What I Read – June 2016

A Long Way Down – Nick Hornby (Riverhead Books, 2005)

Monkey Beach – Eden Robinson (Vintage Canada, 2001)

Modern Lovers – Emma Straub (Random House, 2016)

The Blue Castle – L.M. Montgomery (McClelland & Stewart, 1989)

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace (Back Bay Books, 2006)

Last Child in the Woods – Richard Louv (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2008)

Cutting for Stone – Abraham Verghese (Vintage Canada, 2010)

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library – Chris Grabenstein (Yearling, 2014)

Currently Reading:

Six Walks in the Fictional Wood – Umberto Eco

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Book Review: Last Child in the Woods – Richard Louv

Last Child in the Woods - Richard Louv (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2008)

Last Child in the Woods – Richard Louv (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2008)

I knew before I began Last Child in the Woods that I was likely to find myself agreeing with Richard Louv. Children today play outside less than previous generations. Children today should play outside more. Playing outside – especially unstructured outdoor play – has a myriad of benefits for children and their families. This is the essential point of the book and one that is basically stated over and over again in slightly different ways.

Which isn’t to say Last Child is not a worthwhile read. Louv has one major point to make and so he really drives that point home. However, this is a zone where very little research has been done and so Louv begins on ground zero and attempts to lay a foundation. I may have agreed with him before I even started the book (after all, it’s one of the reasons our family has chosen to live where we do) but he’s also talking to parents and educators and city planners who may have more trepidations.

Louv goes into some of the reasons why children don’t play outdoors as much as they used to. The reasons here are interesting because there are actually a lot of them. Fear, politics, urban sprawl, among others. My generation (Louv specifically mentions those 30 and under) is one of the first to have spent more time indoors than out in our own childhoods and so this has repercussions as to how we raise our children now. Even if we want our kids to spend more time outside, we don’t always know how to go about making that happen. Or, even more likely, we don’t live in places where that’s easy to do. (Louv is an American and is specifically taking about life in the United States. Some, thought not all, of what he discusses is applicable to Canada. In countries beyond that, I can’t say and Louv doesn’t delve into it.)

Louv spends a lot of time detailing the ways that outdoor play benefits children, as well as their families, communities and the environment at large. I thought some of the most interesting research (and because there’s been very little “official” research in this area, most of what he shares is largely anecdotal and of his own gathering) focused on the difference between structured and unstructured play. Meaning, kids playing at the local playground is great but free play in the vacant lot down the street or in the woods behind their neighbourhood is actually far more advantageous for their creative development, self-esteem, and ability to learn about the world around them.

So while the book felt longer than it needed to be, it also has some great points and information to it. As a parent, it was encouraging to read something that coincides with the way I view raising kids. If you’re more on the fence about letting your kids play in that vacant lot, Louv offers some great reasons as to why to let them go. It will at least give you something to think about.

Poetry Monday: Lorna Crozier

IMG_7221If you are a Canadian reader of poetry chances are good that you know and admire Lorna Crozier. If you are everybody else in the world, you’ve probably never heard of her.

Lorna Crozier is one of the best living poets today. She’s written more than twenty books, mostly poetry. Her poems are lyrical and thoughtful, full of story and beauty, sometimes hints of violence. Take this stanza from her poem “Younger Sister: What’s in the Blood” (from What the Living Won’t Let Go):

Our mother said the war made her father
strange. In the middle of the night
he’d wake up screaming. Someone had slid
a cadaver’s leg between the bedclothes.
A gruesome thing, white and cold,
he’d throw it from the mattress,
him landing with it on the floor.

The way Crozier breaks her lines is nothing short of brilliant, adding all sorts of extra meaning and strength to her poems. The story-telling nature of her poetry makes it more accessible to the casual (or new) reader of poetry. You can enjoy Crozier at face value, although there is much more there.

The natural world is also a hugely important aspect of Crozier’s writing. Her latest book, with the photographer Ian MacAllister is actually all about this. From the poem “Noah’s Wife” (found in Everything Arrives at the Light):

The salamanders, too, with their grace.
Their fingers seemed to stroke green
music from the air.

Crozier makes up one half of the Canadian Poetry Power Couple (if there can be such a thing!), together with her husband, Patrick Lane. Personally, I prefer Crozier’s work but it can be fun to read the two poets in tandem. One of the books pictured above is a series of poems that Lane and Crozier (under the name Lorna Uher) wrote together in 1979 – no longer two people.

I was fortunate enough to have Lorna Crozier as a professor for two terms at the University of Victoria. I learned a lot from her then and I continue to learn from her when I read her poetry. If you’re new to the Canadian poetry scene, Crozier is a great place to start.

Previous Poetry Mondays:

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Book Review: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace (Back Bay Books, 2006)

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace (Back Bay Books, 2006)

Where do I even start to talk about Infinite Jest? This book is over one thousand pages long. Almost two hundred of those pages are footnotes; extensive, detailed footnotes that you absolutely cannot skip reading. This book took me months to read and it probably wasn’t until I was halfway through that I felt like I knew what was going on. Initially, I started it as a night-time, up-with-baby read but the book was too physically large for me to read while also holding Pearl and it was too dense and complex for my middle-of-the-night baby brain to comprehend. So I read it in snatches, as often as I could, and I know there’s a lot more I could have gotten from it if I’d been able to focus more wholly.

Infinite Jest is strange, disorienting, sometimes hilarious, often disgusting, imaginative, and bizarre. I absolutely recommend it. But I would also suggest that the potential reader beware.

Set in the near future, during “subsidized time” (each year is sponsored by a consumer item; most of the book’s action takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment), and set mostly in Boston but in a rather different version of the U.S.A. Instead we have the O.N.A.N, an amalgamation of Canada and the U.S. with some key differences. The main action of the story takes place at a Tennis Academy for gifted young athletes and a halfway house for recovering addicts. There’s also an NFL player with a gift for punting, a crooner turned politician, and a group of wheelchair assassins. Canadian (Quebecois, really) politics plays a surprisingly large role. The book is peopled with characters and Wallace goes deep into the backgrounds of many of them – often characters we never see again. These details and backstories are fascinating and emotive and create a world that feels large and authentic.

Written in 1996, DFW gets some things about the future spot-on. There’s a section where he details the progression of video phones and the way he predicts their development and then the backlash against them is stunning in how correct it is and how accurate it is to human nature. (Other things he gets wrong – like the scene where a character pulls out a container that holds film cartridges for a camera. When was the last time you saw one of those?) David Foster Wallace gets people. The actions of characters are often shocking, regularly deplorable, but always true to what we know about them and, somehow, always understandable. Even the really horrifying ones. I’ve never played tennis or done heroin in my life yet DFW shows these actions on the page in all their gritty, appealing reality.

It’s hard to know how to summarize the plot of Infinite Jest, partially because I’m not sure the plot is the most important part. As I said, I didn’t really start to understand and piece together the central story until halfway (or more) through the novel. Yet I was never tempted to give up. Even in the confusing, perhaps overly detailed sections, the book is so engaging that it was easy to press on. That said, there are definitely parts where my inner editor was writhing. While the book is mostly in third person (with some key exceptions) many sections are told in the voice of the character that chapter focuses on. These are uneducated drug addicts, French Canadian spies, and teenage jocks, among others, and the language reflects that. It’s grammatically incorrect and repetitive and sometimes it drove me crazy. At the same time, it also adds to the incredible world-building that DFW does and it always feels accurate to the character. Could a 1000+ page book use a little more editing? Probably. But less than you might think.

David Foster Wallace was incredibly talented and to read him now, eight years after his death is to realize what a loss that was to the literary community. We can just be thankful that we get to enjoy his contributions.

Book Review: The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery

The Blue Castle - L.M. Montgomery (McClelland & Stewart, 1989)

The Blue Castle – L.M. Montgomery (McClelland & Stewart, 1989)

This was a re-read for me but when I began sorting through boxes of my childhood books and came across my Lucy Maud Montgomery collection I felt nostalgic and delved into The Blue Castle once more.

L.M. Montgomery is, of course, the author of Anne of Green Gables but she also wrote many other books featuring young ladies having adventures and falling in love. The Blue Castle is a stand alone story about Valancy Jane Stirling. We meet Valancy on her twenty-ninth birthday, unhappy and unmarried. The term “old maid” isn’t one we hear much in our society these days but it was a powerful label at one time. First published in 1926, The Blue Castle is very much a product of its time. Valancy’s sorrows and, later, her scandals are hard to relate to from a modern point of view. That said, I enjoyed this book when I was a pre-teen and I enjoyed reading it again. Montgomery writes sweet, romantic tales and you know you’re going to get a happy ending. The characters are engaging, although the peripheral characters tend to be rather one-dimensional, and there’s some good humour that, I think, works even today.

The Blue Castle is unusual for Montgomery in that its set in the Muskoka region of Ontario, rather than Prince Edward Island like so many of her other books. Place is just as important here though and the book is full of descriptions of the forests and lake. (Apparently my pre-teen self loved those descriptions and underlined a lot of them. Now I found some of them beautiful and some of them overdone.)

I hope that in a few years Pearl may enjoy reading some of Montgomery’s stories for the first time. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy a simple re-read of these sweet tales.

30 Day Dress Challenge 2016 – Day 20

IMG_7205See this dress in 2014 here and in 2013 here. I haven’t exactly mixed it up in terms of styling this dress.

The dress is H&M. The belt is my one belt that I use for all dresses. I’ve been trying (not that hard) to find a belt that fits and that can go with a few different things but no luck so far. My cardigan is the same one I wore on Day 1.

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This was a work day/outfit for me and it was just fine for that. I changed to shorts and a t-shirt in the afternoon in order to introduce Pearl to sidewalk chalk. (It was a hit.)

Book Review: Modern Lovers by Emma Straub

Modern Lovers - Emma Straub (Random House, 2016)

Modern Lovers – Emma Straub (Random House, 2016)

If Modern Lovers was a finer novel, I probably wouldn’t have found its premise as annoying. If it were more thoughtful – offered a greater challenge to its readers, say – I wouldn’t be frustrated by its worldview.

For what it is Modern Lovers is not a bad book. It’s a fluff read – easy and light fare that doesn’t take long to get through. Probably, a lot of people will read it on vacation this summer. It’ll keep you going and it doesn’t ask for too much as you follow along.

Elizabeth and Andrew and Zoe and Jane are two couples, living in the same Brooklyn neighbourhood, each with a child almost grown. Elizabeth and Andrew and Zoe have been friends for years, were once in a band together and wrote a hit song that their fourth band member made famous before her death at age twenty-seven. The others have settled into middle age and parenthood. But there are, of course, tensions under the surface and deeper problems here, several of them brought to the surface as they deal with their maturing children.

The story moves between character perspective’s, including Elizabeth and Andrew’s son, Harry, and Zoe and Jane’s daughter, Ruby. Although Andrew is a bit of a dud and his story line rather ridiculous, the characters are generally engaging, even if the story progresses about how you’d expect, including the ultimate conclusion. (And everything is neatly packaged up by the end; there aren’t a lot of loose threads in this world.)

At the centre of the drama is idea of aging, of change, of choosing one path and sticking to it, whether that’s a career or a marriage. The novel seems to suggest that choices made at a young age will inevitably¬† lead to dissatisfaction, if not outright happiness. And here’s where a stronger story could have provoked questions and thought in the reader. Unfortunately, the characters’ fates seem fairly cut and dry and are presented without much nuance and so I found myself annoyed at the expectation that I must agree in their inevitable unhappiness. When, honestly, it seemed like, with a little more effort from everyone, they all could have been much happier people.

Happy Father’s Day

IMG_3159There is this thing our society does where we treat fathers like fools. You see it on television – in sitcoms, especially – you see it in advertising, in common attitudes, or references to dads “babysitting” their own kids. It can be easy to slip into among the moms at the playground. As if it’s a way to bond – our bumbling husbands, bless their hearts, they don’t know what they’re doing.

The truth is, it’s a damaging stereotype and it needs to stop. It’s damaging to our marriages. It’s damaging to our daughters, who will grow up thinking that if they become mothers that that’s somehow “better” or “more important” than a father. It’s damaging to our sons, who will grow up thinking men aren’t expected to be involved in their children’s lives.

Here’s a truth that I have learned in my almost sixteen months of parenting: I am exactly as experienced and qualified for this role as my husband is. (In fact, you could argue that I’m much less qualified because Peter’s actually undergone extensive education re: dealing with children.) The only reason I probably know more about our daughter’s day-to-day habits and needs is because I am the parent who spends more hours in the day with her. And that’s primarily because I’m the parent who has the biological ability to feed her from my own body and I’m the adult in the household who made less money. There’s nothing about me as a person – and certainly not my gender – that makes me a better parent than him. He’s a fantastic father. If I didn’t believe that wholeheartedly I wouldn’t have chosen to have a child with him. If I didn’t fully believe that he was capable of raising our girl on his own, were something to happen to me, I wouldn’t have embarked on this parenting adventure with him.

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Neither of us really know what we’re doing. We’ve both put diapers on backwards and been peed on. We’ve both thrown her up in the air just a little too soon after a meal. We’ve both watched her eat food off the ground and thought, “Eh, that’s probably clean enough.” We’ve both comforted her after a fall. We’ve both made her laugh uncontrollably by doing something ridiculous like putting a bucket on our head or running back and forth between windows to wave at her. She gets super excited when either one of us comes home from work. (Though, if I’m being honest, Pearl gets more excited when Peter comes home.)

Let’s reject the jokes, the clich√©s, the tired old stories that say dads can’t do this. Let’s find other ways to bond with each other, women, maybe by swapping stories of the times your husband gets up in the night. Or the day you were too sick to get out of bed and he took care of everything uncomplainingly, including making you peanut butter toast and smoothies because it’s all you could stomach the thought of. (True story) Let’s expect more of each other.

Let’s celebrate the dads who get the job done. The ones who are quietly and steadfastly raising kids, who partner with their wives, without whom things wouldn’t be the same. The dads who stay home each day and support those working moms. The dads who go to work each day and come home to scoop up their kids and ask eagerly what everyone did that day. The dads whose eyes light up when they wave at their little girls from the driveway. Let’s celebrate the dads that hold up our families. Let’s acknowledge that we need those dads, that they are vital to our families, and let’s be thankful for the men in our lives who fill those roles so amazingly. I know I am.

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30 Day Dress Challenge 2016 – Day 18

We’re back to rain today so I went with a comfortable repeat. I wore the same Old Navy dress that I wore just a few days ago on Day 12. Though today I wore it without the belt because I was even more casual.

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I took some pictures. Pearl photobombed a lot of them.

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(She really enjoyed playing with that hanger this afternoon.)

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All I did outside of my house today was grocery shopping but I wore my Aigle boots when we went. (I just love the way Pearl’s hair fluffs up in the back. Also, everybody at the grocery store thought she was a boy.)

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And then I realized that these pictures were all terrible so I tried to jump right out of them.

Happy Saturday!

30 Day Dress Challenge – Day 17

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BCBG dress purchased at an outlet in California years and years ago. See it in 2014 here and in 2013 here.

I don’t wear this dress much anymore and when I got dressed this morning I thought it’s probably time to let it go. I like the sort of shapelessness to it but I’m not crazy about the pattern anymore. I feel like polka dots are kind of out of favour currently. Of course, then I got three separate compliments on it while out today so I’m re-thinking. I’m a sucker for a compliment. Maybe I’ll wait and see how much I actually wear this dress this summer.

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My cardigan is well past its prime but I haven’t found another to fill its spot in my wardrobe so I’m holding on to it for now.

This is my regular day-to-day bag. I bought it from Aldo while I was pregnant as a big, general bag that I could use with a baby and it’s worked well for that.

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And then I thought, just for fun, I’d show you what’s in my bag on a typical day when I’m out and about with Pearl.

  • Receiving blanket. (This one’s from Lulujo and I love them. The Aden and Anais ones are also fantastic. I don’t use the receiving blankets quite as much as I did when Pearl was a newborn but they are super versatile. Nursing cover, cover from the sun in the car seat or stroller, a blanket for a little extra warmth, a blanket for a game of peek-a-boo, a napkin for dirty hands, or a handkerchief for snotty noses. These have many uses.)
  • Package of Kleenex (Because I don’t like wiping my nose on a receiving blanket.)
  • Two bobby pins (For me, not Pearl.)
  • A small piece of wood (Pearl picked this up somewhere and I have been carrying it around for weeks for some reason.)
  • A toonie (aka a Canadian two dollar coin)
  • A water bottle (I try to make sure Pearl and I both drink lots of water. This has a flip up straw so it’s easy for Pearl to drink from and it doesn’t leak in my purse.)
  • Emergency baby biscuit (These are basically cookies for Pearl. They’re pretty tasteless but she loves them so I generally have a package in my purse for snack emergencies or when she really needs to be distracted.)
  • Lightweight sweater for Pearl (She was wearing this when we left the house and it was in my purse when we got home.)
  • Pearl’s flip flops (Ditto for these.)
  • Harmonica (Because sometimes you just gotta make music! Seriously, Pearl loves playing the harmonica. I always have a toy or book or both when I’m out with her. Obviously, a harmonica is not always appropriate but today it worked.)
  • My clutch/wallet (the blue one) (This is where I keep everything that’s mine. Cards, cash, lip gloss, a pen, more bobby pins. It makes it easy to transfer between bags and it keeps Pearl out of things when she gets into my purse.)
  • Dayplanner (Any semblance I have of organization is because of this planner. I’ve been using the same style (weekly, horizontal) of Moleskine planner for the last three years. I keep track of everything in here. Appointments, birthdays, meal planning, bills, everything.)
  • Diaper bag (The pink one) (This is where the magic happens. In here I have a fold-up change pad, extra diapers, wipes, and a wet bag. I like being able to pull this out and have everything I need rather than fumbling through my purse. Bonus is that if Peter and I are out together with Pearl, he can just take this smaller bag to change her rather than my whole purse.
  • Not pictured: my phone and my keys. When I get home those have places they live. Also, today we had Pudders the Bear along with us who was sometimes in my purse and sometimes in the stroller with Pearl. When I took this picture he was having a nap with Pearl.