View From The Glen

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Book Expectations

Why do we read books? I ask because I read a book recently that I enjoyed most of the way through (despite somewhat cliche'd writing), but which, at the end left me feeling depressed.

I was angry with the book, I felt betrayed by it. And I wondered, do authors have a certain obligation to come through for us? To not lead us down a gentle path and then knock us over a precipice without warning?

I mean, of course not. A writer has only an obligation to obey the muse, and can do whatever he or she wants with characters. I know this. I would also argue that books should not shy away from startling the reader or making them uncomfortable. Some of the best books I've ever read do this and in general, I like a book that challenges my inherant assumptions about it and/or the world. 

But in this case, the book's title, front cover, and inside 'blurb' all suggested light cozy read, and it was, it was, it was, right up until towards the end. I saw it coming: a general sense of unease cemented with one line that left me not wanting to read on. I did read on because it's a light cozy read and I wanted the author to make it come out all right. Authors can - they have that power. In this case she didn't.

It got me thinking about what I expect from a book, and what effect my expectations have on my overall reading pleasure.

I didn't like The Friday Night Knitting Club because although it was light and enjoyable all the way through, it didn't give me the happy ending I wanted.

At the same time, I'm reading a massive tome of a book called Shantaram about the dark underworld of India's slums, drug dens, and slave markets - not happy material in any stretch - and I'm loving every minute of it, though I picked it up initially with some trepidation.

Or take a book like Atonement by IanMcEwan which I very much enjoyed. The ending of that was a big surprise to me, and it was not a happy twist, but it blew me away in the best of ways. Then again, McEwan is a master with words and stories.

So I have been thinking about what fueled my disappointment with this recent book club read.


In part I think it was the set up. The twist, when it came, was a bit cliche. I saw it coming,  and wasn't surprised by it. Secondly, the point the book makes could have been made without the main character - who I liked - having to die to prove it. I felt the death was a bit gratuitous, that is, the author did it more for shock value than because it was necessary to the plot. Thirdly, although I enjoyed the book, the writing wasn't strong enough to carry it forward and so when the ending came it fell flat. It felt like the author had a litany of checkpoints to tick off: diverse characters, check; mulit-generational storyline, check; overcoming obstacles, check; past coming back to haunt her, check; everything's going to turn out for the best, check. Oh, let's throw in a major twist, tug at some heartstrings, add some pathos - the sort of thing that will make Oprah like it and get it turned into a movie. Check.

Actually I don't know if Oprah liked it, but I just discovered it is in fact coming out as a movie starring Julie Roberts.


I think my biggest beef with the book is that not only did it have the look and promise of a light cozy read, but the writing was that of a light cozy read. And when you're immersed in a light cozy read, you don't want to be suddenly dropped into a cliche'd world of heavy major issues that have the feel of being inauthentic and just a little bit forced.

Just my opinion. If you've read it, I'd be interested in your thoughts. Or if you have an opinion on why we read and what we expect from books, I'd like to hear that too.

Happy reading.

Friday, March 26, 2010

History Mystery: Adventurous Dreamer

He came to fame initially as a dramatist, but his legacy is that of a writer of swashbuckling fiction. His characters are legendary, his stories sweeping and adventurous.

His grandfather was a french nobleman and his father a general in Napoleon's army. It was these stories that captured his young imagination. He was a gourmet cook and wrote non fiction articles on politics, history, literature and travel.

Although wildly successful, he spent more than he earned and was frequently in debt, eventually having to sell his country house, with its separate work building.
He also battled racism because of his mixed race heritage (his grandfather married a African Carribean woman) and was banned from Russia by Czar Nicholas I because of one of his novels

130 years after his death, his body was exhumed and reinterred by French President Jaques Chirac who in a televised speech claimed, "with you, we dream." 

Who Am I?

Tuesday Answer: 6 guesses in total, split 50-50 between Victor Hugo and Alexander Dumas. Hugo, best known for Les Miserables, was incorrect.

Fortunately the one person who posted their response got it right: Leanne, you win, um, you win....the satisfaction of knowing you're a literature whiz.

Dumas of course is remembered for his adventure stories such as The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

How To Succeed In Advertising

I sometimes wonder how I ended up in marketing, given my relative dismissal of all thing ad related.

Advertising, I have been heard to say, doesn't work on me. I am in so many ways an anti-consumer, and proud of it too.

Don't get me wrong - I like ads. Some of them very much. I like clever, witty ads, and can admire them for the artistry they exhibit without actually being drawn into their web, without taking on their subliminal messages of I want, I need, I deserve.

Or at least, that's what I thought.

Until tonight, when stopping as we always do on the way home from karate to get Grace a treat at the store, I ended up buying a bag of M&M's.

And why?

Because it had a picture of Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones on the package.

Yeah, I'm pretty much left scratching my head at that one too.

But the M&M's were tasty.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Habit forming

It takes 21 days to make a habit.

That's what I told my friend Leanne who is trying to blog every day now that she has moved from the Maritimes to London, Ontario.

21 days. I should know.

For example, I have been trying to finish editing a novel.

And yes, 21 days later, I am still trying to finish editing a novel.

See. Habit.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

March Break 2010

Wow, what an amazing week of weather we just had. As I write this it is snowing, but last week while we were all off, it couldn't have been nicer - the kids were out in shorts half the week!

Last year we went to Quebec City for March Break, and enjoyed a blustery week exploring the Plains of Abraham and eating in small downtown creperies. Nothing quite so adventurous this year, but sticking close to home with the temperatures in the mid teens gave us a great excuse to get outside.

There was the trampoline, where it looks like Anna is attempting a Yoga pose, while Erik tries to launch himself into the air.

There was the Treehouse because you never know when Tarzan-esque skills will be in demand.

The Swing. You know that expression, no room to swing a cat....I don't think this is what it means...

And of course the Archery range. If you ask me archery is a long lost skill. Anna blogged about this in more detail in one of her rare posts.

Somewhere in the middle was St Patrick's Day, and some pesky leprechaun got in and turned the cereal milk green in the morning and the ice cream green in the afternoon.

And in reward for yard clearing, we had a great bonfire. Some friends came over and we roasted sausages and marshmallows and drank wine while the kids all ran around. There's nothing like an early Spring bonfire to bring out everyone's wild side.

Then late Friday afternoon, when all possibilities were nigh exhausted, and we were waiting for the roofer to arrive to give us a quote on the roof, Super Mom (me) saved the day with a dozen plastic containers, water, baking soda, vinegar, food colouring and cooking oil. Experiment, I told them, and amazingly, they did. For two hours. It's incredible how entertaining a few basic household ingredients can be.

Back to school tomorrow, but it's been fun.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Cosmo Princesses

C'mon, you have to admit this is hilarious!

What - you think it discriminates against Disney Princesses?

Lighten up.

The original - with a rather sarcastic write-up - is here. But I'm a fan of and I prefer their take on this, and that post - along with the promise of more in-depth posts yet-to-come on the subject - can be found


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Mountie

Anna wants to join the RCMP when she grows up, a laudable goal.

She's got the uniform, she googles their activities, She idolizes Sam Steele, she has their web site marked as a favourite, and she is already planning when we can go and see the Musical Ride again this spring.

In the meantime, she has set up a small art shrine in a corner of her bedroom, and has pinned a full size drawing of herself in Mountie attire above her bed, presumably for inspiration.

What do your kids want to be when they grow up?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Little Weekend Fun

The kids and I are curled up on the serenity couch this blustery Sunday afternoon watching The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It's been a great weekend, though we all went in different directions.

Erik and Anna went to Cub Camp with Andrew. They had to hike into the cabin with all their gear on their backs, which meant they were carrying bags that were as big as them. All I can say is, I have tough kids.

At camp they cooked, hiked, read maps, did skits around a campfire, and earned their Black Star Badge, the colour of which - judging by the state of them when they got home today at lunch - refers to how dirty they were going to get.

Then they came home and dumped everything on the kitchen floor.

While they were gone, Grace and I had our own adventure. She was so excited about our weekend together and so we made the most of it. I took her to see Alice In Wonderland, which was utterly fantastic. Grandma came too and we went out for dinner afterwards.

At home later, there was art and books and just hanging out together. Being the youngest, she hasn't had many opportunities to have me all to herself, but she made up for it waking me up early (because Daylight Saving Time didn't interrupt my sleep enough) with a list of plans for the morning: More art, bake cupcakes (to surprise her brother and sister), Dairy Queen for lunch.

Then everyone was home.

Andrew had to work, so after he left again, I made Erik and Anna shower and change into clean clothes, we threw in the first of what is likely a few baskets of laundry, and with everyone a bit tired (but clean and fresh), we have settled in to watch Narnia.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Barnyard politics

I sat outside in the weak spring sun the other day, with a cup of coffee, my camera, and a smile as I watched barnyard politics in action. The lambs get away with a lot, they're so cute, but there's one or two crusty sheep who get a bit stroppy once in a while ~ when a lamb uses them as a stepping stone, for example, in a shortcut across the meadow. And just as in life, there's always one over-protective mother whose lambs stand dutifully by her side while their playmates frolic merrily. Rozenlynda quite clearly feels the other lambs are way out of line - she's practically frowning out there. Not that the other mothers care. And the rams stand nonchalently off to the side (unless they're sparring with the bull), as if to say, we've done our bit. Now leave us alone.

Nothing beats the blues faster than a field full of lambs. They skip, they chase, they leap, they play. No worries, no fears, just enthusiastic gambolling. Nowhere is off limits. They're on the hay bales, up in the rock pile, climbing over each other in what looks like a never-ending quest to be "King of the Mountain."

Guaranteed to put a smile on anyone's face!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Letting in the light

Ask any of my writer friends and they’ll tell you.

That I like happy endings. That I like uplifting stories. That I am a seeker of light.

(If you want a blog like that, you'll have to read yesterday's post on Fairies. Or check back tomorrow.)

In life, I know bad shit happens, but in my writing, in my reading, on my blog, I want to find the positive angle. I want to be left believing that there is hope.

But there are days, oh yes there are, when I just can’t see it.
  • When I hear of the couple in the UK who starved their baby daughter to death because they spent all their time at an internet cafĂ© caring for a virtual baby. Or the mother who webcast….no, I can’t even talk about that one.
  • When I hear of the horrors inflicted on innocent people by suicide bombers. When I think of the children without food or clean water around the globe
  • When I hear of bodies being found, of police officers being killed for doing their job, of senseless kidnappings, of the beating of a man in a wheelchair.
  • When I hear of people just giving up, jumping off the bridge. Or of people who want desperately to live dying of cancer/aneurisms/heart disease before their time.
On a day like today when I already feel despairing - for reasons nowhere near as big and awful as any of these - these threads converge brutally and threaten to crash down.

Abandon hope all ye who enter here.

I feel cracked, broken, empty. What saves me, today at least (alongside the sympathy of the world’s greatest mother-in-law) is something I read on my friend Betty’s blog, one of those little nuggets of perfectly timed wisdom.

On Twitter I passed it on: Feel like I'm cracking up - and am holding tenuously to a friend's belief that cracks are important because they let in the light.

I have to tell you, I was overwhelmed by the support of the on-line community. People I have never met, some I’ve never even heard of.

And the day got a little bit brighter.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Fairy Dust

Mom, Come upstairs and look! But close your eyes.

It's nearing five o'clock on a Wednesday, and as I climb the stairs - with my eyes open - it is like entering a new world. The landing catches the late afternoon sun, filling the hallway and the bedrooms with gentle, dappled light that makes me want to sweep the girls into its embrace and dance on the beds. Yeah, I'm channelling a combination of Emma Thompson in Much Ado About Nothing and some dreadful 1980's- era commercial for laundry soap - but in that one moment, the world is perfect and full of possibility.

I'm in the middle of making dinner. Dinners plural, actually - a couple of lasagne's from last night's surplus spaghetti sauce that I will freeze, and chicken fahitas for tonight. In between, I am answering questions about weight measurement for Erik who is finishing homework, and drafting a couple of scenes for my work-in-progress novel.

But when I reach the top of the stairs, that golden light reminds me of where my priorities lie, and I put it all aside to close my eyes and let the girls lead me to their bedroom window. The curtain is pulled back with a flourish to reveal a window of fairies in all shapes and sizes and colours, adorned with sparkles of fairy dust. I am - as always - amazed at their creativity and enthusiasm.

I have seen it now, could return with their blessing. But I am strangely drawn to the world they have created, and instead sit down with them, show them how I used to draw fairy houses when I was their age - toadstool houses with hidden doors in the stem and cunning little dormer windows disguised in the spotted caps.

The light fades quickly this time of year, and it's gone before we can cut out the first toadstool. Some literary part of my brain thinks there is a metaphor in this, but before I can even form the thought, Carpe Diem, I change my mind.

We always talk as if the moment is to be seized - as if it's trying to escape. At times this may be true, but I think it lets us off the hook too easily. Sometimes the moment is just there, hovering, waiting to fall gently into our busy life, and we just don't let ourselves see it.  Fairy Dust, looking for a place to land.

Good for the Goose

The neighbour across the river left a message on our answering machine two days ago. By the time we finally tracked him down - leaving two messages of our own in the process - we were curious as to what he wanted.

Maybe he wanted to know if Andrew still cleared snow?

Maybe he wanted someone to hay his field this summer?

Maybe the sound of our sheep dog barking at coyotes (and the occasional train) was driving him nuts?

The interesting thing about having a reputation for eccentricity is that you never know what surprises lie in store. In this case, the neighbour had a goose that was getting violent and he wanted to know:
  1. If we knew how to deal with a violent goose;
  2. If we wanted the goose; and
  3. If we knew how to butcher, pluck, and cook a goose.
Now how many people can claim to be so sought after?

Sunday, March 7, 2010


The weather is fantastic!

I know this makes me seem dull and pathetic, but one of the things I most look forward to this time of year is this:

The sweet smell of air dried linens.

And a fresh breeze whispering through open casement windows.
Begone mustiness!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Fisherman's Wharf

A friend sent me this link to a web cam overlooking the Halifax boardwalk, and I can't help glancing at it every now and then (when I should be editing).

It's the schooner, moored at the wharf; the white caps in the harbour; the grey skies reflected in the grey sea; the red brick buildings in the foreground and the "upper canadian concrete and glass" behind (thanks, Stan).

It's a million and one little things that make me homesick for Halifax.
I heard an old song down on Fisherman's Wharf,
will you sing it just one time?
~ Stan Rogers, Fisherman's Wharf

Monday, March 1, 2010

Homework Helpers

Last week, Erik had to write a three paragraph description of an Olympic event. The kicker: it had to be from the point of view of the equipment.

This is the conversation Andrew and I had with him, highlighting, I think, our respective approaches towards homework and parenting.

Erik: I'm going to pick a snowboard.
Andrew (under his breath): How about from the viewpoint of the hot pants on the skaters?
Erik: What?
Me: Ignore Daddy. A snowboard is good. So how do you (the snowboard) feel going down the hill?
Erik: Um - happy?
Me: And what else. Are you excited, proud, nervous?
Erik: Yes. (He writes the opening paragraph)
Me (trying again): What else? What do you think a snowboard would be thinking going down the mountain?
Andrew: Boom! Ow! Boom! Ow! Boom! Ow!
Erik (laughing): Can I just write that over and over?
Andrew: Sure, that's what a snowboard would think.
Me (also laughing): No.

In the end he wrote a fine piece of prose that will likely earn him a decent mark. But I wonder what would have happened if I had let him colour outside the lines, let him Boom and Ow himself down the mountain, laughing all the way?

Is there still room for creativity?