The Long Hello: Memory, My Mother, and Me by Cathie Borrie

The Long Hello by Cathie BorrieBook Review
Title: The Long Hello: Memory, My Mother, and Me
Author:  Cathie Borrie
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Canada
Released: January 6, 2015
Pages: 225
ISBN: 978-1-4767-9251-4
Book Reviewer: Christine Bode
Stars:  2.5


My younger sister died five months ago today from ovarian cancer at the age of 48 so it’s quite possible that I’m just not in the right frame of mood to be reading and reviewing a memoir about a woman who spent seven years caring for her mother before she died from Alzheimer’s in her late 80’s. Nonetheless, the good people at Simon & Schuster enticed me into reading The Long Hello: Memory, My Mother, and Me by Cathie Borrie by using these paragraphs to describe it:

“It explores the emotional rewards and challenges that Cathie Borrie experienced in caring for her mother, who was living with Alzheimer’s disease, for seven years. Between the two, a wondrously poetic dialogue develops, which Ms. Borrie further illuminates with childhood memories of her family, and her struggle to maintain a life outside her caregiving responsibilities. The Long Hello demonstrates how caregiving creates an opportunity to experience the change in a relationship that illness necessitates, one in which joy, meaning, and profound intimacy can flourish. 

Written in spare, beautiful prose, largely in the form of a dialogue, The Long Hello exquisitely captures the intricacies and nuances of a daughter’s relationship with her mother.”

After reading the book, this is not my experience of it. My 62-year-old cousin, who cared for her own mother while she was dying from Alzheimer’s three years ago, read it before me and she found Borrie’s to be very unlike her own experience and not as moving or profound as she thought it might be based on what we were led to believe by the above description either.

Another thing that caught my attention and makes me wonder is why Simon & Schuster chose to use the quote “Joy!” from Maya Angelou on the cover of the book because it hasn’t been published yet and Angelou died on May 28, 2014. If she did indeed have a chance to read this book before she passed away, I would have thought she’d have more to say about it than one word, but this to me is suspicious and the word is in my humble opinion, inappropriate.

Born in Vancouver, Borrie started her career as a nurse before attaining a Masters of Public Health from Johns Hopkins University and later graduated from Law School at the University of Saskatchewan. In 2005, she earned a Certificate in Creative Writing from The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University. She is also a ballroom dancer and has performed in the theatre and as a clown. She has some impressive credentials but I don’t feel that this book “is immensely lyrical and moving” nor a “powerful display of Cathie Borrie’s talent as a writer.”

On a positive note, it’s a very quick read. I read it in two sittings. It’s written somewhat like a journal, almost in point form with the Canadian author flipping back and forth between her past and the present as she’s caring for her mother who is slowly slipping further and further away into the tunnel of dementia. However, I find that there is very little joy in this book aside from the often amusing things that Cathie’s mother Jo says as she’s losing her mind. Borrie recorded conversations with her mother so that she could write this memoir but her own emotions come across as flat and depressed, which I can totally understand that she would be, while going through such a difficult experience. When she describes the facts of her life, they’re just that, facts. The way she’s written them down it appears that she’s had very little joy in her life and maybe that’s the truth of it, I don’t know. She was, at the time of writing The Long Hello a 51-year-old single woman who couldn’t get her own needs met, but was compelled to do everything she could to help her mother before she died and that I can definitely relate to. But it makes for a sad, downer of a read and I was somewhat offended when she wrote this passage:

“My surgeon’s in his forties, easy on the eyes.

“How are things?”

“I’ve been praying for ovarian cancer.”

“You what?”

“So I’d be dead before you have to replace my hip. I figured it was a fast cancer so I’d be dead before my name got to the top of your waiting list.”

The things people say and write when they’re depressed…I’m telling you. We shouldn’t be allowed near a writing implement. I know this from experience.

Cathie Borrie’s mother left her alcoholic father when she was a young girl and soon after her 13-year-old brother Hugh was killed in a random fight with a neighbourhood bully. His, like so many others, was an utterly tragic and meaningless death. Years later, her mother remarried an older man who was always away on business but when he was home he didn’t want his wife’s child to be there because he’d already raised one family and didn’t want to deal with Cathie so she was sent away to boarding school, a fact that upsets her for the rest of her life.

Three quarters of the way through The Long Hello, Cathie’s mother asks, “What happened to the joy of life, Cath?” She replies, “I don’t know, what do you think?” “I think you thought it was going to be better than it was.” That is certainly a statement I can relate to at this point in my life and I also identified to Cathie saying, “I wish I was dead too. And when I’m old there isn’t going to be anyone left to take care of me…No one left who knows my story.” “Goddamn it, Hughie – why did I have to be the one left behind?” I’m sure that’s how many people feel when they lose a beloved sibling because I have and that’s exactly how I feel. And I didn’t need to read this book to be reminded of it.

Lost Luggage by Jordi Punti

Lost Luggage by Jordi PuntiBook Review
Title: Lost Luggage
Author:  Jordi Punti
Publisher: Short Books Ltd.
Released: October 15, 2013
Pages: 480
ISBN-10: 1780720440
ISBN-13: 978-1780720449
Stars:  3.5

Lost Luggage by Spanish author Jordi Punti is the remarkable story of four half-brothers who have only known that each other existed for a year.  The curious thing about them is that they are each named Christopher in various languages. There’s the oldest, Christof, an actor/ventriloquist whose mother Sigrun is German; Christophe, a lecturer in quantum physics at the University of Paris whose mother Mireille is French; Christopher, who buys & sells second-hand records in Camden Town (London) whose mother Sarah is English; and Cristòfal, the youngest, a translator of novels who lives in Barcelona and whose mother Rita is Spanish.  When the Christophers’ mothers find out about each other 30 years after they last saw the father of their sons, they have no desire to meet, and so we don’t hear from them.

These are the sons of the missing Gabriel Delacruz Expósito, an enigmatic man with not one, but four secret lives, who drove a truck for a Barcelona based company called La Iberica that moved furniture all over Europe.  Somehow, the charming Gabriel was able to form brief relationships with four different women, all of whom were content with the brevity of his appearances in their lives.

The Christophers each received letters, photos and postcards from their father over the years and even shared the same memory of him when he’d leave early in the morning in his lorry after an all too brief visit.  They use these mementos to try to piece together a portrait of Gabriel’s life because Gabriel has disappeared more than a year ago and even though his sons haven’t seen him in more than 30 years, they embark on a journey to find him.  Barcelona police contact Cristòfal after finding his name on a piece of paper on Gabriel’s bedside table in his abandoned flat, as his landlord and bill collectors want to be paid and that’s how the Christophers end up coming together.

Gabriel grew up in The House of Charity, an orphanage in Barcelona, with his best friend Bundó and they lived together as roommates in a boarding house for years after they left the orphanage at the age of 17.  They befriended Petroli, who was 20 years older, through their work with the moving company and soon the three of them were helping themselves to one box that mysteriously disappeared, in every move they made and divided up the contents among them.

The four Christophers track down Petroli and his partner Angeles in Northern Germany where Petroli, who is now 80, has retired. They glean as much information about their father’s life from him as they can.  Because of their transient life on the road, Gabriel, Bundó & Petroli often stayed in brothels and motels.  Gabriel’s lifestyle offered two choices for past times between jobs: sex or playing cards.  Petroli liked to frequent emigrants’ centres during their down time on the road, which is where he met Angeles and where Gabriel met Sigrun in a Rüsselsheim social club.

Christophe meets with Bundó’s former lover, ex-prostitute Carolina (also known as Muriel), who never allowed herself to accept his proposal to move in with him in Barcelona and years later moved to Paris and said yes to someone else.  By finding all the hidden pieces to the puzzle that was their father’s unconventional life, the four half-brothers discover themselves.

Punti’s lush, descriptive prose takes us on a front seat ride through the lives of his characters.  Beginning with Chapter 8, he allows each of the Christophers to share their life story, and Christof takes the lead. He works part time as a ventriloquist and insists that his dummy Cristoffini be declared The Fifth Brother.  The way Punti incorporates Cristoffini into Christof’s storytelling, where he becomes the incarnation of Christof’s conscience, is nothing short of brilliant.

If there’s one thing we’ve confirmed since we began following the trail left by our father, it’s that our lives (everybody’s lives) are capriciously entwined and knotted together, sometimes playfully and, more often than not, in an impossible twist.  Try to follow a strand from the end, undo all the knots to observe each thread separately and you’ll soon find out that it’s totally useless.  At the moment of birth we’re already tangled like wool.  In the end, the paradox is that a life as solitary as Gabriel’s could have been braided with so many different people.

In Chapter 9, Christopher takes his turn at narrating the story of his mother Sarah’s life. She was a nurse who was working on a ferry that crossed from Calais to Dover. During a move to Great Britain, Gabriel, when he wasn’t cheating at a card game with Bundó, a Frenchman and his groomsmen (they were transporting a racehorse on the ferry), he found time to have a sexual rendezvous with Sarah in the infirmary.  In the meantime Punti tells a fantastical tale of three teenagers on an LSD trip on the ferry who decide to free the horse from its box.  The result is quite a trip!

By the time it’s Cristòfal’s turn to tell his story in Part 2 of the book, I found myself beginning to lose patience with Punti’s wordiness.  In particular, Cristòfal’s chapter At The Airport is tedious and the story of his grandfather’s wig business goes on longer than necessary.  In fact, Cristòfal’s story goes on and on for chapters, for more than half of Part 2 of the book and this is when I started to get bored and just wanted Punti to wrap it up already.  The book, although wonderfully written, could have easily been 150 pages shorter without losing the significance of events in the story.

Lost Luggage is not only one of the literal themes in this book, but also a metaphor for the lost, incomplete souls of its main characters.  There is a pervading atmosphere of sadness and loneliness that permeates its pages and leaves you feeling melancholy so I can’t say that I’d ever want to read it again.  However, I will say that Punti pulls off a conjuring trick with the ending which is perfect!  But you’ll have to read it yourself to find out how it all turns out.

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. StedmanBook Review
Title: The Light Between Oceans
Author:  M.L. Stedman
Publisher: Scribner
Released: July 31, 2012
Pages: 352
ISBN-10: 9781451681734
ISBN-13: 978-1451681734
Stars:  4.5

“On the day of the miracle, Isabel was kneeling at the cliff’s edge, tending the small, newly made driftwood cross.  A single fat cloud snailed across the late-April sky, which stretched above the island in a mirror of the ocean below.” 

From the opening lines of M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans, I was captivated by her sumptuous prose and engrossed in her exceedingly genuine main characters, Tom Sherbourne and his wife Isabel (Izzy) Graysmark. We’re introduced to them on a life-changing day before Stedman backtracks to Tom’s life eight years earlier and reveals how he became a lighthouse keeper, where he met Isabel and what brought them to this place.

I love stories that are set on or near water and there’s always been something mysterious and romantic about lighthouses, that je ne sais quois being something that Stedman was able to articulate in a most alluring fashion.  I wanted to know how a marriage could survive in the isolated confines of an island lighthouse on the coast of Western Australia in the 1920s which is why I chose to read this New York Times Bestseller.  I wasn’t at all disappointed.  I could smell the ocean breeze, taste the salty air, feel the rhythm of the waves, and see the way the light was magnified from the lighthouse’s lens over the water.  The romantic nature of Tom & Izzy’s island life was palpable.  I fell in love with the story and didn’t want it to end.

Their newlywed life on Janus Rock in 1922 is at first idyllic as inquisitive Izzy enjoys discovering everything there is to know about her new home and her husband’s job.  “On the Lights, you account for every single day.  You write up the log, you report what’s happened, you produce evidence that life goes on.”  A lighthouse keeper must keep not only a spotless station, but faultless records, as it’s a government appointed position that is held to the highest standards. After four years at war where “right and wrong don’t look so different any more to some,” Tom seeks peace and simplicity and can’t believe that this lovely young woman is happy to live alone with him on the islet where the supply boat (helmed by Ralph and Bluey) only arrives once a season and shore leave to Point Partageuse is granted only every other year.

Tom and Izzy are blissfully happy and it’s not long before they try to have a family. As is often the case for the most deserving parents, this couple is unfairly dealt emotional blow after blow as Izzy suffers three miscarriages over several years.  When one day a small boat washes up on their shore carrying a dead man and a perfectly healthy baby girl, we completely understand why Izzy, in her grief, chooses to make the decision to keep the baby and raise her as her own. She begs Tom to bury the man and to stay silent so that they can give Lucy the life she deserves.  We can’t blame her for her argument and feel great empathy for her when her choice comes back to haunt her in the most dreadful way.

A couple of years pass and one day Tom, Izzy and Lucy are together on the mainland visiting Izzy’s parents who are ecstatic about their new granddaughter, when they hear about a haunted woman named Hannah Roennfeldt whose husband and baby daughter were lost at sea and who couldn’t be anyone other than Lucy’s biological mother.  Tom realizes that he’s met Hannah before and his guilt over keeping their secret becomes so unbearable for him that he makes a decision that almost destroys his life. However, all the lines between right and wrong are blurred as we find justification for both Izzy and Tom’s sins while at the same time feeling great compassion for Hannah.

This is a wholly satisfying read in every sense.  The protagonists’ character development is flawless and secondary characters are decisive, if not fully realized.  The Light Between Oceans is intellectually, psychologically and emotionally captivating and asks some very tough questions. How can we live with ourselves if we keep shocking secrets?  How do we rationalize our choices in an unfair world?  How can you make a decision in which everyone loses?  Is the best mother always the biological one?

Equally quixotic and tragic, M.L. Stedman has succeeded in delivering a masterpiece of a debut novel with The Light Between Oceans. I can’t thank Simon & Schuster Canada enough for sending me a copy of this book to review! It’s a must read and I greatly anticipate reading Stedman’s future work.

Three Graves Full by Jamie Mason

Book Review
Title: Three Graves Full
Author: Jamie Mason
Publisher: Gallery Books
Released: February 12, 2013
Pages: 320
ISBN-10: 1451685033
ISBN-13: 978-1451685039
Stars: 4.0

“There is very little peace for a man with a body buried in his backyard.”  This is the first line of North Carolina author Jamie Mason’s debut novel, Three Graves Full.  The first chapter is so compelling that you can’t help but keep reading this delightfully macabre tale, laced with black humour and tied up with suspense.

Every event is boxed in by a set of facts; the truth as it were.  There’s the what and the when of a deed; there’s where it happened and how it was done.  But it’s at the why that the liar’s margin begins.  It’s from this border that we launch the justifications for everything we do, and for all that we allow to be done to us.  Only our distance from the hard truth and the direction of our push – toward or away from it – is the measure of our virtue.

The protagonist, Jason Getty, is a meek and insecure widower living alone in his little house on Old Green Valley Road in suburban Stillwater, MI.  Well, he’s not entirely alone…as those who live with a deep, dark secret know.  He’s a murderer.  But like Dexter, he’s a killer that we can empathize with as we begin to understand the circumstances surrounding the fateful night that has left his conscience in agony seventeen months later.  He doesn’t eat and doesn’t sleep, but somnambulates through his boring life as an office clerk, rationalizing that “no worry has ever been invented that the mind cannot bully down into mere background noise.”

Little by little Jason finds himself relaxing and able to think about normal things.  Worried about what his neighbours will think of his unkempt property, he hires a landscaping crew to clean it up.  However, on the second day of the job they discover two graves in his backyard that Jason didn’t dig.  Although terrified, he’s forced to call the police to deal with the grisly discovery, all the while praying that they don’t find the third grave.

Next, we meet Leah Tamblin, the grieving girlfriend of the missing young man (Reid) found buried in Jason’s backyard, whom as it turns out, was cheating on her with the married woman (Katielynn Montgomery) found buried beside him.  It seems that Boyd Montgomery, a hardened redneck who named his dogs after The Beatles, didn’t take kindly to discovering that his wife was screwing another man, and from this point on, in a horrifying comedy of errors, action ensues as the plot thickens.

Detectives Tim Bayard and Ford Watts (who I envisioned as actor David Morse), accompanied by his devoted and very intelligent dog Tessa, round out the main cast of characters. After all, someone has to solve this mystery!  I loved that Mason made Tessa a main character and gave her a voice (frequently written from a first person/canine viewpoint) that this dog owner could easily identify with.  Chocked full of hilarious one-liners and unusually well-written and fully realized characters, Three Graves Full will make an excellent screenplay that’ll be a joy to cast, and with just the right cool soundtrack, could end up being a celluloid cult classic.

Mason’s narrative is fast-paced, sharp and scathingly witty.  Her innovative story takes us on a ride not unlike the one we experience when watching a Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths), Quentin Tarantino or Coen brothers’ film.  Her development of Jason’s internal conflict and the inevitability of his having to face the consequences of his actions is superb. You’ll laugh and squirm at the same time as you viscerally experience the unhinging of his sanity.

Simon & Schuster were wise to buy her manuscript as Jamie Mason’s clever, unique voice and piercing prose is so much better than the average pulp fiction.  When this book is released on February 12, 2013, I urge you to buy it.