Sunday, 21 August 2016

The Disappearing Act of Stay-at-Home Mothering

If you are wondering about the strange photos I chose to illustrate this post, they are every single photo I took in the past eight months that did not have the children in it.

Have you noticed how so many mothers replace their own Facebook profile pictures by one of their children? Especially if they stay at home?
Of course you have, it's everywhere! 

Not me, I'm on my profile picture. If you strain your eyes, you can make me out behind the boys. Totally bucking THAT trend!

Now it's easy to chalk this up to the usual motherhood clichés, you know, because stay-at-home mothers talk of nothing but nappies and poo. (Although, in my experience, people rarely ask me about anything else, so what am I supposed to do? Remind them that mothers don't shed their brains along with the placenta? Preposterous!).

Or you can simply point out that, hey, children are really cute! And people replace their profile picture with all sorts of stupid stuff (to which I will say, yes, I know, but I want to talk about something here, so we'll pretend it's nothing so easily explained away, you big spoiler-of-blogpost-intro!)

No, unsurprisingly, I don't think the self-deletion of mothers out of their own profile is something to merely shrug off. Or simply declare (like a childless woman who spent an hour explaining to me when it was appropriate to have children) "you are SUPPOSED to be ready to give up your entire life in order to have children!"

What if I don't want to give up my entire life once I have children? What if I don't think it's right? 

You see, the reality of it is that "society" (hateful, unhelpful word, I mean "everyone around you who buys into the secular worldview") will then say both that you should just go back to work already and that you brought those children on yourself, therefore they are your problem to deal with (take the Pill woman!) Which is, obviously, incredibly helpful: If you stay at home, you're a useless non-contributing, brainless member of society, and if you dare to complain about it, you're saying that your children shouldn't have been born.

Thanks society, I'm so glad we talked!

I happen to think that staying at home with my children is the most important thing I can be doing. In the whole world. I also happen to believe that just because something is hard doesn't mean it's not worth doing. And staying at home with my children is worth doing, not in a check-and-balance way of every poo incident against every "I love you", but because I am raising persons, and I don't think any job I could do could be more important than that (which is further helped by the fact that I neither have a career I love nor desperately need the money).

My faith also teaches me that dying to self, sacrificing for others is what I should be doing. That God sees me and who I am, even if no-one else does. I know I can be the cathedral-builder whose work is for God's eyes alone. 

And yet, and yet.

And yet I can't help but wonder whether I am simply disappearing behind the children, whether my thoughts and fears, all the whirling world between my ears will eventually dry up and disappear, or worse, explode. Is this the burying of the talents, or the dying to self? I want to be a stay-at-home mum, but I sometimes doubt there is even an I left to be.

Consider this:

You read an article/book, your form thoughts, opinions. Being a choleric type of person (hypothetically) you want to express them. But first you have children to feed, bathe, dress, amuse and repeat, a house to clean, tidy and repeat.
You meet some friends who, luckily enough, share your faith and situation in life, who will understand you, so you start telling them about the book/article, but then a child does a thing, so one of you stops and deals with it, then you start again, but another child does another thing, and repeat. There may be a gap at one point, in which case you pour out as much of your thoughts as you can, disregarding the exhaustion in your friends' eyes, and they try to answer, but a child does a thing. In this halted way the time passes, and eventually every one goes home. Where you can feed, bathe, dress, amuse, clean and tidy and repeat, until your husband gets home. But it's the dinner-bath-bedtime rush so you two are on managing mode until all is quiet and the children are in bed and you can talk, at last. 

Unless you're too tired by now.
Unless you need a woman or merely a third party's opinion.

And what if what you want to hear is "me too"?

I used to have weekly meetings with two friends, without our children, nominally so as to discuss The Imitation of Christ. But we often strayed into anything and everything. We would laugh, cry, discuss uninterrupted. And it was glorious. 

But then life happened and we stopped. And I know not everyone needs to express every opinion. Not everyone is willing to leave the children behind, not everyone can. But I feel like I am slowly being erased into silence and invisibility and although I do believe staying at home with my children is what I should be doing, I am considering outsourcing the most important job in the world and get any other one instead, just for the sake of some human companionship.

I guess what I am trying to say is, go get yourself a book club, people. 

Saturday, 13 August 2016

The Random Mid-August Book Dump

I understand that most bloggers offer a reading guide at the beginning of summer (on the strange assumption that summer somehow allows more time for reading - and maybe that is the case for non-parents on a beach, but I'd wager that's a fairly small minority of people; besides everyone knows that reading on the beach is extremely uncomfortable [on your front, your arms ache from digging in the sand, on your back they ache from holding up the book - strategically so as to cover the sun - sitting up, your back seizes up and by that stage you have to come to the conclusion that reading is just much nicer indoors - at which point you discover you are badly sun-burnt despite your factor 50 hourly lathering, and so huffily pack up and go home, where you belong]).

Why yes, absolutely, the beach is my favourite place! Can you tell?

But the beach with small children is a lot of fun.

Where was I?

Books. I was talking about books, before parentheses happened. 

So, one would expect I would offer a list of books before the summer, or at least wait until the end of the year to assess what I have read, but I want to talk about books now.

So I present to you: 

The Random Mid-August Book Dump

Here are the books I have read so far in 2016 (because I need some kind of break-off point), or failed to read, or am still reading.

Classics I Should Have Read a Long Time Ago:

Heart Of Darkness - Joseph Conrad

I really enjoyed this one, even though I had VERY low expectations. Turns out it's not a pamphlet, or a Marlon Brando film. Just a really good story.  
For some reason I often half-expect all classics to be dull and then end up pleasantly surprised. Apart from Henry James. He is actually dull. Like, toothpicks-to-keep-eyes-open dull. 
I snapped this one up for free on Audible and it was read by Kenneth Branagh, who was, unsurprisingly, very good. Maybe once he's done all of Shakespeare for the cinema, he can do all the classics for Audible? (Kenneth always listens to me, so this is totally happening).

The Chronicles of Narnia - C.S. Lewis

I know, right? What's wrong with me?
In my defence, they are not read to children in France, so it's one of those where I have to play catch up. And I had already listened to a dramatisation a couple of years back. 
Anyway, I think Voyage of the Dawn Treader is my favourite. I think C. S. Lewis suggests Heaven much better than he describes it (looking at you The Last Battle).

Don Quixote - Cervantes

My thoughts here.

Men at Arms - Evelyn Waugh

I think I like it. I'm not sure Guy feels quite simpatico. Which is probably intended. Anyway, I'm giving it time, because the genius of Brideshead kept coming to me long after I had finished reading it. And because I don't have a choice, because I'm out of Audible credits. Waugh somehow manages to incorporate moments of comic genius (basically, Apthorpe) within a delicately drawn atmosphere of melancholy and mild decay. Haunting.

The Space Trilogy - C.S. Lewis

These were so good, they probably need their own post. Especially Perelandra. "What has been lost" indeed. And the Un-Man! Terrifying. Although I wonder if you need to be a Christian to appreciate that? My friend who read them before she converted remembers finding them preachy at the time.

A Wrinkle in Time - Madeleine L'Engle

I quite enjoyed it. I was a bit puzzled by one reference to Jesus as apparently the equivalent of Da Vinci, which sounded (looked?) annoyingly like the Jesus-as-great-teacher malarkey, but otherwise it was solid, well-written and I do want to read the others. Just as soon as our bank account recovers from my last Amazon order. 


Ten Christians - Boniface Hanley

Inspiring. Although the writing was not always up to the stories it told. But then again, condensing such stories into a dozen pages doesn't leave much room for subtleties. But it's a good intro.

The Temperament God Gave You - Art and Laraine Bennett

This one was a lot of fun, and quite a few good tips. 
I'm always dubious of books/gimmicks that claim they are going to change your life, because they don't (bullet journals? They're just diaries - with an inspirational video). This book is no exception. But it's fun and interesting, and has some good reminders. And I get to be called a dynamo. And feel a bit sorry for my parents.

L'Histoire d'une Âme - Saint Thérese of Lisieux

You know how sometimes you meet people who are definitely better than you, inspirational, clever, nice, and yet you don't really like them? Like that. With lots of guilt.
I wish I wasn't so shallow and could appreciate sanctity in all its forms. And there was a lot to take away. Maybe I just need to actually read it? The narrator on audible was appallingly saccharine. 

Murder-mysteries Binge Reading

The Inspector Gamache series - Louise Penny

Pros: will make you want to visit Quebec. Will make you hungry. The pace is nice, you do generally get who the killer is before the reveal, but not so soon that the entire book feels superfluous. Also, Louise Penny knows how to create an atmosphere. 
Cons: it gets VERY repetitive (how many times is it strictly necessary to mention Gamache's "soulful brown eyes"?) And I don't buy her description of the human psyche. Or art. And she talks about those more and more as the books progress. So I'm not reading any more of these.

Dead Cold
Gut-wrenching description of an abusive mother. A believable portrayal of elderly friends not simply marked by their elderly-ness. But be warned, there is a very annoyingly obvious letter enigma that the detectives seem unable to see until the very end.

The Cruellest Month
A seance, old friendships and a good mystery. Would have been worth it anyway, just for Rosa the duck.

The Murder Stone
A dysfunctional family, an isolated hotel. I liked "the ugliest man alive".

The Brutal Telling
Antiques. A cabin in the wood. A scary story. Shame the whole book rests on Olivier being a believable character. Which he isn't.

The Long Way Home
I skipped a few, because I was just not interested in Penny's over-arching thriller about the Sureté, and picked up again after the novel where everything came to a head. There is a lot about art in the book, and I disagreed with basically all of it. Penny only seemed to remember she writes murder mysteries and not tourism brochures at the very end, by which point I had just given up on the whole series, and the final scene didn't change my mind.

The Lord Peter Wimsey Series - Dorothy L. Sayers

Dorothy L. Sayers is the opposite of Louise Penny, she adds layers to her characters as the books progress. And despite Lord Peter's superman-like achievements at everything, all her characters and their motivations feel quite human. I read Gaudy Night last year and read all the later Lord Peter Wimsey books (post Harriet) as a result but I was yet to read the earlier ones, which are delightful. Maybe less depth, but more sheer enjoyment. And the puzzles are great (of the kind that keep you guessing until the end, but not because she kept entire swathes of information to herself, which always feels like cheating in a murder mystery). I only have one more to read. Which is very sad.

Whose Body
A mysterious body in a bathtub, who is NOT that of a recently disappeared financier. Clever, immensely entertaining. Plus I discovered Inspector Parker, who was barely present in the later books, but is a great character.

Cloud of Witness
Peter Wimsey's siblings become suspects of murder. Also, you will chuckle with the author at the end if you know French literature well. If not, it's still a great puzzle. And the drunken scene at the end made me very happy, for some reason.

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
Problems in times of death and war veterans. Sayers re-visits shell-shock very ably in this one. 

Unnatural Death
An incredibly chilling murderer in this one, but an impossibility to prove foul-play, and a good twist I had not guessed! How I love those!


A Walk in the Woods - Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson does the Appalachian Trail. As always, dry wit, a lot of amusing anecdotes and joyful failure. And Katz. Katz is just great. Going for walk as a way to pass the time after weeks of hiking, "because that is sort of what we do".

Father Elijah - Michael O'Brien

Set at the end of the 1990s, a fantastic Apocalypse in modern times: orthodox, believable, chilling and it will stay with you long after you close the book. I wonder whether I should read the others?

SPQR - Mary Beard

Not very useful if you don't know anything about Roman history, but fascinating if you have just finished listening to The History of Rome (which you should listen to) and want to know the historical debates, controversies and methods used to create the narrative we know.

As You Wish - Cary Elwes

Quite fun. The writing is not exactly great, but the anecdotes are very enjoyable, especially if you know The Princess Bride by heart. Which I do.

The Martian - Andy Weir

So much fun. A few added scenes (and lots of language) compared to the film, but I still enjoyed it a lot despite having already seen the film when I read it (bonus point: I was reading it in Matt Damon's voice in my head). Not exactly great literature, but that is not the point.

A God in Ruins - Kate Atkinson

Urgh. Kate Atkinson. I keep reading everything she writes, and I keep getting mildly annoyed. There always is a hippy mother, a strict, cold one, and childhood trauma of some sort. And the twist at the end is not particularly original. I think I should have read Life After Life instead, but I am getting Second World War fatigue at the moment. How about the rest of history, writers? Not interested?

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child - J.K. Rowling

My (horrified) thoughts here.

It's All in Your Head - Suzanne O'Sullivan

O'Sullivan is a neurologist who specialises in seizures, and whose experience of patients with pseudo-seizures gave her fascinating insights into the wonders of psycho-somatic disorders. A very necessary book, which needs to be widely read to help relieve the shame of patients who are made to feel like "it's all in your head" is synonym to "you are faking it". Very good.

Books I am still reading

What? Doesn't everybody have ten books on the go at once?

The Pilgrim's Progress - Bunyan
The next in the classical education project. I need to remind Simon that we are supposed to read it. We both kind of conveniently forgot after a dozen pages. SO dull. Or maybe not exactly dull, more annoying. Must power through.

Scoop - Evelyn Waugh
I have picked this up so many times, but I have been stuck for months. I just keep getting the impression I am missing the jokes altogether.

The Inklings - Humphrey Carpenter
Very interesting look at C.S. Lewis, his brother, Tolkien, Charles Williams and their friends. Lots of fun titbits and insights into favourite authors. My uncle gave it to me when I was 17, but you know, better late than never.

The Way - Josemaria Escriva
I am reading it one chapter at a time at adoration on Saturdays. Aphorisms like a kick in the bottom. Escriva doesn't pull punches, and that is just what I need.

The Imitation of Christ - Thomas a Kempis
I started this one as Lenten reading with two friends, but then babies and jobs happened so that we had to discontinue the book club. I'm still hoping we'll get to resume soon. Maybe for Advent?

The Divine Comedy - Dante Alighieri
I am currently listening to it, but I think this is a book that needs to be read (even though that statement goes against everything I believe about poetry). Maybe I need to read then listen again? I just keep feeling I've missed things, and losing my way.

Paradise Lost - Milton
This one is such a revelation being listened to! I am loving it!

The Wallet of Kai Lung - Ernest Bramah
Because it was mentioned in Strong Poison and Gaudy Night, I had to check it out. Quite funny. I am not taking it as an accurate representation of China in the early twentieth century though, never fear.

The Thrifty Cookbook - Kate Colquhoun
So many useful and clever tips!

Station Eleven - Emily St John Mandel
This just arrived at the library for me, so I am only 3 chapters in. But they were good chapters!

Book I abandoned

Taliessin Through Logres

As I was reading The Inklings, I was very curious as to what Charles Williams' writing was like. The answer, in the words of my friend: obscure, very obscure. So I gave up. I'm not even pretending to keep this in the "currently reading" list. 

Coming Up Next

Everyone Brave is Forgiven

Although I am fed up with the Second World War, I've ordered this one through the library. Because I have no logic. 

Three to Get Married

As per Auntie Leila's advice. I can't wait to get to it!

Officers and Gentlemen
Unconditional Surrender

Also known as: the rest of the Sword of Honour trilogy. Come on Audible! Renew credits!

A Wind in the Door
A Swiftly Tilting Planet
Many Waters
An Acceptable Time

Or: the rest of the Time Quintet. I just really like Meg.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: a Review

These days I have a rather ambivalent view of Harry Potter. 

I used to love the universe so much but now I am not sure anymore. The whole debate on whether or not it is bad for Christians to read is leaving me mostly bewildered, so I wouldn't hazard an opinion on that particular can of worms, but I am rather puzzled as to whether it is just good literature. It's certainly fun, and the story is engrossing, but the older I get, the more wooden the characters seem to be, and the dialogue appears dangerously close to naff.

I still sent Simon to pick up the new one for me yesterday, if anything because otherwise my 17 year old self would never have spoken to me ever again (yes, we dialogue frequently, don't you?). It is a play, and so also an extremely quick read, but that is just about all the good I have to say about it. I think the choices which were made for this latest instalment were systematically the wrong ones. 

For those who haven't heard, the story follows Harry Potter's son Albus, and his friend Scorpius (son of Draco Malfoy) going back in time for various reasons. I haven't liked it much. The whole going back in time thing seems mostly devised to pander to a nostalgic audience, by revisiting some iconic episodes from the previous books, the plot more of an after-thought cobbled together as an excuse for people to fork out more money, rather than just go back to read their favourite bits. It's as if the playwright (it is not very clear whether that is JK Rowling herself)was constantly making little in-jokes then pausing expectantly, as if to say "Get it? Get it?"

In the original stories, the truly mesmerising part was the wizarding world, its rules, wonders and complexities. Most of the characters, and especially the main ones, didn't ring particularly true and the plot was not going for originality (which is not a problem in itself, just a fact about the type of story it is). What kept people (or at least, me) coming back, was the detailed inventions of the world Rowling created.

Enter the play. Which subtracts the wizarding world altogether. 

Now, that may be different if you actually go to see the play, I don't know, but I doubt it. The action systematically fasts forwards through the daily life (out of necessity due to the lack of space in a three-hour play) to leave us purely with actions and quips (which are occasionally funny). Very little time is spent at Hogwarts, most of the action seems to be happening in various offices, where people have crises and make jokes.

Dialogue was not Rowling's strong point, it still isn't. The whole failed relationship between Harry and his son is complained about but never explained or indeed properly shown. It is more declared into existence by the characters, and the same goes for most of the action. It's only towards the end that we are finally given any kind of insight into the two new protagonists (Albus and Scorpius) and therefore start caring about them, which is exactly the wrong way round. The habit Rowling had of describing the school year, and then packing the action right at the end may have been a tad predictable, but it made sense. You cared for the characters before they were in danger.

And the characters are the main flaw. The dialogue simply fails to bring them to life. Harry is a rather unconvincing father (my sister would say he was already an unconvincing teenager) and Albus makes very little sense. Rather than letting us guess at the characters intentions, which is the beauty and ambivalence of theatre, here everything is over-explained and spelled out, and the explanations just don't convince. Everything is nicely tied together with a bow, people are neatly psycho-analysed, but it doesn't work. 

So I am going to pretend this new episode has not been written, because it is rather an argument for the "against" column when I ponder whether the whole series is something good and true I want to introduce to my children.