February 13, 2014
Though there were a thousand other things I should have been doing yesterday, I neglected every single one to reread Love Story, the book which started my career as a bibliokleptomaniac when I stole it from the library at age 12. And at age 12, I thought this was the most romantic book in the whole world, rivalled only by Elvis and Me by Priscilla Presley, which I also read over and over again. (Elvis was so achingly tender and protective! He called her his little girl! Which she was, being 14 and all, but anyway…) Obviously, my definition of “romantic” at age 12 was suspect–I think this was the year I listened to “Everything I Do… I Do It For You” on my walkman, rewinding the song back to the start until the battery died. I wanted a boyfriend so bad that I drew circles around the word “boyfriend” in my copy of Love Story until I put the pen through the page. I was in love with Oliver Barrett IV, and I also loved the Beatles, which gave me two things in common with Jennifer Cavilleri, the smart-assed, bespectacled working class girl from Cranston, Rhode Island, who steals Oliver IV’s heart.
It really is every woman’s fantasy–blandly generic man-creature with dashing good looks, athletic skills and an inherited fortune to boot falls in love with you precisely because you are a smart-ass, bespectacled girl who is smart and mouthy. At the age of 12, I did not yet have glasses, but you can probably see why this spoke to me. I saw the movie version of the book a long time ago, and remember being disappointed in it. I think that for the sake of dramatic tension, the film makes a point of Jenny’s steel will being broken finally, but it doesn’t happen in the book. The course of love here really does run smoothly, and it’s a lovely story. It really is.
My original version of this book was a battered (stolen) paperback, and I was reading a similarly battered copy of Catcher in the Rye around the same time, so the two books became linked in my mind. And it’s true that Holden Caulfield and Oliver Barrett have similar backgrounds and similar narrative styles, address their readers in a similarly (dated) colloquial fashion. It’s true that both characters also know themselves far less well than their readers understand them (or at least their readers who are older than 12). Neither of these boys/men is very sure of himself.
(Note: my Oliver Barrett IV is not Ryan O’Neal. Gross. Never. Love means never having to say that your Oliver Barrett is Ryan O’Neal.)
I make this comparison, which still holds up today, to show that Love Story is not a terrible book. Just its title is sort of shorthand for barf-inducing, but as one who reread it as recently as yesterday, I can promise you that it’s not that bad. Until it is. And then, oh, it is so bad, because any love that means not having to say you’re sorry is one in which one person is going to have to die within a year or two, because how can such a love be lasting? (Which I know now because I am not only not 12, but I have been married for nearly 10 years.) And it’s going to have to be Jenny, who dies of leukaemia and reports that it doesn’t even hurt. Surely, the tidiest death in all of literature. She was a bit pale, is all, and then she died. And what can you say about that?
I tried to read Elvis and Me a few years ago, purely for fun. I thought I’d enjoy it but it was terrible, unbearable. But Love Story, on the other hand, I will probably visit more than a few times again before I finally shuffle off my own beautiful, bespectacled, smart-assed mortal coil.
February 13, 2014
Family Day: the statutory holiday that makes February almost endurable. Though as the holiday is still new and as a concept is sort of vague (beyond the “stay home from work and school” part), we’re all still defining what this day is all about. So how about: this is a day for settling your kids around you on the chesterfield as you read these excellent books that celebrate family ties.
The families in some of these picture books will be mirrors of your own, while others will provide a window onto a different kind of family life, which is just as important to encounter.
Let’s Get a Pup, Said Kate by Bob Graham: Bob Graham’s books are all celebrations of families, families of all different colours, shapes, and sizes, but I highlight this one for its story of Kate, an only child whose place in her family has nothing of the “only” about it. Graham’s detailed illustrations (right down to clutter in the corners), Kate’s parents who are individual characters in their own right, and the never-in-doubt love between the members of this threesome make clear the richness of their family life.
Never Let You Go by Patricia Storms: I chose this book already as one of my top books of 2013, but come back to it again because of its portrayal of family bonds. It’s never clear whether the Big Penguin is Mother or Father (or perhaps neither?), or whether there are any more members of this family than just these two, but it doesn’t matter. In its simplicity, this book shows that the definition of “family” is just as elastic as love is.
A Baby Sister for Frances by Russell Hoban: Being a member of a family is often not fun, as Russell Hoban is smart enough to make clear in this true-to-life book about a new sibling. “Well, things aren’t very good around here anymore,” reports Frances the Badger, since the birth of Baby Gloria, whose needs have subsumed Frances’ own in the family hierarchy. The story has a happy ending, but not a sappy one, and I think plenty of older siblings will feel good about a book that reflects the complex experience of siblinghood, and validates their feelings.
The Great Big Book of Families by Mary Hoffman and Ros Asquith: This book is a terrific introduction to the diversity of family life in terms of members, traditions, socioeconomic status and more. Facts of life such as homelessness and unhappy families are acknowledged for a nice dose of reality, complemented by funny, detailed illustrations, which bring levity and tell stories of their own.
What a Family! By Rachel Isadora: Of the many exceptional things about this book, one is that it explains on its inside cover just what is the difference between first and second cousins, and cousins once removed—how useful! Isadora’s book provides the narrative for a complicated family tree, and shows what brothers, sisters and cousins across generations (and ethnic backgrounds) have in common, and what is different between them, celebrating both.
The Hello Goodbye Window by Norton Juster and Chris Raschka: This is the first picture book by Juster, author of The Phantom Tollbooth, and it won a Caldecott Award in 2006 for Chris Raschka’s art, which mimics a child’s drawing style. It’s a lovely ode to extended family, and to the rituals that emerge from that precious part of life: visits to a grandparent’s house.
Nala’s Magical Mitsiaq by Jennifer Noah and Qin Leng:
Recently published by Inhabit Media, an Inuit-run press out of Nunavut, this story puts open adoption in the context of Inuit tradition, where adoption between family members is common. Two little girls learn from their mother’s stories that indeed they are sisters, though they both came to the family in different ways.
My Father Knows the Names of Things by Jane Yolen and Stephanie Jorisch: Fathers still remain conspicuously absent from so many picture books, and so My Father Knows the Names of Things makes for a nice change. Written as a memorial to her late husband, Yolen celebrates a father figure not for his ability to conform to prescribed gender roles, but for his wisdom, knowledge, and importance as a guiding force in his child’s life.
So Much! By Trish Cooke and Helen Oxenbury: I never met a Helen Oxenbury book I didn’t love, but this one by Trish Cooke is particularly charming, and a winner of many prizes when it was published in 1998. Mama and Baby are home alone one day, not doing anything in particular, when the doorbell rings, and rings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins arriving to hug that baby, to love that baby. Cooke’s prose is almost a song, and a joy to read, and readers will be particularly excited by the story’s surprise at the end.
In Our Mothers’ House by Patricia Polacco: In our library, there are a variety of books about families with two mothers, and many of these live on a shelf called, “Issues,” along with books about dying grandparents and another called Julio’s Gluten-Free Birthday Party. What these books mostly have in common is not their family issues, but that they tend to be really terrible. Which is why Polacco’s book is allowed to live on the real shelf with the rest of the books, I think, because no matter how many moms it has, it’s a work of literature proper.
She celebrates a multi-cultural family with two mothers and three adopted children, showing the richness of their life together, and also hints at the discrimination they encounter along the way. But really, what I love most about this book is that it sets an example of the kind of mother I want to be, the kind of family I want to have. A warning though: my husband is incapable to getting through the book entire without starting to cry.
Bumble Ardy by Maurice Sendak: I like the realities acknowledged in this, Maurice Sendak’s final picture book. That one’s biological parents can be a bit rubbish, for one, (so that when Bumble Ardy’s piggy parents gain weight and get ate, we all acknowledge that it’s not so much of a loss), and also that a caregiver (his Aunt Adeline) can become ferociously angry with you when you misbehave, and still love you all the same. Though this isn’t a feel-good story, of course—this is Sendak, after all. The family ties in this book are curious and unsettling, which contributes to the story’s strange appeal.
Further Adventures of the Owl and Pussy Cat by Julia Donaldson and Charlotte Voake: Not just anyone should be allowed to write a sequel to Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat”, which we love at our house through its edition by Kids Can Press’s Vision in Poetry Series, but I’m pleased that Julia Donaldson (famed for her Gruffalo and rhyming verse) was permitted to do so.
It’s the story of what happened to this mismatched pair after their honeymoon (where hand in hand by the edge of the sand, they danced by the light of the moon), when the wedding ring goes missing and they must embark to find it. The story is fun, and shows that family can emerge between the most unlikely candidates, and children need not be part of the equation at all.
February 13, 2014
In the mood for some Valentines Day reading, I’ve been dipping in and out of Four Letter Word: Original Love Letters, by Joshua Knelman and Rosalind Porter, which I reviewed in 2008. It’s a really great anthology of love-letters as stories with a fantastic line-up of writers. I particularly enjoyed the contributions by Miriam Toews, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Lionel Shriver, and Valerie Martin. I’ve been interested lately in the life of the literary anthology, and this one with its short pieces and thematic approach is probably one that’s worth keeping on the shelf. I’m glad I did. And not just because when it’s on my shelf, I get to look on its spine, which in my hardcover edition is printed to look like a collection of actual letters bound.
February 12, 2014
“A book may not tell us exactly how to live our lives, but our own lives can teach us how to read a book. Now when I read the novel in light of Eliot’s life, and in light of my own, I see her experience of unexpected family woven deep into the fabric of the novel–not as part of the book’s obvious pattern, but as part of its tensile strength. Middlemarch seems charged with the question of being a stepmother: of how one might do well by one’s stepchildren, or unwittingly fail them, and of all that might be gained from opening one’s heard wider.” –Rebecca Mead, My Life in Middlemarch
February 10, 2014
Things are busy here. In lieu of a post proper, I bring you Mavis Staples, whom Stuart and I had the great pleasure of seeing in concert on Friday night.
February 5, 2014
I have heard rumours here and there that to children raised on Hogwarts and Lemony Snicket, the adventures of Ramona Quimby come across as a little bit dull. Perhaps so, but then the domestic has always been my literary milieu, setting for plenty of magic in its own right. As a child, I was wild about Ramona, about her “wonderful, blunderful” self, as she was referred to at the end of Ramona Forever. In her blundering, I suppose she was a forerunner for chick-lit heroines on shoe-covered books in decades to come, and it’s part of the reason I identified with her, but here is a serious distinction: unlike Bridget Jones on the fireman’s pole, to give an example, Ramona never ever lost her dignity.
To be an adult encountering Ramona again has been absolutely fascinating. First, unlike Rowling, whose magic spells allow us to forgive literary missteps, Beverly Cleary never misses a beat. The pacing, characterization and dialogue in these novels is brilliant. Nothing clunks. These books are really not so dated–I only remember the line in Ramona the Brave, when Mrs. Quimby announces she is going back to work, and Beezus responds with, “Mother! You’re going to be liberated.” I note that on a newer edition of Ramona Quimby, Age 8, Ramona is depicted as wearing a bicycle helmet, which seems bafflingly incongruous (but then I have this theory that “safety” is a conspiracy theory, and that’s another story).
Reading these novels with my daughter, I see they are tremendously useful for educational purposes. For my education, that is, Cleary’s stories reminding me exactly of what it was like to be little in the world. I have forgotten this, the injustices of childhood, which Ramona calls attention to and battles at every turn. And injustice it truly is, to have no say in your comings and goings, to have the ground pulled out from under your feet on a regular basis, to have your fears and worries scoffed at, to be shushed and quieted, shooed away from underfoot. Reading the Ramona books provides with tremendous sympathy for how difficult it is for a child to be in the world. Reading the Ramona books, I think, makes me a better parent.
They’re also useful to my daughter though, not for morals and lessons, but for everything that’s going on in the background. That Ramona’s mother and father are depicted as real people, for one, their experiences providing a whole level of subtext to these stories that I wouldn’t have picked up on as a child, but which I zero in on now. I was reading aloud the Quimby parents’ argument from Ramona and Her Mother recently, and it was so pitch perfect and hilarious:
“Ramona, don’t just stand there,” said Mr. Quimby as he laid the bacon in a frying pan. “Get busy and set the table. As my grandmother used to say, ‘Every kettle must rest on its own bottom,’ so do your part.”
Ramona made a face as she reached for the place mats. “Daddy, I bet your grandmother didn’t really say all the things you say she said.”
“If she did, she must have been a dreadful bore,” said Mrs. Quimby, who was beating batter as if she were angry with it.
Mr. Quimby looked hurt. “You didn’t know my grandmother.”
“If she went around spouting wisdom all the time, I can’t say I’m sorry.” Mrs. Quimby was on her knees, dragging the griddle from behind the pots and pans in the bottom of the cupboard.
It is remarkable how much economics factors into these books, much like how they do in our own family life. Though by no means poor, the Quimby family has to think about costs and expenses. A new bedroom is only built onto their house because Mrs. Quimby returns to work and they have the means to do so. Later, Mr. Quimby loses his job, and when he returns to work, it is to a position that makes him terribly unhappy. This leads to Ramona’s perpetual worrying, and her silent pleading with him via attempted thought control, “Daddy, please like your job. Please like your job.” Her concern as she listens from her bed to the timbre of her parents’ late night discussions in another room.
And don’t you remember that? Anxiety and fear over things of which you have no control? Only hearing patches of the conversation, parts of the story, and filling in the blanks with all your deepest fears? The dawning understanding that your family life is built on unsure foundations, as unsure as is anything I mean, and the terror of thinking it might all come apart?
That life isn’t fair is such a cliche, but in her stories, Cleary makes this idea endlessly interesting. Her situations are always sometimes unbearably true to life–the frustrations of trying to sew a pair of pants for a toy elephant, for example. Or the problems of a not-so-great teacher. Not a bad teacher, but just one generally lacking in appeal. There are teachers like this, and while in other novels, her student might discover her actual heart of gold, in Ramona, such teachers are trials to be borne. Because life is like that. Life is unfair. Sometimes your cat dies and you’ve got to bury it and you get blisters on your fingers.
But life is also rich in its smallest details—the squelch of boots in the mud, the appeal of a banana sticker, the sounds of kids riding bikes outside, a haircut that transforms you into a pixie for a while. That the foundation of family can be surer than you think. And that when you’re wonderful and blunderful, you’re a lot like life is. Which is something that’s good to know.
February 2, 2014
While I loved Keavy Martin’s review of the Inuit novel Sanaaq by Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk (transliterated and translated from Inuktitut to French by Bernard Saladin d’Anglure, and translated from French to English by Peter Frost in this new edition by University of Manitoba Press), a review which placed the novel in its context but also took it beyond the context—this is not “merely” a novel written by somebody who’d never read one, but a work of literature onto itself, something to be understood or even just experienced rather than contextualized—, I do think she overstated the challenge this book poses for the inexperienced reader. All set for a challenge was I, but instead I found myself enjoying myself, not so lost in an unfamiliar environment. The novel comes with a glossary of terms, but I could deduce most words by how they were used. The novel’s foreword by Bernard Saladin d’Anglure set the story up well for me, and in terms of the novel’s episodic nature? Well, obviously this was just an Inuit version of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City (I am only being half facetious here), so I knew what I was getting into.
Sanaaq is a young widow with a little daughter living as part of a semi-nomadic community in Northern Quebec. The novel’s 48 episodes show the rhythms of their daily life and its seasons, with all the usual drama implied–marriage, love, familial strife, hardship and loss, tragedy, and happiness. Oh, and tea. These characters are as preoccupied with tea, its having and its making, as characters in any English noel I’ve ever read, so I actually felt quite at home. For the reader unfamiliar with Inuit culture and traditions, the stories contained in this novel are rife with interesting details–about the hunting and storage of food, for example, or how the women in the book are always sewing and repairing their boots, and the logistics of Igloo-building. It’s not a portrayal of an Arctic idyll—life can be difficult and dangerous; I found it interesting to see how the dogs were regarded as pests, forever getting into food supplies and causing trouble, having items thrown at them. At one point in the story, Sanaaq is a victim of spousal violence, injured so badly by her husband that she must be flown to the south for medical treatment, and this is treated in the text with unflinching detail of the emotional complexity of the matter. But there is humour here too, and genuine human connections.
As we move through the novel’s 48 episodes, changes in Inuit life become apparent through contact with the qallunaat (non-Inuit people), which begins first with the sound of an airplane overhead, and then becomes more regular and embedded in ordinary experiences—Sanaaq’s husband is taken away to the south for work, her daughter becomes a Catholic convert, old people begin receiving social security payments.
The narrative skirts omniscience in a way that seems curious to the reader who is accustomed to the English novel. There is a matter-of-factness to the telling, perhaps related to its origins—it was written in a shorthand that can be written as quickly as it is spoken, and so this written novel has an oral nature. There is also a simplicity to its delivery that only comes across as such because a whole layer of the narrative is inaccessible to me as a reader (and I think that this is the challenge for this reader that Martin was writing about in her review). Saladin d’Anglure’s foreword makes clear that the apparent simplicity of Nappaaluk’s novel is undermined by the Inuit symbols and stories referenced, as well as details of Nappaaluk’s own life and members of her community. In short, this is only a straightforward story because I’m not smart enough to know it isn’t otherwise.
Sanaaq can and should be discussed beyond the story of how it was written, but the story is still pretty fascinating—Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk was asked by a missionary to write down phrases of the Inuktitut language so that he could develop his vocabulary, and what she delivered him instead was his long work of fiction, which she completed over many years. As Martin writes, “Mitiarjuk’s work has long been celebrated in Inuit communities, and… she received major honours before her death in 2007—she was awarded an honorary doctorate from McGill and was named a Member of the Order of Canada.” And now finally her work has been made available to be read by English readers, for pleasure just as much as enlightenment.
January 31, 2014
There is a segment of the population that won’t understand this at all, but sometimes I get bothered because I’m not famous on twitter. (Some of you know exactly what I’m talking about though.) I have never once gone viral. BoingBoing pays me no attention at all, and neither does Reddit, except for the time that I reviewed a Harlequin Romance novel about the mayor of Toronto. And sometime I worry that my lack of twitter fame means that I fundamentally don’t exist, which of course is everything turned inside-out. I know this. It doesn’t take much to remember the truth, which is that if the whole internet disappeared tomorrow, taking my writing career along with it, and I was left with just my little family in the world, I would still have everything. This—our friends and our family—is what really matters. Of everything I ever make, this life we have together is more important than anything else.
And so I focus on the domestic. Not terribly fashionable, I know, but quite timeless (and celebrated, in all its raw complexity). I love my home, my kitchen at is centre (complete with the obligatory red teapot and bunting). We’ve lived in our apartment for 5 years now, which is the longest I’ve lived anywhere since I was 19 years old. We are committed to renting, and committed to this place, which may not be “a house”, but it is home. And in order to make this home work for the next few years, especially now that we’re a family of four, we had to do something about the kitchen. A kitchen which wasn’t big enough for our round oak table (which had been my childhood table; my mom bought it at an auction years ago), or at least the table was the wrong shape, it took up too much room, and it was far too crowded when everybody was sat at it. And I wanted to be able to have dinner parties. Dinner parties, to me, are integral to home.
So we had a new kitchen table built. Our friend Nigel Wilson, of Red Lion Workshop, took our measurements and plans (for a rectangular table with benches that could be tucked underneath when not in use) and this morning, with his excellent family, delivered the most important piece of furniture we’ll ever buy. Made of reclaimed oak, it is as solid as it is beautiful. It is everything we dreamed of.
I think that materials are important. I like to think in the long-term. I used to buy furniture in flat packs made out of particle board, and then one day I realized I didn’t want a life made out of such things after all. It is quite likely that I will never buy a kitchen table ever again, and so the extra investment we’ve made now will pay off in the long term, and then to be able to sit down together at a piece of furniture that’s made so well–what a magnificent foundation to build a family life upon.
To contemplate a kitchen table is a loaded thing. It’s still tied up in philosophy for me, because I’m thinking of Woolf and To the Lighthouse, and Mr. Ramsay thinking about a kitchen table when one isn’t there. For me, that kitchen table always looked a lot like this one. But to contemplate a kitchen table is also thinking about the future, about our children sitting on these benches, their little legs growing longer until they one day reach the floor. All the breakfasts and dinners we’ll eat here together, glasses of milk spilled and angry toddlers sent to their room, but the harmonious meals too, the conversations we’ll share. Homework also, once the dinner is cleared away. And birthday parties, play-dough, cookie-baking, hide-and-seek underneath it. Breaking out our portable ping-pong set. The friends who’ll sit around this table with us, friends we might not have even met yet. That we might move one day, and be able to replace the benches with chairs. The amazing privilege of possibility, the assurances of a future, or our faith in such a thing. Which is what a solid kitchen table signifies to me.
The table is pristine for the moment. I was talking to Nigel about this when he was here for lunch. I said, “How do we take care of it?” He said, “You have to use it. The first few rings on the wood, he said, will be painful to see, but you’ll get used to it. Then one day, maybe 20 years now, you’ll look back and you’ll see that mark, and that mark. And you’ll remember everything.”
January 29, 2014
Harriet is (sort of) beginning to learn how to read, and as Harriet balks at any activity that is remotely challenging or involves learning by rote, I have to tread very carefully in my exuberance for her acquiring literacy. A book like Mamoko, by Aleksandra Mizielińska and Daniel Mizieliński, which I brought home from the library the other week, is a perfect reminder for both of us that books can be wonderful fun.
Think of Mamoko like Where’s Waldo, but for people who love stories. The book’s inside cover introduces us to a range of characters whose stories we will follow throughout the rest of the book in dynamic, busy, detailed, wordless illustrations. There are dramas experienced, mysteries to be solved, jokes shared, and something new discovered every time. You can pick a new character and “read” a new book in Mamoko over and over again, or else just pick peruse the illustrations for general entertainment. The stories in this book aren’t straightforward either, and we went back and forth a lot to try to understand what we missed, to figure out exactly what was going on. It was utterly engaging, the illustrations smart enough to make this very satisfying, and while we had lots of fun with this book together, it’s also nice to have a book that Harriet can “read” all by herself.
Another book by the same press and same authors is Maps, which was one of (too) many books I’ve picked up at Book City lately (sob). I’ve got such a thing for maps and atlases (my prized one is Atlas of Remote Islands, and I so want to get my hands on Infinite City by Rebecca Solnit), so I was excited to get a kids’ atlas. There is a world map, and about 50 others of individual countries. And as with Mamoko, the creators of this book know that story is what compels someone to open a book over and over again. And so each country’s map includes an image of a little boy and girl who might live there, and we learn their names, which is how these countries become more than just a shape on a page for young readers. And then we learn about that country’s wildlife, famous exports, cultural figures (fictional and otherwise), different cultures, national food and drink, industry and agriculture, all though adorable cartoon illustrations.
Pick a page, any page, and Maps will take you on a journey.