Research thrills

September 10th, 2014

Hello, friends. I’ve been reading Nicholas Shakespeare’s Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France. It’s a hard thing to categorize: a book encompassing fragments of a memoir, many elements of biography, and a tightly focused history of France during the Nazi Occupation. It’s completely gripping and extremely well told.

Priscilla, by Nicholas Shakespeare

The aspect that I want to focus on this week, however, is how so much of Shakespeare’s insight into his aunt’s life is the result of a series of happy coincidences. He begins the book with his childhood memories of Priscilla, his glamorous aunt with a mysterious past. She’d been married to a minor French aristocrat, lived in France under the Vichy government, and spent time in an internment camp. She was clearly scarred by those years, and nobody in the family spoke of them or questioned her directly.

After she died in 1982, Shakespeare continued asking questions but received few answers. There was a box of intriguing but inconclusive photographs and letters. It revealed that Priscilla had been adored by many men, but not who these men were or what kind of role they’d played in her life – and the larger history through which they’d all lived.

Years, and then decades, passed. One day at the Bodleian Library, writes Shakespeare, “I was in the final stage of putting to bed an edition of Bruce Chatwin’s letters, a project which had occupied me intermittently since 1991, when I noticed a reference to a Sutro Collection, recently catalogued and stored in the same building. In no real spirit of expectation, I pulled out the catalogue and saw that the Sutro archive had been bequeathed by Gillian [Sutro, Priscilla’s lifelong best friend]; further, three specific boxes related to my aunt.”

Do you see the extraordinary string of coincidence and happenstance at play, here? Nicholas Shakespeare happened to be working on the Chatwin letters. He happened to notice (how?) a reference to a Sutro Collection (a distinctive name, especially in England). The Sutro Collection happened to have been recently catalogued. It happened to be stored in the same building (the Special Collections Room of the Bodleian Library) in which Shakespeare was presently at work.

But the gifts of fortune continue! Shakespeare ordered up the boxes and found more harmless letters and photographs from before and after the war. “Interesting, I thought, but nothing more, and opened the second box, which was full of red and yellow notebooks. Then I read my name.”

Did your hair just stand on end? Mine did! Shakespeare explains that he’d mentioned his aunt’s wartime history in a magazine article in 1992. Gillian Sutro had read the article. In it, a factual error on Shakespeare’s part acted like a detonator on Sutro’s memory and emotions. It forced her to rethink her entire relationship with her lifelong best friend; made her re-sift the evidence of their conversations after 1941; and impelled her to interview others in their circle, to uncover what had really happened.

Shakespeare says, “For three months, I read and transcribed Gillian’s notebooks. Again and again, I had the freakish impression of being taken by the wrist and led down, through a procession of unlocking doors, into the cellars beneath one of the most fascinating and yet, in spite of all the literature on it, incompletely explored moments of the twentieth century – a period over which France continues to draw firm bolts: ‘Four years to strike from our history,” is how the French still refer to it. Because what Gillian had written down was the other half of the key.”

I love this analogy of “being taken by the wrist and led down… into the cellars”. It inspires the precise blend of excitement, helplessness, and foreboding that I recognize from my own (considerably less deus ex machina) research work. It’s one of the best things I know.

How about you, readers? Have you had comparable – or wildly different – moments in your own research?

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One Match

September 3rd, 2014

Hello friends, and happy September! I hope it’s begun well for you.

I have two blog posts for you today. The first is my debut post with The History Girls. My essay, “Ahistorical Fiction”, is up on our group blog now. I hope you enjoy it! From now on, I’ll be blogging over at the History Girls on the 3rd of each month.

Over here, I’m stepping away from reading and writing and gardening to talk about stem cell donation. Until recently, I’d never given much thought to stem cells. But a couple of years ago our acquaintance, B, was diagnosed with cancer. He is doing fairly well, all things considered, and has recently been matched with an appropriate stem cell donor. This is critical to his treatment and potential cure.

Things I didn’t know about stem cells, but now do, thanks to the Canadian Blood Services website:

  • Stem cells are important because they are “blood-forming cells”. They can develop into any of the elements normally present in the bloodstream: red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets, and other blood components.
  • You can donate stem cells either from bone marrow (which involves surgery under general anaesthetic) or from peripheral blood (like a basic blood donation).
  • You are more likely to find a stem cell match with someone from your own ethnic group.
  • Fewer than 30% of patients find stem cell matches within their own families. The rest rely on the generosity of strangers.

B’s family is now working with Queen’s University’s Engineering Society to recruit potential stem cell donors for other patients. They explain, “Only about 50% of people needing a donor find one in time. For a non-family donor, the best results for the patient post-transplant are from young donors (specifically males).” They’re looking for people between 17 and 35 years of age, and especially hoping to reach young men of all ethnicities.

Why ethnic diversity?

As mentioned above, you are more likely to find a stem cell match with someone who shares your ethnic background. In 2009, the Canadian Network was 83% Caucasian – not a great reflection of our national diversity. Canadians of colour, we are under-represented!

Why men, and why the age cap of 35?

Young donors are associated with better long-term survival rates for patients. As B’s family says, “Young males are chosen as donors 75% of the time, but represent only 15% of registered potential donors.”

I might be interested. What’s involved?

5 minutes of your time, and a cheek swab (“no pricks, needles, blood or money required”, in B’s family’s words.) Then your name goes onto a list of potential donors. Anything after that is at your discretion.

Okay, then. When and where?

Sunday, September 7, from 3-5 pm, at Grant Hall. As a (literal) sweetener, there will also be Baked Goods.

I’m nowhere near Kingston. What can I do?

So glad you asked. You can go to and request a kit. You’ll swab your cheek and mail the kit back to Canadian Blood Services.

If, like me, you are too old to be a donor, I hope you’ll help spread the word. And if you’re in the magical 17-35 age bracket, I hope you’ll seriously consider stepping up. Thanks for listening.


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Secret beach

August 27th, 2014

Hello, friends. Early this week, I got a last-minute email from our neighbour, Bridget, saying she was heading up to a local beach for the day. Did we want to come along?

Let’s see:

a perfect sunny day

+ 2 children

+ cleaning and groceries on the agenda

+ the last week of summer holidays.


OF COURSE we were coming along.

I asked for directions. She said, “Well, you go north on Montreal St but it’s hard to explain. There are no signs, or anything. We’ll stop by your house and we can drive up together.” And so we did: cars loaded with children (ours and other people’s), picnics, swimsuits, fishing rods, and, in my case, a potty (not for me, personally!). We were three vehicles, four adults and nine children.

This is what we found:


And we stopped for ice cream on the way home. It was the best possible way to spend the last Monday of summer holidays.

Also, this is totally unrelated but look at this amazing dragonfly laying eggs on one of our tomato plants!

Screen Shot 2014-08-26 at 2.05.20 PM

How about you, friends? What are you up to, in these last precious days of August?

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Unsung heroes

August 20th, 2014

Hello, friends. I am here today to sing of unsung heroes.

We’re back in Kingston, and I’m applying myself to a final proofread of Rivals in the City. I have an ARC in hand! (The cover is gorgeous. I say that not to taunt, but to tantalize: the Booksmugglers and I are planning a big cover reveal in September, with an ARC giveaway. Stay tuned for details!)

The terrible thing about having drafted, polished, repeatedly edited, and proofread a book is that it’s impossible to read it anew. Authors are the worst possible proofreaders of their own work because every phrase follows one of two scenarios:

1. We’re perplexed by the phrase because we’re haunted by several alternative versions, OR

2. We struggle actually to process what’s on the page, because we think we already know how it goes.

This kind of readerly short-circuit means that we’re well-intentioned but patchy proofreaders, at best.

You want proof? Today, I will confess to you the clunkiest sentence my terrific editor at Candlewick Press, novelist Deborah Noyes, turned up last week. Remember, this sentence has passed before many pairs of eyes, and is actually published in the UK edition. Oh, the shame! But here goes:

“Even if she were actually here now, in town, we’d never find each another unless we actually ran into one another in the street.”

As Deb politely points out, “‘one another’ is used for more than two, so technically we should change this to “each other,” which introduces a rep[etition]”. She also observes that we already have a repetition of the word “actually”. Do you see what I mean? I really should have noticed these problems. Yet I didn’t. Repeatedly.

Happily, a Candlewick proofreader (a person whose name I don’t know, but who has clearly worked with such care on this book) suggested an alternative: “unless we actually collided in the street.” So here’s the new version of the sentence above:

“Even if she were here now, in town, we’d never find each other unless we actually collided in the street.”

It’s shorter. Cleaner. SO MUCH BETTER. And I had nothing to do with it.

But oh, I am grateful. It is a terrific privilege to work with such talented and experienced readers, and to benefit from their care. Thank you, proofreaders of the world! And of Candlewick Press, in particular.

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Love You Forever

August 13th, 2014

Hello, friends. My mother has a huge collection of Robert Munsch picture books leftover from her teaching days. For the past couple of weeks, my children have been reading them. I’m ambivalent about Munsch’s work. I’ve always loved The Paper Bag Princess but find a lot of the other books (Mortimer, Thomas’ Snowsuit) far too shouty and obnoxious. I stand by those judgements. But there’s one about which I was completely wrong.

Love You Forever, Robert Munsch & Sheila McGraw

Before I had children of my own, I really failed to understand Love You Forever. I thought it was syrupy and excessive, and downright creepy at one point. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s about a mother who sings to her sleeping son, at various ages:

I’ll love you forever,

I’ll like you for always.

As long as I’m living,

My baby you’ll be.

This happens when he’s a baby, a toddler, a boy, and a teenager. When he’s an adult, there’s a scene in which the mother drives across town, breaks into his house, and rocks him in his sleep, singing the same words. My response as a childless person: low-level nausea compounded by mild derision.

Now that I have children? I get it. I get it. I get it. It resonates so profoundly for me that I can’t get through the book without choking up. Now, I find the scene with the little old lady rocking her sleeping adult child really funny. It’s Munsch at his best: wacky and surreal and emotionally pitch-perfect. And while I don’t see any lullaby B&Es in my future, I completely understand the impulse.

Robert Munsch, I take it all back. How about you, readers? What do you think of Love You Forever, and other Munsch books?

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West Coast Bounty

August 6th, 2014

Hello, friends. We’re in Vancouver! For me, being on the West Coast in August means a bounty of local fruit: blueberries, cherries, peaches, nectarines, apricots and blackberries, in particular. My parents live near a stretch of the Fraser River and its banks are dense with wild blackberry bushes (also crabapples, snowberries, and apparently salmonberries, though I haven’t seen any of those). See what I mean?


Every time we go for a walk, we end up having a blackberry snack. If we ever manage to pick more than we eat on the spot, I’m planning to make a batch of blackberry freezer jelly.

The bounty isn’t limited to fruit, of course. I’ve long admired the community garden plots built along some 11 km of disused railway tracks on Vancouver’s west side. The gardens are charming, aesthetically diverse, and bursting with life. They’re an annual inspiration for our own gardens, and a lovely reminder of what we’ll return to. They’re also now now under an eviction notice: CP Rail is planning to raze them, as part of a dispute with the City of Vancouver.

The wrangling could go on for a long time yet. Before anything else happens, here are some shots of the Arbutus Community Garden plots along East Boulevard.


This is the most elaborate and established-looking of the plots. Its bulletin board advertises “the world in a garden”, offering garden shares to interested locals and organic gardening workshops for children. Their shed is a thing of beauty!


We’ve been talking about building a hoop house, like these gardeners are doing:


You cover it with sheets of polythene, like so:


And it becomes a miniature, morphable greenhouse. I’m ridiculously excited at the prospect of extending our growing season. We also saw growing frames made of old bicycle wheels:


While I love the way it looks, I’m not diligent enough to camouflage a water drum:


And sometimes, the temperate West Coast climate makes me sigh with envy. Look: grapes!


The lighting is terrible in this shot, but please believe me when I say that these gardeners are actually growing kiwi. Kiwi! They’ve trained the slender tree trunk to crawl horizontally atop their fence.


Finally, after an afternoon’s hard work, these gardeners can relax and admire their heap of freshly picked beets.


I’m only in the city for a week or two each year, but I would be so sorry to see these gardens go. Let’s hope CP Rail and the City of Vancouver sort themselves out and do what’s best for the community in general.


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The Legendary Garrett Girls

July 30th, 2014

Hello, friends! Last week, I sent off the first clean draft of my short story, “The Legendary Garrett Girls”. It’s going to be one of fifteen stories in an anthology called Petticoats and Pistols, edited by Jessica Spotswood and published by Candlewick Press.

This is only a first draft, and there are several rounds of editing to come. Still, I’m thrilled to have a full, clean draft written.

Klondike woman, 1898

This is Gracie E Robinson, of Dawson, YT, in 1898. She doesn’t appear in my story, but she embodies the spirit I was after. (image credit: EA Hegg, U of Washington, Hegg 3063)

Today, I thought I’d share with you the story’s epigraph, which inspired the whole thing:

“They now say there are more liars to the square inch in Alaska than any place in the world.”
— The Seattle Daily Times, August 17, 1897

Doesn’t that just BEG for a fictional escapade? I couldn’t possibly have resisted.

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Our house cookies

July 23rd, 2014

Hello, friends. The past couple of weeks has been oddly temperate, for Kingston in July: cool at night, sunny and warm by day. To my mind, during weather like this, the obvious thing is to bake up a stash of treats against the return of our usual heat and humidity.

The recipe below is not mine. It belongs to French pastry chef Pierre Hermé and American food writer Dorie Greenspan, and while individual palates vary so widely, I feel confident in pronouncing it divine. Everyone I’ve shared these cookies with demands the recipe.

The only quibble I have with the recipe is its title. When Greenspan first published the recipe in 2002 she called them Korova Cookies, after Hermé’s Paris restaurant. Since then, she’s renamed them World Peace Cookies (because they are “all that is needed to ensure planetary peace and happiness“). I see that it’s intended as a joke. I also understand that recipe titles should pique your interest. But I really can’t bring myself to call them WPCs. So: Korova Cookies. Chocolate Sablés. We just call them our “house cookies”.

The original recipe is here, and in a million other places. I like to use whole kamut flour because it enhances the cookie’s sandy texture. And while the texture of gluten-free variations usually suffers, this one is really close. I also replace a portion of the chocolate with cacao nibs, for extra crunch and intensity.

Korova Cookies (with a gluten-free variation)

  • 1 1/4 cups (175 grams) kamut flour, or gluten-free flour mix (measure alternative flours by weight)
  • 1/3 cup (30 grams) Dutch-processed cocoa powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp psyllium husks, if making the gluten-free variation
  • 1 stick plus 3 tablespoons (5 1/2 ounces; 150 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2/3 cup (120 grams) packed light brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup (50 grams) sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon fleur de sel or 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt (double this if making the gluten-free variation, as the GF flours tend to mute the salt flavour)
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 5 ounces (150 grams) bittersweet chocolate, chopped into small bits (or 100 grams chocolate plus a handful of cacao nibs)

1. Sift the flour, cocoa, and baking soda (and psyllium husks, if using) together. Beat the butter until soft and creamy. Add both sugars, the salt, and vanilla extract and beat for another minute or two. Add the sifted dry ingredients. Mix only until the dry ingredients are incorporated—the dough will look crumbly, and that’s just right. For the best texture, you want to work the dough as little as possible once the flour is added. Toss in the chocolate pieces (and cacao nibs, if using) and mix only to incorporate.

2. Turn the dough out onto a smooth work surface and shape it into two logs that are 1 1/2 inches (4 cm) in diameter. Wrap the logs in plastic or parchment and chill them for at least 2 hours and up to 3 days.

3. Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 325°F (165°C). Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and keep them close at hand.

4. Working with a sharp thin-bladed knife, slice the logs into rounds that are 1/2 inch (1.5 cm) thick. (The rounds will probably crumble and break; just squeeze them together.) Place the cookies on the parchment-lined sheets, leaving about 1 inch (2.5 cm) spread space between them.

5. Bake only one sheet of cookies at a time, and bake each sheet for 12 minutes. The cookies will not look done, nor will they be firm, but that’s just the way they should be. Transfer the baking sheet to a cooling rack and let the cookies stand until they are only just warm or until they reach room temperature—it’s your call. Repeat with the second sheet of cookies.

If you try these, let me know how you like them! Also, am I being overly sensitive about the world peace thing?

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July 16th, 2014

Hello, friends. It’s been a busy week in the garden! We’ve had a ton of rain and the vegetables are going berserk. The only catch is that so far, we’ve eaten almost none of what we’ve grown. The reason? There’s a family of groundhogs living at the back of our garden. We thought they were awfully cute in the early spring, when the babies were small and they ate mostly clover.

We think there are four or five, although short of tagging them (Nick suggested colour-coded bow ties) we can’t know for sure. But WOW, groundhogs eat a lot! They soon tired of clover and made their way through our kale, pak choy, green beans, snow peas, and strawberries. We seldom catch them in the act (although one of the babies tried to enter the house through our screen door). We tried blocking their main burrow entrance (they always have a few alternative exits), sprinkling noxious odours (tea trea oil, urine) around the hole, loud noises, etc. And yet they persisted.

This week, we borrowed a trap from a neighbour. He’s caught four or five so far this year, and relocated them to a local conservation area. He was keen to show us his way. So we baited the trap with broccoli and set it out overnight. In the morning…

baby raccoon


This baby raccoon was too curious for his own good. Raccoons are a minor urban pest but they don’t eat our vegetables, so I let this guy go. I baited the trap again and we went out for the day.




Nick took this fellow out for a drive and released him. And the next day, we harvested some green beans. We’re going to keep baiting the trap and hoping for the best. Because we are veghogs.

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To read: perchance to sleep

July 9th, 2014

Hello, friends. Most nights, before I sleep, I read. This is a constant tension: I always want to read more. I know very well that I should sleep more. And the two seem mutually exclusive.

That aside, I thought I’d share my current stack of books with you.

Ying's current reading

From the top:

Fancy Cycling, by Isabel Marks. This is a delightful photographic catalogue of the kinds of tricks Edwardian children, ladies, and men can perform on bicycles. Most of them are astounding.

This is one of the simpler stunts but I love how the rider is looking directly into the camera. It feels very modern, despite her hat and long skirt.

This is one of the simpler stunts but I love how the rider is looking directly into the camera. The photo feels very modern, despite her hat and long skirt.

The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. My friend Trina lent this to me a few months ago and I’m fewer than 50 pages in. Sorry, Trina! I didn’t find it immediately compelling but she loves it so much that I plan to carry on. It’s just that all my other reading is getting in the way…

On the Yankee Station, by William Boyd. This is Boyd’s first collection of short stories, written before his first novel but published afterwards. It’s a bit uneven but very funny and strange and vivid. I began reading it for short-story inspiration (I’m writing one myself) but kept on because I love being in Boyd’s presence.

Jungle Soldier, by Brian Moynahan. A biography of my new hero/historical boyfriend, Freddy Spencer Chapman. Freddy’s a classic stiff-upper-lip subject and the biography is commensurately very thin. It fills in some details from his early and late life, but I’m better off reading…

The Jungle is Neutral, by F. Spencer Chapman

The Jungle is Neutral, by F. Spencer Chapman. This is my current favourite book and perhaps my favourite work of nonfiction ever. I really hadn’t expected to like Freddy so much. I was braced for a man of his generation (born 1907): a social snob, an unreflexive racist, an unapologetic colonialist. This isn’t the case at all. Freddy is immensely curious about the world, entirely willing to judge people on their individual merits and flaws, and endearingly passionate about food, even while suffering from bullet wounds, pneumonia, chronic malaria, ulcerated legs, blackwater fever, tick typhus, dysentery, and I-don’t-know-how-many-other ailments. Here’s how terrific this memoir is: I’ve been following Nick all around the house, reading excerpts to him. Another measure of how much I love it: I’m halfway through and already mourning the fact that it must end.

Two Years in the Klondike and Alaskan Gold Fields, 1896-1898, by William B. Haskell. I bought this in Ketchikan, Alaska, at a terrific indie bookstore called Parnassus Books. Haskell is very enjoyable company and reading him is such a lovely way to relive a family holiday while becoming familiar with the setting of my short story.

Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, 1896-1899, by Pierre Berton. It’s impossible to avoid Pierre Berton when you’re researching the Gold Rush. I lucked into this copy at the library’s used-book sale, and it’s been useful as a representative of the most romantic, legend-building, to-hell-with-historical-documentation view of the Klondike.

There it is: my reading brain, exposed. What are you reading, at the moment?


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