Friday, March 25, 2011

Notes From A House Frau XVII

It's been a hard week. I had a very disappointing visit with the SFDD last Wednesday morning. My creatinine levels have spiked again for no discernible reason. So, I can't taper the prednisone any further, and I'm back to bi-weekly blood tests, which is tiresome and exhausting, to say the least. And I know I shouldn't complain, that there are far sicker people in the world, people in far worse conditions than I am, but I had trouble seeing beyond my own frustration with fighting an unchanging disease for the last six months. You start to feel as though you are losing the battle that might cost you the war or, in my case, an organ. We are not remotely there yet but I've never been so scared that the disease won't get better, wholly better, than I am these days.

I've cried a lot. I've felt guilty for thinking terrible thoughts -- was this the right decision to move forward, why didn't I speak up when I was feeling so poorly, could I have prevented the episode from becoming so dramatic. Probably not. There was no way to tell and we ended up coming out of it alive and with a beautiful baby that we adore so much it hurts. But that doesn't stop me from being so utterly and completely sick of being sick these days. When the SFDD told me my creatinine had gone way back up, it was everything I could do not to burst into tears in his office. He's calm. I'm a wreck. My stomach is in knots and there's nothing I can do to fight the despair.

My RRHB keeps telling me that things are no different than they were when they let me out of the hospital all those months ago. And he's right. I'm not getting worse. The disease is stable or else they wouldn't let me go home and "stay the course" (SFDD's words; not mine). And taking 15 mgs of prednisone is way better than taking 60 mgs of prednisone. And so, we continue. And continue. Six more weeks until I see him again, six more weeks of being able to breast feed, six more weeks before they talk again about another drug regiment, and six more weeks of trying to think positively, of smiling, of playing, of giggling, of trying to relax and not worry so much about it all.

Way back in the way back, when I was first diagnosed with the disease, I was still a teenager. I had that invincible feeling about it all, there's no way I'd let the disease kill me -- it simply wasn't an option. You just don't realize the severity of it all at that point. I went to university, to grad school, started working, got married, and have had a baby -- all things that weren't necessarily possible the very moment I was diagnosed. That's the trouble with the flares, with the unstable test results, they refuse to be a part of the big picture. They trap you in the downward spiral of letting the disease win -- as if mind over matter actually makes a difference. All these years later, I'm far more temperate in terms of how I think about it all. I know stress and worry makes it worse. I know that being healthy is ever-so important. I know that I am lucky to live in a country where I have access to medical care that has consistently and, almost effortlessly, saved my life on more than one occasion. Still, I'm angry.

So, I'm trying not to let it show. I'm going to bury it for a little while. I'm going to sob, if I have to, and then laugh uncontrollably at some stupid thing that my RRHB says. I'm going to feel sorry for myself and then berate myself for doing so. Then, I might take a walk. I'll string some words together and then take a deep breath. It's funny, we all use war metaphors when "fighting" diseases -- and I can't help but hear echoes of Shakespeare's Henry V, the Kenneth Branagh film, which I haven't seen in years, but that great St. Crispin's Day speech, a sword thrust in the air. Maybe that's what I need: a great big sword to thrust in the air.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

#29 - Cleaving

Yes, I am skipping #28, Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, because I'm not particularly inclined to write and entire post about it. It was interesting, as everything he writes is, but not really book-length fascinating. And I certainly didn't find it as impactful as The Tipping Point. In a way, the book seemed a bit contradictory -- the thesis was all about trusting your first instincts, but the arguments and/or examples were all people who had massive amounts of experience in a particular area that gave them the freedom to trust their first impressions (if that makes any sense). I mean, I realize it's also about unpacking prejudice and other social innuendos (I found the section on marriage and reading faces particularly interesting), but overall, I don't know if this book changed my perspective on, well, life and business etc. the way his first book did. Regardless, I am now going to put Outliers on my library holds list because I do like his writing so very much.

So, Blink is my trailer -- now for the feature, Julie Powell's Cleaving. I read and adored Julie & Julia, and came to this book with the same wide-eyed wonder of yet another deserving blogger becoming a published writer -- expanding and solidifying their skills on the written vs. the virtual page. But, not all books can contain the wonder of first books when they are particularly successful, and Cleaving suffers a little from the sophomore slump.

The first half of the book deals specifically with Powell's apprenticeship with a butcher shop in rural New York. She writes passionate and obviously well-learned passages about her experiences, and I found these sections of the book the most intriguing. They were riveting -- bones cracking, wrists aching -- and you can immediately tell the passion she feels toward the art of butchery, a profession that few women enter. But where the book falls down are the "life is messy" bits in between. Her marriage, oft-described as 'like breathing' or something equally life-sustaining, has, well, lost its oxygen -- both she and her husband are having affairs; Julie first, then Eric in retribution, perhaps. And yet, despite hurting each other to the core, they stay together, they love each other, even if, at that moment, it means a lot of anger and trial separations. Powell's lover, referred to for most of the book as "D," is passionate, dirty, and a little rough, which is what she needs. In a way, it fulfills some sense of anger (or I'm totally reading into it) and self-destructive behavior that Powell feels deep down.

Yet, the narrative itself, the Julie Powell contained within the book's story, doesn't actively analyze her behaviour -- sure, she over-"metaphorizes" it (there are only so many meat metaphors one book should contains). She flails around drinking too much, and somewhat laughing off claims of alcoholism, sex addiction (not really but she does participate in SOME dangerous activities in certain parts of the novel), and actively tries to stalk "D" once he tells her he can no longer see or speak to her. In a way, it's the same obsessive behavior that made her dedication to the Julie & Julia project work, and you can't fault Powell for her extremely open, balls on the table, writing style. In a way, though, I did wish she came closer to finding out some answers -- or at least looking deeper at the roots of the problems.

The constant comparison between her husband, the meat, and her lover grew tiresome, and then she lost me completely in the second half of the book when she leaves Eric (the husband) to take numerous trips to explore meat culture around the world. Not saying that self-discovery is wrong, or that her experiences don't sound magnificent, but the whole book felt smacked together in a way that didn't necessarily work from a narrative point of view. The sinews, forgive my own meat metaphor, grew far too thin between the first part and the second.

In a way, it's impressive that Powell writes so openly and honestly about her experiences. And I'm not even claiming it's "TMI" as some of the other criticisms I read around the internet claimed -- it's more that there's a lack of style to the project, the style was there in her first book, this one feels rushed, repetitive and kind of "shock for shock value." There's no denying she's a talented writer of memoirs (memoirist?) but, on the whole, I wanted there to be a central focus, sometimes, that wasn't Powell, her actions, her feelings, or her explosive.

Not to make a comparison, but I've started Elizabeth Gilbert's Committed (another library book!) and, while I hated Eat, Pray, Love (threw it across the room half-way through "Pray"), I'm rather taken with it so far. Gilbert sets out, upon learning that she'll have to marry her lover (so he can live in America, with her), whom she promised never to marry (they both had spectacularly awful divorces), to learn everything she can about the institution to see if she can uncover her preconceived notions and move forward. That's what Cleaving is missing -- context -- something beyond the vivid descriptions of butchery (which, I'll repeat, are excellent) that grounds the memoir in something other than Powell's own heaving emotions.

That said, the package is fantastic -- I adore the cover; think the title is brilliant, it brings up all kinds of great word associations; and ripped through the first part in an afternoon. So, I'm on the fence when it comes to the book as a whole, but felt spectacularly sorry for her husband, her lover and Powell herself, the emotional train wreckage they all went through was so messy -- it can't have been easy to relive it on the page. And sometimes, the rawness of it all comes through so clearly that I'm surprised Powell had the gumption not to edit herself, even if the book suffers for it.

I read this great opinion piece on NPR's MonkeySee blog about the book. And agree, too, with the Globe's review. In case anyone was thinking of reading this book, too.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Notes From A House Frau XVI

RRBB has been hitting some very fun milestones lately. He had his first taste of solid food (if you can call it that) as the picture here depicts. He slept through the night: twice (even though in the few hours preceding the long sleep he was over-tired and ridiculously manic, but not upset). He visited a sugar bush and an antique mall (or, rather, his bored parents dragged him to said sugar bush and said antique mall). And he was babysat for the second time while my RRHB and I went to see the Elephant 6 collective at Lee's Palace on Friday night. Shockingly, he's still the happy, well adjusted, easy baby we've brought into this world.

Of course, I'm still not sleeping from the drugs. But the odd night isn't so bad here and there, I can handle it. It's funny, I get poetic about it in a way: the sun rises and it sets, the moon comes out, but without that deep hours-long pause -- time passing in an instant because you are, well, unconscious, everything blurs into one, breakfast feels like a late night snack, lunch disappears, and dinner is always rushed, trying to cram the day in before the bedtime routine starts. As always, I am at a loss for spoken words. Friends came over for dinner yesterday and I just couldn't finish my sentences, kept forgetting words, used the wrong words, filled up the space with malapropisms -- when does the 'baby brain' end? Perhaps when I get more consistent, consecutive rest, or perhaps when the RRBB turns 18 and heads off to university. Who knows. For now, I'm struggling with simple sentences while complex thoughts careen around my brain like snowflakes -- always melting before they necessarily land.

We went to the Bloor/Gladstone library last week, and it was glorious. It really is a beautiful building and I'd forgotten how much I enjoy libraries. I haven't truly visited one on a regular basis since being in grad school, and now that we're pinching every penny, I simply can't afford to buy books. I've been wondering a lot about other birth stories, wanting to compare experiences, wanting to maybe experience a little catharsis too in terms of my own trials and tribulations. So, one of the books I picked up was Rebecca Eckler's Knocked Up (#27). I didn't read anything other then What to Expect When You're Expecting while I was pregnant, and now that I'm no longer pregnant (although still with-pooch), I am curious to know about other mothers-to-be. I mean, not everyone ends up on the special pregnancy ward of Mt. Sinai hospital with their lungs bleeding before giving birth, right?

In short, I wanted to know what normal was like, in a way. Granted, there was a little too much: "is my ass fat????" throughout Knocked Up, and I don't know that I would have chosen a c-section had one not been chosen for me (I was oddly looking forward to the experience of giving birth). But I did laugh in various places, and while I know Eckler takes a lot of flack for her self-involved, me-first, examination of both pregnancy and parenthood, I actually enjoyed the lighthearted nature of the book. More chicklit than the nauseating "motherhood makes me a saint" stance of so much that I find online relating to this situation we're in (yes, motherhood), Knocked Up gave me a bit of a mental break in terms of contemplating all that happened to me, and that's all I'd ask of it. It was an easy-breezy read and I'm jealous of her ability to stay so completely focussed on not changing in the midst of such a huge change.

That's not something I've been able to do -- none of my clothes fit, in fact, I can't even seem to find three-quarters of my wardrobe, having packed things away to who knows where in the house. My body is so very different and I barely recognize myself in the mirror. The shock of the naked self in the shower is enough to give up food forever, and were it not for the prednisone encouraging my stomach to crave every baked good on the face of this earth, I just might. I need to get more exercise, and I was actually jealous when the Rebecca in Knocked Up went out on a girl date barely two weeks into her daughter's existence. There's a level of guilt that I feel the moment I am away from the baby -- that I am being a bad mother in a way by not constantly being in his company. I know that's crazy, and ridiculous, and that doesn't mean that I don't hand him off to his father for hours at a time, but it doesn't seem to be getting any easier leaving him. But to get back to my point, the physical changes -- shorter hair, chubbier me, bloating from the meds -- feel so much more permanent these days than the mental ones.

The mental part of being a mother seems easy these days. There's love. You give it out, a lot of it. There's patience, which sometimes gets tested. There's joy. There's boredom, and there's bliss -- but it all comes together in a pretty awesome package. So, I don't blame someone for obsessing about the size of their ass -- it's overwhelming to contemplate all of the physical and mental changes at the same time, something's got to give. I was remembering way back in the way back this week. An old boss I had at an evil corporation that I used to work for (which no longer exists) took us out for lunch within the first few months of her assuming a position she later proved she was utterly unqualified for. She had just finished mat leave for her second child and we were talking about babies. At some point, and I can't remember what preceded the moment, she crinkled up her face and said that she really didn't like babies, not even her own. Perhaps she likes her kids when they get out of the difficult infant stage, who knows, but all I've been thinking this week is how awesome babies are. I know I shouldn't be so judgmental but as if I didn't need another reason to post-actively hate the woman, now I even think she's kind of inhumane. I've already forgotten the witching hour, the exhaustion, the frustration of the first little while, and moved on to complete and utter adoration.

I know it won't always be like this -- and we're so lucky that we have an extremely easy going baby -- but, for right now, I'm wallowing in the fun of it all. Charging ahead with crazy vampire kisses and holding that baby high up in the air to hear him squeal. Suffering through the whining when he's in the car seat to enjoy a beautiful spring day where it neither rains nor snows -- where the sun actually feels warm. Staying up far past my bedtime to enjoy a moment of non-couch (baby STILL only sleeps on me for long periods of time) freedom to watch reruns of Law and Order. Listening to him giggle uncontrollably downstairs as my RRHB plays with him. Even sobbing uncontrollably because of the hormones and whatever else is coarsing through my system because of the meds. It's all awesome in a traditional sense of the word -- it inspires awe in me that this is my life now, that my life contains another's so completely at the moment, all things that I didn't know when I was just pregnant and hoping to live. I am thankful that I did. I wouldn't want to miss any of this.

Other library finds for this week: Blink, A History of the World in 10 and 1/2 Chapters, West Toronto Junction, Christina Rossetti: Selected Poems, as well as Knocked Up. I've been reading a poem a night before I go to bed, just dipping into them, and found this delicious line that somewhat sums up my last couple weeks: "O clamorous heart, lie still."

As if it could. As if.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

#26 - Light Lifting

Light Lifting, Alexander MacLeod's remarkable book of short stories, was our book club selection this month. I have to admit I did complain a little about reading yet another short story collection. In my mind, I'd grown a bit weary of the format and wanted something a little juicier, a little longer, to dig my teeth into. The women in my club are the smartest book people around and we have amazing discussions about books but this was our third story collection in a row and I had very mixed feelings about the other two.

But I've come to a very different conclusion after reading Light Lifting. I'm not tired of the short story. I'm tired of reading uneven collections where the stories are too dependent on quirks for them to be plausible and/or plot-worthy. With Light Lifting, and like The Lemon Table, I was ridiculously impressed, not only by the quality of the writing, but also by the cohesiveness of the stories themselves within the book. MacLeod hasn't written a linked book of short stories but each of the pieces includes are complete in a way that many lesser writers, some of whom we've read over the last few months in our book club, fail to achieve with any consistency.

There are real people between the pages of Light Lifting and while they all undergo some sort of life changing event, the writing around it remains subtle, metaphors don't stick out like sore thumbs, nothing supernatural happens, there's nothing 'put-upon' in terms of their suffering -- things just happen. Neighbourhoods change. Plants shut down. Fights break out in bars. But it's the intersection of these events and the places where his characters in his stories are in their lives that combine to create a remarkable moment. Someone at book club described it as pivotal -- something you don't realize at the time, or you do but it takes some time to reflect -- and one is forever changed.

I would hate to single out one story as my favourite among such rich bedfellows. But, as I always read so personally, the last story, "The Number Three," about a man who killed his wife and son in a tragic car accident, ripped open my heart and splayed it out -- I bawled. I mean, of course I did, even from the very first sentence, I knew I didn't have an emotional chance against this story: "The single fried egg might be life's loneliest meal." The psychological ramifications of the accident, regardless of whether or not it was his fault, are deep. And ironic, as he was a career man working for GM, and story's title plays on ideas of the big three, and the decline of the industry in general. So much is taken away from this protagonist, and even when there's a moment where he might take a step forward, the palpable pain that prevents the step is achingly apparent. It's just damn fine writing.

And in another bit of fine "life equals art" moments: there's a part in "Wonder About Parents" where the dad takes the baby, five months old or so, into the change room and discovers she's pooped so much that it's easier just to throw her outfit into the trash and carry on. They're on a road trip, heading home for the holidays, and the baby isn't well. His wife makes him go back and retrieve the clothes, they were a gift, they can be washed -- clothes are expensive. He does. Well, we were discussing that particular moment when the RRBB had his own, ahem, explosion at book club and I contemplated throwing all of his clothes out, but didn't, because he was wearing a pair of pants that I adore, that were also a gift. But, goodness, the child had poo IN HIS HAIR.

Overall, it was a wonderful book club brunch, and every single one of us loved the book. It's up there in terms of one of the best I've read so far this year (but The Illumination still holds the crown thus far, I think). But I'd highly, highly recommend this book -- in fact, I'd be happy to pass my copy along to anyone who might want to read it, I loved it that much. Light Lifting needs to be shared, discussed, and celebrated -- it's that good.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

#25 - The Incident Report

Sometimes, there's a clear reason how and why books end up on my shelves. Mainly they're inherited from friends in publishing, rarely they are gifts, and often they are books that I've purchased for some reason or other. But when the time comes to actually reading and reviewing them, I can't remember the impetus -- the review, the award nod, the discussion -- that precipitated the book collecting dust over the months and months it lingers on my shelves. Such is the case for Martha Baillie's The Incident Report. I know it was long-listed for the Giller in 2009, and the Globe review must have intrigued me, but having never read The Shape I Gave You (it's on the shelf; don't worry, and I know exactly where it came from), I'm surprised I'd have two books by one author unread...usually I'll at least try to read something by an author before buying another work.

Annnywaaay.

At first, I didn't know what to make of the book: is it a novel, a collection of linked short stories, the dreaded micro-fiction? Instead, I'm choosing not to put a label on it or to define it in such a way because I think it takes away from what Baillie was trying to do. I enjoyed the book very much overall, especially the vignette-esque parts to the story -- those little episodes that took place outside of the main character's life itself (they reminded me of the interviews in Up in the Air with the employees who had been let go; that was my favourite part of that film, I think, also, the most original). Each morning, Miriam Gordon rides her bike to the Allan Gardens branch of the Toronto Public Library, where she works as a newly rebranded "Public Service Assistant." When anything untoward or out of the ordinary happens at the library, said "PSAs" are required to fill out an Incident Report, which is how the collection is organized. Short, snippets of incidents that make up a life -- both in terms of work (the strangers that come in and request and/or do strange things) and her personal life (a burgeoning relationship with a younger cab driver named Janko, with whom she falls in love).

Because this is a Canadian novel, there's a lot of tragedy, which to expand upon would ruin the book, so I won't say anything beyond the fact that, as a reader, I have grown a little weary of reading about "damaged" people. I know pain makes for exceptional sentences. Yet, I am craving a little everyday in my books these days...maybe because I'm living so much in the day-to-day myself, and have had enough tragedy in my own to fill fourteen lifetimes that I am sometimes exhausted with it in novels. However, the nature of the narrative in Baillie's book isn't exploitative -- it's simply stated, matter of fact, even -- and that helps to dampen the emotional overbearing nature of the events themselves within the incident reports.

Some of the novel remains unresolved. Miriam's finding notes in various places around the library -- hidden in books, left behind on the photocopier -- that have echoes of a Rigoletto opera that her father once loved, and she's reimagined as the heroine. This was the weakest part of the book from my point of view. The mystery isn't necessarily solved nor is it suitably explained but, in a sense, that's okay, because it's more about how Miriam perceives what's going on than what actually happens that seems important. It's a way for her to explore her relationship with her father and for the reader to know more about the background of her tragic life -- how she ended where she is emotionally.

The love story is sweet, and Janko and overwhelmingly lovely character. Some of the passages had echoes of Ondaatje for me, "The Cinnamon Peeler"-type stuff, and I didn't mind it at all (only rolled my eyes once, and for those of you counting, it was, yes a "ride-me-like-a-stallion-Morag-moment within the book"). In a way, Janko was such an innocent character, consistently reading children's books, living in a small, small apartment, someone displaced by the ideals of a better life -- there was a story behind his life that we never got to know, only because this is Miriam's life, and so we know him only in relation to her. Had the novel been more traditional, I'm sure we would have known far more of his back story but then I think we would have lost the beautiful sense of wonderment that comes across throughout the sections of the reports dedicated to their relationship.

So, I wouldn't say I was swept away by The Incident Report like I was with the next book I read, Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod, but I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it, and how much I appreciated its brevity. Also, it's another book off the shelves and into the box of books to be donated, shared, shipped off, and/or sent away to anyone who might be interested.

#24 - The Illumination

Oh, Kevin Brockmeier, thank you so very much for breaking my heart.

The Illumination swept me away and held me tight and didn't let go -- I inhaled this book over a 24-hour period, and actually didn't mind the fact that I was the only one awake in my house far into the night simply because I had this book for company. Told in successive vignettes from the perspective of six different people, a single notebook, filled with one sentence love notes from a husband to a wife, the novel tracks the impact of "The Illumnation" on their various lives. One day, peoples injuries, be it cancer or a canker sore, begin to glow with white light. All of a sudden, the world's population is lit up when they are in any kind of pain. And it affects each person differently, and utterly changes the world.

The novel begins with Carol Anne Page, who manages to slice off the tip of her thumb trying to get into a package that her terrifically mean-spirited ex-husband has mailed to her. While in hospital, with her glowing wound, she meets a kind doctor, and then has a roommate who dies in a car crash. As her light is just about to expire, the young woman tells Carol Anne to keep her journal -- inside are hundreds of love notes from her husband, whom she thinks perished in the crash -- and the book starts along a journey that essentially forms the basis of the plot of the book. What's going to happen to the book, how does it end up from one person to the next, and what does it mean to their lives.

It then goes back to the husband, to a young boy, a missionary, a writer and then finally a street person who sells books in NYC. Each story alights on the fact that their lives are somehow touched (or ruined in Jason, the husband's case) by these words and the pain they carry. All in all, it's an excellent novel, truly the best I've read so far this year (I know it's only March). The writing is spectacular and, like Blindness by Saramago, the supernatural event isn't cloying or overdone; it's simply another way to explore the human condition and how it changes when pressed in a direction it never imagined it would go. There isn't the "end of the world"-ness that you'd find in something like Children of Men or the aforementioned Blindness, but there is a sense that without The Illumination, these six individuals would never come together, even with the notebook, which is a fine thread to connect them together.

They are vastly different stories but they all have one thing in common, and that their internal pain in some ways now matches their external pain, and there's little that can be done about it, even in a day of modern medicine. Strange and exciting things happen to each of the characters as we follow them while they have the notebook -- it changes them sometimes, sometimes nothing changes except perhaps a level of acceptance of the true disappointment in life. Regardless, the stories broke my heart in a million different ways and I love that about a novel. In particular, the one told from the perspective of young Chuck Carter, whose rich and vivid imagination more than counterbalances the fact that his home life is terrifically mixed up and abusive, and that he has decided to stop talking. I wanted to reach into the book and tear the boy up with hugs, I wanted to shake his parents, and then I remembered it wasn't real.

I can't imagine liking a book more, I truly can't.

#23 - You Or Someone Like You

I'd never heard of Chandler Burr or Your or Someone Like You before our sales conference, maybe a year ago, maybe longer. A friend in the office read and adored the book, so I ordered a copy in to read and there it sat on my shelf at work, and then at home, for months and months. So, coming to the "Bs" meant finally reading it, and what a surprise, it's actually a terrific novel, and completely not what I expected.

In a way, Burr's narrator, Anne, reminded me of a character Lionel Shriver would create: intelligent, uncompromising and, at times, aggressive in terms of what she wants out of life. At it's heart, this is a book about words, what they mean, how we use them, and how books enrich a life. Anne's got a PhD in English Literature. She's been married to Howard Rosebaum for years. He's a huge Hollywood producer and they've been living in LA for years. They are the elite of the elite of LA, they know everyone, and everyone knows them.

Anne's background, British by accent, raised around the world by her parents as her father served in the Foreign Legion, has taught her that home is always where you choose to be; Howard, her husband, feels like home is where you go back to, where people always have to accept you. This fundamental different might not seem like much, but when religion becomes involved (Anne never converted; Howard is Jewish but not Orthodox or necessarily practicing), it becomes a fissure that threatens to tear the couple apart. And when their son Sam announces that he's going to visit Israel, to explore his roots, something happens to shake Howard and Anne's marriage to the core.

Surrounding the family drama, Anne begins a book club -- more like an intense canonical reading group -- and she takes directors, screenwriters, producers, line producers, and the like through the books as a means of self-improvement and understanding. From there, it gets out of control, an article in Vanity Fair, and then all of sudden she's about to produce her own movie. Not always likable and not always saying things that prove popular, when Howard has a crisis of conscious, Anne breaks all boundaries to get him back. In a way, she has chosen love and family above all else, and without Howard, she's not home, she's not where she wants to be. But how she gets there, and her opinions, and what she has to say to impact him, to pull him back from where he ended up, well, it's neither politically correct nor all together sane.

The book is delicious in its irony, and carries the weight of its words very well. It's hard to write a book about high literature, about some of the greatest books ever written, include many of their words, and not expect the book to hold up to the same kind of scrutiny. I didn't agree with a lot of what Anne said sometimes, especially towards the end, but that's the point -- she was trying to be argumentative, fighting with all of her words to get her husband back, and regardless of the outcome (SPOILER: she gives a disastrous speech in front of a lot of truly "important" people), you can't fault her reason or her passion. But I think the most successful aspect of the novel is the fact that it truly doesn't go where you expect a simple story about a marriage either falling apart or coming back together goes. In fact, there's nothing simple about this book, and that's to be celebrated.

CHALLENGES: Off the shelf...

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Notes From A House Frau XV

We just got back from Restorative Yoga and the RRBB is conked out and successfully transferred to his bassinet. The photo for this post was the how the baby looked before we headed out to an Oscar party. Yes, he was yawning this much even before the show started. We left the house at 5 PM. He lasted approximately 3 hours with a nap in between, and then we came home. I really enjoyed being social for those few hours. I miss being social. Yet another discovery about myself that I've made since spending so much time at home -- I always imagined myself a homebody (I think I've talked about this before) and now that I've got a whole year off, the last place I seem to want to be is tucked away in our beautiful house.

The weather isn't helping. You can walk in the snow -- walking in the rain with a baby just isn't fun, you can't carry an umbrella and push the stroller, the baby is stuck under cover, and it's sort of completely miserable. So, this week was spent feeling a little sad, lonely and isolated. The prednisone getting to my brain in bits, and I actually sobbed one day. Sobbed. It's all to be expected, and it passes. Today (it's Saturday now) we went for a nice long walk, and I feel better. The baby has started teething and in a week or so he gets to start solid food. They grow up so fast, don't they?

Some days, I feel bad that I'm sitting here on the computer while the baby plays, either in his chair or on his activity mat. I know it's good for him, but I feel guilty, feel like I am depriving him of some parental stimulation, already letting him down and he's not even 5 months old yet. And then I feel like I'm a crazy multi-tasker, doing one hit of Where is the Green Sheep or Mr. Clumsy or Lost and Found, then writing a sentence when he's in the chair. Popping my head over the mat and making a funny face while he talks to his baby-friend the octopus or turtle. Then, I write another sentence or two. I read like a maniac while he's breastfeeding, sometimes, I'm concentrating so hard on the book I don't even notice he's fallen back asleep and there goes the sleep training -- I should have popped him back into his bassinet 15 minutes ago.

And then I start thinking that I'm too hard on myself, having too many expectations, and spending far too much time worrying about all the things that went wrong with my own childhood (which is few; we had a very happy childhood). The one thing that I am so concerned about, his sleeping, is primarily because I've been such an awful sleeper my entire life. I remembering being young, under five at least, and my mother sending me off for a nap in the afternoon. We were living with my grandparents then, in High Park, and the house was full of dark wood -- rich, expansive -- and all I did when I closed my eyes was imagine things. My brain wouldn't stop wondering how my body worked, what was the point of being here, where did things go -- strange things for a small child to work out, so philosophical. Ha! But I never slept. And as I got older, it only got worse. When I was in grade school, I started daydreaming in bed when I should have been sleeping, keeping myself awake by imagining I was Wonder Woman or some other crazy fantasy. Again, I never slept. And even older still, in university, taking the meds for the disease for the first time, I think I spent all of my second year of university awake -- a combination of a small bed, a tall boyfriend, and so much stress. Lots going on at home, very little money, lots of schoolwork, and that ruined me for years.

Finally, after much, much work and my own sleep training, years later I started getting some rest. But it took years of reprogramming myself, and still, every few days I'll have a night where sleep just eludes me. I think that's why I imagined the sleepless nights with the RRBB would be no problem, but now, including the many last weeks of pregnancy, I count not sleeping through the night a single time in over eight months. I feel like I'm back in second year university. Going through days in a fog, unable to create full sentences, and feeling so lonely. It's true that sometimes, you find a great sentence at 3AM but by the time you've got a moment to put it in context of a story, or whatever else you're working on, your mind is too fraught and frustrated that the work suffers anyway.

Thankfully, the RRBB has had two nights in the last week where he has slept for a solid six hours in a row. The first time it happened, I was awake the entire time. The second time, last night, I managed to sleep too, not the whole time, but at least a good portion of it. He still hasn't slept through the night but I'm imagining, as his mother's son, it'll be a while before that happens. And my main lesson for this week is to try and stop worrying about it. Fresh air, a little exercise, an adventure or two, and we'll all feel a bit better this week, not so sad, lonely and isolated.

Come on spring.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

#22 - Quiver

With Quiver, Holly Luhning has written a passable first novel that I, for the most part, enjoyed. There were issues, again, with the fact that I'm not sure if the novel itself knew what it wanted to be -- which is something I've encountered a lot these days in the books I've been reading, especially with first novels -- it's part thriller, part historical fiction, part conspiracy and suspense, with some chicklit cliches thrown in there (I've never met a heroine who fixes her makeup so much in any other book before).

Annnywaaay. Danica aka "Dani" has landed a plum fellowship at Stowmoor Psychiatric Hospital in London. A relic from the Victorian era, the hospital holds some of the country's most violent offenders, including Martin Foster, a man who brutally murdered a young girl in the name of Elizabeth Báthory, the 16th century countess infamous for bathing in the blood of her victims so it would preserver her youth. The cult of Báthory unwinds throughout the novel in a distinct Da Vinci-like way -- with found "diaries" and a secret group of people dedicated to keeping her memory and, for lack of a better word, "ways" alive. Dani has always had a fascination for Báthory, and this leads her into some dangerous territory. She meets a mysterious and beautiful "archivist," Maria, while at a conference. She's glamourous and a bit dangerous, and thus Dani's slippery slope begins -- soon she finds herself making professional errors and her personal life (she moved to England with artist boyfriend Henry) begins to fall apart.

Because something just isn't right.

Oh there's intrigue and italics, lots of secret meetings, and plenty of gruesome details, but the whole book lacks a certain focus to make it truly creepy. It just didn't quite get there for me, maybe because I found it a little too melodramatic in places, especially in the sections of the recreated diaries, and Luhning has a penchant for tangents when she's trying to make a point in places where fast-paced plotting would have been more beneficial.

There's a lot of Silence of the Lambs meets Interview with a Vampire within these pages -- a lot of rich description and I do find the whole Báthory backstory utterly fascinating. I just wish it was better entwined with the general plot and action of the book. A lot of the times, I found myself wondering how Dani got to be a psychologist at all -- she's quite terrible at reading people, and falls into obvious traps that would have more advanced crime fiction enthusiasts rolling their eyes a little bit.

That said, it's a really easy book to fall into, and that always takes talent -- to grab the reader and haul them along for a nice 1.5 day diversion. And I was truly creeped out by some of Báthory's behaviour -- and would have liked to have seen a lot more of it throughout the novel.

Monday, March 07, 2011

#21 - The Lemon Table

My bookish love affair with Julian Barnes continues, and I thoroughly enjoyed his short story collection, The Lemon Table. It's funny, a lot of the criticisms that I leveled against Sarah Selecky's work -- mainly its use of the second person, a story in epistolary format, and general the "twee-ness" of much of the stories -- can be set against this collection as well. Barnes uses the second person, which normally makes me crazy; he has a story that's all letters from a kooky old lady to himself, wherein the self-referential nature of it all would usually enrage me; and the last piece could be described as microfiction with no "real" plot per se but a selection of descriptions that come together to tell the tale of an egotistical composer. All of the above normally have me throwing the book against the wall and giving up in exasperation. But gracious, these stories are excellent.

The last story, "The Silence" tells me that lemons are a symbol of death in Chinese culture -- I'm not sure how reliable the narrator is in this last piece, so I am not going to take that verbatim. But it does give the reader and understanding of the general theme that pervades the entire collection. Musings on the ends of lives, on divorce, on death, on widows and the children left behind, on relationships that could have been but never were -- and I imagined 'table' more of tableau -- of that terrible acting exercise where your teacher yells "hold" and everyone freezes in whatever position they landed upon.

It's a terrific collection, cohesive even though none of the stories are linked; rich in language and metaphor; paced brilliantly and truly honest in its interpretation of the human condition. In a way, these stories reminded me of Alice Munro, only there's a little bit more sex and bad language, especially in "Appetite," which like her story, "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," deals with the tragic and debilitating affects of Alzheimer's. Both Barnes and Munro have a distinct talent when it comes to creating characters and situations that highlight the slightly awkward and sometimes terrible aspects of human nature. In this, the stories feel real, they feel relevant, and they feel complete, but not overwritten.

On the whole, I can't get over the immense breadth of Barnes's talent for creating characters that cross decades, even centuries, are so wholly different in voice, and are so utterly believable (even when he writes from a woman's perspective). In the epistolary story, entitled, "Knowing French," a spunky pensioner sends the author Julian Barnes a number of letters, each progressively more familiar, with little gems of humour and slices of life: "What I was trying to say about Daphne [a fellow "inmate" at her home] is that she was always someone who looked forward, almost never back. This probably seems not much of a feat to you, but I promise it gets harder."

Indeed!

And then, in an amazing story about misguided and unrequited love, "The Story of Mats Israelson," he writes, "Barbro Lindwall was not convinced of her feelings for Anders Boden until she recognized that she would now spend the rest of her life with her husband."

Exactly!

And then my last favourite line from the book, it's from the last story, the microfiction-like one about the egocentric, aging, and silent-for-years composer: "Geese would be beautiful if cranes didn't exist."

You see!

I can't stop. I earmarked a half-dozen, maybe more, pages, and kept putting the book down on my chest just to savour particular passages. In "The Things You Know," two elderly widows sit down for a terribly polite breakfast once a month and what comes out of their mouths is completely different from the thoughts in their heads: the resentment towards one another only palpable as a fork stabs an egg or a waiter brings hot water instead of a purely fresh pot of tea -- it was actually one of my favourites among an already rich collection.

Overall, now I think I want to read every single book Julian Barnes has ever written. It'll be a challenge to find books this good on my shelves as I continue through them. Thankfully, I've got a few books from publishers to get through before I get back to my challenge. I need a bit of a break from the pressure of the 300-odd titles staring at me day after day from my desk chair.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Notes From A House Frau XIX

Thoughts When The Last Time You Slept Well Was Two Tuesdays Ago

The RRBB cracks me up these days. Here's a picture of him on his activity mat, where he plays everyday for about a half-hour or more before getting cranky and not enjoying the company of his baby-friend the octopus any longer. We've started dressing him in real clothes when he leaves the house as well -- although that's hard to do when sleepers are the best things ever, especially if they have a zipper. And a picture of an elephant. Or feet that are fashioned into "shoes." The whole idea of cuteness just goes into overload on a daily basis in our house. Multiple strangers stop me when I'm out and about and comment upon the beauty of the baby -- and some, without permission, natch, reach in the stroller and touch him. I try not to get annoyed. But it's hard when everything is annoying me these days because I'm so freaking tired.

The being tired isn't the RRBB's fault entirely. Sure he's still waking up once or twice in the night, but it's mainly the fault of the prednisone that when I am up, I can't seem to get back to sleep. Or, I can't get to sleep at all and then there's no point in lying there being miserable -- I might as well get up and read and make more to-do lists than listen to both of the men in my life snore away happily. Oddly, it doesn't make me angry at all to not be sleeping these days, a little grumpy, a little out of sorts, but nothing like the rage that I usually feel after months and months of being on drugs that keep you awake and turn your brain inside out.

Last week I felt a little of the prednisone crazies for the first time. I was a bit down in the dumps thinking that it's been almost six months of really intense treatment for the disease this time around, and I'm over a quarter of the way through my maternity leave. Winter seems never-ending. The snow is still beautiful and we are still getting out and about but my son (my son!) hates hats. He screams when I put them on, screams until he's resigned that I'm not going to take it off, and then screams when his head gets too hot. So I will be very glad when it comes time to abandon his head to the elements and walk around unencumbered by animal-inspired toques.

As I sat up doing a restorative yoga posture called "legs up the wall" in the RRBB's bedroom (because he's still sleeping in ours) reading the other night, yet again after trying to go to bed early, after finally getting the baby down, after my RRHB put down his book and we turned off the light, and I discovered that sleep was like the mystical South for early explorers -- something on the horizon to be expected but never experienced -- I just felt sad. Overwhelmingly sad. And for no reason. Sometimes, I think the trauma and the stress of the disease comes out of my body in sadness -- the ache of my poor beleagured organs can't express themselves and so I just get sad, sad, sad.

It's hard not to feel the pressure of the physical changes of the disease. Hard not to feel frustrated when you see people who gave birth the day after you looking like a million bucks on Oprah (don't make me say who; it's embarrassing enough to be watching Oprah), and you've still got a paunch and your hair is terrible despite a cute new hair cut and you've got a pooch and your stretch marks are still purple and tiger-like and you haven't had a shower in two days because your RRHB is working and you've got the baby and haven't talked to anyone in days and are kind of lonely and it's 2AM and there is no sleep in sight. See, sad.

And I tried, for about 24 hours, to "Change [My] Life in 30 Days" as per a challenge in Chatelaine magazine. They dared me; I tried -- I ate well (followed their 80% rule and then gave up and went right back to eating three muffins and some organic jujubes for lunch), I "scheduled fun," which sounded stupid even when I was reading it, and could just not bring myself to go on a "laughter date." I'm impressed with the writer's ability to come up with 30 ways to change your life, small things to make your everyday just that little bit better, but they were not the long lasting, calming changes that I was craving. They were a bit too Gretchen Rubin (not bad; just not for me) for my taste. So, I've been thinking of my own 30-day challenge, because, of course, what I need is more to-do lists and ways to improve myself during an already stressful time, something to try next month and to keep track of here. Where I'd start -- create a healthy budget and stick to it. The trouble with these "dares" is that they aren't long-lasting. You do it one day and then drop it the next. My life isn't going to be made better or different or less sad by only having the "pick six" things on my to-do list. Seriously, shut up Chatelaine. When did you get so vapid?

Self-improvement seems like such an easy goal when you've got an entire year of not working. When you're committed to examining every aspect of your life -- not only because you're thinking every day of how your life impacts a wee one in your care, but because you never want to take that life for granted. I'm tired of almost dying every couple of years. I'm exhausted from fighting the Wegener's. I'm feeling like I've had my fill of epic tragedy. I don't want to talk about my life in terms of the things that have been denied to me -- because it's so much better to actually think about it in terms of what my life experience has opened up for me. There's a richness in the strength and understanding that comes from struggle. But sometimes, just for a couple of hours, I wish it wasn't all so blood hard all the time.

A year ago, even well before I was pregnant, I never would have imagined I could walk so far and for so long. But, like anything else in life, the more you do it, the better you get, and it seems that the more I walk, the more I can walk. I'd make all kinds of excuses: my hip, too tired from work, too far, let's just take the car -- and now I get angry if I can't get out and get going. A "block" means at least an hour, maybe two, and while I'm doing things along the way, grocery shopping, to-do list attacking, I'm also pounding out the sadness, leaving it a bit behind as I go -- it's the days upon days that I get stuck in a rut, where I am too down to leave the house, those are the moments when the prednisone wins. When the disease wins. When I am struggling to know myself outside of the diagnosis and the bloodwork and the peeing in jugs and the blood pressure issues and the preeclampsia and the rest of it all. If only it wasn't there in my face every time I look in the mirror -- the "moon" cheeks and the thin hair. If only I could leave those reminders behind as well.

Annywaay, I am rambling. The baby's sleeping still and I'm taking advantage and rolling out words like thunder, and not really thinking through what I'm writing about. Perhaps this is the moment to stop.

Friday, March 04, 2011

#20 - Turtle Valley

I really must confess that the last couple books have really been not up to snuff in terms of the quality of reading that I've been finding on my shelves -- I mean, I've discovered some truly excellent authors I had never read before (Julian Barnes) and inhaled the backlist of others that I had come to love (Elizabeth Strout). I really wanted Turtle Valley by Gail Anderson-Dargatz to turn things around for me. Alas, it did not.

Sigh.

Turtle Valley has to be one of the most frustratingly erratic novels I have read in a long time. The narrative suffers from a distinct lack of focus and can't really decide what it is -- a ghost story, the tale of a woman's marriage falling apart, a story of seemingly never-ending family tragedy? Instead, all of these plots and themes are muddled up together in a rushed, convoluted, awkward book that had so much promise.

But let me digress. I really loved The Cure for Death by Lightning. And, if I can remember, I enjoyed A Recipe for Bees too. Anderson-Dargatz is a talented writer, no one is denying that fact, but this is not a cohesive novel that shows off her storytelling ability. Kat, short for Katrine, arrives home to Turtle Valley with her preschool-aged (I'm imagining; his age is never given) son Jeremy and disabled husband Ezra in tow (he suffered a stroke; tragedy #1) to help her aging parents pack up their house as a forest fire rages in the area. The natural disaster provides an excellent backdrop to the story, and allows a sense of natural urgency and drama to inhabit the narrative -- this is the good stuff. But where the novel falls completely apart is how Kat unravels the mysteries of her family's past, hidden letters, hidden stories, unforgiven truths, and a ghost that haunts them all.

There's no straight shooting in this novel. Anderson-Dargatz wants to tell things slowly but then there are places where the book just doesn't make sense, where it would have benefited from a serious sense of grounding just so the reader can believe what's going on. In one scene, Kat's lifting dinner out of the oven (wha?) and then discovering her grandmother's letters and racing off to the neighbour she once had an affair with (tragedy #2, lost love) and then suddenly the fire's on top of them and her father's dying (tragedy #3). Then she's telling her older sister about a moment of tenderness between she and her husband (marital discord and eventual divorce; tragedy #4), which is a scene we READ, that had nothing to do with the retelling or any of the moments she described, and this goes on throughout the entire novel.

Far too many scenic moments and heavy-handed imagery plague the narrative (how many times can we be told about the ladybugs, how many!!!) and, in places, the dialogue is terrifically awful, and I found myself doing the patented eyerolling, yelling in my head, "people don't talk that way!" as I was reading. The whole book would have benefited from a far more dedicated sense of time and place, and there needed to be far more attention to detail. Maybe if there wasn't so much going on -- ex-lovers and dying fathers and dead grandfathers haunting the place and half-bonkers mothers and angry husbands and ever-looming fires getting closer -- the book wouldn't feel so all over the place. In a sense, I felt overwhelmed by the trouble in the novel, by Kat's inability to actually cope with one aspect of her life at any one time -- she's racing around like a firebug, jumping from thing to thing, and we barrel along with her, much to the novel's disadvantage.

The real fire in the Shuswap happened in 1998 and, like I said, Anderson-Dargatz uses the event well, but I often wonder if so much tragedy feels or reads realistically -- it all felt so forced: her husband's stroke (how old was he, how did they explain the stroke, what was his prognosis, how long has he been sick, none of this is explained); their marital problems (which, of course, led to her wanting to rekindle a relationship with the hot potter next door whose own wife suffers, OF COURSE, from MS); the drama surrounding her grandfather's death (that's the big family mystery); her father's cancer and her mother's increasing dementia, that there are just too many awful things happening in this novel.

I know life is like that sometimes, terrible tragedy upon terrible tragedy, but I just didn't get Kat. She pleads with her husband to let her in, to let her love him, and then she cheats on him; her family keeps secrets upon secrets from her, and then they spring the truth on her at the very moment the fire's about to take all the proof away. And when they finally discover the love letters between her grandmother and her great-uncle (her mother's mother; her father's uncle), she races off with them even though, as I said above, she just took a pot roast out of the oven. And no one says ANYTHING. All in all, the erratic, convoluted nature of this book disappointed me throughout. I wanted to love it. I wanted to be swept away in the scenery and the shock of the fire -- I wanted to believe in the ghost story, the haunting, and I wanted Kat to redeem herself by the end, but there's too much in this novel for it to be wrapped up quickly, and yet, that's what Anderson-Dargatz attempts to do. The end of Kat's marriage is glossed over in one sentence, and then wrapped up awkwardly, as if it was simply a tool to insert even more drama into an already conflict-heavy, relationship-based family story.

All in all, I'm not sure how I feel about the book. I sped through it, so it definitely grabbed my attention, but I definitely expected more from this book, and this author.

READING CHALLENGES: Off the Shelf, and if I was doing a Canadian challenge, it'd be one for the books there too. I skipped the 1001 Books section of the shelves this time around, I really want to save those chunky books for the summer at the cottage, so I am trying to power through the Canadian, American, International and British sections over the winter/spring. Also, I only have one Austen left, Mansfield Park, and I don't want to read it just yet. So I might skip the "As" and come back around to it when I'm not so disappointed in my reading. Thank goodness for Julian Barnes. I'm reading his short story collection, The Lemon Table, now and it is excellent.

#19 - In The Time Of The Butterflies

When tackling this whole "off the shelf" challenge I have consigned myself to this year, I've been judging books by their page length, which, in my reading world, translates to how long it'll take me to get through it. In the Time of the Butterflies, from start to finish, clocks in at 324 pages. That's about three hours for me -- so maybe a day and a half in baby time. But GOOD GRIEF this book took me forever to read because I just couldn't get into it.

While I have no doubt it's an important novel -- the weight of the language, the heavy-handed metaphors and sentences dripping with meaning, tells me as much -- and the history that forms its central plot, the murder of the Mirabel sisters in the Dominican by the ruthless dictator Trujillo, is actually really fascinating. But the book does not, in my mind, "[make] a haunting statement about the human cost of political oppression."

In a way, this is women's history. The novel centres around the 4 sisters and their daily lives -- their marriages, the birth of their children, and it's a domestic novel for the most part. And all the while, the four sisters are charging forward with a revolution. I just wish there was more revolution in the book and less meandering. I wanted to know more about the revolution and less about ribbons. I know that's probably quite sexist of me, that the fact that these were women revolutionaries challenging the male-established dictatorship means the novel should necessarily include discussions of the domestic, but it slowed down the action to a crawl. And by telling the story from all four of the sisters' points of view, Alvarez manages to disjoint the narrative so completely that you only get a fraction of each of their lives. Personally, I would have preferred the novel centre around Mirabel, the most dynamic and active of the four sisters. But, I didn't write this book.

First published in 1994, I think this book suffers a little from the trappings of the time -- long-winded and overly descriptive, I'm reminded of the Seinfeld episode where Elaine goes to see The English Patient (let me just state, for the record, that I loved both the book and the film), rolling her eyes the entire time in boredom. At least I think that's what happened -- I think that might be the only episode of Seinfeld that I've actually seen from start to finish. Annnywaay, she just doesn't get what the big deal is, and I feel that way about this novel. It's a national bestseller, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and blah de blah, accolades and great blurbs. Yet the book failed to keep my interest and over and over again I found myself not wanting to finish. It was written at a time when long, flowery sentences and the cult of Gabriel Garcia Marquez was going strong. And the importance of the novel, the politics, the very real struggle, the incredibly tragic murder of these four women, gets lost within the precious nature of the prose, the inevitable storytelling that never seems to actually tell a story but circle around it, planting pretty flowery sentences along the way.

Overall, I was disappointed, and found myself just wanted to get to the end, to see how they die -- and then, of course, it all happens off stage, which made me furious. They died violently, brutally, unnecessarily, and Alvarez should have had the bravery to write it. Instead, the book simply stops and then switches perspective again, heads back into its dreary narrative and tries to cover it up by describing their dead bodies as the remaining sister, Dede, identifies them. There's no power to this narrative; the power is in the truth of the events themselves, and Alvarez coasts along because of it. I know it's harsh but, again, books should stand the test of time, prose shouldn't feel dated, and a story of such importance should actually read that way, and not hold itself up on some bronzed pedestal.

READING CHALLENGES: Off the Shelf, and Around the World in 52 Books. Alvarez was born in the Dominican, and I usually really love Caribbean literature, but not so much in this case.