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review 2019-01-16 12:19
"Ways To Hide In Winter" by Sarah St. Vincent
Ways To Hide In Winter - Sarah Vincent
 

 

From the start, "How To Hide In Winter" is strong on atmosphere: isolated - cold - damaged and with more damage to come - a history like a shadow beneath the ice on the lake.

 

The story is told through the eyes Kathleen, a young woman working alone in the only store still open in the National Park on the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania in the depths of winter. She spends most of her day alone, reading and thinking.

 

Then "The Stranger" arrives, a lone Uzbekistani man, not dressed for winter, not sure of where he is or why.

 

She's trying to pretend she doesn't limp and isn't in pain from her injuries. He's scrupulously polite and unaggressive, trying hard to be invisible. Both of them are tantalisingly unexplained.

 

What follows is a powerful, beautifully written, deeply thoughtful novel that tackles raw emotions and complicated ideas without ever becoming dry or self-consciously literary.

 

On the surface, "Ways To Hide In Winter" could be seen as one of those woman-with-dark-secrets-in-her-past thrillers. If that's what you're looking for, this book will disappoint you. It's not a thriller nor a simple narrative about discovering the dark secrets in the pasts of the two main characters. It's a deeply meditative book, filled with the cold silence of winter and the slowly thawing emotions of rage and compassion of a woman who has been abused and traumatised.

 

Winter is central to the feel of this book. The physical winter in the Appalachians in Pennsylvania is almost a character in its own right: bleak but beautiful, familiar but deadly, ubiquitous and inescapable. It is also an extended metaphor for the emotional state of the two main characters, each with their own story of abuse, betrayal, secret shame and physical and emotional trauma that have left them scarred, isolated and trying to hide from their futures as much as from their pasts.

 

Like water beneath the layer of ice on the lake, Kathleen's emotions run deep, slow and cold. Her rage is fierce but struggling to find expression. It is the fevered heat experienced by the hypothermic as they struggle to survive the cold.

 

She is consumed with a quiet, barely contained rage. She rages at how her community is treated by the government:

 “They sold us pain and said it was fine... They had such contempt for us, and they thought we didn’t see it. Just because we lived where we lived and were who we were.”

Rage at those in power, in Uzbekistan and in the US, who use torture, pain and humiliation to punish their enemies.

 

Rage at her recently deceased, violently abusive husband. Rage at all those who failed her: her parents, her priest, herself.

 

There is the possibility of hope, of support from her best friend and from men who are interested in her but she finds hope hard to trust, partly because she is not sure that she deserves it.

 

There is guilt and shame: her addiction to painkillers, her belief that everyone holds her accountable for her husband's death. There is responsibility for her sick grandmother. And there is, eventually, compassion, initially for The Stranger and finally for herself as she slowly and carefully considers what a person deserves.

 

The Stranger gives Kathleen another focus, someone as damaged and as vulnerable than she is. Someone quiet and indirect who may have done shameful things but who shows her only gentleness. Someone who makes her think about what living means. Through her contact with him, she starts to understand that by continuing to hide she is refusing to live. Staying where she is just a slower death, not survival.

 

The language is simple, beautiful and powerful. The pace is slow but in a way that builds tension, grabs attention and makes you focus on what's really happening. It demonstrates a nuanced understanding of abuse and powerlessness and their impact on identity and will.

 

The ending of the book doesn't offer any easy solutions. It seems to say that we all of us go through more than one winter. We move between light and dark. Perhaps being alive is about keeping moving. Perhaps compassion for others can help thaw our personal winters. Perhaps compassion just mitigates our guilt. Perhaps staying hidden is unsustainable because it is an extended act of abnegation.

 

"Ways To Hide in Winter" is Sarah St, Vincent's first novel. I'll definitely be reading her second.

 

I listened to the audiobook version which was performed brilliantly by Sarah Mollo-Christensen. To hear a sample of her performance, click on the SoundCloud link below.

https://soundcloud.com/audiolibrary-a/ways-to-hide-in-winter-by-sarah-st-vincent-audiobook-excerpt
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review 2018-12-14 11:35
International Day of Tolerance Book - "The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvira Carr" by Francis Maynard - highly recommended
The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvira Carr - Frances Evelyn Maynard Greville Warwick

"The Seven Imperfect Rules Of Elvira Carr" is one of the best books I've read this year and is the best book I've read about how neuroatypical people make a place for themselves in the world.

 

The main joy of this book is that Elvira Carr, Ellie to her friends, is a wonderful person. Not a saint. Not perfect. But someone who is fully engaged with her own life. She's curious, honest to a fault, wants to help others and is capable of great joy. I fell in love with her immediately.

 

Elvira knows she isn't the same as everyone else. Her mother has told her this time and time again as she grew up and there have been "incidents" that reinforce Elvira's mother's view that Elvera's "condition" means she's not equipped to deal with the world.

Only when her mother is hospitalised does Elvira discover, at the age of twenty-seven, that her "condition" has a name and that she is not alone.

 

Elvira is neuroatypical. This means she perceives and thinks about things differently than neurotypical people. As she uses the internet to connect to others like herself, Ellie comes to understand that her "condition" is not an illness. She's perfectly capable, not just of looking after herself but of contributing more widely to her community. She has a job at an animal sanctuary. She helps provide old people at the nursing home with contact with small animals who lift their spirits.  She looks after her neighbour's young granddaughter.

 

Ellie's problems are caused by the often incomprehensible and contradictory expectations and behaviour of neurotypicals, some of whom she believes have the power to "send her away".

 

To help navigate the strange ways of the neurotypicals and to prevent her freedom to live an independent life being taken away from her, Elvira with the help of her neighbour develops seven rules. She writes the rules on a spreadsheet and then tests them against her experience, ticking boxes when she uses them, adding examples, guidelines and acceptance criteria to make these imperfect rules work better.

 

By telling the story entirely from Elivira's point of view, the author has produced something that is neither a saccharine cliché nor a disturbing freakshow.   The thing is that Elvira is much nicer than most people you'll meet. She has no malice. She's always honest. She gets angry and afraid, especially when she makes mistakes and misreads the neurotypicals, with there attachment to figures of speech and their habit or saying one thing and meaning another. She's also capable of joy so overwhelming that, when she's alone and neurotypicals can't see and send her away,  she has to run around the room with her arms out to let it flow through her.

 

Ellie faces a series of challenges in the book: her mother's incapacity, a mystery around her dead father and his frequent trips to Japan, conflicts with members of her neighbour's family, predatory males and lots and lots of NEW things that create stress.

Ellie's struggles and her limitations are ones we can all empathise with and perhaps share to some degree which means that her triumphs make us happy.

 

I found myself wondering how neurotypical I was and whether there was really any such thing. Putting the labels aside, I found myself wishing that I could meet Elvira and hoping that I would overcome some of my neurotypical habits for long enough really to see her.

 

"The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvira Carr" is beautifully written and perfectly narrated. I strongly recommend listening to the audiobook version. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear Charlie Sanderson bring Elvira to life.

 

[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/361476302" params="color=#ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true" width="100%" height="300" iframe="true" /]

 

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review 2018-12-11 22:26
Book for Door 7 Mawlid An-Nabi - "On Turpentine Lane" by Elinor Lipman
On Turpentine Lane - Elinor Lipman

 

"On Turpentine Lane" sat on my TBR pile for eighteen months. I bought it in a fit of enthusiasm after reading "Isabel's Bed".  I've looked at it a few times since then and gone, "I want to read that but not today." I finally picked up because it qualified as my book for Mawlid An-Nabi in the 24 Festive Tasks challenge,

 

It wasn't the kind of book I'd expected. It was a light, mildly amusing comedy of manners kind of book but I found myself struggling with it because I found it hard to empathise with a privileged white middle-class, university educated woman in her thirties who was so hapless.

 

Her haplessness was fundamental to the humour of the book so letting it irritate me was self-defeating. Her haplessness is quite plausible. She's conflict-averse, trusting, committed to her job and looking for a quiet life. I'd probably like her if I met her. Yet I find myself irritated by her inability to use the advantage she has, which says more about me than about Elinor Lipman's writing.

 

About a third of the way through the book, the lights went on - flashing LED lights - spelling out IT'S A ROMANCE, DUMMY.

 

That explains why the heroine is intelligent, well-educated, slightly bland and completely hapless - so she can come into her own by getting together with the right guy.

Suddenly, it was all clear. 

 

The contract with the reader is that the woman should be nice, maybe too nice for her own good when it comes to dealing with her self-absorbed, hippy-boy-man-at-41 boyfriend, so that the reader can root for her and hope she'll smell the coffee and find someone worthy of her.

 

I got distracted by the bullying sexism or her employer, the apparently dark history of the house she's recently bought and my underlying lack of empathy for a woman so used to be being loved and protected by her family that she lacks basic survival skills.

 

I felt like someone reading the start of a werewolf novel and wondering why the characters, who seem prone to physical aggression when resolving status-related conflicts, are stressing about how close the next full moon is.

 

Once I settled back and let the romance roll with the appropriate level of readerly collusion. with what the author is doing, I started to enjoy myself more.

 

"On Turpentine Lane" is an odd mix of ingredients that never quite come together convincingly. Crises are triggered around apparent financial improprieties at work, mysterious deaths in the heroines house and a mid-life crisis separation between her parents. These crises stand side by side like plates spinning on poles rather than building to anything. There is no character development to speak of but there is a slow, sometimes enjoyable slide towards happy-ever-afterdom.

 

I never did get to feel any empathy for the heroine but my reflex-animosity for her lessened as I understood her family dynamic.

 

"On Turpentine Lane" was well-executed entertainment that I'm now certain I'm not the target demographic for.

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text 2018-12-06 20:44
Reading progress update: I've read 16%.
Somewhere inside of happy - Anna McPartlin

I'm reading this for the Russian Mother's Day Door on 24 Festive Tasks.

 

I picked it up despite the fact that I knew it covered some very raw and painful emotions because Anna McPartlin was recommended to me as one of Ireland's rising stars.

 

What I've read so far justifies that assessment. The prose is personal, powerful, accessible and has a distinct voice. 

 

The story is filled with tragedy but it's also filled with honest human emotions love, anger, guilt and a little more love that make it compelling and real.

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text 2018-12-02 10:07
Reading progress update: I've read 31%.- slapping hand to forehead - NOW I notice it's a romance novel?
On Turpentine Lane - Elinor Lipman

I was almost a third of the way through this slightly droll but deeply puzzling book, struggling to work out where it was going, when the lights went on - flashing LED lights - spelling out IT'S A ROMANCE, DUMMY.

 

That explains why the heroine is intelligent, well-educated, slightly bland and completely hapless - so she can come into her own by getting together with the right guy.

 

Now it's all clear. 

 

The contract with the reader is that the woman should be nice, maybe too nice for her own good when it comes to dealing with her self-absorbed, hippy-boy-man-at-41 boyfriend, so that the reader can root for her and hope she'll smell the coffee and find someone worthy of her.

 

I got distracted by the bullying sexism or her employer, the apparently dark history of the house she's recently bought and my underlying lack of empathy for a woman so used to be being loved and protected by her family that she lacks basic survival skills.

 

I feel like someone reading the start of a werewolf novel and wondering why the characters, who seem prone to physical aggression when resolving status-related conflicts, are stressing about how close the next full moon is.

 

OK, now I can settle back and let the romance roll with the appropriate level of readerly collusion. with what the author is doing.

 

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