Post #1993: April showers bring sore throats (and reading)

(The above photo is of our Easter Sunday brunch – scones, marmalade, hard boiled eggs and chocolate – and has nothing to do with this post).

I’m home today, in bed with a bit of a cold. Mostly it’s a sore throat, but there is a bit of general achey-ness thrown in as well and I’ve popped some ibuprofen to reduce my small misery to an even smaller one. On the one hand, I feel like a big faker calling in sick after a long weekend (but I’m not!) On the other, I don’t mind the prospect of a day spent slowly puttering – reading, writing, lying about – on my own. I’d rather not be sick at all, but I don’t mind the idea of having some extra time to myself either.

I’ve been on a bit of a reading binge lately – seemingly triggered by the official completion of my coursework for my Master’s degree. My final full class was last Monday, and all that’s left now is the party to celebrate the end of four years of work. I didn’t realize how much I’d cut back on my recreational reading until I finished my last “required” reading a couple of weeks ago (Crime and Punishment) – and found myself in McLeod’s secondhand books that very day eagerly perusing all the books that I have time to read now! Since then I’ve managed to down  three books – all in the light reading category – and am working my way through another (slightly more rigorous). I’ve also started a notebook again, out of the blue, to record my thoughts, quotes from my readings, snippets and facts. I’ve periodically kept notebooks about general life, but not recently. Not in the last four years. It feels like a new practice again and I have no goals with it – just to pay attention to myself and my thoughts when it is convenient to do so.

There is nothing in particular which draws my most recent three reads together – except a compelling story in each of them perhaps (and the fact that two of them came out of my community free library) – but even so, I’ll record them here with a few-sentence impression in case you have been wondering about whether these are worth the time.

A Death on Diamond Mountain | Scott Carney : Engagingly written, this is a fast read about a Tibetan Buddhist organization in the United States that has bordered on cult-like behaviour. Scott Carney uses the object-lesson of a death at the edges of a retreat to examine the potential dangers of enlightenment-seeking with a western mentality and briefly discusses meditation and mental states. He gives all the players in the key story a balanced treatment, but I wish he had focused more on the psychology of seeking behaviours and how to cut against them while still following a spiritual path. Definitely worth a read. (for the precis version, check out this article.)

The Happiness Project | Gretchen Rubin : This one came out a few years ago – basically the author experiments with being in the now, putting on a happy face (fake it till you make it), becoming less critical and more grateful, and extending herself to more people and discovers that happiness, at least to some degree, *is* a choice. I concur with her conclusion (having been a life-long experimenter in some of the very same areas), but I didn’t find anything jaw-dropping in either her practices or her final results. Worthwhile if you are looking for ideas about how to infuse your life with a less negative outlook.

Gone Girl | Gilliam Flynn: Yes, this one is now a movie and was a bestseller a couple of years ago – so I’m late to the game – but it just showed up in the book box one day. Quick read, compelling narrative, smart take on the problem of the unreliable narrator in fiction. This one is just for fun and once my step-daughter finishes the book – we’ve got the movie ready to go.

The book I’m currently working on it Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live which is a biography of the 16th century essayist Montaigne posed in one question and twenty answers to illuminate various aspects of his life and philosophy. Even though Montaigne is the inventor of the personal essay, I probably wouldn’t be that interested in his biography, but I appreciate the way that Bakewell has framed this as an exercise in philosophical study and so I picked it up. I’ve also just pulled A General Theory of Love off the shelf for a re-read as I seem to remember some pretty fabulous conclusions in there that I feel like thinking about and perhaps writing about now that I am done with the school thing for the moment.


Mini-Review: A Tale for the Time Being

Returning home from Victoria to my Amazon order of new fiction coincided with this dreadful cold that has kept me in bed for the last day and a half – which at the very least has allowed me to power through my first read of 2014 in a day! This novel had me in sustained-attention mode all day yesterday, as the tale rolls through three worlds (modern-day Cortes Island, urban Japan, and rural/spiritual Japan) all well-explored by the characters who inhabit them. A nice blend of zen philosophy, BC scenery, and tsunami-lore with a little quantum physics disguised as magical realism thrown in. 5/5 – highly recommend!

In the Bookshed: Unlikely approaches

Kiss my Aster, Amanda Thomsen 2012

This is probably one of the most fun gardening books I’ve come across in a very long while – “a graphic guide to creating a fantastic yard totally tailored to you” which incorporates amusing drawings and humorous commentary alongside great advice for planning and landscaping your yard. Think of this as a gentle approach for the newbie who isn’t sure if they have it in them to create a great yard and garden – this book breaks it down with a casual approach rather than coming at you all serious-like. For the already-committed gardener, I’m not sure if this has a lot to offer – the information is pretty basic and tailored around having an outdoor space that you want to shape and create. What I do appreciate about it is the emphasis on understanding plants, shrubs and trees over the long-term and how those work to create different effects (not to mention how easy they are to move if you don’t like where you first put them). And did I mention it’s amusing? Definitely reads like a book for the unlikely gardener – which I have a lot of appreciation for, because at one time in my life I was also an unlikely gardener and a book like this would have gone a long way to inspiring me back then.

The Speedy Vegetable Garden, Mark Diacono & Lia Leendertz 2013

I own a lot of gardening books, and I get a fair number of them delivered to my doorstep for review – so I have to say that by now I’ve seen most variations of the encouraging food gardening book. But this one… well….. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a veggie gardening book focused on “speed” which is not an attribute we typically equate with gardening.  In fact, as Diacono and Leendertz mention in the introduction – we tend to think of food and other gardening as part of the long view. But as the authors point out, there are plenty of things that are at their best when harvested not long after sowing – sprouts (being the obvious one), micro-greens, early squash with the blossoms still on them, flowers just out of the bud, baby carrots, new potatoes and early-fruiting varieties of tomatoes – just to name a few of the early-season foods you might think about when sowing your garden this year. Nicely photographed, the book includes sowing and harvesting advice for each recommended crop as well as recipes that feature these early spring foods – something that I look forward to trying out as my garden starts to pop (it’s just on the cusp of providing more than radishes right now). If you’re impatient to start eating from your garden in the spring, this book offers a remedy to the wait by encouraging micro-crops and early varieties to tide you over.

In the Bookshed: Recipes for Good Living

The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook, Barbara Damrosch & Eliot Coleman 2012

This book has been sitting on my kitchen counter over the winter months, tantalizing not only the fresh-ingredients cook in me, but also the gardener. A two-in-one book, the first half of Four Seasons is dedicated to growing, while the second half is comprised of 120 recipes incorporating foods from the home garden. Damrosch and Coleman manage to provide an excellent overview of all aspects of edible gardening (including garden layouts, soil advice, and food storage) with the inspiration to try out new veggie crops and cooking techniques in the recipe section. This book is beautifully adorned with full-colour photographs and drawings which invite the reader to imagine their own harvest-to-table experience. This book would make an excellent gift for a first-time gardener or homeowner looking to turn their back (or front) yard into an edible paradise.

The Flower Recipe Book, Alethea Harampolis & Jill Rizzo 2013

I have to admit, I find it odd that I am so drawn to a book about flower arranging – this being a topic I haven’t ever given much thought to despite the fact I grow and cut flowers for my home and table all summer long. The Flower Recipe Book is easily one of the most beautiful books I have ever seen on the subject – the floral arrangements coupled with gorgeous photography invite even the most cynical reader (me!) to linger and draw in the useful and instructional advice the authors give in their “recipes”. With 100 arrangements that cover all floral seasons, Harampolis and Rizzo break information down into simple instructions, including plant facts and care, the various vessels used in their designs and where to find them, and step-by-step explanations of how to achieve various visual effects (not to mention how to get the most longevity out of the arrangements). Although I do not have all the different vessels at my disposal to make these arrangements,  I find the structural information on each arrangement easy enough to improvise with — and I love the fact that many of the containers are simple found objects, or in some cases, easily knocked together from some scraps of wood then lined with a tupperware (that’s my interpretation, not theirs). Thrift store tins, mason jars, wine glasses and old gift baskets are all pressed into service in these designs – and as a flower-gardener I am looking forward to a summer yard that provides the raw material for building them. This is another beautiful gift for the flower-gardener or home-aesthete in your life — even a very cynical one.

In the Bookshed: Two on Permaculture

Permaculture is the harmonious integration of the landscape, people and appropriate technologies, providing food, shelter, energy and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.”  Bill Mollison

I first heard the term permaculture about thirteen years ago, out of the mouth of my friend Emily on Vancouver Island. Being an urban dweller (then and now), permaculture seemed to be an unrealistic concept, based on everyone having a 25 acre piece of land on which to sustain themselves in perfect balance with nature. But since then I’ve learned a lot more about it, and that permaculture techniques need not be limited to raw land or raising rabbits even if the ultimate goal is a self-sustaining off-the-grid existence.

Two books have recently made their way onto my shelf which are at different ends of the permaculture spectrum: The Ultimate Guide to Permaculture (The Ultimate Guides) and  The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Permaculture: Creating an Edible Ecosystem.

The Ultimate Guide to Permaculture (The Ultimate Guides) by Nicole Faires (Skyhorse Publishing, 2012) is exactly what it promises to be – an ultimate guide. Starting with a chapter on what permaculture is and hot to define it, the book moves quickly through sections detailing energy, water, homes/shelter, gardens, cooking, and community through the permaculture philosophy. Faires is not wordy as she works through the various topics, making for an excellent overview of the considerations one would have if setting up a total permaculture lifestyle. The photographs in the book help to inspire the text, providing quick snapshot illustrations of the principles covered in the packed chapters. Most useful to me as an urban-dweller with a garden are the sections on gardening (which includes an excellent companion-planting table) and the building of community across diversity.

If you have an interest in the over-arching philosophy and practices that underpin permaculture, this is a great introduction – with a lot of practical and no-nonsense “how too”. Faires really does do a great job of cutting away her prose to deliver just the information that you want in an “ultimate guide” type of book – so it takes up little room on the shelf while delivering a lot of info.

The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Permaculture: Creating an Edible Ecosystem by Christopher Shen w/ Julie Thompson (Timber Press, 2013) is a much more focused guide to applying permaculture techniques to your vegetable garden – no matter where that garden happens to be. This is not a book about the shangri-la of permaculture paradise, but one that hones into the concepts and techniques one might employ in the pursuit of a little more sustainability in their backyard, community garden or urban plot. Sections in the book include discussions about food forests and poly culture, how to design  a permaculture garden (whether on a balcony or large urban lot – Shen includes plans for five different layouts), understanding input and outputs, building the soil, choosing crops and teaching abundance. Photographs and illustrations throughout the book illustrate techniques being employed in diverse environments, mostly backyards and urban spaces – which I really appreciate (being on a small urban lot). This type of book goes a long way to helping me incorporate certain permaculture practices bit-by-bit without feeling like it’s an all-or-nothing proposition. As the new gardening season starts taking shape in my imagination — this is a book I will definitely be turning to as I think about what new techniques I want to try and whether there’s an approach in one part of the backyard that will work alongside some of what I’m already doing. As always, I’m game for anything that helps the garden to be more water-friendly, higher-yielding, and more manageable – in an environmentally-friendly way.

Bookshed: Dressmaking for Real Women

ImageLorna Knight’s Dressmaking for Real Women: How to Adapt Your Store-bought Patterns to Flatter the Curves You Want to Keep and Drape the Ones You Don’t is a book that I wish was on my shelf when I started sewing garments a couple of years ago. For one thing, when I started sewing, I didn’t understand why you couldn’t just shorten a skirt or pair of pants by hemming up from the bottom. And for another, I didn’t realize in dress-making how many possible alterations one could make to get the best possible fit. These are just two of the areas that Knight covers in detail, with full-colour photographs and illustrations along with concise explanatory text.

Starting with a section on measurement and body type, the novice sewist is lead through a series of considerations when choosing a garment pattern, and then recognizing what points might need alteration. Straight up, this is not a body-shaming book at all! But it does recognize that many of us who sew garments are doing so because our bodies don’t always fit neatly into “off-the-rack” garments. In my case, I’m busty and short, with an apple-y figure. Knight covers my body type and makes recommendations for the type of garments I might find most comfortable in (and she’s right, I always seek out and make upper body garments that flow over the hip and I hate clingy fabric). This provides a good starting point for pattern-browsing.

Knight mainly examines various points for alteration step-by-step, walking the reader through shoulders, neckline, bust, back, sleeve, hips, and pants-fitting considerations. In each section, she breaks down considerations the sewist might have and then tackles modifications to suit the wearer. She then guides us through making a toile (a dummy garment to ensure correct fit – something I almost never do but always think I should), as well as some basic sewing and finishing techniques.

After sewing garments for a couple of years, I’ve recently become interested in making better-quality pieces. That is, I’ve got the straight techniques of cutting, sewing and following mid-range patterns down and I feel like it’s time to move into more thoughtful garment-making. This means more careful pattern selection as well as introducing more couture techniques into everyday garments so as to get the longest wear and the best fit out of them. Certainly commercial pattern alteration is a skill worth learning as part of this quest for nicer DIY clothing!

Knight’s book is a real pleasure with up-to-date techniques, bright photos, body-image-friendly illustrations, and a lot of core information about sewing garments explained. Definitely on the recommended list for someone who is newly-engaged in garment-making, but slightly beyond the stage of just learning to follow a pattern.

In the Bookshed: The Layered Garden

I haven’t done a Bookshed Review for ages – mostly owing to the fact that when I’m reading and writing for school, I don’t have room for much else. But since its term paper time, and I’m procrastinating – not to mention dreaming that spring will one day come again – it feels like a good day to talk about The Layered Garden: Design Lessons for Year-Round Beauty from Brandywine Cottage by David L. Culp (published by Timber Press, September 2012).

Normally I don’t go for coffee-table-esque garden books (I tend towards practical guides) – but Culp manages to pull off something quite special with this charming ramble in which he combines the stunning photography of Rob Cardillo with personal narrative and useful garden advice. Specifically, his photos and text focus on the creation of gardens that retain beauty and “peak moments” throughout the year.

Using his Brandywine Cottage as an example, Culp walks the reader through the various aspects of the 2.5 acre garden he has co-created with his partner Michael Alderfer. Starting off with a chapter on the concept of the layered garden – the combinations of plantings that allow for a garden that always has something to offer – he moves onto a chapter that focuses on specific features of his own creation, and then follows that with a section that explores what each group of plantings do in each season. Each part is rich with photographic examples, tips, anecdotes and how-to information as Culp imparts his years of gardening wisdom in an read that maintains a straightforward and yet intimate approach throughout. (Here I should mention that garden-writer Adam Levine supported Culp’s writing process – and I hazard to guess, that it is his polish that helps the prose along).

The “Jewel Box” at Brandywine Cottage in spring.

Having lived in the Urban Crow Bungalow for just over three years now, I have finally begun to shift my focus away from the backyard, which serves the purpose of being a spring and summer garden (food producing, flowers, fruit trees, aesthetic hanging out space) – to the front yard, which I would like to have year-round appeal. When moving into a new place, as Culp mentions, it takes time to determine what each garden space should be and how it will work with the desired aesthetic of the home. While we only have a small city lot to work with – there are still several mini-gardens at play – and I have not (by a long shot) got the details down on each of them yet! Using some of Culp’s plant advice, I have already begun to think more about the winter aspects of our garden, and currently have a focus on evergreens and late-blooming shrubs that I would like to build on as I fill in the “missing” pieces year-by-year. In particular, I appreciate his approach to each area by theme such as the ruin garden, or the “jewel box” which allows the focus on a specific aesthetic in each group of plantings.

If you are thinking about  a holiday gift for the gardener in your life, this is certainly a worthwhile book for the gardenshed. A book to dream away the winter with, while waiting for the onset of a new spring of planting.

Bookshed: The Innocence of Objects

Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence, published in 2008, is the story of the star-crossed love affair (is there any other kind in literature?) of Kemal and Füsun. The story, which takes place over thirty years, ends not with a fairytale – but with a Museum in which Kemal curates all the artifacts of his love, right down to the quince grater used by his object’s mother, and the butts from cigarettes that Füsun herself smoked.

This is not so much a novel about love as it is about obsession. It is a novel of fetish in the form of inhabited, personfied and collectible objects. And it is a novel of Istanbul’s modern history as lived by the characters, and as symbolized by the objects that pass through their hands, are lost, and then collected by Kemal in a desperate attempt to hold on to a certain time and feeling, as impossible as that proves to be. Before picking up this most recent work of Pamuk, The Innocence of Objects – the catalogue to the real world Museum of Innocence which opened in April, 2012 – I would highly encourage you to read the novel first. Half the delight in this catalogue comes from recognizing and remembering the artifacts as described by Pamuk, and the materialization of the objects only serves to underscore his powerful ability to evoke – time, place, and artifact.

The minute I saw the photograph of the Museum itself I thought “Ah! There is Füsun’s apartment building”, and throughout the catalogue I am reminded of conversations and scenes I encountered three years ago, brought back through the arrangements in boxes – one per chapter of the book – beautifully lit and photographed for publication. Passages from the novel are sometimes quoted alongside, or explanatory notes – but the images speak the novel so plainly, I’m not sure how necessary that is (if one has read the novel).

In the fifty pages of introduction, Pamuk describes how the idea of the Museum and the novel came about, his process of collecting the artifacts from antique dealers in Istanbul (and particularly in Füsun’s neighbourhood), and his decision to purchase the building in 1999. He talks about how his prosecution for speaking out about Armenian genocide and the mass killing of Kurds, as well as certain artistic decisions, delayed the opening of the museum – contextualizing the personal, political and artistic barriers that might challenge a project such as this one.

But despite these hurdles, the physical Museum of Innocence is now open to the public and Pamuk asks “Why has no one else ever thought of something like this, of bringing together a novel and a museum in a single story?” An apt question given the fact that as far back Rousseau’s Julie we have evidence of tourism based on visits to locations in fictions. (Julie was so incredibly popular that it spawned pilgrimage-like tours to the region of Switzerland in which it is set). In part, he answers his own question in his “Modest Manifesto For Museums” where he states

“Large national museums….. took shape and turned into essential tourist destinations alongside the opening of royal and imperial palaces to the public. These institutions, now national symbols, present the story of the nation — history, in a word — as being far more important than the stories of individuals. This is unfortunate because the stories of individuals are much better suited to displaying the depths of our humanity.”

It seems to me that a museum based on a novel faces two hurdles to being taken seriously 1) As Pamuk says, museums are conceptualized for the display of “history” rather than “story” and thus funded by states and institutions who have this conception of artifcat, and 2) The novel, because it is “story” and “made-up” is not seen as an adequate representation of “history”. Never mind the fact that the novel (and to some degree personal essay and poem) is the only vehicle through which we can understand the interior (metaphysical) state of previous generations, which is no less important than the exterior factors which shape their (physical) lives. But in mass culture we must struggle with this – whether that is controlled state or media consumerism – that our stories matter. And that our stories are the artifacts which fix time and place in a way that physical objects can’t.

Pamuk’s marriage of story with object provides us with a meditation on time, art, artifact, and humanity. But interestingly enough, for a story about lovers, it is very little to do with love of a person so much as love of (and nostalgia for) a particular time and place. I think Pamuk is simply genius, and this museum catalogue is a must-have for those of us who love fetish-boxes, meditations on history, and the melancholy of human drama — not to mention some well articulated ideas on the purpose and future of museums in our culture.

Bookshed: High Rise

I was recently in a condo tower in Port Moody attending a party. While waiting for the elevator up (one was blocked, and with only two in operation there was a queue forming to get on), I noted the strange stilted conversations going on among the residents of the building. It was a hockey game day, you see, and everyone was returning from their liquor store run to seal themselves back into their units and watch the TV. What struck me about it was the realization that this building would have more than a hundred units of people doing the same thing – and that it all seemed like a dark formula necessitated by the cardboard tower, the conveniently placed liquor store in the complex, the cable switched on in every unit to keep the drinker/watchers from interacting with anyone else in the building. And at the same time it felt like an explosion waiting to happen if just a few people got out of control and went on the roof – say – or started partying in the hallway instead of their own apartment.

Later, I was talking with a friend about it and I recalled the book High Rise by J.G. Ballard – which I read more than twenty years ago. Inspired by the creepiness of these modern towers, I took High Rise from the library this week, and was not disappointed by my memory. This is one fast-paced read, witty, strange and utterly compelling….

Written in 1975, High Rise is Ballard’s commentary on modern society, the primitive currents that run just below civilization, and class stratification. Opening with the scene of a doctor cooking an Alsatian on his condominimum balcony, the reader is treated to a reminiscence of the last three months of life in the complex – brand-new and the largest in the world at 1000 units (2000 residents total). Pitched as a “new way of living” – the high rise is a self-contained paradise of shopping, workout rooms, restaurants and apartments – from which residents only have to leave in order to go to work.

While there are seething tensions from the beginning of the story (the building has been populated for about eight months, starting with the building’s architect) – frustrations to do with the way others use the garbage chutes, resentments over parking arrangements, children using the swimming pools, dogs shitting in elevators and so on – it is not until the day the final condo unit in the building is filled that the action starts to boil. It is on this day that a strange sort of party erupts throughout the various floors of the building. This party is boisterous, a bit anarchic, and a tad agressive – starting in the upper levels and working its way down over the first week or so. Within a couple of weeks, the parties have started to become roaming gangs and raiding parties, necessitating the formation of floor-based clan groups for security – and then the free fall really begins. Elevators are held as strategic pathways, access to floors are blocked in the stairwell to stop those from “below” coming up, garbage is thrown from balconies to damage the cars of the richest floors up top, physical violence becomes the norm, electrical and air conditioning systems are sabotaged to deprive the inhabitants of upper or lower floors of basic amenities. In short, it is a middle-class professional version of Lord of the Flies but set in central London and with class attainment as a central theme.

JG Ballard does not bother to veil his symbols… the protaganist from the lower floor – Wilder – ultimately pits himself against the architect – Royal – in an epic life and death struggle to get to the top of the building and take posession…. it’s not difficult to see what Ballard wants to show us. But that’s what makes it such an amusing read despite the violence and the dark view that Ballard apparently takes of  human motivation. Towards the end, there is the hint that this three-month war is just part of growing pains in a building with so much life crammed in close quarters, and that things might start to straighten out (after much loss of life, destruction of possessions, and individual liberation experienced by the remaining characters). But then again, perhaps not.

Of course once I finished reading High Rise I had to find out what the largest condo tower in the world now is (a concept that was brand new in 1975 when this was written)…. and lo! I find this article on the largest condo building in Canada with 75 floors and 931 units which started construction in 2010. If you read the description in the news item and then read the opening pages of High Rise, you will notice some startling similarities. Like the apartment tower I visited in Port Moody, I’m sure this new development will carry the same strange energy. A seething behind the doors, an antagonism waiting to escape….. all packaged in chrome and glass and faux-leather, pretentions to artistic prints in the lobby and the promise of a new life on purchase.

Bookshed: 1Q84

I just did something I never do…… A crime against story-telling, really. But when the book is 920 pages longand there’s a plot summary online – is it really so bad to forgo the last hundred pages in lieu of slogging through the book?

I think the main problem with 1Q84 – the latest release by Haruki Murakami – is that it was originally published as three novels in Japan. For what I’m assuming were marketing and audience reasons, the English-version was released as one giant book – which makes for an uneven arc, and a lot of story repetition in each section. It’s the kind of thing that makes you wish you could have read the books in context – because the alternative world that Murakami creates – rife with magical beings, malevolent cable-service fee collectors, cult-leader prophets, and feminist murders – has lots to offer. But as a single – superlong – novel, it drags.

This Globe and Mail review sums it up best:

Whatever else about 1Q84, it is maximalist Murakami. With its animal allegories and echoes of folk legends, the references to everything from Alice in Wonderland to the Gnostic thinking of Carl Jung, the novel offers the most complete précis of its author’s lifelong preoccupations and eccentricities. For fans, the more is the merrier; for newcomers, the book may be a few oddities, and a couple of hundred pages, beyond the patience threshold.

Though even as a fan, my patience was sorely tested, to the degree that I’ve sought out the spoiler and can now move onto other things. This was obviously a new attempt for Murakami – at more than double the length of anything he’s previously published – and I find myself hoping that for his next work he will return to more condensed surrealism. A world created within 300 pages is frankly a far greater accomplishment than one which takes 920 to explain.