All things come to a beginning

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Comment briser le Coeur de sa Mère by Pierre Ahnne

"La mère dit au fils de courir pour se faire du bien, de s'amuser un peu, de respirer le bon air. Alors l'enfant cours un peu en avant et s'amuse à se raconter des histoires. Il est nécessaire d'employer pour cela des mots, des bruits de bouche, des fredonnements avec imitation d'instruments de musique, des gestes et tous les souvenirs visuels qu'on peut mobiliser sur le moment. Ces différents moyens se relayent, le geste de se fendre en imitant le cliquetis de l'acier avec une luisance et des pourpoints en tête achevant par exemple la phrase qui lui parlait d'épées cliquetants. L'idéal serait même qu'ils ne fassent plus qu'un, que les mots les gargouillis les gesticulations les fragments colorés ne forment plus qu'une seule pâte. Il faut la travailler longtemps, la lier dans des répétitions inlassables. Alors, tout à coup, elle prend: on sent que quelque part on tient, avec des organes préhensiles qu'on possède quelque part mais qui ne se voient pas, un peu de la matière élastique et glissante dont les histoires sont faites. On finit par sentir qu'on est devenu soi-même cette matière qui lie les mots, les bruits, la musique, les images"

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

You are what you read?

Published in the NY Times today:
"Hyperion Starts Imprint to Help Women Whittle the Book Choices" By MOTOKO RICH

Over the last several years, in an effort to more narrowly market to book buyers, publishers have brought out new imprints aimed at groups ranging from African-Americans and Latinos to Christians and political conservatives. Now, Hyperion is planning to start an imprint aimed at women. Called Voice, the imprint, which will publish its first title in April, is the brainchild of Ellen Archer, Hyperion’s publisher, and Pamela G. Dorman, a 19-year veteran of Viking. It will be just one of a number of new imprints aimed at female readers: Warner Books already has a women’s imprint called 5 Spot and in the fall is starting the Springboard Press, for baby boomers, with a large portion of its titles catering to female readers. Voice is specifically focusing on women from their mid-30’s and older and will have a resolutely anti-chick-lit bent, said its founders.


Next month, Hyperion’s sales force will begin marketing five titles to booksellers, starting with “The Feminine Mistake” by Leslie Bennetts, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair magazine. In it, Ms. Bennetts argues that women who “opt out” of careers to raise children forfeit the financial, intellectual, emotional and even medical benefits of working outside the home. Other titles in the imprint’s first lineup include “Life’s a Beach,” a novel by Claire Cook, author of “Must Love Dogs,” which was made into a movie starring John Cusack and Diane Lane, and “The Empty Nest,” an anthology of essays on life after children leave the home edited by Karen Stabiner, a Los Angeles-based writer.


Ms. Dorman said she viewed the new imprint as being “kind of like a book group giving an imprimatur” to new titles. “People are overwhelmed by choice, and what they want is someone who is self-selecting for them,” she said. “We want to find people that they may not otherwise find and highlight them.”


“Any author’s greatest fear is that you’ll publish a book and it will kind of get lost in the shuffle on a large list at a large house,” Ms. Bennetts said. “The great appeal of going with Voice was that it was a highly targeted list with a very specific audience.”

Some in the publishing industry questioned whether women — who are widely believed to buy a majority of books — really needed an imprint of their own. “Pam’s a good editor, and I’m sure she’ll do a good imprint,” said David Rosenthal, publisher of Simon & Schuster. But, he added, “I’m always wary of ghettoization.” Jane Friedman, chief executive and president of HarperCollins, which has several niche imprints, including Amistad for African-Americans, Zondervan for evangelical Christians and Rayo for Latinos, wondered if women were too general a market for an imprint. “Taking the broad category of women is going to be a challenge because women are part of Spanish, African-American, spiritual, religious, and general-interest categories,” she said. “It really is going to depend on how they define women.”


To help Voice pinpoint what women want, Ms. Archer and Ms. Dorman have recruited a panel of 10 professional women to meet twice a year. Members include Subha Barry, a vice president in charge of global diversity for Merrill Lynch; Ellen Levine, editorial director of Hearst Magazines; and Candace Bushnell, a novelist. (Ms. Archer said Ms. Bushnell has evolved from writing chick lit.) Voice also plans to ask each of these women for the names of about 50 friends and colleagues to send copies of the books to help create buzz".

Yeay or nay?

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Die Mitte der Welt by Andreas Steinhöfel

"Es dauerte den verbleibenden Tag und eine halbe Nacht, um den Rest der nach Süden führenden Strecke mit der Eisenbahn zurückzulegen - in Zügen, die immer kürzer, immer unbequemer und immer langsamer wurden. Nicts an der Landschaft, die da draussen an ihr vorbeizog, erinnerte Glass an Amerika. In Amerika war der Himmel weit, der Horizont endlos, bestenfalls begrenzt von beinahe unüberwindlichen, verschneiten Gebirgsketten, und die Flüsse waren träge, uferlose Ströme. Hier aber schien das Land zu schrumpfen, je weither man sich von der Küste entfernet".

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Lemon Table by Julian Barnes

"Like most of his life's writing, the play was concerned with love. And as in his life, so in his writing: love did not work. Love might or might not provoke kindness, gratify vanity, and clear the skin, but it did not lead to happiness; there was always an inequality of feeling or intention present. Such was love's nature. Of course, it 'worked' in the sense that it caused life's profoundest emotions, made him fresh as spring's linden-blossom and broke him like a traitor on a wheel. It stirred him from well-mannered timidity to relative boldness, one tragicomically incapable of action. It taught him the gulping folly of anticipation, the wretchedness of failure, the whine of regret, and the silly fondness of remembrance. He knew love well. He also knew himself well".

Sunday, August 13, 2006

The world at your feet

It is well-known to some that I despise Dido with a passion. You know, Dido? British, whiny unsteady voice (don’t believe the people who describe it as “fragile” or “smokey”. She took the way you hum to yourself in the bathroom when you think no one can hear you and you’re really not very sure of the words so you make them up at random and your voice is still sounding pretty rough from last night’s drinking & smoking binge and ever since you were about seven years old, you’ve always kinda sounded like you were a hundred and five even though you have the poetic depth of a fourteen year old so that’s a weird combo but your mom assured you that you’re the good kind of ‘special’ so who cares what everyone else says and made that into an art form), had that hit song with Eminem a couple of years ago and then a bunch more on European radio? She makes me want to die a little bit. Or at least change the station instantly. Well, to my own consternation I found myself giving one of her songs a listen a couple of weeks ago and actually being touched by the lyrics:

“I haven’t ever really found a place that I call home
I never stick around quite long enough to make it
I apologise that once again I’m not in love
But it’s not as if I mind that your heart ain’t exactly breaking

It’s just a thought, only a thought
But if my life’s for rent and I don’t learn to buy
Well I deserve nothing more than I get
Cause nothing I have is truly mine


While my heart is a shield and I won’t let it down
While I am so afraid to fail I won’t even try
Well how can I say I’m alive?”

It doesn’t all fully apply…If anything, I’ve found too many places that I call home (wherever your heart is, right?). But I do relate to that sense of having lived a fairly carefree life so far – ups and downs, sure, but nothing too major (touchons du bois). And of shying away from anything that reeks of long-term commitment. No serious boyfriends, forget the husband, and I don’t think I’ll have kids, hey, why don’t I just put everything I own into a backpack and not stop moving for the rest of my life and that way I won’t ever have to deal with anything! It’s perfect! Realistically though, when does the time come to sink your teeth in? To put your neck on a chopping block, shut your eyes, clench your teeth and hope for the best? To jump into the deep end rather than take careful steps down a ladder, ready to jerk our leg back up as soon as our toes touch the water surface? How do you gather the courage to put your signature under a contract, to selflessly give away your heart, recklessly board a plane, and put yourself out there? “Tussen droom en daad staan wetten in de weg, en praktische bezwaren. Ook weemoedigheid, die niemand kan verklaren en die des avonds komt, wanneer men slapen gaat” – I’ve always loved that quote. Willem Elsschot, a Belgian author, 1st half of the 20th century. It roughly translates as “Between dream and feat, laws get in the way, and objections of a practical nature. And melancholy too, that no one can explain and that comes in the night, when one goes to sleep”.

I read an article the other day about a Belgian man who’s lived in Mexico for the past seven years or so. He talked about the realities of Mexican living, his plans for the future and about other foreigners he encounters there. He was particularly harsh for young people: “You also get the twenty-somethings who come over for a few months, do a project with street kids, travel around a little. I don’t know why they come here, what they’re looking for”. Pretty disheartening how easily he turns what to most people is their Big Adventure into a cliché. But then, what is a meaningful way of organising your life?

I went into one of my favorite bookstores here in Leuven yesterday. It doubles as a café, great sense of style to it, the owners are nice, wide selection of books from across the world, it’s in a quiet side street…very nearly perfect. Even though I started out looking at the Asian section (one of my friends is leaving for Taiwan soon, for a year-long exchange and I wanted to browse the Lonely Planet guide for some cultural info and possible gift ideas), I inevitably gravitated towards North America and took out a book called “Canada Drive”. It’s written by a man who went on a cross-country trip with his daughter and kept a travel journal. Very few pictures, it’s mostly his observations, conclusions and whatever struck him as remarkable. I agree with a lot of the stuff he writes, things I noticed there as well. And it didn’t take too much page flipping before I felt a big lump in my throat. I miss it. And when Mike and Theresa ask me when I’m coming home, or Clara says being in Toronto without me is weird or Oksana gives me an update on the Tartu social scene, well, it doesn’t help. It would feel so familiar and comfortable kicking off the day at Ideal Coffee (as in “I deal coffee, not pot”, apparently the owner got sick and tired of people coming in looking for merchandise instead of the fair trade coffee he offers) in Kensington, shopping along Bloor and Yonge and Queen, some patio time at Future’s, a trip to the Islands if weather permits, a bento box at Simon’s, maybe finish off the day at the beach.

But are “familiar” and “comfortable” feelings I should be focusing on? If Toronto taught me anything, it’s that leaving is the easy part. More often than not, it’s sticking around that takes determination and guts. Facing yourself, your body, your background, your abilities and your options in the here and now instead of hiding behind a screen of travel plans and faraway futures. It seems too simple to project your ambitions onto another location – the way everyone does with the “After I’ve worked for a few years, I’m going to buy a villa in Italy/a farm in the South of France/a cottage in Canada/a boat wherever and get away from it all” scenario. Opium for the people: “I’ll endure this life I’m not entirely happy with for the reward that could come at the end”. There’s no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, though. And not always a second chance.

Maybe we do want too much too soon. Maybe we’re spoiled brats for having the quest for “emotional fulfilment” as our main concern and not, you know, nutrition and not dying. Maybe we should quit our whining and appreciate what we have when we have it. Be ambitious on a daily basis, not just in our vague long term plans. Make a friend – or a complete stranger - smile, ask a lot of questions, find beauty in something you see or hear, overcome your fears one step at a time, and strive to be someone you like. Take things as they come. See life as your Big Adventure instead of a trip or a year abroad. Maybe that's the only way out of the trap of cliches and dead end streets and black holes. "The race is long and in the end it's only with yourself", right? Who are other people to decide whether what you do is pointless or lame?

You know how women in their forties, when they’re interviewed by a glossy women’s magazine, always say they wouldn’t want to be in their twenties again for all the money in the world? Because back then they were so insecure and restless and worried? I’m not sure if they’re speaking the truth. But it’s quite possible.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The taste of success

I got my library card renewed today. I know, woot woot, but seriously, this is an important achievement. I used to go to that library every single week, take out the maximum amount of books (which I was pleased to find out today has been doubled to 20 items), and race through them in a couple of days. And then school happened. Ironic how four years of literature studies actually reduced my library time (that is, voluntary library time) to zilch. Somewhere in between Denmark and writing a thesis and Canada, people and passions that used to take center stage slipped through the cracks.
Last month this exodus finally caught up with me. I was meeting quite a lot of new people here in Belgium who'd ask me to tell them "something about myself". And even though I think that's a pretty lame question - I can't remember ever playing this game with anyone who went on to become a friend - it bothered me that I couldn't think of much to say in reply. In Canada I always seemed to get away with "I'm an exchange student". That would generally spark a lot of "I've been to Europe!" or "What's Canada like in your eyes?" conversations, which I always enjoy. But here I get stuck at "I go to KUL...still. Umm. I'm from here. I like stuff and things, but not to the degree that I get offended by anything or go nuts for anything". And that left me feeling pretty damn depressed. Is my life such a sad collection of events that that's the best I can come up with? What happened to enthusiasm? To gushing? What do I really like? What am I about? Is my life relevant in any way? Have I failed?

I remember going to see a Dutch cabaretier called Youp Van 't Hek a couple of years ago. One of the red threads of his show was the idea that there can be no such thing as a failed life, for the simple reason that there is no such thing as a successful life. Take, for example, an Olympic athlete. This person forewent delicious food, late nights and motorcycle rides for years on end - the most vital of his/her life - to slice 0.6 seconds off of a record which will one day undoubtedly be broken. Was his or her life a success? Joe Shmoe who won't go down in any history book comes up, opens a can of beer and sits down in his favorite chair. Does he consider his life a failure in this moment of bliss?
Though I can see what he was trying to say, it can be pretty hard to deny that certain people's lives drip with the smell of success. Take Oxford, for example. There are students skipping around those grounds who are unusually clever, good-looking, athletic, musical, socially adept and come from a very happy family. They may go on to invent a new medical treatment, write a brilliant play or go into politics and prevent a brutal conflict. How are their lives not the epitome of success then? The only way they wouldn't be, that I can see, is in their own minds. Because yes, even at Oxford, I met people who described themselves as "mediocre". Who felt like they had spent the last few years "in school" but not doing much else. Who are disappointed with their resumes, their (lack of) achievements and can't muster up a lot of energy to keep going. So maybe success does not necessarily work with objective standards (just look at all the people who appear to have it all to their friends and neighbors and seemingly "out of nowhere" take their own lives) and it is all about how you judge yourself.

Now that I'm flat broke and home again after some extremely fun city trips, I've got some time to ponder this issue and, more importantly, to take steps towards dealing with it. Step one: think back to when this issue did not yet exist. What made me tick back then? (Reading did. Hence the library card) Step two: what am I good at? (Languages. But I've been slacking in that department. Hence getting out two German novels from said library - "Nimm mich mit" by Anke Stelling and "Die Mitte der Welt" by Andreas Steinhöfel - as well as tracking down my lecture notes from the Danish course I took in Aarhus). Step 3: Where do I want my life to go? (Somewhere interesting. Hence the continued applications for unpaid internships across the country). Step 4: Chill. If some obnoxious dude at a party puts me on the spot by challenging me to sell myself in 3 sentences or less that should not make me doubt myself. It should make me get up and go talk to someone else.

I don't know to what extent my little plan will help me regard my life as mildly succesful again. But here's hoping.