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A year of reading: Ruby

Ruby

Ruby follows the sad life of Ephram Jennings, a middle-aged man living with his overbearing older sister Celia in the small Black town of Liberty, Texas. Ephram goes about his business—bagging groceries for while folks at the Piggly Wiggly, attending church, and swapping stories with the other townsmen outside the P&K store—until, one day, he upsets the balance to reconnect with Ruby Bell, a woman with a troubled past who he has loved since he was a boy.

While Cynthia Bond is an exceptional writer, and her prose and use of magical realism is beautiful at times, this book was very difficult to read, to the point of being unenjoyable. Bond runs the gamut of pretty much everything horrible in Ruby, and does so in great and graphic detail. Depictions of child sexual abuse, spousal abuse, mistreatment and abuse of the mentally ill, incest, torture and sadism, murder—it’s all there. Yes, some of this description is necessary to explain why Ruby, Ephram and the other characters live the way they do, but there was too much with too little reward for the reader.

A big part of effective writing is not only what you put in, but also what you leave out. Bond, and her editors, seem to have missed the balance in Ruby, at least I thought so. Many people (Oprah included) love this book. I do not.

Recommended: No. If it weren’t for my Year of Reading challenge, I probably wouldn’t have finished it.

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A year of reading: How To Be A Woman

HowtobeawomanI kicked off my New Year’s reading resolution with How To Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran.

Moran, a columnist for The Times, uses her collection of essays to make a case for everyday feminism. From the annoying and seemingly inconsequential parts of being a woman (fashionable, yet too-small underpants) to heavy topics (a frank discussion of her own abortion), the book covers a lot of ground. Moran draws from her own experiences in her fast-moving, and often hilarious, essays. This includes stories of her life as as young teen growing up in working-class England, then as a young woman working in the male-dominated field of music writing and, finally, as a working mother to two young girls.

Moran’s approach isn’t an academic one—something she freely admits—and some of her arguments do seem overly simplistic. In the essay on stripping, for instance, Moran argues that all strip clubs are depressing. She praises Iceland for it’s all-out ban on strip clubs, while simultaneously arguing that burlesque and pole-dance classes—stripping’s trendier cousins—are all well and fine. It doesn’t take into account the actual experience of the women who are stripping. (Which is probably depressing in many cases, but certainly not all of them.)

This book was a bestseller when it came out in 2010. Though some of the cultural references are now a bit out of date, it still holds up, six years later. In an era where way too much of feminist debate is taken up by what it actually means to be a feminist (or not be one), Moran’s simple test for feminism is refreshing and much needed:

a. Do you have a vagina? and

b. Do you want to be in charge of it?

If you said “yes” to both, then congratulations! You’re a feminist.

Recommended?: Yes. A fun and approachable read. My only regret is not reading it sooner.

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A resolution for a year of reading

How to be a woman Caitlin Morgan

It’s 2016 and the time to make resolutions for the new year.

Mine is simple: one book a month.

Since having a kid, my time is at a premium and my attention span is at a minimum. I read a handful of books last year, but I also read a lot of magazines and spent more time than I’d like to admit scrolling through social media feeds on my iPad.

A dozen books in a year isn’t all that notable, but it is manageable.

I’m going to record my year of reading here. Not only will it force me to be accountable to myself, it will also keep the website a little more up-to-date.

I’m kicking things off with Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman. I picked it up after reading and enjoying How to Build a Girl last year. So far, the essay about horrible underwear had me guffawing to myself in the Victoria coffee shop pictured above. (Side note: Moran has also inspired me to liberate myself from uncomfortable underwear immediately. I guess cleaning out some drawers is Resolution No. 2.) And the essay about strip clubs had me shaking my head and questioning her conclusions. More on all of this when I’m finished the whole thing.

Also on the list:

Ruby by Cynthia Bond

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neil

Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

That should take me up to spring.

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A small-town love story for Maclean’s

I recently had the honour of writing about the lives of Vern and Shirley Fletcher for Maclean’s magazine. The high-school sweethearts met when Shirley was just 13 and Vern was 16. They lived their whole lives based in the tiny town of Castor, Alberta. (The population is about 900 today and closer to 600 when Vern and Shirley first met.) After 62 years together, both Shirley and Vern died this fall, just three days apart from one another. The full story is here, at Macleans.ca.

As with any obituary, the story was one of sadness. It was also a story of two lives lived fully. Personally, it made me think about definitions of success. In the past year and a half, there have been big changes in my life. My husband’s job took us from Toronto to a small town in centre-east Alberta. I left behind a great job, an exciting life in the big city and a community of journalists, writers and like-minded creative types. Just in case that wasn’t enough of a lifestyle change, we welcomed a baby girl into our lives shortly after the move.

It’s hard not to dwell on what I left behind in Toronto and how things used to be. But telling the Fletcher’s story really puts things into perspective. Here are two people who lived their entire lives in the same town. They lived a full life, raised three kids, volunteered, and made the entire community a better place to be. They made friends wherever they went and about 600 people came out to their memorial service, nearly the entire population of Castor. “You could have robbed all of Castor,” joked the couple’s son, Barry, while I was interviewing him for the story.

Here I am in a small town not so far from Castor, raising my own kid. I’m doing freelance writing and editing when I can, but my successes in the next few years won’t be measured in terms of National Magazine Awards or workplace promotions. Increasingly, I’m OK with that.

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Taboo topics: politics, abortion and polar bears

There are some topics where writing anything is enough to get people angry. No matter what you say, and no matter how many hours of research you conduct, someone will say you’re wrong, you’re an idiot and you shouldn’t be writing such garbage.

I count among those topics: the Israel-Palestine conflict, abortion, most politics and — after my latest freelance article in the print version of Maclean’s — the Canadian polar bear hunt.

It doesn’t mean these topics should be avoided. No way. Controversy and conflict make a story interesting, and there isn’t going to be only one right side to important debates. For journalists in the digital age, tackling controversial topics also means developing a thick skin and not taking comments on Twitter, comment boards, or other social media too personally.

Here’s my latest from Maclean’s, which was originally published in the March 25, 2013 issue. Continue reading

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More on the future of journalism, going digital and freelance

It’s been a depressing week to be a journalist in Toronto and it’s only Wednesday.

First, the Toronto Star announces it is going to make some major cutbacks in its newsroom. It looks like the radio room — where some of my now-successful friends got their start — as well as much of the design team, is on the chopping block. Or, at least the outsourcing block, when it comes the design of the paper. Reporters responded Wednesday by removing their bylines from the print edition of the paper in a byline strike.

I’ve also been following the back-and-forth between journalist Nate Thayer and The Atlantic website this week, after an editor asked Thayer to rewrite one of his blog posts for The Atlantic website for free. Thayer published the exchange in A Day in the Life of a Freelance Journalist—2013. Social media users weighed in and then Atlantic editor Alexis Madrigal responded with his essay A Day in the Life of a Digital Editor, 2013, which paints an accurate picture of the challenges in digital. Continue reading

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An overdue update: My stint at CTVNews.ca

New year’s resolution: update website. It’s not the end of January just yet, so this resolution is officially kept.

My website updates dropped off sometime around the time I began working in a real office with real people. Despite my best intentions to make a go of it as a full-time freelancer, I made a contact at CTVNews.ca and, for about eight months (March to September), I was doing freelancing for CTVNews.ca almost exclusively, mainly covering for another employee who was on sick leave.

Working in a real office with real co-workers for the first time in more than a year was pretty great, except for the commute out to Scarborough. After barely driving for my first two years in Toronto, it was a summer of long, hot commutes in the non-air-conditioned Jeep. I was also working evenings, so my commute started around 2 p.m., during the hottest part of the day.

Temperature at 31 degrees. One of many hot summer commutes in the Jeep.

Temperature at 31 degrees. One of many long, hot summer commutes in the Jeep.

Continue reading

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Absolutely no weapons allowed: Pictures from the Arizona Republican debate

Tea Party supporters sell buttons before the Republican primary debate begins outside the Mesa Arts Center in Mesa, Arizona on Feb. 22, 2012.

Happy Super Tuesday eve! If you’re a registered Republican in one of the 11 states that’s voting in a primary tomorrow, maybe you’re still mulling your choices.

Will it be the candidate who vows to put a permanent military base on the moon, build a giant fence along the Mexican border and return to $1 per gallon gasoline? The man who doesn’t believe in contraception? The man who is under fire for being too moderate and too rich? Or, the one who wants the American military out of, well, everywhere, except for America?

Decisions, decisions.

On February 22 I was in Mesa, Arizona to watch the Republican candidates duke it out in the final debate before Super Tuesday. Here’s the story I wrote during the debate for iPolitics.

Even more interesting than that, here’s what things looked like on the ground, from the debate stage to the rallies outside: Continue reading

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