Archive for the ‘Short Essays’ Category

Are we all laughing at the same thing?

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

Somewhere in the wilds of the internet, I clicked through to the comedy sketch State Home for Manic Pixie Dream Girls. It’s fairly funny, in my opinion, although there’s a clangingly callous throwaway joke at the end that ruins it for me. But I was slightly irked by its underlying assumption that the Manic Pixie Dream Girl character is the main thing to be mocked: stupid MPDGs, who start out so refreshing and redemptive, until men weary of their whimsy. Hang on a second. Shouldn’t the mockery be aimed at the creators of the MPDG? There’s a brief flash of this in the State Home video, but it goes unexplored.

I was going to write a post about this until I realized that Feminist Frequency has already done it! It’s a bit more serious than I’d have been, but it’s all there. Take it away, FF!

If you want a transcript of the video, it’s here. And there’s some interesting conversation to be had in the comments, too. And now I’m off to read more about Feminist Frequency. Oh, the internets.

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Writing a book is not like having a baby

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

That’s stating the obvious, isn’t it? Yet for the last few weeks, I’ve noticed a lot of references to “labour” and “birth”, to “midwives” and “newborns” – and these people aren’t talking about tiny humans.

This complaint may sound grumpy and petty; it’s not intended that way. I’m not disparaging the thousands of hours of hard work that go into either enterprise. Having chosen to engage in both, it’s only reasonable that I also love them both. But when we overuse this analogy, it deflates the delicate, consuming, enormously frustrating, and endlessly rewarding disciplines of both writing and child-rearing.

Writing is both easier and more difficult than having a baby because:

1. It fits into your schedule. If you don’t create time to write, you don’t write! (Try putting your colicky infant on hold that way…)

2. It hones skills you were already good at. I’m a voracious reader and I excelled in English all through school – a thoroughly typical profile for a writer. The things you learn daily as a writer tend to be subtle and they make you a slightly better craftsman in small but satisfying ways. The first diaper I ever changed, though? On my newborn son’s tiny, flailing, slippery bum, while I was stunned by opiates, full of stitches, and tethered to an IV pole. Why hello, learning curve.

3. Babies grow, develop, and become ever-more-interesting individuals. Your published book will always contain that typo you missed on p. 187.

4. A published book never grows less beautiful. Children become adolescents.

5. When writing, you are the boss. When parenting, you are a teacher/social worker/butler/wallet.

6. When writing, I am recognizably and consistently myself. When parenting, I am sometimes my own enemy, but more often I feel inspired to be a better human being.

What do you think of the book/baby analogy? Did I miss anything?

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Faster, Higher, Stronger

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

So, the Olympics. As cynical as we’ve become about doping, fiscal and political scandals in host cities, and the sheer pomp of the Games, the athletic performances themselves are truly stirring, skin-prickling stuff. And the Olympics hold a special kind of interest in my family because my uncle, Cheah Tong Kim, represented his country, Malaysia, in swimming at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Over the past few days, watching highlights from the London Games got me thinking back to the birth of the modern Olympics. I knew they were a late-Victorian inspiration that resulted in the 1896 Games in Athens. But, as it turns out, there’s a lot I didn’t know about the inspiration behind the modern Olympic Games.

Before the Victorian era, there was a modern attempt to recreate the Olympic Games: the L’Olympiade de la République, which was held for 3 years in revolutionary France (1789, remember?). It makes sense: egalitarianism, a chance to compete physically, rather than socially or economically – it was a perfect kind of celebratory contest for revolutionary times.

Then came a lapse of about 60 years, which also makes sense: Victorian intellectuals greatly admired classical literature and culture, and it’s logical that they wanted to emulate the famous athletic contests of the ancients. But the French Revolution scared the pants off Western European monarchies, so there had to be a lapse of a few generations between the L’Olympiade de la République and any safe imitation.

So it wasn’t until 1850 that an English surgeon called William Penny Brookes established an Olympic Games in Wenlock, Shropshire. According to wikipedia, his aim was the “moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood of Wenlock and especially of the working classes” (italics mine). That sort of paternalistic do-gooding couldn’t really be more Victorian.

There were other English Olympics: in Liverpool, for a few years in the 1860s. One at the Crystal Palace in London in 1860. But it was the Wenlock Olympics that really became a strong annual tradition. And in 1890, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the creator of the modern Olympic Games, visited Wenlock and was inspired to establish the International Olympic Committee. Extraordinary, isn’t it?

How do you like the sound of Wenlock 2050, on the two-hundredth anniversary of their first Olympic Games?

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Grit and pathos

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

Hello, friends. On Friday, I was over at Nineteenteen, blogging about the history of the London Foundling Hospital – essentially the first charity orphanage in a huge city rife with abandoned babies and homeless children. This is, at first glance, an eighteenth-century story: Thomas Coram, who fought to create the Foundling Hospital, did so in 1739. Its major patrons, composer George Frideric Handel and artist William Hogarth, were eighteenth-century figures. So what does this have to do with the Victorian era?

Dickens, of course. (Whenever in doubt, the answer is Dickens. Fact.) For a time, Dickens lived on Doughty Street in Bloomsbury, just a couple of minutes’ walk from the Foundling Hospital. We know that Dickens was a frenetic walker and a fervent student of London life, in all its grit and intensity. He would definitely have noticed the daily dramas of the Foundling Hospital, and some of this found its way into his novels. For example, in Little Dorrit, the Meagle family adopts their servant Tattycoram from the Hospital. She’s a fierce and frustrated girl, Tattycoram. And have you noticed her name? The “coram” part is borrowed from Captain Thomas Coram, of course, the founder of the Hospital. Tattycoram is right to be impatient, because she’ll always be identified with the Foundling Hospital. Her (lack of) social status is right there in her name.

There’s also the story of Oliver Twist, with Oliver’s childhood in a poorhouse – not the Foundling Hospital, but another kind of holding place for destitute children. (If you haven’t read Oliver Twist, you may still know the famous scene of Oliver asking for more gruel.) Inspired by his own experience of child labour, Dickens attacks his society’s treatment of the poor – especially poor children. The children of the Foundling Hospital would have been a daily reminder and a constant prodding of his own traumatic memories.

I think what’s interesting here is the way history bleeds untidily from period to period. Although we can think, “Foundling Hospital, Thomas Coram, Handel, Hogarth – yep, all eighteenth century”, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that institutions and problems endure. And the tragedies that Coram sought to prevent – the abandoned and homeless and dying children of London in the 1730s – continued through the Victoria era.

What do you think? Are there places or things you associate with one era which, in fact, belong to others as well?

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A women’s detective agency? Why?

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012

Hello, friends! I’m guest-blogging this week at Bites, where Donna asked me why I chose to write about a women’s detective agency in Victorian London. The short answer? I love bright and shiny anachronisms. The longer answer is here.

And did you know that this coming week, May 5 – May 12, is Canadian Children’s Book Week? In celebration of children’s books, my friends at Young Kingston have organized a group signing at Novel Idea Books on Sunday, May 6. I’ll be there from 3 to 4 with the award-winning Ann-Maureen Owens. Hope to see you there!

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Your life, 150 years ago

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

Hello, friends! I’m guest-blogging this week over at Turn the Page where, to mark International Women’s Day (March 8), Amy asked me to write about women in Victorian times. Here goes:

It’s 1862. You’re a sixteen-year-old girl. What are your choices like in Victorian England? Click here to read the full essay.

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Victorian Obsession: Opium

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

Oooh, opium. So dangerous. So addictive. So… legal?

Welcome to the last day of the Traitor in the Tunnel blog tour! Today, I’m talking about the Victorian Obsession with Opium, below. It’s a thrilling and multi-faceted story, and I hope you’ll agree.

Victorian Obsession: Opium

What do you think of when I say, “opium”? Poppies, addiction, maybe the British Empire or hookahs? Well, what about babies? Let me explain.

Opium was, of course, one of the great money-spinners of the British Empire. The British grew opium in British East India and sold it in China, where there was huge demand for it. That’s why the stereotype of the opium-addict is often that of a gaunt Chinese man lying beside a hookah. But, as with all stereotypes, that’s only part of the picture.

Opium use was totally unregulated in England until the Pharmacy Act of 1868. This means that the first half of the nineteenth-century was basically a free-for-all in terms of drug use: anyone could sell it, and anyone could buy it. And as in China, opium merchants in England did a roaring trade.

One of opium’s most popular uses was in an alcohol tincture called laudanum, popularly used to calm the nerves, help sleep, and generally soothe the user. It was considered totally respectable, so ladies as well as gentlemen felt free to take it – and that’s what the British did, in vast quantities. And since opium was so effective and pleasant for adults, they also gave it to children.

Some of the widely marketed “soothing syrups” for infants in the early nineteenth century were mixtures like Godfrey’s Cordial, which was made of opium, water, treacle (a sweetener), and spices. Other brands included Steedman’s Powder and Atkinson’s Royal Infants Preservative. These were immensely popular for use with ill babies. It makes sense: when children are ill, parents want them to feel better. Opium lessened the pain, and the sweetness of the syrups made sure the babies accepted them.

Obviously, opium syrups were not good for babies. Even ignoring questions of addiction and brain development, babies given frequent doses of these syrups tended to be small and stunted, and were often described as “wizened”, or looking like little old men. The reason? They were too sleepy to eat, and became malnourished as a result.

It’s impossible to know how many babies died of starvation as a result of opium syrups. But during the mid-nineteenth century, doctors suspected this was the case. Opium syrups were popular not just with parents of sick infants, but also unscrupulous nurses (who wanted children in their care to sleep a lot) and working-class parents (who were too exhausted from long working hours to deal with fussy babies). These are the most difficult deaths to trace, although it didn’t stop people from speculating.

And this is the double standard of Victorian opium use: you could sit in your elegant drawing-room and denounce the sinful ways of Chinese opium addicts, lazy nurses, and the working poor, all while sipping a glass of sherry-and-laudanum to help you get a good night’s sleep. It’s a bitter irony. Rather like the taste of laudanum itself.

For more neo-Victorian fun, I hope you’ll join me tomorrow, at my real-life launch party for The Traitor in the Tunnel. The details:

Saturday, March 3, 2012

from 3 to 5 pm

Novel Idea Books, 156 Princess St., Kingston

I hope to see you there!


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Victorian Obsession: Technology

Thursday, March 1st, 2012

Hello, friends. I’m typing this post on my four-year-old MacBook, my five-year-old cellphone by my side, and Florence & the Machine anthemizing (I know that’s not a word, but it’s so apropos) on my can’t-remember-how-old-it-is CD player. Who, me? Behind the times?

Much of the time, though, I think I live in the nineteenth century – and even compared to the Victorians, I’m a bit of a Luddite. For today’s stop on the Traitor in the Tunnel blog tour, I’m at the Booksmugglers, talking about the Victorian Obsession with Technology. Yes, our techlove pales in comparison to theirs. Click on over and see for yourself!


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Victorian Obsession: Death

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

Hey hey, let’s hear it for Death! (Or, at least, the Victorian Obsession with it.)

Today, the Traitor in the Tunnel blog tour stops at The Story Siren, where I talk about Victorian funeral rites in all their elaborate glory. Go on – you know you’re curious about that photo, at least.

Also, southeastern Ontarians, you are warmly invited to my book launch party this weekend! The details:

Saturday, March 3, 2012

from 3 to 5 pm

Novel Idea Books, 156 Princess St., Kingston

I hope to see you there!

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Victorian Obsession: Purity

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Hello friends, and welcome to the second day of the Traitor in the Tunnel blog tour! Today, I’m talking about Purity. Because it’s such a vast topic, I’m focusing on two particular types: Purity of Food, over at Steph Su Reads, and Purity of Women, hosted by the Bookmonsters. (On a side note, isn’t it amazing how quickly “purity” ceases to look like a real word?) I hope you’ll click over and read all about this Victorian Obsession.

These bloggers have also reviewed Traitor, if you’re curious: Melissa at I Swim for Oceans calls it a “maze of a mystery that will keep you on your toes“, and Kristen at the Bookmonsters says it’s “a must-read“. Thank you so much, bloggistas!

Finally, The Traitor in the Tunnel officially goes on sale today! I ran into my local indie bookseller yesterday, and he told me the copies had JUST arrived. I may just have to prowl downtown today, purely to admire them on the shelves. If you happen to see Traitor in your travels, please give it a fond pat from me!

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