03 June 2013

My PeNoReMos, or: How I Learned to Read while Parenting a Baby

I owe NaNoWriMo an apology.

Two autumns ago, I wrote a thousand words or so poo-pooing the entire idea, mostly because a detailed perusal of nanowrimo.org failed to turn up any editing advice. It was all, "you go, writer! write that novel! let it be as bad as it needs to be!" without any "and then here's the year's worth of work you'll need to do to clean it up."

And then, last November, I signed up. I had a four-month-old daughter and a middle-grade novel I'd outlined in the two weeks between her due date and when she was actually born, and writing 1,600-odd words a day during naptime seemed like a good way to jump back into writing daily. (I was wrong, but more on that later.) To my surprise, long past November I kept getting NaNoWriMo e-mails full of support for next steps: revising; finding/creating a critique group; querying; self-publishing if you're up for that. So, I was totally wrong that NaNoWriMo treats writing a novel as though the first draft were all. It turns out they do provide resources for getting from first draft to finished book. Oops.

NaNoWriMo would have even been fun, if I'd actually managed to write--at all--during that month. Turns out just when you're trying to get your four-month-old to nap in her own cot is not the best time to plan on writing two-three hours a day. Who knew?

But all was not lost. Instead of National Novel Writing Month, I instituted a new goal just for myself: my Personal Novel Reading Month. Like many a new parent, I had gotten into a bad internet habit. Since I didn't have the willpower or discipline or energy to get back to writing just yet, I decided I could at least make sure I read something besides blog posts and facebook updates. And so I gave myself a strict limit on naptime web-surfing, and spent the rest of my free time reading books.

Clearly, we passed on the
reading gene.
It's a thing I did before I was a mom. Since we moved to Dublin when our daughter was six weeks old, I've been building a whole new life from scratch, rather than incorporating parenthood into the life I already had. At times it's felt like the Me I'd gotten to know and love over 38 years had been obliterated by the changes in my life since my daughter was born. I desperately wanted some way of reclaiming that old self, and felt as though the Irish Sea was between me and all of my options: I wanted to grab a drink with an old friend, but they were all in London or New York; I was ready to get back to my former volunteer work, at least in a limited way, but the school where I volunteered is in London; I would have loved to go to choir practice and sing the Bach St John Passion this spring, but I always did that with the St Paul Cathedral Chorus - in London.

In part because I had a new baby, finding new friends, work, and hobbies in my new home was a much bigger job than I had the energy for (see my previous post). It didn't help that, as I found out last week, I've been severely anaemic for pretty much all of 2013. Now that I'm taking iron supplements I feel like I can conquer the world, or at least stay awake past nine at night; but from January through May just getting to the end of the day felt like a Herculean accomplishment.

Reading, though. Reading I could do. Thanks to the iPhone, whatever book I was reading would fit in my pocket and could be pulled out and read as soon as the baby's eyes drifted closed, especially during that three-month stretch when she was almost always sick and could only sleep comfortably in someone's arms. My daughter's long-running head cold had me reading three, even four hours a day, and now that she's better I'm in the habit and still manage at least an hour over the course of the day.

The best part: for the first time in years, I feel like I'm reading purely for enjoyment. Not with enjoyment as a by-product of keeping up with what's current in my field, or picking books to assign, or analysing the writer's craft. I'm reading what I want to, because I want to, and those other things are the side benefits.

So, what have I been reading in my copious spare time? So glad you asked!

(The Best of the) Books I've Read in the last Six Months, In No Particular Order:

Narrative Nonfiction
Okay, so I'm not reading exclusively novels.

Fraud and Half Empty by David Rakoff. Man, I wish I'd known about this essayist before he died - the memorial episode on This American Life is a hell of a way to learn about work I should have been reading all along. Rakoff had an interesting life, in a low-key sort of way - he once played Freud in a department store Christmas window display - and makes it seem... not relatable, but as though it's beside the point whether you relate to it or not. He is going to write beautiful sentences, paragraphs, pages, and you're going to feel your neurons rearrange themselves as you read them. Don't take my word for it: go read "Isn't it Romantic?" from Half Empty, and see if you can ever again listen to the opening song from Rent without feeling distinctly uncomfortable.

A Parisian martini!
Paris, I Love You, But You're Bringing Me Down by Rosencrans Baldwin. An expat memoir! I read this on vacation in France and it was a very effective inoculation against the "why can't we get posted here?" wistfulness I usually get on visits to Paris. Frankly, I want to read his wife's memoir. While Baldwin was working at a glamorous advertising agency on assignments that sent him to, say, villas in Bermuda to interview Sean Connery, his wife was writing away in an un-airconditioned apartment with construction on three, then four, then all six sides. And she couldn't get a job to get out of the house because of her dependent visa, and they couldn't afford to move because they were living on one income. At least Baldwin is sensitive enough to her predicament that this is the major detail I remember from the book.

Novels! For the Young (but old folks should read them, too)

The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr. Oh, how I wish this book had been there for me when I was a teenager. Such a familiar problem (the challenge of being true to both your art and your life) in such a rarified world (not only can the family in the book fly the best piano teachers over from Russia and get them US citizenship, they also have a full-time private cook). I got so worried about the title character I had to put the book down at several points and take some deep breaths, and I practically cheered at the very-satisfying ending. Zarr also includes a playlist at the end of the book, and any day now I'm going to go through iTunes and re-create it.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. I had to read this in small chunks. Not because the baby interrupted, but because I needed to absorb all the wonderfulness a bit at a time - and since I was pretty sure the ending wasn't going to be unambiguously happy, I didn't want to get there too fast. I wonder if I would have had the guts to be friends with Eleanor or Park if I had been in high school with them. I also wonder when Rowell's next book is coming out, and how extensive a back catalogue I have to enjoy until then.

Second Chance Summer by Morgan Matson. A family goes back to their old lakeside vacation house for one last summer. Someday, you may read this book. You may find yourself maybe, say, 50 pages from finishing it as you are on your way to run errands, which will also involve having lunch out, by yourself. You may think to yourself, "I will bring this book with me and finish it over lunch." Do not do this. Unless you are comfortable with waiters seating people far away from you and giving you a wide berth while you hold your hand over your mouth and choke back sobs.

The Diviners by Libba Bray. This is so not my kind of book. Look at those other three: down-to-earth novels set in the real world, about teenagers facing heartbreaking choices. Not a whiff of the paranormal. I downloaded this one because it was Halloween and I needed to start my PeNoReMo somewhere, and for some reason I thought that meant I should read something scary. And oh, it is. Ouija Boards, and scholars of the supernatural! Would-be flappers! Demonic con men! Really gruesome murders! And a race against a heavily-portentous comet! All things I usually avoid in my reading; all things that Bray's writing, plotting and pacing made thoroughly enjoyable in this one. And now I can't wait for the next in the series.

Novels! For the Old (but young folks might enjoy; who knows? My favorite book when I was fifteen was The Prince of Tides.)

The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer. You thought I was going to recommend The Interestings, didn't you? Like everybody else? Fooled you! Actually, I started to, but then I realized I wouldn't tell you anything you haven't already read. Instead, I'm going to divert your attention to a 2008 novel by the same author, about a group of women trying to figure out what to do with their lives now that the kids they left the workforce to raise are turning ten. I was almost halfway through the book before I figured out what the actual plot (as opposed to the situation) was - and I didn't care. I'm a sucker for a beautiful, honest moment, especially a rueful one, and this novel is full of them. It is also, once I realized what was actually happening, really beautifully structured. I'm also a sucker for craft. (Be warned that if you have any musical ear at all, you will find yourself with the phrase "Rise, sorrow, 'neath the saffron sister tree" going through your head at odd moments.)

Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. I hadn't heard of this book - an epistolary novel about gossip and intrigue among the parents and administrators at an elite Seattle school - until it started showing up on Best of 2012 lists. Those lists were right. I didn't see a single element of this book coming, but they all made perfect sense once they showed up. Plus, the prose is snappy and crisp and the reading experience just flat-out enjoyable.

Have you read any of these? What did you think? What should I read next (I ask, as if my to-be-read pile wasn't in serious danger of swamping my nightstand)?

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