Catch up, catch all

April 20th, 2021Posted by Nancy

This post has been on my ‘to do’ list for a while but I just kept pushing it out, because my level of productivity as rapidly declined since my working days. These days, if I manage to go for a walk, meditate, and knock one thing off my list, I consider it a good day. And since I planned this one, a number of things have happened, thus the title.

COVID: Last year I was actually hopeful that Ontario would come through things reasonably well. We had experience with SARS. Canada was making the right moves to support people. Once it was clear this virus was different, I understood the changing rules based on evolving knowledge. But we’re over a year into this thing. We know who is most likely to be infected (originally older people in long-term care, now people who have to work on-site in “essential”, precarious, and low-paid jobs) and we know what’s needed to keep them – and therefore the rest of us – safe (paid sick time, rapid vaccinations) but our government seems incapable of managing that. Last week’s announcement of more restrictions that don’t get to the heart of the problem, the relentless pointing of fingers at the federal government, the refusal to do what really IS required, sparked a level of anger (at least on the media I follow) that I’ve rarely seen among generally placid Canadians. It wasn’t the stupid anti-mask, we-must-go-to-church/the mall/the hairdresser/the bar, the vaccine is a plot by Bill Gates rejection of sensible precautions that is common in some area. It was a deep, angry howl of frustration that the government just didn’t seem to get it. Closing the playgrounds wasn’t going to fix the fact that the areas in the city with the highest levels of positive tests had the lowest rates of vaccinations. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’ve had one shot of Astra Zeneca, because I could. I wear a mask on the TTC and around other people, because that’s just common courtesy. I hope for the best.

FAILING, Part I: I had big plans for the winter. I was going to make a flamenco video homage to Canadian artist/dancer/choreographer Francoise Sullivan’s “Danse dans le Neige“. I figured out what I was going to wear. I practiced the choreography. I found a spot in a local park that would work. I waited for the right day: not too cold, not too sunny, enough snow to dance in, no ice, midweek when there were fewer people around, a feeling of confidence in my dance. I figure there was ONE week when all of those things aligned – and I didn’t do it. I thought “I’m not ready. There’s time. There will be better weather, better snow, a better day.” And there never was. Well, I thought, I’ll do “Danse au Printemps” instead. And then I hurt my shoulder and haven’t been able to practice. The will starts to drain away.

FAILING, Part II: I came out of March’s reread of both of my WIPs feeling hopeful. I identified some next sections to write. I picked some things to brainstorm and then JUST MAKE A DECISION ABOUT (such as, what to call the nuns. Answer: just call them Sister and let it go). I decided to aim for 10,000 words for April as part of Camp Nanowrimo. The first 2,500 words ticked by nicely then it came time to switch projects for a bit. I started in on the Witch Novel sections and realized with a sickening feeling that there was a major plot point that I had just … glossed over. I’d written almost up to the pivotal moment. I wrote reactions several years after the pivotal event. But I’d never seriously thought about how said event would ACTUALLY happen. When I did, it was clear that it was going to be much more complicated than I’d first envisioned. Deflated, I skipped a day. I switched back to the Glass World project and ground out some more words. I skipped another day. Everything seemed drab and boring and lifeless. It still does. I know that I can solve the problem. I know that I can manage the more complicated version. I might have to rewrite some later reactions, but it doesn’t ruin everything. Except that it did, just for a while.

Which leads me to…

Reasons to Go On: A dear friend sent a link to an essay in the New York Times by Charles M. Blow called My Second Phase of Adulthood. So much of it resonated strongly with me. In this pandemic time, I’ve taken to reading obituaries in the local paper, not because I expect to see anyone I know (I’m not THAT old) but because so many people have had fascinating lives. A generation is passing who grew up during WWII, escaped from prison camps, took the huge leap of faith of immigration to a foreign country, and built lives and families and businesses (and cottages) here. But it’s always the families that matter the most, for both the men (mostly) who built the businesses and the women (mostly) who built the connections that were the most important at the end. Included in those connections were children, grandchildren, friends, and caregivers.

This leads inevitability (and tediously) to imagining what could be said of me. I have no children, I’m nobody’s grandmother. I wrote four novels, none terribly successful. I have good friends, I have a beloved husband, I have a nice life. I still find beauty and wonder in the world. I love art and music and history and Venice. I give to charity. I try to smile at people (from behind my mask) but I’m still an introvert. I try to be kind but I’m often lost in my own thoughts. Is that enough?

In his column, Blow reflects on the introspective that pandemic has forced on him. He resolves to live “boldly, bravely and openly’ and to “cut myself some slack and get on with being a better person”. This seems like a good resolution. I’d like to be bolder, braver, and a better person. I fail at all three regularly.

He quotes Dorian Corey in the documentary “Paris Is Burning”:

“I always had hopes of being a big star. But as you get older, you aim a little lower. Everybody wants to make an impression, some mark upon the world. Then you think, you’ve made a mark on the world if you just get through it, and a few people remember your name. Then you’ve left a mark. You don’t have to bend the whole world. I think it’s better to just enjoy it.”

and then concludes “When I am gone, and people remember my name, I want some of them to smile.”

I know I’ll never really make a mark, and that’s ok. I’d like to say that frees me to write more bravely, to do more interesting and daring things – but the truth is every word is still hard, my worldbuilding is frustrating and inadequate, and my ability to plot is marginal. I’d like to say that I will do bold and imaginative things like dance in the park – but I might chicken out, too afraid of making a fool of myself. I’d like to say that I will be a better, kinder person and make a difference in the world. But most likely I’ll muddle on just the way I am.

But I think there are a few people who will smile when they think of me and I’m willing to work to make sure that stays true. That’s good enough for me.

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You edit 243 pages and what do you get?

April 2nd, 2021Posted by Nancy

A long list of questions, things to research or brainstorm, somewhat fewer words than when you started, and far fewer answers than you’d hoped for.

April was editing month and I actually printed out all 243 words of my main WIP (aka The Witch Novel) in hopes of getting a new perspective. Some thoughts:

  • this is the first thing I’ve ever written that has no chapter breaks at this point. The only divisions are between narrative voices. It feels very strange but there’s also no meaningful way to add breaks at this point
  • some of the prose is pretty damned nice
  • writing in second person is lots of fun
  • I’m still struggling mightily with the exact shape of the plot and numerous aspects of the plot
  • I get very annoyed with “Europe with the serial numbers filed off” fantasy novels and here I am writing a “Europe with the serial numbers filed off” novel. Serves me right, I suppose.

I also edited the 32 pages of the Glass World Novel Take 2, which has many of the same problems. I’ve just changed Europe to “New York Hudson River Valley, possibly in the 1930s” but have still filed off the serial numbers, sort of.

It’s been almost six years since I started the Witch Novel. I’m still hopeful I’ll beat the 17 years it took me to finish COLD HILLSIDE.

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What a drag it is getting old …

March 28th, 2021Posted by Nancy

If 2019 was the year of the sore hip (arthitic degeneration, muscle tear, cortisone shots, PRP treatment), then 2021 is shaping up as the year of the sore shoulder. A few months ago, I was out for my regular walk when my left shoulder, upper arm, and pectoral muscles started to hurt. I thought this was rather odd and therefore did what everyone does – I consulted Dr. Google. There was not much information on that situation, beyond the suggestion that it might have to do with posture and arm movement.

It continued to get worse, so I tried to keep track of what caused problems. Doing a plank or chaturanga in yoga seemed fine, but doing a chest press with weights did not. Doing front arm raises was fine but lifting my left arm above my head, especially when lying down, was not.

Finally I decided I’d better mask up and go to the physiotherapist, especially it seems as if every second woman in my age group seems to be getting frozen shoulder. After some prodding and various tests, the verdict was Shoulder Impingement Syndrome. I’ve been advised to avoid lifting my arm up too high (which means footwork practice only in flamenco), avoiding certain weight exercises, and doing some targeted exercises to strength the muscles around my shoulder.

Could be worse. And at least my husband and I can do our physio-prescribed exercises together, as he has tennis elbow.

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After You’ve Watched LUPIN

March 12th, 2021Posted by Nancy

The French production of LUPIN on Netflix puts a fresh spin on an old story. If watching gentleman thief Assane Diop’s adventures have whet your appetite for the original, might I recommend the gorgeous new edition just released by my good friends at The House Of Pomegranates Press. As you can see, the cover has the perfect Parisian fin-de-siècle feel. You’ll also find lots of other beautiful editions of classic horror and thrillers works, as well as some undiscovered gems – and original novels by David Keyes (which I highly recommend. The writing is luminous, lush, and dryly funny).

The books are available through Amazon right now and will eventually be available direct from HoP. Be sure to follow them on Instagram to keep up with the new old publications.

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What I read in January & February 2021

February 27th, 2021Posted by Nancy

In the absence of anything exciting to write about (yes, I’m writing, no, it’s not going well), here are some of the things I read and enjoyed over the last two months.

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily Danforth. A cursed book (maybe), a haunted school (maybe), three young women trying to get ahead, a movie that’s not quite what it seems, a past that isn’t quite past. This would make a great mini-series on Netflix.

Billion Dollar Loser by Reeves Wiederman. Subtitled “The Epic Rise and Spectacular Fall of Adam Neumann and WeWork”. Confirmed all my dislike of tech bros and “disruption” for disruption’s sake.

The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis. Source of the Netflix series and well worth reading. Though you don’t get the fabulous clothes.

Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder by Julia Zarankin. I think I’ll settle for mildly observing birds in my yard, but this is was fascinating book about finding your passion later in life and being willing to love things you’ll never excel at. This is a lesson I’m working on.

The Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries by Kerry Greenwood. I watched all the shows and have finally started on the books. Short, fun, and full of all the lovely clothes, cars, attractive young men, and adventures that make the show entertaining. There are some significant changes from the series but the spirit is the same.

The Leftovers by Tom Perrota. In this case, I’ve never seen the series, which I understand is quite different. There are a few elements that made me go “hmm, not sure I buy that” but I liked it nontheless.

Where Am I Now? by Mara Wilson. A thoughtful memoir by the child star of MATILDA (and current voice of The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your House, for all you Nightvale fans). Very well done, and I was happy to discover that Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman are indeed very good people.

The End of The End of Everything by Dale Bailey. Dark Fantasy/horror short stories that go unexpected places. I didn’t remember why this was on my wishlist but it was a pleasant surprise.

Everything You Ever Wanted by Luiza Sauma. Science fiction-ish? Science Fiction Adjacent? If you could sign up to take a one-way trip to colonize another planet through a wormhole in the Pacific, would you go? If you’re a mid-20s digital content producer in London, you might. The book doesn’t focus on any of things usually front and centre in these types of stories, but concentrates on Iris’ motivation for going, her life in London, and how she copes with what she discovers on Nyx.

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DISCOVERING JAPAN UPDATE

February 19th, 2021Posted by Nancy

Things move slowly these days but here’s an update on the status of the new edition at some key outlets.

AMAZON.CA – Available for preorder

AMAZON.COM – currently only the original edition is listed

CHAPTERS/INDIGO – Available to add to your wishlist.

Move info as it becomes available….

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The World in Words: Nature Writing

January 22nd, 2021Posted by Nancy

I admit that I’m a sucker for beautiful words about the natural world (anyone who has ever read one of my books can likely tell, as I probably write far too much description of such things). Some of my favourite non-fiction books deal with the natural world and human mysteries and the intersection between the two.

Here are the books that have lingered in my thoughts long after reading them.

H is for Hawk and Vesper Flights by Helen MacDonald

Both of these books made multiple “year’s best” lists (in 2014 and 2020). The first is stunning meditation on grief, an account of training a goshawk, and what the author calls a “shadow biography” of T.H. White. The second is a collection of essays that covers everything from watching a songbird migration from the top of the Empire State Building to watching the solar eclipse from a beach in Turkey to looking at the stars from the Atacama Desert – and what all those things mean to the people she encounters.

Here’s a brief sample from Vesper Flights. I had to stop and read this bit out loud to my husband, as I do with things I think are amazing. He’s very patient about it.

“Above me, the Southern Hemisphere stars are all dust and terror and distance and slow fire in the night, and I stare up, frozen, in frozen in wonderment.”

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant

A masterful book about the conflict between human encroachment into the wilds of far eastern Russia and the great Amur tigers who live there, focusing on a series of killings and the ensuing hunt for the creature responsible. You learn about tigers and about this remote part of the world in equal measure. I always remember a section about the difficulty the solitary men in their remote cabins had speaking about anything beyond the practical, because they didn’t have the words for it. It always reminded me of some of my great-relatives, who seemed unable to answer questions about how they felt about things that had happened to them. For the Russians, there was vodka instead of words. I’m not sure what there was for my very proper Ontario great-aunts.

Here’s a section that’s also stayed with me, about our ancient fear of the dark.

“… during the 1960s and ’70s, (Charles) Brain spent time observing a troop of cliff-dwelling baboons that lived nearby. On particularly cold nights, the troop of about thirty baboons would retire to the caves that run deep inside the cliffs. One night, Brain did something no modern human had ever done. “I hid inside the cavern,” he wrote, “making my presence known only after the baboons had taken up their sleeping places. Although pandemonium broke out in the cave, the baboons could not be induced to leave the place in the dark.”

Owls of The Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl by Jonathan C. Slaight

2020’s trip the Far East of Russia, this time in search of a huge, fish-eating owl that looks a bit like a muppet goblin. There’s vodka, bad driving, remote places, locals who likely washed up there on the run from something, rapidly melting ice, and lots of beautiful writing.

Sadly, no way to quote this one, but I did love what the researchers discovered about the birds they were able to trap and band (a story in itself). Once they were caught, they tended to passively allow themselves to be weighted and measured and banded. Or at least the males did. The females would try to tear your face off with their talons.

Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology by Lisa Margonelli

An entertaining tale about termites, scientists, defense possibilities, AI ambitions, and more. A fascinating look at a very complicated creature (the termites) and some rather confused – and confusing – ones (the scientists who make their notes in black notebooks vs. computers, the luckless grad students who have to spent their days trying to count termites, and the people who will go to the ends of the earth to check out a good termite mound).

“In the mound, it is possible to see the entire order of the terrestrial sphere or, in more modern language, the progress from local to global. First there is the teeming world of the termite’s gut, processing grass; then the world of the termites, digging and grooming in their great social pile; then the world of the termites and their fungus, communicating in the mound through waves of chemistry and water vapor; and then the world of the plants and geckos on the surface. Way up in the air, a giraffe obliviously munches on a tasty leaf. And from the air, a regularly ordered carpet of fertility and superfertility becomes evident. And finally, a planet with an atmosphere.”

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Discovering Japan – New Cover!

January 8th, 2021Posted by Nancy

Here is the gorgeous cover of the new edition of my short story collection, out soon. This edition includes all of the stories from the original, plus one new story, and FIVE excerpts from my two works in progress.

More details to come later!

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What I read in 2020

December 30th, 2020Posted by Nancy

As with all things, this year’s COVID craziness has affected people differently. Some of my friends have barely managed to read anything. Some people have concentrated on rereads and comfort found in familiar words. Before I did the tally, I thought I’d read a lot more this year than last, but it turns out the total is roughly the same as 2019. (So much for my supposed productivity.)

Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library’s history function, I count up 78 fiction titles and 42 non-fiction, for a total of 120. Throw in some physical reads and rereads on my Kobo, and the final total for the year is around 130.

What did I like best?

Fiction:

True Grit, Charles Portis. The classic 1968 short novel that spawned two film versions. It’s brilliantly written and boasts an incredible first person voice in Matty Ross – sharp, flinty, a bit prudish, a bit prideful, with flashes of the woman she has become showing through the ostensible narration of a 14-year-old girl. This article gives you a taste of the treat you’ll get reading this book.

Exit, Pursued by A Bear, E.K. Johnston. This was on my library “wish list” for several months and by the time I actually borrowed it, I’d forgotten what it was about. It turned out it was a completely unexpected story about a cheerleader who is sexually assaulted at cheerleading camp. And then nothing goes the way you think it will. It’s a story about friendship and family and finding a way to get past the last thing you ever thought would happen to you.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World, Elif Shafak. Every bit as moving but far less depressing than you imagine a book narrated by a prostitute dying in a dumpster in Istanbul would be. It covers her life up to her death and then how her chosen family choose to honour her.

Things in Jars, Jess Kidd. A pipe-smoking female detective in Victorian London, a tattooed ghost of a boxer, and an usual child with very sharp teeth. It’s funny and grim and gorgeously written. I also recommend Himself by the same author.

The Glass Hotel, Emily St. John Mandel. From the author of Station Eleven, which was also one of my favourites (and about the aftermath of a plague, just for added relevance). An interesting double bill with the Elif Shafak novel.

Other things I liked.

Spoiler Alert by Olivia Dade and Beach Read by Emily Henry . Entertaining contemporary romances featuring writers and fandom.

The most recent three installments in Martha Wells’ wonderful Murderbot series.

The last two books in Megan Whalen Turner’s rich and marvelous Attolia series.

Non-Fiction:

Owls of the Eastern Ice, Jonathan Slaight. I love good nature writing and it’s even better when it’s combined with a depiction of a human landscape as well. A scientist studies a rare owl (which looks rather comically like a gremlin) and encounters the people who live on Russia’s harsh eastern shore. Much vodka is involved.

Vesper Flights, Helen Macdonald. Essays from the writer of the beautiful meditation on birds and grief, H is for Hawk. The writing is so exquisite I kept reading sections to my husband just because I wanted to say the words out loud.

Know my Name, Chanel Miller. A brave and moving book by a young woman who is, first of all, an extremely talented writer and, secondly, the Emily Doe of the Stanford sexual assault trial. Her victim statement went viral but this book is so much more than that. It’s harrowing to read at times but completely worth it.

Nomadland, Jessica Bruder. The story of some of the people who take to the road after the economic shocks of the last decade and cobble together a living of Amazon warehouse jobs, farm work, and creating communities in the deserted places in America. Now a prize-winning film starring Frances McDormand and many of the people featured in the book.

A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit. In a year of unremitting bad news, it was nice to read a book that reminds us that when things fall apart, most people behave decently and the community comes together to care for each other. Too much fiction tries to tell us otherwise – we have to make sure that doesn’t become a self-fulfilling prophecy just because it makes a good story.

Other books I liked:

Blood, Bones and Butter, Gabrielle Hamilton. Luscious writing by a chef about her unusual childhood and journey towards creating an acclaimed NY restaurant (now shuttered due to COVID).

Ninth Street Women, Mary Gabriel. The lives of Lee Krasner, Elaine De Koonig, Grace Hartigan and other women of the NY Abstract Expressionist movement. Proving once again that women are often idiots and men are generally bad for female artists’ careers.

My “to read” list is still over 200 books long, I keep adding more, and I’ve got 10 books currently on reserve at the library. I’d better to keep up the pace.

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What I learned (or relearned) during 2020

December 24th, 2020Posted by Nancy

The best thing I ever did was figure out that love is not a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach

Once I got that sorted (roughly 32 years ago), I was able to realize that the person who made me the happiest was the man I would go on to marry. We celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary this year. We had to lift our glasses of champagne in our back yard rather than in Barcelona but that didn’t matter. I can’t imagine a better person with whom to spend a year (and likely longer) of social distancing and change. We have lots of interests in common – we like the same movies and food and music. We have our own pastimes – flamenco, history, writing for me, cycling, technology, music composition for him.  We go for walks on our own, we go for walks together. The truth is that he contributes far more to our partnership that I do (he cooks, he organizes, he shops, he plans, I … well, I guess I garden and do travel planning). I don’t know how I got so lucky. I’m pretty sure I don’t deserve it.

I love living in the city

During the early days of the pandemic, there seemed to be an endless stream of think pieces on the “death of the city”, as if the only reason people live in cities is to cut their commute times. There are definitely more rural places I love – northern Ontario cottages, small towns in the mountains, the Tuscan countryside (wait, who doesn’t love that? Maybe that doesn’t count). Of course I check out real estate outside the Toronto and in other provinces. I fantasize about being the kind of person who could live in a cabin up north – but I long ago figured out that is definitely not who I am in this life. Maybe the next one.

I realized that I don’t love the city just because of restaurants and concerts and museums. I love it because I can take the TTC to get most places I want to go. I love it because when I walk to the subway station there are 5 different routes I can take. I love that I can go for a long walk and it seems as if there are an endless combination of streets I can explore. I’ve lived in suburbia and I hated having only one sensible way to walk anywhere and your meanderings restricted to an infinite recursion of cul-de-sacs and crescents. I love the big trees and even the ongoing changes on all those streets as small houses go down and big ones go up. I don’t need a big house or yard. Our bungalow and small yard with lots of plants and no lawn suits me just fine. Even during a pandemic. Especially during a pandemic.

I still don’t care for shopping online

I recognize the necessity of it this year. I’ve done it in small doses to support Canadian companies and my favourite designer. It’s pretty much the only way to get flamenco skirts. I try to avoid Amazon at all costs, though I admit that I’m a beneficiary of my husband’s Amazon purchases. I don’t really like shopping in person either – but if I’m going to do it, I’d rather be able to look at things and try them on. I’m just old school that way.

Staying home is not so bad

I miss my friends and my family and flamenco class and even the gym. I’m sad that we didn’t get to go to Spain or see concerts in person. As long as I can go for a walk, it’s not hard to spend my time at home. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens when this is all done.

It’s not time I’m lacking

I knew that, of course, but the discourse around writing King Lear while in isolation reinforced it. I have lots of the time to write and be creative. What’s missing is what has been missing for years: the old joy, the old confidence, the old faith that I will find my way.

I’m lucky

I knew that too, but it’s always good to be forcibly reminded of that fact. It’s easy to forget it and feel sorry for yourself for all the things you lack in yourself, the things you regret, the things you’ll never do. I’m not sure I did anything to deserve it, but I am indeed extremely lucky.

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