Book Review: I’m Looking Through You

Have you ever purchased a book because of the descriptive blurb on the back cover or inside flap only to find that the blurb was written by someone who apparently never even read the book? That’s how I felt about I’m Looking Through You. I bought this book because it was touted as a memoir written by someone who grew up in a haunted house. It ended up being about that, but also about a person “haunted” by feeling trapped in the wrong gender.

Jennifer Finney Boylan was born James Finney Boylan in a wealthy, well-to-do Philadelphia family. To put the family in perspective, his father oversaw the merger that resulted in PNC Bank.  His family is lovingly portrayed as eccentric, kind, and talented, and I enjoyed Boylan’s writing style very much. I could really “see” her parents and sister, Lydia, as well as eccentric extended family members such as Gammie (grandmother) and various aunts, uncles, cousins and pets.

Jim, the author, moves into the Coffin House (named after a previous owner – but what a name!) when he’s an adolescent, and begins seeing apparitions in the decrepit old Victorian mansion. Apparitions of a woman in a night dress, a child, and a formless, frightening blob or mist appear and strange happenings, such as his chair moving by itself, are commonplace. Although frightened, Jim accepts the paranormal with aplomb. I liked that about him. It emphasized his quirkiness, which could have come off as annoying in the book, but instead made him endearing. 

The first third of the book is rather slow, although interesting and entertaining. We learn more about Jim’s family and his struggles with his gender. Although born male, Jim yearns to be female. He wears women’s clothing in secret, and his androgynous appearance and feminine tastes make him the target of cruel teenage bullies who called him derogatory names.  As Jim grows up in a haunted house, he also grows up feeling haunted by his own hidden life. He fails to have an intimate relationship, for example, with two different girls he’s interested in because he feels like a phony around them; how can you love someone, the author wonders, if you cannot reveal your true self to them?

Later on, the book moves more rapidly, first through his teens and early 20s and then beyond. The issue of his sex change operation that transformed Jim into Jenny is glossed over, and I had hoped by this time in the narrative to better understand the whole issue of transgendered people, who I freely confess, I don’t understand at all.  Perhaps that’s not the book Jennifer intended to write; she intended to write of growing up haunted, both externally and inside her own body as a boy.

Spoiler alert: The best scene in the whole book doesn’t involve a ghost. It involves an overflowing toilet. The toilet not only overflows, it backs up, and gallons of water flood the home…and I can’t say any more except it’s hilarious.

Jennifer Boylan can write, that’s for sure. She writes articulately and lyrically about haunted houses, haunted genders, and haunted relationships.

I probably wouldn’t have picked up this book if someone had told me it was about gender issues. But I’m glad I did. Maybe that was the intention of whoever wrote the jacket blurb – to introduce readers like me to author Jennifer Finney Boylan, a unique voice and strong talent in the world of memoir. I look forward to reading her next book and catching up with her previous books.

 

Rating: 3 1/2 stars out of 5.  A good read that I bought from a book catalog. The link from the cover image of the book at the start of this review will take you to Amazon, where you can purchase the book. I receive a small commission for the sale but it does not affect your price in any way.

 

 

Book Review: The Exorcist

 

 

The Exorcist. What can you say about this book that hasn’t already been said – or said by fans of the film? Published over 40 years ago, the book reads as if it was written yesterday. William Peter Blatty managed to set the book in the 1970s without making it feel dated. I read the book once many years ago, and of course saw the movie, but reading it a second time gave me new insights into the characters – as well as made me notice a few flaws in the book itself, which upon casual first reading were hidden.

I won’t belabor the plot since it’s so familiar to most people. Chris McNeil, a movie star, is on location in Georgetown, Washington D.C. to finish filming a movie. She is a divorced mother with a young daughter, Reagan, servants named Karl and Willie, and a tutor for her daughter named Sharon. Her ex-husband Howard is out of the picture and she lost a son, James, to a medical mistake.

The book opens with an intriguing archaeological dig near Mosul, Iraq. We learn that the archaeologist is a Jesuit priest, who senses that an old enemy, a demon, has been awakened or is following him. It’s not really clear how he knows this or why.

The book then shifts to Washington D.C. Chris is an atheist, and allows her daughter to play with Ouija boards and the occult. Strange rappings and knocks begin after her daughter starts mucking around with  magic, culminating of course in the now famous possession of little Reagan.

A mysterious death linked to the house brings Lt. Kindermann into the picture, a bumbling Columbo-like detective who uses speech to deflect and misdirect suspects from his inquiries. Also brought into the case is psychiatrist and Jesuit priest Damien Karras, who is having a crisis of faith which sounds more like a caregivers’ exhaustion than anything else.

There’s guilt a-plenty in the household. Chris feels guilty about her divorce and the loss of her son, Damien feels guilty because he couldn’t care for his aging mother. Even Karl the servant has secrets to hide – his heroin-addicted, club-footed daughter.

The novel progresses as Chris tries modern science and psychiatry to get to the root of her daughter’s bizarre and dangerous behavior, only to find her turning to the church as a last resort. Damien must also reconcile faith and reason before seeking and receiving church permission to perform the exorcism.  It is only at the end of the book, when he chooses the ultimate sacrifice – his life for Reagan’s – that he resolves his crisis of faith.

So that’s the basic plot. It’s a fast-moving and gripping novel that you can’t put down, and although filled with profanity, disgusting desecration and a scene or two that will give you nightmares, it’s worth the read. But here’s where I find it flawed.

  • The opening – we meet Father Merin. Well and good. But he doesn’t arrive until the end, and then he leaves rather quickly. What’s his back story? We get hints that he battled this demon in Africa once before. That’s intriguing. Did the demon seek out a suitable host or did it seek out a host near Merin so that it could face him once again?
  • Reagan and the church desecrations.  Kindermann links paint found in Reagan’s play room and used to decorate a sculpture of a bird Reagan made for her mother to paint uses to desecrate a statue of the Virgin Mary in the nearby church. He also matches the font on Sharon’s typewriter to a note, typed in fluent Latin and filled with vile desecration, left in the church. We’re left to assume that Reagan somehow snuck out of the house while possessed and committed these atrocities. No one notices that an 11 year old girl has snuck out of the house carrying paint, or typing a lengthy note on the typewriter? When did these things happen in a house with three servants whose only job is to watch her while her mother works?
  • Damien Karras…an intriguing character to be sure. His back story is filled with the pain and longing of an immigrant. Is he an illegitimate child? His father is never mentioned. He is wracked with guilt, not just because he could not save his mother from illness and death, but because he was embarrassed by her and fled into the world of medicine, academia and religion to hide his past. He’s having a dreadful crisis of faith, which I felt strongly was brought about by over work, and probably reflects a crisis of faith that most thinking adults have at one time or another. A dark night of the soul, one might say.  It is beautifully reconciled in the book, but the narrator only focuses on him in the last quarter of the book.
  • Kindermann. On my second reading of the book, I found him to be a necessary but quite annoying character. He’s necessary because he adds to the tension – will he or won’t he accuse Reagan of the murder of the director? Will he insist on seeing her, and if he does, what then?  But he annoyed the heck out of me. Perhaps it’s the Columbo-like allusions. Was Columbo on television before or after Blatty wrote the book? I suppose it doesn’t matter. His quirks got on my nerve.

 

Is the book worth reading? Yes. It is a classic occult horror novel, and while graphic, filled with enough spine-tingling terror to make you keep the light on.

I bought my book from a catalog. You can purchase your copy by clicking on the picture, above, which will take you to an Amazon link to purchase the book. I receive a small commission on the sale but it does not affect your price.

 

 

Book Review: Faces in the Water by Janet Frame

 

Brutal. Honest. Evocative. Echoing loneliness. That’s how I felt about Janet Frame’s novel, Faces in the Water.  The prose offers a poetic, lyrical, haunting experience that makes this book worth reading. However, Istina, the narrator, offers so little in the way of information about herself that it’s hard to get beyond the disturbing images in this book.

The narrator of the novel is involuntarily incarcerated in a mental hospital in 1950s New Zealand. We aren’t told exactly why she’s there; it’s clear from the prose that she’s disturbed, but why? I think that was my biggest problem with the book. The author never gives us insight into why Istina is in the hospital in the first place, or why the doctors think she is insane. She is painfully shy and sensitive, but beyond that, the question remains: was she insane when she was committed, or did the brutal experiences inside the hospital drive her insane?

It’s a stunning question, isn’t it? Istina begins in an observation ward that doesn’t seem so bad, but she keeps getting shuffled around to various wards with increasingly disturbed patients. I lost track after a while of which ward she was in – the good one or the bad one? The one with the people who were clearly psychotic, or the one with what we would today called depressed people? It was hard sometimes to understand what was going on and why.

The best parts of the book came at the end, when Istina’s relationship with a nurse, Sister Bridge, leads her into a desperate cry for attention.  Sister Bridge is a mother figure to Istina, and the catalyst for her eventual return to normalcy, which seems to happen despite the hospital, not because of it. I got the feeling that Istina had some kind of relationship issues with her parents, especially her mother, and that her crushing loneliness and isolation had a lot to do with her mental illness. She is so socially inept, so awkward, that she almost cannot make lasting friendships with anyone, and that leads to yet more loneliness and pain.

At the end of the book, it is literature that saves Istina. She asks to visit the roving library van and gets lost in the books. Ironically, the hospital chaplain “catches” her in the van, and instead of recognizing her interest in literature as a possible sign of health and recovery, scolds and “tells” on her to the psychiatrists and nurses. Luckily, the doctors recognize her interest as a way to reach her, and even Dr. Portman, who we learn to dislike, comes to her aid, encouraging her to choose books for the patients and for her own reading. This leads her to wholeness again, and her eventual release from the hospital.

The book is disturbing in many ways. The treatment of the patients is horrific. They are openly mocked by the nursing staff, probably as a defensive mechanism by the nurses against the weight of the ever-present, incurable sickness in the wards. The hospital staff themselves is grossly over burdened, with a doctor-patient ratio of 100 or more patients to one doctor or nurse. Can you imagine? It’s amazing they are even kept fed and housed at that rate. No wonder none of them received anything but the most crude treatment in those days.

I read Janet Frame’s autobiography before I read her novels, and despite her protests that this novel is not “autobiographic”, it has so many parallels to her autobiography that it’s impossible not to say the novel IS in fact detailed closely on her life. The only different I could find is that Frame herself was saved from a lobotomy by winning a major literary prize with her first published book, a deus ex machina that you couldn’t make up if you tried. In the book, Istina begs the kindly Dr. Trace not to schedule her for the lobotomy, and it is her interest in literature, not her writing in and of itself, that keeps her from the surgeon’s table.  I imagine that Frame based the nurses, doctors, and fellow patients on her own experiences living in mental hospitals for over eight years, and that she probably rolled some of the details up into her fiction, merging several people into one to tell a more coherent story. Telling stories directly from life is difficult; truth is always stranger than believable fiction.

All in all, this is a masterful book. It was moving in ways I didn’t expect. Yes, I’m disappointed that I couldn’t figure out the why’s – why Istina was in the hospital, why she was considered ill, why she couldn’t reach out more coherently to the staff to prove her sanity.  But if I can set aside my whys, all I am left is the whats, and that alone makes this book worth reading.

4 out of 5 stars. The image and link in the first paragraph will take you to Amazon, where I purchased my copy. If you use my link to buy the book, I receive a little commission, which does not affect your prize. Thanks.

Book Review: Concealed in Death by J.D. Robb

 

If you’re a fan of J.D. Robb’s “In Death” series of futuristic mystery novels, you’re in for a treat. Concealed in Death is one of the better books in the series, a welcome relief to fans like me who were starting to wonder if Robb ( a pseudonym for romance novelist Nora Roberts) could continue the series without it deteriorating as some mystery series tend to do over time. Concealed in Death doesn’t disappoint and stands on its own as a fast-paced mystery as well as a good addition to the ongoing Eve Dallas saga.

The story begins with Roarke, Eve’s billionaire husband, ceremoniously knocking down a wall in a building his firm is renovating only to discover the skeletal remains of two people wrapped in plastic and hidden in the wall. Roarke calls in his wife, Lt. Eve Dallas of New York City’s homicide squad, to investigate. When the homicide department finds a total of 12 victims hidden in the walls, all girls between the ages of 12-14 and killed by apparently the same criminal, the case becomes complex.

Unlike the other books in the series, this one is sort of a cold case that Eve must solve through a lot of forensic and detective work. There aren’t as many fight scenes, futuristic weapons or strange antagonists. Instead, most of the action takes place at a group home for troubled kids run by a brother and sister team with truly kind hearts and good intentions. Roarke, Mavis, Leonardo, Peabody and the rest of the regulars make an appearance, but it’s mostly Eve, Roarke and Peabody working together to solve the case. We do learn more about Mavis, which is a good addition to the series. I happen to love the character of Mavis and learning about her past was an interesting diversion.

There are a few things, however, that continue to hamper the series. First is Robert’s peculiar, choppy style of writing in half sentences – “She walked. A duck, waddling.” I just made that up, but you get the idea.  But for me, the biggest hindrance to my truly loving this series is actually the character of Eve.

Eve is just too tough, too bitchy, too unlikable for me to believe that everyone loves her so much. I think if she was a real-life person, she wouldn’t have any friends, let alone a husband like Roarke!  She doesn’t treat people very well. When some of her frosty exterior melts, and she shows a glimmer of kindness, such as when she wears the goofy knitted hat and gloves Dennis Mira gives her in this book, I breathe a sigh of relief. At last, she’s turning into a regular person.

My other complaint? Roberts sets too many of these books at Christmastime. It’s always Thanksgiving or Christmas with glittery trees, angst about parties and presents, and nostalgia.  Doesn’t Eve solve crimes in the spring? The summer? The fall?

All in all, though, this is an interesting read and a book I enjoyed very much. I borrowed my copy from the library, but if you want to purchase a copy from Amazon, clicking the link above will take you to Amazon, and I will receive a small commission on the sale. It does not affect your price.

4 out of 5 stars for Concealed in Death by J.D. Robb

Book Review: Janet Frame, An Autiobiography

 

Like many people, I “discovered” New Zealand writer Janet Frame’s works through the Jane Campion film, An Angel at My Table.   I felt like I’d stumbled on a soul sister. Janet Frame’s life and works are an amazing discovery of a writer finding herself despite grinding poverty, personal setbacks and more.

Frame’s autobiography pictured above includes her three autobiographical works: To the Is-Land, An Angel at My Table, and The Envoy from Mirror City.  I almost stopped reading the book at the end of To the Is-Land because it was so painful. Frame is the second child in a family of five, four girls and one boy. She writes of her earliest memories living in New Zealand in the 1920s and 1930s, during the Great Depression when despite her hard-working parents, the family never seemed to be warm, never seemed to have enough clothes, shoes or food. Her parents drowned half their pets (that was the part I couldn’t read past at first); if I read one more sentence about sacks of kittens being drowned or her beloved pet dog drowned because the health inspector said they couldn’t keep another dog, I was going to chuck the whole book. I’m glad I didn’t. I did have to put it aside, my animal rescuer’s heart breaking at the thought of drowning dogs, cats, puppies and kittens. I know it was a different time, place and mindset, but still…

But that’s not the story here. The story is mesmerizing. Janet Frame has a writer’s memory for details, describing in almost poetic free-verse the countryside, the people, the family and the trials and tribulations of her young life.

The real story doesn’t begin until Frame enters high school. Her eldest sister, Myrtle, dies in a bizarre swimming accident at the public pool; almost 10 years to the date later, her sister Isobel also drowns while on holiday with her mother. The two losses, combined with her brother Bruddie (George) epilepsy, create horrible stress within her family. Her parents never have enough money. Her mother’s religious faith sustains her, but her father is a bully, sharp and mean.  Janet is so painfully shy she can barely talk to strangers. She pretends to be someone she is not throughout her life until just before her college graduation. Then, faced with the prospect of a life planned for her instead of the life she longs to live, she tries to kill herself by taking a bottle of aspirin. She survives the suicide attempt but almost dies in the insane asylum called Sea Cliff she is sent to, where she is completely misdiagnosed as a schizophrenic.

Here lies the heart of her tale, but she claims she’s told it enough in her fiction, and barely mentions her seven years of incarceration in one of the toughest mental hospitals in New Zealand. She is given shock treatments, treated like an imbecile, all because she is shy! She doesn’t get any kind of treatment whosoever, and on one among the medical professionals in New Zealand ever questions the diagnosis of schizophrenia. It’s not until almost a decade later while living in London that she commits herself voluntarily to a mental hospital in England for final evaluation, and finds out she never had schizophrenia…and all her current problems are due to being incarcerated in an institution!

Janet’s life unfolds as one long string of struggles – to find work she can do despite her painful shyness, to find enough money to survive while she writes. She writes and publishes poetry, short stories and novels. Her poetry I found especially beautiful and compelling. I plan to buy more books by Frame this summer as I loved her use of metaphor, her craftsmanship with language. Her autobiography shows that same beautiful, flowing prose, although sometimes it is difficult to understand if she is using metaphor or trying to convey something else.

Frame eventually wins a grant, escapes a near lobotomy, and flees to England and Spain in search of adventure. She has a fling with a man in Ibizza, gets pregnant, miscarries, and receives a marriage proposal from another gentleman, an Italian living in Spain. She loses her nerve to turn him down and returns to England, where her publisher urges her to take a fancy apartment and pen a bestseller. Once again she finds herself losing her identity as she bows to the wishes of everyone else around her, the good girl acquiescing to the grown ups. Readers will begin to see the theme and variation of her life as she tells her story – she is forever listening to others, subsuming her identity to the whims of “adults” around her, only to struggle to reclaim her sense of self.

Finally, Frame does find that sense of self with the help of an honest psychiatrist in London who seems to be a genuine, caring individual. She returns to New Zealand upon the death of her father, asserts her new found status as ‘sane,’ and fights against the constant portrayal of herself in the New Zealand press as a madwoman.  She even changes her last name to assert her own sense of self.

Finally, at the end of the book, we sense peace.  Frame has claimed her own name, a name she chose for herself. She purchases a small cottage. She stays single. She writes what she wants to write, lives simply, and finally makes enough money to survive. I wanted to applaud on the last page.

Janet Frame was truly a powerful writer. Her autobiography won’t be for everyone, and there are some graphic scenes in it – the first time she has sex, for example, and the aforementioned issues with her pets. If you’re squeamish, you can skip these parts or just accept them as the colorful parts of an amazing woman.

Highly recommended. I purchased my copy from Amazon.

Book Review: The Day the Falls Stood Still

I loved this book. It was clunky in spots, a little sad, but filled with such wonderful romance and history that it captured my attention and I didn’t want to put it down. If you are looking for beach reading this summer, The Day the Falls Stood Still is perfect.

The book is set on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, in the period from 1915 – 1923. Right there I was hooked. How many historical fiction books have you read about Niagara Falls, and Canada? None? Right. That’s because most romance writers like the Regency period, or Victorian times, or ancient times.

Cathy Marie Buchanan really captures the location beautifully in her writing. I’ve been to Niagara Falls twice in my life and love it, although the touristy feel of the place is a little bit of a turnoff for me. On our last visit, my husband and I toured the Canadian side of the falls, and so I personally knew the places Buchanan described.

 

The story follows Bess, an upper middle class girl from the local Catholic girl’s academy, the Loretto Academy. Bess leads a sheltered existence with her striving middle class parents and her wild elder sister, Isobel. Her father works for the Niagara Power Company and the family lives in Glenview, a mansion set among the silver mining families on a big bluff overlooking the falls. It sounds like an idyllic existence, and it is, until Bess’ father loses his job.

After that, the family undergoes heartbreak after heartbreak. Bess’ father starts drinking. Her sister Isobel dies. I won’t tell you how or why, because that would spoil too much of the plot, but it is believable and although sad, not so sad that I didn’t want to keep reading the book.

Bess falls in love with Tom Cole, a local riverman and grandson of the legendary Fergus Cole. The rivermen rescue people and animals swept into the falls as well as fish out bodies from the river. Tom lives off the land and is definitely not in Bess’ social set, but Bess defies her parents and finds an ingenious way to communicate with and eventually meet her lover despite her parents’ objections.

The book winds through the horrors of World War I, with Tom away fighting in the war and Bess giving birth to Jesse, their oldest boy. Bess has to struggle to make ends meet, taking up dressmaking as her mother had done to earn money for the family. The story ends in 1923 with tragedy, but it is a gorgeous love story that feels true.

This is Buchanan’s first novel, and as with any first novel, there are bumpy bits and plot points I wish had been tighter. Tom returns from World War I with what we today would call post traumatic stress disorder, and no wonder – trench warfare and gas attacks are some of the most horrible warfare ever invented. He seems to recover from it rather easily.  Bess’ protestations against his work on the river also seem forced. For someone who flaunted convention to marry beneath her class, she seems to strive for conventionality too much.

Still and all, it is a good book, a wonderful love story, and an entertaining tale. I recommend it if you are looking for an engrossing novel to escape with on vacation. I purchased my copy at a local store, but if you click the link above, you can buy it via my Amazon affiliate link. I earn a small commission on the sale but you aren’t charged anything extra.
Enjoy!

The Lost Art of Dress: An Interview with Author Linda Przybyszewski

Przybyszewski,  Linda(Cathy Dietz Photography)

 

I really loved the book The Lost Art of Dress by Linda Przybyszewski.  Dr. P is an Associate Professor of History at Notre Dame University, and loves to sew as a hobby. She combined both of her interests in this enjoyable book.

The Lost Art of Dress traces the history of fashion from the Victorian age to 1980. Throughout the book, she quotes the experts in dress, the so-called “Dress Doctors” who taught generations of American women how to dress stylishly on a budget.

I loved both the historical aspects of this book and the fashion tips. As someone interest in historical fashion, modest dressing, and elegant, beautiful, stylish clothes – this book was perfect!

I published my interview with the author on my modest fashion blog, A Return to Elegance. You can find the text there.

 

cover of The Lost Art of Dress

 

Print Books Still Going Strong, According to Pew Research

cropped-img_6524.jpgI found an interesting study this morning as I was doing some research for an article. The Pew Research Internet Project surveyed adults and teens on their reading habits. It seems that print books are far from dead – in fact, they’re still going strong!

 
Here’s the study: A Snapshot of Reading in America 2013

I’m currently reading Joel Friedlander’s book, A Self-Publisher’s Companion, where he makes a similar argument but seems to lament the demise of print books. Friedlander is a book designer, and he writes excellent articles and blog posts on book design, format and self publishing if you are interested in this topic.

Here’s my take on the subject. I think both print and ebooks have a place in the world and that print will never die. Okay, maybe in some 2525 future when we have robot servants and hover cars, print books may be archaic curiosities. But there is something wonderful about the tactile experience of reading.

I’m a high-scoring tactile learner, meaning I learn by touch, by doing. Reading an actual book, flipping through the pages, underlining in pencil salient points…these are all things you just can’t do with an ebook reader! I don’t mind buying ebooks as long as I can buy them in PDF format. Why? Because I print the darned things on my home computer.

Findings from the study include the following fascinating points:

  • Reading isn’t dead. Seven out of 10 American adults read at least one print book last year (yay!)
  • Women were much more likely than men to read a book, at 82% compared to 64%.
  • Higher income and education levels corresponded to a greater propensity for reading, but even among poorer, high school graduates, more than 64% read a book last year.

Despite what pundits are saying, despite cries that libraries are becoming nothing more than community computer centers, despite the nay-sayers who declare that the internet will make purchased books obsolete…the world of reading and writing continues to thrive.

So here’s to books, books, and more books – whether printed, electronic or audio!

 

 

Book Review: Rescue by Anita Shreve

 

I like Anita Shreve’s writing, and really enjoyed The Pilot’s Wife. So when I saw Rescue on the shelf at my local dollar store, I swooped in and scooped it up. Maybe I rescued my copy of Rescue.  It was a quick read, an interesting story, but ultimately an unsatisfying one.

The story follows Webster, an EMT working in a small, rural area of Vermont. The book opens with Webster unwrapping a birthday gift from his teenage daughter, Rowan. We get the feeling that his relationship with his daughter is strained, but nothing further is revealed. The book then flashed back to Webster’s courtship with Rowan’s mother, Sheila. Webster meets Sheila when she wraps her car around a tree one night after driving drunk. Sheila is a mess. She’s bitchy. She’s clearly an alcoholic. She appears to be running from some kind of abusive relationship. So what does Webster do? He falls in love with her. This is where Shreve really lost me. Why does Webster risk his job as an EMT in a tiny town, where jobs are scarce, a job he worked really hard for, just to date Sheila? Because she has long legs and glossy hair? That’s about all we see of Sheila. She can hustle men at pool. She has sex on the spur of the moment. She smokes, she drinks way too much, and she jumps into bed with Webster. Like an idiot, Webster mumbles “Are you on the pill?”  right before they decide to have sex in a bitterly cold field one night. Um, sure, Webster, right. Sheila’s answer is so vague that an idiot can tell she’s not using any protection.

Webster is somehow magically besotted by this unpleasant woman to the point that when she gets pregnant, he decides he has to live with her and marry her. We are told, rather than shown, that he’s absolutely head over heels in love with her.  I’ll buy that love can take all sorts of unusual forms, twists and turns in life. How many times have you met a couple and thought, “What in the world does she see in him, or vice versa?” But come on. Sheila has to have some redeeming qualities. The only redeeming quality I see in her is that abortion is out of the question. I would have assumed that someone as screwed up as she is would just want to murder her unborn child, but she is determined to have the baby. So Webster and Sheila marry, they have little Rowan, Webster is the perfect daddy, and Sheila starts drinking.

She descends into an alcoholic’s web of lies and deceit. It all ends in a predictable second car accident, this time also involving Rowan. The two-year old isn’t properly strapped into her car seat, and the car seat is thrown out of the vehicle.  Sheila is facing serious jail time. In a second, totally unrealistic action, Webster hands Sheila all the cash he has, gives her the keys to his only car, and helps her escape, but he keeps Rowan. Then the scene shifts and suddenly we are back to the present. What??? Webster just helped her escape DUI charges and serious jail time (she injured another driver as well as almost killed her own child) and…no one suspects he helped her escape? She just gets away with it? Yup.  Rowan, unaccountably a model child until she turns 17, suddenly starts drinking. We are never given a plausible reason for Rowan’s abrupt 180 turn from good student-good child to rebellious teenager-budding alcoholic. Oh, except that she looks exactly like Sheila. Rowan is supposedly wracked by shame, guilt and wonder at why her mother abandoned her.  Webster never told her the truth. Oh! Shock! Horror! More family secrets!

Rowan does something stupid and almost dies. Webster finds Sheila. She is now an artist. She is sober. Mind you, we never knew she had a hint of artistic talent. She hid in Mexico for years with a lover until she drove back. And Webster is once again besotted with this selfish, shallow woman – for no accountable reason.  She still shows no love for him, little love for her child, and a pathological narcissism that makes me nauseous.

Did I like the book? Yes and no. Yes, for an entertaining read, it was okay. Just okay. I finished it – Shreve really is masterful at her craft, and the prose is strong. But the characters and lack of motivation for Webster’s fascination with Sheila kept me from really enjoying the book. I found all of the characters a cipher. Why were they doing what they did? Why did Webster want to rescue everyone? His own parents, his childhood, none of this gave me any clues about his character. Same with Sheila. She seemed to have grown up with a loving sister and in a decent family.  What made her turn to alcohol and prostitution before meeting Webster? How did she get sober after all those years – and how did she become this supposedly great artist? Why did Rowan suddenly want to throw away her college chances by drinking? What was her motivation? None of this is explained or hinted at in the book. I’m not sure whether Shreve thought she was being modern and edgy with this tactic or whether I missed it, but I don’t think I missed it.

For a $1 book store find, it was worth it. If you’d like to read it yourself, the link from the picture of the book will take you to Amazon, where you can purchase the book.

Book Review: What We Have

I absolutely loved this memoir by Amy Boesky.  What We Have was a heartfelt tale of looking back across generations linked by a silent killer: ovarian cancer. Boesky’s memoir looks at the past, the present and the future in an inter-weaving of generations affected by cancer.

Amy and her sisters look at the framed family photographs on her mother’s wall and remember not vibrant elders from their family, but the stories of each woman who succumbed to cancer. Having a complete hysterectomy around age 35 to 40 is a given in her family; the women grow up feeling pressured to have children quickly so that they can ‘get it over with’ and move on.

Amy finds her soul mate, gives birth to two daughters, and thinks her mother is in the clear after her hysterectomy. But when her mother develops a “tiny” breast tumor, the family begins to wonder again about their cancer risk. The tumor is small and contained, and for four and a half years, her mother thinks she’s in the clear. Then the cancer spreads to her bones and she is given only a short time to live.

The author struggles to reconcile a sense of betrayed – “We did everything right so why is my mother dying?” – fear – “I have two daughters; what about them?” to her own sense of mortality. After her mother’s death, she and her sisters are presented with the potential of having a genetic test to identify their cancer risk.  That’s another struggle.

I loved the narrative, and some passages were so lifelike and realistic, especially around her job interviews, her mother-daughter relationships, and the births of her daughters that I felt like I knew her.  What I struggled with as I read this book wasn’t the book itself but my own sense of how I would handle the challenges that Amy faced. For example,Amy doesn’t want to have the genetic test done to see if she has the high risk cancer gene. I wanted to smack her; why not? She has two little girls. If I were her, I’d race to get the test done to see what my chance, and theirs was, and what could be done to mitigate the risk.

Genes aren’t destiny, and the expression of each individual’s genes is based on so many factors, both known and unknown, that it’s impossible to accurately predict the risk of diseases based on genetics alone.  Still, this book portrays a very real struggle of a family haunted by a specter called ‘cancer.’

If you like memoirs, I recommend this book.  It was engaging, realistic, and heart-warming.  I purchased my copy at the local store but if you click the link above or the picture, you can purchase it inexpensively through my Amazon affiliate.

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