Winter Nature

Winter Nature by Merritt Gibson and Soren Bondrup-Nielsen. Illustrated by Twila Robar-DeCoste. From the back cover: “Though often associated with hibernation – for bears and humans alike – winter can in fact be a time of observation and discovery in the outdoors. Winter Nature provides the interested walker, skier or snowshoer with a guide to the mammals, birds, trees and shrubs found in the Maritime provinces during the winter months.”

I liked this book a lot. For one thing, it’s beautifully made, as are all books produced by Gaspereau Press. For another, I love nature guidebooks since they help me feel like slightly less of an ignoramus when I’m out and about and am able to identify the odd thing here and there. Even better, it’s a guide to local animals, birds and trees  – things I have a chance of actually seeing. The best part, of course, is the amazing range of knowledge on the part of the co-authors. It’s amazing. I can’t imagine ever knowing that much about anything. About anything useful, anyway.

The one thing I didn’t love about the book was the illustrations. Robar-DeCoste is incredibly talented and the drawings are amazingly detailed and accurate, but I find I need colour photography when it comes to distinguishing between different types of sparrows, say, or the dormant branches of trees. It’s still a good resource, just not quite as useful as it might have been with photos. Just my opinion.

Anyone else share my love of nature guides?

A Broom of One’s Own

A Broom of One’s Own by Nancy Peacock.

From the back cover: “An encouragement to all hard-working artists, no matter how they make a living, Peacock’s book provides valuable insights and advice on motivation, craft, and criticism while offering hilarious anecdotes about the houses she cleans.”

Since I was feeling particularly in need of encouragement this past week, I turned to this book, which has been, ironically, gathering dust on my desk for quite a while as I waited for what seemed like the right time to read it. What I should have realized is that any time is the right time for nice, sensible advice on how to balance what you want to do (write, for instance) with what you need to do (make money).

Despite having two well-regarded novels under her belt, Peacock was unable to make ends meet by writing full-time and continued to clean houses for fifteen years. Her mixed feelings about this (annoyance with being treated like dirt by snooty clients as well as gratitude for the ability to work on her own and set her own rules) make for interesting reading and reminded me to try to see the good in those activities I’d rather not be doing.

While I wouldn’t characterize her anecdotes as “hilarious,” (they’re often slightly depressing since people can be gross, rude, entitled pigs), I will say the book is an entertaining mix of  memoir, observations about writing, and nitty-gritty details about what it’s really like to clean a house that is not your own. Definitely worth a read.

kiss the joy as it flies

I just finished:

Kiss the Joy As It Flies by Sheree Fitch.

From the inside flap: “Panic-stricken by the news that she needs exploratory surgery, forty-eight-year-old Mercy Beth Fanjoy drafts a monumental “to do” list and sets about putting her messy life in order. But tidying up the edges of her life means the past comes rushing back to haunt her and the present keeps throwing up more to do’s. Between fits of weeping and laughter, ranting and bliss, Mercy must contemplate the meaning of life in the face of her own death. In a week filled with the riot of an entire life, nothing turns out the way she’d expected.”

I’m not sure what rock I was living under when this novel was released by Vagrant Press in 2008, but the first I heard of it was about a month ago as I packed it up at the library to ship out to a patron who had put it on hold. Ooh, I thought, what a great title. And it’s by Sheree Fitch, the incredibly popular and prolific author of kids’ and young adult lit. Very interesting. So I bumped that patron off the hold and took it for myself. Ha. No, I didn’t. Sometimes it’s tempting, but your friendly neighbourhood librarian would NEVER do such a thing. We’re big on freedom and fairness and all that crap, you see.

So, having waited patiently for my turn, the book came back, I dropped what I had been reading and started in. The first thing I noticed was Fitch’s poetic prose – not surprising from a poet, I suppose – and her eye for detail. Mercy notes the “high-pitched, train-whistling congestion” of her doctor’s chest, for example. At a yoga class, she watches how “Twenty people floated to the front of their yoga mats like synchronized swimmers in the belly of a pool.” And of her landlord and his wife, Mercy reflects, “They’d known it was Harold’s last Christmas even then. Doris had shiny puddles of grey under her eyes…Harold’s face was the yellow of dried mustard, and his eyes were bulging out of their sockets like the eyes of a seal, glazed over with morphine.”

I liked the basic concept too: woman receives threatening medical news, woman freaks out, woman makes last ditch effort to resolve some issues she’s been letting slide, woman learns a few important life lessons in doing so. Mercy comes across as a relatable character, with just enough personality quirks to seem real, but not so many as to make her outlandish. Her life is not unlike yours or mine – frequently disappointing and infuriating with just enough moments of happiness to keep her going.

My only criticism is about the last few chapters, which seem like a bit of an afterthought. A much anticipated trip to Africa lasts for one tiny chapter (compared to the doctor’s appointment at the beginning which carried on for six chapters) and the trip feels a little forced, as if its main purpose is to get Mercy out of the country so it can be all the more dramatic when she’s summoned back for an emergency.

I also have a bit of an issue with the “One Year Later” epilogue. For fear of ruining it for you, all I’ll say is, bitter hag that I am, I can’t stand happy endings in which everything conveniently sorts itself out and everybody’s just dandy. I start rolling my eyes and muttering darkly about unicorns and lollipops and fireworks and it’s all very unattractive.

So, final word: would I recommend it? Absolutely. Great writing, intriguing story and, as far as the ending goes, chances are good you’re much less pessimistic than me and will love it.

Writing Life

I’ve spent the past week conked out in bed and sprawled across the couch with The Mother of All Head Colds. Flus. Flues. Influenzas. Even though I know better now, I can’t quite shake my childhood belief that if you have a runny nose/sore throat/cough, you have a cold and if you’re barfing, you have the flu. Whatever. I was sick. Unfortunately, I was so sick I didn’t get as much reading done as one might expect considering I was horizontal for 23.5 hours out of every 24.

But I did read this:

Writing Life: Celebrated Canadian and International Authors on Writing and Life. From the back cover: “Provocative, candid, often very funny, personal, and passionately engaged, this inspired collection will take readers deep into the heart of the writing life.”

I love anthologies for the exposure to new voices and always come away with a list of authors to seek out. Seek out their work, I mean, not the authors themselves. Ugh, it’s nice to realize my brain fog hasn’t lifted much. Anyway, this anthology is no different: my love for Lisa Moore and Lynn Coady was re-affirmed and my hopelessly long reading list now includes Eden Robinson, Shyam Selvadurai, Susan Swan and Michael Winter. Of course, anthologies are also helpful in pointing out authors to avoid; if they can annoy, bore or ostracize me within ten short pages or so, I don’t need to suffer through a whole book, thanks.

The other great thing about this particular collection is the topic: writing.  Ooooh. I love a good book about writing. I love hearing about the experiences of published authors, love collecting tidbits of information here and there as if it will somehow help me. I’m a kid again, sitting on the stairs eavesdropping on my older sister and her friends and being impatient to be a teenager too since they obviously had everything cool and exciting and all I had was stupid used roller skates with ugly silver stars on the sides and an eight o’clock bedtime.

I am a voyeur when it comes to writers and want to know it all – the writing schedules, the struggles with confidence, the thrill of success, the reality of making ends meet, the challenge of raising children, the attitudes toward readers and critics. This collection didn’t have a lot of that nitty gritty detail, but I still enjoyed it. Most of it. But that’s the pleasure of a collection, right? It’s like a box of chocolates. Eat the ones you like and pass the rest off on your co-workers.

on having diverse tastes in literature

My reading list has been somewhat eclectic lately, reflecting my scattered frame of mind. My nightly flossing routine provides a valuable five minutes of reading time, which I spend on magazines: Inc. to learn how to build Wingspan into a corporate giant, Shambhala Sun to try to discover some inner peace and Rug Hooking to fantasize about a day when I’ll have to time to be creative again.

Then, in those few, drowsy minutes before lapsing into unconsciousness, I read a book like this one:

This Book is Overdue! by Marilyn Johnson. I found this book about the constantly evolving face of libraries and librarians interesting, even though it’s very different from my own experience as a lowly little part-timer working for a predominantly rural network of libraries. Johnson explores the multitude of ways in which librarians use technology to do what librarians do best – connect people with the information they need – and introduces the reader to blogging librarians, online librarians, Second Life librarians, anarchist librarians, reference librarians and lots of good ol’ public librarians who are seriously intent on keeping their libraries vibrant and vital to the communities they serve. Definitely worth a read for anyone interested in libraries and/or information technology.

Then I swing to the opposite pole and read a book like this:

Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern. Because I’m always ridiculously late to anything hip or hot, I just discovered this book when it came in as a hold for a co-worker. The book is an offshoot of Halpern’s Twitter account of the same name, which, as you might have deduced, is about funny things sh*t Halpern’s dad says. And his dad can be funny. Really funny, sometimes. But since a book of one-liners would be tedious, I suppose, Halpern has written a short autobiography (he’s only 27) around his father’s quotes and it’s…okay. It isn’t terrible or deadly boring or anything like that, it’s just…okay. He seems like a nice enough guy, just one who, aside from the astounding popularity of his Twitter account, hasn’t done much that makes gripping reading. Public school. Moving out to attend university. Moving back home as an adult. Crummy jobs. Breaking up with girlfriends.

I also need to say that Halpern Sr’s profanity and scathing criticisms didn’t seem as funny to me when he was barking them at Halpern as a child. At times, it seemed downright abusive. He makes sure to emphasize his father loved and loves him very much, but I couldn’t help feeling bad for the kid. It must have been hard to live with such a prickly personality.

Would I recommend it? Sure, for a few laughs, but only if you aren’t bothered by cursing. There is scarcely a clean sentence.

And then I was on to:

Sloth by Wendy Wasserstein. Sloth is one of a series on the seven deadly sins, commissioned by The New York Public Library and Oxford University Press and I’m intrigued enough to want to read the others. Wasserstein’s approach to her sin was to create a self-help book, Sloth: And How to Get It. It’s a nice parody of the self-help genre – wry, not silly – as well as a biting commentary on those who coast through life with as little engagement as possible, but I have to admit I found all the talk about giving up hope, creativity, ambition, passion and drive depressing enough that, at times, it seemed like a how-to manual for depression. Giving up doing is one thing (and something that us over-achievers could stand to practice once in a while), but giving up caring pushed it into bummer territory, I thought. Still, the plan’s induction phase, maintenance phase and activity gram counter (limit of fifty per day) made me smile.

And what have you read lately?