Reading list: Collected Stories of Raymond Carver

How to start: The New York Times calls Raymond Carver "the most influential writer of American short stories in the second half of the 20th century". When the author himself writes about why he chose to write short stories and poems, he explains in an essay titled Fires: "During these ferocious years of parenting, I usually didn't have the time, or the heart, to think about working on anything very lengthy. (...) The circumstances of my life with these children dictated something else. They said if I wanted to write anything, and finish it, and if ever I wanted to take satisfaction out of finished work, I was going to have to stick to stories and poems." Later, his children grown, he reflects: "The circumstances of my life are much different now, but now I choose to write short stories and poems. Or at least I think I do. Maybe it's all a result of the old writing habits from those days."

Favourite quote: It could be said, for instance, that to take a wife is to take a history, And if that's so, the I understand that I'm outside history now - like horses and fog. Or you could say that my history has left me. Or that I'm having to go on without history. Or that history will now have to do without me - unless my wife writes more letters, or tells a friend who keeps a diary, say. Then, years later, someone can look back on this time, interpret it according to the record, its scraps and tirades, its silences and innuendos. That's when it dawns on me that Autobiography is the poor man's history. And that I am saying good-bye to history. Good-bye, my darling. (Blackbird Pie)

Tangential: There's a documentary on Youtube about his life.

Reading list: Paris Stories by Mavis Gallant

How to start: Mavis Gallant was a Canadian writer who lived in France. About reading short stories she writes the following in a Preface to The Selected Stories: "There is something I keep wanting to say about reading short stories. I’m doing it now because I may never have another occasion. Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait."

Favourite quotes: “In loving and unloving families alike, the same problem arises after a death: What to do about the widow?” (p 32)

“Barbara often said she had no use for money, no head for it. ‘Thank God I’m Irish,’ she said. ‘I haven’t got rates of interest on the brain.’ She read Irishness into her nature as an explanation for it, the way some people attributed their gifts and failings to a sign of the zodiac. Anything natively Irish had dissolved long before, leaving only a family custom of Catholicism and another habit, fervent in Barbara’s case, of anti-clerical passion.” (p 195)

“Barbara was aware of Diana, the mouse, praying like a sewing machine somewhere behind her.” (p 229)

“The only woman his imagination offered, [Grippes] with some insistence was no use to him. She moved quietly on a winter evening to Saint-Nicholas-du-Chadonnet, the rebel church at the lower end of Boulevard Saint-Germain, where services were still conducted in Latin. […] She entered the church and knelt down and brought out her rosary, oval pearls strung on thin gold. Nobody saw rosaries anymore. They were not even in the windows of their traditional venues, across the square from the tax bureau. Believers went in for different articles now: cherub candles, quick prayers on plastic cards. Her iron meekness resisted change. She prayed constantly into the past. Grippes knew that one’s view of the past is just as misleading as speculation about the future. It was one of the few beliefs he would have gone to the stake for. She as praying to a mist, a mist-shrouded figures she persisted in seeing clear.” (p 251)

“She had destroyed this beauty, joyfully, willfully, as if to force him to value her on other terms.” (p 283)

Tangential: A 47 minute documentary about Mavis Gallant and her writing is available on Vimeo. It’s called “Paris Stories: The Writing of Mavis Gallant”.

Reading list: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

How to start: In giving advice to an aspiring writer named Arnold Samuelson, Earnest Hemingway wrote: “Here’s a list of books any writer should have read as part of his education… If you haven’t read these, you just aren’t educated.” Wuthering Heights was included, of course, on his list of 16, seen here. In a chapter about narration, Francine Prose explains what makes the book so compelling: “It’s hard to imagine a more ornate or artificial structure. So what’s surprising is how natural it seems, how quickly our awareness of artifice fades before the urgency of the story being narrated, and how fully the various characters emerge through the eyes and in the voice of a woman who is intuitive, wise, but not, strictly speaking, omniscient.” (Reading Like A Writer, p 88.)

Favourite passage: “I used to draw a comparison between him, and Hindley Earnshaw, and perplex myself to explain satisfactorily, why their conduct was so opposite in similar circumstances. They had both been fond husbands, and were both attached to their children; and I could not see how they shouldn’t both have taken the same road, for good or evil. But, I though in my mind, Hindley, with apparently the stronger head, has shown himself sadly the worse and the weaker man. When his ship struck, the captain abandoned his post; and the crew, instead of trying to save her, rushed into riot and confusion, leaving no hope for their luckless vessel. Linton, on the contrary, displayed the true courage of a loyal and faithful soul: he trusted God; and God comforted him. One hoped, and the other despaired; they chose their own lots, and were righteously doomed to endure them.” 

Tangential: The Guardian published a list of the “100 Best Non-Fiction Books of All Time” and it included Elizabeth Gaskill’s biography of Charlotte Brontë, Emily’s sister. I read the book and it has a passage that alludes to Charlotte’s impression of her sister’s book, Wuthering Heights. The author writes:

“In December 1847, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey appeared. The first-named of these stories has revolted many readers by the power with which wicked and exceptional characters are depicted. Others, again, have felt the attraction of remarkable genius, even when displayed on grim and terrible criminals. Miss [Charlotte] Brontë herself says, with regard to this tale,
‘Where delineation of human character is concerned, the case is different. I am bound to avow that she had scarcely more practical knowledge of the peasantry amongst whom she lived, than a nun has of the country people that pass her convent gates. My sister’s disposition was not naturally gregarious: circumstances favoured and fostered her tendency to seclusion; except to go to church, or take a walk on the hills, she rarely crossed the threshold of home. Though the feeling for the people around her was benevolent, intercourse with them she never sought, nor, with very few exceptions, ever experienced; and yet she knew them, knew their ways, their language, and their family histories; she could head or them with interest, and talk of them with detail minute, graphic, and accurate; but with them she rarely exchanged a word. Hence it ensured, that what her mind has gathered of the real concerning them, was too exclusively confined to those tragic and terrible traits, of which, in listening to the secret annals of every rude vicinage, the memory is sometimes compelled to receive the impress. Her imagination, which was a spirit more sombre than sunny – more powerful than sportive – found in such traits material whence it wrought creations like Heathcliffe, like Earnshaw, like Catharine. Having formed these beings, she did not know what she had done. If the auditor of her work, when read in manuscript, shuddered under the grinding influence of natures so relentless and implacable – of spirits so lost and fallen; if it was complained that the mere hearing of certain vivid and fearful scenes banished sleep by night, and disturbed mental peace by day, Ellis Bell [Emily Brontë’s pseudonym] would wonder what was meant, and suspect the complainant of affectation. Had she but lived, her mind would of itself have grown like a strong tree – loftier, straighter, wider-spreading – and its matured fruits would have attained a mellower ripeness and sunnier bloom; but on that mind time and experience alone could work; to the influence of other intellects she was not amenable.’”

Ironing

I had a pile of ironing to do, so I moved the ironing board to the living room and put Chef’s Table on Netflix, chosen so that the kids wouldn't feel tempted to stick around and watch. But I forgot how interesting it was to me even though I’d watched the first episode months ago. Now I wish there was more ironing…

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Taking notes at a meeting in Carman; a photo-essay

Carman is just under an hour's drive from Winnipeg. I left early Saturday morning when it was bright and sunny and drove alongside fields still drying, just about ready to wake up. The Catholic Church in Carman is a pretty triangle-shaped green building. 

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 The sacristy lantern is very ornate. It reminded me of a fancy hairstyle.

The sacristy lantern is very ornate. It reminded me of a fancy hairstyle.

 There are pretty stained-glass windows throughout the church.

There are pretty stained-glass windows throughout the church.

I worked here, listening and taking notes. When I didn't need to take notes, I read Roz Chast's book Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? It's a memoir about her parents getting old and dying, and more than once it made me chuckle (quietly, to myself) while the meeting was going on. When her dad died, I felt like crying.  

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When there were group discussions, I was free to leave, and so I took a little walk around the area.

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The sound of ice floating down the Boyne river and colliding with low hanging branches was a moment of contemplation until a woodchuck came scurrying through the dead leaves. It was a shy woodchuck, but more than anything my presence seemed to be an inconvenience to its busy work.

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I stopped in at a thrift store to look around. It was nice and neat. A customer and a cashier were having a lighthearted exchange about the Jets and the street party in Winnipeg from the night before. Both agreed about just how much better it was to be living in the small town rather than the big city. It made me smile. I returned to my station for lunch.

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People in these meetings seem to really like pastries. There was no end of donuts, muffins, danishes, pies, and cake. 

 I very virtuously avoided it all.

I very virtuously avoided it all.

Reading list: A Moveable Feast

How to start: A Moveable Feast is an fun, easy read. Like Karl Ove Knausgaard who wrote that when a journalist alluded to his collection of books he’d answered that he hadn’t read most of them “and the ones I have I don’t remember a thing about” I too remember very little of the books I’ve read. I think that’s why I take care to write out quotes I like. In the case of this book, I have only one. “They say the seeds of what we will do are in all of us, but it always seemed to me that in those who made jokes in life the seeds were covered with better soil and with a higher grade of manure.”

What I like better than that quote is one by Francine Prose. She writes:

Finally, before we leave the subject of sentences, let’s return once more to Hemingway, and to the passage from his memoir of his youth in Paris, A Moveable Feast, in which he describes his working method and which subsequent generations of writers have taken as a form of implicit literary advice:

Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going… I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.

For years, I’ve heard this passage about the one true sentence cited as a sort of credo. And I’ve nodded my head, not wanting to admit that I honestly had no idea what in the world Hemingway was talking about. What is a ‘true’ sentence in this context – that is, the context of fiction? What makes Hemingway’s advice so hard to follow is that he never quite explains what ‘true’ means.

Perhaps it’s wisest to assume that Hemingway, like countless others, was simply confusing truth with beauty. Possibly what he really meant was a beautiful sentence – a concept that, as we have seen, is almost as hard to define as the one true sentence.

In any case, it should encourage us. Hemingway was not only thinking about the good and beautiful and true sentence, but also using it as sustenance – as a goal to focus on, as a way to keep himself going. And though it’s obvious that times have changed, that what was true in Hemingway’s era may no longer be true today, the fact remains that Hemingway not only cared about sentences, not only told his publishers that they mattered to him, but told his readers, and told the world. (Reading Like A Writer, pages 61-62) 

Ernest Hemingway also compiled and published writing advice. The Brain Pickings blog features a sample.

Reading List: Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield

How to start: Katherine Mansfield was born in 1888 and is considered to be New Zealand's "most internationally famous author" according to the website in her name. She sounds like an endearing person if only for having said this: "Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinion of others... Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth."

Favourite quotes: Alice was a mild creature in reality, but she had the most marvellous retorts ready for questions that she knew would never be put to her. The composing of them and the turning of them over and over in her mind comforted her just as much as if they'd been expressed. (Prelude)

But what I wanted to do was to behave in the most extraordinary fashion - like a clown. To start singing, with large extravagant gestures, to point out of the window and cry: "We are now passing, ladies and gentlemen, one of the sights for which notre Paris is justly famous," to jump out of the taxi while it was going, climb over the roof and drive in by another door; to hang out of the window and look for the hotel through the wrong end of a broken telescope, which was also a peculiarly ear-splitting trumpet. (Je ne parle pas français)

You know I had the mad idea that they were kissing in that quiet room - a long, comfortable kiss. One of those kisses that not only puts one's grief to bed, but nurses it and warms it and tucks it up and keeps it fast enfolded until it is sleeping sound. Ah! how good that is! (Je ne parle pas français)

What can you do if you are thirty and, turning the corner of your own street, you are overcome, suddenly, by a feeling of bliss - absolute bliss! - as though you'd suddenly swallowed a bright piece of that late afternoon sun and it burned in your bosom, sending out a little shower of sparks into every particle, into every finger and toe?...
Oh, is there no way you can express it without being "drunk and disorderly"? How idiotic civilization is! Why be given a body is you have to keep it shut up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle? (Bliss)

He was passionately fond of music; every spare penny he had went on books. He was always full of new ideas, schemes, plans. But nothing came of it all. The new fire blazed in Jonathan; you almost heard it roaring softly as he explained, described, and dilated on the new thing; but a moment later it had fallen in and there was nothing but ashes, and Jonathan went about with a look like hunger in his black eyes. (At the Bay)

"Well, my opinion is that you two people ought to part. You'll do no earthly good together. Indeed, it seems to me, it's the duty of either of to set the other free." What happens then? He - and she - agree. It is their conviction too. You are only saying what they have been thinking all last night. And away they go to act on your advice, immediately... And the next time you hear of them they are still together. You see - you've reckoned without the unknown quantity - which is their secret relation to each other - and that they can't disclose even if they want to. Thus far you may tell and no further. Oh, don't misunderstand me! It need not necessarily have anything to do with their sleeping together... But this brings me to a thought I've often half entertained. Which is that human beings, as we know them, don't choose each other at all. It is the owner, the second self inhabiting them, who makes the choice for his own particular purposes, and - this may sound absurdly far-fetched - it's the second self in the other which responds. Dimly - dimly - or so it has seemed to me - we realize this, at any rate to the extent that we realize the hopelessness of trying to escape. (A Married Man's Story)

There is a very unctuous and irritating English proverb to the effect that "every cloud has a silver lining." What comfort can it be to one steeped to the eyebrows in clouds to ponder over their linings, and what an unpleasant picture postcard seal it sets upon one's tragedy - turning it into a little ha' penny monstrosity with a moon in the left-hand corner like a vainglorious threepenny bit! Nevertheless, like most unctuous and irritating things, it is true. The lining woke me after my first night at the Pension Séguin and showed me over the feather bolster a room bright with sunlight as if every golden-haired baby in heaven were pelting the earth with buttercup posies. (Violet)

 

How to Cook a Wolf quotes

It’s never happened to me before that a book about food makes me laugh out loud, but it happened to me, more than once, reading MFK Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf. I found this book on the Guardian’s list of "100 Best Nonfiction Books of All Time" and borrowed it from the library on account of its title. As an extra layer of entertainment, the author has gone back on the version originally published in 1944 and made comments in parenthesis and brackets about what she wrote, agreeing sometimes, or disagreeing other times. Here is a collection of quotes about;

Obvious things:
And any kitchen-idiot would know enough to core the apples. (p 21)

Soup:
The natural progression from boiling water to boiling water with something in it can hardly be avoided, and in most cases is heartily to be wished for. As a steady diet, plain water is inclined to make thin fare, and even saints, of which there are an unexpected number these days, will gladly agree that a few herbs and perhaps a carrot or two and maybe a bit of meager bone on feast-days can mightily improve the somewhat monotonous flavour of the hot liquid.
Soup, in other words, is good. (p 28)

Strange soup customs:
A great deal of misinformation has been quoted for several centuries about the delicious soup that sits for years at the back of every good French stove. It is supposed to be like old-fashioned yeast, always renewing itself and yet always stemming from the original “starter”, so that a chicken bone thrown in last Easter may long since have disappeared but will still lend its aromatic aura to the present brew.
I do not like this fiction, and prefer not to believe it. I think soup-pots should be made fresh now and then, like people’s minds at the New Year. They should be emptied and scrubbed and started over again, with clean water, a few peppercorns, whatever little scraps are left from yesterday, and then today’s bones and lettuce leaves and cold toast and such. Set at the back of the stove and left to summer, with an occasional stir from the cook, they can make a fine clear stock for sauces as well as a heartening broth. (p 30)

The best soup:
Probably the most satisfying soup in the world for people who are hungry, as well as for those who are tired or worried or cross or in debt or in a moderate amount of pain or in love or in robust health or in any kind of business huggermuggery, is minestrone. (p 38)

The proliferation of mediocre cookbooks:
Its inevitable progress from a pot with a watery bone in it to potage à la Reine and Crème Vichyssoise is for anyone to read in forty thousand cookbooks, most of them bad. [By now there must be fifty thousand, most of them still bad, or at least dull. It is safe to wager that in the past eight years not more than eight really important cookbooks have been published in America… and that, of those, not more than one is essential. (At first I wrote: “Not one.”)] (p 29)

About consulting other cookbooks:
I can make amazingly bad fried eggs, and in spite of what people tell me about this method and that, I continue to make amazingly bad fried eggs: tough, with edges like some kind of dirty starched lace, and a taste part sulphur and part singed newspaper. The best way to find a trustworthy method, I think, is to ask almost anyone but me. Or look in a cookbook. Or experiment. (p 57)

I suggest that anyone who acknowledges the value of good cookery in a life deliberately full of love, happiness and health (that is, anyone who cares about human dignity!) read several other books and from them and this one and most of all from himself produce his own decision. (p 124)

Animal parts:
One way to horrify at least eight out of ten Anglo-Saxons is to suggest their eating anything but the actual red fibrous meat of a beast. A heart or a kidney or even a sweetbread is anathema. It is too bad, since there are so many nutritious and entertaining ways to prepare the various livers and lights. They can become gastronomic pleasures instead of dogged voodoo, so that when you eat a stuffed baked bull’s heart, or a grilled lamb’s brain or a “mountain oyster,” you  need not choke them down with the nauseated resolve to be braver or wiser or more potent, but with plain delight. [I believe this more firmly than ever, but am years wearier in my fight: Now, when I want to eat what English butchers call “offal,” I wait until everyone has gone to the Mid-South Peoria Muezzins’ Jamboree and Ham-bake, and then make myself a dainty dish.] (p 101)

Why is it worse, in the end, to see an animal’s head cooked and prepared for out pleasure than a thigh or a tail or a rib? If we are going to live on other inhabitants of this world we must not bind ourselves with illogical prejudices, but savor to the fullest the beasts we have killed.
People who feel that a lamb’s cheek is gross and vulgar when a chop is not are like the medieval philosophers who argued about such hairsplitting problems as how many angels could dance on the point of a pin. If you have these prejudices, ask yourself if they are not built on what you may have been taught when you were young and unthinking, and then if you can, teach yourself to enjoy some of the parts of an animal that are not commonly prepared. (p 103)

Appreciating meat:
But for all of us, no matter what our tastes, life would be simpler and the wolf would howl less loudly if we could adjust our minds to admit, even if we never quite believed it, that a tender sizzling rare grilled tenderloin was a luxury instead of a necessity. (p 110)

Food memories:
War cake can be made in muffin-tins, and baked more quickly, but in a loaf it stays fresh longer. It is very good with a glass of milk, I remember. (I am sure that I could live happily forever without tasting it again. There are many things like that: you recall with astonishment and a kind of admiration some of the things eaten with sensual delight at eight or eighteen, that would be a gastronomical auto da fé for you at twenty-eight, or fifty. But that does not mean that you were wrong so long ago. War Cake says nothing to me now, but I know that it is an honest cake, and one loved by hungry children. And I’m not ashamed of having loved it… merely a little puzzled, and thankful that I am no longer eight.) (p 155)

Unpleasant kitchen smells:
Indeed, it can be said that fumes linger, period. They lurk in cupboards. They drift subtly through closed doors, not matter what cunning draft you may enforce, at risk of double pneumonia, through the kitchenette. They hang in the curtains, and fall out at you two nights later like overripe shreds of dead ghost.
There is not much to do about it; you either like fried onion or hot cabbage salad enough to endure them, or you eat lettuce or green peas instead. (p 172)

Reading list: La Cousine Bette by Balzac

How to start: La cousine Bette is one book from among the 91 stories, novels and essays that comprise La Comédie humaine.  Balzac was a prolific French writer who died at the age of 51.

Favourite quote: (in the original French) "Puis, que les vrais amants de l'art aillent voir, à Florence, le Penseur, de Michel-Ange, et, dans la cathédrale de Mayence, la Vierge d'Albert Durer, qui a fait, en ébène, une femme vivante sous ses triples robes, et la chevelure la plus ondoyante, la plus maniable que jamais femme de chambre ait peignée; que les ignorants y courent, et tous reconnaitront que le génie peut imprégner l'habit, l'armure, la robe, d'une pensée et y mettre un corps, tout aussi bien que l'homme imprime son caractère et les habitudes de sa vie à son enveloppe.
"La sculpture est la réalisation continuelle du fait qui s'est appelé pour la seule et unique fois dans la peinture: Raphaël! La solution de ce terrible problème ne se trouve que dans un travail constant, soutenu, car les difficultés matérielles doivent être tellement vaincues, la main doit être si châtiée, si prête et obéissante, que le sculpteur puisse lutter âme à âme avec cette insaisissable nature morale, qu'il faut transfigurer en la matérialisant. Si Paganini, qui faisait raconter son âme par les cordes de son violon, avait passé trois jours sans étudier, il aurait perdu, avec son expression, le registre de son instrument: il désignait ainsi le mariage existant entre le bois, l'archet, les cordes et lui; cet accord dissous, il serait soudain devenu un violoniste ordinaire. 
"Le travail constant est la loi de l'art comme celle de la vie; car l'art, c'est la création idéalisée. Aussi, les grands artistes, les poètes complets n'attendent-ils ni les commandes ni les chalands; ils enfantent, aujourd'hui, demain, toujours. Il en résulte cette habitude du labeur, cette perpétuelle connaissance des difficultés qui les maintient en concubinage avec la muse, avec ses forces créatrices. Canova vivait dans son atelier, comme Voltaire a vécu dans son cabinet, Homère et Phidias ont dû vive ainsi."

Tangential: Balzac loved coffee! In fact his death has been attributed to its overconsumption. The Airship Blog has an entertaining read on the subject.

Reading list: Bright Lights Big City

How to start: This novel by Jay McInerney is short, fast-paced and has an ending as satisfying as a pickle with snap. 

Favourite quote: "But what you are left with is a premonition of the way your life will fade behind you, like a book you have read too quickly, leaving a dwindling trail of images and emotions, until all you can remember is a name." (page 127)

Tangential: This was Jay McInerney's first novel and if you want to know more about him than the wikipedia entry, there's this article from The Guardian.

Journal entry from November 14, last year

The day is somewhat dreary and the kids play and bicker and play and bicker. We went to the mall, resigned to not find anything at Sears, and to need snacks and wipes. But I found a swim shirt and swim shorts for Marie-Hélène whom I failed last week when I was responsible for bringing her to her lesson, and lost her shorts. So it is.

I followed the boys around the store, letting them follow their own meandering curiosity. I found a laundry basket for them, the old one being too small and un-aerated. The label for the basket read something about a good place for “close” and since it was made in China I started to think that the writing was dictated over the phone. So funny, I would say, take a picture, post it online, and make someone else smile over the miscommunication. But it’s trifling. The store is closing. Corners are being gathered up signs moved about, shelves coming down. I wonder if they still make a profit with their sales.

I tell Cedric that the store is closing and he says, "Alright, let’s go!" and I laugh and try to explain the pun… It’s closing in the larger sense, the giant no-more-Sears sense. But I’m not sure he understands. William and I continue to follow him around. I pause to pick up stationary. Might as well. We always need sticky notes. There are never enough. Or so I reason.

At the checkout the boys mill about and I’m worried about what they can get in to while I’m trying to concentrate on the transaction and so I sit them on the counter. An older couple passing by asks if they are for sale. I price them at 10 thousand each and then over dishes in the afternoon consider the price I set and the answer she gave… "Way more than that!" So that yes, I am caught in this funny conundrum… The kids have no price, because they are small, loved, and full of potential, and precious to me, their only mother. But there was no IVF, no adoption. They cost nothing to make. Anyone can make a child, even if the individual’s existence has been calculated as a very rare chance when every strange odd is factored in. And then there is that aspect of ownership… What priceless means is that money assigns a value on something that is neither an investment, a payment, or a property. They are immaterial beings wrapped up in skin and clothes like me, like their father, like anyone. 

What funny things our children do to us... They make us stretch and grow and turn us into parents. But they aren't really ours either... They're lent us and we foster them awhile and give them tools we think are important for life (or wish we had had) and they go on and find their way and move along time a little further than we'll get. 

Reading list: Charles Dickens' Dombey & Son

How to start: Dombey and Son is a huge book. I thought I was done halfway through, only to discover I hadn’t noticed that the edition I’d picked up had a second part. But Dickens is always fun to read…

Three favourite quotes: “The barrier between Mr Dombey and his wife, was not weakened by time. Ill-assorted couple, unhappy in themselves and in each other, bound together by no tie by the manacle that joined their fettered hands, and straining that so harshly, in their shrinking asunder, that it wore and chafed to the bone, Time, consoler of affliction and softener of anger, could do nothing to help them. Their pride, however different in kind and object, was equal in degree; and in their flinty opposition struck out fire between them which might smoulder or might blaze, as circumstances were, but burned up everything within their mutual reach, and made their marriage way a road of ashes.”

“The cheerful vista of the long street, burnished by the morning light, the sight of the blue sky and airy clouds, the vigorous freshness of the day, so flushed and rosy in its conquest of the night awakened no responsive feelings in her so hurt bosom.”

“… and they got up together, and went on together; Di more off the ground than on it, endeavouring to kiss his mistress flying, tumbling over and getting up again without the least concern, dashing at big dogs in a jocose defiance of his species, terrifying with touches of his nose young housemaids who were cleaning doorsteps, and continually stopping, in the midst of a thousand extravagances, to look back at Florence, and bark until all the dogs within hearing answered, and all the dogs who could come out, came out to stare at him.”

Tangential: Orwell wrote an interesting essay on Charles Dickens. I really liked his appraisal of the 19th century author. And recently the Allusionist did a whole feature about Charles Dickens with a special Christmas-time tie-in.

Reading List: One Hundred Years of Solitude

How to start: One Hundred Years of Solitude won its author a Nobel Prize. In order to appreciate the book, halfway through the story, I googled a teenage-like complaint, “what is so great about one hundred years of solitude” and came across an excellent summary that pulled me through to the end.

Favourite quote: “Gaston was not only a fierce lover, with endless wisdom and imagination but he was also, perhaps, the first man in the history of the species who had made an emergency landing and had come close to killing himself and his sweetheart simply to make love in a field of violets.” (p 381)

Tangential: On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication, Vanity Fair featured an article on the subject.

Miscellany

  • I’m a stay at home mom for the moment, and in this condition some things ring especially true. The beginning of Heidi Julavits The Folded Clock for one.

“Once, a day was long. It was bright and then it wasn’t, meals happened, and school happened, and sports practice, maybe, happened, and two days from this day there would be a test, or an English paper would be due, or there would be a party for which I’d been waiting, it would seem, for years. Days were ages. Love bloomed and died in a day. Rages flared and were forgotten and replaced by new rages, also forgotten. Within a day there were discernable hours, and clocks with hands that ticked out each new minute. I would think, Will this day never end? By nightfall, I’d feel like a war had been fought. I was wounded; sleep was not enough to heal me. Days would linger in my nerves, aftershocks registered on the electrical plain. Days made a physical impact. Days could hurt.”

  • I bought Deb Perelman’s latest cookbook. I have re-read this paragraph from the introduction numerous times, awed by her ability to capture what cooking can mean:

“I like the way that when you make something new and awesome, the first thing you want to do is tell another friend about it so they can make it, too. I like the way following a recipe to the letter can feel like handing the reins over after a long day of having to make all the decisions, but also that pulling off a good meal when you least expected is the fastest way to feel triumphant, even if your day left you short of opportunities to. I like the way that when you sublimate your wanderlust in a dish – a cacio e pepe addiction you picked up in Rome or a Thai-ish salad with crispy shallots, lime, and fish sauce – it becomes a gateway, or an escape hatch, to so much more than dinner. I like the way that when you cook at home, you don’t actually have to compromise a thing; you get to make exactly what you want, exactly the way you want it, and then you get to invite all your favorite people over to pass the dish around. I like the way a great meal makes grouchy people ungrouchy or turns a thankless day filled with thankless stuff into a hilarious one.”

  • Recently I’ve been puzzling over why some people don’t enjoy self-help subjects as much as I do. A friend helped me understand that self-knowledge can be painful. In an episode of Hidden Brain, the podcast host Shankar Vedantam, highlights and explains one experiment’s conclusion:

“Think of the deep irony (…); the folks who care the most about ethics might be most willing to turn a blind eye to unethical business practices because they know, if they found out about those practices, they would feel obliged to do something about it.” (This is 19 minutes into the podcast.)

So, say a person is raised with a strong moral code. Self-knowledge might be painful because of a preference for ambivalence.

“Clarity” writes Gretchen Rubin in Better Than Before, “requires us to acknowledge what we’re doing.”

Or, it might be painful because we cling to an identity. When the author gave up a habit she had of not owning a purse,

“being ‘the kind of woman who doesn’t own a purse’” the relinquishing “caused me a pang, even though it was such a tiny part of my identity.”

Understanding ourselves can also be painful because it forces us to confront our feelings of wanting to fit in by noticing how we are different. If a person has fragile self-esteem, this can be especially hard.

(About this, Gretchen Rubin writes, “surprisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve found that the more matter-of-fact I am about my habits, the more readily people accept them – and me.”)

However, avoiding self-knowledge can lead to self-deception. If I can recognize how it can be painful, I can learn to see the ways in which I deceive myself and I can be more understanding of myself and of others. In this respect, I appreciated this School of Life video.

5 books I read in my youth

Preface: I don’t like re-reading books. Some people do. As I get older, I feel like I read better, which lends weight to something I read by Peter Brown, who, writing about Augustine of Hippo included a quote by Proust: “No one can truly understand a book, Proust has said, unless he has already been able to ‘allow the equivalents to ripen slowly in his own heart.’” The more I read, the more I notice which is a cause of delight and occasional discouragement. I’m aspiring. The aspiration is a gift and nourishing it is the responsibility. When I look back and worry that I didn’t properly absorb a book, I have to forgive myself, first because I find re-reading boring, and second because I have to trust that it was useful in getting me forward. There is no other way to appreciate literature than to keep reading.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

I distinctly remember buying my own copy in elementary school. It fueled many romantic ideas. I didn’t take any notes although I did attempt to memorize a poem from the book for a school poetry event. One classmate recited “Tiger, tiger burning bright in the forests of the night…” and I recited what Jo had composed after her sister’s death, hiding a printed copy of it on my folded arm as if no one would guess it was there when I forgot lines.

Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice was by far my favourite book in highschool. I loved Jane Austen’s humour and when I finished reading the book I was so attached that I read a book of critical essays just to stay with the characters longer. I also watched the BBC eight-part series repeatedly. No other novel since has sparked such an obsession.

The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I remember liking these books, but since I read them when I was young, I didn’t take note of my favorite passages. Francine Prose appreciates Fitzgerald’s ability to “write both meticulously and carelessly, sometimes on the same page.” She describes a particular example: “At lazy moments, F. Scott Fitzgerald could resort to strings of clichés, but in the next paragraph he could give a familiar word the sort of new slant that totally reinvents the language. That reinvention occurs, beginning with his use of the word deferential, in the description of the rose-colored grand hotel that opens Tender Is the Night: ‘Deferential palms cool its flushed façade, and before it stretches a short dazzling beach… Now, many bungalows cluster near it, but when this story begins only the cupolas of a dozen old villas rotted like water lilies among the massed pines between Gausses Hôtel des Étragers and Cannes, five miles away.’

“Each adjective (flushed, dazzling) strikes us as apt. And the simile ‘rotted like water lilies’ will come to seem increasingly applicable to much of what happens in a novel that is partly about the dissolution and decay of romance and beauty.”

Francine has more to say about both novels, but I’m too lazy to write it all out, so you might as well get her book.

Tangential: In April of 2017, Little Atoms producer Neil Denny interviewed Sarah Churchwell in and they discussed her book Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby. It was a fascinating listen.

The weight of little things

The French community in Winnipeg abounds in not-for-profit organizations with acronym names. The first acronym the kids get to know is that of the CRÉE, which stands for the Educational Resources Centre for Children. You can find it in the basement of a bulbous brown building in Saint-Boniface. One entryway has a ramp where the kids sometimes roll balls, their steps thudding through the grey-painted plywood. The other entry gives way to carpeted stairs that turn and face the check-out desk and the half-dozen rows of brown bookcases, back to back, full of games, puzzles, books, magazines, and toys, all for lending. The walls have seen bright colours, like lime green and soda-pop orange, but have last been painted a subdued beige. There’s a large play area and two lipstick-red couches for the adults. The centre is staffed with a little team of women who have smiling eyes.

One time we took out a train set. It was the only Playmobil on the shelves and the box was still pristine. “We’re trying it out!” one of them said, “we’ll see if Playmobil is a good addition for the centre!” William was a young toddler at the time, wearing bibs. Cedric was playing with facsimile tools.

We took it home and Cedric scooted it up and down the hallway and when he lost interest, we would put it back in the box, and the box on top of the espresso-finish buffet in the dining room. This particular set had 62 pieces including three little people you could sit on the wagon benches and a conductor with a removable hat. The rubber wheels, all twelve, could detach from their plastic rims. William figured out how to remove them with his teeth. Perhaps Cedric did too, simultaneously. So we’d take back the rubber wheels, they would dry, and then we’d put them back on their rims, and put away the train. I’d hand them their sister’s collection instead, the Playmobil set with the veterinarian, the safari buggy and trailer, the lions and the plastic carcass with sun-bleached bones.

Nevertheless we ended up losing nine wheels… The first family to have confidently borrowed the first Playmobil set from the Educational Ressources Centre was returning it in a pristine box, minus parts. I’d made a contrite offering to google replacements that I never followed-through with, in a defeatist attitude, as a person in denial of disorganization, certain that the wheels could not have rolled out of our medium sized house and that an end to mystery would come with time. And it did to some degree; Christian found most of the wheels in the air ducts. We gathered them and put them in one of the decorative measuring bowls at the end of the hall ready for when we would next visit the centre. Every time I would notice them I heaved a mental sigh of disappointment over the frustrating inevitability.

There are rules of productivity, of organization, of being a good person… In the Manifesto of A Doer the third rule reads: “Follow through. On the big things. On the small things. Create a habit of always following through. As habits go, it’s a good one to have.” It’s advice I imagine my mom would have said to me, and my mother didn’t like excuses. If you started giving an excuse, she’d stop you. But the eighth rule also sounds motherly, and it reads, “What you are doing is hard, but not impossible. Practice optimism.”

Last week I returned the wheels to the Centre. The activity-coordinator took the Ziplock bag and said “I didn’t even know we had had Playmobil!” It joined the other toys on a shelf in the bookcase behind the checkout desk, where lost things are found and returned and await their toy reunion. If the wheels weighed as much as the space and guilt they took up in my head all those months, the shelf would have bowed. If their return had been as important as their loss, coordinators would have applauded and a special notification would have been added to the e-mail newsletter. But like so much of parenthood, it was a banal scene, the submerged part of the iceberg on which floats childhood happiness.

Reading list: Two Serious Ladies

How to start: The novel is strange, but so was the life of its author, and understanding that might help to appreciate the work Jane Bowles did. Francine Prose especially admires the narrative voice: “a voice that suggests the vocabulary and cadence of a highly educated, slightly batty, and neurotic child (…)” and later, “Jane Bowles’s touch is so sure, her language so well chosen and controlled, her artifice so dazzling (and so insouciantly ready to acknowledge itself as artificial) that we not only admire but are wholly convinced, or at least beguiled, by a passage of dialogue that we cannot imagine any normal human being speaking.” (From Reading Like a Writer, page 107-8, and 186-7.)

Favourite passage:
“Having a nice time?” the girl asked Miss Goering in a husky voice.
“Well,” said Miss Goering, “it wasn’t exactly in order to have a good time that I came out. I have more or less forced myself to, simply because I despise going out in the night-time alone and prefer not to leave my own house. However, it has come to such a point that I am forcing myself to make these little excursions –”
Miss Goering stopped because she actually did not know how she could go on and explain to this girl what she meant without talking a very long time indeed, and she realized that this would be impossible right at that moment, since the waiter was constantly walking back and forth between the bar and the young people’s booth.
“Anyway,” said Miss Goering, “I certainly think it does no harm to relax a bit and have a lovely time.”

Reading list: Isaac Babel

How to start: Isaac Babel was a multi-talented writer who was executed at 45 during one of Stalin’s great purges. John Updike wrote an excellent synopsis of his life in the New Yorker. In the Wikipedia entry on Babel, George Saunders is quoted as saying: “There’s a Russian writer named Isaac Babel that I love. I can drop in anywhere in his works, read a few pages and go, Oh yeah, language. It’s almost like if you were tuning a guitar and you heard a beautifully tuned one and you say, Yeah, that’s what we want. We want something that perfect. When I read him, it recalibrates my ear. It reminds me of the difference between an OK sentence and a really masterful sentence. Babel does it for me.”

Favourite passage:
“You’re shortsighted, eh?”
“Quite so.”
“Alexander Fyodorovich, you ought to wear glasses.”
“Never!”
Then, bubbling over like a mere boy, I said to him:
“Just think: you’re not merely blind, you’re practically dead! Line, that divine trait, mistress of the world, eternally escapes you. Here we are, you and I, walking about in this magic garden, this Finnish forest that almost baffles description. All our lives we shall never see anything more beautiful. And you can’t see the pink edges of the frozen waterfall, over there by the stream! You are blind to the Japanese chiseling of the weeping willow leaning over the waterfall. The red trunks of the pines are covered by snow in which a thousand sparks are gleaming. The snow, shapeless when it fell, has draped itself along the branches, lying on their surfaces that undulate like a line drawn by Leonardo. In the snow flaming clouds are reflected. And think what you’d have to say about Fröken Kirsti’s silk stockings; about the line of her leg, that lovely line! I beseech you Alexander Fyodorovich, buy a pair of glasses!”
“My child,” he replied, “don’t waste your time. Forty copecks for spectacles are the only forty copecks I’ve no wish to squander. I don’t need your line, vulgar as truth is vulgar. You live your life as though you were a teacher of trigonometry, while I for my part live in a world of miracles, even when I’m only at Klyazma. What do I need to see Fröken Kirsti’s freckles for, if even when I can scarcely make her out I can see in her all I wish to see? What do I need Finnish clouds for, when above my head I see a moving ocean? What do I need line for, when I have color? To me the whole universe is a gigantic theater, and I am the only member of the audience who hasn’t glued opera glasses to his eyes. The orchestra is playing the overture to the third act; the stage is far away, just as in a dream; my heart swells with ecstasy. I see Juliet’s purple velvet, Romeo’s lilac silk, and not a single false beard. And you want me to blind myself with forty-copeck spectacles!”
- from "Line and Color"