Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Weird cute things

Playing at the park or schoolyard, we often interrupt "regular" play for imaginary picnics and pretend naps. Recently Helena's begun to watch imaginary TV.

Playing hide/chase, this time the menace being an unseen lion, Helena announces she's going to kill it. I bite my lip at this — I'm not keen on banning any kind of play outright, particularly since exposure to this kind of play is pretty much inevitable, but it does make me uncomfortable; for the timebeing, I let myself watch how she herself incorporates such outside influences. Her hand turns into something like a phaser (she definitely does not call it a gun). And so she goes lion-hunting. She shoots. Then (and I loosely translate/paraphrase her toddler French): "Oh, no! The poor lion! I think he's hurt! We have to take him to the doctor!" So we take him to the doctor.

Some mornings she gets out of bed and happily proclaims, "J'ai grandie!" (I've grown!)

At the mall last week: "Look! Il y a deux soleils!" I have no idea what she's talking about. The lights? "Deux soleils! Look! Un juste a coté l'éléphant." Still, no idea. "Puis un avion and a raccoon, avec le soleil!" (Yes, that's a pretty accurate transcript of her language switching.) Soleil, éléphant, avion, raccoon, soleil. S. E. A. R. S.

Some evenings, Helena asks me to sing her to sleep. Sometimes she has a specific song in mind. Last night, she stopped me midtune. Because her teddybear was crying. Because her teddybear didn't want to hear this song. OK. But she begged me to continue. So I did, but the damn teddybear started crying again. Finally, Helena buried him under her blankets, making sure his ears were plugged and he wouldn't hear.

The other morning, while looking for her magic sandal (that would be the weird part of the anecdote), she tells me (and this part is hopelessly cute), "Tu es la plus belle des princesses!"

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Back to work

How I spent Easter and the week that followed

Trips to the park: Approximately 15.

Chocolate consumed: Countless.

Smingus dingus antics: None. Completely overlooked. I'm devastated by this realization.

Bottles of wine consumed: Not nearly enough.

Shopping expeditions: Mostly pointless, overly long, and unfair to small child.

Number of televisions playing at excessively loud volumes for excessively long periods of time and setting my whole body, not to mention my temper, on edge: Two.

Tempers lost: Mine, for reasons I don't yet have the perspective to wholly define. I won't count the little girl's episodes of frustration as they were hardly meltdowns, and none of them her fault but clearly attributable to boredom, glitches in routine meals and disrupted bedtime rituals, and not being paid attention (!). I have much griping to do actually, and am still waiting for my temper to fully settle before venturing an exposition of multigenerational family female dynamics.

Migraines suffered: Two, one of which is ongoing.

Despondent Leafs fan in a days-long funk: My brother.
Exuberant (perhaps overly so) Habs fan: That would be J-F.

Books acquired (at bargain prices):
Alcott, Louisa May: Little Women — to correct the oversight in my reading education.
Miéville, China: Iron Council — because I've been dying waiting for the mass market paperback, and this remaindered hardcover was super cheap.
Pinker, Steven: The Language Instinct — because my old copy was never returned to me.
Pearl, Matthew: The Dante Club — just because.
Wallace, David Foster: Infinite Jest — because some people think it's a big deal.
Walsh, Bill: The Elephants of Style — because I've been meaning to.

Books recovered from my mother's basement:
Boston, Lucy M: The River at Green Knowe
Clifton, N Roy: The City Beyond the Gates — both of which I have no recollection of, and I'm curious to rediscover why I thought them worth saving.
Collodi, Carlos: The Adventures of Pinocchio

DVDs acquired:
Watership Down
Middlemarch — Yay! With Rufus Sewell. Yum! Am deliberating how best to watch it: In one late-night 7-hour marathon? In daytime lunch-hour snippets? Daytime viewing should be postponed till after I've delivered a batch of work this week, and till after I've done my effing taxes. Consecutive evening showings would have to wait till the Habs are eliminated from the playoffs. Should I dispose of the child for a weekend? Do I make J-F watch it with me? Salty snacks or sweet? How many bottles of wine for 7 hours?

Movies watched:
The Adventures of Pinocchio
Saw II
Miami Rhapsody
History of Violence
Creep — which is excellently creepy!

Books read:
Alcott, Louisa May: Little Women
I did not read it as a young girl and thought I should. Frankly, I'm glad I didn't read it as a young girl, as I'm afraid to think what effect all the moralizing and godliness might've had on me. Ugh. The last few chapters were just awful. Still, I suppose there are some worthwhile lessons to take from these women regarding formation of character, so long as one has the ability to identify the timeless from the hopelessly dated. Weird, too, to read it on the tail of Middlemarch, to see the contrast between American and English sensibilities at a similar time period, although holding it against the mature and complex workings of Middlemarch also highlighted how juvenile Little Women is, not only in that its intended audience is young, but in how simple (and I mean that derogatorily) its construction and messaging is. I did enjoy its soapiness, however, and I suspect it's probably better read while not under the influence of PMS.

Buchanan, Andrea J, ed: It's A Girl: Women Writers on Raising Daughters
Blog book tour alights here May 5.

Glennon, Paul: The Dodecahedron
That is, I finally finished it. I have much (good) to say about it.

Walsh, Bill: The Elephants of Style
I love this guy, and trust him. He's funny; his points are well reasoned, and the reasoning is consistent and common-sensical.

The denouement
Bouts of car-sickness: Helena, just once, on the return trip, about 3 blocks from home.
First thing on arriving home: birthday party for 11-year-old cat, complete with hats and cake.
Hiding under the bed from excessive displays of toddler affection: one 11-year-old cat.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Later, gators

I've actually been wanting to share quasi-interesting things with you — the reading I attended last weekend, cute weird things the kid is doing — but all week I've been plagued with work deadlines and a sick child (why must those things always coincide?). But that'll have to wait. We leave in the morning to visit with family. No Internet (gasp!). Back in 10—12 days, haven't decided yet. Miss me. (I miss you terribly already.)

Wednesday, April 12, 2006


(Because it's a quick and pleasant diversion from all else. Well, it's something.)

Shelly's Booked by Three for April (via Pages Turned):

Name 3 books you liked, titles which start with A, B, C (one per letter).

All the Names, José Saramago
Balthasar's Odyssey, Amin Maalouf
Carter Beats the Devil, Glen David Gold (Please write another book.)

Name 3 authors you like whose names (given or surname) start with A, B, C (one per letter).

Auster, Paul
Byatt, A.S.
Calvino, Italo

Name 3 books on your To Read list with titles starting with A, B, C (one per letter).

The Art of Murder, José Carlos Somoza (from which I heard the author read this past weekend — more on this later)
Beyond Black, Hilary Mantel
Captain Alatriste, Arturo Pérez-Reverte

Monday, April 10, 2006

Brought to you by the letter "H"

Helena is home today with a nasty cough, runny nose, and slight fever, but with a mostly sweet disposition. She's home today to fulfill the law that demands she prey on my guilt and mothering instincts on the day that's the worst possible day for her to be encroaching on my time, what with my having a work project due in a couple days.

She's napping now, and I've decided to go ahead and blog cuz, hey, the day's pretty much a write-off workwise anyway.

What makes it worthwhile: she sits beside me at my desk, picks up a pen and writes "I" on the legal pad. "Mama, c'est 'I.' C'est pour toi: Isabella." Then "H," a recognizable capital "H," "pour moi, Helena." She writes a thousand "H"'s, half of them on my arm. Then "X" — I don't know why, other than that she can, but she writes "X" and calls it "X" likes she means it.

Recent lightbulbs
Noted here for posterity before I forget and because I don't think I'll ever get 'round to writing something clever and meaningful about any of these points individually:

She operates the CD player with ease, although despite my best efforts her taste in music leaves something to be desired. (I try to listen as a 3-year-old, and remind myself how normal it is for children, such naive creatures, to like children's music. Why should I hurry her to have "sophisticated" tastes?)

She is almost as proficient with the DVD player, inserting her program of choice. I used to cringe at her handling DVDs (and CDs) and did what I could to dissuade her, but we're past that now. She knows triangle is for "play," square for "stop."

Back in February she figured out the computer mouse, or her hand was finally big enough, coordinated enough, to make it do what she wanted. The lightbulb that correlated mouse movement with cursor position had already been illuminated. She favours matching and memory games.

Friday she drew a spider that looked like a spider and a mouse (of the mammalian variety) that looked like a mouse. Sadly, these pictures have not been preserved as they were drawn on the palms of my hands.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Marching on

I finished reading Middlemarch, because I hate reading more than one book at a time and also I'm not very good at it. I find myself unable to focus on anything properly, too much going on, too many loose ends, and the distraction spills into my nonreading life, on top of which there's the feeling of lack of accomplishment, leaving things unfinished, delaying that peculiar sense of satisfaction in being able to cram a read book into its alphabetized position on the shelf.

So I finished reading Middlemarch, because I could, and because I couldn't help myself, schedule be damned, it's that engrossing. And I'm brimming with things to say about it, most particularly in agreement with Virginia Woolf's comment that it "is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people," but on this point I will restrain myself, because there's a schedule after all. But I'm glad I didn't read it 15 years ago, because while I'm sure it would've made some impact, served as a warning of sorts even, I most definitely was not a grown-up.

Would it be premature for me to say this may be the best book ever?! Really, it's that good. You should read it.

I'm loving reading it this way though (aside from not being able to read much of anything else alongside it), rereading sections as they come up for discussion, and again as other people's comments point me to specific passages. I could've read it in a matter of days, enjoyed it and been done with it, but now I'm absorbing it, which leads me to realize how flawed my usual reading experience can be, how much missed potential I've let drift by, which is fine, usually, but some books are worthy of more attention than I give them — the trick is to know which ones.

So I'm already wondering, what next — I mean, aside from the stuff on my nightstand — what else would be suited to this kind of group reading? Dare I say, it's more like school than a bookclub, in a good way, as discussion happens along the way, not in one sitting at the end (though, come to think of it, even at school, books were assigned and often not discussed till they were finished). Still, there are books I did read a dozen years ago from which I might benefit rereading as a grown-up (eg, The Master and Margarita, The Sheltering Sky), and there are classics that to appreciate fully one should take time and companions. But how to know which ones? So what next?

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Science writing

For my daily bread and butter I read, and try to fix, an awful lot of less than elegant science.

In the Guardian, Ian McEwan, in an expanded version of a talk given at the London School of Economics to mark the 30th anniversary of Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, explains why the writing is as important as the science:

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene. There has never been a science book quite like it. Drawing on the work of a handful of scientists, it bound together genetics and Darwinian natural selection in a creative synthesis that amazed even those few who were already familiar with the concepts. It hastened a sea change in evolutionary theory, it affected profoundly the teaching of biology, it enticed an enthusiastic younger generation into the subject, and spawned a huge literature, and eventually a new discipline — memetics. At the same time, and this is the measure of its achievement, it addressed itself without condescension to the layman. It did so provocatively, and with style.

"Individuals are not stable things, they are fleeting. Chromosomes too are shuffled into oblivion, like hands of cards soon after they are dealt. But the cards themselves survive the shuffling. The cards are the genes. The genes are not destroyed by crossing over, they merely change partners and march on. Of course they march on. That is their business. They are the replicators and we are their survival machines. When we have served our purpose, we are cast aside. But genes are the denizens of geological time: genes are forever."

It is a lovely phrase, "shuffled into oblivion", and the analogy with cards — the hand being the information, the cards themselves the genes — is apt, economical and informative: true eloquence. In the years since then, Dawkins' work might be seen as one extended invitation addressed to us non-scientists to enjoy science, to indulge ourselves at a feast of human ingenuity. Just as we can sit around the kitchen table and discuss operas, movies or novels without being composers, directors or novelists, so we can engage with this subject, one more sublime achievement of accumulated creativity. We can make it "ours" just as we might the music of Bach or Bill Evans.

Ian McEwan further proposes a canon of science literature; accuracy is not the most important criterion.

We need to remember the various discarded toys of science — the humours, the four elements, phlogiston, the ether and, more recently, protoplasm. Modern chemistry was born out of the futile ambitions of alchemy. Scientists who hurl themselves down blind alleys perform a service — they save everyone a great deal of trouble. They may also refine techniques along the way, and offer points of resistance, intellectual cantilevers, to their contemporaries.

I say all this somewhat dutifully, because there actually is a special pleasure to be shared, when a scientist or science writer leads us towards the light of a powerful idea which in turn opens avenues of exploration and discovery leading far into the future, binding many different phenomena in many different fields of study. Some might call this truth.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Immigrant stories

I've never been a big fan of short stories. Their length makes them hard to do right — develop the characters adequately, tell exactly all that's required for whatever there is of a plot to work. And when they are done right, you're left wanting more.

Natasha and Other Stories, by David Bezmozgis, is utterly right: charming, poignant, honest. All the stories share the same context.

I found myself wondering how many people would relate to, or at least enjoy, stories of the Russian-Jewish immigrant experience, circa 1980s Toronto. But obviously, this collection has already been widely acclaimed be people other than me. In these stories I recognized little bits of my own past — not strictly "immigrant" and no longer confined or defined by but still, then, firmly within that community, of another Slavic heritage, over the same time period not so far from Toronto. Silly, I know, to be grasping for similarities; but there are insights still into how my family acts and thinks:

My mother noted the size of the house. Maybe three thousand square feet with a big yard. Also, it was fully detached. This was two substantial steps beyond our means. Between our apartment and a fully detached house loomed the intermediate town house and the semidetached house. A fully detached house was the ultimate accomplishment.

I don't know what others will find in these characters' lives. Humour, compassion, suburban reality.

My favourite line:
The sun was neither bright nor hot and the outdoors felt conveniently like the indoors: God's thermostat set to suburban basement.

The Russian Riviera

The Second Strongest Man
A New Gravestone for an Old Grave

Dubbing, Italian-Style

London Review of Books
The National Post

Quill & Quire: profile
The Atlantic Monthly: interview

Reading group guide.

Women, writing, etc

Highlights from an interview with Erica Jong, author of Fear of Flying, which I've never read:

  • If I were running a political movement today, I would focus on children and how parents are being screwed.

  • It's possible to be a writer, a mother and a wife, without necessarily killing yourself.

Monday, April 03, 2006


Fifty years ago today my parents were wed.

My father lived to see but 21 years of marriage. I marvel at my mother's continued devotion to him.