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Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category

I think I am addicted to A.A. Milne.  I am completely unable to critically examine his work at this point and while reading morph into a giddy, sycophantic disciple only capable of effusive praise.  It is a delightful and highly recommended experience.   I read his books (his plays, his novels, his verses, his sketches) one after the other without ever feeling sated. I finish each book wanting more.  Thankfully, he was a prolific writer and, at this point, there is still more for me to read but the thought that one day I will come to the end horrifies me.  And I have never felt more fearful of that end than while reading the entirely delightful Once a Week.

As any Milne disciple knows (or anyone who took Simon’s advice and read Milne’s wonderful autobiography), Milne spent a number of years before the war working at and writing for the magazine Punch.  I had got the impression from his autobiography that Milne was writing a ridiculous amount for the magazine during this time but I really had no idea of the quality of the output.  Once a Week, published in 1914, is a sampling of those pieces he put out every week and I now know just what a treat readers had to look forward to in each issue.

The book begins with a dedication to Milne’s wife Daphne, referred to in all his writings as his collaborator:

TO

MY COLLABORATOR

who buys the ink and paper

laughs

and, in fact, does all the really difficult

part of the business

this book is gratefully dedicated

in memory of a winter’s morning

in Switzerland

It was moments like these where I particularly appreciated having started my Milne obsession with his autobiography, which meant I already knew who this collaborator was and what had happened on a winter’s morning in Switzerland.  But it is also a very fitting dedication to a volume whose best pieces revolve around the life of young couples, very like the Milnes.

The book begins with a nice lengthy sketched entitled “The Heir”, narrated by a young man who is attending the christening of his fiancée Myra’s nephew.  Archie and Dahlia, the dotting parents of The Heir, are friends of our narrator but have decided against naming him as one of the godfathers.  Perhaps this was a wise decision:

‘What a silly godfather he nearly had!’ whispered Myra at the cradle.  ‘It quite makes you smile, doesn’t it, baby?  Oh, Dahlia, he’s just like Archie when he smiles!’

‘Oh, yes, he’s the living image of Archie,’ said Dahlia confidently.

I looked closely at Archie and then at the baby.

‘I should always know them apart,’ I said at last.  ‘That,’ and I pointed at the one at the tea-table, ‘is Archie, and this,’ and I pointed to the one in the cradle, ‘is the baby.  But then I’ve such a wonderful memory for faces.’

‘Baby,’ said Myra, ‘I’m afraid you’re going to know some very foolish people.’

Baby is certainly surrounded by foolish people but they are marvellously entertaining ones and give Milne the chance to let rip with his trademark comic dialogue.  When Samuel and Thomas, the two young godfathers, arrive they are entirely ignorant of babies but are willing to do their duty, once they figure out what that is. After they have read up on the christening service, they are stunned and slightly terrified by the job being given them but entirely committed to carrying out their responsibilities.  But their idea of the scope of their responsibilities is a tad broader than the parents had imagined, entailing everything from the naming of the child to his schooling.  Getting a bit carried away, they even come up with a list of rules for Archie and Dahlia to follow while raising him, so that his parents may not impair the future baby’s godfather’s have so carefully decided on (Rule One – He must be brought up to be ambidextrous.  It will be very useful when he fields cover for England).  My favourite bit featuring these foolish but briefly serious young men was the conversation over what to name baby:

‘The question before the House,’ said Archie, ‘is what shall the baby be called, and why.  Dahlia and I have practically decided on his names, but it would amuse us to hear your inferior suggestions and point out how ridiculous they are.’

Godfather Simpson looked across in amazement at Godfather Thomas.

‘Really, you are taking a good deal upon yourself, Archie,’ he said coldly.  ‘It is entirely a matter for my colleague and myself to decide whether the ground is fit for – to decide, I should say, what the child is to be called.  Unless this is quite understood we shall hand in our resignations.’

‘We’ve been giving a lot of thought to it,’ said Thomas, opening his eyes for a moment.  ‘And our time is valuable.’  He arranged the cushions at his back and closed his eyes again.

‘Well, as a matter of fact, the competition isn’t quite closed,’ said Archie.  ‘Entries can still be received.’

‘We haven’t really decided at all,’ put in Dahlia gently.  ‘It is so difficult.’

‘In that case,’ said Samuel, ‘Thomas and I will continue to act.  It my pleasant duty to inform you that we had a long consultation yesterday, and finally agreed to called him – er – Samuel Thomas.’

‘Thomas Samuel,’ said Thomas sleepily.

‘How did you think of those names?’ I asked.  ‘It must have taken you a tremendous time.’

‘With a name like Samuel Thomas Mannering,’ went on Simpson [‘Thomas Samuel Mannering,’ murmured Thomas], ‘your child might achieve almost anything.  In private life you would probably call him Sam.’

‘Tom,’ said a tired voice.

‘Or, more familiarly, Sammy.’

‘Tommy,’ came in a whisper from the sofa.

‘What do you think of it?’ asked Dahlia.

‘I mustn’t say,’ said Archie; ‘they’re my guests.  But I’ll tell you privately some time.’

A subsequent piece follows the same group (sans baby, who is left at home) on a skiing holiday to Switzerland.  It is amusing but the dialogue never quite matches the exchanges in “The Heir”.

Milne really does have an ear for domestic conversation.  In “The Order of the Bath”, a young husband and wife, troubled by a slow drain in their apartment’s bath and entirely ignorant of the mechanics of plumbing, bicker over who must take the responsibility for fixing it:

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘it’s absurd to go on like this.  You had better see about it to-day, Celia.’

‘I don’t think – I mean, I think – you know, it’s really your turn to do something for the bathroom.’

‘What do you mean, my turn?  Didn’t I buy the glass shelves for it?  You’d never even heard of glass shelves.’

‘Well, who put them up after they’d been lying about for a month?’ said Celia.  ‘I did.’

‘And who bumped his head against them the next day?  I did.’

‘Yes, but that wasn’t really a useful thing to do.  It’s your turn to be useful.’

Anyone who has ever had to split domestic duties, either with a spouse or a housemate, must surely recognize that timeless rejoinder, “It’s your turn to be useful.”  Celia’s husband features in several of the pieces and comes across as a delightful fellow.  His interview with a doctor while getting an insurance medical (in “An Insurance Act”) proves he is in possession of a friendly disposition but not necessarily a keen mind:

The doctor began quietly enough.  He asked, as I had anticipated, after the health of my relations.  I said that they were very fit; and, not to be outdone in politeness, expressed the hope that his people , too, were keeping well in this trying weather.  He wondered if I drank much.  I said, ‘Oh, well, perhaps I will,’ with an apologetic smile, and looked round for the sideboard.  Unfortunately he did not pursue the matter….

But, let us be honest, narrators are all nice and good but what I like best is a bit of the silly, frivolous dialogue that Milne does so well.  The exchange between husband and wife in “The Birthday Present” provides just that:

 ‘It’s my birthday to-morrow,’ said Mrs Jeremy as she turned the pages of her engagement book.

‘Bless us, so it is,’ said Jeremy.  ‘You’re thirty-nine or twenty-seven or something.  I must go and examine the wine-cellar.  I believe there’s one bottle left in the Apollinaris bin.  It’s the only stuff in the house that fizzes.’

‘Jeremy!  I’m only twenty-six!’

‘You don’t look it darling; I mean you do look it, dear.  What I mean – well, never mind that.  Let’s talk about birthday presents.  Think of something absolutely tremendous for me to give you.’

‘A rope of pearls.’

‘I didn’t mean that sort of tremendousness,’ said Jeremy quickly.  ‘Anyone could give you a rope of pearls; it’s simply a question of overdrawing enough from the bank.  I meant something difficult that would really prove my love for you – like Lloyd George’s ear or the Kaiser’s cigar-holder.  Something where I could kill somebody for you first.  I am in a very devoted mood this morning.’

This only skims the offerings in Once a Week, almost all of which I adored.  The only weak point for me was the final section, a compilation of character sketches of “The Men Who Succeed”.  Individually, they are good but I think perhaps they lost some power by being group together since they were all done in very much the same style.

There are still three more volumes of Milne’s pieces for Punch that I have yet to read (The Day’s Play; The Holiday Round; and, The Sunny Side) and which I am eager to start.  I know more delights await me, even though with each book read I grow closer and closer to that dark day when I will have nothing new left to discover of Milne.

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Should I be catching up on my reviews for my Century of Books?  Yes.  Do I still have six books that I need to review before the end of the month for the Canadian Book Challenge?  Yes.  Does this books fall into either category?  Absolutely not.  But at least I am working through my master list of 30-odd books to be reviewed.  This is progress, even if poorly prioritized.

Year In, Year Out by A.A. Milne is a nice mix of autobiographical sketches and random thoughts, ranging from the nonsensical but deeply amusing (a contemplation of the railway schedules in The Importance of Being Earnest; a lesson on the art of saying thank you) to more serious musings on Milne’s life and the nature of his work.  Published in 1952, this compliments Milne’s charming autobiography from thirteen years before, letting the reader glimpse how his later years were spent and adding his thoughts on aging.

There is little structure to the book.  It is split into sections by month but the pieces in each section rarely have much to do with the season, with the exception of Milne’s thoughts on gardening, which confine themselves to the warmer months and offer a glimpse of a man who dearly loved his rural retreat, perhaps all the more for having spent the first half of his life in London.  I enjoy randomness when done with style and skill, as it certainly is here.  Milne rambles charmingly on all manner of topics and while a less lenient editor could have cut some of the more tedious bits they are still an interesting reflection of Milne’s thoughts and of his interests and concerns in his later years.

There is a highly enjoyable bit about George Bernard Shaw, who was apparently very fond of Milne’s Belinda, describing her as a “minx” – first soon after her debut and then again years later – but cheerfully and willfully remained ignorant about Milne’s other works.  Milne could not return the compliment to Shaw’s Candida (though he claims to have admired Shaw’s other works) and writes an agreeable dialogue in which he takes that tease to task, admonishing her for how heartlessly she played her husband.  He describes her as “an ordinary self-deceiving, self-centered, self-protecting, complacent, attitudinizing” woman.  Exactly so, Mr Milne, exactly so.

Though he wrote with such humour and grace, Milne took his work extremely seriously.  He cared deeply about what he wrote and how it was received and he is much more open about that here than in his autobiography.  I always find it fascinating to read what artists have to say about their preferred form and for Milne that meant plays:

A play is not a novel.  A play is not an objective work of art, but a subjective entertainment.  One can write a novel and imagine nobody reading it.  One cannot write a play and imagine nobody seeing it.  A play infers, and demands, an audience.  It is the business of the dramatist to be aware of the audience, as it is not the business of the novelist to be aware of the reader.  The reason why many novelists who are great artists (Stevenson and James, for instance) have not been great dramatists is that they have not been aware of their audience; that is, they have written their plays as artists only, not as craftsmen.

And, if I hadn’t already loved Milne, I would have been converted after reading this passage championing so-called “escapist” literature:

In the language of the day it is customary to describe a certain sort of book as “escapist” literature.  As I understand it, the adjective implies, a little condescendingly, that the life therein depicted cannot be identified with the real life which the critic knows so well in W.C.1: and may even have the disastrous effect on the reader of taking him happily for a few hours out of his own real life in N.W.8.  Why this should be a matter for regret I do not know; nor why realism in a novel is so much admired when realism in a picture is condemned as mere photography; nor, I might add, why drink and fornication should seem to bring the realist closer to real life than, say, golf and gardening.

But by far the most memorable bit, for me, was this:

Some years ago an actor friend of ours, who had disappeared from our lives by retiring into Devonshire, surprised us with a letter.  It began:

‘I am seventy today.  It is an extraordinary age for a young man to be.’

By the time this book appears I shall be seventy; and I feel as bewildered as he was.  It is indeed an extraordinary age to be: an age at which, without conscious effort, one should be clothed with dignity and authority; and here am I, invested with neither.

The more the people around me age, the more I hear them marvel at feeling like exactly the same people they were forty, fifty or sixty years before.  It is something that comes up in almost every later life memoir or diary I read and always, always there is that element of surprise from the writer that they have reached such an age without ever having turned into what they think an old person should be.  I haven’t been able to shake Milne’s friend’s quote from my mind since I read it, all the way back at the beginning of May, and I hope I never do.  It is absolutely perfect.

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Of all the gardening books I’ve read over the last few years, The Curious Gardener by Anna Pavord is by far the most practical.  I love the comedy of Čapek’s The Gardener’s Year and the romance of books that tell about the makings of a garden (like Merry Hall, Paths of Desire, and Elizabeth and Her German Garden) but none of those attempt to give any sort of guidance.  Oh yes, Nichols may rhapsodize on the virtues of various species of Berberis but does he tell you how to care for them?  No.  Those books seek to entertain and succeed in doing so.  But they will not tell me when to prune what or give deep consideration to the merits of various types of potatoes.  Pavord, in this excellent collection of articles from her newspaper column, does just that.

The articles are arranged into 12 sections, one for each month, and are wonderfully varied.  There are practical tips (including detailed notes at the end of each section as to garden tasks that should be done that month), garden-related opinions (‘I’ve never graduated to a holster for my secateurs.  Too Clint Eastwood.  My nerves couldn’t take the strain of trying to beat him to an imaginary draw every time I wanted to snap a twig.’) and wonderfully personal musings about how she came to love and what she continues to love about gardening.  In the introduction, she writes about growing up with garden-loving parents, an obsession she could not understand – until she moved into her first house:

It was at our first house and on the first patch of ground that we actually owned that I really discovered the point of gardening.  It wasn’t a Pauline conversion.  There was no sudden, blinding vision of beauty.  I didn’t see myself (still don’t) trolling through bowers of roses, straw hat just so, gathering blooms into a basket.  Nor had I any idea at first of the immense joy of growing food.  But I had at least begun to understand that gardening, if it is to be satisfying, requires some sense of permanency.  Roots matter.  The longer you stay put, the richer the rewards.

I also realised how completely I had missed the point as a child.  Gardening was not necessarily about an end result.  The doing was what mattered.  At this time too, I learned about gardening as therapy.  Banged up with small children all day for the first time, I thought I would go under.  When a confrontation seemed to be looming of a kind that had no solution (apart from giving away the children to the first person that passed by on the lane outside) I would race to the newly made vegetable patch and furiously hoe beans.  The children’s legs were shorter than mine and if I was lucky, I’d have at least a minute and a half on my own before they caught up with me and wanted to hoe too.  Later on, when they were five or six years old, gardening with the children became a pleasure.  But at this early stage – not.

I loved all these personal details and stories and could not get enough of them.  But I was equally eager to read the more technical articles as well.  With so much useful information about plant care and selection, this is a book I’d really like to own and be able to reference quickly.  And, though she admits it’s not a sexy topic, she could never write too much about soil for my tastes (though it sounds like I might be the only person who finds it an endlessly fascinating topic).

Having never read anything by Pavord before, part of the joy in reading this came from getting to know her and her tastes, which frequently (and happily) align with mine.  As is only suiting for a woman who literally wrote the book on tulips, she has much to say about my favourite flower.  I was incredibly impressed to discover that she planted more than two thousand tulips in her garden in preparation for her daughter’s spring wedding.  I can’t imagine a.) having that large a garden (being used to miniscule city spaces) and b.) how amazing it would look when they came up.  Extraordinary.  In a delightful article evaluating flower choices for Valentine’s day, it’s no wonder that she saves her enthusiasm for tulips:

TULIPS: As far as I am concerned, these are the best, indeed, the only flowers to send or receive on Valentine’s Day.  Wild, irrepressible, wayward, unpredictable, strange, subtle, generous, elegant, tulips are everything you would wish for in a lover.  Best of all are the crazy parrot tulips such as ‘Rococo’ with red and pink petals feathered and flamed in crinkly lime-green.  ‘When a young man presents a tulip to his mistress,’ wrote Sir John Chardin (Travels in Persia, 1686), ‘he gives her to understand by the general red colour of the flower, that he is on fire with her beauty, and by the black base, that his heart is burned to coal.’  That’s the way to do it.

A wonderfully entertaining and educational book that I must add to my collection (having read a library copy).  It’s also made me determined to read Pavord’s other books: The Tulip, Bulb, and The Naming of Names.

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"Zlata Ulicka in Winter, Prague" by T.F. Simon

I may be on holiday this week but I’m busier than ever, finishing up my Christmas tasks and getting together with all my friends who are briefly back in town for the holidays.  All I want to do now is curl up with a nice, long book (specifically, Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope) but with so many things going on (most recently, acting as shopping assistant for those with no idea of what to buy other family members and who are only just realising this with a few short shopping days left), this does not seem the time to savour that most fondly anticipated book.  No, it is clearly a time for short stories and essays, pieces that can be read quickly in the gaps between my other activities.

Following on from How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed (which I loved), I picked up Café Europa by Slavenka DrakulićThis volume of essays focuses on post-communist life in Eastern Europe.  The book’s tone is very different from How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, which, as the title suggests, generally focused on the positives, on triumphs rather than failures.  Here, the essays are more cynical, more disappointed, written in the mid-90s when Drakulić was clearly frustrated by the lack of change in post-communist Europe.  The governments may have changed but people’s attitudes have not.  Whether it is people lying to and cheating the customs officials or the widespread apathy when a democratic government behaves with the arrogance and secrecy of a communist one, citizens mourning a dictator or Bulgarians grudgingly providing customer ‘service’ with a grimace rather than a smile, Drakulić’s observations are always intelligent and absorbingly personal.  She is not a disinterested observer but one who is deeply engaged with her subjects, often guilty of the very behaviours she believes are holding back these countries’ progress.  These are essays about nations and people trying to find their place in the world and, especially, in Europe, a place that only a few years before seemed impossibly glamourous and incredibly foreign to all they knew and had experienced.  I was most touched by Drakulić’s frustration at constantly being treated like a second-class citizen when abroad, coming up against the stereotype of Eastern Europeans as poor and dirty, cheats and thieves.

From there, I moved on to Prague Tales by Jan Neruda, which was perfect in almost every way.  I adored this book and couldn’t bear to put it down.   For one day at least I ignored all the other calls for my attention and read this straight through, even though I had picked it up specifically because it was a volume of stories that could be read in bursts.  There are 13 tales, varying in length from only a few pages to the 100-page long novellas “A Week in a Quiet House” and “Figures”, which bookend the volume.  All set in the Malá Strana district of Prague (coincidentally, my favourite part of the city), the stories were originally written in the 1860s and 1870s before being collected and published together in Czech in 1878.  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect before I started reading.  Neruda is primarily remembered as a poet and these are certainly not what I would expect from a poet.  Tender and sharp, witty and sympathetic, each story reveals Neruda’s skill as a realist.  There are simply, brilliantly told everyday tragedies (“A Beggar Brought to Ruin” and “How Mr Vorel Broke In His Meerschaum”), a rather eerie tale of passion (“The Three Lilies”, the story that inspired Pablo Neruda to adopt his pen-name), wonderful comedies (particularly “How It Came to Pass”, about the ill-fated plans of several schoolboys to overthrown their Austrian rulers) and excellent domestic dramas dealing with the intertwined lives of neighbours (“A Week in a Quiet House” and “Figures”).  What is particularly striking is how different the tone is from anything that was being written in English at the same time.  There is a clarity and crispness to his prose, as well as a confidently satirical style, that reminds me more of books written in the 1920s and 1930s.  It is no surprise to find that Karel Čapek used Neruda as a model.  Neruda was also a passionate Czech nationalist.  At the time he was writing, German was the language of business and literature, of serious people, while Czech was left to the peasants.  It is fascinating to read the many comments in these stories relating to that, whether it be a manager demanding his employees cease speaking Czech in the office (our rebellious young narrator refusing to: “I speak Czech long and loudly.  My colleagues avoid me like the plague”) or a group of soldiers chatting away about a visit to the Czech theatre, which was performing a German play.    I cannot praise this book highly enough and my only concern now is how to obtain a copy of my own (having read a borrowed copy from the library).

After being so delighted by Prague Tales, I decided to move on to something very different, since any other fiction book would do poorly in comparison.  Facts Are Subversive by Timothy Garton Ash seemed an excellent contrast, a collection of political essays written between 1 January 2000 and 31 December 2009.  With sections devoted to still-evolving Eastern European countries, the idea of Europe itself as a collective (including the excellent “The Perfect EU Member”, an entertaining argument for why Canada represents the EU ideal), Islam, the US (with a historically fascinating essay written directly after 11 September 2001 outlining what Garton Ash saw as the US’s options at the time), Asia, as well as essays on specific writers, books, and films, there is more than enough variety here to choose from.  I did pick and choose somewhat, skipping a few of the essays that appealed to me the least or which I had already read when first published.  I particularly enjoyed “The Brown Grass of Memory”, Garton Ash’s response to Günter Grass’s Peeling the Onion.

And then, feeling the need for something light, I picked up Jane Austen Made Me Do It edited by Laurel Ann Nattress (of Austenprose) and promptly wished I hadn’t.  A collection of stories inspired by Jane Austen, I found only a handful of these to be worth reading and my enjoyment of those few was certainly hampered by having to wade through the others to get at them.

I’ve now worked through all the volumes of short stories and essays I had out from the library and find myself longing for a good novel or biography, something cohesive.  So on I go, to read about Tommy Douglas and finally try Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw, knowing that at the end of this week, with my commitments filled and these two short books most likely finished, I will be able to pick up Trollope unhindered and escape into Barsetshire in time for Christmas.  What bliss!

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First published in English in 1992, How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed by Slavenka Drakulić is an extraordinarily good collection of essays about women’s lives under and immediately after the end of communism in Eastern Europe.  Drakulić, a Croatian journalist and author, does an amazing job of presenting these deeply domestic glimpses into the lives of women and she and her personal experiences are very present in each essay.  Although this was written twenty years ago, I was astonished by how informative I found it, how many of the essays brought new details to my attention that have never been mentioned in the histories or even memoirs that I’ve read covering the same area during the same time period.  I may be astonished by that, but Drakulić would not be.  She knows that the lives and stories she is concerned with, those of normal, unexceptional women, are the ones most easily ignored and most quickly forgotten.  And yet by lacking any kind of political power, they were the ones whose lives most clearly mirrored the politics of the day:

Growing up in Eastern Europe you learn very young that politics is not an abstract concept, but a powerful force influencing people’s everyday lives.  It was this relationship between political authority and the trivia of daily living, this view from below, that interested me most.  And who should I find down there, more removed from the seats of political power, but women.  The biggest burden of everyday life was carried by them.  Even if they fully participated in revolutionary events, they were less active and less visible in the aftermath of those events.

After the revolutions women still didn’t have time to be involved; they still distrusted politics.  At the same time, they deluded themselves that the new democracies would give them the opportunity to stay at home and perhaps rest for a while.  There was something else, too: somebody had to take responsibility for finding food and cooking meals, a task made no easier – indeed, in some countries made more difficult – by the political changeover.

Women’s lives, by no means spectacular, banal in fact, say as much about politics as no end of theoretical political analysis.  (“The Trivial is Political”)

All of the essays are fascinating.  The most political of the essays – “A Chat with My Censors”, for instance, which recounts how Drakulić’s state censor asked to meet for a friendly chat, making no threats but terrifying her merely by announcing his presence – are important and insightful but, for my part, I found the essays that dealt with the day-to-day details of life of the most interest.  “Make Up and Other Questions” discusses fashion and cosmetics and their importance and scarcity in communist countries, where vanity items are deemed worthless for its equal citizens and so not widely produced.  Fashion, as a joyous thing, a celebration of individual style and perspective, does not exist here:

To avoid uniformity, you have to work very hard: you have to bribe a salesgirl, wait in line for some imported product, buy bluejeans on the black market and pay your whole month’s salary for them; you have to hoard cloth and sew it, imitating the pictures in glamourous foreign magazines.  What makes these enormous efforts touching is the way women wear it all, so you can tell they went to the trouble.  Nothing is casual about them.  They are over-dressed, they put on too much make-up, they match colours and textures badly, revealing their provincial attempt to imitate Western fashion.  But where could they learn anything about a self-image, a style?  In the party-controlled magazines for women, where they are instructed to be good workers and party members first, then mothers, housewives, and sex objects next, – never themselves?  To be yourself, to cultivate individualism, to perceive yourself as an individual in a mass society is dangerous.  You might become living proof that the system is failing.  Make-up and fashion are crucial because they are political.

Sometimes the simplest essays are the best, like “On Doing Laundry”, reflecting on how that most mundane task has and has not changed over the decades and through the transition from communist government to democracy.  And of course, the almost farcical “The Strange Ability of Apartments to Divide and Multiply”, on the complex maneuverings each growing, shrinking, aging, or divorcing family went through during the housing shortage.

Then there are the essays on viewing the outside world through communist eyes.  Of course, she always buys western goods when abroad and takes them back to friends and family (most disturbingly, distributing tampons throughout Central Europe where feminine products of any kind were impossible to obtain) and there is the hoarding instinct that comes to the front when exposed to unlimited goods at unheard of prices, whether that item be needed or not (“Some Doubts on Fur Coats”).  But there are also upsetting things about the West, about capitalism, and “A Communist Eye, or What Did I See in New York” is an interesting reflection of that.  In New York, Drakulić is shocked and disturbed by all the beggars and homeless people, having grown up in a country where, excepting Gypsies, that was unheard of:

Caught between two sets of values, one where beggars are not allowed at all, and the other where beggars are the consequence of capitalism, we simply are not sure how to deal with them.

Each essay had something insightful or entertaining to offer.  Overall, a incredibly powerful, engagingly written, important book, presenting fascinating glimpses into the recent past.

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I adored the first two Alberto Manguel books I read: A Reading Diary and The Library at Night.  I am always searching for books about books and, of the ones I have read, Manguel’s have been by far the most eloquent.  He has a gift for describing his library and his reading experiences in a way that is very intimate but also recognizable.  I always come away feeling that he’s captured my experience exactly, though he is talking about himself.  For example, I think that most bibliophiles view their book collection not just as a library of knowledge and favourite stories but as a repository of very personal memories and experiences, specific to each book and the circumstances under which it came into their life.  Manguel understands this perfectly:

The library of my adolescence contained almost every book that still matters to me today; few essential books have been added.  Generous teachers, passionate booksellers, friends for whom giving a book was a supreme act of intimacy and trust helped me to build it.  Their ghosts kindly haunt my shelves, and the books they gave still carry their voices, so that now, when I open Isak Dinesen’s Gothic Tales or Blas de Otero’s early poems, I have the impression not of reading the book myself but of being read to out loud.  This is one of the reasons I never feel along in my library.

A Reader on Reading by Alberto Manguel is full of wonderful quotes like this but on the whole I can’t say I adored it as much as I did his other books.  I think I was just overwhelmed by the amount of information here and the dizzying array of topics covered.  The book is a collection of essays and while all of them incorporate Manguel’s experiences as a reader somehow, a large number are not particularly book-ish in focus: these are definitely essays by ‘a reader’ but they are certainly not always ‘on reading’.  Argentinean politics, gay literature and how to classify it, Voltaire and Frederick the Great, lots of Borges and Homer (as usual), ponderings on the digital age, even a consideration of proper comfort reading for hospital stays (Cervantes)…Manguel covers an overwhelming number of issues, of varying degrees of interest to this reader.  I certainly skimmed some of the sections – if you’re interested in Borges you will be well served by one section; I am not, so it was dispensed with quickly – but on the whole I was enraptured by Manguel’s thoughts, in awe, as always, of his vast literary knowledge.  This was also a more personal book than the other two I’ve read, giving more insight into his family background, his cosmopolitan early childhood, his school years and the many different book-related jobs he’s held as an adult all over the world.     

Reading Manguel just for the beauty of how he writes is always a pleasure but there is also a joy that comes with all of his literary references, particularly the obscure ones.  I am in awe of Manguel’s familiarity with all these books and poems and people and can only dream of what it must be like to have such a broad range of interests and to be so knowledge about them.  The reverence and respect I feel for him as a reader, not even as a writer, is part of what makes every Manguel reading experience so precious and why I take my time with his books.  Manguel, bless him, is a prodigious quoter, dropping in lines of poetry and passages from novels with delightful frequency and whether they are familiar to me or brand new they are always perfectly chosen and worth contemplating.

My favourite of the essays was “The Gates of Paradise”, a consideration of how erotic love is expressed by writers.  He examines the works of St John of the Cross, John Donne, a Sumerian poet circa 1700 BC, Nabokov, D.H. Lawrence, Marian Engel…the list goes on and its variety is part of what makes this essay so engaging. 

And then there are his lists: “Notes Towards a Definition of the Ideal Library” and “Notes Towards a Definition of the Ideal Reader”.  I love any kind of list but these – so delightfully random! – are better than most.  Here are a few points from each:

Notes Towards a Definition of the Ideal Library

  • The ideal reader is a cumulative reader: every reading of a book adds a new layer of memory to the narrative.
  • Ideal readers never count their books.
  • Reading a book from centuries ago, the ideal reader feels immortal.
  • For the ideal reader, every book reads, to a certain degree, as an autobiography.
  • The ideal reader is not concerned with anachronism, documentary truth, historical accuracy, topographical exactness.  The ideal reader is not an archaeologist.
  • The marquis de Sade: ‘I only write for those capable of understanding me, and these will read me with no danger.’
  • The marquis de Sade is wrong: the ideal reader is always in danger.

Notes Towards a Definition of the Ideal Reader

  • The ideal library has comfortable but supportive seats with armrests and a curved back, like those of the lamented Salle Labrouste at the Bibliotheque nationale de France.  The ideal library has ample desks, preferably with smooth leather tops. Sockets for electrical equipment (on condition that they perform in utter silence), and soft individual lights that remind you of the green-glass reading lamps at the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires.
  • The ideal library allows every reader access to the stacks.  A reader must be granted the freedom of chance encounters.
  • In the ideal library there are no forbidden books and no recommended books.
  • The ideal library (like every library) holds at least one line that has been written exclusively for you.

Reading Manguel allows me to indulge in the fantasy that I am more intelligent, more sophisticated and far better reader than I am in fact.  It is a valuable fantasy that brings me a warm, if deluded, inner glow.  Part of Manguel’s magic is making his readers feel included rather than condescended to, whether they are familiar with the books his is discussing or not.  I love writers who write about the books I read – the wonderful Anne Fadiman for instance, – love recognizing my own reactions in theirs and love getting to know a familiar book better through other eyes.  But I love Manguel for reminding me just how vast the world of literature is, how many centuries and continents I’m yet unacquainted with, and how beautifully poetry, novels, history, memoirs, etc all compliment one another, how all have something new and thrilling to share with their readers.

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I am slowly becoming a gardener.  As a child I always helped in the garden, always weeded and watered and fertilized as directed but it wasn’t until a few years ago that I started taking an active interest in gardening.  Even when all I had was my little balcony in Calgary, how exciting it was to choose my plants!  To plant and care for them!  Even dead-heading became a sacred occupation, and I picked wilted petunia blossoms off with unrivalled discipline and care, snipped off browning roses with manic zeal.

And now that I have a real garden to work in – and a climate that doesn’t feel the need to have frosts in July and August – my enthusiasm has only grown, along with my anxiety.  I read The Gardener’s Year by Karel Čapek (a good Czech and friend of my great-grandfather and, yes, I’m bragging about that because it is pretty darn cool and I’ve relatively few connections to literary figures, aside from Alice Munro) in early June, just as the garden was coming to life and oh, what a perfect book and what a perfect time to read it!

The Gardener’s Year is a selection of humourous essays on a year in the life of a gardener.  It is very much about the gardener and his stresses and joys rather than the garden itself, which is what makes it so very enjoyable and timeless.  Even new as I am to the obsession, my own recent gardening plights, the missteps and mistakes that were weighing heavily on my soul, were perfectly echoed by Čapek, as though he had been in the garden witnessing my incompetence only a few days previously:

…nobody knows how it happens, but it occurs strikingly often that when you step on a bed to pick up some dry twig, or to pull out a dandelion, you usually tread on a shoot of the lily or trollius; it crunches under your foot, and you sicken with horror and shame; and you take yourself for a monster under whose hooves grass will not grow.  Or with infinite care you loosen the soil in a bed, with the inevitable result that you chop with the hoe a germinating bulb, or neatly cut off with the spade the sprouts of anemones; when, horrified, you start back, you crush with your paw a primula in flower, or break the young plume of a delphinium.  The more anxiously you work, the more damage you make; only years of practice will teach you the mysteries and bold certainty of a real gardener, who treads at random, and yet tramples on nothing; or if he does, at least he doesn’t mind. (p. 51)

As June has progresses and I’ve watched unusually savage rains beat the petals off my snapdragons and cosmos and cold snaps stunt my roses, I’ve often thought back on Čapek’s gardener’s prayer (and repeated it, to little effect):

If it were of any use, every day the gardener would fall on his knees and pray somehow like this: ‘O Lord, grant that in some way it may rain every day, say from about midnight until three o’clock in the morning, but, you see, it must be gentle and warm so that it can soak it; grant that at the same time it would not rain on campion, alyssum, helianthemum, lavender, and the others which you in your infinite wisdom know are drought-loving plants – I will write their names of a bit of paper if you like – and grant that the sun may shine the whole day long, but not everywhere (not, for instance, on spiraea, or on gentian, plantain lily, and rhododendron), and not too much; that there may be plenty of dew and little wind, enough worms, no plant lice and snails, no mildew, and that once a week thin liquid manure and guano may fall from heaven.  Amen.’ (p. 82-83)

The illustrations by Josef Čapek are no less delightful than the text, particularly the ones featuring the gardener as contortionist, hunched and bent and stretched entirely out of shape in order to service each unreachable corner of garden. 

Whether he’s lamenting the weather, lampooning the holidaying gardener’s instructions to his substitute or considering the traitorous and unpredictable nature of the garden hose, Čapek is always light-hearted, charming and, above all, affectionate.  He is able to recognize and brilliantly capture the ridiculous habits and mindsets of gardeners but he can only do it with such skill and accuracy because he is one himself and thinks as they think, feels as they feel.  Or, I suppose I should now say as a gardener, however amateur, as we think, as we feel:

Let no man think that real gardening is a bucolic and meditative occupation.  It is an insatiable passion, like everything else to which a man gives his heart. (p. 13)

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I have been trying to compose a response to Bad Mother by Ayelet Waldman, a book of essays on various aspects of motherhood and family life, since I finished it at the beginning of April.  Despite several attempts, my thoughts have not quite crystallized or synthesized or whatever-ized but let’s give it a shot anyways.  Why not?

I think Waldman is odd.  I certainly don’t understand her or, quite frankly agree with her.  Sometimes I don’t particularly like her.  But I really enjoyed reading this, loving her writing style, her energy, and, quite frankly, her much-adored family.  As much as this is a book about asserting your right to be whatever kind of parent you like to your children (Waldman memorably got in trouble with Good Mothers everywhere for having dared to say that she loved her husband more than she did her children), it is also Waldman’s defense that yes, she really does love/adore/worship her children like any Good Mother.  She just isn’t what she would call a Good Mother.  Given her terrifying description a Good Mother, I doubt anyone would choose to self identify as one:

The single defining characteristic of iconic Good Motherhood is self-abnegation.  Her children’s needs come first; their health and happiness are her primary concern.  They occupy all her thoughts, her day is constructed around them, and anything and everything she does is for their sakes.  Her own needs, ambitions, and desires are relevant only in relation to theirs.  If a Good Mother takes care of herself, it is only to the extent that she doesn’t hurt her children.  As one of my polling samples put it, ‘She is able to figure out how to carve out time for herself without detriment to her children’s feelings of self-worth.’  If a Good Mother works, she does so only if it doesn’t harm her children, or if her failing to earn an income would make them worse off.  More important, even the act of considering her own needs and desires is engaged in primarily to make her children into better people. (p. 10)

It has never been easy to be a woman and second-wave feminism certainly added more pressure.  Women finally gained the kind of recognition and respect needed to get them into professions in numbers large enough to make a difference but no one quite knew how to balance those exciting new careers with the biological and social responsibilities of raising a family.  From an early age, Waldman’s mother made it clear that her daughter’s purpose was to have it all: she was raised to assume a future with a fulfilling work and family life, but with no particular guide on how to go about balancing the two:

Before I had children, I knew exactly what kind of mother I would be: my mother had told me.  She was a feminist of the 1970s consciousness-raising, pro-choice-marching, self-speculum-wielding school, and she expected me to fulfill her own ambitions, which had been thwarted by a society that resisted viewing a woman in any sphere other than the domestic, and by an imprudent marriage.  My mission as her daughter was to realise the dream of complete equality that she and her fellow bra burners had worked so hard to attain.  (p. 21)

Happily, Waldman found the perfect mate to support this dream life: the writer Michael Chabon (whose own book of essays on his family, Manhood for Amateurs, delighted me last year).  She gushes about him with alarming frequency and it is all very endearing but also rather excessive.  My natural reserve had me squirming in my seat when she rhapsodized about Chabon’s appeal but this is not a book that keeps much secret or holds much back, certainly not when it comes to Waldman’s passion for her husband:

Here he was, the man I’d been looking for all along, the man my mother had sent me out in the world to track down and bring home.  Funny and smart, Jewish and successful.  And harbouring ambitions of being a househusband.  He would take care of my children while I worked.  He would be an equal parent and an equal partner.  He would make it easy for me to be the kind of woman my mother and I had planned for me to be.  Is it any wonder that I proposed to him three weeks after our first date?

Not only did her, dear reader, marry me, but he followed me first to San Francisco, where I had a clerkship with a judge, and then to Southern California, where I found my dream job, as a public defender, representing indigent defendants in federal court.  His career was portable, mine was not, and, more important, my ambitions were every bit as important as his.  To this day neither my mother nor I can believe our good luck.  (p. 30-31)

I was liking Waldman, not necessarily agreeing with her but liking her, up until the final few essays when she decided to address homosexuality and racism, and those short chapters may have ruined her for me.  I am still not entirely sure.  I don’t have sufficient words to describe all the things that irked me about Chapter 15 (“Darling, I Like You That Way”) in which Waldman explains her preference for gay male friends (game for anything, darling, and always up for a bit of antiquing) and defends an essay she wrote in 2005 saying she hoped her son would grow up to be gay, thereby supplying her with a permanent mama’s boy and shopping buddy, and eliminating the threat of a daughter-in-law.  She acknowledges that she is stereotyping gay men but she clearly believes what she’s saying.  The real kicker is at the end when she accuses her opponents of being hypocritical.  They’re busy criticizing her for her “unfairly imposed expectations” on her son while they’re off planning (or assuming) perfectly heterosexual futures for their own children.  The closed-minded bigots, how dare they!

The race thing was a more general annoyance.  I will never understandAmerica’s particular brand of racism nor the liberal white guilt that accompanies it.  But most of all I hate the description of her son’s best friend as “a kid whose parents between the two of them encompass four ethnic identities: Jewish, Greek, African American, and white” (p. 192).  What?  Seriously, what?  If we’re going for broad, meaningless classifications, are the majority of Jewish people and Greeks not white now?  What even falls under ‘white’ in terms of ethnicity?  Is a Spaniard classed with a Swede?  Too ridiculous and too frustrating.

Waldman’s basic premise that women expect too much of themselves when it comes to raising their children, to the extent that they turn on each other, singling out the Bad Mothers in order to confirm their own competence is too blatantly true to argue with.  My friends and I worked this out over recess breaks in elementary school, tried of watching our mothers turn into competitive, critical warriors at our after-school events (well, not my mom so much – she thankfully didn’t do a lot of after school pick ups, thereby making it easier for me to observe other parents without the shame of watching my own parent embarrass herself in pointless competition).  There is definitely a lot of guilt built into this Good Mother mentality and I think that may forever be my stumbling block in learning to understand it.  My family pretty much rejects the idea of guilt, dismissing it as a useless, pointless emotion but, as Waldman’s essay in The Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt, which I read just prior to starting this, happily confirmed, apparently it is impossible to be Jewish without wallowing in guilt (or, even better, guilting your children and relatives once you reach a suitable age).  The whole premise is strange to me.  There is no such thing as having it all, no person able to be everything to everyone.  You have limits, you are a finite resource.  If you try your best, if your kids aren’t dead or in jail, if they are, in fact, like Waldman’s children healthy, intelligent and friendly, what is the fuss about?  You will never be perfect but then, thankfully, neither will anyone else.

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I harbour a great affection for Stuart McLean, writer and host of CBC Radio’s The Vinyl Café.  I love listening to his radio show and am always excited when he releases a new book so it was with pleasure I picked up The Vinyl Café Notebooks at my local library.  Unlike McLean’s other Vinyl Café books, which focus on the lives and friends of one family, this is a collection of short essays written over fifteen years with no real focus. McLean discusses summer jobs and curling, Bob Dylan and W.O. Mitchell…anything and everything, really.  And it is delightful.  Warm and thoughtful, McLean is just as engaging in print as he is on air and, as always, his encouraging but never cloying glass-half-full view of the world is the perfect antidote to the prevailing cynicism we are surrounded by:

It is not said enough, so I’ll say it again: the world is a good place, full of good people, and when we act out of that, when we act out of hope, and optimism, and faith in our fellow human, we act out of our best selves, and we are capable of doing great things, and of contributing to the greater good.

Hope and optimism are not synonymous with naivety.  We should be looking to the future with flinty and steely eyes, for sure, but they should be wide open with hope, not squinting in fear. (p. 147)

The book is divided into vaguely thematic sections (Notes from Home, Calendar Notes, Notes from the Neighbourhood, etc) including one entitled Reader’s Notes, full of bookish musings or encounters.  There’s a wonderful piece entitled “The Island of No Adults” about an eight-year old girl who, having read one of those children’s adventure novels à la Enid Blyton where the children are off having adventures with no adults in sight, decides to run away to a neighbouring town to become a waitress.  As you do.  And I love how he describes a reader’s relationship with his or her bookshelf:

A bookshelf is a highly personal thing, and often the books on it bristle with emotional connections that no one would ever guess.  There are the old friends that you put on the shelf and return to often, acquaintances that sit there for years, untouched; there are the ones that slip away and are forgotten, and those that seem to wander off on their own accord, yet remain, ghostlike, to haunt the library, like an old lover, with feelings of regret, or sorrow, or confusion.  These are the books you think of from time to time and wonder what became of them, and if you would have anything to say to one another if you were in touch again.  (p. 208)

I also really loved how personal this book was, how close you feel to McLean while reading it.  Honestly, I didn’t know that much about him beforehand, about his background or family, his likes or dislikes, and everything I learned while reading this, I liked.  Particularly his affection, which I share, for always taking the long way round.  I’ve never met a logging road I don’t prefer to a highway, a dirt road that wasn’t more appealing than a paved one, and it only seems right that McLean, whose radio show has provided the soundtrack for many of my road trip adventures, feels the same:

Before I can go further, you should know this about me: if we were in a car together, you and I, and you were driving and we came to one of those moments where you pulled over and looked at me uncertainly, and said, ‘I’m not sure, what do you think?  Left?  Or right?’ I would, reflexively and consistently, choose the back road.  Fast roads bore me.  I like it when roads are winding and narrow, and there are places you can stop that don’t feel like the place where you stopped two hours ago.  I like the slow way.  (p 219)

But, without a doubt, my favourite part of the entire book was a bit entitled “Parliament Hill”, describing a trip McLean took to Parliament Hill in Ottawa, originally with the intention of viewing two of the rather unique items in the Parliamentary Library (a cake baked more than thirty years ago for the library’s one hundredth anniversary and an inkwell used at the Charlottetown Conference of 1864).  The trip quickly becomes about more than that, as McLean explores the building and encounters some very small, very touching aspects of its history.  I love Ottawa as I love few other places in this world and I remain in awe of the Parliament Buildings, for all they have witnessed, all they represent, and all they can be.  I have quoted this essay at length (quite the typing exercise!), wanting so much to share what had touched me so much:

If you have never been to the Parliament Buildings, the best way to walk into the Centre Block is to imagine yourself walking into a cathedral.  It is all limestone marble and gothic arches, bathed in the soft light of a setting sun, or as the parliamentarians would have us believe, I am certain, an approaching dawn.  You wouldn’t be surprised as you walked around to spot a red-cloaked bishop padding down one of the corridors, or I wouldn’t.  Like one of Canada’s grand railway hotels, Parliament is all history and tradition.

I wandered into the Centre Block, into the Rotunda, and then down the Hall of Honour heading to the Library of Parliament.        

Before I got there, however, I was drawn to another corridor – one that the public isn’t supposed to use.  It is reserved for members who want to slip out the back door of Parliament when they are trying to avoid people like me.  And there, tucked away in a small alcove, I stumbled on a sculpture, a small bust by the great French artist and father of modern sculpture Auguste Renoir. 

To Canada, read the plaque on the pedestal, whose sons shed their blood to safeguard world freedom.

The plaque is signed, from grateful France.

I am moved by grand gestures made with modesty.  By small, determined things.

On I went, and soon enough came to the library, where Irene Brown, the librarian on duty, told me with obvious disappointment that the cake I had been sent to see had begun to crumble and was no longer on display.  The inkwell was gone too.  It was in storage. 

Irene was soon joined by her colleague, a librarian named Louis, and with the spontaneous enthusiasm typical of librarians everywhere, they soon enough had set aside their work and joined me in mine. 

‘We could show you our favourite book,’ said Irene.

‘What book is that?’ I asked.

‘It was sent to Canada by Queen Victoria,’ said Irene. ‘After the death of her husband.’

‘Yes,’ says Louis.  ‘It is a collection of the Prince Consort’s speeches.  It is inscribed in the Queen’s hand.’

‘What does the inscription say?’ I asked.

‘To the library of Parliament,’ said Louis.

‘From a heartbroken widow,’ added Irene.

I passed a pleasant hour in the library before saying by goodbyes and continuing my wanderings.

I headed up to the top floor, the sixth floor, to the parliamentary restaurant, which I have always wanted to see.  The maitre d’, a woman named Margueritte, welcomed me just as graciously as the librarians had.

‘That table there,’ she said, pointing at an alcove near the door, ‘is reserved for the prime ministerThat alcove is for Conservative members, that one for Liberals, and that is where the NDP gather.’

Then, sensing my interest, she said, ‘Would you like to see the New Zealand Room?’

She took me to the back of the restaurant and into a small and elegant dining room with a table that would sit a dozen, but not one more.

‘It is paneled with wood sent by New Zealand after the Centre Block burned to the ground in 1916,’ she said.

And it was at this moment, as I stood there under the green copper roof of Parliament, in that modest dining room with its magnificent view of the Ottawa River, that I had my little epiphany.

One hundred years ago New Zealand was pretty much on the far side of the moon as far as Canada was concerned.  And vice versa.  Yet, in 1916 someone in New Zealand heard that our Parliament Buildings had burned to the ground, and they responded to that news in such an odd and yet peculiarly appropriate way.

They sent wood.  To Canada, of all places.  As if wood was something Canada was lacking.  And someone here received that gift with the respect with which it was given.  And those two small acts of respect had served the greater good.

And it occurred to me, as I stood there all these years later, in what is now known as the New Zealand Room, that we have lost our understanding of that sort of respect.

In its place we have developed an impulse for cynicism.  Too quickly we look at our politics and our politicians as if everything was easy to figure out; as if compromises didn’t have to be made; as if you can always say exactly what you mean; as if a thoughtful person can’t reflect on something and then change his or her mind; as if the business of governing isn’t complicated.

Cynicism is an easy place to pitch a tent.  And it is worth remembering, when we are tempted by that soft and undemanding clearing in the forest, that there are more noble campsites.

Parliament has been, and could still be, the best of us.  And, I would put forward, it behooves us to embrace that possibility, to admit to that possibility, to own that possibility and, most importantly, to expect it.  These are important days.  This is an important place.  We owe it many things.  Our passions, our commitments, our truths and, yes, our respect.  The broken-hearted QueenVictoria showed that when she signed and sent that book in the memory of her husband.  Auguste Renoir showed it as he fashioned that sculpture for all of France.  Those New Zealanders showed it as they bundled together their little shipment of wood.  Those librarians show it as they guard that inkwell still.  And so should we, each one of us, as we come together in our todays and our tomorrows, to consider, as best we can, the great questions of our times.

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Is there ever a good time to read about childbirth?  My logic in picking up Great Expectations: Twenty-Four True Stories about Childbirth edited by Dede Crane and Lisa Moore was that it was probably best to read these stories well before I even start thinking about having babies.  This may have been a tactical error.  I would absolutely not recommend reading this while pregnant but I’m now thinking the best time to read it may be once your child-bearing years are past and, ideally, once you’ve had children of your own and can scoff at the descriptions of pain.  My mother’s reaction when I mentioned the book to her was “why on earth would you do something like that to yourself?”  She knows what she’s about, my mother (though, memorably, she is also the woman who considers a bikini wax far more painful than childbirth). 

Yes, the stories are excellent and fascinating and contain incredibly informative levels of detail, but they’re also absolutely terrifying.  The few stories from the male perspective were a welcome relief, offering an emotional rather than physical interpretation of the process.  Indeed, aside from a description of trying to get to the Kingston hospital during Queen’s Homecoming weekend that brought back fond memories of my university days, my favourite passage was written by one of the fathers, Michael Redhill: 

The last moments before he arrived, when his head was out and only Anne’s last pushes were to come, the awareness washed over me that mere instants separated me from the last moment in my life when I wasn’t necessary to the first moment when I was.  This thought frightened me, as I imagine it should frighten any sensible person.  You can love those who are gong to leave you – either because they precede you or because they can leave you if they choose to – and you can love in the dark knowledge of this.  Your parents will die, your loved ones may suffer a change of mood and move on.  But to begin to love someone you know you will leave, because nature must have it so, is a very heavy thing indeed.  Here came the boy who would bury me.  Whom I would love for the rest of my life, but not for all of his.  I was bringing him into future loss.  There is nothing more beautiful or dreadful than this. (P. 189)

As much as it disturbed me, I did really enjoy this book.  I’m still not sure who the target audience is though: people I know with babies of their own are far more interested in telling their own birth stories (to the despair of their listeners) than hearing those of others.  Couples who are expecting are always eager for information but this is most definitely not the way to get it (or, rather, it’s an education that you’ll not be able to forget in time for the birth, which is what you’ll want to do).  I’ll admit that a large part of the allure for me was that it is a Canadian book and the contributors represent a who’s who of Can-Lit, with memorable entries from authors I might not otherwise have been drawn to: Lynn Coady’s tale of teen pregnancy and Jaclyn Moriarty’s inclusion of both her mother and her grandmother’s birth stories alongside her own were particularly memorable.  No two stories are alike, varying in both tone and experience.  A few of the entries deal with the worst case scenarios everyone prays to never encounter but, for the most part, the births are as normal as any life-changing event can be.

A fascinating, if psychologically troubling, read but certainly not the book to give a friend at her baby shower!

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