Happy Birthday Charles Dickens!

Charles Dickens House Museum

Charles Dickens House Museum, London UK

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

~ A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens turned 200 years old today. I was first introduced to Dickens by my Grade 12 English teacher Mr. Sutton. My OAC English teacher Mr. Durant helped feed my new passion for Charles Dickens by allowing me to do my independent study project on Dickens, even lending me some Dickens books from his own collection. Dickens continues to be one of my favourite writers, so, of course, I visited the Dickens House Museum in London when I visited in 2010.

In Memory of Wislawa Szymborska

I was very sad to hear that Polish poet – and Nobel Laureate – Wislawa Szymborska passed away on Wednesday. I was introduced to her poetry several years ago and I love her simple elegance. The Joy of Writing is one of my favourite poems and captures the power of writing better than any other poem I have ever come across.

The Joy of Writing

Why does this written doe bound through these written woods?
For a drink of written water from a spring
whose surface will xerox her soft muzzle?
Why does she lift her head; does she hear something?
Perched on four slim legs borrowed from the truth,
she pricks up her ears beneath my fingertips.
Silence – this word also rustles across the page
and parts the boughs
that have sprouted from the word “woods.”

Lying in wait, set to pounce on the blank page,
are letters up to no good,
clutches of clauses so subordinate
they’ll never let her get away.

Each drop of ink contains a fair supply
of hunters, equipped with squinting eyes behind their sights,
prepared to swarm the sloping pen at any moment,
surround the doe, and slowly aim their guns.

They forget that what’s here isn’t life.
Other laws, black on white, obtain.
The twinkling of an eye will take as long as I say,
and will, if I wish, divide into tiny eternities,
full of bullets stopped in mid-flight.
Not a thing will ever happen unless I say so.
Without my blessing, not a leaf will fall,
not a blade of grass will bend beneath that little hoof’s full stop.

Is there then a world
where I rule absolutely on fate?
A time I bind with chains of signs?
An existence become endless at my bidding?

The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
Revenge of a mortal hand.

iPad vs. Books

A couple of months ago, I bought an iPad2. I’d looked at the first iPad when it came out and wasn’t that impressed, mainly due to the challenges of using the onscreen keypad.  Of course, you can add an external keyboard, but what’s the point? Why not just buy a laptop? Instead, I bought a MacBook Air.I love it and it is fantastic for travel or even just popping around to a coffee shop to do some writing. But reading anything lengthy isn’t the comfortable. Let’s face it, it is hard to snuggle up under a blanket and read a book on a laptop.

I was mainly motivated to buy the iPad because I was taking an online course and needed to purchase several books. The eBook versions were all half the cost of the hardcover/paperback versions. Plus, two of the books weren’t available in local stores and would take at least a week to be shipped to me and I didn’t want to wait that long. I chose the iPad over an e-reader because I didn’t want to be limited by the format or store. I needed to order Canadian books available for Kobo and books only available on the Kindle. An iPad gave me complete freedom to buy books from whomever I wanted. Of course, this freedom comes at significant cost. I bought the iPad model without 3G access, since WIFI is available just about everywhere these days (even McDonalds!), so I saved a couple hundred bucks there.

I installed the Kobo app and was immediately disappointed to discover that I couldn’t purchase books within the app (unlike the laptop/desktop version), but was forced to purchase them in Safari. Apple forced this restriction on Kobo, as well as Kindle. This was annoying, but workable.

There are some things I liked about reading a book on my iPad – being able to change the font, font-size, highlight text and being able to get a book in seconds. I also enjoy reading classics and was thrilled to find a huge number of literary classics available free of charge.

But within two days of installing Kobo, I discovered some of the drawbacks. While I was on the subway – and far away from a WIFI signal – the app suddenly shut down and logged me out of my account. This meant that the book I was reading had disappeared. I was able to download it again from my account at no extra charge the next time I was in WIFI range, but it meant that I suddenly didn’t have my book to read during a long subway ride. This happened twice and each time, my notes and highlights also disappeared. This was very annoying and just doesn’t happen to paper books. The Kobo app also has a notification system that sends pop up messages at weird times related to the time of day or how far I’d gotten in my book. It took me a little clicking to figure out how to shut this off.

The latest version of Kobo also allows for more integration with Facebook, Twitter and the Kobo online community. While reading, I can see what others are saying about the same book. Some people might find this exciting, but I don’t. For me, reading has always been a solitary pursuit. I dive into a book to leave the world I’m living in to discover a new world. I don’t want to be interrupted.

This also related to the biggest drawback of the iPad – it can do everything. I find it easy to be distracted by checking my email, Twitter or Facebook accounts. Reading on an iPad just isn’t relaxing in the same way as reading a traditional book. Plus, I’d freak out if I dropped it into the bathtub!

I’m finding I’m using my iPad more for checking my Twitter stream and reading/bookmarking blog posts and articles. The Dropbox app has made is easy to read my files, especially works in progress, and the Instapaper app makes web articles I book mark accessible even when I’m offline. I hate the clutter caused by stacks of magazines, so I think the Newstand add will be useful too.

But, I have to say I still enjoy reading an old-fashioned book more than I enjoy reading on a screen. I love the solidity of a book and being able to see how far along I am in a book. Reaching the last couple of pages of a book just doesn’t have the same thrill on a device like it does in a paper book. Plus, I love being able to open a book at a random spot and flip through the pages until an image or passage catches my attention. This isn’t as easy to do in an e-book. Plus, there is compelling evident that being able to pay close attention to a book and read deeply improves your brain.

I’m not a complete luddite and I am aware that in the not-to-distant future, most books and other media will only be available electronically. Eventually, I’ll get used to reading on electronic devices, but paper books will continue to be a very important part of my life.

Writers’ Libraries

Bookcase

I love looking at pictures of writer’s desks, offices and libraries.

I was poking around my local independent bookstore and found a new book Unpacking My Libraries: Writers and Their Books by Leah Price. Flavorwire has posted several of the images from the book on their site, along with classic images of the libraries of Mark Twain and Eudora Welty. I love the fact that in all of the libraries, despite having wall-to-wall shelves, there are still books piled up on couches and on the floor. It makes me feel good about my own overflowing collection of books. Despite four bookcases, I still have books piled up on the floor and coffee table. I have tried to cull my collection a couple of times, but the books continue to pile up. At least it is a healthy addiction, and as these famous writers’ libraries demonstrate, reading is an essential part of being a writer.

The Night Circus

The Circus arrives without warning.

No announcements proceed it, no paper on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.

The towering tents are striped in white and black, no golds and crimsons to be seen. No colour at all, save for the neighbouring trees and the grass of the surrounding fields. Black-and-white stripes on grey sky; countless tents of varying shapes and sizes, with an elaborate wrought-iron fence encasing them in a colourless world. Even what little ground is visible from outside is black and white, painted or powdered, or treated with some other circus trick.

I just finished reading The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I was intrigued about the book after reading a favourable review in the Globe and Mail, so when I had a Chapters Indigo gift certificate burning a whole in my wallet, I purchased it. It is a wondrous, beautiful book.

Two aging magicians select apprentices and bind them to compete in a game. One player is Celia Bowen, the illegitimate daughter of Prospero the Magician, and her opponent is Marco, apprentice of the second magician, the mysterious Alexander. At first the two players do not even know each other or know that, in order for the game to end, only one can be left standing. The setting for the game is a mysterious Cirque du Reve that is open only at night and appears and disappears without warning. The circus brings together other characters who are unwittingly involved in the game – a pair of flame-haired twins, a contortionist and a Tarot card reader.

This is a spell-binding book (pun intended) and I highly recommend it.

Books That Inspired Me to Write

I’ve been a voratious reader since I learned to read around age five. Here are five books that inspired me to become a writer.

1. Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder – Like many people my age, I was first introduced to this series of books through the 80s TV show. I fell in love with this books and even convinced my parents to purchase the complete boxed set. I read all these books over and over again. I was astonished to learn that she was a normal woman who wrote her story. A “writer” wasn’t a special breed of person. If Ingalls Wilder could write, than so could I.

2. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott – I’d been writing a number of years with some success and a lot of rejection, when I finally discovered books about writing. Bird by Bird was one of the first books I read and it is still one of my favourites. Lamott provides funny and very practical advice about writing, life and the writing life. One of her best pieces of advice is to write “shitty first drafts.”

3. Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen – I’m not sure how I first heard about this book (it was before the movie with Angelina Jolie came out), but it was one of the first memoirs I ever read. Kaysen spent nearly two years in a mental institution. Her bravery to write about her experience and make it public continues to inspire me to tell my story.

4. A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf – I was lucky to find a 1954 hardcover edition of this book in a used bookstore that was going out of business. The Writer’s Diary brings together entries passages from Woolf’s diary that refer directly to her own writing. It was exciting to read her thoughts as she wrote many of her now-classic works, including The Voyage Out and Orlando. It was inspiring to realize that even a writer as brilliant as Woolf struggled at times.

5. House Rules by Rachel Sontag – I’ve written about this book before, and I continue to be inspired by Sontag’s bravery to write about her psychologically abusive father. She is especially brave because her father is still very much alive and has attached Sontag by writing hostile reviews on Amazon and even launching a website attempting to refute Sontag’s portrayal of him in her memoir. However, he has only managed to make himself look bad and lend credibility to Sontag’s book. Again, Sontag inspires me to continue writing my own memoir.

What books inspired you to write?

The Girl Who Fell From The Sky

“You my luck piece,” Grandma says.

Grandma has walked me the half block from the hospital lobby to the bus stop. Her hand is wrapped around mine like a leash.

It is fall 1982 in Portland and it is raining. Puddle water has splashed up on my new shoes. My girl-in-a-new-dress feeling has faded. My new-girl feeling has disappeared.

These are the opening lines of The Girl Who Fell From The Sky by Heidi W. Durrow, a beautiful, powerful novel. The story opens with Rachel, the daughter of a Danish woman and a black G. I., arriving in Portland after a terrible tragedy claims her family. For the first time, Rachel lives in a mostly black community and grows up trying to come to terms with her identity and the events that brought her to live with her strict African American grandmother.

The writing is taunt and riveting. I stayed up late two nights in a row to read this book, savouring the writing style as much as the plot. A must read.

This novel won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction for the best fiction manuscript addressing issues of social justice.