Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Emily and the Chapters Christmas Flyer: A Holiday Tale

Guys... Do you realize what day it is?


It's no secret that I am a big into Christmas. I love everything about it, even stuff many people can't stand. I love the stores playing Christmas music on loop! I love the over abundance of sweets and chocolate! I love the mess of wrapping paper on Christmas morning! I love how busy the malls get right before the holiday! I love the billions of flyers that show up in your mailbox, advertising STUFF STUFF STUFF to BUY BUY BUY for all the people in your life!

This year, I got especially giddy when I saw that the Chapters/Indigo flyer had arrived, and was even happier when I realized this one was aimed at kids. It even included stickers. STICKERS! Oh, how I envied these children who got to select their favorite books using stickers with tantalizing phrases like "I WANT THAT" and "TOP PICK" printed on them! I opened the flyer, eager to see what books were being promoted to kids and teens this holiday season.

And then...

The Chapters flyer was about twenty pages long. Six pages were devoted to books. Six. SIX!!!! That's one spread for picture books, one for middle grade, one for teens. Everything else was LEGO, American Girl Dolls, Star Wars merchandise and bug-eyed animals. (Serious question: why do all stuffed toys have grapefruit eyes? Man, I hated this toy design as a kid and I STILL hate it!) I closed the flyer feeling a little betrayed that the one major bookstore chain still standing in Canada had put out a Christmas flyer that was only 30% books. (For those of you playing along in the USA, Chapters/Indigo is almost the exact same as Barnes and Noble. It even partners with Starbucks.)

First off, I did expect some toys. It's no secret that Chapters has diversified. When you enter the store these days, you have to wade through a sea of brick-a-brack and monogrammed towels before you reach any actual books. The kids department is no less, um, conflicted? There are games and puzzles and Star Wars (sooooo much Star Wars) and scented erasers and light-up bouncy balls and guys, this piece will go on forever if I list everything that is NOT books that is present in Chapters.

And on the whole... I'm okay with that.

This might seem kind of odd given my previous rant, but hear me out: I love bookstores. I love them so much, that if they have to meet their margins by selling other stuff, I am okay with that. Online book purchasing is eating the traditional brick-and-mortar bookstores alive, and most of the ones that are still standing are there because they have a selection of coffee mugs. If Betty Buysalot picking up a laughing Buddha statue while she waits in line at the check out keeps them in business, then by all means let Chapters keep their Not-Books sections. 

But of course, my comfort with them doing this is somewhat dependent on books being their primary purpose, and the Christmas flyer shook my faith a little. When I'm in the actual store, I still feel okay. There are shelves full of great books, including smaller time authors who want to have a fighting chance to sell their stuff. So don't count Chapters out. In fact, don't count out pretty much anyone who sells books!

In light of all this, I have decided, for the Holiday Season, to compile a few "Emily Rules" for buying books and supporting bookstores this year! Above all, make books a part of your Christmas this year, especially if you've got kids and teens on your list. With this in mind, I give you.....

The Emily Paxman Rules For Having A Splendiforous Christmas Season! 

1. Buy Books
Hooray for books! If you need incentive to buy more books, remember that books are relatively cheap presents that pull your kids eyes away from screens, make them more empathetic, and improve their comprehension and critical thinking skills. They will also do this to you if you are an adult.

The average paperback isn't gonna cost you much more than $15 and kid's paperbacks are often as cheap as $8 or $9. Hardcovers are a bit pricier, but still a pretty good bang for buck. These prices go even further down if you purchase gently used books.

Also, square packages with ribbons around them are sleek, sexy presents on Christmas day. 

2. When Possible, Buy your Books at Actual Living Breathing Bookstores Rather than Online
Turning aside the debate about whether or not you should buy ebooks or physical copies, I'm going to make a much less contentious statement and go from there: Whether you're an advocate for eReaders or print books, the reality is that the majority of books sold are STILL physical books. This is especially true for children and teens, who are less likely to own their own eReaders than their parents.

So with that in mind, I'm going to make my pitch for why you should support a bookstore rather than Amazon when you buy physical copies. Yes, this is largely a rule about a specific company. Amazon currently sells about 60% of all print books in North America. That is a massive share of the industry, and frankly, it has resulted in a lot of the problems you can imagine rising up from a monopoly.

Amazon has surpassed Walmart as the largest North American retailer. They play dirty with contracts, are at war with publishers over book pricing and yes, this does have a pretty brutal impact on authors. In 2014, when they were renegotiating their deal with Hatchette Book Group, they pulled a number of Hatchette's books from their site, delayed shipping them to consumers, and generally made them unavailable to try to scare the publisher into signing a sucky deal. For any traditional, non-self published author, this means that while Amazon is a necessary evil for sustaining their careers, they also make pitiful margins off the books you buy through them. 

All this being said, some books are flippin' hard to find, because they're rare or out of print, and Amazon can be a miracle worker in these instances. They're also the go-to source for self-published books, so if there is a self-published author you want to support, go ahead and use them. They also can save you a pretty penny sometimes too, but you'd be surprised how often you'll do just as well at a regular bookstore, and without shipping fees! If convenience is a concern, know that Chapters and many local bookstores allow you to order through their online stores. 

Most importantly, prioritize the first rule above the second. Buy books, then think about where you are getting them from.

3. Get to Know Your Local Bookstores!
I love Chapters, largely because they have an awesome Science Fiction and Fantasy section. I can also count on them to carry an up-to-date selection of books on the craft of writing.

But they are far from being my favorite bookstore. Unsurprisingly, that honor goes to the store with the best Children's book section, and that store is Bolen Books.

Bolen is local to Victoria, British Columbia and has been a staple of Hillside Mall for decades. Everything that Chapters is trying to do with their Children's section, Bolen does better. They've also diversified their holdings, but instead of carrying a bunch of generic toys you could find at Toys R Us or Walmart, they've focused on "brainy" and local toys. They have a gorgeous wall of puzzles, including the largest selection of local brand Cobble Hill I've ever seen in one place. They stock the high-end, European designed board games that all nerds love, as well as an interesting mix of children's and party games. Every Not-Book item they have seems carefully selected, and is kept in one, moderate sized section of the store, instead of overwhelming the actual books.

Then there's the Children's Section! Not only is it one of the largest in the city, but it carries an impressive mix of local and bestselling authors. It also stocks a fantastic array of coloring, puzzle, and paper doll books that make it truly unique. If you're shopping for a child, I can't recommend a better place.

The staff are always lovely to deal with and willing to offer a suggestion if you need help finding something. I'd also recommend taking your kids here to explore the store on their own. Just as it's important for kids to visit the library, I think it's important for kids to experience bookstores, where often the selection is a little more robust (at least at first glance - libraries of course have networks they can make use of, but let's face it. The most popular books can be hard to get a hold of at the library.) 

Of course, not every city has a Bolen Books. It is, by definition, a local bookstore. But there is probably some equivalent store in your own town. Check them all out until you find one that meets your needs.

4. Don't Forget the Used Bookstores!
Here in Victoria, my favorite is Russell Books. It's one of the best organized used bookstores I've been to, with the shelves reliably alphabetized and the variety on display always changing. They also stock new books, so if something is difficult to find, they can order it in for you, and often at a discount too! For students, they're a huge win, because they offer additional savings when you show them a valid student card.

5. Buy your Children some Star Wars Toys at Chapters
I might add that they also have Star Wars books here.

In all seriousness though, you'd be surprised how many major toy brands are stocked by bookstores. They've got Disney, Paw Patrol, Webkinz and everything else. It may seem like a weird way of supporting reading, but if you buy a few toys along with your books, you're helping keep bookstores open. 

We all know kids want toys for Christmas and I support them in their efforts to play. Brand recognition is also important to them. A couple weeks ago I watched one of my nephews go through that Chapters magazine and joyously affix stickers to the following: 

Star Wars Battleship
Star Wars Monopoly
Star Wars Chess
Some sort of whirly-gig puzzle ma-jigger

Kids want what they want.

But I have to admit... his Mean Old Auntie bought him a book instead. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Book that Saved Me: Three Men in a Boat

Last time I posted, I talked a little about the two basic functions of art, at least how I see them. Broadly stated, art (and by extension, literature) can be viewed as having two primary and often conflicting goals:

1. To entertain us and provide an escape
2. To unsettle us and prod us to action

If you want to read more of the initial discussion, go here. In that post, I talked about how most books straddle the line between escapism and unsettling content,  but then promised to talk about two books that had a profound impact on me, largely because they didn't bother walking the tight rope. Today, we're dealing with one of the most escapist novels I have ever read, and one that I deeply needed.


When I graduated from my undergraduate degree, I was burnt out. I`d spent the last five years reading anthropology and philosophy textbooks and squeezing in writing on the side. I knew I wanted to write fiction. The only problem was that I wasn`t reading it. In fact, once my undergrad wrapped up, I wasn`t reading anything.

This went on for a year and a half. I just couldn`t get excited about books like I used to. Nothing I read woke me up. Gradually, I got into such a rut I worried I`d never find that spark again.

Plenty of people tried to help. If you write at all, people LOVE to suggest books to you. For example, my sister was desperate to get me to read Wuthering Heights, but I never made it through the first ten chapters. A friend lent me Darkwing, the next book in a series I loved, but I never opened it. I got Oliver Twist as a Christmas present around this time and it looks very pretty on my shelf. My sister-in-law recommended The Hunger Games, but I never picked it up. Yes, you read that right. I, Emily Paxman, declined to read the Hunger Games once upon a time.

And for every recommended novel I failed to get through, I became more and more discouraged. Books had been a part of my life since my earliest childhood. What did it say about me that I couldn't seem to connect with them any more? How could I expect to be a decent writer when I was a terrible reader?

So what did I need to get me out of my existential funk? What would rock me to the core and make me want to read again? Surely that book would be one of profound meaning and message! Or perhaps timeless characters and jaw dropping moral quandaries! WHAT COULD IT BE????

THE BOOK: Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome

This is a book about three men. They decide to go camping along the Thames by rowing a boat up it. They bring their dog. At some point they eat beef pie and at another they give up on camping and rent rooms at an inn. Harris cannot sing a comic song.

If Seinfeld was the original TV comedy about absolutely nothing, it was still drawing from a legacy that included British humorists like Jerome K. Jerome. This is not a book to turn to if you're looking for deep, character driven, soul wrenching narrative. But it's sly and it's witty and, most importantly, it's enjoyable.

I was introduced to Three Men in a Boat by one of my roommates. She was sitting on her bed reading, and laughing out loud. She shared a quick passage aloud and then went back to giggling. It seemed to me to have been ages since I saw someone react to a book that way. I had to read it and it soon became the first book I finished in a year and a half.


When I look back on that time, one quality united the books people recommended to me that I couldn't bring myself to read: Every last one of them was depressing. These books came with endorsements like, "The Time Traveler's Wife is so good! It absolutely DESTROYED me!"

Sometimes we want to be destroyed by a book. Sometimes we need to be. Heavy, topic-driven, important books are... well, important. But in the haste we have to read in order to become better people, sometimes I think we forget the need to read because we enjoy doing it. What about reading because we're in need of a good laugh? Laughter is, in my mind, one of the major hallmarks of escapism. It drives both children's fantasy films and those cat videos on youtube. Laughter is also profoundly comforting, which is why it's often used to sugar-coat difficult truths. And yet a work of fiction that endorses laughter above all else is generally treated as less than something that doesn't.

Art criticism in our culture is overwhelmingly in favor of tragedy. Comedies don't win the Oscars. Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth are treated with more reverence than Twelfth Night or Midsummer Night's Dream. Who wants to give accolades to a play that admits it is Much Ado About Nothing?

Books can be trickier to define as comedy or tragedy. By virtue of being longer, they often contain both humor and drama. Still, there's clearly a difference between Confessions of a Shopaholic and Bleak House. (Hint: One has the word "Bleak" in the title!)

I don't pretend to know how comedy and drama stack up against each other as competing forms of "art." Personally, I think TV land might be the one place where the two genres are handled properly. The Emmy's make a point of awarding both types of shows separately, as do the Golden Globes. But the moment someone hands out an award for "best" movie or "best" book, you can bet that tragedy is going to take a flying leap to the head of the pack. And it's such a shame because frankly, good comedy is very hard to write. We'll watch soldiers die on a battlefield over and over again, but we don't like hearing the same jokes twice. There's intense pressure to be innovative in comedy, often more so than in drama.

Now truthfully, I agree that there is a LOT of not-funny comedy out there, which is why books and films that actually make me laugh are such a treasure. Laughter stirs my soul in a way that is totally different from drama, and often far more poignant. For me to really like a drama, it tends to need a good sense of humor. It's no coincidence that my favorite musical, Into the Woods, builds towards its emotional climax with some of the funniest songs Stephen Sondheim ever wrote.

And even though it often claims to be about nothing, good comedy requires a keen understanding of human nature. Three Men is in turn both very realistic and very escapist. Jerome perfectly captures what it's like to do the most mundane of things, like set up a tent, or bump into lovers at a party. His comedy is shrewd and barbed. The book doesn't exactly have a message, but it has anecdotes that make you reflect on the ego and hypocrisy of ordinary people. This might not seem like much, but it means a great deal to me.

Most importantly, I want to point out that I am not alone. There are lots of people who want to laugh more than anything else. And like me, they are probably shorter than you. This link (link!!!) leads to a study conducted by Scholastic into what children want most from books. While it does change somewhat over time, across all age groups, kids are looking first and foremost for "books that make them laugh." Yes, whether your child is 6 or 16, they want a funny book.

Also of note: Parents do not rate the ability of a book to make their child laugh as highly. The stat is not rock bottom low, but it doesn't reflect the interest kids have in laughing. To add to that, 73% of boys and girls state they would read more if they could find more books they liked. I take that to mean that kids would read more if they could find more funny books. Wouldn't it be great if we made it easier for them to find some? If maybe we handed out Newberry Awards to silly books, and not just issue drive ones? I'm not saying we ditch the issue books, but reading as a whole might benefit if we made it more fun.

Three Men in a Boat helped me get over a tremendous mental block in my life, and it did it mostly by being hilarious. When I finished, I felt intense relief that I was reading again. And with that, I reached for more.

Maybe you have someone in your life who you is looking for a good book. Maybe it's your child, and you desperately want to encourage them to read, but it just doesn't seem to take. Well, if it's true in showbiz, it's true in print. Make 'em laugh. You might just find them coming back for more.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Unsettling: When Books Become Bothersome (Part One)

Sweet cover too, I might add
Towards the end of one of my university classes, we read Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. The book is something of a classic within the Young Adult literary canon, in as much as the discipline has one. YA is still very young as a distinct category, but if there are "foundation" works, Alexie's is surely one of them. The book is semi-autobiographical and deals with issues of race and poverty in the life of a young boy growing up in the Pacific Northwest on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

I knew from the moment I finished the book that I'd read something powerful and wonderful, but when I got to class, I still couldn't shake the feeling of being deeply rattled by it. I piped into the discussion a few times, but the bulk of my thoughts about the book waited until after class when I was talking to one of my friends.  I asked her one thing in particular that was really bothering me.

"Where's the closest reserve to Pittsburgh?"

She paused and thought for a moment. "You know, I'm not sure," she said at last. "I think probably upstate New York. There aren't any nearby."

At that point it clicked as to why, though I enjoyed the book, it hurt in a more personal way than it seemed to strike my East Coast classmates. I knew where Spokane was. I could point to it on a map. And further to that, I had friends and family who had lived through situations similar to the ones portrayed by the book. Of course I had other friends of First Nations decent who lead very different lives, but those who had experienced similar trials to Alexie's autobiographical main character weighed on my mind that night. It had been, for a moment, too close for comfort.

It wasn't until after talking through the book with my friend that I really came to an opinion on it. I love the book now. It's both profoundly tragic and hopeful. It's funny and serious. It's also deeply unsettling.

I don't think that was an accident. Alexie's story was not only something intensely personal, but also one that a lot of people in North America have the luxury of ignoring. There are very few reserves in the Eastern United States compared to the West, and so - tragically, but understandably - First Nations issues are rarely top of mind for a lot of city slickers (and believe me, I can be guilty of this too).

I certainly don't think I had the market cornered on being unsettled by the book. A number of my classmates were. They expressed how glad they were that the book existed, because even though the story took place in America, it was so beyond their experience.  Perhaps the best thing about it is that it's a book that prompts questions, which I think is exactly what Alexie wanted. It's the kind of book that demands to be talked about. I'm not sure you could read it and then go "aw, ain't that nice?" and move on to make a cup of tea.

There are often two competing horses trying to pull your chariot in art. One is trying to point out what's wrong with the world and the other just wants to have fun. I've seen them characterized as escapism versus realism, but that has never seemed right to me. Cat videos on youtube are highly escapist, but their humor completely depends on their realism. (SEE? Cats really ARE that dumb!) To me, the real dichotomy is whether or not a book is escapism or... unsettlism. (Can that be a thing now? I want to coin a phrase. Let's make that a thing.)

Art can either comfort and entertain you or prod you to DO something. Maybe think or empathize or vote or something! Just something! An unsettling book is one that does not want you to "relax" but to wake up. An escapist one wants to entertain you and make you happy. It doesn't care what you do next. Granted, most art tries to achieve a mixture of both. Something that offers no call to action can seem trifling and unimportant while something that gives us no entertaining escape can become so unpleasant, we want nothing more than to toss it across the room.

Alexie accomplishes a fair degree of balance in his novel. The story falls more on the "unsettling" side of the spectrum, but it's offset by a bunch of funny pictures and a humorous narrative voice. He offers the reader that "spoonful of sugar" to go with the medicine.

Still, I've been thinking lately about a pair of other books that did not walk the line so neatly as the The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian did. (I mean, just look at the title. It screams non-committal!) They're both older books, and they both firmly planted their feet on either side of the dichotomy.

They are:

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome
Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

One of these books I love. One of these books I hate. But I'm (grudgingly) starting to admit to myself that both have been incredibly important in my development as both a reader and a writer.

So the next post I put out is going to deal with Jerome and his rampant silliness. Following that, I'll tackle Hardy and the depress-fest that is Tess. Maybe by the time I talk this one through, my opinion of it will improve.

So stay tuned, readers! And in case you were waiting for the final word, yes! Consider The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian heartily recommended.