New Year, New Job, No Blog?

25 Feb

It's like looking in a mirror

Every day it’s the same thing – people coming up to me, harassing me to no end – what about the blog, Lija? What about your readers? What about your mom? I swear I’ve had a good (even booky) reason for being a bad blogger. Right after the aforementioned Christmas holiday back home to Canada (I did make it in the end, and I read the hell out of my Little House collection!), I started a shiny new job at Penguin.

There’s no question that I’ve been pretty busy making the transition back to a 9-(5,6,7..) lifestyle – the stress of choosing an outfit every day not based around stretchy pj pants has been pretty tough (and I’ve fallen prey to more than a few wardrobe missteps along the way – amirite @joethepublicist?). But even more than that, I’ve been hemming and hawing over how to keep some kind of book blogging activity going that won’t make me feel weirdly unethical. Because social media is no effing joke.

I can’t ignore all the Penguin books I’m inevitably reading (a good number of which I would’ve been reading anyway), but at the same time, the new gig definitely makes the idea of continuing to post reviews a little squirmy. I’ve always loved author interviews, so at some point, my blogging comeback might involve a little less Lija-talk, and a little more literary talent.

I’d love to come back to some form of blogging life, but will need a little time to figure it out – if you just can’t wait in the meantime, I’m still on twitter at @lijak AND, of course, at The Book Stops Here – the coolest literary night in town (no one else was saying they were the coolest, so we figured the title was up for grabs).

And in my absence,  the bloggers on the right hand side of the screen over there have a lot of good stuff to say about books.

All I Want For Christmas is Books

15 Dec

Books are my favourite Christmas presents. To receive because they’re unlikely to add to my almost-Oprah-worthy hoard of possessions – if I love the book it’ll earn a tidy spot on my Ikea Expedia. If I’m not so keen, I can give it away guilt-free, because the book still got to fulfill its Christmas destiny. To give because they’re super-easy to wrap.

And the holiday season is doubly booky for me, because it’s also the perfect time for catching up on reading, especially when 20-hour flights are involved. These are some books that have earned a spot in my holiday luggage this year:

ANY CHARACTER HERE

To give to the Christmas traditionalist: The Christmas Books by Charles Dickens

There are lots of high-end editions of this holiday classic, but I really like this one by White’s Books, because it’s a bit gritty and scary looking – which is how I think Dickensian London should always be portrayed, even if “A Christmas Carol” did once star Mickey.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

To give to the design snob: Just My Type by Simon Garfield

This book doesn’t just explain type, it expounds – on why Helvetica is omnipresent, why we all hate Comic Sans, and on how everyone from Presidents to Fuhrers have been affected by their choice of lettering.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

To give to the dreamer/armchair traveller: Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky

I’ve probably gushed over this book enough, but it’s extremely giftable – beautiful, whimsical, and somehow personal for every reader.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

To give to the lover of good yarns: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

A confirmed crowd-pleaser, even for people who don’t want to be pleased at first (like me). This is a fast, satisfying, curl-up-on-the-couch kind of read. After this, your mom will actually listen to your book recommendations.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

To read on the plane: Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine

I’ve already started this, but I’m looking forward to devoting my whole attention to it so that I can get properly scandalised by sexist pseudo-science. Only possible downfall – will the guy sitting in 21C try to talk to me about it?

ANY CHARACTER HERE

And what am I hoping to take back in my suitcase? Maybe something like…

ANY CHARACTER HERE

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (or, if you are not giving this to me – and WHY NOT? – To give to the book-news-junkie)

People who like to keep up on the latest thing (ahem) probably already feel a bit left behind if they haven’t read Franzen’s latest opus yet. We may’ve missed our chance to chime in with the rest of the peanut gallery back in September, but I think there’ll still be plenty of chances to casually bring this book up in conversation.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach (OR, To give to people who like science, especially when it involves space)

Mary Roach brought us Stiff and Bonk, so it’s been established that this is a lady who knows how to make things interesting. And the intricacies of space travel are already pretty interesting.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder (OR, To give to regressive 26-year-olds, if you wanna get technical here)

Because it’s missing from my set, and it’s pretty much the best one. It gets so cold Pa can’t play the fiddle! They don’t have enough wood, so they have to twist sticks of hay so that they burn longer!

Also, I have fond festive memories involving the Little House books: I was reading the Christmas scene from Little House in the Big Woods (Laura finally gets to replace her corncob doll Susan with a real doll, Charlotte! I’m pretty sure her eyes glisten by the light of the fireplace when she looks at it). My sister had a headache, so was lying on the couch with a cloth over her eyes. Naturally, she got bored and asked me to read aloud. (What a totally “Mary” thing for her to do, am I right?) Little by little, the other members of my family started to listen to me read. It was our very own Little House in the Big Woods moment, and it was awesome.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

Happy Holidays everyone. If I get stuck in an airport in Amsterdam or Calgary or Minneapolis, I’m busting these books open and reading them myself. Will try to avoid unnecessary spine-breaking, but I can’t make any promises.

Baby, It’s Cold Inside

8 Dec

It’s freezing in London right now. People always tell me that I must be tough because I’m Canadian. I’m forced to tell them that they are completely mistaken. It’s hard to be tough when you’re fighting off a mean draught. Plus, Canada is built for cold temperatures (at this point I explain about automatic car starters). England likes to pretend that it doesn’t need luxuries like central heating, or toques.

And although I’ve certainly enjoyed seeing headlines like “Snow Doubt About It!”, the weather hasn’t done much to encourage productivity. Even the book blogging world (inside kids if there ever were any) seems to have gone into a bit of a hibernation these days (and I don’t just mean me) – everyone seems to be on vacation or taking a break from the internet or feeling bad about not “keeping up.” I’ve turned into a bit more of a watcher than a doer myself these days, and this is what I’ve been watching:

- Kimbofo at Reading Matters has been doing many curious ebook-virgins a service by recounting her Kindle experiences in extremely helpful detail, both here and here. I feel very informed, now that I’ve read these posts and also read Kindles over people’s shoulder on the tube.

- A new prize called The Green Carnation bestowed this year’s award to Paperboy by Christopher Fowler. The prize celebrates writing by gay men – at first I thought this sounded a bit restrictive, but it turned out they had more than enough to choose from – the longlist included Generation A by Douglas Coupland and the shortlist included the debut Children of the Sun by Max Schaefer, which I’ve been wanting to get my hands on for a while.

- The Guardian Books Blog interviews this year’s John Llewellyn Rhys winner, typical comments shitstorm ensues. I haven’t read Amy Sackville’s winning book, The Still Point, yet (although I want to. The Arctic!), but neither have these commenters, and they’re more than happy to moan about the fact that she is pretty, went to Oxford, and took a creative writing course. I love that as far as these people know, she could be the second coming of Tolstoy, yet they’re certain that she only received a publishing deal because of her looks. Dudes – it’s a prize for writers under 35. Some of them will be hot. And many of them will have taken creative writing courses, because that’s a thing now. Maybe the Bronte sisters would have gone to Goldsmiths too if they’d had the chance.

Too hot to win literary prizes?

- Lastly, one thing I actually have been doing is this - The Book Stops Here. I’ve been helping out with the night for a while, back when it was still called To Hell with the Lighthouse, but now it’s all official. Next Monday we’ve got Evie Wyld (another JLR prize winner, Goldsmiths grad, AND certified hottie – horrors!), Sathnam Sanghera, and Matthew Crawford. First 50 there get a copy of the new paperback edition of Matthew’s book, The Case For Working With Your Hands (Or, “Shop Class as Soul Craft” as it was published in the States). You will also get to enjoy the comedy stylings of host Emma – Amazon reviews never sounded so depressing/hilarious.

Screw Honolulu – It’s Deception Island or Bust

16 Nov

If you ever wonder what kind of place “real” books will have in an increasingly electronic world, the Atlas of Remote Islands (Fifty Islands I have not visited and never will) is the perfect example of the power wielded by a physical artifact.

Judith Schalansky grew up in East Germany, only able to imagine travelling to other places by looking at maps. In a piece of wonderful symmetry, this book does the same thing to the reader – you may not live in a Communist country, but you will certainly never travel to the islands described in this book. This unavoidable truth is both lovely and sad – sure, you could really try to make it to Deception Island or Lonely Island or Robinson Crusoe – but you won’t. The most breathtaking example of this fact is a little island in the Antarctic – until the late 1990s, more people had set foot on the moon than on the shores of Peter I Island (it appears to be protected by sheer cliff, all the way around). As used up as our world might seem, these islands remain secretive and immune from us.

This book is a rare gem for many other reasons. For one, it defies genre. It’s obviously an atlas of sorts, and it’s a beautiful piece of art with its illustrated maps and richly designed pages, and it’s almost like a collection of poetry or folklore. Across from each illustration, Schalansky mixes the bare facts (population, square kilometres, which far-off country “owns” the island) with stories that may or may have anything to do with these facts. For the uninhabited Antipodes Island which lies between New Zealand and Antarctica, she writes:

Each of us longs for a doppelgänger who lives on the other side of the earth, upside down, his feet facing ours, held on to the same globe by gravity.

At other times, she takes a less whimsical approach. For Fangataufa, which lies in the middle of the Pacific Island, thousands of kilometres away from anything, these facts are offered:

On 24 August 1968, everything is ready for the big test: the detonation of the first French hydrogen bomb. It is the largest that has ever been exploded, with the force of 2.6 megatonnes – between a hundred and a thousand times more powerful than an atom bomb.

Lastly, in a very islandesque way, this book is a remarkably unique example of self-sufficiency. Schalansky has created this Atlas from scratch – she wrote the text (albeit now translated from German), she illustrated the maps, and designed and even typeset the whole thing herself. As such, the book appears to have been published almost identically across the globe.

This is the kind of book for which reading the text on an e-reader simply wouldn’t do. It’s like your favourite children’s fantasy book come to life (the kind with an inky illustration and a compass on the first page, of course), it’s a little like Lost, and it is like travelling to the moon. I feel more magical just holding the book in my hand, knowing that if I ever wanted to go to Neptunes Bellows or Sewingmachine Needles or the Bay of Oh Dear, these places really do exist, somewhere.

We’ve Got Guests – Nikesh Shukla

29 Oct

In my London literary scene adventures this past year, I’ve had the chance to hear lots of authors read. Some are amazing writers, but read so quietly and nervously that I’m embarrassed for them and can’t even listen to what they’re reading, because I’m just going “la la la!” in my head to block out the cringe. Some have no problems in the confidence department but hold listeners hostage for 30-some-odd minutes over their allotted time. And some are very entertaining. Nikesh falls into that entertaining category (thank goodness, or this intro would be SUPER awkward). If you ever get a chance to listen to him read about samosa-tinged first kisses and raps that are only “pretty” cool, I highly recommend it.

Nikesh’s first book, Coconut Unlimited, just came out this week. This is a BFD. How does someone even write a book, anyway? Nikesh? (Hint: It definitely involves tasty and healthy Waitrose breakfast foods.)

Jonathan Franzen sat in a minimalist room with his internet connection unplugged, no things to distract him, with the soothing sounds of pink noise humming in the background for nine years writing Freedom, its every brilliant yet overlong sentence poured over and dissected and reconstituted with the precision of a chess grand wizard, only emerging for a diet of raw protein and carbohydrate. His writing process sounds more like Olympic bodybuilding training.

I, on the other hand, wrote a book in my kitchen, surrounded by the smell of whatever whimsical culinary experiment my wife embarked upon, a stack of Spiderman comics I was too busy to read and the internet streaming through annals of hip hop history I needed to know before writing, not that any of it made the final cut, while Spotify streamed loops of endless mid-90s boom-bap ranging from barbershop quartet remixes of The Pharcyde’s ‘Ya Mama’ to Fu-Schnicken’s tongue-twisting cover version of Tenor Saw’s ‘Ring The Alarm’.

I thrive on chaos, it would seem.

Jonathan Franzen has Freedom to show for his disciplined efforts. I have a silly comedic book about bad rappers called Coconut Unlimited.

Writing the book usually means starting early- around 6am. I’m less likely to be distracted by Gchats from my frowsy crew, Mr Lingo, Vee Kay, NDogg or Bone before office hours when they’re sat at their desks, looking for the first thing to distract them from working. I stare at the picture of Spiderman my nephew Will drew for me and get on with it. You see, we were on a family holiday at the British seaside. Will was having one of those days when he was only slightly too old to be cheeky with the older boys so they taunted him back. Upset, he came and sat next to me and drew me a picture of Spiderman, the meaning clear – if only he’d been around, he’d have protected me from those older boys. Inspiration from that picture done, I do a recap – where did I get to last night and where am I going now? I only have to get 1000 words down before I can log on to Twitter and call Gavin James Bower a toilet.

Write.

No wait, it’s breakfast time – and I’m not a savage, it is the first most important  meal of the day.  So, I pour out the three drinks of kings – water, juice and coffee and hydrate, vitaminise and caffeinate for the next few hours. Porridge is consumed, because hey, it’s not like I’m on a major label advance or anything and yes, I live in Crouch End, so yes the porridge is Waitrose own but I still got love for the streets.

Breakfast finished and various household errands finished and it’s time for Frasier on breakfast television and I know I’ve seen each episode before but I’m writing a comedy book and this is like a masterclass, am I right? Hello? Is this thing on? The laptop’s next to me in case inspiration overtakes, but I’ve decamped to the sofa. An hour later and I’m ready to write, but I feel like I should at least shower right? That’s what the Crane boys would do. I’m not a savage after all.

Showered shaved and at my desk and I mean it now. But look, it’s 9am. Mr Lingo or Bone’ll be in the office by now. I send an email round-robin round to see what everyone’s been up to over the last 12 hours. Chances are I’ve seen at least one of them in the last 12 hours. Noticing other emails that need attending to, I answer them, do some life admin, some book admin, and more importantly some social admin. I call Gavin James Bower a toilet on twitter and I get to it. Right, 1000 words before midday. That’s nearly only an hour away.

(At this point, I wonder whether Franzen’s discipline would produce better results.)

But then, amazingly, it all swings into gear. I may have taken an age to get myself focussed, I should have just had another hour in bed. It all flows from here. The beauty, I remember, of writing an energetic book of back-and-forth banter and silly posturing is that writing it is a pleasure. No sentence is too painful to work through. The dialogue sparkles with energy and verve. I can hear all the voices in my head, feel their faces red with embarrassment under the melanin. The first draft is just brilliantly overindulgent. I find myself laughing endlessly at the phrase ‘jokey or sexy’. Before I know it, it’s 2pm and my stomach is rumbling, I’ve missed my lunch spot and I don’t quite want to stop. Here’s where a handily-stashed bag of crisps in my bag helps. I plough through them and carry on writing. By 3pm, it’s back to Twitter to try and make people laugh, glowing in the solitary bonhomie of a good session. By 5pm, when my wife comes home, I’m awkward and animated, having not spoken to anyone since 7am.

There are usually bad days too. These involve a lot more Twitter and Gchat and email.

I’d say today, though, was a good day. I didn’t even have to use my AK.

Yes, verily, I’d say today was a good day. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4UqMyldS7Q&ob=av3e

Skippy Dies (Or DOES He?) (He Does)

27 Oct

Skippy Dies might just be my favourite book of this year. It’s been on my radar for a while, but I held off on reading it because I didn’t quite believe that the deceptively basic-sounding plot (boys get up to no good in an Irish boarding school) could fill up such a brick of a book. As it turns out, this book’s got more than enough heartbreaking moments, hilarious one-liners, and criss-crossing storylines to hold even my shortish attention span through its 600+ pages. It’s also full of academic tangents - whole scenes devoted to weaving in bits of World War I poetry, string theory, and Irish folklore with the present day narrative (this is why you gotta love a story set in a university or, as in this case, a boarding school called Seabrook).

Several unique voices tell this story: Skippy, the neglected, abused hero – hopelessly innocent, in love, and obsessed with elfish role-playing computer games. Ruprecht Van Doren, his obese roommate and scientific genius – obsessed with M-theory, Professor Tamashi of Stanford, and parallel universes. Howard, the mid-life crisis poster boy and History teacher, who seems to grow both a conscience and an aptitude for teaching as the book goes on. Lori, the beautiful object of Skippy’s attention, who suffers a very modern form of abuse at the hands of her superficial parents, who try to cheer her up after Skippy’s death by using the resulting  media exposure as a modelling career springboard. And Carl, the self-harming, drug-dealing, teenage psychopath who forms a dangerous love triangle with Skippy and Lori.

The impressive supporting cast members are given just the right amount of detail to make their contributions matter. Dennis, a minor character and Skippy’s most cynical friend, stands out with only a smattering of lines to call his own. He thinks everything is shit, he doesn’t buy into Ruprecht’s blend of science/magic even when the other boys get swept away, and he can never resist a good zinger. His grown-up mixture of wit and self-awareness made me wonder if he might be Murray’s little attempt at a cameo. And although the other narrating characters include rapists and drug dealers, only one, Acting Principal Greg Costigan, fails to show any pinpricks of conscience, or feel any sense of personal failure when Skippy dies. Though, I should probably give Murray credit for sneaking in one mischievous little aside, which almost, ALMOST made me feel sorry for the soulless boarding school “Automator.” We’re treated to a bit of Costigan’s homespun philosophy at the school concert while he listens to a rendition of Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall:

“Lost in the strutting, spiky rhythms, Greg soon forgets about the unpleasant business with Howard. We don’t need no education . . . Might surprise his pupils to learn that Greg had his own band once upon a time. Called themselves the Ugly Rumours, used to cover this very song. Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone! And now he’s Acting Principal of a school! Life’s funny that way.”

This passage is a great example of Murray’s ability to deliver biting satire without losing sympathy for the characters he’s parroting. Even when he mimics Lori’s schoolgirl question-mark-inflected chatter and shockingly illiterate text messages, you don’t lose the sense that each character is important and deserving of our sympathy.

Murray never seems to take himself too seriously, which may just have cost him his (deserved, in my opinion) spot on the Booker shortlist. He fills his pages with fart jokes and curlicue “Bethani” lettering (for an ubiquitous Britneyesque pop star). These casual touches don’t undermine the emotional resonance of the rest of the book – if anything, I think they make the sad parts more touching, more authentic. It’s this combination of the funny and moving, trivial and fundamental, that took me off guard. For example, if you hadn’t already noticed, Skippy – the late-blooming hero – Dies. The death occurs almost casually, before chapter one even begins. It happens in a doughnut shop, and Skippy uses his last moments in that doughnut shop to write “Tell Lori” on the floor in jelly. So pardon me for breezing past this and assuming that the death was a red herring, that the real book would be about something else.  

As it turns out, Skippy actually Lives in a large chunk of this book. In the space of a couple hundred pages, I managed to develop denial-induced amnesia, not unlike a certain thirteen year old named ME watching Titanic for the third time and hoping that it wouldn’t actually sink and Leo would live. I started looking for ways that somehow Skippy could survive, but in the end, it really does happen, and all the warning in the world does nothing to cushion the sting of the tragedy. In the post-death section of the book, almost every character is suffering from their own form of denial. And not in a wishy-washy “I can’t believe he’s gone” kind of way, but in a desperate, logic-defying kind of way. In his grief, ex-roommate Ruprecht gets together the old gang of boys in an attempt to communicate with Skippy beyond the grave, with the aid of battered french horns, Bethani’s hit single, and tinfoil hats. By the time their supernatural contact attempt goes live at the school concert, you already know what kind of book this is, but you still hope that somehow, their pathetic experiment will work.

This book will make you cry for Skippy, make you laugh at the exploits of “Van Blowjob” and co, make you wonder about death and love and evil, and will even make you believe that an Optimus Prime doll makes its way to the eleventh dimension.

What Should My Parents Read? You Decide!

7 Oct

Now that I’ve become the official book person of the family, I’m expected to have an answer for every reading query. My mom is going through one of her big book hauls – my parents live way out in the boonies, so she puts in big orders with Amazon or the provincial library system in a planned, deliberate fashion. None of this willy-nilly wandering into the nearest warm bookshop because it’s raining or I have to kill 10 minutes or they have a great window display. I’m pretty sure that in the past, most of mom’s wishlist came from prize longlists (Giller, Governor General), magazine features (Maclean’s, TIME), and the odd breakfast TV show (Canada AM).

But this year, she’s turning the reins over to me. And, well, you. What books should she buy or order from the library this year? (it’s a pretty great system – if they don’t have it, they buy it and send it to her local branch. Then the lady at the local branch phones the house, and if you have any Sears orders to pick up, you can do that, too. Handy!).

I asked my parents to list some books they read and liked recently – a couple of these were already thanks to my booky meddling, but now they want more. So please drop some recommendations – old or new, fiction or non-fiction – down in the comments.

Dad?

I’m having trouble remembering what my favourite reads have been.  Geez!
Okay, recent reads I’ve enjoyed were Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden and The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews and also Everything is Illuminated by J.S. Foer. Of my all time favourites the first that come to mind are Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance because it had a big impact on me, and Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov.   One of the best non-fiction books I’ve read both for the power and scope of the ideas and the beauty of its writing, with one of the most intimidating titles of all time, is called The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes.

Mom?

I’ll give you a list of books I read and enjoyed while we were in Italy.

- Sacred Hearts, Sarah Dunant

- Still Alice, Lisa Genova

- Late Nights on Air, Elizabeth Hay

- Legend of a Suicide, David Vann

- The Monster of Florence, Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi

- A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini

- Strawberry Fields/Two Caravans, Marina Lewycka

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