Tag Archives: families

Hitting All the Keyes

I am a huge fan of Marian Keyes. She’s an Irish writer who early in her successful career wrote humorous books about the lives and loves of Dublin-based career women, interested in fashion and popular culture. Keyes was unfortunately pigeon-holed in the fiction category of chick lit, “a genre concentrating on young working women and their emotional lives.” The reviews of her novels often refer to her “quirky characters,” droll dialog, wordplay, and madcap antics, but her books are so, so much more.

Although she has also written eight stand-alone novels–the best of these being This Charming Man–Keyes has a terrific extended series, begun in 1995, about the five Walsh sisters of Dublin. What is especially engaging about Keyes’s books is that there is usually a problem or issue at the core of the story that said “chick” confronts. Despite the serious themes, Keyes’s realistic approach to life is often reflected in downright funny scenes and glib conversations. The empathy this style engenders draws the reader in and doesn’t let go. You not only care about these characters but you feel personally invested in their arriving at a successful outcome, though not necessarily a “happy” ending. The Walsh Sisters series includes:

watermelon  Watermelon. Clair Walsh is abandoned by her husband in the maternity ward as she is giving birth to their first child. So she goes home to her dysfunctional family in Dublin to try to start over.

Rachel’s Holiday. When Rachel Walsh’s family stages an intervention for her serious recreational drug use, Rachel agrees to rachelsholidayenter rehab at the Cloisters, an exclusive treatment center. Rachel finds she is not on a “holiday” at a posh retreat but rather a true rehabilitative respite where she must confront her addictions.

angelsAngels. Maggie Walsh discovers her husband is unfaithful and she’s about to lose a job she loves, so she runs away to Hollywood to visit her best friend…and soon discovers that this may be the place she’s meant to be.

Anybody Out There. Anna Walsh’s PR career in New York unravels when tragedy strikes, and she seeks solace from her family outtherein Dublin while trying to find answers to a devastating loss.

The most recent in this series was published this past April in the U.S. It’s called The Mystery of Mercy Close. More about it in a bit…

As an obsessive-compulsive reader, I keep a calendar each year to track when my favorite author’s new books are expected to be released. Patricia Cornwell is late fall, Harlan Coben is spring, Mary Balogh is late summer, Elin Hilderbrand and Elizabeth Lowell are both early summer, etc.

Keyes wrote The Brightest Star in the Sky in 2010. When her next book didn’t show up in 2011, I thought, check again in six months. When I searched again, there was still nothing. I was vaguely aware that the author’s personal encounters with addiction and depression contributed to the autobiographical nature of some of her plots; Being the good librarian that I am, I Googled Keyes and located her personal website. There I found Marian’s newsletter, where she was painfully recounting her most recent depression and the accompanying writers’ block. It saddened me greatly that she was suffering so when she was responsible for so many funny and profound insights in her clever, poignant stories.

So I continued to check on her from time to time and gratefully watched her begin to show signs of joy in life again. Last summer she published a cookbook, Saved By Cake: Over 80 Ways to Bake Yourself Happy. In the preface she describes the onset in 2009 of this dark mood while she was publicizing Brightest Star. She writes:

But I didn’t feel depressed; what I felt was very, very afraid. I felt like I’d been poisoned, like my brain had been poisoned. I felt like there had been an avalanche in my head and I’d been shunted along by some awful force, to some strange place, off the map, where there was nothing I recognized and no one familiar. I was totally lost.

Keyes considered suicide, and was beyond the reach of her loved ones. Then the simple act of baking a birthday cake for a friend provided a focus: identify a recipe, gather the ingredients, follow the directions, and voila. The science of baking, the trial and error, the eating and the giving of cake–and cupcakes and cookies–supplied the delicious “magic” she needed to go on. To that, all I can say is, thank heavens!

If you don’t know this part of Keyes’s personal story, you will not fully grasp the depth and realism of the last Walsh sister’s struggle.  Helen, the youngest of Mammie Walsh’s daughters, fights her own demons in The Mystery of Mercy Close. Helen has lost her income and her apartment. Hard economic times in Ireland have impacted her lucrative job as a private investigator. As a dark mood descends on her, Helen is hired by an ex-boyfriend to locate a suddenly missing member of a ’90s Irish boy band, The Laddz, who are just about to stage a big comeback. The systematic process of the search for Wayne Diffney provides Helen with the focus she needs to climb her way back and reclaim her own life.

If you know, or have known, someone in your life who has struggled with mental illness, and you have been frustrated and saddened by what they are going through, and you just want to shake your fist at them and say, “Can’t you just get over it?,” you will have a deeper understanding of why that’s not so simple by reading this story. And you will see how it is hope–whether it’s for solving a mystery, baking a great cake, or finding the reason for just getting on to what is next–can make life worth living. Marian Keyes’s deeply personal story in The Mystery of Mercy Close is moving, funny, and well worth reading. And yes, it is about the emotional life and loves of a career girl, steeped in popular culture. But “chick lit” it is not; it is much more.

Be well, Marian. Your voice is important.



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Another Happy Birthday to Him

So, another year has gone by and it’s time for another birthday. Amazingly enough, exactly one year later, it is again my turn to write the blog post on my son’s birthday. (He’s 12, OMG!)  I think I have the extra day from leap year to thank for this. 

Because I don’t think I can top my tribute post from last year and those sentiments still hold true, I’ve decided to dedicate today’s post to him and create a montage of photos from The Commons on Flickr that I think exemplify familial love and affection in all its forms.

Once again, Happy Birthday to my baby.

-Melissa M.

At the Vermont state fair, Rutland from the Library of Congress

Migrant Cotton Picker and Her Baby near Buckeye, Maricopa County, Arizona from the U.S. National Archives

U.S. Troops Surrounded by Holiday Mail during WWII from the Smithsonian Institution

This is Thomas Power and children (and dog) of Dungarvan, Waterford County, Ireland from the National Library of Ireland

Peter Bellman, Loretta "Lucky" Bellman, and Butch Levy, from the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest *

Pair of young Shrikes or Butcher-birds from OSU Special Collections & Archives

*Loretta (Lucky) Bellman escaped Nazi Germany in 1939 and settled in New York, where her father started a successful furniture business. Butch Levy met and fell in love with Lucky, marrying her in 1944. Peter Bellman, Lucky’s brother, had been sent to Britain on a children’s transport in 1938, and was finally reunited with the family in America 1939. He enlisted in the US Army in 1941, and died in the Battle of the Bulge. Peter, Lucky and Butch are shown together on a leave during the war. (Information from photo description on The Commons.)

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‘Tis the Season

We are fast approaching one of the most emotionally difficult times of the year.  Maybe you have family you’d rather not interact with, but are forced to. Or you don’t have the family that you wish you had or used to have. Or you are more alone than you’d like to be. Any and all of these situations are difficult on an everyday basis, but become magnified during the holiday season when every store clerk, commercial, and television show tells you that you should be having a “happy holiday.”

So rather than doing yourself, or someone else, unnecessary bodily harm, why not check out one of these, and make yourself feel a bit better.

Escapist Travel Adventures
Don’t Look Behind You: A Safari Guide’s Encounters with Ravenous Lions, Stampeding Elephants, and Lovesick Rhinos
by Peter Allison

To Hellholes and Back: Bribes, Lies, and the Art of Extreme Tourism
by Chuck Thompson

Lost on Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation (Or How He Became Comfortable Eating Live Squid)
by J. Maarten Troost

Naked in Eden: My Adventure and Awakening in the Australian Rainforest
by Robin Easton

The Raven’s Gift: A Scientist, a Shaman, and Their Remarkable Journey Through the Siberian Wilderness
by Jon Turk

The Spice Necklace: My Adventures in Caribbean Cooking, Eating and Island Life
by Ann Vanderhoof

The Things You Find on the Appalachian Trail: A Memoir of Discovery, Endurance, and a Lazy Dog
by Kevin Runolfson

Self-Help Information
Enough!: A Buddhist Approach to Finding Release from Addictive Patterns
by Chonyi Taylor

Getting Past OK: The Self-Help Book for People Who Don’t Need Help
by Richard Brodie

Helping Me Help Myself: One Skeptic, Ten Self-Help Gurus, and a Year on the Brink of the Comfort Zone
by Beth Lisick

The Last Self-Help Book You’ll Ever Need: Repress Your Anger, Think Negatively, Be a Good Blamer, and Throttle Your Inner Child
by Paul Pearsall

Once Upon a Cow: Eliminating Excuses and Settling for Nothing But Success
by Camilo Cruz

The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship
by David Whyte

Throw Out Fifty Things: Clear the Clutter, Find Your Life
by Gail Blanke

Well Being: The Five Essential Elements
by Tom Rath & Jim Harter

My Family Sucks Too Tales
The Bill from My Father
by Bernard Cooper

Dead End Gene Pool
by Wendy Burden

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim
by David Sedaris

I’m Down
by Mishna Wolff

Home for the Holidays (DVD)

Never Tell Our Business to Strangers
by Jennifer Mascia

Why Not Say What Happened
by Ivana Lowell

You Better Not Cry: Stories for Christmas
by Augusten Burroughs

Here’s hoping that you and yours survive the holiday season with your psyches intact!

-Melissa M.


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