Category: Book Review
This blog is like a corkboard on which to post thoughts, observations, whatever is front-of-mind right now. It acts as a public journal, an I WAS HERE scrawl on the wall. Trouble is, recently, whenever I sit down to post something, it’s not clear to me what’s front-of-mind. Mind is a-jumble. Influences are disparate and scrolling, images aflame, voices shouting, protests, outrage. What calls my attention is both very personal and tiny (my morning routine, for example) and overwhelmingly political and heavy (can’t even begin to list it parenthetically).
This morning I read an article by Lori Fox in The Globe and Mail that pretty much sums up what I’ve been ranting to Kevin about for these past many months. Please read what she’s written and know that I’m nodding along. At one point in the article, she writes about her own “small, selfish” dream. It’s a lovely dream. To paraphrase: Work that is useful and that she loves doing. Enough, and the time to enjoy it. A life with dignity and love.
It’s small enough, isn’t it, that everyone should dare to dream such a dream? Everyone should have the means of achieving it? It doesn’t sound selfish to me.
Originally, when I sat down to write this post it was about my own lovely week, which I spent reading stories, editing stories, and talking about stories. But when I wrote about how lovely it was, and how purposeful and peaceful I felt doing this work (tiny, personal), I also found myself tracking into the weeds of dismay and guilt, confusion and fury (overwhelming, political) as I reflected on how it was privilege that allowed me to do this work.
Earlier in the week, I watched this interview with Kurt Anderson on PBS (my favourite American news source), and it stirred in me emotions that I’ve been unable to unstir. Essentially, he argues that 1976 was the most equitable year on record (in America), and due to a wealth-driven philosophy that focuses on profit to the exclusion of all other concerns, we now find ourselves living in an economy that offers that “small, selfish” dream to fewer and fewer people. I realize that I live in Canada, not the US, but we’re not immune to troubling inequity. When I eat a peach, I can’t help but think of the hand that picked it, and wonder where that person is from, how much they’re being paid, and where they’re sleeping. Essential work is being done by people who are treated as less-than. And the system makes us complicit, even as we’re stuck in it.
How many people do you know whose work is precarious, cobbled-together gig by gig, without benefits or retirement packages? Look around, and you’ll see that defines a lot of us, even those who seem to be doing okay. How many jobs that were once secure and well-paid are now being done by people who work on contract or freelance? Remember when earning a PhD meant tenure-track job-security? I remember when writers were paid a dollar/word for book reviews published in the newspaper. You can argue that sectors that are struggling are sectors that are becoming obsolete in today’s economy; but that’s not necessarily true. Is education obsolete? Are the arts obsolete? What about news? Long-term care? Sectors struggle for many reasons, but what I see is that a profit-only model doesn’t work for the people who actually do the labour. Because in the profit-only model, labour is a cost. You squeeze the costs down, you make more profit. Ultimately, that means you’re squeezing people — you’re paying people less and less to do more and more. And the people are us.
I can observe all of this, and be outraged, but it tends to lead me toward paralysis. What’s the fix, what’s the cure?
Yesterday, I sat outside and read Olive, Again, by Elizabeth Strout, which I noticed, upon finishing, is labelled “A Novel.” I think that’s an American thing? The book is actually a collection of linked short stories, my favourite form, although I know linked short stories don’t sell well, so maybe “A Novel” is a marketing thing. In any case, the book doesn’t need to be anything other than what it is: stories about characters (often Olive, but sometimes not) navigating their broken paths and trying to figure out how to talk to each other and protect themselves across divides of class, race, culture, age, abuse, pain, illness, secrecy, experience, self-doubt. It’s brilliant, and I wept often, throughout.
Upon finishing, I thought: I just want to sit and read stories all day long. And then I’ll take a break and write stories for others to read. And then I’ll meet with people who love reading and writing and we’ll talk about it, and I’ll edit my stories and theirs. When I do this work I’m not always right, but I know what I’m doing and why.
Is this a roadmap for a career???? God, let it be so. At the very least, it’s a roadmap for making sense of life. For helping me see and understand and know what matters. And it ain’t profit, my friends (but you already know that!). We all know it, gut-deep: profit isn’t profitable when it costs us our communities, our health, our dignity.
Here’s my own small, selfish dream: I want to read, write, edit, discuss; work that has it uses, its purpose. And I want others to be able to do this work too, as they’re called to it.
Truth: A lot of my work is done on a voluntary basis (it’s my speciality!). But here’s the thing: volunteer work is not necessarily noble. People volunteer because they can afford to. I’m worried that my willingness and ability to work for little to no recompense is part of the problem. Consider the arts sector, where many initiatives survive because of people like me: Doesn’t this very structure — reliance on voluntary labour — create barriers toward participation for everyone who can’t afford to work for free?
But what’s the alternative in a sector that’s not profit-driven and never will be, that survives on grants, fundraising … and underpaid / unpaid labour?
It’s a dilemma that’s been troubling me. A lot.
And I’ve come around to a solution, of sorts: Universal Basic Income. It’s not perfect, but it seems like the viable place to start. A baseline of security, so everyone can afford their own tiny, personal dream: Enough and time to enjoy it. Dignity and love. Work that is useful and that you love doing.
(See what I mean? This post is WAY TOO MUCH, but it’s where my head is at, right now.)
A marvellous way to escape from the stasis and repetition of the everyday is by reading books. I’ve been reading more books these days than I have for a very long time, reading not merely for professional purposes, but as a fan.
And I just want to say: Read, friends, read!
Read a book! You won’t regret it! Sink in, let your brain get accustomed to taking the long, slow, scenic route instead of scrolling yourself down an endless wall of text. This might sound like self-serving advice, but really, I feel born-again.
Read a book!
It’s an immersion in a way that other forms of “entertainment” and learning are not, because it also involves engagement, as your mind works to build worlds and make connections. There are ideas and images forming inside your brain—new to you, exciting, challenging, alarming, frustrating, fresh and unknown—as you follow the line of words across the page. These brand-new images are transferred into the landscape of experiences, memories, and images that already belong to you. Connections between these worlds pop and crackle and spark something that has the potential to feel revelatory and transformative (at best), or at least interesting, different from your usual point of view.
Inside your mind, as you read a book, you’re actively creating something that is both collaborative and personal. You’re reading something written in a different time that is speaking to where you are right now (or attempting to). I think this is why it can feel like you know an author really well—because you’ve actually made something together when you read their book, even when you’re collaborating across cultures, languages, places, and times.
This past weekend, in related news, we camped at my brother and sister-in-law’s farm, and went to the beach. And we read books. I even stayed up late one night to finish a conventional but highly entertaining murder mystery, borrowed from my brother (Ann Cleeves, The Long Call). I’d finished the book I’d brought camping (Tessa Hadley, Late in the Day), a book with which I had an ongoing argument, as it featured wealthy white British characters, several of whom were artists; at times, I strongly disliked everything about the book, but then bits seemed to capture something important about creating art, especially as a woman, and how valuable it is to have a champion, especially a patron with money and influence, but also how dangerous. In the end, it was the engagement with ideas, the argument with the book itself, that kept me transported and hooked.
Books transport me in so many different ways. Reading Carrianne Leung’s That Time I Loved You brought me into characters who broke my heart, and with whom I craved even more time, and afterward I wanted to talk about these people like they were real; reading Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age was both accusation and encouragement to reflect on my own transactional relationships, even while it pulled me along with a propulsive plot; reading Glennon Doyle’s Untamed stirred up a mixture of emotions, including the desire to protect this seemingly vulnerable writer from her own blind spots, and respect for occasions of raw insight.
I’ve just started Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, and already I feel like the top of my head has been lifted to make room for more seeing, more questions, more ways to jab at and unpeel my identity, my ways and means of performing myself.
Writing is not a glamorous job. Progress is made at a glacial pace, if what you’re doing can be even be seen as progress; it might be more rightly called meandering, looping, wondering, wandering. You can’t see what you’re making. You can’t know how it will be received, if it ever gets loose, let alone completed. You don’t know what arguments a stranger might have with what you’ve conjured on the page.
It often doesn’t feel like important or valuable work; certainly it doesn’t feel very useful a lot of the time. But when I read books, I know exactly why I write, and why I’ve chosen this wondering, wandering path. When I read, I feel belonging and expansion, both, at once. When I write, I feel like a giddy participant in a long, ongoing conversation about being alive, being a part of it all, in my own time and place and body, right now.
Right now, Canadian publishing is suffering. (Read this, if you want to know more about the nitty-gritty business of the industry.) But listen up, friends! If you’re lucky, you still have an independent bookstore operating despite the pandemic, and they’re the ones (according to the cited article) who have the potential to keep this fragile/tough cultural industry alive. All the books mentioned above (and many more!) were purchased at Words Worth Books in uptown Waterloo. Order online, pick up in the alley behind the store; or they deliver locally. Do a bit of searching. Find what’s available near you. There are many independent options other than Amazon, and these options are run by people who love books, too. They love reading. They believe in the collaboration between words on the page and individual minds. They want to challenge your horizons, send you on adventures, keep you up late at night. Amazon’s algorithm just wants to sell you more of the same.
Those are my thoughts for today. More ideas, coming soon.
I wasn’t in a good cartooning mood yesterday. But I wanted to capture this quotation from Elizabeth Strout’s novel My Name is Lucy Barton, which I was reading. So I sat down and wrote it out, arranging the words on the page as if they were a poem. I started by writing the words in non-photo blue pencil, and inked them in afterward. I was quite sleep-deprived, and realized only later, when reading over my efforts, how many “typos” I’d made. So it wasn’t a good cartooning day. To cartoon, you need patience, focus, concentration. In keeping with my word of the year, I’m trying to pay attention to what manifests, in order to understand what’s underneath. In all honesty, I might not have noticed I was lacking those traits yesterday if I hadn’t tried to cartoon.
In conclusion, I need more sleep. I have been trying to get 7 hours of sleep each night, consistently; trying and failing, I must add. I’m addicted to early morning exercise. It’s my bliss. And that means getting to bed earlier. Which means turning off my phone earlier, and climbing into bed with a book. Like the one in which I found the words I felt compelled to record, above. But I confess it’s a hard habit to change — to read a book instead of scrolling though social media feeds. The latter offers the illusion of connection, and sometimes, in the case of Twitter, a steady stream of outrage that temporarily livens my brain; but also drains me of real purpose, or the desire to act in real, tangible ways.
When I read, especially fiction, I transcend the body I’m in and become familiar with other bodies, other realities, through immersive sensory perceptions. I see through other eyes. And in this exchange, I often feel seen, or feel able to see myself more clearly. That is how I felt reading the passage above: It says what I cannot.
Reading it, I wanted to write out the words so I could keep them in tangible form. The words called out from me a response. Which led me here. Which is, where, exactly? Sitting at my desk on a dull Saturday afternoon, the first day of February, my fingers smelling of peeled garlic, not vacuuming or cleaning the bathrooms, composing a small gathering of thoughts for release, winging out into the ether.
One final thought: I write fiction to know how others are, in large part because “I realize I don’t know how others are.” But one of the oddest things I’ve discovered while writing a collection of autobiographical stories, is that I also don’t know how I am. Fiction is a necessary construction, and sometimes it becomes a mirror. A fictional character, like Lucy Barton, can say what we cannot because as a projection of her author’s imagination she is elaborately protected from the particular dangers of human pain, and this makes her free, as a character, to reveal what our human minds protect us from most vigilantly — her ambiguities, confusion, contradictions, the places where she gets stuck, the ways in which she hurts others, her lies and her truths. We see her, and we see ourselves more clearly for a moment, too.
There are times, unexpected —
I’ve read some excellent books these past few months, all by women, mainly fiction. Most recently, I finished THREE WOMEN, by Lisa Taddeo, creative-non-fiction, and the kind of book a person wants to discuss afterward with someone else. In the absence of a book club, I bring my thoughts to you. (This is how compelling the book is: I was reading on the couch last weekend, sharing a blanket with my eldest daughter, when she suddenly said, “Wow that book must be good, Mom. You haven’t fallen asleep!”)
(Possibly related note: the book has a lot of graphic descriptions of sex. But in my interpretation, as you’ll see below, the sex stands in for desire more generally.)
THREE WOMEN is a book about women’s desire as examined through the lens of sexual desire(s) that our culture would call taboo. One woman defines herself as a submissive and has sex with other men and women while her husband watches or participates. One woman, in an almost-sexless marriage, has an affair with a former boyfriend after connecting on FB. One woman, as a high school student, was pursued by and sexually involved with a teacher, and when charges are pressed years later, the teacher is absolved and she is destroyed.
But she had already been destroyed. (This is not a spoiler; the book’s propulsive nature relies on exploration of character rather than plot.)
The most interesting section, for me, comes in the epilogue, when the author unpacks, most explicitly, the subject she’s been examining, and reveals that this particular desire she’s been exploring throughout is an exemplar for anything a woman wants—desire, generally.
Her mother, dying, has something she agrees to reveal to her daughter. Something she wants to tell her.
Are you ready? She asked me.
Yes, I said. I got close to her face. I touched her cheek. It was still warm and I knew it wouldn’t be for long.
Don’t let them see you happy, she whispered.
Everyone, she said wearily, as though I had already missed the point. She added, Other women, mostly.
I thought it was the other way around, I said. Don’t let the bastards get you down.
That’s wrong. They can see you down. They should see you down. If they see you are happy, they will try to destroy you.
But who? I asked again. And what do you mean? You sound crazy.
Later, the author writes: “… we cannot exactly say that we expect to be happy.”
Finally: “There was a beauty in how little my mother wanted. There’s nothing safer than wanting nothing. But being safe in that way, I’ve come to know, does not inure you to illness, pain, and death. Sometimes the only thing it saves is face.”
So let’s talk about desire. Not sexual desire. Desire. Naming our hopes, our aspirations out loud.
Personally, I have trained myself to expect less, and perhaps also to want less, to make do with less, to make less a wonderful shelter, in a way, a goodness and righteousness, a way of life. I do believe, morally, in the ethic of more with less. But I also can see how lowering my expectations, and being afraid to name what I want (out loud or even quietly to myself) could make my whole life so much smaller. But if I name what I want, am I not guaranteeing I’ll never receive it? Jinx! Touch wood. I do this, when I accidentally state out loud something hoped-for.
In truth, I’m morally opposed to the idea of bottomless aspirational desire, of eternally needing and wanting more, which always seems to come at the expense of others. I disagree with inflicting harm on other people to favour one’s own pleasure. That is why the stories of two of the women in this book were more difficult for me to understand—acts of self-pleasure are rarely victimless. Can desire be healthy if acting upon it will damage those to whom we owe our loyalties and responsibilities?
I’ve been thinking about how comparing ourselves to others is a fast-track to misery. It’s a fast-track to bitterness, envy, and a form of self-loathing that we often turn outward on the object of our comparison. I fought these very feelings yesterday morning in a weight class at the gym, working out next to a woman who seemed effortlessly to wield weights heavier than mine, whose endurance was always greater than mine. My attention was divided, and I kept diminishing my own efforts, even while thinking things like: She must have more time to work out than I do, or even, It can’t be healthy to work out as much as she must, to be in such good shape. I also recognized, even as my thoughts ran in this direction, that any discontent I was feeling was so wholly not this stranger’s responsibility, but my own.
I wonder whether comparison whispers to us that we should have been wanting more all along, that our suppression of desire has cheated us somehow? Does it make us question our life choices? Recognize invisible alternate realities all around us that may already be closed to us?
Is our comparative envy perhaps also related to a scarcity of resources? For women, there is an extreme scarcity of resources around desire, success, and achievement. We have a very narrow window of acceptable achievement, and of the way to acceptably achieve. Naming our desires is not so straightforward. We have to be so careful not to name desires that would hurt others (as I said above), especially our children. We struggle, too, to claim our own successes. We work so hard to keep in balance all these pieces of ourselves — and our expectations for ourselves — that we inevitably fail on one important front or another.
We cannot exactly say that we expect to be happy. Is this a gift we could give to each other, especially as women? — admiration for each other’s strengths, in tandem with appreciation for our own.
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.
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