Monday, May 30, 2011

Review Catch-Up #s 44 - 47

I have spent three days this week at various doctors appointments and sitting waiting for blood work, and managed to read three books in five days. It's almost like I'm breastfeeding at all hours again, only I'm not. Actually, it's nothing like that at all. In fact, it's exactly the opposite. Regardless, here are some short reviews of books I've read lately.

#44 - Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Allan Sillitoe
Sometimes, when you see the filmed version of a book first, it's almost impossible not to replay the movie in your head as you read. In the case of Allan Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, this was entirely the case. Luckily, both the book and the film are excellent, so I wasn't disappointed by anything happening in my own head as I read. Sillitoe's portrait of a young man, a working class, philandering, hard-drinking, impulse-driven, anti-hero remains captivating over 50 years since its publication. I found myself violently engrossed in the film, at times disgusted by Arthur Seaton's behaviour, his attitude towards women, his own selfishness, and yet utterly thrilled by his voice, his hard-driving anger, and his youth.

Set in a working class section of Nottingham (and forgive me if it's all working class; I am not familiar with the geography), Seaton works at a bicycle factory, where he gets paid by the piece. Work too fast, and you make too much money, the big bosses will come down on you; work too slow and it isn't worth your while to get up in the morning. There's a tender balance Seaton strikes between boredom, completely shutting off to the redundancy of his tasks and letting his mind wander (usually to the state of his love life, which is complex, and full of many married ladies). He served in the army but has no faith in it; he drinks not just because it's the only thing to do but because it IS the thing to do; and all of his relationships with women are based on lying, cheating and his own awkward concepts of love. Yet, as a character, I couldn't help but adore him -- a prototypical bad boy when it still meant something to buck the system, and the dichotomy of the two parts of Seaton's life: the Saturday nights spent drinking and with his hand up the shirt of his many married lovers; and the Sunday morning when he goes fishing and perhaps decides upon one girl, nicely contrast the tenor of life in England after the war. Everyone needing to find their footing, their voice, after the collective "pulling together" (Keep Calm and Carry On) as a universal decree. All in all, it's an excellent novel. (Also exciting is that it's on the 1001 Books list, whee!).

#45 - State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
Ann Patchett is one of my favourite American novelists. I adored Run, enjoyed Bel Canto, and had my heart broken over Truth & Beauty. But State of Wonder is in an entirely different class -- if I had to find a comp, like someone (I can't remember who) mentioned on Twitter, I'd too suggest Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. But, truly, the unbridled success of this novel lies in Patchett's almost post-colonial "talking back" to Joseph Conrad's classic Heart of Darkness. Now, I read Conrad's book in first year university and haven't revisited it since, so it's hazy, to say the least in my memory. I recall more of Apocalypse Now than I do the novel itself but that doesn't mean that I can't theorize that Patchett set out to write back to Heart of Darkness, tackling not necessarily themes of colonialism and "going native" (shuddering to write that sentence) but more so the toll and cost of medical research takes from on our "modern" world.

When Dr. Marina Singh's workmate and lab partner, Dr. Eckman, is pronounced dead in a far flung letter from Dr. Annick Swenson, a research doctor who has been in the field for almost decades developing and studying a very particular tribe in order to create a fertility drug that could revolutionize women's reproductive health, she (Dr. Singh) is sent out to retrieve the true story and maybe, just maybe, bring both the body and a report of where the work actually is back to the company for whom they all work. Things go wrong for Marina right from the start -- her suitcase is lost, her clothes taken by the Lakashi tribe when she arrives in camp, and soon every vestige of Western life has disappeared from around her. She wears her hair plaited by the Lakashi women, the only dress she has comes from them as well, and without sun protection, the half-Indian Marina's skin bronzes so deeply that even she notices how different she looks than when at home suffering through a long, terrible Minnesota winter.

Classically trained as a OBGYN, Marina gave up her medical practice due to a terrible accident, and has been a pharmacologist ever since. Yet, once she finds Dr. Swenson (and the path that got her there was no less than difficult), her skills as a doctor are called upon -- an in unclean, unhygienic and utterly disorganized (in terms of performing surgeries), and Marina's life takes a turn in a direction she never imagined. The novel's ending, both spectacular and breathtaking, has perfect pacing -- I couldn't put it down, and it brought me to my knees. I found myself reading and reading, any chance I could get, morning, deep into the night, just to find out what happens. And the last sentences, just like the amazing ones that end The Poisonwood Bible, stayed with me for days. Highly recommended; it's perfect summer reading in my humble opinion.

#46 - Faith by Jennifer Haigh
I'm going to be honest -- the subject matter of this novel remains difficult for many reasons -- the church and its history/current struggle with pedophilia doesn't necessarily equate "light," "breezy" read. Yet, the tone and undercurrent of Jennifer Haigh's novel, while neither light nor breezy, is both generous and kind, a difficult balance to achieve when discussing Catholic priests and the matter of faith in general. The narrator of the story, a self-proclaimed (at the beginning of the novel) modern-day "spinster," Sheila McGann retells a story her half-brother Art, a priest who has found himself embroiled in a scandal that threatens not only his livelihood but also his life, and his core beliefs.

Sheila returns to Boston to help her family in the time of crisis. Art, accused of an unspeakable act with a young boy, the grandson of the rectory's housekeeper, with whom he has a parental-like relationship, shakes everyone to their cores. I know it's a cliche -- family comes upon tragedy, novel unravels whether or not the accusations are true -- but Haigh has a gift for character, and while this novel remains very traditional in its narrative format, I was impressed at how she tackled the subject matter. Haigh never shies away from the difficult nature of it, and I like how faith as a concept remains interwoven throughout the narrative. Arthur has never questioned his calling. But, like anyone, it's impossible to know when something might happen to rock your beliefs, earthquake-like, and send you reeling in another direction. Innocent, even naive, to the ways of the world, Art finds himself questioning everything he has ever known: the church, his ministry, the idea of love, when he comes to face to face with Kath, the mother of the young boy he is accused of abusing. It takes the entire novel to truly find out what happened. And no one is left unscathed, not even the reader. Faith is a novel that forces one to evaluate one's own relationship to God, to the church, even if you're a non-believer. It's impossible to stand in judgment, of anyone's life, and I think that is the eloquent point that Haigh makes throughout this book. It's one that definitely got me thinking. And I'm a girl who got the majority of her religious schooling from Are You There God, It's Me Margaret? when she was a child. Of course, I read more widely about religion in university. (I still remember sitting with a particularly obnoxious Religion major at Queen's who honestly said to me, "You know, it's not as if I'm totally obsessed with God or anything, I just think Jesus was a really cool guy." Seriously. That was her take on her entire degree. Good grief.) Regardless, the kind of storytelling that Haigh purports in this novel usually drives me crazy (the retelling of a story when one could choose just to tell the damn story) but it's subtly balances nicely with the seriousness of the subject matter and I don't think she could have written it another way. By the end, I was a little heartbroken, which, for me, is always the sign of a very good novel indeed.

#47 - Every Time We Say Goodbye by Jamie Zeppa
This is a Vicious Circle book club book, and I'm so pleased that I'll get to discuss it with a great group of women. It's a women's novel (as you can see from the awful cover [I'm sorry but it really, really isn't reflective of the book]) rather than dreamy chicklit as the cover suggests. I know what it's going for -- there's a pair of siblings that the novel centres around, but the cover adds a layer of Hallmark Movie of the Week that dumbs down Zeppa's sharp, instinctive and eager writing.

Told from multiple perspectives, the book follows three generations of Turner women, some blood, some married to blood, who each struggle with the idea of family, what it means to be a mother, and the difficult restrictions society, at different times over the last 50 years, for people of my gender. I fell particularly in love with Grace, a woman forced to leave her son behind to make a better life for herself in the city. Her strength, ability and the way she came into her own was particularly breathtaking. There's a lot in the novel that isn't necessarily fresh (troubled fathers, difficult women that seem cut from Lawrence, "women's" troubles) but Zeppa finds a way in that is both refreshing and real -- and I enjoyed this book immensely. I just have one tiny criticism -- there's a main character, Vera, a matriarchal figure, that we never hear from, she's only portrayed through other people's stories. I would have enjoyed knowing more about her point of view, her perspective, but I understand how too many voices could also ruin this novel. Regardless, it too is a perfect summer read. Funny how that works out, isn't it?

Notes From A House Frau XXII

What A Difference A Few Weeks Make

This picture cracks me up. The RRBB definitely enjoys his food -- on this day he had green beans, some chicken and vegetables, and some barley cereal. There might have been dessert. I can't remember. All I know is that by the end of it he had food from one end of his face to the other, which to me is an important part of discovering what he likes and doesn't like, of discovering the joy of eating. The RRHB does it a little differently, he cleans up the baby as he goes along, consistently wiping his face so that he doesn't spread food from one end of himself to the other.

It's interesting, as the RRBB turned 7 months last weekend, I can completely see him start to develop more and more independence. I know, ironic, to talk about independence in terms of a wee baby who can't walk, talk or even feed himself. But, more and more, the RRBB likes to do things independent of me -- he's almost completely weaned, and while I still feed him, technically, the food isn't coming from inside of me any longer, and that takes some getting used to. He still yearns for it, and so we've kept one or two feedings until the doctors absolutely tell me I need to stop, yet he's trying and loving so much "real" food that I'm encouraged by all of his likes (and very few, read: none, dislikes). Also, he's sitting up on his own for the most part, falling over occasionally, bumping his head, bawling, and then breaking my heart. Yet, we are so very, very lucky, as I keep saying to all of my relatives, for he's truly a happy, healthy, gregarious, charming little boy. I adore him.

Independence is an interesting concept -- I am certain the RRBB doesn't understand it psychologically, or maybe he does and I am way off the marker but, instinctively, he's trying harder and harder to separate himself from us, his parents. He complains now if he lies down in the bath, before he would sit placidly, splashing a little, now the water ends up halfway out of the tub before we're even finished. He loves Not a Box, but not so much Goodnight, Moon. If he isn't eating fast enough, he complains; but then, if it's too fast, he gets equally upset. He makes a little strange when he wakes up from a nap. Yet, if you get him at the right time, he'll charm the pants off of you. This is the real gift of parenthood, not just the unmitigated, unceasing love that renders your heart incapable of understanding how this person was not a part of your life just months ago, but seeing first-hand the evolution of a personality. Objectively, it's not something one remembers, it's not as if you can reach back into your own mind and think, "wow, what was I like at 7 months?" Yet, every day that I spend with the baby, I am seeing how fascinating it is to watch him grow -- and my heart breaks just a little each time he grows more independent, but it also means I've got a bit more freedom. Evenings, nap time (few and far between these days; teething), stroller time, visits with grandparents and granties and gruncles, and it's all a wonder to me. I can't stop marveling at him. I can't but wonder what other surprises are around the corner.

He's the only baby I will ever have. Even typing that sentence makes me sad. I never imagined I would love the baby stage as much as I have. I mean, I have always loved babies, but in the sense that I'd hold them for a while and hand them back. Cute, snuggly little things that smelled delicious and whose exhausted parents I'd barely notice. Parenting wasn't a reality to me -- the utter loss of self wasn't a devastating reality, the sheer tenacity of his will to break us completely in those first few months has almost been utterly forgotten. Now, I can sit and read while he plays beside me, holding one hand to steady him, the other in a book. That, I can do. He goes to sleep so early that my mind can drift (when I'm not so exhausted I can barely see) to a place where I can spend some time working on non-blog writing. In short, I feel lighter than I have in months.

That's not to say that the disease has let me go just yet. I see the SFDD this week and we go from there. They are almost convinced they need to switch the drugs. All I know is that I need to get off the prednisone. There's a pain in my left hip. It's familiar. And tragic. And I can take a lot, a lot of punishment from the gods or the universe or whatever karmic relativity has decided that what my world means is Wegener's and all the ensuing tragedy, but if I lose my other hip, well, I am not sure I'll recover. I need to move. Without movement, without walking, biking, swimming, I will surely curl up into a ball and disappear.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

#43 - Last Night In Montreal

Before sitting down to write about Emily St. John Mandel's first novel, Last Night in Montreal, I wanted to do a pros and cons list of my own pre-conceived notions about fiction in general. My innate likes and dislikes, if you will. There are cliches in writing that I just can't stand -- easy things that authors fall back on because they are such a part of our collective unconscious, if you will, that even if one doesn't realize you're writing a trope, you're still writing a trope.

Circus performers. The idea of running away to the circus. And as prevalent and innovative, even successful as the modern day Cirque du Soleil might be in Canada and around the world, sentences like, 'they were part of a circus family when that was still something that could be done,' or the like, make me cringe, just a little (read: a lot). It's not that good books can't be written and/or good stories can't be told about circuses (case in point: Water for Elephants, which I have not read, but has been on bestseller lists for almost four years) or great drama created out of the idea of someone walking a tightrope (case in point: the excellent Colum McCann novel, Let the Great World Spin). Yet, in this novel, when the circus performer characters are dropped in, it feels forced and full of anguish -- like an imagination that's had too much caffeine and is trying to finish an all nighter -- something just isn't right and someone probably should have started cramming earlier.

Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself. Lilia, a distinct but also wispy and beautiful young woman, has trouble staying in one place. She was raised by her father who kidnapped her away from her mother one cold winter's evening and she hasn't stopped running since. Lilia's an interesting character -- she's bright, can speak several languages (taught to her by her father on the road) and has to work through her past by constantly moving on to the next location. She doesn't normally give her lovers any warning. She simply packs up her stuff, stashes it away, and then leaves when she feels she can't stay any longer. Her safety -- mentally, physically -- is at risk, and so she must go. Eli, her current Brooklyn-living boyfriend, can't accept that she's gone, so he goes on the road to try and find her. He doesn't necessarily want her to come back. No, he just wants an explanation, and to know that she's okay. So off Eli goes to Montreal. Why Montreal? Well, Eli receives a missive from someone named Michaela, who claims to know where Lilia is...

In tandem with the current-day storyline that follows Lilia, Elia and Michaela, the novel drifts back in time via different characters to fill out the novel. The most engaging parts of the book take place on the road with Lilia and her father -- there's a wonderful dynamic between the two, and even if I do find Lilia kind of twee for my liking, I can see how kidnapping her both saved and damaged her at the same time. But here's also where the book goes off the rails a little bit, there's a private detective, Christopher (paid by whom, who knows? It's never explained.) who becomes obsessed by the case (he's Michaela's father; this is the circus stock family). These two families are now intertwined, and their complex relationship forms the crux of the novel.

There's no doubt that St. John Mandel is a terrific writer. She has a gift for description and the book hums along -- it's just not, from my point of view, entirely believable. There's a 'movie of the week' element to it that I just couldn't shake and I will hold any "damaged" girls up to Baby in Lullabies for Little Criminals and always find them wanting. And the circus performers. Of the entire novel, I appreciated the ending, but the penultimate scenes and resulting action, well, that also falls into the "tired" category -- to spell it out would be to completely spoil the novel, so I'm not going to do that here, as per usual. On the whole, it's a terrifically uneven first novel, but it's also just that -- a first novel, and I do actually look forward to reading more from St. John Mandel in the future.

WHAT'S UP NEXT: The last of my library books for a while -- Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Then it's back to the shelves for sure -- I am very behind in my challenge, and by alphabetized books are just mocking me, mocking me!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

#42 - Bullfighting

There's just something about Roddy Doyle's writing that reminds me of The Pogues song "Bottle of Smoke." It's just so quintessentially fast-paced, direct, and full of great storytelling. These short stories speed along like a day at the races, and reading them feels like you've come ahead a winner -- 'like a drunken f*ck on a Saturday night, up came that Bottle of Smoke.' All thirteen stories are from a man's point of view, that's not to say that there aren't female characters, but these men, some older, some younger, have all reached middle age. They've watched their kids grow up, they've watched their parents grow old, they've had jobs, they've lost them, they've lived and loved, but most of all, they've survived.

Doyle's writing, so succinct, so of the moment, and his dialogue and the entire demeanor of the stories remains so refreshing, that you feel like you're sitting next to the author in a pub as he tells the story. Despite their similarities, the characters are all still so distinct -- and it reminds me of a great writing lesson that I was once told by a teacher who really, really disliked me and what I had to say -- they each have something that defines them, that stops them from becoming a stereotype, whether it's a reaction to a situation or a particular thing they love about the woman that became their wife.

I enjoyed each and every one of these stories, so it's hard to pull one or two out as my favourites. They all blended together so nicely, like an evening of conversation at a pub with a group of old, familiar friends, and the writing is so controlled that there isn't a sense of unevenness that I generally find with short story collections. I enjoyed "Teacher" and "Bullfighting" -- as both dealt with interesting situations -- the former, a man's struggle with alcoholism; the latter, a group of friends who take a trip to Spain. Male friendship isn't always explored in the books that I read on a regular basis. It's either there as a crutch, a necessary side-kick and/or reason to move the plot along in a mystery, but in "Bullfighting," it's the central theme of the story. These four men have know each other forever, and they don't have to talk about their feelings or share their inner secrets, they can just sit around and shoot the shit. And Doyle knows just how to write it to ensure that there's a poignancy to the everyday that can't be avoided, that needs to be celebrated.

It's a wonderful collection. And for all my ranting about reading far too many short story collections these days, I have to say that I'd take one by Doyle over a novel just about any day. It's just excellent.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Monday Disease Blues: A Top 10 List

The RRBB had his six month shots today, and he's a little crabby, doesn't feel like eating and his nap schedule's all mixed up. So, I'm letting him play on his activity mat for a while as I sit here on a pilates ball and try to string some words together. Ups and downs, that's what the last few days are all about, ups and downs. Far more downs in terms of the disease than ups but what can you do -- every day is different. People think I'm joking when the answer to "how are you" these days is always, "well, I'm not dead!" We were at the doctor's this morning and it's semi-official -- they are probably going to put me on Cyclophosphamide for the Wegener's, and I have to wean the baby entirely sooner rather than later.

1. Who knew that weaning lead to depression? Like I need something other than the prednisone and postpartum messing with my brain. It's an unholy trinity -- but maybe bits of one will cancel the other one out. My family doctor's kids are 16 months old (she had twins) and today in the office she told me she still doesn't feel back to normal, and she's not even coping with a massive, stinking disease.

2. It's a beautiful day today and the last thing I want to do is go outside. Thankfully, the PVR is full of Oprah, Friday Night Lights and other sundries for when the RRBB is sleeping. I could read but I am even too exhausted and weepy for that today. I watched the Shania Twain episode while the baby slept a few hours ago -- I don't think I'd ever read her book -- but I'm fascinated by the fact that she wanted to lay it all out there, as pathetic and ridiculous as her actions were around the breakdown of her marriage, she simply wrote it all out and published it. Even the terrifically awful letter she wrote begging her ex-husband's mistress to leave them alone -- she published it. Oversharing? Perhaps.

3. As if I needed a reason to feel worse about always wearing pajamas. I read this beautiful post about motherhood on Kerry's blog, and then clicked over to the article she references about these terrifically hip and hot moms who never wear sweatpants, like, ever. Seriously? It's a good day if I actually change the sweatpants from the ones that I sleep in to a relatively cleaner pair to walk to the grocery store (and by "sweatpants" I am including their ugly stepchild, the legging, which I swore I would never, ever wear as pants. One should never swear anything about fashion). I would look better if I attempted to wear makeup, dyed my hair and put away the sweatpants but, hell, where would that energy come from?

4. The blues won today. Damn them.

5. CBC Radio played some really beautiful music from the National Parks Project on Sunday. Man, it made me want to take a road trip to every single one. Anything to get out of the city. Anything to get out of my house really. I'd love to take a giant trip this summer with the baby, somewhere foreign and by foreign, I mean Paris, but it's not practical given our financial situation (read: we are flat-ass broke). I miss travelling. And we'll have to learn how to do it a whole other way -- with RRBB. First up this summer: new passports. It's the last piece of ID with my maiden name on it. I will be a whole other person once that's done.

6. Teething + Needles = One Crabby Baby. Sigh.

7. The novel I'm reading for book club reminds me of Before Sunset. Still, I can't get passed page 15 and started reading Roddy Doyle's new collection of short stories instead. I'm already halfway through; it's terrific. God, I love his short sentences.

8. I can't believe I am this upset about having to wean the baby.

9. The disease is winning. And not in the #winning sense that crazy-ass Charlie Sheen's barking all around Twitter about. Today, the family doctor actually said, "We need to save your kidneys now." And I got totally freaked out and almost started bawling in her office, and it wasn't even an appointment for me -- it was supposed to be all about baby. For the very first time in my life, I don't know if the Wegener's will win. I'm scared. I am honestly terrified.

10. Feel like the worst friend in the world. I haven't talked to or seen so many people that I adore, and one of my New Year's Revolutions was to be a better friend. I'm just not hitting that goal at all and it's making me feel awful.

Okay, enough self-indulgent, feeling-sorry-for-myself claptrap. I am now going to go and eat some dinner. Perhaps I'm just hangry (hungry + angry = one irrational girl [as coined by Charidy]).

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Notes From A House Frau XXI

Nostalgia: Pictures For My Kid

Last night, my RRHB and I went to see The Lowest of the Low play Massey Hall. For a long time, he and that band's lead singer have been good friends. It's a pretty amazing thing to see someone you've known for twenty years (they were celebrating the 20th anniversary of Shakespeare My Butt) up on stage at one of Toronto's most prestigious venues. It's also really cool to see Massey Hall packed with people who have adored that record as a life anthem for as long as its been pressed jumping up and down in their seats, singing along, knowing all the words, and clamoring after the band post-show for autographs etc. It was a delightful evening.

But, as with everything these days, the whole evening just got me thinking about where the heck twenty years disappeared to. The disease had just been diagnosed, and I was out for one of the first times since getting out of the hospital. The same side effects (puffy face, hair loss, pimples, weight gain) on a much younger, non-postpartum body seem almost glorious in retrospect. I was wearing a cute, flowered dress, this I remember. We were upstairs at Sneaky Dees and my RRHB's first band, Dig Circus, opened up for The Lowest of the Low. The RRHB sang me the dirty bits of "Rosy and Grey." I danced a lot. We weren't together but it seems almost prophetic to think back now as to how we were probably always destined to be together anyway. He's still the very best person I know. He was back then. Brought me a hilarious Pepsi hat when I was in the hospital and hugged me like I was no different. He still holds me like that today. I treasure that, it's something to cling to during all of this, and how hard it's been for so long.

Annnywaay, I got stinking drunk. And managed to get stinking drunk for many, many Low shows in the coming years. There was one point when we (my dearest Hannah) saw them play in Kingston, and then drove all the way to Banff where we were working for the summer, only to see them there as well. Knowing the band, because so many of my friends from high school were in Dig Circus, was a highlight of my young life -- it felt so cool to go to the club and talk to the band. I had grown up with obsessive love for so many bands, a lot of it I outgrew (goodness, I listened to so much U2 in high school and then never again), but it also set the tone for so much of my life. I love live music, prefer it in dingy clubs before the bands are big enough to hit Massey Hall where you can get right up close to the front of the stage and go deaf listening to the up and down and back and forth of it all. And I've seen so many life-changing rock shows with my RRHB and they always make me nostalgic. Not like the nostalgia of last night, of a misspent youth, of the hundreds of hours I've spent drinking beer and jumping up and down, of thinking about all of the things that have passed since the very first time I'd seen the Low until now, but of how rich my life is because music, good music, has always been in it.

Before the show, the RRBB and I danced around the kitchen to "Come on Eileen", a favourite song that just happened to be on the radio. A few weeks ago we went to see The Pixies (also at Massey Hall; they played another anthem album, Doolittle), and a couple weeks before that we went to see the Elephant 6 Collective (although another throw-back to the 90s, I had only started listening to these bands in the last couple years). I'm lucky to know some of the musicians whose words and sounds have made such an impact on my life. I feel words deeply. They are more than letters strung together. They are always pregnant with meaning and precious with pause -- they keep me whole and make me who I am. Without them, without being constantly amazed by how other people use them, I would be lost. Without my own words, I would have drifted off into the abyss of the disease, of the general overwhelming tragedy of my life, years and years ago. And then to know the incredible human beings behind the words, the melody, the tunes that are as familiar to me as the smell of the city after a delicious rainfall, well, I'm lucky.

In a way, I want our RRBB to know his parents outside of this role we have fallen into simply because of his creation. When we first announced his impending arrival, thus dubbed "fig" for the duration of his incubation, our families and friends were really excited for us. The baby became the centre of our universe. It's all anyone talked about, and now that he's here, he's the star of the show, and rightfully so. He's a gregarious, delicious little creature who brings the joy like nothing I've ever had in my life. But we were people before him. In fact, I think we were pretty interesting people. And for him to appreciate how rich he has made our lives, he needs to know how rich our lives were before he was a fig in my belly. Our lives aren't captured on film, so he'll rely on photos and stories and seeing the people we've known for more than 20 years at birthdays and occasions and dinners and we'll become the "parents" -- it's generational, and it's not something that can be changed. I don't want to be his friend. I am his mother. This is a role I take very seriously, but I do want him to know us as friends in relation to the people we know, to the goodness we've put out into the world, to the weight we attach to words in both of our lives. We can play him the songs. Perhaps he'll fall in love with them too. Perhaps he won't. Maybe he'll hate music and want only to play hockey. Maybe he'll really not like books (argh!) and love video games. Who knows. For now, I'm satisfied to let him in a little bit at time -- to dance around the kitchen yelling "Torra loora rye aye" and hoping he feels the joy I feel when I hear that song.

It's Mother's Day. We are not celebratory people, in a sense, no, that doesn't describe it. Celebrating life on specific, somewhat made up holidays (Valentine's Day, etc) has never really been my/our thing. I mean, I know I've told this story before, but neither of us can ever remember our wedding day -- RRHB because he wasn't convinced about getting married in the first place and me because I was always convinced I just wanted to be married and couldn't give a whip about a wedding. People look at me strange when I say I honestly have no idea when my anniversary is, but I'm more interested in being with my RRHB on a daily basis, on celebrating my marriage in my own way, than I am about making a big deal about anniversaries, holidays, etc. We love our families. We love our family. We love each other. We love him. I've survived another day with the disease and, in ways, I think nostalgia truly takes up enough space in my life in so many good ways that I don't need to save it all up for one day. When my RRHB kept asking me what I wanted to do for Mother's Day, I didn't have an answer. And then, I'm glad I didn't. Because today was perfect and perfectly us. We got up, had pancakes, took the baby for a wonderful walk by the lake, and spent an afternoon talking nostalgia about the last twenty years. And, for the first time in a long, long time, my eyes are wet and dripping with tears that feel like little blessings and not the unbearable weight of the disease.

#41 - Must You Go?

Antonia Fraser's memoir of her life with Harold Pinter could not have been more delightful had it actually been delivered to my door as ice cream, toffee and chocolate sauce. Sweet, but not saccarine, sharp but not severe, it's simply an account of two people who met, fell in love, and then spent the rest of their lives together. Fraser, well known for her biographies of Mary, Queen of Scots, all of Henry's wives, among other writings, met Pinter, the infamous playwright, while both were ensconced in other long-term marriage (each had been with their spouses for eighteen years). Neither expected to leave their marraige. Neither expected to fall so deliciously in love with one another -- but that's exactly what happened.

Fraser's elegy to her late husband opens with the explanation of the book's title -- Fraser, having met Pinter in passing, was about to leave a party, when she stepped over to say goodbye, he said, "Must you go?" She didn't, and they spent the rest of the night and a good part of the next morning talking. Thus setting the tone for not only their relationship but for how the two would build an exceptionally happy marriage. Taken almost exclusively from her Diary writings, the book's construction remains remarkably linear, a story told from beginning, to the middle, and to the end, which might feel tedious in the hands of a lesser writer. Even Fraser's everyday notations are fascinatingly witty, endearing and utterly full of heart. The entire book has a sweetness to it but, at the same time, it's also an incredible glimpse into the private lives of two very famous writers. How they work seems almost secondary to the everyday goings on -- the lunches, the friendships, the travelling, their children -- and the creative process is never discussed in any depth, simply mentioned in passing as a part of the rest of their lives.

Diary entries seem so private. And I'm sure a solid amount of sculpting and editing has gone into shaping them so that they make sense in a more public way. This isn't a traditional memoir, and even though it's so very different stylistically, it's just as moving as Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. Yet where Didion almost collapses under the weight of her loss, Fraser seems to be more intent upon writing a celebration of their lives. I'm certain that Fraser deeply mourned the loss of the love of her life but she's got a wonderful attitude towards life -- always enjoying the experience, always looking for the next bit of history to capture her attention, always celebrating her immensely happy marriage -- that's infectious. It's a great book to be reading when your own life isn't necessarily going in the up and up, especially health-wise, especially to see that Pinter was still acting, still writing (but not necessarily new plays; more poems and short pieces), and still incredibly active politically even when he was suffering from cancer, yet another disease, and then the painful side effects of all the medication.

I'm consistently amazed at the amount of true work that they both managed to accomplish, especially in the middle years of their lives, what with seven kids (Fraser had six; Pinter, one) to raise and plenty of drama (Pinter's ex-wife had a hard time accepting that he had left and refused on numerous occasions to grant him a divorce). In the truest sense of the word, for me, this was a book that proves that love triumphs, that a good attitude can battle any adversity, that it's worth standing up for your politics, for your love, for your life, and that visiting dead writers's graves always makes for an excellent photo opp. I had a library copy, which I had to return, or else I would have quoted from the book directly -- but what I would have loved, as well, is a bibliography of everything that Fraser and/or Pinter read over the years, an addendum to their writing lives -- what a fascinating study that would have made as well. Regardless, it's an excellent read, and one that I'm so happy I found.

Also, Must You Go? REALLY makes you want to keep a daily diary, but knowing my life isn't remotely as exciting as the Pinter/Fraser household, perhaps I'll refrain and just steady on here as I've been doing the last few years.

Friday, May 06, 2011

#40 - The Troubled Man

This novel was incredibly bittersweet -- not 100% mystery, not 100% your typical Swedish thriller, and there's an element of incredibly honesty about aging throughout these pages. So often, male authors of a certain age (ahem, John Irving, Rushdie, ahem) tread and re-tread their same themes: men sleeping with younger/older women, ridiculous novels that they've written thrice before, and the banner of "literary fiction" seems to save them from ridicule. They rest on their laurels. They rest on the fact that they've written great works before. But I call these novels "mid-life crisis on the page." They generally frustrate me critically and as a reader -- they aren't pushing any boundaries and there's not a lot of honesty going on. I respect honesty on the page, from a writer, from their characters.

Mankell's The Troubled Man, which is not without its problems (the dialogue, in particular, between Wallander and his daughter Linda is rather painful), but at its heart, the theme that touched me most was seeing how such a vibrant, aggressively distinctive man reacts to getting older. And not just middle age, but old age, as Wallander starts forgetting things, losing time and generally suffering from the first symptoms of dementia. It's actually quite heartbreaking -- yet, it doesn't stop Wallander from solving the novel's key mystery -- the disappearance of Linda's quasi-father-in-law.

The mystery in the novel seems straightforward at first, HÃ¥kan von Enke, a highly decorated, extremely respected naval officer (he was the captain of various Swedish submarines) simply disappears on day while on his daily walk. There's nothing missing from his bank accounts, he has taken no clothes, and it's as if he vanished into thin air. And when, a few weeks later, his wife also vanishes without a trace, the entire story becomes more complex. Are the von Enke's what they seem? Are they alive? Are they dead? Wallander does his best to solve the mystery -- looking at things from a different perspective, turning them over in his mind, until the book comes to its penultimate action, and the case is solved.

Mankell writes in tangents, suddenly Wallander's making steak or doing something that simply appears in the story, and there are a lot of characters that seem to show up to tie up loose ends -- both in terms of the detective's life and of the central mystery. It's interesting that much of this novel takes place outside of Wallander's actual police duties. He's on sick leave and/or vacation for most of the book, but like many hero's of crime fiction, he just can't stop working. The case sits before him, eating away at his subconscious, until he finally figures out the answers. Taking the focus away from traditional police work allows the novel to pay attention to Wallander's personal life -- his old relationships, the loss of good friends, the general sense of melancholy he feels about aging, about what's happening to his brain.

Again, the tangents that Mankell intersperses throughout the text are sometimes daunting, they pull away from the story and allow the narrative to wander. In a way, it feels as if Mankell, by consistently pulling Wallander in all these different directions, is narratively representing the state of his mind -- disjointed, sometimes confused, sometimes razor sharp, agile, angry, yet always on the cusp of discovery (and eventually he does solve the crime). All in all, like I said at the beginning of the post, it's a bittersweet read -- but one that challenges the idea of "genre" fiction, more 'end of life' (is there a word for this, like the opposite of buldingsroman?) novel than anything, and there's nothing that makes you think more than the mortality of one of your favourite characters on the page.

Monday, May 02, 2011

The Prednisone Crazies: A Top 10 List

Throughout the history of my having Wegener's, I've been taking prednisone off and on for about 20 years. Not consistently, but always as the disease flares, gently in some cases, and more aggressively (like now) in others. My system seems to be sensitive to the drug, to all drugs actually, which means that I tend to experience the side effects deeply. It's how I ended up with my tragic hip -- Avascular Necrosis brought on by massive doses of prednisone when the disease was first diagnosed and the doctors were aggressively treating the disease to save my kidneys, and to stop my lungs from bleeding (which is what happened at Week 32 of my pregnancy as well). The most intense side effect I feel from the drug would have to be the psychosis. More often than not, it sends me reeling into a pit of depression and this always seems to last so much longer than the active symptoms of the disease. It's a hard way to live. All of the underlying issues with having a long-term disease, of battling for your health on a daily basis, of coping with the absolute fact that you can't control what's happening, of never knowing and/or feeling 100% yourself for months, even years at a time, are exhausting. So, after much thought, I'm trying to be more positive and reconnect with all of the things in my life that make me, well, me, so I don't go completely off the rails this time with the meds. Usually, it's thinks like routine and work that keep me grounded, but as I'm on mat leave, it's harder to cling to the old ways of coping.

1. Get Outside
The weather truly sucks my ass. I mean, it's raining ALL the time, and it's oppressive. But, I find even if I take a short walk, mainly with the RRBB, I feel better. I also managed to get an hour's worth of gardening done this week (that's my wild arugula coming up) while my RRHB took the baby for a walk.

2. Read
Yes, I know I do this anyway, but the more I read, the more I feel like I'm moving forward in my life. perhaps that doesn't make much sense but it helps ground my brain in more than the frenetic panic that the prednisone causes -- it stops me from collapsing entirely into the cloud-like depression that hangs overhead. It's a cliched, but apt, metaphor for how the drugs envelop your brain. Reading gives my imagination a chance to battle it back.

3. Write
This is self-explanatory. Last night the RRBB went to bed at 645. If we keep this up, I can actually take an hour or two right after he goes down and after scarfing down some dinner to string some of my own non-blog words together. It's energy I don't have but that I can't afford to waste either watching the last 16 or so episodes of Oprah, which is what I have been doing.

4. Ask for Help
I'm terrible at this -- but the best and only way of coping with the psychosis, for me anyway, is talk therapy. I've tried drugs and I don't like to take them. And the fact that I've been sleepless for so long isn't helping the weeping, and if I can at least try and express some of the hopelessness I feel in a safe environment, it means that the "crazies" (and how they manifest in my brain) won't necessarily overwhelm me to the point where I'm scrubbing bathrooms with a toothbrush and bleach at 3AM.

5. Restorative Yoga
Goodness, I wish we weren't so bloody broke. But I know now is not the time to be taking private restorative yoga classes. However, I can't say enough how awesome and healing my practice is in terms of both the disease and what it does to my brain. Right now, we're doing a bit of Mom and Baby yoga on Thursdays at Liberty Movement Studio, and that'll have to do.

6. Letting The OCD In One List At A Time
One of the ways that the prednisone manifests itself is through OCD tendencies. I make endless lists, spend hours running through figures, worry about dirt, and organize and re-organize things like shelves, books, closets. In a way, I think it's a way for my mind to cope with the overwhelming sense that I have utterly no control over what's happening in my body. The more I feel like I have control, the calmer I am, even if there's little to nothing that I can do about rising creatinine levels or coughing up crap -- I have to leave that up to the doctors and the medication -- I can try and staunch the rapidly increasing panic that sits in the middle of my chest with an active To Do List and more organization.

7. Trying Not To Be So Hard On Myself
I look terrible. I feel terrible. I don't feel like myself. I don't look like myself. I could spend hours creating negative downward spirals of self-defeatist thinking, abandoning all rational thought, starting silly fights with my spouse about feeling all of the above, and then, I have to stop. Because you know what a great cure for the above is -- the RRBB. His silly grin and absolute joy in my company, regardless of how hard it is to find the energy to take care of him, means I'm smiling for most of the day. Everyone looks better when they are smiling, even if their cheeks are ridiculously puffy and outlandish from the disease. Hey, here's a silver lining -- usually the "moon face" is accompanied by acne, but I'm guessing post-natal hormones have kept that in check because my skin is actually quite clear. This also means not feeling bad about watching too much television or all of the other goals on my usual New Year's Revolutions list.

8. Don't Listen to the Voices in My Head
The worst of the prednisone crazies, the voices that suddenly come upon the scene and tell me to do horrible things like drive my car into oncoming traffic and/or jump off a high rise, haven't started yet. This is something I'm incredibly thankful for. The pressure of what goes on in my brain is so intense that years ago I started doing something odd -- climbing in my closet and closing the door. And when I feel most overwhelmed, when there's nothing but mud and anger between my ears, all I want to do is climb back into the closet. A long time ago, I filled them up with stuff so that it wasn't a possibility. I thought it was the most rational thing to do at the time, but now I can calm myself down by thinking that I'd like to get in, but not actually crawling into the cupboard and closing the door. Even small steps are victories. Right?

9. Weep
Better out than in.

10. Know That I Will Get Better
This one is the hardest. Living with a long-term disease is like an endurance run -- it's a permanent change to your life, it forces you in directions you would never go, and forces you to contend with your mortality more often than not. Positive thinking, that's what so many people tell me -- my yoga teacher, in the form of a mantra; my family, in the form of how much love and good energy they have towards me; my friends, in the form of their never-ending support. Now I need to translate all of that into my own mind and know that I will get better, even if it takes months, years, this time around, I have so much more life ahead of me, I just wish I could live it. You know?

#39 - The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Two very good friends recommended this book to me, and they were both so very correct to do so considering how much I enjoyed it. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a compelling, intelligent and utterly charming book. From the setting, an elegant apartment building in the centre of Paris where exceptionally well off people live, Barbery sculpts the story from two distinct points of view. Renee, the building's concierge, spends her days hiding her intelligence from those who live above her -- both literally and metaphorically. Paloma, an incredibly precocious and bright 12-year-old, lives on the fifth floor and also hides -- from her parents, from her schoolmates, from just about anyone simply because she likes to be quiet and think.

Both are convinced that there are deep metaphysical and philosophical reasons to hide. Renee hides because she's convinced the boundaries of society -- she being a lowly concierge -- defines her in a particular time, place, essence. Paloma hides because she's convinced that life isn't necessarily worth continuing -- she's decided to commit suicide the moment of her 13th birthday, it's the only logical thing someone of her intelligence can do, you see. Both create personas they show to the world and keep their true selves hidden away. Until one day when a new tenant renovates an apartment in the building, a mysterious Mr. Ozu, discovers the truth about both of them, connecting them in a way that only kindred spirits (those of the Anne of Green Gables kind) can be connected.

The novel skips back and forth between the worlds of Paloma (from upstairs) and Renee (from downstairs) and at once you get the view of the classicism Barbary seems to be exploring. There's deep philosophical undercurrents running through the novel. Renee attempts to teach herself phenomenology (which, if I remember anything from my second year class in existentialism is simply incomprehensible), she explores Japanese films, reads the Russians and generally soaks up impressive amounts of knowledge. Yet, even though she's just a lowly concierge, her intelligence can't be hidden forever -- and it takes an outsider, someone who truly "sees" her, to break open her own psychological barriers about her background and the expectations she has from her life. Renee believes she's a peasant -- and that shall forever set her aside from those she serves.

Paloma, born into wealth and privilege, easily sees through the trappings of her societal sect. She's vicious when it comes to cutting through the nonsense, mocks her mother's seemingly useless therapy, feels her sister's academic pursuits are more for show than anything, and is constantly questioning the world around her to find meaning. In a way, she's represents an epistomological side to within the novel -- always wondering about knowledge, driving her own theories about what meaning truly is, and defining herself consistently by what she knows or how she knows it.

Renee, if we are speaking in dichotomies, despite her Cartesian inferences, is the flipside -- more ontological, she's consistently questioning her very existence, talking in terms of not being "seen" and/or "noticed" by the people she interacts with every day. Metaphorically, it goes back to the age-old "if a tree falls in the forest..." kind of thinking. The more Renee hides, the more she proves her theory that her true self isn't worthy of existence, and when she is "found out" to be the brilliant, interesting, fascinating, self-taught lovely woman she is -- the revelation isn't lost on those around her. And love, which she believed to be forever banished from her life, becomes a very real and distinct possibility.

The novel is just full of delicious, quotable prose, but because I had a library book, I didn't want to ear mark the pages and was never around a pen and pencil to jot things down. Just know that there were moments of absolute bliss when I was reading this book -- a clarity of character and perception that I found so refreshing -- and the ending, oh, the ending, it's very sad, but oh so fitting, and I am ever so glad that I read this book.

WHAT'S NEXT: I'm reading the latest Wallander novel by Mankell. Hoping to get it finished and then on to my other library books before I take everything back this week. And get back to my shelves for the next little while.

My Boy is Ten

My friend Heather took this photo a couple of weekends ago. We went for a walk in the woods. It was a bit cold at first, neither my boy nor ...