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.

My January Reads

                                                                     

In terms of my reading habits, 2021 was pretty typical (it’s nice that something was typical last year!). I read 95 books, close to my average of reading two books a week. If you follow my blog, you may remember that my reading fell off in 2020. I only read about 70 books that year which surprised me because, with Covid restrictions, I had more quiet time at home. However, back then, libraries were locked down for long stretches at a time, and I couldn’t borrow electronically. At least not easily (my Kindle is not library compatible) or in a way that would have made reading enjoyable. Thankfully, that issue is behind me, and I’m now able to borrow both physical and electronic books from our library system. And thank goodness. While lockdowns seem to be a thing of the past, Covid is still with us, so who knows what the future holds? One thing is certain, though, there will be plenty of good books to read. Here’s what I’m reading this month.

Night of Miracles by Elizabeth Berg

Lovish by Karen Rivers

Jackpot by Michael Mechanic

Books read to date in 2022: 2

Happy New Year!

                                    

Here it is a new year, a clean slate, an opportunity to release the old and embrace the new. Not that we need an invitation for that kind of thing; we can do it anytime we choose. But January, in our culture at least, is traditionally the month for new beginnings. Maybe putting away the holiday decorations for another year leads to letting go of past memories. Certainly, the house feels new and fresh and more open to possibilities when the coziness of the Christmas clutter is gone.

2022 is a six-year. Those who know numerology say this is a year to devote to home and family, creativity, and nurturing yourself and others. Mathematically, six is considered a perfect number because the factors of 6 (1,2 and 3) make 6 whether you add them together or multiply them. Perhaps that’s why many people think of six as a lucky number.  

In nature, the honeycombs made by bees are six-sided or hexagonal in shape. Many flowers have six petals. Bell peppers and tomatoes often have six seed chambers. When water freezes, it often forms six-pointed crystals and snowflakes.

Being at sixes and sevens means being in a state of disorder or confusion. Having a six-pack used to mean having six cans or bottles, but now it’s a reference to a set of well-defined abdominal muscles.  

In literature, book titles featuring the letter six are popular: The Sixth Man by David Baldacci; Six Years by Harlan Coben; Six of One by Rita Mae Brown; and The 6th Target by James Patterson. Speaking of books, here’s a quote from Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass. “Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” exclaimed the White Queen.

As we start another year with significant Covid restrictions, it seems an almost impossible dream that we’ll ever be finished with this virus. But, as the Queen encouraged Alice, it’s vital to have grit, courage and believe in a positive future. So, since six is considered a lucky number, I’m counting on the coming year to be a good one. And with that in mind, let’s deep-six 2021 and look forward with optimism to 2022!

Merry Christmas

Yesterday was Winter Solstice, and in a few days, it will be Christmas. However and wherever you celebrate, I hope your holiday is filled with joy and light. Perhaps this year, friends and family will be joining you. For the first time, we’ll be celebrating Christmas with our two-year-old grandson, Henry. We’re excited! We’re also feeling deep gratitude. Henry was in the hospital just a few weeks ago (not Covid-related, and he’s home and better now), and he received exemplary care from medical staff who are overburdened yet continue to work very hard caring for people during these difficult times.  

On a happier note, and with Henry still in mind, this year, we’ll be baking gingerbread cookies. You’ll find the recipe below. As a child, I never liked gingerbread. It was too bold a flavour for me. In fact, I was even lukewarm about gingerbread as an adult until I tasted my friend Vivien’s cookies. They’re more like Dutch speculaas than true gingerbread, and they are delicious. Enjoy!

Vivien’s Gingerbread

1 cup/225 grams butter

1 cup/210 grams brown sugar, lightly packed

1 egg

1 teaspoon/5 ml vanilla

2 ½ cups/375 grams all-purpose white flour

1 teaspoon/5 grams baking soda

1 ½ teaspoons/4 grams cinnamon

½ teaspoon/1.5 g allspice

½ teaspoon/1.5 g nutmeg

½ teaspoon/1.5 g ground cloves

Cream butter, sugar, egg and vanilla. Stir dry ingredients together and add to wet. Form into a ball of dough. Refrigerate for an hour or until firm (or until you’re ready to bake; I sometimes mix the dough up the day before). Lightly flour your counter or board. Roll dough to about ¼ inch/3.5 cm thick and cut into shapes using cookie cutters. Bake at 350 7 – 9 minutes. Cool and decorate. They’re also delicious unadorned! Makes about two dozen cookies.

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

Thoughts for the Day

I’m protecting my productivity this week (see last week’s blog if you missed the reason why) and that means keeping this blog short.  

As I mulled over what to write, I googled ‘this day in history’ for ideas. Though I think of spring as a time for new beginnings, a few new beginnings or creative undertakings were launched on this date over the years.

German engineer Gottlieb Daimler unveiled the world’s first motorcycle, the Daimler, on this date in 1885. Sesame Street was launched on November 10th, 1969. And author Neil Gaiman was born on November 10th 1960. Gaiman, who has written Neverwhere, Coraline, and Stardust among others, is a dedicated user of fountain pens and writes the first draft of all his books with one.

That takes commitment. And time. And since my time is committed this month, I’ll leave you with two Neil Gaiman quotes to inspire you.

“The world always seems brighter when you’ve just made something that wasn’t there before.”

The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So, write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.”


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!