New York Adventure, Day 1

Our train was scheduled to leave at 8:30, so we arrived at Union Station at 7:30, possibly a little too early but I'd always rather have time to kill than hurry, especially with kids. We picked up our tickets, then treated the kids to Cinnabon cinnamon sticks, which were to be the first of many delicious, unwholesome treats over the week ahead.

On board the train we settled in, luxuriating in the space and comfort. We played with the trays and the buttons on the seats, working out all the different lounging possibilities.

The train started moving on time, and not twenty minutes later Cordelia wanted to know if we were nearly there. I explained that we would be there after lunch and dinner, so she only asked two or three times more.

We each spent our train-bound day differently: Delphine braided gimp and read a lot; I read a little, stared out of the window a lot, escorted missions to the bathroom and the snack car, and worked a bit; Cordelia looked out the window, did activity books and drew; Blake read. I created a Train Bingo for Delphine (a five-by-five grid of things to see out the window: a red roof, a horse, a water tower, a playground, etc) and then she did one for me. As on an airplane, meals were an effective diversion: we had sandwiches and carrot sticks for lunch from the Canadian snack bar, and for dinner, a meatball sub, a hot dog and a small pepperoni pizza from the American snack bar. (The snack bar changes nationality — menu, currency and staff — at the border, at the same time as the dour border guards come through checking passports and making sure no-one is smuggling in contraband fruit.)

I was alert and fully conscious in the morning, and it's a good thing I decided to get some work done then because after lunch I became listless and sluggish. It's a paradox that sitting around conserving energy is more enervating than being active, and by around 2:00 in the afternoon all I was good for was staring out the window looking for the dog, bicycle and yellow-leafed tree that Delphine's bingo had set me in search of.

New York State is not at its most beautiful in early spring; for hours, it seemed, the view was of grey swamps and grey trees, with only an occasional raven or hawk betraying life. In between the swamps there were brief views of farms and farmhouses on the higher ground.

Eventually the swamps gave way to a wide river (the Hudson, it turns out), flowing fast with great slabs of ice thrown up on either side of it. The opposite bank of the river was a towering chunk of rock scattered with leafless trees. The view was monochromatic and beautiful in its severity, like an Andrew Wyeth painting.

After dinner the children really started to get fidgety and fretful. Their normal routine has them going to bed almost immediately after dinner, but they weren't able to get to sleep at their usual time. On top of that, the day of junk food combined with very little activity left them both with upset stomachs. Cordelia finally fell asleep about forty minutes before the trip ended, but Delphine wasn't able to sleep at all and was tired and emotional when we rolled into Penn Station.

The decision to take a cab to the hotel was an easy one, even for Delphine who hates cars. Cordelia's crying about her tummyache all the way to Queens didn't impress the cabbie much, although he did not betray any emotion. Then I unknowingly undertipped him — tipping makes me panic a little bit at the best of times, and late at night after a day on a train is not the best of times. Sorry, Abdullah, wherever you are.

We arrived at the hotel around 10:15 pm and after settling in and brushing teeth we all went to bed feeling much better, glad to have finally arrived and excited about the next day.

More February Reads

Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood is a series of stories about a woman named Nell. The stories start in her childhood, move on to a weird (but just normal-weird, not freaky-weird) relationship with an older guy, and then ends with a pair of stories about her childhood and her relationship with her mother. Good, entertaining, interesting.

There's a kind of crankiness, a negativity, to Margaret Atwood's writing which stops me from reading two of her books in a row. Everything's described in the most sordid way. I mean, I could describe every annoying and stupid and gross thing about my life, and leave out all the good bits, and it would sound overwrought and terrible like Atwood's characters' lives, but really my life is not all miserable and icky, and I don't buy that Atwood's characters' lives are all miserable and icky. Sometimes it annoys me that her books are so relentlessly negative. Lighten up, lady! Give it a rest! (Lest you mistake this for intelligent literary commentary, I feel the same way about Stephen King books.)

On the other hand, the thing I love about Margaret Atwood, and this isn't something that seems to come up much, is her little jokes. (She likes that too: a friend of mine saw her do a reading, and apparently she laughs at her own jokes.)

(Careful readers will note that this is the first of my Alphabetical To-Be-Read List Plan, and that I have read several off-list books. If I'm going to get through any amount of my TBR pile I'm going to have to increase the on-list:off-list ratio.)

Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin is our second book club book. (The girl who's planning this month's meeting decided we needed something a little lighter after The Things They Carried. On the one hand, Rwanda; on the other hand, cakes!) Baking Cakes in Kigali is about a community of ex-pats of various countries who have come to Kigali to participate in (or take advantage of) the post-war rebuilding and spending. Centreing the book on non-Rwandans is a great way to write a book about Rwanda without asking us to get into the heart of someone who lived through the genocide. Not that that's not a worthwhile thing to do, but it's not this book.

Our main character is Angel, a Tanzanian grandmother who has recently launched a custom cake business. Her husband works for the university, and is the reason they are in Kigali. They live in an apartment complex populated by people from other parts of Africa and the world, and one of the delights of the novel is reading Angel's thoughts on cultural differences within Africa. The main charm of the book is Angel, actually: her thoughts on her neighbours, on feminism, on running a small business, and on coping with hardship are reminiscent of the levelheaded philosophies of Alexander McCall Smith's Precious Ramotswe.

(Leading, obviously, to the question of whether these white writers are creating a new sterotype, the "practical African woman". Both Precious and Angel are admirable characters who you would want to have by your side in a crisis, but I feel like I need to hear another voice from Africa, perhaps one that isn't so tailored to my taste as a North American reader.)

Baking Cakes in Kigali isn't a work of great literature, but it was a pleasant and easy read and raises enough discussion points that I think it will make for a good book club meeting.

Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman was perhaps an unnecessary diversion from my TBR list, but Delphine had it out from the library and I hadn't read it, so I did. Besides, it was short. It's the story of Odd, who is odd and not entirely wanted at home, so he goes away. While he's away, he meets some more odd characters: a bear, a fox and an eagle who aren't behaving as you might expect a bear, a fox and an eagle to behave. Events transpire, Odd quests and succeeds, learns about himself and his family, saves the day and returns home stronger.

It's a wonderful little book, as you'd expect from Gaiman. He has a gloriously gentle, deadpan way of ushering you into his imagined world that I loved in the Sandman comics.

A Little Light Reading in February

A few days ago I had this exchange on Twitter:

@amyrhoda: Yay, I finished a book off my TBR shelf! And added four more in the meantime... *headdesk*

@ryan_price: ha! I just added 3 books yesterday... But i didnt finish another :(

What I didn't tell Ryan was that three of the four books I added were children's novels or YA novels. Since then I read two of them, and then realized that the last one wasn't in keeping with my Alphabetical Reading List Plan , so I set it aside. (I'm adding new books to the end of the TBR pile; I can't read them until I've won the alphabet.)

These are the books I read:

Book Cover

Fairy Haven and the Quest for the Wand by Gail Carson Levine. Once upon a time I told myself I would read all the books my kids read. I don't know what crack I was smoking, because a) I don't even have time to read the books I want to read, b) Delphine reads about a million books a day, and c) she reads some serious crap. Good stuff too, but lots of crap.

This one intrigued me, though. On the one hand, Disney. (That's bad.) On the other, Gail Carson Levine. (That's good.) On the one hand, fairies. (That's bad.) On the other... Gail Carson Levine? Well, and I also love the illustrations, by David Christiana. And Delphine really enjoyed it.

So I gave it a read, and hey, it turns out to be pretty good. The fairy characters are interesting and well-rounded, in non-obvious ways. (Turns out Tinkerbell fixes things - she's a tinkerer, get it?) The conflict was exciting, the climax was thrilling, the writing was lovely. Gail Carson Levine trumps Disney!

Book Cover

Hoping For Home: Stories of Arrival is from the Dear Canada series of historical novels written as diaries. This one is a collection of short stories about immigration. (Well, and one about an aboriginal girl, which I guess was put in for political correctness but since it's not actually about crossing the Bering Strait/Pacific Ocean thousands of years ago I think it's a bit of a stretch to include it in a collection about immigration; and another story which I'm not sure what it was about.) The authors include Rukhsana Khan, Paul Yee, and Jean Little. For some reason I love immigration stories, maybe because I immigrated/emigrated so often as a kid, maybe because I find the fact that people choose Canada as their home perversely flattering, definitely because I am in awe of the courage of people who come here with so little resources and so much hope.

Whatever it is, this book satisfied me with lots of good stories, although I'm not a great fan of the diary conceit. I often felt that the writing was too good to be a diary, especially a child's diary, and that pulled me out of the story. The author who really captured a child's voice was Brian Doyle. I also particularly enjoyed Paul Yee's story of a boy joining his father in small-town Saskatchewan; he brings the reader on the same voyage of discovery that the protagonist is taking.

Incidentally, this book was a cheat on my Alphabetical Reading List Plan; it is a book we own, so I should have put it at the end of the list. (The Levine was a library book so I had to read it before we returned it.) I just forgot...


I'm currently working with Greg Wilson on The Architecture of Open Source Applications. It's a collection of essays written by open source coders about the architecture of their projects. I'm mainly the format monkey, but sometimes Greg lets me out of my cage to do some editing. Last week he set me loose on a chapter which had some problems with structure to see if I could come up with some helpful comments for the author.

I knew the chapter bothered me, and to begin with I could specifically point to one problem: the author didn't introduce the subject of the chapter until the fifth paragraph of the second section. (He'd been talking about and around the subject until then, but never overtly linked it to what he was saying.) Apart from that I didn't have anything specific and helpful to say.

Also I didn't know what to do next.

Don't tell anyone this, but I'm not really an editor. Okay, I'm an "editor" in the same sense that I'm a writer: I edit. But I'm not, say, seasoned. Experienced. I'm new to this. So I didn't know how to approach this chapter. I tried a few things.

First I read it again. (Of course further complicating matters was the fact that the topic of the chapter is not something I was familiar with, so not only was I editing the chapter, I was simultaneously learning from it. 1) Reading it again helped me understand the subject better but I still didn't know what I needed to say to help the author make the chapter better.

Next I wrote out an outline of the chapter, to try and see the overall structure. That helped me see that the author never clearly stated the problem he and his team were solving. But I felt like the outline was too static — I wanted to be able to move things around.

So I printed out the chapter and cut it up into sections, taped together along page breaks. That was mildly diverting and passed a lot of time, but in the end all I really got was a lot of awkwardly-sized bits of paper. I couldn't do much with the bits of paper, but the act of fabricating them helped me break the chapter up into blocks, mentally. 2

After all that I finally had a few suggestions, although ironically not so much on the structure of the chapter — that's mostly fine. The problem is that the author spends a lot of time providing unnecessary details and elaborations, while leaving out the "obvious" (to him) fundamentals that people who don't work with his subject will need to know to understand the chapter. 3

What I ended up doing was rewriting the first section to clean it up and make it into an actual introduction, and asking the author to introduce some other topics more effectively (and gently) later on in the chapter. I hope I will get a chance to tighten up some of the language and take out excess material later in the editing process.

The whole process was fun but also made me very uncomfortable. As I was doing all that outlining, cutting, pasting, researching and thinking I felt insecure and kind of dumb. "Is this what I'm supposed to be doing? Is this going to work? Am I wasting time? Should I do something different?" I hate doing things I don't already know how to do, and I had to keep reminding myself that this is how you learn — you flail, you try things, you screw up, you try other things, you get better. It does take time and it does make you feel stupid, but then after it's over you know a little bit more.

(Note to Greg: I didn't bill you for most of this arduous process. The only thing worse (for me) than not knowing what I'm doing is not knowing what I'm doing on someone else's dollar.)

  1. After bashing my head against the chapter for an embarrassing amount of time I finally looked some stuff up in Wikipedia to get a better feel for the subject matter and terminology. Lesson 1: Consult other reference material if you are out of your depth in the subject matter. 

  2. Rather than chop the actual chapter into pieces, next time I think I will turn to every author's friend, the Index Card. Summarizing each section onto an index card will force me to understand the material, and the cards themselves are much easier to handle. 

  3. Next time I read a chapter for the first time, I will make a note of every time I say "Huh?" or have a question while I'm reading. My Loyal Readers should not be saying "Huh?" 

My To-Be-Read Shelf

To Be Read Shelf - 1

Last year I made some kind of resolution about reading half the books on my To Be Read shelf. Our bookshelf (it's a 5 by 5 Expedit, which they apparently don't make anymore) has little squares, and right now my TBR pile is taking up two cubbies. I wanted to reduce it to one, but somehow the size of my TBR pile remains constant.

Like everyone, I imagine, I tend to avoid particular books. Various reasons: maybe a book seems hard, maybe it's one I feel I "should" read but don't actually want to, maybe I'm just never in the mood. Anyway, I find that some books lurk in the TBR shelf for months and years while some just disappear within weeks. This year I decided to steel myself and tackle the shelf alphabetically.

So here it is:

  • Atwood, Margaret: Moral Disorder (my mother sent me this)
  • Conrad, Joseph: Lord Jim (this is a "should" read)
  • Didion, Joan: The Year of Magical Thinking
  • Faber, Adele and Elaine Mazlich: Siblings Without Rivalry (a necessary re-read)
  • Frey, Stephen: The Power Broker
  • Gardiner, John Reynolds: Stone Fox (Delphine recommended this)
  • Goldreich, Gloria: Open Doors (my mother sent this too)
  • Grenville, Kate: The Idea of Perfection
  • Harris, Marvin: Cannibals and Kings (I picked this up at someone's curb; it seems thinky and interesting but maybe totally dated.)
  • Hawking, Stephen: George's Secret Key to the Universe (I borrowed this from a friend; I'm interested in it in theory but the cover is so tacky it's putting me off.)
  • Hegi, Ursula: Stones from the River
  • Hochschild, Adam: Bury the Chains (I got this as a gift from Greg Wilson. It's about the dismantlement (that is so a word) of slavery.)
  • Khan, Rukhsana: Wanting Mor
  • McCarthy, Cormac: All The Pretty Horses (Because I read The Road and I'm a huge masochist.)
  • McLaren, Leah: The Continuity Girl (see above re: masochist)

To Be Read Shelf - 2

  • McLaughlin, Emma and Nicola Krause: The Nanny Diaries (A friend swears this is better than it looks.)
  • McDonough, William and Michael Braungart: Cradle to Cradle (This is a book about sustainable design which I'm halfway through and can't finish. It's just so dry. I'm going to give it one more effort.)
  • Monbiot, George: Heat
  • Munro, Alice: The View from Castle Rock (My mother sent me this, too. She loves Alice Munro and thinks we should read this in book club.)
  • Nemirovsky, Irene: Suite Francaise
  • Ondaatje, Michael: The English Patient (My friend who liked The Nanny Diaries hates this book but I have another friend who loves it, so I just don't know what to think. I guess I'll have to read it and judge for myself.)
  • Petroski, Henry: The Evolution of Useful Things (This is another one I've started but got bogged down with. I want to like it, though; the subject matter is interesting.)
  • Ritter, Erika: The Dog By the Cradle, the Serpent Beneath (This is a book that I was interested in, so I grabbed it at a book sale or off the curb or something.)
  • Sebold, Alice: The Lovely Bones
  • Stross, Charles: Iron Sunrise (A while ago I said I wanted to start reading sf again, but I made a horrible misstep (in my earnest search for CanCon) and read a Robert Sawyer book. I still haven't recovered, but I hope this book will bring me back into the fold.)
  • Weatherford, Jack: Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World (This is the Indian version of that book about how the Scots are responsible for everything cool ever. Maybe I will read them both and declare a winner.)
  • Zinnser, William: On Writing Well
  • Blume, Judy: Summer Sisters

(The last thing on that shelf is the choral score to Mendelssohn's Elijah, which we are performing this spring. I just put it there to have it handy when we start rehearsing at the end of this month.)

There are a couple of rules. You'll see that the Judy Blume book is out of order: that's my wild card. If I just can't face the next book on the list, I get to read Summer Sisters. It's my only wild card, so I have to use it wisely.

Also I can interrupt the sequence at any time for library books, book club books, or books which need to be read right away for another reason, like how-to books.

Let's see how far through the alphabet I get this year.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

I picked up I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou for free, or very cheap, somewhere because I knew I should read something of hers. I didn't know anything about her apart from that she's an American poet and highly respected. I didn't know anything about the book, either, apart from recognizing the title — I didn't know if it was poetry or a novel, if it was going to be hard to read or light (didn't really expect it to be light).

Turns out I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is a memoir of Angelou's peripatetic and eventful childhood in Arkansas, California and St Louis, and while it wasn't light, it was an easy read. For the most part the language is straightforward (but beautiful) and the story is told forthrightly, without undue metaphor or digression. Occasionally Angelou steps out of her narrative to provide a larger context for a situation, or to reflect on an event with the wisdom of hindsight, but these asides are insightful and welcome.

I didn't expect to enjoy the book as much as I did, and I now find I want to know what happens next (the book ends when Angelou is sixteen). Where does she get her last name? What happens to her brother? I suppose I could find out from Wikipedia, but I'd rather have the story unfold in the author's words. Lucky for me her memoirs continue in Gather Together In My Name.

Insulin is the Devil

I read Why We Get Fat: And What To Do About It by Gary Taubes after reading this very enthusiastic review in Skeptic Magazine's e-issue. As you can see, sceptical dude there thinks this book is pretty great.

In the book, Taubes talks about what's currently circulating as common knowledge about fatness: that it all hinges on the disparity between the number of calories we take in and the number we burn, and that eating fat makes you fat. He dismantles those theories pretty completely with counterexamples, logic and science, and at the same time explains why fat people eat more and exercise less. (Hint: our fat makes us do it!)

Then he lays out some more science, this time about how fat works, or more specifically how insulin works. Turns out insulin is evil: it inhibits the use of fat as an energy source, it forces fat cells to take lipids from the blood and store them as fat, it causes the body to create new fat cells. And what makes your body release insulin? Carbs! Ergo carbs are also evil.

This is where he gets into the Atkins/paleo-diet stuff which I have always associated with fat-obsessed loonies who will do anything to be thin, so my hackles are up. And then he says you don't need carbs at all. And fruit is bad for you! And then in the last chapter he lays out a diet which is basically plateful after plateful of meat. Mmmm. (Ick.)

So. This was an interesting book, and certainly compellingly argued. Not that it has any scientific value, but my personal experience certainly dovetails with Taubes's arguments. (The only time I lost any significant amount of weight and kept it off was when I cut carbs (although I didn't think of it that way): I stopped drinking juice and buying a dozen bagels every week.) There are counter-arguments to Taubes's conclusions on the Internet which I have yet to read, but for the most part the book rang very true and has definitely changed the way I think about fatness and nutrition. Although I won't be switching to that all-meat diet any time soon.

7 Reasons Today Sucks

  1. sinus infection
  2. Delphine fell downstairs
  3. I left the bacon my friend gave me unrefrigerated overnight
  4. minus 27°C with windchill
  5. both my children hate school and don't want to go
  6. I don't blame them (actually I'm glad they have the wit to realize what a scam school is.)
  7. all my usual boring existential angst

And two reasons today is okay:

  1. My children are creative and clever and interesting.
  2. The sun is shining.

The Things They Carried

The second book I read this year was the book for our first book club meeting. The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien is a collection of stories about the Vietnam war, and coming home from the Vietnam war. (And trying to avoid going to the Vietnam war.) It's also about storytelling, cameraderie, belonging, and the slippery morality of war.

The book club had an interesting variety of reactions to this book. One of us said she couldn't relate to any of the characters in the book on account of them being men, but that she really enjoyed the writing. I thought the writing was compelling but I didn't really notice it. Which would normally be a good thing, but I feel like I should notice writing, pay attention to it, so I can improve my own writing. I guess that's what the second reading is for, but I'm too impatient to read anything twice. Something to work on.

Another book club member thought she didn't like it, but in retrospect realized that she liked that one part... and the other chapter... and that bit about... actually it was really sticking with her and that must be good. It's that kind of book — you may not enjoy reading it but it gives you lots of things to think about. I liked it — the characters were compelling, and I liked the ideas and questions it raised, especially the question of the difference between a true story, and something that really happened.