November 27, 2013
“The more I read, the more I felt connected across time to other lives and deeper sympathies. I felt less isolated. I wasn’t floating on my little raft in the present; there were bridges that led over to solid ground. Yes, the past is another country, but one that we can visit, and once there we can bring back the things we need.
Literature is common ground. It is ground not managed wholly by commercial interests, nor can it be strip-mined like popular culture–exploit the new thing then move on.
There’s a lot of talk about the tame world versus the wild world. It is not only a wild nature that we need as human beings; it is the untamed open space of our imaginations.
Reading is where the wild things are.”
–Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?
September 4, 2013
Oh, summer summer. This week we’re easing out of the bliss that was. Harriet starts kindergarten on Friday, she starts her afternoon play-school program tomorrow. Stuart goes back to work on Monday, and things look interesting on that front, plus he is taking a college course that starts next week. I am also easing back into my role at 49thShelf, and looking forward to some really cool projects this Fall. And Iris is still figuring out how to be in the world, though it helps that she knows how hands and fingers work. She is 13 weeks old today, 3 months old tomorrow, a second tooth just breaking through and making the nights hard. Starting Monday, I’m going to be taking care of her solo, which is a whole new ballgame.
Today we tried out the backpack position in our Baby Trekker for the first time, and I am quite confident that it will be my liberation, by which I mean I will use to wear Iris while I make dinner and clean the house. She still takes her naps lying on my chest, and so nap-time will be me-time, by which I mean that I intend to get a lot of reading done. And I am writing these facts down here because really I’m just a bit anxious about settling into a new routine, a routine whose shape I haven’t glimpsed yet. I have a fantasy of dropping Harriet at kindergarten, Baby falls asleep in her stroller and then I head to a coffee shop to write for an hour. Though it’s probably more like 25 minutes, considering Iris’s naps. Fortunately, I have had a child before who naps for just 25 minutes, and it got better, so I am not so worried about this. I am confident the mix of working and taking care of Iris will figure itself out, but I am still not quite sure how this will happen.
I am routine-obssessed, as anyone who has ever tried to make plans with me on a Friday is well aware. (No thank you. On Friday afternoons, I clean my house, of course!) This is both a blessing and curse as a parent, the former because it gives an awfully chaotic universe a fundamental shape, and the latter because the shape is an illusion after all, and life requires flexibility. Not yet knowing what my routine will be is resulting in me creating manic posts like this one, and compiling lists like a mad-woman in the hope of feeling like I have some kind of a handle on it all. It is not yet clear that I do…
This transition from the bliss of summer has been nice. I am reading Louise Penny’s new mystery How the Light Gets In, which is so so enjoyable, the perfect kind of book with which to ease into anything. Perhaps I’ll even be able to post a review here in response, my first review in ages, because after a few weeks of summer reading, all the new releases I’ve been intending to talk about have failed to inspire much in me beyond a shrug. I keep blaming the books, but maybe I am too impatient right now. (With some of these I am being too generous though, and it is absolutely the book…)
So yes, transition is a fine thing, but I have never been good at transition. I think everything will be clearer when I’m right back in the thick of it.
August 15, 2013
And there are books in the meantime. My vacation reads continued right up until yesterday. I read Grace Paley’s Collected Stories for a whole week, and they were amazing, difficult, heavy and gorgeous. I admire her sympathy for all/most sides of an argument, her courage in exploring unlikeable characters. I’d not read her since I became a mother, and I must confess that it’s altered the experience. “Faith in a Tree” was my very favourite. That phrase, “my colleagues in the mother-trade”–it has stuck by me. I think we’d all get along so much better if we thought about things in those terms.
After, I read This One’s Mine by Maria Semple, the first novel by the author of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? It was not a very good book, and yet I read the whole thing and enjoyed it, which is significant because I have very little stomach for not very good books these days. Lack of quality aside, there was something about it. Semple’s characters are so profoundly unlikeable, absolutely offensive, politically incorrect. I was horrified again and again, and it’s not so often that happens. In this novel, Semple is not so adept at plot, but she creates fascinating, surprising characters. I also loved the novel’s setting, its LA, which made me realize that although the two books have nothing in common stylistically, This One’s Mine is actually Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays on bubblegum. So I read Play It… next, the second time I’ve done so, and I really liked it, whereas I think it just confused me last time. I think I’ve realized that a short book cannot necessarily be read so breezily.
And now I am back reading new releases, Night Film by Marisa Pessl, which Janet Meslin really didn’t like very much. Gearing up for September too, getting ready for projects and assignments. Basically, my maternity leave is over, but this feels right. It doesn’t seem very healthy to be all-consumed by someone who is 10 weeks old anyway, even if she can roll over. (Yes!)
June 20, 2013
I have learned a very important lesson about post-partum reading, which is that long books are anathema to the cause. I’ve been reading I Capture the Castle for days and days, and while I’m enjoying it enough, I’m making such slow and discouraging progress. I think that fast and short books are probably best for those of us who only have time to read with baby at the breast (and even with that, are usually joined by older sibling who wishes to poke baby in the cranium as she feeds, which is certainly enough to distract one from a book). Not least because the smaller books are easier to hold with one hand, but also because they give the illusion of productivity, action, time well-spent. “There,” I can say, setting another snappy book aside, “is something I’ve accomplished.” The opposite of reading a long book, or growing a baby for that matter. I require more immediate satisfaction that either activity can provide, I think. The latter one being particularly unrewarding, you see; though my efforts, my baby packed on 10 oz last week, but every person who glimpses her can only exclaim, “She’s so tiny!”
June 12, 2013
“Charles can no longer pay attention to one source of information at a time. He is Modern Man, programmed to take in several story lines, several plots at once. He cannot quite unravel them, but he cannot do without the conflicting impulses, the desperate stimuli. Perhaps he hopes the alcohol will simplify them, will stick them together and fuse them all into one consecutive narrative. The narrative of his own life, of his place in the history and geography of the world.” –Margaret Drabble, A Natural Curiosity
“‘No,’ I answered. “I don’t agree with that. I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them. It’s hollow.” –e.l. konigsburg, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
Isn’t Margaret Drabble’s 1989 novel eerily prescient of the internet? I enjoyed the konigsburg book as well, though it was a curious one. I’m now finishing reading Lisa Moore’s novel Caught, and will be rereading Slouching Towards Bethlehem afterwards. And I think I’m going to miss being bedridden… Other books in the horizon are The Eliot Girls and The Flamethrowers. And truly, this is the reason that breast is best.
April 17, 2013
“But something about new motherhood also darkened my worldview and made the thought of those cries more threatening. This is where you may be wondering if I’m just talking about post-partum depression, but the struggles I have in mind are unlikely to raise any significant red flags at the six-week check-up. And while, being raised in a family of psychologists, I certainly asked myself whether I might have PPD, I generally didn’t find that line of questioning helpful.
Don’t get me wrong—it’s an important question that we should keep asking ourselves and each other, and we should seek treatment unapologetically if the answer might be yes. But the problem with that question as our primaryapproach to the struggles of new motherhood is that it suggests that the post-partum experience itself is just fine, unless of course you have a legitimate clinical illness that distorts your perception of it. And the post-partum experience is not just fine. It is immensely, bizarrely complicated. It is, at various times and for various people, grueling and joyful and frightening and beautiful and disorienting and moving and horrible. There’s a lot going on there that will never make its way into the DSM V.”
-from “Before I Forget: What Nobody Remembers About New Motherhood” by Jody Peltason, whose standout line was “” We thought it would be sitcom-style hard.” Yes, indeed!
April 16, 2013
I am quiet this week, mostly because I am reading Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings and that’s all I really want to do. What I don’t want to be doing is fretting about Baby being breech, but alas this seems to be my fret of the moment. I’m waiting for an ultrasound that will confirm either way. At least Baby is not transverse ala Harriet, which means the ending of this story has yet to written. Fingers crossed, but I’m pulling out all the stops this time, which is to say that I might discover what moxibustion is, and anything else that could possibly help turn the wee one. And if baby is breech, I will then be really concerned about why its bum is so head-like in its composition. What kind of anatomy is that?
In good news, I’ve worn capri pants and sandals two days in a row. Not entirely sensibly, but altogether happily. And at least the sun is shining.
March 13, 2013
I’m now reading Elizabeth Hay’s A Student of Weather, because it’s been sitting on my shelf for ages and because it’s mentioned in Isabel Huggan’s Belonging (and is blurbed by Huggan herself–I will read anything with Isabel Huggan’s name on it). I was leafing through it and was excited to see it contains a quotation from Jane Gardam’s Crusoe’s Daughter, everything seeming so circular because I read Gardam’s A Long Way From Verona on the weekend.
I am not sure what it says about my intelligence (or, on the contrary, I know exactly what it says…) that Jane Gardam’s novels which are supposedly for young readers are those with which I’ve most appreciated. I’ve liked all her books, but they are all so strange. Or maybe what I mean is that Gardam throws her reader into the deep-end and one has no choice but to swim, swim, swim, and sometimes with all that frantic motion it is hard to really appreciate one’s surroundings. But I didn’t have to tread water as much with Bilgewater and A Long Way from Verona. These books also make it a bit easier to see what Gardam gets up to, and understand the other books–so much is withheld, truths aren’t necessarily so, narrators are unreliable.
Anyway, I loved A Long Way from Verona, though mostly for non-literary reasons. A few days ago, it occurred to me that there was an enormous chance that everything was going to be all right in terms of my health, and I’ve been feeling much better since then. And the end of the novel just underlined everything I’d been thinking, and hoping for (plus there is a postbox on the front cover of my copy). The last line is, “But like at the Novelty Machine, I just felt filled with love, knowing that good things take place.”
I was surprised to have a good night’s sleep last night, but I’m so glad I did, because the procedure was really not worth losing sleep for. I liked the surgeon who was really nice, and Stuart held my hand while he performed the biopsy (which apparently was totally disgusting, and I am sorry I didn’t get to see it. I always miss it when they pull things out of my body, and must rely on my husband for full reports). I do not have to wait for results, which is so good as it means we can enjoy the rest of our March Break week. I have an appointment to go back in two weeks to discuss results with the doctor, who told me that he thought the lump seemed pretty innocent. And I imagine that surgeons don’t say such things lightly. Sooner or later, and somehow, it seems that everything is going to be okay.
March 3, 2013
“It feels as if coming to this house, and picking these books to read, has had in its chancy juxtoposition something of divine revelation. I’ve always had a penchant for doing this, opening books at random, letting words or phrases leap out to show me the way–for decades, I have turned to The Books of Knowledge, my grandmother’s encyclopedia, and riffled through the pages looking for answers whenever I am in doubt.” –Isabel Huggan, “Homage to Kenko”, from Belonging
I knew nothing about what to expect in the days and week’s after Harriet’s birth, and most of my imaginings about the whole thing were so incredibly wrong, but the one thing I got right somehow was deciding to tuck Laurie Colwin’s A Big Storm Knocked It Over in my hospital bag. There could have been no book more perfect for those days than that one, that book with the passage that summed up the whole experience of new motherhood like nothing else I’ve ever read (“The days seemed to congeal like rubber cement, although moments stood out in clearest, starkest brilliance…”) and helped me understand what we were going through, that women had felt like I had time and time again before me.
Last week, in fits of anxiousness and desperation, I wanted to turn to Colwin again, to Laurie Colwin with her perfect combination of lightness and edge, with her acknowledgement of the presence of joy in the world, but then I couldn’t bear to. Colwin’s capacity for joy is all the more heartbreaking when one considers her sudden death, and when one is consumed by hysterical thoughts of one’s own sudden death, such things are not to be considered at all. They will bring no consolation. (They will again though. I plan to spend my summer reading Laurie Colwin and Barbara Pym.)
There were other things I had to read though, a new book for review and also Sally Armstrong’s new book Ascent of Women, as I was putting together a Q&A for 49thShelf. The former was hard to take partly because I had to read it on on PDF on an iPad (and what a relief to finish! To return to the reality of paper again) and partly because the protagonist’s best-friend-dead-from-cancer whose sudden demise had inspired the protagonist to no longer take her own existence for granted failed to inspire me at all, except to cringe. Sally Armstrong’s book was more useful, offering the gift of perspective and taking my mind off my own problems. I was grateful for the distraction, though the book plus my own anxiety last Tuesday lead to terrible dreams of a million giant-sized Mohammad Shafias. Very odd.
I decided that I would read Isabel Huggan’s Belonging next, partly because I received a very kind note from her last week, also because I remembered how much comfort and happiness I’d received from reading The Elizabeth Stories in October after first-trimesterness had kept me from enjoying any book for ages, and mostly because I’d been saving it–perhaps for this very moment in time. It occurs to me that in books, I was looking for the same answers I’d been seeking in my desperate google searches last week, but the difference was that in books, or perhaps just this book, I was even finding some.
“Over time, I’ve come to understand that when Jamal says that a situation is normal, he means that there are flaws in the cloth and flies in the ointment, that one must anticipate problems and accept them as a part of life. Whereas I’ve always thought that things are normal until they go wrong, Jamal’s version of reality is causing me to readjust my expectations for fault-free existence and to regard the world in a more open fashion.”–Isabel Huggan, “Leaning to Wait, from Belonging
December 18, 2012
For the last week, I’ve been reading indulgently, books of the year either read or pushed aside, and I’ve been reading my own idiosyncratic to-be-read stack, the books I’ve bought at college book sales, discovered in clearance bins, at yard-sales, or scooped from cardboard boxes put to the curb. And I’ve only been reading thin books, anything too heavy (literally or otherwise) put away for a later date. I’m in the mood right now for progress, for the massive pile of books before me to appear to be getting under control. I’m in the mood also for books that will go down easy, that will surprise me, new discoveries. I’m so tired of the books that everybody’s talking about, which either means that I start saying what everybody else is, or else the book fails to live up to the hype and I start thinking everybody is stupid. It means, of course, that when I do start to rave about Elaine McCluskey’s The Watermelon Social that it’s a little bit lonely. Can I tell you how much I loved the line, “For God’s sake, Les, when we were young, radio stations played ‘My Ding-a-Ling’”? I’ve also read The Only Snow in Havana by Elizabeth Hay, which is such a strange and wonderful book, an ode to Mexico City and Yellowknife, and the ties between them. About love, loss and the fur trade. Both books were rife with stuff I didn’t understand, but I didn’t mind, and it didn’t hinder my enjoyment. I love these indications of further treasures locked within. And now I am reading The Chronicles of Narmo, which is the novel that Caitlin Moran wrote when she was 15, and I expect I could get though it in a single bath, and that there will be not much there that I don’t understand, but plenty that will make me laugh, and that’s most all right too.