The Best Things I Read This Year

January 2nd, 2022Posted by Nancy

I did A LOT of reading this year. I suppose being stuck at home during a pandemic will do that for you.

Total books read: roughly 160

Fiction: 62% Non-Fiction: 38%

Below are some of the ones I liked best, in no particular order. While I read fewer non-fiction titles, more of them stuck with me as memorable.

BEST FICTION – SF, Fantasy, Horror

Plain Bad Heroines, Emily Danforth

In That Endlessness, Our End, Gemma Files. Gemma managed to make me afraid of Airbnbs, old houses, downtown Toronto, writing groups, and Northern Ontario. Plus numerous other things. Thanks, pal.

Severance, Ling Ma – which pairs nicely with Everything You Ever Wanted, Luiza Sauma

The Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson

The Fisherman, John Langan

A Desolation Called Peace, Arkady Martine

The Empress of Salt and Fortune and When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, Nghi Vo

Witness for the Dead, Katharine Addison (plus a reread of The Goblin Emperor)

Temporary, Hilary Leichter

Living Alone, Stella Benson

BEST FICTION – Other

The Corner that Held Them, Sylvia Townsend Warner

The Queen’s Gambit, Walter Tevis

The Leftovers, Thomas Perrotta

Interior Chinatown, Charles Yu

The Hearing Trumpet and The Collected Stories, Leonora Carrington

The Weekend, Charlotte Wood

Leonora in the Morning Light, Michaela Carter

BEST NON-FICTION – Politics, Society, and Related

Our Own Worst Enemy, Tom Nichols

A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear, Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis

The Sum of Us, Heather McGhee

Empire of Pain, Patrick Radden Keefe

Everything Now ,Rosencrans Baldwin

The Next Supper, Corey Mintz

Uncanny Valley, Anna Weiner – pairs very nicely with the novel Sourdough, Robin Sloan

BEST NON-FICTION – Art, Music, Literature

Villa Air-Bel, Rosemary Sullivan

On Freedom and The Art of Cruelty, Maggie Nelson

The Lonely City, Olivia Laing

Putting it Together, James Lepine

Where am I Now? Mara Wilson

Beeswing, Richard Thompson

My Rock ‘n’ Roll Friend, Tracey Thorn

Astounding, Alec Nevia-Lee

BEST NON-FICTION – Science, Nature and History

A Honeybee Heart has Five Openings, Helen Jukes

Kindred, Rebecca Wragg Skyes

The Story of More, Hope Jahren

The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan

Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder, Julie Zarankin

A World on the Wing, Scott Weidensaul

Against the Grain, James Scott – pairs very nicely with The Dawn of Everything, David Graeber and David Wengrow

The Anarchy, William Dalrymple

Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow – pairs nicely with Eliza Hamilton, Tilar J. Mazzeo

The Verge: Forty Years that Shook the World, Patrick Wyman

Hero of Two Worlds, Mike Duncan

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Word counts, counting words – and why am I bothering?

December 15th, 2021Posted by Nancy

Well, I made my target of 10,000 words in November for Nanowrimo, though I have done not a thing since. Even without any more writing in December, I’ll beat 2020’s total word count by a bit.

Does this matter? Some of the words aren’t very good. Some of them will end up having nothing to do with whatever the plot turns out to be. Is the whole process just in the service of persuading myself I’m accomplishing something when in fact I’m not?

I have no answers to these momentous, existential questions. I find setting word goals helpful because I’m the kind of person who goes to fitness classes rather than riding an exercise bicycle or lifting weights. I need outside pressure – or at least perceived pressure – to combat my natural laziness. At the very least, writing a bunch of words I end up cutting will probably net me more progress on the books than waiting for the perfect scene to write. In the process of just writing the next thing that happens in order to meet my target, I do sometimes discover something I hadn’t suspected about a character or a situation or a direction the story needs to go.

None of this resolves my essential problem, which is figuring out what to write not how to craft a good sentence.

I can make 35,000 words this year if I write another 1,700 words. Easy-peasy, as they say. So maybe I’ll try for that. But not today.

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Latest Reading List

November 21st, 2021Posted by Nancy

In the thick of my Nanowrimo drive for 2021 (target: 10,000 words). But I’m still getting some reading done. Here are my favourites of the last two months.

FICTION

The Empress of Salt and Fortune, Nghi Vo. Absolutely loved this novella about empires, hidden magic, and power in unexpected places. Bonus: Mastadon cavalries.

Black Water Sister, Zen Cho. As one review says: “Gods, Ghosts, Gangsters.” Set in Malaysia and very entertaining.

Temporary, Hilary Leichter. A very odd short novel about a woman whose temporary gigs involve being a ghost, a pirate, a CEO, and an assassin’s assistant.

The Lost Man, by Jane Harper. Some clunky dialogue and plotting made up for by vivid descriptions of life on a contemporary cattle ranch in the Outback.

NON-FICTION

I read a lot more of this than fiction over the last few months.

Our Own Worst Enemy, by Tom Nichols. Thought-provoking look at some of the broader societal trends leading to the rise of anti-democratic forces. Narcissism, rising standards of living, global peace, resistant to change are all cited. I didn’t agree with everything but I did, as they say, “feel seen.”

The Anarchy, by William Dalrympe. A look at how the East India Trading Company became a de facto arm of the British Empire in India. Full of fascinating characters, battles, politics, racism, and violence. This isn’t a period or a place I know much about, so I found it fascinating. Bonus: Camel Cavalries!

The Storm is Upon Us, by Mike Rothschild. Outlines the rise of Qanon and its impact on the US. I thanked my father for not watching Fox News after reading this.

On Freedom, by Maggie Nelson. A fascinating look at the interplay of freedom, care, and constraint through the lens of popular culture and art theory. A bit dense with jargon at times, but I wrote down a number of quotes I found important to think about more. Part of my attempt to figure out how I feel about some of the issues currently bedeviling us.

Villa Air-Bel, by Rosemary Sullivan. This came out of my reading of the novel about Leonora Carrington. Many of the artists, writers, and intellectuals desperate to get out of Vichy France before the Nazis could get around to rounding them all up lived at this villa outside Marseille while they waited for their papers. Sometimes hard to read, especially in the early going, because the reader knows how terrible things are going to become while the characters are telling themselves it will all be ok. Rather uncomfortable to consider that we’re likely just as blind.

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Hitting the Road in the New World

October 25th, 2021Posted by Nancy

It was almost like “the before times”, but with added masks and vaccine passports.

A planned family reunion in Picton, Ontario was cancelled but, as we have friends there, we kept our hotel reservation and went to “the county” for a few days.

Observations:

  1. Clearly, a large number of Ontarians had decided to do the same thing. The hotel was full. The restaurants were turning people away if they didn’t have reservations. The winery parking lots were busy.
  2. The staff were uniformly pleasant, cheerful, diligent in checking the vaccine QR codes and ID, and occasionally a little overwhelmed by the rush of customers eager to get back to the business of enjoying themselves.
  3. October is the best time to drive the backroads in Ontario. It was seriously lovely.
  4. After the initial shock (wait, there are people! There’s noise! There’s music! There are no masks!), it was as if COVID had never happened. Mostly.
  5. Things I’d be happy if they stayed this way but recognize they won’t. It was very nice NOT to be seated at a two-top table a foot from another couple. It’s been quite nice going to movie theatre’s with only 8 other people. Contactless check-in at hotels is perfectly fine with me.
  6. We can’t afford to live down there, as all the rich people from Toronto have already moved there and driven up the real estate prices.

If you happen to be in the area, we can recommend The Picton Harbour Inn, Bocado for seriously scrumptious Spanish food, Hartley’s for excellent, creative food, Bermuda in Bloomfield for yummy lunch and enthusiastic staff, and Sandbanks Provincial Park for great trails.

The second part of the trip involved a family gathering in Peterborough for the other side of the family. It was wonderful to see everyone and to discover that the Comfort Inn has a room with a heart-shaped jacuzzi. Not that it was working. Not that we would have used it if it was. But still ….

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What I read at the cottage, September 2021

September 25th, 2021Posted by Nancy

Sadly, there was no pretty picture this year, though I did read a few physical books. But here’s what I read and enjoyed on my vacation.

FIction:

The Last True Gentleman on the Planet Earth by David Keyes. I’m not objective about this one, as David is a dear friend. But this is a wonderful collection of stories that range from the magical title tale (complete with goth-girl sisters, martinis, mysterious strangers, snow storms, foxes, and the Devil) to the utterly modern stories of the perils of J-pop stardom and the Manhattan model milieu.

Living Alone by Stella Benson. An odd, absurd story about a witch in London during WW1, coping both with the absurdities of wartime and the vagaries of the city’s magical underworld. Written in 1919 and available in a gorgeous edition by the House of Pomegranates Press.

Leonora in the Morning Light by Michaela Carter. A surprisingly good companion piece to Living Alone. A novel about the life of surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, which I’m happy to say inspired a number of interesting thoughts about my own artist novel (in the usual “hmm, I wonder what would happen if…” way that ends up only tangentially related to the original spark).

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. A reread spurred by reading her new book, set in the same world. It’s still lovely, charming, and thoughtful. On this read, I was doubly impressed by her worldbuilding, as she provides very little detailed explanation of anything but you feel you know everything you need to for it all to make sense. I have no idea how much backstory she prepared or how long it took her, but I took heart from an excellent example of creating a fully-realized world without filling in every little crack and crevice.

Foundation by Isaac Asimov. I’ve read a number of Asimov’s short stories but, at the point I started reading SF in the 1970s, he already fell into the “old white man” category for a feminist teen like me, so I never read the novels. In preparation for the upcoming Apple TV series, we hauled out my husband’s old 1964 editions and had a go at them. I had a lot of quibbles (it really is just men talking and being clever. Why would the big goal be to get back to a galactic empire? Why not a galactic democracy?) but I liked it enough to read the next two. They’re very short, after all.

Non-Fiction

How to Fail by Elizabeth Day. I’ve listened to some of her podcast of the same name. The book expands on her own experiences of failure and what she learned from them. It’s heartening – but I’m still not sure my own failures led to anything special. Sigh.

The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War by Andrew Delbanco. Well-written summary of the issues surrounding the fugitive slave laws in the early republic. The grim, infuriating bits are offset by the examples of courage from both slaves willing to risk everything for freedom and principled people prepared to help and defend them. A good reminder that yes, indeed, there were lots of people who knew slavery was wrong back in the 1800s.

We had glorious weather, so very little writing or dancing was done. Might have broken a record for most September swims though.

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Lazin’ on all the summer afternoons..

August 20th, 2021Posted by Nancy

The heat continues and it has managed to sap a good deal of my motivation to do much more than read, lie under the fan, and watch Youtube videos.

On the positive side:

  • wrote 5,000 words in July.
  • went to the museum for a safely-masked visit of two excellent new exhibits.
  • had lunch on a patio twice.
  • had my hair cut for the first time since November 2019. This was long overdue.
  • had a wonderful visit with my brother and hugged my father for the first time since October 2019.
  • I am getting a steady supply of beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, and zucchini from the garden. Anybody want some?
  • resumed pulling up invasive plants as part of the local stewardship program.
  • am on the verge of going back to dance class.

On the negative side:

  • have not progressed farther than spray painting the frame on my latest mosaic..
  • my 5,000 words may all get cut, as the scene I was writing seems to be neither necessary nor exciting.
  • I continue to be adrift with regards to where either of my WIPs are going. Every bit of potentially interesting information I acquire through the aforementioned YouTube videos is just another shiny object and I dart from one to the next without any of them actually solving the numerous problems.
  • it’s much too hot for either pulling weeds or dancing, so both activities are/will be less satisfying than they could be.
  • the world is going up in flames and shows every sign it will continue to burn.

But cottage country is beckoning shortly, so will hope a dip in a cold lake will wake me back up and lead to a productive fall.

And for your amusement, and after a great deal of computer angst, a before and after.

Last haircut Nov 2019

Last haircut Aug 2021

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Wise Words from Jane

June 27th, 2021Posted by Nancy

“What dreadful hot weather we have! It keeps me in a constant state of inelegance.”

Jane Austen called it. I hate the heat and humidity of Toronto summer weather. I’m only grateful I’m not in B.C., where heat records are falling like nine pins. It’s not the time to be reading a book about climate change. Or maybe it is.

Off to put ice cubes on my feet….

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What I’ve read – update

June 11th, 2021Posted by Nancy

I managed a lot of reading over the last three months, some of it frothy, some of it scientific, some of it unexpected. I know, I should have been writing, but c’est la vie.

Here are some of the memorable ones.

A fine selection of rock memoirs, including LAST CHANCE TEXACO by Rickie Lee Jones (who had a very … eventful … early life), BEESWING by Richard Thompson (wry and funny), and MY ROCK ‘N’ ROLL FRIEND by Tracy Thorn (a memoir of a friendship, a fellow musician, and the struggles of women musicians).

FICTION

The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. This features one of the most horrific opening chapters I’ve ever read but, despite that, manages to be hopeful that we do indeed have a future on this planet.

The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington. Funny, mordant, and unpredictable. I’m glad I’m catching up with surrealist Carrington’s work.

The Fisherman by John Langan. I finally got around to reading this much-recommended horror/dark fantasy novel. It wasn’t at all what I expected but I liked it quite a bit. I don’t read much horror anymore but am slowing dipping my toes back into the genre.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. Clarke is not prolific but everything she publishes is a gem.

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood. One of those books I couldn’t remember putting on my “wish list” and then being completely blown away by. The plot is simple: three older women go to clear out the cabin of a recently deceased friend. None of them seem terribly likeable – they’re spiky, snide, secretive, and often cruel to each other. Wood deftly reveals their characters and histories together and by the end I felt kinship, in some way, to all of them.

NON-FICTION

Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, Alec Nevala-Lee. I did not know a good deal of this and found it fascinating.

The Storm before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic by Mike Duncan. I listen to his Revolutions podcast and enjoyed this history of Rome before the big three (Julius, Pompey, Antony) start in on warring.

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe. The Sacklers make me wish there was a Hell they could go to in death, because in life, they’ll likely stay rich off the destruction of other people’s lives.

KIndred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art by Becky Wragg Sykes. Detailed but understandable book about our growing understanding of the complex life of our early relatives.

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener. A memoir about being a woman (and a literary type) working in Silicon Valley during the tech boom. A nice tonic to the general worship of tech bros.

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. The book that inspired the musical (will that be its big claim to fame?) Naturally, AH is a more complicated, annoying, wrong-headed, brilliant character than can be accommodated in a play.

A Libertarian Walks into A Bear by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling. A fascinating look at what happens when a group of libertarians move to a small, poor New Hampshire town to create their dream world of freedom. Turns out the bears don’t care about your politics.

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Brainstorming

May 31st, 2021Posted by Nancy

Figuring stuff out with Che Guevara’s help. Photo: Nancy Baker

I usually alternate monthly writing goals between actual writing and planning/plotting projects. April was Camp Nanowrimo and I managed my goal of 10,000 words – but it became clear I needed to make some decisions. May therefore became “brainstorm and decide” month.

Some of the questions on the table included:

  • What exactly is the religion?
  • Who are the rulers during the period of the story?
  • What do Royal Magicians actually do? How are they chosen?
  • What bad things did Olivier do to people?
  • Who burned his studio?

Now you might think those are major issues that should probably have been solved before one novel was at 80,000 words and the other at 20,000. You might well think so. Welcome to Nancy’s backwards writing process. For brainstorming, I get out a large black scrapbook that my sister decorated with various clippings as a Christmas gift. I start by summing up what I’ve already written into the text (which doesn’t mean it won’t change) and then asking: what does X HAVE to be in order to satisfy the demands of the story I’m NOT willing to change.

For example, with the question of the religion, the “givens” in the text included:

  • there are churches and regular services
  • there are entities/figures that function as Saints
  • no Christ equivalent
  • cloistered communities exist
  • magic is not considered sinful, except in some small sects

The elements that were implicit in the story so far included:

  • not extremely gendered – no assumption of women as evil, for example
  • doesn’t come up in conversation among magicians a lot

I need it to be:

  • ok with magic – no doctrine against it
  • Cloistered orders – male and female
  • not overly concerned about prosecuting regional heresies unless they threaten magic
  • not main cause of conflict with other countries

Once I’ve outlined those categories, I start writing down thoughts and questions. For example: What if Saints are more like minor gods vs historical people?

I’m constantly aware that I’m likely failing miserably at concocting a believable alternate religion and no doubt missing some major important said religion would have on the society – but eventually something clicks and I have enough of an idea of how it fits together that I can decide “yep, that will do.” It might not work for sociology or anthropology but it works for my purposes. And sooner or later, I just need to put a pin in it and move on. So I do.

June’s project is to try to integrate all my decisions into the existing text and write the bits I’d been putting off because I needed to figure out the religion or how Royal Magicians were chosen or just who burned down Olivier’s studio.

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Art on the Walls

May 17th, 2021Posted by Nancy

I’ve gone on a lot of walks over the last year. I’ve got several regular routes, some of which involve the alleyways of garages that are common in my area. In my perambulations, I’ve discovered that there’s lots of interesting art on garage doors and back fences. I decided to assemble some of my favourite photos and throw in some extra shots from my travels. Art really is everywhere.

Photo by Nancy Baker

There’s a 7-11 that’s destined to become a condo (everything in Toronto becomes a condo eventually) but in the meantime boasts a beautiful, detailed mural.

Photo by Nancy Baker

These birds never fail to perk me up.

Photo by Nancy Baker

This octopus wishes to have words with you, sir.

Photo by Nancy Baker

All the garages facing a local park have been adorned with lovely graffiti. I was beginning to despair of finding something more my speed when this beauty appeared.

Photo by Nancy Baker

This was gone the next time I went by but it did seem intentional so it counts.

Photo by Nancy Baker

When a giant “TAKE THIS AWAY” sign just won’t do.

Photo by Nancy Baker

I don’t know the intention behind this but, naturally, assumed some sort of alchemical incantation to transform the world. Or at least summon the Octopus.

Photo by Nancy Baker

All the way from Florence, Italy. This little fellow was featured on many walls in 2017.

Photo by Nancy Baker

In 2015, we saw many street signs transformed by these figures. When we went back in 2017, the artist had a shop where you could buy your own stickers. So, of course, I did.

Photo by Nancy Baker

More commentary from Florence.

Photo by Nancy Baker

Not exactly street art – but how could I resist? Punks not Dead!

Photo by Nancy Baker

Part of a gorgeous mural in L.A.

Photo by Nancy Baker

A creative installation in Riverdale.

Photo by Nancy Baker

Advice for living on Woodbine Avenue.

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