My Dark Vanessa – Kate Elizabeth Russell

vanessaI finished Kate Elizabeth Russell’s debut novel My Dark Vanessa a couple days ago, but I had to let it sit with me before I made any attempt to write about it. It tells the story of a relationship that develops between fifteen-year-old Vanessa and her English teacher, Jacob Strane, who is 42.

Jacob Strane is an imposing teacher at Browick, a boarding school in Maine, “gleaming white clapboard and brick.” When the novel opens, Vanessa is returning to Browick for her sophomore year. Her freshman year was a it of a disaster, ending in a shattered relationship with her best friend and roommate, Jenny.

A bit of a loner, Vanessa is immediately taken with Mr. Strane. It’s kind of hard to miss him.

He has wavy black hair and a black beard, glasses that reflect a glare so you can’t see his eyes, but the first thing I notice about him – the first thing anyone must notice – is his size. He’s not fat but big, broad, and so tall that his shoulders hunch as though his body wants to apologize for taking up so much space.

Encouraged by her faculty adviser, Vanessa joins the creative writing club and starts spending more and more time with Strane. He encourages her writing, talks to her like an adult, shares books and poetry with her (including, unsurprisingly, Lolita) and begins the slow and careful grooming process, which ultimately leads to their sexual relationship.

My Dark Vanessa is a difficult book to read on a lot of levels. For one, I am a teacher and Strane’s abuse of Vanessa’s trust is despicable. He manipulates her in ways that are apparent to us, but not to her. At one point he tells her “I want to be a positive presence in your life…Someone you can look back on and remember fondly, the funny old teacher who was pathetically in love with you but kept his hands to himself and was a good boy in the end.”

In some ways, Vanessa is aware of her own power over Strane. After this admission she “becomes someone somebody else is in love with, and not just some dumb boy my own age but a man who has lived an entire life, who has done and seen so much and still thinks I’m worthy of his love.” But even this seeming self-awareness is coloured by the fact that he has groomed her; it would take a very mature and confident person to see through Strane’s flattery and gaslighting.

The novel jumps back in forth covering the period of time when Vanessa is at Browick, in 2000, and then seven years later and seventeen years later. Vanessa revisits her relationship in light of allegations that Strane had been inappropriate (to put it mildly) with another student, possibly more than one.  It’s the beginning of the #MeToo movement, after all. The book captures how this relationship has completely derailed her life and coloured all her subsequent relationships. Even though Strane is repulsive, Vanessa seems unable to disconnect.

I wouldn’t say My Dark Vanessa was an enjoyable read, but it is compelling. It’ll make you feel squicky,  and it will frustrate you, but I don’t think you will be able to stop turning the pages. I think it’s a very accomplished debut.

There is some controversy surrounding the book. This article in The Guardian offers a comprehensive look at some of it.

 

 

 

The Railway Children – E. Nesbit

One of my all-time favourite childhood movies is The Railway Children.  I don’t remember the-railway-children-26specifically when I first watched it, but it came out in 1970 and I probably saw it shortly after that. I have it on VHS somewhere, but no longer have a VHS machine. I did, however, have the book.

E. Nesbit’s story, first published in 1906, tells the story of siblings Roberta (Bobbie), Peter and Phyllis who live with their well-to-do parents “in an ordinary red-brick-fronted villa.” Their father works in government and their mother was always “ready to play with the children, and read to them, and help them to do their home-lessons.”

One evening, out of the blue, two men arrive at the villa and the father is “called away on business.” Afterwards, the children and their mother leave London and head out to the countryside where they will live in a “ducky dear little white house.” Although they seem to be destitute they get by. The mother is a writer and when she sells a story, the children get a treat of buns.

The children occupy their days with adventures, including making friends with the porter at the local railway station and an old gentleman who waves at them from the window of the 9:15 train they nickname the Green Dragon. There is pretty much nothing sweeter than what these three kids get up to. They are thoughtful, resilient, and kind. Revisiting their story was like being wrapped in a warm hug and Bobbie’s sentiments seemed particularly poignant given the circumstances in which we find ourselves at this point in history:

I think everyone in the world is friends if you can only get them to see you don’t want to be un – friends.

 

The Outsider – Stephen King

I haven’t read anything by Stephen King since Joyland but I am a fan from wayyyyy back. Despite the often creepy subject matter, King is like book comfort food. I know when I read him, I will not be disappointed (The Tommyknockers aside). The Outsiders delivers in every category…and lucky for me I started it at the beginning of my March Break because I could not put that 560 page sucker down. 

Flint City, Oklahoma is a quiet little ‘burb, but something horrific has happened there. outsider Eleven-year-old Frank Peterson has been found dead in the woods. The crime is unspeakable – so I won’t speak of it here, you’ll get enough of it in the book – and Detective Ralph Anderson is determined to catch the psycho who committed the crime posthaste.

It actually turns out to be a pretty easy case to crack: the DNA evidence is ironclad and there’s a handful of reliable eye-witnesses. Soon, Anderson is arresting Little League coach Terry Maitland.  Maitland, a high school teacher and well-respected member of the community, maintains his innocence, and there’s irrefutable evidence to prove that he didn’t kill Frankie. Like the detectives and the District Attorney, you’ll be trying to figure out how any of this is possible. And then, about half way through the book,  you’ll be reminded that you’re in King territory and he doesn’t play by the rules.

The Outsider is a puzzle of a book and in some ways it sort of reminded me of It, which is probably my favourite King novel. I mean, there’s not really a lot of similarities, except that a strange assortment of people gather together to fight evil, but the showdown at the end of The Outsiders gave me all-the-feels.

Here’s what I have always admired about Stephen King. He writes a cracking good story. The writing is unpretentious. It doesn’t get in the way, as writing often can. Story is king (excuse the pun) and he just lets his characters go about their business. And his characters are believable. You’ll root for them; you’ll care for them; you’ll want them to be safe. (Can’t help you with that, unfortunately. As King famously said in his memoir On Writing, “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”)

If I have one niggle – and it’s so tiny and insignificant it’s hardly worth mentioning, but I will just so I don’t go full-on fangirl – sometimes, occasionally, the dialogue made me wince just a teensy bit.

But who cares?! Seriously. I had a ball reading this book. It’s all kinds of awesome. And the HBO series looks pretty dang good, too.

 

We Are Still Tornadoes – Michael Kun & Susan Mullen

Yes, it was a million years ago, but I do remember that first year of university right after high school. Most of my friends went away, but I stayed home. This was before the Internet and way before long distance was cheap/free. How did we keep in touch? We wrote letters.

I was a big letter writer back in the day. I had a zillion pen pals and then when all my friends went off to university, I wrote letters. I miss letter writing because, while it’s not as immediate as sending an e-mail, it gives you the opportunity to think about what you want to say, to catalogue the minutiae of your life and allow your recipient to have a little time capsule of your thoughts and feelings. It’s kinda cool.

tornadoesThat’s what Scott and Cath do in Michael Kun and Susan Mullen’s epistolary novel We Are Still Tornadoes. Cath has gone off to Wake College in North Carolina, but Scott has stayed home. He’s currently working in his father’s men’s clothing store – a job that is the subject of much derision until it’s not.

Cath and Scott have been besties since they were kids. They live across the street from each other and know each other, in some ways, better than they know themselves. Of course, this relationship comes with the requisite squabbles and misunderstandings, but mostly they are each other’s best and most loyal cheerleaders.

 

Their correspondence – which starts with the note Scott leaves in Cath’s suitcase – is  a joy to read. From these inauspicious beginnings, the two trade stories about their daily lives, their struggles to fit in or, in Scott’s case, figure out what he’s doing with his life. When things happen to them – good or bad – they turn to each other, as they always have. Cath meets new people; Scott longs for an old girlfriend; their lives, as lives often do, become more complicated.

tornadoes1

The novel takes place in 1982 – so just a couple years after I would have graduated from high school – and it is peppered with pop culture references (particularly musical) which I appreciated. Imagine talking about Thriller as if you were hearing it for the first time! Imagine going to see English Beat in concert!

I laughed-out-loud on more than one occasion, particularly at Scott (his sense of humour was totally my jam).

As for whether your parents are being weird, I don’t know how to answer that. The only time I ever see your mom is when she forgets to close the shade in the bathroom when she’s taking a shower, and even then it’s only if I feel like walking all the way over to my closet to get my binoculars, take them out of the box, walk back to the window, etc. It’s a whole production.

Ultimately, We Are Still Tornadoes is a coming-of-age story, but it is also a story about friends and how amazing it is to have one who, even when they let you down, always finds a way to pick you back up. I loved it.

Highly recommended.

The Poet X – Elizabeth Acevedo

Elizabeth Acevedo’s debut YA novel The Poet X tells the story of fifteen-year-old Xiomarapoetx who lives in Harlem with her twin brother, whom she calls ‘Twin’) and her Dominican immigrant parents. She’s a good girl; she has no choice. Mami’s rules are law, and Xiomara wouldn’t dream of breaking them. But there are some things Xiomara can’t control. For example, she is “unhide-able”

Taller than even my father, with what Mami has always said/ was “a little too much body for such a young girl.”/ I am the baby fat that settled into D-cups and swinging hips/ so that the boys who called me a whale in middle school/ now ask me to send them pictures of myself in a thong.

She starts to question organized religion and at school, she finds herself drawn to her classmate,  Aman.  She starts keeping secrets from her mother because religious conviction is non-negotiable and  Mami’s dating rules are written in stone: she can’t date until she’s married.

When her English teacher encourages Xiomara to write poetry, she discovers that she has a lot to say and there might actually be a way to say it. As she commits her thoughts to the page, her confidence grows.

…I know that I am ready to slam. / That my poetry has become something I’m proud of./ The way the words say what I mean,/ how they twist and turn language,/how they connect with people,/ How they build community,/ I finally know that all those/ I’ll never, ever, ever”/ stemmed from being afraid but not even they/ can stop me. Not anymore.

There’s no reason to be intimidated if you’ve never tried a novel written in verse. The writing is stripped down, these’s no pesky exposition, and it cuts straight to the bone. Xiomara is a thoughtful, intelligent character and you will be cheering her on as she finds the power of her own words.

I loved spending time with Xiomara. As an English teacher, I appreciated that words offered her an escape and comfort and eventually the freedom to speak her truth. I highly recommend The Poet X especially if you’ve never given a novel in verse a go.

Watch Elizabeth Acevedo talk about how the novel came to be:

The Fountains of Silence – Ruta Sepetys

Ruta Sepetys has a gift. Well, she has many gifts, to be fair, but I particularly admire her ability to write characters that absolutely lift off the page and linger in your imagination long after the last page has been turned.

At my high school, we introduce readers to Sepetys in grade nine, when we read Between Shades of Gray. I have yet to encounter a student, even  those who identify as non-readers, who doesn’t rip through that book, many reading way ahead of the class. In grade ten, when we introduce Salt to the Sea there are very few groans. Again, students quickly become wholly invested in the stories of the characters. When I read the final few pages out loud to my grade ten classes in the fall, I had to stop several times because I was so close to tears I couldn’t get the words out. That’s how you know these characters have become real to you, I guess: you care about their fate.

fountainsI was very excited to read Sepetys’s latest book, The Fountains of Silence, because I just knew that I was going to meet a new cast of characters to fall in love with, and I wasn’t wrong.

Daniel Matheson is almost nineteen when he travels to Madrid with his parents during the summer of 1957. His father is an oil tycoon from Texas, and his mother is originally from Spain. Daniel’s dream is to become a photo journalist, but his father disapproves. While Mr. Matheson does business, Daniel takes pictures, and in doing so he starts to see that sunny Madrid is one city to tourists and another to people who struggle beneath Francisco Franco’s yoke.

Ana works in the hotel and is assigned to help the Mathesons. Her story is one of poverty and struggle. Her father was executed and her mother imprisoned and “Her parents’ offense has left Ana rowing dark waters of dead secrets. Born into a long shadow of shame, she must never speak publicly of her parents. She must live in silence.”

Ana and Daniel feel an instant attraction to each other, but it’s the classic case of being from opposite sides of the social spectrum. There is so much Ana wants to say and can’t, and so much that Daniel doesn’t understand, but certainly will.

Although Ana and Daniel’s story is central to the plot, there are other compelling characters in this book, including Ana’s older brother Rafa and his childhood friend, Fuga; Ben, a seasoned journalist who takes Daniel under his wing, and Puri, Ana’s cousin who works at a local orphanage. Although Ana and Daniel will take up most of the space in your heart, all the characters you’ll encounter are compelling and interesting.

Once again, Sepetys has mined history to find her story. This one concerns the thousands of children who were stolen from their parents and adopted by more ‘suitable’ families. It also provides a window into the period of the Spanish Civil War and the years immediately following, when “Helpless children and teenagers became innocent victims of wretched violence and ideological pressure.”

Their stories deserve to be told and Sepetys does them, and us, a great service by telling them.

Highly recommended.

 

The Only Story – Julian Barnes

I very much enjoyed Julian Barnes’ novella The Sense of an Ending when my book clubonly read it eight years ago. (Yikes!)  I can’t say that my experience with The Only Story  was quite as enjoyable; however, we had a fantastic chat about it at book club.

Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? That is, I think, finally, the only real question.

It’s the 1960s. Paul is an only child and has a relatively distant relationship with his parents who are solidly middle-class.  Home from university, Paul is “visibly and unrepentantly bored.” His mother looks for a diversion for him and hopes Paul might find a “nice blonde Christine, or a sparky, black-ringleted Virginia” at the tennis club. Instead he meets Susan Macleod, a middle-aged, unhappily married mother of two daughters who are older than our protagonist. Paul recalls “Who would have thought it might begin there?” The whole novel is a rambling recollection of their affair and the way such relationships are framed by memory, which is a theme Barnes visited in The Sense of an Ending.

Barnes wants the reader to believe, perhaps because Paul does, that this relationship is one for the ages. “Most of us only have one story to tell,” Paul tells us. “This is mine.”

I didn’t really like anything about this book and it pains me to say it because on the surface it seems like this book would be 100% up my angsty alley. Instead, I had a hard time connecting with either of these rather dull characters, who fumble their way through sex, and living together, and life in general. In the beginning, Paul spends a lot of time at Susan’s house; sometimes his university friends stay over, too. Paul is so self-involved that he doesn’t understand why Susan’s husband, Gordon, doesn’t seem to like him. Um, you’re sleeping with his wife! Under his own roof! Not that Gordon is at all sympathetic and he and Susan haven’t done the deed pretty much since the birth of their daughters.

Once they move in together – into a little house Susan buys in London – she (I thought) out-of-the-blue becomes a raging alcoholic, and things between the lovers start to deteriorate.

At first, Paul tells their story in the first person, but as things between him and Susan start to fall apart, he switches to the second person and then, finally, the third person. I liked this because I know how I view things from my past: sometimes it feels as though they’ve happened to someone else.

But for a story about love, the ‘only’ story – this one just didn’t work for me. No question Barnes is a master craftsman, and others in book club really liked it, but I found it a bit of a slog.