My summer visit to The Overlook Hotel

The Shining

When I first decided to take a break from blogging, my intention was to recapture some excitement for reading (as in, “just for the hell of it”), with the hope of coming out the other end of my vacation itching to recommend a fantastic book. I am happy to report that, indeed, this has happened.

The Shining is not new, of course, and hardly needs a recommendation from this little blog. It’s a classic of American horror. And yet, I had never read this masterpiece about a haunted and deranged hotel. I’m sure you’re all familiar with The Overlook, made famous by Stanley Kubrick’s iconic film starring Jack Nicholson. But, I must implore you to separate the novel from the movie in your mind, for they are entirely different stories. The characters are completely separate from the actors who portrayed them, and I grew to understand Stephen King’s frustration with the Kubrick adaptation. The ending, for example, is one of many changes made to the original story.

Jack, Wendy, and Danny Torrance are not who you think they are. Wendy is a three dimensional, quality character, with keen instincts. She’s not helpless; actually, Wendy is incredibly well drawn, and her perspective provides the novel with a much needed dose of reality. Her observations, about her husband and child, and their close relationship, add an unexpected jolt of emotional trauma. I’m forever impressed with King’s ability to interpret female characters. In Carrie, he excels at articulating the particular cruelty of high school mean girls, and in The Shining, the anxious internal monologue of a wife in a tense, emotionally abusive situation. According to King, he credits his wife, Tabitha, with providing the insight he needed to turn his female characters into real people, real women of substance.

Jack, on the other hand, is significantly more complex than Nicholson’s portrayal. (I could open myself to criticism on this, but please know that I still appreciate genius of the movie.) He is legitimately struggling with addiction; he wants to be a good father, a good and sober man, with a solid career and a family that can be proud of his accomplishments. Jack has allowed himself to wallow in his failures and miseries for too long. Unfortunately, The Overlook senses his vulnerability, and latches on to his mental instability and creative frustration.

The father/son relationship is the most heartbreaking element of this novel. Jack is very aware that he is being manipulated by the hotel, but he just can’t seem to remove himself from the far-reaching tentacles of The Overlook. It slithers into his mind and molds his thoughts, stokes the fire of his anger, and waits for the blood to flow. The phantom elevator and barbaric, ghostly party guests (who scream “Unmask!” out of nowhere, and throw mists of confetti) are truly creepy. Every time they appeared, they brought with them a sense of overwhelming dread, a distinct and insurmountable insanity.

The Shining also made me cry. It brought to life the disintegration of a once functional family unit. When Danny kisses his father’s bloody hands, in forgiveness and also in hope of healing Jack’s monstrosity, my heart constricted for a moment at the tenderness of such a scene. There is no mending this relationship. Jack has destroyed himself, figuratively and literally, and the damage is beyond repair. King’s tender prose was wonderfully executed, a very pleasant surprise at the end of such a brutal story.

I urge you to read The Shining, if you haven’t already, and try to forget Kubrick’s interpretation for just a moment, and visit The Overlook Hotel without visual, plot, or casting expectations. I think you’ll be genuinely surprised by how differently the story unfolds. With the recent publication of Doctor Sleep, this is perfect timing to (re)familiarize yourself with the Torrance family. I look forward to learning more about Danny’s life beyond the 1977 ending.

Back to our regularly scheduled program

Too cool for obedience school

Greetings and welcome back! I hope y’all enjoyed your summer. Did you eat a lot of watermelon, watch the sunset with a glass of wine, and relax in a hammock? If yes, congratulations on a job well done. Only one out of three? That’s okay. It still counts. (Full disclosure: I’ve never had the opportunity to lounge in a hammock since grade school. I just love the idea.) While I am preparing for the fall season ahead, my dog, as you can see, has remained in permanent vacation mode. I often wonder what she does all day, but I have a feeling it looks a lot like this: lounging around, sleeping, eating, barking at pigeons, guarding the apartment door from evil delivery men. How exhausting. I can only imagine.

Anyhow, I’m always amazed at how fast the summer months evaporate. First they’re here, and then they’re not. The stores are filling up with September colours and heavier fabrics. All the summer dresses, beach towels and bathing suits are on sale. Everyone is gearing up for back-to-school season. Vacation time is winding down. Hopefully, if we’re lucky, those dreamy months created a handful of memories that remain powerful emotional triggers of happiness for years to come. (S’mores anyone?)

The past few months have been uncharacteristically luxurious and full, and I thoroughly enjoyed the time away from my computer (personal and professional). The step back has given me a new perspective on blogging, the content I usually produce, and the amount of time I spend staring at a screen or participating in social media. Most of my time went to reading, enjoying the outdoors (when the weather didn’t suck), and spending time with friends. I managed to consume approximately twenty books between June and September, so from this perspective, it’s been a productive summer. I won’t bother listing every book read, but, in the coming weeks, simply mention the really impactful ones. (No need to rant about a book I barely remember because I pushed it from my mind voluntarily. There were a couple I wanted to throw from my highrise balcony.) I did, however, keep track in a low-tech sort of way…

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In terms of creative output, the blogging break helped to provide some much needed focus. I was able to experiment with some short fiction, without the lure of dividing my attention into multiple directions; it appears that I get distracted very easily. With this added time and focus, I managed to write two short stories, which I’ll share with you later next month.

Also, this was a season full of travel. This is not usually the case. Normally, I just get away for 5-6 days at a time, often within Canada or the United States; in other words, it’s fairly low key. This time, however, the summer of 2014 was a time  for international exploration. Somehow, I managed to afford a visit to three new countries, and one favourite domestic, coastal destination. Believe me, this was a feat of juggling numbers, dollars, and vacation time, because this is not normal. I promise. But, I’m very grateful it all worked out this way.

How are you?! Did you go anywhere special this season? Read something amazing? Visit with family? Did you eat some really, really, really good food? If so, where? Spill the beans.

Taking a break from blogging

on sabbatical

Many moons ago, when I was only a young lass in grade school, summer vacation was the pinnacle of my life: two and a half months of sunshine, jump rope, neighbourhood wading pools, and going to the corner store for Nerds and Lick-a-Stick with whatever pocket change I could find. Since I graduated, and “officially” embraced adulthood and joined the 9-to-5 brigade, the summer months have taken on a whole new meaning. There’s something special about getting time off during the summer. It’s less of a privilege and more of a necessity. Otherwise, a nervous breakdown might be in order.

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Anyhow, it has become painfully apparent that I’ve lost some motivation on the blogging front. However, I do not want to abandon four years of creative and fun work. So, a happy medium… a blogging sabbatical. I’m taking the summer off. Offline, that is. The summer months will be spent outdoors, without my computer, and without my stupid, uncontrollable, self-imposed rules of blogging every book I read, whether it’s worth mentioning or not. I want to read for the sake of reading again. I’ll return in the fall, but I will continue to read the blogs to which I subscribe, and contribute to the conversation as best I can. Twitter might be an unfortunate sacrifice, but such is life.

Hopefully, this break will render my habit of incessantly checking my statistics every day completely obsolete and useless. Perhaps, by then, I’ll be chomping at the bit to recommend a fantastic book. Not to mention, fewer messages crowding your email inbox! Everybody wins. Have a great summer, wherever you may be. Enjoy the weather, have a Popsicle, eat outside as much as possible and don’t forget the mosquito repellent!

Until September, adios amigos!

Because Toni Morrison is fabulous

I just finished Song of Solomon, and I have fallen in love with Morrison. Her characters, her words, the whole enchilada. It has been a long time since I’ve reacted this way to a book: utter enthusiasm and wonder. I watched this insightful interview, and felt compelled to share. What a great voice. Enjoy!

The Blue Bistro by Elin Hilderbrand

the blue bistroSo, it appears that I’ve triggered an uncharacteristic fascination with all things summery, whimsical and romantic. Maybe it’s the weather. For the first time in weeks, I can look out the window and smile. It’s not grey or rainy or raining, but sunny. The promise of warmth is unfamiliar but welcome. The birds are out, and every dog I pass in the street has a jaunty spring in its step. Dare I hope? Has summer finally descended upon us? Graced us with its cheerfulness? Fingers crossed it doesn’t go away. This optimistic need for sunshine likely has something to do with my reading choices of late, which brings me to The Blue Bistro.

Never have I read anything by Elin Hilderbrand. Her genre, which appears to be a mix of romance and family drama, is uncharted territory. But, let me start by saying this was really quite enjoyable. I loved the descriptions of Nantucket, the beachy heat and the wonderful food. Adrienne Dealey and Thatcher Smith were surprisingly likable. I enjoyed spending time with them, and the other colourful characters who work at The Blue Bistro. I respected Adrienne’s sweet relationship with her father, and the sporadic emails they send back and forth.

The plot itself is fairly simple: girl meets boy, boy and girl fall in love, boy has mysterious relationship with The Blue Bistro chef, Fiona. Somewhere in between, Adrienne struggles to maintain a relationship with a “complicated” guy, a former ballerina falls in love with a bartender, and the various patrons of this restaurant, at first ritzy and elegant, are slowly revealed as flawed individuals.

Hilderbrand is great with dialogue and character development. The ending was melodramatic and syrupy, but it worked for the story as a whole. I didn’t feel compelled to roll my eyes; instead, I could understand the emotion, and its function within the novel. Perhaps I’m softening. Perhaps I’m losing my edge, but that’s okay. There’s something therapeutic about reading a “happy” book. It’s also an unexpected adventure to experiment with unknown authors and genres. Normally, I lose patience with the “longing glances” and “deep kisses” but Adrienne and Thatcher felt like real people, with legitimate internal monologues. They said and felt things, though trite at times, that remained relevant to their development as characters, but also acknowledged the reader’s skepticism.

The Blue Bistro is a great summer read. Very little commitment required, an easy story – but not peripheral either. Hildebrand balances frivolity with depth to create a unique combination, perfect for an afternoon at the pool. Weather permitting, of course…

According to Technorati, 95% of blogs are abandoned

have you ever wanted to quit your blog

A 2009 New York Times article, “Blogs Falling in an Empty Forest,” recounted the experiences of a few ambitious writers who started, then stopped, blogs of varying success during the early 2000s. Journalist Douglas Quenqua explains that “According to a 2008 survey by Technorati, which runs a search engine for blogs, only 7.4 million out of the 133 million blogs the company tracks had been updated in the past 120 days. That translates to 95 percent of blogs being essentially abandoned, left to lie fallow on the Web, where they become public remnants of a dream — or at least an ambition — unfulfilled.”

Why am I bringing up such sad statistics? Because I’m experiencing a few growing pains. I haven’t completely lost interest in my own blog, but I have recently had more than just a few moments of fading inspiration. And, I must admit, that I’ve fallen into the stats trap; I monitor the number of views far more often than necessary. It’s quite easy to become preoccupied with page views, rather than the act of reading itself. Perhaps The Literary Lollipop has served its purpose, helping me ease out of my academic malaise after finishing school. But, now I feel (slightly) burdened by this thing, this little slice of the internet all my own, and sometimes I struggle to meet my own expectations. It’s my fault, really. I’ve burdened myself. I think I take it too seriously, like I do everything else. Eye roll. Oy vey.

Sometimes I write and blog when I have nothing to say, which is where the lack of motivation becomes a problem. If I don’t feel connected to the material, how can I expect you, the readers, to connect to the material? Although I’ve managed to stay fairly consistent, in terms of blog presence and posts, the last year has been a wishy-washy, iffy experience. For some reason, I’ve assigned myself the task of publishing a specific amount of posts per month, in accordance with blogging advice circa 2001. I find it hard to just leave it alone. I’m not blogging for a profit, that’s for certain. Most of us book bloggers don’t make any money. (Those of you who do, congratulations!) We enjoy reading, and want to share our enthusiasm with others for the heck of it. So, when did the self-imposed rules come into play? “I must publish 2-3 times per week. I must get X amount of views per month.” Yadda, yadda, yadda.

And yet, the prospect of abandoning a four-year-old blog is a disappointing thought. I’ve published over 500 posts, and I’ve enjoyed sharing some short fiction and film reviews along the way. Not to mention, the community is super nice and welcoming. There were times when I allowed 3-4 weeks to lapse without a post, but I always returned. I suppose that’s the beauty of this medium. It can fade on and off our radar, and will always be accessible when we feel compelled to join the conversation again.

Not long ago, I lamented that a few of my favourite book bloggers had fallen off the grid. Some have migrated to other forms of social media, while others have simply tired of or lost interest in the subject matter. Or, more likely, people’s lives have become busy, and a blog isn’t always at the top of the priority list. Completely understandable, of course. Sadly, I am beginning to feel the same way.

Unfortunately, I can’t help but notice that the community of which I spoke above is shrinking somewhat. Bloggers are falling off the radar permanently, perhaps because the tool doesn’t seem as relevant as it once was, or maybe because the investment of time and effort doesn’t always match our envisioned results. Or, more simply, maybe they have lost interest or become bored. Either way, I’m sensing a minor exodus taking place, and not just in the book blogging community, but the entire blogging community in general. Am I delusional, or have you noticed this as well?

Why do you keep blogging? Have you ever wanted to quit? What keeps you going? Has blogging changed your approach to reading?

Watermelon by Marian Keyes

Watermelon Marian KeyesJune! It’s officially time for beach reading! I was in the mood for something fun, frivolous, and – gasp! – romantic. This is a first. Rarely do I actually seek out a romantic book. In other words, a rom-com. Most of the time, I have a tendency to gravitate toward mysteries or melodramatic thrillers or a popular young adult trilogy. Not this time.

After testing out Marian Keyes’ Saved by Cake last year, I decided to try one of her novels and, coincidentally and unintentionally, read her debut, Watermelon. It is the book that introduced readers to the Walsh family for the very first time, a gaggle of rambunctious sisters and their quirky parents from Dublin. The story is narrated by Claire Webster, a hysterically funny woman, who is deserted by her husband, James, for another woman, the very day she gives birth to their daughter, Kate. Got that? I think I tried to put too much information in that one sentence. Oh, well. Moving on…

Completely blindsided by the news, she leaves London to spend her maternity leave with her family in Ireland. (Spoilers ahead.)

Once in Dublin, she curls up into a ball and, in between baby bottle sessions, chugs vodka, wine, and any other alcoholic substance she can get her hands on. Needless to say, she’s heartbroken and has completely lost faith in her abilities as a wife and mother. Slowly, with the help of her crazy and uniquely supportive family, she pulls herself together, digs herself out of the depressive hole into which she’s fallen, and learns to take good care of her daughter.

While she goes through this difficult process, she meets Adam, an abnormally hunky man who, for a reason that Claire cannot comprehend, is clearly attracted to her. He’s too good looking, too tall, too understanding and patient, too kind, too good to be true. And yet, she can’t help herself; neither can he. Soon, after much flirtation and adorable conversation, the two find themselves in a unique situation.

Unfortunately, two months later, the douchey James decides to return, manipulate Claire into believing her own behavior was the cause of his affair, which she (shockingly) believes momentarily. It takes the Jaws of Life to extricate herself from her husband of five years, who can’t understand why she won’t give him a second chance. Thankfully, she realizes her mistake, tells him to jump off a bridge, and welcomes Adam into her life. This part is all very cute and happily-ever-after, and totally unrealistic, but who cares? It’s entertaining.

Watermelon was sincerely enjoyable. Keyes is exceptionally funny, and her characters are incredibly well drawn. They are human, susceptible to manipulation, but also thoughtful and insightful, capable of changing their lives for the better. And the dialogue! Pitch perfect!

My only critique is that Watermelon, at 520 pages, was too long. Details upon details upon details upon details, all of which weren’t absolutely necessary to the story. There were more one-sentence paragraphs than I could count. Every random thought, for some reason, deserved its own paragraph. Still, length aside, I was immensely captivated by the characters, and I will definitely be visiting the Walsh family again in the future!

“Don’t read too fast,” she said.

a moveable feast

A Moveable Feast is my very first Hemingway. When the edition I ordered arrived, I inspected the author photograph on the front (a 1923 passport picture) and back cover. I immediately loved his little half-grin, his crooked I-don’t-know-if-I-want-to-smile smile. The slight upturn of mouth never changed. As a young, swaggering, macho man, and as an older, bearded, Nobel Prize winner, that cute, smirky smile remained. And it is with this observation in mind that I opened my restored edition of A Moveable Feast to the very first page.

I wasn’t sure if I was going to like Hemingway, but all of the reviews on Goodreads for this Paris memoir were positively glowing, so I was eager to get started. Like Julia Child’s autobiography, My Life in France, the adjectives that came to mind about Hemingway: adorable, funny, observant. I loved reading his little conversations with Sylvia Beach, owner of the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore. She’s constantly asking him if he’s eaten enough, and offering to lend him books, even though he couldn’t afford the library membership fee.

I started with Turgenev and took the two volumes of A Sportsman’s Sketches and an early book of D.H. Lawrence, I think it was Sons and Lovers, and Sylvia told me to take more books if I wanted. I chose the Constance Garnette edition of War and Peace, and The Gambler and Other Stories by Dosteyevsky.

“You won’t be back very soon if you read all that,” Sylvia said.

“I’ll be by to pay,” I said. “I have some money in the flat.”

“I didn’t mean that,” she said. “You pay whenever it’s convenient.” (32)

For some reason, Hemingway reminds me of a little boy. Despite his excessive machismo, there’s something sweet and naïve about him, like a child. He has gravitas, no doubt, but that little smirk reminds me that the uncertain writer, who didn’t know how he would ever make a living selling his short stories, never really went away.

In addition to his sporadic encounters with Sylvia Beach, Hemingway was a frequent visitor of Gertrude Stein. If you’ve seen Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, you’ll remember that her apartment was the hub of much creative buzz – poets, writers, and artists alike. She often served as a sounding board for their percolating ideas and works-in-progress. Although Hemingway alluded to some unfair tit-for-tat deals between literary critics, I still got the impression he respected her opinion and enjoyed her company.

The picture of Paris that Hemingway paints is both typical and unusual. He conveys the ugly and the petty, but also the delicious and beautiful elements. Due to extreme poverty, he often spends much of his time walking through nature, far away from the restaurants (so he wouldn’t be tempted by the odor of freshly baked bread). This perspective offered an interesting balance between the romantic notions of Paris, which are usually unrealistic, with the reality of daily life, and rigors of productivity.

A Moveable Feast was a great introduction to Hemingway. He’s got a great sense of humor and, although the machismo can be distracting at times, his prose style agrees with me. Any suggestions for further reading of this icon of literature?

Balenciaga: Master of Us All

Balenciaga

It would be a shame to end May in France without talking a little about fashion. Although I would hardly consider myself an expert, and I’ve never purchased anything, ever from a design house like Balenciaga, I do read Vogue once in a while. And, I am a girl. At the risk of admitting to a gender stereotype, a great handbag or a fabulous pair of shoes has the capacity to put a smile on my face. Sometimes I’ll stare wistfully at the display window of Michael Kors and BCBG Max Azria. Anyhow, budget usually renders my involvement in high fashion to a reasonably priced bottle of perfume, or perhaps a fancy tube of mascara. (For a mere $100, you too can experience Dior or Chloé!)

You might be wondering: “Balenciaga is Spanish. Why feature this designer during May in France?” Well, it appears that Balenciaga developed a very unique relationship with his Paris audience. His show room on Avenue George V was a hub of style, though subtly and sparsely decorated. Biographer Mary Blume extensively interviewed Florette Chelot, Balenciaga’s first employee, to provide the skeleton of her story. It is these interviews that informed the bulk of Blume’s research.

Unfortunately, as beautiful as Balenciaga’s work is, Blume’s biography is not very thorough. This, of course, is not really her fault, because he was exceptionally, famously private, which makes compiling a biography, one might imagine, very difficult. She says so much in the prologue:

Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895-1972) was considered the greatest couturier of his time: in the words of Christian Dior, “the master of us all.” But the man himself remains mysterious, though private is perhaps the word he would have preferred. “Do not waste yourself in society,” he told his friend the fabric designer Gustav Zumsteg, and followed his own advice. Two of the things about him that one can state with absolute certainty are that he had sinus trouble and he loved to ski. (3)

Blume spends a great deal of time explaining the social and cultural climate of Spain and France from the early 1900s through World War II; relevant, I’m sure, and quite captivating, but not especially a good use of space in a 209-page book. In her defense, there are many useful and illustrative pictures of Balenciaga’s genius. The colour inset has a great close-up of some intricate embroidery. It’s hard to ignore the quality craftsmanship and artistry.

Also, I found it difficult to follow the cast of characters: investors, customers, suppliers, family and significant others, important politicians and socialites, employees, favourite models. Before you finished one sentence about the husband of one “vendeuse,” Blume was already referencing the colleague of another. Granted, it’s difficult to create a consistent story and timeline out of vignettes, but that is what Blume had to do, which makes the reading experience somewhat spastic and messy.

Regardless, Master of Us All was fun and educational. I knew nothing of the couturier business, so my eyes were sufficiently opened to the subtle dance and choreography that’s involved with dressing some of the world’s most sought after celebrities, socialites, and royalty.  I found some vintage footage of Balenciaga’s Paris show to give you an idea for the silhouette. His pieces are incredibly smart and tailored. (This book also provided some interesting background on Madeleine Vionnet, a contemporary of Balenciaga, who is credited with inventing the bias cut. I look forward to learning more about her in the future.)

If you could afford a piece from any designer, who and what would you choose?