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The Mystery of Mercy Close by Marian Keyes

…People get sick and sometimes they get better and sometimes they don’t. And it doesn’t matter if the sickness is cancer or if it’s depression . Sometimes the drugs work and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the drugs work for a while and then they stop. Sometimes the alternative stuff works and sometimes it doesn’t . And sometimes you wonder if no outside interference makes any difference at all; if an illness is like a storm, if it simply has to run its course and, at the end of it, depending on how robust you are you will be alive. Or you will be dead.

I discovered Marian Keyes when I was riding a train in Europe about a hundred years ago. A girl named Dee – Jeanette and I had picked her up in Italy and she tagged along with us for awhile – gave me one of her books when I ran out of my own reading material. (What WAS I reading anyway? I feel like it was Forever Amber – what trash! Love it. Jeanette still says once in a while: I’m glad we met Dee, but I’m not so sure I enjoyed her coming with us for the WHOLE time…and I agree. It made the experience cool to meet someone to hang with – we were in Europe – how is anything NOT cool? But Jeanette and I are so all absorbed and exclusive in our friendship – there’s really no room for anyone else in it. Its always been like that. We really only like each other. Next time, it will be JUST US – and Jeanette’s daughter – but she’s basically an extension of Jeanette so that’s OK.)

I have liked Keyes ever since. She writes the dreaded ‘Chick Lit’, but her humor and insight and entertainment value are not to be denied. I am especially fond of her saga about the Walsh sisters – and this is her last book – for the moment – about them. Each book tells the story of one sister – with the rest of the delightful family making cameos – and basically dropping Irish phrases and humorous references every which way. (Shovel list! A mental list of people and things you hate so much you want to hit them in the face with a shovel. I howled and adopted it into my vocabulary instantly)

This book is about the youngest Walsh sister, Helen – and what a shock it turned out to be. Helen is the tough, gorgeous, man-eating, over-supply of confidence, beautifully self-centered, and hilarious sister that irritates her other sisters, but is really the most entertaining one of the bunch. So I don’t know what I was expecting, but I was suprised by this book. It wasn’t funny. I only laughed once or twice. But parts of it made me weep because it was about (and here I take a deep breath) clinical depression hitting Helen smack in the face and crippling her and sending her to a mental hospital for a while. Keyes does address some fairly serious issues with her books (addiction, domestic violence, bereavement etc) and she manages to do it in a light way – but this book was different. However, instead of being disappointed that this book wasn’t as amusing as her others, I was impressed. And I was even more impressed when I read an interview with Keyes and found that during the writing of this book she had actually been experiencing her own bout with serious depression.

To summarize, Helen Walsh is a struggling Private Investigator, which is a dying business in Ireland’s economy that has been hard hit by the crash of 2008. Apparently, finding out of your husband is cheating on you is a luxury only the budget-less can afford. In the beginning of the book, we meet the youngest Walsh sister as she is trekking home to the parent’s house in shame. (The Walsh Ancestral Home is what Keyes has referred to it as, and it makes me laugh and refer to my own parent’s house as the same thing.) She has lost her apartment, tons of money, and – it becomes clearer – is starting a (second) terrifying slide into Depression. While she is being all Helen and wearily unpacking her clothes and exchanging insults with her sisters and mother, her ex-boyfriend calls her up and hires her to help him find an aging pop star – a Boy Band pop star – who has mysteriously vanished from his home in Mercy Close – a mere week before a potentially very embarrassing come-back performance.

As Helen struggles with herself financially, emotionally, physically, mentally, etc etc. she sets out to find Wayne. On the way – as with all Keyes’ novels, the author gives you glimpses of Helen’s troubled past. Gradually, all the crappy stuff that has led her to detest her ex, to have lost her best friend, led to her attempt at suicide and her obsession with anti-depressants and sleeping pills, and the reasons why she is more and more comfortable lying on the floor in Wayne’s empty house – taking his sleeping pills, drinking his diet coke, and trying to understand why he would disappear – become clear. I actually said EUREKA! in the second to last chapter: Because I realized where Wayne was a split sentence before Helen did.

Most poignant for me, and the reason I liked this novel so well, were the several moments in the novel where Helen reflects on what it means to be depressed and how others react to it – and how you react to it inside yourself – and how the world judges it.

“Two and a half years ago I’d learned to stop wanting comfort from the people around me because they couldn’t give it. We were all too scared. I was terrified and so were they. No one could understand what was happening to me and when they couldn’t make me better , they felt helpless and guilty and eventually resentful. Yes, they loved me, my head knew it even if my heart couldn’t feel it, but there was a small part of them that was angry. As if it was my choice to become depressed and I was deliberately resisting the medication that was meant to fix me.” 

I – and I speak frankly and honestly and beg for no judgement – I’ve been clinically depressed since I was about 15.  I believe that we – as humans – as a culture – as a country – don’t pay enough attention to mental illness. We stigmatize it and we doubt it. We really don’t understand it. And what we don’t understand, tends to scare us. Believe me, everyone around you not understanding something and therefore ignoring it, isn’t nearly as scary as having it happen to you. Helen’s depression was not like mine. Hers involves a lot of anxiety and worry and seeing things that aren’t there.

Mine is the classic one. It’s the one that doesn’t involve much fear or anxiety. It’s more of a ‘hitting a blank wall and stopping’ sort of depression.

If you don’t know what its like to not be able to even get up out of bed and you can’t even think or talk or anything because just breathing in and out is taking up all of your time, and there is no real, concrete reason for you to be that way at all because your life is good, you have friends and family that love you, etc etc – then you don’t really know what clinical depression is. Because THAT’S what it is and its the absolute worst thing to experience. Its scary and it’s isolating. And it goes on and on every day and just gets worse and worse. The last time I went through it I laid in bed for weeks. I didn’t go to work or do anything. I cried for hours. I barely ate. I was afraid to get up and use the bathroom because that was where the razors were and I knew how close I was to slashing my wrists.

And there was NO REASON. None. I went from being fine one day to not fine the next. I was so alone and I was so terrified of my own brain and body and what it was doing to me – I had no control of it at all. It wasn’t like I could just think happy thoughts and feel better.  I could barely think enough to string two sentences together. It wasn’t like I could just get up and go for a walk and feel better. I couldn’t send enough signals to my brain to create a sentence telling my body to get up and go outside. It’s that hard to do anything. Its not something that you snap out of or go talk to your best friend or have a drink and get over it. You can’t physically do any of those things. Its like being in a fog or – as Sylvia Plath put it – under a glass bell jar. Everything is muted and slow and so hard to do. I can’t emphasize that enough.

Unlike Helen – my medication worked right away. It was amazing. I took it, slept for a day and a half, and then woke up and felt completely normal. Shaky, yes. But normal. For the past eight years, I’ve controlled my illness with a daily dose of it – 350mgs – and it works. Well enough, for now. But there are definitely days when I wake up earlier than I want to – trouble sleeping seems to be the universal stamp of depression everywhere – stare at the sun rising and stretching through the wooden slats of my blinds, and wonder when the pills wont work anymore.

Helen goes on a little rant about no one blaming a cancer patient for having cancer. Or telling someone with emphysema they ‘are just SO selfish’. I wholeheartedly agreed. Yet another example of how clinical depression is misunderstood.  After her attempted and botched suicide, one of her rescuers says furiously:

“Have you thought about the people you’d have left behind?” the woman asked, suddenly sounding angry. “Your parents? Your friends? Why don’t you think about their feelings? How they’d have felt if the tide hadn’t been out and we hadn’t been here?”

I looked at her tearfully. “I’ve depression,” I said. “I’m sick. I’m not doing this for the laugh.”

Talk about adding insult to injury! Like, if someone gets lupus or cancer, they don’t have to put up with people accusing them of being selfish.

This made me laugh more than I should have probably. But it was a sympathetic laugh.

As Marian Keyes says – or has Helen say: Waiting to be better is the wrong approach. It’s learning to live with it. 

You do live with it. It’s just a shame you have to live with the stigma and the misunderstanding, too. I don’t tend to talk about my depression much to anyone. When I get accused of being negative, depressed, and bitchy – as I do all the time by friends and family alike – I just laugh and think: You people have no idea. This is NOTHING. I’m actually doing really well. You should hope this continues. ( Seriously. Sarcastic and Pointing Out the Shortcomings of Life and Others is just my personality. That and I really like being alone. Jeez.)

Maybe that’s why I related so well to this novel. Helen is a bit of me. Or how I like to see myself. Confident. Beautiful. Smart. Self-Centered. Fearless.

Especially the last. Because it is easy to be fearless when you have gone through the hell that can happen to you from the inside. And after years of it – I know that nothing that can happen to me from the outside will ever be as frightening.






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The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Recently, as in Last Week Recently, I read an appallingly bad novel. I won’t mention any names, since I really enjoy this author’s other books, and I want to bitch without wounding anyone.
The novel was lengthy, tedious, and repetitive. It had wooden, stilted characters, and about five boring sex scenes that made me cringe and flip through them going:
“My GOD. Slow, romantic, feathery-strokey, touchy-feely sex makes my SKIN CRAWL! I CANNOT read this without wanting to throw up! Ew! Ew! Ew! If I have to read one more word about slow, gentle sex where everyone’s in love I’m gonna’ freak out! How disgusting!!”

And so on.

So there was that.

In the end, the heroine had only slept with, like, two people, and that was disgusting to me as well. Come ON.

After finishing it, I thought: “Well, it was this author’s FIRST novel. So maybe that’s why it sucked.” Then I sat and thought about all the first novels I’ve read that were excellent and I decided that was no excuse.

The Thirteenth Tale for instance.

Diane Setterfield’s first novel was rather wonderful.

The story starts in London. The main character, Margaret Lea, a largely unknown biographer, receives a letter from a very old and very mysterious famous author. The author, Vidal Winter, has never told any journalist the truth about her past. Her life story indicates she emerged from nowhere and started writing fabulous books. Very reclusive, very evasive about giving interviews, the author has decided that now, at the end of her life, she wants to tell someone the truth – and she chooses Margaret Lea.

(The title of the novel comes from a book that Vida Winter has written. It’s called The Thirteenth Tale, but only contains twelve stories – so of course the public is fascinated. Where IS the Thirteenth story?)

Margaret has a few secrets of her own. Namely, her secret knowledge about a twin who died at birth – which makes her relationship with her mother strained. So when Vida tells her that the truth about her own past has to do with twins, Margaret is intrigued.

Setterfield sets up the novel in gothic horror fashion. It is dark and scary and on every page you have this expectation that you are going to read something really gross or really inappropriate.

Basically, long ago, there was a big house named Angelfield filled with members of an extremely dysfunctional family. The daughter is conniving, the brother is a head-case, the twins are disturbed, and there is weird stuff like incest and rape and violence happening every other second.

It’s great.

As Vida tells her story, you get sucked into the mysteries of the house, and the twists and turns of the writing brings you into the story of Charlie and Isabella – their odd and incestuous relationship – the birth of the twins – the death of Isabella and then Charlie – and the eventual appearance of a ghost that haunts the crumbling mansion. But is it a ghost? Or is it an illusion?

Using her experience as a biographer, Margaret sets out to fact check what Vida is telling her and meets Aurelius, who spends his time exploring the ruins of Angelfield, and is intent on discovering the secrets of his orphaned past.

So basically everyone is an orphan, a twin, and looking for the truth.

The story – which IS (spoiler) the Thirteenth Tale – pulls you this way and that and addresses issues of loss, of duality, of transformation, of the loneliness of being without roots or without family – even with roots and with a family. Of being haunted by things that happened before you were born.

I think that that last bit is why I find the book so riveting. Setterfield does an amazing job of telling us – with sensitivity – that the ghosts of all the things that happen to those around us – follow us – and unless we own up to them – and confront them – we remain haunted. We remain separated from a richer, better, and more fulfilling life. We ARE the tales we live and tell – and we exorcise our demons by telling them.

So much of what I read and enjoy is themed around this that I feel like it holds tremendous significance for me. Is it that I feel haunted by the things that led to my existence? The insignificance of my existence? Is that I feel my life is bare and empty much of the time? Is it all the stories I never tell? Or the stories I tell, but never finish – and if we are being honest – are never really listened to?

Some combination of the above I’m sure. But irrespective of all that blather – this first novel of Diane Setterfield’s is very good – unlike the first novels of some – and I have read it more than once.

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The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

It’s one of those while-away-the-winter-evening type books. Historically engaging, with the power to suck one right in, this huge, 1,000 page book was a novel I had trouble putting down for anyone.

And when I did have to put it down, I got annoyed

It’s also a mini-series on the BBC. I haven’t seen it yet. I have no opinion over reading the book first or whatever, but I’ve heard the book is better. And that’s as good a place to start as any. The book might be better for a number of reasons.

Remember that review of Cold Mountain I did? Where I rambled on about writers who write in a different style? Michel Faber does that here. At first, you aren’t sure who the narrator might be. Then, it dawns on you that he is acting as the narrator – has put you in the story – and is leading you by the hand through the back alleys of 19th century London. He continues to do this throughout the book and it is beautiful to behold.
Just when you get sucked in to the story, he jerks you back out and reminds you that HE controls what you will read next and which character you will be watching for the next chapter or so. It is so interesting.

The characters are rich and well-developed. Basically, it begins with the story of William Rackham, the cut-off son of a millionaire. He’s cut off because he wants to be a writer and doesn’t want to take over the family business of making soap. Gradually, you learn his wife is more than a little delicate and screwy. Gradually, you learn he is dissatisfied and conflicted about his choices in life – then he meets Sugar.

Sugar is a whore. Not only that, but she is the sort of whore who will do anything you ask. The author doesn’t go into too much detail with this, but imagine the most foul, kinkiest, weirdest sex act you have ever heard of…got it? (Ew.) And yes, Sugar will do it. For a fee.
Apparently, in 19th century London, these kind of prostitutes are few and far between, so Sugar makes a ton of money and is very, very popular. Those kinky Brits.

You learn that her mother is the Madam of the house. You learn that her mother basically forced her own daughter into prostitution at the very young age of 13 – which even then – for prostitutes – was kinda’ horrifying. Sugar is clever, self-educated, writing a horror novel – where she systematically tortures and murders her customers – and has a weird skin condition. William Rackham meets her and they begin an affair. Well. An affair in the sense that William falls in love with her and she becomes his exclusive mistress. Eventually, he sets her up with bank accounts and her own house – and in order to keep her – he goes back into the family business.

Sugar, after the daily variety, and somewhat family atmosphere of the whorehouse, becomes lonely and bored with nothing to do all day but wait for William to visit her. She also starts obsessing over losing him, and begins following him in secret and watching him with his wife.

His wife, Agnes, is one weird lady. At first, you are not sure what the deal is with her. She has fainting fits and makes a lot of references to having been ill the previous ‘season’. As she gets worse and worse, you find out she is suffering from a tumor in her head and because of it, we think, she is religious fanatic. She keeps seeing Sugar spying on them – and so begins to think that Sugar is her guardian angel – watching over her.

Meanwhile, William is bogged down with business troubles and oh did I mention he and Agnes have a little girl? Well, they do. A very neglected daughter. At this point you can kind of see where the story is going, right? Sugar offers to become the child’s governess – and by doing so gets herself into the house.

Veer off! William has a brother, Henry, whom is training for the church. He is the favorite son, but has never had any interest in business and so his father was forced to pass it on to William. Henry is a lovable character. He’s secretly in love with a widow – the other rather likable character – strong-minded reformer of street hookers – Emmeline. Henry is platonic friends with her – and all conflicted about lusts – and you just root for him to do something out of character like go sleep with a prostitute or go off and hunt big game in Africa or colonize India – or whatever it is men did in the 19th century – but he doesn’t – not really. And when he finally DOES – it totally sucks.

I’m leaving you hanging there. So Sugar moves in – and becomes the little girl’s governess. Because of this, she goes from this very guarded, bitter woman – writing a murderous revenge novel – and morphs into a motherly figure for the child. She manages to heal her pain – and evolves emotionally in ways that William does not.
Agnes – on the other hand – gets crazier and crazier. She goes from barely functional to catatonic. You feel sorry for her and want her out of the way at the same time. William turns into a total ass and you basically want to smack him upside the head. It’s only in the very last few pages that I have any sympathy for him at all.
And the whole book ends up reminding me of Jane Eyre, but without the nice ending. Actually, the ending leaves us hanging. I get the feeling Michel Faber might write a sequel.

He’s already written a sort of prequel, called The Apple, with stories about Sugar and the other ladies of the evening.

The whole book – on the surface – is sex, sex, sex. It goes into some pretty graphic detail; shares with us the fun of keeping oneself from getting pregnant in the 19th century, the toxic chemicals used to give oneself an abortion, explains how society gentlemen managed to find all kinds of cheap and easy women to sleep with, and highlights the rigid Victorian morality versus the squalor of poverty-stricken women whom have no choice but to sell themselves.

But who doesn’t like reading about dirty sex? Or all of the above?

I must also note that on a deeper level the novel is about social class and economic status. It is about transformation. It is about religion. It is about repressed women in the Victorian age. It might have been a novel that Charles Dickens would have written if he were alive today – but probably with a happier ending.

So I’ve warned you about length – and the interesting and unique way it is written – and I’d even lend you my copy, but I can’t because I’ve already lent it someone else – so you need to go find it yourself.

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Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Well, well. I’ve been gone an awfully long time. I don’t really feel like going into reasons why, so I won’t. Besides, we have never had much of a relationship in the sense that you, my readers, (in hope that there are more than ONE) might know me outside my book reviews.
Truly. If you are my friend on Facebook then Shazzam! You know what I’ve been up to. As much as I let on via Facebook, anyway. And that’s enough about me.

ZEITOUN. Great read. I, of course, only recently discovered Dave Eggers – to my eternal embarrassment. I don’t really know what he is ABOUT, but I admire his style just the same. Is he a crazy liberal? Is he a charming ferreter of truths? Is he a self-righteous bore who only tells you half the facts? I don’t know. But so far, I dig him.

In the horror that was Hurricane Katrina, I remember I was living in Montana. Consumed with my 28 year old college self, I didn’t have much time for the news, but I did watch some of it and gasped in horror with the rest of the country as lovely New Orleans was drowned beneath the waves.

Afterward, I heard all the rumors about the shocking conditions in the Superdome, the offensive comments of Barbara Bush, the struggle to rebuild, the ineptitude of FEMA, the stories of beautiful courage, the disgusting way the insurance companies got out of paying for damages, and on and on and on…but I never heard THIS story – and it was totally fascinating.

Basically, Zeitoun is a house painter, an immigrant, a resident of New Orleans, a Muslim, and a really responsible and sweet guy who gets thrown into prison because of racial profiling and a whole helluva lot of paranoia. Abdulrahman – a name which no one in New Orleans can pronounce so everyone just calls him Zeitoun (Zay-toon) is a very successful house painter. He and his wife, Kathy, have built up a lucrative business and a good reputation among their neighbors and clients. When the warning for Katrina goes out, Kathy and their children decide to leave New Orleans and head to Baton Rouge. Zeitoun stays to look after the house. He’s done it before, and doesn’t think this time will be any different.

When the hurricane hits, the first floor of the house is flooded, and Zeitoun spends a lot of time saving what possessions he can and trying to get some sleep in the second floor of the waterlogged house. When the storm has passed, Zeitoun spends the next week or so paddling about in his canoe, lending his help to others who are stranded – even climbing in windows and feeding the neighbor’s left behind dogs. He manages to meet up with a few neighbors who are stranded nearby, and together the men do what they can to help one another and anyone else they find.

They even have a working phone, so for a while, Zeitoun is able to keep in touch with his wife and children, as they travel from a relative’s house in Louisiana – to friends in Arizona – who take them in as the situation worsens.

Then Zeitoun and three of his neighbors are falsely arrested for looting and, of course, terrorism, and the truly awful bit of the story begins.

Zeitoun is falsely imprisoned. He is not allowed to contact his wife. He is not allowed a lawyer. He is locked away and physically and mentally mistreated. If it weren’t for a passing stranger, who follows his instinct and helps Zeitoun contact his family, Zeitoun might very well have been locked away for years. I don’t want to go on, because I feel like the ending should be a surprise. I want you to decide for yourself if its a happy ending or not. I know how I felt.

I know I didn’t go into too much detail here, but I also feel a little rusty at reviewing. Personally experienced: The book made me self-examine. I enjoy self-examining when it comes to racism.

Some people hate it. They feel uncomfortable, I think.

I like it because I like facing truths about myself – about my world – even if the truths are uncomfortable. I don’t claim to be a racist, but I know – as a white, upper middle-class, privileged woman – that I can unconsciously act and think in a racist way. I can be dismissive of race or condescending or over-zealous in my judgement. It’s never on purpose. It’s never ill-meant. I don’t make racist jokes in secret or think they are funny when I hear them. I don’t feel afraid of other’s religious beliefs (I tend to marvel at these, having none of my own). I don’t assume stereotypes are true, and when they are, I try not to let it represent the entire race. I try to be open-minded and enjoy differences, rather than worry over them. But really? It doesn’t make me a non-racist. I can still have a lot of random racist reactions because I was born white and American and middle class.

Mostly, it makes me feel bad. But somewhere along the way, I figured out this: it’s always important to know that nobody can help where they are born or what color their skin is or in what socioeconomic status they were raised. So taking away that responsibility and any guilt it may cause, makes me OK with any stupid reactions I might have. I’m aware of my own failings when it comes to others who are ethnically different than I am. And just being aware – that’s always a strong and good first step.

Many people who have reviewed the book have commented on the shock they felt realizing that such a thing can happen in America in the 21st century. I have to agree. Yet, I have to disagree. What was shocking to me was the idea that our government can make someone disappear so completely, and that this is not just in movies or an insane conspiracy theory. (I do so hate conspiracy theories) But what wasn’t shocking was that racial profiling is prevalent. That it can take over and that the brown-skinned people can be dehumanized and mistreated because the white-skinned people are suddenly threatened and terrified.

‘Fear is the root of all evil. It is horrible to live with fear, and above all things, it is degrading.‘ L.M. Montgomery once said. And it’s true. It is the truest thing I’ve ever learned. Casting aside fears is tough, but in the end it’s what saves you.

However, all that introspective blathering aside, what I admire about Dave Eggers was this: after he tells you the story and gets you all infuriated, he goes and gets as much of the other guys’ story as he can. And although they claimed to be ‘following orders’, and that makes us cringe a bit – or scoff loudly, its nice to know the author tried to get all the facts. I do appreciate people who get all the facts.

Anyway, this is a fantastic read. I finished it, riveted, in about a day. I’m passing it on to others. And I am really looking forward to reading more of Dave Eggers’ stuff.

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