• I’m Just Happy to Be Here by Janelle Hanchett

    One of the strongest voices in my parenting journey has been that of Janelle Hanchett, the hilarious and profane author of the Renegade Mothering blog. The appeal of the blog is its fierce rejection of the beatific cult of motherhood and its earthy exploration of the realities of parenting. While that alone is enough to attract many readers, one of the more compelling aspects of Renegade Mothering is her past as a self-destructive alcoholic and addict, which gives Ms. Hanchett a humility that has created some of her best writing and created a devoted community of tens of thousands of readers.

    I’m Just Happy to Be Here: A Memoir of Renegade Mothering is the background story of her life, beginning with the discovery that she was pregnant at 21 with a young man that she had only met a few months prior. Without harboring any doubts, she and her boyfriend keep the baby, who attends their wedding a year later. So begins her family, at an age that is unbelievably young by modern standards.

    But – and here is the plot twist –  Ms. Hanchett is in the beginning stages of a fight with addiction that will take her down some very dark roads that endanger the well-being of her first two children and the future of her marriage.

    There is always a voyeuristic pleasure in witnessing a life that you wouldn’t lead, and here Ms. Hanchett certainly delivers. Her descriptions of the next few years, as her addictions grew worse and her lifestyle degraded into squalor, are the sort of thing that you really want to read from a distance. Yet Ms. Hanchett’s signature humor keeps the narrative from turning into a self-flagellation, as does her honest introspection about her motivations.

    Her story is a rare narrative – the voice of the drug-addled mother – and it challenges our cultural assumptions about such women by telling the story in a middle-class context. Ms. Hanchett is helped by privilege – her white skin, a family that can hand over thousands of dollars for expensive rehab centers and take in her children, a completed college degree, an employer that was willing to to give her long periods of absence to address her addictions. And yet, while it could have easily turned into a Gilbertesque story of unaware self-finding, Ms. Hanchett doesn’t allow for it. She forces us to understand the women that she could easily have been, if she had been born into different circumstances. It is her confrontation and understanding of her failures despite her privilege that lead her to a place of pure humility and grace.

    Readers of Renegade Mothering might be surprised to find that Ms. Hanchett’s voice is altered in her memoir, dropping the quick jokes that pepper her blog posts. And yet, this more serious tone suits the story, as an older Ms. Hachett narrates the realities of addiction for an audience that may not understand addictive behavior.  For those of us with addiction in our families, her story will ring uncomfortably true, both in her stories of chasing the next high and in the recovery process. By the time Ms. Hanchett finds a lasting sobriety, we are battered with the brutality of the destructiveness of substance abuse and the failures of the health system to provide appropriate treatment, even to those who have the resources to navigate it.

    Fans of Renegade Mothering will enjoy the novel for its deep-dive into the story that Ms. Hanchett has often referenced in her more personal posts.  But those unfamiliar with the blog will also find a page-turning and addictive story about the potential of a young woman who lost her way for a time, only to emerge into the world of competitive mothering with enough self-knowledge to understand that it was time to build a community of her own.

     

    I'm Just Happy to Be Here: A Memoir of Renegade Mothering Book Cover I'm Just Happy to Be Here: A Memoir of Renegade Mothering
    Janelle Hanchett
    Memoir
    Hachette Books
    May 1, 2018
    Hardcover
    320

    From the creator of the blog "Renegade Mothering," Janelle Hanchett's forthright, darkly funny, and ultimately empowering memoir chronicling her tumultuous journey from young motherhood to abysmal addiction and a recovery she never imagined possible. Pregnant at 21 by a man she'd known three months, Janelle Hanchett embraced motherhood with the determined optimism of the recklessly self-confident. After giving birth, she found herself bored, directionless, and seeking relief in wine, which she justified as sophisticated and going well with chicken. But over time, her questionable drinking habit spiraled into full-blown dependence, until life became bedtime stories and splitting hangovers, cubicles and multi-day drug binges--and eventually, an inconceivable separation from her children. For ten years, Hanchett grappled with the unyielding progression of addiction, bouncing from rehab to therapy to the occasional hippie cleansing ritual on her quest for sobriety, before finding it in a way she never expected. Hers is a story we rarely hear--of the addict mother not redeemed by her children; who longs for normalcy but cannot maintain it; and who, having traveled to seemingly irreversible depths, makes it back, only to discover she is still an outsider. Like her irreverent, laugh-out-loud funny, and unflinchingly honest blog, Hanchett's memoir calls out the rhetoric surrounding "the sanctity of motherhood" as tired and empty, boldly recounting instead how she grew to accept an imperfect self within an imperfect life--and think, "Well, I'll be damned, I'm just happy to be here."


    Genre: contemporary, memoir, women's fiction
    Subjects: A.A., addiction, alcoholism, diety, god, marriage, motherhood, parenting, recovery, religion
  • In Another Life by Julie Christine Johnson

    InAnotherLifeWhat happens when love lingers long after death?  This is what Julie Christine Johnson asks us in her debut novel In Another Life, which is a genre-bending tale set in the Languedoc region of southern France that explores the many varieties of love that we encounter during our lives.  Johnson combines a contemporary love story with a dramatic retelling of one of the darker periods of Christian history, when the 14th century Catholic Church launched the Albigensian Crusade to wipe out the Cathars.  Never heard of the Cathars?  Neither had I, which was a fascinating aspect of the novel.

    The Languedoc region was the home of the Cathar faith, a medieval gnostic Christian sect that incorporated reincarnation into Christian doctrine.  Johnson centers the medieval events of the novel on the assassination of of the Archdeacon Pierre de Castelnau, a 13th century ecclesiastic whose death launched the crusade.  But those are just the facts that we’re handed down from history.  Johnson guides us through the last years of the Cather resistance by introducing us to Lia Carrer, a modern day graduate student who is writing her doctoral thesis on the Cathar faith.

    Newly widowed, Lia Carrier returns to the Languedoc, where her closest friend, Rose, has settled as the wife of a successful wine maker.  Wounded and still grieving the seemingly accidental death of her husband Gabriel, Lia moves into Rose’s guest house and returns to work on her doctoral thesis.

    On her first night in France, Lia is startled by the sight of a man at her window, who disappears by the next flash of lightning.  He’s quickly replaced by a Bonelli’s eagle, a bird so rare as to be facing extinction.  It happens so fast that Lia isn’t entirely certain what she’s seen.

    She backed away from the glass with a curse of surprise but stopped as something white flashed just beyond the window. In the space between heartbeats, she saw the face of a man. Moonlight revealed fierce dark eyes and the etched planes of cheekbones. A seeping black streak marred the left side of his face, running from his temple down his cheek to the corner of his mouth. The palm of a hand came into view, reaching toward her. Her own hands flew up and smacked the glass as adrenaline, warm and electric, seared the weariness from her bones.

    It should not — and does not — surprise the reader when Lia recognizes that face at her window as Rose’s new neighbor Raoul d’Aran, who has quite a few secrets of his own.  Woven into the events unfolding in the 21st century are scenes from the 13th, where we learn of Raoul’s history as a winemaker, husband, father and leader of the last Cathar rebellion.  As the plot quickly moves forward, Lia begins to see, impossibly, how the deaths of her husband and of the 13th century Archdeacon might just be intertwined.

    Although the intrigues of medieval Church history might seem like a hard sell for a modern audience, Johnson brings enough of the personal into the 13th century events to make them relevant and alive.  It is, above all, love that moves the story forward and a shared grief that draws Lia to Raoul.

    A gust of cold air pulled at her hair like the fingers of a ghost, tossing it across her face. Lia tucked the loose strands into her coat collar. “Your wife’s name was Paloma,” she said. Raoul winced, as though the sound of her name caused him physical pain. “What were your children’s names?”
    “Bertran was my son,” he replied. “Aicelina was my daughter.”
    His simple declaration broke her heart. There is no other way to say your loved ones are gone but was and were. “Those are old Occitan names.”
    “My wife was from Languedoc, like your family.”
    “Do you have family in Languedoc still?”
    “No. There’s no one left.” His answer was a door clicking shut. Quiet, but final.

    One of the best qualities of the novel is Johnson’s love of France, which comes through in the vividly depicted setting.  Drawing on her background as a wine buyer and frequent traveller, Johnson fills the novel with delightful sensory details that take the reader away.  Why not indulge in some of the delights of French wine country?

    Lia walked into the covered pavilion of the marché. Fish caught before dawn released aromas of the sea that mingled with the scent of vanilla-sweet crepe batter on a hot griddle and the sultry whiff of cumin and cardamom as spice merchants opened their bags. A tiny patisserie stood tucked between the long, refrigerated cases of a cheese-monger and a vendor of cured meats. The shop specialized in the pastries of Catalunya, the territory just across the Spanish border that shared so much of Languedoc’s history and culture, and Lia made her last purchases there.

    Delicious.  Don’t you want to go to France?  Isn’t this why we read?

    Johnson’s writing is rich and the story line interesting and adventurous, filled with just enough of the mysticism between past and present to keep the pages turning.  Lia’s love and appreciation of the finer things in life are a delightful escape from the humdrum, but the real reward of the novel is discovering how the Cathar story really ends.  In Another Life brings a relatively unknown period of history to life by filling it with memorable characters and a love of the Languedoc region that will make you want to book a flight immediately.

    • Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
    • Publish Date: February 2, 2016
    • Paperback: 368 pages
    • ISBN: 1492625205
    • Language: English
    • Rating: 3 of 5 stars

    Genre: contemporary, fiction, historical fiction, women's fiction
  • Her Name Is Rose by Christine Breen

    Iris Bowen has just been sacked.

    It’s not her fault, as the author of a weekly gardening column in a regional newspaper, that the publishing industry has been in decline and budgets are being slashed everywhere.  Her work is good.  A lifelong gardener and natural writer, she has been performing well, despite having lost her husband to cancer only two years prior.  But the world is changing.  Perhaps, her editor suggests, she could guest write a blog for free for a while?  If it becomes popular…well, what writer doesn’t know the thrill of writing for exposure?

    Quiet and undemanding, Iris tries to focus on her job options, but her bigger problem that day is her mammogram.  In her forties, it is time for Iris to go for her screening, which has taken on a particular terror after the quick death of her husband.

    The old linoleum was so polished that with every move, as she crossed and uncrossed her legs, it squeaked.  The chill in the air made her shiver.  She clutched her breasts.  Nobody had touched them since Luke.  She held her breath and counted.  exhaled long.  Breathed again.  One, two, three–

    When the results from the mammogram reveal that there’s an distortion in her left breast that will require further testing to rule out cancer, Iris’s world is turned upside down.  She fears for herself, but she’s more frightened because she is the adoptive mother of a 19 year old daughter named Rose and she is terrified of leaving her orphaned at such a young age.

    Rose, a musical protégé, is in London studying to be a classical violinist at the Royal Academy.  Like Iris, she is still wrapped in her grief for Luke, and filled with questions about her future.  When her final master class goes badly wrong, she makes a grand gesture that throws her entire future into question and amps up the tension of the novel.

    Back in Ireland and facing her own mortality, Iris recalls the promise that Luke extracted from her before he died — that she would track down Rose’s birth mother, who had been a young American graduate student at Trinity College.  Iris goes to the Adoption Board in Dublin and discovers only a decades-old address in Boston.  Ignoring her follow-up appointment and telling no one where she is going, Iris impulsively books a plane ticket and sets herself to follow the footsteps of her daughter’s birth mother.  She has planned her trip so impulsively that she even forgets to pack a nightgown.

    Looking at herself in the mirror now as she was ready to go downstairs, she felt acutely like an imposter.  (What does one wear when meeting the woman who birthed your child?)  She sat down on the edge of the bed and took off the sandals and put on the heels.  She wanted to look smart meeting Hilary Barrett.  She wanted to look like she’d measured up to the mother Hilary had probably hoped for when she gave her baby over to the adoption agency all those years ago.  She tried to think about what she was wearing tjat day, but she couldn’t remember.

    In Boston, a deeply emotional Iris finds herself at an eccentric B&B, run by a good-hearted but lonely widow who talks entirely too much for Iris’s taste.  The other residents also forcefully intrude on Iris’s solitude, forcing her to unburden her fears onto strangers as she figures out how to face them. She meets Hector Sherr, a celebrated jazz pianist who is instantly drawn to the red-headed Irish widow, and who refuses to let her go on her journey alone.  When Iris feels her own attraction to him, she must face the fact that Luke is dead, but she is still very alive.  In Ireland, Rose faces a parallel journey to her mother, as she is courted a the custom violin that is proclaiming to have fallen in love with her at first sight.

    As Iris looks for Hilary, the members of Hilary’s world also find their ways into the narrative, and the novel’s theme of unlikely connections between strangers emerges.  They are being drawn together by Rose, who is ironically unaware of her own importance to the story.  The novel takes place only over the span of a few short weeks, but as the lives of the characters turn, the setting of time and place begins to feel magical.

    Her Name is Rose is foremost a novel about love and loneliness, where sadness often serves to unite strangers and make unlikely friendships.  Although there’s nothing surprising in the denouement, all of the characters are so sympathetic that it remains a compelling and heart-warming read to the end.  Iris’s identity as a gardener and Rose’s role as a musician also fill the book with beauty.  When their talents merge in the final emotional scene of the novel, it just feels right and true.

    • Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
    • Publish Date: April 14, 2015
    • Hardcover: 304 pages
    • ISBN: 1250054214
    • Language: English
    • Rating: 3 of 5 stars

    Genre: chick lit, fiction, women's fiction
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