Book Review: Torch by Cheryl Strayed.

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No. of pages: 348 pages

Published: 20 June 2014

Publisher: Atlantic Books

Settings: Minnesota, America

Website: www.cherylstrayed.com

I’ve read books where grief and sadness were concerned and I had to take short breaks for the sake of my emotions. I remember reading Red Lotus by Pai Kit Fai. The events were so painful they tore my heart into pieces. They were too much for my heart to digest.

Synopsis

“Work hard. Do good. Be incredible!” That’s the advice Teresa Rae Wood gives the listeners of her popular local radio show, Modern Pioneers, and she has taken it to heart in her own life. She fled a bad marriage, escaping to Midden, Minnesota (pop. 408), where she fell in love with a carpenter who became a loving stepfather to her children, Claire and Joshua. Now Claire is away at college, Joshua is laboring through his senior year of high school, and Teresa and Bruce are working to make ends meet. Despite their struggles, their love for each other binds them as a family. Then they receive the devastating news that Teresa has cancer and at thirty-eight may have less than one year to live. Those she will leave behind face something previously unimaginable — a future without her.

In Torch, the award-winning writer Cheryl Strayed creates from one family’s shattering experience a novel infused with tenderness, compassion, and beauty.

In many ways, however, Torch isn’t as bad. True, the story is about a mother who passed away from cancer, leaving her two grown-up children and live-in partner to come to terms with their loss and grief accordingly. But there were no forms of torture in Cheryl Strayed’s book. Which still made it easier to read anyway.

All Teresa Rae Wood wants in life is to work hard, do good and be incredible. That’s what she taught her children, Claire and Joshua, to do all their lives even if she had come from a difficult marriage. Teresa and her family (including Bruce, her live-in partner) lived in a small town called Midden in Minnesota. A quirky yet simple woman with a radio talk show of her own called Modern Pioneers, Teresa shared most of her family’s lives on air with the many listeners in Midden, from the way they did things to the tips and tricks she came up with to make living easier.

Until she was diagnosed with cancer and learnt that she only has months to live. Unable to face the prospect of their mother’s losing battle with cancer, Claire and Josh turn to a host of unimaginable yet common ways of dealing with her impending death.

Claire had been the downright emotive member of the Wood family. She was extremely expressive and wore her heart on her sleeve. She cried. She yelled. She hurt all over. She tried to fill the empty void and cover her wounds with an affair. That affair tore her relationship with her boyfriend apart. They went their separate ways and she was left to pick up the pieces. She tried again when she moved into a home as a tenant and tried yet again with another man to no avail. That didn’t work either.

As for Joshua, he was keen on avoidance. He couldn’t bring himself to visit the hospital during his mother’s final days even though she had asked for him. He eventually found solace in drugs and alcohol, dealing and abusing them to numb his anguish. Not too soon after his mother’s passing, he fell in love with a girl from school whom he impregnated after his mother’s death.

Bruce, on the other hand, was not entirely guilt-free. He vowed to kill himself after his wife’s funeral but it wasn’t meant to be when he started seeing another woman, with a false belief that she would be able to erase or replace his love and memory for his late wife. Despite his grief, he knew he needed some form of female companionship to fight his emotional turmoil, the acute pain of sadness and loneliness. Needless to say, it was hard for Claire and Joshua to accept that their stepfather was moving on too soon.

In the events after Teresa’s death, author Cheryl Strayed showed how grief can divide people when they needed each other the most. The family she portrayed lost its center and grip on reality after Teresa’s death as Bruce, Claire and Josh pushed and pulled at one another, reaching out with touching fingertips and only finding the barest minimum of comfort and connection.

Throughout the entire novel, the trio faced and dealt with reality without Teresa, their emotions a mess as they struggled to communicate their grief. They may have been a close knit family yet the sharing of such intimate emotions did not come easy for them. What began as a somewhat depressing stage on death eventually transformed into a heroic story of courage, bravery and resilience. As they always say, things will get better.

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Book Review: My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier.

my-cousin-rachel-by-daphne-du-maurierType: Paperback, 335 pages

Publisher: Virago, May 1, 2013 (first published in 1951)

Original Title: My Cousin Rachel

Characters: Philip Ashley, Ambrose Ashley, Rachel Ashley, Signor Rainaldi, Nicholas Kendall, Louise Kendall, Father Pasco, Mrs Pascoe, Mary Pascoe, Seecombe, Tamlyn, and Wellington.

So, here I am, back again with yet another book review. This time, it’s of a mystery, Gothic romance set in Cornwall. Let me briefly tell you what the book was all about before I proceed with sharing my thoughts and opinions of the book.

My Cousin Rachel tells the tale of a young orphan boy by the name of Philip Ashley who became the sole heir of the estates, wealth and fortune that his older cousin, Ambrose, had left behind after his mysterious death while vacationing in Florence, Rome. Philip had suspected that Ambrose’s wife was the guilty party in his death along with the help of her dear friend, the surly Signor Rainaldi. Philip was pretty darn sure that all would have gone smoothly had it not been for his cousin’s failing health and a doctor’s medical advice for him to leave London due to the clammy weather. Ambrose had gone to Florence and would stay there until his health improved. During his stay in Florence, however, he met a distant cousin by the name of Rachel and within a short time, they got married. Much to Philip’s chagrin.

 Synopsis by Goodreads:

I threw the piece of paper on the fire. She saw it burn…

Orphaned at an early age, Philip Ashley is raised by his benevolent older cousin, Ambrose. Resolutely single, Ambrose delights in Philip as his heir, a man who will come to love his grand house as much as he does himself. But the cosy world the two have constructed is shattered when Ambrose sets off on a trip to Florence. There he falls in love and marries – and there he dies suddenly. 

In almost no time at all, the new widow – Philip’s cousin Rachel – turns up in England. Despite himself, Philip is drawn to this beautiful, sophisticated, mysterious woman like a moth to the flame. And yet… might she have had a hand in Ambrose’s death?

The thing is, Philip did not have any proof of Rachel’s involvement in his death, save for a few disturbing letters that Ambrose had mailed to him over the course of his stay in Florence. And being the only one whom the letters were addressed to, Philip was the sole witness of his cousin’s suffering at the hands of their distant cousin. Anger and hatred boiled and bubbled in his blood, a deafening roar in his ears when he learnt of his cousin’s death. It made matters worse when Rachel had announced that she was coming to London for a while and possibly stay with either Philip or his godfather, Nicholas Kendall, for the time being. Philip could barely come to terms with his cousin leaving him for Florence, then getting married, and then dying without a trace or proof as to how he died.

It had been a rather intriguing story from the start, with me being thrust into the cobwebs of distrust, lies and deceit so early on in the book. Questions of how Ambrose died and who might have had a hand in his death had already flooded my mind, but it was too early in the first half of the book to tell if there really had been any clues leading to his death. One could clearly tell, however, that there were striking similarities between Ambrose and his young cousin and heir, Philip. Which sort of made me wonder if they were as innocent in the first place. Still, it had been too early to tell.

But as I carried on reading, I realised that while there were no indications as to whether Rachel was truly the guilty party or not, the manners of a petulant child were starting to arise in the form of the 24-year-old Philip Ashley. His actions as a gentleman left much to be desired. He was either blind to the nature of women, as Louise Kendall, his childhood friend and daughter of his godfather, puts it, or he was just a bull-headed boy with far too much ego. For someone approaching his mid-twenties, he sure was one hell of a spoilt brat! Perhaps, like Rachel had insinuated somewhere in the book, Philip just never saw enough of the world but really, some of the things he’d done in the book were just brought on by impulse. It made him appear naive and foolish.

Eventually, I got to a point where relief was just another 5 chapters to go before I was done with the book. I couldn’t wait, though, to find out if either Rachel was telling the truth or whether Philip had seriously gone out of his mind. A cloying young Englishman, spoilt, bratty and arrogant, acting like a child. I felt so tempted to reach into the pages and smack him upside behind the head. He was neither a man nor a child. He was, by far, the most foolish and idiotic person. Here’s another scene depicting his foolishness when instead of asking for a birthday present like any normal and sane person would do, he decides to give away his entire wealth and estate to a woman he barely knew. Nothing Louise said could break him out of his reverie.

Throughout the entire book, the reader would constantly question if Ambrose Ashley was to blame for his self-centeredness and arrogant ways and mistreatment of Rachel, or was Philip Ashley just to blind-sided to see things for what they are and not for what he thinks they are, or was their cousin Rachel really to blame for her treacherous ways. But one could question the possibility of whether she had done it in an act of self-defense or that she had planned on killing him for his vast fortune.

These were the questions for which even I did not have the answers to:

  • Did he really die from a mysterious illness to the brain?
  • Or was he poisoned as he believed himself to have been done in at the hands of Rachel?
  • Had Philip really planned on leaving Rachel approach death without warning her of the unfinished bridge?
  • And who was this Signor Rainaldi who never left Rachel’s side?
  • Was he the perpetrator behind Rachel’s plans?

After all the author had not made any assumptions nor given any conclusions. But she did leave enough room for her readers to constantly ask themselves, “Who was the guilty party?” It was left to the understanding of the reader.

By the way, did you know that the book, My Cousin Rachel, had also been made into a movie in 1953? Directed by Henry Koster, the film had starred Olivia De Havilland as the titular character, Rachel, with a very young Richard Burton as Philip Ashley. You can view the movie trailer here on YouTube.

75 Years of Virginia Woolf.

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Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in ‘The Hours’. Image credit: European History at Loyola.

As a reader, I’ve never been much for Virginia Woolf nor have I read her books. As a writer, however, I must commend on her genius ways on writing, especially her famous nonlinear prose style notably in her novels, Mrs Dalloway and To The Lighthouse.

March 2016 began as the National Nutrition Month and now, its healthy eating theme has coincided with the seventy-fifth (75th) anniversary of Virginia Woolf’s passing in 1941. As Woolf herself has said before:

One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.
Virginia Woolf had the privilege of being born and raised in an English household in 1882 by free-thinking parents. Her parents were father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was an author and historian, and mother, Julia Prinsep Stephen, was a nurse who happened to write a book on the profession, and had later on served as a model for several Pre-Raphaelite painters. Woolf had three proper siblings and four half-siblings — a result of both her parents having been married and widowed before finally marrying each other. All eight children had lived under one roof in Kensington.

Early Life.

In her early years, she had begun writing and had her first novel, The Voyage Out, published in 1915. As mentioned above, her nonlinear, free-form prose style became an inspiration to her peers. While growing up, Woolf had spent her summers in St. Ives, a beach town at the very southwestern tip of England, at her parents’ summer home called Talland House. The summer home looked out over the Porthminster Bay with a view of the Godrevy Lighthouse, which had inspired her writing. In her later memoirs, Woolf had a great and fond recollection of St. Ives and incorporated these scenes into her modernist novel, To The Lighthouse in 1927. However, she was also known for her mood swings and bouts of deep depression. It was this very reason that drove her to suicide at the age of 59 in 1941.

Deep, Dark Depression.

Virginia Woolf’s deep and dark depressive moments didn’t sink in until she was six years old when her half-brothers George and Gerald Duckworth had sexually abused her. This unwelcomed act, coupled with the early death of her mother at age 49, only made things worse for Woolf. The impact of early adolescence and the huge loss of her mother sent Woolf spiralling into a nervous breakdown. However, things eventually spun out of control when her half-sister, Stella, died, followed by her father later on in 1904.

Married Life.

In 1912, she and Leonard Woolf got married. Leonard was also a writer as well as a member of the Bloomsbury Group, a circle of intellectuals and artists who became famous in 1910 for their Dreadnought hoax, a practical joke where the group members had dressed up as a delegation of Ethiopian royals and successfully persuaded the English Royal Navy to show them their warship, the HMS Dreadnought. Woolf herself was drawn into the hoax where she disguised herself as a bearded man. Despite the outrageousness of the act, Leonard had taken a fancy to Virginia and fallen in love with her.

Her fourth novel, Mrs Dalloway, was released in 1925 to rave reviews, and covered interior monologues, issues of feminism, mental illness and homosexuality in post-World War I in England. Eventually, the novel was turned into a movie in 1997 and became the subject of a Michael Cunningham novel and film, The Hours in 2002.

Upon reaching her mid-forties, Virginia Woolf had established herself as an intellectual as well as an innovative thinker and writer. Her astonishing ability to balance dream-like scenes with deep and tense plot lines had earned her incredible respect from her peers and the public alike. Yet, despite her outward success as an author, she continued to regularly suffer from bouts of depression and succumbed to her dramatic mood swings.

Unwarranted Death.

Woolf’s husband, Leonard, had always been by her side and was quite aware of the signs that pointed to his wife’s eventual and internal demise. He saw that she had sunk into a bottomless pit while she worked on what would be her final piece, Between the Acts, which was published posthumously. As a Jew, Leonard was concerned about his safety as he was in danger of being captured by the Nazis, and the couple’s London home was destroyed during the Blitz. These insurmountable moments had been the last straw that broke the camel’s back; they became the motivation for Woolf to don her overcoat, walk out into the River Ouse and fill her pockets with stones.

On March 28, 1941, Virginia Woolf waded into the water and let the stream take her. The authorities discovered her body three weeks later. Her popularity may have plunged after World War II, but her stories rang tried and true, over and over, for readers during the feminist movement of the 1970s.

Seventy-five (75) years on, Virginia Woolf remained one of the most well-known authors of the twenty-first (21st) century.