Tuesday, October 30, 2012

To Lois: A Love Story

My mom died when I was twenty-seven.  She was my best friend and my biggest fan.  It’s over ten years ago now, and I still don’t know how to write about her.

So this story isn’t about my mom. 

My dad remarried very soon after she died, about a year later.  This might seem insensitive, or improper, or something, but we, my brothers and I, were all very happy about it.  We were happy because he had been so lost without my mom, so…bereft.  He was eating TV dinners and sleeping in his recliner, and calling me at seven in the morning in a mania about something or other.  Things were not good.  So when he met Lois, we were…relieved.  Happy that he had something to be happy about again.  Happy that he had somebody else to care for, to worry over, to think about.

Lois is quiet.  My family is NOT.  She is reserved, and shy, and hesitant, and sometimes unsure of herself.  She needs time to herself, which is always surprising to us, since my family is social to the point of hysteria.  She is thoughtful and measured where my family is loud and rambunctious and impetuous.  She is a good friend, and a good listener.  She is soft and comforting and gentle. 

We all liked her immediately. 

When Dad and Lois got married, I was pregnant with my first baby.  The wedding was in September, and Eloise was born two months later, in early November.  The pregnancy was difficult.  Not because Eloise and I weren’t healthy; it was just emotionally difficult.  I missed my mom.  She was supposed to BE HERE for this.  She was supposed to help me register for shower gifts and talk me through my worries and spoil me with maternity clothes and sew curtains for the nursery.  I felt her absence every day, all the time.  My dad, as great as he was, and is, just wasn’t the same – and I don’t know if men really can be, in that situation, you know?  I needed my mom to tell me about hemorrhoids and to passive-aggressively criticize my baby name choices.  I wanted her to tell me I was being ridiculous to avoid deli meats since she had smoked throughout her whole pregnancy with me and LOOK AT HOW SMART I TURNED OUT.  I needed her.

To add insult to injury, Mike and I both finished grad school during this time and moved to Houston.  We were selling our first home, trying to buy a new one, and, in the interim, living with my grandmother, which was trying, to say the least.  (My grandmother is lovely, but NO ONE who is twenty-nine and about to give birth wants to be living with her grandma.  NO ONE.)  Plus, we had no money, so I was trying to find and job, and therefore searching vainly for interview clothes that successfully camouflaged my rapidly-swelling belly.  (This is remarkably hard to do.  After much angst, I settled on a boxy Chanel-style knockoff jacket, with a box-pleated skirt.)  Also, Mike was starting his new job, which was very demanding, so I rarely saw him.  Then I got a speeding ticket, and Grandma and I got into an argument about frozen pizza.  Things were rough.  I would sit on the upstairs bathroom floor almost daily, close the door, turn on the bathwater, and sob.

Fast-forward.  We sell the house, and find a new one.  I get a teaching job.  We move.  We settle into suburban life, and I start researching daycare options.  Things get better.

November fourth, Eloise arrives.  The birth ended up being an emergency C-section, after lots of pushing that did nothing productive other than get her stuck in the birth canal…which is a whole other story.  It was scary; I was traumatized.  They had to give me some sort of medicine on the operating table that knocked me out, and I woke up alone, confused and without my baby, which was horrific and surreal.  The hospital was over-crowded, so I had to share a room with a sixteen-year old single mom who watched MTV all night long (no, it’s for real, no lie, I can’t make this stuff up), which meant that Mike wasn’t allowed to stay in the room with Eloise and me.  My stomach muscles were completely useless, due to the surgery, so I couldn’t sit up or lift Eloise out of the bassinette to feed her – the nurses had to be called every time she cried.  I don’t think I closed my eyes for three days straight, until mercifully, we were given the go-ahead to check out.

Those of you who have had a baby know that when you leave the hospital, you are given a number of instructions about when to feed the baby, how to swaddle, how to deal with your C-section wound or episiotomy stitches, what to do about sleep, how to care for the umbilical cord, how to handle engorgement, how to use a breast pump and get the baby latched on, et cetera infinitum.  Then you are given dates and times of follow-up appointments with different doctors, packets of papers and bills to go through, infant eye drops and sample bottles of formula, and medications.  And due to the fact that you’re undergoing the biggest change of your life on absolutely no sleep and (in my case) are simultaneously (and constantly) replaying the grisly birth in your mind a la PTSD, something is going to be forgotten.  Luckily, in my case, it wasn’t the baby.

Unluckily, in my case, it was the stool softeners.

So we get home, where Dad and Lois await us with casseroles and balloons and gifts.  And for a day or so, everything goes okay, or at least as okay as things can be with a brand-new baby that you have no idea what to do with.  At about two in the afternoon, on day two, was when the shit got real. 

(I say that literally.)

So I’m sitting on the couch, with Eloise, and all of a sudden?  Excruciating pain.  More painful than labor, more painful than pushing during a contraction, more painful than my sewn-up abdomen after the C-section.  Worse than all that.  I turn to Mike and say, “Mike.  Mike.  I need you to take this baby.  I need you to GO TO THE DRUGSTORE RIGHT NOW.”  I think he saw the terror in my eyes, because he moved pretty quickly.  In the meantime, Lois grabbed Eloise, my dad hightailed it outta there QUICK, and I raced to the bathroom, dropped trow, and began Lamaze breathing.  I think that’s when the crying began.  Lois held Eloise and stood outside the door.  Then I hear a gentle knock. 

“Sarah, honey, are you okay?”


“Sarah, I’m going to go get you some water.  Sometimes that helps.  You’ve been nursing her so much, you’re probably a little dehydrated, on top of everything else.”

[Ragged breathing.  Groaning.  Sweat.]  Lois leans in with the ice water, all the while singing softly to Eloise.

After about ten or fifteen minutes of ass-blasting, torturous pain, I hear Mike’s car return and I think, Thank God.  He’s back.  Something has got to help, or we’re going to have to call an ambulance, because there’s no way I can get to the hospital on my own.  He walks into the bathroom, averts his eyes from the disturbing scene of me, wild-eyed and naked on the toilet, hair akimbo, drooling, and says, “Here.  I got these two types of laxatives.  They say they are supposed to work within 48 to 72 hours.  Okay?”  Then he darts out.

I don’t really remember what I said at this point, but I’m sure it was not coherent.  Nor was it in any way kind.  It may not have been in English, and it certainly involved profanity.  Here’s the translation:  “WHAT THE FUCK WERE YOU THINKING, YOU DUMBASS?!?  I NEED SOMETHING THAT WORKS NOW, NOT IN THREE MUTHAFUCKIN’ DAYS!  I AM GOING TO DIE HERE!  DIIIIIEEEEE HEEEEERRRRE!  YOU NEED TO GO BACK TO THAT DRUGSTORE AND GET ME AN ENEMA!  THAT’S WHAT TIME IT IS, MIKE!  IT’S ENEMA TIME!”  Or something to that effect.

He departs, disgraced, for drugstore round number two.

Then my sobbing begins in earnest.  Because I realize now that I have a whole other problem.  Not only am I in torturous pain, and humiliated, and scared, and verbally abusive to my husband, and probably scarring my tiny infant daughter with my shrieking fit, but I’m going to have to have an enema.  Which means someone is going to have to administer it.  And my mom is dead. 

[More weeping.  Possible loss of consciousness, due to tremendous physical and psychological agony.]

I hear the car return.  The front door opens.  Footsteps.  Mike calls to me from outside the bathroom door.  “Hey?  Honey.  Sarah?”

[Grunting.  Inhuman noises.]

“Sarah?  Listen, I love you and all, and I know this is a problem, but I just can’t give you this enema.  I just can’t.  Okay?  I’ll just leave it outside the door.”  And then he slinks off.

At this point, about 95% of my brain matter is encompassed with a sort of animalistic devolution into the pain.  I’m living in the pain.  I’m breathing the pain.  THERE IS ONLY PAIN.  But the other 5% kind of gets it.  I don’t want him to give me an enema, either.  My dreams of an enema-free marriage are being obliterated – sucked down the (toilet) drain.  I want to shield him from that, and even though in that moment I also think him a shameful coward – I kind of understand.  I do.  Now there are more tears, not only from the pain, but from the realization that I WILL DIE HERE.  Because my husband is useless, and also?  I don’t have any friends in the neighborhood, yet.  Nobody that I could call, for instance, and ask, “Hey, can I get that recipe for your cheese dip?  And also, can you stop by now and shoot some liquid up my butt, real quick?”  We’re new in town, remember.

But then. 

Lois returns to the door.  Quietly, and still cradling Eloise she says, “Honey?  Are you listening?  I will give you that enema.  It is no problem.  None at all.  You just say the word and I’m ready.  This is not something you need to worry about, today.  I’m right here.”

All of a sudden, I felt an overwhelming peace move through me.  Things were going to be okay, and I could inhale and exhale again.  At this point, remember, I didn’t know Lois well, at all.  I didn’t yet understand what I could expect from or predict of her, but I pretty much figured that holding the baby and making some pot pies would be the extent of it – which is plenty!  Which is wonderful!  Which is hugely appreciated.  And then out of the blue, this woman stands outside my door and calmly volunteers for the very worst post-baby job imaginable.  Like it’s nothing.  Without a second to think about it, without hesitation or deliberation or embarrassment.  Just offers, because that was what was needed at that moment.  That was where she was called to serve, and she stood, ready to meet it.  I believe that this is what love is. 

And that is the moment when I fell in love with my step-mother, Lois.

(An aside, which might be the moral of the story, altogether:  This enema story is part of why I believe in God – because of those moments of human kindness and generosity and humble service that are completely and absolutely unearned and unexpected.  Also?  This enema story is also why I believe God has a sense of humor – because COME ON.)

Postscript:  In the end (heh), the enema was unnecessary.  I drank some of the ice water she brought me, and in minutes, all was again right in the world.  (Not to be too graphic about things.)  But that doesn’t change the pivotal fact that she offered.  And I’m pretty certain that if I ever find myself in a similar predicament, she’ll be at the ready.  Rectal bulb syringe in hand.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Invisible – Paul Auster

Lately I’ve been reading and sewing, sewing and reading.  Oh, and fighting with my daughter, who is almost eight and all of a sudden, has decided that I’m an IDIOT.  Yes, already.  Homework is taking its toll, my friends, and it’s only early October, which does not bode well for me, either for this school year, or for her looming adolescence in general.  

So books and fabric are much-needed escapes, lately.  I read The Boy in the Suitcase (which was a quick, enjoyable thriller – thanks Emilie, for the recommendation!), and then The Bright Side of Disaster (fluff set in Houston, of all places!).  Both good for a quickie, if you get my drift.

But then I came across Invisible, by Paul Auster, and things got serious up in here.

I do this thing sometimes when I find a new writer I really, really love.  I gobble up all of their stuff in a frenzy, and end up remembering almost none of it, other than how marvelous everything was.  Which is another good reason for the blog.  (An aside:  The last time this happened was about two years ago, when I discovered Barbara Vine.  Have you read her?  I can’t remember if I’ve told you about Vine yet, but if you haven’t read any of her stuff – do so.  She is complicated and brilliant and sweeping, with some of the best character development I’ve seen in modern novels.  (An embedded aside within the aside:  Barbara Vine is Ruth Rendell’s pseudonym, but she only uses it for a certain subset of very complicated stories concerned with familial drama.  They are UH-MAY-ZING.)  Anyway, when I discovered Barbara Vine, I devoured all her books IN A ROW without coming up for air for about three months.) 

Is that cover not CREEPY AS FUCK?  I love it.

So Paul Auster is going to be another one of these, for me.  I can’t remember who brought Invisible to my friend Wendy’s book exchange, but I’m the one who ended up with it.  (Kristine - was it you?  I’d love to know who has read it.)  I think I have blog notes scribbled on almost every page of this thing.  This is the type of narrative that I’d spend an entire semester cogitating over in graduate school, but I still think it accessible on a number of levels – the basic plot, on its own, is great.  The challenge for me, in this review, is not to go too crazy on the literary analysis, since Invisible is jam-packed with fun-to-puzzle-over literary stuff as well as just being a plain old good story.

Anyway, the book takes place in three perfectly drawn sections (each, interestingly, told from a different point of view and in a different person, yet telling one continuous and chronological tale) and centers around one solitary, disturbing event,* as well as the main character’s continued reaction to it throughout the rest of his life.  The novel’s organization satisfied my weird (OCD?  Most likely) obsession with order and symmetry.  For example, the first section is written in the first person, the second in the second person (which is particularly unusual, and I bet hard to pull off without sounding hokey), and the third in the, uh…third.  In other words, it struck me as an extremely disciplined piece of writing.  Invisible “grabs” like a thriller, but is meticulously measured and controlled. 

Another thing I loved was the book’s concern with itself as a book.  Each section, you see, encapsulates a “manuscript” (the main action), the circumstances around the “writer’s” or “reader’s” perusal of it, and that character’s response to it.  So the novel uses a sort of metaspeak to position itself as an intertext, which totally turns the idea of “The Novel” on its head, really.  (And is a super SUPER cool technique, to boot.)  Also, Invisible does a kind of riff on the postmodern question of the self’s duality – mind versus body.  The “writer,” Alex Walker, is here, but not:  He’s simultaneously a writer, a character, and gone…yet his words enable a sort of resurrection, both to the “reader” (in the story) and to the (actual) reader.  Indeed, words are of supreme importance in the novel – writers, translators, scholars, speech pathologists, and those without words (by reason of language barrier or shyness or other issues) populate the narrative, books and poetry are bandied about, sexual dirty talk is explored, as is the French tu/vous issue.  Furthermore, characters are drawn either of the body, or of the mind, never both.  On the one hand, we have Margot, who seems defined by her love of food and sex (both utterly corporeal fascinations), and Born (yes, the name is intentional, I am certain), who is, by the end, magnificently obese and sporting only shorts.  (I know.  Put on a robe, dude!)  On the other hand, we have Alex, the unpublished writer whose exceptional mind seems to prevent him from speaking or interacting with the world effectively, and Cecile, the translator who possesses a brilliant intellect but unfortunate looks.  Anyway, it’s great, and I could go on for about ten pages, but I’ll spare you.  Just read it.  It will be time well-spent.

I’ll leave you with this, the fruits of my other obsession – tunics!  And if you haven't yet "liked" Sarah Said Sew on Facebook, please do!  

*No, of course I won’t tell you the event.  Read the book!

Friday, September 14, 2012

And Then Everybody Got Head Lice

If you read my last post, you know that things weren’t going exactly swimmingly around here in the first place.  But one thing I learned in teaching public school that seems to carry over into parenting is that no matter how bad things are, they can always get worse.  Enter head lice.  And this was only day nine (NINE!) of school.  We’re over it now, and it’s a rite of passage, I know – I’d been waiting for the other shoe to drop on this one for years.  So things have been discouraging, of late.

However!  I have read something really great that I need to share with you.  The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain.

In a nutshell, The Paris Wife is a novelized account of Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage to Hadley Richardson, during which Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises.  It reminded me of Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, which is of a similar type (Frank Lloyd Wright being the focus of Horan’s work).  Have you read that one?  If not, put both on your list immediately.

Shifting back to McLain. If you don’t know this yet, allow me to clear it up:  Ernest Hemingway, though a literary giant, was also a misogynistic asshole.  He treated Hadley like absolute shit, much of the time.  (Also, another issue.  He was really into boxing.  Like, the sport.  So Ernest and Hadley would be at dinner, or having drinks or something, and all of a sudden Ernest is talking someone into trying to beat the crap out of each other. That shit would get old, FAST.)  I direct you to Exhibit A, if you need proof of this:

Exhibit A

(However, in the interest of providing all the information, I must note here that the young Ernest was truly something to, uh, notice. Observe.)

How you doin’? 

On the other hand, here’s what years of hard living will do to you, especially if you hang out with alcoholic artists all the time.  It’s like Wilford Brimley got smacked in the face with a two-by-four.

The Cancellation of "Our House": The Aftermath
Wilford Brimley Goes on a Bender

Enough with the pictures already, GAWD.  So Hemingway and Richardson married in 1920 and moved to Paris shortly thereafter so that Ernest could begin serious writing in an amenable creative atmosphere.  The Fitzgeralds, Sherwood Anderson, Ezra Pound, John Dos Passos, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Alice B. Toklas populate the book, which makes for an interesting read for anyone interested in the Modernist movement or in writers in general.  The friendship and sense of community among the group’s members is centrally important to the novel.  In fact, the thing I liked best about The Paris Wife was the picture it painted of Hadley, as a friend.  She sounds like a girl’s girl – somebody I’d love to hang out with.  She was never intimidated by anyone, could hold her own in a conversation with the most brilliant minds of her time, and was poised yet self-deprecating and humble. Hadley was immensely likeable.  I have no idea if this is a true portrayal, though I assume it must be based on fact. In the book, those of Hadley’s circle repeatedly make comments like “Everything’s more fun when you’re here” or “You might be the best girl there is” or “Everyone loves you.”  (Meanwhile, Ernest is drunk and throwing haymakers at John Dos Passos like a jackass.)

Hemingway, in complete contrast to Hadley, was a difficult personality.  He ended friendships abruptly, even with Gertrude Stein, who was for years his primary champion and mentor.  By the end of his life, he was divorced three times (and married four).  He was estranged from his family for most of his life.  (His family is a-whole-nother jarful of crazy.  Apparently his father, sister, and brother, in addition to Hemingway, all committed suicide.  Horrifying.)  But I realized something, as I read about Hadley’s relationship with Ernest.  You see, she loved him.  She adored him.  So they were a team, and I would argue that she was every bit as important to American letters during that period as he was. 

For example.  Near the beginning of the novel, Hadley remarks that Ernest’s “preoccupation with his work made [her] sharply aware that [she] had no passion of [her] own.”  This must be not only typical of these types of relationships, but necessary.  I remember talking to a woman at my son’s baseball game a few months back.  Her husband was in training for an Ironman event in which he would do something ungodly like run a marathon, bike the circumference of the earth, and then swim the Bering Strait or something equally horrific (yes, I know I’m exaggerating, but you get the picture).  I asked her if she was training with him and she looked at me like I was crazy.  “No,” she said.  “You can’t have two of those in one family.”  And from a purely practical standpoint, and as unfair as it is, I think she’s right.  Only one member gets to be passionate about something outside the marital/familial scope. The other has to take care of everything else in order to enable this.  In the Hemingways’ marriage, Hadley was responsible for supporting Ernest, both financially (she received a small inheritance which made Paris life possible) and more importantly, she supported him emotionally.  Later Hadley notes, “I was essential to [the new baby], and to Ernest, too.  I made everything run, now.”  Without her support, his work wasn’t possible.

I know this is passé – I know a thousand feminist writers have beaten this dead horse for years. But in thinking about caretaking versus creating art, I then started thinking about Sylvia Plath.  She was passionate about her husband and her kids and her writing, all three.  Plath tried to manage (womanage?) both roles – the writer and the caretaker.  She also ended up dead by suicide at age 30.  Maybe it is impossible to balance both roles, still, even today, in the year 2012, when everything is supposed to be equal. (HahahahaHA.)  Maybe we all need a“wife” – someone to take up the slack, to meet the emotional needs and do the freaking laundry.  (Unfortunately, Ted Hughes was a piss-poor substitute for a “wife.” But I digress.)  Sorry for the soapbox moment.  I guess this book just got me thinking about women’s roles in general.

Anyway, I enjoyed the The Paris Wife.  Hemingway’s unfailing commitment to his work was astonishing.  I guess it would take nothing less than an egomaniac to continue to write and write and write without being published, yet never doubt that what he was doing was supremely important.  That it would change the face of literature.  Which he did, in the end, but I find it amazing that he knew this all along.  His arrogance was unbridled, but perhaps it needed to be. 

Happy reading.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Almost Job


Things have been all kinds of crazy up in here lately, and while I have been reading, it’s been SLOOOOOOW GOOOOOING.  A little background on why.

A couple of weeks ago, Mike and I started (merely started!) the conversation about Sarah Returns to Work:  The Sequel.  (I’ve been at home with the kids for six years now.  Before that, I taught school.)  We began fighting talking about things like after-school childcare and how my salary would have to offset the cost of that and how Mike would have to cook half of the time and when would I get to exercise and which days Mike would have to go to work early so he could get home early enough to pick up kids at 3:10 and who would do the karate carpool and and and and AND.  

And then.  Almost immediately there was this fabulous job listing I saw, by chance, on Facebook, of all places, and I realized that I was completely qualified for it.  It seemed fun, and nearby, with good pay and even better hours (Fridays off – HOLLA), and creative, and most importantly NOT TEACHING. 

So I wrote a letter and sent the guy my (pathetically outdated) resume, and he wrote me back, like, immediately.  Like within the half hour.  And the next day, I had an interview.

Next I had a second interview, and then a third.  And I nailed them all.  Not to mention, all my interview outfits were killer.  Plus, I got Iris into a five-day Pre-K program nearby and had even found childcare to pick her up each day.  All things were aligning, and on my Magic Eight ball, all signs pointed to YES. 

So I started getting really excited. 

(An aside:  Prior to this experience, I have never actually wanted to go back to work.  Never.  In fact, for six years, the idea, the mere mention of returning to a job has made me feel physically nauseous.  I’ve loved being at home, and my number one motivation in returning to work has always been financial.  So this feeling of possibility, of real-live actual excitement, was unprecedented and completely unexpected.  I wanted this job.  All of a sudden, I really wanted this job.)

The next day they called.  I didn’t get it.

(In the midst of this, there were the end-of-summer blues.  The kids were making me crazy what with their constant begging for screen time and snacks.  (I am so over snacks.  I feed them three times a day.  THAT SHOULD BE MORE THAN ENOUGH.)  Plus, the bickering.  Over such pivotal issues as You are in my chair and That is my headband and I want the purple cup.  Lord have mercy.  This year, the first day of school was RIGHT IN THE NICK OF TIME.)

(And just for fun, then Mike threw out his back and spent an entire weekend on the couch with a heating pad.  [Note my complete loss for words, here.])

So for a few days, I was . . . existing.  Trying to regroup, trying to see the reason for all this upheaval and confusion and complication.  I know that God has a plan for me, and it doesn’t always jive with my own plan; I know that the entire freaking country is getting job rejections; I know that I’m lucky that we have food on our table and school supplies in the backpacks and air-conditioning in our home . . . but none of this makes disappointment easier to bear.  So all I could do was pray.  Pray that despair wouldn’t take over.  And I’m doing better now, I really am.  There are possibilities on the horizon.  I know this.  I’m just trying to remember it. 

I guess this is a long-winded explanation of what’s been going on in my life that has nothing to do with reading.  I did read Alice Sebold’s The Almost Moon, and when I saw it on the shelf at Half Price Books my initial reaction was “Hey!  Why didn’t anyone tell me Alice Sebold wrote another book!  I’ve been waiting for this for years!”  (I loved Lucky, and I really really really loved The Lovely Bones.)  However, apparently I’m totally clueless because The Almost Moon was actually published in 2007 (uh, hello?).  So I’m about five years late to the party, which is pretty typical.  Anyway, here’s my assessment:  Bleh.  Yep, that’s about it.  I mean, it’s about a lady who murders her demented mother (and by “demented” I mean it in the literal way, as in suffers from dementia, as opposed to meaning it in the Gothic way, as in It puts the lotion in the basket and A boy’s best friend is his mother and Redrum!), stuffs her in the basement freezer, and then seduces her best friend’s son in the front seat of her car.  Good times.  Bleh.

However, there are positive things going on, too, I promise.  For example, here’s what happens when school starts.  I have time to do something other than divvy out goldfish crackers into specifically-requested colored plastic cups. 

(It is no coincidence that I finished this dress the very first day the children were gone at school, as I’m sure you are aware.)  The pattern is from the book Simple Modern Sewing, and I must note here that whoever came up with the first word of the title is full of bullshit.  But the dress turned out cool, I think.  And I learned how to do a facing!  And darts!  Stop the madness.

Also, I’ve discovered This American Life.  (See also:  Five years late to the party.  Or twenty, in this case.)  More importantly, I got the TAL app and it’s the best $2.99 I’ve spent all summer.

And finally, in other, happier reading news, Eloise has discovered Harry Potter.  And she is in love. 

She read the first book in one day, and then devoured the next two later that same week.  And at the risk of sounding completely cheesy, I have to say that sharing the first movie with her was one of the best nights of parenting, so far.  It was complete magic and sparked so much fun discussion:  “Mom, is that how you pictured Hogwarts?  Because that’s exactly what I thought it would look like!” and “Can you believe how big Hagrid is?  How did they do that?” and “Oh, Mom!  I wish I had a snowy white owl just like Hedwig!” and “I don’t think Hermione’s hair is that frizzy, do you?”  And so on.  Not to mention platform nine and three quarters.  I tell you what, when you’re starting the second grade, the fractions?  NOT SO MUCH.  That shizzle is BLOWING HER MIND. 

But the best quote of the week from Eloise was this: “You know what, Mom?  When I read Harry Potter books, I feel like I’m drowning.  But in a good way.  In a way where I just can’t think of anything else.  I’m just that interested in it.”

I know.  I feel the same way.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Real Quick Like

I’m in the middle of back-to-school preparations (and in the middle of B*G’s third season), so there’s not much time, but I wanted to share a couple of new finds.

To start, allow me to explain my usual M.O. for novel procurement:

1) Go to Barnes and Noble and peruse the New Release section, followed by the Fiction and Literature section, followed by the Children’s section, followed by the Sale section.

2) Make a list of titles I want to read.

3) Return home and request all titles via my online library queue.

4) Wait patiently.

On the other hand, this is my procedure for Tana French books:

1) Go to Barnes and Noble on the day her new novel is released in hardback.

2) Purchase it at full price.

(Perhaps a full understanding of how cheap I truly am is required to thoroughly appreciate this explanation.  Just trust me:  Her books are that good.)

Broken Harbor was fantastic, as expected.  I find it rare that a much-anticipated book or movie lives up to my inflated expectations, but French never disappoints.  She produces that most unusual and satisfying of crime thrillers – the kind so twisted and complex that you can never figure them out in advance of the characters.  Instead, she hooks you, and then keeps surprising you.  And her characters are so well-drawn, the prose so energetic and natural, the setting and mood so beautifully creepy, that I honestly can’t think of a new(ish) author I enjoy more.

And now something for the little ones.  Eloise has been devouring The Sisters Eight series all summer.

We stumbled upon these on the shelf at the local library, and she decided to give them a try.  They have turned out to be her favorite self-read novels to date.  I, of course, am always thrilled when she finds something outside of her established Magic Tree House-Junie B. Jones-Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew trifecta.  These books are even more exciting, because they seem to fill the gap I’ve been worrying about – the one in between the first, easy chapter readers with snappy plots, easy vocabulary, and plenty of pictures (Junie B., for example), and the later, more advanced works with more complicated situations and dialogues, more advanced emotional issues, and fewer pictures (Beverly Cleary).  Does that make sense?  (Have you noticed the gap there as well?  Because I’ve been struggling to bridge it all last school year, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.)  Anyway, The Sisters Eight books are a little longer than first chapter readers, but still have a few pictures, to keep the wee ones happy.  And the writing and vocabulary are markedly more interesting and complex. 

Plus, the story is cool.  The basic outline is this:  A group of eight sisters (with superpowers, hooray!) work together to solve an ongoing mystery in order to save their mysteriously absent parents.  Anyway, Eloise highly recommends them, and the final installment in the series releases today! 

In closing, I leave you with this, from my number one fan and dear friend Wendy:


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Book Club, Take One

A few months ago I had planned to “link up” to a friend’s blog to answer the question, “What do you do right, as a mother?” 

I thought about it.  And thought.  And thought some more.  And then, I kinda gave up. 

This is not to say that I feel like I’m a shitty mother.  Most days, I think I’m pretty good at my job.  (And it is a JOB, people.  Make no mistake.)  I run on a hamster wheel of meal preparing and school shoe shopping and teeth flossing and bike riding and piano practicing and t-ball cheering and board game playing and homework helping and library frequenting and Girl Scout cookie selling and…you get the drift, because most of you do the exact same thing.  I simply decided I didn’t have an answer that I could formulate into specific words.  Mothering, at least my mothering, is so overwhelming and all-inclusive and constant, and I couldn’t isolate one individual thing of which I am proud above all else.  The question was too vast, too complicated.  Plus, then I read this beautiful post, and knew anything I could possibly put together would fall desperately short.  And so I chickened out.

But I didn’t stop thinking about Emily’s question.

And now, I may have an answer. 

Sunday was the first meeting of my mother-daughter book club, and It. Was. Fantastic.  Better than I could have ever imagined.  So far, we only have two mother-daughter “couples” (me, Eloise, my friend Jenny, and her girl Lola, who is conveniently Eloise’s best friend), but it was the perfect balance for a first meeting.  We discussed The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall.

So we each read the novel, printed out some discussion questions from the internet, and met at La Madeleine French Café for dinner.  It was a perfect venue – no one had to cook, and the girls could enjoy gigantic hot chocolates while Jen and I sipped glasses of wine (because what is a book club without wine, for goodness sake?  Not something I’m attending, to be sure).  We’re planning to meet once a month, each time at a different restaurant, so the girls can experience a new cuisine at each meeting – next month is sushi, for example, and we’re talking about meeting at the Houston MFA when we do From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  Perfect, huh? 

But here’s why it was so great.  First of all, Jen and I each have three kids, so it was amazing to have the opportunity to spend focused time talking (like adults!) with our big girls, without distraction – no diapers, no one falling out of a chair, nobody throwing a tantrum, no one refusing to go to bed or needing a bath or a hug or some goldfish crackers or screen time or I can’t find my other shoe! or WHATEVER.  No interruptions.  And no interruptions for the girls either, because they got to take a night “off” from the demands of oldest sister-dom:  No annoying younger siblings, no strict bedtime, and any dessert they wanted!  Plus, it was surprisingly wonderful to see Jen connecting with my girl, while I interacted with hers.  I think it must be so validating for young ladies to really be paid attention by an adult who is not her parent.  And the talk was remarkably insightful!  There was no silliness, no nonsense.  Just little girls being celebrated for using their brains to analyze, to consider, to formulate thoughtful responses via the gathering of textual evidence (the scholar in me weeps!  Weeps with joy!).  What an empowering way to bond with a daughter, and I’m so glad we did it.  I’m so proud of them.

Next month is Matilda, and I can’t wait.  Who wants to join us?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Her Fearful Symmetry – Audrey Niffenegger

I despised this hateful little book.

I honestly don’t even feel like thinking about why I hated this novel so much, but my conscience dictates that I positively owe you the service of instructing you NOT TO READ THIS.  I really went against my better judgment in choosing it off the shelf; I guess it was just a literary dry spell or something.  Remember The Time Traveler’s Wife?  Which was fashioned into a deeply unsatisfying movie?  Well, this is the same author.

So here’s the deal:  It had potential.  It’s a ghost story, featuring twins.  There are lots of these – and great ones, for heaven’s sake!  Remember The Thirteenth Tale?  The Shining?  The Dark Half?  (Not to mention the obvious:  Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley Twins:  Super Chiller Series.)*  Plus, Her Fearful Symmetry is kind of a kickass title, don’t you think?  But the main problem with the story was that all the characters are utterly, well, loathsome.  And I’m serious:  All of them.  The twins are pathetic and spoiled and co-dependent to the point of ICK, the love interests are, um, creeping pedophiles, and the main character, who is a ghost, is just, well, a MURDERING ASSHOLE.  And the ending?  Well, all the worst characters get exactly what they want.  THE END!  Thanks for reading, and aren’t you glad you wasted three entire evenings on this?!?  (Especially when I still have like seventy-five fabulous B*G episodes in my instant queue?)  So.  That’s the scoop.  Don’t read it, and I’d suggest not reading anything else by Niffenegger either, because the book was just.  That.  Bad. 

Yet, in the interest of not ending this post on a sour note, I must make mention of a literary event I’m absolutely quaking over.  Tana French’s new novel, Broken Harbor, releases next week, and I’m considering checking into a motel for the evening to read it cover to cover.  If you haven’t read her yet, get on it immediately – In the Woods is one of the best crime/murder/mystery books you will ever encounter. 

Happy reading!

*By the way, here’s an interesting tangent:  Guess what’s being made into a screenplay?  Sweet Valley High, people.  And guess who is writing that screenplay?  Diablo Cody, that’s who!  (I might have just peed, a little.)  

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

We Need To Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with reading.  The reading of a book equaled complete absorption.  While between the pages, I wouldn’t hear anything around me (something that caused my parents endless frustration, since I constantly ignored them).  At night I couldn’t stop, so bedtimes were an enormous problem.  I would pretend to sleep, then open my eyes and read under the covers with a flashlight until I got too hot.  When my parents discovered this, I changed tactics.  I started sneaking to the bathroom after lights out.  I’d lock the door and sit in the bathtub with my novel until the wee hours.  In high school, I remember summer days in which I’d wake up, grab my book, and read in bed, still in my pajamas, until dinnertime. 

Today, I’m still obsessed, but I’m a grown-up about it.  Real responsibilities force me to be less reckless with my obsession, I suppose.  I contain my reading time to the stair stepper at the gym, and during kids’ naptimes, and in the evenings, after bedtime.  I usually manage to go to bed at a decent hour so that I can get up with my kids and face the day like a functional person. 

However, We Need To Talk About Kevin kept me up at night and I read the thing in about two feverish sittings.  I literally couldn’t stop.  It’s been a while since I felt this way about a book – I usually can bring some sort of mature detachment to reading, especially lately, what with the advent of the sewing mania (one obsession at a time, I guess).  We Need To Talk About Kevin is the story of a family – a happy couple has a baby.  The problem?  THAT BABY IS A SOCIOPATH, hell-bent on ruining the lives of everyone with whom he comes into contact.  Told in the form of letters from the mother to the father (the epistolary novel strikes again), it chronicles the family’s life and presents anecdotal evidence of Kevin’s psychological issues.  The book raises age-old yet still fascinating questions of nature versus nurture and most interesting (to me at least), Shriver’s narrative considers maternity in a unique way.  Eva, the mother, is not a sympathetic character.  She is not someone we want to identify with; her life is a horror.  Yet she is compelling because there are qualities in her that are hauntingly familiar to myself and, I’m sure, to many women – her episode with postpartum depression, for example – which make her all the more affecting.  Also, Eva is mother to a monster, and while she doesn’t love Kevin, she is intimately connected to him.  She understands him in ways that no one else does and knows his capabilities.  In her letters, Eva is unflinchingly honest about her son.  In this way I feel that We Need To Talk About Kevin redefines maternity in a feministic, non-essentialist, and therefore postmodern way:  Maternity without emotion.   Maternity is redefined as being about connection, not sentiment.

Anyway, you should read it, unless the topic is just too off-putting (which I totally understand).  Somehow, I seem to be reading lots of books about sociopathic behavior lately, which I’m certain can’t be healthy.  An aside:  We Need To Talk About Kevin has been recently made into a movie starring Tilda Swinton (who I LOVE) – and it is great, as well.  But read the book first, of course.

In other news, I got an iPhone.  It is a thing of beauty.

This is a huge development for me.  I’ve had the same flip-phone for like nine years.  Texting would take approximately fourteen hours, and I was basically a menace to society while driving because I had no mapping capabilities in my car.  (And absolutely no internal sense of direction, whatsoever, either.  Zero.)  So the iPhone is a serious game-changer.  Most notably, I’m getting prepped for a new television obsession, since I can stream Netflix on it any old time I want.  (Am in paroxysms of joy.)

Good hunting.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Some Suggestions for Summer

So lately, the pile of things-that-have-been-read-and-must-be-blogged-about is outweighing the pile of things-I-will-read-next, and it’s stressing me out a little.  I mean, as much as I enjoy telling you all what to read, lately I’ve been enjoying just reading even more.  So this is going to be a compilation post of several books I’ve read lately – we all need a bunch of good stuff to take to the pool, right?

The Lantern by Deborah Lawrenson

I love a good old-fashioned ghost story, and this book is indeed that.  Inspired by and reminiscent of du Maurier’s classic Rebecca, it is the creepy-crawly tale of a marriage falling apart, an ancient, crumbly estate, and the South of France – and it’s told via several points-of-view (a ghost being one of them).  The novel’s central trope is the idea of disappearing women – there is a serial killer on the loose, the ex-wife has vanished mysteriously, as has one of the previous owners of the estate.  (Incidentally, this character is blind, which fits in tidily with the general idea of disappearance.)  One notable aspect of Lawrenson’s writing was its pure sensuality – the descriptions of the Provencal winds, for example, or of fragrances (one character is a celebrated perfume creator), or of music (another is a composer).  All of these provided a more physical experience for the reader.   But I must say that my favorite thing about The Lantern was the fact that it told several mysteries simultaneously, some even bridging the gap of a particular time period.  I do love a mystery.

These Is My Words by Nancy E. Turner

When my book club picked this novel, I was not excited.  I really didn’t want to read about early settlers in Arizona; the “Wild West” isn’t something that holds any real interest for me, though I do enjoy historical fiction as a genre, overall.  But then I started reading, and the book is great.  Kind of like Laura Ingalls Wilder, but racy.  (It is a love story, in case that makes a difference to you one way or another.)  These Is My Words is an epistolary novel, a form I adore, written in the style of journal entries by one Sarah Prine.  Sarah, the “author,” is a wonderful female character – tough, smart, and good with a rifle – and this installment of her story (it is the first of a series) covers her young womanhood and early adult life.  (It appears that the real Sarah Prine was Turner’s great-grandmother, and the novel was inspired by her actual life.)  All in all, it is a quick read, and much enjoyed.  I’m looking forward to the other books in the series.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Another book club selection I was not initially excited about.  You might remember Hillenbrand – she wrote Seabiscuit?  (Which I’m sure is wonderful, because that’s what everyone in the world says, but I just can’t do horse books.  Sorry.)  So Unbroken is her new book, and IT IS AMAZING.  Amazing.  Here’s the story, in a nutshell:  Dude is a juvenile delinquent in California, turns life around by becoming effing fast runner.  Dude goes to the 1940 Olympics in Berlin, where he briefly meets Hitler.  Dude joins the AAF and is shipped out to the Pacific Theater during WW2, to drop bombs on Japanese-held islands.  Dude’s plane crashes in the middle of the Pacific, yet he survives.  Dude ends up on raft for something like forty-six days with no provisions, yet he survives.  Dude washes up on Japanese soil and becomes a POW and is systematically tortured over a period of years, yet he survives.  (And those are just the highlights.)  Anyway, it is the best description I’ve ever read of what things were like for the airmen of that time (those planes were totally unsafe, you guys.  Crazy death-traps; airmen during that time had a one in two mortality rate).  Hillenbrand’s research is impeccable, and her writing style flawless; she has a knack for including compelling personal anecdotes to invigorate the narrative.  My favorite of these concerned the airmen’s life vests that were included on planes in the case of a crash.  Many times the life vests failed to inflate, not because they were defective, but because the soldiers had stolen the compressors to carbonate their drinks back at the base.  Incredible.  Hillenbrand provides a million such details, which makes for a completely consuming book.

That’s all for now.  This should get us almost up-to-date.  Chime in with your thoughts, and happy reading! 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen

And, just like that, I’m back.

Back from where, you may ask?  (Or you may not, but I’m going to tell you anyway.)  First, we did this:

And then this:

And next this:

And even this:

And later this:

And finally, this:

And throughout, a whole lot of this:

But now, we’re back home.  Exhausted, and realizing that our next family trip must include some rocketing to the moon upon which a circus featuring Elvis is performing in our honor in order to compete with the sheer fabulousness of this trip, but home.  Furthermore, I’ve been reading some great books this summer, and have started about 700 blog posts in my head but haven’t yet been able to string together more than ten consecutive minutes at the computer.  Until now.  Summer, why so frantic?  Why?  Alas.  Here we go.

I finally read The Corrections.  In case you’ve forgotten, or simply blocked it out, Jonathan Franzen’s magnum opus was chosen as an Oprah selection in 2001 (not to mention that the book earned him a National Book Award and was shortlisted for the Pulitzer – because let’s be honest, what does any of that really matter when it’s Oprah we’re talking about?).  Anyway, amazingly, Franzen declined the obligatory dinner with Oprah.  CAN YOU IMAGINE???  The mind, it boggles.  Obviously, that made me want to read Franzen’s book even more, but for some reason I never quite got around to it.  (At almost 600 pages, it is a commitment book, just so you’re aware.)  Then, you know, I was having all. these. kids. and couldn’t hold a coherent thought in my head for about five years.  Plus Franzen went off the radar until just recently, when he published Freedom.  (The dude doesn’t publish often – his books are long.)  So I finally took The Corrections with me on vacation, and you guys, it’s great, as long as you like family sagas that feature TOTAL AND COMPLETE DYSFUNCTION.  Which I do, most certainly.

What I loved most about it were Franzen’s succinct and scathing descriptions.  Like poetry, each word is economized for maximum effect, nothing wasted, nothing extraneous.  (Hard to believe, in a gigantic book like this one.)  For example, on unappreciated gifts:

A few hours after [Enid’s gift to Caroline,] the mutilated Austrian reindeer had come to light [by turning] up in a trash can like a murdered baby.

(That final simile is just so wrong it’s right, no?)

On ill-advised home-décor:

The living room was half a block long and furnished with gilt chairs in sociability-killing formations.

On foreign travel:

I saw an old man kill a horse with a shotgun on a street near the airport.  I’d been on Baltic soil for maybe fifteen minutes.  Welcome to Lithuania!

On guilt and owing a debt:

He’d lived with the affliction of this debt until it had assumed the character of a neuroblastoma so intricately implicated in his cerebral architecture that he doubted he could survive its removal.

And finally, on dinner, possibly the most horrifying description of food ever encountered, by anyone:

A dollop of mashed rutabaga at rest on a plate expressed a clear yellowish liquid similar to plasma or the matter in a blister.  Boiled beet greens leaked something cupric, greenish.  Capillary action and the thirsty crust of flour drew both liquids under the liver.  When the liver was lifted, a faint suction could be heard.  The sodden lower crust was unspeakable.

Actually, the entire “Dinner of Revenge” scene is perfection:  Hilarious, and, to me, the most memorable portion of the book.  I would bet that Franzen had the most fun writing that section – his exuberant descriptions were so absolutely over the top that they struck me as utterly joyful.

Plus, now that I’ve finally read the book, I am even more delighted with the irony that Oprah picked it at all – did she really miss the fact that the novel is a scathing indictment on American consumer culture – a culture of which she is arguably the reigning queen and chief instigator?  (Or, at least, she was in 2001.)  Did The Corrections make it onto her “Favorite Things” list as well?  Oprah, you baffle me.


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Various and Sundry

Hello out there!  It’s been a while.

For those of us with children, especially school-aged children, May is always crazy.  Between homework and piano recitals and t-ball games and music programs and awards ceremonies and girl scout bridging and grandparent visits and organizing the teacher gift and harvesting tomatoes  and packing for vacation and pool season beginning here in south Texas and so on and so forth…it is almost impossible to come up for air.  Thus, the blog has been neglected.  I’ve been missing it, actually, but really can’t say what the summer will bring in terms of fulfilling my goal of a once-per-week post, since I’ll be on full-time mom duty again. (The summer holidays – looking forward to them with equal parts excitement and dread). 

However, I have been reading some GREAT STUFF.  Today, let’s talk books for the wee ones.  The Who Was series is amazing. 

Eloise and Owen (ages seven and almost six, respectively) each received three of these in their Easter baskets this year and devoured them in a matter of hours.  They are an excellent introduction to biographical chapter books, and are wonderfully cross-cultural as well.  (Yes, so the cover art is a bit creepy with the gigantor-head.  Avert your eyes!)  I bought them in an attempt to expand the kids’ interests in various genres (since I tend to lean heavy on the fiction when left to my own devices), and I’m happy to say that both of them loved the series. 

Another book that has been sitting next to my computer for weeks now is this one.

Again, another fantastic introduction to biography (coincidentally, the author is a contributor to the Who Was series, but this one is color-illustrated and therefore perhaps for the slightly younger child).  I read this one to Eloise and Owen and was particularly impressed by the amount of discussion it triggered.  In other words, plan on this relatively short tome taking upwards of an hour in aloud-reading time, because you’ll need Google to answer all the questions it sparks.  Discussion topics covered were as varied as feminism and the women’s rights movement, slavery and abolition, existentialism (try explaining that in twenty words or less to a couple of kids who don’t even tie their own shoes), vegetarianism, vaccination, the Civil War (also a tricky explanation for the little dudes, seeing as how we’re Southern), and mercury poisoning.  Keep your smartphone handy.

But here’s what I’m super excited about today, which we found at the library just this morning.  Have you read Alexander McCall Smith?  He of Precious Ramotswe and The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency?  Well, if you haven’t, get on it posthaste and tout de suite. 

All of his books are wonderful wonderful wonderful:  Lovely, good people doing honorable, just things.  They will restore your faith in humanity.  Plus, I believe that McCall Smith is one of the absolute best modern writers at “turning a phrase,” if you will.  The way he puts words on paper is so clever, so precise, and so utterly charming and funny – he is extremely talented, and his novels simply a pleasure.  (An aside:  The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series was made into a HBO show for one season.  It was delightful, but unfortunately cancelled.)  Anyway, now he is writing children’s literature and I am beside myself. 

It’s Precious Ramotswe, as a child!  SOLVING MYSTERIES, people.  (Mysteries involving cake, it appears.  Even better.)  Love.

In other news, I’ve been watching Downton Abbey.

I’ve discussed my detrimental television habits in the past here, so by the words “I’ve been watching” you understand that I mean “I’m completely OBSESSED with, and not in a psychologically healthy way.”  (Why do they need dinner, AGAIN?  Can’t Eloise just put some waffles in the toaster?  God, can’t they see that we’re in the throes of the 1918 Spanish Flu, here?)  I also realize that I’m possibly the last person on earth to board this particular bandwagon.  I KNOW.  Next I’m going to really step into the vanguard by, I don’t know, getting a cellular phone, or something.  There is no stopping me.