“My heart and the gray world grow young”: Sophie Jewett’s “To a Child”

IMG_4651This past weekend, Dear Readers, my sister gave birth to the most beautiful little girl. She’s our first niece and H’s first cousin, and we’re so excited that she’s here (and we can’t wait to meet her!).

Naturally, I’ve had poems about babies and birth on the brain, and let me tell you: there are a lot of cotton-candy sweet poems about babies out there if you care to look, but also quite a few that are nuanced and lovely (Don Paterson’s “Walking with Russell,” for example,  is a fantastic father-son/parent-child poem).

Sophie Jewett’s “To a Child” is old fashioned, a quiet and simple poem. Its speaker looks back on early parenthood from the position of age, using a metaphor of a tree and a bird to show the parent-child relationship:

I was a dreaming forest tree,
You were a wild, sweet bird
Who sheltered at the heart of me
Because the north wind stirred;

It reminds me of Margaret Wise Brown’s The Runaway Bunny (one of the all-time great children’s books, and beautifully deconstructed in Margaret Edson’s beautiful play Wit). In the story (and aren’t children’s stories often very much like poems, with their rhythmic cadences and repetitions?) , the baby bunny says that he will run away, and the mother replies that she will find him, “for you are my little bunny.” In one scene, he says that he will become a little bird and fly away, but “If you become a little bird and fly away from me,” said his mother, “I will be a tree that you come home to.”

Welcome home, Cora!

A Book in Need of a Book Club: Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau

photo 2 (4)I found Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau* to be well-written, intriguingly structured, and deeply frustrating.

This last characteristic is a measure of the skill Ms. Essbaum, who is a very well-regarded poet, brings to her characterization of Anna, the eponymous hausfrau.

Anna is an American who’s lived in Switzerland for many years, but who’s never felt at home in her adopted country. Outwardly, her life seems orderly and comfortable. She is married to a handsome and successful banker, has three beautiful children, and lives in a charming suburb of one of the world’s best cities.

Inwardly, Anna is a mess. She has trouble making friends, her husband is emotionally distant, and she doesn’t speak the Swiss variant of German, so she feels constantly isolated, even from herself. It’s difficult for her to understand her own feelings and impulses. To combat her isolation, Anna starts Jungian analysis (one of the best parts of the book, I thought), German classes, and ill-fated affairs.

As I said, Hausfrau is very well written—calibrated to elicit the reader’s undivided attention and inability to look away from Anna’s increasingly disastrous life. The narrative arc covers only a few months in time, but each chapter reaches back to past events and is molded by Anna’s conversations with her analyst, an interesting strategy that I came to admire as I adjusted to it.

Anna is very much alive, but reading about her was exhausting; I often felt overwhelmed by the details of her thoughts and experiences. And this is why I think this book screams for a book club: some readers are going to hate her, others are going to be entranced by the full psychological portrait, and some are going to feel both ways at once (yes, that’s me).

Spoilers ensue. 


If I were part of a real-life book club, here are some things I’d want to talk about.

photo 1 (3)1. The heroine’s name is Anna, she’s adulterous, and the first chapter involves trains. Anna Karenina much? We all knew what was coming, right?

2. If Anna is so unhappy because Bruno is so emotionally distant (and prone to violence, though it’s not clear how far that goes before the last episode), why doesn’t Anna get a divorce? Why not even talk about it or think about it? I thought this was unrealistic. Marriage certainly didn’t define Anna to such an extent that she’d be adrift without it. She’d be adrift no matter what.

3. Anna’s failure to recognize her privilege annoyed the hell out of me. She does not need to worry about money at all (this is a complaint I have about a great many novels, as I discuss in this review), but doesn’t seem to appreciate this gift.

And while being the at-home parent is challenging (believe me, I know), she is not juggling working from home at the same time, her children are healthy, and she has so much help! Her mother-in-law is available to her almost at-will (and at no cost), freeing Anna up to take German classes and have sex with various accented men. She sends a text and Ursula magically picks up her sons from school. She calls Ursula and suddenly she has a night free to spend with her husband. Ta-da!

I’m all for at-home parents taking all the help they can get, but as someone who doesn’t have in-home help, or daycare, or my child in school, I cannot believe that Anna doesn’t take better advantage of her free time—which she’s had for years. I can imagine a person in the heady rush of child-free time taking a few weeks to adjust and figure out what to do with themselves, but years? No. Honestly, it drove me crazy that Anna devoted so much time to navel-gazing and destructive behavior instead of learning the local language, reading a book, writing a novel, volunteering, getting another degree, going to a museum, or for heaven’s sake, just taking a nap. 

On the other hand: Am I being too harsh? Is Anna in the grip of profound mental illness–depression seems the most likely–that somehow accounts for her myriad irresponsible choices and inability to appreciate the good parts of her life (particularly her children)?

4. I found it weird that I’m reading a novel in 2015 that punishes a woman for having sex, even adulterous sex. Very nineteenth-century novel.


End of spoilers.

Anyway, I recommend this book for its writing and because people are going to be talking about it, and if you read it, you will definitely have something to say.

I’m off to find a collection of Ms. Essbaum’s poetry, because I’m guessing it’s amazing.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

On Meditation and Poetry and Neil Fischer’s [As if the moon could haul through you]

CarolynOliver_MountAuburnCemetery_October2014I’ve been thinking about mindfulness lately, which is, I realize, sort of ridiculous; instead of thinking about mindfulness, I should just be mindful, right?

I do try, but then there’s always something in the back of my mind– a project for a client, how much Christmas gift-planning I have left (hey, I start early but my Decembers are very relaxed), books to read, reviews to write, wondering if my son will ever outgrow the vegetarian-except-for-bacon-phase, wondering what color I’d paint my front door if I owned a house with paintable front door (purple, but what shade?), how often I should be checking to see if Leonard Cohen is going on tour again,  which houseplant I’ve brought closest to death this week, how much I wish Parks & Rec season 7 was on right now . . . and so on.

I have a few friends who practice meditation,and they seem calmer and better adjusted than I feel, but every time I think about getting a meditation app or reading a book about how to meditate, I’m distracted by something (often a small something who likes to wear three shirts at once, demands very specific, non-findable episodes of Super Why, and recently expressed a need for a “poem-book,” thereby bringing his mother to tears).

Which is all a long way of saying that my one small step toward meditation is reading poetry. Sometimes—most of the time—I can’t read a full collection, but one poem? I can do that.

So this week I’ve been reading and re-reading Neil Fischer’s [As if the moon could haul through you], which is gorgeous, and is about clearing the mind, even if it fills the reader’s with heady images (“the purl of south-bending river”—I swooned, almost).

Recommended Reading: To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf

To the LighthouseAttempting to write a review of To The Lighthouse makes me feel rather like Lily Briscoe about to take up her brushes:

Where to begin?–that was the question, at what point to make the first mark? One line placed on the canvas committed her to innumerable risks, to frequent and irrevocable decisions. All that in idea seemed simple became in practice immediately complex; as the waves shape themselves symmetrically from the cliff top, but to the swimmer among them are divided by steep gulfs, and foaming crests. Still, the risk must be run; the mark made. (157)

It’s been about ten years since I read To The Lighthouse, and I’m glad it’s found me again just now. I’m a devotee of Mrs. Dalloway to such an extent that I know the page numbers of certain passages in my copy (I’ve taught it three times at least), and there’s a family joke that the correct answer to any question is probably Mrs. Dalloway.  I want that kind of familiarity with To the Lighthouse.

I read Persuasion while I was reading To the Lighthouse, and what struck me as I read was the startling interiority of Persuasion, and the way it almost leads up to Woolf’s style “Stream of consciousness” doesn’t do Woolf’s writing justice because she creates and chooses such fascinating characters whose consciousnesses to follow. Woolf in this novel is primarily concerned with women’s perceptions, making visible the unseen and silent struggles of women’s everyday interactions.

The first section of the novel often floats in the currents of Mrs. Ramsay’s thoughts. If Mrs. Dalloway is the perfect hostess, Mrs. Ramsay is, outwardly, the model of the Victorian “angel in the house” (an ideal Woolf satirized in an essay) — she’s a wife, mother, mistress of servants, and anticipator of others’ needs. But Woolf shows us the turmoil under her deferential demeanor. Here’s Mrs. Ramsay after her husband dismisses the notion of a trip to the lighthouse the following day, ruining their six-year-old son’s hopes:

To pursue truth with such astonishing lack of consideration for other people’s feelings, to rend the thin veils of civilisation so wantonly, so brutally, was to her so horrible an outrage of human decency that, without replying, dazed and blinded, she bent her head as if to let the pelt of jagged hail, the drench of dirty water, bespatter her unrebuked. There was nothing to be said. (32)

So she doesn’t say anything, and seethes.

Though she is a doting mother, kind and sensitive to the needs of her eight (!) children of varying ages, Mrs. Ramsay recognizes the need for her own time. My friend Katie wrote a funny (and spot-on) post recently about how difficult it is to find portrayals of life with small children in fiction. I think this passage, though, captures what it’s like for parents, especially at-home parents, to sit down at the end of a long day:

No, she thought, putting together some of the pictures he had cut out–a refrigerator, a mowing machine, a gentleman in evening dress–children never forget. For this reason, it was so important what one said, and what one did, and it was a relief when they went to bed. For now she need not think about anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of–to think; well, not ever to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others. Although she continued to knit, and sat upright, it was thus that she felt herself; and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures. When life sank down for a moment, the range of experience seemed limitless. (62)

“The range of experience seemed limitless” — that’s a good way to describe this book. The novel is broken in three sections: “The Window,” “Time Passes,” and “The Lighthouse” — but it’s difficult to convey the plot. A family and visitors gather at the family summer home before the First World War. After that last summer, some people drift away, some die (including a major character, in one sentence at the end of a paragraph), and the war happens. Ten years later, a few of the guests and a few of the family gather again at the house. I haven’t made it sound like much, but somehow, the novel is about art and life, men and women, children and parents, love and death, and above all, change. It’s brilliant and beautiful and never, ever sentimental.

Lily, as the artist, solitary and devoted to her work, seems to stand in for the author at times. In this passage, which I’ll leave you with, her description of life itself could describe To the Lighthouse:

And, what was even more exciting, she felt, too, as she saw Mr. Ramsay bearing down and retreating, and Mrs. Ramsay sitting with James in the window and the cloud moving and the tree bending, how life, from being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave which bore one up with it and threw one down with it, there, with a dash on the beach. (47)

An Eighteenth-Century Gentleman Who Hated Exercise Even More Than I Do

One of my favorite acquisitions from my summer of bookstore love is this little gem, The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes (1975). It’s just what the title suggests: little anecdotes about famous literary figures, from Caedmon to Dylan Thomas. The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes photo by C.R. Oliver

Now, as I’ve written before, my parents are prolific readers who read aloud to me and my siblings well into our teenage years. My dad read me Queen Margot (Dumas), From Dawn to Decadence (Barzun), and Moby-Dick, among others.

But we never made it through Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, not because I disagreed with his analysis of the decline in civic virtue, but because I was bored to tears. Gibbon is a renowned stylist, and his footnotes are chatty and ironic. But frankly, my dear Gibbon, I don’t give a damn. I’m fairly certain that this was the start of my distaste for the eighteenth century’s history and literature. After all, it’s pretty difficult to top Paradise Lost and the Defenestration of Prague.

However, reading this little anecdote—

Gibbon took very little exercise. He had been staying some time with Lord Sheffield in the country; and when he was about to go away, the servants could not find his hat. ‘Bless me,’ said Gibbon, ‘I certainly left it in the hall on my arrival here.’ He had not stirred out of doors during the whole of the visit. (109)

—made me feel as if perhaps the pudgy English lord and I would have gotten along after all. As long as we didn’t talk about the Roman Empire.

Feeling Restless After The Ten-Year Nap

The Ten-Year Nap finds four friends, women who live in New York, contemplating the choices they made about parenting and professions. The four all gave up their careers about ten years ago (hence the title), and some regret the decision; others are comfortable with the lives they’ve chosen.

The Ten-Year Nap 

It’s a testament to the talents of Meg Wolitzer that even thought I didn’t care for this book, I still borrowed two more of her novels from my local library. She’s very, very funny — keep an eye out for Amy Lamb’s reaction to her son’s favored reading material.

The novel follows all four women, plus one more character who drives the plot, and then veers off to show vignettes in the lives of women related the main characters. I felt that the novel never settled, as if Ms. Wolitzer couldn’t decide which person she was most interested in exploring; there’s fodder here for two or three novels.

Another aggravation for me was the jacket copy (no surprise there), which described the characters as middle class. Um, no. Maybe two of them are middle class by New York standards, as my friend Katie pointed out, but by any other standard these women are wealthy, wealthy, wealthy, with the luxury of choosing whether or not to parent their children at home.

Occasionally they glance at the lives of the less fortunate. Roberta, for instance, flutters in and out of left-wing activism; at the private boys’ school attended by three of the friends’ sons, poor children of color are invited for a yearly visit that is halted after an incident (there’s not too much plot to give away here, but nonetheless, I refrain.). Even Jill, whose adopted daughter comes from an understaffed Russian orphanage, spends her mental energy focused on herself, without much thought for the other children left without adoptive parents.  I found these women unlikable, but I suspect Ms. Wolitzer is trying to point out foibles that we might find in ourselves: a tendency, no matter our political leanings, toward self-centeredness. We draw back from the world we see out the window.

The Ten Year-Nap also made me uncomfortable because it hits close to home. I’m the at-home parent to our son, and though he’s too small for school now, I do wonder what I will do, how I will feel, when he’s ten, or twelve, or fifteen. Even if I wanted to enter the workforce right now (I’m ambivalent, given H’s age), or go back to grad school to finish my PhD, we couldn’t afford it. Yes, you read that right. Daycare is so expensive here that it’s cheaper for me to stay home than to work as a teacher. And for other women the situation is reversed: they can’t afford not to work. As I often explain, it’s a complicated calculus, one that will probably hold for the next few years, though I hope not forever. I love my child and will do my best to see that he arrives safely at adulthood as a kind and loving person, and I think that’s a worthy goal, a worthy and difficult occupation. But I want to contribute something more to the world —not necessarily something better, just something more.

To me, The Ten-Year Nap implies that the women it follows had done something wrong, some disservice to themselves, by parenting their children at home. Even the title is diminutive, implying that the women are childish (not a rest or a sleep, but a nap). Maybe it’s the suggestion that these women are asleep to themselves that I find annoying; why can’t one be oneself and an at-home parent too?

Have you read the novel? What did you think?