Wednesday, November 28, 2018

November Book

Recently I've been thinking about how strongly I associate books with particular months or times of the year.

Last week I shared my October Book and why it suited October. Previously, I talked about the surprises of rereading a book I always associated with September (which may more properly be a May book).

Which brings me to November, the month of my birthday.

Back in the Days of Yore, a calendar (printed! on paper!) was considered a wonderful and appropriate (and somewhat affordable) gift for a hard-to-buy family member--a father, say, or a brother (or three). In my experience, November gets the most boring pictures. The best are January (usually the cover), something stunning for a summer month (often July), and a cozy interior scene for December, which if not explicitly about Christmas is at least about indoor warmth, hot chocolate, and a roaring fire.

Of course, being me (a person who holds meaningless grudges against monolithic institutions and incoherent concepts long past the usefulness of the grudge, institution, and concept), I began to choose calendars based on their November pictures. If November was a dud, I didn't buy it. Take that, capitalist society!

For many years, I made calendars for my family from photos of this place, and I put the BEST picture in November. Which was sometimes harder than it sounds, because I used photos from that month in that month. And even in this place I love so dearly, November can provide a cold, grey stretch and a muted palette of grays and browns.

The general disrespect for November--a month to be hustled through, days to draw an X through before the end-of-year feasts and gift-giving--is why, as a young child, I was so pleased to read the beginning of this chapter of my November book, Little Women.

Jo March was also born in November! Set aside the fact that trouble does come for the March family, in a big way, in November. Good people were born in it--ambitious people, idealistic people, real people.

I've learned through the years that Little Women is often considered a December or Christmas story. Not for me--it's November, all the way through. And that didn't change in my most recent re-reading.

One element of the story that stands up the best, for me, is Alcott's distinction between wise resolutions made in a moment of inspiration, and the daily, everyday drudgery involved in carrying them out. That's November right there, in all her glory.

I found a few surprises this time through. The book is far more dense than I remembered, with lots of descriptions of everything from flowers (wild and in bouquets) to clothing (furbelows and tarlatans and tulle) to dancing in ballrooms to ruins in various European cities to buildings on the street in the business sections of US cities (Boston and New York, presumably). That element made this reading just a whole lot of fun.*

So much has been written about all the characters. A recent article in The New Yorker by Joan Acocella beautifully summarizes and analyzes all the interest in Alcott and her "story for girls" throughout the years, as well as some of the autobiographical details that are left out, hinted at, or slipped in.**

Like most little girls who a. wanted to write and b. never knew the proper thing to say in social occasions, I identified with Jo. Through the years I grew to appreciate her efforts to try, in various ways, to learn from the virtues her sisters possess. For example, when Amy, not Jo, is chosen to go to Europe, Jo says, "I'll take a leaf out of her book, and try not only to seem glad, but to be so, and not grudge her one minute of happiness; but it won't be easy, for it is a dreadful disappointment."

As a writer in a community of writers, being glad for others--truly being glad, not just seeming so--is a handy virtue (and not easy). 

This time around, I found kinship with different character--much to the surprise of this never-pregnant non-mother, it was Marmee. Yes, Marmee possesses extraordinary wisdom and has an uncanny ability to to provide comfort and sympathetic counsel to her daughters--not like me at all. But, despite the loving family gathered around her, she is relentlessly alone. As we all are, eventually. Imagine my shock when, after skipping ahead five years from Jo's marriage at 25, the family celebrates Marmee's 60th birthday. Just 60! How young she was, not even 40, at the beginning of the story.

Of course, it's impossible to read anything beloved from childhood without noticing uncomfortable erasures. Many stereotypes tossed out casually. Many voices simply not there. I thought of Hannah, perhaps because of Longbourn, by Jo Baker; and of the poor immigrant families who are the object of "charity," even for the also-poor March family; and the reasons for the Civil War that looms so large at the beginning of the book. I noticed that in this work, as in many of Alcott's stories, "going West" holds the answer to everything--but "the West" was not actually her romantic vision of it, and the people she blithely assume would "succeed" there were destroying whole peoples.

I can't defend all that, so I won't even try. I'm older now--not yet 60, but not far off, and closer to 60 than 35, to say nothing of Jo at 15 or 25 or 30. Like Marmee, I see the world with different eyes than the March girls. Now, I'm sorrowful, slightly more patient, and less (or perhaps differently) idealistic.

I have learned--am still learning--to see beauty in all the many shades of gray. I'm grateful for the chance to experience them in this re-reading of my November book.

* Also: horses, hats, and lots of rowing. What is not to love?
** I don't agree with Acocella's dismissal of Little Men and Jo's Boys, however, nor her boredom when Amy's European story and Meg's household trials become central after Beth's death. But that's OK. We all read with different eyes.
Wednesday, November 21, 2018

October Book

In September, I posted about a book that I always think of in September. I meant to do one in October, but I didn't have a chance to revisit this old friend until now. So even though it's November, here's the October book: Mrs. Miniver, by Jan Struther.

No, not the movie, lovely though Greer Garson might have been in it, and important though it might have been in showing Americans what was at stake in the war they had so far (in 1940, when the book was compiled and published) refused to enter.

Nope. It's the book, the text of which is available online here, along with lots of notes about what was and wasn't "real," and what made it into the movie and what didn't. I think it's worth reading, but I'm biased.

Actually, this book could serve as a September book as well. It begins in September of 1937 and ends just after war is declared in September of 1939. In a series of slice-of-life vignettes set roughly two per month (evidence they originally appeared serialized), Mrs. Miniver reflects on life and its changes with perception and generosity.

And I associate it with Christmas. One of my favourite scenes is Christmas morning in 1937. The three children of the family--Toby, fiveish; Judy, nine; and Vin, who's old enough to be off at school (this is an upper-class family) but home for the holidays--come into their parents' bedroom and open their stockings. It's a lovely scene, "laced with an invisible network of affectionate understanding," as Mrs. Miniver watches how her children approach the stocking toys. As it's time for morning tea, the moment ends. 
Mrs. Miniver looked towards the window. The dark sky had already paled a little in its frame of cherry-pink chintz. Eternity framed in domesticity. Never mind. One had to frame it in something, to see it at all.

On a recent morning, I sat in our lakeside family room, waiting in the dark for the sun to sidle above the horizon, and thought of those lines.

My mother, about whom I write so much, first introduced me to Mrs. Miniver. I was probably in high school, and read it without much understanding of the greater issues or the context it which Jan Struther wrote. However, I found Mrs. Miniver perceptive and thoughtful and enjoyed the book for that reason.

My mother ensured that I wouldn't forget Mrs. Miniver when she gave me my very own copy of the book--a signed first edition, at that. More important to me is the sight of my name in her handwriting, on the note that accompanied this Christmas gift.

Now that I too live with a sense of impending doom, increasingly aware of treasured rights that some have never had and the rest of us can easily lose, I feel differently about the book. Yes, I see the social inequalities of the time and I recognize that they persist today. Yes, I see attitudes toward poverty and race that are, frankly, uncomfortable to sit with.

But I also see a writer struggling to express, in her time, the surprise and inevitability of war. The impossibility of conversation with people about politics. The similarities between her own young son and the young German-speaking boy at a Swiss pension where she stayed briefly. The pride in learning reef-knots and first aid and neighbourhood responsibilities. I feel a kinship with Jan Struther and her alter ego, Mrs. Miniver. 

Re-reading this book during the past few days has let me spend time both with the perceptive Mrs. Miniver and with my own insightful, brilliant, surprisingly sentimental mother.

What a gift it has been to read this book, in its imperfect glory, this season, and remember why it's a good book to read in any month. With gratitude. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2018


This morning I noticed that our outdoor thermometer showed very little red. The temperature has been dropping recently, and it got cold last night: near 0F/-18C.

Although I'm still limiting my social media exposure, I do cross-post a photo to Facebook and Instagram, usually daily but sometimes not. Taking and sharing photos is partly an act of attention and partly an act of caring for my extended family. They enjoy seeing random day-in-the-life moments from this lovely place I live, which has meant so much to our family.* 

So: the thermometer. I considered taking a picture of it. I considered what I'd say: "Soon, this temperature will lose its shock value, but today? Yikes."

I didn't actually take the picture, though. I thought maybe something else interesting would turn up. The lake looked interesting, and I was up early enough to watch the light change.

So I started my morning social media/email check-in. Facebook showed me a memory from this date four years ago. The thermometer, at nearly the same temperature. Nearly word-for-word the "shock value" quote above. Predictable much?

Every year, I try to embrace winter as it appears. I really do enjoy winter. After I have mitts in all the jacket pockets, after I remember the rules for scarves (fleece go with coats that have velcro closings; zipper-closed coats are safe for knits), after I have zipped the warm lining into the shell, I'm happy to bundle up and get out in it.

However. I sometimes find transitions difficult. Well. Given that post from four years ago, apparently I always/usually/often find this particular transition difficult. So I'm right on schedule for this cycle. Which is reassuring, I suppose.

And as I continue thinking about attention--mine and the attention of others--I wonder what other cycles I'll find. One thing's for sure: it's time to re-acquaint myself with my sweaters.

* Or perhaps my family is just being nice. But it's still a lovely place and I still enjoy taking the photos.
Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Paying Attention

Here are a couple of quotes from What Light Can Do, collected essays by American poet, translator, and critic Robert Hass (2012).

"One of the things I love about the essay as a form--both as a reader and a writer--is that it is an act of attention. An essay, like a photograph, is an inquiry, a search....There are a lot of different ways to write essays, a lot of different ways to say thing, so the pleasure and frustration of writing essays is that you are often discovering the object of inquiry and the shape of the search at the same time...."

And later: "The deepest response to a work of art is, in fact, another work of art."

I've been thinking a lot about attention. Times when giving attention to something grants it power. And other times, when something gains power through our inattention, when we deliberately ignore it or maintain ignorance about it.

For the past few months, the Thunder Bay Art Gallery has hosted a national touring exhibition of Uprising: The Power of Mother Earth, images by celebrated Métis artist Christi Belcourt with artist and storyteller Isaac Murdoch.

The exhibition is important for many reasons, and it's worth reading the museum's page about the exhibit (linked above) if you can't experience it first-hand.

The images are breathtaking. The number of images allows you, wandering through a space, to see how her work has changed. You can see where she has placed her attention and how she directs your attention. How backgrounds, even away from "the action" of a piece, can reward your attention. How she considers elements many times in different forms, saying something (or allowing you to see or hear something) different every time.

I've been thinking about the quotes and the exhibit in relation to attention. Specifically, where I put my attention.

Where do I direct my attention? Where should I?