Year’s End and Then Some

2012 was a great year for Bella’s Bookshelves. I found good friends, albeit mostly online, who helped me understand and forge my place in this world and who allowed and encouraged me to give back to it in several ways. Yes, this world, not just the literary one. These new friends are mainly bookish—authors, publishing professionals, book bloggers, book lovers in general. It is not amazing when you think about it—rather, it makes sense—that books bring people together in intimate ways.

I’m utterly grateful for these friendships, for the warm exchanges between us, for the scores of books, some so beautifully inscribed, that I have received over the past two years, for the important and fun copy editing, proofreading, and writing work that publishers have entrusted to me, for the contributions I’ve been invited to make to the Quill & Quire and the CBC, and for the joy I find in recommending books to you. I’ll say it again: it was a fabulous year for me and for Bella’s Bookshelves, and the kindness, generosity, encouragement, and support constantly surprised and buoyed me.

And I needed that. At the same time, I was experiencing severe anxiety and mild depression. I had it for about fifteen years, but in 2012 things came to a head. I started to have panic attacks every day, wherever I was: in the car, behind the cash register at Greenley’s when a customer approached, even while just out enjoying a walk with Lucy and my husband. I avoided going on busy streets, and then streets altogether, because even one person on the other side could make me feel crowded. Instead, I took sanctuary in the nearby woods. I was afraid to take the train to Toronto (though money is more the issue there). I had panic attacks as soon as we hit the 401, or certain intersections or areas of town, particularly the street on which I worked. I physically struggled to get out of the car to go to work. Some attacks were so severe my limbs contorted and froze, I shook and cried uncontrollably, and I couldn’t get enough air. If we were in the car, my husband would have to pull over. I was always petrified that I was going to barf.

Finally, I hit my limit, not just of panic attacks and anxiety and being unable to do anything but also of hearing myself bitterly complain that I was incapable of change regardless of my efforts. It’s amazing how much we can put up with, though, how avoidance makes our agony greater, yet we continue the way we always have. But by March, I couldn’t make myself do anything, except get to work (and then barely). Thanks to the last shred of tenacity in me, I made an appointment for therapy. Along with medication, another thing I was phobic about, it has helped tremendously.

Erin Balser, me, and Michael Enright chatting on the Scotiabank Giller Stage at WOTS Toronto.
Erin Balser, me, and Michael Enright chatting on the Scotiabank Giller Stage at WOTS Toronto.

In April or May I quit my job at the bookshop and started freelancing full-time again from home. That action in itself changed so much, especially since I love the work and it’s coming in regularly. I also started writing short stories again and have had some truly life-changing writing coaching. And my posts on this blog have given me great opportunities. I’ve been on the Giller stage with Michael Enright and Erin Balser at Word on the Street, I’ve done CBC radio interviews about Canada Reads 2013, I’ve posted on the CBC blog, I’ve worked with Esi Edugyan and Sarah Selecky on discussion questions for Half-Blood Blues and This Cake is for the Party, I’ve edited Ann Patchett for Kobo, and I’ve submitted a book proposal to Anansi Press (fingers crossed!).

The direction I’m confidently taking now, one dedicated to helping authors and publishers produce their best work and sell as much as they can, as well as pursuing publication of my own stories, is good. I feel that in my soul. I know what I’m doing. I know where I belong. I’m happy. And busy. Now that I’m freelancing full-time, it takes more of my time than a regular job. Then there’s my creative writing (writing, being part of a writer’s group, doing Sarah’s Story is a State of Mind course, and mentoring with her soon!). I’ve recently started reading more, though not nearly as much as I want to. I also like to be connected to all of you on FB and Twitter. I love this blog, and I love being in the bookish loop.

Where Reviewing Comes In

But it’s obvious that my reviewing on Bella’s Bookshelves has fallen off. Partly it’s because I’ve been tied up doing other things. But also I haven’t felt an urge to do it, and this has been a great cause of stress, not least because so many have kindly and generously and excitedly sent me books for review and I’ve accepted them.

Read but not yet reviewed
Read but not yet reviewed

Someone suggested that perhaps I haven’t been inspired to review here because now I am writing my own stuff, or that reviewing for the Quill, for money, has taken away my desire to do it for free. The former is possible, I suppose. Not the latter: money is a bonus but not a determining factor for me; with the Quill, it’s about fulfilling a goal and contributing to what I think is Canada’s greatest lit mag. And reviewing for them is different than the kind of reviewing I’ve done here.

No, I think it’s more that I find reviewing here exceedingly difficult. It takes me an entire day, at least, to write a review for this blog—because I want to make sure I include everything, because I have such strong feelings about what I want my reviews to be, because books are hard work to make and are thus not to be taken lightly, because I want my writing to be my best, and because I suddenly have no idea why, considering the over-abundance of reviewers and reviews, I should do it. I have been struggling with this question for a couple of months now.

Then today I came upon Saleema Nawaz’s post called “The Art of the Elegant Review.” I read it three times. I cleaned the house and while I was sweeping I thought about it. I’d been composing an “I can’t do it, I’m taking down the shingle” email, believe it or not, when her post showed up.

Not yet read, for review
Not yet read, for review

There have been plenty of essays and posts on reviewing, some even heated. The right way to review, the right things to say, the way you mustn’t write a review, the way you must…I don’t much care for most of them because I have enough shoulds in my life and I don’t like being told what to do or what I can’t do. But Saleema’s post, even more than the bookcase of books I’ve been sent making doe eyes at me, answered my question as to why I should continue to review, as much as I’ve felt resistant, scared, dubious, guilty, and overwhelmed.

Saleema describes author Joan Thomas’s review of Atwood’s Robber Bride as “not some kind of boldly negative exposé (that’s at least what some people (not me) mean when they wish we had more ‘real’ reviewing), but an insightful and elegant take on the novel.” She talks about the value of longer, explorative reviews over “brief reviews, star ratings, Likes and +1s.”  She quoted a sentence she appreciated for its craft. And then she tweeted to me, “I know I’m elated to find long, excellent reviews everywhere they turn up, online or offline.”

And I thought, hey. I’ve written the kind of reviews she likes. There is a place for them. There is value to them. People read them in their entirety.

More not yet read, for review
More not yet read, for review

And that’s what it took, not much but enough, together with the terrible thought of disappointing everyone who’s sent me books for review, for me to finally change my mind.

I’m a slow reader. I’m a very slow reviewer. I feel I should apologize for this to all those wonderful people who have sent me books with the hope of a thoughtful review in a timely manner. There are about a hundred books now, and I badly want to read every single one of them.

So then. The reviews will continue, but in order for me not to dread them, they have to be when I can and when I feel ready to put my best effort into them. If you can be (very) patient, I promise they’ll be worth it.

34 thoughts on “Year’s End and Then Some

  1. I’m so glad to have “met” you this year!

    My blog is basically dead weight right now, and the same thing, it happened when I started writing for the Quill (and some other outlets). But it’s there if I ever want to go back to it. The upshot of doing less writing for me was that I wound up reading WAY more books. Since I consider myself a reader first (and all my writing is about reading) I’ll call this a win.

    Happy New Year, Steph!

    1. Yes, yes, yes! I too have read more since I’ve been reviewing less. My reading slowed once I started reviewing. I began to drag out the book because I knew if I finished I had to review. I’m hoping to completely change my feelings toward reviewing so that I look forward to it. But for now, it seems I can do only one or the other, or else both but with a snail’s pace.

      I’m so glad to have met you, too. I’ve so enjoyed your posts and tweets. And finding someone who gets me. Thank you! Also, your hair is a constant source of delight.

  2. Thanks for sharing this with us, Steph. Your blog was one of the reasons I wanted to start my own blog. I’ve come to a difficult decision of my own recently. I’ve decided to shut down Bookosaur, because, like you, I find it extremely hard and time-consuming to write reviews. Also, I found I was reading books in order to write a review, and not for the enjoyment. I’m glad you’ve figured out a way to make reading and reviewing work for you, since I so enjoy your posts.

    1. Ah, Kara. I understand completely.

      I’m truly saddened to hear you’ve decided to shut down. Your blog was one of my favourites, but yes I could tell something had changed. Since this blog began to get attention from publishers, I’ve struggled with the same things you have, and to most of all keep things on my own terms and be true to myself as a writer and reader, and thus true to those who read the blog. And I know that publishers and authors value that, but ideally the reviews would come around the time they’re marketing the books. There are some publicists I’ve met with whom I’ve become friends and who know my tastes now and who send books because they know I’ll enjoy them more than they expect a review. Knowing that I can read a book and spread the word through Twitter and FB without writing a review is sometimes a comfort.

      But then there are those books that contain so much you appreciate that you feel compelled to share at length. I want to want to write reviews. And sometimes I do. So I’ll keep going.

      Those of us who have trouble with this sort of thing show a fine quality: that of a conscience. It’s important and valuable and, I’ve found, much appreciated.

  3. HAPPY NEW YEAR STEPH! Like so many others, I’m delighted to have met you (and your overflowing bookshelves) this year! Thank you for the gift you make to all of us, in the revealing honesty of your blogs! May 2013 bring you all good things!

  4. Sounds like you’ve been through a lot in the last year. I hope 2013 will be a great year for you, especially as you work on your own writing more. Best wishes.

    1. Thanks, Hugh. And thank you so much for your support with my writing. I’m very excited about it. If – no, let’s say when – the collection is published, you’ll find a copy in your mailbox. Your guidance and challenging has been crucial to my development as a writer.

  5. Dearest Barbara,

    You came to mind, among others, when I wrote of the good friends I’ve met. I’m so glad to hear from you. Your card still sits on my desk and will whatever the season.

    Thank you for being such a wonderful, understanding friend, and for your encouragement. I miss Clare, and Tuscany, and I look forward to revisiting when the Canada Reads books are read. Just saying that, especially on this grey and windy day, makes me feel like going back to my soft fleece sheets and reading…all day. Here’s to the librocubicularist in us!

    Happy new year! Wish I was there, eating some of Marta’s cooking.

  6. Keep saying WHEN, not if. I recall that when I was at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in a class with Bharati Mukerjee, she said something to me about something I should keep in mind WHEN my first book came out. That came as a shock to me–before her comment to that effect I’d never actually believed I could have a book published, despite being at Iowa. After she’d expressed that belief in my work, I began to believe it myself. And now, it’s four books later….

    1. Well, and the fact that you believe I can too…that’s everything to me. Thank you, for that and for your comment. Isn’t it amazing how much difference a person can make to another’s life?

  7. I’m glad to have ‘met’ you this past year, Steph, and hopefully one day can actually meet you in person!

    And regarding this… “I feel I should apologize for this to all those wonderful people who have sent me books with the hope of a thoughtful review in a timely manner.” …as someone who has sent you a few books over the past year, I would like to say that you have absolutely, positively no need to apologize. I know that there’s absolutely no way that you can read and review all of the books that you receive and I would never expect or feel entitled to a review. You do great work and you’re a great friend to Canadian books and publishing! :)

    Thanks for your blog–I so enjoy reading it! And all good wishes to you for a 2013 that’s full of good things.

    1. Oh, Kelsey. Thank you so much! What a comforting and encouraging thing to say. Thank you. I greatly appreciate the books you’ve sent, I haven’t forgotten them!

      I’d love to meet in person one day. Maybe we could share some Maltese food! :)

  8. Oh goodness, thank you. For being honest about reviewing being HARD WORK, and for allowing me to stop feeling guilty about not reviewing more, and (oddly) for renewing my enthusiasm for sitting down to write a review of a particular book which has been hanging over me for the last couple of months.
    As always your writing is lyrical and honest and funny and all the stuff you’re good at – and it’s wonderful to see the real and happy you emerging, butterfly-like, from all the stuff that has beset you over the last months/years.
    Looking forward to reading more of your writing in 2013. Also – that other stuff you emailed me about? I’m on it, and will be in contact very soon. XXX

    1. Goodness, yes!! It’s bloody hard!! And time-consuming, and there is no point in doing it if you’re not going to do it well. You and I as editors know that as well as the reader or author reading the review.

      You know, I went for a long walk after and I was thinking how much writing the post and chatting with you guys after has made me want to get back into it, into reading especially, but also reviewing. It’s about the writing for me; writing well so I can do the book justice, even if there are negative things to say.

      Thanks, Lou, for your compliments, too. When a friend notices positive change and is happy too, it’s the best thing.

      Looking forward to your email! :)


  9. Steph,

    I’m really happy to have connected with you online this year, and I’m so glad my post connected with you at the right time! Your site is a constant inspiration, and I know I’m just one of many readers who feels that way about it. I hope you can find a balance between all the different writing you do, paid/unpaid, freelance/creative, and everything in between. This writing and reading life is a major juggling act, isn’t it?

    I’ve only written a handful of reviews in my life, and I was overwhelmed with how long it took and how tricky it was and how heavy the responsibility weighed on me. I did get paid for most of the reviews, but it felt like an honorarium after all the time I put in (days and days and days). That you do what you do when you can, amid everything else you have going on, is something to be really proud of!

    Here’s to a great 2013 of following your reading and writing passions!

  10. Hi Steph, I’m a long term lurker who’s glad you’re sticking around and just slowing the pace to make it a more enjoyable experience. I look forward to reading and enjoying your reviews, whenever they pop up, in the future. :)

    1. Hello, Alex!

      Thank you for emerging from the shadows to comment. :) I’m so grateful you read the blog, and that you understand my position, but most of all that you like BB enough that you won’t stop reading because I’ve slowed down.

      Thank you for that.

    2. Alex: I absolutely LOVE that you have a page on walking on your blog. Three years ago I visited North Yorkshire for two weeks and spent my days in hiking boots and gaiters. I left my heart there and I’ve pined for it ever since. I love hiking and walking, and I just wanted to do longer and longer walks. Land’s End to John o’Groats! A bit overenthusiastic, perhaps, but I know I could do it. My sister lives up there. When I visit again, perhaps we could go for a walk. I saw you do much of it, and that you’ve visited Yorkshire as well…

  11. Steph, I am so glad you got that e-mail and decided to continue blogging and reviewing because I just found you! That’s like finding your new very favourite brand of shampoo exactly when the manufacturer decides to stop making it! (Which happens to me all the darned time.)

    I’m so sorry you suffer from panic attacks, anxiety and depression. I deal with anxiety and depression myself and it can be absolutely crippling. I can’t imagine what you went through, forcing yourself to go to work and face people when it was the last thing in the world you wanted to do. So kudos to you for finding the wherewithal to get to work on those days when it seemed impossible, and to seek help and feel better. It’s awfully tempting to just curl up in bed and wait for the world to go away.

    Seeing all the books you have waiting to be read and reviewed makes me less guilty about the pile I have! Oh well! Glad you’ve decided to carry on. The world DOES need thoughtful reviews such as yours.

    By the way, found you through good old CBC. Gotta love ’em.

    1. Hi Cathy,

      Thank you for commenting! It’s so lovely to hear that the blog does matter. (And grrr, I know what you mean about just discovering something great and then it disappears. A similar happens to me on Etsy. I find the PERFECT mid-century modern whatever, and favourite it to buy and the next thing I know it’s sold. I guess that’s good, but not for me!

      I’m so sorry you’re dealing with anxiety and depression too! I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy. I was so averse to taking medication but now that I am, I have to say, it was stupid not to. Life is so much easier with it. At least I can function now, though I do still have some anxiety sometimes. I’m also very fortunate to be able to work from home, where I feel not only more comfortable, but where I so enjoy my job and feel I’m being true to myself. I read this book The Gifts of Imperfection, and that’s also helped. I’ve also started Daring Greatly, by her. :) I’m not a self-help reader. I’m not even much of a non-fiction reader. But these books have been transformative for me.

      Haha! That’s what everyone says about my pile of TBR review books: I always make them feel less guilty. That’s nice! I’m glad to be of some relief. :) It would be worse if the books were ones I’d agreed to but was dreading. Luckily, I am dying to read each one.

      You found me through CBC! How cool! Thank you for telling me. Was it on their site or something?

      All the best, Cathy. I visited your blog and saw you’re a writer. Congrats on your recent published piece! Also, how’s winter up in Bracebridge? I’m copy editing a book now on Ontario cottage country. More Haliburton area, but where you are is gorgeous, too.

  12. Thanks for this incredibly honest post! I’m with Hugh — very much looking forward to WHEN your book comes out! Love your blog & am glad you’ll continue reviewing, albeit sparingly… Your review of Ablutions sent me straight to the library! Happy New Year, and here’s to many more great things coming your way in 2013!!

  13. Julia,

    Thank you so much. And I’m so glad my review sent you straight to the library! That’s awesome!! Did you finish Ablutions? Did you find your reactions similar or different to mine?

    Happy new year to you, too, and I wish the same for you for 2013! Thank you for reading and commenting.

  14. OH! My friend. I am so delighted by this. It’s a wonderful, wonderful, absolutely brilliantly wonderful thing to see you take flight.
    I adore you.

    Thank you for today. A thousand thanks.
    And hooray and yay! for you. xoxoxoj

    1. Juliet.

      This is why you are my friend. I love you dearly. Thank you for who you are. Please always be you.

      And you did it, you read this. Thank you. Now enjoy the Woefield Poultry Collective! :)

  15. I think you’re taking the write [sic] approach to your reviews. I know you love the books and I know you love the writing – these things are manifestly obvious by the care you give to both. I have no doubt it is overwhelming with so much coming at you and not wanting to disappoint anyone and still do the reviews justice. That said, I am glad you have found a way to compromise without compromising your principles. I enjoy your blog – reviews, yes, but the other posts, too. Your honesty in all things is a rare and wonderful commodity.

    1. Christie,

      Thank you. Your kind and encouraging comment will keep me going! I’m very happy to know that my posts, whatever they are, mean something to others.

  16. Ha! Like Alex in Leeds, I’m a “long-time lurker.” Thanks for sharing this very personal post. Congratulations on finding the right balance in your life, even for a moment. Your thoughts on book reviews are welcome, but the promise that you’ll keep reviewing books is even more welcome….

    1. Hi Lisa! You’ve outed yourself too! Thank you. It’s lovely to meet you.

      Balance is a word that always makes me snicker. I haven’t come close, and I don’t know if it’s even ever attainable, at least by me! It’s a constant struggle to fit in everything, to not cancel out something just because I decide to do more of something else. I’m still working on that!

      Thank you for your comment and especially for your last sentence. I’m warmed by it.

  17. I had no idea you had been through so much last year, Steph, but without sounding patronising I hope I want to say how proud I am of you, your achievements and the quality of your work – as well as how great it’s been to know you, which I hope will continue even if we never get to meet and I’m suddenly an ocean away. :)

    I think you’re pretty incredible actually – your writing is excellent (and gives me a standard to aim for) and reading your blog posts always makes me feel both grounded and like I’m not alone. (I hope that sounds encouraging rather than daunting, or added pressure – I’m never sure how things come across!) So whenever you have the time and energy and motivation to write reviews etc., I’ll be happy to read them, and aspire to their elegance. :)

    Though, I’m bummed I missed your interview on CBC. I listen to it pretty much all day during the week, so I’m surprised I missed it, and yet considering the noise levels etc. here, not surprised at all. But disappointed. Would have loved to have heard that!

    Happy New Year Steph!

    1. Shannon,

      Thank you. You don’t sound at all patronising, and in fact I find that the child in me needs to hear that someone is proud of me and of the things I do. It’s like a warm hand rubbing my back, which evokes a feeling in me so deep there aren’t words but sounds.

      Thank you too for saying what you have about my posts. I do feel encouraged, and I have to say, I’ve always enjoyed yours and admired the time you take to be thorough. I also admire your dedication to your blog when I know having a new kid is challenging. Yet you’re doing challenges and memes and reading like ninety. I don’t know how you do it. I don’t even have kids and can barely handle my days!

      The CBC interviews were live on the radio, and they were the Ottawa, Thunder Bay, and London stations. I haven’t heard them myself! They were quite fun, about ten minutes or so, and each asked me what I thought of the Canada Reads Top Ten, I think it was. One guy was totally challenging, which was great. The thing I did on stage at Word on the Street was okay. I had fun up there but I had no idea what I was doing and I don’t articulate well at all out loud. That’s why I prefer to write!

      Thank you again for your lovely comments, Shannon. I appreciate them so much. And now I’m off to comment on your shelves are groaning post that I read the other day and kept open all day so I could comment, and then kept working. I get your posts emailed to me, though, so I never miss them!

  18. Hello popping over from Cindy’s Ontario Blogger Day.
    I am so sad reading about your panic attacks and all you have gone through, I understand this as I have a brother with PTSD it is something that is hard to get through. I do hope you are doing well now and take your time and don’t feel pressure from anyone or anything, everything at your own pace. I wish you well. B

    1. Hi Buttons!

      Thank you for commenting and for your well wishes. I’m so sorry to hear about your brother; PTSD is indeed difficult. It makes me want to cry, really, imagining someone who’s gone through such trauma that their emotional and intellectual functioning, sometimes even physical functioning, are lowered to such an extent that they suffer. I hope your brother finds the help he needs and can also find it within himself to heal. That’s the hardest part.

      I am much better regarding the anxiety and panic attacks and stuff, thanks to medication and therapy. I still have a ways to go, but I do feel better. Going at my own pace is also hard; it feels as though I’m doing nothing at all and I struggle with that. I just have to focus, and until I can really make myself do that, things will be slow.

      Thanks again for reading and for commenting. I appreciate your kind thoughts very much.

  19. What a year! We only knew of the successes, and they were such tremendous successes! Happy to hear that so much is being resolved, and that yay, you’re continuing, when you can, the blog. It has always been a major influence over here at the Literary Hoarders and we appreciate it! And appreciate the relationship developed over our first full year of blogging fun for books! Thank you! xo

    1. Wow, Penny. Thank you! To know that BB has influenced the lovely ladies of Literary Hoarders is a huge compliment. You guys are so committed. I enjoy your blog. And I too appreciate the relationships. Especially those. They carry you both when you’re needed and you need them.

      Here’s to another year! I’m ready to blog something soon but must get rid of some tight deadlines first.

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