Tag Archives: Books

progress is mostly an illusion

[T]he few of us who do manage to break through are touted as examples of progress while we are still the exceptions and not the rule. And then, the writers who come up after us are told that there’s no room for them. … Those of us that break through are, to some, interchangeable tokens, trotted out as examples of progress when, in fact, that progress is mostly an illusion.

Roxane Gay

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9: The Thing Around Your Neck

The Thing Around Your NeckThe Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

4 out of 5 stars.

Bought at the Book Shop in Penticton.

Read in June 2014.

View all my reviews

The stories…

  • “Cell One” — Nnamabia, the teenage brother who’s getting into trouble, ends up in jail.
  • “Imitation” — Nkem, the wife who lives in “America”* with her children, while her husband, a Big Man, lives in Nigeria.
  • “A Private Experience” — Chika, who is Igbo and Christian, is helped by a woman who is Hausa and Muslim when they are caught in a riot.
  • “Ghosts” — retired professor at university to check on his pension that never comes, runs into colleague he thought was dead for past 30 years.
  • “On Monday of Last Week” — helicopter parent dad, artist mom, babysitter who gets her hopes up.Books from The Book Shop
  • “Jumping Monkey Hill” — writers retreat in S. Africa, organized by lecherous old man. Story within the story (i.e. workshopped story) is based on real life, but ‘not plausible’ to old man, of course.
  • “The Thing Around Your Neck” — winning the American visa lottery, give and take, and the American bf who thinks he understands it all.
  • “The American Embassy” — the journalist’s wife applying for asylum after her husband flees and her son is accidentally shot/killed by the government agents looking for him.
  • “The Shivering” — the grad student at Princeton who’s visited by a neighbor who she assumes is a student, too. They become friends and she discovers he’s not.
  • “The Arrangers of Marriage” — the new wife whose husband is trying too hard to assimilate and, oops, has failed to mention he’s already married.
  • “Tomorrow is Too Far” — the woman absorbed with guilt over the death of her brother when she was 10.
  • “The Headstrong Historian” — family history from grandmother Nwamgba to granddaughter Grace/Afamenfuna, who becomes a historian, reclaiming the stories that had been suppressed by colonial rule.

I especially liked “Jumping Monkey Hill” and “The Headstrong Historian,” but these stories are all so good. They read so effortlessly, which means the crafting of them was quite the opposite.

(*language tangent: Canadians don’t say “America”; we say “the States” or “the US” b/c Canada is also part of America-the-continent. “American” as a demonym for citizens of US is weird, when you think about it. People from all countries in the Americas are Americans. I’ve seen people on Twitter use “USian”—maybe that will catch on?)

Secret Book

The first book that comes to mind in answer to the question “what children’s book changed your life?” is not one of the famous ones. It’s the lost-in-the-shadows-of-A-Wrinkle-in-Time Madeleine L’Engle book, Meet the Austins.

However. There is another book, even more obscure. So obscure that I couldn’t remember the title or author or the main character’s name. This is what I did remember: secret book, Christmas tree farm, root cellar. It turns out that was enough (thanks to Loganberry Books and their Stump the Bookseller archives):

Lyn Cook, Samantha’s Secret Room, 1963.  Scholastic Canada.  Samantha (Sam) lives on a rural property in Canada and gains a penfriend by tying a letter to a christmas tree.  The caravan belongs to a cousin who comes to visit for a family reunion.  The secret room is in a root cellar.

The weird thing is the phrase “secret book” is actually in the solution for the book above this one and so far I haven’t found it mentioned anywhere else. So, hmm. This is definitely the book I was thinking of, though, so if it’s not the one with the secret book, I would be perplexed.

Anyway. IIRC, the “secret book” was a journal kept in the secret room, and it’s where I got the idea to start keeping a journal in an ordinary notebook (vs. a diary in one of those dated books with a lock that I always failed at). I even wrote “secret book” on the front of my first notebook. Haha. All it was missing was a “keep out. this means you.” I did not have a secret room. (Sadness. I really, really, really wanted a secret room.)  I did not even have a secret drawer in my desk. (Moar sadness. Also really, really, really wanted a rolltop desk with secret compartments.) So yeah. My secret book was kept in my desk shoved underneath whatever else was in there. Not too secret.

But it’s that not-so-secret secret book was the notebook in which I first wrote that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up (which I wrote about here). And I kept writing in that book until I filled it up and started a new book and so on and so on. So that’s why Samantha’s Secret Room is the children’s book that changed my life.

This is everything I could find about Samantha’s Secret Room and the author Lyn Cook:

  • A review of Samantha’s Secret Room from 1992 (it was re-issued in 1991) in CM: A Reviewing Journal of Canadian Materials for Young People. This review mentions Sam’s journal, but not the secret book:

The story’s events, which are occasionally related via Sam’s journal entries, occur against a backdrop of the daily and seasonal responsibilities of farm life.

The thread tying the book together is Sam’s continuing search for a secret room that belonged to her early nine­teenth-century namesake. Sam, whose own secret place to be alone is the root cellar, believes the other hidden space to be located somewhere in their old twenty-room house.

(And now, I’m beginning to think that the secret book is a giant spoiler, i.e. it wasn’t Sam’s book, but the one she finds in secret room #2, and that’s why no one’s mentioning it. I will refrain from mentioning where SR #2 is located, which is something I do remember.)

  • It has a Goodreads page. (Just added it. Now I won’t lose it again.) There’s not very much information on it, and only a few reviews, all from people who remember reading it as kids. Lots of 5-star ratings, though.
  • erm, apparently there are people who track “the oldest living writers.” ok. Lyn Cook is on this list, dated January 2014. She was born in 1918.
  • She’s also on this list of Famous Canadian Women. “May 4, 1918 – Born Lyn Cook (1918 –    ) 1st author to have books for youth published after WW ll.”
  • She’s listed at A Celebration of Women Writers. “Waddell, Evelyn Cook [aka Lyn Cook; Margaret Culverhouse] (1918 – )” That one had links which led me to…
  • A review of a different book by Lyn Cook, The Bells on Finland Street. The intro blurb says:

“Lyn Cook” is the short name for Evelyn Margaret Cook Waddell, who was a presenter for CBC Radio in the 1940s and 1950s. Her weekly half-hour radio programme, “A Doorway to Fairyland,” had child actors voicing the parts of characters in the books she presented.  The Bells on Finland Street is her first novel, and was followed by a number of novels for young readers. Because her written work includes publications before 1950, she is on the list of authors to be included in the Canada’s Early Women Writers (CEWW) database, part of the Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory (CWRC), being established at the University of Alberta.

  • …and this post from 2012 about a poem Lyn Cook published in the 1940s (using her grandmother’s name, Margaret Culverhouse):

Only two of the authors our project deals with are actually still alive. … children’s author Lyn Cook, otherwise Evelyn Cook Waddell. I telephoned Mrs. Waddell a week or so ago, as I was flying out to Ontario, where she lives. I was unable to meet with her, as she lives farther than I thought from my destination, but we spoke for quite a while about her years as a CBC children’s radio show host, and her life as a mother and children’s author in the 1950s and 60s.

I thought “A Doorway to Fairyland” might be in the CBC’s digital archives (there is lots of cool old stuff there), but nope. I did run across this, though:

Thursday, April 26, 2012: Singer-songwriter Bonnie Ste-Croix traveled the whole country recording her latest album, Canadian Girl, but she always finds her way home to Gaspé. Bonnie shares a book that was a childhood favourite, Samantha’s Secret Room, by Lyn Cook.

An audio clip seemed like an appropriate way to wrap up this post, but it’s not working for me. Well, maybe that’s even more appropriate for an out-of-print almost-but-not-quite-forgotten book.

30: Knitting Yarns

Knitting Yarns: Writers on KnittingKnitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting by Ann Hood

My rating: 3 of 5 stars*

Purchased new at Chapters on Robson

Read in December 2013

View all my reviews

*So, the first thing I want to say is that while I gave the anthology as a whole 3 stars (like!), I loved some of the essays in this collection. Other pieces I was less excited about. That’s the trouble with anthologies, right? But overall, this was an enjoyable book and a nice way to close out the year. Recommended to writers who like to make things.

I heard about Knitting Yarns when I ran across Ann Hood’s essay “Ten Things I Learned From Knitting” on my Tumblr dashboard. This essay, about knitting through grief, resonated so much with me, I was prompted to write my own. It also spurred me to try again to figure out how to knit (success).

Prior to purchasing the book, I also came across Bernadette Murphy’s essay “Failing Better,” about learning resilience through making mistakes. That was the clincher, really. If the rest of the book was as good as these two essays, I wanted to read it.

The book was shelved in the knitting section at Chapters, despite being clearly labeled ‘memoir’ on the jacket. Well, it turns out it does include patterns, so I guess the shelving wasn’t completely off the mark. There are five or six essays, then a pattern, and so on. Each essay is introduced with a brief abstract.

The essays are arranged in alphabetical order (by author’s last name). I think I’d have arranged it by theme, as there are clear themes that recur throughout, and juxtaposing the essays thematically would strengthen them individually and collectively.

One popular theme is the knitting version of “I can’t boil water,” which as you know I’m not that into as I’ve never really understood the attraction of the “I’m a smart person who can’t do a simple thing” trope. Anyway, apparently a lot of writers like to knit even though they are terrible at it.

Another popular theme is that of family, and the passing down of knitting as a skill (or not). I related to the tales of families of crafters and makers, as that’s the kind of family I came from. More than one writer mentioned they grew up with a rule that you could only watch TV if you were making something at the same time, which I found interesting. We never had a rule about it; it wasn’t necessary. You always did something else while watching TV! Maybe this is why I don’t have the TV-angst that so many people seem to have. For me, watching TV has always been synonymous with making things.

And there’s the aforementioned theme of grief. Many of the essays were in whole or part about knitting getting them through a a difficult time in their lives, a death or other loss. Again and again, writers spoke of the zone, the flow, the trance that knitting puts them into, a space that calms anxiety and a chattering mind.

In addition to Ann Hood’s essay, I especially loved: Andre Dubus III’s “Blood, Root, Knit, Purl” (this reads like a story), Kaylie Jones’s “Judite” (ditto), and Joyce Maynard’s “Straw Into Gold” (her mother sounds like she was amazing).

A few quotes:

But you couldn’t crochet or knit and read at the same time, and reading was all I wanted to do. (Marianne Leone, 161)

Yep, that pretty much sums up why my younger self didn’t take to knitting and the like. Reading! *Homer Simpson drool*

In nineteenth century literature it seems sometimes to be true that good women knit and bad women crochet or do fancy work. (Alison Lurie, 179)

I’ll have to keep that in mind 😉

No one pushes back from her desk to knit a few rows and contemplate the sentence on the page… (Ann Patchett, 207)

Oh, no…? >cough< Pretty sure I’ve done something along those lines. >cough<

29: The Killing Circle

The Killing CircleThe Killing Circle by Andrew Pyper

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

From the VPL Fall 2013 Book Sale.

Read in December 2013.

View all my reviews

I picked this up at the book sale because I’d been hearing Andrew Pyper’s name a lot—not for this book, but for his most recent one. So I had no idea what this was about, but I had some vague idea that he wrote mystery/thriller-type books, which seemed promising.

The Killing Circle opens with a prologue. The protagonist’s son vanishes at a drive-in movie. Then the story flashes back in time four years to explain the events leading up to the son’s disappearance.

VPL Fall Book SaleJournalist Patrick Rush has always wanted to write a novel, but can’t think of anything to write about. Though he works for a newspaper (the “National Star”) and writes for a living, he considers himself a failure as a writer because he hasn’t written a novel. That said, he’s not actually that interested in writing (i.e. being a writer); he wants to have written (i.e. to be an author). His best quality is his self-awareness regarding this distinction.

He hates his job. He used to write about books, but now the paper has him writing about TV (under the byline “The Couch Potato”), which he considers beneath him. Pop culture, blech! Writing about pop culture, double blech! Whatever, dude. I’ll take your job. Pop culture, yay! Writing about pop culture, double yay!

Patrick is a single father, his wife having died shortly after his son’s birth. In the beginning, he doesn’t explain how she died, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions. His son is four in the flashback, eight in the present time period of the story.

He sees a classified ad for a writing circle and calls the number. The man who answers mysteriously gives him an address and not much other info. He waffles about attending, but of course ends up going and finds himself in a room with a motley assortment of characters, each one weirder than the next. They introduce themselves. The next week they are to bring a piece of writing. Patrick, naturally, can’t think of anything to write about. He dashes off a crappy paragraph at the last minute. The others read their stories, all weakly-disguised memoir, and none particularly intriguing to Patrick except one. One story he’s transfixed by. He has a tape recorder in his pocket and presses record while the woman reads.

I wanted to like this book more than I did. It has all these elements that seem like things that would coalesce into a book I’d love, and yet…

Partly it’s that I spent the majority of the book thinking “this isn’t going to turn into an undead thing is it?” Eventually it became clear that it wasn’t, at which point I was immensely relieved, but it was too late, I think. I’d spent far too long wondering if ghosts or zombies were going to appear the next time I turned the page. I expect I’d have had a different experience if this hadn’t been my first book by this author, but as first-time reader, it read like he wanted readers to believe there was going to be a supernatural element.

And then there’s Patrick, who is a whiny malcontent. Yes, his wife died, but everything else about his character is so grating it cancels out any sympathy that may have generated. He’s just a miserable person. Which would be fine, if the story made me care about what happened to him regardless of his unpleasantness (it didn’t) or he was interesting enough that his unpleasantness didn’t matter (he wasn’t). The writing, on the other hand, was fine. And here I must invoke the Dan Brown thread: story/character will always win over writing.

I will say the ending was satisfying in that cheesy-TV-movie kind of way where you end up rooting for the villain because the protagonist is so unintentionally annoying.

Hmm. It occurs to me I may have found this a more compelling story with a different point-of-view character. Maybe told from the villain’s perspective. I had way more empathy for the antagonist (whose actions were evil, but underlying motivations had gray areas that could have been explored). Or maybe omniscient, get into everyone’s heads. Perhaps it was not the best choice to have the character who keeps saying he has no story to tell—who bores himself—tell the story.

28: Running with the Mind of Meditation

Running with the Mind of Meditation: Lessons for Training Body and MindRunning with the Mind of Meditation: Lessons for Training Body and Mind by Sakyong Mipham

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Bought at Chapters on Robson.

Read in November 2013.

View all my reviews

I can’t remember where I saw this mentioned, but I’m on the lookout for interesting books about running (which seem to be few and far between as discussed in my post about What I Talk About When I Talk About Running). The problem is most runners aren’t writers so most writing-about-running is a snore. If you’ve ever perused a running forum or blog, most posts about running are race reports that go something like this: “I got up at 3am, put on my clothes that I laid out the night before (detailed list of chosen clothing), ate (something icky), used the bathroom (tmi), left the hotel at 5am, blah blah blah transport to the start, congregated in a sea of humanity, last-minute portapotty break (tmi), mile by mile or km by km reports of condition of feet/legs/stomach, what types of fake food were ingested at what times, how many pitstops were made (tmi) and on and on and on. Finally (you’re asleep, aren’t you?) concluding with time splits for each mile or km, depending on preference, and chip time (woo if PB, sadface if not). The End.”

zzzzz.

So yeah. That’s not what I’m looking for. But this book sounded like it might be, so I decided to check it out.

I didn’t know anything about the author, but the cover identifies him as a Tibetan lama. So, when I started reading, I was thrown by the author’s voice. At first I wondered if it was ghostwritten because the voice is so generic North American. My curiosity eventually got the better of me and I hit up Wikipedia (where else?) for a bio. Turns out he lived in the US for the majority of his childhood/young adulthood. Ah. On his YouTube channel, I found a video about the topic of this book:

I thought it was going to be more about running as a form of meditation, but he dispels that idea almost immediately:

People sometimes say, ‘Running is my meditation.’ Even though I know what they mean, in reality, running is running and meditation is meditation. (19)

Basically, his take is that running is for the body; meditation is for the mind. The premise of this book is that running complements meditation (or vice versa), that running is not incompatible with meditation (which I guess some people think). The book is organized in four phases or stages of running proficiency represented by the tiger, lion, garuda, and dragon.

In the Shambala tradition of warriorship, these creatures are called the “four dignities.” They represent the inner development of a courageous individual. The idea is to develop balance and integrity. The result is strong windhorse, lungta—the ability to bring about long life, good health, success, and happiness. (57)

Each phase has a different focus of contemplation:

  • tiger = motivation;
  • lion = good fortune;
  • garuda = love and kindness;
  • dragon = compassion and selflessness;
  • windhorse = basic goodness.

The writing is serviceable, if a bit choppy. The chapters are blog-post short and there’s quite a bit of repetition. All of this made me wonder if it was a blog-to-book. It reads like that, anyway. While each chapter was fine on its own, as a book, it never really feels like it gets into a flow.

He always refers to people by their full names (and often job description) no matter how many times he’s mentioned them previously. Writing Tip: this is very annoying for readers. As a writer, you must make your characters (even if your characters are real people) memorable enough that you don’t have to re-introduce them every time they reappear.

One of his refrains is friendliness/gentleness, as in being kind to yourself / not beating yourself up for not running or not meditating, but at the same time not letting yourself slack off completely either. As a moderator, I appreciated this:

The wise are balanced, and the foolish are extreme. (82)

Yeah! Have to remember that one the next time someone goes on a “I quit TV/the internet/social media/blogging/vice-du-jour” jag. Foolishness! 😉

On gentleness vs. aggression:

Aggression is a short-term solution for a long-term problem. Gentleness is persistent. Gentleness is therefore a sign of strength, while aggression is often a sign of weakness. Aggression is often a last resort. Where do you go from there? If you become more aggressive, you seem insane, whereas if you have gentleness, you are like a great ocean holding a lot of power. (85)

He touches briefly (very briefly) on walking and yoga. “We should all enjoy a good walk, incorporating the qualities of mindfulness and gentleness.” (90) I love walking (may have mentioned that once or twice), so yes to this. And he says “practicing yoga has provided an excellent balance to running.” (91) Which of course I already know. Running + yoga = the best. But there’s not much more to this chapter than that, unfortunately.

On pain:

One could say that life is at least 50 percent pain. If we do not relate to pain, we are not relating to half our life. Everything is fine when we are happy, but when we are in pain, we become petrified. The inability to relate to pain narrows our playing field. When we are able to work with pain and understand it, life becomes twice as interesting. Relating to pain makes us more fearless and happy. (113)

So what makes this interesting is that while I was reading the book, I ran across this quote about creativity and pain:

Studies on the nature of creativity have shown that people who consistently come up with more inventive and creative ideas are not necessarily innately gifted, nor are they necessarily more intelligent than other people. They are however capable of tolerating a certain level of mental discomfort.

It works something like this:

When our brains are presented with a problem- any problem- we feel slightly anxious. When we solve a problem, our brains release endorphins that make us feel good. So, we have a problem to solve, we often run with the first answer we come up with because it feels good (literally) to find a solution!

But people who are willing to see that first solution, and then set it aside- delaying that endorphin high- while they continue to search for another answer, and another, and another… until they have compared all possible solutions and then chose the best option- and run with it- consistently come up with much more interesting, creative solutions.

Molly Idle,
in an interview at Inkygirl

Takeaway: embrace your pain!

On happiness:

[H]appiness is not a goal, but a by-product of mentally and physically healthy activities. If we engage in these, happiness of mind and body will ensue.

Letting yourself become genuinely connected with happiness allows you to also deal with sadness. If your mind is obsessed with happiness, you might react to sadness by getting depressed and angry. I’ve learned that the best way to be happy is not to have happiness as your objective. If you crave personal happiness, it only becomes more elusive. (123-4)

On boredom (which relates to pain, and reminds me of what I wrote about boredom in my post on Eating Dirt):

In relating to pain, it is not so much the pain that is difficult—it is the inability of the mind to handle the pain. In meditation, people are often unable to handle the pain of the posture, disturbing thoughts, or boredom. It is not the boredom itself that is painful but the mind’s inability to handle it. Often, what exasperates the mind is the mind itself becoming hysterical: we are unable to handle both the pain and a hysterical mind. So when pain arises in either meditation or running, we need to feel the difference between the pain itself and the mind’s inability to handle the pain—or, in the case of a trained mind—our ability to handle it. (141)

This was maybe the most valuable section in the book for me. When I wrote about boredom in my Eating Dirt post, I knew perhaps I sounded like I was being melodramatic. I don’t think I was though. Younger-me was terrified of boredom, and I think my ability to cope with boredom (or, really, to not even go there) is a major difference between grownup-me and younger-me. (It’s all a matter of perspective. For me, everything changed when I declared to myself, “I am a writer.” Not the “I want to be” moment but the “I am” moment, which came later. Because if I am a writer, how can anything be boring? Everything is material.) 

Anyway, there are some interesting ideas in this book but they’re not explored in a lot of depth. It might be more revelatory to people who’ve never considered running/meditation together before. Or running or meditation at all? I was a little puzzled as to the intended audience for the book. It was shelved in the sports section of the bookstore so I assumed going in it was aimed at runners with the idea of adding meditation to their running practice. But much of the time it seems like he’s explaining the running as much as or more than the meditation, which wouldn’t be necessary if runners were the intended audience. And he does say his impetus for writing it was that some people thought it was odd that he was a runner. So it’s for non-runners and non-meditators? How likely is it that someone who’s not into either thing picks up this book? Not very. So I’m not sure.

In the end, still on quest for the perfect book about running 🙂