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.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell

The Vanishing Act of Esme LennoxBook Review
Title: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox
Author:  Maggie O’Farrell
Publisher: Headline Review
Released: May 17, 2007
Pages: 277
ISBN-10: 9780755334803
ISBN-13: 978-0753308446
Stars:  3.5

I have a been a fan of contemporary British novelist Maggie O’Farrell since I read her gorgeous novel After You’d Gone (2000 – winner of the Betty Trask prize) quite a few years ago, followed by the equally charming and poignant, The Distance Between Us (2004 – winner of the Somerset Maugham award).  Her prose is exquisite and she writes about the relationships between sisters, loss and the psychological impact of loss with total truth and conviction.

I’m behind on reading her most recent works but finished reading The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (2006) a little over a week ago.  “O’Farrell’s fourth novel brilliantly illustrates her talent for gradually revealing her characters’ inner lives by jumping back and forth in time and juxtaposing different narrative points of view.”  The story investigates an appalling chapter in Britain’s history, the practice of disposing of “difficult” women by sending them to psychiatric institutions.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox reads like you’re watching a film flashing back and forth between the 1930s and the 1990s.  It is the compelling tale of two sisters, Esme and Kitty, and Kitty’s granddaughter Iris, who suddenly finds herself introduced to a great aunt she never knew she had and for whom she wants no responsibility, and who subsequently unravels the Lennox family’s long hidden secrets.  The story is told without chapters and morphs back and forth between Esme Lennox’s childhood in 1930s Edinburgh and Iris Lockhart’s present as a single woman who owns a vintage clothing shop, is carrying on an affair with a married man named Luke, and who harbors her own secrets about her relationship with her step-brother Alex.

Beautifully written in the present tense with an obvious love of language – many of the sections in this story start with a dash and are like pieces of a story cut out of another book and carefully pasted into this one in sequence – O’Farrell paints her settings with precise brush strokes of carefully chosen words, each one in its place to achieve maximum advantage.

At the beginning of Esme’s story, she and her family live in colonial Bombay. We soon realize that Esme is a precocious child, a dreamer who sees the world with very different eyes than those of her sister Kitty.  Esme is inquisitive and stubborn with a vivid fantasy life (she can hear trees crying) but has been labeled “impossible, disobedient, unteachable, a liar…”  Her mother ties her to a chair at dinner so that she won’t slip under the table to study all of the strange and interesting things going on beneath it.  In contrast, Kitty, who is six years older than Esme, is a normal, well-behaved girl who does what she’s told.  We learn that their baby brother Hugo and “ayah” Jamila died of typhoid at the same time when they were girls, an event which resulted in their father moving the family to Edinburgh.

In the 1990s, Iris is telephoned by a hospital official who declares that she is the contact family member of one Euphemia Esme Lennox, the sister that she didn’t know that her grandmother Kitty – currently living with Alzheimer’s – had.  Esme has been locked up in a psychiatric asylum for over 60 years and now the facility is closing down and its patients have to be relocated.  When suitable accommodations can’t be found, Iris ends up taking Esme (diagnosed with bipolar disorder) in to live with her in the house that was once owned by Esme’s father and gradually a sad and shocking mystery unfolds as the two women get to know each other.

We discover that Esme had been raped by a young man (Jamie Dalziel) whose parents her family had known, a man who was meant to court Kitty but who ended up preferring Esme’s direct but quirky personality instead.  Esme didn’t know she was pregnant when her parents, finally fed up with her tantrums and unpredictable behaviour, decided to have her committed to Cauldstone.  Months later, in the psychiatric hospital, Esme gives birth to a baby boy who she is allowed to hold for a few seconds before he is violently snatched away in an altercation that ends up with a distraught Esme in restraints.

In the meantime, in the flashbacks of Kitty’s life, we learn that she married a man named Duncan who was also a virgin and so uncomfortable and unknowledgeable about sex, that they never consummated their union.  One day Kitty goes to the hospital to visit Esme, and although she never actually sees her, she finds out about her baby.  Kitty, who wants a child so badly but can’t have one with her husband, asks her father for permission to raise Esme’s son and concocts a scheme to go south for a few months to “have a baby.”

Theirs is a slow burning, simple but cruel tale with no real climax.  All of the family secrets come undone when one day Iris takes Esme to see Kitty in the hospital she’s committed to, and instead of a proper denoument, the story ends abruptly and we are left to wonder exactly what happened between Esme and Kitty while they were alone together and Iris and Alex were outside in the car sharing their own revelation.  While I took pleasure in reading the prose in this tragic story, and O’Farrell maintained an elevated level of tension throughout, the ending was unsatisfactory and just a bit too abstract for my full appreciation.

This will not, however, deter me from reading O’Farrell’s more recent work, The Hand That First Held Mine (2010), winner of the 2010 Costa novel award, and Instructions For A Heatwave (available February 28, 2013) because I enjoy literary psychological suspense and Maggie O’Farrell is a master.

You Want Me To Do What? Journaling For Caregivers by B. Lynn Goodwin

Book Review
Title: You Want Me To Do What? Journaling For Caregivers
Author: B. Lynn Goodwin
Publisher: Tate Publishing & Enterprises
Released: 2009
Pages: 160
ISBN-10: 1606962973
ISBN-13: 978-1606962978
Stars: 4.0

You Want Me To Do What? Journaling For Caregivers is a little book that just might save the sanity of anyone who is a caregiver and can understand the therapeutic benefits of writing and how important it is to manage powerful emotions. You could be looking after an elderly parent, relative or friend with Alzheimer’s, cancer, or any number of diseases, a special needs child, or simply need an outlet for processing your emotions or unleashing your creativity. Journaling’s power to heal is great; it can relieve stress and lift your spirits, heal wounds and enhance mental stability.

B. Lynn Goodwin has compiled a book of inspirational prompts which encourage the journal keeper to write even when they may not be able to think of something to write about. She talks about how writing can save lives, how you can write your story, and how you can get started, and she also writes from the perspective of someone who obviously knows what she’s talking about.

Author B. Lynn Goodwin is a freelance writer, former caregiver and retired drama and English teacher who worked in both high school and college. Her writing has been published in numerous newspapers, magazines, anthologies, and e-zines. In addition to teaching workshops on caregiving and writing for other publications, Lynn writes reviews and author interviews for Writer Advice, www.writeradvice.comand is the founder and managing editor of the e-zine, which celebrated its ten-year anniversary in October 2007.”

You Want Me To Do What? packs a whole lot of understanding and motivation in a pocket sized book that you can easily carry with you in your purse or book bag, everywhere you go, so that whenever you’re feeling inspired to write (or even when you’re not), you’ll have an outlet. For beginners, this book offers sections broken down into Thoughts About Me, Thoughts About Caregiving, Thoughts About the One I Care For, and Thoughts About Reclaiming Myself, as well as simple but encouraging prompts such as:

• Today I feel…
• The truth is…
• No one knows I worry about…
• When I want to escape…
• If I could change one thing in our routine…

and dozens and dozens of great starters as well as ten terrific writing tips to help you to put your thoughts and feelings down on paper.

“This journal is your personal record of your emotional truth. It is a place to heal and grow. Don’t judge away your negative thoughts. They are only thoughts – not actions. Instead of banishing them, keep writing…Nothing is too petty, too silly, too stupid, or to weird to be included.”

You will probably need to buy your own blank journal to write in because you’ll ultimately need the space, but this companion guide for journal writers is perfect to get you going. It makes a fantastic and inexpensive gift: the kind of gift that will keep on giving.