Helianthus

The thing about writing poetry is that it’s a pretty solitary experience. Mostly I just think about things quietly in my head, write them down, tinker with them until I’m satisfied and/or finished tinkering, and nobody else is involved except for when something is accepted for publication. Even then, there’s not a lot of back and forth — mostly just confirming availability, publication rights, and other administrative stuff. I miss working with other creative people. I miss the writing group I was part of ten years ago; I miss singing in choirs and, back in dinosaur times, playing in my high school band. Writing poetry is a balm for me, but it can be lonely too.

All of this to say — it was a real pleasure when Canadian composer Frank Horvat contacted me a week or two back, looking for text for a choral piece he wanted to write. Frank has been very moved (as have we all) by the plight of the Ukrainian people, and wondered if I had any poems in my files on the theme of peace? Well, I didn’t, so I wrote him a new one. And while I have had some of my existing poems set to music before, this was the first time I was writing a text specifically for that purpose. It was a fun challenge and I enjoyed collaborating with Frank!

The poem text is called “Helianthus,” which is the scientific name for sunflowers. It draws from a few different things: the language of flowers, specifically around poppies and their role in commemorating those lost in war; the sunflower as Ukraine’s national flower; and my own comfort throughout the pandemic and other turbulent times in my life in the knowledge that whatever else happens, the sun will rise and set, the moon will wax and wane, and the seasons will still turn from one to the next.

“Helianthus” is scored for a cappella treble choir (SSAA). The sheet music is freely available on Frank’s website, and includes the full poem text on the last page. I dearly hope to hear a choir sing it one day — but for now, I’m just very pleased that it exists.

Reading Round-Up: February 2022

You may notice a theme here. Last month I read the following books, most of them door stopper-sized and every one of them by Brandon Sanderson:

  • The Way of Kings
  • Words of Radiance
  • Edgedancer
  • Oathbringer
  • Dawnshard
  • Rhythm of War

Only six books… but those books together held over 1.7 million words, so by that measure it was still a pretty heavy reading month!

These are the books that currently make up Sanderson’s “Stormlight Archive” series, which is part of his overarching fictional universe, the Cosmere, which is a little hard to explain without ending up looking like this guy:

In my (admittedly still limited) understanding, the Cosmere is a universe in which a group of ~15 persons conspired to and managed to kill their god/the universe’s creative force, Adonalsium, who/which shattered into a bunch of pieces that flew off into different planetary systems. Those sixteen “shards” of godhood/creative force, each carry one aspect of Adonalsium’s divinity (or whatever) and ended up picked up various individuals in each system, who took on each specific aspect/power and functionally became gods of their planetary systems. Each planetary system has its own distinct magic system, and one of the Cosmere’s overarching themes is what happens when fallen humans end up with divine powers. The books in the Cosmere span thousands of years in time, and although each one is set on a particular world, there are characters who appear in different books/worlds, known as “world-hoppers”. With 18 Cosmere books currently in print and something like a total of 40 planned, there is a lot to explore.

Anyway. The six books I read last month take place on the planet Roshar, part of the Rosharan system. Edgedancer and Dawnshard are novellas that fill out the stories of some minor characters. The Way of Kings, Words of Radiance, Oathbringer, and Rhythm of War are all novels, part of Sanderson’s planned series of 10, and provide the meat of the story. Point of view rotates between a large cast of characters that gradually expands as the series progresses, detailing the war between the Alethi princedoms and the not-quite-human Parshendi peoples on the enormous battlefield known as the Shattered Plains. In The Way of Kings we begin with the stories of Dalinar Kholin, brother of the Alethi king whose assassination opens the book; Kaladin, a darkeyed slave sent to fight on the plains; Prince Adolin, Dalinar’s son; and Shallan Davar, a young woman sent to steal an important piece of technology from one of the preeminent scholars of the day, in hopes of saving her family’s fortune. From there, things get… considerably more complicated.

One of the things that I absolutely love about Brandon Sanderson’s work is his worldbuilding. Roshar is unlike Earth; it’s also unlike other planets in the Cosmere. It’s a watery world, and its people live on one huge continent (there are many more kingdoms/peoples than the Alethi and Parshendi). Roshar is subject to terrible recurring storms, highstorms, that sweep across the continent from East to West before circling the globe and passing over again. You don’t want to be caught out in a highstorm — but you do want to set out your gems, set in glass spheres, so that they can be refreshed with stormlight. Stormlight is the basis of Roshar’s magic system; captured in gemstones, it functions as currency, provides illumination, and is used to power the “fabrials” of Rosharan technology as well as provide the energy needed by Soulcasters, who can transform materials (people into stone, stone into grain, that sort of thing). Also the animals are mostly crabs which is… surprisingly charming. And unlike in this paragraph, Sanderson doesn’t info-dump his worldbuilding; he just plops you right in the action and you piece it together as you go. I love that.

Sanderson also does some interesting things with Rosharan societies. In the Vorin religion, followed by a large swath of the continent, gender roles are highly stratified: for example, only women are literate. This means that a man who wishes to read a book needs a female scribe to read it to him, which in turn means things like noble Alethis going to war as married couples — the husband to fight and lead troops, and his wife to manage the scouts and any reports that need to be read or sent. In Vorinism, a woman’s most private and erotic body part is her left hand, so Vorin women keep it covered at all times — the poor with a simple glove, and the right with a full encapsulating sleeve. And speaking of rich and poor, Alethi society is a caste system. This one isn’t based on skin colour (they uniformly have tan skin and black hair) but on the lightness or darkness of one’s eyes. The dark-eyed masses make up the lower classes, and the light-eyed rule. Members of the ruling caste are therefore addressed as Brightlord or Brightlady.

This was my second time reading through these books; I first encountered the Stormlight Archive about a year ago, as briefly touched on in last year’s round-up post. It had been long enough that I remembered most of the outlines but had forgotten most of the details, which to my mind is just about the perfect condition for a reread. This month I’ve branched out into further reaches of the Cosmere, which you will hear about (though probably not at this length!) later 🙂 I’m so happy to have discovered Brandon Sanderson’s fiction, and I’m sure that I will be reading him for years to come.

Putter: verb: (2) to work at random

It’s finally my favourite season again. I don’t mean spring, although spring comes into it. I mean the long season that stretches, where I live, from about mid-March through mid-November, the season I like to call Puttering About in the Yard.

I love it.

After what certainly felt like a long winter, it’s lovely to be able to just wander outside in the afternoon and… putter. Yesterday I raked up two bags’ worth of leaves that we didn’t get to in the fall, and uncovered the fig tree from its winter wrappings. Today I’ve washed the patio furniture and brought all the cushions up from storage. Maybe later I’ll rip out some weeds while they’re still relatively dormant and can’t fight back. Or I’ll sort through the storage shed so that all our gardening things are close to hand. Or I’ll start a list of what we’ll need for the garden beds (more mulch; more soil; many more strawberry plants). Or something else. It doesn’t matter; that’s the beauty of Puttering season. There’s always something to do, and you can choose what you like, and it’s all worthy and pleasant, and the stakes are reassuringly low. It’s not work if you’re just puttering.

Perhaps I’ll just sit out here and read a book.

Now, I know that I’m sending up a double-dog dare to the universe by declaring Puttering season open when it’s only mid-March. Our last frost date isn’t until the end of April, and maybe we’ll get another big dump of snow before this is over. But I don’t mind. What is all that compared to the fact that it’s 21°C today, the breeze is warm, and the robins are back? Not much, is what.

So here’s to the spring. Here’s to a full bird feeder and fat nosy squirrels, here’s to the sun on your skin and dirt under your fingernails. Here’s to puttering!

A pandemic pantoum

Last spring, Perpetua’s godmother came to visit us when she was in my city for a weekend — a visit that was technically illegal under Ontario’s then-current pandemic restriction measures, which prohibited gatherings between people not of the same household. I don’t think I’d had a chance to be vaccinated against Covid-19 yet, but she’d had her first dose, and we sat inside with the kitchen window open and the back bathroom fan running so as to create a nice draft. It was the first social visit I’d had with anybody in many months.

I baked a cake for us. Later, I wrote a poem. It’s a pantoum, a form made up interconnected, repeating lines grouped in four-line stanzas. (So in a four-stanza pantoum, the first three would look like 1-2-3-4, 2-5-4-6, 5-7-6-8, with lines from the first stanza coming back around to finish: 7-3-8-1. Clear as mud?) Constructing a poem that made sense with all those lines moving around was a fun challenge, and its repetitive nature was perhaps especially suited to writing about the pandemic given the latter’s own Groundhog Day-style monotony.

“Pandemic Restrictions, Day 402” was recently published by Dunes Review, available for puchase here.

Reading Round-Up: January 2022

Ah, the first books of 2022! It was a big month for fiction in general and fantasy in particular. And you know that thing where you discover a new author, and you enjoy the first book of theirs you read, and then you decide to just read… all of them? Yes, that. Here’s the rundown:

  • Princess Academy (Shannon Hale)
  • Princess Academy: Palace of Stone (Shannon Hale)
  • Princess Academy: The Forgotten Sisters (Shannon Hale)
  • Austenland (Shannon Hale)
  • Midnight in Austenland (Shannon Hale)
  • Because Internet (Gretchen McCulloch)
  • Cryoburn (Lois McMaster Bujold)
  • Welcome to Dunder Mifflin (Brian Baumgartner and Ben Silverman)
  • The Summer Tree (Guy Gavriel Kay)
  • The Wandering Fire (Guy Gavriel Kay)
  • The Darkest Road (Guy Gavriel Kay)
  • The Postman (David Brin) *did not finish

My kids love Shannon Hale’s early reader series, The Princess in Black [and the yada yada] and I thought I’d try out her Princess Academy series, which is more middle grade. It’s nothing like you’re probably assuming from the name, and all three books were great reads. (And fast — there’s nothing like reading three novels in three days to make you feel like you’re starting the year off right!) Miri lives a simple life with her father and sister on a Mount Eskel, where her village mines for valuable linder stone. But when a prophecy reveals that the next heir to the throne will marry a girl from her village, Miri finds herself in the “princess academy” from which the prince will choose a bride in a year’s time. Needless to say, things don’t turn out to be as straightforward as advertised. This was a really enjoyable little trilogy.

Austenland is one of Hale’s adult novels, a light romance set at an exclusive — like, sign-an-NDA-exclusive — Jane Austen-themed retreat where staff and guests live a fully immersive Regency-era experience (albeit with indoor plumbing). Pride and Prejudice-obsessed New Yorker Jane Hayes is gifted a fortnight at the retreat courtesy of her aunt, who hopes that it will help Jane to sort out her romantic ideals. Guests at Pembrook Park can enjoy some genteel flirting with the actors who fill out the scene — but where is the line between handsome “Mr Nobley” and the man who plays him? And is he in love with “Miss Erstwhile,” her Regency-era alternate identity, or with Jane herself? It’s a light, fun read.

I went into Midnight in Austenland blind, expecting more of the above. It’s still a quasi-Regency romance set at Pembrook Park, with some recurring characters as well as a new protagonist — but it’s also a creepy murder mystery, complete with actual corpse. Um, what? Still enjoyable, but it also kind of gave me whiplash.

Gretchen McCulloch’s Because Internet is definitely the most fascinating book I read this month. McCulloch is a linguist with a particular interest in informal writing, something that we’ve never really been able to study at any sort of scale until the advent of the internet. Why do some people think it’s passive-aggressive to punctuate the end of text messages? What’s with the parallel evolution of emoticons and emojis? How did we start using ~sparkle text~ for irony and the “/s” tag for sarcasm? Why do Boomers capitalize so much of their messages (LOL)? How (and why) do memes work? Gretchen McCulloch will tell you!

Cryoburn is either the 15th or 18th or 22nd installment of Lois McMaster Bujold’s sprawling Vorkosigan saga, depending on if you’re counting in internal chronology or publication order, and whether or not you think short stories or only novels count as “installments”. At any rate, it’s well towards the end of the series, and of the read-through I started back in the fall. I don’t even know where to begin in terms of summing things up, but it’s all glorious space opera, and if you’re a sci-fi fan even a little, they’re worth your time. Start with either Cordelia’s Honor or The Warrior’s Apprentice.

Welcome to Dunder Mifflin was my only other foray into the nonfiction section this month; it’s a collected oral history of The Office drawn from interviews conducted by Brian Baumgartner for his podcast… The Oral History of the Office (hmm). I’d listened to most of the podcast so there wasn’t really any new information in the book for me, but hey, at least there were pictures.

The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road make up Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry trilogy. I was first introduced to these books, and to Kay’s writing, when I was assigned The Summer Tree as an independent reading project in grade nine (thank you, Mrs. R), and I scored an omnibus edition at a library book sale when I was in undergrad. He is one of my favourite fantasy authors now, and this trilogy has been a companion of mine for many years. The story begins when five Toronto men and women go to hear a public lecture at UofT’s Convocation Hall — but are then summoned by the mage Loren Silvercloak to his home world, the world from which all worlds are spun, Fionavar. Although they are only supposed to be there for a week or two, as an exotic present for a reigning king, they are quickly drawn into magic, intrigue, and a desperate war against the fallen god, Rakoth Maugrim. It’s fantastic stuff.

Finally, The Postman by David Brin. I don’t usually keep track of books that I don’t finish, but I read enough (about 2/3rds, plus the last chapter) that I think it counts. The Postman is a post-acpocalyptic novel set in the United States around the turn of the millennium. After years of pandemics, nuclear attacks, and civil skirmishes, what’s left of the country has dissolved into small pockets of survivors: communes, nascent fiefdoms, dens of burglars, and lone wanderers. Gordon Krantz is one such wanderer, who comes across a USPS uniform in Oregon, dons it, and begins conning a nation back into being. The Postman has been made into a movie and won a whole bunch of awards, and I wanted to like it. But while the concept is very interesting, I found the writing clunky and dated, and Brin kept bringing his characters to the brink of action and then using chapter breaks to fast-forward right past it. Great idea, less than stellar execution. This was a disappointing read.

And that’s a wrap!

The Dickory

Many years ago, I started writing a series of poems that I would characterize as nursery-rhyme-adjacent. My inspiration petered out after three or four, but I kept them in my files and have occasionally sent one or two out into the slush piles of the poetry world.

It is my great pleasure to announce that my poem “Up the Clock,” a meditation (of sorts) on Hickory Dickory Dock, has just been published by Better Than Starbucks in their Children’s Poetry section. You can read that poem here. Print copies of this quarter’s issue of Better Than Starbucks are available for purchase here.

Season of small projects

I’ve been making and finishing small batches of things, lately.

With my machine (and a small amount of hand-stitching to finish) I made a dozen double-sided cloth napkins out of fabric I had in my stash. The gold stripes and the blue were both pillowcases. The green and the brown stripes were… I don’t know what. Bolt leftovers, I suppose, that I think I got from my friend Kendra many years ago.

I crocheted a hanging basket so that our hats and mitts would have somewhere to go besides all over the floors. This is yarn from my stash and it’s either Red Heart Super Saver or a similar acrylic from Bernat. It’s too rough and stiff to use for a garment — the sides stand up on their own! — but it’s great for this kind of household storage.

I darned a favourite pair of tights for Perpetua, using three stands of embroidery floss and a wooden darning egg. It is a very amateur job but got it done. She says that it feels “great, but more tickly!”.

I made Perpetua an ear warmer and she hated it, so I turned it into a hat for me. The first picture (a mid-construction fit check) is more accurate to the colours. The yarn was a small skein of some soft and lovely 100% alpaca given to me by friends a number of years ago. It can sometimes be hard to find good projects to do when you only have one skein of something, but this ended up being exactly the right amount of yarn. This was made without a pattern.

And finally, after many many months of hiatus, I’m working on my Eastern Jewels blanket again and determined to complete it. There are sixteen of these octagonal tiles, and I had finished them all through to row 9 — and then just got the most terrible mental block when I tried to move on to row 10. There was something off in my counting, I think, but I just couldn’t figure out what to do! But recently I looked at it again and it just clicked, so we’re off to the races. I can finish one tile (rows 10-15) in an evening and it’s been really fun to see them come together. I have some plans to expand and slightly alter the pattern so… stay tuned for that 🙂

Reading notes: 2020/1

Happy New Year! I’m quite flabbergasted that it’s 2022 already; the pandemic has played real havoc with my sense of time. 2020 seemed to last about a decade. 2021, on the other hand, was over in about six minutes. I did find time to read in the last year and change, although the changes to my recording method meant that far, far fewer books got written up here on ye old blog (well, the changes, and the mush-brain that seems like it’s affected me in more of covidtide than not). I am definitely not going to attempt to chronicle them all now (!) — but here are some highlights of my last 1.5 years in books.

July – Sept 2020 (27 books total)

Aug 9 — Fog by Katherine Scanlan. This odd and beautiful little book did get its own post. I read a library copy, but just got one of my own for Christmas & I have no doubt I will return to it many more times.

Open by Andre Agassi. As my husband will readily attest, while I don’t particularly care for sports as such, I love good sports writing. Combine that with my love for memoirs, and it’s no wonder I found Open completely engrossing. It also offered a sober warning regarding some parenting pitfalls, chief among them what happens when you force your children to pursue your dreams instead of their own.

Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. This was my first Riordan book, and it was quickly followed by the rest of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, and then the Heroes of Olympus series, and then the Trials of Apollo series, and what I’m saying is, boy can Rick Riordan write a novel. Don’t let the “middle grade” label turn you off. They’re fantastic.

Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. This one also made it to a standalone post. I still think about it sometimes.

Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat. This is a Canadian non-fiction classic. And now I know a lot about wolves! Wolves are cool.

Oct – Dec 24 2020 (29 books total)

Dead Cold by Louise Penny is here standing in for the Three Pines series entire, or nearly: I read her first book, Still Life, in the last block, and then between October and mid-December last year I read Dead Cold, The Cruellest Month, A Rule Against Murder, The Brutal Telling, Bury Your Dead, A Trick of the Light, The Beautiful Mystery, How the Light Gets In, The Long Way Home, The Nature of the Beast, A Great Reckoning, Glass Houses, Kingdom of the Blind, and A Better Man. Phew! At this remove they blend into each other a fair bit, but I remember A Great Reckoning, The Long Way Home, and The Beautiful Mystery as being especially fine. (They’re best read in order, though.)

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland. This was a reread for me, but it held up to a second go-round. Alternate earth timeline. Government agencies. Time-travel. Witches. It’s a great romp (also bit of a doorstopper).

But What I Really Want to Do is Direct by Ken Kwapis. I like movie behind-the-scenes extras even more than I like movies. I’ve watched all the extra features for The Lord of the Rings. I’ve hugely enjoyed the episodes I’ve seen of the Netflix series The Movies that Made Us. I listen to Office Ladies and The Office Deep Dive. But What I Really Want to Do is Direct scratches that exact same itch, and I enjoyed getting a glimpse at behind-the-scenes from the directorial point of view.

Christmas 2020 – March 4 2021 (30 books total)

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. So help me, I cannot resist a novel with footnotes. I cannot. This was another reread and I loved it all the more for already having my footing in terms of the setting/world-building. It’s an astonishing book.

Wine Girl by Victoria James. The thing I love about memoirs is that you learn the most interesting things about little parts of life for which you might never otherwise spare a thought. Wine Girl chronicles James’s journey as America’s youngest-ever sommelier. While I enjoy drinking wine I know exactly nothing about it, and this book was a fascinating peek at the weird world of professional wine people.

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway broke my heart. (The actual cellist of Sarajevo was not so happy with it, however.)

Dearly by Margaret Atwood. Overall, I found this collection to be a little uneven, but it was worth reading just for the titular poem alone, and its last line still reverberates in my heart.

March 4 – July 3 2021 (30 books total)

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. I’ve been listening, on and off, to the Writing Excuses podcast for a few years now, so I wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with BrandoSando, but this was my first encounter with his writing. The Way of Kings is the first book in the Stormlight Archive series, which is set in a sprawling and absolutely fascinating world. I read the four full novels that are out, as well as two novellas set in between some of them… unfortunately the last book in the series isn’t slated to come out until Christmas 2023. I suppose that just means I’ll have time to reread the others in time for its release!

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik. Okay, so it’s a school-of-magic book, like Hogwarts. Except there aren’t teachers, and the school is infested with maleficaria that regularly kill off 3/4 of the graduating class, and the school is semi-sentient and also, maybe not malevolent exactly, but not exactly pro-student either. So, you know, actually not much like Hogwarts at all. (I will read anything that Naomi Novik writes and you should too.)

Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford. It’s 1944 and a busy London street is hit with a bomb, killing five children. Only what if they didn’t die? What would their futures have held? Spufford rewinds the clock, diverts the bomb, and follows his five characters through the decades of the rapidly-changing 21st century. It’s a breathtaking, beautiful endeavour. I read an electronic copy and took… many screenshots.

A Girl from Yamhill and My Own Two Feet by Beverly Cleary. These two memoirs are really two halves of one whole, so I’ll list them together. We are big Cleary fans in this house, and I am perpetually rereading her books to Anselm and Perpetua (Socks is the current favourite). Her memoirs are absolutely charming.

July 4 – Oct 22 2021 (30 books total)

Mozart’s Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. Mozart kept a pet starling, and so did/does Haupt. This is a thoroughly charming little book about starlings, about music, and about finding kindred spirits in surprising places.

In a Holidaze by Christina Lauren. I read a lot of purely escapist books in this period, including several by Christina Lauren (the nom-de-plume of writing partners Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings). In a Holidaze involved a Groundhog Day-style time loop and was easily my favourite of the lot.

Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl. This is food writer and critic Ruth Reichl’s account of her years as the NYT’s food critic in the 1990s, and of the lengths to which she had to go in order to visit restaurants anonymously. Reichl is an inviting writer and I read two of her other books in this period as well.

To Have and to Hoax by Martha Waters. See above re: escapism. This was a fun regency-era novel following a husband and wife who end up staging an escalating series of fake accidents and illnesses in a bid to win back the other’s affection. It’s silly and satisfying.

Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks. If I’m in the mood for a move and don’t know what else to pick, I’ll generally default to a 90s rom-com, so I feel like I’ve seen a lot of Tom Hanks lately. As it turns out, he can write as well as act, and this collection of short stories thoroughly charmed me.

Oct 23 – Dec 31 2021 (25 books total)

A Carnival of Snackery by David Sedaris. I have to be in the mood for David Sedaris, but when I am, I really am. This is a collection of his diary excerpts from 2003-2020, and it was so interesting reading someone else’s thoughts on things I’ve actually lived through. Plus, you know, he’s awfully funny.

The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes. Let’s just say I’m not surprised this was a runaway bestseller.

Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson. I went into this one knowing nothing about it except that I always enjoy Stephenson’s books. Turns out it’s about climate change. And Sikh martial arts. And constitutional monarchies. And performative warfare. And feral pigs. It was great.

The Deep Places by Ross Douthat. Douthat is probably best known as a conservative, Catholic commentator for the NYT. He also suffers from Lyme disease, and The Deep Places is a history of the disease in the wider sense as well as in his own life. It is a touching account of the “terrible gift” of chronic illness, and surely a bit of a memento mori for those of us who haven’t been so touched.

And that’s… well, that’s not the lot! But it’s certainly enough for now, and as it’s high time to end this post, I will simply wish you all some wonderful reading in 2022.