Sunday, March 29, 2009

#19 - Somewhere Towards the End

Diana Athill's inspiring memoir about old age was like a balm these past few days. Tears, anger, emotional eruption, and the fine realization that the prednisone crazies have probably conquered all my good thoughts (despite almost being off the drug), all combined to leave me feeling quite exhausted. Luckily, then, I had this slight memoir to keep me occupied. Athill, who worked in publishing until she retired at age 75 (I don't know how she did it), has written brilliant little book in Somewhere Towards the End.

Narratively, the memoir has echoes of Jean Rhys (who was a friend), Joan Didion, and a touch of Isak Dinesen, and it's sharp, unwavering voice remains focussed and clearly meditative throughout. The book opens with a number of clearly practical observations about age, moves through more traditional memoir-type content (the life and death of her sex life; the important men in her life), and then passes quickly over the idea of regret. Independent and fiercely individual, Athill's words are nothing but inspiring. There are sentences, paragraphs, entire sections to be marked as one reads, which gives one pause to examine one's own life. To imagine the spec of dust one's own ninety-odd years will have left on humanity as a whole.

The parts that I liked best were about death and dying -- the business of it, as such, and how lucky Athill has been in all of her years not to experience too much of it. The idea of luck persists throughout the book and it's not as if Athill is bragging, her stoic, almost upright British self would never stand for such, no, she's simply stating a fact. To have lived her life as she has done meant that she was both incredibly lucky and incredibly hard working. Some advice: avoid television, read a lot, take up gardening, never worry if your life falls somewhat outside of the norm, and experience life moment by moment if you can, taking pleasure out of what brings you happiness.

Now, my fingers are sore to the bone, and my arms and legs ache from lugging pounds of soil, so I am going to sign off by saying prestigious awards or not (the memoir won the Costa Biography Award in 2008), I adored every single inch of this little gem of a book.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Word Power

I am about to head out into the garden to start giving our soil a lift. I've been reading Diana Athill's excellent memoir, Somewhere Towards the End, all morning and wanted to share this:
Getting one's hands into the earth, spreading roots, making a plant comfortable -- it is a totally absorbing occupation, like painting or writing, so that you become what you are doing and are given a wonderful release from consciousness of self.
Considering I haven't felt much like myself lately, maybe some time outside will give my mind a chance to make its way back. Last night, as I was lying on the couch watching television for the 100th day in a row, I decided I've lost my self-confidence. But I suppose that's what trauma does, takes away the delicate balance between putting yourself out into the world and keeping yourself tied up tight, safe. My mother died in September. And it wasn't an easy death. Like Athill says, she's been spared the difficulty of death among her family members, quite a feat considering she's in her 90s now. I envy her. But mainly I'm thankful for this wonderful little book she's written that seems to be helping me today.

I've started a year-long countdown to what I think I might call The Year of Living Royalty. We'll see how it goes.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Coming Up For Air

Life in general has conspired to keep me away from writing these past few weeks. I've spent so much time at a keyboard, both at work and then doing freelance, that working for myself was a chore I just couldn't add to the list. In fact, all I've been doing is writing lists that I never seem to finish, items that never seem to get crossed off, organizational tricks that never seem to actually work. So, of course, it's no surprise that I've ended up with a terrible cough just as spring decides to poke itself up out of my garden in the form of tulips.

We've been couch hunting. It's taken weeks. But at last we ordered both the main stage and a love seat on Saturday morning. I think we've been to every single furniture store in the GTA over the past few weeks. The good news is that the deed is finally done and even though we're incurring costs to have our own fabric put on the couch, at least it's what we want. The house is looking so wonderful that it's hard to believe that it's ours -- and it'll seem like a dream come true when we're actually living downstairs and enjoying all of my RRHB's hard work over the last few years.

Annnywaay. I can't seem to finish anything these days. Not a book. Not a project (have you been within earshot of me complaining?). Not a single damn thing. The foggy-headed disease blues are hovering and just knowing that I'll soon be off the prednisone isn't enough to keep me going. Hard work, hard graft, seems all I'm capable of -- and it's a little disappointing to realize that people all around you don't actually see you for who you are. Someone described me as a "work horse" the other day, and I don't know why it caught me in the wrong way. I've always been a hard worker but right now I just don't see the point. I'm not enjoying anything at the moment. My heart's not in it -- maybe that's why the to do list seems never ending. I just don't have the get up and go to actually get up and get it done.

Annywaaay redux. Today I spent some time in the garden. My RRHB laughed when he saw me hauling the bags of composte from the garage. He said, "There's no way you're going to be able to move that dirt." But the sun had worked its magic over the past few days. The top soil was flexible and I did manage to get one part of the vegetable garden turned. Layers of newspaper, more seeds planted (some spinach; we'll see how it does), and five bags of dirt, compost and clay reducer later, I think we might just have something. Now if I could only convince my neighbour NOT to do our front gardening. Last week he severed my enter lavendar plant simply becuause he didn't know what it was -- didn't know that it's meant to overwinter and not be trimmed back to its bare, bare roots. This is the third lavendar plant he's destroyed. We keep telling him. He keeps laughing. As you can tell, there's a language barrier.

What a metaphor for my life at the moment, huh?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

#18 - The Good Wife

Relentlessly addictive, that's how I would describe Robert Goolrick's A Reliable Wife. The manuscript sat on my reader for months. Every time I found myself on page one, I quickly switched back to whatever classic I was currently tackling because I knew if I started I wouldn't want to stop. I wanted to wait until I had an afternoon of free time (right, phftt) and be able to read the book. Of course, I happened upon an extra long subway ride (what the TTC being delayed and having problems? Yawn.) Of course, I had forgotten my book. Of course, I was uninspired by the two classics I'm currently reading (Dracula; Tess of the D'Ubervilles). S0 I started A Reliable Wife. And. Couldn't. Stop. Reading.

The novel opens with an older man, described by himself as somewhat past his youth, but rich, so very, very rich. After the deaths of his wife and daughter, and the loss of his errant (and possibly bastard [as in not his]) son, Ralph Truitt stands on the cusp of the new century having written away for a wife. The woman who replied, the beautiful, dishonest, Catherine Land replied, reinventing herself along the way. A tragic accident on the way to the farmhouse puts them both in a precarious situation: Truitt close to death; Catherine entirely dependent upon his kindness once she nurses him back to health. They marry. And an odd, not entirely unromantic relationship develops out of their mutual need. He's rich; she's poor. He wants his son back; she's got a life that needs atonement, and an ulterior motive. As the rest of the novel unravels, these desires push them in different directions, and both Catherine and Pruitt are changed as a result of their union in ways they might not expect. The result is delicious for the reader.

The novel, while a little predictable (I had figured out one of the twists fairly early on), is utterly addictive. It's also terribly sexy -- full of sensual description and rich in terms of the description of physical affection. No one escapes sex in this novel and it makes people act in ways they might not expect. In some cases, sex turns into love, and love is sometimes mistaken for lust -- regardless, the book never shies away from the utterly human ways in which the act defines relationships. Goolrick has full, descriptive prose that sometimes feels a little over the top at times, yet it never overpowers the story. Quite the opposite, it pulls you into the characters even further, allows to to invest in them emotionally, which makes the drama of the last third even more interesting. All in all, I couldn't get enough of this novel.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

#17 - The Believers

Before my head almost exploded from far too many rewrites of my latest Classic Start, I finished Zoƫ Heller's excellent The Believers. Familiar in tone and even basic story to Mark Haddon's similarly good A Spot of Bother, the novel begins with patriarch and left-wing lawyer Joel Litvinoff having a stroke in court. Rushed to the hospital, Audrey, Joel's cranky, opinionated and almost unlikeable wife, joins her children in the vigil by his bedside. Heller uses the traumatic situation to explore the family dynamics between Joel and Audrey, their daughters Karla (married to Mike) and Rosa, and their son Lenny. Each suffering from their own particular brand of unhappiness, the novel pulls the family apart like stringy cheese before she melts them all back again for the final scenes.

Despite the fairly Ann Patchett-like twist that I felt was kind of unnecessary (and that I won't spoil here), I can't think of a book I enjoyed so thoroughly in the last few months. Family drama lends itself nicely to Heller's voice and characterization. And she never shies away from conflict or uncomfortable situations in her novels, the kind of Sunday afternoon family dinners that can be so painful yet necessary are dissected with her clinical eye for weakness and exploited for their dramatic values throughout this novel.

Of the interwoven stories, I enjoyed Karla's the most -- a social worker dedicated to helping others and pleasing her union-boss husband (he wants to have kids; they're trying; then perhaps adopting) -- she begins an awkward, unlikely affair with the owner of the newspaper stand in the hospital where she works. The love affair with Khaled proves a catalyst for Karla to change her life and her evolution was the most satisfying. Not that Audrey's acerbic, sharp-tongued personality wasn't engaging, but it wasn't until the novel explored how she came to love her troubled (drug addicted) son Lenny that she truly felt human to me. The opening parts of the book did a little to set up that side of her, but it was Heller's unwavering honesty about Audrey's maternal limitations that finally brought her into full colour. Rosa and Lenny (the former exploring religion; the latter tumbling back into his heroin habit) also had their time in the narrative sun but, by the end, I just felt Karla's story was the most satisfying.

Annnywaay, small criticism for a book that does just what a literary novel should: create characters that challenge their environment, that evolve throughout the pages, that highlight the particular human problems that modern, Western families face today. A deep-seeded unhappiness guards their every move, despite their apparent affection for both each other (even if that's hard to get at) and for their dying father. He's larger than life, and they're all just trying to escape from his high-afternoon shadow. And regardless of their particular beliefs, whether personal, political, religious or simply philosophical, not a single member of the Litvinoff family survives unscathed from Joel's illness, and nor they should.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

#16 - Life Sentences

I have a literary crush on Laura Lippman. Last year around this time, I interviewed her for Another Thing to Fall, the latest novel in her Tess Monaghan series. She answered my questions patiently and honestly (via email), which made me crush even harder. Two weekends ago, mired in the fog of disease and a decided lack of energy, I cuddled into bed with her latest novel, Life Sentences. Her latest stand-alone novel, like What the Dead Know, is also based on a real Baltimore criminal case. In this novel, Lippman mixes it up a bit, however, with her characters -- the main one, Cassandra Fallows, is a writer. And not even a crime writer.

With two successful memoirs behind her, Cassandra's third book, a novel, isn't doing so well. A lonely night on her latest book tour turns up a kernel of an idea: she'll write from truth once again, this time exploring the lives of her childhood friends. One in particular, a woman named Calliope Jenkins who spent seven years in jail for killing her child (but who never admitted the truth to anyone). A platform to explore issues of race, priviledge, memory and friendship, the novel exquisitely circles around itself, mixing in sections of Cassandra's successful books with points of view from other characters, until it reveals the truth.

There are so many reasons why I liked this book -- the insider's perspective on the publishing industry, the fast-paced nature of the narrative, and the rich characterization of both Cassandra and the supporting players. Lippman writes women well without falling into the typical stereotypes that sometimes plague lesser crime/commercial writers. She elevates them, regardless of their damaged state, into real people, and never passes judgement on their habits (alcohol for some; sex for another) and/or motivation unless it's to empower someone by the end of the story. Overall, there's not much else to say except that it's a pretty darn good read.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

TRH The Weekend Edition

It seems that the only time I have for writing these days comes during the weekend. I've been working non-stop on my latest Classic Starts manuscript both Saturday and Sunday (of last weekend) and yesterday we spent the day out and about looking at furniture. We are moments away from having the main floor finished (with the exception of the kitchen). The trouble now comes with finding furniture. Every little step (deciding on a wallpaper for the downstairs bathroom, talking about the style of couch that we like) gets us that little bit closer to the goal. But we were both sure tired by the time we got home. I've finished two books (The Believer and Life Sentences), watched a really great movie that I'd love to blog about more fully (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), and wish that I didn't have work to do so I could get to the more fun stuff. Alas, here I go, back to abridging.