January 30, 2013

Floods and disappearing cable needles

Well, it has been a week since my mom's operation, and she is continuing to do really well!  Thanks to everyone for your thoughts and good wishes.  (And if I owe you an email, I promise it's on its way.)  

It turns out that knitting is a better "sit and keep company" and "sit and wait" activity than writing fiction, so until yesterday, my hat-in-progress had come along further than my story.  (If anyone has a tip for how to not lose a cable needle, oh, about fifty times an hour, I'm all ears.) But now the story is coming on strong...I just need one of those pesky endings.  Right now I have the characters circling around one another, talking about this or that.  Before long they're liable to start checking their watches or something. 

In case you're not on Twitter (or maybe even if you are...some days there are a lot of links flying by), below are a few things I clicked on recently that were worthwhile...

This is a really interesting article by Samantha Francis for BookNet Canada on what makes a bestseller (according to sales data).  In case you've ever wondered what makes a bestseller in Canada.
We can’t reveal sales numbers, but to give you a very rough idea: when a book is in the “Top 10,” it’s usually sold several thousand copies across Canada in one week. 
An enjoyable Q&A by Ali Smith at The Daily Beast on "How I Write."  

A piece about how Canada's crime novelists are making a killing.  This was enough to make me pull out and revisit a plot outline for a light mystery novel I'd dreamed up last year during an idle afternoon, as well as another project close to my heart which has changed imaginary forms many times (TV show, screenplay, graphic novel), but which has finally come to rest (not surprisingly, given my actual skills) as what I hope will be a YA novel.  One day I'd love to write a mystery, and not just because it seems to be the one of the best ways for writers to make money these days.  

In other news, there was a ton of flooding at McGill yesterday (over 40 million litres!).  Below is a photo I took on Friday afternoon on my way across campus, of construction in progress on the reservoir pipes and the weathered old pipes on display (I think they're around  a hundred years old):

January 23, 2013

bless the brain surgeons

My mother came through 11-hour brain surgery yesterday to remove a benign, but very large tumour.  The operation was very successful, and I’m hopeful that her balance, which has been affected since the spring, will be restored before too long.  I saw her last night and she was awake and talking and not even groggy.  She was so chatty that the nurse hinted that talking to me was raising her blood pressure (they don’t really like visitors in the recovery room, anyhow). 

I’m happy to say that everyone I spoke with at the Jewish General Hospital was caring and professional (nurses, orderlies, surgeons).  My mother used to be an RNA, and she has both worked and been a patient in hospitals in three provinces, and she was stunned by how nice all the nurses are.  I think this is generational shift (or maybe something more?  maybe a larger change of approach within hospitals?) as I know a lot of very nice girls who have trained to be nurses over the last few years.  Maybe it is even silly to say there is any reason to be surprised by caring people in the health care system.  But it’s a nice thing, regardless. 

Say what you will about the Canadian health care system, but it is amazing that we live in a country where a family does not need to bankrupt itself or go into debt for critical procedures.  It is terrifying to think that if we lived somewhere else, my mother might not be able to get the operation she needed.

The operation was so long I finished both books I brought with me within the first four hours.  I did spot some evidence on the waiting room furniture of what somebody else had been reading, though:

January 20, 2013

weekend / contest

There are still a few hours left to win an advance reading copy of Bone and Bread through House of Anansi's awesome Friday Reads giveaway.  All you have to do is go to their official Facebook page and hit like or add a comment to the contest announcement before midnight tonight.  (I love contests!  I've won probably more than my fair share of books off of internet contests like these over the years.  I especially love contests for ARCs because it means you get to read the book in question even before it hits the stores.)

This was a quiet weekend.  The Australian contingent of my husband's family flew home on Friday after a farewell dinner, and I mostly stayed home and did some reading and writing (I did manage to get up early on Saturday, though I kept half falling asleep on the couch...this always produces some interesting sentences) and knitting.  

The weather is beyond bizarre.  After Friday's dip to the minus thirties, on Saturday it was hovering around zero.  There was a trip to the park and the used bookstore.  

Quality finds at Encore Books.

January 18, 2013

deep freeze Friday

The warm spell is over.  It’s a deep freeze now.  The cold doesn’t bother me too much – it’s all about knowing how to dress: long johns, thermal shirt, wool sweater, fleece-lined mitts and a dense scarf.  Plus a down coat, shearling boots, and a fur hat.  Winter in Canada isn’t for amateurs (nor for vegans, apparently).   

This week I’ve been trying take to heart all that good advice about living in the moment.   Singing, seeing friends, catching up on emails, reminding myself about what’s important (that same old moving target).  Typing that out, I'm reminded of Jo Knowles' blog, where she recently shared some powerful words about Maurice Sendak and the importance of living one’s life.     

And while I'm sharing links, here's another great blog post by Caroline Wissing I stumbled upon via Twitter about acknowledging your talent.

And at the Guardian, Philip Roth picks his best novels.  (I’ve only read Portnoy’s Complaint, many years ago, and more recently The Human Stain, which I loved.  I think American Pastoral will be next on the list…although probably not next in the reading lineup, not when I have the new Alice Munro and Zadie Smith at home.)  I love the idea of being prolific enough to actually have an oeuvre to consider – to have a body of work from which you can pick and choose your favourites.  (There.  That should be enough of an ambition spur to get me up early tomorrow to work on my new story.)

There’s also this hilariously accurate article on Slate about the dark side of the book tour.  I’m planning my book launch for Bone and Bread right now and am plagued with similar visions of nobody showing up.  Say you’ll come? 

January 17, 2013

2012 round-up, part two

The second half of my big 2012 update.  It was a year of big changes, with editing squeezed in everywhere else.

The second half of 2012 started with the culmination of what dominated the first half: the wedding!  I was so happy with how it went, and I still can’t believe the weather cooperated.  (There had been storms looming for days, and even the forecast that morning called for thunderstorms.)  I love the rain, but all the decorations were planned for sunshine.

I was also really happy about how well everything came together in just 13 weeks.  It’s too bad this kind of major event planning isn’t something you can put on a resumé!   I had lots (and lots) of help, of course, especially at the end, but I still view it not only as a truly wonderful, magical day with friends and family…but as a day I’m really proud of, too.  I had so much fun, and I think our guests did, too, and everything ended up looking exactly as I’d dreamed it. 

A very small sampling of, oh, millions of beautiful pics from the day.  These ones are all by our  wildly talented photographer Dallas Curow, though I have many favourites that were taken by friends and family, too.


January 16, 2013

Livre Service Boxes -- Book Exchange Program in NDG Montreal

A new take-a-book, leave-a-book program is underway in NDG in Montreal. I was excited to discover this book box on my way to subway this week:

Libre service boite â livres - book box

The boxes look just like newspaper boxes and have a prominent notice indicating that they are not a return box for library books.  It's a great idea, and I really hope it catches on!

Click here for the official announcement of the new initiative from the City of Montreal.

January 15, 2013

writing links open in my browser

Time is running out for me to finish my 2012 update.  I’ve been strictly informed that January 15th is the cut-off date for wishing people Happy New Year or posting best-of lists or year-in-review lists.  So I guess that’s happening tonight.

In the meantime, here are some things I’ve been reading:

Lena Dunham interviewed by Miranda July for Interview Magazine.  Some of my favourite parts of this interview are where she talks about what it was like growing up with parents who were artists.

Cynthia Newberry Martin's inquiry into good sentences for Brevity i.e. the novelist’s perennial  question as she beats her head against the keyboard: does every sentence need to be great?  (The answer is that they at least need to be very good.) 

Related to the last:  Michael Cunningham’s New Yorker Letter From the Pulitzer Fiction Jury: What Really Happened This Year.  (In case you didn’t hear, in 2012, there was no Pulitzer Prize awarded for fiction.) 

Nova Ren Suma "On Chasing Ambition and Being a Girl and a Woman."    This post resonated with me so much, especially lines like the ones quoted below: 

I have and want one thing, and I’ve been single-minded about it since high school: I write. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, to the detriment of everything else.
I think more needs to be written about women and ambition.  Or maybe it’s already out there…perhaps I ought to say I’d like to read more about women and ambition.  If you know of any good books or articles, send them my way, please.

January 14, 2013

warm January weekend

The unseasonably warm weather is giving me an unreasonably joyous feeling of impending spring.  It’s eerie, but I’ll take it.  I finished my second-ever knitting project, this seafoam cowl in seed stich, just before New Year’s, and it’s too warm to wear it…but I’ve been wearing it anyway.

I finished something!

Another weekend came and went without any writing, but I was happy that I at least had a chance to finish (finally! after an unrelated reading distraction) the excellent Malarky by Anakana Schofield. 

Read it!

It’s really a stunning novel, and like many novels that end up wowing me, it gave me a few ohhh, you can DO that! moments.   Namely, the voice shifts between sections from first person to a close third and back.  But it’s not in the least confusing, and the novel benefits from having both at the disposal of the writer.  Highly recommended!

It felt like a quiet weekend, but it was really full of visits with friends and family.  On Friday night, we got to try la Salle a Manger, thanks to my brother-in-law and his wife who were visiting from Australia.  They took us out to celebrate our wedding, which they weren’t able to attend.  The food was yummy, the champagne was even better, and the company was warm and welcoming.  When D’s brother toasted us, I almost cried.  Maybe it was the champagne, but my heart was that full that night.

 Smokestacks on a Saturday night.

Saturday was brunch on the go and an intense afternoon nap, followed that evening by a friend’s lovely birthday dinner (I walked a different way and found myself disoriented along the overpass, pictured above, just a few blocks away from places I know well.) 

On Sunday, V got excited to make chocolate-chip pancakes, which she managed with minimal intervention (just D helping with the stove), and they were delicious.  More visiting with friends that afternoon (including a walk to Chinatown for steam buns) and in the evening, it was just cozying up on the couch and hanging out on Twitter while watching the Golden Globes and Girls

A beautiful light installation in Old Montreal. 

Wishing everyone a wonderful week ahead!  My goals this week are to catch up on email, spend time with friends, and maybe maybe get back to that story I started a few weeks ago.

January 13, 2013

2012 round-up, part one

So much happened this year that I wanted to write about it.  Looking through my photos, I was overwhelmed by just how MUCH happened.  In a way, I'm not surprised, looking back over these blog entries, to read me writing over and over again about how busy I felt.  I'm also not surprised by the long stretches of silence.  Blogging definitely fell by the wayside for part of the year. 

I remember the energy and enthusiasm I was feeling last January.   I was full of ideas and eager to get started, but I knew I still had to finally start editing my novel based on the notes I'd received on January 20th.  But I was postponing.  And the day I vowed to finally start (right here on the blog!) I ended up falling and breaking my wrist.  

It hurt a lot, and I wish it hadn't happened, but one of the upsides was the way I discovered (though, really, I already knew) how much I could rely on my boyfriend (now husband).  He took care of me when I needed it, and even when I resisted it, and when I was probably less than 100% delightful to be around. 

I spent most of my birthday at the orthopedic clinic, where I think I ended up crying because I really needed to get a form filled out to send to HR to accommodate my time off of work.  (Eventually, I did manage to get the form, in one of many subsequent visits.)   

Cast, cake, and candles.

January 11, 2013

this post is about shoes

What a busy week it has been, but a lovely sort of busy, what with seeing friends and making plans and singing and knitting and crossing so many things off of the to-do list (though it still seems to keep getting longer).  Writing acknowledgements (yes, I forgot at least one person’s name…eeep), proofing jacket copy, almost needing to send out a search party for the page proofs (the post office promised Monday, and they arrived Wednesday…not sure what I paid all that extra money for), making efforts to speed along payment for freelance work in 2012 (several thousand dollars worth…sigh), and moving through lots of beginning-of-term stuff at the day job. 

I had a little bit of time for fun, too.  My mother-in-law continued her wardrobe purging spree over the holidays, and I returned home with even more wonderful pairs of shoes to add to those I’d been given earlier.  As promised, I took pictures of this amazing vintage windfall.  (A few pairs not included…a comfy Italian pair of black loafers with criss-cross laces I’ve left at work, and a pair of brown, lace-up suede booties that were by the front door when I found the five minutes necesary to do this.)

I can tell the gold ones will be great for a night out, the cute pink ones with the bow are Kate Spade, the black patent ones have already been essential (I’m wearing them even as I write this).  The white peep-toe ones with the green accent are probably my favourites, but they will have to wait until spring as I doubt I own a pair of tights without holes in the toe!  The green ones I wasn’t excited about until I tried them on and they turned out to be fabulous. And the amazing black lace-ups in the middle are Yves St-Laurent!  I’m too lucky for words.   And I hope this will make it easier for me to let go of some of my existing pairs of shoes... 

Composedly gleeful about vintage shoes.

January 9, 2013

writing: "considerably less magic" (more work)

This is exactly, exactly how I feel about writing in the morning.  I almost never have the chance to do this anymore, and I certainly can't afford to get too precious about when or how I get my writing done, but whenever I have a day off, this is what I like to do.  No conversation, no jarring interaction with the world outside my head. There is definitely a spell that can be broken in travelling from that liminal dreaming space to the wide awake world of other people.

A conversation between George Saunders and his editor on Slate that seems to me to be a great illustration of how the best editor-writer relationships can work, as well as a pretty fascinating peek at how a Saunders story comes together (including showing his editor all the edited-down cut parts). 

An interview with Zadie Smith on the Rumpus, which is partially a follow-up to her amazing short piece on joy in the NYRB.  (In her interview with the Rumpus, she mentions she only writes short, memoir-like pieces like this about once every ten years, so it's worth checking out.)

Some remarks from the Rumpus interview that struck a chord:
"I think constant feedback is not a very healthy thing for a writer, one way or another." 
 "...reading is a magic thing. But writing, I actually feel, is considerably less magic. It’s a lot of work and a lot of daily grind, where reading is a true pleasure."
I guess that makes a novel a sleight-of-hand that only takes 5-7 years to master..?

January 7, 2013

on gratitude and anticipation

Today is my last day to finish up writing the acknowledgements for Bone and Bread, a task I've been postponing because how on earth can you thank everyone who helped you over a five-year period?!  

Short of listing the name of every single person I know, it's hard to think of how I'm going to avoid leaving somebody out.  There are the people who read pages. The people who listened.  The people who have been cheering me on all along.  The people who live far away but whose few emails a year I cherish dearly.  

....Okay, I've sent it.  And I hope that everyone in my life knows how much they have helped me, just through their friendship alone.

A couple of amazing things happened over the past week or so.  The Montreal Gazette featured me as one of the Stars to Watch in 2013 and also included Bone and Bread in a look ahead at anticipated books in 2013. Having my photo in the paper twice in the same day is pretty much guaranteed never to happen again, so I felt compelled to blurrily document it for posterity:

(I love these pictures of me...both taken at different times around my old apartment in Mile End.  Gazette photographers, in these cases John Kenney and Dave Sidaway, are really something.)

The Afterword (aka pretty much the best Canada national news outlet literary blog ever) also featured Bone and Bread as one of 13 most anticipated books of the first half of 2013.  Being listed alongside all of these amazing writers, including Andrew Pyper and especially Lisa Moore, was enough to make me almost, well, swoon. 

And Alexandra Yarrow, Ottawa librarian extraordinaire, mentioned it as an upcoming release she's looking forward to on her savvy blog Only Connect, too.  This international list has so many books I'm looking forward to, too, that it makes me blush (and, okay, grin) to see Bone and Bread there along with the new Kate Atkinson and Lionel Shriver novels.

AND...Bone and Bread was also included in illustrious company in this spring preview list of "the books we're waiting for" at the 49th Shelf (aka essential CanLit central).  This list in particular includes a number of new-to-me authors and titles I'll be adding to my to-read list.

I should say that I'm sure at least part of the reason it has made these online lists is because of the striking cover, so thank you to Alysia Shewchuk for her design (I found out who it was!) and because of Anansi's stellar reputation in publishing really excellent books.  I'm so lucky my novel found a home there.

One of the nicest things about all this is that it lets me share what is so often a hidden or invisible process.  I'm finally finishing this big, exciting project (which is thrilling for me simply for being done, even if nobody buys it or reads it or likes it), and it's so lovely to have these little signposts out in the world that say, I'm a writer!  Really, I am!  And this is what I've been doing!  A number of people who know me only through my day job have been sending kind notes or coming up to me to say they heard about my book in the newspaper and asking when they can buy a copy.  
And besides all of that wonderful advance notice of the book last week, as if it wasn't enough to put me over the moon, I also received a wonderful email from a writer whose opinion I value very much, who had some very kind things to say about the novel, including the sort of things that made me feel as though she understood exactly what I was trying to do.  It's the kind of email that makes me feel like even if nobody else likes it, I won't mind all that much.  This is the second such email I've received (almost nobody I know has read it!), and it means more to me that I can properly express here.

So it was a wonderful week for writing excitement, and I'm glad that it coincided with the finish line (I think!) of the process.   Now back to regularly scheduled programming.  (That is...more writing?) 

January 3, 2013

the art of the elegant review

For all that we ("we") decry the lack of quality criticism in Canada, there have been and continue to be people who have written some really stunning reviews.  

In a Facebook exchange with an old friend, I mentioned that an old acquaintance of ours had always reminded me of Zenia in The Robber Bride, or rather, that when I read the novel, Zenia reminded me of her.  Something about chaos, I wrote, or falseness.  

But then I wondered how accurately I was remembering the book (the acquaintance, well, I'm not sure it matters how well I remember her), so I looked it up and found a review by Joan Thomas, who is a lovely person as well as an amazing writer.  She was a books reviewer and columnist for the Globe and Mail and the Winnipeg Free Press for many years, so the quality of the review was no surprise --- and yet it was.  It's so good.

Her piece in Books in Canada is not some kind of boldly negative exposé (that's at least what some people (not me) mean when they wish we had more "real" reviewing), but an insightful and elegant take on the novel in light of Atwood's oeuvre.   Plus it has lines like this: 
Every sober-sided history is at least half sleight-of-hand: the right hand waving its poor snippets of fact, out in the open for all to verify, while the left hand busies itself with its own devious agendas, deep in its hidden pockets.
And this is just slipped in there...mere throwaway lines in the middle! 

Granted, most newspapers can't spare the column inches for lines like these if they want to cover even a fraction of the worthy books to write about, and Books in Canada no longer exists.  There are not many forums remaining for mid-length and long reviews in Canada.  (Though I happily await correction or elaboration on this point.)  I suppose it could be what the internet is for now, though as a forum I think it lends itself a little better (for the most part) to brief reviews, star ratings, Likes and +1s.  (My love of the internet in helping to point the way to wonderful new books probably requires its own post.)

I'm happy that Joan is busy writing novels instead of reviews, but I know that books sections everywhere are poorer for it.  For that matter, I'm happy and grateful for all writers and readers who take reviewing seriously.  

It's time-consuming, it's almost thankless, it's difficult, and there are always going to be people who disagree.   We're so lucky that fearless books columnists are doing this day after day, week after week!   

Hug a critic, if you see one.