How it Ends

I can’t imagine being 15 and waking up one morning to find my parents descending on me a with rope in their hands, tying me up, throwing me into a car and driving me to a mental institution. I remember my mom sneaking into my room to check that I was still breathing (this seems to be a thing moms do) and being a little brat and holding my breath to freak her out. But she was checking on me because she was (is) my protector. For Cassie O’Malley there is no one but herself to look to for protection, both physically and mentally.

firsttimeTold in an alternating Now and Then voice, Kerry Kletter’s The First Time She Drowned introduces us to Cassie who has spent the past 2 1/2 years in a mental institution against her will. When she was 15 she woke up to her parents tying her hands and putting her into a car to involuntarily take her to a mental institution. Now at 18 Cassie is a legal adult and wants a normal life. She’s made friends during those 2 1/2 years, especial with James who is her best friend and whom she doesn’t want to leave behind. But she believes she’s prepared for the real world.

In an odd twist, Cassie’s mother has paid for a year of college. Her mother, her father, and her two brothers barely visited her while she was institutionalized and before you start thinking “Oh God, not another crazy teen in a mental ward that is going to teach me about love, heartbreak, and how to hang myself with that package of gummy worms that the kid down the hall gets in a care package every month from his mother” this is not that kind of book. Not too far into the novel you start to figure out that it’s Cassie’s mother who is at the heart of the abuse and the accusations of mental instability. Think of a mother character from a Gillian Flynn book, just with only one or two attempts at killing a child.

Cassie begins her first week at college in her solitary room, unsure how to make friends. She has pneumonia and spends the week drifting in and out of consciousness. Finally, she drags herself out of her room and to the door of a girl she noticed on her first day and collapses. Of course, they become best friends. Someone passing out in your doorway kind of bonds them to you. Or you get a restraining order. But Cassie sometimes overthinks the friendship and the things Zoey does are alien to her.

Thinking she’s going to experience a normal college life, Cassie dives right in and quickly realizes she is so not ready. Her mother, who she hasn’t really seen in the 2 1/2 years she was in the institution, pops in and out of her life, confiding the weirdest and most inappropriate things to her daughter. Not inappropriate like “When your father and I went to Hawaii and he wanted to scuba diving I was all for it. Then that morning he had diarrhea like you wouldn’t believe. I’ve never seen so many panicked fish. Our instructor got a few pictures of it and I’m thinking about using it as our Christmas card this year.” Reading further, there are many “aha!” moments where you discover the mother should have been put away for a couple of years.

If you like novels about crazy families (and I don’t mean kooky families but families that become a legend down the bloodline) read The First Time She Drowned. I never felt so normal and sane. Most terrifying five minutes of my life.

Betty MacDonald and “The Egg” that hatched her career

eggandiEnjoy this post from Joan as she writes about all things Betty MacDonald:

When Pacific Northwest writer Betty MacDonald’s first book, The Egg and I, was published in 1945 it was not just a hit, it was a phenomenon selling over a million copies within the first year of publication. That book, a funny little memoir about early married life trying to make a living chicken ranching and having run-ins with Olympic Peninsula locals, went on to be translated into twenty languages, and spawned several movies: The Egg and I starring Fred MacMurry and Claudette Colbert , and later, The Adventures of Ma and Pa Kettle.

lookingforbettyHow is it possible that such a book could take the book world by storm and land the author on the pages of Life magazine? And how could she still have a fan base so strong in Europe that there was a BBC radio documentary about her commemorating what would have been her 100th birthday in March of 2008 (she died at the age of 49 in 1958)? Seattle historian Paula Becker wondered about this as well, and tells us how she came to unravel Betty’s very complicated life in her book Looking for Betty MacDonald: The Egg, The Plague, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and I.

Go ahead and add your name to the hold list for both Betty MacDonald’s memoirs and Paula Becker’s book about Betty. Then come to the Main Library to hear Paula talk about all things Betty MacDonald on Saturday, January 7 at 2PM.

Betty entertained her readers and gave them a good inside-out look at Seattle and the Pacific Northwest during the mid-part of the 20th century, political incorrectness and all. Much of how the rest of the country and the world imagined the Pacific Northwest was based at the time on Betty’s books. But Betty didn’t just entertain adult readers. While she was working on her three other memoirs, she also wrote the very popular Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series of books for children.

anybodyShe makes reference to drinking a lot of coffee, so maybe that explains where she got the energy to write so many books in such a short amount of time. While “Egg” was the blockbuster, her other memoirs are equally entertaining, whether about recovering from tuberculosis in a Seattle Sanatorium (The Plague and I), raising two teenage daughters on the edge of Vashon Island (Onions in the Stew), or how she and her family got through the depression (Anybody Can Do Anything), all written with her irreverence for life and her ability to poke fun at anything and everything.

Whether you’re looking for a good children’s book that has stood the test of time or a memoir where the northwest landscape figures as prominently as its colorful characters, Betty MacDonald’s books are still a good bet. Most of all, they’re just plain fun to read because she is first and foremost a really good writer. Read just one and you’ll see why Paula became a little obsessed with Betty’s story and why she needed to tell it.

Heartwood 7:1 – Greene on Capri by Shirley Hazzard

greene-on-capriThis blog post is prompted by the news that Shirley Hazzard died this past December at age 85.

It’s kind of funny to me that I read this book without ever having read Graham Greene (though he’s long been on my radar, and I’m a fan of the film The Third Man). Funnier still since I’d also not read anything by Shirley Hazzard (her Transit of Venus won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1980, and The Great Fire won the National Book Award in 2003). But a few years ago, one of my book-talking buddies handed me this book and said I should read it. I must say I was quite taken by the cover, and seeing the book’s slim length, I decided to give it a try.

In the opening scene, Hazzard has run into Greene at a café on Capri where he is dining at a separate table with friends and reciting part of a Browning poem to them. Before leaving, Hazzard supplies him with the line he’s struggling to recall. This literary showiness rankled me enough that I put the book aside. But some weeks later, I picked it up again and found myself very much enjoying Hazzard’s stately prose, the descriptions of Greene’s home and the island of Capri (accent on the a, she tells us), and the friendship that develops between Greene, Hazzard and her husband, Francis Steegmuller.

Hazzard devotes much of the book to Greene, mostly during their shared time there in the 1960s and ’70s, but she also includes some interesting details about the history of the island. Her account of Tiberio, the island-top ruins, features some fine descriptive language, and we learn that a number of Russian writers visited the island in their day, such as Gorky, Turgenev, and Ivan Bunin.

For the most part, Hazzard writes admiringly of Greene, but not without particular criticisms, such as in the passage here:

Repeatedly singled out as a writer of his “era,” Graham, even so, long eluded literary chronology. His best work, with its disarming blend of wit, event, and lone fatality, has not staled; and he himself, always ready, with eager skepticism, for life’s next episode, did not seem to “date.”  However, in one respect – his attitudes to women – he remained rooted, as man and writer, in his early decades.

From the 1920s into the 1940s, Greene and several of his talented male contemporaries were working, in English fiction, related veins of anxiety and intelligence, anger and danger, sex and sensibility, and contrasting an ironic private humanity with the petty vanities and great harm of established power.  Their narrative frequently centered on the difficulty of being a moody, clever, thin-skinned – and occasionally alcoholic – literate man who commands the devotion of a comely, plucky, self-denying younger woman.

The book doesn’t have chapters as such, but in one section, on the importance of reading to Greene, she tells how Greene insisted his biographer, Norman Sherry, travel to every place Greene had been, as background to writing his biography. Remarkably, Sherry did this – but Hazzard notes:

Had Graham enjoined his biographer to read, rather, the countless thousands of books, celebrated or obscure, that fuelled his life, thought, and work, consoled and informed his passions, and caused him, as he said, “to want to write,” that request would have been absurd, unfeasible, and entirely apposite.

Literature was the longest and most consistent pleasure of Graham’s life. It was the element in which he best existed, providing him with the equilibrium of affinity and a lifeline to the rational as well as the fantastic. The tormented love affairs of adult years – and, supremely, the long passion for Lady Walston – brought him to the verge of insanity and suicide. It was in reading and writing that he enjoyed, from early childhood, a beneficent excitement and ground for development of his imagination and his gift… Our own best times with Graham usually arose from spontaneous shared pleasures of works and words – those of poets and novelists above all – that were central to his being and ours.

In its closing pages, Hazzard returns to the literary exchange that opens the book: in 1992 she received a letter from Michael Richey, one of those present when Hazzard supplied Greene with the words of the Browning poem at the restaurant all those decades before, and this letter, coming the year after Greene’s death, is what triggered her decision to write this book.

After finishing Greene on Capri, I looked for Capri on a map and discovered it is off the west coast of Italy, near the mainland city of Sorrento. And it strikes me that this would be the perfect book to take along to a “silent reading night” at the Sorrento Hotel in Seattle. Or maybe one of Greene’s novels.

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife

Who needs a good apocalyptic, end-of-the-world story during the holidays? You’re welcome. It’s better than fruitcake.

unamedmidwifeMeg Elison’s The Book of the Unnamed Midwife gives us a somewhat dismal glimpse of the far future and then throws us into the near future, after all the bad stuff has gone down. Apparently some sort of plague has massively thinned out humanity, taking virtually all the females and most of the males. Another problem seems to be that remaining pregnant women are dying when they give birth, and the babies are dying too. So that’s the state of the world: a minuscule number of females remaining and no children being born. And people are reduced to living like cavemen/scavengers in what remains of civilization.

Our narrator was a midwife pre-disaster, which turns out to be a useful skill even with so few women remaining. We never learn her name, hence the title. Like anyone, she is looking for community even in what seems to be the fall of humanity. This takes her on the road where she meets other survivors, some of them dangerous and some of them also seeking a safe place.

But can anywhere be safe when someone may take everything from you if they find you? However, this book doesn’t turn into a “wander thru the inhospitable landscape and try to avoid crazy people” tale or a story about zombies. Characters in this book are varied and realistic. There is none of that ‘nobody is that stupid’ or ‘they would never do that in real life’ kind of thing here. At one point, Unnamed seems to have found a satisfactory home for herself, but is compelled to begin her journey again. Her trek forces us to examine society in general and gender expectations and roles.

I can’t tell you too much about this book because you need to be surprised as well. I’m a big fan of Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction, and Meg Elison seems to be carrying her mantle. If anything, this book is more contemporary in its treatment of women. And there’s a sequel being released in February! Yay!

Somebody Told me You Had a Boyfriend Who Looked Like a Girlfriend

I’m slowly being educated about all the genders out there and my first teacher was Ruby Rose. I saw her picture on Facebook and didn’t think much more than “She’s a stunning looking woman.” Ruby Rose is an Australian model/actress, covered in tattoos, with the kind of “in your face” attitude that doesn’t repel but makes you want to pull a chair closer. I read an article where she described herself as “gender fluid” a term I had not come across. The word fluid is right up there with moist for me. I’ve been known to almost roll out of a moving car when someone uses the word moist. And they were just describing a cupcake. Damn it. Now I want a cupcake.

5 minutes later. Now I have frosting halfway up my nose. I’m a pretty girl.

Where was I? Oh yeah. Ruby Rose.

This is how she describes gender fluidity:

“Gender fluidity is not really feeling like you’re at one end of the spectrum or the other. For the most part, I don’t identify as any gender. I’m not a guy; I don’t really feel like a woman, but obviously I was born one. So, I’m somewhere in the middle, which-in my perfect imagination-is like having the best of both sexes.”

When I read her quote, a light bulb didn’t just go off in my head. The bulb burst and I’m still picking up pieces of glass. I’m not sure how many people understand this but I don’t wake up and think “I am Jennifer. I am female.” Most of the time I wake up and think “Didn’t I just fall asleep five minutes ago?” closely followed by something that sounds awfully close to a solemn prayer: “Please let me be a half-way decent human being today.” Not female. Not male. Just human.

jessKristin Elizabeth Clark’s Jess, Chunk, and The Road Trip to Infinity isn’t a book about gender fluidity but about a young man’s transition into womanhood. Jess and Chunk are starting their summer after high school graduation with a road trip from California to Chicago. The last time Jess saw her father her name was Jeremy. Her mother and father went through a nasty divorce after her father started an affair with his wife’s best friend. Not only was the divorce painful for Jess but she lost a friend and a mentor in Jan, her mom’s now ex-best friend, who encouraged her artistic dreams. When Jess finally came out to her father and said she wanted to transition, he told her she was going through a phase and asked her if maybe she was just gay and not wanting to become a woman. Last I checked there was a pretty big difference between being gay and feeling like you were born into the wrong body.

At 17 when she wanted to begin taking hormones she needed both parent’s signatures. Her father refused. She stopped speaking to him. Now at 18, she’s been taking hormones for a couple of months and she’s beginning to look on the outside like she feels on the inside. She got an invitation to her father’s wedding to Jan and replied she wasn’t interested in going. But then she begins to think. About revenge. She decides she’s going to show up at the wedding in a gorgeous dress. Her presence will say “This is not a phase. This is who I am. I didn’t need your support or approval to get where I am.” But of course, you know deep down she wants her father’s love, support and approval. Who wouldn’t when going through something so huge? I lost my mom at the grocery store last week and nearly had a panic attack. (Not the same thing, I know. But we all need our parents at some point in our lives no matter how old we get.)

Chunk (real name Christophe) has been Jess’s best friend forever and has been pretty damn supportive of his friend’s journey. His mother is a smothering but well-intentioned psychiatrist who oozed love and understanding when Jess came out as gay, but she doesn’t know about Jess transitioning. Chunk is…well, he’s overweight. He’s a hefty dude. And he’s kind of a geek who was picked on a lot in high school. He’s looking forward to the road trip for different reasons, mainly because he’s been chatting up a girl online and wants to meet with her. The road trip doesn’t get a magical start. It’s hot out, Chunk keeps getting texts from someone, and Jess is worried if she’s at a point where she passes all the way as a girl or if she’ll still get questioning glances when they stop to gas up. She spends a lot of time with her hood pulled up over her head.

During the long drive, she has plenty of time to think about how angry her mother had been during the divorce and how she now seems to have found peace, a peace that Jess doesn’t feel. The texts to Chunk’s phone keep coming and Jess is confused by her feelings of jealousy. Chunk’s her best friend. Why should she be mad at him or the girl texting him? And what’s with him not chowing down on gas station junk food like they planned? He stocked up on granola bars at their last pit stop. The car is filled with more silence than talking and time and again they snap at each other. The closer they get to Chicago, the more nervous Jess gets and she starts to think twice about just showing up and crashing the wedding as a girl.

The tipping point comes in a Podunk Midwestern town when they pick up a hitchhiker named Annabelle, a girl who’s a couple years older than them and is in college, on her way to her grandma’s. She smokes, is super smart, and Jess wants her boots. Chunk is acting weird and Jess is feeling insecure about her femininity. But Annabelle ends up teaching them a couple of pretty good eye-opening lessons.

But the road trip is far from over and Jess and Chunk have to face what they really mean to each other. And Jess has to face the idea that she may have been a terrible friend during a time when Chunk needed her most.

Jess, Chunk, and the Road Trip to Infinity made me want to go on a road trip with my best friend, even though I’m more interested in gas station junk food than the journey itself. It’s hard enough being a teenager, hard enough being a gay teenager but try being a teenager trying to get to a place you want to be with an outside that matches your insides. This was a great buddy road trip book that taught me even if you think you know yourself and your best friend, there’s always something new to learn and to accept.

How to Disappear Completely

I used to feel weird that I’ve always had a fascination (obsession) with the darker side of life. I thought there was something wrong with me (Oh shut up! I’m well aware there’s something wrong with me) until I heard that Stephen King used to keep a scrap-book of murder and other mayhem folks are wont to get up to. He had the same worry that I did: that people would think he was nuckin futs by being interested in the unsavory until he figured out it wasn’t an obsession so much as it was a lesson on how to spot maniacs and how to avoid them. I don’t keep a scrap-book of heinous images and the evil that people can do to one another. But I squirrel everything away in my head in storage boxes and occasionally rifle through those packed and dusty boxes the way a raccoon cleans something in water.

James Renner is a fantastic novelist. I came across his novel The Great Forgetting while I was working at the library one day. Then I read his first novel The Man from Primrose Lane. When I get passionate (again, obsessed) with something, I google the hell out of it. I googled James Renner (well that sounded downright filthy) and read that he has a keen interest in true crime that stemmed from his childhood. As a young boy a girl named Amy Mihaljevich was kidnapped and murdered not far from where he lived. The crime has gone unsolved for years. I know what you’re thinking: a novelist who can also write nonfiction? That’s like watching Madonna make attempt after attempt at an acting career. But James Renner wields a deft hand when writing both fiction and nonfiction.

truecrimeaddictRenner’s nonfiction book True Crime Addict opens on a seemingly ordinary Monday. Monday, February 9th, 2004 to be exact. Maura Murray, a nursing student at the University of Massachusetts, wrote an email to her professors saying that there had been a death in her family and she wasn’t going to be able to attend her classes that day.

There had not been a death in her family.

Say what? Tell me more.

Maura emptied her bank account, went to a liquor store, bought booze, and then headed north into the White Mountains of New Hampshire. This was pretty bizarre behavior but many people would knowingly nod their head with a faint smile and remember their own college days of drinking and not knowing whose floor (or bed) they woke up in. At 7:30 that night, Maura Murray crashed into a snow bank hard enough to make the car inoperable. A man who heard the crash came out of his house to inspect what was going on. Maura seemed fine (later he would say he could smell liquor on her) and he went back to his house to call 911. By the time the police arrived, Maura was gone, never to be seen or heard from again.

Most of us leave our mark on things every day without realizing it: a hair stuck to the driver’s headrest, CCTV footage of you from the convenience store where you stopped for bottled water and a bag of Cornuts. Voice mail messages about nothing in particular. We also have to accept that time is a trickster. Both time and memory are tricksters. How can a seemingly ordinary girl be there one minute and then (poof!) be gone?

The police noted a crack in Maura’s windshield, red stains on the car door that looked to be wine (I still want to know why they think it was wine. My first thought would be “My God! Look at all this blood on the door!” But duh. They would have taken samples of it to see if it was human blood). The driver and passenger’s airbags had deployed, an empty beer bottle and a damaged box of Franzia wine was on the rear seat. They found two different Mapquest printouts for Burlington, Vermont and another to Stowe, Vermont. There was also a book about mountain climbing. Her debit and credit cards were left behind as was her cell phone.

In the beginning, the police didn’t see her disappearance as foul play because she had made preparations as if she was headed somewhere by emptying out her bank account, buying booze, and emailing her teachers. But Maura’s family felt something sinister had happened and didn’t buy the idea that she had wanted to disappear.

Maura’s father arrived in the town she disappeared from and you know what? Her dad gave me bad vibes. Not bad vibes as in “He killed her” but something felt off about the guy. Maura’s boyfriend and her father held a press conference and after it the police stated that Maura was now “listed as endangered and possibly suicidal.” How’d they go from “She’s just a missing young woman” to “Oh, she is a danger to herself and suicidal?” An enormous search was then launched to find her.

This is when the crackpots came out of the woodwork as they always do when something horrible happens. Maybe some of them meant well, but some were just mentally unstable. A man gave Maura’s father a rusty knife and told him it belonged to his brother who had a criminal past. There were various Maura sightings that never panned out. At the beginning of March, Maura’s father went home and returned every weekend to help with the search. The police believed there were two scenarios for Maura’s disappearance: She could have crashed into the snow bank and then caught a ride with someone or someone could have abducted her.

Twelve years went by without a Maura sighting or any clues to point to what happened to her. I’m sure after twelve years of worrying and waiting her parents would have moved on from hoping she was still alive to wanting her body found so they could have some peace of mind. The lives of everyone involved with Maura Murray ground to a halt. People began to be haunted by what had happened to her after she crashed her car. Before she disappeared she got into trouble with credit fraud, using a “discarded” credit card to buy $79 worth of delivery pizza. Those charges had been dismissed. If she was cleared, why was she running away? I think that something so awful happened that the only thing she could think to do was put miles between herself and that awful thing.

On the anniversary of her disappearance a man with the screen name 112dirtbag posted a video on YouTube. It shows a man laughing maniacally into a camera. At first the guy looks like someone’s grandpa who’s relaxing with his model train set in the basement of his house. But this grandpa has rotted teeth and glasses coated in greasy thumbprints. He still looks like somebody’s grandpa but the kind that keeps dead bodies in corners of the basement. His laughter is a light chuckle at first and then it becomes creepier and more ominous as time goes on. It’s the laugh of someone at 3 A.M. locked away in a windowless room of an asylum. The name 112dirtbag wouldn’t make sense to a lot of people unless they followed the investigation closely. Maura’s father had said that she’d probably been kidnapped by “some dirt bag on Route 112.” The disturbing old guy was taunting Maura’s loved ones, almost telling them that he might either know what happened to Maura or he IS what happened to Maura.

As with many deaths (be it a celebrity or not) each anniversary causes loved ones to play the “What if” game. “What if Maura hadn’t crashed her car that night?” “What if Maura had taken some time off school?”  “What if she had talked to someone about the things going on in her life?”

But Maura Murray will never have children and what will be remembered of her is a car crashed into a snow bank and abandoned by its driver. She will be forever linked to a goblin uploading hyena-like laughter onto the Internet, hinting that he knows what happened to Maura but he’ll never tell. She will be that vanished girl none of us ever get to know.

She will be the girl who disappeared forever.

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

lilacgirlsI really liked this story! Set during WWII, this book presents the experiences of three very different women in separate locations but told simultaneously.

First we have Caroline Ferriday in New York working with the French Consulate trying to help the displaced children and families there. Next is Polish teenager Kasia Kuzmerick working as a courier for the underground resistance. And lastly there is German Doctor Herta Oberheuser.

Kasia and her sister Zuzanna end up getting arrested and sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp for women, which is where Herta ends up working. While the separate characters paths finally do cross, it is much later in the tale that we get the full impact of the interactions between them.

I kept waiting for the three stories to tie together. They all seemed so separate from one another at first. My patience paid off, and there was a wonderful denouement in the end! It was truly a wonderful story of courage and hardships.