February, and I’m trying not to spend too much time scrutinizing the lengthening light. The eastern sky is blue-tinged when I fill the coffeepot and put on the oatmeal, and when I clear the supper table I can make out the treetops to the west scrabbling at the clouds. It’s cloudy more often than not. The snow is scant; last week the temperature soared and destroyed the finally-skateable outdoor rink at the local park. I’d gotten out just twice, once with N, who turns 5 next week; a successful outing, but necessarily slow. (I like to go fast, preferably in the dark.) I felt like I’d failed the Canadian parenting test when in mid-January her school had a mandatory – mandatory! – morning at a nearby arena and I realized that she a) had no skates and b) worse, had never been skating before. The boy next door has, by contrast, been taking lessons since age three. Fortunately, she is always happy to try new things, and was joyful and giddy with imbalance, not afraid to get back up again, and again, and again.
My reading has slowed with the cold. I need a big, thick, propulsive novel right now – maybe one of the standalone Ferrantes? I’m wading slowly through Grace Paley’s collected stories with no desire to rush, but I need something on the side. I abandoned Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello in the middle of one of the title character’s vegetarian exhortations a month ago to read other things, and haven’t felt pulled back to it yet. I have had to give up, permanently, on Louise Penny’s Gamache mysteries. (So many typos! The inhabitants of Three Pines are witless! The fourth time that she reminded me that Myrna, the used bookstore owner, is large and black and likes to eat a lot – this was in a span of 120 pages – I threw the book across the room.) Is it too much to ask that Tana French put out a new book every six months? I’m still reading a lot: the New Yorker, my big print-subscription indulgence, every week, and probably way too many ephemeral things online. I always read The Toast‘s daily link roundups, grateful to have smart feminists curate some news of the world for me.
What I have been reading in droves are children’s books. N received James and the Giant Peach for Christmas, and we raced through it in a couple of days. In early January she asked me to read Charlotte’s Web, and I was happy to oblige, though the timing could have been better; we finished it on the fifth anniversary of my mother’s death, which meant that I spent the last chapters weeping uncontrollably, the children rubbing my arms in consolation. “It’s OK, mum, Charlotte’s babies are safe! She saved Wilbur!” N and S reassured me, which only set me off again. But then, watching an adult weep at the ending of an EB White book is basically a rite of passage.
On Friday, we finished Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in what can only be described as a binge. N had A and I reading it in the mornings before our departure for the school bus, in the afternoons after her post-school refreshments, and before bed at night. It’s such a trip. N’s whole body was tense with anticipation and worry that Charlie Bucket would starve or, possibly worse, fail to find a golden ticket. I realized a couple of things: first, my childhood copy (or, childhood library’s copy) was not illustrated by Quentin Blake. I’m not sure how this could have been, but I’d never seen his hairy, dishevelled little Oompa-Loompas before. I remember a succession of grainy, almost pointillist illustrations; Mike Teavee looked more like the cowboy in Toy Story than Blake’s Tarantinoesque mini-villain. I also felt a strange, decidedly adult discomfort with the wholesale relocation of the tribe to Wonka’s factory on the basis of his reading of their culture – they no longer have to eat caterpillars, ergo, their new lives of underground servitude must be an improvement. It reminded me of Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees, and Norton Perina’s adoption of dozens of children from the archipelago he’s casually and obliviously destroyed. I have other problems with Dahl as an adult reader (namely, how few adult women are worthy of trust and love, and don’t try to tell me Miss Honey is a real grownup), but as he makes plain, I’m not really his intended reader, and it’s impossible to deny the joy that his imagination brought me as a child, and now, my kids. S, 2.5, loves him, too, and will spend twenty minutes examining the page in James where the mouthy centipede is coated with rainbow paint and rendered totally immobile. “He’s got paint on him,” he tells me happily. I imagine I’ll be revisiting the whole oeuvre in the not-so-distant future.