If I Knew Then – Jann Arden

Jann Arden is a Canadian singer-songwriter, actress, writer, animal rights activist, vegan and all around kick-ass human being. I have been a fan of hers for at least thirty years, which is why when she made a cameo in the 60th birthday video my daughter, Mallory, made for me I was speechless. She sang a little of “Good Mother”, offered a book recommendation (The Overstory by Richard Powers) and was charming as all get out.

Her non-fiction book If I Knew Then is a memoir about aging and is written with Jann’s trademark honesty and humour. She calls a spade a spade and I appreciate that about her.

One morning a few months after I turned fifty, I remember stopping dead in the middle of my usual routine

[…]

Suddenly it was as though I was staring at the most beautiful map of the world. I saw all the places I had been, all the things I had done, all the strength and service my arms and legs and shoulders and feet had given me for so many years, even though I had put this body through such bullshit and abuse and neglect and shame and loathing. All of that crap.

Jann tells stories about her complicated relationship with her father (who died in 2015), her devotion to her mother (who died of Alzheimer’s disease, which Jann recounts in her book Feeding My Mother) and the personal mistakes she made on her way to becoming, as she puts it, a “crone.”

The Crone is remarkably wise and unapologetic. She is fierce and forward-thinking – someone who is at the pinnacle of her own belonging. Okay, I’m not entering the time of the Crone. I am a Crone. I am at the beginning of a new chapter in my life – a whole new book, really. And it’s one that’s going to read and unfold exactly the way I want it to.

If I Knew Then has lots to offer a woman of any age. Although Jann is talking about herself in her 50s, maybe a younger woman could use some of her hard-won wisdom. For instance, if only I had appreciated my body a little more when I was 30. I didn’t think I was skinny enough or fit enough back then, pre-kids, but now when I see pictures of myself from that era, I am whoa! I also had a complicated relationship with my alcoholic father and I adored my mother. I don’t think I ever appreciated how difficult it was to be a parent though until I was a parent myself. My parents were never young to me; they were always just my parents. Both are gone now, too, and there are so many things I wish I could ask them. And apologies I’d like to make.

Jann’s book gives you permission to acknowledge your mistakes, and to move beyond them. She stresses the point that it is our failures that make us better human beings, that failing is, in fact, “a necessity.” Sometimes we need to be reminded that true learning comes from not getting it right the first or fourteenth time around and that “Good things come out of bad things.”

Fans of Jann Arden will certainly enjoy If I Knew Then, but even if you’re not familiar with her, this book is an enjoyable, personal (but universal) examination of a life lived, wrinkles and all.

The Winter Sister – Megan Collins

When Sylvie was 14, her older sister, Persephone, was murdered. No one was ever charged with the crime. Now, 16 years later, Sylvie has returned home to Spring Hill to help care for her mother, Annie, who is taking chemotherapy. Sylvie and her mother haven’t been close in years, not since Persephone’s death, and being home is stirring up all sorts of detritus.

Megan Collins’s debut novel The Winter Sister is a murder mystery framed by a family drama, or maybe it’s the other way around. It’s definitely a novel about complicated family relationships, love, and the way our memories morph over time.

When they found my sister’s body, the flyer’s we’d hung around town were still crisp against the telephone poles. The search party still had land to scour; the batteries in their flashlight still held a charge. Persephone had been missing for less than seventy-two hours when a jogger caught a glimpse of her red coat through the snow, but by then, my mother had already become a stranger to me.

Sylvie’s life hasn’t been successful. She went to art school, then got a job as a tattoo artist, a job she seemed destined for. As a kid, she’d drawn pictures over the bruises Persephone’s boyfriend Ben had left on her sister’s wrists and arms and ribs. These bruises had always seemed like proof to Sylvie that Ben was responsible for Persephone’s murder. When she bumps into him at the hospital, it dredges up all her suspicions. Why is he allowed to be walking around, living his life, when her sister is dead.

But it’s not just Ben that makes being home so difficult; Sylvie has to interact with her mother, something she hasn’t really done since she went off to college. She has a hard time reconciling her pre-murder mother with the shrunken, bitter woman she sees now. It isn’t just the cancer that’s eating away at Annie.

Collins does an excellent job of stringing the reader along, dropping clues about the murder so that it feels like you are reading a thriller of sorts. But this is also a book about the secrets families keep. Can we ever really know each other? How do small decisions impact the trajectory of our lives? It has never occurred to Sylvie that her memories of what happened that night might be tangled in something bigger. Instead, she’s carried a tremendous amount of guilt around like an anvil.

The Winter Sister is a well-written family drama. I will definitely be reading more from this author.

A peek at my bookshelves

Back when we were first looked down for Covid, I came across Shelf Absorption, a site that was looking for people to share their bookshelves and bookish thoughts. There was a questionnaire and an opportunity to send some pictures and it was the perfect distraction from all the craziness of those first few weeks of Covid anxiety. My contribution went live back on October 5th, and I’ve been meaning to post the link here since then.

If you are like me and you gravitate to other people’s bookshelves when you are in their homes, this site is like candy. Sadly, I think the owners are taking a little break, but there’s lots to keep you busy for a little while.

Here’s a little preview of what you’ll find from my featured spot.

The Ludic Reader on Shelf Absorption

How Reading Changed My Life – Anna Quindlen

Anna Quindlen’s (Every Last One) essay How Reading Changed My Life is an essay every book lover will enjoy. I call it an essay because it’s just 70 pages long, but maybe reading memoir is more appropriate. Quindlen recounts her early days as a reader, the value books have had in her life, and (given that this was published in 1998) a look at the future of books in the digital age.

Reading has always been my home, my sustenance, my great invincible companion. “Book love,” Trollope called it. “It will make your hours pleasant to you as long as you live.” Yet of all the many things in which we recognize some universal comfort – God, sex, food, family, friends – reading seems to be the one in which the comfort is most undersung, at least publicly, although it was really all I thought of, or felt, when I was eating up book after book, running away from home while sitting in that chair, traveling around the world and yet never leaving the room.

Quindlen’s essay sings the praises of being a book drunkard and is critical of the notion that we should be reading solely as “a tool for advancement.” Of course I read to learn things, but I am mostly a pleasure reader, a ludic reader. I have piles of books everywhere and hundreds of unread books on my bookshelves because I will get to them some day. I swear.

Quindlen, too, reads for pleasure. She shares her memories of the first book that “seized [her] completely by the throat”, so much so that she read it and reread it, believing that it was “the best book ever written.” Of course, now she admits it’s probably – critically speaking, at least – not very good, but still finds it “a good read, but no longer a masterwork.” All readers have a book like this in their personal canon. Mine is probably Velocity. I mean, that book probably isn’t high art, but I’ve read it more than any other book and it still guts me. Quindlen allows for reading that is personal; there is no room for snobbery, and I appreciate that.

…if readers use words and stories as much, or more, to lesson human isolation as to expand human knowledge, is that somehow unworthy, invalid, and unimportant?

Preach!

How Reading Changed My Life tackles censorship (“It is difficult not to think of that clarion call, of the notion of forbidden fruit, looking at the list of America’s banned books.”), assigned reading (“In fact, one of the most pernicious phenomena in assigned reading is the force-feeding of serious work at an age when the reader will feel pushed away, not from the particular book being assigned, but from an entire class of books, or even books in general.”) and books in the digital age (“It is not possible that the book is over. Too many people love it so.”)

This book is a delight. Highly recommended.

The Cult on Fog Island – Mariette Lindstein

Cults are fascinating, aren’t they? I was a kid in the 1970s and there wasn’t anyone scarier than Charles Manson. I watched the whole documentary about Keith Raniere and NXIVM. I mean those were some intelligent people and they just got sucked into this crazy, perverted world. Jonestown. Children of God. Heaven’s Gate.

Mariette Lindstein was a member of Scientology for 25 years. She left in 2004. Her debut novel, The Cult on Fog Island, is the story of a 24-year-old Sofia who attends a conference on a Fog Island.

Life has been difficult for Sofia. She’s sort of at a crossroad and she isn’t really sure what to do with herself. She’s earned a degree in English literature, her toxic relationship with Ellis is over and now she doesn’t know what to do with herself. When she gets an unsolicited email inviting her to attend “A lecture on ViaTerra by Franz Oswald. For those who wish to walk the way of the earth”, she’s intrigued.

She and her best friend, Wilma, attend the lecture. Sofia’s spidey senses go off almost immediately but Oswald’s charm, charisma and imposing physical presence are soon impossible to ignore and Sofia “began to catch on to what he believed in. A sort of back-to-Mother-Earth philosophy where anything artificial was the root of all evil.” When Oswald offers Sofia the opportunity to build a library – no expense spared – for ViaTerra, it seems like a gift from the heavens.

Of course, things aren’t quite right on Fog Island; the prologue is about an attempted escape. But for a book about a cult, it’s pretty boring. I mean, it’s over 500 pages long and nothing really happens until about page 450. Until then, the book meanders through the day-to-day business of ViaTerra which includes Sofia’s “unwinding” (three days of eating, sleeping and walking around the mansion’s grounds), studying the group’s theses, four vague tenets (which at first make Sofia feel “disappointed and duped”) and basically being groomed by Oswald. When Sofia finally admits that something sinister is going on (even though the ferry captain told her on day one that the place was haunted), it still takes a hundred pages for her to make a move.

My main issue with The Cult on Fog Island is pacing. So much is crammed into the last 100 pages it felt sort of uneven. If the whole thing had been about 250 pages shorter, I might have been more inclined to care about Sofia. Lots of conveniences and moments where tension could have been ramped up and just weren’t. And again with the clunky dialogue, which I find is often a problem with translations.

Then, when I finished, I discovered that this is book one of a trilogy. Yeah, not going to be reading the rest.

This Is Our Story – Ashley Elston

I read a fair number of thrillers and mysteries. I love the propulsive nature of the plot, the twists and turns, and the hero/heroine in danger. It’s hard to write a thriller that keeps you guessing, unless the writer makes a complete 360 that leaves you shaking your head. Behind Her Eyes springs to mind. I love books with sinister underpinnings like Unspeakable Things or The Roanoke Girls.

Ashley Elston’s YA mystery This Is Our Story puts a lot of adult mysteries to shame, really. It’s the story of five best friends: Grant, Shep, Logan, Henry and John Michael. After a wild night of partying at John Michael’s father’s hunting lodge (these boys are all from wealthy families), Grant is dead.

One of us pulled the trigger, but we all played our own part in his death. They will find marks on Grant that don’t fit with an accidental shooting. They will find marks on us that shouldn’t be there either. The last twenty-four hours will have them talking about more than what happened during this early-morning hunt.

The remaining boys, known collectively as the River Point Boys, leave their fancy private school and enroll in the local public school, but Belle Terre, La is a small town where everyone knows everyone anyway.

Kate Marino attends this school and she is quietly devastated by Grant’s death as the two had been texting each other for weeks and had planned to meet at a party the night before Grant was killed. As part of her senior year, she’s interning at the District Attorney’s office, a job that mostly consists of boring filing, until her mother’s boss tasks her with taking photos, a skill she has honed during her time working for the school’s paper and yearbook.

The powers that be might have a vested interest sweeping this incident under the rug, but Kate is determined to get to the bottom of who killed her friend/potential more than friend. And then she discovers that maybe she didn’t know Grant at all.

I literally couldn’t put This Is Our Story down. Kate is a smart, mature narrator and she keeps digging through the clues, determined to get to the truth even when it seems like her personal safety might be at risk. The novel also uses an anonymous third person perspective – one of the River Point Boys – to give us some insight into what the group might be thinking. It’s impossible to work out which of the remaining four boys might be the culprit, though.

There are lots of twists and a few real surprises, too, and I took the book home with me so I could read the last 75 pages because I HAD TO KNOW.

This well-written, YA mystery is really awesome and I will certainly be looking for more books by this author.

Rosie & Skate – Beth Ann Bauman

Sisters Rosie, 15 and Skate, 16, share the narrative in Beth Ann Bauman’s YA novel Rosie & Skate. They live in a crumbling house on the Jersey Shore. Well, Rosie lives there with her cousin, Angie. Skate lives at her boyfriend’s house with his mother, Julia. The sisters’ father is currently in jail for committing petty crimes while under the influence. although Rosie insists that her father is “a nice drunk.”

Bauman’s novel follows the sisters as they navigate their relationship with their father (Rosie is hopeful and forgiving; Skate has given up on her father and doesn’t believe he will ever get better), and each other. Skate is clearly the more worldly of the two: her older boyfriend, Perry, is in his first year at Rutgers and Rosie hasn’t even been kissed. Over the course of a few weeks, though, each of the girls will encounter unforeseen challenges that will push them along the path to adulthood.

Rosie & Skate is one of those quiet books where not much happens, but it still feels packed. I suppose that’s because when you are a teenager everything feels momentous. Who is guiding these girls? Who can they turn to but each other when things go off the rails – as they so often have in their lives.

There are no bad actors in this novel, even Rosie and Skate’s dad is searching for answers as to why he can’t seem to stop drinking. Rosie and Skate have their own way of coping and they certainly make mistakes, but anyone who was ever a teenager will recognize themselves in some of the questionable decisions the sisters make.

Ultimately, though, Rosie & Skate is a hopeful book about family, particularly found family, and spending time with these sisters is time well-spent.

I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith

I Capture the Castle has been on my physical book shelf for at least twenty years. I have always meant to read it because it’s just one of those books that I felt like I should read. In her article “Why I Capture the Castle has gained a secret cult of book lovers”, Constance Grady writes “I Capture the Castle is that kind of book. It’s not quite famous, even among Smith’s works (her most famous title would be 101 Dalmatians), but for a certain kind of reader — mostly women, mostly bookish — it is perfect. Once you read it, you fall in love with it, and from then on you’re part of a secret club, self-selecting and wildly enthusiastic.” (Vox)

The novel’s narrator, 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, lives with her family (her father, his much younger second wife, Topaz; older sister, Rose; younger brother, Thomas, and Stephen, son of their deceased housekeeper) in a crumbling old castle in rural England. They leased the castle – crumbling though it was – when they weren’t quite so financially destitute. Cassandra’s father had written a successful book, Jacob Wrestling, a “mixture of fiction, philosophy and poetry.” The book was very successful, “particularly in America, where he made a lot of money by lecturing on it, and he seemed likely to become a very important writer indeed.” Then he stopped writing and with no income, the family fell on hard times.

The novel takes the form of Cassandra’s journal, which she writes in a short hand that no one can read but her. In it she recounts encounters with people from the village, the Vicar and Miss Marcy, the local school teacher/librarian, chief among them. She talks about her relationships with her siblings and father and stepmother. She writes about food – or lack thereof. She struggles with the awareness that Stephen has developed feelings for her.

He grows vegetables for us and looks after the hens and does a thousand odd jobs – I can’t think how we should get on without him. He is eighteen now, very fair and noble looking but his expression is just a fraction daft. He has always been rather devoted to me; father calls him my swain.

The minutiae of Cassandra’s daily life is not as dull as you might think. It’s the 1930s and it’s wonderful to read about a much simpler time and place. The castle itself, though falling down and without modern conveniences, is as romantic as you might imagine. And things don’t stay bucolic for long, anyway. Simon and Neil Cotton, American grandsons of the deceased owner of the castle, arrive and shake things up for the Mortmains.

Dodie Smith is probably best known for writing 101 Dalmatians, and while everyone has certainly heard of that story, it feels lovely to now be among the special group of women who have spent time with Cassandra. She is intelligent, kind and self-deprecating and watching her negotiate her growing feelings for one of the Cotton brothers is sheer delight. I Capture the Castle is charming, beautifully written and well worth your time. Make a cup of tea, eat a scone and sink into its myriad pleasures. It will not disappoint.

The Midnight Library – Matt Haig

Nora Seed, the protagonist of Matt Haig’s novel The Midnight Library, wants to die. She’s just been fired from her job at a music store, she is estranged from her brother, the only remaining member of her immediate family, and her cat has died. What has she got to live for, really? So she takes too many antidepressants and ends up – well, in the Midnight Library.

The librarian (who just happens to have been the librarian at Hazeldene School back when Nora was a kid) tells her

“Between life and death there is a library […] And within that library, the shelves go on forever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To things how things would be different if you had made other choices…Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?”

There’s a bunch of mumbo-jumbo and quantum physics and philosophy and stuff about “sliders” (others, like Nora, who are dipping in and out of “lives less traveled”), but ultimately, Nora gets to choose new lives until she settles on a life she actually wants to live.

First, though, she has to tackle her Book of Regrets. That’s a brick of a book where “Every regret [she has] ever had, since the day [she was] born, is recorded.” All those regrets are bound to wear a person down, right?

I know people will lap The Midnight Library up like it’s the most perfect bowl of ice cream on the planet. And why not? It’s easy enough to read; the plot is straightforward despite the fact that Nora can cast off undesirable lives like unwanted coats. She eventually realizes what I could have told her in about thirty seconds: no life is perfect. The perfect life is the life – the one and only life – you’ve got. If only Nora had realized that, y’know, before she swallowed the pills.

There was no emotional punch for me. Nora was okay. The rest of the characters were okay. The writing was okay. It was all…okay. Well, perhaps a bit twee, really. I’d suggest that if you want to read something that really encourages you to consider the value of every day of your life, you read (or even better, watch) Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Our Town.

The Reunion – Guillaume Musso

There must be something about fall that has me reading these thrillers about reunions. In this latest outing, The Reunion (translated from the French), Guillaume Russo spins the story of successful novelist Thomas Degalais who returns to  Côte d’Azur to attend his 25th high school reunion. He’s nervous about coming home; there are secrets buried at Lycee International Saint-Exupery. Literally.

First, there’s the unsolved disappearance of Thomas’s popular classmate, Vinca Rockwell, thought to have run off with her philosophy teacher, Alexis Clement.

They were last seen the following day in a hotel in the seventh arrondissement near the Basilica Saint-Clotilde. After that, all trace of their presence in Paris was lost. They never reappeared, never contacted friends or family. They quite literally vanished.

That, at least, was the official version.

Clearly, there is more to the story than this. Thomas was in love with Vinca, and when he arrives back in his home town, long-held secrets start to spill out. Reunited with his besties, Maxime and Fanny, Thomas starts to pull at the threads of his memories. And that, right there, is a can of worms.

Then, there’s the body buried in the gym walls (not a spoiler; it’s revealed in the blurb), a body which may at long last be discovered as the gym is due to be demolished. Who is it? Who committed the crime? Worry not, all is revealed quite quickly, but this reveal is only the tip of the iceberg.

The Reunion flashes back and forth between now, at the reunion, and then, back before Vinca went missing. There is A LOT going on in this novel. Too much, I’d say; I never felt really invested in any one thing because I didn’t feel like I knew any of the characters (or liked any of them) well enough to care. Yeah, sure, it all ties together but it didn’t feel satisfying.

Maybe it’s because it’s a translation – which regular readers (do I actually have any of those?) will know, I often find stilted and stodgy. Loads of critics thought it was the BEST BOOK EVER. I found it kind of slow-moving, until it wasn’t, but so much was packed into the last 40 pages, I just found it all sort of…ridiculous. Apparently, a limited TV series is in production. That might be okay. For me, though, the book was just sort of meh.