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Hi, I'm Karen but I'm better known around the web as Sassymonkey. Most days you can find me on Twitter and at BlogHer.com where I am a Community Moderator. Find out more.

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Saturday
Jan252014

A Story Lately Told... But Not Fully Read

A Story Lately Told by Anjelica HustonDo you ever read a book and hit on a sentence or a paragragh early on that fills you with some measure of expectation? That was Anjelica Huston's autobiography, A Story Lately Told, for me. The prologue ends with this passage: 

"People often think that looking in the mirror is about narcissism. Children look at their reflection to see who they are. And they want to see what they can do with it, how plastic they can be, if they can touch their nose with their tongue, or what it looks like when they cross their eyes. There are lot of things they do in the mirror apart from just feasting on a sense of one's personal beauty." 

Since the prologue ended this way, I thought I'd be treated to at least some thoughtfulness as she recounted her life. I gave it a good six chapters (more than 50 pages) before I gave up. The book simply didn't flow. There would be a few paragraphs about this, a few more about that. Nothing to bridge them or to separate them. Just this happened and then that and this. The passage of time murky and the writing was dull and I just didn't care enough to finish. 

 

Monday
Jan202014

The Distraction Addiction

The Distraction Addiction by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang | Sassymonkeyreads.caI spend a lot of time plugged in. I work from home. Being online and on social media is what I do. But for the past several years I've spent a lot of time thinking about how I use the internet and technology. I tend to be curious about what other people are saying on the subject so I added Alex Soojung-Kim Pang's The Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul to my library list. (That is one heck of a long subtitle.)

Like with any book of this type, some parts of it really spoke to me while others really didn't. In the first chapters I quickly determined I am not addicted to technology. I like it a whole lot and it would be difficult to live without it, but if someone told me I couldn't use it for three days I'd be fine... as long as I also didn't have to work those three days.

I rarely take a 100% internet break. We have a vacation coming up where we'll be offline but it's not something we do a lot. We'll do what I call "Internet-Lite" days where I have no problem taking a break from email, work, or even Facebook, but I'll still look up a recipe online or text a friend. I miss having the ability to reach out to people when I got completely offline. I don't text a lot but the people I do text, I'd miss. While I could call them and talk on the phone... I kind of hate the phone. I used to spend a LOT of time on the phone every day for work (hours and hours) and it sort of killed it for me. Now if I can get text you instead of calling? I probably will.

While reading this book I found myself paying more attention to how I used the internet. Was I clicking on Facebook or Hootsuite because I really had to? Or because I was avoiding something I had to do? Did I find my attention wandering while reading a long article? Was I holding my breath as I checked my email? Was I using the internet as a means of distraction instead of writing because, like one person in the book, I had a voice in my head saying "OMG my writing sucks!"? Am I multitasking or switch-tasking?

I discovered when I was avoiding something on my to do list, which was usually something that involved writing, I'd bounce back and forth between tabs almost without realizing I was doing it. It was usually tabs where there could be updates, such as Twitter or Facebook or an admin panel, which might give me something I had to do instead of writing. I don't often hold my breath while checking my email during the day, but I am more likely to in the evening if I'm checking it on my phone because if there's something actionable I'll probably have to get up and go to my computer to deal with it. I switch-task more than I multitask, which is probably why I feel like it takes a long time to accomplish things.

Reading this helped me see where and when I have trouble focusing and how I was sometimes using social media as a crutch. It helped me see I often avoid writing because I think my writing will suck or not be "right." It's not the reason why I think it sucks, but it helps me avoid having to do it. It made me think about meditation, something I flirt with now and then (usually when I can't sleep or am dealing with insomnia) but have never made a regular practice of it.

I guess the best thing I can say about The Distraction Addiction is it made me think. Not everything in the book was of interest to me, but the things that did make me reconsider how I do things or reaffirmed some thoughts I'd had on my own. 

Friday
Nov222013

Adulting 

adulting kelly williams brownKelly Williams Brown's Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps is the new book to gift graduates, which they in turn will not read. So basically it's a new The Wealthy Barber. Unlike The Wealthy Barber, should said graduate actually crack the cover they might read this one and learn not to store tacos in their purse. I'm pretty sure Dave Chilton didn't mention that tip.

Williams Brown also offers much more than financial advice. For example, did you know that you should imagine your coworkers as having plastic, featureless doll crotches? Seeing as I am now married to someone who was my coworker I obviously failed that lesson. It also suggests that I picture rude people as jellyfish, though I have to say I tend to picture them more as kraken who are out to destroy the world.

And she's right - friends are valuable-ass people. They should not be confused with ass people - they are not valuable and you probably don't want to be friends with them.

Wednesday
Sep252013

Why I'm Not Outraged by David Gilmour

If you didn't know who David Gilmour was a couple of days ago, I'm guessing many of you have heard about him by now. He did what was supposed to be a light-hearted interview as part of a series in which authors give readers a tour of their bookshelves. (Let's be honest, it was also to promote his new Giller-nominated novel). It's not normally something that would cause much of a ruckus but then he went and said some things that upset a lot of people.

In the original article*, published by Hazlitt, Random House of Canada's "new flagship digital habitat," Gilmour revealed he really doesn't love any female authors -- except Virginia Woolf -- and as such he doesn't teach books authored by women in the course he offers at the University of Toronto:

"I’m not interested in teaching books by women. Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories. But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women."**

Image credit: Daniel Epstein

I can't say I was particularly upset by his statements. I was resigned. In my first job out of university I spent a lot of time looking at university course syllabi and it didn't take long to notice that unless a course was specifically geared towards women's fiction, female authors were underrepresented. To me, a male author who also happens to teach a university course saying that his classroom wasn't the place for female authors wasn't at all surprising. It was disappointing to be sure, but not a surprise. Nor is he the first author to express a lack of love for women authors. We all remember V.S. Naipul's comments on how there are no women authors whom he would consider his equal

Plenty of people were outraged though so Gilmour decided to do another interview, this time with the National Post. That interview quite simply amused the heck out of me. Aside from his claim that he's "the only guy in North America who teaches Truman Capote," there's the part where where he says his publisher was concerned about the reaction so that was the reason he was apologizing:

"He [the publisher] was concerned that this was going to affect the general climate around the book, that some women might not like the book if they think that that’s my policy. And that’s one of the reasons that I’m apologizing. Normally I actually wouldn’t."

How can you read that the the only reason he's apologizing is because of book sales and not be amused? I can't. Then he gets to the part where despite the fact that he can't love books by women he obviously likes women because the narrator of his new books is a woman. Woman are great! As long as they don't try to write their own stories! All the laughs, you guys. All the laughs.

So, yes I'm bemused. I'm resigned. But I'm not surprised or outraged because men saying women's writing and stories are not good enough is not new. It's just not. Our society says it all the time and when it comes literature it starts very, very early.

Think about how many times you've seen articles or hear people bemoaning the lack of books for boys. Or how many times you've heard about a young boy saying he can't read a specific book because, "It's a girl book." We've heard that books with strong female characters are emasculating. We've talked about how an author's gender may impact their cover. We continue to buy into the idea gendered reading is natural, when books are for readers, not for a particular gender.

Gilmour, in and of himself, isn't the problem. The problem is so very much larger than him. Don't get me wrong -- it's always disappointing to hear a Governor General's Literary Award winner, Giller nominee, and university lecturer can't find love for or see the value in teaching women-authored works. Damned disappointing. But shock? Outrage? For that to happen it would have to be something I don't see on a regular basis and sadly that is not the case.

Maybe someday I'll read an interview with someone like Gilmour and get angry because that's not how things are done in the world. But today? That's not the world we live in.

* In response to Gilmour's suggestion in other publications that his comments were taken out of context, Hazlitt has released the full interview transcript. I don't personally think it puts him a better light or really does him any favours.

** I know I'm not even addressing the Chinese authors remark. That's a whole other issue.

Friday
Sep062013

Ruthless Weeding

It seems we keep gathering more STUFF. I'm not really sure how it happens. It sneaks up on us. We don't need all of these things. It's been bothering me and since I know I'm probably the prime culprit when it comes to all of this, I'm waging war on clutter.

I weeded my bookshelves. When we moved in not quite three years ago, we had space on our bookshelves. They quickly got fuller and fuller. We started an overflow stack. And then another overflow stack. The books had multiplied like gremlins that someone spilled water on.

I weed rather regularly but I was serious about it this time. Did I really want to read this book? Or was it there because someone gave it to me? My tastes have changed a lot in the last eight years of book blogging. I really, really didn't need most of those boots. I didn't have to keep all those review copies I had never requested. Not every book is a precious object. I pulled stacks and stacks of books off my shelves. I was ruthless. When Lee got home he did the same with his books.

In the end, we had enough in the piles on the floor to have hosted our own book sale. We didn't. Our stacks are slowly making their way to the library as donations, a few bags at a time. They'll find new homes and they library will get a bit of money. It's a win for everyone.

I still have a very healthy to be read pile. It's just no longer an unsurmountable mountain. The best part is I know the pile contains books I really want to read. And once again there are spaces on the shelves and we have room to grow.

I feel lighter - like I can breathe without worrying about a mountain of books falling on top me. 

Thursday
Aug292013

Christine Granville: The Spy Who Loved

The Spy Who Loved The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville Clare MulleyIs there a difference between fact and truth? I thought about that a lot as I read Clare Mulley's The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville. When one reads about spies I feel like fact and truth are moving targets. 

It's a fact that Christine Granville was a British spy in WWII. But it's also not a truth as Christine Granville was a person made into existence. She wasn't born with that name. It was chosen after she became a spy.

I'm getting ahead of myself.

Christine Granville, born Maria Krystyna Janina Starbek, was a Polish patriot, a beauty queen, half-Jewish, a displaced person, a British spy, and a war hero. She was raised in wealth and expected to become a good society wife. She was never very good at doing what other people expect her to do.

She got married and then divorced. Then she got married again. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939 her (second) husband had a diplomatic posting in Ethiopia. Their government was gone. His job was gone. But they could not return home to Poland. Unable to sit idly, she offered her services to the British government. They accepted them… eventually. It took some time (and some good referrals from friends) before they put her to work. It wasn't the only time they'd hesitate about working with her.

During the course of the war she'd help smuggle people and documents out of Poland. She'd gather information for the British in Cairo. She saved lives in France. By the end of the war she'd be more decorated than many men.

Christine thrived on the adventure and the inherent risk of her missions. She did not do well when she had to be idle and she was not designed for office work. She was an unconventional woman and the world was not kind to unconventional women. Officials did not like working with her. They found her difficult.

She lived big and she loved to tell big stories. But how many of them were truth? Did Christine really kill someone with her favourite knife? There are no facts that support it… but it's possible. It's also possible she just enjoyed telling the story and have people think that she did. Same with her alleged affair with Ian Fleming.

She inspired great loyalty among her friends and lovers. (One lover even named one of his daughters Christine, and yes his wife knew of the affair.) Part of the reason it's so hard to sort the facts and truth from the myth is that her lovers (of which there were many) banded together to form a sort of approval board. Nothing about Christine would be published unless they gave their approval and it was many years after her death before they approved anything at all.

Christine Granville was many different people throughout out her life. I can't help but wonder who she was to herself. Was she the beauty queen? The spy? The lover? Where was her own line between truth and fact?

Monday
Jun172013

The Astronaut Wives Club 

the astronaut wives club lily koppelThere are a few books every year that I really look forward to. The award for that book this summer goes to Lily Koppel's The Astronaut Wives Club. I saw it in the Hachette catalogue a few months back and I fell in love. I love the cover. I loved the concept. I generally love when women's stories are told but I was especially interested in this one.

I haven't read a whole lot about the space program. A professor (who taught a totally unrelated topic) introduced me to The Right Stuff -- both the movie and the book. A few years later I'd fill a short-term temp position at the Canadian Space Agency, which immediately followed and was related to Chris Hadfield's first space walk. (This is an all the more amazing thing due to my almost complete and total lack of French.) I didn't meet him but I did get to go on a tour of CSA and see things that not everyone sees. There was no other word for it other than "cool".

I wouldn't say I know much about space, the Canadian space program, or NASA but I dabble a bit here and there. As fascinating as space can be (and it CAN be) I've always been more interested in the people. When we're talking about the early years of NASA, I especially find the dichotomy between the public image of the astronauts and their families and their private lives to be fascinating. There were huge efforts made to make them appear to be perfect, and given the backdrop of the Cold War I understand it. But the astronauts weren't perfect... nor were their wives.

The astrnaut wives appeared to be perfect -- Stepford even -- but beneath the pastel dresses and the perfect hairstyles they were something far better than perfect -- they were real women. They were women put in extraordinary circumstances. Imagine it was your partner being placed into a rocket that had a sketchy track record and being flung up into the sky. Imagine being married to the person who was going to be the first American to orbit the earth. Imagine your spouse being one of three people who would be the first humans to orbit the moon and knowing that no one was really sure they'd make it back from the far side of the moon. Now imagine doing it with the press camped on your front lawn, peaking through your windows and following your every move -- your every facial expression -- with their cameras poised to record it all during what they called the Death Watch.

Add into that the fact that your husband was rarely home. When he was home you weren't supposed to add stress to his life. You had to deal with things on your own. Sick kids? Deal with it. Building a house? Have fun! Something broken? Fix it or find someone to fix it.

We haven't even gotten to what those husbands may or may not have been doing while they were at the Cape. Ah yes, the other women. The Cape Cookies. You didn't want to know, they didn't want you to know and if you did you might have to do something about it. Divorce wasn't an option for anyone who seriously wanted to go into space. NASA just simply wasn't down with that. Their astronauts and their families had to be more American than apple pie and that left no room for divorce.

The wives, thank goodness, had each other. The Original Seven, The Next Nine, The Fourteen, The Nineteen... they may not have all gotten along and they not have liked each other all the time but they knew how to band together when they needed to. With just a phone call people would be there with drinks and food. They'd be there to help, to cry, to let you lean on them. They'd be there for you during the Death Watch and they'd celebrate with champagne at the end of the succesful mission.

Lili Koppel's The Astronaut Wives Club gives you a peek at the extraordinary circumstances through which these women attempted to live their lives. They weren't always happy times and very few of the marriages of the early astronauts would last. Some of the women went on to find their happy endings, others did not, but they got through the NASA years with a little bit of help from their friends.

Thursday
May232013

His Majesty's Hope: A Maggie Hope Mystery By Susan Elia MacNeal

his majesty's hope maggie hope mystery susan elis macnealDear Maggie, 

Oh Maggie, Maggie, Maggie. You've been on quite the roller coaster, haven't you? You were just minding your own business, typing away for Prime Minister Churchill and doing a darned good job of it. Ok, fine. You were bored but aside from that life was just fine. You had a house in London, you were doing good work and you had fabulous friends. I'm especially fond of David. Then you got mixed up in codes and schemes and one of your best friends tried to kill the Prime Minister and you helped diffuse a bomb. Oh, and you found out your father was alive even though you'd been told he was dead your whole life.

Then you go to spy school and that doesn't go swimmingly, which I totally understand as someone who never did any better than bronze in the Canada Fitness Test. (Fact: While I would likely do better at some things today, I'd be worse at others and I suspect I'd only earn the dreaded "participation badge". *shudder*) But Frain and Churchill understood just how valuable you really were and placed you in the royal household. You tutored Lilibeth in math, taught her codes, and stumbled into a few mysteries. You learned that you still have a lot to learn about this whole secret agent thing and letting your personal feelings get in the way. You also learned that you have power when you are in the field and how to use it when someone is being an ass to you. You stopped a plot to kidnap a member of the royal family in a way that involved escaping from a u-boat. Well done you! Unfortunately it followed by the news that your father is not the only one to come back from the supposed dead and hey, your mother is alive! And she's not a very good person. 

You noticed I omitted your love life because well, I was pretty gutted about John. Not as much as you, of course, but still gutted. I'm sure Hugh seemed like a really swell guy and I thought you guys worked really well together professionally but I was dubious about the romantic aspect of things. You see, I knew things that you didn't know. Things that you found out in this book and well, I have to say that we were both surprised on some points. Hugh has some growing up to do and I'm really quite concerned about some of the choices I think he's making. (I may be wrong... but if I'm not you want to run in the other direction Maggie. Fast.) And John... I don't even know what to say about John at this point. He broke my heart right along with yours and I don't blame you at all for going on a gin bender. I would too.

As for your family... I kind of want to smack your dad. Official Secrets Acts be damned, he needs to sit down and have a decent conversation with you. About everything. (You know, some day people will be released from the Official Secrets Act and will tell their stories and we will hold you all in awe.) Your mother is a real piece of work. I say that somewhat admiringly. She's certainly not a good person but you have to admire her survival instinct. And she has great kids. Yes, kids. Plural. You have a sister! Elise! She's fabulous. I'm so glad you became friends but I'm so sorry you didn't get to tell Elise about your connection to each other. Or talk to her about it all because of everything that happened.

Speaking of everything that happened... you need to listen to Frain, Maggie. Don't argue. He's right. I understand why you don't want to listen to him, I really do. It's a physical reminder of everything. It's everything you didn't know that you felt you should have and how everything can go wrong. I know it hurts and I know you are taking comfort in the physical pain because it feels right. But it has go Maggie. Listen to Frain. I know you are mad at him the same way you are mad at everyone and rightfully so but he's still right. (And isn't that annoying?)

Please give my love to David. He's also had quite the year. I hope he's recovering nicely and that he's very happy with his situation.

PS. I don't know if you are aware but Mrs. Churchill likes you very much and worries about you. So does the Prime Minister, in his own way.

----- 

Disclosure: I received an ARC of His Majesty's Hope from Susan Elia MacNeal's publicist. All opinions here are my own and I was not compensated for this review. I really do love Maggie and I'll be buying my own copy of His Majesty's Hope soon because the ARC does not have the right cover and OMG I love the covers for these books so that simply will not do.

Friday
Apr262013

Princess Elizabeth's Spy

princess elizabeth's spy susan elia macneal maggie hopeWe've already established that with Mr. Churchill's Secretary Susan Elia MacNeal hit my personal happy spots. In creating the Maggie Hope mysteries series she created my own personal brand of literary crack. WWII. London. Spies. Smart women. Those things all make me a happy reader. When I finished Mr. Churchill's Secretary I immediately gobbled down Princess Elizabeth's Spy.

I didn't write about it at the time because I wasn't really sure what to say. I loved it but there was something else -- something more -- I wanted to say but I wasn't really sure what it was. I've had a copy of His Majesty's Hope for awhile but before I read it wanted to reread Princess Elizabeth's Spy because there are things in there that are important to the third book and some of those things were a bit hazy. When I reread Princess Elizabeth's Spy this week I hit upon what that feeling of something more was. 
Relief. 
I love Maggie Hope. She's smart. She's knows it. She's not afraid of it. She's not afraid of much, actually. And while she faltered a bit in Mr. Churchill's Secretary it would be easy to think that it was because of her inexperience, which is was, and that she'd get over it. I was worried that once she trained up a bit she'd hit a spot where I might not like her quite so much. I was concerned that she'd become too perfect - a kind of Mary Poppins meets Mary Sue meets Nancy Drew. 
Thank goodness that didn't happen. Maggie Hope did not suddenly become perfect. She made mistakes -- big ones. Costly ones, even. She lets her opinions of people get in the way of seeing what is happening around her. She's remains human -- an exceptionally smart human but human all the same. 
I would like to thank the author for that. I'd also like to thank her for her novelization of the royal family in this book. "You got him right in the n-n-n-naughty bits" and "if it doesn't have fur and fart, you don't like it" are completing for my favourite lines in the novel. Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother (who was not The Queen Mother at the time but that's how I shall always think of her in my head) almost always made me laugh. Lilibeth and Margaret have a fabulous sisterly relationship, adept at pushing each other's buttons as sisters should be. Even the corgis were perfectly misbehaved. 
There are other things I'd like to talk about but won't because SPOILERS. Let's just say there are a few gut punches in this one. Some stuff at the end made me gasp a wee bit and I kind of missed the significance of a certain name the first time around so I'm really happy I reread it before starting His Majesty's Hope

 

 

Monday
Apr222013

Joseph Anton 

joseph anton salman rushdie There are time when you inhabit a book and there are times when a book inhabits you. Salman Rushdie's Joseph Anton was a little bit of both for me. All last week I'd go to sleep with what I'd read going around in circles in my mind. That was far preferable to the events of last week being there. I don't really know how to explain it but there was something comforting about reading Joseph Anton last week. I've never read Rushdie's books and I didn't really know what to expect when I started his autobiography.

I have a suspicion that you read his novels them much the same way you read this book -- you read them slowly. You read them thoughtfully. And at times you read them deeply. It was a book that I had to focus on and pay attention to. I couldn't skim. I couldn't read it with one eye on the news. No, in order to read this I had to shut everything off and focus.

There was a certain amount of relief in that.

There was also an amount of relief in knowing that someone was personally threatened, who lived every day with a threat hanging over his head, came out ok on the other side. I needed that last week.

If you read reviews you'll read plenty about how Rushdie has an ego larger than Greenland. That he thinks very well of himself and that he name drops. You'll read how he doesn't apologize even though other people think he should. You'll read that he's arrogant and often not very kind to others in his narrative.

It's true. He is egotistical and arrogant. He's not always kind. He doesn't apologize for writing a novel that made many people angry. He stands by his claim that it was never his intention for that to happen. Do I personally believe him? For the most part, yes. I think every novelist knows that some people will not like their book. I think there are novels that are written with the knowledge that they may make people angry. I don't think any novelist expects to be subjected to a fatwa or strives to live their life under constant protection and threat. No apology he could have made -- had he wanted to, which he did not and I understand that -- would have made it go away. It wouldn't have made it better. It may have made some of his critics feel better for a moment, but overall I doubt it would have changed much.

People also don't like that he wrote the biography in the third-person but I also understand why he did that. Those years of his life... he wasn't allowed to be him. He could not be called by his own name. He had to choose another name and he chose Joseph Anton. It was then shortened to Joe. His protectors called him Joe. His friends called him Joe. He wasn't Salman, not even in his own home. He was not Joe and Joe was not him. Joe was a character he was forced to play. Third-person makes sense to me.

Salman Rushdie isn't always likeable. That's ok, too. I didn't read Joseph Anton to like him. I read it because I didn't really know much about the The Satanic Verses and why everything happened. I was too young when the fatwa was pronounced to really understand it. I didn't really know what it meant. I do now.