Archive for March, 2009

Calling Jane’s Mother

March 14, 2009 @ 1:16 pm | Filed under:

Sometimes I tell Alice—jokingly, or wistfully, depending on what the day’s been like—that I really miss Jane’s mother.

You know, Jane’s mother: that endlessly patient young woman, so full of energy and high ideals, the woman who would willingly spend hours playing farm animals on the living-room carpet, or who would wait calmly in a hot parking lot while little Jane climbed all over the car, fiddling with knobs and buttons, because she wasn’t ready to get into her carseat yet.

Jane’s mother always let Jane help make dinner, tiny hands shredding lettuce leaves or helping stir the big pot, even though it took ten times as long.

Jane’s mother threw back her head and laughed with genuine amusement when infant Jane got into the big package of toilet paper and scattered shreds of it all over the room.

Seriously, Jane’s mother was so patient she was practically a saint.

Huck’s mother, now, no one will hasten to canonize her. She dreads the hopeful words, “Can I help with dinner, Mommy?” when the speaker is under seven because she knows the “help” will set the meal back half an hour and double the cleanup time. She has been known to bark at children to hurry up and get buckled—has been known, even, to scoop up an exploring toddler and plop her ruthlessly and with no remorse into the hated carseat, dodging flailing limbs to fasten buckles, because somebody was supposed to be somewhere ten minutes ago and she hasn’t got time for this nonsense.

(Jane’s mother would have been horrified to hear a parent apply the word “nonsense” to anything a child did or did not wish to do.)

Jane’s mother read Jane about thirty books a day. Huck’s mother says, “Hey Jane, would you mind reading to Rilla for a while?”

Jane’s mother did the vacuuming with Jane slung on her hip or her back. Huck’s mother…well, she knows there’s a vacuum cleaner in the house somewhere.

Jane’s mother bought fresh produce at the farmer’s market, or had it delivered by the organic delivery service. Huck’s mother thanks God for frozen peas and canned peaches. She doesn’t even always check to make sure it’s “lite syrup” in the can. She just grabs whatever’s on sale and hurls it into the cart without breaking stride.

Huck’s mother is totally afraid to reread the heartfelt treatise on patience that Rilla’s mother wrote this time last year. Rilla’s mother, too, had been remembering what a peach (in lite syrup?) Jane’s mother used to be, and to give her credit, Rilla’s mom had a pretty good streak going there for a while, after writing that post: for a glorious couple of months, Jane’s mother made a comeback.

Then she went to Barcelona, and it’s possible she stayed there. (What? gasps Jane’s mother. WITHOUT THE CHILDREN??? That most certainly was NOT I.) At any rate, the woman who returned soon found herself in the grip of morningsickness (and afternoonsickness, and eveningsickness) and first-trimester fatigue. By the time the third trimester rolled around, Jane’s mom was only dropping by for short visits. Rilla’s mother, when last seen, was doing an awful lot of moaning about her poor aching back and her battered rib cage.

Huck’s mother starts off the day in pretty fine form, but by midafternoon there is a decided edge to her voice. She would not like to hear a tape-recording of herself after 5 pm. Jane’s mother, that high-minded gal, would probably turn pale upon witnessing the drill-sergeant manner that overtakes Huck’s mom during after-dinner chores.

Or that fact that Rilla and Wonderboy are watching Little Bear while Huck’s mom writes this post.

But, you know, Huck’s mom could teach Jane’s mother a few things, too. Such as: store the extra toilet paper up high.


Reading Notes

March 12, 2009 @ 10:57 am | Filed under:

Trying something new here…instead of straight-up book reviewing, I’m going to blog my reading notes once or twice a week. I’ve always been an unfaithful journaler of my reading because one-way dialogue (monologue I guess) isn’t terribly appealing to me. And yet, as I’m reading, there’s always so much I want to make note of, remark upon, explore, remember, question, hash out with someone else. I’m thinking the blog may lend itself nicely to that purpose. So please feel free to jump in.

Monday 3/9

—Am finding I really miss having Little Brother to turn to on the iPod. Despite its bumps (I still don’t get how it’s a YA book; some of those scenes were decidedly adult), it was entertaining and thought-provoking, and I loved reading it. Am now of course even more freaked out about privacy erosion than I was before, which is saying something. I always knew those E-Z Passes were bad news. Downloaded Doctorow’s first book, Down & Out in the Magic Kingdom, and it too is massively engaging. Sci fi future set in Disneyland. There’s no real death anymore; computer implants are so integrated into human thought that people can access internet connections from within their own heads, and they can upload backups of their memories to be downloaded into new, cloned bodies in the event of accidental demise. CREEPY.

Tuesday 3/10

—Began Lucky Girl (ARC). Certainly compelling so far. Young American woman is contacted by her Chinese birth parents,  discovers she has several sisters in Taiwan. They are all eager to meet her, sending letters & faxes, calling, imploring her to come visit. Kind of a shock to her to realize they are (now at least) middle class, not the starving, miserable peasants she always imagined.

—Began new read-aloud: Red Sails to Capri. Officially to Beanie, but I noticed the other girls couldn’t help but listen in. I tried to read this to Jane years ago, didn’t get past chapter 3. The corny dialogue tanked me. But I’ve heard such raves about it as a read-aloud that I thought I’d give it a second chance. This time, knowing the bulk of the action (at least in the opening) is conveyed through dialogue, I found it more engaging. Played it up, big comical voices. Beanie’s belly laugh is totally intoxicating, I must say. She’s a delight to read to.

—And later she asked if we could return to Theater Shoes. We started it, oh, ages ago. Fell by the wayside. So I had to start over. Gosh I love Streatfeild. Nobody quite like her. (Though I suppose I do get a sort of Nesbit vibe from her tone.)

Wednesday 3/11

—Another chapter of Theater Shoes. We met Alice the housemaid today, and I was so happy to see her—I always remembered a character who talked in Cockney rhyming slang but had forgotten which book she came from. This book is set in WWII London, which has generated some good discussion with Beanie. It was eerie to see the post-bombing neighborhood through the eyes of the children in the story, the one intact wall with mantelpiece standing in the middle of the rubble.

—More Red Sails. I’m still rolling my eyes at the repetitive dialogue, plus how many times can they say each other’s names?? “Michele!” “Pietro?” “Michele! Are you there?” “Yes, Pietro, I’m here.” “Michele, I must tell you something!” and on and on it goes. And since most of the exposition is handled via dialogue, the characters are forever telling each other things the other knew perfectly well already. But: the kids (all of them, even though Jane read it long ago) are LOVING it, howling with laughter. Or maybe they’re just laughing at my French accent. I think the only way I’m going to make this book work is to do it up big. It is quite funny, and maybe the pace will pick up once we get to the actual adventure. So far it’s all set-up.

—I reread Coraline. Have been meaning to do that for weeks. I think I liked it better this time. I mean, I liked it before; it’s a gripping story well told. But this time I knew how creepy it was going to be, so I wasn’t distracted by the thoughts of “good NIGHT this is going to scare the pants off half the kids in its audience.” When Coraline (SPOILER!) goes through the mysterious door and on the other side is a flat identical to hers, and she walks into the kitchen and there’s her mother with her back turned, preparing dinner, and then she turns around and she’s got BUTTONS for eyes—!! Possibly one of the creepiest scenes I’ve ever read.  (I’d expect nothing less from the guy who wrote that John Dee diner story. Egad.) “I’m your other mother.” ::::shiver::::

It’s a perfectly paced story. Interesting, though, that Neil chooses a POV that is, for the most part, a neutral observer reporting the action. We’re not (or seldom, at least) thinking Coraline’s thoughts and feeling her emotions & sensory impressions; the narrative is quite straightforward. Actually, it’s very much out of the comics tradition, now that I think about it…clear, visual storytelling, with internal monologue occuring in lean, spare captions. This contributes, I think, to the novel’s chilling effect; we’re outside observers, watching these dreadful events unfold around this very nice child. But we don’t have (I don’t at least) the same kind of deep emotional attachment to the character the way we do with a Huck or an Anne Shirley or a Betsy Ray. Or even Mary Lennox. We’re a safe distance away.

Maybe that’s why I felt such a jolt of surprise at the warmth of Coraline’s reaction to the sound of her real mother’s voice:

And then a voice that sounded like her mother’s—her own mother, her real, wonderful, maddening, infuriating, glorious mother—just said, “Well done, Coraline,” and that was enough.

We never saw Coraline being driven crazy or infuriated by her mother, never felt her irritation or affection. All their exchanges were quite matter-of-fact. So this quite passionate and touching statement hit me as incongruous, nothing at all like the emotional wallop you get from, say, Mrs. Sowerby’s first appearance in The Secret Garden—and that’s a mother the child has only ever heard about, not met.

Still, I quite like the book. Rose won’t touch it: too creepy, she says; but Jane has read it numerous times and is a huge fan.

Go Ahead, Make My Dinner

March 12, 2009 @ 8:43 am | Filed under:

tastydishI have a lot of cooked chicken left over from last night. Ordinarily we’d have fajitas tonight with the leftovers, but the baby gets a diaper rash every time I eat anything acidic, including (sob) salsa. So what are your favorite ways to use cooked chicken?

From the Archives: Only Opal

March 10, 2009 @ 7:30 pm | Filed under:

Originally posted in June, 2006

069811564301_aa_scmzzzzzzz_Only Opal: The Diary of a Young Girl, adapted by Jane Boulton, illustrated by Barbara Cooney.

I put this book on hold at the library after reading a review of it—somewhere. I couldn’t remember where. After I read it to my girls, I had to Google it because I needed to know a) whom to thank for steering me toward it and b) if other mothers were writing about the thing that pierced my heart about this book.

When the blogsearch landed on Karen Edmisten I thought: Well, of COURSE.

This heartbreakingly beautiful picture book is based on the diary of a young girl named Opal Whitely, a turn-of-the-century child whose parents died and left her to be bounced from one lumber camp to the next in the care of cold and uncaring foster parents. Opal’s surviving record of her very early days is a stunning portrait of a tender, hopeful spirit clinging to every tiny shred of beauty to be found in a grim world. A dark-eyed mouse lives in her pocket; a tall, straight-backed tree offers her strength and support. Opal has no one to love her, so she pours out her own love upon the calf in the field, even though her kind attentions earn her harsh words from the nameless woman who houses her (and works her half to death).

That the foster mother is nameless is telling: Opal is overflowing with names for the creatures she loves. As Karen Edmisten writes,

“Opal finds solace and beauty in nature and in the books her parents left her. From these books, she discovers names for her friends: her pet mouse becomes Felix Mendelssohn, her calf is Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her favorite tree is christened Michael Raphael.”

And that’s the thing that so moved me—and frightened me, in a way—about this book. Did little Opal encountered the composer, the poet, and the archangels on her own in the books her parents left behind, or were their names already familiar to her because she had learned them at her mama’s knee? I can imagine the young mother in the lumber camp, reciting poetry to her tiny daughter; a father humming snatches of a Mendelssohn melody he caught in a drawing room somewhere far away.

Am I just projecting? Is it that I read poetry—some of the very same poems, no doubt—to my own children, and their father the classical music buff plays them symphonies (very loudly) and waxes enthusiastic about the talents of certain composers? Does Only Opal pierce my heart because my children have learned about St. Michael and St. Raphael at my knee, and seeing this delicate child left abandoned to callous strangers reminds me that we are none of us guaranteed the chance to nurture our little ones all the way to adulthood? Suppose (I don’t like to suppose it) something were to happen, and Scott and I were gone. Have we planted enough fruit-bearing seeds in the children’s hearts to nourish them through whatever trials life might hold for them?

I came away from Only Opal feeling profoundly grateful for the time we have had thus far, and for the freedom we have had to make the most of that time. Thankful for the books that have shaped our days together: the many, many mornings we have spent curled up over a volume of poetry and the evenings when I had to shout “Pass the salt” over the crescendo of a Shostakovich symphony. I cannot imagine a scenario in which my children had no one to love them but a ragged little field mouse, but surely there will be times of distress or loss in their lives sooner or later. I cannot protect them from that. What I can do, what I must do, is bequeath to them a store of treasures—the fine music, the fine words, the fine and glorious tenets of our faith—that will sustain them through the unknowns that lie ahead.

Link Roundup

March 10, 2009 @ 11:28 am | Filed under:

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Spoiler Paralysis

March 9, 2009 @ 5:22 am | Filed under:

I added another thought to the end of my post about Stolen—I said, “I think Jane will enjoy this one, and maybe Rose, though there’s a plot point I anticipate will trouble her somewhat and will generate a big discussion. I can’t say more without giving away the book’s secrets, but maybe later I can do another post with big spoiler alerts plastered all over it.”

This is where I always run into trouble when I write about books. There’s no way to discuss a book in the depth I’d like to without giving away its secrets. Even with a spoiler warning, I worry that I’ll reveal too much and change the reader’s experience with the book. I hardly ever read book reviews past the first paragraph myself until after I’ve read the book. And then I usually pester Scott to read it too, so I’ll have someone to talk about with. Or, if it’s a children’s book, my girls make great discussion companions. I really think my favorite part of reading is the unpacking, the analysis. But I do very little of that on the blog because I find myself paralyzed by spoiler fear.

I’m the same way with movies. I love to read reviews and criticism after I’ve seen a film, but I really don’t want to hear too much about it in advance. Scott’s even more passionate on this point than I am: he won’t even read the back of the DVD box lest it reveal too much. This makes film (or book) selection tricky: we have to glean just enough but not too much about a work to determine whether it’s worth our time.

I love in-depth reviews after the fact, after I’ve read a book or watched a movie and had a chance to ponder it for a while. And then, then, I’m often burning to write about it, to ask questions, compare reactions, crystallize my impressions by articulating them. What’s my problem? Why can’t I just slap a big neon SPOILER banner on top of the post and get on with it?

Booknotes: Stolen by Vivian Vande Velde

March 8, 2009 @ 7:53 pm | Filed under:

stolenLast fall a publisher sent me a review copy of Stolen, a middle-grade novel by Vivian Vande Velde. I would probably have picked up the book sooner but for the cover: the spooky-scary black-and-white image of wickedly clawed witch’s hands looked like something out of The Blair Witch Project and gave me the impression this was a creepy horror novel. It isn’t. It’s actually a kind of cross between fairy tale and mystery, and I enjoyed it a great deal once I finally stopped judging it by its cover.

The novel opens with a bang: a group of villagers are burning down the house of the “old witch” who lives in the woods at the edge of the village. She is believed to have stolen a baby, and indeed she takes a baby with her when she makes a hurried escape out a back window. The house burns to the ground, and there is no sign of either witch or infant. But on the same day, a twelve-year-old girl appears in the woods, lost and disoriented. She does not know who she is, not even her own name. Kindly villagers take her in and tend to her wounds—she was attacked by a hunting dog, but the injury is not severe—and the old couple’s six-year-old granddaughter is convinced that this lost girl must be another of the witch’s kidnapping victims who managed to escape in the confusion. Indeed, another young girl disappeared some years back, and this lost girl is exactly the right age to be the long-lost Isabelle.

Isabelle’s parents come to claim her, but her re-entry to home life is not easy. She remembers nothing; neither her mother’s tearful embraces nor her older sister’s sharp tongue sparks any hint of memory.  That older sister, Honey, seems suspicious and hostile toward Isabelle. Isabelle searches for some kind of connection to her old life and wonders if there is really anything left of “Isabelle” at all, since she can’t remember any of the people around her or the stories they tell. If you don’t remember anything about yourself, are you really you?

The narrative moves quickly, and even though I thought I’d figured out the mystery, there were twists I didn’t expect. I think Jane will enjoy this one, and maybe Rose, though there’s a plot point I anticipate will trouble her somewhat and will generate a big discussion. I can’t say more without giving away the book’s secrets, but maybe later I can do another post with big spoiler alerts plastered all over it.

I’d Like a Nice Thinky Sofa Myself

March 8, 2009 @ 12:26 pm | Filed under:

Author Kelly Fineman has a fun post up this morning featuring quotes by writers on writing. I particularly enjoyed this passage from an essay by Marie Phillips, author of Gods Behaving Badly, about how important thinking time is to her writing process.

I’m not a comfortable thinker, however. What am I supposed to look at while I’m thinking? What should I do with my hands? Research is my favorite way to think, as it gives me something tangible to do. I like spending the entire day reading, and then sounding like a harassed intellectual to friends in the pub (“God, I’ve been reading all day, I’m knackered”).

. . . But reading is ultimately distracting as I’m dealing with other people’s thoughts, so sometimes I have to put the books down and just think. I think in the shower, doing the shopping, tidying the house, and I get vast amounts of thinking done on the bus. I think in bed, last thing at night and first thing in the morning, because being half asleep pushes open the door to my subconscious just that little bit wider. Mostly, though, I lie on the sofa and think (I have a special sofa in my study for this purpose – chosen by stretching out on all the sofas in Ikea to find out which one was the thinkiest). This causes untold problems in the pub (“God, I’ve been lying on the sofa all day, I’m knackered”).

I do my best pre-writing thinking in the shower, or while doing dishes. I used to take long baths when trying to puzzle out a knotty plot point, but now my bathtub is used by many small children. Having to clean the bathtub first would defeat the whole purpose.