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?

notes from the racetrack

My life is a mad dash these days as I hurtle from obligation to obligation, putting off everything I enjoy until later. Later. Later. It sucks. One of those things I enjoy is writing, whether it be blogging, journalling or novel-tinkering, and my writing time is almost zero these days. Same with reading. My reading time has shrunk to the last few minutes before bed when I am not exactly at my sharpest. This is all my way of justifying the lameness of the “reviews” to follow – I don’t have enough time now to write with any intelligence (seriously, I’m on a tiny stopover between library shifts and I have no idea what I’m going to make for supper) and even if I did have the time to write something of value, I was so zonked out when I read the following two books it’s a wonder I remember reading them at all.

First up:

Jane Austen by Carol Shields.  It was good. The end.

Okay, I’ll try a little harder.

I’ve never been a reader of biographies or autobiographies because I expect them to be dull. There. I said it. I expect them to be big, boring chronicles of every single teensy weensy detail about some supposedly fascinating person’s life and, frankly, there are very few people who interest me enough to want to know their last names, let alone what they named their first pet.

But I saw this at the library and thought, hey, Jane Austen. I like Jane Austen. And Carol Shields. I like Carol Shields. And, hey, even better, it’s 185 pages. I like 185 page books.

And it’s good. Very enjoyable. Not dull at all. Jane Austen led a very interesting life, despite what some asshole critics might say, and Carol Shields recounts Jane’s story in her own typically well-spoken (well-written?) and insightful way. Think the opposite of this review: that’s what it’s like. Highly recommended.

Next up:

No Impact Man by Colin Beavan.

I don’t have the book in front of me to quote a blurb so I’ll try to summarize: Colin Beavan, a writer in New York City, kind of freaks out (understandably) at the state of the environment and decides to try spending a year making no impact on the earth – no garbage, no electricity use, no unnecessary shopping, no transportation other than self-powered. It’s a huge, complicated undertaking, as you can imagine, and he drags his somewhat reluctant wife and young daughter along for the experiment.

My favourite parts of the book were the logistics – how they got around the city, how they kept food from spoiling without a refrigerator, how they washed their clothes in the tub, and so on – but interestingly, it seems to be the sharing of the logistics that Beavan didn’t enjoy. He is very light on the details regarding many of the things they tried and says this is because he isn’t recommending anyone actually try to live this way – it was just a means for gaining awareness of our society’s tendency toward over-consumption and reliance upon convenience at the expense of everything else. He repeatedly gets all bent out of shape when radio, tv and magazine interviewers ask what his family uses as a substitute for toilet paper, claiming they’re belittling the project by focusing on such a silly issue, but I think it’s a perfectly sensible question. People are curious. You can’t demand people be curious in the ways you dictate. And I think people are curious about the t.p. issue because they honestly don’t know – what is an environmentally neutral alternative to toilet paper?

So while it was an interesting premise and the book had a lot of interesting passages, I didn’t find Beavan particularly engaging personally, mainly because he focused so heavily on statistics instead of personal experience.

And what are you reading?

status report

This probably isn’t the best time to be writing a blog post since I’m so over-worked, over-tired, over-stressed and under-chocolated (see? I can’t even be bothered to write properly), but since all two of you are clamouring to know what’s going on in my fabulous life right now, I’ll try to come up with something worth reading.

Hmm.

I got nothing.

Sorry about that.

We continue to prepare the house for sale with The Boy Wonder tackling some painting and minor carpentry jobs and me cleaning like a fiend only to find the house a disaster again upon returning home from work every day. Yeah. That doesn’t get old. My children are incapable – seriously, INCAPABLE – of picking up after themselves and I’m thisclose to making them live in the shed until the house is sold. I’ll take my chances with Children’s Aid because, frankly, going to prison sounds dreamy at the moment. Solitary confinement? Yes please!

I still don’t want to say much about what will hopefully be our new house, which I understand makes this post boring as hell, but I hope you’ll understand. Until everything is a done deal, I’d better shut up about it.

So other than working on the house and working at the library and working on Wingspan business, I don’t have much else going on. I haven’t made anything recently because I haven’t had time. I haven’t baked anything delicious recently because it’s been too bloody hot. Oh, and I don’t have time. I did make several jars of peach jam yesterday since we received 11 litres of peaches in our fruit CSA order this week, but I couldn’t even enjoy the jam-making because I was worried about falling behind on the house prep. Ugh, I hate living like this.

The only thing standing between me and a complete nervous breakdown is that last glorious hour of every day during which I give myself permission to sit down and weep quietly while reading or watching tv. The past week’s entertainment has been:

The Robinsons starring Martin Freeman. From the back cover: “When Ed is told by his wife, ‘you’re not the man I married,’ he is forced to ask himself ‘who am I?’ The answer he gets back – ‘Ed Robinson’ – doesn’t satisfy him. Ed’s search for meaning takes him to many places…but nowhere more intriguing than his own family, or indeed, family history.”

At only six episodes of thirty minutes each, even I could find time for this. I found the writing and acting very good, if a little over-the-top at times. It was still very entertaining, though.

Next:

I Know I Am, But What Are You? by Samantha Bee. From the inside jacket: “Candid, outspoken, laugh-out-loud funny essays from the much-loved Samantha Bee, the Most Senior Correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

I didn’t know much about Samantha Bee before reading this book and now I’d have to agree that she certainly is candid, outspoken and laugh-out-loud funny. Oh, and crazy. The “essays” are presented as a memoir, but her telling of her life’s events can be so ridiculous (in a funny way) that it’s hard to know where the truth ends and the leg-pulling begins. She reminds me of a much more talented version of myself: rude, crude, ruthlessly critical and a huge sap about her kids.

And finally, I read this one with the kids:

Mr Gum and the Biscuit Billionaire by Andy Stanton. From the back cover: “Good evening. Ok, this book’s a bit hard to describe. There’s this gingerbread man with electric muscles, see? And he’s as rich as a mushroom, right? And Mr Gum and Billy William are plotting to get the cash, yeah? And it’s up to Polly to save the day. And there’s a funfair and hot dogs, and Friday O’Leary shouts out some crazy stuff, and…hey, that wasn’t so hard to describe after all.”

This is the second in the Mr Gum series, which is typical for us because we’re too disorganized to read books in the proper order cool and carefree to be constrained by notions of ‘proper order.’ It’s a great story, perfect for kids (and the adult reading to them) who like their bedtime stories weird and funny. My guys laughed like crazy through the whole thing and when we were finished, Foster immediately picked it up and re-read it to himself. Next, we’ll read the first in the series. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Now, what’s new with you?

quick update

Life is beyond hectic right now as I work almost full-time at the library, work almost part-time at Wingspan, try to complete all the usual day-to-day maintenance and…(drumroll)…prepare to put our house on the market. We’ve found a very nice house on a lake about fifteen minutes away and are now in a desperate race to get this pigsty cleaned up enough to put up for sale. I’ll post more about it as I know more; at the moment nothing is definite so I don’t want to screw anything up by blabbing too soon.

My one refuge during all this non-stop activity is an hour of reading before bed every night. Thank God for books. I’d lose my mind without them. (I have to keep justifying – to myself and The Boy Wonder – the importance of books in my life in light of the possibility of moving approximately four and a half million pounds of them.) Anyway, I’m in a hurry at the moment, but there’s always time to be judgmental, right? Right.

First:

Falling Apart in One Piece: One Optimist’s Journey Through the Hell of Divorceby Stacy Morrison. Now don’t get your hopes up, dear in-laws, because The Boy Wonder has not finally come to his senses and decided to divorce me. Not today, anyway. As far as I know. I read this book because it was recommended by a co-worker who has gone through a divorce and felt the author had an interesting perspective. Because I’m a horrible person at heart, I found her tales about how everything went wrong – seriously, one thing after another, it was uncanny – the most gripping part of the whole book. I guess that’s because I’m not divorced. Yet.

Falling Apart is very honest in that she doesn’t leave out any of the fits of weeping or feelings of humiliation or bad decisions, although she doesn’t say much about the fact her ex seems to be a selfish, childish, whiny jerk. Maybe the fact I now think he’s all those things is enough; maybe she was content to give that impression without ever coming out and saying it directly. I guess I was hoping she would just come right out and say it instead of being so gentle and understanding all the time. Jeez, I kept thinking, curse the guy out. Let loose. Stop being so mature and just let him have it.

Another issue I had with the book is Morrison’s continual mentioning of her career in publishing and current position as Editor of Redbook magazine.I understand her career is important to her and becoming the editor of such a successful magazine is a huge accompishment, but for Pete’s sake, enough already. She reminded me of one of those people – you know at least one too – who find a way to work their own achievements into EVERYTHING. I remember once working with a young woman the year she was getting married and she just couldn’t stop talking about it. Even when the topic wasn’t her wedding – and it was, plenty of the time, believe me – she always managed to steer the conversation back to it. Opening an envelope from a customer would get her going about her wedding invitations. A nice blouse on someone would remind her of the cut of her wedding dress. She even took to referring to her husband as “my husband” all the time despite the fact he worked right there with us, about two feet away. (My Star girls will doubtless know who I’m talking about.) So, to get back to the book, she brags about her awesome career in publishing A LOT and I found it a little distracting in that I had to keep rolling my eyes, but it wasn’t that big a deal.

Next:

Made from Scratch: Discovering the Pleasures of a Handmade Life by Jenna Woginrich. The cover of this book caught my eye in the library the other day and since I like making things from scratch too, I had high hopes for it. And it was…okay. Not bad. The author is forthcoming about her own experiences in gardening, beekeeping, baking, antiquing, sewing, playing the fiddle and raising working dogs and angora rabbits, but there is very little information here to help the reader do the same. The author includes resources at the end for those who want to learn more and that’s great, but I didn’t feel I learned a whole lot from reading her book and could have just read the more informative resources instead. I’ll give it a “Not Bad” and say it’s best meant for someone who has never given a thought to self-sufficiency before. If you’re a regular (or even semi-regular) reader of Mother Earth News or Hobby Farms, however, you’ll want something meatier.

And finally:

The Incident Report by Martha Baillie. Fiction. I enjoyed this book a lot. The style is very spare and clean and precise and a pleasure to read. The book is structured in the form of numbered incident reports as produced by Miriam Gordon, a librarian in Toronto. Interspersed with reports of insane, drunk, hostile or pathetic patrons are tiny glimpses of Miriam’s personal life, mainly her troubled relationship with her father and her budding romance with Janko, an artist-turned-cab driver. Highly recommended.