Tag Archives: mental illness

EDUCATED


Tara Westover was born sometime in September of 1986, the youngest of seven children. She’s not exactly sure of the date as she was born at home in a remote mountainous area of Idaho; an area popular with other off-the-grid folks living in the western US area known as the Mormon Corridor. There is no formal record of her birth; no birth certificate was issued until she was nine years old. Like most of their remote neighbors, the Westover family were, in name, Mormons.

Now in her early 30s, Tara shares her moving story. She begins with her apocalyptic childhood leading to her adult life off the Idaho mountain and alienated from most of her family. Her journey is harsh and painful but offered to the world openly and honestly. She exposes a side of life most people have no idea exists and tells us how difficult it is to question your parent’s authority and concern for your well-being. She expresses the contradictions she finds herself facing; rebel against her parent’s way of life thus alienating herself from those she loves and freeing herself to discover the past, present and future available to her through education.

I have floundered with this review. I really enjoyed the book but find it hard to tag it. It’s not the usual “woe is me” memoir. Tara openly expresses love and affection for her family; something I am not sure I would feel under the circumstances. It is my opinion that the author had more than the general public in mind when she wrote the book; she wanted to educate the world about the fundamentalist culture, the bizarre and dangerous life she faced with eccentric parents and she needed to justify leaving her loved ones behind to allow herself the freedom to control her own life as she saw fit.

By the time she was born, her mother, overwhelmed with the number of children and the hard work of a subsistence lifestyle had given up on home schooling. She felt her job was done if she taught the children to read. To be fair, there was never a restriction on the children’s reading interests, but any child with an itch to read did so discretely after a full day’s chores. Tara had access to her older siblings aged text books and rabidly self-educated herself.

Tara Westover was not raised in a traditional Mormon family. Her father demanded total obedience in all matters and maintained control over his family’s daily routine. The slightest action could turn him into a demonic authority pontificating his own version of Mormon fundamentals. In this markedly patriarchal environment, male siblings held power over the girls; one particular brother was a cruel bully. Another brother was helpful in encouraging Tara to find her true north.

Imagine a world where your parents told you that everything outside their front door was corrupt. That something called the Deep State had eliminated personal freedoms and the “Medical Establishment” could not be trusted. The family would avoid hospitals and doctors regardless of the severity of the illness or injury.

Her father consumed with an “End of the World” theory, built massive supplies of food, weaponry, and ammunition to protect his family from renegades unprepared for survival in an apocalyptic world. He worked his children like indentured servants in a dangerous junkyard to pay for the supplies. Horrific physical injuries befall several family members; treatment restricted to mother’s self-created herbal medicines. If a sick or injured person failed to survive on their own at home, it was just God’s will.

Over time, Tara’s older siblings peeled away from the family home, escaping their father’s control leaving a very young Tara to fill their shoes in the junkyard. By the time she was fifteen-years-old, she began planning her own escape. She found odd jobs in a nearby town, made friendships outside the survivalist culture and devoured any and all sources of literature to prepare to take the college ACT test. At seventeen-years-old she enrolled at Brigham Young University, and discovered how much of life she knew nothing about.

One of first lectures, I raised my hand and asked
what the Holocaust was because I had never heard of it.

Encouraged by “outsiders” who recognized her potential, Tara Westover has achieved a first-class education. It was a struggle at first to fill in the blank slate but she graduated from Brigham Young University with honors in 2008. Following graduation she was awarded a Gates Cambridge Scholarship and earned a Masters in Philosophy from Trinity College, Cambridge in 2009. In 2010 she became a visiting fellow at Harvard University. She returned to Cambridge University where she was award a PhD in history in 2014.

Well done, Tara.

Recommended reading. An excellent book club selection.

An in-depth interview with the author can be found on NPR.

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THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE


Years ago, when I was a young girl, my family vacationed in a big city; an environment totally out of my element. On a walk with one of the older city children, we happened upon a spooky looking house. The boy whispered to me that the house was haunted and told me that we had to be careful not to get captured by ghosts and drawn inside. With that he turned and ran away, leaving me alone. To this day, I don’t know what triggered my fight or flight, fear of the house or fear of being alone and abandoned. I remember my world spinning out of control filled with overwhelming fear and terror; as fresh today as it was sixty years ago. Ironically, Shirley Jackson published The Haunting of Hill House that same year I was frightened to death; 1959.

Synopsis

Dr. Montague, an anthropologist by trade and an investigator of supernatural events as an addictive sideline, has signed a three-month contract to rent the infamously haunted Hill House. His purpose is to definitively document the existence of paranormal activity. He feels his best chance of stirring up the mysteries of the house would occur if other people having had brushes with abnormal events in the past were with him.

He locates twelve persons and issues cleverly crafted invitations specifically avoiding the word “haunted” to spend “all or part of a summer at a comfortable house… the purpose to observe and explore the various unsavory stories about the house…”. Three curious people respond and agree to meet him there:

Eleanor Vance, a friendless, angry, and depressed thirty-two-year-old woman looking  for “freedom, adventure, friendship and love” after years of caring for a mentally abusive invalid mother. Her life post-mother with her evil sister remains loveless and unfulfilling. Theodora, a free-spirit artist, arrives needing to spend time away from her roommate following a spat and hoping for a great adventure. Luke Sanderson, young heir to the house and a liar and thief, sent by his Aunt to represent the family’s interests and to get him out of her hair for awhile. Jackson tosses in a scary pair of caretakers, the Doctor’s haughty wife, and Hill House itself to the cast of characters.

Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more… [S]ilence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

The first character to arrive is Eleanor. Unlike the others, we are with her as she makes her first bold move away from her horrible life, steals her sister’s car, and heads on on her first road trip, alone. Along the way, she begins to see life in a new way. She enjoys collecting trivia and creates imaginary life scenes in appealing places along the journey. The newly freed Eleanor will continue to be the book’s narrator.

The first sign of danger in this strange opportunity hits her when she arrives at Hill House in the twilight hours of the first night.

She shivered and thought, the words coming freely into her mind, Hill House is vile; … get away from here at once.

No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition…turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake… It was a house without kindness…

Things don’t seem as ominous to her when the others arrive and find the house ugly but fairly harmless. For the first time in her life she begins to relax around people. She begins to imagine a new life with these people that extends beyond this brief visit to Hill House; finally friends and people who care about her. She lies to the group to project an image of herself that is appealing and interesting.

Other than doors that shut by themselves and meeting the humorless housekeeper and her robotic mealtime directives, nothing happens that first night. Eleanor falls asleep thinking… this is home. It will be home for the group for the next week.

The group takes a tour of the house and they hear the house’s sad and malevolent history from Luke. They find the house’s atmosphere, dark, morbidly decorated, rooms and hallways oddly laid out with crooked corners, and as confusing as a corn maze. When they reach the library doorway in the eerie stone tower, the reputed scene of a tragic suicide, Eleanor recoils in fear. The reader is left with the sense that heartbeat of house is contained in the tower’s walls.

The story moves at a snail’s pace for the first 100 pages. It enables the reader to feel the creaks in the floor, the shifty lighting, the unsettling feeling of being swallowed by the house, becoming lost in its bizarre layout. We observe a transition happening within Eleanor as she experiences, often in the company of others, increasingly terrorizing nightly sounds that accelerate by the day. The story turns darker as Eleanor begins to fall apart. At the same time, the others ride out the house’s attempts to scare them without negative effects; no one, other than Eleanor, feels any real danger from the house.

Eleanor, rocking to the pounding, which seemed inside her head as much as in the hall, holding tight to Theodora, said,”They know where we are,” and the others, assuming she meant Arthur and Mrs. Montague, nodded and listened.

We slip into Eleanor’s stream of consciousness and feel the mental meltdown as it is happening. She sees, in her mind, that Theo and Luke are conspiring against her and feels they mock her at every turn. She sees them treating her just like her mother and sister. Outwardly she projects an affinity to the group while internally developing rage, hated and mistrust of Theo and Luke. The group, unaware of Eleanor’s degenerating mental condition, finds humor in her unease and proclivity to spout quaint quotes, most often cited, is a line from from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: Journeys end in lover’s meeting…

The reader, collecting clues from those tedious first 100 pages, realizes that there are parallels between the original homeowner’s tragic story and Eleanor’s life, real and imagined.

Near the end of that first week, Dr. Montague becomes aware of the effect the atmosphere of the house is having on Eleanor and repeatedly tries to make her leave. But she is adamant she will not be forced to leave leading to a highly dramatic conclusion. Hill House, with that evil grin, wins. Journeys end in lover’s meeting…

Reviewer’s Thoughts

I found it difficult to rate the book. I settled on a solid three star rating. Those first 100 pages seemed to drag with no action. In a 230+ paged book, I found it hard to imagine anything happening that would match the more contemporary horror genre. I was determined to stick with it and thought I would start over with the audio version and it made all the difference. Once I grasp the fact that is was really a psychological thriller, I started watching the dialogue more closely and was sucked inside Hill House.

Returning to my own haunted house experience, I could better understand Eleanor’s inability to extract herself from the creeping insanity. Who knows how permanently scarred I would be if I had wandered into my spooky house as a ten-year-old and spent the night listening to the old house groan against history and neglect. Has anyone else be scared witless? I’d love to hear from you.

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SOLD ON A MONDAY

2 children for sale sign

SOLD ON A MONDAY

by KRISTINA MCMORRIS

depression era childrengreen quote markSometimes we have to make sacrifices for the ones we love…

sold on a monday cover[The detective pulled a chair over to me in the hospital.] I heard, “Can you tell me how it all started?” The reporter in my head blended with the detective before me. I wasn’t entirely sure which of them had asked…
1930s cameraI nodded at him slowly, remembering as I replied.
“It started with a picture.”

Sold on a Monday, like many popular works of historical fiction set in the 1930’s Great Depression is based on an iconic photograph. My favorite being, Mary Coin by Marissa Silver based on Dorothy Lange’s photograph entitled, Migrant Mother. four children for saleSold on a Monday was inspired by a photograph (later questioned as authentic) of a mother and four children on a porch. A sign near them reads – 4 children for sale, inquire within.

sold on a monday graphic.pngAuthor, Kristina McMorris, nudged by the writer’s innate question…what if… has created a world where a dramatic photograph, taken for personal use by a newspaper reporter on his own time, is found drying in the darkroom by the editor’s secretary, Lily Palmer. The moving picture shows two children near a sign reading – “2 children for sale. Recognizing the work of Ellis Reed, Lily shows the photo to the editor.

1930s reporter.jpgThe editor, recognizing the dramatic impact the picture will have on newspaper readers, instructs Ellis to write a story about it. Sniffing a chance to advance himself, perhaps leading to his own column, Ellis obliges. Puffed up proud, Ellis is brought down quickly when he is told that the negative and photo have been damaged and he must replace it immediately. Returning to the house, he finds the sign leaning against the porch and the family gone. (We never learn what happened to the original family; something that nagged at me long after I finished the book.)

ARC NetGalleyIn that instant he panics. He spots 2 children playing nearby at another house. Grabbing the “children for sale” sign, and with their mother’s reluctant permission along with a handful of money, Ellis stages a new photo. Thus begins a spiral of disquiet that follows Ellis into his new career at a larger newspaper; a success launched by this story. As he rises in notoriety, he is constantly aware it is based on a lie. Lily, also observes, he has lost that special something that reaches the common man.

Lily Palmer, harboring a deep secret of her own, is reminded time and again of the deception when letters and gifts continually arrive at her newspaper for the exposed children. The gifts and letters are placed on the porch in the dead of night, the deliverers unable to face the family. The innocent children were never for sale.

After a time, and independently, Ellis and Lily seek to find out what consequences their individual actions have had on that misused family. They are both rocked to learn that the mother has been confined to a sanitarium and has died. The children were placed in an orphanage. The now infamous photograph led to the sale of the two children to a wealthy family.

Using his newspaper network, Ellis finds the family and scouts the new home. Peering through a window, he spots the young girl, Ruby, neatly dressed, and sitting near a smiling woman. He believes he hears a young a boy giggling in another room.

He tells Lily that all seems wonderful at first glance. But further efforts reveal that appearances don’t necessarily define reality. Ellis and Lily set out to right their consciences and dredge up darkness they never dreamed possible. Their lives and the lives of the children are in danger.

Sold on a Monday is a fabulous 1930’s era “Agatha Christie” mystery with some really sharp edges. The suspense moves slowly at first, careers sputter, personal relationships simmer, and all along we are aware that this is the Great Depression. Desperate times where desperation can lead a person to the “Dark Side.”  The novel does come to a spectacular moment that then settles down to a “happily-ever-after” finish.

Good read for a rainy day!

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THE WOMAN IN WHITE : a novel

Sir Percival Glyde produced a parchment paper folded many times over lengthwise and placed it on the table. Unfolding only the last fold, he dipped a pen in ink and handed it to his wife. “Sign your name there,” he said, pointing to the place…
“What is it I am to sign?” she asked quietly.
“I have no time to explain… Besides, you wouldn’t understand.
“I ought surely to know what I am signing…”
“Nonsense. What have women to do with business? I am your husband and NOT obligated [to explain].

As a major fan of historical fiction, I decided to reach back in history and read a book actually written in the past; not a book reconstructed from research. Some time ago I was introduced to Wilkie Collins’ popular 1860 work, The Woman in White, and is it has been languishing on my to-be-read shelf. This week, I dusted it off and read it (while listening to the audio version, I might add. Really enjoyed the novel read in British accent.)

The Woman in White appeared first as a serial in forty parts in Charles Dickens’ newspaper, All The Year Round, in 1859-1860; a publication for the masses not just the elite. As the story originally was printed in those forty parts, it was necessary to create a crisis with enough suspense and tension to keep the masses anticipating the next part of the story. Woman in White, when published in book form in both the UK and US in 1860, locks all the forty segment endings into one work, appliqueing the increasing intrigue layer upon layer to the drama already established. It has never been out of print. Woman in White has been adapted for film and TV including a new 2018 BBC series.

After finishing the book, I believe that it could be been edited to reduce redundancy but overall worthy of its continued popularity. I did my best to summarize the plot below; it is an intricate story that doesn’t lend itself to summary very well. If you decide at this point in my lengthy review to move on, let me say – just read the book. Many women’s issues in 1859 are just as screwed up today.

My husband upon reading my review replied, “Good God. You actually read this book?” Don’t be turned off. Give it a chance.

Women’s Rights in 1850s Victorian England were very restrictive. Marriage essentially transferred all control from a woman’s father to her husband. Under the law, the husband controlled all property, earnings and economic decisions. Additionally, women themselves became the property of their husbands with no recourse if assaulted or mentally abused. It wasn’t a shock to readers in 1859 that Sir Percival needs Laura’s money and has every right to it.

The Woman in White was the key book in establishing what became known as ‘sensation fiction’: breathless and deviously plotted novels that [features] virtuous women menaced by dastardly cads, and the thirst for gruesome and spectacular crimes…  British Library, Author Roger Luckhurst

SETTINGS AND CHARACTERS

LIMMERIDGE HOUSE
Home to the wealthy reclusive invalid landowner, Frederick Fairlie, and his two nieces, the reluctantly betrothed fair maiden, Laurie Fairlie and her strong-willed norm breaking half-sister and best friend, Marian Halcombe.

BLACKWATER PARK
Home to the dastardly and cunning Sir Percival Glyde, Baronet, the man betrothed to gentle and naive Laura Fairlie.
Other residents include the humorless and obedient Countess Fosco (and Laura’s aunt) and her morbidly obese Italian husband, Count Fosco; a man with a conniving nature masked behind a bombastic and charming personality.

LONDON
Home to Walter Hartright, a young handsome art teacher, on contract at Limmeridge House to teach Laura Fairlie and Walter’s best friend, the effusive Italian Professor Pesco.

WOMAN IN WHITE
Anne Catherick, a mentally challenged is a victim of forced incarceration in a private metal asylum by her mother, Jane Catherick, and their overlord, Sir Percival Glyde. Her escape and discovery by Walter Hartright reveals her to be a doppleganger for Laura Fairlie. The search for the missing Anne Catherick is a pivotal plot thread.

Themes and Plot
Woman in White is the complicated story of Sir Percival Glyde and his conspiracy to settle his deep financial debts by marriage to the wealthy young Laura Fairlie; a marriage betrothal established between Sir Percival and Laura’s father before his death.

Shortly before her marriage, arrangements were to provide drawing lessons for Laura Fairlie. A young handsome London art master, Walter Hartright was contracted. During Hartright’s journey to Limmeridge House he stumbles upon an agitated and unchaperoned young lady, dressed all in white, seeking directions. Arriving at Limmeridge house he learns the woman in white is known to the household as Anne Catherick, the mentally challenged daughter of a former nurse to Laura’s now dead mother. Upon meeting, Laura, Hartright, notes to himself, that Anne Katherick is her doppelganger.

As expected, romance blooms between the art student and the art master. Laura’s older half-sister, Marian Halcomb, aware that Laura has no recourse but to marry Sir Percival, does her best to break up this budding romance by secretly arranging employment for Walter out of the country.

With Hartright out of the picture, the marriage takes place, and Laura becomes Lady Glyde. The newlyweds take up residence at Sir Percival’s estate, the dark and gloomy, Blackwater Park. At Laura’s insistence and to her invalid uncle and guardian, Franklin Farlie’s relief, Marian Halcomb moves into Blackwater Park as well. Lady Glyde is surprised to find her subdued and subservient aunt, Countess Fosco, and her flamboyant Italian husband, Count Fosco, friends of Sir Percival, also living at Blackwater Park.

In his own home, Sir Percival’s true nature reverts to his dastardly conniving self, a personality change anticipated by the girls. Laura had received a mysterious letter just before the wedding warning her that Sir Percival has a deep and dangerous secret that he would kill to protect. In time, it is discovered that the mystery author is the missing Anne Catherick.

Moving rapidly ahead with his plan, Sir Percival orders Laura to his library to sign a legal document. He has cleverly disguised the contents transferring all Laura’s inheritance to him. Laura, in a moment of obstinacy, refuses to sign it until she is told what the document contains. Sir Percival, in the presence of witnesses, informs her that as her husband he doesn’t have to tell her anything.

Percival, furious at his wife’s continuing refusal to sign over her inheritance and terrified of his debt holders ability to destroy his life, turns to his cunning friend, Count Fosco, to work toward an unsavory solution.

The plot thickens. Marian Halcomb’s constant influence over Laura becomes a thorn in the men’s side and Laura, cowed by circumstance, is reduced to a simpering shell.  The hunt is on for Anne Catherick by everyone; the ladies, to learn Sir Percival’s secret, and the men to keep Anne from sharing Percival’s dark secret.

As Percival begins to disintegrate, Count Fosco steps up his role in locating Anne Catherick  by tracking Anne and Marian’s every move. He is convinced she will find Laura and tell her the truth about Percival. When his theory proves true, Anne is discovered talking to Laura, he too, notes that Anne Catherick is Lady Laura’s doppelganger and there is a change in plans!

About this time, Walter Hartright reenters the picture having returned from his overseas assignment. Upon learning about Laura’s cruel marriage, steps up to protect Marian and Laura.

Count and Countess Fosco execute their cruel grand scheme by telling Laura she would be joining her sister, Marian, at Count Fosco’s home in London. Instead, Laura is drugged and taken to the mental asylum dressed as Anne Catherick. Meanwhile, Marian is still at Blackwater Park recovering from typhus; hidden in a secluded part of the estate.

A sickly Anne Catherick is taken to London dressed as Lady Glyde. A forgery passes along the inheritance to Percival but things begin to disintegrate when Anne suddenly dies. She is buried as Lady Laura Glyde back in Laura’s childhood home of Limmeridge House.

Marian, recovered, goes to the mental asylum to ask Anne what she knew about Laura’s death and is startled to recognize a drugged Laura. Marian is thwarted at every turn to restore Laura back to life but eventually is successful.

Meanwhile, Sir Percival, now in command of the inheritance, has bigger problems when proof of his dark secret is discovered by Walter Hartright. Percival rages throughout the countryside trying to destroy evidence; in the end he is struck down by karma.

Count Fosco, buoyed by successfully completing his mission to help Percival, sails off to ports unknown, where he too is struck down by unforeseen justice.

And as you expect, Walter, Laura and Marian live happily ever.

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THE CHALK MAN

CROWN PUBLISHING | 2018
288 pages
FICTION : PSYCHOLOGICAL SUSPENSE/COMING-OF-AGE
ARC FROM PUBLISHER AND NEGALLEY

★★★★☆

When you get old and start falling apart, there are changes in your reading habits. When you are young, you have the stamina to stay up all night and read a good book then go to work. I am now at the age where I don’t have to do that! Instead, I spend the lost hours sitting in a doctor’s waiting room reading.  I’ve been saving The Chalk Man for just this kind of moment; and I wasn’t disappointed in my decision when the opportunity showed itself this week.

PROLOGUE 

The girl’s head rested on a small pile of orange-and-brown leaves. Her almond eyes stared up at the canopy of sycamore, beech and oak, but they didn’t see. . . A short distance away, a pale hand stretched out from its own small shroud of leaves, as if searching for help, or reassurance that it as not alone. . .

The Chalk Man will disappoint readers that are looking for a hair-raising blood curdling serial murder read.  The story reminded me more of  Stand By Me or Lord of the Flies. There are mysterious deaths that seem linked, and a myriad number of unexplained and aberrant events between the children, town bullies and adults with serious personality defects. Twists, squirms, and turns more than sordid and graphic murder scenes.

The story is told by Edward “Eddie Munster” as an adult in 2016 and flashes back and forth to 1986. Hence, the lives of the town’s residents and Eddie’s friends are slanted by his view and opinions. We learn more about Eddie simply because he shares more about himself than he does the others. Through him, we experience the hormonal throes of early adolescence and budding sexuality, observe his proclivity for shoplifting and collecting souvenirs and oddball items, and sense the anguish of a child/man slightly out of tune with world.

The relevance of the  title, Chalk Man begins with Mr. Halloran, an albino teacher who attends “Fat Gav’s” birthday party and gifts him with a box of chalk sticks. Learning that Mr. Halloran used chalk messages to secretly communicate with others, the children devise their own secret code – until one day – someone outside their group discovers their code.

I am reluctant to discuss the story in deeper detail; it will spoil the read. But I will toss in a few thoughts and prose that have stayed with me.

If you see something, say something. If you know something and keep it to yourself, you will be haunted by the outcome of your cowardice. Every action has a consequence; for good or for bad. No one is who they seem. No one is perfect. Everyone has character flaws. Life is not fair.

Eddie’s father, dying early of Alzheimer’s, left him with an important thought and I will share it with you. You will need to take this tidbit of wisdom with you into the read:

Never assume, my dad once told me. To assume makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me”.

Recommended reading for those that like a murder mystery without stomach churning violence. There’s just enough tough stuff to wince but keep going.

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THE IMMORTALISTS

THE IMMORTALISTS
Chloe Benjamin

G.P. Putnam’s Sons | 2018
346 pages
FICTION : Family | Fortune Tellers
ARC: G.P. Putnam’s Sons and Edelweiss

★★★☆☆

It’s a sticky summer day in New York City’s Lower East Side in 1969. Eleven-year-old Daniel Gold overhears a conversation about a mysterious fortune-teller while standing in line at Shmulke Bernstein’s restaurant. He excitedly races home to share the news with his three siblings: 13-year-old Varya, 9-year-old Klara, and 7-year-old Simon.

EXCERPT From Prologue . . .

What exactly does this woman do?
I told you. She has powers.
Like what?
What I heard is she can tell fortunes. What’ll happen in your life – whether you’ll have a good one or a bad one. And there’s something else. She can say when you’ll die.
That’s ridiculous. Nobody can say that.
And what if they could?
Then I wouldn’t want to know.
Why not?
Because. What if it is bad news? What if she says you’ll die before you’re even a grown-up?
Then it’d be better to know so you could get everything done before.

It’s unbearably hot in their apartment. Their high-strung Jewish mother is driving them crazy. The four children, desperate for diversion, set out to discover the location of this intriguing rishika. Each child is torn with fear but driven by curiosity, challenge, and excitement to find the fortune teller’s apartment and to learn what she has to say about their future.

They are surprised when the rishika brusquely takes them one-by-one into her apartment; diluting their individual courage. By the time the door opens and, Varya, the eldest enters the room, she is filled with panic and guilt. As the oldest, she feels responsible and guilty about endangering her younger siblings. She becomes terrified to discover that she is alone in the room with the strange woman.

Where are my siblings?
[Outside waiting for you.]

She snaps her fingers and gestures to Varya’s left hand
“We got work to do.”

“Your palm.”
Varya scoots to the edge of her chair and offers her hand to the rishika.
Can you really do it? Do you know when I’ll die?

Before Varya hears that fateful date, the rishika studies her hand in great detail, then abruptly says: January 21st, 2044. (We do not immediately learn the fateful dates for Klara, Daniel and Simon.) The rishika tells her, as she has told the others, not to discuss her revelations.

It is obvious, as the children head home, that each has received disturbing news. A lighthearted childhood adventure used as a diversion to abject summer boredom severs their carefree childhoods. The news each received that day will hang like a pall over their future life decisions. The prologue ends as the Gold family sits around the dinner table that fateful night. The children’s sullen behavior a sign that they have learned of life’s impermanence.

Thus launches this complicated family story told over 50 years in four vignettes. One by one, beginning with Simon, we discover each child has a deep ingrained secret that gets amplified by the gypsy’s prophesy. Their lives are much like our own cycling up and down as we make our way in an imperfect world.  The lesson each of these children learns is that if you worry about death, you will miss out on living: in the end we all die and there’s not a thing that can be done about it. You might as well do what you can to make the best of the life you are given regardless of whether it is long or short.

BLOGGER’S THOUGHTS

I always feel weird when my opinion of a book varies greatly from the majority of reviewers. I liked the book and give it a solid 3 star rating but I found several areas needing a little more meat and depth. The book captured my attention right at the beginning with the promise of magic and fantasy but petered out through the middle delving into hedonism and decisions leading to dark self-fulfilling prophecies. The final quarter of the book rises to a richer and satisfying conclusion and gives hope that change is possible.

[Varya asks the rishika]… what if I change? It seems impossible that Varya’s future is already inside her life like an actress just offstage, waiting decades to leave the wings.

Then you’d be special, “Cause most people don’t.

The author has done her homework with background and historical references. I found the discussion of magical history and techniques fascinating.  The deeply emotional coverage of the emergence of AIDS in our country in the 1980s brought back sad memories of people in my past.  I am reminded of a friend near the end of his life leaving me with these words – Life’s a Bitch and Then You Die.

Recommended for book club discussion.

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Dimestore: A Writer’s Life

DIMESTORE: A WRITER’S LIFE

by Lee Smith

Algonquin | 2016
Hardcover: 224 pages
ISBN: 978-1-61620-502-7
Genre:  Memoir
Review Source: Personal copy

★★★★☆

I was born in a rugged ring of mountains in southwest Virginia- mountains so high, so straight up and down, that the sun didn’t even hit our yard until about eleven o’clock. My Uncle…used to predict the weather by sticking his head out the window and hollering back inside, ‘Sun on the mountaintop’!  – Lee Smith

Author Lee Smith extends an offer to join her on the porch swing to share intimate details of her life growing up in the heart of coal-country of southwest Virginia. Known for her fictional down-home Appalachian characters in popular fiction such as Fair and Tender Ladies, Dimestore: A Writer’s Story is her first work of nonfiction. Smith lets us know right away that Dimestore is more than a memoir. As the sub-title tells us, it is a writer’s story.

She begins by leading us by the hand into the mountains, down the side trails to hollers and into town where we share her love of the mountain music and the old time religion steeped into the souls of the people. She introduces us to, later famous, musicians that she knew as just “local talent”. It’s not long before you want to be adopted into the larger extended family… a family that accepts you warts and all.

We step inside her father’s Five and Ten Cent Variety Store and peer with her through the one-way window as she sees life in its most candid moments.

Upstairs in my father’s office…[I stood] observing the whole floor of the dimestore through the one-way glass…Thus I learned the position of the omniscient narrator…it was the perfect early education for a fiction writer.

 We chuckle with her at her mother’s desperate attempts to tame the tomboy and provide instruction on lady-like behavior..often involving extended trips to genteel family members …[Mom would send] me down to Alabama every summer for Lady lessons.

And I will admit that the lengthy list of southern cooking treats prized by Mama and her bridge club made me hungry.

But there is a darker side to her life that will surprise you. Both of her parents suffered from mentally debilitating illnesses. Smith turned to intense reading, writing and usually a dog when her parent’s frailties would leave her lonely and dislodged while they were away at local hospitals.

About midway through the book, Smith shifts away from anecdotal stories and introduces the teachers and mentors, not the least of these being the author, Eudora Welty, that help her develop as a narrator of characters gleaned from her own cultural background.

I will admit that I enjoyed the first half of the book more… it is rich with life stories and portraits of small town life that resonated with my own small town past. But for aspiring writers or those curious about what draws some people to a life of imagination and storytelling, this book will perhaps tickle a budding idea that will lead to your own short story or the next great novel.

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