Review, Year in. Part III: Books

Obviously, it had to happen. I had to compile a list of my favourite books from this year. This wasn’t my best reading year, I’ll admit that right from the start. And by best I mean most books read. Quality-wise it was a pretty great reading year, but by midnight, I will likely have 37 books under my belt, just short of my goal of 40. But it’s ok! Because what I lacked in reading, I made up for in actual writing, and I am feeling pretty good about that.

I’m dividing my top books into three areas: Goodreads 5-star books, Honourable mentions – mostly 4-stars, and faves from the gritLIT Festival. I feel this is the only fair way to do it. So. Here we go.

Top Books from 2017: 5-Stars, baby

  1. Hunger by Roxane Gay. I will read anything this woman writes, and I know I am not alone in that. This book was incredible. Everyone should read it.
  2. Brother by David Chariandy. Another stunner, and how it got left off the Giller Prize shortlist I will never know.
  3. The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble. I wrote a rather incoherent review of that book here, and I stand by my incoherence, but it is a hell of a book.
  4. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. This book made a lot of “best of” lists by people I follow, and that makes me really happy because it is so heartbreakingly excellent and gorgeously written. It remains with me pretty much daily, and I suspect it will for months to come.
  5. The Break by Katherena Vermette. Also beautiful, also heartwrenching. Also one I tell everyone I meet that they should read.

Honourable Mentions: 4-Stars (mostly)

  1. The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill extracted all of the emotions from me for nearly 300 pages and left me flayed and sobbing on the bus at the end, and that is my kind of book, friends.
  2. History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund. This was a slow burn for sure. Sparse and mysterious, and a real page-turner.
  3. Bearskin Diary by Carol Daniels. Blunt and raw, Daniels tells a powerful story of one victim of the Sixties Scoop, and her lifelong struggle of belonging.
  4. Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali. Also a story of belonging, this time through the eyes of a Muslim teen as she navigates faith, life, love and high school. This is a terrible sentence that makes the book sound light and fluffy, but trust me, it’s excellent. Really well-written and Ali gives great depth to these subjects and to her characters.
  5. The Prisoner and the Chaplain by Michelle Berry. Kind of a mystery, kind of a thriller, an intense and gripping story of a murderer in his final 12 hours on death row.

Faves from gritLIT Festival: Books I loved from authors I got to meet/hear read.

  1. Even This Page is White by Vivek Shraya. Definitely a highlight from the festival weekend. Shraya’s reading/performance was incredible and her book is outstanding.
  2. Heyday by Marnie Woodrow. An understated gem of a novel with themes of love and loss that I think more people need to know about.
  3. Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety by Ann Y.K. Choi. This novel might fool you into thinking it’s a light, coming-of-age story, but that just scratches the surface, honestly. Such a lovely, multilayered book.
  4. Mitzi Bytes by Kerry Clare also gives you the initial impression that it’s a fun, sort-of-mystery – and it is, but Clare digs deeper into themes of women’s friendships, and the self we reveal – or don’t reveal – to the world.
  5. I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid. Holy shit this book. It’s like nothing I’ve ever read before, and one of those novels that when you read the last page you immediately want to start over again to see where if you can figure out what the hell is starting to happen. At least that was my experience. A really intense thriller.

So there it is, 15 books that meant a lot to me this year. Lots of fiction, for sure. I seem to alternate between fiction years and non-fiction years, and for a lot of reasons, this was a true fiction year for me.

And I noticed that in many of the books I read this year, including some that aren’t listed here, the theme of belonging, of fitting in, and finding your place and your space in the world came up nearly constantly. I mean nearly every book on my lists here has the main character trying to find his or her (mostly her) place in the world, for better or for worse. Coincidence? Maybe. Perhaps it was just that kind of year. Or perhaps that’s what good fiction shows us; characters looking to fit in, to find who they are and what they want. Like most of us, I guess.

Happy New Year! Here’s hoping 2018 is not an actual trash fire like this year was. Say it with me: Less Trash, More Fire. Because we all could use a little more fire.

Review, Year in. Part II

I am currently sitting in a branch of the Hamilton Public Library awaiting a workshop on expressive writing. I’m not attending this session, I am running it.

*record scratch* Yeah, that’s me near the window making some last minute notes. And you’re probably wondering, much like David Byrne did, “How did I get here?”

A couple of years ago when I was working at the cancer centre, I was approached by the programs librarian from the Concession Branch, who asked if I had any programs I would be willing to run for their patrons. She was trying to build programs from organizations in the neighbourhood, which was – and is – a pretty solid idea. Got a wicked coffee shop nearby? Invite the owner or barista in to talk coffee – complete with samples! Have a yoga studio on the street? Bring the practitioner in to talk yoga for an hour! It’s a super cool initiative, getting ultra-local peeps to come and run a workshop or information session.

When the librarian reached out, I was all “Oh hell yes, I would love to do this!” And then she asked what kinds of programming I could do. And…well, shit. What could I offer? My job was lending books and finding information for cancer patients and their families. It was equal parts library work and counselor/bartender work, honestly. I listened to lots of troubles, handed out lots of tissues, was there for happy endings, and endings that weren’t going to be quite so happy. I had a brain full of information about cancer, its treatment, available community resources…but what did I have for the general public?

I took a look around my library at the books that were popular, the ones that flew off the shelves and had to be replaced frequently because they wore out or didn’t come back. Books on nutrition – what to eat when you’re undergoing cancer treatment – were hella popular. Movement therapy for cancer patients was always a big thing, exercises for getting your strength back. Yoga for cancer patients. Mindfulness – trying to calm your brain and find strength and peace. Journaling your way through cancer, writing your story, writing your feelings. Ah, now we’re getting somewhere.

If you look at all those things combined, they can all fall under one big umbrella called Cancer Patients Trying to Take Control Over a Situation They Basically Have Zero Control Over. When you show up at the cancer centre, you pretty much have to give yourself over to it. You’ll be told where to go for treatment, when that treatment is, what to do, and when to do it. It’s all part of the centre’s big ol’ plan they like to call Keeping You Alive, and honestly? They do a pretty great job of it up there.

But if you’re an independent grown-ass human like the majority of the patients, you’re probably used to NOT being told what to do on a regular basis, your life is your life and you make your own decisions, so this regimen of appointments, scans, treatments, and dos and don’ts of cancer life can really bring you down.

That’s where a lot of my resources came into play. There are so many things they can’t control, a lot of patients latch on to the things they CAN control – diet and exercise, meditation, yoga, spirituality, writing to make sense of things. And this is where I got my programming idea.

The writing/journaling piece was the one I felt the most qualified to speak on, but still not entirely qualified, you know? So I did a LOT of research and then sent my proposal to the librarian at Concession. I offered to run a one-hour workshop on the benefits of expressive writing on health and well-being. She loved it, scheduled me for a session, and I got started planning. The workshop became known as Writing Through Illness and Crisis. I led a few and the feedback was terrific, so they signed me up for another session – this time a two-parter, with the first part being the theory behind expressive writing, and in part two we put some of the theories into practice through with several writing exercises and discussion.

Last year I was invited to run a similar workshop, now as a part of the Hamilton Reads program. The pick for this year’s Hamilton Reads was Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People, and HPL staff thought that could be a good fit for a workshop, so I tweaked it a little bit and it became known as Healing With Words: How Writing Can Help in Times of Crisis. For this, I was able to take my workshop on the road to several library branches, and I expanded it to include workshops for teens and preteens, for a total of 9 sessions altogether.

In a year that had some shitty moments, these workshops were such a wonderful highlight for me. Running the workshops in a variety of HPL branches, getting to know some of the staff, meeting incredibly inspiring adults, teens, and kids…it’s been an absolute privilege, and I am a bit sad that today was the last one.

Happily, I have been invited back (!!!) for spring programming to present workshops on journaling and memoir writing and I am super excited. This means more research (yay!) and more planning (double yay!) meeting more inspiring Hamiltonians and helping them find their personal writing voice.

I will honestly do this as long as they ask me to do it, and if they stop asking me, I will find another place to do it. I’m already considering taking it to the next level and running some workshops on my own, so if you’re someone who might be interested in this kind of thing, hit me up, we should definitely talk.

Huge thanks to HPL for this opportunity. And Hamiltonians, check out the HPL’s program guide when it comes out, there is some fantastic programming happening. And me!

Review, Year in. Part I.

Remember back in 2016 when everyone couldn’t wait for the year to be over because oh my god it was the worst year ever,? Then 2017 came along and was all hahaha up yours pal, you ain’t seen nothing yet? That was a trip, right?

I don’t see as many of those “just let this year die already” pleas as I did last year. Last year – at least until the US election – there was sadness surrounding celebrity deaths, and there were too many of them, of course. There was also that election, but until the ultimate awful thing happened, no one really believed it would. And when it did, people still held out hope. That everything would be ok. That there wouldn’t be chaos. That there wouldn’t be extreme hate. That there wouldn’t be fucking nazis running rampant and running a large, powerful country.

But there it is. It’s all happening in the worst way possible. And it’s horrible to witness and it’s much more horrible for Americans. American women, American POC, new Americans…you know the list of people it’s awful for, I don’t need to tell you. The list of people it ISN’T awful for is much shorter. Rich. White. Men.

This is not news, these are not revelations, I am not being profound or even original here. You’re all just as aware as I am, just as outraged as I am, and just as ready to burn it all down as I am. Perhaps even more.

But now it’s time for me to admit that while I know it’s not all about me, and I know that I actually have it pretty good from where I sit, based on who I am, based on where I live and all that, that this year has brought me the closest to absolute gutting anxiety, stress, and levels of depression that I have never before experienced. Ever. And I have had some bad years, trust. But this one. Man, the feelings of rage and angst, sadness and depression have been unprecedented.

It’s not all about politics and the state of the world, I’ve had some personal challenges as well, but I do believe the end times in which we seem to live now have had a rotten effect on my brain and my emotions. And I have struggled this year to make sense of a LOT of things, with varying degrees of success.

I come from a very long line of people with stiff upper lips. People who just dealt. Coped. Kept calm and carried on. It’s a very hard thing to break, this feeling that you need to keep it all inside, to just keep on keeping on, smile though your heart is breaking, etc.

When you’ve always been admired for your strength, it can feel like betrayal to admit you’re struggling. Betrayal to yourself (I should be able to handle this, what’s wrong with me) and betrayal to your friends (You’re always so strong. I don’t know how you do it, I would be a mess in your position.)

This is not to imply that my friends and family would feel betrayed by my asking for help, this is 100% me not wanting to burden anyone with my problems. Like I said, it’s a hard thing to shift.

And not to go all It’s a Wonderful Life on you, but I think we can all agree that if George Bailey had been able to send a group text like “WTF my crazy uncle lost 8 grand on me, can u guys help me out til the new year? Thx pals” he might have saved himself a lot of agony.

And while I have been George Bailey in the past, and in some ways continue to be George Bailey, I am working on it. Taking care of myself and making my needs a priority is new. Telling people I’m suffering, struggling, not dealing well is also new. It’s baby steps. And the people who love me get it, and I am so grateful for them.

2017 has been, we can all agree, an absolute trash fire in a lot of ways, but good people can still get you through. Find your good people and let them know. Check in with them on the reg, and find out how they’re doing. See them as often as you possibly can. Eat delicious food with them, have lots of laughs and drinks. Take copious amounts of selfies with them and host impromptu dance parties.

And when you’re struggling, ask them for their help. Don’t pretend you can go it alone, don’t pretend you’re fine when you’re not. Your people want to help you, and you need to let them help you.

That last paragraph was for me, mostly. But it’s yours too, if you need it.

 

 

 

NaBloPo No.

Back at the end of October, I toyed briefly – very briefly – with the idea of once again giving NaBloPoMo a go. It is, today, the 15th of November, and I have yet to contribute a blog post to the cause, so I guess you could say that idea is dead in the water. And that’s ok.

It’s definitely a challenge to work up a whole blog post every day for 30 days. I mean, maybe it’s not for you, but taking a look back at my most current posts, I seem to have gone back to being a once-a-month blogger. So if there is a challenge that is “write a blog post EVERY MONTH for an entire year” I could probably manage that. But even then…

The good thing is that I have at least been writing. I write a twice-a-week blog for a friend’s business. I’ve been asked to write some promotional material for another friend’s business, and I even wrote a book review – and then read and recorded it – for a radio program. So I’ve got that going for me.

And, of course, in the midst of all this are the short stories and potential novel (I know, right?) that I’m slogging away at on a fairly regular basis. So the words are getting out there. They’re just not getting in here.

It will come, I know it will.

For now, as proof of my actual writing, you can go ahead and listen to my shaky voice read my review on Get Lit:

http://www.jamietennant.ca/index.php/2017/10/26/get-lit-e49-with-karen-smythe-plus-a-book-review-by-elizabeth-obermeyer/

My voice isn’t that shaky, really. And writing a book review to be read out loud was a really fun challenge.

So I’ll leave it there for now, with a promise (to myself) to be back. It’s not that I don’t have anything to say. I just need to make time to say it here.

 

 

Holiday Monday Feels

Like most Canadians, I’m at home today given that it’s Thanksgiving Day. And also, like many Canadians, we had our Thanksgiving meal yesterday, leaving us with leftovers for today, as we lounge about in sweatpants and eat pumpkin pie for breakfast and/or lunch. It’s a good holiday, Thanksgiving, one of my favourites.

Usually, by Thanksgiving weekend we also have lovely autumn colours and crisp temperatures, making Thanksgiving a cozy kind of holiday, where you don’t mind turning on the oven and boiling water for several different vegetables. But this year we have muggy low 20s temperatures, turning the house into a sauna, and green trees as far as the eye can see. Damn it all.

Still, we had nice later evening dinner yesterday, both boys were home, and we were joined later by our eldest son’s girlfriend, so it was fairly festive. And then I went to bed around 9:30pm.

My parents used to host Thanksgiving dinner for 20 people. At least. Hordes of people. 20 for dinner IS a horde, don’t even judge me. And they did it beautifully and perfectly and damned if I didn’t just ATTEND these dinners, with very little to do. But now, it turns out dinner for 5 can just about kill me, so what is the difference between me and my parents? Probably not much. They probably went to bed early too, I have just forgotten that part of the equation.  Also, dishwasher. We don’t have one.

Fortunately for me, the rule in our house (mostly) is that those who do the cooking do not have to do the cleaning of the utensils used to create and consume the meal so that usually means I don’t do any of the post-meal cleaning up. But honestly, having a dishwasher automatically gives you loads more counter space, and I have determined part of what exhausts me so much when preparing large meals is the time I spend trying to creatively create space for things where there is no space for things. My kitchen is SMALL, friends. And the counter space therein is practically non-existent. But every time I plan a large dinner party or get-together for friends and family I 100% forget that there is no actual space to prepare foods for large numbers of people. And yet? I continue to do it because I love it so much.

To me, there are few things better than feeding the people you love. When the boys were small and we had a million places to go after work/school and I was trying to get food into their faces before we ran out the door, ok then maybe there were lots of things better than feeding the people you love. But even back then, I loved having a weekend to prepare food and the time to enjoy it with my family. Or to create something special for friends who maybe didn’t always have the time to make Sunday dinners for themselves. And just texting or calling a friend to say “What are you up to? Wanna come for dinner?” and knowing it can make their entire weekend is such a great feeling. And it isn’t that I pull out all the stops and do a massively elegant and luxurious feast (I mean ok sometimes I do) but often it’s just mac and cheese or nachos or ordering pizza. But it’s still sharing a meal, talking about our week, solving the problems of the world. As one does.

I know I inherited this from my parents. It’s in me because it was in them.

One of the last things my dad ever did before he went into hospital for the final time was to host a fish fry at our cottage for my mum, the four of us, and our neighbours. Next week will be the 14th anniversary of his death, and while a lot of the details about him are gone from my memory, (which SUCKS, trust) I don’t think I will ever forget the pure joy that was on his face during that meal. The happiness that radiated from him for just the simple pleasure of cooking for people he loved. That has stayed with me, and it’s him I think about every time I welcome the people I love to our home, offer them a drink, and encourage them to have seconds of whatever is on the menu.

Happiest of Thanksgivings, friends. Big kitchen, small kitchen or no kitchen, I hope you get to celebrate surrounded by people you love.

 

Thursday Night

I went to yoga tonight. My last yoga class was sometime in 2007 – after I started taking karate but before I started kickboxing. I wanted to keep doing it all, but there are just not enough hours in the day. At least there weren’t back then. There might be now, but alas, I am too broken for karate and kickboxing, so yoga on its own it is.

And it was great! Nearly everything came back to me; the breath, the focus, the postures, the way I knew what the instructor was going to say and where she was going with the practice before it happened. Muscle memory, I guess? Something, anyway.

And yes, this is the same instructor I had all those years ago when I used to yoga. We were reminiscing. It was probably 2001-2002 that I started classes with her. Max was wee, Charles barely in school. Her own daughter was just a few years older, and now she is doing a Masters degree. Time goes on.

And my body. Oh dear, my poor old body. I am 10 years older, several pounds heavier, and oh dear. So what didn’t come back? The flexibility. Holy god, I have lost it all.

This is the kind of thing that would have, back in the day, bothered me so much that I would have given up. But tonight I was able to cut myself some slack, work to my limit, and not go beyond that. I was, as a matter of fact, present.

I had kind of a shitty summer, friends. I won’t go into details, but there was a lot of stress, a lot of shit going on that I was unable to control. And, if you ever ask me what level of control I would like to have in any given situation, my answer is typically ALL OF IT. So you can see how this would have been kind of a problem.

When we were asked at the beginning of class what brought us to yoga – or brought us back to yoga – I said I missed the ability to be present, to be mindful of the present. I had lost the ability to focus on the now, and, after this summer, I needed to get that back. I hadn’t planned on saying that. Usually, in those kinds of situations, I say something benign, something generic, so the instructor just moves along to the next person. But tonight, those words – present, mindful – just rushed from me. Clearly, they needed to be said.

The class flew by. Suddenly we were settling in for savasana, and then it was over.

I am going to be SO SORE tomorrow, I know it. I have not moved like that in a very long time. But as I always like to say it’s a “good hurt.” The hurt where you know you’ve done something amazing for your body, so you don’t mind the pain.

My body hurts, but my brain – for the first time in quite some time – does not. I call that a win.

Also? Hi. Thanks for sticking around. I think I might be back for good this time. This too is good for the brain.

 

Goddamn it, Howard the Duck. I can’t ever quit you.

Yesterday, an 80s pop culture account I follow on Twitter reminded me that On This Day in 1986, Howard the Duck was released in theatres. How thoughtful of them.

The summer of 1986 stands out for me for the following reasons:

  1. I wrote exams and successfully completed grade 13.
  2. I accepted an offer from McMaster University.
  3. I flew, on a plane, for the first time ever, to spend eight weeks on Vancouver Island.
  4. I saw Howard the Duck. In the theatre. On purpose.

In the summer of 1985, I joined the Canadian Naval Reserves and completed training in their (now defunct) Summer Youth Employment Program. In the fall of ’85, I started working in my Navy trade of musician. Yes, this is a thing. One of the requirements to advance as a musician in the reserves was to attend the Canadian Forces School of Music (yes, that also is a thing) at Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt, on Vancouver Island. There I would be practicing for TQ (trade qualification), performing in bands and other ensembles, and taking part in parades and events with the other students. And, in case you were ever wondering, Homer Simpson was correct when he said “It’s not just a job, it’s a really, really easy job.” (Go Navy!)

This was pretty huge for me, honestly. I had never been away from home for THAT LONG before. I had never even been on a plane, but then one day in early July, my dad dutifully drove my friend and me to CFB Trenton, where we spent the night, then arose bright and early to board a plane to Victoria. Well, ok, we boarded a plane to Winnipeg. Then to Edmonton. Then to Vancouver. Then we got on a completely different plane – one that sat 6 people and luggage extremely uncomfortably – and then, finally, we arrived in Victoria. It was the longest fucking day of my life. Once we arrived in Victoria, we boarded a bus to the base in Esquimalt, and then we collapsed into bed. BUT NOT FOR LONG.

The first few days were a sort of culture shock. We were jetlagged, nervous about the job, trying to get the lay of the land and figure out where we needed to be at any given time.

We were housed in barracks with about 40 other women, required to be present for daily inspection which included our bed and the area around our bed, our locker, the shared bathroom, the common area, etc. We were given rulers to ensure our pillowcases were a certain size, and that our sheets were turned down the appropriate length, with counterpanes tucked in just so, and boots and other footwear lined up under the bed in exactly the correct way.

And, if I’m being honest, I fucking EXCELLED at this. I love nothing more than organizing a closet, making sure things are JUST SO. This part was SO perfect for me. Other parts of being in the military, not so much. But the ironing and the organizing and the cleaning? I was there for it.

Eventually the terror of, you know, everything subsided, and we spent our downtime exploring the base and hanging out with and getting to know the other students at the School of Music.

We had, it turns out, quite a lot of downtime. We were typically finished work for the day around 4:00 pm, and then after supper, our time was our own. With just one stipulation: we weren’t allowed to leave the base.

We watched other people come and go through the gates of the base all the time, but there was a rule for those of us who were new and that was that we had to stay on base for the first three weeks of our tenure there. I still have no idea why. Did they think we run away and never come back? WE WERE ON AN ISLAND, how far could we get? Anyway, that was the rule, and I a and have always been, a rule follower to the extreme. See above for goddamn sheet measuring.

So we were “stuck” on the base for 21 days, and at first it was fine because we were a) terrified and b) we had no money. But once we’d been paid, we were anxious to spend money. And the base activities were growing increasingly dull as the weeks went on. As well, the lucky ones who could escape for the evening would regale us with fantastic stories of pints at The Tudor House (RIP),  buses to Victoria for shopping and movies, and tea at the Empress Hotel. ROGERS’ CHOCOLATES, people. It was glorious, and when we finally were able to make our way through the gates, military ID firmly in hand for our return, we were giddy with anticipation. And what had we, as a group, decided on for our first foray into the city? Why, a screening of Howard the Duck, of course.

I vaguely remember the bus ride into town and lining up – LINING UP – to get our tickets. There was probably popcorn and a drink and then the movie itself, which, I don’t think I have to tell you, is one of the WORST movies ever made. And to be honest, I remember very little about the movie. I can recollect precisely zero plot (perhaps there wasn’t one?) although I vaguely remember a suuuuuper awkward bedroom scene that caused 19-y/o UIG to panic in a “OMG there’s not going to be alien duck/human sex, is there? I don’t think I can handle alien duck/human sex right now.” There wasn’t but honestly, fuck you everyone involved in the making of that dumb movie for causing anyone to have to EVER worry about Lea Thompson potentially having sex with that goddamn awful duck.

ANYWAY.

Our group of freshly-released navy friends exited the theatre, and I think there might have been beers afterward, or at least food that wasn’t served cafeteria-style from bored military cooks, and then we took the bus back to the base, having survived our first big adventure.

The entire summer was one of high adventure, honestly. I was four entire provinces away from my home and my parents. I was working full time for decent pay, so I didn’t have to worry too much about tuition heading to university that fall. I was navigating a new city, figuring things out on my own, AND going for tea at the motherfucking Empress Hotel.  It was the most grown-up  I had ever felt until that point, and it was a pretty glorious feeling.

So thanks, I guess, Howard the Duck, for being so terrible that people can’t help but talk about you every single year, reminding me where I was, and what I was doing in August, 1986. Perhaps if we’d seen a different, better movie, there’d be less to talk about each year? So I guess I’m grateful?

FINE, let’s go with grateful.

NEVER FORGET