Category Archives: Travel

Post-Colombia Time Warp

I’ve been in some sort of time warp for the past six weeks. Ever since returning from Colombia it seems that life has thrown one unexpected curveball at me after the other. My coping mechanism, of course, has been to read voraciously. There was one week where I was too sick to even hold a book (thank you stress, recycled airplane air and sudden temperature changes) but otherwise I have been using my oldest friend for some serious escapism of late.

The eight or so books that I ended up taking with me to the country that is home to: a cosmopolitan city set high in the Andes, remote jungles of the Sierra Nevada,  mountain villages, deserted beaches and coca plantations turned out to be just the right amount. When it poured non-stop for our first two nights in Bogota, we acclimatized by pub-hopping in the student-filled Candelaria district, reading, and enjoying a good dose of Colombian Netflix (so much better than in Canada!). I tore through the first two books with me – Sarah Winman’s When God was a Rabbit and Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility – but loved them both too much to leave them behind. Instead I guiltily wrapped them back up in Safeway bags and re-deposited them  at the bottom of my back pack (okay, Andrew’s back pack). The night before we set out on a 5 day hike through a remote jungle, destined to visit the 1,200 year-old Ciudad Perdida, I weighed (quite literally) my choices: One book? Two books? No books? I settled on one and although the humidity, strenuous climbs and suspect drinking water kept me from making much headway I still found the worn pages of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being to be a great comfort nestled next to me while I dozed in the hammock every afternoon. And then, three weeks were gone and as though planned to the tee, I found myself finishing the last couple of pages of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms as our plane landed back in YYC; thereby concluding my vacation with exaggerated solemnity.

I won’t go into the rest of my reads from that time now as a number of them deserve their own post (A Clockwork Orange, chief among them!). For now I’ll leave you with some pictures from the once shunned South American gem that is Colombia.

Fishing boats Taganga

Fishing boats Taganga

Clouds over the Andes

Clouds over the Andes

Young Kogi girl

Young Kogi girl

Traditional Kogi village

Traditional Kogi village

Ciudad Perdida

Ciudad Perdida

Kogi family at camp

Kogi family at camp

The guards of the Ciudad

The guards of the Ciudad

Colombian Starbucks

Colombian Starbucks

Fishing boats Cartagena

Fishing boats Cartagena

Soccer on the beach. Downtown Cartagena in the background.

Soccer on the beach. Downtown Cartagena in the background.

On the nightstand: The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre

Oh the dilemma

If ever there was a time to adopt an e-reader, it’s now. My sister-in-law gave me hers last year, saying that with two kids under the age of 4, reading was so far down her list of priorities that she’d never use it.

The reason I could (should!) use one now is that my husband and I are packing for our trip to Colombia. We leave in mere hours and will be gone for nearly three weeks. So, the dilemma is – how many books to bring! Or, take only one electronic device (well, in addition to my iphone and ipad) that can store over a thousand books!

I laid out the potential contenders on the floor the other day and hovered over them in consternation. Organized in four rows of four I figured I should probably cut the number in half… I asked my husband which ones he thought I should bring. He quickly looked over my shoulder and said “Easy. These.” while sweeping his hand, arrogantly, across the middle two rows. ZERO. THOUGHT.

I mean, doesn’t he realize that my selection has to be chosen carefully? A lot of thought goes into the mix. There needs to be a certain percentage of: classics, of counter-culture, of current, of non-fiction and even varying lengths.

So, while not yet finalized (and not immune to airport-additions, my favorite kind!), my list of travel books includes title such as:

  • White Album by Joan Didion (non-fiction)
  • When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman (current fiction)
  • A Farewell to Arms by Hemingway (classic)
  • Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (short!)
  • Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse (dense counterculture)

In other news, I snapped off two books last week taking my 2013 tally to five: the Cook by Wayne Macauley and Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones.

On a jet plane..

~ kate

Happy New Year


I feel like I’ve been on my Christmas/New Year’s vacation forever and yet I can’t believe where the time has gone. It has been a wonderful holiday season for me this year replete with friends, food, fun activities and of course books. Santa delivered (too) many wonderful things to me as he does every year, chief among them eight out of the 11 books on my list.

In honour of a new year, the season of reflections and resolutions, I was going to do a “Top Five Reads of 2012” a la Globe and Mail and the like. Fitting though this would be for a book blog, there are two main problems: one, I rarely read books published in the current year and two, my memory is a bit like a sieve so if I didn’t blog about a book it tends to get lost in the chasms of my grey matter.

Alas, I’ve opted to post a different kind of top 5 – prepare to be enlightened!

Top 5 Positive Life Changes

  1. I quit my job.  My job paid very well but was no longer challenging, fulfilling or enjoyable so there really wasn’t a choice. Quitting was scary but probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made; it opened the door to a world of new possibilities.
  2. I travelled. I could put this down pretty much every year but 2012 had some pretty special moments. I headed into the year in Vietnam, spent a week in Hawaii for a very dear friend’s wedding, booked a last-minute soul-searching trip to Paris, spent more time in interior BC than ever before and took a two-week long road trip with one of my bestest friends that put a whole lot of things into perspective. “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”  – St. Augustine
  3. I became a mom. Not to a child, but to a dog. People who don’t have dogs will shake their heads but those who do will understand wholeheartedly. Getting a rescue dog to start my summer of unemployment was, I think, pivotal to my happiness. Without Teddy I would have felt like I was wasting my time, I would have felt companion-less while Andrew worked and I would have felt selfish. Teddy gave me purpose, unconditional love and affection and seeing him come out of his shy skin has been a very rewarding experience.


    Bless you T-dawg.

  4. I started blogging again. I started this blog back in 2010 and absolutely loved it. Life got in the way (or some other excuse) and it fell by the wayside but in the two years that passed without blogging I always felt like something was lacking. I tried filling the void a million ways but nothing really worked. Thoughts move a mile a minute in my head, the only way to slow them down (and sometimes make sense of them) is to write. Writing focuses me, is therapeutic and with each post I feel like a space for new ideas opens up inside me. “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” – Maya Angelou
  5. I started a new job. After four months without a paycheque I started looking for work again in late September and through a series of strange events landed in a new career that is very different from anything I’ve done before and different from anything I ever thought I’d want to do. I have a feeling that is a recipe for success.

I’m not prepared to follow this “look-back” list up with a “look-forward” one. I can feel triumphant about these changes since they have already happened. To write down my goals for 2013 means that I have to follow through – a terrifying thought! While I work up that courage to etch my list in stone, I hope everyone has a very Happy New Year! See you in 2013!

~ kate

P.S. Has anyone noticed it’s snowing on my blog?? 🙂

Long Live the Independent Bookstore

Despite the towering pile of books next to my bed, I stopped in at my favorite bookstore, Shelf Life , yesterday to order an out of print book (I’ll wait until it arrives to divulge the name) and of course picked up a couple other titles while I was there. Walking around SL makes me so happy. I could spend hours in there and I am constantly finding titles I’ve never even heard of that sound right up my alley – The Beats: A Graphic History, anyone?? So I thought I’d dedicate a post to the independent bookstore – may they never go the way of HMV (which now carries more books than CDs it seems???).

My earliest memory of a bookstore is from when I was about four or five years old. My family had a cottage near Kingston, Ontario so we used to go into town to visit the Novel Bookstore every once and awhile. According to my mom, as soon as we got into the store I would tear off my coat and run to the back where the children’s section is always located and dive into a pile of books.  Honestly, if my husband’s at a bookstore today, the scene doesn’t look all that different.

People – generally those who are not “Readers” – sometimes ask me what makes a bookstore “good”. I know they’re thinking, “Wouldn’t Chapters or Amazon just be easier, wouldn’t they have the most inventory?”. They are right. And wrong. Amazon, of course, is an amazing resource: books at your fingertips, often they are available in used condition and you can find out of print titles there too. However, the selection at Chapters is terrible when you compare it to their square footage. Not to mention, I’m kind of over “Heather’s picks”. I’d rather read a book recommended by “Steve” the kind-of-nerdy-hipster in the back who spends most of his time knee-deep in the Sci-Fi or graphic novel sections but wades out every once in awhile to put something like Maus in the Staff Picks (if you haven’t read Art Spiegelman’s Maus, go get it NOW).  I don’t usually entertain these non-Readers when they ask me why a bookstore is good because I figure they won’t get it.  Maybe I should start using some analogies: it’s like getting your coffee at Beano instead of Tim Hortons, or like buying a bike at Pedalhead instead of Sport Chek or buying your vegetables at the Farmer’s Market instead of Safeway. The people who work at independent bookstores love to read. They love books so this naturally translates into higher quality products. Pedalhead  may carry fewer bikes than Sportchek but they’re higher quality and the salespeople actually know what they’re talking about.

Here’s a top-ten of my favorite independent bookstores from around the globe:

1. Audrey’s Bookstore – Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

  • Weekend visits to Audrey’s bookstore was about the closest I got to a routine as a kid. I was dying to be acknowledged as an adult so I loved that the young adult’s section was positioned just outside the children’s area. Audrey’s is THE place to go in Edmonton for hard to find or rare prints. Try the Commodore next door for breakfast and make an outing of it – full breakfast plus coffee for under $5!

Audrey’s Books

2. Greenwoods – Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

  • I think Greenwoods was having a rough go financially when I was a kid – the stores kept moving and splitting off then changing ownership – so they weren’t high on my stalwart-bookstore list but when the Harry Potter books hit the scene in the 90’s (yes, 90’s, can you believe it!) Greenwoods offered to buy back these books at 50% of the list price. This is pretty unheard of for a trade-in so I became a fast friend.

3. Wee Book Inn – Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

  • The Wee Book Inn was my first exposure to a used bookstore. When I was about 8 or 9 years old I used to ride my bike down to the Stony Plain Road location to load up on Archie comics for $0.25-$0.50 a copy. When I got a little older, I would stuff my knap-sac full of books from around the house (probably not all belonging to me) in an effort to finance my blooming book addiction.

4. Shelf Life – Calgary, Alberta, Canada

  • For the longest time I thought this bookstore was a Christian Bookstore. I don’t know why, something to do with the unassuming signage but when I walked by one day and saw a veritable homage to Kerouac in the window I popped in and have been a loyal customer ever since. Every time I go in there I feel like the selection has been handpicked just for me.

5. Pages – Toronto, Ontario, Canada

  • I haven’t been here in years but every time I make a visit back to T-dot I pop in. Located on Queenstreet W the trip there is part of the experience: there’s so much energy in that area and it definitely carries over into the bookstore. I believe I bought my first Moleskin at Pages way back before they were EVERYWHERE.

6. The Strand – New York, New York, USA

  • OMG what can I say about the Strand?!?! My heart beat quickens just thinking about it. I actually stumbled upon the Strand the first time I was there, perhaps making the experience more magical. It’s huge, filled with effortlessly cool people, there are tons of cheap books for sale out front and they even have a little satellite shop in Central Park just in case you’re stuck in Midtown. Oh yeah, and Patti Smith worked there once upon a time – NBD!

7. Elliot Bay Book Co – Seattle, Washington, USA

  • Of course there are amazing bookstores in Seattle. With that much rain you have to provide safe havens for people. I visited (and blogged about) my experience at this bookshop a couple years ago. We were there right before it moved out of the original location but, should I return to Seattle, I would make the pilgrimage again simply for the solid “Staff Picks” section.

8. City Lights Bookstore – San Francisco, California, USA

  • Maybe it’s the three cups of coffee I’ve already had this morning but, I mean, come on! The history surrounding this bookstore is awesome. In case anyone out there doesn’t know – this is the famed bookstore that published Allen Ginsberg’s controversial Howl and other Poems as part of the Pocket Book Series in 1956. Shortly after publication, the store manager was arrested and the store owner and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti was put on trial on charges of obscenity. After a long trial, City Lights was exonerated and the doors were opened for American publication of previously censored Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer (Shades of Grey what?). If you’re in the area, you should also check out the nearby Vesuvio where Kerouac himself used to imbibe.

City Lights bookstore San Francisco, CA

9. Shakespeare and Co. – Paris, France

  • Shakespeare and Co. is so much more than a bookstore. It’s a live music venue, prominent literary event scene, tourist magnet and friendly ex-pat employer. When I was last in Paris, I visited this shop no less than three times in five days. Twice to buy books (once with a glass of wine in hand, no questions asked) and once to watch Lisa Hannigan put on a free show. IN A BOOKSTORE!

The crowd waiting to see Irish singer Lisa Hannigan perform.

10. Bookworm – Hanoi, Vietnam

  • My husband and I spent almost as much time searching for this bookstore in Hanoi as we did looking for the Russian Circus which is also, allegedly in Hanoi. Important lesson here: things change quickly in Vietnam – a restaurant/bookstore/circus that was there last week may be relocated or gone entirely the next. I found three different addresses for the Bookworm before finding the right one. Traipsing around the city was exhausting and the new location is pretty far off the beaten track  but it was worth it. First of all it’s located off a little courtyard behind a cooking school and when you walk in you are immediately enveloped by quiet – a much-needed/refreshing change in the bustling city of Hanoi. The shop is two stories with a mix of new and used books, mostly in English. It’s tough to compare the Bookworm to bookstores in the rest of the world but in Vietnam where English books are hard to find and the government still keeps one eye on everything it was certainly a diamond in the rough. I love the bookstore’s logo too: two Asian/Russian looking men holding a flag declaring “Bookworm”. It’s an obvious Communist reference but ironic since it’s kind of proclaiming freedom of speech/press etc…

Well that’s my top ten. I know I’m forgetting some/haven’t visited them all yet. What are your favorite bookstores?

~ kate

On the nightstand: Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

I knew they were around here somewhere…

Rice fields near Da Lat

My dutiful followers may remember that a couple of weeks ago I woefully mentioned that I had misplaced some scraps of paper containing vital blogging notes.  Well, this morning in one of my shining OCD/life-is-getting-a-little-chaotic-I-better-keep-my-house-clean-so-I-know-at-least-something’s-working moments I found these papers! Guess where they were? Neatly filed in a folder labelled “my hopes and dreams” and safely placed in the top drawer of my desk. I hate when I do that – put something somewhere safe and then totally forget about it. It would make way more sense to me if the pages had been tucked in a book or carelessly scattered on my nightstand or something.

Anyway, they’re found, that’s all that really matters. Truth be told though, there aren’t nearly as many as I remembered (sad considering the title of the folder…) and they’re all written on napkins, not paper. One isn’t even on a napkin but rather a piece of that brown scratchy paper towel you get in public washrooms…

Pedestrian and Scooter, Saigon

I had this grand idea to write a post about all the books I read while on a vacation in Vietnam – we were gone for nearly a month and I think I read a record 13 books! I dutifully recorded every book I read on a napkin from a street vendor. At the time, writing on a napkin felt very poetic or rock and roll or maybe even Hunter S Thompson-esque.  But there is a real downside – they fade very quickly. So, the particular napkin I was looking for is now almost entirely illegible.  I’d like to think all the books I read were great but off the top of my head I can only remember four so perhaps they weren’t that good?

Severely Abridged Vietnam Reading List:

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson: I picked this book up in Hoi An. I had run out of books by this point (yes, an e-reader would have solved this problem) and I was getting pretty desperate. All the bookstores/hawkers were selling the same books – One Day, Papillion, various Bill Bryson and The Beach – so when I found this in the lobby of our hotel I snatched it up. I’m not going to try to review the entire book but I’ll say this – when I finished it I wondered what all the fuss had been about. And yet, as soon as I got home I watched the American and Swedish movies and bought the next two books…                                3.25 stars

Friday Night Knitting Club – Kate Jacobs: Yup, in print I’m admitting to having read this. I actually bought it at a used book sale before my trip thinking it would be a good beach read. That’s pretty much all I have to say about it.               2 stars

Zeitoun – Dave Eggers: I loved a Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, What is the What and The Wild Things all by Eggers so I was pretty thrilled when I stumbled upon this gem in the lobby in Mui Ne on Christmas morning (no word of a lie). This book tells the story of a Syrian-American who is wrongfully arrested in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It definitely made me look differently at all media related to Katrina and especially the authorities in involved in the cleanup. I can add this to the list of books by Eggers that I thoroughly enjoyed.                                                                                                           4 stars

The Beauty of Humanity Movement – Camilla Gibb: Another repeat author for me, I read Sweetness in the Belly when it first came out five or six years ago, I actually came across this book while researching Vietnam before my trip. I learned long ago that you get more out of a trip when you have some background or context so I’ve taken to consuming pertinent movies and books anytime I’m preparing to head off on another adventure. The Beauty of Humanity Movement did just what I was hoping – told a beautiful story, gave me relevant and accurate historical background in a contemporary setting and made me extremely excited to visit Vietnam (especially for the pho!).                        4 stars

Ordering Pho on the Mekong River

Four out of 13’s pretty abysmal; I’ll try to keep a better list next time. Do you ever wonder how many books you’ve read and completely forgotten about?

On the nightstand: Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan


Cheering for the Underdog

I swore I wasn’t going to buy any books. I have too many books. Okay, it may not actually be possible to have too many books but I am starting to drown in them – they are beside my bed, under my bed, on shelves, on mantels, on coffee tables, in the washroom, beside the bathtub, in purses – they are literally everywhere and I am having difficulty keeping up with my purchases. I am acquiring books at a much faster rate than I am able to read them. So, despite the excitement surrounding my visit to the Elliot Bay Book Co. in Seattle, I was going to exercise some restraint for once and abstain (for Lent perhaps, albeit a tad late). Naturally then, when Andrew found me hidden deep in the recesses of the store I was having difficulty holding the stack that had accumulated in my arms.

We easily found the famed bookstore located in historic (in Seattle this should read sketchy but whatever, that’s a different post) Pioneer Square. I bounded across the street, past Starbucks and pushed open the glass-front door to reveal all that the images had promised: books, books and more books spread out over several split levels. I froze. Panicked even and moved quickly through the aisles to the staircase leading to the cafe downstairs. A few minutes later, with an americano and steel-cut oats in hand, I relaxed a little as I gazed up at the books now above me. I felt confused: all of a sudden I was no longer excited to peruse the aisles of books. I felt myself yearning for something else for something, dare I say it, more Chapters-like (egad!). If I, lover of all things bound (don’t be dirty, you know what I mean), was not excited by an iconic indie bookstore, why would anyone be? Why would, why should anyone care if Chapters took over the world? I asked Andrew, expecting a lack-lustre reply as he tends to have a cynical view on these kinds of things and was immediately hit with rapid-fire: “because they’re not just focused on selling a thousand copies of a Robert Ludlum book or pushing whatever else sells, someone here might actually know a thing or two about books, these stores have character, personality and individuality and they cater to their customers instead of a top ten list. And because we like to cheer for the underdog.” I was surprised, impressed, and more or less convinced to return to the creaky floors upstairs. But first impressions are long-lasting…

I am so used to shopping at Chapters that the experience of walking into an independent bookstore was actually like a culture shock (thank you Calgary). Instead of being greeted by a table of “Heather’s Picks” I was greeted by actual staff (oh my god, what if they talk to me?). Instead of being directed to the current “Bestsellers” there were sections with quiet labels like “the Middle East”, “Local Print”, “For Book Lovers” and “Beatnik Poetry”. When I tried to remember the name of a book I’d read about earlier in the Globe and Mail,  I glanced around for a touchscreen terminal but saw none. Instead, in the middle of the store there was an information desk with two staff members behind it eagerly answering questions, telling faithful customers when they expected to reopen at the new location and ordering hard to find or even out of print books without blinking. How do you search through a human?

It was like visiting a foreign country – the store didn’t smell familiar (due to the lack of Voluspa candles and the sort I think), the people looked different void of any uniform and there were no clear road maps telling me which books to read. Like a crying baby on a bus in El Salvador reminds us that people everywhere are the same, the printed words in front of my face brought me back into my comfort zone and prompted me to venture out and explore the corners of the store. And oh the delights! Like Chapters, EBC has a travel section rife with LP’s only the travel section at EBC is a travel loft – an entire overhang devoted to maps, books and literary journals complete with a dining room-like table on which to map our your next adventure. Throughout the store there are staff picks and with so much inventory this is pretty impressive. EBC might only be 1/3 the square footage of a Chapters but it surely contains more books (Perhaps this isn’t that grand of a testament. If you removed the ubiquitous Starbucks, the entire section of paper products and the ever-growing gift section, Chapters would look pretty empty).

Not only were there six copies of the Beatnik bible On the Road, there were eight other works by Kerouac and all by various publishers.

My visit to EBC occurred on the closing day of the bookstore’s long running history in Pioneer Square. They are moving to a cheaper location north of downtown Seattle where they hope to be able to continue to contend with the ever encroaching Chapters and Borders (oh the irony). Hopefully there they will find enough people who will continue to cheer for the underdog and ensure EBC continues to shock and wow all that dare to enter.

Bedside table reading: Couch by Benjamin Parzybok. An EBC find about a trio of outcasts who become magically tied to a couch. Not my typical choice of book but trying new things is all a part of the culture shock.

Seattle Bound

I can feel my skin getting softer. I can smell the salt water. I am so close I can almost taste it!

I am off to Seattle tomorrow for a pre-Easter sojourn (I was meant to go for Easter but who knew all the cheap seats would be sold out!). I am excited to get away for a bit, to not be in such a dry climate, I am excited for the potential to see a killer whale and I am excited for the amazing amount of coffee I plan to drink. Sure, I’ll visit the original Starbucks but I plan to taste test the plethora of indies Seattle has to offer as well.

The fabled interior of the Elliot Bay Book Co.

As I originally planned to have another week in Calgary before leaving, I have spent the morning doing some hurried research and came across a real gem: the indie bookstore Elliot Bay Book Company.  It looks like something out of a book-lovers dreams: nestled in an old brick building in the historic area of Pioneer Square it houses rows and rows of independently chosen/recommended books. And, to boot, there is a cafe in the basement serving Zeitgeist coffee. Don’t quote me on this as I read it on someone’s blog but of course an indie store would serve a coffee called Zeitgeist (if you haven’t watched the movie yet, start googling it).

The bookstore is well known not only for its character and charm but also the book readings it hosts. We are going to miss the famous (in my mind) Arundhati Roy by one night. For those of you not familiar with her, she is most well known for penning The God of Small Things.

As with all independent bookstores, the big boys are creeping in and last years credit crunch hit EBC hard. As a result they are relocating to a cheaper location within Seattle. Luckily for me, their very last day in Seattle is the day after we arrive. I know where my first stop is going to be: breakfast at EBC Cafe and then as many hours as Andrew will tolerate in the bookstore above.

I’ll be sure to bring back loads of new suggestions.