Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Books, and Bookish Thoughts, in February and March

One of my favourite pastimes is reading. I read many books in a year. Not as many as some folks, more than other folks. 

I try to read some every day, although I've been known to read a lot (words and hours) in a few short days, and I've gone for longer stretches of time without reading much at all

I read in part because I like to. I also read because I write, and reading helps me learn. And I read because I enjoy stories, and people, and challenging ideas, and other peoples' expertise. 

I do talk about books on social media. Twitter's #SundaySentence is a place where I both post sentences and learn a lot from others'. What I post on Instagram is usually an expanded version of my #SundaySentence.

I don't read to award stars. I don't always like the books I post about. I love many books I don't post about. 

And no, all of this explanation isn't an allusion to any of the books below. It's more to let you know where I'm coming from. 

That said, here are some books I've enjoyed lately. 

Woman, Watching: Louise de Kiriline Lawrence and the Songbirds of Pimisi Bay

Merilyn Simonds

 “ ‘Time is filled to the brim with the greatest experience of all, the doing of something worthwhile.’"

This biography of one of the foremost naturalists in the 20th century—who lived in Northern Ontario and happened to be a woman—is engaging and stimulating. It’s also a portrait both of its subject, Louise de Kiriline Lawrence, and its author, Merilyn Simonds.

The quote above is from one of Louise’s letters to a contemporary, naturalist Doris Spiers. It encapsulates much of her work ethic. Her life is too colourful for a quick synopsis, but suffice to say she always looked for a way to be “doing something worthwhile.”


It’s a thoroughly researched and footnoted biography, but never dull. I came away from it with an even greater respect for both Merilyn Simonds (imaging corralling all that research!) and Louise.


More quotes below.


“Louise was not naΓ―ve: she knew how much she still had to learn.”


“I have no delusions about my artistic talent. But I know that drawing helps me see in a different way, makes me more inquisitive about what I’m looking at, a spiral into deeper understanding. Every drawing becomes an investigation, an opportunity to grasp some elusive detail.”


“The silence in the forest, Louise believed, represented more than the loss of avian music. Song was a form of speech—the means by which a bird declared its territory, its eligibility to mate, its objection to intruders, its intention to drive off aggressors, its willingness to fight. After a stake had been successfully defended, song was a bird’s great, lyrical sigh of relief.”


“I had no binoculars. I carried no notebook. I just nibbled on my sandwich, away from the prying eyes of my sisters and parents, and I watched. I listened. The chickadees came close, chattering like little buddies, and I chattered back. The blue jays squawked like my mother’s clothesline.”


“She never tired of listening, never grew immune to the intense beauty of the birds, the trees, the weather, the land.”

The Periodic Table 

Primo Levi


“Our ignorance allowed us to live, as when you are in the mountains and your rope is frayed and about to break, but you don’t know it and feel safe.”

Primo Levi was a Jewish chemist in Italy, and this book combines fiction nonfiction to fill gaps of his life as a chemist in the 20th century, before, during, and after the Holocaust. But the focus isn’t on the chemistry or the Holocaust; it’s on life.

His perspective gave me a brief window into how his mind works: he has a radically different understanding of the world than I do.


But some of his stories are familiar. Chemical research and even the reactions themselves can be incredibly exciting; they can also be dull. Chemistry in service to commerce can be interesting but its ultimate value depends on factors outside the chemist’s control. And often, practicing or researching chemistry in an institutional setting, whether a private company or a school or some other lab setting, is subject to the personalities of those you work with.


These are surface-level observations of a profound book. I recommend it if you’re interested in science, in nonfiction in general, in memoir in particular, and in how people lived through turbulent times.


More of his observations below.


“In order for the wheel to turn, for life to be lived, impurities are needed, and the impurities of impurities in the soil, too, as is known, if it is to be fertile.”


“Yes, all mines are magical per se, and always have been.”


“But it appears that this is my fate (and I’m definitely not complaining about it): I am one of those people to whom many things are told.”


“It was a strange book: it would be hard to think of its being written and published in any other place than the Third Reich. The author was not without a certain ability, but every one of his pages gave off the arrogance of someone who knows that his statements will not be disputed.”

Field Study: Meditations on a Year at the Herbarium

Helen Humphreys

“A visit to the herbarium is an exquisite kind of time travel.”


In this book, organized around the seasons of the year, Helen Humphries recounts trips to the Fowler Herbarium at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, to look at plant specimens, many of them collected more than a century ago.

At a practical level, she looks at how people name specimens, the whole practice of “saving” plants by digging them up, the people who have the time and energy and drive to even find interesting plant specimens, and the process of archiving collections.

And of course, these lead to larger issues—what about the natural world provides challenges and solace to people at difficult times of loss.

It’s a beautiful book simply as a physical artifact, illustrated with photographs from the collection and a few of her own drawings.

I especially appreciated the paragraph below about the idea of a “wilderness,” whether at the herbarium or in her own life during this year.


“When I started this book, I had the idea that the herbarium was a kind of wilderness and I would enter it and see what I could find there, as though I were entering an actual wilderness, and the journey through the dried plants would yield some answers to my questions about humans and nature. But now at the end I realize that it turned out backwards. The herbarium was the steady thing, the constant thing, and it was my life that was the wilderness. During the year that I was looking through the plant specimens, I was, many times, in a kind of emotional wilderness—feeling the aftershocks of a decade of human deaths, and then experiencing the death of my dog while working on the book. One of the things that kept me grounded during this time was my exploration of the herbarium, the reassuring routine of looking through file after files of plant specimens. The process was comforting, reliable, at a time when I was feeling, more often than not, sad and adrift. How strange, and not strange, that things should turn out this way!”


“In this way the herbarium becomes a place, a landscape if you will, where the experience of people connecting with nature is revealed.”


“I think of Margaret Gatty, tromping up and down Britain’s southeast coast in men’s boots and women’s petticoats, taking her seaweed specimens home to draw and catalogue them. … It suddenly seems to me like a devotional exercise. And I feel joined across time to these collectors because this is also what my work in the herbarium, and my drawing practice, has been during this year—an act of devotion, the work of common prayer.”


“[W]hat I have realized is that life itself is an optimistic process. It is about regeneration and growth, about growth and change.”

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

What I'm Taking Into March

Nope, no open water around here. Yet.
I just like to remember that it's coming.
Maybe in another month?


Suddenly it's March, and, as I do at the ends and beginnings of months, I've been looking back and forward. Here's what I'm taking from February's experiences into March. 

1. A renewed connection with the writer I was ten or more years ago, thanks to time at a retreat. It’s been incredibly freeing to revisit those past projects, cull what I no longer need, and honour the self who did that work. 

2. New writing, which is nice. Building on themes that have long been important to me, which is also nice. And in new, challenging forms, triply nice. "Nice" is starting to feel like an understatement here. OK: It feels good and I'm grateful.

3. A lightness—almost optimism? Maybe?—that’s for sure related to the changing seasons, but not only about the changing seasons. It’s great to have the morning sun in my eyes as I run errands wearing my lightest coat. 

Yes, there’s ice on the streets and the driveway, but it will melt someday. From year to year, I never doubt that spring will return, but this year I especially appreciate spring’s reliability. 

Maybe I'm talking about tenderness, just in general. Which always makes me think of that clip from Bull Durham, where Nuke is trying to sing "Try a little tenderness," and Crash stops him: "Nobody gets woolly." And then there's a good little speech about respect. 

Here's a link to the clip on YouTube. Enjoy. 

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Writing Retreats

Recently, I went to a writing retreat.


In the past, I always thought I wouldn't benefit from a writing retreat. My husband is a writer, and the two of us live in a relatively spacious house with great views. Also, we don't have live-in dependents, day jobs, or many other commitments. 

For those reasons, the benefits other people say they get from a retreat—isolation from noise and the chaos of daily living, the ability to focus on one project, congenial company of folks who understand the allure of writing and creativity—are part of my regular life.


Three years ago, I was in a transitional space—though if you recall February of 2020, you can see how I had no idea how much the world could change, and how quickly. Still. Back then, my essay collection had been out for a few months, I’d done a few events to support it and connect with readers (so much fun!), and I was itching to get back to writing and revising. 


Three years ago, the project I was trying to work on was a novel—the first I’d ever finished, and the only project I’d cared enough about to tinker with through three (give or take) MAJOR cut-a-POV-character-and-change-the-antagonist rewrites, an intensive workshop, and other lesser revisions. I needed to commit to one final plot change, and I couldn’t see how to make it make sense in the world of the book.

I spent a lot of time circling the project on the dining room table, while I distracted myself with other ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY activities. (Note: They were NOT absolutely necessary.)

Meanwhile, a group of local writers planned a four-day writing retreat, held at the provincial park nearby. When I say nearby, I mean I can see it from my kitchen window while washing dishes. The event was relatively inexpensive, and they did all the planning.

I felt silly (beyond reconsidering my pronouncements about being "not the kind of person who needs a writing retreat"). An equivalent experience, if I lived in a city, would be trading apartments with someone who lived 45 minutes away. Still, I had little to lose. At worst, I’d have the chance to stare at different walls not getting anything done. So I signed up.


And I had an extremely productive retreat--the resulting novel, Making Up the Gods, will be published by Latitude 46 in October--as well as a great time. So much so that three years later, even with my concerns about COVID exposure, and even though my writing and life are quite different in important ways, I went back and had another great experience.


Here’s what made both retreats work for me.

1. Offloading meals is my love language. It's the BEST. I love just showing up for a meal and then eating it. I didn't even have to pick from a menu. We shared prep (cooking or reheating catered meals) and cleanup, but that was a minor and welcome way to contribute.

It's amazing how much mental real estate this one benefit frees up, especially since my home's approach to food is minimal (not the trendy kind, the lazy kind). There are only two of us. My husband enjoys routine and plain food. I cook one meal a day, trying to make sure it includes vegetables, and that's it. (I do enjoy baking on occasion and holiday meals, but not as part of regular life.)

And STILL. Such bliss, to have meals made.

2. I had explicit goals at both retreats. Both times, I worked on a defined project. The first time, it was to face down that plot hole and come up with ways to shore up the scaffolding that would make it work. 

The second time, my project was different, but also contained. Literally. In a basket. Between ten and fifteen years ago, I'd embarked on what I thought of as an essay collection, and I'd done a whole lot of reading, researching, and preliminary writing. I'd applied for a couple of grants, which I didn't get. That "failure," plus an unforeseen health development, took the allure from the project. Yet there in my office (and on my conscience) sat the basket of books and notebooks. 

So a did an archeological dig through my past. I needed to know if what I'd done was in any way still relevant to my current WIPs or future writing. 

(The answer was, perhaps unsurprisingly, yes. Although current and future projects may not be in the same form as I'd envisioned, the work I'd done is a solid part of my current life and writing life. That was reassuring. But even if I had decided I've moved on from this basket o' stuff, it would have been a successful retreat.) 

I sorted the works in my basket, pulling out things to recycle back home, releasing some books and magazines to others interested in them, and repacking other books and notebooks. 

3. I had boundaries around connecting with other people. I enjoy chatting with other writers, but I'm leery of replacing writing with talking about writing. Like replacing working on that novel with doing everything else that could possibly be done, the way I had been "working" at home.

Luckily, both retreats had built-in time, aside from meals, for directed and casual conversations. And before I joined them, I checked in with myself: Am I avoiding something hard? Will I be pleased with my overall progress when I leave, or should I perhaps spend this hour AT WORK and connect after dinner? 

So those are the three things that made these two writing retreats successful for me. Your mileage may--and should--vary! 

This past retreat in particular included many opportunities for writers to connect over work--through giving and receiving feedback, both group and one-on-one, which is so necessary to the writing process and often difficult to come by. I wasn't at a place to need feedback, but it was nice to see groups working through manuscript pages.

Just in general, it's been valuable to challenge my preconceived ideas about the environment in which I work. It's probably premature to use the term "post-pandemic," but as spring 2023 approaches, I have a sense that many of us--individually and in groups--are looking around and within to see how our work in the world has changed in the past three years and what the future could hold.

That in itself is work worth doing. Possibly more worthwhile than putting together this Instagram reel, though it was fun, too.



Thursday, February 16, 2023

What I am Taking Into February

I meant to post this a week ago, which was still later than usual but less late, however, best-laid plans and all that.

So last week, I was just home from a writing retreat (more about it later), and while preparing for it, I put together some thoughts about the gifts of January.

The new year, especially February,
has brought us more sunlight.

First: a renewed sense of accomplishment, professionally speaking. For a few months, I'm mentoring an accomplished writers who's putting together a creative nonfiction manuscript. Also, for the retreat, I provided feedback on a couple of essays. 

It's a lot of fun to exercise muscles I haven't had the chance to use for a while. These projects have sparked conversations about reflection, narration, scenes, the situation/story theory, and the benefits and dangers of allowing readers to do a lot of work. It's fulfilling and rewarding for me--and I hope is as helpful to those whose work I'm privileged to read. 

Second: I opened the Christmas stocking my sister sent. For 25 years, we've been exchanging Christmas stocking. It's reassuring to participate in a tradition that's this longstanding, and one that reminds me of my mother and our childhood years in a way that's more sweet than sad. 

Accumulating items for her stocking lets me think of Sue all year, especially when I see something for sale I think she'd like or when I'm standing someplace thinking of her. Unwrapping the completely unnecessary but always thoughtful items is the best combination of an adult celebration and childhood's unexpected surprises.

Third: I have a renewed appreciation for the quiet events of the turning of the year. I've hunted out new file folders, marked 2023, and assembled a basket that's filling folders and receipts and forms, ready for the retrospective that comes with prepping for tax season. This year, this mundane task holds a weird sense of achievement, maybe related to the pandemic—we made it through another year and a new year is beginning.

Blue jays, absent from the feeder in
colder weather, are returning!

Since stopping to take stock of last month, February has, of course, brought its own changes—serious, fatal disasters and basic weirdnesses. (I mean, spy balloons? Not something I could have predicted.)

And that’s why I take the time to do this at the end of each month. It’s part of my more-formal review of the business and busy-ness of life. The pause lasts just a moment, of course. 

But that’s OK. Little moments of gratitude add up, all year long.


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.