Last weekend in the Guardian’s “Family” section, Sarah Leipciger – a self-proclaimed “Canuck living in London” – addressed a topic that people are more apt to discuss with children rather than with adults. Whether on the first day of kindergarten, in the car before a sleepover, or perhaps at the threshold of a college dorm, one can find parents wiping tears (either theirs or those of their offspring) and offering whispered assurance that this feeling – homesickness – will subside. But as Leipciger, who moved from Canada to London with her English husband fifteen years ago, can attest, “the underrated power of nostalgia” can make even the most adaptable person long for “home.” Adult homesickness is a real thing, and although grown-ups have more tools and mental know-how to combat it than children, the magnetic pull of all that is familiar and yes, comfortable, is a hard one to ignore. As a friend who lives with her husband and children in his home country wrote in an email to me, “There is a day care centre for Alzheimer’s patients near where we live. It’s in a lovely setting with a farm, but I remember once driving by there on a pissed off day and thinking, what if I get early Alzheimer’s and I end up there? What if I never get away? It’s not a true reflection of my foundation feeling which is more balanced and upbeat (I’ve worked hard on that) but I do have days like that. And I too harbour hopes of living in my home country again. Indeed I would be devastated if I thought that would never happen.”
My son is nine years old and in the equivalent of fourth grade, an age when pupils have one main classroom (or “form,” as his school calls it) teacher save for specials such as science, PE, and art. We’ve been very pleased with this teacher, and one of her exemplary qualities is that she is attempting to teach her charges how to write well. Yes, they try their hands at “creative writing” and learn about different forms of poetry and prose, but most importantly, she is demonstrating how to – and demanding that the children do so, in the way only a good teacher can – “uplevel” their writing. She’s provided them with their own little booklet of mechanical writing tips and suggestions – much like the one I got from the most influential teacher I’ve ever had, although I didn’t learn any of these tricks of the trade in a formalized fashion until high school. (Nonetheless, thank you, Sr. O’Dea!) However, part of learning how to write well is also learning how to read well, which is why I loved looking in my son’s homework folder earlier this year and seeing his notes about context clues and how to interpret an author’s intent via the structure of his or her writing. And, despite not being a huge fan of fiction, he’s learning what makes a story, well, good. (What I’m waiting for is his chance meeting with a piece of fiction that will enchant him and make him want to curl up with a book and jump inside its pages. But I suppose I have to accept that not everyone enjoys this. Le Sigh!)
If you have any social media account or at the very least keep up with that pulse on America – I’m talking about The Ellen Show, of course – you probably know about Humans of New York. And if you haven’t? In my opinion, you’re in for a treat: The project, started by photographer Brandon Stanton in 2010, takes him around New York City’s five boroughs as he photographs and interviews people who catch his eye. The subjects and their mini-interviews range from outlandish (“I legally changed my name to Space…”), to the mundane (“Mom is visiting from Barbados. This is her first time seeing snow.”), to the painfully real (“I’ve lost count of how many foster homes I’ve stayed in…”), to the just plain little (the “Today in microfashion” series, which showcases the sweet and sometimes funny outfits worn by children). Stanton has a knack for asking good questions – or at least pulling out interesting commentary from these people. The success of HONY is based on the premise that everyone has some sort of story to tell and that wisdom or insight can come from seemingly unlikely individuals.
A couple of months ago, I started using the Nike running app, and my least favorite part is picking which emoticon to select at the end of my run. I usually select the second- and third-highest “smiley” (just one shy of what is apparently “euphoria,” which is probably an indication that I should be pushing myself more), but I have never once referred back to these to analyze the different conditions that may inch me toward one or the other. It’s too simplistic of a method to chart progress, for although the app syncs with the local weather, it really has no clue how much the whipping wind from the Irish Sea affects my first mile or two. Similarly, although I may enter a relatively happy face because I feel physically good after the run, the little yellow face won’t account for the non-physical issues I’ve been tossing and turning in my mind on a particular day. Mostly, though, I can’t accurately compare my run – the same distance, the same route – to another. This 5-mile route is my only benchmark, and until I stretch out that length or at least huff and puff a little more, I won’t know what any of those frown-y faces on the right of my phone’s screen really mean. Nor will I appreciate the nice and easy little workout I’ve created for myself. (Note to self: It’s never too late to take up New Years resolutions.)
There are some endeavors, however, where I can compare days, instances, and situations because of a consistent baseline. I do enough writing of different genres and lengths to know when one piece deserves an exuberant smile, and I’ve now parented enough days to know when I miss the mark and land squarely on a frustrated sad face. When you do something enough – something that requires constant adjustment to varying circumstances – your arsenal of comparative situations grows.
Juliet Lapidos, an editor at The New York Times, recently penned a manifesto of sorts for The Atlantic simply entitled “Finish That Book!” She lists three good reasons why it’s important to keep up with a book that you’ve started. However, I’d like to add a fourth point: You won’t know what you really like (in literature, or in anything, really) if you can’t articulate what you don’t like.
I’ve been in a bit of a reading and writing slump. We had a house break-in in mid-October, right before the busy-ness of the Dublin Book Festival and end-of-year festivities kicked in. I was prepped to write about Marilynne Robinson’s new book Lila. (For what it’s worth, I like Housekeeping, her only book not set in Gilead, the best.) A few notes were jotted in a Word document, but then – poof – both my laptop as well as the Kindle I was reading Lila on were snatched, as were any extra concentration and resolve to continue this project’s trajectory. Insert major sad emoticon with tears.
I gave myself an out until January 2015: New Year, New Start. And I ended up picking a book that I had to force myself to finish. Once I realized that I probably wouldn’t change my opinion of this book, I decided that at the very least, I should stick with it until the end to see if anything in particular stood out as a deal-breaker. After all, this book was named Novel of the Year by a large Irish bookseller, and many people thought it breathtaking, including an acquaintance who inspired me to start blogging in the first place. My reading was agonizingly slow, and the sight of me with this book, open but face-down on my lap with a more enticing People magazine in my hands, was a familiar one, I’m sure, to my fellow air passengers, my in-laws, my parents, and my own little family – who continued to see the book lying around our house well in to January. Although each page completed and flicked to the left matched my snippy exasperation, I managed to finish what I initially considered a regrettable first book choice for 2015.
But it turns out that I’m actually quite grateful for reading this particular novel, for the author has been compared to Alice Munro, whose stories I hadn’t read in quite some time. Whereas I felt the novel in question hit a constantly and quietly mournful tone without much emotional texture, no “emoji” can encapsulate Munro’s brain-teasers offered up in her exquisite short stories. So downstairs to our bookshelf I went to pick up a collection of Alice Munro short stories that I had never read. (For the record, I read Too Much Happiness, although I can also wholeheartedly recommend Dear Life and Dance of the Happy Shades.)
Like Anne Enright, Munro has an astounding ability to combine phrases and words to emote. And I mean, rip right to the base of humans’ often contradicting yearnings and turn-offs. Sorry, Nike, none of your emoticons really represent how I feel after a run (that would be: so-very-glad-it’s-done-but-I-maybe-like-the-thinking-time-plus-health-benefits / completely windswept after running along the sea), but I bet an Alice Munro story could.
How can Munro mine an experience that the majority of us will only gape at via sensational news stories (the first story, “Dimensions”)? Why does she write about childhood cruelty in such vulgar and incomprehensible fashion (“Child’s Play”)? Did she conjure the strange character of Mr. Purvis in “Wenlock Edge” straight from her imagination? I suppose that a reader will never know how forces combined to allow this woman’s “psychologically astute” writing come to fruition.
However, Munro said something interesting in The New Yorker in 2012: “For years and years, I thought that stories were just practice, till I got time to write a novel. Then I found that they were all I could do, and so I faced that.”
Well, that’s far too humble for a Nobel prizewinning author. But it’s also exactly spot on. How do we know what we like, or what we’re good at, if we’re not aware of where shortcomings – either in ourselves or in literary preferences – fall?
Shall we give a big thumbs-up emoticon to that? Happy New Year.
Reading: It’s the quintessential “hobby” to add a little pizazz to your bio. Somewhere along the line, it became de rigueur for companies (particularly of the hip start-up variety) to have their employees include whimsical and totally-unrelated-to-their-job tidbits in their bios in an effort, I suppose, to humanize and personalize the faces behind a (hopefully) profit-making enterprise. This is a completely unscientific and totally anecdotal conclusion, but I believe this to be the most common line in a professional bio: “Outside of work, Employee X can be found with a book in hand, enjoying [insert craft beer or designer coffee].” Now, to be fair, the beverage can sometimes be replaced with sporting hobbies (kayaking/climbing/skiing, most likely) or the ever-generic “travel,” but you know what the constant will be the majority of the time? Reading. “You like to read? Hey, I like to read too! I just knew I wanted to do business with this company!”
So, we’re a society of “readers,” and contemporary culture has glommed on to this. Take a look at the success of Oprah’s Book Club, the brouhaha that Amazon caused when Kindle was first introduced, and the $15.05 billion in book sales in America in 2013. Notice, too, the number of book clubs in your community or circle of friends. If you’re a woman of any age with the luxury of just a tiny bit of post-workday leisure time, and you haven’t frequented at least one book club meeting, you may be an anomaly. (Why is the converse such an anomaly? I met some neighbors down the road recently and was pleasantly surprised that the husband was a part of a men’s book club.) I love book clubs and am ever grateful that my next-door neighbor invited me to join hers, as it is comprised of a bunch of smart women who choose thoughtful books as well as “supplemental” materials, such as interesting documentaries that we can find on Netflix. It is nothing like this:
But with a culture of book clubs, internet-based publishing, and the domination of large bookstore chains that put what they want us to read front and center, are we choosing what we’re reading based on the experience of reading something “together”? This notion of communal reading can be a great one; Dublin, for instance, hosts a “One City, One Book” initiative every year. But in the years that I’ve been a “reader,” I’ve learned that there are some books that are simply better-designed for group discussion than others, and that sometimes those selections fall flat when read with the intent of individual contemplation and enjoyment.
The Children Act, Ian McEwan’s latest (as well as—surprise!—my book club’s selection for next week), is the perfect book club book. Full of the type of moral and ethical dilemmas that require some mental and emotional gymnastics to unravel, McEwan’s thirteenth novel nonetheless provides an overly tidy look into the institutions of religion and marriage. High Court Judge Fiona Maye must simultaneously balance the potential implosion of her marriage as well as a People magazine-esque case wherein a just-underage Jehovah’s Witness refuses a blood transfusion to treat his leukemia on religious grounds as well as due to the implied pressure from his parents. McEwan deftly weaves these issues together with two rock-solid themes. Here, in lieu of a back-of-the-book discussion guide, are two points to consider at your book club meeting:
First, the concept of “need” arises as soon as the novel opens and Fiona’s husband Jack declares his intent to start an affair with a much-younger colleague: “I need [an affair]. I’m fifty-nine. This is my last shot.” McEwan further describes the man’s “unmet sexual needs.” And then, of course, the title of the book references a piece of 1989 legislation in the UK by the same name, and McEwan takes care to outline the many “needs” of a child: “On the whole, [Fiona] believed in the provisions of family law. In her optimistic moments, she took it as a significant marker in civilisation’s progress, to fix in the statutes the child’s needs above its parents.” Before she hears leukemia patient Adam Henry’s case, she presides over the case of divorced Jewish parents—the father more observant and conservative than the mother—and hears how the man “accused his wife of being unable to separate her own needs from the children’s. What she said they needed was whatever she wanted for herself.” And of course we have Adam, the almost-adult who needs a blood transfusion if he wants to live. The book is ripe for discussion about the idea of “necessity” and where the line falls on the “want versus need” continuum—and whether or not legislation can touch what one determines to be a “need.”
Second, the notion of motherhood colors the novel. McEwan delineates Fiona’s thought process in predictable form. “Yes, her childlessness was a fugue in itself, a flight – this was the habitual theme she was trying now to resist – a flight from her proper destiny. Her failure to become a woman, as her mother understood the term.” Is it any wonder that Fiona, therefore, is drawn to Adam’s case? The author seemingly takes a stereotypical notion and inserts it into interactions with the patient, while Fiona probes his relationship with his own parents. To remind readers that Fiona is not a mother but enjoys the younger generation, nieces and nephews of Jack and Fiona make random appearances throughout the book.
Between the discussion of needs and motherhood (and, if your book club would like to take it to the next level, how those two themes intersect), your book club meeting can be a fruitful one. But if you’re looking for some extra guidance, McEwan gives Adam this idea and therefore the perfect trifecta for book club discussion: “And if God, poetry and science all said the same thing, it had to be true, didn’t [Fiona] think?”
All this is not to say that The Children Act is trite. Rather, it touches upon the types of ideas that are appropriate for communal discussion—perhaps best deliberated over an aforementioned pint of craft beer or cup of designer coffee. It’s the sort of book that can bring out the best in readers when we blur the lines of personal and professional by sharing not only our life experiences but the details and facts about how we believe our world to work.
Yet that begs a tree-and-forest question: If a book is absolutely spectacular, but isn’t read with the intent to discuss with others, has it earned acclaim in our “reading” culture?