Wednesday, 30 March 2016

The Secret Garden Book Review

I missed a lot of Classic literature while I was reading Sweet Valley High and The Baby-sitters club
in my mis-read youth.  Now, I'm taking advantage of classic children's books during my children's childhood.  I picked up an illustrated version of The Secret Garden at the library to read to my kids.  After a few chapters, I got tired of trying to read aloud in a Yorkshire accent and switched to an audio version.  This was much easier to listen to together, although it was eight hours long.

I was very excited with the beginning of the book.  I love how Mary begins as an unlikeable, contrary girl.  There were great descriptions of the moor and the gothic mansion at Misselthwaite.  Mrs. Medlock, Martha and Ben Weatherstaff are strong, memorable characters and there is always a sense of mystery.  I am more and more impressed by the importance of mystery in any story.

At some point, I sarcastically thought this book could be described as The Secret Garden: or how every ailment can be cured by going outside.  There is something of a preachy morality tale to the story.  I believe this was popular and, actually, the point of children's literature at the time.  Still, the story is highly enjoyable and charming.
I'll confess we watched the 1993 film version before we got to the end of the book and my children
lost interest in the ending.  I read it myself and was fascinated by the differences between the film and book endings.  I had seen the film when it came out and greatly enjoyed it.  They did a wonderful job of focusing on the mystery while still staying true to the important themes in the book.  I'm glad I read the book and that my kids have heard most of it, but it was a bit of a challenge in language and length to read to children who are more accustomed to modern novels.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Not As They Appear: Chapter One

Here is another excerpt from one of my novels: Not As They Appear.  A fitting read for an Easter weekend featuring a Narnia-like retelling of Jesus' life.  In my book, he is a polar bear named Joshua.
My sister Jessica never saw the dragons.  Or at least she claimed she didn’t see them.  I kinda thought she was faking, trying to be cool and popular – but thinking back, maybe she was telling the truth.  She certainly wasn’t the only one who couldn’t see the dragons.
            I remember the first time I saw one.  I woke in my bed, covered in dried sweat, my heart racing.  Terror gripped every nerve, but I couldn’t remember why.  Did I have a nightmare?  If so, I couldn’t remember even a fragment of it.  Perhaps someone had been in my room, but I was too scared to check.
            Then I heard it – the horrid screeching like ten thousand nails across a rock.  Deafeningly wretched.  My heart thumped faster and I forgot to breathe.
            I hid beneath my pillow, but the sound penetrated, barely muffled.  I called out to my mom – our mother, the one we had been fighting over since I was born, until we wore her down to a nervous point.  Our arguments deflated her, though we didn’t know this at the time.
            For once, she did not appear instantly at my door.  Where was she?  I could always count on her at night.  Somehow, she could manage compassion and gentleness in the dark, though she couldn’t face it in the light of day. 
            The sounds continued at least a quarter of an hour and then ceased completely.  Though I was enveloped in panic, this did not translate to my limbs.  They remained frozen in my bed.  When the noises ceased, I finally emerged from my blankets, padded to my window and lifted the blind half an inch. 
            A giant yellow eye stared back.  I screamed, but no sound came out.  The eye seemed to x-ray my heart and soul.  I let the blind drop and bolted back to my island of imagined safety.  I breathed again, tears trapped inside, trembling myself to sleep.
            The following morning our mother was gone. 
            “Way to go, twerp,” Jessica said over a precariously full bowl of fruit loops.  There were none left in the box for me.
            “What?”  I whined.  “You ate all the cereal.”
            She thrust a giant spoonful into her mouth and grinned at me through the colourful ohs.
            “Yfph mph mopth leeph.”
            I punched her in the stomach and she spit the partially gobbled cereal into my face.
            “You’re gonna pay for that, you little brat.” 
            She chased me around the room and I didn’t even notice our mom was missing until it was time to go to school.
            “Hey, where’s mom?” I poked my nose into Jessica’s room.
            “I told you this morning,” she pulled a brush through her long blond hair.  “She’s not here.  I heard you screaming last night.  You must have kept her awake all night, like you always do and then she decided she couldn’t take it anymore.”
            I moved closer, worried.  “What are you talking about?  You never told me she was gone.”
            She grabbed her backpack and stormed out of the room. 
            “Jessicaaaah,” I keened with the perfect inflection to set your teeth against one another.
            She threw her hands up in the air and turned on me.  I slammed into her by accident.
            “I’m not your mother,” she screamed.  “And I’m never gonna be.  If you made her leave, you’re just gonna have to figure out what to do with yourself.”
She left the house then, turning the key in the lock behind her.  I was four years old.  I’d never been alone in the house before.

            Immediately, the silence creeped me out. I turned on the television.  After two episodes of PowerRangers, I called out:
            “Mo-om!  I’m hungry!”  Nothing happened, which wasn’t unusual.  “Mooooooom.  Moooooooooom!”  I said her name with increasing length and strength of voice. 
            When I tired of this, I wandered into her room.  She hadn’t made her bed.  Nothing seemed to be missing.  Her purse waited on the hook by her door.  I rummaged through it until I found $4.87 in change.  I pocketed the money and stomped back into the kitchen.  Jessica hadn’t finished her cereal.  The colourful circles had bloated and disintegrated into the milk, turning it an awful greenish-brown colour.  I slammed the side of the bowl, spilling the contents onto the table.  I felt some sense of accomplishment.  Then I looked through the cereal cupboard for another box, but could only find a stale box of crispy flakes.  I hated that cereal, but grabbed a few handfuls to tame the knot of hunger and unease in my belly.  After that meager feast, I found a half-full container of grape juice and drank it straight from the jar.  I spilled some down my shirt and a few drops onto the floor.  I swiped at them with my Spiderman pajamas.  Then I found some marshmallows and chocolate chips in the cupboard to round out my meal.  I returned to the solace of the television again, lulled by the high-pitched voices and gun sounds.

            Mom didn’t return, but Jessica came home from school sometime after Handy Manny. 
            “Eeeww!” she pinched her nose when she came in the door.  “It reeks in here.  Mom, I’m home.  Why didn’t you come pick me up?  I had to walk all the way home.”
            “She’s not here,” I pouted from my nest on the couch.  I’d kept the T.V. on all day for company.  I was still wearing my pajamas and the kitchen table was littered with my meal attempts.  There was a pool of spilt milk on the floor, half a piece of greasy cheese on a chair, a pathway of cracker crumbs from the cupboard to the couch and a half-eaten peanut butter sandwich resting on the arm of the couch.
            She lifted up the sandwich between two fingers and dropped it back onto the couch with a look of disgust.
            “What do you mean?  Did she have to run to the store or something?” My sister dropped her backpack onto a clean patch of floor.
            “Nope,” I stared dully at the screen.  “She never came home.  I’ve been here alone all day.”  My nose began to itch with threatening tears and I swiped at it with a crusty sleeve.
            She looked at me, scrunching up her face as if to choose the most important question to ask.  “What’s wrong with her?” she finally said, throwing her hands into the air.
            Jessica took a closer look at the mess and then back to me.  I saw a thread of concern in her eyes, but she shielded it with teenaged irritation.
            “Look at the mess you made,” she shook your head.  “Mom’s going to be totally mad at you when she gets home.”
            That was the last thing I could take.  I yelled and cried at the same time.  Furious and dejected.  I wanted my mother more than ever and I wet my pants after holding it too long.
            “Gross!” Jessica yelled, but she reached out to me and pulled me to the bathroom.  “You’ve got to have a bath.  I’m not living in a house that smells like pee.”
            She turned away when I sat on the toilet.  I stopped yelling, but I couldn’t stop the tears.  The sound of the water filling up the tub was some comfort; a reassurance that all messes could be fixed. 
            She washed my hair with more care than I’d ever imagined she could give.  Of course, her blond curls would have taken a lot of patience, but I took it for love.  At least Jessica would take care of me.
            “Come on, Matt, you can wash your body, right?”  She shoved a bar of soap into my hands, but it slipped out before I could get a proper grip.
            She rolled her eyes and fished out the soap.  “You’re so incompetent.  I’m sure I could wash myself by the time I was your age.”
            I smiled at her, hoping to gain more of her care, but I’d apparently reached the end of her tolerance.  She dumped a bucket of soapy water over me, without shielding my eyes.  I hollered in protest and she stood up and crossed her arms across her body in response.
            “Fine, do it yourself then,” she shouted and stomped out of the bathroom.
            I kept up my hollering a few minutes longer, but the bathwater grew cold and I decided to get out.  I didn’t bother pulling the plug.  I wanted our mother to see every step of the trail of dejection she’d left.  I half-heartedly patted myself with a towel, letting it drop to the floor, awaiting her guilty pity.
            I found yesterday’s shirt and jeans and struggled to put them on.  The tag of the shirt tickled my throat.  I picked up a toy, momentarily diverted from my sadness, but a few minutes later, I let it drop to the floor and lay in my bed, trying to fight the burning tears in my throat.  How could my mom have left us alone?  Were we really that bad?
            Some time later, Jessica came in my room and looked at me with a hand on her hip, but she held back the cutting remark I could see she’d been planning to throw at me.  She walked over my toy-littered floor and lay beside me on the bed.
            “It’s been a pretty weird day, Matt.  My teacher was missing and she didn’t even called in a sub.  The principal had to teach us math and he didn’t know what he was talking about.  Then our sub came and she was even worse.”
            I turned to look at her and thought about some of the nice things she’d done for me before.  There was the time she bought me a truck I really wanted from the mall.  She used to play with me if I would let her make all the rules.  Sometimes she’d even hug me at bedtime when I was clean and wearing my pajamas.
            “Where do you think Mom went?” I ventured.
            “I don’t know, buddy.  All the grown-ups at school were whispering about things, but of course they didn’t tell us anything.”
            “Do you think we should call Auntie Margaret?” I asked, using my nicest voice.
            “I don’t want to get Mom in trouble,” she fiddled with a necklace.  “I mean, she deserves it, but it has been a pretty terrible year.  Maybe if we clean up the kitchen, she’ll be back when we’re done and we can all be together again.”
            It was a lofty goal, but Jessica sounded so hopeful that I figured it must be possible.  She helped me out of bed and we tackled the mess.

            Our father had gone to jail two days after my third birthday.  They grabbed him from our house in the middle of the night.  Mom was screaming for them to leave him alone, that he had a family to provide for.  This was likely the cause of my nightmares.  She told us he died a month later.  She didn’t say how.  Her face was ashen-grey, like the soot in our fireplace. 
            Jessica knew more than I did, but mom must have told her to keep it quiet.  When I whined to know more, my sister would take me out of the room as mom slumped into a chair.  I laughed at her once because I thought her shoulders were shaking with laughter.  Thinking back now, it must have been grief, horrible, rolling fits of grief, like the ones I experienced after she left.
            Jessica got me a snack after the kitchen was clean and the room was cleared of its musty pee smell.  I sat up on the high stools against our kitchen island, watching her chew her nails.
            “Where do you think she went?” I asked over a mouthful of peanut-butter sandwich.
            “I don’t know,” she said in a distant monotone.  It was so similar to the one our mother used.
            “Why?” I tried, knowing how this question irritated her.
            “I just don’t know, Matthew.  Could you stop pestering me?” But she didn’t storm out of the room like she normally did.
            “Maybe Auntie Margaret knows,” I suggested after another huge bite.
            She sighed with impatience.  “If she knew, she would have called us or come over right away.”
            “Auntie Margaret’s nice,” I wheedled.
            “You haven’t seen her since Dad left.” She bit off a large chunk of nail.  “She’s not so nice anymore.”
            I gulped my milk in the way I knew annoyed her, but she didn’t flinch.  “How do you know?  She sent me a monster truck shirt.”
            Jessica narrowed her eyes at me.  “She told Mom that Dad was a loser,” she spat.
            I stopped chewing in shock.  “What?  He’s not a loser.  He was our Dad.”  My voice rose with incredulity.
            “I know.  She sucks and she made mom really sad.  I’m not going to call her.”
           I wasn’t hungry anymore.  I pushed my sandwich around the plate, pretending it was a steamroller that could smush our traitorous aunt.
            My sister finished chewing off her nails and wandered toward her bedroom.  I hesitated only a moment before I followed her down the hallway, but her room was locked.  I banged a few times, but didn’t have the energy to keep at it until.  I walked into Mom’s room instead and buried myself under the blankets that smelled like her soap and shampoo.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

A Measure of Light Book Review
Caution: Spoilers
This book is the story of a long, slow suicide. Main character, Mary Dyer, begins as a young girl in England
who falls in love with a glove maker in the 1600s. After they are married, they become uneasy with politics and violence against Puritan believers and so move to America. Here, they find church leadership is even more violent and intolerant and so move from place to place, hoping to live the life they believe in.
In the midst of religious power plays and other insanity, Mary begins a descent in to postpartum depression from whence she cannot resurface. Fortunately, her maid and close friend, Sinnie, is more than willing to take care of Mary's children and home making duties while Mary considers suicide. When she cannot bear to drown herself in the ocean, she turns her goals instead to returning to England. Her long-suffering husband eventually agrees to let her return to care for an ailing family member, but after Aunt Urith dies, Mary searches for other ways to avoid returning to her family and America. She finds her answer in joining the Quakers.
While I had some compassion for Mary in the beginning, she became stranger and stranger throughout the book. I could not relate to her inability to love her children or to accept her husband's patient devotion. I enjoyed learning the history of New England and many historic uses for plants, but the end could not come soon enough. A character who longs to die for half the book just doesn't keep my turning pages. I'm not sure I would have finished the book if it weren't on my book club reading list!  However, I appreciate that this was based on historic fact.  Powning offered good insight into the beliefs and mores of the time and wrote with skill and poetry.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro Book Review

I read this book in search of Munro's magic.  How does she write such excellent, award-winning short
stories?  I came up with a few ideas, but I believe the trick of her magic is that one cannot distance themselves far or long enough to decipher just what it is.  The story just yanks you in.

Part of her genius is creating characters who instantly grab your interest and empathy.  Despite their imperfections and weaknesses, perhaps even because of these, they are real, live and breathing.  They have fully-formed beliefs, back stories and values.  They are also situated in tangible settings with sights, scents and sounds.  Even though I read Munro's Lives of Girls and Women over a decade ago, I can still feel the stuffy parlour, hidden thicket and swaying prairie grasses.  Her characters and settings are unforgettable.

However, even more compelling is that I can never guess where her stories will go.  How does she keep the reader guessing?  Reading these ten short stories in a row, I was not able to catch her method, except to know I would be surprised, but also, somehow, satisfied.  This is a gift indeed.

I enjoyed all of the stories in this collection, but two, especially, grabbed my interest.  Fiction was one of my favourites.  I enjoyed the passage of time and the idea of the writer as first one obsessed and then, the one to be obsessed about.  This was fulfilling.  I also loved Too Much Happiness for its seemingly effortless product of research.  I liked that Munro was so intrigued by the life of  Sophia Kovalevsky that she read everything she could about her and then imagined her life into one beautifully-formed story capsule.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Surviving the Rain in a Rain Forest

In all kindness and concern, people warned us that the rain can be a cause of depression while living where we do.  Everyone who lives here has a variety of strategies for dealing with weeks and months of gray skies and rain.  I've been trying to take their advice.  

Some of the ones I like are, go outside anyway.  I've collected various rain gear, not all matching, to allow myself to do so.  I will continue working on my collection so I may one day also look slightly less ridiculous when I get out!  

Another one is to think of all the good that the rain does.  I tried this one out on the kids while we waited for the bus in the rain.  I was impressed with what they came up with. 

I've added my own, probably inadvertently stolen, which is to take pictures on the sunny days to remind myself of what lies beneath.  Here are a few to share on this rainy day.

The lovely Seawall

Flowers in February

Sunny Beach 1

Sunny Beach 2

A sunset on February 8

I'd love to hear some more ideas.  What do you do to chase away the winter blues?