The Last September – Nina de Gramont

Brett loves Charlie. He’s the older brother of lastsepther best friend, Eli. She and Eli are students in Colorado and one stormy night they attend a party and Charlie is there, too, his flight delayed because of the storm.

That day, the first day I ever saw him, he had three days’ worth of stubble. He wore a thin black thread around his neck, beaded with a smooth lapis stone that matched the color of his eyes.  When I looked at him, his lips slid up at the corners. My heart lurched. I don’t know why. It lurched toward him and refused – stubbornly – to ever lurch away.

Nina De Gramont’s book The Last September takes zero time to hook you by the throat and it doesn’t let you go until the very end. I really couldn’t put this book down. On the surface it’s a love story. But it’s a love story that goes horribly wrong because by the end of the first sentence we learn that Charlie is dead. Brett tells us “Because I am a student of literature, I will start my story on the day Charlie died. In other words, I’m beginning in the middle.” By the end of the first page we’ll know that Charlie has been murdered.

Their love story unfolds in flashback. When the novel opens, Charlie, Brett and their toddler daughter, Sarah, are living in Charlie’s family cottage at Cape Cod Bay. Brett is finishing her PhD dissertation; Charlie is doing odd jobs.  On this particular day, Brett is frustrated with Charlie, a feeling not at all out of place in most marriages. When Charlie mentions that Eli had called and that he wanted to come for a visit, Brett is reluctant to see her old friend because “the last time we saw Charlie’s brother he’d dropped an enormous amount of weight and begun scribbling notes on his jeans and forearms.”

I have guilty reading pleasure buttons and, I have to say, The Last September hit every single one of them. Angsty love affair. Check. Unbearable suspense. Check. Heartbreak. Check. Check.

What happened to Eli? What happened to Charlie? What happens when Ladd, Brett’s former fiancé arrives back in town? If this sounds suspiciously like Peyton Place, you’re not wrong. But, omg, The Last September is so much fun to read. The writing is luminous and so even when I didn’t 100% buy the plot twists, it didn’t matter because I just wanted to find out what had happened to Charlie and I wanted to know that Brett was going to survive the grief.

Highly recommended.

 

Books for what ails you

Like everyone else in the free world, I watched the recent American presidential election with my heart in my throat. I finally put my phone down at around 12:30 a.m. on the night of the election feeling pretty certain that the impossible had happened. I woke up a handful of hours later and my fears were confirmed.

Back in the day I used to watched The Apprentice. We’d mock Trump as he got off his private jet, that impossible hair flapping in the wind, his mouth like a little anus. He just seemed like a caricature. And now he’s the president of arguably the most powerful country in the world. It’s a terrifying notion to a left-leaning person like me. I hope Trump will surprise us, but I still don’t think he’s qualified for the job.

globalcitizenI have to admit that I was feeling a little smug because, y’know, I’m Canadian and Justin Trudeau is our Prime Minister. He’s not perfect, certainly, and we’re not perfect as a nation, but c’mon. And then Kellie Leitch, one of the people running for the leadership of our national Progressive Conservative Party (as if the national  PC Party is actually ‘progressive’) hitched her star to Trump’s wagon saying we needed to vet our immigrants more carefully. Seriously? I blame Stephen Harper for creating a climate where someone could say something like that in a country that was freakin’ built by immigrants. (Okay, truthfully, I blame Harper for lots of things; I just don’t like the man.)

All the vitriol has me thinking about the world – which is in dire need of some perspective. And some hope. And where do we get it?  Books.

One of the things I always tell my students is that reading allows us to walk in someone else’s shoes.  How can we be sharing this planet and not understand that, fundamentally, we are the same, not different? Sometimes we all live in our own little bubble – me included –  and so we only have a couple options to help us see over our own personal walls: travel and books. I love both, but traveling is expensive, so I guess it’s books (and truthfully, the way I buy books – also expensive).

I thought I’d share some books that might help you see your fellow human differently. If we can’t (try to) understand each other, if we’re not open to listening to someone else’s point of view – even if we don’t agree, if we don’t at least grasp the concept that we are all in this together or we all suffer, well, we’re doomed. I’m a glass half full sort of person, so I would like to believe that perhaps Trump’s victory is a wake-up call to us all that the world is on a precipice. We can either take a step back in love or jump off into the abyss with hate.

I choose love.

These books are about experiences I have never had and all of them got me to ask questions and see people and countries in a new way. Some made me uncomfortable, some made me feel ignorant and blind. All of them were profoundly moving. If we are going to make this world better we need to practice our empathy skills. Books help with that. As Atticus Finch so wisely put it, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

So go on. Start walking.

The Cellist of Sarajevo – Stephen Galloway 9780307397041

Spend a few hours with Kenan as he braves the streets, making a treacherous journey to the brewery to collect fresh water for his family. He’s a father who only want to keep his children safe, feed and clothe them.

Never Fall Down – Patricia McCormack neverfalldown

Reading Arn’s story has reminded me again of the priviledged life I’ve lead and of the absolute power of literature to crack open the insulated world in which we often live.

 

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe – Bejamin Alire Saenz aristotle_and_dante

I was the age of these characters somewhere around 1976. I didn’t know anyone who was gay. Okay, looking back – of course I did, but we didn’t talk about it. It wasn’t acknowledged. As far as I know, they weren’t out. I am profoundly grateful as a teacher and a parent, just as a human being, that books like this exist.

The Book Thief – Marcus Zusak

the-book-thiefLiesel is extraordinary. She and Hans bond late at night, when Liesel’s nightmares wake her, and Hans teaches her to read. Books and words are central to Liesel’s story. So is her friendship with Rudy, the boy next door. Through their eyes we see Hitler and Nazi Germany; we experience the atrocities and the small kindnesses. Zusak’s story is mostly about everyday things: hunger, pettiness, laughter, hope, cruelty and kindness.

 

Bel Canto – Ann Patchett bel-canto1

For me, though, this is a book about love- how it shapes us and changes us, how beauty transforms and transports and how you just might take a risk if you thought it might be your last opportunity to do so.

 

totally joeTotally Joe – James Howe

Joe is totally self-aware. It’s one of the pleasure of Totally Joe, really, that he is a person who understands and accepts himself. That doesn’t mean he’s not susceptible to the taunts of others.

 

Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq – Mark Alan Stamaty  alia

When the fighting starts in Iraq, Alia feels compelled to save the books in the library. When she can’t get her own government to help her, she starts moving the books herself.

everythingEverything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You is an astounding, complex and heart-breaking look at the secrets we keep, not only from our families but from ourselves. Why we keep them, and the damage caused because of it, is just part of what happens in Ng’s book.

 

 

 

A Head Full of Ghosts – Paul Tremblay

23019294Paul Tremblay’s novel A Head Full of Ghosts has been sucking up all the oxygen on the Internet for the past few weeks and even Stephen King said that it scared the “living hell” out of him. As you might imagine, that’s probably pretty hard to do and therefore high praise.

The Barrett family are kinda sorta normal in a completely dysfunctional way. Dad, John, has just been made redundant at the job where he’s worked for the last nineteen years. Times are tough and he hasn’t been able to find work since. Mom, Sarah, is tense and cold. Then there are the daughters: fourteen-year-old Marjorie and eight-year-old Meredith or Merry. The story is actually narrated by Merry, aged 23. She is sharing what happened to her family the year she was eight with best-selling author Rachel Neville but she is unsure how to proceed because she doesn’t “know how to explain to her that [her] sister hasn’t aged at all in fifteen-plus years and there never was a before everything happened.”

Despite the six year age gap, Marjorie and Merry are close. They share made up stories and have a sister-speak  shorthand. When Merry visited Marjorie’s room “she was convinced that [she] was going to grow up exactly like Marjorie, entering her room was like discovering a living, breathing map of [her] future.”  Lately, though, Marjorie has begun to act strange.

She tells Merry that the posters on her walls “disembodied hands, legs, arms, hair and a pair of eyes” were like that when Marjorie had woken up. She writes Merry a note that tells her:

I sneak into your room when you are asleep, Merry-Monkey. I’ve been doing it for weeks now, since the end of summer. You’re so pretty when you are asleep. Last night, I pinched your nose shut until you opened your mouth and gasped.

Merry isn’t the only one concerned about Marjorie. She’s seeing a psychologist and then John decides he needs to get the church involved. That’s how the Barrett family find themselves at the center of a reality television series, The Possession. No one could have predicted how it would all turn out, least of all Merry, but when she agrees to talk to Rachel Neville, the veil of what really happened in the Barrett house is lifted.

Or is it?

A Head Full of Ghosts is not scary, let’s just get that out of the way. It’s creepy and mind-bending and certainly capitalizes on the whole reality TV phenomenon. But full out pants-wetting scares are in short supply.

Truthfully, I am not sure how I feel about this book. I didn’t love it. I found it odd and unsettling, for sure, and neither of those things are bad necessarily, but I wasn’t enthralled. I kept changing my mind about what I thought was really going on  – which also isn’t a bad thing. I don’t need my fiction to be tidy.

I guess how I feel about A Head Full of Ghosts is that despite its numerous accolades, I wouldn’t tell everyone to read it, but I definitely would read another book by Tremblay. How’s that for wishy-washy?

 

 

 

Based on Actual Events – Robert Moore

Writing a review of a collection of poetry is not the same as writing a book review. I tried the last time Robert Moore released a collection of poems, The Golden Book of Bovinities. Poetry is a pricklier proposition. (See what I did there with the alliteration and all – just so you know I do get some of those poetic bells and whistles.)

567 Bob and I have known each other for twenty-five years. I met him back in 1991, when I returned to university to finish my Arts degree. He’s only a handful of years older than I am and one of the benefits of being a mature student is getting to know your profs on another level. I loved being in Bob’s class and was thrilled when he agreed to be my honours thesis advisor. We’ve stayed friends over the years and I have always found our conversations entertaining and hard work in equal measure. (Hard in the sense that Bob is off-the-charts smart and has a vocabulary that keeps mere mortals on their toes.)

Based on Actual Events is Moore’s fifth volume of poetry. I’ve got all his poetry collections, but to be honest he started to lose me a little in 2012 with The Golden Book of Bovinities.

The blurb on the back of Based on Actual Events says

Robert Moore gives us a book-length sequence of sleek, fiercely comic, colloquial poems whose aphoristic storytelling is pegged to nostalgia for sublimity. His project is to find frames of reference for our estrangement from the world.

That may very well be what Bob’s trying to do with these poems, but I didn’t get it. (Geesh, I barely got the blurb!) His earlier poems dealt with relationships and his parents and art and, you know, stuff I could mostly relate to. Based on Actual Events is for wicked-smart people, which generally counts me out. That said, poetry in general is often layered and mysterious and requires fortitude.  However,  if you take Billy Collins’ advice and “press an ear against its hive” or “walk inside the poem’s rooms”, a poem will always reward you.

So, that’s kind of my approach reading this collection. I listen for what I like; I walk around in the bizarre rooms Bob’s constructed. I make my own meaning.

25.

Even under enhanced interrogation the vampire

refused to give us anything. And we tried it all,

shit we didn’t even know we could do and still call

yourself human. Nihilo. Zilch. If anything, his smirk

got smirkier, his ass even wiser. And those fangs!

Growing back each time; pellucid as milk,

alert as metal against skin.

 

So we waited until high noon – both hands reaching for God –

then shoved him out of the van in the Sears parking lot.

It was like you’d lit a gasoline fart. It was like wings

opening inside you.

 

Over before you could swallow. Seen more ash

at the end of a Virginia Slim. “Holy screaming fuckballs,”

sighed the captain, as much to himself as to the assembled,

we who’d done things we couldn’t even share

with ourselves, never mind over breakfast

or lost weekends, in earshot of our televisions,

which knew every lie in the book.

 

Anyone who knows me will know why I liked this poem. 🙂

These poems are ironic, often funny (I think) and use a lot of words I had to look up in a dictionary. Whatever, my vocabulary could use some work.

 

 

The Dead House – Dawn Kurtagich

I cannot resist a book with a creepy cover – especially if there’s a  creepy house or building on it and so even though I’d heard nothing about this book and had never heard of its author, I took  a chance on Dawn Kurtagich’s debut novel, The Dead House.

deadhouseThe premise is that investigators are looking into the death of three students at Elmbridge High, a boarding school in Somerset,  England. The school was destroyed by fire.  In order to unravel the story they have gathered police interviews, personal diaries, notes and video tape footage which has been transcribed (although it might have been cool to include links to a site to watch the tape). The incident happened over twenty years ago and as the report statement reveals “little was revealed about the tragedy.”

The incident has been something of an urban legend  connecting Kaitlyn Johnson, “the girl of nowhere” to the blaze. When her diary is found in the rubble, it spurs a new investigation into what actually happened in the days leading up to the fire.

Readers will know they’re not in Kansas anymore from the book’s opening pages. First of all,  we’re at the Claydon Mental Hospital. Kaitlyn has written in her diary:

I am myself again.

Carly has disappeared into the umbra, and I am alone. Ink on my fingers – she’s been writing  in the Message Book.

Good night, sis! she writes. We’ll be back at school soon. I can’t wait.

Turns out Kaitlyn and Carly  are one and the same. Carly, sweet and shy, inhabits the day and Kaitlyn, a little tougher around the edges, inhabits the night. Dr. Lansing, their psychotherapist, says that Kaitlyn is a product of trauma, a personality born of a personal tragedy. The two personalities communicate via a message book. They remind each other of people they’ve met, food they’ve eaten and the minutiae of daily life. Their separate lives happily co-exist.

But then Carly seems to go ‘missing’ and that’s when things take a decided turn into the weirder.  Dr. Lansing considers the disappearance of one personality a breakthrough. She tells Kaitlyn, “Carly is letting you go. It has to happen. It will feel like abandonment, it will be so hard. But, eventually, you’ll find peace. You’ll integrate. Absorb.”

Kaitlyn is convinced that that is not what is happening. She thinks Carly is trapped in the “dead house” and she has to rescue her. Kaitlyn isn’t alone. Naida, Carly’s best friend, is also sure that something sinister is going on – something to do with powerful dark magic.

Whichever way you read The Dark House, as a novel about mental illness or a supernatural horror story, Kurtagich’s novel is unusual and compelling, if not always comprehensible.

 

 

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

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It took me four reads before I finally fell in love with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great American novel, The Great Gatsby. I might not have ever read it again after the last time (a couple years ago my book club had a ‘year of classics’) had it not been for the fact that I am teaching grade twelve this year. Often referred to as the quintessential American novel, its place in literary canon is certainly undeniable, but I just never bought in. The Great Gatsby  is my daughter Mallory’s favourite novel and she was understandably flummoxed as to why her English teacher geek of a mother never really liked the book. Now we’re on the same page. If you believe that a classic is a book that never runs out of things to say, this book certainly qualifies. I guess I’m just late to the party.

how-whimsical-2006-great-gatsby-book-coverNick Carraway, the novel’s narrator, moves from the mid-west to Long Island’s West Egg to take a job on Wall Street. Across the bay in East Egg lives his cousin, Daisy Buchanan, and her husband, Tom, an old Yale classmate of Nick’s, a man so “enormously wealthy” he’d brought  “down a string of polo ponies from Lake Forest.”  Nick comments “It was hard to imagine that a man in my own generation was wealthy enough to do that.”

Despite their wealth, Daisy and Tom don’t seem particularly happy and on his first visit with them Nick discovers that Tom is having an affair.  When it comes to the Buchanans, all that glitters is not gold.

Next door to Nick’s little house, and directly across the bay from the Buchanans,  lives Gatsby. His mansion is “a colossal affair by any standard.” Gatsby throws lavish parties every weekend  – huge glittering affairs attended by the who’s who of New York and “In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”  On the first night Nick attends a party at Gatsby’s he is “one of the few guests who had actually been invited.” Soon after meeting his charming and enigmatic host, Nick finds himself drawn into a compelling love affair between Daisy and Gatsby, a love affair that had actually begun five years earlier.

The Great Gatsby operates on two very distinct levels: as a love story and a social commentary on the decadence and decay at the heart of the American Dream.

Gatsby’s single-minded devotion to Daisy, his desire to wipe out the present and reclaim their shared past drives him to create a sort of fantasy life. Everything Gatsby does is for Daisy and Nick remarks on his “extraordinary gift for hope,” his “romantic readiness such as I have never found in another person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.” But Nick also acknowledges that perhaps Gatsby wants “too much” of Daisy and cautions him  that “You can’t repeat the past.”

On another level, Fitzgerald’s novel captures the glittery, frenetic 20s. A generation of young men had returned from the Great War, Wall Street was booming and in Fitzgerald’s version, anyway, people cared about little else except having fun.   Underneath the façade, though, there is rot and corruption. No one works except for Nick. They just drink and laze about. Nick sees it and when the veil is pulled back he tells Gatsby, “They’re a rotten crowd….You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”

The Great Gatsby is a beautiful novel, I see that now. I am sorry it took so long to believe in the dream.

 

 

 

Coventry – Helen Humphreys

On November 14, 1940, Coventry, a city in England’s West Midlands, was devastated by a German bombing raid that  leveled two thirds of the city, including the city’s cathedral, which was built in the 14th century.

coventry-cathedral-is-extensively-damaged-in-german-bombing-raids-136394373067803901-151113164642.jpg

This event is the backdrop of Helen Humphrey’s 2008 novel, Coventry. The novel captures the horror and chaos of that night as seen through the eyes of Harriet Marsh, a 44-year-old woman who is acting as a fire-watcher on the cathedral rooftop and Maeve, an artist whose 22-year-old son, Jeremy,  is also acting as a fire-watcher the evening the Germans dropped 500 tonnes of explosives on the city.

coventryWith the exception of a flashback to introduce us to Harriet’s husband, Owen, and to allow Harriet and Maeve to briefly meet, the novel spends its time during the ten-hour raid. Although it might be hard to imagine the scene, Humphreys does capture the horrible chaos of that night in simple, unembellished prose.

The bombing shakes the ground so that people fleeing through the streets stumble as though drunk. The trembling earth shifts them one way, and then the other, and Harriet finds herself reaching out to steady herself on walls that are no longer standing. She falls in the street, picks herself up from the shaking ground, and falls again.

Nearly 600 people were killed on that night; over 1000 more were injured. It’s perhaps not easy to imagine the chaos, but Humphreys does manage to capture it as Harriet and Jeremy make their way through the city to their respective homes. The horrors of war are all around them: people who have been fatally wounded, people buried under rubble, animals wandering aimlessly. Maeve leaves the shelter of the pub and heads home, but she and Jeremy miss each other.

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The British were known for their stoic resilience during the Second World War. Some of that resilience is seen on display in Coventry. In one particular scene, Harriet and Jeremy happen upon a makeshift first aid station and while Jeremy jumps in to help, Harriet wanders off to see if she can’t rustle up some tea. C’mon! It doesn’t get any more British than that.

How did these people cope? They just did what they had to do and when it seemed like they couldn’t go on, they did that, too.

I am a fan of Helen Humphreys. I loved her novel The Lost Garden  which I talked about here.  I also really enjoyed Afterimage, which I read before I started this blog. What I admire about her writing is her ability to capture moments so perfectly. Perhaps that ability comes from having started her writing career as a poet.  I just know that she is one of those rare writers who make you pause and nod your head in agreement.

Coventry is a short novel that, nevertheless, captures the horror and the unexpected beauty to be found amidst  chaos.