Friday, December 31, 2010

#67 - Amy And Isabelle

After suffering through Pearl, was I ever grateful for Elizabeth Strout's excellent Amy and Isabelle. When I was combing the shelves for something to read, I had forgotten that Strout wrote the excellent Olive Kitteridge, and you can see similar themes in her earlier novel: small town life, history repeating itself, the problems of parenthood, mother-daughter relationships (even though Olive had a son, correct?), so I should say parent/child relationships.

Regardless, Amy and Isabelle remains a thoughtful, engrossing novel that takes place, I think as the 60s are turning into the 70s. Isabelle, the mother, and Amy, the daughter, each live with their own internal restrictions that affect their relationship. Isabelle is strict, complex, sad -- she tells everyone she's a widow, but you know that's not the whole story -- and is in love with her boss at the shoe mill where she works as a secretary. So proper she always wears pantyhose in the heat of summer (the hottest on record), her thin brown hair consistently pulled into a French twist, she's unprepared for the issues that arise over her daughter: typical teenage stuff, lying, inappropriate love affairs, and then a shock that changes everything.

Amy's naive in an intelligent way. She was raised by an honest, forthright person (for the most part) and believes that when someone says something, they mean it. And her good heart, her good nature, gets her into a situation that ultimately disappoints her, it's heartbreaking for both mother and daughter.

Strout has a gift for small town life, like in Olive Kitteridge, she intersperses the story of the main character with other colourful people -- people like Amy's best friend Stacy, her parents, the church women and a truly delightful character called Fat Bev (who comes from French Canadian stock; naturally).

Shirley Falls, Maine might be experiencing a heat wave but the weather isn't the only thing stagnating. As the summer progresses, and as the lies pile up both for Amy and for Isabelle, it's a relief when the truth rains down, both metaphorically and literally -- the storm breaks not just the weather, and it's glorious. The novel itself reads like that moment just after a storm when everything feels fresh and renewed. I honestly enjoyed this novel so much that I spent the few spare minutes finishing it yesterday morning when I should have still been sleeping. I did regret this for a moment when the RRBB had such a rough night last night, but good lord, it was a good read. I honestly think that Alice Munro is an excellent comp for Strout, so if you're a fan, I'd be curious to see what someone else thinks.

READING CHALLENGES: What else? Off the Shelf!

WHAT'S UP NEXT: I started Joyce Maynard's The Good Daughters and am already finding it a bit lacking. The prose feels a little sloppy and repetitious at the moment, but I'm hoping the further I get into the actual story, the more this will abate.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

#66 - Pearl

Oh, this book. OH THIS BOOK. I wish I had better things to write about Mary Gordon's Pearl. I know how hard it is to write a novel, and I always try to judge books with that thought in mind, but I couldn't get over how annoying I found the narrative voice in this book. Gordon uses the second person, a device that rarely works beyond Choose Your Own Adventure, and the narrator TELLS the entire story. I know it's obnoxious but it's the kind of writing I hate -- the storytelling, the David Adams Richards-esque, perspective that ultimately means that the writer doesn't trust the reader to GET it.

Pearl, the title character, is a, natch, beautiful young woman in her twenties; she's impressionable but brilliant at languages, so she's studying Irish in Ireland in the 1990s. Taking a very tragic accident to heart, she chains herself to the American embassy after putting herself on a hunger strike for six weeks. She's going to die for a cause -- in a roundabout way, the Peace accord that Sinn Fein signed -- and feels her actions are right and just. Her mother, Maria, a strong-minded, strong-willed woman who came of age in the 60s, flies to Ireland to try and save her daughter's life.

The premise feels so forced, in fact, the melodrama of the entire story degrades the very real politics in the novel. It belittles them to the point that I was a little offended. That Pearl invokes Bobby Sands, that she is so taken by his very real and very necessary actions, isn't what bothered me, what bothered me the most is the arrogant way the narrator speaks from her perspective. It's not that Gordon is a bad writer -- she's just far, far too precious of a writer. It's as if she's in love with every single sentence and doesn't have the heart to cut to the actual story, which, had it been allowed to be shown instead of told, could have been quite affecting.

There's also a moment of such pure absurdity, I mean, eye-rolling absurdity, between Pearl, Maria and Joseph, Maria's quasi-adoptive brother (he's the son of her housekeeper; Maria's mother died when she was two and her father employed Joseph's mother; he became like Maria's brother, caretaker, and so much more), that put the nail in the coffin for this novel for me. I almost didn't finish but I am on a mission and I stuck with it. But I'll tell you one thing -- it's hellish to try and read a book you really aren't liking at 4 AM. On the whole, I didn't find a single part of this book believable, not the characters, not the situation, and especially not the intrusive, annoying, overbearing narrator who just wouldn't remove themselves and let me enjoy the writing. It's the first dud from my shelves. How disappointing, eh?

#65 - Payback

Margaret Atwood is one of the few authors, Canadian authors, where I've read almost every single thing she's ever written. It's not even a love-hate relationship: I count a few of her books among my absolute favourites (Surfacing), and when I saw her at the IFOA a couple of years ago, it was one of the most entertaining readings I had ever been too. So, I bought Payback, years ago, I think, and it sat on the shelves. Atwood's Massey lecture looks at the philosophical and literary implications of debt -- what it means from a balanced perspective. This isn't a book about the recession or about the failure of our monetary system but it's about what it means to be in debt from a moral perspective.

I was honestly surprised at how much I enjoyed reading Payback. I actually learned a great deal about the idea of balance. Atwood takes a very thorough look at what defined debt throughout the ages -- starting with early philosophical positions (there's lots of talk of mythology) and ending with a modern-day take on Dickens' character Scrooge (with all of the implications of how we are living today), Atwood's point is simple: we can't keep taking so much without giving something back... and if we don't give it back, the universe will just take it.

Anyway, I don't have much more to say about it -- this is probably my shortest review ever. Balance is good. Taking advantage of our resources isn't. Money is so much more than dollars and cents, and there's a surprising amount of debt in literature. If I ever go back to grad school, what a fascinating thesis that would make.

READING CHALLENGES: Off the Shelf, naturally.

Notes From A House Frau VI

The Calm Before The Storm.

Oh, the baby book warned us. We were told that six weeks beyond RRBB's due date of November 19th he would hit his fussiest period yet, and they weren't joking. Between his first shots, the fact that he just can't seem to get to sleep at night despite being so tired his face looks like he just went twelve rounds with Ali, and then that whole holiday insanity, it's been a hellish ten days. He's sleeping right now but chances are I'll have about fifteen spare minutes because he already looks like he's waking up.

The adjustment to motherhood hasn't been an easy one. I think even having a spare hour to myself would help at this stage but the baby's not in a place to give that to me at the moment. Then, we need patience. But we've talked about that before. That's not a new lesson. I am constantly thinking and rethinking my approach to everything. Consistently questioning and requestioning my decisions in terms of his care. It's a guessing game most days and I'm waiting for the answers to present themselves.

There's a lot of introspection that goes on when you spend so much time with a little person who can't communicate back to you. And when you mix in the life-threatening disease stuff happening, I spend a lot of my interior life contemplating how I want to live, what I want this all to really look like, and then being utterly unable to put my thoughts into action. Not for lack of trying but for lack of energy -- and I know recovery, especially from a flare as serious as the one that I had, will take some time -- I keep expecting myself to be back to normal. It's been twelve weeks now since I started coughing up that blood, and I had hoped that things would have turned around by now. But I need to keep my expectations in line with my actual health. Being sick is so hard for me to take -- it sits at direct odds with my personality.

I also keep overestimating what I can get done in a day, both with the RRBB and with my health. I spend a lot of time worrying about things: about money, especially. We don't have enough at the moment. That is a fact, UI barely covers our mortgage payment in a month. The downside of loving to manage money would have to be the insane spreadsheets and complex accounting that I tend to do during times of stress. I mean, truly, I have an awesome spreadsheet that keeps track of our spending, which is totally out of control at the moment. You see, the other downside to being home all the time? We really want to get the house into a finished, final, state. We bought some art -- two beautiful paintings by Toronto artist Matt James -- we bought a chalkboard for the kitchen, we put up the posters we got framed earlier in the year, and my RRHB finally hung up my garage sale finds in my office. The house looks great. And then Christmas came. So we are a little behind. So, late one night when the baby was feeding, I bought Gail's latest book, Never Too Late, and read it on my iPad (#64), because I needed to feel like I had at least a little bit of control over what's happening in my life right now. As you know, that generally only comes from reading. The book is mainly about saving for retirement, which I've been doing since I was in university (I used most of those savings to buy our house; and have continued to build our RRSPs up over the subsequent years), but there are some great management tips in there too. However, the main thing I realized was that using our Emergency Fund, which is quite healthy, over the next few months is exactly what it's for -- I am sick. I need help. Even though it would be better for my RRHB to work when and if he can, what's better for our family is to have him home helping me, helping us, and just being with us. The most important thing in my life right now is getting better so I can be the kind of mother I imagine in my head, and to get back to being myself a little too.

Anyway, Gail has some great tips -- putting away the dollars you save by using coupons in a vacation fund, or just using it for savings. Her whole point is that it isn't hard to save, it just takes a change of mind. Oddly, that's what all of these quasi columns are about for me, learning how to change my mind as my life changes. There's a constant evolution that takes place on a day-to-day basis when it comes to the baby but also when it comes to us as people. The change might be dramatic at first: you stop working, you spend all your time at home, you almost die for the third or forth time in your life, you are taking bucketloads of medicine, and normalcy becomes relative. It's as if it shifts like time does when you have an infant: there's very little difference between night and day. That's why I'm clinging to certain things, repeated again, reading, writing, thinking, and hoping. I know I am watching way too much Oprah but trying to be in every moment is actually quite entertaining. Last night, our little RRBB was throwing him umpteenth fit and we were just laughing with each other... trying to calm him down, obviously, cuddling him, rocking him, kissing him, but also laughing because he's so damn cute when he gets that upset. If we can hang on to that manic happiness, I know everything will be okay. Love is a pretty magical thing, and I'm not just saying that because I'm feeling weepy and a little introspective because it's the end of the year.

We have two more weeks until he's three months, then another four after that until he hits his due date "three months" so we'll see how things go until then. Everyone keeps telling us that it gets better but maybe it getting better isn't the point. Experiencing it is. Looking at what we can learn from his point of view, however undeveloped that might be, and knowing that "unexplained fussiness" might just be the death of us, it's just a stage like so many other parts of life. Our biggest success today? We left the house for a walk, and it was a gorgeous day.

Monday, December 20, 2010

#63 - Moonlight Mile

Murderous Christmas continues, and I finished Dennis Lehane's Moonlight Mile in record time. I read about three pages last night before crashing into sleep and then, in between visits to the hospital (blood work), visits from my Aunties, and a trip to the Duff, I finished the book about three minutes ago waiting for the baby to go to sleep. The book picks up twelve years after Gone, Baby, Gone, the other other Patrick and Angie book I've read (which I enjoyed immensely), and a lot has happened. Patrick and Angie are back together, they have a daughter, and they're once again hired by Bea to find Amanda McCready, who has once again disappeared.

Nothing is at it seems, of course, and Patrick finds himself stuck in this case that, like all those years ago, puts his life on the line and then changes it forever. I can totally see what Sarah Weinman was talking about in her review of the novel, but I didn't read and/or experience a love for crime fiction in the same way, so I don't have the same expectations. The book gripped me from the beginning, and not just because the characters are terrific, but more because the story just dove right into the action. Then, it doesn't let you go. I appreciate a good, plot-driven novel. I mean, I am a snob, don't get me wrong, and years ago, if someone told me I'd be reading bucketloads of mystery/crime novels after giving birth, I would have laughed and said something obnoxious.

There are flaws with Lehane's writing, don't get me wrong. I'm not convinced that every single character needs their hair described in such immaculate detail but, in the end, it doesn't matter because the story itself flies off the page -- and once you pick up the book, you seem to get to the end before you even realize it. I guess you have to forgive him for these petty details, for the odd over-description and the sometimes melodramatic sentences, because he writes great dialogue and has created such a hard-driving narrative. It's immaculate commercial fiction and that's a hard balance to strike -- it satisfies literary snobs like me and more general readers in one fell swoop. That's not something to be overlooked or under appreciated.

Many of my co-workers tell me that the entire series is just that good. Maybe I'll go back and read more than just the two I have done, but I'm satisfied with my Lehane experience. Maybe I don't want to ruin it. I'll just leave it where it is for now. So, no reading challenges accomplished with this novel, but that's okay too, right?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Notes From A House Frau V

He's a little blurry but our RRBB has started smiling. It's pretty terrific to see him open up like that and it makes us both a little giddy. It's been a hard few days. The SFDD has decided for us to stay the course -- I am taking more meds, but they are the same meds, so we can keep breast feeding for now. As I'm still having disease symptoms, they are slight, but they are there, and that means that chances are we'll be taking the "big guns" meds in January to try, yet again, to calm the storm. The disease is a light rain at the moment; they want to completely clear up the clouds, bring on the sunshine, but because the weather system inside my body remains so severe, it's touch and go until the drugs start to work.

What all of this means for me -- being stable but on the edge -- is more blood work, heading to the hospital every 10 days, more doctors appointments and lots of careful monitoring. But, we get to breast feed. I think the sacrifice is worth it. I'd rather give him three months than two, but I also don't want to be on dialysis in six months either. The thought terrifies me. And my lesson for this week?

Irony.

Funnily enough, the first thing that happens when you become a parent, regardless of how old you are, how far along in your life, people come forward with advice. This doesn't bother me in the slightest, I am a big giver of advice, so you can't be obnoxious about receiving it (and I can't remember if I've talked about this before), and the #1 thing that everyone tells you: rest, rest, rest. It works both with the Sickness and with the Newborn. Yet, the prednisone makes you so wired -- it's kind of like being on speed (not that I've done speed; I'm extrapolating) -- that it's impossible to rest. The drug keeps you awake all the time. The RRBB keeps you awake the rest of the time. This means that I am wiggy with lack of rest, my body under siege and no release on the horizon. Some days I kind of feel like that boat in that George Clooney movie (I know, it's not very good, The Perfect Storm). Right now, I'm Marky Mark floating on the horizon. In my case, I know I'll be rescued. I'm not going to drown but getting through the irony of having to rest but being physically unable to do so because of the very drugs that are meant to keep me alive, well, it's an interesting conundrum.

I've signed up for Restorative Yoga in January. I'm going to do private lessons. They will be expensive, and I know Gail Vaz-Oxlade wouldn't approve, but I need to heal and it's one way that I know works for me. I'm also keeping the crazies at bay by making lists and trying to cross things off one-by-one. It's a recurring theme for me -- trying to get a handle on the psychological side effects of the disease by doing small things that I actually do control -- and it's the first thing that gets out of hand when the psychosis hits. Thankfully, and I don't know quite why, but I am thankfully free of this side effect this time around. That's not to say that I don't break down every few days, bawling, and I know it's because I'm just so bloody tired but, on the whole, I am not wanting to drive my car into oncoming traffic (that's what happened the first time I became sick) or jump off the top of a tall building (which happened the next time I took this much prednisone).

Laying it all out, the rareness of the disease means that I am a bit of a science experiment for my doctors. It's always worked well for me in the past, and patience to truly wait for everything to calm down is needed. I'm finding that in books right now. I'm finding that in little moments here and there, writing here. Truly, as long as I keep putting the words down, taking them from my brain and putting them out there, I can keep a little bit of myself back from the disease. It doesn't get to own all of me. Even if it feels that way a lot of the time.

#62 - Calling Out For You!

When I was babbling on about all of the Scandinavian mysteries I've been reading lately, Melanie, over at Indextrious Reader, tweeted about her favourite, Karin Fossum. So I scanned my shelves and happily discovered I had an Inspector Sejer mystery, Calling Out For You! at the ready. I might as well call this my Mystery Christmas for all novels in this genre I've been reading, and I'm pleased that I can cross Norway off my Around the World in 52 Books challenge with Fossum as well, and the translation by Charlotte Barslund is one of the better that I've read -- far less clunky than all of The Girl With novels and, on the whole, Fossum's a much more skillful novelist than Camilla Lackberg.

Calling Out For You! (the exclamation point seems a bit, well, tedious) finds Inspector Sejer solving a heinous crime involving the brutal murder of an Indian woman, the newlywed wife of a middle-aged farm equipment salesmen who was truly looking forward to welcoming his wife to his country, his home. Gunder Jomann, quiet, reserved, lonely, takes the biggest risk of his entire life and simply decides to go to India. Upon his return, the very day his new wife Poona was set to arrive, his only sister ends up in a terrible car accident and he can't collect her from the airport. Tragedy ensues -- Poona doesn't arrive. Instead, she's found bludgeoned to death in a field outside of town.

Fossum's careful not to lead you entirely in the right or wrong direction. There's a mystery to the mystery -- who actually killed Poona and why -- that's inferred but not entirely delineated by the end of the novel. It's a character-driven book, you feel emotionally connected to the Gunder, the distraught, decent man who ultimately suffers unspeakable tragedy. And the detective work is straightforward, simple, to the point. There isn't the driving plot that you'd find in the The Girl With books, but that's okay, there's a decency to Fossum's characters that's very real. Setting doesn't play as an important part in this book the other mysteries I've read by authors from this part of the world (that was the only thing I truly enjoyed about The Ice Princess). But you get the small-town, everyone-knows-everyone, feeling throughout the novel, which always contributes to the shocking nature of the crime.

I flew through this novel, primarily because I truly, honestly wanted to know who did it -- and it was VERY hard not to cheat. Ever since I was a little girl, I've read the last page of the book sometimes even before the first and it's an especially hard habit to break with mysteries. I don't want to spoil it but then I absolutely just have to know. In this case, I managed to be patient, but mainly because it was such an easy read, and didn't take too long to get to the end. Any longer and I wouldn't have been able to stand it.

READING CHALLENGES: Around the World in 52 Books and The Off The Shelf Challenge. Two birds with one book, yet again.

WHAT'S UP NEXT: I can't decide: AS Byatt or Dennis Lehane. I suppose it'll be up to what concentration levels I can manage this evening upon retiring for the long, long night as the RRBB eats, sleeps, eats, sleeps, eats, sleeps.

#61 - Affinity

In a lot of ways, I am neither here nor there with Sarah Waters. By that I mean, I either really love her books, like Fingersmith and The Night Watch or I really, really don't like them at all like Tipping the Velvet and the incredibly boring (by my estimation only) The Little Stranger, which honestly put me to sleep more than scared the bejeezus out of me, as was probably intended. So, I've had Affinity languishing on my shelves for years. And, at first, I thought it was going to go the way of The Little Stranger, but I actually ended up quite enjoying the novel.

Set in the 1870s in London at the height of the spiritualist craze, the novel's protagonist, Margaret, falls head over heals for an inmate at Millbank prison. Selina's an infamous spiritualist who finds herself in hot water after her patron dies unexpectedly following a fairly intense visit from "beyond." Being the cynic that I am, of course, you know that Margaret's being swindled, but it's a long con, and a devastating one when you look at the novel in terms of options for women, single women, of her class, stature and sexual orientation. So, the harder Margaret falls for Selina, and her impressive parlour tricks, the more you, the reader, realize that it's all going to turn out very, very poorly for the trusting, intelligent, yet wholly gullible girl.

Devastated by the loss of her beloved father, Margaret's an easy target. Set adrift by lack of options, she will neither marry but nor does she want to spend the rest of her life caring for her demanding, controlling and often obnoxious mother. She sees her mother growing older and more demanding, can't bear a life of calling cards and visits, and longs to visit Italy. But the upper middle classes aren't the place for women to go travelling alone, and without a sustainable relationship, Margaret's trapped in her drafty house with only her diary, and her visits to Millbank prison, to keep her sane.

The novel speeds along and the format suits the subject matter impressively. Interspersed with Margaret's own journal/diary entries, you get more and more backstory from Selina. Are her psychic powers authentic? Can she truly call upon the spirits to come? Or is it all just a ruse? Waters is careful to parcel out the truth and the tricks throughout the narrative in a way that intends to keep one guessing but it's fairly obvious early on what's going to happen. Knowing that Margaret's being duped didn't lessen the impact of the novel but increases the emotional quotient -- you are that much more involved when it gets to the end.

All in all, I am glad I stuck with Affinity through the wee hours. I almost abandoned it halfway through and picked up AS Byatt's latest book, which I am starting this evening. And, it cleared yet another book off my shelves!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Notes From A House Frau IV

Here is baby's first outing to the rink. Yes, the hockey rink. We watched our nephew participate in some faux-Olympics to celebrate the end of his skating lessons and it was just about the cutest thing ever. So much to look forward to, right? RRBB slept through the entire thing, like he does with so much of his life. The odd irony (is it ironic?) of early parenting, how much the baby sleeps vs how little the parents do, his life is so restful when he's not screaming.

The strange obsessive need to clean up and out continues. I know it's a product of the prednisone crazies, and I know it's from being inside the house so much, I just can't stop thinking about how much more I can tidy up and move around. Of course, most of it is just heading into the basement, but that's the last stop before it's out of the house forever. I can barely believe that Christmas is just about ten days away, and that next Friday is Christmas Eve. I know where the time has gone, and seeing the beautiful snow today made me realize that it is really winter in Toronto. One thing I am grateful for right now: not having to commute everyday downtown. One thing I am not grateful for: it's not as easy to get out of the house with the baby for a walk. And fresh air is so important to just being able to keep going.

Tomorrow is a day of reckoning. I went in for some blood work this morning, and I hope it is better tomorrow. I hope with every fibre of my being that I can stay on my current drug regimen, which means we can keep breastfeeding. There's little choice with my life, literally, on the line, I've been thinking positively, maybe even fooling myself, but trying not to freak out completely at how the disease just refuses to go back into remission.

We've had a couple of peaceful days at home. So, I've spent a lot of time just feeding and sleeping with the baby. I've been enacting, purposefully, a measure of calmness, not watching television during the day (and not missing it at all -- if you knew me, this would shock you), reading, writing, making lists, obsessively clearing out stuff, it's all just a rouse to keep my head on straight as I battle the terrifying Wegener's for the umpteenth time. It's an interesting dynamic: raising a new life while trying to hold on to my own. There's so much potential with the RRBB and I feel mine evaporating with every pill I need to keep my alive. I feel dramatic, maybe melodramatic, but I can't just think of myself and the disease anymore. I have to think of my family and how it affects all of us -- husband, son. I often get carried away in just trying to get through the day-to-day with the disease, the exhaustion, the symptoms, the terrifying test results, that I forget that my RRHB has to deal with the disease as much as I do, but in a very different way -- he has to be supportive, kind, understanding, even when he's going through stuff of his own. That would be hard for any lesser person. I am lucky to have someone who gives so much and takes such good care of me, there would be no me without him.

Generally, I meet the disease, and its flares, with a great depression. With anger, rage and a healthy dose of denial, and the disease keeps coming back. I put myself through incredible amounts of stress, which I'm convinced has a lot to do with the Wegener's doing what it does. But in this case, it wasn't my life necessarily, it wasn't my job, it wasn't a horrible tragedy, it was something I was really looking forward to -- having a baby, and so I can't be angry, it won't do either of us any good. I can be sad, and cry, it's healthy, but the anger doesn't do anyone any good. Neither does the resignation. I remember being in my mid-20s, almost flunking out of grad school, looking up horrible pictures of collapsed sinuses, and deciding that if the disease wanted to have me, it could take me. I no longer feel that way. But I do just want it all to stop now. I'm tired and need a rest.

#60 - A Long Long Way

Sebastian Barry's A Long Long Way surprised me, and that's not easy to do. Yesterday, I had plucked it and Sarah Waters's Affinity off my shelves to start reading upon finishing up the Mo Hayder. I don't know why I chose one over the other -- except the beginning passages of Barry's novel reminded me in a way of A Star Called Henry, and once I started, I couldn't put the book down until I was weeping at the end.

Willie Dunne, the son of a police commander in Dublin, hasn't grown tall enough (you must be six feet) by his teenage years to join the constabulary so, instead, he joins the army at the very beginning of the First World War. Willie and his three sisters live in the Police Castle with their father, their mother having passed away in childbirth years before. The Dublin before the war is a very different Dublin during the war and even more so once the war is over. Home Rule becomes an issue, and the Irish soldiers fighting for freedom, country and King, go from heroes to villains in one fell swoop. And while Willie is far away from the politics invading his country, his life, his identity, stuck in the mud at the Somme, breathing in mustard gas at Ypres, and seeing death and destruction all around, the very nature of the issues are never far away either.

Barry, from what I can gather from his short bio at the beginning of the novel, is a playwright, and often you can sense this throughout. The dialogue and characters are so very well developed, so pristine in their environment, that you know there's been a sure hand in their creation. But, often, much of what sits outside the characters and their dialogue, and this is a rare criticism for I enjoyed this novel very much, feels like stage direction -- a lot of repetitive details, re-used observations, and a little bit too much of a dependence on heavy metaphors.

Yet, you can't help but have your heart on your sleeve when reading Willie Dunne's story. He has tender feelings for Gretta, a girl whose father was injured by Willie's dad himself during a particular uprising; and this love keeps him alive as he sits covered in lice, grime and his own piss at the bottom of a trench. The horrors of the First World War have been fictionalized by Canadian writers so exceptionally over the course of our literary history. The horses sinking into the mud in The Wars, the morphine-addicted character in Three Day Road; the First World War defined Canada as a nation, we were exhalted for our bravery, we held positions, and this is how I'm used to reading the events. Yet, Barry has an entirely different perspective -- Willie's split in two. He's on furlough when Easter 1916 happens, and he sees the violence in a way that changes his mind about how or why he should be fighting. But it's so easy to be political when you're not the one in the trench, in a way, when you're the one throwing the rocks and refusing to go, abandoning the boys that went -- but those boys are still suffering, barraged by mortars and attacked at every corner by the enemy, their lives are not their own, but they must own their actions.

And when Willie is left for his second furlough, and aspects of his homecoming are inevitably difficult, your heart breaks for him. Nothing has stayed the same in Dublin during the time he's been at war, but he needs the stability, and needs to come home. What happens to a man no, rather, a boy born into his manhood by seeing and participating in unspeakable horror, who can't go home again? It's fitting when he arrives upon his doorstep that his youngest sister doesn't recognize him, and when everything he hoped to come back to falls apart, Willie still does the honourable thing -- he goes and visits the family of his fallen Captain, a man he respected because he held the line during the first instances of the gas when everyone else, rightfully, fled to save their lives.

There's a cast of motley characters that survive alongside our hero. My favourite, Christy Moran, the second in command, a brash, ballsy, opinionated brave fellow who hands away a medal as easily as he would share a ration, manages to add a lightness to many situations. There's the usual stereotyping of the Irish by the brass -- and by some of the other soldiers -- but the perspective on this war, the sacrifices that these boys made, and how it all changed because of what was happening at home, well, I've never read anything like it. While Henry Smart was holed up in the Post Office in A Star Called Henry, Willie Dunne was holed up in a trench in France and Belgium. They come from different places but they represent two very distinct aspects of Irish history, and Barry, alongside Roddy Doyle, creates an interesting, almost bookended reading experience should one choose to tackle the two novels together.

In the end, I wept, and wept, and there was more than one moment where I put my hand over my heart and held tight to my baby. This is not a post-partum emotional reader talking -- this is the result of a powerful story wrapped in a wonderful character. In the end, I was very sad to see his story close.

READING CHALLENGES: The Off the Shelf Challenge of course, and as Barry is Irish, I'm counting A Long Long Way for Around the World in 52 Days. Over the last couple weeks, I think I've managed to get through about 10 books from my shelves. There are hundreds more to go but I doubt I'll make my annual reading goal of 100 books. Simply too much went on this year. I think, too, I'll forgo my annual top 10 books list as well -- I'm just going to keep plowing through titles in the wee hours of the morning and actually enjoy the fact that our baby still wakes up a couple of times in the night to give me those stolen moments when everything is so quiet and my mind can wander over words, imagination, and impressive stories I don't expect to enjoy as much as I do.

Monday, December 13, 2010

#59 - Birdman

Mo Hayder remains one of my favourite crime writers. I had the good fortune to interview her a couple of years ago when she was in Toronto promoting the Walking Man series, still Jack Caffrey mysteries, but with the introduction of Flea Marley, the police diver, who becomes the other central character in the books. She's self-educated, incredibly smart, and it was one of the best interviews I had ever done (and she was very gracious when she signed my book).

Annnywaaay, I've had Birdman, the first Jack Caffrey mystery, on my shelf for about four years. Every time I look through my books to see what I should pick up next, I think, I should really read that Mo Hayder novel. I guess, with everything, and with my own superstitious nature about reading (books are ready for you at the right time in your life and never before... that's why you can't finish them if you start and put them down again , and why it took me at least seven tries to get through Crime and Punishment; it just wasn't the right time), it languished. There were always other books to read first. But I had just finished The Post-Birthday World and wanted something that I could read in a day -- and grabbed Birdman on a whim.

I don't know what it is about motherhood that inspires me to want to watch and read about murder and mayhem. I've been only keeping up with shows like Law and Order UK, Detroit 1-8-7, and watching the boxed set of Prime Suspect. My friend Duncan suggested it's because crime novels are easy to pick up and put down. You feel like you've accomplished a little something when you get to the end of a police drama: there's a mystery, it gets solved, people are punished. It's all my overloaded, exhausted brain can handle. Well, he's got a point. And maybe the escapism I used to get from watching movies, I'm finding in a good, solid, mystery/thriller here and there.

So, Birdman. It's a fairly typical crime novel, of course, because it's Mo Hayder, it's extremely well written and utterly readable. It charges along at a fast clip and before you know it, Jack's done it again: ruined another relationship, pissed off a whole bunch of people, and solved a heinous crime (in this case a lot of dead prostitutes/strippers/addicts) involving a serial killer (or killers). In a way, this novel is more structured than Hayder's later books. I'm not sure if this is part of a series with anything more linking it than Caffrey as the main character because it's all tied up very neatly at the end -- that's not to say it's a happy conclusion -- but there's a finality to this book that the Walking Man novels don't have. They all seem to pick up where the other left off in a deliciously addictive way.

Jack's new to the force in London, and it's his first big case. When they uncover the bodies of five women, all mutilated, all murdered, there's conflict in the force. There are clues that lead a racist, repugnant DI Diamond in the wrong direction and Jack, along with his partner Essex, have to fight against the curve to get everyone working in the right direction. His profile is correct, and when we meet the villain about eight pages in, you get the feeling that it's all coming together a bit too quickly, you know, like when the cops disappear too soon on Law and Order, and you know there's trouble with the case...and low and behold, once the villain becomes known to the police, the killing doesn't stop. So who is the real Birdman? Of course, it's a race against time for Caffrey and Essex to figure it out because there are real people involved now -- not just victims, but people with personal relationships to these officers.

Part of Vintage Canada's World of Crime series, I love how the jacket copy says, "For some killers, murder is just the beginning..." It's a pretty terrific tagline and utterly relevant to this particular book. I love it when there's a twist that's hinted, ever so slightly upon toward the beginning of the novel, and explodes at just the right time in the reading. Hayder's exceptional at creating completely creepy villains who do absolutely disgusting things. Yet, the level of (for lack of a better word) "grossness" that Hayder employs in her writing is consistently balanced with razor-sharp prose, snappy dialogue and intense research. These novels are solid, have ripping plots (how else do you read them in a night while breastfeeding a baby?) and hinge upon a fascinating character that she's created in Caffrey. I mean, he does remind me a little of Jackson Brodie -- Kate Atkinson's protagonist -- they're both damaged in a way that makes them so good at their job. In Caffrey's case, it's the disappearance of his younger brother when he was eight and the passionate way he's convinced his next-door neighbour, whom he still lives beside, is responsible for his murder.

Unlucky in love seems to be the MO for these kind of men, which, of course, makes them irresistible on the page, both to the reader and to just about every woman in their path. But romance never works out for Jack and it's a good thing too because how else would he solve the crime and save the day? I'd highly recommend any Mo Hayder novel for the crime/thriller lover. She's such an exceptional writer that it'll totally satisfy your craving for good sentences as much as your craving for, as my grandmother used to say, "a good whack on the head."

READING CHALLENGES: The Off The Shelf Challenge, of course. I already have a British writer for my Around the World in 52 Weeks, so I can't double count Hayder.

WHAT'S UP NEXT: I started Sebastian Barry's A Long, Long Way this morning and it absolutely reminded me of one of my all-time favourite books, A Star Called Henry, and so I'm hoping to continue it this evening. Not too much time to read today as I was alone with the baby and we took an amazing nap this afternoon. How delicious is it to lie in bed with your baby tucked into your chest, and then wake up with him snuggled right into your arm all smiley and sleepy when you both wake up. Even if the moment only lasts for about five minutes before he wakes up fully and discovers he's got shitty pants and is starving and, therefore, starts screaming, but it was a bit of bliss on a cold blustery day.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Notes From A House Frau III

RRBB trying out his chair for the first time. He lasted about 10 minutes before getting fussy. My lesson for this week? Appreciating stillness. I have been sitting in this same position, feeding, trying to get SOMEONE to sleep longer than 25 minutes and NOT on me, since noon. A lot of thoughts go through your head, especially when you're by yourself, and there's something about stillness, sitting, in one place, for so long that lets your mind wander and wonder.

A couple of friends from work came over yesterday. They brought beautiful presents for the baby. And I got to pass along some of the stuff RRBB has outgrown (he's out of newborn sizes!) to one friend as she is due in January. It was good to see them, but it was even better to hear about work -- it's everyone's dream to have time off, paid (albeit the misery that is UI) from work -- because I never thought I would miss it as much as I do. It's not just the routine. The very get-up-and-go and the nature of having something to do each day where there are expectations on you to get there at a certain time and be a certain kind of productive. No, it's something I realized about myself over the last little while. I am at a place in my career, and yes, I'm actually using that word now, where I truly, honestly and completely love my job. It's fast-paced, I have great colleagues, and I was doing really interesting work. Work that got me excited and thrilled to go in to the office each day.

But it's also a blessing to be able to stay home with the RRBB. It's a different, much harder kind of job, with no fixed schedule and little breathing time, even when you do sit for hours. In the last few, I've been resenting the disease a lot, and I think it goes hand-in-hand with my resenting the doctors (as excellent as they are) for all telling me, repeatedly, since the beginning of my pregnancy, that everything would be fine. Funnily enough, everything was so far from fine it's as if fine is the moon and I am the earth and there's no hope in hell of us ever colonizing it for human life. Does that even make sense? Probably not, I'm sleep deprived and therefore metaphorically challenged.

All I know is that from the very moment the disease was diagnosed, it started taking things away from me. Dance, my appearance, my sanity at times (the prednisone crazies), and even when it gives something back -- like our wonderful RRBB -- it takes so much just to get here. My energy, my good health (I was so HEALTHY when I got pregnant; the healthiest I'd been in 15 years!), and now it's still so angry that it's even taken away all of the stuff I was looking forward to about having a baby in the first place: birth (don't mock me; I wanted to experience it) because they didn't want the stress on my body so up comes the epidural and then the pre-eclampsia put the kibosh on a natural delivery; and now it won't even calm down long enough for me to feed the baby if I have to take stronger meds because all my levels are going in the wrong direction. It's hard not to anthropomorphize the disease. To turn it into something separate from me -- a Jeckyll to my Hyde (have I got them right?). The devil to my right-shouldered angel. Yet, the still teaches you things. It teaches you to reimagine all of this in a way that's necessary. They have me on a higher dose of prednisone right now and I'm hoping that'll kick-start the remission again. By Wednesday, I should know what they've all decided but I've decided somethings too.

1. I need to go back to restorative yoga.

2. I'm dying to get into a pool for a swim.

3. There are lots of people out there who love me and the RRBB a lot.

4. Blogging is a form of writing so it's okay if it's not the novel right now. I'm moving my fingers, forming sentences, and the rest will follow. I am willing to wade through the rejection. The book is worth it. It will eventually get published. I have to believe this, it was my one regret last year when I almost died the OTHER time, you remember, the whole appendix nightmare. All I kept thinking was: "I never published my book."

5. Every day RRBB gets older, bigger and more experienced. And so do we as parents. These are not small steps.

6. We made it through three weeks in the hospital and more than one near-death experience. And now, weeks later, that seems like a world ago. Time heals. It's cliched but true.

7. The stillness encourages patience. Patience is something that I could always use more of, and it's something that only comes when you least expect it.

8. Books are wonderful and necessary to my life. They are worth losing sleep over.

9. Television, not so much.

10. When you come to visit me, please, always bring food -- I can barely get dressed in the mornings I'm so exhausted. Having a meal, a snack, a drink, anything, means so much. I can't even tell you.

That's all from the House Frau today. No tears.

Oh, and the baby has started smiling. We've tried to catch it on the camera but he's like Snuffle-smile-agus, every time he does it the camera's either just missed it or he won't do it again. Sneaky RRBB.

#58 - The Post-Birthday World

The Post-Birthday World, like many of Lionel Shriver's novels, manages to defy the reader's expectations both in its construction and its central thesis -- that a life can change drastically based upon one split-second decision. This is no rom-com, and while it might feel like Sliding Doors, there's little beyond the premise, that to act or not to act (and in Shriver's novel, it's very much an action that splits the protagonist's life into two distinct futures vs. happenstance, Gwyneth missing the tube or not missing the tube), in that one moment can change your life forever.

Irina Galina McGovern, children's book illustrator and common-law wife of Lawrence, both American ex-patriots living in London, against her better judgment, goes for a birthday dinner with the infamous, rakish, handsome professional snooker player, Ramsay. Lawrence is away on business. They have a standing birthday dinner date -- but it used to be a couple's thing. Ramsay's wife, Jude, was a collaborator of Irina's, and when their marriage fell apart, it fell to Lawrence and Irina to entertain Ramsay (who'd always pick up the cheque) on his birthday.

The story splits into two over a kiss: something much more than a birthday peck on the cheek, a knee-shaking, earth-shattering, fall-in-love-on-a-street-corner kind of kiss, that will determine two very different futures for our Irina. If she kisses Ramsay, she says good-bye to her lovely life with Lawrence; if she doesn't kiss him, she would be denying herself the chance to feel passionate love, one that involves great, great sex.

As each chapter vacillates between the two realities, each relationship breaks down and apart for different reasons. Love becomes deconstructed through the everyday reality of what it means to make a choice to be with someone. Irina's not a woman who can live without a man yet she isn't an anti-feminist character -- she's someone who has always prized life with someone above life on her own. Her past butts up against her future in various places throughout the novel: a self-obsessed Russian dancer of a mother; a life that she left behind in the States; the need to assimilate in some ways to her new life in London.

In a way, Irina is always in relation to something, to someone -- whether it's her art (and the forward momentum of her career) or the two men in her life. The chapters that deal with her life with Lawrence, are deemed "safe" -- he works for a think tank, is intelligent, but he's also controlling in strange and obstinate ways, turning his moral eye upon a drink in the afternoon, calling her a "moron" every now and again. And it's a relationship without passion. For years, Lawrence hasn't kissed her, I mean, really kissed her, and Irina misses this desperately. When she asks if they can't get married, his utterly crushing response is, "okay."

Her relationship, and subsequent marriage to Ramsay, is the polar opposite, even when it runs along the same time line -- Shriver is careful to keep the details just the same so the book does veer off and the reader gets lost but she also makes the two storylines distinct enough that you truly get a sense of how disparate Irina's life becomes from that fateful moment -- it's passionate, vibrant, even violent (with wicked fights; not fists), and full of absolutely fantastic sex and happy moments (when the two aren't battling).

Two sides of the same coin, Irina remains the same person, the same character, but the subtle changes in her that you see when she's with either man bring her sharply into focus throughout the novel. Success means different things in either of her worlds and aspects of her personality get lost in either relationship. Shriver is keen to point out that love is sometimes separate from sex and other times as tangled as your bodies get. She writes of mature, intelligent, adult relationships -- and she's the only author with her sort of aesthetic, her brutal honesty, her ability to make things palatable even when you dislike so many of the characters and their decisions, but still keep you utterly engaged as a writer. Irina is flawed, deeply, and you are the more interested to read each chapter for this reason.

There's no doubt in my mind that Shriver is one of my favourite working novelists. I adored So Much For That, especially in light of my own health issues, and the very essence of her writing always boils down to one thing for me -- if we can harken back to my second-year university course on existentialism -- Shriver writes so very convincingly of the human condition that I would challenge anyone to find a contemporary writer better. It seems she tackles an issue with each of her books, plants it solidly in a plot that would seem tepid to a lesser novelist, and while the themes might be love, relationships, sex and marriage, you know instantly that you aren't reading the Jennifer Weiner or Jodi Picoult versions of reality. There's depth and heft to Shriver's sharp intellect and the piercing nature of her pen ensures that no characters comes out unscathed.

In the end, it's up to the reader to imply, in a way, which was the right choice for Irina Galina to make, but the ending is just so satisfactory, and being a woman, I know what kind of relationship I'd prefer, but I don't want to spoil it -- it's actually worth getting through the 500-odd pages. And it's not often someone in my particular situation would have the patience to read a) a book this long and b) be willing to give up precious bits of sleep (like the hours between the feeding at 3 AM and the 6 AM feeding; it wouldn't have mattered, I'm on so much prednisone that sleep is hard to come by anyway, I'm no martyr, I'm just on meds) just to finish it.

READING CHALLENGES: The Off The Shelf Challenge. Yes, another one bites the dust or, rather, another book is banished to the magic box in the basement that every single guest coming into my home is forced to go through. My high school friends brought brunch over today and left with over 15 books between them. Go baby go! There will actually be space for dust to collect on my shelves by Christmas (if I have anything to say about it).

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Notes From a House Frau II

Portrait of a Baby Whisperer baby, not. We tried the Baby Whisperer "EASY" program for two days and it made our RRBB the most miserable he'd ever been in his short life. He had two terrible nights, two awful days, and the program just didn't work for us. I also made myself insane consulting the book and trying umpteen different things because I thought I needed to fix something that wasn't broken. Anyway, we're back to normal now, and back to our actual easy baby. Sleeping, eating, waking, and doing quite well at night. My lesson for the day, not every book has the solution, and you don't need to listen to every one just because it's written down. You can make yourself crazy trying to do the right thing if only to stop listening to your instincts, which aren't always wrong, even if they are inexperienced.

I was at the kidney doctor this morning, and it broke my heart. The disease is going in the wrong direction -- my tests are rising when they should be falling, and the meds aren't controlling the Wegener's in the way they were supposed to. I see my SFDD next week and they'll probably suggest alternative treatment, which means no more breastfeeding. But to let things continue in this way means I'd be on dialysis in six months, and I can't lose my kidneys.

It's been so long of dealing with the disease, and being sad and frustrated is par for the course these last few weeks. I'm trying hard to find the life lessons. To see the silver lining in the cloud; to not get disparaged or angry or resentful of the disease and my broken body. Feeling scared has pervaded my days, I don't want to get sicker, I want to get better, so desperately, but I also have to be patient. Funnily enough, the doctor today described my pregnancy as one of the hardest she's ever seen. When I was in it, it was only rough for the last few weeks -- for the most part, it went exceptionally well considering the circumstances, and all of that is how our beautiful RRBB managed to be so healthy by the time he landed in the world.

So, I've spent today being sad, frustrated, and upset -- all in equal measure. Yet, there's something about my family, my RRHB and my RRBB, that I find utterly delightful. Whether it's how we spend the mornings, or how lovely the baby is at 2 AM when he's just about to fall asleep, and if this is all I can do right now, be here, with my family, because that's all I have energy for, that's all the disease will allow, then I need to be calm and careful. Take it day by day and understand that I will get better, it'll just take a long, long time. Yesterday, I did 10 sit ups. Today, I'm going to do 11. And that's how I'm going to do it, one small change by one small change, take the new drugs, deal with the side effects, and find the strength to be the best house frau I can possibly be under the circumstances.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

#57 - Little Bee

I am of mixed mind when it comes to Chris Cleave's Little Bee. On the one hand, it's an interesting novel that deals with important political issues; on the other hand, overall, I didn't find the novel entirely plausible. Cleave has definite talent writing characters in voices that are atypical -- female characters that read well, but there's just something that rings false. I felt especially this way about Little Bee herself, that she was perhaps a bit too precocious for her age, but when you factor in what she'd been through (horrific, awful events in her home country of Nigeria; unspeakable violence and two years in a detention centre in England after stowing away in a boat), maybe it's not so inconceivable that she would be wise beyond her years. Yet, it all didn't sit quite right with me.

So, the plot of the novel revolves around two women, the aforementioned Little Bee, an asylum-seeking refugee from Nigeria who was subjected to an horrific experience of seeing her entire family destroyed by oil men; and Sarah, the wife of Andrew, a couple who met Little Bee on a beach on a fateful day that would change their lives forever. When Little Bee is finally released from the detention centre after spending two years essentially in jail as the British government evaluates her refugee claim, the only people she knows are Andrew and Sarah, and so she makes her way to them, which sets in motion a series of events that have tragic consequences.

And it's not just the plot that felt forced but the relationship between the two women was awkward in many ways. I kept comparing the novel in my head to Dave Eggers's What is the What, and to Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes, both novels that have protagonists that go through unspeakable horrors, but both of these novels just pull it all together in a way that doesn't make the reader feel as though the situations are jammed in just to make a point. Granted, it's an important point -- or an important book -- and you can't fault Cleave for his research or how hard he worked to create the voice of Little Bee. But how he chose to wrap her story within that of Sarah's and how their lives are intertwined just doesn't work. Further, there's a fairytale element to the penultimate action that rang false and the end of the novel was quite flat compared to how hard he had worked to set up the situation from the start of the book. I didn't believe the drama -- and this book is ALL about dramatic situations that forever change people's lives.

Overall, as much as I was looking forward to reading this book, I am not at all sure what I think or how I feel about it. I want to like it A LOT because I believe strongly in fiction that pushes the boundaries and tells important, political stories. But in a way, I don't think they should be shoehorned in when they don't fit the characters or the voice that's actually telling the story. I wanted more for Little Bee -- and I wanted more from the book. But maybe I'll feel differently if/when I think about it some more.

Has anyone else read this book? What did you think?

WHAT'S UP NEXT: Lionel Shriver's The Post-Birthday World. It's a chunky, chunky book so I probably won't finish it in a day but we'll see how many hours my RRBB spends awake tonight.

READING CHALLENGES: The Off the Shelf Challenge -- I think I've had this book on my TBR pile ever since it came out almost two years ago. Also, Chris Cleave is British, so that counts too for Around the World in 52 Books -- he can be England.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Notes From A House Frau I

Something strange has happened to me now that I am spending so much time at home. I just want to get rid of stuff. Like, all kinds of stuff. I want to clear up, clean out, and reboot. Maybe that's what happens when you have a near-death experience. You simply want to take all the crap out of your life and symbolically take all the crap out of your system too. It's been a short weekend to a long week -- not a lot of visitors this week, which was good. I really needed to rest, but I am also starting to get bored of being in the house all the time, which isn't surprising. The other day, we walked to the Dufferin Mall and that was actually my favourite walk of the week. Not because we were in a mall but because we had great conversations along the way and my RRHB made me laugh. In fact, the two of us being at home so much has brought out a lot of patience and heightened sense of humour. There's a comraderie between us when it comes to the RRBB -- there's patience and understanding, the odd sharp word or misconstrued tone/meaning, but for the most part, it's been really terrific to have this time together.

Anyway, that's not the purpose of Notes From a House Frau. I'm trying to find ways of fitting my own life back into this new life we have created. Whether it's getting a closet back in order or finding a moment to write a new opening sentence to my novel (it was recently rejected by not one but two agents; I'm not giving up -- both of their feedback was excellent but I can't say I'm not disappointed). There has to be a way to balance what I want out of life, all of the things I had planned pre-RRBB and what I know I need to provide for him. Tips, tricks from experienced mom/writers out there?

On the whole, I haven't found a good moment or a good writing routine yet. Colour me silly for imagining that would be the easiest part of mat leave -- that the baby would have to nap sometimes and I'd be all awake and intense and ready to go. Writing for me is an amazingly slow process. I mean, I write quickly, but it takes me a long time to get what I write, well, right. I know the problems with my book and how to fix them, now I just need to find the right house frau routine to work that in with the other more intense things I'd like to do in a day.

It's amazing how just accomplishing one or two things from your to do list makes you feel like a regular person despite the muddy, foggy loss of true distinction between night and day. Right now baby has those mixed up and therefore so do I -- I take my iPad to bed and get email finished at 3 AM. I've got a whole whack of projects, knitting projects, getting out my mum's sewing machine and sharing my writing desk with it, clearing out all kinds of crap I've been carrying around for decades. I mean, I don't need my Nancy Drew books. I'll never re-read them and RRBB won't either -- as it's a well known fact in my industry that girls will read boys books but boys won't do the same, so out they go (to a very good home and a very lovely girl, mind you).

The disease has taken its toll on me in so many ways. At the height of the baby's fussiness, I sent an email to a friend stating, "How did you do two, TWO!" and she wrote back, "How have you almost died X number of times and survived!" It's all a matter of perspective. Right now, my world consists of very little sleep, a lot of words bashing around my head, plenty of unread Globe and Mails, and entire bookshelves full of titles I am going to work my way through. I've gotten my reading back or, rather, I've managed to fit that back into my life, now I just need to find a nook and a cranny for the writing because if I don't get this book done and dusted this year I might just have to shelve it -- and I don't think I want to do that at all. There's value there, there's a book there, it just needs another draft. And maybe an agent willing to work with me to get the book into better shape.

I also would love to start writing articles again. I miss that a lot -- I did a lot of it when I worked for Alliance Atlantis, lifestyle-type fluffy pieces on road trips and lipsticks. The first one I would pitch, should I ever pluck up the courage to actually pitch anyone, which so isn't me, is a bed rest/hospital stay survival guide for high risk pregnancy women. It's such a hard situation. When I was on the 7th floor of Mt Sinai there were women there for months. I mean MONTHS. Can you imagine spending that much time in a room you have to share with another person or, at the worst, three other people. Walking the same hallways, eating the same poor excuse for food, finding a way to feel human isn't easy in those situations -- everything about it makes you realize just how sick you are, and the implications for your mind when your body is failing are very hard to come to terms with, especially with 52 doctors coming in and out on a regular basis. Somehow, I think it would be a good story for people to read -- mine, but I'm not sure how or where it could go.

Anyway, I cleaned out a closet yesterday and it was very rewarding. It added more items to the rolling to do list, which is the greatest organization invention of all time as every intern who ever worked for me knows (I make all of them do them), but I now know where my other Michael Kors strappy sandal is, and that actually felt like an accomplishment. Not that I have anywhere to wear them, but at least they're a pair instead of being stranded and lost within my own house.

My second favourite photo of RRBB. He's finally started to semi-enjoy the bath.

#56 - The Senator's Wife

My bookshelves are lighter by another title this weekend as I finished Sue Miller's The Senator's Wife this morning while feeding the RRBB (well, technically he had finished and fallen asleep and I was approximating life before him by staying in bed and reading, one of my favourite Sunday pastimes). It was an interesting novel to read as one of the main characters, Meri, a woman approximately my age, gives birth to her first child and for the latter half of the novel somewhat loses herself in terms of having to redefine her life now that her son, Asa, is in the picture. The senator's wife of the novel's title is Meri's next door neighbour, Delia Naughton, an older, graceful woman, whose character reminded me a little of Jackie Kennedy, whether or not that was Miller's intention.

As the novel moves back and forth through time from the perspectives of both women until the ultimate climax, you get the sense that Miller was trying to create a very domestic kind of drama. Most of the action of the novel takes place in the semi-detached houses that the two women share (that's not to say they don't leave nor do they have jobs: Meri works at a radio station as a producer; Delia volunteers during the summer months at an historical house in town) and it's a book that's very much about the lives of these two women as they relate to their husbands, their children and each other.

From the beginning Meri's obsessed with Delia. For years, she's lived a very separate life from her husband, Senator Tom Naughton. A ceaseless philanderer, their marriage was ruined years ago, but they have maintained an interesting, connected relationship regardless. Meri and her husband Nathan, newly married, make the transition from lovers to that deeper bond that develops over time when you're married. And the novel explores all of these domestic issues: how children change a relationship, what it means to sacrifice your sex life as your body, your desire, your life changes; and how Meri comes to terms with all of this after the birth of her son (can you see the parallels, can you!).

It's interesting because while this is a women's novel, and there is literary merit to Miller's writing, it's also not truly the kind of book that I would enjoy. It's something I'd recommend to my aunt's book club -- a book that they can relate to in their personal lives, something that would generate a lot of discussion over a glass of wine about the value of monogamy, the fatal flaws in Meri's character, and how Delia's mistakes finally drive her to becoming a much stronger, even more independent woman finally free of the bonds she didn't even realize were holding her back.

Yet, there's not an ounce of chicklit in this book -- and I've finally figured out why -- there's no melodrama. There's no obvious heightened emotional situations meant to manipulate the reader. I was comparing this book while reading to Jennifer Weiner's Fly Away Home. Both protagonists have politicians for husbands who cheat on them, but in Weiner's novel, the sheer over-wrought-ness (I know that's not a word) of the situation carries the novel away for me. Miller's book is far more grounded. The women are more mature, if that makes any sense, more complete, because they're more fully rounded and realized characters -- they're not situations masquerading as people, which is often what happens in chicklit, authors mistake the need for a certain kind of plot and plop in a character that fits the description of where they want the novel to go.

That doesn't happen in The Senator's Wife. It's more of a meditation of home, of what it means to build a family, of what family means, of what marriage means, of what you need to sacrifice for your children, for the life that you want to lead, and how love informs it all in ways that neither women can control. The journey to self-realization for both Meri and Delia takes the better part of the book and that either women becomes the catalyst for the other to get there is not lost on the reader. The situation that finally spurns them both forward seems so innocent as it begins and then it ultimately reads as a subtle, yet brutal, form of betrayal. Yet, it's something that they both needed to go through in order to fully realize who they are -- who they needed to become. That this kind of self-realization needs to happen to women in their 60s as much as women in their 40s, their 30s, is an interesting theme that runs throughout the book.

The Senator's Wife is a solid, readable novel, but not something I'd recommend as my "best books of the year" or anything. It's a quiet book, with quiet implications, and in a way, that makes it perfect for the 2 AM reading slot that occupies my nights these days.

What's up next? I started Little Bee by Chris Cleave -- see, this clearing off the shelves challenge is absolutely working! I've gone through almost three novels this week.

Friday, December 03, 2010

#55 - The Man From Beijing

Henning Mankell writes gripping, engaging novels and, for the most part, I've enjoyed every one of his books that I've read. And there were aspects to The Man from Beijing that I enjoyed but overall it really wasn't as successful as many of his other novels. It's a stand alone, so not a Kurt Wallander mystery, and it's full of fascinating details about China, early development of the railroad in the US, the migrant/slave workers and colonization.

The novel opens with a lone wolf tracking the scent of blood, human. A man lies dead in a remote village in Sweden. In fact, the entire small hamlet, with few exceptions, is brutally murdered. And there is no apparent motive for the crime, no reason an entire village should be brutally slayed -- the likes of which have never truly been seen in Sweden before. The police can find no motive and the only link seems to be the fact that all of these people lived in the small, remote village.

When Swedish judge Birgitta Roslin hears about the killings in Hesjovallen, she realizes that she has a connection to the victims. Her mother's foster parents lived in the hamlet, and her mother grew up one of the houses where the massacre took place. In a way, she's somewhat related to the people who were murdered, and Roslin discovers that they were all relatives of the Andren family...and soon suspects that something much larger is going on than a madman gone wild with a machete. Although, as you plod (and I mean plod) through the complex backstory, you discover why it's so much easier for the police to arrest their suspected madmen than to believe what actually happened, and why.

Partway through the mystery, Mankell digresses into a narrative that follows the story of a young Chinese man in 1863. As he and his two brothers make their way to Canton, poor, starving, looking for work and food, they are confronted with the harsh reality of life. San, the protagonist, and Guo Si and Wu, are forced from their village and sent to wander. Like so many, they end up in a crowded city hoping to find a new life. They come upon tragedy after tragedy, and eventually San and Guo Si are captured, stolen and forced to become slaves building the railroad in the US. It's an impossibly hard life and as the novel progresses you understand the true toll progress takes in human life. In the end, San finds his way back home, but not before horrible things happen, things that would make a weaker man question whether or not he was cursed. How does all of this fit in to the massacres? Well, it would spoil the novel too much to truly explain, but let's just say that some of the things that happen while San is working on the railroad are avenged years later by one of his descendants.

Eventually, Roslin figures out there's a link to the murders with China and sets off to uncover exactly what happened. It's a dangerous thing to do, and she's really not aware of the kind of trouble she's stepping in. I enjoyed Roslin's character -- she's tough as nails, smart, and doesn't stand for any messing about. But I've always had a problem with revenge plots. I think they are the weakest in terms of thrillers -- I don't like them in movies and I'm even less fond of them in novels, which is why this book sort of fell flat for me. It's not a page-turner, and at 2 AM when you've got a RRBB feeding away, you need something active, and fascinating, to peak your interest. That's not to say that the novel isn't well researched and that the information contained within isn't valuable, I'm just saying it didn't all fit together as nicely as one would have expected from a novelist as solid as Mankell.

In the end, the parts of the book that I liked the best were the ones where Birgitta was out and about trying to solve the mystery. I doubt that Mankell will develop a series around the character but I do have to admit that I really, really liked her and wanted more from her in the novel. The far fetched nature of the entire book just didn't ring true despite Mankell's excellent prose and I was disappointed in the bad guy. He seemed very Hollywood, a little too Gordon Gecko for my liking, but I did learn a lot about China, or at least Mankell's version of China, and the very interesting political things that are happening these days -- in that sense, the novel doesn't disappoint.

And, because Mankell's Swedish, here's another book that counts for my Around the World in 52 Books challenge. One day I'll tally everything up. I've got four weeks left in the year. Maybe I'll get caught up on all of my reading challenges. Um, yeah, right.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The End of Life Outside My House - A Top 10 List

Seems like I am starting to feel a bit better. I have good days and bad days, today I am weepy and feel heavy with disease, but yesterday I felt terrific, and the day before that I walked as far as I have since leaving the hospital, all the way to Ossington from our house, which is at Dundas and Brock. But the days are blurry and there's little difference between one half and the other -- time just stops in a way, even as it moves along. I have lists, I don't finish them. I have things to do, but I don't do them. I have so little energy but as least they are all slowly getting done. No pressure, that's the trick.

1. The Walking Dead is an excellent, and not too, too scary zombie show. My RRHB tried to get us to watch another zombie show, made by the BBC about a Big Brother-esque reality show that gets invaded by the chompers but I couldn't stand it -- it was terrifying. But I like the story they're presenting and the characters in the AMC drama. It's a PVR keeper.

2. I am not ashamed to say, well, actually, I am ashamed and embarrassed, but I've started taping BOTH Oprah and Dr. Oz. Yes, I am that cliched house-frau at the moment. But at least I won't miss J-Franz on Monday and today I learned that willow bark supplements might stop the creaking in my knees. See, useful, even if you're only half watching and half either breastfeeding or trying to get caught up on blogging.

3. There was a time where I watched movies. Now, I watch portions of movies. And haven't seen anything good in weeks. Any suggestions? I miss movies. We have, however, been watching the boxed set of Prime Suspect, and it is excellent. Truly phenomenal. In fact, I half-watch just about everything. Television shows, especially. Often, I fall asleep.

4. I have not finished a cup of tea since the RRBB was born. Or a sentence. Or a blog post in one sitting. Or a household chore. In fact, if I get one thing done a day from my rolling to do list, I feel like I have run a marathon. Time melts when there's no significant difference between day and night. That's not something they tell you when you're pregnant.

5. Law and Order: Los Angeles is a pale, pale, pale, pale replacement for the mothership. The closest you can get these days is Law and Order UK. Hell, it's got Apollo from BSG on it, and Danny Baldwin from Corrie Street, and they are both aces. It doesn't even matter that they're simply reversioning old Mothership episodes for a UK audience. We still watch it every week. It might be my favourite show. Either that or Cougar Town, which I adore. Don't judge.

6. Before I came home from the hospital with the RRBB, we had carpet installed upstairs. It's so cozy and awesome. There are many plusses to having carpet in your bedroom and in the hallway when you walk down after having a shower. But to prepare, my RRHB had to move all of our furniture and all kinds of other life rif-raf from the upstairs. We had friends and family help him, which means our stuff is spread out all over the house. ALL OVER THE HOUSE. I can't find anything. We didn't even know where our camera was (has since been found) so Sue, my nurse in Labour and Delivery at Mt. Sinai, had to take pictures of RRBB's birth. They're great shots. I am glad we have them. But how unprepared is that? The carpet was literally being laid at the same time they were, ahem, putting some gel somewhere to get things started. We just didn't expect him to come so soon. Hence the fact that I have one, that's right ONE, outfit that's fit for more than a walk around the block and it's still maternity clothes. Hopefully doesn't look too, too like I'm still pregnant but I literally have nothing else to wear.

7. Speaking of clothes. I have lost all sense of self respect. These days, a perfectly acceptably outfit for a walk to the grocery store: no bra (don't ask; it's a disaster) or the one nursing bra that I bought from the hospital breast feeding clinic store because I was trapped in the hospital for three weeks; a pair of blue jogging pants, with extra long legs, so I need to TUCK THEM INTO WORK SOCKS; sneakers and a sweatshirt and/or, well, a different sweatshirt.

8. Often, I'll wake up with a terrifically itchy head. Like, I'm convinced I've got lice or we've got bed bugs or a terrible case of dandruff. No. It's none of those things. It's just the fact that I haven't washed my hair in gosh-knows how long, like over a week, and hadn't noticed. Oh, I've had showers. But I can't even seem to remember to wash my hair when I'm under the water and in the tub. IN THE TUB.

9. No more books until I read everything in the house that I haven't read. I am making a promise to myself. So far, it's going well. But Amazon.ca is very hard to resist. VERY.

10. I'll have to say that it's lucky I am breastfeeding. It's definitely combating the prednisone appetite. It's not, however, doing anything for the other side effects for the meds. The puffy face. The hair falling out. The crazy dreams. The weepies. But, for the first time in a long time, I don't have the psychosis. And that's a first. There's a silver lining in every single cloud, right?

10.5 This is my favourite photo of the RRBB we've taken so far.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Around the World in 52 Books - 2010-2011

Instead of trying in advance and failing miserably to get through the books/countries on a predetermined list, I am going to simply keep track of the titles that fit this challenge and see if I make it to 52 -- starting December 1, 2010 to November 30, 2011.

I wish I had a pushpin map where I could mark things off one by one, country by country, but I'm not sure Blogger has such a plug-in...

Around the World in 52 Books

1. Sweden: The Man from Beijing by Henning Mankell.

2. England: Little Bee by Chris Cleave.

3. Ireland: A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry.

4. Norway: Calling Out For You! by Karin Fossum.

5. Zimbabwe, Blue Shoes and Happiness by Alexander McCall Smith

6. Nigeria, Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

7. Dominican, In the Time of the Butterflies, Julia Alvarez

The Off The Shelf Challenge - 2011

The only reading challenge I am going to set for myself, with the exception of Around the World in 52 Books, because even if I never get there, I think it's important to keep reminding oneself to read books by authors from countries other than one's own, is The Off The Shelf Challenge. I have so many unread books lining beautiful bookshelves that I have collected, bought, got, asked for but never read, and always meant to get around to, that I am determined to try and read as many of them as possible, then pass as many of them as possible along to other people, throughout this mat leave year.

Instead of listing them in advance, I'm just going to keep a running tally here, starting this month of the books that came off the shelves vs. new books coming in that I have purchased or read for book club.

1. The Senator's Wife by Sue Miller.

2. The Man From Beijing by Henning Mankell.

3. Little Bee by Chris Cleave.

4. The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver.

5. A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry.

6. Calling Out For You! by Karin Fossum.

7. Payback by Margaret Atwood.

8. Pearl by Mary Gordon.

9. Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout.

10. The Keep by Jennifer Egan.

11. Abide with Me by Elizabeth Strout.

12. The City Man by Howard Akler

13. Weight by Jeanette Winterson

14. Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

15. Emma by Jane Austen

16. Showbiz by Jason Anderson

17. Pretty Little Dirty by Amanda Boyden

18. In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

19. The Lemon Table by Julian Barnes

20. You or Someone Like You by Chandler Burr