Archive | January, 2010

The Other Narrator

27 Jan

The Other Hand by Chris Cleave was a beautiful little read. I was addicted to the unique voice of its first narrator, Nigerian refugee Little Bee, especially as she ambitiously takes on “the Queen’s English” in hopes of improving her chances at being allowed to stay in the UK. One of my favourite parts:

The Queen and me, we are ready for the worst. In public, you will see us smiling and sometimes even laughing, but if you were a man who looked at us in a certain way we would both of us make sure we were dead before you could lay a single finger on our bodies. Me and the Queen of England, we would not give you the satisfaction.

But the chapters written in London journo Sarah’s voice were sometimes harshly pedestrian by comparison, especially her conversations with the “darling” features editor, Clarissa. A sample:

‘Clarissa, you’re wearing yesterday’s clothes.’

‘So would you be, if you’d met yesterday’s man.’

‘Oh, Clarissa. What am I going to do with you?’

‘Pay rise, strong coffee, paracetamol.’

When I read these parts, I was taken out of the spell cast by the rest of the story and dumped into any old Katherine Heigl/Kate Hudson/Jennifer Garner vehicle. The abrupt shift kind of reminded me of the movie Julie and Julia – being forced to flip between the awesome Julia and the whiny Julie, when I really just wanted more Meryl.

I should say that not all of Sarah’s sections had this effect on me – her descriptions of the collapse of her marriage and her struggle with doing the “right” thing felt real and not at all trivial. But the parts that did bug me were such a departure from the rest of the book that I started to wonder if the all-too-familiar non-problems of modern life were meant to make me feel uncomfortable, and sometimes even bored, after reading something like “the-men-came-and-they-burned-my-village-tied-my-girls-raped-my-girls-took-my-girls.”

Did anyone else notice this with Sarah’s chapters? Do you think this was deliberate?

Writer’s Questions – Marina Endicott

21 Jan

Last week I confessed that Marina Endicott’s Good to a Fault made me cry. This week, she apologised for making me cry (thereby perpetuating every Canadian stereotype, ever) and answered my questions about what she’s working on now (a vaudeville romp), how she chains herself to her desk (a Pomodoro timer), and the worst thing she’s ever written (a poem, okay?).



What are you reading now?

Re-reading Greatest of Marlys by Lynda Barry and Waiting for Godot and slogging through Gurdjieff, the Key Concepts. After reading all the fiction in Canada last year for the Rogers Writers’ Trust fiction prize, I’m taking a bit of a break from reading novels while I work hard to finish writing my new one. But I have Tove Jansson’s The True Deceiver (with a lovely introduction from Ali Smith) and Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs waiting on the bedside table.

What was your favourite book when you were growing up?

Terrible, Horrible Edie by E.C. Spykman—out of print at the moment but New York Review Children’s Collection is bringing it out soon.

Which fictional character do you wish you’d come up with?

Lyra/Pantalaimon in The Golden Compass etc., by Philip Pullman

What do you enjoy reading besides books?

Poetry. Sometimes I read only poetry for weeks at a time. It is very reliable.



What are you writing now?

A vaudeville romp: a melodramatic, action-packed, rags-to-riches fol-de-rol about a sister trio harmony act touring the western prairies in polite vaudeville in 1913.

Has the success of Good to a Fault changed the way you feel about your own writing?

Not at all. It’s the same book that I couldn’t get published for love or money, three years ago. Outside stuff is nice or difficult, but the book you are writing is always the hardest book you can make yourself write, and you feel good or bad about it in ten-minute bouts of self-indulgence when tired; the work is just the work. I guess, though, that I feel less need now to justify writing as a profession.

Do you have to force yourself to start writing?

Of course. It’s an incredible pleasure to write when it’s going well. To get to the point where it’s going well, you have to crawl, stagger or blast your way through a thicket of boredom and stupidity and bad starts and doubt. Some days the muse whacks you with her wonder-stick, but it’s sadly true that most of writing is applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. I’ve got a great new thing, the Pomodoro timer, recommended to me by a hard-working television writer. It sits on your computer and doles out work-time in 25 minute parcels, then bings for a five-minute rest (to check email and get another coffee). You can do that, you can sit still and type for 25 minutes, you tell yourself. And another 25, and another, all the livelong day.

Do you have any bad habits that you have to keep in check as you write?

Ouch. Many, including over-use of just, very, fine—like Mark Twain, ‘I go through my manuscript and change all the verys to damns, and then my editor takes them out.’ (Poor Twain, with no find-and-replace.)

But I don’t try to keep them in check as I write, that’s for the editing process. To write at all, I think you must be willing to be a holy fool, not censor your impulses. Then you have to (at least I have to) edit like a ravening pitbull.

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever written?

Oh, for heaven’s sake. A poem, okay? I’m not saying anything more about it.



Which character did you relate to most?

Changed from day to day as I wrote. I have a great deal in common with Lorraine, with Paul, with Clary. But Dolly is me. And Mrs Pell is what I’ll be like when I am old.

Do you think this story could have taken place in a larger city?

Yes, although Saskatoon is the best of cities, and the first place where I saw this kind of thing going on. Communities and make-shift families are created in every place where humans live. The family that is created in Nick Hornby’s About a Boy is very urban, urbane, but just as useful as what Clary pulls together. Even Hillary Clinton talked about a village being needed to raise a child, and although some staffer probably found or invented that old proverb for her, it’s true. I have lots of friends I’d never have talked to except that our children were the same age, so we were thrown together by proximity and common need for an occasional baby-sitting trade.

Dolly’s perspective was such a spot-on representation of how a kid thinks. Would you ever do a story told entirely from a child’s or teen’s voice?

I am working now on a four-part YA series about time/death/memory/ghosts, written from four young teenagers’ voices in a Nova Scotia village called the Hand. The four books are Summer in Hand, HandFall, Winter in Hand, and HandSpring. I love writing from that eye and ear; I don’t think interior consciousness changes much from childhood to adulthood, although our concerns and outer voices might.


Name and species of any writer’s pets, please:

A 4-year-old Soft-coated Wheaten Terrier named Nemo (as in Captain, but also, sigh, as in the little fish) who is my constant companion. He lies at my feet all day as I write, and is here right now.


A mess after my own heart.

Ol’ Waterworks

13 Jan

Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott made me cry, which I loved (I didn’t love being on the tube while I cried, because I didn’t want to wipe away my tears and get tube cooties, but c’est la vie).

I drank in every word of this perfectly true-to-life (but never boring) book, but admittedly, this was the part that made me cry, a scene between the dying mother Lorraine and her young son:

‘After you’re gone from sight, and can’t be seen, or be with us, will you still love me?’ Trying to get at the idea of dead without saying the word of dead.

‘Oh yes,’ Lorraine said. ‘I’ll love you forever.’

‘So will I,’ Trevor said.

I know, right? But I’m helpless against lines like this. Even thinking about Love you Forever by Robert Munsch makes me weepy (“As long as you’re living, my baby you’ll be”!!!!!).

Other instant tearjerkers include Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson and the end of The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman (seriously, I thought I would never get over it).

This is by no means an exhaustive list, since any death scene will pretty much do it. I’m just including ones that did the trick even when I read them for a second or third time.

Don't even get me started...

Hungry For More

9 Jan

Excuse the bad pun in the headline (and the one coming up), but I devoured Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and its follow-up Catching Fire over the holidays. I hadn’t realized that the third one wasn’t out until later this year, so now I just have to sit and wait like a chump.

The Hunger Games is set in the near future, after some never explained (but juicy nuclear-sounding) disaster. Dystopian fiction pretty much always gets a pass with me, especially that of the YA variety (The City of Ember series by Jeanne DuPrau, The Giver by Lois Lowry, almost anything by Monica Hughes, but especially Invitation to the Game).

I’m kind of late to the Hunger Games party, but if you haven’t heard of it, it’s a bit of a twist on a Greek myth where the Athenians are forced to pay tribute to Crete by sending their children to be killed by the Minotaur. Then add some Battle Royale, because the kids have to kill each other until there’s only one standing. Then add some American Idol/X Factor/Survivor, because it’s also a reality show! 

The first one was a better read because it’s all about the skim-worthy plot*, which is really what this series has going for it. The political reasoning behind the action didn’t always make sense, and some of the descriptive writing didn’t always gel with me either. But I had to slow down to even notice these issues, and that hardly ever happened because it was all just SO EXCITING.

There was an article in The Guardian last month about a parent’s search for “anti-princess” books suited for young future feminists. I’m not a huge fan of the overly prescriptive “Jenny doesn’t like pink and can run and play and SO CAN YOU!” books, but it made me think about books with a kick-ass heroine, that both boys and girls could easily identify with. The arrow-slinging, boyfriend-slinging Katniss definitely fits the bill.  

* Skim-worthy is a good thing as far as I’m concerned. I think the mark of a good book is when I can’t remember the last third because I read it too fast.

My Holiday Book Haul

5 Jan

On my way back to London from Toronto, I was forced to take an extra piece of luggage. While it’s true that half of this suitcase was filled with cheese, maple syrup, and leftover beauty booty (translation: fancy shampoo from my old job), the rest of it was crammed with books, both new gifts and beloved oldies that I rescued from the bookshelf of left-behind books. 

I got some pretty good stuff this year, including the Wrinkle in Time boxed set (I used its pretty artwork in my first ever post) and Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness. I also scored this customizable Pride & Prejudice. Gimmicky? Yes. Awesome? Yes. My friend was smart enough to know that the best part would be choosing the new character names, so she left that up to me. I’m really tempted to call Mr Darcy “Mr. Darsehole,” after this guy in my hometown who would always sniff around high school girls well into his 30s. Anyway. 

It’s also worth mentioning that there was a fair amount of book swapping between the family, something my parents started last year by giving each of us a book they already owned that they thought we would like (I got Marina Lewycka’s Two Caravans, which on my North American copy is called Strawberry Fields). It’s a nice way for me to unload some of my book collection without feeling like I’m actually giving it up (it may have been Christmas, but I’m not really all that generous).