Seven in one blow: Mierau, Toews, and other recommends

We’ve  just spent several days at Hecla Island, probably our last camping trip of the year. The routines and menus of these outings are virtually identical–one leaves the routines of home only to fall with pleasure into the routines of away–but there’s always something interesting that differentiates each from the other. This time it was the garter snake, and next the skunk ambling toward me on the path (diverging to another path before it reached me, which as Robert Frost would say, made all the difference), and then the full body plant in the lake when I stumbled on a slippery rock at the shoreline. And a particular book.

image.phpI’d attended, on Friday evening, the launch of Maurice Mierau’s Detachment, subtitled An Adoption Memoir (Freehand Books), which tells the story of Mierau and his wife Betsy adopting two young brothers from Ukraine. It seemed a good book to read aloud, as we sometimes do when on the road or away, and so we did, beginning on the drive to Hecla and continuing at various interludes–by the fire, over our morning maté or in the evening after H. had dealt with the flies drawn out of the cool autumn evening into the warmth of the trailer (though he never managed seven in one blow like the valiant little tailor of Grimm’s fairy tales fame). We finished the book on the return drive.

Detachment is a moving memoir, not only of adoption–parenting a challenge at the best of times, and additionally complicated when your children come to you at three and five not knowing your language and scarred from loss and orphanage life–but of marriage and how our families of origin continue to shape and haunt us long after we’ve left them. The book opens with Mierau in conversations with his psychologist, which lay out problems for which he’s seeking help. These cleverly establish the confessional impulse of the book, arouse curiosity and sympathy in the reader for whatever “tell all” lies ahead, and suggest the narrative arc  of the story. The story of the adoption and becoming a new family then unfolds in a further series of scenes in various settings–Ukraine, Winnipeg, Cuba, etc. Woven into the adoption story are episodes from Mierau’s past as well as the trauma of his father’s childhood while his family fled Russia after the Second World War. The writing is fine and unembellished, the tone steady and at a slightly cool remove, as befits the emotions aroused by the material. I did find him rather hard on his Mennonite past, especially his grandfather, though when he imagines Cornelius’ death, he grants him slivers of solace in his faith.

A memoir like this is undoubtedly a risk; readers will be tempted to suppose they know Mierau and the other characters (being present in the psychologist’s office and all), though I think I can also say, as a fellow writer, that what they know will be far from the whole. What he’s offered, though, is something deep and true and specific about himself, which touches what’s specific also in us and provokes thought on the universal human quest for connection.

Speaking further of autumn so definitely in the air (the clamoring flies the sure sign of it), let me reach back over my summer’s reading to recommend a few other books.

DownloadedFileAbout Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows (Knopf), the first sentence in my book journal was “This is a seriously good book.”  I loved her A Complicated Kindness, and the same smart funny voice with its over- or undertones of sadness shows here, but even more perfectly integrated, in my opinion, than in the other; the line it maintains is tautly brilliant all the way through. It’s a book about sisters, about one sister (the narrator, Yolandi) trying to keep the other (Elfrieda) alive, this when the women have already lost their father to suicide. There’s so much to say about this book, but this post is already getting long so maybe I’ll just link to The Guardian review, say ditto, and let it be.

513UY8Lbo5L._AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-51,22_AA300_SH20_OU15_I also read some collections of short stories. Walk the Blue Fields by Claire Keegan is a 2007 book, but she’s a writer I particularly want to learn from; her stories are worth the read and the study. The more recently published collections were: Little Raw Souls by Steven Schwartz (great on older characters trying to bring past and present together), You Haven’t Changed a Bit by Astrid Blodgett (taking us skilfully into the heart or emotion of a matter, and excellent on creating a sense of peril), and Cowboys and East Indians by Nina McConigley (set in Montana, and playing intriguingly with the cultural mismatches suggested by the title.)

Now I’m almost up to seven in one blow myself, not flies but books, so just to say that on an earlier camping trip back at the onset of summer, I enjoyed Patricia Pearson’s Opening Heaven’s Door: What the Dying May be Trying to Tell Us About Where They’re Going. The experience of her sister’s dying prompted this Canadian writer to investigate a range of topics like nearing-death awareness, terminal lucidity, “Third Man” experiences, sleep paralysis, out of body perception and more. I’ve experienced sleep paralysis three or four times myself, most recently, actually, this weekend while camping. A figure whose face was hooded neared; was very close. I was terrified but could not speak or move. When I finally found voice, I bossed it off, loudly enough to wake my husband. The hood dropped and I saw the face beneath. A little startling, yes, but more unusual than scary. (Don’t bother asking; I’m not saying.)


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My Life in Middlemarch: a review

DownloadedFileI’ve not read much in the genre of writers writing about their reading, so I may have had some misconceptions about what Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch was going to offer me. At any rate, the expectations I had were almost entirely disappointed.

My reading of Middlemarch, I hasten to say, was no disappointment; I was quite taken with that sprawl of a novel, its plot(s), its portrait of 1830s English life, its pathos and humor, the authorial voice. I supposed, that in then turning to Mead, my reading would be enhanced–deepened–the way a very incisive review or the ideal book club can enhance the experience of reading by way of insight into themes and situations, and solid arguments on this matter or that. And all this with a memoirist twist, as promised in the cover copy–the voice of someone who’s breathed in the air of the text for a long time and is in plump literary health on account of it. Continue reading

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The experience of being honored

Besides celebrating our 40th anniversary last Sunday (Aug. 10) with food and conversation and stories and a slide show that still chokes me up a little, some awfully nice things were said to and about us in that public setting. Our children spoke generously and touchingly, and H. and I had the opportunity to give tribute to one another.

Later, we talked privately about the powerful effect this experience of being honored has had on our spirits. I find myself still moving within the effect of it, in fact, as if in awe, and have been wondering how to describe it. Continue reading


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I’m re-reading Middlemarch by George Eliot in anticipation of Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, waiting for me on the reserve shelf at the library. I plan to get into that book post my finish of the base book, and post the celebration of our 40th anniversary with family and friends this coming Sunday. All our children and grandchildren will soon be spilling into this house from parts east and west for about a week, and yes, we’ve got enough beds and mattresses for the 15 of us. More on that event, perhaps, in a future post. Though maybe not. I’ve already gushed some nostalgic tears, picking photos for the slide show and listening to the songs they’ll be set to. Generally I find it hard to put into words the deepest and most familial of joys. Or maybe I just like to hold them private. But about the books, for sure, later in August.

But this note to say I’m having a lovely summer, my novel manuscript revisions done and me in full break from writing and the weather quite glorious, the birds frequent to the feeder and bath for their pleasure and ours as we watch, and the tomatoes ripening, and the pink-purple petunias sprawling fuller over the balcony railing of the front porch than any year yet. I’m full of anticipation and I feel blessed.

sc0014f93dP.S. A quote from Middlemarch‘Fred’s studies are not very deep,’ said Rosamund, rising with her mamma, ‘he is only reading a novel.’

I guess Fred wasn’t reading Middlemarch; it’s a fine, deep book.


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The M Word

I’ve just spent a couple of days with a collection of essays about motherhood. About life with a uterus, as Kerry Clare puts it. It was like slipping into this wonderful story circle, 25 articulate women speaking honestly of being–or not being–a mother. Choices or surprises. Twins. Abortion. Miscarriage. Child death. Step-parenting. Single mothering. Infertility. Delightful children. Difficult children. Now and then, when the children were especially demanding and the writer felt herself turning into someone, as Deanna McFadden puts it, “crammed into the corners of her own life,” I longed to put my hand through the page with a pat and say, It gets better. Usually it does, I think. But such a typically maternal gesture, isn’t it? Coming from the stage I’m in now, which is post-Mother in a way, easier on every level but with some terrific adults in my life who happen to be my children. Me still, and again, in Heidi Reimer’s words, “gobsmacked and humbled”by their existence. Continue reading


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Does the First World War belong to me?

The first question Susan Sanford Blades asked me in an e-mail interview about “Mask” was, Was this story informed at all by any of your personal experience (via family etc.) with the war? (“Mask,” which will appear in The Malahat Review this summer, concerns the repercussions of an English soldier’s facial injury in the First World War.) A perfectly appropriate question, perfectly innocent, about the story’s origin. When I read it, however, I reacted with an inner gasp of panic. Does the First World War actually belong to me? 

It had never occurred to me to me that it didn’t, but in that moment, before I went on to answer Susan, it loomed large. Did it belong enough, that is, for me to use it in a story?    Continue reading


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A bow to the past in Kansas

In the spirit of the rather fitful reporting to which this blog has devolved, I’m here this Monday afternoon to say that I was away four days in Kansas, hanging out with historians and archivists. (I believe I’ve mentioned before that these are some of my favorite people.) I’m on the Historical Commission of the Mennonite Brethren (MB) denomination, which meets once a year, rotating between the four archival centers in Kansas, California, B.C., and Manitoba. We hear reports from the centers, undertake various publishing projects (including both scholarly and popular history–last year’s was the fascinating mystery-biography, It Happened in Moscow by Maureen Klassen, which has sold astonishingly well), sponsor research grants and an archival internship, and occasionally plan symposiums, all to foster the preservation of, study of, and reflection on our history. Continue reading

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