What I’ve been reading, Volume 1: A balm for the soul

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“A book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self”
~ Franz Kafka

Back in December, I had big plans for what I was going to read this year. Except… I’ve gotten sidetracked reading lots of other things. As a librarian, I am a firm believer in the principle of “the right book for the right reader at the right time,” and so I am choosing to believe that I will get back to reading all those books on my shelves when the time is right. In the meantime, here are a few books that I’ve especially enjoyed lately:

 

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by Pamela Smith Hill. South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2014

Pioneer Girl

I spent a good part of January reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s autobiography Pioneer Girl, which has been annotated by editor Pamela Smith Hill. Wilder wrote this autobiography first, and when she and her daughter could not find a publisher for it, it became the source material for the entire Little House series. For me, the annotations made the book. They provide a wealth of historical context as well as insight into Wilder’s writing process (not to mention some literary theft by Wilder’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane). It was fascinating to compare this original recounting of her life with the narrative of the fictional Ingalls family that was eventually published, complete with explanations about how Wilder and Lane shaped the story to better fit the mythology of the American pioneer family.

 

Lost: A Memoir by Cathy Ostlere. Key Porter Books, 2008

Ostlere explores the nature of grief and loss as she recounts the year following her brother David’s disappearance while sailing with his girlfriend Sarah between Ireland and Madeira. I completely agree with the assessment of the friend who recommended it to me: well-crafted and heartbreaking. I also highly recommend Ostlere’s verse novel for young adults, Karma.

 

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. Penguin Random House/Delacorte, 2014

In this “modern, sophisticated suspense novel” (to quote the book jacket), Cadence Sinclair Eastman is desperate to remember what happened the summer she was fifteen, when she suffered a head injury during a mysterious accident on Beechwood Island, where her family spends the summers. I wasn’t sure about the ending at first – which one person in my book club astutely described as a Holy F*** ending – but the fact that I’m still thinking about this books weeks later is a sign that it works. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks is also well worth a read.

 

A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver. Penguin Books, 2012

thousandmornings

This gorgeous, spare book of poetry was like a balm for a bruised soul. (I didn’t even know I had a bruised soul.) It was one of those books I devoured and then was sorry it was finished. Since I can’t quite bear to put this book away on the shelf, I suspect it will sit on my bedside table – so I can dip into it now and again – for quite some time.

Mythical

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“Our lives are at once ordinary and mythical.”
~ Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones

marriage certificate

An ordinary document: my grandparents’ marriage certificate.

My grandmother’s life was ordinary: she immigrated to Canada as an infant with her parents and older brother, she went to a country school. She worked as a housekeeper and cook; she married, farmed with my grandfather, had two children.

Her life is also mythical: her story is – in many ways – the story of Alberta, the story of this country.

Her stories filled my childhood and became part of the mythology I carry with me everywhere. I may have missed many of the Greek and Roman classical stories growing up, but I know about the first time my grandmother, Olga, baked bread on her own: it was the day her youngest brother was born. He was born on her last day of grade eight, her last day of school ever. Olga’s basketball team was playing a game but she couldn’t go to school because her mother was having a baby, and Olga had to stay home to bake the bread. (She never let my great-uncle Art – the baby born that day – forget it, either, and teased him about it the last time she saw him, when she was in the hospital. I know because I was there.)

I know all about the adventures she and her siblings had growing up along the train tracks, and all the trouble they got into on the family’s farm. I know how the men on the threshing crew at the farm where she worked when she was a young adult loved her baking, especially her pies, and told her she should open a bakery.

Of course, there is a darker side to this mythology too, one she didn’t talk about. Now, as an adult, I am slowly uncovering more pieces to the puzzle and filling in the gaps of some of those stories.

Last month I wrote about finding inspiration in history – and what better place to find it than in my own history?

While that is a rhetorical question, I’ve been thinking about the connections between the ordinary and the mythical lately, as my current project – although fiction – touches on my family’s history. I find myself asking other, real questions. Questions I don’t have answers for yet: what do I do with all of these stories? What is my obligation, my responsibility? And: if I am telling these stories, how do I do so in a respectful way – but a way that is also honest and doesn’t shy away from the darker parts of my personal mythology?

Research Tidbits Volume 1

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The Nursing Edition, or, What Kittens Have to do with Delivering a Baby

I am working on a new writing project, set in Alberta during the 1920’s and 1930’s. I spent much of the fall immersed in research. Delving into Alberta’s history has been really fun (yes, I am a librarian), and I find myself with more interesting information than I will ever be able to use. Instead of saving it all for cocktail parties, I’ve decided share some of it here from time to time.

medical instruments

Today’s tidbits come from the Heritage of Service: The History of Nursing in Alberta, by Tony Cashman (Alberta Association of Registered Nurses), which I was reading because one of my characters is a nurse.

Heritage of Service made for a fascinating read because of all of the anecdotes it included. Take this story, for instance, about Dr. Archer and his wife Jessie Archer, who was also his assisting nurse during this surgery in Lamont in the early 1900’s:

She gave the anaesthetic for the man who had the abscess at the base of his skull, and she had a large audience because the man and his many relatives agreed to the operation only on condition that all the relatives could come and watch. Patient and family were not in favor of the surgery because they thought the doctor was going to operate on the man’s brains. There was intense silence as Dr. Archer opened the abscess and began to remove the infected matter. Then the Archers nearly lost their professional composure as a large lady relative sighed: “Poor fellow. He never had much brains to begin with” (74).

wheelchair

Imagine working in – or receiving medical attention in – a facility that, in rural Alberta in 1928, “could be considered ‘modern’ without running water” (146). A few more details about conditions in Alberta’s early hospitals:

There was a tiny kitchen. If an operation came up, we would have to move the patients out of the front room, then clean it up to the best of our ability before operating. We had an antique sterilizer which we used, sort of a double-boiler affair the size of a large pail. This we set on the stove to sterilize our dressings. It was some job and we had no assurance they were sterile. We had to finish them off by drying them in the oven. This was a great worry to me; a far cry from our electric sterilizer in Medicine Hat. The X-ray room was my broom closet. I took most of the X-rays. ….The babies were kept in baskets in the kitchen by the stove and were bathed on the kitchen table (Mary Cody, describing the Cereal Hospital, page 132).

The Great Depression didn’t make it any easier:

One of these self-trained nursing aides was once out assisting in a maternity case in a cabin where the mother had used all the available flour sacks to prepare one layette. That would have been all right if there’d been only one baby, but a second arrived unexpectedly and this baby really came naked into the world because his twin brother had all the clothes. So the helpful lady asked Dr. Chisholm to turn around for a minute, a minute in which she took off her slip and made the newcomer presentable (223).

quarantine sign

However, this final story is my favourite:

Miss Willis wrote: “No course can equip us with ready made rules for all contingencies. What to do, for example, when at the moment of delivery you turn to your table for an instrument and find a kitten of whose existence you were previously unaware, intimately inspecting your sterilizing gear” (242).

What to do, indeed.

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The photos in this post were take at the Cottage Hospital in Heritage Park, Calgary, Alberta.

I read Heritage of Service in the Heritage Room at the Stanley A. Milner Branch of Edmonton Public Library.

2015 Reading Challenge

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books by alberta authors

My friend Kristilyn is hosting the How Canadian Are You? – The 2015 Ultimate Canadian Reading Challenge over on her blog Reading in Winter.

I am going to participate in the “Local Lover Canadian Challenge” and read 20 books by Alberta authors this coming year – in large part because I discovered that I already own more than 20 books by Alberta writers that I haven’t read yet (as evidenced by the photo above).

Thinking about Kristilyn’s challenge made me look at my shelves and all of the books I have purchased over the years and not read. Part of it is an occupational hazard: when I worked at the library it was easy to bring books home with me, and I always ended up reading the library books first because they were “due” and other people were waiting to read them. I told myself that I could read the books I own anytime.

But that didn’t stop me from buying books (possibly another occupational hazard) and now I own an entire bookcase of books I haven’t read yet. There is a Japanese word for this particular vice: Tsundoku.

I’ve decided to create my own reading challenge for 2015, one designed to get me reading the books off my own shelf, to make a dent (if only a small one) in my own reading pile. Starting with the letters A and B in January, I am going to read books by authors whose names begin with each month’s designated letters (hint: February will be C and D).

I will post an update on both challenges here each month, to keep myself on track. Although I am doing this for myself, you are welcome to play along if you like in the comments.

Do you set reading goals/challenges for yourself? What are they?

A funny thing about memory

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The wonderful Saskatchewan poet Glen Sorestad (read a selection of his poems here) often marks solstice by sending out a poem on the darkest day of the year. In that tradition, I have decided to share a new poem – one that celebrates winter – here today.

maple trees in the fog

Hey – where did this poem go?

I was thrilled to find out that this poem will be included in the second volume of 40 Below. I’ve been asked to keep it under wraps until the book comes out. Look for this poem to reappear after the book is launched later in 2016!

January 9, 2015

Exchange House, Revisited

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In which I go back to a place I used to work at a job I used to hate.

When I was in London in September, I spent some time visiting places that were significant to me when I lived there for six months in 1998. This post is about one of those places.

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In the morning, I took the tube to Liverpool station and discovered I knew the way: up the stairs, behind the shops, down the little alley, and there I was. Intuitively, I travelled the shortcut I had used every day I worked in this building, without even realizing I remembered it.

I hated that job. It was a temp job, working for a brokerage firm that doesn’t exist any more, answering phones, typing letters, doing the filing. I hated it – for a bunch of reasons – but I stuck with it for as long as I could, saving my precious pounds sterling (worth much more than a Canadian dollar, especially back in 1998) to go backpacking through Europe later that year.

It was not the right place for me and yet working there taught me so many useful things about myself and about what I wanted to do with my life.

One lesson in particular stayed with me: the knowledge that I want to work at something I find meaningful.

For me, that is NOT brokerage banking. I spent several months watching a few hundred people in a high-stress environment spend their days (and their evenings and their weekends) shifting money from one account to another in the hope of ending up with more money at the end of the transaction.

After months of watching traders ride the highs and lows of the stock market, I realized that money – although nice to have – was not the only motivating factor for me. Making money was not enough: I wanted to do something that created something or helped people or contributed to the world in some way… a train of thought that eventually led me to a career in public libraries.

When I revisited this building, Exchange House, in September, I sat on the steps in front of the fountain, where I used to eat lunch (the fountain has been filled in is and is a grassy stage now). I wrote in my journal and remembered the people I used to work with and some of the things that happened while I worked there. And suddenly, much to my surprise, I was grateful for that horrible job and that experience, because it helped me figure out what the right place for me is.

Finding inspiration in history

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I discovered these dishes in the Vindolanda Museum, along Hadrian’s Wall, and have been thinking about them ever since.

This almost-complete set of Samian-ware pottery was imported into Roman Vindolanda from France and, after being broken in transit, was thrown away, unused, into the ditch of the fort.

Imagine the disappointment of the intended owner – and the thrill of the archaeologists who found these dishes almost two thousand years later!

As a writer, I have all sorts of questions:

Who were these dishes intended for?

Did whoever ordered these dishes get a replacement set? How long did that take? How much did it cost?

Not all the dishes are here… does that mean a few of them arrived intact? If so, what happened to them? Where they given to a slave or someone else, or did the owner keep them?

These questions could be the beginning of a story. My current project is set in Alberta in the 1930’s and I have been thinking about a set of dishes ordered out of the Eaton’s catalog that arrives broken…