A Birthday Party

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This weekend we celebrated Pearl’s birthday. We kept it simple, partially because we seem to be raising an introvert here but mostly because she’s one and she won’t remember this and so we’re kind of mostly celebrating the fact that Peter and I made it through a year of parenting! So a simple lunch, some of our family and a few friends with kids close in age.

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And pink cupcakes. (Those sprinkles are not my favourite but they’re pearls so I couldn’t resist.)

We let Pearl have sugar for the first time. She often doesn’t like foods the first time she has them but that was not the case here. Buttercream frosting was a hit though she didn’t eat much of the cupcake itself.

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I’m not super crafty and I’m not into Pinterest so I knew I wanted to keep things simple. But I also wanted to decorate a little and make things special. I love the look of bunting and I’ve had this origami paper forever. With a bit of twine and double-sided tape, it was easy to make and added some nice colour. I wanted some pink but mostly lots of colour.

Pearl loves looking at pictures of herself (our little narcissist!) and I’m always glad to have photos printed, so it made sense to decorate with pictures. I’m sure I got the idea somewhere on the internet but I’m not sure where I saw it, so I worked with the image I had in my mind. I found a deal from Square Snaps to print our photos so that they resembled the old school Polaroid style (I googled around to find a decent price for printing photos in that particular style. I have no particular tie to Square Snaps.) and I bought mini clothes pins at the dollar store. That’s it. And Pearl loved it. In fact, she still does because the photos are still up and I kind of want to leave them for a while because they make her so happy! One year old is pretty easy to please.

What I Read – February 2016

Music for Wartime – Rebecca Makkai (Viking, 2015)

The Givenness of Things – Marilynne Robinson (HarperCollins, 2015)

(Truth be told, I only read half of this before I had to return it to the library. But I really enjoyed what I read and I hope to borrow it again.)

When panic on one side is creating alarm on the other, it is easy to forget that there are always as good grounds for optimism as for pessimism – exactly the same grounds, in fact – that is, because we are human. We still have every potential for good we have ever had, and the same presumptive claim to respect, our own respect and one another’s. We are still creatures of singular interest and value, agile of soul as we have always been and as we will continue to be even despite our errors and depredations, for as long as we abide on this earth. To value one another is our greatest safety, and to indulge in fear and contempt is our gravest error.

  • Marilynne Robinson

Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer – C.S. Lewis (Mariner Books, 2012)

If we were perfected, prayer would not be a duty, it would be a delight. Some day, please God, it will be.

– C.S. Lewis

The High Mountains of Portugal – Knopf Canada, 2016)

Furiously Happy – Jenny Lawson (Flatiron Books, 2015)

We Should All Be Feminists – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Anchor Books, 2014)

A Tale of Three Kings – Gene Edwards (Tyndale House Publishers, 1992)

These were David’s darkest hours. We know them as his pre-king days, but he didn’t.

  • Gene Edwards

The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy (Viking Canada, 1997)

Currently Reading:

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes

(I swear, I’m so close to being finished. Really, you guys. I think March will be the month! I’m already planning how to celebrate.)

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace

(I quickly discovered that Infinite Jest is too large a book for me to hold one-handed while up in the night for Pearl, so it’s semi on hold while I read smaller novels.)

And this time last year…

What I Read – February 2015

(Is it overly defensive to explain that February and March are combined from last year because I had a baby at the end of February? Well, I’m going to say it anyway.)

Book Review: The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

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The High Mountains of Portugal – Yann Martel (Knopf Canada, 2016)

If you’re familiar with Yann Martel’s work (and you probably are, because he wrote Life of Pi), you know that he does things a little unusually. He writes books with taxidermied animals as the main characters (read my review of Beatrice & Virgil) and he leaves you wondering about the truth of that tiger in the lifeboat. The High Mountains of Portugal fits in exactly with Martel’s established style and that’s a very good thing.

This novel contains three linked stories, each set in or connected to, you guessed it, the high mountains of Portugal. We begin at the turn of the twentieth century with a road trip in an early model Renault. Tomas is searching for a religious artifact he believes exists after reading a long-forgotten priest’s journal. While I found this to be the least enjoyable section (Tomas’ decision-making skills stressed me out), it’s still extremely well-written and Tomas is a strange but likeable character.

From there we move forward about fifty years to the novel’s shortest and most surreal section. Set in a morgue, Martel’s unique style excels here. Here he lies out before the reader the magical, the obscene, the strange, the tragic, and the beautiful. Like Life of Pi, we are left to decide for ourselves between the true and the metaphorical. And, indeed, to wonder if that distinction even matters.

The final section of the novel begins in Canada but takes us back to Portugal in the company of a retired politician and a chimpanzee. While this may send like a strange conclusion, it makes a perfect kind of sense within the novel and by the end I found myself oddly satisfied. Martel respects his readers greatly and a lot is left unanswered but in ways that don’t simply feel frustrating, like so many lesser writers leave their readers.

What draws these stories together – besides a chimpanzee, a location, and a few odd habits and stories – is a sense of loss, a search for love, and a longing for home. These desires are expressed differently by these three men but each feels real and powerful, something most of us can identify with.

Book Review: We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

We Should All Be Feminists - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Anchor Books, 2014)

We Should All Be Feminists – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Anchor Books, 2014)

We spend too much time teaching girls to worry about what boys think of them. But the reverse is not the case. We don’t teach boys to care about being likeable. We spend too much time telling girls that they cannot be angry or aggressive or tough, which is bad enough, but then we turn around and either praise or excuse men for the same reasons.

I first read this short book a year ago in a hospital room and it’s no coincidence that I decided to re-read it this time of year, just like it’s no coincidence that I’m publishing this review on my daughter’s first birthday.

There is so much I hope to teach my girl about life and there are so many contrary lessons that will be pushing up against her in the years to come. But one of the most important things I hope to teach her is that she is valuable and important and that she should never accept any one treating her as lesser because she is female.

This can manifest itself in many different ways. Sexual harassment, unfair treatment in the workplace. Wolf whistles when you’re just trying to cross the street. The fact that people will refer to a “working mom” (and have opinions on whether or not a mom should work) but people rarely talk about “working dads”. Strangers who tell you to smile.

I have chosen to no longer be apologetic for my femininity. And I want to be respected in all my femaleness.

Adichie covers a lot of ground in this little book and while some of it is more specific to her home country of Nigeria, there is much that bears reading (and re-reading) here and I believe this is an important conversation.

Adichie addresses the idea of “the angry feminist”, beginning with the tale of how she first called herself “a happy feminist”, of how she was told feminists are unhappy women who won’t find husbands. But she lets us follow along on the journey from placating others’ ideas of feminism to allowing herself to be angry about the state of gender today and this misconception of what it is to be a feminist.

Gender as it functions today is a grave injustice. I am angry. We should all be angry. Anger has a long history of bringing about positive change.

Yet one of the things I love about Adichie is that she refuses to allow anyone to stereotype here. Yes, she’s angry, but she isn’t an angry feminist. Yes, she’s a feminist but that doesn’t make her less feminine. She chooses to embrace the things she loves – colourful clothing and make-up, high heels and history – unapologetically and with a beautiful insistence that it has nothing to do with her desire for equality between men and women. Because, quite frankly, it doesn’t and it’s ridiculous that in the 21st century people are still trying to argue that liking lipstick and wanting to get paid the same as a man are mutually exclusive things.

If we do something over and over again, it becomes normal. If we see the same thing over and over again, it becomes normal.

This is Adichie’s challenge; it is up to us to change the world. How we live our lives, how we stand up for ourselves and others around us will change the world. How we raise our daughters and our sons will change the world.

This Time Last Year…

One year ago today Peter and I were walking (very slowly) around Kerrisdale while I tried to figure out if my contractions were real or false labour (they were false). I can remember sitting in an armchair in a second-hand shop, wondering if the store would charge me if my water broke.

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Last February, in Stanley Park, at 39 weeks.

We’re currently eagerly awaiting the arrival of a new baby in our extended family and I’m realizing how impatient I was, especially considering I never made it to 40 weeks!

As cliche as it sounds, I can hardly believe that a year has gone by. That a year ago at this time, our baby was an unknown entity, squirming and hiccuping inside of me. When I think of how much Pearl has changed and grown and learned in a year, it blows my mind. Mostly because that’s what we all experienced in our first year of life and that’s pretty amazing.

Pearl - two days old

Pearl – two days old

This year has been full of fun, challenge, tears (of happiness, of frustration, of exhaustion, of pure crazy hormonal moments), less sleep than I thought possible and more sleep than I thought likely.

Parenthood has been both the easiest and the most demanding job I’ve ever had. Demanding because you are always on. I’m her mom. No matter what I’m doing, no matter where I am, some part of my brain is dwelling on her. I always have to be prepared for Pearl to need me, day or night. Already, in a year, those needs are getting less intense. The wakeful nights are fewer and shorter. Her happy times playing and exploring around the house are longer. But always, I’m ready to go to her when she needs me.

Our first weekend at home.

Our first weekend at home.

But it’s easy too. Because it’s a joyful job. Because it’s the funniest, most relaxed, most interesting job I’ve ever had. It’s a job I’m thrilled to do. It’s a job that comes so much more easily and naturally than I expected. I often marvel at the instinct that makes me long to hold her when she cries and fusses, that thinks her pouty face is absolutely adorable, even when I have never felt that way about any one else’s baby.

That face!

That face!

I haven’t read a lot of parenting books and I try to avoid googling too much baby stuff. I have learned that every baby is different and I have learned to trust that Peter and I know how to care for our girl. Honestly, she’s been pretty easy.

Tomorrow Pearl will be one. She loves to walk, particularly while carrying a stuffed toy or a blanket. She is learning to climb. She loves animals and can make a moo, a woof, and a growling sound. She loves to make people laugh even though she doesn’t usually know why she’s being funny. Her favourite foods are bread and cheese but she also loves cucumber and avocado. She loves looking at pictures of babies but is less enthused when confronted with a real life baby. She can give hugs now but you never know when they’re going to be followed by a swift tug of your hair or the feeling of four tiny but sharp teeth on your neck.

She is shy of strangers and new places and still gets excited when her dad comes home in the evening. She loves making noise – whether that’s her version of “singing”, banging a spoon against the oven door, or pressing the keys of the piano. She dances along to music and she loves to splash in the tub. She has a smile for me every time I go in to her room to get her out of her crib and she snuggles in to my arms every night as she gets ready for bed. Not a day goes by that I don’t thank God for our Pearl.

Pearl and I - our first picture

Pearl and I – our first picture

(Pearl’s birth story – part one and part two)

Book Review: Letters to Malcolm by C.S. Lewis

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Letters to Malcolm – C.S. Lewis (Mariner Books, 2012)

While I didn’t find this to be Lewis’ most compelling or convicting book, I think there’s still a lot of good stuff here.

It’s no secret I’m a major C.S. Lewis fan. As well as enjoying his novels, he’s one of my favourite Christian thinkers and he’s had a major influence on my faith. In Letters to Malcolm, Lewis writes a series of letters, “chiefly on prayer”, to his friend, Malcolm. (Maybe you guessed all that from the title?)

Malcolm is, in fact, an imaginary friend. When I first discovered these letters to be fictional (and Lewis goes as far as creating an imaginary family with imaginary problems for Malcolm), I thought it was a strange idea and wondered why Lewis didn’t simply write a book about prayer if that was his goal. But on further thought, I think the idea of letters to a friend enables Lewis to talk about prayer and, more importantly, his own prayer life, in a very personal and intimate manner. This is Lewis as he would discuss life and religion with a close friend. This is Lewis who has recently lost his wife. He’s not lecturing or teaching, he’s asking questions and sharing thoughts.

We shrink from too naked a contact, because we are afraid of the divine demands upon us which it might make too audible.

In the end, that’s what I appreciated most about the book. Close to the end of the book, he writes about experiencing a continued reluctance to pray, even when one knows from personal experience how good and important it is. My reaction was something along the lines of, “Oh thank goodness, even C.S. Lewis feels that way.”

Here’s what he has to say:

Well, let’s now at any rate come clean. Prayer is irksome. An excuse to omit it is never unwelcome. When it is over, this casts a feeling of relief and holiday over the rest of the day. We are reluctant to begin. We are delighted to finish. While we are at prayer, but not while we are reading a novel or solving a cross-word puzzle, any trifle is enough to distract us.

Lewis certainly doesn’t excuse such behaviour or feelings but he acknowledges it – something that too often we as Christians are too embarrassed to admit.The book deals with much more than this – Lewis covers a fair amount of ground regarding prayer in just over 100 pages – but, in the end, for me, this was the major appeal of the novel. A look into the mind and heart of a man I greatly respect and the chance to say, “Me too, Jack. What can I do about it? What did you do?”

We are always completely, and therefore equally, known to God. That is our destiny whether we like it or not.

Book Review: Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai

Music for Wartime - Rebecca Makkai (Viking, 2015)

Music for Wartime – Rebecca Makkai (Viking, 2015)

This is Rebecca Makkai’s third book, following two novels. This short story collection is cohesive, yet diverse. There’s reality television and professional musicians and family legend. Indeed, fact and fiction are mixed together here. Spliced in between the fictional stories, Makkai includes interludes of her own family history, namely that of her grandparents. Her grandmother, a novelist highly respected in her home country of Hungary. Her grandfather, a politician responsible for introducing racist measures against the Jews in Hungary in the 1930s. Makkai’s father is the only child of their brief marriage. Makkai delves into her own attempts to reconcile this world history with her person experiences and memories of her grandparents, especially her grandfather. (This interview sheds some light on her story and process.)

The short stories are fine but the heart of the collection is really the real-life glimpses. While the fictional stories have interesting premises, I found that Makkai didn’t leave much room for the ambiguity that so many of the best short stories contain. While she does a neat job of creating worlds, they still feel fake as their tales are wrapped up a little too neatly. (Granted, some readers prefer this but I like a little more thoughtfulness in my short stories.)

On the other hand, the historical segments are full of an uncertainty and moral ambiguity that left me wanting more. While I’m not sure Makkai’s explorations, as seen here, are enough for a novel length book, I think they could stand alone as a set of linked family stories. Some of the fictional short stories here do have a wartime theme but not all and, in total, it creates a dissonance that wouldn’t be noticeable in a more traditional story collection. Basically, I think there is the potential for two books here and I’d be especially interested in an expansion of the non-fiction side.

As it stands, the book is a fine and interesting read with glimpses of the author’s potential to offer much more.

Book Review: The Company She Keeps by Mary McCarthy

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The Company She Keeps – Mary McCarthy (Penguin Books, 1966)

A few years back, during the cold and snowy Chilliwack winter that Peter and I first subscribed to Netflix, I watched the first two seasons of Mad Men. Everyone seemed to be telling us that we had to watch this show. How clever it was, how realistic, how engaging. In the end, I don’t think we made it all the way through the second season. The show made my skin crawl, left me feeling depressed that there wasn’t one single character I could cheer for.

The Company She Keeps left me feeling a similar way. I skimmed through the last chapter but had given up any hope of redemption. I struggled to finish it because it just made me feel sad. Not sad in a way that inspires change or new thought, as some excellent books do.

More a collection of vignettes than a novel, The Company She Keeps tells stories of one woman’s life in the late 1940s/early 1950s. Probably best known for The Group, this was McCarthy’s first novel. Our main character is Margaret and we meet her as her first marriage is ending in divorce. She’s had an affair and is realizing that she doesn’t want to marry the man she’s been unfaithful with. From there we witness other snippets of Margaret’s life. Her time working in a shady art gallery. Her trip to Reno to finalize her divorce and the man she meets on the train. Her work at a Marxist newspaper. Each section is primarily a story of Margaret’s relationship with a different man, often told primarily from that man’s perspective. And this is what made me sad. Who Margaret is – and she seems like an interesting person – is lost in the men around her. Who she is seems to change drastically in each section and I’m not sure if this is poor writing from McCarthy or an attempt to show how Margaret doesn’t know how to exist except in relation to a man. I didn’t get the feeling I felt that I didn’t know anything real about her.

Sick Days, Sunny Days, Fort Days

After standing strong for many days, I’ve finally succumbed to the cold Peter’s had for the past couple of weeks. I could feel it coming down on me while at work yesterday. Today’s a home day for Pearl and I so while it isn’t exactly a “day off” for me, I do get to stay in my pyjamas. (I’m resisting being one of those parents who are all, “There are no sick days when you’re a mom!!!1!!” because I think that’s super annoying and while it’s true in a way, I also get to stay home and drink tea and remain unshowered and I don’t have to use my brain for anything more strenuous than feeding and clothing a baby. I’ve been sick at work and I’ve been sick as a stay-at-home mom and it’s so much worse being sick at work.)

One of Pearl’s favourite things to do right now is walk around the house and she seems happy to do that while I lay on the couch with a box of Kleenex. I’ve also let her carry my purse around and that makes her inordinately happy. I also let her cuddle her bear while she snacked on cheerios this morning. I’m taking the parenting path of least resistance today.

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This is an awesome time of the year to live on the West Coast because while the rest of the country deals with snow and record-breaking cold, we’re thinking about summer and saying things like, “The daffodils are blooming.” Which is something I actually did say yesterday because it is actually true. I do fall victim to this every year though. We get a couple of days of sunshine and a rise in temperature and we all start to make summer plans and think about the beach. Forgetting, of course, that March can be entirely unpredictable and our rainy season is far from over.

This past weekend was an awesome rainy one. What made it awesome? These brownies

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…doing nothing productive all day. Oh, and turning our living room into a blanket fort/nest of pillows.

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Complete with tunnel.

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I think I’m going to create a blanket fort for one on the living room couch.

Okay, I might let one other little person in for cuddles.

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Book Review: Two Books by Colum McCann

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Transatlantic, Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann

Let the Great World Spin was the best book I read in 2013. The next book I read by Colum McCann (later that same summer) was Zoli, which I also enjoyed a lot. Thirteen Ways of Looking and Transatlantic are McCann’s most recent novels, from 2013 and 2015 respectively, and while they’re both solid, well-written novels, neither engaged me the way my first McCann reads did.

These are two different and unrelated stories but their problem seems similar to me. That is, a lack of tension. That feeling of wanting to rush through to find out what happens while also savouring every word. McCann writes beautifully and has the ability to really ponder and pause over a scene, letting the reader dwell in it to fully realize the world he’s created. He does this particularly well in the section of Transatlantic which focuses on George Mitchell – writing about George Mitchell’s daily life and relationships in manner both sumptuous and realistic. (And bold, considering George Mitchell is a real, still-living person.) But without the drive forward, the stories become meandering and the reader begins to wonder what the point is.

Transatlantic is mostly a historic story, a mix of real and fictional characters. I especially enjoyed the section featuring Frederick Douglass, as well as figuring out the ways the characters connected to each other and to Ireland. (When it comes to McCann, there’s always an Ireland connection.) But when dealing with historical fact, tension can be difficult to sustain because the reader knows how things end.

Thirteen Ways of Looking suffers from a similar problem, although the story and characters are fictional. Here we have J. Mendelssohn, a retired judge – I found myself reminded of George Mitchell but in a much less likeable way – nearing the end of his life, who is shockingly attacked while leaving a restaurant. We don’t know why or who his attacker is and while the story is structured around the investigation, it never felt like that was really what the book was about. It’s about a man at the end of his life, about the collapse of the physical body when it doesn’t match the mind. Perhaps the problem here is that the story felt unfinished to me. McCann does well in creating a lot of depth to the world and characters here but the story ends before much happens to them. Instead, the book moves on to other, unrelated short stories.

I really like McCann’s writing and so I hold him to a high standard. And there is so much potential in each of these books – so much that is well-written, well-drawn, so much possibility of depth – that its shortcomings seem to loom a little higher due to my expectations. I still think Transatlantic and Thirteen Ways of Looking are worth reading but I do hope that his next novel carries a bit more punch.