Tournament of Books: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

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Ocean Vuong’s “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is more of a memoir in poetry than it is a novel. Even as you read it it’s clear that this book is so autobiographical that practically only the language use in it is fiction. It’s a sharp, painful and beautiful memoir, and I’m glad that it exists, but it’s just not a novel, so it’s impossible to judge as one. The characterization is brilliant, but it’s clear that these characters are very real, and their complex relationships and behaviours are recorded from life. There’s no plot except the protagonist’s life, Vuong’s life. The writing is wonderful, although it’s not an easy read. It’s poetry from start to finish, and it expects the reader to work for their reading.
There are more and more “fictionalized non-fiction” books that are being published as fiction, and some of them are excellent. It’s just makes the task of judging them against “fiction fiction” much harder.
So a recommended read (it does require a strong stomach. There are some very disturbing images and scenes that appear again and again in the narrative), but one that also calls into question the definition of fiction.

I read this as part of the Tournament of Books 2020, where it’s up against “Nothing to See Here” in round four of the contest. It’s so hard to compare these two books, even though they both deal with childhood trauma, loss and being impoverished outsiders in a world that values wealth and conformity. “Nothing to See Here” is entirely a work of fiction, while “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is so very clearly not. Vuong’s work is more culturally significant, but I enjoyed “Nothing to See Here” so much more, and it’s such a risky and clever piece. I wouldn’t argue with anyone picking “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” as the winner of this round, but my pick is Kevin Wilson’s “Nothing to See Here”.

Tournament of Books: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

Retro 51 Cat Rescue 2

An utterly non-Instagram ready journal entry about this pen, including my terrible handwriting. 

In November 2017 I went to a business convention in Washington DC, and while there I stumbled upon a tiny stationery store that had some Retro 51’s for sale. I liked the red colour of this pen, and some (not all) of the cat illustrations on it, and so I bought it. It was an utterly unreasonable impulse buy, because at the time I already knew that the Schmidt refill rendered my Retros virtually unusable for me, and I was years from finding a suitable replacement refill. The pen gathered dust in a pen cup on my desk for the past two years, until this week.

The finial/top disc is one of Retro 51’s best designs.

As part of my decision to use my Retro 51s more, I replaced the (dried out) Schmidt refill in this pen with an Ohto FlashDry gel ink one, and I’ve been using it pretty regularly for the past few days. It’s a bright and cheerful pen that writes like a dream now, even though in a quiet room you can definitely hear the tip rattle a bit as you write.

There’s no texture to this pen, the rescue cats are just printing on it, and I wish Lucy Kinsley had drawn them. So I’m not yet sure if this pen stays with me or I’m going to gift it to a cat loving friend, but for now I’m enjoying giving it a spin.

Retro 51 Cat Rescue 2

The Retro51 Challenge

There are quite a few personal, moving Retro51 pieces coming out lately, ever since the company announced that it would close down at the end of the year. Hearing Brad and Myke talk about the company, and reading a few farewell blog posts has made me feel a little guilty about my Retro51 pens.

I have a few.

I hardly use them.

My favourite part about Retro51s has always been their twist and finial/top-disc design. My least favourite part has been the Schmidt refill they come with. It’s the cool designs that have driven me to buy around a dozen Retro51 Tornados, and the Schmidt refill that has driven me to not use them. It doesn’t work with my writing style or the paper I prefer.

So I set out on a quest to find a Retro51 refill that I’ll enjoy using, and I eventually landed on the excellent Ohto FlashDry gel refill. The problem was that buying and shipping the refills from JetPens ended up being expensive, and I had trouble sourcing them from a different supplier. Only now have I found an eBay seller that sells them for a reasonable enough price for me.

So, with those refills on the way, I’ve decided to pick up my Retros again. From now until the end of the upcoming Pen Addict Kickstarter I’m limiting myself to Retro51’s, pencils, and my Homo Sapiens fountain pen. I’m trying to see if I can justify paying what I guess will be a high sum for the final Pen Addict Retro51, because I’ve decided that I don’t want to just have pens for the sake of having them anymore.

If I end up enjoying my Retros, that’s great. If not, I’ll pass them along to other people who will.

The Retro51 Challenge

Tournament of Books 2020: Nothing to See Here

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Kevin Wilson’s “Nothing to See Here” is a sharp, fresh, unputdownable gem of a novel. A heartwarming story about finding your tribe and embracing your weirdness in a world that’s all about conformity. Larger than life gorgeous characters that aren’t caricatures, a page-turning plot that still leaves them room to breath and grow, and an interesting take on family, love, opportunity and class.
Plus, it’s a funny, fun and original read.
I highly recommend it, and I definitely will reread this book again.

I read “Nothing to See Here” as part of the 2020 Tournament of Books, where it’s up against “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” in round 4 of the competition.

Tournament of Books 2020: Nothing to See Here

Tournament of Books 2020: Normal People

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It feels like a waste of time to write a review of Sally Rooney’s “Normal People“. It’s a boring novel with the basic “Ross and Rachel” love story plot, but with zero charm or meaning added. The characters are unlovely. They are surrounded by a cast of unlikable caricatures. The whole thing is immersed in lengthy paragraphs of descriptions of people opening wine bottles and making tea.
Was there potential for a story here about breaking the cycle of abuse, about finding redemption with the help of other people? Yes. All of it was squandered in the most infuriating way possible.
I read this as part of the Tournament of Books 2020 contest and it was an utter waste of time. It’s up against the fascinating and brilliant “Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen” which is head and shoulders above it.

Tournament of Books 2020: Normal People

How I Use My Notebooks: Yearly Goals (Resolutions)

Near the end of one year and the beginning of another various articles and podcasts about New Year resolutions start popping up. They either give tips on how to make resolutions, debunk resolutions in favour of something else, and almost all of them try to sell you something.

This post is about how I create yearly goals (i.e. resolutions), using things that I already have, in a way that has worked for me since 2015.

I wrote about the way I do “New Years Resolutions” in the past. I call them that because I like the non-business ring of “resolution” over the “business-jargon” sounding goal. My “resolutions” are, however, S.M.A.R.T. goals: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. I manage them using the least used notebook that I had lying around (a Baron Fig Confidant), and whichever pen I have at hand. They aren’t made for instagram, rather I use my plain ugly handwriting, and what marking are on the page are there because they’re useful. Over the past five years I’ve attained about 90% of what I set out to achieve, with even an annus horribilis like 2018 not putting me too much off track. My goals are tiered, much like Kickstarter stretch goals, with most goals having a fairly easily attainable first tier, just in case life decides to kick me in a tender place.

I’m going to go over this year’s goals, and last year’s goals (apart from a few that I’ve censored for privacy’s sake). I know that February is usually the month when people give up on their resolutions. I hope that this post will help and inspire people to give yearly goals or resolutions a chance.

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My 2020 resolutions

Above you can see my 2020 resolutions. A lot of them are things that appear in almost every year. The professional goals are all new (I didn’t manage my professional goals with my personal goals until this year, and even now only a small part of my professional goals are here). 

Every goal at this point only has the basic, first tier goals set beside it. The first three goals for example, all reading related, will eventually have stretch goals. They’re interesting to note here because back in 2016 I only had one reading goal: read 24 books. Once I got back into the habit of reading, I started to challenge myself with longer and more challenging books. These are all my base reading goals. I usually stretch them to around 50 books a year.

Why don’t I start with 50 books then? Because the point of these goals is to build myself up for success. The basic goals are the “even if I have a horrible year I should be able to reach these” goals. They are there to remind me that there’s a tomorrow, and something I can and should do about that tomorrow, even if a family member is hospitalized (or worse). The stretch goals are then built in small increments, reaching to my my final goal for the year.

Why don’t I write my stretch goals down from the start? Because the point is to keep myself focused on the next small step. That’s why things are broken down to the smallest increment that makes sense: one book, 10k, one month.

There’s a reason for each goal on this spread. I won’t go into each one specifically, but they all fall into the following general categories:

  • Read more.
  • Write more (my writing goals are censored, because if I publish them, I won’t do them. I know myself well enough by now).
  • Use the stuff I own.
  • Challenge myself to get out of my comfort zone.
  • Social goals (partly censored).
  • Health goals (running, cross-training, bloodwork, dentist visits).
  • Professional goals (partial list).

Everything has to fit in on a two page spread, or I lose track of things. That’s why I spill over to other pages in the same notebook to track some of the details of my goals:

Tracking page for fountain pens, ink, tea and pencils.

Here are my 2019 resolutions. A pink check mark means that the basic goal is finished. You can see the increments things grow by (my stretch goals):

2019 resolutions

You may have noticed that the “fill triggers” goal isn’t filled up at all. This is the “relevant” part of the S.M.A.R.T. goals. I used the trigger system from Marshal Goldsmith’s “Triggers” book for a few months in 2018, and I decided at the beginning of 2019 to not continue with it. It was a conscious decision, and so I just ignored that goal. 

Here are my 2019 “spill” pages, just to get an idea of how the whole thing works together:

10 different fountain pen inks. Can you see where the stretch goal is marked?

Here are pencils, fountain pens, notebooks and races tracking:

And my largest tracking list, books:

The Baron Fig Confidant that holds this list has a bright cover and sits right in front of me, on my desk, at all times. I set up my goals that at every day or two I crack the notebook open and update the lists. Once there, I scan everything and check if there’s something that I can do to get it done. The point is to have this list on the top of my mind as much as possible, or else I’ll just forget about it, or it becomes something that I avoid checking out.

This is a system that supports me every day, giving my goals and aspirations much needed structure. I hope that this will help you build a personal system of this kind for yourself.  

How I Use My Notebooks: Yearly Goals (Resolutions)