Curtis Sittenfeld is the New York Times bestselling author of American Wife and Prep, neither of which I’ve read so I was keen to get into Sisterland. I wouldn’t normally go for a book about twins and ESP because although I like magical realism and fantasy, I find things psychic abilities a little creepy. My imagination is too susceptible and maybe that’s why this novel is sort of mesmerizing.
The story is about twins Daisy and Violet who have ESP. Their “senses” help them know things like what a guy likes in a girl and they can sometimes see things like the name of a person who’s kidnapped a little boy. As little girls, the twins have fun playing games guessing at what the other is thinking, which creeps out their mom. As teens, they aren’t popular girls, twins were less common in the ‘70-90s, but they do become a little infamous when Daisy takes a chance and tells another girl that she has ESP. The other girl is a popular, rich girl who takes advantage of Daisy to win a boy but then betrays her to the school as a witch.
One of my favourite lines in the book is early on at page 67 in a section of dialogue between a substitute teacher doing roll call, Marisa the mean, popular girl and Daisy.
She took attendance by calling out our last names, and when she got to Shramm, I raised my hand and said, “Here.”
She looked again at the list. “There are two Shramms. You’re which one?”
“No,” Marisa said immediately. “She’s Witch Two.”
Out of context it can seem a bit slack stick but what I like about that line is that it sums up that caustic humour of teenagers. A less skilled writer would have made Marisa more of a caricature but instead she is craftily constructed.
From then on Daisy masks her senses and Vi embraces them. Daisy even changes her name in college in order to hide from the stories. She starts going by Kate instead, marries a nice sensible boy and has two kids. Violet on the other hand is a lesbian, psychic medium who predicts a massive earthquake and ends up on local, then national, tv broadcasting her predictions and stirring up old tensions between herself and Daisy/Kate.
Kate is of course mortified about the prediction and the publicity, has a run in with old Marisa, who is still chasing boys despite being in her late 30s now, and ends up making a ton of mistakes in her attempts to just be normal.
Between Kate and Violet, I think Vi is my favourite twin. Violet, the first born, who embraces her ESP and rocks the flowy shirts and birkenstocks, really puts the woo in woo-woo. And even though she’s worthy of many eye rolls, there’s something redeeming about her.
At the beginning of the novel I was cheering for Kate but by the end Vi was the champ. Sittenfeld’s set up of the dynamic between the twins and the what-if concerns about Vi’s earthquake prediction made Sisterland into a fun, summer read. The bit of a mystery kept me cruising through the book.
If you like Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry, then you’ll like Sisterland. Both are about twins who are intensely attached to each other, emotionally removed from their parents and who possess some extraordinary abilities. Not to say that if you like a twin book, you’ll like another, but more so because Niffenegger and Sittenfeld are both great writers who turn these plotlines into well-written, page turners.
The Ocean At The End Of The Lanel is Neil Gaiman’s latest novel and it’s a melancholic little book about growing up, childhood, dreams and disappointments. It’s short but rich and reminds me of Coraline. Where Coraline was triumphant though, I’m not sure our unnamed narrator—a boy of 7—is. But I don’t want to spoil anything for you.
The epigraph from Maurice Sendak is a great 1-line summary of the novel: “I remember my own childhood vividly … I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.”
What the boy knows is that he is a bit of an underling, getting beat up at school and bossed around by his older sister at home, but he’s comfortable. He has a little black kitten and a small room with a little yellow washbasin just his size. But those comforts disappear with the arrival of a lodger who runs over the cat, uses the room, and ultimately dies himself in a most unfortunate way. But instead of that incident being forgotten, our boy gets caught up in the magic that’s unleashed by the death. And that’s when he meets the Hempstock women: Old Mrs Hempstock, Ginny Hempstock (middle aged) and Lettie Hempstock (11 years old, but she’s been 11 for a very, very long time).
Three is a magic number, isn’t it? And the Hempstock women certainly know their magic. It’s old magic. Old magic used to bind things from the old world that have come across the ocean with them. Old magic used to cut and restitch the fabric of time. But all that magic has a price and the novel leaves us wondering if it was worth it. I won’t tell you what it is because The Ocean at the End of the Lane is worth the reading.
I remember my Raincoast “slush pile” days. Sitting in the back room with inch-thick manuscript submissions and reading (or rather weeding) through boxes of submissions. Now the glut of paper is finally ending with the ease of reading facilitated by tablets. Thank you iPad.
[Press Release excerpt] Beginning this Canada Day, Goose Lane Editions will accept fiction submissions only in electronic form and solely via electronic submission.
In early 2012, Goose Lane equipped its acquisition editors with new tablet computers for reviewing manuscripts. Now, halfway through 2013 and after almost 60 years of accepting manuscripts exclusively in paper, the company will begin the overall transition to full electronic submissions.
“Aside from the ecological benefits of doing away with mountains of print manuscripts,” Goose Lane’s publisher Susanne Alexander says, “this change will allow for a more rapid response to submissions and queries and will result in substantial savings for prospective authors.”
The electronic process for fiction submissions will soon be followed by poetry and non-fiction submissions, which are currently accepted only in paper form, which I suspect is the preference of the editor. The release did say that the publishing house expects these two genres to transition to the electronic submission process.
As I said in my post last year, although the Bank of Canada denies there is any maple scent I think this would be a really interesting enhanced security feature because it would be incredibly hard to counterfeit.
The World by Bill Gaston is this month’s Vancouver Sun Book Club read and I’ve been enjoying re-discovering Gaston. I was first introduced to his work when I was at Raincoast and I’ve followed his career but haven’t really dipped into his books. Too bad I waited!
The World is both the title of this novel and the title of a novel in the book, written by Hal, one of the main characters. Hal has Alzheimer’s and is in a home and we don’t really get to his story until the final third of the book, but he is introduced early. The book begins with the sad life of Stuart Price who is a high-school shops teacher, recently retired. Stuart is split from his wife and has poured his energies into paying off his mortgage. Indeed he has just paid it off in a lump sum and, in burning the mortgage papers on his deck, burns the place down. Oh Stuart. To add insult to injury, he has forgotten to pay his insurance premium.
Stuart’s meltdown, or rather burndown, takes him on the road. Whether he’s running away or running to somewhere is questionable. He’s swiftly decided to drive his ancient Datsun from BC to Ontario in order to visit his long-lost friend Mel who is dying of cancer. It happens that his insurance company HQ is in Toronto and he wants to plead his case in person.
Stuart is hilarious, and a bit insane, so his third of the novel is pretty funny. The middle section begins with Mel bailing Stuart out of jail and continues from her perspective. It’s a bit dire in comparison to Stuart’s tragedy, but really it’s just another personal crisis from a different perspective. With Mel, we also finally meet Hal, author of The World which is about a leper colony on D’Arcy Island. Hal is quite the character and he and Stuart together are certainly a pair of looney tunes.
We’re going to be discussing Bill Gaston’s The World for the next couple of weeks in The Vancouver Sun so I’ll save my thoughts for that.
This article isn’t particularly long but, in the days of 140 character tweets and status updates, it exceeds the character count of my usual single-item readings. I asked James to read it aloud to me this morning while I was eating my breakfast and several times I made him re-read lines that I thought were hilarious or wanted to solidify in my brain. This gem is James’ find and a nice little reading experience that he shared with me in the half-hour block of time this morning between our son’s nap and next feeding. It’s worth a read.
Tim Kreider introduces this as an essay about arrested adolescence but it’s really about looking around and wondering if you’re living the life you want to be leading and how we look at our friends’ lives and either feel jealousy or pity.
The Referendum is a phenomenon typical of (but not limited to) midlife, whereby people, increasingly aware of the finiteness of their time in the world, the limitations placed on them by their choices so far, and the narrowing options remaining to them, start judging their peers’ differing choices with reactions ranging from envy to contempt.
As a new parent, I’m constantly looking at my childless peers and thinking, “8 weeks ago, that was my life too.” Or I’m looking at strangers in the street who are carting around little ones and thinking, “bloody hell, those liars told me things get better” or “that woman has it together, I want to be like her when my child grows up.”
Reading Kreider’s article “The Referendum” coincidentally coincides with me filling out my son’s baby book with family members’ birthdays, which leads me to think about how young some of them died. Mid-50s seems to have claimed a number of loved ones on both sides of our family and at 37 years old that doesn’t seem all that far away.
On a brighter, yet caustic note, here are some of my favourite lines (extracted especially for my friends who are parents and only have 140 more seconds of attention):
To my friends with children, the obscene wealth of free time at my command must seem unimaginably exotic, since their next thousand Saturdays are already booked.
A lot of my married friends take a vicarious interest in my personal life. It’s usually just nosy, prurient fun, but sometimes smacks of the sort of moralism that H.G. Wells called “jealousy with a halo.”
Like everyone, I’ve seen some marriages in which I would discreetly hang myself within 12 hours, but others have given me cause to envy their intimacy, loyalty, and irreplaceable decades of invested history. [Note to all my married friends: your marriage is one of the latter.]
I have never even idly thought for a single passing second that it might make my life nicer to have a small, rude, incontinent person follow me around screaming and making me buy them stuff for the rest of my life. [Note to friends with children: I am referring to other people’s children, not to yours.]
The Emperor of Paris by CS Richardson is a series of short, interconnected love stories set before and after World War I in Paris. The most prominent storyline is of Emile Notre-Dame, thinnest baker in Paris and his wife Immacolata, who have a son Octavio. Both father and son cannot read but are amazing storytellers and Boulangerie Notre-Dame becomes rather infamous among its regular patrons who come for the buttery croissants and baguettes but also for the stories.
The bakery occupied the ground floor of a narrow flatiron building known throughout the neighbourhood as the cake-slice. As far back as anyone could remember the letters above its windows, in their carved wooden flourishes, had spelled out:
BOULA GERIE NOTRE-DAME
the N having long since vanished.
The story of the N’s disappearance is a regular request from the bakery’s patrons, the most fantastical version being about thieves who spread across France stealing Ns and the most favourite being that of Napolean stealing the N himself.
The love of books is another thread through the story. Despite not being able to read, Octavio is a regular buyer from a book stall near the Louvre. For both Octavio and the bookstall owner, books have a special meaning, and lead to friendships and relationships.
CS Richardson has crafted a very fine story indeed. His cast of characters each contribute to the overarching story while having their own backstories as well. Emile, Immacolata, and Octavio run the bakery as I mentioned. Then there’s the fashion designers Pascal Normand and his wife Celeste, who hide their daughter Isabeau from view because of a facial scar from an unfortunate childhood accident. And we have three generations of the Fournier family who own the bookstall. On top of that, there’s a blind watchmaker, a starving portrait artist and Madame Lafrouche whose husband Alphonse gifts Emile The Arabian Nights which becomes the first book in Octavio’s collection and eventually makes it into the hands of Isabeau.
I was first introduced to CS Richardson from my publishing ties. Richardson is an award-winning cover designer for Random House and his first novel The End of the Alphabet was my favourite book in 2008. The Emperor of Paris is a strong contender for 2013.
In 2010 filmmakers Faythe Levine, coauthor of Handmade Nation, and Sam Macon began documenting the dedicated practitioners of hand-painted signs, their time-honored methods, and their appreciation for quality and craftsmanship. Sign Painters, the first anecdotal history of the craft, features stories and photographs of more than 25 sign painters working in cities throughout the United States.
April is national poetry month and I thought that I’d celebrate by re-reading some of the poetry collections on my shelves.
Excerpt: “at night cooley listens” published in Sunfall by Dennis Cooley (Anansi, 978-0-88784-580-2)
at night cooley listens to his body
an answering service he bends over now
the day’s over the day’s messages
the rest of the day he does not listen
does not pay it much attention, his neglect shameful
cooley knows he shld do better shld take it out more often
show it a little more affection
once the noise of the day drops like shoes untied away
every night when the tired switch clicks night on
the body becomes importunate spouse
it’s about time you listened to me
you self-centred bastard the body says you barely listen
the body rehearses a long list of grievances, sniffling
there are violins
Dennis Cooley is one of my all-time favourite poets. I find his poems to be flamboyant and a little crazy. Some of them are incredibly heartfelt, while others use tone and timing to turn otherwise casual observations into challenges or wisecracks. He’s the only poet I keep coming back to. Others I enjoy and soon forget whereas I’ll eagerly read, and re-read, Cooley. This poem in particular makes me giddy in the same way that episodes of Seinfeld do.
Excerpt: “Wolf Tree” by Alison Calder published in Wolf Tree (Coteau Books: 978-1-55050-359-3)
The wolf tree’s arms reach out
in a question that is also an answer,
as we seek another name for what we have.
The tree embraces us in its branches,
holds the buds of our tender dreams.
What happened, it says, what happened
to the farm grown over, the buildings
sagging into slope-shouldered grayness.
The wild comes back, as lilacs
explode over the woodshed,
irises and roses bloom beside
Alison Calder’s whole collection of poems is wonderful to read, in particular because each poem offers a wonderful balance of dream and reality. I also like her poems because many are set on the prairies. Calder grew up in Saskatoon and I first met her at the University of Manitoba where she was teaching CanLit and creative writing. I’ve admired her work ever since and perhaps became a fan of prairie poets because of her and Dennis Cooley, along with David Arnason, Robert Kroetsch and newer poets like Alexis Kienlen. I enjoyed the “bee” poems in her recent collection 13.
Poem: “The Home Inspection” by Jamie Sharpe published in Animal Husbandry Today (ECW, 978-1-177041-106-7)
Before I even step
into this house
let me point out
Those leaves on
that there bush
were new in spring;
given it’s late July
I’d say they have
two months tops.
I doubt they’re
Jamie Sharpe is new to me, and I appreciate that he sent me a copy of this collection of poems because I’ve been enjoying exploring it. Like the poems above, Sharpe’s poems are accessible while still being lyrical. It’s a great collection.
What poems strike your fancy? If you’re keen to share, consider checking out the poetry contest on 49thShelf.com for a chance to win a prize package of new Canadian poetry.
Left column: week 1, 2, 3. Main image is week 6-7. Right column: week 4, 5, 6
Finlay John Sherrett is 7 weeks old today. It is shocking how fast, and slow, time has gone. He’s gone from week 1 being 6 lbs 14 oz to losing weight to week 7 being over 9 lbs. Finlay is a string bean. Long and skinny. And thankfully for the last two days he has been rather happy. I think week 4 was the worst of my life and part of week 6 was vying for the top spot. But the little man is sleeping, eating and playing nicely. That makes me happy. Plus there was sunshine again today.
Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory is one of those books that makes the mind tingle. The novel’s caustic sense of humour and irony had me eagerly turning the pages and thinking fondly of Ayn Rand.
Like Rand, Houellebecq (pronounced “Wellbeck”) is equally controversial in his own way. His protagonist Jed Martin, an emotionally stunted and highly successful artist, befriends French novelist Michel Houellebecq in his quest to have Houellebecq write the catalogue for his forthcoming exhibition. The novel version of Houellebecq is a satirical fictionalization of the author himself. Houellebecq describes Houellebecq as having a reputation for drunkenness, strong misanthropic tendencies, and a fondness for charcuterie. Surprisingly he is brutally murdered in the third section of the novel.
Let me get to that in a second. In the first two sections of the novel, we experience the artworld through Jed Martin’s eyes. He approaches life with neutrality and often with distain, but it also seems understandable that he, like the reclusive, fictional Houellebecq, wants as little human contact as possible and the space to create his art. The modern art world presented in the novel is one of consumerism and one-up-manship, where Martin’s portrait-style paintings of CEOs and architects fetch millions of dollars and become cause for murder.
Yes, speaking of murder, the third section takes a distinct turn, both in perspective and writing style. Instead of the high-minded, sophisticated writing style of the first two sections, we get detective, genre writing. It’s quite the contrast.
The Map and the Territory isn’t a book for everyone, but I found it masterful. As Jed Martin’s father remarks, “he [Houellebecq] is a good author, it seems to me. He’s pleasant to read, and he has quite an accurate view of society.”
In publishing news yesterday, Amazon bought Goodreads. The big question in the minds of users and publishing industry folks is “what will they do with it?” In particular will they remove the buy buttons for other retail sites? Word on the street is that Goodreads was working on a bookstore function for the site, hence the acquisition by Amazon. Like Facebook and Google, Amazon likes to take any competition off the table. They already own Shelfari and have a stake in LibraryThing, so maybe owing Goodreads was always in the cards.
People like publishing consultant and Digital Book World partner Mike Shatzkin think it’s definitely because of the bookstore competition though. And why is Goodreads competition? Because they have an awesome recommendation engine and rapid user growth. Add a bookstore to that and they stand to make a nice bag of coin.
With 12 million users as of late 2012, Goodreads is the largest book-focused social network so it will be interesting to see how Amazon, the largest bookseller, is going to capitalize on that. The Digital Book World site has a good article on the acquisition — Amazon Acquires Goodreads — and they’ve provided a few logical guesses at what Amazon will do with Goodreads.
Use the site’s data to augment and improve its own book recommendations.
Remove buy buttons for other retailers’ books.
Supplement its own reviews with Goodreads reviews.
Add Goodreads to its suite of marketing solutions for publishers.
Nothing. The company is growing quickly (nearly tripled in users since the end of 2011).
I think they’ll definitely use the site’s data, and they will likely remove or make much more prominent the Amazon buy button. At the moment Barnes & Noble is the prominent call to action. I do not think they’ll replace their reviews with Goodreads’ reviews because for SEO reasons they’d want the content to be unique on both sites so they have have a double whammy in search results. Goodreads does have a good marketing program, including author chats and advertising, so perhaps that becomes part of an offer to authors and publishers. Oh the anticipation!
A hilarious text exchange yesterday morning led me to these thoughts:
John Green is hilarious. I didn’t know that.
One of my Pub355 students introduced me to his videos (and I should have watched them immediately).
Craig Ferguson is still hilarious (always knew that, loved his show, haven’t watched it for awhile, thought his novel was darkly funny).
I’m now addicted to John Green videos.
I’m ready to read The Fault in Our Stars (cancer story, couldn’t read that last year due to a family illness).
Here’s how it all went down.
SDS: Do you know John Green?
Me: I know Joslin Green (Boxcar designer).
SDS: John Green. He’s big on the internets. There’s a video clip where he goes on about being a big Harry Potter fan and going to conferences.
Wait. What? I’m a big Harry Potter fan and go to conferences. Who are we talking about?
(Search “John Green” and autocomplete brings up “John Green Books”)
Me: Oh, John Green, author. I thought we were talking about someone I know personally. I know author John Green of The Fault in Our Stars. Harry Potter fan though?
SDS: Yes, the interview on Craig Ferguson is about his book. He goes to Harry Potter conferences.
I go to Harry Potter conferences. Who are we talking about?
(Search “John Green Craig Ferguson”)
Yes, yes. Same guy. Ok, the puzzle pieces of this text thread are coming together. John Green. Author. Interview on Craig Ferguson.
Watch 11 minute video (actually it’s not that long because the last 4-5 min are some other show promo). OMG funny, worth watching. I didn’t know how personable John Green is.
Discovery: Yes John Green is a Harry Potter fan and goes to conferences because his brother plays Wrock. (That’s Wizard Rock for those of you not in the Potterverse). I personally like the Mudblood’s “Be My Witch Tonight,” which I first heard at Portus 2008.
Who, then, is his brother?
(Search “John Green Brother”)
Hank Green. Thank you Wikipedia.
Ah! This is the guy behind “Accio Deathly Hallows”, which was super popular because it went viral before the last Harry Potter book was released. I know this (without knowing or connecting the details). Hilarious! This is a fun internet-browsing adventure.
(How are you liking the inner workings of my sleep-depraved, new mom brain? Fascinated, I’m sure. Thankfully this blog is called So Misguided.)
Next thought: That song launched Hank and John’s Vlogbrothers YouTube channel into the stratosphere, which is what my student Calvin was telling me in September. I clearly should prioritize reading/watching links sent to me, not just by students but by James, Boris and friends who diligently keep me up to date. Mea culpa.
John Green video—Mar 19, 2013—offers a great commentary on advertising and where marketers are going wrong when they think about social media and advertising. (See this is valuable, work-related research now.)
Plus, the video was filmed in advance of the Craig Ferguson interview so the neurosis of this video is a perfect complement to (my state of mine, ur, I mean) the actual interview itself.
I’m now addicted to John Green and most certainly want to read The Fault in Our Stars, which I wanted to read before anyway.
3. The Value and Distraction of Author Platform Building
I’ll make a bold statement right here that I don’t think I’ve made before.
If you’re a totally new, unpublished writer who is focused on fiction, memoir, poetry, or any type of narrative-driven work, forget you ever heard the word platform. I think it’s causing more damage than good. It’s causing writers to do things that they dislike (even hate), and that are unnatural for them at an early stage of their careers. They’re confused, for good reason, and platform building grows into a raging distraction from the work at hand—the writing.
Therefore, build your platform by writing and publishing in outlets that are a good fit for you, lead to professional growth, and build your network. The other pieces will start to fall into place. It might take longer, but who cares if you’re feeling productive and enjoying yourself? Go be a writer and take a chance on the writing. Writing and publishing good work always supports the growth of your platform—and I’m willing to bet more valuable platform building will get done that way, especially for narrative-driven writers.
Exception to the rule: Nonfiction/non-narrative authors and entrepreneurial authors who are self-publishing. Sorry, but you should probably focus on platform as much as the writing.
I 100% agree. And when publishers are talking to authors about building a platform, they are looking for a John Green.
But you know what? Green is a total outlier. See above activities with Hank Green. Then look further back than Vlogbrothers. Vlogbrothers was predated by the Brotherhood 2.0 Project.
John Green and his brother Hank ran a video blog project called Brotherhood 2.0. The original project ran from January 1 to December 31, 2007, with the premise that the brothers would cease all text-based (‘textual’) communication for the year and instead converse by video blogs, made available to the public via YouTube (where they are known as the ‘vlogbrothers’) and on their Brotherhood 2.0 website. Thanks again Wikipedia
Dear authors: a platform is often years in the making. Be realistic about the time you have available if you want to build an audience faster than that.
Dear publishers: See above point for authors.
And now I’m off to feed Finlay. Another day. Another 8 feedings. Another 8x to get lost in the ramblings of my own brain. Thanks for following the thread of this one.
March 6 was World Read Aloud Day and many organizations celebrated by giving away books. Global Mechanic’s A Sweet Story iPad app is one of those freebies. Check it out as it’s Canadian produced and self funded by Global Mechanic. If you like it, consider writing a review as that helps people discover the app.
What is World Read Aloud Day? World Read Aloud Day is a global literacy movement that is about “taking action to show the world that the right to read and write belongs to all people. World Read Aloud Day motivates children, teens, and adults worldwide to celebrate the power of words, especially those words that are shared from one person to another, and creates a community of readers advocating for every child’s right to a safe education and access to books and technology.”
A Sweet Story iPad app
“A Sweet Story is a charming book packed with lovely illustrations, quirky animation and an assortment of tasty childhood memories. After one reading of A Sweet Story, I found my daughter staying up late, hiding the iPad under the covers to read it one more time. That might be the highest recommendation one can give.” —Linda Simensky, Vice President of Children’s Programming at PBS
“A delicious and fast-moving little story about a brave boy and the food he hates. Best of all, it reads just like a real book.” —Russell Smith, Novelist, Globe and Mail columnist and parent