Sunday, 15 November 2015

Binge-reading into winter: a mammoth Quicklit update

Another month has Two more months have gone by, full of good intentions for blog posts gone fallow but books devoured by the stack-load. School's start-up must have taken more out of me than I give it credit; either that or the early mornings are leaving far too much time for reading before errands are even an option. I may have to take part of Emily's advice on reading rhythms and stop reading fiction before noon. It's all too easy to take my morning coffee and breakfast novel from table to easy chair and read the early hours away. Both my blog and my housework are feeling my absence. In the meantime, here's a recap of all the input my brain has been receiving, the binges, the rereads, the new finds and all:

The Nesting Dolls12 Rose Street, The Last Good Day, The Gifted, Verdict in BloodThe Glass Coffin, & A Killing Springby Gail Bowen
In late September, I went away for a weekend retreat for the first time in years, leaving house and children in my husband's capable hands. I picked up a hoard of Gail Bowen mysteries to keep him company in my absence, only to read them all myself on my return, even the ones I'd read before. I've listed the thrillers in the order I read them, and it differs widely from the order in which they were written. I'm evermore impressed with Bowen's ability to allow her highly chronological series to be read in almost any order at all. She fills a reader in on enough of Joanne Killborn's past to give proper context for her current adventure, but she leaves out the pertinent details that would give the earlier games away, in case you'd like to get to them later. Joanne speaks and thinks of friends and acquaintances who met their ends in previous novels, but doesn't mention who their killers were or even that their deaths involved any foul play. So if you'd like to give Bowen a try, don't worry about finding the first book. As long as you read Murder at the Mendel before The Gifted, none of the plots will be spoiled.

The Other Boleyn Girl, by Philippa Gregory
Much like the Antoinette tale I read in August, I made the delightful discovery that a famous figure I knew very little about was an absolutely fascinating person. Gregory tells the story of Anne Boleyn's pursuit of queendom through the eyes of her younger sister, a person almost lost to the historical record but for the fact that she was Henry VIII's mistress in the years before he set his eyes on Anne. Gregory takes meticulous research and a rich imagination to create an engrossing tale, rift with dangerous games, complex characters, and detailed machiavellian intrigue. It's a little on the racy side at times, but not nearly the bodice-ripper I was afraid it would be. I'm looking forward to reading more about the Tudors.

Jane of Lantern Hill, by L. M. Montgomery
This out-of-print lovely spent a long time coming to me, and then was gobbled up in a day. It was typical Montgomery: a stifled child blossoming in a new environment, a thwarted romance with potential for mending, and the joys of country living in good old P.E.I. I'm so glad the Book Man found it. NB: I linked to that video on purpose. You're welcome ;)

The Blue Castle, by L. M. Montgomery
Jane's transformation from a frightened hopeless clutz to intelligent and confident home manager reminded me so strongly of Valancy's that I picked up her adventure next. The Blue Castle has been my favourite Montgomery book for years, and I don't see that changing (though Jane of Lantern Hill is vying for close second).  It's amazing the turn that life can take when one lets go of one's fears. I never tire of reading on the subject.

Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
Remember last spring when I skipped QuickLit to keep reading The Brothers K? It happened again in October, but this time the culprit was Gone with the Wind. I couldn't believe how engrossing it was; every one of those thousand-plus pages was rift with action, drama, and vivid imagery. Scarlett O'Hara makes for an almost omnipotent narrator; she witnesses so much that she fails to take in. A reader is more than free to disagree with the heroine's point of view, which - given Scarlett's perfect storm of prejudices, snap judgements, and faulty conclusions - is often a very good thing. You remember all that she's dismissed or forgotten, and those details bring her main supporting actors a depth of character far beyond what Scarlett herself would ever grant them. On the other hand, Mitchell's black characters are only seen as Scarlett sees them, but that strange mix of loyalty and suspicion, dependency and paternalism explains a lot about the master-to-servant attitudes portrayed in Stokett's The Help and Monk Kids' The Invention of Wings. I can see why it's such a controversial classic.

My Secret Sister, by Helen Edwards & Jenny Lee Smith
I picked this fascinating story of twins separated at birth off my parents' shelf over Thankgiving. I'd meant to leave it for later, but when my eight-year-old starting eying it, I thought I'd better give it a thorough read before handing it on to her. It was a good call. Edwards and Lee Smith take turns telling of their separate lives as far back as they remember right up to the point, nearly sixty years later, when they finally discover each other's existence. It's a fascinating memoir of two very different growing ups through the 1950s and 60s, but the abuse and neglect on Helen's side would be a bit too much for such a young reader. In a couple years, it will be a different story. I only wish the sisters had been able to find out why their mother made the choices she did; but that's the difference between truth and fiction I suppose. You don't always get to pick your own ending.

The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith
I enjoyed Rowling's second private eye novel even more than the first, and that's saying a lot. The Silkworm digs into the fragility and self-importance of the post-modern publishing world, where every writer believes they deserve to be famous and that no relationship is worth more than a story that sells. Smart, fast, and - despite centering on a novel too disgusting for publication - not nearly as explicit as A Casual Vacancy.

And that's all she read. Really. If your appetite's larger than mine (or your tastes differ), do head over to Modern Mrs. Darcy for many other great reviews.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Suburban wonderland

For the last two years, I've spent my Monday evenings chauffering my daughter to and from ballet. The class is a twenty-minute drive away, taking us from the city's century-old core into a neighbourhood who's oldest homes were built in the 1970s. Rather than spend the forty-minute lesson in the cramped foyer outside her classroom, I've used the time for grocery shopping or taking a book to one of the few chain restaurants in the nearest big-box strip. Such weekly indulgences get pricey, however, so I  swallowed my preferences for prewar homes and stately elms and tried taking a walk.

I first discovered this path in early October. Instead of an alley, there's a bike path between back fences, over-hung with branches from back yard trees. I still missed the elms, but the willows swayed invitingly and the mountain ashes flamed bright. It's a big step up from the garbage-can-strewn alleys that string between the lots of yesteryear, and so well lit I kept up my jaunts even once sunset had crept up before ballet time.

This autumn, I followed my feet in the opposite direction and found an even greater treat: Lake Beaumaris, Edmonton's first man-made lake. It has aged so gracefully since it was first dug in 1979, and is surrounded on all sides by a well-used public path. If I hadn't seen its convenient moat-like shape on the map, I would have assumed it was a relic of pre-city landscape and that the park was built around it.

I'm sometime loath to change my own narrative. Decades of turning my nose at cookie cutter homes and traffic calmed streets may have saved me from getting lost in pre-planned neighbourhoods, but I now have reason to believe I've missed out on a few gems. Urban planning can be done right. Who would have thought?

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Reading into fall

It seems only yesterday I was gearing up for September, and here we are at the halfway mark already. Quick Lit day has snuck up on me yet again. Rather than leaving my reading list fallow for another month, I'm slapping together a shorter post than usual. That's the idea anyways. Wish me luck.

Here's what I've been reading since mid-July:

I can't believe it's not better, by Monica Heisey
A short collection of humourous articles, poems, and pictures. Heisey's zany style grew on me the more I read. It was like sitting down with a collection of the Far Side Comics; each piece was funnier than the last, even if some of the racier content had me wincing. On that note, I'd think twice before following the back cover's suggestion on giving it to a niece you don't know well but want to impress. My nieces are both minors; I doubt my sister-in-law would appreciate them receiving a gift with that much adult content from anybody.

She's come undone, by Wally Lamb
This seminal novel of hurt and slow healing made it's way on to my to-read list for reasons since forgotten. Much like The Color Purple, it was definitely worth the time and emotional energy, but it was one hard read. HSPs beware.

Ellen Tebbits, by Beverly Cleary
After my last two literary choices, a kids' book was just the ticket. I'd never read any Beverly Cleary books, but my daughter got a gift set for Christmas and has a habit of leaving them around the house. Ellen Tebbits was a short and sweet ride down memory lane to the ups and downs of child friendships. It wasn't until Ellen expressed surprise that not all mothers know how to sew that I realized how old it was. Turns out Cleary started writing back in 1950, and she kept at it straight until 1999. I've now read her second oldest novel, published in 1951. I'll have to see how the others compare.

Kilmeny of the Orchard, by L. M. Montgomery
Speaking of early novels, this one hails from 1910, right in the midst of those first Anne books. I can't help but wonder if Kilmeny's neglected orchard was inspired by Hester Grey's abandoned garden from Anne of Avonlea, or vice versa. Much like Anne's House of Dreams, I had to set aside my knowledge of modern medicine and believable rates of rehabilitation, but the high romance is worth the suspension of disbelief. A lovely escapist read. I'm so glad I found a copy.

Anne of Ingleside, by L. M. Montgomery
The latest Anne instalment has never been my favourite - it spans a few too many years and the children seem almost type-cast - but this time around I found Anne's endless patience and understanding downright irksome. There's nothing like reading of a fictional mother's first and only recorded bad day to your own child when both of you are well aware that bad mother moments happen a lot more frequently in your own home than at Ingleside. I wish Montgomery had written in a scene where one of Anne's children complains to Miss Cornelia about Mother getting cranky and she tells them bluntly "that's because your mother is people, dearie." Thankfully, my own girlie didn't feel the need to ask why I'm not like Anne, though she kept waiting in vain for stories about Shirley. Poor little boy didn't get a single tale. I suppose being Susan's favourite isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Sister Pelagia and the Red Cockerel, by Boris Akunin
The end of the Sister Pelagia trilogy went in curious places among curious people: one character travels from city to city in Russia, stumbling upon government conspiracy and secret horrors while Pelagia is in Palestine, weaving through rebels and conmen in search for a heretical prophet straight out of Bulgakov's The Master and Margerita. There's still a mystery of sorts, and a brush with the paranormal that cannot be explained, but the odyssey's the thing.  Not nearly as fun as the first two, but thought provoking and very well written all the same.

Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow, by Juliet Grey
It's been a long time since I read any historical fiction. Last library visit, I picked two off the shelf. This was the first. It's actually the second novel in a trilogy covering the life of the infamous Marie Antoinette. This instalment followed the doomed queen from her husband's rise to the throne to the storming of the Bastilles. The French Revolution is one of those famous European epochs of which I hold only a cursory knowledge; thanks to Juliet Grey, I'm now entirely hooked, and totally sympathetic to her heroine's plight. Sarah Crew's obsession makes sense to me now.

Keeping it short clearly isn't happening, but my morning's getting shorter by the minute. My last couple books will have to wait until next time. Do pop over to Modern Mrs. Darcy for more promptly submitted reviews.

Happy September.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Summer lessons

I had to clean my desk before I attempted to write. I've been trying to curate a nook of sanity for myself - an oasis of tidy with little vignettes of lovely in the sea of kid mess and home decor projects pushed ever further down the to-do list. But the toddler is standing tall and reaching further, and sorting school supplies on the dining room table doesn't mix with serving supper. The pencils and duotangs are still squatting next to my knitting bag, but they're neatly stacked at last. And the dust, the dust is gone. As are the crumbs from my English-biscuit-dunking experiment inspired by "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel;" they were Russian biscuits, not true British ones, but the union was blissful all the same, if one ignored the mess.

School starts next Tuesday for my third (!) grader. Kindergarten hits full swing the Monday after, and it will be just me and the babe five mornings a week. And today, I'm taking a break from pressing forward to look back on what I've learned from this summer of mothering three.

I'm linking up with Emily, along with many other life-long learners. For more lists of lessons, be they deep or mundane, pop over to Chatting at the Sky. Here's mine:

Summer vacation is a really great time to introduce the concept of chores. For the last few years, I've been trying to instil some sense in my children that running this household is a team effort. While they're often game to help out with exciting big projects (like making French toast, or packing for a trip), and we've occasionally exchanged housework for goodies beyond allowances, we've never managed to establish any daily responsibilities. Learning a new task takes time; between my daughter's long bus rides, homework, and early bedtimes, there never seemed to be enough of it. When summer hit, however, I no longer had to choose between giving my children time to play together or teaching them some self-sufficiency. Once a day, my eight-year-old now folds and puts away whatever kid laundry is dry and waiting. My five-year-old empties the dishwasher and puts away as he can manage. There isn't a set time of day to do these tasks, but they must be done before television.

I felt strange making my kids work harder during the season of relaxation, but they didn't actually make that particular objection. They made plenty of others, of course, but by the end of the first week or so they'd found a way to make it fun. My eldest enjoys announcing which coveted items are clean again, and cooing over the baby's cutest outfits. She often complains about the size the job before she begins but glows with accomplishment once it's completed. My son is getting better at squirrelling away the dishes whose homes are in his reach. Those that live too high are prime building material for "big bubble buildings." He usually asks to keep them standing to show off later. We settle for taking a picture before I dismantle them.

A big kid can make a big difference on a solo-parent road trip. As I mentioned last month last post, we embarked on our longest family adventure near the end of July. While we were gone, our yard was to undergo metamorphisis, from the land of concrete and rotting fence posts to a haven of good drainage: fenced, landscaped, and ready to sod. Unfortunately, a permit got missed and the job stalled until we returned to request it, and then paused while our contractor went on his own family vacation. My husband's holidays were up, but the yard was still a mess, and I hadn't seen my hometown since Christmas. So we packed up the van again, hugged my man goodbye and headed six hours east without him, forgetting that it had been nearly four years since we'd last tried it.

Unlike those trips of yesteryear, there were no hour-long cries or parking lot tantrums, just the odd call for snacks and a whole lot of Coldplay. Filling the van's six-CD-changer before we left helped a lot, as did the promise of DVD time after lunch, but the biggest boon was a child with a good head and long arms to hand snacks and books and toys to her car-seated siblings in the row ahead. My first baby is growing up. It's bittersweet, but also kind of wonderful.

Our crabapples usually ripen in mid-August - not September. It's been two years since I posted my recipe for crabapple butter, complete with complaints about my backyard harvest coming unseasonably early. Two years where the apples turned rosy just as early, even when the preceding summer weather wasn't nearly as strange. That leaves only one year with September apples, and that was our first autumn after moving in. The three years before that, we had a different house with a different species of apple tree; I'm wondering if that first year was the anomaly or if my memory's confused one fruit's time of ripeness with the other. Next August, I'll be ready.

That'd better be it, or I'll miss the link-up deadline. Sorry for the long and rambly post. It's been a dry summer for writing, and I'm a little rusty.

Happy September, friends. Enjoy the New Year!

Sunday, 2 August 2015

What I learned on vacation

We left on a family vacation on July 22nd - our longest yet. My brain believes the calendar stopped then and there. But the clock kept ticking despite me, through the mountains to the sea, in homes of friends old and new, through day trips and lazy-ish mornings and late night conversation. It's really August 2nd, we're back home again, and I've learned so much while we were away. Here's a smattering to share while I link up with Emily at Chatting at the Sky

Photographing mountains through car windows is hard to do. I have a phone-full of blurry trees, passing semis, and random road signs. If the light was poor, the mountains looked like black lumps off in the distance; if it was bright, I caught reflexions of my lap instead of the pure outdoors beyond the glass. I already knew from prairie trips that the angle of the windshield made the scenery dead-ahead seem impossibly far away, but I'd forgotten how often the van tends to find a bump in the road at just the wrong moment. Thankfully, there was beauty in abundance; I learned to put the phone down at reasonable intervals and trust there'd be more to capture down the road. And every once in a while, a shot turned out just right.

The B.C. drought is no joke. It took me from Canmore, Alberta to Hope, B.C. to realize what I wasn't seeing: the snowy peaks and run-off waterfalls stuck so firmly in my memory from previous mountain trips simply weren't there. And while the slopes themselves were still green, creeks lined with sun-baked rocks and brown-grassed boulevards were a common sight once we reached the Fraser Valley. It made it hard to begrudge the rainy days that rolled in with us; it wreaked havoc on our outdoor plans, but the moisture was so greatly needed. Hopefully the area gets some more rain soon.

Blackberries are best straight off the bush. The timing of our vacation had more to do with matching schedules and work commitments than hitting berry season, but we managed to roll into the lower mainland just at the right time for blackberries. The brambles were everywhere: along train tracks, in the ditches, sprawling through creek banks, even invading front-yard hedges. They grew like weeds despite the dry weather, and, on public land, were free for the picking. I've always been fairly underwhelmed by store-bought blackberries; I find them tart and firm and more than a little bland. These little numbers were in a different class altogether: smaller, sweeter, incredibly juicy, and ready to fall apart at the slightest pressure. No wonder we spotted cars pulled off to the shoulder while their owners gleaned berries by the bucket-full. I wished we'd brought some empty pails ourselves. Delicious!

Extended stays with old friends are pretty spectacular, especially when you both have kids. The main reason for our transmountain trek was to visit some of our dearest friends. They just moved out west last winter, and we've been planning this trip ever since. Keeping in touch has been tricky, between time changes and shift changes and kids using family skype-dates to show off their face-making skills (they get over that, right?). And great as it was to watch said kidlets actually talk and play together again, it was even better to settle them into bed and talk as adults, long into the night. It made me wish we'd organized some family sleepovers when we still lived in the same city; evening visits in town were always cut short when the first bedtime called. It was a treat to say extended "goodnights" that weren't interrupted by "where is your coat?" and "put on your shoes," even if the mornings came all too early.

It's so easy to over-schedule your vacation, even when you deliberately set out to keep it simple. On our way to the Greater Vancouver area, we passed through many cities, several national parks, hiking trails, hot springs, museums, and tourist traps galore. Any mention of our destination was met with recommends for favourite parks, shops, and various attractions. It took some doing to remind myself that while this was our first visit to the West Coast, it was hardly going to be the last, and there was no way we could possibly do it all. Almost all the places to see got firmly put off 'til another time. When it came to visiting people, however, it was harder to choose practicality over connection. I didn't really put together that I'd planned meet friends and family in four different cities, and that driving there and back would eat up a lot of our days. I also didn't connect how many of our plans were dependent on the weather, nor how little my over-excited offspring would sleep. By the time Sunday afternoon rolled around, the kids were spent, and it seemed kind of silly to drive them another two hours through Vancouver when the weather was iffy. The friends I was to meet were dear to me, but just names to them, so we moms went to the beach on our own, promising to collect seashells and take lots of pictures. We had a wonderful girly afternoon, and our husbands' tell us the kids had a great day too. The ocean isn't going anywhere. It'll wait for the next trip. Or even the one after.

That's all for this round. There's plenty more in the ol' memory bank, but this is enough to share.

'Til next time, my friends. It was a wondrous adventure.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

June Quicklit

Somewhere between the bright sunshine and hazy forest fires, the pool mornings and afternoon sunteas, I lost the first half of July. It's Quicklit time already and I'm linking up with Anne of Modern Mrs. Darcy to share what I've been reading. Here's my not-so-summery list:

Eleanor Rigby, by Douglas Coupland
Inspired by the Beatles' song, "All the Lonely People," Eleanor Rigby showcases a middle-aged woman's solitary life just at the moment someone finally breaks through her prickly exterior to the weird but loveable person she is inside. It's classic Coupland: achingly real, quirky and caustic, poignant, hilarious, tragic and hopeful - all at the same time.

The no-cry sleep solution for toddlers and preschoolers, by Elizabeth Pantley
I didn't read the whole book, but between the introduction and the chapter on "the night nursling," I got the encouragement I needed to stick to the sleep plan we'd already started with my toddler along with plenty of ideas of what to try next if it didn't work out. I appreciated Pantley's perspectives as well as her information about how much sleep the average child needs at any particular age, how long it usually takes to establish a new routine, and what is reasonable to expect from your little one. Bonus: it's a really easy read, which is great for the already sleep-deprived parent (i.e. the target audience).

Homeward Bound, by Emily Matchar
I'm rather conflicted on how to review this book. There were a lot of things I really liked: the history and sociology of homemaking were clear and enlightening, and I really appreciated the author's perspectives on the interplay of feminism, self-sufficiency, finances, environmental concerns, and job satisfaction in the do-it-yourself movement. I didn't agree with all her conclusions, but her viewpoint was fairly balanced and left me with plenty to think about.

As much as I liked the content, however, the presentation lacked polish. While her prose was easy on the brain, I kept getting the sense that it was written on the assumption that it would be skimmed. The exact same examples and turns of phrases showed up time and time again. The writing style would change jarringly from one chapter to the next, or even between paragraphs. It was like switching between articles from Huff Post to the Atlantic and back again, which felt like a bit of slight to the millennial reader. We embrace slow food and attachment parenting - why not close reading?

And, to air a small pet-peeve, calling all baby carriers "slings" is akin to referring to all sandwiches as "cheeseburgers." It's a pity the author didn't take a look at the wild and varied world of woven wrap baby carriers; it would have fit quite nicely into her thoughts on the preference for skilled work over convenience in modern homemaking. Maybe next book.

Love Anthony, by Lisa Genova
Genova's third novel focusses on autism, healing, and loss. Unlike her first two novels, Love Anthony is written from multiple perspectives. I appreciated getting see what it could be like to be a non-verbal autistic child as well as the challenge of learning to mother one. Beautifully written and very sad.

The Cuckoo's Calling, by Robert Galbraith
I wasn't sure what to expect from J.K. Rowling's foray into crime novels, but I wouldn't have guessed a modern Dick Tracy. The down-on-his-luck private eye and his sexy secretary might be archetypal, but their details are anything but, and the mystery itself is fresh, fun, and glamorously gritty. I've heard Galbraith's next instalment isn't HSP-friendly, but I think I'll risk it anyways.

That's all for this month. Here's hoping the summer is treating you well. If it needs more books, do pop over to Modern Mrs. Darcy for many more reviews.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

What I learned in June: dark, light, blue, and sleep

Another month has slipped on by, and we're officially well into summer. It's been a time of new knowledge and well-needed reminders. I revel in dry heat, as long as there's a breeze. Humidity is much more tolerable if I dress as if it were a full ten degrees warmer - I'm leaning towards wearing my tan linen skirt every single day. I should really acquire a second one. 

I made my first batch of cold brew coffee and discovered I like it much stronger than the 1:1 water to concentrate ratio the recipes recommend. I drank 3/4 of my theoretical two-day supply over the course of one morning, and then spent the next half hour googling whether the caffeine content was any lower than hot brew. My results were inconclusive, but I did discover that plenty of other cold-brew beginners had made the same mistake. It'll be a great help for mornings when need to be up and quickly out the door, and afternoons when anything but iced seems excruciating, but otherwise I may stick to fresh hot-brew. Much as I liked the look of a vintage mason of mysterious dark brew (a token hipster in my otherwise suburban fridge), I missed the ritual of refilling my small mug - which is probably why I overindulged. Consuming my caffeine faster wasn't really my plan. I just wanted a short cut for making it.  

I've been relearning how ethereal an evening walk can be over the solstice. I took a stroll out to the library on June 18th at eight o'clock at "night". My neighbourhood was a glory of backlit trees, brilliantly illumined greens against a fantasy of sky. I took the photo above around 8:30pm, a full two hours before the sun set: my high evening to November's low noon. It's a yearly wonder that reminds me why I live here. I could say the same of flax:

I love those little blue pixies almost as much as sunflowers. Micro to macro in flora.

My main learning of the month, however, was all about sleep. Somewhere along the line, my youngest turned into an all-night nursling. At eighteen months, she's not much of a baby anymore, but it's taken time for me to realize that she still eats like one, and this momma's sleep schedule resembles that of a newborn, without the benefit of multiple daytime naps. I stumbled upon enough other Moms of nurse-happy toddlers over Facebook to convince me that this was a problem - and a solvable one at that. So we've been learning together that every midnight squirm does not constitute a need for snack and that, given a few minutes, she can and will settle back to sleep on her own. She now goes for several hours without dragging mommy out of her much-needed slumber - sometimes as many as eight at a time. Not last night, naturally, seeing as I was planning to write about how great it feels to sleep for six hours at a time again. But still so so much better than before.

It's been a good reminder that having three kids doesn't make me an expert in baby-minding. My eldest was weaned at 15 months, and I don't remember sleep battles as norm so much as the odd awful night. At this age, my boy would go strong until something tripped him up, and then he'd be begging for bed. We'd just pop in his soother and carrying him up to his crib. Until that point, we just let him do his own thing while we focused on my eldest's more structured routine - after all, she was the one who had to get up and onto the bus in the morning. This little girlie, however, loves having a multi-step bed-time routine and is thrilled to use her ever-growing bed-time vocabulary. Jammies! Brush teeth! Stories! Hugs! So exciting. So tricky to weave into her siblings' already established bedtime habits, but I suspect that's part of what makes it all so great for her. Next up is learning how to nap. It's coming, slowly. We'll see what the next stint of teething brings.

Speaking of nap time, it sounds like today's might be officially a fail. At least I got a little writing in. Linking up with the lovely Emily at Chatting at the Sky along with many other monthly learners.

Happy Summer, all.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Reading into spring - a catch-up Quick Lit

As I mentioned in my last post, I've been playing Quick Lit truant. But as the flowers have been blooming, the bookworm has been going strong. Perhaps a little too strong - the number of books I "couldn't put down" over April, May, and June resulted in a whole lot of neglected laundry. Maybe I should pick up something daunting yet edifying for July and refuse to read anything fun until I finish it. In the meantime, I'm linking up with Anne of Modern Mrs. Darcy to report on my literary progress.

Here's what I've been reading:

The Lost Husband, by Katherine Center
I picked up this little novel expecting literary fiction; if I'd known it was chick-lit, I don't think I would have found it so disappointing. The themes of broken relationships and learning to live again after loss were fairly well explored, yet resolved too quickly to be believable, and many of the supporting characters lacked depth. I would have been interested to see what Center could have done in another hundred pages.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman
Another work of non-fiction that I simply could not put down. Fadiman's case study of culture clash and polarized medical paradigms reads like an extended article in National Geographic: informative yet lyrical, broad and deep in background, insightful without telling you what to think. An excellent introduction into the history and culture of the Hmong people, the U.S.'s secret war in Laos, what the North American reverence for Western medicine looks like from the outside, and the great humility it takes to communicate beyond your own cultural norms. Just brilliant.

Anne's House of Dreams, by L. M. Montgomery
I haven't read of Anne's bridal epoch since I was a newlywed myself, so this re-read pulled out some interesting perspectives for me. The stillbirth had me teary, and Miss Cornelia had me in stitches. I had already mused about the about the high romance of Anne & Gilbert's first fight (they disagree on a complex question of medical ethics; Little Women's Meg, by comparison, first quarrels with her husband over a small point of household finances), but I hadn't noticed Gilbert's medical miracle included trephination(!). I also hadn't realized how completely Montgomery abandons any description of Anne's body around her pregnancies. I've grown so used to reading about expanding bust-lines and blooming bellies that the subtle hints of "no longer leaving home" and "a special hope for spring" were almost lost on me, even when I knew what was coming. It appears even euphemisms like "confinement" and "expecting a baby" are too indelicate for Anne. I remembered being surprised by the sudden appearance of a newborn, but never felt so justified in not catching on. My daughter and I are now well into Anne of Ingleside, so I can assure you that Montgomery's discomfort with her pregnant protagonist didn't lessen over the decades between the two publications. I'll have to pick up more of her other works with this in mind and see if it's just a thing with Anne.

The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling
I've put off reading Rowling's foray into adult fiction for years - small town British politics and middle-aged characters just didn't sound like they could stand up to Hogwarts. Was I ever wrong! One untimely death pulls a veritable web of tensions into full-out conflict, unearthing desperately held secrets and toppling unsteady relationships in its wake. Unlike her famous fantasy, The Casual Vacancy is an exploration of vivid realism: from the uncomfortable details of middle-age spread and teenage experimentation in sex, drugs, and cruelty to the complicated realities of domestic abuse, heroin addiction, and foster care, nothing is simple or boring in the picturesque village of Pagford. My one complaint was how ofter the vivid detail leaned over to explicit. HSPs beware.

The Brothers K, by David James Duncan
I must confess that my predominant reason for not writing a Quick Lit post last month was that it would have meant putting down The Brothers K. The pages turned oh so slowly, yet Duncan had completely hooked, cackling at quips and clutching my heart as each of the Chance family members painfully weave their way through their own chosen shade of fanaticism towards some semblance of understanding and compassion for each other. An equal nod to Dostoevsky's Karamazovs and Forrest Gump (the movie, not the book), The Brothers K follows the family of a washed-up baseball player through the social upheavals of mid-twentieth-century America. It wasn't anything like I expected, but worth every page.

The Distant Hours, by Kate Morton
I'm starting to suspect my favourite Kate Morton novel will always be the one I just finished. Another gripping tale with a fascinating setting and a gloriously gothic feel. The only problem is that I've got to wait 'til October for the next one. If anyone has a lead on how to get it ahead of time, do let me know ;)

The Rosie Effect, by Graeme Simsion
Simsion's sequel lacked the surprise-humour factor that sparkled through The Rosie Project, but was still worth reading. I appreciated the exploration of opposites attract beyond the initial romance, and the conundrum of preparing for parenthood when you're somewhat left of normal.

1-2-3 peas, by Keith Baker
I know it seems silly to add a board book to my already burgeoning reading log, but this little number just might be the best counting book ever. This chunky primer covers digits from one to ten, and then decades from twenty to one hundred, with the appropriate amount of anthropomorphized green peas on every page engaged in various sorts of Where's Waldo quirkiness. So much fun.

Sister Pelagia and the Black Monk, by Boris Akunin
I finally got around to reading the next instalment of my favourite sleuthing Russian nun. This novel was much darker than Sister Pelagia's debut, mixing madness with mysticism and crime with cutting-edge nineteenth-century science. Very well done.

And now I'm all caught up - again. Do pop over to Modern Mrs. Darcy for more short and sweet reviews. Happy Monday :)

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Spring is for wool-gathering, and other new knowledge from May

It's been another quiet month on the bloggity blog. I haven't been sick, or even overly busy, just stuck in receptor mode. Reading was always more attractive than writing; gazing out the window so much better than staring at a screen. And with glories such as these to see, can you blame me?

There's so much life to absorb here the spring. After months of bare branch monotony, buds burst and leaves unfurl faster than I can reflect upon them. I didn't want to look back at that first hint of green if it means missing the last of the lilacs. So I've kept the laptop closed and my eyes wide open, tucking away a lifetime of seasonal scene-setting in the process. No time for developing plots to follow them - that would pull me too far from the present.

It was hardly a guilt-free decision. I missed May's Quicklit and April's round of learning. My brain knows that joining a link-up is entirely voluntary, but in my heart of hearts, I felt like a truant. The highschool keener is strong in this one. And here I thought I'd left her behind. 

There were other pleasures besides the foliage. My eldest had her first dance recital, and this nervous performer learned how to sit back and enjoy without playing auditorium-seat adjudicator. My daughter's dance studio is community based and non-competitive, but I didn't know until the recital that the teachers volunteered their time, that modern dance could be something I'd love to watch, that pop songs could still stir my soul. I knew the students were grouped by age, not experience, but hadn't realized they'd thrown out the nonsense about the ballerina body type as well. It was wonderful to see girls who normally would have been told they'd grown too tall, or too heavy, or too busty to continue up on stage in their pointe shoes, dancing along with confidence and grace. 

I also learned that my favourite bakery has become everyone's favourite bakery, thanks to a certain article hailing it #4 in the world's best back in April. I took my family there when they visited us over May long, and we arrived to empty cases and an apologetic staff. Apparently the line out front of the Duchess has stretched down the street before they open every morning for weeks and doesn't disappear until they've sold out of basically everything (usually 3pm). The remaining five business hours seem to be reserved for making drinks, repeating explanations, and waiting for more prudent customers to pick up their orders. Moral of the story: call the night before and take your pick off the website. Fortunately, the walk there was still lovely and the sole baked item left for sale was scrumptious. We'll see if the hype extends to the next visit.

And, lastly, it appears I've learned how to hack a "what I've learned" post that isn't a listicle. Go me.

May beauty continue to greet us as the seasons unfold, even if it takes away our words.

Linking up with the lovely Emily at Chatting at the Sky.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

American fact and Australian fiction, or, what I've been reading lately

Christ is Risen! Le Christ est ressucité! Kristos voskrese! 

It's the Pascha season, where we go around greeting each other in as many languages as we can muster. My reading, as usual, has all been in English, but with authors in two countries half a world apart. My reading list is often at the mercy of my library's hold system, combined with whatever caught my eye from the staff picks shelf, so my monthly reading list rarely has much of a theme. This time around, however, it turned out that every novel I read was written by an Aussie, and my two non-fiction picks were authored by Yanks. I'm a day late, and my sense of a nice day in January is all a-fluster, but I'm linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy's Quick-Lit to report all the same.

Here's what I've been reading:

The House at Riverton, by Kate Morton
Somewhere along the line, Downton Abbey changed from a show I watched sometimes with my husband to my chosen method to while away an evening without him - something that blessedly only happens once in a blue moon. As daytime television simply does not happen, however, I have been going through Roaring Twenties withdrawal; which is why I was thrilled to discover that Morton's debut was set in precisely the same time period as my favourite British drama. The House at Riverton is a stunning tale of thwarted love, divided loyalties, and tragic misunderstandings. It takes the aristocratic family and staff of an aging English country manor through the social upheavals of the early twentieth century, as seen through the eyes of a lady's maid. A historical treat for any Downton fan.

The Hypnotist's Love Story, by Liane Moriarty
This complex and poignant novel does for stalkers what The Lovely Bones did for serial murderers: it reveals the criminal as an addict who knows she's doing wrong but can't seem to stop, and does so without diminishing the effects of her crimes on the victim and his family. The Hypnotist's Love Story also explores the different expectations placed on the survivors at the end of a relationship; be they male or female, jilted or widowed, none of Moriarty's characters are making a clean break or thinking of their exes' the way they think they should. The stalker is only the most extreme example. A love story full of quirk and compassion, self-revelation and messy endings.

Brain on Fire, by Suzanne Cahalan
A young journalist turns her skills upon herself to investigate her own rare case of a newly discovered auto-immune encephalitis, including the month in an epilepsy ward where she remembers little beyond her vivid hallucinations. Cahalan supplements what her family, friends, and doctors remember of her illness with fascinating detail on both the elasticity and vulnerability of the brain, the fine line between neurology and psychiatry, and how close she came to falling through the cracks of the american medical system.

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott
Finally picking up something by Anne Lamott was a lot like my first taste of Terry Pratchett: what on earth possessed me to assume I wouldn't love such a brilliant, hilarious writer? Bird by Bird tackles the nuts and bolts of a writer's life with all its neuroses, wisdom, boredom, and joy. It's quotable, relatable, and had me doubled over with laughter more times than I can count. Worth picking up as a reader, writer, or just as comic relief.

The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion
A brilliant but anal professor  - with what looks suspiciously like Asperger's symptoms - creates a survey to find the perfect wife...only to bump into a woman who's completely unsuitable yet the most fun he's ever had. You can see where it's going, but the ride is anything but predictable. A great story of learning to let yourself love and the difference between the way you really are and the ways you act to protect yourself when you feel you don't belong.

That's it for this month's round-up. Do pop over to Modern Mrs. Darcy for many more fun little reviews.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

What I learned in March

At the end of every month, Emily at Chatting at the Sky shares what she's been learning lately - be it frivolous or profound - and invites her readers to do the same. This time round is a bit of slap-dash between stomach flus and babysitting (consecutively, not concurrently), but I did manage to pull together a few things the ides have taught me.

Here's a glimpse of what I've been learning:

"Keats' Eremite" is a hermit, not a scientific discovery. My most striking memory of grade 11 physics was learning what an honour it was to have a theory named after you; or an element, if you're a chemist. I first sang "Choose Something Like a Star" around that time, and assumed that Keats was some kind of scientist and that eremite was either an equation or a rock. "Frostiana" is back in my repertoire, and I now know Keats to be a poet, so I looked it up. The truth is so much better. Poetry. It's growing on me.

Meal planning has a learning curve, but it's still worth the effort. Back in February, I took Breanne's advice from This Vintage Moment and made up a master list of recipes to choose my meals from for the Lenten season. Flipping through old cook-books was a great reminder of all the things I'd forgotten that I know how - and love - to cook. I wrote down over twenty old favourites with a few newbies that looked interesting and called it a day. It took a week of putting my list in practice to bring out its major flaws: every single meal I'd chosen included rice, there was no thought what all I'd be adding to our already well-stocked freezer, and none of my daughter's favourites had made the cut. My list grew longer as the weeks went on - we love our pasta and our grocery service kept sending us potatoes (plus my girlie kept remembering yet another tasty soup) - and some of the original ideas have yet to be tried. White bean ribbolita and cumin-spiced red beans look less enticing with each go 'round - I should really just cross them off and save myself the weekly "ugh." We'll see how I fare with my next list. Thanks for the great idea, Breanne!

Snow pile in the mall parking lot, mid-month. Small child and condo included for scale.

Crazy weather isn't always a bad thing.  On March 8th, my husband and I enjoyed a beer and a cold appetizer on a river-front patio - something I usually wouldn't dream of attempting before June. It was glorious. Since then, we've had a wallop of snow and miserable temperatures before the next upswing that's almost melted it all. Today, the forecast included sunshine, thunderstorms, cool rain, and the promise of 10 cm of snow by morning.  I didn't see any lightning, but this evening's gloomy skies belie this afternoon's summery warmth. I think I got a sunburn at the playground. The grey skies and whitish mounds are still hard on the old psyche (especially if I happen to catch a post of flowering trees in Victoria), but the memories of the unusually beautiful days between keep me buoyant. It still could be really nice tomorrow. Stranger things have happened!

That's it for this month. I'm off to bed. May April Fools be kind tomorrow ;)

Monday, 23 March 2015

Something like a star

I spent most of Saturday at a choir workshop, so I have Frostiana on the brain. "Choose Something Like a Star" is my favourite of the set, though it's hardly my favourite to sing (I'm a soprano - there's a whole lot of sustaining a "D" above lovely moving chords). I read Robert Frost's words and hear Randall Thompson's music. I'm starting to understand why Whitacre got a "no." Thompson's settings fit the poetry amazingly well; especially in the finale - he captures the poet's passion in the middle and joined the star's passionlessness at the end.

I don't think either Frost or Thompson had tulip centres in mind when looking for stars, but they keep me staid all the same. I focus on the colour streaking through as my world goes madly back to white. And trying not to sway mob-like when formatting goes awry - I love how Frost's poem and my picture fit together, but cannot for the life of me get the poster to fit to blogger's page. More white to pain me, but only if I let it. I'm better off staying with my star.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Children's books and literary fiction: A mother-son quick-lit

It's been another wonky month for reading. I finished a book I'd already reviewed, and am part-way through four others. I've also been making an effort to read more to my preschooler; I let him pick half the time and try to keep my choices focussed on education rather than books I'd like to read. Top observations: Franklin is only slightly better than Caillou, and spelling books promote literacy more than straight up alphabet ones. And reading to someone else cuts into solo reading time significantly. Since I only finished three books on my own steam, I decided to beef up my Quick-lit review list with a couple of my new favourite kids books.

Here's what we've been reading:

The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, by Nancy Farmer
After last month's African geography blitzt, I picked up this old childhood favourite - just because it's set in Zimbabwe and I know where that is now. Farmer's prize-winning futuristic novel follows the odyssey of three over-protected children through the streets of Harare as well as the three unusually gifted detectives their parents hire to find them. The story is set in 2194, but blends science-fiction and East African history with a steady pulse of Shona folklore and spirituality. It's been just long enough since I read it last to be surprised at every new twist, and amused by what Farmer did and didn't predict for the future back in 1994 (did anyone see the smartphone coming?). I think it will be a couple more years before my eldest is ready for this one, but I think both her and her brother will really enjoy it.

Mr. Flux, by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Matte Stephens
Our last trip to the library fell during Reading Week. I plunked the baby down in front of the board book shelf, and she immediately made friends with two university students who were probably there to study. I didn't want to wander off and imply I expected them to babysit, nor did I want to interfere with their little tête à tête when all three were so clearly enjoying themselves. I ended up spending more time than usual perusing the children's section, and found this fabulous book as a result. It's a fun introduction to the Fluxus art movement of the 1960s, which was started by a group of artists who didn't take themselves, their art, or life too seriously. When Mr. Flux moves into Martin's changeless neighbourhood, all kinds of delightfully off-the-wall things start happening: from eating toast instead of cereal for breakfast to filling a swimming pool with salad. Stephens' illustrations add even more examples of Mr. Flux's bends on the ordinary. My favourite is pictured here: Martin and Mr. Flux playing ping-pong with olives while seated on turtles. I love it. While I'm not about to buy a bidet and put in on a pedestal, I do want my children to understand that the way we do things isn't the only way to do them and that a bit of change can be enjoyable - even if it's a little silly. Having this sort of book around allows me to do exactly that.

A Very Witchy Spelling Bee, by George Shannon, illustrated by Mark Fearing
A crafty combination of spelling and spells: a young witch competes in a double spelling bee by adding a letter to a word to change an object into something else entirely. "Hoe" + "s" becomes a "shoe". Add an "r" and get a "horse". If only she could get the top contestant to play fair... My son picked this one at random of the library shelf, and it's become a favourite for both of us. I love how a little magic showcases the fun you can have with letters. And my preschooler has started asking what signs say and how to spell them, rather than assuming all words that begin in "L" are talking about him.

The Sweetness of Forgetting, by Kristin Harmel
Harmel combines a secret sorrow on the brink of being lost in a Alzheimer's fog and the emptiness that has defined three generations of women in a war-torn Parisian mystery whose clues are hidden in old family recipes. Still Alice meets The Secret Keeper in this beautiful story of love, loss, and family.

The Last Anniversary, by Liane Moriarty
This early Moriarty novel weaves several plot lines together, each focussing on a resident of Scribbly Gum Island, a tiny dot off the coast of Sydney whose unsolved mystery put it on the map back in the 1930s - and has kept the family who owns it rolling in tourist dollars ever since. When the family matriarch dies and leaves her house to her grand-nephew's ex-girlfriend, her tightly-run ship starts to unravel. I can't say much more without giving the game away. It's quirky yet nuanced, laugh-at-loud funny and achingly sad - so, so much better than I expected from the back cover.

And so ends this month's literary round-up. Next month, I should have some non-fiction reviews to share. Do pop over to Modern Mrs. Darcy for more short and sweet reviews.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Words for the thicket

I've never been much of a reader of poetry, but every so often I stumble upon a poem and, for a moment, get what poetry is all about. I found this one quoted by Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird, and loved it so much I'd thought I'd share. 

The Wild Rose 
Sometimes hidden from me
in daily custom and trust,
so that I live by you unaware
as by the beating of my heart,

Suddenly you flare in my sight,
a wild rose blooming at the edge
of thicket, grace and light
where yesterday was only shade,

and once again I am blessed, choosing
again what I chose before. 
-Wendell Barry

Lamott tells me that Barry wrote it for his wife. I wish it graced every anniversary card for middling marriages: for the years without milestone numbers, where the everyday brambles of work and children and "why is the fridge making that noise" threaten to overgrow the relationship that started it all.

It is good to remember deliberately, with intention and regularity, but I treasure those sudden remembrances all the same.

I, too, am so blessed.

Friday, 27 February 2015

What I learned in February

It's been a tumultuous few weeks, with everything from spring-like thaw to deep-freeze blizzard to brilliant sunshine and freezing rain. And yet, the day keeps getting longer, and Lent is underway. The straggle month is coming to end, and I'm wrapping it up by joining Emily to share what it's taught me.

Here's what I've learned in February:

Broken bamboo will eventually grow new shoots. Back in September, I shared about my experience trying to save preschooler-pruned bamboo. Since then, the denuded stems have indeed sprouted new leaves. The taller one started sprouting back in October, but the original victim just finally came back to life this past month. Given the gap in production, I'm going to presume that the taller bamboo reads my blog and the shorter one's an underachiever. I blame their apparent sentience on the lack of pandas.

The names and locations of all the countries in Africa. Every so often, I read an article bemoaning North American ignorance of African geography. As a Canadian, I can sympathize (I won't be running into your friend from Toronto. He's one of 2.5 million people in a city over 3,000 km away). So I took advantage of some late night nursing insomnia to see how many countries I could name and place in my head. I came up with 26 names, but could only confidently place six of them. Not so great. A bit of hunting found me this map quiz to help with the rest. I've now got all 54 down pat, and my memory loved the exercise. I got quite the (thankfully internal) thrill when I met someone from Burkina Faso - a country I hadn't known existed until I found my little quiz and still knew nothing about. I now know that it gets insanely hot there in January, and that they sing "Happy Birthday" in French. Who knew geography could be so fun?

It's okay to limit educational computer games, even when your second-grader claims they're homework. For the majority of our children's lives, we've kept an electronic-game-free home (that map quiz was the first I'd played in years). I don't mind if my kids play the odd game with a friend, but there aren't any games on Mommy or Daddy's phone, and we never offered to let them find any on the computer. It was a comfortably low-tech existence, and done without issuing any bans. Then my daughter came home insisting "Madam said" she had to sign on to Mathletics and RazKids every day, and the battles for boundaries began. After a few weeks of failing to coax her to go back to reading paper books or do her other math homework, I finally put my foot down and put computer games into the same category as TV: something fun to do for a limited amount of time once the real homework and after-school chores were out of the way. Thankfully, her teachers backed me up - the games aren't required, just suggested. So far, the new routine is working for us, and it keeps me from trying to memorize the world before dinner. We'll see how we navigate research projects in the land of Google.

The following, since pretty much forever:
"That's what shame does, though. It whispers to us that everyone is as obsessed with our failings as we are. It insists that there is, in fact, a watchdog group devoted completely to my weight or her wrinkles or his shrinking bank account. Shame tricks us into believing there's a cable channel that runs video footage of us in our underpants twenty-four hours a day, and that all the people we respect have seen it. Shame tells us that we're wrong for having the audacity to be happy when we're so clearly terrible. Shame wants us to be deeply apologetic for just daring to exist. 
But I've been watching that footage on a loop for too long. I've been my own watchdog group for decades. I want to do something risky. I want to dare to exist and, more than that, to live audaciously, in all my imperfect, lumpy, scarred glory, because the alternative is letting shame win."
-Shauna Niequist, Bread & Wine, p. 230
It's been said that to be a Christian is to fall and keep getting up again. Shame would have me beating myself up for having fallen while everyone is watching. Better off ignoring the lie and work on getting up. It's Lent, so I'm glad for the reminder.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Quick-Lit: February edition

We've been having another volatile winter hereabouts, both in terms of weather and in health. I found that while days of low-energy or awful weather are great for catching up on reading when you've already got a book, they're not so great for getting to the library or even putting down the phone long enough to decide what to read next. After last month's glut, this round of Quick-Lit is on the lighter side. Seeing as I've left Grandma to the craft table while I sneak off to write a mid-visit blog post, I suppose that's alright. Better luck next month.

Here's what I've been reading:

The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Mid-January got me musing about adventuring, specifically how the events that make the best tales for later can be downright miserable to live through. I pulled Bilbo off the shelf so he could agree with me. I only read The Hobbit a few years ago - I caught it too late in my childhood to appreciate the pacing or the tone (13-year-old me scoffed and returned Robert Jordan), and found The Lord of the Rings such a slog that I was hardly aching for more Tolkien. I was in my early twenties for that set of tomes, with a head full of Classics and History, and just wanted to allow myself to watch the movies already. I was pleasantly surprised to find Tolkien's first work to be delightful, witty, and easy on the home-with-small-children brain. This time through was even better than the first. I was sorry to leave Middle Earth behind. Maybe I'll give The Fellowship of the Ring another crack.

The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd
This novel was a recommend from my chiropractor, a library staff pick, and had an author on my radar from many a rave Quick-Lit review. I came at it with high expectations and still was blown away. Kidd introduced me to an amazing historical figure - a woman from Charleston's upper crust who spoke out for both race and sex equality back when even the Quakers practiced segregated seating and the thought of a woman speaking in public was scandalous - and set to exploring the forty years it took for her to find her freedom and her voice. The novel's voice is split between Sarah Grimké and Handful, the slave Sarah is given as a lady's maid for her eleventh birthday. Handful is entirely fictional, but her view of urban slavery is all too real. An entirely absorbing, moving read.

Bread and Wine, by Shauna Niequist
I'm only half-way through this one, but I'm going to rave about it anyways. The book's tag line says it all: "a love-letter to life around the table". Niequist's reverence for building relationships by breaking bread strikes a chord for me too, and her style is so engaging and lyrical I never want to leave her words. I'll be picking up her other works in the future - maybe even next month.

That's all I've got for this round. Time to make coffee. For those in my neck of the woods, enjoy your Family Day!

Friday, 13 February 2015

Bucket list lite

I have another happy house I haven't mentioned yet. This one's of the drive-by variety, nestled among trees and shrubs overlooking the Groat Road ravine. When I lived in Edmonton's South side, that stately sentinel caught my eye with every trip up over the river. Now that I live on the North side, it greets me on my way home. I've never dared to take a picture - between hairpins turns and lack of shoulder, safety wins over beauty, but not without a sigh.

For years, I've dreamed of seeing its street side. Was it really as big as it looked from below the bluff? I wanted to walk that neighbourhood and track it down, even if the cliff view proved to be its better vantage. I began to take note of where it sat, to use the bridges as borders to narrow my search. One of these days, I'd tell my husband on yet another sighting, one of these days I'm going to find that back door.

In the end, it found me.

I wasn't out happy-house-hunting, or even fancy-house-watching. I was looking for free parking, and running late for a meet up outside the MEC. My eyes, scouring for gaps between "no parking" and "resident parking only", were at the perfect height to recognize the stickwork just beyond the foreground, that familiar white under gray-green.

I couldn't park there, but I came back later. I left the van idling while I snapped a few pictures and revelled in the completion of my little private quest. I felt awkward standing on that residential corner, squelching the urge to call out to any and all passersby that I was not, in fact, casing the joint, but indulging in a small act of local tourism. It's no Buckingham Palace, but I've seen it, just the same.

There are more glamourous items on my bucket list. I have places to go and sites to see that require far more funds and foresight than my little urban expedition. There are skills I'd love to master once schedule and brain-space allow. It's a list of dreams for a hazy tomorrow, one that, in the thick of dripping eaves and diaper changes, can seem so very far away. So I keep a running sub-list of more attainable goals, one comprised of festivals and restaurants, trails and light-rail-transit. I might not be mastering the cello or speaking Yupik, but I am learning to knit. The local museum isn't the Louvre, but that doesn't mean it's not worth a visit. And this old house is not a castle, but it was still sweet to find.

Life is for living, no matter the season. And our small joys are joys all the same.


Monday, 2 February 2015

Live-giving littles

In honour of the half-way point of the her hardest season, Anne of Modern Mrs. Darcy is sharing a list of what's saving her this winter - rather than what's killing her - and inviting her readers to do the same. Following her lead from last Monday's post, my list consists mainly of little things: I often find that when one last tiny thing goes wrong, it can mean the difference between coping and crashing. Today, I'm acknowledging some of the small joys that tip the scales in the other direction. 

Here's what's making a difference for me this season:

Candles. Candlelight has redeemed my evenings every winter for years now. It keeps the seemingly endless darkness at bay. This year, I also found a way for candles to help me fight the staleness that comes with keeping out the cold. I started placing a fresh-scented tea light on my bathroom sill, and lighting it whenever I wish I could just open the window without kicking the furnace into overdrive. It's not ideal, but neither is doing your business in a frigid draft. My current scent of choice is cotton.

Fruit.  Peaches and cherries are long gone, but the citrus is around in troves. I've made a point of stocking up on oranges and grapefruit - and eating them myself too, even if the littles have opted for a less time-consuming snack. I'm still surprised how refreshed I feel after that first tangy mouthful. Yes, says Rachel's immune system, this is exactly what we needed. The vitamins and sugars are well worth the peeling and inevitable stickies.

Prayer. I'm a hopeless perfectionist when it comes to visiting my prayer corner. I want the house to be quiet, the children to be napping or otherwise totally occupied (preferably downstairs with a long movie), and no other chores to be pressing for at least fifteen minutes. Which is just another way of saying I hardly ever get there. I'm trying to change that. Be it a two-minute sneak away while they're happily playing, or just a "Lord have mercy" muttered over the sink, it helps keeps me centred - especially when the combination of colds and flus and sheer can't-keep-warm exhaustion keep us from church for weeks on end.

Dressing well. Three decades of living in a snow-blown climate has taught me to be honest about my cold tolerance. Much as I'd like to think of myself as a tough prairie veteran, I'm miserable when underdressed, even at -15C. So I wear leggings under my jeans from November through March, and don my toque, scarf, and gloves even for 10 minute outings. My choice of new coat was a knee-length down-fill with a faux-fir collar.  I usually wear it zipped all the way up, with the hood up to boot. There's no messing around with a prairie winter.

...and not just for the weather. I'm blessed with mother and sister who could each double as my personal stylist. I usually ask them for clothes for Christmas, and am always pleased with what seasonal lovelies they pick out for me. Instead of saving those flattering scarves and sweaters special occasions, this winter I'm aiming for everyday wear. That way I can stay warm and feel ready to face the public instead of wishing I could take my stretched-out tee and sweatpants self back to bed. This is proving true even on days when the only "public" I engage are my husband and offspring. And when the time comes where huddling under the blankets is the best way to beat the winter blues, staying pajama-d will feel like an indulgence rather than everyday blah.

Fake daylight. As I mentioned in my last post, it's not full spectrum, but that lamp still helps fight off all that is cloudy and dim.

And if all else fails...

Grocery store tulips. It's spring somewhere, and Safeway's greenhouse knows it. Come late January, $5-7 bunches start showing up in corner displays at all the grocery stores. If my African violets aren't blooming or the skies have been white for too long, orange, pink, yellow blooms tend to fall into my grocery cart. For as long as it lasts, that pop of colour at the table can make all the difference. And when they fade, that new coat of mine is still a bright cherry red; it makes me grin every time I catch my shoulder out of the corner of my eye.

In a world of white and grey, I'll take my vibrant wherever I can get it. Spring will get here eventually.

In meantime, pop over here to find out how others are managing the last half of the cold and dark.

Friday, 30 January 2015

A midwinter education

Every month, the lovely Emily at Chatting at the Sky invites her readers and fellow writers to share what they've been learning lately, be it frivolous or profound. December's round-up was a recap of the whole year prior. However, looking back on 2014 through my post-flu mid-teething lens didn't seem fair, so I sat that one out. Instead, I've included a couple December tidbits along with Janaury's.

Here's what I've been learning:

My S.A.D. lamp isn't really a S.A.D. lamp, but it still helps. Once upon a time, my mother-in-law lent my husband a full-spectrum light to help with his S.A.D.- type symptoms. Seeing as I find heavy overcasts seriously draining, I thought I'd dig it up and give it a try. I discovered something called an Ott Lite tucked up on a shelf, and assumed I'd found what I was looking for. I used it on and off for weeks while reading or sitting at the computer on cloudy days. I felt energized in the mornings and had none of the too-buzzed-to-sleep side-effects my husband experienced if I sat under it in the afternoon. Last week my mother-in-law informed me that it wasn't actually her S.A.D. lamp, but a really good reading lamp she'd passed on on another occasion. It isn't full-spectrum, but it is meant to mimic daylight and reduce eye-strain. Placebo effect, anyone? Or maybe I've just been reading in poor light for too long. I think I'll keep using it anyways.

A kiwifruit is actually a berry. My son asked me if kiwis grew on trees - I had no idea, so I pulled out my pocket encyclopedia (i.e. smartphone browser) and looked it up. Turns out they grow on vines - and are now the biggest berry I've ever seen.

I don't self-identify as fat, but seeing this photo-shoot had me identifying with dancers. It's not often you see still-shots of fleshly bodies in motion. I looked at all these dancers whose flesh folds when they bend and flops when they spin and thought "hey - my skin does that too!" Bravo!

Taking a two-year hiatus from the dentist is a bad plan. Unless you throw a pregnancy in the mix - then it's an abysmal one. I'd heard that pregnancy hormones could wreak havoc on a momma's teeth, but this was the first time I saw such negative results. My return to the dentist chair was painfully illuminating. February will be a month of fillings for me, followed by yet more scaling. Ouch.

Adding a little history increases my interest in hair and makeup exponentially. Haley at Carrots for Michaelmas clued me into this awesome montage of beauty trends, tracking how they've changed from 1910. I've since stumbled on the creator's second video, and a side-by-side comparison. They each run a minute or less - which is a good feature in a video I end up watching several times in a row every couple days. So fun!

Friday, 23 January 2015

"All beginnings are hard"

After well over a year of intermittent link-ups with the Five Minute Friday crew, I've given myself permission to take a sneak at the word of the week hours before I sit down and set my timer. Some days, it still feels like cheating. Other days, it's just what my mind and heart need to sift down to what I really need to be writing about. Today was one of the latter variety - and of the subcategory where I write well over the five minute limit, just to get it all out.

This week's prompt is "share".

I spent yesterday morning helping my oldest friend pack up her kitchen. Her and her family leave next Monday to move across the mountains. It was sweet to have just a couple more hours to share together, to pack up plates and cups and glassware almost as familiar as my own. Next time I see them, they'll be up in unfamiliar cupboards. We will share meals and coffee and drinks on them again, but exact time and location are still TBA.

We've been friends for thirty years, and only lived apart for two of them. Since that last reunion, we've seen each other through the end of our undergrad degrees and our first and second apartments. We've stood up at each other's weddings, held each other's babies, cried over each other's miscarriages. We've watched our husbands become closer friends, and our kids become like siblings. There have been coffees and playdates, ordinations and joint wedding anniversaries, extended phone calls and family dinners. Times we saw scads of each other, others where weeks slipped by on the assumption that we'd talk again next Sunday, or, if not, the Sunday after. 

It is said the Lord works in mysterious ways. He calls one friend and her small family on to new and wonderful works, while calling the other and her small crew to stay still, to grow here for now, and pray. It is good, and strange, and exciting, but also challenging and more than a little sad. Our kids won't grow up living in each other's houses the way we both fondly remember. They'll be learning the art of long distance friendship; trading afternoon playdates and see-you-Sundays for skype calls and letters and the promise of long tracks of play at the end of the next road trip. It's closer to the relationship I had with cousins, and that was special too. 

I don't see this as an ending, but another beginning. And all beginnings are hard, but that doesn't mean they can't be beautiful.

Safe journeys, my friend.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Quick Lit: December & January

For the first time since embarking on my brain-saving reading endeavour, I missed a link-up with Modern Mrs. Darcy. I did plenty of reading, but not enough checking of the calendar to catch December 15 before it flew by. I suspect Christmas prep was to blame. Now I'm into January catch-up mode, so I've got two months worth of book reviews to share.

December's link-up was also the inaugural month of Twitterature's new name: Quick Lit. It turns out that too few of the contributors (including the host) were sticking to tweet-length reviews and everybody liked it better that way. The new name reflects that: still short, but not that short. As a writer who has trouble keeping posts under 140 words, let alone 140 characters, the change suits me fine.

Here's what I've been reading:

Farewell to the East End, by Jennifer Worth
Worth's last instalment of her memoirs returned to the short story format from her first volume, with a mixture of personal details of the various nuns and midwives, examples of bureaucratic insanity in the face of the East End's massive post-war rehousing project, and a collection of birth stories that more than prove the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction. I enjoyed it just as much as the other two. Next up will be the TV version, just as soon as I'm done with Downton.

Essentialism, by Greg McKeown
I covered my thoughts of this typical self-help book back in November. I won't repeat my rant. Loved the idea, hated the execution. If you're interested in learning how to pare down to the essentials, I suggest you skim.

Wanting Sheila Dead, by Jane Haddam
Once again, Haddam lets a reader have a ridiculous amount of fun with murder, this time on the set of reality TV show - with a host that makes Simon Cowell look like an old softy - and a bonus mystery in the detective's backyard. I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite the ever-growing sense that I really need to get to the bottom of Demarkian's love story. If you happen to know in which of Haddam's first ten novels Gregor met Bennis, please drop me a line. Her website is little help.

Kaleidoscope, by Gail Bowen
Bowen's Joanne Kilbourn is a very different sort of protagonist from your average crime thriller. Sometimes she's sleuthing, other times she's just picking up the pieces. This novel was of the latter category (I can't say much more without spoiling it). As usual, Bowen packed her page-turner with a thought-provoking social commentary. As fun as it is to get caught up in the gritty underbellies of New York or Los Angeles, it's easy to forget they exist closer to home. By setting her crimes in Regina, Saskatchewan, Bowen doesn't let a Canadian reader off that easy.

Anne of Windy Poplars, by L. M. Montgomery
I had originally meant to re-read the Anne books in order of publication this time around, but my daughter had other ideas. The spine says book four, therefore it comes after book three. Never mind the 1936 copyright. I was able to apply my acquired trivia all the same: knowing Montgomery wrote about Anne's three-year engagement nearly twenty years after she wrote Anne's House of Dreams (1917) explains a lot about the change in tone. Anne is still a young Anne, but the adventures she witnesses don't all tie up quite so neatly, and knowing these characters can't be revisited in the next volume gives the ending a bittersweet edge. I remember the twinge from past read-throughs, but couldn't put my finger on why a book full of relatively happy endings left me feeling sad. I think I know now.

Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog, by Boris Akunin
A friend lent me this book thinking my husband and I might like it. Boy was she right! Sister Pelagia is an observant, though clumsy, young nun with a weakness for riddles who lives in the backwater of nineteenth century Russia. Her first case reads like Agatha Christy crossed with Fyodor Dostoevsky with enough sharp jabs at the prevailing culture to counter My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I still found it tough to navigate through all the Russian diminutives and patronymics, but Akunin added enough memorable quirks to his lesser-used characters to help me figure out who was who even if I'd forgotten which four names went with each person. It's a great read for any mystery fan with a special dose of cackle for anyone familiar with Russian Orthodoxy. I'm so glad her next few adventures have also been translated into English.

What Alice Forgot, by Liane Moriarty
This novel has been on my to-read list for months; I finally made it to the top of my library's holds list right before Christmas. It was a lovely escapist holiday read: chick-lit ease with lots of musing space for what-might-have-beens and what-if-it-had-been-mes. Moriarty weaves several layers of loss through Alice's week of amnesia from dealing with death to infertility to relationships withered by busyness. It's the first of her books I've read, but it won't be the last.

Parenting: Illustrated with Crappy Pictures, by Amber Dusick
After Christmas came the flu that left me huddled on my parents' couch rather than catching up with family and friends. This humorous collection of parenting foibles was an excellent companion. I've enjoyed Dusick's blog for years, so it was neat to see her take her ideas to print form. And I'll never think of diapers the same way again. So, so funny.

Whew. All caught up. We'll see how long it takes to say the same about the housework ;)