Monthly Archives: April 2010

Don’t Judge a Book By It’s Cover.

I may not judge a book by its cover but I tend to judge a person by their books. This illustrious opportunity typically strikes in one of two places: when visiting a person’s home or when traveling. Standing in Hudson’s News waiting for a flight to board is the perfect place for me to start summing up those around me without even speaking to them.  A news stand is more ideal than say a bookstore because all the genre’s are lumped together: the Oprah biography is next to the most recent Sophie Kinsella tale which is next to William P. Young’s the Shack (still!), which is next to everything by Nicholas Sparks. So, while I pretend to read the back of David Remnick’s The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama or another such recognizably pedantic book, I can actually watch you as your hand reaches for the latest novel in the Twilight series. I can then presume I know the type of person you are.

Another favorite place of mine to create great expectations from books is from the shelves within someone’s home. If there are no shelves? – ghast! If there are a few shelves but they are speckled with Ludlums, Sparks, Kings and Patterson’s this person enjoys reading but only if the book is willing to cater to a short attention span. And so on and so forth as you choose. What is more interesting though is when you are welcomed into someone’s home in a magazine. For here the presenter is well aware that he is creating a first impression. There are no accidents – the Kama Sutra or Joy of Sex is hidden in another room, the Kinsellas and Meyers put away while books on Design, Architecture or Politics are brought to the forefront. With a malleable audience the presenter can set the stage and almost direct our assumptions.

Okay, so these assumptions, as all stereotypes and judgments, are not fair nor are they kind but it is our nature as humans to use whatever information is available to us to size up a situation; it is survival of the fittest.

Don’t believe me? Picture this: you are sitting in an airport terminal and there is an attractive man (if this works for you) sitting across from you. To me, this man is slight in build but rather athletic looking, has dark hair and is tanned like he has been in the sun (not the tanning beds). Perhaps he is wearing a checked scar around his neck because he has recently returned from Yemen where he was writing a story for an online magazine. He has 3 days worth of stubble that coats his lower face perfectly and he is deep in concentration in a book. My guess, of course, he is reading a journalist’s (a co-worker’s?) account of the economic/political/religious turmoil in the Middle East.  Now imagine that he looks up and places said book next to him so you can clearly see the title. It’s the Da Vinci Code.  His illusiveness and air of academia (to each his own) instantly fades.  There is nothing wrong with reading the Da Vinci Code of course, I read it and quite enjoyed it. However, first impressions mean a lot and Man X has presented me with: the Da Vinci Code.

What if he had put down The Road by Cormac McCarthy?  His mystique would have only heightened and I could continue with my fantasy. Now imagine instead that the book he put down was in fact the Bible?

If you had to choose one book to set your precedent, for your first impressions, what would it be? Mine changes by the hour and the audience.

Yann Martel in Calgary

Sadly, I will miss the occasion to hear Yann Martel speak about his new book Beatrice and Virgil. He will be in Calgary at the Central Library’s John Dutton Theatre on April 28th at 7pm. The event is put on by the fantastic independent bookstore Pages in Kensington. Tickets are only $5 and go towards the Writer in Residence program and the Calgary Public Library.

Five years after the success of Life of Pi (for which he won the Man Booker prize in 2002), Yann set out to write his next book entitled A 20th Century Shirt. The book was to be composed of 2 parts, a flip-book of sorts that could be read back to front and front to back. The theme tying the sections together would be the Holocaust.

Now, some three years later, the book has been released with a new title – Beatrice and Virgil – and many other notable changes.

Due to the success of his first book as well as the rumored $1-3 million (depending on the source) advance, this book has been highly anticipated. I have not yet read it but the reviews are mixed and tending towards disappointment.

Coincidentally, his appearance in Calgary falls one day after Yom HaShoah or Holocaust Remembrance Day.

My First Religious Experience – Composting – And Other Reasons I Haven’t Posted in Awhile

I promise I have not forgotten this blog. I would love to say that I have been too busy reading –  hungrily tearing through books – to write but sadly, that is not the truth, the whole truth.

After returning from Seattle, I went on a bit of a book binge – reading sections of one book before quickly hopping to another and another until my curiosity was satiated. My first long-term commitment was the novel Couch by Benjamin Paryzbok. This is not typically my kind of book but I picked it up at the famous EBC because it was in one of the many ‘Staff Picks’ sections and because the caption promised ‘a mystical journey full of hilarity.’ I am currently guilt-ridden as the book now lays at the bottom of my stack, a dog ear on page 197 marking my abandonment.

This is, of course, not a Cockapoo. This is Cooper with Andrew - the little guy who started us on the idea of getting a dog. He had just been 'attacked' by a Great Dane. Cooper, not Andrew.

This is, of course, not a Cockapoo. This is Andrew with Cooper - the little guy who started us on the idea of getting a dog. He had just been 'attacked' by a Great Dane. Cooper, not Andrew.

My ADD was then only encouraged by the (early?) onset of  Spring! It was another long and cold winter in Alberta (duh) and I, like everyone else, am loving the recent burst of warm weather we’ve been experiencing. Now, I’m no statistician but I do believe there is some sort of correlation between spring, love, baby-making and the sort and since I recently got married… no, just kidding! But, I suppose the nesting bug is in the air as Andrew and I woke up one morning (okay, maybe it was more me) and decided we were ready and in fact NEEDED a dog. Pronto. Kijiji was the place to go and within minutes I was setting up an appointment to go look at the most adorable apricot cockapoo (my teeth melt even thinking about the little guy).

I grew up with dogs but these dogs were less-than-trained to say the least and if I was going to own a dog I wanted it to be well trained. Andrew, on the other hand, wanted it to be the canine equivalent of Jason Bourne. Either way, we dove into doggie training books. In less than 24 hours I ripped through My Smart Puppy by Brian Kilcommons and Sarah Wilson, ‘dog-earring’ important pages. This is not a reflection of the book but I finished feeling panicked – I would not be able to resist a whimpering puppy at night or discouraging it from nipping when it’s the size of a teddy bear – but also because I was worried the dog would know I was a fake. I called Andrew immediately, bombarding him with all that I had learned and then, before I really knew what I was saying, I said I thought we should role-play. “Pardon?” came from the other end.

“Well, we have to know how to do the training exercises, what if I forget what to do mid-way through?!”

“Sweetheart, it’s a learning experience for all of us. I think we’ll be fine without role-playing.” (If you read this to yourself in a British accent, the efficacy of the calming effect increases ten-fold. Fact.)

Alas, this story doesn’t end well – or perhaps it ends for the best – we did not even get a chance to see Billie -Jean (irrelevant that it was a he). Our schedules are so varied and busy that we couldn’t even find time to make the drive to Lethbridge. I think this is a red flag that we would also not have enough time to devote to a puppy at this point.

But what else happens in Spring? The snow melts and the abominable state of my garden becomes apparent! I have never had a garden before and aside from raking leaves, I have virtually no experience attending to anything green or growing. So of course I did zilch to my garden before the snow started to fly and as a result, the majority of the space that was once inhabited by lovely coniferous, deciduous perennials (can you tell I have no idea what I’m talking about?) now looks like a fall-out zone.

Baby Steps.

I started last week by raking up the leaves in the 6’x4′ lawn in the front of our house. A success. Easy enough so I turned to the flower beds themselves. I think I stared at them for a good five minutes before I actually even felt a synapse fire. And even then all I did was get down on my hands and knees and sort of poke and prod at some stuff. I decided a trip to the library was in order and picked up the first gardening book I saw, Tending Your Garden by Gordon and Mary Hayward.

So, this week composting. I’ve been exposed to this mostly via the eco-movement. I know that composting significantly reduces the amount of garbage your throw away, is great for your plants and, allegedly, super easy todo. But, living in a condo until about a year ago I simply didn’t have

the need. So I was rather excited when I discovered that our new house had a compost. When I first looked at it I thought it was akin to a Saskatchewan-rig: a hastily constructed wooden box composed of left-over 2×4’s. I have since learned that this is an almost ideal design. I bite my tongue. However, I was left pondering how to actually get at the juicy dirt I could see at the bottom. Was I supposed to just wait until the whole thing decomposed? Empowered by my Home Maintenance for Women course, I took hold of a drill and simply removed the front slats. With a little poking and prodding (when all else fails…) dirt started to fall out at my feet. As I loosened the compacted material at the edges, more and more dark, moist, rich-looking SOIL started to fall out! I literally knelt down to touch it in amazement. I had heard the rumors but I couldn’t believe my egg-shells and coffee grounds had produced this! I felt like a born again Christian receiving the holy spirit! Of course I then became internally conflicted as my once science-trained mind reminded me that this was simply the result of combining organisms with organic material in the presence of oxygen and water. Still, I was pretty freaking impressed.

So, although I have little to contribute in the way of fiction from these past few weeks I have been busy learning from books: something I once thought stopped after university, no high school. Lets see what spring brings next. Perhaps a return to fiction? I’m thinking Paris and the spring go quite well together…

Bedside table reading: The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Cheering for the Underdog

I swore I wasn’t going to buy any books. I have too many books. Okay, it may not actually be possible to have too many books but I am starting to drown in them – they are beside my bed, under my bed, on shelves, on mantels, on coffee tables, in the washroom, beside the bathtub, in purses – they are literally everywhere and I am having difficulty keeping up with my purchases. I am acquiring books at a much faster rate than I am able to read them. So, despite the excitement surrounding my visit to the Elliot Bay Book Co. in Seattle, I was going to exercise some restraint for once and abstain (for Lent perhaps, albeit a tad late). Naturally then, when Andrew found me hidden deep in the recesses of the store I was having difficulty holding the stack that had accumulated in my arms.

We easily found the famed bookstore located in historic (in Seattle this should read sketchy but whatever, that’s a different post) Pioneer Square. I bounded across the street, past Starbucks and pushed open the glass-front door to reveal all that the images had promised: books, books and more books spread out over several split levels. I froze. Panicked even and moved quickly through the aisles to the staircase leading to the cafe downstairs. A few minutes later, with an americano and steel-cut oats in hand, I relaxed a little as I gazed up at the books now above me. I felt confused: all of a sudden I was no longer excited to peruse the aisles of books. I felt myself yearning for something else for something, dare I say it, more Chapters-like (egad!). If I, lover of all things bound (don’t be dirty, you know what I mean), was not excited by an iconic indie bookstore, why would anyone be? Why would, why should anyone care if Chapters took over the world? I asked Andrew, expecting a lack-lustre reply as he tends to have a cynical view on these kinds of things and was immediately hit with rapid-fire: “because they’re not just focused on selling a thousand copies of a Robert Ludlum book or pushing whatever else sells, someone here might actually know a thing or two about books, these stores have character, personality and individuality and they cater to their customers instead of a top ten list. And because we like to cheer for the underdog.” I was surprised, impressed, and more or less convinced to return to the creaky floors upstairs. But first impressions are long-lasting…

I am so used to shopping at Chapters that the experience of walking into an independent bookstore was actually like a culture shock (thank you Calgary). Instead of being greeted by a table of “Heather’s Picks” I was greeted by actual staff (oh my god, what if they talk to me?). Instead of being directed to the current “Bestsellers” there were sections with quiet labels like “the Middle East”, “Local Print”, “For Book Lovers” and “Beatnik Poetry”. When I tried to remember the name of a book I’d read about earlier in the Globe and Mail,  I glanced around for a touchscreen terminal but saw none. Instead, in the middle of the store there was an information desk with two staff members behind it eagerly answering questions, telling faithful customers when they expected to reopen at the new location and ordering hard to find or even out of print books without blinking. How do you search through a human?

It was like visiting a foreign country – the store didn’t smell familiar (due to the lack of Voluspa candles and the sort I think), the people looked different void of any uniform and there were no clear road maps telling me which books to read. Like a crying baby on a bus in El Salvador reminds us that people everywhere are the same, the printed words in front of my face brought me back into my comfort zone and prompted me to venture out and explore the corners of the store. And oh the delights! Like Chapters, EBC has a travel section rife with LP’s only the travel section at EBC is a travel loft – an entire overhang devoted to maps, books and literary journals complete with a dining room-like table on which to map our your next adventure. Throughout the store there are staff picks and with so much inventory this is pretty impressive. EBC might only be 1/3 the square footage of a Chapters but it surely contains more books (Perhaps this isn’t that grand of a testament. If you removed the ubiquitous Starbucks, the entire section of paper products and the ever-growing gift section, Chapters would look pretty empty).

Not only were there six copies of the Beatnik bible On the Road, there were eight other works by Kerouac and all by various publishers.

My visit to EBC occurred on the closing day of the bookstore’s long running history in Pioneer Square. They are moving to a cheaper location north of downtown Seattle where they hope to be able to continue to contend with the ever encroaching Chapters and Borders (oh the irony). Hopefully there they will find enough people who will continue to cheer for the underdog and ensure EBC continues to shock and wow all that dare to enter.

Bedside table reading: Couch by Benjamin Parzybok. An EBC find about a trio of outcasts who become magically tied to a couch. Not my typical choice of book but trying new things is all a part of the culture shock.