November 28, 2009

The Mongoose Diaries

The Mongoose Diaries: Excerpts From a Mother's First Year by Erin Noteboom
Nonfiction (Memoir/Parenting)
2007 Wolsak and Wynn
Finished on 11/23/09
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)

"The truth is I remember only fragments."

With these words, award-winning poet Erin Noteboom starts the story of her daughter Vivian's birth. In vivid and graceful prose, Noteboom shares jewel-like fragments of her first year as a mother. A year that does not start with a birth, but with the death of her sister and contains not only first words, but the end of remission for a painful medical condition. Whether discussing her libido, which may be lost under the laundry, or how the sea stripped even the rings from her sister's fingers, The Mongoose Diaries is a courageous, funny and captivating work.

Rod and I first met Erin's dad and stepmom four years ago at our grief support group. Like us, they too were grieving, trying to work through the tragic death of their daughter, Wendy. After a couple of years, Rod and I stopped attending the meetings, but we stayed in touch with Wendell and Judy. Several months ago Wendell stopped by B&N with a copy of Erin's book, The Mongoose Diaries, as well as two collections of her poetry. Like a good friend, Rod immediately read the memoir, telling me how much he thought I'd enjoy it. He went on to say that Erin is a wonderful writer and that I'd like the humorous anecdotes about Wendell's granddaughter, Vivian. He also told me that the book has some sadness in it, but not so much that Erin's grief for her only sister overshadowed the joy of her new role as a mother.

I'm embarrassed to say that it took me several months to finally get around to reading this delightful book. In my typical fashion, the book went from my TBR stack on my desk to the one on a bedroom dresser to the one on my nightstand. Book club selections and ARCs kept bumping their way to the front of the line and it wasn't until recently, when I once again saw Wendall at B&N, that I realized how rude I'd been to not set all my other reading aside until I'd read his daughter's book.

Thank goodness for that visit to B&N! As soon as I finished my current read, I immediately picked up The Mongoose Diaries. It was late in the evening and in spite of being completely exhausted after a long day at work, I could not put down Erin's book! I even jumped out of bed, shivering from the chill in the house, as I ran into my office to grab a stack of Post-It notes. I crawled back under the covers and read until I realized my laughter was keeping my husband awake. I read more the following day on my lunch break, again laughing out loud, and I even wound up reading passages to my co-workers. The book could easily be read in an afternoon, but I read it in bits & pieces, savoring the humor and respectfully contemplating Erin's grief.

A sure sign that I've discovered a great book is:

* One that's littered with sticky notes (25 for this one!)
* One that makes me want to read all my favorite passages out loud to anyone who'll listen
* One that makes me want to buy my own copy after reading a loaner
* One that inspires me to buy copies for others
* One that has me composing (in my head) an email to the author
* One that I plan to read again and again

The Mongoose Diaries is a great book. It's one I'd love to buy for all my friends who have recently become mothers, as well as those who still remember what it's like to fall in love with a beautiful and precious, yet squalling and inconsolably demanding, newborn.

I laughed.

On exhaustion:

January 6 [Vivian is 8 weeks old]
Reaching! She gets cross-eyed in her efforts to reach the yellow rattle on her bouncy chair. Cries in delight when her fist makes contact with it. She keeps it up for half an hour. Such focus! Mine is nowhere near that good. Yesterday I got into the shower with my clothes still on.


January 13
It's the timing that gets to me. This morning I'm so tired, craving just an hour's more sleep with an ache I can feel in my knees. I nurse Vivi, James changes her, brings her to me, heads to work. She looks sleepy, thank God. I lie down next to her. She opens her eyes, smiles at me, and fills her pants. Right. I get up and change her. She is all coos and smiles and needs to chat. We chat for an hour or two. She wants to nurse. I nurse her, she falls asleep. Thank God! I lie down next to her. She opens her eyes, smiles at me, and fills her pants.


March 3
Picked up a parenting magazine for free at the doctor's yesterday, and so read today that babies Vivi's age like books of animal sounds. Having no "the cow goes moo" literature to hand, I grab up some of her stuffed animals and set about to improvise one. I settle down on the mat with her and realize I've grabbed a rabbit, a panda, a giraffe, and a deer. Improvisation comes to a bewildered halt.

And, I got a tiny glimpse into what my daughter might be experiencing as she grieves for the loss of her only sister.

I cried.

On grief:

rocking in the darkness and repeating her name

Like a freight train out of Colorado, like two hundred cars of coal,
grief starts slow. With bangs and impossible bendings, with screech
and sparks,
grief comes out of the west, down the long slope of Nebraska, down the long slope
of the year, smoothly and picking up speed, heavy, unstoppable,
with its slow sway and obsessive rattle, down towards Omaha,
sounding its whistle.


Procession of the Equinoxes

My little bird, before you were born,
I took a long walk in the woods
to bring on labour. It was later
than this: the elms were sharper
and more yellow. Still. Today
there is a fullness in the world:
the raspberry leaves, the sumac
starting to turn into the birth season
the season of heaviness and seeds.

It didn't work, the walking. You came
in your own time, and by the time
we made it home, it was November;
a week of sideways rain. Still.
In my heart the year is pinned
on that yellow day - the way the sky
is pinned on the north star,
and turns around her.

Though each turning moves.
It's different from the way July
is fixed, as if in salt. Every year
in stale heat my sister is thirty
and freshly dead. My heart's bird
when you are thirty, she
will be thirty. And who will mourn,
then, when even the pole star
has moved on?

Reminiscent of Anne Lamott's Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year (yet not as crass and much more humorous), The Mongoose Diaries is a sweet gift from a woman with a true poet's sensibilities.

Thank you for a remarkable memoir, Erin. I hope to meet you some day.

About the Author:

Born in Iowa, Erin Noteboom resides in Kitchener, Ontario, where she works as an editor for The New Quarterly, leads workshops, and writes. Her poetry has appeared in The Malahat Review, PRISM international, and Prairie Fire. She won the CBC Literary Award in 2001, was shortlisted for the Pat Lowther Memorial Award in 2004 and was awarded the Acorn/Plantor Award for People’s Poetry for her debut collection, Ghost Maps: Poems for Carl Hruska.


  1. This sounds fabulous, Les. I am just a memoir junkie lately (am about ready to start an ARC of MAKING TOAST by Roger Rosenblatt that you might like). I clicked on your link to Amazon, convinced I had to read this right away - but they are temporarily out of stock. There are some used and I may have to go that route. I am so much like you regarding what makes a book great. BTW, I read where Erin has had poetry published in the Malahat Review which a friend of mine edits (out of Victoria, BC)

  2. This sounds amazing! Thanks for another great rec, Les!

  3. Maudeen - It really is wonderful! It's too bad it's not more readily available. At least there are a few used copies floating around. I'm trying to get some stock into my B&N. Keeping fingers crossed.

    Yep, Erin has a couple of collections of poetry. I just finished Ghost Maps: Poems for Carl Hruska, which is very good. She has poems and haiku scattered through The Mongoose Diaries, too.

    Hope you can get a copy of this book!

    Andi - You were one of the people I was thinking of as I was reading the book! Glad you enjoyed the review.

  4. Anonymous6:13 AM

    They are available from order directly from the publisher: Wolsak and Wynn
    see for email addresses. Most smaller bookstores are also willing to order in books for customers too.


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