Tuesday, November 30, 2010

#54 - Started Early, Took My Dog

Kate Atkinson remains one of my favourite writers. I will drop any other book I've got for her new novel -- she's a lot like Laura Lippman in that way. She writes engrossing, utterly readable, quasi mystery books with flawed protagonists (ahh, Jackson, I knew exactly when you showed up in the narrative and it actually made me smile) and great, rollicking plots. In her latest, Started Early, Stole My Dog, Jackson Brodie is no longer a true private eye, semi-retired but working the odd case, he's on a road trip inspired by a case: a young woman wants to find out more about her birth family. Seems simple, right? But, of course, this being a book with Jackson Brodie as the main character, there are twists, turns, and some solid punches before he gets to the bottom of the mystery.

There are plenty of other stories woven into the narrative... a retired DCI, Tracy Waterhouse, does something so out of character, she has to go on the run. And then, she's chased. The group of police Waterhouse worked with, the old boys' club, has something to hide that Jackson stumbles upon. Lastly, an actress on her last legs, literally, as her mind starts to wander due to dementia, and the way her final action turns the tide on the entire story feels shocking, to say the least. Of course, Jackson, even when he tries his damnedest, can't stay out of the middle of all of it, and how Atkinson pulls it all together remains impressive throughout the novel.

It's the kind of novel that you can read in one sitting, the perfect for a book-a-day challenge. It just breezes along, pulls you in from the beginning and doesn't let go of your hand until you're absolutely on the last punctuation mark of the very last page wishing that you didn't read so bloody fast. There's really not much more to say except I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and won't spoil it at all for those of you who haven't discovered Atkinson yet.

Lastly, she was born in Scotland, which means that Kate Atkinson's novel counts as another Around the World in 52 Books, which means, maybe I'm at seven or eight now... Yay!

#53 - The True Deceiver

Trying to read more books published by NYRB remains one of the never-ending "should-do's" on my reading life. I admire just about everything about the publishers: the packages they create, the books they choose to publish, the authors they choose, and the quality of the writing. Yet, I never seem to get around to reading, well, ANY of them. So, I was pleased when our book club, The Vicious Circle, picked Tove Jansson's The True Believer as a monthly pick.

Tove Jansson was born in Helsinki, and she was an illustrator as well as an author. She grew up spending the summers on the Gulf of Finland, in a small fishing cabin, and the setting of The True Deceiver seems absolutely informed by the time she spent in that kind of an environment. The setting is stark, snow-filled, cold, and austere. The novel opens, "It was an ordinary dark winter morning, and snow was still falling." The darkness isn't frightening, it's not meant to create the Let the Right One In kind of environment, it's a fact of life, a season to get through -- life still goes on, groceries need to be delivered, dogs need to be walked, boats need to built. I like how Jansson creates the setting, it informs and layers the story but it doesn't overwhelm the novel.

The story revolves around two women who live in the small village. A strange, awkward girl named Katri Kling who lives above the general store with her brother, Mats (whom everyone thinks is simple but is truly just quiet and introverted). And Anna Aemelin, a relatively wealthy (as compared to the people in the rest of the village) children's artist who is a bit of a recluse. From the beginning of the novel Katri has a plan -- she wants to gain an "in" with Anna, she has a very specific, calculated plan to ingratiate herself into her life, and nothing will stop her from getting her way. The entire village thinks the girl is strange. She has a gift with numbers and with honesty, and so many people come to her for problems: is so-and-so cheating on me, was I charged too much by the grocer, is blah-de-blah taking advantage -- the villagers are ashamed to ask for Katri's help but they continually do it. With this premise, she begins to be helpful to Anna. There's just one difference, Anna didn't ask for Katri's help, and doesn't necessarily want it. She lives in her own kind of blissful ignorance, like the dark of winter, Anna closes herself up in her house, illustrates her woodland characters, idealizes the childish way she has of creating a world in the undergrowth of the forest, and wishes she could do it differently, but change isn't something that comes naturally to Anna.

Eventually, Katri and her brother move in with Anna, into her house. Gossip starts. But as with anyone who sets out with a plan, things go astray. And the spareness, the sparsity of Jansson's prose nicely echoes the setting. Her words are cruel when they need to be, sparingly kind in places, but always clean, if that makes any sense -- she's an incredibly clean, crisp writer, she sort of writes like the snow itself, cold, but melts when the temperature reaches a certain point. The title refers, naturally, to Katri, but it's also pointedly about Anna, as well -- deception when it comes to yourself, deception concerning another person, they are both themes that run from beginning to end. What's simple doesn't always seem so, and telling the truth, and then recognizing the truth about yourself, both happen to these characters by the end. Overall, I can't tell you how much I enjoyed this novel, I read it quickly, in every spare moment I had, and I do have them these days, not necessarily to write long blog posts, but to read at 2 AM when the RRBB is breastfeeding. It's very easy to balance a book on The Breast Friend, let me tell you, as long as it's a teeny paperback. I'm having a little more trouble with my giant hardcover copy of The Man from Beijing by Henning Mankell.

Also, Jansson was born in Finland, which means I can use this book for the Around the World in 52 Days challenge I do every year. I am sure I have managed about six weeks in total, but, still, I don't think I've ever read a Finnish author before. And I am sure I would read more of her books in a heartbeat considering how much I loved this one.

Monday, November 29, 2010

#52 - Tinkers

Paul Harding's novel, Tinkers, won the Pulitzer Prize last year, and it's a novel more than worth its success. First published by the Bellevue Literary Press in NYC, the novel will hopefully find a wider audience now that it's being published by HarperCollins. Anyway, the publishing history isn't really the purpose of writing a review on the blog, is it?

In a way, Tinkers will feel familiar to Canadians, it's premise, an old man lays dying and reflects on his life, is one that we're quite familiar with. If it were only called Stone Tinkers, it'd probably be a bestseller. The novel intertwines the stories of son and father, George and Howard Aaron Crosby, as George lays dying, system shutting down, in his living room. Surrounded by family, sometimes George knows what's happening, sometimes his body betrays him, but Harding has a particular talent for writing his death honestly and without pretense.

Both George and his father are good, honest people, but that doesn't mean they always make the right decision. Without necessarily wanting to spoil anything (and it's written in the marketing blurb), they've been estranged for years when Howard, who is epileptic, abandons his family on the pretense that his hard, hard wife has finally reached the end of her rope with the burden of his disease, and is about to commit him to an institution.

Howard, a tinker, who walked the cold backroads of Maine with his cart selling anything and everything, simply turns in the other direction and doesn't go home. He begins an entirely new and fulfilling life that seems at peace with his utterly good nature -- but, then again, it's not an honourable thing to leave your family behind with no way to support itself. But the way its written, you actually feel sympathy for Howard, you feel like it's the right thing to do, and are convinced that everything will be fine.

George, a clock repairman, has led a happy, quiet life. Precision guides him, even in death, and as his body shuts down, its elements of machinery, the very same things that guided George through life, are failing. His mind wanders, he can't recognize the family members by his bed, but he notices that his favourite clock isn't wound. In this simple example, it's apparent that one of the most moving aspects of Tinkers remains Harding's ability to describe a body deteriorating into death. Tears came to my eyes more than once throughout my reading of this novel -- I was reminded of my mother, of how her body failed in the few days it took her to die. Sometimes his descriptions were so apt that I felt the pain of the loss in my chest. To me, that's the sign of an exceptional writer. Someone who can move you to remember or feel something so personal yet so unrelated to the story by the simple power of a sentence.

Harding attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and worked with Marilynne Robinson, and you can feel her influence all over this novel. It's quiet but intense, the characters are wholly good people with complex flaws, and the novel's simple story betrays the power of the prose. Overall, I'd highly recommend this book -- it's a quick, emotionally satisfying read -- it's perfect for a rainy day when you have some time to spend just laying about on the couch. But have a tissue or two on hand...

#51 - By Nightfall

The moment you read the first few pages of Michael Cunningham's excellent novel, By Nightfall, you are reminded of Virginia Woolf. It's in his sentence structure, in the simple, effective way he uses description, and the way that time defines itself by almost disappearing throughout the narrative -- I can't help but think of Woolf when I read Cunningham and I don't think that's a bad thing.

By Nightfall, the story of Peter and Rebecca Harris, a middle-aged couple grappling with the state of their lives, their marriage and how they ultimately want to live, not just in the world but with each other, seems simple at first. But it's full of complex human relationships and the politics of family -- which is often just as dramatic than the politics of every day in the House of Commons. Rebecca's youngest sibling, Ethan, called "Mizzy" as he was a mistake (their mother was 44 when she got pregnant), is coming to stay. Troubled, addicted, and having lost sight of what he wants out of life, Mizzy has come to NYC to stay with Rebecca and Peter to find himself. Apparently, he's clean, but not for long, and a strange, awkward relationship evolves from his visit, something that changes Peter's life irrevocably.

Peter and Rebecca have jobs in the arts -- she runs a failing literary magazine and he a small gallery -- and the premise of Mizzy's stay is that he wants to investigate a career in the arts too, only it doesn't come to that. He remains terribly lost throughout the entire novel and seeing the very gentle way he manipulates everyone around him is one of the most effective strains in the narrative. You know, in your heart, that you can't trust an addict to tell the truth, to keep his word, to not fall off the wagon, but it's an impressive way that Cunningham weaves Mizzy's own capacity as a true deceiver into the novel. He's a beautiful boy, one that can't be resisted.

The moral conflict in the novel, the decision that Peter must make, for his relationship, for his livelihood, for the future, confounds him. He simply can't move from the one place that seems to be forcing him to go. The crux of the novel, how simple it seems at the beginning, a book about a brother coming to visit, becomes so much more as it explores the past and present of Peter and Rebecca -- how they met, what their days are like, what their marriage is like, and how they'll continue after Mizzy's eventual departure -- truly feels complex by the end. It's a quiet narrative but the writing is just so superior, so effective, that this novel might just end up being one of the best I've read all year.

#50 - The Beauty of Humanity Movement

Camilla Gibb's previous novel, Sweetness in the Belly, truly, is one of the best novels I've ever read in my life. Pitch perfect with an amazing story, the novel honestly moved me in ways that books are supposed to, breaking your heart and pulling tears from your eyes. So, you can imagine the kind of pressure I was putting on her latest novel, The Beauty of Humanity Movement. But a good friend had told me that the novel wasn't as good as her last, and that's what I went in thinking. You shouldn't have preconceived notions before you read a book, truly, it changes your perspective.

When I first started reading, I couldn't get Kung-Fu Panda out of my head. Jack Black chasing his dream of being a Kung-Fu artist while working hard in a noodle shop. It was all about the noodles. The pho, and its integral part of the lives of the men who devour the soup made by one of the novel's main characters, Old Man Hung, takes a central role. And I couldn't stop seeing a giant panda balancing a bowl of pho on his head. It took a while to get passed that silliness that my brain created, and it took a while for me to get into this novel. Vietnam makes for an interesting setting, its customs, the after-effects of the war, the divided nature of the politics that define the modern state, they all combine to create something exotic (and I hate to use that word but it fits) that balances the very real and human interests of the novel with something different, something more.

The unrequited love that Old Man Hung has for the neighbour, Lan, was the thread throughout the book that I most appreciated. His love for her lasted decades, and she wronged him in a way that couldn't be forgiven, and how it all comes together in the end was fitting, strong and ultimately lovely. The novel is about generations, fathers and sons, respecting your elders, daughters searching for stories of their fathers, and about how politics turns into something so much more real when one is faced with the colossal change over the last forty years. Change comes quickly and change sometimes shows the utter strength of all of the people in this novel. Hung, his adopted family in Tu and Binh, Maggie, a Vietnamese-American trying to find her father, and Lan, their lives intertwine in ways that you don't expect when the book opens, and it ends in ways you don't expect. It's a solid journey in between. It's not Sweetness, but it's a very good book, even if it feels uneven, and even maybe unfinished in certain ways. It's almost as if the book needed something more to pull it all together, the human relationships work on one level but I was looking for something a little deeper. Maybe I was expecting too much.

It's funny, the only other Canadian novel that I've read set in Vietnam, David Bergen's The Time In Between, felt kind of the same way -- the setting, as much as it informed the novel, as much as it defined the novel, also served to alienate the novel in ways that, as a reader, I felt often throughout the narrative. However, Gibb is such a lovely writer, has such a way with human emotion, with weaving important political meaning and messages with her more personal stories of the people living through the revolution, through the Humanity Movement itself, and consistently reminds us that art has to be worth dying for, that even the novels failings can be overlooked.

Friday, November 26, 2010

#49 - The Imperfectionists

The Globe and Mail called The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, universally beloved by just about everyone and on numerous "best of" lists for 2010, "note perfect." And there are elements of the book that I would agree with this praise, but there are also problems, especially with the female characters. They definitely could have been more well rounded and less like caricatures, but on the whole, it's an especially readable book.

I finished the novel the first day that I landed in the hospital. It was unfortunate that I was reading the book a little under duress, maybe that's clouded my judgement. On the whole, I agree that it is a sharp, intriguing, intelligent look at the demise of an English-language newspaper publishing out of Italy. The idea of media, in general, throughout the book provides and interesting backdrop -- newspapers are failing all around the world, trying to figure out how to stay solvent, and the idea that news is no longer about a perspective, but rather ratings and sensationalism (Glenn Beck, COME ON), The Imperfectionists is a timely book. My two favourite characters, the managing editor (and forgive me, I no longer have my copy; my RRHB gave it to the resident at the hospital because she loved to read and was going to Africa to practice medicine the next week) whose love affair fell down in flames (because all of the women in this book are truly incapable of grown-up love, don't you find?) but who knows the business, who is the business, inside and out,

My least favourite character, the female copy-editor who almost defines the word "spinster" as it was meant fifty years ago, truly disappointed me. But I'm not sure if Rachman meant for any of the characters to be completely whole. Perhaps they echo the disintegration of their paper -- struggling to find the right pause to end a sentence that isn't quite complete. Chasing a story that will never materialize in a world that cares more about how many times Lindsey Lohan can end up in jail or rehab. The social commentary and the utter inability of the latter generations to save the paper, how the corporation that owns the media simply shuts it down, and how new media essentially contributes to its demise, well, these are stories we (I) live every day having worked in both television and magazines before landing in the relatively stable (don't believe what you read) world of book publishing.

It's a quick read, and an engrossing one. Rachman has a talent for characters and for pulling together what are essentially short stories wrapped within the larger tale of the end of the paper. What starts off as a labour of love ends up an empty room, papers left of the floor, staff pilfering computer equipment, when I read that, it truly reminded me of the last days of Saturday Night magazine in Toronto, when the National Post took the magazine over, and I lost my truly awful job. In that moment, I was an incomplete, unhappy character, I could have easily been one of the women in this book, but luckily, I've got some pluck, some spunk, and maybe that's what they were missing. I mean, truly, letting the dead beat butthead into your life just because you're too "old" to find anyone else. I HATE that storyline. I am so sick of female characters like that...but I am rambling. Trying to get more than one sentence down before my RRBB hollers out for something.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Now That It Is Over (Maybe) I Can Talk About It

The last few weeks of my life have been the most terrifying and joyful I have ever known. The purpose of this blog has never been to document every aspect of my life, and I purposefully kept my pregnancy quiet because of all the complications that could have arisen as a result of the disease. But I do think it's important to talk about the disease, if only for other people in the world that have Wegener's Granulomatosis. If someone searches and ends up here, and knows about what I've gone through, maybe it can help someone else going through something similar.

We managed to make it to 34 weeks without very many problems. In fact, all of the problems that I did have, swollen joints, exhaustion, some other minor things that could all easily be explained by pregnancy. There's just one thing... they could just as easily been explained as the disease flaring. It was impossible to tell what was what: was I developing pre-eclampsia or was it the disease or was it just pregnancy in my case. Because it's so rare, both my disease and then women with my disease having babies, there were so many unanswered questions. The main thing I knew was that I was being followed by exceptional doctors. Then, my lab results showed disease activity, and that was that, things were flaring. It was minor and we'd get it under control. Only it didn't end up being minor at all. It ended up being dramatic, violent and life-threatening.

Five weeks ago my lungs started bleeding. I had just seen the OBGYN that afternoon and was so very tired. For the previous couple days, I couldn't catch my breath, but when the baby gets big enough, it too pushes on your lungs. Hence, yet another explanation for a disease symptom that can be confused with pregnancy. But when I coughed and a chunk of blood the size of a toonie landed in the sink, my heart stopped. That's how the disease first presented itself. That's how I got sick in the first place all those years ago. So, I sent a quick email to my pregnancy nephrologist (doctors give you email addresses now!) and asked her what to do. She sent us to the Labour and Delivery section of Mt. Sinai and then the ordeal really started. It's called hemoptysis -- I always used the term hemorrahging to describe what the disease does to my lungs -- but essentially, they were bleeding internally and it wasn't stopping. Because it's an OBGYN ward and not a disease ward, there was some confusion about what to do with me and the first night I spent in the hospital, the orders didn't get transferred over. I spent a miserable, freezing cold, uncomfortable night with a bone dry IV and coughing up bucket loads of blood for hours until they started rounds in the morning.

By then, the severity of the situation had dawned, and the chaos began. The words "life-threatening" were uttered more than once and they floated around the idea of putting me in Intensive Care. In the end, they moved me back to Labour and Delivery for one on one care. Through the course of the day, I saw, no word of a lie, 52 doctors that first day. They decided to treat the situation aggressively because of the baby. Let's not forget that I am still pregnant. They decided to do plasma replacement therapy. It's kind of like dialysis. They take out all the bad plasma, the stuff that contains the antibody that is the cause of the disease, and replace it with donated blood product. The machine is hooked up to you via a central line, and out goes all your plasma into a bag that gets destroyed. The treatment takes about three hours all tolled and then you get unhooked. We did seven days of this, plus IV steroids, to try and stop my lungs from bleeding. It took over 1o days but it worked. The disease somewhat settled down at that point, and the "plex" therapy as they call it is quite amazing -- in short, once it was finished I could feel no disease in my body whatsoever, but it only lasted until the next treatment. It did, however, contribute to my condition becoming stable. We had one little glitch with the plex, and on the second day my hemoglobin dropped, and so I had my very first blood transfusion. Of course, it didn't work the first time, so we had to do it twice. I signed a lot of consent forms and tried not to worry about all the risks. I suppose when you weigh the pros and cons, it's better not to be dead.

Things looked up from there, at least for a while, until I started developing pre-eclampsia, which is pregnancy induced hypertension. With women with underlying renal problems, the likelihood of pre-eclampsia developing is high and, of course, it's hard to tell whether the disease encouraged the pre-eclampsia or whether or not my pregnancy would have ended up with the complication anyway. The higher my blood pressure went, the more medication I had to take, everything, luckily, is safe for the baby, who, by the way, is perfectly fine. So, I am in the hospital, taking more medicine than ever, sicker than I've actually been since I was first diagnosed with the disease, and pregnant on top of it. The prednisone's making me a little batty, so I'm cleaning my hospital room at night and trying not to lose it being hooked up to all the machines, poked for blood everyday. The one saving grace was listening to the baby twice a day on the monitor and knowing that he (we didn't know "he" was a "he" at this point) was just fine.

After I had been in the hospital for two weeks and seen probably over 70-odd doctors, they called an "all doctors" meeting to decide what to do. According to my OBGYN, the plan was to get me stable and then let me go home and deliver the baby naturally, but when the pre-eclampsia started to rear its ugly head, they changed their mind and they decided to induce at 36 weeks. And when they make that decision, it starts immediately. Like, that same day. So, over we go to Labour and Delivery again and they being that process. It takes forever. I was still doing work because I was so bored just sitting there waiting for it all to happen. It's all a bit clinical, but it was the safest way to deliver the baby, and when my contractions really started they gave me an epidural because they didn't want my body to be under any more stress and for the disease to go haywire again.

So, we were mid-way through the next day, Friday, October 22, when they discovered that my placenta had really started to act up and was causing the baby distress. So, no labour for me -- they whisked me into an operating room and we had a c-section. Our RRBB was born at 3:04 in the afternoon and weighed an impressive 6 pounds 9 ounces. Not bad for 36 weeks.

The next few days are spent just dealing with being new parents, something that many people go through, we had plenty of rough starts, namely with feeding, and only because we didn't quite realize that just because the baby falls asleep after eating that he's actually full and/or had enough to eat. I was also really anemic and taking tonnes of medicine, so it took forever for my milk to come in. In the end, they let us go home, finally, after two weeks and five days in the hospital. Oh, but before we left? We had another transfusion because the surgery dropped my hemoglobin to 72. Imagine this -- having a blood transfusion while trying to breastfeed, the tubes stuck in your arms, the baby in your arms, grabbing at everything, but it worked and my iron counts were much better the next day. That gave me some much needed energy to just be home after all those days cooped up in a tiny hospital room.

We spent a glorious 24 hours at home.

Then the baby developed a little jaundice and the family doctor's scale miscalculated his weight so we were back at the hospital for him. That was a rough night. We weren't in our nice, private room any more but on the maternity ward. The couple next to us had their own baby, and baby schedule, so we didn't sleep a wink. Of course, my blood pressure was sky high, from worrying about the baby and from no sleep, so when they checked it for me, it was in a state where it wasn't safe to let me go home. We were admitted back into the hospital again, and I almost lost my mind. The resident, who was only trying to help, wouldn't let us leave. I tried to explain that I could monitor my BP at home (I had a cuff) and was seeing a team of doctors in a week, all of whom know about all of the conditions -- she kept trying to diagnose me and I kept saying that all I needed was proper rest and to get my baby out of the hospital. So, I tried to check myself out at night and the nurses and my RRHB convinced me to stay -- they didn't put anyone else beside us and my BP came down slightly. But that was it for me, it was now Friday and I had been in hospital for three weeks, one of which with my poor newborn who had seen his sweet bassinet only once in his life.

Then I did something completely out of character and checked myself out against doctors orders. My BP by the time I got home and relaxed and got some sleep? 123/71. Perfectly fine, as I knew it would be. But those last couple days were the breaking point for me. I just couldn't take anymore. Luckily, things are now starting to calm down, we think. The disease is still scary and active, and I am still recovering from all of it, but the baby is thriving, gaining weight and doing really well with breastfeeding. The last time I was this sick, it took over two years to get better, and who knows if my body will ever recover. Funny, all the doctors told me it would be fine -- well, that there would be risks but that they'd catch the disease before anything too terrible would happen. Oddly, just like when I was first diagnosed, the disease is mysterious and difficult to diagnose until it's on you like a tsunami, dragging you down and drowning you in your own blood.

Now, the really hard part begins. The recovery. Dealing with the exhaustion is one thing, I mean, we have a glorious little newborn at home, but dealing with everything else that happened on top of it took its toll. I feel a lot like I am just coping. Just getting through the days hour by hour, and that's all I can do: plasma replacement, IV steroids, bucketloads of drugs, two transfusions, another disease (pre-eclampsia that apparently lasts for six weeks post-partum), a life-threatening flare, surgery, a new baby, and prednisone-induced crazies. It's a lot. I am at loss for words but we are also incredibly lucky. We have a lot of support, my RRHB is amazing, and we have some of the greatest friends and family two people could ever have surrounding us.

Plus, we have him. And he's beyond words.