Book Review: The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

It’s been a while since I’ve written a book review–I must admit that I haven’t actually read a book for a good period of time, probably since last Fall. I guess reading wasn’t on my mind when I was fighting my depression.

Now that things are better, though, I decided I would re-join the book club I started attending last year, so I picked up where they were. For the April meeting, the book is The Rosie Project.

The Rosie Project cover

I guess I’m glad that I’m getting back into reading with a book like this one. I don’t think I could have handled something heavier or more difficult.

The Rosie Project is a love story between a geneticist, Don, looking for The Perfect Wife, and a psychology PhD student, Rosie, trying to find her biological father. Don is a highly logical, rational man with a perfectly regimented life and penchant for alcohol. Rosie is a rebellious feminist with a smoking habit and a preference for sustainable seafood. They are unsuitable for each other, and yet…

If you’re a friend on Goodreads (here’s my profile link if you’re not yet), you’ll notice that I gave this book only 3 stars. That’s not because it was a bad book or because I didn’t enjoy it. In fact, I read it in a weekend.

First, the really good things. My favourite element of the book was the narrative voice. The story is told from Don’s point of view, which means that you get in the head of a (possibly Asperger) scientist who must reflect rationally on everything. It’s interesting to see him analyze his feelings from a non-emotional point of view, and also to see how his relationship with Rosie both deepens his understanding of his own character and inserts irrational elements to his life. How he deals with the irrationality and his heightened emotional state is the most fascinating and interesting part of the book.

However, the novel carries the skeleton of its origin as a movie script–specifically, a romantic comedy. It touches on all the story points: a meeting over a misunderstanding, initial attraction followed by the knowledge that the two are incompatible, falling in love over a common project that forces them together anyway, idyllic getaway where something almost happens, first fight, adjustment, dark moment, reconciliation and finally, you guessed it, marriage. It was all rather conventional and easy to follow.

Not that it’s a bad thing, if you like to read things that are conventional. Romantic comedies provide a certain type of pleasure, when you’re looking for that kind of thing. I’m not a big watcher of romantic comedies; they are generally too similar and idyllic, and when you’ve seen one, you’ve basically seen them all.

Aside from the main character, who is a strange but strangely likeable nerd, The Rosie Project is not a subversive novel challenging the conventions of the romantic genre. But as a member of its species, it’s a pretty successful one. It’s lighthearted, funny and leaves you with a warm, fuzzy feeling inside. It doesn’t make you roll your eyes in annoyance and actually makes you smile quite often. So, for that, I give it major props, as my only foray into romance novels mostly turned me off the genre.

If you’re in a mood for a quick, easy read in an airplane or on the beach, or if you enjoy romantic comedies, The Rosie Project will be a pleasurable experience for you. It doesn’t make you think too hard, makes you feel good about the possibility of finding love in the strangest corners and gives you a glimpse of how people with Aspergers or highly functional autism might process the world around them. It was definitely a fun read.

When Writing, Be Gentle With Yourself

Gentleness by Cornelia Kopp

There are so many reasons to be hard on ourselves. We need to work more, to spend more time with our family, to focus more on our health. Employers, friends, family and society demand more and more of us: more attention, more focus, more multi-tasking, more time. They say “always be better, stronger, faster than you were yesterday so you can reach your goals and make a life for yourself.” The times tell us to be aggressive with ourselves, to never take no for an answer, to always look for the bigger thing, the better thing. We should never be satisfied with what we have and always strive to have more, do more, be more.

I find this litany exhausting to the extreme. It implies that people have no limits. I tells us that if we’re not improving every day, we’re not really doing anything worthy at all. But is there a point where we need to–where we have to stop and recognize our limits? I think writing is the perfect space to start being gentle with ourselves.

No perfection needed

Think of writing as a sibling of thinking. Do you always expect perfect thoughts from yourself? Of course not: thoughts often come half-formed, not quite complete. Take this post, for example. I started thinking about this topic as I decided to give myself the space and the time to be a bad writer. I decided to be gentle with myself as I learn to write fiction. This post is not perfect–it’s actually not as clear, logical or convincing as I believe it should be. But it comes from somewhere deep, somewhere real, so I hope that the ideas shine through.

After a year of not writing, after a year of struggling to get words on paper because I was afraid to be bad, I told myself that I would allow myself to be bad, that I would allow myself to be a beginner again. I like being in the state of “bad-ness”, of being in a place where discovery, learning and improvement. By improvement, I don’t mean the “I must be perfect at everything” improvement that I express in the first paragraph. I mean improvement of a more gentle kind, of a kind that’s less obsessed with productivity and more interested in fulfillment.

The state of perfection is a static, lifeless place. When you are perfect, what else can you do? The state of imperfection, the state of “bad-ness”, has so much more potential, so many more possibilities and directions.

So bad it’s good

When writing, allow yourself to be in a place of bad-ness. This is where the best thinking happens. This is where the heart reveals itself. It’s when you let go of all the expectations placed on you by teachers, superiors, and most of all yourself, that you are free to express yourself with the words that are right for you. It takes courage to lay our own thoughts bare and to face ourselves in writing–many a time did I make myself cry writing a truth that I did not want to admit to myself. But these are also the most powerful words you will ever write.

Give yourself the chance to be bad. Give yourself the opportunity to mess up. Be gentle with yourself as you explore your inner world for blog posts or personal essays or fiction. Find a way to shut down the voices in your head that tell you “this is crap” at every period. Reading the truth is better than reading polished but empty prose. Being authentic is better than being perfect.

What do you value when you write? Listen to your thoughts as you type or scribble. What comes to your head? Are the words harsh and judging or gentle and encouraging?

Some ways to be gentle

Here are some ways I have developed to be gentle with myself when I write:

  • Freewriting. I love freewriting because I can completely let go of judgement and of expectations. Freewrites never see the light of an audience. It’s a warm-up for your writing muscles.
  • Describing your “watcher”. Novelist Gail Godwin calls it “the watcher”, the person who is there telling you how bad you are at writing, the person judging your word choices and your comma use. Take a few minutes to describe your watcher. Give it shape and life. Then put it in a mental box, out of sight, as you write.
  • Stopping the whining. I will admit: I am an inveterate whiner. Read my journals and you’ll find pages upon pages of complaining, whining and feeling sorry for myself. And then one night I saw that this was not doing me any good. Venting once in a while is fine, but complaining as my only writing outlet impoverished my thinking. Now instead of whining, I grab on to a thought or idea and, like meditation, go back to it when I lose my way. It’s done wonders for my thinking… and my self-esteem.

Being gentle with yourself is good for your soul and good for your writing. How do you stop the harsh voices from getting in the way of your writing? I’d love to know how you allow yourself to be gentle!

On Not Writing

Photo by Amy Palko on Flickr

In 2013, I wrote a big total of 8 new posts on this blog.

8 posts. Not even one a month.

2013 was the year of not writing–at least, it was the year of not writing for me.

I did write, almost every day. I wrote blog posts and web copy and feature articles. I wrote mostly for money, sometimes for myself in freewriting or journals, but rarely for my own projects. I wrote maybe 1000 words of fiction.

Common advice to writers goes thus: “write every day”. I’ve seen this so many times, read it in so many books and blogs and magazine articles that it makes me sick. Honestly. If there is one inane, useless piece of advice, it must be this.

I’m not saying that writing every day is a bad thing. But for some of us, saying “write every day” does not solve the problem of why we’re not writing. I wrote every day. I just didn’t write what I wanted to write, and when I was done writing what I didn’t want to write, I had no energy for the rest. My mind was blank, spent.

So, that’s why you haven’t heard from me much in 2013. I was not writing–at least, not writing for here.

Not writing made me feel anxious and guilty. I am a writer–isn’t my nature to put words on screen or paper? Why would I eschew it so consciously, resist its call so forcefully? But it also made me feel free, free from self-imposed demands and norms that I had no energy nor mental space to tackle. I learned that I could not write and survive. But I also learned that a life without the space to reflect with words, as is my way of doing, is a very difficult life indeed.

As writers, we need words to work through issues and emotions. The page is our sleeve, the words our therapy.

But there is much to learn from not writing. You learn that the mind is a terrifying place if you don’t unburden it from time to time. You learn that the words and feelings inside start building up and up and up until you are ready to explode. You learn that sometimes you may be scared of writing the words, because writing them tells you a truth that you wanted to avoid. It’s not that you have nothing to say–it’s that scratching the surface of the fear, breaking through the wall in your mind with words might end up wrecking absolutely everything.

This was the year of distraction, the year of watching television. Over Christmas, I watched the entirety of Chuck… just an example. It was the year of contemplation, of a certain waiting, I guess. Waiting for the fog to clear and for words to feel safe and comfortable again.

Because words are scary, aren’t they? They hold such power over us. They whisper or scream, seduce or conquer. They are the link between our inner self and others. Without words, would we be able to know ourselves and one another?

When knowing threatens us, words bubble and build in our mind but they never come out. Letting them come out would be a calamity, an apocalypse of the mind. Or is it that we already know and do not want to make that knowledge reality?

So here I am, using many words to try to express how scared words made me feel this year–how scared of them I still feel right now, but that I am willing to face this fear and let them flow again.

Because worse than a temporary block is the danger of becoming permanently mute.

The Path

Forest Trail by BlueRidgeKitties on Flickr

It used to be open and clear, the path in front of me. It had leafy trees letting golden light through; it had flowers alongside it, brightening the landscape and filling the air with a sweet smell.

Sure, there were thorns and branches along the way, but nothing I couldn’t just step over and leave behind. The path had a clear direction–not a final destination, not quite, but a direction towards something that would lead to more goals and more sunlit, flowered paths in the future.

But then something happened.

I took a side trail, an unknown path. At first, the sun remained and I thought I was heading somewhere still. But along the way, I lost sight of that somewhere. I became lost, surrounded by dark, unfamiliar things. The leaves that filtered light now blocked it completely. There were no more flowers, only puddles and dead leaves that cracked under my feet. I stopped. I sat.

I sat for a long while, thinking. It was hard to move. The path got darker; it was harder and harder to see until the only things I could see were my hands on my knees getting stiff from cold and idleness.

I’m still sitting, but it seems light is coming back, slowly. I can see my feet now. My fingers are nimble again, soon to be ready to go back to work. I’m not sure what they’ll do yet; maybe that’s why I haven’t gotten up. But every day I imagine getting up and following the path again; every day this side trail becomes more and more familiar. I can’t go back to the first one, but I can make this trail my new path.

What awaits me when I finally decide to stand? I don’t know. There might be other windings, other side trails along the way. But we must stop sitting still if we want to go forward.

I Have Nothing to Say

Image by Cornelia Kopp

These days, my mind is blank. I’m fighting the urge of an afternoon nap to write this. Despite having read numerous books this summer, despite having spent a week alone in my childhood home, despite helping a very good friend find an amazing career, I feel like none of it is worth telling.

How do you know if something is worth telling? How do you decide what life lesson, thought or idea is worth expressing and sharing? As it is, I feel like none of what I felt, thought or ideated in the past few months deserves to be set on type, to be digitally engraved on some server halfway across the world and then pinged back to your screen.

It’s not that I don’t care about you, dear readers. In fact, I do. I wish I had something to say to you, something insightful or funny or thoughtful. I wish I could enlighten you and entertain you and provoke emotion in you. But in the end, all that comes out of my mind is a big nothing–or, more precisely a big “nothing I say is interesting”.

I don’t know whether it’s the world that’s making me this way, or if I am the cause of my own inability to find interest in even my own thoughts. I am plagued by concern for the quantitative: dollars, hours, word counts. These have dulled my edge for the qualitative: for the profound, the beautiful, the meaningful.

Maybe it’s not that I have nothing to say. Maybe what I have to say is so difficult and so traumatizing that I refuse to let the words out of my mouth. At least as thoughts they can remain unformed, unspoken, un-real. They have no sway over the world. If I say them, I don’t know what will happen to me. It might change my life. In fact, I know it will.

And just as I refuse to do anything about my weight gain, I refuse to speak the words. Maybe I eat and drink because I’m trying to keep the words stuffed inside a mind that’s too hazy to grasp for the truth.

Maybe having nothing to say is actually about having so much to say, but refusing to say it. Because once I start talking… maybe I won’t stop until it’s all out.

LIVE: The Stuff of Life

2 weeks ago, I moved our 2-bedroom apartment to a 3-bedroom townhouse. I did the packing mostly on my own, as well as the unpacking.

My previous experiences with moving have been pretty easy: the stuff I own fits in a bedroom and two kitchen cupboards. Until recently, I didn’t even have furniture of my own, always moving from furnished place to furnished place, carrying my clothes, books and computer along–the only necessary things for my life.

This time, though, I wasn’t just moving myself: I was moving two people with all their accumulated stuff and furniture.

As my semi-bohemian life in my 20s showed, I can live with very little stuff. Entertainment and reading are digital now; I scaled down my book collection when I moved from Edmonton and have never looked back. My computer can be used as a television screen–that’s why I got it in the first place. I own enough clothing to get by, but have little need for a big wardrobe since I spend most of my time at home anyway. I spend more on pyjamas than actual clothes.

My partner, however, has a thing for things. (Well, I don’t know. He just owns a lot of stuff). Aside from the necessary furniture like a couch and a bed and a desk, which are totally justifiable, he owns a ton of stuff, from DVDs to his wardrobe to his numerous collectibles. And I’m not even talking about his shoe collection.

As I packed and unpacked everything over the space of a week, I started thinking about how our lives are defined by things. The stuff that we own.

How much pleasure am I getting from these objects? How much meaning? How are they influencing my life?

More and more, I feel like I am living the life disconnected. Making my life on the web, it might sound like connection is a factor of my success. But I’m not talking about this kind of connection. I’m talking about living the life disconnected from our bodies, from our environments and from our souls. From other human beings.

For about a year, I’ve felt like something was missing in my life. Something important, something that mattered, something that made me feel like the drudge and grind of daily life wasn’t in vain, like every day wasn’t like the day before and wouldn’t be like the day after.

After the money I spent to move our stuff from one place to another, the exhausted body I had after five days of packing, unpacking, buying, placing, moving, washing, shelving, the constant worry that the new place wouldn’t be big enough for all our accumulated stuff (mostly his) despite one more room…

It all became clear.

I have too much stuff. I don’t have enough life.

What’s the stuff of life? Experiences. Memories. I feel stuck, weighed down to soullessness by the things that attach themselves to my body like millions of little anchors. Clothes need washing. DVDs need watching. Car needs gasing. Shoes need wearing. Things need using. But there is very little in this past year that I find worthy of remembering.

I’ve seen nothing beautiful.

I’ve done nothing amazing.

I have experienced nothing but the increasing hollowness of my life, nothing but the impression of drowning into a sea of things that clamour for more money to increase their numbers, like so many cancer cells eating away at my soul, taking it apart and selling it for spare parts.

I am sick of it all.

Every week, my body gets fatter from trying to fill the void of my increasingly poor soul. Every week that goes like the one before, just like the one after, kills me a little bit more.

I make my own schedule. I work the hours I wish.

Do you want to know what I do with those hours that I so proudly free by being self-employed?

Nothing.

I watch television. Sometimes, rarely, I take walks. I wash dishes. I do laundry. I play video games. Sometimes I read. I wait.

These are all distractions because I don’t want to think about what’s missing in my life. This morning, I was wondering why I feel so lazy, why I feel like my skills and my intelligence and my potential are going to waste, and why I can’t just will myself out of it.

I have nothing to live for but the drudgery of another day spent doing the same damn thing all over again.

Despite my getting bigger every week, I am starving–my soul is starving.

The stuff we own is suffocating me. The real stuff of life–laughter, beauty, love, touch, tears, amazement, learning, friendship–pass me by because there is no space for them anymore, all worried that I am about taking care of stuff and making space for stuff and making more money to buy more stuff.

I would gladly give it all away if it meant seeing the sun set on a beach on another continent, dancing to drums until it came back up, hearing the stories of interesting people and loving someone unfettered by budgeting.

Photo by the United Nations

READ: The Prince by Tiffany Reisz

15704485Yes. I know. There is a pattern here.

I must admit: I’m a fan. As I’ve once admitted to Ms. Reisz on Twitter: “I want to be you when I grow up”.

This is the third in the Original Sinners series (see my reviews of the first and second books) and it still is as original and fresh as ever.

The Prince follows directly after The Angel. Nora goes with Wesley to Kentucky to try and work out her relationship with her young, virgin protégé. Back in Connecticut, Soren and Kingsley return to the site of their teenage relationship and discover a secret that endangers Nora.

This book develops through three major parts: Soren and Kingsely as teenagers, Soren and Kingsley now, and Nora and Wesley in Kentucky trying to be together.

To be honest, I was much more interested in the Soren and Kingsley sections than I was with Nora and Wesley. Their relationship is cute, but I have my doubts that Nora will really find happiness with him. A kinkster with a totally vanilla boy? While I get that Nora finds relief from the constant demands of a BDSM relationship, and that it might be a nice vacation for her, it’s obvious that she can’t just choose to be vanilla. She is too wild and too assertive to repress this important part of herself. Wesley, as nice and rich and cuddly and innocent as he is, cannot satisfy her forever. He only answers to part of her needs, and I think that Nora needs a more… varied sex diet.

Soren and Kingsley, however, have a relationship that’s just as interesting and tangled as the one between Nora and Soren. They truly are the holy trinity of New York’s underground, with Soren at the top and Nora and Kingsley both, literally, at his feet. Their story is just as heartbreaking and beautiful as that between Soren and Nora, and it’s truly worth reading through. There is no judgement anywhere in the book, nothing to make us feel like their relationship was somehow wrong or unclean. It felt… purifying.

This is the most brilliant insight of this book, and of this series in general: that love is complicated and that it isn’t the safe and sanitary thing of romance novels. Sex and love are messy and painful, but they are also exquisitely beautiful and a truly human thing that needs to be embraced fully. No puritanical bullshit anywhere here: just love in a variety of expressions.

I can’t stop thinking about Bernini’s sculpture of St. Theresa of Avila, where an ecstatic Theresa is about to be pierced by the arrow of God’s love. Nora and Kingsley and Soren are all in this tableau, constantly re-enacting this original ecstasy and never able to reach it again, always grasping for God’s pure, unadulterated love that none of them felt in their life, except through pain. The books expose a truth that very few of us ever get to experience, or even believe is possible: that pleasure can come from pain, and that both of them opens up the most direct path to God. The Hindus got it right, but Christian asceticism has shut it out of our culture. That Soren is a Catholic priest, Nora the daughter of a nun and Kingsley religious in his own way simply make this argument more poignant.

I’m waiting, definitely with bated breath, for the final part of the series, titled The Mistressto be published on August 1st. Too long, way too long, Tiffany! But expectation is the best part of pleasure, and we will wait for yours, because this cliffhanger of an ending really sets the stage for an explosive finale.

READ: Sins of the Angels by Linda Poitevin

10661603Sometimes, you read books not because they seem to your liking at first glance, but because you’ve been learning about the author for some time.

Last year, when I expressed the goal to become a professional writer and maybe write novels, a friend on Twitter suggested I follow her friend Linda Poitevin, an Ottawa-based urban fantasy novelist.

So after a few months of reading her tweets and hearing about her book series, The Grigory Legacy, I picked up the first of them, Sins of the Angels, from the library.

All in all, this book gave me an entertaining time. Given my previous experience with urban fantasy, I wasn’t expecting much, but this book was fairly well written and had an actually interesting and plausible (for the genre) plot.

Here’s an overview of the story. A fallen angel finds his way back to the human plane and starts killing humans to regain his powers. His brother, an angel called Aramael, joins up with Alexandra Jarvis, a Toronto homicide investigator who’s just lost her partner, to find and stop him.

At first, Alexandra wants nothing to do with her new partner, but an inexplicable electricity between them, and several strange visions when she’s around him, tell her that this is no ordinary man… and that she is no ordinary woman. Follows a convincing investigation with high personal stakes.

In general, the book was pleasing. There were some really good action scenes, and I liked how Alexandra was portrayed: independent and taking no bullshit from anyone. Aramael seemed a bit boorish and single-minded at first, but his character develops throughout, and we can see a more flexible angel peeking through at the end.

The potential love story between Aramael and Alexandra, however, sometimes felt a little too convenient. Of course, it’s a convention of this type of book that there should be some kind of love interest for the heroine. But the whole “it’s fated” thing was a little easy, I think. Basically, because of their resonant energy, the developing feelings between the two of them are described as pretty much inevitable and out of anyone’s control. While I can appreciate that sometimes that’s the way love is, I would have liked to see a little more agency on Alexandra’s part. She doesn’t really like him, after all, despite appreciating the Greek perfectness of his body from the very beginning. I find there’s a big difference between finding a man attractive and falling in love with him.

I liked how Poitevin incorporated the secondary plot, Jarvis’ colleague’s struggles with a very magnetic priest and a strange disappearance in one of Toronto’s most prominent families. I was actually intrigued by her character and would have liked to learn more about her. These passages were a clever way to give us an idea of the bigger picture surrounding Jarvis’ investigation.

I haven’t yet read the second book, and I know the third is slated for publication very soon. Overall, Sins of the Angels was a quick and pleasant read, not too complicated but interesting enough to keep my attention for its duration. It’s refreshing to see a good detective story set in Toronto that isn’t Flashpoint.

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