Off the Shelf – Bookish Bits

Listen here.

I’ve had a very ‘bookish’ few day…my colleagues and I hosted the seventh annual Write Stuff at the Saint John Arts Centre last week. We hosted about 120 students from six different high schools and launched our sixth literary magazine. This is an event that always reaffirms for me the power of the written word and that students want to share their thoughts with others.

I also attended the Eclectic Reading Club’s soiree last Wednesday night as the guest of Dr. Stephen Willis. For those who don’t know, this club is the oldest of its kind in Canada – established in 1870. It’s not a book club per se, it’s more like a throwback to the time when entertainment consisted of gathering in the warmth of someone’s drawing room chatting, and listening to readings, perhaps sipping a cup of tea or a glass of sherry. On the night I attended, the theme was pirates and privateers and those of us gathered listened to some interesting historical true-life accounts of pirates both close to home and in seas far away. It was a lovely evening. Everyone dresses up, there was the promised hot chocolate at the end of the evening and I saw people I haven’t seen in many years and met new friends. Other than that, of course, what happens in the eclectic stays in the eclectic. Top secret.

We’re only about six weeks away from the end of the school year and I am already thinking about the fall. I am very lucky to be offering a new course at Harbour View called Young Adult Literature. Like how could I not be excited about that?

The rationale behind offering a course like this is to give students who love to read an opportunity to read outside of the traditional English class and to, perhaps, make the experience slightly more authentic. I don’t mean to imply that what happens in traditional English classes isn’t authentic learning because it is – but when I‘ve finished reading I don’t write an essay or make a poster. Mostly what I want to do is talk about the book with someone else, maybe write a review so I can try to articulate my thoughts on paper. YAL is really my go at encouraging students to read widely and to share their reading experiences with others and to hopefully set them on the path to becoming life long readers – because truthfully that is what I think is the most important part of my job.

It’s pretty exciting to be thinking about a course devoted to a genre that actually had a fairly rocky beginning. Where does YA start? Think back to your own beginnings as a reader – not the books that were read to you, but the first books you selected on your own. In 1971, librarian Mary Kingsbury commented that librarians were acting like “frightened ostriches” with regards to accepting the notion of books for a young adult audience. By the 80s though, the genre was staring to take hold and names like Robert Cormier and Judy Blume were more familiar.

sehinton

Photo of a young S.E. Hinton from Penguin

It would be impossible to offer a course like this without revisiting where the YA movement – arguably –  began: S.E. Hinton’s classic The Outsiders. Is there a person on the planet who has not read this book?

 

First of all – The Outsiders is 50 years old this year. Like – doesn’t that make you feel ancient? I really do remember reading it as a kid in the 70s. That’s a million years ago – so that’s the mark of a powerful book, a formative book.  S.E. Hinton was just 16 when she wrote The Outsiders because she said “there wasn’t anything realistic being written about teenage lives.”  It was published when she was 17.  Theoutsiders novel tells the story of rival gangs in Oklahoma the greasers and the socs – the socials. It’s a simple story, really, about Ponyboy Curtis and his best friend, Johnny, but something about those characters really resonates with young readers and when I recommend the book to students who haven’t read it – the reviews are unanimously favourable. S.E. Hinton said “Teenagers still feel like I felt when I wrote the book, that adults have no idea what’s really going on. And even today, that concept of the “in crowd” and the “out crowd” is universal. The names of the groups may change, but kids still see their own lives in what happens to Ponyboy and his friends.”

thatwasthenHinton wasn’t a one-trick pony(boy) haha either. Her second novel That Was Then, This is Now, is actually better than The Outsiders, in my humble opinion. If students have read The Outsiders – and a lot of them do in middle school, I always suggest That Was Then as a follow-up. Most of them have never heard of it and again – they always like it. It’s about two childhood friends, Bryon and Mark, whose lives diverge when one chooses to go down a different – more dangerous –  path than the other. I loved this book as a kid. Loved it. And for students who’ve loved The Outsiders, Ponyboy makes an appearance – although this novel is not a sequel.

So, I am going to spend my summer thinking about the course. There will be lots of room for self-selection, of course, the only time someone else chooses what I am going to read is for book club or when I am doing a review for a third party. That said – I have read so many amazing YA novels over the past few years, and btw, by 2014, 55% of YA novels were purchased by adults – and I am looking forward to sharing these titles and talking about them with my students.

Now for something completely different…

My seventeen year old son, Connor, recently won a provincial short story contest with his story, “Flowers for Mrs. Goode.” A second story, “Goodnight, Irene, Goodnight” received an honourable mention in another category. Many people have been asking to read them and so I am reprinting them here with his permission. I will let him know of any feedback you leave. The official announcement can be found here.

***

Flowers for Mrs. Goode

Edith Goode (Edie if one knew her, Mrs. Goode if one didn’t) was usually up by five AM and prim by six, on principle, but this morning she was neither of these things by noon. Her slumber had been like that of a womb-dweller — drunk as a fetus, spinning drowsily in those tideless darks, amnion wavering like a flag in a slow cast of summer wind: surrender! She thought of this as she sat at her bedroom vanity in the cabbage-rosed nightgown, bare feet on the mint carpet, hurriedly smearing Pond’s on her face: If waking is birth, this is puerperal fever. She laughed falsely at her reflection, the long witchy teeth parading across gums, flaxen Brillopad hair, jowls like a bloodhound, thyroidal eyes. It had been her first time sleeping through an alarm since her childhood tumble with the scarlet fever. This was something of a marvel and a horror to her. It was Mother’s Day, and there was everything to be done.

She’d never been much of a hostess; the most she could ever muster was potato salad, corn chowder, cheese and cherry sandwiches on flattened Wonderbread, and the punchbowl, large and ponderous as a baptismal font, dredged up from the basement every now and again. She knew as she descended the stairs to her kitchen, picks driven through her curlers and the hem of her yellow silk peignoir skittering across the landing, that it would be an afternoon of chaos. The curtains due for a steaming, the floors needed waxing, the rhubarb stalks ready to pick. She had to dust off her dear Reginald’s gun cabinet, and the panoply of old port glasses, left to lie dormant for all but this day, had to be polished. She felt challenged by the afternoon ahead, and thought wistfully of the menthol-camphor bath which awaited her, a point of fixed and conclusive ease, at the end of her night. The bath had become so ritualized that if she concentrated hard enough, she could conjure up the sensation of sitting in it rather viscerally, even as she stood heating a pan of milk on the stove for her Sanka.

These domestic tasks (cleaning out the halltree, whose disjecta membra was now spilling invasively into the rest of the hall, putting the second leaf into the dining room table, sweeping up the dead tendrils of the decades-old Christmas cactus, which had been reared by her father) were only a precursor to the real trouble, the arrival of her family. But by one o’clock, she had already spent most of the afternoon on the phone with her sister Geraldine, pleading with her, as was the case every year, to come. Geraldine — ardently suspicious, with tight, peevish curls and a reedy voice — was afraid of most everything (billiard tables, flea markets, soda crackers, tuberculosis) and had a penchant for staying home whether something was the matter with her or not. She often based entire, life-altering decisions on “an awful strange feeling” about this, that and the other thing. This was incomprehensible in the opinion of Edith, who would sooner flip a coin to make an important decision than follow an instinct into whatever certain, godforsaken, blood-soaked death awaited her.  She couldn’t much stand Geraldine.

Today was no different than yesterday, or the day before that; Geraldine was still convinced that something — not readily apparent but omnipresent — was wrong with the world. What fault could Geraldine have possibly found with this day? With the pregnant blue sky, the bobbing cornflowers in the window well, the sweet, kind breeze? Edith pried open the gun cabinet’s stuck door, selected the first shotgun from a row of what once held nine, and vigorously polished the stock of neglected wood with Pine-Sol, pointing the barrel at her slippered feet. To Edith, it didn’t matter what feeling one had, or what window one was looking out of — the world was the world, and it really was as simple as that. Her conversation with Geraldine floated back to her in half-lucid fragments.

If you’re set on being ridiculous, it looks as though I’ll have to stop making excuses for you. Where’s Geraldine? Oh, sick and bedridden with the flu. What about now? She had to take an alka-seltzer and lie down. And now? She couldn’t find a fascinator for the garden party, she’s jumpstarting her car, she has to finish the divinity fudge, the aspic hasn’t set yet, she’s at the church rummage sale, she’s–

Goodness, Edie, there’s no sense in being cruel!

Yes, well I daresay there’s no sense in concerning oneself with silly intimations but we can’t always get what we want can we? I went to great lengths to make you your favourite meal. The one you love so. You beg for it every Mother’s Day and then refuse to show up.

And she’d replaced the receiver with that conclusive thwack one delights in following an argument.

Edith sat in a rattan chair in the screened breezeway between the kitchen hall and the guest bedroom, arms akimbo, looking dissociatively out over Prospect Street, which was pastorally green and bristling in the sunlight. The neighbourhood’s fractal medians and cul-de-sacs had been the same since the thirties, and each moment seemed timed: a sprinkler rasping futilely on a sparkling plot of pavement, stridulation of crickets simmering in erratic, patternless interludes, steam, like a thread of smoke from a blown-out candle, rising from the hood of her powder blue Volkswagen Rabbit.

Edith tamped a Pall Mall on the arm of the chair and lit it with Reginald’s Zippo, which had their twin initials engraved in it beneath a heart, and was the very leaden weight and cool texture of love. It was one of the only things that had remained after the blast — his greens had been burnt to shreds and his skin had looked like blood pudding, she’d heard someone say. The lighter had come home with his body. For weeks after, she’d dreamt of exploding ovens floating in a vacuous black sky.

Edith let out a capricious plume of smoke. Awful bad feeling. Awful bad feeling. At the precipice of her brain, it tapped its dull meaning.

Edith Goode became suddenly aware of a man standing at the screen door, shrouded by the nimbus of the murderously hot day. In his left arm he was cradling a monstrous spray of white roses over which Edith could see nothing but the suggestion of eyes. Edith hated white roses.

In a single beat that converged terribly with the instant the man rang the doorbell, Edith started, remembered the pan of milk on the stove and that she was still in her peignoir, and thought, good god, I’m naked as the babe unborn, and called to where the man’s face might have been.

“Just a moment!”

She crossed into the kitchen, removing the smoking pan from the stovetop, and tied her sash before turning on her heels. The doorbell rang once more.

“Just,” said Edith, under her breath, “a godforsaken moment.”

“Good day,” said the man, as she returned to the breezeway, harried, with a strand of loose hair curled about her forehead.

“Good day,” said Edith.

“I just got somethin’ here for ya’s.”

Edith could hear a wry grin in his voice, and something else, nebulous as an opium dream. Edith knew, with as much certainty as one can garner from the sound of a voice, that the man was not from ‘around here’.

“What’s this?”

“Flowers. You’ve an anonymous delivery.”

“Anonymous?” said Edith incredulously.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“This isn’t some sort of money making operation is it? I haven’t two pennies to rub together.”

“No, ma’am. I make flower deliveries — not too fitting a occupation for a man like me I s’pose. In any case, seeing as it’s Mother’s Day an’ all, someone saw it fit to get ya’s somethin’.”

“Well,” said Edith, “I’m at a loss for who would do such a thing but, see, I’ve got my hands full at the moment. I appreciate the sentiment.”

“Mind if I come in? I could just set these flowers on the table and be on my way. ‘Sides, I got a handful more houses to get along to still.”

“Well –”

“It won’t take but a moment.”

Edith stared over the man’s shoulder at the empty, arid street.

“I have some family coming over. After all, it is Mother’s Day, like you said.”

“Looks like you’ve got a real grand old table back there and, well, ain’t this a han’some centerpiece for that table? ” said the man.

“Yes, I suppose I do.”

“What do you say? They are yours, after all. Someone sent them off for you. Don’t that make you feel special?”

“Well –” said Edith. “Well, I suppose there’s no harm really. As long as it won’t take long. I have a lot to get through before the evening comes. And it always comes faster than one expects.”

“Ain’t that the god’s honest truth,” said the man.

When the door opened, and the distance between them closed, Edith felt a draft like an undertow. A scent of topsoil blew off the man.

The man, appeared large and hunched in Edith’s almost humorously dainty kitchen, with its duck egg walls and Royal Doultons, and he set the flowers down on her breakfast table. She looked up at him. The man must have been around six foot and three or four inches. He was skinny as a rake, however, with big-knuckled hands and a deeply tanned neck.

Edith felt a bristle of girlish excitement at having been given flowers, but feigned irritation, for past experience had invariably taught her that reticence was the best way to hide a feeling. The feeling however, could not always be dressed like a wound, and Edith found herself dredging up gangrened wedding memories — the white tent billowing in jaunty breeze, the wisteria in eloquent, tapered clusters, the festooned wedding cake. The memories, though cracked from the frequency with which she brought them up (like dragging a lake for a body, Edith thought suddenly) gleamed with a preternatural light. But she knew, with a sort of matronly soberness, that things were only beautiful in retrospect.

“You wouldn’t happen to have a drink of water would you?” said the man, blinking bovinely, and Edith realized with some discomfort that she had tumbled into another one of her reveries. The man looked down on her with a grin. His gums were pink and his teeth were Chiclets. His hair was Brylcreamed. She smelled it, gasoline-strong. He was chewing a piece of bubblegum and his jaw cracked as he worked it between his back molars.

“I certainly would,” said Edith, and, turning her back to him, went to the sink. “It’s a mighty hot, day isn’t it?”

“Yes, ma’am. Mighty, mighty hot.”

Edith reached for a tumbler in her cupboard, but miscalculated, and it fell from its place of origin on the shelf, clipped the edge of the countertop, and broke on the floor with an amplified, glassine crash. It was hot, and she really was drunk as a fetus. She heard the ubiquitous crack of the man’s rotating jaw. He knelt beside her and started to collect the shards, his head inches from hers, cocked. It hadn’t been topsoil she smelled, but dirt.

“A little old lady, living all alone?” he said.

She found herself thinking of her curls. She worried that she would sweat them out by the day’s end.

The End

*****

Goodnight Irene, Goodnight

Camille sat on the steps of the general store with a sweating Coke bottle between her bare legs, when the wood-paneled station wagon pulled up. A pair of women got out, followed by a girl who must have been little older than Camille. The two women mounted the steps, looking down upon her as they went, and entered the store. The girl didn’t enter the store, electing instead to sit on the step beneath Camille. Camille turned and watched the two women inside moving about with a graceful economy, starched and hot-pressed, in silent loafers. They looked somewhat wrung-out, making their rounds in the aisles. Bread. Lye. A bag of ice. A cake of soap.

Camille, who’d have shocked a clean needle, was impressed by the spotlessness of the girl, who was presently hiking up her ankle length dress to pick at a run in her stockings. She had long fawn legs, and black hair in a ropelike braid that Camille was decidedly tempted to tug upon. Camille, in her own opinion, one which she chose not to vocalize, was nothing special. Her hair tangled at night, she had wandering eyes that had landed her in trouble more times than she could count, and she spoke with a low, abrasive cadence that was at odds with her stature. The dialect of her features was sort of plain and unsuspecting, southern in nature: scrim of freckles, crooked central incisor, eyebrows glowing against dusty skin. And her character lacked anything much to dote upon.

She had been nine scarcely a week before (strange, how that happens), now allowed to ride her bike alone through neighbourhood’s sameness: sun bleached courts, wide avenues dappled in sultry shadow, the whole world curving about her pivot. She was already bored of this new privilege, had already exhausted the general store, and had spent the small change she had accumulated over last summer, on bottles of Coke. Moreover, there was something sentient and unnerving about the endless flanks of tract housing, the driveways like eternal black desk blotters. The houses gaped.

The black-haired girl glanced up and back at Camille, and something like a recognition passed between them, rising from beneath eiderdown layers of heat. Camille stared at the girl’s ears, which were somehow beautiful, the young cartilage curled into the whorl of a seashell, and she said, in that unafraid way only newly ten-year-old girls can:

“What’s your name?”

There was a swelling moment of emptiness.

“Irene,” said the girl.

And Camille thought Irene. The name had a littoral quality, a seafaring lilt like it belonged to a ship — The Irene — or to a saltwater nymph sitting nude in the tide pools — Eirini. Camille’s scalp prickled at the thought, at the two whip-crack syllables, at Irene, who had already spoken.

“What?” said Camille. “I didn’t hear you.”

“I said, what’s yours,” repeated Irene, in a curt voice.

“Camille,” said Camille, and realized with something resembling disdain that this was in fact her name. She stuck out her hand and the two shared a handshake that was both businesslike and childish and that felt, in some indiscernible way, like a rite, and, how old was Camille?

“Eleven,” Camille lied, trying to judge Irene’s age and fall somewhere within that ballpark. After all, it was age, Camille understood, that bound friends together. Camille showed Irene that she had just shy of 32 teeth.

“You don’t have your wisdom teeth,” said Irene.

“So what. They don’t really make you wise,” said Camille. “Do you have yours?”

Working her middle and index fingers like a dentist’s mouth prop, Irene pulled her cheeks back and bared her teeth garishly. Camille stared into Irene’s mouth.

“Well. I don’t see anything.”

“They must not be through yet. But I can feel them all the same. Sometimes that’s all that matters, don’t you know?”

“How old are you?” asked Camille.

“Twelve. And a half.”

“Where are you from?”

“The country. I’m never usually in town. My family and I don’t get to leave often.”

There was something about this that Camille found distantly troubling, but she didn’t pursue the topic. “And you?” continued Irene, and cracked a single knuckle. Camille tried the same, and when she could not, she said:

“The suburbs. In one of those kit bungalows that the soldiers built when they came home.” She thought of her house, of the carpet like a blood sea and the paneled walls, and about the truth that the whole place smelled horribly of White Shoulders. Irene and Camille both concluded that they had never been to the suburbs and the countryside, respectively.

“What’s the country like?” ventured Camille.

“Hot and boring. Really. I live in a big old farmhouse. It creaks. I share a room with all of my sisters. My brothers sleep in the basement. There’s no air conditioning.”

“How many brothers and sisters have you got?” asked Camille, who began to think that perhaps she was asking more questions than was considered polite.

“Lots.”

“How many?”

“Lots. I probably have twenty of them.”

Camille sucked in air. Twenty brothers and sisters? Surely it was a joke, a little jab of the elbow, a wry nod, and Irene was hoping that Camille, at ten years old, 11 if one counted the lie, would believe stupidly and wholeheartedly in a mythology like that. All her life, Camille had been an only child, moving through her house in a listless orbit, never once, it seemed, running into another human being. Camille resolved firmly that she would not believe in such nonsense.

“I shan’t believe it,” said Camille, using the word she thought carried the weight of adultness and decidedness.

“Why’s that?”

“Well,” said Camille. “Well have you got any photographs of them?”

“Now, why would I bring a photo of them wherever I go? We probably wouldn’t even fit within the frame, all of us, if we tried.”

“How can I believe you?”

“You can’t, I suppose.”

“You’ll have to show me in person,” said Camille, and downed the last of her Coke, which had flattened in the sun, and was finally the way she liked to drink it.

The two women came out of the general store with paper bags and asked if Irene was ready. When Irene got up to leave, Camille did as well.

*

Irene’s mother was called Gretchen, and was the one in the peroxide white housedress with the long pin straight hair, and was the one who was driving the station wagon. The car’s interior smelled of patchouli, and Camille felt alive within it, due partially to the windows — which rolled down by way of hand crank, and allowed the breeze to make its somnolent rounds, tossing Irene’s braid and the pleated hem of her dress, which was folded demurely about her legs — but due mostly, in point of fact, to the notion that she was leaving the neighbourhood without the knowledge or permission of her mother, who would be horrified and likely faint if she gained intelligence of this.

They were on the highway. The sky was a milkbowl, apocalypse blue. The clouds slid back. Irene had been told that she would know the house when she saw it, and somehow, she did. It was like the afterimage of some fever dream. The house was in the true middle of nowhere, white clapboard glaring against cornfields, too conspicuous for the plains. It was as though a Victorian home, an heirloom passed tiresomely down through generations, had been suddenly pried up, foundation and all, from some shrill summer avenue with a name like Wisteria Lane. Its spires were erect in the midday heat, the whole thing settling stiffly on itself. Gretchen parked the station wagon on the gravel drive and its engine ticked hotly, below a swerving crescendo of cicadas.

The drive had been somewhat tense, for in the heat that was laying down its plentiful blows, each one nearer a coup de grâce than the one before it, Irene had seemed to find within herself bravery enough to ask her mother, upon passing a truck stop, if they could get out and buy Dreamsicles. Gretchen had made pointed eye contact with Irene in the rear mirror and said:

“Irene. You know we don’t go eating chemicals like that. What would Willard say if he found out.”

The two women got out of the car and went inside the house, but Camille and Irene sat alone in the back seat for a time. The pastureland was empty: no young, green, coppiced trees, no other houses; the only thing on the horizon was a rangy Aermotor wind pump which was spinning lackadaisically in the distance. Camille’s legs stuck to the hot vinyl seats. She peeled them. Irene explained that these episodes between her and her mother were not at all uncommon.

“She’s obsessed with the natural method,” said Irene, employing facetious air quotations. “They all are.”

Camille thought of these words. They were like pickets hammered together in a makeshift cross. They all.

Irene went on to explain — in an impressively long-winded and expressive way, almost as if she’d been waiting to find just the right person to tell this story to — that  a couple of other girls in the house (which was nicknamed ‘Flossie’, after someone long-dead) had gotten in momentous trouble when it was discovered that they’d been hiding Oil of Olay and pulled taffy under their shared bed.

“What happened?” asked Camille.

“They were made to repaint Flossie, as punishment.”

Camille almost gasped at the horror of such an undertaking, especially in the thick of summer. “But that was years ago,” said Irene, averting her eyes.

Camille and Irene got out of the car and stepped into the day. The ceaseless fields surrounding them were ringing and stagnant. Camille’s ears itched. Irene led Camille past a woodshed and into a dooryard through which they entered the drawing room of the house, whose window was propped open with a wedge of plywood. The organza curtains were still.

The room was enclosed in a heat unlike anything Camille had felt. It unsheathed itself and glanced knifelike. Women were sitting in rocking chairs and in arm chairs, and some were standing. A group of three were engaged in clandestine conversation with one another. A fourth was at work with an embroidery hoop, and seemed afraid to lift her head at the sound of Camille and Irene entering.

A boy, who stood out, mainly because he was sitting on an upturned apple crate in the sunlit dust mote which fell obliquely from the window, was shining boots. He was thin, and knock kneed and malleable looking: a pound puppy. He looked up and stared conspicuously at Irene as she surveyed the room: threads of light glancing off armchair, swift, milk-white hands swaddling baby in handmade afghan.

“God, I hate it when he does that,” Irene said to nobody.

“Who?” asked Camille.

“Carvel,” said Irene. “He’s obsessed with me.” She said it just loud enough for him to hear, and appeared gratified by his hurt expression.

The two girls made their way to the back of the room, where there was a kitchen, and Irene examined a shelf lined with murky jars which she explained were  tinctures. The heat was dark and viscous as blackstrap molasses — unrelenting — and from it, emerged snatches of conversation between the women that were only vaguely of this world.

“They’d never let us keep the windows open like this. But I say! It just gets to be so hot, one needs to pry them open.”

“Sealed with paint, they were. Gretchen and I had a sorry time with them. It was like they were saying no! no!

Nervous laughter, like a death knell.

“Only think what they’d say if they saw it. We must close them before they get back.”

Camille had to sit down, for fear of collapsing. She slid back against the cabinet and stared at a plot of skin on Irene’s arm. She couldn’t think.

“Only think!” the women continued.

“Locust swarms!” chimed in another. “Willard especially. Think what he’d say about swarming bugs, and the like. And letting that bad in. He’d have made it a scene, he would.”

“He wants to protect us. They all do.”

“And the plague, moreover,” intoned another, ignoring this remark. “And dust. And children.”

“Children crawling through the windows and stealing.” The women laughed again, first tentatively, and then near uproarious.

“Though, you might suppose that he lived in a time where there were things to steal.”

“Things to steal that were worth stealing.”

There was a silent moment when Camille, eyes closed, felt stared-at, and she heard someone say:

“Who’s your little friend, Irene?”

“She’s Camille,” said Irene.

*

Irene brought Camille upstairs to the attic which had vaulted ceilings and rough pine floors and which housed several linen-piled cots and was where Irene slept and whose heat was even more evil than the heat of downstairs. Irene lifted a loose panel in the top drawer of an armoire that was shoved into the corner of the room and took out a cigar box. Inside were photos of women scissored from a magazine, chess pieces, bottles of nail polish.

Camille pointed to one woman, with feathered hair, and rouged lips, and laughed.

“Why’s she laying like that?” she said.

“It’s called spread eagle,” said Irene, tossing her eyes. “If anyone knew I had these, I’d be killed.”

“You’d have to paint Flossie,” said Camille, testing the house’s name on her tongue.

“I’d have to do worse than that,” said Irene, shuffling her collection and selecting another woman. “Look at her, isn’t she pretty? I want my hair like that, but mom says we have to keep ours growing.”

“She looks scary. She looks mad,” said Camille, wiping sweat from her forehead with the heel of her hand.

“She’s doing seductive eyes,” said Irene, incredulous. “Don’t you know anything? Do you know what sex is?”

“Yes,” said Camille, though she was quite sure she did not.

“I don’t understand how you couldn’t.”

“Why is that boy the only one in the house?” asked Camille.

“Willard doesn’t have much use for him. He’s sick all the time. Fatigued, they say. Weak too, like a girl. And he’s allergic to everything. Strawberries. Dust. He’s allergic to the dope so he can’t do runs. He’s useless, in a word. And the boys are only looking for someone with a fine constitution,” said Irene. “I don’t know why he’s so in love with me. What does love get you.”

“He seems harmless to me,” said Camille.

“He is. Sometimes I feel like I could make something happen.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know,” said Irene, and closed the cigar box. “Something. Doesn’t matter what.”

*

When night fell like an anvil on the house, a carbon monoxide breeze came in through the open windows.

“It’s always tense when Willard is here,” said Irene. But the departure of the men and the warm night air had mollified this white-knuckled grip on Flossie, and the women seemed lulled by the anti-rhythms of their daily chores: bobby socks on the line, counters scrubbed raw with lemon juice. The women sat on the Persian carpet in the drawing room, playing Chinese checkers, with oils combed through their hair, dangerously at ease. Gretchen had allowed herself a milk bath, which she made the girls do every Tuesday, said Irene, to keep them young and spry — the way it was supposed to be.

At dinner, they drank electrolyte water and talked about the imminent fall of man. There were fires wiping out miles of forest. Fires and floods, floods and fires. The government was digging footings and pouring concrete into designated marshland to put up care homes for the elderly. Gretchen smiled warmly at Camille from across the table, above which hung a stern and regally watchful portrait of a man with hair past his ears.

“You should visit more often, Camille. Shouldn’t Camille visit more often, Irene?” said Gretchen, fork in hand. Irene nodded reservedly in reply and pushed her chair closer to the table. “Anyway. The boys will be home tonight. They’ll park the pickup in the back pasture in case somebody is looking for the plates. Nobody is looking for the plates, but we’re better taking precautions. We’ll have to clean up before they get back. Close the windows.” A woman nodded solemnly and it was taken up by the woman next to her, and the nod circled the table.

Gretchen was staring at the band of greenish flesh around the ring finger of her right hand; the phosphenes of a marriage. Irene pulled down her dress, and looked at Carvel, who got up from the table.

*

After dinner, the women reluctantly allowed Irene and Camille a walk down to the river, a venture that they were sure to remind the girls was only possible because Willard and the boys were not yet home. And that they were to return within the hour, and all manner of other warnings and pleadings. And behave. Irene bowed graciously out of the drawing room and into the depthless black of the dooryard. Outside, the world was swollen so tightly seams were ripping, somewhere. The house, from the bottom of the drive, looked deeply asleep, wrought from the ashen tempest of a nuclear fallout — perhaps the one the elderly women had been so ardently predicting at dinner. The sky was pricked.

They walked through the pastures hand-in-hand and Camille felt, suddenly and inexplicably, that she was lucky to have found a friend like Irene. Irene told Camille the story of the house, how Gretchen had come there a decade before, a leggy sweet-sixteen-year-old flunking her math courses, spending long hot summers setting strawberry runners and plowing fields at six dollars an hour. It is such a romantic way to live, Camille decided. They passed the squares of dirt, cordoned off with wooden posts and chicken wire, where those strawberry plants might have been so many years ago, when Flossie was sort of prepubescent and artless as new spring grass, with shag shingles instead of the clapboard that existed today, and when the men thought they would never rescue the barn from the rot that was coursing through its skeleton with septic fervor.

“Should we swim in the pond?” asked Camille.

“No. There’s cow shit in there, and it’s freezing.”

Camille had hoped she’d be rewarded with an enthusiastic agreement, for Irene seemed to love the realm of the dangerous and impulsive, and she was unnerved and slightly embarrassed at having been turned down. They continued through darknesses, heights of whispering grass, the buckwheat that bent to tickle Camille’s bare arms, and crossed the dirt road beneath an arch of arthritic trees, frayed rope ends, down an embankment, where they came to rest at an edge of sorts, some ten feet above the river, in a wild strawberry patch. The water was brown and seething.

Carvel was there chopping wood.

“Hi, Carvel,” said Irene, smiling and polite.

“Hi, Irene,” said Carvel, and brought the axe down in a wide and gruesome arc which connected with the chopping block. Camille stretched her bruised and burr scratched legs in front of her and ripped grass from the ground. At her left, Irene was eating a strawberry from the patch. “Willard better not catch you so far from the house,” Carvel continued, and the axe fell.

“You as well,” said Irene, chewing and boyish. “Who cares if he does. I certainly don’t, and he shouldn’t either.

“You know he’s gonna,” said Carvel, who was concentrating on the wood, and not in the least on Irene.

The three of them were silent.

“Do you like me?” said Irene, suddenly, to both no one in particular and very particularly to Carvel.

“Yes,” said Carvel, and picked up another log.

Irene seemed assuaged by this single syllable for a length of time, and looked intently at her pinky fingernail, its dainty lunule like a wave of heavy cream breaking on a pink-sanded seashore. Camille watched her evaluating herself. She was like clouds, pulled apart cotton. The soft radiance of down on a forearm. A waning light, spread meaninglessly open. They could have swapped lives, if they were both in agreement.

“What would you do to prove it?” asked Irene, in a voice that seemed to pass through this world and the next one, and the one after that.

Camille saw Carvel turn her words thrice in his head, like a stone.

He said, “Anything.”

Camille looked at Carvel and tried, with desperation (as though something depended on her success) to guess his age. He appeared to her characterless as a blank wall,  history handed off to an oblivion somewhere beneath this one. Camille decided that she would have to be every age at least once in order to properly judge what age somebody else was.

Irene stood and approached him and, placing her hands on his shoulders with all of the tenderness of someone versed in the mechanics of romance, she kissed him square on the mouth.

Carvel’s eyes widened in mock surprise, and he tried to disengage himself, but Irene held him there for a beat more, while something passed between them. When they broke apart, Carvel’s lips were reddened.

“Irene,” said Carvel. “Why did you –”

Camille had never seen someone her age kiss anyone before, and it had felt like passing a threshold into a paracosm more fully realized than the one from which she had exited. She watched the blood plume in his cheeks (out of a childish embarrassment, she supposed) and, stricken, he sat cow-heavy on the chopping block, and drunkenly tossed the axe aside. It cartwheeled in the air (thrown at the magician’s assistant, in the scant career girl’s outfit, like the one from Irene’s picture). The axe fell with a concussive thud where the yellow grass bled to riverbank.

A declarative tendon bobbed in his neck. Camille noticed, with painful clarity, the perspiration breaching the skin of his forehead, which looked puckered in what could only have been concentration. The silk flower dripping resin dew.

“What do you want, Irene?” said Carvel.

Irene shrugged.

“Nothing, really.”

“I thought you hated me.”

“Does anyone hate anyone?”

Carvel put a hand tentatively to his mouth.

“What did you do, Irene?” he said, this time more urgently. And then shouted, “What was in your mouth, Irene?”

Camille thought that it must have been quite the kiss for Carvel to be sweating the way he was. And why might Irene have done it, if Carvel bothered her so? Camille thought then: what is wrong with his face?

“Jesus,” Carvel said, in a voice that faltered beneath an incredible fear, and he stood suddenly and violently, placed one hand to his neck, which was livid and one hand to his stomach.

Camille saw his eyes bulge.

“I can’t breathe.”

He repeated this to some sort of unknowable rhythm: can’t breathe can’t breathe can’t breathe, looked as though he were tearing tendons in an attempt to clear his airways, and then he folded and vomited profusely onto his own bare feet. Camille screamed.

Irene,” he said, and tried to go to her, stepping forward deliriously, his neck swelling over the collar of his shirt. He gargled uselessly.

Camille stood up.

Irene,” he said again, and it sounded almost like nothing at all.

A gloriously cruel shaft of moonlight broke through the scudding clouds and illuminated him at the surgically precise moment that he passed out of consciousness and back into it, losing what little balance he had, and taking a doomed half-step back, his foot catching in the slip-knotted root of a nearby tree, falling backwards, arms windmilling, into the water below.

Camille’s eyes rolled in horror, and she fell to her hands and knees and crept to the edge. There was no conclusive snap of bone, no kitschy spray of horror movie blood. The water rushed up and embraced him, and ragged bubbles, incomprehensible last words, rose in his slipstream. The impact rang out like gunshot’s report: a question, an answer, a guillotine falling, and the recoil of it all nearly knocked Camille on her back. She began to cry.

She thought of Irene’s hidden drawer of nail polish. She thought of what Gretchen had said over dinner: humanity needs nature to survive but nature sure as hell doesn’t need humanity. Camille had been perplexed by those words. She thought of how Gretchen might have looked when she’d first arrived at the house, some ten years before. Who had greeted her at the door?

When Camille turned, Irene was already off in the direction of the house, walking languidly, with dropped shoulders, feet impacting the dirt heel first, barely denser than a shadow. The corn stalks swept closed in her wake.

The End

The Girl in the Red Coat – Kate Hamer

Until about the midway point, I couldn’t put Kate Hamer’s novel The Girl in the Red Coat down. When eight-year-old Carmel Wakefield disappears, her mother, Beth,  is unhinged by her grief. Hamer’s novel follows Beth’s narrative as well as Carmel’s and until the reader understands the reasons for Carmel’s abduction, the novel is propulsive and riveting.

red coatBeth is sort of a hippie. She and her ex-husband, Paul, had “run a business together buying and selling ginseng and specialty teas.” Paul, after leaving the marriage, has been a relatively absent father and his relationship with Beth is strained mostly because he has a new, much-younger girlfriend.

Carmel is a precocious child. At a parent teacher meeting, the headmaster  explains to Beth that Carmel’s “vocabulary is extremely advanced. Her imagination is amazing, I don’t think she quite sees the world like the rest of us.”

On the fateful day that Carmel disappears, Beth has taken her to children’s story festival. She has decided that she needs to set aside the grief of her crumbled marriage and “start afresh.”

The festival is a treat and Carmel “can feel words come shooting out of the tent doors and [she] just want[s] to stand there at the openings and let them fizz on [her] brain.” It’s a hot, crowded day and pretty soon Beth is getting cross and Carmel, in an act of defiance, ducks under a table to read a book. When she reappears, ages later, the fog has rolled in and her mother is gone. That’s when the man appears. He tells her that he is her grandfather and that her mother has been in a terrible accident.

Carmel has no reason to doubt the man. Her mother has been estranged from her parents for her whole life – it’s one of the things that has plagued Carmel’s young mind. Why doesn’t she have grandparents to bring her treats like her friends do?  So, fearful and clearly alone, Carmel goes with the man who promises to take her to the hospital to see her mother. Of course, that’s not what happens.

The Girl in the Red Coat is suspenseful until Granddad’s motives are revealed and then it started to feel like a different book to me. In the first part, when Carmel is taken to a strange house where she meets her grandfather’s partner, Dorothy, Hamer does a wonderful job of stringing the reader (and Carmel) along. Why can’t she see her mom? Why can’t they contact her dad? Where are they?

Beth’s journey is also heart-wrenching. She counts the days Carmel has been gone. She searches for her daughter. She goes through the motions. But the time goes by and it’s like Carmel has dropped off the face of the earth.

Those early days are compelling for Beth, Carmel and the reader. For me, though, the novel’s suspense is spoiled by its key secret – and once that’s out I found myself caring less about all the players, which is too bad, because the book is beautifully written and had a lot of potential.

The Truth About Alice – Jennifer Mathieu

The-Truth-About-Alice-Jennifer-MathieuThe truth we probably don’t want to acknowledge is that high school is hell for loads of kids. I teach high school and even though I would like to think that my school is perfect and inclusive and bully-free, I know that isn’t actually the case. I suspect Jennifer Mathieu knows that, too. She is also a teacher, which is why her novel The Truth About Alice rings true on so many levels.

There is something about Alice Franklin that gets everyone talking. Everyone has an opinion and the four main narrators in Mathieu’s novel are happy to share their thoughts.

Elaine O’Dea, possibly the most popular girl in school (by her own estimation) remarks “She’s never been super crazy popular like me…I guess Alice Franklin has spent most of her life on the middle floor somewhere, but on the top of the middle. So she was cool enough to come to my party.” Kurt Morelli, brilliant nerd, describes her as “Alice Franklin with the raspberry lips and the bad reputation and the faraway eyes. Alice Franklin with the short hair not like any other girl’s and the gloriously loud laugh and the body that curves like an alpha wave. Alice Alice Alice Alice Franklin.”

Then, after a party at Elaine’s house, the rumour that Alice slept with two guys – one after the other – erupts. One boy, Tommy Cray, is in college and one boy, Brandon Fitzsimmons (Elaine’s on-again, off-again, on-again boyfriend) is the best quarterback Healy High has ever seen. Shortly after the party, Brandon is killed in a car accident and Alice is, apparently, to blame for that, too.

Kelsie, Alice’s supposed best friend, abandons her and aligns herself with Elaine and her crew. She adds fuel to the rumour fire by adding a few juicy tidbits. Josh, Brandon’s best friend, does his own part to fan the flames. Alice soon finds herself a pariah at school.

It would be easy to hate all the people involved with ostracizing Alice, but the truth is that these teens all have their own issues: parental expectations, sexuality, religion, weight and Mathieu does a pretty good job of allowing the reader to see their motivations and vulnerabilities.

This is a novel about the damage rumours can do. Healy is a small town and even the adults know the stories, but no one intervenes. Alice’s single mother is non-existent in a parental role, leaving Alice to fend for herself. We don’t hear from Alice until the very end – which I actually think was a smart choice on Mathieu’s part. Instead, we watch her navigate the steady stream of vitriol and slowly start to find her path due to her unexpected friendship with Kurt, a character you can only imagine has suffered his fair share of bullying.

The truth will out and when it does, some of the machinations didn’t ring quite true to me, particularly Alice and Elaine’s conversation in the hair salon, but that’s only a small niggle. I thought The Truth About Alice tackled a timely subject with a lot of honesty and many teens will certainly see themselves in the story.

Dancing With Myself – Billy Idol

Back in the 80s, I had tickets to see Billy Idol at Madison Square Garden. A guy I was dating at the time had scored the tickets for my birthday and I was so excited because, hello, Billy freakin’ Idol. Alas, it was not to be. As I recall, there was some sort of issue with asbestos or something and the concert was cancelled.

“White Wedding” was one of the very first videos I ever remember watching. Canada’s version of MTV, MuchMusic launched in 1984 and Idol’s song came out in 1982. I think Idol was one of the first video stars ever because he’s so pretty. (And I don’t mean to imply that was the only reason he was a huge video hit – there’s no denying Idol’s charisma or talent.)  He made a lot of videos in the 80s and was a huge star, so I was really sad that I didn’t get a chance to see him live.

Of course, I didn’t really know much about Idol and although I am not in the habit of reading rock star memoirs, I kind of had to read Dancing With Myself. Idol wrote the book himself and his straight-ahead style serves his story well. billy_idol_dancing_with_myself_final_cover-1

Billy Idol was born William Broad in 1955 in North London. When he was four, he and his parents moved to Long Island, NY where he lived until he was eight and the Broads returned to the UK. At that point, Idol considered himself an American and so often felt like a fish out of water.

“Music always pulled me through,” he said, “voices laying out a tale of their lives, musicians riding the wave.” He was also a voracious reader, reading everything from Enid Blyton to every history book he could get his hands on. Like lots of other smart kids, school wasn’t his bag and although he did one year of college, he dropped out. Still, Idol and his younger sister, Jane, enjoyed a happy, middle-class life with parents who loved and supported him – even when they didn’t always understand him.

But the times, they were a changin’. In 1976, Idol saw The Sex Pistols play for the first time.

On that night, the Pistols onstage were unlike anything we’d ever seen before. Johnny Rotten, with orange, razor-cropped hair, was hunched over, holding a beer and staring bug-eyed out at the crowd through tiny, tinted square glasses….While hardly moving, John radiated a defiant intensity that demanded your attention….It made a strong impression on me.

The punk scene blossomed out of what was happening in England at the time. “In mid-’70s England, you couldn’t get a shit job, let alone have a career,” Idol recalls. The punk movement was part political statement and part fashion statement and Idol was in the right place at the right time. The punk scene was “a reaction to everyone who was telling people our age what we should do to succeed.”

I don’t think even I realized how connected to the British punk scene Idol was. His first band, Generation x actually experienced some success and launched Idol’s successful solo career.

When things began to disintegrate with Gen X, and Idol no longer felt there was a future in punk, he decided to go the States and the rest, as they say, is history.

Dancing With Myself is filled with the requisite name-dropping and behind-the-scenes stuff relating to the music business, but mostly it’s a straight up tale of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Idol is very candid about his drug use – which was copious and scary, really. He also had more than his fair share of sexual encounters. The love of his life, Perri Lister, a dancer he met during his punk days and the mother of his son, Willem, is clearly an important person in his life although they haven’t been together in years. Idol also has a daughter, Bonnie, from another relationship.

I enjoyed reading this book, actually. I am not a music aficionado by any stretch and so the music biz stuff would likely be more interesting to someone who is plugged into that. I was interested in Idol the man, though. The guy trying to make good choices for his kids; the son who cared for his dying father; the big brother and uncle; the friend. Idol probably shouldn’t have made it through all those crazy drug-filled days, or survived the horrific motorcycle accident he had in 1990. But he did. His memoir proves his resilience and his relevance and although not always a nice guy, he owns his mistakes and that makes him pretty awesome in my book.

 

 

Behind Her Eyes – Sarah Pinborough

Louise is a single mom to six-year-old Adam. She has a penchant for wine, smokes (although not in front of her son) and could stand to lose a few pounds.

My life is a blur of endless routine. I get Adam up and get him to school. If I’m working and want to get in early, he goes to breakfast club. If I’m not working, I may spend an hour or so browsing charity shops for designer castoffs that will fit the clinic’s subtly expensive look. Then it’s just cooking, cleaning, shopping until Adam comes home and then it’s homework, tea, bath, story, bed for him, and wine and bad sleep for me.

Adele is a the wife of David, a doctor. Their marriage is clearly rocky, The new house, David’s new practice, the fact that Adele is beautiful, none of it seems to make any difference.

Why can’t he still love me? Why can’t our life been as I’d hoped, as I’d wanted, after everything I’ve done for him? We have plenty of money. He has the career he’d dreamed of. I have only ever tried to be the perfect wife and give him the perfect life.

Adele and Louise take turns narrating in Sarah Pinborough’s novel Behind Her Eyes. behindTheir lives intersect when Louise meets David at a bar and they share a ‘moment’ and then she discovers he’s her new boss and then she bumps into Adele (literally) in the street. Louise is charmed by Adele who seems wholly glamorous and somehow innocent. Adele takes Louise on as a project, encouraging her to quit smoking and join the gym. Soon the women are sharing a close friendship which is complicated by the fact that Louise is in love with David and pretty soon the two have moved from the ‘moment’ to a full-on relationship.

Behind Her Eyes is full of conveniences. Louise’s ex-husband takes Adam away to France for a month leaving Louise the freedom to sleep with David and have coffee with Adele. She is bereft of friends except for Sophie, an unemployed actress married to a music exec. Despite the fact that Sophie continually sleeps around on her husband, she turns sanctimonious when discussing Louise’s affair with David, telling her that “having an affair is a big enough secret and not one you’re really cut out for.” Louise and Adele bond over the fact that they both suffer from night terrors.

The novel drops a breadcrumb trail of then, which allows the reader a glimpse into Adele’s murky past – parents killed a fire that destroyed part of the estate where she grew up, a stint in some sort of care facility, a close friendship with a fellow patient, Rob. In the now, Adele is less transparent. She is clearly duplicitous, we’re just not sure how or why.

Behind Her Eyes was a book club pick and although some of the women in my group enjoyed reading the book – even I did to a point – I don’t think any of us would say we loved it. I definitely didn’t. Perhaps you could argue that the clues were there all along and I know all the BIG NAME  readers out there loved the novel’s twist, but for me – I just felt cheated. Way too deus ex machina for me.

That said – I am in the minority for sure and if nothing else, Behind Her Eyes will get you turning the pages.

Monsters – Emerald Fennell

monstersWhat would you get if you mixed Enid Blyton with Stephen King? I think you’d probably get Monsters by Emerald Fennell.

Monsters is the story of a twelve-year-old girl who has spent the last three summers at her Aunt Maria and Uncle Frederick’s crumbling seaside hotel because her “parents got smushed to death in a boating accident.”  The unnamed narrator now resides with her maternal grandmother and “During the summer holidays, Granny always decides she has enough of me…” That’s how she ends up in Fowery, somewhere on the Cornish coast of England.

The town of Fowery is as eccentric as its residents, a “tiny multicoloured town…built up the side of a green, green hill” and ruled by William Podmore, a recluse who is rarely seen.

Everyone in town knows our narrator – she’s a regular visitor to the candy store and book shop. She knows they think she’s peculiar. And she is. She’s fascinated with murderers and she and her grandmother often watch gory films together. She’s practically memorized The Murderers’ Who’s Who. So she hits the creepy jackpot when the body of a woman is found caught in a fisherman’s net. Suddenly, the summer is starting to look up.

Then thirteen-year-old Miles arrives with his over-bearing mother. Turns out  Miles has a lot in common with our narrator:  he’s fascinated with true crime, a little on the eccentric side and he’s smart.

I really enjoyed Monsters. It’s quite unlike any recent YA book I’ve read.  I was a big reader of Enid Blyton’s books when I was a kid. I loved solving the mysteries in the Adventure series. Fennell’s book is certainly more subversive than Blyton’s books – which were straight up mysteries a la The Bobbsey Twins. Monsters is decidedly darker.

Miles and our narrator spend the summer trying to figure out who murdered the young woman and when another body turns up, they try to figure out who might be next on the killer’s list. They also play their own murder game.

This time instead of being strangled, the victim was drowned. Miles would push me under the water, and I would have to thrash around, yelling and screaming, begging for my life.

If this sounds a little twisted, it is. Monsters is a page-turner with an extended cast of characters ripped straight from a Tim Burton movie. It is odd and oddly fun.

Highly recommended.