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October 31, 2009

Dreams that Glitter

Something has changed during the two years since I was last in England, and I suppose you can blame it on what I now hear referred to as “the global economic shakedown”. It was unprecedented: I scoured the 3 for 2 tables at Waterstones, and could not find anything I wanted to read. One entire table was taken up by that Jane Austen zombie book and various take-offs of the same idea. There were a few good books, but I’d read them already, but all the rest were completely uninspired/uninspiring. And even those at full price seemed to mainly be the umpteenth volume of various celebrity autobiographies.

At the airport, we had pounds to burn, so we checked out WH Smith before our flight left. Their discount display was hilarious, and I really should have taken a photo. Books being promoted were as follows: Brick Lane, Catch 22, something by Enid Blyton, The Life of Pi, Fahrenheit 451 and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. It was the time-warp book promotion, and certainly nothing to get excited about.

When I lived in England, I could easily be cajoled into even a 6 for 4, no problem. All the books I wanted would be the ones on sale, and I’d be longing to read them after reading reviews in various newspapers’ respective stand-alone books sections. These books were irresistible, particularly with the discounts. And discounts are cheating at book-buying, I know, but I was looking forward to a little indulgence.

But perhaps the fun is over. Perhaps we even have to start getting what we pay for, and if you’re looking for a deal you’ll have to settle for Dreams that Glitter at 4.99 in hardback. And perhaps this is only sensible, but something about it makes me a little bit sad. (Note: This must be how the derivatives traders feel! Poor us.)

October 29, 2009

Its own mythology

“Every family in which children are read to, and where books are part of the furniture and the reading of them part of life, must have its own mythology, one that has arisen out of early books. Characters become companions, they help form the imagination, they people a child’s inner landscape. Alice in Wonderland and the White Rabbit, the Red Queen and the Caterpillar were far more to me than invented characters in a storybook. They still are. Looking at the children’s picture books now, I realize that they are my books too, they became as much part of my inner landscape as of theirs.”– from Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill

October 29, 2009

What Mothers Do

What Mothers Do by Naomi Stadlen is a very weird book. In one sense, it’s actually the most informative book on motherhood I’ve read yet. It’s almost a Scientist in the Crib for moms, decoding their behaviour to show that what goes on all day long is more profound than you’d ever suppose. That all of what a mother might spend her time doing during a day in which she “got nothing done” is full of significance, essential to her child’s development and therefore society at large via that next generation.

Stadlen posits that we lack the language to articulate what it is that mothers do. What mothers do badly, of course, we have all kinds of words for (overbearing, possessive, over-involved, negligent, narcissistic, heartless, cold, etc.), but no way to express anything between these two extremes. And it is this lack of vocabulary that undervalues a mother’s work, that she has no way to express what she has accomplished at the end of every day.

“People ask mothers: ‘Is he sleeping through the night yet?’ ‘Have you started him on solids yet?’ ‘Has he got any teeth?’ No one seems to ask: ‘Have you discovered what comforts him?’ Yet the ability to sleep through the night, or to digest solid food or to grow teeth, has little to do with mothering. Babies reach those milestones when they are mature enough, whereas being able to comfort depends on a mother’s ability.”

In her book, Stadlen points out what mothers’ do do. How their worlds are so completely shaken by the birth of their babies, cut off from matrilineal traditions that might have prepared girls for eventual motherhood. But how this “shaking up” opens up the mother to all the knowledge she will have to come by in order to get to know how to take care of her own specific baby. She expresses that to be a mother is to be “constantly interruptible”, which mothers begin to take for granted, which outsiders might find obnoxious or unhealthy, which is hard for a while not to resent. What mothers do as “comforters”, learning to soothe their babies through trial and error and after a while are able to do it without thinking. Tiredness that is absolutely uncurable. That it’s hard, terrible, and wonderful, and changes the way you relate to the world– to your partners, to your own mothers. Also to one another– Stadlen does a stunning job at pointing out the competitive and defensive dynamic in mothers’ conversations, the cycle of desperate talk which leads to a word of advice, and then mother recounts the reasons that advice won’t work which makes her sound more desperate and receive more advice and so it goes…

Stadlen claims to write without agenda, and I could read her book without throwing it out the window because her lack of agenda agreed with mine, but come on: “The literature on crying babies tends to focus on technique. However, responding to a crying baby involves more than technique. Underlying what a mother does is her philosophy of human nature… Her basic choice is either to see her baby as good, in which case she trusts him, or alternatively to see him as the product of evil human nature, or of original sin, which requires her to train him.” Parents who insist their children must sleep through the night, suggests Stadlen, are the product of a generation who were sleep-trained themselves so to be inflexible and now are unable to accommodate the basic needs of their young.

Unbelievable! As someone who is just too tired at 3:00 am to do anything but feed the baby whilst sleeping, I eat this stuff up with a spoon, but it’s terrible! And perhaps what I get for reading a book by a psychotherapist.

Her chapter on maternal love is also problematic. She cites recent literature challenging notions of maternal love, and new ideas of “maternal ambivalence”. Stadlen is troubled by assertions that all women actually experience these feelings, because she hasn’t found this in her years of working with new moms. She is troubled further by the idea of “maternal ambivalence” itself, but this (I believe) is because she understands it as women feeling hatred towards their babies. From what I’ve read on the subject (which is everything I can get my hands on), it’s far more complex than that– rather that whilst loving their babies, women can be amazingly unfulfilled as mothers, or rather not completely fulfilled, and yet the all-consuming nature of motherhood makes other ventures difficult. Also, that spending a day alone and exhausted, hormonally jacked up, being puked on and cried at, is utterly horrible, full stop.

Stadlen seems to think there is no end to what a mother’s comfort can provide. She also thinks that babies always cry for a reason, and that these maternally ambivalent women just couldn’t get past their own selves to figure out what that reason was and tend to it– I’m not convinced. Stadlen is right to counter the “bad mother” trend that is too ubiquitous in current writing about motherhood, but I don’t think all women are naturals when it comes to mothering. Part of this is because mothering is not valued in our society, as Stadlen sets out in her book and as she seeks to rectify with her explanation of mothers’ doings, reclaiming the art of it all.

So it’s a shame, because the women who’d probably most benefit from the fascinating and wonderful things she has to say about motherhood will find themselves attacked here.

October 28, 2009

Howards End is on the Landing

My own discovery of Susan Hill came via DGR, and I have found her to be quite a curious woman. She is a literary novelist who writes detective fiction (which I’ve read and enjoyed), she is a publisher, she was a prolific blogger until she gave it up, and on her blog she used to rave passionately about how climate change is bunk. She is fiercely opinionated, intelligent, a bit grumpy and very sort of fascinating, and her new book has the most exquisite dustjacket I’ve laid eyes upon in ages.

Howards End is on the Landing is the story of a literary year, from one book to another, during which Hill resolved to stop accumulating new books and revisit her own library instead. A chance encounter with Howards End (on the landing, naturally) had had her realize just how many of her own books she hadn’t yet read, or how many others required rereading, and which of the rest would be essential favourites if she had to choose. And the book that resulted is a catalogue of sorts– not of the reading per se, but of hypothetical reading as Hill decides which books to spend her year with. She finishes the book with her “final forty” of books she couldn’t live without, but also explores books she hasn’t read and will never read, and why. Books she hasn’t read yet, but she’s waiting. She considers her daughters’ YA novels, an extensive collection of pop-up books, the books that bring literature to life for children now (Harry Potter) and then (Enid Blyton). Why certain books are grouped together on her shelves (for height, for example) and the unlikelihood of some of this organization, why her library remains resolutely uncatalogued, bookplates are for weenies, and chance encounters with characters from EM Forster to Ian Fleming throughout her literary life.

I’ve read this kind of reading commentary referred to as “book chat”, somewhat dismissively in regards to bookish blogs. But I actually think that these discussions of how books relate to one another, how every day life and reading life overlaps, of the library as a diary– it’s fascinating, when done right, and opens up the literature in question exponentially. And it sends waves out into the world– Hill has left me wanting to revisit Elizabeth Taylor, it was because of her I purchased The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen at the airport bookshop, and I’m now interested in plenty of other writers as well who aren’t even called Elizabeth.

It leaves me wanting to go in and re-explore my own bookshelves too, which are now richer for this addition.

October 27, 2009

Five Months Old

October 27, 2009

Not a problem requiring bookshelves

“If she feels disoriented, this is not a problem requiring bookshelves of literature to put right. No, it is exactly the right state of mind for the teach-yourself process that lies ahead of her. Every time a woman has a baby she has something to learn, partly from her culture but also from her baby. If she really considered herself an expert, or if her ideas were set, she would find it very hard to adapt to her individual baby. Even after her first baby, she cannot sit back as an expert on all babies. Each child will be a little different and teach her something new. She needs to feel uncertain in order to be flexible. So, although it can feel so alarming, the ‘all-at-sea’ feeling is appropriate. Uncertainty is a good starting point for a mother. Through uncertainty, she can begin to learn.” –from What Mothers Do by Naomi Stadlen

October 26, 2009

Simon Le Bon blogs books.

Well, it’s no secret that I love Duran Duran, but I just don’t talk about it very often. Mostly because I don’t like to brag about my mean acoustic version of “Rio”, in which I wail about her making me feel alive, alive, alive. But I’m pleased that Melanie at The Indextrious Reader has unearthed this gem of a link, which is nearly as good as Art Garfunkel’s books list: Simon Le Bon blogs books on the band’s website. To check out his picks, go here, click on “writing”, and then “Simon’s Reader”. Really, what we’ve all been waiting for.

October 26, 2009

Bloor-Gladstone Library

They told me off at the Bloor-Gladstone Library for taking photos without permission, but I’m only remotely ashamed. I’ve been meaning to visit ever since they reopened from renovations in July, and when we finally managed to stop in today whilst out autumnally walking, we found the place totally packed. The computers were in use, the easy chairs occupied by those with laptops, featured book displays were being browsed, people were reading at the study tables, perusing the stacks, there was a line up of people picking up their holds, and in a lovely, quietish library way, the entire place was bustling.

The original building has had a modern extension put on, and the entire space has been opened up, made airy and light. I think my favourite feature was the wall in the children’s area, which renders the world an aquarium. The kids books were plentiful, artfully displayed on tops of shelves for browsing. Lots of comfortable chairs to curl up and read in. The teen book section was no less fantastic up on the second floor, by the extensive music and DVD collections. I really could have stayed all day.

It was a truly inspiring and wonderful space, and absolutely a hub of community. On such a gorgeous sunny Sunday afternoon, I could understand why all these people had chosen to stay indoors instead. If these are the doors in question, I mean. I expect we’ll visit again soon.

Oh, and library books I picked up this week: Tokyo Fiancee by Amelie Northomb, Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby, and What Mothers Do by Naomi Stadlen.

October 25, 2009

From which its beauties are visible

“…[the literary critic’s] aim should be to interpret the work they are writing about and to help readers to appreciate it, by defining and analysing those qualities that make it precious and by indicating the angle of vision from which its beauties are visible.

But many critics do not realise their function. They aim not to appreciate but to judge; they seek first to draw up laws about literature and then to bully readers into accepting these laws… [but] you cannot force a taste on someone else, you cannot argue people into enjoyment.” –from Library Looking Glass: A Personal Anthology by David Cecil (via Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill)

October 25, 2009

Flying Babies and Books

Once upon a time, a plane journey meant I’d get a whole book read, and a magazine or two. In-flight movies were for chumps, and I was the annoying person whose reading light was shining bright when you were trying to sleep. And then I had a baby.

And I’ve had a baby long enough to have a good idea of how much reading I’d get done in transit. Whereas before, I’d bring at least four novels and a magazine (because, I mean, what if we had to make an unexpected stopover at an airport without a bookshop?), I brought just one book this time. And I’ve also had a baby long enough to be pleased to get just the first three stories in Birds of America read during our flight.

Thankfully, we went to visit the grandparents, which is the closest thing I’ll have to a vacation from motherhood for quite some time. So I got two issues of the London Review of Books read, finished Birds of America, and read the wonderful Howards End is On the Landing. On the flight home, I began The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen, and got about 60 pages in, mainly because I read while jumping up and down, rocking Harriet in her Little Star Sling. On the whole, I am very satisfied.

Reading aside, flying with babies is hard work, but I really can’t complain, considering the moms I saw flying alone with two children. Harriet was pretty good, didn’t scream substantially too much of the time, airline staff and other passengers were really kind, helpful and accommodating, and having a baby makes the whole world a really friendly place. Once arrived, we had a really wonderful time. Harriet never adjusted to the time change, and went to bed at midnight every night, and while this made her grumpier and grumpier as the week went on, it’s been no trouble getting her back on track at home.

And I’ve got to get back on track too. Since my last “I’m not buying books” post, I think I’ve bought about seven more books. But no more, of course. I’m done, but it does mean I’ve got some serious blogging to do, and more reading to do, and then I’ll go and read some more.

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