I’m on TV!

January 14th, 2015

Last week, as I was leaving Novel Idea, our local indie bookstore, its owner Oscar Malan called out, “Oh, Ying: CKWS (the local TV station) is coming in to ask me about what sold well in 2014. They’d also like to interview someone with a book coming out soon. You wanna?” Which is how I found myself, yesterday, claiming my unspecified number of minutes of fame.

Here’s how the thing went down. I showed up promptly at noon, fairly spaced out because I’d been working on The Next Book. I was hungry because breakfast was five hours ago. I had tuque-head, because it was -24C outside, with the wind chill. And I couldn’t find my lip balm. On the bright side, I managed to eschew the stereotypical black turtleneck. Yes, indeed: my turtleneck was dark brown.

CKWS anchor Bill Hall was much better prepared than I and he couldn’t have been kinder. While his videographer was setting up, he chatted with me about the Agency – just a nice normal conversation about books. And when they were ready, he smiled and said, “We’ll probably just have that conversation again.” And so we did: one take, about three or four minutes long. I’m sure I talked too fast; I know I stumbled verbally a couple of times. I definitely failed to work in a couple of shout-outs that I’d planned (I’m sorry, Ann-Maureen! I’m sorry, Mary Alice! I imagined there would be more general questions.) On the bright side, I didn’t drool on myself and didn’t say anything terribly offensive. I think.

Anyway, it’s up now. I’m afraid you have to watch an ad before getting to the content. Oscar goes first, offering some excellent reading recommendations with his famous deadpan wit. And if you skip to about 4.55, you get me.

How about you, friends? Have you ever triumphed or failed on camera?


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Bikes, Bars and Bloomers

January 7th, 2015

Hello, friends. This week’s blog post is about the first bold women to ride bicycles, in the late 1880s.

A late-Victorian cyclist in shocking and radical athletic wear. Image via britishnewspaperarchive.

A late-Victorian cyclist in shocking and radical athletic wear. Image via britishnewspaperarchive.

Juicy stuff! It’s up now at the History Girls.

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The Haul

December 31st, 2014

Hello, friends. I hope you’re having beautiful, restful, joyful holidays!

This week, I want to gloat over my recent haul of books. My birthday falls soon after Christmas and while this is sometimes a disadvantage (after all the December festivities, nobody ever wants to go out for my birthday), it’s delightful to look at the stack of fantastic books I’ve accumulated in just a few days. This year, I was especially thrilled to receive these:


From the top:

A. Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past. Ekirch argues that nighttime, far from being an uneventful pause for sleep (or tossing and turning), used to have “a distinct culture, with many of its own customs and rituals”. As an intermittent insomniac, I expect to find this inspiring!

Jo Shapcott, Of Mutability. I’ve long loved Shapcott’s poetry. This collection is haunted by illness, aging, and the spectre of death. The title poem begins, “Too many of the best cells in my body/are itching, feeling jagged, turning raw/in this spring chill. It’s two thousand and four/and I don’t know a soul who doesn’t feel small/among the numbers. Razor small.”

Ali Smith, How to Be Both. I’m not-so-secretly intimidated by this one, which starts like a roared poem. I’ll need to be fully awake to keep up.

Caitlin Moran, How to Build a Girl. I love Caitlin Moran but this is a PG blog. You may google it for yourselves.

Martin Amis, The Zone of Interest. Who else would dare to write a satirical novel about the Holocaust?

A. N. Wilson, Victoria: A Life. The jacket flap describes her as “one of the most passionate, expressive, humorous and unconventional women who ever lived”. I imagine that Wilson would strongly disapprove of my borrowing of Queen Victoria in The Traitor in the Tunnel, but I’m not interested in his approval. Bring it!

How about you, readers? What books did you give or receive? Oh, and Happy New Year! I’ll see you back here next week, in 2015.

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Inventing tradition

December 24th, 2014

Merry Christmas, to those who celebrate it! Right now, I am frantically wrapping presents and mumbling nasty things about my to-do list, so here’s a re-post from December 2009, about Victorian Christmas inventions. Hope you enjoy it, and have a wonderful holiday!

Quick: name three Christmas symbols.

If you’re like me, the first things you picture are Christmas trees, a red-suited Santa Claus (or in England, Father Christmas) and the now-endangered paper Christmas card. Did you know that all three are, in many ways, Victorian inventions or mashups of older traditions? If we were transported back to England, 1840, we’d be celebrating without any of these icons!

Take, for example, Christmas trees – the visual centrepiece of English-speaking living rooms. But the Christmas tree is actually a German tradition made popular in 1840s England by the royal family, who were of German origin. (Queen Victoria’s first language was German and her husband, Prince Albert, moved to England on his marriage at age 20). Victoria and Albert loved celebrating Christmas, and it was their enthusiasm that made the tree (Tannenbaum) popular in England. Oh, and those first Christmas trees were small, potted affairs placed on a table with the gifts beneath – like so (image from the BBC’s Ten Ages of Christmas):

Victoria & Albert's Christmas tree

Victoria & Albert’s Christmas tree

Santa Claus and Father Christmas are part of a tangled tradition, too. St Nicholas was a 4th-century Christian bishop much admired for his generosity – far from an elf! We get “Santa Claus” from the Dutch name for St Nicholas. Santa’s red suit is a recent revision, too: until the 1880s, he generally wore a long, green cloak. The most popular images of Santa Claus in a red suit were done for a Coca Cola ad campaign in the 1930s, and they’re what we think of now, automatically. Even so… any bets on how long that red suit will endure?

What else would Santa drink?

What else would Santa drink?

And oh, the Christmas card: all that paper is harder to justify each year, but e-cards are so soulless. Yet paper Christmas cards are themselves an invention of convenience – a commercial product without much tradition behind it apart from not wanting to write a long letter. Sir Henry Cole commissioned this next image in 1843 and used it to print the first commercial Christmas card. Note the lack of Christian imagery, here – it’s a family drinking wine together – and even the kids are imbibing:

Henry Cole's first commercial Christmas card

Henry Cole’s first commercial Christmas card

Although we tend to think of Christmas as something solid, something that all Christian-influenced cultures have always celebrated, our modern Christmas is pretty new indeed. I find the flexibility and brash (relative) newness of these traditions exciting. For me, it means that Christmas is for adapting, for inventing, for personalizing for my family. How about you? And if you celebrate another holiday – Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Eid, Diwali – how have your traditions evolved?

Either way, I hope your holidays are splendid.

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Gratitude jars

December 17th, 2014

Hi again, friends, and sorry this post is a little late. Among other things, I was wrapping up these gratitude jars. I’ll explain.

gratitude jars

Gratitude jars. Sorry about the photography – I always seem to take photos late at night under incandescent light.

Our three-year-old attends preschool at the Mulberry Waldorf School. It’s an amazing program staffed by gifted teachers who really pour their souls into their work with the children. Our preschool teachers, Holly and Janie, are wise and patient, serene and nurturing, creative and consistent. They are two of the best people with whom our daughter could begin her education, and they inspire us to be better parents. Near the holidays, the question arises: how can we begin to thank our teachers appropriately?

Early childhood education is woefully undervalued in our culture. ECE workers are paid little and command less respect than even elementary and high-school teachers. While we (as a society) are happy to bang on about the importance of the formative years, we don’t put our money where our mouths are. We seem content with our cognitive dissonance.

Obviously, there’s no teacher gift that can right these wrongs. But I always want to do something more meaningful than buying a mug or a gift certificate. A couple of years ago, my friend Jillian Murphy came up with a much better suggestion: gratitude jars. For each teacher, class parents write a little something – a sentence or two of appreciation – on a slip of paper. We slide them into jars and present the jars as a class gift.

I love this gift for so many reasons: it costs no money and little time, so that every family can participate. It’s a gift that endures. And, hopefully, it’s a tangible reminder for our teachers of how profoundly we appreciate them, and how critical their work is.

Later this morning, Holly and Janie and 12 three-year-olds will host a holiday tea party for their families, and we parents will get a small chance to say “thank you”. It’s not enough. Not by a long way. But it’s a start.

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Holiday lag

December 17th, 2014

Hello, friends. Things are a little a lot crazy around here right now. For this week only, my regular post will go up on Thursday (when I’ve had a chance to write it). See you tomorrow!

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My Year of Non-Fiction

December 10th, 2014

Hello, friends! ‘Tis the season for guest-blogging, apparently. My weekly post is up today at the Booksmugglers, where I’m talking about 2014 as My Year of Non-Fiction.

Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie (c. 1797)

Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie (c. 1797)

If you read my History Girls post about Freddy Spencer Chapman last week, some of this will be familiar but you might hang want to in there for a little about Fanny Wollstonecraft/Godwin/Imlay, the firstborn daughter of the original hyena in petticoats, Mary Wollstonecraft.

What are your most memorable books or reading threads of 2014? And what are you looking forward to in the coming year?

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Freddy Spencer Chapman

December 3rd, 2014

Hello, friends. I’ve blogged before about my research for my novel-in-progress, Monsoon Season, but I just realized that I haven’t said much about one of my favourite historical figures (and new historical boyfriend), Freddy Spencer Chapman. Let’s change that!

Freddy Spencer Chapman

Freddy Spencer Chapman

My blog post today is over at the History Girls, and it contains more adventure in two paragraphs than you and I will probably ever experience in our lifetimes. Hope you enjoy it!

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Returning to yoga

November 26th, 2014

Hello, friends. Last week, I wrote about re-starting my novel-in-progress, Monsoon Season, for the fourth time. The post was written in a spirit of frustration, wariness, and not-quite-nascent optimism, and I’m so very grateful to everyone who paused for a moment to assure me, “Keep going. You have something worthwhile to say.” Thank you for that! I’ve shuffled forward a little with Monsoon Season 4.0 but life (aka small children, viruses, and profound sleep deprivation) keeps me from striding ahead. So this week, I want to share another area of my life in which I’m making a fresh start: yoga.

I find myself ambivalent about saying that I love yoga. Happily, fitness trends have moved on (Pilates! Pure Barre! CrossFit!) and I like being unfashionable. But I detest the lingering commodification of yoga: all the special gear and garments marketed “for yoga”, when all you need is enough space to wave your arms around. The cults of celebrity that accrue around so-called “rockstar” yogis. Ugh. Still, I can’t deny that yoga is still very much my thing.

Ashtanga teacher David Swenson, whose home practice manual is much more accessible than this photo suggests.

Ashtanga teacher David Swenson, whose book is much more accessible than this photo suggests.

Twelve years ago, I tried “power yoga” for the first time. I was living in Bloomsbury, researching my doctoral dissertation at the British Library, and living above a gym with a regular yoga class. I fell in love immediately. (Okay, so it wasn’t an unimaginable leap: I’ve always enjoyed solo sports and stretching. Also, the instructor had a south London lisp and regularly advised us to “breave into it”, which I found delightful.) When my research was finished, I came back to Kingston, found a yoga studio, and then a dedicated ashtanga studio, and attended classes regularly. What I never managed, though, was to develop an independent home practice. I was always a bit too busy, too distracted, too lazy… but I managed to get to at least one class a week. At least. For six years. And then I had children.

The short version: it’s been six years since I regularly practised yoga. I’d always intended to return to it; it’s important to me. But I was waiting for the magical day when I could duck out of family responsibilities for 90 minutes at 5 pm (aka the Arsenic Hour), or leave the children to fend for themselves in the morning. And just a few weeks ago, I had this realization: I’ve been absent from my yoga practice for as long as I was in it. And really, eating dinner with my family will always be more important than any single yoga class. Yoga isn’t waiting for me, and I can wait no longer for yoga.

So two weeks ago, I began an extremely modest home practice. 15 minutes a day, 4 times a week. That’s what I can commit to, right now. I’m using David Swenson’s Home Practice Manual to remind me of the details. Each week, I’m going to add one more asana, or posture, to the series so that my practice time builds in tiny and manageable increments. This feels good and safe and like a realistic long-term commitment. I’m fortunate to have had enough high-quality instruction that I remember how to protect my back, to prevent my joints from hyperextending. In a while, I will start dropping in to a class once a month or so because a teacher’s eye is important, and hands-on adjustments are incredibly helpful.

In the meantime, I’m back on the mat, using my breath as my metronome, and remembering just how challenging and rewarding the practice can be. I am stiff, and sore, and easily tired. And I’m in love all over again.

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A(nother) fresh start

November 19th, 2014

Hello, friends. It’s been a while since I talked about my work-in-progress, and that’s no accident. I have been tussling with Monsoon Season, aka the Next Book, for ages now. I’m almost ashamed to say how long, but there’s no point in being coy: I first started it about 18 months ago. Then I scrapped what I had, and re-started it. Then I junked the second version and began afresh. And guess what? Uh huh. Monsoon Season 3.0 is now in the dustbin. (That’s an exaggeration, btw – I keep every word of the old stuff until I’m truly happy with a finished manuscript.)

So what happened? I’ll begin by saying that I’ve had doubts, all along, about my ability to pull this one off. The novel is set in Malaya (now Malaysia) during the Pacific War – that is, during the Second World War as it played out in Southeast Asia. It’s a terrible and fascinating few years in history, and one that’s very seldom acknowledged in the West. So part of my uncertainty definitely grows from the heavy responsibility of representation. If I’m going to write a novel about events few have ever heard of, I’d better do a stellar job.

Civilians in Singapore in an air raid shelter, December 1941 (image via wikicommons)

Singaporean civilians in an air raid shelter, December 1941 (image via wikicommons)

The second weight on my conscience is that of family responsibility. My grandparents all lived through the Pacific War and it marked them deeply. I want to pull their experiences into a book. Yet who do I think I am, embroidering upon their trauma? Again, it’s the responsibility of representation – this time on a family-history scale, with all its guilt-making problems of loyalty and love.

Third, and probably the one that makes me wince and flail the most, is the ghost of the Novel of Asian Experience. (Helloooo, Harold Bloom! I do not pretend to be a genius of any sort but I’m still struggling with the Anxiety of Influence.) There’s a great deal of important, well-regarded fiction about the immigrant experience (this list of immigrant fiction is exclusively American in its focus, but a good starting point nonetheless). There are even a few novels about the period I’m interested in: Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain and The Garden of Evening Mists, Madeleine Thien’s Certainty). I find them interesting and highly skilled – Tan’s in particular – but these are not the kinds of book I aspire to write. The problem is very basic: they are profoundly earnest books about profoundly earnest characters in a profoundly earnest culture. And I don’t want to write that. I’m not sure I can write that.

What to do? I was complaining about this to my friend Sarah, who said, “Look. I think you’re a very funny person. I think anything you write is going to turn out funny.” (By the way, it’s such a privilege to have friends who listen to you whine about how hard it is to write a novel and then call you “a very funny person”. I have splendid friends.) The unspoken corollary to Sarah’s observation, I think, is that anything I write that twists itself into the category of Earnest Novel of Asian Experience will be unrecognizable as me.

So here’s my plan: I’m heading off, once more, in a new direction. There’s a comic thread in Monsoon Season 3.0 that I found very enjoyable but had cut out, because it just didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the book. And I’m going to follow it for a while. See where it goes. It could be a dead end. But it might also take me somewhere new entirely.

What do you think, friends: funny vs. earnest? Is that a false dichotomy?

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