consumed, just repeat any one of the helpful zombie affirmations quoted throughout this brochure. Mental health is as important as physical health, even if you don’t have much left of either.

Zombism is good. I am at peace. Brains. Brains. Brains.
For the DVD, Welcome to Zombiehood, including closed captioning for zombies lacking ears, send $18.99 to Ken, Mailroom Chief c/o Odyssey International, Head Office, Indefinable Void Between Universes, Z0Z 0Z0.


Dragging yourself through your workday?
Wish your fellow employees would stop fleeing from you in terror?

Odyssey International has job openings for people of decomposition!

Work with your fellow zombies and pursue zombie hobbies in complete safety.

Speak to Dave,
Head of Mailroom Recruitment today!

No time wasters, please.

Learn more about zombie rights and employment, including the heroic efforts of one brave zombie to pilot a plane, in Alice Hearts Welsh Zombies by Victoria Dunn.

Enter the Zombie Rights Contest!

It's easy! Just answer the question "should zombies have human rights?" and send your response to the e-mail or Twitter addresses provided below. If your answer is selected as the winner, you'll receive a special Workhorsery prize pack including:
  • autographed copies of all three of our novels (Victoria Dunn's Alice Hearts Welsh Zombies; Derek Winkler's Pitouie; and Jocelyne Allen's You and the Pirates)!
  • a genuine zombie crochet doll, possibly from the book trailer itself, definitely specially-crafted by the author(s) herself/themselves!
  • some other secret stuff related to the novel that we're keeping top secret!
  • a hand-made, super-limited addition Alice Hearts Welsh Zombies Workhorsery tote bag to carry it all in!
Contest entries should be sent via email to: read@theworkhorsery.ca
or via Twitter to: twitter.com/theworkhorsery.

The winner will be selected at 11:59pm on 7 November!

Follow the Alice Hearts Welsh Zombies Hallowe'en Blog Tour!

Previous stop: Books Under Skin
Next stop: Open Book Toronto (direct link will be added when the article posts!)

#fridayflash: how i like to read

The literary buffet is packed today; must be the recent reminder in the media that public lending libraries are, in fact, free to the public. Gaggles of kids are reaching for multicoloured confections as fast as their little hands can stuff them into their mouths. Parents hover just behind, chanting, "now now, let the little girl try that story too" and wistfully looking at the more grown-up offerings on the tables closer to the window.

I dodge around three boys chasing after each other in a circle and pass through the teen section. The bubblegum-with-everything flavours of my own youth are thankfully gone. They've been replaced with stuff made from  ripe cherries and black plums, all covered in thick layers of very dark chocolate.

A dark-haired, pale-skinned girl holds a truffle up to an Asian boy's mouth. "Try this," I hear her say. "It's so sweet and strong, and just so about what's wrong with the world now."

He pulls away and rolls his eyes. "Not into the romantic sugary stuff," he says. "The fantasy section here sucks. The one where I used to live, they had a roast pig and drinking horns."

The girl glares at him and pops the chocolate into her own mouth, letting cherry syrup run down her chin.

Blancmange, macarons, and almost entirely women — I must have got to the romance section. Right, there's the non-fiction tables just beside it, piled with trail mix, jerky, and samples of "astronaut" freeze-dried ice cream. Some of the trail mix has bright specks of candy-covered chocolates in it. That would never have been allowed back in the day. Creative non-fiction has really changed things.

It's as loud as it was in the children's section in this part of the buffet, but it's not the happy squeals of young brains discovering new worlds. There are only grown-ups here, with the odd teen or tween trying and failing to get a word in edgewise.

The only ones who look like they're having any fun are the science fiction and horror fans, who have started a food fight. The people on the SF side of the table are pelting the opposing side with super-frozen spheres of ice cream, while the horror side squirts grenadine syrup all over everything. Many of those involved change sides whenever it takes their fancy, and the whole group flings verbal abuse as cheerfully as they toss the bits of the buffet.

"Trope!"

"Derivative!"

"Purist!"

"Stereotype!"

Someone on the buffet organisation committee has a sense of humour, because the experimental fiction comes next. There, readers munch thoughtfully on canapes that look like Oreo cookies, but are made from scallops and black caviar, or sample "sushi" composed of rice cereal marshmallow mix wrapped around Swedish fish. Some grenadine syrup has landed on one of the seafood cookies, and the man holding it only hesitates a little before licking it off, catching a few caviar on his tongue.

"It's not bad," he says to the person standing beside him. "Definitely wins for novelty."

The next table over is for spy and mystery story fans. Not much going on there — everyone's looking at a smooth black dome that is sitting on a tray in the middle. They're all debating whether it's edible, edible but poisonous, or a bomb.

Apple cider, Three Kings cake, tea-time favourites very old and very new... finally, I get to the literary section. It's a bit of a hodge-podge here, as some of the offerings from the genre tables find their way onto this table after a time. I help myself to a maids-of-honour cake and wander around, eavesdropping.

"All this lighter-than-air stuff," says a young man wearing a tweed jacket and John Lennon spectacles. "Real literature has meat to it, substance. It's nutrition for the mind and the soul."

"You realise that's a pecan roll you're gesturing with, right?" says a bored-looking woman who might be his girlfriend.

"And that the brain needs carbohydrates to work properly?" adds another young man, in a t-shirt and Elvis Costello horn rims.

It's noisy here, and there's a lot of sentences that start, "You can't be a feminist if -" or "Unless you come from that culture you can't -", or "The unique experience of Generation Y is that -".

"I was having a discourse about Doritos versus the traditional place of tortillas in Central American society the other day, you know, with Cheryl, and it made me realise about magic realism, the thing is..."

I find a quiet corner and nibble on my cake. Closing time is in fifteen minutes.

At five minutes to closing, the librarians start gently kicking everyone out, and as the crowds thin at the buffet tables, I take out a bandanna I've lined with waxed paper and start to sample from the trays. Vanilla cake with a curl of chocolate icing, a slice of juniper-poached pear, and one of my favourites, a small blue marzipan egg that has a drop of grenadine syrup on it. A couple of things I can't recognise but that look interesting.

There's a back door out, with a garden and benches to sit on. Time to settle in and savour every texture and flavour.

citizens of the dream, unite

Cary Tennis re-launched his web site last fall. As part of the re-launch, his book Citizens of the Dream was offered in electronic versions (yes, plural), and since he was smart enough to use non-proprietary formats, I bought it. (It's available in paper form too at the Cary Tennis site and in the Kindle format at Amazon.)

The book is a collection of Tennis's advice columns from Salon which deal specifically with how to be a better creative person. I read it quickly just after I bought it last November, but lately I feel like I need  to read it over again, more slowly, noting the parts that would be of particular help to me. Your own mileage may vary, but one thing I found interesting is that the most  personally useful advice often came from responses where the letter-writer's concerns didn't mirror my own at all. It was the concepts and scenarios considered in the response that got me thinking.

Tennis has a quiet, almost dreamy style of writing, much in contrast to the typical agony aunt who leads with quips and frames responses to jolt the reader (and supposedly the letter-writer). Having said that, there are a number of passages here that made me laugh out loud — like when Tennis advises someone to make themselves at home at the crossroads instead of worrying they don't know which way to turn once they get there.

There's also responses which are poignant, even sad. The passage about what it was like being a nine-year-old boy living in Florida during the Cuban missile crisis almost had me in tears.

My favourite piece of advice in the book: the suggestion that writers should have someone who checks up on them and makes sure they meet their deadlines and other writing goals. It has always seemed to me that there are too many well-intentioned people out there who are too quick to say, "There there, it's okay if you didn't work on your craft today, you're still a good person" when what the artist needs to hear is, "okay, so how can you get some work in tomorrow?".

There are loads of books out there about how to market your work and yourself, how to make pitches, how to get practical and turn your art into a business. There are also loads of books that take a self-help approach and give you tasks and methods to transform yourself and your art-making.

In my reading experience, there are far fewer books that acknowledge that there is more than one way to make art, and that a lot of the struggle with making art is trying to do so in a society that doesn't appreciate or give space to its artists as much as it should. Citizens of the Dream helps with that.

there are things you should know

I remember the first subway posters I saw for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I can't remember exactly what they said, but somehow I got the impression that it was a horror novel. Since I don't generally read horror, I just decided to be pleased that a book was getting so much advertising space, and sort of ignored it after that. Every once in a while the poster would catch my eye again, and I'd wonder what all the fuss was about, but was never really tempted to read it.

Then I read an article... somewhere. I think it was this Quill & Quire article. That led me to some Googling, and let me find out a bit more about who Stieg Larsson was, and who Eva Gabrielsson is. I also learned that those subway posters had misled me — the Millennium trilogy are a series of crime novels, and strongly feminist ones to boot.

And all of a sudden I had to read these novels. Once I finished the first one (in a day and a half of drop-everything reading one weekend), I started evangelising about them and telling everyone I knew that they had to read them too. Even I thought I was being obnoxious about it.

Every time I did a recommendation, though, I mentioned about what I had learned from my on-line news-reading: how Larsson and Gabrielsson had been a couple for decades, how they had never married so that Larsson's place of residence could be obscured, how the Swedish government doesn't recognise common-law marriages for what they are, which means Gabrielsson got nothing of Larsson's estate. She still receives nothing of the profits from the sales of the Millennium trilogy or its spin-offs.

I was thrilled to learn that Gabrielsson has written her own book: "There are Things I Want You to Know" About Stieg Larsson and Me. The ever-wonderful Carla and J-A went with me to the Swedish Consulate-hosted event to launch the book in Toronto. Gabrielsson spoke and answered questions for an hour, then signed books. It was a thought-provoking and positive way to spend Midsummer.

Gabrielsson was very thoughtful and articulate during the presentation, and already J-A and I have had some spin-off discussions based on some of the things she said that night.

I finished the book in the two days after I bought it that night. It's written in a very concise and clear style (it's not surprising to learn she's an architect by profession). Most of the book is about Gabrielsson's and Larsson's life together, rather than the aftermath of his death. There's a lot of warmth here, and a reassuring amount of humour. There were also a lot of surprises, although mostly those were in the final chapters (my head is still reeling from the "contractual" marriage proposal, if that's not too much of a spoiler).

It seems to me there are a lot of people taking the attitude of, "all the inheritance was done legally, they weren't married, suck it up." At best, this is a blatant failure to recognise the difference between what is morally right from the letter of the law.

"There are Thing I Want You to Know"... explains what is morally right, and why, and manages to be a damn good read at the same time.

Which is why everyone who has read the Millennium trilogy — and everyone who wants to fight the good fight — should read it.

Pitouie reviewed

Just sit right back and read a tale, a tale of a fateful trip...


Pitouie (Derek Winkler) is one of those novels that's hard to describe without revealing important surprise plot points. The blurb on the web site of its publisher, The Workhorsery, probably does the best job possible of explaining it without giving anything away. My version goes like this: in the present day there is a small, obscure, independent island nation in the South Pacific. In the early 70s, there are men working at a DEW station in the high Arctic. The common thread between the two settings is how far large corporations are willing to go to see their profit line jump a few points, and the, ah, absurdities that can lead to. Some of the absurdities are funny. Some are chilling.

Pitouie is not for those who believe that the corporate sector provides all that is good in this world (okay, they ought to read it, but chances are they would have a hard time not being too annoyed to finish it). For the rest of us, it offers a lot of laughs, excellent storytelling, and some sobering ideas to ponder after the last page is reached. The plot follows a "crazy enough to be true" line that has made the book difficult for me to describe to my friends — twice I've been asked to clarify if it's fiction or non-fiction.

And maybe that's the point. The story is a tall tale about tall tales, about what humans are willing to believe if the right details are added in. There's even an official web site for the South Pacific island of Pitouie, nudging the story of the novel out into the virtual real world, if not the physical one.

The writing is straightforward and clear — good, accessible subway reading. Character development? Nah. Lars, the radar operator at the DEW station, has a character arc, but most of the rest of the characters are only there to push the plot along. Even Otis, the main character of the South Pacific thread, just seems to be present so he can ask everyone else what's going on and reveal the story.

The story lives up to its top billing, though. It starts with a simple enough premise, but after three chapters I was hooked, and I found the final half of the book difficult to put down.

If you want some light, fast-moving reading that still offers food for thought (lots), check it out.

a directive

For the American Moderns class I took in university, I had a professor named Geoffrey Rans. He told my class... being our lecturer, he told the class a lot of things, but I made a point of writing down something he told us as he was assigning our mid-term essays:

Go for the authors you like.
Celebrate them.
Justify them.

When you've got four senior-level mid-term essay assignments staring you in the face, that's very heady stuff.

It's dangerous to pin a change in direction to a remark a prof makes off-the-cuff, but the truth is my attitude towards books has become a lot more extroverted since then. In elementary and high school, I thought of books as secrets only I got to know. Jacob Two-Two and the Hooded Fang? I took it out of the school library so many times in a row that Mrs. Zimmer, our librarian, forgot to stamp the renewal date on the card once and I got in trouble for it being overdue. I now own a copy of the same edition that was in Brisbane Public School way back when. But I don't remember telling anyone why it was so great. 

Ten years later I was doing the same thing with another of Mordecai Richler's when I read Joshua Then and Now. To be fair, I tried to tell a few people about that one, but I got a lot of eye-rolling and, "But it's not for a class? Are you nuts?" in return.

Consequently, I never tried to tell anyone about Oh Happy Death, at least not until my friend Deb played Crocodiles by Echo & the Bunnymen for me. And I never did find an excuse to rave about how great La Peste was (still tied for first with L'Etranger in my personal Camus list).

Still, one tries, and one does improve. A big milestone was when I was able to rant about Samuel Beckett's Murphy and Watt so successfully that a co-worker thought they were films (um, it wasn't an office where people read much). Speaking of films, it was a lot of fun to tell people that if they liked Cronenberg's takes on Naked Lunch and Crash, then they really should read the books. Somewhat evil, but fun.

This past year I've waved copies of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, You and the Pirates, and Dark Matter under other readers' noses and tried to make it very, very clear that it was important to their lives to read these books. Dark Matter itself was a gift from the ever-literary Howard & Rhonda.

I remember thinking, even as I scribbled down what Rans had said in the top margin of my notebook, that it was odd the phrase he used was, "Go for the authors you like," instead of "Go for the books you like." For most readers, most of the time, it's the book they know, not the author of it.

Right now I'm reading Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril, and I think I'm finally starting to understand. Reading it isn't just learning about an amazing science fiction writer —  it's re-learning all those SF books I used to take out of the public library and nosh through the way the other twelve-year-olds used to nosh through a bag of Pop Rocks. It's hard to believe now, but I was the only girl I knew who read science fiction.

But that's the best part: if you go for the authors you like, justify them, and celebrate them, you will find other readers like you, and the amount of justifying and celebrating will only increase from there.

if this is not an exercise, could it be a....

I'm still thinking about the act of reading, maybe because I spontaneously wrote a first draft to an illustrated children's book this week. I put all the snippets of text that are now waiting for illustrations into a numbered list for ease of reference ("the last sentence in #9 should be the first sentence in #10, don't you think?"), then ran the whole thing through a reading comprehension test to make sure I was writing for the right grade level.

It turned out I was writing at the right grade level, and it's all well and good, except... I'm not sure how all these numbers got in the way of reading.

Throughout my life I have been accused of both reading too quickly and reading too slowly, of skimming too much and of reading in too much detail. I know people who will not take a book seriously simply because it has a very low page count — or a very high one. When I tell acquaintances that I write (or knit, or bake, or sew) they always want to know what I call "baseball information": how many words do I write a day? how long does it take me to knit a pair of socks? how do I find the time to bake my own bread?

I call it "baseball information" because that sport is famous for being more statistically analysed than most others. It's also a reminder that writing, knitting, baking, sewing, and many other tasks are not baseball — they do not break down easily into statistics, and even if they did, the statistics won't tell the questioner what they want to know.

It doesn't matter how many words I write in a day. It matters whether the words, once written, are any damn good. It also matter if they are not good, but can be salvaged by editing. I find it fascinating that far more people want to know how many words I write a day than want to know how much time I spend editing them.

I have been knitting socks for almost twenty of my thirty years of knitting, and I still have no idea how long they take to make.

Since I stopped watching things as they baked in the oven when I was five, baking takes hardly any time at all.  In the case of bread, the human spends much less time working on the bread than the yeast do.

Even if I bothered to do a statistical analysis of these tasks, the numbers would not tell you: how good my writing is, why hand-made socks will always be better than mass-produced ones, how much fun it is to make bread. Numbers are certainly important —  they tell you how much yarn you need for a pair of socks and how long to bake the bread, for starters  — but they are not the whole story and were never meant to be.

Never mind how long the damn book is. It's good. The number of pages was important to the editor, the publisher, the book designer, the printer. Their only benefit to an end-user is if that end-user is a consumer, not a reader. There is a difference.

genius

I picked up a copy of You and the Pirates at the Small Press Book Fair this summer. I'm about 150 pages in and loving it, so it will probably show up in a later blog post, but for now, take a look at the book cover I bought from The Workhorsery (the publisher) at the same time:
It's cloth, it's sewn, and it has the publisher's logo silkscreened on the front. So even if you don't happen to be reading You and the Pirates or another Workhorsery publication at the time, you can still flash their logo. The cover fits a lot of the books I own, so I expect I'll be doing that a lot.

When you're not reading your book, the cover is held in place with a button and an attached piece of yarn. This keeps people who read on the subway until the last second (like me) from dog-earing their book when they jam it into their bag and run out the doors.
Here's my alarm clock propping up the book to show the built-in bookmark (and a bit of the lining fabric too).

I wish I'd bought another in the other colour they had on hand.

Dracula could have saved the Titanic

I finally finished something I was reading on the Kobo I posted about a couple of weeks ago (just because you're carrying around 100 books on a device the size of a greeting card doesn't make you read any faster, and I tend to read two or three books at once). I had to give up on Canterbury Tales because the formatting of the verses and the footnotes left a lot to be desired, so instead I worked my way through Dracula.

The only version of Dracula I'd ever read before was a magazine-size comic version when I was about eight. Since then I've seen two film versions (by Werner Herzog and Francis Ford Coppola — the Herzog one is my favourite). Since I was a 17-year-old in North America in 1987 I also saw The Lost Boys, but I try to forget that as much as possible.

None of these three get across something that is glaringly obvious when you read the original: the reason why the story is novel-length is that the main characters keep screwing up all the time.

At first you can forgive them. With the exception of Van Helsing (I'll get to him in a moment), all of the "good guys" are Modern People of Modern Places: four proud citizens of the Glorious British Empire and an American. They're as any gadget freaks of our own times — Mina has separation anxiety if a typewriter isn't at hand for her to use, and Seward prefers to voice-record his diary on a newfangled phonograph than write or type it out. Jonathan takes Kodaks of the house he has selected for the Count as a matter of course. These people are logical, scientific, and love to document their lives. They share their journals with each other quite freely — a good reminder to anyone who thinks that social media is a new thing.

Where they fall down is when they are faced with something that does not fit neatly into their modern lives. That, of course, is vampirism in general and Count Dracula in particular. As horrified as they are of all the blood-drinking and wolf-controlling, it seems to me they are more horrified still that those superstitious peasants they love to pity may actually be onto something.

Science, or so I have been taught in science class, is a balance between two states: confidence that one has figured out how something works, and scepticism when something has not been absolutely proven. When someone using the scientific method is presented with a phenomenon that does not fit their theory, they're supposed to be willing to alter the theory. Even when no contradicting phenomenon exists, any scientific fact is always supposed to be footnoted, "until we learn better." Sometimes the "learn better" is that we learn more subtleties of how whatever it is actually works. Sometimes we have to be willing to throw everything we thought we knew out and start over again.

In Stoker's novel, Dracula gets as far as he does and causes as much damage as he does because the characters are slow to leave their old assumptions about what is safe and good and workable behind. Only Van Helsing, who is both a learned scholar and someone who is willing to get at the kernel of truth under the superstitions, is able to figure out what the Count is and what must be done to stop him. Still even he believes, again and again with all the other "good guys," that modern convention will make them safe just because it is modern convention.

I would love to make Dracula mandatory reading in a first-year engineering or physics class, with a single assignment attached to it: list all of the places where the heroes had evidence before them they should have taken seriously, but discounted out-of-hand because it didn't fit into the tidy world they normally inhabited. That is, when faced with evidence that the theory was wrong, they assumed that their observations must needs be incorrect, not the theory.

So the Titanic sails off with not enough lifeboats because someone with the power to decide these things concludes that "virtually unsinkable" is the same as "unsinkable," rather than doing some simple math to figure out how many lifeboats they do need should the worst happen and something shows up which all their safety design precautions don't take into account. Or a patient has an appointment at a doctor's office and gets told that there's nothing to worry about, just because the patient's symptoms don't fit into the neat little diagnostic box the doctor learned in medical school. This last example has happened to me personally — it took me over a year to get a CAT scan that proved something I had described to several doctors was a fact, and not just my imagination.

A lack of scepticism and a tendency to throw out contrary evidence can kill people. Much better to learn that from a fictional tale of blood and mayhem than the real thing.

Kobo review -- includes instant DIY case info!

The first time I did any research on ebook readers was around 1994-95. E-ink was already being talked about, as was desktop synchronisation. Since the Web only started in 1995, people were talking about downloading a lot more than they were doing it.

I never got to actually handle any of the ebook readers I checked out back then. The first reader I've had a chance to take for a real test run was the Kobo I won at last Friday's Book Summit. The main place they seem to be sold in Canada is Chapters/Indigo.

The Kobo got its initial check-out over some post-Summit libations on a patio by the lake. The company that makes the Kobo is very smart about getting on a new customer's good side right away. The reader comes out of the box with enough of a battery charge for an initial play session, and 100 books are pre-loaded so you can start reading right away. There is only one page of settings to adjust, and then you're ready to read.

I already read ebooks a lot — I put free (and legal!) downloads from Craphound and elsewhere on my Nokia tablet, mostly PDFs. So I'm used to reading novels on a colour screen about the size of an slightly-larger-than-average smartphone. Given that, these are the things that jumped out at me about the Kobo:

Positives

  • I managed to choose the right date & time settings, adjust the reading font, flip through the catalogue of loaded books, choose a book, and start reading without ever looking at the manual. Having said that, taking a careful look at all the edges before you start playing with it in earnest is a good idea. Some of the buttons are so discreet that it isn't obvious where they are. Once you know where they are, they're easy to use and remember, but it's more pleasant to find them before you want to use them.
  • The device is light, light enough that you can comfortably hold it in one hand and read with it while waiting at a TTC stop for a long time — which is exactly what I did with it after I went to the Small Press Fair last Saturday. It's also more than light enough to read comfortably lying down.
  • It is also completely easy to read in bright sunlight. That TTC stop I just mentioned didn't have a shelter, and it was about four o'clock in the afternoon on a very bright day. No problems at all.
  • I didn't time it, but the battery seemed to charge very quickly. Although I've read about people having problems with battery life, my unit seems to be fine. Then again, I'm used to having to recharge my Nokia tablet every day because I use it so much, so I'm easy to please in that regard.

Negatives

  • I can read the Kobo fine under natural light and fluorescent tubing (ironic, since the latter gives me eyestrain headaches), but it seems too dim when I have lamps with energy-saving lightbulbs on at home. I knit, read on paper, and bead under the same lamps, so I know that normally they provide enough light. The Kobo seems to do better under the halogen reading lamp I have by my bed.
  • The navigation rosette (they call it a D-pad) doesn't always interpret a "next-page" click correctly. If my thumb really loses the mark, I can wind up in a menu or at the home page without meaning to, and have to wait for the book to load again to continue reading. So far it hasn't happened often, but if I did it a lot it would be annoying.
  • The desktop software, which is an essential install on your computer if you want to buy books for the Kobo, does not have an official Linux version. That means I can't buy new books for the device, because my home computer and my Nokia tablet/phone all run Linux.
About that last negative point: Kobo does have an unofficial Linux distro of its software. Unfortunately for me, it's compiled for 32-bit processors, and my laptop has a 64-bit processor. However, I want to take a moment here to thank them for thinking of Linux users. Just because we decided not to give money to Microsoft or Apple doesn't mean we won't cheerfully buy things from other companies!

Because I can't buy new books for it at the present time, I decided to give my won Kobo to my mum. She runs Windows, so she'll be able to install the required software just fine, and she's been coveting a Kobo (and specifically a Kobo) for a while now.

"You're going to need a case for it," I said when we talked about it over the phone. "I've been reading the reviews on the Chapters web site, and everyone says that protecting it from any accidental drops is very important."

"Does it feel fragile when you use it?" she said.

"Not for reading with it," I said. "But when I brought it along on the TTC, I was really glad my backpack had a pocket almost exactly the same size. I could see it getting smashed or cracked if you're rough with it. Probably true for all of these things."

"I'll have to watch out for that," she said. "Well, stick it in an oven mitt in the meantime until you give it to me. I'll have to figure out whether I'm going to buy one of those Roots cases or just sew my own."

I've talked about it on my other blog, but let it be known here as well that I don't come by this DIY stuff all by myself. A lot of it is inherited. Mum's completely right — the Kobo fits perfectly into a standard-size oven mitt, and gains a little eccentric je ne sais quoi that appeals to me, like when women use tea kettles or other found items as purses:

If I tie a length of grosgrain ribbon or seam tape to one side of the mitt and a button to the other side, I'll have a strap to keep the Kobo from slipping out if the oven mitt gets turned cuff-side-down, at the cost of less than 15 minutes of work! (Oven mitt: $3.99 for a matching pair of two at Canadian Tire.)

how's your reading health?

As I mentioned last post, one of the sessions that I went to at Book Summit was "Reading in the Digital Age." Somehow I had the impression that it would be about writing for digital instead of paper media and how that shifted story structures. It turned out I was wrong, but that was okay, because the presentation encompassed that and a lot more.

The presenter was Raymond A. Mar, who works at York University. He also contributes to the blog On Fiction, which I immediately added to my Google Reader list as soon as the session was completed.

Mar and his colleagues have been comparing the effects of reading fiction on the brain, comparing it to the effects of what he termed expository writing. This sounds similar to what I was taught at teacher's college to call "transaction writing" — non-fiction works like essays.

It turns out that reading fiction has measurable, beneficial effects. People who read fiction are better are social tasks, and better at recognising emotions. The research also shows that watching films has the same effect, but not watching television (there are a lot of theories, but they haven't figured out why yet).

I'm not going to try and repeat the entire presentation — you had to be there, and besides, I'm not a professional in neuropsychology, so I'm bound to get some things wrong.

I am, however, a recent reader of CP Snow's Two Cultures. That book recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, which is how I got to here about it. CP Snow was either a novelist who worked in science, or a scientist who wrote fiction, depending on how you want to look at it. He noticed that he was just about the only person he knew who had an interest in both fields, and he was appalled both by his science friends' lack of respect for the power of fiction, and his artist friends' lack of knowledge of basic scientific facts. He presented the "two cultures" idea originally at a lecture he gave at Cambridge University, then expanded it to book form for publication.

The interaction of science and art is much different from how it was fifty years ago, and the version of Two Cultures that I bought and read points out that most of Snow's examples were actually from when he started his career in the 1930s. Nevertheless, I thought it was interesting (and, okay, dismaying) that the newspaper articles I read asked people working in the arts science questions like "why is the sky blue" and "what is the Second Law of Thermodynamics," but it seemed as if no-one was asking any scientists what novels they'd read recently.

I was encouraged to have what sometimes gets called a "well-rounded" education. I kept taking math and science subjects long after it became clear I didn't have the talent to pursue a career in them (except for chemistry. For some bizarre reason I always found chemistry easy.). Since then I've become the woman with the English Lit. degree who likes to read about science. I really did finish A Brief History of Time (which has a very beautifully-written ending, by the way), and wish they would just hand that book to high school students who prefer arts subjects instead of forcing them to take bewildering physics classes. They'd learn more. I did — the first three chapters more or less cover my Grade 11 physics class curriculum.

Bottom line: people need to engage in both the arts and sciences to make sense of the world and each other.

awfully wonderful day

Today I went to Book Summit 2010. The very first thing I learned there is that the adjective in the name of the conference is misleading. Sure, books are a very big part of the overall mix, but there was also a lot of discussion about printing, drawing an audience in the mass- and web-based media, the neuropsychological act of reading and how it affects the reader's social skills, and.... lots of other things that I would blog about except that, four hours after it ended, my head is still exploding, albeit in a very positive manner.

In a way, it was the perfect fun day for bookworms. First, we got to learn about e-readers from a technological/gadget point of view. Then we got serenaded with parodic songs about copyright. If that doesn't sound funny to you, you can't have been there.

Then we all dashed off to the two information sessions we had chosen for the morning (mine were "Books and the Media" and "Reading in the Digital Age"). After a yummy, healthy lunch, we went to our selected afternoon sessions (mine was "The 21st Century Writer"). The day wrapped up with a panel discussion, and the giving away of the door prize. It was a Kobo Reader, which I (ulp!) won. I never win door prizes, so that part was a bit confusing.

My inner bookworm child feels like she just went to the best party ever. There was even an afternoon ice cream break. Nothing like wandering into a panel discussion on the future of publishing while your inner child is busy exclaiming, "We got ice cream and now we're going to talk about books some more! Wow!"

I started to read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales with the Kobo on the way home — since the tales pre-date Gutenberg's press and are being included free on many e-readers it seemed like the right place to start.

There was at least one profound idea to absorb every quarter-hour or so, all throughout the day, and you may have noticed while reading this that I've been trying to avoid getting into them. I'm sure many of them will be fodder for at least one blog post in the future, as will a review of that Kobo reader.

For now I'm still trying to absorb it all. The most clear take-away so far is that whatever form the things we call "books" take in the near or far future, there will always be stories to tell, and we have to remember that's the important part. It was as good a root cause analysis as I've heard lately on any topic.

Many thanks to the organisers, presenters, and other attendees. I am so grateful I got to be there with you and learn so much.

An Evening with Neil Gaiman... and, um, other people

Part 1: before

The ever-excellent Rhonda was ill, so she couldn't make it, although the equally excellent Howard did. Unfortunately, I was stupid enough to talk about this on my cell phone in front of the theatre. A few people tried to buy the spare ticket off me, and one woman was especially insistent, so I gave in. I should know better. A security guard appeared out of nowhere and said I wasn't allowed to scalp. I said I wasn't scalping, I only had the spare because my friend was sick (I should know better; some people can do these things, but I am not one of them). The guard explained that even if I did sell the ticket to the woman, she wouldn't be allowed in the theatre, because she was banned from the event. He knew her name, and that settled it for me.

I don't want to get into a lot of details about what happened next — confessing my own foolishness on the internet is one thing, but telling about someone else's is something else again. Let's just say that I get very uncomfortable when a stranger grabs my arm and starts pleading with me over something that an authority figure has put beyond my control. Howard and I had to escape into the theatre before the woman would go away.

Part 2: during

Somewhere on the internet, someone will do a much better job of telling about the "Evening with Neil Gaiman" than I ever will. Probably it will be Neil Gaiman himself. Mark Askwith did a lovely and witty job of moderating — perfect choice.

I will say that I was very glad I went.

Biggest take-away: Gaiman and Askwith both claimed that Askwith's wife always says "all men are idiots; all women are crazy." Amen.

Part 3: after

Neither Howard nor I collect autographs, so we left via a side exit a thoughtful theatre staff member opened for those who didn't want to join the very long queue in the lobby for the book-signings. We walked up Yonge Street and had a wonderful, peaceful, uninterrupted conversation.

Conclusion: sometimes fate pushes you over the edge. Sometimes it holds you back from it. And sometimes it dangles you by the neck of your shirt for a few moments before hoisting you back to safety.

Travel Globally, Present Locally

The Kingsolver and Hopp presentation last night (as part of Pages' This is Not a Reading Series, promoting Animal, Vegetable, Miracle) was brilliant. The audience got to laugh, feel doomed, watch turkey sex videos*, and learn a lot about how to eat locally.

The most amazing part, in a night of amazing things, is that the "spine" of the delivery was customised for the Toronto growing season. At the end we were presented with a list of web sites about where to get locally-grown food in and around Toronto. I have to say: this is the very first time, in any context, that I have seen non-Canadians customise a presentation for Canada and do such a good job at it. That includes some events I paid a lot more than ten dollars to attend.

Here's the list (I don't think this information is meant to be hoarded):


Thanks to Jean-Anne for helping me copy down all the addresses.

Always on top of things, culture queen Carla did her own scouting and found this public Google calendar: Toronto Farmers Markets

I haven't started Animal, Vegetable, Miracle yet, but I'm interested in reading it. As I blogged last, I grew up eating grow-your-own and pick-your-own, so a lot of the fascination for me is learning how to apply what I took to be common sense when I was eight to the urban environment I live in now.

It seems to me a lot of it is peer pressure. The first time I grew tomato plants on my balcony, a lot of my non-gardening friends expressed surprise that one even could grow tomato plants on a balcony. This was closely followed by musing about the propriety of such an act, for want of a better word. Most of my friends are gardeners, though, and so just said, "Cool! What variety?". I don't have a balcony right now, so tomatoes are on the local-buy list. Mmmmmm, tomatoes.... I wonder when the local heirloom ones will be ripe?

* Please note both parties participating in the sex were turkeys.

Food gets cool

Food isn't always cool, at least not in North America. Thankfully, some of the time it is cool, and Tuesday 27 May is one of those times.

Pages, an excellent independent Toronto bookstore that has somehow stayed classy and cool on the way to becoming iconic, is featuring an event with Barbara Kingsolver as part of their This is Not A Reading Series, um, series. Kingsolver will be discussing her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. It's about the year she and her family spent living on food that was either locally produced or grown by themselves. Note that tickets are being sold in advance, and when I got mine along with the ever-cool Jean-Anne, the staff person at Pages mentioned they were selling out quickly.

I'm looking forward to this on a few different levels. For one thing, I continue to flip between fiction and non-fiction in my reading, so a non-fiction book by someone who usually writes fiction sounds like a good bet. For another, I grew up with a large percentage of my diet being grown by my parents (helped by me when I got a bit older) — we had two large vegetable patches and 10-12 assorted fruit trees on our lot when I was a kid. My parents did a lot of pick-your-own to supplement the home-grown food, and we did a lot of preserves and jams too.

I'm hoping there will be some leads on pick-your-owns around Toronto. It's hard to do when you're a singleton apartment dweller, but I'd love to at least pick some local strawberries, since
they're impossible to get at the supermarket even when they are in season.

Not to mention it will just be nice to listen, talk, think, breathe books.