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October 20, 2015

There’s all this goodness and decency and common sense on the ground

books0515robinson“At present, here in what is still sometimes called our Calvinist civilization, the controversies of liberalism and conservatism come down, as always, to economics. How exclusive is our claim to what we earn, own, inherit?Are the poor among us injured by the difficulties of their lives, or are the better among them braced and stimulated by the pinch of want? Is Edwards undermining morality when he says “it is better to give to several that are not objects of charity, than to send away empty one that is”? Would we be better friends of traditional values, therefore better Christians, if we exploited the coercive potential of need on the one hand and help on the other?…” —Marilynne Robinson, “Open the Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism.”

It’s been fascinating to be reading Marilynne Robinson’s essay collection, When I Was A Child I Read Books, during the last few days. I bought this book at the Victoria College Book Sale at the urging of my friend Kate, though I was wary of it—the religion, the erudition. But then I read President Obama’s interview with Robinson and realized I needed to explore Robinson’s ideas further, particularly as my own country has been standing at a major crossroads. Obama and Robinson’s discussion about “the sinister other,” about democracy, about faith and religion—it all seemed so relevant. I wanted a deeper understanding of where we might be going, and yes, I also wanted that feeling that you get, that whatever else is wrong with the world, at least Marilynne Robinson is in it.

Thankfully, Canadians made a choice against hatred and divisiveness yesterday, and I am so relived that glad that this awful era has ended. Though I know it’s not quite as simple as that—it is indeed a terrifically good time to be non-partisan, but I know many of my friends were pretty devastated to see the NDP garner such enormous losses. There terribleness of the last ten years has only underlined that we have centuries of colonial tragedy to reconcile with. I know that the new Liberal government will have to be held to account on their election promises. And it’s interesting to read the “Open the Hand Wide…” essay from Robinson, on the etymological and political origins of “liberal.”

ledger-of-the-open-handInteresting too to think of Leslie Vryenhoek’s novel, The Ledger of the Open Hand, which I really enjoyed just a few weeks and whose review I began with Marsha Lederman’s line, “Great civilizations aren’t remembered for their tax policies.” This has also been a book that resonates, and is concerned with the same theological issues that Robinson raises in her essay. It’s all very circular.

And of course it is. Lines from When I Was a Child… have been sticking with me, no matter that the book is indeed a demanding read, requiring patience and concentration. But oh, the rewards. “Imagination and Community” concludes with “The great truth that is too often forgotten is that it is in the nature of people to do good to one another.” I firmly believe this. Monday’s result is a testament to that—a rejection of a vision of the world entrenched in othering, hatred and greed.

So yes, it’s all very circular. Tonight I was reading the latest post at Calm Things, the blog by Shawna Lemay (whose novel arrived in the mail today!). The post is entitled “three small kindnesses.” It seemed in keeping with everything I’ve been thinking about. Lemay writes, “So I’ve been thinking this week about goodness, kindness, compassion, decency.” And naturally, she comes back to the Obama interview with Marilynne Robinson. Obama saying: “And the thing I’ve been struggling with throughout my political career is how do you close the gap. There’s all this goodness and decency and common sense on the ground, and somehow it gets translated into rigid, dogmatic, often mean-spirited politics.”

Sometimes—it’s heartening to see—goodness and decency prevail.

October 7, 2015

No wonder the children grew peaky

the-borrowers“So he didn’t have your advantages,” went on Homily breathlessly, “and just because the Harpsichords lived in the drawing room—they moved in there, in 1837, to a hole in the wainscot just behind where the harpsichord used to stand, if ever there was one, which I doubt—and were really a family called Linen-Press or some such name and changed it to Harpsichord—”

“What did they live on,” asked Arietty, “in the drawing room?”

“Afternoon tea,” said Homily, “nothing but afternoon tea. No wonder the children grew up peaky. Of course in the old days it was better—muffins and crumpets and such, and good rich cakes and jams and jellies, And there was an old Harpsichord who could remember sillabub of an evening. But they had to do their borrowings in such a rush, poor things. On wet days, when the human beings sat all afternoon in the drawing room, the tea would be brought in and taken away again without a chance of the Harpsichords getting near it—and on fine days it might be taken out into the garden. Lupy has told me that, sometimes, there were days and days when they lived on crumbs and water out of the flower vases. So you can’t be too hard on them; their only comfort, poor things, was to show off a bit and wear evening dress and talk like ladies and gentlemen…” —Mary Norton, The Borrowers

(We’re reading this right now and I’m loving it so much. I don’t know that I’ve ever read it before. When I was a child, I was into the American knockoff, The Littles, but I had no taste, and Mary Norton is so clever, funny and bright. I also like our copy because the cover is by Marla Frazee, who is one of my favourites. And sort of related, we recently finished reading The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, which went over very well, except that Iris now walks around saying apropos of nothing, “Aslan die?” and I don’t think she knows what die means, or even Aslan for that matter. But Harriet is quite enchanted and now we’re going to read the whole series, and tonight we were reading a new book called Written and Drawn by Henrietta, by TOON Books, and there was a Narnia reference, and I haven’t seen Harriet that excited since she found out she had a wobbly tooth.)

September 1, 2015

The Last Love Song

The+Last+Love+SongI’ve been reading The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion for nearly a week, a grand hulking book at 500+ pages. I spent Sunday afternoon in my hammock with it, and when I was finished, I’d never felt so languid. I do one day want to write an essay about Joan Didion, Mad Men, and longing. So I am inspired, even though The Last Love Song is not a particularly good biography—most of its source material is Didion’s autobiographical nonfiction, which I’ve read so many times that I know whole sentences by heart. So it’s not really illuminating. And Didion herself has made a career of being elusive, self-effacing. Also, if Didion’s brother-in-law Dominick Dunne had not been such a shameless name-dropper with a really big mouth, the author wouldn’t have much to go on. But it’s still interesting, because Didion herself is so compelling. The best parts of the book are when author Tracy Daugherty shows us how her writing works and why, dissecting her distinctive sentences. With Didion, it’s so easy to gloss over her polished surfaces and take everything at face-value that I hadn’t always read so closely. The worst parts of the book (not including the faux-Didion cadences and use of repetition and patterns) are when he tries to find autobiography in her writing itself, in which she’d always positioned herself so carefully. The mother-blaming for her daughter’s troubles is subtle but persistent, and troubling. There is nuance is Blue Nights that readers didn’t get, and I don’t think Daugherty gets it either. That Joan Didion couldn’t ever have been a mother except the mother she was. To suppose there is any other option is beside the point and not that interesting. But still, with its flaws, The Last Love Song is worthwhile and it’s good and heartening to see a female writer feted this way. Read Didion first though

August 23, 2015

Nature

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We went camping this weekend, and will need a few days to recover (and to do loads and loads of laundry). It was a beautiful, if exhausting weekend, and in addition to the company of my own family and that of my dear cousin’s people, I had the pleasure of Louise Penny’s and I’m now midway through her new one, The Nature of the Beast. It’s wonderful! (And must get this one read and then reread Joan Bodger’s How the Heather Looks before my book club meets on Wednesday.) Anyway, the Louise Penny was some consolation for the fact that I am now allergic to both lake water AND sunshine, and therefore had to spend our beach time hiding under an umbrella that kept blowing away. I was only 40% completely grumpy and annoyed about these circumstances, though some might estimate the percentage as a wee bit higher…

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May 24, 2015

Trouble and Spaciousness

IMG_1334Am I having trouble reading because I’m unsettled, or am I unsettled because every book I start to read is so darn dissatisfying? This is a question I’ve have to ask myself over and over in my life, and I’ve never once come close to circling round and round about it. All I know is that the last four books I’ve picked up I have abandoned after a few pages, and the book I spent most of last week reading had no impact on me whatsoever. So now book review today. And I had to pull out the big guns because to be reading nothing is to not be me. Last night I started reading The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness by Rebecca Solnit, and I think it’s going to save me.

I think the trouble is the books though because otherwise all is very well here. Last week flew by, a very short week with so much in it. All fun. And after last week’s meltdown (mine) in regards to baby sleep, we shifted gears. I’ve stopped breastfeeding, we moved Iris back into her crib upstairs in our room, and left her to cry at night. The last strategy never worked with her big sister who would only grow more and more hysterical, but Iris settled pretty quickly and by the third night without a peep. She is still not sleeping all night, but everything is much much better and one night she slept until 5, and the idea that putting her to bed is no longer a production (and therefore someone who is not her parent can do it?) is tremendously exciting.

In other now-reading news, I’ve started getting the New York Times supplement with the Sunday Star, which comes with a standalone books section (an abridged version of the real one) and it’s so terrific to read. I miss real, solid book review sections. Anyway, this has added another highlight to my week.

Harriet turns six on Tuesday, and Iris threw up in a parking lot this afternoon, which has freaked me out a bit because we all spent Harriet’s birthday last year completely ill. I have since learned though that there is no rhyme nor reason to my children’s vomiting, so here’s hoping it was just a thing. Especially since Harriet is the greatest child alive and her choice of how to spend her birthday evening is having dinner at my favourite restaurant.

Regarding the photo. At Harriet’s school concert on Thursday, Stuart pointed out a woman wearing bunting shoes. Naturally, I had to talk to her. “Where did you get them?” I asked her, and she only looked a little bit sheepish but mostly proud to tell me she’d found them by the side of the road and cleaned them up so she could wear them. What sweet bunting fortune.

May 18, 2015

Night and Day

Night

We are going through a difficult period. I like framing it this way because it suggests an ending, as opposed to, We are going through a difficult eternity. “It’s just a phase,” we keep saying. “Things will get better,” but we’re beginning to sound less sure of this. It has been so long. Nearly two years since I’ve had unbroken night’s sleep. And since we came back from England, things have been awful. Iris moved downstairs into Harriet’s room to sleep, but her nighttime wake-ups have continued, plus it’s started taking her sometimes up to an hour to fall asleep, she requires us lying down beside her to do so, and then she gets up again at 11, at 1. She won’t settle unless she’s in bed with us, which would be okay (and I’m certainly not going to fight a screaming nearly-two-year-old in the middle of the night) except that then she flops and kicks and pinches my upper arms. It is unpleasant. And last night we had a babysitter booked so we could go out to a movie, but Iris refused to go to sleep. Or she would be asleep until we dared to rise and leave the room, and then her eyes would snap open and there we’d be again. Eventually, I gave the babysitter $20 and told her to go home, because we’d missed the movie. And it seems like the baby is holding us hostage, when I dare to frame the whole thing like a power struggle (which I shouldn’t do—it only makes unpleasant realities worse). We can’t go out together to anything that starts before 9pm, because no one else but Stuart and I has the patience to put Iris to bed, and now that she’s only staying asleep for 2hrs after that (if she goes to sleep at all), the world seems to have shrunk to the size of an acorn. I know that there are far worse problems to have than this one, but perspective can be hard to come by when one is having melodramatic thoughts about being subject to tyranny. Five years ago, I wrote a blog post about baby sleep books called The Trajectory of a Downward Spiral, but the trajectory of this plot is more like a head smashing into a wall. Repeatedly.

Day

IMG_20150516_124948But. We have had the most wonderful weekend. A weekend whose wonderfulness is currently under threat as I spend this holiday Monday morose and bereft at the end of Mad Men. The children watched Annie and ate goldfish crackers in Harriet’s room while Stuart and I watched the final episode this morning. It was so absolutely perfect. Overwhelmingly good. I feel about this show like I’ve been immersed in the narrative for six years, swimming around inside it and examining from all angles. I can’t believe it’s over, but then it isn’t really. We rewatched an episode from Season 1 on Saturday night, and it occurred to me that I’ll never really be done with it. But still, I’m sad there is no more to look forward to. So many of my feelings were invested in these characters. It all mattered a lot to me.

IMG_20150516_194237On Saturday, we celebrated summer things with a trip to the Wychwood Barns Farmers’ Market and ate delicious food, and delighted in the fact that our children are old enough to play unattended (in mud puddles, no less) while we sit on a park bench. We also delighted in that our children were so thrilled to take the bus to the market, but were also cool with walking home. So many of my plans for this summer are inspired by Dan Rubinstein’s book, Born to Walk, and I appreciate that Harriet is big enough to be venturing further afield on foot, to be discovering her pedestrian legs without (too much) complaining. But there are also wheels, and so after Iris’s nap, she went on a bike-ride. We’re going to shed the training wheels this summer, we’ve resolved, but this is just one more thing we’re not sure about how to teach her to do—along with shoelace tying. After that, we did our planting, mostly flowers because the squirrels thwart our efforts to grow anything more substantial. Some kale and basil, but otherwise impatiens, and suddenly our deck is beautiful again. The silver maple that shades our house and yard in magnificent bloom. There is a hammock set up underneath it.

IMG_20150517_103545Yesterday, we went on our first ravine walk of what is to be many, as we’ve declared 2015 as #SummeroftheRavines. Once again, this is a plan born of Born to Walk—to explore these wild corners of our city. We didn’t have much of a plan and climbed down into the Rosedale Valley via the path behind Castle Frank Subway Station. Unfortunately, Bayview Avenue cuts off our access to the Don Valley, which we weren’t expecting, so we had to climb back out of the ravine in order to get to where we really wanted to be, and by this point, it was nearly time to quit.

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IMG_20150517_123639But we had fun and the weather was beautiful, and once again, there are very little complaining. We’d compiled a Ravine Walk Bingo sheet, which gave our walk some incentive, as did the promise of lunch afterwards. We went to the House on Parliament and had the most delicious meal, our first patio of the season. And then back to the hammock. I’ve been reading H is for Hawk all weekend, which is not a great read for the emotionally fragile, I am realizing. But it’s really good, deep and layered, and totally weird. So intense. It is possible my whole family will be relieved when I’m finally completed it.

IMG_20150517_143321Which brings me to right now where I’ve just been delivered lunch. (“Um, if I’d known you were having lunch in bed, I might not have brought you breakfast there.”) And it’s up to me to save this day from my lugubriousness and histrionics. Iris has started being capable of having actual conversations (albeit stilted ones, usually about dogs), which is extraordinary, and clearly her brain is going wild these days. If I’m able to muster perspective, it would be that these development changes are responsible for our sleep woes. If I am able to focus less on the woe. In a few weeks she will be two. Harriet turns six next Tuesday. For our family, the next month and a bit is a season of happy birthdays and anniversaries and so so many reasons for cake. (Another? My sister is having a baby tomorrow.)

It all goes by so fast.

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April 15, 2015

Vacation Book Three: I’m the King of the Castle by Susan Hill

i'm kingI love the cover to Susan Hill’s I’m the King of the Castle, designed by Zandra Rhodes as part of Penguin’s Decades series. I’m halfway through it now, although my book a day record is about to be stymied by us actually doing things other than spending the afternoons reading. (I know!!!) Today we went to Lancaster where my sister-in-law lives in an adorable terrace with a park across the street. “This house only has two rooms,” Harriet whispered when we went inside, and then Iris literally somersaulted down the steep staircase and now half her head is purple. It was terrifying for everybody involved. Lancaster is wonderful because they have an amazing Waterstones, an Oxfam bookshop, a castle, and a market with stalls and stalls of meat pies on sale. Unfortunately, all the books on my list don’t seem to be in stock anywhere—”They’ll be out in paperback in September,” I keep being told, which isn’t very helpful. I want Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey and Rachel Cusk’s new novel Outlines, or anything from the Bailey’s Prize shortlist except the novel from the perspective of a bee. But I did get The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns (who wrote Our Spoons Came from Woolworths) and I have high hopes for stock at The Grove Bookshop in Ilkley tomorrow and the London Review Bookshop next week. I shall not go bookless, rest assured.

April 13, 2015

Vacation Book One: Dear Life, by Alice Munro

dear-lifeAirport book buying was a little bit disappointing—anything that looked compelling, I’d already read. Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore was a contender but I was concerned it wouldn’t hold up to my expectations. I’d already read Gone Girl and Gillian Flynn’s first book, and The Girl on the the Train, so I was pretty much out of luck. But luckily, there was Alice. Whom I really haven’t read an awful lot of, so it was Dear Life. A bit of an anti-climax. I’d been picturing something more culturally appropriate for the UK, but alas. I read half of the first story on our very uneventful and pleasant flight. On Saturday morning, we arrived on our friend’s doorstep at 8am and then the children and we spent the whole day awake after a sleepless night (though Iris slept in the stroller while we were on a walk through town). The weather was sunny and beautiful, and it kept us alive as the day went on—another set of houseguests from California arrived at our friend’s that afternoon, and Harriet and Iris had an ecstatic day of play with other kids. I couldn’t have read a word because when I sat down my eyes closed. At 7:35, we all fell asleep on the second page of This Can’t Be Happening at MacDonald Hall, and then mostly slept all night, the best night’s sleep I’ve had in 2 years. Yesterday, we went to visit Stuart’s friend who lives in the middle of the Oxfordshire countryside and had a splendid time at their house before driving up north. We arrived here at 7:30 last night, the children enthusiastically received by grandparents, and now my reading vacation truly begins. I love Dear Life, which is more interesting and less samey than Munro’s fiction is often accused of being. I have hopes of reading all morning while the children are taken to the beach, and then I’m going to move on to Book 2, which I bought at Waterstones in Windsor on Saturday morning—The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald. The first Penelope Fitzgerald book I ever read, and I look forward to revisiting it now that I’m more familiar with her. England is lovely, sunny and beautiful, and all the daffodils are in full bloom.

December 13, 2014

If you need me… Marilynne Robinson Update 2

housekeepingI finished reading Housekeeping last night, past midnight even. And I’m left with more than a few impressions. The first a bit incidental, but we started reading The Children of Green Knowe last night, so it seems there is water water everywhere (in books, at least). And as I continued through Housekeeping, marvelling at the ghosts and spectres, I thought of Shirley Jackson more and more, and so I was so pleased to find this piece about the connections between Housekeeping and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, of which there are many. I appreciate too the discussion of Housekeeping and genre, fantasy in particular. It is such an oddly situated book in terms of genre, which was my trouble with the novel in my first reading of it—it wasn’t at all what I’d expected. Its situating of the domestic is particularly peculiar, and I love the image of Sylvie opening the windows because she believes in the virtues of fresh air, and forgetting to close them for no good reason except that she forgets. I’m struck by the strange notions of housekeeping as an occupation in both Housekeeping and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. And this too—I am always less interested in a book whose characters are disconnected from society. For example, By the Shores of Silver Lake is my least favourite Little House book, and when the Ingalls finally moved to town in time for The Long Winter, I was so relieved. So as Sylvie and Ruth spun farther and farther away from Fingerbone, I found the story less compelling. I remain so intrigued by the town, the curious descriptions of its inhabitants, who remain so unclear to me, probably because of how the descriptions were filtered through Ruth’s strange perspective. And her perspective was really so strange in a way that the reader doesn’t entirely realize, because Ruth herself rarely refers to herself singularly—she is always part of a “we” collection, which lends credence to her point of view. She is persuasive, explaining matters and circumstances in a way that seems logical, is always measured, until we examine her ideas properly and determine they don’t make so much sense at all. While remarkably different in nearly every respect, she reminded me a little bit of Nora Eldridge from Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs in this respect. The power of the first person narrator, our propensity to trust the voice speaking directly into one’s ear.

Anyway, Housekeeping truly is a masterpiece, a baffling, strange and beautiful one. So glad I read it again.

Next: moving onward to Gilead, which I’m nervous about. Not being altogether familiar with the Bible, beyond Sunday School lessons, I’ve always been inclined to think I’m not quite its ideal reader.

December 11, 2014

If you need me… Marilynne Robinson Update 1

housekeepingIf you need me for the next couple of weeks, I’ll be reading nothing but Marilynne Robinson.

For no good reason, except that I want to, and I think it will be good for me, and I have a bit of space for a focussed reading project, which I’m so pleased about, because I feel as though my reading lately has been scattered and something of a mad scramble.

I first reading Housekeeping perhaps in 2006, and here’s my shameful confession: I didn’t like it. I had been expecting something light and straightforward from the novel, which was not at all what it delivered. I was also not as smart a reader then as I am now (and it is my hope hope that I can continue to say this about every decade that passes in my reading life.) When I read Home in 2008, I was much more appreciative, though I don’t remember anything of the book now. Plus, I missed Gilead in the middle. I wonder now though how Robinson’s work changed between her first and third novel—is there a reason beyond my improved sensibility that had me like the latter book? And now the world has been imploring me to read her latest book, Lila, which reviews have noted as having thematic connections to Housekeeping, a cyclical structure to all four novels. So this is why I’ve decided to go back to the beginning.

I’m about halfway through Housekeeping now, and so pleased with what I’ve embarked upon. The book is unbelievably strange and really quite difficult—sentences that require much concentration to make sense of (though following their twists is such a pleasure). Part of the problem is the complex sentences used to described really odd images—that strange house with its sloped floors. I can’t visualize the trapdoor at the top of the stairs no matter how hard I try. Perhaps another trick of the book is that its difficulties are subtle, just under the surface. They’re a little bit like traps. It’s so Biblical too, but in a contemporary setting, without male characters—we’re not accustomed to this.

But what pleasures we reap from careful reading. Really beautiful, inside-out sentences that reframe the familiar in surprising ways. I loved, “And then the library was flooded to a depth of three shelves, creating vast gaps in the Dewey decimal system.” And that image of the sodden curtains’ weight bending the curtain rod. There is something slightly Shirley Jackson-ish about this household, which reminded me of We Have Always Lived in the Castle. No one there is quite right, but the terms of the characters’ difference is never quite clear. An anxiety underlying everything that is never really explained—the reader intuits. And I am impressed by the fleeting descriptions of motherhood: “She had always known a thousand ways to circle them all around with what must have seemed like grace.”

And oh, sentences like, “There would a general reclaiming of fallen buttons and misplace spectacles, of neighbours and kin, till time and error and accident were undone, and the world became comprehensible and whole.” You could think on that one over and over again.”

I came across a passage when I was reading last night:

Every spirit passing through the world fingers the tangible and mars the mutable, and finally has come to look and not to buy. So shoes are worn and hassocks are sat upon and finally everything is left where it was and the spirit passes on just as the wind in the orchard picks up the leaves from the ground as if there were no other pleasure in the world but brown leaves, as if it would deck, clothe, flesh itself in flourishes of dusty brown apple leaves, and then drops them all in a heap at the side of the house and goes on.

And it seemed so familiar; I was sure I’d read its echo recently. And finally I realized where it was from:

The dead live on in the homeliest of ways. They’re listed in the phone book, They get mail. Their wigs rest of styrofoam heads at the back of closets. Their beds are made. Their shoes are everywhere.

Which is altogether different, but not altogether altogether—I mean, those shoes? It’s from Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck and Other Stories, which Housekeeping recalls to me in more than a few places.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to Chapter Six.

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