What to Read When It’s Hot Outside

Last winter I shared a list of books that I’d recommend checking out when it’s cold outside. All of them were set during the winter because sometimes I like to match the settings in the stories I read to what the weather in Ontario is like at that a particular time of the year.

Now it’s the middle of July.  Instead of having a high temperature of -25 C (-13 F) like we did when I published that post last January, it’s supposed to feel like 40 C (104 F) today including the humidex. I’m lucky enough to have air conditioning, but our home air conditioner does have some trouble keeping up when the weather grows that hot and humid.

Luckily, there’s something about leaping into a good book that helps me forget even the strongest heat wave.

My summer reading preferences tend to veer off into two different directions. I either want to read serious classic literature or lighthearted beach reads that don’t require much analyzing at all. (So much depends on exactly how humid it is outside and how well my brain cells are swimming around in my skull. Ha!)

I have no idea why my brain has made the connection between these two types of stories and summer. All I know is that these were the sections of our local public library I’d often visit first after school let out and I needed something to occupy my time for a few months.

Summer Sisters by Judy Blume

Summer Sisters was the first Judy Blume tale I read that wasn’t meant for kids. I stumbled across it a couple of decades before I reached the target age range, but I still loved the idea of making a childhood friend who remained with you throughout your life.

My family moved around a lot when I was growing up. The friends I made once we finally settled down for good turned out not to be people I had anything in common with at all in adulthood. This gives me a soft spot for people who were able to maintain their childhood friendships twenty, forty, or even sixty years later. It must be incredible to have such a long, rich history with someone like that.

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg

The first thing I’m going to tell you about this book is that you should never try to fry green tomatoes. My one and only attempt at making this dish did not end deliciously. Fried tomatoes have such an odd texture that I don’t ever want to taste them again.

The storyline itself was well done, though. It was about an unlikely friendship between a sad, middle-aged woman named Evelyn and Mrs. Threadgoode, a lonely nursing home resident. As they got to know each other better, Mrs. Threadgoode began telling Evelyn a complicated story about two friends who grew up together and ran a restaurant in Whistle Stop, Alabama that served coffee and occasionally might have been the scene of a violent crime or two.

Summer makes me feel nostalgic, so reading about what life was like from roughly the early 1900s to the1940s tickled my imagination.

 

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

Some middle grade books can be just as appealing to adults as they are to their intended audience. If you ask me, this is one of them.

Winnie, the main character, had to decide whether or not to drink water from a spring that had the power to make someone immortal. I loved the descriptions of the water in that spring, especially since Winnie visited it during an uncomfortably warm portion of the year from what I can recall. There’s nothing as refreshing as a glass of cold water on a hot summer day, although I don’t know that I’d be interested in living forever.

 

My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult

Okay, so technically My Sister’s Keeper wasn’t set during the summer. I first read it during such a hot and humid portion of this season that it still feels like a summer read to me.

The dilemma the characters dealt with was one that I thought could have been solved much more quickly than it was. Anna was a young girl who had been conceived specifically to be a donor for an older sibling who had leukaemia. She’s endured numerous medical procedures over the years in order to keep her sister alive, and by the time she turned eleven she’d had enough.

I formed my opinion on the ethics of this (fictional) case almost immediately. That didn’t mean I was any less interested in seeing if Anna could become legally emancipated from her family or what would happen to her sister after Anna was no longer forced to give away parts of her body to her sibling.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

To be perfectly honest with you, I am not a huge fan of Faulkner’s writing style. His descriptions remind me of a few people I know who will take ten minutes to recount a story that could have easily been shared in one or two. My patience for that sort of thing is limited to days when I have all the time in the world to read (or listen) and don’t mind getting lost in a long description of what someone’s wagon looked like before the narrator eventually sees fit to tell me who is riding in that wagon and where they’re going.

Without giving away any spoilers, the journey on said wagon was a deeply emotional one. I simply need to be in the right frame of mind in order to properly enjoy it (and to keep the 15 narrators straight in my mind!)

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

As someone who had mixed feelings about Romeo and Juliet, I sure wasn’t expecting to enjoy A Midsummer Night’s Dream like I did. There’s something about a warm summer night that makes falling in love – or, in some cases, lust – just a little more appealing than it would be at other times of the year.

If possible, I highly recommend watching this play outdoors on a warm evening. I was lucky enough to do that once, and it made the storyline come alive for me. There was something about feeling the humid air against my skin and hearing crickets chirping in the distance that made me feel like I’d been transported hundreds of years ago to when this story was first performed.

 

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Yes, I know I’ve talked about this book several times before in previous posts. One of the things I liked most about the earliest scenes were their descriptions of what summer was like in the 1930s before air conditioning was invented. This was a very small part of the plot, of course, but people back then came up with all sorts of inexpensive and inventive ways to remain as cool as possible. I enjoyed reading about their solutions, and they made me very grateful to live in a world where air conditioning exists.

 

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

 Not only is The Bluest Eye set during the summer, I first read it over summer vacation as well. The sharp contrast between the warm setting and the cold descriptions of a young girl who had endured terrible abuse made me very curious to see how it ended. This book does include descriptions of the after-effects of rape, so reader be warned.

Do your reading preferences shift from one season to the next? What genres do you like to read during the hottest part of the year where you live?

Suggestion Saturday: July 14, 2018

Here is this week’s list of short stories, articles, and other links from my favourite corners of the web.

Dust to Dust. This is one of those short stories that works best if it’s read on a hot, dusty summer day. Enjoy!

Walk to Your Health via CorinneBlogs. It’s always nice to find other people who walk as part of their exercise routine.

We Want to Have Fun Like You, But Here’s What It Takes via achvoice. If you’ve ever wondered what it was like to live with an invisible illness, go read this.

Free Horror Book Promo. My friend Jan is giving away free e-books of two of her horror novels from July 13 to July 17. Click on this link for more information. If anyone who is reading this will be putting their own books on sale in the future, I’d be happy to share a link to your site.

The Bullshit of Busy via seanpaulmahoney. I couldn’t agree with this more. There’s something incredibly odd about bragging about how busy one is.

From To Be Resilient, Face Tragedy with Humour and Flexibility:

Rather than seeing themselves as victims of a terrible and mindless fate, resilient people and groups devise ways to frame their misfortune in a more personally understandable way, and this serves to protect them from being overwhelmed by difficulties in the present.

From The Rise of Adblock Shaming:

The internet looks very different if you are using software to block advertisements. Use it for a long time you’ll forget how much junk a user has to slog through to read or watch anything.

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Hopeful Science Fiction: Woman on the Edge of Time

Last month, I blogged about my desire to step back from the dystopian genre and read hopeful science fiction instead.

The rules were simple. I didn’t require a story to start out in a hopeful or happy place, but I did want to read scifi that ended that way.

Since then, I’ve started to compile a list of books that fit this description. I’ll be talking about one of them today and plan to gradually blog about the rest in the future. If you have recommendations for this series, I’d sure like to hear them. Leave a comment below or send me message about it on Twitter.

Woman on the Edge of Time

Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time was first published in 1976. It was about Consuelo Ramos, a woman whose life had been forever changed by poverty, mental illness, prejudice, and violence.

Nothing I’m about to say is a spoiler. All of it was mentioned in the blurb for this book, and there are many plots twists and important details from later chapters that I’ll leave up to you to discover for yourselves.

I should warn you that the beginning of this book was filled with a great deal of pain. Consuelo’s life had been incredibly difficult for many years before the audience met her. She’d made choices that seriously harmed other people, and she’d been on the receiving end of other people’s terrible decisions as well. There were times when it read much more like a dystopia than anything else before the plot veered into other directions.

If you press forward through the dark beginning, though, you’ll begin to see what I’m talking about when I refer to this as a piece of hopeful science fiction.

Shortly before involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital early on in this story, Consuelo began telepathically communicating with Luciente, a person who was living in an utopian society in 2137.

As their unlikely friendship blossomed, Consuelo eventually travelled through time to visit Luciente and see how people lived in the 2100s. It was like nothing Consuelo had ever seen before.

In Luciente’s world, there was no poverty, racism, sexism, or violence. No one ever went hungry or was denied urgent medical treatment due to their lack of ability to pay for it. Everyone was given the opportunity to chart the course of their own lives regardless of who they were or what they’d previously decided to do with their energy and time. As long as it didn’t harm anyone else, you could do virtually anything you desired with your time, from raising a family to making art to experimenting with new ways of growing crops.

This wasn’t the only future world Consuelo visited, however. She later saw a dystopian society where the bodies and minds of poor people were used as a commodity by the wealthy. It was the opposite of the place Luciente lived in every way you could imagine. Roles were rigidly determined by who your parents were, and there was no way to switch from one part of that society to another. A person’s time was never their own. There was always someone looking over your shoulder and telling you what you must do next.

Which Future Will Be Ours?

One of the things I enjoyed the most about this tale was how much time it spent explaining why Consuelo had been chosen to see and interact with these two very different versions of the future of humanity. She wasn’t a passive player in these trips by any means. Her presence made a difference in ways she couldn’t even begin to imagine so long as she was stuck in the psychiatric facility.

As Luciente would tell her over and over again, the decisions Consuelo made in 1976 were going to play a critical role in which version of the future came to pass. The thought of someone as socially marginalized and powerless as Consuelo actually being the key to changing the fate of the entire world tickled my imagination. I’ve almost never seen anything like it before.

Most science fiction and fantasy heroes that I’ve read about have had at least a few advantages in life, whether it’s through being born with special powers or being apprenticed to someone who could teach them the skills they needed to defeat even their most powerful enemies.

The fact that Consuelo was expected to save the world without any magical abilities, mystical objects, all-knowing mentors, trusty sidekicks, or any other real sources of help in her battle made it impossible for me to stop reading. I had to know which version of the future would come to pass and if Consuelo would be able to improve the circumstances of her own life in the 1970s as well.

Hope Is the Thing with Feathers

With apologies to Emily Dickinson, I loved this story’s approach to the concept of hope.

When I first began researching possibilities for this series, I wondered how easy it would be to find hopeful examples in a genre that has so often assumed the worst case scenario is the one worth writing and thinking about. The dystopian sub-genre has become so popular these days that I knew I’d have to do some digging to find characters who didn’t live in that kind of world.

Since I’m also not the kind of reader who usually seeks out tales that attempt to be hopeful by brushing over – or even simply ignoring-  difficult topics like racism and sexism, my other concern was that I’d be left with stories that were hopeful only for readers who were able to suspend their disbelief and enter an imaginary world where no one ever dealt with serious, real world issues.

The beautiful thing about Woman on the Edge of Time was how it found hope even in the midst of all of the prejudice Consuelo fought against during her life. Her determination to radically improve the future for the sake of every person who had been or will be born was rooted in part in her hope that all forms of bigotry could be vanquished for good if she made the right decisions.

Final Notes

There are so many other things I want to say about this book, but I don’t want to give away spoilers about it for anyone who hasn’t read it before. If you have read it, I’d be happy to discuss it in much greater detail somewhere other than the comment section of this post.

Do keep in mind that this tale has many twists and turns along the way to the final scene. It’s not something I’d recommend to anyone who needs to avoid any references at all to complex topics like abuse or how destructive habits can be passed down from one generation to the next. Consuelo and many of the other characters had many difficult experiences in their lives. This wasn’t the sort of universe where someone swoops in and saves the good guys in the nick of time before anything terrible happened to them.

These characters knew more than their fair share of pain, but all of the hope they found along the way more than made up for it in my mind.

What hopeful science fiction stories have you been reading recently?

 

10 Actionable Ways You Can Incorporate Mindfulness In Your Life

Mindfulness: it’s one of those trendy buzz words that have been gaining a lot of popularity in the health and fitness world, like kale or alkaline or “ancient grains.” But what is it REALLY?

I used to think you could only practice mindfulness if you were a hip and fully bendable yogi, fresh off your latest meditation retreat where you and the Kundalini crew ate exclusively vegan tofu and discussed tips on optimizing your DIY composting toilet-that’s-really-a-bucket.

But after taking a mindfulness quiz in which I scored extremely poorly (the quiz literally told me to “Think again”, which made me laugh sheepishly), I realize that one can easily practice a little bit of mindfulness in everyday situations.
I’m a firm believer of practice makes perfect, and that holds true for mindfulness as well! Here are 10 actionable ways one can begin practicing mindfulness:

1. Instead of scarfing down your food, chew with purpose! Mindful eating is a great place to start because, hey, WE ALL EAT. Consider the texture, taste, and smell of your food. If it’s one of your favorite dishes, relish the act of eating it! Why exactly is it your favorite dish? Do you have any fond memories associated with it?

2. Be truly cognizant of your surroundings while driving. For many people, we go on auto-pilot during our commute. Change this by practicing mindful driving: feel your palms on the steering wheel or your foot on the pedal. Listen to the cars around you.

3. Be aware of your breathing. Feel your lungs slowly expand in and out and listen to the rhythm of your heart beat.

4. Feel the textures of your clothing as you wear them. Are you wearing a particularly soft hoodie? A silky blouse? The rough denim on your legs? How do these articles of clothing make you feel?

5. Notice your mood, and acknowledge any shifts in emotions. Do you feel hungry? Nostalgic? Melancholic? Happy? Anxious? Impatient? Why do you feel that way?

6. Set a 5 minute alarm on your phone. Then, for the next five minutes, practice concentrating on an object in the room. It can be a pen, a potted plant, anything. Be fully aware of that object: how it feels, its functions, how it is built or created, etc. If your mind starts to waver or you become distracted, practice focusing your attention back on the object. Keep at it until the five minutes is up.

7. Practice walking meditation. You can do this while walking in the parking lot, grocery shopping or even just taking a walk down the street outside of your house. Feel your legs carry you from one place to another. Feel your foot stepping on the pavement or floor. Feel the muscles of your body acting in unison to transport you to a different location.

8. Go to a busy area, like a park or a restaurant, and listen to the sounds around you. It can be a bird chirping in the free, a dog barking in the distance, your neighbor’s wind chimes. Listen to the different pitches of each sound and focus entirely on hearing the environment around you.

9. Pay attention to seemingly mundane or normal tasks – even the little inconsequential things that you do on a regular basis. Feel the smooth glass on your smartphone, or listen to the rhythmic clickety-clack of your keyboard as you type an email.

10. Embrace stress and acknowledge how it affects you physically and mentally. When you feel stress, become aware of the physical changes that are taking place in your body that have resulted because of the stress. Perceive the stress in your body as energy that will allow you to accomplish the task at hand. Accept the stress, and mindfully channel it towards productivity.

This is by no means an exhaustive list: there are hundreds of other ways one can practice mindfulness. With enough hard work and effort, you’ll be on your way towards becoming a more mindful and self-aware individual!

About the Author: Nicole Clarke is a content writer in the addiction treatment and holistic health niche. When she isn’t blogging, she is probably spending time with her family or online shopping! She discovered the benefits of mindfulness at the beginning of her journey with sobriety from substance abuse. Please reach out to her on Twitter at @NicoleHClarke!

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Dangerous Mutations: A Review of Annihilation

This review is spoiler-free. As always, the only time I’d share spoilers in a review would be if I needed to warn my readers about potentially triggering themes or scenes in the source material. This was one of the films I talked about wanting to watch in this post. So far, I’ve also reviewed Into the Forest from that list.

Annihilation is a 2018 film based on a book by the same name by Jeff VanderMeer. It’s about five military scientists who travel into the heart of a rapidly-expanding anomaly called “The Shimmer” in order to discover what caused it and why every other team of explorers who had been sent into it had disappeared without a trace.

There were a large enough group of characters that I feel the need to introduce all of them in some detail before diving into my thoughts on the story itself. I’m discussing everyone in the past tense in order to avoid accidentally giving away any hints about what happened to them or who may or may not have made it to the final scene.

 

The Characters

Natalie Portman as Lena.

 

Lena was a biologist, professor at Johns Hopkins, and former soldier. Her husband, Sergeant Kane, had disappeared on a top secret mission about a year before the events of this story took place, and she was still overcome with grief over her loss due to the fact that the military refused to tell her anything about where he’d been or what might have caused him to go missing.

She was a brave person who knew how to react quickly and appropriately in a crisis. Most of the scenes in this film were shown from her perspective.

 

Gina Rodriguez as Anya Thorensen.

 

Gina was a paramedic from Chicago.

She was an intelligent and cautious person who always put safety of herself and her crew first. I also enjoyed her subtle sense of humour.

 

Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dr. Ventress.

 

Dr. Ventress, a psychologist, was the team leader of this group. She had been responsible for performing psychological evaluations of and assembling all of the previous groups that had been sent into “The Shimmer.”

She was a stubborn, serious, and determined person. Once she set her mind to accomplish a goal, no one could dissuade her from pressing forward to achieve it. At times, she did come across as ill-tempered to me because of how unwilling she was to listen to the concerns of the other women in her group when their mission started to go awry.

 

Tessa Thompson as Josie Radek.

Josie was a physicist.

She was an intelligent and trusting woman whose natural inclination was to assume the best of everyone she met. If you forced me to pick a favourite character in this story, Josie would be it. I only wish the adventure had been told from her point of view instead.

 

Tuva Novotny (in centre) as Cassie “Cass” Shepherd.

 

Cass was a  geomorphologist. Her responsibility on this mission was to test the magnetic fields around the boundary to determine why drones, cellphones, and other types of technology malfunctioned so often within “The Shimmer.”

She was a quiet and hardworking person who seemed to have no interest in drawing attention to everything she did for the group. There’s something I admire about that.

My Review

One of the biggest reasons why I was so excited to see this film had to do with the fact that it had an all-female cast. I have never watched anything in the science fiction genre that was so centred on the experiences of women in an unfamiliar and dangerous environment. At most, I would have expected to see two women in this sort of tale. It was thrilling to have an entire team of women hiking into “The Shimmer” to discover its secrets. If you’re listening, Hollywood, we need many more stories like this in the future!

The beginning of the mission.

 

The diversity of the cast only drew me into the plot more. From age to race to sexual orientation, these characters were from a wide range of backgrounds.  It was a breath of fresh air to see them working together to reach a common goal without any of these labels being a source of conflict for the plot.

The beginning was a little confusing to me due to how much it jumped around from one time period to the next without much explanation about how all of the pieces fit together.  This is the only negative thing I’ll be saying about this film, and I’m mentioning it because it’s a storytelling device that I don’t generally find appealing. The writers did an excellent job of framing all of these seemingly-disparate scenes in ways that grabbed my attention, though, and I soon decided that I simply had to know how everything fit together.

In some ways, this wasn’t necessarily a typical science fiction movie. The pacing always remained steady, but the storyline was far more interested in encouraging the audience to ask probing questions about what was really happening to the characters as they marched deeper into “The Shimmer” than it was in surprising the audience with jump scares. I loved the fact that I was expected to think instead of bracing for the next monster leaping out of the shadows.

The apprehension I felt while watching this tale grew slowly. I wasn’t as frightened as I’d normally be while watching something from the horror genre, but I was more scared than I’d typically feel in a normal science fiction environment. With that being said, I’d still hesitate to include it in the horror genre despite what I’ll say about the gore in the next section of this review. The vast majority of the plot was centred on science fiction themes instead.

“The Shimmer” was not a safe place to visit regardless of how strong one might be or how many pieces of equipment they brought in to study this phenomenon. As beautiful as this area of land was at times, it was also full of dangers that could not always be predicted or avoided. The conflict between the peaceful setting and the anything-but-peaceful things that happened in it fascinated me.

The preview at the end of this post will show you a few examples of the types of things the characters experienced once they entered “The Shimmer”. Combining the DNA of species that would normally never be combined created all sorts of living beings that have to be seen to be believed. I was fascinated by how all of this worked and how far the storytellers ran with this concept.

I can’t go into any further details about what else the characters discovered without giving away spoilers, but I will tell you that it was quite creative and like nothing I’ve ever seen before. This was one of the major reasons why I’d recommend Annihilation so highly to anyone who has the slightest interest in checking it out.

The metaphors in this story were well written. I adored the fact that it could be interpreted from so many different angles, especially since the writers didn’t feel the need to nudge the audience in any particular direction. There was material to support multiple interpretations of what “The Shimmer” could be. One of the most popular theories about what it meant isn’t actually something I thought of when while I watching it, but it made perfect sense in retrospect.

I can’t say much else about this without giving away spoilers, but I would strongly encourage everyone to pay close attention to what is happening in the plot so you can come up with your own theories before wandering around online later on to see what other people thought.

A Note on the (Brief) Gore

There were two short but graphic scenes in this film. I was glad I’d been warned about them ahead of time so I could avert my eyes once they began. As I believe I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’ve been losing interest in violence and bloodshed in fiction this year.

I’d be happy to privately share more information about when these scenes occur with anyone who would like to watch Annihilation but who might be hesitant about the gore factor. This is something I can discuss without giving away major spoilers, although I would have to share minor ones with you.

Should You Watch It?

Yes! I would heartily recommend watching Annihilation. It was a thought-provoking film that refused to spoon-feed its audience. I loved the process of figuring out what was really happening in “The Shimmer” and coming up with my own interpretations of how certain scenes should be understood.

Annihilation is available on iTunes.

Suggestion Saturday: July 7, 2018

Here is this week’s list of comic strips and other links from my favourite corners of the web. All Beauty Must Die. This comic strip is a littler darker than the ones I normally share on Suggestion Saturday posts, but it did make me laugh while I was also shaking my head. (Don’t worry – there’s… Read More

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How I’m Handling My Summer Fitness Slump

I’ve trimmed down everything I wanted to say on today’s post into something that’s shorter than usual. As I’ve said before, I’d much rather stop writing when I run out of content than stretch out my points to fill a predetermined number of words. This is an interesting time of the year in Toronto. After… Read More

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My Favourite Canadian Books

Happy belated Canada Day! One of the most interesting parts of moving to Canada was getting to read some of the amazing books that have been written by Canadian authors over the years. From what I’ve observed, there seems to be a lot of Canadian literature that isn’t necessarily that well-known in the United States.… Read More

Suggestion Saturday: June 30, 2018

Happy Pride! As a member of the LGBT community, it was especially fun for me to put together this week’s list of pie charts, blog posts, and other LGBT-themed links from my favourite corners of the web. Things You Should Never Have to Do. All of the sections in this pie chart were beautifully true, but I… Read More