Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Judging by the Cover...

A bookstore is just like a bakery. You press your face up against the window and your eyes lock onto that creamy dreamy strawberry shortcake gleaming from its pedestal of sugary glory. Tart strawberries, a petulant red against whorls of airy cream and just a thin plane of glass between you and bliss. It's meant for you.Your brain sends jolts of electricity to your salivary glands, your mouth waters, your base instincts are ignited, and you must have it.

In a bookstore, it's not all that different. An attractive book cover lures a reader with a pleasing colour palette, intriguing typeface and seamless graphic design. It's a careful synchronization of visual elements that aim to do two things: first, accurately represent the book and its contents and second, attract a potential reader.

So yes, I have sinned. I do judge books by their covers. When I'm strolling through displays in a coffee-tinged bookstore, I'm naturally drawn to certain books while others I might pass over without much thought. Superficial, maybe. But I'm a firm believer in how a cover--its design, its tactile presence--can make the reading experience a better one. Will a pretty cover fix a crappy novel? No. But it'll draw you in and make you give it a chance.

And while a book sits waiting on display, that's really all it's asking for--a chance!
The moment you pick a book up off a display and give it a quick flip-through, a book designer is already trilling success. Because when you pick it up, you may skim the back cover, have a read through the inside flaps, skim the first few lines and then...and then you might buy it. And that--that is sweet, calculated success.

Of course, this is how a lot of unfortunate novels win muddled hearts. A promising cover is often just playing dress up for an unpleasant, vapid read. It can be a bit traumatic. A perfect cover sets up high expectations and then your hopes melt to oblivion once you open the book up and discover another vampire novel.

But the real tragedy is when an excellent novel is burdened with an ugly cover. It's such a waste--such bright enthusiastic little things lost, forlorn, and left behind because their covers are so revolting. You know the ones--the title in Times New Roman centered over a photograph of a mountain, or maybe a clock, or some other literal representation of something that appears in the book. And even if a novel is good enough to overcome this trial and make its way into welcoming hands through the weight of its reputation, there's nothing worse than looking forward to a good read only to be met with a hideous cover. It dampens the reading spirit.

To encourage attractive and alluring book covers, here's a look at a few books I recently purchased where the cover played a major role in my decision to pick it up and give it a chance:

Elizabeth Ruth's Ten Good Seconds of Silence. Design by Jennifer Scott. Front cover (face) photo by Leni Johnston.

This is a dreamy colour palette-- that acerbic yellow muted by a filter of smoky greens and set alight by a hazy smear of violet. The image has depth; you're looking through the grass, through bands of light and meeting an intent gaze. Many covers use a direct gaze to be confrontational, sometimes off putting, achieving a sense of unease. This gaze is soft, but probing. We're meeting her gaze, but she's looking into us. The typeface isn't specified, but it's clean and the serif-font has the effect of appearing grounded against this washy background.

Included at the bottom of the cover are the prizes the book has garnered. Always a clincher for a reader on the fence--"if it won an award, it has to be good...right?"

Ray Robertson's What Happened Later. Cover and text design: Gordon Robertson. Cover images: Shutterstock.

This purchase: 80% of my decision can be attributed to this bright and bold, glossy cover. The red and white colour palette is surprisingly cohesive, yet it achieves a jarring effect when placed against the close-up, diagonal photograph of a classic car. The cut-out shapes hold text in
haphazard alignment and interesting fonts, both creating a sense of breathlessness. I'm pretty sure this is going to be a weird read.

Images (respectively): princedd, City of Toronto, and goodreads.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Vintage Dream Come True: Olivia 3-Speed

Every spring for the past four years, I've longed for a bicycle. Not a mountain bike, a hybrid, or a road bike, but a bicycle. A beautiful, swan-like machine that would glide through lonely bike paths, and over rolling green hills in effortless grace. There I would be, wicker baskets and picnic blanket in tow, sitting upright, a fragrant breeze on my upturned face. In my fantasy, I parked under my favourite tree at Erindale Park, spread my blanket over thick, sweet grass, laid back and read Anne of Green Gables. I'd have an egg-salad sandwich and lemonade, too. And so, in the mists of early morning I'd pass my time in leisure, completely satiated on the loveliness of life. I'd feel my obsession to find the perfect bicycle prickle to life as soon as I was neck high in final papers, several days behind in research, deadlines pounding at my door. It was a breezy escape into some other place where everything was not only fine, it was a drink of complete serenity and contentment.

My parents bought me a mountain bike from Canadian Tire when I was 12 and I rode it to school with packs of other cycling kids, chain combination locks wound tight around our seat posts. I never graduated to a newer bicycle as an adult--I began taking the bus, and eventually just drove. As difficult as it is to believe, it never occurred to me that there could be an alternative. Cycling was a recreational activity done on the weekends by nuclear families adorned with knee pads and helmets. It was an intense sporting event, muscle-y men and women in spandex, bent in aero-dynamic perfection over svelte road bikes. It was the economic and environmentally responsible choice my friends and colleagues in Toronto made for city travel. It's not that I didn't think it was for me--I simply didn't think of it at all.

And still, there I was each spring with this urge to get a bike and ride it.

At first, I thought it was just nostalgia--that frowned upon desire to have things from a time and place you view as better than your own. Or even worse, the urgency to buy objects as antidotes to problems you harbour within. I can readily confess that there was definitely an element of both. But then my search became more detail-orientated--I wasn't just looking at bikes that looked pretty, I was looking at bikes that would fit in with my lifestyle. I wanted a very specific kind of bike--something that I could hop on and go without worrying up hiking up pant legs to avoid chain grease, or pinning up skirts so they didn't get caught in spokes and send me flying over handlebars. I wanted a bicycle I could be friendly with instead of something I would acknowledge from time to time.

Of course,
the bicycle has definite nostalgic appeal. Those old, classic bicycles have this magnetic aesthetic and emotional appeal that makes cycling seem like something more than just a ride through a park on the weekend. Riding from point A to B, is more than just a quick flit across town--it's an experience, an opportunity to absorb your surroundings and become part of the landscape. I think it makes you feel more alive.

And so I researched incessantly. I clicked on image after image of loop-frame bicycle dreams, three-speed English uprights, and old Dutch bicycles that had everything I could dream of, but were financially out of reach. Every bicycle that happened to have everything I desired was between $500 and $1500. This included a well-built steel frame, an upright riding posture, a full chain case, skirt guard, and that hard to pinpoint element--true love.

Of course, I quickly learned that even $500 is relatively cheap in the bicycle world. If I was looking to purchase for more than weekend recreation, I learned I'd be spending significant wallet weight on a machine that was meant to last. And because quality and longevity were important to me, I didn't want to cheap out and buy an upright beach cruiser that would leave me cursing its creak and wobble in a month. At the same time, I wasn't committing to being a dedicated bicycle commuter--cycling 20km to my workplace was not yet feasible for me (go ahead, judge me), though in bouts of euphoric bicycle madness I often convinced myself that yes, yes!!! I could bike that far, no problem!

What I wanted was an optimistic bicycle, a bicycle that offered opportunities and kept my options open.

"You just want to go for a leisurely ride? Sure."
"Oh, you want to start commuting? No problem."
"You'd like to sport around a little? Pretend you're racing? Okay."
"You just want to look nice? Alright. If you must."

Because as a big, fat, anything-bicycle-related noob, I needed something entry level that would still fulfill my needs and desires, but not crush any future dreams. I know there is no such thing as an "everything-bicycle." Every vehicle has its purpose, but I was determined to find a bicycle that wasn't too specific in its field of expertise. After all, I wasn't looking to train for the BMX games or any games for that matter, I only knew
that I missed that urgency to hop on a bike and go. And go I would.

I decided that this was my year. I still couldn't afford a $1000 bike, but I was going to figure out a way to get what I needed. After some strenuous research on bike forums and a plethora of information from the very lovely Velouria on Lovely Bicycle, I decided that an English 3-speed made before the 1990s would be my ideal bike. With a few adjustments, it would fulfill all my bicycle dreams. After a couple of months of searching Craigslist and Kijiji, I contacted my local bike shop, Cyclepath Mississauga - The Bike Store, and to my delight they told me they had two used "old school" bikes in stock.

A week later I walked up the sidewalk to the store and it was love at first sight. A quick ride around the parking lot, the addition of a rear rack, a seat adjustment to accommodate my unimpressive height, and a nice tune up later, she was mine.

Without further ado, I introduce to you, Olivia.

She's a 1973 CCM Elan. Canadian made, before the manufacturing of CCM's was outsourced to Taiwan. Forest green for that vintage charm; she's heavy and durable, with not a spot of rust on her!

A nice low, step-through frame to make hopping on and off easier (as well as aesthetic pleasure). The all-important chain-guard--not a full chain-case--but it will suffice just fine and nothing horrible has happened to my clothing as a result.

The addition of a front basket and flowers. (Basket stolen from my mother's beloved stair-top flower arrangement and cloth flowers clipped from her other arrangements around the house).

The addition of a rear basket (confiscated from the magazines in my room) tied down with jute. Inside, I have a picnic blanket for the essential impromptu picnic and my father's old cowboy belt to bind stuff together when I'm out and about.

So Olivia and I are just getting to know one another, but I think we're off to a very good start. There are a few other adjustments I'd like to make to make her truly mine--and so, DIY projects are already in the making! Stay tuned.

Images (respectively): Rowan of Ravara, Sullivan Entertainment, Eat Tarantula, and ubrayj02. All other images are mine.

Stay Away, Stay Away: Emily Dickinson's "The Bustle in a House"

A few weeks ago, I sat perfectly plump and pleased in front of a plate of baked spinach and ricotta milanese in a near-empty East Side Mario's. My very pregnant and semi-mobile friend (henceforth known as The Duchess) taught me how to order a virgin cocktail and as I sat gaping at a hot pink drink nervously swirling a swirly straw, we talked about big, ugly stuff: love, marriage, and finding "the one." Thankfully, it wasn't one of those painfully saccharine conversations that leave you feeling like you're hopped up on dopamine. If it were, I'm pretty sure The Duchess would have nodded politely, excused herself to go to the bathroom---and never returned. She was after all, eight months pregnant and any conversation that dwells too long on the bliss of true love has the tendency to make her convulse. Not because she's not in love and scoffs at the idea, but precisely because she is in love and knows what it takes.

At the first whiff of sugary salutations to the power of love and connection, The Duchess raised her hand and with a flick of her royal finger, wafted away any airy traces of misguided love-poem notions. She told me that in the first year of marriage, much of your time is spent squirting Visine into yo
ur eyes because you're constantly crying. And they're not tears of unadulterated joy. They're the kind that leave you feeling rumpled and raw. Why? Because it's hard.

I might just be the most incredible grouch because that's really it: being with someone is hard.

I realize that even if I briefly believed in the faerie-land dream scape of love we all love to love (even the men), my default is to look at all the loveliness of a solid and lasting relationship--the sharing, the caring, the sacrifice, the devotion--as profound trials.

The sweeping up the heart,
And putting love away
We shall not want to use again
Until eternity.

This stanza from
Emily Dickinson's poem, "The Bustle in a House," appears after the death of a lover in the novel My Other Women by Canadian actor and playwright Pauline Carey. This is what you feel when someone you love dies. It's a funereal poem and upon reading it, I made rapid connections to love and marriage. In a trembling, curt, clean sweep there is death, but I also recognize the dim pulse of letting go and zipping yourself shut when you no longer care to give what love requires.

Because in beautiful (I'm willing to relinquish that), but terrifying ways, love requires so, so much. Love does not exist on its own, nor is it self-sustaining. It is cultivated through a careful (and alarmingly bureaucratic) management of...everything. For some, it's economical management (how much have I given? Should I give more? I must give more). For others it's management with an iron fist (nothing--not even you--will get in the way of our success). For many the goal is the constant and consistent management of feelings, dreams, money, and everything else that exists between two people who are committed to each other. They've decided to be together--and now they have to do it. They'll have to manage.

This all sounds so very tiring. Be together.

is so cleanly solitary and complete. You exist. Your struggle through life's trials is your own, and though at times lonely--there is an intrinsic strength that comes from being alone.
The fabric of who you are is influenced by everything and everyone around you, but if you are a very specific kind of singleton--you don't have dependents, in fact you are largely independent--there isn't this constant negotiation of wants and needs that grinds into your being once you have committed yourself to another person. When you agree to pair off with another, your being is inextricably linked to that person. This may be the beauty and allure of marriage--the sense that you complement each other in the best of ways and for some, a sense of completeness that could not have been attained if they spent life unattached. It's what wedding cards salute in glittery affection--the melding of two souls into one.

And maybe it's that haunting sense of disappearance that is most off putting. The feeling that the you, the I, no longer exists and that in a swirling rhythm of hormones, affection, and negotiation, the you is now we. That from now until eternity (or not), there is the heavy weight of responsibility resting on both your shoulders. You have to care. You have to share. You have to self-analyze. You have to accept being wrong and struggle to speak up when you're right.

If you're a relatively reasonable human being, these are things you already do with the people in your life. But there is something so much more weighty about negotiating through life with a mate. With others, you're never overwhelmed with this pressure to be joined at the hip forevermore--your goals united, your dreams intertwined, one person always affecting the other.
And perhaps it is this fear--the abhorrence of change, of becoming something other than what you already are (even if that may be an even better version of who you currently are)--maybe it is this fear that makes you shut off the part of you that could be open to another person, another life. Sweep it all up and keep it for later.

But I suppose it's possible. In the last few years, nearly all of my closest friends have swept gloriously into married lives. The aura of glory is in the superficial and obvious--the crush of silk and taffeta, the dull clink of gold bangles, the iridescent sheen of minute, detailed beading on every possible surface, and of course the handsome, supportive, and sensitive husband on their arm. It's in the satisfaction of being settled, in the giddiness of new beginnings, in the hope that now you have one thing in your life that is constant and stable. But, the glory is also in the subtle things. It's in the work. It's in the things that grind you raw, but in the end change you in ways that you could not have imagined.

Not all relationships subscribe to a Hallmark-heavy notion of siamese-existence. I'm positive there's the kind of love where you can exist as individuals and still go through life together. It doesn't seem so impossible. It doesn't mean it isn't hard, but maybe it's easier to bear. You know you're not going to disappear; you know you'll be just fine.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Literary Prescription

In my first year of university I stood in the bookstore stunned, two hefty Norton Anthologies cradled in my arms. I remember checking the prices over and over and then with a shrug, chucking them into my basket. They were expensive, but I was glad I needed them. Along with the 15 or so other books I had piled in my basket, these were to be the jewels of my shelves. I hadn't expected to sacrifice such a significant chunk of my summer earnings for books listed on a syllabus, but I wasn't going to scour the library like some of my cash-strapped (and much wiser) classmates. I was short on cash too, but I was going to own these books. I was going to write my name inside the front covers, date them, love them, kiss them, and have them forever.

It was such a rush sliding piles of books out of those thick plastic (pulverized another rain forest) university bookstore bags at the end of the day. I still get tingles just thinking about running my hands over slick covers and fre
sh spines. I spent many a half-hour admiring my bookshelves-- so many new books, so many unread pages! Uncracked spines! Mine mine mine, all mine. It was a truly exhilarating high--I could do anything, be anything, dream everything. I was hopped up on book-potential.

My 19th Century British Lit Professor stood at the front of the classroom the following week and justified our spending:

"These are books you need to have. When people look at your shelves, they're looking at who you are."

Sure, it seems a wee b
it elitist. Norton Anthologies say cultured, refined, bookishly attractive. The Arden Shakespeare is for the uppity scholar, well researched, well respected, (half of every page is dedicated to footnotes and if those footnotes are highlighted and fringed with marginalia, then I'm serious about my Shakespeare). But beyond the desire to appear scholarly and well-read, the idea of bookshelves as mirrors of ourselves--our psyches, our tastes, who we are--is thrilling.

If we're being more kind than judgmental then Whitman says I'm a transcendental mystic-in-training while Hardy says I'm horribly depressed. If Dickens gestures to my future as a union rep, then Austen exposes me as a dry wit tempered by the airy dreams of a blushing romantic. Sophie Kinsella announces that I'm not a book snob and will be indulgent at will, while current subscriptions to literary magazines say I'm with it, I'm part of the contemporary scene, I know what's up and coming, hip and boundary-breaking.

Of course, that's what I'd hope for, isn't it? But really, the idea that my b
ookshelf is a mirror reflecting who I am, depends not on what others see when they look at my shelves (or even what I see), but on what happens when at a very particular moment in my life I pick a book off my shelf and read it. Like some sort of book-driven destiny, the books we read tentacle into our lives and probe at the bits that really matter. Without knowing it, we're participating in some sort of bibliotherapy where what we read helps us deal with our own problems. We might think and re-think where we are and what we're doing or we might be inspired to do what we're afraid to do. Or maybe the desire to change isn't ignited; maybe what we read beats us down into a melancholic stupor and we fester for awhile.

But the point is, something does happen. Maybe there aren't
fireworks or sweeping orchestral soundtracks to help us along, but in reading, we're living. We're doing. And ultimately, the books we read help us make sense of our lives.

Two to three times a week, I'll pop a pill in book form--a small dose of some pithy literary tidbit I've come across in the regular hum-drum hoopla of life. But once a week, I'll go for one of those incredibly invasive physical exams. Well, it's the spirit of the thing. An extended entry that reads like one of those dreaded doctor visits that leaves you
feeling exposed and vulnerable--there you are up on the exam table in a paper dress, staring warily at the stirrups. You can't lie about your weight, because those stupefying digits stare back at you in defiance--there! There's that fourth cupcake you ate last night. It's the truth and now you have to deal. And we are going to deal. Well, we'll try.

"...A book is a literary prescription put up for the benefit of someone who needs it." S.M. Crothers.

I'm standing barefoot in front of my shelves ready for a remedy. Join me!

Images: Though the original creators of these images could not be found, they were sourced from the following sites (in respective order): Gathering Books,
Chicago Free, and The Group.