Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Beautiful Friends, The End

What a day, a birth day, indeed, to say good-bye to this particular spot and happily announce that we have moved to a new house, a permanent house, kindly built for us by Stuart Lawlor @ Create Me This.


Saturday, July 09, 2011

#54 - Suddenly

First, I am going to preface this review with a statement: I adored Bonnie Burnard's The Good House. It's a novel I picked up on a whim from Book City when it was first published and sang its praises to everyone who would listen for years. It's a classic, right up there with The Stone Diaries, Clara Callan, and Away (book I read all around the same time), and so I was excited to read Bonnie Burnard's latest novel Suddenly, if only because it's the first one she's published in 10 years. That's a long time to wait.

Sadly, I probably never should have read this book. It's neither the right time of my life (it's a novel about truly middle-aged women) nor am I in the right frame of mind (having spent the last nine months battling my own life-threatening disease, I couldn't quite cope with the breast cancer victim at the centre of the novel) to appreciate the gift of Suddenly. There's no doubt in my mind that Bonnie Burnard's a wonderful writer. She has an ability to bring the everyday to the page that's unparalleled by many of her contemporaries. It's a unique gift, and her voice reminds me deeply of Carol Shields, which is why I was so very disappointed in this book.

Sandra, our heroine, finds an evil lump in her breast at the end of the summer -- her grandchildren have just gone back to the city with her husband, and she sits alone after a swim contemplating the hard reality of her future. Of course, her friend Jude has battled breast cancer and survived, and Sandra hopes she will too. Alas, it is not to be, and the majority of the novel takes place on her deathbed, that awesome Canadian-woman-writer-trope, where the family rallies around and all of the action takes place in reverse as the dying go through their lives, their relationships, their happiness and their regrets with a fine-toothed comb.

But one remains easily lost within this book because the point of view isn't that simple, it switches from Sandra, to her best friend Colleen (who is beautiful, but childless, natch, and married to Sandra's brother, the surgeon Richard), to her other best friend Jude (the ex-hippie, jilted by a Texan lover who left her on a farm to go fight the Vietnam war after casually fathering her son), to her husband Jack, and back again. It's all over the place and the pronoun "she" doesn't help matters when all three main characters are women...

It's a tedious book, with tedious, unbelievable characters: Sandra's a saint; so's Colleen only she's beautiful too, Jude's "wild" but reformed, and they all feel so old they're covered in a layer of dust. These are the women of my mother's generation, one of them could have been my mother, and yet they have no sense of humour, no sense of adventure and really no life in them at all -- even when it's "flashing" before them as their best friend fades away in a cloud of morphine and horrible pain from an awful disease that takes far too many women. The title confused me for nothing happens quickly in this book -- Burnard takes pages and pages to describe the most mundane aspects of everyday life, episodes that would have been best excised, and the whole novel would have been better for me if it read chronologically, if I got to see these women through their lives and not just as flashbacks in Sandra's journals, which, of course, she kept religiously her entire life.

But I feel bad being so critical, which is why I think that my original statement, that it's neither the right time of my life nor am I in the right mindset to contemplate a novel about someone so willingly giving in to a disease -- not fearing death is one thing but Sandra's utterly unrealistic in terms of her approach to illness; no one is as saintly as she's portrayed on the page, no one. There's no anger, and even when there is, it's slightly ridiculous -- two women having slight "words" during a winter storm and then poof, it's back to celebrating Sandra and her ability to hold the other two women together. Yawn.

I much prefer Lionel Shriver's approach to illness: frank, honest, angry, and also accepting -- there's something raw and real to how she writes about sickness, and I appreciated it. There's tedium to being sick, to having tests, to being stuck in a bed, and anger, relentless, unceasing anger about the fact that your body just isn't doing what it's supposed to. And I'd hope that Sandra would have a glimpse of this throughout the book, that someone, anyone, might rage against the dying of the light just a little before rubbing more lotion on her cold feet or recalling some other wonderful thing she did during her abnormally normal life and marriage.

So don't blame Burnard -- it's a great book club book for women of my mother's age, it's a terrific book to give your mother-in-law for Christmas, and it would have done wonders if Oprah's Book Club still existed and ever considered that Canada has a literature from which to choose reading material. But Suddenly, with its long, drawn-out conclusion (Sandra dies! People mourn!) just didn't cut it for me, a girl of a certain age who has battled a mean-ass frustrating disease for months.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

#53 - The Retreat

This may be hyperbole, but I think David Bergen is a national treasure. It's quite a statement to say that over the course of reading four of his novels, his Giller winner (The Time in Between) remains my least favourite. People, it won a major prize! Overall, I devoured A Year of Lesser and See the Child, and thought they were both excellent. But The Retreat might just be my favourite Bergen novel so far -- but I haven't read The Matter with Morris (just the first 50-odd pages for work), so I am reserving judgment until then.

The majority of the action in The Retreat takes place at a camp, the retreat of the novel's title, near The Lake of the Woods, just outside of Kenora. The landscape, having spent about a week there at a cottage of an old ex-boyfriend way back in the way back, is beautiful. The Lake of the Woods itself is huge, with crisp blue waters, but the pond close to the property isn't. It's murky, filled with reeds, and just as dangerous -- it's an important distinction, because major accidents and/or incidents happen throughout the book on or close to the water, and Bergen's ability to weave such an archetypal theme (man vs. nature) within his more specific, personal story, remains one of the book's true accomplishments.

But let me digress. Raymond Seymour, an 18-year-old Ojibway boy, finds himself embroiled in an love affair with niece of the local police. Their relationship -- hot and heavy -- burns out quickly, and not just as a result of the intervention of her father and uncle but, because, it's just not meant to last. Alice's uncle takes Raymond out onto the Lake and dumps him on an island -- expecting him not to return. This dynamic, bad cop/good kid, feels familiar, and it should, the relationship goes exactly where you expect and the penultimate action remains utterly heartbreaking. It's 1974, and Bergen chooses as a secondary background of sorts, to wrap The Kenora Crisis around his story, even though Raymond and his brother, who has just returned from being "raised" (read: forcibly removed) by a Mennonite family in the south, are tangentially involved in the uprising.

When Lizzie Byrd (17) and her family arrive at The Retreat, a quasi-commune run by "the Doctor," a self-important, psycho-babbling fool who cons people into believing he can heal their souls by "talk" and the simple life of camp, she's reluctant to participate. The births of her younger siblings have been hard on her mother, and her father desperately tries to save his family and her sanity by granting her every wish -- in this case, it's to spend the summer at The Retreat. Lizzie meets Raymond and a cautious friendship evolves into something more substantial. As the summer progresses, their feelings grow deeper, regardless of whether they truly understand one another's complex situations (her crazy family; his unfortunate situation with the cop that never seems to end). But as the season comes to an end, the novel finds its conclusion -- the characters, distraught, damaged and utterly changed by the events of the summer. It's an amazingly quiet novel for the amount of emotional damage that is wrought on the people within, which remains Bergen's exceptional ability as a writer -- to place people in crisis and not let them entirely recover.

This is my favourite kind of book, a great setting, a complex, real issue that meant something in history, family dynamics that remain complex and difficult, and action that's both believable and well-paced. In short, it's an excellent read, probably one of the best books off my shelf. The Bs have been utterly kind to me (Barnes, Bergen, brilliant!).

Friday, July 01, 2011

#52 - The Uncommon Reader

Sleep refused to settle upon me last night, and I finished The Leopard, and went to my shelves to carry on trying to find something alphabetical that I could read at 2 AM. Luckily, Alan Bennett's deliciously short The Uncommon Reader was almost next on my British shelf and its 119 pages meant that I finished it just before I finally drifted off to sleep. It was a cute book to read upon as we (Canada) are in the midst of a royal visit (in fact, I heard on the CBC yesterday that over 120 foreign bureaus/journalists will follow the couple on their visit as compared to the 24 that applied when the Queen visited was it last year? We're all a little entranced by the Duke and Duchess. As Lainey says; it's good for gossip...).

So, The Uncommon Reader of the book's title is The Queen, who has never truly read before -- for reading isn't necessarily "doing" anything and she's been a "doer" her entire life. An ode to reading with a cheeky sense of humour, Bennett's novella remains thoroughly entertaining from start to finish. Goodness, it's even got a fascinating vein of literary criticism -- of course The Queen wouldn't understand the nuances of Austen at first, having never lived among the lower classes. Of course, if she started her ready odyssey with Henry James, well, she might as well have given up all together.

One day, a travelling library shows up at Westminster and The Queen, on a whim, picks p a book by Ivy-Compton Burnett. Soon she's having Nathan, a former dishwasher and avid reader thus promoted to page, finding books for her from libraries all across London. They read books in aid of royal visits, they read popular fiction, they read the classics and all the while The Queen philosophically comes to understand the power of the written word in a way that was never presented to her before. The more she reads, the more she begins to write, and the more she begins to write, the more she decides she has something to say -- a voice, shall we call it.

I won't spoil the cheeky, cute ending but I will say that I smiled a lot while I was reading this book, even at 2AM when I really should have been sleeping. And, I've knocked another one off my shelves!

#51 - The Leopard

I've been reading a tonne of Scandinavian mysteries over this mat leave -- it's not that they are mindless, that's not what I am trying to say, but they do wonders for my tired brain, especially now that the RRBB is moving around like a maniac and I am spending a lot of my time just chasing him down. Anyway, I finally finished Jo Nesbo's The Leopard -- for me, these books are easy reads, one-nighters, that kind of thing, but this book is over 600 pages long; it's an investment.

When the novel opens, Kaja Solness hunts Harry Hole down in Hong Kong where he's gone to disappear after the toll catching The Snowman took upon him (a novel I haven't read yet). He's thin, addicted to opium, and refuses to come home even after she tempts him with a case only he can solve. But it isn't the crime that brings him back to Oslo -- his father is dying, and Harry can't bear to stay away. There's a new "sheriff" in town: a crass, crooked and unfailingly asshat-like boss of Kripos (which I am assuming is their national police force) named Mikael Bellman who threatens, not only Harry's success in solving the case, but his career in general. Yet, none of that matters to Harry -- brash, intelligent, strong -- he's James Bond with a drink problem, otherwise known as your prototypical hero in these kinds of books, and yet, like Jimmy McNulty in The Wire, you root for him regardless.

The gruesome nature of the central crime -- the killer takes his victims lives with something called a Leopold's Apple, an instrument of torture that punctures (24 times) your face and throat so you drown in your own blood -- stumps the officers, and as soon as Harry joins Bellman and Kripos, they start to get somewhere. Like any good mystery, there's red herrings and twists and false leads and impeccably dangerous situations galore. There would have to be to keep us entertained for yes, like I said, 600+ bloody pages. You could cut a third of this book and it would still be a great read -- there's a lot of extraneous stuff here that could have been pared down, that would have helped the book race along instead of plodding in some places.

Regardless, there's wonderful desolate scenery that takes place in the far-reaching snow-bound Norway that I found truly fascinating. Ski lodges that are sitting ducks for avalanches, that sort of thing, that add a certain nuance to the plot and characters. Of course, the crime gets solved and, of course, the criminal punished and I'm glad I read the whole book because there was a moment half-way through where I considered just skipping to the end because 600 pages!

I have Norway covered already via Karin Fossum, so Nesbo doesn't count for Around the World in 52 Books. I need to find some Finnish mysteries!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Yet Another Review Catch-Up #s48, 49, 50

Well, we were up north for about two weeks and got home the other day. A massive storm hit the greater Peterborough area, and so many trees were knocked down on our property that we were lucky that no one was hurt and/or no buildings were damaged. But goodness, as my RRHB exclaimed when he drove up just after the storm, "It's like the apocalypse hit." There are empty spaces where trees have stood my entire life. My uncle took this picture -- this pine tree just caught the edge of our sun deck and it took my husband and brother the better part of a day to chainsaw it out of there. For a while, my aunt and uncle were trapped as about six huge trees fell right by our gate making sure there was no way to drive out. I kept exclaiming, "Oh my god!" when the baby and I drove up on the Sunday after the storm. It was crazy. The biggest storm anyone has seen in 40 years. What up weather?

I did very little reading. The RRBB is a moving maniac, inches away from crawling, he's a going concern. You can't leave him alone on the floor any more. Within moments, he's miles away from where you first put him down, and he's going through a funny stage where he fusses a little if I'm not sitting right behind him as he plays. That, my friends, can't continue. But I indulged him a little only because we were at the cottage for the first time and he needs to be comfortable there.

Anyway, I am, of course, behind in my reading, my reviewing, my list-making, my life, my correspondence, just about everything. So here are some mini-reviews:

#48 - The Shape I Gave You - Martha Baillie
I have almost completely forgotten about this book, which doesn't bode well for an extremely positive review. Half-way through reading it, I decided, absurdly conceitedly, that I had solved all of the issues with Canadian publishing, it's that we read far too many Canadian books, publish far too many semi-high-brow literary novels, so that just about everyone, myself included, thinks that's what they should write. First of all, any of you who know me as a reader, know how frustrated I get on occasion with modern novels in epistolary format. It's a rare format one can make successful. This novel, the bulk of which is a long letter from Beatrice Mann (who lives in Toronto), a middle-aged woman who has just lost her teenage daughter, to Ulrike Huguenot (who lives in Berlin) explaining everything about her marriage, her motherhood, and the affair she had with Ulrike's father. It's an odd book -- a little too Ondaatje-esque for me, heavy on "literary" and light on plot, which, in my early years, I adored, I emulated, in fact. But as I get older, I like simpler prose, novels that are well paced and jolt like lightning. This isn't a fault with Ballie's writing -- it's more a personal preference. Anyway, it's not that I disliked the book, I just found it a little rough around the edges, and really wanted it to get to the point.

#49 - Voyage in the Dark - Jean Rhys
This is one from the shelves too, thank goodness, at least I am clearing off some books, even if I skipped my alphabetical order. Funny, just sentences above I lamented about authors who are heavy on the literary and light on plot, and now I am about to confess that modernist writer Rhys (whose lilting, patient sentences might define "literary") is one of my favourites. I might have read this book years and years ago; I picked up my copy to find all kinds of sentences tucked away inside the back cover -- not related to the book, just odd thoughts I must have climbed over a pillow or two in the middle of the night to scribble down on the nearest paper. They don't make any sense now. Anyway, the novel, the story of a young West Indian girl who loses herself in London and becomes a "fallen" woman, caused quite a controversy when it was first published. Now, with the state of the world almost completely fallen, and the stereotypical "hooker with a heart of gold" making an appearance in many George Clooney movies (well, maybe just in the terrifically boring The American), the fate of poor Anna Morgan isn't necessarily shocking, it's more tragic. Truly, honestly, utterly tragic -- if only because of the naivety, the utter essence of the girl's misery (a lack of fortune and a misunderstanding of her place in the world) comes across in every single page. She's displaced, disorganized and utterly incapable of unassisted survival -- yet, you can't help but ache when she makes poor decision after poor decision. Your heart pulls when she describes the relationship with Francine, a black servant in her father's house, with whom she was very close. And when the inevitable happens, and Anna finds herself in a world of trouble, it's not surprising the lengths she goes to fix the situation, and even less surprising, is the outcome. Rhys, whose stream of consciousness style isn't for everyone, inhabits Anna like a tic in a mattress, and its amazing how deep the character runs through language alone, not necessarily action (if that makes any sense). It took me ages to finish this book, both because I was up north alone with the baby and also because I kept starting and restarting paragraphs just because I liked them so much. She's such a wonderful writer.

#50 - Sisterhood Everlasting, Ann Brashares
There's not much to say about this book, it tugged away at my heart because I am sentimental about these novels. I think they are great YA fiction and wished I had them to read as a young girl (vs. the trashy Harlequin-esque crap I filled my brain with). I love their magical quality, and the ethereal nature of all of the characters -- but it isn't necessarily down to earth. Yes, it'll make you weepy, especially because Brashares does something shocking (even if her readers are now mature enough to handle it -- what happens still smarts) and forces her characters, through tragedy (and not just the loss of the pants) to truly grow up. It's a sweet book, a sweet read, just perfect for lying immobile after a kidney biopsy, and that's all I really have to say. Wait, just one other thing to note, having met Brashares in person, I will say that she is as lovely in person as her books, which is always a blessing and means I am ever-inclined to continue to read said author's work...

Monday, May 30, 2011

Review Catch-Up #s 44 - 47

I have spent three days this week at various doctors appointments and sitting waiting for blood work, and managed to read three books in five days. It's almost like I'm breastfeeding at all hours again, only I'm not. Actually, it's nothing like that at all. In fact, it's exactly the opposite. Regardless, here are some short reviews of books I've read lately.

#44 - Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Allan Sillitoe
Sometimes, when you see the filmed version of a book first, it's almost impossible not to replay the movie in your head as you read. In the case of Allan Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, this was entirely the case. Luckily, both the book and the film are excellent, so I wasn't disappointed by anything happening in my own head as I read. Sillitoe's portrait of a young man, a working class, philandering, hard-drinking, impulse-driven, anti-hero remains captivating over 50 years since its publication. I found myself violently engrossed in the film, at times disgusted by Arthur Seaton's behaviour, his attitude towards women, his own selfishness, and yet utterly thrilled by his voice, his hard-driving anger, and his youth.

Set in a working class section of Nottingham (and forgive me if it's all working class; I am not familiar with the geography), Seaton works at a bicycle factory, where he gets paid by the piece. Work too fast, and you make too much money, the big bosses will come down on you; work too slow and it isn't worth your while to get up in the morning. There's a tender balance Seaton strikes between boredom, completely shutting off to the redundancy of his tasks and letting his mind wander (usually to the state of his love life, which is complex, and full of many married ladies). He served in the army but has no faith in it; he drinks not just because it's the only thing to do but because it IS the thing to do; and all of his relationships with women are based on lying, cheating and his own awkward concepts of love. Yet, as a character, I couldn't help but adore him -- a prototypical bad boy when it still meant something to buck the system, and the dichotomy of the two parts of Seaton's life: the Saturday nights spent drinking and with his hand up the shirt of his many married lovers; and the Sunday morning when he goes fishing and perhaps decides upon one girl, nicely contrast the tenor of life in England after the war. Everyone needing to find their footing, their voice, after the collective "pulling together" (Keep Calm and Carry On) as a universal decree. All in all, it's an excellent novel. (Also exciting is that it's on the 1001 Books list, whee!).

#45 - State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
Ann Patchett is one of my favourite American novelists. I adored Run, enjoyed Bel Canto, and had my heart broken over Truth & Beauty. But State of Wonder is in an entirely different class -- if I had to find a comp, like someone (I can't remember who) mentioned on Twitter, I'd too suggest Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. But, truly, the unbridled success of this novel lies in Patchett's almost post-colonial "talking back" to Joseph Conrad's classic Heart of Darkness. Now, I read Conrad's book in first year university and haven't revisited it since, so it's hazy, to say the least in my memory. I recall more of Apocalypse Now than I do the novel itself but that doesn't mean that I can't theorize that Patchett set out to write back to Heart of Darkness, tackling not necessarily themes of colonialism and "going native" (shuddering to write that sentence) but more so the toll and cost of medical research takes from on our "modern" world.

When Dr. Marina Singh's workmate and lab partner, Dr. Eckman, is pronounced dead in a far flung letter from Dr. Annick Swenson, a research doctor who has been in the field for almost decades developing and studying a very particular tribe in order to create a fertility drug that could revolutionize women's reproductive health, she (Dr. Singh) is sent out to retrieve the true story and maybe, just maybe, bring both the body and a report of where the work actually is back to the company for whom they all work. Things go wrong for Marina right from the start -- her suitcase is lost, her clothes taken by the Lakashi tribe when she arrives in camp, and soon every vestige of Western life has disappeared from around her. She wears her hair plaited by the Lakashi women, the only dress she has comes from them as well, and without sun protection, the half-Indian Marina's skin bronzes so deeply that even she notices how different she looks than when at home suffering through a long, terrible Minnesota winter.

Classically trained as a OBGYN, Marina gave up her medical practice due to a terrible accident, and has been a pharmacologist ever since. Yet, once she finds Dr. Swenson (and the path that got her there was no less than difficult), her skills as a doctor are called upon -- an in unclean, unhygienic and utterly disorganized (in terms of performing surgeries), and Marina's life takes a turn in a direction she never imagined. The novel's ending, both spectacular and breathtaking, has perfect pacing -- I couldn't put it down, and it brought me to my knees. I found myself reading and reading, any chance I could get, morning, deep into the night, just to find out what happens. And the last sentences, just like the amazing ones that end The Poisonwood Bible, stayed with me for days. Highly recommended; it's perfect summer reading in my humble opinion.

#46 - Faith by Jennifer Haigh
I'm going to be honest -- the subject matter of this novel remains difficult for many reasons -- the church and its history/current struggle with pedophilia doesn't necessarily equate "light," "breezy" read. Yet, the tone and undercurrent of Jennifer Haigh's novel, while neither light nor breezy, is both generous and kind, a difficult balance to achieve when discussing Catholic priests and the matter of faith in general. The narrator of the story, a self-proclaimed (at the beginning of the novel) modern-day "spinster," Sheila McGann retells a story her half-brother Art, a priest who has found himself embroiled in a scandal that threatens not only his livelihood but also his life, and his core beliefs.

Sheila returns to Boston to help her family in the time of crisis. Art, accused of an unspeakable act with a young boy, the grandson of the rectory's housekeeper, with whom he has a parental-like relationship, shakes everyone to their cores. I know it's a cliche -- family comes upon tragedy, novel unravels whether or not the accusations are true -- but Haigh has a gift for character, and while this novel remains very traditional in its narrative format, I was impressed at how she tackled the subject matter. Haigh never shies away from the difficult nature of it, and I like how faith as a concept remains interwoven throughout the narrative. Arthur has never questioned his calling. But, like anyone, it's impossible to know when something might happen to rock your beliefs, earthquake-like, and send you reeling in another direction. Innocent, even naive, to the ways of the world, Art finds himself questioning everything he has ever known: the church, his ministry, the idea of love, when he comes to face to face with Kath, the mother of the young boy he is accused of abusing. It takes the entire novel to truly find out what happened. And no one is left unscathed, not even the reader. Faith is a novel that forces one to evaluate one's own relationship to God, to the church, even if you're a non-believer. It's impossible to stand in judgment, of anyone's life, and I think that is the eloquent point that Haigh makes throughout this book. It's one that definitely got me thinking. And I'm a girl who got the majority of her religious schooling from Are You There God, It's Me Margaret? when she was a child. Of course, I read more widely about religion in university. (I still remember sitting with a particularly obnoxious Religion major at Queen's who honestly said to me, "You know, it's not as if I'm totally obsessed with God or anything, I just think Jesus was a really cool guy." Seriously. That was her take on her entire degree. Good grief.) Regardless, the kind of storytelling that Haigh purports in this novel usually drives me crazy (the retelling of a story when one could choose just to tell the damn story) but it's subtly balances nicely with the seriousness of the subject matter and I don't think she could have written it another way. By the end, I was a little heartbroken, which, for me, is always the sign of a very good novel indeed.

#47 - Every Time We Say Goodbye by Jamie Zeppa
This is a Vicious Circle book club book, and I'm so pleased that I'll get to discuss it with a great group of women. It's a women's novel (as you can see from the awful cover [I'm sorry but it really, really isn't reflective of the book]) rather than dreamy chicklit as the cover suggests. I know what it's going for -- there's a pair of siblings that the novel centres around, but the cover adds a layer of Hallmark Movie of the Week that dumbs down Zeppa's sharp, instinctive and eager writing.

Told from multiple perspectives, the book follows three generations of Turner women, some blood, some married to blood, who each struggle with the idea of family, what it means to be a mother, and the difficult restrictions society, at different times over the last 50 years, for people of my gender. I fell particularly in love with Grace, a woman forced to leave her son behind to make a better life for herself in the city. Her strength, ability and the way she came into her own was particularly breathtaking. There's a lot in the novel that isn't necessarily fresh (troubled fathers, difficult women that seem cut from Lawrence, "women's" troubles) but Zeppa finds a way in that is both refreshing and real -- and I enjoyed this book immensely. I just have one tiny criticism -- there's a main character, Vera, a matriarchal figure, that we never hear from, she's only portrayed through other people's stories. I would have enjoyed knowing more about her point of view, her perspective, but I understand how too many voices could also ruin this novel. Regardless, it too is a perfect summer read. Funny how that works out, isn't it?

Notes From A House Frau XXII

What A Difference A Few Weeks Make

This picture cracks me up. The RRBB definitely enjoys his food -- on this day he had green beans, some chicken and vegetables, and some barley cereal. There might have been dessert. I can't remember. All I know is that by the end of it he had food from one end of his face to the other, which to me is an important part of discovering what he likes and doesn't like, of discovering the joy of eating. The RRHB does it a little differently, he cleans up the baby as he goes along, consistently wiping his face so that he doesn't spread food from one end of himself to the other.

It's interesting, as the RRBB turned 7 months last weekend, I can completely see him start to develop more and more independence. I know, ironic, to talk about independence in terms of a wee baby who can't walk, talk or even feed himself. But, more and more, the RRBB likes to do things independent of me -- he's almost completely weaned, and while I still feed him, technically, the food isn't coming from inside of me any longer, and that takes some getting used to. He still yearns for it, and so we've kept one or two feedings until the doctors absolutely tell me I need to stop, yet he's trying and loving so much "real" food that I'm encouraged by all of his likes (and very few, read: none, dislikes). Also, he's sitting up on his own for the most part, falling over occasionally, bumping his head, bawling, and then breaking my heart. Yet, we are so very, very lucky, as I keep saying to all of my relatives, for he's truly a happy, healthy, gregarious, charming little boy. I adore him.

Independence is an interesting concept -- I am certain the RRBB doesn't understand it psychologically, or maybe he does and I am way off the marker but, instinctively, he's trying harder and harder to separate himself from us, his parents. He complains now if he lies down in the bath, before he would sit placidly, splashing a little, now the water ends up halfway out of the tub before we're even finished. He loves Not a Box, but not so much Goodnight, Moon. If he isn't eating fast enough, he complains; but then, if it's too fast, he gets equally upset. He makes a little strange when he wakes up from a nap. Yet, if you get him at the right time, he'll charm the pants off of you. This is the real gift of parenthood, not just the unmitigated, unceasing love that renders your heart incapable of understanding how this person was not a part of your life just months ago, but seeing first-hand the evolution of a personality. Objectively, it's not something one remembers, it's not as if you can reach back into your own mind and think, "wow, what was I like at 7 months?" Yet, every day that I spend with the baby, I am seeing how fascinating it is to watch him grow -- and my heart breaks just a little each time he grows more independent, but it also means I've got a bit more freedom. Evenings, nap time (few and far between these days; teething), stroller time, visits with grandparents and granties and gruncles, and it's all a wonder to me. I can't stop marveling at him. I can't but wonder what other surprises are around the corner.

He's the only baby I will ever have. Even typing that sentence makes me sad. I never imagined I would love the baby stage as much as I have. I mean, I have always loved babies, but in the sense that I'd hold them for a while and hand them back. Cute, snuggly little things that smelled delicious and whose exhausted parents I'd barely notice. Parenting wasn't a reality to me -- the utter loss of self wasn't a devastating reality, the sheer tenacity of his will to break us completely in those first few months has almost been utterly forgotten. Now, I can sit and read while he plays beside me, holding one hand to steady him, the other in a book. That, I can do. He goes to sleep so early that my mind can drift (when I'm not so exhausted I can barely see) to a place where I can spend some time working on non-blog writing. In short, I feel lighter than I have in months.

That's not to say that the disease has let me go just yet. I see the SFDD this week and we go from there. They are almost convinced they need to switch the drugs. All I know is that I need to get off the prednisone. There's a pain in my left hip. It's familiar. And tragic. And I can take a lot, a lot of punishment from the gods or the universe or whatever karmic relativity has decided that what my world means is Wegener's and all the ensuing tragedy, but if I lose my other hip, well, I am not sure I'll recover. I need to move. Without movement, without walking, biking, swimming, I will surely curl up into a ball and disappear.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

#43 - Last Night In Montreal

Before sitting down to write about Emily St. John Mandel's first novel, Last Night in Montreal, I wanted to do a pros and cons list of my own pre-conceived notions about fiction in general. My innate likes and dislikes, if you will. There are cliches in writing that I just can't stand -- easy things that authors fall back on because they are such a part of our collective unconscious, if you will, that even if one doesn't realize you're writing a trope, you're still writing a trope.

Circus performers. The idea of running away to the circus. And as prevalent and innovative, even successful as the modern day Cirque du Soleil might be in Canada and around the world, sentences like, 'they were part of a circus family when that was still something that could be done,' or the like, make me cringe, just a little (read: a lot). It's not that good books can't be written and/or good stories can't be told about circuses (case in point: Water for Elephants, which I have not read, but has been on bestseller lists for almost four years) or great drama created out of the idea of someone walking a tightrope (case in point: the excellent Colum McCann novel, Let the Great World Spin). Yet, in this novel, when the circus performer characters are dropped in, it feels forced and full of anguish -- like an imagination that's had too much caffeine and is trying to finish an all nighter -- something just isn't right and someone probably should have started cramming earlier.

Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself. Lilia, a distinct but also wispy and beautiful young woman, has trouble staying in one place. She was raised by her father who kidnapped her away from her mother one cold winter's evening and she hasn't stopped running since. Lilia's an interesting character -- she's bright, can speak several languages (taught to her by her father on the road) and has to work through her past by constantly moving on to the next location. She doesn't normally give her lovers any warning. She simply packs up her stuff, stashes it away, and then leaves when she feels she can't stay any longer. Her safety -- mentally, physically -- is at risk, and so she must go. Eli, her current Brooklyn-living boyfriend, can't accept that she's gone, so he goes on the road to try and find her. He doesn't necessarily want her to come back. No, he just wants an explanation, and to know that she's okay. So off Eli goes to Montreal. Why Montreal? Well, Eli receives a missive from someone named Michaela, who claims to know where Lilia is...

In tandem with the current-day storyline that follows Lilia, Elia and Michaela, the novel drifts back in time via different characters to fill out the novel. The most engaging parts of the book take place on the road with Lilia and her father -- there's a wonderful dynamic between the two, and even if I do find Lilia kind of twee for my liking, I can see how kidnapping her both saved and damaged her at the same time. But here's also where the book goes off the rails a little bit, there's a private detective, Christopher (paid by whom, who knows? It's never explained.) who becomes obsessed by the case (he's Michaela's father; this is the circus stock family). These two families are now intertwined, and their complex relationship forms the crux of the novel.

There's no doubt that St. John Mandel is a terrific writer. She has a gift for description and the book hums along -- it's just not, from my point of view, entirely believable. There's a 'movie of the week' element to it that I just couldn't shake and I will hold any "damaged" girls up to Baby in Lullabies for Little Criminals and always find them wanting. And the circus performers. Of the entire novel, I appreciated the ending, but the penultimate scenes and resulting action, well, that also falls into the "tired" category -- to spell it out would be to completely spoil the novel, so I'm not going to do that here, as per usual. On the whole, it's a terrifically uneven first novel, but it's also just that -- a first novel, and I do actually look forward to reading more from St. John Mandel in the future.

WHAT'S UP NEXT: The last of my library books for a while -- Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Then it's back to the shelves for sure -- I am very behind in my challenge, and by alphabetized books are just mocking me, mocking me!