• Activity Being Procrastinated: submission for Thursday’s workshop
  • Music In My Head: Melancholy Man – The Moody Blues
  • Tea: apple cinnamon
  • Books Being Read: The Lightning Thief – Rick Riordan; a gift (keep reading)


That’s the word they use to describe me. “Sheila gets focused on things”, they say.


I’ve been focused on work for the past three months – pretty much every waking hour spent working or worrying about work, except for a slow-ish period over Christmas. That slow-ish period was a lifesaver, though, because I’d forgotten some important things that the visitors and celebrations helped me to remember.

I’d forgotten about balance. Good needs evil. What goes up must come down. For there to be output, there needs to be an equal amount of input.

If I’m writing several thousand words per day and speaking many thousand more as I teach, I need words going into me.

On the last day before the Christmas holidays, I took a whole slew of books out of the library – nothing direly heavy, just some stuff that looked good. Mostly fiction, ‘cause if I need to read, I don’t want reality, thanks. I also bought some books from the library: they have this constant booksale to raise funds. The second-hand books are $1 or $2 each, so I can justify it through a mixture of fiscal responsibility, environmentalism and charity. That day, I came home with some ten books to read over the holidays.

It felt like a pottery cup being filled with cool, clean water. The first words sank right down to my feel and wriggled around like little minnows. They seeped into the earthy clay contours of my body, replacing dead airspaces with small drops of life. It felt so good that I wrote a little note in my agenda reminding myself to read every day. I haven’t had to look at that note. I don’t need to be reminded to read anymore. I’m re-focused.

This week was (theoretically) the end of the busy season. The kids in China have finished their exams, the kids in Canada have finished their final essays and start writing their exams next week, and the Big Grammar Project is DONE. I’ve been stocking up on more books in preparation for the peace and quiet I’ll have during Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) and the beginning of the new semester. Just this week, I found copies of Laurence Senelick’s Lovesick, Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You, Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion, Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief (which I’m reading with two of my Chinese classes), Lawrence Hill’s Any Known Blood, and Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn.

I love second-hand books. They smell so good.

I also received a Chapters card for Christmas, so I bought myself a copy of Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil because that’s definitely something I want to have in my library.

My pusher, Denise, has had a book on her shelf for over a year now. As this week has been one of those weeks where a) I’ve focused pretty hard and b) several times I’ve made an effort that involved leaving my comfort zone, I decided I needed that book. I bought it for myself as very special present yesterday. That the book was still on Denise’s shelf when I went into the store was just taken as another Sign from Above. The book is a 1928 copy of The Letters of Sacco and Vanzetti. Pristine condition. The bottoms of several pages still uncut. Used as a bookmark was a business card for Encore Mart Inc, an auctioneer from Montreal during the time when the telephone numbers still began with a name.

I’m in love.

Sacco’s badly-written, misspelled, barely intelligible letters describing a visit from his wife and children; Vanzetti’s polite, articulate epistles to his landlady about a child playing with a kitten, and the ones to his comrades that talk about the insurrection needing love rather than money… forget the Bible: if you want to know the deepest secrets of humanity and divinity, read letters. The book is prefaced with a quote from Vanzetti:

If it had not been for these things, I might have lived out my life talking at street corners to scorning men. I might have died unmarked, unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life could we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man’s understanding of man as now we do by accident.

How can you say it any better than that?

A couple of weeks ago, a new publisher contacted one of my writing groups with a call for submissions. They’re looking to overhaul the Canadian publishing system with books that are “jaw-dropping and awesome”. A friend scoffed at these words. Has your jaw ever actually dropped when you were reading? Dropped?


I sent him this list:

  • Beatrice and Virgil
  • The Vita Æterna Mirror Company: Mirrors to Last till Kingdom Come
  • The Last of the Crazy People
  • The Butterfly Plague
  • A Candle for St. Anthony (I was 11, okay?)
  • Eunoia (maybe not dropped : maybe my mouth just opened a lot)
  • Several parts of Dandelion Wine

I forgot to add Jeanette Winterson’s Weight to that list.

Sure, my jaw has dropped when I read a book. Words do that to me. Sometimes what I read is just so… utterly astounding that my body freezes so my mind can process the words. When someone manages to put the perfect combination of words together, I forget to breathe. I understand how a drug addict feels when the chemical reaction is at its best.

Sacco and Vanzetti’s letters are also jaw-dropping. I add them to that list, too.

Of course, to maintain the balance, there should be a list of books that are “awesome and jaw-clenching”: those books that terrify you and make you want to weep.

  • Black Like Me
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • An Equal Music
  • Giovanni’s Room
  • The Man Without A Face (I was also 11 when I read this, okay?)

I don’t think I could list all the books that have affected my life; the above lists are just the ones that come to my head immediately.  There are many more that have made my jaw drop, sent shivers up and down my spine, made my eyes widen.  That’s the kind of book I deliberately look for.  While “jaw-dropping and awesome” may be a cheesy way of describing it, you can’t expect publishers to be good with words.

That’s our job.

6 responses to “Books

  1. What this blogger fails to note is how her own work can unhinge jaded jaws.


  2. You are absolutely right and now I’ll try to think of a better description than jaw-dropping. But the words should paralyze you so you must re-read them before you can move on to the next sentence. That is writing!

    And Raven is right on! When will you begin to put yourself into your formal submissions as you do on your blog? (nag, nag, nag….)


  3. “Yeah, yeah” yourself, Homme. We obviously need to change the books you read: King just ain’t jaw-dropping. Or awesome.

    New quest: find Homme de Sept-Iles a good book to read.


  4. Pingback: The ****ing Awesome Ken Sparling « The English Major’s Blog

  5. Pingback: Untitled | The English Major's Blog

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