BOOK REVIEW: I Have Something to Tell You by Natalie Appleton

appleton_coverA few years ago, I discovered Natalie Appleton’s work while scrounging the New York Times’ Modern Love archives for essays on love. Her true story—about leaving her Canadian hometown, lost and full of doubt, for Thailand in search of her real self—didn’t just strike a chord. It roiled the marrow of my bones. So, when I discovered this story was part of a soon-to-be-released memoir, I Have Something to Tell You, I was excited. The months-long wait for it to hit the bookstores? Worth it.

The memoir starts with young Appleton living a comfortable life with a straightforward, tobacco-chewing guy. In a bungalow with fusty shag carpeting. In Medicine Hat, the hometown she had always planned on leaving. It wasn’t a bad life, but rather a life unfulfilled. In a string of gorgeous sentences, the author captures the feeling small-towners often experience about where they grew up:

“Hometowns, how they tug at us. With memories of hide-and-seek in scorched coulees, and kissing in dusty trucks after dark. With streets and faces as familiar as a mother’s breath. But it’s not the place we leave or long for. It’s how a town makes us feel. Like a child, loved. Like an old woman, rocking over boredom and regrets.”

Never too poetic, too flowery, her style doesn’t detract from the story. Instead, her use of punctuation and sentence structure creates a rhythm much like the ebb and flow of her emotions.

After a brief but powerful encounter with an old classmate (a.k.a. an old nemesis, a one-night adventure), Appleton becomes convinced she must leave her hometown. Her partner. Her cat. Her home on the wrong side of the tracks. She doesn’t want to get married to a man or a way of life that she’ll come to regret. This revelation and the weeks to follow are hard. The intimate, raw emotions of a twenty-something Natalie fill the first part of the memoir. Her turmoil and guilty are palpable—you’re along with her for the ride.

Eventually, she trades in her 15-year old car for a one-way plane ticket to Bangkok. There, she plans to teach English for a year. Naive about her new surroundings and without any teaching experience, the uncertainty of making it in this foreign country trails her every move:

“How is it we can lunge over a hump nearly the length of earth itself, and then stagger on a strip of sidewalk? Shouldn’t we be fearless after crossing oceans and continents and cultures? Maybe it’s the streets—the higher probability of stumbling, even on a small scale, often—that daunt us, halt us. And I guess it never is a lunge so much as a series of moments in the air, off solid ground.”

Here and there, Appleton throws in an anecdote or bits of the land’s history, that makes her storytelling richer. Gives us a taste of what it’s like to live in Thailand. She deftly uses imagery and symbolism to weave together stories, from different continents and timelines, into a larger, focused narrative about finding oneself and finding love.

I won’t go into detail of how she starts to feel at home in this strange place. But there’s a delicate, quiet transformation with each new milestone. When she befriends the neighborhood family who serves her spicy shrimp soup without shrimp in their restaurant. When she learns Thai thanks to lessons from a well-off student. When she fearlessly hitches rides with motorcycle taxi drivers. All that, and much more, you should read and discover on your own. Preferably while sipping a glass of French Merlot.

I Have Something to Tell You was published on January 22, 2018 by Ravenscrag Press.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐


EXPLORING A GAL’S FAVOURITE NOVELS: How To Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis

howtobeaheroine_CoverI didn’t know the playwright Samantha Ellis before my eyes fell on the cover of her book in NetGalley —How To Be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned from Reading too Much. The cute artwork, featuring the spine of much-loved books, grabbed my attention. I confess that once I read the cover copy, I felt like this book had been written for me.

You feel like Ellis is having an intimate conversation with you over the book she reread in her mid-thirties, books you both loved:  Anne of Green Gables, Ballet Shoes, Little Women, The Bell Jar, and Jane Eyre (sigh!). She confesses: “Reading that pile of books again, I realised that some of my heroines had misled me, some now seem irrelevant, some I had wildly misread, some I now regret. But many — most – were a pleasure to meet again.”

You embark on a reading journey with Ellis. It starts when she tells you about her first literary obsessions: Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid. After a look at the different depictions of the fairy tale characters, she’ll make you chuckle by admitting her life “would have been different if [she’d] known Disney’s Little Mermaid, not Andersen’s.” She grew up in an Iraqi-Jewish and, like the sad mermaid, felt “caught between two worlds”: her parents’ homeland and England (where she didn’t quite fit in her youth). Ellis’ personal history continues to be revealed as she compares her life choices and obstacles to those of the many heroines in her cherished books.

She was a precocious girl reading Jane Austen novels while most of her peers (and me) were reading Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. In fact, she probably read most of the book I read in my late teens and early twenties when she was a 12-year-old girl. This detail probably explains why she had misread so many of the heroines during first reads (and excuses the fact that she had preferred Cathy over Jane in the never-ending Brontë sister debate).

The writer quotes lines by Anne Shirley (“The worst of imagining things is that the time comes when you have to stop, and that hurts.”) and by Mr. Darcy (“We neither of us perform to strangers”), then explains how those words influenced her life. She makes you laugh when joking about puffed sleeves, remembering 80’s Timotei shampoo commercials, calling Rhett Butler a metrosexual, and taking a jab at the worst-named character in the history of the world (Take a wild guess. It was Stefanie Meyers’s bright idea.). She tugs at your heartstrings when talking about a wedding cake, seizures, and her mother’s plight. When Samantha Ellis writes, “I’m beginning to think that all readings are provisional, and that maybe we read heroines for what we need for them at the time,” you’ll nod in agreement, take another sip of tea, and wish Samantha could be your new best friend.

How to Be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned from Reading too Much
By Samantha Ellis
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 272 pages.

The hardcover edition is already available in Canada. The paperback edition will be available next month in Canadian and U.S. bookstores.

*I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.*

WHIMS AND PHILOSOPHIES OF A SENSUIST: Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses

NaturalHistorySensesCoverA Natural History of the Senses
By Diane Ackerman
Vintage Books, 1991.
331 pages, $18.95

The mere sight of cobalt blue glass pebbles can not only elicit a memory of a jar’s mesmerizing translucency in the sunlight, but also the tingly eucalyptus scent its cleansing cream left on my mother’s soft cheek.

Diane Ackerman’s best-seller A Natural History of the Senses explores such occurrences with the sharp observations of a scholar and the melodic prose of a poet. She identifies with the term ‘sensuist as a person who “rejoices in the sensory experiences” in her pursuit to understand “the sensory idioms we use to speak of the world”. The book is skillfully structured in six evocative parts: smell, touch, taste, hearing, vision, and synesthesia. The writer claims that “both science and art have a habit of waking us up, turning on all the lights, grabbing us by the collar and saying Would you please pay attention”! After its release in 1990, this book rightfully received much acclaim for Ackerman’s innovative combination of both disciplines. She melds the complexities of popular science with the splendours of art —in her study of the five senses— as perfumer Sophia Grosjman blends the essences of roses and musk to create iconic fragrances.

Her diverse experiences and observations —such as massaging babies in a Miami preemie ward, taking flying lesson in upstate New York, and tagging monarch butterflies in the Californian coast— help her gain unique insights about the sensations that shape our world. Ackerman knows her subject thoroughly. She agrees with zoologist Desmond Morris’ theory on the origins of French kissing stemming from the “ancient comfort of parental mouth-feeding”. She stands behind the countershading theory of naturalist Abbott Thayer who was passionate about the camouflage of animals. She even appreciates Epicurus’ indulgence in the lavish lifestyle of wealthy Romans. Such wide-reaching anecdotes abound in this work.

The writer has an excellent grasp of prose, which she infuses with luscious metaphors and language. For instance, she describes the sense of smell as “[detonating] softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of many years and experiences. Hit a tripwire of smell, and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.” Such eloquence is the mark of a seasoned poet. Before the publication of this book, Ackerman had previously written four books of poetry, including Lady Faustus. She also shares her own poem entitled Whales Songs, in which the “sleek black troubadours” of the sea “beat against the wailing wall of water”. One is swayed by the lull of her words like a babe softly rocked in her mother’s arms.

Ackerman has a tendency to go off on a tangent during a discourse. Her digressions are usually fluid and pertinent, like mentioning the lines on an ape’s hand and the Catholics’ view of stigmata when recounting a palm reading at a psychics’ convention. She also tends to enumerate many examples while making a point. For instance, she explains the countless ways ‘nice girls’ like her kissed in the sixties, from kissing “torridly, with tongues like hot pokers” to kissing their “pillows at night, pretending they were mates”. Tangents are rampant and examples are abundant among the pages of this book. This quirk may turn off some readers, especially those of the left-brained variety.

That said, A Natural History of the Senses should not be read in one sitting, but rather savoured and spread over a lingering stretch of time. This book has wide appeal and should be a staple on the bookshelf of people who are sensuists at heart. Its pages should be revisited time after time to help keep the senses finely tuned.