book reviews, CanLit

Mitzi Bytes, by Kerry Clare: A Review

When Kerry Clare released her first book, The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood, I remember thinking, Well, that’s one I’ll never read! It’s about mom stuff and I have absolutely no desire to be a mom, much less read about being one, or even be privy to the mom culture that for the most part often makes me gag.

And then I got it and read it. Of course I did, because I’m not averse to good books, and I had a reluctant feeling it would be good. I was just as surprised as anyone who knows me that I was reading it (I also previously read The Birth House, when even the word “birth” makes me want to vomit.

The M Word was good, an intelligent collection of essays that dealt with all things mom (from being one to not being one to not being one soon after becoming one, etc.). You know what it was about the collection that didn’t make me vomit? That kept me reading and then even thinking it was a great book?

The honesty. The things that were said that so many parents don’t dare say lest they be judged, like: OMG, sometimes my kids are such little shits that I want to murder them in their sleep. If they would go the fuck to sleep!! (and there was no pressure to follow that with, “But don’t get me wrong, parenting is so worth it, I love them so much!!). Or the things that were said by women who had an abortion or who are stepmothers.

And it’s this same honesty that I appreciated so much in Mitzi Bytes (here’s me finally getting to the point!). MB isn’t just about motherhood, though a great deal of the book is from that perspective—that is, Sarah/Mitzi as a mom in relation to other moms and other kids. But it’s also about being a wife and a friend. And a woman. And a blogger.

It’s about how we navigate through the sea of relationships we forge, whether IRL or online or in passing or with extended family. In fact, this novel covers pretty much every aspect of what it means to be human, really. We get secrets and lies and mean girls and mean men and infidelity and putting on a strong facade and peer pressure and being unconventional in the face of conformity, and forgiveness and being mortified, and financial issues, and making mistakes, and identity crises. And Clare astutely nails all of it.

As a former blogger, first of a personal blog and then as a book reviewer on this blog, I related well to the questions in Mitzi Bytes of what it means to be both a real person and an online personality, whether secret or out in the open. It was this that attracted me most to the novel.

I write for myself, because it makes me feel good to write, but I can’t help but respond to the great feedback. Initially, my voice changed. I became funnier than I am in real life. At the time, snark was huge and I was good at it. I made people laugh with stupid little stories of discovering in public that my favourite jeans had a large hole in the crotch and of accidentally screaming, “Walk fucker!” to my dear sweet dog when what I meant was walk faster please and I hadn’t meant to scream it, either, in front of a horrified man who thought I was talking to him. I made the ordinary kind of “sacred” because I had no choice; I am a freelancer working from home.

But people reacted with hyperbolic appreciation and even though I knew it was exaggerated, I loved it. I made myself happy because I was writing regularly. But I was also happy because I felt popular among my readers. Not Dooce or Mitzi Bytes popular, but loved enough. And I adored the attention once I started getting free books to review and getting invited to speak on CBC’s Giller Stage and on radio programs, etc.

But sometimes I was accused of trying too hard, of losing my authenticity. And while I fought against what felt like unjust accusations with “You don’t really know me, I contain multitudes! This is me,” I did struggle with having two separate “moods.” Which actually make me feel somewhat guilty when I turned off the computer and became boring.

When I was growing up, my dad used to lament that I was two different people, at school and at home. At school, I was outgoing, happy, had lots of friends, was nice. At home, I was morose and private and angry. It was circumstantial, I argued. I was one personality exhibiting the gamut of emotions appropriate to how others made me feel! (Also, I was a teenager living in the basement except to eat and sometimes hang out in the living room reading, and raised by strict parents in whom I never confided. My confidante was Dear Diary.)

And so it is with blogging, in a way. For Sarah (Mitzi), online she was funny and divulging and of course fed by the positive reactions. At home, she was someone else—she was… not performing. Not the opposite of Mitzi, but someone else even simply because no one knew she was Mitzi. And the question is, how do we reconcile those two… and, what it became for me, why does there even have to be two? Why can’t this online personality also be me? Why was I being accused of being not genuine?

These are questions in the book—how does a person be, and how does a person be in relation to all the different people, and regarding secrets and double standards and privacy and with the strangely freeing atmosphere that the online culture creates, that of being simultaneously anonymous and unlimitedly public?

How Sarah/Mitzi deals with being found out and with everyone’s reactions to her posts (some of which we get to read, interspersed throughout so we readers can judge for ourselves) attempts to answer these questions. I won’t lie: I struggled with how people reacted in the novel to her posts and kept asking myself if I would have reacted the same had I been written about on someone’s blog. I had thought the posts rather benign, though not well veiled. But if I was the subject, would I feel violated?

I thought back to when years ago I wrote a funny post about how ignorant these two Burger King cashiers were about vegetarianism and wondered if it had been mean of me or, as I’d thought at the time, entertaining.

What is it about the online world that makes us share the way we do? And when our writing comes into question, and our ethics and morals and intentions and very own personality, how do we see past our defensive indignation (but I told only the truth! But I am a nice person! But I am being me!) to our subjects’ feelings? And how do we allow for those others’ feelings to be valid while respecting our freedom to write and be part of the online community?

Needless to say, then, this page-turner is not only a funny and well-written story that’s resonant with spot-on cultural and parenting truths (I know the latter are truths even though I’ve never experienced them, because I have honest friends who are parents, and I was once a kid, and I have a great imagination and the ability to be empathetic and compassionate); Mitzi Bytes is also a thought-provoking novel, particularly for bloggers and moms and mommybloggers, but also for anyone who has any sort of online presence. And who doesn’t these days? But like historians, we don’t portray the entire picture. And sometimes even the purposeful, naked truth is us trying to prove something in some way.

Sometimes we share in a way that is misconstrued (to our minds). We share things that are not our own—the main issue Mitzi’s readers take when they read her blog and discover themselves.

Recently, I posted a pic on Instagram of a snow message my husband had written about himself. It was only as he was seeing it on my phone that I questioned whether or not it had been mine to share. Maybe it was private for him. (Turns out he’d been somewhat embarrassed.) But I had shared because I came across it and it was a surprise and loved it, and thought it not only sweet but also affirming. It made me learn something about how I should talk to myself.

So what counts as not our own? Why shouldn’t stories we interact with be ours too, since we are in fact interpreting what we’re experiencing as part of the conversation? If we’re living our lives in public, why or how does sharing any part of our experience of someone’s life make it wrong? And how do we navigate any fallout from people claiming the stories as their own, while also remaining true to ourselves?

Also, something very interesting here: for most of the novel, I found it particularly difficult to separate the book from Kerry Clare herself, whom I’ve followed—online—now for several years. I had to keep chastising myself: stop thinking this is autobiographical! Authors hate that! You know better!!

But it was nearly impossible! Clare was present the entire time. I know she’s married, and is a blogger, and teaches a course, and has two girls, just like Mitzi. And there were a few other similarities. But that doesn’t mean that everything in this book is her personal experience. Or that her husband is like Sarah’s husband, Chris. Nevertheless, I found myself constantly wondering if her daughters really did walk on tin foil pie plates one day, for example. How much of this was real and how much did she imagine?

Knowing the author didn’t ruin anything for me, thankfully, but I did, near the end, FINALLY, realize that what I was thinking of as truth about Clare was based only on what I know of her online presence. I’ve never met her for more than a wave and hi in person! We are not friends in real life. I don’t have kids who go to her school. I don’t sit beside her on the park bench while her kids play. I don’t go to her library, I don’t sit across from her, posting pics of our tea cups and cake and talking about personal shit. I don’t know anything other than what she posts online. The tip of the iceberg, as they say.

So who do I think I really know? Who was I really bringing to my reading experience? Interesting, huh? How the novel becomes meta in this sense? Clever, damn it. Now everything is upside down.

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