Canterbury Sisters (review)

The Canterbury Sisters
Kim Wright
Simon & Schuster

canterbury sistersChick lit for women of a certain age–it’s difficult to come by. Most of the chick lit I’ve read falls into the twenty-something-my-boyfriend-left-me or the twenty-something-I’ll-never-find-Mr.-Right category. And if you’ve read my last post (link) you understand that I’ve been there and done that.

But every once in a while I need that light and breezy read, something to make me smile and believe in falling in love again.

Kim Wright’s Canterbury Sisters was it. Che Milan’s mother passed away after fighting a horrendous battle with cancer. When her ashes are delivered, Che finds this note: “…per our agreement, you must now take me to Canterbury. Do it, Che. Take me there. Even if you’re busy. Especially if you’re busy. It’s never too late for healing.”  Now Che had agreed, in the early stages of her mother’s illness, to make the Canterbury pilgrimage with her. But the end had come too quickly for the two to set out on the trail and receive a blessing for healing in the cathedral.

Spurred by a loss of her own (which is quintessentially chick-lit-ish!) Che throws caution to the wind and almost immediately hops on a plane to England to join a group of women who are just about to embark on the pilgrimage.

Now Che doesn’t particularly relish the intimacy that such a trip implies. She’s a no-nonsense professional, a wine critic whose reviews are both sought after and feared. Heart-to-hearts with a BFF and touchy-feely girl talk just isn’t her thing. But her mom requested it from the grave, and who is she to deny such a demand?

At their initial meeting, the tour leader Tess suggests that maybe the group wants to travel like Chaucer’s pilgrim’s did–each telling their tales “to see who could best articulate the nature of true love”. The women draw cards to determine the order of the stories and as quick as you can say “Once upon a time” they are off and running walking the sixty miles to Canterbury.

So we hear each of their stories, from Becca’s adolescent love song to seventy-three-year-old Silvia’s  tale of love (and memory) lost and found. Some of the women have deceived themselves in matters of the heart and others followed their hearts. Some have had to come to terms with their own shortcomings, others the betrayal of their lovers. But the tales, and more importantly the women, are far from what Che expected.

Che also, we suspect, begins to discover that true love is also far from what she expected. And that the healing she was seeking just might have been her own.

My Name is Lucy Barton (review)

My Name is Lucy Barton (NetGalley)
Elizabeth Strout
Random House

This thing we call ‘family’–those little rag tag bands of humans who make their way through life bumping into each other and bouncing off again, sometimes laughing, but often in tears–becomes more mysterious to me the older I get. Whenever I think I have family and my place in it figured out, Life tosses in a storm, and I’m trying to stay moored against its relentless push and name is lucy barton

Lucy Barton had a hell of a childhood. Poverty, mental illness, abuse–yet she’s managed (she thinks) to put it behind her and recreate a family in her own image. One with a stable husband, a house in a respectable neighborhood, and two delightful little girls. She’s even a budding writer. But when she spends several months in the hospital with a life-threatening infection, it’s just Lucy, the hospital bed, and the four walls of her room. It’s then that the memories, uninvited, try to wedge their way in. And when her mother comes to visit (for the first time in a dozen years, mind you), Lucy realizes that in order to heal, she must somehow reconcile her past with the present.

One of my favorite writers Ann Tyler, writes about the chaos of family life with honesty and open-hearted acceptance of its flaws. Elizabeth Strout looks at family with the same honesty, but also with painful tenderness. When I read Olive Kitteridge, I wasn’t exactly a fan–not because of the writing, which is lovely and evocative–but because Olive was just so … unlikable, I thought. I gave Strout another go with The Burgess Boys and wasn’t disappointed.

But My Name is Lucy Barton left me wanting  much more from this writer whose understanding of family is a heartbeat away from my own.

The Wild Truth (review)

The Wild Truth
Carine McCandless

Like so many readers around the world, I was spellbound by Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild which told the story of Chris McCandless’s the wild truthjourney of self-discovery and untimely death in the Alaskan wilderness; Sean Penn’s film by the same name was a powerful cinematic version of Chris’s story. Each year several of my students choose to read the book for an end-of-the-year book talk and they struggle, as I did, with the question–was Chris’s experience worth the price he paid?

Today pilgrims travel to bus 142 in Alaska to pay homage to a young man whose life has, perhaps, grown to mythical proporations. There are websites dedicated to Chris’s memory and others debunking the mystery of his death. Krakauer himself has returned to the story of McCandless for both Outside Magazine and The New Yorker, as well as appearing on Oprah. 

A year ago I read that Chris’s sister Carine had written a book and my interest in his story was piqued again. Carine’s book The Wild Truth is a brutally honest telling of the family life he endured growing up. I almost put the book down after the first chapter as Carine revisited the house where she and Chris grew up and experienced what could only be called flashbacks of those days. For those who have experienced domestic violence or abuse, this might be a story that re-opens old wounds.

On the surface, life was picture perfect in the McCandless household. They had it all: a beautifully decorated home, a successful engineering business, nice cars, better clothes. The family’s photo graced the membership wall of the Methodist church they attended each Sunday. But in reality, Walt McCandless was a brutal authoritarian who abused his wife and children. Billie was by turns his greatest defender or his archenemy. They both drank too much. Walt was, for all intents and purposes, a bigamist who for a period of several years kept a house with his first wife Marcia and their six children, and only a few miles away, another house for his life with Billie, Chris, and Carine. The children from both relationships often visited and stayed over at the other home. Both Walt and Billie lied, manipulated the truth, and did everything in their power to invalidate their children’s understanding of their dysfunctional family life–even into adulthood.

What might make a younger child fearful and anxious often makes an adolescent or young adult rebel against or sever toxic relationships–which is exactly, Carine tells us, what Chris’s journey was meant to do. Although her heart was broken at the loss of her brother, Carine takes comfort in knowing Chris died happy and at peace–something that eluded him in life.

Much of the book is less about Chris than it is about Carine McCandless, who is herself a fascinating woman. While she relates her experience growing up with Chris, the book is largely focused on her own coming to terms with her parents’ behavior. It’s not a pretty story and there’s no fairy tale ending, at least in the traditional sense.

But Carine McCandless is a woman of indomitable spirit whose example gives hope to others that, in the end, a life of integrity and honesty will win out over deceit–and that maybe love really can conquer all.

The Man In the Window (review)

The Man In the Window
Jon Cohen
Amazon Encore

Our first glimpse of Louis Malone is him sitting at the top of the stairs listening as his mother Gracie insists to the funeral director that her recently deceased husband Atlas be buried in his flannel workshirt, courduroys, and Hushpuppies. (The final score was Gracie: 1, Rose Funeral Home: 0, by the way.) And upstairs still, Louis watches the procession of casseroles and baked goods droppped off at the front door by friends and neighbors sympathizing with the newly widowed Gracie and even (maybe, just maybe) hoping to get a glimpse of Louis as well.

Now thirty-two, Louis has not been seen in Waverly in the sixteen years since the accident that left him horribly disfigured. He has watched the seasons meMan in the windowlt into years from the upstairs windows of his parents home, only sometimes creeping out in the dark of night to touch a spot in the yard he had only seen from two stories up.

And now, face muffled in his trademark purple scarf with Pirate’s ball cap pulled low, Louis rides in the limo to the funeral home, waits until the service ends, and then watches the graveside service from the safety of the back seat. As the service wraps up, a woman taps on the window. She tells Louis there are “worse things than death”–and she’s not the least bit nonplussed to be talking to a man covered head-to-toe save for his eyes. She’s a nurse, she tells Louis, on her way to the hospital and thought the funeral might have been one of her patients.

That nurse, Iris Shula, was horrible in her own way: overweight, abnormally short, and (even Iris herself would admit) just plain ugly. Iris works in critical care and not much surprises her. Not a blood splatter shaped like a perfect Valentine heart. Not even the dying Tube Man who every so often speaks one impossible word at a time: The. Man. In. The. Window. Is. Loose.

And then the worlds of these two misfits begin to collide. Iris’s elderly widowed father Arnie crosses paths with Atlas’s funeral procession; Louis falls from a window and meets Iris in the emergency room; Arnie, lost and confused, enters Louis’s home one night and is befriended by Gracie.

And then Iris, drawn to Louis who inexplicably touches her heart, reaches out to him–the unloved to the unlovable–and he reaches back.

This is a world beautifully conceived by writer Jon Cohen–where a hardware store can fix all of life’s ills, where the comatose offer up talismans, where falling two stories is really an ascent.

I read the last paragraph at least five times. You should too.

The Beauty of What Remains (review)

The Beauty of What Remains (NetGalley)
Susan Johnson Hadler
She Writes Press

Writer Susan Johnson Hadler’s father died in WWII when she was only three months old.  Because he was killed in a mine explosion, there were no remains to inter and his wife was sent only his personal effects: socks, glasses, a sewing kit, a few snapshots, a bible, and $38.67.  Hadler’s mother remarried a few years later, and the three-year-old was folded into a new family that had, it seemed, no room for her father’s memory. But Hadler always wondered about him, in part because the welcome letter he had written when she was born was taped inside her baby book. Full of his love for her mother and hopes for her future, the letter was something at least–but not enough.

In her twenties, Hadler dared approach the subject of her dad. “What was he like?” she asked her mother. Put the past behind you, her mother implied–“You have everything you’ve ever needed.” The past is the past. Except for Hadler, it wasn’t.

And so when she’s nearly fifty, Hadler begins to unravel her father’s story. She gets a copy of her father’s war records, contacts some of the The Beauty of What Remainsmen he served with, attends a reunion of the 782nd tank battalion, and finally travels to Mechernich, Germany with her husband to put all the pieces together. They stand in the woods where he died and take in the countryside he saw in his last days and weeks.

David Johnson was a “fine gentleman, good officer.” He was “firm” with the men under his command. David Johnson was “lighthearted, carefree. Nothing bothered him.” Her father was “a quiet man. Kind. Respected.” A good man.

Even Hadley’s mother begins to open up a bit about their brief life together. How the couple was the first of their friends to marry, how their friends gathered at their apartment before leaving for the war, how angry she was at his death. But Hadley also heard love in her voice, the love that became her.

Hadley petitioned and received a memorial marker for her father in Arlington Cemetary, where the family gathered for a brief ceremony, and she wrote about her experiences in an article titled “Finding My Father” in the Washingtonian Magazine.  And with that, the family wagons circled around Hadley’s mother who felt as though her privacy had been violated.

Shuffling through all those family photos also led Hadley to finding her mother’s estranged sisters: Dorothy, a lively octogenarian who lived in Brooklyn, New York; and Elinor, sent away in her twenties to a mental hospital, and … well, you’ll just have to get a copy of The Beauty of What Remains to turn that page in Hadley’s family album.

I think what appealed to me most about this memoir was the author’s navigation of all things family. Navigating the waters of family secrets and wading through repressed memories, Hadley speaks her truth–painfully, cautiously, but always honestly.

The Beauty of What Remains is a beautiful story, compellingly told.