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

Devotion – Stevens

With Devotion, Madeline Stevens joins the ranks of millennial women whose recent novels describe their heroines living in toxic states of body and mind in New York City (think My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Severance, Normal People, etc.). Most of these novels comment successfully on notions of privilege and success, which these women crave.

Why do we like reading about the millennial woman who has questionable actions and morals, questionable self care, questionable relationships, and questionable attitudes towards privilege and self? Why are these novels so popular in this particular moment? Perhaps they are realistic in their portrayals for the most part, which, if not a depressing fact is certainly a telling one.

These novelists in any case should be applauded for their honesty and wit, for their unapologetic ability to describe the body hair, the embarrassing sexual experiences, the misuse/abuse of substances, and desires that often come with being a 21st-century woman.

Stevens develops this popular new story line into an initially plausible account of a young woman finding a job as a nanny for a wealthy family. She’s literally eating nothing at the point she accepts the job, so she is in really no position to reflect on whether or not she truly wants the job, whether she can even be a good caregiver to a toddler (she fakes her resume to get her foot in the door).

As in most of these novels, the selfishness and self-absorption of the protagonist is just a side note, and the plots of these recent stories differ radically. Devotion reflects the life of the nanny and relationship towards the employer. Exposing the relationship between the ultra privileged and the… ? Well, what do you call it? The lesser privileged?

Stevens, in her novel, seems to imply that Ella is underprivileged in many ways, that her life could have been more successful, had she had the opportunities granted to her employer in early life. In reality, she is from a (mostly white) average rural town in the Pacific Northwest, unremarkable for significant crime or poverty, and despite some unfortunate conflict between her parents and eventual abandonment by her mother, she has a caring father and a home to which to return, should she choose. (Her childhood friends have all moved to other small rural towns, she tells us, happily married with children, living simple lives). We can see that starving in New York City, sleeping with a stranger for food, is truly not her only option.

At one point, upon seeing her employer return from yet another doctor’s appointment, Ella reports that she grew up “in a family without health insurance,” so she received medical attention, “only if I was very sick.” This is certainly not the most comfortable experience, but it is more than many can say about their upbringing. Does her health suffer to this day because of her lack of frivolous medical visits? Not that we can tell. Further, would she really have become a successful (and also wealthy and beautiful) writer should she have gone to a nicer school, or summered in the Hamptons, had a nanny, or had a doting family physician. Likely not.

As a result, the initially promising moments where Stevens reflects on privilege are ultimately cliche and have no real significance behind them. A surreal visit to the Hamptons at the climax seals the fate of this promising theme in her novel.

The novelist in this genre has the chance to present either a provoking discussion about the subjectivity of privileged experience, or exemplify how a particular generation, including, possibly, the author herself, has entirely lost sight of what it means to be underprivileged.

Stevens’s descriptions of how Ella becomes consumed by her employers’ family are engrossing and emotionally captivating. At one point, losing track of the child, she catches herself thinking (“where’s my baby where’s my baby where’s my baby”). The lines and personal boundaries between the employer and the employed become increasingly blurred. Ella does not actually care about her small charge, however. She is more interested in inserting herself into the lives of this family. She will happily become dangerously intoxicated at night, even when it is clear that she is the primary caregiver for the evening.

Reviews of the novel so far have tended to focus on the book’s “thriller” aspects, one going so far as to claim that descriptions of the salacious events (affairs, theft, etc.) elevate “the mundane days of a nanny.” Really, the strength of this book is located precisely in those mundane days. Had Stevens forgone the temptation of domestic thriller in favor of her remarkably skillful descriptions of the nanny life (based on her own experiences), this novel would have benefited greatly.

What are her motivations in her obsession with this family? Any young woman who has left her dilapidated apartment in the morning, making the trek to a nice townhouse or mansion in the city, using her assigned key to open the door into a world of wealth and beauty and apparent freedom, can tell you the unconscious wave of desire that takes over. For stability, for wealth, to be the mother who hires a nanny only to focus on herself for the whole day.

In this way, the mostly-privileged white female in her 20s working as domestic help is a particularly ripe microcosm on which to focus when considering the millennial American woman.

Devotion by Madeline Stevens

Fiction – Harper Collins Publishers – 2019

Reading This Week

Just finished Madeline Stevens’s Devotion this week – review forthcoming!

Re-reading Leaves of Grass in tandem with the captivating beauty that is We Contain Multitudes, a new YA novel from Sarah Henstra.

“Corrie” by Alice Munro, read by Margaret Atwood on The New Yorker Fiction Podcast – As usual, I enjoyed the narration and discussion with Deborah Treisman just as much as the story itself. A student of mine introduced me to Alice Munro quite recently, I regret to say. But, fear not! I now have a copy of Too Much Happiness and am looking forward to hanging out in “Munro country” for a while. (It was extremely difficult to know which story collection to select! I chose the above, because the introduction was written by Miriam Toews. So, obvi.)

Another Life

Another Life discusses issues in adolescence and religious practice and how these topics converge, particularly in the domain of an evangelical Christianity.

For those who grew up with the looming presence of a conservative church experience, Haller’s book may be an engaging read for the purposes of reminiscence and reflection. In a moving scene, a teen from one of the more conservative families in the church community confronts her peers in a speech valuable in both its naivety and passion. What is the purpose, she asks, of the type of comfortable, American Christianity they are practicing? Why not leave everything and “feed the hungry,” as is directly commanded by the bible, instead of going to college and attempting to live the American dream. Her speech is cut short, however, and she is led off stage by a church authority figure.

The book may just as easily be a disappointment for those looking for a novel involving converging characters, marketed as literary fiction.

Yes, these characters’ “paths collide,” but at what cost to the plot of the novel? There are so many voices in this book that the reader is often left wishing for a guiding light (who here is running the show?). Any of Haller’s expertly-crafted characters would have served well as the main narrator, but he trades this stability for the chance to tell a remarkable number of stories in an average-sized novel.

As if to justify its foray into the adolescent sphere without actually marketing the book as YA (a puzzling publishing decision without a doubt), Another Life persists in trying to pull the adult world into its wings in the form of improbable and unnecessary side plots involving adult affairs with younger parties.

As well, Another Life‘s attempt to write the High School Teen Lesbian Romance and the Recent Graduate Lusts After High School Math Teacher are extraordinarily stereotypical, and at their worst, bizarre fantasies of these sexual encounters.

I would delight in seeing Robert Haller’s next book written and marketed as YA, showcasing his talents at describing the minutiae of adolescent experience and its significance to the big questions that come from the way we live our lives.

Thank you to Blackstone Publishing and NetGalley for the advance copy of this title.

Another Life by Robert Haller

Fiction – Blackstone Publishing – 4 June 2019

Tap Out – Kunz

When teaching poetry, I often notice students’ interest in writing long, winding narrative poems. I teach a variety of forms, but ultimately allow them creative freedom when composing their own poem. Inevitably, the majority choose a form of their own invention, a lengthy narrative structure where they breathlessly describe a breakup, a childhood memory, or a trauma of some kind. They want to tell their stories, and they seem to find solace in this malleable structure.

I read these poems with interest. After all, it is a common experience to have memories that won’t stay put in a single neat, delineated description, experiences that seep into the rest of our lives, coloring every experience and changing our perspectives.

Edgar Kunz, in his recent poetry collection, Tap Out, has a similar eagerness for telling his story, letting the narrative seep slowly from one poem to the next, repeating characters, events, and images. The strength of this method is that it allows Kunz to emphasize the memories which provide a sort of structure to his life. For example, a childhood friend, Daryl, shoots himself, and this memory reverberates throughout the entire collection. Sometimes Daryl is simply, “Mikes brother Daryl,” other times he is a loudmouthed kid trying to impress girls, bragging about girls. But this memory, “The way your brother Daryl took himself out of the world,” is the vital cord to these other memories of this character.

There are some weaknesses in this collection. Poems like “Dry Season,” patch past experiences with the narrator’s current travels and the pastoral elk watching in Colorado. The poem is trying to tell us a story, but it is lost in the patchwork of its own images.

Kunz’s overall vision of these poems emphasize the tragedy belonging to place, to one’s origins, of regional experiences that ring out beyond their seemingly humble roots. The poems sing with clarity.

Thank you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Mariner Books and NetGalley for the advance copy of this title.

Tap Out by Edgar Kunz

Poetry – Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Mariner Books – Publication date 5 March 2019

Trail of Crumbs – Lawrence

Years ago, as a newly minted teacher, I was tasked with preparing a reading list for an after-school novel reading class comprised of seventh and eighth grade boys. While discussing the draft of my list with a friend (an author of young adult novels), I expressed my concern that the boys in the class wouldn’t identify with the female protagonist of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. My friend reminded me that, as females, we have spent years of our education reading books featuring male characters and male protagonists. It is absurd, she argued, to consider a different standard for a class of boys. What harm could it do them to see a situation from a female perspective–especially one of sexual violence and bullying, as presented in Speak. I immediately agreed, and I think of this moment often, as both a teacher and a reader.

Trail of Crumbs, which I’ve come to think of as an updated version of Speak, gives the protagonist significantly more agency and power over her relationship to the trauma she has experienced. It is not a story about how the truth is pulled out of her. Rather, Greta continuously speaks up for herself, and it is up to those around her to listen to her and believe her. The focal point is not whether she’ll speak up for herself, but whether she will be heard.

Lisa J. Lawrence, a teacher as well as a writer, captures these tense high school moments accurately and beautifully. There is so much nuance and thoughtful dialogue surrounding the discussions of assault and consent. Sometimes, Greta’s thoughts and interactions with her peers read as though they were lifted directly from articles from the frontlines of #MeToo. Lawrence never lets her novel become merely an educational pamphlet, however. The strength of this work is that the conversations seem natural between these teens. These are conversations that young people should be having and likely do have.

While Greta deals with fallout from the unbelievable cruelty of her peers and abandonment by her father, she seeks support and guidance from a troupe of eccentric but benevolent male characters: her emotionally haywire brother, Ash; their reclusive guardian, Elgin; and their goofy neighbor, Nate. These men support but do not shelter Greta. It is Greta’s actions and Greta’s decisions that allow her to confront those who need to be confronted.

Most importantly, Lawrence has put a disclaimer at the end of her novel: She writes that the choice Greta makes to confront her assailant is not the choice everyone should make. Every case of assault is different, and no one should feel pressured to follow any particular process. Yet again, Lawrence is extremely nuanced and sensitive in her approach to these complex and current issues.

School librarians should welcome this new addition to Canadian young adult literature, and teachers of middle and high school students should absolutely consider including Trail of Crumbs in their lesson plans.

Thank you to Orca Book Publishers and NetGalley for the advance copy of this title.

Trail of Crumbs by Lisa J. Lawrence

Young adult literature – Orca Book Publishers – Publication date 26 March 2019

Spring Children’s Books

It is definitely not spring yet here in central Ontario, but on our recent trip out west it was full-blown flower-blooming, sunburning, green-grass spring. Since I read mostly children’s books while visiting this warm planet, I think it’s appropriate to include them all in the following spring children’s book list. Enjoy!

Love You Head to Toe – Barron

Ashley Barron’s Love you Head to Toe, written in the second person, addresses a “Baby” (indeed many different babies, as the dynamic and colorful illustrations reveal), who are going about their daily baby activities. On each page, the narrator compares the baby to a particular animal. This title is perfect for toddlers and babies who are in a mimicking stage, and will prompt some fun games in animal sounds and actions.

Publication date: 15 March, 2019

Thank you to Owlkids and NetGalley for the advance copy of this title.

My Island – Demasse-Pottier and Ratanavanh

In My Island, the illustrations of Seng Soun Ratanavanh definitely take center stage. Oversize animals abound, and the surreal, imaginative creations could stand alone. Demasse-Pottier’s text is thoughtful, but one expects more profundity to accompany such illustrations. Children will enjoy the daydream-like quality of this title, and spend time considering some of the unanswered questions prompted by the fanciful characters.

Publication date: 2 April, 2019

Thank you to Princeton Architectural Press and NetGalley for the advance copy of this title.

Otto and Pio – Dubuc

Like Marianne Dubuc’s other books, Otto and Pio is translated from French (originally published in 2016 as Je Ne Suis Pas Ta Maman). Otto and Pio takes place in a very Dubuc-style setting, a squirrel’s apartment in “a very old tree, bigger than all the others”. The plot feels very familiar, but surprises and specifics in the text make this story singular (like when Otto the squirrel, burdened and agitated by the presence of the otherworldly Pio, finally resorts to “Do you want a hazelnut before bed?”). As usual, Dubuc’s illustrations stand out as both remarkably unique in their hilarious detail and expository in their own right.

Publication date: 19 March, 2019

Thank you to Princeton Architectural Press and NetGalley for the advance copy of this title.

Wish – Saunders

Chris Saunder’s Wish is rich with lessons on sharing, selflessness, planning, and decision-making, among others. Rabbit, the main character, has a big decision to make, and proceeds to consult each one of his friends before ultimately choosing. The book’s illustrations are stunning (one spread shows Rabbit soaring above mountains draped in clouds in a hot air balloon), and they are the strength of this title. Occasionally, the rhyming feels awkward when read aloud (“Rabbit had never caught a wish before/he could not decide what to wish for”), but the message of this book stands out and will appeal to many ages.

Publication date: 12 March, 2019

Thank you to Quarto Publishing Group and NetGalley for the advance copy of this title.

You are Never Alone – Kelsey and Kim

In a world where children are shuttled from home to daycare to school to indoor play areas, the scientific and social aims of this title (described by the author in her afterword) are inspirational and enormously helpful: She wanted to “look every kid in the eye” and tell them that they were surrounded by the gifts of nature and, therefore, could never be truly alone. Soyeon Kim’s illustrations are artistically significant and noteworthy in the variety of media used and their beautiful, whimsical quality. That said, while they do accompany the text in the most basic of ways, they often stand entirely independent and at times seem irrelevant. A scientifically-inclined title does not need illustrations of textbook precision, but one thinks that children would find it more educational to be presented with a less abstract representation of the book’s message.

Publication date: 15 April, 2019

Thank you to Owlkids and NetGalley for the advance copy of this title.

Forest Baby – Elmquist.Robinson

Forest Baby, a 2018 release from Canada-based Orca Book Publishers, showcases the profound simplicity of a walk through the forest with a child.

Robinson’s illustrations are dynamic, indicating movement on each page–a baby’s hand dipping into a pond of fish, the spray of lake foam grazing the hands of the mother and child, the butterflies that “shimmy and dip”.

Elmquist’s poetic descriptions of this gentle and calm outing into nature are sighs of relief in an age of screen distractions for children.

Forest Baby by Laurie Elmquist, illustrated by Shantala Robinson

2018 Orca Book Publishers