Snowpocalypse

It was complete snowpocalypse in Vancouver this weekend. We broke all the weather records. I shovelled the driveway three times on Saturday. The final time was at 8 p.m. and by the time I finished the driveway, the sidewalk was covered again.

This all would have been fine and fun and lovely (it was pretty) except that I was right in the middle of Eric Walters’ Rule of Three trilogy. In those books, the world’s computers go off-line and civilization almost immediately breaks down.

This meant that by Sunday morning, I was classifying our neighbours by their snow-shovelling habits. Those people across the street? The ones from Toronto who should understand about clearing the sidewalks, but apparently don’t? I’m not sure they’ll be amenable to sharing food and resources. The guy in the green house, on the other hand, was across the road helping his neighbour clear a path for his car. He’s definitely on board the community “lifeboat.” And what about the mysterious good samaritan who shovelled a clear strip down both sides of the block before anyone else was awake? We’ll need to meet him.

I’ve finished the books, but Silence is now deep into the first instalment. We’re probably going shopping for canned food and chlorine tablets soon. As soon as the snow melts, at least.

Last year in books: non-fiction

Thanks to a late-December bout of strep, I made it to 79 books last year. When I scanned back over the list, many of the titles that jumped out at me were non-fiction. So, in case you’d like to start 2017 with some brain fodder, here are a few of my top picks:

1. Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? by Timothy Caulfield

The title alone is enough reason to read this. But, should you need more, it’s a book about celebrity culture and how it influences our views on science. And it’s funny. Strangely, even as I was reading the debunking of Gwyneth Paltrow’s juice fasts, I was simultaneously thinking, “ooh… that sounds good” and even as I was learning about the zero research done on anti-aging creams, I was making a mental note to buy some. But Timothy Caulfield doesn’t judge. He simply warns that anyone promising to cleanse your adrenals is selling something.

2. Grunt by Mary Roach

Mary Roach is one of my favourite non-fiction writers and I happily read anything she writes, even if she happens to be writing about war and soldiers and technology. Who knew I would find myself interested in penis replacement surgery? This is the magic of Mary Roach.

3. The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison

This is a beautifully written, thoughtful, wise collection of essays, and I could happily read the title essay again and again. The book is like that gem of a story collection you can’t wait to pass along to your friends, except these stories happen to be true.

4. North of Normal, by Cea Sunrise Person

I wrote about North of Normal when I read it last summer, and I’m still in love. You should read it no matter where you live, but if you happen to have spent any part of your childhood in the woods, you should read it today.

5. Symphony for the City of the Dead, by M.T. Anderson

This is supposed to be a young adult book and it’s really, really not. It’s a massive tome of Russian history and biography. But it is fascinating. As someone who admires obsession, I couldn’t help but marvel at composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who wrote and created throughout the Seige of Leningrad in 1943-44. The book itself must have been a work of obsession for the author. Who writes 464 pages about Russian history, for kids? I say definitely read this one… unless you’re 14 and want any hope of maintaining a normal social life.

Happy reading!

Reading. And reading.

I agreed to serve on a prize jury and have spent the past month reading. And reading. And reading. I read until my shoulders seize up, then I break for stretches, then read again, then break for this weird tiger-balm-like substance that makes my shoulders burn in a good way (sort of) instead of a bad, then read some more. I am slowly going blind. I am slowly losing the ability to think or ponder or judge.

And yet, at the same time, I’m itching with ideas. There’s something about constantly immersing myself in the creativity of others that makes me want to create something — anything — of my own. And there’s something about the restriction of my time which suddenly makes me treasure the moments I have free to write.

Emily

There is really nothing more annoying than when your child, the child who seems to read a dozen books a week (and so could obviously fit one more into her schedule), REFUSES to read a book that you’ve recommended.

After Silence loved the Borrowers series and the Oz books and Narnia and Anne of Green Gables, I suggested she try Emily of New Moon. Which she made no effort to do.

So, I bought her all three Emily books for Christmas.

She put them in her closet.

Now, I should maybe stop to explain that I LOVED the Emily books as a child, I still love them, and every writer I know loves Emily more than Anne. I considered duct-taping the books to Silence’s forehead until she agreed to read them.

I couldn’t find that chapter in the parenting guides.

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Finally, FINALLY, she was a little under the weather one day this fall and she downloaded the Emily of New Moon audio book from the Vancouver Public Library.

She loved it.

I was torn between peeing my pants with joy and tearing out my eyelashes one by one.

She’s now on book three.

I may steal the print versions and read them myself.

Midnight reading

I finished Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing over the weekend, just in time for her to win a Giller to go with her Governor General’s Award.

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I have some issues with complicated grown-up books: (a) I read too many middle-grade novels and I’ve come to expect constant action, and (b) I read in little chunks of time between life interruptions.

So I was getting through the book last week, but I wasn’t getting into it.

Then one night I fell asleep at 8 pm while putting my son to bed. I woke up at midnight feeling like it was morning. I opened my book.

Suddenly, the dreamlike wanderings of lost and confused characters were entirely appropriate. The generations of musicians seemed clear and real and yet so tiny against the background of revolution and exile. I devoured a huge chunk of the book that night. Long before morning, I was in love.

When I finished the final chapter on Saturday, I lay unable to move until I’d made Min sit through a long, rambling summary of how bits of stories and music both tie us together and move on without us. And then I decided I might never be able to read another book.

I’m so thrilled she won the Giller.

Also, I may become nocturnal.

On vikings and the management of expectations

I took my son to see Rick Riordan yesterday.

Rick Riordan seems like a lovely man, and Kidsbooks did a fabulous job of the event. It was held in the Hellenic Hall (which maybe should have been the Nordic Hall for the occasion) and it was packed to the gills.

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My son was SO excited. I can’t properly explain how excited he was. And that, I think, was part of the problem. Because it was a vaguely unsatisfying evening. Which made me think about kids, expectations, celebrity, and the problems with balancing the three.

My son is a super-fan. But he’s also nine and was one of the youngest at the event. So he was thrilled to be pointed toward a free T-shirt table, then crushed to find the T-shirts in adult sizes. And he practically dislocated his arms clapping and cheering when a sword-fighting Viking emerged from the wings and ran around the auditorium. Then he was seriously confused when the Viking took off his wig and turned out to be a thin, bald man.

“Is that him?” he asked me repeatedly, comparing the bald Viking to the author picture on the back flap of The Hammer of Thor.

No, as it turned out. The Viking was a publicist, who — after neglecting to introduce himself — proceeded to give prizes to kids who tried to answer questions such as: How many weeks has Percy Jackson been on the bestseller list? How many countries have rights to Rick Riordan books? How many copies of Uncle Rick’s books have been printed?

The publicist had a strange idea of what might interest young readers.

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When the real Rick Riordan finally emerged, he was warm, engaging, and funny. But he spent about twenty minutes on a slideshow which was basically an advertisement for the books released in 2016 and those coming in 2017. Again, my son waved his arms frantically trying to ask a question during the Q&A portion of the evening, but of course only a dozen of the hundreds of kids in the room gained their 30 seconds at the microphone.

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Then the event was over, and we all went home.

I was thinking this morning about what would have had to happen for my son to be as ecstatic at the end of the evening as he was at the beginning. First, that sword-waving Viking would have had to be sent to Ragnarok. (Sorry, publicist.) And Rick Riordan would have had to personally shake my son’s hand, look into his devoted little eyes, and say “I’m so glad you love my books.”

I admit, that’s probably unreasonable.

So then I thought about what I expect when I go to see my favourite authors speak. I know I’m not going to get personal interaction. But I go to hear them reading in their own voices. I go hoping to hear wisdom — words that will keep me thinking in the days to come. And I go for inspiration. When I leave, I want to feel eager to start work on my own stories.

Both the overprotective mom and the writer inside me would have liked all those things for my son.

But he went home clutching his signed copy of the new Magnus Chase book, and he read well past bedtime. So maybe he’ll find his wisdom and inspiration in the pages, instead of the performance.

For the record, his question was going to be: “How do you come up with all those amazing chapter titles? They’re my favourite part.”

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Like Netflix, but better

I love having my own personal pre-reader. My daughter gets stacks of books from the library and basically screens them for me.

Sometimes she tells me they’re not worth my time. Sometimes after the first few chapters, she says I should read it once she’s finished. Then by the end, she’s less enthused.

Occasionally, she plops a book onto my lap and says, “I’m taking this back to the library tomorrow but you have to read it. Tonight.”

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Her latest recommendation: The War That Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brusker Bradley. It’s the story of an abused girl in World War II London who’s evacuated to the countryside, and there finds the strength to reshape her own life. Plus ponies.

What else could one need?

(My son is also reading, but his recommendations are slightly different. Most recently, he said: “Do you know the fastest person to eat three eclairs took 18.02 seconds? We should try to beat that.”)

Hometown weekend

The kids and I headed to Creston on the long weekend for the 75th annual Blossom Festival. Along with getting thoroughly spoiled by my parents, we went to the parade, tried some carnival games, and explored the farmer’s market. We also went for a tour of Spectrum Farms and the stables of the Therapeutic Riding Association. That stop was my personal favourite, because who was doing tours but… Luanne Armstrong.

Fortunately for me, I was with my librarian aunt and my book-obsessed daughter. My aunt introduced us all and my daughter immediately said, “You’re Luanne Armstrong? I read I’ll Be Home Soon and I voted for you in the Chocolate Lily awards!”

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It turns out I’ll be Home Soon won the Chocolate Lily (which my daughter now thinks was entirely due to her vote), and the four of us received the grand tour of the riding stables and met all eight horses.

When not hobnobbing with literary stars, we walked trails, played in parks, barbecued hamburgers (well, actually, we ate the hamburgers that grandpa barbecued), met old friends and a new baby, read books, attempted fishing in three-foot waves (don’t tell Min), spotted bears along the highway, picked lettuce from the garden, searched for snakes, and met a donkey.

What more could you ask from a Blossom Festival?

Summer reads

I’ve been reading the most wonderful books lately. Everything I pick up turns out to be enthralling. Which is bad for my work ethic and my sleep, but good for my soul!

If you need some summer reads, here are my recommendations:

North of Normal, by Cea Sunrise Person
I met Cea when I was in Ladner for an Authors for Indies event a few weeks ago. She’s this tall, blonde, gorgeous ex-model… who spent her childhood in the backwoods. And when I say backwoods, I don’t mean the backwoods of Crawford Bay, where I spent a few years. I mean the woods behind those sorts of backwoods. The places without roads and without groceries, let alone preschools or libraries or hospitals.

Cea’s in the middle of this picture. I’m on the right, and the lovely Ashley Spires (of Binky the Space Cat fame) is on the left:

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Cea’s grandparents were all about living off the land and, while they failed their granddaughter in many ways, they certainly passed along their resourcefulness. If you grew up in BC or Alberta, and especially if your mother went through that phase where she sewed your clothes from corduroy and grew her own alfalfa sprouts (which I can’t eat to this day), you must read North of Normal.

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The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson
This is 100% a beach read. You need the book, a towel, a sunshade, a snack, and maybe a package of tissues. That’s it. You’re set for a whole week of your summer. It’s a beautiful story about a young Latin teacher thrown into the societal pitfalls of an English town in the months leading up to World War I. There is romance and friendship, with some great twists woven between. It’s sort of like Downton Abbey in book form. What could be better?

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Pleased to Meet You, by Caroline Adderson
I keep saying I don’t like short stories. Then I read a book of short stories and I love them. Maybe I only like them once they’re bound into book form? Or maybe (gasp!) my tastes are changing? This is a collection of Caroline Adderson stories published a decade ago, but I picked it up at a workshop on the weekend and now I can’t put it down. She’s so adept at wiggling into the heads of quirky characters, from an actuary-turned-poet to a hospice volunteer on the cusp of love. Love — and the yearning for it — is what all these stories are about. So for this one, you’ll need a glass of wine, a chair on the back deck, and a bright summer evening. Enjoy!

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