Thursday, July 28, 2011

Judging By the Cover: Chris Cleave's LITTLE BEE

The cover of Chris Cleave's novel Little Bee is an excellent example of successful, targeted book marketing. I picked this book up at the airport a few months ago, on my way home from an incredible, but very exhausting trip in California. I was pretty sure I would zone out and watch an in-flight movie--in fact, I was looking forward to letting my brain slow down and melt into a media-engorged puddle.

I wasn't in the mood to read. Responsible budgeting dictated that I did not have enough funds to support another book purchase.

But there it was. Bright and coyly insistent, this tangerine cover and its whimsical silhouette smiled me a welcome hello!
It was magnetic--I couldn't help but pick it up.

The contrast of the silhouette, its curling strands of hair whirling against a citrus background is striking; the loose, calligraphic font carries a whimsical note, but has a melancholic quality that evokes some of the unsettling thematic elements of the novel. The superimposed negative (white) silhouette on the eye is charming but strangely abrupt. It's a Laura Secord white chocolate sweetly creating a void, a deadening of the human gaze.

The two silhouettes are at play, but the interplay is tension wrought and uncomfortably stirring; it's a play on the typical cameo pin that features an aristocratic head--a lovely Englishwoman with a long sloping neck, hair piled in wispy curls. Here, the dominating cameo is of a little Nigerian girl, her upturned chin evoking a steady, unrelenting focus, a restrained elegance and confidence that gives her weight and purpose. What's more, this cover image/design carries the weight of the story itself: a Nigerian refugee girl lands in the UK with nothing and collides with a white, British woman who seems to have everything. They share a life-threatening secret that binds them together in ways they did not imagine.

Astutely, the cover image connects with the first line of the book, invoking the cameo of the Queen on British currency: "Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl. Everyone would be pleased to see me coming." Like a scientist observing his human experiment, the book marketer knows what we do when we're testing out a book, when we're weighing whether or not we should actually purchase it. We flip it over, read the back, then if our interest is piqued, we read the first page. Everything connects.

The back cover of my US paperback version of the book features one of the strangest, infuriating, and ultimately successful book summaries I've come across. The back cover acts as a pitch to the reader, expressing in 250 words or less, why you should throw down your money, and then invest your time to read this book.

I wouldn't even call what appears on the back cover of Little Bee a summary--it's marketing kitsch and I'll admit rather begrudgingly that it works:

"We don't want to tell you what happens in this book.
It is a truly Special Story and we don't want to spoil it.
Nevertheless, you need to know enough to buy it, so we will just say this:

This is a story of two women. Their lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice, the kind of choice we hope you never have to face. Two years later, they meet again--and the story starts there...

Once you have read it, you'll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don't tell them what happens. The magic is in how the story unfolds."

Okay, seriously, I know. You don't have to say it. It's overkill. It's cheesy. It plays like a melodramatic voice-over prying at our dormant human emotions. It's so blatant in its attempt to get you interested, that it can be off putting. It's purposely vague, hideously peppered with cliches, yet it appeals to this basic desire in all of us to feel something, anything. In fact, it promises to deliver exactly what we want: a guaranteed good read.

This back cover gives me little to no information on what the story is about--all I know is that there's two women (two women!!! Automatic tension!), there's some sort of terrible choice (what could it possibly be???), and that when these two women meet, an amazing story unfolds. So amazing, that the book cover is written in second person--it speaks directly to me. It orders me not to reveal what happens in the book to my friends. The book is so amazing that I'll want to run out and tell everyone everything about it, plot details and all--but I shouldn't. Why? Because it's just too amazing. It would be like forcing your friend to watch the final Harry Potter movie when they haven't read/watched any of the previous books/movies.* Don't ruin it. We're in this together.

Chris Cleave's own description of his book is far better than the one they slapped on the back of the paperback, but would it have been as effective?

His narration is compelling, informative, more in tune with the themes in the book; I actually know what to expect. I'm interested and willing.

But I also consider the reach of this book--it's a #1 New York Times Bestseller--and I think part of what contributes to that success is the buzz that surrounds the book (the part of us that nudges, 'bestseller? it must be good!') and the way in which people are invited to read it. Tell someone you read a book about refugees and immigration issues and you're not going to garner interest across a wide demographic spectrum. People who already have a specific interest in the topic might ask you for more, but the reach is very limited.

It's not that people don't care about immigration issues and refugees, it's that their interest has to be accessed through a platform they understand. If you tell someone you read a book about two women who are bound together by a terrible choice, you're appealing to a curiosity that exists across boundaries and borders.
People are connected by the same hopes, fears, and desires, regardless of what demographic they fit into. Appeal to those seemingly generic themes and you make powerful connections that sell a lot of books.

And just like that, I've got another book in my suitcase.

Look for my reflection on Little Bee in the coming weeks.

Cover design: Jill Putorti

Image sources: Little Bee cover from Chris Cleave's website; cameo from Timpsonwiki.

* I only read the first HP book....and then, of my own volition, went with a friend to watch the very last installment of the films.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

MS Bike Tour: Enjoy the Ride

A few days ago I bolted out the door and went on a relatively spontaneous 10 km ride. I was high on hope and hadn't yet combined my image of a leisurely bike ride to the reality of pedaling a very heavy machine up and down hilly streets.

I was comfortable with signing up for the MS Bike-a-Thon for two reasons: (1) they advertise their event as family friendly and (2) they welcome participants on "bikes of all kinds." Family friendly is important because this implies that you don't have to be a pro athlete to participate. If there aren't any bike restrictions, I feel confident knowing that I won't feel madly out of place and horrendously unprepared on my vintage Elan amidst a set of professional riders on road bikes. I can hope that there'll be someone on a unicycle or better yet, an adult tricycle! Maybe my vision of an eclectic group of misfits riding along in brightly coloured costumes with feathers in their caps isn't accurate (how awesome would that be?!!), but still, there's the sense that even with professional riders zooming through trails, I'll be okay put-putting along on Olivia.

But to ride 30 km I've got to prepare so I thought I'd test out a route from my house to Erindale Park using a trail through the woods and a bike lane along Collegeway that leads right into UofT Mississauga and then onwards into the park. It's roughly a 10 km round trip and very scenic, so an early morning ride before the world woke up sounded so lovely.

Worry #1: As I wobble my way onto the steep and narrow entry into the ravine I envision myself losing control and wiping out: the entry is a little rough around the edges and drops off onto very uneven ground while going into a steep decline. Maybe a helmet was a good idea. And knee pads. Olivia's front wheel rides a little "squirrelly"; it's a little unpredictable and wobbles off track easily. I've gotten used to the feel but getting back on her after a lapse in riding always throws me off course--I think it's a matter of experience and with more riding won't be such an ordeal.

Worry #2: As I coast down the path and over the little wooden bridge that arcs over a brook, I slowly settle into my crisp morning ride. I take a new path that forks off to the left knowing it exits onto Erin Mills Parkway and will let me enter the trail along Burnhamthorpe Rd. Very quickly I'm gaining speed without pedaling, swerving along sharp curves. I'm going so fast that the trees look threatening and my panic rises--what if my brakes go out? What if I lose control? Why am I going so fast? Why is this path so curvy? I'm going to smack into a tree--here it comes! Except I pump my brakes and everything's fine.

Worry #3: When I finally exit the trail, I discover another dilemma. There are giant signs telling me to dismount my bike and walk it across the crosswalk. Not a big deal. I'm not so cool that I can't walk my bike. I don't care. Sure, nobody likes the safety freak who walks their bike across the road. They hold up turning vehicles like any other pedestrian; drivers point and laugh at them; children on rugged mountain bikes zip past in three seconds, but it's okay. That's what the sign says. Safety first. So I wait for the light to change and I walk my bike to the other side where the bike lane begins. As I hop onto my bike and push off, I realize that if there were cars waiting to turn right, I'd be blocking them trying to get on my bike and into the bike lane. If I had ridden across the crosswalk, I could easily weave into the lane with little disruption. The rules are killing me.

Worry #4: I make it to the next light reveling in the glory that is a dedicated bike lane when I reach the next set of lights. I need to turn left to continue down my route, but I'm not yet comfortable taking the left lane and turning like a vehicle. So I cross the intersection still in bike lane position, but have to stop awkwardly on the other side so I can wait for the light to change and cross over again. If there were cars, where would I stop? Should I dismount and cross like a pedestrian and then mount again to get into the bike lane? This feels like too much starting and stopping and not enough riding. I'm annoyed and stressed. I can't turn left like a vehicle yet because what if I'm too slow? What if the car behind me honks? What if they give me the finger?

Anyways. I'm finally in the bike lane on Collegeway and riding along the route I've dreamt of taking for months. It's through a quiet part of the city, few cars, lots of trees--and wow, I'm totally zipping down this road! This is easy!!! I'm hardly pedaling! So fast! So free! Wind whipping in my face! Sun twirling in the trees! This is what it's all about!!!

Worry #5: And then it hits me. I'm going downhill. That's why it's easy. You're not some athlete with the magical ability to bike at high speeds with little training and not an ounce of sweat. You idiot. You're going downhill, which means your 5 km route back home will be uphill the entire way. Sure, 5 km is not a whole lot. Especially on a bike. But let's not forget who we're talking about here. We're talking about me. The girl who, without fail, got hit in the face with a basketball/soccer ball/volleyball every single gym class in middle school.

Worry #6: When I reach UTM, I find the trail that leads into the park and decide to walk my bike. It's unpaved, mostly gravel, and a lot of uneven ground. My wheels are pretty skinny and I'm pretty sure I'd wipe out the first time I hit the brakes. No need to be adventurous and go "off road" yet. All in good time. On the way down, I meet a frog:

The park is shrouded in rising mist, the earthy scent of wet grass is in the air, and there's the damp of dew soaking into my shoes. The morning is glowy, the silence and emptiness thrilling. I love it here. My tree stands waiting--'how long you've left me to host the haphazard picnics of common folk' she whispers:

Olivia enjoys the view from the bridge over the Credit River:

'How pretty,' she yawns.

Worry #7: After a nice walk through the park, my sleepless night starts to kick in and I want to get back home. I bike towards Dundas, the speeding cars scaring me onto the sidewalk. Look. I know I'm not supposed to bike on the sidewalk. It's unsafe. I know. I almost fell off a bridge. Well, one wrong move and I would've gone over--poof! And I did almost wipe out: there was wet grass caught in my brakes and I wobbled. But here's the thing. I think that if you're going to bike on the road, you better know what you're doing. You better know the rules. You better know how to signal. You better have confidence. And until I've got 3/3 I'm not veering onto a road unless it's got a dedicated bike lane. Especially not Dundas. I'm also keenly aware that confidence is built through trial and error, but I'd like more trials and less errors before I endanger my life, cause an accident, or really piss someone off. I also don't want someone to give me the finger. I'd be so hurt.

Worry #8: I make it back to Collegeway and my beloved bike lane to start the arduous climb homeward. And holy moly, I am dying. I know this is because I'm unfit and haven't exercised in a while, but I'm also keenly aware that my bike is heavy. Really heavy. That's part of the charm of a vintage bike, remember? This seems so much harder than it should be. I only have three speeds and I'm determined to believe that this is fine. I WILL BE OKAY. I pedal at approximately .25 km/hour and know everyone is laughing at me. The birds in the trees, the old women in their condos, the cars passing me at lightning speed, everyone. But, I'm determined. I will make it home without stopping. I can do this.

Whatever, man. I have to pull over and stop because my legs are jelly and I think I might die. So there I am, standing on the side of the road, chugging water like I just ran a marathon, except I didn't. I'm such a disappointment. By the time I reach Erin Mills and Burnhamthorpe, I have to walk my bike up the sidewalk because I can't pedal any longer. The bike feels like a dead weight and until I reach the bike path that zooms down a hill and into the woods, I'm not getting back on my bike.

Once I reach the path, I zip and zap through the woods and think if I keep doing this, if I keep worrying about every rule I could potentially break or every person who could point me out and say 'there's that girl who doesn't know what she's doing' or if I make myself bike 5 km uphill before I'm ready, if I don't pause and just enjoy the ride I'm going to hate this, and I'm going to fail.

So here's to letting the wind whistle through a mind empty of worries and what-ifs--we're going to make it Olivia, you just wait and see.

To support me and my team in the MS Bike Tour, please visit my personal donation page.

Any donation is appreciated!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Out of the Cave and into the Light

It's 6 AM on a Friday and I haven't slept yet. I've spent the night marking assignments and as the glow through my curtains grows ever brighter, I start to prep myself to turn in. I have an evening class tonight and no other commitments, so I can sink into sleep guilt free and oblivious.

Except the guilt is always tugging my stomach into knots; I know my schedule is haphazard and unproductive and there isn't a day that goes by where I don't wonder why I can't just pull myself together.

Night: the isolation and silence it brings is a simultaneous source of solace and desperate anxiety. I've functioned on the theory that my creativity peaks at 3 AM when the first bird of the morn starts trilling from the pine tree outside my window. After hours of sitting alone in my room staring at a largely blank word document, that first sweet warble careening through the thick silence of a suffocating night sets off a panic button in my brain. What have you done? What have you accomplished? Another wasted night? Do something. Do something! And then out of plain desperation I'm suddenly focused and everything is razor sharp; all the mind wandering of the night suddenly connects into an electrified purging of productivity. I like what I see appearing on the screen before me and in a while go to bed on a bit of a foggy high. I'm not useless. I can do things.

But this hasn't happened in a long time. More often than not, I go to bed with a dead weight in my chest because I know I've wasted yet another night. Call it avoidance, my inability to focus, jitters, fear, lack of discipline, the last curve in a downward spiral--whatever it is, it leaves me with the bitter, bitter taste of waste--and without fail, the sense that I'm a little bit hopeless.

But still, as I doze off I always think, tomorrow, tomorrow things will be different.

So it's 6 AM on a Friday and yet again, I haven't stuck to my hopeful schedule and have dug myself into a world of marking hell. All I want to do is swivel the fan toward my face, slip under the covers, and just sleep. Already I hear myself saying that tomorrow will be different. Tomorrow I'll mark responsibly, happily even. Tomorrow will be the beginning of a new day and I'll ride out in glory because tomorrow doesn't have the stench of failure; tomorrow is bright and sweet.

I click on the song "The Cave" in my playlist to help me exert the last bit of energy needed to pack up my papers and set everything I need by the door so that when I wake up, I'll need minimal brain power to get myself ready and out of the house. It's a song by a band a friend introduced to me a short time ago and I've played it a few times and enjoyed it, but as I stand there about to kick open my comforter, everything suddenly makes every bit of brilliant sense.

The video for the song features band members riding around on motorbikes/vespas somewhere in India and the image--the bright heat, the bikes curving along dirt roads in a golden haze--it's visual freedom. It's suffocating in anger and bitterness, fault and blame--and then breaking free and screaming in/for hope. It sounds repulsively melodramatic, but feels achingly real and true.

And I think, 'why not now? Why can't tomorrow be now?'

Call it a sleepless high, but in moments I'm changing out of my pajamas into my everyday clothes and heaving my bike out the door. I need this resurgence to be physical, representative, but physical; I want the morning to hit my face and make me feel like I'm flying; I want to literally ride out into glory. The glory of doing things, of beginning. Tomorrow can begin right now.

And so I slam the door shut, hop on my bike, and go.

Image: Taken on my Lumix on July 15th, 2011 at Erindale Park.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Everybody Hates Middle School: My Story Girls

When I was 13, more than anything, I wanted to be a governess. Oh, to lord lovingly over a flock of grubby children dressed in their sepia-drenched breeches and frocks, all ruddy cheeks and scuffed shoes--the idea was addictive and I spent hours play-acting my way through the role.

I was a lonely teen. I binged on novels by L.M. Montgomery and spent a lot of time alone in the forest. Montgomery's stories of imaginative young girls--always sensitive and strong willed (like myself, I liked to believe)--creating vivid worlds out of words, just words, fed this intense desire of mine to escape, to get away from the static buzz of middle school drama into a world where I made friends with the moon, talked to the trees, and believed I could wish myself into a time and place where I belonged.

This may have been one of the loneliest periods of my life, but I remember it as being the happiest. I read so much that I think I half floated my way to and from school, drenched in this euphoric optimism, this insistence to look at everything--dandelions and pine trees, pebbles and cracks in the pavement--as something hopeful, something beautiful. I was fueled by passages from Montgomery's work that read like odes to nature--I wanted to see the world as beautifully as her characters did. I must have sensed the underlying melancholy in her works, because looking back, it was just so fitting--bright hopes budding in the face of cloudy realities.

I was drawn to books about young girls becoming young women--Little Women, Good Wives, Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, Emily of New Moon--and relished the idea of taking care of little ones, of telling them stories, of keeping everything in order. I suppose I welcomed the responsibility, the control over spheres of happiness--I could be in charge of a child's experience of the world, make sure things were as bright and hopeful as I imagined they could be, as I knew they should be.

At 13, I started a weekend job as a Sunday school teacher at the local mosque. It was the last thing I wanted to do at the time (seriously, waking up before noon on a weekend?). But more importantly, I had horrific memories of Sunday school as a child--chaotic roomfuls of screaming kids, screaming teachers, and pages of Arabic I had failed to memorize--everything was absolutely terrifying. But my father's insistence that I 'do something good' combined with the fact that there was no one else who wanted to take the job, lead to my reign as Queen of a bunch of 4 to 9 year olds every Sunday at 9 AM.

Once I had the job, I recognized my power. I could be Jo from Little Women (and later, Little Men) who grew up and ran a private school for forlorn little boys; I could be Polly from Peppers who cheerily took care of her brothers and sisters in their little brown house; I could be Sara from The Story Girl and tell these kids one amazing story after another. Most of all, I wanted to make sure their experience of Sunday school was vastly different from mine--I wanted them to look forward to this class, not fake headaches, stomachaches, aches of every kind, so they could avoid what I remembered as an unpleasant experience.

And so I was enthusiastic. I taught them their alifs, bas, and tas with vigorous smiles and emphatic hand gestures. We played games, had story time, and threw parties. Islamic history turned into playacting which turned into "adventure walks" into the fields behind the mosque. I was insistent that these kids have a good time. The connection to Prophetic stories may have been tenuous; leading very small children through shoulder-height grasses in back fields being prepped for construction was mildly dangerous; but, I was on a mission. The world of fantasy I lived in half the time was transpiring into something real and I wasn't going to let go.

In retrospect, my reliance on fictive worlds where girls wielded incredible creative powers may have been a sign of my own inner struggles as a misfit, but even more, these story girls served as sources of strength and confidence. I could take the magic of their world and weave it into my own. I could find solace within pages where there were girls like me. I was happy being the weird girl who wore funny clothes and talked to trees--I didn't want to be anyone else.

The images are the book covers that I recognize from my youth. I still get the same thrills and chills just looking at them now: Little Women from Scholastic and Emily Climbs from Tower Books.