4 reasons to write in cafés

20160809_190939If you’re a writer, chances are you can write anywhere. You probably have memos saved on your phone and handwritten notes scribbled on the backs of receipts. But we all have our preferred writing locations, the places where we are most productive. Here are some reasons why my favourite place to write is in a café.

There is background noise

I am a quiet person, and I am a person who likes quiet. But if it’s too quiet when I’m trying to write, I get distracted. Noises from the fridge or from the neighbours seem louder than they actually are, and I get stuck trying to figure out exactly what it is I’m hearing. And I can’t write while listening to music that I enjoy. If I do, I become immersed in the music instead of in my writing.

Background noise allows me to focus. A loud conversation occurring next to me in a café will annoy me, and if a song by The Smiths comes on, I’ll probably stop writing for a few minutes while the song is playing. But, more often than not, when it comes to noise, the café atmosphere gets the balance just right.

Distractions are limited

Writing at home means easy access to the internet. That can be a good thing–perhaps when a writing project requires a fair amount of research. But most of the time it’s just another distraction. Yes, most cafés offer free WiFi, but the trick is not to log in. Of course it’s easy enough to check your phone from time to time, and I am guilty of that, but it definitely limits those internet distractions.

Writing in a café also means I don’t have to look at my messy apartment and think about how I should be vacuuming  or washing dishes instead of writing.

There are strangers to observe (and write about)

Sometimes I finish writing a scene and I’m not sure where to go next. Instead of staring at a blank page, I find it helps to look around the café. I’ll do a writing exercise where I’ll find a person at another table (or a barista, if the place is empty) and I’ll make up a bit of a story about them. If there’s a group of people or a couple, I might write about the dynamic I imagine them having. This kind of exercise allows me to turn back to my main project with fresh eyes, and it could be inspiration for another project.

All of the refreshments!

When I write (or read, for that matter), I almost always have a cup of tea on hand. To be honest, the tea I have at home is usually better than what I get in cafés. But sometimes I like to switch things up with a hot chocolate or cappuccino, which I never make at home and don’t have the supplies to make. And I haven’t yet mastered how to make an almond croissant or pain au chocolat. Writing in a café keeps the hunger at bay and ensures a variety of snacks and beverages to choose from.

It doesn’t matter where you write; all that matters is that you do keep writing. And while writing in a café might not be the best thing for your bank account, if you’re like me, the payoff is worth it.

Literary cocktail classes at Toronto’s Famous Last Words

20170206_200714

If you’re a fan of the recommended refreshments section in my book reviews, you will like Famous Last Words, a newish bar in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood.

This book-themed bar is cozy and adorable and has a full menu of cocktails made with a literary twist. It’s the perfect place to read or write. But my recent trip there wasn’t to do either of these things. I was there to take a literary cocktail class.

A couple of friends and I signed up for a class called The Roaring ’20s. We learned how to make cocktails that appear in The Great Gatsby (Gin Rickey, Mint Julep) as well as a couple of others from the era (The Last Word, Between the Sheets).

20170129_175213

A Between the Sheets sitting on the Scrabble-tiled bar.

The class wasn’t all about the cocktails, though. We talked about the connection the drinks have to The Great Gatsby and about the characters in the book. We also talked about prohibition–an interesting discussion about history.

Sometimes the recommended refreshments in my book reviews are simply what I think would create a nice reading experience for a particular book. But, where it’s suitable, I try to connect the refreshments to food or drink that appears in the stories. So I absolutely love that Famous Last Words does this by serving drinks that are featured in books. They aren’t limited to this, though. They also create drinks that are inspired by stories and authors.

20170206_200610

Can you spot the copy of Timothy Findley’s Famous Last Words amongst all these bottles?

There are still three classes left in this series of literary cocktail classes. Check out Famous Last Words’ event page to see what’s coming up. And even if you don’t feel like taking a class (but it really is a lot of fun), you can always head over to the bar with a book. You’ll definitely find a refreshment to complement whatever it is you’re reading.

Teddy Wayne’s Loner: a gripping and disturbing read

20170125_214130What I read

Loner by Teddy Wayne

What it’s about

Loner opens with narrator David Federman arriving to study at Harvard. While David spent high school getting good grades, he doesn’t have any friends to show for those years. He has basically been invisible. But now David has the opportunity for a fresh start, a chance to reinvent himself.

When David meets Veronica, he is convinced she will be his ticket into the new world he dreams of, and he is determined to get to know her. But Veronica doesn’t end up being quite who David thinks she is.

This novel explores the troubled and troubling minds of young adults, and it’s a frightening place.

Why I picked it up

I heard about Loner near the end of 2016, when I saw it in a Kirkus Reviews “best of” list. I like stories that take place in school and/or coming-of-age tales, so the genre appealed to me, and I also like protagonists who are outsiders. I bought a copy while browsing in Book City on the Danforth one wintry afternoon.

What I liked about it

I loved the way this story builds and transforms as you read. It starts off as being funny, and while humourous moments appear as the novel progresses, the story becomes more disturbing. It’s a powerful psychological portrait of the narrator in his formative years.

On a technical level, I liked the perspective Loner is written in. Wayne chose to write using the second-person perspective. Second-person perspective is less common than first or third because it can be awkward. But I love second-person perspective when the author gets it right, and Wayne has done just that.

You’ll want to read it if…

Pick up Loner if you like books that get you inside the minds of characters and books that have you thinking about them for a while after you’ve turned the last page. But you’ll have to be okay with reading disturbing subject matter. I finished this book right before I went to bed, and I wouldn’t recommend that. I imagine it would be better to finish reading it in the daytime.

Recommended refreshments

These kids have gone away to school and are living away from home for the first time. There is plenty of drinking in dorm rooms going on. I recommend mixing some vodka and club soda, as a few of the characters do during a blackout, or just grab some cheap beer.

How to create the coziest winter reading experience

20170119_213409Winter can be a bit of a downer. Even when it’s not freezing and snowy, January and February are just, well, blah. But instead of waiting for the seasons to change, embrace the opportunity to stay inside and hunker down with a good book. Here are some tips for creating the ultimate, coziest reading experience.

Slip into something more comfortable

If you’re not the type of person who puts on your comfy pants as soon as you get home, you’ll want to change into your coziest gear. Whether it’s pyjamas, a hoodie and stretchy pants or some sweats, just make sure it’s something you feel relaxed in.

Choose the right setting

Set yourself down in a comfy armchair, or maybe you prefer to curl up on the couch. Wherever your favourite reading spot is, keep a blanket close by in case you get chilly and consider whether you’d like some pillows to prop you up or to lean against.

If you live with other people, make sure you have some privacy or–better yet–get them to join you in your cozy reading experience. Just make sure no one can interrupt you with questions or by watching something on Netflix. Don’t like reading in silence? Try putting on some soft background music or use Noisli to create your preferred ambience.

Know your optimal reading time

Your optimal reading time will be when you’re fully awake, so you can read without drifting off, but not when you are so energized that you can’t sit still. My personal favourite times are first thing in the morning and in the evening after dinner, but maybe a weekend afternoon works best for you.

Also consider how much time you can dedicate to your reading experience. If you’ll need to be out the door soon and have to watch the clock (or check your phone), it will be hard to stay in the moment.

Have treats nearby…

Treats are always a good idea, especially when they accompany a good book. Make sure those treats are close by. You won’t want to interrupt your reading to head to the kitchen if your tummy starts to rumble (or if you are just craving something delicious). I love a good pastry, but other baked goods (sweet or savoury), chocolates or toast with butter and/or jam are also great choices.

…and something hot to drink

No cozy winter reading experience is complete without something to sip. My favourite is a nice cup of tea, but coffee, hot chocolate or apple cider will all work wonderfully. Just keep  in mind the amount you are drinking; the urgent need for a bathroom break doesn’t feel very cozy.

Ignore everything else

Do not feel guilty for not vacuuming. Do not think about what’s on tomorrow’s to-do list. Put your phone on silent or leave it in the other room. Allow yourself to be immersed in whatever you are reading.

So don’t be sad that it’s winter. Grab a pastry and a book and curl up under a blanket. It’s time to get cozy.

How my parents raised readers

Earlier this week, I went to the Toronto Reference Library to hear Will Schwalbe talk about his new memoir, Books for Living. At one point, he mentioned that his parents gave him and his siblings the greatest gift anyone can give someone: a love of reading.

This comment made me reflect on my own upbringing and how my parents managed to instil a love of reading in both my brother and me. Here are a few ways I think my parents managed to do just that.

They filled the house with books

My brother and I had our own bookshelves in our respective bedrooms, but there were books in the common areas of the house, too. There was a fair-sized bookcase in the living room and several others in the finished basement, all filled with books–everything from the classics to mystery novels to the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

As a child, most of these books were above my reading level, but nothing was off limits to us. We could pick up any of the titles as we pleased. Even when I was too young to understand (or have an interest in) Thomas Hardy or Dylan Thomas, I still liked to run my fingers across the spines or flip through the pages of the books.

They read to us

Sometimes we’d sit on the couch together, and my parents would read a book to both me and my brother (Charlotte’s Web comes to mind). Other times, they would read to us in our bedrooms when we were being tucked in. Mom and Dad would take turns reading to each of us. I can’t say for certain, but I believe this happened every night–at least until we were too cool for it and preferred to read on our own.

They took us to the library

Our family visited our local branch of the public library frequently. It was something to do on a weekday evening or a weekend afternoon. Just going to the library and hanging out for a bit was fun, but of course we’d always bring a bundle of books home with us.

They gave us books as gifts

To this day, it’s been a tradition to give books as stocking stuffers in my family. It’s something we still look forward to: We all know we’re getting books; it’s just a question of which ones. Growing up, this small gesture helped ingrain in us the idea that books have a lot of value to offer. And not only did this ritual give us the joy of receiving books, but it taught us the joy of giving books, too.

Books can inform and educate, offer comfort, help us understand others and help us feel understood. So Schwalbe is right. A love of reading is the best gift you can give someone. And it’s something that, no matter what happens in life, no one can take away from them.