Category: Reading

All my puny sorrows

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I keep a record of the books I’m reading here (which is to say, there), but occasionally I feel the urge to write about a book I’ve read here (which is to say, here).

Last night, up far too late, I finished Miriam Toews’ ALL MY PUNY SORROWS. This is the kind of book for which book clubs were invented — a lot of book clubs are about friends getting together and drinking wine and the book is the excuse, I get that, but nevertheless there’s a genuine need underlying the concept of the book club. After finishing a heartbreaking resonant emotionally complex narrative don’t you just want to gather some friends immediately and talk about it?

ALL MY PUNY SORROWS is a semi-autobiographical novel about the relationship between sisters, one exquisitely talented and suicidal, and the other a bit of a mess and desperate to save her sister’s life. As in all of Miriam Toews’ novels, the bit characters are as vividly drawn and unique as everyone else, and humour hums silvery through the anguish and grief. But this novel feels different to me, too. It is more raw and immediate, less polished, a straight throughway from beginning to end of almost (seemingly) unmediated experience. People don’t behave like you want them to. They behave like people.

The mother of these two sisters, who has also lost her husband to suicide, is the most brilliantly drawn loved and loving independent fearless woman I can remember reading in a book, ever. Her depth of soul and lightness of spirit anchors the narrative. But even her love cannot anchor her daughters. And that seems to be part of the book’s message (though it’s not a “message” book): that we are responsible for our own lives, that we can only carry the weight of responsibility for the things that are ours to change. And the lives of others do not belong to us, even when we’re mothers. We raise our kids up with love and care, and we offer love and care pretty much forever, as long as we’re living, but that’s all we can do. The mother tells her daughter near the end of the book that letting go of a grief is more painful than holding onto it, but it’s what she hopes her daughter will be able to do.

Maybe if you’ve lost a husband and a daughter to suicide, you understand profoundly how little your love can cure or save someone who doesn’t want to be saved. That doesn’t mean you don’t try to save someone. That means that life is not about problem-solving, even though we may wish it to be so. We may wish to pour our minds into solutions and fix what’s broken, especially on a personal level, especially in families, and that’s a good impulse, I’m not saying it’s not. But to survive trauma and grief without becoming bitter, we have to recognize that we’re not that important. We’re not in charge of other people’s choices. We’re in charge of our own puny sorrows.

What we can offer are small, ordinary gifts. But a gift is a gift, isn’t it. It doesn’t ask for anything in return.

There’s some strangeness to reading this book, knowing Miriam Toews’ personal history, which cleaves closely to the book’s story. It’s difficult to read it as fiction, I guess.

One final observation: it’s been awhile since I’ve read a book that references so many other books. Entire poems are recited by characters, for example. I loved that. Reading as comfort and connection, as a way to speak the unspeakable. Words might not save us, but they may just console us. We read and we are less alone.

Bedtime reading, Monday evening: snapshot

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completely unrelated photos of SPRING!

8:40 PM. Home from AppleApple’s first outdoor soccer game of the season. Kevin off to his soccer game.

Me, at dining-room table, eating a late supper, Business section of the Globe open before me (nothing else available, clearly).

Him, two bowls of bedtime-snack-cereal consumed and teeth brushed, arrives at my side.

Me, hugging him, while trying to finish eating: “It’s bedtime. Would you like me to read to you, or I could play the ukulele for you, or would you like AppleApple to read you some more Harry Potter?”

Him, no hesitation: “Harry Potter!”

:::

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8:55PM

Her: “I can read you a bedtime story, Mom.”

Me: “Okay. You can start while I’m loading the dishwasher.”

Her: “It’s about this dog and a boy, and the boy can read the dog’s mind.”

Me: “Okay.”

Her: Reading out loud, stumbling over words like “array” and “campaign.”

Me: “This book uses a big vocabulary.”

Her: “Can we read in my bed now? I’ve set it up for you.”

Me, awhile later, dishwasher running, pots washed: “Sure.”

Her: “Are you coming, Mom?”

Me: “I just have to … kiss your brother goodnight … tuck in your brother … get a sheet for your brother because his blanket is too hot … tell your sister to brush her teeth ….”

Her: Waiting in a little nest she’s made for us in her bunk.

Me, climbing up: “Do you want me to read to you for a little bit?”

Her: “You can finish the chapter!”

Me: Finishing chapter.

Her: “Now I’ll read.” Stumbling over words. Patiently continuing. Laughing with genuine delight when the dog eats the boy’s pillow.

Me: “Look at the clock, honey.” [9:30 on the dot.] “We have to stop here.”

Her: Bookmarking spot.

Me: “This book really has a lot of big words. But I don’t think it’s actually very well written.”

Her: “I finished all the Magic Treehouse books …”

Me: “And we’ve already read a lot of the really good ones, like Pippi Longstocking, Charlotte’s Web.”

Her: “I’m not going to read Because of Winn Dixie. We’re reading it at school.”

Me: “I’ll bet your sister could recommend some really good books for you to read. She’s read just about everything. Let’s ask her in the morning.”

Us: Goodnight kisses.

:::
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9:35 PM
Me, back downstairs: “You are not allowed to start reading another Agatha Christie book right now!!!!”

Her, blank-eyed, glancing up at me: “Whaaa?”

Me: “Mark your page and put down the book, or I will take it away from you.”

Her: “What?”

Me: “You need to go to bed. You’re swimming in the morning!”

Her: Eyes gazing downward on page.

Me: Turning book over.

Her: Sad face (fake).

Us: Hugging goodnight.

::
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Me: Folding laundry, nearly 10 PM.

Him, coming downstairs, plopping into nearby chair: “Mom, what if video games had been invented before books? Do you think that parents would be making their kids play video games instead of reading books?”

Me: Pondering.

Him: “I mean, what makes books better than video games? At least in video games I get to choose what I want to do next. In books, the story stays exactly the same, no matter what.”

Me: Wondering if fundamentally I don’t get how the mind of a nearly-13-year-old boy operates.

Him: “Why is reading for entertainment better than playing a video game?”

Me, launching into it: “I think it’s because reading is creative. You have to see the characters in your mind. You have to make them up using symbols on a page. In a video game, it’s all there in front of you. You’re just viewing it.”

Him: “I mean, I like reading some books. But it seems like they’re less creative than video games because you can’t make any choices.”

Me: “Well, a book is a linear creation. But even a video game is limited by its own parameters. And in really good books, everything isn’t neat and tidy, and you have to figure out for yourself why characters do certain things, and you wonder afterwards what might happen next.”

Him: “I don’t do that.”

Me: “You don’t wonder why a character did something? Or wonder what might happen next?”

Him: “No.”

Me, climbing onto soapbox: “Also so many video games are extremely violent. You’re in a fantasy world where you can’t empathize with the people you’re killing. And you basically have eternal life.”

Him: “Exactly. It’s a fantasy. That’s what people who play video games want.”

Me: “Sure. I agree with you. Lots of people want the fantasy. Lots of people watch reality television too. It’s easy entertainment. I guess I just don’t really get it.”

Him, sadly: “I’m going to bed now.”

Me, feeling crummy, missing his company, hearing my ponderous long-winded lecture through his ears (have not transcribed entire ponderous long-winded lecture for the sake of brevity and face-saving)

Me, to self: “I’m the worst mother in the world.”

Self, to me: “No you’re not. Don’t get down on yourself. It’s not going to help.”

Me, awhile later, laundry folded, knocking on closed bedroom door, sitting on the end of his bed in the dark: “Maybe we can agree that we don’t quite understand each other’s preferred forms of entertainment. Maybe you can figure out how much time you think is reasonable to spend playing video games, and I’ll figure out how much time I think is reasonable to spend reading books. And then we can talk about other ways to be entertained too.”

Him, quite agreeably: “Ok.”

Me: “Ok!”

Ok. Okay? Ok.

Goodnight.

Strange opportunities that arrive

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I sponsored the two older kids’ rep soccer teams this season by “buying a sleeve.” We decided to add “A NOVEL” to the title GIRL RUNNER, thinking that a team of 13-year-old boys might not appreciate having to wear that label during games.

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This was our dining-room table, Monday afternoon. Two sets of page proofs, one galley, one sharp red pencil, and one mother announcing to all who entered after school, “There will be no eating or drinking on or near this table until I AM DONE!”

I am done.

All may eat and drink here again.

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Last night’s reading at DVLB was really fun. I even indulged in a scotch, thanks to the kindness of a friend who treated. Imbibe ye scotches while ye may. Life’s too short not to enjoy the pleasures that arrive. Even if that happens to be on a Tuesday night and you’re running the next morning. And so I did. (And I ran this morning too: Run ye many kilometres while ye may.)

No scotches tonight, however. I’ll be driving to and from Hamilton, where I’m reading at Bryan Price Bookseller, 7pm, with other M Word contributors. (Note to self: look up directions!)

Tomorrow I’ll be at the Anansi offices working on publicity plans for Girl Runner. (Note to self: more directions! Look up!)

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Can you read the above? I can’t. File this under Strange Opportunities that Arrive via the Internet. Last month I was contacted by an editor at Unitas, a Chinese-language literary magazine in Taiwan, who wanted to interview me for a special issue they were planning on Alice Munro. (They’d found and loved my review of Alice Munro’s Dear Love in the National Post.) I agreed. And this month, two copies of the beautifully produced magazine arrived in my mailbox, in an envelope covered in fancy stamps. Sometimes the world seems very very small.

I’ve never met Alice Munro, and can’t imagine what I would say to her if we were to meet. It’s an entirely one-sided relationship based purely on my reading of her stories over many years. I’m immersed in MY LIFE IN MIDDLEMARCH right now, a truly wonderful book that combines biography with memoir, and in some way I feel like my relationship with Alice Munro is similar to Rebecca Mead’s with George Eliot; but Mead has the benefit of distance and I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable exploring Alice Munro’s life and work in quite the same way, given that she’s still living, and that our worlds literally overlap in time and space. It wouldn’t be historical exploration. There’s a freedom to digging back into the past, way back. I’m aiming to do it now, in my next novel. Nothing can be perfectly recovered from the deep past, and so one may imagine quite freely.

Yet I’m so admiring and relishing this memoir/biography mash-up on George Eliot — I would do it, if I could figure out my relationship with non-fiction, a form I’m still learning. I’m thinking out loud here, brainstorming as I type. Perhaps not the best way to compose a blog post on which one is about to press “publish.” But if I could figure out how, yes, I would write about Alice Munro.

I think the NMA nomination was especially thrilling (and perhaps seductive) because it was earned for “personal journalism,” aka non-fiction. It’s a form that interests me more and more, that I find myself devouring more and more, and that I want to learn how to master.

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Slow burn

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We’ve added an element to the house: FIRE. It’s a gas stove, not wood-burning, placed in the centre of the wall in our main room. I’m sitting in front of it as I type, with my feet up (sorry, treadmill desk; I’m cheating on you with my new flame). As you can see from the photo below, this room remains a long-term work in progress. Kevin and I have two plans, one a total dream and the other something we could hack together ourselves with some help from Ikea. The latter is likely the route we’ll take… when we get a spare moment. Meanwhile, the room looks like this:

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I read to the kids in front of the fire last night, snuggling up for the first chapter of Farmer Boy, which CJ had strongly objected to reading (but I can’t read any more Calvin & Hobbes comics, which he loves but totally doesn’t get, requiring a lot of difficult explication). After some stomping around, and “I’m not listening to that,” he came around to “Fine!” when he realized what he’d be missing out on — namely the snuggling in front of the fire.

Farmer Boy begins with children walking through deep wintry snow to a schoolhouse that seems remarkably lawless and dangerous, the scene of potential violence and humiliation where big boys want to “thrash” the teacher and the teacher is considered especially kind because, unlike previous teachers, he does not beat a little boy for not knowing how to spell. The Wilder children are close in age to our family: Royal is 13, Eliza Jane is 12, Alice is 10, and Almanzo is 8. Almanzo, the littlest, has to carry the dinner pail (CJ, the littlest: “That’s not fair!”). By chapter’s end, CJ was hooked. Here’s what the Wilder children found in their dinner pail: bread and butter and sausage, donuts and apples, and one big flaky apple turnover each. (CJ: “Do they only have one nutrition break?” Me: “Yes, but they call it dinner, not nutrition break.”)

We only read one chapter, but it took ages; the conversation around the story could have gone on and on. The little kids were tucked into bed quite late, and Kevin left for hockey. When I came downstairs, the big kids were so perky and happy and chatty that I couldn’t send them to bed. It was the fire. We just couldn’t help but gather and linger and talk … about everything and anything. I learned more about Albus’s school day than I’ve heard all year. They wanted to know what school subjects I was bad at (domestic science and art), and what I looked like in grade 7 (plain and unfashionable: I mostly wore my hair in braids), and I could see them wondering, would I have liked Mom? I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been cool enough for Albus. But I grew up so differently from them: never staying in the same place for more than a few years, often the new kid at school, shifting between countries and cultures. By age 12, I’d lived in four different countries, and moved approximately 10 times. The life I’m offering to my children is a settled one, rooted, with privileges that they take for granted, and that I remember not even bothering to envy as a child, because they weren’t things I wanted or needed. Swim lessons, sports teams, fancy gadgets and the “right” shoes and clothes. I was a clueless 12-year-old: dreaming about getting a pony. At the end of grade seven, we moved to a farm and I got a pony! I never felt deprived.

It’s funny how we want to give our kids the things we didn’t get (i.e. swim lessons); but also give them the things we valued from our childhood. I valued my freedom to explore, and I valued being an outsider. It gave me a special status, a special vantage point from which to observe. My kids aren’t getting those things; they’re getting rides to soccer fields instead, and new jeans. What terrifies me is raising entitled kids. I struggle constantly not to do too much for them, to ask them to pitch in for the benefit of the family (and not to earn an allowance, another perk they have, which I did not grow up with). I want them to do the right thing; but more importantly, I want them to choose to do the right thing, not be forced or punished into doing it. You know? I want their inner fires stoked.

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So here’s my slow-burning hope. Gathering, talking, sharing, instilling values (one hopes), connecting, laughing: these years go by so fast. Last night, I let the kids stay up late. It seemed like a rare occasion, but I hope it happens often, now that we have something to gather around, something warm and ever-changing and comforting.

“Like a bird on a branch”

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dress-fitting

I just accidentally erased the most darling photos of CJ, taken by AppleApple, after Fooey had styled his hair into a swoop across his forehead. I’ve lost other things over the years, too, to digital carelessness or breakdown. It’s always hard to believe something’s gone, when it’s gone. But those comical photos are gone. Loss is a painful emotion, complicated by regret. I’ll get over it in a moment. This post will suffer from their absence, however. Photos affect tone, and those were really funny photos. But these photos are lovely too, taken during a recent fitting; my mom is making AppleApple a dress with puffed sleeves and a puffed skirt (that she might wear to my sister’s wedding this summer).

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There’s a commercial running during the Olympics right now with the tagline: Your someday is here. It shows athletes ready to compete, while in the background run faded film scenes of their child-selves, practicing their sport. I find myself curiously affected by these ads; I’m not moved to tears, I’m moved to a faint frisson of panic. Your someday is here. Yikes. Talk about pressure. It also whispers to me: your time will be here and gone before you know it. (I’m obviously in a cheery headspace.) Because doesn’t it also shout: Everything you’ve worked for has brought you here! Celebrate! Enjoy the fruits of your labours!

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This week, the Globe and Mail ran a comprehensive obituary on Mavis Gallant. It was heart-breaking to read that she spent her last decade “plagued by ill health and poverty.” Poverty. That word guts me. I reflect on the number of times I read and re-read Gallant’s stories during the past decade, for inspiration, for pleasure, and to admire and try to parse her technical skill as a writer, and how that pleasure received should have been repaid, somehow. Yes, I’ve bought her books over the years. But considering how many times I’ve read them, those purchases were bargains. How to repay a writer for her gift? How to offer appreciation that affords a great writer simple comforts as she ages? Gallant said in an interview in 2006 that “luckily” she had the temperament to be a fiction writer: “I never wanted to own anything — like a bird on a branch.” So maybe I’m projecting my own worries about future financial stability onto a writer who perched above all that, like a bird on a branch. She always noted that her name, Mavis, meant song-bird.

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Mavis Gallant was 91 years old when she died.

It’s hard to believe she’s gone. Loss is a painful emotion, complicated by regret.

The play’s the thing

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Yesterday, I played soccer.

Though it may sound odd to say so, it feels like the most significant thing I’ve done so far this year. I played soccer! I feel like a different person, while playing soccer. I feel stronger, smarter, freer, unencumbered. It’s the play I’ve been missing. Play, as in doing something purely for the fun of it.

I haven’t played soccer since August; since the concussion. I was terrified to try again, and wouldn’t have without a lot of encouragement from Kevin and AppleApple, both of whom claimed to want me on their team (flattery always wins; actually, so did our team, but that was mostly due to AppleApple hammering in a pile of goals). My touch was lacking, after six months away, but everything else came back in an instant: strategy, positioning, speed, and the ability to run pretty much forever. We played for two hours, and all I could think was: I have to do this again. Soon.

The players were mostly girls from AppleApple’s team, with some siblings and dads, and me, the lone mom. I was a bit surprised to be the only adult woman on the field. It was so fun playing with these highly skilled, extremely polite and friendly girls (ages 11/12); I’ll bet they’ll still be tearing up the soccer field when they’re my age. When I was their age, there wasn’t anything near the same level of skill-development available for soccer-loving girls, (or probably for soccer-loving boys, either, at least in Canada); I played one season of house league, the summer I was 11. Opportunities have improved for the athletic girl.

I’d love to see more adult women participating in sports: being a participant, a teammate, a competitor gives you a different way of seeing yourself. I think these girls will grow up to be participants, carrying the confidence of their skills. I wish for the skills, but when I get on the field, I find the confidence. And that’s what I’ve missed all these months of not playing: that different way of seeing myself, of being myself.

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Mavis Gallant has died. I’ve been reading and re-reading her stories since discovering her in university. How to describe her style? Her stories are like complex riddles that I’ll never entirely puzzle out, and that is their appeal. They offer a clear view into worlds I’ll never know, perspectives as precise as they are unfamiliar. Her stories evoke mysterious emotions, and I think that’s why I’ll never tire of them. She writes of bafflement, of striving and failing and not understanding why one is failing, of being the outsider–always that. My favourite Mavis Gallant story is “The Iceman Going Down the Street.” I’d like to tell you to read it, but only if you’ll promise to read it at least ten times, perhaps over the course of several years, so that you’ll know it and know again, differently, each time.

Goodbye, Mavis. I’ll read you forever.

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