Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Recent Books: January

For several years, I've been posting on social media about books I read. On Twitter, I often share a sentence for #SundaySentence. On Instagram, I share more quotes and a few thoughts. 

But social media is ephemeral, and platforms can disappear at a moment's notice, taking my thoughts with it. So I'm posting here periodically, too.

The Art of Map Illustration, by James Gulliver Hancock,
Hennie Haworth, Stuart Hill, Sarah King

The Art of Map Illustration, James Gulliver Hancock, Hennie Haworth, Stuart Hill, Sarah King

“[A] map tells a story—and everyone loves a good story.”

This book is accurately subtitled, “A step-by-step artistic exploration of contemporary cartography and mapmaking.” The four artists who wrote the book and whose work is featured have different, yet similar approaches to making maps. The maps they’re making are highly personal perspectives on specific places, sometimes at a specific (long ago) time.

The artists use different techniques, both digital and non, and aren’t at all averse to starting by tracing a basic outline from an existing map. I learned a lot from their step-by-step descriptions of brainstorming, sketching, and refining landmarks.

A confession: I bought it from the bookstore table with the biggest discount, on a whim. It was worth every penny and would have been if I’d paid more. But I don’t know that I’d have run into it.

Here’s another quote. But really, the illustrations are the star attraction—so rich and rewarding to study.

“A map can share an idea or a concept, illustrate an experience, or capture a memory. … You can break borders and boundaries and skew size and scale—in other words, you aren’t held captive to reality.”


Quartet in Autumn, by Barbara Pym

Quartet in Autumn, Barbara Pym

“Now, at lunchtime, each went about his or her separate business in the library.”


This masterful little sentence perfectly describes its four main characters—Letty, Edwin, Norman, and Marcia—as the novel begins. Although the four share an office and experience the inevitable intimacies of working in close quarters, they remain largely unknown to each other.


Approaching retirement age, they’re all coping, in different ways, with their growing loneliness and isolation. They may wish for more connection, but they’re not quite sure how to get there. Until at last, they find ways to be friendly.


Written and set in 1970s London, this novel marked Barbara Pym’s “comeback” after years of “exile,” when her writing couldn’t find a publisher. How difficult that is to imagine, given this book’s sharp, funny, poignant observations about the entire world that’s set in an office.


I’d read this decades ago and enjoyed it—and I enjoyed it even more now that I approach (or have maybe surpassed) the autumnal ages of its quartet. One element that surprised me a little is how close World War II, with its death and deprivations, still is to these survivors, until I recognized that it had happened only some 25 years earlier.


Here is Letty at the end:

“[I]t was difficult to think of Edwin and Norman as objects of romantic speculation, and two less country-loving people could hardly be imagined. But at least it made one realize that life still held infinite possibilities for change.”


A World of Curiosities, by Louise Penny

A World of Curiosities, Louise Penny

“Armand knew that ghosts could be stubborn.”


Well, yes. As can people. And that’s what makes for interesting books, I think—a writer, through characters, wrestling with the past, the present, and what it could all mean for the future.


Though I may be biased, given that the protagonist of my novel is doing just that.


What is there to say about Louise Penny’s mysteries that hasn’t already been said? I like her way with people and communities. I really enjoyed the writing itself in this book, too.


Recently, given space and life constraints, I decided to give away the full set of her mysteries. I hesitated over the first, Still Life, which holds a special place in my heart (finding it while waiting for a prescription and then being so delighted by it, maybe?), but eventually wondered whether I really would read it again. I also kept this one, because I hadn’t yet read it. Eventually I may contribute this to a used bookstore or library sale, so that someone else can enjoy meeting or re-meeting Gamache and Clara and Myrna and Ruth.


Now that I’m awaiting the appearance of my novel, I have a better understanding of why a writer might create a setting (both a place and a time) and return to it, with some of the same characters. Your characters become your friends over time. But as a wise writer-friend pointed out, the characters will be out making new friends in readers (we all hope).


Here’s another sentence that I resonated with, near the end:


“But any agency that allowed him to spend a month by the lake with his family, then return home to this village, to have breakfast with close friends, his beloved wife by his side, was kind indeed.”


That's it for January. But February will no doubt bring more thoughts! Happy reading, everyone.





Friday, January 27, 2023

Feelings, and the Feeling Feelers Who Feel Them

So, "feelings" have been on my mind lately. (Not the song, but you're welcome for the earworm.)*

Since the first of the year, I've been doing a writing exercise to help ground my work in observations using the five senses, as opposed to writing from the thoughts that circle in my head ALL THE TIME, morphing into metaphors and trying to get out. 

So senses: We all use sight in writing a lot, and I've enjoyed exploring sound for several years (as in my essay collection). Smell is purportedly quite evocative, a leftover from our reptilian brain, but the winter, with dust and allergies and stuffy noses, isn't conducive to detecting smell, unless I'm baking, which I haven't done much lately. (Hey. I should remedy that.)

By the way, I found these exercises in Jeannine Ouellette's substack newsletter, Writing in the Dark. They landed in my inbox at exactly the right time, and they've challenged me all month.

Back to senses. Jeannine points out that focusing on the sense of taste can blur the boundary between internal and external--to taste something, it goes into your mouth. I can see her point.

I've been thinking about touch, because when I ask "What do I feel?" I sometimes get sidetracked putting a name to an emotion instead of noticing air temperature or the support of my favourite chair under my back. 

See? "Feeling" is a way to refer to the sense of touch, and it's a way to refer to emotions. Which can get confusing and draws me back into interior monologue and metaphors and THOUGHTS. And holding a rock in my palm, which I do on occasion, conjures not just cool smoothness and heft, but also comfort, safety, and confidence. 

I don't have great insight about any of this, except that the dual nature of the word "feeling" can be a little inconvenient. But the exercises, which I do recommend, have been helping me tease out which one I really mean, when I'm thinking about them.

January's almost done. Best wishes for February!



* Also one of my favourite Gary Larson cartoons: a gorilla sits in the jungle playing a piano bar piano, singing "Peelings."

Friday, January 13, 2023

What I’m Taking Into 2023

It’s probably a little late to be posting “new year” thoughts, but I was late to church almost every Sunday morning for most of my childhood (NOT MY FAULT) (although something I've had to work on since), and my father liked to sit up front, where everyone could watch us shamefacedly slink in and take seats, so let’s call it tradition.

Here are a few things I’m taking into 2023, some of which I learned in 2022, and some of which I re-learned.

Words, part 1. Naming things is important. Having a name for something can make it real in a way it wasn’t before, which can be scary if you’re as into denial as I am. But it’s also a relief. To have a name for something is to put a limit on it, to say “I know you,” even though you can’t predict the future exactly. 

And I know all that’s vague, and that’s how it is for now. Just, words are good.

Words, part 2. I’ve put 80-thousand-plus words into a novel that will be published in 2023 by Latitude 46, a publisher in Sudbury. Making Up the Gods will show up in October or so, and I will definitely post more about it as the year progresses.

I’m excited for the people I know in the book to meet the people I know in what is known as “real life.”

Miscellaneous other stuff. A reacquaintance with Barbara Pym’s novels. The glory of excellent modern editions of classic novels (Jane Austen). Thoughtful voices I heard in several important memoirs. Permission to carefully curate my reading list when I need to.

A new interest in and appreciation for the Great British Baking Show. Yes, I am late to this party, but in the words of Sam Seaborn, let’s embrace the fact I showed up at all.

Less stuff (a lot), from books I’ll never reread to sweaters I didn’t wear, and many pens I have actually emptied of ink. Fewer projects I consider to be “ongoing,” and many more that have served their purpose in my life. A general sense that I’m finishing things and growing into another version of myself, the one that is living through a pandemic.

Nice notebooks, and the knowledge that I will use them joyfully. Speaking of joy, the experience of seeing family, especially my sister, in person. Celebrating family weddings, in person and in absentia, and remembering beloved aunts who died.

Evidence that every day for all of 2022, I looked at something happening outdoors and tried to represent that on a phenology wheel. 

Better-fitting underwear. A new furnace. More TV channels, which is sometimes helpful and sometimes simply confirms my suspicion that we weren’t missing that much before, which is also helpful. A clean water storage tank. A much-repaired oven.

A little more humility. A renewed willingness to say, "I don't know." I'm gearing up to improve my ability to ask for help and recognize when I need it. 

I hope your 2023 is starting well--perhaps quietly and joyfully, as mine is.  

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

How I Ended December

‘tis the season

For bigger jeans. For fuzzy socks and chunky sweaters.

For grandparents’ recipes, softened butter and sugar sprinkles.

For vanilla and almond, cinnamon and nutmeg, fir and cedar.

For darkness, gathering and dissipating. For candles lit and ancient words spoken.

For snowflakes. The world in a drop at the end of an icicle. Frost-whiskers on evergreen needles.

For friends. Sharing seed with jays and chickadees and squirrels. Cheering on the fox, waving at deer.

For looking: back, forward, within.

For walking in someone else’s footsteps, lifting the weight of memories.

For mornings and mournings,
holding them to the light,
turning them,
letting them go.

Goodbye, 2022. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

What I Am Taking Into December

1. More rocks. Thirty of them, in fact. 

Yes, we already had plenty of rocks here. But going over to the beach at our little camp to pick up a rock, and snapping a photo of it, and then bringing it back to sit in a bowl in the kitchen were nice breaks from revising in November. 

2. Something I don’t have words for yet, but if I did, one of them might be “ease,” and another might be “soft,“ and another might be “strength.” 

I just realized that both “easy” and “soft” are antonyms of “hard.” A better antonym of “ease,” I suppose, is “effort.” 

(Welcome to my brain.)

In any case, I am feeling a form of strength. With ease and softness. (That sounds like an ad: “Double-concentrated Strength: now with ease and softness!”)

Maybe because 2022 held some really difficult (hard) experiences, yet here I am. I imagine/expect/am unbothered by the fact that the future will hold its share of challenges, and I’ll survive those, too. 

3. Gratitude (hmm, I say this a lot). I appreciate being here (alive at all) and being here (in this geographical place) and being here (at this age), and being here (in this marriage and life), all at the same time. 

With rocks. 

Here's hoping you are the same. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

What I'm Taking Into November

A thing or two.

The maple with golden leaves.

First. A more accurate sense of how much coffee I actually drink in a day. My husband is a master of self-discipline. For health reasons, he has decided to just drink one cup of coffee in a day, and a supplement that coffee with actual glasses of water. It’s almost the apocalypse, y’all. I have never seen him voluntarily drink water although I have occasionally handed him a glass of water and stood over him while he got over his objections and drank it. 

Now, for whatever reason, things are different. He drinks one cup of coffee in the morning, and several glasses of water during the day. Which means I’m drinking the rest of the pot of coffee. Which means I’m also trying to limit my coffee drinking to at least the morning hours. Is it helping with my sleep? Sometimes.

Second. A renewed understanding of the magic of revising one’s own words. I’m working on a novel. Yes, that one, imperfect and beautiful. Yes, still. I’ve had feedback through the years from many people I respect and admire, whose work I also respect and admire. I think I’m on the last set of feedback of that substantive nature. 

And at last, I see how, through the years, I have been not just making my novel different—I’ve been making it better. The process has been circuitous, and I’ve learned a lot. 

I hope the path of revising my next novel is more straightforward. I was going to say that I hope it’s not as frustrating, but I now recognize that I have control over the frustration. As long as I am making it better, or at least trying to make it better, I can trust in the revision process, now that I’ve seen that process at work in fiction as well as nonfiction. And who knows, frustration might be an inevitable and welcome part of that process.

the ground near the maple's trunk,
 showing leaves both green and gold

Third. A renewed sense of gratitude. November brings with it my birthday, when it’s natural to look back over not only the past month but the past year. And it's been full of both tests and gifts. I’m grateful for vaccines and boosters. I’m grateful for men and women who repair things. I’m grateful to learn about where I live, both the house itself and its setting. 

I’m grateful for the kind of life where I can look for a fishing boat in the spring and in the autumn and feel it is a part of my world, as are the feeder visitors: Blue Jays and chickadees and squirrels, and the chipmunk that hoovers the deck of what they leave behind. I’m grateful for the ability to meet people online and to see people in person, carefully. 

I’m grateful for relationships that have lasted a long time, for relationships that roll with the punches, for relationships that burn steadily and with constancy, and for relationships that can mend when it’s important to do so.

big sky over Lake Superior, from the beach
at our little camp, showing the islands

Fourth. An act of hope: I voted yesterday. I’m grateful for the ability to vote—to attempt to choose people who represent the best of me and, I believe, the best of everyone else, and entrust them with the work of formalizing how we, as a community, treat each other. 

Sometimes voting serves only as a measure of how different I am. Sometimes no one I vote for wins. 

But there is victory in speaking up. Participating in efforts to make the world more just isn’t necessarily glamorous but it’s responsible, and that’s not a bad way to live.

Happy November, everyone. That’s my wish for you.

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Imperfect and Beautiful, AKA, What I'm Taking Into October

I'm revising again. 

I seem to revise a lot, which is fine -- it's one of the most useful, beautiful, and unpracticed parts of writing, in my opinion. 

I also seem to write about revising a lot, which is also okay.

September was a full month that included travel myself plus visitors here, plus celebration of love and family. Also: the need for (shudder) mousetraps, plus an empty well. 

It was not a "perfect" month, not that I know what that really is. It held moments I wanted to embrace, others I wanted to sustain, and still others that I was happy to release.

Now I turn my attention to revising a project that's been close to my heart for a long time. Being me, I want it to be imperfect. It will not be.

So I'm looking around. Down and up. And I'm finding beauty -- and imperfection, even IN imperfection -- everywhere.

Like this.

golden birch leaves, sporting holes and generally
appearing crumpled, lie on the dirt

A reddened leaf curls un-picturesquely;
behind it, another red leaf shows brown spots and curled edges

That's what I'm carrying into October. That life can be -- is -- imperfect, and beautiful.  

That despite my best intentions and hardest effort, all my work is also imperfect, and beautiful. My novel will be imperfect, and beautiful, and so will the next one, and the books to come. 

"Imperfect and beautiful" brings me both courage and solace. I can do my best -- and that's all I can do.

So. That's my month gone, and the one to come. I hope you find something that brings you what you need, and that you can embrace it.