what I read in February 2019

A Bird on Every Tree by Carol Bruneau
After Many Years: Twenty-One Long Lost Stories by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Becoming by Michelle Obama
The Big Three Knitting Techniques by Ann-Mari Nilsson
Bird Migration: The Incredible Journeys of North American Birds by Stan Tekiela
Carry On, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley
Mr Wilkinson’s Vegetables by Matt Wilkinson
Set for the Holidays by Anna Olson
Shrewed by Elizabeth Renzetti
Skeletons in My Closet: Life Lessons from a Homicide Detective by Dave Sweet and Sarah Graham
You Are a Badass Every Day by Jen Sincero

what I read in January 2019

The Accidental Farmer: The Story of Ross Farm by Joan Watson
The Art of the Wasted Day by Patricia Hampl
Call to Order: A Miscellany of Useful Hierarchies, Systems and Classifications by Jackie Strachan and Jane Moseley
Catalan Food by Daniel Olivella
Cræft: An Inquiry into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts by Alexander Langlands
Homebody by Joanna Gaines
Reading People by Anne Bogel
Thornyhold by Mary Stewart
Transcription by Kate Atkinson
We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby
You Can Buy Happiness (and It’s Cheap) by Tammy Strobel

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.

two more recommendations

One good thing – the only good thing – about the horrible, stinking heat of summer is it gives me an excuse to sit and read instead of bustling around trying to keep things tidy. I just finished this:

This Cake Is for the Party by Sarah Selecky. The back blurb says only, “These ten smart, tautly written stories mark the debut of an exciting new voice in Canadian short fiction.” And it’s true. I’m always amazed by how skilled short story writers can fully render a character in so few pages and Selecky is a perfect example of someone with this ability. I found the stories ranged on a scale between poignant and downright sad, but I wouldn’t say they were depressing. Rather, they were sad in the way life is so often sad: people are lonely or unhappy or tormented or bitter or ill and there is no convenient resolution by the last page.

Selecky’s writing is so sharp and intelligent and evocative, it’s inspiring (as a reader) and intimidating (as a writer). My only complaint is the absence of quotation marks in scenes with dialogue. I know it’s probably a more modern, sleek way of writing, but my slow elephant brain had a hard time with it and I often had to backtrack to figure out what was dialogue and what wasn’t. It’s a minor point, though, and doesn’t detract from the overall quality of the stories.

Before Cake, I read this:

The Bad Book Affair by Ian Sansom. From the back cover: “…the magnificently hapless Israel Armstrong – a duffle-coat wearing, navel-gazing Jewish librarian who solves crimes, mysteries and domestic problems whilst driving a mobile library around the north coast of Ireland – finds himself on the verge of his thirtieth birthday and on the trail of a troubled missing teenager, the daughter of a local politician.”

I really, really liked this book. A lot. It’s smart and funny and completely entertaining – the type of novel I wish I could write. But haven’t. And probably never will. Sigh. Anyway, because I’m not terribly observant by times, I didn’t realize The Bad Book Affair is the fourth in the Mobile Library series when I borrowed it from the library and now I’m eagerly anticipating reading the first three books in the series. I’ll let you know how those go. Until then, don’t hesitate to buy/borrow The Bad Book Affair because it stands perfectly well on its own without having read the previous instalments.

And what are you reading these days?

book reports

Eight weeks into it, I’m happy to report I’m still enjoying my job at the library. It’s nice to get a regular paycheque, of course, and I get a kick out of people-watching, as always. It’s been a while since I worked with the general public and I’d forgotten people come in so many flavours. Every day is an interesting mix of the super-nice, the occasional super-snotty, the outright crazy, the harmless but clueless, the totally frazzled and the sickeningly entitled. I enjoy them all because they add to my mental database of character traits to be used, hopefully, in future writing. This is the nice thing about writing: everything is potential material. Even giant needles in the neck.

But the best thing about working at the library are the books. Books books books everywhere. It’s hard to not get all slobbery around them. I know perfectly well I don’t have time to read a fraction of what I’m slobbering over but still. It’s nice to dream. It’s also nice to come across books I wouldn’t necessarily have ever heard about otherwise. Books like this:

 Hole in My Life, by Jack Gantos. From the cover: “In the summer of 1971, Jack Gantos was an aspiring writer looking for adventure, cash for college tuition, and a way out of a dead-end job. For ten thousand dollars, he agreed to help sail a sixty-foot yacht loaded with a ton of hashish from the Virgin Islands to New York City, setting sail on an expedition that eventually landed him in federal prison.”

Although this biography is for young adults, I really enjoyed it. Gantos is remarkably honest about his bad decisions and never makes excuses or asks the reader for pity. His tales of life in prison are just as interesting, if not more so, than the crime that got him there in the first place. Very entertaining.

Here’s another good one:

Lovesongs of Emmanuel Taggart by Syr Ruus. From the cover: “Things no longer look the same for 45-year-old Emmanuel Taggart. Thinking he has the flu, he leaves the office to embark on a road of self-discovery. Although nothing is medically wrong, Emmanuel becomes convinced that he has an undiagnosed terminal disease. Dispossessed of his normal sense of reality, Emmanuel begins to examine his own existence with unexpected consequences.”

I read this while I had the stomach flu last month and it says good things about the book that I was able to enjoy it despite feeling horrible. Emmanuel is a perfectly drawn character: he loves his family, but is astonishingly self-centred; he demands constant sympathy and attention, but is impatient and emotionally stingy with others; he tells himself he is searching for meaning in his life, but is too lazy to put in the mental effort required and instead mopes around feeling sorry for himself. Emmanuel has a whole lot of really annoying traits, but Ruus is skilled enough that he never becomes overwhelming. Very good book.

Another good one. Kind of. Depressing/good:

On South Mountain: The Dark Secrets of the Goler Clan by David Cruise and Alison Griffiths. From the cover: “The Annapolis Valley is one of the most beautiful places on the face of the earth. Apple blossoms, lush farms and lovely, secluded beaches have graced photographs and postcards without number…Overlooking the Valley is South Mountain, a long ridge of hills covered by dense forests which conceal tiny hamlets and isolated clusters of shacks set in small clearings…(F)or most of the last two centuries it has been home to the “Clans” – thirty or so tight family groupings, living in their various Mountain enclaves. Many of them have survived the kind of poverty and deprivation associated only with the world’s poorest nations…Then one day, a fourteen-year-old Mountain girl told authorities that her father had been ‘using her as a wife.’ This revelation sparked a massive investigation which revealed a horrific tale of incest, sexual and physical abuse and psychological torture.”

I was attracted to this book because it’s a true story that took place in my stomping grounds, but hoo boy, I’ll bet long-time residents were not thrilled with its publication because nobody comes out looking good. Not the police, not the lawyers, not the judges, not the teachers or the doctors or the government or the residents of Wolfville or the residents of the Mountain – nobody. Huge failings all around. An awful subject, but well-written and quite gripping.

What have you read lately? Any recommendations?