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?


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.


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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We decorate the tree…

December 14th, 2020Posted by Nancy

The holiday season this year may involve no Tree Decorating Party (36 years running), no Christmas Eve dinner with family, no Christmas Day visit to “the Hall” to see the extended clan, no brunch with friends, no New Year’s Eve dinner and movie with the usual suspects, but at least we still got a tree (delivered) and put up a fine selection of the ornaments we’ve acquired during the 33 years we’ve been hosting the party. I should mention that the invitation specifies “ugly ornaments”. And we do have those.

Despite my ongoing struggles with the size limits on this site, here are some photos.

The tree in its glory. Note the dinosaur, hamburger, bilious green clown, and bedazzled bull with a lace skirt.
One of our friends refers to this as “the bastard child of ET and a goose”.
One of our favourites. Nothing says Christmas like a scary clown.

When you put them all together with the lights and the garlands and you squint a bit, it actually looks quite pretty.

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The Show Goes On

November 29th, 2020Posted by Nancy

John and Exene get the band back together and make some noise.

We see a fair bit of live music, mostly because we have subscriptions to three different series (one classical on Sunday afternoons, one modern music series, and one mix of everything from Bach interpretations to a tribute to Frank Zappa). In 2019, I counted 22 shows on the calendar.

Needless to say, 2020 has not looked at all the same. By March, after having seen 4 shows, everything started getting cancelled, first for Spring 2020 and then for Fall 2020 and then the entire 2020/2021 seasons. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to pull the plug on concerts that had been planned and booked two years earlier, leaving the organizations and artists without funding during a pandemic.

The first show we saw in the new world was in April. Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah Slean broadcast via Zoom from her living room for a $7 fee, with donations to charity. In May, the Crow’s Theatre partnered with Gare de L’est restaurant to deliver a mostly prepped dinner and wine before a Zoom preview of a new musical based on The Master and Margarita. (We’ve since done two more shows this way, resulting in excellent meals – with leftovers – and an amazing performance of the play Ghost Quartet.)

We tried watching things on Facebook Live, but couldn’t bear the endless stream of hearts and comments. But then, in August, we discovered Mandolin, a service that works with musicians to livestream their shows from studios or clubs. It skews heavily to singer-songwriters, but that’s right up our alley, so we’ve now bought three-show packages featuring Shawn Colvin, John Doe, Richard Thompson, and Emmylou Harris. We’ll have a lot of Christmas shows this year.

We’ve also seen the Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour (both the one cancelled in March and the one for the upcoming season), several flamenco shows, and a beautiful performance by Mary Chapin Carpenter from Wolf Trap. So far, we’re up to 19 performances with 5 more to come.

It’s not the same as live – but it does allow for easy bathroom breaks, a glass of wine or two, and very comfy seating. Our musical diet is lacking in the string quartets and other classical music that used to form a major part of our attendance, so that’s the next thing to investigate.

Not sure when we’ll next see a loud rock and roll band at the Music Hall though.

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Beautiful Books

November 16th, 2020Posted by Nancy

A collection of classics

My good friends at The House of Pomegranates Press have started to produce amazing editions of classic titles with the feel of old books. As it says on their website:

Whenever we would find ourselves wandering in book shops, dusty antique or junk shops we are always drawn to the back where the stacks of unloved and dust jacket-less books huddle, waiting, still full of mystery and adventure, just a little worn and tired. We loved those books and decided to create a series that resembles those books from the teens to the thirties.” 

Titles currently available include such wonderful books as Dracula, Sailing Alone around the World by Jonathan Slocum, and Whose Body?, a Wimsey mystery by Dorothy Sayers.

You’ll also find original fiction by the talented David Keyes. His collection, I Do So Sorry For All Those Lost at Sea, is beautiful, evocative, whimsical, surreal, and moving. His Cecil Woolley series evokes the occult detectives of the 1920s, along with healthy lashings of martinis, murder, mystery, and some fabulous gowns.

You can find their work on the website or at Amazon. Treat yourself to a beautiful book today!

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A Good Day

November 7th, 2020Posted by Nancy

It was 20 degrees celsius today.

The sun was shining.

We saw friends at an appropriate distance.

Joe Biden is the President-elect of the United States.

It was a good day.

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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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