Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee by Wayne Flynt

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Is it uncharitable of me to have wondered if Wayne Flynt, the author of Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee, would have gone out of his way to befriend Harper Lee’s sisters, which led to a friendship with one of the most beloved authors of our time, Nelle Harper Lee, had she not been the author of To Kill a Mockingbird?

Flynt and his wife first met and befriended Harper Lee’s sister Louise, with whom he shared an interest in Alabaman history and literature, then another sister, Alice, and eventually, Nelle (Harper) herself. Nelle and Flynt became family friends, exchanging visits and letters over the last 25 years of Nelle’s life.

Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee includes the letters between the two families. As expected, Nelle’s letters to Flynt are funny and interesting. Reading her letters left me wanting to read other works by this author, which if they existed, I imagine would have come out of the woodwork by now.

Her letters show an increasing affection towards the Flynts. Eventually the Flynt’s got a little Harper of their own, when their grand-daughter was named for the Harper Lee. Nelle’s letter to the Flynts on receiving the news of a namesake was charming.

Nelle comes across as a very private person, although somewhat lonely. She struggled with ill-health and eye-troubles as she aged. In one letter she writes;

“The only thing I have to report is that Tom Carruthers said he couldn’t recall the word “ineluctable” which I use to describe the passing of days here. He said he hadn’t heard it in so long he couldn’t remember it.

Well, the days do go by with ineluctable sameness, but I feel most fortunate that they go by for me at all, lorn lone creature that I am.”

I had to look up ‘ineluctable’ to learn what it meant – something which can’t be avoided or escaped, even though I had caught the gist of the word from the passage.

Wayne Flynt has good credentials. He is Professor Emiritus in the History Department at Auburn University, the editor of an Encyclopedia of Alabama and has written loads of books about Alabama, plus he actually knew and was friends with Harper Lee, so we have to trust his judgement that she would have been happy for him to publish her letters.

 

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Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner

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Everywhere I Look is a collection of memories, essays and true stories by respected Australian author Helen Garner.

I attempted to read Monkey Grip by Helen Garner a few years ago and while I enjoyed the author’s actual style, the idiocy of the characters annoyed me so much that I didn’t finish the novel. My notes from that review were; “I just couldn’t like them (the characters) enough to keep reading. I didn’t need to finish this to take the lesson – don’t fall in love or get involved with drug addicts, you will regret it.”

Everywhere I Look was broken up into loosely put together sections which occasionally offer life lessons. The first section, White Paint and Calico, are the author’s personal stories about home and moving house. The messages I took from this section is that home is where the ukulele is, that there is no such thing as a perfect table, and that moving house is up there with the strain of a death in the family, a new job or a divorce. I particularly enjoyed Suburbia, where the author shared the joys of living in a suburb, compared to previous experiences of having lived in ‘hipper’ places, such as a share-house in the inner-city.

There are so many stories of friendships with well-known and respected Australian authors that I got the feeling that Helen Garner knows and corresponds with everyone who counts, but my favourite was Eight Views of Tim Winton, who is a great Australian writer. I would love to know if Tim Winton really said, “Thanks, Mate,” to a priest instead of “Amen,” when taking communion at church, but even if this didn’t happen, it is a good story. I expect the gist of ‘Amen’ and ‘Thanks, Mate’ are much the same.

I found From Frogmore, Victoria to be the most heart-rending story. Helen Garner wrote about her visit with Raimond Gaita, who wrote the tragic memoir, Romulus, My Father. During the visit, Helen and Raimond visited many of the places where the events he had written about occurred, leaving me feeling flattened by the end of the story. For example; this is the shovel we buried the dog with, this is the tower someone jumped off when they suicided, and so on. I’m not being flippant here, Raimond Gaita’s family experienced terrible tragedies and the entire tour around Frogmore was punctuated by sad memories.

The true stories which featured in On Darkness would be familiar to most Australians. Punishing Karen was difficult to read. This was the true story of a schoolgirl who gave birth at home after hiding her pregnancy from her parents and also from herself, mentally and emotionally. Also difficult to read was The Singular Rosie, which tells of Helen Garner interviewing Rosie Batty about how she had coped since her son Luke was tragically and shockingly killed by his father. Another story tells of Robert Farquharson, who killed his three sons to get revenge on his former wife. Helen Garner says she was strongly criticised while writing a book about this tragedy for expressing sympathy for men in the position of being unable to cope emotionally when their wives leave them.

I actually liked reading the funny little stories about what Helen Garner’s grand-children said and did. Funny, because when I get bailed up by someone who wants to tell me stories about their kid, or grandchildren or even their dog, I, like most people, would prefer to throw myself under a bus rather than indulge the proud story-teller for longer than ten minutes. I think Helen Garner’s stories were bearable because they were short and to the point.

Helen Garner’s crowning glory though, for me, was her opinion about the indignities of old age. Being patronised by anyone is irritating at any age, but when Helen Garner can run circles around most people intellectually, I’m sure that being patronised by someone who looks as if they should still be in nappies is particularly frustrating. I loved that in The Insults of Age, she says she now saunters “about the world in overalls,” tears strips off idiots and confronts people who are doing the wrong thing without fear. I also like that she is honest about wanting to punch people’s lights out when they are stupid… because thinking about punching people’s lights out might not be socially acceptable, but is not a sin either (in my opinion, anyway).

Helen Garner’s style is straightforward and honest. Her voice is so strong that reading her stories make me believe that I am having an actual face-to-face conversation with her. Even though I am not speaking in this conversation, she still manages to tell me what I would want to know if I were participating.

I don’t think I will try Monkey Grip again, but will instead continue with Helen Garner’s non-fiction. She has written several books about defining Australian events, which I think will suit my reading tastes better.

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Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

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Just like Ann Patchett’s kidnapped characters in Bel Canto, I never wanted to leave the beautiful world I found myself in. I wish this book had gone on and on and on…

Bel Canto is set in the home of the Vice President in an unnamed, poor Latin American country. The story starts with the Vice President hosting a dinner party for a Japanese businessman, Mr Hosokawa, to entice him to build a factory in their country. The guests include a who’s who of business people and their wives, along with Mr Hosokawa’s favourite opera singer, American Roxanne Coss, who is engaged to sing after dinner.

Just as Roxanne finished performing the lights went out and when they came on again, the guests realised that a band of kidnappers had snuck in and taken them hostage. The intended target was the country’s President, but unbeknownst to the kidnappers the President ditched the party at the last minute to stay home to watch his favourite soap opera.

The rest of the story takes place over the next four months. Some of the guests and staff were freed, but the most important guests remained as hostages in the Vice President’s living room. Mr Hosokawa, his translator, Roxanne, a priest, the Vice President and a bunch of Russian businessmen make up the main characters amongst the hostages, while the kidnappers include three self-appointed Generals and a motley group of teenagers; both boys and girls with guns.

Because of the many language barriers amongst the parties, Gen, Mr Hosokawa’s translator, becomes the most important person in the room. Gen translates the negotiations between the kidnappers and a Red Cross negotiator, for different groups of guests and between the hostages and the kidnappers. He translates for Mr Hosokawa and Roxanne as their friendship begins and develops during their imprisonment, and he translates a delightful declaration of love from one of the Russian businessmen to Roxanne. After the declaration, Roxanne comments to Gen that “It’s easier to love a woman when you can’t understand a word she’s saying.”

Every day Roxanne sings while a Japanese businessman accompanies her on the piano. Mr Hosokawa and a General play chess. Gen teaches one of the kidnappers to read. The Vice President discovers the joys of cleaning house. Various parties fall in love. Businessmen learn how to relax. Kidnappers and hostages become friends. As time passes, most of the kidnappers and the hostages realise they do not want their life in the Vice President’s house to end.

I am not a fan of opera but I enjoyed the way that singing and music brought these characters together, although I suspect that in real life some of the guests would have their fingers stuck in their ears for a bit of peace and quiet, rather than everyone falling under the spell of the music. I almost brought myself to listen to some of the pieces sung in this book, but I couldn’t quite manage it… I would quite like opera if nobody sung.

I loved Bel Canto. Ann Patchett is a wonderful writer whose skill and craftsmanship show in every word of this story. I didn’t like the ending of the book, but although I have been thinking and thinking of how else it could have ended, I haven’t been able to come up with an alternative.

I’m a newcomer to Ann Patchett’s writing, having only recently read her collection of essays and memoirs in This is the Story of A Happy Marriage, but am looking forward to making my way through her works.

 

 

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The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach

marigoldI saw the movie based on Deborah Moggach’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel years ago and loved it. The actors were first-rate, the story was gorgeous, the scenery exotic and I left the cinema feeling happy with the world. When I came across the book I was hoping for a similar experience.

The book’s plot was entertaining, but much uglier than the movie’s, and it didn’t leave me feeling full of joy.

The story starts with an old duck*, Muriel Donnelly, making the English newspapers after she fell in the street, went to hospital and was left untended for two days. What the newspapers didn’t report was that Muriel wouldn’t allow any “darkies” to touch her. The doctor interviewed to answer the newspaper’s claims was an Indian, Dr Ravi Kapoor. Ravi was married to an English woman, whose father, Norman, a selfish, sexist, randy old goat, had recently moved in with Ravi and his wife and was driving Ravi bonkers.

Other retirees are introduced and all of them have a different story, but they are all in the same position, in that they are living in England without enough money or companionship to enjoy their retirement. Most of the elderly characters are more or less neglected by their families.

Ravi’s cousin Sonny had the bright idea of turning a run-down guest house in his home town of Bangalore in India into the first of a chain of retirement homes, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Ravi was mad-keen to be involved in the project, mostly because he planned to send his father-in-law to India to live in the hotel.

The first Best Exotic Marigold Hotel attracted quite a few English retirees, one married couple and a number of elderly women, along with Norman and Muriel Donnelly. They all settle in (more or less) to life in India.

The book is written from the point of view of the English expats. The contrast between the English retirees, (who in England, are quite poor) and the Indian people who are living in true poverty (homeless, begging, scavenging for food), is shown, although glossed over in that the English retirees’ stories take precedence every time. The English characters are all racist to some degree, from Muriel Donnelly’s atrocious behaviour in hospital, to a younger character who chases exotic religions, looking for a sense of fulfillment which she never attains.

Most of the characters, particularly the elderly occupants of the retirement home, are nostalgic for a world which is in the past. This resonated with me and I suspect will more and more as I grow older.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a black comedy. All of the characters are flawed. Some are funny, some are endearing and some are the kind of people you would avoid if you came across them in real life. The funny sections in this book are often at the expense of some one else’s dignity, and in many cases, India’s.

The movie was a kinder, sweeter story than the book. I recommend the movie over the book.

*Old duck is a term of endearment. I am nearly one myself.

 

 

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Surfacing by Margaret Atwood

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Trying to understand what was going on in Margaret Atwood’s second novel, Surfacing, was a little bit like being underwater with your eyes open and trying to figure out what was going on out of the water. I suspect that was the author’s intention.

The story is set in Canada. The narrator, an un-named young woman, returns to her family home, a cabin on a remote island, to search for her missing father. She is accompanied by her lover and a married couple, all of whom she has met very recently.

The writing in Surfacing is good, particularly the author’s choice of words, although some parts are in my least favourite style; present-tense. My biggest problem was not likeing the plot. I also struggled to connect with the narrator and I didn’t like the other main characters, although to be fair, I don’t think the author’s intention was to create likeable characters. Superficially the character’s relationships with each other are swinging and cool, (Surfacing was written during the late 1960’s or early 1970’s), but beneath the surface, they hold grudges and judge each other and themselves. There are undercurrents everywhere.

Canadian nationalism is an important theme, but the characters’ struggles with this went over my head, although I suspect Canadian readers would ‘get’ this book.

The remoteness of the location, which requires locals to be almost complete self-sufficient, is intriguing.

Despite not appreciating Surfacing as much as The Handmaid’s Tale or The Heart Goes Last, I’m looking forward to working through her novels in chronological order, since I love Margaret Atwood’s fearlessness in writing the madder dystopian novels which she is best known for.

 

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Six Degrees by Honey Brown

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So, for those who don’t already know, I read on my hour-long train trip to and from work. This morning, I started Six Degrees by Australian author Honey Brown and was blushing before the train had left my station. I’m more than a little prudish, so I considered sliding the book into my backpack and looking out the window for the next hour. What if someone I knew saw me reading about threesomes and the like? But intrigued, I read a little more, with the book tilted into the carriage wall so that no one could see what was on the page, holding my coat underneath the book so no one would see the cover and realise that I was not reading a crime novel.

And don’t tell me no one cares about what other people are reading. All of the readers on my train try to see what other people are reading. Sometimes we even hold our books up to show each other. Just last week I tried all the way home to see what the bloke across from me was reading, only to find out his book was about Quantum Mechanics. Big disappointment…

Six Degrees is a collection of six short erotic stories, all set in Australia with loosely-linked characters. I read three and a half of the stories. The stories are quite well written, but I didn’t finish the book because it wasn’t to my taste. This is a reflection on me rather than the author because like I said, I’m a prude. I am going to find other books by this author and read them as soon as possible, as I believe she usually writes horror/thriller novels.

Earlier this week when I was reading a book which I was not embarrassed to show anyone, I sat next to a woman on the train whose husband was sitting across from her. (At least I presume he was her husband, because they both wore wedding rings and they kissed goodbye when he disembarked at North Melbourne). Throughout the journey he continually tried to get her attention by patting her on the leg, but she was having none of it and kept swatting him away, in order to keep reading her book. My suggestion to him would be to employ some of the tactics the characters in Six Degrees used so that he might enjoy more of his wife’s attention…

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The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

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Anne Bronte may be a Bronte but in my opinion, her message is overly preachy in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

‘Marry at haste, repent at leisure’ is hammered home, because the man you marry well may turn out to be an alcoholic, abusive, unfaithful, no-good loser. In the heroine’s case in this novel, her husband was all of the above.

I read Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte last year and enjoyed it enough to add The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to my reading list this year. I’ve been hanging on to ‘The Tenant’ for ages though, opening and closing it, reading and re-reading the first few pages before putting it down in favour of other more interesting books.

Eventually, I tried reading the story aloud and thank goodness, this tactic worked. After a chapter I was able to hear the narrator’s voice in my head and managed to read the remainder of the story silently. My fellow train commuters don’t know what a lucky escape they had…

The story is narrated by Gilbert Markham, an English farmer who tells the story of Mrs Graham, a beautiful woman whom he fell in love with, as a series of letters to an old friend. I struggled to remember the narrator was a man, because to me his voice sounded feminine, although this may in part be because in some of the letters Gilbert used extracts from Mrs Graham’s letters and diaries to tell the story.

Mrs Graham was a widow with a child, who in the beginning of the story had recently come to live in Gilbert’s community. Mrs Graham was reclusive, so of course the neighbours were far more interested in her background than they would have been had she told everybody everything they wanted to know from the start.

Gradually, the reader learns that Mrs Graham was hiding at Wildfell Hall because she had left her husband, changed her name and taken herself and her child away from the harm he was doing them. When this story was written women had no rights, in that they had to live where their husbands told them they must, and they forfeited any money they brought with them to their marriage. Mrs Graham was almost completely powerless to change her situation.

Despite nasty gossip and speculation within the community about Mrs Graham’s circumstances, Gilbert fell in love with Mrs Graham and she with him.

There is a strong religious element to this story. Most of the characters consciously live their best life expecting to be rewarded when they die and go to heaven, while the villains do the opposite; living for the moment and heaven or hell be damned. I expect that when this story was first published, the religious aspect was more shocking to readers than what I could understand.

A hint to other readers, if you read the Oxford World’s Classics edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, avoid the Explanatory Notes to the text at the end as these contain spoilers. Most are references to where certain phrases came from (and if you guess the Bible for most, you would be correct) but some contain explanations which refer to events earlier or later in the story.

Despite my criticisms of this novel, I am now feeling smug about having read Anne Bronte’s works (let’s ignore her poetry for now), and will move on to Charlotte and Emily Bronte’s books next. !

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Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey

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Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey is an Australian coming of age novel. I thought this book was a ripper, which for non-Australians, translates as extremely high praise. The story was made into a movie earlier this year, and starred Toni Collette and Hugo Weaving. I am yet to see the movie but am excited to see how the story translates on film.

The title character, Jasper Jones, is a teenage boy who lives in a small fictional town in Western Australia in the mid-1960’s. Jasper is an underdog, a mixed-race Aboriginal boy whose mother is dead and whose father is a good-for-nothing drunk. One night, Jasper knocks at the window of Charlie Bucktin for help.

Charlie is the story’s narrator, and he is one of the most likeable characters I have ever come across in Australian contemporary fiction. Charlie is an only child whose father, an English teacher, encourages him to read good literature. Charlie daydreams of becoming a famous writer and being feted by the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote and Norman Mailer. Charlie’s mother, like most married Australian women of the time, is a housewife. Her unhappiness with her situation is extreme.

Charlie doesn’t hesitate to go with Jasper when he knocks at his window, even though Jasper is the boy who everyone’s parents warn their children about. Jasper takes Charlie to a secret spot near the river, where they find Jasper’s young girlfriend dead, hanging from a tree in her nightie. Jasper says the girl has been murdered and that if the police come they will blame him for the crime. Charlie is certain that Jasper has not murdered the girl and together, they cut her down from the tree, weigh her body down with stones and throw her into the river.

This takes place in the first chapter of the book. The story isn’t a murder-mystery, although it is satisfying to learn the truth about the girl’s death before the story finishes. The story is about what happens afterwards, as Charlie learns of small-town secrets, family violence, racism and poverty, the value of friendship, experiences first love and learns resilience.

Charlie’s best friend is Jeffrey Lu, who with his parents came to Australia from Vietnam as refugees. From my memory of growing up in a small community a little later than when this book is set, the degree of racism that the Lu family experience from the town’s people is not over-exaggerated.

Jeffrey is a gorgeous character who is mad about cricket. The author’s use of cricket and Jeffrey’s hero-worship of Australian cricketing legend Dougie Walters really set the time and the scene for me, as I read about the boys listening to Test Matches on the radio. This made me remember my own childhood when the cricket was on the wireless and it was considered safe to let the sun beat down on bare shoulders. Children ran wild without anyone’s parents knowing or caring where they were, so long as they turned up for meals.

I loved reading about Charlie and Jeffrey’s arguments about which super-hero was the best, and about Charlie’s fear of insects. Their in-jokes were hilarious. Jeffrey swearing in front of his mother because she didn’t understand enough English to clip him over the ears brought me to tears of laughter, and I howled again at the way Jeffrey’s mother eventually caught on to his crime and gave him the punishment he deserved.

The story reads like Youth Fiction, but with enough literary references and big themes to be satisfying for adult readers. Just ignore the blurb on the front cover which says that The Monthly reviewer likens Jasper Jones to “an Australian To Kill a Mockingbird.” I always think that comparing books to other books is unfair and that this practice often sets a good book up to fail in a reader’s expectations.

I think Craig Silvey is a writer whose work will get better and better, and I can’t wait to read whatever he writes next.

 

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Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger

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The title characters of J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey are the most self-absorbed, posing pair who I have ever come across in fiction. Honestly, Franny and Zooey never shut up, and annoyingly, when they speak, they italicise constantly. Sometimes, they even italicise just part of a word.

Franny and Zooey were originally published a couple of years apart during the 1950s as short stories. Franny came first, and told the story of a young woman in college who visits her boyfriend for the weekend at his college. (Incidentally, the boyfriend is also a self-absorbed, posing, italicising bore). During their Friday night meal at a fancy restaurant, it becomes apparent that Franny is on the verge of a nervous breakdown brought on by her constant repetition of a mantra which she discovered in a novel.

Twenty-five year old Zooey is Franny’s brother, and his story, Zooey, starts with him in the bath, reading a letter from his brother. Zooey’s mother comes in and talks and talks and talks to him (and before I forget to mention it, she italicises at least one word in every sentence too). Zooey pulls the curtain around the bath and listens to his mother, argues with her, and regularly suggests that she leave him to finish his bath privately, but she is having none of it. Eventually his mother gets to the point, which is that she is worried about his sister Franny, who appears to be in the grip of a religious mania and won’t drink her chicken soup.

When Zooey gets out of the bath he goes and talks at Franny, and then he telephones her and pretending to be another brother, talks at her some more.

Franny and Zooey’s family are mentally disturbed, individually and as a family. They are all geniuses who have become unhappy with the world around them as they have recognised that everyone is selfish and self-absorbed. (I don’t remember if Franny or Zooey discover they are the same as everyone else in the world in this regard or not).

The characters’ conversations drove me crazy. I’m too old to politely listen to privileged, know-it-all teenagers and twenty-somethings spouting off about their disillusionments with the world as they see it. I just wanted to tell Franny and Zooey to get a job and work for thirty-plus years, and during that time bring up some children, pay off a house, care for elderly parents, take part in the community and do their best to contribute something worthwhile to the world, rather than moaning about having to live within the confines of society. I read The Catcher in the Rye years ago and had exactly the same reaction to Holden Caulfield. Teenage angst? Tell another teenager, because I’m not interested…

I just don’t get J.D. Salinger’s writing. I know other readers consider him to be a genius, but if I don’t read any more of his writing, I will be perfectly happy.

 

 

 

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Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven by Fannie Flagg

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Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven by Fannie Flagg is a feel-good book full of characters who are mostly too good to be true. For those who are interested, Fannie Flagg also wrote Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle-Stop Café, the book and movie of which are much the same style as this story, and full of small-town, nice people who have small-town adventures. (I know, I know, people aren’t ‘nice,’ but in this author’s and story’s case, no other word is right).

Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven starts with a terribly old woman, Elner Shimfissle, falling out of her tree and dying. Elner shouldn’t have been in the tree in the first place, but she wanted the figs to make fig jam and didn’t want to bother anyone. (I would love to know if the author knows the ‘FIGJAM’ acronym, it is widely used in Australia, but don’t know if it is commonly used in other places around the world).*

After falling from the tree, Elner was taken to hospital where she died. Word got out and the news flew around town, devastating her family and neighbours.

While she was dead, Elner was lucky enough to go to heaven, which turned out to be in an old friend’s kitchen (and there was Caramel Cake). Elner was also happy to find that heaven was a place and time from her past when she had been happiest. This particular friend also starred in a Fannie Flagg novel of her own, Standing in the Rainbow, which I read years ago and enjoyed. If I remember correctly, Elner appeared as a minor character in that novel.

However, Elner didn’t stay dead, but came back to life and frightened hospital staff and family who were in saying their good-byes. By the time this happened though, her neighbours had cleaned out her fridge, another friend had written her obituary and her death had been announced on the community radio. Luckily, Elner’s ratty old brown dressing gown hadn’t already been thrown out.

The story is full of loveable characters, funny characters, slightly annoying characters and characters who could have gone bad but thanks to Elner, turned their lives around. My favourite character was a chain-smoking, whinging hairdresser called Tot, whose “children had been nothing but trouble from the very beginning, even more so after they hit puberty. If there was a fool within fifty miles they had either married it or had numerous offspring with it.”

The story is full of funny little sentences in the same style as the example above. For example; Elner’s mother’s name was Nancy Nuckle, “and she married a man named Knott, so her full name was Mrs. Nancy Nuckle Knott.”

For those who like to eat whatever the characters are eating, there are recipes in the back of this book for Caramel Cake, Deviled Eggs, Corn Bread and other yummy things.

Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven is light and sweet, the sort of book you finish and forget. I laughed aloud a couple of times while reading, and found it well suited to read between more serious stories.

*In case you’re wondering, FIGJAM stands for; F*** I’m Good, Just Ask Me.

 

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