Archive for the ‘Occasional Essays’ Category

Here is my latest, a version of which appeared in The Yummy Mummy Club.

On Buying and Not Buying Books
by Nathalie Foy
December 2, 2009

Susan Hill, an English writer, has recently published a book – Howards End is on the Landing – that chronicles her year of reading and re-reading the books she already owns and (Oh!  Most heroic of feats!) not buying any new books.  What kind of a position does a writer find herself in when she writes a book about not buying books? I hope to find out soon. I’ve just bought it.

I buy a lot of books. I buy more books than I can read. I also buy more pens and lipsticks than I will ever need. I already own more of the latter than I can use in a lifetime, but that doesn’t stop me. What’s more, I’ve already found the perfect one of each, the perfect bold blue-black gel pen that glides effortlessly over every writing surface, the perfect shade of matte red lipstick that does not bleed, flake or dry out. I keep looking and buying just in case there’s something better out there to discover and love.  This is not a matter of infidelity, you understand; it’s simply a matter of enthusiasm. I can always gleefully make the purchase and say, “At least it’s not shoes!”

With books, naturally, there is no sense of finding the perfect one and stopping.  The purchase of one book frequently leads to the purchase of more. And more and more. I discover A Life’s Work by Rachel Cusk, and I want to read everything that she has ever written. The Globe and Mail declares Freddy the Pig to be a lost classic, and I rush off to order it for the kids. (Their library cards are well-used, and we go through dozens of library books a week, but I only end up paying fines for my overdue piles of books from the library.)  My husband once made the mistake of telling me he’d like a book about maps for Christmas. I’ve now bought him about two dozen. I try to sate the book-buying urge by putting books on a wish list. List-making is a vicarious form of shopping, I try to tell myself, and I have several lists on the go. I usually forget or ignore them when I go into a bookstore, though.

One day this summer, I actually took the trouble to print off my wish list and took it to the bookstore. My three beloved boys were someone else’s responsibility for the morning, and I had a clear stretch of time to indulge myself. I found Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road wedged tightly between two other volumes in the literary criticism section. It is a collection of letters exchanged over 20 years (1949-1969) between the author, a book-lover in New York, and booksellers in London who have what she can’t get at home. The letters evolve from transactions of mere commerce to animated and personal exchanges, filled with wit and emotion.

Helene buys a lot of books in those 20 years. In the age before Amazon and Paypal, she sends off lists of her “most pressing items” with the rough amount due in dollar bills. It’s a slim little book. This was a rather flimsy paperback edition printed on inferior paper. I opened it anyway. I had run some errands before heading to the bookstore, and my bags (no pens, no lipsticks) were strewn on the floor and blocking the empty aisle. Soon, I was too.

I sat propped against the shelves, splay-legged, and gobbled it up, cover-to-cover. As I approached the end of the book, fat tears began rolling down my cheeks. There were great acts of generosity, which always make me mist up, and tragedy had struck, but it was more than that. I wept for joy that there was such a story to be told. I wept because there was such love for books in the world. I wept for a self that could never lay claim to being that big a book lover, for a self who sometimes wants to possess more than read. I also wept for joy that I was alone, unburdened of the responsibility of motherhood for a few hours, and I had a pocket of time to myself. I wept to feel so grateful for the solitude.

I fell in love with and did not buy the book. I wanted an edition that would be a testament to how precious that reading experience was. The hunt is on for a good first edition.

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It was horror movie material: rodents falling down the vents, long-dead bodies and a buzzing swarm of flies

This piece was published in The Globe and Mail on October 7, 2009.

A nightmare on squirrel street
Nathalie Foy

From Wednesday’s Globe and Mail
Published on Wednesday, Oct. 07, 2009 12:00AM EDT
Last updated on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2009 2:30AM EDT

I live in a house with “character,” which in many cases means a house to be had at a bargain and fixed up lovingly by a do-it-yourselfer.  In our case, we paid a premium for character and the only thing we’ve done to the house since moving into the house in January, 2008, is to hire someone to put in a laundry room on the second floor.  We hired him because he had worked on our house before we owned it.  It helps to have a person in the know ease the transition into ownership and maintenance.

It was this contractor who first called attention to the problem.  On his regular breaks for “fresh air,” he’d watch the house and soon observed, “You’ve got squirrels in the attic.”  The squirrels to which he referred were literal, not the metaphorical ones I’ve lived with for years.  

So, shortly after the moving vans disgorged our worldly belongings we began the process of squirrel eviction.  The first company I phoned sent out an inspector who confirmed that, yes, indeed we did have squirrels, but there was nothing he could do because it was baby season.  He would phone in June when the babies were likely to be out of the nest, and he’d do the squirrel-proofing then.  June came and went, and I listened to the multiplying pitter-patter of squirrel feet in the ceilings.  In July, when I phoned to remind them of our problem, another man came out to assess the situation.  He also confirmed that, yes, indeed we did have squirrels, but there was nothing he could do because it was baby season.  “But it was baby season when the last man was here,” I protested.  It turns out that squirrels are busy creatures and have two litters a year.  Two months later, when it looked like we might actually get the one-way doors on so that the squirrels could not get back in, the man said that he would not recommend paying for squirrel-proofing, since the wood on the roof and eaves is so rotten that the squirrels will just chew through six inches over from the wire mesh. 

While we were in the process of procuring estimates for replacing the rotten wood, one of our noisy tenants managed to get into the air-conditioning duct in the attic and fell three floors to the kitchen, where he scrabbled madly to get out of the vent.  I called another company, who, it turned out, had worked on our house before.  They had rather a lengthy file on the house, as a matter of fact. 

Enter my hero, Stephen.  He came, he heard, he released the hapless rodent from the kitchen vent.  He also found one of the squirrel’s long-dead kin in the same vent– yet another creature with a relationship to my house that was longer than my own. 

Alas, Stephen did not conquer, not on that trip nor on the subsequent four visits to patch and to put in one-way doors.  The squirrels still had an undetected way to get into the house.  Finally, one snowy day, he came out while the snow was fresh on the roof and tracked the squirrels to their entry-point.  All access was now barred, and the house was quiet. 

All of this had been a mild annoyance.  I did not like hearing the squirrels in the house, I did not like the fear that another one would fall down the vents, nor did I like the thought of what disease and destruction they may harbour.  Mostly, I did not like the idea that my home was permeable.  It rankled, and I wanted to know that the house we had paid too much for was ship shape, tightly sealed, closed to forces of physical and mental disturbance.

One day in late fall, a dozen large bluebottle flies appeared in the house.  “Odd,” I thought.  The next day there were three dozen outside the attic hatch.  I phoned the squirrel people in a panic.  I said I was living on the set of a horror movie and the house was infested with flies.  It was the weekend, but Stephen gamely arrived to inspect the attic.  He contrived to get up into it—no small feat, since the entry is in the wall of the cube-shaped skylight—and did a thorough search.  Lots of squirrel droppings from years past, but he could not find a corpse.  It might be that a squirrel had died in the attic next door to our semi-detached house.  The flies, he said, would soon go through their cycle and leave the house. 

Little did I know what horror movie material awaited.  The next day, I came onto the landing and saw fifty flies in the skylight.  The problem was obviously getting worse.  Impatient for the fly life-cycle to occur and for these vermin to shuffle off their mortal coil, not to mention off of my lovely white walls, I took matters into my own hands.  I sent my husband and our three boys outside to wait for me, and I sprayed insecticide up into the skylight.  The effect was immediate and dramatic: the flies from the skylight fell like rain.  Plop.  Plop, plop.  Plop, plop, plop, plop, plop.  But then an infernal buzz came from inside the attic, amplified, of course, by the acoustics in the skylight cube.  They began escaping from the attic hatch, the buzzing getting louder and louder.  There must have been hundreds still up there.  I ran out of the house screaming, fly corpses dropping on me as I fled.  

This, I tell myself, has been a rite of passage, and the house is now our home.  As I have gotten to know and love our house, its permeability is no longer a major source of disturbance, though its frailties continue to drain our coffers.  The squirrels did contrive to get back in this summer, but Stephen returned and solved the problem quickly, with no further loss to rodent or insect life. 

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