30 March 2011

Trash fiction

Look to the sidebar on the right and you’ll see me claim I’m currently reading Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took my Dog. It’s slightly a lie.

When I finished my dissertation last month—the culmination of four years of work at varying degrees of effort—there became a weird void in the universe. I’ve celebrated, but you can only get away with that for so long. I’ve been congratulated, but honestly, how many times can someone say, “Well done!,” particularly when I haven’t graduated yet? And there has been no achievement pop-up ala PS3/X-Box saying MASTERS COMPLETED to encourage me to move on. It’s all a bit of a let-down, really.

And what happened to all the energy and enthusiasm I’d been putting toward that endeavour over the last few years? Instead of instantly appearing in some other part of my life, it’s mysteriously vanished. I used to find forty hours a day to do a thousand things more than I was mentally able to do. Now I can barely find eight hours to just sleep.

My brain right now: La la la, pretty flowers.

So I’m not reading Kate Atkinson’s anything, despite that I love her work. I was going to, but even the sight of the hardback intimidates me. I bet it’s full of fleshed-out characters and intricate plots. The first page is no doubt more complicated than my brain’s current state. No, I’m reading...

Sorry, I can’t actually say. It’s too embarrassing. But I’ll present this excerpt to give you the flavour:

And then he leaned in and kissed her again, slower this time. He laid her gingerly down on the rocks by a magical stream in a forgotten ruin with darkness all around them, and it was perfect.

Yes, that says magical stream. No, I did not edit to make it more ridiculous. And by the way, it isn’t even a romance novel.

Aside from a title and cover art that make a strong case for the privacy benefits of ebook readers, the novel itself is a great argument for why there are so many kinds of books in the world. For whatever it is (or isn’t) it’s exactly what I need right now. This book does not make me think. It does not challenge my preconceptions or anything else, except that I guess the words are small so sometimes it challenges my eyesight. I already know how it will end and I suspect I already know who lives and dies, who gets together, who breaks up, and who appears in the next book (of course there’s a next book.) But I’m enjoying it, and it’s letting me enjoy it without fighting me at all. Because if I read a book that fought me right now, I might die.

Vive le trash fiction.

Photo: Blue Sky Meets Field Of Flowers by Nate Kay on flickr

07 March 2011

The Silent Library

The Independent reported today on an American company called Library Systems & Services. It has a 5 year plan to take over 15% of UK public libraries.

Battle stations, everyone! Right? Hm.

I do not support the idea of privatized libraries because I believe that the decisions about information available and services provided needs to be neutral, unbiased, and generally free from corporate sponsorship. However, reading the article didn't get me riled up about a corporation moving in on public libraries so much as it got me riled up about the attitude of some British people towards their libraries.

Many of the comments on the article are intelligent queries or statements about how a private company could run the services cheaper than a city council, or why library workers are being called out for "slack and trainers mentality" (presumably casual--is that it? someone doesn't like my campers?) or what will happen when the coffee shops and other services turn out to be more cost-effective than the book-lending service. But a huge number are complaints that suggest to me the commenters are out of touch with libraries today (possibly because until they were threatened by Americans they didn't have much use for them.)

Americans yet again undermining the culture of what makes Britain British - Haven't you Americans stamped yourselves enough over this shrinking planet?

As a Canadian I'm no stranger to negative views of the USA. But I have to wonder: if UK libraries are for sale, and an American company buys them, is that the American company's fault? Has Britain at that point been forced to comply? I'd hate to see privatized public libraries here or anywhere, but someone has to fund the services. See this map for evidence that Britain isn't bothering.

Others of various ages occupied the library computers to use Facebook (during working hours!)

Why are others not allowed to use Facebook? Because you have Very Important Work to do? If the public library is someone's only means of using the internet, are they just not allowed social networking full stop? Hey, I dislike FB as much as the next privacy-conscious human being, but it seems pretty pushy for you to make that decision for someone else.

Libraries are a unique place of silence, that is their draw...

Modern libraries are not just book-lending services and they are not just big silent study rooms. The world has changed--not just the US, but Britain too, imagine--and many people who want a comfortable silent room actually have it, with internet access, and a clean bathroom off the hall. It's called "home." The many more people who do not have this magic room still want use to the internet, and blow their nose, and clear their throat, and generally move about the place. Get a lot of them together, sometimes forgetting to silence their phone, and the noise kicks up. I'd love a silent library, but humans will be human. Sorry.

I have a unique view of libraries because I am (by the way) a librarian. Instead of popping in now and then to see that it's still just a bit too loud for my Very Important Work, I see it every day. I see that the demands on modern public libraries not coming from middle-class Very Important Work, but all kinds of people seeking entertainment and resources, seeking help to get at information they don't know how to find, needing a place to get together with their friends to study, needing a place to access the internet, and... ahem... needing the toilet. I don't want that privatized, but to suggest this is all uniquely British, or that it's all about silence, is a tad (read: hopelessly) out of touch with the service.

Photo: Shhhhhh! by hugovk on flickr

04 March 2011

World Book Night 2011

Despite my reservations, when I heard Margaret Atwood would be reading at the World Book Night celebration I rushed to Trafalgar Square right after work. Here in the UK she's known here and there, by this person or that person, maybe more than most. But back home in Canada she's our superstar. I studied her poems in high school and her novels in university. I wrote long essays about how her writing illuminated life as a woman, as a Canadian, as a human being. Etc.

The square wasn't full at 6pm, but then it was freezing and a little windy. Someone came on and quoted C.S. Lewis, talked about the value of stories and authors, and then introduced Graham Norton. And then Graham Norton started introducing authors and celebrities.

Each person read for ten minutes, if that--just enough to give a good taste of the book they'd chosen. Mark Haddon, Rupert Everett, even Boris Johnson made an appearance. Alan Bennett stated that closing libraries is child abuse. Sarah Waters read from her Fingersmith, and a performer whose name I didn't catch read Tennyson's Ulysses and gave me goosebumps.

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

It was a shame that the host reappeared with an irrelevant quip about his jacket, but the energy was still good. Walking through the crowd there were pockets of people still and quiet, listening rapt. Margaret Atwood came on to read fromThe Blind Assassin, and to tell a joke about why men and women should read a lot: men so they can seduce with stories, and woman so they know if they've heard it before.

I had to leave before it wrapped up, but by that time I already felt like reading. Maybe not any of the books that had been sampled, but something anyway. I'm not sure if the 1,000,000 books that are being given away tomorrow will inspire further sales, or if that's even the point, but if this crowd is an indication it will draw a lot of attention anyway.

02 March 2011

"Wishful" on Ether Books

I was always jealous of Captain Picard's do-hicky that let him read no matter where he was.

Then the iPhone came out and offered me a chance to do just that. It even looked a little like Picard's do-hicky. I admit that I prefer my Sony Reader because it's easier on the eyes, but the fact that I can read on my phone--let alone browse the internet--happily brings me back to 1988, a time before Microsoft Windows ruled all, when I thought that nothing in the world would ever be as cool as it was on the Enterprise.

Lucky me, then, that now one of my favourite authors has made her short fiction available on the Ether Books app. Ev Bishop has three stories uploaded, and it's her story "Wishful" that gave me goosebumps very recently, about a woman given an offer almost no one could refuse. Her sick child gets better, but at what cost?

He still asked for morning hugs. But did his arms clasp tighter and tighter? Once when she gasped in discomfort. Had he smiled?

"Be careful what you wish for" might be one of the oldest and smartest pieces of advice in life, let alone fiction, but Ev's "Wishful" makes it new again. New, real, and absolutely creepy. It's worth a read.
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