Creative Risk-Taking

                       

Dolly Parton turns 76 today. Whether you like her singing or don’t, and regardless of how you view her campy, glittery style, I think it’s fair to say that Parton is a force to be reckoned with. She’s a singer and songwriter, an actress and author, a businesswoman and lately a humanitarian. Her Imagination Library book gifting program has given away almost 1.5 million books to children worldwide.

I find Parton inspiring. I love her sense of humour and willingness to poke fun at herself. I’m awed by her songwriting skills. She can tell a story and make us feel deeply in just a few hundred words. The Coat of Many Colors, written on a dry-cleaning receipt because that’s all she could find when inspiration struck, is a timeless song about how rags feel like riches when they’re stitched together with love and worn with pride. I Will Always Love You, which was written as a farewell to her business partner and mentor (and made famous when it was sung by Whitney Houston), is about holding onto love even after saying a final goodbye.

Dolly wrote her first song when she was about five. She called it Little Tiny Tassletop, and it was about a doll she made from a corn cob, dressed in corn husks and topped with corn silk for hair. She began writing in earnest when she was seven or eight. Today, it’s estimated she has written over 5,000 songs.

However, despite her formidable talent as a songwriter and singer, what inspires me most about Dolly Parton is her creative risk-taking and her willingness to give things a shot, even if she might look silly doing them. She lives by her own standards and follows her own North Star. Dolly says it best:

“You never do a whole lot unless you’re brave enough to try.”

“The magic is inside you; there ain’t no crystal ball.”

“I’m very real where it counts, and that’s inside.”

“I’ve never considered myself a perfectionist, but I do think of myself as a ‘professionalist.’ I always strive to simply be my very best.”

“Don’t get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.”

“I’m not going to limit myself just because people won’t accept the fact that I can do something else.”

Happy birthday, Dolly.

Fiction For the Holidays

I have some fiction suggestions for you this week.  Below you’ll find novel recommendations for young children, teens and adults. Happy reading!

Our Little Kitchen written and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki. Picture book, ages 4 – 8. A story about a lively gathering when neighbours come together to prepare a meal for their community. With a garden full of produce, a joyfully chaotic kitchen, and a friendly meal shared at the table, this sweet story celebrates diversity, camaraderie and community. 

Sour Cakes written by Karen Krossing and illustrated by Anna Kwan. Picture book, ages 3 – 7. Two sisters wake up in very different moods: the older one cheerful, the younger one grumpy. The older sister proposes they bake a cake, but the younger sibling only wants to bake a sour one. When the younger girl’s mood reaches the boiling point, the older sister agrees to bake the gloomy sour cake. With that, the two sisters navigate the younger one’s messy feelings and get back to playing.

Firefly by Phillipa Dowding. Middle-grade novel, ages 9 – 12. Thirteen-year-old Firefly has had a difficult childhood. When her mother is taken into custody, Firefly goes to live with her aunt Gayle, who owns The Corseted Lady costume shop. Between her aunt’s secure and steadfast support and the millions of costumes in the shop, Firefly is able to try on different identities, find herself in the process and heal.

Facing the Sun by Janice Lynn Mather, teen novel, ages 14 and up. Set in the Caribbean, this story focuses on four friends who experience unexpected changes in their lives when a hotel developer purchases their community’s beloved beach. Facing the Sun, which is told from four points of view, is a coming-of-age story about navigating family, friendship, self-worth and growing up.

People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry. Contemporary Romance/Women’s Fiction. Travel writer Poppy decides to take one last shot at reconnecting with Alex, her former best friend, who quite possibly might be her dream man. Best friends since college and complete opposites, Poppy and Alex have taken an annual summer vacation together for years. Or they did up until two years ago when they had a serious falling out. Hoping to mend the rift between them and win back the heart of her best friend, Poppy invites Alex on one last trip. An unabashedly feel-good read with the prerequisite happy ending.

The Rose Code by Kate Quinn. Historical fiction. At 650+ pages, The Rose Code is a time commitment but a worthwhile one. This novel focuses on three very different women, once friends and then estranged, who come back together to help the British solve codes that the Germans have been sending back and forth.  Though it’s a little slow to start, this is a character-driven and suspenseful story of friendship, betrayal, hope and redemption.

Wish You Were Here by Jodi Picoult. Set in the early months of the Covid pandemic, this recently released Picoult title is garnering solid reviews.  In March 2020, Diana O’Toole takes a planned romantic holiday to the Galapagos alone as her boyfriend Finn, who expected to join her on their nonrefundable vacation (and where Diana is almost certain he is going to propose), is needed at the hospital in New York. Unfortunately, the island is soon under quarantine and Diana is stranded there until the borders reopen. Completely isolated, Diana must venture out of her comfort zone and, in fact, eventually comes to question everything she knows about her relationships, her choices and herself.

Not a Happy Family by Shari Lapina. This domestic suspense read from Canadian novelist Lapina will appeal to the thriller lover on your list. The story takes place in the days following the brutal murders of Fred and Sheila Merton in their mansion on Easter Sunday. Their three adult children, who stand to inherit a fortune, are all deemed suspects. And as the story unfolds, Catherine, Dan and Jenna begin to suspect each other as well.

And one I’m anticipating:

The Secret Life of Albert Entwistle by Matt Cain. Published in the UK this year and being re-released in North America in early 2022, this novel tells the story of 64-year-old postman Albert Entwistle who has been living alone in a quiet North England town since his mother died eighteen years ago. But Albert has just learned he’ll be forced to retire on his next birthday. Friendless and with little to look forward to, Albert realizes it’s time to be honest about who he is and to ask for what he wants. So, Albert sets out to find George, the man that many years ago he loved and lost. As Albert embraces a new future, extraordinary things begin to happen.

Holiday Reading

Christmas is just around the corner, and that has me thinking about books. Books I might want to give as well as books I might want to read myself over the holidays. This week’s blog focuses on some 2021 non-fiction recommendations. While I generally love a serious read, this year I’m gravitating to lighter reads, or at least books that leave me feeling somewhat hopeful at the end. I seem to need that these days. First, two non-fiction recommendations for the kids on your list, followed by suggestions for more advanced readers.

For younger readers:

Finding Home: The journey of Immigrants and Refugees, written by Jen Sookfong Lee and illustrated by Drew Shannon. There are many reasons why people leave their homes in search of a new one. This book explores the history of human migration and how it has shaped our world, as well as current issues facing immigrants and refugees. Profiles of immigrants and refugees across the globe are also included. Ages 9 – 12.

The Power of Style: How Fashion and Beauty Are Being Used to Reclaim Culture by Christian Allaire. As a fashion-obsessed Ojibwe teen, Christian Allaire rarely saw anyone that looked like him in magazines or movies. As the current Fashion and Style writer for Vogue, he is working to change that. Clothes are never just clothes; style is self-expression, representation and transformation. Topics range from cosplay, makeup and hijabs to culture, politics and social justice. Ages 12 and up.

For the rest of us:

These Precious Days: Essays by Ann Patchett. When novelist Patchett sits down to write a book, she knows how it will end. Life, however, often takes unexpected turns and it is this truth that Patchett touches on in this collection of essays, all of which have been published before. You’ll find reflections on writing and publishing, insights into living and dying, friends and family, as well as lighter pieces on knitting, Snoopy, and surviving a year without shopping.

The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music by Dave Grohl. The Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters frontman takes us behind the scenes of his life as a rock star while also pulling back the curtain on his personal life. Entertaining, engaging and insightful. Perfect for the music fans on your list and even those who aren’t necessarily fans because Grohl is a master of the anecdote.

London’s Number One Dog-Walking Agency by Kate MacDougall. A wonderful memoir about a young woman who left her job at Sotheby’s and started her own business as a dog-walker for busy London pet owners. The theme of this uplifting coming-of-age book is about chasing your dreams in spite of facing challenges. It’s charming and funny . . . and there are lots of dogs!

Winter Pasture: One Woman’s Journey with China’s Kazakh by Li Juan, Jack Hargreaves (translator). A bestseller in China for years and the winner of the People’s Literature Award, this tale follows Li Juan, a Chinese journalist, as she joins a family of Kazakh herders – and their camels, sheep, cattle and horses – to spend winter on a winter grazing spot in Xinjiang Province where the population density at that time was one person per every square mile. This blend of memoir, travelogue and nature writing gives us an incredible picture into a remote part of the world.

Taste: My Life Through Food by Stanley Tucci. As you’d expect, this book is Tucci’s life through food – from his childhood growing up in Westchester, as a young actor in New York, through marriage and children, and on movie sets. As well as sharing some of his favorite food memories over the years, Tucci doesn’t shy away from discussing some of the more difficult times in his life, notably his first wife’s death from cancer and his own recovery from the same disease, but he can also be irreverent and sharply funny, particularly as he discusses feeding five kids through the pandemic. Bonus: there are recipes.

Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor. Some great insights here into health and mindfulness. Nestor is a journalist who began his journey into the world of breath reluctantly, and only because of health issues. Along with being part memoir, Breath also looks at breathing traditions throughout history, presents some thought-provoking research and offers practical takeaway tips too. Though it was published in 2020, Breath impressed me enough that I’m including it on my 2021 list.

Next week, some fiction recommendations.

And That’s a Wrap

 NaNoWriMo wrapped up Tuesday. For the writers who signed on and stayed the course, that means they have a finished – albeit rough – manuscript of around the 50,000-words. I didn’t sign up, at least not officially, but I did commit to writing fresh material for Something About Julian every day.

And I did!

However, I didn’t get as much written as I’d hoped for. Some of that was because of external circumstances (having evacuated friends coming to stay wasn’t in the original plan!), and some of it was because of the story. I ran into a problem with a scene the same week we had our friends here. It was an issue with pacing and the revelation of an important piece of information. Generally, when I run into that kind of thing, I’m always inclined to go back and read over what I’ve written to date, looking to see if a previous misstep brought me to that point. Since that’s a NaNoWriMo no-no, I resisted. I forced myself to go forward. I wrote and rewrote the troublesome scene more than once. That’s also a NaNoWriMo no-no, but I was worried that if I didn’t nail the bones of the problematic scene, the following scenes might stall out too.  Eventually, things gelled. In fact, they more than gelled because the scene took off in a direction I hadn’t considered, one that moves the story forward beautifully. That was great news.

I’ve not finished the manuscript, but I’m a lot closer than I was at the beginning of November. That’s great news too. And with a bit of luck – and if the river doesn’t rise – I should have a finished manuscript by the new year. Just in time for January revisions!

My November Reads

 The news has been filled with images of the flooding we’ve recently experienced in B.C. While we’ve had our share of flooding here on the island, and subsequent road washouts or infrastructure collapses, we’ve been lucky compared to other areas of the province. Last week, we opened our home to evacuated friends when their road flooded and the Little Qualicum River threatened to spill its bank. Thankfully, their home stayed dry. Another set of friends on the Englishman River were also evacuated, and their home too was spared the worst of it.  However, as I write this, more rain – atmospheric rivers as they’ve termed them – is forecast. It’s unnerving at best and heartbreaking for those areas that are still flooded. All we can do is stay indoors, stay close to home (unless we’re in a flood zone!) and hope for the best. And while we wait out the rain, books provide a good escape. Here’s what I’m reading this month:

Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty

Solitude by Michael Harris

Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography by Laurie Woolever

Books read to date in 2021: 79

NaNoWriMo Reimagined

It’s November, and for writers, that conjures thoughts of NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month.

For those who aren’t familiar, NaNoWriMo participants attempt to write a 50,000-word manuscript between November 1st and November 30th. If you’re breaking it down, that’s 1667 words every day. Most participants prepare well ahead by brainstorming plot points and outlining their novel, organizing notes and documents, cleaning their desks and clearing their ‘to do’ list as much as they can. They often join online support groups to check-in and be accountable for their progress. As a result, most people come away from the month with a deep sense of accomplishment.

 For a lot of reasons, mostly to do with scheduling and other writing commitments, I’ve never signed on for NaNoWriMo, though I admire the writers who do. This year, however, around about October 29th, it occurred to me that I have a middle-grade novel that’s half-finished, one I’ve been dragging my heels on for far too long. Maybe I could retool NaNoWriMo to suit my current schedule.

So, for the month of November I’m writing fresh material for Something About Julian every day. Focusing on new writing rather than obsessively editing what I’ve previously written should move me forward. If nothing else, it will change up my routine, and that’s always a good thing. I don’t expect to produce 50,000 words. I’m not aiming that high and I don’t need to. Half that amount would give me a complete (or nearly complete) manuscript. And it would give me (and the story!) the momentum that’s been lacking the last few months.

 Wish me luck!

My October Reads

And all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be are full of trees and changing leaves.” Virginia Woolf

To me, fall is a time of simple pleasures like going for a walk and observing the leaves changing colour. The change seems to start like a slow dance with a touch of red here and a dash of gold there, but then if the wind stays down, it picks up speed, and the colours change daily.  Before long, the trees are dancing at the last party of the year, shimmering with brilliant reds and oranges and golds. I love coming home after my walk and sitting in front of a cozy fire. I love the smell of soup simmering in the kitchen and knowing dinner is taken care of too. I especially love knowing there’s a stack of books waiting for me at the end of the day. Here’s what I’m reading this month.  

An Island by Karen Jennings

Memorial Drive, A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey

Never Have I Ever by Joshilyn Jackson

Books read to date in 2021: 71

The Power of Fiction

When I’m not writing or editing fiction, I write articles. This week, I’m writing a short piece on power bowls (they’re sometimes called Buddha bowls or grain bowls, but regardless of what you call them, they pack a potent nutritional punch, and they’re delicious).

That got me thinking about power in a general sense and about the power of words. The words we speak, the words we write. We’re familiar with the power of a memorable speech to inspire us (Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ or Winston Churchill’s ‘We Shall Fight on the Beaches’ come to mind) or a powerful essay to make us think (E.B. White’s ‘Once More to the Lake’ or Roger Ebert’s ‘Go Gentle into That Good Night’ both do that).’

However, literature has innate power too. Stories and fictional worlds can inspire, provoke and nourish our souls in the same way power bowls nourish our bodies.

According to the Harvard Business Review, recent research in neuroscience suggests that reading literary fiction helps people develop empathy and understanding, as well as critical thinking. It helps reduce stress and make sense of the world too. The bottom line is stories can make us happier.  Research by the University of Liverpool’s Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society (CRISL) says all it takes is thirty minutes a week. https://news.liverpool.ac.uk/2015/02/06/30-minutes-reading-week-can-improve-life/

A small investment of time can yield substantial results. And that’s a powerful thing.

Taking Chances

 Lately I’ve been thinking about risk tolerance. The phrase came up in a news conference this week when our province announced its staged reopening plan based on our rate of immunization and our Covid numbers. Because even though the government is establishing guidelines, we’ll have to make personal decisions about how interactive we want to be.  As Dr. Bonnie Henry put it, we will have to decide our own level of risk tolerance.

People take chances all the time. In fiction, we need our characters to do exactly that. I’ve started reading a suspense novel, Pieces of Her by Karin Slaughter. It’s fast-paced and gritty and so far, the main character is taking a lot of chances. I’m okay with it because she’s well-motivated and the action is plausible. There are times in books or movies, however, when a character goes too far and deliberately walks into danger when there’s absolutely no reason for it. In the writing community, we refer to that character as being TSTL – too stupid to live.  But if risk tolerance is well-motivated that’s a different thing. In the Slaughter novel the character is young and under pressure; she’s terrified for her mother and acting in the heat of the moment. It all goes to plausibility and it works for me even though I’m naturally risk-averse.

Take the black bears, for instance. They’re back in our neighborhood. Not just one, but five. At least. There’s a mama and two cubs. A solitary male that’s been described as ‘a very large boy’ and two juveniles who travel together and like to knock over compost bins. Clearly the bear equivalent of teenagers. And if my neighbor to the east is to be believed there’s another one roaming around too, for a count of six.

Just last week we had to turn back on the trail while walking Team Sheltie because the lone big boy was up ahead. Yesterday morning, we narrowly missed the two juveniles having a go at the compost bins one street over. A few hours ago, we saw signs of a recent bear visit on the other side of our back fence. I’m watchful and uneasy. Bears pose a risk I’m not inclined to tangle with.

Yet some people feel quite differently. One neighbor finds it thrilling to know they’re so close. Her back yard isn’t fenced and she enjoys it when they wander through. Mind you, she enjoys them from the safety of her house. Another neighbor, Richard, was so intrigued when he spotted the large loner bear on the trail the other day that he followed him. Yes, you read that right. He followed the black bear for ten minutes at least, giving the animal enough space so he didn’t feel threatened but close enough to allow Richard a decent view.

Richard was born and raised on acreage in South Africa where wildlife was common. Respect and common sense are key, he said. To him, following a black bear on a paved trail with houses nearby felt quite tame. He indulged his curiosity, stepping into what he considered a minimally risky situation.

No wonder I’ve been thinking about risk tolerance. I can’t bear the thought of taking those kinds of chances.  

My May Reads

The seedlings are doing what seedlings do best: growing madly and readying themselves for more spacious surroundings. In other words, they need to be transplanted, which means I have my work cut out for me getting them from the greenhouse to the ground. I’m not complaining. This time last year, I was struggling to learn the microclimates in our new garden, and I was doing it under less-than-optimal growing conditions. Things are better this year, though the learning curve is still steep. Good thing I have some great books to settle down with at the end of the day. Here’s what I’m reading this month.

Breath by James Nestor

Barry Squires, Full Tilt by Heather Smith

Finding Freedom: A Cook’s Story by Erin French

Books read to date in 2021: 36