October 28, 2014
I love Elaine McCluskey’s short stories, and have been looking forward to her third collection, Hello, Sweetheart, which follows The Watermelon Social and Valery the Great. To begin to read one of McCluskey’s stories is to immediately be struck by the force of her voice, a voice rich with humour, perspective and compassion. Hers is a voice so compelling that it conjures a world, and the reader becomes immersed in that world, entirely on the level with McCluskey’s hapless characters.
They’re hapless, and they’re losers, but she loves them. Their stories are also terrifically funny, even when they’re sad. They’re pure of heart, always. The stories in Hello, Sweetheart take place in Halifax amidst circles that are loosely linked. We begin at the Toy Eros sex shop, where our protagonist has finally landed a job (though she tells her mother she’s working at a bookstore: “Do they know you have three years’ university?” she asks./ “Oh yes,” I lie. “They are very impressed.”) She’s overcome a tragedy that’s not made quite clear, except that it’s resulted in a special kind of clarity: “[W]e all go through life with a great ticking time bomb of tragedy strapped to our chests,” and it’s with this awareness that she regards the curious world she now inhabits.
We all go through life with a great ticking time bomb of tragedy strapped to our chests. For most of McCluskey’s characters, the bomb’s gone off, but this does not mean relinquishing all dignity. I don’t think I’ll be able to explain the point of “Giddy Up,” the man who’s convinced that he used to be a pony, who responds to most inquiries with, “If it doesn’t bother me, then why should it bother you?,” and who manages to draw his own line in the sand and is probably more powerful and free than anyone else in the book is. There’s the man who changes his dog-walking route in order to avoid “the kind of woman who wore rubber boots whether she needed them or not.” An adult woman enrolled in undergraduate courses trying to get over being duped by a guy called Dwayne. A terrifying story that begins with an early morning wake-up and ends with a kidnapping, it all happening so fast that you’ll thumb back through the pages wondering, “How did she take me there?”
“Chez Helene” is a wonderful story in which, like so many of these, the real story is in the subtext, the space between the lines, which is that “people can believe anything they want to. And that’s ok.” (The idea that underlines so many of these stories—this is the definition of compassion.) “Jaw Breakers” is a very McCluskeyian story of a former swim champ whose career trajectory went wrong, and then he begins to lose his father in a curious way, and there goes the ground beneath his feet. Similarly sad is the life of the man falsely accused of sexually abusing children who is then left to make his own way with his shattered reputation—though McCluskey offers him the slightest reprieve from his sorrow.
“Rating Dr. Chestnut” is the story I’ve been waiting for all my life, that which is told through the structure of comments on a RateMyMD.com site. Which is not the only story in the book to engage with life online, other stories with Facebook and text messaging as embedded in the fiction as it is in real life, one even comprising two of those “Ten Things About Me” lists that were uber-memed a few years back. And Margaret, whose whole story takes place in her head as she’s playing a drinking game (alone) while watching Say Yes to the Dress. These are stories that engage so readily with the stuff of the world.
And then the final story, “Hello, Sweetheart,” a story that explains a lot, about grief and mourning, most of the text seemingly delivered from McCluskey to her father shortly after his death. He’s the subject of her second-person narration, and she tells him a story from his funeral. “It was funny, Dad, and you would have laughed. It would have been one of those stories we could have told. Over and over again.”
I finished that last story, shut the book, and clutched it close, and said, “Yes.” The whole project making sense, those stories, the sadness. Some of these stories are a bit rough around the edges, though in McCluskey’s work, form is always secondary to language. There is an exuberance to her work, an energy, that is so compelling to encounter, and there’s nothing else like it, really. She’s one of the best short story writers at work in Canada—which is saying something indeed.
October 19, 2014
Since we’re talking soup—or at least we will be—I’d like to offer the literary ingredients that I’d put to use were I cooking up a novel like Susan Fish’s Ithaca (which I loved). First, half a stack of Barbara Pym novels, since Pym is the original chronicler of the unknown fascinating inner-lives of lonely middle-aged women, particularly those who type indices for academic men. Next, toss in a novel or two by Wallace Stegner, or at least All the Little Live Things and Crossing to Safety, for their depictions of the intimacies of long marriages, late-in-life-garnered insight, and—in the case of the latter book—a cozy look at academic communities. Then season with Barbara Kingsolver, perhaps her most recent, Flight Behaviour, for its illumination of the subtle effects of environmental devastation, and as a portrait of how an activist can be borne of an ordinary woman. Let it simmer. Indeed.
Ithaca is the story of Daisy Turner, whose husband has recently died, leaving her unmoored in a world in which she’d always felt so solidly ensconced. Unquestioningly so. Her husband had been everything to her, their grown son far away living his own life in Singapore, and now with him gone, the sole event on Daisy’s calendar (apart from the trip they’d booked months in advance to celebrate their 40th anniversary—what to do about that now?) is the Wednesday suppers, a longstanding tradition in which her husband’s academic colleagues and students and their families would gather together for friendship and conversation and Daisy’s famous soups. The suppers are all she’s got left now, and she constructs her weeks around them, too ashamed to let anybody know the extent of her grief and loneliness, that Arthur’s death has left her without any solid ground to stand on.
But there is something to be said for unsteadiness, because too much steadiness is to have the world be sure, which it’s not, and something also to be said for how the process of reconstructing a broken life can bring forth growth and change and a new kind of resolve. As with those proverbial butterflies flapping their wings, it all starts with a small thing, Daisy invited by a friend to help harvest honey. The hives bought for his wife years ago, ailing from MS, with the hopes that their royal jelly might succeed where her medicine hasn’t, but it doesn’t and her health has only worsened. She can’t even venture out of her house these days, and so Daisy goes with Henry, instead of his wife, and on the way, she notices the signs protesting “fracking” in their area.
Fracking. She doesn’t know the word, but she understands enough about its context—39 years of marriage to a geologist is some kind of education. Oil companies are planning to drill deep into the shale that surround their community for oil deposits—a proposition that promises to save farms from foreclosure and wreak environmental devastation, depending on who you ask. And then at the next Wednesday Supper, Daisy hears the term again, learns a young professor is teaching a night course on the topic. Uncharacteristically, Daisy decides to enrol, surprising herself, and everybody who knows her. Through involvement in her course, her community widens, the Wednesday night suppers becoming more interesting as her “frackivist” pal starts attending, broadening Daisy’s horizons. And Daisy starts asking more questions, about what changes are necessary in her life, about what she needs to hold onto and let go from the past, and of what possibilities are still before her? Never mind the complicating force of her attraction to Henry, her friend with the bee-hives (and the wife!), he for whom she leaned in close to hear something and he kissed her on her ear. He did. And she keeps encountering women at church who seem concerned she’ll steal their husbands—what if, unbeknownst to her, they’re onto something after all?
Fish’s Daisy put me in mind of another Daisy, Carol Shields’ Daisy Stone Goodwill from The Stone Diaries, another small life with large ramifications and great surprises, a women who reinvents herself over and over again. Another novel steeped in stone and geology as well, rooted in the layers upon layers beneath its characters’ feet. With humour, insight and grace, Fish writes similarly of the “small ceremonies” of ordinary life, of human intimacy and kindness and complications.
Her Ithaca is timely and profound, rich with surprises and delight.
October 17, 2014
Lena Dunham is not that kind of girl, or a kind of girl at all, mostly because the idea of dividing girls into kinds is a fallacy. Girls are people after all, and people are messy, stupid, fucked up and ridiculous, which is much the point of Dunham’s TV series, Girls, and also of her book, Not That Kind of Girl, whose subtitle is pretty redundant. It’s a book as self-aware as Dunham’s oeuvre, styled on 70s’ self-help books (Helen Gurley Brown’s Having It All in particular) that purported to have answers, and while Dunham does not pretend to have it all sewed up, she knows a few things, and her ambition is just as far-reaching. And so she has a book, on top of everything else, and it’s a marvellous solid object (whose vintage cover is a nice complement to How to Build a Girl, and both are just delightfully a little bit rock and roll).
No, Dunham is not that kind of girl, but she is That Girl, as the pink text is telling us. The girl who refuses to keep her clothes on (or wear clothes that fit), to stop talking, to stop talking about her vagina, to be humble, to shrug off her ambition, to hide her mental illness, or kowtow to anyone. Which is part of the reasons people hate Lena Dunham, though most of the reason people hate Lena Dunham is because people hate women who don’t give a shit what anybody thinks of them, and it becomes vicious cycle, though less vicious for the woman herself who just doesn’t care.
She writes a book instead. She dedicates it to Norah Ephron, whom she called a friend, and certainly the best parts of the book recall Ephron’s work, like Heartburn and many of her personal essays. The book has so much hype, mostly around its author, that we forget to check and see if it’s any good. Not that it matters altogether. First, because the haters are going to hate it and because everybody else is going to read it anyway. Second, because the question of goodness is just as redundant as the subtitle—Dunham is one of those figures with so much furor swirling around her that we all forget that the baseline is that she’s really, really smart and talented. Yes, the book is a bit of a mess (though anything produced from Denham’s frenetic mind was always going to be), and I’m not sure how much value is added by the random lists that appear between every few pieces (though they certainly weren’t a chore to read). And the book is organized quite haphazardly. But.
I loved reading it—a wild ride through a wild mind with an eye for detail, a raucous sense of humour, enough candour to keep even familiar stories fresh, and a knack for telling it like it is without bullshit. Oh, all the things you have to learn before you learn that you should demand no less than what you deserve—from boys and men in particular. All the compromises we make, often even willingly. Because we want to be cool. And Dunham calls it, all of it. I wish she’d been whispering in my ear throughout most of 1999 and 2000, though perhaps I wouldn’t have listened to her. I wouldn’t have listened because she wasn’t that kind of girl, and when I was that age, I thought that people had to make sense. I was certainly trying to, though failing terribly (and wonderfully, but somewhat mortifyingly, now that I think of it).
Where Dunham makes her mark as an essayist here is with several terrific acts of restraint. Not uncharacteristic restraint either, because all her storytelling is like this—she lays down the facts but she doesn’t explain. Her best work reminds me of what Susan Olding wrote about the essay form:
“Like a cat, the essay wants to go its own way. In an unstable world, we want to know what we’re getting, and with an essay, we can never be sure. Partaking of the story, the poem, and the philosophical investigation in equal measure, the essay unsettles our accustomed ideas and takes us places we hadn’t expected to go. Places we may not want to go. We start out learning about embroidery stitches and pages later find ourselves knee-deep in somebody’s grave. That’s the risk we take when we pick up an essay.”
Really, it’s the same with all Dunham’s work, with Dunham herself—its destabilization is its power. Which leads to the idea that her work is messy, when it’s far more deliberate than that. I’m thinking of her essay, “Who Moved My Uterus?” about her (somewhat justified) fears of infertility, her desire to have children, the conflict between this desire and her need to continue the momentum of her career. The essay is without conclusions, because what would any conclusion be that wasn’t far too simple. Saying nothing at all, she manages to convey the magnitude and impossibility of her situation. Similarly, essays about death and her experiences in therapy never take us to where we think they will; I’m not sure many of the pieces of the book take us anywhere, but it’s the experience of reading that matters, which is usually visceral, rarely boring and always as entertaining as it is illuminating.
October 14, 2014
I was always going to love this book. Would have loved it for the cover alone, the colours, the jumbled shelves, even if it weren’t a celebration of bookshops, which are things I like to celebrate better than almost anything else. “Some Wonderful Things” is a collection of bookshop facts appearing every few pages throughout the book, and I adore any mindset that collects under such a designation. Under which the entire book should appear, probably, because it’s that good, a variable delight. The Bookshop Book by Jen Campbell, which asserts that bookshops are here to stay and more excellent than ever, and such a vital part of communities and our reading and writing lives.
I dare you to read this book and not start planning trips around the world to the incredible bookshops featured within its pages—I’m already planning a trip to Silverdell Books in Kirkham, Lancashire, which is a bookshop/ice cream parlour; and how have I never been to Munro’s Books in Victoria BC; and a trip to Parnassus Books in Nashville has never been so necessary; and Libreria Acqua Alta in Venice is the most exquisite sight I’ve ever seen. Campbell shares short profiles of bookshops on six continents (because sadly, there’s not one on Antarctica yet). I do appreciate that at least one shop in the book is within walking distance, The Monkey’s Paw here in Toronto getting special treatment, and I want to go back to Re:Reading on the Danforth, in particular since I read that owner Christopher Sheedy rejigged his store’s layout to accommodate families with strollers (so nice!).
More than just a travel guide, The Bookshop Book is a history too, of the history of bookshops in general and the stories of remarkable ones (which is most of them—including a bookshop on a boat, a bookshop without an address, a bookshop that only stocks one book, and many many more). Campbell talks to writers including Tracy Chavalier, Bill Bryson, Ian Rankin and Ali Smith about their bookshop thoughts.
Ali Smith: “If I owned my own bookshop? I remember when I first found a copy of Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book, a slim Penguin from the 1970s—you wouldn’t even notice it on a shelf. My bookshop would be full of those types of things: the books that, when you picked them up, you knew immediately that that was the book you were going to read that day. Moreover: whatever you’d been planning on doing, you’d just sit down with that book you’d picked up by chance and read that instead. The days when we sit down with a books o good we don’t get up until it’s read—those are some of the best days of our lives.”
The Bookshop Book made me think of my own bookshop stories: marvelling at The World’s Biggest Bookstore as a child, compulsive book buying at Nicholas Hoare the summer I spent the paycheques I should have been saving for university tuition, the Waterstones in Nottingham and having money after a long bout of poverty, Shakespeare and Company in Paris where my husband and I had our very first fight, discovering Margaret Drabble at Wantage Books in Kobe, and when Harriet ate a sandwich she found on the ground under a table at the Waterstones in Edinburgh, The Grove Bookshop in Ilkley, an altogether delightful place. It made me think of the bookshop stories I’m passing onto my own children, the bookshop adventures we go on together, even though the destinations are getting rarer. But bookshops, this book and the voices within it assert, will never disappear altogether.
Unsurprisingly for a book that heralds places in which the book as object is their reason for existing, this book as an object is a most remarkable one. Hardcover, gorgeously designed, with two sections of colour photographs that make clear that these bookshop are as lovely as Campbell says they are. The prose is something else that falls under the category of “some wonderful things” and the whole thing is a delight to encounter, something I first intended just to dip in and out of, but I couldn’t help myself and read the whole thing. You will probably have a similar experience.
Want to know something really wonderful though? I’m in it. I’m even in the index (and yes, there is an index. In fact, there are two. Because this is the very bookish of books.) I wrote a small piece about my sadness at losing our beloved Book City last winter, which is included on page 176. And I appreciate that while Book City Annex is gone, my love for that place has been immortalized within The Bookshop Book, a most fitting place for such an ode. Good company too, and it’s an honour to be a part of project like this, celebrating places that are the best places in the world.
The Bookshop Book is out in the UK now. It’s coming out in Canada in the new year. Make sure you pick up a copy. This is definitely a book you will treasure.
October 11, 2014
In the latest issue of Quill and Quire, writer and editor John Metcalf writes of the short story that it “does not translate us to another world; it drives us deeper into this one.” Depth being the object, rather than anything sweeping. As a reader, an advantage of the short story over the novel is one can read it once, and then promptly read it again, “read it again” being the best advice to anyone complaining about a short story being over too soon, about being left wanting to know what happens next. That reader so intent on what happens next, it might be suggested, is focusing on all the wrong details—what’s outside of the story rather than what is within. It’s a curious perspective. But I understand it, in part.
I understand it, in part, because I too like sweeping, especially when I’m turning the pages of a book. The short story collection often lacks momentum, its stories not necessarily meant to be read one after the other, each one considered singularly instead. But it’s a book after all, and its service then is less for the reader than for the stories themselves—a thoroughly worthy mission, to deliver them from ephemera. And deliver them to the reader too, yes, but we like one page to lead to another. An unlinked short story collection can be a bumpy road, so it helps when the stories are good, as is the case of The Freedom in American Songs by Kathleen Winter (and edited by John Metcalf, no less).
My favourite story in this collection was “Flyaway”, a bizarre, twisted story of motherhood from the perspective of a woman who is not a mother and therefore has a most objective point of view on the subject, her objectiveness not entirely undermined by the fact that she deranged. I also loved “Every Waking Moment”, a love story told outside the lines, and so are most of these tales, actually.
“The Freedom in American Songs” recounts a long-ago love between a high school boy and his flamboyant classmate, a story full of yearning and which ends in heartbreak. “Of the Fountain” concludes with a similar gut-punch, a woman’s fascination with a neighbourhood eccentric causing them both trouble, and teaching none of the lessons the story’s beginning supposes. “You Seem a Bit Sad” comes from the same kind of point of view, illuminating the strange intimacy that arrives between people who brush past one another in day-to-day life, those small reprieves from loneliness. In two of “The Marianne Stories” that begin the collection, the title character’s loneliness is self-imposed, resulting from her move to a small village whose inhabitants aren’t sure of her intentions (and neither she of theirs), and she aches to be among them just as much as the chasm between them is gaping.
These are stories of misfits, though never for the usual reasons, often for small reasons that stay under the radar. These are stories that start off with remarkable first lines and paragraphs, lines that don’t pull you in necessarily, but they make you want to follow them. These stories are steeped in details, page 32 standing out in particular as the greatest inventory of a streetscape that I have ever encountered, right now to knickknacks on a mantlepiece spied through a window with its curtains open. Stories whose narrators’ intentions are never entirely pure, these characters standing on the cusp of self-awareness. Stories whose revelations are never the obvious ones, or the easy ones. Stories about the possibility of change, rather than change itself. Stories that each stand on their own, and are difficult to thread together in a paragraph. Or a sentence.
Except that each of them begs to be read once, and then again.
October 8, 2014
Yesterday’s announcement of the nominees for the 2014 Governor’s-General literary prizes seemed the occasion I’ve been waiting for to reread Light Light, by Julie Joosten, which is one of the contenders for the poetry award. I first read Light Light in the spring, on the recommendation of some of my cleverest friends, and while I adored it just as much as they’d predicted I would, I wasn’t ready to write about it yet. It’s a collection about intangibility, so it’s fitting that I wasn’t sure how to hold it. Though I confess that sitting down to reread it last night in a sitting hasn’t brought me closer to an understanding of what’s going on at the heart of this collection—at the heart, I suppose, there is mystery, and while I’m baffled by so much of it, I am just as much in awe.
In awe of the connections Joosten makes between ecology, history, natural history, technology and language. At how she uses the smallest and most ordinary words (and things) and obfuscates them by subtle arrangements. The idea of gentle as a verb. The sentience of plant life: “A violet trumpet vine extends a tendril, gentles into a hole/ withdraws.” The word tendril. “The pleasure that you exist/ You a source of thought, not its object/ It rains/ You reach for an umbrella and open it.”
My favourite parts of the collection are the stories of Maria Sibylla Merian, a 17th century botanist (who was “Enchanted by subtleness”), and Anna Atkins, the first female photographer with her cyanotype images of algae. Since encountering Victorian entomologist Eleanor Ormerod in Virginia Woolf’s “Lives of the Obscure”, I’ve been fascinated with these stories of early female scientists, and I particularly love that Joosten has de-obscured these figures by including them with the more familiar touchstones of Darwin and Thoreau. The effect of her subtle subversion is remarkable.
I love the final poem, “the lighthouse revolving,” though I do not profess to able to keep an image in my mind of what is illuminated, which is mostly the point. Its final lines: “In lightning/ flashes to escape the laws of the world, these flashes lightening/ us.”
October 5, 2014
I’ve been frustrated lately by hearing authors complain that their books about motherhood aren’t being treated as “literary,” as though any story with a tricycle and a diaper pail is by definition silly and shallow, for lactating readers only. Though I sympathize—the few times I’ve seen my book catalogued with “Essays” instead of “Parenting”, I’ve been overjoyed at the inclusion in the wider realm. It’s certainly true that stories about motherhood are ghettoized, but then almost every time I’ve read the books in question by the complaining authors, I’ve wanted to reply that the reason their books aren’t regarded as “literary” is because they’re not literary. Because these authors have gotten confused about novels, and written a catalogue for a hipster baby boutique instead whose characters are stereotypes and mannikins. (There is also a trend toward making postpartum depression the thing that explains everything else, when in fact, in a book, it should be just the beginning…)
So perhaps the real conversation should be about how it’s difficult to write literature about motherhood. Which is true. Part of it is because the early days of motherhood are a journey away from language—the words don’t work here, they don’t even apply. Rachel Cusk writes about reliving her own evolution towards language as her baby grows, “like someone visiting old haunts after an absence.” And even then, the words come together to mean something different than before, something perhaps intangible to a reader who has never lived it.
The fragmentation of a novel like Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, say, is not surprising. A novel whose form and language are shaped by the character’s experience is motherhood, just as much as her life is, the plot is—here is a book demonstrating that not all stories of motherhood are relegated to the literary dustbin. That literary motherhood is possible after all.
And here is another, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Adult Onset. If her previous novel, The Way the Crow Flies, was about post-war family, coming of age in technicolour, their parents’ valiant efforts (and failure) to to be ones who got it right—shiny cars, green lawns, and lacquered hair—then here is the story of the trauma of the aftermath. Though ostensibly, this is also a novel about a week in the life of a mother, Mary Rose MacKinnon, a writer who has taken early retirement to be home with her kids, usually alone, while her partner directs plays in a city across the country. It’s a life I recognize, very much, partly because I walk the same streets Mary-Rose walks, my kids play in the same parks, and I walk by the blue door of her kids’ Montessori School every day en-route to get my own daughter to and from kindergarten. And partly also because I know the trial of trying to wrench an unwilling two-year-old into a pair of boots, or what it is to race across town before the nap window shuts and the whole day is shot. Though even if you don’t know, MacDonald will show you.
Of course, the blue door of the Montessori School is is not exactly the same one I walk past, because the one in the book is fictional. Which sounds like an annoying author trick, but then MacDonald goes and does something so interesting with all the connections between fiction and reality, between her novel and her life. Mary-Rose MacKinnon is author of two books in a (hypothetical) trilogy about a girl who discovers a long-lost brother in a parallel universe. In Adult Onset, we are privy to sections of these novels (which are quite compelling—not something you can say about all books within books) and eventually it becomes clear that MacDonald’s own novel, with all its vivid realism, is operating with a vaguely sci-fi subtext, that indeed this novel takes place in a parallel universe (which is slightly askew—though what universe isn’t?). Geographical details are altered slightly to suggest that this is time out of time. The Balloon King on Bathurst becomes a Starbucks in the course of a day or so. But then isn’t that what happens in a city? Not just that everything turns into a Starbucks, but that the street-scape is ever-changing, a time lapse photograph in real time. Everything is neither here nor there.
Can you tell yet how much I am fascinated and in love with this novel? I started out unsure though, not convinced by MacDonald’s command of her structure. Each chapter a day in the life of Mary-Rose, parenting solo as per usual, going through the motions and tedium of her days, but something is stirring beneath the surface. An ache in her bones, the bones in her arm, which were operated on twice in her childhood. The novel flashes back to her childhood, to her mother’s miscarriages and stillbirths between Mary-Rose and her older sister, and the dead babies after. Before Mary Rose, there had been another Mary Rose, who’d been stillborn and not baptized, and so Mary-Rose inherited her name. These stories are their family lore, the details hard to keep straight anyway, never mind her mother’s deepening dementia. And Mary-Rose is feeling similarly troubled neurologically—there are gaps her days and in her memory, just like the holes in her bones that ailed her in childhood. It is disorienting how the narrative dips in and out of time, into Mary Rose’s childhood and her more recent past. Everything is connected to everything else, and to scratch at the surface is to dare to disturb the precarious arrangement of mental stability, of family harmony.
There are other traumas. Mary-Rose is troubled by the mellowing of her parents in old age, the disappearance of her mother’s rage, her parents’ ease and happiness with their grandchildren, considering how fraught was her own childhood, and also her parents’ reaction to her coming out as a lesbian years before. The cruelty with which they’d treated their daughter, wishing she’d had cancer instead, refusing to acknowledge her relationship, to visit her home. Not banishing her altogether, which might have been simpler, but treating her personal life with a certain coldness, taking years to come around to it. And then finally, there they are in love with the biological child of their daughter’s wife—here we are in the 21st century. It gets better. But how does one heal from that, Mary Rose is asking in Adult Onset (which MacDonald herself asked in a Globe and Mail article last summer during Pride Week in Toronto)? Can we ever forgive our parents for the ways they failed us? And are we destined to repeat their mistakes with our own children, personality as much a part of our genetic legacy as everything? Can we forgive our parents and love our parents, but still seek out lives that are different from theirs? Is it possible to choose our own destinies? Are there lessons for us in parallel worlds after all?
In its details, Adult Onset is certainly a novel about the minutiae of motherhood, the kind of thing Shirley Hughes chronicles in her picture books. Maternal ambivalence isn’t named, as it really shouldn’t be in literature, or the world for that matter, because what in life do we ever not feel two ways about? Instead, the life of a person with children is explored, her complex feelings toward her children a bit interrogated, a bit taken for granted, all of this connected to deeper things, because just as no mother is an island, neither is her maternity in relation to the rest of life. A mother is never just this one thing, even at the worst times when she imagines she is.
In a really wonderful conversation, Jenny Offill says, “If you look at literature on motherhood, there’s still some very interesting space to be filled. In Grace Paley’s stories she’s a mother, an activist, and a wife, with this amazing and relentless observing eye. She writes how it feels to be in the middle of all this. That’s what we need more of.”
In this, and in so much more, Ann-Marie MacDonald has delivered.
September 29, 2014
“In trying to form conclusions about mommybloggers—and about mothers—I am reminded of my children attempting to jump upon their own shadows: I am attempting to trap an essentially untrappable form of knowledge. After the initial discomfort and frustration that this inconclusive conclusion elicits, however, I have found that there is much to gained, as a researcher in general and as a motherhood researcher in particular, in looking instead at uncertainty as a valuable critical lens.” –May Friedman, Introduction, Mommyblogs and the Changing Face of Motherhood
This is a kind of criticism that does not pit the critic against the text, does not seek authority. It seeks instead to travel with the work and its ideas, invite it to blossom and invite others into a conversation that might have previously seemed impenetrable, to draw out relationships that might have been unseen and open doors that might have been locked.” –Rebecca Solnit, “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable”
It pains me to link to this smug and stupid post I wrote in May 2009, just 11 days before my first child was born. When I purported to understand anything in Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, because I really didn’t. And when I tried to pin down mommybloggers, detailing my discomfort with the form, and my discomfort with that discomfort. I thought I had it all sewed up, because I was surer of things then, and I had no idea of the seas of uncertainty I’d be wading into when it came to mothering, motherhood, and issues around motherhood. Five years later, The M Word was to be partly my means of coming to terms with the beauty of the mess of it all—when in doubt, make an anthology.
When, three months after that embarrassing 2009 blog post, I reviewed the book Mothering and Blogging: The Radical Act of the Mommy Blog by May Friedman and Shana Calixte, my thinking had evolved somewhat, but I was still pretty stupid. (This is the curse of any blogger: you are forever presented with undeniable evidence that you were pretty stupid. And that mostly likely you still are.) But I was getting a sense of things—that motherhood and any ideas surrounding motherhood refused to stay put in my tidy pat conclusions, and that there were many women who didn’t want even them to.
May Friedman’s new book, Mommyblogs and the Changing Face of Motherhood, occurs at a pivotal intersection in my writing life. Outside of my blog, it is my writing about motherhood and my mothering life that has found most resonance with readers, so much so that when a recent published story contained nary a reference to mothers anywhere, I was a bit relieved. And I’ve also been blogging for 14 years this October, which has led to the opportunity to teach the course, The Art of Blogging, at the University of Toronto (whose latest session starts a week from tonight!). In my blog teaching, I embrace and celebrate the messy chaos of the blog form, as unpindownable as mothers are. (You can read my posts with thoughts on blogging here.) I welcomed the reflections, revelations and insights of Mommyblogs and the Changing Face of Motherhood not just for what they had to say about mothers and mommyblogs, but for the perspective the book provided on the history and implications of the blogosphere with a lens on women (who, as in any history, are so often left out of the story).
True confession: I have an allergy to Foucault, and once they start referencing Bahktin, they’ve already lost me. As an academic text, Friedman’s book stands apart from others that I’ve encountered in that her critical framework serves to transform the familiar into something altogether new, rather than rendering it intelligible. In Mommyblogs and the Changing Face of Motherhood, she examines mommyblogs in the frameworks of hybridity (as a form, of the identities of blog authors, of the experiences of readers), cyborgs (of the author and her text via technology, and also of the complex and nuanced networks created through blogging communities, how mothering is reworked away from being an individuated task) and Queer theory (a movement away from the patriarchal institution of motherhood toward an otherness) to show that mommyblogging is indeed a radical act that has already changed the way motherhood is regarded in the public sphere, and whose further implications are still before us, rich with possibility.
It is as applicable to that mythic blogosphere as a whole what Friedman has to say about “the mamasphere”: “It is precisely because it is impossible to say anything generalizable about the mamasphere as a whole that it is a radical maternal space; not as a result of the activism of individual mothers, but because of the implications of all these narratives coexisting, and the endless unspooling dialogue that therefore emerges.” That lack of generalization doesn’t freak me out anymore, and I appreciate Friedman’s excellent book for reminding me why certainty is anathema to everything I like best about the world, both online and off.
September 25, 2014
Caitlin Moran was such a revelation when I first encountered her two and half years ago (precisely here, if you’re wondering), and I adored How to Be a Woman, have reread it since, as well as her anthology of columns, Moranthology, and I even tracked down a copy of The Chronicles of Narmo, the novel she published when she was 14, just because I wanted to read everything she’d ever written. So I wasn’t actually sure I needed to read her new book, the novel, How to Build a Girl, which takes on a similar trajectory to her memoir and long-ago first novel (which doesn’t count, asserts the bio in her new book, which purports to be her “debut” novel). It’s the shape of her own life story—working class girl becomes a rock journalist at tender age, catapulted into awesomeness from an upbringing spent eating blocks of cheese and being a social outcast. So by this, the third time, I sort of thought Moran might have that area covered. I approached the novel warily—but I loved it. To read anything Caitlin Moran writes is to laugh a lot and get everybody in your presence wondering just what is so hilarious. Oh, it’s ribald, brutal, gorgeous and profound. Um, packed with references to Annie. And I guess I’ve read enough Caitlin Moran to know that How to Build a Girl actually departs from her autobiography in a lot of ways, and I didn’t conflate her heroine with the author. I adored her straightforward depictions of a young woman’s sexuality (she calls herself a “sex pirate”, a “swashfuckler”), the pitch perfect pop culture references, the Caitlin Moran-ish tirades that popped up throughout the narrative, which were familiar—on living in poverty, the power of music, and the power of books to build you a whole other other world. And oh, the parts where young Johanna is so desperately trying to be “legendary”, drunk out of her tree, talking about all the sex she’s ever had because she’s going to be the person who’s had all the sex and who’s to know if she doesn’t talk about it? Saints preserve us all.
My feelings about Caitlin Moran’s work are always connected to myself, the ways in which I’m so inspired by her ideas and her point of view. They’re also tangentially connected to the vitriol she inspires in her critics (for reasons worth considering and otherwise). The personality looms large, but obscures an essential and pivotal point: Caitlin Moran is an amazing writer. Presenting her own story like an every woman’s tale, you too can make it from a Wolverhampton Council House to the Times of London and columnist of the year. Except you can’t. She is so incredibly smart and her work is so rich and funny. The novel is structurally messy in places (tenses are confused, perspective moving in an out of time), but the prose is taut, even the tangents perfectly primed. Her Johanna Morrigan is such a vivid voice, bringing the whole world around her to life. And for once, I disagree with Laura Miller (shocking, I know) that How to Build a Girl “is just not fiction”, has “diluted charms.” Because they overwhelmed me, those charms. I was totally sold. This book bowled me over with greatness.
September 22, 2014
I was born in a hospital, and then spent about 30 years not being in the hospital, save for visits to the ER for various frivolous things. And then I started having babies, and a benign growth on my thyroid, and my friends had babies and my dad was treated for cancer, and it seems that hospitals are no longer unchartered territory in my personal geography. Last week, I visited specialists at no less than two of them. And this familiarity was part of the reason I’ve been looking forward to reading Mess: The Hospital Anthology, edited by Julie Devaney (author of the acclaimed My Leaky Body) and David Molenhuis.
But my interest is for the book’s less familiar elements too. I wanted to read about death. And not because I wanted to exactly, but because I am so uncomfortable with how unfamiliar I am with experiences of death and dying, unsurprisingly because, as one writer notes in the book, there is a tendency for doctors and patients alike to dance figure-eights around these ideas rather than saying what they mean. Though it’s not just death—a reluctance to talk about any of the messy bits of bodies and healthcare means that death is actually the most concrete idea we come to associate with hospitals, resulting in much fear and discomfort associated with these places.
The third reason I was interested in this book were the literary reputations of its contributors: poems by Jacob Scheier, Priscila Uppal, Jennica Harper; pieces by Tabatha Southey, Stacey May Fowles, S. Bear Bergman, Diane Flacks, Micah Toub, Sarah Leavitt, Shannon Webb-Campbell and others. One comes to anthologies with an agenda, but the pieces stay with the reader for their writing, and they do here, and not just in the pieces by names I recognized.
The anthology opens with Southey’s essay on her experiences giving birth to her first child on Christmas Eve, a birth whose processes go awry for a time, making its author most aware of the enormous range of human experience enacted all the time within a hospital’s confines, a range the entire book goes to illuminate: birth, death and everything in between. Each section of the book is prefaced by a short piece by Devaney, sections from an essay about a season in her life that was rife with experiences of birth and mortality, mostly the latter. Many of the pieces in the section about death reflect a tendency to leave thinking about it until the last possible moment, to focus on all possible alternatives except the ultimate one. They also show the various ways family members grieve, how these emotions rub up hard against those from medical professionals, the ways in which the dying and their loved ones are failed by the medical establishment at the end of life. How very hard it is to be prepared for death, no matter how many anthologies a reader might explore.
Other pieces reflect the tender humanity taking place in hospitals all the time, how mental health patients are particularly compromised, how hospital stories connect with wider societal issues, what it feels as a person to be reduced to no more than another body in the medical system, and how bodies are stranger and more mysterious than even doctors understand. I particularly appreciated Diane Flacks’ “Pray Tell (or How I Became an Atheist at Sick Kids Hospital)”, a powerful refutation to that cliche about gods only giving you what you can handle. Jane Eaton Hamilton on her experiences photographing deceased infants with their families is also a beautiful and striking piece. David Molenhuis’ essay about the death of his mother, the callousness of the medical professionals who failed her and the hole her loss has left in their family life should be required regular reading for doctors everywhere.
Mess is a little bit messy, which is not unfitting. The range of topics considered seemed a bit too wide, a few pieces not quite belonging, or only tangentially. I also would have welcomed a few more pieces from medical professionals themselves, though maybe asking these to be as well-written as the writers’ pieces is too large a request—if they were writers, they probably wouldn’t be doctors or nurses. But overall, the effect of the book is most powerful. Devaney has made her reputation as a patient advocate, illuminating the human side of life on the gurney, which is perhaps where life is at its most life-ist anyway. With Mess, Devaney and Molenhuis have shone a spotlight where many of us still fear to tread, doing patients an enormous service in illuminating their experiences with the potential of changing our healthcare system for the better, and also creating an emotional and most compelling read.