Thursday, January 27, 2011

HNT - Author Drop-Ins

Last week's HNT post, I talked about side-effect of getting to work with so many fantastic people who work in the book industry.

One of the other great side-effects of being a bookseller are author drop-ins.

Terry Fallis, McMaster graduate, was on campus yesterday evening to meet with the McMaster Alumni book club, who are currently reading his latest novel The High Road.

Terry popped in to say hi, and I, of course, took the chance to get him to sign copies of his books we had in stock, then slap the lovely CBA "Autographed Copy" book stickers onto the front of the book.

Then, after a 30 minute debate, a heated chess match that ended in stalemate and a furious arm-wrestling match, which I just barely won (but only because I had a fellow staff member distract Terry by grabbing his satchel and running away with it) I was able to convince Terry to pose with me for a picture. 

Naw, I'm only pulling your leg. Terry agreed to pose with me immediately after the 30 minute debate, likely because I finally broke down and cried when he said he'd sooner pose for a photograph with a pound of rotting meat. But whenever I pick up one of Terry's books , I'm inspired by the satire and wit of his writing, and often conjure up my own pale attempts to write something approaching humour.

But ah yes, author drop-ins are yet another fringe benefit to being a bookseller. Gotta love it.

Monday, January 24, 2011

A Sport For Book Nerds

Yesterday morning, CBC's Fresh Air featured an in studio chat that Jen Knoch and I (as "book boosters") had with host Mary Ito about Canada Reads.  You can listen to the discussion online by clicking here.

I couldn't help but describe the reason why I have been enjoying the annual contest in which each of the final books on the list are defended by a selection of celebrity panelists and eliminated one by one, leaving a single book and author standing as that year's champion as a "sport for book nerds" -- because that's kind of what it is for me.

With the exception of following the Olympics and perhaps the Stanley Cup playoffs, I'm not really into sports. But I do love a good contest. Similarly, I'm never really been into any of the "Survivor" type "reality" shows on TV in which people are eliminated or voted off on a weekly basis. Dancing with the Has-beens or whatever that show is called doesn't give me any sort of pleasure, nor does watching a house-full of the worst room-mates you're ever likely to encounter. With the exception of the first couple of seasons of The Apprentice (because I enjoyed something about the cut-throat business challenges the teams faced, but after a few rounds, I grew tired of that too), all of those shows have done nothing for me - they simply fail to provide me with enough stimulation and intelligent content.

But I can certainly get into a hearty discussion/debate and friendly competition about what book every Canadian should read.

I mean, as a bookseller, it's a challenge I face every day.

No, not just the challenge of what books to suggest or hand-sell to customers, but rather, which books that are suggested to me that I'll actually end up reading. Not a day goes by that I don't have at least one book recommended to me - so assume that's about 250 days and 250 books per year that are suggested to me (which might be a bit light since I'm sure that through other things, such as reviews, articles, blogs, podcasts, etc, that list of suggested readings easily triples. I'm not a fast reader, so I'm suddenly faced with hundreds more books than I can possibly read in a year that are recommended to me. I need as many options as possible to help me discern among those suggestions.

Canada Reads is that type of tool for me. It's entertainment and sport, but it's also helping create a short-list of books I should read. (And yes, though I'm into it, I still have a wonderful backlist of books to read from the previous year's contests -- just because I put a book on my "to read" list doesn't mean I've already gotten to them all --it often takes me years to get to a book on my own personal short-list. But what a great thing to look forward to)

As I mentioned in the interview, this year's Top 40 list (click here for one of my previous blog posts which includes them all) is certainly a fantastic option for anyone looking to check out the best in contemporary Canadian literature. Picking any one of them provides a wonderfully diverse range of "CanLit" which is not the "CanLit" that was likely forced upon you in school.  (For an incredibly wonderful, in depth and refreshing perspective on CanLit, check out my friend Steph's recent blog post called The Stigma of CanLit and How We Can Change our Outlook on her blog Bella's Bookshelves.)

For the record, this year's Top 5 contenders for Canada Reads are:

Essex County by Jeff Lemire
The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis
The Birth House by Ami McKay
The Bone Cage by Angie Abdou
Unless by Carol Shields

And the great thing about it is that,even among these 5 titles, you get a pretty decent range of styles of writing and subject matter.  As I said, there's virtually something for everyone here.

So if you haven't pick up a book, or specifically, haven't checked out what contemporary Canadian authors have to offer, start checking out the debates and see if that moves you to pick up one or more of these books.

What's the worst thing that can happen? You might even discover that you like reading and that it's nothing like that forced, repetitious and over-killed approach where a classic Canadian novel was crammed down your throat when you were too young to fully appreciate it.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

HNT - Colleague Snapshot

I've long been blessed with getting to work with some great people over the years.

Recently, I was scrolling through some old photos and found this one -- a picture taken some time within the last few weeks I had been working in the IT department at Indigo's head office.  Circa mid summer of 2006.

It's a picture of me at my workstation at 82 Peter Street with Larry, one of the IT managers I'd worked on several projects with.  Larry was not my direct supervisor, but I still reported to him on several projects and tasks and learned a lot from him in the short time (less than a year and a half) we had worked together.

Seeing the picture reminded me of all of the amazing people I've been fortunate enough to work with and whom I continue to work with over the years. Folks like Larry. And folks like Samson (who took this picture). I haven't seen either of them in several years, but working with them was valuable and something to remember fondly.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Cereal Dregs

Dregs, the residue or last remains of an item, are often looked down upon or overlooked altogether. They're often considered worthless residue, something to be disposed of.

But how many times can you not just make the most of the dregs you're dealt, but instead, look forward to them and appreciate them as something unique and actually substantial?

Take Mini-Wheats, for example, which is a cereal from Kellogg's made of shredded wheat and covered in flavoured frosting. Once you finish all the little nuggets in the box and all you're left with are half an inch of dregs at the bottom, you think the cereal is done and ready to be tossed out.

That's one way of looking at it.

I actually prefer the dregs, the little broken bits of wheat mixed with the dregs of the frosting. Mixed with milk it makes for a wonderful breakfast cereal. I appreciate the texture, the taste, the experience.

Yes, it's a small thing, but it's an unexpected area I derive pleasure from.

I sometimes look forward to eating the dregs of Mini-Wheats more than eating the actual cereal itself.

Interesting, isn't it, how our approach to something considered negative can be flipped if you take a different perspective?  Or that one person's dregs might be another person's preference.

Just sayin.'

Saturday, January 15, 2011

That Little Faggot's Got His Own Jet Airplane

I was disappointed to see the news that "Money for Nothing" by Dire Straits was being banned for airplay in Canada because of a complaint about the offensive use of the word "faggot."

Really? It's offensive?

After a quarter century of being a staple of rock and roll, this song is considered offensive?

Get over yourselves, people.

For the record, I despise homophobia.

But this song isn't about homophobia and it's not an anti-gay song. It's a song written from the point of view of a labourer who is looking at a rock star, mocking him and being jealous of all that he has gained.

It's the perspective of the average one of us looking at celebrities and their lives and seeing that the "grass is greener" -- after all, actors, musicians, they don't work hard like us, do they? Naw, they get their money for nothing, and the rest of us work hard.

It's a simple as that. An interesting song with catchy lyrics and a fantastic guitar riff.

Okay, so according to the complain and the order, the use of "faggot" is offensive. Because fictional characters aren't allowed to voice their opinion, whether or not it is politically correct.  This isn't Mark Knopfler saying he has anything against gays -- if anything, he's mocking himself as a rock star.

But the use of "faggot" is offensive. So it needs to be banned.

So while we're at it, shouldn't we also ban the chorus itself? 

After all, you "get your money for nothing and your chicks for free" - that subjugates women, doesn't it? Shouldn't we be offended at that?  What about the fact that the singer makes fun of a primate by describing the drummer as "banging on the bongos like a chimpanzee?" Shouldn't animal rights groups take offense?

While we're at it, doesn't this song make labourers look like close-minded idiots? Shouldn't labour groups take offense to the song because it makes them all look like close-minded homophobes?

Shouldn't we just seek to ban the entire song altogether? Yes, we'll all be much better off with the song banned and forgotten all about as an important part of the 1980's cultural history. Let's let the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx decide all the artistic content that is safe for us to consume.


I just logged on to iTunes and bought the song. That's my reaction to show my support of the song and the artists.


Thursday, January 13, 2011

HNT - Grade 13 Lounge

A friend I hadn't seen in many years contacted me recently after discovering my blog.

Apparently, I have the same zany sense of humour I had back in high school. (That's a relief to hear because I thought I was becoming a grumpy old man).

For kicks, she emailed a couple of pictures she had taken of me. They were both taken in our "Grade 13 Lounge" -- yes, we were the last official "Grade 13" class in Ontario. This was back in 1988. What used to be known as Grade 13 morphed into "OAC" the following year -- that, too is now gone, and instead of folks in high school getting the chance at that fifth year to try to figure out all their post-secondary options, they're forced to make that decision before the end of 4 years.

I valued Grade 13 not for the additional year of learning, but for the chance to sort a few things out and attempt to become better prepared for post-secondary life. At the age of 17/18 we really needed that extra year to try to find out what we wanted to do next.

But back to the "Grade 13 Lounge" at Levack District High School. This was a small room (perhaps 15 feet X 15 feet) located in a corner of the cafeteria. The room was usually filled with borrowed/thrown out furniture nobody in their right minds would normally sit in and gave the grade 13's their own special little "hang-out" separate from the rest of the school.  It was like a little oasis or place to escape -- I remember that from Grade 9 through 12 the "Grade 13 Lounge" was a seemingly magical place that one day we would get to enter. There was something special about being allowed in to it once you got to that grade. (Perhaps like the key to the executive bathroom)

Between classes it was the easy place to find almost anyone in Grade 13. We'd spend time there just hanging out, chatting, joking around, worrying about the future, gossiping, hiding from the rest of the school, sleeping and sometimes even studying.

In any case, here are a couple of shots of me taken in the Grade 13 Lounge back in 1987/88.

In this first one you can clearly see Steve, me, Lisa and Penny.

I seem to have my eyes closed in that shot, although I suspect, based on the hardcover and sheet of paper on my lap and the pen in my hand, that I was composing something -- maybe working on a homework assignment, or perhaps more likely writing a story about a middle aged man who was reflecting back on his high school years.

The second shot shows me wearing a lovely brown bathrobe and pajamas as I was entering the lounge. Lisa is also in this shot, as is a Top Gun movie poster and Pizza Pizza box.

No, we didn't take our "sleep time" in the Grade 13 Lounge that seriously. This photo must have been taken during one of our high school's theme dress-up days. If I'm guessing correctly, I'd say it was "pajama day" -- and I'm only guessing that because our "Dress Like Your Favourite Father of Conferation Day" didn't get all that many participants.

Interesting that I have my eyes closed for that shot, too.

Is this a reflection of reality, how, at that age, my eyes were closed to much of what was going on in the world around me, so consumed by my personal identity, by the things pertaining to me personally, that I just couldn't see? Could this be a reflection that, like Hamlet, I was just not seeing the "things beyond heaven and earth" that my pal Horatio was trying to inform me about?

Or was it merely that I had really bad timing and blinked at the same moment the photo was being snapped?

In any case, there's a small insight into that special place we called the "Grade 13 Lounge" and back to a time when I had a full head of hair and seemed to walk around with my eyes closed.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Carpe Glacies

There's a tendency for us to panic when things such as "snow days" get in the way of our scheduled daily tasks and duties. For example, with a potential "snow day" looming, we can panic and worry about all the appointments we had planned for, all the plans we had set.

A "snow day" can throw is into a tizzy worrying about it setting us a back a full day of productivity.

Alternatively, we can "Carpe Glacies!" -- I'm far from an expert in Latin, but if Carpe diem, which popularly translates to "seize the day" and suggests we make the most of each moment, I'll toss out my Canadian version of that for the winter months in which we might "Carpe glacies" or "make the best of a snow day."

Yes, we can fret and fuss and worry about all the things we won't be able to do during a snow day -- or, we can embrace it for what it is, take advantage of the chance to be snowed-in with family and friends -- enjoy an unexpected "mental health" break from the daily grind from the stress we inflict on ourselves and simply pause to enjoy the simpler things in life - like the fact that we live in a part of the world in which this beautiful white stuff falls from the sky during the winter months and allows us an opportunity to romp around and play in the moment just like we used to when we were kids.

In other words, we can chose to "carpe glacies."

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Random Acts Of Books

It's been a while since I've paid more than casual attention to Bookcrossing, one of the first book social networking sites that I can remember.

Touted as "the world's library" the premise for bookcrossing is simple: Label, Share, Follow.

You label a book with a unique indentifier and sticker, leave it "in the wild" for someone else to find, and watch it's journey/travels as it moves around.  Bookcrossing was launched in 2001 and is a lot of fun for a book nerd. According to the bookcrossing website, as of today, there are currently 904,699 BookCrossers and 6,753,877 books travelling throughout 132 countries.

I haven't participated in it much in the past couple of years, but still get weekly reports of books that have been released in the Hamilton area. Yes, you can sign up to receive auto alerts -- though I haven't had the pleasure of following an alert to a book.

Here's an example of an alert you might see (this one's from several months ago)

The following 1 book(s) were released in the last 24 hours:
      Town House by Tish Cohen
      • Starbucks on Locke Street, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada at 8/13/2010 11:22 AM

I have a few books on my shelves that I'd love to release and see where they end up. We'll see if I have time to get them released, and where - most of my previously "in the wild" releases never resurfaced. Sure, they might have been found and read by people, which is cool, but I never had the pleasure of knowing where they got picked up and who got them.

Of note, Bookcrossing is one of the few social networking sites where I haven't used my own name nor the same profile pic that I use virtually everywhere else.

On Bookcrossing, my profile name is ParnasusHome - I had recently read a class book called The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley. The title attracted me, but there is no supernatural element in the book - rather, the title refers to the "ghosts of all great literature" that haunt libraries and bookstores. It was a fun book, and referred to Parnassus on Wheels (of which The Haunted Bookshop is a prequel to).

How interesting that, since these books by Morley are in the public domain, I can now easily print versions of them on the Espresso Book Machine at Titles Bookstore McMaster University - whereas the first time I encountered The Haunted Bookshop was by chance on a sale table at the back of a bookstore in Toronto - the version I'd picked up was a 2004 hardcover reprint of the classic.

Hmm, that gives me an idea. Perhaps I should print a special McMaster Innovation Press version of The Haunted Bookshop, label it and release it and see where it ends up. Ah, so many fun ideas, so little time.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Seen Reading Something

Julie Wilson has brought back regular updates to the popular "Seen Reading" website.

This is where Julie or one of her tribe sees a person reading, makes a note of the book as well as what page of the book the person is on, then heads to a local bookstore to make a note of the text and reports it all on her Seen Reading website.

Image clipped from Seen Reading website via Dear Toronto #33 (video)

It's all about celebrating reading and all the glorious elements that are part of it.

I think it is a brilliant way to get people excited about books and reading.  In Julie's words:  "Readers are cool. Authors work hard. Publishers take chances. And you all deserve to be seen!"

What I'm really curious about (and perhaps a tiny bit worried about), is, with the advent of eReaders now more popular than ever, will it be harder for "Seen Reading" sightings? I mean, it's one thing if I'm sitting on the GO train and reading a paperback or hardcover that the person across from me can easily see. It's quite another if I'm reading it on my ereader device (in my case, my iPhone)

For one, the person can't easily tell what book I'm reading.  For that matter they might think I'm just checking email or perhaps watching a movie or one of several other dozen activities that can have a person staring transfixed at their mobile device.

To me, the "Seen Reading" part of book culture is fascinating. Given that I usually have more than one book on the go, I've occasionally made a conscious choice as to which book to take with me when I know I'll be reading it in public.

C'mon, admit it yourself. You sometimes decide that it's acceptable for people to see you reading BOOK X because it'll make you look smart or savy -- but you wouldn't want people to see you reading BOOK Y because it's either one of those "guilty pleasures" or might reflect badly on you. (IE, perhaps reading a book called "How To Get Rid of Your Herpes" on the subway as embarassing whereas "Remembrance of Things Past" by Marcel Proust might elevate someone's opinion of you)

From my own experience, when I was reading The Need To Kill: Inside the World of the Serial Killer by Steven A. Egger a few years ago (which is a fascinating look at serial killers and psychopathy, useful fruit for someone who writes horror fiction and needs to get into the head of some really sick people in order to create believable characters) I often wondered what people might think about me.  Interesting, isn't it, that I feel the need to explain why I was reading such a book -- that it was for research and not because I'm a sicko who gets off reading about murder. Imagine how many people sitting across from me quietly slipped away once another seat became available when they saw the title "The Need to Kill."

In any case, I'm curious to see how the anonymity of eReaders might affect the way people are "Seen Reading" -- will dedicated eReader devices allow users to add customizable "skins" that show their default prefered reading tastes (perhaps similar to iPhone and iPad skins)? Will there be an "out-facing" logo on the back of future dedicated eReading devices showing the front cover of the book a person is currently reading?

Or will we simply lose a small part of that wonderful experience us book-nerds have of taking that second look at the person across the aisle from us on the subway just to check out what book they're reading?

Thursday, January 06, 2011

HNT - Three Amigos

Between Christmas and New Years I had a brief chance to hang out and have a few beers with two of my oldest buddies, Pete and Steve (Er, not that they're old, although we're all getting a little long in the tooth - but that I've been friends with them for most of my life)

In the middle of the shits and giggles, I tried to snap a picture of the three of us. I took a half dozen shots, most of which were either too blurry, had my finger in front of the lens or showed just me and neither one of them.

Here's the best one. (Sad, isn't it, that THIS is the best one of the lot)

And here's the best out-take - Steve laughing at my lack of photography skills, and a pretty decent shot of one of my fingers. There's no fooling around with just the corner of my thumb - if I'm going to ruin the shot, that misplaced digit is taking centre stage.

The thing I love best about getting together with Pete and Steve is the fact that we can be downright silly and laugh uncontrollably like a bunch of kids at the stupidest jokes and all the simple things like flatulence that send children into non-stop giggle fits.

It's good to be able to just let go like that, let the laughter take over, and carpe diem, just like we used to when we were kids.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

A Beacon In The Mess

January brings the return of the "Rush" season at a campus bookstore - skids piled up with boxes and textbooks, huge groups of students beginning a new term and  looking for their required course materials.

As a campus bookseller, it means long days of doing our best to help students find the things they need, then ducking and covering as they see the retail price of the over-priced textbooks that we have no control over. (Except, perhaps, to bring in used books, which cause the publishers to shake their fists at us and then jack up the prices on their books to compensate for lost sales -- it's an endlessly frustrating cycel where nobody seems to win)

To top it off, I'm fighting off a nasty cold and cough that just won't go away. And there's no way I'm taking a sick day on these 12 hour plus days that are critical to a campus bookseller.

But there's the occasional glimmer of hope in these days, such as a student who is happy with the customer service they received, pleased that we took the time to explain things to them and helped them make an informed purchasing decision that saved them money or saved them time.

Or the customer who waded through the crowds the other day to browse through the general books fiction section to get a book to read for the sheer pleasure of it.

We somehow managed to connect for a a quick minute of talk, in which she pointed out a book she'd read and enjoyed.  A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse.

The book concerns the founding of a unique Paris bookstore called "The Good Novel" that will stock only masterpieces in fiction, selected by a secret committee of writers. The opening of the store is met with fantastic sales. Then it goes awry when attacks start to happen (people upset with the elitist attitude of the store) both in the blogosphere and in the real world and the novel evolves into a sort of mystery.

It looks like an interesting read, just the thing for a book-loving nerd like me.

So, amidst the chaos and frustration, a neat book recommendation rises up, offering me a beacon of light.

Got to love those little things that take just a matter of a few extended seconds, but add great value to your day.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Writing Resolutions

I tend to not make conventional resolutions each year (other than always attempt to re-focus basic efforts towards eating better, losing weight and reading more), but for the past few years I have set up some basic writing goals.

Before 2010 hit, I set up a few goals.  Here is what I resolved, writing-wise for 2010:
  1. Finish the first draft of my novel A CANADIAN WEREWOLF IN NEW YORK
  2. Continue to keep 3 to 5 stories into circulation at various short-fiction markets
  3. Try my hand at writing a non-fiction article on the topic of fatherhood and sending that to a "parenting" market
Here's how I did:
  1. I completed the first draft of A CANADIAN WEREWOLF IN NEW YORK, and have since put it aside to age a little before I take a stab at doing a second draft version of it.
  2. A quick check of my writing submission journal reveals that I kept no less than 3 stories in circulation at all times this year. That seems to have worked because I did sell a few stories. (And you can't sell them if you don't submit them)
  3. I did NOT write a non-fiction article on the topic of fatherhood nor did I send that to a parenting market.  (I did, however, write and publish 11 other non-fiction pieces, mostly publishing-related articles) and I did pitch a "customer experience" article to a food services retail magazine (they didn't take it, but the article was a nice stretch for me)
In terms of other things achieved outside of this list, in 2010 I sold 3 short stories and my novel I, DEATH, which is slated to be published in November 2012.

As always, I got sidetracked incredibly from my writing this past year. For the past 6 months especially, I've been bringing a lot of work home with me (shall I call it homework?) that I've been doing in the late evening and early morning, and that has stolen much of my writng time from me.  Also, being heavily involved as a board member of Canadian Booksellers Association takes a fair portion of my free time as well.

However, those need to be recognized for what they are: excuses!

It might be nice to have excuses so as not to be held accountable for commitments. But let's be honest, excuses are only useful if the goals themselves aren't important to you. If you're serious about achieving something, you need to achieve them DESPITE good excuses.

A mantra for writers (or perhaps even a resolution for those who want to complete writing projects) might be:  ACCEPT NO EXCUSES! or I WILL ACCEPT NO EXCUSES FOR NOT WRITING!

We all willingly give up precious minutes every day to a ton of mundane tasks - I'm sure that even in the busiest days, the average person can find a simple 15 minutes to devote to an important task. 15 minutes a day focusing on writing might be all it takes to get a few things done. (That's not to say ONLY 15 minutes, because there are days when I spend hours -- but 15 minutes a day is a good start)

So with that in mind, here are 3 goals I'm setting for myself in 2011:

  1. Sell a non-fiction article outside of books/publishing (I'm not going to lock myself down with a "parenting" article, because along with my "food services/customer service" article, I've been kicking around a "men's health" style article (from a complete novices' POV of course). This year I'll take the shotgun approach, scatter a few and see what sticks.
  2. Complete the re-write for I, DEATH (since that version of the manuscript is due at the publisher by the end of the summer to begin the official publication schedule)
  3. Get my novel MORNING SON back in circulation with publishers
  4. Work on the second draft of my novel A CANADIAN WEREWOLF IN NEW YORK
  5. Keep between 3 and 5 stories in circulation at all times.

Yes, I upped the ante this year - from 3 goals to 5.


Because in the background, I'm also working on a non-fiction book idea that Francine suggested I work on. And if I want to get that done, I need to be extremely focused in my approach and not allow myself to slack off.  Writing begets writing.  I've found in the past that the more I write, the easier it is to write even more. There's something about being in the "swing of things" or neck-deep in the flow of writing that simply generates more.

So there - the year is young and I'm filled with a commitment to get these goals done.

Have YOU set any writing/creative goals for yourself for 2011?