Thursday, April 28, 2011

Notes From A House Frau XX

I Am Drowning in Empathy

At this very moment, my RRHB is serenading the RRBB with very sweet guitar sounds, singing softly to him, and I am finding it a struggle not to bawl. I am not going to lie. Things are hard right now. It's been a long six months of fighting the disease with very little good news. As a result of my blood work being so wonky, I'm back on a higher dose of prednisone and it's actually taking its toll this time around. I am defeated and down. I am hoping every moment of every day that it isn't reflected in my parenting. That the baby can't take one look at his puffy, grey-haired mother and think: "Why did I end up with her?"

He's six months old now, and we officially have to start weaning him. I need to start taking not one but probably two different medications for the disease, and neither are compatible with nursing. I am so hesitant to let it go, not because I think it's so good for him, or because we've created an accidental parenting nightmare with him only nursing to sleep for the most part but, rather, because it's truly the one thing that's gone so very right amongst all of the wrong the last few months. He's a champion nurser -- has gained a great deal of weight, and is rarely waking up more than once a night now that we've got a semi-decent bedtime routine going. I'm clinging to breastfeeding in the sense that it's a symbol of normalcy in terms of my life at the moment. I feel like a regular everyday mom, and not one whose exhaustion comes from a battle going on within her own body rather than the comforting tiredness of raising an infant.

I can't seem to hold back the blues any longer. I've tried. I'm doing it all right: I'm getting out, getting exercise, seeing friends, have a great support system, but when my creatinine hit 180 and I knew the disease was back to its nasty, aggressive self, I felt palpable fear. A panic in the middle of my chest. An ache in my belly. A tell-tale sign that if you don't fight psychologically as well as physically, the disease can beat you on all accounts. But thinking positively has never been a strong suit of mine. It's funny -- I like to think of myself as relatively upbeat person. Glass half-full. Glass half-fun. Lots of jokes. Laughing a lot. Enjoying life however it comes to me, but then, pour the prednisone into my system and I become entrenched in the cocoon of depressive thinking, everything's going wrong, I suck at it all, I look terrible, I feel even worse, and it's a vicious cycle that seems as hard to get off as a British roundabout.

And I cry. And cry. And cry. Not in front of the baby. And not about anything in general. I just feel so bad about so many different things -- silly TV movies, an episode of Law and Order, a book, a newspaper article, the state of the environment, the election -- the list goes on. I'm drowning in empathy. Goodness, my mother, who lived for over twenty years in a chronic care hospital, had a horrible existence. And I can't stop thinking about her lately, feeling such epic pain on her behalf, and I know it's not rational, she has thankfully passed away now, that it kept me up for hours the other night. Like Leonard Cohen sings, "I ache in places now where I used to play." I know he means it slightly differently than I would interpret, more bodily, but my mind is aching in ways I haven't had to deal with in decades. And I can keep it together. I am keeping it together. But I'm missing out on my own life in a way too. That's what disease does to you -- robs you of your potential. I've always thought that I've put up a really good fight of taking that potential back, of climbing out in ways that I can feel proud of: advanced degrees, writing, a career that I enjoy, a family, but for right now I'd settle for progress in a medical sense. For better test results, for my body to respond to the treatment, for someone to find a magical solution that rips the Wegener's from my body once and for all.

Funnily, the baby and I are struggling together. He's trying so desperately to move. He rolls and rolls and rolls and rolls but can't get any further, and then he fusses because it's frustrating not to be able to go where you want to go. I roll him back and pat his belly, tickle him a little, sing a little song, and he grins -- it's so delicious it could be a vegan cupcake -- and then we start the whole ritual over again. But I know while he can be the "measure of my dreams" (so say the Pogues), he can't be the solution to what's going on in my brain. He doesn't need that kind of pressure -- I have to pull myself up from the malaise myself. Burdening your children with your happiness -- what could be worse, I think, in terms of screwing them up for life.

Yet, there's so much joy in the everyday. We took the picture above yesterday when all three of us sat outside on our back porch and just watched the rainstorm. Pounding down all around us, we three happy and dry, the rain was another new experience for him, and for us too, in a way, looking at it from his point of view, wanting him to know weather, life, the outdoors, our backyard, all the potential of his life. Maybe that's the point, to remind myself that I still have potential, that the disease can't take it all, I don't have to let it win. But today, it's winning. Today, I'm crying a little bit too much. I don't want to leave the house. I want to eat Doritos, nachos and all kinds of other bad food. Thankfully, the Nephews are coming over for an hour and that should distract all of us from the maudlin feeling-sorry-for-myself kind of day I'm having.

#38 - Anthills of the Savannah

Because we had been reading a lot of Can Lit in our book club, and a lot of short stories to boot, I put forth Chinua Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah as our April selection. Over the years, my post-colonial reading has declined dramatically, and it was one of the goals of having an Around the World in 52 Books challenge -- to end up reading more non-Canadian fiction. Alas, it was probably a good thing that I decided to actually make dinner for The Vicious Circle Book Club, if only so they'd forgive me for choosing such a dense, complex novel.

It took me six tries just to get passed the first few chapters, and we decided as a club that once you got to page 40, the book became readable, and you were somewhat home free. With respect to construction, it's the most post-modern novel I've read in a long time: perspective switches from first, to third, from character to character, and the narrative often circles around events, moving back and forth in time, just assuming the reader will keep up. Here's where we bring out that old po-co staple -- that a lot of African fiction follows more oral than narrative traditions, but I'm not sure I'd make the sweeping generalization that Achebe was setting out to prove that -- maybe it more like he was trying to reflect the impossibility of telling a story, a straight forward, this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened, kind of story, when your world is in utter chaos.

Set in the fictional West African nation, Kangon, three old school friends, Sam, Chris and Ikem, Western-educated men living among the upper echelons of society, must redefine their relationships now that Sam has become His Excellency -- the country's dictator. As Chris, one of the main characters says, "I have thought of all of this as a game that began innocently enough and then went suddenly strange and poisonous." As the rest of the novel unravels, the story is strong: Sam wants to stay in power, and even though there's an uprising "in the north" against him (which is a product of deep misunderstanding and miscommunication), lifelong friends Chris and Ikem, now the Minister for Information and the editor of the national newspaper respectively, bear the brunt of Sam's fall from grace and are fired, forced into hiding and fighting for their lives.

Because characters are "witnesses," the novel changes form on the drop of a hat -- you can be in the first person with Chris in a meeting, then be reading some whimsical treatise by Ikem, listening to Beatrice, Chris's girlfriend, speak pidgin English with Elewa, Ikem's girlfriend, and then be in the middle of some strange scene involving non-doctors and other visiting dignitaries from all of their time in London. Structurally, narratively, the novel makes little sense, but the story is so powerful and the writing so excellent that instead of writing the book off as "bad" per se, I spent a long time trying to unravel why Achebe chose to tell it this way.

There are moments of pure grief in this novel. Acts of senseless violence, struggles that seem utterly relevant now, especially in light of what's happening in the Middle East and in Northern Africa. There's also an element of futility to the story, and the strength, the power in the continuation of life comes from the female characters. This was not something that went unnoticed by our book club -- we all really loved the character of Beatrice, and I even went so far as to suggest that I probably would have found the novel easier if the entire book was written from her point of view. But easy isn't the point, life itself isn't easy, and living in a nation that's having violent growing pains isn't a story that can be told in traditional ways. In a sense, Achebe's novel proves that our "canon," the Western tradition, isn't necessarily up to scratch when it comes to the complex and difficult "isms" surrounding the characters in this novel. I could think about it for weeks and not unpack it completely. And, if I were still in school, I think I'd be very happy to write a long, complex paper about it.

Kerry does an awesome job of recounting our discussion from the other night.

What's Up Next: I'm devouring The Elegance of the Hedgehog. It's delicious and delightful and utterly engaging. I'm almost through and I only started last night! And then I've got a long list of library books AND a beautiful friend who knows me so well sent me Roddy Doyle's latest book of short stories -- I couldn't resist, I've already read the first 5 pages and can't wait to read the rest. I adore him. So, I've abandoned Off the Shelf for now, but only because I needed a break. I was reading far, far too many mediocre books (with the exception of Julian Barnes, natch) and needed a breather. But I will go back. I am determined to read every single damn book that's perched there, just to say that I did. Stubborn, yes. I know.

Friday, April 22, 2011

TRH Books - Catching Up

I don't have time these days for individual posts but I do want to catch up so that I can take the time in the next couple weeks to really talk about a few books on my TBR pile. I've abandoned my stacks lately and have been reading library books for the most part, or books that the publishers have sent over. But here goes:

#33 - The Brightest Star in the Sky by Marian Keyes

At first, I didn't quite understand the premise of this novel. The narrative -- an omniscient "being" trying to figure out where to "land" -- tells the story of the inhabitants of a building in modern-day Dublin. Each person and/or couple who lives in the flat has his/her/their issues in terms of life, work, relationships. You know, vintage Marian Keyes. It's a swift, sweet and predictable read, but I enjoyed the book.

#34 - The Girl in the Green Raincoat by Laura Lippman

Rear Window meets She's Having a Baby (without the histrionics) -- Laura Lippman's Tess Monaghan is laid up with pre-eclampsia prior to the birth of her daughter. When she sees a dog race by without its green raincoat wearing owner, she finds herself embroiled in a missing persons case she needs to solve from her bedside. I missed the novel when it was serialized in the New York Times Magazine, but I loved the story anyway: it's short, yes, but it's also vintage Lippman, smart, sassy, and truly addictive. In the post-script, Lippman explains the particular challenge of writing an ongoing character and/or story in serial format, and how she made each chapter complete while progressing the larger narrative as a whole. Fascinating.

#35 - Foursome by Jane Fallon

Jane Fallon's latest novel, Foursome, tells the story of two married couples who have spent the last fifteen or twenty years being a, well, foursome. The two fellows are best friends; their wives the same. They make perfect pairs -- happily married, great kids, fun, full lives in London -- until everything starts to crumble the minute that one half decides to get divorced. Or, rather, one husband decides he simply isn't happy and doesn't want to be married any longer. When her safe, secure group breaks down, Rebecca isn't quite sure how to put her life back together. Sure, her marriage is stable, and she's got a job that she loves, but the minute Alex, the husband of her best friend Isabel, professes his undying love for her (oh boy; he's her husband's best friend!), which she has absolutely no interest or willingness to reciprocate, well, all hell breaks loose. And it only gets worse before it gets better when Alex starts to date the loathsome Lorna, her "work enemy." In the end, it's a book that knows that life can never stay the same once major shifts have happened, and whether it's for better or for worse, change really must be accepted. Fallon's such a refreshing chicklit writer -- it's hard to describe these novels as "chicklit," though, they're well-written, with great characters, more family drama than shoe shopping, and I just adore her sense of humour.

#36 - A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes

My reading affair with Barnes continues, and I adored this book of short stories. In fact, I'd say that the opening story, "The Stowaway," might just be one of my all-time favourites, moving right up there beside "Hills Like White Elephants." I love the tradition of writing back to our creation stories -- Timothy Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage, Tom King's Green Grass, Running Water -- and Barnes does it exceptionally well. He winks at the reader throughout with the woodworm popping up in the most peculiar of places, and "Parenthesis," might just be the most heartbreakingly beautiful discussion of love I've read in ages. Overall, these stories are brilliant, vintage Barnes and I can't wait to read Flaubert's Parrot, which is next on my Barnes Read-a-thon.

#37 - The Stonecutter by Camilla Lackberg

I wasn't too terribly impressed with Lackberg's first novel, The Ice Princess. But The Stonecutter is a definite improvement, despite its utterly confusing title -- perhaps it should have been called The Stonecutter's Wife, but whatever. After reading an article from NPR about other Swedish crime mysteries to equal THE Swedish Crime Series of the Century (The Girl With The...), I thought I'd give her another try. There's still a lot of sloppiness to her novels: far too many characters and subplots meant to throw you off the "scent" of the main mystery and its conclusion. But I enjoyed the back and forth, past to the present, of this truly horrible character named Agnes -- she's was deliciously wicked in an awful way. And how Lackberg ties everything together in the end is quite satisfying. And I'm ever enjoyed the progression of the relationship between Erica and Patrick, who's charged with solving the murder of a seven-year-old girl.

So, short mini-reviews of my reading this month. Now I am desperately trying to finish Anthills of the Savannah for book club tomorrow evening. No napping for me today! I think RRBB's still got a contact high from all the Easter chocolate his mother may or may not have ingested yesterday anyway.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Notes From A House Frau IXX

All The Boys In The House

We baby sat my two nephews the other weekend -- two six-month-old babies (see left) and one five-year-old. And it was chaos. My RRHB had The Nephew outside to do some yard work while I took care of the two wee babes. For a while, it was Keystone Cops: put one baby down, the other would cry; pick him up, then the first baby would cry. Wash. Rinse. Repeat for about 25 minutes. Then I got wise to their mojo and just walked around the house with a baby in each arm. Every now and again the cousins would reach over and hold one another's hands. Babble a little bit. There was a point they were both in the crib and I heard SBC (Sweet Baby Cousin) screaming -- RRBB had turned himself right around and was hoofing him in the head. Hilarious. Then it came time to put them all down: RRBB down first, nurse him while reading The Nephew some stories. RRHB rocking SBC as I put The Nephew to bed. I take SBC and continue to rock him to sleep. The whole production took hours. Seriously, how do people do it? It's an art form, that's for sure. But it was also completely fun.

The lessons I learned? Even though it was hard to have more than one baby at one time, and that my body can not remotely sustain another pregnancy, but if I was 10 years younger and 100 times healthier, I'd think I'd have bucketloads more kids. It's just so fun. And that's not to say that my RRHB and didn't have a rich and fulfilling life before RRBB. We did. We travelled and made music and wrote unpublished novels and have wonderful friends and lovely families and loads of nieces and nephews and were considering moving to the UK (just because neither of us have lived anywhere else). But I'd always wanted to have children, and I am so glad that we did -- I'm exhausted, still dealing with a disease that doesn't seem to be quieting down, bored most days with being at home, but feeling enriched emotionally in ways that I find hard to describe. There's an element of patience and kindness in my life that was absent before. I had a terrible temper growing up, and well into adulthood. Apartments with holes in the walls where I kicked them once I realized I'd lost my Metropass or was late because I couldn't find my keys -- all kinds of trivial things that didn't remotely deserve the emotional response I gave them.

It's so interesting. Humans have emotions to burn. Piles of pent up anger, rage, discomfort, and some of it's absolutely debilitating. When you add tragedy to the mix, things intensify. There's no where for the energy to go -- and if you don't find active, positive ways to disperse it, I think that's when your brain just goes into overdrive. At least, that's the way it is for me. When I was younger, I held it all in, the pain of losing my mother, the frustration of constantly dealing with a life-threatening disease, a string of ridiculously bad, terrifically awful relationships -- constantly putting pressure on my brittle heart to take more and more. Gaining perspective isn't easy. For me it took one major prednisone-induced breakdown in my 20s. I'm not sure how much I've talked about it -- I couldn't leave the house, was cleaning with bleach at 3 AM, never ate, and was listening to voices in my head telling me to jump off of buildings. Oh, and did I mention I was trying to finish my MA? It was the most difficult emotional time of my life -- I didn't have any coping mechanisms. And once the psychosis hit its peak (the voices), that's when my kidney doctor at the time sent me to a shrink. I credit him with saving my mind and the "prednisone crazies" as I like to call them have never been so bad since. I have tools now of dealing with them -- of knowing what it is and the right way to approach the overwhelming emotions.

I needed coping skills this week. My creatinine spiked to 180 (keep in mind normal is 70, and my "normal" is in the 120s) -- the higher that number the less your kidney is functioning. And I was having all kinds of other advanced disease symptoms, terrible joint pain, awful ringing in my ears and ridiculously painful sinuses. I KNEW that because we had dropped the prednisone that it wasn't simply strong enough to contain the Wegener's. I cried, a lot. With the exception of when they diagnosed the disease, I've never had test results that high, and I'm living with the palpable fear that they're not going to be able to control the disease. That my kidneys will go and that'll be that -- positive thinking aside, patience aside, I needed an outlet for all the excess emotions raging through my system. The calmer I am, the better it is -- and thankfully, we got tickets to see The Pixies at Massey Hall (awesome seats, row L!). That one show, they played B sides and Doolittle only, reminded me not only of who I am but where I came from -- we've listened to that record relentlessly. It's one where I know all the words and all the songs and can place myself in different parts of my life through the music.

These days, because it's such a fun stage -- the six-month marker, I've been craving the baby. Not like I crave Cadbury's Easter Eggs but more like something pulling at my heart. I don't want to trivialize the relationship or state the obvious, write in cliches (every mother loves their child to abandon blah de freaking blah), but when he's sleeping I wish he was awake. When he's awake, I know he should be sleeping more. On days like today, he's perfectly angelic. Not fussy, eats just about everything in front of him (with the exception of some fruits that he's not crazy about just yet), smiles, sleeps, and cuddles with an intensity that I find hard to replicate. Days like yesterday, well, he's teething, so grumpy and couldn't stand not being held, which makes the hours slow and the time creep. I wouldn't trade it for the world -- either RRBB. I know I'm struggling. I know I'm not getting enough rest. I know I need to stop nursing. I know that the disease is winning these days but I find the joy in the everyday so much more than I ever used to.

We went for a beautiful long walk today along the railpath. There were tonnes of birds: mockingbirds, juncos, red-winged blackbirds, and a giant Canada goose. My friend Kath came with us, and she was walking her gorgeous dog, Mannix. The air's cool but fresh. The city is quiet because it's a holiday. And even though I want so much, for it to be warm, for me to lose the baby weight, to not feel the pressure of the disease, I also want to be patient with myself. We aren't having any more kids. I need to not race through this like everything else I do in life, just to get to the end, and then move on to the next thing. Yet, I'm loving every part of his growing up -- I mean, right now the RRHB's playing the piano and the baby seems to be singing along. It's so cute it makes you want to eat his toes. He's kind of screaming like Frank Black at the moment: whaaaaa! Aaaaaa! eeeigh!!!

So my life is made up of moments lately. Some good. Some bad. But all connected by this gift of time that I have before me. Six more months and then it's back to work. Then the baby is no longer a baby but a toddler and if one more person tells me how fast it's going to go, I might just start weeping in front of them. I don't want it to go fast. I want it to be the slow food movement of maternity leave. I want it to be all savoury and with rich spices and lots of new and exciting dishes. And when we need it, a frozen pizza or two.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

#32 - Committed

Dear Elizabeth Gilbert,

Should you have ever come to one of my book club meetings, you will have discovered that I am not a fan of the epistolary format. It makes me a bit crazy unless it's Mary Shelley, actually. Yet, I feel the need to speak to you directly. Perhaps it's the personal nature of your book or perhaps it's my own selfish need to write a bit differently today -- regardless, here we go, an open letter to you.

An apology to start: I really and truly hated Eat, Pray, Love. I didn't give it a proper chance, however, and threw the book across the room halfway through India. The voice, the whining, the lack of appreciation for your life's gifts, it all annoyed me to no end. And then I watched the movie (why oh why does Hollywood insist upon making movies about writers where they never, ever write? Aside from an email or two -- to break up with a boyfriend none the less -- the Liz Gilbert in the film never picks up a book or a pencil. Annoying. Didn't that bother you?) and it affirmed my every action in terms of not finishing that book.

Cultural zeitgeist aside, I was weary to read Committed. In fact, I'm not sure why I did -- and it took some effort, an extra trip to the library, a hold, actual dedication to read your book while caring for an ever-increasingly needy infant. But am I ever glad that I did. I'm going to say it loud and clear: I'm so very sorry. I was Judgy McJudgerson when it came to EPL, I couldn't abide by the stories I was hearing of groups of women having themed parties and giving up their own lives for a year of self-journeyment. Maybe I was jealous. Maybe I wanted to be out there too -- travelling for year and then writing about it. I mean, it sounds delicious. Yet, something in Committed, maybe it was the word "skeptic" in the book's subtitle that caught me, or maybe it was the subject matter (being a happily married lady myself but ever-curious about the social and political implications of the institution itself), but I was hooked by the first chapter.

In fact, despite the odd pairing of the more anthropological aspects of the memoir with your own personal experiences, I was somewhat taken in by your obsessive/compulsive need to research just about everything you could possibly about marriage before wearily entering into your own second union. I know Curtis Sittenfeld pointed out that some of the connections between your own research and experiences in limbo while waiting for Felipe's immigration situation to be sorted stretched thin across your narrative, but I didn't mind. I enjoyed learning about the people that you met, the marriages you came across, the kind of social history that seems to only be discussed between women but not necessarily written down. Women need to talk more about their differences. Or, rather, women need to be better aware of the social and political implications of marriage around the world -- if only to appreciate and understand our own particular wants, needs, and biases.

But what I adored about your book, and what made me feel like a heel for being so judgmental about your first book, was the story about your grandmother. I, too, grew up with a strong natured, extremely intelligent, ridiculously amazing grandmother -- a war bride who bravely left her family behind in England to start a new life in Canada with a difficult man, who held her family together tragedy after tragedy, and whom I loved so much that I still think about her every single day. Your grandmother, with her sassy fur coat and her determination, her happiness in that tiny farmhouse with her small kids and everything that she gave up -- there's a richness to her story that I felt was missing from the bits of EPL that I read. Maybe I should have been more patient. Maybe more Maud-like stories would have shown up in the "Love" section of your book. Alas, I didn't wait around to find out.

I did, however, rip through to the end of this book and was pleased to see that the legalities of your situation worked itself out. That your skepticism still allowed you to take a brave step down the aisle and I could absolutely relate to the idea of wanting to be married but not necessarily needing a "wedding" (we called ours a "non-wedding" for a long time and got married at city hall; it took less than 15 minutes. In fact, the actual "wedding" means so little to either of us that we a) forget our anniversary just about every year and b) neither can remember exactly how long we've been married. Some people might think this strange -- but for me, and for us, it's about the relationship, not the piece of paper, about building a life together, not about the institution. In a way, why did we get married at all, one might wonder. But it was important to me to be married and I'm sure it's exactly as you explore throughout your book -- the way I was raised, the example of my parents' marriage, my grandparents and aunts and uncles.

Also, you have such a grand sense of humour throughout this book that perhaps I missed completely while being so annoyed with EPL? The tone of this book was whip-smart yet still with a questioning when it came to having to do something you were both so against from the beginning of your relationship. Lastly, I can absolutely relate to the obsessive/compulsive way you went about coming to terms with having to get hitched -- the research, the restlessness, the ideas of how to still be the "you" that you had discovered after your first failed marriage. And as one who obsesses and has their own compulsive tendencies when it comes to many aspects of my life -- it made me feel better to see someone else put it down in writing so eloquently.

So, in short, here's my apology for being so flippant and, well, cruel. I'm sorry.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Notes From A House Frau XVIII

At this very moment, my RRBB, after an exhausting few minutes of rolling over, fussing because he can't get himself back again (like a turtle on its back only in reverse; it's quite funny), has spent the last fifteen or so minutes looking at himself in the mirror on his activity mat. His concentration skills are hilarious. I'm not sure at all what he sees in the mirror but he's absolutely enamoured with whatever it is...

Here is our wee boy at five months (five months!) [And this picture is already three weeks old because he's 26 weeks tomorrow]. He's starting to have quite the little personality. My temper, my RRHB's response to anything traumatic (to go to sleep), and a lovely happy smile that belongs to him alone. Everyone keeps telling us that this is the best of the baby stage -- when they get to this age, five or six months, but I'm enjoying every baby stage these days, if only because it's all so new to me, and just so damn fun. That's not to say that I'm not exhausted, because I am, beyond words, and that I'm not frustrated by how the disease still refuses to calm down, because I am, but I'm trying to be calm and collected, find a quiet routine we can settle into, and make the most of the time that I have before heading up to the cottage for the summer (without plumbing!).

We gave the RRBB some sweet potatoes this afternoon. His very first non-cereal food. He decided about four bites in that enough was enough and he'd really just prefer to breast feed. It's a slow, patient process, this real-food business. Like anything, I am excited for him and want to record every little thing that happens -- but I can't be sure that when he's older, he'll actually want to know.

Over the last few days, I've seen many doctors: SFDD, kidney doctor, gastro doc, and had some blood work done today. I'm not going to lie -- I've been panicking inside a whole lot about the state of my poor kidneys. I have tried to be positive, tried to look at the bright side of it all (that my condition is essentially unchanged since two weeks before having the baby), and yet regardless of all the drugs, of all the "resting," of all the not working, my creatinine is still sky high as is my blood pressure. In all the years I've had the disease, I've never had high blood pressure -- and I hate taking medicine for things that my body should just do right -- and it scares me when I put the cuff on and get a reading like 146/98. We can't afford any more restorative yoga at the moment, and the money I thought would last us a year barely made it through six months. Such is life, right?

Last time, I promised I would stop complaining about being sick. Or tired. Sick and tired. A lot of residual shock and awe about how everything turned out led me to try and read other birth stories. Helen left a comment letting me know about a collection called Great Expectations: Twenty-Four True Stories About Childbirth edited by Lisa Moore and Dede Crane (#31). And it's excellent (thank you Toronto Public Library for loaning me a copy). I whipped through it in just a couple of hours (over a few days) and came to the conclusion that not a single birth plan goes according to, well, plan. For something that women have been doing since women were, well, invented, childbirth is as complex and ever-changing as people are themselves. I needed to read this -- I needed to know that despite all the best laid plans (birthing tubs, doulas, midwifes, home births, drugs, no drugs) that a women might set out before her due date, chances are something dramatic will change in the minutes when she shouts "it's time" at her husband and/or significant other. It's a bright, fascinating collection -- not a single one of the writers fall back into cliche to describe their experiences, which I felt was a revelation considering most pop culture birth stories coming to us via television and the movies aren't remotely realistic. Like firefighters heading into a blaze without their masks, they're all panting and fake screaming, with babies popping out looking six months old already. But this collection is painstakingly honest, achingly real and just what I needed to read.

Anyway, I don't have much else to say. I've been trying to write this blog post for over a week now and the RRBB hasn't let me get much done. I've got two book reviews to get to and a to-do list that is as long as my arm. So, I will stop rambling, for now.

Monday, April 04, 2011

#30 - The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

In the hands of a lesser writer, the meticulously researched, exceptionally complex story of this novel would have probably spiraled out of control. Such is not the case in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet where David Mitchell masterfully crafts an intricate look at life in a remote Japanese "exit" island (Dejima) at the turn of the 19th century. As a part of the Dutch East Indian Trading Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, VOC), de Zoet arrives on Dejima with an honest heart and an even more moral eye. He has one job set out for him: to meticulously revise the company's records to ensure they are correct and therefore stop the corruption. This job, however, proves difficult when it's discovered that just about every rank and file of the men serving the VOC on Dejima, and even those tasked to clean up the corruption, are themselves corrupt.

If de Zoet is the moral heart of the book, then the soul of this novel is absolutely Orito Aibagawa, a midwife, who despite terrible odds, furthers her career despite both gender and class discrimination. De Zoet falls easily in love with Orito but his feelings are secondary to what she must endure when she's taken captive by an evil Abbot and forced into servitude alongside numerous other women. The abuse of the women (each month a few women are chosen to receive the "gifts" of the monks [pregnancy] and then told absolute lies about what happens to their newborn children when they are immediately taken away post-birth) coupled with the maniacal, strange beliefs of the Abbot remain a fascinating thread within the novel.

There are so many characters in this novel that to recount what happens to all of them, or to truly give justice to Mitchell's mammoth undertaking (the attention to historical detail; the fascinating intersection of the two different cultures; the actual events that propel the narrative forward), would be impossible in a blog review. What I would like to say, though, is that the historical detail never gets in the way of the story -- it doesn't insert itself like an awkward metaphor. Instead, it provides a rich, robust backdrop to a time and place that isn't exploitative. It felt very timely, given the recent, tragic, and devastating events unfolding in Japan, to be reading a book that I felt was extremely respectful of both its culture and heritage. Perhaps I'm wrong, but with nothing to compare it to, I'm going to go with my gut instinct and commend Mitchell for allowing this reader into a world she had never had any idea even existed.

I kept imagining writing rich and robust essays about this book while reading -- applying all kinds of post-colonial analysis to both Mitchell's narrative structure (fairly straightforward but by placing "Jacob de Zoet" in the title one would assume he's the "main" character so it's interesting to note how little of the book actually revolves around him) and to the failed attack by the British that propels the novel to its conclusion. All in all, it's a deep, meaty novel that deserves all of the accolades (Commonweath Writer's Prize regional win, Booker nom, tonnes of "best of" lists from last year). It was completely worth the $1.80 that I had to pay in late fees upon returning it to the library this afternoon.

READING CHALLENGES: Because Mitchell is British, I can't count this towards Around the World in 52 Books. Sometimes, I think I should revise the challenge to include the actual settings of the novels instead of just the nationality of the authors but I've done it this way for so long that I don't want to change it up now just to include more books. And I've absolutely abandoned my shelves for the moment. I have way too many library books and publishers titles to get through over the next few weeks. It's actually a relief because I was getting bored, bored, bored of my shelves -- despite how very dedicated I am to getting through as many of the books as possible this year. Right now I'm halfway through Elizabeth Gilbert's Committed and I have a lot to say about it...plus a little to rant about EPL & its movie adaptation.