Reading This Week

Three parenting books, which are changing my life

It might seem strange to read three at once, but I’m finding it helpful in locating the contradictions among them and using these contradictions to productively cultivate my own parenting approach:

  • The Montessori Toddler by Simone Davies
  • French Kids Eat Everything {And Yours Can Too} by Karen Le Billon
  • No Bad Kids by Janet Lansbury

The Book of Ruth, as part of a larger bible-reading project I’m completing

Christine Hayes’s lectures through Open Yale Courses through Yale University have been particularly helpful.

The Innocents by Michael Crummey

While I eagerly anticipate the Giller Prize announcement on November 18…

This brilliant quote, from Zadie Smith’s recent essay, about which I cannot stop thinking:

“A book does not watch us reading it; it cannot morph itself, page by page, to suit our tastes, or deliver to us only depictions of people we already know and among whom we feel comfortable. It cannot note our reactions and then skew its stories to confirm our worldview or reinforce our prejudices. A book does not know when we pick it up and put it down; it cannot nudge us into the belief that we must look at it first thing upon waking and last thing at night, and though it may prove addictive, it will never know exactly how or why. Only the algorithms can do all this—and so much more.

By now, the idea of depriving this digital maw of its daily diet of “you” has become inconceivable. Meanwhile, the closed circle that fiction once required—reader, writer, book—feels so antiquated we hardly see the point of it…

Despite the confidence of the data harvesters, a self can never be known perfectly or in its entirety. The intimate meeting between a book and its reader can’t be predetermined. To put it another way, a book can try to modify your behavior, but it has no way of knowing for sure that it has. In front of a book you are still free. Between reader and book, there is only the continual risk of wrongness, word by word, sentence by sentence. The Internet does not get to decide. Nor does the writer. Only the reader decides. So decide.”

Zadie Smith, “Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction

New York Review of Books October 24, 2019 issue

How a Woman Becomes a Lake – Celona

Ah! and when the hour-glass has run out, the hour-glass of temporality, when the worldly tumult is silenced and the restless or unavailing urgency comes to an end, when all about you is still as it is in eternity…

Soren Kirkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death

Photo Credit: Penguin Random House Canada

Jia Tolentino recently described, in a 2018 New Yorker essay, a peculiar form of longing, a longing deeply pertinent to our times. Recalling recent political decisions in the United States and other depressing news items, she writes, “It’s been a long time since I’ve felt lake-like–cool and still.” The desire to feel not only a stillness, often associated with trendy mindfulness techniques, but also a sense of detachment, a separation from one’s own nature and the accompanying social conditions, carries with it a particularly cynical undertone.

Invoking a myth popularized in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Tolentino reflects on the emotional state of the pursued woman, the dominated woman. How peaceful, then (and this is where the cynicism shows through), to be like Arethusa. To be still, to turn into a cool spring, to rest. Of course, as Tolentino reminds us, Arethusa’s pursuer ultimately transforms himself into a river, penetrating Arethusa, despite her shapeshifting.

This essay, from which Marjorie Celona derived the title of her forthcoming novel, carries with it a subtle but important significance.

In the novel, Vera, the character missing under suspicious circumstances, is exceedingly productive, with “powersuits,” a luxury car, an enviable and predictable daily routine. Her job as a film professor at a local university is, on the surface, a marker of success and status. At one point, she narrates a standard meeting with “a flushed-faced eighteen-year-old” in her office: “So often she wanted to take her students by the shoulders and shout: Do you have any idea how hard I worked to get where I am?” she recalls, emphasizing that she “dulled the feeling” with her perfectly choreographed life.

Vera has a sign in her office saying, “Work harder than everyone else, but never feel like you’re working.” And isn’t this the epitome of a 21st-century woman’s predicament? Work harder, but also be the perfect wife, mother, friend. It’s a trap, in a sense, and Vera has succumbed. Wouldn’t it be a relief, then, to simply become “still”.

The shocking undertone of this novel is the bubbling up of violence, the allusions to suicide, the abuse of the most vulnerable among us. An underlying question of this novel seems to be, what happens to the vulnerable when they are suddenly in a position to inflict violence?

The readabilty and captivating qualities of this novel come from its frame as a crime novel feel. While the publisher has chosen not to categorized it as such (rather, a “literary novel with the pull and pace of a thriller“), Celona’s text resembles qualities of the very best of Scandinavian crime novels.

The traits that set Scandinavian crime fiction apart from that of other regions are twofold: 1) a preoccupation with landscape and with the idea of place, how tragedy is informed and ultimately overwhelmed by the surrounding landscape, and 2) a focus on the deeply human flaws of the characters, particularly the moral considerations and confusions of the individual investigating the crime at hand. How a Woman Becomes a Lake benefits from both of these qualities, but Celona goes much further to show how these characteristics can be paired seamlessly and productively with an emphasis on literary excellence.

Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada and NetGalley for the advance copy of this title.

How a Woman Becomes a Lake by Marjorie Celona

Fiction – Penguin Random House Canada

Publication date: 3 March 2020