A Post-Holiday Progress Report

img_6278

I’m still not back into the post-holiday swing of things, are you? So, instead of a full post, here’s a report card of sorts – what I’m reading, what’s on my radar, where I’m aiming to be.

Book Report

I don’t have the manual dexterity to qualify as a gamer, by any stretch of the imagination. But, I do find the narrative potential of the form fascinating and gaming has also become a frontier for discussions around activism, social justice, feminism, race, and more. The State of Play: Creators and Critics on Video Game Culture by Daniel Goldberg & Linus Larsson is a good place to start if you’re interested in where progressive game culture is headed.

The next book in the pile on my nightstand is Creating a Learning Society by Joseph E. Stiglitz & Bruce C. Greenwald. In a time when learning is becoming a more and more closely guarded resource, the implications of a “learning society” for a healthy economy are intriguing.

Then, I’m on to Amy Halloran’s The New Bread Basket, exploring the rise of local grain production.

There’s also one book I finished recently that’s lingering in my mind. Sally Mann’s Hold Still is a compelling exploration of an artist’s appraisal of her work and history. It’s also a book that reminds me that misgivings about an artist’s views on some subjects shouldn’t preclude admiring their take on others. Mann’s striking honesty and openness is what stays with me, along with her sharp insights into art, photography, and memory.

Lunch Hour

I like to test-drive cookbooks by taking them out of the library. I tell myself that it keeps me from buying more and taxing my groaning bookshelves. In truth, if I like what I see, the book mysteriously appears on the shelves sooner or later. Oh, well.

Here’s what I’m currently taking out for a spin:

Oodles of Noodles by Louise Pickford could be my mother’s dream cookbook. Whenever we go out for lunch, she’s angling to try another restaurant that serves one variety of noodles or another. This book does a sort of survey of East Asian cuisines.

I’m getting a head start on next year’s holiday cookie lineup with Mindy Segal’s Cookie Love. Though, who am I kidding? Cookies are welcome every day of the year.

Modern Jewish Cooking by Leah Koenig has a world focus, rather than being grounded in one tradition. So far, I’m finding her Breads and Pastries section particularly tempting.

Social Studies

Did you find yourself wishing that Tina and Amy had taken the Golden Globes’ stage one more time? I did. Here’s one of the reasons why: Ricky Gervais‘ jokes about trans people.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of the great essayists of our time, able to take on even the trickiest of subject matter.

Extreme weather is already becoming a factor in our lives and will affect how and what we eat in the future. Researchers are studying the impacts in order to adapt.

Jeff Wall’s body of work is celebrated world-wide. Even so, he harbours doubts about the direction of his artistic career.

Recess

If you think the holidays are the biggest reason to max out on sugar, you’re wrong. It’s nearly Hot Chocolate Festival time.

Or, if you have a more grown up palate, you could check out the Vancouver Whisky Festival.

I’ll probably spend some time at the Gluten Free Expo next weekend – when half the household has celiac disease, it’s a yearly must.

If you want to feed your mind instead of focusing on your stomach, the PuSh Festival starts next week. If you’re of a more urbanist bent, MOV‘s Your Future Home exhibit is starting soon.

That should give you enough to chew on until my next full-fledged post. Enjoy the rest of the week, even if it’s not incipiently spring-like where you are.

My Corner of the Internet is Getting a Little Dusty

Tree

I have to admit I’m at a low ebb, creatively. You may have noticed it’s been quiet around here, which makes me worry that this blog is starting to resemble the little wooden Christmas tree I saw today, forgotten on a corner.

I’ve got drafts of posts in various stages of completion, a list of recipes I need to catch up on, and another list of posts to write and places to visit. What I’ve been doing instead is reading, reading, reading.

Here are a few of the rabbit holes I’ve fallen down:

How London’s private development has damaged its public space and where it should look for inspiration, instead.

A reminder that drilling down into a genre or author pool can be an important part of reading widely and well. And another that seeing a theme everywhere can be a slippery thing.

Some validation, finally, for my techiness around Starbucks’ take on chai. Then, a disquisition on the chemistry of tea and a proper cuppa.

I’m hoping that there’s a little inspiration lurking amongst all these links I’ve been chasing down, but I also suspect that I need to shake myself out of my usual routines and wander beyond my regular haunts.

And I could use a little inspiration from you, too. What do you do when you need to be shaken out of a creative funk?

The Spring Hermit’s Bookshelf

IMG_3483

So many of my friends across the continent are dealing with a harsh winter, while I’m contemplating planting the first seeds in the garden. I almost wouldn’t mind being snowed in, though – it’s been a long time since I’ve had a snow day and there’s nothing like cooking, baking, reading, and dreaming from a cozy vantage point on an icy world.

Except for doing all that, while also being able to go on long, sunny walks in the fresh spring air. I should just enjoy it before the rains start again, shouldn’t I?

And really, who needs an excuse to hunker down with a good book?

I just finished Vikram Chandra’s Geek Sublime and it was every bit as good as I expected it to be. I love writers who can take seemingly disconnected subject matter and weave the threads together into a greater whole. Chandra’s book explores code, but also colonialism, Indian and Western literatures, writing, and more.

I also have a bookshelf standoff happening between Alice Medrich’s Flavor Flours and Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Baking Bible. Actually, the only conflict they’re creating is whether or not I can justify adding two more beautiful books to the groaning shelves of our cookbook bookcase.

Here are some other excellent recent reads:

Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner – deceptively small, for such a rich and comprehensive survey of a subject, rather like a magical object in a fairy tale.

How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City by Joan DeJean – for those who dream of architecture and cultural formation, along with the romance of Paris.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – a post-apocalyptic vision that sees more than just dissolution.

The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion by Meghan Daum – a bracing book of essays.

Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age by Cory Doctorow – copyright from a socially just perspective.

And coming up:

Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890-1923 by RF Foster

Moving Targets: Writing With Intent, 1982-2004 by Margaret Atwood

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

After that, I think I should get back outside. So, tell me, what are you reading?

Reading and Planning While the Year Wanes

Hall

This past weekend, I was out in Aldergrove helping out with a Christmas craft fair that my mother helped organize. When I wasn’t busy uploading photos to the Facebook page and website, I was sneaking in breaks to read Eula Biss’ brilliant new book, On Immunity: An Innoculation.

It’s the most clear-headed view of vaccine controversies I’ve seen to date. But it’s also beautifully written and wide-ranging, in much the same manner as Rebecca Solnit’s work. I’ve got it out from the library at the moment, but I’m going to be buying it eventually and tracking down her previously published work, too.

Here are few more things on my ‘To Read’ pile:

Not that reading is the only thing on my agenda in the coming weeks. In the run up to the holidays, I’ll have a few cookbook reviews for you and I’ll be telling you about some of the craft fairs and seasonal events that are starting to fill up the calendar.

In the meantime, I’m picking out this year’s cookie swap recipes, planning my holiday gathering contributions, and finishing up putting the garden to bed. So much for spare time.

What are you up to as 2014 rapidly comes to a close?

Readers Need Sharpening, As Knives Do

20140218-204922.jpg

Literary works may best be seen not as texts with a fixed sense, but as matrices capable of generating a whole range of possible meanings. They do not so much contain meaning as produce it.

Terry Eagleton, from How to Read Literature

Freedom to Read week starts on February 23rd this year and “encourages Canadians to think about and reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom, which is guaranteed them under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” It’s a time to stand up for works that have been banned or challenged and to speak up for the belief that one’s moral universe will not be shaken or shattered in the face of art that may not be in line with it.

So, it’s with more than a little chagrin that I turn to the topic that I’ve been thinking about for the last week or two. You may have heard that J.K. Rowling has had misgivings about one of the primary relationships in the Harry Potter series. That’s not what I’ve taken issue with; plenty of writers have had second thoughts or regrets about texts that their readers regard as fixed, as this insightful piece from The Millions demonstrates.

What has been bothering me is some of the response to Rowling’s declaration. Particularly the listicles ranking the lousiest matches in literature, with this one being the worst offender. It’s as though the characters from works of literature were lifted out of any contextual relationship to the novels they inhabit and dumped into a plot-driven television drama. It makes me want to confiscate the listicle-assemblers’ copies of the books they refer to and put them into more responsible hands.

Hence, the chagrin.

This isn’t the first time I’ve gone down this road (I know, I never learn). I once got into a scuffle with another reader of Tess of the D’Urbervilles on a reading forum, because she was shocked and disgusted that a woman of such low character could be the heroine of a romance [sic] novel. As I recall, I replied with an impassioned retort that Tess’ approach to the gallows was a profoundly feminist critique of the strictures of Victorian class and gender roles and that the angry reader should probably avoid reading literature in future. I just angered her further, mostly because she hadn’t read to the end of the book before she posted her review and now she knew the ending. That was the end of my online literary discussions.

In my defence, if that’s possible, it’s not that I’m taking issue with what people read, but with how they read it. You don’t need to have the same interpretation of Hardy’s novels as I do, but I wish more people would take the time to read literary novels as a whole, rather than focusing solely on the plot.

But, don’t take my word for it. Terry Eagleton’s latest book, How to Read Literature, is a funny, deft primer on how to approach literature. I read it around the same time those damnable listicles came out and I enjoyed the way he works through various aspects of the novel (nod to E.M. Forster intended), demonstrating the pleasure that can be had from paying closer attention to character, structure, and interpretation. It was a nice corrective. I’d also recommend Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, in a similar vein. Whether they’re reminders or road maps for the reader, they encourage deeper, more thoughtful engagements with reading.

In any case, you’re probably better off with the librarians than you are with me. They will encourage you to read deeply in the directions you choose, without any curmudgeonly grumbling about how you do it.

A Somewhat Peripatetic Post

Sometimes when I read, I want to lose myself in the prose, for the sentences to simply transmit themselves into the ideas or images they evoke, without the metadata of sentence construction and word choice simultaneously imposing itself on my consciousness. It might be more accurate to say that this is the least I ask as a reader, because bad prose shudders and stalls, making it impossible to enjoy. A greater pleasure comes from writing that makes me stop in wonder at the perfection of its construction and the clarity of its content.

Michael Chabon’s book of essays, Maps and Legends, has had that effect on me. His sentences are worth re-reading, both to analyze their content and their construction. What might seem contradictory (but should not) is that many of the essays in this collection defend genre, pulp, and graphic fiction. So-called popular fiction has been the subject of a vast reclamation project since at least the early ’90s. For feminists of my generation, a subscription to Bitch Magazine and weekly gatherings to pull literary and cinematic references from episodes of Buffy were legitimate exercises for our University educations.

Legitimacy in this arena has taken a more masculinist turn in recent years, with writers like Chabon and Jonathan Letham building wonderful coming-of-age novels from the bricks of their childhood reading and adventures. At the same time, the Twilight Saga has become emblematic of women’s forays into the field. It’s not surprising in an era in which grrl power has been supplanted by princess power, I suppose. What’s interesting to me in all of this is the way in which male adolescence and its relationship to genre fiction, comics, and pop culture have become the ground for retellings of the hero’s journey, while female adolescence in fiction has become grounded in bastardized versions of 19th Century courtship fiction. (Jane Austen is the subject of an almost slanderous misreading presently.)

So what happens when a new series of novels, featuring a young, female, and (complexly) heroic protagonist, becomes wildly popular? Critical acclaim, a blockbuster movie, and this.

I’m aware that Mr. Stein is a satirist, but I think it’s telling that his examples pit Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace against Justin Bieber and Disney castles. The Hunger Games novels don’t fit into our current conception of female adolescence, instead measuring up to the mythos around the male journey into adulthood. Under the guise of championing adult fiction, reactions like Stein’s seek to put female-centred literature back into its secondary, illegitimate status.

Though the prose doesn’t make me stop in wonder, Collins’ books allowed me to lose myself in the story and to appreciate her themes. I hope their popularity inspires more books exploring female adolescence in positive contexts, both within and without genre conventions. I’d also like to see stories from genderqueer and trans perspectives, too. All young people (and those of us who were once young) deserve to have their journeys traced.