Category: Book Review
On the weekend, I walked to the library with my elder daughter. While she browsed in the non-fiction stacks — the theoretical physics section — I played a little game that has served me well over the years: I wandered a little further (no theoretical physics for me) and plucked titles at random from the shelves, my choices based only on title or subject. In quick succession, I skimmed and rejected two books on Scottish folk and fairy tales, but my third choice had me sitting cross-legged on the floor, entranced.
It was a biography of Rachel Carson, the American scientist who became famous for her books about the sea and the beauty of the natural world, and who is remembered now as the author of Silent Spring, a book that warned the public about the dangers of pesticides and other chemicals. Silent Spring was published in 1962; Rachel Carson died in 1964 of cancer. If you google Rachel Carson, you will find that to this day she is reviled in some circles as a “feminizi ecoterrorist.” The biography, Witness for Nature, by Linda Lear, and published in 1997, is a little more nuanced. It evokes a portrait of a self-effacing, deeply intelligent, patient, hard-working woman who was led by her love of nature and science to become outspoken on conservation issues. Rachel Carson began her career as a government biologist, writing educational pamphlets on a variety of subjects. But she’d always wanted to be a writer. Science became her subject. And with enormous effort and obsessive care, Rachel Carson fashioned a successful literary career; eventually, she became successful enough that she could afford to resign from her government post, in her mid-40s, to devote her life to writing about science in poetical narratives that appealed to a broad audience.
It goes without saying that Rachel Carson was an unusual woman for her era. What strikes me most, however, is how fresh and relevant her message remains today.
Even though the book was an enormous tome, I decided to check it out and carry it home, and I spent the weekend reading it with pleasure. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy biographies, especially of writers. I look for clues, I nod in recognition, or admit to envy for those who have a knack for self-promotion. Rachel Carson’s attention to detail, her push for publicity, her irritation with her first publisher, who failed to promote her first book — all of this impressed me. She had a vision for the entire publishing process and she saw it through, little deterred by criticism, yet open to critique, actively seeking it out, so as to better her own work. She also frequently turned down promotional opportunities, speeches, honorary degrees, etc., to preserve time and space for her research and writing. She knew how to say no. (Is it too late for me to learn?)
Rachel Carson lived with her mother, who kept house for her; she was the main breadwinner for her family, which included at times her older sister and brother, mother and father, and later, her orphaned nieces. She did not marry, had no children. Our lives, in their domestic details, do not much meet and overlap.
But reading about her life has got me thinking about the importance of devotion to a subject; no, the critical imperative of devoting attention to a subject, if one is to hope to learn, to understand, to teach, to share knowledge, to find solutions to human problems large and small. Our lives on earth depend upon it. We cannot be lead by those who would ignore deep, complex knowledge in favour of simplistic superficial fixes. We cannot give power to ignorance. (Too late? Well, then let’s stand true against powerful ignorance.)
Here is Rachel Carson on her belief in the universal accessibility of science:
“We live in a scientific age; yet we assume that knowledge of science is the prerogative of only a small number of human beings, isolated and priestlike in their laboratories. This is not true. It cannot be true. The materials of science are the materials of life itself. Science is part of the reality of living; it is the what, the how, and the why of everything in our experience. It is impossible to understand man without understanding his environment and the forces that have molded him physically and mentally.”
Here is Rachel Carson on the human tendency to focus on egocentric problems, and to fail to see our place in the vast sweep of time:
“Perhaps if we reversed the telescope and looked at man down these long vistas, we should find less time and inclination to plan for our own destruction.”
And here is Rachel Carson on the danger of seeing humankind as separate from nature:
“Mankind has gone very far into an artificial world of his own creation. He has sought to insulate himself, in his cities of steel and concrete, from the realities of earth and water and the growing seed. Intoxicated with a sense of his own power, he seems to be going farther and farther into more experiments for the destruction of himself and his world.”
Her solution? Wonder and humility.
“Focus attention on the wonders of a world known to so few, although it lies about us everyday.”
Recognize your place in the grand sweep of time. Know yourself to be part of the natural world. Wonder at your participation in the cyclical turnings. In this way, by becoming very small, by being a piece of something much larger than yourself, you will be of the world around you, not against it. I am fascinated by her repetition of the word “destruction” — her insistence that the human belief that we are above nature, not of nature, springs from a dangerously destructive impulse, that it invents and experiments with destruction.
I love when a book finds me.
There are times when the world is too much with us, and a gut response is not sufficient, what’s needed is time and reflection and perspective. I’m not ignoring what’s happening in the larger world. I’m interested, I’m engaged, I’m paying attention, but I don’t have anything useful to say about it, here.
As of today, I’ve got two teenagers under this roof, and I think their growing independence and autonomy is stoking my growing impulse to step back into the shade of obscurity. I don’t know what the purpose of this blog is anymore, which is why I post here more and more rarely.
I still want to keep this space open, for when I do have something to say. But I don’t want to say something just because this space exists.
Today, I want to tell you about the wonderful books I’ve been reading.
I finished My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante, and immediately dove into the second book in the four-book series, translated from the Italian. I’ve heard this series compared to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, but to my mind, they are unrelated. Ferrante has a wider world view than Knausgaard, even if she is examining in detail a very particular time and place: she is depicting the assertion of power itself through the generations. It is the story of a friendship, and of two girls (now young women, in the second book), and it is told from the perspective of one of the women, but it is not about the rigidity of an individual point of view (which Knausgaard’s series seems to be explore), but about the flow of power and knowledge and ritual that shape an individual in ways that are beyond her control, even if she is aware of them. Ferrante observes patterns, large and small. The patterns of place. The patterns of family, of neighbourhood, of wealth and poverty, of knowledge, of culture. This is extremely rich and immersive writing, but it is also propulsive in its pacing. I won’t be reading another book until I’m finished the whole series, but at the same time, I don’t want it to end. It will be like saying goodbye to a friend.
I am thinking of My Struggle in relation to this book because I recently finished reading the third book in that series, Boyhood Island. I can’t read this series quickly. It’s like being trapped inside someone’s mind, someone who has a limited understanding of how he is being received in the world around him, and the effect is claustrophobic, and sometimes even alarming. But I remain interested. I will continue reading through this series, but at a much slower pace. I have no sense of urgency in my quest. It’s more of a commitment to see a thing through.
Another recommendation: Outline by Rachel Cusk. She is the British writer who was born in Canada and whose book was a finalist for two major Canadian prizes this season; there were complaints about how Cusk scarcely qualifies as a Canadian, and that may be true, but I’m glad she made the lists or I wouldn’t have discovered her. I devoured this book. I loved it unreservedly. It is highly stylized, enormously intelligent, and although told in the first person almost erases that person entirely, so that everyone around her leaps into the world fully fleshed, but she never becomes more than an outline on the page. It is the strangest feat, an accomplishment of great discipline. It made me question the purpose of the first person narrator, and the purpose of the writer, too.
Meanwhile, I’ve been reading out loud to the kids in the evenings: especially the two youngest (ages 7 and 10). So far we’ve read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume, and we’re nearly through From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg, both set in New York City, both stories about siblings.
All for now.
Friday, noon. I sit in perfection on the deck of a cottage overlooking a calm lake, pines and birch and cedar moving in a light breeze, the sound of children playing on the rocks below, wading in the shallows. An iridescent dragonfly flutters up and away. The sun is hot. I am wearing a swim suit underneath a brown faded sundress, and a half-drunk cup of coffee is at my elbow.
It feels like this could last forever.
Of course, it can’t and won’t. But there are times when a moment gives the illusion of settling and holding and the mind and body relax so completely that there is no thinking about later, tomorrow, work, duty, responsibility. Ambition vanishes too.
Because what am I part of if not something much greater than my mere human ambition can imagine?
I want for all the gift of rest, respite, dignity, play. At a moment like this, I can imagine no greater gift than somehow creating space for rest and respite, for all who live on this earth. Yet instead we seem most adept at inventing barriers, walls, borders, crises, battles, weapons, dogma that excludes, ideologies of fear and control. There is too much to grieve. I become overwhelmed. I grow weary and distracted. I can’t think clearly.
I sit and watch the lake water move in patterns of eternal symmetry.
Perhaps, I think, my mind is being cleared. Perhaps I will return home less weary, more aware of what matters to me, which patterns I wish to nurture, and which I wish to discard, in order to be a participant in a world where all of these gifts may be shared.
Relief. Simple pleasure. Ease. Rest. Hope.
PS I reviewed Lawrence Hill’s new novel, The Illegal, for The Globe and Mail, and it’s online now, and will appear in tomorrow’s paper. The book is a fast-paced, prescient read on a subject that could not be more timely — the movement of people across borders.
Oh yeah, I’m a month late: this guy graduated from grade eight. Here’s how he looked on the big night. In June.
Last week I had a very Carrie idea, the sort that might make my children wish they had another mother, at least just a little bit. Our eldest doesn’t read much. And I’d noticed that some of my children seemed to have forgotten how to spell since leaving school last month. What to do, what to do? The idea came to me and breathlessly I spat it out! I said I would now be assigning a book report, once a week. Yes, they would have to read at least one book a week and write a report on it, which (I was spitballing here) they would then present to the family, every Sunday evening this summer.
I then dropped the mic and excused myself to go work on my Favourite Mother of All Time acceptance speech. Just in case. Because you never know.
(This comes as such a surprise! I’m in shock, look at me, I didn’t even brush my hair — and am I wearing my nightgown? Yes I am and screw it, who cares!! They love me, they really love me!)
Albus wasn’t so keen on the reading part, especially when I specified that the book must be at or near his actual reading level. As an option, I said he could read a magazine or newspaper article, and he made a lame attempt, flipping through a Chatelaine magazine (he was drawn by the picture of an indescribably scrumptious-looking burger on the front, amusingly, the same picture that had inspired me to buy the magazine in the first place). But nothing spoke to him (really? nothing in a women’s lifestyle magazine speaks to you, young man??), and I wouldn’t let him present on a burger recipe. So he requested a special pardon—could he instead write a story rather than read a book and write a report?
COULD HE WRITE A STORY??!
Ding, ding, ding, the judge says Yes.
Sunday evening. We gather round (most of us in pyjamas, me in my nightgown, as it happens). One by one the kids read out their book reports and stories. CJ reports that he likes a certain picture book called The Candy Conspiracy (his original report read, in total, “I like this book,” but he was pushed to go a bit further) because of the tips, and the Juicy Jelly Worm, and the kids. He did write this all down, so the judges give him a high five.
Fooey doesn’t want her report read out loud. It’s on Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone, a book that she couldn’t put down, it was like being swept up in a river, she writes, an inventive metaphor that pleases her mother very much. Printed by hand, three pages long, very tidy writing, and hardly a spelling mistake to be found.
AppleApple reads her report off of her Google Drive account: a thoughtful three-page reflection on Jane Eyre, with particular interest in its religious content and pre-feminist qualities. So yes. She did her homework.
Albus reads an entertaining story he’s composed on the computer about a character who lives in the dishwasher, and who is haunted by a tale told to him by an oldster in the midst—a wooden spoon who has visited the back yard and is certain he’s seen a fox chasing a bear. (The comical part is that from the spoon’s description it’s clear the fox and the bear are nothing more than squirrels.) Well structured, excellent comic stylings, and winning characters; I suspect he put more effort into this than he did into the bulk of his school projects all year, but I am nevertheless beaming with pride.
Kevin reports on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which was recommended to him by me—he reads out a passage about education, in which Miss Jean Brodie says that she believes education is meant to draw out from the student what is already in her, while the principal of the school believes education is meant to insert information into the student. Draw out or thrust in?
Discuss. (We discussed.)
I finish with the sad story of Wave, a memoir by a woman who lost her husband, two young sons, and her parents in the tsunami of 2004. The book is about her life after this loss, although it opens with an intensely riveting scene in which they are lost while somehow she survives in this massive sudden wave of destruction. I promise the kids we live nowhere near a tsunami-zone. But I can see that the younger two are quite upset at the thought of a mother losing her children, or her children being lost. Good job, Mom. So perhaps not the best note to end on.
But back to Wave: It is a powerful memoir, if you want to take it on. It isn’t as hard to read as you might imagine. Sonali Derayinagala is a lovely writer. And she carries you right into the void of what it would be like to lose all of the people who make you who you are, most fundamentally. Who is she, without them?
It isn’t a question any of us would want to answer.
Oh dear, I’ve reproduced our evening rather too perfectly. I’ve ended on a downer. I do apologize. Now, keep reading, keep reporting. And get back to me on Sunday.
This is what we’ve all been reading for over a month now. And I include myself among the readers. We’ve been getting them out from the library, and I wish we could find some way to buy them, new or used, because the kids pore over them and read them over and over. Lynn Johnston didn’t develop her characters within a typical cartoon style using a static time frame; instead, her characters grow and age, and they feel really whole and interesting and the effect is novel-like, if the novel were written over years and years, and in small panels with punchlines. I love that her punchlines are often poignant. I’ve sat there crying over a storyline, and I’ve laughed out loud, but most often I just read with the same enjoyment I would find from a novel. I find it hard to pick up one of her collections and not devour it from beginning to end.
I have managed to read a few other books, recently. I worked my way slowly, steadily, sleepily through My Struggle, book two (A Man in Love, I believe it’s called). At certain points I found myself wondering if this would be my quest, whether I would slowly, steadily, sleepily work my way through the entire seven books, as a kind of bizarre long-term project of being inside someone else’s mind. I might. I’ve already bought book three. But meanwhile, I’m going to cleanse my palate.
Over the long weekend, I read, with enormous pleasure, Landing Gear, by Kate Pullinger, who I met on tour last fall. Kevin read it first, and was laughing out loud, and told me I had to read it right away, as soon as he was done. So I did. I also found it very very funny, and I admired its structure and shape. I loved the portrayal of the 14-year-old boy … as I now have one of my own.
Here are some scenes from his birthday.
He worked on building a shed with his grandpa in the morning. He played hooky from school and his parents took him out for lunch. He played a game of soccer in the evening. And then he blew out a candle and opened gifts from his siblings and parents. And now he’s having a party with some friends that appears to mainly involve junk food, video games, and hanging around. I’ve already popped up once to be the annoying snooping friendly mother. Can’t help myself.
Happy Friday, happy weekend!
Sunday felt like a quintessential Carrie-style day. I was on my own with the three youngest kids, with Kevin and Albus at a soccer tournament in Ohio (yes, back-to-back weekends in Ohio, switching up the parent/kid combo). Despite wishing to sleep in, I got up (relatively) early to run the dogs. While running, decided to bake bread. Vacuumed the downstairs. Grabbed a quick shower. Cleared the dining-room table. Made lots of coffee, plus waffles, plus cut up a watermelon. Fooey helped set the table and organize. And then my sibs arrived for brunch — yes, this had been planned in advance; it was my idea! And then we all relaxed and ate and chatted at our leisure, sitting around the table for ages. Even the kids sat and enjoyed the conversation (listening intently, quietly, miniature big-eyed spies soaking up intel from the adult world). And the bread came out of the oven in time to be “dessert.” Mmmmm.
After everyone left, I put AppleApple in charge and went for a run with a friend. After that, there was really just laundry, leftovers for supper, and a whole lot of downtime to talk and read together.
While in the midst of the morning prep work, pre-shower but mid-bread, I texted Kevin to say: “I feel like sometimes I make life too complicated …”
And it’s probably true. I probably could arrange things differently. I probably didn’t need to bake bread, for example. I didn’t need to squeeze in a run. I didn’t need to offer to host brunch on a weekend when I was parenting alone. But it all worked out so awesomely that I’m going to reassure myself: how you do stuff is just fine. Go ahead and keep doing it, not because you need to, but because you want to. Keep making life complicated. It’s complicated; not too complicated. There’s investment and reward. It’s busy, but we have a lot of fun — I have a lot of fun (and the kids need to know: moms just wanna have fun, too). Best of all, for those of us who enjoy adventure and excitement and a shot of adrenalin in our every day, complicated makes every day is a little bit different. There’s variety amid the routine, chaos in the order, storm in the calm. But also, thankfully, calm in the storm.
PS Girl Runner was reviewed this weekend in the Independent on Sunday (UK) — the only novel in a round-up of running books, in celebration of the London marathon: “It’s a joy to read about a woman finding pleasure in her body that isn’t sex or diet-based.” (Not that there’s anything wrong with sex or food, the author of Girl Runner would just like to add …)
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