A Short Story Challenge

Hey everyone,

Sorry I haven’t been all that profilic with the blog posts so far this year.

This cold winter has been sapping my creative juices, and energy in general.

I’ve quietly been chipping away at my to-do list from January. I’ve made progress on a couple of things. But I think I need to pick up the pace a bit.

I also think I need to take up a personal challenge I put by the wayside …

I’m going to take another crack at trying to read more fiction.

Yes, I know, I know, I’ve said that before. And I have been trying. (I just finished Zadie Smith’s NW a couple of days ago, in fact.)

But I think I need to change it up a bit.

I keep telling myself I should read more short stories and novellas if I can find them. I think I tried this last year, with friends making a couple of interesting contributions.

But I’m going to give it a bit more effort this year.

I’ve made a couple lists, complete with a couple of links I can refer to, and have made a couple of library requests.

While generally I stick to contemporary fiction, I’m also going to try and throw a few older works in the mix.

And if time allows, I’ll post from time to time about the ones I do read.

So, away I go! And if you have any recommendations for short story collections OR novellas, please leave them in the comments below.

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Following A Hunch …

Several days before I left for Connecticut, I paid a visit to a Toronto-based writer (and retired university professor), in hopes she might help me with a possible clue in what happened to my great-aunt Ellen.

Confused? Allow me to explain.

The writer is the granddaughter of my mother’s landlady in the early-to-mid 1970s. (She passed away 35 years ago.) It was that landlady who once told my mother a story related to her life when she first came to Canada.

The anecdote goes something like this:

This woman – who I’ll call Mrs. S. – arrived in 1936 (from what is now western Ukraine, but at the time, was part of Poland) with her two daughters, to join her husband, who came here a handful of years previously.

Shortly after arriving, she found a job working in a shirt factory, cutting and sewing shirts.*

According to what my mother told me, Mrs. S. didn’t know a single word of English, yet learned how to cut and sew the shirts, thanks to a black woman who worked in the factory. Using hand gestures, the woman showed Mrs. S. what to do. And my mother seems to remember Mrs. S. telling her this woman’s name: Ellen. (My mother, of course, thought her aunt’s name was Helen, so she wondered about it, but wrote it off.)

This story may very well be the biggest of coincidences. But I thought it was worth trying to follow this thread to its end.

An initial Internet search led me to a book Mrs. S’s granddaughter wrote over 15 years ago, about her own search to understand her family’s history, and to understand the hardships they endured. I checked a copy of the book out of the library — initially to see if there was possibly any reference to this story told to my mother so long ago.

I found nothing specifically related to this mystery woman who helped Mrs. S. But I read the book from cover to cover, and it gave me a greater understanding of, and admiration for, Mrs. S and that side of the family.

I then tracked down the writer – who, as it turns out, lives here in Toronto – and paid her a visit. She was incredibly lovely, and we spoke about my mom’s time living in her grandmother’s house, but also about her late mother and aunt. Eventually, I told her about this decades-old story her grandmother told my mother, and asked if she’d ever heard this story, or whether her mother or aunt had mentioned it.

She wasn’t familiar with the story, but she thought if there was anyone who might know — or remember the name of the factory where Mrs S. worked, at the very least — it would be her aunt. Long retired from the medical profession, she’s now 89, and while suffering from dementia, apparently is still quite sharp when it comes to remembering the past.

So, there is where things rest at the moment. I’ll be getting in touch with the writer to see if she’s been in touch with her aunt, and if are any more shreds of possibility to pursue. Fingers crossed.

 

 

*I am going to double-check this fact, to make sure I’ve recalled this correctly.

 

2012’s Colour of the Year

While everyone else is trying to cope with shopping, holiday preps, and other pressures that come up at the end of every year …

Everyone’s favourite colour institute is boldly looking forward – emphasis on the world “boldly”.

Today, Pantone has announced its top colour for 2012.

People Who Could Care Less, meet Tangerine Tango.

Yup. Really.

Apparently THIS is the hue that will colour our new year.

I’ll spare you the details here, since you could easily read this article for more on why the Pantone folks are all seeing red(dish-orange).

But if I’ve said it once (and I’ve actually said it twice), I’ll say it again:

Periwinkle deserves a chance. It’s calm. It’s charming. And it’s been long overlooked. Just sayin’.

*Picture courtesy AP, via The Toronto Star.

2011’s Colour of the Year …

Looks like the Pantone Color Institute is at it again.

Remember a few years ago, when I posted about how (while we were all busy living our own lives) the institute’s research branch dubbed chili pepper red the colour of the year for North America?

Hold on to your skirts and shirts, ladies and gents, because the shade for 2011 is good ol’ 18-2120.

That’s colour-authority-speak for honeysuckle

Which is fru-fru-fashion-speak for “pink”.

Reddish-pink, if you want to be technical.

“A brave new color, for a brave new world,” crows the press release.

Apparently it’s going to show up in everything from men’s and women’s fashions to furniture fabrics.

And hockey commentator Don Cherry showed how fashion-forward he already is, when he sported an ostentatious blazer in the aftermentioned hue in December, at Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s swearing-in – incidentally, while giving his “left-wing pinkos” speech.

Yep. Pink. How ’bout that?

Y’know Pantone, After last year’s selection of turquoise, I was slowly starting to change my mind about you guys.

In any case …

Wednesday morning on CBC Radio’s arts and culture program Q, colour forecaster (and Pantone consultant) Keith Recker, explained that hockeysuckle speaks to “our happy rediscovery of positive thinking, of growth, of energy, of looking forward, rather than bemoaning what we may have lost in the recent (economic) downturn.”

He went on to explain a few of the things that go into shaping a colour forecast – which doesn’t really start with colour, but with getting a feel for what people are thinking about, are needing, or lacking, and making the link to such things as psychology, sociology, economy and current events.

Recker says there are already talks about the colour for 2012. The small group of forecasters are taking into consideration next year’s presidential election, plus the tragic events in Arizona – all of which, he says, means things are going to be ” high-volume, high-conflict”.

As a result, he says, people could either end up embracing that conflict by incorporating colours and patterns in their clothes, etc. to demonstrate this feeling of protest … OR shy away from said conflict, by turning to more calming, serene hues.

Huh. Okay.

So, why should we even care? Well, you can listen to the podcast to hear Recker’s opinion. But he does make a point about how much of a cultural thing colour can be. I mean, it explains in part why, for example, in one culture, white might be worn at weddings, while in another, it’s red.

Recker mentioned the colour-picking process for next year may soon be underway. He added that he thought 2012 could be the year for a muddy or earth-coloured tone.

Hmmm …

Well … since Pantone hasn’t yet turned its forecasting towards 2013 … perhaps I should resurrect my campaign to get periwinkle (a.k.a. colour code  17-3932) on the radar?

In my opinion, it’s a hue that just hasn’t been given its due. Colour me biased.

D’s Loquacious End-of-Year Reads for 2010

Hey everybody! Hope your Christmas was excellent and that you’re enjoying the remainder of your holidays.

Apologies for the severe lack of posting. It’s been due to a lack of motivation, I’m afraid. I meant to post this back in October (or was it late September?), but, well … you know.

So to rectify this injustice, here are a couple of novels – both recent AND not-so-recent – that I managed to complete in recent months.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

I did not read this in high school. Or university. This is my first time reading this book from cover to cover, without giving up after several pages and returning it to the library.

Yes, I am of sound mind (to thoseof you who can’t figure out why I’m reading this). I’m probably the last person over the age of 30 to touch this book.

So, what have I gleaned?

One: Rich people are vain, selfish, mean, possibly alcoholics, and yes, they CAN kill you.

Two: Jay Gatsby? Arrrgh. I hate him. That is all.

Three: Even after completing this book, I still don’t like it, despite the fact that it’s a “great American classic” or whatever the cliche is.

Perhaps I am too uncouth or not well-read enough to appreciate it. In which case, those of you who love this book, please use your strongest argument to convince me otherwise. ‘Cause I’m not a fan.

The Cry of the Dove, Fadia Faqir

A warning in advance: this book is so sad. But it’s good.

The Cry of the Dove tells the tale of Salma, who in her former life is a shepherdess from a family in a tiny Bedouin village. She ends up pregnant out of wedlock, which violates tribal law and causes upheaval in the village.

 To restore honour, the villagers set out to kill her, but for her own protection, Salma is thrown in prison. She gives birth to her child, who is ripped out of her arms shortly after, and spends many years in prison. She’s later smuggled out and whisked away to England to start a new life.

But even that isn’t easy, as she tries to navigate this new way of life – the culture, the customs, and the racism. Amidst all this, she’s continuously haunted by thoughts of her brother coming to kill her … and by the cries of her lost child. And even though Salma finally starts to get her life on track and truly start to enjoy the freedom she has, she never stops hearing those cries.

While the “time-shifting” narrative is often my favourite, I did find a bit difficult to follow the story in a couple of places. Nonetheless, you could sense the frustration and melancholy in Salma’s story. Despite everything that happens to her, you just want her to succeed, move forward and grow stronger. This book may not be for everyone, but I liked it and it’s one I’d recommend.

And that’s it for me for this year. Hopefully I’ll be able to tackle more – and even better books in 2011. ‘Ta for now!

D’s Loquacious Late Summer 2010 Reads

Labour Day has just passed … the weather is starting to cool … but that doesn’t mean summer’s completely over!

Apologies for not writing anything much lately, but it might have been the dog days of summer that rendered me lathargic.

But I wasn’t totally lazy! In between trying my best to have a social life – as low-key as it’s been – and grinning and bearing it at work, I managed to cover a bit of ground in the reading department. These aren’t specifically summer reads, but here are the latest books I decided to tackle:

A Mercy, Toni Morrison

This one was a random pick from the library (and an unexpected one for me, as someone who’s read various novels by Morrison and come away more ambivalent then when I start them).

A slim novel at 167 pages, A Mercy brings to life the atmosphere in the early days of the trans-Atlantic slave trade through a motley crew of characters.

Each “chapter” slips back and forth in time, into individual voices: Jacob Vaark, a trader; his wife Rebekka, a ordered bride in exile from her homeland because of her family’s religious beliefs; Florens, the little girl bought by Jacob in a trade to settle a debt (which, incidentally, saves her from the cruel Portuguese master); Lina, their American-Indian servant whose dark story of which we only see the briefest of glimpses; Sorrow, the crazy, tormented soul whose early life started at sea … and in the very end, the voice of Florens’ mother.

It’s hard for me to have a definitive opinion on this book. I like the style in which the book was written, and the way in which Morrison plays with the timeline to weave the story together. But with a lot of her books, I always find that touch of strangeness, of the other, that leaves me confused, and having to go back a couple of pages to re-read things, just to make sure I’m following along.

Luckily, A Mercy was less confusing than a couple of past novels I’ve read. But I’d be lying if I said I completely understood the things not necessarily put in writing.

The Flying Troutmans, Miriam Toews

FINALLY, after visiting this book in the library, I made the commitment and got my hands on Toews’ most recent novel. I have to say that I actually liked this one better than A Complicated Kindness. The Flying Troutmans has a sort of Little Miss Sunshine quality to it, although the purpose of the quest is completely different.

The plot: Twenty-eight-year-old Hattie, on the outs with her boyfriend in Paris, gets a call from her 11-year-old niece, Thebes. Her mother Min – Hattie’s sister – is in a deep depression and Thebes needs Hattie to step in to help her and her older brother Logan. When Hattie arrives and sees the state of things, that’s when the journey – both physically and figuratively – begins for the dysfunctional Troutmans, and for Hattie herself.

The Flying Troutmans is simultaneously off-beat, awkward, funny and sad. It’s also a good exercise in trying to translate the teenage mind into print … as well as that of the awkward twenty-something.

I really like Toews’ writing style, and the way she’s composed her characters. The Troutmans may be fictional, but given all the wacky stories and people I hear about these days, it wouldn’t surprise me if there are people out there like the Troutmans, in real life. I say, give this one a go and determine for yourself.

Atonement, Ian McEwan

Set in the Great Depression and World War II, Ian McEwen’s novel centres around the wealthy Tallis family – specifically 13-year-old Briony and her older sister Cecilia. What seems like a sleepy novel at first, quickly picks starts to pick up the pace, when Briony is witness to two incidents involving Cecilia and Robbie Turner – the servant’s son, whose education was subsidized by Briony and Cecilia’s father. Young Briony lets her imagination run rampant, with lasting consequences she spends the rest of her life paying for.

Overall, I liked this book. It’s my first McEwan novel, and one I’ve wanted to read for a long time. I wasn’t bowled over, mainly because of how long things took to pick up. I appreciated the descriptions of the sprawling Tallis manor and such, but it was a little bit much after a while. Once I got to the meat of the story – the point at which Briony lets her imagination (and snap judgements because of her lack of understanding of what she sees) – and everything after, that’s when things piqued my interest as a reader and I could use my own imagination to turn McEwan’s prose into my own images.

Atonement also had a couple of small twists in the latter part of the book, which I didn’t expect – a good quality in a novel, obviously. The only downside? Since I didn’t read this book before the movie adaptation came out a couple of years back, I had the hardest time picturing anyone but Keira Knightley as Cecilia the entire time. But if you can get over that, you should try and tackle this, if you haven’t already.

Okay, that’s all for now, kids. I’ll post more again soon.

D’s Loquacious Heat-of-Summer Reads

Yes, I know, it’s been a while.

But when I haven’t been busy doing what I have to do (which has unfortunately meant an enormous dearth of blogging on my part), I’ve been trying to keep my mind active – and occupied – with the following books.

I’ve been making an effort to mix it up by reading more non-fiction books, rather than just novels. And it’s been an interesting exercise so far.

Every Light in the House Burnin’, Andrea Levy

Levy’s first novel, set in 1960s England, chronicles the Jacobs family, as they tackle living in a cramped council estate home, struggling with the racism that’s rife around them, and – for the children – coming of age as British-born youth under Jamaican parentage.

Angela, the baby of the family, acts as narrator in the novel. The storyline is well-done in the sense that, while it starts out as fairly linear, it does move back and forth, depicting the collision between Angela’s childhood memories and her current life – 20 years later – as she tries navigating a harsh health care system to help her dying father.

Reading the book, I  felt the awkwardness of the little girl trying to grow up in a world where her family still isn’t fully accepted. But I found the battle that adult Angela has to fight even more heartbreaking, especially towards the end.

Having grown up in Canada in the 1980s and 1990s, I’ve largely been spared from what Angela and her siblings endured. But I do have an understanding, from the stories my mother would tell me of her time as a student nurse in the U.K., what they had to do to make it through.

Every Light might seem heavy, from what I’ve just described. But it’s a fairly read – one I’d suggest over a weekend.

Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stimgatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, Bella DePaulo, Ph.D.

Big disclaimer: Icame across this book COMPLETELY by accident.

I read a Globe and Mail article several weeks ago about people who are just too busy with their careers and lives in general for relationships and sex. DePaulo was quoted in the article, and once I read what she had to say – as well as the title of her book – I had to read this for myself.

DePaulo, a psychologist whose area of study happens to deal with singletons, uses studies, anecdotes and even stories about celebrities to address the various myths and perceptions laid out by a society which favours the ideal of a nuclear family above all other types – and to shed a little light on the reality of things.

And it’s not just those never-married folks she refers to. She addresses those who are single due to divorce, and even single parents, who seem to bear the brunt of society’s judgement.

Her message: Believe it or not, there are single people out there who are perfectly normal, well-adjusted, and not biding time until Mr or Mrs Right come along. They’re happy and doing just fine, thank you very much.

As someone who has never been married, while my friends, for the most part, haven’t been the types of friends described in DePaulo’s book, I can relate to the occasional feeling from time to time as if I’m a kid who’s gotten the privilege of sitting at the grown-ups’ table. So while the book can be a little dry in places, I completely appreciate the reinforcement that, hey, there’s nothing wrong with being single and happy with it.

I have nothing against married people or couples with families, but as a single person, the following quote was the one that has stuck with me since: “Married people are on training wheels. Singles are riding the bikes for grown-ups.”

Whale Music, Paul Quarrington

I sadly admit, I knew nothing about the late Mr Quarrington until his death back in January from cancer. But I do remember hearing about the movie adapted from the book. So when I was tooling around the Toronto Library Web site, I decided to give his 1989 novel a go.

Desmond Howl is an obscenely rich, drug-addled, often-naked, alcoholic crazy former rock ‘n’ roll genius who has been living a secluded existence for years, tinkering away at his magnum opus – the book’s title – when he’s not in and out of consciousness.

That is, until one day, 20-year-old Claire appears – seemingly out of nowhere – into his life. And what happens after that forces Des to consider the fate of the Whale Music … and of the ramshackle state of his own life.

The novel also chronicles Des’ dysfunctional family and life on the road with his younger brother as their band breaks into the business and tries to make it big in the 1960s and 1970s. It also sheds a bit of light as to why Des is the way he is.

I found Whale Music tobe funny in places and a surprisingly fast read. However, I wasn’t completely in love with it. I might give Quarrington another try on another occasion – maybe I’ll tackle King Leary before I arrive at my own personal verdict.

Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House, Meghan Daum

This is hard to admit out loud, but over the past several months, I probably become a tad more obsessive when it comes to real estate – visiting the MLS Web page, looking through the weekend classifieds, whatever. Then I heard about Meghan Daum and her new book, just released this spring.

The writer and Los Angeles Times columnist takes readers into her inner psyche when it comes to the world of real estate. She starts with her childhood, during which her parents made multiple moves through several states until she was almost nine years old, and introduces us to her parents’ (more so her mother’s) near-obsession for finding the perfect home. These early memories seem to be the basis – and explanation – for Daum’s own decisions to move constantly … first through dorm rooms, then apartments … and then her own obsession with finding the home of her dreams, to the detriment of other aspects of her life.

But while using her life’s experiences as an example, Daum also tries to explain in Life Would Be Perfect what the difference between “house” and “home” really is, and through several turns of events in her life, comes to realize – and express to those of us reading her book – what’s truly important.

I loved Daum’s writing style – although in a different situation, I could relate to her. It also had me thinking about my own mini-mania when it comes to the adulthood ritual of house-hunting. This, combined with her sharp humour, definitely makes for a good read … whether you’re in an obsessive hunt for real estate or not.

And with that, consider another reading post done.

I can’t guarantee when the next time I’ll post will be. Plus, it’s summer. Would YOU stay indoors sitting in front of a computer with all that good weather outside?

Talk to you soon!