Thursday, September 20, 2012

Love, Los Angeles: The Last Bookstore

Visiting The Last Bookstore on South Spring Street in Los Angeles is like stepping into a fairytale. When one of the clerks at Skylight Books learned I was exploring independent bookstores during my stay, he recommended I visit this new-and-used bookstore located downtown. His description was a little cryptic--he told me it was pretty magical and that there were two floors with lots of books upstairs. I thought, okay--great. Two floors. Books upstairs. Magical. That's nice, right? 

I walked three miles from my cousin's apartment in Koreatown and arrived blistered and breathless at the entrance. The security guy tucked my backpack into a cubby and told me to enjoy myself. He seemed genuinely excited to see me and even more thrilled when I told him it was my first visit. You know a place is special when the security crew are smiling about it. 

And then I stepped inside. Maybe it's because I've been boxed away in the big box chain store world of Chapters-Indigo and Barnes and Noble--the gloss of these stores are shiny and appealing, but also sterile, the uniformity and efficiency busying me into a mode of comatose book buying--but, from the moment I stepped into The Last Bookstore I felt like I was unraveling some great mystery, as if I had stepped into some secret world where bright-eyed bookish people gather to frolic. 

The store's sky-high ceilings and rows of white columns speak to its architectural origins--the building, called the Spring Arts Tower, was built in 1914 and housed the Citizens' Bank. There are old leather arm chairs, worn and torn, soft and deep, along with velvet backed claw-foot chairs that look like they're from 1930s Hollywood hotels. These are set up against columns, people sinking in, heads bowed, books splayed across knees.

Sky-high ceilings

Who perched on this chair and had their afternoon tea before it made its way to book heaven decades later?

A distinguished library chair. Also the most appropriate place to smoke a cigar.
A tattered, but lovely reading chair and ottoman.

Upstairs, there are thousands of books, all on sale for $1. When you're up there, you really feel like you've fallen down the rabbit hole. You're in a labyrinth of books, strange little art installations tucked into hidden corners, as if this is an old curiosity shop--which in many ways it is. An elderly gentleman, cap and all, shelves endless carts of books and offers a multitude of historical tidbits when asked. He tells us that "unfortunately" they do have children's books--far too many. An entire back room overflows with them, bright paperbacks slipping haphazardly off shelves that wind back and forth and round and round, never ending.

Looking up
Looking down through an art installation (apologies to the artist--I did not write down your name!)
Photo Credit: Aditi Mahmud
Through the rabbit hole! Photo Credit: Aditi Mahmud

Their science fiction collection is housed in what used to be the bank's vault. An actual, bolts, combination, straight from the movies vault. If you get trapped inside, the original notice on how to ensure a nice flow of oxygen while you wait patiently for help, is posted in the window--the paper is yellowed, the typeface faded and it very clearly indicates that the vault cannot be opened from the inside.

The text reads:
Procedures to follow if accidently [sic] locked in the vault

The wheel located directly above the vault door should be turned as far to the left as possible. Pull wheel and attached spindle out.
This leaves a small opening through which air may come into vault. It also may be used to communicate with out-side the vault.
It is not possible to open the vault door from the inside.

The store regularly hosts readings, musical events, lectures, and other "unforeseen combinations" accepting applications from the public on a quarterly basis. They also feature art installations by local artists and display them throughout the store.

Bicycle wheels!

I couldn't figure this one out--but something was happening inside a birdcage.

A table--with pipes for legs!
It's all about the decor. Photo Credit: Aditi Mahmud.

One of the things I truly loved about this store was how new and used books are placed side by side on the same shelves. If you go looking for a book, you're likely to find the used version sitting alongside a new copy of the same title. Of course they make a profit on the used books they sell, I wouldn't expect anything else. But even so, the focus seems to be on the dissemination of books, rather than simply selling for the most significant profit. And look, I am an avid book buyer--it's the one thing I will readily buy guilt free, money gone in seconds. I think the publication industry needs readers to buy books and I think we should buy them. I just feel that a store that puts reading at the forefront and makes it more financially accessible deserves plenty of accolades. 

There's a genuine feeling that this store is an informed participant in the larger literary and cultural community of Los Angeles. It's part of the culture and in many ways defines it, but it also cultivates it and takes an active role in promoting and fostering a healthy book culture and community. I think this, in the best way possible, describes what a bookstore should aim to be: a dynamic, constantly evolving community hub where words and ideas fuel a cycle of creativity.

 Even for a few brief hours, I liked being a part of that.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Love, Los Angeles: Skylight Books

I visited Skylight Books on N. Vermont Ave on a warm, breezy Tuesday evening after I had just finished reading Simon Van Booy's short story collection Love Begins in Winter. I didn't know how much I needed to read work like his--stories that shatter your heart and then very calmly and tenderly, piece it back together again. I don't want to call these fairy tales, but they have that frail spirit of bringing into fruition what you didn't think was ever possible. His stories are emotionally honest--lines press at the deepest part of your psyche and you think how true they are, how they pinpoint the most fleeting moments of recognition.

Once I finished reading, I wanted more stories. I wanted more secret entryways into the lives of people I didn't know--strangers flitting past me on downtown streets into the muddle of their own tragedies. I wanted to reach out and brush my fingertips against theirs, maybe sit on a park bench and hold their hand for awhile. Short stories make this possible. And now that I had finished a collection that had been a companion to me for weeks, I needed something to replace the void.

I looked up independent bookstores in LA and Skylight Books came up over and over again--reviews said what I wanted to hear: the people at Skylight know their books. I wanted to walk in and ask someone to give me a book they were passionate about. In my mind, it played out like a scene from a movie: I walk in, brow knitted with sweat from the dizzying Los Angeles heat and the clerk at the front desk offers me a deep, knowing nod. Soon, we're mired in passionate conversation about words and stories and the power of forging onward and upward and then there it is: their eyes light up like signal fires, fingertips brush against my elbow, they lean in close--and urgently press a book into my hands.

It didn't happen quite like this, but my experience at Skylight Books was more than fulfilling. Located on a quiet street lined with dimly lit restaurants bursting with flushed diners who spill happily onto patios late into the evening, the store has a communal vibe. Open late (everyday 10am to 10pm), it really does feel like the "neighborhood bookstore" where you stop off to pick up a book as if you were picking up a jug of milk from the dusty convenience store on the corner.  Their calendar boasts readings, signings, and discussions almost every night and I felt a little forlorn that I didn't live in LA so I could be a member of their "friends with benefits" club that offers discounts and access to special events. 

One of the gentlemen at Skylight spotted me staring blankly at shelves of books and when he asked if he could help, I pounced. I'd been waiting for just the thing. When I told him I wanted to discover a new short story collection, he spent the next ten minutes combing through the store putting together a reading buffet for me. He piled the books on the table  and went through them explaining his choices and giving me mini histories on each author. He shared collections he was currently reading, gave me a sense of writing styles, and shared authors he hadn't read, but heard great things about. He offered collections from the canon, newly launched books, as well as local Los Angeles writers. And to think that when I'd walked in, the first thing I'd looked for was a computer terminal so I could conduct my own antisocial search. Such a hermit.

From the buffet, I purchased Aimee Bender's Willful Creatures and Haruki Murakami's Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.  Bender's stories have so far succeeded in creeping me out and making me cry (in that disconcerting, oh my goodness the ants are eating my skin from the inside kind of way)--and I suppose this is both a good and bad thing. I have to give it a fair chance before I wilt away completely. I'm looking forward to Murakami's work and am grateful for Skylight's helpful and diverse suggestions.

Read on, minions. Read on.

Mythical Skylight Cat


I must say that the best thing about this bookstore is that it has its own cat. She preens and stalks about like she owns the place. I think she probably does own the place. Isn't every bookstore owned by a cat?

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Love, Los Angeles: Walking the streets

My favourite palm lined streets in Los Angeles have dozens of dusty corner cafes, pupusa shops, thrift stores selling electric blue lamé leggings for $1, and mini malls blaring salsa and merengue tracks from speakers hidden behind mural slathered walls. There are very old men dressed in crisp white shirts hunched over ice cream carts, tailor shops with sewing machines whirring in bright slats of sun, tiny shops with cardboard signs announcing Tomales! in thin strokes of red paint.  

There's a thin, small woman waiting at the bus stop outside a grocery store and she looks stern--her hair is pulled back so tight, it could be scalp, and her vibrant blue eyeshadow strokes up against her thin, arched brows. And there's a man, very tall and robust, his arms full of odd shaped packages, his mouth puddling into a frown because he's irritated--the older woman he is with (his mother? his aunt?) wants to take one more look, in one more shop. There are two men carrying chairs--they have that energetic push in their step that tells you they are not from around here, because yes, they're white and yes, they're antiquing. If you're from around here, you are waiting for the bus, or you are walking with a steady gait to the food mart with a portable buggy, your kids have backpacks sweating up against their small necks, barrettes snapped tight over dollar store hair extensions--one pink, one blue--and you have the weight of life slowing you down.

But there's this energy beating up against the soles of your sandals, a syncopated beat flicking off the uneven pavement and you know that whatever it is that makes you love this city is right here, striding along with you, heating you up and making you go on, earnest and true.

"Los Angeles" by Shht! (m.caimary)

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Stepping into the fray

Not all at once now, but after a month-long reprieve from the machinery of the everyday, I've started to slip my toes back into the sun. Our minds don't allow for complete dislocation--it seems almost impossible to snap the rope that tethers you to the life you live each day, mostly mindless, limbs in motion. But if my mind is clogged, frenetic, and always at unrest, there is the driven escape of reading a book--it can do for me what longing and willpower cannot. In the past month, I have read and read and read and in the thrilling safety of other minds found yes, the expected escape, the quiet of being out of my own head, but also the gentle, even frail reappearance of will, of the grit needed to go on. 

A Happy Birthday
This evening, I sat by an open window
and read till the light was gone and the book
was no more than a part of the darkness. 
I could easily have switched on a lamp, 
but I wanted to ride this day down into night,
to sit alone and smooth the unreadable page 
with the pale gray ghost of my hand.
- Ted Kooser 

"Fading Light" by mRio

Friday, June 15, 2012

Simon Van Booy's "The Reappearance of Strawberries"

In "The Reappearance of Strawberries" a dying man inhales the scent of strawberries and thinks of a woman he loved. This--the inhalation of that ruddy sweet scent of strawberries set in a bowl by his bedside--is the pivot point for the entire story. Gently, haltingly, the man inhales and the story unfolds, the memory inextricably linked to this specific sensory detail.

This link between smell and memory, and perhaps more significantly, emotion, is a powerful storytelling device. Smells trigger memory and the emotions attached to that memory can come flooding back with just one breath. When we're standing in one point in time and suddenly, with just a slight change in the notes of the air we breathe, we're standing in another, the feelings we've experienced in the past becoming real again in our present, the rhythm of one story infringing--or perhaps complementing and enriching--the thread of another.

For me, there's a certain scent associated with October and the night before Hallowe'en. It's this sharp  crisp air edged against this soft, yellowy light of late day. It feels like things are going to happen--and it can be late June or early Spring and it's always the same--I'll step outside and if I catch that edge, I'm eight years old again peeking out from behind curtains, lights turned off inside to sway trick-or-treaters, watching kids in cat ears and pumpkin outfits travel in multi-coloured clumps across the pavement. 

When moments like that happen--when a story from the past collides with my present, I always wonder why and grapple with whether it's supposed to mean something. We can emerge singed from difficult relationships and weeks, maybe even months later when we think we're whole again, something--a song, the smell of wet pavement, the play of light against a thick leaf in the garden--will drive that story into our present, offering it up again as some sort of trick. 

This collision of memory with the lives we wake up to each day is a purposeful method for telling a story. We can try to make meaning, or find it--the friction between our parallel lives is constantly urging us to consider and then reconsider where we are and what we've come to know. There is rarely that fulfilling release that comes in the form of epiphany or meaningful realization--nothing as easy or sweet as that and I've learned not to expect it. But I think it's something better, the real sense that something has to be lived and perhaps formed into narrative--even if just to ourselves, and in that offering up of a fragment of memory, we are being urged to simply live through it, let it be. Allow it to come, let it go, and see what can be made of it--if anything at all.

"Light effect" by John Ward

Monday, May 21, 2012

Simon Van Booy on Writing Alone

In this clip, writer Simon Van Booy comments on writing alone:

Van Booy mentions his need to be in the presence of some movement outside of himself when writing if only to remind himself that he is not alone. This external movement can help Van Booy remove himself from the bubble of solitary existence that is a writer's life. This ripple of external movement is not simply an antidote for a writer's loneliness; it is a necessary lifting of the fog to breathe the freshness of life outside your own mind. Perhaps this inhalation of the outside isn't fresh or inspiring, (it can be) but in some way it invigorates. It clarifies the muddiness of spending hours, sometimes days in solitude.

This solitary existence, living inside the story, or within a single sentence is in every way necessary--to be sequestered from the movement and colour of life so whatever has gummed itself into a solid thud in your brain can be released by a clean, stimulation free environment--empty of even the gentlest of requests from family, of roommates, of the insistence of phones, of other voices, of other people breathing. The freedom of being alone makes the brain unfold, allows you to simply focus, the necessity of living removed for a few quiet hours. The power of solitary creation is only possible after a period of accumulation, time spent living, observing, being in the world. And in the same way, the hours spent alone begin to lose their effectiveness if a ripple of movement outside the self is not permitted. 

Van Booy mentions a mirror--you write and when you look up, there's another person trying to write, just like you. The mirror is also a reflection of the writer in action--there you are doing what you should be doing, it's you taking your place in the world, living as a part of it. And in the same way, simply getting up and opening the door, staring at the blueness of the sky, the brightness of green against that blue--even this brief interlude, infraction, is enough to let yourself retreat back inside yourself, into the solitary business of getting things on the page.

"Leaves" by AuntNett

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Nine Glorious Questions: Aga Maksimowska

Author Spotlight

An interview with author Aga Maksimowska. Her first novel, Giant, launches this month from Pedlar Press.


1. Tell us about your debut novel, Giant.

This is a really long story, but the short of it is that this book has been my education in writing stories and crafting a novel. It’s been a long haul: six years from start to finish, a very irregular six years mind you.

It started as an exercise in a continuing education fiction workshop I took at the University of Toronto. Helen Humphreys was the instructor. She was incredibly supportive of the story I had to tell, of the voice I was trying to establish, and of the world I was attempting to create, so I continued. She gave me the courage to even think that I could one day pen a novel. A novel! It was originally a story about the friendship between two young girls and the effects distance had on it.

I gathered momentum when I revisited the project in the Master of Creative Writing program at the University of Guelph. I worked on it during a summer mentorship with Camilla Gibb and decided that it would become my thesis. This book has had many incarnations, several titles, and like every novel, a gazillion edits. It was at its heaviest at nearly 300 pages and at its skinniest at about 180. I’m really happy with what it is today and I have my editor and publisher, Beth Follett, to thank for Giant’s latest metamorphosis.

2. You also write creative non-fiction. How does your writing process change when you’re dealing with “factual” events? Do you suddenly find yourself more vigilant, more indebted to the “truth”?

I haven’t thought about it in terms of “truth” before, but I do know it feels viscerally different writing non-fiction from fiction. Monica Ali once wrote in an issue of The Atlantic magazine on this very topic. The following line really resonated with me: “Non-fiction…is essential in uncovering the lies. But it is fiction that reveals the truth.” I feel more vulnerable writing non-fiction. There is more disclosure, and therefore fear of being judged. And yes, I suppose I am more vigilant about facts when writing non-fiction, and accuracy of course, but that’s the journalist in me. I feel freer when I’m writing fiction. It’s more fun. You really get to lose yourself in the world you’re creating. It’s all about the story and those characters and what they need. [See Monica Ali's article, here.]

3. What inspires you? Or, on the other hand, what bores you?

I bore myself. I recently saw an editorial cartoon on Facebook depicting a stick figure walking toward a giant pit. In the pit was the word INTERNET; on the other side of the pit the words Your life’s goals. That encapsulates how I feel when I bore myself. I think, ‘What the hell are you doing with your nonsensical rotation of checking Facebook, Gmail, Hotmail, work e-mail, The Globe and Mail, The New York Times, People magazine, etc., several times a day? What on earth do you think you will find there?!’ The Internet bores me, hinders me, infuriates me. Don’t get me wrong: I also love a lot about the Internet. What I’m trying to illustrate is that I bore myself when I succumb to the pitfalls of the Internet.

Good writing inspires me. I keep a notebook on my bedside so that I can jot down lines of amazing writing that I come across when I’m reading. I jot things down often, and then reflect on them, and wonder how I can become that good at writing.

4. What authors/works have been the most influential in your own writing?

Since I can be very literal, both in my writing and in my temperament, Arundhati Roy, Helen Humphreys, James Baldwin and Jhumpa Lahiri have been instrumental in teaching me how to inject poetry into prose and how to create worlds in novels that leave an emotional imprint on the reader. Jeffrey Eugenides, Jamaica Kincaid, Camilla Gibb, Lawrence Hill and Heather O’Neill have influenced me in terms of first-person narrative (which I find more difficult than third-person); their works have served as examples of how to capture a unique voice for the narrator of my novel.

5. Describe your favourite meal.

I’m going to expose myself here: Food is one of my greatest loves and a picky eater I am not. I’ve had too many favourite meals to count. Ask my husband. He’d tell you my morning steel cut oats with banana or blueberries and my cup of green tea is my favourite meal. There is nothing better than someone making a meal for me and sharing with me his or her love of food. Some of my most memorable and most cherished meals have been: my husband and my brother surprising me with a lunch of black bean burritos and key lime tarts for my birthday; my grandmother’s blueberry turnovers every single time she made them; sizzling garlic prawns in a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Barrio Alto in Lisbon with my friend Aviva; mutton kebabs at Karim’s in Old Delhi… I could spend this entire interview describing my favourite meals.

6. Tell us about a book that resonated with you as a child/teen.

The first English-language novel I read was in grade 7. It was called Copper Sunrise by an author named Bryan Buchan and it blew me away. I couldn’t stop thinking about that book for years. I still wrote poems and made art inspired by it in grade 12. The book was about the Beothuk genocide on the East Coast of Canada. I was incredibly moved by the story and the prose and outraged by the historical injustice. Predictably, this was not the Canadian First Nations People narrative that I was exposed to in Poland as a child. The Hollywood myth of Cowboys and Indians was my education. So imagine how stunned I was when I read this book about the early days of colonization. I must re-read it… 

7. Can you offer three tips for writers seeking to balance their writing life with the practical necessity of having a day job?

a) Stop feeling badly about not writing every day. Set up a routine for yourself and follow it.  Maybe you write on Saturday and Sunday mornings before the rest of the family wakes up? That’s just fine. Don’t let people tell you you’re not a writer because you don’t write every day. You might not be a full-time writer, but you’re a writer.

b) Set up deadlines for yourself to get your project done. Sometimes external motivators like contest or grant submission deadlines help. Use those to your advantage.

c) Kill two birds with one stone whenever possible. I teach high-school English and whenever my kids write for ten or fifteen minutes, I write too. (OK, maybe not every time they write because sometimes I need to take attendance or reply to six emails, but often I write with them.) 

8. What are you reading right now?

I’m reading Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson (which I am loving and marveling at the odd similarities between it and Giant), the May issue of The Walrus magazine (my favourite Heather O’Neill has written a brilliant non-fiction piece on growing up White Trash), and a whole bunch of baby books on sleep, development, feeding, etc.

9. Describe your writing space and why it works for you.

The Robarts Library at the University of Toronto is my favourite writing space when I have a project on the go. The mainfloor reading room, which is clad in ugly brown and red ‘70s décor is where I go. There is nothing beautiful or inspiring to look at so you don’t get distracted and as a result you get down to work. I used to have an office, but now it’s the baby’s room. It’s way more functional and productive as the baby’s room. [See Deconstructed City's spooky analysis of Robarts Library here.]

    Wednesday, May 2, 2012

    Russell Banks' "Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story"

    "NOT my prince charming" by Dawn Huczek

    In "Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story," an incredibly handsome narrator relates an unusual experiment where he pursues a relationship with a woman--Sarah Cole--simply because she is incredibly ugly. It's an engrossing read that uses a thoroughly self-conscious first person narration that doubles back upon itself, checking, clarifying and re-imagining what the reader has come to accept as fact. This kind of incessant rumination and re-imagining of things known is fitting for a story that author Russell Banks says was inspired by an urge to re-tell the "The Frog Prince" story from a male perspective.

    He says:
    John Gardner advised retelling the old stories, probably the best of all the advice he gave, and he gave plenty. That was for me the genesis of the story, a sort of formal 'what if...?' I simply plugged into the story the details of the world I happened to live in at the time, and of course reversed the gender dynamic of the story, and wrote it to see not what my story meant, but what the old 'original' story meant. It's how we come to know ourselves finally--by figuring out what our old stories really mean.1
    This of course lends itself quite nicely to a writing exercise--retelling old stories by changing one integral element and depositing elements of the world you know into the world of the story you think you know. By employing the methods that Banks mentions--using details of the world you live in to help you explore the framework of a story that has already been told, and in this case, the retelling of a story that is hinged on magic as a plot device, you create a fable-like quality in stories that have mainly realist foundations. This is accomplished in "Sarah Cole" with an ending that conflates the two worlds, magical transformation made real and believable, the revelation at the end not 'magical' in the typical way, but surprising and cathartic.

    1 Rooke, C., and Rooke, L. (1997). Conversation with Russell Banks. In C. Rooke and L. Rooke (Eds.), The Writer's Path: An Introduction to Short Fiction (pp. 892-895). Toronto, ON: International Thompson Publishing.

    Tuesday, April 24, 2012

    Notes on Writing: Keep it Simple

    From the chapter "Simplicity" in William Zinsser's (2001) On Writing Well:

    "...the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that's already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what--these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence" (p. 8).

    And so...

    "How can the rest of us achieve such enviable freedom from clutter? The answer is to clear our heads of clutter. Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can't exist without the other. It's impossible for a muddy thinker to write good English. He may get away with it for a paragraph or two, but soon the reader will be lost, and there's no sin so grave, for the reader will not easily be lured back" (p. 9).

    "Calm Waters" by Andrew E. Larsen.

    Wednesday, April 18, 2012

    The Lizzie Bennet Diaries

    Hank Green of the incredibly smart Youtube duo, vlogbrothers, announced his newest project this week: "The Lizzie Bennet Diaries." Described as a "vlog-based adaptation of Pride and Prejudice," Green explains he started the project out of a desire to create something new and unique for the world of new media.

    This involved taking an existing work--in this case, a work of literature--and adapting it to be suitable for online video. He chose
    Pride and Prejudice because its dialogue heavy content and strong character arcs make it ideal for the immediacy and vibrancy that online media offers its audience. Further, these elements also make it possible to place less importance on elaborate sets, costumes, or scenery, and focus more on the development of character and the creation of modern dialogue that evokes the witty, quick cadence that Austen mastered.

    In this very modern adaptation, Lizzie is a Mass Communications student vlogging about her family as a personal exercise and experiment. She's teamed up with her best friend Charlotte Liu, a film student, and together they create weekly videos where Lizzie gives very animated renditions of her current family drama. Short, snappy, and punctuated with a slight sardonic edge, Lizzie's three-minute "slice of life" vlogs have the quick witted friendly vibe of those infamous super-fast chats from the Gilmore Girls, but also the immediacy and depth required of both the subject matter and the medium.

    The creators have opted to cut the two youngest sisters, Kitty and Mary, from the cast choosing instead to feature the more pivotal sisters, Jane and Lydia. Poor Kitty and Mary were probably deemed unnecessary to the development of the story, but having this adaptation fit the "norms" of the modern day nuclear family probably also played a role. While large families of five children (or more!) may have been commonplace in the Regency period, they are less common now (though not non-existent!).

    Cutting Kitty is easy enough (no one likes the whiny, petulant child in the family), but I'm afraid cutting Mary may have robbed the adaptation of some rich material. I would have loved to see a modern version of an overly moral, straight-laced teen set alongside the "slutty" Lydia. The modern Mary could have also served as a means of a refreshing new reading--maybe her moral inclinations surface in incessant preaching about the global economy and the unfair distribution of wealth--the kind of moralist who will, with the purest of intentions, point out that the chocolate bar you're eating is made from cocoa beans that were not produced under fair-trade conditions. Mary just has so much potential.

    In any case, the second episode gives us our first glimpse of Jane and oh, she's perfect. Jane appears to be a fashion intern serving countless cups of coffee and claiming that it's "the price of the industry." Ah, sweet, unassuming Jane. The casting for this production has thus far, been spotless.

    I'm curious to see how the series handles the rest of the cast--will Bingley (Bing Lee) and Darcy ever appear on camera? If so, how will
    that happen? Lizzie is after all, vlogging from her bedroom. I'm also really trying to figure out what the modern day equivalent of shamefully running away with a man, unmarried, will be. Nothing is really sacred anymore, so it will be interesting to see what the writers use as the Lydia-induced plot point that threatens ruin for the Bennets. Lastly, I'm especially looking forward to the dark, wretched moments where Lizzie can grieve into the camera. Confessionals are nothing new in the vlog world, but a Lizzie Bennet moment of truth is something to really savour.

    While eight episodes have already been filmed, there are three episodes currently available for viewing on the LizzieBennet channel on YouTube. Creation of episodes beyond these original eight are dependent on the success of the series--a large audience makes ad revenue possible and funding available. So go on, watch!

    Friday, April 13, 2012

    Dear Diary #1: Constructive Criticism

    An entry from my diary circa 1997 expresses the well known trauma of receiving criticism on a piece of writing we believe has been misunderstood. We were told to write descriptive paragraphs for our Grade 7 Language class and my teacher had some suggestions that did not go over well:

    Saturday, January 11th, 1997


    Something terrible happened to me when I went to school the other day. You see, I had to write a descriptive paragraph about anything for a school assignment. I wrote about rain. I love rain. I wrote a verse where it goes like this --

    the rain peletted
    down to the bold
    concrete and it washed
    over me, it enchanted me.

    I admit it certainly isn't my best, but my teacher put question marks where I wrote "bold concrete" and "enchanted me," and she corrected my spelling for pelleted. She changed it to pelted. I understand she did it for my own good, but concrete is bold! People walk, tramp, and jump on it, ride, run and skid across it, and it still remains. So wouldn't the concrete be brave, bold, then? I know it is.

    I was really angry when she put a question mark next to enchanted me. Has she ever felt the rain? Has she ever really felt it? Has she heard it whisper secrets to her, laugh and sing to her? No. No, she hasn't. Everyone tries to escape the rain. They run from it. They hurry and shut their doors on it. But don't they know the rain is there to cheer them up? To sing and to laugh with them? To share secrets and tell stories to them? Do they know? NO! That is why the rain enchants me. That is why.

    Why did she change peletted to pelted? I like peletted. Peletted is like -- rushing, hurrying, zooming, rapidly! Pelted is like sharp, hard, unforgiving. Doesn't she understand? I guess not.

    Diagnosis: an acute case of hypersensitivity and resistance to criticism. But also a very firm sense of creative vision and JUSTICE.

    Wednesday, April 4, 2012

    Book Abuse: The Trauma of Dog-eared pages

    I'm currently reading The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Vishwanathan, a big, fat book with many pages. It belongs to The Duchess who is generous to a fault with lending items from her personal library--too generous because some of her books/dvds have been sadly classified as Missing In Action in a forever, full stop, plan the funeral kind of way. I tell her book kidnappers need to be banned from her library, but she persists, her eyes glaring it's for the greater good as she shucks books at gluttonous readers left and right. Guests leave her house cheeks rosy, guts paunchy, dragging bags of books behind them.

    My shelves house an entire section of books that belong to The Duchess. This is okay, she tells me, because my books have also taken up residence on her shelves. She likes it that way; we have interchangeable book collections, transient volumes that are at home wherever they happen to reside -- the "what's mine is yours" ideal.

    This would be fine except for the fact that I treat what's "mine" very badly. I'm a book wrecker. I like my books to feel like they've been read. My books are like shoes; I break them in. This means I deliberately crack spines before I've even started reading. I like to warm them up before I sink in. I love that satisfying, creaky paper-moan--it's like I'm cracking book knuckles and it feels so good. I read through paperbacks, covers folded back--and even try to fold back hardcovers so I can snuggle down deep. If it's a good book, I'll roll it up like a newspaper and feel it warm into the curve of my hands. I flip through the pages with my thumb and mess 'em up until the sharp-cut edge of paper is worn and feathered. Through the course of one reading, the book and I become one.

    If I'm reviewing a book, I massacre it with notes in the end pages and margins, my scrawling, unreadable handwriting jamming through the text, oblivious and self-important. If I'm snacking while reading, no napkins are needed. Peanutbutter smears, smashed up bits of chocolate, and flowery drops of juice texturize my book pages, every flip of a page a glimpse into the delights of my appetite.

    Book jackets never make it through an entire read. They are annoying and disruptive. I slide them off and they tumble to my bedroom floor, crushed beneath the roll of my desk chair, kicked under piles of unwashed laundry never to be seen again.

    But, as I recently learned through a series of panicked texts between The Duchess and I, the most deplorable act of book wreckage I practice is the brutish habit of dog-earing pages. She likes her pages straight and clean, no obnoxious, unruly dents.

    My room is littered with forlorn bookmarks all gifted to me by well-meaning friends who don't understand how unnatural and disruptive it is for me to have to slide a strip of paper in and out of my pages every time I read. I will start with good intentions, all civilized and proper, a lovely embellished bookmark tucked into my book and carefully set aside while I daintily flip pages...but then the bookmark is lost in the folds of my duvet, or has fallen under the bed, or is crushed beneath me, or is trampled by spiders and I simply cannot be bothered to worry about where it went and what I'll do without it.

    I'm an aggressive dog-earer. I will fold pages right in half if there's a passage I want to come back to later. I'm not discriminating either--I will fold both top and bottom corners and will even commit double folds on those rare, but special occasions.

    But when The Duchess informed me that this was the one and only thing* she could not endure her books to suffer, I realized I had to reform--at least when I was reading one of her books, which is in fact, a lot of the time. So I found a bookmark. It was adorned with pressed flowers. It had a crimson tassel.

    The Toss of a Lemon is a very big, very fat book. I am enjoying it. The bookmark is still there. But I am in pain. I feel as if I've been put in restraints. Sometimes I can't breathe properly. I will admit that I do feel a bit more refined. I think I even sit up a little straighter when I read with my bookmark. I am suddenly respectable, me and my pressed flower bookmark settling down for an evening read.

    BUT TAKE HEED: I am doing everything I can to stop myself from ripping this book in half. The content is fine, but this energy, this excess energy, it is driving me mad.

    Are you a book wrecker? Or, do you like your pages smart and clean?

    * I don't think The Duchess would appreciate food decay smashed between the pages of her book either, but because she was particularly insistent on her hatred of folded pages, I focussed my energy there. No juice stains to report.

    Photo Credits: Worn book titled "Salim's visitor book" by Jaymis Loveday, clean books titled "Books" by shutterhacks, book with bookmark titled "A Storm of Swords" by flossyflotsam.

    Tuesday, April 3, 2012

    Too Embarrassed to Read

    A recent post on Mark Athitakis’ American Fiction Notes touched on the inner anxiety of reading below our "reading status." Athitakis dwells on what it means to read "middlebrow" fiction and the weight the word carries for readers who are painfully self-aware:

    "To be middlebrow is to suffer from status anxiety. To be middlebrow is to read/watch/listen to things that you think qualify as high art but really aren’t, because you don’t have the intellectual chops for high art. To be middlebrow is to fail—and worse, fail for trying too hard."

    This awareness of middlebrow culture--the mere fact that it exists and that we recognize it--points to an internalized anxiety of where we think we should belong along the spectrum of culture. By extension, the theory of status anxiety can be applied to any genre or classification of literature and its implications are the same: readers are ruthlessly self conscious and use their reading selections as a method of self-analysis. What we choose to read is seen as a reflection of our tastes, our intelligence, our ability to differentiate good writing from bad, quality reading material from excess matter.

    This self-analysis has as much to do with how we perceive what others think about us as it does with the active process we are constantly undertaking of molding our tastes and selections to fit the image we have of ourselves--or at least the ideal version of ourselves we aim to embody. If we, as Athitakis mentions, avoid a particular writer or genre because of the implicit shame associated with reading it, we are tailoring our reading lists to coincide with a set of internal reading values--the sense that there are some things we should read and other things we shouldn't.

    Reading values are honed by a variety of factors--experience, education, exposure to reading material as a young child--all creating a subconscious method of ranking what we read, differentiating between what is "good" and what is "brain candy"--enjoyable, but "bad" for us and somehow diminishing. However, a value system is not synonymous with taste. They're in a symbiotic relationship, one influencing the other, a constant tug and pull that dictates what we pick up off the shelves. You can be a critical, selective reader (in many circles this is known as being a book snob) but still have a penchant for commercial thrillers that may not have the literary meat that you usually prefer.

    But, it's the shame that interests me. We care deeply about what others think of us. This is because we are keenly aware of how quickly, easily, and smugly we judge others. If we think less of someone who openly reads Danielle Steele on the train because they are happily absorbed and entertained by what we see as exploitative, sexually charged fantasies, we have made an assessment of their taste, their place in society. We reduce (or lift) people to the book they hold in their hands. One informs the other. And so, we view the books we choose to read as modes of insight into our intelligence, creativity, and taste. Our books are who we are.

    But more interestingly, the choice to read salacious romance novels for example, is perceived as a fault of the reader--they read romance novels because they don't know better. They think they're "readers" but they're victims of bad taste, suffering from a lack of proper literary know-how. They're pawns in the game of popular, cotton candy publishing. They aren't real readers. But if you're reading Ondaatje, you've got depth. Your judgements of others are internalized practices that guide standards you hold for yourself. You don't read romances because they don't hold anything of value for you. You value something else.

    And of course, the natural progression of this argument--if I were more objective--would be to re-analyze what we view as trash and whether it has merit or anything of value to offer. It probably does. However, I think it's perfectly fine to subscribe to a set of standards. Everything doesn't have to be okay. No one is required to justify Danielle Steele, unless they see value in doing so. Confronting status anxiety is not about discovering a new love for every possible kind of writing. It's not about validating bad writing. Standards are a good thing--they keep the bar consistently raised. Critical readers must be aware; they must have standards.

    Confronting the shame we feel when reading a book is about confronting the desire to uphold an image. An image we've created for ourselves, but also the image we know others have created for us. We become prisoners of this "ideal reader", the reader we value in our minds and believe we should aspire to be. But it's also not as easy and saccharine as claiming we should break free of these moulds and pride ourselves on whatever our innate desires guide us towards. Reading is not about self-esteem.

    Admitting an insatiable desire for pulp fiction, salacious romances, or Dan Brown isn't the downfall of literature. You can enjoy "rubbishy twaddle", even find value in it, without sacrificing your standards for good, quality literature. You can even create a sound theoretical argument that aims to recognize the literary value of such work. You can decide that some if it in fact, is good literature. But, you don't have to. You can read it even while acknowledging that it might be bad writing, that it really should never have been published, that it's terrible, terrible stuff--and accept that you like it. It falls somewhere on your personal reading spectrum and you like it because you like it--and that's okay.

    But more than anything, understanding status anxiety is about valuing our shame and seeking to understand the driving force behind it. Our shame, or more often, our utter distaste of a certain kind of book can make us consider our standards and the personal principles we apply to reading. We can shape ourselves as readers by first understanding what we implicitly want to avoid. It doesn't have to mean change; in fact, perhaps it shouldn't. It can simply be an acute awareness of where we stand and why--a better understanding of who we are as readers and where we want to go.