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.

 

Rooms – Lauren Oliver

Lauren Oliver is well-known in the YA fiction world, but Rooms is her first novel for roomsadults…although the distinction hardly matters, really. Rooms is the story of the Walker family, alcoholic mother Charlotte; twenty-something Minna, her single-mother daughter, and Amy, her granddaughter; and Trenton, her awkward teenage son. They’ve returned to the house they once called home to pack things up. Richard, Charlotte’s ex and the children’s father, has died and now it’s been left to them to pick up the pieces. They aren’t alone. The house is inhabited by two ghosts: Sandra and Alice.

All of these characters have stories to tell. Mostly they are stories of loss and dysfunction. Sandra and Alice, in particular, are trapped by their memories, which Sandra claims are “thick as mud.” These two women watch the Walker family stumble around with varying degrees of affection and distaste. Alice has tender feelings towards Trenton, who she remembers as a young child claiming that “For years, I’ve longed to see Trenton. He was the most beautiful child….” She can’t quite believe that the “absurdly tall, skinny adolescent, with the sullen look and dingy-dark hair”  who stumbles into the house all these years later is the same boy.

The Walker children don’t seem to have happy post-divorce memories of their father. Minna is caustic towards Trenton and indifferent toward her daughter. Trenton has clearly had a difficult time, too. He is virtually friendless and has recently been in an accident (the details of which are revealed slowly), which has left him physically damaged. He longs for someone in his family to tell the truth.

Everyone in his family lacked integrity. They were corrupt (antonym).  His mom, Caroline, was the worst. She had lied to everyone for so long, Trenton wasn’t even sure she knew the difference anymore.

Rooms doesn’t follow a linear narrative. There’s more than one story to be told here, and the ghosts want their fair share of the limelight. While Richard was still alive, Sandra and Alice took bets about where he would die. Alice wins, remarking “Richard Walker does not die at home. Thank God. I’ve shared the house with him for long enough.”

The house itself is a character. “It’s corners are elbows, its stairways our skeleton pieces, splinters of bone and spine.” Trenton takes a different view.

…they were just rooms, many of them empty and thus unfamiliar, like the rooms of a stranger’s house. It didn’t matter much. The past would come along with you, whether you asked for it or not.

Rooms is a family drama and a ghost story. It is a story about secrets, regrets and finding a way to forgive – yourself and others. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Daughter – Jane Shemilt

732E19BC-CA2D-4623-B4E1-EA31B053BDE9It’s probably every parent’s worst nightmare: your child just doesn’t come home one day. That’s the premise of Jane Shemilt’s debut The Daughter.

Jenny is a successful family doctor in Bristol. She’s married to Ted, also a physician. Together they parent twins, Ed and Theo, 17, and Naomi, 15.  Life is busy for the family, which means that sometimes things slip through the cracks. Pretty much every parent  can relate to that. Things are particularly hectic right now because Naomi is starring in her school’s production of  West Side Story, and she is always dashing off.

But on the night before the last performance, Naomi doesn’t come home. She doesn’t respond to her mother’s frantic phone calls. She’s not at the theatre or the place she’d told her mother she’d be. She’s not with her friends.

The Daughter is a page-turner, for sure, but it is also a meditation on modern marriage, parenting, and the fine balancing act of having a career and a family. Jenny is so convinced that she understands her daughter, her sons, her marriage, but it turns out there are cracks everywhere.  Jenny feels blindsided by her daughter’s disappearance and by the fissures which suddenly appear in her domestic life.

If I was asked, I would say she was happy, that Ted and I were as well. I would say we were all perfectly happy.

The novel’s narrative isn’t straight forward. We are given glimpses into Jenny’s life just before Naomi leaves, and then several months later when she has taken herself to Dorset, to the family’s cottage. In these passages, we see how Naomi’s disappearance has affected Jenny and those around her. It’s not that Jenny’s life has come to a complete standstill, but certain aspects of her life have been derailed. She has not given up all hope that Naomi will be found and her grief is palpable.

But it not only Jenny’s grief that drives the narrative. Her husband also suffers. “I look for her everywhere I go,” he tells Jenny months after Naomi’s disappearance. “Don’t give up,” he tells her. “Don’t ever give up. I still think we’ll find her.” Jenny’s sons also suffer under the horrible weight of this loss.

Shemilt handles all their grief and a plot that might have proved unwieldy with a great deal of finesse. I raced to the end, which was both heartbreaking and unexpected.

 

 

Orchestra in My Garden – Linda Brooks

It probably would have made more sense to talk about Linda Brooks’ beautiful 953A7BC0-3D92-49DF-B19E-85D966DCF6A4coffee table book Orchestra in My Garden back in the spring, which is when I purchased my copy.  But spring is always a busy time at school, and then I went away, and then school  started again…you know how it goes. Now that the days are getting darker and colder, I feel like Linda’s book is the perfect antidote.  Plus,  Orchestra in My Garden would make a fabulous gift for the gardeners, wannabe gardeners and musicians on your list this holiday season.

Linda and I are cousins, although I wouldn’t say that we know each other particularly well. She is the second youngest of five and I am the oldest of four, so on the few occasions when our families would get together,  we would have been of little interest to each other. My dad and Linda’s dad are first cousins. I do have childhood memories of going to the farm where Linda grew up. It was always a lot of fun. My parents loved her parents, Jack and Margie, and I remember loving them, too.  It was probably a lot of fun for the adults to get together and let the nine of us run wild.

Orchestra in My Garden is a love song, and not just to gardening, although Linda is clearly a talented gardener. (She would say “enthusiast” not “expert”.) Her beautiful Nova Scotia garden, nurtured for over a decade, is simply the backdrop, though, for Linda’s blossoming awareness of a new season in her life. (And look at me, with all these corny gardening metaphors. They just write themselves, people!)

I was between albums with  no immediate pressure to produce more content and no outside expectations. Life was throwing some milestones my way. The approach of a 50th birthday coinciding with a first child heading off to university may have encouraged a greater awareness that my life was taking a new turn.

Linda has lead a creative life. Although she has a BA from Mt. Allison and a Bachelor of Law degree from Dalhousie, I always think of her as a musician. She has recorded several albums, two of them in Nashville, and been nominated for ECMAs.  The essays included in her book are her way of expressing herself “beyond the lyrics of a song.”

The essays in this book tackle a wide range of topics: the joys of digging deep (literally and metaphorically, I think), marriage and motherhood, family, inspiration. There really is something for everyone in Linda’s essays. The nice thing about them is that they really feel like personal reflections, rather than didactic lessons.

Supporting and nurturing and, perhaps especially, challenging each other to bloom means understanding that no one of us has all the answers and there is not only one perspective. When we learn to respect another’s growth, we accelerate our own. That’s what family, friendships, and my garden keep teaching me.

And what would a book about gardens be without pictures. First time garden photographer Mark Maryanovich has taken some truly beautiful photos for this book. This might be his first time snapping pics of flowers, but he comes with an impressive resume and it shows.

If all this weren’t enough, Linda has included a code which allows you to download 22 original songs inspired by four seasons in her garden.

Orchestra in My Garden would be a lovely book for anyone who loves nature, sure, but also for anyone who might appreciate what it means to come to a crossroad in life and consider the paths that lay ahead. Download Linda’s songs, make a cup of tea and enjoy.

 

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

155356C2-E75D-4FCF-8F1B-CEB6EB1DA2B9Eleanor Oliphant, the titular character of Gail Honeyman’s debut novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, is not like anyone else you have likely met before. She has worked in the same office for the last nine years, she has no friends and she lives on a diet of vodka and pizza or pasta and pesto. Her life is structured and predictable, right down to her weekly calls from “Mummy.”

It doesn’t take long to figure out that Eleanor is actually not completely fine. She is pretty much the loneliest person I have ever met. She has no aptitude for social niceties; she says whatever pops into her head. It makes it difficult for her co-workers to warm up to her. Her mother is particularly harsh.   When she wins tickets to a concert and asks one of her office mates to accompany her, she becomes the butt of the joke because as everyone knows “she’s mental.”

Enter Raymond. He’s the new office IT guy. When he comes to fix Eleanor’s computer she notes that “he was barely taller than me, and was wearing green training shoes, ill-fitting denim trousers and a T-shirt showing a cartoon dog lying on tops of its kennel. It was stretched taut against a burgeoning belly….All of his visible skin, both face and body, was very pink.”

It’s funny that Eleanor dismisses Raymond as she has, similarly, been dismissed by others. She is aware of her own appearance, her “face a scarred palimpsest of fire. A nose that’s too small and eyes that are too big. Ears: unexceptional.” But Raymond doesn’t seem to see Eleanor’s appearance – or care much either way, at least, and is persistent and the two become unlikely friends.

The stuff that comes out of Eleanor’s mouth is often funny. She has no filter and doesn’t seem to take offence to the things she hears, even when she is the subject of ridicule. When an office mate makes a cruel joke at her expense, Eleanor admits that she “laughed at that one, actually.” Her world is very black and white. When she and Raymond stumble upon an elderly man in distress, Eleanor is tasked with keeping him calm.

…don’t worry, you won’t be lying here in the middle of the street for long. There’s no need to be anxious; medical care is completely free of charge in this country, and the standard is generally considered to be among the best in the world. You’re a fortunate man, I mean, you probably wouldn’t want to fall and bump your head in, say, the new state of South Sudan, given its current political and economic situation.

Oh, Eleanor.

It is Eleanor’s friendship with Raymond that starts to crack open her insular, dysfunctional life. The more we know of her story, the more amazing she becomes. Eleanor Oliphant will stay with you long after you’ve closed the final pages and you will leave her knowing that she will actually be completely (mostly) fine.

 

Tell Me Something Real -Calla Devlin

Vanessa Babcock, the protagonist of Calla Devlin’s debut, Tell Me Something Real, is sixteen. She lives with her parents, her older sister, Adrienne, andtell-me-something-real-9781481461160_lg her younger sister, Marie, in San Diego. Their mother, Iris, has leukemia, and Vanessa and her sisters often accompany her to a clinic in Mexico where she is treated with the controversial drug, Laetrile.

…the FDA’s banned Laetrile in the States, [and] a lot of people are coming to Mexico to treat their cancer. Most aren’t as lucky as we are, living in San Diego so close to the border.

Each of the girls have their own quirks. Adrienne is prone to swearing like a sailor. Marie is fascinated with the Catholic saints. Vanessa dreams of attending music school. Their father, an architect, works too much, leaving the care of Iris to his daughters, care that is taking its toll.

On one trip to the clinic Vanessa meets Caleb, a boy just a little older than she is who is also taking Laetrile. When Iris suggests that they open their home to Caleb and his mother, Barb, in an effort to make it easier for Caleb to receive his treatments, it seems like a win-win. Barb cooks real meals, and her sunny disposition improves life for everyone. And then there’s Caleb.

He looks healthy, sunburned, and rosy cheeked like me. It isn’t until he steps through the entryway – away from the protection of the flowers – that I recognize he is one of them.

Caleb becomes Vanessa’s touchstone, until one day he tells Vanessa that he and his mother are going home. Something isn’t right in the Babcock home, but he is reluctant to say just what that something is.

I have mixed feelings about Tell Me Something Real. There’s no arguing that Devlin is a talented writer, even though I didn’t feel like this debut went anyplace particularly special. Vanessa’s first person narrative is compelling enough, but her sisters seem more like a collection of quirky attributes than flesh and blood people. The plot does take an unusual turn, but even that felt somehow contrived.

What I wanted, I guess, was an emotional centre and despite the (melo)drama, Tell Me Something Real just didn’t have a beating heart. I wouldn’t discourage people from reading it, for sure, but it was just only so-so for me.

A Beautiful, Terrible Thing – Jen Waite

a-beautiful-terrible-thingEven though my marriage ended seven plus years ago – well, it actually ended way before that, although not formally – I am still drawn to books about broken marriages and I just finished Jen Waite’s memoir  A Beautiful, Terrible Thing. It was an impulse buy and I read it in three sittings.

Waite is a struggling New York actress when she starts training as a waitress at a trendy new restaurant and meets Marco, the head bartender, who is “tall and Latin with black, slicked-back hair and mocha skin [and] a quick, easy smile.” Despite the fact that she has a boyfriend back home in Maine, she is smitten and before you can say Argentina (which is where Marco is from), she is head-over-heels in love. It’s easy to see why, too. Marco is self-deprecating, sensitive and Waite believes that he really sees her for who she is. Throw in the chemistry and it’s an intoxicating and irresistible combination.

But, of course, it’s all fake. Five years into the relationship, shortly after Waite gives birth to their daughter, Louisa, she discovers a suspicious e-mail. It’s like a house of cards: the email is one card and when Waite removes it, the whole structure of her life starts to crumble.

Marriages break down, everyone knows this. It’s a devastating thing that happens to many couples. But there is an extra layer of horror in the dissolution of Waite’s marriage to Marco because he goes from being suave and loving to a blank stranger almost overnight. When Marco tells her that “For around a year now, I haven’t been happy. I lost all my feelings….Like right now, I’m looking at you, and I feel nothing. I feel numb,”  Waite’s reaction is one of disbelief. She thinks “There is something very, very wrong  with my husband. He is sitting across from me, it is his body, but he is not my husband.”

Waite tries to explain away Marco’s admission: they’ve just had a baby, he’s over-worked, tired.  But no amount of rationalizing explains Marco’s increasingly disconcerting behavior. Although Marco adamantly denies having an affair, and even though her parents are inclined to believe that he’s telling the truth, Waite finds it almost impossible to stop obsessing over Marco’s email and social media accounts. When she finally leaves him, he begins a campaign of emotional abuse towards her, employing every trick up his sociopathic sleeve.

Because – as it turns out – that’s exactly what Marco is.

Waite hits Google and starts researching.

I did the same thing. I wasn’t exactly blind-sided when my husband of 17 years told me in a parked car, in the pouring rain, that he didn’t love me. Things had been rocky for a while, although I’d kept telling myself that we’d weather the storm, that it was just a rough period, that despite the problems we were having he still loved me.  But from that moment on, the guy I’d known for 25 plus years, the father of my two children, became a complete stranger. I knew exactly what Waite was talking about.

Her research is a desperate attempt to explain behavior that makes no sense to her. Reading about pathological lying leads her to an article about sociopaths and suddenly the alarm bells start to go off in her head.

My eyes quickly scan to find the criteria, or red flags, of a sociopath. As I read each trait, my hear beats faster, and the hair on my arms rises. Charming. Check. Impulsive. Check. No remorse, guilt, or shame. Check. Invents lies. Speaks poetically. Incapable of apologizing. Check. Check. Check.

I remember my brother calling me and saying, “I am going to read you these qualities of a sociopath and you tell me which of these apply to M.” It was both horrifying and hilarious to discover that I could ‘checkcheckcheck’ my way through the list. Before I even knew what a narcissist was, I’d been describing M. as a vampire. He had taken everything he could from me and then discarded me; overnight the person I had built a life with became a complete stranger.  As all sociopaths are narcissists it’s no wonder – upon reflection – that so much of what I was reading at the time was ticking all the boxes. All of them.

One piece of information that Waite discovers was particularly interesting: narcissistic supply.

If a target is providing a constant stream of supply, they may be overvalued and idealized by the sociopath for many years. However, when their supply eventually decreases, they will quickly be devalued and discarded.

Things started to go south – really south – when my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. Her illness was brief – diagnosed in July, gone in November – but during that time, M. was carrying on an affair (probably one of many.) I remember when I found out, instead of an apology he said “You weren’t paying any attention to me.” And I remember thinking “My mother was fucking dying!” Then three short years later, I lost my dad and then M. was gone.

I did everything humanly possible to facilitate an amicable relationship for the sake of our kids (who were 13 and 11 at the time). I took a class in co-parenting. I tried to encourage a regular schedule for him to see his children, but the horrible truth of the matter is – he really wasn’t all that interested. Once he cut me out of his life, he began the process of detaching himself from his kids.  He always had an excuse as to why he couldn’t see them and when he did see them, the visits often ended abruptly with the kids calling me and telling me to come get them. Neither of them have had any contact with him in several years.

I struggled for a long time – a torturous time for which I give my dearest friends and immediate family lots of credit for not throttling me – to come to terms with what had happened to my marriage and to the person I thought I knew. Eventually, I began to suspect that I had been conned, but even still it hurt. And it hurt my kids. We live in a small city and it was almost impossible to avoid hearing about or seeing M. live his new life. A life which was bizarrely hipster and one we would have laughed at ten years prior. But of course, he was simply creating a new reality for himself, something he found exceedingly easy to do because like Marco he “lack[ed] empathy and  an inner moral compass.”

A Beautiful, Terrible Thing must have been a difficult story for Waite to tell.  I  always say now that M. leaving was the best thing that could have ever happened to me and my kids. He did us a favour. Truly. I have no doubt Waite will be feeling that way at some point, if she isn’t already.