Thursday, February 28, 2013

This Dusty Bookshelf: Dear Life by Alice Munro

All of Alice Munro's work holds a special place in my heart. I know, that sounds really cheesy, but I'm not sure if there's any other way, really, to express it. I grew up just outside of 'Jubilee'. If you've read Lives of Girls and Women, you'll know Jubilee. Jubilee is modeled, and modeled pretty tightly, after Munro's hometown. I grew up fully aware of who she was and ridiculously proud of this woman I had never met who had gone to my high school, and wrote fearlessly about the place in which she grew up. 

If she could live through the scorn that small town Ontario so often levels against the readers and the writers, the introverts of the world, then so could I. If she could triumph on the other side of high school with her passion and her joy for words still intact, well then, so could I. If a writer of her caliber, of her talent, could come out of such a tiny little town, surely it could produce a second. 

(Of course, I didn't realize it was already working on it. This guy is also from my hometown. I have yet to read anything by him, but I hear he's good!)

At the time, I had never even read a single word of her writing. And yet, I loved what she represented to me. These days, I need her far less. The kids who couldn't understand the purpose of a book grew up and started reading themselves. I grew up and, for a long time, set books aside. And my dream of being a writer? It grew up with me and became a job that looked nothing at all like what I thought it would. Still, even though I didn't read a single one of her story collections cover to cover until I was in university, Munro is important to me. 

Dear Life
by Alice Munro

Knowing all that, I'm sure you can understand that I was excited when Alice Munro came out with a new book but not excited enough to rush out, buy it, and read it in the same month it came out. My love of Munro comes not from her books, but from who she is. Irrational, I know. Fortunately, her way with words has forever solidified that irrational, undeserved love into an undying, unconditional adoration. 

Which is how I can say that I don't think this is her best work, but that you should most definitely read this book. It's full of trains, and kitchens, and awakening, and words strung beautifully and simply together. It's full of relationships and moments and honesty and beauty and raw, harsh reality. If you already know you like Munro, you will love this book. If you love southwestern Ontario, or Toronto, or Vancouver, or, well, Canada, you will like this book. 

Munro claims this book is her last. She's said that before, but this time, I'll allow that perhaps it's true. If it is her last, it's perfect. She included, at the end of the collection, four stories that are less fiction and more memoir, recollections of her childhood that are blatantly honest and raw and beautiful. As I read them, they felt not quite as polished as the rest of her work but that just makes sense. Since when is life as polished as fiction? 

I felt this lack of polish in a few of the other stories in this collection as well, and this is why I say that I don't think it's her best work. The stories didn't slide into me as neatly as those of Friend of My Youth, perhaps. But, maybe this has nothing to do with it not being her best work; maybe it's because the way I view the world has changed. My connection to her small town Ontario has grown thinner, and I've come to realize that the young Alice Munro and I were growing up in two very different worlds, despite occupying the same classrooms at the same high school. In this collection, I felt for the first time, the difference between myself and the characters, rather than the similarities. 

Still, I loved it and will treasure each story always, especially if it really is her last.

Monday, February 25, 2013

A doggy sweater for a real winter

I consider this our first real winter in Toronto. True, we moved here in 2010, but that year, we were living in a condo building with underground parking and an indoor pathway to the subway. We were completely cushioned from all the affects of snow. Last year, well, we hardly had any snow at all. Finally, this year, we're discovering how difficult snow removal really is on narrow residential streets.


And I love it. I grew up in the snow belt. Winter storms were common. The grey days would wear on and on in a swirl of snow. I loathed winter then, the way the cold seemed endless and the snow dangerous as it blew in visibility-reducing drifts across the road. Winter would last from the middle of November to the beginning of April. It would wear me down. But now? I didn't realize how much I missed the snow until that first big storm hit and shrouded Toronto in a deep layer of white.

For some reason, though, when the cold descended, the Husband decided that the mats in Mocha's fur were completely unacceptable. He took the clippers to her shortly after the first big snowfall. I took one look at her and knew I couldn't just leave her so shorn. What does a woman with a freshly-groomed cockapoo, piles of snow and below freezing temperatures, a crochet hook, and a stash of yarn do?


Of course. She makes her puppy a sweater!

Mocha loves it, which kind of surprised me. I thought she'd be going crazy trying to get the thing off, but, in reality, she seems to understand exactly what it's for and even gets excited when I pull it out to slip over her head. It's a super simple pattern and took me only a night to whip up, then a second day to tweak a few spots. 'Cause I like to share, here's the pattern so you can make one for yourself.

Super Simple Puppy Sweater

You'll need to measure your dog in these places:

  • Around your dog's neck
  • The width of your dog's chest, between the front legs
  • From neck to back legs along the chest and stomach
  • From neck to back legs or tail across the back as far back as you would like the sweater to go 

I recommend a good strong yarn, durable, and easily washable. I used Red Heart yarn, picked up at my local Walmart a few years ago. For Mocha, who is 20 adorable pounds, I used about half a ball.

Use a medium sized crochet hook. I used a size H - 5 mm.


For the neck: Chain enough stitches to stretch the line out to your dog's neck measurement. Join the ends to make a loop. You may need to play with this a bit - you don't want it too loose, but not too tight either.

Chain three, then skip the first stitch and double crochet in each remaining stitch to the end. Join the last double crochet to the three chain, then repeat - chain three, double crochet in all stitches, etc. etc. Repeat this until the band is as long as you would like the collar of the sweater to be.

For the chest: Chain three and double crochet in all the stitches as before until you reach the measurement of the width of your dog's chest. Chain three, flip the sweater and double crochet back. Repeat until the flap is the measurement of the neck to back legs along the chest and stomach. Bind off.

For the back: Return to the collar. Beside the start of the chest flap, join your yarn with three chain stitches, then repeat the process of on double crochet in each stitch until the stitch before the chest flap. You may also choose to leave the leg hole wider by leaving more stitches between the two flaps. Work the back until it almost reaches the measurement of the neck to back legs/tail across the back. When you're almost there, begin to decrease. In the first decrease row, chain three, then skip the first two stitches instead of just the first one stitch. Chain in all remaining stitches except for the second last stitch. Repeat for three to five rows. Bind off.

For the sides: This is where my pattern turns to guess-work. Starting at the edge of the chest flap, work into the side of the flap. Chain three to begin, then double crochet in the first available hole. Chain one, then double crochet two in the next available 'hole'. Continue like that until the side of the sweater is as large as you would like it. I repeated this pattern approximately 8 times for Mocha, which means about 16 stitches. Turn the sweater and repeat the process in the opposite direction.

I did about three rows of this for Mocha and I think it's still a touch too loose. Experiment a little for your dog. The number of rows will depend on the width of your dog and it's a little hard to tell how far the sweater will stretch until it's finished and your pup is wearing it. Stitch the last row to the back of the sweater using whatever method you prefer. Then, repeat for the other side, ensuring that, when you stitch this side to the back of the sweater, it lines up with the other side as perfectly as possible.

Work in the ends, flip inside out and slide on over your dogs head!


I think she looks pretty darn cute in it. In a way, I'm kind of grateful that the Husband decided to give her a haircut. After all, how else would I have gotten him to agree to let me dress up our dog?

Do you think I can get him agree to a matching one for Kingsley now too?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

An Early Three Things for Thursday

I know, it's Wednesday! Whatever. Today's Three Things for Thursday is dedicated to the things I should be thinking about, but that I'm not, not really.

One: My Garden



This time last year, I was jumping the gun on my seedlings because I was so excited to plant a garden. This year? Meh. Maybe it's because the end of the season came around too fast and blind-sided me this past fall. I never even got my carrots out of the ground - though for good reason. They were disappointingly small and greater numbers than I would have liked came up half eaten by tiny, white spiders.

Either way, it's almost time to plant seedlings. I'm ok for a few weeks yet, but I seriously I hope I can find some motivation to get a garden plan going soon.

Two: Writing

This one hasn't been totally out of my head. Since November, I've thrown out most of my novel, but I have about 13,000 words that I kept to work with. I like it better than the rest of the 50,000 words, but I have no idea where it's going. Which... inevitably means that I avoid writing as much as I can without making myself feel too guilty about neglecting it.

Three: DIY

Yeah, there's been none of that going on around here lately. I even have projects to do! We need some more bookcases because our two are measly in comparison to the number of books I own, and I have plans to pick up a couple cheap, white Billys from Ikea and paint them whatever colour I want. And then, I have about five dressers to make-over. And a bed to sell and replace. And then, there's all the little things that we must do in order to sell the house just in case we happen to buy something else.

So, I'll admit it. We're house hunting. House hunting takes up a shit-load of head space, guys.

Tell me: how are you all doing? What are you thinking about these days?


Thursday, February 14, 2013

Real Estate Doesn't Care That It's Your Dream House

If you follow me on Twitter, you already know that we put in an offer on another house last night. We're in kind of a weird place. If you were to ask us if we're officially house hunting, I'm not sure we would say yes. And yet... perhaps we are?

Image of one of our favourite neighbourhoods from Google Maps.

Anyway, this house was totally different than the last house. For starters, it was in better shape, though still old, still in some serious need of updating. It was three storeys, split into two gorgeous, light-filled apartments with soaring ceilings and gorgeous original details. And, it sat, regally, on the edge of our favourite park, the park we take our dogs to almost every other day. We could open the front door, send them out and watch them run down the hill to the dog park gate. (Not that we would. I have a feeling some people would not be so happy about that.)

This house was also a stretch. A max-ourselves-out kind of stretch. While two weeks ago we were talking about buying cheap in order to hold on to our current home, with this house, we were selling ASAP in order to scrape together a down payment and increasing our mortgage by as many years as we could.

But, this house was a house to grow into. A house to send roots down into and create memories that span years. Sometimes, I wish we had bought The House two years ago. But, two years ago, I was assuming The House wasn't going to be anywhere close to the city. Oh, how we change.

When we threw our offer in - asking, all we could manage even though our realtor warned there likely wasn't a point if we couldn't find another few $10,000 - there were 4 others. When we last heard from our realtor around 8:30 last night, there were 8. We sighed, let our dogs out for their last pee before bed and turned in. Needless to say, our little white bungalow is not going on the market just yet.

And, this is where we're at: we're looking for that house that could be the house to grow into. The house we're willing to stretch for. We may not find it in the next couple weeks. We may not find it in the next couple months. It may take us a couple years to find it. Unless we find that house, or come across another real estate investment venture that will be worth it, we're staying put.

It's been a stressful, distracting couple of days. I'm looking forward to going back to normalcy.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Book Review: Every Day, Every Hour by Nataša Dragnić

I bring you this book review today in honour of Valentine's Day. I don't read a lot of romance, or at least, not a lot of romance in the traditional, Harlequin-romance, 50-shades-of-oh-my sense. I know I read one Danielle Steele book once when I was in grade 6 or so and there's plenty of romance in the books I read, but I don't read, specifically, romance.

This book, though. This book is a romance. A beautifully written romance with plenty of literary value, perhaps, but it is, without a doubt, a book to read for the beautiful, aching love. So appropriate for Valentine's Day

Every Day, Every Hour
by Nataša Dragnić

Dora and Luka are children together, best friends, soul mates. And then, Dora's family moves away. Years later, after they have both forgotten each other, but not forgotten the connection they shared, they meet again and everything is beautiful and perfect and the world is right.

It doesn't stay that way.

Of course, this book was a beautiful exploration of love and the concept of soul mates, but even more, for me, it was about choices. Luka and Dora are pulled apart by other people's choices, choices they have no control over, but it is their own choices that keep them apart and affect all the people around them. It's a beautiful exploration of love and the way it can bring us to life or bury us in misery, but it's also an exploration of how that life or misery is a choice - even when we are desperately in love, foiled love - and not out of our control.

I was impressed with the direction the author took this story in. She could have left her characters in utter, beautiful misery. But instead, she seems to choose to embrace the beauty in those imperfect lives, in those lives full of disconnect and desperate love.
Tomorrow is Valentine's Day. Silly love.

PS. I am trying really hard to write a review for every single book I read in 2013. Some of those reviews will appear here. All of those reviews will appear on Goodreads. I love talking about books, so if you ever want to chat about any of the books I've read, please comment or shoot me an email!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Five Ways: Books

I've been reading a lot lately. I don't know if it's going to last. In 2012, I read a grand total of 20 books and that, barely. This year, I've already read 7, but I feel like I was reading a lot in the first couple months of the year last year too. Either way, I've been having difficulty thinking about much else other than books. That's where I went last week, why I hardly posted at all, deep into the depths of Every Day, Every Hour by Natasa Dragnic and then The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe.*

I used to claim that I don't like the look of books in a home, that I thought bookshelves full of books look cluttered and busy. I think I may have said that purely because I wasn't reading much, because, perhaps, I was burnt out on reading after five years of an English Literature degree. Now, as I feel myself diving back into the written word, I want to be surrounded by books. That means bookshelves, but it can mean a lot of other ways to display books too.

Bookshelves:



Standard, but necessary for high volume. There's no way to replace bookshelves in a home except by getting rid of most of the books. I crave more bookshelves.

Vignettes:



This is the perfect way to display a few special books or particularly pretty ones, in a little pile of pretty spines with a vase or a lamp and some artwork, a gorgeous little space with a literary touch.

Bookends:



I suppose this concept is very similar to vignettes, really, but I think it could extend beyond a simple few books to store a whole row of books, or even two rows, back to back, if more space is necessary for high volume storage - and display. Bookends turn any surface into a bookshelf. A sideboard, the edge of a desk, a TV stand.

Stacks:



This one wouldn't work for us at all, but it might for you. Our dogs would have a hey-day with any books we decided to use for a coffee table, or a bedside table. It's a unique idea. I don't love it, but if you truly had so many books, your house was overflowing, and if you didn't have enough coffee tables, it might be a decent idea. 

Frames:

Maybe this idea doesn't actually count. It doesn't give you storage options in any way. It involves displaying your favourite books by cutting off the cover and framing it. Who's cringing right about now? Me too. I wouldn't be able to do this to the copy of a book I read, have read, and want to keep on my shelf. But I do love the idea of finding an old copy of Madame Bovary or Dracula or my childhood favourite, The Golden Compass and taking that second copy and turning it into art on my wall. 

The only problem? What do you do with the rest of the book, the pretty cover-less thing?

Is your house full of books or do you limit it to your few favourites, books you could never bear to get rid of? How do you display them?

* The links will take you to my reviews of these books on Goodreads. It is my goal for 2013 to write a review for every single book I read. Linking my love of reading to my love of writing may be one of the reasons I haven't been able to think about much else other than books. (Feel free to follow my reviews and, if you note in a message when you add me that you follow my blog, I would love to follow you back!)

Of course, many of the books I read will still be reviewed here as well as there!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Lion Seeker by Kenneth Bonert

Remember back in November when I wrote that novel? I know, it was a long time ago and I haven't talk about it really at all since. Have I been working on it? Every so often, I open it up on my computer and stare at it. I've read through the opening two scenes about three times. I've even made a few changes, moved my character from one spot to another. 

But no. I haven't really been working on it. 

Piling guilt on myself is not the point of this post, however. Instead, I wanted to remind you about how I was fortunate enough to be invited to a write-in at the Randomhouse offices here in Toronto while I was writing that neglected novel. That was how I acquired half the books I've read in the last couple months, like Pigeon Pie Mystery, Bedbugs, and The Reluctant Diary of Henry K. Larsen

Among the stack was this one:

The Lion Seeker

by Kenneth Bonert


This is a coming of age story. I love coming of age stories. Absolutely adore them. They're always so human, the kind of stories that reach out and grasp a hold of your soul with their intimacy. Naturally, based on the genre alone, I loved this book. But I loved it for more than that. I loved it for the way it opened my eyes to a world that was completely foreign to me before I delved into its pages. 

Now that I've gushed, a little bit about this book: the story focuses on the growing up of Isaac Helger. He's a Jewish boy in pre-war South Africa, struggling to find success. Hanging over him is the ultimate goal of his mother: to bring her family from Lithuania to South Africa, to be reunited with her sisters. War is looming. 

At first, I'll admit, I didn't like Isaac's character. I couldn't relate to him, couldn't understand his choices. But, the more I read, the more I was fascinated by him. He's not necessarily likable, but you can't help but hold your breath for him. You can't help but to hope that he'll make the right decisions and find yourself deeply sad when you feel that he doesn't. 

By the end of the novel though, I realized it's not all so black and white. Did he make a tragic mistake in his life? Or is he dealing with consequences of making the right decision, but a decision that was ultimately the hardest to make? Could things have actually turned out for the better? Knowing world history, it's hard to see that better outcome.

I will warn, this book did get a little tedious at times. Have you ever had a running dream? Running through a forest and something is chasing you, and it feels like you're running through water and you're becoming exhausted, but you're not becoming exhausted all at the same time? It's like that, a constant string of decisions, minor successes, failures, another decision, another success, another failure. And, it's a long book. It's beautifully written, but it's a bit of a tiring journey through Isaac's life.

Still, this book will open your eyes to a new world. It will push you tragically into love, rub your face in the pain of racial conflict, exhaust you in the empty pursuit of wealth, and push you around through the pain of a family in turmoil. Do I recommend it? Absolutely. Will you love it? I hope so. 

But. Here's where I apologize. You can't read it yet. Soon, you can! It's being release on February 26th, so add it to your Goodread to-read list! Seriously. It's worth the short wait.

Friday, February 1, 2013

A Snowy Night in a Parking Lot in Toronto

Last night, I stood on the middle of the stage in my empty church with three others and sang my heart out. Outside, huge flakes of snow swirled and dove and covered the parking lot in a thick coat of white. We were practicing for our Sunday service.

A piano, guitar and two voices.

Just an hour before, I had found myself in the tall corridors of Yorkdale, my damp leather-booted feet carrying me as fast as they possibly could to two stops. American Eagle for underwear, since Mocha had ripped into the brand new supply I had bought just the week before (she is the most expensive dog I have ever met). Then to Shoppers Drugmart, on a quest for toothpaste and make-up. So much make-up, to replace my blush and bronzer, which broke when I dropped my make-up basket two weeks ago, and my foundation, which I ran out of almost a month ago and have been scraping the remains out of the corner of my compact ever since.

Some of the time, there's something about shopping, rushed shopping, necessary shopping, no, unnecessary shopping that seems necessary, something about it that brings me down. Last night, as I left the mall, it felt like someone had placed an extra weight in that American Eagle bag. Perhaps it was the confusion I always feel standing in front of the displays of 'cheap' make-up, testers missing. What shade am I supposed to wear? Pure beige? Porcelain Ivory? Nude? Is that bronzer too orange? The blush, will it even show up on my cheeks? I've made that mistake before.

And yet, two hours later, with this song reverberating through my very core, I felt like dancing through the snow. Did you see it last night? It was beautiful. Calm. Quiet.


What lifts you up? When you're feeling a little off, a little down, what is it that's guaranteed to give you that swing, that dance back in your step?