Tag Archives: books

Sylvia

11 Feb

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s death.

Is this something that people do? Celebrate the anniversary of someone’s death? Certainly celebrate is the wrong word – mark is probably better, or even observe.

Today I am observing the 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s death.

It’s no secret that I love Sylvia. I mean, I named my blog after her only novel (actually, I named it after what I would have called my all-girl rock band if I’d had one, but the band was named after the novel, so really it all amounts to the same thing). I’ve read everything she’s ever written. I have a weird sort of embroidered picture of her hanging on my dining room wall.

I’ve even joked about being her reincarnation. I mean, there are a few similarities between us, right?

We’re both depressed, oversharing lady-writers, for one thing. We both come from families whose finances went into decline at some point during our childhoods. Her father died when she was eight; mine left when I was thirteen. Of course you can’t compare death to a divorce, but I think it would be fair to say that those events left us both dealing with what are colloquially referred to as “daddy issues.”

Oh, and my son shares a birthday with her son Nicholas. So there’s that, too.

Of course, this is basically where the similarities end. Sylvia worked hard throughout high school and ended up attending Smith College on a full scholarship. She then went on to receive a Fullbright Scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge. Meanwhile, I burned out early in high school, too tired and sad and stupid to get my shit together, and went from being an honour roll student in grade nine to receiving mostly Cs and Ds in my final year. I did get into Dalhousie University (though just how I managed that, I’m still not sure), and while there had all As and Bs, but still, I was never the academic star that Sylvia was.

Sylvia published her first poem when she was eight, and went on to publish several poems and short stories before she finished university. One of her stories, Sunday At The Mintons, won her a coveted spot as a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine in New York.

I published my first poems and short stories, well, never, and I can’t even properly edit my own stupid blog, let alone a whole magazine. I’ve also never been to New York, although I have watched a lot of Friends and Mad Men, which is basically the same thing, right?

I guess that, all in all, Sylvia and I aren’t much alike, at least not on the surface. But when I read her writing, I feel that, as The Bell Jar‘s Esther Greenwood says about her friend Doreen, everything she writes is like a secret voice speaking straight out of my own bones.

I get Sylvia Plath. I mean, I get her. I get her dark, sad, humour, and I get her anxieties, and I get her hopelessness. Up until now, I’ve used her as a sort of guide in the darkness, reading and re-reading my well-thumbed copies of her books, looking for passages that will get me through my fits of sadness. A paragraph here, a stanza there, a kind of spiritual sustenance to tide me over until things get better. For most of my adult life, I’ve looked up to her.

But then, for all of my life until now, she’s been older than me. Wiser, hopefully. Maybe even more mature.

What do I do now that I’m about to out-age her? She’ll be thirty years old forever, but I’ll only be thirty for a few more months.

How do I continue to look up to someone who will soon be younger than me? Will I still love her writing in 10 years’ time? In 20? Will I look back someday and, instead of finding inspiration in her words, discover that all along she’s been a boring, self-obsessed, talentless hack?

What happens when you outgrow the people you admire the most? Probably nothing. Probably it’s normal.

But in a strange way I feel that by letting go of Sylvia and moving on, I’ll be abandoning her. In a funny way, I feel that she needs me, as much as I need her.

I’ve been thinking a lot about her last few weeks alive. Not much is known about what was going through her mind, since Ted Hughes burned her last journal, but we do have a handful of poems dating from late January and early February and, of course, a few firsthand accounts.

We know that the quality of her poems changed in those last weeks, becoming less about the self, their mood more disembodied, alien. We know that her incandescent poetic rage, that rage that has made her so famous, had begun to fade in her works, replaced by a sort of resigned hopelessness. We know that she worked feverishly, producing poem after poem, trying to translate her tangled thoughts into perfectly-ordered words.

We know that Sylvia went to her doctor and told him that she felt as if she was heading for a breakdown. We know that she began taking antidepressants and sleeping pills. We know that she reached out to her friends, Jillian and Gerry Becker,  for help and a place to stay. We know that several days before she died, her doctor began trying (unsuccessfully) to find her a spot in the hospital.

Each night that she stayed with the Beckers, Sylvia would take her sleeping pills and recite a sort of monologue about all of the people who had wronged her, all the men, beginning with her father, who had deserted her, and how utterly miserable she was. She would go on and on, ignoring any questions that Jillian put to her, as if she was in a trance. Eventually she would pass out.

Having Sylvia stay with them began to be a strain on Jillian – she had to do everything for Sylvia and her children, cleaning, feeding and entertaining them. When Sylvia announced on Sunday, February 10th that she wanted to go home, Jillian didn’t press her to stay. There was supposed to be a nurse coming to help Sylvia the next morning, and besides, surely the doctor would find a hospital bed for her soon. And also, as Jillian said in the article I linked to above, pity tires the heart.

Gerry drove Sylvia home Sunday afternoon, and she wept the whole way there.

That night Sylvia left the window in her children’s room open, and shoved cloths and towels underneath their door. She also placed tape all around the door frame, to stop up the cracks. She then turned the gas taps in her oven on all the way and, placed a little folded cloth in the oven to act as a pillow, and laid down.

She was found the next morning by the nurse and a handyman working on the property who broke into her flat when no one answered the door.

By that point, she’d been dead for several hours.

Her children, though cold from having slept next to an open window in February, were fine.

And pity tires the heart.

I think that there’s a state that you sometimes get into when you’re deeply depressed. You feel as though you’re walking along a sort of knife’s edge between artistic inspiration and suicide. In an instant, all the dead, flat hopelessness you’ve been feeling gives way to an ecstatic misery. You suddenly feel as if you’ve been given a special insight into how the world really is, and you work like mad to get that insight down on paper or on canvas or whatever. And you know that you’re playing a dangerous game, but you also think that it’s worth it.

It’s worth it to go that close to the edge, if there are rare, exotic gifts to bring back.

It’s worth risking death, so that you can tell everyone else what it was like.

It’s worth almost everything, if it means that you’ll write something great.

It’s like circling round and round a black hole, getting a few inches closer each time. You’re discovering all kinds of amazing things that no one has ever known before, but you never imagining that you yourself might be drawn in.

It’s like standing at the edge of a lake of poison, and knowing that the poison, if taken in small enough quantities, will give you brilliance and genius that you’ve only ever dreamed of. The poison, if taken one spoonful at a time, will give you an enormous drive to create. And you want that. Oh, how badly you want that, want all of it.

But even though you know that the poison could kill you, you’re not overly wary of it. You’re that you’ll be able to set limits. You’re confident that you’ll be able to stop when you need to. But after taking one sip, you talk yourself into taking another, and then another. And you feel fine, not sick at all. You drink and drink and drink, and maybe even dive right in.

And it’s not until it’s too late that you realize what a mistake you’ve made.

And maybe there’s no one to save you. Because pity tires the heart.

I am trying so hard not to tire all of your hearts.

Sylvia, I am thinking of you today. I promise that you do not tire my heart.

sylvia_kids

My Life As A Tree

14 Jan

Have you ever seen a kudzu vine? They’re all over the south, their bright green leaves waving gently in the hot, humid air. At first you’ll think that they’re kind of pretty, but once you realize that they’re capable of, you’ll never look at them the same way again.

They’re an invasive species, the kudzu vines; native to Japan and China, they were introduced to America to help prevent roadside erosion. They spread quickly – statistics show that they’re taking over the American South East at a rate of 150,000 acres annually. Kudzu will grow nearly anywhere, on anything, and its advance seems impossible to stop.

Once kudzu starts to take over a field or a forest, it slowly but surely replaces all existing vegetation. It starves the trees and undergrowth by cutting them off from sunlight; once the kudzu has done its work, all that remains is a swath of green, leafy vines, still in the shape of the things they have killed.

kudzu

Sometimes I think that kudzu is the most accurate metaphor for depression that I can come up with. Not just because, at times, it feels like I’m overwhelmed with depression, suffocated and blinded  by it, but also because sometimes I wonder how much of my actual self has been choked off, starved to death. I wonder how much of the me under there is already dead.

Like a tree that’s been covered by kudzu, I don’t look very different from the person I was. I maintain the same shape, the same colour. Outwardly, I’m indistinguishable from someone who isn’t living with depression. And if there are subtle signs that something is wrong – a funny look in my eyes, or a slump to my shoulders – well, those things are easily written off or ignored. With enough effort, I can pass as a person who doesn’t long to spend her days sprawled out on the couch watching re-runs of M*A*S*H, eating chocolate and sobbing.

I am a person who used to be happy. I am a person who used to look forward to things. I am a person who used to laugh, frequently.

It’s not hard to see how much being depressed has altered my life.

What I really wonder, though, is how much of the self I used to be is still intact. When depression first claimed me, I thought that it would be a matter of a few pills and then I would be back to my old self. Now, after years of fighting what Winston Churchill referred to as his “black dog”, years of thinking of it a disease, a medical condition, something that I could recover from, I wonder if it’s possible that the depression is me.

Certainly my life, my choices and my very self have been warped and shaped by depression. At this point, it seems impossible to separate who I really am from all the grinding misery, sadness and negative self-talk that my brain has put me through. When I think about the bad decisions that I’ve made, the not-so-great life choices and the hurtful things that I’ve said, I wonder who or what I’m supposed to blame for them. It seems ridiculous to say that depression didn’t play a part in the fact that I chose to lie in bed, crying and reading trashy novels, instead of doing any homework for basically all of 11th and 12th grade. But it seems just as ridiculous to say that I, myself, the non-depressed, rationally-thinking person who lives somewhere inside of me had absolutely no control over the situation. Surely, at some point, that part must have lacked the will-power or the desire to do what it knew was right.

On especially bad days I begin to believe that I let myself become depressed. I believe that I didn’t fight hard enough or long enough or well enough and, through laziness or lack of discipline, allowed depression to consume me.

Blaming yourself for feeling bad is a slippery slope that never leads anywhere good.

I often think about getting well. Most days it’s the only thing I think about. The truth is, though, that I don’t even know what well is, or what it looks like, let alone how to get there. If I’m being honest with myself, the way that I’m living now feels normal, because it’s the same way that I’ve been living for over half my life. I don’t remember who I was before all this started, and I don’t remember what it was like not to feel like this. I don’t remember what it’s like to get up in the morning and not dread every single thing that has to happen to me before I can finally make it back to bed again.

Someone said to me recently, accusingly, that my problem is that I don’t want to put the necessary work into getting better. The funny thing is, they’re right. I don’t. I’m too tired to do any kind of work. It’s bad enough that I have to get up every day and drag myself through yoga and parenting and writing; I don’t want to have to do any extra work on top of that. Thinking about having to work in order to get well makes me feel exhausted before I’ve even started. Of course I want to get better, but maybe the truth is that I don’t have the energy to do that right now.

It doesn’t help that I don’t really know what people mean by work. Do they mean endless doctor’s appointments? If so, check. Therapy? Check. Medication? Check. Buying self-help books that I’ll never read? Double-check. And, I mean, it’s not like these things are totally useless (except maybe the books), but they’re not really fixing anything, either; mostly they just keep me afloat until the real help arrives. Except that I’m not sure what the real help is, or if it even exists.

The other night, as I was reading through decade-old journal entries, I was struck by how little I’ve changed. I mean, my circumstances have changed, certainly, but the sadness and fear and naked self-loathing I found scrawled on those pages haven’t. Not really. I might be better at hiding those things, better at handling myself in social situations, but truth is that I’m still just as miserable now as I was when I was twenty.

Ten years is a long time to be that miserable.

I also found a quote that I’d copied from Margaret Atwood’s short story, The Sin Eater, which seems just as fitting now as it did then. It’s part of a conversation between the narrator and her therapist, discussing coping skills for her emotional problems:

‘Think of it as a desert island,’ he said. ‘You’re stuck on it, now you have to decide how best to cope.’

‘Until rescued?’ I said.

‘Forget about the rescue,’ he said.

‘I can’t,’ I said.

I can’t forget about the rescue, either.

Because it’s not a nice desert island that I’m stuck on, not one of those tropical ones where you befriend the wild animals and make bras out of coconuts. My desert island is some craggy mass in the North Atlantic, maybe off the coast of Nova Scotia. It’s grey and miserable and wet here, and everything edible tastes like cardboard. It’s always cold, even in the middle of summer. The wild animals are mean, ugly and prone to biting.

The worst part, though, is that the mainland is so close that I can see everyone I used to know going about their daily business. I can even hear them as they talk about all the things that I used to care about. And I’ve tried to get back there. I’ve built boats, dozens of them, to try to cross that narrow strip of water; you can see them there, lined up on the shore of my island, with names like Zoloft and Psychiatry and Therapy painted on their prows.

Nobody ever taught me how to build a boat, though. My crafts are hopeful, but never seaworthy.

Can somebody please send me instructions on how to build a boat?

The Past Is A Foreign Country

2 Dec

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep, etc.

And then God created the Garden of Eden, and made a dude out of mud to be in charge of it. Then one day when this dude, Adam, was sleeping God took one of his ribs (ew) and from that rib magically made Adam a lady-friend, Eve. Then Adam and Eve lived in paradise for, like, three days, until Eve, the original third wave feminist (she embraces diversity, change and choice!), took some bad advice from a phallic symbol serpent and ruined everything.

And we’ve been nostalgic ever since.

Sometimes I think that nostalgia is the human condition. I mean, we’ve got a minimum of three major religions based on this yearning to get back to a past that none of us remember or even understand; the most we know about it is that Adam thought it was awesome. Then again, Adam also thought that wearing fig leaves was awesome, and was married to someone who was basically his clone (I mean, is that how it works? what with the rib and all? what’s the science here? anyone?). Anyway, what I’m trying to get at is that I’m not sure how reliable of a source he is.

I mean, here’s the thing: I am the queen of nostalgia. Ask anyone – I basically get nostalgic at the drop of a hat.

(Hey, remember that time you dropped a hat? How great that was? How much fun we had? Why don’t we ever have good times like that anymore?)

I don’t just moon over actual things that I’ve experienced either; I spent a good chunk of my childhood feeling nostalgic for just about any time in history, from the ancient world all the way up to The Great Depression (I blame a combination of having an aunt who is an egyptologist, reading excessive amounts of historical fiction, and watching Annie on VHS until the tape wore out). I used to drive my mother bananas by whining at her that I should have been born in the Victorian era (in response to which she would usually remind me of my fondness for indoor plumbing), and nearly every elementary school class photo shows me decked out in some kind of puffed-sleeve Anne of Green Gables floral-printed nightmare, grinning like a Cheshire Cat.

If there was a book at the public library with a picture of a girl in a laced-up bodice and peasant skirt, I’d read it. If there was a weirdo food mentioned in something I’d read (blanc mange, I am looking at you), I’d tried to find a recipe for it. After learning that people seriously believed in fairies until not that long ago, I began to (non-ironically) leave food in our backyard in case the fair folk were hungry for chocolate-covered graham crackers and milk. And you know what? To be honest, my adult self is not that different, although nowadays I would probably eat the cookies, fairies be damned.

What I’m trying to get at here is that I’m totally guilty of romanticizing the past. Totally! That being said, I don’t use that as an excuse to hate the present. I mean, I like flush toilets and computers and being able to vote and science-based medicine and all that good stuff. I am pretty down with modern life (although I am sad that I don’t get to wear bustles or hoop skirts). I guess what I am trying to say is that I am confused by people who think that living a middle-class existence in the western world is basically the worst, ever. I’ve heard women bemoaning the fact that feminism has ruined womanhood (is that even a word? my spellcheck thinks it’s a word), and the fact that women can now vote, own property and work after marriage is somehow preventing them from being stay-at-home mothers or housewives or whatever. I’ve heard people complaining about the “chemicals” in antibiotics, and saying that they only do homeopathic or herbal treatments – nothing “unnatural” or doctor-prescribed. I hear people talking wistfully about the days when science didn’t exist and everything was just natural and wholesome and wonderful.

People talk a lot about “authenticity” when it comes to objects and experiences. They don’t want Walmart to exist; they want everyone to buy things from farmer’s markets and local mom-and-pop pharmacies and department stores. They want to drive to Mennonite country to buy hand-made furniture and hand-dipped candles. They want to practice yoga at sunrise on a mountaintop with someone who has studied in India and can read their chakras. When they travel to South America, they don’t want to go on a guided tour; they want to see the unspoiled part of the rain forest, want to see the “real” locals who are unspoiled by contact with the west. We’re obsessed with our idea of what’s “real”; these days, people worship at the temple of the real.

Sometimes I think that our desire for authenticity has a lot to do with our love of nostalgia. We think that the people who came before us lived lives that were somehow more “real” than our own.

But you know what guys? The past is a foreign country, and so on, and so forth. We don’t know what it was like back then; all we can go by is what we’re told, or by deciphering what’s been left behind. We will never be able to understand how people felt or lived back then; their circumstances, though not totally alien to ours, are different enough that we will never fully be able to grasp their emotions, or beliefs, or the ins-and-outs of their daily lives. We just have to trust that yes, being a woman before feminism was a raw deal, and yes, modern medicine saves lives, and yes, science and modernity serve some kind of purpose. I’m not saying, let’s not be critical of society; what I’m saying is let’s keep pushing forward and trying to make things better instead of daydreaming about a past that we can never get back.

I’m not saying that Walmart is amazing, or that any of the things I mentioned up there are bad in and of themselves, just that it’s hard to have some kind of moral superiority about where you shop when there are kids who would probably starve if there weren’t discount stores where their parents could get a cheap meal. I’m also not saying that our society isn’t obsessed with consumerism, because we are; we’re consumerist as hell. But you know what? People in the past didn’t own less things because they were better than us; it was because they couldn’t afford them. If you want to live a life of simplicity where all you can afford is a mattress on the floor and one change of clothes, then by all means, please go ahead. However, don’t kid yourself that you’re being more “real” than the next person.

Sometimes I think that the appeal of history is that we know how all the stories end. We know who wins the Battle of Hastings, and whether or not Julius Caesar crosses the Rubicon, and whether or not the Titanic will ever reach New York (spoiler: it won’t). And yeah, a lot of history was scary and bloody and downright awful, but at least we know what happens. I mean, better the devil you know, right? Our modern lives terrify us because we don’t know how anything will end; sometimes it seems like we’re careening towards our own destruction, running full-tilt at things like global warming and nuclear war and widespread poverty and famine. I’ve got news for you, though: if these things terrify you, all the hand-dipped candles in the world aren’t going to save you. If you’re scared (and you probably should be), then get up and go do something, for God’s sake. Sitting at home wishing that you lived in Elizabethan England is going to accomplish exactly nothing.

I mean, except reminding you how awesome those giant ruffs were. Can we bring those back, please?

Bustles - the best, right? Baby got back, etc.

Bustles – the best, right? Baby got back, etc.

Bullying Part III (or, all hail Margaret Atwood)

10 Oct

This will be the final instalment of my totally unplanned Bullying Trilogy (seriously, it started out with me just wanting to talk about clothes).

After I made my last post talking about how I was bullied in my teens, my friend Audra asked if I’d read this 2011 article from New York Times, Bullying As True Drama. In fact, I had read it when it first came out and hadn’t really given it much thought. Re-reading it, though, I found myself nodding and muttering, yes, yes, yes under my breath.

So much of this article hits home for me. This part, for instance:

Many teenagers who are bullied can’t emotionally afford to identify as victims, and young people who bully others rarely see themselves as perpetrators. For a teenager to recognize herself or himself in the adult language of bullying carries social and psychological costs. It requires acknowledging oneself as either powerless or abusive.

Or this:

While teenagers denounced bullying, they — especially girls — would describe a host of interpersonal conflicts playing out in their lives as “drama.”

At first, we thought drama was simply an umbrella term, referring to varying forms of bullying, joking around, minor skirmishes between friends, breakups and makeups, and gossip. We thought teenagers viewed bullying as a form of drama. But we realized the two are quite distinct. Drama was not a show for us, but rather a protective mechanism for them.

And especially this:

“Teenagers want to see themselves as in control of their own lives; their reputations are important. Admitting that they’re being bullied, or worse, that they are bullies, slots them into a narrative that’s disempowering and makes them feel weak and childish.”

Like I said in my last post, bullies can smell a victim. The minute that you admit to yourself or to others that you’re being victimized, then I guarantee you that, barring serious intervention, the bullying will get worse. To make matters even more difficult, many kids (and adults) don’t realize that they’re bullies; this behaviour is so ingrained in our culture that it seems downright normal. I’m certain that most of the kids inflicting “drama” on others have, at some point, been on the receiving end of “drama”. To them, it’s an unpleasant but ultimately unavoidable part of life.

We also need to realize that the ways in which bullying happens have changed; it often occurs online, or through texting; it’s not always public. This, then, is where I think David Dickson, chairman of the Bullying Prevention Initiative of California, really misses the mark with definition of bullying as happening, “typically in a social setting in front of other people“. That definition certainly doesn’t hold true today; in fact, I’m not sure that it’s ever been accurate.

One of the best literary instances of bullying that I can think of is the torment that Elaine Risley goes through at the hands of her so-called “best friends” in Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye. Though all three of her friends are party to the bullying, few outside of that group know what’s happening. In fact, Elaine is pretty clear about the fact, were she to tell anyone about being bullied, she would feel as though she were breaking some kind of sacred code:

“Whatever is going on is going on in secret, among the four of us only. Secrecy is important… to violate it would be the greatest, the irreparable sin.”

A few adults in Elaine’s life seem to have some inclination as to what’s going on; she hears the mother of one of her friends saying that she deserves to be bullied because she’s a “heathen”, and, several years after the bullying occurs, Elaine’s mother makes a vague reference to the girls giving Elaine a “bad time”. Those instances aside, none of the grown-ups seem to know or understand the severity of what’s happening. The three girls are at Elaine’s school, and one of them is even in her class, but none of the teachers seem to notice that anything is amiss with their relationship; even her peers see only a group of “best friends” and nothing more.

Based on all the above, I wouldn’t say that Elaine’s bullying is public; in fact, her tormentors are very careful to maintain the façade of friendship that they’ve built up. Does that mean that it’s not bullying?  Elaine is certainly emotionally, mentally and physically scarred by what she’s going through; not only are her self-confidence and happiness eroded to the point of non-existence, she also begins experiencing symptoms of severe anxiety such as fevers, stomach aches and tendencies of self-harm (among other things, she begins biting her fingers, and pulling patches of skin off her lips and the soles of her feet).

Another important thing to note is that, much like the girls mentioned in the Times article, neither Elaine, her friends, nor the adults in her life ever use the term bullying. Instead, they use euphemisms like giving her a hard time. At one point Elaine’s mother even tells her not to let the other girls push her around, and not to be spineless, as if that’s any kind of helpful advice. So the message that Elaine receives both from her “friends” and the adults in her life is that the way she’s being treated is her own fault.

This, then, helps explain why, when the balance of power shifts between Elaine and her “friend” Cordelia,  Elaine begins to bully her back. While Cordelia spent most of grade school bullying Elaine, Elaine turns around and spends much of high school treating Cordelia equally terribly. In her mind, though, she’s not a bully; she can’t be, because, in Elaine’s eyes and the eyes of the world, her “friends” from elementary school weren’t bullies either.

At one point, when things are at their worst, Elaine’s mother says to her,

I wish I knew what to do.

And that, that right there, is often the hardest pill for both adults and teenagers to swallow – the fact that when bullying or “drama” occurs, the adults involved often just don’t know what to do.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that part of the reason teens started using the term “drama” to sort of re-brand bullying was the realization that, possibly for the first time in their lives, the adults around them had no clue how to stop them from hurting. So the term “drama” isn’t just a protective mechanism for the kids themselves; it’s also their way of protecting their parents and teachers, a way of reassuring them that it’s okay that they have no idea how to help because it’s nothing, just drama, and their help isn’t needed.

Matt and I were both bullied when we were younger, and because of that we’ve talked extensively about what we would do if Theo was ever bullied. I would like to say that we’ve come up with an awesome plan but, really, we haven’t. If things were ever to get really bad and Theo were to express a desire to change schools, Matt would prefer to go ahead and do that, whereas I would rather that he learn to work things through with his peers rather than running away. Of course, Matt doesn’t know what he would do if things were equally bad at Theo’s new school, and I have no idea how Theo is supposed to learn to rationally work things through with a bunch of hormonally-crazed teenagers.

I think, though, that at the end of the day that Times article has it right; instead of focussing on the “negative framing” of bullying, we need to work towards teaching our kids what healthy peer relationships look like and how to be good digital citizens. We need to teach our kids empathy and the ability to recognize when “drama” has gone too far. We need to find ways to empower our kids instead of making them feel weak or victimized.

I know, I know, this is a lot of talk without a lot of substance to back it up, but hey – I’ve hopefully got a few more years to figure it out. And while I’m teaching Theo how to be a smart, confident, independent person, I’ve got him to teach me how to be a thoughtful, wise and effective parent. So far, I think we’re both doing a pretty okay job.

That Time I Wrote A Book And Couldn’t Get It Published (or, you’re all silently judging me right now, aren’t you?)

29 Sep

Did you know that I wrote a book? A novel, even?

Probably not. I haven’t told many people. I’m actually kind of embarrassed about it.

I wrote it back in 2008. One night, Matt and I went to see a Toronto Consort performance of medieval labyrinth music (I guess this is a thing) at Trinity St. Paul’s. It was February, or maybe March, and there was still snow on the ground. Inside the church was warm, cozy even, and the lighting and music were both conducive to drowsy daydreams. By the end of the concert I had the whole plot mapped out in my head, and spent the walk home explaining it to Matt, expanding and solidifying my ideas as I said them out loud.

It took about six months to write, and when I finished, I thought, Phew, the hard part is over.

I’d met a literary agent the year before who had read one of my short stories and liked it so much that she asked me to contact her if I ever wrote a novel. I foolishly thought I was totally set. I finished my first draft in August of 2008, and I was supposed to be going back to school that September, so I gave my little book a quick once over (too quick, I realize now) and sent her off the day before my classes started.

Of course, I ended up having a cycling accident a few days into classes, which effectively ended my educational plans for the next several months.

I decided to devote my suddenly copious amounts of spare time to getting my book published. I started contacting agents and publishers, and actually heard back from a few. A woman at a major Canadian literary agency asked me to send in the first few pages, and then wrote back and asked me to send the rest. A small publisher asked me to send the full manuscript. A few other agents asked for the first chapter, or writing samples.

In early 2009, I heard back from the small publisher. Unbelievably, they were interested in my book. I was so happy. So ecstatically, incredibly, terrified-of-the-other-shoe-dropping happy. Matt and I went out for dinner. I started telling people about my book. Matt’s parents sent him money to buy me flowers. When I met new people, I started introducing myself as a writer.

The publisher asked me to do a second, and then a third draft. They didn’t provide much direction, beyond some vague show-instead-of-tell type of instructions. I felt like I wasn’t doing a great job at editing, but figured if I just pushed through, everything would be fine.

I sent the publisher my third draft, and then in May emailed to follow up with them. They wrote back to say that they weren’t sure if they wanted to publish my book, but that they would let me know for sure in two weeks’ time. In the meantime, they said, I should continue to do rewrites and focus on showing instead of telling.

Three months later, in mid-September, the day after I returned from my honeymoon, I received the following email:

Hi Annabelle,

Sorry for the long stretch between emails. Your manuscript is being sent back to you with a bunch of edits. We can not accept it at this time but we hope that you will read over what we have done and try a new draft. I will be sending you a list of comments made by our editors and hopefully you will be able to put them to use. Thank you for your patience and hopefully we will hear from you again in the future.

The week after that, I received an email back from the original agent I’d contacted, the one who’d liked my short story so much, saying,

[This manuscript] has many of the elements needed for a successful piece of commercial fiction: an authentic-feeling setting—due here, in part, to the author’s attention to period dress and historic cooking; an intriguing premise; and a likeable heroine. However, what [this manuscript] lacks is strong, forward momentum in its narrative.  

Another rejection.

I felt like I was at a total loss. I didn’t know what to do. The hardest part was realizing that this whole thing was my own damn fault – I’d rushed to get it out before it was properly edited, because I just couldn’t be bothered to do it properly. Surely, I told myself, if it shows so much promise, if the characters are likeable and the setting feels authentic, there must be some way to fix momentum of the narrative?

Not only did I have to live with the fact that I’d sabotaged my own success, but I also had to deal with everyone that I’d told about my book. How’s the novel? they asked. When will it be published? Who’s the publisher? 

Embarrassed, I would stutter out that there was a delay, that I wouldn’t be going with the original publisher, that I was still shopping around.

Oh, they said, in a way that was totally loaded with meaning.

Even my mother, who knew the whole story, kept asking and asking about my book. Finally, I had to make her promise to never mention the damn book again until I was the one who brought it up.

It wasn’t just about the book itself; this novel was supposed to Show People. It was supposed to be a giant fuck you to all of the people who had looked down on me, or made fun of me, or just plain wouldn’t give me the time of day. I’d convinced myself that once my book was published, all of the people who didn’t invite me to their high school parties would be kicking themselves for not realizing earlier how awesome I was.

Now, it seemed I’d proven them right. I wasn’t awesome enough to come to their parties, and I definitely wasn’t awesome enough to publish a book. Double whammy!

I stopped writing after that. I felt weirdly guilty devoting my energy to new writing, when here was my poor old book, still waiting to be published. Starting something new seemed tantamount to cheating on her, even though I knew I should put her aside for a while and focus on something else.

I sent out a few more query letters, and a small publisher in Brooklyn asked me to send in my manuscript. So I sent her off again, and waited and waited and waited to hear back. I wasn’t worried, because waiting a billion years is basically standard in the publishing industry. Then, sometime last year, my book, in the same wrapping I’d sent her out in, came back to me.

They hadn’t even bothered to pick her up from the post office.

I often think of the writing process as being like pregnancy, except that you’re gestating a book instead of a baby. But what happens when you’re unable to give birth? What happens to all the time, thought and energy you’ve devoted to making your novel live? What is it that you’ve created, exactly? I mean, other than a stack of paper in a battered brown package that sits on your bookshelf and serves as a reminder of what a failure you are.

I don’t know what to do now. I’m not even sure if my book is any good. I avoid those files on my computer like the plague, and every time I accidentally catch site of one of them, I feel sad and ashamed.

I miss her, though. I think about her a lot. On good days, I tell myself that with a bit of effort, a bit of good old-fashioned elbow grease and some stick-to-itiveness on my part, I could get her out there. On bad days, seeing the name of one of my characters in a newspaper or hearing it in a movie makes me want to cry.

I’m sorry, little book. It’s my fault you’re languishing in my apartment instead of sitting pretty on a shelf at Indigo.

Starting this blog has been an attempt to get myself writing again. By and large it’s been a really positive experience. One of the things that I hated about writing my novel was that it was such a solitary activity – I sat in my dark bedroom and wrote, and the only one who ever read it was Matt. I was dying for feedback, but I felt bad about asking my friends to proofread for me. On top of that, I was terrified that they would hate it.

With blogging, on the other hand, I get instant feedback, most of it insanely great. People read what I write, and for that I’m incredibly grateful. But sometimes I wonder what I’m doing here; I wonder what good it does to write these posts.

And then I wonder if everything I do has to do something or be worth something, and then I wonder why I write at all, and then I kind of get caught up in this endless cycle of self-deprecating wondering.

I guess what I really want to say is:

I failed at something, and I’m not ashamed (much).

I wrote a novel, I poured my heart and soul into it, and it wasn’t good enough (but maybe it could be, someday).

I don’t know what to do now, but maybe someday I will figure it out (I hope).

And maybe someday my little book will find her spot on the shelf at a bookstore, or, even better, the shelf of someone I don’t even know.

Oh and by the way, in case you were wondering, this is what a manuscript looks like after it’s spent a year gathering dust in a Brooklyn post office:

Lovely Blog Award

3 Sep

This is a fairly new blog, so it kind of came out of left field when my friend over at Playful Meanderings nominated me for a blog award. I’d never heard about these before, but it seems like a fantastic way to pay it forward to other bloggers you love.

And, of course, it’s the perfect opportunity for oversharing. My favourite!

Now for the rules:

1. Thank the person who nominated you.

Thank you! Oh, and the rest of you should go check out her blog, especially if you’re a book-lover. Her writing is wonderful and entertaining!

2. Add The One Lovely Blog Award to your post.

Done and done

3. Share 7 things about yourself.

(1) I have my cat Phantom’s ashes in my bedroom closet. He was the cat I had growing up, and he was just the best. I can’t even explain to you how great he was. One time he stole a whole pork chop off my sister’s plate! And he used to cuddle with me and try to groom me. Awww. I wish I could tell you SO MANY STORIES about him, but you’d probably get bored really fast.

I moved across the country to go to university when Phantom was 12 years old. He was already having health problems by then – arthritis and a heart murmur. He was supposed to be on a diet to lessen the pressure on his joints and his heart, but he was, like, a ninja master when it came to stealing food. One time he ate my sisters birthday cake (many of my stories about Phantom begin with “one time he ate”).

Every time I came home he would sleep in my bed, or, if I was home but out of the house, in my suitcase. As soon as I came through the door he forgot about the rest of my family and he went back to being a one-woman cat.

One day, in the spring of 2004, my phone rang. I picked up the receiver and heard my sister Catherine crying on the other end. Annie, she said, he’s gone.

I didn’t need to ask who, only when and how.

Tonight, she said, it was a heart attack. Annie, when it started he ran to your room. He ran under your bed. He was looking for you.

I never thought I would cry so hard over a cat.

That year, when I went home for Christmas, my mother asked me if I wanted Phantom’s ashes. No, I said, what would I do with his ashes? She told me if I didn’t take them, she’d throw them in the garbage.

On New Year’s eve, my train pulled into Halifax. Phantom’s ashes were tucked deep inside my suitcase, wrapped in a protective sweater.

They sit in my closet now. I don’t really know what to do with them; if I were to bury or sprinkle them, I would want to do it in a place he knew, but there are none of those close by to me. Besides, I’ve kind of gotten used to having him around. It’s weird, I know.

Sometimes, when I’m throwing a party, I’ll disappear into the bedroom after I’ve had a few drinks. When I come back out I’m clutching a little grey urn. You guys, you guys, I say, this is my cat Phantom. Want to hear about him?

I throw good parties. You should come to one sometime.

Phantom, in his livelier days

(2) When I was in second grade I faked being left-handed for a whole month because I thought it made me more interesting.

(3) I have an embroidered picture of Sylvia Plath hanging on my dining room wall. She’s so great! I like the way she glares at me while I eat breakfast.

Hey Annabelle, guess what? I eat men like air.

(4) Theo’s birthday is the day before my grandfather’s birthday. My grandfather was named Ernest Joseph, which are Theo’s middle names.

Grampy died of pancreatic cancer on November 3rd, 1999, at home. I flew to Nova Scotia for the funeral; the church pews were packed and people had to stand at the back.

The last fruit he ate was a pomegranate, shared with my Aunt Carolyn, which seems strangely symbolic somehow, I mean what with Persephone and Hades and all. Now, every year on November 3rd, I eat a pomegranate and think about him.

I still miss him, a lot.

Theo might look like his dad, but he obviously gets his snappy dresser genes from Grampy:

(5) My friend Jessica did this amazing sketch last night of me as a suffragette, beating up policemen.

(6) I eat Montreal bagels like they’re going out of style. I think anyone who eats New York bagels is wrong and gross. Kidding! Kidding. Sort of.

(7) I was almost picked up by the police in Halifax.

See, there was this really big snow storm (a snow bomb, they kept calling it). The city was totally shut down; trucks with food and supplies were even having a hard time getting in. I can’t even emphasize just how much snow there was. So the government decided that they would plow like crazy at night, and dump all of the snow into the harbour.

Of course, they didn’t want to, you know, accidentally kill anyone while plowing like crazy. So they instituted a curfew of 10 pm, and said that anyone out on the streets after that time would be subject to a $1,000 fine.

My friends and I decided to have a Fuck The Curfew party. The plan was that I would crash with my friend Kat, who was hosting the party, thus avoiding the whole, you know, fine thing. Naturally, after a few drinks I came to two conclusions: a) I really, really wanted to sleep in my own bed and b) I was invincible and would never be caught by the police.

I was most of the way through the Commons before a police car pulled up beside me. I started panicking when the door opened and a police officer stuck her head out.

You know you’re not supposed to be out, right?

Boy, did I know. Shit, what was I going to do? I did the only thing my plastered brain could come up with: I lied like a motherfucker.

Yeah, I know, I said. But, see, my boyfriend and I just had a fight. A really big one. He kicked me out. I just need to go home.

I started crying, partly out of mad acting skills, partly out of the realization that there was no fucking way I could afford that fine.

The officer sighed and told me to get in the car. She drove me home, and not a word was said about the fine. Thank God.

4. Pass the award on to 15 nominees.

I’m shortening this list to 10, because I really don’t know too many blogs yet.

Audra Williams – Audra is a superstar badass feminist who likes to kick ass and take names, but ALSO talk about feelings. She also wears awesome clothes. Those are the main reasons we’re friends.

The Yellow Blanket – a beautifully, anonymously-written blog about pregnancy loss and infertility. The post about the author’s mother’s death from alcoholism had me in tears.

Make Me A Sammich – more awesome, well-written feminist fun! Plus, her blog name is just the best.

Crates And Ribbons – and still MORE awesome feminist writing! I especially loved her post about Game Of Thrones.

101 Books – If you love books, you need to read this blog.

Toronto Nanny – L gives a fascinating perspective on the life of a nanny. If you have kids, you should check her out, because it’s pretty dang interesting! If you don’t have kids, you should also check her out because she’s a good writer.

Cristian Mihai – makes writing about writing truly interesting. I really love his blog. If you are a writer trying to get published, you should really check him out.

The Falco Project – a blog about a transexual man’s journey to pregnancy and parenthood. The best part is that he and his partner refer to their future offspring as Falco. Amazing! I feel like I’ve learned so much from this blog.

Mama To Bean – this is my sister-in-law’s sister-in-law, which makes her my sister-in-law-twice-removed? I dunno. She’s also my friend! She recently had an incredibly adorable baby, and I’m hoping that this will be a kick in the pants to her to start blogging again.

The Adventures of Trans Man – This is a hilarious and honest blog about a trans man (duh) and his family. I love reading it. I especially love the pictures of Keith Richards.

You should go check them out, they are all fantastic!

5. Include this set of rules.

Done

6. Inform your nominees by posting a comment on their blogs

Will do!

If This Isn’t Nice, I Don’t Know What Is

3 Sep

I teach a yoga class for my friends on Sunday afternoons. Usually I get three or four people, but today almost no one was able to make it. One friend was working, another was out of town, and a third was eating deep-friend bacon-wrapped Mars Bars at the Ex. You know, the usual Labour Day weekend stuff.

My friend Susan, however, did show up, but both of us were having a hard time getting up off the couches in the lobby and going into the actual studio. We stalled ourselves by talking about Richard III and Anne Boleyn. We promised ourselves that in five minutes we would get up. We even tried bribing ourselves with a short practice and a long savasana.

None of this worked. We just couldn’t be tricked into practicing.

Instead we hung out, discussed about my favourite vacation idea (The Dead Author Tour of New England – it is going to be amazing), critiqued the trailer for the new Anna Karenina movie (you guys, I can’t even), and talked about how difficult it is for both of us to take time off  – we both feel like we need to relax but then get stressed out over how much not-relaxing we end up doing.

Finally, Susan asked if I maybe wanted to go get a pedicure. I wasn’t super stoked on the idea, because I’d just painted my toenails a few days earlier, but agreed that we should do something. Something other than lolling around on couches, I mean. So we left and started walking north along Yonge street.

Trudging uphill in the humid, late-summer air, I suddenly realized what I wanted to do: I wanted to sit in the park, drink grownup drinks and read magazines.

Let’s do it, said Susan.

We sat in the park, we drank, we read excerpts of articles out loud to each other. We talked the way pre-adolescents do, about everything and nothing, mixing big, smart-sounding ideas with meaningless trivia.

At one point, embarrassed about confusing A Room With a View and A Room of One’s Own (don’t judge), I flopped back onto the grass and stared up into the leaves of the tree we were sitting under.

Whoa, I said, you have to see this tree.

Why, asked Susan, lying down beside me, have we been reading magazines like chumps when we could have been looking at this tree all along?

That was a fair question.

It was one of those moments where everything is absolutely perfect; a moment where you wouldn’t change a thing, not the colour of the sky, or the temperature of the air, or even the tiny ant crawling up your leg. It was a moment so good that I was already experiencing nostalgia for it, even while it was still happening.

It made Susan think of a quote from Vonnegut’s A Man Without A Country:

If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

It made me think of the part in the Stand By Me when Older Gordie Lachance, who’s narrating the movie, reflects back on Vern (played by an itty bitty Jerry O’Connell) saying, this is a really good time:

Vern didn’t just mean being off limits inside the junkyard, or fudging on our folks, or going on a hike up the railroad tracks to Harlow. He meant those things, but it seems to me now it was more and that we all knew it. Everything was there and around us. We knew exactly who we were and exactly where we were going. It was grand.”

Although I’m not sure that either Susan or I could say with any conviction that we know exactly who we are or exactly where we’re going, it did seem that the whole of what we were experiencing was greater than the sum of its parts. It was more than magazines and booze and the hazy, golden early September air around us – yes, it was all of those things, but it was also how easy happiness was in that moment.

I often feel as if I’m constantly chasing happiness, whatever happiness means, only to have doubt or fear or anxiety push it just out of reach. And yet, here I’d achieved it effortlessly. How did that happen?

Later (actually, a fair bit later than I’d originally intended), I walked home to my family. I opened our front door to find Matt and his brother Adam feeding Theo grapes. I mumbled an apology for my lateness, and Matt said, that’s okay.

He didn’t say it in a way that sounded angry or begrudging, even though I’d delayed everyone’s dinner by at least an hour. He said it in a way that meant, I don’t mind and I hope you had a good time.

After supper, as I did the dishes, I could hear Theo shrieking with laughter as he played with my brother-in-law in the other room. I thought, This is good. I am lucky.

And then, more than anything, I wanted to write this out. When things get hard again, as they inevitably will, I want to have this memory preserved somewhere outside of my head. I want it to be able to exist perfectly in and of itself without my mind distorting it. I want to have this here to remind myself that happiness is not only possible, but even, sometimes, easy.

I want to remember that I am lucky.

And if that’s not nice, I don’t know what is.

Oh, and also I found this amazing shirt at Book City. See? Lucky!

15 literary characters I am in love with (or have been in love with at some point in my life)

30 Aug

I have this bad habit of falling hard for fictional characters. Like, to the point where, when I get to the end of a book, I feel like we’ve broken up or something. Does everybody do this? Or am I just a weirdo?

Anyway, I made you a list of my top 15 literary loves of all time! Oh God I love lists so much.

1. Theodore Laurence from Little Women 

First of all, please note that this dude and my son have the same first name. It is not really a coincidence. If Theo had been a girl, one of the names we were considering was Josephine. Don’t laugh.

Laurie is everything younger me wanted in a boyfriend: he was cute, funny, smart, mischievous and totally in need of a mother figure (okay, kidding on that last part – I mean, it’s true, it’s just not really on my list of potential mates). Even now when I read Little Women I get SO PISSED OFF that Jo won’t marry Laurie. How can she resist him when says stuff like:

If you loved me, Jo, I should be a perfect saint, for you could make me anything you like.

That’s clearly total lies, but still. Romance!

The bitterest pill to swallow is when Laurie goes and marries THE WORST MARCH SISTER (aka Amy). Ugh. Whatever, I hope he’s happy being married to the vain, obnoxious “artist” (hint: she is actually not very talented) of the family. I’m sure she’s thrilled she finally bagged a rich dude, since that was her plan all along.

My love for Laurie was probably aided by the fact that Christian Bale played him in the 1994 movie. Swoon. Double swoon.

2. Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye

I think that we can all agree that Holden would definitely be in the running for Worst Boyfriend Ever. He’s whiny, he’s pretentious, he has a victim complex a mile long – and yet, there was so much that teenage me identified with in him. As an adolescent trying to define myself against the storm of media-generated ideas of what I should look like, how I should act, what I should wear, his anti-phony policy had serious appeal for me. Also, I could totally identify with how awkward and isolated he felt around his peers. So even though reading Catcher these days makes me roll my eyes so hard I practically sprain them, he’ll always have a special place in my heart.

3. Sherlock Holmes, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

True, he’s a rude, egotistical, incredibly impulsive drug-addict who hates women, but let’s face it: Sherlock Holmes is awesome. He doesn’t take shit from anybody, he’s super smart, and he’s a snappy dresser. Plus he would be really fun to hang around with (even if he would totally make you feel like an idiot all of the time). I know he is probably totally asexual, but what woman doesn’t love a challenge like that? (Hint: most of them)

4. Duncan, The Edible Woman

Another contender for Worst Boyfriend Ever. I’m sensing a theme here.

Duncan lies, and screws around with Marian’s feelings, and is generally terrible and manipulative. But somehow he is still lovable? It helps that he’s pretty honest about being a rotten person. He’s funny and quirky and is the perfect counterbalance to her bizarre, overly structured relationship with Peter. Plus, he’s tall and skinny, which is totally my type. I wouldn’t want to date him, but I think he’d be fun as a friend with benefits.

5. David Staunton, The Manticore

Okay, so David Staunton is totally weird about women and hasn’t had sex since he was 16. Oh, and that one time David did sleep with someone, it was with his father’s former mistress, in a bizarre arrangement set up by his father. I still love him, though. I love how he tries to quietly defy his overbearing father at every turn, and how he’s able to build a life for himself that’s at least partly outside of his father’s (extensive) shadow. Plus, his sister Caroline is awesome. I would totally marry him and then hang out with Caroline every day.

6. Christopher Heron, The Perilous Gard

Christopher is another love dating from my teenage days. I guess The Perilous Gard is technically YA, but if you like historical fiction, you will probably love it. Anyway, Christopher spends the entire book being moody and rude to Kate (with somewhat good reason), but then totally redeems himself with an awesome speech at the end:

I never thought of you like that. How could I? If you were any other woman, I could tell you I loved you, easily enough, but not you – because you’ve always seemed to me like a part of myself, and it would be like saying I loved my own eyes or my own mind. But have you ever though of what it would be to have to live without your mind or your eyes, Kate? To be mad? Or blind? I can’t talk about it. That’s the way I feel.

PRETTY ROMANTIC, RIGHT? It seemed that way when I was a teenager, anyway.

7. Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall

Thomas Cromwell kind of gets a bum rap when it comes to English History. He was unpopular in his own time, and unpopular after his death (by beheading!). What this book supposes is: maybe he was actually a pretty nice and awesome dude? Well, nicer than he’s painted in the history books, anyway.

What’s especially awesome about Cromwell (in Wolf Hall, at least) is that he is super unpretentious. He was born a commoner, and even as he rose through the courtly ranks, he still maintains his commoner sensibilities (and sense of humour). He had a shitty childhood, and then his wife and daughters both died of the English sweat (DID YOU KNOW THAT IS THE ACTUAL NAME OF AN ACTUAL DISEASE? sorry, I got a little excited there – up until I read this book, I assumed that it was a made up thing, like “brain fever”). Anyway, in spite of all this, he plods away at his work and is a nice, funny dude, and, I dunno, I kind of love him. He’s definitely marriage material, even if he does have some emotional baggage.

8. Konstantin “Kostya” Dmitrievich Levin, Anna Karenina

First of all, props to Levin for having such a long, awesome name. I love Russian names. Love them. I wish I had a Russian name, complete with awesome nickname.

Levin is kind of a sad sack, and spends a large chunk of the novel either mooning over Kitty or pondering the meaning of life. He’s still pretty great though – especially when he gets all up on worker’s rights. And he’s definitely a devoted and loving dude, which puts him way ahead of most of the people on this list so far. That being said, he does have the potential to be a super annoying partner, though.

8. Calvin O’Keefe, A Wrinkle In Time

Calvin is possibly my favourite on this list. He is a super popular smart athletic dude who loves Meg for exactly who she is. He doesn’t want her to be prettier, or less socially awkward, or more able to control her temper. He loves how smart she is, and is totally cool with the fact that she’s more intelligent than he is. He is just so lovely. My 12 year old self was totally head-over-heels for him.

I think Matt is basically my Calvin O’Keefe, even if I’m not actually smarter than Matt is (although one time I did score slightly higher than him on a fake online MENSA test).

9. Morpheus, The Sandman

Another dude who is worst boyfriend material. Why is he even on this list? He spends his days moping around, he’s always in a bad mood, he treats everyone pretty badly, but, I dunno. He’s the master of dreams, and that’s pretty awesome. I really want to live in his castle. And I think under all of his weirdness he has a good heart. Yeah, these excuses sound feeble, even to me.

Let’s just accept that I have terrible taste in fictional men and move on.

10. Claudine, Claudine at School

Claudine is rude, outspoken, hilarious and totally badass. Oh, and she’s also into girls, specifically her teacher. What’s not to love? When I was in my teens I didn’t know if I wanted to sleep with Claudine or be her. Or maybe I just really wanted to live in the late 19th century French countryside.

11. Frances Piper, Fall On Your Knees

Oh, Frances. One of my favourite characters ever. I think that Kathleen Piper is supposed to be the real lesbian ingénue of this book, but Frances was always the one who did it for me. Even though she has a pretty shitty life, she never pities herself. She’s totally funny, crass and irrepressible. Also she’s the kind of person who Gets Shit Done. She doesn’t sit around and wonder what she should do – she plans carefully, then goes out and does crazy things like trying to replace her younger sister’s dead twin by sleeping with someone she’s only met a handful of times.

Frances is someone I would want to have on hand in any emergency. Also, she’s a really great cook, specifically of Lebanese food. Yum.

12. Touchstone, Sabriel

Touchstone is this sort of semi-helpless character who has amnesia for most of the book and is also prone to berserker rages. But other than that, he’s totally lovely. And he’s totally willing to let Sabriel boss him around, which is awesome. Plus it sounds like he has really great hair.

13. Millat Iqbal, White Teeth

Another emotionally damaged asshole who also happens to be totally charming and funny and attractive. And apparently really good in bed! After we both read this book, my friend Annie confessed that she had a sudden impulse to go up to all the brown boys she met and whisper, are you some kind of Indian sex god?

He has good taste in movies, too, if I recall correctly.

14. Almanzo Wilder, Little Town On The Prairie

Almanzo is another one of my favourite characters, even if he’s not strictly fictional. Laura constantly describes herself as being as “dumpy as a French horse”, and, of course, Almanzo is a total hottie. All the other girls in town want him, but he chooses Laura because she’s smart and nice and a SUPER HARDCORE PIONEER. Seriously, Laura was the best. She could totally have out-pioneered all the other girls in that town.

So yeah, Almanzo is another dude who gets huge props for loving Laura for who she is, and not what she looks like. And from later books, it’s pretty clear that he and Laura work as a team in their marriage, rather than him trying to dominate her. Another one who’s total marriage material. High five!

Sergeant X, For Esmé – With Love and Squalor

First of all, this is a guy who knows how to talk to kids, which is rare. And he is just so charming and lovely with Esmé, who is clearly heartbroken and lonely (and a little bossy). This is one of my favourite Salinger stories of all time. I’m so glad that he was able to make it through with his F-A-C-U-L-T-I-E-S mostly intact.

Man, who would have thought there would be two Salinger dudes on this list? That’s kind of a shocker.

So spill, internet. Who are your embarrassing fictional crushes? And what do you think they say about your personality? (I think it’s pretty clear from this list that I want a smart, funny, attractive yet douchey and self-obsessed dude who is able to talk to children and loves me for who I am. And is the master of the dream world.)

Okay, but seriously – HOW COULD SHE SAY NO? I hope she enjoys her eventual marriage to the smelly old professor.

20 books that I hope Theo reads when he’s older, part I

20 Aug

It’s not exactly a big secret that I love reading (also – that would be a pretty weird thing for me to keep secret). I’m 30 and I still get crushes on fictional characters, although maybe I have better taste now than I did as a moony teenager in love with Holden Caulfield. One of my greatest hopes for Theo is that he will grow up to love books even a fraction as much as I do. In light of that fact, I’ve created a list of 20 books that I loved when I was a kid as a sort of starting point for Theo’s future reading career. Because it’s never too early for this sort of thing, right?

Keep in mind that I haven’t read some of these books in, like, 20 years, so my reviews/descriptions might not be entirely accurate. However, what I can offer you is the dominant impression these books leave me with so many years after the fact:

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1. My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George, 1959

This is a book about a 12-year-old boy, Sam, who gets sick of living in his parents’ crowded New York City apartment with his 10,000 8 brothers and sisters. His solution to this problem is to take off for the Catskill Mountains and find this piece of property his family abandoned years before (they used to have a house or something there, like, three generations ago, but then they moved to the city I guess).

Sam tells his parents that he’s going to run away to the mountains and basically says that he will go whether they’re cool with it or not, so they totally let him go. Um, amazing! How come my parents weren’t that cool when I was 12? Anyway, he apparently learns some wilderness skills or whatever at the public library (TAKE THAT, ROB FORD), and then is all, see ya, giant family and tiny apartment.

My main memory of this book is that this kid was fucking SERIOUS BUSINESS. He finds a peregrine falcon that he trains to hunt for him. He lives in a tree. He almost dies, like, fifty times. At one point he is skinning a rabbit and is like, hmmm, I really want to eat his liver. So he does, and then he’s like, welp, I guess I was vitamin D deficient. I don’t know why, but that scene struck me as especially hardcore. HE ATE A LIVER, YOU GUYS. A LIVER. I guess liver really grossed me out when I was young?

Another big impression that this book left on me was that I was a huge wuss. I would never, ever go off and live in the mountains by myself in a house that I had to dig with my own hands. I could never be that self-sufficient. Also, I could never go that long without seeing another human face (even if occasionally I fantasize about it). In spite of my wussiness, though, I still managed to identify with Sam because, hey, who doesn’t want to run off and leave everything behind sometimes? Who doesn’t want to push themselves to the limit to discover how much they can endure, and how much they’re really capable of?

And I guess that’s the main message I got from this book: if you really want something, and you really prepare for it, you can achieve it. And also maybe you will get a sweet pet falcon out of the deal.

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2. Warrior Scarlet, Rosemary Suttcliff, 1958

This one takes place in Britain, during the Bronze Age. It tells the story of Drem, a kid with only one functioning arm. The thing is, Drem really, really wants to be a warrior (in case you were wondering, this is kind of a Big Deal in his tribe). At first everyone is all, no way can you be a warrior, your arm doesn’t even work! You’ll have to go live with the sheep-herders. Have fun with the sheep, Drem! And then they’re like, well, I guess you can train with the other youth. Maybe.

So of course Drem goes to train with the other boys his age, seems to prove that he’s able to keep up with them, and totally starts to get over the fact that he’s different. He even starts to bond with his peers! BUT (you totally knew there was a but coming here), in order to become a warrior he has to kill a wolf. And of course the killing gets all fucked up (the wolf injures him really badly, so his friend steps in to help, which is TOTALLY NOT ALLOWED according to the tribe), and it looks like Drem will be spending the rest of his life with the sheep people. Of course, some other stuff happens, Drem ends up somehow killing the exact same wolf he failed to kill years before, and there’s a happy ending where he completes the super seekrit initiation ceremony and becomes a full-fledged warrior. Yay! Everybody wins! Except the wolf, I guess.

My main memory of this book is how insanely fascinating, beautiful and bad-ass it made Bronze Age Britain sound. I remember poring, practically drooling, over passages about midnight bonfires and sacred rituals and ancient magic, and whoa, did I ever want to live in that world. I remember this being a book that I daydreamed about a lot, and that’s something that I want for Theo. I want him to have books that he loves so much he ends up spending hours and hours imagining what it would be like to exist within the confines of that story.

Plus, you know, super seekrit initiation. SO AWESOME.

3. A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle, 1962

First, can we all just agree that Meg Murry is awesome? She’s not conventionally attractive, she has self-esteem issues, she’s socially awkward, she beats other kids up, and she’s super smart. I mean, sure, she’s not as smart as Charles Wallace, but then who is? Anyway, she’s someone that a lot of people can identify with. And she ends up kicking major ass.

The book takes place in small town America (I want to say somewhere in New England, but I’m not sure) during the cold war. The Murrys are a family that includes two super-smart parents, their super-smart daughter Meg, their super-super-smart son Charles Wallace and their totally boring and average twins, Sandy and Dennys. Mr. Murry disappeared during some kind of secret science mission, and now everyone in their village thinks that he just ran off and abandoned his family. Oh and everyone also thinks that Charles Wallace is developmentally delayed, even though he’s a genius like whoa.

Anyway, Meg and Charles Wallace end up teaming up with some extraterrestrial-type ladies, Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who and Mrs Which, and Meg’s hot schoolmate Calvin O’Keefe (who is super popular but ALSO has issues) in order to go rescue Mr. Murry. They travel through space and time in a sort of “wrinkle” called a tesseract (SCIENCE!!!!) and have some adventures before finally arriving at the planet where the force of ultimate evil darkness is keeping Meg’s dad prisoner. Even though you would think that it would be Charles Wallace who ends up saving the day (because he’s so frigging precocious), it’s actually Meg’s badass contrariness that gets everyone out of there alive. HIGH FIVE FOR SMART, CONTRARY WOMEN.

My main impressions from this book were: a) whoooaaaa I think I like science fiction and/or fantasy (it was probably the first sci-fi/fantasy book I read) b) I wish I could be part of the Murry family and c) I triple wish that Calvin O’Keefe was my boyfriend (he is seriously so nice, you guys don’t even know). It’s a book about a smart, resourceful young woman who realizes that she’s strong and awesome and ALSO she gets a hot, nice boyfriend without even changing anything about her looks. He even tells her he likes her in glasses! Aw, you guys, I love this book so hard.

 

4. The Great Brain, John Dennis Fitzgerald, 1967

This is actually the first of a series of books about Tom Fitzgerald, the titular Great Brain. The books, which are set in late 19th century Utah, are narrated by Tom’s long-suffering younger brother, John. See, Tom is a genius, but he only wants to use his powers for evil, i.e. “swindling” people out of their possessions and thinking up get-rich-quick schemes. He also does things like trying to frame the schoolteacher for being “a drunk”. You guys, these were THE BEST BOOKS EVER, basically.

No, but seriously, even though Tom occasionally receives his comeuppance, he still gets away with a lot of stuff. When I was a kid, I mostly wanted to hang out with him and stir up shit and learn how to swindle people out of their possessions because, hey, it sounded like a lot of fun! Plus, they had so many whacky adventures. If these books are anything to go by, Utah is way more fun than any place I’ve ever lived.

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5. Le Petit Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, 1943

There is some kind of law that every French-speaking person has to read this book at least once over the course of their childhood. Now, let’s be totally clear: no kid is going to understand this book. They might enjoy it, but they won’t understand it.

Plot-wise, the book is about a pilot who crashes in the Sahara and is struggling to survive. One day, a young boy, the titular Little Prince appears. Now, this Little Prince is from space (!!) where he lives on his own personal asteroid (!!!) that has three active volcanoes (!!!!) and one rose. Weirdly, the humanoid prince falls in love with the rose (to be fair, I guess he didn’t have a whole lot of options in terms of life partners), who then lies to him because she’s super vain and kind of rude. They break up for a while, but then I guess they get back together.

The Little Prince decides he needs to explore the universe, so he sets off to visit a bunch of other asteroids, each of which is populated by a single, ridiculous adult. One of these adults, a geographer, is all, hey, you should totally check out the planet Earth! And the Little Prince is like, okay cool!

On Earth, the prince meets more ridiculous adults, and discovers that his rose isn’t beautiful or unique after all. He’s pretty bummed about this until he meets a fox (who totally steals the spotlight and gets the best lines in the book) who convinces him that yeah, dude, your rose IS special because she’s the one you love. Whoa! Revelation!  The prince also meets a weird snake who tells him that he can send him back to his home asteroid, but the prince is all, no, that’s cool, I’m good for now.

Anyway, the prince tells this whole story to the pilot, and then helps him find a well so that he doesn’t die of thirst or whatever. Then the prince is like, welp, I guess I’ll go find that snake again! The pilot realizes that the Little Prince will have to let the snake kill him in order to get him back home, and tries to convince him to stay on Earth. The prince totally ignores him and lets the snake bite him. Sorry, pilot! The story ends with the pilot looking for the prince.

As a kid you read this book and you’re like, hmmm, I guess this is fine. It’s kind of funny or whatever. Then you read it as an adult and you’re like, oohhhh, I get it. Adults are boring and totally sucky, while kids are awesome (fact). Also we have to appreciate the people we have in our lives who love us, and not spend time comparing them to other people (double fact). And finally, you realize that you want to spend all day hanging out with the fox, who says things like, “On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” (One sees clearly only with their heart – the essential is invisible to the eyes)

As an adult, I’ve read Saint-Exupéry’s other books, and have realized that he is this crazy amazing poetic philosopher. Wind, Sand and Stars is, in particular, my favourite. But I’m glad that I read The Little Prince when I was a kid, even if I didn’t understand it. I’m glad to have my childish impressions so that I can compare them to how I see the book now – I think that’s especially important given that it’s a book about the magical worldview children have that we lose as we age.

I’ll finish off here with a quote from Wind, Sand and Stars:

Old bureaucrat, my comrade, it is not you who are to blame. No one ever helped you escape. You, like a termite, built your peace by blocking up with cement every chink and cranny through which the light might pierce. You rolled yourself up into a ball in your genteel security, in routine, in the stifling conventions of provincial life, raising a modest rampart against the winds and the tides and the stars. You have chosen not to be perturbed by great problems, having trouble enough to forget your own fate as man. You are not the dweller upon an errant planet and do not ask yourself questions to which there are no answers. You are a petty bourgeois of Toulouse. Nobody grasped you by the shoulder while there was still time. Now the clay of which you were shaped has dried and hardened, and naught in you will ever awaken the sleeping musician, the poet, the astronomer that possibly inhabited you in the beginning.

Stay tuned for parts II, III and IV. And please feel free to leave book suggestions in the comments – if I get enough of them, I will do a whole post about your suggestions. I would write about books all day every day, if I could.

p.s. Can we all just agree that Holden Caulfield would be, like, the worst boyfriend in the history of ever?