Things I have learned from novels, a short list: enter all cupboards that look maybe magical because they might well be magical; most of everything I know about Canadian history; the geography of PEI; too much about the Blitz; some things about scuba diving. All this to say whenever I read a novel I learn. If nothing else I learn what I like from writing, but usually there’s something in the plot/setting/character/theme that is interesting or new or important that I haven’t come across before. Part of why I like novels (so much) more than non-fiction is that most often this teaching-learning happens by accident, by way of story. Like oops you just learned a whole thing about whaling (but seriously, Moby Dick is a bad example of this kind of learning because of the endless chapters just describing whaling implements).
Digression. R. is really into made-up stories where I tell him a “Golidlocks” story, which is really just any story with the main character named Goldilocks. Usually Goldilocks is a squirrel that lives in a radio tower. ANYWAY. I recently remembered that I could use these made-up stories in a very heavy handed way to reinforce annoying parenting lessons about crossing the street, or being kind, or not-throwing-rocks-at-your-sister.
So not actually a digression. Because it turns out that Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby, is a similar sort of story. One interested in teaching the reader some things about trans women and sure that the only way to do so is if The Story is Very Clear. The only problem is the reader is (probably not) a preschooler, and so some more subtly wouldn’t hurt (tbh some more subtly would probably be appreciated by R., too). Which is not the same thing as saying the book shouldn’t offer the reader insight or a perspective on being trans and wanting a baby, more that there’s some kind of difference between a story that invites a reader to empathy and experience with a character and one that explains what a character thinks, feels, and wants in a way that is meant to teach you about it. I fear I’m not explaining the difference well. Ha ha.
Whatever the case if you can get past the explaining this book has merits. Like some of the writing is good. And it was novel for me to read a book exploring queer families and I sometimes think things about maternity and parenting and bodies and so I appreciated the chance to think afresh on these ideas. It also had a decent, if somewhat dissatisfying, ending. Oh and some properly funny scenes.
In the ten plus years of writing Literary Vice I’ve never commented on the death of an author (though I’m sure I’ve rambled about the death of the author at some point). And for good reason. While I have favourites whose work I seek out and enjoy, I’m mostly not bothered by biography or terribly interested in the what’s what of an author.
But I wanted to mark Beverly Cleary’s death because her books, and the Ramona series in particular, matter to me. I’ve written here before on how Ramona offered me a certainty and comfort in moments of distress and it remains true these quiet stories of a remarkably curious, imaginative and determined girl, achingly aware of how she is meant to fit in but never quite does… resonate.
One of the best gifts I received when I was pregnant with R. was the boxed set of Beverly Cleary. The gift, from C., was intended, I’m sure, for R. but was, of course, for me. I remember opening it and being so excited for the moment I’d be able to share the stories with a small human, and excited more for how that small human might also come to love a world of true-to-a-child challenges overcome by persistence, caring adults and asking for help. Sort of like the world I hoped might be possible for my child.
R. listened to Ramona for the better part of an hour tonight (I’m no hero, we have the audiobooks out from the library), as he has for the past months since discovering them. And now he asks simply for “another Ramona” and I have accrued a small fortune in fines because he Cannot Part with Ramona the Pest. And I cannot say no to a small human who loves Ramona as I do.
I know Ramona doesn’t and can’t connect for all readers the way it did for me, and so I offer this note of appreciation without my usual urging that you seek it out for yourself or a child you know and love. More that I wanted to say I am grateful – always – for the magic worked by stories. And grateful for the work of Beverly Cleary in creating and sharing Ramona with me. These are books I love.
Like The Emperor of All Maladies, Robert Kokler’s Hidden Valley Road takes the exploration of illness as its focus. A biography of a disease, I guess you could say. Though woven through with the proper biography of the Galvin family: twelve children, six of whom have schizophrenia. Where this book is at its best is in exploring how researchers develop theories of the illness, challenge on another, reform theories, test them and grow frustrated with the limits of what can be known, or is known. Which is to say, the book is most fascinating when it’s thinking about the nature of how we know things – an irony, perhaps, in a book about an illness that radically alters the way reality operates.
I did find the narrative of the family captivating. (True, I’d probably find a biography of any family with twelve children engaging: like how many loaves of bread do they eat in a week? And where do they all sleep? And how prolapsed is a uterus after that many babies?) But captivating aside, I think on the balance the family element was more unsettling than it was revealing. Even while the book tries to emphasize that schizophrenia cannot be ‘blamed’ on environmental causes, or more properly ‘bad mothering,’ the narrative nevertheless slips into a sort of trauma porn element that risks reinforcing the idea that mental illness is caused by inattentive moms. Similarly, just as the book – at least toward the end – poses class advantages as one factor in different experiences of mental illness, the attention to class as a significant determinant of how schizophrenia will be experienced by the individual is under examined. (I mean, there is some discussion of how treatment options varied depending on access to private versus state-run hospitals, but little is made of this except to say that there are differences). And I didn’t relish the moments where some of the children’s hallucinatory episodes are captured – as if verbatim – I guess in order to shock the reader? And finally the book offers only a glancing nod to the idea that individuals with schizophrenia might elect not to take medications with harsh side-effects and might instead suppose that the people around them adjust their expectations of a stable reality.
All those issues raised, I think I’d still recommend it, if only for the way it explores the way schizophrenia is more a symptom (like a fever, the book at one point suggests, is a symptom of an infection) than a single illness. And also for the answer to how many loaves of bread. Spoiler: many.
I’m not sure reviewing Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is what I want to do with what remains of this nap. So instead I’ll note that I read it. And had some feelings about it. Also that it was the third non-fiction book IN A ROW that I have read (and I’m reading another one right now). So much for not enjoying non-fiction.