Monday, June 28, 2010

Nora Ephron Parodies Stieg Larsson

As an admirer of both Nora Ephron and Stieg Larsson, I am tickled by her parody of him in The New Yorker--

"The Girl Who Fixed the Umlaut" 

by Nora Ephron, July 5, 2010

There was a tap at the door at five in the morning. She woke up. Shit. Now what? She’d fallen asleep with her Palm Tungsten T3 in her hand. It would take only a moment to smash it against the wall and shove the battery up the nose of whoever was out there annoying her. She went to the door.

“I know you’re home,” he said.

Kalle fucking Blomkvist. 

She tried to remember whether she was speaking to him or not. Probably not. She tried to remember why. No one knew why. It was undoubtedly because she’d been in a bad mood at some point. Lisbeth Salander was entitled to her bad moods on account of her miserable childhood and her tiny breasts, but it was starting to become confusing just how much irritability could be blamed on your slight figure and an abusive father you had once deliberately set on fire and then years later split open the head of with an axe.

Salander opened the door a crack and spent several paragraphs trying to decide whether to let Blomkvist in. Many italic thoughts flew through her mind. Go away. Perhaps. So what. Etc.

“Please,” he said. “I must see you. The umlaut on my computer isn’t working.”

He was cradling an iBook in his arms. She looked at him. He looked at her. She looked at him. He looked at her. And then she did what she usually did when she had run out of italic thoughts: she shook her head.

“I can’t really go on without an umlaut,” he said. “We’re in Sweden.”

But where in Sweden were they? There was no way to know, especially if you’d never been to Sweden. A few chapters ago, for example, an unscrupulous agent from Swedish Intelligence had tailed Blomkvist by taking Stora Essingen and Gröndal into Södermalm, and then driving down Hornsgatan and across Bellmansgatan via Brännkyrkagatan, with a final left onto Tavastgatan. Who cared, but there it was, in black-and-white, taking up space. And now Blomkvist was standing in her doorway. Someone might still be following him—but who? There was no real way to be sure even when you found out, because people’s names were so confusingly similar—Gullberg, Sandberg, and Holmberg; Nieminen and Niedermann; and, worst of all, Jonasson, Mårtensson, Torkelsson, Fredriksson, Svensson, Johansson, Svantesson, Fransson, and Paulsson.

“I need my umlaut,” Blomkvist said. “What if I want to go to Svavelsjö? Or Strängnäs? Or Södertälje? What if I want to write to Wadensjö? Or Ekström or Nyström?”

It was a compelling argument.

She opened the door.

He handed her the computer and went to make coffee on her Jura Impressa X7.

She tried to get the umlaut to work. No luck. She pinged Plague and explained the problem. Plague was fat, but he would know what to do, and he would tell her, in Courier typeface.

[Where are you?] Plague wrote.
[There’s an Apple Store at the intersection of Kungsgatan and Sveavägen. Or you could try a Q-tip.]

She went to the bathroom and got a Q-tip and gently cleaned the area around the Alt key. It popped into place. Then she pressed “U.” An umlaut danced before her eyes.
Finally, she spoke.

“It’s fixed,” she said.

“Thanks,” he said.

She thought about smiling, but she’d smiled three hundred pages earlier, and once was enough.


Friday, June 25, 2010

To eRead or not to eRead

I'm seriously considering getting an eReader and leaning towards the Kobo, which Borders is going to start selling in early July.  The price point is decent at $149 and I like that a charge lasts about a week.  I don't like having to plug things in every night to charge.  Plus it comes with a 100 classics pre-loaded.

I work at Borders (disclaimer!) and we've carried the Sony Pocket and Touch editions for a few years, but I'm not completely won over by either model due to price points.  I've never held a Kindle in my hands and I'm not crazy about its proprietary limitations.  A friend at work has a Nook and he let me play around with it. I liked it but the price point is a little higher than what I'd like to spend on something I'm not sure I'll love.

While I enjoy technology, I'm not one to jump on new techno toys.  I inherited my first computer and only got a cell phone when my company assigned one to me.  I did, however, buy a Palm Pilot which I used for a few years on-and-off, but I'm more of a paper calendar girl.  For me, its faster and I don't forget to recharge it.

Back to eReaders: apparently its all about the price point for me.

Borders also announced that they'll soon be carrying the Libre which is only $199.99 CORRECTION: $119.99, but all the buttons put me off.  The thing I like about the Kobo is how smooth it looks.  There's only one big button on the front of it and it looks like four little ones on the side.  Guess I'll just have to wait to see it until July.

Since the Kindle first came out I've been rather ambivalent about eReaders, but for the last six months or so I've been warming up to the idea.  I've never been one of those book lovers who is completely against digital books.  Like many book lovers I do have the fear that books will "go away."  Its similar to the prevalent bibliophile fear that raged ten years ago that brick-and-mortar bookstores were going away due to online ordering.  That hasn't happened (yet), although the bookstore landscape has changed dramatically (to put it mildly).  Long live bookstores and libraries!

But the thing about books is that they, like the English language, are always changing, allowing new things in and letting old things die off and so become stronger in may ways because of these changes.  I imagine there were scribes and illuminators who looked down their noses at Gutenberg's printing press.

To date I've read one digital book.  It was an out of print biography of Willa Cather in Word format that I cut and pasted into my Palm Pilot.  It was convenient to carry it around in my pocket and whip it out whenever I had a few minutes to read.  I did have to remember to charge my Palm each night while that was going on.  However, the big bonus was getting the book for free and not having to inter-library loan it.

Here are some pros and cons that I'm considering:

The pros:
  • Carrying dozens, hundreds, thousands of books around with me in one little device. How cool will it be to go on a trip and not have to lug around my book crammed backpack?
  • I've been downsizing the number of books that I keep for years now in an effort to live leaner.  I don't know what my book collection peaked at, but I do know I had about four times as many books ten years ago than I have now.  The number of books I owned was a huge point of pride for me.  I also suffered from unacknowledged bibliohordism back then.  I'm in recovery now.  These days the books that I choose to keep on my shelves really mean something to me.  Or they're waiting to be read.  However, I still want to have a handsome library in my mansion when I grow up. 
  • People report that they actually read more books with an eReader.
The cons:
  • Carrying dozens, hundreds, thousands of books around with me in one little device.  Will it/they distract me?
  • Impulse book buying--the dangers of downloading books wirelessly late at night when I'm obsessed with a new subject or theme.  (I suppose this is quite similar to online compulsive ordering, but without the shipping charge to break the spell.)
  • Losing the ability to easily flip back through books, highlight, write marginalia, sticky notes, etc.
  • Not being able to loan books to friends (I've heard you can do this now with some eReaders). 
  • While some people say ebooks are green books, the plastic & batteries that you need to read them are anything but.  They're toxic.  They're nowhere near as biodegradable as a paper book.  Or vellum.
  • Having to make sure the device is charged. 
  • And the biggest con of all for me: Missing out on that emotional re-connection with a book days, weeks, years after reading it when you happen to glance at it on your shelf. 
 What's your opinion on this issue?  If you have an eReader, how has it changed your relationship with books?

    Friday, June 18, 2010

    The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

    The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles
    Steven Pressfield
    Grand Central Publishing, 2002

    I came across this book by lucky chance.  After helping a customer find some books in the self-improvement section we engaged in some idle chit-chat.  She soon turned to focusing on deciding between the two books she was interested in and I started straightening the books nearby.

    The name on the spine of a book--Steven Pressfield--caught my eye.  Is this the same Pressfield who wrote The Gates of Fire, a novel that's been on my reading list for some time now?  Yep.  Sure is.

    According to the blurbs on the back of the book, The War of Art can help me write a novel, finish a creative piece already started, start a business, start dieting/exercising today, and run a marathon someday.  Who could resist such promises?

    I opened the book and skipped over the foreword, as I always do when its written by someone other than the author, and went to Pressfield's first words, the 28-line chapter entitled, "What I Do," which describes what seems to be a typical writing day for him.  I was hooked.

    I was hooked by the non-apologetic and non-self-conscious outline of what he does when sitting down to write: from putting on his lucky LARGO nametag, to looking at his good luck talismans, to saying a prayer (the Invocations of the Muse from Homer's Odyssey, specifically the translation by T. E. Lawrence), to his writing process itself.  Someone who can share that intimate detail in such a no-nonsense manner must, I thought, have some down-to-earth knowledge to share as well.

    So I took the book home.

    Creativity fascinates me: understanding it, nurturing it, expressing it, sharing it, getting in touch with what may block it, etc.  There are some pretty sugary books out there about creativity.  That's not to say they're "bad" (I don't believe in labeling books as "bad"), they're just not helpful for me or they're another rendition of how-to-book-as-cheerleader, which I have enough of, thank you.

    The War of Art is about what gets in the way of creativity (or your most cherished dreams) and what you can do about it.  What gets in the way can be summed up with one word: RESISTANCE.  Resistance is more than just procrastination, its the force or forces behind procrastination.  Its your own inner self-sabotage.

    The book is divided into three sections:
    Book One: RESISTANCE: Defining the Enemy
    Book Two: COMBATING RESISTANCE: Turning Pro
    Book Three: BEYOND RESISTANCE: Higher Realm

    Each section is full of short chapters ranging from three lines to a few pages, at most.  Its one of those books that you can read through quickly nodding here and there as you recognize yourself in the pages and stopping only to mark an especially insight provoking idea that you'll want to go back to.  I read it in a burst, knowing that I'd go back and re-read it slowly, marking it up as I go, and then keeping it on the shelve next to my writing desk.  At eye level.

    I read The War of Art the day after I took it home.  My next day back at the bookstore I stopped to help a young man who said he'd called the day before, purchased a book over the phone and that it was being held for him.  My colleague who rang up the book for him had also wrapped it, since he'd mentioned it was a gift.  The young man was pleased that someone had been so thoughtful as to wrap the book for him, but he'd wanted to write an inscription in it.  I told him I'd be happy to re-wrap the book for him if he didn't feel pressured about writing the inscription on the spot.  He said he knew exactly what he was going to write and that he'd really appreciate it being re-wrapped.

    Do you want to guess what book it was?

    I laughed as he unwrapped the book to reveal that it was none other than The War of Art.  I enthusiastically told him that I had just read the book.  He laughed too, then, and immediately launched in to telling me how powerfully the book had impacted him, how he felt like it helped him get on track with many of the things he'd been wanting to do.  He was getting it as a gift for a friend who was just graduating from high school in the hope that it would impact his friend as powerfully.

    A good book from a good friend.  Powerful stuff.

    Saturday, June 12, 2010

    Days of Grace by Catherine Hall

    NY: Viking, 2010
    First published in the UK by Portobello Books, 2009

    Days of Grace by Catherine Hall is a psychological tale of friendship, love, and the corrosive effects of silence and unspoken feelings on individuals and families.  The setting is London and Kent during the span of British involvement in World War II and contemporary London.  Yes, its one of those novels that bounces back and forth in time, but it is done well., the UK's book industry magazine (similar to Publisher's Weekly in the US), recently posted a piece by Victoria Gallagher that reported on how book designers there may be missing out on not including blurbs and other copy on book covers.  Gallagher's short article (click here to read) about how blurbs can help sell books states that research from Book Marketing Limited "found that the blurb makes 62% of consumers buy a particular book."

    This is partially true for me.  Its the first couple of paragraphs or pages of a book that are the deciding factor on whether I'll take it home or not (unless its on my To Be Read list for some reason).  But when it comes to the initial browsing of books, blurbs and other jacket copy are often the reasons why I pick up a book in order to get to the point where I'll read the first couple paragraphs.  Such is the case with Days of Grace.

    The reason I picked up Days of Grace was the comparison made to Sarah Waters, one of my favorite writers, on the back copy.  Actually, that's not true.  The real reason I first picked up the book was to re-shelve it because someone abandoned it on a chair at the bookstore where I work.  But as I walked the book back to its proper section to re-shelve it, I read the back jacket copy and was intrigued.  This is the first book that I've come across that offers a comparison to Waters.  The next day I read the first few pages and decided to take it home.

    Here's the blurb that snagged me:
    "Sarah Waters meets Daphine du Maurier.  Days of Grace does everything a good debut should: moves you, surprises you and restores your faith in the power of a novel.  Hall writes beautifully about the exquisite pains of unrequited love." Harper's Bazaar (UK)

    Days of Grace is Catherine Hall's first novel.  Its a tragic love story about Nora Lynch, who is 12 years old at the opening of the book.  She lives in poverty with her mother; her father having died in 1929 the mother takes no chance with Nora's safety and puts her on a train with other children being evacuated out of London.  She ends up in Kent where she is taken in by the Rivers.  Their daughter, Grace, spots Nora sitting in an animal pen where the children were take after arrival.  Grace begs her mother like a child at the dog pound, "Please, Mummy. Can't we have her?" (18).  And so the Rivers become Nora's surrogate family.  Later there's a scene when Grace sucks a stinger out of Nora's arm, and when Nora looks at her arm she sees that, "On it was a red mark where Grace's lips had been, like the marks that the farmers painted on sheep to show who owned them" (118).  The scene is revealing: Grace doesn't know the extent to which she does own Nora and Nora acts like a sheep when it comes to Grace.  For all of Nora's fears about God's punishment, for example, she regularly steals and drinks communion wine--nicknamed Bad Blood--with Grace.

    The earlier scene of Nora's life in London is dreary, gray, and lifeless.  Nora and her Ma have only the barest necessities, but they have much love between them which is expressed in physical closeness.  But for all her mother's love, she is silent about something every 12 year old girl should know about prior to it happening to her:  Nora discovers she's bleeding in a stinking WC alone on the train.  She thinks God is punishing her for hating her mother for making her leave.  Mother and daughter exchange only one letter during the years they're apart and Nora is embarrassed by her mother's barely literate writing. The implication seems to be that illiteracy contributes to a lack of verbal communication and intimacy.

    In Kent luxury and life explode around Nora.  She now lives in a large, beautiful house that even has a room dedicated to eating.  Prior to seeing it, Nora hadn't known that dining rooms exist.  The description of Nora's first meal with the Rivers made my mouth water.  Imagine growing up a poor girl eating bland, colorless food and then sitting down to this meal.  Here's a taste:
    "Ma and I ate plain food that was white or grey; bread and dripping, boiled potatoes and stew.  The food that Mrs Rivers set down on the rectory table was bright like stained glass in a church window.  The slices of meat that came way from Reverend Rivers' carving knife were as pink as a blush. Mrs. Rivers put two pieces on my plate, next to orange carrots, dark green spinach and roast potatoes the colour of gold, then she poured on gravy that settled in pools around it all. . . . The smell of the food rose up to my nose, thick and strong.  I picked up my knife and fork and cut through one of the pieces of meat.  I stabbed at it with my fork, added a potato and dipped it into the gravy. . . .I wanted to keep the taste of that first mouthful forever, holding the meat and potato on my tongue as the hot gravy ran down my throat.  Swallowing seemed like a shame.  But the mouthfuls that followed were just as good.  I put iron-tasting spinach next to buttery carrots and softened the saltiness of the potatoes with gravy.  I cut a slice of beef into little pieces and piled them all onto my fork, then filled my mouth as full as I could with meat, liking the resistance that it gave as I chewed" (41-42).
    The house is beautiful, the food is delicious, the surrounding countryside is Nora's playground, and she and Grace become best friends, as close as beloved sisters.  But as Nora grows up, she starts to notice that all is not well in the Rivers' home.  Mrs Rivers retreats for hours everyday to play her piano.  Reverend Rivers spends his days at the Rectory and his evenings in his study.  They don't seem to have much to do with one another or with Grace.  This family may be highly literate, but they too lack intimacy and live in isolation from each other.  We find out why later in the book.

    And then Nora starts to realize that she longs for more than just friendship with Grace.

    When the girls are out in nature, Nora is in paradise.  As they run into the lake and swim underwater, she says, "I felt utterly at peace.  In this silent world I was calm, free of the shame that weaselled its way into my heart whenever I though of her.  I wished that I could stay in it forever" (139).  But life moves on, or at least Grace does.  Nora wants what she wants and does all she can to maintain her illusion that their paradise lost can be reclaimed.  She seems to shrivel next to Grace, both physically and emotionally.  She sinks further into desperation and isolation which causes her to take desperate action with irreversible consequences.

    I can't discuss much more of the book without revealing the twists and turns of the plot, which is much of the pleasure of reading a book such as this.  And it is in the unwinding of the plot that I can see the comparisons to Sarah Waters who is a master at plot twists--from small, subtle ones that build and eventually crest, pleasantly surprising you, to the colossal shifts that you don't see coming and that make you talk back to the book, saying intelligent things like, "no way!"

    The intense feelings of love that Nora has for Grace made me think of Nan's feelings for Kitty in Tipping the Velvet (the book by Sarah Waters, the screenplay by Andrew Davies).  The movie Heavenly Creatures also came to mind several times as I was reading due to the intensity of the relationship between the girls and their class differences as well.  I won't be surprised if Days of Grace finds its way to the cinema.

    Nora is a complicated character.  She's a survivor.  She struggles to break her silence.  Every time she does something that I want to judge and condemn, I remember bits from her story that make me soften towards her.  She was raised in poverty with very little education (until she got to Kent, anyway), sent away by her only parent to live with strangers, never had the security of a family that was open and honest about feelings, and lived in a time when acceptance of lesbian love was nonexistent.  Nora reads Reverend Rivers' books in the hopes of finding a love that she can relate to, that will validate her feelings towards Grace, but, of course, she finds nothing.  And then there are the laws and accompanying guilt of her religion that further isolate her due to her difference.

    When reading historical fiction, I often feel a longing for the world the author has created.  Not so in this case.  Hall has created a world where the characters all seem to live lives of quiet desperation, isolated from one another by feelings and circumstances.  I am glad to be where I am, in the time I am, with beautifully written books like Days of Grace to read and be challenged by.  Its a book that encourages me to open up more to life, to take the risks to be vulnerable with those I love and to make new connections as well.

    Wednesday, June 9, 2010

    Scars by Cheryl Rainfield

    West Side Books, 2010

    I can't say enough good things about this book.  Scars is an intense story about fifteen-year-old Kendra whose repressed memories of sexual abuse started resurfacing six months prior to the action in the novel.  She cuts herself as a way to cope with the emotional pain.

    I don't read much young adult fiction, but after I came across this book on Lee Wind's blog I'm Here. I'm Queer. What the Hell do I Read? I couldn't get it out of my mind.

    Scars is a powerful book, and not for the faint of heart.  Its a harsh story about harsh issues.  It is also a beautiful, hope-filled story about the courage to face the truth and the strength to embrace the beauty and love that often flutters around the edge of despair.  Even the cover art is intense. I imagine it will attract those who need this story and repel those who aren't ready to explore the issue or those who are not interested.

    In contrast to her mother who paints perfectly controlled landscapes, Kendra's art is an expression of her hopes and fears, which her mother criticizes as being too raw.  But Kendra knows that "Art is like a printout of my soul, showing all the things I can't say" (56).  Her self-knowledge is reaffirmed by Mrs. Archer, the compassionate and supportive art teacher, who tells Kendra, "I think you've got to get out whatever's hurting you through your art, so it doesn't twist you up inside" (113).

    Kendra is also a lesbian and it was refreshing to find no excuses or justifications within the story for her orientation.  There is an adult gay male character, Sandy, who is Kendra's mom's longtime friend.  Sandy is a healthy male and artistic role model for Kendra.  His home has often been a safe haven for her.

    Other than her art, the one highlight in Kendra's life is her new friendship with and attraction to Meghan. Early in the book Meghan rescues Kendra from one of the school bullies and then they end up in an art therapy class together.  Kendra and Meghan are both wounded girls trying to survive in their own ways.  Whereas Kendra cuts herself, Meghan is a beautiful, tough girl who sleeps with guys initially hoping that her feelings for other girls will go away.  Now she does it as a way to try to feel something, but it just keeps her numb. Her mom is a physically abusive alcoholic.

    As they're waiting for the art therapy class to begin, Kendra mentions that her mom is a painter and Meghan asks what she paints.  Kendra replies, "Landscapes. Scenery. Pretty pictures of cows in meadows with buttercups."  Meghan snorts and replies, "Like we need more lies telling us how perfect life is. I tell ya, what we need to see is the real stuff, stuff that shows what people usually hide. Maybe if somebody painted that, then we wouldn't all feel so alone" (60). 

    Cheryl Rainfield has painted the real stuff with this book.  I commend her for sharing her experience and baring her soul in writing it.  I hope it gets into the hands of young people who may need it now or people who are recovering from abuse.  It would also be a helpful book for parents, teachers, counselors, and friends to read in order to help them understand the feelings and compulsion behind self-harm.  Just stopping the behavior isn't the point.  As Kendra's therapist Carolyn says to her parents: 
    "Self injury shows the depth of pain and turmoil someone is feeling. Now, I know you'll want her to stop hurting herself right away. But a more realistic hope is that Kendra will learn some new coping skills, and, in time, find the tools and strategies she needs to safely express her emotions instead of cutting" (185).
    Rainfield provides an 11-page Resource Guide for Readers at the back of the book that's full of websites, hotlines, and books about abuse and self-harm that may help folks find some of these tools and strategies.  She also has some articles for survivors of abuse on her website which you can read here.

    I'm not surprised that the book is getting some award nominations.  Rainfield announced on her website that it was recently nominated for the American Library Association's Quick Picks and Stonewall awards.  A percentage of the profits from Scars will go to the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre/Multicultural Women Against Rape and the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN).
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