What I Read – March 2016

There was a time when Spring Break and holiday and travel meant I had time to read more than usual. Not this year, my friends, not this year. Here’s what I did read:

The Heart Goes Last – Margaret Atwood (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday Canada, 2015)

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes (Penguin Books, 2003) (translated by John Rutherford)

The Adventures of Miss Petitfour – Anne Michaels, illustrated by Emma Block (Tundra Books, 2015)

The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan (Vintage International, 2015)

…courage, survival, love – all these things didn’t live in one man. They lived in all of them or they died and every man with them; they had come to believe that to abandon one man was to abandon themselves.

  • Richard Flanagan

The Secret Chord – Geraldine Brooks (Viking, 2015)

If David was a man after this god’s own heart, as my inner voice had told me often and again, what kind of black-hearted deity held me in his grip?

  • Geraldine Brooks

Currently Reading:

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace (I’ll admit to being a bit stalled on this one though what I’ve read so far is terrific. The other night, Peter and I happened to watch a movie about David Foster Wallace called The End of the Tour that I would recommend to anyone interested in him/his writing.)

Pax – Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Jon Klassen

A Separate Peace – John Knowles

Spring Break 2016 – Sechelt

Things that happened without leaving home:

  • We did some local hikes and exploration.

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  • Which also included some time at the neighbourhood park.

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(That swing is not really Pearl-sized.)

  • We hung out in our backyard for basically the first time this year.

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  • It was sunny enough to hang laundry to dry outside for the first time in 2016, something I’m weirdly excited about. (Being a grown-up is strange.)
  • We celebrated Easter for the second time as a family of 3. (Our Easter last year.)
  • Pearl had her first Easter Egg Hunt.
She rocked it and looked good doing it!

She rocked it and looked good doing it!

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  • Followed by Pearl’s first time eating chocolate. I think it’s safe to say she enjoyed it.
  • Not pictured: Pearl got a new tooth, I got insanely sick for one day (so thankful it happened while Peter was off work!), we did some good thrift store shopping, welcomed new babies of friends near and far, and Pearl wore gum boots for the first time. It’s been great.

He Is Risen Indeed

IMG_6399If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

1 Corinthians 15:19

If Easter means nothing – if this is a day about only rabbits and chocolate and coloured eggs – then Christianity means nothing, our lives are momentary, a breath of air and gone. Then, as Paul says, we are indeed only objects of pity. Thank God that this is a day of victory. This is the day that changed everything. This is a day of great mystery and greater rejoicing. Praise God. He is risen indeed.

Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.” So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”

Matthew 28:1-10

 

Spring Break 2016 – Kimberley

At the end of 2015, some good friends of ours moved from the Coast to the Kootenays. Peter and I decided to take the opportunity of Spring Break to go and visit them. Their littlest girl is just a few weeks younger than Pearl and it so happened that we got to be there for her first birthday. I loved being pregnant at the same time and I’m sad that we won’t be raising our girls in the same area but we’re hopeful that we can make them pen pals one day. (Do kids still have pen pals these days?)

We left home on Thursday afternoon and flew that evening from Vancouver to Cranbrook. This was Pearl’s first time on an airplane. The flight is only about an hour and a half so we knew that even if it was a horrible experience, it wouldn’t last too long. Thankfully, it was not a horrible experience.

Waiting to board in Vancouver.

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The plane was small – seats for about 20 passengers – but we were able to pre-board and claim the very rear where there was a bench for three. Pearl loved looking out the window and waving the safety pamphlet around. I had packed a special bag of toys and distractions for her that was moderately successful. It held: snacks (baby biscuits and cheerios because she likes them both and they’re not too messy), ribbons of various lengths and colours, a photo book filled with pictures of her and Bella the dog (her favourite things to look at), her favourite book of farm animals, Stripes the Tiger (who I had hidden a couple weeks before so that he would be more exciting), and a little doll that she usually gets excited about. Nothing held her attention for that long but it was good to have a variety of things to keep pulling out. Eventually, she just wanted to run up the aisle of the plane and so Peter and I passed her back and forth between us, trying to keep her somewhat still.

More than the plane, I was actually the most nervous about her sleep while we were away from home. After our rough experience in Whistler the previous weekend, I tried to prepare myself for the idea of a weekend without sleep. But Pearl did really, really well! (Cue angels singing!) Our friends put us up in their basement where we had space to ourselves and Pearl slept in a pack-and-play next to our bed. (Visiting friends with kids of similar age is awesome because they already had so much baby stuff for us to use!) I was nervous about being in the same room with Pearl but it turns out the key was a really dark room. Pearl doesn’t need total darkness to sleep at home but basically, when away from home, she needs to not notice that she’s in a strange place if she wakes up at night. While she didn’t sleep through the night while we were there, she did settle back to sleep easily when she woke and she even napped during the day.

We had a great time seeing their new home and life in Kimberley. On Friday we all headed out to the Fairmont Hot Springs to spend the morning. The setting is beautiful – surrounded by snowy mountains – and the warm pools were the perfect contrast to a crisp, clear, and cold day. Pearl loved it! She loves being outside and she loves the bath so this was a pretty perfect combination of the too.

She also loved the fries she got to try for the first time at lunch afterward. Oh, and prosciutto too. Turns out, she likes salt. And sugar, because she also tried ice cream for the first time and liked it a lot. (Cranbrook has a Dairy Queen and as soon as I found out, I requested that it be a stop on our visit.)

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We explored Kimberley a little bit, walked some trails near their house, and visited some stores and a pretty delicious bakery. But mostly we got to spend time with some people we like and that we miss. We were thankful for the opportunity to see them and thankful for their generous hosting.

Book Review: The Adventures of Miss Petitfour by Anne Michaels (Reading With Pearl)

The Adventures of Miss Petitfour - Anne Michaels (Tundra Books, 2015)

The Adventures of Miss Petitfour – Anne Michaels (Tundra Books, 2015)

I love Anne Michaels’ novels (Fugitive Pieces and The Winter Vault) and so was excited to hear she had written her first children’s story. The Adventures of Miss Petitfour is a slim book, comprising several short tales of Miss Petitfour, who lives with her sixteen cats and likes best to travel by tablecloth. The accompanying illustrations by Emma Block are sweet and pastel and help bring these whimsical tales to life.

They’re certainly not adventure stories and they’re not even that exciting. (Which isn’t to say that they aren’t fun and they’re certainly delightful.) They involve eating biscuits shaped like leaves, attending a festooning festival, a cat who loves cheese, and an explosion at a confetti factory (the most exciting event of them all). They’d make perfect bedtime stories. While they’re probably not for every child, I think they would have a lot of appeal to kids who like sweet, happy stories that are a little goofy. Which is exactly the kind of story I loved as a child.

While the book was published in 2015, Miss Petitfour and her adventures have a sort of old world charm, reminding me a little of Mary Poppins. Block’s colourful drawings add to this feeling. Michaels plays a little with language, using some big words (for the target audience, at least, which I would put at about age 6-10) and drawing attention to them by colouring the text and including their definitions in the story. She defines several of these words in accurate but amusing ways as well as poking a bit of fun at some of the conventions of story-telling that even little kids will recognize.

I enjoyed reading Miss Petitfour aloud and Pearl enjoyed looking at the pictures. I think in a couple of years we’ll try this one again at bedtime.

illustrations by Emma Block

illustrations by Emma Block

Spring Break 2016 – Whistler

To kick off Spring Break 2016, we headed up to Whistler for a night.

Way back in 2013, Peter and I had ventured that way for spring break. We had a little less snow and a whole lot more child to deal with.

Now, I could show you some sweet pictures and let you think this was a relaxing time away but…that would be a lie. Don’t get me wrong – we had fun and it was nice to go and do something different. But I wouldn’t describe it as relaxing. We had originally thought we might stay two nights but at about 2 am on Sunday night, I was pretty sure one night would be enough for us.

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Pearl’s favourite part of the trip was this window in the condo, where she could stand and look out and bark at any dogs that might pass by below.

After writing this post on Saturday,  it may be clear that we weren’t going into our trip with the best sleep under our belts. And Pearl, bless her little heart, is a home body. While she’s fine with some flexibility in her schedule, she does still need two naps a day and she loves sleeping in her own bed.

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She also loved admiring herself in a mirror the length of one whole wall.

We only had to pull over once on the drive from the ferry to Whistler and Pearl’s annoyance at still being in her car seat was placated with baby biscuits. She eventually fell asleep and we opted to not stop for lunch in Squamish (the original plan) but drove onwards and spent our afternoon in Whistler.

As sacrificing parents, Peter and I set up Pearl’s portable bed in the condo’s bedroom and took the living room’s (very uncomfortable) pull-out couch. Pearl went to bed with minimal fuss and Peter and I enjoyed take-out pasta and cable television. The rest of the night? Well, let’s just say when Peter went out to get us coffee in the morning, I asked for a large.

But looks what a happy family we are!

But look what a happy family we are!

We spent a quiet morning in the village and then worked hard and long to get Pearl to take a nap. Which ended with her asleep on the big bed and me laying down beside her, not asleep.

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Having decided one night was enough for us, we packed up and drove to Brandywine Falls, where we’d heard there was snowshoeing. Unfortunately, we were missing that key component of snowshoeing – snow. So it was more of a hike while carrying snowshoes.

But the falls are pretty.

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Family shot!

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Can you tell that Pearl is edging ever closer to being done with family bonding/hiking time?

We made it as far as the bungee bridge, me feeding an increasingly fussy baby bits of rice cake. We stopped there for a quick snack and let Pearl out of her carrier to run around in her snow suit. Which she did not like.

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But at least she looks cute.

Look out point at the bungee bridge.

Look out point at the bungee bridge.

About five minutes after we’d turned to head back, Pearl started hollering and crying for serious. Peter and I launched into a rousing rendition of “The Wheels on the Bus” (Pearl’s favourite song, stretching it out to make it all the way back to the car. Since one of Pearl’s favourite things right now is animal sounds, the song morphed into a song about a bus full of animals (and some dinosaurs) but Pearl quickly grew quiet and before long was fast asleep.

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It really was a pretty hike.

We all slept (pretty) well that night, happily in our own beds.

Book Review: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Don Quixote - Cervantes (Penguin Books, 2003)

Don Quixote – Cervantes (Penguin Books, 2003)

Well, I finished it. I took my sweet time but I finished reading Don Quixote. I made my first attempt at Don Quixote in 2008, on the recommendation of someone whose book taste I usually agree with. I think I read most of the Part I before I sheepishly returned his copy and promptly left the country.

Yet since it is such a classic – and tops a few lists as the BEST BOOK EVER! – it’s remained on my To Read list ever since. My secret this time? I read most of the book aloud to Pearl. And I ended up enjoying it much more. Do I think it’s the best book ever. No, I do not. But I do see now why so many people love it and why it has remained so popular, even more than 400 years later.

Don Quixote is a hidalgo (a Spanish nobleman) who loses his mind after reading too many books of chivalry. Convinced that knights errant exist and that he is the greatest knight of all, he sets off on a series of adventures, accompanied by his foolish and chatty squire, Sancho Panza. Some of those adventures – the windmills, for example – are famous and others were unknown for me. Don Quixote is a comic figure and Sancho, who isn’t mad yet goes along with his master’s thoughts and schemes, is an excellent foil for him.

Don Quixote’s friends and family are horrified and frustrated by Don Quixote’s insistence on being a knight and a good portion of Part I involves their attempts to force him to stay or return home. (There’s a long and boring section where they go through Don Quixote’s books and decide which to keep and which to burn and I couldn’t help but think I’d be better off organizing my own house than reading about someone else’s organization.)

Part I also features a lot of other stories and digressions – going into great details of the histories of people that Don Quixote meets along his adventures. A large chunk involves a lot of them at an inn (that Don Quixote, in his madness, is convinced is a castle) and more people keep arriving and finding connections to each other as they share their tales. Some of the stories are interesting but a lot of it reads as Cervantes simply wanting to tell an otherwise unrelated story. It gets tiresome reading about yet another beautiful but tragic maiden and as every young woman Don Quixote meets is apparently unbelievably beautiful, the descriptor starts to lose all meaning. (As an aside, it likely comes as no surprise that the depictions of women here are super sexist and problematic.)

I enjoyed Part II quite a bit more than Part I. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza set off on their latest adventure. They’ve become rather famous now, due to a book being published on their exploits in Part I. They’re known as comic figures and yet remain as oblivious as ever. This allows several people they meet to play tricks and elaborate hoaxes on them – pretendi(ng to hail Don Quixote as a great knight errant and playing along with his belief that he is constantly pursued by enchanters. I found this section to be funnier and more engaging than Part I.

The book is long (almost a thousand pages) but, in the end, I do think it’s worth it. Four hundred years later, it’s still amusing and engaging and a goofy story about a loveable insane man and his loveable and foolish squire.

(The version I read was translated from Spanish by John Rutherford.)

The Privilege of Right Now

Some days, for a variety of reasons, sleep doesn’t come easily for this little one.

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And while most mornings now I wake to realize that she hasn’t cried out for me at all in the night, some days I work hard and long to get her to take a nap.

I know there will come a time when Pearl’s favourite spot to sleep won’t be in my arms and I’ll miss the smell of her skin, the soft fluff of her hair, the way she snuffles in against me and her breathing calms and her head slumps against my arm. One day there will be a last time that she falls asleep in my arms and I won’t even realize it. So when the nights feel long and naptimes feel like a battle, I remember this. The privilege of right now. The long nights that pass so quickly and the gift I get to experience right now. For right now.

(But she’s napping right now and I’m thankful for that too!)

Book Review: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

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I have to confess – I’m not a fan of Margaret Atwood’s writing. I tell people this like I’m confessing a guilty secret. Something a little dirty; certainly not something a good Canadian feminist reader and writer should think. But there it is and it’s the truth.

Don’t get me wrong, I fully appreciate that Atwood is talented. She writes compelling, imaginative, and strong fiction (and poetry too) but she just isn’t my cup of tea. Her writing is too bleak for me, her characters too darkly irredeemable.

All of this is present in Atwood’s latest novel, The Heart Goes Last. Similar to A Handmaid’s Tale, the setting is our world, slightly in the future. Following a major economic collapse, much of North America is hugely depressed. Unemployment is as high as 40% in some places, the eastern states being the worst. Crime is at an all-time high and many people are struggling simply to survive. Stan and Charmaine are our main characters. They’ve both lost their jobs, and subsequently their homes. They’re living in their car, constantly on the move in order to evade the violent gangs. When they find out about a walled city called Consilience, it seems like their prayers have been answered.

Consilience provides a house for everyone and jobs for all. The only catch is that every other month is spent inside of Positron Prison. But even that doesn’t seem so bad when you’re given a job there too and all the real criminals have been dealt with.

Stan and Charmaine’s lives in Consilience begin to crumble when Charmaine meets one of their “Alternates” – the people who live in their house while they’re in Positron. From there, all sorts of secrets begin to bubble to the surface. About Stan and Charmaine’s marriage and, most darkly of all, about Consilience itself.

Like I said, Atwood’s writing is strong. She does a fine job of creating a terrifying but almost believable future. She shows us how normal people can end up in extraordinary places and do horrifying things and she makes it all make sense.

My primary problem with The Heart Goes Last was that it really felt overly salacious. As in, there’s a lot of sex in it and most of it seemed simply designed to shock rather than advance the plot. The secret at the core of Consilience has nothing to do with sex (and is quite shocking enough on its own) but ends up being rather overlooked in a cloud of “prostibots” and weird mind-wipes. There’s a whole portion where Stan is basically held captive and forced into sex against his will with a woman other than his wife and yet it’s all written off as “necessary” and a part of the larger plan. I want to give Atwood the benefit of the doubt because she certainly isn’t one to demean women or abuse survivors but the book really doesn’t address Stan’s abuse in any meaningful way. Instead, Stan comes to believe that it makes him and Charmaine even after she has an affair. Never mind that one is consensual and the other is not.

The ending is not exactly a happy one and is kind of horrifying actually (with an extra twist right at the end), though if you’re expecting a happy ending you probably haven’t read Margaret Atwood before. I did appreciate how there is a lot in Stan and Charmaine’s past that is alluded to but never fully revealed. It makes them – especially Charmaine, who could seem a little flat with her sugary-sweet demeanour – seem much more fully realized and realistic. Atwood is talented but the book left me with an icky feeling that reminded me why I generally avoid her.

(This is a minor (and possibly ridiculous) critique so I’ll put it right here at the end but I thought the main characters were misnamed. Stan and Charmaine are supposed to be in their mid-30s but because of their names it took me way too long to realize that and I struggled to picture them as anything less than a couple in their seventies.)

Book Review: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

IMG_6557Reading a book that you end up not enjoying is disappointing enough but it feels extra disappointing when you’re able to see the possibilities of how good that book could have been. The God of Small Things was that kind of read for me.

The story follows twin brother and sister, Estha and Rahel, and is set in India in the 1960s. (At least, most of the action is set in India in the 1960s. The present tense in the novel is later but most of the story is told through flashbacks to the twins’ early childhood.) Estha and Rahel are linked in that mysterious way only twins seem to be, hardly differentiating themselves from one another in their own minds. Their parents are divorced and they have moved back in, along with their mother Ammu, to her family’s home. There they live with their grandmother Mammachi, their strange and creepy great-aunt Baby Kochamma, and their (also divorced but less scandalous because he’s a man) uncle Chacko. While the story is mostly told up close to the twins’ perspective, we do also get glimpses further back into their family history, which illuminate the twisted turns that brought the twins into the world and to their present day state.

The present tense setting of the novel begins when Rahel comes back to their home after many years away. Their mother is dead and Estha has been “re-returned” from their father’s house. We are told that the twins were split up years ago and haven’t seen each other since and that Estha has stopped speaking. The key to why this is lies in their childhood, where the primary action of the novel is. Centred around a visit from Chacko’s English ex-wife and their daughter, Sophie Mol. This visit is where everything finally fell apart.

This is all very promising and the book is full of instances of really lovely writing. The language and descriptions Roy uses when telling the story from the twins’ very young perspective are spot-on and delightfully unique. My problem was that she latches on to a unique manner of description or a turn-of-phrase and that repeats it so much that it feels beaten to death and loses all novelty.

But my major problem with the novel is that it’s almost all tease. We know that something horrible happens during Sophie Mol’s visit. We know it involves the twins somehow and a man they love, a local named Velutha who belongs to the Untouchable caste. We are reminded of these things almost constantly and so when the reveal comes it loses much of the punch it might have had. So much has been teased to us that there isn’t much left to reveal. I think that if the story had been told in a more straight-forward chronological manner, it actually would have been more powerful.

And, I have to say, the final conclusion between Estha and Rahel did not make sense to me. Without giving anything away – it’s clearly meant to be shocking but I don’t think the author “earned” it. By which I mean, it feels like a shocking action simply to shock, instead of coming naturally (if unexpectedly and uncomfortably) out of everything that’s happened.

This book certainly has its fans (it won the Booker Prize after all)  so it would seem that many others are able to enjoy the spots of beautiful writing and look past the weaknesses, but I’m afraid I just couldn’t.