One More Thing

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One More Thing (Photo: Random House)I was really excited to learn that BJ Novak (you know, Ryan from The Office) was coming out with a book of short stories. He was a writer and co-executive producer of that show for years and he’s really, really talented. Also, did you see him in Saving Mr. Banks over the Christmas break as one of the young Disney songwriters working on Mary Poppins? Brilliant.

Also, Novak made a really silly trailer for this book with his pal Mindy Kaling (I listened to her book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? back in November), which is really worth checking out.

So when One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories came out a few weeks ago, I instantly ordered it and put it on my to-read list for the February break. I’m so glad I did, because it’s genuinely my favourite thing I’ve read so far this year. There’s a really comprehensive New York Times review of the book here, but the book is basically made up of 64 vignettes, or short stories. They range in length from two lines to several pages, which makes it a quick, fun read.

Some are funny, some are touching, some are silly and some are quite thoughtful. All of them are very, very clever. My favourites were “Everyone Was Singing The Same Song”: The Duke of Earl Recalls His Trip to America in June of 1962 (in which the actual Duke of Earl doesn’t understand why everyone seems to be humming the same song when he introduces himself), and A Good Problem to Have, in which Novak imagines the frustrations of the man who invented the style of math problems in which two trains pass each other while travelling at different speeds in opposite directions.

I’m not normally drawn to short stories, but I’m so glad I bought this one. I have a feeling I’m going to be lending it to a lot of people.

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The Blythes Are Quoted

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It’s no secret that I love LM Montgomery. As a kid, I devoured all of the Anne of Green Gables books, plus Emily of New Moon, The Story Girl and even some of the lesser-known ones that you have to dig through the library to find because they don’t sell them in bookstores anymore (Jane of Lantern Hill, Pat of Silver Bush, Magic for Marigold). As an adult, I return time and time again to the Anne books as a source of comfort and inspiration – you might remember that I recently wrote an essay on the feminist/cultural impact of Rilla of Ingleside for my course in 20th century Canadian history.

Imagine my delight to discover that there was a ninth and final Anne book, delivered to Montgomery’s publisher on the very day she died. The story behind The Blythes Are Quoted would be intriguing even if I wasn’t an Anne fan. And because I am, and the Okotoks public library happened to have a copy in stock, I was doubly delighted.

Delighted that is, until I started reading. Part of The Blythes Are Quoted overlaps with the pre-WWI time period Rilla of Ingleside and Rainbow Valley take place in (for the record, I thought Rainbow Valley was thoroughly meh, even as a kid). The other half of the book picks up in post-WWI Glen St Mary. It’s a collection of 15 short stories that take place in and around the town that the Blythes call home – and indeed, Anne, Gilbert and all the other major players in the Anne books take a backseat here. However, they resurface in small snippets of dialogue in between chapters, where Anne and Gilbert (and from time to time, other members of the family at Ingleside – like eldest son Jem) gather together to discuss poems written by Walter, Anne’s second son, who died fighing in Europe.

Some of the other, later Anne books (especially Anne of Ingleside and Rainbow Valley) experiment with short storytelling and narrative in this way, but there’s always a cohesive thread that ties them altogether. This thread isn’t really evident in The Blythes Are Quoted. In fact, it’s a really weird little book that feels a bit like a patchwork. A random story, some dialogue, a John McCrae-style poem, another random story, etc. It doesn’t feel like an Anne book at all, and with darker subject matter (death, infidelity) than its companions, it doesn’t really fit with the rest of the series. Perhaps Montgomery was playing around with new forms of storytelling. We certainly know she had to deal with some rather heavy mental issues later in life. Or maybe her editors always wielded a heavy hand to turn the rest of the Anne books into the more sanitized, family-friendly novels that Montgomery is best known for.

Either way, I was bitterly disappointed in this book. I had expected a warm reunion with old friends, but what I got was a vaguely unsettling feeling that Anne didn’t end up being as happy in the end as she deserved to be. I wish I had stopped at Rilla of Ingleside – and I’m glad this was a library find. I don’t think I’ll be adding it to my treasured collection of Anne books anytime soon.

Extreme Vinyl Cafe

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Extreme Vinyl Cafe (Photo: Penguin)Without a doubt, my very favourite thing about the CBC is Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Cafe.

When I lived in Melbourne and had bouts of homesickness, I used to go on long walks by myself under the guise of going to Woolworths. The actual business of going to Woolworths only took about ten minutes, but because I lived in St. Kilda and the beach was right there, I’d head out in the direction of Elwood for a bit first, before rounding back and picking up my groceries. The whole meander took about an hour, which was the perfect time to listen to my little slice of home – the Vinyl Cafe podcasts. I loved those hours.

What I love about the Vinyl Cafe is that it makes me completely rethink my usual stance on short stories. You see, I don’t normally love short stories. I think it’s because I read so quickly that I’d rather savour the pleasure of a novel than start and stop in bits and bites. But I’ve always had a soft spot for Dave, Morley, Sam and Stephanie – especially Stephanie, who I consider a literary friend of sorts. And Stuart McLean himself, who used to be a professor at Ryerson when I was in first-year journalism in 2003 and let me make a complete ass of myself the day I met him in the hallway of the Rogers Communication Centre and attempted to tell him how much my family had always loved his stories.

If you’re a Vinyl Cafe fan, this is more of the same good stuff. My highlight was ‘Dave’s Funeral (Dave Buys A Coffin)’ – it made me think about my own dad and the ending made me cry in a happy kind of way. Really, there’s not a bad story in there, but that one is my absolute favourite.

Friends reading from outside of Canada, please try out the Vinyl Cafe podcasts, which are available through iTunes and through the CBC. I promise you that listening to the Vinyl Cafe is one of the nicest ways to spend an hour on Sundays that I can think of, especially when you’re far away from home.