Talking About Books

I like talking about books. What I like even more is listening to people talk about books. Over the years I have entertained this fetish by listening to CBC Radio and by attending various book festivals around town, most notably the Blue Metropolis festival (which, while still good, was a lot better when it was smaller and less ambitious).

Top of the list on CBC Radio is Writers and Company, with Eleanor Wachtel. I’ve been listening to that show for 20 years, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard a bad episode. It’s so good that I cry a little bit every week when I think about Ms. Wachtel’s long career; she’s older than me, so in my golden years, while I pass the hours in a squeaky rocking chair next to a warm Tivoli radio, my dear Eleanor will be long retired and Writers and Company will be no more.

The only strike against Writers and Company in the context of this discussion is that it isn’t really about books; it’s about writers. But since writers are more likely to talk about books than anything else, it still counts, and counts big.

CBC’s other books show is The Next Chapter, with Shelagh Rogers. I confess I’m not the hugest fan. I don’t dislike it; in fact I’ve enjoyed many an episode. But its cheery “fan” vibe is a bit much for my taste. All pens and no swords. Hugs and camomile tea. So it’s good, but it’s rarely (to me) great.

Then there’s the late, lamented Talking Books, hosted by Ian Brown. Now there was a books show. The format was a panel discussion, lead by Brown, with various grumpy and curmudgeonly guests, most of whom were regulars. The knives were long and the bouquets were florid. Lots of people talking and yelling over each other and a few times it sounded like it might come to blows but it always ended in laughter. If you told me the setting was a smoky pub on a stormy night I wouldn’t doubt you. Unfortunately, Talking Books was cancelled in 2008, after 11 years.

So what’s a guy to do if he needs a fix of grumpy book talk? He starts a book club!

Last year, while bending elbows with a few of my surliest friends, I proposed exactly that; a book club. The intention was to be as unstructured as possible. As such, we have but one rule: there are no rules. Neither are there required readings. We simply meet, every four to six weeks, and talk about books. If patterns develop, so be it, but they are not to be seen as rules or requirements.

And there does seem to be a pattern. Most of our book club meetings unfold as follows. We meet at Amelio’s on Milton at about 5:30 on a Thursday or Friday evening. Once ensconced we order our “book club special,” a large vegetarian pizza with Italian sausage. I never fail to add, while ordering, “because that’s the kind of vegetarians we are.” The waitress never fails to smile and pretend, ha ha, she’s never heard that before.

After the meal, which is accompanied by an inordinate amount of wine, we over-tip then make our way along rue Milton to The Word, a quiet, beautifully shambled tiny gem of a used bookstore. Having four burly men smelling of sausage, cheese and Sangiovese burst through the door of such an establishment is surely terrifying, but so far the police have not been called and there have been no injuries. We do eventually calm down and manage to keep things reasonably civil, and we always make amends by purchasing a few books.

Unfortunately these wine-fueled book benders have resulted in a few duplications on my bookshelf as I sometimes forget if the luscious object in my hand is one I desire because I want it or because I already own it. In one case I had a copy of Michael Frayn’s Headlong thrust upon me by one of the book club members, along with a five minute oration on its merits. So I bought it. At our next book club meeting the exact scene repeated itself, with the same book, and I bought it again. I also recently discovered that I have not two, but three copies of Brian Moore’s An Answer From Limbo. One is the paperback I bought at a church flea market in 1986 (my first Moore, and the one that turned me into very much a Brian Moore fan). Another is a first Canadian edition hardcover from 1962 that was given to me as a gift, and the third a hardcover “club edition,” that I likely bought at The Word during a book club meeting.

After The Word we usually end up in a pub downtown, often the Old Orchard on rue de la Montagne because it’s a convenient hub for our divergent exits homeward, and it’s usually not so loud as to it prohibit conversation.

So if you enjoy books, and in particular you enjoy talking about books, I highly recommend you form a book club. But if you want it to succeed I suggest you eschew the usual book club formalities of required readings. And stay away from the tea and crumpets. The most important thing is that you all be friends, and that you all really like books and talking about them. In fact, you can substitute “books” for just about any shared interest and you’ll achieve the same success. And to make it that much better, don’t put it on Facebook, and never, ever tweet about it.

Books I Read in 2011 (…and a few notes about my iPad)

A as per new-year tradition, here is the list of books I read in the year just ended, with commentary to follow:

  • Stet, by Diana Athill*
  • A Long Way Gone, by Ishmael Beah
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan
  • Homo Evolutis, by Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans*
  • Headlong, by Michael Frayne
  • On Being a Photographer, by Bill Jay and David Hurn*
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John Le Carré
  • The Happiness Manifesto, by Nic Marks*
  • Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War, by Peter Maas

Yes, that’s a whopping nine books, two of which (Homo Evolutus and The Happiness Manifesto) are “Kindle Shorts,” meaning they are very quick reads. Clearly the trend is downward, as 2010’s list contained 23 items and 2009’s contained 32. My high point since starting this tradition in 2004 was 38 books read in 2007.

The list is so short I’ll dispense with the usual breakdown of author by gender, fiction vs. non-fiction, etc., as you can see all that at a glance. One thing that is worth mentioning is the ratio of electronic books (“ebooks”) to paper ones; in this case 4:5. (The titles in the list marked with an asterisk were e-books that I read on my iPad.)

There are two factors that I can blame for this decline in book ingestion:

  • A significant change in my daily routine. Since early June of 2011 I have stopped commuting, so I no longer spend 150+ minutes a day crammed into a stinking and overcrowded subterranean tube with only my books to save me;
  • My iPad.

I won’t go into details on that first point, as the new paradigm (working from home) is still a work in progress. I’ll need at least another six months before I can say anything definitive about that.

As to the iPad, it’s both a blessing and a curse. The blessing part is easy; just watch the iPad commercials on TV. The curse is that the iPad is so full of instantaneous endorphin-jacking delights that I fear my brain is being trained away from the kind of pleasures one typically hopes for from a long and solitary reading experience, such as:

  • Deep immersion into a another world. It could be a world with a bunch of different characters, locations, and situations, but if it’s all in the same book then those things are unified by the author’s voice and intentions. Falling into that for extended periods (read: more than 140 characters at a time) is a pleasure and maybe even an acquired skill. In either case I fear our ability to go there, or to even know there is a there to go to, is rapidly disappearing.
  • Deep focus on the characters, locations, and situations within the world of the book. This isn’t quite the same as simply being immersed. When you achieve focus it puts that immersion on a whole other level.
  • Relaxation and mindfulness that come from the above mentioned immersion and focus. It can be meditative and good for the mind. From what I’ve read, studies have shown (and my personal experience bears this out) that spending time on Twitter of Facebook before going to bed can cause problems falling asleep. The oversimplified explanation is that those rapidly-firing tweets and posts and links cause your brain to fire rapidly too, putting it into an uneasy and unrestful state and making it harder to relax and go to sleep. You don’t get that with a book.

On The Other Hand…

Lest you think I’ve only been reading in multiple doses of 140 characters, let me put that idea to rest. One of the joys of the iPad is the easy access it gives me to long-form magazine writing. In 2011 I read far more long articles in The Atlantic, The New Republic, The Economist, Slate, Salon, Al-jazeera, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and various other newspapers and magazines, than I have in any other year in recent memory. Most of it comes via Twitter, where I follow a lot of those rags as well as people who link to them. For me, that’s the best thing about Twitter: endless linkage to great articles.

I use Twitter together with Instapaper to make it a more comfortable experience. Twitter provides the link, and if the article seems worth reading I’ll shoot it over to Instapaper where it is trimmed of all extraneous clutter and ads. It then sits there patiently, waiting for me to read it at my convenience (I don’t even have to be connected to the internets). I’ll describe this in detail in a later post. To many of you it’s probably second nature, but for people who don’t have iPads and who don’t use Twitter, you gotta see this stuff to believe it.

So I’m still not sure if the iPad is more blessing or more curse. I love the on-board dictionary that you can call up any time by just touching a word. I love that I can highlight and write margin notes on any ebook and many online articles. But I am short attention-spanned by nature, so it is hard to spend time simply reading a long piece without slipping out for a Twitter or email break every few minutes, which inevitably breaks the flow of the immersive experience.

I hope to read more books in 2012. I already have half a dozen on “standby” on the iPad, and my frequent trips to The Word on Milton, S.W. Welch, and Drawn & Quarterly mean my ever-expanding pile of unread paper books remains ever-expanding. Here are a few that I pulled out yesterday and put on a dedicated shelf in an attempt to force a commitment to read them this year:

Books I will read in 2012

Wish me luck!

How to Tell One Robax from Another

I have a sore back. It’s something that hits me once or twice a year due to a problem with lower back spasms. This time it’s been going on for more than a week, which is unusual. Today I was almost completely incapacitated, which is very unusual given that two days ago I thought I was almost over it.

The go-to drugs for back pain are the collection of Robax drugs. Those are the ones you see advertised on TV with the wooden dolls dancing around after they get a pin taken out of their backs. Well, they help me a bit, but not much. Even after taking a pile of Robax pills I still feel like there’s a dagger in my kidney.

There’s a reason for this sad lament: a sadder lament and a bit of information that you might find helpful.

Here in Canada we have not caught up to the U.S. when it comes to over-the-counter drug packaging. Go do a Rite-Aid or a Duane Reade in the U.S. and check out the pills. The packages very clearly state what are the active ingredients, and even more clearly state the dosages. It’s writ large and clear, in a design that has clearly been vetted by UX designers. Bravo!

U.S. package. Easy to read!

But go into a Pharmaprix or a Shoppers Drug Mart or a Jean Coutu in Canada and check out the same pills. Yes, the information is there, but it’s written in 4 point Helvetica in a block of text with no line breaks or spacing or any other cues to help you quickly make sense of it. Plus it’s in two languages, and given how unreadable it is, it’s like two foreign languages.

Canadian packaging. WTF?

So when I went to a Jean Coutu last week to get some back relief, I was faced with the same problem I’m always faced with. A wall of pills that all look the same and have the same basic names but it takes a good amount of study and ideally an internet connection to sort out which is the one you should buy. This time, however, I finally managed to figure out the difference between the three different types of Robax back pills. And now for your reading pleasure I preset that information to you, in plain English, the way it should – but isn’t – on the package.

Note: the one thing they all have in common is methocarbamol, a muscle relaxant. The difference lies in what pain reliever they’re married to, if any.

  • Robaxin: methocarbamol only.
  • Robaxacet: methocarbamol and acetaminophen (Tylenol).
  • Robaxisal: methocarbamol and acetylsalicylic acid (ASA, or Aspirin).
  • Robax Platinum: methocarbamol and ibuprofin (Advil).

That’s it. It’s that simple, although some are also available in “extra strength” dosages. In that case it’s only the pain reliever that’s “extra strength,” not the methocarbamol.

But wait! For some reason, the standard dosage of methocarbamol is 400 mg. That is, unless you’re buying straight Robaxin, in which case it’s 500 mg. Or Robax Platinum, which has the standard dosage of ipuprophen (200 mg) and 500 mg of methocarbamol. There is no reasonable explanation for this difference.

However, you should know that if you already have ASA, acetaminophen, or ibuprofin in your medicine chest, you need only buy Robaxin. Because there is absolutely no difference between taking one Robaxin plus one Advil, and taking one Robax Platinum. Similarly, the only difference between one Robaxin plus a Tylenol and one Robaxacet is you get a bit more methocarbamol in the former case.

In my case, I find Robaxin with acetaminophen (or Robaxacet) does the trick for me, at least for muscle pain. If I take Robaxisal, I need to supplement it with Tylenol, which means I’m taking ASA that I don’t need. We have tons of acetaminophen already, so what I really should be buying is straight-up Robaxin and just take them with a couple of Tylenols.

This next bit should be a separate blog post…

While I’m on the topic of drug dosages, you should familiarize yourself with a few standard dosages. For example, the standard acetaminophen (Tylenol) pill contains 325 mg of active ingredient. The “Extra Strength” ones contain 500 mg. If you take three regular ones you’re getting 975 mg, which is pretty much exactly the same as the 1000 mg you’d get if you took two Extra Strength ones.

You might think all of this is really obvious, but I’m shocked at how often I meet people who have no idea what’s in the pills they take, and who believe silly things like “regular Tylenols don’t help me at all! Only the Extra Strength ones work!”

No. Read the labels. Hopefully we’ll learn from our neighbours to the south and the labels will one day be clearer.

Now go take a pill.

La (Mia) Cvcina Italiana

A rather unusual gift arrived chez moi last weekend; a stack of La Cucina Italiana food magazines from the late 1980s and 1990s, 21 copies in all. They weigh a ton, as they’re printed on heavy stock in that old fashioned way, and they’re full of articles, ads, color photographs, and most importantly, recipes. There’s only one problem; it’s all written in Italian.

La Cucina Italiana

Fortunately, I can decipher the recipes fairly easily with a bit of patience, frequent trips to Google’s translation page, and a few leaps of faith. So far I’ve only tried one (more on that later).

As far as I know, La Cucina Italiana was at the time (and may still be) the premiere food publication in Italy. It is currently enjoying a ride on the international foodie wave, and has web sites in several different languages, including English. However, these older issues seem quite middlebrow and unfancy, aimed apparently at homemakers who were not interested in venturing beyond the conventional Italian gustatory canon. (And it should be said that I am a big fan of that canon.)

What I find most surprising is how unappealing some of the food is. Although the magazines are only 10 to 20 years old, a good many of the photographs bring to mind old Good Housekeeping magazines from the 1960s and you can imagine the plates being held by Betty Draper-like house moms in their ranch style kitchens in Westchester county.

But then, classic Italian cooking has always been about simplicity, and in these days of endless food porn a simple plate of meatballs draped with a beige cream sauce is unappealing only because it was photographed on a floral patterned plate and without fancy lighting or bokeh overload.

I don’t know how much I’ll actually learn from these magazines, or how much time I’ll spend with them. For now they’re fun to flip through and to look at the ads for  unexpected things like corn oils and margarines. I expect I’ll try a few recipes, such as the cannellini beans and pasta that I’ve already deciphered and modified. (An odd choice for a hot day, but I love cannellini beans and I had all the ingredients on hand.) In that case, the main differences between the original version and mine are:

  • The original recipe takes three hours. Mine took 40 minutes because I used canned beans instead of dried.
  • The original served six; mine served two.
  • The original recipe called for a mix of pasta types while I used only one.
  • The original’s bean-to-pasta ratio emphasized the beans, while mine had a higher ratio of pasta. Next time I’ll try to make it more like the original. (After all, I see this as more of a bean recipe than a pasta recipe.)
  • My sauce was thicker than the original’s but that was just luck as I was guessing at the amount of water to use. Making it wetter (which is not unappealing) would have been just a matter of adding a couple of tablespoons of water at the end.

It’s worth making again, so I will transcribe the recipe soon and present it here. (Update: recipe posted.)

Pasta e fagioli all’isolana as photgraphed by La Cucina Italiana in 1989 (with no bokeh).

pasta and cannellini beans, 1987

Below: Pasta e fagioli all’isolana as photographed by blork in 2011 (with just a touch of bokeh).

pasta and cannellini beans, 2011

Recipe coming soon.