Hallowe’en … maybe?

October 25th, 2020Posted by Nancy

Hallowe’en in Ontario is not exactly cancelled – just “recommended against”. This shouldn’t make much difference to us, because our activity ranges between 10 and 20 kids. Trick or Treating action in our neighbourhood of small blocks is highly street-dependent. If you don’t have critical mass of decorations, they just keep on walking.

This doesn’t stop my husband from happily putting up skull lights and carving a pumpkin. And from buying far more candy than we will ever give out and now that we don’t work in offices, there’s no easy way to get rid of it except to eat it. Which, sadly, we do.

We’re guaranteed the 7 kids who live on our street, so we’ve bought loot bags and will set up a socially distanced table so treats can be acquired without risk. I’m even planning a costume this year, a somewhat lazy combination of flamenco, Day of the Dead Bride, and Frida Kahlo. A picture may or may not appear here next week.

On the other hand, there seems to be extra enthusiasm for decorating in the neighbourhood this year. Perhaps that’s because it’s something that the virus can’t take away. Here’s a selection of things that moved to me take pictures on my walks. Sadly, the tempermental upload function on WordPress keeps rejecting the garden of doll heads, but that house has it’s own hashtag, so check out #nightmareonbrowning for all the scary goodness.

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Pictures to go with the words and music

October 10th, 2020Posted by Nancy

I’d mentioned in an earlier post that I’ve recorded seven short readings and that my husband has been composing background music for them. Now he’s discovered imovie and has made the jump to adding moody and evocative visuals to his compositions.

I don’t know that we’re going to be able to come up with the right images for each reading. So far we’ve got a slo-mo videos of bees in the garden and ideas for some “Ken Burns” photo montages. I’m currently responsible for going through the free images offered at the Paris Museum Collections site to find historical photos of Paris slums. I’ve even played around with my modifying my own photos of Paris, to mixed success (see above). I will point out that the story isn’t actually set in Paris, just a “sort of like Paris” city. Ok, who am I kidding – it’s really Paris, not matter what name it has in the book.

And since we just went back to Stage 2 lockdown here in Toronto, I imagine I’ll have lots of time to look at old photos.

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Discovering Japan Collection Reissue!

September 28th, 2020Posted by Nancy

Just put the (almost) finishing touches on the new material being added to the upcoming reissue of my Discovering Japan short story collection, due out in December.

This new version features a new cover, one additional unpublished short story, and THREE (count ’em, three!) sections from the Work In Progress, aka “The Witch Novel”.

Stay tuned for more info and the fabulous new cover.

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What I read at the Cottage, 2020 COVID edition

September 23rd, 2020Posted by Nancy

Drama Queen Sky

The annual two weeks up north was the usual balm for the soul, despite rainy weather the first week.

I went swimming twice (given that the second time was on September 15th, I thought that was pretty good. It was … not warm). I did my one annual ride on the rail trail. I got in some long walks and finally finished the fourth Adventure Zone arc. Yes, I am years behind on that.

I ate fewer cookies than usual, in an attempt to shed those extra few COVID pounds. I did lamentably little writing.

I did manage to read or reread a number of books, though I didn’t set any records.

Rereads:

Howl’s Moving Castle and Castle in the Air. Diana Wynne Jones. Motivated by watching the Studio Ghibli animated version on Netflix. Howl is one of my favourite comfort reads.

Mairelon the Magician and The Magician’s Ward. Patricia Wrede. Regency magic and romance for a rainy Sunday when you’ve had two hours of sleep.

Assorted bits of the Foreigner series. C.J. Cherryh. Having read them all, I could skip all the plot and worldbuilding explanations and just enjoy the cultural grace notes and dialogue.

New reads:

Wakenhurst. Michelle Paver. The fens, medieval devils, madness, a manor house all add up to fine English gothic.

Dreaming of You. Lisa Kleypas. Romance. And yes, I skipped the sex scenes.

Famous Father Girl, Jamie Bernstein. We’d seen her speak at a concert celebrating her father’s music so I wanted to read her autobiography. I always thought of the Bernstein era as being before the years of cocaine and wild parties and sex and much too much alcohol. It definitely was not. A fascinating look at her family and finding her own way to be part of a musical legacy.

Before Mars. Emma Newman. Solid science-fiction/mystery/thriller.

The Monsters We Deserve. Marcus Sedgwick. Another of those books that showed up long after I’d forgotten what it was about. Turns out it was a beautifully rewritten short novel about the complicated legacy of Mary Shelley’s famous creation in our imagination.

Desert Notebooks. Ben Erhenreich. Right in my sweet spot. Vivid evocation of landscape and nature. Interesting thoughts about time and culture and philosophy. Ideas you want to talk about over dinner.

Dread Nation. Justina Ireland. The dead rise from the battlefield of Gettysburg – putting a swift end of the civil war. But someone has to keep the shambler hordes at bay – and who better to send to do the dirty work than the inconvenient African American and native populations. This one was lots of fun.

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In the Doldrums..

August 18th, 2020Posted by Nancy

Despite the fact that there’s finally a breeze, literal in the fact that it’s not appalling hot and metaphorical in the sense that I’m doing a ‘250 words a day’ project right now. I’m on target but…. but…. There’s always a but.

I’m working on both the Witch Novel and the completely reimagined Glass! Art! Love! project (previously known as ‘Not the Witch Novel’). Moving between helps me from getting too bogged down or panic-stricken. It’s sad but true that some days writing those 250 words is a grim slog. I stop after every paragraph and count the words. It’s helpful to be able to switch to something completely unrelated when it gets to be too much.

The downside of this process is that I’m carving out tiny bits of the story every second day or so and it feels very disjointed. There are days I barely remember what I wrote in the previous session. Since I’m discovery writing, I’m always trusting that the headlights illuminate enough of the plot that I don’t drive into a ditch (hat-tip to E.L. Doctorow for that*).

Things I have read:

Song for New Day, by Sarah Pinsker. This year’s Nebula winner. Ticks lots of the boxes of my youth (music, punk, rebellion, etc) and the depiction of the early days of pandemic have a eerie resonance with the world today. Pinsker is a musician and you can tell.

Nomadland: Surviving American in the Twenty-First Century, by Jessica Bruder. This one had been on my list for a long time. Excellent, inside story of aging people who have to hit the road to survive. Many of them end up working seasonally at Amazon (the stories about the robots were amusing, but it does seem to suggest a problem with the warehouse offers free painkillers). The movie version, featuring Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, and some of real nomads, is coming out in September.

The Other Bennet Sister, by Jane Haidlow. The first part of the book shows the events of Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of shy, bookish, awkward Mary Bennet. The rest of the book takes place later, as she tries to find a way to be happy and fulfilled in the world. This inevitably involves romance, some of which I thought was reasonably handled and some of which seemed a bit too much like the trope of “girl takes off glasses and becomes sought off by multiple men” to be believable. On the other hand, it completely confirmed my love for Mrs. Gardiner.

Axiom’s End, by Linday Ellis. I’ve been a fan of Ellis for several years so was excited to read her novel. You can definitely see her various passions in it but it’s a fast-moving and entertaining first novel. There were a few parts that made me go “wait, how is she suddenly able to X? Oh yes, she needs to for the plot” but there was more than enough there to make me want to read the sequel when it comes out.

*Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

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We drink and … that theme is done.

August 4th, 2020Posted by Nancy

What is there to say on any of this anymore? The days come and go, I write a bit or I don’t, I practice flamenco or I don’t, I garden or I don’t. None of it is very interesting.

This is not to say there haven’t been good moments. Socially distanced picnics and cocktails have been managed. Our region has gone into Stage 3, which means indoor dining and going to the gym is back on the table, but I can’t imagine doing either of those things.

I’ve discovered it’s hard to learn flamenco choreography via Zoom, not least because my brain insists that when someone dances facing you, then you are their mirror image and their right hand is your left etc. This has been drilled into me through years of gym classes and Zumba and I’m just not capable to learning choreography AND to reverse the mirror at the same time. Fortunately, I won’t ever been required to perform the piece.

Things I’ve read:

Final Girls, by Riley Sager. What happens after you survive the classic “cabin in the woods” massacre. I saw the twist coming but it moves along at a good clip.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear, by E.K. Johnston. Yet another book I was surprised by when I finally borrowed it. Not genre (though I would have thought competitive cheerleading was actually a fantasy in Ontario). It turned out to be about the aftermath of a sexual assault and was beautiful and unexpected and honest. And funny.

Under the Ivy: The Life and Music of Kate Bush, by Graeme Thomson. Updated to include her live shows in 2014. Which I would have flown to England to see, if I’d been able to get tickets. It’s an enduring regret that I blew that one.

A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine. I’d actually bought this a while ago but hadn’t had a chance to read it. Then it won the Hugo, so I thought I should get at it. Excellent.

The Surface Breaks, by Louise O’Neill. A YA retelling of The Little Mermaid. Some lovely writing marred by being heavy-handed on the evils of the patriarchy. It needed a bit more nuance.

The Prince of Midnight, by Laura Kinsdale. I’m working my way slowly through her books. I still skip the sex scenes but she’s not afraid to make her heroines spiky and damaged, which I appreciate.

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We drink a bit. The heat makes us inelegant.

July 19th, 2020Posted by Nancy

The only place to be in this heat. Sadly, this is NOT where I am.

One of my favourite quotes from Jane Austen is: “What dreadful weather we have! It keeps one in a constant state of inelegance.” Engraved on a tile, it made the perfect gift for my friend in Houston. I’ve applied it a number of times to the sauna that is Toronto this summer. I imagine it will only get worse.

I hate the heat. In my perfect world, it would always be Autumn, on a day when one requires a light jacket. Except when I have the opportunity to swim in a lake in cottage country, in which case it should have been high 20s celsius for the last two weeks to make sure the water is perfect. And no humidity, thank you very much.

We went to the Art Gallery of Ontario (timed tickets, masks on) and saw the excellent Diane Arbus exhibit and a show of posters from the Golden Age of Magic. Both well worth braving the subway to see.

Work proceeds apace on the video project. Fortunately, all I need to do is read into the microphone. Other projects remain stalled, though a way through the thicket has been glimpsed for the witch novel project. Now I just need to get going on it.

Things I’ve read:

Battle Cry of Freedom, by James MacPherson. This long history of the Civil War Era consumed a fair bit of reading time over the last few weeks. I also finished listening to a podcast/Yale course on The American Revolution. It’s time to start looking into Canadian history for a change.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, by Alexander Chee. This one had been on my long list of books so long I couldn’t remember why I wanted to read it. I’m glad I did, however, because it contained some excellent thoughts on writing, as well as an interesting story. I don’t think I’ll write anything autobiographical soon, though. Or ever.

Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea, by Sarah Pinsker. I finally caught up with this collection by an author who just won the Nebula for her first novel. I’m looking forward to reading that one as well.

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gower. Another one for which I had no memory of why I thought I should read it. It’s beautifully written and conjures 18th century London with amazing vividness. The plot wobbles a bit, but the prose makes up for it.

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We decide this is now the world and we need to stop drinking. Happy Canada Day!

July 1st, 2020Posted by Nancy

My fancy Star Wars mask, courtesy of Nikki Awesome

The days keep passing and outside things change, at least somewhat. In the last month I’ve had a massage, acupuncture, and an MRI. I’ve taken the subway (four times), the streetcar, and an Uber. I wore a mask. I sanitized my hands. I’ve met a friend for iced coffees and sat in a park on opposite ends of the bench. We had friends join us in the backyard and my husband wore gloves while he carried out their drinks. I bought clothes online from the amazing Annie Thompson.

Am I being paranoid? Am I being cavalier? Who can tell?

The patios opened up, but I can’t imagine going to one. The art gallery and the museum opened up and I might consider going to those. I miss dancing and have no idea when I can do that again, because breathing hard in a small studio seems like the worst thing to do.

We’re going to meet my father in a park half-way between Toronto and the town he lives in so we can have a picnic. I haven’t seen him since Thanksgiving.

Slipping out of the world was easier than expected – and getting back into into it is much harder. And always, of course, there is the example of our neighbours to the south, slouching towards disaster because masks are for wusses and liberals.

On the downside, it’s been a fallow month for writing. On the upside, I’m working on a video project, trying to avoid the dreaded “watch the author read her book” in favour of music and moody visuals.

And I’ve read a lot of books.

A Paradise Built in Hell, by Rebecca Solnit. A wonderful tonic to the earlier run of grim tomes. Turns out that during disasters most communities do not turn into Mad Max hellscapes but come together and help each other.

The Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel. Beautifully written, slyly magical, and sharing a surprising link with the next book on the list.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in the Strange World, by Elif Shafak. Rather astonishingly, this is NOT a depressing book, despite being about a dead woman in a refuse bin. Instead it’s beautiful, warm, sad, heartbreaking, and ridiculously funny in turn.

Beach Read, by Emily Henry. She writes romance. He writes literary fiction. They both have writer’s block and books due. They decide to swap genres. This was a lot of fun and the characters were engaging and relatively free of romance stereotypes. Yes, I skipped all the sex scenes.

Himself, by Jess Kidd. This was my month for ghosts, it seems. Between this and Things in Jars, you should definitely add Jess Kidd to your “to read” list.

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We drink and wish we were in Barcelona…

May 29th, 2020Posted by Nancy

Columbus Avenue, Barcelona by Pablo Picasso

In the vast scheme of the pandemic, having to cancel a long-planned trip to Spain is not a major loss. But it was still a loss. I love planning trips (because it eases my quite ludicrous levels of travel anxiety) and I do lots of research. We had a trip booked to go to Madrid, Seville, and Barcelona for the last two weeks in May. We would have gone to museums, drunk vermouth in bars, eaten fabulous meals very late, seen flamenco shows, and tried to walk it all off in these beautiful places. I’d even managed to get a reservation at Distrufar, currently ranked one of the top restaurants in the world, to celebrate our 30th anniversary.

Instead, we paid tribute to our lost trip by ordering tapas from the local Spanish restaurant, buying a nice bottle of Rioja, and dining in our backyard.

Despite multiple distractions and other obligations, I did actually manage to get some creative work done in May. I took all the disparate parts of the Witch novel and stuffed them together into one file, in chronological order by events, in the hopes that this would reveal some coherence (and perhaps even a plot!) – or at least point me in the direction of what to do next. It mostly proved that I can still write a decent sentence, remain confused as to what is going on, and frequently forget the names or spelling of minor characters, cities, and even countries.

Things I’ve read since the last post.

Vassa in the Night, Sarah Porter. An interesting YA fantasy.

Until the End of Time, Brian Greene. Entropy, physics, free will, and all the ways the universe can end. Not quite as grim as it sounds.

Exhalation, Ted Chiang. His new story collection, which actually had interesting resonances with the title above. Not all the stories were outstanding but most of them were thought-provoking.

Dying of Whiteness, Jonathan Metzl. How the politics of racial resentment hurt the very people who hold those views. Rather timely.

Wilding, Isabella Tree. The story of returning a British farm and estate to a more natural state. Almost made me move to the country and rewild something. Almost. Discovered through the excellent podcast “The World in Time” from Lapham’s Quarterly.

Archaeology from Space, Sarah Parcak. An entertaining and interesting book about using satellite imagery in archaeology by one of the scientists I follow on Twitter.

Blood, Bones & Butter, Gabrielle Hamilton. A memoir by an acclaimed NY chef, who is not only an incredible writer but has had a very unusual and somewhat wild life. Only downside is that I get very hungry reading it.

I can’t really complain (but, as the song says, sometimes I still do). I miss my friends, my father, restaurants, and even taking the King streetcar down Broadview. But I’m healthy, I have books to read, I have wine to drink, I have a garden, and I’m with the person I love. Could be worse.

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We drink and shave our heads…

May 7th, 2020Posted by Nancy

Because I think this is a great name for a wine

Ok, my husband does, with my help. Success was achieved through a electric clipper set purchased online, a few videos, a stepladder (to put the mirror on), a hair clip (to keep the sheet around him), and a bit of fussing. I’m perfectly happy to let my hair just keep growing. The last time I had a buzzcut, I was in my early 20s and much thinner.

Work continues, working out continues, gardening has begun (though this weekend it is supposed to snow. The times we live in, I tell you), and writing has lagged. Made it to about 5,200 words in April, well short of my goal. The project for this month (which I’d bloody well better get started on) is taking all the disparate narrative sections of the Witch Novel and create one file, in chronological order by events, to see how things flow.

Things I read since the last update:

  • The Great Leveler: Violence and Inequality from the Stone Age to the 21st Century, by Walter Scheidel. Let’s just say this was not the feel-good book of the year. Basically, we were fucked the minute we invented agriculture.
  • Things in Jars, by Jess Kidd. Brilliant. Go read it.
  • The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, by Natasha Pulley. Which I’m pretty sure I’d read before because things kept feeling familiar but I had no idea what was going to happen next so I just kept reading. I hope this isn’t a bad sign…
  • The Yellow House, by Sarah Broom. A memoir about her family in New Orleans. Also brilliant.

Things will start opening up here over the next weeks. I admit I’m relieved to be able to get tomato plants and other vegetables (after the ice age passes, of course) but I’m in no hurry to go stores. I can’t imagine buying clothes without trying them on after two months of being home. I certainly can’t imagine going to the gym, as much as I miss my classes.

Stay safe. Drink moderately (someone has to). Read books – but not about inequality and violence.

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