Category Archives: Books

What’s your BASE?

A post came through my Feedly today from The Thesis Whisperer reviewing Helen Sword’s new book on academic writing (Air and Light and Time and Space: How Successful Academics Write). The review started by asking how my writing was going and then asked if I wanted to reflect on my behavioral, artisanal, social, and emotional writing habits. To do so only required me to answer four questions to discover my profile.

I feel extremely time-poor at the moment but I was reading the post on my phone while waiting for the temperamental photocopier in my department, so I needed no time at all to decide to click on the link and take the quiz. (Do you want to take it too? It’s here and it’s really cool. I’ll wait!)

My first result was The Axe Head. Then I decided to take the quiz again, giving myself a lower score for the B (behavioral habits) because while my writing habits have been fairly good for the last six weeks, before that they were dreadful, and they’re still pretty dreadful for any writing that isn’t related to my research.

Changing that one variable gave me The Mountain instead.

The really interesting thing was when I looked up the other profiles. That page also lists the relative frequency of each profile. It turns out that The Mountain is the second most common (after The Pebble, which is the profile where you identify as unhappy with every single one of your writing habits, which says something about how academics tend to feel about their writing).

The Axe Head was one of the rarest.

It didn’t take me too long to figure out why that probably is- to get the Axe Head you have to score yourself highly in artisanal and behavioural habits, but low in social and emotional habits. Leaving aside the social habits variable, this profile means that you think you are a good writer, and you are a productive writer, but you feel stressed and anxious when you write rather than joyful. It strikes me that it must be hard to feel consistently negative about your writing if you are doing a lot of it and you think you are good at it. Writing begets more writing, and the more you write the easier it becomes to write. That has to improve your emotional outlook.

I’m also not remotely surprised that The Mountain is so common. That’s the profile of people who give themselves a high score in the artisanal category but low scores everywhere else (i.e., people who believe they are good writers but don’t make the time to write, don’t have support, and associate negative emotions with their writing). Knowing that you are a good writer but not writing definitely brings on negative emotions, at least in my experience.

The site also points out that “your Writing BASE may change its dimensions from day to day, from project to project, and even from one type of writing to another”, which aligns with my current profile- an Axe Head for my academic writing and a Mountain for everything else.

For me the next step is obvious: more writing, both academic and otherwise. I know from experience that when I am writing regularly and fluently I do experience enormous joy.

Next up- The Lone Wolf!

Did you discover your BASE too? Tell me your profile in the comments, and whether or not you found this as interesting as I did.


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Filed under Books, Life after the PhD, Writing

Microblog Mondays: Library Fines

We use the library a lot.

I largely stopped buying books for myself four or five years ago when it became obvious that books were my latte factor. Beyond the expense there was also the question of storage, particularly as our spare rooms became bedrooms for our children. When I realized just how good our public library system was (almost always has anything I’m interested in and will let me make holds inactive if I’m not ready to read something), it became very hard for me to rationalize purchasing books, although I do still make some exceptions for favourite authors.

I tend to work at our local branch in the afternoon on my work day, and I always pick up a few new readers for E. given he’s now at the stage where his reading confidence is high enough that he’ll sit and read books on his own for fun (!!!!!). I’ll pick up holds for myself if they’re in, and I’ll sometimes even pick a book spontaneously off the shelf, which is something I haven’t done in years. I think it’s partly because of the proximity of the books- sitting for hours next to them makes it impossible not to get intrigued by a title. Mostly, though, it’s because on work days I have the time and space to go upstairs to the adult section.

I often go with E. as well at some point during the week, and sometimes I’ll pop in with P. when we’re out for a walk.

Last year we got E. his own library card after one too many occasions where I couldn’t check anything out because he had so many books out (and my library allows you to have 50 books out at any one time, so that really is saying something). The advantage to doing this is his fines are much cheaper than mine are. The disadvantage, of course, is now I have two library cards to manage and two accounts to track.

The combination of two different accounts and multiple weekly trips has meant that the rolling due dates have finally exceeded my ability to keep track of them all. Even with helpful email reminders two days before something is due I’ve found our fines slowly but surely increasing. I often wait until the last minute to renew a book because I know E. loves it, and if you renew early the new loan period starts from the date you renew and not the date it was originally due. This is a great system unless a) when you go to renew the book you can’t because someone else has put a hold on it (not very likely for E’s books but it does happen) and you don’t have time to get to the library that day, or b) you see the email, delete the email, and forget to renew the books two days later.

I’ve renewed all of E’s books and then forgotten that I had some due on the same day. I’ve missed picking up a hold before it expires (which costs $1). The total of my fines is still relatively small but it irks me because it is a system that SHOULD be free if I manage it correctly.

I try to view the fines as a very small donation to a system that gives my entire family enormous pleasure.

But it still bugs me I can’t quite keep it all under control.

Do you use and love your library as much as I do? Do you have a system that works for keeping track of the books and their due dates?

This post is part of #MicroblogMondays. To read the inaugural post and find out how you can participate, click here.


Filed under Books, Microblog Mondays

Microblog Mondays: The Unread


I have put London Fog: The Biography on hold at the library three times.

The first time the hold became available was late January 2016. I was teaching three classes (all new to me) and the most time I had to read non-course related material was on the bus between campuses on my particularly manic Mondays. I realized within a week I didn’t have the time or the brainpower to read this book in tiny snippets and returned it when my borrowing period expired.

I didn’t even attempt to get it out of the library again for more than eight months. But when September came around and E. was back at school and P. and I were settling into a rhythm and the chaos of 2016 had eased a little bit, I thought I’d be able to handle it. So I reactivated my hold just in time for P. to start the four-month sleep regression early.

Again I returned it, not a single page further ahead than I had been in January.

In December, I told Q. I was going to reactivate the hold again in January because surely by then I’d have the brain capacity to read it with the kind of attention I knew it deserved.

Q. bought it for me for Christmas, because he always pays attention and always knows exactly the right thing to do.

It’s sitting on the shelf of my night table, underneath my library books.

I still haven’t read any further. My brain still isn’t ready.

But at least I know I don’t ever have to bring it back.

Do you have a book that you desperately want to read but can’t quite ever seem to manage to get round to it?

This post is part of #MicroblogMondays. To read the inaugural post and find out how you can participate, click here.


Filed under Books, Microblog Mondays

The perfect present

A few days ago my sister asked me what I wanted for my birthday. And, after some consideration, I was able to give her an idea.

But when she first asked, the immediate thought that came into my head was this:

I want an hour to myself to read a book.

It was the same thing I’d said to my counsellor on the phone during our most recent session, where I’d outlined how all four of my parents need so much right now and how my sisters and I are stretched to our breaking points trying to help. How my sisters are, again, taking turns supporting my mother as she cares for my stepfather at home, and how I am, again, incapable of doing more than offering moral support as my children require that I put them first, and you can’t bring a five year old into a house where someone is dying in the living room and wants (understandably) peace and quiet.

Reading is my self-care.

It always has been. Even when I’ve been at my busiest with teaching or the PhD I’ve been able to scrape some time here and there for a book.

Not much time, this year, but some.

P. is less than a week out from being two months old.

Since she was born, I have read exactly ONE book. I read it while nursing her during the week my mother was here at the end of June, because my mother took charge of E.

I am partway through another, which I have been reading while pumping after P.’s first feed of the day.

Fifteen minute stretches.

That’s all the time I’ve been getting.

When E. was this tiny, I read books while he napped as I paced around the living room with him strapped to my chest in a carrier. I remember vividly that George R. R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons was released that spring, as well as the paperback version of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven.

E.’s infancy was different. I didn’t have an older child who wants and needs my attention when the baby is sleeping. I wasn’t teaching a course that demands every spare second I can muster. I can rationalize reading while pumping because I don’t have both hands free to work on the computer, so I can’t do anything with the course, and both children are sleeping.

I still miss my books.

I own every book Guy Gavriel Kay has written. He is one of my most beloved authors and I reread his books frequently (some of them every year).

His next book, River of Stars, was released in 2013, and I bought it and saved it to read when I was overseas in the UK by myself for those first two weeks. I stayed up too late one night to finish it because I knew I didn’t have a toddler who would wake me up early the next morning.

The book I’m currently reading in fifteen minutes stretches is his latest, Children of Earth and Sky.

I did not buy it, as I prefer to have his books in paperback so they take up less room on the shelf. Instead, I put it on hold at the library and waited for months for it to be my turn.

It will be due back before I can get it finished.


For my birthday, Q. gave me three things:

  1. The newest Harry Potter book
  2. A gift certificate to a bakery in our neighbourhood which has a few tables at which one can sit and drink tea and eat cake
  3. The promise to take P. for a morning or an afternoon every couple of weeks in the fall, when E. is in school, so that I will actually have time to go and sit in the bakery and drink tea and eat cake and read my book.

He gave me time.

Without me asking, without me saying a word, he knew exactly what I most needed.

I love him so much.


Filed under Anxiety Overload, Books, Butter scraped over too much bread (a.k.a. modern motherhood), Family

Books Read: August 2015

You can read about why I decided to start doing this here.

For January, see here.
For February, see here.
For March, see here.
For April, see here.
For May, see here.
For June, see here.
For July, see here.

* denotes a book that I had already read at least once before

*The Virgin’s Lover (Philippa Gregory)

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination: A Memoir (Elizabeth McCracken)

MaddAdam (Margaret Atwood)

The Bone Clocks (David Mitchell)

*Over Sea, Under Stone (Susan Cooper)

*The Dark is Rising (Susan Cooper)

*Greenwitch (Susan Cooper)

*The Grey King (Susan Cooper)

*Silver on the Tree (Susan Cooper)

Shadow Work (Craig Lambert)

Trust No One (Paul Cleave)

The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic: A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grounded Kids in an Over-Entitled World (Amy McCready)

The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed (Jessica Lahey)

The Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins)

August looks like a particularly busy month, with fourteen books read, but five of those were Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, so the real total for the month is closer to nine. The series is one of my all-time childhood favourites. I first read them when I was exactly the same age as one of the central characters, and I imagined for MONTHS that I could be part of their quest (even though that would disrupt all of the prophecies and verses in the books). My love for them has never faded. I read them pretty much every year, and when I picked them up this time I sped through them in less than 24 hours. I’ve read them so often I don’t need to read carefully. They’re like a good cup of tea or a knitted blanket- they warm my soul.

I started by rereading yet another Philippa Gregory, but was then able to stop myself before I started taking the ones I don’t own out of the library to reread those. I had too many other holds coming in. I’ve stayed clear of her since, so I think I’m probably satisfied for the next year or so.

Then I had a run of library holds, beginning with Elizabeth McCracken’s memoir of her stillbirth while living in France. It was a powerful read. I find myself drawn to writers who write about their experiences of infertility and loss, as well as those who write about parenting, and those who write about deciding not to parent.

I then finished Margaret Atwood’s MaddAdam trilogy and immediately moved on to The Bone Clocks. I very almost didn’t read this book. My sister recommended it to me (in the same email where she recommended All the Light We Cannot See and Station Eleven– I read both in July and loved them). The sticking point for me is that The Bone Clocks is written by David Mitchell, who also wrote Cloud Atlas. I HATED Cloud Atlas. I tried four times to read it and could never get past page twenty or twenty-five. It is very rare for me to have such a visceral loathing for a book. I would have never read anything by him ever again, except that when I told my sister this, she insisted the The Bone Clocks was nothing like Cloud Atlas and that she thought I would like it. So, against my better judgment, I took it out. And I devoured it. It’s very hard to explain the plot, but I loved it. It was one of the highlights of my summer.

Pairing it with MaddAdam, however, proved to be just too much near-future dystopian fiction, so that’s when I went for my comfort reading of The Dark is Rising, which provided much needed relief, even if I still find the final ending impossibly unfair.

Shadow Work, by Craig Lambert, is meant to be an exploration of all the unseen, unpaid jobs we have taken on as individuals. Things like doing your own travel bookings, rather than going to a travel agent, or paying bills online. Lambert’s general premise is that this is not a change for the better, because it weakens the bonds of our society to have everyone doing everything individually instead of communicating with other people and forming relationships. I can see his point, but he put me off side with his argument that pregnancy tests fell into this category. Before, he suggests, the moment of discovery was shared between the woman and the health professional who called to give her the results of her blood or urine test. Now, a woman can find out on her own, in a bathroom. I think he means for this to be a somewhat pathetic, isolating image, but it just made my blood boil, because I cannot see, in any possible way, how the ability to choose both when to find out if you are pregnant and who to share that knowledge with, is anything but a positive for women. And since I LIKE booking my own travel and doing research online, and I LOVE that I can pay my bills online whenever it is convenient for me instead of having to work around the bank’s hours, and I am possibly the biggest introvert I know, I was never able to warm to his premise.

I read two thrillers this month, Trust No One, which is about a murder mystery writer who has Alzheimer’s and who can no longer tell the difference between truth and fiction, and The Girl on the Train, which has been wildly popular (which is why I read it) and is about a woman on a train who witnesses something (or thinks she does) and then falls deeper into a mystery. Both of them were disappointments (although Trust No One is much more interesting). I solved the mystery very early on with both books and then spent most of the rest of the time thinking, “Surely that’s not the answer, is it? But that’s too obvious. There must be another layer.” only to discover that there wasn’t another layer. I think I need to avoid reading thrillers. I just get too frustrated and there are too many other books I’d like to read. It was a reminder that I need to be careful where I get my book recommendations. From my sister, yes. From the subway advertising posters, probably not.

I finished the month with two books I was considering reviewing for the parenting website I occasionally write for. Ultimately neither of them struck enough of a chord with me to inspire me to write a review, but I liked aspects of both. The Gift of Failure was my favourite of the two, because E. is a perfectionist who is afraid to try anything if he thinks he will make a mistake, and I tend towards being an interfering, fussy parent (of the sort who struggles to bake with her kid because flour goes on the floor). So there was some much needed perspective for me, and some strategies to take forward to help E. become more willing to take the odd risk.


Filed under Books

Books Read: July 2015

You can read about why I decided to start doing this here.

For January, see here.
For February, see here.
For March, see here.
For April, see here.
For May, see here.
For June, see here.

* denotes a book that I had already read at least once before

*The Other Boleyn Girl (Philippa Gregory)

*The Boleyn Inheritance (Philippa Gregory)

A Year at the Races (Jane Smiley)

Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel)

*Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood)

The Year of the Flood (Margaret Atwood)

Children Learn What They Live: Parenting to Inspire Values (Dorothy Law Nolte and Rachel Harris)

All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr)

*The Queen’s Fool (Philippa Gregory)

When I wrote about June’s books, you may remember I had this to say about Philippa Gregory’s works:

And I find that once I start reading Tudor novels I need to read them all again to feel satisfied

Exactly so. I own most of her older ones, which makes it easy for me to pick one up (or two) in a moment where I’m between books from the library, like I was at the start of July. I’ve read them all so frequently it takes me very little time to get through one. I’m not skimming it or speed reading, per se, but I definitely read faster than usual just because the story is so familiar to me. I read another one right at the end of the month (when I once again found myself with a day or two before I could get to my latest bunch of holds at the library).

A Year at the Races and Station Eleven were the two books I brought with me on our annual cottage vacation.


Such is life after children. When we rented a cottage back in 2009 (admittedly for two weeks rather than one), I read around twelve books while we were away. I read so many I couldn’t even keep track of them all.

Back to 2015. I actually thought two was ambitious, but it turned out I could have brought one or two more along with me, because we had grandparents with us at the cottage and this left us with much more free time than would normally be the case. This wouldn’t usually be a problem, because I’m happy to read the books kept at the cottage. One of my favourite things to do at a cottage when we first arrive is find the bookshelf (because there is always a bookshelf) and see what the owners have chosen to leave there. Bonus points if there are field guides (birds, butterflies, plants).

This cottage didn’t have ANY books. And it had a whopping big jet ski parked on a trailer near the driveway.

Not our kind of cottage folk.

But their cottage itself was lovely, and sitting down on the dock reading was glorious, and I really enjoyed A Year at the Races, which is about how Jane Smiley found herself owning and racing Thoroughbreds, and I loved Station Eleven, even if it did weird me out (being set, among other places, in a dystopian near-future Toronto).

Station Eleven has a pandemic at its centre, which reminded me that I never finished Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy (which also features a dystopian near(ish)-future society after a pandemic). I very much liked how she switched perspectives between Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood so that everything you thought you knew about the world turned out to be otherwise. And then it took a while for my hold on the last part of the trilogy to come in, so I read a couple of other things.

Children Learn What They Live is based around the famous poem written by Nolte (“If children learn with criticism, they learn to condemn”, etc.). Each chapter starts with a line from the poem and explores how to apply it. It’s a decent enough read, but I still like Between Parent and Child and How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk better when it comes to respecting your child through your parenting.

All the Light We Cannot See was the second of three books recommended to me by my sister (who knows I am always looking for something to read- the first was Station Eleven). It’s received a lot of attention. Deservedly so, in my opinion. I had real trouble putting it down once I started reading it.

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Filed under Books

Books Read: June 2015

You can read about why I decided to start doing this here.

For January, see here.
For February, see here.
For March, see here.
For April, see here.
For May, see here.

* denotes a book that I had already read at least once before

How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature (Scott D. Sampson)

The King’s Curse (Philippa Gregory)

The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood (ed. Kerry Clare)

The End of Your Life Book Club (Will Schwalbe)

Inside the O’Briens (Lisa Genova)

Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen (Jane Hawking)

*The Constant Princess (Philippa Gregory)

First up, I loved loved loved How to Raise a Wild Child. I keep meaning to write a review for it for the parenting website I (very occasionally) write for, but I haven’t been organized enough. I might have to get it back out of the library if my notes weren’t good enough. This book really struck a chord with me. I grew up all over the place, but a lot of my clearest, fondest childhood memories involve nature: finding frogs in our basement window well when we lived in the PMQs on a base, chasing snakes in long grass, star gazing while camping with our tent trailer. E. is a big city child through and through and there are times when that makes me very uncomfortable because I am a country girl at heart, even though Q.’s job will never really allow us to live in the country. I have worried in the past about how to foster a love of nature in E. while living in a city. This book not only gave me some good ideas (E. now has a nature table in his room) but it also reassured me that we’re doing the right things: caring about our garden and including E. in the work to maintain it, looking for nature when we’re out on our walks, bird watching (I have resisted taking on my mother’s hobby but can’t help myself), spending time in the parks and the slightly more wild ravines of our city. Sampson makes the point that for younger children, a backyard is plenty wild enough. As your child grows, his/her need for wild places expands until, as an adolescent, s/he’s ready to embrace the vast wilderness that dominates so much of this country. I still wish we lived in a more rural setting, or closer to the water, or spent more time than a week at a cottage every summer, but this book made me feel better.

I’m starting to think I’ve read too many edited volumes about mothering because The M Word left absolutely no impression on me whatsoever. Maybe I shouldn’t have waited two months before writing this post. I can remember enjoying reading it, but none of the chapters has stuck with me, except for one about a mother who wonders if she is still a mother when both her children are dead, and that stuck with me because it was just unbearably sad.

The premise behind The End of Your Life Book Club is the author’s mother is dying of cancer and she and her son (both mad bibliophiles) decide to read the same books and discuss them when they’re together (often while waiting to see doctors or undergo treatment). It’s as much a story about grief and loss and family and mother/son relationship as it is about books, and I think I liked those aspects of the book better because Schwalbe and his mother don’t tend to read the same types of books as I do. While I enjoyed reading what they thought about reading those books, I didn’t immediately put the same books on hold once I’d finished.

I came to Inside the O’Briens because I loved Still Alice when I read it a couple of years ago and there was an ad on the subway for this one. So instead of buying it at the bookstore which had paid for the ad, I got it out from the library. I kind of wish I’d realized before getting the book out that Genova’s ‘thing’ is neurological conditions. Obviously I knew from reading Still Alice that she’s trained in that field, but I hadn’t realized that ALL of her books follow a similar pattern of diagnosis and reaction and progression. I think Still Alice is the better book, although Inside the O’Briens was still a good read.

Q. and I watched (and really enjoyed) The Theory of Everything a few months before Travelling to Infinity came in at the library (I think I had it on an inactive hold for a while because I had too many other books). It was an interesting read, especially given I’ve spent a lot of time at Cambridge. Apparently this version is significantly shorter than the original (Music to Move the Stars). The cuts are probably a good thing- it’s still pretty hard to wade through it at times. Hawking’s not a natural writer, and she was obviously still very angry about the conditions under which her marriage ended when she wrote the book. It makes for uncomfortable reading at times.

The King’s Curse was the second surprise Philippa Gregory novel I found in the airport. This one tells the story of Lady Margaret Pole, and it treads familiar ground if you’ve read her other Tudor novels which cover the reign of Henry VIII. What I think is most interesting about Gregory’s works is I think she’s changed her opinion on Henry VIII since writing The Other Boleyn Girl. I think she was much more sympathetic to him originally and the more research she’s done, the more she’s come to view him as monstrous. When I finished Travelling to Infinity, I had a brief moment where I didn’t have any other library holds, so I went back and reread The Constant Princess, in which Gregory tells the story of Catherine of Aragorn’s marriage to Arthur and then to Henry after Arthur’s death. I wanted to compare the two accounts. And I find that once I start reading Tudor novels I need to read them all again to feel satisfied, so there will be more Philippa Gregory appearing in July’s list!


Filed under Books