A good reading list should be as balanced as our diet: filled with nutritious niblets of several genres, with some servings of pure alcohol, caffeine and chocolate in good measure (or mainlined, whatever.) Biographies, sagas, mysteries, and classics are the food groups of literature, with romance at the top of the pyramid to provide those sugar highs we occasionally crave. A little of everything for any diet is on this list. What these books have in common is they are all beautifully written, with characters so real you expect to look up and find them in your bedroom (or car, or kitchen, wherever you happen to be reading). For the most part, they’re not even new books; but books that I happened to love this year.
What is not on this list is Fifty Shades of Grey (or Fifty Shades of Awful, by my estimation.) Don’t get me started on that trilogy of tragedy.
Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides
This book takes you into the mind and struggles of a hermaphrodite, Callie. When was the last time you were there? Ya huh. It’s a family saga that spans three generations, beginning in Smyma in the early 1900′s, and their harrowing emigration to Detroit. It’s filled with colourful characters and poignant moments, and made me ponder the strong relationship between sexuality and identity. It kept me reading into the wee hours; Eugenides deserves his reputation for being a master storyteller.
When God Was a Rabbit, by Sarah Winman
Life rarely makes sense. And so it goes for Elly, the heroine of this book. A traumatic event shapes her early years, and as the book unfolds its repercussions are felt, again and again. The book is as quirky as Elly herself. It’s beautifully written, charming and funny in spite of itself.
State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett
She’s best known for her award winning Bel Canto, but my personal favorite of Patchett’s is still The Magician’s Assistant, by the by. A hint of mystery kept me turning the pages of her latest novel, set in the jungle of the Amazon, as the protagonist, Marina, discovers the wonders of the Lakashi people deep in the heart of the rain forest.
The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton
A story before its time, Wharton depicts societal norm as the joke that it really is. Ellen, the protagonist, challenges standards by leaving her loveless marriage. When she meets Newland Archer, who is newly engaged, Ellen and Newland begin a lifelong game of cat and mouse, and a love for all time. If you read one classic this summer, or ever, choose this.
Your Voice in My Head, by Emma Forrest
This memoir by Forrest reminds us that life is filled with ups and downs, and that no relationships are easy. As she spirals into sadness, Forrest finds a light in her therapist; when he dies from cancer she is left wandering in the dark once again. Her hostile and lonely world make for beautiful passages, and a wonderful memoir leaking with truth and life.
Here are the books that are burning a hole in my bedside table, and I’m excited to devour them this July, come sun or what may:
The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt (Back to my tomboy days with some country and western. And the author happens to be too chilled for words, great non-vibe from this guy.)
Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan (Oooh so excited for this one.)
A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway (Why have I not read this book?!)
The Dovekeepers, by Alice Hoffman (When my tenth friend told me to read this, I put my hands up in surrender. I surrender!)
I’m hungry just looking at them. Read ‘em and weep. Or read ‘em and eat. Whatever you do, fold yourself into the pages of a delicious dessert this summer. Happy summer reading.
By my third pregnancy, my back protested. No more of this baby business, it told me by way of searing pain.
Instead of being a vessel that sent signals to my limbs and brain, my spinal cord became a rod of fire that roared whenever I was on my feet. And since my other children were four and two, that was a lot. No sympathy from the toddler corner.
I tried to grin and bear it, but that usually manifested as swearing like a truck driver and screaming at my kids.
Since I’m a sucker for punishment but not pain, this would be my last baby; the last kick at the can, the last time my stomach would bump into corners and catch my breakfast crumbs. This caused me the tiniest bit of melancholy, I did like feeling those knees ripple across my stomach and that whole creating life concept.
So I decided, against my better judgment, to have pregnancy photos taken. You know, the black and white classy ones with your private parts artfully shadowed.Then I stumbled across one of those promotions where the photographer would practically pay you to have your photos done: the proofs were free, the 8 x 10′s were free, you just gave her your email address so she could harass you for the rest of your life. Surely this was serendipity.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. (In case you are now gripped with fear that you will scroll down and scream, I haven’t posted any of these photos below.)
I hasten to remind you that Demi Moore had these same photos done and she looked pretty damn good. After that, pregnant women were waddling into photography studios in droves, so this is not an isolated incident of vanity.
As the date for my debut shoot approached, the temperatures skyrocketed. A hot summer day when you are eight months pregnant is akin to a day in hell. So I spent the weekend submerged in a glacial lake while my husband and children frolicked on the beach.
Monday morning I woke up with what looked like large mosquito bites all over my body. By noon the size of these bites rivaled ping pong balls, and by dinner they were seething with pus. I looked like an overstuffed egg roll with leprosy.
And those little beauty marks weren’t just innocently and quietly oozing away, they were also itching to high heaven. I was so busy trying not to scratch the little buggers that I even forgot about my back pain.
My doctor told me I had swimmer’s itch, but she consipicuously leaned away from me in horror the entire appointment.
I called the photographer to explain my case, hoping we could delay the shoot, but she could only put it off for a day, and then she was going on holiday. I wouldn’t be pregnant by the time she returned, so I was stuck with Wednesday.
On a positive note, my welts had stopped oozing by this point but remained scattered over my torso in an angry, scabbed-over state. It only looked like I had misplaced acne.
The photographer recoiled in horror when I dropped my robe. I laughed nervously and said something about the powers of PhotoShop, but she explained that while it was a useful tool, it couldn’t work miracles.
I have those photos in a shoebox somewhere. To give credit where credit is due, the photographer came up with the idea of draping a white sheet over my belly, thereby disguising my pockmarked skin whilst leaving its bulging outline. (I’m pretty sure she incinerated the sheet and disinfected her studio after I left.)
I stumbled across them the other day while chasing an agile spider. Whereas Demi Moore had looked beautiful, victorious, and a bit defiant in her Vanity Fair pictures, the look in my tired eyes only said please take the damn picture so I can return to my itching.
What have you done that causes you endless embarrassment in retrospect?
To be totally upfront, as writing careers go mine has been far from stellar.
One month after graduating from university with a degree in Journalism, my father, a local journalist and my inspiration, died; and so did my aspirations for a writing career. I wrote about this here, in my inaugural post for this blog, in case anyone besides Mom cares to read it.
Instead I got a job that delivered decent money if not bylines, and the rest is yesterday’s news.
But since everyone loves it when old dogs learn new tricks, I have a modicum of success to report. It is really little – like a freckle on Diana Swain‘s face. But it’s the most success I’ve had since putting the perfect ratio of peanut butter to jam on my sandwich last week, or ever, so I’m rather excited.
As the rain fell and the wind blew one day, I submitted an essay to the Globe and Mail. Granted, my topic was pretty lame; it’s far from Nietzsche in scope and as always short of Austen in form. It’s about the mall.
Yet incredibly, today they replied they were using it (slow essay month, I guess). They would be publishing it this Friday, October 14th.
It took me a minute before I realized that just happens to be my dear father’s birthday, of all days. So happy birthday to my father, who was more profound and witty than I will ever be, and who never lost his enthusiasm for life.
Sometimes the people who motivate me are at a great distance. They are on television or in history books, and I will never meet them.
But other people who motivate me are right under my nose. In fact, today’s case only comes up to my armpit, and I feed her and take care of her everyday. She’s nine. She’s my daughter.
She has a tendency to throw herself into everything she does with gusto, full throttle and heart first.
This daughter of mine has a tenacious grip on what she plans to be when she grows up. Since she was a wee thing, she has wanted to be a writer. And to this end she writes volumes of articles, stories and blogs. Her imaginary play revolves around her role as a reporter, and she walks around the house with a notepad and pen tucked into her shirt. When I clean up, I come across scraps of paper she has written on, and other evidences of her pretend articles.
How can I be a better writer, she would ask me, and I would reply, keep writing. And so she does. Day after day.
I was not as single minded as a child, wanting to be a veterinarian, a teacher, a doctor, a magician, depending on which way the wind blew. I keep expecting her whim to change, but she remains fixated on her goal.
Inevitably, the day came when she asked me, Mommy, weren’t you a writer? And I so eloquently stammered, ah, well, sort of but not really, um, a long time ago. She wouldn’t let me off the hook. Well, why don’t you write?
I had always thought it would be my job as a parent to cheer my children on in whatever they pursued. It would be my job to instill in them a desire to persevere and work hard to achieve their goals. But quite the opposite has transpired. It is my child who motivates and teaches me.
Watching her diligently go about her work and play, I realized I needed to step it up. I needed to at least try to write. As Lyle Lovett once asked us, “What would you be if you didn’t even try? You have to try.” Taking a good hard look at myself as a role model, there wasn’t much to go on. I didn’t see in myself anything that could inspire her.
So now, everyday, I try hard to be like my daughter. In manageable chunks, I try to emulate her enthusiasm and dedication for writing. Her unfailing cheerfulness, generosity and kindness are other things to strive for, but I will attempt these another day. First things first.
When I grow up, I want to be just like my daughter.
Forget who won what. They’re all talented, some more so than others, and they’re all earning bucket loads of cash to dress up and play pretend, so you can’t feel too badly for those who didn’t bring home a golden statue last night.
Let’s talk fashion: how these artists choose to express themselves when the most famous couture houses in the world are knocking on their doors is the subject of many a fashion critic and blogger alike. It’s easy to throw stones at those who live in glass houses, especially when they are beautiful and making millions. If I sound jealous it’s because I am.
The Oscars are a time for starlets to either strut like a peacock down the red carpet or choose understated elegance, wear up-dos or shaggy tresses, Jimmy Choos or Prada shoes. It is a night for couture houses to shine alongside Academy members, the night People and InStyle magazines salivate over as they pick their best and worst dressed.
The men will all look suspiciously like waiters. The real question is what will Hollywood’s hottest women wear?
Will Helena Bonham Carter actually brush her hair and find matching shoes? Will Sandra Bullock still look crest fallen? Will Nicole Kidman keep with her classic elegance? Will Scarlett Johansson improve on her Golden Globe windswept look?
I was on pins and needles all day.
The verdict: classic glamour – often vintage, in fact – prevailed. In fact, it’s hard to find fault with most of the beautiful choices that graced the red carpet on Sunday night; there were no January Jones missteps to dwell on.
Marisa Tomei proved that understated can still shine – she sparkled in a midnight blue 1950 James Charles dress, with gorgeous sunburst inspired earrings. A classic look that reminds you to hold on to those oldie but goodies in your closet.
The youngest person to ever to host the Academy Awards, Anne Hathaway, started the evening by repealing to old Hollywood in a red archival Valentino gown. A diamond necklace from Tiffany’s was also fittingly elegant. Her low chignon was the perfect hairstyle to complement the look, her way of saying I’m still hip.
There were a proliferation of Japanese-inspired high-neck, cap-sleeve, straight bodied gowns. Scarlett Johansson wore an amethyst lace styled number, Amy Adams a blue sequined one, and Annette Bening a sparkling black gown. Best Supporting Actress Melissa Leo – who will forever be remembered by her f-bomb slip – also wore a variation of this theme.
Reese Witherspoon channelled Betty and Veronica with a high ponytail containing lots of extensions. Although her hairdo was puzzling, her black Armani dress with white trim was a great figure flattering choice.
Jennifer Hudson was a walking advertisement for Weight Watchers in a skin tight tangerine Versace gown. She was stunning, despite overdoing the cleavage.
Best Actress Natalie Portman looked every bit a champion in an eggplant coloured gown. She proved that fashion and baby bumps can, in fact, coexist.
My runaway favorite of the night was Mila Kunis, wearing a lavender chiffon Elie Saab gown with a low neckline. Gracefully draping her body with a short train, it was the perfect modern choice for a storied evening. If they come out with a Best Ordinary Person award, I might sell my car and buy it. I assure you my acceptance speech will be classier than Melissa’s.
It is getting harder to impress my daughter who is eleven going on twenty-one. She has already discarded me as an obstacle to her coolness, and refuses to walk home with me when I show up at her school in a sweat suit.
But on Valentine’s Day, she told me about “…some poem about marriage and true minds” that they had talked about in school. When I recited the whole of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 while fixing her after-school snack, she stopped pecking at her keyboard and listened; dare I say, impressed. And by that I mean she said, “Hmf.”
I have always loved poetry. What I love about writing the most is simply words, after all, and how they can be delicately woven to evoke images and meaning. Poetry is the best of writing, skimming away the fluff and keeping the most important, beautiful words. Yet I haven’t cracked a poetry book other than my Norton’s Anthology of Literature since university. That was for pressing flowers.
Poetry has been seeking me out despite the fact I have inexplicably shunned it, like a friend I had meant to keep in touch with but didn’t.
A blogger I follow sometimes posts poems when she is at a loss for words. She apologizes to her readers while I thank her silently for her weighted words. Syllables roll around on my tongue and linger like a sweet thai curry. Her name, by the way, is Kathy, and her blog is reinventing the event horizon.
And then another gift. An entrepreneur I interview mentions her blog. She is writing a poem everyday this year on her blog bentlily. Her words stop me in my tracks, each poem a short story in its own right, deeply personal but also universal – how can that be? The paradox of poetry, or the human condition. Either way, I am hoping she finishes out the year and then begins anew in 2012. Her name is Samantha, and she tells me writing poetry is her way of staying present.
I haven’t written any poetry, but reading it lately has been like smelling the aroma of a lemon grove.
Tomorrow I will share one of bentlily‘s gifts, so you, too, can smell the lemons.
When my brilliant friend turned forty, she proclaimed her new attitude on life: “I’m no longer going to ask why; I’m going to say why not!”, and we all applauded wildly. The concept is a sound one. Practicing it, however, can be a different story altogether. Who has time for bungee jumping?
But it did make me take a hard look at my bucket list. It continues to grow, but I have checked very few things off of the list. I stalled out after “have kids”. What, exactly, am I waiting for? I hit the forty marker yesterday, so decided there is no time like the present to tackle the things I want to do before I die.
Photography ranks high on this list. A long time ago, back when neon was in and I had the ski suit to prove it, my parents bought me a 35 mm Minolta camera for Christmas. Note this was back in the days when cameras used film, so experimenting with apertures and shutter speeds was a costly process, and unless you had access to a dark room, your results took a week to receive. I happened to be perennially short of time and money, not to mention patience, so photography and I didn’t get very far.
I have been wielding point and shoot cameras ever since, replacing them every few years for a model with higher pixels when the camera inevitably dies after throwing around one too many times. They are handy contraptions, and every now and then even produce a great picture. One day I would revisit photography, but until then my cheap and cheerful models would suffice.
I thought my day of reckoning came last year. On Christmas, to be precise. Santa heeded my many hints, and I received a Nikon D-5000 digital SLR. These have come down in price substantially in an effort to be competitive in the massive camera market, which now includes smartphones. I noticed the automatic setting, and not wanting to argue with the camera’s own trusty computer, switched the dial to this setting and began shooting. What did I know that the camera didn’t?
I have used this setting for a year now; and have the questionable pictures to prove it. They are certainly no better than my point and shoot camera produced, with the added burden of carrying a cumbersome, weighty piece of equipment that doesn’t fit in my purse. The automatic setting was not cutting the mustard, and my photography was getting nowhere. Inspired by my friends’ new “why not?” motto, I enrolled in a course. Twenty years late but better than never.
In three hours I learned enough to feel like I can conquer the world; Annie Leibovitz look out. My instructor taught me his “Big 6″ – the main concepts he uses when composing a photograph. He blew the dust off of terms like aperture and f-stops, reacquainted me with shutter speeds, and explained how metering modes effect your pictures. He discussed the concepts of white balance and exposure compensation, and readily expressed his views on available software for putting the finishing touches on your photos.
My homework is to practice using the various settings (but never, under any circumstances, am I to touch automatic mode), and then return my findings next week. Now that I can speak this camera’s language, of course I cannot wait to play with the different settings and see how that translates to my pictures.
The total course length is six hours, its cost $150. If only my other bucket list items – learning Spanish, reading the complete works of Shakespeare, owning something Prada – could be accomplished so easily.
Advanced Digital Training is on Welch Street in North Vancouver, http://www.ADTschool.com