Thursday, July 30, 2009

The lord helps those who help themselves.

So it's no secret to many of you that I am a bit of a sucker for the self-help genre. I think I like self-help for the same reason a lot of people do (at least, I sincerely hope, for the sake of humanity, that people share my reasoning): these books make me feel better about myself. You read Date Like A Man and you say to yourself, "Well, at least I'm not having unprotected sex to please guys!" (I so, so wish I were exaggerating on that one.) Or you pick up He's Just Not That Into you and muse, "At least I don't take life advice from a book based on a dubious line from a dubious television show!" (And then maybe you get a little meta about how they made a MOVIE of a BOOK based on a QUOTE and WOW POP CULTURE IS SO CRAZY. Or maybe that's just me.) These books make me laugh, they make me wince, and every once in awhile, they make me think semi-seriously about how I cope with certain situations and people and problems. I might not heed the authors' advice, but they definitely get my psychological hamster back on the wheel.

Or at least, they used to. I think maybe I've reached a point where I'm either too self-righteous or too cranky to read these books anymore, even in jest. After a long, sweaty day at work yesterday, I sweatily picked up Why He Didn't Call You Back from our new books display, figuring that at the very least it would give me something to giggle at before bed. How wrong I was. Instead of drifting off to sleep on waves of moral superiority, I laid awake and flipped each page fuelled by rage. I cannot even begin to tell you how mad this book makes me. The basic premise is a quasi-scientific "study" borrowed from the syllabus of the so-called "research methods" class you have to take to become a librarian. You know, surveys, qualitative analysis of episodes of The Office, that kind of thing. Anyway, the backbone of this woman's "research" is the Exit Interview, which organizations use to get a beat on why people are leaving their jobs and figure out what they could have done differently. She goes on and on about what a great technique this is for the business world. The idea of applying this principle to dating is so clinical that it makes me want to cry. And then she takes the resulting "data" and creates ten archetypes of failure with clever names like Debbie Downer (someone who wears too much black and is negative), The Closer (someone who wants to have children and is seeking a long term relationship--what an unrealistic expectation for dating!), and Bitch-In-Boots (I think this is just someone who is mean and wears nice shoes? I kind of lost her train of thought here). AND THEN she tells you all the things you should do to basically not be yourself anymore. AND FINALLY she includes a script for performing exit interviews on your own dates to see just how bad you screwed up in the eyes of your potential suitors. I know, I'm as disgusted as you are.

This book is a perfect storm of shame and self-doubt, and it presupposes that you're a hot mess, it's just a matter of figuring out what kind. It's the Lucy Van Pelt school of therapy. I know the whole premise of self-help is to examine oneself I know they usually go above and beyond anything that could be considered rational self-assessment, but this one seemed particularly egregious to me. The thing about Why He Didn't Call You Back that really tips it over the angry edge is this: not only does the author ask you to examine your own faults, she also asks you to solicit feedback on your flaws from the people around you. This is fucked up, and not even the cute appendix of "success stories" (including one from her own husband about how she drank a lot of Dr. Pepper on their first date--I'm as confused as you are, people!) can detract from the fact that this book is designed to make you feel bad about the way you are. Not to mention the inherent weirdness of applying business principles to the supposedly fun and fabulous pursuit of a life partner.

Anyway, I'm declaring a personal moratorium on self-improvement for the rest of the summer. I'm going to help myself by purchasing wine coolers and making playlists for weddings and burying my nose in Martha Stewart Living, because if there's one thing I've learned, it's that there are few problems that cannot be solved by trying a new panzanella recipe or doctoring up your dining room chairs with a little bit of gingham ribbon. Seriously.

Happy Friday, ducklings. Here's a song to kick off the long weekend dance party.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Back to the land.

The Man Booker International Prize list came out yesterday. This award is different from the standard Booker in some way, and you will have to read the press release yourself to find out just how, because I got bored halfway through the first sentence. Lately I am somewhat disillusioned with literary fiction. With a few exceptions, those high-profile public-intellectual books just aren't doing it for me anymore. I blame a decreasing attention span, a recent obsession with the Runaways series by Brian K. Vaughan (serious genius) warmish weather, and my weekend rafting trip up the Ottawa River. The latter has resulted in me half-assedly learning more about the great outdoors, adrenaline junkies, and simple living. So far this pursuit has manifested itself in checking out every Jon Krakauer book from the library and googling international standards for the difficulty of white water rapids, but don't worry--pretty soon I will be doing everything in an extreme manner.

Speaking of simple living and crazy wilderness, in a grand gesture of CBC Radio serendipity, the first thing I heard when I got home all sun-baked and waterlogged on Sunday night was a particularly uplifting episode of Dispatches. Usually Dispatches is my least favourite hour of the week. 6:30 on a Sunday evening is an undeniably depressing time of day, and listening to segments on bombing girls' schools in the middle east or the increasingly screwed-up wetlands of Tahiti or whatever this week's feel-good item may be always makes me want to stick my head in the oven. But this past weekend, the radio was on my side, and I was treated to an interview with Dervla Murphy, this incredibly honest, eco-minded woman who travels the world by bike and has written an awesome-sounding catalogue of travelogues on places from India to Siberia to Europe. I usually hate travel writing, but just listening to her rail on traditional hotels and the lazy way westerners travel and tick their meaningful experiences off a list as they go made me want to dive right into her books. And I will, if anyone ever returns them to the library.

I guess what I liked best about her is that she is this feisty, funny old lady who looks like your grandmother but continues to beat a path around the world on her own terms. I'll never be a traveler, but I'll always admire people who do things their own way.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Sylvia Plath, get out of my head.

When I was thirteen I was, like so many other angsty teen girls, a wannabe poet and a wannabe suicide risk. I also had a borderline unnatural obsession with being published in Seventeen magazine. Everybody knows that no self-respecting seventeen year old actually reads Seventeen--this periodical (if you can use such an esteemed word to describe it) is meant for the twelve to fifteen year old set. Before you learn to drive, before you start sneaking out to go to peach schnapps-fueled house parties, you read Seventeen and dream of one day having a boyfriend and maybe buying a Hypercolor t-shirt.

Anyway, the sad-sack teenagae wastelander that was me at thirteen could not have been more delighted to discover that Sylvia Plath had actually once won the Seventeen short story contest. (Incidentally, she's not the only respectable author who has--Curtis Sittenfeld, Meg Wolitzer, and a handful of other seriously great woman novelists have also graced its pages.) Wow, I thought to myself, this Sylvia Plath character really has it all--publication in an established magazine, a suicide legacy, great bangs. I need to learn more! This was truly the level of my analysis when I checked out a bunch of her books from the library before a family trip to the cottage. I spent the better part of a week in the loft, devouring The Bell Jar (that was the same summer I read the Catcher in the Rye, I think--ah, to be a completely unwitting cliche again) and working out a timeline for literary fame and fortune. First, I'd win the Seventeen contest. Then, I'd intern at a better magazine. Then, I'd stick my head in the oven (or maybe OD on pills? I couldn't quite decide). My life's work was figured out.

Luckily, years of therapy and a serious attitude adjustment set me on a different path, and I didn't give Sylvia a whole lot of thought after that, excluding a brief period after her biopic came out, when I became obsessed with her wardrobe and the way she layered cardigans over one another. Until this weekend I don't think I'd read any Plath since I was a teenager. Then on Sunday night, I was skulking around a friend's place, looking for something to read. "Here," he said, from behind a Patrick O'Brien paperback, "you'd probably like this," and threw a battered copy of Plath's collected works at me. Bear in mind that this person has also urged me to read The Dark Tower series and had two James Patterson books on his bedside table. It was probably the weirdest recommendation he'd ever passed along. It turns out that he had to read it for an English class in another life, and he'd never thrown it out after he gave up on academia. I'm glad he didn't. There's something really vulnerable and strange about reading someone else's copy of a book, especially one that's been underlined and marked up and dog-eared within an inch of its life, one that you'd never in a million years think you'd find in their possession. It kind of makes you think about the writer and the person in a totally different way.

So I guess this isn't really about Sylvia Plath. It's about writers coming back into your life for random reasons at random times. And it's about finding something good to read under a trash heap, and finding some part of yourself long forgotten too. Has this ever happened to you? If not, I hope it will soon.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

I'm a wrecking ball, in a summer dress.

I've been reading a little this week, but mostly I've been watching Veronica Mars (thanks Alice), lusting after fictional characters therein, and wondering why I have a 16 gb iPod that's practically maxed out when really the only songs I need on it are Midnight Train to Georgia, This Flight Tonight, and this.

Incidentally, part of the reason I love Midnight Train to Georgia so much is the episode of 30 Rock that ends with the whole cast doing an epic version of this song. (This episode is also the one where Liz gets dumped by the co-op board and she drunk dials them while drinking white wine on her treadmill--a scene I found depressingly relatable). Also, this short version starring Ben Stiller, Jack Black, and Robert Downey Jr., which aired on American Idol last year, and is arguably American Idol's greatest contribution to western culture.

Further incidentally, I've always thought that Nazareth's version of This Flight Tonight is the most successful cover song of all time, if only because you would totally not know it was a cover if you'd never heard Joni's version. THEIR INTERPRETATION IS JUST THAT PERFECT.

And finally, this song is probably the one I get stuck in my head more than any other.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Negative Nelly Goes to the Library.

When I was a kid I had some issues with anticlimacticism. I'm not sure if that's actually a word but it's the best way I can think to describe the feeling of really really looking forward to something, like a sleepover or a birthday or an episode of Full House (random divergence: for a long time my brother and I were only allowed an hour of TV a day, and if we wanted to watch Perfect Strangers and Full House on Friday nights, it meant giving up the after-school halcyon hour of Get Smart reruns. Torture!), only to be kind of disappointed by the event itself. Maybe it's the Eeyore in me, but the more I look forward to something, the less awesome the thing itself seems to be.

I am sad to report that lately, this feeling has bled out into my reading. Two books I was really looking forward to turned out to be complete and utter washes. The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb sounded like my kind of literary crack: rich characters, generation-spanning plotlines, framed around a recent disaster (okay, not that I am into books about Columbine, but I love a good current plot point, especially one about twisted teens). But there's something about Lamb's writing that's just so unemotional and rough. I couldn't find anything sympathetic in this book. And then I skimmed ahead and saw that the narrator was going to spend the next 300 pages delving into some piece of his ancestors' past, and I saw the words "Civil War," and I promptly returned it to the library.

And then I checked out The Incident Report by Martha Baillie, which everyone in the library and literary worlds seems to be losing their minds over these days. On the surface it's a pretty great premise, especially for anyone who's ever worked in a public library (the few, the proud, the cranky). Every chapter of the book is framed as an incident report, those awful, tedious document that has to be completed everytime someone utters a death threat or barfs or calls your children's librarian a devil worshipper for dressing up on Halloween. Around the tenth report, I realized that this book hit way too close to home. I don't want to read about a library employee helping a patron figure out if the government is spying on her via the pizza truck parked outside her building. I live that shit. And I think I could've written it better. Because I'm a sore loser today, folks. A sore loser about to spend eight hours of sunshine indoors.

Here's something to look forward to though: A weekend spent re-reading Harry Potter and rekindling my university love affair with the Strokes, as well as all their killer side projects. (Thanks again, Noah.) Happy Friday, ducklings.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Baby, you can drive my car.

Recently I've started driving to work again. That last sentence makes it sound like I have a choice in the matter, when sadly, I don't. It's either driving or the Kingston bus system, which, I'm told, is somewhat lacking in the functionality department. I guess I could take a taxi, but that's excessive even by my standards. I'm not a huge fan of driving, although I do love being driven around. I once wrote that very thing in an online dating profile, back when car ownership was one of the qualities I was looking for in a potential partner, mostly because I hoped to eventually have a boyfriend to pick me up from work. Sadly all the automotive owners were either crazy or drove Saturns, and I bit the bullet, closed down my Nerve account, and bought my own car. These days I make a lot of badass mix CDs to quell the cranky panic that often overcomes me every morning. Here's a sample of the world's best drive to work playlist.

The North Pole--The Walkmen

Arguably the best Fuck You song of all time.

Weakened State--Sarah Harmer

I've posted this one before but it bears reposting.

The Cheapest Key--Kathleen Edwards

Embedding disabled my ass. This is a truly terrible video.

Heavy Metal Drummer--Wilco

This clip is from I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, which I pretty much know by heart. This is one of the best moments in the whole movie, second only to all the other moments of the whole thing.

Gronlandic Edit--Of Montreal

Best played when you have other people to do the harmonies on the chorus.

Cut Your Hair--Pavement

I don't care how played into the ground this song was in 1994, it still gets me jacked every damn time. Every hell damn ass time.

Panic--The Smiths

Or, you know, most Smiths songs.

Baby Don't Do It--The Band

Listening to this song should be mandatory for all people on all days. Hell yes, Levon. Hell yes.

And finally, anything and everything by Joel Plaskett, but mostly A Million Dollars.

Driving to work in the summer makes me feel like I'm seventeen again. There was one summer when my parents went away and left the car with me, and I could drive myself home from work after the late shift at the library. I'd cruise the streets of Hamilton with the windows down, listening to, like, lounge music or Van Morrison or whatever cultivatedly eccentric thing I was into. I felt freer than I'd ever felt in my life. It was pretty amazing.

So maybe, on second thought, I don't hate driving so much.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Summer nights.

Every once in awhile I get a little worried that all the navel-gazing quasi-autobiographies I read are turning me into more of a hermit. Reading the vividly illustrated, embarrassingly candid memoirs of other people, I get to thinking a little too much about myself. Then I turn around and remember that books don't turn people into hermits, the idiots surrounding them do. I'd leave my apartment more if it were less awesome. (Seriously, guys! I have an Adirondack chair on my porch now! It provides the perfect vantage point for police chase action!) Also, I might go out if I truly believed that people could entertain me more than books and episodes of Veronica Mars. But since the jury's still out on that, here's a summer reading list of confessionals and comics that are helping me through the long unnecessary cocoon of summer.

I Was Told There'd Be Cake by Sloane Crosley.

I think the book flap called her something stupid and reductive like David Sedaris for women. Don't let that dissuade you, whether you love Sedaris or not. Crosley recounts episodes from her past with hilarious insight and clarity and can shift from baking the perfect pear torte to finding a friend's feces on her living room floor with astonishing subtlety. Her writing is what Sex and the City would have been if it had had any subtext. And the cover is priceless--everyone has sat on that ugly couch cushion. I think the one in my gramma's living room was covered in protective plastic.

Stuck in the Middle with You, edited by Ariel Schrag.

You already know about my penchant for the horrors of adolescence, and also my love of comics. This anthology combines the best of these. You will laugh and cry and wish you knew how to draw. You will also get Stealer's Wheel earworming its way through your head every time you read the title, and let's face it, there are worse songs to sing over and over again.

Today's useless transgression: I never realized till just now that Gerry Rafferty was the lead singer of this band. And here I've spent years loving this song and Baker Street in exclusive but equal ways!

Doves are crying over here, friends.

Girl by Blake Nelson.

A long, long time ago, I read an excerpt from this book in the first incarnation of Sassy magazine and it pretty much changed my life. I'm not exaggerating, not even a little bit. Reading the short story version of Nelson's first novel marked the first time I'd ever really seen my own frustrations and longings written down, from the complete and utter confusion about the opposite sex to the nervous, anticlimactic feeling of going to an all ages show that was kind of lame and not wanting your friends to know you were unimpressed. Not to mention the incredible significance of thrift store shopping. In that pre-Amazon world it took me about six years to locate a copy of the actual book. When I finally read it cover to cover, my whole body heaved in a sigh of relief and recognition. Blake Nelson has written a bunch of truly great teen novels since this one, but none will ever top Girl for me. Anyone, boy or girl, who was a teenager in the early 90s really needs to read this book.

The Wonder Spot by Melissa Bank.

Yes, I always praise this book. No, I don't have anything new to add. I just really urge you to read it. Seriously.