Category Archives: Books

2015 Bookshelf Review

2015-year-in-books

Another year is nearly over and it’s time to reflect on the books I have read this year.

It’s incredible to me that I have been doing this for the last three years. 2014, 20132012 are still online. In that time I read 76 books. This year I surpassed all three years’ previous reading counts with a total of 44 books!

Reading has always been a refuge for me in times when life is rocky and this year was no exception. Having weathered the storm of ending a relationship, I retreated into my imaginary worlds a little more than usual. But! My interest in non-fiction continued this year with the addition of Oliver Sacks, Farley Mowat, Thich Nhất Hạnh, Jean Vanier, Bill Bryson, and Maya Angelou.

This year’s fiction forays steered towards mystery more and more, but I still love my historical fiction.

A particular favourite of this year’s was the German writer Oliver Pötzsch whose series of historical mysteries called The Hangman’s Daughter has been on my TBR pile for over a year. My new library branch in Dundas happened to have the whole series just sitting on the shelf, waiting for me to read, and I eagerly ate up the whole series, plus a stand-alone novel called The Ludwig Consipracy. I learned a lot about 17th century medicine and Bavarian culture from Mr. Pötzsch’s books. He’s an excellent writer and his translators also do top-notch work. I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the Hangman’s Daughter series when it gets to the library.

There were several other authors that I finally got an opportunity to finally read after having wanted to read them for some time. The first was Maya Angelou’s first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which took me into a world of Southern black culture that brought to mind Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, which I read several years ago.

I also picked up my first Edith Wharton, a collection of short stories, which aren’t her most famous work, but did well to introduce me to the time period and language of Victorian America. It conjured images of nineteenth century New York City, trolley buses, crinoline and pinafores, horse-drawn carts, and vintage maps of city streets I’ve walked.

A few other things that I got to do this year in my reading was get acquainted with Chuck Wendig’s fiction. I have been reading his blog Terrible Minds, which offers a lot of good advise for writers, but have never had occasion to give his books a try. Dundas came through again with a copy of The Blue Blazes. If I could describe it in one word it would be hard-boiled. Is that two words? Who cares? It was a fun read.

I gave graphic novels another opportunity this year as well, diving into some fun ones recently, such as Vincent by Barbara Stok, a quick, thought-provoking glimpse into the life of Vincent Van Gogh, and Bryan Lee O’Malley’s non-Scott Pilgrim book, Seconds. Great story-telling in that one. I have yet to read the Scott Pilgrim series, but I think that might change in 2016.

Reading Goals for 2016

  • I would like to read more female writers. I feel like I was pretty male-heavy this year, mostly because I got sucked into Oliver Pötzsch’s and Farley Mowat’s worlds.
  • I’d also like to read more poetry. Poetry is like cake. It has to be savored.
  • I’d like to continue mining the classics, such as Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens.
  • I’d like to read more musical biographies/autobiographies.
  • I’d like to read 50 books, surpassing my 44 of this year.

Reading in Polish

I began reading in Polish once I finished the English books I brought. Half the books I brought were actually already read by the time I got here. I read them inordinately fast, as though I wanted to be done them as quickly as possible. The first time I saw a secondhand bookstore in Wroclaw I couldn’t stop staring at all the undiscovered (to me) writers in the window. Names that I had never heard. Titles I had never read. All the mystery lay before me like a cave of treasure.

daffy

Eyeing my aunt’s collection once my books were done, I landed upon an old familiar title. I’ve read Eat, Pray, Love already. I even watched the movie on cable a few years ago. I knew this would be a good introduction. A familiar story in different words is a perfect transition to a new language. I’m over a hundred pages in and the task of reading in Polish is no longer such a task. The words flow freely most of the time. There are still hiccups when I come across unfamiliar words or phrases. Polish isn’t exactly the easiest language to read. There are a lot of S’s and Z’s. But, like all things that start out hard and build with momentum, my ability to read is improving.

It’s a lesson that will serve me well in life. Sure things start off hard when they’re unfamiliar. Sometimes you need to give it a try more than once. This is not the first book I have attempted to read in Polish.

Sometimes you need more than one try at something. But once it clicks, the horizon looks bright and beautiful.

How Not to Ask for Help

Part of my job as a freelance digital marketer is to scour the internet looking for work. Hustlas gotta hustle.

And basically that amounts to me being on Craiglist several times an hour/day/week/month. It can be a bit undignified at times. There’s no shortage of shitty job postings. You have to wade through the scores of ads looking for adult models, actors and private massages. Plus all of the commission-based sales gigs. You get pretty good at reading between the lines to determine whether something is legitimate or complete bullshit.

And sometimes, occasionally, you get to see real gems too.

This week I, and the majority of Toronto’s literary scene, came across this post and had a good LOLZ about it:

CL-post-Idea

I’m not sure what’s worse — the fact that this poster wants someone else to think of an idea for him, or that he gets angry towards the end of the post at the very people who he’s seeking to get help from.

It’s no secret that being a writer pays you peanuts. If you’re going on pure royalties alone, and your book happens to defy the odds to become a bestseller, you’re likely to make around $6k, according to one source. So yeah, even if you’re a bestselling author, chances are you’re still going to look for extra work.

So why you gotta hate, hater? One individual on Facebook posted it with this in mind:

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Whether it’s true or not, you have to wonder what kind of an individual has the balls to post such an offending affront to anyone struggling to be creative and original in a world that is rife with cultural misappropriation, hodge-podge homages and blatant plagiarism.

On the plus side, it’s given Canada a little boost of Internet popularity. Yay?

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Chuck Wendig is highly influential on the Internet writing scene. I relish the response this post will get now that it’s hit viral status.

What do you think? Is this blatant trolling or a genuine request? I almost wonder if it was created by someone we all know testing out the lit scene’s ability to handle “humour”.

Books of 2014!

Sometimes I wish I could read everything under the sun. It’s just too impossible. There are millions of books out there. But the stuff you read can influence you in the future and I like the idea of being thoughtful, mindful even, of what I read. There’s just not enough time in the world to read garbage, so why waste it? Okay, sometimes I like garbage too. Smutty, dirty, sweaty garbage. Somehow I managed to read quality stuff this year.

brain that heals itself norma doidgeI started the year off with Dr. Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself, a ground-breaking work on neuroplasticity—the brain’s capability to reroute and “fix” itself. The doctor likened my experience of acute depression to a heart attack inside my brain. Reading Dr. Doidge’s work gave me hope that I can overcome my diagnosis and live a normal life. This year Dr. Doidge is releasing The Brain’s Way of Healing. It’s definitely on my TBR pile.

I also picked up Mind Over Mood. If you have never heard of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy you should look into it. Many of us will experience a mental illness in our lifetime. And those who don’t will know someone affected by it. CBT is a method of self-help that teaches you to re-examine your thoughts. When you’re depressed your habits tend to veer towards black and white thinking, catastrophizing situations, creating worst-case scenarios in your mind. Then your mind begins to panic and you’re left feeling hopeless. It’s a vicious cycle that kicks a mean piece of ass when you’re stuck in it. Mind Over Mood teaches you to pick these thoughts apart to give yourself breathing room. Practicing it regularly can definitely help. I wish I could say that I’m always practicing this, but it can be hard when you get stuck in a cycle of depression and anxiety. Life—it’s a work in progress.

my life in france julia childOn the other side of the nonfic spectrum, I read Julia Child’s memoir, My Life in France. Talk about a woman with passion and joie de vivre! She and her husband Paul lived a very blessed life in France. I truly admire Julia’s passion for learning as well. I picked up a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking in Paris’s Shakespeare and Co. book shop in 2010 and I love cooking from it. Creating the perfect roast chicken is akin to finding nirvana and I love, love, love when it comes out right. French cooking may be simple but it’s demand for good ingredients truly sets the bar for everything else.

I also read my fair share of fiction. I read Dickens, Austen, Herman Melville, Richard Aldington, and my first Dean Koontz novel (not memorable.) The Dickens and Austen were exceptional, though. I read two Dickens this year – A Tale of Two Cities at the beginning of the year and Hard Times this fall. Both were full of his wonderful wit and charm. It’s the mark of a great writer that you can read his work over a century after publication and the words stand the test of time.

jane austen persuasionI also learned that Austen is more than Pride and Prejudice! I picked up Emma and Persuasion. By far my favourite of the two was Persuasion. Emma was nice, but well, Emma’s a bit of a twit and I can’t abide girls like her. I’m more of a straight shooter, like Anne Elliot. Her character resonated with my soul on a familiar level.

Herman Melville. God almighty did I ever give up on Moby Dick. The fiction was wonderful. The extensive history of the whaling industry killed me dead. The language was dense, but readable until I got to the pages and pages of explanations of 19th century whaling practices. Forgive me, but ain’t nobody got time for that.

what makes olga run bruce griersonLast but not least, I read What Makes Olga Run? by Bruce Grierson. Yes, I read it because my name is Olga. I’m not ashamed of that. But I also read it because Olga is a 94 year old international track star and I wanted to know what insight she has on what the body can do. Turns out she’s just the sort of person who puts her mind to something and keeps working at it. Yes, there are genes involved and I have no misconceptions about my own longevity. None of my grandparents lived to see ninety, but a good number of them did see 80 so, if I play my cards right, I think I’ve got a good chance of getting up there. I was curious to know what to expect at that age and it turns out that, as long as you do the things you love, you’ll live quite happily. So here I am, doing what I love—writing–and I’ll continue to do the things I love until I can’t no more.

Thus concludes another year of books. This isn’t the comprehensive list of all twenty that I read. If you’re curious about that list, you can follow me on Goodreads. I post all of the books I read on there. I don’t really know what else Goodreads is for, but I’m sure I’ll figure something to do with it. If you have an account I’d love to know how you use your account. Leave a comment, tweet at me, or leave it on my Facebook wall.

 

Is it too late?

I get emails from Quora, a website database of crowd-sourced information. The email included a question that I have often asked myself.

Is it too late?

The user is in his late twenties (*check*), hasn’t done “much” with his life (I put much in quotations because everything is relative) and he’s wondering if he’s too late in the game to try anything new or to accomplish any real goal in life because he’s *sniff* approaching thirty.

I picked out the best responses to his question, of which there are plenty, including some from well-known motivational writers like James Altucher, who reminded the user (and me) that the inventor of Ramen noodles didn’t get around to patenting his amazing food staple for the chronically poor and hungry until he was 48.

Here’s what I gleaned from the multitude of answers:

“A sunk cost from yesterday should not be part of today’s equation.” — Marcus Geduld

“Most intentional success is accomplished in a relatively short period of time, and rarely in your twenties.” — Keinosuke Johan Miyanaga

“With time and age, our distance from where we began widens, and the consequences of how we spend our time begins to outweigh our initial advantages and disadvantages.” — same as above

“By choosing a goal or destination we can decide for ourselves to put in the work that will get us there.” — ditto

“Life life intentionally.” — yep, same dude. He’s smart!

So. Now you can see that there are plenty of reasons why it’s not too late. I put myself through a lot of anxiety worrying about that question around my mid-twenties. That was when I began training as a singer and I was worried that I had missed my opportunity to become really good at it. Funny thing is, all the while I was worrying about that I was still training and so, consequently, a few years later, I’ve become a pretty damn good singer! And I’m no longer worried about whether it’s too late for me to sing well because I can! And I do! And I love doing it!

brain that changes itselfThis Quora question came at the right time for me. Shortly after I read this, I started reading The Brain that Changes Itself by Dr. Norman Doidge. I can’t begin to tell you how much I’ve learned. It’s truly a wonderful book that has absolutely changed my mind about our capacity to learn. You know how that old saying goes, you only use about 10% of your brain? That’s bullshit. Don’t let anyone tell you that. You use a heck of a lot more brain power than you think. The brain is a beautiful organism and we’re all blessed to have one.

Between the Quora link and the book I read, I came to realize something: there are so many things that I want to do with my life! Recently I had the opportunity to hold a violin from the 18th century in my own hands. As I held it, marveling at the beauty, memories of violins past filled my head. My grandfather built them. His last one belongs to my cousin and I’ve coveted it since I was a little girl. The only reason he was able to take it before I could lay claim to it was because he lives in Poland, where my grandfather passed away, and I do not. Last year, Dr. Draw, a Toronto-based violin player, threw his spent bow into the audience watching him play and it landed directly in my hand. I kept that bow. My boyfriend, also a musician, plays with fiddlers often. Learning how to play would give us more opportunities to play and sing together. Learning to play the violin would also improve my ear training.

So, is it too late to learn how to play the violin? A year ago I would have thought so. In fact, I did. I looked up the words “how to play the violin” on Youtube last year and I was overwhelmed by the difficulty of learning the instrument. But this year I think differently. I’m not afraid to try something new. I know it’s not too late and I know my brain has the capacity to learn a new skill. I just need to make the first step.

What is a Plague Doctor?

Paul_Fürst,_Der_Doctor_Schnabel_von_Rom_(Holländer_version)

Doktor Schnabel von Rom (“Doctor Beak of Rome” in German) with a satirical Latin/German macaronic poem (‘Vos Creditis, als eine Fabel, / quod scribitur vom Doctor Schnabel’) in octosyllabic rhyming couplets. Engraving by Paul Fürst, 1656

A plague doctor in medieval Europe was a person who specialized in treating the plague[1]. They were hired by towns to treat plague victims, often when the town’s actual doctors had fled to safer territories. This means that the plague doctor didn’t always have the training required to be an actual doctor, but because he was willing to put himself in danger for the sake of treating a patient he was very well compensated[2].

What’s most intriguing perhaps about the plague doctor–other than his lack of qualifications–was his outfit. It varies from country to country but what is most vividly depicted is the beak-like mask that was often worn to protect the plague doctor with various aromatics from the miasma (bad air) that causes plague. Of course we now know that the plague was transmitted through flea bites carrying Yersinia pestis[3].

Along with the beaked mask, the doctors would wear rose-coloured glasses, a wide-brimmed hat that signified their status as doctor, and a long overcoat, often made of leather. They carried long canes used to examine patients[4].

Even more interesting is that the literary genre of steampunk seems to have picked up on the figure of the Plague Doctor to create rather creepy looking characters.

Source: malignanttoast on DeviantArt

Source: malignanttoast on DeviantArt

Source: Topher Adam Photography via Kelsey Grace Chavarria

Source: Topher Adam Photography via Kelsey Grace Chavarria

Source: Cthulhu-Great via DeviantArt

Source: Cthulhu-Great on DeviantArt

Source: Estruda on DeviantArt

Source: Estruda on DeviantArt

Source: Tom Banwell on DeviantArt

Source: Tom Banwell on DeviantArt

What’s with the rise of plague doctors? One blogger believes it was because, although they were not part of the time period steampunk is typically associated with, plague doctors were the “champions of science” during their own time. Plus, “few historically-accurate costumes are as awesome” as that of the plague doctor’s. So, you know, it looks cool.

Have you read any steampunk novels that feature a plague doctor? I haven’t yet, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before I come across one.

[1] Plague Doctor. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plague_doctor

[2] Plague Doctor: History. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plague_doctor#History

[3] The Black Death: Causes. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Death#Causes

[4] Plague Doctor: Costume. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plague_doctor#Costume

Literary Selfies

literary-selfies

I’ve been reading a lot of literary selfies, er, autobiographies lately. Why? I dunno. I keep heading back into that stack in the library. Maybe because it’s on the way to the holds section (where I find more autobiographies that I’ve put on hold).

I’m sure I’ll get back to the fiction eventually, but I’m enjoying my forays into other peoples lives for now. Here’s what I’ve been reading lately:

The One-Week Job Project: One Man, One Year, 52 Jobs by Sean Aiken

one week job project sean aikenLeave it to a Canadian millenial to turn his indecision about the future into a full year blogging extravaganza. I knew nothing about Sean Aiken and oneweekjob.com until I found the book at the library. Sean’s journey was pretty inspiring. Not only did he fly by the seat of his pants for the better part of the year, but he learned a lot about himself through this project. What he conveys through his book (and I presume from his speaking engagements as well) is that it doesn’t really matter what you do as a job as long as you enjoy doing it. And considering that I’m kind of at a crossroads right now in my career, it was well-timed advice for me.

I devoured The One-Week Job Project in a week’s time. I guess you could say I made it my job to read the book. (Okay, okay, I know that was a terrible pun.) I’m doing the same with my current book which leads me to believe that I read nonfiction faster than fiction. Hmm, what does that say about me?

My Life in France by Julia Child

First off, I read this in Julia Child’s voice. How can you not when she sounds like this?

life in france julia childEven despite that amusing voice, I loved the book entirely. Julia Child’s enthusiasm for life and food, good friendships, her husband, FRANCE and wine is infectious. It’ just a beautiful and pleasurable read. But be careful–it’ll leave you feeling hungry, frequently.

The memoir is chock full of stories about the making of Child’s oeuvre, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It took ten years of hard work to put together the first volume of this masterpiece cookbook and when it debuted it became an instant classic, with good reason. It was just that perfect. Child’s rise to fame is chronicled in her memoir with no once of boasting. Her words detailing her meteoric rise into celebrity are simple and forthright, much like I assume she was in real life.

The photographs that accompany the memoir are amazing. Peter Child was a world-renowned photographer. His work hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. He was great at capturing the quiet moments that make up a life.

28 Seconds: A True Story of Addiction, Injustice and Tragedy by Michael Bryant

28 seconds michael bryantWhen I began this book, I was a bit dubious about Michael Bryant’s innocence. I had heard about the accident between his car and cyclist Darcy Sheppard but, like probably a lot of people, I didn’t follow the case very closely and I only gleaned the bare minimum from the story. In fact, what truly happened according to the book was far sadder than what I thought was the case. It was an accident that was waiting to happen. Darcy Sheppard was a man battling with demons that would not leave him alone. Bryant, despite his upbringing, status and power, knew very much what it was like being in Sheppard’s shoes because he also battled with alcohol problems.

At first the book read like a true-telling of American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. The arrogance of Bryant was palpable. But as I soon found out that arrogance would all evaporate in the span of 28 seconds.

It’s an interesting read about two very different men who shared the same kind of demon that plagues many people. Knowing what I know now about the unconscious through my own forays into therapy has been beneficial in understanding how people can change and some just can’t help themselves.

Are you reading any good autobiographies right now? I’d love to hear your recommendations!