Friday, September 27, 2019

POISON

Review of POISON by SARAH PINBOROUGH
(first in the TALES FROM THE KINGDOMS series)

POISON markets itself as a dark (“wicked”) fairytale retelling, and that it is. Despite the elegant hardcover packaging, this is no sweet story twist for younger readers. Though twisted motivations are hardly new in fairy tales, even the kiddy versions, you’ll find a bit more gore and lust in this one.

POISON retells “Snow White.” The bones of the story feel very familiar: a cruel stepmother queen, a beautiful young princess, seven dwarf friends. However, Snow White has a wild streak and her stepmother’s hatred has an unexpected root cause. There’s a dark happily-ever-after of sorts, but really only for one person and likely not the one you expect.

Despite being such a short book, Pinborough brings a familiar story to life in a new twist with vivid, sensual writing and intriguing, imperfect characters.

Friday, September 20, 2019

DAILY LIFE IN VICTORIAN ENGLAND


Review of DAILY LIFE IN VICTORIAN ENGLAND by SALLY MITCHELL

I’ve been reading dozens of books about and written during the Victorian era as research for a series of short stories that I’m writing. A lot of what I’m reading would only appeal to the researcher or hardcore Victorian era aficionado. However, with some of them, such as DAILY LIFE IN VICTORIAN ENGLAND, I see a mass appeal for anyone interested in learning a little more about this era.

The other Victorian era books that I’ve reviewed so far organized their content by either room or time of day. This one is a bit more classically organized, with chapters such as “A Brief History,” “House, Food, and Clothes,” “Education,” and “Victorian Morality.” The logic is natural and easy to follow with strong, accessible writing as well as interesting excerpts from era material. I especially liked the entry from Queen Victoria’s diary the day her uncle died. She was young, but, of course, groomed for this role all her life, and she sounds admirably mature for any age but especially her mere eighteen years.

This is the third book about the Victorian era that I’ve reviewed. Unless you have a particular interest in the subject matter, I think you’ll be content reading any one of them. This one I found more traditionally organized, but most distinctive for the excerpts the author chose to include as well as a few less common topics, tangents, and unexpected facts.
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Friday, September 13, 2019

The Artist’s Way Program: Week 5


The Artist’s Way Program: Week 5, Recovering a Sense of Possibility

This is a series of blog posts following my experiences doing Julia Cameron’s 12-week Artist’s Way program. If this series is new to you, feel free to read the original book review first.

Week 5 focuses on “recovering a sense of possibility.” Cameron discusses this concept of “being blocked” repeatedly, which I interpret as holding yourself back from what you really want out of some type of fear. This week has us examining those fears. For the first four weeks, we spent a lot of time exploring our interests: activities we miss, activities we would like to try. Week 5 starts asking hard questions about why we aren’t doing those things then. From there, Cameron pushes you to assess whether or not yours reasons are valid. Tying into mindfulness again, she also urges against all-or-nothing thinking. So you won’t be an Olympic gymnast. Doesn’t mean you can’t take a few beginner gymnastics classes (or yoga or Pilates if you need something gentler). Find small ways you can introduce ambitious activities or interests. For that matter, think of it as exploration, not mastery.

Cameron also introduces what she calls the “virtue trap,” to which I could relate. To paraphrase her description, the virtue trap is the sense that we become noble martyrs by sacrificing our creative yearnings for the more practical responsibilities in life. We feel virtuous for this sacrifice, but Cameron argues it is entirely unnecessary. By allowing ourselves to pursue our creative yearnings, especially in small, manageable increments, we will likely become happier and more relaxed, which makes practical responsibilities easier to handle, anyway. There can be an up-front cost: telling your partner/children/friends you need some time for yourself. However, I subscribe to the old adage that you can’t take care of others until you take care of yourself.

I also resonated with Cameron’s discussion of belief. She claims most of us are suspicious of belief, more specifically hope. It’s too out of our control. Hope feels scary and dangerous. What if we let ourselves hope and dream and believe, only to be massively disappointed? Cameron argues that hope can be empowering. That it’s a strength, rather than the naïve weakness it’s sometimes labelled.

This week had more fill-in-the-blank exercises and I always enjoy those. I find surprises sometimes pop up in my answers. I liked the virtue trap quiz that encourages analysis of how you might fall into this trap’s fallacy as well as the “I wish” list that simply has you finish that sentence about twenty times.  

I'm starting to like the morning pages a little. I’m not a total convert, but I don’t dislike them anymore. On the other hand, I love my artist date every week and have no doubt that will be a continuing tradition for me. This week I organized my recipes. That may not sound like creative fun to most, but I’m one of those oddballs who loves organizing, listing, tidying, planning. Since discovering I’m Celiac, I’ve been exploring gluten-free cooking and baking and I wanted to consolidate my recipes in one place, especially because I often make my own adjustments to the original. So now, after trying a new recipe and deciding I like it, I type it up using the same format for all, make my own adjustments and list where the original is from, note any variations I want to try, add a photo from when I made it if I took one, and add approximate nutrition facts from a helpful calculation tool I found online. All the information I want how I want it and consolidated in one place!

As I mentioned in my original review, one of my biggest doubts about trying this program is that it’s pitched as a program to help “unblock blocked creatives” and I never considered myself blocked in the first place. This week has you ask yourself what the “payoff” is in staying blocked. That felt less relevant to me, but I do think I’ve been “blocked” in other non-writing areas, convinced I only had enough time in the day to pursue that one creative thing. The payoff for me has mostly been staying in my comfort zone. I’m very much a creature of habit and will often opt for same over new even if new is clearly better. Trying anything new involves taking a risk and possibly failing at something. Since the program is very much about mindful self-reflection, I’ve been working on internalizing the mantra that failure is merely an integral part of success. Sometimes failure is proof of trying.
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Friday, September 6, 2019

THE FIRST YEAR: CELIAC DISEASE


Review of THE FIRST YEAR: CELIAC DISEASE AND LIVING GLUTEN-FREE: AN ESSENTIAL GUIDE FOR THE NEWLY DIAGNOSED by JULES E. DOWLER SHEPARD

Back in May 2018, I discovered I have Celiac disease. This was huge. I could do posts and posts about my experience; I could fill another entire blog about it. I may at some point start blogging about that experience, but for now I want to stick to book reviews and author interviews. However, don’t be surprised when some reviews of gluten-free cookbooks and the odd Celiac experience memoir start popping in among my already eclectic book reviews.

To share a brief summary of my experience, I have had health issues my entire life: inexplicable unresolvable health issues, the two biggest being a mysteriously ineffective immune system and a lifetime of nutrition deficiencies regardless of how well I ate or what supplements I took. Not counting a few outliers, most of my 30+ Celiac symptoms are really secondary symptoms of these two things: poor nutrient absorption and a terrible immune system. As for the “outliers,” from the moment I could talk I complained about stomach pain. My mother took me to every specialist she could find, they tested me for every food allergy they could (gluten wasn’t on people’s radar back then), and ultimately doctors started telling me the pain was in my head: the stomach aches are stress, I get sick all the time because of stress, just calm down. To make a long story short, in May 2018 I discovered that gluten is the source of all my issues. I went gluten-free—and while it has been intensely difficult and emotional in some ways—I feel better than I have my entire life, better than I knew human beings could feel.

That all said, I’m way late to reading this book! As the title implies, this book is designed for newly diagnosed Celiacs to help guide them through their first tough year and the often painful learning curve. The book breaks down topics by time frame—one month in, two months in, etc, —but I didn’t start this book until nine months after my diagnosis. I would love to say it’s because I didn’t know this book existed, but in truth it was some combination of lazy, busy, and underestimating how helpful the book would be for me. Once I started reading it, I definitely wanted to kick myself for not purchasing it the moment I came home from the doctor in May 2018.  

This book could have saved me a lot of trouble from learning things the hard way. Some of the issues Celiacs encounter include: concisely explaining the disease and your complicated individual-specific symptoms, eating out at restaurants or in other social settings, battling standard food allergy misconceptions and prejudice (and Celiac disease is technically an autoimmune disorder rather than a food allergy, but I and others are often taught to just say “food allergy” to help clarify that we cannot eat gluten), reading and researching labels, reacting to processed food labelled “gluten-free” either because of cross contamination or because some Celiacs can react to levels of gluten lower than what the US requires for products to be labelled “gluten-free,” learning to shop and cook and eat and entirely think about food differently, cross contamination in shared kitchens, secondary health issues, and then, of course, handling symptoms when you do “get glutened.”

Aside from specific advice or tips, the book is immensely valuable as emotional support for those newly diagnosed. Your struggle can feel very lonely and like those around you don’t understand. Reading about other people battling the same difficult-to-explain issues is extremely validating. Take the following quote: “The first few times I went grocery shopping were devasting. I remember standing in the aisles, crying.” It’s a quote from the book, but I could have written it myself. I didn’t actually cry, but I do recall halting my cart, welling up, and taking a moment to collect myself. It’s overwhelming going overnight from toss-anything-you-want-into-the-cart to read-every-single-label, research-products-on-phone, and can’t-eat-old-favorites. For the first few visits, grocery shopping took me 1-2 hours spent in the store, figuring out what I can and can’t eat now and growingly increasingly discouraged by the long list of “no.”  

If you’re a self-reliant person, it can be all too easy to think you don’t “need” a book like this, but I would highly recommend it to every newly diagnosed Celiac. In addition to the insight and advice about managing your condition, the emotional support is invaluable.