Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

July 22, 2010

Birth and… more Birth at The Breakwater House

Becoming a mother these days is a decidedly political act.  For what is I suspect the first time in history, women in Western societies now by and large have children very deliberately and by choice.  This has resulted in a radical shift in how we view motherhood: rather than being the inevitable condition of our sex, it is a lifestyle choice.  Every step from conception to your child’s University career and beyond is riddled with politics and judgement. Is the world overpopulated? Should you wait until you buy the house? What about fertility treatments? Is coffee okay while pregnant? Were you forced into that c-section? Is breast best? Gentle discipline or tight control? Private, public or alternative school?  Does the unschooled child have any social skills?  “Free-range kids” or parental neglect?  Is it okay to make a kid “repeat a grade”?  Is it okay to call my kid’s professor about his marks?

The world of parenting is pure insanity, frankly.  Absolutely gone are the days where you had kids because it just happened, and then you raised them because you loved them, come what may.  No, now parenting is as much about you, the parent, than it is about the child.  Or, if Pascale Quiviger can be considered any kind of expert (I can not determine if she has any children of her own – it does not seem to be the case, but these days, who needs to have any idea what they’re talking about to spout off about motherhood?), motherhood is much, much more about the mother than the child.  In The Breakwater House, birth is a thaumaturgical force which has the power to both save and destroy mothers’ lives.  The resultant child is a powerful talisman who can heal, mend or weaken its mother.  It is decidedly not a person.

There’s no question that motherhood is a powerful condition.  A child provides a richness and sense of expanded purpose that I certainly enjoy in my life.  Nevertheless Quiviger’s characterization of the condition as “the wound of love” was maddeningly narcissistic.  The many mothers of her novel lack the strength of character to transcend the experience intact.  Victimized or damaged women are given babies (often by the eponymous house, a lovely little  device that would have been right at home in the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez if Quiviger hadn’t over-explained her allegory out of either lack of faith in her readers or fear of a genre designation.) in order to heal them and give them a reason to be.  Tragically, the gift of a child is as likely to make a mother miserable as it is to heal them.  Here is the “wound” of motherhood’s love.  The collective voice of Quiviger’s mothers shouts, “I love you because I have to but I want my life back!”  The tone of the book is sympathetic: these poor women, crushed by maternal love.  Don’t you feel for them?  Aurore, mother of Lucie, is more or less exonerated of the crime of abandoning her 14-year-old daughter because she never wanted the child to begin with, and anyway, Lucie was apparently in the way of the lifestyle she wanted to pursue.  This rather late term abortion can be contrasted with Alambra’s sacrificed fetus; Alambra at least having been able to shed her burden before she had to give 15 year of her life up to it.  Both women share the same air of tragedy.  They loved their babies but, alas, my life.  My life.

Claire and Lucie, the “eyeyuyueye”, are a warning; collectively losing their lives to the loss of Odyssée.  They do not want to imagine life without her, and yet it’s difficult to discern their happiness at having been mothers from under the heavy veil of the novel’s insane, grief-stricken framework.  The only mother who seems truly pleased with motherhood is Gisèle, whose disabled daughter is literally nothing more than a love-generating device for a woman who suffered a debilitating mental illness until she was able to procure a baby which would love her forever, unconditionally, without inconveniently growing up and gaining its own life.  What this says about mental illness, the disabled, and the selfishness of mothers is almost unfathomably unethical.

Birth is not, in the Breakwater House, a process of creating a life outside yourself.  It is a process of conjuring up more of yourself.  Quiviger deserves kudos for composing the mother-who-lives-through-her-child to pitch-perfection, but that woman is extremely grating.

The “illuminated” prose the Globe and Mail blurb led me to expect was also a disappointment, either because I lack the ability to decode it or because the process of translation rubbed it out. Three pages in the Sphinx-like pseudo-wisdom begins: “It makes sense to begin at the end – at the beginning of the end, which in itself is a beginning.”  The “insights” which begin as simply asinine eventually become completely inscrutable:  “Without peace, she writes, survival is redundant.”  Huh?  Poetic descriptions without meaning assailed me throughout.  I have never been a big fan of novels written by poets for this very reason.  You can keep your Michael Ondaatjes and Gil Adamsons, I like my language to be clear and meaningful.  “Schizoid-pink” is not a colour, and if it is, it’s downright un-PC.

One last quibble: The blurb on the back of the 2010 English paperback edition (pictured) is completely misleading.  It suggests a narrative structure which is not there at all, and even describes events which never happened: Lucie and Claire take turns telling stories to Odyssée?  When?  The blurb inside the front flap is much more honest.  This marketing sleight of hand I think reveals the difficult task Anansi has ahead of them:  How to sell a book about motherhood which will probably frustrate most actual mothers and mystify most non-mothers?  I wish them luck but I’m afraid I can not help.

July 20, 2010

Canada’s Second National Book Collecting Contest 2010-11

I was very pleased to discover this morning that, after a year’s hiatus during which I thought perhaps they’d given up, the Bibliographical Society of Canada, the Alcuin Society and the newly-founded W.A. Deacon Literary Foundation are running Canada’s Second National Book Collecting Contest.

This is fabulous on a couple of levels.  There’s the obvious goal of the contest, to foster and encourage interest in book collecting (and book-as-object in general) in younger people.  It’s also nice to see Canadian book history organizations collaborate on a project like this: a healthy book collecting culture (including not just collectors, but dealers, publishers, academics and librarians) needs institutional support to thrive.  The contest is also shaping up to be a really excellent source of beautiful posters for bibliophiles and typography geeks.  This year’s design by Jennifer Griffiths is every bit as lovely as last year’s, even if it doesn’t contain quite so many different display types.

If you’re under 30 and collect books even as, you might think, a green amateur, I really encourage you to enter.  Everything about the contest, from the educational value of researching your books to the people you’ll meet from the sponsoring organizations, is worthwhile to a book-lover.  And who knows, right?  $1000 can buy a lot of books.

I have listed the contest under the Events tab for your future convenience.  You have until March of 2011 – good luck!

July 13, 2010

This Isn’t Specifically About Books

If you are at all connected to Academia in Toronto, you might have read one or both of these two reports about the University of Toronto’s proposal to amalgamate a number of their programs into one big “School of Languages and Literatures”.  We’re told this is some kind of utopian idea which will save $1.5 million while losing nothing but “administrative costs”.

U of T has been amalgamating classes and programs for some time now, and let me tell you what it looks like at ground zero:  Fewer classes are offered with higher enrolment caps.  Fewer professors teach with the help of more TAs (graduate or, sometimes, keener undergraduate students).  Imaginary degrees are offered which you can make up out of classes from diverse departments, but rarely can a cross-disciplinary degree student get space in other-department courses.  Money is the problem; no money to hire faculty or run departments so we all have to make do with fewer teachers, bigger classes, and slave-waged TAs and sessionals.  What can you do?  No money means no money.  Right?

I have been an undergraduate at U of T on and off for 11 years now.  When I first enrolled in 1999 I took JEF100, “The Western Tradition”.  There were, at best, 30 students in my class.  I would attend tutorials once a week with 6-10 students.  There were many sections of the class available, each taught by a professor aided by at least 1 TA.  The school year was 26 weeks long, excluding exams.

This year U of T is offering instead ENG150, “The Literary Tradition”, capped at 480 students.  Tutorials will likely be capped at 40 students, and headed by teaching assistants.  Two sections are offered, both taught by the same professor who will be assisted by a small army (12-14) TAs.  The school year is now 24 weeks.

11 years.  This has happened across the Humanities at U of T.  There is a book to be written (and there are books being written) about what’s happening to Humanities departments across the Western world, but right now I just have one question:  where did the money go?  Why, inside of 11 years, has the money directed to a course like JEF100/ENG150 been cut (it looks to me) to a tenth of what it was?  Tuition is higher than it was in 1999.  Enrollment is up.  Where has the money gone? WHERE IS THE MONEY???

July 12, 2010

Oh, the movie/tv tie-in…

I sympathize with publishers on this one, I do.  One of your literary titles has been optioned for a movie or TV mini/series – what luck!  Now the poor, overlooked book can reach thousands of new readers, brought in by the millions of film publicity dollars.  You rush the book into a new edition ready and waiting for its new audience.  Of course, the new edition had better be obvious to the movie-going public – you wouldn’t want to miss a sale to a customer who might not remember just exactly what the name of the book was, or the author.  You might need to tweak the title a little bit – better Away from Her than The Bear Came Over the Mountain, say.  You might provide some visual cues – a new cover design inspired by the film, perhaps.  You do what you need to do.  You publish a movie tie-in.

The movie tie-in works very well strictly to advertise itself.  But it works so much worse as an addition to one’s library.  This is plainly a fact in my mind as I spent much of last month trying to stealthily smuggle my book face-in wherever I go, for fear that someone might see the very embarrassing cover.  Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart’s airbrushed mugs make me feel as if I’m reading the latest issue of People, not a book.  This is bad luck on my part.  Unlike many movie-goers, I am perfectly aware of the title and author of the book a movie may be based on, and I have a privileged ability to special-order whatever edition I want through my bookstore.  But the sad reality is that once a movie tie-in has been published, it replaces the previous edition.  Too bad for you if you wanted something a little more subtle.

My issue with an edition like this Possession is unquestionably the celebrity faces which feature so prominently in the design.  This seems to be the Style for films based on literary fiction – I have unfortunate editions of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours on the shelf as well:

This is not, however, a universal design. It seems to be the case only when we’re unfortunate enough to get a film version where the stars are supposed to be a bigger draw than the source material. Case in point? Harry Potter books have always looked like… Harry Potter books.  Meanwhile, Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight books, despite their massive following and iconic cover design (iconic enough that older literary classics have been redesigned to attract the Twi-trained eye), got the film treatment, presumably to sell to those of us who only considered watching the films for the eye candy.  The lesson here is that if you hear an interesting book has been optioned by Brad Pitt and will be released staring Robert Pattinson in 2012, BUY IT NOW WHILE YOU STILL CAN.

I am sympathetic to the need for a movie tie-in, I am.  But publishers, please, try to spare us when you can!  Here are a few examples of tolerable tie-in covers:

Okay. Here we have the tie-in for Ruby Weibe’s Temptations of Big Bear. So here’s a step up from the airbrushed faces: we still have the movie’s star (Gordon Tootoosis) but he’s not staring us down. The picture they’ve chosen is fairly well-framed. Some thought to book design appears to have been made, rather than just importing the movie poster. Not too shabby.

Patrick Suskind’s Perfume: The Story of Murder could pass for a “regular” book if not for the “NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE” banner across the top which, frankly, is pretty subtle.  No celebrities, and nobody gets higher billing than the author.  This works.

I think these are hilarious. Okay, maybe not the best way to help market the movie or TV show. As seen… where? Starring who? But if your goal is to sell books and not to market the movie, then why not a generic sticker? Anyone who saw the show is going to come looking for the book and an “AS SEEN ON TV” sticker is a quick memory aid.  It’s also removable, which is a plus.

On that note, it occurs to me that a collection based on movie tie-in covers might actually be kinda fun.  Private Library – any thoughts?  As some parting food for thought, here’s one place I think the movie tie-in was an improved design: