On this hot, humid morning, I’m enjoying a steaming cup of chai and a yummy Cinnamon Hazelnut biscotti as I prepare to write a long post. I’ve got two books and two audiobooks to tell you about today - clearly last week was devoted to reading and listening!
The first book I read was one that I received to review for the local paper, Camilla Gibb’s This is happy: a memoir. I have never read anything by this bestselling, award-winning Canadian author, and I never, never read memoirs. I thought it might be good to try her out, so I picked it up and put it in my “To Read for Review” pile. Well, I got to it last week and read it in just two days! The writing was excellent, and she told her story in an unsentimental way that was easy to read and appreciate without being too emotional. When Gibb was just eight weeks into her pregnancy, her spouse shattered her world by announcing that she was leaving. Faced with an uncertain future, she looked to her past in an attempt to create a family for her child while coming to terms with her own upbringing. When she was a child, her parents emigrated from the UK to Canada, where they faced hardship in the form of familial difficulties and mental illness. Gibb, along with her brother, struggled to survive their broken home and tainted childhood. As a university student, Gibb sought to forge relationships and continue her studies, while also searching for a way to deal with the heavy weight of depression, with which she would continue to struggle for years. Her studies and experiences led her to a life of writing, but this did not bring with it the happiness she had expected. When finally she seemed to be free of the depression that had been weighing her down for the past decade, she and her partner decided to start a family. But all did not turn out as planned, and Gibb was left to raise a child as a single parent. A cast of characters came to her aid, including her long-lost brother, her Filipina nanny, and an East Coast grad student, all bound together by a new baby and the hope of new beginnings. She talks about her struggle to balance new motherhood with her writing career, and her battles with mental illness in herself and her family members. Her words and feelings flowed across the page, sweeping this reader up into the events and emotions of her life and the lives of those around her. And like a flower that somehow manages to grow out of the cracked gray pavement, this family that is created, and this happiness, too, thrives despite inhospitable beginnings. Because I never read memoirs, I actually have nothing to compare it to, so maybe this is not really a well-written memoir, but I enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone who has enjoyed her fiction in the past, or anyone who enjoys memoirs about the challenges of motherhood.
Another book I read last week, also by a Canadian author, is Julie Lawson Timmer’s debut novel, Five Days Left. This novel tells the parallel stories of Mara and Scott, two individual who are facing difficult situations in which they have just five days left before their situations change drastically. Some years ago, Mara, a successful lawyer, wife and adoptive mother, was diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease, a terminal illness with a life expectancy of maybe 15 years after onset. Refusing to live out her last remaining days at a nursing home and be a burden to her family, Mara, now only in her early forties, decides that after the occurrence of certain debilitating symptoms, she would take her own life on her next birthday. After an incident in the grocery story on Monday, she decides that the time has come, and her next birthday is in five days. Scott, an elementary teacher at a school in an economically depressed area, agrees to be the temporary guardian of the troubled younger brother of one of his former students while the boys’ mother serves a year-long jail sentence. As her sentence is coming to an end, Scott struggles to accept that young Curtis will be better off with his mother, who often does not have enough food or clean clothes for him, and leaves him alone at night while she goes out with her questionable friends, rather than staying with him and his wife, in their spacious home, with plenty of food, and clothes, and all the comforts of a loving home. Scott’s wife, though, is pregnant, after a struggle with infertility, and she is looking forward to having her own family, and having their lives back. This novel is divided into five sections, one for each day, and the author writes about the struggles each character faces as the days go by, bringing them closer to their final moments. OK, this is so not the type of book I normally enjoy, but this one sucked me right in and held me in rapt attention until the very last page. Yes, it was emotional, but not overly so - Timmer managed to tell two heart-wrenching stories realistically, in detail, and with elegance. This is her first novel, which is surprising, considering how polished and relatively "unsentimental" it is. I would highly recommend this novel, especially to fans of Jodi Picoult (I know there are many!!).
And I finished two audiobooks last week. The first was The Sea by John Banville, narrated by John Lee (my favourite narrator of all time!). I have never read anything by this award-winning Irish author, and I will admit that I only downloaded it because of the narrator, not because I was really that interested in the book. And I will also admit that, at the beginning, I was not very interested in it, but stuck with it because a) it was short and b) I was at a loss for anything else to listen to at the time. And it turned out to be awesome! This Booker Prize-winning novel tells the story of Max Morden, a retired art historian who returns to board at the cottage where he used to spend time as a child. He relives his experiences from childhood, when the Graces, a wealthy family with two children and a nanny, came to stay at the Cedars across the street from Max. He also reviews his life with his wife, Anna, from the time they met so many years ago to her recent death from cancer. And he relays details to the reader about his current situation, the house-maid, Miss Vavasour, another boarder at the cottage whom he calls the Colonel, and his experiences with his grown daughter, Claire, as she tries to help him find comfort in his retirement. This novel is all about his recollections of these three periods in his life, as he tries to reconcile himself to the experiences he’s had involving the deaths of those close to him. It was a moving story, a slow-moving one, but the narration was excellent, as expected, and he really managed to capture the voice of Max during each of these periods in his life fully and convincingly. I would definitely recommend this as an audiobook selection if you like introspective narratives (and if you like John Lee!).
And I also listened to The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. by Nicole Bernier, narrated by Angela Brazil. This powerful novel tells the story of two women, friends who are in their late thirties and contemplating their lives thusfar in relation to their children, their husbands, and their halted careers. Kate, devoted mother of two, struggles with her choices as she considers her return to work as a pastry chef, feeling that it may be too soon. Her close friend, Elizabeth, died the previous summer in a plane crash, which occurred shortly before 9/11. Kate was given responsibility for Elizabeth’s journals, much to Elizabeth’s husband’s dismay; Dave feels they should have been left with the family, but reluctantly passes them into the hands of Kate, locked in an antique trunk. Kate brings them with her as her family heads off for an extended summer holiday to their favourite beachside cottage in Maine, and she spends her summer reading the journals while tending to her family’s needs. What she finds during her reading is that Elizabeth was a much more complex woman than she ever realized, leading her to contemplate how much we can ever really know about a person. Written with sensitivity and consideration, this novel explores the roles and expectations of mothers in today’s society, their struggles to balance motherhood and a career, and to maintain a personal identity without sacrificing the needs of their families. It looks at how we deal with loss, and poses the question of whether we can create our own destiny or whether we should just let fate take its own course. It also makes readers consider whether it is ever justifiable to make decisions that are life-changing for you and your family by yourself, whether one person can take that responsibility solely on his or her shoulders. It was, again, not the type of book I normally read or listen to, being about motherhood and the struggles that women with children face when considering career versus family, but this book was excellent. It was sensitive and considerate, and the author, who was inspired to write it after losing a friend in the attacks of 9/11, did an outstanding job of exploring the randomness of life, the uncertainty we all face every day, and how the constant worry over the possibility of disaster can be paralyzing. It was a heart-wrenching and heartfelt exploration of the life of one woman who spent her entire life trying to make up for one mistake, and the guilt she carried with her until her sudden death. The narration was excellent, really capturing the anxious tone of Kate and conveying her internal struggles and her constant hypersensitivity to things around her, both actual and potential. I would highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys character-driven novels.
WHEW! I’m all “posted” out! I was getting the details of these stories confused, as they seemed to have similar themes: childhood experiences, motherhood, making life-altering choices alone, and introspection. So I think I should choose for my next book and audiobook something fast-paced and plot-driven, something light for these hot, hazy days as summer winds down.
Thanks for sticking with this post to the very end - I know it was a long one, and I promise to try to keep the next one short and easy to read! Enjoy the rest of the weekend!
Bye for now…