March 5, 2014
We’ve had The Little Woman Wanted Noise out of the library, a picture book by Val Teal and illustrated by Robert Lawson, recently reissued by New York Review Books. Lawson is notable as the illustrator of The Story of Ferdinand and Mr. Popper’s Penguins, though it was Val Teal’s biography that most intrigued me. “In addition to her stories for children,” it reads, “Teal also wrote a memoir of motherhood, It Was Not What I Expected.”
It Was Not What I Expected is described in this 1948 review as “[s]teering away from sentimentality… a vivacious, gaily turned account of modern parenthood.” I liked the sound of that, as well as any parenting memoir by the author of The Women Wanted Noise, who in her dedication thanks her own three sons, “whose noise inspires the little woman.” The book isn’t easy to come by, long out of print and not held by local libraries, but used copies are available on Abebooks (though that I bought the cheapest I regret now, because it came without a dust jacket).
I had some ideas of what an account of modern parenthood published in 1948 might read like. I had these ideas because a long time ago I’d read Dream Babies: Childcare Advice from John Locke to Gina Ford by Christina Hardyment, which is where I first encountered the idea of babies being aired from apartment buildings in cages. It is also where it was first made clear to me that childcare advice (and “parenting philosophies,” baby fads and gadgets, and dictums everyone from Ferber to Sears) is a complete load of bollocks, and that we ought to cleanse our minds of most of it, except for reasons involving amusement or historical interest. The more things change, the more they stay the same, which is both a cliche, and also Hardyment’s thesis and in this context, such a revelation.
For example, here is Val Teal on big strollers, which remain, of course, a contentious issue to this day:
“In those days buggies were built. None of your light canvas affairs. They had a solid steel framework and lots of it. They had a big wicker body and hood with a steel bottom with a diaper compartment large enough to hold a dozen or so. The baby-carriage manufacturers expected you to push the baby on really long trips. If you took the notion to walk to Chicago some afternoon to visit your aunt they would not stand in your way. They had prepared a perambulator with ample space for the baby’s and your luggage during your stay. They expected you to have a big baby and push him around until he was three or four years old and they had provided room for this, with enough left over to bring home the groceries, including a watermelon if you were so inclined. The buggy weighed several hundred pounds, several hundred and fifty pounds with the baby and his paraphernalia aboard. We did not have an extra garage to keep it in. It furnished our small dining room very nicely before we could afford a dining room set. While you pushed this young truck around like mad, your tongue hanging out the baby sat like a rosy king, taking in the world with his round eyes, the air with his pink nose.”
It is often said that nobody tells the truth about motherhood, though I think the reality is really that nobody ever listens. Because Val Teal was telling the truth in 1948, Betty Friedan in 1963 Erma Bombeck in the 1970s, Susan Swan in 1992, just to pick a handful of examples. Some early passages from It Was Not What I Expected were so similar to my own experiences, which had come as such a surprise to me when my first baby was born. Like this one, as Teal and her husband arrive at the hospital for their first baby’s arrival:
“Across the street a young couple were just getting home. They were laughing and talking softly as he found the key and put it in the door. We could have been just like that as well as not. We could have been just coming home from a party. Why had I been so eager? Maybe I’d die. Maybe we’d never come home from a party like that again together… We had been so happy. We’d had a good life. Why had I had to get ambitious? Darn it all, I didn’t want a baby. I just wanted to go home and go to parties.”
A few pages later, the baby is born, and mother and son are home:
“The Baby cried and cried. I had given up not feeding him at two in the morning long ago. Every time I fed him he went to sleep for half an hour. Then he cried again.
‘I didn’t know it would be like this,’ I wept to Bill. ‘I wish I was back in the hospital.’”
Motherhood was less complicated for previous generations, Teal explains. She describes a trip when her first son was seven months old, the directions they’d had to send ahead, provisions required, their car ridiculously packed. Along they way, they stop for the baby’s sunbath (as dictated by both government pamphlets and the Women’s Home Companion). She writes, “I used to think about [my mother] being cleaned up every afternoon, baking cakes for visitors, sprinting off peppy as a kitten to coffee parties, pushing her baby-sled full of clean babies, and I wished I’d lived then when babies were less complicated…”
It Was Not What I Expected takes great joy in dissecting the naiveté of the new mother, insistent upon raising baby according to the book (what book? depends which decade, I suppose). How stupid we all were in those early days, and how determined we were that we would be the masters of motherhood rather than motherhood be the masters of us. Naturally, hilarity ensues.
Memorable scenes include Teal getting locked in the attic while her son sits outside the door eating beads, and the time she hires a simple-minded creature prone to seizures to babysit as she tries to better herself at a meeting of the American Association of University Women and it all goes wrong. (“I began gradually to give up the International Relations section because Hitler seemed to go right ahead doing impolite and smarty things, even though we met every week with luncheons too, instead of teas.)
And like any mother, she frets about play dates:
“I learned at the Child Study Group that children need companionship. If you child did not have others to play with you must do something about it. You must see that other children came to your house. It was a matter of life and death. Or anyway the difference between success and failure. You must drag in companionship. You must inveigle children to come. You must offer them food and toys, anything, to get them there. Companionship was the breath of life to the normal child.”
Teal’s second child just escapes being born in the Piggly Wiggly. “Now I knew all about babies,” she writes. “Peter would be easy to raise. I was experienced. There would be no foolishness about who was boss. I knew who was boss.” Instead of books to raise this baby, she decides, she’ll employ her own instinct. She will let the baby do what he likes.
More adventures in motherhood with boys: the necessary acquisition of a menagerie, dogs, ducks and rabbits. The obligatory paper-route. She helicopter parents, terrified of her boys riding their bicycles and therefore driving along behind them in the car on the way to their music lessons.
She addresses her determination that her boys shall play with dolls, much to the concern of everyone around her. To which she replies, pre-dating Charlotte Zolotow, “If more boys had been allowed to play with doll there’d be more intelligent fathers. Boys have been taught for too long a time that it is shameful for men to have anything to do with the care and bringing up of children. Men need tenderizing. I’m going to raise them to, first of all, be kind and loving fathers, and considerate husbands.” This chapter is wonderful, and ends with her son packing his doll (Uncle Pat Mulligan), along with a toy revolver on a trip:
“What have you got that for?” I asked. “Leave [the gun] at home. You’ve got enough to carry.”
“No, I gotta have it,” Peter grabbed for the gun.
“What for?” I asked, holding it back.
“If Pat Mulligan turns bad on this trip I’ll have to shoot him in the stomach,” Peter said.
I gave Peter the gun. You never could tell when Pat Mulligan might turn bad.
Teal’s picture book and her memoir are excellent companions. In the former, the little woman cannot rest without noise and goes out of her way to acquire more and more animals to liven up her farm and fill the air with sound. With that same lust for more, Teal writes in her memoir of her own yearning for a large family, a yearning augmented by a miscarriage and a stillbirth. “What no man, no doctor, no woman who has never lost a child can ever know about, is the consuming desire to replace that child that comes to the woman who has lost one.” The losses are not dwelt on here, but neither are they swept under a rug, instead acknowledged in practical terms as part of the vast motherhood experience.
Teal’s narrative is remarkable for its blend of wry humour and depth, of exasperation and joy. She so perfectly articulates motherhood as the curious mix that it is of the spiritual and earthly, the perfect and perfectly awful:
“Sometimes I’d look down and see these children around the house and feel very surprised and young and incapable… My goodness, where had they come from?… How in the world had this come about all of a sudden? They weren’t dolls, dream-figures. They were real, alive children, going-to-be men; dear Heaven, what had I done? I had made people! I had made people, Lord help me, people with emotions and plans and wishes and disappointments and longings. People. With souls. And when it would come over me, I’d stand very still and get very scared and helpless feeling. But they always brought me out of it.”
March 3, 2014
That time does fly is demonstrated by the fact that once again, I am waiting for test results on my thyroid lump (as I will be six months from now, and six months after that, and if this schedule alters, it’s probably not a positive twist in the story). It is no fun waiting for test results, I am learning, no matter how routine it becomes to get needles stabbed in one’s neck. It is no fun getting needles stabbed in one’s neck either. But the very worst is waiting on test results when one is reading a novel that isn’t very good.
I was reading that not very good novel yesterday when I wasn’t waiting for test results, and while the novel wasn’t good, reading it wasn’t so bad. But once I’d had the tests and things got heightened, I started to feel resentful.
We turn to books for certain things–for entertainment, for wisdom, to pass the time. Sometimes the right book comes along and offers all the answers that infinite existential google searches might fail to turn up. But to need some such thing and find yourself instead in the hands of an author whose book is carelessly constructed, sloppy, superficial, thoughtless. I don’t have time for that. The amount of understanding I’m willing to extend as a reader shrinks to about none.
When my world seems unsteady, I don’t want to read for escape. Instead, I require literary foundations solid and deep, something sure beneath my feet.
Is it too much to want a book to capture my attention, and also save my life? Anything less is just bookish jetsam.
Anyway, if you need me, I’ll be reading the new Lorrie Moore.
March 2, 2014
It’s about once or twice a day when something happens that reminds me how much I’m going to miss Book City when it’s gone (which is not too long now–stock is down to 40% off and the shelves are bare). I’m going to miss having a shop just around the corner that I could quite sure would have a copy of The Mystery Shopping Cart: Essays on Poetry and Criticism by Anita Lahey in stock. In fact, they had two. To think I took this for granted for awhile, being served as a member of the public who just happened to require The Mystery Shopping Cart at a moment’s notice.
And the reason that I required the book was because I was developing this fantasy in which I published a series of books of literary essays and reviews by Canadian women critics (including myself, naturally). I find that women writers in particular tend to be a bit all over the shop in terms of oeuvre, and I think that something magical might happen when you curate their non-fiction into a book, and some kind of overarching narrative emerges, their preoccupations become apparent, the approach that was always always there, but it’s just that she didn’t feel the need to state it in boldface over and over again.
This fantasy came about because I kept noticing the way in which male critics tend to get their work collected into books in numbers which, compared to female critics, reflects how much more of their criticism is published in the first place. And then I discovered The Mystery Shopping Cart, the book of my dreams. To Book City I ventured then in order to hold that dream in my hand.
Last week I stated (on twitter, no less) that The Mystery Shopping Cart was a perfect antidote to February, as well as to bookstore closures and general dissatisfaction with the state of the world. Because here is a book that testifies that words, books and ideas matter. Here is a smart and generous voice that takes the reader into its fold. The book begins with friendship, Lahey’s with poet Diana Brebner, and I didn’t manage to get through the first piece about Brebner (and how a mysterious shopping cart had once found its way, overturned, onto Anita Lahey’s lawn) before putting one of Brebner’s books on hold at the library–the one with her Mary Pratt poems.
This is that kind of book, the kind that takes you places. The kind with essays about poetry that I read anyway, though I am not a poet myself, or a confident reader of them. These are essays about poets I’ve never heard of, poets that I’ve never read, and I read these essays anyway. They presume that I should care about these things, invite me to do so, and I do. I am welcomed into the conversation, rather than alienated from it (by jargon, theory, grudges and biases I’m not privy to). Last week, for the first time I reviewed a poetry collection and felt confident about what I’d written, certainly not least of all because I was writing under Lahey’s influence. From The Mystery Shopping Cart, I’m learning that poetry might be mine to think about and write about, that I don’t necessarily need to learn a whole other language in order to do so, and just because poetry sometimes leaves me puzzled doesn’t mean I’m reading wrong, and that puzzlement (and a willingness to be made so vulnerable) is sometimes the very point.
Much of this book was familiar to me from Lahey’s associations with The New Quarterly. It was a pleasure to once again encounter her interview with Sharon McCartney and Kerry Ryan about poetry and boxing/wrestling/kickboxing, as well as her conversation with Kim Jernigan and Alice Munro. I’d also read some of her reflections from Arc Poetry Magazine in the wonderful Quarc Issue (which I adored and wrote about in 2011).
I enjoyed her essays about poets familiar to me (PK Page and Gwendolyn MacEwen, and how she takes issue with the former for inspiring a generation of Canadian poets to write terrible glosssas, and with the rest of us with conflating the self and work of the latter) and others–Dorothy Roberts, exiled Canadian and niece of Charles G.D.–who knew? I also appreciated her conversation with poets Stephanie Bolster and John Barton about the lure of ekphrasis. And how Lahey’s critic work is complemented by the personal essay included at the end.
The whole book was so good that it makes me fantasize about my female critics series more than ever. Sometimes I fear that in spending so much time lamenting the voices that are missing that we’re neglecting to pay attention to the few that are there. Kudos for Palimpsest Press for making this reader pay attention.
February 28, 2014
I reviewed Know the Night: A Memoir of Survival in the Small Hours by Maria Mutch in the National Post, and writing the piece was like building something out of materials which are more exquisite than anything I’ve ever worked with. The book is weird, wonderful and enthralling, and to call it a memoir about parenting or autism is to reduce the book to something finite, which it isn’t. The book is bigger than all of that–it’s about books, jazz, lists, loneliness, the whole world, and it’s a love story too.
‘”There is nothing quite like caring for a child alone, while the rest of the world is sleeping. In the dark, reality loses its shape, time slows as the clock ticks towards sunrise. It is easy to become unhinged. In her first book, Know the Night, Maria Mutch documents her own experiences during what she calls “the small hours.” For two years her oldest son, Gabriel, slept very little. She was either up caring for him, or, anticipating he would soon awaken, be unable to sleep herself. It was an arrangement Mutch calls a product of “parenting’s alchemical gist: the love for the child … mitigates everything else; what would seem anathema to others becomes … the status quo.’”
February 25, 2014
I never read Harriet the Spy when I was a child, and to be honest, I’m not sure I would have been sophisticated enough to appreciate it if I had. There are subtleties at work in the novel, a subversion I might not have been comfortable with. Instead, I loved The Long Secret, the lighter, sunnier Harriet novel. In The Long Secret, Harriet’s father is always home, and doesn’t say “rat fink” once. It’s Beth Ellen’s novel, the girl they call “Mouse”, and really, this novel is subversive too. I was just too stupid to know. Beth Ellen, like Harriet, can wield the power of the pen, but that’s the secret. I loved the map in the book, tracing my finger along its paths and roads. I never owned the book, but The Long Secret is one I borrowed from the school library over and over again. It acknowledged that people could be ugly, and I appreciated that. (Of course, I own a copy now.)
I didn’t read Harriet the Spy until I was 28, and I couldn’t remember why I did, but a search through my blog archives reveals that it was the internet’s fault (and isn’t everything). In 2008, I found an article on Harriet the Spy (via Steph at Crooked House), and it was only then that I realized that Harriet had not been a girl-sleuth solving boring neighbourhood mysteries, but had in fact been a writer. So I finally met Harriet in her original form, and was besotted. The novel was a guide to life, a guide to how to write and be a writer, and guides to such things were important to me in 2008, when I was just a year out of grad school with my writing career going nowhere at all. And that character–she was everything I love about everyone that I love best. She was the best and worst parts of me as well, and I adored her unabashedness.
“When I have a daughter, I am going to call her Harriet.” I remember telling my husband this news in the waiting room at our dentist’s, and lucky for me, he likes most of my ideas, and this was no exception.
Harriet was born in May 2009, and right away, I saw where I’d gone a bit wrong. All these spirited heroines are very nice to dream of, but to have to live with them is a whole other matter. To have to be the person whose job it is to teach Harriets civility, or at least enough to get by–can you believe that I signed up for that? But we’re figuring it out, and so is she, and she really is everything I dreamed of her being when I first dreamed of my own Harriet seven years ago. She loves books, has a vivid imagination, swears too much and is often rude, has a jam-smeared face and messy hair, makes up great stories, is full of faults, is absolutely perfect, and fierce as all get-out. She’s the kind of girl I want to see in the world. She’s worthy of being a Harriet namesake. It might have been easier to name her Beth Ellen, but would probably have been less fun.
Last summer we read Harriet the Spy. Our Harriet had just turned 4 and was much too young, but she was eager to read the book she’d been named for, and I wanted her to hear it too. And I think most of the book went over her head, but she never complained of being bored (and believe me, she would have if she were). As I read aloud, I noted to myself that this was the first book I’d ever read her that contained the word gestapo, and fortunately, she didn’t ask for clarification. I would have told her, but it might have interrupted the flow of the book.
As we were reading the book, Harriet found a notebook of her own, and took to going around scribbling in it. That she didn’t know how to write as much as her name at the time to my Harriet was no deterrent.
It’s a complicated legacy, Harriet the Spy. To give it to a daughter is to open a can of worms, and yet it also contains almost everything a daughter will ever need to know. About character: the sense of self and strength of conviction I wish for her, for one. I want her to know the power of her own voice. Harriet is a good way to learn how to be a woman. And yes, I want her to learn the lessons that Harriet learns too–that indeed, people can be ugly. People can be horrible, but you don’t have to tell them. That we go wrong when we always privilege the truth–sometimes you have to lie. People are rotten and sometimes you have to lie, but also the world is fascinating, full of things to be seen, and you just have to pay attention. Stories are everywhere. Stories are also everything, and happiness and freedom can only come when yours belongs to you.
February 24, 2014
I think I’ve finally got the hang of how to read a poetry collection, or at least one which is not structured around an overarching narrative. And the way to read such a collection, I’m learning, goes a lot like the advice of the late Mavis Gallant on reading short stories: “Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.”
So I’ve been reading poems from Lynn Davies’ How the Gods Pour Tea over the past couple of months, shutting the book, coming back later. It’s a thin book too, one I’ve been tucking into my coat pocket to read while I’m watching Harriet’s swimming lessons, or waiting for her in the playground after school. Its a beautiful book, printed in Toronto at Coach House, but in its travels with me the edges of the cover have become worn, the baby has chewed on it once or twice. I was reading in the park on Friday when snowflakes started falling, and they left tiny prints on the page, and this was so absolutely perfect for this book in which the line between books and nature seem to have been obliterated: “The squirrels have pulled apart my diaries for their enormous nest…” from “In the Bookstore.”
Though in a way, there is an overarching theme to this collection, which is a sense of sadness and being bereft, there being an absence which has shifted things and made the narrator pay close attention to things she hasn’t noticed for awhile. Nature as something almost monstrous, certainly wondrous. When I started to read the book, I was reading the poems in order, deciphering each one for a central message, a sign. I almost managed to catch “On Mercy” in a net, and I loved the poem for my accomplishment. I was besotted with “On My Knees at the Strawberry U-Pick,” this poem about scattered pieces of conversation eavesdropped on, Davies’ lines like, “How the boys lay down/ to ponder infinity, how the idea of fruit flies/ spurs me on.” The way these poems manage to so perfectly and curiously mingle the ethereal and down-to-earth, moving from one place to another with such ease.
But then I put the book down because to decipher each poem was too much. I was starting to realize that these weren’t poems that would ever make perfect sense, no matter how much I broke down line-by-line. And when that was finally understood, it all was easier, and I would pick up the book and flip randomly for a page that seemed to call me, and these callings were alway so perfectly timed.
Reading “Ice Storm” just before Christmas: “We’re blinded/ by the extra light/ knotted in trees,/ our feet pulled/ out from under/ us again.” “Power Poles” which poses questions about a pole with the same reverence we’d give a tree, its wild cousin, who is not “bristly with staples and bits of old post.” The end of “Alone”: “I leave books open/ in every room/ of our house.” Reading “The Golden Roofs” this past week, about images of Kiev. Reading “How Much?”, which wonders if equations can be posed for anything, which is the same conceit as France Daigle’s For Sure, which I’m reading right now.
“Fireworks” is like “On Mercy”, which is that I can’t quite pin it down, but I understand precisely what it’s grasping at—the closest these poems get to clarity: “Could be the rowdy city/ cousins of aurora borealis. /How the Gods pour tea.” And ending with. “A parachute/ for all the nights ahead of us.” (I think that with these poems I’m also finally beginning to understand “sublime.”) There is a poem about cheese, about the space between blue cheese and cheddar, a daughter’s perspective of a father “who so rarely pretended or played at anything.”
Reading “Footins” in the park the other day,” Three-headed February and freezing rain/ coats the road. I’m reading Chekhov and Gilbert/ and cookbooks.” Which becomes a trip through the dictionary: “What sea did f cross to get here,/ that failing grade…”
I don’t know what a “footin” is, or why February has three heads. Who is Gilbert? Why the squirrels are in the bookstore either. I haven’t read all the poems in How the Gods Pour Tea, but I’ve realized I don’t have to, or at least not in order. This is not a book that will be caught in a net, but instead, I’ve let it live alongside me, carried it in my pocket. These are poems that will cast spells in their own sweet time. Indeed, these are poems that can wait.
February 22, 2014
It almost seems remiss now to admit that I’ve read Middlemarch just once, and not until I was too old for it to become the foundation of my being. Because what a foundation, its purview so large and dense, the force of its moral sweep. Middlemarch is the novel that New Yorker Staff Writer Rebecca Mead has returned to again and again, as she sets out to explain in her new book, My Life in Middlemarch.
Not simply a celebration of George Eliot’s novel, however, Mead’s book is a testament to the strange alchemy of the reread. “A really good book can speak to you at a different stage of your life,” she told me during a recent telephone conversation
“With a book as complex as Middlemarch, literally there are different stories you can appreciate at different times,” she says. And even the same stories and characters are subject to change. While in her early experiences with the novel, Mead identified with Dorothea Brook’s inchoate longing, years later, it would be Casaubon who she’d view with sympathy. “You realize that he was just a very sad, middle-aged man who messed up. You can’t but read him in middle age and see the stripes of that in your experience.”
In Middlemarch, Mead sees stripes of Eliot’s experience as well, My Life in Middlemarch emerging as a curious blend of biography, autobiography and literary analysis. It’s the kind of approach to a novel—particularly a classic one—that university trains out of most of us. (The day after our conversation, Mead tweeted: “recurring question theme from Canadian interviewers: Did you ever think “how dare I write this book?” #thingsAmericansdontask”.)
But it was an approach that came naturally to Mead. “I studied literature at university and became aware that the way that scholars think and talk about books isn’t the way that ordinary readers do.” She wished her book to be an acknowledgement that “a sense of recognition is where a lot of the pleasure of reading begins.”
She continues, “Why do ordinary people read? They read because they feel that the stories they’re learning are enriching their lives somehow or they’re giving them a way to think about their own experience.”
While My Life in Middlemarch is concerned with Mead’s own experiences though (in love, work, parenthood, in relation to her parents, and her native England), her autobiography remains peripheral to the book’s central narrative. “I was happy with balance I struck,” she said. “Some people wanted more and wanted less. The book is very personal, but it’s not confessional. I think I must have been, without consciously thinking about it, channeling this sense of Victorian restraint.”
Ultimately, the richest life story in My Life in Middlemarch turns out to be Eliot’s own, Mead using the novelist’s biography (which was highly unconventional by Victorian standards, and even our own) to draw out the novel’s subtle underpinnings. Few critics have mined Middlemarch for what it has to tell us about motherhood, except perhaps how motherhood can come between two women, as it does for Dorothea and her sister, Celia.
On the basis of her own experience, however, Mead is able to see more deeply into the novel. An uncanny connection (of many) has Mead herself become the stepmother to three boys, just as Eliot was (by her husband, George Henry Lewes). And Mead shows how Eliot’s experiences as a stepmother are echoed within the stories of Middlemarch and its structure, these echoes revealing just how deeply a woman who never had biological children was able to intuit motherhood after all.
“If I could ask George Eliot any question,” remarks Mead, “it would be to ask her about not having children herself, whether she always knew that it was something that she didn’t want. For me, having a child has been most important thing I’ve ever done, for her not to have had that intensity of experience…”
One area in which Eliot did have intensity of experience, however, was in her relationship with Lewes, which Mead depicts as a love story far too perfect to ever work in fiction. “Their relationship was a real inspiration,” she says. “They had their ups and downs, but were intensely compatible. They had this amazing writers’ companionship. Their relationship was especially moving because they met well into middle age. They were both mature and seasoned, had experienced disappointment.”
While Eliot’s biography is indeed central to My Life in Middlemarch, it is the novel itself that structures the book, whose eight chapters are titled for the eight books of Middlemarch. Such a structure came about organically.
“As I was taking notes and figuring it out, it became clear that the titles were so suggestive, perfectly apt for describing aspects of [Eliot’s] life [“Old and Young”, “Waiting for Death”, “Three Love Problems”, etc.], and from that, the book flowed very easily. I haven’t written anything on this scale with such a structural conceit before, and I’m delighted by the aesthetic shape of it, very happy.”
“There were moments,” Mead notes, “writing this book where I was so deep in it everything fitting together, and I felt either I’m really inspired or I’m psychotic; it all meshed.”
It was pointed out to Mead in a recent interview that the connections might go even deeper, that her own book manages to recapitulate the moral story of Middlemarch, the journey from self-centredness into wider empathy. My Life in Middlemarch starts off with Mead’s own story and her connection to the novel, to conclude with a deeper understanding of her parents’ lives and relationship, through the story of Fred and Mary. Mead was thrilled to see this. “What a joyful experience it was to write it,” she says.
The book is a joyful experience to read as well, as attested to by the terrific buzz it has generated. That buzz is all the more remarkable for how much this isn’t the sort of book that any of us these days are meant to be interested in anyway, a celebration of reading a book that’s more that 140-years old, not to mention so much longer than 140 characters.
The response to her book, says Mead, “maybe speaks to a yearning people have to slow down. People are responding to my taking the time to slow down with Middlemarch, to go through it and to read so carefully.”
And not just read it, but reread it. Mead agrees here with my suggestion that there is particular relationship between rereading and the Victorian novel. “That attempt at a whole panorama… There is destiny, ambition, scale and pace that allows one to go back and revisit.”
But what a challenge is rereading with so little time for reading at all.
And here, Mead shares an anecdote about a character she encountered during her Middlemarch research. One of the eight original Middlemarch novellas had come up for auction, and she went to the sale. The book sold for $35,000. Mead told the buyer, “I wish I had that kind of money to spend on a book.”
She says, “And he told me, ‘You do. You just need to rearrange your priorities.’ With rereading, it’s the same.”
- Check out Middlemarch for Book Clubs
February 19, 2014
Iris is 8.5 months old, which is really the age at which one turns into a human. She moves, she sits, she eats our french fries when we go out for lunch. Finally, it feels like we’re discovering who she is, and it’s no less miraculous to see it unfold having seen it all before. In fact, it is more miraculous than it was the first time around.
Partly, this is because we were so focussed and anxious the first time around, not having a great deal of faith in a baby’s ability to bloom into a human all by her very self. We were anticipating all the milestones, checking them off like these were our accomplishments, not really understanding how long the story of parenthood would turn out to be (and how we are actually incidental to so much of it). We were also always watching for these milestones to happen, which meant that very often nothing happened, and that was a little boring. And when they did happen, the milestones felt so singular, monumental. Our baby learned to roll over, and it was the most extraordinary thing in the world.
This time, the milestones have caught us off-guard. Our focus is so broad that we forget about Iris a lot of the time, and then suddenly, there she is pulling herself up to standing. On Sunday morning I lost her altogether, totally confused by how she’d completely disappeared, until I realized that she’d crawled under her crib and was playing there. She slithers around on the floor like a snake, and gets to wherever she wants to go (which is usually in the direction of paper she can eat. Somebody needs to invent edible paper for babies. They would make a fortune).
What makes Iris’s milestones most miraculous this time is that I have the scope to see them as part of a continuum. First, of Iris herself growing into her own body and mind, but also that every single human being has to undertake this journey in his own way. These incredible discoveries–of how our bodies work, that we can stand and walk, how strong we are, how fast we go–must be made over and over again. And each discovery doesn’t mean, as they did the first time, “Now we’re getting somewhere,” with the prospect of some kind of arrival, but instead the journey itself being the entire point.
February 18, 2014
Though Zsuzsi Gartner’s “Better Living Through Plastic Explosives” is set with home and hearth at its centre, the story offers glimpses outside into the dystopian Vancouver that is the backdrop to most of Gartner’s collection of the same name. Speeding cars burn rubber on streets whose sidewalks are littered with overturned shopping carts, as well as “used condoms, syringes, and the inevitable orphaned muffler”. For protection, Gartner’s protagonist, “the recovering terrorist”—who is also a gardener—has erected a botanical barricade around her house. And in the story’s opening paragraphs with their vivid imagery of the barricade, we receive our first reference to the maternal as an explosive, brutal force.
The force is the proverbial Mother Nature, of course, whose foliage clumps and billows. A magnolia with “vulvic flesh… erupts in the living room window.” Blood grass is described as “knifing the air, while underground its roots go berserk.” The recovering terrorist is Mother Nature’s agent, standing in the garden with a watering can full of fish fertilizer which she drops when another speeding car tears down her street, “a fifteen-year-old future ex-con at the wheel.”
The recovering terrorist is optimistically named, so-called for her membership in a support group whose membership includes, “Sterling, the tree-spiker…, Molly, who’d waged a campaign of terror against her West End neighbourhood’s johns.” She’d discovered the group by answering a newspaper ad, and now meets for support over Peak Freans and instant coffee. She has her sponsor on speed-dial, a former AIDS activist called Dieter who’d sworn off violence after a narrowly escaping harming an innocent child.
Our recovering terrorist, however, had not had the fortune of such an escape. Twenty years before, she’d set fire to a house “to bring a petty capitalist to his knees”, the owner of a company whose chlorine-filled diapers were exported to cause testicular cancer in third-world baby boys. The house was supposed to have been empty, but she got the dates wrong, and a child died, a friend of the family. The recovering terrorist was never caught, and paid no price for her crime, so has never been able to move past it.
Her guilt, however, hasn’t quelled her impulses towards violence, though she has found ways to divert them. The recovering terrorist, brutal Mother Nature’s agent, hosts a “gardening bitch” radio call-in show, issuing advice like, “Gardening is like warfare, and it’s time for you to call in the troops”. She recommends diatomaceous earth to kill slugs, which is “like crawling through ground glass.” She says, “An eye for an eye, as they say, a tooth for a tooth.”
Gartner further subverts maternal stereotypes by representing the recovering terrorist’s extremist tendencies as inextricably linked to motherhood. In fact, her impulses have never been so strong: “For all her past-life bravado, she finally understands what it means to be willing to die for something, or rather, someone. [Her son] is her ur-text, her Gospels, her Koran.”
The recovering terrorist is called Lucy, though she goes unnamed throughout much of the story. This is partly a satire of the pseudo-anonymity of self-help groups, but also significant because Gartner makes naming an act of colonization, of possession, and in her guilt, the recovering terrorist no longer wants to possess herself. (And perhaps she just doesn’t like her name: “…a name that sounds like fresh fruit, an ingénue of a name. Girl terrorists all seem to have perky names—Squeaky, Patty, Julie—as if they can’t quite take themselves seriously enough.”)
That the recovering terrorist has named her son Foster indicates a suspicion that her possession of him might be temporary. Like all parents, she must strike a balance between keeping him safe and giving him freedom to explore the world, to pursue his passions, which (at the age of seven) include Pokémon, and mastering the unicycle. The former passion connects mother and son, as she is fascinated by the game’s playfully violent mythology, and the latter dividing them—his hobby has turned her into a foolish caricature of parenthood, standing anxiously on the sidewalk shouting, “Careful!”
Foster, when he was younger, “like all fledgling humans”, had what the recovering terrorist describes as a “hunger for naming”, and it was his mother’s job to feed it: “Manhole covers, squirrels, body parts, graffiti, discarded condoms, black-eyed susans, facial deformities of fellow passengers riding the No. 20 bus. That got name?” Now that he is older, Foster’s hunger is satisfied with his playing cards, characters with names like Vulpix., Lickitung, Dusknoir, and Slugma. And Gartner makes implicit a link between Foster’s hunger for names, and the recovering terrorist’s own urges to “inflict order” on her universe.
She is trying hard to stay recovering. When the dangerous outside world permeates her barricade via the speeding cars in the street—when they make her fear for her son’s safety and the sanctity of her home and neighbourhood—she tries to play by the rules. She solicits City Hall to install a “speed retardant”, and finds herself tangled in red tape idiocy. Gartner satirizes bureaucratic processes, and employs a most inspired literalized metaphor for the futility of fighting the system: the civil servant without a larynx, who holds his finger to his throat to emit robotic answers to the recovering terrorist’s concerns. “She is arguing with a guy who has no voice box.”
When playing by the rules gets her nowhere the recovering terrorist feels compelled to take matters into her own hands. She’s thinking of the children, of course; “For Lucy, it always comes down to the babies.” Just as 20 years ago she’d set a fire in the name of third-world baby boys, it is for the sake of her son on his unicycle that now she considers blowing up speeding cars along with their drivers. There’s nothing gentle about the recovering terrorist’s maternal touch, which is always further undermined by her collateral damage, the little girl she killed in order to protect other children: “It’s always the mother’s fault. As they say.”
As her son had been troubled by unnameable things as a young child, so too does the recovering terrorist continue to be, for these unnameable things violate her need for order. Her love for her son, for example, which, she admits, “complicates things.” In fact, she’s not even sure if what she feels is love at all, or if she’s confusing love with fear, with fear of what might happen to Foster and what would happen to her if she lost him. The recovering terrorist, with her unwavering faith in “an eye for an eye,” believes wholeheartedly that her son will be stolen away from her as punishment for her crime, that history is destined to repeat itself in order for justice to prevail.
Her sponsor Deiter also fears that history will be repeated, that the recovering terrorist is losing control. “I think you want to be caught,” he says, as Lucy stops attending the support group, and begins investigating homemade plastic explosives recipes on Google. And here Gartner’s treatment of the mother-terrorist becomes particularly complicated, and is made no less so by the story’s devastating ending.
Is Lucy once again resorting to violence out of concern for her son’s well-being, or is she merely using Foster to justify the violent urges she can no longer suppress, which she refuses to take responsibility for, “the mercury semi-dormant in her veins”? Is the recovering terrorist the devoted mother she professes to be or has she delivered her son into the world to be her sacrificial lamb? Or is the world such a complex place that each of these things might be true all at once?
With such ambiguity, Gartner disrupts familiar notions of both motherhood and fanaticism, investing “Better Living Through Plastic Explosives” with its terrible and disturbing power.