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Library Loot: May 1st

May 1, 2015

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

Happy May Day! I’m going to celebrate with a golden hour flower walk, bringing my camera to take as many flower portraits as I can find, and by beginning to write in my new notebook. Yesterday, I recorded a vlog telling you all about what I found in my latest browsing session at the library; it came to a bit over twenty minutes, so you might want to brew a pot of tea or grab your preferred handwork while listening. Or you could always save it for your next walk, if you don’t mind not seeing the covers. Because of its length, I had to export it at a lower quality so that the file size would be small enough to fit within my Vimeo upload limits, so it’s a bit fuzzy at full size on my 23″ monitor. But I checked and it plays all the way through this time at least! Without further ado:

Titles Mentioned

  • Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson
  • The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donahue
  • The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat
  • Grimus by Salman Rushdie
  • The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
  • In the Shadow of the Rising Dragon, edited by Zaoyu Jingcha
  • The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich
  • The Lost Art of Dress by Linda Przybyszewski
  • Moral Ground, edited by Kathleen Dean Moore & Michael Nelson
  • Mortal Love by Elizabeth Hand
  • Nightwood by Djuna Barnes
  • Race of Scorpions by Dorothy Dunnett
  • Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear
  • The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham
  • Stones of the Wall by Houying Dai
  • Trader by Charles de Lint
  • Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman
  • The Turnip Princess by Franz Xaver von Schonwerth
  • Up Ghost River by Edmund Metatawabin
  • The Weight of Heaven by Thrity Umrigar

So tell me: have you read any of these? Where should I start? And have you stumbled across any surprise gems at your library lately?

A Weekend of Reading: Brown Girl in the Ring, Lord Hornblower, The Bone Knife, and Marta Oulie

April 29, 2015

Between the read-a-thon and a Sunday afternoon spent planted in my armchair to encourage Moth and Thistle to keep sleeping near each other, during which I only had my Nook within reach, I’ve got several books to discuss! Let’s just dive in, shall we?

Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo HopkinsonBrown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson was one of the last books of hers I had left to read; she’s a firm favourite of mine but I still managed to be surprised by just how much I loved it! The plot summary, which included the phrase ‘post-apocalyptic Toronto’ and the the first chapter, about acquiring a heart for a transplant, made me believe I was in sci-fi or dystopian territory, where I only venture with very trusted authors. But it turns out this speculative fiction leaned more towards the urban fantasy side, with duppies and voodoo gods and various magical talents throughout the book, which of course made me love it even more! Downtown Toronto has, through a series of political events, been abandoned to its fate; there are no more government services and walls divide it from the still prospering suburbs. While there certainly are crime rings that have moved in, Hopkinson also shows the resourcefulness of the people who now make their home there, from the ones that garden and hunt in a former park to all the various goods and services that are bartered. Ti-Jeanne, the heroine, lives in a calmer part of town with her grandmother, a wise woman and healer, and her new baby, so new he hasn’t yet been baptised. She’s reluctant to embrace her grandmother’s ways, which combine western medicine with folk healing and Caribbean voodoo rites, and is just trying to figure out how to create a life for herself and her new baby, when she finds herself thrust into a power struggle with the merciless, seemingly omnipotent head of the biggest gang, whose power seems to come from a perversion of voodoo practices.

This is very much a Brier Rabbit type tale, in which Ti-Jeanne must use her wits and allies to take down an opponent who is, on the face of it, terrifyingly more powerful than her. And Hopkinson handles it brilliantly: the plot is paced perfectly, and there’s always just enough exposition to keep the reader from being lost, but not so much it pulls you out of the story. I cared about all of the characters, both minor and major, and throughout the rollercoaster ride of a plot, I couldn’t stop reading. This is such a rich book too, full of strong women who nevertheless suffer from various effects of patriarchy, and one that examines all of the ways love can go right or wrong, and how we find ourselves trapped by decisions we’ve made in the past. Hopkinson’s descriptions are so vivid I felt like I was in this changed Toronto with Ti-Jeanne and her family, from her grandmother’s house to the underground passageways to the CN tower. And when the gods appear, they command enough fear, majesty, and love, to feel perfectly authentic too. This book has some dark moments and challenging scenes, but I promise you it’s worth it. At the end, I felt uplifted rather than depressed. I can’t recommend this enough! I’m also going to count it as my ‘folklore’ choice of the Once Upon a Time Challenge, since it includes various Caribbean ballads and just as the right feel for that. I know that can be a tricky category, so if you’re a participant still looking for a good choice, do yourself a favour and pick up Brown Girl in the Ring!

C.S. Forester's  Lord HornblowerC.S. Forester’s  Lord Hornblower was the other novel I read during the read-a-thon. I used to really enjoy the series and somehow fell out of reading them, so I thought I’d pick them back up (I’m reading in published order instead of internal chronological order). The first part of this was filled with what I’ve come to expect: nautical adventure and derring-do, interspersed with much soul-searching on the part of Horatio, who is still deeply enmeshed in the war against Napoleon. However, then the story took a swerve I wasn’t expecting, and one that I found deeply disappointing, so that by the end of the book I’m not sure if I’ll pick up the next one. Granted, the next few in published order go back in time for Horatio, but knowing what he’ll decide to do in later life has sort of soured me for spending more time with him. I don’t mind some tarnish on my heroes, but I prefer there to be a good reason for the tarnish. Perhaps I’ll reconsider in a few months, but especially after the richness of historical novels by authors like Dorothy Dunnett and Hilary Mantel, this one fell a bit flat. Perhaps I’ve outgrown Forester? And perhaps I should give Patrick O’Brien yet another try (this would be my third attempt to get into Master and Commander) to fulfill my seafaring yearnings. I’d still definitely recommend the series in general, for when you’re in the mood for a light but not thoughtless adventure story, but read them in internal chronological order instead so you don’t get to this one until almost the end!

The Bone Knife by Intisar KhananiSunday afternoon I spent reading more of Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism (a marvelous book that I’m still in the middle of but shall devote an entire post to when I finish it) and then two novellas, all luckily available on my Nook! I downloaded The Bone Knife by Intisar Khanani for free after enjoying Thorn a few months ago, and as OUaT has me in a fantasy mood, I couldn’t resist picking up. It turned out to be shorter than I expected (about sixty pages, although the ebook was one hundred twenty pages, the second half proved to be an expanded sample of Thorn), but no less enjoyable for that. We open with three sisters in the kitchen of their home, whose usual routines have been thrown into disruption by the mysterious man who’s come to visit their father, and who seems suspiciously like a fairy. The story is told in first-person by Rae, the eldest sister, whose clubfoot sets her a bit apart from the rest of the village. She’s smart and resourceful of course (this is a fairy tale!), but what I really loved was the relationship between the three sisters: affectionate, supportive, and exasperated all at once. Khanani does a great job drawing the reader right into her worlds, and I’m pleased to learn that she’s planning a trilogy featuring Rae in the future. For now I’d definitely urge you to treat yourself to The Bone Knife for a pleasant hour or two if you enjoy fairy tale inspired fantasy (the ebook is available for free so it’s an easy treat), and if you haven’t read Thorn yet, get that one too while you’re about things. And I hope her trilogy comes out sooner rather than later!

Marta Oulie by Sigrid UndsetTo continue the novella theme, I then read Marta Oulie by Sigrid Undset, trans. by Tiina Nunnally. I’ve enjoyed all of the Undset I’ve read, both her historical fiction and the stuff set in her contemporary time of the early 20th century. This was her first published work, and it shows a bit of unevenness, as you might expect from a debut novel. The pacing wasn’t quite perfect, but pretty soon I was too interested in Marta Oulie, the narrator. Like The Awakening, which was written just a few years earlier, it chronicles the inner emotional life and turmoil of a seemingly satisfied privileged wife and mother. Marta opens with a confession of adultery and her subsequent misery, and then moves between flashbacks from the past and recounting of ongoing events, trying to figure out what went wrong in her marriage and why she feels so stifled now. It is very much a feminist book, arising from a turbulent time, but while Marta is in one sense a mouthpiece for her author, her personal sense of anguish and frustration feel very immediate. While this doesn’t have the power or polish of her later writing, it is very much worth reading, and I’m pleased Nunnally did a translation (she’s my go-to Norwegian and Swedish translator). I certainly recommend it, especially for those interested in the Belle Epoque period or early feminism or classics by women.

Whew! I think it’s time for me to get away from the computer and go enjoy a fine spring day in the woods with Thistle. But I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately, so hopefully I’ll manage to tell you about more of the books soon! I’m slowly easing back into the blogging habit, but it’s too early to see if it’ll stick this time. I want it to.

Field Notes, vol 19

April 26, 2015

Last month marked six months since my move, and I’ve added a bit of decorating to the apartment since my original post. I want to get back in the habit of posting today but am a bit too worn out for much typing, so I snapped some photos and will take you on a tour! I forgot to take any pictures of the bathroom and the closet is not in a state to be photographed, but I got a few in the kitchen this time. Half of it is sorted the way I’d like; the other half of the kitchen is still in progress though, so that part has to wait. ;) And there are plenty of photos of the main space, this time with a wider angle lens too! Now that I’m on Instagram a couple people have mentioned wanting to see more, so this should work for that as well. Clicking on the photos should enlarge them.

P1160990Come on inside! Once the door is closed, I can hang up your coat for you on one of the entryway hooks. My coat lives on one, and when I don’t have guests I keep Thistle’s leash on the other. I got that tote bag at the Strand bookstore on my recent trip, so I popped it up there to admire for a bit! The window in my door lets in the hallway light at night, so I had to cover it up. In an attempt to make it more decorative, I added a few postcard prints by Emily Winfield Martin. I didn’t manage to include my rug in the photo, but there’s a little rug to hold shoes under the hooks.

On the other side of the door sits my bookcase, six feet by six feet square and with shelves deep enough to hold books on both sides! It divides up the big main room of my living space, making a little hallway, in addition to holding all of the bits and bobs I’ve gathered over the years. And keeping my books easily accessible of course! ;) The vintage quilt now lives there too; since I brought Moth in, I decided the hand stitching would be safer on the shelf than used as a slip cover over a chair. I still pull it out as a throw though, as I’m a big believer in using objects, even pretty ones. Anyway, you’ll also notice the bottom square is empty too; Moth really enjoys the little tunnel it provides her, so I’ll just have to limit my library books in future! Surely I can manage that without too much difficulty. ;) I’ve got space for at least thirty without touching that square, probably more. There’s also a scratching post at the end of the bookcase now, yet another cat modification!

To the right of the entryway is the kitchen. As I mentioned, it’s a work in progress, but here are a few photos. I have two little ‘still lifes’ set up on the counter, my aprons hanging for easy accessibility (I’m far too sloppy of a cook and dish washer to not have aprons in my life), and a fridge that’s slowly getting more decorated; when people send me cards, I pop them up there. I have a few birthday ones to add actually! I use the book print up top to try to disguise the ugly box the sewing machine lives in. ;) As you can see, I have an abundance of cupboards and addiction to the little removable hooks! The white container with a sprout on top is a compost bin my sister got me for Christmas. I wish I’d taken a better photo of the soap dispenser; it’s a handmade piece of pottery in beautiful teals and browns that my mom got me for Christmas from Etsy. Next time!

I showed you the main space in the first tour, but a few things have changed since then. Mainly, I got some decorations up on the walls! My ceilings are quite tall, so it took me awhile to decide what to do with them. Above my computer is a wreath made out of fiber, to reflect my knitting and spinning hobbies (isn’t it in beautiful colours? it’s from this store in case you’re interested & the seller does custom orders), and then photos of friends and family attached to a yarn braid with tiny clothespins. There’s also the giant cat tree in the corner; it looks particularly dramatic from this angle, but from where I usually sit it blends into the walls better!

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Then I turned the wall above the couch into a ‘gallery wall’ style display, with some more Emily Winfield Martin prints, some photographs I’ve taken over the years, and a couple pieces of art I’ve picked up in my travels. The unicorn print and a couple of postcards are the newest additions; I got them at museums in D.C. and New York City. And my leaf print mirror, which I’ve had since high school! Above the top of the little cabinet, which I use as a ‘landing strip‘ I’ve added a couple more postcards and another little ‘still life’ arrangement. The jar contains currency from all over the world, brought back by my dad from his work trips and then from me on my adventures. The beautiful embroidered bird resting against the doors is new; I just received it on Friday and I haven’t decided where it will live yet. So it’s staying there while I think it over! And note Moth, enjoying the blanket. ;)

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Just so Thistle isn’t left out, here she is enjoying her own blanket on my big reading chair. Usually I would’ve tucked the footstool in for photos, but I wasn’t going to disturb her nap! The suitcase is just wide enough for a couple of books, a pot of tea, and a snack, so it works as an end table in a tight space. And I included view from my chair, except the window scene is blown out because the camera can’t see both the room and brighter outdoors at the same time! Since I took the quilt off the little armchair, I got another cream blanket to work as a slip cover, and a little quilted blanket to go on top for Moth, since I guessed it would be a good window viewing spot for her. They’re both machine washable, so very pet friendly!

The opposite wall has my bed, with the old, inaccurate world map on it (it uses a projection that makes the northern hemisphere look far bigger in comparison to the southern than it is). I received an accurate National Geographic one for Christmas, that you saw in a kitchen shot, but the muddiness of the colours and smallness of the actual map made it impossible to see any countries, so I’m sticking with the old one for now. On top of the Korean jewelry box, a hand-me-down from my mom, I’m keeping some poetry books so that I can read a poem before I go to sleep each night. Most of that pile was bought at a bookstore in New York City that Clare showed me. :)

Well, my dinner is ready, so I should probably go. But I hope you enjoyed this new little peek into my space! Almost everything I own has a story to tell, but this post would be far too long if I mentioned them all. I love living in a sort of scrapbook space though. Even if it occasionally requires some extra dusting. ;) And just because I can, here’s a sleeping kitty face to finish things off!

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Dewey’s Readathon

April 25, 2015

At the very last minute, an hour into the latest Dewey’s read-a-thon, I’ve decided to join! I’ll be doing life stuff as well as reading and taking frequent pet mingling breaks, and going to bed at a reasonable hour, but I can’t resist the community spirit! I’ll probably be mainly on Instagram, but I’ll do updates on this post too.

I began the morning with Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring. I’m about fifty pages in and it’s living up to my high Hopkinson expectations! Now I’ve switched to an audiobook, a reread of Bujold’s Beguilement, the first in the Sharing Knife series, so that I can get Thistle’a walk in and some apartment tidying!

Well, I’m off for now. I’ll check in later! image

Mid-Event Survey
1. What are you reading right now? I just put down Lord Hornblower by C.S. Forester. But I’m about to head out on a dog walk, so will be getting back into my audiobook next: Beguilement by Lois McMaster Bujold.
2. How many books have you read so far? 1 from start to finish: Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson (it was wonderful!). I’ve read most of the Hornblower (on page 250 of 300) and two to three hours of the Bujold.
3. What book are you most looking forward to for the second half of the Read-a-thon? I joined at the last minute, so I don’t have a book pile other than what I have out from the library and my bookcases of course! So I’m not sure what I’ll pick up next; I’m following my whims.
4. Have you had many interruptions? How did you deal with those? I’ve had to do a few chores, during which I just switch to my audiobook. I actually expected a lot of interruptions, because this is the first day that my dog & new cat have spent together, but they’ve been wonderfully good at just napping together on the bed while I read! I suspect their dinner will be an interruption though, as breakfast provided some drama; they each wanted the others’ food!
5. What surprises you most about the Read-a-thon, so far? How much time I’ve had to read (vs needing to wrangle the pets). :) Also, this is my first one that I’ve done when I’m on Instagram, and I’m surprised at how easy it is to incorporate a bit of social media but still get a lot of reading in. Of course, if you look at my reading or activity to what it was during the early read-a-thons, there really is no comparison (I used to always stay up the whole time, read over 2,000 pages, and spend half of the time leaving cheerleader comments on blogs,occasionally being cheerleader captain). But I’m finding this quieter approach to the read-a-thon just as satsifying; must be a factor of getting old! I don’t plan to stay up late; midnight would be the very latest and I’ll probably throw in the towel earlier than that.

Introducing Moth

April 23, 2015

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It is with pure pleasure that I present to you the latest member of my little household: Moth! She arrived yesterday evening and has already settled in to the apartment, playing with her new toys, finding just the right perches throughout the space, and curling up on my lap when I settle in my chair. I adopted her from a rescue group via Petfinder, just as I did with Thistle. Since I’m a first-time cat owner, I was looking for an ‘easy,’ affectionate adult cat, and that’s exactly what I got! She has the funniest way of suddenly appearing behind me when I switch rooms, is a focused hunter of any toy I’ve set in front of her, and a loud, rumbly purr that begins almost as soon you start petting her. She’s a total sweetheart but with spirit, my favourite combination!

From a bit of internet researching, I believe her colouring is called tortoiseshell points, although of course she’s not a purebred Siamese! But she has the blue eyes that reflect red instead of green in the dark that come along with colour points. She’s four and a half years old, which makes her roughly my age in cat years. If you’re wondering about her ears, it just means that at some point she was spayed by a group that rounds up stray cats for sterilisation. They clip the tip of an ear so they know not to try to spay the same cat again; unfortunately whoever clipped Moth’s ear went for far more than the customary quarter inch. Good thing we’re accustomed to mismatched ears around here! ;) She’s quite small too; at about seven and a half pounds, she manages to make Thistle look big.

Speaking of whom, Thistle has met Moth, when the latter came to pay me a visit before my trip. But Thistle is not yet aware that Moth has moved in; she’s still enjoying her time at doggie camp heaven (aka Debi’s house). She’s coming back tomorrow evening, and I anticipate a bit of canine surprise. However, Thistle coexisted happily with my mother’s cat, and she’s nap buddies with one of Debi’s cats, while Moth was friends with her foster mom’s dog. They’re both quiet and sweet natured, so I trust it will all end well, after the initial adjustment phase.

Of course, now that I have two lap pets into my life, my ability to read physical books, knit, or drink tea might be dramatically curtailed. I shall have to wait and see!

P.S.: If you’d like to see more photos of Moth in the future, I’m sharing them on Instagram. I just pulled out my real camera for the first time to get a quick shot for this post; she’s currently on her cat tree overseeing my computer-ing and doesn’t seem to share Thistle’s camera aversion at least. But she’s not nearly as serious as this portrait suggests! For those who don’t do Instagram, here’s a little collage of iPhone photos from Moth’s first twenty four hours with me. Told you the top photo is a bit misleading. I’ll have to keep my real camera handier to catch everyday moments I suppose.

My New York City Reading: The Family Man and Hush

April 22, 2015

I didn’t get much reading done during my recent trip to D.C. and NYC (clearly, I ought to refer to it as the Acronym Adventure), but I did manage two novels during the latter portion. I just got home last night, but I really want to dive back into blogging, so I thought I’d tell you about them today!

The Family Man by Elinor LipmanFirst was The Family Man by Elinor Lipman, recommended by Jenny. This was my first Lipman book, and I chose it because it’s set in Manhattan; it was fun to read it and actually recognise the geographical references! The best way I can describe it is as a romantic comedy in book form. I happen to very much enjoy well-done rom coms (Nora Ephron, anyone?), and this one engaged me from the beginning. Henry, in his fifties, recently retired from being a lawyer, and currently a single gay man, suddenly finds his life turned upside down by the re-entrance of his ex-wife from many years ago and her daughter, whom he loved as a small child, and who is now an aspiring actress in her late twenties. He is thrilled to reconnect with Thalia, the daughter, even as he finds himself drawn into the odd, twisty nature of her life. And his ex-wife, trying to make up for her adultery that ended their marriage (obviously, Henry was not out at the time), begins setting him up with her friends. So his quiet life is suddenly full of relationships, and witty people, and he simply enjoys it to the fullest, while supporting them as much as possible (made easier by the kind of independent wealth that includes a townhouse on the upper East side). The book is a bit silly, but charmingly so, and while I would have wished for a different ending, I’ll definitely be reaching for more Lipman in the future. She reminds me a bit of Wodehouse, but on a far less intense scale, and with an affection for all of her characters, even the badly behaving ones, that makes her books simply heart warming. The writing is neat and fully of witty dialogue, essentially the opposite of ‘purple prose,’ which should appeal to many readers! I’d recommend this if you’re in the mood for a light but smart book that will leave you with a smile on your face. The cover matches it perfectly, so if that appeals to you, give it a go!

Hush by Jacqueline WoodsonThen I read Hush by Jacqueline Woodson, which at just over a hundred pages might be more of a novella than novel. While the books are quite different, with Woodson’s characters enjoying far fewer privileges than Lipman’s, and Woodson’s writing going right to the heart of raw emotions, I found them equally compulsively readable, which is an important quality in vacation books! From the few sentences of the title page, Woodson had me utterly hooked, and I was immediately invested in her narrator. Here they are:

If I was brave, I could belong somewhere.

My name’s Toswiah, I’d say. Toswiah Green. Have you ever heard of me?

But my name is Evie now. And I’ve never been brave.I can never tell anybody the real truth. But I can write it and say this story you’re about to read is fiction. I can give it a beginning, middle, and end. A plot. A character named Evie. A sister named Anna.

Call it fiction because fiction is what it is. Evie and Anna aren’t real people. So you can’t go somewhere and look this up and say Now I know who this story’s about.

Because if you did, it would kill my father.

Don’t you want to keep reading? Toswiah is 13, and has lived a happily charmed life in Denver, until her father testifies against fellow white police officers in the shooting of an unarmed black boy, and her family has to go into witness protection to be safe. Having to change your entire life, when you were completely happy and content where you were, must be a wrenching experience. While the story is told through Toswiah’s eyes, we also see how her sister, mother, and father all have their own reactions to this uprooting. Like the other Woodson books I’ve read, this manages to deal with challenging, confronting material, in a way that keeps me uplifted instead of saddened. Toswiah feels so real and compelling from the very beginning, and I sorrowed and triumphed right along with her. There aren’t any easy answers here, and as usual Woodson resists any urge towards gift wrapped resolutions. But we do see Toswiah find her inner strength, in a completely realistic way, that led to me feeling content and inspired after I’d turned the final page. As regular readers know, I actively seek out POC authors, for a whole variety of reasons. But while I’ve found plenty to love, there are very few I’d classify under ‘comfort’ reads. Woodson is there, and I’d highly recommend you giving her a try, especially if you mainly read white authors. She has a way of bringing you immediately into the character’s world, a world shaped by race and gender and class whether she wants it to be or not, and showing her challenges, without ever losing sight of the fundamental humanity that unites us all. That’s a powerful gift, and I’m so glad she’s been such a prolific author. Most of her books are classified under the ‘young adult’ label; if that makes you hesitate, it shouldn’t. Her protagonists are usually teenagers, hence the label, but her writing is certainly up to any literary standard you care to name. I know there are some unfortunate stereotypes about YA books, and I’d hate to think they’d stand between you and Woodson! Anyone who loves thoughtful protagonists will easily fall in love with Hush, or Woodson’s other books.

Well, with that I’m off to do some final preparations before welcoming my new cat home this evening. I shall definitely do an introductory post tomorrow, so you can all meet her. And I’m sure I’ll be posting photos of her on Instagram today if you can’t wait until then! ;) And as for reading, I’m planning to dive into the Once Upon a Time challenge with open arms. I’ve got several of my very favourite speculative authors lined up, so expect more gushing shortly. After all, it’s more fun to write about books you love!

In Which I Join Instagram

April 2, 2015

I’m terribly behind social media trends, but Debi told me about Chris‘ new puppy, and that was incentive enough to finally join Instagram! I’m looking forward to getting to interact with bloggers again, since I had to give up Twitter for my hands. I’ve literally just joined, so I’ve no clue about settings or etiquette or things like that. But if you’re on Instagram & a book blogger, tell me or find me or what have you! My username is thecharmofit, and I look forward to peeking into everyone’s lives.

Um, that sounded less creepy in my head…

Field Notes, vol 18

April 1, 2015

field notes

Whew! I have no idea where March has gone, somehow swallowed in family, flare-ups, knitting, and future plotting. Spring was officially welcomed with a return to wintry temperatures and fresh snow, which I have to admit I just love. When I open my blinds in the morning, I’m always secretly wishing for that specially overcast sky that snow brings with it. I’m impressed with the songbirds, who go about their business even as the temperatures drop, and the robins are back. Just yesterday, I noticed some tiny purple flowers pushing up in the grass beside the sidewalk, so spring is continuing to arrive. It can take all of the time it pleases. It’s the polar opposite of south Texan springs, which race headlong into summer, much to my chagrin, since spring is glorious there and by far my favourite Texan season. My mother gleefully reports it’s already hitting eighty degrees.

My trip to D.C. and NYC is suddenly less than two weeks away! Once again, if you have any tips (I’ll be focusing on Manhattan in NYC and the classic tourist areas of DC) for favourite budget restaurants, cafes, bookstores, quirky museums, photo walks, or anything else, I’ll gratefully receive them. And meet ups are a distinct possibility as well (a group of us are already plotting one for DC)! I’m terrible at remembering who lives where, so I’d appreciate any reminder e-mails (astripedarmchairATgmailDOTcom).

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After I get home, I have yet another plan, although this one is of a distinctly homebody nature. I’ve decided, after four happy years with Thistle (March 18th is my dog-iversary), that it’s time to expand my little household. And the expansion shall go in a feline direction. Thus I’d welcome any tips from cat owners too! I’ve begun doing lots of reading, and have so far absorbed that cat ownership is nothing like dog ownership, so it will be great fun to get to know another species better. Let’s just hope Thistle agrees…she has a certain feline nap buddy over at Debi’s, which gives me more confidence. I met the cat for the first time yesterday; her foster mom brought her over to the apartment, and at the end of our hour-long meeting, she had already decided that my place was a perfect place to curl up and receive some chin scratches. Of course, it took far less than an hour for her sweet, delicate, but confident ways to win me over! She’s four years old, so we’ll be jumping right over the tricky kitten and adolescent stages, and I know her personality’s already settled. Here are a couple of photos (take with my phone, not my real camera, so not the best quality): I took the first one, up top, and she became curious about the noise the phone’s shutter made, as shown in the next photo below. So precious! You can’t see it here, but her eyes are a soft, luminous blue. I’ll make the proper introductions once she’s settled in, but I’ve already chosen a name, and it continues the nature theme.

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I’ve been reading too, real books! Almost as if I were a book blogger. ;)

I haven’t posted about Once Upon a Time challenge yet, now on its ninth year, but I’ve been on a magical realism kick & plan to ramp up my fairy tale and fantasy reading in honour of it. The very first version, back in 2007, was one of the first reading challenges I did as a baby book blogger! That and Carl’s fall challenge are still my two favourites. Hopefully I’ll manage to get a book list up before I leave, although between trip planning and trying to finish knitting one more spring-like beret for said trip and cat behavior researching and cat accessory shopping (yes, my cat will have her own piece of furniture, in addition to all of mine), I’m going to be disturbingly busy. And book list posts take ages, with all of the links and covers and annotations; luckily they’re fun!

As I’m short on time today, rather than talk about all of the books I’ve been reading, I’ll just do the magical realist ones. They’d both be perfect ways to dip your toes into fantasy, as they also have ‘literary’ qualities and deal with ‘real people’ living ‘real lives’ which are suddenly brushed by what could or could not be magic. And they’re both wonderful, compulsively readable books!

spirits of the ordinary by kathleen alcalaFirst is Spirits of the Ordinary by Kathleen Alcala. Magical realism is often associated with Latin American authors, and Alacala is a Mexican-American writer. This book is set in northern Mexico/southern Texas, in the late 19th century, and combines all of my favourite aspects of Latino magical realism with a feminist sensibility, in the sense that “feminism is the radical notion that women are people” (that marvelous phrase was coined by Marie Shear, according to a quick internet search). Let’s face it, there are some South American authors I could name who don’t seem to have realised this yet.

Anyway, Spirits of the Ordinary centers around a family in the small village of Saltillo. Zacarias, the husband, comes from a hidden Jewish tradition (being a Spanish colony, Mexico had its own Inquisition and forced conversion of Jews) and feels irresistably drawn to the desert, abandoning his family to wander in search of gold for months at a time. Estela, his wife, is tired of not having a dependable partner to depend on; when Zacarias leaves again, taking yet more of her dowry money, she takes the radical step of severing their finances, essentially becoming a single mother. We follow both of their journeys, as they change and grow over the next few years, and we also get to intimately know other members of their family, from Zacarias’ mother, mute since a teenage coma during which angels spoke to her, to Estela’s younger twin siblings, a brother/sister pair who refuse to fall in line with societal gender roles.

This is magical realism at its very finest, and I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying it.

Angels of Destruction by Keith DonahueI noticed Angels of Destruction by Keith Donahue on the shelf and became very excited; I read his debut novel, The Stolen Child, which is all about changelings, not long after it came out and loved it. I didn’t realise he’d written another one! This one also has an unusual child at the center, one who may or may not be an angel in disguise, as well as an exploration of mother/daughter relationships, identity, faith (in people, fate, God, etc.) and how we can get caught up in events without really noticing that will change our lives. I was hooked from the first page, and effortlessly fell in love with all of the women and girls at the heart of the book. Very occasionally Donahue makes a gender binary ‘common wisdom’-esque pronouncement that annoyed me, but I think it happened 2-3 times, and it didn’t detract from the many kinds of women and positive relationships between them that he portrays. His writing style is a bit folksy, so those pronouncements were likely a stylistic device more than anything.

One of the things I loved most, other than the characters and themes, is how wonderful Donahue is at describing everyday, homey pleasures. There are little details to his writing that add up to incredibly satisfying settings. As someone who is very much affected by the little joys of my apartment, I couldn’t resist such moments. His prose is beautifully constructed, but feels natural instead of over-done. Here are the opening lines, which capture the feel of the book wonderfully, and show his descriptive powers in action:

She heard the fist tap again, tentative and small.

From the cocoon of her bed, she threw off the eider down duvet and wrapped a shawl around her shoulders against the winter’s chill. Alone in the house, Margaret took the stairs cautiously, holding her breath to verify that the sound at the front door was not just another auditory hallucination to disturb her hard-won sleep. On the fourth step from the bottom, she peered through the transom window but saw only minatory blackness and the blue reflected light of moon and stars arcing off the cover of new snow. She whispered a prayer to herself: just don’t hurt me. …

Margaret pressed her palms against the oak to deduce the presence on the other side, without seeing, without being seen, and on faith undid the locks and swung wide the door.

Don’t you want to know who was waiting for her on the other side? There’s nothing I love more than a book that combines thoughtful themes with compelling characters and beautiful writing: Angels of Destruction does this. Keith Donahue has written two more books as well, and I’ll be reading them sooner rather than later.

I apologise for taking so long to reply to comments on my last post. I hope to do that later today or tomorrow, but right now I must get Thistle outside for her morning walk. I hope you all are well, and that no one gets too pranked on April Fool’s!

Field Notes, vol 17

March 9, 2015

field notes

We’re nine days into March, and spring has suddenly arrived. The songbirds know it; despite a snowfall on Saturday, they spend their time chittering in bushes and trees, especially the evergreens. The icicles know it, dripping in the brighter sun and temperatures above freezing for the first time in ages. Even the clocks know it. I seem to be the only one who cares about the vernal equinox, which gives us another eleven days of winter. Let’s not rush things.

sprig

Taken quite recently, but on today’s walk I noticed most of the snow is gone from this hedge.

This outer shift is mirrored by an inward shift; it began in the latter part of February and has now begun to unfurl. After a couple weeks spent dreaming and scheming about a grand European adventure, I did some soul searching, and realised that I was falling back into old habits. One of my coping mechanisms when I was younger, and my illnesses took away most of my choices about life, was to plan epic trips I’d go on one day. A fairly innocuous coping mechanism to be sure, and as a result I can chat with you about the best games parks in Zambia or the night markets of Bangkok, but I don’t need it anymore. I am living just where I want to be, for the first time since I was twenty-two. I don’t know how long this good fortune will last, and it seems a shame to miss out on a month of my first Northeast spring, especially May, when presumably we’ve gotten over the slush and to the good bits. The world will always be there, changed, but still. Such romantic adventures can wait a bit; for now, I’d like to go adventuring closer to home. After all, I moved to upstate New York because I love its natural world and sense of history (both bigger and personal; my mother’s family is descended from immigrants who came to farm in this region). I also love being within a train ride of big cities, big enough to be known worldwide, that I’ve yet to explore. And of course, I love my new, smaller city, and have just begun to scratch the surface of what it has to offer.

One of my favourite moments of my daily rhythm is my afternoon snack, which somehow gives my apartment the air of a coffee shop and makes me feel oddly decadent.

One of my favourite moments of my daily rhythm is my afternoon snack, which somehow gives my apartment the air of a coffee shop and makes me feel oddly decadent.

It took several days of wrestling with myself, but once I’d made the decision to spend my spring here, I felt at peace. I began to turn my attention to the here and now; instead of future adventures, I spent time and energy sorting out the apartment. I’ve put hung decoar and pictures and art on the walls (including a quotation by one of my favourite authors; any guesses who?), rearranged the cupboards and closets, and in the process begun to put down those first delicate roots. A lifetime of moving has made me hesitant to put nails in walls, but I pulled out a hammer and got to work. I’m amazed at how much my mood is lifted by decorated walls, and how much easier the reorganising has made my daily life, with what I need most frequently is just within reach. I did some early deep spring cleaning, and the sparkling result makes to easy to keep up with weekly cleaning maintenance. I’ve loved my apartment since I saw it, but now it feels like an organic part of me, and I feel deeply happy and content every time I walk through the door. Every aspect of daily life is just a bit sweeter, and I’m so glad I put forth the effort and energy. Of course, it’s still a work in progress, but isn’t everything? The trick is to enjoy the process, I suppose. And yes, I’ll be inviting you on a photographic tour soon!

I had an arts and crafts afternoon last week and dyed this yarn, wool from a sheep called the Blue Faced Leicester, with Koolaid! Now I'm knitting it into a pair of socks.

I had an arts and crafts afternoon last week and dyed this yarn, wool from a sheep called the Blue Faced Leicester, with Koolaid! Now I’m knitting it into a pair of socks.

I am still going on a spring adventure, in case you’re curious. It will just be to Baltimore, D.C., and New York City, and done via train instead of plane. I’m still terribly excited and will still be putting my backpack to good use. Feel free to share any suggestions, bookish or otherwise, for any of those cities! Or e-mail me if you’d like to meet up.

The Seeker by R.. ChestertonMarch has so far turned out to be a more organic reading month too; being bookish feels effortless again. First I read The Seeker by R.B. Chesterton as an audiobook, finishing it over the course of two days (apartment sorting lends itself well to audiobooks). It’s a suspense novel that pays a bit of homage to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw: told entirely from one point of view, it’s never quite clear to the reader whether the ghosts are real or in the narrator’s head. Did I mention the narrator is a literature grad student who took a cabin for the winter to work on her dissertation? Who can resist a bookish heroine? If you’re looking for a solid evil ghost tale (that includes creepy dolls! I love creepy dolls!), with a wonderfully wintry New England setting, souther Gothic undertones, and a smattering of Thoreau and the Transcendentalists for fun, you should definitely try this out. There are a few uneven bits, the ending felt a touch too abrupt, and there were several instances of hugely problematic depictions of mental illness (minor to the overall story but no less icky for that), but in my opinion it lives up to the promise of its cover! I enjoyed the audioversion too; I came across it while randomly browsing Hoopla. I decided to try it out, but wasn’t expecting too much, so I was pleasantly surprised. I’ll definitely be reading more of R.B. Chesterton’s books (a pseudonym for the author’s creepier novels) when I’m in the mood for a good, old-fashioned scare. And she’ll definitely be on my R.I.P. list this year.

Forests of the Heart by Charles de LintI next picked up a hardcover version of Forests of the Heart by Charles de Lint, part of his Newford series. I discovered de Lint in 2007, when I first began book blogging and joined the Once Upon a Time Challenge. I loved him, and the way he creates distinctly North American urban folk/fairy tales and began working my way through the Newford series (not a traditional fantasy series, but all books set in the same fictional city inhabited by the same characters, who might be major characters in one and minor in another, sort of like Trollope’s Barsetshire & Palliser books) in published order, but somehow I fell out of that habit. I think what happened is I read the two books he published under a pseudonym, which were both much darker, and they left me with so disturbed I ended up with a bit of an aversion to him. Luckily, last year I read his Jack, the Giant Killer retelling, as I’m treating myself to all of the Fairy Tale Series, edited by Terri Windling (I have yet to read a bad book from that series, all written by different authors, so if you’re a fantasy lover as well, you ought to look it up), and it reminded me of how much I love his regular books. So I popped over to his section on one of my library visits, and chose this one based mainly on the title. My heart has a forest too. It turned out to be a real treat, combining First People/northern Native American folklore with that from the Southwest’s traditions (both pre- and post-Spaniards) and Irish legends; in other words, a cultural mixing similar to the immigration that’s shaped my country and de Lint’s Canada. It felt wonderful to see that diversity valued and respected, and nothing in his various depictions set off any racist/stereotyping alarm bells for me (granted, I’m a white woman, so that’s the judgement of an outsider, albeit who has read a smattering of Native American and Latin@ authors, including nonfiction about cultural appropriation/privilege issues), and I was certainly concerned about such possibilities when I began it. Of course, any fantasy book is going to invoke certain mythic or folklore figures, and play up cultural differences for the sake of the story, but all of the characters are individuals, and all of the belief systems felt equally valid, if that makes sense.

It’s tricky to talk about such issues without a hundred disclaimers, isn’t it?But I think it’s important to try to do so, however clumsily. The novel itself is what I think of as classic de Lint: most of the characters are outside of mainstream North American society (musicians, artists, etc.) and poverty of various kinds is depicted. I really love that, to be honest; it’s nice to break out of the middle class mode. There are lots of strong women, several of whom have curly hair and big eyes and tiny bodies that they are prone to dressing in oversized men’s clothes (lol; if authors have a type, that’s de Lint’s). People make mistakes, which they can sometimes fix, and sometimes they can’t. Love and respect are powerful forces, although the darker sides of human nature are powerful as well. There are wonderful descriptions of folk music. And the intersection between the magical world and the real one is just around every bend. Oh, and there are trees. I do love trees.

If any of that appeals to you, and you’ve yet to discover de Lint, definitely give him a try. If the sheer amount of options in the Newford books overwhelms you, you can always start with a standalone. Both Jack, the Giant Killer and The Little Country are my favourites that I’ve read so far, but I haven’t read them all yet. ;) If you’re already a de Lint fan, rest assured that Forests of the Heart is very satisfying. I’ll be picking up more of his books, and sooner rather than later. Especially since the OUaT challenge is just around the corner!

Oh dear. I’m at 1600 words already; I’ve been working on this off and on between running down to switch out laundry loads. I’ll talk about just one more book tonight then; tomorrow I’m off to stay with my grandmother, who has no internet, and I’m not sure how long I’m staying. So this is likely my only chance to blog this week, unless I get better at blogging from my phone. So feel free to read this post in chunks if it’s too long for one session. ;)

the night counter by alia yunis4If my first two reads fell into fairly obvious genre categories, my third, The Night Counter by Alia Yunis, falls squarely into the ‘magical realist, immigrant epic family saga’ one (I also read it as an ebook, so it provided yet a third format for reading to my month). I say that with affection, as I find that genre irresistable. ;) Yunis, like most of her characters, is Lebanese American. I believe The Night Counter is her debut, and I really loved it; I know that sometimes, like any genre, these books can feel stale or too stereotypical, but this one manages to have all of the expected tropes but still be engaging and touching. I had a great time getting to know Fatimah Abdullah, an octongenarian who immigrated from Lebanon to the US upon her marriage at eighteen, and went on to have ten children. 992 days ago, Scheherazade appeared to her, and Fatimah knew she had 1,001 days to tell stories of her life, and then she would die. The book follows the last few days, and in between Fatimah’s stories, Scheherazade peeks into the lives of the children and grandchildren and occasionally great grandchildren Fatimah mentions. The reason this works is that Yunis is fabulous at making each character’s narrative voice distinct; a pet peeve of mine is when a novel has multiple narrators who all sound the same, even if their thoughts are different. I want each narrator to have their own rhythm and style of speaking; Yunis delivers an impressive range! And while they certainly span a spectrum of US destinies, they all feel real, instead of like the products of a writing workshop (you know what I mean if you’ve read much contemporary ‘literary’ work). There’s a lot of humour in the book, including bits that had me laughing out loud, although there’s pathos as well.

Ultimately, it’s the kind of book that uses its wide range of characters to delve into how we create our lives, and the stories we craft out of whatever raw material we’re given, although it does so in a lighthearted way. All of the characters felt terribly real to me, and they made the book a real joy to read. I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, but I definitely want to pick up more of Yunis’ work and would recommend The Night Counter to any story lover. This is her only novel so far, but she’s making a documentary about olive oil and Middle Eastern women that I hope I’ll be able to watch.

As you can tell, I’ve had a really wonderful reading time so far this month. Circumstances have currently slowed down my reading, and made me more likely to reach for a novel than nonfiction, but when I am able to pick up a book, I’ve had nothing but good experiences so far.

What about you? Has March been full of favourites? Anything you’d especially recommend?

The Bride’s Story, vol 1 & 2 by Kaori Mori (thoughts)

March 5, 2015

When I first began book blogging, back in 2007, I learned that “graphic novels” was not the euphemistic phrase I’d interpreted it as, but instead a category of books that combine art and words, like comics. Many of my favourite bloggers were big fans of graphic novels, and I enthusiastically began to the explore. Somehow over the years that enthusiasm fell by the wayside, and I haven’t picked up a graphic novel in a couple of years, at least.

Now I must admit, though, that I am not a terribly good graphic novel reader. I don’t get along well with the traditional comic style art, which means series like Fables or Sandman drive me nuts. I want the story, but I can’t get past the aesthetics. I recognise this is a personal problem, and not some cosmic failure on the part of comics (…except for the ridiculous way they draw women…that part is a definite failure…), but trying to force myself to read them doesn’t seem to work either.

I’ve had much better luck with other kinds of graphic novels, that include different types of art. In fact, I’m not sure why I stopped seeking these types of books out, as I can easily name all kinds of fabulous ones (…Aya,  Castle Waiting, Bayou Love, The ArrivalGray HorsesPyongyang…that’s off the top of my head). They combine the visual and text mediums to add up to truly fabulous storytelling.

But manga? I tried one volume of manga awhile ago, the first of Mori’s Emma, and it made me feel almost illiterate. I couldn’t figure out which order to read the frames in, which gave me a constant feeling of being jarred. I never read comics as a kid, which might be why I was confused (I have this problem with Western comic-style graphic novels too, just not so extreme). Once again, I recognise that the problem is me, not the books, but I decided I was too old to learn new tricks and would simply have to miss out on manga.

Then my dear friend Debi and I had a library expedition last month during her Comics February. She came armed with an extensive list, and I followed her along, browsing the shelves as any book lover would. I saw Kaori Mori’s The Bride’s Story in the manga section, which reminded me that NK Jemisin (one of my favourite authors) recommended it, and I decided to get the first two volumes to try out.

And the verdict? I will definitely be seeking out the rest of the series.

It’s set in the central Asia of the 19th century, that land of steppes and silk roads, and the amount of loving detail that goes into each page creates an irresistible sense of place. I still get confused as to which order to read the frames in, but I’m getting better. Each volume includes a section that focuses on different handworks of the culture (first it was wood carving, then embroidery), which are my favourite bits. I can pore over those drawings, just wishing that they were in colour!

Now, I still have my reservations about the books. The bride in question is twenty and married to a twelve-year-old, who is drawn as very young looking, which creates some uncomfortable moments. She’s also so much of a paragon that at moments I’m tempted to roll my eyes; I don’t think we’ve come across something she’s not good at yet. ;) And generally I found the story and characters a bit more shallow than ideal. But already the second volume has added some nuance, and so I think I just need to adapt to the episodic nature of manga. And if the heroine occasionally feels idealised, I can’t fault how many female characters there are, each displaying strength in different ways. Meanwhile, the setting is certainly rich enough as it is!

If you enjoy folk culture, or get a faraway look in your eyes when you hear ‘silk roads,’ or are looking for an adventure series with a heroine instead of hero, you should give The Bride’s Story a try. If, like me, you’re new to manga, it will probably take you a volume or two to adapt to the new medium. But Mori must be winning me over: on my last library trip, the next volume wasn’t on the shelf, and I found myself quite disappointed. Good thing Debi’s did round-ups of all of the graphic novel reading done in February: the lists should keep me busy for awhile, as I rediscover this category of books!

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