What I’ve Been Reading (Part 1)

I began 2018 with a book about jigsaw puzzles (because I did 37 of them last year, which just sounds crazy in retrospect, though it was a crazy year with Trump et. al., plus a transitional year for us): The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws by Margaret Drabble. The book ranges about Drabble’s childhood, childhoods in general, games, mosaics, city spaces, working outward from jigsaw puzzles, and reminiscences of her Auntie Phyl. Jigsaws began in the 18th century as dissected maps used as teaching tools; there was a boom in puzzle purchases after the 1929 stock market crash. I liked the author’s personal stories and reflections on puzzling but grew bored with the rest. “Sitting over a jigsaw as an adult, one may well feel foolish.” Yes. “One of the pleasures of the jigsaw-puzzle world lies in that safety, of knowing that all the pieces will fit together in the end.” That too. 51xJlH133+L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_

I forget where I heard about The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane, but it was the “old person” angle that compelled me into it, on account of my new blog on aging. This debut novel is astonishingly good—beautifully written, an eerie and growing suspense, but also the feeling (for me) of a very rich life, whether “really true” for 75-year-old protagonist Ruth or not. In other words, if dementia is this internally rich, well… maybe it’s not so bad. However, there’s much more to the story, which I must not give away. Reviewer Rachel Hore, in The Independent, called it “a wonderfully evoked portrait of old age that disturbs and elevates in equal measure.” The book was hard to put down.download (2)

Can a long-married retired couple’s getaway to Amsterdam, including its small details concerning taxis and suitcases and baths and tooth brushing and meals, be interesting? In the hands of Irish writer Bernard MacLaverty, it can. Midwinter Break tells of Gerry, who has a drinking problem, and Stella, who wishes to leave him and fulfill a vow she made to God long ago while pregnant. One is left pondering marriage itself, both its stresses and strengths.


Roddy Doyle’s latest book is rather ironically titled. I read Smile on the flight to and from Saskatoon to visit my mother, a fact that has nothing to do with the book itself except that the cramped unremitting imprisonment of a narrow seat in a short-haul airplane flight is small suffering compared to the awfulness of sexual abuse of minors by the Irish Christian Brothers. Doyle is an accomplished writer but the subject, handled here with a twist, is grim.

One of the book blogs I frequently visit is Kerry Clare’s “Pickle Me This”. She had a giveaway lately, and guess what? I won Things To Do When It’s Raining by Marissa Stapley. I read this book on a flight as well, this time to Toronto to see our children. The trip being longer, the seat a smidgeon bigger, this attractive, curl-up kind of story about a young woman’s return to the place she was raised, with secrets, plot twists galore, and the reminder to “choose love” was a great fit for those hours in the air. Like Kerry, I was charmed by the items from the “list” of the title that open each chapter. (Her review here.)

Discussing the recent Mennonites and the Holocaust Conference at Bethel College with a writer friend, we reminded each other of the importance–the necessity really–of fiction and poetry to flesh out the complexities, human stories, and nuances of difficult pasts. I can’t think of a better example of this than Rachel Seiffert’s A Boy in Winter. While seeming at first a “typical” Holocaust story — sad, tense, cruel — the characters and their response to the historical situation in which they find themselves is both what we might expect but also either more or less. Particular, that is, and thus recognizable. And, even the best or worst intentions can have their unexpected consequence. And bravery, Seiffert commented in an interview with Eleanor Wachtel, often looks like fear.

What have you been reading lately?



Yalve Sanga

We’re two weeks in the Chaco, Paraguay, where my husband grew up and his family still lives. We spend most of our time with relatives and friends. That’s why we came. But there’s one thing I want to do myself. Just the two of us, I mean. I want to go to Yalve Sanga, where we lived for two years in the early 1980s on a development assignment, set foot there again, walk about in anonymity, no one along to expound or explain. We no longer know anyone there; as the centre of indigenous programs (medical, educational, religious, agricultural) in the region, staff come and go; the community is fluid. H. has no pressing urge to return, but he’s willing to indulge me so we borrow a car and drive the half hour or so, dodging pot holes in the asphalt out of Filadelfia and along the TransChaco. It’s hot. As we turn off the highway onto the dirt road leading to Yalve Sanga, the car churns up dust and it hangs in the air behind us.


We park and walk. Past the bit of  “pond” where I was for a while “the best mother ever” when I let the boys jump into the water in their shorts, alongside Enhlet boys they’d been watching longingly from our picnic blanket nearby. Past houses, trying to remember which was whose, and which have been redone or disappeared. Around the corner then: “our” place. Oh my! The house that rose from a patch of earth much the colour of its bricks (stripped of kamp grass when the house was built and new, because of snakes) is now encircled by a hedge flowering yellow, and the curve across the ploughed field where the bulldozer and other machines stood between jobs is lined with hedge too, almost romantic it seems, both hiding and revealing as we follow it in, and there it is, doors, windows, wash line, shutters, cistern. We don’t have to go closer, no one’s home anyway, which is good, this isn’t about meeting the current residents. I already know the rooms, the layout, I drew the plan and H. built it for the sponsors of the machine station project, and we lived in it. But look at it now, everything so tidy and green, even more green in garden and grass, and trees planted close to the house for shade.




The same house as above, as we moved into it in 1983.

Is it gladness I feel — on account of this evolution — or envy? Both, briefly, yes, but I’m staring it back to its original, thirty-five years ago. I see the bones of its beginning, and we the first, H. and me and the children, the girl crawling the path from Shattendach to shed, the dog’s attentive eye on her, oldest son back and forth to school in his white shirt and navy pants, younger son at play with his slingshot and kugels against the bird noise of the algorrobo tree, the only tree there is. Or the two of them chasing about. With their happy shouts.

ScanIt’s the fine dry sand like puddles between ridges of hard earth and the heavy heat that sets me back into those years when I was thirty-two and three and four, when I had children in my arms. We wander on, murmurs of memory between us. The mulberry bushes seem to be gone, the chapel too. The soccer field at the school is overgrown. It’s a day school now, no longer residential. Something large is being built across the street. Everything feels the same but completely different too. There’s construction sound, and motorcycles now and then, but I’m struck by an overwhelming sense of quiet, of peace like sleep. But it teemed, didn’t it — then?

H. takes a photo of me in front of flowers tumbling over a fence. The buzz of bee and butterfly among them is overwhelming, as if the past has concentrated here — all the former liveliness, energy, passion, complication, joy of our lives. Good times, busy times. Busier than they should have been, of course. They always are, when families are young. A very old Enhlet woman comes by, ragged, stick in hand, bag over her shoulder, and when we smile and gesture a greeting, she laughs, a clear tinkle of a laugh like pleasure, as if she’s Mother Yalve Sanga herself who knows you can’t live in the past but a bit of a visit now and then won’t hurt either.