Can’t afford the airfare to France? Join me in May for a month of wine, cheese and books!

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As fun as it would be to jet off to Europe for an extended vacation in France, it is not in the budget. Indeed, travel is on the docket for 2014, so there is no need for me to complain; however, with a little imagination, a month long sojourn through the streets of Paris or Provence can be lovingly recreated through literature, wine and, most importantly, food. Throughout May, I will experiment with various French wines, tapenades and cheeses – perhaps even a recipe – alongside each novel. The landscape might be different, but if you’re stuck in the house or in your cubicle, a literary treat or “expérience gastronomique” might be just the ticket. (The lovely picture below is from Martin Nikolaj’s Flickr Photostream on Creative Commons. It captures just the right amount of leisure and culture. Can’t you imagine yourself sitting on the ledge of that fountain, eating some fresh cherries? Me too!)

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The joys of writing by hand – do you want a letter?

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According to mental floss, the 4 benefits of writing by hand is that it’s better for learning, it makes you a better writer, it will prevent you from being distracted, and it keeps your brain sharp as you get older. Even at a basic level, it’s pretty and organic. More so, handwriting is fun to analyze; samples from literary greats like Charles Dickens and Jane Austen are readily available, and are often used to decorate high-end journal covers.

Sometimes, when at work, I’ll switch from the computer to paper and pencil for drafting letters and articles. The simple act of turning my chair away from the screen, and leaning over my desk like I used to in elementary school, is almost rejuvenating. It’s a great and welcome rest for my eyes, wrists and fingers. Using a mouse for eight hours a day is positively murderous on your hands! Sometimes I’ll move the mouse to the left side of my computer, just so my fingers don’t get cramped. And I don’t care how many “ergonomics” assessments I have; sitting in a desk chair, typing all day, is not healthy no matter how ya slice it. Sigh. Calm. Breathe. Om.

Upwards and onwards. When I first learned that Canada Post was jacking its stamp prices and eliminating door-to-door delivery in some neighbourhoods, it made me reconsider my perspective on mail and handwriting in general. With artful letters making a resurgence in some corners of the globe, I can’t help but wonder if this will force us to be more selective with our words when we communicate. When the postage costs are high, and most of our basic, everyday communications are covered by email, sitting down to write a beautiful, optimistic, descriptive letter for the recipient to enjoy is a commitment worth considering. No emoticons or abbreviations. No rants about work and money and parking tickets. A little more worrisome – no spell check! Can you imagine? I’ve learned to rely on Microsoft Word and, sadly, Google, that when I find myself without, I need a moment to think, remember back to grade school. “I” before “E” except after “C.” How droll. How 1983 to need a dictionary.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I have a great deal of unused stationery. Too much. So pretty to look at… but I don’t think that’s the point. The point is to write something, preferably coherent and insightful, and (eventually) stick it in the mail. What good is a box of empty greeting cards in a bureau drawer? Despite the price of stamps, I want to write and send letters, use all this stationery for which I had such high, artistic hopes.

If you would like one, feel free to send your mailing address to theliterarylollipop@hotmail.com! I can’t make any promises, but I’ll do my very best to make sure the spelling is tip-top.

 

 

My Croatian dictionary and other childhood fossils – the hard part of purging

Sometimes I’ll just stand in the doorway of my closet and shake my head, completely overwhelmed by the amount of clothing, DVDs, boxes and random childhood memorabilia cluttering the shelves. What am I going to do with it all, and how will I transport everything when I decide to move again? Keepsakes and dolls and shoes and clothes I was keeping, “just in case” I needed an uncomfortable skirt in an unflattering cut. My justification: maybe I could make alterations, and rip out the lining.

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In June of 2013, I declared war on my collection of books, which has steadily decreased over the past nine months. You’ll notice that the counter to the right is going down! Woot, woot! It’s a minor miracle, truly. Yes, there were moments of disinterest and zero progress, but I feel good every time I hand another bag of books to the help desk clerk at my local library – like yesterday. Another 15 books, disposed of. Slowly, I’m learning to be merciless with my time and space.
The hard part? Extending this logic to my other clutter. Over the holidays, I purged approximately 3 bags of old clothing, purses and bags, shoes. Indeed, it was a wonderful feeling when I finally brought everything to the Salvation Army donation drop-off, instead of letting it sit on the floor by my bed. So, it’s not necessarily a matter of my inability to let go of my stuff, but the amount of work involved is quite intimidating.

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My main hang-ups are the sentimental items: like the old Barbies still in their original packaging, because they were a tradition every Christmas, gifts from my dad; my old cabbage patch doll, Ian, which I’ve owned since I was very little; the stuffed animals I bought at Disney World when I visited for the first time; essays I wrote over the years; yearbooks from Kindergarten all the way to high school; picture books with inscriptions from my mother, who painstakingly chose each one; my mom’s Croatian dictionary, from when she first started dating my dad; the book of soccer statistics I bought for him one Christmas; the handmade Snow White Halloween costume from when I was 8. What am I going to do with all this stuff? Is it possible to minimize everything, edit it all down into one box, just the really, really important items?

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The end goal is to increase mobility. If and when I move, what I pack must be worth bringing, and a box of Barbies, unfortunately, doesn’t meet that criteria. And yet, I hate the idea of getting rid of them. What other options are there? Every time I attempt to answer this question I get caught in an endless loop of “Do it! But, I can’t…” The reasonable part of my brain knows that purging these sentimental childhood relics will not extinguish the memories they represent, but I refuse to put the notion into practice. Why? Dunno.

Like the merciless process developed to tackle Mount TBR, I need to look long and hard at the things I’ve accumulated over the years and keep only the items that I really love. Areas of much needed attention include, but are not limited to, art and sewing supplies, DVDs, CDs, old comic books, empty notebooks and journals, unused stationery, linens, excess clothing, and magazines. I’ve come a long way but there is more work to be done! I suppose the easiest way to do this is to just start, one shelf or drawer at a time, and create a strategy as I go along. As the book purge progresses, slowly but steadily, I’m beginning to feel more confident in my ability to do the same in other areas of my life.

Sigh, I need only remember that infamous quote: “You can’t take it with you.” Updates to come – stay tuned!

How do you organize and/or purge sentimental items? What specific actions did you take to organize your home and books? What worked best? At what point to do you let go of childhood memorabilia?

Victim: The Secret Tapes of Marilyn Monroe by Matthew Smith

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I’m going to start this review of Matthew Smith’s Victim with a quote from Sarah Churchwell’s The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe:

[In] 2003 Matthew Smith published Victim: The Secret Tapes of Marilyn Monroe. It is a memorable book in the Marilyn apocrypha because this latest ‘biography’ has gone the furthest toward presenting a tissue of conjecture, speculation and pure fiction as documentary fact; even Mailer admitted to the vagaries of his methodology. Smith, by contrast, blithely offers what is arguably the least factual of all of the Marilyn lives. This latest reproduction of a series of Marilyn reproductions is like an eighth-generation photocopy, an indistinct, grainy blur of a portrait. With the exception of less than twenty pages of newly revealed ‘transcripts’ of Marilyn Monroe allegedly speaking into a tape recorder just before she died, Smith’s book recycles not only twenty years of conspiracy theories, but also his own 1996 The Men Who Murdered Marilyn. (108-9)

Agreed. I had a difficult time taking this book seriously. First of all, as Churchwell rightly points out, five chapters of sketchy transcripts is not sufficient evidence to prove Smith’s problematic and roundabout hypothesis, which regurgitates a lot of disreputable conjecture. Second, it seemed ridiculous to call this book The Secret Tapes of Marilyn Monroe, when the first 180 pages were nothing but scattered medical reports and confusingly organized accounts of that fateful night in August 1962.

Published in 2003, Victim is already more than ten years old, but the content could’ve been from the 1970s or 1980s, considering the convoluted angle and logic. Even the pictures seemed inconsistent with the material, and ultimately irrelevant to the text. Although Churchwell’s book is equally dated (2004), her arguments are solidly presented, and extremely well organized. The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe is a fantastic book, a solid contribution to cultural and social studies. Victim, however, read like a cartoon, or a melodramatic infomercial.

If these tapes are legitimate, the version of Marilyn Monroe that they project is a unique hybrid of intelligence, determination, and sexual icon. I wasn’t quite sure how to digest the information, as it appears genuinely honest in some instances, yet cloyingly fake in others. For example, there’s a great quote about Arthur Miller’s ability to write screenplays. Monroe was, according to the tapes, unimpressed with the final cut of The Misfits.

I loved the little man and his quaint Jewishness. But the Jewish religion never got to me and I think Arthur didn’t care about it. Maybe he is a fine creative writer. I suppose so. Arthur didn’t know film and how to write for it. Misfits was not a great film because it wasn’t a great script. Gable, Monroe, Clift, Wallach, Huston. What more could you ask. I’ll tell you. There has to be a story as good as the talent who play it. You know why those religious theme pictures like Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments are so successful? Because the Bible is a good script. (206)

When I came across this excerpt, I couldn’t help but smile. If Monroe did in fact say this, she’s more perceptive and savvy than her contemporaries gave her credit for. She knowingly perpetuated the “dumb blonde” image, but behind closed doors, she was deeply intellectual and observant. (And, of course, she spent the end of her career trying to correct the “dumb blonde” assumption, as she was continued to be cast in screwball comedies.)

On the other hand, I’m skeptical of the legitimacy of Monroe’s words because of a point Smith makes himself throughout this book, on more than one occasion. He admits and argues how easy it is to splice tapes together, to form sentences and thoughts that weren’t originally intended. There were a few moments when Monroe’s statements felt orchestrated, conveniently sexualized or titillating. I could be completely wrong, but that is my interpretation – forever the pessimist.

Victim was a disappointing read, but in its defence, it helped me emerge from my reading funk, and the winter isolation I was forced to contend with for months on end. As I write this, Ottawa is receiving a fresh dusting of snow at the end of March, just as I was hoping to retire my boots for the season. But, for 311 pages, I was a visitor of Fifth Helena Drive, in an upscale neighbourhood of Los Angeles, among the palm trees and beaches, Hollywood elite, and a fifty-year old (potential murder) mystery. But – if you’re looking for thoughtful and interesting scholarly work, Churchwell is a better bet.

A few loaded questions for your consideration: Any thoughts on the death of Marilyn Monroe? Do you think she committed suicide, accidentally overdosed, or was she murdered?

How to write a novel while working full-time

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Happy dance! It only took three years, but I finally managed to finish my manuscript. Clocking in at 248 pages (a little over 90,000 words), the novel and process was slow, oftentimes painful, uncomfortable, and totally inconsistent. Having lived through the frustration to tell this story, I am here to say that it is possible to write and simultaneously pay your bills with a full-time job. The bad news is, the lesson from this adventure is pretty conclusive: it’s difficult. On the upside, however, it is possible and very fulfilling to finish a big project like this when you only have a few windows of free time in which to work. Sometimes you will overestimate your ability to produce, sometimes underestimate, but the goal is to keep writing, even if you only eke out 100 words a day.

Here are a few tips that helped me make it to the finish line with my sanity intact:

  1. Stop waiting for the perfect environment. For some reason, I thought only brilliant writing could occur at a beautiful, organized desk, so you could imagine my confusion when I realized that décor has nothing to do with productivity. A great desk, a notebook of hand-made paper, or an exquisite pen, will not, no matter how hard you believe it, make the words come any faster. Once I finally understood that my apartment looked how it was going to look, and that a virgin white, $1000 desk from Pier One Imports was simply out of the budget, progress could be made. Eventually, I just sat on my couch, laptop propped on my lap, and just started typing. To my surprise, environment and materials were almost inconsequential. If I could write a paragraph by hand, then I was happy. If I could type a paragraph, on a hot day, my hair sticking to my neck, then I was still happy. The tools blended into the background.
  2. Stop waiting for inspiration. This was a big hurdle for me. Like my obsession with that expensive desk, inspiration felt like an angelic cloud in the sky: completely untouchable. Every sentence had to be magnificent, had to invoke “beauty” and “truth.” Yeah, well, sometimes you just gotta put pen to paper and write. I couldn’t edit a blank page, right? It’s impossible for the third draft to come before the first. So, when I hesitated over a word, thought it “clunky” or “wrong,” I convinced myself to leave it and move on, go back and fix it later. Commit the idea to paper first, and then dissect its flaws. Otherwise, it’ll never get written.
  3. Allow slumps to pass. You will procrastinate. Accept it. You will feel lethargic for weeks, get distracted by work and family and holidays. Know that you will encounter moments of fatigue that will take you away from the page more often than you’d like. But, it’s important that you don’t become indifferent. When the motivation and enthusiasm returns, get back on the wagon, or bike, or whatever metaphor best describes your mental block. Tentatively approach the page, but continue the story as best you can until you gain momentum, and fix the seams later. Remember that you can always fix it later. The ending will creep up on you when you least expect.

Now, the hard part is editing the first draft, approaching agents, and getting published. I’ve already started the process, but it’s just as difficult. One mountain climbed… three more to go!

Add to my list of tips in the comments!

Manage Your Day-to-Day

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Subtitled “Build your routine, find your focus & sharpen your creative mind,” this 99U publication is just what the doctor ordered: a treatise on mental distraction, and how to beat it. Manage your Day-to-Day is a collection of essays from dozens of top productivity and lifestyle experts. Leo Babauta, Steven Pressfield, and Gretchen Rubin, even Seth Godin, offer their words of wisdom in this very well-organized resource.

One of the most impactful essays, “Using Social Media Mindfully” by Lori Deschene, is a fantastic analysis of why we use Facebook and Twitter to feel connected, only to experience the opposite. While waiting on the elevator this morning, with everyone scanning their iPhones, entranced by the glow of its screen, I couldn’t help but think of this quote:

Whatever our reasons for turning to social media, we have abundant opportunity to do it now that most of us carry powerful mini-computers in our purses or pockets. We’re always connected, always ready to discover, consume, and share information. If something’s trending, we want to know about it. If someone shares something, we want to see it. And if we ever step away from the stream for a while, we feel even more pressure to catch up on everyone once we’ve returned.

With one eye on our gadgets, we’re unable to give our full attention to who and what is in front of us – meaning that we miss out on the details of our lives, ironically, while responding to our fear of missing out. (134)

So that I would stop surfing on the internet to quell my boredom, as I tended to do most evenings, I cancelled my services in the fall of 2013. At first it was frustrating to be without a connection to immediate information like movie times, restaurant hours and phone numbers, banking, Expedia, etc. Eventually, though, I found my stride in a internet-free apartment. Although it proved difficult over the winter, as it seemed to add to the isolation factor, I felt confident in my ability to make do.

I also enjoyed “Banishing Multitasking from our Repertoire” by Christian Jarrett, and the valuable lessons it contained. Jarrett articulates perfectly how distraction can be a form of self-sabotage. For example, he explains how Jonathan Franzen, prolific writer extraordinaire,

takes the temptation of multitasking so seriously that, to write his best-selling novel Freedom, he locked himself away in a sparsely furnished office. As he told Time magazine, he went so far as to strip his vintage laptop of its wireless card and surgically destroy its Ethernet port with superglue and a saw. He then established a cocoon-like environment with earplugs and noise-cancelling headphones. (81)

Too much? Perhaps, but it got the job done. One of the main reasons I chose to disconnect my internet was to focus seriously on the completion of projects that matter to me. I can’t tell you how many precious hours were swallowed up by YouTube. It was a rabbit hole of entertainment, so maybe Franzen’s extreme tactics aren’t quite so… extreme.

Manage your Day-to-Day is more tool than text, worth reading multiple times. The advice, though extremely logical, is hard to remember and so very easy to forget.

How do you avoid distraction? Does the internet help or hinder your workflow?

The ramblings of an untethered mind in winter

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This happens every year. The hibernation months (December, January, and February) intensify as time goes by, and eventually a general malaise settles in, a tundra-induced melancholy. According to the local Ottawa news, this was the coldest winter in over 20 years. As a result, even the simplest of activities, like grocery shopping and waking up in the morning, became insurmountable tasks. It is around this time that I (and many other Canadians) usually start to lose my shit. March normally represents the light at the end of the freezing tunnel. Alas, we have not escaped yet. It continues to snow and storm; the grass is still covered in several inches of ice.

the lost girlOver the past month, I’ve started but momentarily abandoned several books: The Lost Girl by D.H. Lawrence; A Most Wanted Man by John le Carré; Making Ideas Happen by Soctt Belsky. I’ve slowly tackled Song of Solomon by Toni Morisson, which is undeniably beautiful, but no match for my gargantuan case of mental distraction. Nothing holds my attention. The only prose that sticks? Short essays. So, I’ve been reading Manage Your Day-to-Day, a 99U publication edited by Jocelyn K. Glei. Each essay is pithy, no longer than four pages, and printed in large font. Coincidentally, I’ve reached the portion on how to maintain one’s focus. So far, so good.making ideas happen

The hibernation months feel like limbo. It’s a period of waiting, preparing. We get the ball rolling on spring projects: volleyball in April, French class in May, and vacation in June. Bills are paid, clothes are bought, and passports are updated. But, now? Now, we must rest, be quiet… do nothing. Doing nothing is not especially enjoyable, but it’s necessary, no matter how bored or plagued by Seasonal Affective Disorder we become. Thus, we putter, try to read and stay active, eat healthy, avoid stressful situations at work, read magazines, see a play, and wait patiently for the sunshine to come back so it can bathe us in much-needed vitamin D. Until then, I read advice in newspaper columns and online, how to beat the winter blues. Apparently, I’m already doing what I can. The rest is mental.

So, at the moment, I battle distraction. First I’ll knit, then write a few chapters, which I’ll eventually discard for a magazine article, or possible short story brainstorming session. Sometimes I’ll edit, answer a few emails, go out to dinner with friends, and crave junk food incessantly. While I’m doing one thing, I’m thinking of another. When I switch tasks, I think of what I left unfinished.

How do you mitigate the quiet fatigue of winter? Does January and February feel lethargic, regardless of the country in which you live? For those of you who live overseas, or down south, how do you experience this season? Do your daily routines and reading habits change? If so, how?

Thoughts on Star by Pamela Anderson and my girly week

star pamela andersonWithout purposeful intention, I somehow fell into a smashingly girly week. Not only did I tackle Anderson’s novel, Star, as promised, but I perused Sephora for the better part of an hour, painted my nails, experimented with my makeup, and… drumroll please: watched the season finale of The Bachelor, lord help me. It has been at least eight years since I last watched an entire season, and holy guacamole, this was the lamest, douchiest, crappiest ending I’ve ever seen in my life. The live After the Final Rose episode was an absolute, awkward mess.

But, enough about The Bachelor. “Shower that one off,” as host Chris Harrison said. Indeed. Shower. Get rid of that icky, icky feeling. Peel your eyebrows off the ceiling. Put yourself together.

Back to the task at hand…

Star by Pamela Anderson is both surprising and typical. Small town, vegetarian girl in the big city, falls accidentally into the hands of people who can make her a glamazon cover model. The powerful editors at Mann Magazine, a fictional version of, I assume, the iconic Playboy Magazine, are determined turn the title character into the next Big Thing. As you might have guessed, the sex is astonishingly frequent and overblown – pun totally intended. Everyone is a love interest. The mechanic, the executive producer, the musician, the director, etc. Everyone is a potential sexual partner for the naïve Star. Even gender doesn’t discriminate. So, if you’re into that sort of thing, here’s nearly 300 pages of titillating narrative just for you.

However, to my surprise, the character, Star Wood Leigh, is actually very likable. She’s cute and oblivious, endearing and unaffected. She’s uncertain of herself and her beauty, doesn’t pick up on the intricacies of Hollywood social life, and most interestingly, is genuine. There are a few moments when the dialogue truly jumps off the page, and is made real by her sweet girl-next-door personality. She reminds me of the archetypal hippie from the 60s and 70s, whose beachy, footloose-and-fancy-free vibe leads her to all sorts of random success.

In the bigger picture, Star was more thoroughly developed than Hilary Duff’s Elixir. The characters are three-dimensional, real people with unique faults. Unfortunately, even Pam couldn’t out-shock Lauren Conrad’s L.A. Candy, which was distinctly more entertaining and, for lack of a better word, educational. While I dawdled through Star, a little bored by the sex-capades (I grew tired of the word “penetration” and all its synonyms), L.A.Candy topped the three because it was the most fun to read, with clearly articulated villains and quippy dialogue that made me laugh out loud.

Do you permanently abandon DNFs?

I’ve hit a reading wall. It was bound to happen. Too much time spent isolated with a book, hibernating away from the cold, wreaks havoc on my mental health. That, and I’ve completely lost patience for two books that I have absolutely no desire to finish: White Heat by M.J. McGrath and The Little Friend by Donna Tartt. What do you do when you’ve lost interest in a book? Do you put it back on your shelf to finish later? What if you never feel compelled to finish it? How long do you leave it on your shelf before letting it go? Should you just give it away? Here lies my dilemma.

the little friendI started The Little Friend last summer, loved it immediately, consumed 250 pages in record time, and then lost patience with the excessive amount of (seemingly unnecessary) description. Donna Tartt is a really intriguing writer, clearly talented and nuanced. But. But, the book has lost all its luster, its push. Each page is like pulling teeth. Too much narrative and not enough dialogue. There’s nothing left to grab me. This novel is nearly 600 pages, so it qualifies as a chunkster. Maybe this one needs more time.

white heatWhite Heat, on the other hand, is a more recent DNF. Began in February, I mildly enjoyed the first 100 pages, but I just couldn’t invest in the characters. Although murder mysteries are a favourite genre, the dialogue didn’t seem to flow well enough to maintain my curiosity. There were fleeting moments of interest, some nuggets of wisdom about the arctic, and some lovely description of icebergs and white landscapes, but not enough to maintain the plot.

Any advice? Have you read either of these books? Did they pick up?

Enron, a play by Lucy Prebble

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For whatever reason, even though I enjoy the theatre, I rarely see plays. Thankfully, though, when the mood strikes, the National Arts Centre (NAC) comes through with a surprisingly risky (and risqué) performance from British playwright Lucy Prebble, Enron. And, if you can get past the first fifteen minutes, which are, to say the very least, unexpectedly graphic, this play will entertain and educate from beginning to end. The Ottawa Citizen wasn’t especially impressed by Enron, unfortunately, but I think the excess for which it is criticized is at the core of its attraction and success in the UK. I loved the uber symbolic use of dinosaurs with glowing red eyes as capitalistic greed, and the overuse of actors as multiple characters, the grandiosity and overwhelming use of popular music, neon lights, and the ever-present running tape of stock prices atop the stage set.

I do, however, think that some viewers might have been offended by the delivery of the story. A woman left during intermission mumbling to herself: “Horrible, just horrible.” Needless to say, she did not return to watch the second act. Yes, there were more F bombs than an episode of The Osbournes, and yes, the story is almost too big for the stage, but Prebble’s ballsy attempt is what makes this play so much more than the delusion it’s illustrating.

If you enjoyed Margin Call, a great film starring Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons, which tries to investigate the financial “downturn” of 2008, and the politics behind corporate bankruptcies – whose head flies, and why – then I think you will approach Enron from a similar perspective, and take its “offensive” delivery with a grain of salt.

After a less than stellar experience watching Flashdance, The Musical, NAC programming has proven itself worthy once more of their lofty seat prices. Enron was totally worth $55.75. Every penny. Considering the financial context, I think this is saying a lot.

Enron is playing until March 1st.