that’s a lot to live up to

I’ve been reading quite a lot about Paris recently. I finished Dawn of the Belle Epoque: The Paris of Monet, Zola, Bernhardt, Eiffel, Debussy, Clemenceau, and Their Friends and have moved on to the follow-up, Twilight of the Belle Epoque: The Paris of Picasso, Stravinsky, Proust, Renault, Marie Curie, Gertrude Stein, and Their Friends through the Great War. (Both are by Mary McAuliffe.)

I give you their full titles to bring home the point that I’m reading about a lot gifted people who worked hard and succeeded in fields about which they were passionate.

Which is partly inspiring, and partly depressing.

I feel as though I should be working harder. But before I can even do that I need to work out where my passion lies. What is it that I have to say? What is it that I want to shout from the rooftops? I’m pretty sure that ‘I don’t know’ is not an acceptable answer.

And it folds back into earlier thoughts. When I tried to put together ideas about where I want to be five years from now, I didn’t have any kind of concrete goal for my writing. Other than just… getting better. I feel I should have a passion project. I should want to write a novel, or a travelogue, or something.

But I haven’t worked out what that is yet. And I’m not sure where to start.

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so many books

My to-read list has gotten out of hand recently – I’ve been picking up hours working at a bookstore over the holidays and keep coming across books that look interesting. A lot of them are by authors that are new to me, so before I start buying, I thought I’d take some of them out for a test drive.

So last week, I placed a whole stack of holds at the library. Many of the books had other holds on them ahead of mine, and what with the library closing repeatedly over the holidays, I thought it would be next week before any of them arrived, and that I’d get maybe one or two a week as books became available. Easily manageable.

Boy did I guess wrong. I got a call from the library on Saturday that there was “one or more books” waiting for me on the hold shelf. When I went on Monday to pick them up, there were four. On Tuesday I got another call from the library, and on Wednesday I picked up four more from the hold shelf.

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Oops?

I do have a lot of time on my hands at the moment, though, so it’s possible I’ll get through all eight of them in three weeks. I’ve finished two already, both of them light, quick reads. The first was A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan (not pictured above, because I took it back to the library on Wednesday when I picked up the second batch of holds), which I really enjoyed. The other was Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal, which I didn’t like at all.

I’ve just launched into The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley. It’s on the borderline of being the kind of chick lit I really don’t enjoy (I threw a book called The Tenth Gift across the room once for being insipid and annoying), but so far I’m still on board.

I can’t remember how many holds I placed in total, so I’m not entirely sure how many more books (if any?) I’m expecting to receive. I could look it up, but it seems like more fun to wait and be surprised.

Book Review: Hild, by Nicola Griffith

Over the weekend, I finished the book I was reading, Hild, by Nicola Griffith.

For a quick run-down of the story, I will quote you the Amazon book description:

In seventh-century Britain, small kingdoms are merging, frequently and violently. A new religion is coming ashore; the old gods are struggling, their priests worrying. Hild is the king’s youngest niece, and she has a glimmering mind and a natural, noble authority. She will become a fascinating woman and one of the pivotal figures of the Middle Ages: Saint Hilda of Whitby.

But now she has only the powerful curiosity of a bright child, a will of adamant, and a way of seeing the world—of studying nature, of matching cause with effect, of observing her surroundings closely and predicting what will happen next—that can seem uncanny, even supernatural, to those around her.

Her uncle, Edwin of Northumbria, plots to become overking of the Angles, ruthlessly using every tool at his disposal: blood, bribery, belief. Hild establishes a place for herself at his side as the king’s seer. And she is indispensable—unless she should ever lead the king astray. The stakes are life and death: for Hild, for her family, for her loved ones, and for the increasing numbers who seek the protection of the strange girl who can read the world and see the future.

I’m still not entirely sure what to write about this book. It’s unlike anything I’ve read recently.

It’s a fictional historical biography. I bought it at a science fiction and fantasy book shop and that seemed perfectly natural, until halfway through when I realised there are no fantasy elements in the book. The main character, Hild, is viewed as a seer, a prophetess, by those around her, but as we grow with her, we see that her predictions come from her unparalleled gift for observing the world around her, for seeing patterns and following them to their conclusions. She has no sixth sense as such.

Being a biography (sort of), the book doesn’t have the kind of driving plot that is expected in most novels. We follow Hild as she grows into womanhood in a world of early medieval kings and warlords. I did enjoy the experience of reading Hild very much. Nicola Griffith has wonderful use of language and she creates a richly detailed world. I loved learning about 7th century England just as much as I loved learning about Hild.

There was a core group of characters that I came to know and understand as part of Hild’s world, but I did feel overwhelmed by the vast array of secondary characters, all with unfamiliar (and often similar-sounding) names, who wove in and out of the story. Enemies and allies, messengers and priests, soldiers and servants. There were too many of them for me to remember who was who from one chapter to the next. (Particularly since, due to long hours at work, I was reading this book in slivers of five pages at a time.)

I also had difficulty keeping track of the many place-names that were mentioned. Armies marched across the map, the royal court moved from house to house, shifting alliances changed the borders of the kingdoms… I’m familiar with the geography of present-day England, but no matter how many times I googled the map of medieval kingdoms, I couldn’t keep them all straight in my head.

That said, I also rapidly decided I didn’t care. It didn’t matter much to my enjoyment of the book whether I could hold on to the shifting politics. Hild did that for me, and I trusted her. I gave up all need to solve any mysteries ahead of her, and just read for the simple joy of the language and the world-building and the ensemble of core characters.

I don’t know that I would recommend this book to everyone, but I would say that it is an interesting book, well-executed. The end notes implied Nicola Griffith is working on a follow-up book chronicling Hild’s later life, and I look forward to reading that when it comes out.

Time-Wasters Anonymous

Hi, my name is Katherine, and I… am not a reader anymore.

I came to this realization a few days ago, and it has triggered something of an identity crisis. Being a reader is a part of me in the same way that being a woman is part of me, or being Canadian. It’s defining to my sense of self. It’s something I’m proud of.

And yet, I don’t sit down to read a book anymore. Not a paper book, not an e-book. Not regularly. Not like I used to.

I used to stay up past my bedtime to keep reading. Just to the end of the page… just to the end of the chapter… just five more minutes… I knew the exact cadence of the creak in the stairs, and I could time it exactly so that I switched out my light before my dad could see it as he rounded the corner at the top of the stairs.

I got caught in grade five reading By The Shores of Silver Lake (one of the Little House on the Prairie books) under my desk when I should have been doing schoolwork. I was so ashamed of getting caught that it was years before I could pick the book up again.

When my father told me my grandfather died, I ran upstairs and picked up my book and kept reading until I could stop crying.

Books were my escape. Always.

When my mom and my stepfather moved us from the city where I grew up out to a house in the middle of nowhere, the little local library was my saviour. I didn’t mind the countryside so much, but I did not like my stepfather. We drove into town on Saturday mornings to run errands, and I camped out in the library while my mom went grocery shopping. I always left with a stack of books and spent the whole weekend reading.

My mom doesn’t believe me when I tell her I’m not a fast reader. She remembers the stacks of books I used to go through. But it’s not that I read quickly, I just read a LOT.

As an adult, I have spent a lot of time travelling or relocating for my job, and I always drag a stack of books with me.

It’s just that recently I haven’t actually been reading them. I keep buying new books, because I still believe I am a reader, but they end up languishing in my to-read pile. There just doesn’t seem to be any time.

The internet has become my one giant, insidious time suck. I waste hours just noodling around, either falling down the Wikipedia rabbit hole, or planning my next trip, or reading about writing. It’s not that I’m not learning things, not accomplishing anything, necessarily. It’s just that I seem to be able to wander in Internet limbo indefinitely. And often with the television on in the background.

An additional consequence of stewing in this glut of stimuli is that my attention span is in tatters. I, who used to be able to read the same book all afternoon, cannot focus on anything for more than five minutes without checking my email, or Facebook, or my WordPress stats.

So today I forced myself to read. That, as a thought, feels so wrong, so alien. As though I had to force myself to be Canadian. I took my book and went for brunch. Then after my errands were done, I curled up in my armchair with a blanket, a cat, and a cup of tea and read for two hours. It was wonderful. It felt like home.

I don’t get to call myself a reader again until the book it my unconscious go-to rather than the internet or the television. But I least I recognise the problem now.

It’s a new dawn, a new day…

I don’t do new year’s resolutions. I’m still me, even when the calendar ticks over. It doesn’t seem worth starting out a new year by setting myself up to fail. Instead, I decided to spend new year’s day actually doing the things that I want to continue doing through the year. Starting off as I mean to go on.

So instead of putting the TV on, I picked up a book. And I spent a chunk of the afternoon writing as well. Step one.

I completely failed to accomplish my own little NaNoWriMo. I had set myself the goal of finishing a draft of my current fictional short story (novella?) by the end of November. I ended up stuck in the same scene for nearly two months. I have rewritten it countless times and it’s still not right. I have, I think, finally isolated why. I’ve been trying to push forward and get to the end, create a draft that I can then fix. But in not addressing some of the problems early in the story, I have created a house with a shoddy foundation, and when I hit this particular scene the whole wall fell down.

Yesterday I sat down and began to address the problems at the beginning of the story. We’ll see how I go from here.

I also wrote a new draft of a piece of creative non-fiction I’ve been working on. It was designed for a particular lit magazine and the deadline is January 31st. I workshopped it with my writers’ group this evening, and I think it’s pretty close to being done. I’ll do some final tweaking and hopefully send it out in the next week or so.

So the new year is going well so far. Step by step.