Where I live, the Covid numbers are climbing again. It’s now a race to vaccinate people to offset the spread of more contagious and potentially more severe variants. Maybe that’s why morale seems to be dropping amongst friends and family. These aren’t easy times. It’s been a long, difficult haul, and the restrictions aren’t over yet. So, this week, a bit of cheer from Canadian Neil Pasricha, one of the most popular Ted Talk presenters. Admittedly, some of his recommendations for simple pleasures – going to a movie, for instance – are off the table right now, but they won’t be forever. And his short twenty-minute talk is guaranteed to make you smile.
The daffodils are blooming and the tulips on the windowsill are too. The seedlings have sprouted, and once they get a second set of leaves, they’ll make the pilgrimage to the greenhouse to harden off before being planted out in May. Gardeners live for warmer weather and more hours of daylight, but the downside – if there is a downside – is that the gardening season means less time to curl up with a book. At least for now. Once the spring chores are done and the seedlings are planted out, there’s usually more time. That being said, I can always find an hour or two after sunset to get in bit of reading. Here’s what I’m enjoying this month:
Grit by Angela Duckworth
When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole
Instructions to the Cook: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Living a Life That Matters by Bernie Glassman & Rick Fields
Books read to date in 2021: 26
Life has thrown me a curve ball in the last week and my attention is fragmented, so here’s a blog post that appeared five years ago. The sentiments are as true today as they were back then.
I received an email a few weeks ago about living in B.C. The woman in question is doing her master’s and preparing to give a seminar focusing on BC authors. She wanted to know how living here informs or influences my writing.
I mulled it over for quite a while because it’s a surprisingly tricky question to answer. When I responded, I gave her some context, explaining that though I was born on Vancouver Island (Victoria), I grew up in both Victoria and Vancouver, spent a year in Edmonton as a young teen and five years living in Winnipeg when I was in my early twenties. When I finally returned to the island in my late twenties, it really was like coming home.
I think there’s a certain mindset one has, having been born and raised on an island. To a large extent, you’re dependent on ferries (or planes) for mail, food, fuel and the ability to come and go. You can’t just up and leave (or return, for that matter) without checking a schedule or two. There’s also an understanding that land here is finite: there’s only so much room for garbage disposal or new buildings. That’s not so on the mainland where there’s always room out in the valley or up the mountain. Island living is said to be an insular sort of existence. If one defines insular as being set apart, I’d agree. If you toss in the other definition of insular as being ignorant or disinterested in different cultures, I’d argue against it. That kind of insular attitude isn’t limited to island living, and I certainly don’t see it here on Vancouver Island.
With those thoughts rattling around my head, I was no closer to answering the woman’s question. How does living here specifically impact me as a writer? I finally came to this conclusion: living on the west coast impacts me. I bring that sensibility to my life generally, which, by extension, flavours my writing. Some of my books are set in B.C. Others are set on the prairies, which I grew to love too. A few are set in the U.S., though every U.S. setting I’ve used has been on the west coast – Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angles. I think that’s telling.
For me as a writer, setting plays as big a role as character. So, when I place a story in a particular location, I need to have lived there or at least spent time there to absorb its nuances. But while I’ve been to New York, for instance, I haven’t spent as much time there as I have in Seattle, San Francisco or L.A.
I relate to the coast. I know the flora and fauna, the birds and animals. When someone complains about a heron fishing at their pond, I know precisely what that sharp, two-toned beak looks like as it dips into the water. When a friend mentions that the bark is peeling from their arbutus tree, my mind immediately goes to the intoxicating honey scent of the arbutus flowers that bloom in spring. I know what spring is like here (often rainy), and summer and fall and winter too (most definitely rainy). I’ve lived with the nuances of light and dark; I’ve experienced drought and floods and windstorms. I understand the politics, the environmental issues, and the social nuances that permeate towns and cities up and down the coast.
Does that mean I’m limited to setting my books on the coast? No. I love to travel and spend time in other places, and I’m pretty good at researching too. So that’s not an issue. But when it comes right down to it, I get the west coast mindset. The saltwater tang infused my blood at birth. And I’m more than okay with it.
We’re in the process of gutting and rebuilding an area of our garden. We have a vision of how we want it to look when it’s done, we know the steps needed to get us to the finish line –we’ve done multiple garden overhauls before—yet we’ve been surprised at how much chaos our efforts have created.
Creativity is messy. All of it is. Whether you’re sculpting, painting a picture, cooking a meal, rebuilding a garden or writing a book, there are sloppy and disordered times, and depending on the complexity of what you’re trying to create, there can also be times of feeling muddled and overwhelmed.
American novelist Ellen Klages wrote: My process is messy and non-linear, full of false starts, fidgets, and errands that I suddenly need to run now; it is a battle to get something – anything – down on paper. I doodle in sketchbooks: bits of ideas, fragments of sentences, character names, single lines of dialogue with no context.
Messy. Non-linear. Fidgets and doodles. All that’s true for me too, whether I’m working in the garden or writing a novel.
Creativity is also unpredictable. We can’t be sure how things will turn out. We can plot and plan and sketch things out, literally on paper or figuratively in our heads, but even with our best efforts, weather happens or plants refuse to thrive. Story characters act out in ways we don’t expect, taking our stories in directions we hadn’t anticipated. Editorial input or our own fresh insights results in revisions and a completely new take. When it comes to creative projects, there’s always something to tweak, adjust or reframe.
In the end, though, if the final result doesn’t quite match the vision we hold in our heads, there will always be another opportunity. Another project, another mess to create. Because as Michael J. Fox says, a creative mess is better than idle tidiness.
I Read Canadian Day, which is coming up on February 17th, is a day to celebrate Canadian books, to acknowledge the writers and illustrators who create them, the publishers who get behind them, and the independent bookstores where you can buy them. The I Read Canadian initiative takes place this Wednesday in homes, schools, libraries and bookstores across the country. All Canadians are encouraged to read a children’s book by a Canadian author or illustrator for even 15 minutes.
The initiative began two years ago as a collaboration between the Canadian Children’s Book Centre; children’s author Eric Walters; CANSCAIP (the Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers) and the Ontario Library Association.
The goal is to raise awareness of all Canadian books and to celebrate the richness, diversity and breadth of Canadian literature. And this year, as we seek to connect while remaining physically distanced, the goal seems to resonate even more deeply.
If you’re a teacher, librarian, home schooler or simply a lover of books, you can register to participate at the official website here: https://ireadcanadian.com/day/ And at noon EST February 17th, a series of videos called I Write Canadian will premiere on the CCBC’s YouTube channel, Bibliovideo. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCoRQbrmtvSYMRm1emqkhP8Q?sub_confirmation=1
Set aside a few minutes to check out the presentations. And remember to read Canadian for even a few minutes on February 17th!
I’m working on a manuscript I started several years ago, and I’m second-guessing myself with just about every paragraph. The story in question is a departure for me; it’s a contemporary middle-grade novel but with a suspenseful, paranormal element. The only thing I’ve written that comes even close is Exit Point, a short novel for reluctant teen readers, and I use the word close loosely. There are some similarities but not many.
Earlier this week, in need of inspiration, I grabbed my copy of The Mindful Writer by Dinty W. Moore from my shelf. And I opened it to this quote by John Irving:
‘If you don’t feel that you are possibly on the edge of humiliating yourself, of losing control of the whole thing, then probably what you are doing isn’t very vital. If you don’t feel like you are writing somewhat over your head, why do it? If you don’t have some doubt of your authority to tell this story, then you are not trying to tell enough.’ John Irving
The passage goes on to talk about how the work of the writer is the true work of all artists: to take risks, to lean far out over the edge of the accepted truth. If you are trying to tackle a project that is beyond your existing capacity as a writer or an artist, if you’re just a little bit afraid of the direction in which you are heading, then you are likely heading in the right direction.
Onward. And steady on.
Every year, I track how many books I read. Since Covid forced us to spend more time at home last year, I expected to read more titles than usual. But that didn’t happen. I read only 70 books in 2020, and I’m usually well above the 80 book a year mark. While I regularly buy books, I also borrow heavily from the library, and our library was shut down for months because of Covid. I looked at borrowing e books but I don’t like to read on my phone, and I didn’t have a tablet. Well, now I do. I didn’t need another piece of equipment, but I did need to communicate with my dad who is in care and struggles to use a phone. Being able to borrow e books from the library only added to the tablet’s appeal. Just one month into the new year and I’ve already read more books than I had at this time last year. Here’s what I’m reading this month.
The Lemon Sisters by Jill Shalvis
Intimate Conversations with the Divine by Caroline Myss
Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson
Books read to date in 2021: 12
I have some fiction recommendations for you this week. If you’re looking for a last-minute gift, there’s still time to choose a book, and many local bookstores are happy to arrange curbside pick-up. On this list, you’ll find a picture book, an intermediate novel and a young adult pick, as well as some adult titles to appeal to a variety of tastes.
I Am Scary by Elise Gravel. Picture book, ages 1 – 5. A monster tries to scare a child who refuses to be frightened. The monster wonders, “What will happen to me if I’m not scary?” The child offers him a hug and the monster melts . . . softening into an adorable creature. A sweet and humorous tale from Montrealer Elise Gravel.
Bloom by Kenneth Oppel. Intermediate Fiction, ages 8 – 14. It was just rain. But after the downpour, odd black plants begin to shoot up. They take over fields and twine around houses. They bloom and throw off toxic pollen – and feed. Strangely, three Saltspring Island teens – Anaya, Petra and Seth – seem immune. Are they the key to fighting back the invasion? They’d better figure it out fast, because it’s starting to rain again.
Kid Sterling by Christine Welldon. Young adult fiction, ages 12 – 18. Set in New Orleans in 1906. Sterling shines shoes, helping support his laundress mother. Sterling also plays the trumpet, and what he really wants is to learn from his idol, Buddy Bolden, who is playing music that’s turning New Orleans upside down. A richly textured story of a culture and character surviving against all odds.
What You Wish For by Katherine Center. Women’s fiction, contemporary. Voted a library reads pick for July 2020, Center’s characters come alive in this charming story that also touches on serious issues. School librarian Samantha Casey loves her life and job. But when a man from her past, Duncan Carpenter, shows up at the school to become the new principal, things quickly go downhill. Center writes about resilience and struggle and ultimately finding joy and savoring life’s moments of grace.
The Lost Girls of Devon by Barbara O’Neal. Women’s fiction, contemporary. A story of four generations of women grappling with family betrayals, long-buried secrets and a mysterious tragedy that brings them together. Set in Devon, and rich in imagery, characterization and language, this story addresses some difficult issues from multiple points of view. A strong family drama with a touch of romance and mystery woven in.
The Paris Hours by Alex George. Literary, historical. Paris between the wars teems with artists, writers and musicians. But amidst the dazzling creativity of the city’s most famous citizens, four regular people are each searching for something they’ve lost. Told over the course of a single day in 1927, The Paris Hours tells the story of Camille, the maid of Marcel Proust; Souren, an Armenian refugee; artist Guillaume; and journalist Jean-Paul. When the quartet’s paths finally cross, each will learn if they’ll find what they were looking for.
And finally, here are two uplifting and light holiday-themed novels:
In a Holidaze by Christina Lauren. Sweet and laugh-out-loud funny in spots, this holiday romance features terrific characters, one of whom must relive her day multiple times, a la Groundhog Day. When Maelyn Jones asks the universe what happiness looks like for her, the answer she gets is more than she ever dreamed. A quick, easy read that will make you smile.
Christmas at the Island Hotel by Jenny Colgan. Set on a remote island off the coast of Scotland, a family in turmoil prepares to open a hotel in time for Christmas. Though the novel primarily focusses on the love story between a shy island girl and a fellow kitchen worker (a disgraced Norwegian prince exiled by his father) it also delves into other relationships and capers on the island. Quirky characters, tender and moving.
It’s a different kind of holiday for many this year as Covid prevents us from traveling or celebrating with other households. For us, it means our first Christmas as a twosome in over thirty years! Rather than being upset, I’m seeing it as an opportunity to focus on the things that bring us joy, rather than focusing on the needs of family and friends. For instance, I’ll have a lot more time to read, and that always makes me happy. But because this year has been a challenging one, I’m looking for books that offer an escape, or ones that are ultimately uplifting, and if there’s food or travel involved, so much the better. Here are some non-fiction titles to consider. Stop back next week for some fiction recommendations.
Rebel Chef: In Search of What Matters by Dominique Crenn and Emma Brockes. By the time twenty-one-year-old Dominique Crenn decided to become a chef, she knew it would be tough in France where almost all restaurant kitchens were run by men. So, she moved to San Francisco to train under Jeremiah Tower. Almost thirty years later, Crenn was awarded three Michelin Stars in 2018 for her restaurant Atelier Crenn, and became the first female chef in the United States to receive this honor. Part biography starting with her childhood in Versailles and part food memoir as she details out her cooking journey, this is a lovely read about a chef’s personal discoveries.
Hidden Places: An Inspired Traveller’s Guide by Sarah Baxter. Here’s some armchair travel for those who feel housebound. Travel journalist Sarah Baxter reveals twenty-five of the world’s most obscure places. She takes us to little-known spots in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, Canada and the U.S. Some locations are remote, others are near more widely known attractions, but each destination has a story to tell. Evocative text and beautiful hand-drawn illustrations by Amy Grimes. A short, quick read and a lovely escape.
The Year of Living Danishly: My Twelve Months Unearthing the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country by Helen Russell. Even though it’s not a new release (this book has been out for five years) it was new to me and I enjoyed it enough that I’ll be seeking out more by Helen Russell. Denmark is officially the happiest nation on earth, so when Russell’s husband is offered his dream job at LEGO in Denmark, Helen goes along and begins her quest to find out what makes Danes so happy. Each month, she shares a primary takeaway contributing to the country’s general happiness level and the related lessons she learned. Though she also touches on the not-so-great parts of living in Denmark, Russell’s narrative is upbeat and even funny at times.
Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman. An honest and sometimes funny book that celebrates friendship and what it takes to stay close for the long haul. Sow and Friedman tell the story of their first decade of friendship, both its joys and its pitfalls. More memoir than intellectual study, and very occasionally veering into the preachy, Big Friendship is nevertheless entertaining and affirming.
Together: Why Social Connection Holds the Key to Better Health, Higher Performance, and Greater Happiness by Vivek H. Murthy. Former Surgeon General of the United States, Vivek Murthy delves into scientific research to explain how our brains function from social interaction or the lack of it. A great book to read and help us understand why we may be feeling strange or uneasy during these times of isolation. The good news is that social connection is innate and a cure for loneliness. Filled with interesting anecdotes, this is an inspirational read that reminds us to practice compassion as often as possible.
We are Santa: Portraits and Profiles by Ron Cooper. Not only feel-good but seasonally appropriate! Award-winning photographer Ron Cooper has curated a collection of fifty professional Santas from across the USA. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the lives of those who slip into the red suit to spread Christmas cheer. Before and after portraits as Santa transforms from his (or her) everyday world to becoming Santa, and behind-the-scenes stories and anecdotes to bring home the wonder and joy of the seasonal Santa. Highly recommended.
I think of late fall as my pause point before I start baking and preparing for the holidays. Even though the days are shorter and the nights are longer, I seem to have more time to devote to quieter pursuits, like reading. And these days, with the Covid numbers climbing and creating a sense of unease everywhere, books are my favorite way to escape. Here’s what I’m reading this month.
The Book of Two Ways by Jodi Picoult
Dance Away with Me by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
Silver Bay by JoJo Moyes
Books read to date in 2020: 58