Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Neverwhere


NeverwhereChoosing a favourite between Neil Gaiman’s books is akin to choosing a favourite snowflake. They are all different, and equally beautiful. Each book has its own distinctive voice, and each has something to say about the reality we live in and what it means to be human. But one of Gaiman’s stories that is very dear to me is Neverwhere. It exists in many formats: a television series; a novel; a comic book; a stage play; an all-star radio adaptation; an Author’s Preferred Text edition; and an audiobook. Every version is brilliant, but my favourite is the audiobook of the Author’s Preferred Text edition—the equivalent of the director’s cut in the literary world—read by the author.

In Neverwhere, Richard Mayhew is with his fiancĂ©e, Jessica, on their way to have dinner with her boss when a door opens and a girl in bulky clothes stumbles into the street and collapses. While Jessica simply walks over the girl as if she were invisible, Richard stops to help her. This act of kindness changes his life forever. The girl’s name is Door and she comes from a London that exists below the one Richard knows. It is a London where magic and darkness are very real and so are angels and monsters. The inhabitants of London Below are those that have fallen through the cracks in society, and are thus invisible to the people of London Above. When Richard helps Door return safely to London Below, he inadvertently becomes part of London Below and invisible to the people around him. Taxis won’t stop to pick him up, people that have known him for years act like he doesn’t exist anymore, and the only people that see him are those the rest of society also seems to not see, those without a home.  Richard then begins a dangerous journey into London Below to find his way back to his life in London Above.

Neverwhere is an excellent example of how fantasy can sometimes expose reality more deeply than other genres. Neverwhere explores the theme of homelessness and how people can fall through the cracks and become invisible simply by being different. It invites us to look at our world with critical lenses, and makes it impossible to walk by human suffering without acknowledging it. No person should be invisible.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Hysteria

Hysteria
Hysteria

Hysteria by Elisabeth de Mariaffi

The dictionary definition of Hysteria -- exaggerated or uncontrollable emotion or excitement, describes well the experiences of Heike Lerner, the main character in Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s novel with this title.  

The story begins with Heike and her younger sister escaping from Nazi Germany. It is a brutal trek for the two young girls through the European woods, during which time Heike’s sister disappears. Requiring convalescent care after this escape, Heike was taken into a convent to recuperate under the psychiatric care of Dr. Eric Lerner. 

Fast forward to the 1950’s and Heike is now married to Eric and living in America. She has a seemingly perfect life, complete with her successful husband; Daniel, her son whom she adores; and a summer house by the lake where she spends the days exploring the woods, swimming and canoeing.  However, Heike begins to notice some odd things. In the woods is a cabin that appears to be abandoned, there’s a strange girl who appears at the lake, but then seemingly disappears underwater, and Eric is confusing her with a recollection of events that differs from hers.

Heike begins to confide her confusion to Leo Dolan, an American screenwriter and host of one of the many soirees Eric and Heike attend, and to Arden, Eric’s sister. Through these relationships Heike’s situation becomes clearer, and we realize that Heike suspects Eric’s control is more to do with experimental drugs than simply mind games. 

Things begin to spiral further out of control when Leo brings Heike home one night and she finds that Daniel has gone missing. Eric seems unconcerned about his disappearance, remaining calm and unworried, serving only to cement Heike’s feelings of unease. Is Eric responsible for Daniel’s disappearance? 

Heike’s search for Daniel further blurs the lines between perception and reality until the twisted ending when all is revealed. 

A must read for those who enjoy an eerie tale that begins with a girl lost in the woods.

Helen Varga is a library technician at the Steveston Branch of the Richmond Public Library.

Thursday, 28 February 2019

The Two-Family House

The Two-family House
The Two-Family House
By Lynda Cohen Loigman



It’s 1947, and Brooklyn housewives Helen and Rose share many things.  Married to brothers Abe and Mort, the two women are friends and confidantes.  Both families even live in the same house – Abe, Helen and their four boys live upstairs, while Rose, Mort and their three girls live downstairs.  When Helen and Rose discover they are both pregnant at the same time, they are thrilled.

But the two brothers couldn’t be more different.  Abe is big-hearted and gregarious, always showing his family affection and love.  Mort is sullen and bitter, and blames Rose for not giving him a son.

As the pregnancies progress, Helen finds herself wishing for a daughter – someone who would eventually share thoughts and feelings with her.  She doesn’t see this happening with her rambunctious boys.

Rose, however, finds herself desperate for a boy.  She feels that having a son is the only way to win back her husband’s favour.  Her anxiety level grows higher with each passing day.

One winter night, with both men out of town, a blizzard strikes their Brooklyn home.  Both women go into labour.  Streets are impassable and the ambulance will not come.  Helen and Rose contact a local midwife.  With the older children minding the younger ones upstairs, two babies are born.

That night, something changes between Helen and Rose.  Although the two women share a deeper bond than ever, Rose begins to pull away from Helen.  Helen’s daughter, Natalie and Rose’s son, Teddy, are joyous additions to the family.  Natalie and Teddy, in fact, become close friends.  But Rose’s unhappiness is palpable and manifests itself through neglect of her children and her relationships.  Over time, her children become alienated from her, often preferring Helen’s company.  The two-family honeymoon is over.

Time goes on and the families drift apart.  Luckily, Teddy and Natalie continue their friendship and link the families together.  Only Judith, Rose’s eldest daughter, is old enough to remember her mother as she once was and the happy days of family solidarity.  Judith always wonders, what triggered this divide?

Can family secrets be maintained forever?  Should they be?  As the children become adults, the two women at the heart of each family must decide.

Told from the perspective of different family members, The Two-Family House spans a generation.  Poignant and readable, this family saga examines both sorrows and regrets, and the love shared over many years.



Thursday, 21 February 2019

Unsheltered



Image result for unsheltered
  

By Barbara Kingsolver

Things have not been going well for the Knox family. Willa, a middle aged journalist, has been let go from her job, right after her husband lost his teaching job. Her gravely ill father in law has been put into their care, their 26 year old daughter has moved back home, and they just found out their golden boy son is moving back in as well, with an unplanned one month old baby. Good thing Willa just inherited a brick home in Vineland, New Jersey.  With the whole family settled in their new home, unfortunately, their lives do not get better. The old home they’ve inherited was built without a foundation and is literally crumbling around them.  Willa did everything expected of her:  post-secondary, career, marriage, kids… so how did she get to middle age with nothing to show for it?

Hoping to apply for a heritage grant to repair her new home, Willa begins researching her home’s past.  As Willa gets immersed in the lives of the people who might have lived in her house, the story begins alternating perspectives from Willa’s life in 2016, to the life of a science teacher from the 1880s named Thatcher Greenwood.  

Thatcher forms a friendship with the famous naturalist, Mary Treat, a friend of Charles Darwin and Asa Gray.  Mary Treat clearly has a vast intellect and a curiosity about the natural world that is both infectious and intriguing. Discussions about Venus fly traps, nesting habits of local spiders, and cultural dynamics of ants were oddly engrossing.

Both stories tangle with each other nicely.  Both Thatcher and Willa lived in a time of cultural shifts; experiencing their interaction with this change was very interesting. At times I was more eager for Thatcher’s story than Willa’s, but then something would happen in Willa’s story that had me desperate to get back to 2016!  

Unsheltered reminded me of the novel Commonwealth by Ann Patchett because of the jumping timeline. Parts of this book also made me think of the plight of the grandfather in Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry. Both characters are clearly beholden to their families with very little control over their lives.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good


Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good
 by Kathleen Flinn


I don’t usually read a lot of non-fiction, especially memoirs and biographies, but this one was recommended to me so I thought I would give it a try. Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good is the story of the author’s childhood, family and the food they shared, the two often inextricably linked.  The book’s title is itself a memory of Flinn’s grandmother, who raised her own young family during the Depression.  Food wastage was not an option then so you had to eat that burnt toast which fortunately, according to Mom, made you sing good!

Kathleen Flinn grew up in the Midwestern US, and uses family members’ stories and her own memories to recount the life of the Flinns. From the pizza parlor her parents owned and operated, Grandpa Charles’ army recipe chili and Grandma Inez’s fluffy pancakes she ties family anecdotes to family history. 

Food was central to the household as new challenges and cross country adventures took place. Each stage of their lives was represented by the food in the fridge and the pantry. During the busy pizza parlor days, the restaurant menu which included large pizza pies made on metal garbage can lids fed everyone. Later on, life on the farm consisted of whatever they grew, hunted and canned. Finding 100’s of canning jars in the cellar, they set to work filling them with the farm’s bounty. In the later years, Flinn’s parents moved the family to the suburbs and a life of relative luxury away from the hard work of the farm. Being more financially secure, her parents began living a different life than that the kids had been used to, they threw parties, they went out, they stocked the shelves with store bought food! This in itself was an adjustment, having longed for these treats while on the farm, the kids now found themselves wishing for mom’s homemade fried chicken.

Throughout each move, the kids never once doubted that they were loved. Not always the best communicators, the family spoke through food. In the words of Grandma Inez “I don’t have to tell you I love you. I fed you pancakes.” 

Flinn’s tasty memories will pique your interest, and you can make most of them yourself from the recipes included amongst the chapters.

Every Note Played


Every Note Played - Genova, Lisa
 by Lisa Genova

Every Note Played is the latest novel from Lisa Genova, neuroscientist turned bestselling author of titles such as Still Alice and Love, Anthony, stories that deal with early onset Alzheimer’s and parental loss and grief.  This latest gem goes inside ALS, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, as we follow the decline of Richard who has been recently diagnosed with the illness. 

Richard is a renowned concert pianist and this diagnosis signals the end of his career and life as he knows it. His career defines him; it is his life, his reason for living. We meet Richard living with the loss of his right hand, the cancellation of his upcoming tour and his attempts at finding left-hand piano pieces. While mostly in denial about the progression of the disease, he knows it is only a matter of time before his left hand will also become paralyzed. As the disease moves through his body, he will have to come to grips with his loss of the piano, his livelihood and the ability to care for himself.

Karina is Richard’s ex-wife. It has been three years since Richard moved out, but she dwells on the past and has not moved on with her life. She blames Richard for the life she has, having given up on becoming a successful concert pianist in her own right, to support him in his career. She spends her days teaching piano and hiding behind the blame instead of pursuing her dream.

As Richard’s disease advances, Karina becomes his caregiver, eventually moving him back into their family home. Their sharing of the same home again brings up many of the past conflicts that neither of them has resolved. Richard’s deteriorating health becomes a ticking clock for Karina and Richard to reconcile the past before it is too late.

This story delves into the human side of ALS and how it affects those afflicted, not only the disease ridden Richard, but those around him who care for and about him. As a neuroscientist, Genova has a deep knowledge of the things she writes about. She creates real characters in real situations and does not gloss over the nasty bits. Whether you love them or hate them, the reader genuinely feels for the characters and is right there with them as they deal with their lot.