Review: A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride

So I’ve been quite away from the world of books in the past year. From dealing with mental illness to a full-time job, I’ve had little time to delve into a good book. But I’ve recently re-discovered the library (HALLE-FRIGGING-LUIAH!) and went on a book hold rampage (over 30!) based on some of the year-end lists of best books for 2014.

I’ve got a whole damn lot of catching up to do.

The first book that made on the hold shelf was Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing.

New take on stream of consciousness

You rarely find stream of consciousness done well–or interestingly. There’s Ulysses, of course, but the lack of punctuation always put me off. In A Girl, you get punctuation… but not necessarily the punctuation you expect.

And of course, this book is deeply indebted to the “Penelope” chapter of Ulysses, the famous last chapter describing Molly Bloom’s thoughts as she goes to sleep. The unnamed girl in this book, however, is fully awake: we experience the world through her eyes and her consciousness.

This is a family story, a love story, a tragic story of children living adrift in a world in which they can’t really fit in. In a way, it also reminded me of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. The deep brother-sister bond, the ways each does everything they can to save the other pain and misery, and the ways each try to escape the lot they have been given by life.

The main character’s brother is an unlikely survivor of a childhood brain cancer. The sister is raised in the shadow of this cancer by a dysfunctional mother who spends too much time praying and not enough time loving her children.

Difficult, rewarding

This is not an easy book to read. The descriptions of violence (sexual, physical, emotional, spiritual) are so raw and real that I wanted to kill the offending characters. The world of this novel is a bleak, bleak place, filled with rain and small kitchens and dank bedrooms. Characters have no names. Places are never identified. It’s just “mother, brother, uncle, grandfather, a man”. It’s just “home, the city, the apartment, the bathroom.” It gives the book a sense of fluidity–it could be anywhere. It could be next door or, in this case, Ireland (identified only by the smattering of Gaelic in a few spots).

But it’s also an incredibly rewarding read, if you can stick with it. It’s difficult at first, but after a few chapters, you get into the rhythm of her thoughts and feelings as if they were your own. They roll on your tongue and in your mind, and they become part of your own experience.

And another thing I loved about this book: it’s a deeply rebellious book. It’s feminist and anti-religious and it’s about freedom. It’s also about love, the love that some of us are not given and try to replace with other things, like love for a brother, or sex.

In her teenage years, the main character protects her brother from constant bullying and mockery by having sex with the guys in his year. Here’s a paragraph that stayed with me throughout, and after I was done:

And in a car the best. Warm and parked away. They’ll do what they can to me in here. On my knees I learn plenty — there’s a lot I’ll do and they are all shame when they think their flesh desired. Offer up to me and disconcerted by my lack of saying no. Saying yes is the best of powers. It’s no big thing the things they do. (My emphasis)

For a Catholic culture that reveres refusal when it comes to sexuality, this simple word, yes, is a big rebellion. And it resonated with me so deeply, because as a feminist saying yes is what I fight for. And refusing this right, this right to be able to say yes (or no) to sex is when the true tragedy of rape happens.

This book is going to be read for decades as a masterpiece of the stream of consciousness style and as contemporary women’s writing. If I taught a women’s writing course or a course centered on sexuality themes, it would be on the reading list.

Five stars.

Review: Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson

Shaman Kim Stanley Robinson reviewAh, Kim Stanley Robinson. Giant of contemporary science fiction, author of the Mars Trilogy and other major sci-fi works.

I hadn’t read any KSR since I read the second book of the Mars Trilogy (haven’t gotten around to reading Green Mars yet). Earlier this summer (June 23rd to be exact, thanks GoodReads!), I picked up Shaman for fun as I was waiting in line at Chapters to buy a gift for my niece.

In general, this is a good book. But it’s more of a marathon than a sprint. Even reading a little bit on a regular basis, it literally took me 6 months to go through it. But first things first.

Imagined past

Kim Stanley Robinson is a master of imagining our future, near and far. He might not be too far off as for the date of the first inhabited Mars mission.

However, Shaman goes in the opposite direction. It imagines our distant past, about 10,000 years ago, when we lived in small packs and used stone tools, and when Homo Sapiens co-existed with the last Neanderthals.

The book follows Loon, an apprentice shaman who must face rigorous winters, survive capture by a northern tribe and finally accept his role in the pack.

The work is detailed and evocative; it’s hard to really know where they are, but given the presence of Neanderthals, probably somewhere in modern-day Europe. Life in a Palaeolithic tribe is routine, simple, but hard. There is feeding the pack, and surviving winters that don’t end until June, and managing the everyday dangers of the wilderness.

Get ready for a long haul

I’m a fast reader. I can’t do a book club with my partner because I read books twice as fast as he does. But this one took me so long because it is slow to move along. As mentioned above, the book is very detailed and evocative; Robinson put a lot of effort in making this world as real as possible.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t solve the problem of the big slumping middle. While I understand that it’s important to have a good idea of how these people lived, I just started losing interest after the first act. I powered through, and I was glad I did, but it still required a reading stamina that was difficult to conjure, even for George Eliot lover-me.

However, the book is redeemed by its lyrical, symbolic qualities. Indeed, everything in Loon’s life is filled with meaning. The sacred and the profane coexist constantly in a world where even the smallest gesture or sign can bring prosperity or disaster. The best part of this, for me, was the constant emphasis on remembering and telling stories. Everyone tells stories in this book: the shaman Thorn, of course, whose role it is to remember and tell the stories; Loon who has to learn and remember them; travellers who come and go and recount their discoveries; even the animals have stories. And of course, you can’t have a good Paleolithic story without cave paintings, which also tell stories of hunts, of love, of death, of fear.

In Shaman‘s world, even the smallest bit of knowledge is fragile. Without writing, every tribe relies on the memory of its shaman:

It’s fragile what we know. It’s gone every time we forget. Then someone has to learn it all over again. I don’t know how you’ll do it. I mean, I wanted to know everything. I remembered every single word I ever heard, every single moment of my life, right up to a few years ago. I talked to every person in this whole part of the world, and remembered everything they said. What’s going to become of all that?

The tragedy of the loss of knowledge, which we can’t understand because every single instant of our lives is now recorded, analyzed and backed up, accessible and permanent, is something that matters enormously to Loon’s people. A death, any death, is the death of knowledge and experience that is irreplaceable. The death of a shaman, the wisest and most knowledgeable men in packs and tribes, is even worse.

Overall then, I give this book 3 stars. It’s good, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a long read, and a difficult one at times. I’m not one to reject books because they are long or deep, but the story went a bit too sluggishly to capture my attention for anything length of time during the middle third.



Review: On Writing by Stephen King

On Writing by Stephen King reviewFine, I’m late to the writing book party. I’m not a Stephen King reader (not a fan of horror in general), but with everyone mentioning this book when I asked for writing book suggestions, I couldn’t not get it.

And boy, am I glad I did.

For fledgling and experienced fiction writers

There’s something I learned about writing training and advice: most of the time it’s just how things have worked for the person giving the advice, and it’s possibly (probably) useless for other people.

All you can really is write, discover your own process and maybe produce good stuff down the line.

King is aware of this, and doesn’t provide his advice as absolutes. It’s what worked for him, and if you can learn things that can help you, then awesome. Really.

You don’t need writing classes or seminars any more than you need this or any other book on writing. … You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.

This, above anything else, gives me the kind of courage I need to get serious about fiction.

Any life is enough

The book begins with a sort of writer’s biography. King describes his childhood and early adulthood with a writer’s lens; he mostly focuses on how certain events have formed him as a writer. It was great to read that even a mostly ordinary childhood can produce successful novelists–one of my main writing anxieties is that my life has been too boring, too ordinary, too cushioned to produce anything interesting, writing-wise.

In fact, it was Flannery O’Connor who said: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” I must take courage in that.

A lot of readers find this section a bit tedious, but at least it’s only about 100 pages out of the 300 of the book. I personally found it interesting; I like to know how other writers grew up, how they came to love words, and how they developed into people who could make money out of scribbles with completely arbitrary meaning.

On actual writing

But the real meaty part of the book is, obviously, the “On Writing” section. There, King gives you the basics you need to know to write stories.

He first deals with mechanics: “good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, the elements of style)”. He has a proper hatred for passive voice and adverbs (and at least we have that in common!) and suggests, as most writers should know, using strong, active verbs instead.

But the best information for me were the sections on actual story ideas and story construction. King is an admitted pantster (someone who writes without outlines) who simply “[wants] to put a group of characters (perhaps a pair; perhaps even just one) in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free.”

To me, this seems like a good starting point for a story. He has a healthy suspicion of plot because, according to him, it usually feels contrived and artificial. Personally, when I try to develop a plot, I always kind of flail in the middle, because I don’t really know what to do with my characters in the first place. What if I just tried doing like King and putting characters in situations and watch them get out of it?

He does say that he prefers character-driven rather than plot driven stories. What’s more frustrating than air-tight plot but boring, cardboard characters? Who cares about what happens to them then?

Disclaimer

Do not read the last section of this book right before bed if you’re prone to nightmares or take some drug that makes dreams that much more vivid (which is my case right now). He describes a major car accident that almost killed him and stopped his work on this particular book.

And then I had a dream that I was in an accident too, with a lot of the details taken from King’s description. Maybe it’s just me, but I guess the strong writing had an effect on my brain!

All in all, though, a great read, and one that I will repeat on a regular basis (or at least the second section), if only for the encouraging words and the wisdom of one of the most popular writers of the 20th century.

Conclusion: buy it if you’re serious about being a writer–no matter the kind.

Review: Blogging From Paradise: How To Retire To A Life of Island Hopping Through Smart Blogging

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve done a book review! I’ve been working on a Kim Stanley Robinson novel for the past 6 months–that will be coming eventually. I do want to start reading again–hello library (which I don’t leave so near to anymore, but whatevs, I have a car and bus tickets, don’t I?)!

Anyhoo. Last week, Ryan Biddulph of Blogging For Paradise contacted me for a book review. As I haven’t read an ebook about blogging in a while, I thought, why not? It’ll give me something to read and also some blog fodder. So I added Blogging From Paradise: How To Retire To A Life of Island Hopping Through Smart Blogging to my Dropbox.

Blogging From Paradise: How To Retire To A Life of Island Hopping Through Smart Blogging

So, okay, the cover is kind of meh. Picture of a tropical paradise, some text boxes. It looks like what it is: a self-published ebook. It’s short too: 67 pages and you’re done.

The first impression I had with the first few paragraphs wasn’t an overly positive one. The guy definitely needs an editor. But I didn’t let that stop me from finishing the book, despite how annoyed I grew with missing commas and then/than errors, and plenty of other things that could just easily be corrected with a second pair of eyes (and I write this to a majority of my students, who make no money whatsoever with the papers they write for me).

You know I’m a fan of depth. If you’re going to write a book, make it something worth my while. On this front, this book kind of fails. With 11 chapters for 67 pages, you don’t get much space for each.

But sometimes, a wide overview of something can be just what you need. It’s definitely not a step-by-step, follow my blueprint type of book. It’s more of a “here’s a general idea of what I did to be successful”.

My favourite chapters were the early ones: chapter 1 covers the kind of attitude you need to be a successful blogger, chapter 2 covers some common mistakes bloggers make, and chapter 3 effectively clarified for me how to define your blog topic. Which, on the moment, I actually needed for my Writefulness project.

Chapter 4 is also nice because, in the end, creating and connecting are the true keys to success. Not marketing, not SEO. Creating and connecting.

The rest (including the chapter on monetization) was really too thin for me. If you want more information on monetization, there are much deeper books you can get. This one just tells you that you can sell ads and your services when you become an expert. Which is obvious–at least to me. But a beginner might find this information useful.

As I am not particularly interested in island hopping (more like just living on one of them), the constant references to “living a life of island hopping in paradise” quickly became grating. The cover clearly expresses that, so I don’t think it’s necessary to weigh the writing down with constantly mentioning that the author has been to Bali and Fiji and Thailand and whatever. I think that it crosses the line between “inspiration” and “bragging” at this point.

So, my honest take on this? Don’t spend $13 on this book. You can get much better for less. Wait until there’s a special, or a giveaway, or something of the kind. I mean, I got Jeff Goin’s You Are a Writer for $2, and despite its faults, it was a great inspirational read.

But if you like Ryan’s content on his blog and you need something to kick your butt into gear to start blogging, and $13 is no chip off your shoulder? Go ahead, I guess. It’s your money.

This gets a 3 stars from me. Despite its faults and its high price, it still had some good bits of insight.

Disclaimer: I received this ebook for free from the author. All opinions are my own. Links may lead to affiliate programs.

A Good Week

Signs And The Times

All in all, this was a good week.

I graded a bunch of assignments. I wrote blog posts. I am in the process of reviewing my freelance writer’s page (curious?).

I’m not letting you know about my goals yet–that’s for Sunday.

In the meantime though, I have plenty of stories about firsts and new things this week.

Meeting new friends

I had coffee with BCBeautyGirl. We’ve been tweeting for quite a while, but never met.

She’s a smart lady with lots of great stories and a 10-month-old. I love hearing about happy families. She’s also a writer, so we have lots in common. We chatted for close to 2 hours, and I don’t think we’ve exhausted discussion topics!

Changing grocery and cooking habits

In an effort to help reduce our expenses (and, now, literally keep us afloat), I’ve been experimenting with a bunch of ways to save on grocery. From having small dinners (not really hungry in the evening anyway) to buying a lot when stuff is on special, and then freezing, it’s all about being smart with our grocery budget.

Another thing I started this week is getting my produce through Gobox Organics. I would usually buy a little produce at my usual grocery store, and more or less the same thing every week, or more if I needed it for a specific recipe.

What’s cool with the box is that you get things that you wouldn’t usually buy on your own. I tried a recipe to use the beautiful big leek that came in my box, and it was delicious. I realized yesterday that I love cooking. I may not make my own recipes yet, but I love making good food. It makes me happy.

When I worked full-time in an office, I would come back home around 5PM, and the idea of cooking was just too much to handle. I just wanted to crash and watch TV and eat chips. But the second I went back to freelancing, I was free to start making a delicious dinner so it would be ready for 5h00, when L. starts getting hungry. It’s also early enough that we can make it to our evening commitments during the week without skipping dinner.

Anyway, so, Gobox Organics is awesome. I know in advance how much this part of my grocery is going to cost, at least, and what I’m going to get, so I can plan recipes and buy the rest accordingly.

What’s new for you?

I had something else in mind when I started writing this post (on Friday night, drinking wine, Barefoot Pinot Grigio if you’re curious, it’s my go-to cheap wine when I just want a bottle of something), but it seems I have forgotten what else was new for me this week.

So then, I throw the question back to you: are there any new things you tried or that happened to you this week? What made your heart sing, your soul happy?

Weekly Goals, Monday November 17 2014

Achieve your goals

So, this is my first week setting up weekly goals publicly, on my blog.

It’s about making goals work for me, but it’s also about making myself accountable for reaching them.

So here are my goals for the week:

  • Finish current assignment grading by Wednesday
  • Write 2 blog posts for HR client
  • Write 5 blog posts for BuildDirect
  • Write 2 extra blog posts for this blog
  • Write 1 article on LinkedIn
  • Find and research a topic for a white paper

This isn’t a lot of work (for now), but my marking will take 2-3 full days.

I want to break into more lucrative corporate markets, hence the white paper. If only as a portfolio piece, it’ll be worth the time.

Ready for the week? I sure am!

Start Your Week With Goals

start your week with goals

Being a freelancer can be exhilarating, especially if you’ve never been self-employed before.

You can sleep in, take naps, cook your lunch from scratch, take breaks without anyone judging you, run errands when the stores are quiet, make appointments at practical times, welcome your family home after a hard day at school or work.

These are all amazing perks, along with, obviously, being your own boss. Which, to me, is the perkiest perk of them all.

But to these perks, there are also a bunch of disadvantages: no schedule, often overlapping personal and professional life, people thinking “oh, you work from home, you can hang out anytime you want”, being tempted to take naps, a certain instability to your income…

Fight the “free-for-all”

Whenever I begin a freelance period in my life, I takes me a little bit of time to readjust. This is what I now call my “free-for-all” phase.

Basically, I do the work I have to do, but without a specific schedule. I have a list of tasks that need finishing if I want to pay my half of the bills for the month, but there isn’t a specific way that I do that work. It’s pretty much, as I said, “free-for-all”.

I’m the kind of person who always gets her stuff done… mostly last-minute and under pressure. But as I scale my freelance business up and leave low-paying, quickly finished tasks behind, I realize that this kind of approach won’t work for much longer.

And how should I fight the free-for-all? By setting goals.

I’m terrible with goals

No, seriously. I’m terrible with them. Unless there’s an immediate and consistent reward related to them, I’m really terrible. I’ll write them down, and then I won’t meet them, and think “eh, not the end of the world, I’ll just finish tomorrow”.

So, terrible with goals. But I know they’re the difference between being successful or not, so I need to understand them and develop a goal strategy that works for me. (Let me know if you have good resources for that!)

Having goals will change my work mindset from free-for-all to focused-and-productive. I hope. I can’t guarantee, because I am often swayed by the need for an afternoon nap or “just another episode” at lunch time (often followed by a nap).

What I’ll do

So, I guess this post isn’t to teach you a lesson about starting your week with goals. It’s more about telling you that I will do my best to start my week with goals, and maybe I should start posting them so I can keep myself accountable for them.

So, starting tomorrow, I’ll share my goals for the next week. And on Sundays, I’ll write an update letting you know what I did–and didn’t–accomplish.

How does that sound for a deal?

Sunday Tea Circle: Community

Community

You never really understand the importance of belonging to a community until you don’t belong to one. And then, when you find a new one, it’s like a revelation.

I’ve never been lucky with groups of friends. Mercilessly bullied in high school. Moving from group to group in my early 20s. Finding a good place at the Liberal Arts College at 22, but then leaving for Victoria. Again, making new friends in Victoria, only to leave again for Edmonton. And since then, it’s been hard to feel like I really belonged anywhere.

I’m an introvert, that’s true. A boisterous one, kinda loud sometimes. Also trusting. Finding a community where I can be quiet or loud, vulnerable and simply just accepted for who I am has been difficult.

But then, when you find that place, those people who just listen, acknowledge, accept, it feels wonderful.


I’ve recently joined a zen group here in town. One of my friends has been going for about a year, and the abbott is very active on Facebook, so I’ve been hearing about it for a while. It look a little bit of courage to go the first time, but I have never regretted it.

This zen group is now my safe place. There’s no judgement, no agenda, no expectations other than following the rituals. As a friend put it yesterday, they’re more interested in harmony than people fitting in. And harmony can be obtained with a variety of sounds, not just a single one. Every sound has a place, every person part of a harmonious whole.

I’m rambling, and I’m not quite sure what I’m trying to get at. Maybe nothing. I just want to share how wonderful it is to have people who accept you for who you are and who expect nothing but the same in return. Through them, I’m learning how to simply listen and acknowledge others’ experiences.

This feeling of community is new for me. I’ve always had to navigate complicated politics of likes, crushes and relationships. In always end up more or less excluded from any group I join, usually because of some personality traits that I acknowledge are difficult.

So, for once, it feels good to have a community to belong to. It feels good to be able to be vulnerable, open, just you with other people who have no other agenda but to accept and love you. And this is what I wanted to celebrate today.

Friday Wine Chat: Apothic Dark

So, I have this habit of drinking some wine on Friday nights (sometimes Saturdays, but mostly Fridays. Call me a lady with a habit.).

I’m not a wine expert by any length, but I love to drink it–which I think is good enough to write reviews about whether or not I like them and why, in my humble opinion. I read somewhere that the only criterion for drinking wine is liking it–so that’s the approach I’m going to take with these reviews.

So today I went to the store for my usual Friday libation, and I was feeling for something warm, rich and chocolatey. Maybe it was the brisk weather outside or the fact that I closed a new retainer client today (woot!), but I was in the mood for a red.

I’m a fan of the regular Apothic, so when I saw the bottle of limited edition Apothic Dark, I grabbed one right away.

Apothic Dark wine review

And Dark is really the right name for it. The wine is a deep purple with almost no transparency.

It smells of blackberries, raspberries and, interestingly, maple syrup.

It’s a big bold wine, but it’s also sweet and rich. It could hold up to even the boldest cheeses and flavours. I drank it along with some mini-cupcakes, and it was lovely. I think it would work well as a festive wine with lots of food, especially strong flavoured foods like beef and venison. But just with cheese or drank alongside a selection of chocolates from around the world sounds just as perfect.

Once in your mouth (and you won’t wait for that long), Apothic Dark tastes like chocolate and berries. It has a deep flavour that lingers for quite a while.

I really like this wine. I’ve been drinking less red in the past few months, but when the winter gets colder I tend to reach for darker wines, so I’m not surprised I picked up a red today. It’s a limited edition bottle that I grabbed at the 4 Mile Liquor Store. Not sure how long it’s going to be in store, but if you’re a fan of sweet, bold reds, you might want to give this one a try!

Silence, Glorious Silence

Silence

Here I sit, in silence.

Well, sure, there’s the noise of the fridge downstairs (noisy bugger) and birds outside, and sometimes some truck passes on one of the two main roads nearby. But all in all, pretty quiet around here. So quiet I can even hear Preeya snore on the window perch.

Why I love silence

I love silence because it’s my choice. It’s my choice to work in a quiet environment, with no phones ringing, no coworkers talking, no doors banging.

I love silence because I can choose it over music or radio when neither of them serves my work. I love silence because I can sit in it, revel in it, and most important, control it.

We all need silence

Long ago, a school colleague of mine who was a psychoanalysis aficionado said something that still resonates with me today. He didn’t have an iPod or any kind of MP3 player for his commute to and from school. I asked him why.

He said that the reflex to listen to music while waiting for the bus or the metro was just a way for us to avoid being alone with our thoughts. He enjoyed being alone with his thoughts, so he didn’t listen to music to distract himself.

When I worked in an office full-time, I listened to music to separate myself from the noise outside and focus on what I was supposed to do. It was harder than with silence, but it was easier than with background office chatter. At least I could choose the music.

But it was a distraction too. A way to push away my feelings of the day, whether they were work-related or not. It was a way to push them aside so I wouldn’t deal with them.

And then I started sitting in silence once a week with other people. And I discovered that the silence was scary, because silence and stillness bring all sorts of stuff to the surface.

Don’t be afraid of it

Silence seems scary to most of us who have been raised with walkmans, and then portable CD players, and then MP3 players. The constant promise of distraction while doing unpleasant stuff–waiting, working, cleaning, etc–has turned us into people who have trouble being in touch with their emotions.

Okay, I’m making a generalization here. I had trouble being in touch with my emotions because I couldn’t sit in silence. I was afraid of the emotions just bubbling under the surface, the anger and the guilt and the regret and the feelings of failure. The pride, oh the pride! I always see the pride, right there colouring everything I do, every time I sit on my cushion, or decide to stand up for kinhin (walking meditation) with legs that have fallen asleep.

I’m not afraid of silence because I want to face who I really am, the good, the bad and the truly ugly. As long as you fear facing your true emotions, you’ll be afraid of silence.